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How To Love A Living Thing

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Merlin never had a nightmare before he came to Camelot.

In Ealdor, nothing haunted his sleep. The threats in his life were so tangible – bandit attacks, food shortages, a beating from the older children – that they never troubled his unconscious mind.

In Camelot, the threat is more elusive. It hovers in the air as he goes about his duties, sits by his side as he tends Arthur’s fire, draws in like the dusk as he hurries across the courtyard.

He could be discovered at any moment. He could be captured and executed for the magic that flows through his veins.

He dreams of the pyre and wakes up choking on thick black smoke. He dreams of being hunted through the forest and wakes up thrashing and groaning. He dreams of Arthur raising up his sword to cut him down and wakes up crying.

Gaius gives him tonics and teaches him relaxation techniques to try before he goes to bed. It works. Soon, the nightmares fade.

They don’t return until after he kills Nimueh. And by then it is not only his unconscious that troubles him.

It’s his waking hours.

Merlin has killed before. He killed Mary Collins the first week he arrived in Camelot. He killed Edwin for threatening Gaius and he killed Sophia for threatening Arthur. Then there were the dozens of bandits and rogues who mounted attacks on their patrol and were dispatched by Merlin without a second thought.

He’s felt guilt about all of these people, to varying degrees, but there’s always been a larger sense that he did what he had to do. They were a threat to the ones he cared about and he didn’t have a choice.

By all rights, he should feel the same about Nimueh. She mounted numerous attacks on Camelot. She poisoned him, she nearly got Gwen executed, and then she came after the three people he cared about most in the world. She was a proven threat to all of their lives and she made it very clear that both of them could not walk away from the Isle of the Blessed alive.

But he doesn’t feel the same. Because there was one key difference between Nimueh and all those that had died at his hand before.

He had planned it.

He had gone to the Isle of the Blessed knowing exactly what he had to do. Nimueh had hurt his mother, his mentor, and his prince, and Merlin was angry. He wasn’t righteous in that moment. He wasn’t thinking about the greater good or destiny or ridding Camelot of evil. He just wanted to make Nimueh suffer as she had made him suffer.

And now she’s haunting him.

Merlin never thought of himself as a good man, necessarily. It wasn’t a concept that seemed relevant to his life in Ealdor. Good was something that knights and warriors were, in the tales of valour told round the campfire at night. Nobility, chivalry, bravery – there was no call for that in village life. Small acts of courage – defending the grain store from passing bandits, snatching a child from the reach of a kicking horse – were not exactly the feats of daring that were recounted in ballads and poems by wandering bards. So if Merlin didn’t think of himself as good then, it was no great matter. No one around him did either.

But since he’s come to Camelot, he’s pondered the topic more than once. The King is so rigid in his ideas about morality, so sure that a sorcerer like Merlin couldn’t possibly be capable of kindness or love. Merlin doesn’t believe that, he never has.

Yet he cannot deny that he had not imagined his destiny to be so fraught with blood and death. And whilst he’s been able to justify everything he’s done so far in service of the Once and Future King, he cannot justify Nimueh. He knows in his heart of hearts that what he did to her was not the act of a good man.

The guilt has been eating him ever since she fell at his hand. It follows him like the fear of discovery used to; a constant, implacable companion. Everything he sees reminds him of Nimueh now; the sky, the water, his own face in the mirror glass.

Even Arthur.

The day before Merlin set off to the Isle of the Blessed for the final time, he went to see Arthur. He told him he would be a great king. He told him he must learn to listen as well as he fought. He told him he was happy to be his servant until the day he died.

Arthur had looked so deep in thought as Merlin took his leave that it drew him back into the room. He needed to take one last look at Arthur, to cherish the memory of the man he loved so well. Arthur rose from his chair when Merlin entered again, and there was something lost and fragile about his expression.

Without saying a word, Merlin crossed the room and put his arms around him. He clung there desperately for a few seconds, barely breathing, until Arthur hugged him back.

He’d been overwhelmed then, with love, with longing, with fear. All he could do was bury his face in Arthur’s neck and try to breathe out his message on Arthur’s skin.

I love you. I’ll miss you. Don’t forget me.

Then, he fled.

They didn’t speak about it again. Merlin was ill in bed for three days when he returned from the Isle, and the guilt was already heavy in his bones. The embrace in Arthur’s chambers felt like a lifetime ago.

These days Merlin can barely look Arthur in the eye. He knows the prince is hurt by the sudden cooling of his affections, can see it in his face. He dares to wonder sometimes if perhaps Arthur had felt the same way as he had that night. He still remembers the ghost of a kiss pressed onto his cheek as they drew apart.

But he had been another person then, and now, Merlin moves away when Arthur tries to touch him.

 

***

 

It starts with a cuff to the head. It’s not Merlin’s first; when he arrived in Camelot the knights and nobles were much more prone to doling out the odd blow to remonstrate with him. But every time Merlin was struck, the knight would turn to find Arthur glaring at them with narrowed eyes, and invariably, the action would never be repeated. Without a word being spoken on the subject, the message that Merlin was not to be touched somehow got around.

It isn’t just fear that stays their hands. Over the course of the year, Merlin has made connections with the knights that approach something close to friendship. Sir Lamorak and Sir Kay are amused by his cheek towards Arthur and can often be seen chuckling indulgently when he speaks back to the prince. Sir Leon has been impressed by Merlin’s fortitude in the training field, and even the rather cool Sir Bedivere occasionally favours Merlin with a smile when he comes upon him in the armoury.

But Merlin has not endeared himself to all the knights. There are still a handful that disapprove of his boldness with the prince, and there are two who make little secret of their contempt for him.

Sir Tor is one, a tall, wiry man with a sharp nose and a mane of chestnut hair. He was handsome enough and yet unmarried; women seemed uneasy around him despite his status and bearing. His only friend is Sir Baudwin; a stout, barrel chested man with a red beard and arms as thick as Merlin’s neck. They are two of Uther’s longest-serving knights and there is a slight strained courtesy in their interactions with Arthur. Merlin suspects that they don’t deem Arthur as worthy a leader as his father, and this alone has earned them Merlin’s mistrust.

Still, Tor’s blow is unexpected. He must have been calling Merlin for some time, but Merlin had been lost in a daydream, hand stilled over his polishing. He cries out on reflex, more surprised than hurt. It’s been a long time since one of the knights has dared to strike him and he’s caught off guard.

Tor looks a little surprised too, and a little fearful. It seems he knows as well as any of the other knights that Merlin’s not one to take a reprimand lying down. Not when the prince can be relied upon to take his side, however subtly.

Silence hangs between them.

“What is going on here?”

Arthur either heard Merlin cry out or he can simply sense the tension in the room because his eyes are already narrowed as he strides in. Tor is frozen in front of Merlin, in anticipation of the anger to come.

Arthur would be angry. He wouldn’t say much but Tor would find himself at odds with the prince soon enough. Left out at practices. Selected for difficult missions. Subtly belittled when Uther came by to observe the training. Merlin could guarantee that Tor would never dare strike him again, just by telling the truth.

And yet…

He felt the pain. He has felt nothing for so long, but he felt that blow. Some small dark part of him welcomes it. Some small dark part of him whispers that pain is what he deserved, that he is a murderer walking unpunished, that someone needs to make him pay for what he has done.

Merlin licks his dry lips.

“Nothing, sire,” he says and Tor’s eyes widen.

“I heard you cry out,” Arthur says suspiciously.

“I dropped a gauntlet on my foot,” Merlin says, and holds Arthur’s gaze. The prince raises an eyebrow and then relaxes into a grin.

“Only you, Merlin,” he says, more fond than exasperated, and walks back out again.

Merlin expects Tor to follow, but when he looks up the man is staring straight at him. There’s something strange in his eyes. Something a little like complicity, something a little like understanding. Mixed in there is an eagerness that makes Merlin shiver.

“Best you mind me in the future, boy,” he says softly and then he’s gone. Merlin picks up his cloth again and tries to suppress his unease. He hopes that will be an end to it.

 

***

 

But it isn’t, of course.

Over the next few days, Merlin senses Sir Tor watching him at odd moments. It makes the hair on the back on his neck stand up, and when he looks up to meet Tor’s gaze, the knight’s focussed intensity chills his blood.

Nothing happens beyond the staring until five days after the first incident, when Merlin is in the armoury polishing the practice swords. He’s down to the very last one when a strange scent fills the air.

The smell of burnt flesh.

He turns and Nimueh’s there, resplendent in her long red dress; with her arms outstretched and her hair hanging loose and half her face burnt off.

He shuts his eyes for a long moment, heart beating loud and fast. Then he opens them again.

She’s gone.

Merlin’s shaking so much, he has to put the sword down and rest his head in his hands for a few moments, until he can remember how to breathe.

She was wicked, he reminds himself. She tried to kill the people you love the most. Mother, Gaius, Arthur. She had to pay a price for that.

But then, all the people Nimueh loved the most had been killed too. The Purge had robbed her of everyone she’d ever cared about. Who would pay that price?

Not Uther, cold and ruthless on his warlord’s throne. Nimueh was wrong, but she had been wronged first. And now she was dead and Uther was alive.

The charred smell lingers in the air. The burn on Merlin’s chest is twinging anew, like the wound has reopened. He can’t really move.

It almost comes as a relief when a strong hand clamps down on his shoulder and forces him to his feet.

“Daydreaming again, boy?”

Tor’s not alone. He’s flanked by Sir Baudwin. They’re an odd couple, the two of them: Tor tall and sallow, Baudwin short and ruddy. Arthur often jokes about the unlikely pairing they make.

Arthur doesn’t like them much. They’re Uther’s men, not his, and Merlin knows that Arthur looks forward to the day when he will be the one deciding who to knight and who to pass over. Tor and Baudwin’s particular brand of unearned superiority will likely find short shrift when Arthur is King.

But for now… they do as they please.

“I’ve finished, sir,” he says, picking up the last sword and returning it to the rack.

“Did you polish the prince’s sword?” Baudwin says, suddenly appearing at Merlin’s other side.

“Yes, sir.”

“It doesn’t look polished,” Baudwin says darkly. “Polish it again.”

“It doesn’t need-”

“Do you dare to talk back to us?”

“I was simply saying that I already-”

“Is he accusing us of lying?”

“No, I only meant that-”

The shove to his chest sends him sprawling and he scrapes his hands on the cold stone floor. A protest bubbles up in his throat but he swallows it down. Because on the ground he can’t smell the burning anymore. The distraction has all but driven Nimueh from his head.

