Clearing up the mess Morgana left behind takes a long time. There's more to do than just picking up a few chairs and straightening a few cushions. People have died, crops have been burned, homes destroyed. Worse still, the people of Camelot's faith in the kingdom's safety, their faith in the ability of their king and his knights to keep order in the land and protect them from sorcery and plunder has been badly shaken.
Restoring that faith, proving himself worthy of wielding the sword which he pulled from the stone has become Arthur's first priority. He spends long days riding out across the kingdom, speaking with the peasants and offering them promises and reassurances about Camelot's future. He spends long hours shut up in the council chambers, making the decisions which will affect all of their futures.
Arthur has commissioned a new, larger table for meetings – round, like the table of the old kings they'd sat around the last time Morgana had taken over the kingdom. Arthur's favoured knights have been given places around it alongside older, trusted advisors like Gaius and Geoffrey. Merlin's place, as usual, is in the shadows, on the side-lines. Always there should Arthur have need of him.
Today, it has been a council day. Arthur has been there since noon and it's now long gone suppertime. Merlin had been dismissed some hours ago to fetch Arthur's supper and ready his rooms but there's still no sign of the king. Of course it is possible that Arthur has decided not to return to his rooms. That he has chosen to take his supper at the round table, been waylaid by a new petition or – or has gone to visit a certain blacksmith's hut in the lower town. Merlin sets down the pillow he’s been idly plumping for the past five minutes with a sigh.
He's just about to give up and go off in search of his own dinner when the door opens and Arthur strides in to his chambers. He acknowledges Merlin with a nod, slumps into his chair and attacks the waiting plate of chicken and bread with gusto. Despite having been waiting for over an hour, the food is still hot and his bath has been kept warm. Arthur doesn't ask how. Merlin almost wishes he would. Since they regained Camelot, Arthur has hardly had the time to give him an order, let alone time to sit and chat. Merlin can see the pressures of kingship weighing down on Arthur's shoulders and wishes there was something he could do to lighten the load. Something besides his usual servantly duties of fetching and carrying and cleaning and polishing, that is. There's little enough his magic can achieve to speed up Camelot's recovery. But his friendship and counsel might help Arthur, if he ever asked for either.
Arthur's finished his food and has been gazing out of the window so long it's grown dark and surely all he can see is his own reflection in the glass. Perhaps that is what is causing him to frown so. He doesn't turn at the sound of Merlin's voice. Almost as if I’m not here, Merlin thinks. Perhaps he has finally become the perfect, silent, unnoticeable servant that Arthur always wanted him to be. Still, he knows that silent and perfect isn't what Arthur needs, so he tries again.
"Arthur. Your bath. You know, big tub of water, you sit in it to get clean?"
"Yes, of course." Arthur turns and for a second his gaze lights on Merlin. Merlin wishes it wasn't quite so much like the brief glow of the sun's warmth in the depths of winter. Merlin grins, and the corners of Arthur's mouth twitch, almost as if he's about to smile when he says,
"That'll be all, Merlin."
The sun behind the clouds once more. Merlin’s smile dims. He wants to say something, anything, but he can hardly press his presence on Arthur while he's bathing, he supposes. Although Arthur's never minded stripping off in front of him before – he used to parade around naked in his chambers all the time without so much as batting an eye. Merlin closes the door as quietly as he can. He can't think what's caused this change, what he's done that means Arthur is no longer comfortable in his presence.
Could it be that Arthur knows about the magic? He came back for him in the caves, when he killed Agravaine, had Arthur seen? But if he had why hadn't he said anything? Why had he still turned to Merlin for advice, only to shut him out after they'd regained Camelot? Surely Arthur isn't like his father, condemning magic and then secretly turning to it when it suits him, when there's no other option. Merlin shudders at the thought of becoming another Gaius, tolerated and kept in service, keeping the magic secret while serving his king for decades to come, even as an old, old man.
It keeps him awake that night, puzzling it out. If Arthur knows, does he know about the spell Merlin cast to get him to leave Camelot? The one that knots his stomach with guilt just thinking about it. There was no other choice, he tells himself over and over.
He'd always dreamed that he would one day be able to tell Arthur about his magic, about how he'd used it only for good. Arthur would ask whether he'd ever used magic against him, to hurt or control him, and Merlin would say 'no', with tears shining in his eyes and Arthur would hold out his hand and accept all that Merlin had to offer. But now, that was just another dream gone like so many others. It had been for Arthur's own good, to save his life. Merlin would do anything to save Arthur's life – had already done so many things he couldn't be proud of, because they were necessary. But Arthur wouldn't see it like that. He'd only see yet another betrayal in a long line.
It's late when he wakes the next morning, having lain up worrying over Arthur's behaviour, and Arthur is already dressed when he arrives at his chambers. It's funny, Merlin thinks, how Arthur is perfectly capable of dressing himself when he wants to.
"I'm riding out around the nearby farms today," Arthur tells him. Merlin looks up, expectant.
"When are we leaving?"
"We're not. I need you to go through the chambers in the East tower, clear them out."
The East tower. Morgana’s rooms. Arthur doesn't say her name, Merlin notices. Not anymore. It's as though she's dead to him. Perhaps she is. There's been no sign of Morgana since she and her armies were routed, she may well be dead for all they know.
Morgana's chambers had been scoured after her last attempt to take over Camelot and given over to the use of visiting nobles. But it became apparent that this time she had sought them out again, reclaimed them for her own use. Merlin had expected they would be the first rooms to be cleared out again this time, as they had before, but it's taken this long for Arthur to order it. Even now, Merlin half suspects it's just a ruse to keep him away.
"Are you sure I shouldn't accompany you, sire," he tries, although he hasn't had a favourable answer yet, "just in case?"
He doesn't say in case of what.
"No, you'd best remain here. I need someone I trust to do this for me."
Arthur's hand is on his shoulder, a brief, firm pressure, robbing Merlin temporarily of the ability to raise any objection. By the time he recovers the power of speech, Arthur is gone.
Someone I trust.
Merlin clings to those three words as he climbs the stairs to Morgana's old rooms laden with brooms and buckets. Arthur still trusts him, then. Whatever it is that has caused the strange distance that has been between them of late, it seems he does not know about the magic after all. The thought is a reprieve, but it is soured by the knowledge that this trust Arthur has in him will be shattered when he discovers the truth. That bridge is yet to be crossed.
Merlin pushes open the doors to Morgana’s old chambers and grimaces. Morgana had always been neat when she'd lived in the castle. Or perhaps it was just that Gwen had always done a better job of tidying her rooms than Merlin has ever managed for Arthur – even with his magic to help. Now, the rooms are in complete disarray and Merlin's heart sinks as he surveys the mammoth task ahead of him in clearing them.
He utters a quick spell under his breath, searching for magical traps, wards, anything designed to hurt or immobilise an intruder. The last thing he wants is to be caught off-guard by an arrow through the chest or trapped by magical restraints. Morgana's spells had become stronger and more devious of late, he could be trapped here for weeks in this tower where nobody ever comes if he wasn't able to magic himself free. He wonders if Arthur would even notice his absence.
But there's nothing there, lurking in the cobwebbed corners, nothing he can fight. This is a problem that only needs an ordinary servant after all, not a warlock.
Merlin starts with the wardrobes and chests, emptying everything onto a heap on the bed (with a little magical assistance, naturally). Gowns and undergarments, hairpieces and books all float out from their hiding places to join the growing pile.
Merlin can't help but wonder why Arthur's so keen on clearing these rooms out now. Is it simply to scour all trace of his witch sister from Camelot, or does he have a new purpose for them in mind? If he were to take a wife she would need her own apartments, of course, and these would be by far the most suitable – if it weren't for their unfortunate associations with their former occupant. He can't decide whether it would be fitting for Arthur to gift Gwen with her former mistress's rooms, or highly inappropriate. He can't imagine Gwen glorying in such an arrangement as some servants might. Which is precisely what will make her such a good queen, despite her humble background.
That is, if Arthur does intend to marry Gwen. It seems he has rescinded her banishment, at least, and allowed her to live within the city limits once more, which suggests he has forgiven her. But, at least as far as Merlin is aware, he hasn't made any formal declaration of his intent to marry her. He'd supposed, ever since they'd gone to Ealdor and Arthur had been reunited with Gwen there, that it was only a matter of time. Only it seems to be taking rather more time than he'd expected. If there is an understanding between them, perhaps they are keeping it between themselves for the time being. Merlin just doesn't know, and that makes it all the harder to deal with. He almost wishes they'd make up their minds and get it over with.
But of course they're hardly going to plan their wedding according to what would be most convenient for Merlin, are they?
He sets to work clearing the cobwebs from the corners of the room, wishing it were as easy to banish all the doubts and fears from his mind, all the unwanted feelings which only serve to complicate everything. He can almost hear the great dragon's voice in his head,
Nobody ever said destiny would be easy, young warlock
"No, but nobody ever said it would be so hard, either," he mutters to himself, with a particularly vicious stab of the broom into the corner behind the old wooden chest with its intricately carved lid.
The next task is to sort through the piles of things on Morgana's bed. The gowns are nothing like the elegant outfits he remembered Morgana wearing when he'd first arrived in Camelot. They're elaborate, though, in their own way, and not something an ordinary citizen would walk around wearing. Merlin holds one up against himself, a dark green silk kirtle and bodice with black lace covering, and frowns at his reflection in the mirror, trying to imagine a peasant woman or a fishwife going about her daily business in such a get-up. It's fine material, though, he thinks, as he smooths his hands over the bodice, feeling the fine bones stitched in for shaping. Perhaps they can be ripped up and re-sewn into something new.
Gwen would know. His fingers tighten around the dress in his hands as he almost staggers under the weight of the sudden pang of longing for the way things used to be. When Morgana had been here, and good, when Gwen had been his friend whom he could turn to. When Arthur hadn't had the weight of an entire kingdom on his shoulders.
When he hadn't known just how much destiny would cost them all.
It's then that there’s a cough from the doorway. Merlin hadn’t heard the door open, perhaps it had been open all the while, he can't remember (he hopes not, since there's been brushes scouring the floor by themselves all morning). He spins round frantically to see Arthur leaning against the doorframe and smirking at him.
"Honestly, Merlin, if I'd remembered your particular predilection for Morgana's dresses, I'd have given the job to someone else."
Merlin lets out a shocked "meep!" and bundles the dress in his arms onto the pile with the others.
"I was just seeing if there's anything worth salvaging, sire."
"Burn the lot," Arthur says, eyebrows drawing together in the unforgiving look that haunts all of Merlin's worst-case-scenario nightmares about revealing his magic. He's half tempted to do as Arthur says, but his mother brought him up never to be wasteful.
“Much of this will be useful to somebody,” he reminds Arthur.
"Of course," Arthur concedes, but he eyes the pile of frocks with disdain.
"What are you doing here, anyway?" Merlin asks, "I thought you were out all morning."
"Just thought I'd come and check up on you. Make sure you weren't frittering away the whole morning dressing up in pretty dresses and flouncing in front of the mirror."
"I don't do that!" Merlin protests, because he's not sure whether Arthur's just teasing or whether he really thinks that this is what Merlin likes to do – there have been a couple of unfortunately timed incidents before this one. And he doesn't know how long Arthur's been standing there as he'd been daydreaming of more innocent times and sighing like a jilted kitchen maid.
"Have you found anything... unusual?" Arthur asks. Merlin's not sure what he's getting at, hasn't spotted anything out of the ordinary in amongst Morgana's smallclothes, but then he's not really familiar enough with ladies' smallclothes to know what they usually look like – and then he realises that Arthur's 'unusual' is code for something else entirely. He wants to know whether he's found anything magic. Merlin looks over at the overflowing case of jewellery and other odd bits. It's a distinct possibility, Morgana always did love her enchanted trinkets, after all. He wonders that Arthur thought of it before he did.
"Not so far," he confesses.
"Ah well," Arthur says, and for a moment he seems at a loss, standing there with his hands in the pockets of his brown coat. Merlin's always liked him in that coat. It makes him look more ordinary. No, not ordinary, not exactly, there's always something about Arthur that sets him apart, even dressed in peasant clothes two sizes too small. But it makes him look more the man than the king. And for all that Arthur as king is everything he's supposed to be working towards, he can't help but like having these odd, rare moments where he can remember that underneath all this destiny business, Arthur’s just a man of flesh and blood, like Merlin.
Arthur opens his mouth as if to say something, then closes it abruptly, gives Merlin a curt nod and sweeps out of the room once more. Merlin frowns after him for a second before shrugging and turning his attention back to the things to be sorted.
He waits long enough to be sure that Arthur is gone before he allows himself to utter the spell. Earlier he'd only been looking for immediate threats, but there's every chance that there's something here more subtle than that, more insidious. Morgana never was one to use a sword when slow poison would do. He flinches at the memory of Morgana and poison, clamping down on the guilt that rises in his stomach like bile every time he remembers his own guilty hand in Morgana's fall from grace.
There are so many shiny objects, a gilded dagger, an encrusted goblet, it is hard to see what might be glowing with something more than mere material lustre. Merlin closes his eyes and feels for anything out of the ordinary, any threads of magical intent.
Something. He reaches for it, cups it in the palm of his hand. It's nothing more than a thick, nondescript copper bracelet with an ivy pattern running around it. Nothing out of the ordinary, no runes or crystals, nothing to suggest it’s magical in nature. But it thrums with power, and more, with a sense of belonging. This, he sees, is truly an object which is magical in origin, rather than an artefact enchanted with nefarious purpose.
There's no taint of evil on it, but then he doesn't expect there to be. Magic, as he's wished so many times to be able to explain to Arthur, is neither good nor evil in itself; that all depends on the intent of the one who wields it. Whatever Morgana's plans for this object, the thing itself is not evil. Merlin tucks it into a pocket of his jacket, resolving to show it to Gaius for further investigation when he's done cleaning the rooms.
Morgana's rooms are spotless by nightfall. Merlin barely has time to feel the satisfaction of a job well done before a fellow servant calls to him to say the king is demanding his presence in his chambers. He rolls his eyes, scandalising the poor earnest messenger with his laid back response to this summons.
"Tell him I'm on my way."
Arthur's rooms are not spotless, but he doesn't remark on the fact as Merlin slopes in. In fact, he's already sitting at the table making short work of a platter of cold pie, cheese and fruit. Merlin's not sure whether to feel relieved or replaced. His stomach chooses that moment to let him know that what he feels is hunger. Audibly, because Arthur rolls his eyes and says,
"For goodness sake, sit, eat something. Can't have you fainting away like a maiden whose stays have been laced too tightly, can we?"
And clearly he is never going to be tired of making dress related jokes. Ever. But Merlin is too tired to think of a comeback and too hungry to even pretend to resist, so he helps himself to a thick slice of the pie and sinks down into a chair opposite Arthur.
For a blessed while there's only companionable silence. Something in him aches for it to be like this, always; to come home to Arthur at the end of the day, to sit and eat together. He thinks he'd be quite content with that. Almost content. That in itself is impossible enough that he doesn’t even let himself dream of more.
"So, find anything?" Arthur asks at last, breaking his reverie. Merlin hurries to chew and swallow his mouthful before he replies.
"Something. Maybe. I'm not sure. I want Gaius to take a look at it."
"Make sure you do. And have him report to me. We need to be ever vigilant against threats of this nature."
Magic. Merlin wonders why Arthur seems to find it so hard to say the word these days.
"Yes sire," he says, the illusion of peace and equality dissolving at this reminder of the stark reality of the barriers between them.
They finish their meal in silence, then Merlin sets about clearing the plates, clattering them around as he does so. Arthur stretches in his chair, watching him work. He doesn't say anything until Merlin reaches the door, plates balanced precariously on one arm as he reaches for the handle.
"Yes sire?" If he huffs it a little impatiently, Arthur doesn't remark on it.
"Bring me up some wine, will you? And two goblets."
There's the self-satisfied look on Arthur's face, the one he gets when he's teasing Merlin. It's normally guaranteed to get Merlin's back up, but nothing has been normal since they regained Camelot, and he's sadly grateful for this little glimpse of Arthur being his usual self, after the weeks of feeling that he's walking on eggshells around him.
He can't help but wonder, though, who the second goblet is for. Whether Arthur has invited Gwen to his chambers to drink with him. It wouldn't quite be seemly, under normal circumstances, but if he plans to renew his proposals... Merlin shakes his head, to stop the thought nagging at him of the two of them cosily ensconced in Arthur's chambers, by the fire, drinking wine and exchanging declarations of passion.
Arthur is indeed sitting by the fire when Merlin returns. The days have been growing colder, of late, and the nights drawing in sooner. He's staring into the flames, pensive and brooding. Merlin aches to draw Arthur into his arms in a comforting embrace. But it's impossible, of course. So instead he tries instead to offer what solace he can with his words, reminding Arthur that he is a good man, a good king.
"Merlin." Arthur shakes himself, noticing him, and Merlin blinks and looks away before he is betrayed by the light of longing in his eyes. "Well, come on then, pour us some wine."
Merlin hurries to the table, casting his eyes around the room, but it seems that Arthur is alone. He hands Arthur the first goblet and stands, clasping the second a little awkwardly before Arthur motions him to sit.
"I wanted to ask you – ask your opinion on something," Arthur says. Merlin waits, not wanting to ruin this rare moment with an ill-judged comment, but Arthur lapses into silence once more. It's frustrating, but short of grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking it out of him, Merlin doesn't know how to make Arthur be more direct with him. He smiles a little at the irony of demanding directness from Arthur, what with all the secrets he's keeping from him.
"It's about Guinevere," Arthur says at last, all in a rush. "Whether I should resume our former... understanding."
Merlin's hands tighten on his goblet and he forces himself to take a sip of the wine before he answers. It's cloying sweet with a bitter aftertaste.
"You know nobody else can tell you the answer to that, sire," he says, and wonders at the roughness of his own voice in the stillness of the chambers. "You have to follow your own heart."
Arthur sighs, as if he'd expected that answer.
"But that's just it. I don't know if I -" He looks across at Merlin and breaks off, glancing away at the crackle of the fire in the grate, staring into the blaze as if he can find the answer in the movement of the flames. "I don't know if I can forget that she betrayed me." Merlin gets the unaccountable feeling that this was not what he'd meant to say. "After Morgana, and Agravaine..." Arthur swallows.
"I know," Merlin says. "Arthur, I know. But Gwen isn't like them. She loves you. She never meant to hurt you, I'm sure."
How can he do otherwise than champion the virtues of forgiveness, knowing that Arthur will look upon his own secret as a worse betrayal? Even if it means encouraging Arthur to fall into another's arms. Yet another personal sacrifice to ensure their destiny has a chance of coming to pass.
Arthur shifts in his chair, pinning Merlin with an intent look.
"It's just that Tristan and Isolde made me realise..."
"Yes?" Merlin prompts, when it doesn't seem like Arthur is going to finish that sentence.
"What would you do, Merlin?"
"Me? I'd... I'd do anything for the person I loved." He can feel his heart galloping within his chest like a skittish colt as he says it. The words hang in the air between them with all the weight of a truth waiting to be grasped.
"I suppose that must be easy if you haven't got the fate of a kingdom resting on your decisions," Arthur says.
"Yes, I suppose it must," Merlin sighs, tipping back his goblet and draining the lot. He's unused to wine, for all that Arthur seems to believe he spends all his time in the tavern, and it goes to his head a little. They sit in silence, Merlin mulish, Arthur eyeing him speculatively. At last, Arthur huffs and says,
"Come on, I'm tired."
Merlin's tired, too, weary and heartsick. Arthur retreats behind the screen to change and Merlin turns down the bedcovers and pokes at the dwindling fire. Arthur reappears, dressed in a loose white sleep shirt, unfairly beautiful in the soft light. Merlin blames the warmth in his chest on the wine. Arthur sits on the edge of the bed, scroll in hand, seemingly unwilling to sleep just yet for all his protestations of tiredness.
Merlin imagines kneeling by his feet, perhaps resting his head on Arthur’s thigh while Arthur’s hands stroked his hair, perhaps.
He's lost in the fantasy, so he hardly notices that he's stopped still, just staring, or that Arthur is looking at him.
"Merlin?" Arthur asks, softly, and for a heartbeat Merlin sees a glimpse of possibility in this moment, like a coin balancing on the edge, waiting to fall.
I'd do anything for the person I loved, he'd said. Anything. And if that meant giving up all claim, all hope of being loved in return? But Arthur's looking at him in a way that shatters his unselfish resolve completely, and the words are tumbling out of his mouth before his better judgement can intervene.
"I don't think you should marry her."
It's barely more than a whisper, low but sure. He's not sure how his voice can be so steady when his nerves are anything but. Merlin’s heart is beating so loud he’s sure Arthur is able to hear it. There's a long pause before Arthur replies.
"Goodnight, Merlin," he says at last.
"Most interesting," Gaius says, peering curiously at the bracelet. "See here, how it is designed to separate? It's actually two bracelets. I imagine one person would wear one and another the other, although I cannot yet fathom for what purpose. Communication, perhaps, or control."
"Control? You think Morgana meant to control the wearer of the second bracelet."
"That is certainly a possibility, yes. There's something about this pattern which is familiar. I'll have to consult my books. Merlin? Research."
"Books. Yes. Great," Merlin says with false enthusiasm. "It's all adventure and excitement around here, isn't it?"
"Just be thankful that it isn't, for a change," Gaius says, tapping him on the head with the book on the way past.
Merlin tries to concentrate on the matter in hand and not on the previous evening but it's a struggle. Even when he orders himself severely not to attempt to decipher the tone in Arthur's voice as he'd bid him goodnight, it's impossible not to replay the whole conversation over and over in his head. He flicks through page after page without taking anything in. It's his magic, rather than his eyes that find it in the end – a sixth sense that there's something familiar there. When his eyes focus on the paper before him there it is, a copper band with an ivy clasp that in the second illustration is split into two.
"This looks like it could be it." Merlin passes the book across the table.
"Ah, yes. I thought there was something." Gaius frowns, reading. "The kasulatḫu.“ Used in an ancient binding ritual between the ancient kings and the high priestesses."
"The inscription here, to bind crown and magic one to the other. I believe Morgana intended to bind the crown of Camelot – or perhaps its wearer – to magic. That is to say, to her power."
"She meant to control Arthur with these bracelets?"
"Perhaps. I'm afraid we will never know exactly what her intentions were, or whether she would have succeeded."
"Indeed. There is a prophecy attached to the appearance of the kasulatḫu, which says that they herald a new age of magic from a time of darkness. I'm afraid my ancient Akkadian is a little rusty, but it says something along the lines of: Once worn, the light of magic will shine and the land shall slip no longer back into the dark, but if lost, then all is lost and magic will fade from the land."
Merlin shivers at the words. He's had enough experience with prophecy and foreseeing to be wary of taking anything as truth, but he can’t deny the clutch of hope at the idea of the light of magic restored to the world. Maybe these kasulatḫu, have surfaced now for a reason, perhaps the time he has waited for so long is close at hand. But then there’s the second part of the prophecy, the image of magic seeping away to be lost for good. Even the possibility gives him a cold stab of fear.
Magic is what he is. Without his magic, how can he protect Arthur? Losing his magic would be like losing everything.
Arthur wants to destroy them, of course. Merlin had been all for not revealing anything at all about the mysterious prophecy, persuading Arthur to keep them locked up in the vaults with all the rest of the confiscated magical property. But Arthur, on alert for any possible threat from Morgana, takes matters into his own hands, coming into Gaius’ chambers and reading the books for himself. He bristles at the idea of being controlled, will not allow anything to exist that might bind him to magical power. And on hearing the words 'fade from the land' his face shutters into an expression of determined resolve.
Without a chance to think, to plan, to prepare a persuasive argument against it, Merlin finds himself being dragged along to the lower town. To the forge.
Last night's conversation is still branded on his consciousness, and likely on Arthur's too, although nothing's been said between the two of them. And considering the topic of that conversation, this is the very last place in Camelot Merlin wants to be this morning.
Gwaine and Elyan have been pulled from their duties to accompany them. As a guard for the bracelets, or the royal person, or simply as a buffer between Arthur and Gwen, to make it clear that the king is here on official business, not personal.
Arthur knocks on the door himself, insistent.
Gwen answers, a little flustered.
“Arthur?” She fixes a bright smile on her face, although she’s clearly confused by his presence. “What can I do for you? Um. All of you, I mean. Gwaine. Elyan. Merlin.” She nods at them each on turn, this sudden delegation on her doorstep. She’s polite and kind, as always, even though she chews her lip nervously and stammers in a way she hasn't done for years.
Merlin can't bring himself to look her in the eye. She's his friend, and he can't help but think he's betrayed her for selfish reasons of his own. She'd make the perfect queen. He should have told Arthur that instead of letting his own feelings get the better of him.
