Art link: HERE ARE 3 (THREE!!!) AWESOME PIECES by aqualillium who also made beautiful icons and banners featured here. Go! Feast your eyes! Dammit how did I get so lucky to have her illustrate this?? \o/
On the last day of his journey Merlin rose and packed his bedroll long before dawn, and ate his breakfast as he walked. He wanted to reach his destination early and see Camelot for the first time in bright daylight.
He'd heard stories and had pictured it many times: the city of white stone with its round towers and high walls, gates and bridges. But as he got to the top of the hill and saw Camelot with his own eyes, he knew no stories could do it justice.
It was huge, far bigger than he'd expected and much bigger than he could've imagined. The castle sat on the top of the hill, ornate and magnificent, like a crown on a king's brow. Dozens, hundreds of small houses were scattered over the slopes, clinging to the castle walls, to Camelot's strength and glory.
The white towers gleamed under the sun. Columns of steam rose above them to the clear sky, perfect against the bright blue. They looked like captured clouds, tethered to the castle by its many chimneys and made to serve its people. Somewhere behind the walls, deep within the castle, steam was raging against metal, making things move.
There was another puff of smoke slowly climbing up the hill toward the castle gates. Merlin could just about make out the dark shape of the great cart underneath it. He knew it carried firewood and coal to feed the great engines of Camelot. Each day the great cart made four trips from the foot of the hill to the engine room. There its cargo was unloaded and shovelled into the ever-hungry furnaces to boil more water, make more steam.
The cart, too, was drawn by steam, as it was too heavy for even a dozen horses to pull up the hill. It had a few passenger seats, and Merlin promised himself that one day he'd ride in it, even if it took him a year to save up for the fare.
The whole of the valley below was taken up by lush, well-tended fields. In one of them sat an abandoned plough, and Merlin smiled at it like at an old friend.
There was a plough just like that near Ealdor. There were ploughs just like that all around Albion, all now lying motionless in the fields, forgotten. Merlin used to visit that far field where the plough sat, sometimes with Will, sometimes alone. He'd climb the riveted sides of the plough, touch the still sharp blades on its paws, trace the runes carved into its metal skin, and think of the people who'd made it and of the magic that used to live inside it.
Merlin was too young to ever have seen a plough at work, but he knew about them. There was a time when these iron beasts crawled slowly over the fields of Avalon, easily doing the work of hundreds of men. With the claw-like blades on their paws they'd slice through heavy earth and turn it over, and move to the next field to furrow that one, too. Once they were done, they'd start their route over and harrow the dried soil: pound it gently with their claws, breaking up all the clumps. And just like that, with no back-breaking labour from men or horses, the fields would be ready to take seeds.
In autumn the ploughs would reap the grain. There had been perhaps a dozen of them across the whole country, so they couldn't do everything quickly enough before the grain would fall. People still had to reap by hand even then, with scythes and sickles. But afterwards the ploughs would come up to the villages, led by mechanics and magicians, and thresh the harvest with the pads of their paws till the grain was clean of chaff and ready to be milled.
There were abandoned fields all around Ealdor, all over the country, covered in tall grass and growing over with tree saplings. There weren't enough able hands to work them, not without the magical ploughs. The people of Ealdor managed to grow enough grain to get them through the winter, though some winters were leaner than the others. But the older folks still remembered the days of plenty. Back then they'd have spare grain to trade, to stock up on, and hunger was just a scary tale from the distant past, like smallpox.
There was a group of horsemen riding down the road from the castle, accompanying a loaded cart. They stopped, dismounted and headed through the field toward the plough, picking up things from the cart on their way. At first Merlin couldn't figure out what they were up to, but then he recognised some of the tools they were carrying – a crowbar, a hammer, a saw. He shouldered his pack and started running.
By the time he caught up to them they were already at it. They'd chiselled the rivets off the shoulder of the plough, cut through its thick metal skin and were peeling it off with pincers and pliers.
The plough was taller than any of them, even when it was squatting like this, sat back on its heavy paws. Each of its blades was long enough to cleanly slice through a man, though it could've never attacked a man, even when it could still move. Its shape had always reminded Merlin of a mole rat: great paws, strong back, small round head covered in runes. That made it even worse – it looked as if the men were tormenting a living creature, even though it was now nothing but a heap of metal parts.
"Stop," said Merlin, breathless from his run. "Don't."
The men gave him a disinterested look and went back to gouging the plough to pieces. There were eight of them, all armed with sharp heavy tools, but Merlin wasn't about to back down.
"Leave it alone," he said. "Have some respect. These things used to feed the whole of the Albion."
"And now it's useless scrap," muttered one of them. "If you don't want to end up like this, keep walking."
He hefted a pair of huge metal cutters and shoved them through the slash in the plough's skin, into the delicate maze of springs and gears.
Merlin grabbed his wrist and shoved him back before he could do any damage.
"Don't," he said again. "Look, I don't know if you're trashing it for fun or if you want to cut it up and sell iron to Camelot..."
The man stared down at Merlin's fingers gripping his arm. He had shiny hair the colour of ripe grain, a strong jawline, and an air of cocky arrogance that too often seemed to accompany such unnecessarily good looks.
"Do you realise what you just did?" he asked. "Do you know what I should do to you for this?"
"The old machines will work again," Merlin said, not in the mood for threats and posturing. "I'm not going to let you wreck this thing. Prince Arthur is going to make it work again."
The man's mouth curved in a slow, pleased smile. His teeth were a little crooked, and Merlin viciously focused all his attention on that flaw. He wasn't going to be charmed by a bully.
"You think so?" the man asked.
"He will," nodded Merlin vehemently. "I know he will. He and his engineers are the cleverest people in all Albion. They'll figure out how to make all the machines work on steam. It will be better than back in the time of the magicians."
It might have sounded naïve, but he wasn't going to explain to these vandals why he was so sure about Prince Arthur and his great destiny. Even if he wanted to, he couldn't really say "I know this because a giant creepy dragon told me so".
"See?" said the guy, gesturing broadly to the others. "The people believe in us. Even the last country bumpkin knows about the work we do and doesn't doubt us for a second. So we can't give up, ever."
He turned to Merlin and clapped him on the shoulder, pompously, as if he was doing him an enormous honour.
"You should be thrown in the dungeons for assaulting the crown prince," he said. "However, for your loyalty and good sense I'm going to pardon you. Now you have something to tell your grandchildren about."
"Wait," said Merlin, quite crushed by the dawning realisation. "Hang on. Are you saying you're Prince Arthur? That's just not possible. How could you be the cleverest man in the kingdom? You're an arrogant git, and you look completely daft!"
The men immediately ducked back toward the plough to cover their suppressed laughter and pretended to be consumed with work. Prince Arthur went pink to the roots of his shiny hair and pointedly removed his hand from Merlin's shoulder.
"Still," he said. "I'm sure a day in the stocks will do you a world of good. Leon, detain this imbecile. We'll take him to Camelot for punishment when we're done here."
A tall bearded man put down his tools. He smiled at Merlin apologetically, took him by the elbow and led him back to their cart.
"I don't even have enough rope to tie you up," Leon said. "I'll just sit here with you. Don't worry, by the time we're ready to go back His Highness would've gone off the idea – would've probably forgotten about you altogether."
"What are they doing?" asked Merlin, watching miserably as Arthur and the others stripped down the casing of the plough and started twisting and chopping its innards, where the clockwork was delicate as lace, and looked as if it would all unravel if one thread was snapped. "He's supposed to fix everything, not to break it even worse."
"We need to figure out how it worked. We'll dismantle and measure it all, and then we'll draw up the designs. Once we understand how magic was used to make it move, then eventually we'll know how to use steam instead. We'll fit it to an engine..."
He kept talking about pipes, levers, gears and other things to do with machinery and engineering. Merlin stopped following the conversation ten words in and just kept nodding. They settled in the shade of the cart by the roadside and watched Arthur's engineers work.
Now Merlin could see they weren't scavengers or vandals who destroyed things just for the dumb pleasure of breaking something beautiful. They were fast and efficient in their movements, careful not to cut further than was needed to expose a joint or reach a nut. Every piece of machinery was thoroughly measured with two sets of callipers; all the measurements were written down by one of the engineers, while the other was relentlessly sketching the way things fit together as they were taken apart.
Arthur directed them with clipped orders full of arcane words that Merlin didn't even know. His hands were black with rust and oil, his fair hair darkened with sweat. Locked in concentration, his face looked sharper, even more perfect.
"We should detach all of this and take it to the workshop without dismantling," he said, poking at something inside the plough. "If we cut through this support I should be able to get inside and see if we can lift it off the frame."
"Sire, perhaps, someone else..." started one of the engineers, and wilted under Arthur's glare.
"If any of my men can do this better than me, I'd like to know about it," Arthur said dangerously. As soon as the hole in the hull was wide enough, he ducked inside and squeezed between two iron beams to the core of the machine.
Merlin tried to imagine him wedged in there, suspended between rusted pipes and wheels like a fly on a metal web. But Arthur didn't sound uneasy. His voice resonated off the walls of the plough, higher pitched in excitement, as he reported his findings and ordered his men about.
Merlin let his magic quietly unfold and feel the dried-up paths inside the clockwork where the magic used to flow, giving life to the machine. After the magicians had left, all the magic ran out, and the machines stopped. By the time he was old enough to find and explore them, they were completely still and inert. Very rarely he'd found a small spark of magic, not enough for the machine to work as it was supposed to, but enough to singe him as he poked around, or...
He jumped up even before it happened. Leon tried to grab him, but Merlin dodged and ran for the plough. He was still some steps away when he felt that tiny dormant sliver of magic twitch to life inside the mutilated machine. He heard the groan and screech of the metal, and he saw the massive front leg of the plough bend at the joint, slowly, stiffly. He thrust all his magic against that movement, tore a spanner from the hands of one of the men and jammed it into the machinery, against the gear that was turning, glowing with the last of the power.
He pulled on the other end of the spanner with all his strength. The machine had been set into motion, and he was fighting the whole weight of it as it strained to take a step. He could see Arthur, ashen pale, trapped between the screeching wheels and the inside of the hull, his eyes wide and blank with shock. Arthur's hand had been caught under a lever that had snapped down as he was reaching past it, and now he couldn't move. If the plough's leg completed its movement, he would be crushed to pieces by moving beams.
A second later there were half a dozen strong arms helping Merlin pull the spanner down, and the rest of the men were frantically cutting and sawing through the metal to pull the prince free.
Once Arthur was out it only took him a few breaths to completely regain his composure. He brushed down his clothes and flexed his bruised wrist. The cut-up plough sank to the ground sideways, off-balance now.
"You saved my life," Arthur said. It sounded accusatory, as if the princely pride couldn't take the indignity of the situation.
"Don't mention it," Merlin shrugged. "Well, forget about the stocks and buy me a drink, and we're even."
"Oh no. I think you knew it was going to move. They very rarely move. And you knew exactly which gear to block to stop it. Even I couldn't have found it that fast. No, you're not getting away that easily."
The first machines had been built about three hundred years ago, around the time when Albion was just an isle full of warring kingdoms. Merlin has heard the old stories, and he knew that the Crown Prince had been named after a king of old, the one who'd first united the land. That's what the legends said:
There once lived a great and wise king called Arthur.
When Arthur first became king, his kingdom was small and full of strife. It had been forsaken by the magicians because of their quarrel with the late king, Arthur's father. So it had no magic, and without magic it struggled and couldn't flourish.
But the young king had a dear friend who was a powerful sorcerer. For years he honed his craft in secret, all so that one day he could pledge all his power, along with his life, to his liege. On the day he'd revealed himself to the king they'd made a promise to bring the magic back to the land.
And so they did, and in doing so they gained great power and earned their people's love. Camelot rose higher and higher, and soon all other kings swore their allegiance to Arthur. All kingdoms became one, and Albion was born – one isle, one country.
United in peace and harmony, protected from raids and invasions first by the sea, then by the magic, Albion prospered. The sorcerers turned their powers from the great battles and feats of might to tasks that were more mundane but still vital. They helped gather harvests, work raw wool into bolts of fabric, break stones, forge metals, cut wood. It was still hard work, even when done with magic, and it took great skill. And so, under the patronage of their queen Guinevere, the craftsmen of the land built machines that a magician could power with a single thought, and keep working them for days with simple spells.
It took decades, centuries, but the time came when mills and looms across the whole country were running on magic, heavy carts were drawn by magic up steep hills and across marches, and mighty iron ploughs were working the fields by themselves. King Arthur was long gone, and the name of his sorcerer friend had been lost to the ages. But for many generations Albion was free and at peace. It was the envy of all other kingdoms all across the world. Its people didn't know hunger, didn't fear disease. Metal and fire, human cunning and arcane magic laboured together relentlessly to create more riches, more wonders, more machines.
The legends also said that King Arthur hadn't left his country and his people forever. One day, when Albion would need him the most, he would return from his resting place in Avalon and rule once again, justly and wisely. At first it was believed that his body would be healed from the mortal wound, restored to health and strength of his youth. But as the more sceptical age dawned, a new interpretation of the legend took hold: that the great king's spirit would be reborn in a new body.
Some philosophers went even further, postulating that this fate wasn't King Arthur's alone. They believed that spirits of all humans were continuously reincarnated and given a chance to live their lives anew, to atone for past sins and complete unfinished work. But no memories of the past lives could be retained, so most people would be forever doomed to make the same mistakes over and over, lifetime after lifetime. That, they said, was exactly why history tended to repeat itself.
These were the legends, and they were written into chronicles and became official history. Neither Merlin or anyone else knew any different. Only one being that remembered King Arthur's reign was still alive, and he's not spoken to humans in a very long time. But in truth, the very first machines had been built earlier than the legends said - years before great King Arthur's coronation, and without him being involved at all. This is how it really happened all those centuries ago:
There once lived a serving girl called Gwen, and one day her mistress was kidnapped by an evil witch.
Without her lady to attend to Gwen was at loose ends, and didn't have enough work to keep her mind from worrying and running in circles. So she helped out where she could: in the kitchens, with the laundry, sewing, cleaning. Her friend Merlin told her that her Lady Morgana was safe and alive, he was sure of that. But Merlin himself was like a wraith these days, a pale, thin shadow, exhausted by too much work and too many worries. She sought him out, hoping they could support each other through these times, but he seemed to be avoiding her.
In the end she decided to corner him in Gaius's quarters. They could talk, at least; she could take some work off his hands. It would be good for them both.
Gaius was out, making his rounds. There were splashing noises coming from Merlin's room, which she took for the sounds of laundry and entered without knocking.
Merlin was asleep fully clothed in his bed in the awkward position of someone too tired to get comfortable. In the middle of the room, in the large laundry tub, the clothes were washing themselves.
She tiptoed closer, more excited than scared, and poked at the wet linens to see better. There was a small wooden water wheel fitted horizontally inside the tub. It kept turning steadily, driven by some force she couldn't account for. Its blades were swirling the sodden clothes round and round, working up lather from sudsy water.
Merlin stirred with a tired moan, rolled over and stared at her. She watched the sleepy grin fall from his face, the friendly expression giving way to fear and desperation. Without him having to say it, Gwen knew.
He wanted to explain. He began to swear to her that he'd never chosen to have magic, that it chose him. He told her that everything he did was for Arthur, always for Arthur and for all the people he loved. But she didn't need to hear any of it. She hugged and held him close, like she used to with her lady Morgana, and told him that he wasn't evil, he wasn't wrong. She promised she would always be there, and that Merlin would always have her. All the things she used to whisper into Morgana's silky hair when her fears and dreams would torture her. Merlin's hair was the same colour under her lips, his skin the same shade of pale, and he clung to her just like Morgana used to.
It was a long time before she finally remembered to ask him about the laundry device. The water wheel in the tub was still turning through everything that'd happened in the room.
"I made this a while ago," he explained. "Gwen, you have no idea what it's like having to do Arthur's laundry."
"I think I know what laundry is like, actually. I've been looking after Morgana's wardrobe since I was thirteen."
"But, no, Gwen, it's nothing like that. Morgana always smelled so nice! The worst you had to deal with was probably some dust on the hem of her skirt from riding."
She chose not to shatter his ridiculous illusions.
"Arthur sweats," he said with a shudder. "He really, really, sweats in that armour. He crawls through mud on his belly when he's hunting. And don't get me started on his socks. I can wash clothes with magic, yes, but I still have to look at them, pick them up one by one, rub them against the washboard. I could do that while I polish armour or scrub floors, but it's still tiring. So I came up with this. All I have to do is make the wheel spin. One spell and it'll keep going for hours. I don't even have to be here. And then a rinse and a wring, and everything is clean as new."
"It's a shame you can't make a big one that could wash the bed linens for the whole castle," she said wistfully, thinking of hours spent scrubbing and of the permanently red and rough hands of the laundry women. "Well. Maybe someday."
Later that year there was a war and new troubles and worries. The confusing, complicated thing between Gwen and Arthur turned out to be – to always have been - a confusing thing between her, Arthur and Merlin. And then, of course, there was Lancelot. There was so much to solve, so much to decide, so much to do.
That's why it took her and Merlin months to perfect a device that would polish Arthur's armour. But once they were done, the device could shine the whole set to absolute perfection in twenty minutes after being powered by one simple spell.
The magic broom was a lot easier, once Gwen had mounted it on wheels and modified the axles a little. After that, inventing became downright addictive.
Merlin knew that the magicians had left Albion when he was just a baby, and that they were no longer welcome here. Anyone with magic was now forced into exile to join the others of their kind. Merlin's mother didn't want that for him, so she taught him to keep his gift secret.
And he also knew what the dragon had told him.
He'd met the dragon a week ago. Merlin had been day-dreaming in his favourite spot on a gnarled tree branch when great wings eclipsed the sun and a dragon landed in the forest clearing, crushing raspberry bushes under its great belly.
It spoke urgently about fate, power, magic. Each of its yellow eyes was as big as Merlin's head. It said that they were at the crossroads, that everything was hanging in the balance, and that Merlin was the nexus.
"Woah," said Merlin in reply. "Dragon."
The dragon heaved a sigh and shook its head.
"You never change, young warlock," it said. "Still the same old Merlin."
"We've never met before," Merlin said cautiously. "I'd remember. Because you're a dragon."
The dragon waved him off with a huge clawed paw and continued his spiel.
"Prince Arthur of Camelot is getting very close to mastering the secrets of the old machines," it said. "I believe he can make all of them work again. You should be at his side from now on. You need to protect and guide him. He's important – perhaps more now than ever."
Any normal person would at that moment be asking "Why me?", assuming they'd moved past the talking to the dragon part, but Merlin had never been normal. He always knew there must have been a reason for his magic, and this, now, this was it. It was happening. His life was about to begin.
He had dozens of questions, but he asked the most important one first:
"What about my Mum?"
The dragon shook out his wings and stretched his tail. Merlin couldn't read its expression. The dragon's face was too odd and scaly for that.
"Don't worry," the dragon said. "I've spoken to her already."
And then it flew off.
When Merlin made it back home, his mother was calmly packing a travel bag.
"I know it's scary," she said before he could open his mouth. "I'll miss you terribly. But this isn't the life you're meant for. I want better for you. Uncle Gaius will look out for you, you'll be fine. You'll love Camelot."
She used to live there with her parents; that was where he was supposed to have been born. His grandfather used to dye wool for embroidery in all kinds of amazing colours. Grandma used to make embroideries when she was younger and later was a seamstress. There was so much cheap wool and linen spun and woven by the magical looms that everyone had a lot of clothes back then, ridiculous amounts like a different shirt for each day of the week.
When the machines had stopped, there had been no more wool. Nobody wanted new clothes, let alone colourful embroidered ones. Soon there wasn't enough food coming to the city. They moved to the country then, to live off the land where they could at least eat what they grew.
He sat on a creaky bench by their table and watched his mother’s callused hands work, wrapping and folding. She was packing him an awful lot of food for his three day journey. On a bad year they could make that much last them both for over a week. But this had been a good year, so she could afford this extravagance.
"What about you?" he asked. " Is this the life you're meant for? Is anyone meant for this?"
She smiled, tied the bedroll to the pack and tightened the straps.
"Well," she said, drawing him in for a hug. "Go and see if you can do something about that."
The plan was to move in with Uncle Gaius and apprentice in the alchemical laboratory. The apprenticeship, of course, was going to be just a cover for his true purpose in Camelot - protecting and guiding the crown prince. Arthur was going to change the world for the better and give the miracles of the machines back to the people. Merlin was going to watch him from the shadows, anticipating and intercepting all threats. The prince would feel the unseen benevolent presence at his side and would wonder who his guardian angel was. He'd never know it was the man he passed in the castle's corridors every day – he'd never even know Merlin's name. The thought was bitter-sweet, but it had to be that way.
Getting noticed by the crown prince wasn't part of the plan. Getting dragged by the crown prince through half of the castle, manhandled into the throne room and presented to the king like a hunting trophy – that certainly wasn't part of the plan.
"Sire," said Arthur and yanked at Merlin's shoulder, forcing him to bow. "I believe this man has a gift."
"What?" Merlin yelped, flailing in his grip ineffectually. Arthur's fingers felt like they were cast from iron. "I don't!"
"Shut up. Father, you should have seen how fast he found his way around a machine – it's like he had an affinity with it."
King Uther the Second dismissed some important-looking man he'd been talking to and turned to them. His sharp grey eyes fixed on Merlin's face; his gaze was heavy and somehow terrifying, even though his face was set and still, not showing any outward menace. The fingers of his gloved right hand drummed a fast, complicated rhythm on the armrest of his throne.
"It... was a coincidence?" offered Merlin with a meek smile.
"I'm an engineer. I don't believe in coincidences," said Arthur. "And really, stop talking. Father, he would be of great use to me. With your permission, I'd like to keep him."
"Hey! What am I, a puppy?"
"You are my subject," said the king. "And you will show proper respect."
He raised his hand, about to signal the guards. Arthur grabbed Merlin's shoulders and pushed him down till Merlin crashed to his knees, bumping his kneecaps painfully on the flagstones.
"He's sorry," said Arthur. "I'll work on his manners. Sire, please."
The king regarded them silently for a while. Only his hand was moving, tapping on the armrest faster and faster.
"Do you suggest we elevate this peasant to an Engineer?" he finally said. "You know very well that only the children of the noble families may be considered for that honour."
Arthur glanced down to meet Merlin's eyes. Merlin stared back at him and tried to project "My knees really hurt and your father is scaring the life out of me and it's all your fault" but whatever message Arthur had gotten instead seemed to please him.
"He'll be happy enough to assist me," he said. "No title is necessary, and I shall pay his keep from my household funds."
"That's not the issue," said the king. The tapping got louder, turning into a slurred drum roll. His fingers were moving so fast they were blurring in Merlin's eyes. Suddenly he stopped and gripped the armrest of his throne. His fingers flexed a few times, tightening the hold, as if the piece of wood was the neck of a peasant he'd love to wring. "The noble families are united in a sacred bond of trust. This boy is a nobody, and you know nothing of him. You can't allow him near your work. He could be a spy for the magicians."
