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Dower the Stars

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Truly, Arthur thinks as he descends the throne to greet the latest envoy of Druids, it takes the end of an era to understand exactly how much he would give to keep it.

It seems there are far more Druids in the Five Kingdoms than Arthur was ever aware, certainly more than Uther had been aware. The censuses only happen once a year, they only cover those living within Camelot’s borders, and only then if people bother to respond to the census taker when he arrives and yells that he’s brought extra cheese wheels from the king’s larder and would everyone please come out and be counted? If Arthur were in the middle of working a horse, plucking chickens, or god forbid, bathing a small and slippery child in a river, he wouldn’t bother showing up for cheese wheels either. When his father took censuses, he didn’t even offer cheese wheels, just a royal decree with a reminder of the standing laws about sorcery on the side.

So of course there are a lot of Druids now when before there was nary a whiff on the wind. And of course, they’ve come for Merlin.

It’s not the first time the Druids have come for Merlin, or the fifth, or even the fifteenth. But it is the first time Arthur will actually have to let Merlin go.


It starts with the spring equinox, and a single Druid begging an audience with the royal court during petitions. The entire royal court, it turns out; all his knights present, those that are in the city at any rate. The Druid doesn’t look like an elder and wears no identifying insignia of leadership, but Arthur’s seen enough of the illustrious and ill-mannered Dragoon to know that where sorcerers are concerned, physical appearance means next to nothing.

She’s alone, which is interesting. Gray robes so fine they look silver, and green and gold twine woven into her braids. She carries a single satchel, wears traveling shoes, and bears no walking stick. She bows low when she reaches the center of the throne room, and wishes the king and queen a pleasant and fruitful turn of season.

“And to Emrys,” she adds, “I bring the well-wishes and gifts of my clan, in preparation for the coming conjunction in the heavens.”

Arthur knows there are several stars aligning in the next quarter year or so, in as much as it will affect the planting season and therefore the harvest, and has planned with Gwen accordingly. He isn’t a disciple himself, but many in Camelot are these days. The best way to keep a happy populace is to let the celebrants of the Old Religion take time off to lull about in the hedges and drink themselves into song and dance when the heavens call for it. Most of the time it coincides with festivals he does observe anyway, but this one (according to Gaius) only happens once in three lifetimes. Red Sulis Tarui has been bright over the horizon for months, with Druuios ever present in the night sky above. Eventually they will align with two other stars, heralding good fortune and health to all.

A single look to his right shows Arthur that Merlin expected this and knows exactly how to respond to such a proclamation: “My thanks to your clan for their generosity, and to you for bearing it here.” But he does look a little puzzled. Arthur agrees; she’s only carrying the one bag and she brought no train of wagons with her. Nevertheless, he sets the back of his mind to compiling a list of what Camelot can spare in both staple and supply to send back with her.

“Oh, it is my great honor to be the one to come here, my lord Emrys, especially in honor of your—” And she says a word Arthur has never heard before.

It sounds like slee chua lagaa.

Arthur, in spite of himself, leans forward. There is a wrinkle to Merlin’s brow, and damn it, if Merlin is curious, then Arthur will soon be beside himself wanting to know. Once there had been a time when the mere word ‘Druid’ sent his hand twitching for a sword. Now Arthur welcomes each new facet to the culture his father had long put down. Knowledge truly is the only power worth having, and ends up leading to all the rest.

“I bring tidings.” The Druid speaks to Arthur now, friendly and guileless. “This is a rare and extraordinary moment in the long life of our world. Preparations have been in the making for centuries, ever since the prophecy that told of the coming of Emrys, and of the Once and Future King. If it please you, Your Highness, in the coming weeks, many more of my people would welcome the chance to enter your city and give their own offerings to Emrys.”

Arthur and Gwen share a look. “We would be honored by your people’s presence,” Gwen says, and Arthur follows it with “Please pass along the invitation of myself and my queen to visit in peace and be welcomed likewise.”

The Druid bows again to Arthur and Gwen in turn, then faces Merlin. Her smile widens. “Now, my lord Emrys, if it is to your liking, I would be the first to offer of our gifts.”

