London, England. February 17th, 1817
It was a beautifully crisp February's day when Dr. Merlin Emrys cheerfully bounded up the polished steps of Avalon House and knocked loudly. The London home of the Duke of Sussex and his family shone in the afternoon light, its windows glinting with the sun. But Merlin had seen it dozens of times before, and refused to be awed by Uther Pendragon's ostentatious wealth any more. Most of the time, anyway. After several long moments, the imposing front door was opened by a serious looking handsome man whose face immediately broke into a grin upon seeing the young doctor on the doorstep.
"Good morning Lance," Merlin chirped as the butler/secretary stood aside to allow him entry.
"Hullo Merlin," Arthur's right hand man smiled back. "How goes it in the hospital?"
"They're going well," Merlin answered happily. "Now that the war is over, we're not getting so many veterans with need for immediate surgical care. It's quietening down a bit, thank God. But there's always work to do. But at least we're doing something for them. How is your lady?" he grinned, changing the subject from his work in the Royal Hospital in Chelsea to something far more pleasant; namely Lance's fiancée, Guinevere Smith.
"My sweet Gwen is doing well. I saw her yesterday. She sends her regards." Merlin smiled at the smitten look on Lance's face at the mere thought of his lady love.
"You will give her my best, won't you?" Lance nodded as they headed down the hallway to towards the back of the house. "Excellent. Now, do you have any idea what this is all about?" he asked, pulling the missive that had been delivered to his residence he shared with his uncle and mentor, Gaius.
"His Lordship had a meeting with his father during the week. Or, to put it better, he was summoned by His Grace to the Camelot Estate on Monday and arrived back on Thursday. He's been quiet ever since."
"You mean he's been pouting ever since," Merlin laughed.
"I heard that you know," a strong, familiar voice floated out from the study they had finally reached. This place was a maze. "And I don't pout," Arthur clarified as they entered the comfortable and well used room. "I brood, I become pensive, I think. I do not pout"
"Whatever you want to tell yourself," Merlin grinned at him, and, as always, his breath caught in his throat at the sight of his friend. The former soldier was impeccably turned out as usual, his clothing tailored to fit his trim, athletic body like a glove and made of cloth as fine as could be found anywhere in the city. His breeches encased his muscular legs, moulding to his thighs and he had given in to comfort and taken off his dark blue coat, resting it over the back of the nearby chair. He stood, leaning against the mantle and highlighted by the fire in just his shirtsleeves, and Merlin's mouth went dry at the appealing sight he made.
"Of course, your Lordship," Lance bowed slightly, and Arthur's lips, the subject of too many of Merlin's private fantasies, curled up in amusement. He ran a hand through his ridiculously golden locks and Merlin had to literally drag his mind back to the topic at hand.
"I never understand how you can call him 'Your Lordship' Lance," Merlin commented as he made himself comfortable in his favourite armchair by the window. "You served with him during the war. You were his lieutenant and now, you're his butler, secretary, bodyguard... everything. You've seen him at his whiney, pratty worst."
"Lance knows his place, Merlin," Arthur said loftily, but his eyes held no hint of malice, only humour. "He knows how to address his Lord properly."
"Oh where's your sense of fun Arthur?" Merlin grinned back, setting back into the chair.
"Comfortable?" Arthur smirked at him.
"Extremely," Merlin replied, his eyes never leaving Arthurs.
Lance coughed and Merlin jerked his eyes way, cheeks colouring slightly.
"I'd better leave you to it," he said, heading for the door.
"Lance, wait," Arthur said, all trace of humour gone from his face. "You'd better stay for this too. I'm going to need your help with this and you two are pretty much the only two people I truly trust."
Both Lance and Merlin blushed faintly at the praise. Not the most demonstrative of men, he rarely gave out random compliments to his friends. For Arthur to say something like that, it was serious indeed.
"What is it Arthur?" Merlin asked quietly, sitting forward in his chair.
"I'm guessing this has something to do with what your father wanted to speak to you about," Lance said once he was seated. "And why you called Merlin here today?"
Arthur nodded and sighed. He turned from them and braced his arms against the mantle as he spoke.
"My father summoned me to Sussex on Monday. I managed to cancel my appointments and get down there by Tuesday, but of course, that wasn't fast enough and since he was already in a foul humour, I had to endure a day of silence before he deigned to speak to me again. It was almost like being a boy again," he murmured almost to himself. "Anyway, on Wednesday morning, he called me into his study for his usual review of my business dealings, my personal affairs and the standard lectures on duty and responsibility to the family. Finally though, he got to the point of his summons."
Arthur glanced quickly at Merlin before looking away again.
"He wants me to marry."
And the bottom dropped out of Merlin's entire world.
"Arthur, I've decided that it's high time you were married," his father told him, settling back into his chair. Arthur sat facing him, unable to move for shock. That statement had come out of nowhere He had always been told that his marriage would be a matter of business and duty, and that he would have little or no choice in his future wife, but he had thought he had time. "This can hardly come as a surprise to you," Uther continued.
"Father, I don't feel that right now..."
"Nonsense," Duke Uther Pendragon interrupted his only son and heir. "If I left it up to you, it would never be the right time. Why, by the time I was your age, I was married and had an heir."
You were also a widower with a son at my age too, Arthur added, silently of course. He may be a hero of the Napoleonic Wars, but he didn't have a deathwish. His mother had died in childbirth, and his father, despite the many years since the event, had never really gotten over Ygraine's death. He never spoke of her; it was obviously too painful. Arthur'd had to rely on sparse stories from his father's old friend Gaius Winters, and on the one portrait that Uther's had time to commission before her death. It hung in the gallery in Camelot House, their family's estate for generations, and Arthur remembers sitting cross-legged as a child, staring up at her beautiful face, cataloguing every nuance of her delicate features in search of those similar to the ones he saw in the mirror every day.
He would have given anything for even the vaguest of memories of her.
Still would, truth be told.
"I haven't met the right woman yet," he said finally, after the silence has stretched to an uncomfortable length. "I haven't met anyone special enough yet."
No woman's eyes were ever the right colour blue, or had the right laugh or the same kind nature or... Arthur had to stop. This was lay madness and pain and could never be. He had to accept that.
It was easier said than done, though.
"Arthur, if I left it up to you, the right woman would never come along," Uther reprimanded. "You have a duty to continue the Pendragon line. It was bad enough you went to war without an heir, but now, you're almost thirty."
"And I have many good years left in which to find a woman to love and to marry," Arthur replied.
"Arthur, please listen. Marry for duty. Marry for breeding and wealth and to continue the line. Find love elsewhere, in the arms of another, but do not love your wife. Hold affection for her, but do not love her. Childbirth is dangerous, and it is too painful..."
His father was silent and serious as Arthur stared across at the desk at him. Only once in his entire life had he ever heard the anguish in his father's voice as he had a moment ago and that had been when he'd been injured in Spain. As if sensing his hard-bitten exterior was crumbling before his son's eyes, Uther straightened up in the chair.
"I am not going to cajole you with threats of disinheritance or exile if you do not do as I say," he told him. "I am simply telling you this: the Season starts in a few weeks. I expect an engagement announcement to a woman of good breeding and family connections by the end of it. I trust you to do your duty son."
And really, what response could Arthur give to that, except a yes?
"Married?" Merlin echoed dully behind him and Arthur winced, his back still to his friends. He'd known this would be hard, and admittedly it was a shock to them all, but he hadn't been prepared for the barely disguises anguish in the doctor's tone.
"Yes, married." He finally schooled his expression into something more neutral, bored even, and turned around. Lance and Merlin were sitting there, staring at him. He supposed he couldn't blame them. Merlin was, well... Merlin. He knew Arthur's tastes didn't extend to those of the fairer sex, and also knew where Arthur's affections truly lay. Arthur thought he even reciprocated with feelings of his own, but he could never find out. The risk was too great.
And Lancelot? Well, he had an inkling. He'd been with Arthur for years, and knew him better than almost anyone. He'd be a fool not to notice, and Lancelot duLac was no fool.
"It was a surprise to me too," he continued, focusing on a spot on Merlin's ear, avoiding eye contact. "It did come out of nowhere. But, the more I think about it, the more I see his point of view. I do need an heir, someday. Why not now? It will be a marriage of convenience of course, my name and future title will ensure that many young women of consequence vie for my affections."
"Oh, naturally," Merlin grumbled.
"It's a fact of society Merlin, not pure arrogance," Arthur told him, irritation creeping into his voice. "Many women want to be Duchesses. And they will do anything to achieve it. And that's where I need your help."
"You want us to help you pick a wife?" Lance was highly sceptical if his raised eyebrows were any indication.
"In a way," Arthur admitted. "People let society and their peers see what they want them to. I don't want a sweet, kind girl I marry to turn out to be a vicious harpy once the wedding band is on her finger. Lancelot, if I am considering marrying a girl, I need you to talk to her people. See how she treats them. Use some of the charm that had women throwing themselves at you all over Spain."
"Okay," Lance sounded uncertain. "But if Gwen finds out, I'm telling her what I'm doing. I don't like it when she cries. Cos it's usually my fault and she finds ways to make me sorry."
Arthur laughed. He genuinely adored Gwen and loved the effect she had on his friend.
"And what do you need me to do?" Merlin's voice was quiet and subdued, holding none of his usual jubilant personality.
"I need you with me, Merlin," Arthur told him, aware he was asking a lot of the doctor. If their situations were reversed, he didn't know if he could do what he was about to ask him. "I need you to help me chose someone. I can't go to these places alone, the balls, the parties and Almacks." He shuddered. "I'd be eaten alive."
"That is true," Merlin mused. "The matchmaking mama's have a gossip chain and a spy network that Napoleon would have sold his soul for. As soon as the word gets out that you're looking, you'll never get a moments peace."
"Will you help me then? Please? You're a good friend but I know I'm asking a lot..."
Merlin stared at him hard for a long moment, his face inscrutable.
"Alright. I'll help you."
"You will?" Arthur couldn't hide his surprise.
"Of course Arthur. We're friends, aren't we?"
Arthur winced internally, but let nothing show in his face.
"My thanks to you."
Lance was looking between the two of them, a frown on his features.
"I just remembered, I have to go check up on one of my patients," Merlin said, suddenly standing and not meeting anyone's eyes.
"Merlin, wait..." Arthur began but Merlin was almost half out the door already.
"I'll talk to you later Arthur," he said as he hurried out. "See you again soon Lance."
And then he was gone.
Through sheer force of will and stubbornness, Merlin managed to make it most of the way home before he had to duck into a side street lest he collapse. He chest physically hurt, and he leaned against the wall, panting and fighting back tears.
Arthur was getting married.
The knowledge made his gut churn and he turned to the side, retching onto the damp ground. He was coughing up bile by the time he managed to straighten up.
Oh God, Arthur was getting married. Merlin always knew that it would happen one day; that he'd be forced to watch the man he loved in the arms of another, but he thought he had time. And the fact that Arthur asked him to help him find a wife, despite being aware on some level of Merlin's feelings was just cruel, but he couldn't bring himself to hate him for it. He could never hate Arthur, and it helped to know that Arthur didn't actually want to be wed. But, no matter who he ended up married to, everything would change.
And those ridiculous, improbably and idealistic dreams he had of Arthur throwing off the shackles of society and kissing him like he meant it would never happen now. Not that he ever thought it would, but marriage was so permanent.
Merlin pulled himself up to his full height and put his hat back on his head. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and walked out of the side street, his head held high.
Alright, so he was in love with his best friend. But, love aside, he was still his friend, and he needed him. Merlin could put aside his un-tenable emotions and do as he asked and help him.
There would be time enough to grieve later.
British Army Camp, Spain. 22nd February, 1813.
Arthur whole body was on fire. He radiated heat and the pain kept him pinned to the bed. The epicentre of the agony was his left shoulder, surgical stitches and scars thick and ugly against his skin. His fevered mind was aware of people moving around in his peripheral vision, of nurses mopping his bow and of surgeons puzzling over his condition.
The gunshot wound should have been healing.
Instead, an infection had spread, reducing him to this state. And they did not understand why. His father had him moved from their small camp to a larger, permanent facility with doctors and surgeons, and he'd had the surgery as soon as possible. But it may have been too late. The Duke sat with him as often as he could between meetings and his duties and Arthur was grateful for his presence, especially when surgeons started bandying around words such as 'amputation'.
His father's shout of outrage had drowned out his own weak sound of protest and horror. He could not imagine life without his arm, even though it was currently completely useless and ravaged by infection. His father's hand jerked Arthur's shoulder and he cried out as pain flared through his body again until blissful unconsciousness overtook him.
When Arthur became aware again, the hustle and bustle of raised voices had faded. It had dimmed to a quiet murmur in the background and there was someone sitting on the bed next to him. That person was muttering to himself about 'barbarians attempting to bleed him dry'. A hand covered with a cool cloth pressed against his brow, his cheek and Arthur pressed his face into the touch.
Arthur forced his gritty eyes open a crack. He found himself staring into the most beautiful pair of clear blue eyes he had ever seen. The eyes pulled away from their close examination of his own to reveal a pale face topped with a truly awful haircut and rather large ears.
To Arthur, he was the most perfect man he had ever seen.
But that may have been the fever talking.
"My name is Dr. Emrys," the pale faced man told him. "You're fever is getting worse. I'm going to need to operate again. Don't worry. I'm pretty good."Arthur just stared up at him, watching as his elegant hands ran over his brow, checking his temperature and took his pulse. "Now," Emrys continued, "let's see what's under these bandages, shall we? This will hurt," he warned before he sat Arthur up slightly to unwrap the bandages. His fingers poked and prodded the surgical site and Arthur clenched his teeth in agony. "Hmm, it's definitely a severe infection," he mused, sitting back down as Arthur panted for breath.
"Well, thank God you're here to state the bloody obvious," Arthur ground out.
"No need to be like that," Emrys chided. "Especially when I'll be the one opening you up again."
Arthur felt his face go pale.
"Don't take my arm," he gasped, suddenly aware that this man held his future in those graceful hands of his. He grabbed onto Emrys' sleeve with his good hand and half hauled himself up out of the bed. Emrys, obviously not expecting such a show of strength, fell forward onto the bed. He caught himself and braced his arms on either side of Arthur's hips and when he looked up, they were practically nose to nose. "Please, don't take my arm. I'd die first."
"I swear I will do what I can, but I can't guarantee anything," he said after a moment. He seemed slightly breathless at the close proximity to him, as was Arthur.
"Don't lie to me," Arthur warned.
"I promise never to lie to you," Emrys breathed.
The captain nodded, confident and trusting in this doctor, for reasons he didn't yet understand.
Later that day, Arthur had more surgery under the skilled hands of Dr. Emrys. He came out of the surgery intact and whole, but minus the three gold clothing fibres left in the wound by the original, bumbling surgeon.
Later still, during the night, Arthur's fever finally broke.
Two days after, Arthur was well enough to sit up in the camp bed in his tent and managed to keep down some gruel. He had just finished another bowl of the bland, unappetising stuff when a familiar dark head popped warily around the curtain. He looked harried, checking every corner of the tent before he entered.
"What on Earth are you doing?" he asked as the doctor scurried - scurried - into the tent.
"I'm avoiding your father," Emrys replied, sitting next to Arthur on the camp bed. "Sit up. I need to check the bandages."
"Why are you... OW! Careful! Why are you avoiding him?" Arthur asked, struggling into a sitting position. Emrys peeled back the layers of bandages and started poking at the wound, causing Arthur to grit his teeth to avoid yet another exclamation in pain.
"He keeps trying to reward me for saving your life," Emrys grumbled and Arthur huffed out an un-amused laugh.
"Well, you did save the son of a Duke."
"I didn't do it for glory or rewards," Emrys snapped, and Arthur got the strangest feeling he had just somehow insulted the doctor. When he was angry, the doctor's eyes lit with a fire that Arthur found very, very appealing and he shifted uncomfortably, bunching the blankets around his waist to avoid embarrassment. "I did it because I was there, and I could use my training to help you. Plus, I did it for Gaius. You father sent a scout ahead telling of his arrival you. He was bellowing for him before he even dismounted."
"My father has known Gaius for years," Arthur told him. "He trusts him completely. He's a wonderful physician."
"I know," Emrys smiled. "He's my uncle and the reason I got into medicine. But Gaius isn't here. He was sent into the mountains a few days ago to help treat a 'very important person that I can tell no one about'." He rolled his eyes at that one. "When I arrived at your bedside, there were some other surgeons there. The idiots were talking of bleeding you to help avoid bad humours. I got a bit, erm, angry at their proposed treatment, and told them so. The Duke heard me, and when he found out Gaius was my uncle and mentor, and that I was actually a good doctor... well, he ordered me to do the procedure and sent the rest of them running. It was kind of wonderful actually." Emrys had finished examining the wound and had wrapped it in fresh bandages.
"Well, no matter why you did it, my father owes you a debt. And you have a friend for life in me."
Arthur settled back on the bed as the doctor fussed over the bandages, smoothing them over with long, pale but remarkable capable hands. Arthur watched him as he ran his hands over them, briefly touching the skin of his chest with his warm fingers. He breath hitched and Emrys stood, blushing furiously and went to the flap of the tent.
"You're healing well," he told him, not meeting Arthur's eyes. "Keep doing what you're doing, rest. I'll get someone to come by and change your bandages daily. Don't stress the shoulder and if you do sit up, wear a sling on it."
"Wait!" Arthur burst out when it looked as if the doctor was going to disappear. "Look, what's your full name?"
"Merlin Thomas Emrys," Emrys... No, Merlin, smiled slightly.
"Well Merlin, thank you for saving my arm."
"You're welcome Arthur."
"I never said you could use my Christian name," Arthur reminded him, somehow more amused than irritated at the lack of respect.
"I know, but where's the fun in calling you 'Captain' or 'Lord' Pendragon all the time?" Merlin was grinning fully now, a stupidly happy smile that made Arthur's chest flutter a little. He hated himself for the reaction to a manic grin, but the smile softened, and Arthur's chest fluttered again and he knew he was lost.
"It's fun for me," he pointed out, relieved to hear his voice was steady and sure.
Merlin smiled again.
"I'll be back to check the bandages tomorrow," he said, and Arthur considered it a victory that he would be back to check them himself. "Get some rest."
The next moment, he was gone. Arthur lay back on the bed, and tried to sleep. But every time he closed his eyes, all he could see was a smile that warmed his heart.
Merlin frowned at himself in the mirror as he failed, for the fourth time, to finish trying his cravat correctly. Unfortunately, he'd never gotten so much practice. The Season had started with a bang just after Easter in March, and since then, Arthur had dragged him to any ball or party that he had to attend. It was both a pleasure and a torment for Merlin: he was spending more time with Arthur than he ever had, but it was in the knowledge that he was helping him find someone to share his life with, and that thought threatened to shatter him every time it crossed his mind, so he tended to shy away from the subject.
Merlin knew, of course, that he could also marry; find a young woman and make a life with her, have children and raise them with her. Though he was merely the son of country woman, widowed when Merlin was two and lucky enough to get the position of housekeeper to a country gentleman in a grand old house in the middle of Kent, Merlin was considered a catch. Not as great one, of course, as his impending fortune wasn't vast, but it was enough to garner him some attention in the drawing rooms and salons of the Ton. Merlin had been as surprised as anyone when Lord Hurt, his mother's employer, had died and left his entire estate to him. But in retrospect, it shouldn't have been such a shock. Ever since he'd been a boy, tearing around Ormir House, Lord Hurt had been amused by him. He had taken a shine to Merlin and, having no children of his own, had put him through school and then through his medical training so he could become a physician like his uncle Gaius, whom Merlin had idolised from a young age.
And while it was in no means a large fortune he was bequeathed, not even a fraction of Arthur's or Lady Morgana's, it was enough ensure him a place in the Ton, whether he wanted it or not. Both Arthur and Morgana had made it known that they considered him a particular friend, and often failed to appear at balls and parties that he had not been invited to. The fawning of the Ton over his friends had ensured him a place in even the most prestigious of drawing rooms, and had even been enough to get him some of the coveted vouchers to Almacks. In a world where people judge your worth by how far back you can trace your bloodline, they had been the ones to support him when he came into his inheritance and Merlin was very grateful.
Still didn't mean he liked attending parties such as this one, though. And he didn't like the way some of the mothers threw their daughters in his path. It was worse for Arthur, who was constantly bombarded with endless parades of pretty young things for him to dance with and entertain, but Arthur was born to this. He was a natural, having been trained from a young age in matters of etiquette and society, but Merlin always felt so awkward in social situations such as this, never knowing the right thing to say or do. He hated to live his life by rules and strictures of society, but he would hate it even more without Arthur. So Merlin endured. He attended parties, plastered a smile on his face and attempted to be charming, he danced with the daughters and laughed with their mothers, but his heart was not in it. Merlin knew he would never marry; his heart had been stolen long ago by a grumpy, injured Captain, and Merlin had no hope of ever getting it back.
Finally getting the cravat into some semblance of style, Merlin stood back and viewed himself into he full length mirror. It was perhaps time, he reflected, to hire a valet. If he kept having to attend functions such as the party at Almacks tonight, he would need all the help he could get. His clothes were well fitted, accentuating his lean body and making him seem even taller than he already was. It was uncomfortable and his collar irritated him, but he forced himself not to fiddle with it as he made his way downstairs to grab is cloak and order a taxi cab to take him to Arthur's.
The party at Almacks was in full swing by the time Merlin and Arthur arrived. Though the future Duke was 'not a woman and therefore did not strive to arrive fashionably late', Merlin knew he enjoyed turning heads when he arrived. He had an inner core of self assurance and knowledge of self worth that Merlin couldn't help but admire, and, of course, the rest of the Ton seemed to echo that self image. It came across at pure arrogance at times, though spending so much of their time together showed Merlin the good, decent man beneath the outer mask.
As they entered the ballroom the crush of people seemingly parted around Arthur as if he were a prophet, much to Merlin's amusement. He had to smother his laughter again when he saw Arthur literally square his shoulders as if he were going into battle. And in Arthur's mind, he supposed he was. Though he was well trained in society, having impeccable manners and being fully aware of his position in society, Merlin knew Arthur was more at home on the battlefield or planning a campaign than sipping tea in a lady's parlour. He was a soldier through and through. He glanced around the packed room, valiantly trying to ignore the many heads turning their way. Merlin could see mothers poking their daughters to stand up straight and simper in Arthur's direction, as if a straight spine and a lack of personality would entice him. But, he had to marry, and he at least wanted to be able to stand his bride long enough to beget and heir. Possibly a spare also.
They greeted the Lady Morgana when they managed to reach her through the press of people. She was, as usual, surrounded by her bevy of admirers, but for some reason, tonight she looked incredibly bored. Merlin frowned in concern. She usually hid her irritation and distaste of the situation a lot better than she did now. Morgana smiled wanly when she saw them. As a physician, Merlin was worried. She was pale and tired, and had dark circles under her eyes as if she had not slept well in a long, long time.
Though she had always been pale and delicate, in the two or so years since her marriage to Lord Edwin Muirden, and his subsequent death just over seven months later, she had gone from delicate to gaunt, from ivory white to deathly pale. It had been over a year since Lord Muirden's bed curtains had caught alight in the middle of the night and killed him in his sleep, and the Lady Muirden had only just come out of her period of mourning. Even though it had been a long time, she still looked as if she had barely got any sleep, and what sleep she did get appeared to be anything but restful. Merlin had only known her for a short time before her marriage, for when the Peninsular Campaign finished, and Arthur had kind of adopted him and dragged him into society with him, kicking and screaming, but she had been kind to him. She had made it known that he was her particular friend, and it had eased his way in ways that Merlin couldn't even imagine. But above all, he liked her. She was smart and witty and beautiful, but her marriage had changed her. Her widow-hood had changed her even more: her behaviour becoming erratic of late, her composure slipping more and more, and sometimes, there was a wildness in her eyes that sent a chill through Merlin.