"Father, please! Just look at him! He doesn't have the wits to be a spy – he's an idiot!"
"Yet you say he's gifted, a savant mechanic. Which is it?"
"Both," said Arthur confidently. "He's an idiot savant."
That made the king chuckle, and relax his fingers against the armrest. Then, to Merlin's quiet horror, the king started to scratch at the wood, making long gouges in his throne. Everyone was pretending not to notice, even as sawdust trickled on the floor.
"We can't trust him," said the king, stilling his fingers once again.
"He saved my life," said Arthur softly. The king's eyes darted to Arthur's hand. The whole back of it was now blue with bruising, a bloody imprint of the lever livid below his wrist.
"He's owed a reward befitting his rank. You may take him as your manservant," said the king. "He's your responsibility."
After the magicians had left and the machines stopped, the first year or two in Albion were like a slow and painful end of the world. Camelot, of course, had gained the most from the machines, so much so that it had seemed the city wouldn't survive without them.
The first, and the worst, loss for Camelot was the water. A well with a hand pump that once supplied the whole city had been dry for centuries, drained by the ever increasing population. The magicians had been drawing water from deep inside the earth ever since. Without magic the city had no inner water supply.
The king had arranged for water to be constantly brought up the castle hill on all available horses. The distribution had to be overseen by armed guards till the panic quieted down. And even before the order was fully restored, the city had been crawling with diseases. The waste of thousands of its denizens was starting to pile up on the streets, no longer magically collected and destroyed. There was no other way to efficiently dispose of the filth - none had been necessary since the city was one-tenth its current size. An epidemic killed many and drove more away to the cleaner countryside, where water was plentiful. The people abandoned their houses, their possessions, their whole livelihoods.
The destruction of the trades that used to thrive in Camelot was less terrifying than imminent death from thirst or plague, yet it was ruining people's lives just the same. It turned out that everyone depended on the machines for something – to process the raw materials, to make their wares or sell them. The prices for food were rising, and most craftsmen - Camelot's craftsmen, once famous across the known world for their skill - could no longer earn enough to feed their families.
The first harvest after the magical ploughs had stopped was a tenth of the previous one. If grain hadn't been stockpiled so generously in the previous years, or if the king hadn't rationed and supplied it across the kingdom, that would have been the last winter for most of Albion's people.
Slowly, slowly the ancient skills had been relearned. Former mechanics and blacksmiths now tilled earth. Painters, seamstresses and scribes cleaned up the filth, chopped wood and washed clothes. There were still people who had been taught by their grandparents how to spin yarn and weave fabrics using the simplest tools, and there were still recipes around for tanning leather by hand. Once Camelot wasn't facing immediate starvation, all of that was remembered. But the struggling, decimated nation that emerged from chaos and desperation was only a faint shadow of the Albion that had been.
In those years, an invasion would've barely been met with resistance. Perhaps an attack from across the sea hadn't been launched only because Albion didn't seem worth taking.
Two years later, when Arthur was six and Merlin was three, King Uther the Second had perfected the steam engine and created the order of elite mechanics: the Knights of the Engine, the Engineers. That was the day when the people of Albion regained hope.
"I thought the king had invented the engine," Merlin said, turning a page.
On the very first day of his service Arthur had assigned him an enormous pile of books to read. Now Merlin spent all his waking hours either catering to the prince's every whim or with his nose in a musty volume.
The books were precious, the greatest treasures of the crown and were worth many times their weight in gold. Only children of the noblemen were allowed full, unsupervised access to them. That, apparently, was the official reason why Merlin had to read them in Arthur's presence and not in the relative comfort of his own room. The real reason, of course, was that Arthur wanted him around at all times to gloat, mock, order him about and generally make his life a living hell.
The first and oldest book on the list, bound in cracked leather and written long before the time of the magicians, was supposed to be the foundation of modern engineering. It didn't even mention engines in any way Merlin could discern - whoever wrote that book seemed to be utterly obsessed with levers and just wouldn't shut up about them.
Now and then a boy of about ten, dressed in fine, clean clothes, would approach Merlin and politely ask if he was done with the book. At first Merlin thought the boys were squires of the aspiring engineers who needed the text to begin their studies. All too soon he'd learned that the boys themselves were the aspiring engineers, already well into their training. They'd began studying as they learned to read and would study all their lives. Only the very best of them would be honoured with a title and admitted into Camelot's innermost workshops.
"Still reading," answered Merlin testily. He honestly tried to follow what the book was saying, but it was like getting a five hundred page manual on how to breathe. Reading it only made the simplest things seem complicated and laboured. He already knew how magic worked; he knew what it needed to work. He didn't need it all explained in such confusing detail.
"Why didn't you read it when you were a boy?" had asked one of the tiny snot-nosed nobles. "Are you slow?"
"Yes," said Merlin. "Because when I was your age I got hit on the head with a very heavy book."
He lifted the volume, attempting to look menacing. The boy rolled his eyes and scampered off.
It wasn't entirely horrible. Merlin had his own room for the first time in his life: a servant's quarters with a locking door and even a window. In the morning he'd be woken up by the busy buzz outside, footsteps of many servants rushing to complete their morning tasks. He lingered in bed, blinking away sleep and relishing the sensations. It was a real bed, high and soft; the unfamiliar luxury of the mattress had been a revelation. He was used to waking up stiff and sore, getting up not because he was rested enough but because the ground under his blankets was too hard and too cold. Waking up in his new bed he felt light and strong, like he could bounce right off the mattress and fly around the room, run for miles and never get tired.
He stayed under the blankets till he heard the hiss of steam outside, signalling that the engines were starting up and the workshops being prepared. Then he threw on his clothes, splashed some water on his face and ran downstairs to the kitchen to fetch Arthur's breakfast.
Arthur wasn't a morning person. Merlin had been warned about that by the kitchen staff, and that was the first time he'd ever heard of morning people. It was a thoroughly city concept: In Ealdor you got up with the sun and went to bed when it got dark. Any sleep lost during the busy summer months would be more than made up for in the winter. When the snow fell over the villages, whole families often stayed in beds for days on end, trying to doze through the cold, the hunger and the cramped, soul-crushing boredom.
Arthur always insisted on staying up well past midnight, so in the morning he was a picture of misery, grunting and groaning like a wounded bear as he climbed out of bed. He eyed his breakfast groggily, with suspicion, taking slow bites. Merlin let him get on with it, picked up a book again and settled down at the end of the table to continue reading.
Arthur had told him to ask questions if there was something in the books he couldn't understand. Normally he'd answer readily, after a short diatribe about the stupidity and ignorance of certain unwashed peasants. Merlin didn't even take offence at that anymore. But in the mornings Arthur would only yawn and make unhappy sounds till Merlin repeated the question enough times to penetrate the sleepy fog in the princely head.
"I thought the king invented the steam engine," Merlin said again. "Here it says he'd perfected it."
"Of course he didn't invent it, you tit," said Arthur around the mouthful of ham. "They'd been around for ages. We have a steam-powered toy ship that belonged to my grandfather – it was a gift from the Eastern lands. What Father did was a lot better. He figured out how to make the engines powerful enough to run the old machines. Well, it was him and Sir Gorlois. The engine that drives the pump at the main well was the first one they'd built. It's fifteen years old now. It doesn't even have a separate condenser, but it's still going."
"That's amazing, really," Merlin said, remembering the king's still face and his eyes, cold and grey as metal. "That it was the king himself who built the engines and saved the city. Bit like a fairytale."
"He had to," said Arthur, wide awake now, wolfing down the rest of his breakfast. "That's what the king does. Before the time of the magicians people lived and died by the sword, so the king had to be the best warrior in the kingdom. Then, in the times of peace, he had to be the best diplomat and merchant to make sure the kingdom prospered. Now he has to be the best engineer. It's our duty."
He abruptly pushed the plate away, like he did every morning, with about the third of the meal still untouched.
"I'm done. You can finish this."
On their first day together Merlin had pointed out that he'd already been fed in the kitchens, but grouchy morning Arthur wouldn't be argued with.
"Eat," he'd said. "That's an order. You're too skinny. It reflects poorly on me if my manservant looks like that."
"Oh, yeah. It reflects great on Camelot that everyone at the court should be three times as fat as an average peasant," Merlin had said snidely, without thinking. The following silence was ominous; it was only then that he'd realised that saying something like that was probably treason or something.
"What did you say?" asked Arthur in dramatic, outraged half-whisper. "Did you just call me fat?"
"No," said Merlin quickly and stuffed his face with leftovers before he could blurt out something worse.
Arthur got up, stepped back from the table and casually shrugged off his nightclothes, letting them fall on the floor. He stood there, stark naked, and glared.
"You're not fat," said Merlin again, not sure where to point his eyes. Arthur wasn't fat. All that bulk was lean, hard muscle rippling over his arms and torso, and Merlin didn't quite dare to look lower. This was very odd; as vain as Arthur was, Merlin hadn't expected him to strip bare just to prove to him that he wasn't physically imperfect.
Arthur hadn't moved. He just stood there with his hands on his hips, clearly expecting something more. Perhaps, Merlin thought in a moment of befuddled near-panic, he waited for more compliments. He chewed the food nervously, feeling his face heat up the more he stared at Arthur's broad chest.
"You're supposed to get me dressed," said Arthur finally. Merlin breathed through his nose in relief, swallowed the last piece of bread and went to rummage through the prince's wardrobe.
He was still waiting for that part to become easy and familiar, but it never did. It was actually getting worse. The first time he had the distraction of too many unfamiliar garments, fiddly fastenings, and the worry of accidentally ripping a shirt that probably cost more than his mother's house. Nowadays his mind and eyes wandered too much. Arthur's bed hair was a luscious golden mess; Merlin tried not to think what it would be like to run his fingers through it, to bury his face in it and just breathe in his warm scent. He had to stand so close while he laced up Arthur's shirt and straightened his collars. He'd only have to rock forward on his toes. Morning sunlight glided over the fine grain of Arthur's skin and caught on his blond eyelashes in the cruellest way. Merlin tried to breathe steadily, but that only served to make him dizzy.
Arthur kept silent through the whole dressing ritual. He moved his arms to help Merlin thread them into the sleeves and lifted his feet when Merlin knelt down to pull on his boots, but otherwise kept staring fixedly at the far wall. At least he fastened his trousers himself. Merlin wasn't sure he'd keep the proper servant-like composure if he was tasked with that. After all, Arthur was just out of bed, and his cock was still half-filled, hanging heavily between his legs and swelling more with every brush of the cloth against it. Not that Merlin looked - it was just there. Arthur's boots were tough to get on; Merlin spent quite a bit of each morning on his knees, unhurriedly working stiff leather over Arthur's solid calves and sneaking short glances upwards.
After breakfast Arthur headed straight to the workshops and stayed there for most of the day. Merlin sat by Arthur's workbench and read, and watched him work.
The inner workshop of Camelot was a vast room with great glass windows. Huge smooth panes of clear glass must have been conjured by magic a long time ago; daylight streamed through them freely, allowing the engineers to perform the finest work. Whenever it was overcast, dozens of lamps were lit, and they would burn through the day. Merlin tried not to think how much it all cost or that the oil they wasted so carelessly was bought with tax money that villages like Ealdor struggled to scrape up every year. If they succeeded here, if they could make the machines work again, everything would change.
Every engineer had his own workbench, all of them lined up along two opposite walls. Some were fastidiously tidy, Arthur's included. Some were a cheerful mess of tools, parts, sheets of paper; their owners claimed that orderly workspace stifled their creativity.
In the middle of the room there was another workbench, big and round. The engineers gathered there to work on a project together. The device or the drawings would be placed in the centre so everyone could have easy access and a good view. They'd spend hours like that every day, talking and arguing, moving around the table. Sometimes, when the project was especially puzzling, they'd stand there silently for the longest time, lost in thought and staring intently at their work. Lately though Arthur would snap out of that reverie after a few minutes and call Merlin over.
"What do you think?" he'd say, gesturing at the thing on the table.
Merlin carefully folded the book and approached them. The circle of engineers would part for him; he kept expecting someone to take offence, to say that he didn't belong there with them.
"There's nothing making this bit go that way," he'd say, pointing.
They'd all bend closer to look and make the same "ahh" noise under their breaths.
"There are meant to be runes here," he explained, placing his palm where the runed parts of casing would be. Once he sensed how the magic was meant to flow through the machine, the details were easy to figure out. "They'd make the magic move this bar and push at that wheel here."
"We need to rig something - a plug tree," one of the engineers would say, and the room would explode in a din of voices, bouncing suggestions around.
Arthur let everyone have their say. The round workbench had been his idea, designed just for that: to make sure every voice was heard and every idea judged on its merit.
"I would've figured that out myself, eventually," he once whispered to Merlin while the men talked. "But it's not about me, it's about getting the job done. Good work, Merlin."
The praise was rare, but every time it filled him with silly, childish joy, and he couldn't stop grinning afterwards.
The innards of the plough they'd taken apart had been brought into the workshop and laid out on the floor in the middle. The engineers were slowly putting them back together again, fitting piece to piece as they puzzled out the function of each part. Merlin was tasked with restoring the bits that had been cut up when they'd pulled Arthur free. He aligned the metal shreds as well as he could and made some awkward, messy drawings of the joints as they were meant to be. Gawain was now busy plotting Merlin's vision in clean lines and to scale on his large easel.
"Sorry about the, uh. I'm not very good at this," Merlin told him.
"Don't talk rubbish, you're bloody brilliant," Gawain muttered, carefully tracing ink over his flawless charcoal sketch. "Only Morgause has that kind of feel for the old machines, but you're even better than her."
Morgause was the only woman among Arthur's engineers. There were no rules either way, but the noblemen were reluctant to send their daughters into training, preferring to advantageously marry them off as soon as possible. Morgause was an orphan, so she did as she pleased.
She wore the same clothes as everyone else - plain tight trousers, white shirt and heavy boots, and had her blond hair swept back in a high knot. She had her own go
ggles and a leather apron, like every engineer, but hardly ever put them on - she rarely worked with metal. She spent most of the day at her workbench, furiously writing something on long scrolls of paper. When Merlin peeked into one of them he saw only numbers with an odd scattering of letters he didn't recognise. She gave him a haughty, dark look, and he edged back to be at Arthur's side where he felt safer.
"What's she doing?" he asked Arthur.
"She's calculating if our devices are sound before we test them. Bit of a speciality of hers. She's got an amazing way with numbers."
"Isn't it simpler to just give it a go and see if things work?"
"Not always a good idea," said Arthur curtly. He had a small crescent-shaped burn mark on his cheek. When he pulled his goggles over his eyes, the leather rim fit perfectly against the inner edge of that scar. Merlin imagined what must have happened: a cylinder bursting at a seam, hot steam rushing out. If not for the goggles, Arthur could've been blinded.
"She's also working on a device of her own design," Arthur said and tossed another pair of goggles at Merlin. "Put these on and help me with the grinder. She's going to make some sort of mechanical abacus. She says it will change the world."
"Hell if I know. Ask her, if you like."
"No thanks. I'm even more scared of her than you are."
Merlin spun the handle of the metal grinder and watched as Arthur pressed pieces of metal to the wheel to work a tenth of an inch off the edge. He'd push his goggles up to examine the result, and that'd muss his hair all over again. It stood up in even greater disarray than in the morning, shining in the bright light of the workshop. He'd tighten his lips and frown a little, and then his eyes might light up if he was pleased with his work. Merlin tried not to stare, but just couldn't stop.
There was a small smithy inside the castle courtyard, run by a very sweet girl called Gwen and a few of her apprentices. They worked for the engineers, making nothing but tools and machine parts to their precise designs. Arthur went there often with drawings and samples. Merlin sat in the corner furthest from the furnace to keep the books safe from stray sparks and watched him and Gwen commune over their work. As they bent together over their latest project, discussing various types of steel and metalworking techniques, their faces would be very close, Arthur's golden hair almost brushing against her dark, wavy locks. Merlin thought they'd make a beautiful couple.
Back in Ealdor, Merlin always had been something of a matchmaker. Whenever he sensed a bit of a spark in the air, a tingle of a mutual attraction, he'd jump at the chance to help. He'd tease and needle the both parties, coaxing out confessions. He'd encourage shy lovers, set up chance meetings, or pass along messages. He loved the vicarious thrill of an unfolding romance, but the real joy was in seeing people glow with happiness when things worked out. It was a bit like magic, how two lives could intertwine, change so much and become so bright, so much more than one and one.
In this case, however, he didn't feel any inclination to meddle. Arthur was already very happily betrothed to his work and didn't seem interested in anything else. Besides, Merlin was pretty sure Gwen had something going on with one of her apprentices. The looks that man gave her could melt iron without the need for the furnace, and he was impossibly gorgeous, maybe even prettier than Arthur.
Arthur, however, was Arthur. Merlin wasn't even ashamed of his crush anymore. Everyone in Camelot was a little bit in love with their prince; it was easier to give in to that exasperated sort of admiration than to fight it. For all his annoying, rude stubbornness and his many other aggravating traits, Arthur just had a way of growing on you against your better judgement.
They all worked through the day and ate a simple lunch together at their round workbench. In the afternoon all of the engineers, rather reluctantly, went for a horse ride around the foot of the castle hill - for their health, as Arthur maintained. Merlin, too, got dragged along once. He'd never ridden before; a torturous hour of that healthful exercise nearly finished him off. He was excused till the bruises on his tenderest parts healed up, and he spent the free time napping in the empty workshop, visiting uncle Gaius in his laboratory, or chatting with Gwen and her men.
The engineers returned, flushed and windswept, and rushed to their workbenches with renewed vigour, like travellers rushing to embrace their families after months' absence. The next few hours would be spent in a state of a slight frenzy, everyone racing against time to finish whatever they'd been working on. When the tower bell rung, signalling one hour to dinner, they'd put down their tools and straighten up with slightly lost expressions, as if awoken from a dream.
They'd leave for their quarters, suddenly looking tired and subdued, shaking out their arms and rubbing at their shoulders. Back in Arthur's rooms Merlin filled his bath, immensely grateful for the water pipes that ran through the castle - he really didn't fancy dragging full buckets all the way up here from the well. Then, armed with a cloth and soap, he steeled himself for the hardest task of the day.
It was a lot worse than dressing Arthur. Thankfully, Merlin was only required to scrub his back and wash his hair. To distract himself from the picture wet, relaxed Arthur made as he reclined in that tub, Merlin catalogued scars on Arthur's skin, asking for stories about each of them.
Arthur's hands were a web-work of old cuts, and he couldn't even remember how he got most of those. The whole underside of his left arm was covered in white knots of a healed burn from the same accident that scarred his face. A long, jagged scar on his side was from when a heavy spring snapped free and nearly skewered him, but luckily only grazed his ribs. The one on his shoulder was still dark, not a year old yet. He got that when he fell from the arch-head of the newest, tallest engine in Camelot; he'd broken a bone then, badly, and still took medicine for that. There were several thin faded lines on his back that could be lash marks. Merlin didn't ask about those.
Arthur's hand was still mottled with yellow bruises. The court physician said that no bones had been fractured, but it still swelled up some after a long day of work. Arthur's fingers were yet to regain full strength and agility; it frustrated him to no end, and he grumbled at Merlin just to grumble at someone. Their half-hearted bickering helped Merlin get through the ordeal of getting Arthur dressed in soft, richly coloured clothes for the dinner with the king and his court.
Merlin had been deemed too clumsy to serve Arthur at the royal table, and he was endlessly happy about that. It wasn’t just because he could instead hang about in Arthur's chambers for an hour or so under the pretence of doing his chores. King Uther was damn terrifying, and besides, spending time with his father almost always seemed to put Arthur in a dark mood. When he'd return he'd angrily toss his finery on the floor and change into his night clothes, all by himself.
"I've turned up your bed, shined your boots, polished your goggles, cleaned your apron, washed your socks, oiled your tools, and I'm half way through the chapter on bent syphon," Merlin would say to cheer him up. Arthur loved ordering him about, but even more he liked hearing that his orders were carried out to the letter.
Arthur would pace the room for a few moments and then dismiss him as an afterthought.
"You may go," he'd say. "I shall turn in soon, I won't need you tonight."
Merlin expected that the crown prince of Camelot would unwind before bed with a drink of fine wine from southern kingdoms, maybe read a bawdy book or send for a bedmate. But it didn't at all come as a surprise when Arthur lit two oil lamps on his table and settled down to tinker with some fine, delicate clockwork.
"I might as well read while you're wasting oil," Merlin would say, and they'd stay like that, barely talking, with only the rustle of pages and soft clacks of metal filling the silence. He'd have banked the fire, but the room would be still warm; he watched over the top of his book as Arthur's face relaxed and lit up with the quiet excitement of making things tick just the way he wanted.
Merlin couldn't see the purpose of that device, no matter how long he contemplated it. It had never been touched by magic, and was never meant to be. To him it was just a mess of interlocking parts with nothing to bring them together and give the machine a living shape in his mind.
"What is this thing?" he asked one day.
"It's for my father," Arthur answered. "I'm improving on the one he has already."
"I wanted to ask," Merlin said, mimicking Uther's famous jerky finger-drumming. "What's with his right hand? With all respect to His Majesty and all, it's amazingly creepy. I wanted to ask in the kitchens, but I don't like to gossip."
"He doesn't have a right hand."
It took Merlin a moment to puzzle it out, and then he looked at the thing on the table and saw it, clear as if he'd designed it himself: metal tendons, springs and pistons, and five clumps of gears and bearings at the ends where the fingers would be.
"He lost it in an engine explosion, the same one that killed Gorlois. Not many even know about it. He keeps up appearances. The one he has now does random things sometimes. It's heavy and it always hurts him and it can't do much – this one is going to be great, though. He wants me to fix the ploughs first, so I just tinker with in my spare time. I'm only telling you this so you don't go around asking stupid questions. If you repeat to anyone anything I just said I'll use your skin to make new bellows for Gwen."
"Okay," Merlin shrugged indifferently as he did to every threat from Arthur. He never went through with it, starting from the first time he'd threatened Merlin with stocks. "So is his hand steam-powered?"
"Don't be daft, Merlin. How could it be? It's powered by springs. His manservant winds it up every morning."
Merlin would stop reading around midnight when he became too tired to take anything in, but he stayed in his chair till Arthur either went to bed or dozed off with his head on the table, still clutching at tweezers or a screwturner. Merlin would then get up and gently shake him half-awake, just enough so he would cooperate with being pulled up and walked over to bed. When Merlin tucked the blankets over him Arthur would wake up a bit more and look up at him oddly with unfocused dark eyes.
"Good night, sire," Merlin would say, just to break the quietness of the moment. He'd return to his cold room, navigate through the darkness by touch, slide under the blankets and grin to himself, for no reason he could explain, till he fell asleep.