Merlin raises an eyebrow at Arthur—Arthur raises his own right back—then descends the dais, coming to a stop in front of their visitor. She takes his elbows with both hands, a familial embrace, and speaks just between them in a language Arthur is dismayed to find he only understands half of. Any anxiety over this is erased, however, when she then looks around the gathered members of court and translates in Camelot’s English: “My revered lord, the Druids of the Western Wood do hereby swear their fealty to you, and to your king and queen. May our gifts and skills be one with yours.” She speaks to Merlin again, foreign words low and intimate, then translates. “May our paths ever align beneath sun, moon, and stars. May the grace that we now share flourish in this world and may we protect it hand in hand.”

She steps back and raises a hand toward the back of the hall. A swoop of wings, startled exclamations from those awaiting audience, and a falcon that glows like newly beaten copper sweeps in from some perch Arthur had not previously noticed, alighting with regal grace upon her wrist. She strokes its feathers, murmuring to it, and turns to Merlin again. “My lord,” she says, this time so that all may understand, “this is Anarawd.”

Appreciative chatter this time. Merlin hesitates, a smile breaking over his face. He and the bird share a stare. Arthur can see the glint in the falcon’s eyes from where he sits.

“A gift?” Merlin asks, wondering.

“A request.” The Druid grins. “From Anarawd himself.”

Arthur sits up straighter, eyeing the falcon with more interest. Merlin holds out a hand and the falcon side steps onto it, its black talons pinching visibly at the pale skin of Merlin’s wrist. Merlin winces, expectant—Arthur can read every tic of that face—but there is no apparent pain.

An extraordinary bird. Arthur is not the falconer in his band of knights, but he’s never seen the like, even from among Tristan’s birds. Merlin looks the creature right in the eye—or perhaps it is the other way around. There is something about the glimmer there, a knowingness, that makes Arthur’s spine tingle just as it does at every shiver of Merlin’s magic. Arthur could swear there is a whole conversation going on between the two that he has no inkling of.

His world has truly changed, from the hibernating Camelot of his father to this constant sense of waking: every day a new door opens and reveals a bold and clear light that a part of him has somehow always known about but that he has never seen. Magic was always here, Arthur knows, but still he feels as though Merlin has brought all of it. Without Merlin, none of the rest would have followed.

“And now for my gift.” The Druid’s words jar Arthur from his reflections. Her smile sharpens, one side tipping up much higher than the other, and the falcon takes flight from Merlin’s hand to rest on one of the ornate candelabra. That word again, oh, slee chu ach lagaa, rather— “for your continued health.”

And she leans in and kisses Merlin full on the mouth.

Arthur’s glad no one is looking at him anymore because his mouth drops right open and hangs there. Beside him, Gwen lets out a small hup of laughter and covers her mouth, and Arthur is aware, sort of, only he can’t quite focus because—good god. Good god, the Druid is not stopping. She takes her time with Merlin’s mouth, a long and thorough laving, and Arthur can tell from the throne that this is no chaste press of lips. The Druid’s eyelids flutter closed; she tilts her head, raises her hands to Merlin’s face, and the kiss—well, the kiss becomes quite explicit. For his part, Merlin’s eyes start out wide, as shocked as he should well be, but slowly his lids dip, until his gaze becomes almost contemplative, and, well, there is time to think all of this through, isn’t there? Arthur continues to gape, Gwen to press her lips flat with one hand, and then the air fizzles like woodtick larvae in a fire and something passes from the Druid’s mouth to Merlin’s in a wild ruby rush, skating over skin. Merlin rocks back on his feet.

A gasp goes up. Gwen goes rigid and Arthur is nearly out of his chair, hand fast round the dagger hilt from his boot. But Merlin’s hand snaps up, staying Arthur’s lunge. Merlin stares at the Druid, breathing as though he’s run the circumference of the city.

“It’s alright,” he says, sounding half there. All in the hall can hear, but Arthur knows in his bones that the reassurance is meant for him.

The Druid’s expression is dazed. She gives Merlin’s face a brush with her fingertips. “Ah, well,” she says, and smiles somewhat dopily.

Arthur shares a look with Gwen. She is composed again, if still wary. But Merlin just blinks, a child’s wonder. He takes a careful step back from her, looks to Arthur and opens his mouth, then closes it.

The Druid turns to the dais. “With your leave, Your Highnesses, my duty is done and I must return to my clan.”

“We thank you for your visit to our court.” The etiquette never fails Arthur; it is etched so deeply he might one day prove he can broker peace while asleep. “You are most welcome at any time that you wish to return.”

“I’ll… see you to the gates,” Merlin says.