Despite his new place in society, Merlin was a physician at heart, and so, when he looked at Morgana, and compared her in his mind to the woman he had met three years before, he became very concerned. The Ton whispered about her behind her back, cruel rumours and taunts about her late husband proclivities, and even Morgana herself, implying she had a hand in the fire that killed him. That she had found him in bed with a mistress, and had killed them both. Merlin had to admit, he would have trouble sleeping and feel hunted and trapped if people were constantly speaking the like of him where they thought he couldn't hear. But Morgana's fortune, her beauty, even now, and, if Merlin were honest, the hint of the scandal that followed her, ensured that men flocked to her wherever she went, to the eternal disappointment of their Mama's.
Arthur simply strode through the crowd of admirers, which again, parted for him easily. He smiled at Morgana and sent a glare at her would-be suitors, which never failed to send them running. Soon, the three of them were alone, or as alone as they could be in the packed out assembly rooms. Arthur smiled warmly at her, and kissed her hand for he knew it always amused Morgana to see him try and act the gentleman. Arthur looked down at her, frowning slightly.
"Good God Morgana, you look like death warmed up," he, tactfully, said. Merlin rolled his eyes at his friend, but a genuine smile lit Morgana's features as she threw back an insult of her own. Merlin left them to it, knowing from experience that they would be a while. Friends since they were young because of the closeness of their fathers, Arthur had always held a soft spot for her, and had tried to shield her from the worst of society, especially since the death of her husband. Despite the fact that they bickered and fought constantly, they were as friendly as a man and a woman could be in society without causing tongues to wag. If Arthur had noticed a change in her in the past few years, he'd never said so to Merlin, but Arthur was not stupid. And he had known her far longer. Merlin made a mental note to speak to him later about it.
They parted ways after a little while, Morgana being claimed for some of the dances, and Arthur off to claim others for the same. Merlin danced once or twice with some of the less prestigious debutants, but never with the same woman twice. Despite his inheritance, Merlin had no intention of ever marrying himself, and he had heard how the matchmaking mama's worked, and saw them in full force with Arthur, and had no desire to be trapped by someone desperate to make use of his friendship with Arthur or Morgana. He conversed with several of his acquaintances, and drifted along the outskirts of the crowded ballroom, trying to look like he was enjoying himself. After every dance, Arthur found him and each time, his mood became darker and darker.
"I feel like I'm being hunted," he breathed in Merlin's ear after one particularly determined mother paraded her daughter in his line of sight once more. Merlin shivered at the sensation and coughed, looking towards the girl and not at Arthur. He knew if he did, he'd do something monumentally stupid like grab him and kiss him in the middle of Almacks. Arthur sighed beside him, and made his way forward, speaking to the girl and her mother for several minutes before adding his name to her dance card.
Merlin watched as Arthur led her onto the dance floor a little while later. It was a waltz, still new and slightly scandalous, and the girl, Amanda Whitbourn, blushed bright red beneath her chestnut curls when Arthur put his hand on her waist. She was pretty, but nothing outstanding, but as they danced, she actually answered Arthur when he spoke to her, and somehow didn't collapse into a puddle of warmth when he smiled at her, as Merlin would have done. So all in all, she was leagues ahead of many of the other debutantes Arthur had met over the course of the season.
Suddenly, the resounding 'slap' of hand meeting cheek sounded in the air, louder than the music and Merlin winced in sympathy even as he turned to see the source of his commotion. Somehow, he was not hugely surprised to see it originated with Morgana, though he had hoped for her sake he was wrong. She was standing in the centre of the ballroom, in front of Lord Aufric Sidden, who was currently holding his reddening cheek in pain as he looked at her, shocked. She stood in front of him, eyes blazing and cheeks flushed in anger, hissing furious words at him at a volume to low to be heard by anyone but the man in front of her. Merlin could guess what had happened, that Sidden's hand's had strayed or had voiced a suggestion too insulting, but he was still surprised at Morgana's lack of composure, especially in public. The crowd parted for her as she finished un-manning him with her words, turned on her heel and stalked away. Arthur appeared at his side after delivering Miss. Whitbourn back to her mother, and had witnessed most of the scene. Sidden slunk out of the ballroom, and Arthur looked at him in anger.
"I need to have a word with Lord Sidden," he said, venom dripping from every word. "Can you please go see to Morgana?" Merlin nodded and the pair moved off. But Morgana moved quickly, and by the time he managed to get through the press of excitedly chattering people, through the hallways and to the fancy entrance doors, she was long gone.
The next morning, Arthur found himself waiting impatiently in Morgana's elegant parlour for her to appear. Merlin had failed completely to find her after the fiasco of the night before, and he'd considered leaving after he finished threatening Sidden to check up on her, but he'd had his own obligations to fulfil, his own duties to perform. So he'd had to wait until the morning, which was why he found himself sitting on comfortable chairs in the parlour that had changed much since Muirden's death. She had put her own stamp on the place, brightening them and putting money into them so the house and its contents were no longer as shabby and run down as they had been. It was no secret that Muirden had married her for her money, though he didn't get to spend much of it before his untimely death.
Would that he had died sooner.
When Morgana finally appeared in the doorway, she looked elegant as always, but something in her gaze caused him to frown in concern, even as he stood to greet her.
"Arthur, what are you doing here so early?" she asked after one of her maids had placed the tea set down on the low table between where they were seated on their respective low couches.
"You can't seriously be asking me this," he said incredulously. "I came to see how you are. I've been worried about you Morgana. Especially since last night. You've not been yourself the past few months."
"I was recently widowed, Arthur," she reminded him, voice betraying no emotion. "Of course I've not been myself. I'm in mourning for my dear departed husband." Her mouth twisted in bitterness.
"Almost believable," Arthur commented. "Except for the fact that I know you hated your husband, and he you. Those few months you were married to him, you were like a shadow of yourself. But since his death, instead of returning to how you were, you've changed even more. And with your outburst last night..."
"Aulfric Sidden is a letch," Morgana said coldly. "He was making highly inappropriate comments and suggestions throughout the dance. He deserved more than a slap in the face."
"I happen to agree with you on that respect, and trust me, if he wants to keep his whole self intact, he will make no such suggestions again, to any woman," Arthur told her, a cold glint in his eyes. "But Morgana, you've been at out in society for years. You have dealt with far worse than the likes of Sidden without batting an eyelid. It's not like you to lose control like that. There's something else going on."
"Maybe I'm sick of it all," Morgana's eyes flared in anger. "Maybe I'm tired of pretending to be someone I'm not all the time. You do not understand what it's like, Arthur. I have to hide so much of myself to be accepted."
"You'd be surprised," Arthur murmured, expression impassive as Morgana turned on him in anger.
"I'm just so tired of having to answer to society every second of every day. I just want to be free!"
As she spoke, she stood and was standing looking down at Arthur, expression wild and the spark of passion was in her eyes. Arthur sat back and regarded her.
"You are a widow Morgana," he observed. "You can do as you please. If you wished, you could retire to your country estates and never set foot in London again. You could live there, content and never have to face society."
"As attractive as that prospect is, especially in light of the backlash no doubt heading my way after last night, I wish it was that simple." She sat back down again, and began toying with her teacup. "I want children, Arthur," she sighed at his bemused look. "I want to have children before it's too late, and for that, I need to marry. I will not have them out of wedlock. I wouldn't do that to them. But the thought of marrying again... Of putting myself so completely and entirely into someone else's hands... Someone who could turn out like Edwin again." She shuddered, and Arthur winced internally. He did not know the full details of her marriage, but he knew enough of Muirden to know he would not have been gentle. Aside from his cruelty, one of Morgana's main problems with her husband had been his proclivities for the same sex and it disgusted her so much, Arthur could never even begin to tell her... She would never understand.
But since he would never endanger Merlin enough to act on his feelings, no matter how strongly he felt... this could possibly work. Morgana wanted children. She wanted security and a family, but she didn't trust any man enough without knowing is true character. He needed to marry, and so far, the only women he had met were either grasping, greedy wenches or painfully shy debutantes who turned red if he so much as looks their way. Morgana was none of those things. Wealthy in her own right, money would not be a bone of contention between them. And she was brave, and beautiful and capable and possibly... Possibly.
"Maybe the answer is to marry someone you trust," Arthur said slowly, warming to the idea half formed in his mind. "Someone who knows you and respects you and your talents. Someone who won't try and crush you under his heel and try to force you to be something you're not."
"And where, pray tell, would I find such a man in London society?" she scoffed. "All gentlemen of Quality want meek, demure little misses, not widows who cause scandals by slapping members of the peerage when they get too handsy."
"You'd be surprised," Arthur said, his words heavy with meaning. Morgana jerked her head up at his tone, and startled at the look in his eyes.
"Do you mean what I think you mean?" she asked warily.
"Think about it," he told her, rising to leave. "It could be good for both of us. It would give you the freedom you want, and the children you deserve, and my father would be pleased. I won't press you for an answer right now. Take a few days, or a few weeks if you like. Think it over. You have the power here. Father has decreed I am to marry, and I would much rather it be you than one of those meek, demure little misses' that you were so scathing of earlier."
He bent and kissed her cheek and, for the first time in the 25 years of their acquaintance, Arthur left her staring speechless after him.
"Morgana?" Merlin spluttered, almost dropping his brandy onto Arthur's expensive Oriental rug as they sat in his library. "You proposed marriage to Morgana?"
"Yes Merlin," Arthur replied, irritated. "Morgana."
"And she didn't try to smack you on the back of the head for the mere suggestion?" Because really, of all the people Arthur could have spoken of marriage to, Morgana hadn't even been on the list last time Merlin checked. And there was a reason for that. They would kill each other within two weeks!
"Surprisingly, no" Arthur's lips twitched in amusement.
"Are you sure about this?" Merlin hedged. "I mean, your father said you had to marry, but I'm not sure a widow..."
"My father wants me to marry for family lineage and for wealth, both of which Morgana has. This way, at least I know she wouldn't burst into tears if I said an unkind word to her in temper."
"More likely she'd challenge you to a duel," Merlin smiled faintly. "You are one crazy bastard."
"Morgana is not in love with me, and I'm not in love with her. But she wants children and would be a good mother. I need to marry, and I respect her fire and her spirit. We could do very well together."
Merlin sat in silence, for once thinking before he spoke. This was a delicate conversation to be having, especially after two brandy's had already loosened his tongue.
"Merlin?" Arthur queried his silence. "Come on. For some reason, God help me, I value your opinion on these sort of matters. Spit it out."
Merlin was very reluctant to answer, but he had promised Arthur he would never lie to him, and never had so far, so...
"Just... are you sure about Morgana?" he asked slowly. "She hasn't been the same since her husband died. Or since she married him, for that matter. And I only knew her a short time before she was wed. You remember when she was born. You've known her all her life. Surely you have seen the change since she was widowed."
Arthur's jaw clenched in anger.
"Would that the fool had set fire to his bed curtains sooner," he ground out. "Did I tell you I saw bruises on her arm one day, just a few weeks after their wedding? I nearly called him out there and then, but Morgana begged me not to. She told me that she could take care of herself, that she was alright. I shouldn't have listened to her, but he was her husband. He could do what he like with her," he spat out. "I was worried every day until he died," he admitted. "So, of course she's changed. She's gone through too much to be the same person she was before."
"There were strange circumstances around his death, weren't there?" Merlin asked without thinking and winced, wanting to smack himself on the head. He hated gossip as much as Arthur, and here he was, chattering away like a fishwife. But the alcohol and the company had loosened Arthur's tongue also, and he replied, to Merlin's eternal surprise.
"He wasn't alone when he died," he told Merlin conspiratorially, glancing around to ensure there was no one else around. When he saw they were indeed on their own, he leaned forward and continued. "When they managed to put out the fire, they found another body beside him. Apparently, Muirden was entertaining a young man when the candle set the curtain alight. Only the clout of the combined Muirden, Le Fay and Pendragon names kept it from getting out and causing the scandal."
Merlin winced and put the brandy down. He was well aware of how crippling and destroying such a rumour could be to a family, thank you very much. He thought about it every day. He studied Arthur beneath his lashes, took in the sight of him sprawled out in a comfortable armchair, loose limbed and relaxed, and close enough to touch. But he never, ever could. Arthur also seemed lost in thought, and Merlin knew he was thinking along the same lines.
"How did your family get involved?" he asked eventually, trying to get the dejected look off his friend's face.
"My father and Morgana's had been friends for decades. They met in the army in their youth and remained close until General le Fay's death at the beginning of the campaign in Spain. My father wanted to take Morgana as his ward when that happened. She was Gorlois' only child, and he spoiled her rotten, which is why she wasn't married despite the fact she was in her early twenties at the time. He encouraged her spirit and her fire, and my father admired that. Except when it was directed at him, of course," Arthur laughed slightly and Merlin smiled in return. "But after the funeral, her uncle appeared out of the woodwork and insisted on the duty of taking her as his ward, citing bloodlines. And, as usual, the family connection won out. He just wanted control of her fortune. After the period of mourning, she was just coming to be herself again. That was when you met her for the first time, remember? We were home from the war, and you were getting used to your new status as a man of wealth."
"I remember," Merlin said softly. "She was kind to me. I considered her a friend right from the start, on her insistence."
"Her uncle married her off to Muirden just before Waterloo. The Muidren's were practically destitute. Lord knows what Edwin had on Morgana's uncle to get him to agree to the match, but she was forced to marry him."
"I remember you getting her letter a few days after the battle."
It was one of the only clear memories Merlin had of that time. He spent so many days up to his elbows in bodies and limbs, and the haze of grief made his memory sketchy. The only things he remembered clearly were holding Will's hand as he died in agony in one of the farmhouses they had taken over as a makeshift hospital, of Arthur pulling him away and making excuses for him to others as he cried into Will's shoulder and refused to let go, how he stood guard as Merlin vomited up the meagre contents of his stomach at the back of the building, and the day that the post finally reached them and Arthur got Morgana's letter. He raged and shouted in anger, but by the time the letter had reached them, the deed had been done and Morgana was a married woman.
"If I had been there, I would have prevented it," Arthur said, conviction in his voice. "I knew of his character, I knew he would not have treated her well."
"How Arthur?" Merlin asked. "You had no power over her. You couldn't have stopped it."
"I would have married her myself if I thought it would help. Merlin, you don't understand. I've known Morgana since she was born. I remember teacher her to fight when we were children, and how to ride properly, none of this side saddle nonsense. I've been there her whole life, and I wasn't there when she needed me the most. I couldn't stop it. She went from being doted upon and indulged to being the wife of a cruel man who abused his position of trust abominably. She was mortified and enraged after the fire was put out and they discovered the second body. The least I could do was help her keep it secret."
"I knew she has been through a lot, and I hadn't realised just how bad it was for her. But surely you have noticed just how much she has changed since his death. She's been jumping at shadows, looks like she barely sleeps at all. And several times I've come across her staring off into space, with her head tilted to the side as if she was listening to someone speak. You cannot tell me you haven't noticed this."
"She's been through a lot, but she's strong. She'll be fine."
"You sound as if you're trying to convince yourself, Arthur."
"Shut up Merlin," Arthur snapped. "Like you said, you don't know her as well as I do."
"I just don't want you to end up unhappy," Merlin rose unsteadily to his feet. "Tell me you'll think this through some more."
"Can't you just respect my decision and try to be happy for me?" Arthur shouted, also rising to his feet so he was staring Merlin square in the eye.
"I'm never going to be happy to see you married!"Merlin shouted and they both froze, staring at each other. Merlin was the first to break eye contact, cheeks flaring with colour. "You know I'm not Arthur," he gulped. "But I do want you see you marry someone who will make you happy. Someone who you can imagine having children with."
"I think we'll be able to tolerate each other," Arthur said quietly. "It's not as if we have to spend all our time together. We can have our own lives. She's already said she wants children but would prefer to spend her time in the country. If we had children..."
This time Arthur was the one to look away.
"If you're sure," Merlin said.
"I'm getting there."
Arthur stayed away from Morgana for three full days after his proposal. He knew his suggestion had come out of nowhere, and was a complete shock for her. She deserved the time to think it over and decide what she wanted before giving her answer. Though he hadn't given it much thought before he asked, Arthur found himself warming to the idea of marriage to her. They weren't as close as they had been as children, when social and gender roles meant little and they could play Knights in the Castle to their hearts content, but Arthur still had affection for her. They grew apart as adults as Arthur was given more and more freedoms and responsibilities and Morgana found herself under more and more restrictions. Even with an indulgent and liberal father like Lord Gorlois, Morgana was still bound by the rules and strictures of society and Arthur had, more than once, felt that she resented him for his sex and his birth right. Marrying her, giving her as much freedom as he could, would be a way of helping her. And of assuaging his guilt, completely unfounded guilt, of course.
The next time he saw her was at Lady Millan's annual ball. Merlin had been called out to tend to a man injured when his horse threw him, so Arthur had been forced to attend on his own. He refused to admit to anyone that he was intimidated by the pushy, forceful mothers and matrons that frequented such events, but he went anyway in the hopes of seeing Morgana. For the first two hours, he only caught bare glimpses of her as he or she dance with other partners, and he did his duty and danced with some daughters of the peerage, resisting the urge to go hide in the game rooms. Halfway through the night, he finally caught sight of her standing amidst a group of women too vapid for Morgana to consider them real friends.
She looked pained.
He approached her, aware of the gaggle falling silent on his approach.
"Morgana," he acknowledged. "I don't suppose there's any room left on that dance card of yours?"
"I may, possibly, have saved some dances in case you deigned to show up," she told him, showing him her card.
"I see that the next dance is free, and that it's a waltz. Shall we?" He offered her his arm, and she slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow after a moment. The pair walked out onto the dance floor as the previous dance ended, ignoring the flurry of whispers that erupted in their wake, and took their positions. The waltz was still considered new and somewhat racy in the eyes of the Ton, and he was conscious of even more whispers spreading through the room as he took her slight form in his arms. They were considered friends, but they never danced together. This was a cause for gossip, and both he and Morgana were well aware of it. That fact gave him hope. If she was dead set against him, she would have refused.
"So, have you thought some more on my offer?" he asked when the music started.
"No, what offer is that? I've been too busy worrying about my needlework to think about any drastically life-altering decisions," she snapped, rolling her eyes. "Of course I gave it some thought. I've don't nothing but think about your proposal for the past three days."
Arthur smirked at her response.
"And?" he prodded,
Morgana bit her lip in an uncharacteristic display of nerves.
"I don't know Arthur," she said. "It's been years since we spent any significant amount of time together. Do we really want to bind ourselves to each other for the rest of our lives?"
"We wouldn't have to spend every second of every day together Morgana," he reminded her. "We could lead separate lives. You could do what you wanted, retire to the country with the children, if the fancy struck, and never grace society again, if you so wished. I wouldn't push you. Me giving you your freedom was part of the appeal, remember? And likewise, you wouldn't pout and whine and try to force me to dance attendance on you twenty four hours a day. It works in both our favours."
"I know." She looked awfully tempted.
"Look, you don't have to answer right now," he said, twirling her around in a needlessly showy manner. "I think I shall court you: give you proper time to decide."
"You're going to court me?" she laughed. "Are you sure you're up to the challenge?"
"I'm a veteran of the war against Napoleon. Very little scares me."
"Aside from the matchmaking mama's," she teased, and Arthur didn't even try to deny it.
"The point is, Morgana, I am quite capable of courting a woman without making an utter fool of myself," he said confidently.
"Alright," she agreed, coming to a halt as the music ended. "Let's see what you're made of. Court me, and we'll take it from there.
So, Arthur took her at her word.
He danced with her twice more that night, causing even more tongues to wag at the number which society considered excessive, even though Morgana was no blushing debutant. The Ton seemed particularly interested in their going's-on over the next few weeks, which irritated them both, but they knew it was bound to happen considering their respective status'.
Arthur took her for drives in his curricle through London and Hyde Park in particular, they dined together often, he paid as much attention to her at parties and balls as his pride, and his awareness of Merlin, would allow. He bought her gifts and called on her almost every day.
Towards the end of the Season, they were engaged in everything but name.
"Morgana le Fay?"
His father stared him down from across his desk as he repeated what Arthur had told him. Arthur had arrived at Camelot only a few short hours before, aware that his father would wish to know of the developments in Arthur's affairs. His father sat behind his imposing desk as usual, and the faint air of disappointment never left eyes. It never did when it came to Arthur, no matter what he accomplished. Now, he was seated with his elbows resting on the arms of his chair, his fingers steepled in front his face as he stared Arthur down.
"Lady Morgana Muirden," Arthur corrected, strangely at ease for once. He was confident in his decision, and aware that no matter whom he had chosen, his father would have found fault. He was slowly coming to realise that his father would pick, not matter what he did. It was his nature. "And yes, we've come to an arrangement. We'll make the announcement in a few weeks, and will marry by the end of the year."
"When I said you were to marry, I meant you were to marry a debutante of good name, not a widow with a faintly scandalous reputation. Lord Bayard's daughter has been presented to society this year, I believe. It would be a good match and go far to heal the rift between our two families."
"Clara Bayard is a lovely girl father," Arthur agreed, "She's very pretty and seems sweet. But she is also barely seventeen. She gets so nervous around me, she almost faints. My ego is not that big, and besides, it drives me crazy. Morgana is of good family and has copious personal wealth so I know she's not a gold digger like some of the women this Season. And most of all, I can stand her. We fight often, but there is affection underneath it all. And, above all, we owe it to her father. We should have helped her when her Lord Gorlois died, but we didn't. The result was an unhappy and awful marriage to an evil man. I'm doing this."
Arthur could see his father had been swayed by the mention of his old friend, and of his un-fulfilled promise to look after his daughter. Arthur held his breath as his father studied him carefully.
"Very well then," he said eventually. Arthur let out the rush of air in a whoosh and almost sagged in relief. "I give you my consent."
Lady Amelia Wentworth really knew how to throw a spectacular party. She rarely did, only once every two or so years due to her health, but when they rolled around, invitations to attend were the most sought after invitations of the season. A great friend of Sally Jersey, one of the patrons of Almacks, Amelia Wentworth was not often in residence in London due to her husband's health. They mostly lived in the South of France, the sun helping Lord Dominic but they returned to London every few months. This time, their return had coincided with the Season, and Amelia had been determined to throw the ball of the year.
Arthur had, of course, been invited. Merlin had been also, and Arthur knew that word had gotten to Amelia that he would not attend if Merlin wasn't invited also. And since he was the biggest catch of the season... This kind of power was intoxicating as well as amusing. They had already eaten, and the band had begun to play again as Arthur watched from the sidelines, Merlin at his side. Wentworth House was a beautiful old building with extensive gardens for Central London, and Arthur had to admit, he wasn't having a terrible time at this particular ball. Much of that, Arthur knew, was down to Morgana. Since they had come to their agreement, the parade of debutants thrown at him had lessened considerably, and he could start to enjoy himself at parties again.
He should have known it was too good to last.
"Well Pendragon, I hear tentative congratulations are in order," a familiar voice said from behind Arthur and he spun around in shock.
The man in front of him was lightly tanned with dark hair and blue eyes, like Merlin's but that's where the similarities ended. Where Merlin was lean to the point of skinny, the man in front of him stood a shade taller than him with a deep, muscular chest and powerful arms. His dark hair flowed freely down to his shoulders, unbound by a tie, and a hint of a moustache adorned his lip. Where Merlin's smile was wide and happy, this man's lips were curled up into a cruel and calculating smirk. The man was also the very last person Arthur expected to see in society, especially somewhere like Lady Wentworth's ball. An assessing gaze swept Arthur, and the smirk appeared again. "Your shoulder seems to have healed nicely," he observed.
"Sortiar," Arthur snarled, stepping into the other man's personal space. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Why, I was invited, same as you were," Mordred Sortiar mocked. "Just because you do not like me, doesn't mean I don't have a good standing in the Ton. These people have short memories when it comes to family lines and wealth. And watch your language. There are ladies present." He looked past Arthur's shoulder and right at Merlin and smirked when he said it. Arthur felt Merlin bristle with indignation beside him.
"Come now Pendragon, is that any way to treat an old friend?"