Engineering, just like any other craft, was something that could be mastered by anyone, given enough time and determination. Arthur had plenty of both. What he didn't have – and he knew that from a very early age with grim certainty – was natural talent.
It didn't really change anything. He was clever and stubborn enough to eventually grasp every concept and solve every problem. If he had to work harder at it than some of the others, if genius ideas didn't come to him in his sleep, then that was just how it had to be.
It was, in a way, an advantage. He was used to getting lost, feeling slow, dumb and hopeless, and he knew how to push through that and not let it take hold on his soul. When something seemed impossible, he never wavered the way gifted people did when they couldn't crack a puzzle without breaking their stride. He never gave up. He stepped back, took a problem apart, went back to the very basics and rebuilt it again bit by bit till everything fell into place. His designs weren't ground-breaking, but they were always solid, true and perfect in every detail.
Still, he resented it sometimes. When he'd first realised he'd never be as good as Morgana he cried into his pillow at night, ashamed of that weakness as much as he was ashamed of losing to her. He was eight at the time, but that was hardly an excuse.
Around the time he despaired of ever catching up to her, she started on alchemy and was just as good at that. He hated her then, because everything came so easily to her and because she got to choose. He couldn't choose - his path was set. Albion needed machines and engines, and he had to be the best among the engineers so one day he could lead them.
Then there was the engine that failed. His father lived, even if he was never whole again. Morgana's father died screaming, torn to a bleeding mess.
At the wake, the nobles were saying that Gorlois was a hero, that his death wasn't meaningless, that it was worth it, that he sacrificed himself to further the development of engineering for the future, for Albion. But Arthur couldn't see how that could be. Gorlois was brilliant; had he lived, he would have invented countless things. Now he wouldn't, and all of his future was lost. It wasn't worth it. Nothing could be worth a whole live.
That's when he knew that it didn't matter if he wasn't brilliant or if he wasn't the best. As long as he lived, studied and worked, he'd get a lot of things done. He'd find the brilliant people, gather them from all over the land, and make sure they could study and work. He'd make sure they lived.
By the time he'd been crowned as prince, he was considered the most accomplished engineer of them all, and it was true. He'd earned that by working the hardest. He lived and breathed machines, he dreamt of schematics and problems and he'd gathered an amazing team. Each of them was better than him at something, but they all recognised and respected his skill and they followed him. Some wonderfully smart people weren't nobles; it almost broke his heart to deny Lancelot a place among the engineers, but Gwen took him in as an apprentice and it all worked out.
Still, he had his dark moments, doubts and fears. When his father ordered him to begin restoring the ploughs, he nearly told him that the task was almost certainly beyond their ability and beyond the current level of engineering science. But the whole point of their work was to further the science and push themselves ever harder, so he bowed and went to work.
He didn't truly believe they'd succeed till a skinny peasant boy yanked his arm and angrily told him, getting right up in his face, that they would. They were the cleverest in the land, of course they would.
Just then, looking into Merlin's wide, innocent eyes, Arthur found himself wanting that kind of blind, unwavering faith at his side, that strength to lean on when his own faith in himself faltered. But it was the worst kind of weakness, and Merlin was a nobody, just a pretty, slight slip of a thing who was all brash talk and no sense of propriety. There was no excuse and no reason to bring him into Arthur's life and keep him there - but then, it turned out, there was.
Arthur knew his strengths very well and his weaknesses even better, and Merlin - Merlin was everything he wasn't. Arthur could wrap his mind around anything, given enough time and information. Merlin's mind was just there, a mysterious thicket in the centre of all things, and the world somehow wrapped itself around it. Arthur had the inkling from the start, but very soon he clearly saw it: when put together, their minds and abilities made one perfect whole, lacking nothing. They completed each other, like two poles of the same magnet or two sides of the same coin.
Merlin had the kind of intuition that allowed him to happily skip through all the logical reasoning and land at the right answer. Merlin had the feel for the machines, for their state and their potential, and even though he'd had no learning above basic literacy, he could absorb knowledge at a pace and in quantities that seemed completely unrestricted. He didn't need to visualise or process anything; he just took it all in. When Arthur had been working his way through Pneumatica as a boy, he'd built most of the described apparatuses to make sure he fully understood the principles of their function and then perfected each till they worked just right. Merlin leafed through the book in a few days, nodding thoughtfully as if it all made sense to him at the first reading, as if he knew all that already.
He could easily see the problems with the old machines, the causes and natures of any malfunctions or shortcomings. He couldn't come up with solutions. When asked how he'd fix this or that, he'd make a pained face, twitch his fingers and fist them tightly, then shake his head in resignation.
"If you have something to say, say it," Arthur would say encouragingly, kicking him in the shin for extra motivation.
"No, it's stupid. It won't work," Merlin would answer, looking incredibly shifty, and his lovely big ears would turn a soft shade of pink. "I mean, I don't know."
He was getting better, bolder as he read more and spent more time in the workshop, but there was always some hesitation, something held back.
He might have a reason for that. Arthur wasn't stupid. He knew there could be something else there, maybe suspected more than Merlin knew about himself. He knew why they both had to be careful, to never push or go too far. Still, one day they almost did.
The great cart had crashed mid-ascent and rolled back to the foot of the hill, spurting steam and fire. The machinist jumped out and survived with a few burns and broken bones. Though many were injured, there was only one death from when the cart smashed into a house on the side of the hill. It could have been so much worse.
They'd investigated before letting mechanics begin repairs and found the cause to be not an engine failure, as was always the first suggestion with the machines. Instead, the main axle had snapped, as if it wasn't the sturdiest steel; the edge of the break was darkened with small, tarnished cracks, and the break itself was clean, gleaming, and inexplicably sudden.
They couldn't see why it happened. They all stared at it silently; Morgause was covering page after page in her book with calculations, but she wasn't offering anything yet.
"It was just tired," Merlin said, running his slender fingers over the cracks.
"Spare us your idiocy. Metal doesn't get tired," Arthur snapped at him.
"No, metal doesn't get rested," corrected him Merlin with quiet certainty. "But it does get tired."
They'd all just began to ridicule him, mostly to vent their frustration, when Morgause announced that he might be right. From now on a different set of tests might be needed, and she would design them.
Arthur gave her his blessing, already cringing inwardly at the thought of what his father's reaction would be. This would make all construction and research more expensive, a lot more time-consuming. But it would be worth it, he knew. If future disaster could be prevented, it would be worth any expense.
Later in his room, after a torturous argument over dinner when he was too rattled even to work and Merlin only pretended to read, constantly throwing worried glanced at him, Arthur dared to ask:
"Your gift - what's that like for you?"
"I don't know. I guess it's like when you see something but you know you shouldn't touch... no. It's nothing like that," Merlin shook his head and put the book down. "It's like.... you know, when you're little and you're alone in the dark and you're convinced that bad things are coming to get you and you close your eyes because if you can't see them maybe they can't see you? Do you remember that?"
"No, Merlin, that definitely only ever happened to you. That's some new, previously undiscovered level of being a wimp," said Arthur sternly, because naturally he still remembered.
"Well, anyway. If you stayed like that for hours, with your eyes closed, just listening, you'd start hearing the slightest sounds. Mice in the walls, birds outside, water sloshing in the well in the square. If you stayed like that long enough, till you feel like you're not even there, like there is this black empty space where you're supposed to be, then eventually you'd hear everything. You'd hear the air moving, and you'd hear the table just standing there, the walls sagging with age bit by bit, grass growing in the street. Everything. And you know if you'd opened your eyes you'd not just see it all. You'd feel it all in your skin. You'd know everything about it."
His eyes flickered oddly, and Arthur felt shivers run down his back.
"But then the bad things might get you," he said. It was meant to be in mockery, but it didn't quite come out right.
Merlin smiled sadly and fingered the small cross-section drawing of the plough he had folded in his book so he could make notes. Arthur liked watching him write. He'd have a little crease between his eyebrows when he concentrated, his lips would be parted, and the tip of his tongue would sometimes stick out just a tiny bit between his teeth. Arthur encouraged him taking notes.
"You know what the problem with it is, don't you?" Merlin asked.
"Of course I do."
"It's too complex. There is too much magic in the design and not enough mechanics for us to work with."
"Merlin, I know. Bloody listen when I talk to you! What's the point of even saying it apart from whining uselessly?"
He'd already been considering abandoning the whole project and designing something simple from scratch, just something that could pull a simple rake plough better than a horse and a separate device that could reap the harvest. Mobility was the greatest issue - only something as huge as the great cart could house an engine, but he'd been toying with an idea of having a stationary engine with perhaps a system of belts and pulleys...
"What if we had a magician to help with it?" Merlin asked bluntly, staring him right in the eye.
"We don't. The magicians went mad with power and now they're gone. Do try to keep up, it was seventeen years ago."
"But if we had one who wasn't mad? One that could be trusted?"
"If we had a magician in Albion, or, heaven forbid, in Camelot, he'd be taken to the forest of Arador and put in the sacred grove to be claimed by his kind. That's how it works."
Merlin sighed and nodded and hunched in his chair, thin and miserable as a sick bird.
"Do they actually get claimed?" he asked. "Or is it just..."
"Actually, most do. We think there is a portal there to the magicians' place of exile. They open it for some, and they just disappear."
"No. The guards wait for three days, but sometimes nothing happens. And then - well."
Arthur had never been to the forest or the grove, but he'd heard of the small cemetery at the edge of it, a scattering of unmarked stones. Merlin might have too, because he nodded again and blindly stared into the book for a while.
"Anyway," he said eventually. "Even if we had a magician, one person can't power up many machines. Maybe two or three ploughs at once. Maybe not even that. I don't know, because - how would I?"
"If, in some crazy imaginary world - and I'll kill you if you repeat this to anyone - I had a magician I could trust, I wouldn't waste them on powering machinery," said Arthur, oddly and dangerously reckless. "We can build engines for that - we are. We're getting there. I'd have him work with me. We'd use that power to discover the secrets of the elements, to understand how everything works. How metal can get tired, how we could make ice like we make fire. How to build better engines."
Merlin's face, sweetly flushed, lit up with so much unabashed admiration, was a picture to behold. Arthur knew he'd be clinging to that image later, in the dark, with his eyes shut and his hand moving between his legs. That issue in itself was getting almost as distressing as all the talk about magic.
When Arthur had just begun to study the engines, he'd been amazed to learn that it wasn't the steam that drove the power stroke of the piston. It was the absence of steam, the sudden emptiness of a vacuum. That's where all the power was coming from: nature's abhorrence of a vacuum. The universal need for something to be there was forcing metal to slam home, making the wheels turn, driving their pumps, looms, mills, powering the whole country.
And it was just like that. It was as if there had been an empty space somewhere inside his chest for so very long and now this huge, ridiculous affection was forcing its way in. It hurt, and it was blind and merciless as any force of nature, like atmospheric pressure or gravity. Whenever Merlin smiled, Arthur could feel his lungs expand a little. It was gaining more momentum, and he didn't know how to stop it.
It was so bad that he resorted to bringing the matter up with the court physician.
"By the way," he said very nonchalantly as the man was rubbing salve into his shoulder where the bone he'd broken last year still ached too often. "I was given to understand that once a man comes of age, the, um, the urges. They become less - urgent."
"Yes, they generally do," said the man. His face was professionally sombre, but Arthur still felt a smirk hidden beneath. Granted, talking to Gaius about this all those years ago, when the urges had just started, had been immeasurably worse. Thankfully, Gaius hadn't been seeing patients for months. The work of a physician was getting too strenuous for his age, and he spent all his time in his laboratory now, researching cures that could replace the magical potions of old.
"However," the physician continued, "In no small part that is due to the fact that most men, by the time they come of age, tend to find a way to quell the urges before the need becomes distracting."
"Well, I - I do," Arthur said, trying not to twitch in humiliation.
"I'm not talking about solitary pursuits, Your Highness," said the man, perfectly politely. "I understand that your betrothal has been broken and no new plans for marriage are yet in place."
Arthur had been engaged to some southern princess since he was two and she was probably ten - he couldn't quite remember now. That fell through when Albion lost the magic and with it the machines that had been its lifeblood and the source of its unrivalled prosperity. Nothing else had been arranged since. Uther was unwilling to settle for a poorer bride, and he hoped to strike a better bargain once their kingdom had risen again.
"In my medical opinion, taking a consort would be most advantageous to your health, sire," the physician said. "Anyone would be most honoured to serve you in that way."
"I don't have the time," said Arthur brusquely.
"It doesn't take that long," and now the grin was out in the open, almost salacious. "Only minutes. Actually, I'm sure that new manservant of yours would be absolutely delighted-"
"That's enough," Arthur yanked his shirt back on and gave the man a regal stare. "You forget your place, physician."
Maybe Merlin would be - but Merlin wasn't there to serve his base needs. Merlin was important and necessary, and his position in Camelot, at Arthur's side and in his workshop, was already complicated and precarious enough. It wouldn't do to jeopardise it for frivolities.
He couldn't deny himself the indulgence of getting dressed and bathed by Merlin's hands but that was enough for him.
Merlin woke up in the middle of the night in the darkest, quietest hour, long before dawn. He sat in bed, shivering and trying to remember the unsettling dream that woke him up, when he heard the voice.
He'd heard it once before, and it couldn't be mistaken for anything else. It sounded right in his head, echoing unpleasantly between his ears, but at the same time it was coming from above.
He got dressed, slipped out of the room and quietly walked through the sleeping castle, past locked doors and dozing guards to the battlements near the sloped roof of the great hall.
He'd waited there, rubbing his shoulders to keep off the night chill, till he'd heard the sound of wings.
The dragon moved almost soundlessly for something that enormous. It made a small circle over the roof and gently touched down. A few tiles crumbled under its claws and slid down, trickling onto the battlements. The dragon angled its neck to see if the noise would rouse anyone, then it turned its face to Merlin.
"I might have made a mistake," it said.
"Yeah, I'm doing quite well, thanks, adjusting to the new life, and how have you been?" Merlin huffed.
"You're not ready for what's to come. You're not strong enough. Perhaps it would be best if you went back to your mother. It's too dangerous for you to be here."
"But I've only just started! I have a job, I've already sent Mum my first wages, and I'm really helping here! We're doing good work, and I'm looking after Arthur like you said. And you know what? I don't care if it's dangerous. This is supposed to be my destiny, and I'm not running away."
"It's not you who are in gravest danger."
The dragon shrugged its wings shiftily and ducked its head.
"Who?" Merlin demanded. "You have to tell me! I'll protect them - is it Arthur?"
"Arthur is never quite out of danger," the dragon's voice sounded almost affectionate now; there was something in the way he said Arthur's name. "Such is the nature of his destiny, and it will always be so."
"Is someone going to - but why? Who would want to hurt Arthur? Everybody loves him! All right, he's annoying. And rude. And arrogant, totally spoiled and really pig-headed - "
"Do you really see no reason why someone would have a grudge against the Pendragons?"
Merlin choked on words, suddenly realising the magnitude of the matter. Of course, thousands of people had reasons to hate the royals. The taxes were high and were collected mercilessly; whole villages became destitute and were moved to mining camps to work off their debts. There had always been a subdued rumour going around that it was the king's fault that the magicians had left, that he betrayed them and drove them away. There could be enemies from the foreign lands - Merlin couldn't begin to guess at the political intricacies there. There were the families of people who got dragged to the forest of Arador and never returned. There were also the exiled magicians...
But those were all the king's sins, the king's own enemies. Arthur wasn't responsible for those. Arthur was loved and respected by everyone, Merlin was sure of that.
"I gave you my warning," the dragon said. "It's your choice whether to heed it."
After it left, Merlin tried going back to bed, but sleep wouldn't come. The dragon's words were too distressing to ignore, and at the same time too vague to give him any useful hints. The idleness was making him shaky with worry. He needed to do something. He needed to see Arthur and make sure he was safe.
He ended up bringing Arthur his breakfast almost an hour early. He planned to tiptoe into the room and read in the corner, watching over Arthur as he slept. But Arthur, amazingly, was wide awake. He sat on the bed in his nightclothes, smiling brightly, and stared at something above the window.
"Look, Merlin," he said without turning his head. "The most annoying thing in the world is back."
The room suddenly filled with melodic chirping noises, like a bird's song but with a reverberating metallic note. The singing bird, a small falcon, was perched atop the curtain rail. Every feather on its sleek body gleamed brilliantly, as if it was cast out of silver.
The bird ducked its head gracefully and did a little dance, shuffling from one foot to another, still singing joyfully. It took off from its perch and flew around the room to land at Merlin's feet.
Now he could see that the bird really was made out of silver, or perhaps the finest polished steel. The craftsmanship was nothing like he'd ever seen, even after spending all that time around the best engineers and smiths in the land. The feathers were each fashioned separately in filigree details, yet they clung to the bird's body tightly, like real feathers, and no joints were visible under them. The bird's movements were mechanically sudden and jerky, but that was how the real birds moved, too. It kept twisting its neck and tilting its head in a convincing imitation of curiosity. It was lovingly made, perfect down to the little silver claws at the tips of its feet. The bird's eyes were bright blue sapphires and its beak was tipped in gold.
The falcon spread its wings, bringing its head low as if bowing, and let out another long string of chirps.
"It kept me up since before dawn," said Arthur. He threw a pillow at it, very half-heartedly. It didn't land anywhere close, but the bird flew up again and landed on top of a bed post. "Damn, it's so noisy. And how the hell does it fly? It shouldn't be able to fly. It must be far too heavy."
"Magic," said Merlin, staring at the bird in dreamy awe. It was a beautifully made thing, and it was full of magic. He could feel it even from afar - old magic, more powerful and wild than he even knew existed. But the magic was familiar somehow, in some strange, warm, comfortable way. And the bird itself -
"Oh," he laughed, amused like a child. "Oh, Arthur, it's a merlin falcon. Look at it! It's a merlin!"
"Oh, great, you've finally found your real family. I should have guessed, really, it's just as stupid and annoying as you and makes about as much sense. And I'm sure it's your fault it's back. I've not seen it in years."
"What is it? Who made it? It's amazing!"
"Who knows, it's been around longer than anyone can remember. It just flies around the place, gets into windows, makes a mess of everything. We keep hoping that the magic would run out and it would drop dead but no such luck so far."
"It must be so old," said Merlin, secretly reaching for the pulse of magic inside the falcon's body, almost moaning with pleasure as the power pushed back, curled alongside his. It was like touching your hand to your own skin and feeling it twice, in your fingers and under them, only this was a lot better.
"It is. Legend has it," Arthur said with a small soft smile. "That it belonged to the great King Arthur himself. It was a gift from his queen, and it has the magic of his court sorcerer in it. He was very powerful. Some say his magic will never run out."
He suddenly jumped up, scowling fiercely. He swatted at the bird, missing it widely again. Its chirps as it made slow circles over Arthur's head sounded like merry cackling.
"I'll get it one day," Arthur threatened. "I'd love to open it up and see how it works - this is a different kind of craftsmanship, this is the stuff that's been lost along the way. We could learn so much from it."
"I don't think it even has that much machinery in it," said Merlin cautiously.
"That's the point! The latest machines were built so even child sorcerers could power them. Very complex mechanics, very simple magic required to work them. There just weren't enough highly trained magicians to power all the machines. But this bird - this is one of the first machines ever, from the time the magicians had just began wrapping their magic around metal. If we study these changes in the design philosophy, we can understand the nature of magic, even if we can't experiment with it directly. We'll also know how to disentangle it from the complex devices, like the ploughs."
The bird suddenly landed on Merlin's shoulder and swayed there, struggling for balance as he winced in surprise. It was heavy; its claws prickled him through his jacket, but he didn't mind. He slowly, carefully lifted his hand and stroked the bird's shiny beak and the smallest feathers above it. It was silly - the bird was metal, it couldn't feel a caress. It couldn't feel anything, neither fear nor pleasure. But it seemed to like it: it clung to his shoulder, turning its head with the movement of his fingers, and chirped again, softly, cooing.
"It used to follow me around when I was a child," said Arthur. "It was such a nuisance. You'll never get rid of it now, by the way."
The bird stuck with Merlin for the rest of the day. It rode around on his shoulder, climbed atop his head to play with his hair, flew around exuberantly singing. It followed him to the workshop and was greeted by the engineers like a long absent friend. They tried to lure it closer, to pet it; the bird dodged them teasingly and hopped about the workbenches, playing with small springs and crumpling drawings with its claws.
Around lunch, it gave a sharp cry and soared high, toward the ceilings. They all crowded underneath to watch it scramble around the beams in distress and completely missed the king's arrival.
The king had not come to the workshop before, at least not in Merlin's memory. Everyone bowed; Merlin tried to copy them and nearly dropped his book. His notes went spilling from between the pages, rustling on the floor in the sudden silence.
The king dismissed everyone and beckoned Arthur closer.
"I see that the old problem has resurfaced," he said, eyeing the bird. It found a perch at the crossing of the beams and sat there very still, as if it was attempting to blend into the carvings. "And I see that the rumours were true. You are allowing your manservant into the workshop. You're even granting him the knowledge that should be reserved for those of noble blood."
"Yes, Father," Arthur said, straightening his back. "I'm sorry that I took the liberty, but we really need to talk about this."
"You call this liberty? I'd say it's dangerously close to treason."
"Sire," breathed Arthur, turning pale. "You know I have only the best interests of Albion at heart. Everything I do..."
"Explain to me how this serves Albion."
"If we're to restore everything, if we're to understand these machines, we need more engineers. The principles and the work involved grow progressively more complicated..."
"So you need more men?"
"A lot more, yes." Arthur exhaled in relief and hurried along: "I need people who can grasp the concepts that are so beyond anything we've..."
"And yet you turned away five candidates just this month."
"They were useless idiots!"
"Three of them were sons of the Lord of Northumbria. You've caused me a great deal of political embarrassment."
"It's not about politics," said Arthur with a grimace.
"Everything is about politics. Did you think that teaching engineering to a peasant was a harmless indulgence?"
"We need to consider it, at least! Father, you know that running machines on steam wouldn't be anything like going back to the time of magic. The mechanisms would have to be more complicated, and they'd be under a lot more stress. Just to service them we'll need an army of skilled mechanics. And we'll need so much coal, we'll have to mechanise mining, too. We can't keep sending more peasants to the mines."
"And why can't we, pray tell?"
"Because it's a waste! All those people spend their whole lives doing nothing but menial labour, leaving no mark on the world when they die. Yet any of them could have a gift for so much more! With proper learning, any of them could advance our science by decades, but we keep them tilling earth and digging coal like beasts of burden. We never give them a chance..."
"You'd educate the peasants and have them run the machines?"
"Well," Arthur stumbled, losing some of his steam. "Obviously, only the talented ones."
"And what would happen when enough of them learn? Will the day come when we can't run our machines without the help of the plebs?"
"Well, eventually, in the long run, that might..."
"Or will it get to the point where they can do it without us?"
All the engineers had quietly edged away as soon as conversation started. Merlin wanted to slink off as well, but he was boxed between workbenches and didn't want to walk past the king to make his escape. Arthur stood to attention before the king while being berated like a child; his face was burning red, and he was going to hate Merlin for having witnessed this.