“Guinevere,” Arthur says, formal and clearly awkward, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. “We need to use the forge. That is, if it’s not too much trouble.” He makes a gesture that falls somewhere between pleading and unintentionally dismissive. It’s a close call which of the two of them is the more embarrassed.
Gwen leads them out to the forge.
Merlin tries desperately to think of a way to delay the bracelets' destruction, but can only come up with stupid distractions.
The bracelets are placed in the brazier as Gwen operates the bellows. Merlin can't help but wince at the hiss of the irons.
The fire gets hotter, but the bracelets do not melt.
Merlin's relief is tempered by the hardening of Arthur’s blue eyes, the determined curl of his lip as sorcery is confirmed, and he sees destiny slipping away out of his grasp.
"Perhaps we should just lock them away in the vaults," Merlin suggests hopefully, as they march back to the castle.
"No," Arthur shakes his head. "I want them destroyed. The throne of Camelot will never be in thrall to the dangers of sorcery. There must be a way. You will assist Gaius in finding a way to destroy them." He pauses as they reach the courtyard. "Start immediately. I'll have someone else bring up my meals."
"But," Merlin protests, “Arthur, I -"
"No argumenpts, Merlin. This is important and I am entrusting it to you and Gaius, understood?"
He does not wait for Merlin's acquiescence, striding away with his cloak billowing out behind him, Gwaine and Elyan on his heels.
It takes two days and nights of research before they find something. It's hardly a victory, to Merlin's mind, since he doesn't actually want the bracelets destroyed, simply put somewhere where Morgana cannot use them to harm Arthur or Camelot.
"Don't show this to Arthur, Gaius," he begs. The picture on the page stares up at him accusingly, a fiery crack in a distant mountain, which consumes all that is thrown into it. "We’ve no proof it even exists, it's only a legend."
"So are many things," Gaius says. "Dragons, for example. Emrys, for another."
"And what will happen to these things if the prophecy is true and magic does fade from the land?" Merlin demands. "I can't let that happen!"
"Arthur is determined to see the kasulatḫu destroyed."
"And you are determined to assist him, it seems," Merlin retorts. "We have concealed enough things from him before now, what's one more?"
“Arthur won’t stop until a way to destroy the kasulathu is found. If not this, it will be something else. Something worse.”
“What could be worse? It’s my destiny to bring back magic to Camelot! These bracelets could help me, but if they’re destroyed…” Merlin can barely keep a lid on the simmering rage and frustration. He glares down at the picture of the distant, purple headed mountain.
“The Amaranthine Mountain lies beyond the borders of Camelot,” Gaius says. “If you cannot persuade Arthur to forgo the quest, perhaps you can ensure that their destruction doesn’t come to pass?”
The quest to the Amaranthine Mountain is announced to the round table to general approval. The mountain lies to the north west of Camelot, almost to the Western sea. To reach it they will need to cross the White Mountains and travel west through Caerleon. They will be gone a fortnight at most.
King Arthur is to lead the mission himself, accompanied by five of his best knights. More, and they might cause diplomatic problems with Caerleon. Fewer, and the king’s safety could not be guaranteed, not with the rumours of bandits in the mountains and the unknown dangers of the distant West. Arthur had pressed for a smaller number but been overruled. It’s still difficult for Arthur to accept that his responsibility to his kingdom means keeping himself safe, sometimes, as well as being willing to risk his own life for his people.
Merlin glares mutinously as the announcement is made. Gaius doesn't meet his eyes. There are some around the round table who seem a little uncomfortable with the purposeful tone of the king's voice as he talks about the dangers of magic, but perhaps that's only wishful thinking.
As soon as the council meeting breaks up, Merlin hurries to catch up with Arthur in the corridor.
"Merlin, can't it wait?"
"No. No, it really can't."
Arthur huffs an impatient breath and turns to face him. It strikes Merlin then that this is the first time they have been alone since that night by the fire with the wine. It seems an age. He wonders whether it is by design, whether Arthur is angry with him after all. He hasn’t seemed so, just preoccupied, but that’s no change to how he has been lately. Merlin has no time now to ponder the question, however, as Arthur huffs impatiently.
"Well, what is it?"
"You can't do this."
"Excuse me?" Arthur raises an imperious eyebrow.
"This quest. I don't think – these are very old, magical artefacts and who knows what could happen if you try to destroy them? Remember the unicorn?"
"Merlin, they are dangerous tools of sorcery."
"I just think we should keep them here, study them a bit more..."
"I've announced the quest to my entire council,” Arthur says, through gritted teeth. “The whole castle knows of it by now. This will help to restore my people's faith in me, in my ability to protect them from sorcery."
"Ah, but how can you protect them, when you're up a mountain hundreds of leagues from here?"
"I have every faith in Leon's abilities to defend the castle in my absence," Arthur says, in a too-patient tone that suggests that Merlin is trying his good will. "And the journey will take no more than a fortnight, all told."
"You're making a mistake," Merlin says, voice growing heated despite his best efforts to remain calm. There are footsteps in the corridor behind him, more of the council members leaving the meeting. "Arthur, you have to listen -"
"I don't have to do anything!" Arthur snaps, shutting him down. "Merlin, you are not my advisor.” He lowers his voice, “Don't presume to think that because I asked your advice on a personal matter the other day that you can order me about in front of my council when it comes to matters of my kingdom."
"Of course you know best, sire," Merlin says, but his tone belies his words, and from the way the vein in Arthur's temple throbs furiously, he knows it.
"I won't require your services tonight, Merlin," he says acidly. "I suggest you return to your quarters and get some rest, you've clearly become overtired."
Merlin does not return to his chambers, but pulls on a cloak and heads out to a familiar clearing not far from the castle
“O drakon, e male so ftengometta tesd'hup'anankes!” he calls, words of power thickening the air around him. He doesn’t have long to wait before he hears the beat of giant wings and the great dragon lands before him, snorting a huff of smoke from his quivering nostrils. Merlin stands his ground, not intimidated in the slightest by Kilgharrah’s tactics.
"Young warlock." Kilgharrah regards him lazily through one yellow eye.
"I need to know about the Amaranthine Mountain. Does it exist?"
"I have no reason to believe it does not. Is this why you summoned me? Is something amiss with your books?”
Merlin doesn’t deign to answer this jibe.
“Morgana found the kasulatḫu,” he tells the dragon. “Arthur’s setting off on a quest to destroy them. He won’t listen to me.”
“So you want my advice on your domestic difficulties, is that it?”
“This is serious,” Merlin snaps, more needled by the comment than he wants to admit. “The prophecy says that if they are destroyed then magic will fade from the land. That can’t be what you want! This affects you and every magical creature in the land.”
“That is true, young warlock, and you would do well to keep that in mind. However, there is one who can make sure that this does not happen, and that magic is restored to its rightful place in Albion.”
“Me,” Merlin says, a little wearily.
“You see,” Kilgharrah says a little smugly, “you really did not need my help after all.”
Arthur dismisses Merlin from his usual duties, putting him in charge of the quest preparations instead. Busy with all that needs to be done, supplies, maps, weaponry, Merlin has barely exchanged two words with Arthur in that time. Merlin had half expected Arthur to forbid him to accompany them. After all, Merlin has been left behind on every excursion since they’d reclaimed the kingdom. Arthur hasn't been best pleased with Merlin speaking out of turn, to say the least, and Merlin's made his own feelings on the endeavour perfectly clear. But his own horse is ordered along with the rest.
He's still angry with Arthur, for not being the king he wants him to be, for being so closed-minded where magic is concerned, for ignoring his advice. Arthur's still angry with him for daring to speak against him in front of his council.
At least, Merlin thinks that’s why Arthur is angry. It couldn’t be because of what he’d said about him not thinking Arthur should marry Gwen. Arthur had asked him. He’d asked him, and Merlin had given an honest answer. Arthur couldn’t be angry with him for that, surely?
But whatever the reason, there’s a studied distance between them now, even when Merlin’s duties do require them to come into close contact. It's worlds apart from the closeness that had seemed to be blooming between them just a week earlier. So much so that Merlin would still wonder whether he'd imagined his own boldness or Arthur's openness, if Arthur hadn't referred to it himself. Now, it’s worse even than the days before that night by the fire, when Arthur had been so busy and distant that Merlin had half-feared he’d discovered his magic. He knows now that had that been the case Arthur’s reaction would not be so mild.
The pale sun is rising high in the sky by the time they depart, in the midst of much fanfare. Half the people of Camelot have turned out to wish the king well on his quest, it seems, although whether they are privy to what this quest actually involves, Merlin isn’t sure. Perhaps to a peasant of Camelot, all quests seem the same.
Merlin spots Gwen among the gathered crowds, come to wish Elyan well. Arthur pays her no more attention than he does anyone else, and Merlin wonders if perhaps Arthur has insisted on this trip away from the castle in part to give himself some time and distance before he makes any decision on their future.
Merlin busies himself with checking the straps on Arthur's saddle, while Arthur holds a last minute conference with Leon. Gwaine, Elyan, Percival and two other knights are to accompany them. The kasulatḫu themselves are concealed upon Arthur's person. That is as much information as Arthur is willing to divulge, and having been effectively banished from his usual tasks of dressing the royal person, Merlin isn't privy to their exact location.
He could steal them. Spirit them away when everyone's attention is diverted. It's not that he hasn't thought about that. Of course he has. But he's thought about the consequences, too: suspicion, guilt, a new quest to hunt down the bracelets, innocent people brought under the heel of scrutiny and fear, and that's not what he wants. If anything it would only make Arthur's mistrust of magic stronger, and Merlin can't bear to see him develop the paranoia of his father, seeing sorcerers in every shadow. No, he's going to have to wait it out. Follow Arthur, as he always does. Keep working at trying to persuade Arthur to change his mind, to see that magic isn't the evil he's always been taught it is. Theft will have to be his last resort. Perhaps away from the castle, things will be different. Perhaps there will be some way to make Arthur think they have been destroyed while secreting them somewhere safe, just as he made Arthur think he had slain the dragon and destroyed the dragon egg.
“Bringing Merlin along, then?” Gwaine says as Merlin mounts his own horse. He’s addressing Arthur but his grin is for Merlin. His words are telling, it seems it hasn’t gone unnoticed that he and Arthur are not on speaking on terms these past two days.
"Well, somebody has to carry all the gear and do all the cooking," Arthur says. Perhaps the idea is to remind Merlin of his place (two paces behind Arthur and laden down with the gear, naturally). Gwaine gives Merlin a friendly wink and he feels his lips twitch in an attempt to smile in return, but his heart's not in it. It's hard not to wonder what all of this is for – subjugating himself to Arthur's whims – if it means being nothing more than a foot soldier in the war against his own kind, his own nature.
And yet he could no more stop following Arthur, protecting Arthur, than he could stop breathing.
They set off at a goodly pace, to make up for the lateness of the start, aiming to cover as much ground as possible before sundown. Usually Merlin’s place would be beside Arthur, but he finds himself at the back of the convoy, alongside Gwaine, Elyan taking his place next to Arthur. There's little time for chatter, and Merlin's glad of it. For all he values Gwaine's camaraderie, he isn't in the mood for it, not today.
They break briefly at mid-afternoon to give the horses a rest, before pressing on. Merlin thinks of all the times Arthur dragged him off hunting, all the time spent complaining and bickering and teasing. On the surface it might have seemed as if they weren't getting along, but while that might have been true of the earliest days, it's been a long time since there was any real antagonism between them. Even with everything that's happened this past year, the two of them had remained… well, them. But now there's something fractured between them, like a storm waiting to break. And Merlin isn't sure what will be left of them when – if – they come out the other side.
They ride on until it's almost too dark to see the rider in front. Even then, Merlin can tell from the tense line of Arthur's shoulders that he's not happy about having to stop.
Once the camp is up and the fire going, Gwaine begins one of his stories, the sort that always start, “So I was in a tavern in Mercia…”much to Elyan and the other knights’ amusement. Percival attempts to engage Arthur on defensive strategies and some of the Southron warriors’ sword techniques. A good leader, a good warrior knows there’s something to be learned even from his fallen enemies, so Arthur listens intently to Percival’s tales of his own travels in the Southron lands before he’s become a knight of Camelot, and the things he’d seen there. Merlin, listening in, wonders whether Lancelot had been with him. Percival doesn’t mention him, but that might be out of tact. Merlin realises with a sudden pang just how much he misses his friend Lancelot, the only one in Camelot besides Gaius who’d known of his magic, of the invisible hand of destiny pressing down on his shoulders all the time; Lancelot who’d been so noble and understanding and faithful; who’d made Merlin laugh and made the burden of destiny seem a little lighter.
He feels his eyes sting a little at the memory of his friend, taken like so many others. Wanting to hide his reaction, knowing the others couldn’t understand, Merlin collects up the stew bowls and heads towards the stream to wash them. Alone, he can hear their names in the whisper of the trees and the murmur of the stream, Lancelot, Freya, Will, Balinor,, an elemental elegy.
The dead can be mourned, that is one comfort. But Merlin doesn’t know how to begin to ease the pain, the jagged guilt he feels when thinking of those living but lost, those who had once been friends and should be still.
He dries his eyes hastily and turns, fixing a neutral expression on his face before turning.
Merlin’s smile is genuine when he sees him. He has at least one true friend still here.
“Thought you looked like you could do with an extra pair of hands.”
Sometimes Gwaine has more tact than people give him credit for, Merlin decides, and hands over a share of the dishes. Gwaine distracts him with castle gossip he’s missed over the past week or so. Merlin observes that Gwaine’s still a little thin, a reminder of the days spent at Morgana’s mercy, and resolves to give him an extra helping of tomorrow night’s stew. By the time the bowls are clean and the water-skins filled, Merlin feels as though the weight on his shoulders has lightened a little and he laughs at Gwaine’s jokes as they head back to camp.
Merlin feels Arthur’s eyes upon them even before he sees him sitting there, regarding the two of them with thinly veiled disapproval and something else in his eyes that flashes so briefly Merlin can’t pin it down. He feels instantly as though he’s done something wrong although he can’t imagine what. Perhaps Arthur objects to Gwaine helping him with the servants’ work, although it would hardly be the first time. Perhaps he thinks Merlin will infect Gwaine with his own particular brand of insubordination, although it’s just as likely to be the other way around. Perhaps Arthur fears a mutiny.
Merlin considers it, for a moment. Just how the knights would react if he were to reveal his magic, the prophecy, everything. Gwaine would be on his side, he’s sure, perhaps Percival too, but Elyan has always seemed to mistrust magic and the other two are an unknown quantity. Somehow, though, Merlin knows that if he is to succeed in changing Arthur’s mind, it will be just him and Arthur, with no intermediaries.
By the end of the second day they've reached the foothills of the White Mountains that lie to the west of Camelot. There's a few hours of daylight left, and Arthur's all for pressing on. But the pass looks steep and narrow, over rough ground and Merlin feels a chill that's nothing to do with the weather.
"Sire, perhaps we'd best camp here until morning," he suggests.
"Really?" Arthur turns and fixes him with a sceptical glare. "And why would that be? Another funny feeling?"
"I..." Merlin isn't sure what to say, because he's not wrong.
"Funnily enough, Merlin," Arthur carries on, scathing, "the kingdom isn't run on the funny feelings of a manservant."
Merlin's at a loss for a retort. His 'funny feelings' have saved all their hides more than once in the past, but Arthur never seems to remember that.
"Sire, I just think -"
"We press on," Arthur says, mouth set in a thin, determined line. The knights around them exchange uneasy glances, and Merlin can't help but wonder whether Arthur is insisting upon this merely to spite Merlin, or to assert his own authority. It's not like him to do be reckless where his men's safety is concerned, especially since there's no immediate threat to drive them on. Arthur presses ahead but the knights hang back, reining in their mounts.
"I've heard tales of bandits in the pass," Gwaine says, stretching out atop his horse. "Might be more than our lives are worth to try it in the dark."
"There's water here, and shelter," Elyan adds. "Who knows when we might find somewhere as suitable to camp?"
Arthur turns and regards them with a steely gaze.
"Fine," he concedes, at last. "We'll make camp here and cross the pass in the morning."
Arthur and one of the other knights go to hunt down something for dinner while Merlin sets up the camp. Gwaine offers him some assistance. There's a look on his face that suggests he'd like to ask Merlin what's wrong, but to Merlin's relief he doesn't press the matter. He's not sure what he'd tell him if he did ask. He allows himself to be distracted by Gwaine's idle chatter as he banks up the fire.
Arthur and Gaheris return with a brace of pheasants, which Arthur dumps unceremoniously at Merlin's feet. He looks up but Arthur has already taken a cloth down to the stream to wash. Elyan helps to pluck the birds and ready them for the pot. Merlin's grateful that he and Percival at least do not consider themselves above helping out like some of the older knights. There are times when they gang up on him, of course, pranks and jokes of which Merlin finds himself the butt, more often than not. But today there's a certain sobriety to the whole party, as though their moods follow the king's, as they follow him in so much else.
Merlin stirs the cooking pot and glances surreptitiously at Arthur through the flickering of the campfire. The certainty and arrogance he'd displayed earlier are gone, but he remains aloof, untouchable. The time was Merlin would have been able to shake him out of a mood like this with some chatter, a bit of good old fashioned persistence, or perhaps a particularly entertaining display of idiocy. But he's no longer certain of his welcome. Something's shifted between them, like sand that has yet to settle in a new shape.
Merlin is collared, against his inclination, into settling a debate between Gwaine and Percival about the best spices to cook with chicken as they eat. Afterwards, he washes out the cooking pot and the bowls while the knights bicker over the watch rota.
There's a chill in the air, and if Merlin wasn't in enough trouble already over criticizing the quest, he might have said something about the wisdom of setting off at this time of year. There's bound to be snow, especially in the mountain passes. There's material in the packs for shelters, should they need them, but fixing them up is hard work, and taking them down in the morning and packing them away will take up valuable riding time. However they won't freeze to death without them, so Arthur doesn't give the order. The six of them huddle near as they can to the fire, though. Merlin hands Arthur the thickest blanket, and Arthur looks at him, something very like a grateful smile flashing across his face, gone again as quickly as it appeared, until Merlin's not sure whether he only imagined it.
Merlin bunks down beneath his own blanket, staring up at the stars above them, sleep eluding him.
He's woken some time before dawn, by a soft wetness on his face. He rubs something out of his eyes as he wakes and realises – snow. He shakes the white flakes off his blanket as he sits up. Elyan is on watch, blanket around his shoulders as he warms his hands on the fire. The fire won't last long if the snowfall gets any heavier. Merlin glances towards the pass with a feeling of foreboding. Riding in heavy snow and low cloud can be almost worse than riding at night. But it's light still, barely settling. Elyan nods towards Arthur's sleeping form, a question in his eyes. Asking if he should be woken, Merlin realises. At the same time, he realises that Elyan is asking his advice on the best way to handle the king. At any other time Merlin would likely be flattered that the knights have such faith in his ability to judge Arthur's moods, the implication that he is closest to Arthur of all of them. Now, he can only wonder sadly whether that faith is misplaced.
He nods to Elyan and crawls over, kneeling beside Arthur, damp patches growing on his knees where the snow already settled seeps into the thin material. He shakes Arthur's shoulder gently, trying to rouse him.
Arthur's eyes flicker open and he blinks the snow from his lashes. For a moment there's a sort of unguarded tenderness in his expression, tinged with confusion. Then he seems to recall who and where he is and his face hardens, frowning at Merlin's hand on his shoulder. Merlin pulls it back with a jerk. Arthur addresses Elyan, not sparing Merlin a second glance.
"Rouse the others, we leave at once."
The pass is every bit as unwelcoming as it seemed to promise. There are rocks on the path which have fallen down from the mountainside and the horses stumble often. On particularly treacherous inclines they have to dismount and lead them. The snowfall picks up steadily until it's hard to see more than an arm's length in front of their faces. The mountains loom above them on either side, but provide little protection from the wind which batters them constantly, head-on. The wind howls, spooking the horses and making conversation impossible. Shouted orders are sometimes relayed back, but Merlin pays little heed, focussing on Percival's broad back in front of him as he trudges on. His legs are aching worse from leading his horse along the steep paths than they would from riding, he's sure.
The path widens out and there's a pause as they mount their horses once more. Merlin's legs are grateful, but he's no sooner atop his horse than he realises it's colder up here. He thinks longingly of the blanket in his pack, but he has no clasp to keep it around him for one thing, and he needs to save it for night if he's to feel the benefit of it then.
He's tired, not from the walking, although his muscles are complaining loudly about that, but from how little sleep he’s been getting recently. If it's not Arthur keeping him working until the early hours, it's worrying about Arthur or worrying about this quest and what it will mean for people with magic if the kasulatḫu are destroyed. There's something a little mesmerising about the falling snow, the way the wind blows and buffets the flakes into something like a dance before his eyes. He feels his eyelids growing heavy, and blinks, shaking his head to keep himself awake.
There's a whistle, almost lost in the swish of the wind, and then a sudden pain. His side stings like a sword bite and his knees tighten involuntarily. His head jerks up and he shouts out to the others to halt. But his concentration lost for a moment means he misjudges the curve of the path, and his horse stumbles, scrambling to right herself, and Merlin is thrown to the ground.
The snow is soft, but the rocks beneath are not, and there's a sharp bloom of pain on the right side of his head as he comes to. Merlin's frantic for a moment, wondering how long he's been out, whether he's been left behind, given up for dead. He can't see anything, everything's white and fuzzy. But there are voices, distant and echoing, one sharper than the rest, more familiar. Then there are hands on him and a face inches from his own, desperate with worry, red lips forming words he can't make out before he loses consciousness again.
When he comes round again, the howling of the wind is more muted. It's cold and damp, but the icy downpour has abated. It smells rather strongly of horse, and for a moment he wonders whether he's fallen asleep in the stables again. Opening his eyes, Merlin recalls the quest and the mountains, his fall, and realises they're in a cave.
"Welcome back to the land of the living," Gwaine says, clapping him on the arm. "How's your head?"
"Sore." Merlin struggles into a sitting position. His back's not faring much better. "Arthur?"
"Here," Arthur's tone is gruff and when he looks at Merlin it's all critical appraisal, no trace of emotion, like when he looks at a lamed horse or a trainee knight, judging when he might be fit to move on. Merlin wonders whether he hallucinated the look he thought he'd seen on Arthur’s face out there in the snow. "You fell asleep riding, you idiot."
Merlin frowns, sure there's something else, but the memory eludes him.
"I'm sorry. My horse?"
Arthur's face is grim, and Merlin knows it's not good news. She was a good animal, from the king's own stables and he's sorry for it. But it's evident that had he not been thrown, he would have gone down the mountainside along with her.
"We've some. We'll have to change our plans a little, stop off at the nearest town beyond the mountains and restock." Arthur turns away. "Get some rest. We'll be stopping here until the weather calms down." His tone is impersonal but not unkind. Merlin thinks he may as well do as he's ordered, just this once.
He's woken the next time by the low murmur of voices and a sharp sting of discomfort in his side. He realises that someone has covered him with a blanket while he's been asleep. It's the thickest blanket, the one he'd given to Arthur the night before, and he wonders who’s responsible for that small kindness. He hugs it to his knees even as he reaches around to the sore place by his kidneys, wondering whether there is any of the salve Gaius always packs, or whether that too had gone down with the mare. His fingers comes back sticky with blood and he frowns at the dark patch, just visible in the dim glow of the firelight.
"Oh," he says aloud and two pairs of eyes turn to look at him. Gwaine crosses over to his side of the cave and checks the bandage around his head.
"It's clean. I don't –"
"My side," Merlin says, and Gwaine lifts up his tunic to check.
"The material's torn, too. That must have been some fall." He goes to fetch more of the strips of linen which had been used to bandage his head.
"I fell on my right," Merlin says, confused, one hand reaching up involuntarily to his head wound.
Arthur comes over, inspects the wound. Merlin forces himself to stay still and not to wince too much at the coldness of his hands against his skin, but there's nothing he can do about the goose bumps which break out all over him.
"It's clean," Arthur says, pulling his hand away. "It looks more like you were grazed by an arrow, or –" He cuts himself off, looking at Merlin intently. "Merlin, was it an arrow?"
"I'm not sure." He shakes his head. "There was something, before I fell, but I don't..."
"Gwaine, you mentioned rumours of bandits. Do you think?"
"Could be." Gwaine shrugs, motioning Merlin to hold up his tunic so he can dress the wound.
"Then we need to be vigilant. Two men on watch at all times at the mouth of the cave. If there are bandits we must assume they know the area better than we do."
"I don’t understand why they didn’t press their advantage at once.”
“I don’t know either, but I don’t like it. Perhaps once they missed they thought we were alerted to their presence. We've come too far to go back, now. As soon as it's clear enough to move, we'll head on."