"We were never friends."
"Old colleagues then. Comrades in arms."
"I remember that being in question also," Arthur pointed out, and Mordred's eyes narrowed.
"I came over here to offer my congratulations on your impending nuptials, and all I get are unfounded rumours thrown back in my face? And here I thought you were supposed to be a gentleman, Pendragon."
"What do you know of my affairs?" Arthur asked, warily.
"Only what I hear in White's and in the drawing rooms of society, I assure you. I am newly returned from a stay on the continent but news of this was one of the first things to reach my ears. Don't you know you're the talk of the Ton? The most eligible bachelor of the season finding his lady love. It's quite poetic, really. And I must say you have chosen your bride well. Morgana is quite beautiful."
"That is Lady Muirden to you, not that you will ever have the opportunity to speak to her."
"Well, if you don't want me to speak to her, I'll have to find some other way to occupy myself during out waltz," Mordred said innocently, and Arthur's hands curled into fists. "Now, now," Mordred took a step back when he noted Arthur's reaction. "We don't want to cause a scene, do we? We don't want Father Dearest upset."
"This has nothing to do with my father, and everything to do with you and me."
"And Lady Muirden. You cannot cross my name from her dance card without causing a horrific scandal. Think of how embarrassing it would be for her. She would be very angry with you, if she even did what you asked."
He was right, Damnit. Morgana's obstinacy was legendary amongst the ton and those who knew of her. She was so headstrong, she would probably dance all her dances with Sortiar just to prove her point to Arthur.
"If you lay one improper finger on her..." he let the threat hang.
"I promise I won't do anything she doesn't want me to do," Sortiar smirked before turning and melting back into the crowd.
Arthur stood stock still for a few moments, his rage building inside him. He needed to hit something. Hard.
"Arthur... Arthur!" A soft hand landing on his shoulder broke his reverie and he spun around, anger writ in every line of his body. Merlin backed away, arms raised as if in surrender. Arthur spun on his heel and made his way through the crowd, out the double doors, down the steps and into the garden. He only stopped when the lights and sounds from the party had faded to a dull noise in the background. He ducked off the path, into a copse of trees and, selecting one at random, proceeded to punch his frustration out.
Morgana stood in the centre of the group of her society 'friends' who were discussing the latest fashions from Paris, and resisted the urge to start beating their heads together. Granted, she liked clothes and fashion as much as the next noblewoman, meaning a lot, but they'd been at it for a whole two hours now, interspersed with gossiping about the most available Lords looking for brides this season. Morgana had left the group several times to dance with the men on her dance card, but on her return, they were always still on the topic of lace. They'd spent half an hour discussing sleeve length, for the love of God.
Morgana was bored. She was bored of society, of the insipid females that packed the parlours and the ball rooms. She was bored of the whispers behind her back when they thought she couldn't hear, she was bored of the constant need to keep her head up and keep her neutral mask on. It was why she was seriously considering Arthur's offer. She wasn't in love with him and not he with her, but he knew her and she would be given her freedom. If she wished, she could retire to the country with their children and never have to grace society again.
The idea was appealing, especially when she considered the women around her who had now moved on to neck-lines.
Just as she was about to give in and start knocking some sense into these nitwits, a low cough at her elbow drew her attention. The other women petered off into silence as she turned and all but fell into a deep blue gaze. The man before her had hair as dark as midnight and blue eyes that seemed to draw her into their depths. He stood tall and strong, muscles obvious beneath his impeccably tailored clothing and he held himself with the poise of a warrior. He took her hand and bowed low, and Morgana gasped as soon as his lips touched the back of her hand. His eyes snapped up to meet hers and she knew, she knew, he had felt the same shock she had.
"Lady Muirden," he began, his voice whispery and soft, low as he pitched it to her alone. "In the clamour to stake a place on your dance card, I never really got the chance to introduce myself. Allow me to correct my error. I am Mordred Sortiar, eldest son of Baron Cerdan Sortiar. And may I say, my Lady, that reports of your beauty did not do you justice in the slightest."
Normally, Morgana would have scoffed in the face of any man saying such a thing to her, but with this man... Her hand tingled from where he had held it and kissed it; his fingers were warm beneath her own. She looked down at their joined hands and then up into his eyes, which looked almost as shocked as she felt.
"The pleasure is mine, Lord Sortiar," she managed eventually. He held out and arm for her and she slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow.
"Shall we?" he asked with a smile on his lips and a raise of his eyebrow.
"Lead on, good sir," she insisted and practically glided next to him as they took their positions on the dance floor. It was a waltz, and when he took her in his arms, though they kept the necessary distance, she felt like she was coming home.
Arthur slammed his fist into the trunk once, ignoring the pain shooting up his arm. Twice. Three times. His forth punch was halted by someone grabbing his arm at the elbow and Arthur reacted on instinct. He spun, grabbed his attacker and, continuing the momentum, slammed him into the tree trunk and pinned him there with his body.
It was Merlin.
He should have known.
He wasn't surprised that his friend had followed him. He pressed against him unconsciously, feeling the thin body flush and warm against his own. Their breaths mingled and all fight went out of them both as Arthur's eyes locked on Merlin's. He slowly pulled away, stepping back before forcefully wrenching his eyes away from Merlin's. He coughed and Merlin straightened himself up.
"I apologise, Merlin," he said.
"Forgiven," Merlin said instantly, waving away more apologies. "Are you alright though? You look mad enough to kill. What was that all about? Who was that?"
"It's just.... Sortiar," Arthur said haltingly. "We have what one would call a history."
"Yes, I gathered that," Merlin smiled, but his eyes narrowed as he took in Arthur's unconscious rubbing of his healed shoulder wound. "Wait... you don't mean... Sortiar?"
"I'm certain of it. I saw him there as I lay bleeding. I saw his tattoo. It's fairly distinctive."
"Why isn't he in prison then? Or why is he even alive?" Merlin exclaimed. "Why did your father let him live and not have him executed for treason?"
"Because there was no proof it was him other than the testimony of a man half dead and in pain," Arthur told him. "I was not a reliable witness. No one else even saw the second man, but there was no way Tauren would have gotten as far as he had without some help from one of our own men. I know it was him, but I have no proof. As it was, because of his family and connections, all my father could do was have him discharged him from the army. He's hated my family ever since. The Sortiar line is as old as the Pendragon one, but where we prospered through business deals and investments, they beggared themselves on whores, wine and gambling. But they still have their name. When their eldest son was discharged under a cloud and with rumours of treason..."
"He's going to be looking for a way to redeem himself," Merlin guessed and Arthur nodded.
"And get back at me if he can. He's probably hoping enough time has passed since his discharge that people will overlook his background in order to ally themselves with the Sortiar name. I'm guessing his going to go for marriage, rather than commerce for redemption. He was always too easily distracted by a flash of stocking to take a valid interest in business."
"It's a good thing that Morgana will hopefully soon be safe from him," Merlin said quietly, not meeting Arthur's eyes. Arthur coughed and looked away.
"Good thing," he replied. "Listen, Merlin..."
"We should get back inside before someone comes looking for you," Merlin cut him off as he turned back to the house. "Don't want the rumours to start. They already think it's strange that you spend so much of your time with me. You attachment to a simple physician is quite unusual, you know."
"Keep up Arthur," the doctor chirped cheerfully as he disappeared around the corner.
Mordred bowed to Morgana once again and kisser her hand. He made his way through the throng out onto a secluded section of the balcony before his knees all but gave out and he collapsed back against the wall. His hands shook from the fire that had raced through him where they had touched and his lips tingled from where they had kissed her skin. Morgana was the most enchanting woman he had ever met; hauntingly beautiful, intelligent and sharp. But there was something in her eyes that Mordred recognised, a hunted look. A need to escape. A fear and an anger that could blossom into something terrible and beautiful. He recognised the look from his own reflection and he revelled in the connection. Mordred had never had this visceral a reaction to a woman before, and was shaken to the core.
Voices and footsteps coming up the path shook him from his contemplation and he shrank back further into the shadows out of sheer habit. The army had taught him well, allowing him the pick of the assignments and giving him free reign to use his gifts for subterfuge, and he was glad they had when he recognised Pendragon's irritating tones coming up the path as he whined after that doctor friend of his. He made sure he was out of their view as they came back towards the house, but remained in clear view of them both. He didn't know why. He just knew he needed to witness this argument.
"Merlin, I said wait, God damnit!" Pendragon caught up to his friend when they were still half in the darkness of the garden and grabbed him by the arm. The doctor stopped, but didn't turn around to face him.
"Merlin... please." His voice was soft and pleading, and Mordred frowned in confusion. Why was he acting so... tender?
"Arthur," Emrys began, turning to face him but Pendragon cut him off.
"Merlin, I don't want to take a wife. You know this." Their gazes locked. "Nothing will change."
"Everything will change!" Emrys insisted. "You'll be married, Arthur. You will not be able to carry on as before."
"Other men do when they are wed," Pendragon said and Emrys smiled sadly.
"You are nothing like other men, Arthur Pendragon."
"It's my duty to provide an heir," Pendragon almost croaked.
"And you always do your duty," Emrys replied sadly.
Mordred watched in horrified fascination as Pendragon slowly slid his hand down the doctor's arm and caught his hand, interlacing their fingers and holding on tight. Mordred collapsed back against the wall in shock.
"If I cannot marry, or be with, the person that I truly love, then my only comfort is that I can fulfil my duty."
Emrys looked down at their entwined hands, and then back to lock his eyes on Pendragon's once more.
"If I cannot marry for love," he stressed the last word, clenching his hand convulsively around Emrys', "then I shall do so out of love of my family. For duty and for honour. But know you that if I could..."
"Arthur, don't" Emrys said, voice choked with emotion.
Pendragon's eyes searched his companion's, and apparently saw something in his features that pleased him, for he stepped closer into the doctor's personal space and tilted his head. Emrys leaned in closer and their lips barely brushed before a sudden burst of noise as a new song started inside make them jump apart and look around in terror.
"Arthur, we can't!" Emrys insisted. "It's too dangerous. We're outside for the love of God. You would be disinherited at best and killed at the worst should anyone find out. Even the hint of something like this..."
"I'm well aware Merlin. I just..." Pendragon looked away. "Look, we best return inside before someone comes looking for us."
Neither noticed Mordred as they strode past his hiding place, for which he was grateful. His mind was reeling with the implications of what he had just witnessed.
Pendragon was queer. Arthur Thomas James Pendragon, heir to the Duke of Sussex, was a queer. He was kissing his very male friend in the gardens of one of societies most influential matrons. If they were that brazen, what else would they be getting up to in private? If anyone should find out... Mordred smiled to himself. He'd see Pendragon dead yet, hopefully at the end of a hangman's noose. Even the hint of a scandal would ruin him beyond redemption and would make a 'suicide' look even more convincing.
Mordred straightened from his slump against the wall. His revenge, a long time in coming, would be even sweeter than he anticipated.
He walked swiftly back through the patio doors and began pushing his way through the crowd, heading for the cloakroom. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of pale skin and dark hair and turned to the Lady Muirden - Morgana - his mind supplied helpfully, dancing the waltz with another man. He was surprised at the red hot, murderous rage that filled him at the thought of another man touching her, but his temper was soothed by the look of bored disinterest on her face as she danced. Her partner, an older man from the Gedref family, was speaking to her and though she nodded politely on occasion, Mordred could see her eyes roaming the room as if searching for somebody.
When her cool blue gaze met his, he almost doubled over with the rush of feeling that filled him. It was as if he had been punched in the stomach. Morgana also stumbled at the simple eye contact and Gedref caught her. Mordred turned and walked away before he did something stupid like put a bullet through Gedref's head in public.
This strength of feeling, this burning, instant connection to another human being was new and frightening to Mordred. But it was also exhilarating. What was even more amazing was that Morgana seemed to feel it also. His half formed plan to push Pendragon and his doctor friend and their depraved ways out into the public eye changed before it even coalesced in his mind. He could let the world know, but chances were he would lose his opportunity with Morgana, and that was something he was not prepared to do.
Whatever he did, it would involve Morgana Muirden.
And he was certain that she would not mind at all.
Once they got back inside, Arthur immediately snagged the arm of a passing waiter and ordered a scotch, neat. Merlin knew better than to go down that road, and took his leave for the night, not really meeting his friend eyes as he made his farewells. His legs felt like rubber and his hands shook, so he clenched them into fists by his side as he pushed through the crowd. He eventually retrieved his coat and hat and made it into the night air, relishing the sting of the wind as it whipped down the street. In the large gardens of the mansion behind him, they'd been sheltered from the worst of the weather, but now, Merlin was glad for it. It helped clear the fog out of his head as he walked past the rows of carriage and began his journey home.
Arthur had kissed him.
The mere thought of it was almost enough to send him to his knees in both joy and despair. Part of him relished the fact that Arthur felt the same way; that he had kissed him and cradled his hand tenderly and whispered soft low words before pressing his lips to his. Merlin brought a shaking hand up to his mouth, reliving the sensation. It had been the single most amazing moment of his life.
The other half of him despaired because now he had confirmation of Arthur's feelings. And Arthur knew of his own.
And they both knew they could never, ever act on it.
Merlin was not going to put Arthur at such a risk. He was to be married to someone he considered a friend. Oh God, Morgana. What had they done? His stomach rolled at the thought of betraying his friend like that. If she ever found out, especially in light of what happened with Muirden... Arthur would never allow her to be hurt like that. If they had acted before the engagement, before Arthur all but bound himself to another for life, then perhaps they could have gone further.
But now, the only thing they could ever have was a brief stolen kiss in a secluded garden.
It was a tiny thing, something that Merlin would cherish for the rest of his life, and it would have to suffice.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
Arthur drained his scotch in one gulp and indicated to the same waiter for another, nodding distractedly as Merlin made his farewells. He wouldn't meet Arthur's eyes, and Arthur couldn't blame him. He'd put them both in incredible amounts of danger by his actions, and Merlin was probably fuming.
He accepted his second glass and sipped at a much slower pace as his mind replayed the past half an hour. The softness of Merlin's lips, the scent of his skin, the brush of his ridiculous hair against his forehead. Arthur felt himself embarrassingly beginning to harden at the mere thought and he hunched over himself consciously and turned to the wall, calling forth evil, foul images such as his father with a troll until he got himself back under control again.
It was definitely time to leave.
He searched the crowded mansion for Morgana to tell her he was leaving, but she was off brushing her hair, or whatever it was that women did, and he couldn't find her. He tracked down Lance, who had accompanied him here to meet with his Guinevere. Arthur found them after a while, and looked away as his friend kissed his lady goodnight and as she blushed prettily.
Lance was quiet on the return to Avalon house. He helped Arthur struggle out of his coat in silence, lost in his own thoughts. Arthur felt for him. There was no doubt that Guinevere loved him; anyone with a pair of eyes could see that the pair were smitten with each other, but she refused to leave Morgana's service and marry him until Morgana was more settled. She had met Lance during the course of Morgana's disastrous marriage when she couldn't in good conscience 'abandon' her mistress, and she was obviously still thinking along those same lines. Her loyalty was admirable: if only it didn't cause his friend pain.
Arthur knew what it was like to want something more than air, and be unable to have it.
He dismissed Lance as soon as he was changed into his night clothes, letting the other man wallow in his self pity in peace. Arthur's head had been buzzing with the after effects of the alcohol but now, as he stood by the open window in his bed chamber and breathed in the crisp night air, he felt his mind clear.
What had happened tonight; kissing Merlin, though something he had wanted to do for years, had been dangerous. If anyone had seen them... Arthur shuddered at the thought. One, if not both, of them would end up dead.
He licked his lips and imagined he could still taste Merlin on them beneath the residual alcohol; the mixture of brandy and a faint hint of herbs that always reminded him of Merlin. Arthur shuddered again, but for an entirely different reason. Again, he felt himself grow hard at the memory and he threw himself down on the bed. This time, in the privacy of his own chambers, he didn't try and stop the images in his mind.
His imagination took over where reality left off and in his mind's eye, Merlin was running his hands up Arthur's arms and tangling them in his hair. He was opening his mouth under Arthur's onslaught, sliding his tongue against the future Duke's own as he pressed his body closer. Arthur struggled to tear off his night shift and palm his cock as he imagined them falling backwards onto a bed that had appeared out of nowhere, bodies flush together with legs tangled and mouths fused. Clothes disappeared in his mind as Arthur wrapped his fingers around his cock and gave it a long, slow stroke upwards, groaning as he replaced his hand with Merlin's pale, strong hands. He was close already; their earlier kiss, though chaste, had made the blood rush south so fast, his head spun. Imaginary Merlin arched his back and moaned his name, and Arthur came with a blinding flash, shooting come all over his stomach and chest.
He lay there for a long time, panting and shivering through the aftershocks before angrily getting out of bed. He washed himself with cold water from the ewer before he put out the candles and got back into bed. He curled onto his side, unbelievably angry with himself.
He could never have this: he couldn't risk Merlin. Arthur's own social status gave him some measure of protection, but Merlin would be dead within days, if he even survived prison long enough to go to trial. They could never be, and that one ill-advised, wonderful kiss had only served to prove to him how much he wished that weren't true. No, he would marry Morgana and...
Oh God, Morgana.
Arthur felt sick. He had never been one to keep many mistresses; he'd contented himself with one until he grew bored and always ensured she was comfortably well off when he did decide to end their arrangement. Growing up, even as an adolescent, the serving girls in his father's estates had always been safe from him, only pursuing once he was sure that the attraction was actually reciprocated and not borne of fear. His father had, as far as Arthur knew, remained faithful to his wife for the entirety of their marriage, and long after, and Arthur did was not want to be the kind of man that would play away when he was married. But here he was, all but officially engaged to a woman he considered a friend, and cared for, and he had kissed someone else. Guilt flooded him and he punched his pillow in anger. God, what was he turning in to? If his father knew...
Arthur flopped onto his back, and rubbed his tired eyes in frustration. This was an utter and complete mess he'd gotten himself into. He needed to sort out his priorities, and as much as he hated it, Merlin wasn't a priority any more.
Tomorrow, he would pay Morgana a visit. He had to focus on her now.
When he eventually slept, he dreamt of Merlin.
That night, after she had returned from the ball, Morgana was restless. It was more than her usual nightmares of flames and heat. No, her dreams, on the few and short occasions she managed to get some sleep, were haunted by a pair of clear blue eyes and by a knowing smile. She squirmed as she lay in her bed, unused to feeling so drawn to someone. Never in her life had she found herself attracted to someone as much s she was to Lord Sortiar. Those few short minutes where he'd had her in his arms had been the most exhilarating of her life. The merest brush of his fingertips had almost set her skin aflame. And she literally couldn't break eye contact with him and he with her. She had seen him briefly in the flurry of admirers as he put his name down on her dance card, but they had barely spoken and hadn't made eye contact as Morgana's attention had been called elsewhere at the time. She'd been wary of putting his name down when she didn't know him, but it was done before she could blink and he'd disappeared into the crowd again.
Despite the late and restless night, Morgana rose early the next day. She paced her bedroom until Gwen came with fresh bathing water and to help her dress. She needed to clear her head and decided to go out riding, forgoing breakfast. Gwen helped her into her dark blue riding habit and within half an hour, she'd had her horse saddled and she was away. London was still waking up for the day as she took to the streets, most of society still in bed recovering from the excesses of Lady Wentworth's ball and the streets were almost empty save for a few early morning shop keepers as she walked Morgause, her mare, forward. There was a slight chill in the air which helped clear the cobwebs from her mind. She felt restless and uneasy, on edge. She felt as if she were waiting for someone, or something, to arrive and would not find peace until it did.
As she approached Hyde Park, she looked up and felt something click into place. She realised exactly what it was she was missing, or waiting for.
Lord Mordred Sortiar was riding towards her.
Her heart leapt in her chest when he recognised her and a half smile curled his lips.
"My Lady," he greeted her as he approached, bowing slightly in his saddle. Morgana, usually cool and aloof, smiled at him and let her pleasure in his company known.
"Lord Sortiar, it's a pleasure to see you again so soon. I'm surprised to see someone else out as early as I this morning," she said as they both turned in the entrance to Hyde Park.
"I confess, I had a restless night. I found it hard to find peace and to sleep when my mind was so otherwise occupied. I have actually been out riding for an hour or so already in the hope of either running in to you, or passing the time until a more respectable hour when I could pay you a visit."
To Morgana's mortification, a fiery blush stole across her pale features at the implied compliment. Good Lord, what was wrong with her? She's received scores of compliments and hundreds of pretty words directed at her since her debut at the age of eighteen, and had always felt nothing but distain for them. And all this man had to do was imply he wanted to see her and it set her cheeks aflame.
"You didn't have a restful night?" she asked in an attempt to distract from her blush.
"I found I could not get a certain Lady from my mind."
"Forgive me for speaking so bluntly and I apologise if you find it improper," her companion said in an earnest manner, moving his horse alongside hers in the deserted park and taking her hand in his. Morgana's shivers had little to do with the early morning air and everything to do with the man beside her. "I find you fascinating, totally enchanting, and it is not just because of your beauty. When I look at you, it feels as if time slows and I believe that you also feel it: this connection. If it is all in my mind then please, speak plainly and I shall trouble you no more."
"It's not just you," she admitted, ignoring the voice screaming inside her to stop. To think of what she was admitting to. To think of Arthur, whom she was almost engaged to. The voice sounded like Gwen, her one true friend but she managed to ignore it. "And you may call me Morgana," she told him.
If she had been stunned by his half smile, his full blown grin threatened to make her weak at the knees, and she was grateful she was sitting.
"Morgana," he repeated, trying out the name and smiled again. "Beautiful, just like you are. And please, call me Mordred."
"Shall we ride for a while?" Morgana asked, feeling brave despite the blush making her way across her cheeks again. Mordred brought her fingers to his lips and shivers ran through her entire body.
"An excellent suggestion," he agreed and they walked their horses on further into the empty park.
"My Lady, is everything alright? Where were you?"
Gwen had been starting to worry about her mistress when she hadn't returned by noon. She'd left incredibly early had yet to eat that day, and she'd looked so distracted and tired before she'd left... Gwen had been about to send people out to look for her when she'd arrived back home, a wide smile on her lips.
"I was out riding Gwen," Lady Morgana said happily. Gwen blinked in surprise. Her lady had been quiet and withdrawn when she'd left this morning. Her change in mood now, only a few hours after leaving, was strange to say the least. Lady Morgana was prone to bouts of low mood, and sometimes they lasted days; they never lifted after only a few hours.
Her lady chatted happily as Gwen helped her change into a day dress of deep purple, her favourite colour. Gwen rang for some lunch to be brought to the small dining room Morgana used when she was alone while her mistress went through the calling cards of visitors that had arrived when she'd been out.
"Oh, Arthur called." Morgana sounded surprised, almost as if she had forgotten about his existence. She traced a fingernail over the crest engraved on his calling card.
"Yes, my lady," Gwen replied, arranging the food which a serving girl had just brought up. "He was most concerned when he heard you had gone out early and hadn't yet returned. He stayed for almost forty five minutes but had to leave to meet his man of business and asked me to tell you that he would call later."
Gwen was surprised when Morgana blew out a frustrated breath.
"I'm fine. Why does he always have to smother me so?" she huffed.
"He was just trying to look after you, my Lady," Gwen said, choosing her words carefully. "His concern is natural, isn't it? I mean, since you and he are going to get married. Not that you have to marry him. That is... if you want to..."
Morgana toyed with her knife, not meeting Gwen's eyes.
"My lady?" Gwen was proud of the fact that her mistress saw her as a friend and confidant, not merely a maid. They had shared stories and secrets over the years of Gwen's service, and Lady Morgana had said several times in the past that Gwen was the only person that she could truly trust. She had be the first, and possibly the only, person Morgana had told about Lord Pendragon's proposal, and had asked for her advice, and had valued and listened to her opinion. Still, she was shocked when her mistress grabber her arm and pulled her down to sit in the chair beside her.