She bows a final time, Arthur and Gwen inclines their heads, and she takes her leave. The falcon leaps from the candelabra and follows them out, winging behind Merlin. And the court remains gobsmacked, whispers on the fringes. Arthur feels a frenzied and entirely inappropriate laugh building in his throat.

“Master of audiences,” he manages instead, waving a hand and settling back as the massive door closes behind Merlin and their guest.

The petitions continue, jumping back up to speed now that the magical element has left the room. The king and queen sit, attentive to their subjects’ frets and concerns, at least outwardly.

Only the one word was completely alien. Arthur puzzles over it through the proceedings, and during the presentation of suits, a much less fraught section of daily court than it ever was during his father’s reign, Arthur leans very slightly to his left. “Slee chu ach lagaa?”

“I’ve no idea,” Gwen says immediately, showing that she has been as distracted as he. Gwen has become very good at talking out of the side of her mouth. Better than Arthur even, and he grew up doing it. Two farmers agree upon the merits of sharing their land while their rulers smile benevolently and wonder how they might find out about this slee chu ach lagaa, and then, during the burst of applause at the resolution, Gwen turns to him at the same moment he turns to her.

“Merlin,” they say together.

Course of action settled, Arthur turns his mind fully to the dwindling line of petitioners.


But Merlin is not so easily consulted. Once the Druid emissary departs, there are the wells within the walls to be re-purified for the season, and the wells without to be re-shielded; a bevy of great orange cows lowing a soothing dirge in the center of town, twenty percent of which have come up lame; and a roomful of snuffling children with which Gaius will need assistance, though whether that’s physicking them or herding them away from all the fragile bottles along the walls is anyone’s guess. Arthur knows all this—he’s the one who approved Merlin’s duties, after all—but the timing is especially irksome when there is information he simply must know.

Gwen, an admirable devotee to her royal calling, has no time to hunt Merlin down and interrogate him herself: she must go to the midwives’ gathering in the lower quarter of Camelot, to ensure that their grievances against an upstart sawbones will not go unheeded (and the upstart sawbones will not go uneducated about the true scope of his practice within this kingdom, thank you).

She has a glorious and frightening gift for arbitration. Glorious to Arthur; frightening for anyone awaiting her judgment.

Arthur, of course, has this and that to do. Outlying estate intelligence comes in stacks of parchment bearing seals that only the king may break or ‘the lords will know, my esteemed liege,’ probably because the squire delivering them will snitch. There’s the bulge in the eastern border where it swings round Ealdor: by the end of the day, this must swell across every official map to embrace Shevely, Oak Tor, and five other towns, all without touching the Forest of Oredwyll (though Arthur means to take that as well, quietly over the next week while everyone in Rience’s rabble argues over who gets the rights to the river’s southern bank. Oredwyll has the thickest timber and right now there are rogue knights using the cover it provides to loot the settlements on the edges). There’s also that nasty bit with the soldier-turned-mercenary who raided a bardic encampment, burned the place to the ground, and would have done worse to its inhabitants if not for the timely arrival of Camelot’s greeting party (in short, Percival, who took one look and knocked all the bastard’s teeth out of his mouth with his own cudgel), and Arthur… well, he does not forget about Merlin’s mystery word. But he slots it aside into the list of other curious but non-life-threatening issues, of which there are always far too many to handle in one day.

At dusk, down a hall filling with the mouth-watering scents of the evening meal, he swings up behind his court sorcerer and jars him with an elbow. “What was it, then?”

Merlin jumps a mile. “Don’t do that.”

“The gift, Merlin.” Arthur tugs off his gloves, tucks them under one arm, and wiggles all ten of his fingers between them. “What did she give you?”

Merlin slows, the disdainful frown he saves just for Arthur going thoughtful. Of all the looks that grace Merlin’s face, Arthur likes this look the best, especially when he thumbs absently at his bottom lip. “Fortitude, in short. Just a simple spell.”

“Hm, yes. Certainly looked simple.”

“Your crown, Sire,” Merlin intones blandly. “It’s crooked.”

Arthur knocks it further askew just to watch Merlin’s mouth quirk. “Come on, skinnybones.” He hooks Merlin with an arm round the shoulder and wheels him into the dining hall.


Afterward, as Arthur readies for bed—he does have a manservant, but not for much other than cleaning his chambers and deciphering the abominable riddle of royal clothing he often needs of a morning—Merlin sweeps into his chambers without knocking, spilling light into the hallway behind him and voices from without into Arthur’s rooms. The falcon perches upon his shoulder. Merlin is conversing with it.