The throbbing in Merlin’s head has subsided by the time they set out again. The wind is not as bitter as it was before, but progress on foot is slow. Mindful of the accident with Merlin's mare, Arthur doesn't want to risk the rest of the horses until the path is surer. They're less visible like this, too – red cloaks somewhat obscured by the horses' flanks. Merlin finds himself with a pair of leather leggings which he knows aren't his – they're loose enough to fit over his regular ones and just long enough to tuck into his boots and they provide a better protection against the weather. He's grateful to whoever donated them and hopes they've a spare pair.
Visibility is better, but that's both good and bad news. They'll likely have better warning of an attack, but they'll be an easier target, too. The bright sun melts the snow around them and it starts to drip from the rocks.
That they're expecting the attack, when it comes, doesn't make it easier. The bandits are dressed in white and brown furs, camouflage against their environment. There are no arrows this time, their assailants choose not to announce their arrival, pouring down from the mountainside. They're on them in an instant, a sudden roar of violence. The element of surprise doesn't give them much of an advantage, however; the knights' swords are drawn in a flash of steel and there's a sudden bright spray of blood against the white snow as the first bandit goes down. It's hard to see anything in the confusion of the melee. Merlin flattens himself against the mountainside and thinks fast. He can't see Arthur, at first, and his chest tightens in fear. There's a red cloak on the ground and for a moment he thinks it's him; his magic crackles at his fingertips, eager to seek retribution against the bandit horde. But no, Arthur is there, fighting two bearded attackers at once with an astonishing display of swordsmanship. Merlin can feel the rocks against his back, digging against his injured side and it gives him an idea. If only he can be sure the men of Camelot won't be hit – but they're all so close, knights and bandits together. He'll have to be a little more... specific.
Concentrating, Merlin pulls a loose rock from the mountainside and directs it towards the head of one of Arthur's attackers. He falls instantly, allowing Arthur to devote his attention to the other. Next, with a flash of gold in his eyes that he hopes everyone is too busy fighting to notice, he turns his attention to Percival's opponent. Arthur remains his main concern, of course, so he notices when Arthur looks up towards the mountain with a frown. He magicks a few more rocks loose for plausible deniability and they tumble down, forming a little pile to his left.
It's the final straw for the bandits, it seems, who shout to each other and scramble away cross country. There's no chance of riding after them, not on horseback and not when they clearly have better knowledge of the terrain and doubtless a hiding place nearby.
They stay where they are, Arthur assessing the damage. Merlin is called to bandage more than a few scrapes. All in all, it could have been a lot worse.
"Only a skirmish," Arthur dismisses. "Nothing to worry about. We'll reach the other side by nightfall if we push on. Who knows, we might even get to spend the night in an inn."
"I'd fight a score more bandits for that," Gwaine says, flexing his injured arm.
Merlin thinks of his wet socks and can't say that he finds the idea of spending the night in an inn unappealing.
The snow turns to a grey slush as the path spirals down towards Caerleon. There's no further attack, but they remain on their guard, even as they ride out of the mountains. Merlin's sharing a horse with Gwaine; it's not exactly comfortable but better than tramping on foot with soggy feet, for certain. His head throbs and he has to resist the temptation to sag forwards against the body in front of him. For one thing, it's the wrong body. Gwaine wouldn't mind, he wouldn't take it the wrong way, but Merlin can't afford to give in to any weakness or tiredness. Once he opened the floodgates, he's not sure where it would all end. Perhaps with him sobbing on Gwaine's shoulder about how Arthur will never appreciate his magic, will never love him the way he wants him to.
And that would never do. So he grits his teeth against the pain in his head and his side, just as Gwaine and Elyan must be with their injuries, steels his nerves against the cold and the fatigue and the miserable unfairness of life in general, and destiny in particular, and holds his head up high, as always.
As the terrain flattens out, they begin to relax. They're close to the border here, and while Caerleon hasn't always exactly been a friend to Camelot, it isn't an enemy either. Following Arthur’s orders, the knights unpin their red cloaks and stow them away in the packs, just to be safe.
Although their chainmail and swords garner a few wary looks there's no outright hostility. Merlin wonders why Arthur hasn't asked Queen Annis outright for safe passage through her lands; being taken for spies could upset the fragile alliance between the two nations, after all. But then he recalls the bracelets and Arthur's growing reluctance to trust anybody – even an ally might not be able to resist such an opportunity to gain magical dominion over another kingdom.
It's dark by the time they arrive at a small town and stop to ask directions to the nearest inn – although Gwaine's nudging his horse in the right direction before Arthur's even finished speaking with the peasant woman.
If horses could breathe sighs of relief, Merlin suspects that's exactly what they'd be doing as they're led into the warmth of the stable. The stable lad shakes his head over their condition as he takes the reins, and Merlin would swear Gwaine's horse is drooling already at the smell of fresh hay. Like master like horse, he thinks, then feels a pang of regret for his own grey mare and her untimely demise.
The animals seen to, Merlin rushes back out into the cold of the yard and then again into the warmth of the inn, in search of Arthur and the others. They stick out like a sore thumb even without their cloaks, amongst the inn’s more lowly clientele. Chainmail is clearly not the norm here, and they're on the receiving end of more than one warily appraising once-over from the assembled locals.
Arthur secures rooms with a chink of coin that's all too conspicuous and even Gwaine and Percival are starting to look a little uneasy. It's their job to be on their guard, of course. But here in this unfamiliar territory among common men it might be useful that Arthur's newest knights are not noble-born, if Arthur would only ask for their guidance on how to blend in a little better.
They sit down to supper, a boiled ham and some bread that's seen better days. But it's food, and better still, it’s food that Merlin hasn't had to prepare, so he devotes himself to the eating of it with enthusiasm.
Arthur insists on talking tactics while they dine, unfurling a map across the tacky surface of the wooden table, weighted down by a dagger at one end and a flagon of mead at the other. Gwaine casts a longing look over to the dice game going on in the corner, and it's all too obvious where he'll be spending the evening when Arthur finally dismisses them.
Grateful as he is for the food, Merlin's head throbs and he's struggling to keep his eyes open. He allows his attention to drift, thinking of sleeping in a real bed again after four days on the road. It's hardly the longest they've gone without a roof over their heads, but the nature of the mission and his disagreement with Arthur are weighing heavily on his heart and he feels bone-weary in a way that he hasn't since his earliest days in Arthur's service.
Relief pricks at him when Arthur announces its time to retire, quickly quashed again when Arthur turns to him and says,
"Merlin, have a bath brought up to my room."
Scathing words telling Arthur exactly what he can do with his bath rise up in his throat but he swallows them all down. He nods, not trusting himself to open his mouth, all the unspoken words and feelings tight like a knot in his throat. He asks for a tub and hot water, hauling each bucket manually up the narrow stairs – it's too crowded to risk magic here, with so many unfriendly eyes on them already. His arms ache by the time the tub is full, and he glares resentfully at Arthur who is perched barefoot on the edge of the largest bed, dressed in just his shirt and breeches, studying the map once more.
"Your bath, sire," Merlin says when he can trust himself to speak. Arthur looks up and Merlin gets an eyeful of bare skin where his shirt gapes open. He doesn't know who he's more angry with, Arthur for being such a prat, or himself for wanting him so desperately despite everything.
Arthur nods and pulls off his shirt. Merlin bites his lip and tries to look inconspicuous. He'd intended to turn this situation to his advantage by using the opportunity to spy where Arthur has concealed the bracelets, not to get distracted by a glimpse of flesh. He goes to gather up the discarded clothes, scrape the worst of the mud off the trousers and maybe discover the hiding place of the kasulatḫu when he glances at Arthur lowering himself into the tub and he sees them. Arthur has attached them to the chain around his neck alongside the pendant he often wears. And, it seems, he has no intention of taking it off, not even to bathe. If Merlin has any hope of stealing away with the bracelets, it won't be while Arthur is awake. It won't be here, either, he realises. Easy as it would be to pin the disappearance on a passing thief, he has no desire to participate in the bloodshed that would undoubtedly follow when Arthur started making threats and demands and the locals became defensive about being falsely accused.
It's only when Arthur emerges from the tub, dripping wet and casting about for a sheet to dry himself on, that Merlin recalls that this is the first time in a long time Arthur has allowed him to stay while he bathes. He averts his eyes quickly, not allowing himself to take advantage of the situation by letting his gaze linger on his firm thighs or the curve of his back. Perhaps there is nothing meant by it, they needs must live in close quarters tonight, three to a room. Knights on a mission care little for modesty. But Gwaine is not here, off dicing somewhere no doubt, and Arthur could easily have sent him down to the kitchens or the yard if he'd wanted some privacy. Merlin's wondering whether he'll be able to get a wash in the yard when he empties the water, whether there are enough dry shirts to justify soaking the one he's in, or whether he'll have to strip off in the freezing temperatures when Arthur calls to him.
"Here," he says, nodding at the tub. "It's still warm enough."
Merlin gapes at him for a second. Does Arthur seriously expect him to strip off in front of him and get into the tub? It seems that's exactly what he expects, because Arthur frowns at him and says, "Come on, it'll cool soon enough."
Arthur busies himself with dressing, rubbing his hair dry, and Merlin looks askance at the tub. It would be bliss, to sink into a bath of warm water, to soak away the grime and the aches. Even second hand water is about a hundred times better than breaking the ice over the buckets in the yard with the other servants. As he gingerly peels off his jacket, Merlin tries not to think too hard about the tub's previous occupant, how the same water had lapped against his skin.
It's not a large tub and he sits with his knees pulled up to his chest, which at least saves him from worrying overmuch about his modesty. It's barely lukewarm, but heating water is something he can do with his eyes closed. Making sure Arthur's back is turned he whispers a word and the water is warm again. He groans with contentment at the feeling, tipping his head back and closing his eyes, revelling in the warmth. When his eyes flicker open again, it is to see Arthur looking over at him with a slightly startled expression.
"What?" he demands, before he can think better of it and Arthur shakes his head, clearing his throat.
"Don't linger in there all night, you've still got to clean my boots, you know," he says, turning away. Merlin submerges himself once, comes up spluttering slightly and then uses the opportunity to get out of the tub, careful not to splash too much of the water over the side as he does so. There's nothing near to dry himself on but his shirt and leggings so he risks another whispered spell and pulls his clothes on over his tingling skin, rubbing one hand through his newly clean hair.
"You look like you needed that," Arthur says at last with a small, soft smile, and Merlin doesn't know what to make of it. It's too hard to keep up with Arthur's ever changing attitudes to him – sometimes a servant, sometimes a friend, sometimes… but then again, maybe not.
"Yes," he says, a little helplessly because he does feel worlds better, and that's only partly due to the bath and partly due to Arthur showing him a little bit of kindness and concern.
"Yes, well," Arthur says, gruff once more. "Hurry up with my boots, I want to get some sleep. And tell Gwaine he's not to be up all night gaming."
Gwaine is indeed still gaming when Merlin makes his way down to the common room downstairs. Percival is leaning against the bar, seemingly drinking heavily but in actual fact not making much headway through the tankard. It's a skill he has, counterpart to Gwaine's ability to drink a lot without being as affected by it as he seems. To the casual observer it would seem they are displaying no caution whatsoever, but Merlin knows better. They’re here to enjoy themselves, true, but they’re also on their guard, spying out any potential threats.
"All right?" Merlin says, sidling up to Percival.
“Aye.” Percival tips his tankard to Merlin and lifts it to his lips without any liquid making its way into his mouth. “You’re not to have any,” Percival adds, “Arthur’s orders.”
“Oh really?” Merlin bristles. They may be on a mission and under Arthur’s command, but he’s as entitled as any of the knights to his free hours. Arthur doesn’t think he’s going to spill the secrets of their mission to all and sundry after a couple of sips of mead, surely? And not two weeks after he’d told Merlin he was someone he could trust. Percival smiles as though divining the direction of Merlin’s thoughts from his scowl.
“Your head wound,” he explains. “Gaius forbade drinking after a blow to the head after Sir Bors’… incident.”
“Ah.” Merlin pulls a face, recalling the incident in question. He’d had to help Gaius clean up and it hadn’t been pretty. “Well, Arthur sent me to tell Gwaine not to stay up too long.”
Percival nods and begins to cough loudly. Merlin’s alarmed for an instant, until he realises it must be to give Gwaine some sort of signal. Gwaine gives no outward sound of recognition, but he folds the next game and begins to collect his meagre winnings, thanking his fellow players for the entertainment. He makes a show of bidding the barmaid a good night, with copious, obviously false compliments, winks at Merlin and heads up the stairs.
Merlin goes to follow, but Percival’s hand on his arm stops him short.
“Merlin,” Percival begins, then hesitates. Percival’s been a man of few words, as long as Merlin’s known him, and those few go mostly in the service of teasing Gwaine. “Here,” Percival says at last, sliding a tankard of mead across the wooden surface of the bar towards Merlin. “What Arthur doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”
Percival grins and Merlin grins back, despite the uneasy resonance of the words.
The candles are out when Merlin finally stumbles up the stairs and pushes open the door to their room, and there's no fire. Merlin curses as he stumbles over somebody's pack left in the doorway and hops across the rest of the floor. A sliver of moonlight provides the only illumination, falling across the rough brown wool of Arthur's coverlet.
He pauses for a moment. Asleep, Arthur looks younger and much less forbidding, his brow creased in a frown as though even his dreams are troubling him. Merlin feels the grip of his resentment loosen a little. After all, Arthur, too, has the hand of destiny on his shoulder; he has to weigh up all his decisions against the safety and prosperity of his people. He’s doing the right thing, as he sees it. How many times before has Merlin tried to defend Arthur to others, only to lose sight of that himself? Merlin’s task is to make Arthur see that destroying the bracelets isn’t the right thing after all.
Here, now, in the dark, that doesn’t seem like such an impossible task. If he were to wake Arthur now, to pour out his soul, every last one of his secrets, maybe Arthur would listen, would understand. He’s half reached out towards him when there’s a loud snore from across the room and Merlin remembers that they’re not alone, that there are still a hundred or more insurmountable barriers between them.
He pulls his hand away and crawls over to his own sleeping place.
Not for the first time, Merlin finds himself woken before dawn by a creeping sense of unease. There's something, there on his left, where Arthur is sleeping... where Arthur should be sleeping. Merlin sits bolt upright, eyes wide open. Arthur isn't there. It's not his watch, it's Gwaine's, Arthur should be sleeping. His chainmail is there, in a pile at the foot of his bed. Merlin tries to clamp down on the rising tide of panic in his gut. Surely there's nothing wrong. Arthur has gone to make water, that's all. He could hardly have been kidnapped right under Gwaine's nose.
Merlin pushes open the door and glares at his friend, on watch in the corridor.
"Where has he gone?" Merlin demands, no preamble. Gwaine doesn’t even try to dissemble.
"He thought it would be for the best," Gwaine says. "There were people downstairs making... specific enquiries."
The bracelets, Merlin realises. If Morgana had wind of the plan, or any of their other enemies, they might be looking to stop them, to take the bracelets for themselves. And if not Morgana, then someone else. Camelot’s never without enemies, it seems.
"And what, he's gone off on his own? And you just let him? Gwaine!"
"I had my orders, Merlin. I'm to lead any followers on a merry chase and return the rest of you safely to Camelot. It's not a bad plan."
Well, in the long written history of Arthur's terrible plans it probably doesn't rank in the top five, but it's bloody close. Merlin seethes, heading back into the room to pack what he can carry. Gwaine follows him.
"He's gone on foot, I take it? When?"
"Not an hour past. Merlin –"
"You can't stop me."
"Who said I was going to try?” Gwaine says with an ill-concealed grin. “He went that way."
Gwaine gestures in the right direction. Merlin returns his smile for a split second, then heads for the door.
“No problem. Hey, Merlin?”
He pauses, one hand curled around the doorframe, ready to run.
“Come back in one piece, will you?”
“Of course,” Merlin promises, with a certainty he doesn’t feel. There’s something almost a little sad in Gwaine’s eyes, as if he knows Merlin’s lying. Whatever happens, Merlin has a feeling that if – when – he sees his friend again, things will be a lot different for all of them.
And then he's off, sneaking quietly out of the door and down the stairs. He casts a rueful look at the stables before he’s gone, scampering after Arthur, hoping he'll find him before the dollop-head manages to get himself killed.
Arthur has a head start of a little under an hour. He’ll be moving quickly without the weight of the chainmail slowing him down but so will Merlin; chasing across the countryside in pursuit of some magical being or other, or dashing back to save Arthur's life, is practically an everyday occurrence nowadays. He can’t help but curse Arthur a little for leaving the chainmail behind; is he trying to make it as difficult as possible for Merlin to keep him safe? Perhaps he’s learnt something from the previous evening and decided the safest thing to do is to blend in and pass as a peasant. Trust Arthur to pick the brave but foolish course of action.
The woods he’d seen on the map Arthur had shown them the night before is just on the outskirts of the town. If Arthur wanted to travel quickly on foot without attracting attention, that’s the way he would have taken, Merlin’s sure of it. Arthur’s experienced in concealing his tracks though, so Merlin uses just a little bit of magic to help him find the way, following the faint trace of gold like a thread through a labyrinth.
There is a pale glimmer of sunlight filtering through the canopy of trees. Merlin allows himself a small smile at the beauty of it, listening to the early morning song of the birds overhead. He reaches into his pack for an apple to break his fast.
The sword at his throat comes as a surprise.
Merlin drops the apple and it rolls away into the undergrowth. Even with the cool steel pressed dangerously close to his bared throat, he can't help but think how Gwaine would think it a waste of a good apple. He gathers his magic until he can feel the warm glow of it at his fingertips ready to fling his attacker away from him. His mouth has half formed the word when he hears an incredulous,
The sword falls away and he spins round, face to face with Arthur. He’s dressed in normal clothes, the brown jacket Merlin likes and a plain linen shirt.
"You idiot," Arthur grabs hold of his jacket and shakes him, shoving him up against the nearest tree. "I could have killed you!"
"Well that's hardly my fault," Merlin complains, "you're the one with the sword."
Arthur doesn’t let go, and Merlin is all at once aware of how close they are, so close he can feel the rise and fall of Arthur’s chest against his own.
"What are you doing here?" Arthur demands.
"What do you think? Trailing after your sorry backside, as usual."
Arthur glares at him, unimpressed. Then, as if suddenly realising how tightly they are pressed together, lets go of Merlin’s jacket and takes a step back.
"I hardly think..."
"You know you'll only get yourself killed or something if I'm not around," Merlin goes on, with a lightness it's hard to feel because it's too close to the truth for comfort. He doesn't look Arthur in the eye as he pushes himself away from the tree and adjusts his pack on his shoulder.
"Really?" Arthur folds his arms. "Seems to me you're the one who nearly lost your head."
"You've got no idea just how often I've saved your stupid life, have you?" Merlin snaps, looking up. It grates on him, sometimes, just how oblivious Arthur is.
Arthur lets out a long suffering harrumph and busies himself returning his sword to its scabbard. Any gentleness Merlin might have thought he'd glimpsed the night before is gone, vanished beneath a steely veneer of impatience and resolve once more. But he doesn't positively forbid Merlin from accompanying him, so he decides to take that as tacit permission. Not that he needs permission, he'll follow Arthur to the ends of the earth whether Arthur wants him to or not, but it would make destiny a little easier if he had it.
Arthur sets a punishing pace as they push on through the countryside, leaving the wood and trekking across rows of fields marked by hedgerows. Merlin doesn't complain, doesn't give any reason for Arthur to regret letting him tag along.
The sun's position tells him they're heading north west, rather than the true west Arthur had marked out on the map. They arrive by dusk at the edge of a dense forest. It's not on any maps of Camelot that Merlin's ever seen, and he supposes they've crossed the border with Caerleon once more. Borders are funny things, but Arthur, as king, seems to have some kind of instinct for where his kingdom ends and others begin.
"So, you know where we're headed, then?" Merlin ventures at last, a little out of breath as he strives to keep up.
"No, Merlin, I'm just wandering around blindly in the hope that a funny feeling will lead me in the right direction," Arthur retorts.
Merlin recalls Arthur getting out the map in the inn the night before and wonders whether that was all a diversion. He thinks about how Arthur had sent the message for him, how Percival had kept Merlin down by the bar.
"You planned this."
"Don't sound so surprised." He's not so much surprised as feeling left out, but he can hardly admit to that without Arthur laughing at him. The whole point of the plan was that as few people knew about it as possible. It hurts a little that Arthur didn’t trust him with it, that’s all. Or invite him along. "I'm not a complete idiot you know. You, on the other hand..."
And okay, it seems that Arthur's going to laugh at him anyway. Obviously. He can't help smiling a little in return; for all that he's being insulted, it feels a little like old times. Arthur's lips twitch one last time and he sighs.
"Come on then, let's break here."
Merlin's legs all but collapse under him and he doesn't bother to hide his sigh of relief as he roots through his pack for something to eat. He's been mourning the loss of that apple all morning (although better that than the loss of his head, he concedes). There's little enough there that he decides to ration it – who knows when they'll have the luxury of restocking their supplies again?
They spend another night in the open. There's damp in the air threatening rain but the wood lights quickly enough with a whispered word, and they sit quietly with the crackle of the fire for company. They haven't managed to catch anything to roast on it, walking all day until their feet threatened mutiny, no time for diversions like hunting. Arthur leans back against the nearest tree, fatigue evident in the hunch of his shoulders and the tightness around his mouth.
"How long, do you reckon?" Merlin ventures to ask, poking the fire with a stick.
"At our current pace, four or five days at most."
"At our current pace I think we'll have worn our boots away long before five days. Couldn't we have at least taken the horses?"
"We're supposed to be inconspicuous, Merlin," Arthur reminds him. Merlin looks over at him. He's not sure Arthur knows the meaning of the phrase.
"And when we reach this mountain, what then? We climb to the top, you just throw the bracelets in this fiery chasm and they disappear?"
"That's the idea, yes." Arthur's got his head tilted back so Merlin can't see his eyes, can't read his expression. He goes back to poking the fire. It's not the right time to remind Arthur he doesn't agree with his plan.
“I don’t suppose you brought any spare blankets?” Arthur asks, opening one eye. Merlin rolls his eyes.
“Good job I tagged along isn’t it?” he teases, opening his pack and unrolling a hastily-packed blanket. “Honestly, one night in an inn and you’ve gone soft,” he continues, as he drops the blanket in Arthur’s lap. “Anything else, my lord? A bath drawn perhaps? A feather bed?”
He can’t help but think of the bath from the inn and feels his cheeks heat a little.
“If I had a feather bed I suppose you’d want to share that as well,” Arthur snorts, and Merlin fumbles with his pack, dropping the contents over the ground. There’s a faint blush spreading across Arthur’s cheeks, as though he’s realised the connotations of what he’s said. Merlin bites his lip and crouches down to gather up the dropped items.
When he looks up again, Arthur is looking at him keenly, concern evident in his furrowed brow.
“I suppose you didn’t think to get Gwaine to change that dressing before you came haring after me this morning?”
“No,” Merlin admits. The graze on his side has reduced to nothing more than a sting, but the head wound has been bleeding steadily, and when he peels the bandage away it’s rust-red. Arthur tuts as he sees it.
“Idiot. Come here.”
Merlin thinks about protesting, but something in Arthur’s expression stops him, and he goes obediently, kneeling by Arthur’s side. Arthur completes his task in silence without any further remonstrance, his hands brisk but not rough as he re-wraps the wound.
“There you go,” Arthur says needlessly when he’s done. Arthur’s still just looking at him, as though there’s something else to be said and Merlin clicks his tongue nervously.
If there is anything to be said, it soon becomes clear that neither of them are going to say it tonight. Merlin ducks his head and turns to unroll his own blanket by the fire. When he next looks over at Arthur, his eyes are closed.
Merlin pulls his own blanket tight around him as the clouds roll ominously overhead, obscuring the light of the stars. He's almost afraid that if he lets himself fall asleep, Arthur will be gone again when he wakes up. But the heaviness in his eyelids drags him under before too long.
The bliss of sleep is short-lived, however. The threatened rain becomes a reality, dousing the fire and dripping steadily even through the canopy of the forest. Merlin scrambles to his feet, grabbing his bedding and making for the shelter of the largest tree. It's a little better than where they were stretched out before, but not much. Arthur reaches up to drape his blanket across the lower hanging branches, providing a makeshift roof of sorts. Backs pressed against the tree trunk, Merlin stretches his own cover over the both of them and so they sleep like that, shoulders pressed damply together.
The rain doesn't let up all the next day.