"Gwen, what I'm about to say... you cannot tell a soul, you understand me?" she whispered urgently. "Not even Lancelot. Especially not Lancelot."
Gwen considered for a long moment. She had no secrets from her fiancé and hated the idea of keeping one even for a short time. But, until she married him and left Morgana's service, her duty was also to her Lady, and she looked so desperate to speak about whatever was on her mind. And since she was almost her only friend...
"I promise," she said eventually, and Morgana smiled briefly.
"I wasn't alone when I rode out this morning," she confided in a low voice. "I met someone whilst out and spent the morning with him."
"Him?" Gwen asked, a feeling of dread uncurling in your stomach. "Oh my Lady, what did you do? What about Lord Pendragon?"
"That is why you cannot tell your Lance," Morgana insisted. "Gwen, it was Mordred Sortiar that I met in the park."
"My Lady!" Gwen was shocked. "Lord Sortiar? He's Lord Pendragon's worst enemy. He was discharged from the army under a cloud. My Lance has only spoken of him a few times, but he has always said that he is dangerous and told me to keep away from him and his people."
"He's a danger to no-one," Morgana said firmly. "He told he what happened. Arthur accused him of theft, and when they couldn't prove it, they gave him a dishonourable discharge. He was lucky he wasn't killed!"
"But if Lord Pendragon accused him of a crime, he had to have been sure? Both their reputations were at stake."
"Arthur is not always right, Gwen. No matter what he likes to think," Morgana's voice was dark, both surprising and unsettling Gwen. "He doesn't always do what is right either. I know you have this perfect vision of him Gwen, but he's just a man, and he's susceptible to petty jealousies and anger like the rest of their sex. He's always been a proud and selfish man."
"Morgana!" Gwen was shocked enough to forger herself and her station. "You mustn't speak of him like that. You are going to marry him and you will feel terrible afterwards."
"I'm not sure I want to marry him any more," Morgana said quietly.
"Then you must tell him," Gwen stated firmly. "Tell him now before it goes any further than it has."
"He'll only tell me that I'm not thinking straight and try to turn me against Mordred. My eyes have been opened Gwen. No, I'll leave it for a few days. See how I feel about it then."
"Remember your promise Gwen," Morgana said sharply. "Not a word to anybody. Now, I'm expecting a visitor this evening. Go make sure my cream evening dress is ready."
"Yes, my lady," Gwen said evenly, rising to her feet with as much grace as she could. Morgana had never spoken to her so harshly before. Morgana turned and began her meal while Gwen retreated to Morgana's dressing room to look over the cream, embroidered dress.
Why had she made that promise?
Gwen paced Morgana's bedroom, anger in her stride. Where was she? Over the past few weeks, her lady had been increasingly distracted, spending more and more time with Lord Sortiar, and mostly in secret. She met him out in London Town, or she went to his house, or he came here in secret. They danced at balls and parties, and Lance told Gwen how Lord Pendragon had always hated it, but could say nothing without causing a scene. Morgana had returned from a party two days ago, fuming because Arthur had asked her not to entertain Lord Sortiar any more, but she had refused. Apparently, they'd had an argument about it and harsh words and been spoken. They had not seen each other since. Gwen tried to tell Lance about Morgana and Lord Sortiar, but every time she tried, her promise rang in her ears and she couldn't. She had her honour too.
Finally, after the stroke of eleven at night, Morgana finally appeared. Her hair was messy and her lips were swollen and Gwen felt sick to her stomach.
"Morgana, what are you doing?" she asked bluntly. Morgana started, surprised to see her in the room.
"I'm returning to my room," Morgana said, not meeting her eyes.
"I meant with Lord Sortiar," Gwen said, anger at her lady for putting her in this position, making her forget her station. "You sneak out to see him most days, or he comes here. Morgana, you are betraying Lord Pendragon who has never been anything but kind to you. Why are you doing this?"
Morgana stopped, hat halfway off her head and looked at Gwen solemnly.
"I don't know," she told her, and Gwen could tell she was telling the truth. "I don't like betraying Arthur, but he would never understand. He would try and stop me seeing Mordred, and I need to see him. I can't explain it. There's a bond between us. It's like nothing I've ever felt before. Perhaps I was always meant to meet him. I don't know how it can be. I can't explain it."
She sat down heavily on the side of her bed, and Gwen sat beside her.
"I'm confused, Gwen," she admitted and Gwen placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.
"You need to come clean to Lord Pendragon, and to Lord Sortiar. You need to choose Morgana."
"I will," Morgana promised. "I will. Now, will you help me get ready for bed?"
Gwen helped her in silence, and she couldn't help but think that Morgana didn't mean what she had promised at all.
A few days after her conversation with Gwen, Morgana paced her bedchamber, faintly nauseous with nerves. She kept shooting glances at the clock which seemed to alternate between dragging slowly and passing an hour in the blink of an eye. Finally, midnight struck and, with great trepidation, she silently opened the door and crept downstairs. The house was completely deserted, the servants having long since retired or gone home. She made her way to the morning room, expensive silk robe flowing in her wake and unlocked the French doors leading out onto the patio. The figure waiting in the shadows detached itself from the wall and slipped inside silently.
Mordred smiled down and her and kissed her softly before taking her hand and leading her back up the stairs. She guided him wordlessly to her room, only looking him in the eye when the door had been safely shut and locked behind her. She looked up at him; he was so much taller than her, and felt a shiver of fear run through her. Logically, she knew that Mordred would never hurt her, but Edwin had been so much taller than her too...
"Hey now," Mordred said, wrapping her in a gentle hug. She lay her head on his muscled chest, and felt his strong arms around her, holding her close but not trapping her. "There's no reason to be afraid," he murmured into her hair, and Morgana automatically tried to pull away, out of his grip, but he held fast. "I am not going to hurt you, I swear it. I know this is the first time for you since your marriage, but if you want to at any time, we will stop. I promise Morgana."
She looked up into Mordred big blue eyes, and saw the truth in them. She smiled a little, and he bent down to kiss her. His lips brushed softly against hers before he pulled back and smiled at her, the corners of his eyes crinkling. She smiled back then stood up on her toes and pressed her lips to his. His tongue traced the seam of her lips, and she opened them gladly, breath stuttering in her chest when his tongue stroked hers. Without breaking contact with her, he bent down, placed one arm behind her knees and swung her up into his arms. She pulled back, laughing with him as he placed her on the covers of the bed.
Despite knowing who he was, and how he felt about her, Morgana still felt a spike of fear run through her and her muscles locked in memory of what had happened before. Mordred took off his outer coat, his waistcoat and had just pulled his shirt loose from his breeches when he noticed the way she held herself. He sat gently down beside her on the bed and cupper her cheek, running his hand through her hair.
"I love you," he told her, and Morgana froze for an entirely different reason. No one, other than her father, had ever uttered those words to her before.
"I love you," he confirmed, and leaned in and kissed her. She clutched at his shoulders, head reeling from the information and from his kisses. Morgana was no fool. She knew men often used women's emotions against them to get what they wanted, and while she got the feeling that Mordred wasn't the most scrupulous of men, she believed him when he told her he loved her. She'd always had a gift of telling when people were lying to her, and Mordred was being one hundred percent honest.
Mordred reached for the tie of her robe and she let him, twisting so he could loosen the knot more easily. Once it was open, he slipped it off her shoulders and pushed it down her arms. She shrugged out of it and gave a wiggle as he pulled the robe out from underneath her and dropped it over the side of the bed and onto the floor. Morgana was naked underneath and now lay back, aware of Mordred's gaze on every inch of her body and felt a blush spread from her cheeks down her neck to her chest. When he hadn't blinked in several long moments, Morgana went to cover up, but he gently pulled her hands away.
"You are so beautiful," he told her hoarsely. "So beautiful that I can't believe you are here with me."
Morgana's flush deepened.
He leaned down and kissed her again, his moustache tickling her lip and making her smile. He pulled back and grinned down at her before moving down to hiss her cheek, her ear, her jaw. He rubbed his nose softly against the long line of her neck and Morgana gasped at the shiver that went through her and at the heat that pooled low in her belly. She ran a hand up his arm, over the corded muscles of his shoulder and buried her fingers in his hair as he stretched out beside her, and kissed lower. He nibbled tiny, biting kisses across her collarbone to the hollow of her throat where he lapped at the skin there before he traced his tongue down her chest to the dip between her breasts.
Morgana arched under him as he moved swiftly to her right nipple, peaking it with the broad swipe of his tongue before tracing it with the very tip. Wave after wave of fire swept through her as she arched up into him and clung on for dear life. Never before had she experienced such feelings and sensations as she did right then. One of Mordred's arms slipped around her back, holding her up to him while the other stroked down her side and across her stomach. The heat building between her legs tripled his hand travelled back up to cup her other breast, thumb stroking across her nipple.
She whimpered in protest when he pulled away, laying her gently back onto the bed.
"Don't..." she began, but Mordred silenced her with a quick kiss on the lips.
"I'm not going anywhere," he told her as he bent his head down again to kiss her stomach. He shifted on the bed, moving and arranging her until he was lying between her legs, smiling up at her. Morgana felt the flush start again, embarrassed to her core.
"What are you going to do?" she whispered, and a flicker of unexplained sadness crossed his face for a moment before he rested his chin on her hip.
"I am sorry that no one has ever taken their time with you before," he told her. "But in a way, I am glad it is I that can show you just how good it can be. If you enjoyed that," he waved hand at her torso, and she blushed bright red again, "then you will really, really enjoy this."
With that, he bent his head to the curls in the of vee of her legs. She felt his hands caressing her inner thighs, stroking and coaxing them further apart. She drew a deep breath and complied, choking at the first stroke of his... was that his tongue?... and oh my God...
Morgana's hands flew to the headboard, and she scrambled for purchase, arching her hips in a thoroughly wanton way, moaning helplessly as the fire swept through her once more. She sent up a silent prayer of thanks for thick walls when his fingers joined his tongue, entering her slowly and stroking softly. There was one spot he kept coming back to, and as he brushed his fingers over it, the fire grew and grew until it consumed her completely and she cried out, shaking all over as she felt she would fall apart. Her vision went white, then black and she gasped for air, blinking furiously as she let her hands drop from the headboard onto the pillows by her head.
Sweat covered her body in a fine sheen and her heart slammed in her chest as if she had run a mile. Mordred appeared in her line of vision, a smile, and not a little satisfaction, on his face.
"See?" he told her, and instead of poking him in the side to get rid of his smug grin, as she might have done previously, she pulled him down and kissed him. He flailed a little, surprised at her actions and she smiled against his lips. He tasted... different than before, and Morgana realised with a jolt that she was tasting herself on his lips and the blush appeared again.
After a long, breathless moment, Mordred pulled back and tore his loose shirt over his head. Morgana couldn't help but feel the nerves return as he stood and unbuttoned his breeches, removing the rest of his clothing. She gulped as she took him in. He was... wow.
"Do you trust me," he whispered, lowering himself beside her.
"I do," Morgana promised.
"Good. I won't hurt you," he said as he pulled her in so he could kiss her.
He kept his word.
Mordred woke with a start, his previously sated and relaxed body ready and alert as he strained his ears, trying to ascertain what had dragged him from his pleasant dreams. Morgana was lying beside him, hair spread out over the pillow in a vision of loveliness. But she was not sleeping peacefully. As he watched, her brow furrowed and she tossed her head to one side, lips forming the word 'no' as she gasped as if in pain.
He reached out a hand to touch her shoulder and she flinched back from him in fear.
"Morgana, you need to wake up now," he told her, leaning close to speak to her, but not physically touching her.
"Edwin, no!" she sobbed in her sleep, and Mordred wanted to resurrect the monster she had married and rip him apart himself.
"Morgana, my love, please wake up."
He continued to speak to her, voice steady and low and loving, hoping his voice would penetrate her dreams and wake her up.
"Come back to me, please darling."
After some of the longest minutes of Mordred's life, Morgana woke up, eyes wide, gasping for air as she screamed in terror and bolted upright. She sat there, eyes unfocused as tears streamed down her cheeks, still half locked in her nightmare.
Even Mordred could hear the obvious worry in his tone as he sat up next to her. He gently reached out a hand and as soon as his fingertips touched her skin, she went wild; shouting and scratching at him, trying to defend herself from a perceived aggressor. Mordred ducked her flailing limbs and threw his arms around her torso, trapping her arms at her sides.
"Morgana, it's alright. It's me, my love. It's Mordred," he murmured into her ear, holding her close so she could hear him, feel him beside her. Once she woke fully, and realised where she was and who was with her, she sagged against him, breathing harshly. Mordred kept his arms around her, running his hands up and down her trembling frame as he made soothing noises. Once she got herself back under control, she turned to him and gave him a shaky smile.
"Thank you," she said, not meeting his eyes. "I'm alright now."
"Like hell you are," Mordred exclaimed. "What was that all about Morgana?"
"It's fine," she said defensively. "It's nothing I can't handle."
"You mean this has happened before?" he asked.
"Of course it's happened before," Morgana snapped. "Do you think I could have lived through marriage to Edwin Muirden and not have nightmares about it? No, I dream of it every single night."
It seemed that the flood gates, once opened, could not easily be closed again as the words spilled out of Morgana's mouth in a torrent of fear and anger.
"I dream of my wedding night, of what he did to me, of what he encouraged others to do to me. I dream of the taunts and jeers, and the pain. I dream I what I did to him in the end, of the fire and the heat. And it never, ever stops. No matter what I do."
When she finished, it was as if she were a marionette doll, and someone had cut all her strings. She slumped back onto her elbows, staring at the canopy. Mordred looked at her, blinking at the rush of words as he too in the actual meaning of what she had said.
"What did you mean 'what I did to him'?" he asked slowly, and beside him, Morgana froze.
"Um...nothing." She turned onto her side, presenting her bare back to him. Mordred tore his eyes away from the line of her spine and the swell of her hips and reached for her shoulder, pulling her onto her back to face him.
"Morgana, what did you mean by that?"
"I said was nothing, alright? Just leave it alone."
"I don't blame you, if you did anything," Mordred told her honestly. "I know what it is to struggle and I've heard tales of Edwin Muirden. I know what kind of man he was."
"No one knew," Morgana said quietly. "No one knew the extent of his depravity."
"I wish the bastard was standing in front of me right now," Mordred growled. "I'd tear the flesh from his bones. Burning was too good for him."
"Don't worry. He got what was coming to him," Morgana said darkly, lost in a memory.
"Oh, did he?"
"Yes, he did." There was a dark look in her eyes and a smirk on her lips which Mordred found incredibly arousing, but he pushed that to one side.
"What did you do?" he asked again, and Morgana sat up, covering herself with the bed sheets and examined him with a piercing, assessing gaze.
"What makes you think I've done anything?" she asked.
"I'm not an idiot Morgana," he said. "I've seen the look that you have in your eyes before. I've seen it on men on the battlefield, and I've even seen it in the mirror sometimes. It's the face of someone who has survived something terrible, but that has gotten its revenge. Tell me."
"Fine, you want to know? You want to know how after months of torment I finally snapped? Fine. I poisoned him. I poisoned him and while he was still alive, I set his bed on fire. Happy?"
Morgana sat back, stunned at what she had just said. Oh God, she admitted to killing Edwin. Oh God! What was she thinking? She had promised herself that she would never tell a soul, though the event still visited her ever night in her dreams. Oh God. It was the nightmare and Mordred combined. Her defences were down after that particularly horrendous nightmare, and Mordred's voice was so soothing, and she cared for him so much...
"Please don't tell anyone," she begged, panic in her voice. "I just couldn't take it any more. He was a cruel man and he was queer. He used to invite other men into our marriage bed, did you know that? Boys he picked up of the street... Then he found a favourite, and kept bringing him back. They used to laugh afterwards." Huge sobs shook her body at the memories and she felt Mordred's strong arms encircle her.
"Tell me what happened," he command gently, but firmly, and for once in her life, Morgana obeyed. She needed to get this off her chest.
"It was getting worse," she told him in a voice that held a definite waver. "He knocked me unconscious one night. I thought he would kill me. So the next day, when no one was around, I went to the kitchen. I found what they used to poison rats, and I took some. Not enough to make it noticeable, not enough to kill. Just enough to cause sickness and pain, and rather a lot of it. They were so smug, the both of them. They thought nothing could touch them. I slipped it into the brandy they always drank afterwards and they never noticed. Later that night, I went into Edwin's chambers. They were in there, both of them on the bed. The poison had taken hold and they could barely move. But Edwin could still talk. He threatened me with death, dismemberment and everything in between, and the threats kept coming. It was so easy to pick up the pillow..." Her voice took a far away quality as she remembered the feeling of satisfaction, or triumph as she pressed it down over his face. His weak struggles, pathetic really, they barely even registered. So soon he stopped struggling and then stopped breathing...
"His whore saw what I had was doing, and he tried to get away, but he was too weak. One solid blow to the head with the candlestick was all it took. It was so quiet afterwards... so still. Edwin was gone and I was free. I cleaned the candlestick before I lit the wick and set the bed curtains on fire. It went up like a shot. The flames were everywhere..."
When she came back to herself, she found herself in Mordred's arms and he was looking down at her with concern.
"Where did you go?" he asked quietly, and Morgana knew he wasn't referring to after the fire.
"I was back there in the room, with the heat and the flame and the stench of burning flesh," she whispered. "Sometimes, I find myself back there and when I come to myself again, hours have past. It scares me."
"Trauma," Mordred nodded. "I've seen to happen before. Usually to men in the battlefield."
"It's helped to talk about it," she said and Mordred pulled her close. The bond she felt with him strengthened the longer he held her. She knew he wouldn't turn her in, that he would keep her secret. Even if it was because he had secrets of his own to hide, even if that was not the case, he would not turn her in.
"Oh Morgana," he whispered. "My beautiful Morgana. I can't even begin to imagine what it was like to be married by such a man. I do not blame you and I certainly will not turn you in. You did the world a favour getting rid of a man like that. Will you tell me the rest?" he asked and she nodded.
"Once the fire consumed the bed, burning the bodies almost beyond recognition, I raised the alarm. I was lucky that the fire was mostly in the bed. The room was damaged extensively, but the rest of the house only had damage from smoke. The servants put out the flames and when they saw the two bodies... Geoffrey, my butler, sent for Arthur immediately, because he was one of the only people I trusted. He came and was absolutely horrified to see who was in bed with Edwin. He helped cover it up. The whore's body was buried in an unmarked grave in one of the cemeteries later that day. Because he was so badly burnt, no one even checked for damage to his head. No one saw the wound."
"Pendragon helped cover it up?"
Something in Mordred's voice gave Morgana pause.
"Yes. I know you don't like him, but Arthur and his father have been good to me since Edwin's death. They tried to do right by me when my father died, but Edwin was blackmailing my uncle Halig and
I was forced to marry him. Would that they had stopped this whole thing... Why did you sound so surprised there?" she asked him.
"It does not matter now," he dismissed. "I will explain later."
"No, you will explain now," Morgana demanded, pulling out of his arms and turning to face him. "Why did your voice go all funny when you asked about Arthur, and why should it matter?"
"If you're sure..."
"How did Pendragon react when he saw the bodies?"
"He was horrified, naturally."
"Are you sure that's all it was?"
"Yes, why? Just tell me Mordred."
Mordred sighed before looking her straight in the eye.
"Arthur Pendragon, your saviour, is queer himself."
Morgana glared at him and hit his arm, hard.
"That's not funny," she snapped.
"It wasn't meant to be. I saw him with my own two eyes."
"Mordred, are you telling me that you saw Arthur with another man?"
"That's exactly what I'm saying. I saw him kissing Emrys in the garden at the Wentworth's ball."
Morgana looked as if she had been slapped.
"Merlin?" she asked incredulously. "You saw him kissing Merlin...Why should I believe you?"
"What reason do I have to lie?"
"You hate Arthur. You want to see him go down in my estimation."
"And why would I chose such a dangerous lie and drag his doctor friend into it?" Mordred asked patiently. "I am with you, my heart's desire. You love me as much as I love you and that is all that matters. I do not need to tell such a lie about him to bring him down in your eyes. Your eyes are no longer on him."
Morgana went even paler than usual as she took in his words, and the implications.
"No, I cannot believe it," she said, shaking her head.
"Believe it, for it is the truth," Mordred said sternly. "And I can prove it."
"You can prove that Arthur is fucking Merlin?"
Mordred winced at the language coming out of Morgana's delicate mouth, but he understood the sentiment behind it. The vulgar words were the only way for Morgana do show her utter distaste and disgust at the act.
"Give me a week. In that time, I will prove to you just how much that country doctor means to your precious Arthur."
Today had been a good day. Merlin's patients had all been easily placated with either medicine or simply explaining their problem to them, and most, if not all, were set on the road to recovery. The sun was shining, for once, and all of London seemed to be in a good mood. But best of all, he was meeting Arthur in a few hours for the dinner, then for the opera. Life, as Merlin knew it, was good.
He saw an opening and cut across the street, avoiding carriages and horses alike and re-adjusted his grip on his doctor's bag as he was nearly sent sprawling by a man walking opposite him. The stranger kept his head down and shouted an apology behind him as he hurried along, and Merlin resisted the urge to yell 'prat!' after him. He rotated his shoulder, wincing from the impact as he straightened his coat and turned down the side street to his home.
He never noticed the two men that fell into step behind him.
He definitely noticed the meaty hand that landed heavily onto his shoulder, spinning him around and slamming him into the wall. His head spun and he tried to kick out his feet, but his head was slammed against the wall again. Blood poured from the cut on his forehead down and into his eyes, half blinding him. He was turned around and he just had the time to take in too figures with their hats down low and scarves over their faces before the man not holding him in place slammed his fist into Merlin's gut, and he was sent to his knees, gagging. He felt them rifling in his pockets for his coin, and through his bag for God knows what, and tried to push himself up. His head swam and he gagged at the motion before a foot connected with his stomach and he slammed to the ground once more.
As they ran off down the side street, he couldn't even call out for help.
It was quite a surprise to Arthur when Lance knocked on the door to his library and told him that Lady Morgana was in is drawing room, waiting to see him. They hadn't spoken since their fight the previous week, both too proud and angry to apologise for the harsh words they had spoke. It wasn't their first argument, and would undoubtedly not be their last, and they usually needed a few days to cool off before being in each other's company once more.
Morgana was seated on the low settee, but stood when he entered.
"Morgana," he said warily, painfully proper. Morgana rolled her eyes at him.
"Arthur, please." He nodded and indicated for her to sit.
"I trust you are feeling better," he said after a moment. "I hope you are at least thinking about what I asked of you. Be wary of him Morgana."
"I will," she promised and then sighed. "I came here to apologise for the way I treated you," and Arthur felt his jaw drop a little. He had been expecting a longer argument and a round-about way of saying sorry, not a straight forward apology. When they were younger, he remember her going without food for over 12 hours rather than apologise for spooking his horse on purpose and almost having it throw him on the gravel.
"You were only trying to help in your bumbling, overbearing way and I should not have treated you the way I did. I know you are worried about Lord Sortiar, but trust me when I will not allow him to harm me in any way. I will keep a weather eye out on his behaviour, and I will heed your warnings." She smiled wanly at him.
"Think nothing of it," Arthur said, coming around to sit on the settee next to her. He held out his hand and, after a long moment's hesitation, she took it. "I'm just glad you're alright."
"I am Arthur."
"Excellent. Now that all that unpleasant apologising business is over, shall we ring for some tea?"
Arthur glanced at the clock and hesitated. Merlin was due to arrive in twenty minutes and they were to go to eat at their club before the opera. He didn't want to stand Merlin up.
'Odds are you will end up married to this girl,' he thought to himself. 'You need to put her first, before Merlin. And you are just going to have to get used to it, Pendragon.'
"Alright," he said, standing. "I'll call for some tea. I was going to meet Merlin, but I'll send Lance with the message that I'll be late and will meet him at the Opera."
Her smiled faltered for a split second before freezing into place again.
"Of course, you can't let down the good doctor."
Arthur was at a loss to explain the sudden icy chill in her voice.