"Camelot and the crown must be strong if we want Albion to survive," the king said. "We can't let the power slip from our grasp. That's exactly what happened with the magicians. Do you want to put our kingdom through another disaster like that when we're only starting to recover?"
"No, Sire," Arthur muttered, his eyes downcast.
The king's cloak was draped artfully over his right arm, but still Merlin was almost sure he could hear metallic clicking under that, the whisper of turning gears. When the king glanced at him Merlin tried to bow again but mistimed every single motion of his limbs so that it looked more like a drunken full-body swing and a nod. The king sighed.
"I understand why you had this lapse of judgement," he said. "The boy is a clumsy day-dreaming lunatic. It's hard to stay vigilant when faced with something so offensively harmless. I'll leave you to deal with him as you see fit," said the king, turning on his heel. The guards who followed him inside moved to positions to flank him as he exited. "I trust your decision won't disappoint me. And find the way to get rid of that thing. For all we know, it's cursed."
After he'd left Arthur stayed in the same spot, staring at the floor.
"Arthur," called Merlin uncertainly. "Arthur, what..."
"Get out of my sight," Arthur hissed.
Merlin went to the alchemical laboratory, and uncle Gaius immediately roped him into grinding something smelly in a mortar. Usually the room would be filled with Morgana's energy, the sheer light of her presence. She'd flit around the laboratory, checking on bubbling reagents in numerous test tubes and swearing colourfully, dangerous and dazzling, a dark tempest. Now she slowly drifted around the room without settling on anything, and she was sickly pale and quiet.
"She's not slept well," explained Gaius. "Nightmares. My dear child, why don't you try going back to bed?"
"No," she said. Her voice was weak, cracking; even her lips were pale. "I'd rather not be alone right now."
Merlin tried cheering her up, babbling any nonsense that came into his head. He asked her to tell him about the dreams so they could both laugh at how silly they'd seem in the light of day, but she only shook her head.
"They're only dreams. There's no need to upset you as well."
In the afternoon Morgause and Gwen came in with bunches of flowers and some sweet cakes, and that finally put a wan smile on her face. Morgause gave everyone a curtailed account of the king's visit to the workshop. Merlin had almost managed to put that out of his mind for a time, trying to stay chirpy for Morgana's sake. But now he couldn't help thinking of the king's words and the way Arthur's voice'd caught when he'd dismissed him. He curled up in a nearest chair, drew his knees to his chest and let himself revel in his misery.
"I was told I'd only bring Arthur trouble," he said. "I should have listened."
"Nonsense," Morgana said. "Whoever told you that is only weaving an intrigue of their own. I would appreciate it if you gave me their name. I'd like to look into the matter."
He shook his head, and she didn't push. Gwen stepped closer and gave him a soft, tentative pat on the shoulder. He smiled as cheerfully as he could. The silver bird had been quietly investigating the top shelves in the room for the most of the day, but now it glided down, landed on the back of the chair and gently pecked at Gwen's fingers.
"He likes you," Merlin said, grateful for her friendship and eager to please her in return. "He's got great taste for a mechanical bird. It's a merlin, by the way. Ha ha."
She cautiously stroked the bird's head and got a cheery short song in return.
"Hello, merlin," she said. "Not seen you in ages. How've you been? Merlin, you know you don't have to work with the engineers. We can use you in the smithy. Lancelot and William would be so glad to have you with us."
"That's a good idea," said Morgana. "Or you could work with us. Isn't that right, Gaius?"
"Of course. There's always a place for you here, my boy," Gaius nodded with a smile.
"It would be better," Morgana continued. "To tell you the truth, Merlin, I don't want you to work with machines."
"You don't want anyone to work with machines," Morgause laughed and ran her fingers through Morgana's dark hair.
"I do have a reason for that. It's not just a fancy, and you know it."
"I'm so glad that you don't touch those things anymore."
Merlin curled up tighter and dropped his chin on his knee, hating himself for being so ungrateful. It should have been enough to have such kind friends, but all he could feel was despair at the very thought of being away from Arthur.
"I need to be with Arthur," he said. "I mean, I'm supposed to be with Arthur. That's how it's supposed to be. And he only wants me around because I have a knack for the machines. Without it I'm just a clumsy day-dreaming lunatic."
"So what? All Arthur's engineers are day-dreaming lunatics," Morgause shrugged. "That's practically a requirement."
"And they're all terribly clumsy, bless them," laughed Gwen.
"It's true," Morgana nodded. "You should see them attempt courtship. It's tragic, really."
"But I can't be one of them," Merlin reminded them. "I can't even be there."
There was an odd pause. Gauis raised an eyebrow and gave Morgause a meaningful look.
"All right, I'm going to let you in on a little engineering secret," she said and took Merlin by the elbow. "Walk with me."
Outside in the hallway she stopped and turned him around to look him in the eye.
"Do you know why I don't work with the old machines?" she asked.
"Because Morgana doesn't want you to? It's nice that you'd do that for her. You must love her so much," he said, trying not to be a lecher and imagine that, the two of them moving together, their limbs intertwining, her blond hair unbound and brushing against Morgana's bared breasts. "But, uh, but it's a shame. I heard you were very good."
"That's just the thing. I was too good. It was suspicious."
He stared at her stony face, her beautiful, calm eyes. There was a line of dark paint around them, and that was the only feminine touch in her whole attire.
"Oh," he said slowly, as her words fully sunk in, and she nodded.
"You're too good as well," she said. "It's important to be very careful. Sometimes we have to sacrifice parts of ourselves to be with people we love. Our... gifts... are not all that we are. If you're meant to be with Arthur, you will be. There will be a way, but you have to be careful."
"Why are you telling me this?" he mumbled. She was Morgause, the great and the terrible. It didn't make sense for her to even talk to him, let alone tell him her dangerous secret.
"Because I, too, was young and scared once," she said with a shrug. "I too was told that I couldn't be here. Uther didn't even want Morgana to know she had a sister."
"You're sisters? Oh. I didn't know."
"You're not supposed to know that. I'm one of Camelot's dirty secrets. Uther puts up with me because Morgana needs me. Because Arthur needs me."
"Well, yes, you're you. You're noble-born and talented, and you're going to change the world with that abacus thing. I'm... without my gift, I'm nothing."
"I believe you're still Arthur's manservant," she said. "And I think it's about time you fetched his supper. Uther dined alone tonight; Arthur should be brooding in his room right now, and I'd bet he's hungry and cranky."
He paused at Arthur's door and put the food-laden tray on the floor. The silver bird immediately hopped on it, overturned a bowl of shelled hazelnuts and stared upwards as if expecting praise.
It still followed him everywhere; the guards, following the king's standing orders, tried to catch or smash it, but it was fast and they never chased it for long. They kept warning Merlin that he shouldn't be seen playing with the bird instead of helping destroy it, he'd get it trouble. He tried to shoo it off throughout the day, but that was no use.
"Look," he told it. "This isn't going to end well for us if you're going to be like this. So let's at least make Arthur happy. Let's make his wish come true. All right? For Arthur?"
The bird's sapphire eyes were expressionless. After all, they were just two rough-cut gemstones set in metal, and the bird wasn't sentient or even alive. But Merlin told himself that it looked like it agreed.
He reached out and pulled on the magic inside the bird. It went so easily, like a simple inhale; all that old, bright power folded snugly inside his chest as if it belonged. He cradled the falcon's body as it went limp, put it on a tray and covered it with a napkin.
Arthur was already dressed for bed in his soft linen breeches and a lace-trimmed shirt that was so sheer Merlin could see the shadows of his nipples through it. He wasn't even sure why he looked; he'd seen Arthur's nipples just that morning without anything covering them, and he'd probably see them tomorrow, provided he wasn't sacked yet.
Arthur wasn't brooding. He was drawing up a complex design, meticulously, with rulers and compasses.
"Oh, Merlin," he said cheerfully, as if that conversation with the king in the workshop hadn't happened at all. "I think I've cracked the problem of powering the ploughs. Well, we still need to make the mechanics work, but this is going to be good. The only small snag is that all fields would have to be round."
"You're kind of obsessed with everything round, aren't you?"
"It's an optimal shape for many things. This also solves the problem of directing the plough's trajectory. By the way, how did they used to know where the fields ended?"
"There are runed stones buried at the boundaries of all fields, the ploughs were spelled to turn when they reached them," Merlin explained. "Oh, I know this because I tilled the fields, we used to find those stones sometimes..."
"Yes, I don't care. Stop babbling and listen. We have a busy day tomorrow. We need to figure out how to get you access to the workshop without annoying my father. You might have to work from drawings for a while, and we know you're abysmal at reading them, so you better get studying. Also, there is a castle-wide hunt going on for the merlin-bird..."
"Oh, that's not a problem anymore," Merlin said a pulled the napkin off the bird's still body. "Look. It just dropped off like you wanted. The magic ran out."
Arthur dropped the drawing tools on the desk and stared at the falcon, wide-eyed and silent.
"You can open it up," said Merlin brightly. "Do you want to do it right now? I'll help."
"Well, whenever you want, it's not going anywhere."
Arthur wasn't even touching the bird. He just looked at it with something like horror, as if Merlin put a dead rat on his supper tray.
"I really thought," he said slowly. "I believed it was all true. That it belonged to King Arthur. That the magic would never... But it was just a stupid toy after all. That was the last of the magic. It's all gone now."
"Well," said Merlin, shifting from foot to foot, a little confused. "That's okay, right? Now we have steam."
"Yes. Now we're all we have."
Arthur picked up the napkin and draped it over the bird again, hiding it from sight.
"Go," he said. "Go, sleep, do whatever you do."
"Arthur, are you-"
Merlin sighed, shuffled for the door, pulled it open and yelped a little in surprise. The court physician stood on the other side with one hand raised to knock, the other cradling a stack of boxes to his chest. He gave Merlin a polite smile and brushed past him into the room.
"What is it?" asked Arthur, pushing to his feet. "Is my father well?"
"His Majesty is quite well, yes. Forgive me for disturbing you at this hour, Your Highness. Unfortunately, I must leave Camelot for a week or so - an urgent family matter, I'm afraid."
"Oh," said Arthur, easily falling into his princely demeanour. "I hope it's not sad tidings. If you require an advance on your wages, you need only say so."
"No thank you, Your Highness, you're most kind. Everything is taken care of, and my family will be just fine after I complete my errand. However, I regret to say that I won't be here to administer your next treatment on schedule."
"Don't worry about that, I'm sure I'll manage."
"We're expecting a cold spell, and that can be most taxing for injuries such as yours. I'd hate for Your Highness to go through unnecessary discomfort. With your permission, I'd like to treat you right now, before I leave, in the hopes that it should prevent a relapse. I have brewed a new potion that should prove most effective."
"Ah. Well then, by all means, go ahead. That's very good of you," Arthur's eyes clouded for a second; Merlin already knew that it meant he was struggling to remember the man's name, to add a little personal touch to his words. He always remembered; Arthur was great with names. "That's very good of you, Edwin."
On the last day of the age of the magicians, seventeen years ago, King Uther the Second had summoned Archmage Cornelius for a private meeting. This time he sent armed guards to deliver the invitation and to escort the Archmage to the royal chambers whether he complied or not.
"It is a sad day for Albion when her Archmage is paraded through the capital under guard like a common criminal," snarled Cornelius, stomping into the room.
"You left me little choice, magician," said Uther. "Twice I had summoned you, and you ignored my orders. I'm not a scullery maid whom you can stand up for a date; when I summon, you come."
"You should have received a note of apology each time," said Cornelius breezily. "As I said, I'm not yet ready to present my project."
"It's not up to you to decide whether to grace me with your presence. Archmage or not, you're still my subject. Your work is funded with my money, and I will receive your report when I ask for it."
They stared each other down, alone in the great room.
In the old times, the court magician was the king's closest friend and his most trusted advisor. The candidates were chosen by the court and the magicians. They would go through many trials to determine the winner, who would work to bind the state and the magic together. But those days were long past. The magicians had an Archmage now who was their undisputed leader, selected through means known only to them. No other would even enter the contest for the title.
The king was no longer invited to the meetings of magicians' council, as it used to be in the days of King Arthur and his successors. Nobody knew if there still was a council or if the Archmage ruled the magic folk unchallenged. The deeper magic entered into everyday lives of Albion's people through increasingly ubiquitous machines and magical remedies, the more withdrawn and secretive the magicians became and the less eager they seemed to serve.
Uther had no choice but to deal with Cornelius, and it had been a battle of wills ever since he took the throne. Cornelius was more than twice his age, and from the very start it rankled him to bow to the young king. Uther didn't have his late father's patience for such things. In fact, he believed that the liberties afforded to magicians by the previous kings had been a mistake, that it was because of this that the crown now had to deal with the dangerous, barely disguised impudence.
"Very well," Cornelius said. "You shall see it now."
He fished something out of his bag and handed it to Uther.
It was an object the size of a child's head, made of mostly stone with reddish crystals embedded into it. It was an elaborate work, finely carved in layers of minute runes; it was hollow inside or perhaps was only unusually light. It was warm to the touch, and it seemed almost alive, as though if Uther concentrated very hard he'd feel it pulse and shiver in his hands.
"This is the culmination of my life's work," said the magician. "It's something that was previously unheard of. It challenges the very foundation of what we know about the world."
"What does it do?"
Uther gave the thing another puzzled once-over and handed it back to Cornelius. He cradled it softly in his wrinkled hands, as if he was gentling a kitten.
"This is an ultimate power conduit, and yet it is so much more than that. It shall be heart, soul and mind of a machine worthy to house it. With it, nothing is quite beyond the realm of possible. We're already building a shell for it, a machine of our own design. It will eclipse everything we've done so far. It's not quite ready, but if you give me just another month-"
Cornelius shook his head disapprovingly and moved to the desk to unfurl the scrolls he brought with him.
Uther was well versed in mechanics, as a king had to be to properly oversee the work of the magicians. It took him bare minutes of studying the drawings to grasp the concept of the device. The more he read, the colder the air around him seemed to feel. A leaden weight was settling in his chest, and he knew that here, in this room, the future history of Albion would be defined. He didn't wish for this responsibility. In that moment, he was terrified.
"Tell me what it is," he demanded, because he needed to hear the Archmage say it.
"It's a soldier," the man said readily. "An ultimate soldier, a machine of war. It can annihilate an army before it's overwhelmed. It can level a city all on its own. It will have the wits to defend itself and the power and cunning to destroy whatever it's set upon. With just one of them at your disposal, you'll never be challenged. With a few of them, you will conquer the world."
Uther closed his eyes and breathed deeply to steady his heart.
"I've no wish for conquest," he said. "My kingdom is vast and rich, and my people are free and prosperous. I don't want to put either of them through an ordeal of war."
"With this you won't have to! The war machines will only require a few magicians to constantly power each, but they can do it safely from a considerable distance. The only ones in any peril shall be your enemies. You see now why I was so busy lately, why I delayed seeing you. I was waiting to present you with your new soldiers in their full glory, to really let you see the power we'd bring you."
"I see. Well. This project shall be stopped immediately."
He wouldn't look at the magician for fear of losing his resolve, but he heard the sharp intake of breath behind him.
"Don't you understand what I'm offering you?" Cornelius asked. "This is the ultimate dream of every monarch in the known world. An unstoppable army, power without limit. Don't you understand?"
"I've no interest in this war machine," said Uther as lightly as he could. "And I don't see why you'd want your magicians involved in combat. I think the magic is much better suited for peaceful pursuits. The ploughs were a great accomplishment. Now perhaps you could build something in that vein to enhance the lives of a common folk? A brighter light source, for example; oil lamps can only do so much. Or something I feel is greatly needed: some sort of magical enclosure for cattle, to protect them from predators and safeguard the fields from grazing."
"Are you mocking me, boy?"
Uther turned and faced him. The Archmage was pale with quiet fury, his lips shaking. Uther drew himself up, preparing to duck a spell if necessary or to call out for the guards.
"You're forgetting yourself," he said. "I am your king, and this is my kingdom. You will do as I tell you."
"Your kingdom owes everything to us. It's built on magic. It's high time you truly realised what we mean for this kingdom's survival."
Years of restrained contempt and quiet scheming were finally coming to a head, and the old man wasn't even keeping up appearances anymore. Uther decided to drop the pretence as well.
"So you thought you'd give me an army that's fully controlled by you?" he asked bluntly. "An army I couldn't run without your magic? Mindless metal soldiers that you could turn against me if you chose to? That's not going to happen, magician."
"You'd deny us any power in your kingdom, any voice! All you want is to keep us working your machines, cleaning up your filth and bowing to your rule. You'd use us like slaves - you'd use us as cattle, as beasts of burden! This can't go on forever."
"No, this can't go on forever. For years now, I watched as you wove your own little plots behind my back. The magicians now treat you as their king. They barely speak to any outsiders, as if they're a state of their own. Well, this won't go on. Albion is one country, and it has one king. You will destroy that war machine of yours, and I believe it's time you retired from your post. You're old, and you no longer think clearly. We'll hold an open trial for the next court magician, and if less than a dozen pretenders turn up, I'll assume the magicians don't want their voice to be heard."
Cornelius laughed. It was an awful sound, like the crowing of a carrion bird.
"You've just doomed your kingdom, Uther Pendragon." With a wave of his hand, he conjured a wisp of black smoke, coiled it around his feet and drew up another, thicker cloud. "So be it. Next time I see you, you shall be on your knees, bowing to me. Then my people will finally claim what's theirs."
Uther was expecting an attack; too late he realised that the man was weaving a vanishing spell. He didn't know what Cornelius planned to do if he escaped - wage a magic war on Camelot, somehow finish his grotesque war machines and set them loose, or ally himself with foreign kings and lead the conquering armies into Albion. Uther wasn't planning to find out. He yelled for the guards and grabbed his old ceremonial sword from its mount on the wall. The magician's figure was already fading, taking on a translucent sheen. Uther thrust his sword into the man's stomach, clumsy with lack of practice, wincing as the dull untended blade pared flesh and scraped bone.
He had not held a sword since he was a young prince being forced to learn fencing along with music and dancing. But this task didn't take much skill.
"The Archmage has committed high treason," he announced to the guards. "Immediately seize the main workshop and arrest everyone in it. Arrest all magicians who had access to it and everyone who was involved in that work. We must pull this up by the roots before it's too late. In fact, detain all magicians for questioning. It's best to be thorough. And burn this body. For all we know, they'd raise him otherwise."
He knew that magicians could communicate with each other instantly and invisibly over great distances. It didn't come as a surprise that the workshop was already empty when the guards reached it, that the whole of magician's quarter was abandoned, that not a single arrest had been made. At least they couldn't take the half-finished metal monstrosity with them. The war machine was still in the workshop, and Uther ordered it disassembled and all parts melted down.
He thought to destroy the stone that Cornelius had brought to the audience, but the warmth of the stone and the glittering of the crystals held a strange, soothing promise, and this was a source of great power, after all. The reality of the magician's betrayal was starting to sink in, and with it the possibility that he might have truly doomed his kingdom. The machines were still working, but he knew that they wouldn't last even a few days, not without constant supply of magic. The stone could be useful if it could be harnessed. One day it could be their salvation.
He locked it away in the treasury, praying that he was doing the right thing. He spent the day in counsel with his court, drawing up a strategy to lessen the blow to the kingdom. Afterwards he went to see his son. Cornelius used to send the prince an occasional gift; for all Uther knew, those things could have been cursed.
Arthur was already bathed and dressed for bed, but he was still up. He was playing with the old steamboat, racing it across his bathtub still full of soapy water. He got up to greet his king, bowing properly, and then ran over to Uther and gave him a hug.
Uther still couldn't reprimand him for that, even though it was time to be firmer. Arthur was getting too old for these indulgences. He knew he was spoiling the boy. But spoiling their child should be Igraine's job, had she survived the labour, so occasionally he felt the need to do it in her stead.
"Where are the toys Cornelius gave you?" he asked. Arthur nodded at the chest in the corner, suddenly sulky, and Uther went to gather them.
The toys were at the very bottom of the chest, some still twitching weakly. They were weighted down by picture books, painted wooden blocks and a few old shoes; Uther extracted them all - a few steel knights, a silver princess doll, a golden lion - and bundled them in a blanket, ready to be tossed into a crucible and melted down.
"You didn't play with them much, did you?" he asked.
"I hate them."
"Because Cornelius is a creep," said Arthur and clenched his jaws and shut his eyes, waiting for a slap. He wasn't flinching, wasn't scared or ashamed; he stood tall, prepared to accept consequences of his actions as a man should.
"He is," Uther said and petted his son's fair hair. Arthur's smile was blinding. He giggled and hopped in excitement, grabbed Uther's hand and pulled him toward the tub.
"I like this one the best," he said, feeding wood chips into the fire that smouldered under the boat's tiny boiler. The turbine spat out a new jet of steam, and the boat jerkily jumped forward. "Because it was yours and granddad's, and because I know how it works."
"Yes," Uther said. Here, in this cosy room, all the worries of the world seemed to disappear for a time. Even now, facing the greatest disaster Albion had ever known, one glance at his son's sweet, peaceful face was enough to fill him with strength and hope. "Yes, so do I."
Waking up was always somewhat of an ordeal for Arthur, but this awakening was the worst ever. This was miles worse than the most horrid hangover in his admittedly limited experience of inadvisable debauchery. His head was spinning, throbbing every time he took a breath. He was cold, and he tried to burrow under the blankets but couldn't move or even feel his arms.
A sharp smell suddenly invaded his senses, choking him. It was intense to the point of pain. He jerked backwards, trying to get away, and the back of his head hit stone.
He opened his eyes, blinking fast till his vision cleared. Everything was still blurry and slowly turning about. In the centre of it all was the face of the court physician, very close, blocking out the light.
"Finally," the physician said, pocketing the bottle of smelling salts. "I was starting to worry that the dose was too high."
They weren't in Arthur's room any longer. They were in a cave of bare, damp rock. Arthur was on the ground, propped against a wall, still in his nightclothes. There was a shackle around his left ankle with a chain attached to it. His hands were bound at the wrists behind his back. He tried to reach for the knots, but his fingers were too cold and numb, and he could barely flex them.
The light wasn't coming from outside. Behind the physician, in the middle of the cave, there were two glowing spheres suspended mid-air. The light they emitted was white, harsh and flat, like cold winter sunlight bouncing off pristine snow. Magic craft.
The physician stood over him, smiling gleefully. There were three other men nearby, watching with similar detached, cruel excitement as Arthur squirmed against the bindings, his panic pathetically obvious. He thought to scream for help, but he was pretty certain they were far, far away from Camelot.
He planted his bare feet on the cold rock and took a steadying breath. His mouth was dry and his tongue felt huge in his mouth; he swallowed, cleared his throat and said, keeping his voice level:
"Where am I?"
"All you need to know, sweet prince," said the physician. "Is that you're at our mercy."