Still, he isn’t expecting the brutal kick to his stomach. He gasps, wheezing for breath as his body curls up to protect his tender ribs.

“What are you doing?” he hears Baudwin mutter above him.

“Disciplining the boy,” Tor says smoothly. “He’ll know the standard expected of him next time.”

Baudwin mumbles something about “the prince” that Merlin doesn’t catch.

“The prince will thank us,” Tor says loudly, “for instilling some obedience into his wayward manservant.”

And then softer, for Baudwin’s ears only.

“He won’t tell.”

Merlin wants to prove them wrong. A part of him longs to march off to Arthur immediately and let him ensure that this will never happen again.

But another, louder part of him says that this is what atonement is about. That it isn’t meant to be easy. A price must be paid for the wrong committed, and this is the price for his. No-one else will punish him for what he’s done, so why not them?

Slowly, painfully, he gets to his feet. His midsection is in agony but he tries to stand as straight as possible. He shuffles over to the bench and picks up his rag as though there had been no interruption. Tor and Baudwin watch in silence as he takes Arthur’s sword down from the wall and begins to polish it again.

They wait until he’s finished before they leave. Tor pauses in the doorway.

“You’ll learn,” he says, and Merlin knows it to be a promise.

He swallows bile, continues polishing. Takes every practice sword down and cleans them again. Doesn’t stop until they gleam.

 

***

 

After that, Tor and Baudwin seem to fancy themselves untouchable. They are not so brazen as to mishandle him in public but they cuff his head when no-one is around, trip him up in the Great Hall, shove him against the wall as they walk by.

Merlin doesn’t show deference to them, exactly, but he doesn’t talk back to them either. In fact he says nothing at all. He barely speaks a word during their encounters, as though that makes it easier somehow.

It’s a hard bargain he’s struck. The pain keeps the thoughts of Nimueh out of his head, makes him distracted enough that her final moments haunt him less, but the physical toll is high. While he has less time to feel the guilt, a kind of hopelessness has overtaken it. A rising sense of despair; that things might never get better, that he might feel this way for all of his days.

The pain is not unmanageable. A slap here, a kick there. Baudwin nicks Merlin with a practice sword on the training field in a way that could almost be an accident. Tor pulls on Merlin’s shoulder in a manner that could seem friendly to a passer-by.

No one notices.

Tor and Baudwin start out with some pretence at legitimacy. They’re “training” Merlin to be a better servant, they’re “helping” him when he falls short. As the days go by they stop needing much of an excuse. Baudwin pushes Merlin over for being slow with the wine at a feast. Tor overhears Merlin say ‘Arthur’, and slaps him for not knowing his place.

The latter punishment has him saying ‘sire’ at all times, a change which at first gratifies the prince, and then quickly unsettles him.

“Should I be suspicious of this sudden turn for the respectful, Merlin?” he asks one day at breakfast.

“Sire?” Merlin hums, only half-listening. The prince’s hair is rumpled from sleep, sticking up from his head. Merlin will have to comb it soon and a part of him is always sad to bring order to the chaos, because there’s something so appealing about Arthur in disarray. He looks more human, somehow. Softer, sweeter.

“I couldn’t get you to call me sire before for love nor money, now I can’t get you to stop,” the prince says irritably. “Just what is going on with you of late?”

“Nothing,” Merlin says, catching himself just before ‘sire’ slips out.

Arthur peers at him.

“I’ll find out what it is, Merlin. I always do.”

A lick of hair flops across his forehead and Merlin swallows, turning away. Sometimes it’s physically painful to be in the same room as Arthur and not be allowed to touch him.

Once upon a time, he thought himself worthy to lay a hand on the prince. Once upon a time, he dreamed of a day when destiny would see them standing side by side, and then love would be as natural as the fate that bound them.

He’ll never be worthy now.

He finds himself more depressed with each passing day, and the lower his mood sinks, the more Tor and Baudwin seem to take advantage. It doesn’t help that he can’t sleep very well anymore, and the less sleep he has, the more likely visions of Nimueh are to prey on him in the day.

One morning, he’s walking corpse-like to the Great Hall, eyes so heavy he can barely keep them open. His steps are slow, trudging, and he nearly stumbles on an uneven brick, goblets flying from his hands.

A high, cold laugh sounds behind him.

Merlin turns and sees a flash of dark hair, the trail of a red dress.

He thinks for a second someone says his name, but of course no one has, and Nimueh’s not really there either.

And yet… and yet…

He’s still standing rigid in the middle of the hall when Tor runs into him.

“Don’t you have work to do?” he barks, and Merlin breaks from his reverie, craning his neck to check that Nimueh’s gone.

Tor follows his gaze down the empty hallway.

“There’s something strange about you, boy,” he says, almost contemplatively.

They stay frozen like that for a few seconds, and then Tor pushes Merlin backwards so his head cracks against the wall.

“I’ll be watching you,” he says, and then he’s gone.

Merlin intends to return to his work but somehow his legs give out beneath him and he slides to the floor instead. He stays there until the pain in his head has softened into a dull ache.

There’s something strange about you.

The boys in Ealdor used to say that to him. Right before they pushed him in the dirt, or stole his boots, or threw stones at his retreating back. Only Will could make it sound like a compliment, his voice full of awe; like what Merlin had was something special, something to be proud of.

That was before he became a killer.

Will wouldn’t be proud of him now. He’s no better than the bandit who shot his best friend down in Ealdor. Will would be ashamed.

 

***

 

Physical exertion helps sometimes, because it tires him out enough to sleep. But training has become increasingly difficult since Tor and Baudwin started to take notice of him. It’s never exactly easy to stand still with a shield as Arthur batters at him, but nowadays it’s positively agony.

Arthur’s not trying to hurt him, he isn’t doing anything differently than he normally does. But Merlin’s bruised all over, his shoulder is wrenched, his neck is sore, and every blow from the practice sword feels like torture.

Leon keeps shooting worried glances at him. He’s been doing that a lot lately.

Merlin doesn’t think anyone has caught Tor and Baudwin in the act, but Leon did come across Merlin in the courtyard one night after Baudwin had pushed him into the trough and left him dripping and shaken. The knight didn’t look entirely convinced by Merlin’s muttered excuses about falling in the water, and escorted him back to Gaius personally. On the way, he hinted at the fact that Merlin had been looking a little unwell recently, but Merlin gave no quarter, and Leon didn’t push.

Still, he wonders what the knight suspects about him. It surprises him when Leon walks over to address Arthur directly.

“Might I borrow Merlin for a while, sire? I need to practice my left thrusts.”

Arthur assents and Leon leads Merlin away a little distance. Merlin braces himself as Leon thrusts his sword a couple of times, but then Leon unexpectedly lowers it.

“I’ve changed my mind, I’d rather practice my footwork,” he says, laying his sword on the grass. “Perhaps you could just tell me if I’m going wrong?”

Merlin nods, choked up, and Leon gives him a kindly, somewhat knowing smile.

He watches for a while, moved by the knight’s charity. But Leon’s gesture has an unintended consequence.

“Could I train with Merlin too, sire?” Tor says unctuously, appearing as if from nowhere.

Arthur looks a little puzzled. Certainly Merlin has never been this popular with the knights before. But he nods, apparently seeing no reason not to agree.

Tor leads Merlin a little way away.

“I’ll be using the staff,” he says, a cold gleam in his eye.

Merlin hefts his shield, the additional weight causing him to stumble backwards a little. He isn’t wearing any extra padding today. They aren’t supposed to be doing staff work.

Tor starts off easy, and Merlin can sense the knight is toying with him. He gives Merlin’s shield a few light bats as Arthur looks over, nodding approvingly.

Then the prince turns away and Tor steps up his attack.

Merlin couldn’t have countered the flurry of blows that follows on his best day, and this is far from being his best day. He keeps the shield up as long as he can, but eventually his arm dips involuntarily, leaving him open on one side.

Tor drives the staff into his hip with a force that knocks Merlin off his feet. His ribs don’t crack but they do make a horrible crunching noise and the agony keeps him from rising again.

“Oh dear,” Tor says jovially. “Did I swipe you there?”

A swipe is not how Merlin would describe the way Tor struck him but he knows the words are for the benefit of the knights, a few of whom chuckle to see Merlin on the ground.

But Leon looks equal parts frustrated and concerned.

“I’ll give you a bout, since you seem to have rather tired Merlin there,” he says stiffly.

Tor looks entirely like he’d prefer to continue battering Merlin instead, but he agrees. It takes Merlin a good minute to get back on his feet and in that time Leon has managed to decisively gain the upper hand with Tor. Merlin watches as Tor makes one final wild swing only for Leon to sidestep neatly, before bringing his staff around to sweep Tor’s legs from under him.

Tor goes down hard and Merlin can’t suppress a faint glimmer of satisfaction to see it.

The rest of the knights laugh.

“Perhaps Merlin really is a more suitable sparring partner,” Sir Lamorak guffaws, hauling Tor to his feet.

“Perhaps,” Tor says, his lips white with rage, but even the forbidding look he levels at Merlin can’t dampen Merlin’s momentary glee.

The victory is short lived. Tor finds him on the stairs of the east tower that very evening.

“Did I amuse you earlier, boy?” he snarls. “Let’s see how well you can keep your balance.”

And suddenly, Merlin is tumbling down the stairs, ankle wrenched painfully out of place when it hits the floor and breaks his fall.

He uses magic to pop the bone back in place, but does nothing for the pain until the next day. It takes a long time to limp back to his own room that night.

 

***

 

The weeks go by and Tor and Baudwin show no signs of letting up.

Merlin aches, all the time. He walks with a slow, loping gait, trying not to jar any of his injuries or put any undue pressure on his still-tender ankle. He’s slow enough that Arthur remarks on it one day, looking back in surprise when he reaches the training field to see Merlin lagging five steps behind.

“What’s the matter with you? You’d lose in a foot race to Gaius at this pace.”

“I twisted my ankle, sire,” Merlin says.

“How?”

“I tripped on the stairs, sire,” Merlin says, which is only half a lie. He’s clumsy enough to use that excuse. Gaius only sighed when he told him, and gently advised him to pay more attention in future.

It’s the one injury of his that he has allowed Gaius to attend to, and even then only because it was too evident to cover up.

“Stop calling me, sire,” Arthur says distractedly. “Has Gaius strapped it for you?”

“It’s not that bad,” Merlin says, hobbling over to pick up Arthur’s shield.

“I can’t have a limping manservant, it reflects badly on me,” Arthur says lightly and Merlin thinks the matter’s forgotten until he feels a hand on his arm.