"At least it's not snowing," Arthur had shrugged as they set off. But it might as well be, Merlin decides. The rain soaks through his clothes to his skin within the first hour. By noon he's sure it isn't possible to be any wetter and yet somehow that doesn't make it better. It's cold rain, too, like icy fingers pricking at his skin. He can't feel the tips of his ears. There's no way they can spend another night out in this deluge, even Merlin's magic would struggle to start a fire in these conditions. But there's no sign of shelter, either. The forest is another day's walk wide, at least, according to Arthur's maps.
Even a hollowed out tree trunk would do, Merlin thinks somewhat desperately as they battle the elements. What with snowstorms and torrential downpours, Merlin's starting to think the elements themselves are trying to halt their quest. If the prophecies surrounding the kasulatḫu are true, then perhaps they are. The land might well object to losing the very magic which sustains it, present in each furled leaf or drop of rain. They've thought of the land as Camelot, in their interpretation of Gaius's books but what if the destruction of the bracelets should have consequences for the whole of Albion, perhaps even beyond Albion’s shores? Magic and nature do not care for borders, lines drawn on a map the way kings and their armies do. And if Arthur is to be high king of Albion, this land will all be his one day. Or whatever's left of it, if it’s drained of magic.
Merlin can't keep the despair from showing on his face at the thought of it, and of course Arthur picks that moment to turn and look at him. His expression softens in sympathy and he reaches over to squeeze Merlin's arm.
"We'll find somewhere," he says, with a surety Merlin suspects he doesn't feel. Merlin is half touched by his concern, half angry because Arthur doesn't understand his true fears, thinks him only a pathetic servant worried about the rain.
"Course we will," he says firmly, shoring himself up. He can see the cracks of doubt and fear beneath Arthur's facade, and knows it's up to him to show strength.
Arthur nods at him and turns again. Merlin closes his eyes for a second and reaches out with his magic, searching, golden tendrils spreading and reaching out into the forest, seeking shelter.
"Here," he says, pulling at Arthur's arm. "I think we should go this way."
"Another funny feeling?" Arthur says, but there's no bite to it. His lips are blue with cold, Merlin notes, water dripping from the ends of his hair. If they can just get to shelter, they could get warm again. There are a number of spells he can cast unobtrusively to warm them gradually without Arthur noticing anything amiss, he's spent the past hour cataloguing them in his head.
"Trust me?" Merlin raises his eyebrows. Arthur sighs but nods, jerking his head to indicate that Merlin should take the lead.
If he closes his eyes he can see the path mapped out before them, bathed in golden light. Not far.
"If we die out here, Merlin, I'm holding you responsible." Arthur's teeth are beginning to chatter.
"Rather an ignominious way for the king of Camelot to die, don't you think, sire?" Merlin replies, his own voice none too steady, "Defeated by a few drops of rain."
"Here lies King Arthur, noble leader, drowned due to his incompetent servant's poor sense of direction."
"My poor sense of direction? I'll remind you that I'm the one leading us to shelter."
"I'll believe that when I see – oh." Arthur stops dead as a grey shape becomes visible in a small clearing ahead of them. "Is that...?"
Merlin allows himself just a moment of smug satisfaction, before realising he is still drenched through and would feel much more satisfied if they just went in and got dry.
"I hate to say I told you so, but –"
"Then don't," Arthur cuts him off. "Come on, I'll race you."
Even his shoes are wet, squelching as he runs; but knowing that they won't be spending the night outside robs the situation of its misery, and Merlin feels a burst of something almost like exhilaration as he chases Arthur through the rain towards the clearing.
The shelter he'd spotted turns out to be some kind of outbuilding. Further on, they can see a cottage of some sort. Unsure of their welcome here in the border country, they come to a mutual decision not to knock at the cottage, even if there is the chance of a fire and hot food. The outbuilding will serve them well enough. It's spacious and seemingly empty and best of all, dry.
Merlin unshoulders his pack, frowning as he sees that the contents are soaked as thoroughly as he himself is. A flash of his golden eyes ensures one shirt is dry enough to at least wipe the worst of the water from his face and hair. He hands it to Arthur so that he can do the same before sitting down and taking off his boots. His socks are wringing wet and he grimaces at them as he rubs his red, numb feet.
Arthur pauses from drying his hair and cocks an inquisitive eyebrow in his direction.
"C-can't feel my toes," Merlin manageps, only now that he's out of the rain realising just how cold he is.
"Idiot," Arthur says, crossing over to him and crouching by his feet. Merlin barely has a chance to register his intentions before his foot is in Arthur's lap and Arthur is rubbing it vigorously. Merlin swallows hard and concentrates on staying very still. Slowly, the feeling in his foot returns, a warm sort of glow from Arthur's attentions.
"Better?" Arthur asks, looking up at him. Merlin manages a nod, not trusting his voice not to betray him. Something in his expression must show just how startlingly intimate and, well, just plain startling he finds this turn of events because Arthur coughs awkwardly and gets to his feet. "Well, good," he says gruffly, and turns away. He peels off his jacket and begins to do the same to his sodden shirt when he pauses, his hand at the laces. Merlin can see the shine of the thin bracelets on the chain around his neck. The shirt is so wet it's nearly see-through in places, clinging to his skin. Merlin licks his lips involuntarily. Arthur looks over at him and Merlin flushes beet red at being caught staring.
He looks quickly away, busying himself with his pack. What's left of the food is soggy but not completely inedible. There's some slightly mushy bread, some dried meat that's not exactly dry any longer, and a handful of herbs that will really only be any good if they can get a fire going to heat some water. At least getting hold of water isn't going to be a problem.
Merlin pulls off his saturated shirt and wrings it out. It's a relief not to have to blink water out of his eyes every second, but there's still the matter of exactly how they're going to dry their clothes (and what they're going to wear while they do). Arthur would likely suffer the chills of wet britches all night rather than be reduced to covering his modesty with a smattering of straw. Merlin isn't sure he wants to deal with his own reaction to Arthur naked and in close proximity to him all night. Death by pneumonia might indeed be preferable to death by the ensuing embarrassment in that scenario.
He wants to ask Arthur whether he thinks a fire is too big of a risk. They don't want to alert anyone to their presence or have the barn burn down around their ears, but they don't want to die of cold for the lack of it, either. A voice in his head is whispering about sharing body heat, but he tries to silence it.
“Merlin…” Merlin looks up to see that Arthur is looking intently at him. “How is your head?” Arthur asks.
“Fine,” Merlin replies truthfully; with all they’ve had to contend with today, it’s been the least of his worries. Arthur takes a step towards him.
“Merlin, do you –”
But Arthur doesn’t have time to finish the sentence before the barn door swings open and they find themselves in the sights of a crossbow, pointed dead at Arthur's chest.
A full-bearded man, tall and imposing dressed in green linen surveys them through narrowed eyes. There's a dog by his side, closer to a wolf pup than any breed Merlin's ever seen in Camelot. It bares its teeth.
Merlin steps forward, placing himself between Arthur and the path of the arrow. Arthur's hand is on his shoulder at once, shoving him back again.
"My apologies for trespassing," Arthur says. "We mean you and your kin no harm. We only sought shelter from the rain and will of course compensate you."
Even half-naked and soaked to the skin Arthur is capable of mustering up a little kingly dignity. Merlin’s eyes are trained on the crossbow, though, ready to bend the arrow should it be fired.
And then the bearded man throws back his head and laughs heartily.
"Why, it's only a couple of half drowned pups. Stand down, Hrolf." This last was said to the dog, with a fond pat of its grey head. "Come, you'd best come in and warm yourselves by the fire before you catch your deaths. My name's Gruffyd."
Arthur pauses, eyes flickering to Merlin's before he smiles and steps forward, shaking Gruffyd's proffered hand.
"Arthur," he says. "And this is my cousin, Merlin."
"Oh," Merlin says. "Yes, I'm Merlin."
"He's a little slow-witted," Arthur says with a widening grin. It's no more than he deserves in payment for making Arthur into a simpleton on their last cross-country adventure, Merlin knows, but that doesn't mean he has to enjoy it. Gruffyd nods and turns towards the cottage, gesturing for them to follow. Arthur slings an arm around his shoulder, a little harder than necessary, leaning in to speak low against his ear, "Honestly, you're the worst liar I've ever met."
Merlin does allow himself a rueful smile at that.
The cottage is not large, but it's warm. Gruffyd introduces them to his wife, Ceridwen and son, Daffyd. They all seem friendly enough, Ceridwen exclaiming over the two of them and their sorry state. She bids Daffyd fetch fresh dry clothes and ushers them into a separate room where they can change. Arthur is profusely grateful, even for peasant clothes. They change hurriedly, eyes pointedly not lingering on each other’s exposed skin, and are led back through to sit by the fire, Daffyd hanging up their clothes to dry by the fire's heat while Ceridwen stirs something in a large pot that makes Merlin's mouth water at the smell.
Gruffyd lights a pipe, offering the two of them a smoke, but they decline.
"So," he says, "how did you come to be lost in the forest?"
"We're going to visit our uncle, who has work for us," Arthur says. "In Usk."
Merlin recognises the name of the town from the map. Gruffyd nods, seemingly satisfied.
"Ah, don't make them talk, Gruffyd," Ceridwen chides him, "let the poor mites thaw out a little first, at least."
Merlin smiles at the idea of the king of Camelot being referred to as a 'poor mite', half expecting Arthur to bristle indignantly, but then he catches sight of Arthur's blue lips and heavy eyelids and amusement is replaced with a sudden pang of concern.
"Are you alright?" he asks in a low tone, reaching across to catch hold of Arthur's wrist before he can think better of it. His thumb brushes against the soft skin and he feels the steady thump of Arthur's pulse. It's reassuring in an oddly primal way. Arthur shakes himself visibly and pulls away.
"That smells delicious," Arthur says. He's addressing Ceridwen but it's an answer to Merlin, too. He's putting on the mask of the charming guest as though they were in a neighbouring castle rather than a forest dwelling. "What kind of meat is it?"
There's a sudden heavy silence, all eyes on Arthur. Gruffyd stops smoking, Ceridwen stops stirring and their son sets down the wood he's been whittling at the table. Arthur tenses, cursing himself for leaving himself unarmed, no doubt. Merlin holds his breath.
"We believe in respect for all living creatures," Gruffyd says at last. "We do not kill animals for food, but live on what bounty the forest provides."
"Forgive me," Arthur says, inclining his head, with a sort of humility Merlin wouldn't have believed he was capable of if he hadn't seen it with his own eyes. "I was not aware of your customs."
"No harm done," Ceridwen says, returning to the cauldron. "Daffyd, get our guests a drink."
Merlin can't recall having heard of the people of Caerleon not eating meat. In some of the harsher, northern climes there's little enough that grows in the ground, meat is likely the only option. Perhaps this forest is a land unto itself, but they've tramped through it for a day and seen no signs of life other than this cottage. An uneasy suspicion forms in his mind, encouraged by the familiar design of some of the ornaments – fairy bread over the fireplace, a rune carved into the wood over the doorway to the back room.
Merlin's mouth goes dry, and he unthinkingly takes a swig of the drink in his hand. It's nothing but clear, tasteless water. Arthur seems reassured by Merlin’s failure to choke on some unseen poison and die, and takes a drink of his own. Merlin hopes their hosts didn't notice Arthur's reluctance to drink; they can't afford to give further offence if they hope for a roof over their heads tonight. Outside he can hear the rain still pouring down, battering on the roof and dripping down from the eaves.
They mean no harm, Merlin decides, as Ceridwen ladles generous portions of a thick soup into five wooden bowls. Druids are, for the most part, peaceful people and welcoming to those in need. There's a watchfulness in Ceridwen's eyes, and he's sure she's figured out they're not who they claim to be, but she says nothing as they sit at the long wooden table and begin to eat.
The soup is hot and satisfying, thickened with lentils and flavoured with spices, served with hunks of bread, freshly baked. It warms him to his core as he swallows it down.
"This is delicious," Merlin says politely, between spoonfuls. "What herbs do you use?"
Ceridwen seems pleased to be asked and details the herbs which can be found nearby and their properties, gratified by Merlin's knowledgeable responses. He remembers too late that he's supposed to be playing the part of the idiot cousin and sneaks a glance at Arthur, expecting to receive a disapproving glare. But Arthur's devouring the soup as if it's the best thing he's ever tasted, and Merlin can't help a fond smile. When he looks up again he sees that Ceridwen's watching him with a shrewd look.
The meal done with, they're shown into a side room where a makeshift bed is made up with woollen blankets. It's hardly a luxury, but compared to another night under the rain it's bliss.
"I'm sure you won't mind sharing," Ceridwen says. "Since you're cousins and all."
"So long as my idiot cousin keeps his feet out of my face," Arthur says, thumping Merlin hard between his shoulder blades. He thanks Ceridwen and bids her goodnight, burrowing down beneath the blankets. Merlin hesitates before following, lying top-to-toe as Arthur had suggested.
He's almost drifting off when he feels a light tickle against the sole of his left foot. His foot twitches and then is held still, a hand curling around it. Arthur's hand. His breath hitches.
"Are your feet still cold?" Arthur asks, barely above a whisper.
"They're much warmer, thank you sire." Arthur's thumb is stroking up and down the arch of his foot. Merlin shifts slightly beneath the blankets, glad for the cover of darkness to disguise the sudden effect Arthur's touch is having on him.
"You shouldn't call me that. We're supposed to be peasants, remember?"
"Yes, I'm sure we're very convincing," Merlin says drily. He expects Arthur to stop, but he doesn’t, his warm hands still caressing Merlin’s skin.
“Merlin?” Arthur says, and Merlin can’t help but wonder just what Arthur was going to say to him in the barn, before they were interrupted.
“Yes?” he manages to croak back, barely trusting himself to speak. Arthur gives his foot one last squeeze.
“Get some sleep,” he says.
Merlin doesn’t think he’ll be able to sleep at all, the blood singing in his veins, but exhaustion wins out and he drifts off without another murmur.
Merlin wakes before Arthur the next morning and stumbles into the main room. Ceridwen is stirring something on the fire.
"You’re from Camelot, aren’t you?" she says. “The citadel.” It's barely a question. Merlin doesn't insult her by lying.
"How did you know?"
"Your friend’s sword, for a start, not to mention the two of you hiding out in the barn like fugitives. It's obvious you're not cousins, either. You look nothing alike for one thing. And cousins do not look at one another the way you two look at each other."
Merlin colours and shakes his head.
"I don't know what you mean."
"I think you do. I won't ask what you're doing here, or why you felt the need to lie. But there are others who will ask questions. You should be careful, Emrys."
Merlin drops his spoon and it clatters to the floor.
"You need have no fear, I will not betray you. Not even to your lover," she adds, seeing his eyes flicker towards the door beyond which Arthur is beginning to stir.
"He's not my lover," he says, face flaming. But that’s not the only assumption that has his heart racing. Emrys. He wonders if he's walking around with an illuminated sign on his head that only Druids can read.
There's a sudden bang on the door. Ceridwen's face tightens with anxiety.
"Quick, back into the room."
Merlin scurries back through the door and closes it behind him. With a hand on the oak he can feel the spreading warmth of an unfamiliar magic sealing it shut.
Arthur, roused by the commotion, sits up, blankets pooling around his lap, and opens his mouth to speak, but Merlin shakes his head urgently, miming for him to be quiet. Arthur frowns and creeps over to the door.
"What's going on?" Arthur demands in a whisper. Much to Merlin's relief, he doesn't try the door. He's not sure what Arthur would do if he discovered he was magically locked in, whether for his own good or no.
"I'm not sure. There's someone there. Asking – asking about us, I think."
If he strains his ears – and if Arthur shuts up for one minute – he can hear them, their questions and demands, Ceridwen's outraged response and Gruffyd's threats.
"They've caught us up."
"I told you we should have kept the horses. What's going on, Arthur?"
"At the inn," Arthur sighs. "Gwaine said there were people asking... specific questions. About the quest."
Merlin remembers Arthur striding into the inn in full armour, making little attempt to be inconspicuous.
"Well I told you it wasn't the best idea to announce the quest to the entire kingdom," Merlin snipes.
Arthur frowns. It's clear that hiding in the back room of a forest dwelling, dressed in peasant clothing isn't exactly the glorious and noble quest he'd had in mind.
There's the sound of horses cantering away, and the door falls open, Merlin and Arthur nearly falling with it.
"Going to stay with your uncle, hey?" Gruffyd demands, one eyebrow raised in a manner scarily reminiscent of Gaius.
"We're sorry," Merlin says, as Arthur speaks up,
"My apologies for bringing trouble to your door. We'll be on our way at once."
"Not without something to eat, you won't," Ceridwen insists. "There's two slices of pie here," she says, wrapping the food up in cloth.
"I won't ask your true name and business," Gruffyd says.
"But I will offer it gladly, nonetheless," Arthur says, drawing himself up with kingly dignity. "I am King Arthur of Camelot, and we are on a quest of utmost importance to my kingdom."
Sometimes, Merlin looks at Arthur and he can see the light of destiny shining in his eyes. There's something about him that makes people want to help him, to fight and die for him. It seems Gruffyd sees it too, must trust in Arthur’s recent declaration of peace, for all he must know that the kings of Camelot have been no friend to the Druids for long years.
"The riders before were looking for two men on foot," Gruffyd tells him. "One with a bandaged head. Happen that shouldn't be what they find, if they do run into you. We can spare a horse easily enough. Come with me to the stable."
Merlin is left alone with Ceridwen once more.
"There is much here I do not understand," she says. Merlin gives her an apologetic grimace. There is much that he doesn't understand either. "You are travelling west?" He hesitates before answering. She shakes her head. "No, you are right not to tell me. But if you should be, you should know there is an encampment of our people, just beyond the Western plains. If you should have need of assistance they will welcome you. And now, we must do something about your clothes. Two men on foot may steal a horse, but I think I have a disguise that will allow you to pass through Usk unhindered."
It takes Merlin a while to grasp her intentions, even when she emerges from a side room with armfuls of linen topped off with a lace cap.
"Oh no," he says, stepping backwards, because Arthur will never let him live this down, ever. "No, you can't be serious."
The skirt is plain dyed green wool, much like the one Ceridwen herself has on. It gathers at the waist as she pulls it tight – clearly made for someone larger of hip than he is himself. To his relief he is allowed to keep on his own breeches underneath. There is a white tunic not dissimilar to one he himself might wear but much more billowy, with a cream linen bodice to be laced over it. The material is simple and practical – a far cry from the silks and frippery of court costumes. The cap proves the most troublesome, refusing to sit straight. Ceridwen chucks him under the chin when she's done and steps back to admire her handiwork.
"Not bad," she says.
"I feel ridiculous," Merlin says. How do girls even move in this sort of get up? He feels a new respect for Gwen.
"Here," she says, handing over a dark green cloak which matches the skirt. "The rain's let up, but it may come in handy."
The door swings open then and Arthur and Gruffyd step back in.
"Forgive me my lady," Arthur says, bowing slightly as he sees him, "I didn't -- Merlin?"
Merlin licks his lips which are suddenly dry.
"It wasn't my idea," he squeaks.
"Of course not," Arthur says, not sounding in the least convinced. A slow grin spreads across his features, like all his feast days have come at once, and Merlin knows that even if he were to live to be a hundred, Arthur will never tire of mocking him for this. "Come on my lady," he says, barely suppressing a laugh, "your horse awaits."
The advantage of being the one dressed as a woman, Merlin decides, is that he gets to ride the horse. Arthur's far too chivalrous to ride the horse himself and make a lady walk, of course, even if she's not a real lady. The disadvantage, of course, is that skirts make sitting astride a horse quite difficult, and it’s a bumpier journey than he would have liked.
It's still raining, although not as heavily as the day before, and Merlin's grateful for the cloak wrapped around his shoulders.
They break at noon to eat the pies Ceridwen wrapped for them; they're good, thick pastry topped with pine nuts, filled with goat's cheese and spinach leaves. Arthur is making noises of surprised appreciation as he eats, much as he had done with the soup the night before. Merlin hides a grin. Arthur's very much of the ‘kill it, cook it, eat it’ school of thought regarding food, as a rule. If nothing else good comes out of this trip, at least he will have broadened his culinary horizons.
Merlin’s grin fades as he recalls the purpose of their quest, and how very unlikely it is that anything good can come of it. If Arthur succeeds, Merlin will lose everything. And if he finds a way to stop him, he’ll lose Arthur.
As they reach the end of the forest path they join a road. The first time they pass people, Merlin draws his cloak tightly around himself, afraid of being seen for a fraud at once, but peasants, it turns out, largely mind their own business and make no remark if a woman looks a little less lady-like than she ought. Peasants are more polite than nobles in that respect, Merlin thinks and tells Arthur so.
"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur says. "Or should that be Merlina?"
"That's not even a name," Merlin scoffs. He looks down at the leaf-green of Arthur's hood, matching the shade of his skirts. "Marian," he suggests with a quirk of his lips. Arthur snorts.
The rain picks up again as they reach the edge of Usk. Arthur seeks out an inn, despite the trouble they had at the last one. Merlin smooths down his skirts and hopes that the disguise will hold up.
The inn is busy and nobody pays them any mind as they step inside; at least Arthur appears to have learned his lesson from the last time, not drawing any attention to them. It’s dark enough that Merlin doesn’t feel overly worried about the effectiveness of his disguise, nobody will be able to get a good look at him unless they bring a candle up to his face. Besides, most of those in the room are so far into their cups that they probably couldn’t tell a woman from a suckling pig. In fact, there are some rather uncomely ladies of the night making the most of that situation as they attempt to coax a few coins from some of the inn’s patrons in the far corner.
Altogether, it does not seem like an inn with much of a respectable reputation to uphold. Merlin half suspects that even if it was known that he was not what he seemed, there were few in here who would so much as bat an eyelid. He makes a note to tell Arthur to be on his guard against pickpockets, but it seems he has no need of such advice. Merlin turns just in time to see Arthur pressing a dagger to the throat of a skinny young lad who’s grasping a leather pouch of coins in one hand, freshly filched from the belt of a stout man with a balding head.
He winces slightly at how quickly Arthur’s managed to go and draw attention to himself after all, but thankfully he’s at least he had the presence of mind to use the dagger and keep his sword hidden from view.
“I think you’d best give that back, don’t you?” Arthur says, his voice uncompromising – steel wrapped in silk.
“It weren’t me!” the lad protests. Arthur digs the point of the blade in a little and the boy squeaks. “Alright, alright, it were. I’m sorry. Here.” He hands back the pouch. “It were only because my sister is sick, we can’t afford the apothecary’s fee.”
“I’m sure if you’d asked honestly, this gentleman would have been happy to oblige,” Arthur says. Merlin looks at the gentleman in question and privately disagrees. Arthur opens the pouch and pulls out two coins, dropping them into the hand of the young thief. “See that your sister gets the medicine she needs.” He closes the pouch again and hands it back to its owner, who gapes at Arthur like he’s not sure whether to thank him or to call for the town bailiff.
Arthur pays him no further mind, walking up to the proprietor if the inn.
"Good evening," Arthur says. He's toned down his imperious manner a little, Merlin is pleased to note.
"A room for yourself and your good wife?"
Arthur seems a little taken aback, as if it hadn't occurred to him that people would naturally assume Merlin was his wife, since they are travelling together.
"Er, yes. Yes please. And some dinner, if you have anything."
"Aye," the landlord nods. Arthur gives their names as Robin and Marian Green, much to Merlin's amusement. Silver exchanges hands and they're directed to a free table. Arthur offers his thanks while Merlin remains wisely silent.
"Can't we go straight to our room?" Merlin says in a hiss, as soon as they're seated. He's just about got used to the skirt, but the ribbons on the cap are beginning to chafe his chin.
"Oh no, Marian, surely you'd not deny me the pleasure of dining with my wife in this fine establishment."
"Fine establishment my arse," Merlin mutters and takes a sip of mead.
“Such language,” Arthur mock-tuts, “Not very lady-like.”
“Well,” Merlin replies. “I’m hardly a lady, am I? Only a tradesman’s wife. And I can tell you, I’ve heard language from the butcher’s wife in the lower town that would make Gwaine blush.”
“I don’t believe there’s anything that could make Gwaine blush,” Arthur retorts. “You on the other hand…”
“What?” Merlin asks mulishly, suspicious.
“Well, I could make you blush almost without trying. Couldn’t I, my love?” Arthur leans back, sweetly smug, and Merlin feels the tips of his ears reddening, quite despite his best efforts. For all that he knows that it’s part of the act, and Arthur trying to rile him to boot, he can’t help the rush of blood to his head at the endearment.
“Stop it!” he protests. Merlin feels something brush against his leg. On the alert for pick-pockets, he gets ready to aim a good kick at whoever it is before he realises it’s Arthur’s leg, brushing against his under the table. He bites down on his bottom lip, recalling the night before, Arthur’s hands on his skin. He doesn’t know whether this is a continuation of last night, or just another way to make him blush. If it’s the latter, he thinks he may give Arthur a good kick anyway, because however much he puts up with Arthur’s tormenting under normal circumstances, he won’t be teased about this, he won’t.