He waited for more, but they just stared at him, clearly enjoying the moment. Maybe this was as far as they got when they'd been preparing their dramatic speech.
"This is madness," he spat out, impatient. "Let's get this over with - what do you want?"
"Straight to business, how commendable," Edwin stepped to the side, letting Arthur see the rest of the room.
It was a workshop, a poor and shoddy one but a workshop still, with three workbenches that had an array of tools and parts scattered over them. On the biggest workbench was some work in progress, a mechanical contraption in a partially stripped, thick casing. It was rather large, as thick as a man's torso and at least four feet long. The design of the exposed joint was very ambitious, sturdy but reaching for great range of movement. The gear trains, however, were assembled wrongly; he could see it even from here. The ratios were visibly off.
"We've been working on a little engineering project of our own," Edwin said. "Most of the work is already done. Unfortunately, when it came to the finer points, my esteemed colleagues seem to have hit a wall. This design is rather beyond their skill and knowledge. Not surprising, really, seeing as your father made damn sure we had no opportunities to learn. But this is where you come in."
He gestured at the far wall, where several large technical drawings were pinned up.
"We have all you need to understand, correct and finish this device. We'll assist you and get you all the materials and equipment you require. You are the best among the engineers, Arthur. The best one in Albion, everyone knows that. This should be quite in your power."
Arthur stared upwards into their faces, waiting for the punch line, but they looked completely serious.
"You've kidnapped the crown prince of Camelot. You've committed high treason. Your lives are, as of now, forfeit. And you're telling me you did it all to ask for my help with your little engineering project?"
"Well," Edwin said. "We wanted the best, you see."
"You're crazy. My father will find you, and he will skin you alive," said Arthur with all the certainty he could muster. "All right, let me get this straight. You're magicians."
"How very astute," sneered Edwin, glancing at the glowing orbs by the ceiling.
"We didn't know where you all went, nor did we really care. We suspected some of you would flock to the foreign courts, suck up to some other king. But magic on its own isn't all that much, is it? Most of what we heard in legends is probably just exaggeration. An average magician can perform some showy tricks or do a bit of healing, maybe. It's all very amusing and can be useful, but that wasn't enough for you. You wanted more power. You always wanted more power. That was your downfall. And it will be again, mark my words."
He shifted against the wall, trying to get comfortable. His arms ached, and he couldn't stop shivering. Every time he managed to loosen his muscles they would seize up again in tiny tremors.
"So you've decided to try and rebuild the position you held in Albion," he continued. "With the machines multiplied and facilitated like that, magic can be quite impressive. You would be indispensable again. The kingdom of your choice would come to depend on you, like Albion had before we knew better. But you need a working model to sell this idea. So who do you want to take this to? The Franks? The Norse? The southern kingdoms?"
He searched their faces for the smallest flicker in their expressions that would confirm his accusations, but there was nothing.
"Will you do it?" Edwin asked.
Arthur tossed his head back and laughed heartily. It made his throbbing head hurt more, and probably didn't sound all that natural or convincing, but it was worth it just to see their faces twist in ugly grimaces.
"Not a bloody chance," he said. "I won't have any part in selling out our trade secrets. And really, if you were on fire and asked me to piss on you, I would refuse. You haven't just assaulted me. I'm an heir to the throne. This is a direct attack on my kingdom. There will be no place for you to hide; Camelot will find you."
Edwin nodded, walked over to the workbench and rummaged through the clutter there.
"I was hoping you'd say that," he said, picking up one tool after the other - pincers, a chisel, a cutting knife. He held each for a moment, thoughtfully considering them in turns before putting them down. "You know, Arthur, I've spent a very long time preparing for this. It took considerable resolve to work my way up to a high enough position in your court, bowing, kowtowing, always being so helpful. Every time I tended to your father's disgusting stump or treated his aged bowels, every time I cleaned up your little scrapes and bruises like a common nursemaid, I was hoping that when this time came you'd be stubborn."
He chose a foot-long metal rod, cupped a tip of it with his left palm and whispered something. When he lowered his hand the metal was glowing red, like it was just pulled out of a furnace.
"Hold him down," he said, advancing. The men grabbed Arthur by the shoulders and pinned his legs. There wasn't much he could do, tied up and chained to the wall, so he stopped struggling, clenched his teeth and waited.
Edwin yanked on Arthur's sleeve until it ripped at the shoulder seam and slowly, terribly slowly, brought blazing metal to his bared skin. The pain was awful; Arthur tried to let it wash over him, accept it, remember that he'd been hurt before and worse than this. He wasn't going to scream. Sobs and moans were raking up his throat and tearing through his chest, but he wouldn't scream; he was determined not to. But then the smell of his own flesh burning onto metal hit his nose, and there was nothing left except agony and blind panic. He screamed then, pushing all the air out of his lungs. He felt the darkness roll closer, and begged for it to take him.
The pain stopped abruptly. He still felt like he was about to pass out, and he tried to go with it, let his body go slack, loosen his hold on consciousness. But Edwin shoved those damn smelling salts in his face and jolted him awake.
"Changed your mind yet?" he asked.
"I'd sooner die," Arthur told him.
After a moment's respite the burn started to ache all over again. Now that the heat damage was spreading deeper into the tissue, it hurt almost as bad as the brand did. He knew that, untreated, this pain would linger for hours, compounding whatever else they would do to him. But his head was clear again. He could hold on.
"Oh, Arthur. You're forgetting that I'm an excellent physician. I won't let you die."
Edwin raised the rod again, its tip still bright red. Arthur recoiled a little on pure instinct biting his lips to keep quiet. Edwin chuckled and paused with the metal inches from Arthur's shoulder, aiming just below the first burn mark.
"I wonder how much of this you'll be able to endure," he mused. "Minutes, you think? Once more, or perhaps twice? Maybe it'll take hours. I do hope you won't give in for hours, at least. You're not going to disappoint me, are you Arthur?"
"Edwin, I understand that you've been looking forward to this," one of the men suddenly said. Arthur had thought them to be obedient, silent thugs, but it seemed he was wrong. "But this will get tiresome very quickly, and we have work to do."
"Do we have to waste time breaking him?" said another one. "I know we wanted the best, but I'd settle for good enough. What about that boy with freckles, what's his name, Owain? I heard he was a prodigy. Let's take him instead."
"He's not very experienced. I think we should go for Pelinor," said the third one.
"No," said Arthur weakly. "No, no, I know what you're trying to do. I don't believe you. Your cover is blown. Merlin will tell the king he last saw me with you. Everyone will know you're a traitor. You can't come back, and you can't take anyone else."
"Do you really think it was just me?" Edwin asked with a short amused laugh. "You think I dragged your great snoring carcass out of the castle all by myself? Do you think the four of us is all there is?"
"I don't believe you," Arthur repeated dumbly, sickened by the very thought. "I don't."
"Hush," said Edwin. "Actually, we'd have the same problem with Owain and Pelinor. Engineers are a stubborn lot. I have an idea, if you want fast results. The girl who runs the smithy is actually a very handy mechanic herself."
"No! Not her. Why her? She's never had any formal training!" Arthur protested.
"Maybe she wouldn't be very helpful," said one of the men holding him down. "But something tells me you will, once she's here."
"Actually, you know who had some formal training?" said Edwin, as if the thought just occurred to him. "Merlin! He's been reading a lot, and he was a savant to start with. He'd be the easiest to grab, as well. He's just a servant, nobody would even care."
Arthur tried to think about it rationally, to use logic as he was trained to. He knew they were playing him. He knew they were only doing this because they didn't believe they could break him with pain and threats. He didn't think they had the means to kidnap anyone else. Not now, when the castle would be raised in alarm, looking for him and those who took him. But the mere thought of his men or Gwen or Merlin being dragged here, chained and tortured - he couldn't bear it. It was beyond his ability to endure. He felt cornered, utterly defeated; horror was choking him, and he couldn't get enough air into his chest. His breaths were coming shallow and fast, and sounded a lot like sobs.
"Let's talk to our people and make plans," Edwin said. The men released Arthur, but he couldn't even find the strength to move. "It'll take some time. Maybe Arthur will reconsider by then."
They cut the bindings on his wrists. He brought his hands forward, rubbed at the deep grooves the ropes left in his skin. He was only dimly aware of the pain as the blood rushed back; his fingers felt huge and limp, like uncooked sausages.
"Here is something to keep you amused," Edwin brought over some scrolls and put them at his feet. "You can start familiarising yourself with the design. These are, of course, merely copies. But if you damage them, I'll still punish you."
They left through the only opening in the cave. He heard their voices echoing through the passageway, but he couldn't make out any words, no matter how he strained his hearing.
The manacle around his ankle didn't have a lock and was completely seamless, as if it had been welded onto his leg. The chain links were just as solid, and the other end of the chain went right into the stone of the cave wall with no give there at all. The chain was about ten feet long, which put the nearest workbench out of his reach by a good yard, so he couldn't get to any of the tools.
He tore a strip of cloth from the bottom of his nightshirt and tightly wrapped it around the burn, trying not to look at the wound. They left him an empty bucket, and he pissed in it, hoping to put off the indignity of doing it in their presence for as long as possible. He paced a little to warm up and did some exercises he remembered from his childhood fencing lessons. It helped. Working his body always helped him think more clearly. He made a mental note to increase the exercise his engineers were getting. It always seemed like a waste of time when you were in the throes of a scientific zeal, but in the long run it would keep them all healthier, happier, more productive.
Now he could see that things weren't as hopeless as they had seemed moments ago. Camelot would be looking for him; they'd have started the moment his absence was discovered. Every resource they had would be dedicated to his rescue right now. Help would come. He just needed to trust it would and stay alive.
While he was at it, it would be prudent to gather information. He needed to learn as much about the enemy's intentions as he could.
He considered that for a while, poking the scrolls with his bare toes.
"Oh, it wouldn't hurt to look," he told himself and opened the first one.
"Arthur! Arthur! Highness!"
He lifted his head and blinked, coming back to himself. He couldn't begin to fathom how much time had passed. He tended to lose time when he was working. The magicians were back, standing over him. He was on all fours on the floor, crawling from one drawing to the next and tracing the lines with his fingers; his chain was strewn all over the scrolls to keep them open, and he even used the waste bucket to pin down one of the corners. He wasn't done yet, but he had a general idea. The design was bold but deeply flawed, and the most fascinating thing about it was that whoever conceived this device obviously knew better than to make these very mistakes.
"Well, look at that," said one of the magicians with an amused smile.
"I think," said another, "That at a certain level of dedication any craft might become as fulfilling and addictive as magic. I'm just glad we don't have to rely on that theory."
Arthur sat back on his heels and tried to organise his thoughts enough to convey them to laymen.
"This won't work," he said. "Not the way you expect it to. There is nothing to bind it all together, nothing to control it, no pattern to any of this. I don't care how clever you think your magic is, it's not this clever. The device will be nothing but a puppet without strings. It's a huge waste of work and metal. If you expect me or anyone else to fix it, well, it's not possible. Not for years yet, anyway."
"No. We need it assembled exactly as the drawings say."
"The drawings aren't that precise, which is why you're having troubles with it in the first place. For example, what's this?" he poked at the place at the crossing of the main axles where the insane inventor have given up completely and hand-drawn a wobbly circle without any explanatory text. "I've no idea what that is. Do you know what it is? You said you're almost done assembling it. What do you have there? I need to see it."
"Later," said Edwin and, with a short spell and a wave of his hand, he moved the workbench a few yards closer. The legs skidded on the rock with a screech, the metal on the table jangled and settled down, and it was all within reach now: the comfortingly familiar tools and the part of the device he already knew so well from the drawings. He could see the errors even better now, and he itched to fix them out of some primal yearning to bring order to chaos. "I'll go get you some water now. We'll feed you when we see some results."
"I didn't say I'd do it," Arthur said. He was very thirsty, now that he'd thought about it, and wouldn't say no to food either. "Before I even begin to consider it, there are conditions to be met, and I'll need some guarantees. I want to be sure you won't take or hurt anyone else if I comply. And when I'm done you will release me unharmed, even if this thing doesn't work. Which it won't."
"We never planned to kill you."
He barely heard that, busy thinking. He felt that he should be putting up more of a fight, for the sake of appearances if nothing else. He could endure pain for a lot longer, and he was almost sure that the threats to kidnap his people were just that, empty threats and mind games.
But he didn't dare risk it. Not when there was the slightest chance that Merlin - or Gwen or any of them - could end up in the hands of these madmen. Not when he knew just how to defeat the magicians and ruin their plans. If anyone was going to do more work on this device, it had to be him. He knew exactly what to do.
He was handed a clay mug full of stale, tepid water. He drank it down, got up and stepped closer to the workbench.
"What a mess," he said and picked up a spanner. The tools weren't his, but they felt almost as good to hold.
Merlin spent the first day of Arthur's absence in Camelot's dungeons.
When he first walked into the empty room in the morning, he dropped the breakfast tray on the floor, eggs and sausages and all, and ran straight for the guard station.
"Arthur is gone," he told the captain of the guard, forgetting all about titles and pleasantries. "He wouldn't just go, would he? Something is wrong."
The commotion started right then and didn't let up for hours. People wouldn't talk to him. They would, however, ask him to tell the whole story over and over again, even though it seemed that no one was listening. And they would drag him around in what seemed like a stupid, aimless pattern.
The captain and a squad of guards took Merlin back to Arthur's room and then all around the castle, out to the gates and the drawbridge, back to Arthur's room, outside again, to the great cart's station at the bottom of the hill, and again back to Arthur's room. Some of the men would be sent out to run somewhere else, others would return with reports. It all was a pointless waste of time, a giant, castle-wide flailing in panic disguised as security procedure.
Once they were in Arthur's room again, Merlin tried to calm down and think it through. There was no reason to jump to the worst conclusions - except there was. There was a cold twist in his stomach and something heavy sitting in his chest and he knew, he knew. But he could be wrong. He'd give anything to be wrong.
"He probably just went out," he said out loud: to himself and to the men who were rummaging around the room as if Arthur could be hiding behind the curtains or in the washing bowl. "Maybe he went to meet a secret lover and fell asleep in their bed. He'll be so angry at all the fuss. He'll kill me for spilling the food. He'll be so mad."
He stared at the door. It stood thrown open - it was never like that, because Arthur valued his privacy. He imagined Arthur walking in, stomping his boots, filling the room with his annoyed, radiant presence. If Merlin knew any spells, he'd make that happen, right in front of everybody. He'd gladly go into exile and never see Arthur again if only he walked through that door right now, alive and safe.
He went to the wardrobe and started rifling through the clothes, trying to see if anything was missing. Everything seemed to be there, but Arthur had so many clothes; he had five red velvet jackets alone. Something could be missing. Arthur could have gotten dressed and walked out on his own volition, and he could be back soon. Merlin wanted to bury his face in the fabric and breathe in Arthur's smell - it seemed the only way to be able to breathe right again, to purge that tightness from his chest.
Suddenly, the king was in the room, and his right hand was gripping Merlin's arm, squeezing painfully tight, shaking him. He was being asked questions again; he repeated everything he could remember from last night: their talk about round fields, the physician's visit. Everything seemed disjointed in his head, and it sounded like lies from too much repetition.
Then he was being led somewhere again. Only when the locks clicked shut and the guards walked away did he realise he was in the dungeon cell.
"Why am I here? I should be out there," he told the prison guard. "I should be looking for him."
"Everyone's looking for him," said the man. He looked just as lost as everyone else did this morning. "His Majesty wants you detained for questioning. Just sit tight. I'm sure His Highness would be back any minute now."
Merlin sat on the straw and tried not to think, just empty his head and let time pass. By the afternoon, he'd bitten his fingernails to the quick and took to rocking back and forth. That's how the girls found him when they came down to see him.
He rushed to the bars and clung to Gwen's arms.
"Something horrible is happening to him, I just feel it," he said. "We need to do something."
"We found an empty vial in his room. It's just like you said," Morgana told him. "We've analysed it - it held a potent sleeping draught. Gaius thinks it might have been imbued with magic."
Merlin moaned in frustrated rage at the thought of Arthur, drugged and helpless. Gwen's fingers were moving in his hair in soothing circles, but he didn't want to be comforted, not when Arthur had no one to comfort him right now.
"Just don't do anything stupid," said Morgause.
"Like break out. Just wait."
They left, and he waited, slowly losing his mind. The sun went down, and he thought of sleeping, but every part of him was impossibly alert and tense. He couldn't even bear to lie down.
Eventually the door opened, and the guards led him up the stairs, back into the wing where the royal chambers were. They walked past Arthur's room; it still stood open, the terrible mess inside exposed for everyone to see. The breakfast was still all over the floor, bits of it trampled into the thick white rug by Arthur's bed.
He was shoved into the king's private audience chamber and pressed into a chair. The king leaned over him, his face dark and worn and his eyes utterly mad.
"I'm sorry," Merlin said, hiccuping from choked sobs.
"So you admit-" the king started, but Merlin couldn't listen, couldn't shut up.
"I'm so sorry," he babbled. "I should have protected him. I was supposed to protect him. That was the whole point of me being here. The one thing I had to do. I'm so sorry."
He might have cried then; later he wasn't sure. The king's left hand, the soft one, might have been stroking his hair at some point. That didn't seem at all likely on sober reflection.
Then he was let out, and he stumbled aimlessly around the hallways for some time. He tried to walk out of the castle and look for clues, but he was turned back by the guards. Soon he found himself in Gaius's laboratory. Dawn was breaking outside. Morgana was asleep in a chair, covered by Gaius's ratty blanket. Her hair was tangled and flat, without its usual lustre.
"How can she sleep?" Merlin said. "Gaius, we need to do something."
"Yes, yes, in a minute," Gaius said. "Drink this now."
He did, and it tasted sweet and vile at the same time, and then he slept.
The second day brought some news. The gamekeeper found tracks and traced them to the forest of Arador; specifically, to the sacred grove. Arthur had been taken through the magicians' portal.
"I'll go there," Merlin told Morgana. "I'll bargain with them. But I don't know where it is, so I need a map. Can you get me a map?"
"What do you have to bargain with, exactly?" she asked ruthlessly. "You think you can just talk it out with the people who kidnapped the heir to the throne?"
"But we need to do something."
"It's about ransom, it has to be. They won't harm him. We just have to wait for the ransom note."
He waited and waited. He cleaned Arthur's room, shined all his shoes and spent the rest of the time lying on top of the covers of Arthur's bed staring at the cracks on the ceiling.
"Where does the portal lead to?" he asked Morgause on the third day.
"Nobody knows. It could be a number of places. There could be dozens of portals, though I'm sure they only used the known one to make a point."
"Maybe we could find Arthur with our, you know. Gift. Maybe we can scry for him or something."
"Do you know how?"
"I thought maybe you did. I thought you might have had some training before it was forbidden. You look old enough."
"I forgive you because you're more insane than usual right now," she said. "And no, I don't know a single spell."
Somehow Merlin still ate every day, washed his face, changed his socks and puttered around Arthur's room looking for more chores to do. Gaius drugged him and Morgana for a few more days until they started to outright ask him for it at supper.
"I used to have such a crush on Arthur," Gwen told him on the sixth day. He was in the smithy - he'd had enough of the frozen emptiness of Arthur's room and the quiet despair hanging over the laboratory.
"Who hasn't," he sighed. "Tell you what. When he's back, I'll set you two up. I'm really good at it. I write the best love notes."
She smiled weakly and pulled him to his feet.
"We need to stop this, it's not helping anyone," she said. "We should keep working. Come on, join in."
He worked the bellows and tried swinging the sledge hammer for a while, but it didn't help settle his mind. Their work gave them purpose and solace, but his job was looking after Arthur, and he'd failed. He didn't have a job anymore.
A full week had passed like that, and then the ransom note arrived.
The guards posted at the forest of Arador found a bag in the grove. It held a sealed letter addressed to the king and a handful of golden hair.
The council and the king had already been talking about paying the ransom. They'd discussed how much gold they had in the treasury, how much more could be raised in a matter of days, how much could be squeezed out of the city's population and the nearby villages in lieu of next year's taxes. The numbers repeated in the kitchens were unbelievable, unimaginable. They could have been exaggerated, but it was, essentially, the whole kingdom's wealth, and it was all to be traded away for one man. The king wouldn't stop ordering the council to find more resources, and Merlin understood him perfectly - huge as the sums were, it just didn't seem like it would be enough. It couldn't possibly be worth as much as Arthur's life.
Now the council had gathered again, but the meeting didn't last a minute. The king opened the note and read it to himself. Then he ripped it to tiny shreds and left the room.
Merlin had charmed the cleaning maid, or more likely terrified her with his frantic begging and manic queasy smiles, and she surrendered the contents of the dust pan to him. He took bits of the note to Arthur's room and assembled them on the work desk with the help of Arthur's tweezers and magnifying glass. When he could read enough, he went to the alchemical laboratory.
"What's an Archmage's stone?" he demanded as soon as he was through the door. Gaius flinched and did something impossible with his eyebrows.
"I don't exactly know," he said. "It's best not to pry into that."
"How is it best? We need it to save Arthur!"
"If the stone ever fell into the hands of the magicians, this kingdom would be doomed," said Gaius. "That's as much as I know. Uther would strike a different bargain with the people who took Arthur; they know they've nothing to gain by killing the boy. Don't worry. Uther loves his son above all else. He'll come up with something."
Before an hour had passed, Uther called for the council to assemble again. This time Merlin was in the room in the place of one of the serving boys whom he'd bribed with the best pair of Arthur's socks. As he'd thought, everyone was too agitated to notice the difference. Not that court people normally paid much attention to the servants.
"I have dispatched a messenger with my answer to the ransom demand," said the king to the council. "I've offered to trade my life for my son's."
With a gesture he silenced a chorus of questions and protests and continued:
"I'm still waiting for the reply, but I'm certain my offer won't be declined. They want revenge, and they can have it. I'm an old man. Arthur was going to succeed me in a decade or two; it would only be a little earlier. He's of age, he's strong and capable, and he's ready. His whole life is before him, he'll achieve great things. But he's still very young, and he'll need your help."
Merlin barely heard a word of what was said for the rest of the meeting. Arthur would be returned, but it would crush him to learn the price. Maybe they could never tell him, just lie about that somehow - create a huge conspiracy and stick to it forever.
The answer didn't come that day or the next morning. More men were dispatched to the grove, and they found the guards slaughtered and the body of the messenger laid out at the edge of the stone circle. A note was pinned to it, unsealed, for everyone to see: "We've named our price. You have three days before we start sending your prince home in pieces."
Merlin was one of the first to hear the story because he'd been waiting at the gates almost constantly. He saw the note before the king did, and then he went to Gwen's smithy.
"So hypothetically," he said. "You could make a key to any lock in Camelot, couldn't you?"
She hushed him and led him by the hand to Morgana's quarters. Morgause was there, in bed with Morgana, holding her. They were both dressed, Merlin noticed, and then was disgusted at himself for thinking of that right now. Morgana's dark head rested on her sister's shoulder, and her eyes were rimmed in red so bright it almost seemed like they'd been bleeding.