Arthur rang for Lance, who was talking with his Gwen. Arthur was almost loathe to send him on the errand, but he couldn't just let Merlin down. Gwen smiled at him nervously, even more so than usual and, even though she was Morgana's servant and not his own, she went to inform the kitchen of their request and instructed them on how Morgana took her drink.
He and Morgana spent a good hour or so pleasantly trading good-natured insults, just like old times, when there was a knock at the door and Lance entered when he was bidden. His face was pale and serious.
"What is it?" Arthur asked, immediately rising. "What's happened?"
"It's Merlin, my Lord," Lance reported. "The doctor has been attacked. He was robbed not fifteen metres from his home."
Arthur felt all blood drain from his face, and sank back down into the chair. He felt sick to his stomach. Why would someone attack Merlin? He was not obviously wealthy. He was a doctor, for the love of God. He spent his life helping people. What was this city coming to? His mouth opened and closed a few times as he tried to speak and he had to take a sip of the now cold tea to wet his completely dry throat.
"How is he?" he asked once he regained control of his vocal chords. "How badly his he injured?"
"He has a concussion, two cracked ribs and a bruised kidney," Lance told him softly and Arthur slumped in his chair.
"Oh God," he murmured, sick to his stomach again. He looked up at Morgana, and was at a loss to explain the utter fury on her face.
"I need to go," she told him, standing suddenly.
"Morgana, wait" Arthur tried, but she ignored him.
"Give Merlin my best," she said coldly before sweeping from the room.
"What just happened here?" Arthur asked Lance, who looked as confused as he felt.
"I have no idea," Lance admitted.
"Perhaps she's still upset about the argument," Arthur mused, but he brushed it aside for now. He would go speak to her tomorrow, and sort everything out. "Tell me everything you know, Lance. And tell Cedric to prepare my horse. I will be going to visit Merlin within half an hour."
Mordred was waiting for her when Morgana arrived home. She had long since stopped asking how he got in undetected all the time because he would just tell her it was a few tricks he'd picked up in the army. It frustrated her no end, but she simply had to accept it. He was looking out the window overlooking the garden when she stomped into her bedchamber and slammed the door behind her. She'd dismissed Gwen as soon as they got in the door, so it was fingers shaking with rage that tugged at the knot of her cloak. Mordred moved forward and helped her, undoing the knot with swift efficiency.
"Well?" he asked as she tore off her bonnet and threw it on the bed.
"You were right," she told him and promptly burst into tears. Mordred took her in his arms and made nonsensical comforting noises as he kissed and stroked her hair.
"You should have seen him," she spat out, pulling back an angrily swiping at her tears. "When his servant Lance told him what had happened to Merlin, he looked like he was about to faint. I remember my father looking exactly like that when the nurses told him that both my mother and my brother had died in childbirth. Arthur looked positively ill. And that's how Arthur looked. Oh God, he loves him. He's a queer."
Morgana felt nauseous.
When Mordred had told her what he had witnessed in the garden at Lady Wentworth's ball, she hadn't believed him. There was no way Arthur was fucking Merlin, no way. Arthur wouldn't, not after everything that had happened with Edwin. He'd been as horrified as anyone at what they had found in the ruins of the room. Surely Arthur, one of her oldest friends, wouldn't have expected her to marry him and turn a blind eye to his leaving her bed for that of his friend.
It was sick.
It was wrong.
Her stomach rolled at the images and memories that flooded her mind, at what she had been witness to and what she had been forced to do during her short marriage. It was perverse and the thought of Arthur and Merlin locked in such an embrace... God, she was going to be sick. She ran for her chamber pot, which was mercifully clean, and promptly lost the contents of her stomach. She sobbed into the pot, devastated at the thought of going through that again. There was no way she could survive it.
She felt gentle hands pull her hair back and soothe her sweaty brow. Mordred pulled her up and led her to the bed where he lay down and held her close. Morgana sobbed into his chest, hating herself for the weakness, but grateful for his presence.
"I am sorry, my love," he whispered into her hair. "I don't know what you went through with that bastard Muirden, but to find out that your husband-to-be is of the same ilk... I cannot imagine how you feel."
"Thank you for being here," she whispered. "No one else would understand. Everyone thinks that Arthur is this paragon of virtue and goodness, but he's as perverted and disgusting as Edwin was. I refuse to marry him. I can't, now that I know."
"No one would expect you to," Mordred assured her. "Tell him tomorrow. Tell him you know and see him try to deny it. Break the engagement because you refuse to marry such a man."
"It's not enough," Morgana's eyes were snapping with fire. "He has to pay. What he is doing is sickening; him and Merlin. I want them humiliated. God, I want them dead!"
"We could report them," Mordred mused. "Sodomy and buggery are illegal. They'd be at the end of a rope within the month."
"No," Morgana shook her head. "The Pendragon name is too powerful. The Duke has too many connections. Merlin would swing, and good riddance, but Arthur would be saved because of who he is. He'd be ruined, and his family disgraced beyond redemption, but he would still live."
"I'm sure we can think of something," Mordred said, moving onto his side so he was facing her. Morgana mirrored his position and smiled when he gently cupped her cheek. He was always so gentle with her, as if she were made of spun glass: handle too roughly and she would shatter. Morgana thought that he knew the truth; that she was already shattered on the inside, but that his love and his light in her life was slowly healing her. "Are you sure you want to do this?" he asked her, looking hard into her eyes. "I know what happened with Muirden, but he was a sadistic bastard, excuse my language. Arthur was a friend, someone you held affection for. Someone you were going to marry. This will be different."
Morgana felt her face harden into a fierce expression that took Mordred by surprise.
"You don't know what Edwin did to me when we were married," she said. "When he entered my bedchamber... What he forced me to do... Sometimes he wasn't alone. He made me watch." She shuddered.
"I wish I could kill him for you," Mordred whispered. "I would have made it slow and painful."
"I know," she whispered, leaning down to kiss him gently. "And as strange as it sounds, I appreciate the sentiment."
"I swear to you, Morgana: you will get your revenge on Arthur," Mordred said fervently. "I promise that he will be dead before the end of the season."
Hours later, they were curled up in bed. Morgana had been like a wild thing, angrily biting at his lips and slamming her hips down onto his as if sheer physical force could release her rage and horror. It had been the most violent coupling they'd had to date, and it had also been the most intense orgasm that Mordred had ever had. They had both collapsed, boneless, onto the bed, Morgana automatically settling down into the crook of his elbow, head resting on his chest. Mordred ran his fingertips up and down her arm, constantly moving over the soft, pale skin as he thought things through.
He trusted Morgana. He trusted her with his heart and his soul. He could trust her with this.
"Are you sure you want to go through with this Morgana," he asked quietly, breaking the stillness between them.
"I'm sure," she said, her voice hard.
"Good," Mordred said, slipping out from under and leaning up on his elbow. "Because there is something you need to know before we go any further."
Morgana raised herself up onto her own elbow, facing him square in the eye.
"Go ahead," she said solemnly as if she knew how important the information he was about to give her was. He was she knew how important the information he was about to give her was. He was basically giving her his life. He was putting it in her hands. He would live or die by her word, and he found he was alright with that.
"The rumours of my discharge from the army... what Pendragon accused me of. It was true. I did it."
"What did you do?" she asked warily.
"You have to understand, General Pendragon hated my family; some falling out of the other decades ago, possibly before I was even born. When I joined the army, I was put under him. Time and time again, he passed me over for promotion. I was the better officer, I was the better soldier than most of the men in my unit. But, lesser men continued to be promoted above me. It was an insult to me, to my family name. When I moved on, and when the Peninsular war started and I worked in espionage, I still never forgot the insult. When I was working in France, I met a man named Tauren. He was a man with a mission; namely: Kill Uther Pendragon. The Duke has many enemies, and I saw the chance to get my revenge. I helped Tauren get through the camp and close to the Duke to try and kill him. It would have been perfect revenge. No one would have suspected me. I was supposed to be miles away in Madrid. When Tauren failed, and they were in pursuit of me, I shot Arthur Pendragon. He was right; it was my tattoo he saw that night. He nearly died because of me."
"Would that he had died," Morgana said, eyes never breaking contact with Mordred's own. "If you had succeeded the first time, he would not have had the gall to offer marriage to me when he is just as bad as Edwin. He would never have even met Merlin and had started this whole affair. You kept my secret Mordred, and you did not judge me for it. It is only fair that I do the same for you."
Mordred had never loved someone more in his entire life than he did right there.
And he told her so, right before he kissed her again.
"What is wrong my love?" Morgana's brow furrowed in concern as she looked at him, and Mordred felt his heart leap, as it always did in his lady love's presence. "You have been quiet for some time."
They were curled up in bed, naked and sweaty, with Morgana's head resting on his muscled chest. She absentmindedly traced the tattoo he had gotten as a young man to honour his ancestors, but had regretted it when Pendragon had used it to identify him. It had ruined his life, and for a long time, Mordred considered burning it off. But, since their first night together when Morgana had pressed a kiss to the swirls and had, every night since, shown a fascination with it, he had grown to appreciate it once more. He kissed the top of her head and turned on his side to face her.
"Well?" she asked again after he was apparently silent for too long.
"Marry me," he blurted out and wanted to kick himself when he saw her dumbstruck expression. But, nothing worth keeping was won easily, so he ploughed ahead. "I have a plan. You want Pendragon humiliated in society. What better than to have his intended throw him over and elope with his worst enemy? It would be excruciating for a man of his pride and social standing. And once we were married and returned to London, he would be forced to interact with us in society. Any argument he had against us would look like that of a love struck, jealous fool, and make him seem weak in the eyes of the Ton. Think about it. Pendragon is very aware of his place in the world. If we played this right, if we struck at his business interests and leaked the rumour about him and his doctor friend, a 'suicide' would seem that much more convincing and it would ruin the Pendragon name for generations. If it even continued."
"You want me to marry you..." Morgana stated flatly.
"Yes!" Mordred interrupted.
"You want me to marry you... to get revenge on Arthur..." Morgana's voice was emotionless and dull, and horror swept through Mordred.
"No!" he exclaimed. "I want to marry you because you are the most amazing woman I have ever met, and I love you. You accept me for who I am. You don't try and change me. And you understand that sometimes, you need to do things that you may find distasteful, but that life is distasteful and is all about survival. I love you Morgana. Please marry me."
"I don't know Mordred..."
"Do you love me, Morgana?"
"You know I do."
"Then what is stopping you. We can go to Gretna Green in Scotland. It should only take us a few days by coach and we will be wed."
"Why can't we get married here?" Morgana asked, and hope flared in Mordred's chest. It wasn't an outright dismissal.
"Do you really think that if we posted the banns and announced what we were to be married here in London, that Pendragon wouldn't find out and interfere? No, he cannot find out until the deed is done. He would stop us, and there is nothing in this life that will stop me from being with you. Even in death, I would be with you."
"Hush." Morgana pressed her fingers to his mouth to stop him talking and he kissed her lightly. "Don't say things like that. They are always foreshadowing and I can't lose you Mordred. I would not be able to handle it."
"You won't," Mordred vowed. "I will be with you always. Say yes."
Morgana looked at him for a long while.
"Can I think about it for a few days?" she asked in uncharacteristic timidness.
"What's to think about?" Mordred sat up, dislodging Morgana. "Either you love me or you don't. You were willing to marry Pendragon."
"I was marrying Arthur to get my freedom." Morgana sat up also, pulling the sheets up around her chest. "I was marrying him for friendship and to have children, and so, if I wished, I could leave society and its constantly judging eyes. I love you, and if I married you, it would be one of passion and heat and I would give myself completely over to you and I swore I would never give someone that power over me again."
She was shaking like a leaf by the time she had finished and Mordred suddenly understood and slid closer in the bed to wrap an arm around her shoulders.
"I would never hurt you," he promised, kissing her temple. "I would never, ever raise a hand to you, even in my darkest anger. I promise now to cherish and protect you for the entirety of my life, even if you choose not to marry me. You are my destiny, Morgana. I will always be with you."
Morgana turned in his arms and kissed him, pushing him back onto the bed and straddling his hips.
"Is that a yes?" he asked, cupping her breasts and smirking at her moan.
"It's a maybe," she replied, sliding down onto is length. Mordred gasped as he was surrounded by warm, wet heat and gripped her by the hips.
"That's good enough for now," he replied, pulling her down to kiss her properly.
The next week was torture for Mordred. He continued to see Morgana, but though she seemed deep in thought at times, she did not mention it again.
Almost seven days after his proposal, a messenger delivered a missive to his address. He recognised Morgana's dainty handwriting on the front, and cracked her seal on the back with bated breath. What if she said no, and wanted to let him down gently? What if she never wanted to see him again?
He need not have worried.
Written inside were five simple words that made his heart sing.
'Yes, but make it soon.'
With a joy that he had never remembered feeling before, he began to make arrangements for getting to Scotland in a few days.
The house was in silence when Morgana slipped on the rough, dark cloak over her borrowed and ill-fitting clothing. She had claimed a migraine early in the afternoon and had dismissed all of the servants early, waiting as they settled down the house and either left for the night or retired to their rooms upstairs before finishing gathering her things. She placed the letter on the dresser where Gwen was sure to see it when she arrived in the morning, twisted her hair up underneath the cap she wore and picked up the carpet bag she had packed earlier in the day.
She slipped out the door of her chambers and made her way noiselessly down the stairs. She'd pocketed the key to the front door the day before and now used her foresight to pass through entrance unobserved. She was silent as she walked through the close, staying close to the shadows because, even though it was dark, it was still well before midnight and people could be around.
There. Just where he had promised he would be.
Mordred was waiting for her on the corner, standing next to non-descript, black carriage. A man that Morgana vaguely recognised as one of Mordred's servants was seated up front as coach driver, and four beautiful black horses were harnessed to the vehicle. There was no insignia on the coach at all, and dark wine coloured curtains were pulled across the open windows. The door stood open next to Mordred, and a warm, if dim, light spilled from a lamp within.
And Mordred. He stood there, dressed simply as she was, though not as much out of character as her own clothing. He smiled widely when he saw her, and kissed her lightly by way of greeting. He took the bag from her hands, which she was thankful for, and passed it on to his man, who secured it to the roof next to his own things.
"We can buy you clothing there, you know," he reminded her as he took her hand and helped her into the coach. "And we're not leaving forever. We'll return soon enough, and as man and wife."
"I know," Morgana replied. "I just wanted something to change in to before we arrive because I am certainly not getting married in these things." He pulled back her cloak to reveal her current state of dress: men's rough woollen trousers that she had stolen from one of her servants, a white linen shirt and a dark waistcoat. The low cap she wore hid her hair from view, and as soon as the door to the carriage was closed, she took it off and shook her hair down loose. "In case anyone looked too closely," she told him.
Mordred laughed delightedly at her and pulled her into his lap, running his fingers through her newly freed hair.
"You are the most amazing, wonderful woman Morgana," he told her, and the sincerity in his voice and in his eyes took her breath away. She twisted in his grip, turning until she was straddling his thighs. Mordred reached up and tugged at the clasp of her cloak, pushing it off her shoulders and onto the floor behind her as they started to move.
"You're not so bad yourself," she grinned, leaning down to kiss him. Mordred ran his hands up her sides and back, and Morgana moaned in pleasure.
"What would you say if I suggested we start the honeymoon early?" she said, kissing his jaw.
"That, right there, is why I'm marrying you," he told her, pulling her flush against him. "All your wonderful ideas."
Gwen tentatively knocked at the door to Morgana's bedchamber, determined to check on her once more before she left for the night. Morgana had been restless and fidgety for the past few days, often spending time pacing the floor and looking worried. She would not confide in Gwen, not matter how many times she asked. The day before, it seemed as if she had come to a decision about something and was as relaxed as Gwen had seen her in a long time. This morning, unfortunately, Morgana had complained of a headache which had only gotten worse during the day. By mid-afternoon, she had a full blown migraine and had retreated to her bedchamber by three o'clock. Gwen had drawn the curtains for her as she huddled under the covers, eyes closed to avoid the sun.
That had been several hours ago. Although she had heard from one of the footmen that Morgana had dismissed all the staff early so they could enjoy an early night, Gwen stayed where she was in the room Morgana set aside for Gwen to work in. There had been six dresses that needed repairing; beads needed to be re-attached, hems sewn back up again. Several also needed to be ironed and that was the work of an age. Gwen had dreaded the task, as she knew it would take her hours, and she had been putting it off for a long time, but the free evening gave her plenty of time for it. She could have gotten help with it, but Morgana was a private person, and didn't like people she didn't know or trust dealing with her things. Still, now it was done and finished and it wasn't looming over her head any more. She only wanted to check up on her mistress and see if she was sleeping peacefully or if she needed anything else before she left for the night.
There was no reply from inside, so Gwen pushed the door open silently and crept forward, candle held aloft, to see if she was sleeping.
The bed was empty.
Confused, she reached forward and touched the covers. They were stone cold, as if it had been hours since someone had lain beneath them. She went to the ante-chamber door.
"Lady Morgana?" she called softly, but again received no reply. She peeked inside to find the room in darkness. Concerned now, she used the candle to light the little oil lamps in the room and looked around. The door of her wardrobe was flung open and the clothing that Gwen spent time so carefully and lovingly cleaning and putting away carefully were rifled through, spilling out from the wardrobe onto the floor. She suppressed the feeling of irritation at the sight and quickly took stock of the contents, noticing with a sinking feeling that one or two of her lady's simpler dresses and her favourite red cloak were missing. Gwen hurried over to the tall chest of drawers that stood in the corner and opened the jewellery box that was placed on top. A quick scan of the contents showed that several of Morgana's favoured pieces were missing, along with her mother's necklace that she only wore on special occasions.
She turned and the sinking feeling she'd felt when she saw the missing items was replaced with a feeling of dread when she found the sealed letter, addressed to her, lying on the table next to the door. She opened it quickly and scanned the brief contents in horror.
This cannot be...
Apparently, she would.
Turing, Gwen abandoned any pretence of grace and control and ran through the halls. She barely spared the time to grab her cloak before she ran out into the cool night air.
She needed to get to Lancelot.
"So," Arthur said as he strode through his front door, Merlin at his heels. "Care to explain what was so important that you sent Cedric to get me from Whites?" Lance stood back, closing the door behind them, a tense expression on his face.
"What is it, Lance?" Merlin asked, stepping forward. His friend's handsome features were clouded with worry. He indicated down the hallway to the front sitting room.
"In there," he said solemnly. Merlin followed down the hallway, both removing coats and gloves as they went. Merlin was shocked to discover Gwen, his friend and Lady Morgana's ladies maid, ensconced in one of the chairs. She held a cup in her trembling hands and her eyes were red rimmed and puffy as if she had been crying.
"Guinevere? What's wrong?" Arthur asked, coming to a stop in a crouch in front of her. She burst into tears again at Arthur's uncharacteristic kindness and soft voice and Arthur looked and Lancelot, confused.
"She arrived about an hour ago," he explained, sitting down next to her and putting an arm around her shaking shoulders. Gwen clutched at his hand as if it were her only source of strength.
Maybe he was.
"It's alright Lance," Gwen said after a moment. "I'm alright." She turned to Arthur and took a deep breath as if to steel her nerves. "My lady has been in a strange mood the past few days, but she would not say what it was wrong. Then yesterday, she was as calm as peaceful as I had seen her in months. This morning she complained of a headache and it got worse during the day. She retired to bed this afternoon with a migraine and dismissed all of us staff early. I stayed behind because I had some work to finish. Some of her dresses needed some caretaking and it took me several hours. At around ten, I finished and went to check on her once more before I left. She wasn't there, and some of her clothes and jewellery were missing. I found this and I read it, then I came straight here." She held out a letter with her name on the front. The seal had been broken from where she had opened it before, and Arthur read the missive in silence. Merlin saw his face go pale at first, then bright red with fury.
"What is it?" he asked as Arthur stood and strode to the mantel, bracing his arms against it and hanging his head low in anger.
"Morgana has eloped," he finally gritted out, and Merlin felt his own face go pale.
"But... she can't!" he exclaimed.
"Apparently, she can," Arthur replied. He turned to look Merlin straight in the eye. "And it gets worse. She has eloped with Mordred Sortiar."
Arthur saw Merlin's face flush red with fury as his own had done. That was good: he understood just how dangerous this situation was.
"How did this happen?" Arthur exclaimed, unable to prevent himself from shouting. "How did you not know what your lady was planning?" he asked of Guinevere, who looked as if she was about to burst into tears again before she rallied and looked him straight in the eye.
"My Lady has been acting strange over the past few weeks, but she would not tell me why. It isn't as if I didn't care enough to ask!"
"How did she even know him?" Arthur fumed.
"She... I... She's been meeting him for the past several weeks in secret," Gwen admitted in a quiet voice.
"WHAT?" Arthur roared. "Why didn't you tell somebody? Why didn't you stop her?"
"You think I didn't try?" Gwen snapped back. "She made me promise not to tell anyone. I swear, I wanted to let you know. I'm so sorry, Sir. I'm sorry Lance," she said to her fiancé, who looked as if he had been slapped in the face.
"Arthur, that's enough," Merlin reprimanded him, coming to crouch next to her as he had done a few minutes ago, and Arthur felt an insane flash of jealousy as the doctor took Guinevere's hand. They had always been on good terms, friends even, and for an insane moment, Arthur felt the bitter sting of envy as he looked at Merlin so casually taking her hand in comfort, when they could not even...
No. Now was not the time to think on that.
"Is there anything else you can tell us?" Merlin asked his friend, focusing her attention back onto him. "How long had they been gone when you noticed Lady Morgana missing?"
"I don't know. I was upstairs working for several hours, and it was ten by the time I was finished. She could have been gone as soon as it was dark out. I mean, if she had her bags packed and was ready to go..."
"She would have," Arthur interrupted, shooting an apologetic glance at Guinevere for his brusque tone earlier. "Morgana was always to clever and organised for her own good. She deliberately made you believe she was ill with a migraine so you would all leave her alone and in peace. She was probably ready to go as soon as it was dark, but she underestimated your loyalty Gwen. I wouldn't be surprised if Sortiar was hidden in the house somewhere to help her out."
A shudder ran through Guinevere.
"What is it?" Lance asked, tightening his arm around her shoulder, worry etched on his face. His earlier anger at the secret seemed to be forgotten, for now anyway.
"It's just... Lord Sortiar. He... un-nerves me. Frightens me even."
"If he has done anything to harm you... I already want to have words with that bodyguard of his for what he said to you last week..." Lance began, half rising out of his seat before his fiancée pulled him back down beside her.
"No," she assured him. "He barely even looks at me. But there's something about his eyes... so cold and calculating. And the way he acts around my Lady. It is as if he is obsessed with her. I fear for her, my Lord." The last part was addressed to Arthur, and he straightened, feeling the weight of her expectations falling onto him.
"Alright, so you found her missing at ten o'clock, you say?" he asked.
She nodded. "Yes, my Lord."
"Alright then," he said, beginning to pace the room. "I assume you came straight here?"
Gwen nodded again. "I ran all the way, my Lord."
"You ran through London at night? On your own?" Lance almost screeched. "Did anyone approach you? Did anyone harm you?"
"I am fine," she said softly. "I just ran, too upset to even think of stopping for anyone. Besides, I am not entirely helpless, Lancelot du Lac." She pulled herself up to her full height as much as she could while seated, then she blushed. "My father always taught me that if a man tries anything, I'm to punch him in nose and put my knee..." Her blush intensified, and despite the situation, Arthur grinned. This woman was something else. He almost felt jealous of Lance.
Lance smiled at her and, ignoring Arthur and Merlin's presence, pulled her close and placed a chaste kiss on her mouth. She blushed again.
"What time did you arrive here at?" he asked, determined not to be charmed and sidetracked from the situation at hand.
"She got here just after before quarter to eleven," Lance told Arthur. "Once she got her breath back, she showed me the letter and I send Cedric out with the carriage to find you."
"He didn't track us down at White's until almost half eleven," Arthur mused.