“Stop it,” he says again, firmly this time, and Arthur’s leg falls away at his command, his expression suddenly serious.
“Merlin,” he begins, reaching across the table, but they’re interrupted by a platter being banged down on the table in front of them by a matronly barmaid.
“Sorry dearies,” she says, as she sets down a second plate. “So nice to see young love. You makes sure he makes an honest woman of you, duck.”
“Er…” Merlin says in response, unable to claim to be either a woman, or particularly honest in the literal sense of the word. He wonders at her comment before he realises that although they’ve registered as man and wife, they’ve not thought of a wedding ring. It’s no matter; many peasants can’t afford them, although where rings are the custom they’re often made from horse hair or straw. In some places the custom is still a binding of wrists, a traditional handfasting – viewed with some suspicion in Camelot ever since the purge, due to its links with the old religion. Merlin thinks suddenly of the kasulathu, still on their chain around Arthur’s neck.
He turns his attention to the food that has been set in front of them. It’s a rather greasy and gristly piece of meat, a stark contrast to Ceridwen’s wholesome forest-fare and Merlin chews it without really tasting it. Arthur seems to be enjoying it rather more. He keeps his feet to himself after that, and they’re both too busy eating to talk.
The stairwell is darker even than the ground floor, and narrow. Merlin holds the candle they’ve been given by the matronly landlady and Arthur keeps close behind. Merlin can feel the heat of his breath on the back of his neck.
The room only has one bed, of course. They have rented it as a married couple, after all. Merlin tries very hard not to think about what married couples would do in a bed like this. He is already fairly sure that destiny hates him, and now it just seems to be having a laugh at his expense. It doesn't matter, not really, he reminds himself, they can sleep top to toe like they did the night before. Not that that was exactly a shining example of platonic bed sharing, he recalls, blushing slightly as he remembers Arthur’s fingers tracing patterns against the sensitive sole of his foot, how stupidly hard it had made him.
He busies himself with untangling the ribbons on his cap while Arthur sits on the edge of the bed unbuckling his boots.
“Well,” Merlin says, just for something to say, “at least it seems to be lice-free. Always a bonus in a place like this.”
“Yes,” Arthur says, seeming a little quiet and distracted.
Merlin pulls at the ribbons which won’t untangle however hard he tries. He can’t risk using magic, not on something so trivial with Arthur sitting only feet away.
“Bugger it,” he curses as they only seem to work themselves into more knots.
"Having trouble, my lady?" Arthur says, looking over his shoulder at him with a smirk. Merlin glares at him.
“I’d like to see how well you’d do in this sort of get-up.”
“Please, as if you haven’t dreamed of getting to dress up like this.”
“In peasant threads? Give me some credit, I always dreamed of silk,” Merlin retorts, because there’s no point in his just denying it, Arthur hears what he wants to hear.
“I knew it.”
"You do remember I'm not actually a girl, don't you?"
"It's not an easy thing to forget," Arthur replies, with a sigh. "It would make things easier if you were."
Arthur yanks his boot from his foot and then stills, back a long tense line, as if he hadn't meant to say that out loud.
"What?" Merlin says stupidly, staring at him. "How would it...?"
“Leave it, Merlin,” Arthur says in a warning tone.
“No,” Merlin persists, ribbons abandoned, “I just don’t understand how anything would be easier if…”
"Because then I wouldn't have to pretend!“ Arthur practically shouts, frustration visible in the furrow of his brow.
“Arthur, you don’t – you don’t have to pretend with me, you know that.” He keeps his voice low and gentle, only feeling a little bit like a bastard and a hypocrite, since he’s the one who’s been pretending the entire time they’ve known each other.
“The thing is,” Arthur says, sounding a little lost, “I’ve always known my duty is to marry. And I can’t marry you, however much I might want…”
It's Merlin's turn to freeze, hand groping for the bedpost for support.
"What?" Merlin says again, like an echo, barely audible. His throat feels suddenly dry, his bodice too tight around his chest, Arthur's unexpected half-confession having knocked all the air out of him. Arthur turns to him, something desperate and a little wretched in his expression.
"I've tried... gods know I have tried, Merlin.”
Merlin tracks the progress of Arthur's Adam's apple as he swallows thickly. Arthur stands and takes two steps towards him. "I know you feel the same for me, Merlin, I know you do."
Merlin closes his eyes and leans his head back until it thumps against the bedpost. There have been times when he's been so sure Arthur must know, that his love for his king has been all but pouring from him in every word, every look. But Arthur has never acknowledged it before now, so he'd half supposed him to be as oblivious of Merlin's adoration as he is of his magic.
There have been times, too, when he’d been sure his feelings were returned. Or at the very least could be returned; something between them they’d been skirting around for years, buried under an avalanche of should-nots. But of the two of them, he would never have imagined Arthur would be the one to break.
Arthur's hand on his face, softly tracing the line of his cheekbones, causes his eyes to flicker open again. He almost closes them again immediately, he has no defence against Arthur so close and looking at him with such yearning.
"You do, don't you Merlin?"
Does Arthur know, Merlin wonders, just how much he is asking of him? There can be no going back from such a revelation. But then it's too late for that anyway, has probably been too late since even before Arthur's sudden admission, since that night by the fire when Merlin told him not to marry Gwen. Maybe before then, even.
"You're sure this isn't just because I'm dressed like this?" Merlin quips, nervous.
"Very, very sure," Arthur says, his voice a low growl that goes right through Merlin, making him shiver. "How about you get out of those clothes so I can prove it to you?"
"Merlin.” He gives Merlin a soft, private smile, the one that's guaranteed to shatter every one of his defences.
"Arthur, we can't just –" His voice is so low he barely recognises himself, so full of desire his protests hold no weight. He can’t pretend this isn’t something he wants. Isn’t everything he wants.
“We can,” Arthur says firmly, the conviction of a lover, not the command of a king. He’s so near they’re sharing each other’s breath. Merlin leans in, presses his lips to Arthur’s and doesn’t let himself think of it as giving in.
It’s warm and soft and stupidly perfect. Merlin can’t help but be hyper-aware of everywhere Arthur is touching him; the warm pressure of Arthur’s hand on his shoulder, just skimming the exposed skin of his collarbone, the way Arthur’s knee nudges between his legs, making his skirts rustle. His chest aches harder than it ever has before, even with Arthur within his grasp, and he surges against him, pressing their bodies together and deepening the kiss.
He’s rewarded with a deep groan from Arthur that makes him shiver with anticipation. Arthur pulls back and just looks at him, pure want in his eyes. Stripped of any defensiveness, it’s a look of naked need. Merlin’s breath catches and he wants to say Arthur can have whatever it is he needs, anything, anything at all, and he shivers again, knowing there’s no chance of them stopping now they’ve started, now they’ve opened the floodgates.
Arthur’s hands are shaking as he fumbles with the lacing on Merlin’s bodice. Impatient as he is, Merlin can’t help but be touched by this sign that perhaps Arthur is not as self-assured as he so often pretends to be.
Finally something gives and the laces fall away. Merlin struggles out of the top half of the dress. Arthur loses no time in getting his mouth on Merlin’s skin, licking his neck, mouthing at his collarbone, kissing a wet trail down his chest, sucking and biting his nipples until his skin is flushed pink and his head thrown back, overwhelmed with sensation.
Arthur drops to his knees and all but buries his face in Merlin’s skirts. Merlin’s under-things are uncomfortably tight, his cock twitching at the feeling of Arthur’s cheek rubbing against it, even through the layers of linen and wool. He bites his lip, embarrassed by just how eagerly his body is responding to Arthur’s attentions. At this rate it will all be over before it’s even begun. Just the sight of Arthur kneeling in front of him is enough to get his heart racing and his blood rushing south. One hand reaches out, almost of its own volition, to stroke Arthur’s hair. Arthur turns his head, leaning into Merlin’s palm, then sucks Merlin’s fingers into his mouth.
“Come back up here,” Merlin says, voice low and scratchy with desire. Arthur does as he’s bid, and Merlin clamps down on a sudden thrill at the idea of the King of Camelot submitting to his commands. Perhaps if they have the time, they can explore all the possibilities between them. But it can’t be like that now, the first time; they have to do this as equals or not at all.
Toe to toe, they’re of a height. Merlin grabs at Arthur’s undershirt and pulls him into a rough kiss, fingers questing beneath the material to the warm skin beneath. Arthur attempts to shrug out of his shirt and they almost get tangled when they don’t want to stop kissing long enough to manage it. Taking a reluctant step back, Merlin unclasps his kirtle, the material falling to the ground to pool around his feet. He pulls down his underthings, too, until he’s standing naked before his king.
Arthur can’t seem to take his eyes off him, and Merlin thinks he knows now why Arthur has been more reluctant to strip off in his presence lately. Arthur has no such compunction now, though, and Merlin looks his fill as Arthur peels off his trousers in front of him, lingering below the waist before dragging his eyes back up to Arthur’s bared chest.
That’s when his throat shutters and a weight settles onto his chest. Because there, on a chain around Arthur’s neck, are the wretched bracelets. Arthur mistakes the cause of Merlin’s hesitance, reeling him in so they’re chest to chest. The metal should feel cold against his skin, Merlin thinks, but it’s warm, pulsing with an unfamiliar but not unfriendly magic. Merlin lets out a shocked gasp as he feels it, sensing something like an echo of feeling, making his heartbeat twice as loud. When Arthur whispers, “Merlin,” against the skin of his neck he feels it right through his body, a spiral of loveyespleasefinally.
“Take these off,” Merlin says, tugging at the chain. He doesn’t think the bracelets are controlling or influencing either of them, it’s not that sort of magic, but he couldn’t bear for Arthur to think that, afterwards. If Arthur should take this back, if he should regret this night between them, Merlin won’t let magic be blamed for that as well as everything else.
Arthur hesitates for a second, but complies and the kasulathu on their chain are deposited on the small wooden chest beside the bed. Merlin stays where he is, staring after Arthur, drinking him in.
By the time he had realised that he preferred the male form to the female, Merlin had already fallen helplessly in love with Arthur, and there had been little opportunity for exploring his preferences. So when Arthur crosses back over to him and lays a possessive hand on his hip, Merlin can’t help but let out a short nervous gasp. This is new territory for him. He doesn’t know about Arthur – isn’t sure he wants to know, even if he could find the words to ask. If Arthur really has been denying his feelings for him all this time out of a sense of duty, he can hardly imagine that he’s been indulging himself with other men, but with women maybe… it’s just not something he wants to think about right now.
Arthur nuzzles his jaw, his hand shifting to brush deliberately against Merlin’s cock before wrapping firmly around it. Merlin finds that his nerves take a distant second place to the renewed surge of lust and tenderness. His own hands become bolder, running over Arthur’s thighs to cup his arse.
“Did you lock the door?” he manages to ask, breathing ragged.
“I think you’ve forgotten which one of us is the servant, Merlin.”
“I think you’ve forgotten neither of us is a servant,” Merlin retorts, “I’m a poor country maid and you are my husband.”
Arthur hisses, a sharp intake of breath and presses against him so Merlin can clearly feel the hard line of his cock against his hip.
“If I were your husband,” he says, and the word makes Merlin shudder with want, “you certainly wouldn’t be a maid.”
“If you’re going to spend all night talking about it instead of taking me to bed,” Merlin says, punctuating his words with a squeeze, “then I might still be a maid in the morning.”
It’s the closest he’s going to get to confessing his inexperience. Arthur growls and pushes forwards, backing Merlin up against the bed. They fall onto it in a tangle of limbs. Arthur smiles, carefree and happy in a way Merlin hasn’t seen him in months. He wishes he could capture the look on Arthur’s face forever. Almost unconsciously he reaches up to tuck a lock of hair behind Arthur’s ear.
“What is it?” Arthur asks softly, voice full of such tender concern as Merlin has hardly ever heard him use before, except in times of the gravest danger.
The answer is on the tip of Merlin’s tongue, three words which would express everything that fills his heart to bursting, but he can’t say them, not while there are parts of himself he still must hold secret.
“Kiss me,” he says instead and Arthur complies. The way Arthur kisses, deep and sure and filthy, is nothing like the shy kisses he’d traded with Freya, or the few drunken snogs he’s had on rare nights off down the Rising Sun. He doesn’t think he could ever get enough of it. Arthur shifts and rolls his hips so his cock brushes against Merlin’s. Merlin gasps into his mouth and bucks up against him, struggling for the friction he craves.
“Merlin, Merlin,” Arthur mumbles, and there’s a clutch in Merlin’s chest knowing that this is really happening, that Arthur really wants him. Catching Arthur off-guard he manages to roll them over so he is on top. Arthur blinks up at him, surprised, and Merlin can’t suppress a slightly smug grin, even as he grinds against him. Arthur beneath him, head thrown back and throat exposed, hair slightly damp with sweat, is just about the sexiest thing he has ever seen in his life.
“Fuck,” he breathes, unable to help reaching out to touch Arthur, hands running over his chest, stomach everywhere he can reach. Merlin wants to touch all of him at once. Arthur shifts so he is leaning on his elbows as Merlin wraps a hand around his cock. Merlin leans in to kiss him again before pulling back to rest his forehead against Arthur’s. Arthur’s breathing is coming in irregular pants as Merlin strokes them both, and he knows neither of them will last much longer if he keeps this up.
He’s half way gone already when Arthur asks,
“Can I—?” his voice rough and strained, as if hardly daring to believe he’s asking for it at all, fingers straying between the cheeks of Merlin’s arse.
“Y-yes.” Merlin chokes out his answer, and lets Arthur turn him around so they’re spooning. Arthur’s fingers are spit-slick as they push into him, stretching, first one, then another alongside it. It’s strange, but not unpleasant.
“Ready?” Arthur asks, cock nudging against Merlin’s thigh. It’s too soon and not soon enough.
“Yes,” Merlin says. It might be a lie, but he can’t breathe for wanting it, so he pushes back as Arthur breaches him, blunt and too big, and he gasps. One hand flung up across his forehead he closes his eyes and sets his jaw.
“Is this – are you?” Arthur’s voice is tight like he’s holding himself back with some effort. “Does it hurt?”
“It’s – it’s just – don’t stop, please.”
He feels as if he’s balancing on a knife edge of pain and arousal. Arthur moves and it burns but it’s almost – almost –
“Ah,” Merlin groans, as pain gives way to pure sensation. Arthur’s thrusts increase and Merlin feels as if he’s going to shake apart, but Arthur’s hands on his hips are grounding and he concentrates on that, his hands, his lips, his body, against him, over him, in him.
Arthur reaches for him, stroking him through it. Merlin bites his fist to muffle his cries as his release takes him, almost a surprise. It seems forever and no time at all before Arthur finishes too, with a stuttered moan, gasping ”darling, darling,” against his skin. Merlin gives a snort of laughter that’s more delight than amusement. He’s glad that Arthur can’t see his face, he’s pretty sure his eyes are glowing gold. He closes them, tight, just in case, as Arthur eases out.
“You’re trembling,” Arthur says, hands running over his back, soothing. He’s right, Merlin realises. He can’t find the words to answer him. I want to do it again, he thinks, I want to do it to you.
“Should have known you’d be useless afterwards,” Arthur grumbles, which is pretty rich, Merlin thinks, seeing as he’s the one plastered boneless against his back. “I’ll fetch a cloth myself, shall I?”
Merlin wakes before Arthur. Somehow in their sleep they’ve managed to sprawl across one another, or perhaps that was how they’d fallen asleep. He has muddied memories of Arthur trying to sound stern and kingly, utterly undermined by his soppy grin and the way he’d carefully tucked the blankets around them both. Merlin’s fairly sure he’s sporting a soppy grin too, as he props himself up on one elbow and looks down at Arthur. He almost can’t believe that they are here, after all this time.
He runs one finger over Arthur’s bare chest, tracing imaginary patterns against his skin and feels a pang of sadness. Loving Arthur has always been something bittersweet. Before, it was always mostly because he’d thought this could never happen between them, that Arthur would never allow him this close. But even now, with his beloved king in his arms there’s a pang of misgiving. There’s the guilty knowledge that he still hasn’t shared everything with him. Merlin knows he can’t be truly happy while he’s still hiding, but if he spills all his secrets, he could lose him, this man who was his to protect even before he was his to love.
Arthur stirs, and Merlin presses a bold kiss to the corner of his mouth.
“Mmm. Morning. Did someone mention breakfast?” Arthur gives him a lazy grin.
“Um, no, I didn’t hear anything about breakfast, sorry.”
“You really are a terrible servant, Merlin.”
“That may be true, but as far as everyone else in this inn is concerned I’m your wife, not your servant, remember?”
“I’m pretty sure it’s a wife’s duty to fetch her husband breakfast.”
“Then I feel sorry for whoever you eventually marry,” Merlin snipes, even as he sits up and throws off the covers. Arthur’s hand shoots out and catches him by the wrist, before he can leave the bed. Then Arthur kneels behind him, arms wrapping around Merlin’s waist, breath hot against his ear.
“I won’t,” he murmurs, defiant and reckless, “I won’t marry anyone.”
“Come on, come back to bed. I’m pretty sure there’s a few more marital duties you could perform instead.” Arthur presses against him, pointedly, his arousal impossible to ignore.
“What about breakfast?” Merlin teases, feeling the corners of his mouth tug up involuntarily. Arthur all but growls against his skin and Merlin allows himself to be pulled down into bed and ravaged thoroughly.
Arthur holds him tight, after, nuzzling against his jaw where the prickle of stubble is beginning to show. They’ll need to take care of that before they leave if his disguise is going to remain effective, he supposes, wondering if he’ll even be able to manage to dress himself without assistance. He doesn’t want to go, doesn’t want to leave this bed, this anonymous room where they can pretend they’re just two people in love, and return to the quest that could sow the seeds of destruction for magic in all Albion.
Arthur dresses silently, almost reluctantly, as if he too is wishing they could stay. He wears the bracelets once again on their chain, a thin circle just visible under his shirt if you know what to look for.
But it’s Merlin who feels as though he’s got a weight hanging around his neck.
They don’t get any breakfast, in the end. Arthur leaves Merlin to grapple with his stays alone while he goes to see a man about a horse. Getting his clothes to hang exactly how they had when Ceridwen dressed him is impossible, and he’s more grateful than ever for the long cloak which can hide all of his mistakes.
He goes down to the stable yard. It’s bustling with people and he’s a little concerned when he can’t immediately find Arthur. He hopes he won’t have to ask anyone, he’s not sure he trusts his ability to feign a woman’s voice – it’s hardly a skill he’s had call to use before, although if he had the time, he’s sure he could find a spell to help.
Merlin’s momentarily confused at hearing this unfamiliar name in a familiar voice, but then he recalls his supposed identity. Arthur is there, talking to a rough-skinned peasant in a green coat. He’s standing rather awkwardly and the smile on his face as he nods is fake.
It’s not that Arthur can’t talk to the common people. He’s actually remarkably good at it now, remembers people’s names, looks them in the eye and shows them that their king really cares about their troubles, in a way that Merlin would never have imagined possible when he’d first met the prattish prince Arthur had been all those years ago. But actually pretending to be one of the common people is another matter, something a little beyond Arthur, who doesn’t care for artifice and pretence, as a rule.
It seems, from Arthur’s perfunctory explanation, that there is only one horse to be had, and more than one man wanting it. The peasant’s name is John Lock, and he’s agreed to take them as far as Caerwent in his cart, if they lend him their horse to help pull the cart alongside his own. It’s a day’s ride, and in the right direction.
Merlin’s not exactly overjoyed to hear this news, since it means another day in these clothes, but he nods anyway. It’ll be faster than they can manage on foot, or two to a horse, and John assures them there are horses to be had in Caerwent.
The back of the cart isn’t exactly luxurious; wooden slats carpeted by straw and hessian bags filled with turnips making a lumpy sort of cushion. The road isn’t smooth and Merlin can feel every bump and jolt. Still, it’s likely better than riding a horse would be. He really hadn’t been looking forward to that, still sore from what they’d done the night before.
He can’t help the small, secret smile at the thought of it.
John is the chatty sort, and by noon they know all about his boyhood in Caerwent, his family, his sister’s seven children’s names and the sorry tale of the blacksmith’s affair with the thatcher’s wife, not to mention the rumours of a savage beast which roams the moors beyond the Northern road (which may be a giant cat, a giant eagle or a giant snake; it seems the villagers can’t decide on the exact rumours).
Merlin – still not trusting his ability to feign a woman’s voice without falling into gales of laughter – keeps mostly silent. Arthur’s politely interested responses, “Oh yes?” and “Really?” grow steadily less patient as the ride wears on, much to Merlin’s amusement.
They break for a bite to eat, cold pigeon pie purchased from the inn before they left, which is decidedly less satisfying than Ceridwen’s Druid recipe. Even Arthur seems to agree, making a face at the greying meat and stodgy pastry as they are unwrapped.
John goes to avail himself of a tree, and Arthur turns to Merlin, shaking his head.
“Do peasants never stop talking?” he asks. “I thought it was just you. It’s a wonder any work ever gets done in the country, the way you all prattle on.”
“Well, all the time he’s talking, you’re not required to. Think of that at least,” Merlin says, hopping down from the cart and stretching his legs.
“You know, that reminds me, I rather like you as you are today,” Arthur says with a glint in his eye.
“What, dressed as a woman?” Merlin demands, rubbing his chin. The ribbons on the cap are chafing worse than a three-day-old beard.
“No,” Arthur smirks, “quiet.”
Merlin gives him an unimpressed glare that a fishwife would be proud of, and Arthur steals a kiss that makes him blush, impossibly. He hadn’t thought he could be easily flustered by something so simple after all they’d done the night before and that morning, but there’s something unexpectedly sweet about this demonstration of affection in broad daylight.
When they resume their journey, John regales them with his opinions of Queen Annis, taxation and nobility in general. Merlin finds this all endlessly entertaining, especially as John is not really a fan of royalty, and has to stifle his laughter in the turnip sacks. Funniest of all is the constipated look on Arthur’s face as he forces himself not to answer back or challenge the unsuspecting peasant to a duel there and then. Merlin shakes with silent mirth in the back of the cart as Arthur haltingly tries to defend the merits of monarchy and the feudal system.
He’s saved, in a way, by a sudden lurch of the cart as they hit a particularly large hole in the road. John mutters something about how his tithe at harvest time ought to pay for better upkeep of the roads while Merlin grabs onto the side of the cart in an effort to save his disguise, if not his dignity, ending up with a lapful of turnips.
They all get down to look at the damage to the cart and find the wheel has come loose. Arthur pushes his shoulder against the wheel as John lines it back up with the axle. The sight of Arthur knee-deep in dust trying to fix a cart is so funny that Merlin sits on the grass just watching for a full five minutes before he mutters something under his breath, gives an imperceptible flick of his wrist and the wheel clicks magically into place.
The last leg of their journey is quieter, the road smoother, and Merlin finds himself lulled to sleep, if only for a few minutes. When he wakes they’re nearing the village and Arthur is making decidedly pointed comments about unladylike snoring.
There are two fair-haired children on the road ahead, a small boy and an older girl holding a basket of herbs.
“Ah, my niece and nephew,” John says with a grin. “That’s young John, my namesake, the youngest.”
Young John spots the cart and slips his sister’s grasp, running towards them, waving all the while.
“Johnny!” the girl shouts, chasing after him, basket dropped, forgotten, by the roadside
John swears and pulls at the reins, the grey horse rears, the cart tips and shudders to a halt, but not soon enough to prevent the crunch of bone beneath the wheel. A scream rings out, but whether it is the struck boy or his sister, Merlin can’t tell.
Arthur jumps down in an instant, Merlin following. The boy is lying in the dust, still and pale, one leg bent at an unnatural angle, a bloom of blood on his forehead. He’s breathing, but unconscious. Merlin kneels down beside him and lays one hand on the child’s chest. He’s weak, and beyond saving by conventional medical means.
Merlin looks up. Arthur is shocked, John wringing his hands. The girl, her face crumpled in grief, runs up and drops to her knees by her brother’s side, taking his small hand in hers.
It’s clear that there’s only one thing to do.
Merlin’s surprised to find that he feels calm, now it comes down to it. This is the moment of truth, after so long.
He can’t deny that many have suffered in the past, when he has chosen to keep his magic secret rather than use it in their defence. He’s told himself that in the long run, it is the best – the only – course of action. That Arthur will bring magic back to Camelot when the time is right. He has clung to that for so many years, despite everything. Kept the secret when it was blind faith – in Arthur, in destiny, in a mad old dragon – rather than reason and sense to do so. And yet here they are, after all this time, on a quest to banish magic from the land for good, and he won’t let anyone else suffer for his secret, certainly not a child.