“I’m going to train with some of the squires,” Arthur says gently. “Go and see Gaius for some pain relief.”

Merlin swallows a lump in his throat, unexpectedly touched. But he doesn’t go to Gaius for a healing draught. He doesn’t deserve one.

 

He knows both Arthur and Gaius are getting suspicious, but he manages to fend off questions for the most part. He asks Gaius to give him space, tells him he’s still recovering from the Isle of the Blessed. To Arthur, he says that there’s nothing wrong, he’s the same as he’s always been.

They’re looking less convinced by the day, the both of them, but it doesn’t come to a head until reports arrive of a creature attacking villagers out on the southern border. Arthur volunteers to lead a band of knights to defeat the beast and Uther asks Gaius to go along in case any are injured and need treating. Privately, Gaius tells Merlin the real reason.

“If it is a creature of magic, the king will want me to be there to identify it.”

“He said that to you?”

Gaius shakes his head.

“No. This is the strange bargain we have struck, Merlin. My knowledge of magic is never to be referred to, and yet I’m the only one left to ask when something like this happens.”

Merlin resolves that he will personally help Gaius in any way he can on the trip, but he’s in for a shock when he asks Arthur at what time they will leave.

“You’re not coming.”

Merlin pauses whilst folding Arthur’s cloak.

“What do you mean?”

Arthur sighs.

“You are not well, Merlin.”

Merlin opens his mouth to protest and Arthur holds up a hand.

“Don’t deny it. I spoke to Gaius and he agrees. I’ve never seen you paler and your ankle’s still not right from when you fell. Aside from all that, you’ve barely spoken a word in weeks.”

Arthur massages his temples.

“I used to pray for a little peace and quiet from you, Merlin. Now that I have it I rather regret my foolishness.”

Arthur reaches out his hand to take Merlin’s arm and Merlin flinches, he can’t help himself. It doesn’t go unnoticed by Arthur, and Merlin finds he has to turn away from the sadness in his eyes.

“I know that there’s something wrong,” Arthur says quietly. “And we will be speaking about it upon my return, you can be sure of that.”

“There’s nothing-”

“Please,” Arthur says, pained. “Your duties will be significantly reduced with Gaius and myself gone. I want you to take advantage of that and get some rest.”

Merlin can see that there’s no point in arguing. He tries to make a case to Gaius later, but his mentor fixes him with the same gaze that Arthur wore.

“The prince is quite right and I told him so. You are overwrought, Merlin, and an expedition will do you no good at all.”

“And if that thing takes Arthur’s head off and I’m not there to stop it?”

Gaius’ face softens.

“I have no reason to think that this is anything other than a particularly pernicious wolf based on the villagers’ descriptions. Uther sends me because he sees sorcery in shadows, but I think we will find a more mundane cause at play here.”

“Even a wolf could kill Arthur,” Merlin says, because he’s getting desperate now. If he can’t protect Arthur anymore, what good is he to anyone?

“The prince and his men are more than a match for a wolf, as you well know,” Gaius says gently. “I think this may be about something more than just this trip.”

He motions for Merlin to sit down opposite him.

“My boy… I have tried to respect your need for privacy these last few months. But I must voice my concern. Your constitution is not what it was and you have been downright melancholic since the Isle of the Blessed.”

He reaches out to pat Merlin’s hand.

“I cannot blame you. You faced a terrible thing and you did so with great courage.”

“Not courage-” Merlin bursts out before he can stop himself and then bites his lip.

“What do you mean?”

Merlin loves Gaius so much, he’s like the father he never had. But he wouldn’t understand this and Merlin is at a loss to explain it.

Gaius studies Merlin when no answer is forthcoming.

“It is right that you are so affected by the events of that night. You would not be the person you are if you were not. But I am loath to see you so desolate, my boy.”

“Not desolate,” Merlin mumbles. “Just tired.”

Gaius squeezes his hand.

“I have neglected your wellbeing,” he says at last. “The burden on your shoulders has been so heavy this last year. I’m sorry, Merlin, I should have spoken to you sooner.”

He looks over at his open bag and sighs.

“I must go with the prince, but I will attend to you when I come back. Until then, you will drink this tincture once a day; it will help with the exhaustion. Sleep well and eat well. And be kind to yourself, Merlin.”

Gaius’ gaze is far too intent, as if he can read Merlin’s thoughts.

Merlin drinks one of the tinctures there and then, to show himself willing. But when Tor and Baudwin summon him three hours after the party has left, he goes without delay.

 

***

 

Tor and Baudwin barely bother to contain their glee that Arthur has gone and Merlin is entirely at their mercy. For the next few days they commandeer Merlin as if he were their personal servant. They have him clean their chambers, serve their meals, attend to them around the castle. Despite Gaius’ instructions, Merlin has no chance to eat well or sleep well. Tor and Baudwin keep him running around all day, missing the servants’ meal times and working late into the night.

The longer it goes on, the harder it becomes for Merlin to keep things straight in his mind. He still drinks Gaius’ tinctures, but on an empty stomach he’s not sure how much good they do. He eats when he can, but he’s hungry less anyway, nowadays. He plods about in a sort of daze, letting the insults and slaps roll off him like water. He keeps thinking about how Arthur looked when they had last spoken, and how worried he seemed. Merlin doesn’t want to make Arthur worry. He wants things to be the way they used to be. He just doesn’t know how to get back to that place.

The place he wants to be is where they were when he held Arthur in his room. When the prince’s arms were around him and nothing was as scary or as hopeless as it seems now.

It’s for this reason that Merlin is struck by a sudden urge to visit Arthur’s horse Llamrei in her side stable three days after the expedition leaves. It’s not as though the stable boys won’t be taking care of her, but he wants to feel some kind of connection to Arthur, however distant. He likes Llamrei, likes how fierce and brave she is in the face of danger, and how temperate and sweet natured she is the rest of the time. Arthur loves her so. He told Merlin he once sat with her all night in the stables when she had hurt her leg on a hunt and Uther had threatened to get rid of her. Llamrei had recovered and it had only served to make Arthur treasure her even more.

Seeing Llamrei reminds Merlin of the softer side of Arthur, the side he rarely shows. The tactile, affectionate part of him. Princes aren’t supposed to touch; they’re supposed to hold themselves aloof. Grooming Llamrei is one of the only times Arthur seems to allow himself to use his physicality for something other than fighting.

That and the times when he roughhouses with Merlin, swats at his arm or knuckles his fingers through his hair. Not the times when Arthur throws things or shoves him, the times when he actually touches Merlin, when he grabs his wrist to emphasise some point or places a large warm hand on his shoulder to steer him along.

Some days, Merlin aches for that contact. In Ealdor, his mother hugged him most every day, and Will was always roughly demonstrative with him, enthusiastically tugging him this way and that.

Here, only Gwen can be prevailed upon for a hug and even then it has to be in private, due to some socially enforced notion of propriety that Merlin never even heard of before he came to the city. It’s not proper for him to touch Morgana at all, even though he considers her one of his closest friends. It doesn’t make sense to him.

He’s lonely in Camelot sometimes. Starved for the physical affection that used to ground him. When he was testing the limits of his magic, pushing to see how far he could go, he needed to be able to return home to his mother’s embrace or Will’s easy camaraderie. He feels set adrift without it. Only Arthur’s touch seems to make him come back to himself.

But even that’s not an anchor anymore. Merlin hasn’t allowed himself to go near Arthur since he killed Nimueh. He feels contaminated. The fact that his distance is leaving Arthur confused and sad makes it all the more harder to bear. But every time he tries to cross the gulf between them, his own shame holds him back. He can’t be the man he was before, the man who was good enough for the prince.

It chokes him up to think of it and he barely even grooms Llamrei for the first half hour, just clings onto her neck and listens to her steady slow heartbeat. She stands patiently and lets him breathe out his grief into her body, nickering softly when he finally pulls away.

“We miss Arthur, don’t we?” Merlin says softly, and she tosses her mane in agreement. Even if he can’t be honest with Arthur, even if silence has fallen between them these last few weeks, he always wants him here. Everything’s worse when he’s not around.

Llamrei nudges his arm and he moves to scratch behind her ears.

“I’m in trouble,” he tells her. “I don’t know what to do.”

She looks at him like she understands but if there’s an answer in her eyes, he can’t read it.

Then there’s a noise outside and the side stable door swings open.

“Have you been reassigned to the horses, boy?” Tor says.

Merlin feels his heart begin to quicken but he forces himself to stay calm as he returns the brush to the wall.

He makes sure Llamrei’s safely back in her stall before he replies.

“I was tending to the prince’s horse.”

“That’s the stable boy’s job,” Baudwin puts in, shutting the door behind him.

“I just wanted to-”

Tor holds up a hand and Merlin’s mouth snaps shut.

“When I returned to my chambers today,” Tor says through gritted teeth, “my fire was not lit, my bed was not made, and my dinner was not laid out. Baudwin tells me his rooms were in much the same condition.”

He walks forward to take a firm grip on Merlin’s neck.

“What do you have to say to this?”

Maybe it’s just the fatigue weighing down every part of his body, maybe it’s the hour he spent taking care of Llamrei, or maybe his judgement is simply impaired from lack of food and sleep. But Merlin feels a spark of the old defiance flare up within him.

“You could have fended for yourselves,” he snaps, and Tor’s eyes widen in disbelief.

“Right,” he hisses.

He pushes Merlin into Baudwin, who promptly forces Merlin’s hands behind his back to hold him in place.

“I’ll teach you to mind your betters,” Tor says, stalking over to where the tacks and saddles are mounted. “I’ll teach you to do as you’re told.”

He reaches down to pick something up and Merlin’s heart thumps painfully. It’s a horse whip, the kind used for urging a nervous mount on through rough terrain, or into battle.

Tor holds it up, clearly relishing the look of fear on Merlin’s face.

“Disobedient servants are a lot like disobedient animals,” he says deliberately. “They need to be trained. And they need to be punished when they fall short.”

He walks forward and Merlin tries to take a step back, but Baudwin’s holding him too tight.

Tor snaps the whip through the air and Merlin feels his knees go weak.

“Arthur will see,” he blurts out, and flinches as Tor slashes the whip down inches from his face.

“What did I say about using that name?”

“The prince! The prince will see.”

Merlin’s breaking all his own rules. He never engages them in conversation and he certainly never allows himself to be so close to pleading as he is now. But he can’t help it. He’s afraid. He has borne the abuse so far, but he doesn’t want to be whipped, not like this.

“Let him see,” Tor says loudly. “Perhaps he’ll thank us for chastising his insolent manservant.”