“…and here we are, right on time. Didn’t I say I would?”

The falcon inclines its head.

“You’re welcome,” Merlin says.

Arthur’s world has become very strange indeed.

“Merlin,” he sighs, then rolls his eyes and throws his breeches aside. Why bother, anyway? “Would you please shut the door.”

“Oh.” Merlin waves a hand at it. It shuts. He grins at Arthur, coming to a stop at his side. “Sorry.”

Arthur despairs of bare and kingly legs on view to the whole of the castle. It wouldn’t be the first time.

The falcon sidesteps rapidly down from Merlin’s shoulder, distracting Arthur and forcing Merlin to raise his arm out beside him to keep the bird from falling off. Arthur stares into beady black eyes, now a foot from his own.

Expectant is the only word for that look, and for the look on Merlin’s face. “Sire. May I present Anarawd.”

It seems strange to address a bird directly, yet impossible not to. Arthur clears his throat and manages something in between. “Yes. Hello.”

This time Merlin is the one to roll his eyes. He gives his arm a bounce just as the falcon heaves up off it. There’s a great rushing flap and before Arthur can blink, those worrisome talons latch into the sleeve of his nightshirt. He raises his arm instinctively, sucks in a breath. Can’t help it. The falcon is heavy and its spurs are like sickles. It eyes him for a long, long, long moment.

“He asked to meet you properly.” Merlin’s words are far off. Arthur can focus on nothing but the soul before him.

“Nothing proper about this,” he murmurs. He’s half naked. Hardly majestic. But what in god’s name is he thinking anyway? It’s a bird.

Anarawd sticks his face right into Arthur’s and cranes his neck around, back and forth. Arthur has seen owls do this right before they bite the head off a mouse. Is he supposed to say something else? Offer it victuals? This creature is making him feel absurdly like a poor host.

Before he can do anything, however, Anarawd gives what can only be a decisive nod. His talons clench briefly at Arthur’s arm, putting Arthur in mind of the squeeze Gwen gives him after a particularly difficult border council. Anarawd turns to Merlin and lets out a piercing squawk.

Merlin’s smile goes soft. “I told you he was,” he says in such a way that Arthur feels like he’s intruding.

“He quite likes Gwen,” Merlin says to Arthur, back to normal. “We just caught her in the north gallery. Says she’s an old soul. I told him of course she is, we all know that. It’s nothing to what he says about your soul, naturally, but we can’t all be the Once and Future King. Some of us have day jobs.”

“Merlin,” Arthur interrupts, of half a mind to demand exactly what this bird has been saying about his soul. Anarawd has resettled himself upon the table to meddle with the quills and parchment there—and damned if he doesn’t look like he’s reading the treaty drafts. Arthur gestures uselessly, first at the bird, then he gives up and gestures at himself. “If you don’t mind?”

Merlin finally seems to notice Arthur’s state of dress. Or, undress. His eyes sweep up from Arthur’s bare feet until they hit the same place Arthur’s shirt does, mid-thigh, and widen. “Right,” he says. “I’m—You’re tired already?”

Arthur glares, withering. “It’s been a long day. Though I suppose if we’d all been lucky enough to suffer such invigorating kisses—”

Merlin’s cheeks pink. “Clotpole,” he mutters and turns with a huff. Anarawd flaps up to join him again, a wing trailing gently along Arthur’s cheek as he passes.

“Good night, o revered sorcerer,” Arthur calls, and laughs as the door slams indignantly. Then he touches his cheek.

Except— “Damn it.” He still hasn’t asked Merlin about the meaning of that word.


The next morning, two more Druids arrive, tall women in cloaks the rich green of the millpond. Their faces are half inked, vines or tendrils or possibly snakes. The elder of the two proceeds to ravish Merlin’s mouth right there on the castle steps.

Passionate is not a descriptive enough term for it. Arthur, frozen three steps above them, is just addressing his shock yet again when a silvery rain over them both ends the embrace and the younger Druid steps into her compatriot’s place. At the touch of her mouth, Merlin lets out a small, reedy sound from somewhere in his throat. Arthur’s belly twists. The younger Druid’s eyes flash gold, and Merlin’s eyes fly open, a perfect match.

She ends it with a nod and then they both wish much prosperity from the Seal Islands to Emrys during his slee chu ach la goht yeh and ask to stay for a week.

And that’s about the time Arthur decides he’d better figure out exactly what slee chu ach whatever is.