At least, he thinks, as his lips shape the words of healing, Arthur will see his magic doing some good.
But before he can utter a sound, a faint silvery mist spreads over the boy’s body. Merlin looks up in surprise to see the girl chanting, eyes unfocussed, young Johnny’s hand still clasped in hers. There’s a grim line to her mouth and a few beads of sweat appear on her brow. Merlin watches intently, ready to step in should there be the least sign that her magic isn’t strong enough. She incants, desperation plain on her face. For a second it looks like it won’t be enough, and Merlin reaches out one hand. But then the boy’s pallor begins to recede, and his breathing evens out and the girl’s shoulders slump in relief. The silvery sheen fades away and he opens his eyes, blinking owlishly at the four of them.
He’ll be sore, but he’ll live. Merlin is taken aback by the skill in healing shown by such a young girl; she can’t be more than fourteen by his reckoning. If only such skills could be valued and nurtured, such children trained to reach their full potential instead of having to hide away.
“Ow,” Johnny moans. “My head hurts.”
“And so it should! What do you think you were doing running up to the horses like that?” his sister exclaims. Her fear wins out over her anger, though, and she gathers him into a suffocating hug.
Still shaking, John pats his nephew on the head even as the boy squirms under his sister’s demonstration of affection.
Merlin looks warily at Arthur. He’s standing quite still, his face betraying no emotion. He’s not reaching for his sword, though, so that’s something.
Young Johnny still can’t walk without assistance, so Merlin offers the children his place in the cart, walking behind down the last stretch of track. The horses are untethered and watered when they arrive, John’s and Gruffyd’s both. They’re still in need of a second horse for Merlin to ride, though, so Arthur hurries off to speak with the man John mentioned who supposedly has a horse to sell.
Merlin looks over at the girl as she helps her brother down from the cart. He feels ashamed, because it was brilliant and beautiful and right, not something that should have to be hidden in the shadows. He wonders if he himself has become more afraid of doing magic, the longer he’s had to keep it hidden.
He wonders if he’s got everything wrong.
The children hurry home and Merlin feels surer than ever that whatever happens, he can’t let Arthur complete this quest. He might be willing to sacrifice everything of himself for Arthur, magic included, but he’s not willing to sacrifice everyone else.
John offers them a place to stay in the village, but it’s light still and Arthur won’t hear of stopping.
“You remember what I told you about the beast. It’s said it has claws the length of a man’s arm.”
It doesn’t sound like any beast Merlin has ever seen in Gaius’s grimoire, and they heard nothing of it in Usk. Privately Merlin thinks it’s likely to be nothing more than a stray cat, exaggerated in the telling to frighten the village children, but it won’t hurt to be on their guard, just in case there is some truth in the rumour.
“We’ll look out for it,” Arthur says, his tone suggesting he has the same opinion as Merlin.
“There’s a storm coming,” John says, shaking his head, clearly thinking them fools. Merlin looks at the sky and shivers a little in memory of being half-drowned in the forest, but he wraps his cloak around him and climbs onto his newly purchased horse, a tough-looking bay, rubbing her flank to reassure her.
They ride hard, Arthur setting a punishing pace. Arthur doesn’t talk, doesn’t broach the subject of magic, and Merlin doesn’t press him on it either. He’s not sure he’d want to hear the answer. He’s pretty sure Arthur isn’t waiting to gather up a posse of knights to hunt down a young girl from another kingdom who knows a couple of healing spells, however powerful, but he’s not naïve enough to think that this one incident means that Arthur’s stance on magic has changed in any fundamental way, either.
The clouds gather, but do not break, and by the time Arthur’s mount starts to flag and he lets them stop, Merlin’s not completely against the idea of spending the night in the open again. Especially if it means he can get out of these damned clothes.
They tie the horses to the tree. Arthur starts gathering sticks for a fire, but Merlin has different priorities, starting with the cursed bonnet, which will be the first thing on the fire once it’s started, if he has any say in the matter.
“Never again,” he swears, quickly disrobing.
“You say that,” Arthur says, “but show you a silk corset and I’m sure it would be a different story.” A knot loosens in Merlin’s chest hearing Arthur tease him. He’d feared he might be closed off completely after his close encounter with magic that afternoon.
“I’m sure silk doesn’t itch as much as this,” he replies.
“You’d think you’d be used to peasant clothing by now, Merlin.”
It’s chilly enough that he’d rather get straight into his breeches and shirt, but Arthur clearly has other ideas, intercepting him before he can reach the pack, hands bracketing his hips. Certain parts of Merlin’s anatomy decide that they agree with Arthur, cold be damned.
“Alright?” Arthur says and Merlin nods, jerkily.
Arthur pushes him backwards until he hits the tree, smirking as Merlin stumbles, even as his fingers make quick work of the drawstring of Merlin’s underclothes. Typical Arthur, Merlin thinks, he has to be in charge even when he’s the one on his knees.
Arthur swallows him down all at once, no further preamble, and Merlin’s head snaps back, hitting the tree. He bites his lip and counts to ten, half afraid it’ll be all over before it’s begun. But Arthur slows, pulling back as if he’s testing himself to see how much he can take, trying the weight of it on his tongue. Merlin can hardly bear to look at him, biting down on all the words he wants to say, half of them filthy and the other half embarrassingly tender. He hasn’t the experience to judge on Arthur’s technique. He hisses when there’s a scrape of teeth but that’s likely his own fault for being too eager. It feels good though, Arthur’s mouth on him, hot and wet and intimate.
He moves his hips – he can’t help it, it feels too good – stuttering and thrusting into Arthur’s mouth in no kind of rhythm. Arthur moans and for a second Merlin fears he’s gone too far, but Arthur’s eyes when he looks up at him are dark with lust, and when Merlin goes to pull back Arthur stops him with a bruising grip on his hips, thumbs digging in to his skin. Arthur wants this, he realises; it’s no kind of favour, not the way this kind of thing is spoken about in crude tones in the taverns and the stables, when it’s spoken about at all.
He finds himself revising his initial assessment of Arthur as needing to stay in control. Perhaps, sometimes, what Arthur needs is to give that control up, to cede it to someone else. And what Merlin wants more than anything is to show Arthur that he’s worthy of being that someone else, that he’s not just a loyal friend but a powerful man in his own right, to be respected as well as beloved.
Looking down, Merlin sees that Arthur has his own breeches unlaced and he’s spending onto the ground between them and that’s what tips him over the edge. He’s glad of the tree at his back, in the end, as he arches and comes without warning.
Arthur sits back on his heels and wipes his mouth, but it takes a while for the familiar smirk to settle back on his face. In the moments between, he looks shaky and wanting and Merlin inhales sharply, only now beginning to realise how much Arthur has been denying himself, how much he still holds back. And Merlin, still holding back himself, can hardly fault him for that.
Merlin wants to kiss him, to say that everything is okay, but his throat is dry and the moment passes.
“I’m going to fetch some water,” Arthur says, getting to his feet.
Merlin dresses himself in his own clothes with thick, clumsy fingers, still slightly dazed. By the time Arthur returns the fire is going steadily, and there’s a can of water boiling – they’ll at least have a hot drink if not hot food. He thinks a little wistfully of Gaius’s more flavoursome herbs, collected from traders from all over the land. It seems an age since they left Camelot. He says as much to Arthur.
“Hmm,” Arthur says, not committing himself to any more of a response. After everything they’ve shared Merlin is fairly certain it’s not because Arthur is missing Guinevere. But Camelot has always been Arthur’s first love. Merlin can’t begrudge him that. He just wishes there was a way to show him that magic and Camelot needn’t be eternally at odds.
“Arthur, that girl, in the village…”
Arthur sighs, eyes closing.
“She meant no harm.”
“Most magic users don’t,” Merlin ventures.
“I’m not a monster, Merlin. I’m not going to execute a girl barely more than a child for saving her little brother’s life.”
Your father would have, Merlin thinks, but he doesn’t say it out loud.
“Gruffyd and Ceridwen, they – I think they were Druids,” Merlin says. He hopes that Arthur will see this as he means it to be seen. That he hasn’t betrayed the people who helped him by turning them in.
“It’s not against the law to be a Druid,” Arthur says.
“They were magic users,” Merlin says a little more bluntly. “They knew who you were and they helped you anyway.”
“And I don’t intend to see them punished for that, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Arthur sighs.
But you do, Merlin wants to protest, you want to take magic away from all of us. At any other time he would see Arthur’s concession as a huge leap forward in tolerance for magic users, but they’re running out of time.
“Destroying all magic, taking that away from them, won’t that be punishing them?”
“Come on, let’s get some sleep,” Arthur says firmly, and it’s clear the subject is closed. Merlin can only hope that the seeds of doubt have been sown in Arthur’s mind.
His own mind is racing. He’d been ready to reveal his magic, earlier, and despite the distractions of riding and sex, he’s left with a lingering unsatisfied feeling, like an itch under his skin.
They lie spooned together to conserve heat, and simply for the comfort such closeness affords them, Merlin pressed tightly against Arthur’s back. Arthur falls asleep first, but Merlin finds he can’t follow him. He slips his arm around Arthur, his hand resting against where the kasulatḫu lie next to Arthur’s skin. He runs his thumb along the curve of the metal, an unbroken circle. It’s warm, and fairly singing with magic. He’s hated these bracelets a little, for all the trouble they’ve caused, but it’s hard to feel that with them here within his grasp. They are magic, just as he is magic. Merlin slips his fingers through the circlet and gasps at the heat spiralling up his arm, the sudden, shocking feeling of completeness. His other hand is tangled protectively in Arthur’s hair and for a dizzying moment the circle is not the ring of metal but the two of them, two halves of a whole.
Merlin pulls his hand back as if stung, letting it grip Arthur’s hip instead, breathless with just how much he wants what the kasulatḫu seem to offer, even when he doesn’t fully understand what that is.
It’s the sort of morning that Merlin’s mum always described as ‘fair mizzling’, damp and dreary. There’s a chill of something like expectation in the air, almost as if the sky itself is waiting on the outcome of their quest. They have a perfunctory breakfast, pack up the camp in silence, and go on their way.
They can’t have been riding above two hours when the fog thickens so much that Merlin can barely see the tail of Arthur’s horse in front of him. It’s more than a morning mist, and Merlin feels a prickle of unease.
“This doesn’t seem like an ordinary fog,” Arthur calls over his shoulder, his voice sounding far away. Merlin’s inclined to agree with him.
“I don’t like this,” he says. “Let’s stop.”
“No, we’re riding through.”
“It’s too thick,” Merlin insists. This has to be more than ill luck. First the snow, then the rain and now this. He’d thought before, half in jest, that the elements themselves were trying to stop them from completing the quest, but now he’s sure of it. Magic is all around them; in the trees, in the grass, in the very air. No matter what Arthur has been taught, it isn’t something that can be stopped or controlled, it’s not something that can be ignored. It simply is. And if they press on with this foolish quest, what else will they have to come up against?
Merlin pulls on the reins and brings his horse to a stop.
If Arthur’s ever going to understand, he has to tell him the truth.
“Arthur,” he calls, suddenly aware that Arthur has disappeared entirely. “Arthur!”
“I’m here, Merlin,” Arthur calls back, and if Merlin squints he can just about make out a dark shape in the mist.
“We have to stop. We have to abandon the quest.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Merlin. We’re not just going to turn tail and ride home because of a little bit of bad weather.”
“Arthur. Sire. Listen to me, please. It’s the magic in the land. It doesn’t want us to destroy the kasulatḫu. ”
“You’ve clearly been spending too much time with Druids if you believe that sort of –“
“It’s not a question of belief!” Merlin interrupts, frustrated. “Magic is real, it’s here, whether you believe in it or not. The good and the bad. You can’t just wish it away.”
“Merlin,” Arthur’s voice is low, dangerous, “you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Part of him recognises that it’s a little bit ridiculous, arguing with Arthur like this when they can’t even see each other. The rest of him, though, draws a sort of strength from it. It makes it easier, in a way, not to have to see the look on Arthur’s face. Although Merlin can’t see more than a hand’s breadth in front of him, he can see clearly that they’ve come to the end of the line, here.
“Actually,” he says, nervous and brave and a little light-headed, “I do know what I’m talking about. Because I have magic.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Merlin,” Arthur says, long-suffering.
Of all the ways he’s imagined Arthur might react to the revelation of his magic – anger, betrayal, beheading, even (in his more hopeful moments) acceptance – he’s never considered the possibility that Arthur might just not believe him.
And it makes him angry. That even when he’s laid himself bare before him, Arthur refuses to really see him. So that’s what fuels the spell, the desire to have Arthur truly see him at last.
“Leoht,” he growls, but there’s more to it than a simple lighting spell. He wills the fog away, pushing at it, filling the space around them with light.
And that’s when he sees it.
It’s like nothing he’s ever seen or heard of before. A distant cousin of the Griffin, perhaps, but scalier, with a long tail finished with a set of vicious looking spikes. It stares them down with a malevolent look in its eyes, only feet away.
Arthur’s horse sees it too, rearing up and throwing him to the ground. Arthur rights himself, pulling out his sword but not fast enough to avoid a vicious slash from the thing’s talons. Without his chainmail he’s unprotected, and Merlin can see a deep gash on Arthur’s chest, his linen shirt bloodied and torn.
“No!” he shouts, the sound ripped out of him. Because he may have wanted to end the quest, but not at the expense of Arthur’s life. Never that.
The beast turns towards him, clawing at the ground and snorting. Merlin faces it down, thinking quickly. The elements may be conspiring against them, but he’s mastered them before, when he defeated Nimueh, and he can do it again.
Arthur is hurt, he’s in danger. Merlin can waste no time, show no mercy. In a rage of anger and fear he calls down lightning, felling the beast in a single strike, so powerful that the earth is scorched black around it.
The light dims, his grip on his power slipping. Or perhaps it is simply that he has used too much. He feels drained, exhausted, and all he can hold on to is a single blue orb, flickering in the swirling mist.
Merlin loses no time in racing to Arthur’s side. Arthur is conscious, staring at him and the glowing orb with baffled recognition.
“Arthur,” Merlin croaks desperately, hands flying over his body to gauge the severity of the wound. It doesn’t look good. The gash on his chest is deep and another, worse, on his arm, a chunk of flesh torn away. Merlin takes a few deep, shaky breaths and utters the words of a healing spell. It doesn’t work. He tries another, and another, closes his eyes and tries willing the lacerations healed, pictures a needle and thread stitching skin neatly, all to no avail. He’s always had trouble healing Arthur with magic, just as he’s always had trouble healing himself. He doesn’t know why but it feels as though there’s something missing, something vital he’s overlooked. And now, with his magic flagging, it’s impossible. He’s used too much. He refuses to give up, though, pushing and pushing with his knees in the dirt and his hands bloody, as Arthur’s breathing grows more laboured.
“I’m sorry,” he says, tears spilling despite his best efforts to remain stoic.
“Merlin,” Arthur rasps, and Merlin shakes his head, afraid Arthur is going to tell him not to try, that he doesn’t want to be saved by magic. If these are Arthur’s last words, he doesn’t want them to be condemning magic. “Merlin if you can’t manage it, bloody well get me someone who can.”
He laughs, even through his tears, more of a desperate snort than anything else.
And then he remembers Ceridwen telling him about the Druid camp, beyond these very plains. It can’t be far from here, not if Arthur’s map is correct. He rummages quickly through his pack, pulling out the white underskirt Ceridwen gave him and tearing it quickly into strips to use as a bandage. He gets Arthur onto his horse with a combination of brute willpower and residual magic and tries to see the way through the receding mist.
However far away the Druid encampment is, it feels twice that with Arthur injured and heavy in front of him, laid face first across the horse, an agonising eternity of riding before he finally sees the line of colourful tents nestled in the shadow of the mountains.
A few men and women come out to meet them, warily, as they approach.
“Well met, traveller,” says a bearded man in green robes, phrasing it almost as a question. “My name is Gareth.”
Merlin doesn’t have time for niceties.
“Help him,” he says brusquely. Druids are known for helping strangers, they surely won’t refuse him. Gareth nods at two of his fellow Druids, and they gently lift Arthur from the horse and bear him away. Merlin stares after him, his heart in his mouth.
“Our healers are highly skilled. Your friend is in good hands,” Gareth says, noticing Merlin’s look. “Might I trouble you for your name, traveller?”
“My name,” Merlin says, pushing back the hood of his cloak, “is Emrys.”
Afterwards, he’s not sure why he said it. It seemed right and needful to claim the title; whether because he was here with these people, or because Arthur finally knew of his magic, or simply to assert some measure of authority, for Arthur’s sake. It seemed his to claim, now, when before it had been something to keep hidden.
He knows now that his magic never can or will be hidden again, whatever else comes out of this journey.
He regrets it slightly when Druids begin to look at him in awe, and more than one actually curtseys to him. He can hear the whisper going around the camp as Gareth bids him follow, and feels himself blush a little at the open staring.
Merlin finds himself in the midst of a well-established encampment of elaborately decorated tents, bustling with people young and old. It’s a little different from any of the Druid camps he has seen before, so far out to the west, but there are similarities, too. The tents appear to be set out in concentric circles, with a large fire and communal area in the middle. They are dyed different colours, too, and decorated with displays of runes and feathers and plants which seem to denote their purpose or status. A large tent in ochre has symbols painted on the side that Merlin recognises from Gaius’s books as being to do with learning – somewhere children are taught, perhaps. They pass looms, pole lathes, smaller cooking fires and women milking goats before arriving at an umber hued tent.
He catches sight of Arthur being borne into a blue tent with mistletoe and snakeskin hanging outside, and several sigils which he recognises as being those of the healing arts.
The Druids, true to their reputation, are welcoming, despite Merlin’s initial disregard for the social graces. They offer him a seat and a cup of something hot and slightly bitter which he sips gratefully.
“Thank you,” Merlin says at last, thinking how disapproving his mother would be at him forgetting his manners. “Ceridwen said to be remembered to you, if I should come this way,” he adds, and sees a couple of the Druids nod in recognition of the name.
He’s introduced to many people whose names he instantly forgets. Food is pressed onto him. Merlin feels it would be impolite to refuse, but he hardly tastes anything, all his attention focussed on the blue tent across from him.
“You must be tired from your journey, Emrys,” says Aelwen, one of the women whose name he has managed to retain, one of the elders. “Allow me to show you to your tent.”
“Thank you,” Merlin says, genuinely relieved at the offer of peace and privacy. “But I’d like to see Arthur, first, if I may.”
“As you wish.”
He’s ushered quietly into the blue tent, while Aelwen and the healer, a thin man with a long nose, have a hushed, hurried conversation. However Merlin’s eyes are only for Arthur, lying pale and still on a pallet at the far side of the tent. He crosses over and takes Arthur’s hand in his, relieved beyond measure to see that he is sleeping peacefully and breathing more normally. His wounds are freshly bandaged.
“He will live,” the healer says, coming up behind him. “The lung was punctured but we managed to reverse the damage. He is young and healthy and will make a full recovery within a few days. He may scar, a little, but that is the worst of it.”
“Thank you,” Merlin says, close to weeping with gratitude, but settling for a handclasp instead. “Thank you.”
“He means a good deal to you, then?” the healer asks.
“A very great deal,” Merlin says, hoarse, resolving to tell Arthur just how much he means to him when he comes round. Then – with a pang – he recalls that Arthur, however well recovered, may not want to listen to protestations of love or anything else Merlin might have to say.
He reluctantly allows himself to be taken away from the healer’s tent and shown to one of his own. It’s a fine tent, dyed a deep red, reminding him of Camelot’s colours, and furnished with furs to sleep on, water to wash with and fresh clothes. Merlin hopes that it is a tent kept for visitors and that nobody has been forced to vacate their living space for his sake, but he’s too tired to enquire or protest, falling asleep almost instantly.
Merlin finds himself the centre of the wide-eyed attention of a number of children as he eats a bowl of steaming hot porridge in the morning.
“Are you really Emrys?” asks the boldest, a dark-eyed boy with a head of unruly curls.
“Yes,” he says, pausing with his spoon half way to his mouth.
“I thought you’d have a long grey beard and a stick,” he sniffs, obviously disappointed. Merlin gives him an apologetic shrug.
“Do you want to know a secret?” he asks, and the boy nods eagerly, creeping closer. “I do have a beard,” he says in a loud whisper, “And a stick. But I keep them for special occasions.”
“Can you do magic?” demands the boy, eagerly, “Will you show us something? Please?”
“Hush, Bedwyr,” shushes one of the older children, but Merlin can see they’re all as eager as each other.
He flexes his fingers and narrows his eyes. Yes, his magic is strong again, enough to coax tiny green shoots from the dirt in front of them; a perfect circle of life, flickering into being, blooming into purple petals which have the children gasping with astonishment. Merlin smiles to see them. It has been some time since he let himself do magic for the sheer joy of it, longer still since he was able to share that joy with others.
“A rare gift, the power of life and death,” says a voice behind him. He turns to see the healer who had treated Arthur the night before. “I have honed my healing arts for many years but could not command life as you can.”
Merlin shakes his head.
“But I am no great healer,” he says, “I could not heal Arthur. How is he?”
“Awake,” the healer tells him, “and asking for you.”
Merlin rises from his log, bids the children good day and follows the healer into the blue tent where a flame-haired young woman is clearing away jars and bottles. Arthur is indeed awake, the look on his face testament to his displeasure in finding himself in an unfamiliar situation.
“Arthur.” Merlin hesitates. He wants to go to him, to touch him and be sure that he really is all right, but he can’t be sure that Arthur would welcome him.
“Finally,” Arthur says crossly. Merlin knows Arthur well enough to know when he’s covering up anxiety with bluster. “I thought you’d left me for dead.”
“It would take more than a little scratch to kill you, sire.” He doesn’t know why he’s lapsed into the old formality. It causes the healer and his young assistant to look at them both a little strangely.
“You should be grateful to serve a master who shows such concern for you,” the young woman chastises Arthur.
“Ah, yes,” Arthur says, his eyes not leaving Merlin’s. “Apparently, everyone here believes you’re some all-powerful wizard and I’m your servant. Honestly, I’m out of action for a few hours and everybody gets delusions of grandeur. I think I liked it better when people thought you were my wife.”
“I’m sorry,” Merlin says, getting the feeling it isn’t going to be the last time he says those words today. He can’t tell from Arthur’s demeanour so far whether he’s even remembered Merlin outing himself as a warlock, let alone what he thinks about that. “I didn’t tell them you were my servant, I swear.”
“The other bit’s true though, isn’t it,” Arthur sighs. “I had hoped it was just a fever-dream.”
“What for? Being a sorcerer or lying to me for the past five years?”
“The lying. I can’t – I won’t apologise for who I am.”
Arthur’s jaw sets in a familiar, stubborn way, and Merlin almost regrets his belligerence. But Arthur wanted honesty and that is the truth. He’s not sorry he’s a sorcerer, only that it had to be hidden for so long.
“So, all this time…”
Arthur looks queasy. Merlin doesn’t know whether that’s a result of his wound or Merlin’s confession.
“For you. To serve and protect you.”
“Not to control me?” And here it is, Merlin realises, his heart sinking, the moment he’s been dreading ever since the simpleton spell, as he’s come to think of it. “Can you swear? Swear you’ve never…”
“Once,” he admits. And honesty really is a double-edged sword, isn’t it? “To make you leave Camelot, when Morgana and Agravaine attacked. It was my only choice.”
“To take away my free will and my honour?”
“To save your bloody life!” Merlin shouts. Silence rings out in the tent and he realises that the healer and his assistant have gone.
“And my life matters that much to you, does it?”
“More than anything,” Merlin says, voice shaking with how much he means it, how much he needs for Arthur to believe him, to understand. “Arthur, I –“
“Get out,” Arthur interrupts him, quiet and weary.
“Just go, Merlin.”
So he goes.
Deciding he can’t simply sit idly growing flowers by magic, Merlin seeks out Gareth.
“Emrys,” the Druid leader says, inclining his head.
“I was wondering,” Merlin says, “who among you would be knowledgeable about prophecies?” He’s cagey about the exact prophecy in question, just to be safe.
“We teach the prophecies to our children with their runes,” Gareth tells him. “There’s not a man, woman or child in the camp who doesn’t know the prophecies about Emrys. But you might speak to Master Amlodd. He is the oldest of us, and the wisest, and knows many things that others have long forgotten.”
Gareth points him in the direction of a log by the stream at the far side of the camp on which sits one of the elders, a man with a long white beard and a stick who looks much as the children must have imagined Emrys to be.
He’s whittling a small wooden object, staring unseeing across the nearby hills when Merlin approaches.
“Master Amlodd?” Merlin tries, speaking loud and clear in case the old man is hard of hearing. “Gareth sent me to speak with you. My name is Merlin.”
“I know who you are, Emrys.” Of course he does. There are probably cave-dwelling hermits who know who he is by now. “Do sit.”