Tor would never have been this bold a few weeks ago. Merlin’s compliance has made him arrogant. He’s too far gone to respect a boundary now.

“He won’t thank you,” Merlin tries, but his voice comes out thin and unconvincing. Tor’s not listening anymore.

“Tunic,” he says to Baudwin and suddenly rough hands are tugging at Merlin’s shirt and neckerchief. He resists, but Baudwin barely falters, pulling them off to leave him shivering and exposed.

“Do you need to be tied, boy, or can you take it like a man?”

Merlin doesn’t want to be tied like a wilful animal. His eyes flick towards the stable door, and he tries to calculate how fast he’ll have to run, whether he can break free of Baudwin’s grip, whether he can risk a little magic to help…

Tor follows his gaze.

“If you run we will whip you in the square in broad daylight, like a common criminal,” he says calmly.

Merlin tastes acid at the back of his throat. To be beaten in public, where everyone could see…

Like a common criminal.

He is a criminal. He’s a killer.

Merlin nods and goes to his knees.

“Good boy,” Tor says softly. “We’re doing you a kindness, see? Teaching you how to behave. You’ll thank us for it one day.”

Merlin’s eyes are wet with tears and the whipping has not even begun. The submission feels even more painful, somehow.

“Ten, I think,” Tor says, in that same soft voice. “I gave my horse ten when she threw me in a joust. She never did that again.”

Merlin bows his head, fear and humiliation making his hands tremble. He’s acutely aware of the rough straw beneath his knees, the distant shouts from the courtyard outside. In one sense he’s viscerally present, and in another it doesn’t seem real at all. Maybe this whole time he’s been dreaming and he’ll wake up back in Ealdor, where only the old bay mare neighs at night and no one beats her, ever, because they know in the country how to love a living thing.

The first slash of the whip to his back leaves a trail of fire in its wake and Merlin can’t hold back the noise of distress. Tor barely pauses before drawing back his hand again and Merlin jolts forward with the impact, dropping onto his palms. His cry of pain draws a tutting noise from Baudwin and suddenly his discarded neckerchief is being pushed into his mouth.

He takes the rest of the blows crouched over, with his eyes shut, holding his body up on shaking hands. The pain is so great, so sharp and precise, that Merlin thinks he might lose consciousness at one point. He screams freely into his neckerchief, whimpering around the cloth as he struggles to pull in enough air to breathe.

When it’s finished he is damp all over—with sweat, with blood, with the tears pouring down his face.

The neckerchief is taken from his mouth somewhat more gently than he might have expected. He raises pain-glazed eyes to see Baudwin regarding him with a faintly uneasy expression on his face.

“Say thank you, boy,” Tor intones above them.

Merlin opens his mouth to say it, because something’s shattered in him tonight and what does it matter anymore?

But Baudwin tugs at Tor’s shoulder.

“We must go,” he says, and a look passes between them. Tor nods reluctantly, snarls, “Not a word to anyone,” and they make off.

Merlin sags into the straw, his arms giving way at last. He lies there for a long time, completely inert and still. He can hear Llamrei and the other horses shuffling and snorting and for a few moments he imagines what it would be like to be an animal, to be well kept and cared for and be free from all this torment.

Is this repentance enough now? Has he earned his absolution yet?

He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know anything anymore.

He drags himself back to his room when he deems it late enough that no-one will be around. The pain is almost unbearable but his eyes are dry of tears and he’s almost mechanical as he lays out Gaius’ supplies on the work table.

He uses magic to stop the bleeding and treats the wounds with creams and compresses as best he can. It’s a hard angle to reach some of them and it’s a lonely realisation that there’s not a person in the world he can ask to help him.

When he lies down on his stomach to sleep that night, he is careful not to think of Arthur. The physical pain he can bear, but imagining Arthur here to comfort him is a pain that cuts much deeper.

 

***

 

Merlin hides in his rooms for the next two days, and tries to heal. Unlike with his ankle, he’s prepared to use magic to counteract the hurt this time. His efforts yield limited success. He can stop the bleeding but he can only take the edge off the pain and the scabs continue to ache fiercely. He can barely do anything but lie still on his front and try to sleep.

After two days he’s grown more accustomed to casting the healing spell he needs and the pain lessens to a dull throb. He’s able to get up and move around a little but he has to be careful. He mixes up a few poultices to keep the boredom and the guilt away, but he persuades another servant to do his medicine rounds. He doesn’t want to risk running into Tor or Baudwin again.

But on the third day, the day before Arthur is due back, Tor summons him to his chambers after dark.

He’s curiously numb as he knocks on the door. What more could Tor do to him? The whipping had been so brutal, so unexpectedly malicious, that he’s not sure if he should expect an escalation or if the knights know they’ve gone too far. The fact that they’ve stayed away from him for two days had made him begin the hope for the latter.

But Tor looks as cold and cruel as ever when he ushers Merlin in.

“Lay my fire,” he says imperiously.

Merlin grits his teeth and gets down on his knees in front of the hearth. The movement stretches the skin on his back and he has to bite his lip to stop himself crying out.

The fireplace looks suspiciously like it’s been doused with water. He spends a long time rearranging the logs to catch, and his back is aching by the end. When he stands, he makes the shortest possible bow to Tor and then heads for the door.

But Tor grabs his arm as he passes, yanking him back.

“Do you expect me to dress myself for bed?”

It makes Merlin shudder to even touch this man but he assists him in changing into his nightclothes, trying to make it as quick as possible. When he turns to leave again, Tor keeps hold of him.

“Is this how you serve your master at night, boy? Without pulling back the blankets or snuffing out the candle?”

Merlin glances over at the bed and something shifts in Tor’s expression. His eyes darken and his gaze slides down Merlin’s body.

“How do you serve your master at night?”

“I don’t,” Merlin snaps, suddenly furious. He bitterly resents the implication in Tor’s tone. Arthur would never ask him to do that as part of his duties. If ever something were to occur, it would not be because he was ordered to it…

“Don’t lie. I’ve seen the way you look at him. The way he looks back. Half the castle knows you warm his bed,” Tor says in a low voice.

“I have never-”

“It makes sense that you offer some value to the prince. You are no good as his servant. There is no area in which you excel. I can only assume that your skills as a whore are why he keeps you around.”

The word whore cuts Merlin to the quick, thrown so casually off Tor’s tongue. It makes something ugly of his and Arthur’s relationship; degrades their hard won bond of mutual respect and friendship into something base and cheap.

“Arthur is an honourable man,” Merlin says angrily, all his previous fear of Tor forgotten.

“There is nothing dishonourable in finding a use for useless servants,” Tor says cruelly. “Perhaps my efforts to discipline you have been superfluous all this time. The prince clearly knows a better method to keep you obedient.”

Merlin wrenches himself free of Tor’s grip and makes for the door. But a hand takes him by the hair and agonisingly drags him back towards the bed.

“We’re not finished here, boy,” Tor hisses in his ear. “You can serve me tonight like you serve your prince, and we’ll see if you really are good for anything at all.”

“No!” Merlin says, struggling to get free.

Tor shoves his free hand over Merlin’s mouth, effectively gagging him. Merlin’s body is taut with the adrenaline that comes from true panic and he thrashes wildly as Tor attempts to pull him flush against his chest. All the spells he knows are cycling rapidly through his head, he won’t just lie down and take it this time, he’ll fight for himself even if his magic is revealed.

He bites Tor’s fingers and Tor screams, pulling his hand away. It’s Merlin’s chance and he opens his mouth, ready to put a stop to this once and for all, no matter what it costs him…

But then there’s a loud rap on the door.

“Tor? Are you abed?”

Tor pushes Merlin away from himself like he’s been burned. Merlin stumbles, rights himself against the table, blood roaring in his ears.

There’s another rap and then the door swings open.

“Ah, there you are,” Sir Lamorak says, striding in. “I’m sorry to call so late but I’ve a question from the King that begs an answer tonight.”

His gaze alights on Merlin.

“It’s of a sensitive nature, Merlin, you run along now,” he says kindly. Lamorak has always been well-disposed to Merlin, even if he’s not the most observant knight around. He doesn’t seem to have noticed right now how Merlin is hunched and shaking, how two spots of colour are high in Tor’s cheeks.

But Merlin will be eternally grateful for the salvation Lamorak has unwittingly brought him tonight. He makes a quick bow and then scurries towards the door and freedom.

“Yes, you run along Merlin,” Tor’s voice sounds from behind him. “But I expect you back here to serve me at the same time tomorrow.”

Merlin doesn’t look back, only manages a sort of half nod for appearances sake before slipping through the door and out.

He runs all the way back to Gaius’ chambers, and locks himself in his room. Then, he fortifies the door with magic and sets a protection spell around the room, so that no-one might draw near without his knowledge.

Once he’s sure he’s safe he climbs into the bed and buries his head under the blanket. He’s very, very cold and he’s trembling all over, his breath juddering out in ragged gasps, his heart stuttering in his chest.

Where’s Arthur? He wants to tell him everything; the threats, the beatings, the fear he’s been living in. He wants Arthur to fight for him, to protect him. He wants to feel safe again. It’s gone too far. He should never have let it go this far.

Tor had tried to-

Merlin sobs suddenly, then bites down on his wrist. It’s his own fault, what about Nimueh, what about…

No. He doesn’t deserve this. It has to stop now. Next time Tor and Baudwin come for him, he’ll tell them to leave him alone or the prince will hear of it. And if they don’t listen, he’ll go straight to Arthur.

Merlin tries to imagine how Arthur will react and the thought almost makes him cry again. He wants to be honest but he’s afraid he’s left it too long. He wants to be with Arthur in all ways but he’s let silence grow between them.

They might not be able to recover what has been lost and the thought grieves Merlin more than he can say. But he has a duty to Arthur nonetheless. If he can’t be his lover, he can still be his right hand man. Arthur needs him, not the shadow he’s become of late.

Despite his resolve, the thought of confronting Tor and Baudwin terrifies him. He’s not sure he can ever go near Tor again.

He drifts off into an uneasy doze after a while. But he can’t sleep for nightmares; running from Tor through darkened castle halls, being crushed into the ground by the weight of the knight’s body, his clothes being torn away… He wakes up in a panic, bedclothes tangled round him, crying with fear.

He doesn’t dare return to sleep again. He gets up and wanders to Arthur’s chambers, tidies a little in preparation for his return. Then, he lies down on the prince’s bed and buries his face in the pillow, trying to catch the scent of Arthur there. He can’t find it, not really, but he pretends anyway. Just like he pretends that the prince is lying in the bed beside him. That he can feel his arms around him.