"It certainly didn't look to me as if he had been rushing," Merlin said in a petulant tone. It was no secret that Merlin hated Cedric more than almost anyone, not trusting him one whit.
"And we came straight back here." Arthur looked at the clock. It was well past twelve.
"So, say Morgana left around nine this evening. That gives her three hours on us. I doubt, though, that they would ride."
"Lady Morgana is a skilled rider," Merlin said, standing and coming next to Arthur. "But that is too far to go on horse, especially if they have bags which it sounds like have. They would have been using a carriage."
"If Lady Morgana thought Gwen was gone for the night and that no one would check on her, they must think that they have the night to travel, and would be twelve hours ahead of us before anyone finds out. I wouldn't be surprised if they drove through the night," Lance said from his position beside Gwen.
"They need to rest at some point though," Merlin mused. "If they drove through the night, and if they changed horses several times and rode at a fast clip, with the empty roads they could be fifty miles away by the time anyone found out they were even gone."
"Agreed. And knowing Sortiar, he wouldn't risk an inn somewhere, even if they were in disguise. He'd want somewhere private. Secluded, where there was no one to tell tales on them." Arthur paced, deep in thought. "Camlann!" he shouted after a moment.
"Where's Camlann?" Lance asked, standing and coming forward. Arthur felt as if he was in Spain and France again, and Lancelot was once again his trusted captain, awaiting orders.
"Camlann Estate is the seat of the Le Fay family," Arthur explained to them. "It's a beautiful old house and grounds near Cambridge . My father and I often visited there when I was a child and Lord Gorlois was still alive. It was shut up after his death, I believe, and the servants transferred to different houses of Morgana's. It's set back in its own ground, secluded and private. I'd lay money that they are there."
"I'm inclined to agree with you," Lance said, and Arthur knew he was mentally reviewing the terrain from here to there. "If we leave within the hour, there's a good chance we can catch up to them by morning."
"We need to stop and get my medical kit first," Merlin interrupted.
"Oh no, you're not going," Arthur said and Merlin bristled at his tone.
"Like hell I'm not," he stated, drawing himself up to his full height which was, unfortunately, an inch or two taller than Arthur, forcing him to look up slightly to see the anger in his eyes. "I may not be a soldier, but I have been on battlefields and I can defend myself. Besides, I am not letting you two go off and get yourself killed when I could have been there to help. You've said yourself: Mordred Sortiar is dangerous, and the men in his employ aren't much better. I'm going."
"Fine," Arthur snapped, fighting down the urge to argue. Merlin made sense but the thought of him being in danger made his gut twist. "I'll get Cedric to pack some provisions and ready the horses. We leave within the hour. I've got some horses stabled along the way. If we change often, we may catch them up before dawn."
An Undisclosed Location in Spain,13th February, 1813
The nights got cold in these mountains, especially at this time of year. Arthur rubbed his gloved hands together to try and generate more heat as he continued to pick a path through the trees towards the next perimeter guard point. He was their leader and, of course, the men did not expect him to perform guard duty, but he never slept well until he had done at least two walk-throughs of the perimeter and checked in with the sentries at least twice. It had nothing at all to do with the foot tall pile of paperwork waiting for him on his desk in his tent. None at all. He was a Pendragon, and Pendragon's didn't procrastinate.
He slipped silently towards the area where he had posted two of his men on lookout. He'd sent Owain and Pellinore out together in the hope that some of Pellinore's experience and sense of calm would rub off on the younger soldier. Owain was a skilled soldier; he was honest and he fought with a strength that Arthur admired. But he was also young, impulsive and undisciplined, and since he had taken a shine to Pellinore, Arthur had posted them together in the hope that the older soldiers influence would calm him down. Arthur had high hopes for Owain. He would make a good officer, once he matured some. He was the second son, and therefore free to do as he chose. Arthur hoped he would make the military his career.
As he approached their position, he whistled long and low to signal his approach. The last thing he needed was a bullet in his head for startling them. He cocked his head, frowning at the lack of answering whistle. He tried again, a little louder this time but again, received none in return. He looked out from behind the trees to the sentry point, pistol already in hand.
Owain and Pellinore were not there.
Melting back into the forest, he began to check the area, certain that they would not just abandon their post. He scanned the areas around the sentry point until... There. That group of bushes seemed squashed and trampled. Weapon at the ready, he pushed it aside and his heart sank. Pellinore and Owain lay there, side by side, and both clearly dead. Owain's throat had been slashed wide open and Pellinore's neck was turned to an unnatural angle. Both their uniform jacket's were missing.
Cursing, he turned and ran directly back to their camp, not concerning himself with stealth and subterfuge now. They had intruders. He alerted the men as he ran through the trees and out into base camp, dodging rows of tents and bedrolls. He called a select few of his men to him as he ran, making his way towards the General's tent. His mind raced, trying to think of reasons for this incursion. Why here and why now? They were on no particular mission of great importance. It had to be because his father was going on inspection. The General was due to be with his company for two weeks on an inspection tour. It made a frightening amount of sense. He felt, more than saw, DuLac fall into step with him, and was grateful for the presence of his captain and friend. Lancelot was an extremely competent warrior. He would help defend his father.
When they reached the General's tent which was set a bit away and at an angle from the other tents in the camo, Arthur was dismayed to see that the two sentries he had posted to protect his father were dead. They had fallen where they stood without having the chance to alert anyone else. He burst into the tent, assessing the situation. His father was dressed simply, in his breeches and a shirt, and was grappling with a man in an ill-fitting uniform jacket. Arthur recognised him instantly as Tauren, a particularly effective French spy and assassin and he raised his pistol and took the shot without remorse.
Tauren's body slumped onto his father, the bullet in his side killing him instantly. Arthur guessed he had hit his heart, and allowed himself half a second to wish his death had been longer and much more painful. He dropped his spent pistol, exchanged an 'I'm glad you're alive and unharmed' nod with his father, who returned it, and drew his sword, ordering duLac and his cousin Leon to stay to protect his father as he scanned the area. There was no way that Tauren, no matter how skilled, could have taken down four sentries on his own. There was a reason they were posted in twos.
Tauren had help from someone in the camp. And Arthur was going to find him.
No one threatened a Pendragon and got away with it. No one.
Arthur scanned the hillside, taking in everything. There. Movement. Disappearing into the trees.
He shouted for his men to follow, but didn't wait for them. He took off after the fleeing figure, determined not to lose him. He pushed his way into the copse of trees, following the faint trail the would-be assassin left behind. He heard his men crashing after him, but his rage and worry fuelled him and he outpaced them. Finally he caught up with the tall, cloaked figure in front of him.
He grabbed his jacket through the cloak and spun him around, sword drawn. The cloth tore in his hand and Arthur caught a glimpse of a dark, spiral tattoo on a pale shoulder before a loud explosion rent the air and his world spiralled into pain. He collapsed onto the cold ground as the figure retreated further into the trees. He clutched at his shoulder, hands slick with blood as he gasped and gagged with pain.
That tattoo... He had seen it before. He knew he had... During the summer... Sortiar...
He heard his men approached, spurred on by the sound of the gunshot. He heard their cries of alarm, the shouting of orders and felt himself being lifted up. His shoulder was jostled and he screamed in pain despite clenching his teeth against the urge. He tried to speak, to say what he had seen, to tell people that it was Sortiar but his shoulder was jostled again and blackness overtook him before he could even open his mouth.
As Arthur rode, his shoulder ached and he rubbed it self-consciously and promised himself that, no matter how he did it, Mordred Sortiar would die tonight,
It was near dawn by the time they made it to Camlann. The sun was just starting to light the sky, casting long shadows as they made their way down the country roads. They'd ridden hard throughout the night, rousing innkeepers with loud knocking on the door so they could change horses frequently. Arthur was a good judge of horseflesh, and had several stabled all over the country, which they were thankful for now. They asked at every inn they found, and no one matching Morgana's or Sortiar's description had even stopped for a refreshing drink or for some food. Arthur hoped like hell that they were on the right track. They couldn't keep going indefinitely; Merlin especially was flagging, unused to such hard riding and still recovering from his beating, but Arthur didn't want to stop until they had found them.
To do so would be to admit defeat, and that was unacceptable.
Finally, as the sun was lighting the sky, and after several false starts and backtracking, it had been ten years since Arthur had been there after all, they arrived.
Camlann House was a beautiful, old mansion of grey stone, set within acres of parkland. The gravel driveway from the gate to the front door twisted and turned through poplar and oak trees and wrapped around the beautiful, ivy coloured building to the stables and beyond. Arthur knew from childhood stays that the parkland stretched far back, and that the surround lands for miles around also belonged to the le Fay family, but his knowledge of the lay of the land would be of little use to them now. It was just a guess that Morgana and Sortiar would be stopping here; and educated one, but a guess none the less.
He, Lance and Merlin approached slowly, warily. The gate lodge was empty, locked up tight so their tethered their horses in the shadows and checked their weapons. Merlin checked his pistol, but also rifled though his medical bag one more time before slinging it over his shoulder. Arthur watched him out of the corner of his eye, mind refusing to dwell on the prospect that something could happen to him. He looked out of place, toting a gun and a sword and looked as if a stiff breeze would knock him over and send him flying. Arthur sent him a weak smile before making his way up the drive, the other two falling into step behind him.
There were no grounds-keepers or staff around to challenge them as they made their way forward, Merlin falling over his own feet three times in an attempt at stealth. When they reached the house itself, it was in darkness, giving every indication of being locked up for the season. The third time Merlin fell, just by the house, his face landed directly in a patch of horse manure.
"Oh God, that is disgusting," Merlin exclaimed, as Arthur and Lance hid their smirks of amusement.
"Merlin! Stealth, remember?" Lance whispered. "Or have we abandoned all pretence of silence?"
"I don't care," Merlin hissed back. "God, it stinks!"
"Shh Merlin," Arthur huffed and poked him in the side with his toe. "Honestly, do you have any natural talents at all?" He reached down helped Merlin to his feet, grimacing as he pulled out a handkerchief and gave it to Merlin to clean up with.
"Let me see," Merlin said thoughtfully, wetting the cloth with water from his canteen and scrubbing at his cheek. "I'm not naturally rude or insensitive."
"Just naturally irritating." Arthur was frowning, but they could all hear the affection in his tone.
"Sir," Lance's voice was low bur urgent. He was crouched by where Merlin had fallen in manure, examining the spot. Arthur went to his side, squatting down beside him. "It's fresh," the former Lieutenant told his Captain. "Only a few hours old. It's the first sign we've seen that anyone has even been here in months."
Arthur stood and Lance followed, moving smoothly to the side of the house where they had a view of the stables. Merlin followed not so stealthily, but at least he stayed on his feet. Arthur bit back the automatic reprimand on his tongue. Merlin was not one of his men. He was not a soldier and he was doing his best despite not having any training in the art of war. Still, Arthur wished he was a bit quieter.
They could see that the door to the stables was half open. A light from a lantern shone brightly inside and they all reflexively ducked back and hid when a man's figure passed by the door, briefly illuminating his face.
"I know him. He's one of Sortiar's men. He acts as a coach driver and a bodyguard for him," Lance confirmed. "He said some things to Gwen a few weeks ago that... well... It was lucky I wasn't armed when she told me or else I'd be in front of the Magistrate for murder." His hands curled into fists.
"Somehow, it doesn't surprise me that someone like that would be in Sortiar's employ," Merlin murmured and Arthur had to whole-heartedly agree.
"At least we know they're here," he reasoned, and Lance nodded.
"True." He indicated to the stables. "Leave him to me. Go find Lady Morgana. I've been wanting to do this for weeks."
Arthur nodded. "Be careful. There could be more of them in there."
"You too. Watch your back. And you, Merlin. We don't know how many people he has in there," Lance said and slipped around the corner.
Merlin was shaking as he and Arthur backtracked towards the front door, crouching low to avoid being seen through the windows. They reached the heavy oak door and Arthur paused, reaching out to put a hand on Merlin's shoulder.
"Arthur." Though he was shaking, Merlin's voice only held a slight waver in it. "My throat's dry."
"So is mine," Arthur smiled slightly. Merlin gulped and looked away.
"Whatever happens in there, please don't think less of me."
"It's ok to be nervous Merlin."
"I don't know why I'm shaking. I've been to battlefields before. I've seen war. I should be used to violence such as this. But Arthur, I have a really bad feeling that something is going to go wrong."
"Everyone feels that way during their first confrontation," Arthur assured him. He paused once more before clearing his throat. "Merlin, whatever happens... It's been an honour. It's been an honour to know you. To lo... It's... just been an honour."
Merlin sent a shaky smile his way. "So, what's the plan?" he asked
Arthur pointed to the door.
"We go in there. We find Morgana and Sortiar, talk some sense into her and get her the hell out of here. If that involves physical pain to Sortiar, then I'm all for it."
"That's it?" Merlin sounded decidedly unimpressed. "That's your grand plan that you've been working on since London? Go in the front door?"
"Yep. If that's locked, we'll try the servant's entrance and if all else fails, smash a window. But I don't want to do that. It would give away out advantage of surprise. But, Sortiar would be arrogant and careless enough to forget to lock the door behind him. Either that or they didn't have a key and would have to break in, though I'm not sure Morgana would go for that."
Feigning a confidence he didn't feel, Arthur cocked the hammer of his pistol and approached the door. He had to admit, despite his earlier statement to Merlin, he was a little surprised when the knob turned easily in his hands. Merlin followed him through, holding his gun ready in suddenly steady hands. Arthur raised his eyebrow in his direction.
"I'm watching your back," Merlin whispered and Arthur nodded, feeling the same sense of responsibility to keep Merlin safe.
The sun was creeping over the trees, illuminating the hallway through the windows and the open door. Arthur found a candle sitting in its holder on the cloth covered table in the front hall. From the dust marks around it, he could see that until very recently, its twin had sat next to it. Someone no doubt needed it to light their way in the dark. The high windows in the foyer and on the landing of the split staircase in front of them let enough of the dawn light in and gave them enough light to see by, so Arthur left the candle where it was. He placed his finger on his lips to indicate silence and motioned Merlin forward.
They stopped in front of the impressively large staircase (one of three, Arthur knew). The ground floor stretched out into two hallways, bisected by the foyer and staircase. Arthur held up his hand and Merlin froze beside him, both straining their ears for the hint of a sound. Arthur was about to gesture for Merlin check down the opposite hall when they heard it; the delicate peal of feminine laughter coming from their left. The crept down the hallway, the thick carpet muffling the sounds of their approach. When they located the room, the ballroom, if Merlin remembered correctly, they paused again and heard the low murmur of voices and the 'chink' of glasses. Arthur nodded to Merlin who stiffened his spine as he opened the door suddenly and stepped inside.
Morgana and Sortiar had been sitting close together on a blanket on the floor of the empty ballroom, legs intertwined as they toasted each other. The sat facing the open doors to the garden at the back of the house, watching the sun rise over the trees as they ate a meal of bread, cheese, meat and wine that they had unpacked from a basket that had probably been on the coach with them. They sprung apart and stumbled to their feet when Arthur slammed the door open with enough force that it hit the wall.
"Arthur... what..." Morgana began, shock writ in every line of her body.
"Pendragon..." Sortiar snarled. "Oh and what a surprise. You're little lapdog isn't far behind," he mocked when he noticed Merlin behind him.
"Shut your mouth Sortiar," Arthur snarled and turned to face Morgana. She was dressed in a simple green dress and her hair was loose over her shoulders. She looked shocked to see him, and her lip curled in disgust when her eyes flickered to Merlin. "Why are you doing this Morgana?" Arthur asked, his voice low.
"Did you really think I would marry you?" she sneered, coming to stand beside Mordred. Arthur felt Merlin do the same beside him.
"Well, yes actually," he replied, letting his confusion show. "It is what you agreed to, after all."
"That was before," Morgana told him calmly. "Before I met Mordred, and before everything became clear."
Arthur blew out a steady breath. He couldn't get angry and start shouting. It had never worked on Morgana before, and he really didn't think it would start now.
"Listen, whatever he has told you... It's a lie, Morgana. None of it is the truth."
"Oh, so you're not in love with Merlin and you didn't kiss him in the Wentworth's garden then?" she asked, voice faux innocent. Arthur felt the blood drain from his face and felt Merlin stagger back beside him. He spared his friend a glance and saw that his pallor matched Arthur's own. He looked like he was going to be sick, and Arthur understood the feeling. How had she known? No one had seen them. But, that was the first party that Sortiar had shown up at... He spun to face the other man who was watching him, a smirk on his lips.
"That's right," he mocked. "I saw you. You were far from subtle, the pair of you."
Arthur tore his gaze away from Sortiar's and back to Morgana.
"Morgana, yes, it's true what he said. I do... have affections for Merlin, but I would never..."
"Oh I know it is true," she snapped, eyes flashing in anger. "I saw the way you looked when you got the news of Merlin being attacked. You looked as if you wanted to die yourself."
"Wait, it was you!" Merlin suddenly stepped forward, anger writ in every line of his body as he pointed at Sortiar. "You were the man that almost knocked me down before I was attacked. You were marking me as a target!"
"Oh very good," Sortiar mocked. "I knew you had to be smarter than you looked. Despite your roots, you seem to have half a brain."
Merlin growled and surged forward at the insult to his mother, but Arthur shot out a hand and held him back.
"Not now," he said and after a moment, Merlin relaxed in his grip. Morgana shot them both a dirty look.
"How could you Arthur?" she asked, pain in her voice. "After everything that Edwin put me through. You know what his tastes were like. And you wanted me to marry you?"
Arthur winced and paled even further at the implications.
"No, Arthur," she snapped. "I don't want to hear it."
"Well tough, because you have to," Arthur snapped back. "Sortiar is dangerous Morgana. He shot me. He tried to kill my father. He aided the French. He's a traitor, Morgana."
"No, he's a survivor," she told him. "And you can save your breath. I know everything. Mordred and I have no secrets from each other," she said and Arthur staggered back in shock. She knew... Morgana knew and she still...
"Morgana, how could you?" he asked, sick to the stomach. "You know what he is... what he tried to do..."
"Not everyone had everything handed to them Arthur," Morgana told him contemptuously. "Some people have to do things they would normally never do to survive. I mean, I never thought we'd end up here," she said as she reached into a hidden pocket of her dress and pulled out a pistol, levelling it at him. To her right, Mordred mirrored her actions, leaning down quickly and picking up his own gun from the blanket behind him..
Beside him, Merlin froze.
"You can't seriously hope to kill us and get away with it," Arthur scoffed, hoping to bide time, but he knew he was bluffing, and they knew it too. He and Merlin were at their mercy, their own guns not even in their hands, having tucked them away when they saw that Mordred and Morgana were unarmed.
"The circumstances of your death were very tragic," Mordred intoned faux-sadly, his gun never wavering from Arthur's chest. "You, enraged at the thought of your fiancée eloping with another man after your dreadful treatment of her, came here with murder in mind. I heroically saved Morgana from your rage, but you were unfortunately killed in the process."
"And what about Merlin? And Guinevere? She knows about your elopement. She's the one that found your letter early," Arthur growled. "They're not just going to keep quiet about this."
"As if we would let Emrys live," Mordred laughed. "Besides, do you think there would be such a hue and cry over one missing doctor? No one will miss him."
"And Gwen will not talk. She's loyal to me," Morgana said smugly.
"Are you so sure about that?" Merlin said. "If that was the case, then we wouldn't be here. She would have found your note and not done anything until today. But she ran straight to Arthur."
"Obviously she's not as loyal as I thought," Morgana said, eyes narrowing and voice filled with contempt for Merlin. "I'll deal with her later."
"You'll deal with her?" Arthur asked incredulously. "Listen to yourself Morgana. Gwen is your closest friend. You're not acting like yourself."
"Actually, she's acting just like herself," Mordred interrupted. "For the first time in her life, she's free."
"You've changed her. You did this to her, you bastard!" Arthur shouted, taking a step toward Mordred, but the traitor cocked the hammer of his gun, and Morgana did the same beside him and Arthur froze.
"Another step Pendragon, and you'll find out just how quick a shot I am," he snarled before he paused and cocked his head to one side, looking at Arthur. Arthur glared back, and for one moment, he caught a flash of Mordred as he used to be. As he was, before? His head swam as the memories assaulted him and he blink to clear his mind.
Mordred. The druid boy who he had helped and who had turned traitor.
"Actually, that's not a bad idea to show you who is better," Mordred said, and fired, Morgana a half second behind him.
Before he could even blink, Arthur felt himself slam to the ground and pain flared through his body. But, as he hear a muffled thump to his left and turned and saw Merlin slumped beside him, he realised that his back was sore from the fall and his head rung from where it had hit the hard floor, but he wasn't hurting from bullet wounds. As he saw the dark patches of blood begin to spread across Merlin's chest and his leg, horror stole his breath.
"Merlin," he choked, ignoring the other two in the room as he crawled quickly to his side. Merlin's breathing was laboured, but he was conscious. Arthur could see the fear and pain in his eyes even as he pressed his hands to the wounds in Merlin's shoulder and in his upper thigh.
"Well, that was unexpected," Mordred said from behind him and Arthur turned to glare at him. Sortiar was exchanging looks of surprise with Morgana. "I never thought he'd actually jump in front of bullets for you. Oh well, it saves us killing him later," he said nonchalantly, pulling out another pistol from his pack on the ground. Arthur cursed himself for not moving for his gun first and looked down at Merlin.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly and Merlin smiled weakly up at him. His eyes shifted down to his hands and Arthur saw the gun clasped in his shaking fingers. He smiled again and in a flash of movement, Arthur grabbed the gun and spun on his knee, shooting before he had even finished moving. Mordred's look of contempt melted into one of confusion as he collapsed to the ground, a perfect, round bullet hole in the middle of his forehead.
Morgana's scream of anguish was both terrible and heartbreaking.
She collapsed next to him, shaking his shoulders and crying his name. But Mordred was dead, gone before he hit the floor. She beat at his chest, crying in agony and sobbing his name over and over. She spied the gun in his hand and grabbed it, turning to aim it at Arthur, eyes mad and hair wild. A shot rang out and Arthur thought 'This is it. This is the one that kills me,' but again, no bullets tore at his flesh.
Morgana screamed and grabbed her arm, doubling over at the pain of the wound. Lance stood at the door to the ballroom, a bruise forming in his cheek and his shirt torn. But the gun was steady in his hand as he lowered it to his side. Morgana glared at them before she turned and ran, clutching her arm as he disappeared through the open doors of the ballroom.
"Leave her," Arthur ordered as Lance made to move after her. "I need your help."
Lance dropped to the ground beside him and pressed his hand to Merlin's shoulder. Arthur scrabbled at his cravat and tied it around Merlin's leg in a tourniquet.
"What happened to Mordred's man?" Arthur asked, wincing at the cry of pain from Merlin when he tied off the knot.
"Taken care of," Lance said grimly. "I put some speed on when I heard the gunshots. Sir, we're going to need help with this," he said, adding more pressure to the wound. Arthur thought frantically for something that could help them.
"There's a town about a mile to the east. There's surely a doctor there. Go, get help."
"Go," Merlin encouraged, coughing painfully. "I can tell him what to do."
The former soldier nodded once, squeezed Merlin's hand quickly and leapt to his feet, disappearing in seconds. Arthur rummaged through Merlin's bag for bandages, slaves, anything that could help. In the end, he simply emptied the bag beside him, sending the contents spilling everywhere. He looked back at Merlin, who was blinking up at him in a pain filled haze.
"No," Arthur interrupted sharply. "No, do not say your goodbyes now Merlin. You won't die, I won't let you. If you even attempt it, I swear I will drag you back and kill you myself. Now," he said, holding up the bandages, "tell me what to do."
Arthur stood and stretched, back and legs aching from sitting hunched in a chair all night. Behind him, Merlin was sleeping soundly, at last. He'd had a restless night, fever burning him up from the inside and causing him to babble in tongues and hallucinate. Arthur had coloured in embarrassment at Merlin moaning his name with the encouragement of 'Faster Arthur, faster', and at the subsequent raised eyebrow he'd received from Gaius. The doctor has simply said "You are both my patients and anything you do or say, I keep in the strictest confidence" before leaning forward to check Merlin's forehead and ignore Arthur's red face. That had been hours ago. Merlin was now resting comfortably, over the worst of the first few days, so Gaius had gone to get some well earned sleep.