Merlin sits down beside him, thinking on the best way to broach the subject.
“I hope you are in good health,” he ventures.
“I am nearly one hundred years old,” Master Amlodd replies, “I would prefer not to waste my few remaining days in idle chatter. You have a question for me, I think.”
“I uh, yes,” Merlin replies, wrong-footed. “I want to ask you what you know of the kasulatḫu, and the prophecies about them.”
“There are many prophecies about many things.”
Merlin fights the urge to roll his eyes at this response. It’s like dealing with Kilgharrah all over again.
“Is it true that if they are destroyed, magic will fade from Albion?”
“It is. If the kasulatḫu have surfaced now, then it is a dark hour for magic indeed.”
“It is said that there is a chasm in the Amaranthine Mountain that will consume all that is thrown into it. Would this destroy the kasulatḫu also?”
The old man turns unseeing eyes to the hills behind them.
“The Amaranthine Mountain lies yonder. And yes, anything cast into its fiery pit will be consumed, including the kasulatḫu.”
Just over there. Merlin had hoped that after being lost in the fog they might have ended up further away from their destination, but it seemed they were right at the foot of the cursed place after all. Was his theory about the elements fighting them wrong after all, or have they been sent here to this place for some purpose yet unknown?
“I won’t let him destroy them,” Merlin vows.
Merlin says nothing, already having given away more than he should. The Druids had been nothing but hospitable to them, but that didn’t necessarily mean they wouldn’t want the kasulatḫu for their own purposes. Especially if they knew that Arthur was in possession of them, and what he intended to do.
“Many years ago,” Amlodd begins, “in the times of the High Kings of Albion, the High Kings would bind themselves to the High Priestesses, the most powerful magic users in the land. Thekasulatḫu were used as part of the binding ceremony, allowing the wearer to sense one another.”
“To sense one another?” Merlin echoes, thinking of how he had felt when he had touched the bracelets before, while also touching Arthur, how his awareness of Arthur had increased, the feeling of completeness and warmth so tempting that he had had to wrench his hand away. Amlodd nods.
“Often this binding ceremony was not merely a sealing of power but a meeting of souls; a magical handfasting, if you will.”
“Oh.” Merlin clamps down hard on the swell of longing in his chest. “And did – did the priestesses use them to control the kings, to make them do their bidding?”
But he knows the answer to this question even before Amlodd shakes his wizened head.
“No more than a wedding ring can compel a wife obey her husband or the other way around. Less so, for the binding will not take hold if both do not enter it equal and willing. The witch would never have succeeded in her aim.”
But Amlodd doesn’t deign to explain himself. Merlin can’t help but think of Morgana. Of course she would have imagined she could bend the bracelets to her nefarious purposes, but it seems her endeavour was necessarily doomed from the start, as Arthur would hardly have willingly allowed himself to be bonded to her.
“There are prophecies about many things,” Amlodd repeats. “And oftentimes they are but threads of a larger tapestry, which could be woven into many patterns, depending on the choices we make.” He shifts his weight where he sits, and Merlin could swear he hears the creaking of Amlodd’s ancient bones. “There are prophecies, too, about the return of a High King who will unite all of Albion. There are prophecies about a man who will bring magic back to its rightful place in the land. It is a dark hour for magic, true, but sometimes the darkest hour is just before the dawn.”
Merlin feels a chill at those words.
“Tell me, Emrys,” Master Amlodd continues, “how fares your king? Has he recovered from his wound?”
“I… he… how did you know?”
“I know many things. Is that not why you sought me out?”
“I… yes, I suppose it is.”
“You seek my advice, but you do not always remember what you have already been told. You know about the two sides of the same coin.”
Merlin wants to point out that it’s not always easy to understand what he’s been told, when everybody insists on speaking in riddles, but bites his tongue.
“It’s what… the dragon said, Arthur and I.” He stops. How can he believe that anymore, when Arthur won’t even see him?
“The half cannot truly hate that which makes it whole, Emrys. Don’t forget that. A good day to you.”
“And to you, Master Amlodd.”
Merlin ducks his head respectfully as he takes his leave and heads back into the camp, mulling over the old man’s words. They gave him an unsettling feeling, as though Amlodd could see clean through him. Merlin knows that he of all people should be familiar with the possibilities of sorcery, but although Mordred had spoken to him in his mind, he’s never yet come across someone who seemed to know his own thoughts and history so thoroughly as Amlodd. He reminds Merlin of Kilgharrah in more ways than one. Merlin feels sure that the old man himself is a part of this tapestry of which he spoke, a weaver of threads.
A sudden thought occurring to him, Merlin turns back, meaning to ask the old man one more question.
But look as he might, he cannot see him there.
Merlin looks up at the sound of his name to see Aelwen smiling at him. She is, he has found out since, Gareth’s wife, and the two of them are leaders of the collective, in so far as Druids have need of such a thing.
“Aelwen.” For a moment he thinks to ask her about Master Amlodd, but thinks better of it.
“I hope your servant is recovering well?”
Merlin flinches a little, wondering how that rumour became accepted by so many.
“My friend is recovering, yes,” he gently corrects, but he can’t be sure there’s even any friendship left between them now. How can there be any friendship without trust? Let alone anything more.
“Then I hope you will be able to join us at the feast this evening, in the place of honour.”
“Oh no, really, you shouldn’t…”
“The honour in this is twofold,” Aelwen explains, “we honour you in inviting you, and you honour us by attending.”
“In that case, of course I shall,” Merlin says, a little humbled.
The preparations for the feast are long underway, it seems; people bustling everywhere, delicious smells emanating from cooking pots, children stringing up chains of flowers.
Merlin catches sight of Arthur, stood in the open entrance of the healer’s tent. Their eyes meet for a brief moment, then Arthur turns away again. Merlin takes half a step forward, meaning to follow, but freezes. Even if he goes to him, even if Arthur doesn’t order him out of the tent, what can he possibly say that will make everything all right between them again?
He offers his services to Aelwen instead and spends the better part of the afternoon picking herbs. He sees Arthur a couple of times more, up and about, but still clearly in some discomfort, favouring his injured arm. The first time it is while he is passing close by the healer’s tent, arms full of wicker baskets. Arthur is outside, training, testing his reflexes. The second is when he passes again on his way back with his baskets full. This time Arthur is not alone – Bedwyr, the small boy who had demanded Merlin do some magic that morning, is with him, and Arthur is teaching him sword manoeuvres with a stick. Bedwyr seems as keen on swordplay as he is on magic. Merlin can’t help but picture a future in which children have the choice of whether to learn swordsmanship or sorcery, where a Druid boy could sit openly at the round table swathed in Camelot red.
He’s standing stock still, wistful smile on his face, seeing this imagined future rather than the tableau before him, so he’s a little startled when he hears his name called.
Arthur is startled as well, or so his uncharacteristic fumble attests, dropping his stick-sword and looking over to where Merlin is standing. This time their gazes meet and hold. Arthur’s eyes frosty, unreadable.
Bedwyr makes the most of Arthur’s distraction to land a blow across Arthur’s knees, and the moment is lost. Merlin hurries away with his basket, while the red-headed healer’s assistant comes out of the tent to chide Bedwyr for assaulting her patient while he’s still in recovery.
Merlin turns to see who had called him – Aelwen, waiting for the herbs. He hurries over. There are a few stares as he passes back through the camp, but not as many as when he first arrived. It seems that now they’ve got used to the idea of his presence, being the all-powerful Emrys really isn’t that different from being Gaius’ apprentice after all. A lot of fetching and carrying and mixing of herbs, while being given cryptic advice by white-haired old men.
Gareth and Aelwen have lent him a tunic for the occasion, black and high-collared with a silver threaded design at the neck. It’s not the strangest thing he’s had to wear recently by a long way, and it slides smoothly over his skin, soft and close-fitting.
“My, don’t you look handsome,” Aelwen exclaims, reminding him of Ceridwen. Merlin runs a distracted hand through his hair and wonders if there’s something about him that particularly invites motherly fussing from middle-aged women. If there is, it’s something that passed by Cook in Camelot, more’s the pity. Perhaps it’s a Druid trait.
Outside the Druids are drinking and talking merrily. Several are using magic openly, in small everyday ways. Merlin hopes that Arthur can see this, that he is not blind to how useful magic can be, how for some people it is a part of everyday life.
Not for the first time Merlin thinks that he could have been happy living among the Druids if not for the whole troublesome destiny business. If not for Arthur. At the thought of Arthur, Merlin’s smile slides from his face. He knows, deep in his bones, that he can’t be happy without him; Arthur is as essential to him as breathing.
But destiny and happiness do not always go hand in hand. He wonders whether he has lost his chance at fulfilling his destiny, at restoring magic to Albion. If he hadn’t wanted something that was never his to have, if he hadn’t grasped at his fleeting chance at love, at happiness with Arthur, perhaps things wouldn’t be in such dire straits. If he’d told Arthur earlier about his magic, if he’d loved him less or hadn’t slept with him, hadn’t let this passion undo them both, perhaps the betrayal wouldn’t have seemed quite so crushing. Arthur had trusted him.
And now, if he can’t convince him, he will have no choice but to betray Arthur another time. If Arthur won’t bend, he will have to steal the kasulatḫu before Arthur can destroy them.
But first, he must attend this celebration, and he must not dishonour his hosts by appearing miserable, however hurt and lost he might feel inside.
This is not like a feast at Camelot with long tables set out. Druids sit in haphazard circles around small cooking fires in the large communal area in the middle of the camp. There is a space cleared for dancing in the centre. Although there is no head table, Gareth and Aelwen sit at one of the central fires, and beckon Merlin to join them. There are flowers all around, garlands hung from trees and posts, or in the women’s headdresses, and everyone is dressed in their finest tunics, many of them adorned with more jewellery than he has seen them wear in the day. Nothing expensive, such as Camelot nobles might wear, but metal or wooden shapes on leather thongs, strings of beads and even floral garlands.
From the looks he receives as he takes his place as guest of honour around the fires, Merlin surmises that Aelwen was not merely being polite when she’d said he looked handsome. But once he’s seated, it’s not only a few appreciative eyes on him but it seems everyone present is looking in his direction. An expectant hush falls over the assembled company. It’s not something he’s used to, being the centre of attention, having people look to him. Aelwen gives him a nudge, but Merlin falters. He does not know what they expect from him – tonight, at least. Obviously in the future they expect him to restore magic to its rightful place across Albion. But now – a speech perhaps? He clears his throat, a little nervous.
“I’d like to thank you all for your welcome, and your help.”
A smattering of applause.
“I am honoured to have the place of – er – honour.”
Merlin winces. He half fears being shown up as a fraud with his youth, his limited knowledge of the old religion, his lack of a staff and a long grey beard. But perhaps there is something he can do, to show that he has a claim on the title of Emrys. A demonstration, in place of a speech.
He holds up a hand. There is a murmur of excitement from the crowd. He starts with a light-show, simple yet spectacular, twinkling brightly and falling like showers of stars to a chorus of ‘ooh’s and ‘aaah’s from the gathered children and a fair few of the adults, even though they must have seen such simple tricks before. Concentrating hard, he transforms the sprinkles of light into tiny blue butterflies, flapping and fluttering across the heads of the conclave.
Party tricks. But it is not a debasement of his power by any means; it is a liberation. His magic surges, happy to be able to flow freely, to create rather than merely clean clothes or conjure the odd falling tree branch.
Real power need not go hand in hand with violence, that is what Merlin is trying to say with this display. Magic can mean so many things, hold so much beauty, so much hope.
He rains down petals of red and white, carpeting the floor with them. He conjures a dragon, soaring up with a crackle of embers from the fire, swooping and dancing in the air before settling in the shape of the Pendragon crest, making it clear who the display is really for.
Everything he does is for Arthur, always.
There’s applause, after, and some speculative looks as well. Gareth gets to his feet and says a few words, but Merlin hardly hears them. All his attention is captured by a solitary figure on the very edge of the festivities, wrapped in a green cloak.
Merlin’s careful about how much he drinks; Druid concoctions have a legendary reputation for potency (and, if Gwaine is to be believed, certain other effects as well – but Merlin knows to take Gwaine’s claims with a large pinch of salt where drinking exploits are concerned). At any rate, he refuses any of the additional herbs he sees being liberally sprinkled into drinks or in some cases smoked in clay pipes.
If being the legendary Emrys is useful for one thing, at least it allows him to remain slightly aloof and on the side-lines. For all the speculative looks he’s been getting (some of them, he’s mildly alarmed to notice, downright hungry), nobody has dared yet approach him to try to drag him into the dancing. Just as well for retaining his mystique – anybody who saw him attempting a reel with his two left feet would be hard pressed to maintain any respect for him as a destined leader of the magical populace. He almost wishes he’d brought some of the ageing potion with him; nobody would dare to flutter their eyelashes at Dragoon the Great.
Merlin turns at the words to see the red-haired healer’s assistant, sipping from a wooden cup and smiling up at him.
“I, er, I’m not all that good at dancing to be honest. I wouldn’t want to break anyone’s toes.”
“This isn’t a courtly dance, Master Emrys. You just need to feel the rhythm. There’s not very much skill involved, really. Half these people will be horizontal before midnight.”
“Is that so?” Merlin raises an eyebrow (and oh gods, is he turning into Gaius after all?) and she laughs.
“Well, yes,” she says, matter of fact. “It honours the goddesses. I know Gareth and Aelwen hope you will honour us by partaking yourself, seeing as you’re not bonded. They’ve put crocus and mistletoe above your bed, you know. And I’m sure you won’t lack for willing volunteers. ”
“Oh gods,” Merlin says, faintly horrified. “I, look, I don’t want to offend anyone, you’ve all been so hospitable, but I really can’t possibly… I mean, I don’t…”
“Well, you don’t have to, obviously,” she shrugs, putting him out of his misery. “Not if there isn’t anyone who catches your eye.”
But oh, there is, Merlin thinks, his eye drawn to where Arthur sits alone, sipping mistrustfully at a cup of something. Arthur looks up almost at the same moment and the breath catches in Merlin’s throat. He knows, without doubt, that even if Arthur never so much as looks in his direction again, there can never be anyone else for him.
“Look,” Merlin says, turning to the girl, suddenly feeling he’s been less than polite, “it’s really not that you’re not… I mean you’re very pretty and all, it’s just that I, that I…”
“No! Well, yes, actually, but…”
“Please, that much is obvious,” she says, waving a hand in his general direction. Merlin blinks, wondering how it possibly could be, when it took him so long to discover the fact for himself. “And I would tell you that Gwri over there would be more than willing, but I think perhaps it would please you more to know that your fair-haired friend hasn’t taken his eyes off you all evening.” She leans in a little closer. “What’s more, he’s been glaring in our direction ever since I started talking to you, and I suspect that if you were to dance with me he’d be fair steaming with jealousy.”
Merlin can’t help the skip that his heart gives at this, even if he’s sure she’s read the situation wrong. If Arthur is glaring at them it’s because Merlin has betrayed him, not because he wants Merlin for himself.
The girl’s hand slips into his and Merlin finds himself led into the dancing throng, wondering if he’s been tricked into it, just a little.
They move together in the crowd of undulating bodies, all bustle and sweat and the pounding of drums. The girl keeps hold of his hand but keeps her distance also as she sways and twirls, for which Merlin is grateful. He moves his feet, but enticing as the rhythm is he finds he cannot abandon himself to it, a weight of care heavy around his shoulders like a shroud.
He looks for Arthur, but the place he had been sitting is empty. Merlin’s heart sinks, disappointed. He casts his eyes about the encampment, hoping for a glimpse, but there’s no sign of him. The girl reels him in close, her breath warm and sudden against his cheek. Merlin, startled, is about to protest when she says,
“There, beyond the last tent, towards the stream. Go on, go to him.”
The girl smiles as she disappears into the crowd with a flick of her hair and Merlin has barely time to register that he never even asked her name.
He looks over at the stream and sure enough, there is Arthur. Merlin pushes his way through the crowds away from the camp, towards him. The sounds of the music seem muffled and far away.
“Arthur!” He calls, and Arthur stops. “Where are you going?”
“I…” Arthur turns, meets his eyes. “I don’t know,” he says, deflating. “I seemed a little… redundant.”
“It was only a dance.”
“I’m not talking about the girl, Merlin,” Arthur scoffs. “I don’t think you’d know what to do with a girl any case.”
Merlin wants to be offended, but he thinks Arthur’s probably right.
“You, all of this,” Arthur gestures expansively. “Emrys. You… you fit in here. You’re respected by these people. Loved.”
The word seems to hang in the air between them. Merlin can feel the chill of the night air as the sweat cools on his skin and he shivers.
“You should stay here,” Arthur says, looking away. “When I return to Camelot.”
So that’s it then. Exile. Merlin closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.
“That’s how you solve all your problems, isn’t it?” Merlin demands hotly. “You’re going to banish me just like you banished Gwen.”
Arthur’s head jerks up at the name.
“It’s not the same.”
“Isn’t it?” Merlin turns his back and begins to walk towards the fires. A hand on his arm stops him in his tracks, and Arthur’s pulling him around and into his arms, firm and possessive.
“No,” Arthur insists. “It isn’t.” Merlin shivers just a little. He wonders if Arthur can feel the pounding of his heart. He wants to ask what Arthur is doing, but his mouth is too dry to speak.
Arthur leans in, his lips against Merlin’s ear and Merlin braces himself because he can’t think that it won’t hurt, whatever he has to say.
“I lied, before. I couldn’t stand it,” Arthur says. “Watching you dance with someone else.”
“Arthur, it really wasn’t…”
“I know.” Arthur’s cheek nudges his own, his lips brushing Merlin’s skin as he speaks. “I know it wasn’t, that’s what makes it worse. That I knew and it still made me crazy. Merlin, what have you done to me?” he asks, sounding wrecked.
Merlin hesitates, beat after beat, unsure whether the question is rhetorical.
“Arthur, I haven’t… you know I would never, could never do anything to make you feel anything you didn’t already feel. You know that, don’t you?”
They’re so close he can’t pull back and look into Arthur’s eyes. He’s not sure it would help if he did. He’s been lying to his face for years, after all.
“Can we not talk about any of that?” Arthur pleads. Magic. Arthur still can’t say the word. Merlin shakes his head. Of course they have to talk about it, they have to.
“Arthur it’s… magic is who I am. I can’t just switch it off. But I’ve been trying to show you, it can be used for good, it can. And I use it for you.”
Arthur holds him fast. It’s intoxicating, but he wishes he could see Arthur’s face, what he’s thinking.
“Tomorrow,” Arthur says with a catch in his voice. “Tonight I just… I need you, Merlin.”
Merlin’s resolve crumbles. He wonders if Arthur knows this is the one thing he could never resist. Not the way Arthur’s pressing against him, the feel of him, the scent of him, heady as that is, but this rare admission of need. He moves and brushes his lips against Arthur’s. They stay there like that, not moving, just sharing breath, a moment of giddy hesitance on a precipice before taking a final, inadvisable leap. Arthur moves first, as always, drawing Merlin into a real kiss, so raw and insistent that Merlin moans and grabs a fistful of Arthur’s shirt.
“My tent,” he says, panting, as he draws back, suddenly aware that they’re making a public exhibition of themselves. Arthur nods, and Merlin pulls him by the hand back towards the encampment, through the drinkers and dancers and kissing couples. If people speak to them, Merlin ignores them; all sound beyond the pounding of his own heart and Arthur’s laboured breathing behind him superfluous.
They manage to get into the tent with some semblance of grace, but after that they all but fall onto the bed, Arthur mouthing at the exposed skin at Merlin’s neck, sucking in a way that’s sure to leave a mark come morning. But morning is a hazy, distant shore. Merlin can’t let himself think of anything but the now, anything but Arthur’s mouth, Arthur’s skin, Arthur’s touch and how badly he wants more of it all.
His head thrown back, as Arthur pushes up the black tunic and kisses over his stomach, biting at his hipbones, Merlin sees that his bed has indeed been decorated with plants and runes for blessings. He allows himself a smirk as he sees hawthorn for fertility; whoever placed that will be disappointed. But perhaps those for good fortune and pleasure will serve them well. Besides the herbs, there is a jar of oil with the scent of primrose, and Merlin blushes, barely stifling a groan at the thought of the uses it could be put to, as Arthur slides one hand into his breeches.
Merlin makes short work of Arthur’s clothes, cataloguing every hitch of breath, every tremor, the exact shade of dark his pupils turn when Merlin runs his hands down the length of his back to rest at the base of his spine. He wants, tongue thick in his mouth, unable to ask. They haven’t exchanged a word since they tumbled into the tent, unwilling to shatter the fragile truce with reminders of all the walls between them.
Without a word Arthur takes Merlin’s hand on his back and slides it lower. Merlin’s breath stuttering and his fingers inching close are the question and Arthur shifts, spreading his thighs in answer. Merlin’s breathing hard as he reaches for the jar of oil, slicks his fingers and presses one in. Arthur swallows hard as Merlin breaches him, audible in the thick silence of the tent. They can hear the muffled sound of drums and the occasional burst of chatter or laughter passing by outside, but outside is another country, another world.
Merlin eases more fingers in, stretching him slowly, until Arthur reaches down and stills his hand. Merlin pulls away, and Arthur turns himself over to lie on his belly, spread out beneath him like a feast. Merlin licks his lips, imagining Arthur laid out like this in his bed back in Camelot, imagines opening him with his tongue. He hovers over him, pausing for just a moment, his chest tight not only with desire but also awe at the trust Arthur is placing in him, to surrender himself to Merlin like this, even now he knows about his magic. There’s a nagging doubt in the back of his mind that this is moving too fast, that they should wait and talk before this can really mean what he wants it to mean, but then Arthur says his name, hoarse and wanting, breaking the silence between them, and it is enough to undo him, to overcome all hesitation.
He slicks himself with the oil and stretches out over Arthur’s back, his cock sliding along the crease of Arthur’s thighs and then, impossibly, in. It feels so good, so perfect that it’s an effort to hold himself back. But he remembers what it was like for him, the first time, and he’s slow and careful as he begins to thrust, reaching for Arthur’s heavy cock and stroking steadily, wanting to make sure it is as good for Arthur as possible.
But then Arthur groans and begins rocking back against him and he can’t hold back anymore. Merlin loses himself in the sensation, the sounds Arthur is making, the sight of his king unfurled beneath him, the curve of his spine and the way his mouth has fallen open, panting with pleasure. Merlin mouths at Arthur’s shoulder blades, licking the salt of sweat from his skin, intoxicated, as he drives into him again and again.
It lasts longer than Merlin would have imagined possible, wound up as he is, a blur of heat and feeling and fucking. Only when Arthur shudders and comes beneath him with a wordless cry does Merlin find his own release, a blinding blaze of pleasure, sobbing Arthur’s name.
It takes him a while to come back to himself. When he does, he eases out and pulls Arthur round to face him, claiming his mouth in deep open-mouthed kisses which Arthur returns enthusiastically. Merlin wants to tell him how good he was, how perfect, but Arthur shushes him with a finger to his lips and he succumbs to a drowsy sleep, cradled in Arthur’s arms.
Merlin knows Arthur’s gone even before he opens his eyes. It’s too quiet, too lacking in human warmth. He doesn’t know why he didn’t see this coming. The kasulatḫu are gone, too, of course.
For a moment he just lies there, overcome with a dizzying sense of loss and betrayal. The thought occurs to him that it’s only what he’d intended to do to Arthur, to spirit away the bracelets as he slept. But that was before last night, before Arthur had said he needed him, before he’d let him... The idea that Arthur may have planned all of it, deliberately seduced him to distract him from his departure for the Amaranthine Mountain, hurts, a fierce pressure in his chest. He’d never thought Arthur capable of something so underhand.
Then he shakes himself and throws off the covers. The world isn’t going to save itself while he sits around moping, naked in his tent, is it?
The Amaranthine Mountain is the highest of the peaks which surround the Druid camp, with a winding path leading up from the foothills. It’s not a steep climb, at least not at first, and the path is dry. All around the mountainside are great swathes of purple flowers. It would be beautiful in any other circumstance, but Merlin has no time to appreciate the view. He doesn’t know how much of a head start Arthur has had. Could he even have sneaked out in the dead of night while Merlin slept, borrowed a torch from somewhere and lit it on the bonfires as everyone slept? Merlin hurries on, scrambling over rocks and tree roots as he climbs higher.
He wonders whether he would know if Arthur has reached the summit already, if the kasulatḫu have been destroyed. Would it be instant, the fading of magic? Flowers withering, magical artefacts shattering, magical creatures retreating to die? Or perhaps it would take time, a grey scourge spreading slowly across the land. He can feel his own magic, flowing through his veins. He can’t imagine not having it there. Would it vanish all at once, or lessen gradually over time until there wasn’t even the faintest spark of it at his fingertips?