 

***

 

Arthur arrives in the early afternoon and Merlin hastens outside to greet him. Luckily one of the stable hands leads his horse away. Merlin doesn’t think he can go back in the stables just yet.

The prince looks tired but unscathed. There’s dust from the road on his handsome face and Merlin wants to clean him off, to take a cloth and bathe him until he’s fresh and golden again.

Arthur gives him a quick squeeze on the arm as they make their way to the castle and Merlin bites his lip to keep himself from spilling all the secrets that he’s been keeping. Now that Arthur’s back here, warm and solidly real, the truth of what Tor’s done is even more horrifying. The ugliness of his acts stands stark against Arthur’s light.

But such thoughts are not for indulging. Merlin keeps his mouth shut and manages to persuade another servant to carry Arthur’s bags while the prince goes off to report to the King on their trip, since he still has trouble taking weight on his injured back. He follows the bags to Arthur’s chambers and begins unpacking them, deliberately thinking about nothing at all but the dirtied clothes he piles and sorts. He’s so absorbed in the task that he nearly jumps out of his skin when he feels a hand on his shoulder. But it’s only Arthur and he looks troubled by Merlin’s reaction.

“Sorry,” Merlin says, trying to sound light-hearted. “I didn’t know you could be quiet long enough to sneak up on someone.”

Arthur doesn’t smile. His eyes track across Merlin’s face and his frown deepens.

“You don’t look any better,” he says bluntly.

“Thanks.”

“I’m serious, Merlin, you’re paler and thinner than when I left, even.”

For a moment, Merlin wonders whether he should confess it all now, give an explanation for the way he’s been behaving recently. But deep down he wants to avoid telling Arthur at all if he can help it. He’d rather have Tor and Baudwin back off with just the threat of the prince’s intervention, and for Arthur to remain none the wiser. So he simply shrugs.

“I slept poorly, sire. Must be the change in weather.”

“Still…” Arthur says, sceptically. Then: “Oh, don’t put those bags away, Merlin. I’m to leave again tomorrow morning.”

“Why?” Merlin says, startled.

“It was a pack of wolves causing the damage – we dispatched most easily, but the alpha evaded us. Its hide is preternaturally tough; a direct hit from an arrow couldn’t bring it down. I could have sworn that even my sword glanced off it. In any case, we’ve returned to replenish our supplies before riding out again to hunt it down.”

“I’ll come with you,” Merlin says quickly. He’s parsed the meaning behind Arthur’s words even if Arthur hasn’t – it sounds like the remaining wolf is no ordinary beast. It must be magical or enchanted, and if that’s the case, it won’t be slain by conventional means. He’ll have to bring it down himself.

“Merlin, I don’t think-”

“Please,” Merlin says and it comes out a little urgent. “I… My sleep has been disturbed of late. It may be that a day of riding and making camp will be the remedy. Please, sire.”

Arthur looks conflicted, but he nods reluctantly.

“Very well, Merlin, although you will go and be examined by Gaius before we leave. You won’t accompany us without his express approval, you understand?”

The worry in his eyes belies the sharpness of the command. Merlin feels more guilty than he can say for making Arthur look at him like that.

He has a curious notion to reach out and take the prince’s hand, but he swallows it down.

“I do,” he says instead.

Arthur nods.

“Right. We’ll be taking a small band of knights this time. Some sustained injuries – thankfully minor – from the beasts and will be staying here to rest. They’ll need replacing.”

Merlin has an ominous sinking feeling in his stomach, proved correct when he sees Tor and Baudwin in the courtyard that evening, loading their packs alongside Kay and Lamorak.

It can’t be helped, he thinks, and pushes the dread down inside himself. He has to go. Arthur will be in danger without him.

A fact that Gaius confirms, albeit reluctantly.

“The alpha wolf is not a wolf at all. I believe it to be a Cù-Sith in the guise of a wolf; a harbinger of death and destruction. I knew the spell to kill the beast but I had not magic enough to incant it.”

Gaius sighs.

“I had much rather you stayed with me so I could see to your health, but it seems we have no choice.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Merlin promises and Gaius gives him a sad, fond look.

“And who will take care of you, my boy?”

Luckily Sir Bedivere comes in at that moment seeking remedy for his scratches and Merlin is spared from answering. And enough knights come for similar attentions that night that Gaius never has a chance to examine Merlin at all.

 

They ride out at dawn. Merlin is usually with Arthur near the front but he lingers at the rear this time, unwilling to draw the wrath of Tor or Baudwin for “not knowing his place”.

A summons had come for him last night to attend to Tor and he had not gone. He correctly assumed that Tor would not dare come to root him out himself, not while Gaius was around. Still he spelled the door before he went to bed that night. It might be a long time before he’ll be able to sleep without that.

Even walking past Tor in the courtyard makes him feel sick and shaky all over. He can feel the other man glaring at him, even if he refuses to meet his eyes. Surely Tor won’t try anything with the prince nearby…

He tries to put Tor out of his mind and to focus on the task ahead. He’s on tenterhooks as they approach the woods where the beast was last seen, rehearsing the spell Gaius gave him over and over in his mind. Arthur has said the pattern of the beast is to attack just after night falls and there are still a few hours left before sundown. He has time enough to prepare himself.

And yet they’re barely a hundred yards into the woods when Leon’s horse suddenly rears in fright. Arthur signals them to be on guard and pulls out his sword. The horses skitter nervously as Leon brings his mount back under control. Merlin’s been on enough patrols to know that animals often sense the arrival of danger before humans do. He looks towards the trees ahead, and detects a certain rustling in the undergrowth. Or is it his imagination?

Arthur motions them forward. Then a huge creature bounds forth into the open and all hell breaks loose.

The horses attempt to scatter, the knights struggling to keep them in place. Merlin can hardly blame them. The wolf that prowls before them would be terrifying to all but the hardiest of warriors.

Or not a wolf, as it may be. The beast before them is a convincing facsimile but Gaius told Merlin how to look for the signs and he can see that the jaw is a little too wide, that the fur has a greenish tinge to it.

It’s evidence enough for the knights though, who have all drawn their swords at this point. Merlin dismounts quickly and tracks back a few paces to where he can’t be seen. He raises his hand, the spell on his tongue. Oddly there’s no fear or doubt in him. He’d face a creature like the Cù-Sith a hundred times over rather than Tor or Baudwin. And it feels good to know that he’s using magic to defend Arthur again; that he’s saving lives rather than taking them away this time.

The Cù-Sith sniffs the air, as though it can smell the presence of magic. Then it bares its teeth in Merlin’s direction, snarling. It leaps in the air just as Arthur raises his sword, and Merlin quickly hisses the words of the spell, pushing his power out to meet it.

There’s a stomach churning noise, like the crunch of bones breaking, and then a very human sounding scream. Merlin’s heart leaps to his mouth for a moment. Is he too late? Had the creature already reached Arthur?

He runs forward only to see Arthur sit back on his horse. The Cù-Sith is lying motionless on the ground beside him.

Merlin breathes a sigh of relief, lowering his hand. Arthur’s safe. They’re all safe.

“Excellent work, sire,” Leon enthuses. “Right through the heart, I believe.”

Arthur dismounts as though to examine the body more closely and Merlin panics to think that Arthur might ascertain the true cause of death. He does the only thing he can think of, and throws himself onto the ground with a loud moan.

Arthur turns at once.

“Merlin?”

Merlin rubs his head and tries to look dazed. It’s not hard to fake an expression of pain. The fall had exacerbated most of the injuries on his body.

“Did you faint?” Lamorak says, gently teasing.

“I don’t know,” Merlin says as Leon walks over to help him up.

Arthur laughs and, for once, Merlin doesn’t mind that he’s had to play the buffoon again, because the fondness in Arthur’s eyes is unmistakable.

Then he looks past Arthur and sees Tor staring straight at him and all of his happiness drains away.

 

***

 

They’re too far away to ride back to Camelot by nightfall, so they decide to stay in the forest. Merlin sets up camp with another servant but his back is aching from his earlier tumble. The barely-healed scabs feel stretched and sore, and the burst of magic he used to kill the Cù-Sith has left him exhausted.

By the time he goes to fill the water skins at the nearby river, he’s ready to sleep. His initial relief at saving Arthur from the creature has worn away in the face of Tor’s proximity and he feels ill and shaken again. He wants to be back at home, in his own bed, with Gaius pottering around outside his door. He wants to put all this behind him.

It hurts to crouch down and he ends up on his knees at the bank, dipping the skins in painfully slow. The water is cold at his fingertips and he stares hard into the blue and tries to think about nothing at all. He doesn’t have time to bathe but perhaps he could come back tonight when everyone’s asleep, slip into the river and let the cool water soothe the broken skin on his back…

He’s in the process of filling the last one when a twig cracks behind him and he startles, dropping it in his surprise.

“Clumsy boy,” a low voice says and the air suddenly crackles with menace.

He turns to see Tor and Baudwin towering above him.

Merlin starts to get to his feet but Baudwin pushes him back down.

“And where were you last night?” Tor says, voice as sharp as a dagger.

“I had other duties-” Merlin begins and is cut off by Tor’s finger roughly pressing against his lips.

“You had a duty to me, boy,” he says and, horrifyingly, he pushes his finger into Merlin’s mouth.

Merlin rears away and scrambles to his feet.

“I will not serve you like that,” he says in a low voice.

The backhand to his face makes him see white for a second.

“You will do,” Tor hisses, “exactly what we tell you to do.”

“No,” Merlin says.

He’s not shaking, he’s not afraid. He’s more calm than he’s felt in a long time. He’ll go no further down this path. He won’t find atonement for what he’s done with these men.

Tor seems to sense the shift in Merlin too. He looks enraged.

“I thought we’d broken you of that defiance,” he says dangerously.

Merlin just stares straight back at him, meeting his gaze head on. Tor’s lip curls.

“Seems you need a reminder.”

Merlin barely has time to take a step back before Baudwin’s knocked him to the ground. He tries to get up, but strong hands are gripping him tightly, hauling him up and forward.

It takes a few seconds to realise he’s being dragged to the water’s edge and then he panics and begins to struggle. But he’s too weak and Baudwin merely grunts and hoists him up in the air, throwing him into the river.

Merlin breaks the surface a few seconds later to see Tor smirking on the bank above him. Baudwin is nowhere to be seen and he feels a split second of fear before the hand comes down on his head, pushing him back under.