During his father’s reign, the library was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s well-trodden terrain, but in the years since Arthur’s coronation it had been gifted first to Gaius for better care of his medicinal tomes, and then, as magic became an everyday word again, to Merlin. Chest upon stone chest has been unearthed from the lowest dungeons Arthur ever found in the castle, and the opening of each one spilled book after book concerning The Thing About Which We Do Not Speak. Apparently even Uther had not believed his own rhetoric enough to risk destroying such magical objects en masse. They had, of course, been forbidden until Merlin pulled them out into the light and lined the vast arches and alcoves of the library with them. The first thing Arthur noticed was their obvious fit, a thing of beauty. They belonged here in dust-moted light, their elaborate bindings beckoning to all fingers: come, pull me down and learn.

Arthur does just that, sequestering himself in the hindmost chamber where it will take several twists and turns for an industrious hunter to locate a king (which will happen sooner than he likes, he’s sure, seeing as he’s somehow left Gwaine in charge of a visiting dignitary from up north), and begins the laborious process of researching the Old Religion.

It’s fascinating stuff; even if he weren’t distracted every third chapter by some titillating ritual for celebrating stars in early winter or dressing in foliage, even if he wasn’t constantly pointing at pages and saying, “Ha!” at something obviously ancient that Merlin’s tried to act like he invented, Arthur would find the task lengthy and utterly engrossing. When he had first gone looking in these books, a mere day after Merlin dropped a boulder on his heart with a single confession, he’d stolen in in the dead of night under torchlight and turned the pages gingerly, expecting to find them full of ugliness. Not so, not at all. Certainly there were spells that caused damage, but to Arthur it read much like a combat manual, with instructions and diagrams: here is what you can do to another with a blade or shield or lance, so above all be mindful. The respect one must have for the power of each spell was clearly stressed, and none but the blackest of books ever couched a spell as created purely for killing.

Given the bitterness and betrayal in Arthur’s chest at the time, the fact that he’d not been able to find devilry on every page only made the truth of magic more apparent.

Merlin, he now knows, is different even from that. For him, magic is no sword he picked up and learned to use. The comparison is more suited to a voice. Inherent, something he just has, like eyes or lungs or teeth.

Arthur’s sure by now that his father never actually cracked any of these books; if he had, he would have known of the possibilities for encouraging crop growth or a healthy populace within the fragile balance that must be maintained in order to call upon natural magic. He’d have recognized that most of these spells and enchantments have very little to do with magic and quite a lot to do with trust and an understanding of nature. Yes, there is most definitely the sparkly, searing, explosive sort of sorcery in these pages. But to use it properly, there is an acknowledgment that all things must be weighed, and that this weight will always return upon you eventually.

He spends all morning holed up with brittle pages that rasp when he turns them and volumes that smell sharp, minty, acidic by turns: Merlin has said that this is the magic woven into them, the potential of what they contain. Arthur looks in agriculture, because Druids just love their solemn promenades in the verge. Those pages smell sweet like flowers and blue like water, fresh as clouds and loamy with tilled dirt. He tries books on the passage of seasons and the circling of the heavens, as this slee chu ach lagaa is apparently contingent upon the movement of the stars; before this, Arthur had no idea what night might smell like, but now he knows it is of rich, dark lilies, of airborne frost and vanishing heat. He does find inscriptions about the conjunction of the stars, but nothing of any particular significance involving abnormally strong warlocks foretold by destiny.

The books of battle, interestingly, smell wholly of earthbound iron, of steel. This gift of the Druids’ is clearly meant to grow Merlin’s power, but Arthur can find nothing in those pages either. He moves on, to thaumaturgy, to elemental ritual, to contagious sorcery, to healing enchantment, and at one point, to a completely ridiculous brick of a book written by a batty monk in the northernmost islands, on magicking all manner of seafaring birds so that they might recite epic poetry in skaldic verse. As Arthur has not heard any raucous odes to elvish warriors bellowed at him while he traipses the shores along the coast, he’ll assume Brother Hrypa (“the shouter,” how very appropriate) was unsuccessful.

It’s well into the afternoon when he gives up on magic’s theory and turns to its etymology instead. The problem is, he has no idea how the word is spelled, or if it’s even one word at all and not two or three mashed together. These Druids speak tongues he is familiar with, but that word doesn’t seem to fit any of their rules. Perhaps a proto-language? Something they all drew upon.