To his infinite relief, Merlin finds Arthur sitting on an outcrop of rock, some way from the summit. His shirt is open-necked, unlaced a little to allow for the heat, and Merlin can see the chain still there around his neck. He wonders why Arthur had gone to the trouble of sneaking off only to wait here. Could it be that he’s having doubts about whether he is taking the right course after all?
“Arthur!” he shouts, breathless.
Arthur looks up, his face implacable, unreadable. He doesn’t look surprised to see Merlin, nor does he make any effort to move away. He has been waiting, then.
“You haven’t – it’s not too late?”
Arthur sighs and pulls at the chain around his neck and the bracelets tumble out of his shirt.
“I thought it was so easy, destroy the bracelets, no more threats from sorcerers or magical creatures. I was so sure. But I got half way up here and all I could hear was your voice in my head and now I… I just don’t know,” he trails off, shaking his head.
“If you do, it will destroy everything magical in the world. The good and the bad. I know you don’t believe all magic is evil, Arthur, not anymore.”
“All my life, Merlin, magic has been something to fear. I’ve been attacked by magic more times than I can count.”
“You’ve been saved by magic more times than you know,” Merlin counters.
“Magic took my mother and my father from me. Magic corrupted my sister. And now…” He pauses, swallows. Merlin has to strain to hear his next words. “Now magic has taken you from me as well.”
“No, it hasn’t!” Merlin protests hotly. “I’m yours, Arthur. All of me. Including my magic.”
“But if there was no more magic,” Arthur says desperately. “If it was all gone…”
“Then I wouldn’t be me. I wouldn’t be anything without my magic. It isn’t something I’ve learned or studied. It’s part of me, has been since I was in my cradle. Magic is how I protect you. Magic is all that I’ve got.” Merlin holds his hands out in supplication. “I don’t expect you to forgive me for lying to you, Arthur, I know what I’ve done. But don’t do this. Please.”
Arthur doesn’t look at him, staring instead at a fixed point somewhere over Merlin’s left shoulder.
“I just don’t know,” Arthur says, again, jaw fixed in that way that Merlin knows means he’s vulnerable and trying to hide it. “I just don’t know if I can trust you.”
Merlin doesn’t answer, because there isn’t an answer to that. He knows full well he’s lost any chance of deserving Arthur’s trust, Arthur’s love. He knows that.
“I know I’ve lied to you,” Merlin says, his voice shaking a little. “At first I had no choice. We barely knew each other, and your father would have had me killed, Arthur.” He looks up, pleading. “But then – then I loved you and I just couldn’t risk…”
“You loved me but you couldn’t trust me?”
“And what would you have done?” Merlin asks. “Even now, you only want to destroy magic. Would it have really made that much difference if I’d told you earlier?”
Arthur doesn’t have an answer to that.
“I know I’ve had plenty of opportunities to tell you more recently, and I haven’t. I thought it for the best, but I might have been wrong. It might mean you can never forgive me, never trust me. But I’m not asking for that.” Merlin stops, takes a deep breath. He has to get this right, it’s his last chance, his only chance. “I’m not asking for me, Arthur,” he says at last, low and sincere. “I know I don’t have the right. And if it were only me, I’d gladly give up anything for you. I’d give up everything, my magic, my life, Arthur, if you only asked it of me.”
Arthur looks at him then, a little startled by the intensity of Merlin’s display of fealty.
“But it isn’t about me. It’s about everyone else. The camp of Druids, the people who healed you, welcomed us both. That girl who saved her little brother when he was half-crushed by the cart. Ceridwen and Gruffyd who fed us and clothed us and hid us from our pursuers. It’s about Gaius, who gave up practising sorcery at your father’s request. Morgana, who never would have been turned against you if she hadn’t had to hide who she is, to come to terms with being everything she’d been taught to hate by your father.”
Arthur opens his mouth to protest, but Merlin shakes his head and Arthur falls silent again. Merlin swallows against the lump forming in his throat and continues:
“It’s about every child growing up in Camelot with magic in their veins, capable of such power, such beauty and brilliance and growing up cowering in fear. Those are your people, Arthur. The people of Camelot. Of Albion. They’re your people, and they’re looking to you to lead them out of the darkness.”
Merlin holds out his hand, beckoning Arthur to rise. Arthur does, following Merlin to the edge of the mountain. It’s a clear, bright morning and from such a high vantage point they can see for miles, all across Camelot to the South and Caerleon to the North and beyond. A vast panorama of green and blue and brown; forests and lakes and hills and paths; castles and cottages and clusters of activity.
“What do you see?” Merlin prompts. “Kingdoms? Borders? Territories?”
“Yes,” Arthur says, frowning. “But not only that.”
“Do you want to know what I see?” Merlin asks softly, a fond smile creeping over his face in spite of the tears glistening in his eyes. “Magic. I see magic, in everything. Every soaring bird and trembling leaf. Every tree, every lake, every stream, glittering with it. It’s as much a part of the earth or the air as the things we can see.”
“But magic causes so much harm,” Arthur protests, although his voice wavers. “So much death and betrayal.”
“Death is a part of life,” Merlin says. “Birth, death, rebirth. People can die by drowning, but we do not blame the river and its currents. If a rockslide kills a man we do not blame the mountain. And as for betrayal, well.” He gives a wry shrug. “Betrayal is entirely too human a thing. And it happens often enough with magic or without. You might as well try to banish love, or gold, as they are all too often the causes.”
Arthur’s face twists in an unhappy grimace. Merlin suspects that he’s thinking that banishing love might not be such a bad idea.
“Why is it always when I am in my weakest moments that you speak to me with such wisdom, Merlin?” Arthur sighs, so quietly that Merlin doesn’t know whether he even meant to speak the words aloud.
“Because those are the only times you actually listen to me?” Merlin tries, but it’s a strained attempt at humour.
“Everything used to be so much more straightforward before you came into my life, you know. You’ve done nothing but complicate everything since the first day I met you.”
“Well, that is my job.”
“Funny, I thought your job was mucking out my stables and polishing my armour,” Arthur retorts, weary and brittle.
“Well, it’s my destiny, then.”
The shine of the sun rising in the sky glances off the copper sheen of the kasulatḫu, giving them a blood-red tinge.
“Your destiny?” Arthur asks curiously. “To be a Druid leader?”
Merlin shakes his head.
“To help you become the greatest king Albion has ever known. To serve you, always. To aid you in bringing magic back to the land.”
Just saying the words cause something to stir in his chest. It’s almost funny to think how he’d scoffed when he’d first heard of this destiny, how he’d tried to refuse.
Arthur nods, but he doesn’t look exactly pleased. Merlin knows full well he doesn’t like to be manipulated. Arthur’s always preferred everything upfront, preferred an enemy he can fight to tricks and subterfuge. He’s been taught to think of himself as master of his fate, whereas Merlin has learnt from long and bitter experience that they’re all servants when it comes to destiny. Even a king on a chessboard is just a piece that can be moved around.
They stand in silence, there on the cliff edge. Merlin doesn’t have any more words to say, he can only give Arthur a chance to think over what he has said already and hope that it has been enough. Merlin can feel how tense Arthur is, even though they’re standing a foot apart, or more. He wants badly to reach out a hand and touch him, but he knows that would hardly help.
Arthur reaches for the kasulatḫu, runs a finger along the smooth inside of the bracelets and sighs.
“It looks like I’ve come on a long quest for no reason, then, doesn’t it?” he says, lightly, letting them fall back against his chest with a barely audible chink. Merlin lets out a breath he hadn’t even realised he was holding at Arthur’s capitulation.
“Arthur,” he breathes, with a rush of relief and love and awe. He makes an involuntary movement towards him, but Arthur turns away and Merlin’s hand falters, heart seizing in his chest.
Destiny has its price.
Arthur walks away from the mountain’s edge, back to the rocky outcrop he’d been sitting on before. Merlin closes his eyes tight against the tears that threaten to fall. Magic is saved, but it doesn’t feel like a victory.
“So,” Arthur says, after a pause, awkward and reticent. “Destiny, eh?”
“Yeah,” Merlin says, and his throat burns as he rasps the word out.
“Was it,” Arthur says hesitantly, not looking at Merlin, “I mean, was that why…” Arthur stops, coughs, and continues, “Making me… making me fall for you. Was that part of it, too?”
Merlin’s head jerks up and he turns to stare openly at Arthur, incredulous.
“What? No,” he shakes his head violently. “That… that was never supposed to happen.”
Even as he says it, Merlin can’t help but wonder. If there are prophecies about the two of them, together, two sides of the same coin… perhaps it can be part of their destiny after all. It’s something he’s hardly dared allow himself to wish, even in the darkest, loneliest nights. He thinks back to everything Amlodd told him, about how destiny was a tapestry that could be woven into different patterns depending on the choices people made.
Perhaps it’s something they can choose to have. If their choices so far haven’t made it impossible.
“Arthur,” he says, low and urgent, “Arthur, do you…”
“I love you Merlin,” Arthur says, sounding spent and almost unwilling. Hardly the romantic declaration of songs and ballads, but it makes Merlin’s heart ache to hear the words all the same. “It’s ridiculous, really. You were this irritating idiot peasant who couldn’t do anything right. And you were just always there, by my side, loyal and brave, infuriating but necessary, until I realised that I couldn’t imagine my life without you. But now… now it turns out that all along you’ve been a powerful sorcerer and I just don’t… I don’t know who you are anymore.”
“I’m still me,” Merlin insists. “Arthur, I’m – it wasn’t a lie, not really. I told you once I was happy to be your servant until the day I die.” He gives a wry grin. “It was sort of a joke, actually, at the time, since I thought I was going to die the next day, but… I am. Yours, I mean. Whether you want me or not.”
“It’s not just about what I want, though, Merlin, is it? Everything you said about destiny, about me being the high king of Albion, I want that. I want you, by my side always, and not just as a servant.” His eyes burn as he looks at Merlin. Then he looks away with a sigh. “I just don’t know whether I believe in it. All of it.”
Merlin’s had his fair share of moments of doubting his destiny, moments when the wrong choices were made for the right reasons, moments when the path before him had been muddied and unclear and he’d raged and cursed at destiny and dragons and the elements themselves, moments when it had hurt to think of what the future might hold.
This is not one of those moments. He can see destiny before them, shining and golden and within his grasp and he knows what to do.
“Let me show you,” Merlin says.
He takes a step towards Arthur, slowly reaching a hand out to where the kasulatḫu rest. Arthur watches him but doesn’t stop him and Merlin pleads trust me with his eyes, something he knows he doesn’t have the right to ask aloud. He snicks the bracelets apart so they are separate, and slips his hand through one, his free hand resting against Arthur’s chest.
Slowly, warily, almost as if he cannot believe what he is doing, Arthur mirrors his actions, curling tentative fingers around the edge of the other. It’s enough. The moment the copper touches Arthur’s skin, Merlin can feel him, the warm, reassuring beat of his heart not quite in time with his own but in the spaces between, less an echo and more of an answering. The flood of emotion not his own fills him so full he can barely breathe. Merlin glows with Arthur’s love and pride and trembles with his fear and self-doubt.
He can feel Arthur’s embarrassment, too, at being left open like this. He wills Arthur to understand that this goes both ways, to truly see him, his sincerity and his devotion and his love. He tests out the magic, sending reassuring thoughts towards Arthur, but holding himself separate, not wanting to overwhelm him. Even though part of him longs to sink into the bond, to lose himself in Arthur until they can’t tell where one ends and the other begins, he knows Arthur isn’t ready for that, that he still doesn’t trust the magic or his own feelings enough.
He can see how it could be, though, the two of them skin to skin as they have been before, this time with their souls as bare and open as their bodies. He can see how it could be, Arthur fitting into the spaces Merlin leaves, and vice versa. Merlin sure where Arthur is uncertain, Arthur brave and blazing where Merlin is daunted. The thread of magic joining them together even when they are apart. And if he can see it, then Arthur can see it too.
Arthur gasps and lets go of the bracelet, his eyes flickering up to meet Merlin’s.
“Merlin,” he says, voice strained, and Merlin smiles because he’s not afraid anymore. He’s seen the fear and doubt in Arthur’s heart, but there’s no hate there. Only love: for his kingdom, his people, his friends, and for Merlin. There’s a yearning too, for love that he doesn’t quite believe that he deserves. But with love, as with magic, belief has nothing to do with it; it just is.
Arthur gasps and kisses him then, breathless and giddy. Merlin clings to him as he kisses back.
“Come on,” Arthur says when he finally pulls away, still nipping at Merlin’s lips as though he can’t quite bear to stop touching him. “We’ve got a long walk back to Camelot.”
“About that,” Merlin says, a little nervously, despite everything unsure how Arthur will react to this last secret. “I may have an alternative suggestion.”
Arthur looks at him dubiously as Merlin stands on the mountainside and calls Kilgharrah, the words undoubtedly foreign and guttural to his ears.
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Arthur needles as minutes stretch out with no response to his call.
“This will be quicker than walking home, trust me,” Merlin says.
“Alright,” Arthur says, and Merlin’s heart skips, knowing Arthur isn’t just talking about this one thing.
Soon enough, a dark shape appears on the horizon. Arthur narrows his eyes.
“Merlin, tell me that’s not what it looks like.”
There is a rush of wind as the creature approaches, almost blowing them backwards. Sure enough, the formidable figure of the great dragon swoops up the mountainside towards them, wings beating lazily as he hovers level with the two men. To his credit, Arthur stands his ground, uncowed.
“Well, young warlock, it appears you have averted catastrophe once again. I see the dawn of a new golden age for Albion on the horizon.”
“Kilgharrah,” Merlin says, a note of command in his voice even as he phrases it as a polite request. “Will you take us back to Camelot?”
The dragon snorts, sending a puff of steam up into the air.
“I am a great dragon and I do not ferry mortal men about at their whims, even Dragonlords.” His great yellow eyes regard the two of them, unblinking. “However, I will take Emrys and the Once and Future King back to Camelot, so that the golden age may begin.”
Merlin bows his head in acknowledgement of the service.
“Just one question,” Arthur says, his hand coming down hard to rest on Merlin’s shoulder. “We’ve been walking cross country for days, over mountains, through forests, in the pouring rain. We nearly died. Why the bloody hell didn’t you just summon the dragon in the first place?”
“Yes,” Merlin says, rolling his eyes, “I’m sure if I’d just said ‘Excuse me sire, I’ll just summon a dragon to take us on our quest to destroy all magic’ you’d have listened to me.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you,” Arthur says sincerely. An apology from Arthur is rare enough that it stops Merlin in his tracks. Arthur pulls Merlin round to face him. “But I’m not sorry we came on this quest.” Arthur fumbles with the chain around his neck and slips one of the bracelets off. “Here,” he says, offering it to Merlin. “You can… well. It’s yours. Think of it as a promise, for now.”
“Arthur.” Merlin can’t think what to say in response, clutching the bracelet tightly in his hand. Arthur clears his throat.
“Come on, I don’t suppose this dragon of yours is going to wait all day. And believe me, when we get home I expect a full explanation of the dragon situation.”
It’s the first flush of spring when the delegation of the Druids from across the five kingdoms arrives, some months after the ban on magic is lifted. The King of Camelot and his knights are waiting on the castle steps to receive them, although space outside the citadel has been set aside for the Druids to set up camp, agreed on as being the most comfortable and practical solution given both the Druids‘ habits and the size of the delegation.
Merlin stands at Arthur’s side, dressed in the silky black tunic Aelwen had given him for the feast at the Druid encampment. Arthur had insisted that Merlin wear something more befitting of his new status as magical advisor (and soon to be royal consort).
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have worn the hat?” Arthur asks. He has become adept, Merlin notices, at speaking to Merlin out of the corner of his mouth without compromising his regal bearing in the slightest.
“No. No hats, I told you.”
Arthur’s suggestion for Merlin’s formal attire had included a pointy hat which rivalled the feathery concoction he‘d once forced him to wear for ridiculousness. When Merlin had looked askance at the idea, Arthur had asked whether Merlin would prefer the castle seamstress to knock up a dress for the occasion. Merlin had hit him around the head with his own leather gloves, and Arthur had had his revenge for that affront in a way Merlin had absolutely no objections to. (And the following morning he’d had a quiet word with the castle seamstress himself, about something that would most assuredly never be worn in public.)
Merlin is looking forward to speaking with the Western Druids again. He still feels a touch ill-mannered for leaving on dragonback without so much as a goodbye a little more than a year before, although they’ve exchanged missives since, in planning this visit. He’s eager to show them around, proud of everything Camelot has accomplished in the past year.
So much had changed between he and Arthur on their quest to the Amaranthine Mountain that it had been more than a little frustrating for Merlin to return and discover that Camelot was much the same as when they had left it. Introducing change to Camelot has been a slow, gradual process and there have been days when Merlin has itched to push ahead, to have everything happen now. But he knows Arthur had the right of it, that it was something that couldn’t be rushed, not if they wanted the people of Camelot to truly accept and embrace magic. And listening to the welcoming cheers of the people as the flags of the visiting Druids can be seen in the distance, Merlin knows that every agonising second of waiting has been worth it.
Over the past year Merlin has spent long evenings talking to Arthur about everything he knows of magic and destiny and everything he’s done with magic since he arrived in Camelot: about his father, and his role as a Dragonlord, and how he hopes Aithusa will bring good fortune to Arthur and his reign; about Morgana, and his regret at not helping her sooner, before Morgause had the opportunity to poison her mind against Camelot; about Amlodd, the Druid elder, and everything he’d told Merlin about the history of the kasulathu, the ancient ceremonies and the prophecies surrounding them. Not everything has been easy to say, and not everything has been easy for Arthur to hear, either, but these evenings have helped to build a new trust and understanding between them.
As Arthur has been getting his council used to the idea of legalising magic, so Merlin has been getting Arthur used to the reality of magic, all the simple, useful things it can accomplish as well as the grander possibilities. Beneath the lingering wariness, there’s a real wonder and curiosity, and Merlin has delighted in being able to show Arthur just what he is capable of.
It had been a difficult thing for Arthur to announce that he hadn’t succeeded in his quest, had decided instead to abandon it. One of Uther’s most rigidly-held tenets was that a strong king never backs down, never changes his mind. But Arthur will be a better king because he can admit when he was wrong, as Uther never could.
And so, few weeks after their return, Arthur had convened the round table to discuss his proposal of lifting the ban on magic altogether. Merlin had spent long hours writing his speech for him, detailing how Arthur’s experiences among the people of his kingdom had made him realise that magic was not something that could be destroyed or ignored. It had been couched in careful language, persuading the council that lifting the ban on magic was the best – the only – way to keep the kingdom safe. It had been the sort of speech that Merlin had always dreamed of writing, and he couldn’t help the tears that threatened to spill when Arthur had delivered it, sure and commanding with the light of destiny in his eyes.
There had been one or two dissenting voices, of course, mostly from the older knights on the council. Geoffrey had been vociferously in support, which Merlin hadn’t been expecting. By and large, though, the round table had shown their support for their king’s wish to repeal the ban, or at least a willingness to discuss it further, and the first steps along the road to making magic free again had been taken.
“I don’t know why you were so set against the robe, either,” Arthur murmurs. “Gaius wears his well, don’t you think?”
Gaius takes his place on the steps, nodding to Merlin as he does so. His new apprentices are accompanying him – twins, with an aptitude for magical healing as well as the more traditional methods. As part of the talks with the Druids, Merlin knows Arthur plans to ask for someone well versed in the healing arts to stay in Camelot and train up potential healers. There are so many skills, so much knowledge that has been lost to them in Camelot over the long years of magic’s exile. Powerful as he is, Merlin knows there is much he does not yet know, much he cannot accomplish alone.
Further along Merlin spots Gwen, being escorted by Leon to a prominent place among the welcoming nobility, and smiles.
Merlin had been worried about how Gwen would react to the news of his and Arthur’s changed relationship, troubled by having to be the one to hurt her, and it hadn’t been an easy conversation to have. She’d known since the Lamia, she told him, that Merlin had no interest in women, and felt she should have guessed where his affections lay. She’d admitted that although she still cared for Arthur a good deal, she could never have married him after everything that had happened, that they had never really been what they’d wanted each other to be. ”You give as good as you get,” she’d said, ”you stand up to him. You’ll be good for him, I think.” They’d parted as friends and Merlin had petitioned Arthur at the earliest opportunity to give her a knighthood, or whatever the female equivalent might be.
It had taken some planning, long hours holed up with Geoffrey in the library looking over heraldry and land rights, but at the Yule feast, Arthur had announced grants of land to several of his knights and other citizens in recognition of their bravery and loyalty in the service of Camelot, and Gwen is now known as Lady Guinevere with her own apartments at court and a seat beside her brother on the round table.
Of all those so recognised, only Gwaine had scoffed at the offer of land and said that if Arthur was that honoured by his service he could buy him a flagon of mead instead. Arthur had retorted that he’d already settled a Duchy’s worth in bar bills on Gwaine’s behalf; but there had been a night at the tavern at Arthur’s expense in any case (although none of the participants can remember all that much about it.)
Merlin, for his part, already has the only title he wants: Emrys, Dragonlord.
Nobody could have been as surprised as Merlin when, after announcing the upcoming Druid visit, Arthur had gone on to name him Special Emissary to the Druid People and Advisor for Magical Affairs, to be known by the title of Emrys. Merlin’s legs had trembled as he had taken his seat at the round table, by the King’s right hand, humbled by the cheers from his friends. He’d never craved recognition for everything he had done in the service of Camelot, never needed acknowledgement from anyone but Arthur. But, well, it was nice to get it, all the same.
He’d asked Arthur that evening whether it meant Arthur would be getting someone else to draw his bath and polish his armour. ”Whatever gave you that idea, Merlin?” Arthur had scoffed, “Now that I know you can accomplish all your usual tasks with magic, I know you’ll have plenty of time for your additional duties.”
As the sound of hoofbeats grows nearer, Merlin lifts one hand to the cord around his neck where his bracelet still hangs. Since they returned from their quest, he’s spent more than one lonely evening, slipping his bracelet onto his wrist, feeling the pulse of magic but no answering pull. Arthur had needed time, and Merlin had respected that, of course, even though he‘d felt the unfinished bond as a kind of ache at times, seeming almost incomplete without it. But now that the Druids are arriving, it won’t be long before he and Arthur are joined, finally. His heart and his magic both give a jolt at the thought.
It had been a few nights after Merlin’s official appointment as magical advisor that Arthur had admitted an ulterior motive in inviting the Druids. He had, it transpired, been doing his own research into bonding rituals and the ceremonies of the old religion. Merlin had pointed out that they didn’t need any of that, that they only needed to wear their bracelets for the bonding to be complete.
“I know,” Arthur had said, voice soft and sincere, ” I know, but I want to do it properly. Officially. With vows and witnesses.” Merlin had gaped at him until Arthur’s soft look had morphed into a more familiar smirk. ”I’m practically proposing to you, idiot, you might say something.” Merlin had not, in fact, said anything, but Arthur had been too busy kissing him back to complain.
“If you don’t want the pointy hat, have you changed your mind about the crown?” Arthur asks. Merlin smiles and shakes his head.
He’ll be Arthur’s advisor and his consort and his protector, but he wants no crown. Soon they’ll have the bracelets binding them together, and that’s enough.
“No. Shh, they’re coming, try to look kingly.”
Merlin lifts his hands in welcome as the Druids approach.
The bonding ceremony itself takes place at noon on the third day of the Druid visit, in a small grove not far from the castle, under a canopy strung between trees, decorated with ivy and amaranth.
It’s not a lavish affair, only a few close friends present to witness their joining, with Gareth intoning the words of the ancient ritual.
Arthur and Merlin stand facing one another, hands clasped, as they declare themselves equal and willing, and promise each other faithfulness, trust and love.
As he slides the copper bracelet onto Arthur’s wrist, Merlin has a moment of dizzying clarity, seeing himself and Arthur as not just two halves of a whole, but as fixed points in an unending circle, seeing that the affinity between them is not confined to this binding but will last beyond the span of a mortal lifetime.
The moment passes, too much truth for one man to hold for long, and he returns sharply to the present with the press of Arthur’s hand in his. The bond is new and strange and ancient and familiar all at once. It’s not quite as overwhelming as it had been on the mountainside but still it takes his breath away. It will take some getting used to, Merlin decides, wondering how he will ever be able to concentrate on the celebratory feast with this new awareness of Arthur making his skin tingle and his magic soar.
Arthur smiles and Merlin realises he can feel the love and pride radiating from him as well as see it on his face. He grins back, knowing that Arthur can feel just how much this moment means to Merlin, too.
Crown and magic bound, one to the other, at last. Merlin and Arthur turn, hand in hand, to face their people as the sun bathes the sky in a golden wash of light.