He thrashes desperately but Baudwin’s hold is much too strong. Merlin’s lungs are burning for air but he only swallows water when he opens his mouth, and he spasms and jerks.

He’s clawing at the arms holding him but he can’t get any purchase and it has no effect. He can’t marshal his legs to lash out in the right direction. All he’s doing is exhausting himself. He can’t think of a single spell to save himself. His self-preservation instincts have been neglected for too long. He can’t find them anymore.

This can’t be the end…

Merlin’s eyes begin to get dim. He’s still kicking but it’s uncoordinated. He’s too tired and too short of breath to resist any longer.

The hand holding him down is gone all of a sudden, but it’s too late. Merlin doesn’t have the energy to swim back to the surface, and he can feel himself sinking, sinking, sinking…

Then a pair of arms circle his waist and he’s being pulled back towards the light.

The first gulp of air feels like fire and he’s coughing and retching as he’s carried out of the water and onto the bank. His rescuer lays him down gently on his side and massages his back as Merlin heaves up dirty river water and tries to catch his breath. It takes a long time before the terror begins to fade from his mind, and he spreads his fingers on the dirt beneath him and tries to console himself with the fact that he’s on dry land, and he’s safe.

When he’s finally steady enough to look up, his heart sinks.

Arthur is kneeling next to him, concern so naked on his face that Merlin has to look away. He didn’t want Arthur to find out like this. He wanted it to be on his own terms; wanted to tell the truth his way.

“Are you alright? Can you breathe?”

Merlin nods, not trusting himself to speak. Leon hovers a few paces away, dripping wet. It looks like he was the one to dive into the river and pull Merlin out. Next to him are Tor and Baudwin, standing stock still.

Arthur lingers by his side a few moments longer, and then gets to his feet.

“Explain. Now.”

Arthur’s voice is like ice and Merlin cringes until he sees that Arthur’s command is not directed at him at all. He’s staring at Tor and Baudwin with barely concealed fury in his eyes.

“Sire, I’m afraid it was a bit of foolery that rather got out of hand,” Tor says, his tone smooth and unctuous. “Your servant was splashing at us and we thought to splash back.”

“And how is it that he came to be half-drowned?”

“He lost his footing; I was trying to help him out when you arrived. We took a jest too far, sire,” Baudwin says uneasily, quavering more than his companion under Arthur’s gaze.

“A jest,” Arthur repeats quietly. Then he turns to Merlin, just as Leon helps him to his knees. “Do you concur with this, Merlin?”

Tor looks downright affronted to have his testimony queried by the prince and Merlin realises that Arthur’s treading a dangerous path by even questioning their word. If Uther were to find out that a mere servant’s opinion was being considered against a knight’s…

With this in mind, Merlin nods. There’s no further that Arthur can take this. The knights won’t be punished. It’s more likely that Merlin will end up in trouble with the King. Nothing can be done.

Arthur looks briefly pained but he doesn’t press the matter.

“Very well. Since your jesting has left my servant unfit to fulfil his duties, I’m afraid I shall have to prevail upon you two to prepare and cook dinner.”

Arthur’s tone is light but there’s an unmistakable edge behind it. Tor looks like he wants to protest for a second, but Baudwin tugs at his arm. They both make a short bow and walk away.

Merlin drops back onto his hands, the last of his energy slipping away. Arthur springs forward.

“Help me get him back to camp,” he says to Leon and the knight crouches to lift Merlin to his feet.

They support him back to the clearing. Merlin can barely get his feet beneath him. A small part of him is embarrassed by his lack of strength, but the rest is too exhausted to care.

His throat feels raw from coughing up water, and his clothes are clinging to him, leaving him chilled by the dusk air. His whole body aches, as if all the injuries of the last two months have chosen to make themselves known again.

Inside Arthur’s tent, Leon helps Merlin to sit down on the bed roll. Then, Arthur stands back with a critical eye.

“Come on, clothes off.”

A jitter of panic flashes through Merlin. He’s bruised all over and he can’t let Arthur see. But the prince misinterprets his silence.

“This is no time for modesty, Merlin, you’re soaked through.”

Arthur reaches for Merlin’s tunic and Merlin bats his hand away. He stands on wobbly legs, in an attempt to look less vulnerable.

“I’m alright.”

Arthur exhales impatiently.

“You’re a physician’s assistant, Merlin; you know the risks of hypothermia as well as I do.”

“I can do it myself,” Merlin pleads.

“You can hardly stand,” Leon puts in and his tone is sympathetic.

Merlin’s out of excuses and he’s in no condition to struggle when Arthur takes hold of him again. He can only wait, agonised, as Arthur tugs the sopping tunic off.

There’s a short silence after Merlin’s battered chest is revealed, punctuated only by Leon’s soft curse; the first time Merlin’s ever heard him swear.

When Merlin gazes up, Arthur’s staring right at him, and the look in his eyes can only be described as frantic.

“What the hell happened to you?” he says, aghast.

Merlin’s follows Arthur’s eyes and looks down at himself. He’s been avoiding his own reflection of late – even before Tor and Baudwin’s attentions, the sight of Nimeuh’s burn had made his sick to his stomach – and the view shocks him. There are bruises everywhere; red at his neck, yellow and green trailing across his stomach, fading purple at his side where Tor hit him with his staff. There’s a gash across his collarbone from Baudwin’s sword, and a series of finger shaped bruises on his arms, impossible to ascribe to anything but deliberate malice. As Arthur gently turns him round, Merlin remembers the whip marks on his back and suddenly wants to die of shame.

“Merlin, who did this?”

Arthur’s tone is sharp with worry and all Merlin can do is shrug helplessly.

“Gods, you look like you’ve been captured and tortured! Have you? Did someone-”

“Sire,” Leon cuts in, perhaps realising that Merlin has no intention of answering. “If I may be so bold as to speak freely?”

“Please,” Arthur says, his eyes still roaming Merlin’s torso.

“I have noted a few occasions of late when Sirs Tor and Baudwin have been… rough with Merlin. Harsher than seems necessary.”

Arthur looks completely shocked.

“You think they did this? These are not the kind of injuries sustained in the course of everyday service, Leon. They have been deliberately and maliciously inflicted.”

“I know, sire,” Leon says and Arthur breathes out heavily.

“Is it true, Merlin? Are Sir Tor and Sir Baudwin responsible for this?”

Merlin keeps his gaze fixed on the ground, numb to the core. He couldn’t answer Arthur even if he wanted to, he feels like his voice has been stolen.

Don’t tell the prince. You’re only getting what you deserve.

He stays silent and Arthur rounds on Leon.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I was intending to talk to you tonight, sire,” Leon says pleadingly. “If I’d had known it was as bad as this…”

“Is there anything else you have to say?” Arthur bites out.

Leon shifts where he stands.

“Only that… I did hear them speak of Merlin briefly on the ride earlier.”

Leon coughs uncomfortably.

“Their comments were… of a lewd nature, sire.”

Arthur exhales again, only this time it sounds much sadder.

“Thank you, Leon. You had best go and change out of those wet clothes.”

Leon makes a bow and leaves.

Merlin’s heart begins to hammer but Arthur doesn’t ask any more questions. He simply picks up a blanket and wraps it round Merlin’s shoulders.

“We still need to get you warm,” he says quietly.

Merlin lets Arthur sit him on the bed and remove his boots. But when he reaches for the laces on Merlin’s trousers, Merlin flinches away. Arthur looks horrified.

“Did they… did they hurt you?” he whispers and he sounds devastated.

“No, no,” Merlin says, startled into speaking because he can’t bear the anguish in Arthur’s eyes.

“You’re sure?” Arthur says urgently.

Merlin nods.

“I just…”

He trails off, not able to explain that these are not the circumstances he had hoped Arthur might see him unclothed. That he doesn’t want to be exposed like this when he’s feeling so vulnerable, least of all to the prince.

Some of this conflict must show on his face because Arthur’s eyes soften.

“Alright,” he says, and he draws away and turns his back on Merlin.

Grateful beyond measure, Merlin struggles out of his trousers and undergarments, dropping the wet items onto the ground. He rearranges the blanket to cover himself and Arthur turns back.

“Lie down. I need to tend your injuries.”

His tone is not harsh but it brooks no arguments. Mute, Merlin complies, lying back very gingerly on the bedroll. Arthur brings the blanket down to his waist and then puts a fur on top of that, before reaching for Merlin’s kit bag in the corner. He takes out the various poultices and bandages Merlin had hastily packed before he left, correctly fearing that a trip with Tor and Baudwin would likely result in an injury of some kind.

He hadn’t thought they would go so far, though. He doesn’t think they meant to truly drown him today, but it had come too close for comfort.

Merlin shudders and pretends it’s just the cool of the first ointment Arthur rubs onto his chest.

It hurts – how could it not? – but Arthur’s fingers are sure and gentle. Merlin’s far too tense to come anywhere close to relaxing, but he finds himself almost lulled by the steady ministrations of Arthur’s hands. It comes as a shock when the prince speaks again.

“This looks like the work of a staff,” he says, gesturing to the purple bruise on Merlin’s hip.

It’s not a question, exactly, though it hangs in the air. Merlin doesn’t reply and Arthur doesn’t push, but he keeps his commentary up as he continues.

“You were grabbed from behind.”

“A practice sword, or maybe a dagger?”

And once, with barely concealed fury:

“They tightened your neckerchief until you choked.”

When he reaches the burn that Nimueh left on Merlin’s chest, his fingers stroke across it lightly.

“This is older.”

Merlin closes his eyes so Arthur can’t see how close he is to crying. To have Arthur even looking at that scar, let alone touching it, to have him here so worried and solicitous, without any inkling of all the terrible things Merlin has done… it’s almost too much to bear.

Arthur does seem to be waiting for an answer this time, but when none is forthcoming he simply sighs and helps Merlin turn onto his front. Long minutes pass without comment as he treats the scars on Merlin’s back, until:

“Birch?”

“Horse whip,” Merlin says before he can stop himself and even speaking the words unleashes a barrage of memories; of being half crouched on dirty straw, the panting noise Tor made as he drew back his hand to strike, the horror and humiliation of being beaten like a disobedient animal…

“Merlin! Merlin, breathe!”

Arthur’s tugging at him, pulling him to sit as Merlin wheezes for breath. He’s overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of that awful night, he’s still in the stables, he never really left...

“Merlin, you have to calm down.”

A strong hand is rubbing his shoulders, another is pressed flat against his chest, holding him up. Merlin coughs, chokes, heaves.

The stables fade away. Arthur doesn’t stop rubbing his shoulders. When Merlin finally focusses again, he could swear that the prince’s eyes are wet with tears.