Except there’s the matter of this preposterously tiny writing.

“Of all the ridiculous—Damn.” Arthur fishes out the perfectly round, perfectly clear glass lens from inside his shirt. Merlin made it for him after the blow he suffered at Lindum, to combat the (slight, Merlin, barely there at all!) fuzzing of the vision in his right eye.

(Though Colgrin got the worse end of that stick, no two ways about it. Even after Arthur was done with him, Merlin had the usual bone to pick. Arthur doesn’t know details, having been unconscious by then. But he can extrapolate.)

No matter; there’s no one here to see him use the lens. “Try proving a thing, Merlin,” he mutters, guiding the lens down a page in a volume as big as his chest.

There are a few words that could apply. A word for ‘awake’, a word for ‘be’. If the Seal Islands Druids are pronouncing it differently than the Western Woods Druids, surely there are many more interpretations for the basic sounds. Arthur quite likes embibolgon, although he can’t find any way that it relates to this ritual gift giving. There’s a term for ‘bedfellow’ that makes him pause, but he dismisses it until he comes across φoklo and lekkā and tuwedī, all of which refer to binding or marrying of some kind. By the time he’s covered ‘desire’ and ‘copulate’ and ‘sex’, he’s glaring, incredulous, down at the page.


Merlin, in the stacks. Arthur inhales slowly and waits for his manservant-cum-all-powerful-warlock to find him. When he does, taking in all the piles of books Arthur has unearthed, Arthur raises an eyebrow at his bewildered ‘what?’ and taps the page in front of him.

“Slee chu ach lagaa?” he enunciates, and smirks slowly, putting as much filth into his voice as can possibly fit. “Merlin.”

His all-powerful warlock turns the color of a summer tomato.


“It’s a sex ritual,” Merlin sighs, “as best I can figure.”

Arthur spits out a chunk of apple and barely catches it before it goes sailing over the edge of the parapet. They’re out on the battlements, lunch in hand and feet dangling over the side of the castle’s oldest rampart. Anarawd wheels overhead in the warm breeze. “Sex ritual? Did I miss something back on the steps yesterday?”

“That wasn’t the ritual,” Merlin moans, and rubs his face. “That was just the test.”


“The whole thing is meant to share power, to line up along with the heavenly bodies and to consolidate the natural gifts of the earth. And I’m Emrys, so...”

“Their great messiah.”

Merlin eyes him. “Don’t say it like that. Besides, I’m not their messiah. You are, Born King.”

Arthur grunts. He still doesn’t see how a mortal man with no magical breath in his body could ever save a people who can bend the waters and winds to their will. He takes another bite of his apple instead of agonizing over it again. “Fine. The kissing?”

“They’re offering to increase my strength.”

“Yes, I got that.”

“So they’re testing my compatibility with their magic.” Merlin’s expression is wry. Some days he really looks his age, and his true level of power. “They each have different strengths of their own, different focuses to their magic. The kiss is to test the waters, I guess is the best way to put it.”

Arthur remembers the wistfulness on the first envoy’s face, and the calm resignation of the two women from the isles. An unpleasant sensation grows in the pit of his belly. “And when the magic matches up?”

Merlin smiles, faint. “Well, then, I will have touched the magic that can truly intertwine with my own.”


“That’s where the ritual comes in,” Merlin goes on. “The actual ritual is… well, it’s…” He makes the obvious obscene hand gestures. “And then that’s me and whoever it is, bound together forever. But think of it. Our magic would enhance threefold at least. Depending on what the other person is capable of, we might be able to see and hear the interwoven elements, influence the night skies, maybe even time itself. Know when the other is troubled, or happy. Feel each other every moment of every day.” He flushes, then smiles sideways at Arthur. “That’s why they’ve been waiting for me, I guess. I walk hand in hand with the man who will save them all. Such power comes only to one who will not abuse it.”

Arthur snorts. “And they think that’s you.”

“Yes,” Merlin frowns, straightening. “Well, they think that’s Emrys, anyway.”

“Emrys.” Arthur extends his arms out over the whole of his city. “Who floats shoes onto Libera’s hooves rather than walk her two doors down to the royal blacksmith. Emrys, who ruins pudding because he can’t be bothered to boil the cornmeal properly. Emrys, who dumps filthy water all over the head of his lord and liege when he’s in a strop—”

Merlin punches him in the arm. Arthur laughs and punches him back, and tries to ignore the pinching in his gut.