"I remember now," said Morgause, barely acknowledging their presence. "I once overheard Father argue with the king about that. Father was saying that the Archmage's stone could be tamed and used. The king insisted that the engines were the only safe way."
Morgana let out a brittle laugh.
"Shows how much we can trust his judgement," she said. "Merlin. Oh, Merlin. Brave, loyal Merlin. You don't even have any doubts, do you?"
"Not really," he said. "Well, you know. Kingdom, doomed, that's bad, yeah. But that's - maybe in the future, in some way we can still prevent. Arthur's in danger right now."
"It must be in the treasury," said Morgause. "You should know what it is when you see it. It's well guarded, though. I'll send the guards some wine tonight. They won't think twice about it. Everybody knows I love a man in uniform."
"I'll add my special warming spice to it," Morgana nodded. "It won't even be odd if they wouldn't wake up for days. Arthur always told anyone willing to listen that alchemy wasn't a proper exact science."
Merlin turned to Gwen, but she was already handing the key to him.
"Don't you need a wax impression or something?" he asked.
"This key opens every lock in Camelot. I'll have it back, please, when you bring Arthur home."
Once Arthur got his hands on the machine he couldn't stop working. He reassembled the part they gave him, then he ate the food they brought him, absently spooning bland stew into his mouth while they tested the joints by sending jolts of magic down the pathways. He knew they'd be satisfied. He was already eyeing the next part, mentally plotting out the work to be done on that.
There wasn't anything to do but work or sleep, or be idle and miserable. When his hands were busy and his mind was on a problem he could solve with a few twists of a spanner, everything else fell away. He forgot all about the pain and the cold, and soon he was warm and sweating, nearly whistling to himself.
From the first glance at the drawings of the design he understood how he'd fight back. They brought him here because he was an excellent engineer: it was what made him their target, and it was going to be his weapon against them.
The machine wasn't going to work. It couldn't work the way it was designed. But on the off-chance that somehow it did - he understood its intended function well enough to know that it couldn't be allowed.
The design was streamlined for agility, with great attention paid to proper balance and weight distribution, and that was the main weakness. There were very few redundancies to the whole construction. If one joint was to fail, it would immediately put the adjacent ones under doubled stress. If those were weakened as well, failure would spread through the whole frame, spiralling and escalating.
He wouldn't do anything as obvious as leaving a screw loose - they checked for that. Besides, he was good enough to make it more subtle, more certain. He'd weigh down certain parts under the guise of reinforcing them, he'd put the gears ever so slightly out of sync, make the recoil just a touch more jarring, shift the brunt of it closer to more delicate connections. It wouldn't be anything they'd notice in the workshop during tests, but once the machine was up and running, shaking and heating up, it would only take minutes before the first cog slipped. Soon the whole thing would start tearing itself apart with every move.
Arthur ate when he was fed, worked until his head clouded and his hands started shaking, and then he curled up by the wall and slept. They let him sleep his fill, never dictating when it was time for rest and when it wasn't. Sometimes they'd just carry on reviewing and testing his work, and sometimes they'd leave him alone in the cave, presumably to go sleep somewhere less damp and smelly. He was glad for the privacy, but whenever they left they pushed the workbench out of his reach again. If he woke up before they came back he couldn't work. He had to wait for their return, pacing, stretching, twiddling his thumbs, wondering how it was possible that he still hadn't been found and what his odds were of living through this.
He suspected he was working sixteen hours a day, if not more, at a frantic pace. He thought to slow down, but it must have been at least five days, maybe over a week judging by the stubble on his face alone. The rescue still didn't come, and was looking less likely by the hour. He could stall, but he didn't know if it would be of any use. By depriving himself of work he'd only spend less time as an engineer and more time chained up in a cave like a dumb animal.
He dreamt a lot. They brought him enough blankets to keep him reasonably warm, but the rock floor of the cave was too hard for him to sleep deeply enough. He'd rarely left the castle, too busy with work, and he'd never even slept on the ground or on the forest floor before the way his ancestor kings would have done during war campaigns or hunting trips. He still slept, pulled under by fatigue and worn down more by the sheer fact of being in captivity than anything else. His dreams were frighteningly vivid, and they wouldn't fade quickly enough on waking.
He dreamt of machines, as always, and over and over he dreamt that he'd somehow found the way to bring the magicians' device to life and turn it on them. He sicced it on Edwin like he would a dog and watched blood flow as the machine tore him apart.
He saw his merlin-bird, only it wasn't silver. It was alive, and it looked at him with wide, blue human eyes. Merlin was stroking its neck, and he was beautiful, his soft lips smiling gently. He was saying, "I'm doing this for you, Arthur, because I love you." But it probably wasn't Merlin because his fingers were made of metal, and they closed on the bird's neck, wringing it mercilessly. Arthur woke up, panting for breath, completely sure for that one moment that Merlin was the accomplice Edwin told him about.
He couldn't be, of course, because he was Merlin. But if Arthur was honest with himself, he didn't really know that much about him. He knew that Merlin was from some village and he had a mother and he was clever and lazy and ridiculous in equal measures. Sometimes it felt like he'd been around for the whole of Arthur's life, his presence more familiar – and certainly less terrifying - than Morgana's, and sometimes he was a mystery, an odd, quirky miracle. For all the time they'd spent together, they hadn't spoken much of anything outside their work. Arthur hardly ever touched him, except to cuff him upside the head occasionally.
Merlin was kind to the point of self-sacrifice, stupidly trusting and easily swayed by emotion; that could be exploited by the wrong sort of people. Merlin's gift could have been magical in nature, Arthur knew that was possible. Banned or not, magic had been in the blood of his people since the dawn of time, and it would take more than a generation or two for it to dry out. Merlin's intuition could have been latent magic, dormant because he was never taught to use it. He'd always been taught that he wasn't allowed to try. He'd always been in the dark, sitting still with his eyes closed, and if someone like Edwin promised to take him into the light and teach him to see...
Then he realised that he was already making excuses for a possible betrayal, and he stopped thinking about it.
He tried talking to his jailers, to procure useful information of any kind. They weren't forthcoming and he loathed them so much that he couldn't even carry a conversation, so he quickly drifted back to his work. He wasn't treated too badly, all things considered. There was plenty of food that came often enough and the waste bucket was emptied promptly. The burn on his shoulder got infected and Edwin treated that, took away all the pain somehow, and now Arthur barely felt that the wound was there. When his hands blistered and bled they got cleaned and bandaged, and there was always a mug of water within his reach.
Apart from the very first day, he'd been assaulted only twice. The first time it happened he'd been asleep. Someone's hand yanked hard on his hair, and before he could wake enough to fight back the magician hacked off a great clump of his hair with a knife and walked away without an explanation.
The second time he'd been working and he saw it coming. Edwin stormed into the cave, shaking with fury, and threw up his hands. Arthur ducked behind the workbench, and the first spell went over him, quivering in the air above him like a heavy wave of heat. The next moment he was hit and got slammed into the stone wall. Then there was pain, pure and raw, rolling through his body jolt after jolt.
The others rushed to Edwin and restrained him. He exchanged a glance with them and shook his head, looking more defeated than angry now.
Arthur had been cutting cogs when he was attacked, and he still had a small chisel clasped in his hand. He crawled to his nest of blankets, still breathless from the pain. He curled up on his side to wait it out and furtively tucked the chisel into the folds of cloth.
"We should just kill him," said Edwin.
"What would be the point? Let's talk about this once he's done with the machine."
They moved the workbench away and left. For a while he still heard them arguing outside. He picked up the chisel, chose a link in his chain and started working on it, more to keep busy than really hoping this would be the path to his escape. He couldn't score the link deeply enough, not without a hammer. But given enough time, even the shallow scratches would add up to something. When his fingers cramped and wouldn't hold the chisel anymore, he put it through the scored link and used it as a lever to try and twist the metal, again and again.
He couldn't begin to guess how long it would take for the chain to get tired enough to snap; it could days, months or years. But metal didn't get rested, Merlin said so. And he would rest and eat and sleep; the metal wouldn't stand a chance. Sooner or later it would be the first one to give up.
Merlin hadn't even considered that a new squad of guards would be posted to the grove after the others were killed. But they were there, a good dozen of them, walking back and forth around their camp fire. He lay in the bushes, trying to come up with a plan. There was no sneaking past them, but perhaps he could just blag it. Walk straight up to them and tell them that the king had changed his mind and the ransom was to be paid. But if they didn't believe him and took him and the stone back to Camelot, he wouldn't have another chance, and Arthur had just over a day left now.
Suddenly a hand touched his shoulder, and a voice whispered into his ear:
He flailed and rolled in the undergrowth, making the guards stir and look around. Then he stilled, holding his breath. Edwin the physician was crouching next to him, smiling.
"See," he said quietly. "I just knew that affection between you and your Lord would blossom into something beautiful."
"I brought it," Merlin whispered, clutching at the stone he had stuffed under his shirt.
"I know. I can feel it."
Merlin could feel it too. From the moment he'd opened the door to the treasury it called to him, tugging at the edges of his mind. It was nothing like the dull sparks left in the old machines, and nothing like the wild, joyful magic that used to sing inside the silver bird. This power was tightly coiled, patient, clever and waiting.
"I want to see Arthur before I give it to you," he said. "Bring him here."
"Oh, I'll do one better. I'll take you to him."
He tugged on Merlin's sleeve, motioning away from the grove and the guards. Merlin hesitated - here he could at least scream for help if the physician tried to take the stone from him, but then the ransom would fall back into Camelot's hands, and Arthur...
"Don't you want to see Arthur?" asked Edwin softly, and Merlin went after him, tightly clasping the stone against his chest. He just realized how over his head he was in all of this.
They walked through the forest for some time, first sneaking from tree to tree, then growing bolder as they left the grove behind.
"Who helped you steal it?" Edwin asked. "Was it Lady Morgana or the cute little blacksmith girl?"
He didn't answer, trying to remember the path and guess where they were heading, but he needn't have bothered. They walked up to a small clearing with a witch's circle of mushrooms in the middle. Edwin stepped in and beckoned Merlin to follow, and the next moment they were somewhere else entirely. The thick forest gave way to hilly stretch of tall grass with solitary, gnarled trees here and there. They walked down the hill into the crag between two cliffs, and Edwin pulled back some thick bushes to reveal the mouth of a cave.
They went through, stooping at first in the narrow passage. The cave widened, turning into a bigger room with a few pallets and a fire pit with a cooking pot hanging over it. There was a man crouched on the floor, sorting through food stores. He startled and stared at them, his eyes shimmering as he sensed the magic of the stone. Without a word he abandoned loaves of bread on the ground and rose to follow them deeper inside the cave.
After a few bends Merlin saw bright light ahead and thought they'd be coming to the surface, but it was another cave, bigger than the first one. He saw two other strangers and a bunch of tools and machinery, and then he finally saw Arthur.
Arthur was alive; he was standing on a workbench, reaching up to tighten a bolt on some huge machine in the middle of a cave. He threw a quick, distracted glance at them as they entered, and then he noticed Merlin and his face hardened, turning white in sudden anger.
He dropped the spanner, letting it bounce off the rocks - Arthur would never treat tools that way, he'd yell at anyone who'd dare - and jumped down. Something jangled, and only then did Merlin see a chain stretching from Arthur's ankle to the wall. The skin above it was ringed in faint bruises. Arthur was standing barefoot on the cold rocks. The disgusting tatters he wore were stained with sweat and machine grease, and it took Merlin a moment to realise that those were Arthur's fine sleeping clothes. He had a bandage on his arm and both his hands were wrapped in dirty rags. A big chunk of his hair was missing on one side where they'd cut it to include with the ransom note, and his scalp was showing through in pale patches. It was unbearable to see him like this, but he was alive, he was alive.
"No," he said. "No, no. I did what you wanted. You told me you wouldn't take anyone else if I did what you wanted! You will release him at once! If you lay a finger on him -"
"Oh, what you would do then, Your Highness? Anyway, Merlin is here on his own volition," said Edwin. "Aren't you, Merlin?"
"I... came to save you," said Merlin with a shaky smile. Arthur groaned and clenched his fists.
"Merlin, you bloody idiot," he said. "Now they have two prisoners. How stupid are you, exactly? You keep surprising me."
"No, he did save you," said Edwin. Two of the men came up to Merlin and grabbed his arms; Arthur made a harsh, desperate sound, lunged forward and was stopped short by the chain. Edwin stuck his hand under Merlin's shirt and retrieved the stone wrapped in his neckerchief. "He brought your ransom. Now we can go ahead with our plan. I was starting to think we would have to settle for the simple pleasure of killing you and sending your father your body parts just to watch his face. But now you get to live."
"You made me do all this and you sent for ransom as well?" asked Arthur, gritting his teeth. "I should have known."
"Yes, you really should have. Did you think we'd go through the trouble of kidnapping an heir to the throne just to have him correct our gear ratios? Having you do that while we waited was simply efficient. I'm sure as an engineer you appreciate that. Two birds, one stone. All right, this won't take long. Merlin, you can go join your master."
They let him go and pushed him toward Arthur, and he went, curling his fingers over his cuffs to keep from reaching for him. He wanted so badly to touch Arthur, to feel him there, solid and real, warm and breathing.
For a moment it almost seemed that Arthur wanted that too, that he was about to lean in and fling his arms around Merlin, hugging him like friends do. Instead he put his hand on Merlin's shoulder, clasping it firmly just as he did when they'd first met. His thumb slid down Merlin's collarbone, rubbing soothingly.
"Come on, pull yourself together," he said under his breath. "Don't let them see you like this."
Now, up close, it was even worse than it seemed at first glance. He could see dirt clinging to the creases on Arthur's face between patches of shaggy blond stubble. He could see the sickly paleness of his skin, deep shadows under his blood-shot eyes, fresh cuts on his fingers. He caught a shade of that smell he remembered from Camelot's dungeons: days-old stale sweat, bitter with pain and fear, musty blankets, badly cleaned filth; the smells of captivity. He couldn't even imagine how Arthur, with his daily bath addiction, could stand this - but Arthur was right. It wouldn't do to fall to pieces in front of their enemies.
Merlin nodded and rubbed at his face with his sleeve. Behind him things were moving. The magicians were using spells to push the workbenches to the walls and pull the large machine to the centre of the room.
"So how much was the ransom?" asked Arthur loudly. "What's that, bag of gems? The crown jewels? Guess this should be enough to ship your toy across the sea - where is that you're heading now?"
"We're staying here," said one of the magicians, unwrapping the stone reverently. "This is the last piece of the puzzle. All the strings our puppet needs."
The stone glowed in his palms, rose in the air and floated to the top of the big machine, to the last piece of the casing that was still propped open.
Merlin hadn't really spared the machine more than a glance before. Now he looked, and reached out with his magic to taste and feel as well. It was huge, rising up to the ceiling of the cave. It looked a little bit like an ancient suit of armour Merlin had seen decorating the great chambers of Camelot. It had two legs, a barrel-shaped body covered in interlocking steel plates, and two arms, but that's where the similarity ended.
The thing didn't have a head. Its broad shoulders sloped to a smooth dome with lines of runes spiralling over it. The arms were as thick as legs and twice as long, reaching the floor. With the body tilted forward the machine was supported on all fours. The arms had complex ball-joints at the elbows and ended with mean looking three-fingered claws. The legs of the machine bent forward at the knees and backwards at the heels like animal paws, and its feet were triple-toed as well, thick metal stumps spreading wide on the cave floor.
The Archmage's stone slid into place, and the inside of machine lit up all at once. The magic wasn't flowing yet, but the power of the stone opened up all the pathways and held them like that, hungry, ringing, yearning to be filled. The machine didn't move, but it tensed all over, invisibly but unmistakably.
"What is it?" Merlin asked. "What does it do?"
He couldn't figure it out; the machine's functions were too complex, it was able to move in so many ways, and there was something in its chest - a dark empty whirlpool, a frightening void, and he couldn't fathom what it could be for.
"It doesn't do anything," said Arthur. "Its only purpose is to destroy."
The raised plate clicked down, pushed shut by magic. The machine was complete now, slick and impenetrable from any angle.
"This was the vision of our last Archmage, the greatest sorcerer who'd ever lived," said Edwin. "Uther slaughtered him and ordered his work destroyed - he feared it could be turned on him. He stole the Archmage's stone and kept it from us. He repaid centuries of our service with betrayal and persecution and drove us from our home, all out of fear that one day we'd rise against him. Today is the day we teach him a lesson about self-fulfilling prophecies."
"This can't be," said Arthur, vehemently shaking his head. "No, if my father had that thing he wouldn't give it to you. Not for me, not for anything. No."
"I kind of stole it," Merlin confessed, and Arthur slumped against the wall with a moan and stared at him, furious.
"Well, what was I supposed to do?" Merlin demanded, throwing his arms up. "They said they'd kill you! And you - you worked on it, you corrected their gear ratios! If you hadn't-"
And then he saw it all again, the chain and the bandages and that haunted look in Arthur's deathly tired eyes, and he could punch himself for being such a callous idiot.
"Sorry," he mumbled. "I guess you had no choice."
"Yeah," Arthur said, his eyes softening. "I guess you didn't either."
The men formed a circle around the machine and pressed their hands to its steel flanks, testing the paths, feeling their ways around the power conduit.
"The machines were an abomination from the very beginning," said one of them. "The mere idea that the arcane arts would be used like that: caged and bound, put to household tasks and menial labour, made to perform the work of serfs and animals... It's disgusting. It's a travesty."
"But the machines that run on steam - that's the real danger," said another, pointing a finger at Arthur. "They are dumb, crude implements imbued with the power beyond man's capacity to handle. You'd destroy our forests and plunder our earth to feed them, and you'd never stop. The more machines you build, the more you'd need to keep the vicious circle going."
"Camelot is a blight on this land," said Edwin. "Without it, the duchies will fall in line, and we'll rebuild Albion the way it's supposed to be. We'll restore this land to its true destiny. The magicians will return."
"I notice they aren't here with you," said Arthur. The bravado in his voice was cracking, so clearly fake now it was painful to listen to. "Even your own people think you're raving maniacs."
"They're reluctant to get their hands dirty," answered Edwin calmly. "They'll be back once we've cleared the way. It's not really about the machines. They were only a symptom of this malady. Everything went wrong centuries ago, when the first magician bowed to King Arthur and threw the power of our people at his feet. We need a fresh start, and this time we're going to do it right."
He lifted his palms off the machine's hull and took a step toward Arthur. Merlin pushed forward, ready to plead, bargain, even fight, but Arthur grabbed his arm and shoved him back between himself and the wall.
"Let him go," Arthur said, nearly begging. "You've no quarrel with him. Just let him go, and then do what you will."
"Oh, we're not going to harm either of you. We have great plans for you. Just like your namesake, the great King Arthur, you're going to become a legend. You're going to bring magic back to Albion. You'll watch Camelot burn, your beloved machines reduced to dust, and your traitor Father die in agony. And then you'll take your throne and you'll rule the way we tell you to if you don't want the rest of Albion go up in flames. And Merlin - oh, I'm so glad he's here. I'm giving him to you as your court sorcerer. He's got magic in his blood. Are you surprised, Arthur?"
Merlin's heart sank, even though it was beyond stupid and selfish worrying about his own fate at a time like this.
"Not really," said Arthur flatly with a small shrug.
"I thought as much. You see, that had been our mistake, too. We'd sent our best and brightest to serve as liaisons with the king, and Camelot would poison them against us. This one is irredeemable, but he's completely powerless. Your father saw to that. This boy, just like so many others, was robbed of any chance to develop and harness his gift. He can't do anything. But he's an open receptacle for our magic. We'll use him to relay messages and instructions, and we'll watch you through his eyes."
"Edwin, enough," said one of the men. "Let us begin."
They all placed his hands on the machine again, and Merlin felt their power flow in, priming the pathways and laying down the tasks, burning their orders into the spaces between the runes. The whirlpool inside slowly churned around the first wisps of energy, melting them into restless sparks of blue flame. It was then that he understood what kind of magic that was, what kind of weapon.
Arthur's hand suddenly squeezed his. His fingertips were icy and there were raggedy bandages between their palms, but his grip was sure and strong. Merlin squeezed back, comforted in some irrational but deep way, and readied himself for the next move.
"Merlin," Arthur whispered urgently in his ear. "Make a break for it while they're distracted. I'll create a diversion - just run. Get out of here and run like hell. Use your magic if you can, run and don't look back. Get help, all right? Get out and send help."
Merlin nodded distractedly, waiting for the right moment. His power was lined along the magicians' now, vibrating at the edges of the flow they were creating and weaving inside it. He knew they couldn't sense him. He was so good at hiding, keeping his magic curled up and still as if it wasn't there at all. He'd only ever let it sneak out to explore and feel the world without creating any disturbance or leaving any trace, the way these magicians never had to. They didn't notice him until they finished their preparations and opened up, leaving themselves defenceless, to pour all their power into the waiting conduits. That was when he struck out.
He didn't know if it would work at all, if his magic would be strong and quick enough. But he had to try, and he knew that was what Arthur wanted, no matter the risks.
His magic crashed outwards through the intricate lines of their interwoven power, clumsy and all the more disruptive for it. The men staggered back, screaming in pain and confusion. Merlin glanced down at the chain binding Arthur and thought how much he hated it. That was all it took. The links burst, torn to small twisted pieces, and he pushed Arthur toward the exit.
"Arthur, run!" he yelled. The magicians were recovering, turning to him and muttering spells. He gathered his magic and pushed it at them, messily, blindly, just trying to keep them away while Arthur got out.
Arthur dropped his hand and ran, but only as far as the nearest workbench. He grabbed a lump hammer and a chisel and rushed the magicians, running headlong into the deadly spells flowing toward him.
Merlin fell on his knees and thrust all his power, all he had, between them and Arthur. Then he turned it all toward them, making his intent deadly, putting all his rage into it. The hostile power rippled through his, and he pushed down on it, grinding it into nothing, smashing into their sharp, honed spells with the blunt force of all he was. He yelled it all out, ready to let it his power spill out from the very core of his being until nothing was left of him.
"Merlin, you can stop screaming like a girl," he heard Arthur say after what seemed an age, and he took a breath and opened his eyes. The magicians were on the floor, not moving. Arthur stood next to him, still holding the tools. Blood dripped from them, and he could hear it hitting the stone floor in the sudden silence: plink, plink.
"They said you were powerless," Arthur remarked. His face was paler than before, his expression unreadable.
"Um," Merlin said. His throat felt raw. "Uh. Did you see how I, with the chain?"
"Yeah, that doesn't count. I tired it out for you."
"Huh? Oh, never mind. Did we kill them?"
"Not sure," Arthur said, cautiously glancing at the bodies. "I've not... done this before."