“Sorry,” he mumbles, throat raw.

“You are not the one who needs to apologise,” Arthur says tiredly. “I am entirely to blame for not noticing your misuse. I will never forgive myself.”

Merlin ducks his head in shame, flayed by the guilt in his master’s eyes. Arthur doesn’t understand, will never understand, that Merlin chose not to defend himself. Chose not to ask for help.

“Not your fault,” he croaks out at last. “I hid it well.”

“You shouldn’t have had to,” Arthur says briefly.

There’s a discreet cough at the tent door and then Leon pushes the flap aside.

“Sire?” he says, holding out two bowls of stew. “I thought you might…”

“Thank you, Leon,” Arthur says but the knight lingers after he has set them down.

“I was remiss in my duties, sire,” Leon says formally. “It will not happen again.”

A long look passes between the two men.

“Go and sit by the fire, old friend,” Arthur says at last. “Your hair is still wet.”

Leon smiles then.

“Yes, sire,” he says and leaves.

“He’s a good man,” Merlin says, thinking of how Leon tried to help him at training. “Don’t be hard on him.”

“I assure you that the lion’s share of the blame is reserved for myself, Merlin,” Arthur says gravely.

“Not for Tor and Baudwin?” Merlin replies, a weak attempt at levity.

Arthur gives him a sharp look.

“So you admit it was them?”

Merlin casts his eyes down.

“No, Merlin, we have to talk about this,” Arthur says firmly. “I need to know how this came to happen. Two of my own knights…”

Merlin licks his dry lips.

“I deserved it,” he says, knowing that Arthur won’t interpret it in quite the way he means it.

Arthur looks furious.

“Never say that! This,” he gestures to Merlin’s body, “is not something that can be provoked. There can be no justification for it.”

Merlin’s hands are shaking as he cradles his bowl of stew and Arthur sees.

“Alright, just… you don’t have to speak their names. Just tell me how long this has been going on.”

Merlin stares into the bowl and Arthur sighs.

“Very well. I first noticed the change in you four months ago. So am I to surmise it started then?”

Merlin shakes his head.

“Two,” he mumbles.

Arthur isn’t wrong, though. The confrontation with Nimueh was four months past.

The prince regards him.

“You were quiet before then.”

Merlin shrugs.

“Alright. Two months. Two months of being beaten black and blue by knights who purport to uphold the honour of Camelot, two months of neither eating nor sleeping by the looks of you, two months of – if Leon is to be believed – being importuned by-”

“Sire, please,” Merlin all but whimpers. The prince’s voice is getting louder and louder and Merlin feels sicker with every word.

“Is it not true?” Arthur demands, his voice raw and afraid.

“I was not… importuned,” Merlin says with difficulty. “Threats were made but…”

“Threats were made?” Arthur says, looking appalled. “I’ll kill them. I’ll kill them both.”

“Please, just-”

“Merlin, why did you not come to me?”

“Sire, I-”

“Arthur, call me Arthur!” he explodes. “Gods, I should have known something was wrong from the moment you starting calling me that!”

“Please-”

“I will repay every injury visited on you in kind, do you hear me? I will not allow them to get away with this. I’ll tear them limb from limb for-”

“Arthur!”

It’s his use of the prince’s name, at long last, that makes Arthur pause. There’s an uneasy silence, and then Arthur deflates visibly, the anger in his posture giving way to something more defeated.

“I just don’t understand,” he says and he looks heartbroken. “Why didn’t you ask for help?”

And Merlin remembers, with a sudden clarity, the night he got locked in the grain hut in Ealdor. How the bigger boys roughed him up and forced him into the tiny space, leaning barrels against the door so he couldn’t get out. How he stayed there all night and half the next day until old man Simmons showed up to reclaim his barrels and inadvertently set Merlin free. How his mother cried when he came home and hugged him close to her chest and murmured how frightened she’d been.

She asked him later why he didn’t call out for help, when he knew that village folk passed by the grain hut from the first cock crow. And he couldn’t answer, because he didn’t know how to say that he didn’t think anyone would have cared, that he imagined they might hear his cry and just leave him there.

“I don’t know,” he says at last, just like he’d said to his mother all those years ago. But Arthur shakes his head.

“Not good enough. I assume Gaius doesn’t know about any of this? Or Guinevere or Morgana? If you didn’t… if you didn’t want to come to me, you could have gone to someone.”

Merlin can see how hurt Arthur is at the idea that he would rather confide in someone else, and it surprises him.

“It’s not that I didn’t want to come to you,” he says falteringly.

“Did you think I wouldn’t listen?” Arthur says, turning bright eyes on him. “I know when we first met, I wasn’t… perhaps there was a time when I was less receptive to…”

He breaks off and massages his temples a moment.

“I thought we understood each other now,” he says frankly. “I thought… we trusted each other.”

Merlin has a funny feeling in his chest, like the numbness that’s been spreading there for the last four months has thawed slightly at the edges.

“I do trust you,” he says sincerely and forces himself to look into the prince’s eyes. “But Arthur, you can’t challenge the knights over a servant. Your father would be furious and they would resent you. You can’t have that. You need to know that every man in your service is completely faithful to you when you ride out to battle with them.”

“Perhaps I don’t want men like that in my service,” Arthur says mulishly, and then he sighs. “And credit me with a little subtlety Merlin. Remember Lord Asphall?”

Merlin did. He had been assigned to Lord Asphall’s service when he visited from the northern territories the previous year. Lord Asphall had taken great offence to Merlin accidentally spilling some wine on his lap at the banquet, and dealt him a cuff that knocked him to the floor. Arthur had said nothing on the matter; it fell to Gwen to gleefully inform Merlin the next day that Arthur had completely humiliated Lord Asphall in sparring practice, much to the sniggering delight of the other knights and squires.

They hadn’t spoken of it then, even though Merlin was quite aware of what Arthur had done for him. He’d locked the knowledge away inside himself; put it somewhere safe and private so he could hold it close to him, like a hoarded treasure.

“I do and I… I was very grateful,” Merlin says softly and a flicker of pleasure crosses Arthur’s face. “But Lord Asphall was only visiting. Tor and Baudwin are your knights and-”

“I don’t care,” Arthur says loudly, “if they resent me. I don’t care if I have their loyalty. I don’t care to pay due respect to men who have disrespected you in such a grievous manner. Let them complain of me to my father, I will tell him the truth.”

“No, Arthur,” Merlin says, agonised. “Please. Don’t go against your father. I’m not-”

“Don’t you dare say you’re not worth it,” Arthur says forcefully. “What happened to that cocky boy who squared up to the Crown prince on his first day in Camelot? Who gave me a lecture every time I so much as forgot to say please to a maid? Who pushed me every single day to see that servants were worth no less than noble men and that Camelot should honour both?”

Merlin feels his heart pound a little, but this time it isn’t from fear. He knew that Arthur did listen to him on occasion, knew that he’d come a long way from the arrogant prince who tormented servants like it was his birth right. But he didn’t know how much Arthur had been taking in.

The destiny the dragon spoke of felt so far away some days. Right now it felt so close he could reach out and touch it, like Arthur had become the King of prophecy before his very eyes. Like Camelot’s new dawn was coming.

But he’s not being honest. And a kingdom cannot be built on a lie.

“I didn’t tell you because… I did not feel their treatment of me was wholly unwarranted,” he says quietly.

Arthur begins to interrupt but Merlin holds up his hand.

“Wait, just listen. I did something bad. Or-or several bad things. And I can’t… I can’t find a way to make sense of them. And when Tor and Baudwin began to… that made sense to me. So I didn’t stop them.”

Arthur’s eyes are sad.

“What could you have possibly done that was so bad?”

Merlin shuts his eyes.

“I killed someone,” he whispers, and is half-horrified and half-relieved to hear it outside of his own head at last.

Arthur looks shocked for a second, and then a strange kind of comprehension dawns on his face. Merlin wonders if it’s possible he’s finally caught on, if he realises about the magic, and suddenly Merlin’s not ready, it’s not the right time, what will Arthur say…

“The bandit on the cliff,” Arthur says, and Merlin’s panic subsides.

Arthur thinks he’s talking about someone else. A man who attacked them a few months ago on patrol, a man who Merlin didn’t even have to use magic to dispatch. He was fighting Arthur near a cliff top, and when he swung dangerously close to Arthur’s head Merlin acted on instinct, reaching out to push him off the edge.

The knights had all commended his bravery on that occasion. Arthur had even mentioned it to Uther, who gave a sort of vaguely approving sniff. Merlin hadn’t thought much about it at the time but he had remembered it since. He carries all of them around inside him, the people he’s hurt in destiny’s name.

Arthur’s face has softened.

“If it helps,” he says gently. “He was trying to kill me. And I don’t think he was a very nice man in general.”

“Is that all it takes for me, then?” Merlin asks, a strange kind of hysteria bubbling up inside them. “That they’re not very nice. That they’re trying to kill you. That gives me the right, does it?”

Arthur looks at him for a long moment.

“I do not know,” he says eventually. “My knights swear an oath to protect me at all costs. My father believes that this is what all subjects owe to their rulers. I am not so sure as he is.”

“I would die to protect you, Arthur,” Merlin says quietly. “I never swore a knight’s oath but I would.”

Arthur looks almost awed and something tightens in Merlin’s chest at the sight.

“But to kill to protect you,” Merlin continues shakily. “That’s something else. And some days I fear the person I am becoming.”

Arthur falls silent.

“I understand that,” he says after a while. “And I am sorry, Merlin. Before you came to Camelot… I imagine you did not think on these things.”

Merlin nods. He hadn’t. He had been so sure of himself back then.

They sit in silence for a long while until a particularly strong wind buffers the walls of the tent and Merlin can’t help but shiver a little.

Arthur notices and his forehead creases in worry.

“Are you cold?”

He looks around.

“There are no more furs.”

His gaze sharpens.

“Alright. Move over.”

If Merlin has the wherewithal to gasp, he might have at the sight of Arthur tugging off his tunic, pulling at the drawstrings of his trousers with the clear intent of getting in beside Merlin. Gaius had always told them that this was the best way to preserve and share body heat but Merlin had never thought the prince would take the advice, least of all on his account.

“Sire,” he says, through chattering teeth.

“Arthur,” is the only reply and suddenly the prince is standing there in only his undergarment. It’s not the first time Merlin’s ever seen him unclothed, but something about this is entirely different to all the times he’s bathed and dressed his master before.

“Arthur, I don’t think-”

“No, you don’t think Merlin, and that’s exactly how we ended up here.”