Lance had arrived back at Camlann almost an hour later; the longest hour in Arthur's life. Arthur had been a soldier. He'd led men into battle, seen them bloodied, injured and dying, he'd seen Merlin work himself to the point of exhaustion trying to save the un-saveable, he'd seen friend's bodies splayed on the ground in a careless manner as f they were worth nothing more than the barest glance, but nothing felt worse than kneeling next to Merlin in an empty ballroom, trying desperately to stem the flow of blood as Mordred's body cooled not ten feet from them. Merlin had gone unconscious after the first ten minutes, his halting instructions between laboured breathes ringing in Arthur's ears as he did his best to save the man he cared for above everything in this world. When the wounds were bandaged to the best of his ability, and as Merlin lay unconscious and alarmingly place, Arthur finally allowed himself to think past the blind panic and just let himself feel.
The pain and worry would have driven him to his knees had he not been already seated on the floor. Merlin's head was resting in his lap and Arthur stroked shaking, blood stained fingers through his dark hair, damp with sweat from pain and exertion. When those guns had gone off, Arthur had been sure that his time was up. When Merlin had collapsed against him - and how had he been able to move so fast anyway? – Arthur had felt rage like never before. He's reacted on instinct, and was glad that Mordred had been killed with one shot, though he wished to God that it could have been slower and much more painful. His focus at that point had been Merlin; he needed help and he needed it now.
Lance arrived back from town over an hour after he had left in search of a doctor. He arrived with a doctor, a constable and a magistrate in tow. The doctor had immediately gone to Merlin's side, earning him Arthur's gratitude and approval. He hadn't cared about sucking up to the Dukes son as Aredian, the magistrate, had done. He'd nodded his approval and they'd moved Merlin to one of the bedrooms. The magistrate had questioned Arthur on what happened, examining Mordred's body and taking his and Lance's version of events. Luckily, he accepted their version of events, possibly due to Arthur's title, or possibly due to the real fear evident on Arthur's face when Merlin had regained consciousness as they moved him and he had cried out in agony.
On Arthur's request, Aredian dispatched a rider to London when he returned to the town nearby to contact Doctor Winters, Merlin's uncle Gaius, and tell him of the events and prepare for their arrival. Arthur wanted to make their move to go to London as soon as Lance could locate a carriage in the town for their use, but the young doctor, Tristan de Bois, had insisted that he complete the surgery at Camlann. He didn't want to spend a second longer in this house than he had to, and he wanted to get Merlin out too, but the thought of the bullets in Merlin's side or leg moving while in transit, possibly severing an artery or nicking an internal organ and causing him to bleed to death made Arthur's blood run cold and he almost had to sit down.
The surgery had been as harrowing as Arthur expected it to be. Doctor De Bois had made him and Lance assist the surgery as he had no nurse to aid him due to the small size of the town, and by the time they were done removing the bullets, Arthur and Lance had been as pale as Merlin. De Bois had bandaged the wounds expertly and even gone as far as to stay with them until they were leaving the next day in case anything went wrong. Merlin was in and out of consciousness the whole time, waking and begging for water before falling back under again. Through the grace of God, he'd been under for most of the trip back to London. Even Arthur found the trip uncomfortable and bumpy, and he was mostly concerned with taking care of Merlin until they got back to Avalon.
Gaius was waiting for them when they returned to London. He tusked and tutted over them all as they carried Merlin inside, ignoring the looks they were getting from Arthur's neighbours and friends that had seen the strange carriage pull up outside Avalon. Arthur knew the Ton was probably dining out on the story of the tragedy with relish, and though he usually hated being the focus of gossip, right them, he hadn't cared one whit. Merlin had developed a fever a few hours out of London, and it had taken all of Gaius' skill to keep his nephew alive.
Now, days later, Merlin's fever had broken, he was sleeping peacefully, and Arthur's heart could start beating at a normal pace again.
Arthur's father had arrived several hours before, demanding explanations and threatening death and dismemberment to Morgana. Gwen had sat with Merlin while Uther had been ranting at his son. Arthur had told him all he knew for certain; that Morgana had made it back to London, taken as much gold and jewellery from her house that she could pack in her saddle bags and disappeared. Arthur's people had traced her as far as France where they'd lost her when she disguised herself as a boy, something they were not expecting.
What Arthur hadn't told his father was that he had an inkling where Morgana had gone, or planned to go at some point. She'd always wanted to go to Italy, and spoke the language like a native. His father had sat there, behind Arthur's desk, treating to him like a schoolboy in his own home, and he just couldn't do it. The Duke would have hunted Morgana to the ends of the Earth for threatening his heir, especially if he had a direction in mind instead of just 'somewhere on the continent'.
Despite everything that had happened, Arthur didn't hate her. Her past had deeply scarred her, both physically and mentally. Muirden had driven her to the brink time and time again during the course of their marriage, and it had poisoned her mind. Meeting Sortiar, and being influenced by him, had been the tip she needed to go over the edge. And Arthur wasn't cruel enough to seek revenge on a mad woman. He felt also that he had a part to play in the blame. That is... his tastes... his affections for Merlin may have aided to her insanity, especially considering what Muirden had put her through. Her anger lay with him. He knew she would not harm anyone else.
Behind him, Merlin stirred and Arthur tore himself away from his contemplation of the streets below and went to his side.
"Arthur?" Merlin's voice was croaky and dry, husky from misuse.
"Would you like some water?" Arthur asked and, on Merlin's weak nod, he helped him sit up slightly and pressed a cup of water to his lips. Merlin's body, already lean, had lost what seemed like half his body weight due to fever and illness in the past few days and felt practically weightless in Arthur's arms. When Merlin's body began to shake from the exertion, Arthur gently eased him back down onto the bed. He'd only managed a few sips of the cool liquid, but it seemed relief enough and Merlin ran his tongue over his lips in appreciation, distracting Arthur momentarily. After a few minutes, he realised that he was staring at Merlin's lips and mentally shook himself. "You're in Avalon House," he told him. "Remember we moved you from Camlann a few days ago?" On Merlin's nod, he continued. "You developed an infection on the way back to London. You've been running a high fever for two days. It broke a few hours ago." Merlin nodded slowly, his sluggish mind eventually taking in what Arthur was telling him.
"What happened?" he asked after a moment, and Arthur was suddenly acutely aware that he was sitting next to Merlin's hip and that he had one hand on Merlin's shoulder and the other on Merlin's thigh. He went to move, but the look on Merlin's face stopped him. As if drawn by some invisible force, Arthur inched a bit closer.
"You jumped in front of a bullet for me, that's what happened," Arthur told him, voice as low as Merlin's to avoid breaking the spell that they were seemingly under. "You idiot. Why would you do that?"
"Do you even really have to ask?" Merlin arched a brow at him.
"You have to promise me not to do anything so stupid ever again," Arthur said. "Promise, Merlin. I can't lose you like that. It would kill me. Promise me!" Without realising it, he shook the doctor slightly and Merlin winced as his wounds were jostled. Arthur began to draw back in horror and guilt once he realised what he had done, but a hand on his sleeve stopped him.
"Then you'll just have to stop standing in front of any more guns then," Merlin told him through teeth gritted with pain, the intent look in his eyes and his tone of voice belying the lightness of his words.
"I'm always going to protect you Arthur. Protect you, heal you, save you, so you'd better get used to it."
A knock interrupted them, and Arthur only pulled back slightly as he called out a command to enter.
Lance stepped inside and gave Merlin a look of relief when he saw that he was awake. His brow arched slightly at their closeness, but he said nothing. Arthur knew there was a reason he liked him.
"Pardon me Sir," he said to Arthur. "But His Grace wishes to speak to you in the library."
Arthur sighed heavily.
"Tell him I shall be down presently," he said and Lance nodded and retreated. When he turned back to Merlin, the doctor was looking at him, face even paler than usual.
"Your father is here?"
"He arrived this morning and is certainly making his presence known. I need to go down there."
But he did not move from his place at Merlin's side. In fact, he slid his hand down from Merlin's shoulder to his palm. He traced lightly over the deep set lines, over his long, delicate fingers before entangling them in his own. Merlin looked at him, wide eyed and nervous.
"There are things... Merlin, there are things that we need to talk about," he said, not meeting Merlin's gaze and studying their intertwined hands instead. Merlin had beautiful hands, surprisingly graceful and competent considering how clumsy the doctor could be, and they'd been a constant source of distraction for him ever since they had met. "Not now," he continued. "Not with my father waiting downstairs. But soon, when you're better, alright?"
Merlin nodded mutely, looking shocked, and Arthur leaned forward and kissed him lightly, gently and just once on the lips. He sat back, feeling as daring and as free as he had ever felt before he stood, squared his shoulders and went to meet his father, confident in his chosen course.
Merlin lay there in the incredibly soft bed, Arthur's bed, he realised, fingertips brushing across his lips. Arthur had kissed him. He was stunned, until just now so certain it would be a sensation he would never feel again. The way Arthur was speaking and touching him... Merlin couldn't help the hope that flared in his chest. And try as he might to fight it down, it blossomed and grew.
A twinge of pain shot through his side and the dull, but noticeable, throb in the wound intensified to a spike of pain as he gasped and clutched at the wound. His leg jerked with the movement, sending another wave of agony through him and it took everything in him not to cry out. He gritted his teeth through the pain, gasping in huge lungfuls of air when it eventually abated. It took him a long moment to focus again, blinking his eyes against the sweat stinging his eyes. He collapsed back onto the bed, panting for air and shaking as if he had run a mile.
It was then that there was a knock on the door and his uncle popped his head in.
"Ah, excellent. Arthur told me you were awake," Gaius smiled as he came towards him. "I'm glad to see the truth of it. I was worried about you, my boy."
"Still here," Merlin gritted out through clenched teeth. Gaius sat next to him on the chair that Arthur had vacated and patted him on the hand.
"How are you feeling, my boy?" he asked kindly.
"Like I've just been shot," Merlin snarked back, pain souring is usually even temper. "And it hurts Uncle Gaius."
"I know Merlin. I know."
"How bad is the damage?" he asked, and Gaius looked away. Merlin felt his heart sink. "Gaius, tell me."
"Merlin..." Gaius began, sorrow clear on his face and Merlin's stomach heaved. "The bullet fractured your femur. You know that when something like happens, it can leave to severe nerve damage. I'll need to do some tests to determine the severity of the damage. I couldn't do it while you were asleep, and I truly hoped that this would not be the case, but I fear there is some nerve damage, and if there is, it will probably be permanent. I am sorry, my boy."
Merlin nodded numbly, aware of the implications. Nerve damage took a long time to repair, if it ever did. If it was bad enough, he would end up bound to a bed until the day he died. Best case scenario, he would walk with a limp for the rest of his life.
The thought chilled him to the bone. He'd always been an active child, running through the corridors of The Dragon's house at speed and climbing trees with Will on the grounds. As a man, he'd been in constant motion, running from patient to patient or following Arthur through the confusing strictures of society. But now... what would happen to him now.
"I've informed Hunith," Gaius told him. "I suspect she'll want to come see for yourself that you're alive and well."
"I suspect so," Merlin said distractedly. "If The Dragon will let her go, of course. It's been a long time since I've seen her."
"That old coot is a cantankerous bastard, but he's not a needlessly cruel man, Merlin," Gaius chided. "Hunith has to have seen some good in him, else she wouldn't have devoted so much of her time in looking after him so well over the years. He'll let her come visit."
"Good. Arthur will be pleased. She always dotes on him something terrible."
Gaius smirked. "Don't worry," he said. "You're still her favourite."
Merlin huffed out a breath of laughter and clutched his side in pain when it flared up.
"I'll let you get some rest," Gaius said, patting his hand again and rising to his feet. "I'll check on you again in a few hours. If you need me, get someone to call me, understand? No heroics or I'll tell Arthur and he'll nag you to death."
"Truly, a fate worse than death," Merlin commented but Gaius merely raised an eyebrow at him. Merlin lay there, aiming for innocent and probably missing the mark by a mile.
"Get some rest Merlin," Gaius chided. "And this time, try not to call out Lord Arthur's name in your sleep. Someone might hear." He left Merlin lying in the bed, cheeks burning with mortification.
Oh God, what had he said in his delirium? What had he done?
He was still fretting about it when exhaustion overtook him and he fell asleep.
When he woke again, he looked around and saw Arthur sitting in the chair by his bed, book propped in one hand, looking poised and gorgeous as he concentrated on the pages in front of him. He must have felt Merlin's gaze on him because he looked up at him and smiled, immediately closing the book.
"Hey, welcome back," he said softly, turning in the chair to face him. "How do you feel?"
"Terrible," Merlin answered honestly, and guilt flickered across Arthur's face for a moment.
"Water?" he asked and Merlin nodded, accepting the help to swallow a few drops of the deliciously cool liquid. "You missed dinner," Arthur informed him when he was settled back down again. "But don't worry. Gaius had the cook start brewing up a special batch of chicken broth using his own special recipe, so you'll be starting on that tomorrow."
"Oh wonderful," Merlin groaned, well acquainted with Gaius' attempts at culinary excellence in the past. "Just kill me now and have done with it."
"Big baby," Arthur scoffed, before falling uncharacteristically silent. He studied his hands for a moment before he met Merlin's eyes again. "Merlin, I didn't get a chance to thank you... What you did, pushing me out of the way. And Gaius said you were quite badly hurt..."
"Arthur, please don't." Merlin was perilously close to tears as it was.
"I just want you to know that you'll want for nothing. I..."
"I don't want your charity, Arthur."
Merlin was angry, beyond angry. He didn't need Arthur to feel sorry for him. To feel obligated to take care of him. He was not an idiot. He could look after himself.
"It's not charity, Merlin, It's gratitude."
"So you say," Merlin retorted. "I don't want you to feel sorry for me."
"I don't feel sorry for you, Merlin. Damnit, I love you!"
They both froze after Arthur's shouted confession, straining their ears for the sound of footsteps in the corridor and sighing in relief in unison when there was none.
Merlin pulled at a thread in the bed covers, cheeks burning.
"This can't have come as a surprise to you," Arthur said. "After everything that's happened..."
"No, I knew," Merlin said, daring a glance at Arthur. "But it's just the first time you've actually said the words to me directly, that's all."
"Oh." Arthur looked down and reached out, taking his hand in both of his own. "Well, I mean it Merlin. I do love you."
"I love you too," Merlin whispered back, strangely choked up. Arthur grinned widely and leaned forward to kiss him. Merlin hissed in pain as he stretched t meet his lips and Arthur pulled back after the merest brush of his lips.
"Not now, alright? We'll get you well first."
"Arthur, there could be severe nerve damage in my leg and side," Merlin told him solemnly. "It could be quite bad. I may never walk again."
"You'll walk. Just wait and see." Arthur sounded supremely confident and Merlin narrowed his eyes at him.
"Out of the two of us here, which one of us is the doctor, hmm?"
"A fancy medical degree has nothing on the pure stubbornness of the Pendragon men," Arthur said proudly. "I said I'll get you walking again, and I meant it. And I'll be with you every step of the way, yelling at you to move faster."
"Oh God, this is payback for me making you throw that ball for three hours straight when we were getting you back to health in Spain, isn't it?" Merlin groaned dramatically and Arthur laughed.
"Of course. You didn't think I'd forgotten about that, did you?" he chirped.
"Oh heaven forbid," Merlin said, lying back down and yawning widely. He looked at Arthur's smiling face once more before sleep claimed him again and he dropped off.
In the three months since he had been shot, Merlin became aware of three things:
1. Learning to function and rehabilitating yourself after being shot fucking hurt, and it was no wonder so many of his patients at the Royal Chelsea gave up.
2. That he was going to go out of his mind with boredom if he didn't find something to do, and
3. Arthur hadn't been lying when he had promised to be there for Merlin every step of the way.
It had taken a long time for his wound to heal over, and Arthur had been there to keep him company or just generally irritate him for fun. Even now it was sore and tender, even though it had mostly scarred over. He had been transferring himself (with great difficulty) from bed to chair to bath and back again, and it had taken him over a month to be able to put any weight on his leg at all. At least he'd bulked up a bit in the arm and chest area, Arthur had pointed out ever so helpfully, before he ducked to avoid the apple that Merlin had thrown at him.
If Merlin were honest with himself, he would have to admit that it was down to Arthur that he had gotten out of the bed at all. Even as a doctor that specialised in getting war veterans back on their feet, he really hadn't understood it from their side. Arthur did. He'd treated Merlin like one of his soldiers and had bullied, cajoled and ordered him back onto his feet and walking again in less than two months in an ironic mirroring of the first few months of their acquaintance. Gwen and Lancelot and most of the servants treated him with kid gloves, tip toeing around him as if he were made of glass, but Arthur knew better and was the demanding bastard he needed to be to get him back on his feet, just as Merlin had gotten him almost full use of his arm again after being shot during the war.
Walking was painful, but at least he could now get around without help, leaning heavily on an ash cane with a silver top that Arthur had commissioned for him. He was sure he was doing wonders for the image of modern medicine: a cranky, irritable doctor with a noticeable limp and a cane. But, as time went on and his leg strengthened, it got easier and the pain lessened to a dull throb most days. Other days, it was completely numb and those were the days Merlin felt the most self conscious, dragging his useless leg after him. Merlin knew that he would have a limp for the rest of his life, but at least he was alive.
And every flash of blond hair, every crinkle of blue eyes and every laugh from Arthur's mouth reminded Merlin just how much Arthur was worth the pain and hardship. He was worth every second of it and a hundred times more. Even if they never did cross that line to lovers; Merlin had no regrets.
Not a one.
Summer was just turning to Autumn and there was a definite chill in the breeze that ruffled his hair as he sat in the Gardens of Camelot House. Uther had summoned Arthur for yet another audience and Arthur had suggested that Merlin come along for a break from the city. They'd left London two days before and had arrived in Camelot yesterday. They'd gone carefully due to Merlin's injury, slow on the sometimes very bumpy roads. Even with the well sprung coach, it had been a painful journey for Merlin, and he was eternally grateful that he'd been unconscious for most of the trip to London from Camlann if it hurt this much after three months. Even the Duke's glare of disapproval when they had eventually arrived hadn't impacted Merlin and he'd simply collapsed in one of the dozen guestrooms in the mansion and slept right through the night.
When he got up the next day, it had been well past breakfast and Arthur was ensconced in his father's study with the Duke, discussing whatever the Lord Uther was upset about this time. He explored the house to the best of his ability before joining Arthur for lunch. His friend was stressed, quiet and withdrawn, but Merlin didn't push him to talk. Arthur didn't eat much either. Getting chewed out by his father tended to give him indigestion.
After lunch, while Merlin was wandering around the house, exploring, he happened to pass the study where the Duke and his son were talking. He heard raised voices arguing from behind the heavy oak door, and heard his name mentioned a time or two and beat a swift retreat. Despite the chill in the air, and the tiredness if his limbs, he decided to walk outside on the grounds for a while. The gardens of Camelot were extensive and well maintained; rose bushes and dozens of different flowers that he couldn't place growing in delicate patterns of arcs and swirls in the surrounding area. It was the end of the summer and some of the plants weren't even in bloom, Merlin could only imagine how breathtaking it was when they were. He wandered the pathways for a while, enjoying the silence only broken by the sound of birds, his footsteps and the faint 'click' of his cane on the ground. He found a bench situated under an oak tree and surrounded by sweet smelling flowers and sat back gratefully, his leg giving him a twinge of pain. He was unused to such exertions any more, and he hated that he tired so easily.
He didn't know how long he stayed out there, eyes closed and enjoying the fresh country breeze that he missed so much from his childhood. All he knew that when he opened his eyes again, the bright blue sky had clouded over with the dark grey clouds of an approaching storm. He was about to haul himself up and go back to the house when he heard familiar, brisk footsteps coming towards him. Arthur rounded the corner and smiled briefly upon seeing him there and Merlin slid over on the bench to give him room to sit.
"Thought I'd find you out here," Arthur said as he leaned back on the bench.
"I figured I'd be safer out here," Merlin replied and Arthur snorted in amusement.
"You're probably right," he agreed, lapsing into silence.
They sat there for a long time, simply watching the clouds roll closer, but both relishing the close contact too much to move with any kind of urgency. Merlin shot Arthur glances out of the corner of his eye, and hated that he looked so troubled.
"Are you alright?" he asked when he could stand the silence no longer.
"Of course I'm not alright," Arthur said honestly. "I spent the majority of the day getting dressed down by my father like a naughty schoolboy of twelve! He criticised everything about my life; the way I run Avalon House, my business ventures, my failed engagement," and Merlin winced at that one. "Even our friendship has come under scrutiny. My 'attachment' to you has become 'unseemly' apparently."
Merlin gulped and felt his hands begin to shake. Arthur looked over at him and the meaning of his words must have sunk in for he reached over and grasped one of Merlin's hands in both of his own.
"Oh God, no. Merlin, he doesn't know. He was just thinking of how close we are as friends. He keeps asking me why I have no friends of my own 'social standing', never mind the fact that most of them are sycophantic idiots. But no. He has no idea how deep my attachment to you goes," he said and Merlin blushed, cursing himself when Arthur grinned at him. "So you can cancel those plans to flee the country that I know you were beginning to entertain at the thought of my father finding out. Trust me, it has never even crossed his mind that his son and heir could be queer." Arthur looked down, fascinated by their hands still gripped tightly together, not meeting Merlin's eyes.
"Hey." It was Merlin's turn to comfort him. He reached up with his free hand and ran it through Arthur's hair. "There is nothing wrong with you. You can't help the way you feel, and who you love. It's natural, I can only believe that. Besides, you're in good company," he grinned slightly.
"That I am," Arthur smiled weakly and Merlin used the hand still buried in Arthur's soft, so soft, hair and clasped his skull gently, pulling him forwards. Their lips met in the merest brush, but that brief contact alone was enough to make their breathes catch. Arthur released Merlin's hand and raised one of his own to cup Merlin's cheek, running his thumb across his cheekbone. Merlin leaned into the touch, lips pressing to the fleshy pad of his palm and tongue snaking out to lick the salty skin.
Arthur moaned and leaned in for another kiss.
"Wait," Merlin whispered. "We can't do this here. What about your father? If he sees us, your life is ruined."
"Merlin, I really do not want to think about my father right now," Arthur growled, free hand coming up to Merlin's shoulder and tugging his body closer. "But either way, we are safe. He is not speaking to me right now, and won't come looking for us." Merlin raised an eyebrow at him and Arthur sighed.
"We had an argument, and he is very angry at me and it will take him a few days to calm down. But I don't care. Everything I have done since I was eight years old, and my father first explained my future duties and role to me, has been for the good of the Pendragon name and to please my father. I joined the army, for my father. I became a leader of men so he would be proud of me. I have made solid investments and multiplied the money I was given on my coming of age, all to keep the Pendragon name in good stead in the Ton. I almost married Morgana for Christ's sake, to please him. No. No more. I want one thing, just one thing, that's just for me. One thing that I want, not because it is good for business, or for my career or that it would make my father happy, but that I want because you're beautiful, and clumsy in an oddly charming way, and you're smart, and because if I don't kiss you in the next ten seconds, I will go crazy."
And he did just that, leaning forward and pressing his lips to Merlin's in a bruising, demanding kiss. Merlin choked at the emotion in Arthur's voice, and the meaning behind his words as well as the speed of the movement, but soon got his senses back and kissed Arthur back.
The first large splashes of water hit Arthur on the nose and forehead as he wrapped his arms around Merlin and kissed him as if his life depended on it. Within moments, the heavens had opened and they were soaked to the skin, hair plastered to their skulls, but neither man made a single noise of protest or even contemplated moving away from an embrace that was really too long in coming. Merlin's mouth opened under Arthur's and he groaned at the touch of his tongue against his own. He was hard faster than he had ever been in his life and it took all his self control not to haul Merlin over his lap and press their groins together and thrust. Even the thought of the delicious pressure made his hips twitch and he twisted his hands in Merlin's shirt and hauled him even closer.