They moved around the room, checking for heartbeats and finding none. The last one was crumpled on the floor face-down, his arm broken and his hair soaked in blood. Merlin thought he could still hear him struggling to take a breath, the last bit of life still gurgling down his throat. Secretly, Merlin had hoped they would all be dead. They deserved no better. But finishing off a wounded enemy didn't feel right; they could take this one prisoner, have him stand trial...
The man suddenly twisted around and grabbed Merlin's leg with his good arm. He'd been muttering a spell under his breath, and he forced out the last words through his bloodied lips while Merlin struggled to push him off. Arthur ran up to them and swung the hammer, baring his teeth in grim determination, and the man fell, not even crying out. His eyes were still open, and they were still trained on Merlin.
"Your magic," he whispered, his mouth twisting into a pained smile. "Your life. You're the centre now."
Arthur hit him again on the temple; the man's head lolled on the floor, and his eyes went empty. Merlin checked his pulse with a shaking hand to be sure. Arthur dropped the hammer and wiped the blood splatter off his face with his dirty sleeves.
"Glad I live in the modern age," he said queasily. "I'd make a rubbish warrior."
Merlin didn't think so, but couldn't find the energy to argue. Something was wrong; whatever the spell was, he knew it did something to him, but he couldn't quite pin it down. There was an odd presence inside his chest, a subtle current running through his body in sync with his heartbeat. It didn't hurt, and it didn't seem to be doing him any harm...
And then the runes on the machine's hull began to glow, lighting up in cold blue one by one.
Arthur shouted a warning, grabbed him and pulled him to the exit as the machine stirred and rose on its haunches, shifting around and finding its balance.
"They must have put some magic in it," Arthur said, hovering at the edge of the bend where they took cover. "It'll run out, it can't be much, right? Right?"
"No," Merlin moaned. He felt it now, the inexorable tug as waves of his own magic were pulled out of his body, leaking out
through his fingertips, his solar plexus, everywhere. "No, it's not going to run out. It's feeding on me. That one, he put a spell on me - it's feeding on my magic now!"
"Well, stop it!" demanded Arthur, shaking him by the shoulders.
"I can't! I don't know how!"
He tried, but it was like trying to sprout wings or trying to stop being yourself. No matter how hard he strained, nothing happened; every effort he made only seemed to make the magic pump out of him faster. He didn't feel weakened, but he couldn't do anything. All of his power was locked, bound by a skill far beyond him. He felt every pulse of it, felt his magic being swallowed by the Archmage's stone and spat out again, chewed up and changed. It no longer felt like his, and it was falling right into the patterns set by the will of the dead magicians. It was flooding the vortex inside the machine, which was now a pool of molten, pressurised fire.
"It's all right, it's all right," said Arthur as Merlin cried out in frustration, trying to pull free and sinking deeper with every movement, like a foal in a mire. "It's trapped here, it's too big to get out of this cave, it'll be..."
As if it heard him, the machine rose higher on its hind legs and a brilliant ray of pure light shot out of the centre of its body. They were blinded for a second. When they could see again through the clouds of stone dust, the cave wall was gone, and daylight was pouring in through a wide, steaming tunnel. The machine was grappling at the edges of the tunnel with its arms, widening it. Stones crumbled in its claws like lumps of clay. As they stared, dumbstruck, it cleared enough of a way to off the floor with its legs and leap upwards through the tunnel, clearing it in one graceful jump.
Arthur lunged after it and scrambled through the tunnel with Merlin following suit. Once outside, the machine stopped for a moment and twisted around, getting its bearings, and then it into a run. It leapt heavily from one foot to another, pushing off the ground with its long arms. It circumvented bigger trees and ran straight through smaller ones, and their trunks snapped against steel.
They ran after it. It was faster than them, though not by much, and Merlin knew that eventually they'd have to slow down while it wouldn't. It was leaving a wide trail, its feet gouging deep marks in the forest floor, and they could still see it ahead, but it was getting away. Even if they could catch up, Merlin had no idea what they'd do.
"It won't make it to Camelot!" Arthur yelled, grunting when his bare feet hit rocks or pine cones. "I've rigged it to fail. I've sabotaged every part of it! It won't make it - it has a few miles in it, no more, and then..."
They made it to the top of the hill and Arthur stumbled, staring down incredulously.
"All that time," he muttered. "All that bloody time, that's where I was?"
Merlin caught up to him and saw Camelot, just like he saw it for the first time: on the hill in the centre of the valley below, beautiful and peaceful and crowned with white towers and great chimneys. It was so close, not five miles away.
The machine was running down the hill, easily scaling down the steep incline. If it kept going like that, it would take it a quarter of an hour to reach the nearest houses, and if it spared those it would be at the city walls minutes later.
"Look!" Arthur gripped his arm, hard, careless with his strength in his excitement. "Look, there it is!"
The machine wobbled slightly, faltering in its steps for a fraction of a moment. It lost control of its heel joint and staggered for a few steps, attempting to lock that leg and adjust its balance. But then it continued running, a little sideways now, using its arm as a crutch. It didn't slow down that noticeably, but Arthur was triumphant, nearly hopping on the spot.
"Look!" he yelled again. "It'll spread now, now that knee will go, then that elbow, and then the axle will pop out of alignment - it has a few good steps in it, on the furrowed fields it has to push that much harder, it won't make - "
The machine's knee buckled, right on cue, and this time Merlin saw something pop out, maybe a few small bearings. He felt the magic inside the machine falter too, falling slightly out of line. Even over the distance he heard a loud metallic screech when something inside the hull gave and the arm of the machine went slack, the claw twitching erratically. The machine stopped, holding itself carefully upright. Arthur swallowed loudly next to Merlin's ear. His fingers on Merlin's arm were trembling.
"Come on," he whispered. "Come on, give up. You're dead."
The machine pushed off the ground with its good leg and leapt up. At the top of the arch its back opened up. Two panels slid out, revealing moving wheels and pistons underneath. The magic inside it twisted and changed, and the machine soared up, flying.
"No!" Arthur screamed. "It can't possibly fly! It doesn't even - it's not possible!"
"Magic," said Merlin bitterly. It was his magic, ripped right out of him. He felt how it was working and couldn't do a thing to stop it. The machine was hovering in the air, flying slowly but steadily, like a gigantic bumblebee. He could feel that its insides were half torn. Everything was slipping from its sockets, delicate cogs broken, springs hanging loose, uncoiled and twisted. But if it held itself perfectly still, like it was doing now, it could still fly right over Camelot, and it could pour fire over all of it. It could burn Camelot to the ground. They had no defence from air attacks. Crossbows wouldn't do anything to it, and Merlin wasn't even sure if they had a catapult or if it could hit something directly overhead...
His magic, that man had said, his life. Merlin felt it to be true. He couldn't stop the spell. Trapped and bound, all his strength was useless to him; he couldn't get free, not as long as he lived.
He thought about his mum, and it hurt to imagine her pain when she would find out. But then he thought of Camelot: Gaius, Gwen, Morgana, the engineers, all the people, all the mothers and children there, unaware of what was coming toward them bringing fire and death. And then, then it was easy. Arthur was still holding onto the chisel as if he'd been planning to attack the machine with it if they managed to catch up to it. Maybe he even had, but it didn't matter. It was a stroke of luck. The chisel was sharp, so it would be quick.
Arthur was lost, staring at the machine in complete disbelief, not yet accepting what was happening. Merlin gently uncurled his fingers and Arthur let him, let the chisel slip free and settle in Merlin's hand. Merlin grabbed it hard, concentrated on the pressure of steel against his palm so he wouldn't have to think of anything else and wouldn't be afraid and struck upwards, fast, aiming at his own throat.
He must have faltered at the last second, or Arthur was just that quick, but when his mind cleared from a moment of that terrified blankness Arthur had the chisel, and Merlin's wrist hurt where Arthur had twisted it. There was only a shallow scratch on his neck, but it stung as he clutched at it and it bled all over his hand. His magic was still caught in the spell, and the machine was still flying, getting so close to its target now.
"What in the hell do you think you're doing?" Arthur yelled in his face, and slapped him on the ear, harder than he probably meant to. "Are you out of your mind?"
"It'll stop if I die."
"Yes, Arthur, I know that for sure! I can feel that! I don't want to die, do you think I want to? We have no choice! Arthur, come on. Please. Help me. We're out of time."
"Arthur, it's Camelot! It's your people, it's your kingdom! Just think how many would die - and we can stop it, we can save them all. With just one life, Arthur, we have to."
He grabbed Arthur's hand, the one holding the chisel, and pulled it up. Arthur resisted, his whole body locked and his eyes - Merlin couldn't bear to meet his eyes.
"No," Arthur said. "No. Not you. Not you."
"It's your duty," Merlin told him, and Arthur made a wretched noise, something between a groan and a sob. He turned his head toward Camelot, and suddenly stepped back.
"Woah," he said. "What."
There was another dark shape in the sky, quickly bearing down on the machine. It beat its great wings, speeding up, and Merlin recognised it. He yelled in sudden joy, jumping and waving his arms. The dragon didn't pay him any heed, probably couldn't see him from that distance. It was flying straight at the machine, and it was many times its size, terrible and glorious.
The machine spat out an endless ray of blue fire. It arced through the sky, aiming at the dragon's head. The dragon folded its wings and dove under it, barrelling down like a stone for one dizzying second before it fanned out its wings again, whipped its tail and somersaulted in the air, ending up underneath the machine. The dragon grabbed it by the leg with its clawed paws and hurtled it down toward the green fields.
The machine crashed into soft earth, coughing out fire in a mad spiral. The impact threw up a wall of soil, making a huge crater in the field, but the machine scrambled up right away. It pushed up with its good limbs and straightened, and leapt upwards again. Just as it strained to gain flight, its arms flailed up and it twisted on itself as if in pain. One of its legs jerked and snapped off at the joint; a seam opened up at its shoulder with a beam pushing through. It fell down again and struggled to rise, tearing the loose beam further through itself. Then the magic finally slid free of the mutilated metal paths, free of the pull of the Archmage's stone. It spun out, unravelling, and singed the green wheat shoots to black for yards around.
"It's dead," Merlin said. His magic was settling back, happy, warm, relieved to be his again. "I'm free."
Arthur slung an arm over his shoulder, leaning in with all his weight. His knees were probably as weak as Merlin's felt right now. And then he started laughing, and he was so beautiful. Even dirty and worn out like now, he was perfect and radiant, golden and beautiful as the sun. Merlin could look at him all his life and never get enough.
"Damn," Arthur said finally with a prattish, smug smile, still chuckling a little. "I knew it would work. I'm awesome!"
The dragon made a slow circle over the broken machine and flew toward them, gracefully gliding down.
"Er," Arthur said, peeling himself off Merlin and squaring his shoulders. "What is that thing? Do we have to fight that now?"
"I don't think so. Well, I hope not!" said Merlin cheerfully. Most of the time he wasn't sure what to think of the dragon, and even less at that moment.
The dragon touched down and walked the last few steps toward them, swaying from side to side like a landed duck. Arthur looked at its enormous head then at the ten inch long chisel he still held in his hand, considered it for a moment and nonchalantly tucked the chisel into his waistband. Then he folded his hands behind his back in a stiff ceremonial posture, as if he was stood in Camelot's great hall, dressed in velvet and with his golden coronet on his brow. He bowed to the dragon, shallowly but slowly and respectfully.
"Thank you," he said in a loud, clear voice. "Camelot owes you a debt of gratitude."
"It does," the dragon answered. "Perhaps I shall ask for it to be returned one day."
"Hey, I did save your life out there," Arthur immediately noted. "If I hadn't rigged that machine to fail it would have fried you on the second pass."
The dragon responded with a low, amused chuckle.
"Arthur Pendragon," he said. "Hear this. Magic will be a part of this land till the end of time. It can be your ally or your enemy. That choice always rests with you."
It spread its wings and took off again, easily soaring upwards.
"Wait!" Merlin called. Arthur grabbed his hand in warning, but Merlin just squeezed back reassuringly and yelled again. "Wait! Did you know this would happen? Why didn't you just tell me? We could have - did you want for this to happen?"
"The future is fluid," said the dragon, hovering in the air above them. Every beat of its wings was blowing their hair back with a sharp gust of wind.
"What? What does that even mean?"
"Nobody knows. That's the point."
"Are you really my friend? Why did you send me here? Tell me!"
The dragon twisted its neck and looked right at Merlin, baring all its teeth. Merlin felt Arthur tense at his side, but he was almost sure the dragon was smiling at him.
"Merlin," the dragon said. "Try to last longer this time. We're not always friends, but when you're not here, I always miss you."
It flew straight up, twirling in the air playfully; it looked like it loved flying and relished every moment it spent in the air. Merlin stared after it until it was just a dot over the horizon, and then Arthur let go of his hand and lay down on the ground, stretching on his back in the sparse grass of the hilltop.
"Ow, my feet," he grimaced. "Cut them to shreds on that stupid run through that stupid forest."
"Let me." Merlin knelt down to survey the damage, maybe fashion some bandages out of his shirt, but Arthur caught his sleeve and stopped him.
"No, leave it. I'd rather trust Gaius to do that when we get home."
"How will you get home like this?" asked Merlin, a little offended.
"I'm not walking another step. Someone would've seen what happened - the whole city must have. Father will send out riders to investigate, they'll be here soon enough."
He pillowed his head on one arm and tilted his face up into the rays of summer sunlight, breathing deeply of the fresh air. After just a moment of basking in that pleasure, he opened his eyes and levelled an accusing finger at Merlin's face.
"You," he said sternly. "Have an awful lot of explaining to do."
"Yeah, all right," nodded Merlin, resigned, and shifted closer.
"Firstly and most importantly," Arthur said, frowning with his blond eyebrows. "It was you who broke my merlin-bird, wasn't it?"
"It's not yours, exactly."
"Can you fix it or not?"
"I could," Merlin said. He knew it wouldn't take more than a thought. The ancient magic was still inside him, part of his own, yet unchanged by it. It would leave just as effortlessly as it came and would return to its old home.
"Good," Arthur nodded with a little satisfied smile. "Good, you'll do that first thing after we get home. Second thing would be getting my bath ready."
"Home? You mean - you want me to go back to Camelot?"
"Well, yes. I've already paid you for this whole month, in case you've conveniently forgotten. Besides, you were going to die for this city. I assume it means you like it there."
Arthur spoke lightly, obviously joking, but there was something guarded and darkly serious in his eyes, and Merlin wasn't sure how to answer.
"Of course, you'd have to be careful," Arthur continued. "I don't want to see you running around the castle waving your magic around. But somehow you've managed to keep it hidden thus far, so just don't do anything, don't attract attention and don't..."
He trailed off. Now he was looking at Merlin with an expression that didn't belong on his face, didn't suit him at all. It was pity, or guilt, and it made Merlin twitchy, made him uncomfortable, made him dig his fingers into the grass, fidgeting and ducking away from Arthur's eyes.
"I don't know what it's like, to have all that inside you," Arthur said quietly. "Now that you had a taste of it, maybe you want... Maybe going back to Camelot is like asking you to shut yourself in a cave."
It felt good that Arthur would care enough to think of that, but at the same time Merlin knew that Arthur had far too much time to think lately. Arthur'd been locked up, threatened with death, stripped of all power, and now he understood the need to be free all too well. All this sudden sensitivity was just a sign of how raw he felt, how fresh the wounds were. Merlin would rather have the old inconsiderate prat back, the one who was obnoxious and demanding and thought himself invincible. The one who believed that nothing was quite out of his reach.
"I don't feel any different," Merlin said. "I'm not going mad with power as we speak, or anything. All right, I've never tried anything big like that before; I never knew if I could and now I do. But it wasn't a pleasant thing, what we did to those magicians."
"No," Arthur agreed, visibly suppressing a shudder.
"I'd be glad to come back. I'm happy to serve you till I die, really," said Merlin, even though it sounded unnecessarily soppy. Arthur didn't laugh or call him a girl; he just nodded a little, taking it as his due. Merlin was starting to suspect that the old obnoxious Arthur would be back in full force before the day was out. "I just don't fancy my chances after the king finds out I robbed his treasury."
Merlin hadn't really considered how this all could end for him, only thinking as far ahead as the next step and the ultimate goal of bringing Arthur home. He could be exiled or condemned as a thief. Of course, the choice between that and leaving Arthur in enemy's hands had been no choice at all.
"Oh, that. Right. Does anyone know - were you seen?"
"Gwen knows. And Morgana and Morgause..."
"They're all right," said Arthur off-handedly. "Well, obviously, Edwin stole that bloody stone thing himself. With magic! Who even knows how it really works, he might have done. In fact, you've not even been in that cave. You were wandering in the forest, stupid with grief and worry. Or, well, stupider. I defeated them alone and made my escape, and then you came across me as I was resting here. And - you know what, let me do all the talking when we get back, you'd cock it up. You've been struck dumb by the great joy of my safe return. Just pretend you're mute for a week or so until things settle down."
Merlin pouted and rolled his eyes, trying to hide the bright rush of relief.
"Oh, so you're just going to take all the credit?"
"I'm the prince," Arthur said pompously. "It's my birth right. So that's settled, then."
He closed his eyes again. He looked exhausted; Merlin thought he might want to nap here in the sunlight. He sat quietly, watching Arthur's face the way he couldn't before. He'd always had to satisfy the urge with quick glances. Now he could look his fill, feast his eyes on all this: Arthur's pale eyelashes, the shape of his lips, the tiny lines at the corners of his eyes, that funny bit on his nose where the bridge widened slightly.
Arthur's fingers twitched against his hand. He could have dozed off already, and his dreams could be dark. Merlin carefully slipped his fingers into Arthur's open palm and held his hand, willing the nightmare away. Arthur's bandaged hand tightened around his gently.
"And by the way, I still want an explanation about that dragon chap," said Arthur in a completely awake voice. "I take it you're bosom buddies."
"Not really," Merlin said. Arthur kept holding onto him, so he didn't pull away either, determined to enjoy it while he could. "We've only talked a couple of times, and, well, you saw how he is. Mostly I've no clue what he's on about."
"Oh, that's helpful. What about the Archmage's stone? Can you tell me anything useful about that? Can it be used for good, or should I advise my father to destroy it?"
"It can definitely be used for good," said Merlin thoughtfully, remembering the way his magic twisted inside the stone before falling apart into prismatic shards of power that grew pure, refined and multiplied. "Anything could be. The war machine would be amazing for coal mining."
"True," Arthur agreed, his eyes already sparkling with ideas.
"But, I don't know. It's pretty scary. I don't think we're ready for that kind of power."
"Oh, we're never ready. Do you know how monumentally not ready people were for the invention of the crossbows? Or even going further back, bladed weapons in the hands of all those uncivilised ancient barbarians - what a complete disaster."
"Engines, too," nodded Merlin, getting in on the joke. "Centuries ahead of their time."
"No doubt. But that's probably the only way to progress: do first, sort out the consequences later. Otherwise nothing would get done."
He glanced at Merlin. His fingertips were running slow, ticklish circles over the back of Merlin's hand, and it was so overwhelmingly pleasant that Merlin didn't want to question it.
"Right now, I'm thinking that you're not ready," Arthur said.
"What, to have magic? Arthur, it's not like..."
"No, for this," Arthur said quickly and pushed up. His palm curled over the back of Merlin's neck gently. It was only a ghost of a touch, but then Arthur was right there, his face inches away. Then his lips were on Merlin's.
The kiss was light, sweet and chaste, just a dry whisper of skin on skin. The soft warmth of Arthur's lips was somehow shocking, leaving Merlin deaf and blind for a second. The world blinked out, leaving nothing but that sensation: Arthur's mouth pressed to his, his breath on Merlin's cheek, his fingers curling tighter on Merlin's nape, stroking up and carding through his hair. And then Arthur pulled back and lay down again, grinning up into the sky and looking incredibly pleased with himself.
Merlin gaped at him, his lips still tingling with sense memory. He thought he should be angry, that this could be just a cruel joke at the expense of a lovestruck servant or worse, some underhanded gesture of gratitude. But no, he knew Arthur better than that. That was a proud smile. He was proud of himself for the act of bravery in making the first move.
He touched Arthur's face questioningly. He saw Arthur's eyelashes flutter and a bright blush spread over the pale skin under his fingers. Then he couldn't resist that pull, that desperate want any longer. He dove at Arthur like a falcon after a prey and took his mouth, kissing it hungrily, deeply and without reservation.
Arthur was making the most wonderful hitching noises in his throat, and his arms curled over Merlin's back, holding on for dear life. Merlin bracketed Arthur's perfect face with his hands and quickly plastered sloppy kisses all over it, over his eyelids, cheeks, on the tip of his nose, on his lips again. He shifted up so their bodies were pressed together, so he could feel more of the rise and fall of Arthur's chest and the fast hammering of his heartbeat. Arthur's eyes were unfocused and a little wary, his arms tense.
"All right?" Merlin asked hoarsely, his head swimming with joy and arousal.
"I wore these clothes for days. I must smell like a dead horse," said Arthur with sincere anguish.
"No," Merlin assured him. "Well, yes, but I don't mind."
Arthur half-laughed, half-sighed against his lips and pulled him closer. This time he was the one to deepen the kiss, lick inquisitively at the seam of Merlin's lips before pushing further into his mouth. He was a little clumsy at it, a little shaky and unsure and not at all what Merlin had imagined when indulging in wild fantasies above his station. But Merlin liked it all the better for it and loved Arthur all the more.
They stayed like that, kissing in the grass with their eyes shut, not saying another word, until they heard sounds of hooves in the distance, and then Merlin placed the last gentlest kiss on Arthur's flushed lips and got up to wave to the riders.
One of the men had galloped ahead to announce their arrival, so by the time they rode through the gates the streets were filled with cheering and waving townsfolk. Arthur waved back, glad that he took a jerkin, cloak and boots off one of the riders and wasn't entering Camelot in his torn nightwear. He still must have looked like he'd spent a week chained up in a cave, but there was only joy on the faces of his people as far as he could see. Nobody gave him any pained, tear-filled looks like Merlin did when he first arrived with his ransom.
The engineers came running from the workshop, still in their working gear. They hadn't stopped; they kept the work going even in his absence, and he felt a surge of pride and possessive love for his men, all of them Camelot's finest. They surrounded his horse, grabbing at his stirrups and yelling some loud, cheerful nonsense, just happy words that didn't string into sentences. Arthur dismounted to walk with them; they hovered close, their yearning plain on their faces as reverence and a sense of propriety held them back. He gave each a smile and a pat on the arm, calling their names: Owain, Pelinor, Leon, Gawain, Kay. Morgause was there, and he took her hand and kissed it quickly. It was the only gratitude for her part in Merlin's plot they both knew would be given, expected or accepted.
Morgana ran down the castle steps, pushed everyone aside and flung herself at him. She wrapped both arms around his neck and stayed there, pressed against him with all her body in a rather scandalous fashion, her face hidden against his shoulder and her back shaking under his palms.
Arthur looked for Merlin and saw him nearby, talking to Gwen. Or rather, both of them simply stared at each other, grinning widely but not saying much of anything.