It could have been a chide but Arthur’s tone is gentle. Before Merlin can summon up another word of protest, Arthur is climbing onto the bedroll, rucking up the furs and positioning himself close to Merlin’s body beneath them.

He’s warm in a fashion that Merlin always associates with him, like he generates heat from within. A contrast to the way that Merlin shivers through the cold Camelot mornings, and watches the tips of his fingers turn white in the winter – though not so much anymore, since Arthur presented him with that pair of thick fur-lined gloves last solstice…

Merlin stiffens, acutely aware of the prince’s proximity and his own nakedness. But Arthur makes a little sighing noise, so similar to one he makes every night as Merlin leaves his room that the familiarity is comforting.

Merlin lets his body relax a little. It’s so tiring to be on alert all the time, to be constantly watching for the fist or the boot. Whatever happens next, at least he knows Tor and Baudwin won’t be coming for him again. Arthur will make sure of that.

Once Arthur has blown the candle out, it seems a little easier to say what he could not say before.

“How do you know if you’re a good person?”

Arthur shifts a little.

“I’m not sure you can know. Perhaps you have to trust the word of other people when they tell you who you are.”

“And if they don’t know you?” Merlin says quietly. “If no one truly knows you?”

Arthur sighs.

“Then you have to know yourself. Which is, quite frankly, more Gaius’ area than mine. A King who spends all his time seeking to know himself is rather unlikely to get anything done.”

“You’re not King yet,” Merlin points out and Arthur laughs, a low deep rumble that vibrates the bedroll.

“No, as you love to remind me.”

Merlin wonders if that’s Arthur’s way of ending the discussion, but a few minutes later he speaks again.

“Do you think I’m good, Merlin?”

The question surprises Merlin and he has to take a second to contemplate.

Does he think Arthur is good?

He thinks he’s noble. He thinks he’s clever and loyal and cares deeply about his people.

But good…

What is good? The only person he feels certain is wholly good is his mother. Because he’s known her all his life and he’s never once seen her make a choice that’s selfish.

But is that what good is? Sacrificing yourself for others?

“I’ll take that as a no, then,” Arthur says and Merlin realises he’s hesitated too long. He feels a pang at the hurt in Arthur’s voice and hastens to reassure him.

“It’s not a no. Truly, Arthur, it isn’t. I was only thinking that I’m not sure what it even means to be good.”

“Then how are you so sure that you are not?”

Merlin starts, surprised.

“I never said…”

“I surmised it,” Arthur says drily. “You may prattle on sometimes Merlin but you generally say what you mean.”

His hand moves to brush against the bandages on Merlin’s back.

“You did not tell me what they were doing because you felt in some way you deserved it. Because you were not good.”

Arthur’s voice is barely more than a whisper.

“I can’t answer that question for you. I can only say that everything I have seen of you suggests to me that you try to be good wherever you can. And I think trying may be what counts the most, in the end.”

“I’d like to believe that,” Merlin said, voice thick.

“And you are not the only one who has made mistakes, Merlin, never think that.”

If he’s not imagining it, Arthur’s voice is a little thick too.

“What mistakes have you made?” Merlin asks.

There’s a long pause.

“One day I will tell you a story,” Arthur says at last. “About a raid I led when I was fifteen. I… I cannot tell it yet but I will.”

There’s a pain in his voice that Merlin has never heard before. Is it possible that Arthur carries the same guilt around that he does? It is possible that he’s not the only one to feel like this?

“I will be glad to hear it,” he says, and dares to graze his hand against Arthur’s arm.

One day… Merlin has things he needs to tell Arthur as well. Their destiny cannot go forward without Arthur knowing the truth about his magic.

“I need to tell you something too,” Merlin says into the darkness. “But I don’t think I can say it yet either.”

“Then don’t,” Arthur says, and he reaches out to take Merlin’s hand. “You’ll tell me when you can.”

Merlin could weep for the relief he feels. He only squeezes Arthur’s hand a little and waits for sleep to take them.

 

***

 

It’s much later that he wakes and finds how they’ve become entangled together in the safety of rest. Arthur’s arm is tucked protectively round his waist and his nose is buried in the nape of Merlin’s neck. Merlin can hear the soft sound of his slow breaths, can feel Arthur’s chest rise and fall against him.

Very occasionally on a hunt, Arthur and Merlin or even one of the other knights would have migrated a little too close to each other in the night. A natural consequence of the way the bedrolls are placed tightly together to conserve heat in winter, nothing more than that. They always draw apart instantly, a little embarrassed, and make no reference to how their bodies cleaved together in sleep. So when Merlin feels Arthur awaken beside him, he imagines he will withdraw in the same fashion.

But Arthur doesn’t. He stays tucked into Merlin, his breath tickling Merlin’s neck.

The seconds seem to stretch on for hours.

“Do you want me to move?” Arthur says at last.

“No,” Merlin whispers, heart thumping.

“I’ve missed you,” Arthur says, and it comes out like a sigh.

“I didn’t go anywhere.”

“You did,” Arthur says tiredly. “You went somewhere beyond my reach. All these months, I’ve been trying to get you back.”

“I didn’t mean to…” Merlin says, anguished, and Arthur shushes him.

“It wasn’t your fault. I was looking in the wrong places. I never thought it could be about the knights. I thought it was about me.”

“You?”

“I thought you were withdrawing from me. Because of… I… there was a moment. Before. After I was bitten by the questing beast.”

Merlin draws in a breath. Arthur remembered too…

“When you hugged me,” Arthur says, slow and careful. “I wanted to speak to you. To ask what it meant. If it meant anything at all. But then you were ill for some days. And you came back to work so pale, and you seemed so unhappy, and I was afraid…”

He stops.

“Arthur…” Merlin says quietly, helplessly.

“I was afraid that I had misread your intentions,” he says, sounding shy and unsure and so un-Arthur-like that Merlin doesn’t quite know what to say.

Except he does, perhaps.

“You didn’t misread my intentions. And I didn’t mean to go beyond your reach,” Merlin swallows. “These past few months… I’ve felt alone. Or rather, I’ve made myself feel alone, because I didn’t know how to come back to you.”

He seeks out Arthur’s hand.

“I was fooling myself. Because it scares me how much I need you. It scares me, Arthur…”

“Don’t be afraid,” Arthur says into his neck, voice catching. “I need you too.”

And Merlin turns in the bed to fall naturally into Arthur’s embrace.

Their first kiss is like a quiet song. One he’d known by heart in childhood, and forgotten since. One he knows he’ll never forget again.

They kiss until they have to break for air, and then Arthur clutches Merlin close, buries his head into his neck and kisses there instead, moving his hands to Merlin’s hips.

Arthur’s fingers are calloused and rough from years of sword play and hunting. But they’re also startlingly delicate when they touch him, tracing soft paths across his heated skin, mindful of every bruise and scar that remain unhealed.

Merlin had not thought that Arthur was capable of such tenderness.

Arthur keeps asking is this alright, is this alright until Merlin shushes him, presses one finger over his lips and reaches out to guide Arthur’s hand across his body.

They don’t talk after that. The only sound is the quiet, slightly desperate breaths they take from the still night air around them.

When Arthur moves down beneath the furs to take Merlin into his mouth, Merlin gasps and then lets him. He had once thought of this act as so intimate as to be shaming, that he would not be able to bear it outside the safety of a marital bed. But it’s Arthur – the same Arthur that he knows and loves, the same familiar hands stroking along his thighs, gently holding him in place.

Still he can’t hold back his noise of shock and Arthur stops what he’s doing to crawl back up the bed, to soothe Merlin’s fractious mouth with his own, smoothing his hair with one gentle hand.

“I want to take care of you,” Arthur whispers into his ear and Merlin feels his eyes fill up with tears.

He never knew a love like this was possible. Nothing in his life so far has prepared him for this moment now, curled up close on a cold night with the one person that means more to him than anything in the world.

When it’s over, Arthur rests his head on Merlin’s hip and lets Merlin smooth his rumpled hair.

“I love you,” he says softly, surely.

“Why?” Merlin says, chest so full he can’t tell if it’s with happiness or sadness.

Arthur doesn’t falter.

“Because you’re kind,” he says, pressing a kiss to Merlin’s thigh.

“Because you’re wise,” he says, pressing a kiss to Merlin’s stomach.

“Because you’re brave,” he says, pressing a kiss to Merlin’s collarbone.

“But not good?” Merlin says, his voice cracking.

“I don’t know what good is either,” Arthur says, looking straight into Merlin’s eyes. “But I think we can find out. Together.”

Then he drops a final kiss to Merlin’s lips.

 

***

 

When they arrive in Camelot the next day, Arthur takes Merlin to his own chambers and puts him straight to bed. He fetches Gaius, who tears up at the sight of Merlin’s back, and spends all day crafting poultices and tinctures to ease the pain. He makes Merlin promise never to suffer alone like this again, and then he makes a promise of his own. He will support Merlin if he wants to tell Arthur of his magic. The toll of keeping secrets has worn them both down. It’s time to try something new.

 

At lunch, Arthur suggests that the continuing violent skirmishes in the Northern territories can only be solved by sending one or two of the knights to take up permanent residence there.

Uther agrees that the need is great, but points out that no knight would happily volunteer to undertake such a dangerous and poorly compensated outpost.

Arthur says no more about it.

 

That night Morgana takes supper in Uther’s room and quietly confesses that the way Sir Tor and Sir Baudwin have been looking at her of late has made her feel uneasy. That their comments in her presence have not been entirely chivalrous. That occasionally they have pressed up against her in the corridor as they go by.

 

The next morning, Tor and Baudwin are dispatched to the Northern territories. Merlin watches out of Arthur’s window as they load up their horses, glancing back at the forbidding figure of Uther on the steps of the castle, as if hoping for a reprieve.

None comes. They ride out and Merlin exhales, feeling as though he can breathe again for the first time in months.

He stays there until Arthur slips into the room.

“Thank you,” he says quietly, without looking round.

“Thank Morgana,” Arthur says. “I think she would do anything for you.”

He pauses.

“As would I.”

Merlin turns to face his prince.

“And I for you. My Arthur. My everything.”

A smile blooms across Arthur’s face and he crosses the room to Merlin’s side. He says nothing more, just turns Merlin back to the window and then wraps his arms gently around Merlin’s waist.

They stand together, looking out. The dawn is just breaking and the sun is bleeding pink and orange across the sky. Camelot is glowing, faintly, as if there is a brighter day yet to come.

It isn’t here yet. But Merlin knows it will be, soon.