Merlin pulled back slightly and Arthur took in the sight of him, water running down his face, catching on his eyelashes and beading on the bow of his lip. He smiled at Arthur and Arthur smiled back, tilting his head forward to lick at the raindrops on Merlin's full lips. Merlin groaned at the contact and brought his body closer to Arthur's so they were pressed together completely down one side, hands roaming. Arthur's hand crept to the buttons of Merlin's coat, before he realised what he was doing, and when his chilled hands met Merlin's damp skin and Merlin shivered at the contact, Arthur came to his senses and pulled back.
"We can't do this here," he panted, resting his forehead against Merlin's. "It's too open, and wet. We deserve to have a bed and time to ourselves."
Merlin's eyes were focused on Arthur's lips as he spoke, though he nodded his agreement. Arthur ran his nose across Merlin's cheekbone and kissed his hair before he drew back completely out of Merlin's arms and stood. He held out a hand to Merlin, who accepted it, and pulled the doctor to his feet. He bent and retrieved Merlin's cane from where it had been knocked onto the ground and straightened to find Merlin's eyes fixed on his behind.
"Stop looking at me like that," he told Merlin, who started at the low growl of Arthurs voice. "Or we won't make it back to the house." Merlin blinked rapidly at him and nodded once before he took the cane and turned away.
The walk back to the house was done in silence, both standing an arm's length apart from each other, exchanging looks at each other from the corner of their eyes. When they arrived back in the house itself, they were descended upon by the housekeeper and a flurry of servants with towels and were ordered to go upstairs while the servants drew their baths lest they 'catch their death of chill'. Normally, Arthur would have bristled at being ordered around by a servant, even one as long standing and permanent as Nimueh Sorenson, but considering how close he was to forgetting who and where he was and simply slamming Merlin against the nearest vertical surface and sinking to his knees in front of him, a little distance probably wouldn't hurt.
An hour later, freshly bathed and dried, Arthur made his way to Merlin's room. He frowned when he found it empty and headed downstairs to look for the wayward doctor. He found him in the library sitting near the fire, and the heat in his eyes when he looked at him made Arthur flush.
"I'm surprised to see you down here," he said as neutrally as possible as he took a seat opposite him. He slouched in the chair slightly, resting his chin on his hand as the blush traced across Merlin's cheekbones as he took in Arthur's meaning.
"Well, there were so many people coming and going that it was probably best if we continue our... conversation in private after dinner," Merlin said, eyes darting to the door in fear of it opening. Arthur had to admit, he had a point. Damnit, he had a point.
They managed to keep the conversation light during the meal. Arthur's father did not make an appearance, choosing instead to eat in his private rooms, and Arthur was not surprised. His father was currently not speaking to him, and well, neither of them wanted a repeat of the argument they'd had earlier on. The Duke would probably just avoid him for a few days before calling him in for just one more lecture before he and Merlin left for London again. All would be right in the world again, and Uther probably thought he could wear Arthur down over time, but no. Arthur would not marry. He almost lost Merlin once; he would not risk doing so again.
They made short work of their after dinner brandy's, both retiring to their rooms and preparing for bed early, 'tired' from the exertions from the day. They were in the guest wing of the large mansion, and once the servants had settled the house down for the night, they left them in peace to continue their duties elsewhere.
Arthur waited for half an hour after the last set of footsteps receded before he slipped from his bed and made his way to the door. Merlin was in a set of rooms around the corner of the corridor, and Arthur knew the layout well enough not to need a candle as he walked silently in thick carpet towards Merlin's door. He knocked briefly before he turned the knob and entered.
Merlin was sitting up in bed, back resting against the headboard. His bad leg was stretched out straight in front of him and he was massaging the wound site carefully with some ointment. He looked up when Arthur entered, not saying a word as Arthur leaned back against the closed door. He locked it with a definite 'click' and a flicker of a smile crossed Merlin's lips.
"Pretty sure of your reception, aren't you?" he grinned.
"From the way you were practically crawling into my lap earlier on, then yes. I'm pretty sure," Arthur told him seriously as he all but stalked forward towards the bed. Merlin's grin slipped a little and he gulped, eyes straying to the open laces of Arthur's nightshirt and the thick hair and chest revealed underneath. Arthur reached the side of the bed where Merlin was seated, and his fingers touched the doctor's face, stroking over his cheeks and cupping his chin. "If you aren't sure," he began stiltedly, "if you do not want this, then please, tell me now."
His relief nearly brought him to his knees when Merlin's hand shot up to catch Arthur's own to keep it against his face.
"I do. I do want this," he admitted. "More than I have ever wanted anything in my life. I love you," he said honestly, and Arthur groaned and sank down onto the bed beside him, bringing Merlin's face closer so he could kiss him. It started off tender; light nipping kisses along Merlin's jaw and his long, pale neck. Arthur could feel his gasps for air reverberating through his skin and his hands sought out Merlin's when he latched onto the pulse point. Merlin breathed 'Arthur' into his ear and traced the shell with the tip of his tongue. Arthur shuddered violently and Merlin huffed out a laugh.
"You think that's funny, do you?" he asked, voice low and dangerous. Merlin's laugh transferred into a moan when Arthur caught his earlobe between his lips and gently sank in his teeth. He felt Merlin squirming beside him and suddenly found himself tugged down flat as Merlin made room beside him on the bed. He settled next to Merlin, mindful of his injured leg and side, just looking.
Merlin was clumsy, and spoke without thinking, and had a truly ridiculous pair of ears on him, but to Arthur, there had never been anyone more perfect. To take away one aspect of him, one single flaw, would change him and he would not be the Merlin he knew and loved any more. And that was never going to be acceptable.
"What are you thinking?" Merlin asked in a hushed tone, hand slipping beneath the soft cotton of Arthur's nightshirt and running his hands over Arthur's belly and sides. Arthur groaned, arching into the touch.
"I'm just thinking about you," Arthur told him, letting his own hands wander a little. "I'm wondering how long it would take before I could make you beg." His hand drifted over Merlin's side to cup his ass and Merlin squirmed at the contact. "I'm thinking about your chest and how much I want to kiss every single inch. I'm thinking about pressing my lips right here," Arthur flicked a nail over Merlin's nipple, and Merlin moaned. "And most of all, I'm thinking of how much I want to taste you when you come. I want to wrap my mouth around your cock and lick and taste and suck until you're an incoherent mess beneath me."
Merlin growled and, obviously determined not to take such a passive role any more, he tugged at the hem of Arthur's night shirt, pulling it up. He helped him struggle out of it and threw it behind him, heedless of where it landed. He leaned forward and latched himself onto Arthur's collarbone, before kissing his way to his neck, sucking a bruise onto the tender skin. Arthur groaned as every nerve in his body was set alight and his cock went from 'pleasantly aroused' to 'rock hard' in seconds. Determined not to be outdone, and he laughed at himself for making everything a competition, he pulled and tugged at Merlin's own bed clothing and did not stop until he was naked and spread out beneath him.
Arthur leaned up on one elbow and looked down at Merlin, eyes feasting on the flesh before him. Merlin was strangely un-self conscious and stared back at Arthur with ill-concealed arousal. His cock was as hard as Arthur's, jutting out from a tangle of black, wiry hair, tip leaking pre-come as it bumped against his flat stomach. Arthur could no more stop himself as he could stop breathing, and he leaned down and flicked out a tongue, licking the bead of liquid from the tip. Merlin moaned loudly above him as the taste flooded Arthur's tongue; something salty and undeniably Merlin that he just had to have more. He settled himself between Merlin's legs and placed his hands on his hips to keep him in place as he licked a stripe up his cock from root to tip.
Merlin bucked underneath him, hands twisting and clenching in the bed sheets. Arthur smirked up at him from his position between his legs and wrapped one hand around the hard shaft. He brought Merlin's cock closer to his mouth and closed his lips over the very tip of it, sucking lightly. He ran a tongue across the slit at the top and Merlin cursed above him, whining and trying go thrust his hips. Arthur threw the arm not currently holding Merlin's cock over his waist to keep him in place as he opened his mouth and took the cock in as far as it would go.
"Oh God, Arthur," Merlin all but sobbed above him. "Oh God, just... JESUS CHRIST!" he yelped when Arthur tongued the bundle of nerves just beneath the head.
"Just Arthur will do for now," he pulled back long enough to say, winking at Merlin's glare, before he swallowed Merlin down again. He'd only done this once before, when he was a teenager away at boarding school and the frustration of being surrounded by so many good looking boys got too much for him and one of his school friends. He and Owain had only had one afternoon together, locked away in an empty dormitory, exploring each other while their school friends frequented the playing fields. It had been rushed and harried and sort of wonderful, but not worth the risk of getting caught by doing it again. But this, being so close to Merlin, having his scent surround him and his flavour bursting across his tongue, this was so much better than Arthur could ever have imagined. He moaned and found his hips moving if their own accord, shifting and rubbing against the cool sheets as he took Merlin in even further.
By the time Arthur found his rhythm, Merlin was moaning almost constantly, only breaking off to groan Arthur's name like a benediction or to gasp in lungfuls of air. Arthur was close himself simply from the pleasure of being this close to Merlin and it was with a frustrated whine that he pulled of Merlin's cock when he buried his fingers in Arthur's hair and yanked his head up.
"What was that for?" he grumped, rubbing distractedly at his tender scalp. His breath was coming in short pants, and Merlin wasn't much better off, limbs trembling and covered in a fine sheen of sweat.
"You... I..." Merlin gasped. "So close..."
"That was the point," Arthur reminded him, nosing at Merlin's cock, slick with Arthur's saliva, as he rested his chin on Merlin's hip. Merlin shivered and his cock twitched. Arthur grinned up at him.
"I know that, you prat," Merlin said, sounding more like himself as he got himself back under control. "But..."
"But what?" Arthur asked when Merlin hesitated.
"I want our first time to be together," he admitted, blushing brightly. "I don't want it to be just me. I've never lain with a man before, so I don't know if this is done by many, but Arthur, I want you in me when I come."
Arthur moaned and had to grasp the base of his cock to stave off his impending orgasm. He panted into Merlin's thigh as he fought for control as the images filled his mind. Merlin around him, under him, so tight, being buried completely inside him...
"Do you have anything to ease the way? Any oil?" he ground out once he had gotten himself under some semblance of control.
Merlin's eyes had not let Arthur's face the entire time, and he now looked up to see his own hunger and need reflected in the clear blue eyes of the doctor.
"I have some oils and ointments for my leg," he said, waving a hand towards his bag on the desk. Arthur pushed himself to his feet difficulty and rifled through the contents of the black case. He picked up one bottle and shook it, glad to see clear liquid inside. He popped the cork and sniffed and the faint scent of lavender assailed his nostrils. That would do.
Merlin was leaning back on his elbows watching him, chest still heaving a little and limbs trembling. He was flushed and beautiful and Arthur took a second just to look and appreciate that the gorgeous man in front of him was his before he joined him on the bed. Despite his bold words, Arthur could tell Merlin was nervous and he dropped a quick kiss to his lips.
"I'll be gentle, I swear," he promised him.
"I know," Merlin smiled back at him. "I trust you."
Arthur bowed his head, slightly humbled, and kissed his shoulder. He licked and kissed his way down Merlin's chest before he made it to a tiny pink nipple. He took it between his teeth and tugged lightly, soothing the sting with a broad swipe of his tongue. As he paid attention to the other one, making Merlin moan wantonly above him, he opened the cap of the bottle once more and coated his finders as best he could. He replaced the cap and dropped the bottle in the mess of sheets as he trailed his fingers across Merlin's hip and down, past his cock, circling his full, heavy balls, and beyond. Merlin moaned loudly above him as his hand skimmed the soft skin behind his balls and his breath hitched when Arthur finally reached his hole.
He pressed one finger inside gently, and Merlin gasped, squirming at the intrusion.
"Shh, relax," Arthur whispered into his skin, kissing every inch of Merlin that he could reach. "Trust me."
Merlin lay back, obviously making an effort to relax as Arthur worked his finger in and out before adding a second. This time, his gasp was one laced with pain, and his erection started flagging a little. Arthur bent his head and took it in his mouth as much as he could, and Merlin squirmed again beneath him, confusing and conflicting sensations making him hyper aware. His fingers brushed over a tiny spot inside him and Merlin nearly bucked off the bed, almost choking Arthur. Huh. So that's what the prostate did. By the time Arthur could fit three fingers in comfortably, Merlin's hips were shifting restlessly and a constant litany of 'ArthurArthurArthur' was falling from his lips. Arthur ran a hand over his own cock to transfer some of the oil before be moved between Merlin's legs and lifted his hips.
Merlin looked up at him and Arthur gave him as encouraging a smile as he could muster while this aroused.
"Are you ready?" he asked again, just to be sure.
Merlin nodded, biting his lip adorably, and Arthur pressed forward as slowly as he could. Merlin winced in pain as the head of Arthur's cock finally breached him, and Arthur grasped his hand in support. Merlin twined their fingers together as Arthur continued in one long stroke to seat himself in Merlin to the hilt. He stayed there, trembling from the need to move while Merlin adjusted to Arthur's cock. Tears of pain were gathering in the corner of Merlin's eyes and half sobbing breathes shook his frame. Arthur leaned down as far as he could and gently kissed his eyes, kissing the tears away.
After what felt to Arthur like an age, Merlin nodded and Arthur began to move slowly. He was surrounded by incredibly pressure, Merlin's tight heat sheathing him completely and Arthur wanted to simply rut. But he went slowly, withdrawing almost completely before pressing slowly inside once more. His patience was rewarded by a hitch of breath that had nothing to do with pain and everything to do with arousal. Merlin wrapped his legs around Arthur's hips, urging him closer and Arthur sank down onto his elbows, lying almost chest-to-chest with Merlin as he swivelled his hips and elicited a little cry from Merlin.
Merlin wrapped his arms around Arthur's neck, hauling him down and pressing breathy, open mouthed kissed to Arthur neck, his chin, his lips. Arthur buried his face in Merlin's shoulder, panting into the dark space and breathing Merlin in. His hand crept between them and found Merlin's cock, once again rock hard and ready.
He shifted his position and Merlin cried out, body arching in pleasure as Arthur hit his prostate again and again with each stroke. Arthur stroked a hand along Merlin's dick, trying to counterpoint his rhythm, but he was too far gone to co-ordinate properly. This was incredible, the most amazing feeling of his life. Luckily, Merlin didn't seem to mind, and, after one particularly hard thrust, he came, his screaming muffled by Arthur's skin as he bit into his shoulder. His body spasmed beneath him as he spilled into Arthur's hand, clenching his body tightly down onto Arthur's cock. He managed two more thrusts before he came harder than he ever had in his entire life. Pleasure sparked in every single cell in his body and his vision whited out as he spilled himself deep within Merlin's body.
He lay there, half squashing Merlin as they both panted and shivered their way through the aftershocks. Finally, Arthur had the presence of mind to realise that he was probably hurting Merlin with his weight and he raised himself on trembling arms, pulling out gently. Merlin winced at the movement and Arthur kissed his shoulder in apology. He collapsed next to him, rolling onto his back and intertwining their fingers as they stared up at the canopy of the bed.
"Wow," Merlin said after a moment.
"Wow indeed," Arthur panted back. He looked at him out of the corner of his eye. "How do you feel?" he asked.
"Like I've been shagged to within an inch of my life," Merlin huffed out in a laugh and Arthur snorted.
"So, pretty accurate then?"
"How's your leg?" Arthur asked, leaning over to nuzzle at Merlin's shoulder. "I doubt you're used to such exertions."
"It's still there," Merlin replied wryly. "It'll probably burn like the devil tomorrow, but at this moment in time, I really, really don't care." He leaned over and pressed a kiss to Arthur's lips. "Stay with me?" he asked almost shyly, and Arthur's heart fluttered in his chest.
"Wild horses couldn't drag me away," he told him. He poked and prodded Merlin until he was lying on his side and spooned up behind him, his free arm hooking over Merlin's side to tangle in the fingers of Merlin's hand. He kissed his shoulder.
"Sleep," he said. "I'll wake up early enough to leave so as not to raise suspicion. But for now, just sleep."
"I trust you," Merlin said yawning before snuggling down into the pillow and dropping off to sleep. Arthur let out a huge, jaw cracking yawn before he followed.
Arthur awoke slowly, warm sunlight bathing him in the early morning glow. Merlin was stretched out beside him, arm flung across Arthur's chest in a possessive gesture that made his heart leap and his stomach drop at the same time. His face was buried between Arthur's shoulder and the pillow and he could feel the soft puff of breath on his skin, tickling his arm on each exhale. Arthur shuffled onto his side to look down at him properly and, in his sleep, Merlin repositioned himself so he now not only kept his arm across Arthur's chest, but so he now also had one of his legs fitted snugly between Arthur's own.
Arthur gasped at the sudden rush of blood south, and grinned down at the man in his arms.
He had wanted this moment for so long. It was something he had convinced himself he could never have; Merlin in his arms and in his bed. But now that it was real, that Merlin was here beside him, a feeling of such joy and contentment like he had never imagined possible swept through Arthur. Leaning on one elbow, he bent his head and pressed a chaste kiss to Merlin's lips. He followed that with one to the corner of his mouth, and more across those amazingly sharp cheekbones of his, over the arch of his brow and down his nose.
But the time he made it back to those wonderfully full lips of his, Merlin was blinking awake and smiling at Arthur's antics, especially when Arthur's lasts brushed Merlin's cheeks when he kissed him. He returned Arthur's kiss as the captain lowered himself carefully into Merlin's waiting arms. They settled together, secure in each other's embrace as Arthur slowly began dropping kisses down the pale column of Merlin's throat and across his collar bones.
"If only they could see you now," Merlin laughed breathily.
"Who?" Arthur enquired before nipping lightly at Merlin's Adam's apple.
"Ah..." Merlin gasped, arching into Arthur's arms even more. "Those... those French soldiers who used to practically soil themselves at the mere mention of your name. They would never believe that the demon from their nightmares could be so... sweet."
"Sweet?" Arthur pulled back, eyeing Merlin with an incredulous glare. "Did you just call me sweet?"
"If the endearment fits," Merlin laughed.
"Let me tell you something, Doctor Emrys," Arthur practically growled, moving to straddle Merlin's hips. He held himself over him, one knee on either side of him, careful of Merlin's bad leg, and braced his arms on either side of the doctor's shoulders. "I am many things: a good leader, a crack shot, a fearsome soldier, a disappointment of a son, an absolutely fantastic lover, a skilled horseman to name but a few. But what I am not, in any way, shape or form, is sweet. Do you understand me, Dr. Emrys?"
"If you say so," Merlin smiled up at him. "But can I just state, for the record, that you are the one that woke me up with butterfly kisses."
"Butterfly..." Arthur laughed. "You are such a girl, Merlin."
"If the endearment fits," Arthur laughed at his expression.
Merlin tackled him as well as he could, which was to say, not very well at all, especially considering his position underneath Arthur, and only succeeded in pulling Arthur down on top of him. They laughed as they tussled for dominance, as they both knew who would win. The fight abruptly ended when Merlin suddenly wrapped his legs around Arthur's waist, pulling their cocks flush together and causing them both to moan.
"You play dirty," Arthur commented as he gasped and began moving his hips with Merlin.
"Learned... Oh God right there... from the best," Merlin groaned, and Arthur had to kiss him; kiss those smiling wonderful lips. Merlin responded just as urgently, kissing back with such enthusiasm and wrapping his arms around Arthur's shoulders to hold him even closer. Their hips began to lose their steady rhythm as they raced closer to edge until they crashed together, crying out into each other's mouths as they came long and hard.
"Oh God," Arthur panted into Merlin's shoulder after he had all but collapsed onto him as the aftershocks causes his arms to buckle. "Oh God... I am never letting you go. You're mine."
"Yours," Merlin agreed, pressing exhausted kisses to Arthur's brow. "Until they day I die."
"Forever. You and me. No one else." Arthur frowned as Merlin stiffened in his arms. "What?"
"As much as I wish that could be true," Merlin gulped "it can never be just you and me. You must marry, Arthur. You must have an heir."
Arthur pulled away with reluctance, settling onto his side. He looked at Merlin who was avoiding his gaze.
"Merlin," he said and eventually, Merlin looked him in the eye. "Merlin, unless I can marry you, the man I love, I will never marry," he told him solemnly.
"But Arthur, you must!" Merlin exclaimed. "You have to provide an heir. It's your duty. Your family name... your father..."
"I will be a disappointment to my father no matter what I do," Arthur told him. "Even if I sired a dozen sons to carry the family name, became a General or a Captain of Industry in my own right, it would not be enough. I will never measure up in his eyes. There will always be something, and I am through putting my family name and duty before you. You deserve better than that. If I die without an heir, my title and all my lands go to my cousin. Leon is a good man. I trust him to live up to the family name."
"Sir Leon?" Merlin furrowed his brow. "That's your Uncle Tristan's son, isn't it?"
"That's right. And, despite his father's tendencies towards drinking and violence, Leon is a good man. I've known him all my life and we served together during the Peninsular war. Besides, he is already married and has a son, one that he is raising to be as honest and true as he is himself. They will do the family name proud."
"You've clearly thought this through," Merlin mused. "But, why decide this now? What changed?"
Arthur didn't want to tell him the truth, tell him what he had felt and known deep in his bones when he faced Mordred. But he knew, of all the people in Arthur's life, if anyone would understand, it would be Merlin. He could tell him.
"At Camlann," he began, hesitating as he remembered Merlin lying as still as death on the floor before he rallied and took a deep breath. "At Camlann house, when I was facing Sortiar, I thought... No. I knew that we had done this before. That I had faced him over a blade before, or on the field of battle, but that time, we had both lost. It's hard to remember now. It feels like it was a dream, but I know it was real. It was just one moment of knowing, and I saw how everything started to go wrong. I refuse to let the same thing happen again. I married for duty and succession then instead of love, and it led to tragedy and so many deaths. I gave you up before and I am not doing it again. I'm just not. I can't let you go like you mean nothing to me..."
He pulled Merlin into his arms and held him close, burying his face in Merlin's neck as he tried to gain control of his wavering voice and emotions. Merlin held on just as tightly, and stroked his hair. "I can't put you through that again, or even my future wife. And I know I can't go through that again myself. I just can't..."
To his eternal embarrassment, his chest heaved in a sob and Merlin clung to him all the righter, allowing Arthur time to ground himself and get back in control.
"Shh, it's alright," he soothed, continuing to stroke Arthur's hair. "It's alright."
"I know it sounds crazy, but..."
"I believe you," Merlin whispered. "And I know I should encourage you to do your duty but, God forgive me, I cannot lose you again."
"Again?" Arthur raised his head.
"There must have been magic in the air that night," Merlin explained with a half laugh. "I thought it was a dream, brought on by the beating, but it was so real. I don't remember everything. It's mostly flashes and emotions and the feeling of utter agony and devastation when you left me. We had never even been together this way, too bound by duty and honour. I am not keen to repeat the experience."
Arthur looked at him, for once utterly speechless, before leaning down to kiss him.
"I love you," he murmured against Merlin's lips, and the other man smiled.
"And you say you're not sweet," he grinned.
"I repeat, I am a lot of things..."
"But sweet is not one of them," Merlin interrupted with a laugh and a wave of his hand. "Yeah, yeah, I heard you the first time.
"Indeed," Arthur remarked before he paused to sneak a look at Merlin from underneath his lashes. "What I am though is yours, for as long as you'll have me."
Merlin stared at him so intently and for so long that Arthur felt his cheeks heat.
"That'll be forever then," he said finally, pressing a kiss to Arthur's throat, tonguing the mark he had left there the night before.
"That can be arranged," Arthur grinned. "Now, kiss me again," he ordered.
Merlin smiled up at him, and did just that.