"I could kiss you right now," Gwen said, and then did just that: cradled his face in her palms and kissed him right on the mouth, right where Arthur's lips had been not that long ago and where his taste could still be lingering. A wave of odd, twisted arousal shot through Arthur at the thought. Then Merlin turned and smiled at him, licking at his lower lip. Arthur nearly forgot that he had the eyes of all of the Camelot on him and nearly reached for him right there and then.
Suddenly the crowd stilled and parted, and everyone in the courtyard lowered their heads in a bow. The king was walking toward them with unsteady, swaying steps. His right sleeve hung empty and his face was streaked with tears, but he was smiling. Arthur hadn't seen his father smile like that since he was seven or eight, when small enough that the king would play with him. Arthur remembered times when Uther would toss him high in the air and catch him with both strong hands, and they'd both laugh at the stupid, endless joy of that.
They wouldn't, of course, do anything undignified in front of their subjects. But later, in Father's private chambers, Arthur let himself step closer and drop his head on Father's warm shoulder. He felt a light kiss pressed to his hair.
"You're not wearing your arm," he said, fingers uselessly tangled in the soft wool of Father's doublet. "Is it broken? Let me..."
"It's fine. I didn't see the point of wearing it today."
"But you always," insisted Arthur, swallowing hard against constricting tightness in his throat. "You've always said the king mustn't appear feeble. We have to look strong."
"How could I claim to be strong when my own son..." Father cut himself off and shook his head with a smile. "Don't worry, Arthur. The strength you've shown them today - nobody will doubt us again. You did well. To sabotage their machine - well, I expected nothing less from you, but to overpower all of them..."
"Thank you, Sire," Arthur mumbled. "I... seized a lucky opportunity."
"I received the report from the messenger you sent. I've already dispatched men to collect the bodies of those traitors and destroy what's left of their machinery. You can give me the details tomorrow. Now you should rest."
"It was Edwin who stole the Archmage's stone from the treasury. I heard him boast to the rest about it," said Arthur and flushed with shame. Lying to his father was awful and lying to his king was an act of treason, but Merlin had left him with no choice.
Father fixed him with a long, heavy stare, his lips pressed together in a familiar suspicious grimace.
"If you say so," he said. "Although, that manservant of yours disappeared right when the stone did. It's odd that he found you there by chance. We should question him more thoroughly."
"He's been struck dumb by the joy of - Father, he's nothing to do with this. He's loyal to me."
Uther sighed and ran his hand through Arthur's hair like he used to do all those years ago when they used to race a toy steamboat across a bathtub.
"Learning whom you can trust is the hardest lesson for every king," he said. "Often the most painful, both for you and your kingdom."
Arthur thought of those words later in his room as he sat in a steaming tub. Merlin went completely overboard, pouring scented oil in the water and scattering flower petals over it, but it was probably necessary to get rid of the smell. Now he was kneeling by the tub, running a soapy cloth over Arthur's skin. Every press of his hands came with a new surge of bone-deep, melting pleasure. Serenity spread through Arthur's body and calmed his mind.
Trusting Merlin wasn't a choice he could make, no more than breathing was a choice. If he was wrong, if all of this was a painful lesson in the making, he'd just have to endure it when the time came.
Merlin shaved the stubble off his face and washed his hair, slowly, carefully brushing the lather from Arthur's face. Every time his fingers slid over the shorn patch on Arthur's head they twitched and skittered away, but thankfully he wouldn't say anything. Not till later, when he'd unravelled the soaked bandage on Arthur's forearm.
"Oh fuck, did they..." he stuttered, fingers
hovering over the burn mark. Arthur knew the scar would be there forever, like a brand. But it hadn't bothered him until now.
"Don't," he said. "What do you want to do, kill them again?"
"Would have to raise them first," Merlin noted. "I don't think that's impossible."
His voice was light, but his face, always so pretty and guileless, suddenly turned cruel, lean and feral. Golden fire sparkled in his eyes - his magic, trying to get out. Arthur remembered how it felt, how it sang in the air around him, holding him in a tight cocoon of warmth for that one second before it turned on Edwin and his men and made them scream in agony.
He scooped up a handful of flower-scented water and threw it in Merlin's face. Merlin spluttered and hissed, shaking his head like a wet kitten.
"You've better things to do with your time," Arthur said.
"Right," Merlin wiped his face with Arthur's towel and poked at his shoulder. "Enough bathing. Up you go, Sire, before you grow flippers."
Arthur dressed himself in clean nightclothes, inhaling deeply the fresh scent of laundered, ironed linens. Merlin still pottered about, emptying the tub, mopping up splashes and gathering discarded clothes.
More than anything Arthur wanted to restore the old routines as quickly as possible and forget the last week had ever happened. They should be spending the rest of the night their usual way, working and studying together in agreeable silence. But he was deathly tired, drained all the more by the pleasurable long soak. Merlin, too, looked slightly wobbly on his feet as he moved around the room, straightening, smoothing and cleaning everything his hands touched which a kind of dedication Arthur had never expected from his lazy, insolent manservant.
"I'm going to bed," Arthur said. "Get the lights."
He slid into the clean, warm heaven between crisp sheets and fluffy blankets and rested his fatigue-heavy head on a pillow so soft it felt almost insubstantial. Merlin snuffed out the lamp; the darkness was a surprising, sharp pleasure, like a cool gentle palm stroking over his eyelids. He'd not been in the dark for days, and hadn't realised how much he'd craved this respite.
He heard the key slide into the lock and felt a cold shock of completely unwarranted panic. He knew he was safe here, in his own room in the middle of his castle in the heart of his kingdom – but he'd thought that before, and he'd been wrong. He sat up, just to look at the door as Merlin locked it, to reassure himself that it was solid and secure, that only he and Merlin had the key to it.
Merlin was still in the room. He had just finished locking the door from the inside.
"What are you doing?" Arthur asked, dropping is voice to a whisper for no reason at all.
"I'm sleeping here," said Merlin and stepped to the edge of the bed. Arthur watched him move his fingers, unfastening his clothes and carelessly shedding them piece by piece. Bared, Merlin's body glowed white in the moonlight, and his dark hair was a soft, endless black of the night sky.
"I decide where you sleep," Arthur said, staring greedily as Merlin's baggy trousers slipped past the sharp angles of his hipbones, down the pale length of his slim thighs. Merlin's cock was darker than the rest of him, half-hard and long. It swayed between his legs as Merlin put his knee on the mattress and lifted the corner of the blanket.
"Not tonight, you don't," said Merlin as he climbed in.
They lay on their sides, face to face and a foot apart with blankets pulled up to their chins, peering through the near-darkness. Arthur could only see the parts of Merlin's face that caught the moonlight from the window: the slope of his cheek, the tip of his nose, the glistening whites of his eyes. Merlin's head was on Arthur's spare pillow, his cheek pressed into the fine cotton from the southern kingdoms. Arthur thought that the pillow would hold Merlin's scent after this, that he might be able to feel him here even tomorrow.
"Merlin," he said. "When I - when I kissed you, I didn't mean it like that."
"Right," Merlin said. His teeth flashed in the dark, and his fingers slowly fanned over Arthur's forearm, each soft pad a point of heat on his skin. "How did you mean it, then, Sire?"
He rarely addressed Arthur properly, and every time he did Arthur suspected he was being mocked. But right now it was a welcome reminder of why he couldn't fall for this tease again. Before, on the hilltop, he'd been caught off-guard by Merlin's eagerness and unexpectedly insistent, confident touches. But that was hardly an excuse.
"I'm not a man to misuse a servant," Arthur said firmly.
"I know that," nodded Merlin and stroked his fingers down Arthur's arm, over the thin skin on the inside of his elbow.
"The kiss was meant to be a token," Arthur said, trying not to shiver under the caress. "A promise for the future. I will be a king one day. And then... then I want the magic to be my ally."
"Really? Even after what they did?"
"Yes. Don't get me wrong. I'm not afraid to have it as my enemy. It's just a terrible waste. The things we could do together – we could change the world. We will. When I'm king, and you're my court sorcerer..."
"Me?" gasped Merlin quietly.
"Of course. Do you see anyone else lined up for a job?"
"Ah. Thanks," snorted Merlin sarcastically.
"Don't worry. When we make peace with the magicians and they return, we'll have them teach you. Maybe you'll be a bit less useless then."
Merlin heaved a noisy breath. Arthur couldn't see enough of his face and couldn't tell if he was annoyed at the taunts or overwhelmed with gratitude. Not that it really mattered between them.
"It will be better this time," Arthur continued. "We won't need to use magic for mundane things any more. Our science has advanced immensely. This time, we won't make the same mistakes."
Merlin stilled and suddenly barked out a stunned laugh. That deserved a sound slap, but Merlin's fingers still stroked his skin and the rim of his ear glowed a delicate silver under the moonlight, so Arthur couldn't bring himself to hit him.
"Do you think it's all stupid fancies?" Arthur asked sullenly.
"No. I just thought – it's all exactly as Edwin said. You'll be a legend, just like the great King Arthur. You'll bring the magic back to the land, and you'll restore Albion to old glory. You know, the legends all say that one day King Arthur will return to Albion. And - it's like you're him."
He shifted closer. Now Arthur could feel the warmth of his skin, where his naked, bony knees brushed against the cloth of Arthur's breeches.
"The age of legends is over," Arthur said. He didn't know how he was going to endure years of this, of Merlin being so maddeningly close yet so out of reach. "Now is the age of reason. If we do a good job, we'll be remembered well. That's all there is to it."
"I don't know. We still have magic and dragons. Well, one dragon, anyway. There could still be legends."
The darkness around them felt like safety, like a wall shutting them from the rest of the world, and Arthur knew he could trust Merlin with anything, even the most ridiculous secrets.
"When I was very small," he said. "The merlin-bird used to follow me everywhere. Just me, it wouldn't let anyone else come near it. And I used to think... if it did belong to the great King Arthur, then maybe... maybe I could really be him, reborn to rule again. Maybe the bird recognised me."
"Maybe it did."
"No, that's childish fantasies. Besides, now the bird's all over you, which just makes no sense at all."
The mechanical bird still clung to Merlin affectionately. If it was him who took its life away in the first place, he'd apparently been forgiven. He'd restored the bird with a single wave of his fingers, manipulating ancient magic without hesitation or any apparent difficulty. Arthur even suspected that the two of them might have been in cahoots and the bird had only played dead to let Merlin show off.
"Maybe it recognised me too. Maybe I used to be King Arthur's court sorcerer. I could also have been reborn to make sure your head doesn't swell too much."
"Well, if that's the case, I'm sure you were awful. You must have been reborn a peasant as a fitting punishment."
"Doesn't feel like a punishment," said Merlin as he leaned in, lightly brushing his lips against Arthur's mouth.
It wasn't right for a prince to bed a servant. That would be crass, demeaning for both of them. When he was king and Merlin stood by his throne, nearly his equal as ally and councillor – then it could be different. Then they could have a true bond, like kings of old used to have with their trusted knights. In the old romances that Morgana used to read as a teenage girl, such friendships were the most sacred and enduring, always sealed with a kiss. That was what he'd intended; that was the promise unspoken, and only an idiot like Merlin would go and ruin the subtle beauty of it.
"You can't just kiss a person and ask them to wait until you're king," Merlin mumbled into his mouth between messy, sweet kisses.
"Merlin, I'm a prince of Camelot. You can't tell me what I can't do," Arthur said, nipping at Merlin's jaw.
"Well, I'm a magician. I can put boils on your cock. With my magic."
"Try me," said Merlin. He rolled on top of Arthur, shamelessly grinding down with his hips, letting Arthur feel the thick length of his cock.
Arthur grabbed his shoulders and flipped them over, pinning Merlin to the bed. This was going to be on his terms, not because his insolent manservant decided so. Merlin let out a soft, surprised grunt when his back hit the sheets but reached for Arthur again right away. The pale skin of his chest and belly was smooth, flawless and seemed almost too tender to touch with work-hardened hands. Arthur touched him anyway. A wave of goosebumps rose on Merlin's ribs under the first stroke and melted under second. He moaned, tipping his head back, to let Arthur nuzzle at the long arch of his neck and lick along the sharp angles of his collarbones. His skin tasted of salt and grass and the soap he used to wash Arthur's hair.
Their mouths met and locked again, and Arthur let himself fall into the kiss and forget everything but the pleasure rolling through his whole body. Merlin's hands were groping at his arse, pulling at his nightclothes, clumsily, without purpose.
"Get them off me," Arthur ordered, lifting his hips. Merlin obeyed without dawdling for once. He quickly undid the ties and peeled the friction-heated linen down.
Night air whispered on his skin, cooling him for a moment. Then their naked groins pressed together, and the heat of that was scorching, warming him through to the core.
Arthur braced over Merlin on his elbows and shifted his hips so his cock slid along Merlin's hard length. Merlin gasped and clung to him tighter, pushing back on every thrust. This close, Arthur could better see his face. He looked almost like a stranger, striking in monochrome moonlight with an unfamiliar needy, desperate twist to his mouth.
Merlin wriggled under him, spreading his thighs wider, and Arthur pressed between them. Merlin's legs trembled and tightened against his sides, long toes curling to rub the backs of Arthur's shins.
"Wait, wait," whispered Merlin into his neck. "Don't - let me get the oil."
He shifted to the edge of the bed and reached for Arthur's working desk and the precision oiler sitting on it. Arthur caught him and held him in place, unable to separate from him in any of the places where their bodies touched.
"Why, what is it," Arthur asked, coaxing Merlin to lie down again by pressing soothing kisses under his jaw.
"I'm not a girl, you know," Merlin said and thrust upwards with his long, steel-hard cock as proof. "We'll need some slick."
"Oh," said Arthur, slowly figuring it out. When he thought of that, a new rush of lust rolled down his spine, making his legs shudder. But the mechanics of it, the thought of learning a new skill right now, when his mind was nearly blank with excitement and any failure would put a stop to the wonder of what they were doing... "No. Stay."
"No?" Merlin asked, suddenly crestfallen. His huge eyes looked bigger in the dark, all the blue swallowed by the black of dilated pupil speckled in gold.
"Next time," Arthur promised him, grinding against him and finding the rhythm again. He wanted to duck down, touch and taste the warm, dark places on Merlin's body, run his tongue over that little tendon on the inside of Merlin's thigh. But he couldn't spare a second for that. The bright, sharp pleasure was building up with every thrust and shift. A sheen of sweat was gathering between them, slicking their skin as they moved together. The sparse hair on their thighs rubbed against their skin, and Merlin's ragged fingernails were raking stinging lines over his shoulders. The heat under his skin, the tingling in his balls, the warm pressure in his chest, all of it was winding tighter and tighter, like a spring about to snap.
Merlin twisted and arched, nearly bucking Arthur off him, and let out a strangled cry. Arthur felt a rush of slick wetness as Merlin's seed spurted over his cock, onto his belly. He came mid-thrust, shaking, choking his moans against the soft dip at the base of Merlin's neck.
As his pulse stopped racing, his mind felt blissfully empty and calm like never before. He would doze off like that, sprawled over Merlin, their chests moving together on every breath. But his manservant was still abominably skinny, full of sharp angles and bones that pressed mercilessly into Arthur's flesh. They were going to have to move any second now.
A rustling noise came from the top of the wardrobe, followed by soft chirping.
"Your merlin-bird's watching us," Merlin giggled, slowly combing his fingers through Arthur's hair.
"Let it," Arthur said.
It didn't take long for their lives to return to normal, even though Arthur knew that nothing would ever be quite the same. All his life the magic had been an unseen enemy, a symbol of treason and madness. Now he'd encountered it first hand and learned that he could fight it. But more than that, he'd learned that he didn't have to.
He had a creature of magic in his household, and it was a good, loyal and reasonably sane man. He had a creature of magic in his bed. He awoke most mornings with Merlin's legs tangled in his own, Merlin's breath whispering over his neck and Merlin's messy hair tickling his nose. Sometimes, he hesitated before shoving Merlin awake and sending him to the kitchens to fetch breakfast. He kept quiet, with his hand splayed over Merlin's ribs, and listened to his heartbeats, and each breath he took felt sweet as a gulp of the best wine.
Some mornings he woke up with Merlin's lips sliding hotly over his cock, and he couldn't complain about that either.
For the first few days he'd been extremely busy, as he'd expected he'd be. There was over a week's worth of reports to catch up on, a backlog of disputes and complaints to resolve. But on the whole his long absence hadn't caused too much of a disruption. His engineers had been working harder than ever, trying to keep their minds off worrying for him, as they'd said, and they'd made great progress on the plough. Power and mobility were still an issue; all they could do was create elaborate workarounds. The only true solution would be to make the engines a fourth of their current size yet five times as powerful. And, well. If wishes were fishes.
"The engines rely on a vacuum to drive the power stroke, and that's the root of our problem," Merlin said after one long, frustrating day in the workshop as he shed his clothes and climbed into bed. "A vacuum is a nothing, and nothing can only do so much."
"Gravity harshly limits what we can do with suction," Arthur agreed.
Merlin laughed at that, because he was a silly creature embarrassingly fond of bad puns. He settled between Arthur's legs, slid long, deft fingers in the cleft of Arthur's arse and demonstrated some rather remarkable things he could do with suction.
Arthur had always thought that human emotions were essentially governed by the same natural laws as everything around them. Absence made the hearts grow fonder, just like a vacuum made engines move. Unrequited yearning was the driving force behind any passion, like the distant pull of the moon forced the tides. Stretched to the limit, like strong springs, minds and hearts gained the most potential. With all needs fulfilled and all fears quelled the human spirit became inert, a dead weight, a body at rest.
But it wasn't like that. Now he had Merlin yet wanted him even more, all the time. Once sated, the want only burned brighter, and the harder they went at it at night the more they needed each other during the day, just to be around, just to look at.
One memorable time Merlin pilfered a bottle of almond oil from the alchemists. Arthur loved the way sweet-smelling stuff made his skin feel even softer, the way rapeseed oil from the workshops didn't, and he loved the different quality it gave to the friction. He drenched Merlin in that so that his cock made squelching noises pressing into Merlin's body. He rubbed the oil onto Merlin's thighs and arms and smeared it over Merlin's cock until every slippery stroke made him keen in delight. Arthur fucked him for hours that night, until he went languidly pliant, glowing with content, and even stopped making horrid jokes about well-oiled machines and smooth piston action. Arthur was sure then that the urges would be satisfied for quite some time, but mid-morning he caught a whiff of almond scent off Merlin's hair as they bent together over a drawing. He had to abandon his work and his men right then and drag Merlin behind the main engine room, where no noise would carry over the clanging of metal and roaring of fire. He stripped Merlin half-naked and put his mouth on every bit of skin he could reach and then sucked him off slowly, letting Merlin push in too deep and claw at his hair and loving every moment of it.
Having a trustworthy magician on his side should have also dulled the urgency he always felt when it came to his work. The engines were no longer the only way to restore Albion's prosperity and power. If all else failed, they could use magic again. That took the edge off his frustration when he couldn't quickly find the right answers, but didn't dull his mind. If anything, he thought clearer for it, and he got things done faster than ever. This was very handy because he and Merlin wasted hours upon hours every day rolling in bed together, and he didn't expect it to become less time-consuming in the near future.
"Quelling urges doesn't take that long, that bloody physician said," he sighed, finally settling down when the sky was already turning grey and the first birds started chirping outside. "Only minutes, he said. Minutes, my arse!"
"Your arse?" mumbled Merlin, stirring from his doze. "I thought you'd still be sore, but yes, let's!"
"Shut up and go back to sleep, you fiend."
He managed now on a lot less sleep than before, as if a good fuck before bedtime helped his body rest more efficiently. Sometimes he still shuddered awake in the middle of the night, certain that there was a shackle biting into his skin, cold rocks under his ribs. But Merlin was always here, a solid warmth at his side, a long expanse of soft, bare skin. He never grumbled if Arthur kissed him awake and pressed between his thighs or deep into his body, where he'd be still loose and slick from earlier, and rocked them together until the last of the nightmare faded.
He was mostly asleep when a brilliant thought flashed though his mind, sudden and bright as summer lightning. He opened his eyes, letting the magnitude of the idea settle in, and then he grabbed Merlin's shoulder and ruthlessly shook him awake.
"Merlin," he said. "Merlin, listen. High-pressure steam."
Merlin blinked at him sleepily, slowly focusing his eyes. Arthur waited for him to wake up and grasp the concept even as he realised that he didn't really explain anything all that well, and it was probably a completely insane idea – he had to make a drawing, run some basic calculations...
"Oh," Merlin said suddenly, and his whole face lit up in a huge awed smile. "That's – oh, that's brilliant."
"I know!" Arthur yelled, immensely relieved. If Merlin thought that would work, then it would. They could make it happen. "We don't need emptiness to be the driving force. We don't need to ever let the cylinders cool down. Just imagine, all that steam, as strong as we can manage, always pushing in, hard, hot, all the time, two pistons moving in reciprocating strokes - oh, bloody hell, stop laughing."
"It's just so romantic, the way you say it," said Merlin, rubbing sleep and tears of laughter from his eyes.
Arthur settled back on the pillows to think it all through properly. His mind was reeling, trying to take in all the possibilities.
"This will give us as much power as we'll dare to take," he said. "This is how we'll beat gravity. It will change the world. We might even – one day we'll be able to fly!"
Merlin was smiling warmly, looking at him with that dreamy expression that always made Arthur want to perform some impossible, heroic feats just to earn more of those looks.
"All right, it will be insanely dangerous," Arthur admitted. Last time they put an engine under that kind of pressure it was by accident, a miscalculation. He'd been lucky to survive the resulting explosion with nothing worse than a few burns. "It might require better craftsmanship and mathematics than we have right now."
"No, I'll make it safe," Merlin said. "The craftsmen and scholars weren't really up to the task when the first machines were being made, but the magic helped it along and then the rest caught up. Maybe all that we have now would still be invented without the magicians, but it wouldn't be in our lifetime. Probably not for centuries yet. So that's what I'll do: I'll help you, and I'll keep you safe. That's what my magic is for."
He spoke lightly, still smiling, but there was a new fire shimmering in his eyes. Suddenly it was easy to look past his lanky limbs, impish face and funny ears and see the man he was going to become. Or maybe it was the man he used to be in a different lifetime: a being of immense power who could turn all Arthur's crazy, naïve dreams into reality. Someone who'd always be by Arthur's side through every triumph and hardship, even beyond death.
It lasted for a moment, and then Merlin grinned mischievously and was just Merlin again, crawling across the bed to straddle Arthur's hips.
"Shag now, change the world later?" he proposed.
"A sound plan."
The castle was already waking up around them. The courtyard outside was slowly filling with sounds: shops readying their wares, furnaces being stocked, engines filling up with steam and rocking to life. The great cart's horn sounded in the distance, signalling the start of the first trip. It was nearly dawn, but they didn't have to face the day just yet. They still had plenty of time.