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A Prophecy of Dragons

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“Go,” Balinor urged, pressing his heels harder against his horse’s barrel and ignoring the guilt that rose at asking more from the already flagging mount.

They’d been riding somewhere between a ground-eating lope and a hard gallop for the better part of at least an hour. Balinor could feel flecks of foam and spittle flying back to speckle his face, while beneath his knees the animals’ sides heaved like an overworked bellows, and wispy lines of steaming breath poured from his distended nostrils like whorls of dragon smoke in the crisp night air.

He’d left the others behind some time ago - both the companions he’d travelled with, as well as the messengers who’d come searching – and made this final leg of the journey alone. He was so close now: just beyond the next ridge and then through the pass, home waited. A building sense of urgency tugged harder and harder at him the closer he got, and he knew he projected it to the stalwart mount beneath him. He could feel the way the beast fought for even more speed, and drove its seemingly tireless legs into the dirt, launching itself further and further with each stride.

Finally, what felt an eternity later, Balinor spotted the burning glow of the huge braziers framing the gateway that led to the village. The massive double-doors of the gate were already thrown wide – saving him the trouble of hollering for someone to do just that – and he drew back on the reins slightly as they neared.  He slowed them just enough that the horse would have an easier transition from the packed earth of the road, to the smooth, paved stones of the village walkways.

Even so, the animal slipped and nearly went splay-legged when hooves meet slick, damp cobbles but Balinor firmly whispered, “Steady now, that’s it. Keep your feet. You’re all right. Steady.” The low crooning couldn’t have reached the mount’s ear over the clatter of iron-shod hooves ringing out against stone, but he felt the beast right itself beneath him. He was both relieved and surprised that he still had enough frame of mind to call even that little amount of power forth.

On they rode.

Balinor ignored the shouts of greeting and waving hands of the rest of the villagers as he careened past, knowing they’d forgive his lapse of courtesy. Never had the distance from the gates to the caverns seemed so damn far!  And why had Hunith insisted on the caverns? Damn stubborn woman, she was.

Not soon enough – though it couldn’t have been more than three or four minutes since passing through the gates – the gaping, cavernous entrance to the Crystal cave loomed ahead. Balinor yanked hard on the reins and the horse obeyed, bracing its front legs while it’s haunches dropped and it slid forward several yards in a skid that kicked up a trail of mud and dirt. He was already running even as he leapt from the saddle and one foot hit the ground.

Someone would collect the horse, he reassured himself as he bolted the remaining open space to the caverns’ mouth, and they’d ensure he was properly cooled and walked out, and rubbed down. And while normally Balinor would chide anyone one of his fellows for doing what he’d just done – not just abandoning his mount like that, but having ridden him so hard in the first place – he also knew he’d be excused it this once.

He was forced to slow once he actually crossed the egress into the cavern proper; between the uneven footing, the delicate crystals and the plethora of candles lighting the path, even his desperation couldn’t get him to stride faster than a careful jog. “I’m coming, Hunith,” he panted, the exertion starting to catch him up.

Just as he reached the bend of the tunnel where it opened up beyond into the cavern proper, a sound caused Balinor to misstep, and stumble.

A cry.

Not one of sorrow, or pain, but the healthy, lusty cry of a newborn babe protesting the absence of warmth and security and the shock of the cold, bright world.

Balinor nearly fell over at the sound of it.

He rounded the corner in time to see a midwife handing a small, naked and squirming bundle down to his wife, who lay supine on a thick pallet of blankets. Hunith looked exhausted, red-faced and dripping sweat; but glowing and happy and so damn beautiful. She glanced over at him – no doubt drawn by his stumbling clatter – and beamed. “Your son,” she said, in a voice that was unequivocally blissful despite how breathless and hoarse it sounded.

“Come and meet him,” she encouraged, gesturing with a little shift of her elbow, seeing as her hands were cradling their newborn child to her bare breast.

Feeling as though his feet and tongue were both struck dumb, Balinor could only nod and shuffled those last few yards between them like some toddling infant himself. He dropped to his knees next to her, smoothed a hand over her damp hair and leaned down to press a kiss to her forehead. “Oh, love. Our son.” He curved a gentle hand over the down-soft skin of his son’s back.

They sat in silence for a long while, basking in the joy of being a new family, while the midwife tended her remaining duties. She helped Balinor cut the umbilical once it had ceased pulsing and tied it off neatly, then urged Hunith to drink a bitter tea that would help her pass the afterbirth more quickly. The baby had given up wailing and with a bit of encouragement from Hunith’s guiding hands and the midwife’s assistance, had latched on and was suckling eagerly.

Balinor watched all of this, lending his wife his strength when she needed it, holding her hand or lifting shoulders as she progressed through the final steps of birthing. All the while his chest was tight and heavy with a feeling he couldn’t put into words. Tenderness, love, protectiveness, a bit of fear… it all mingled together in the vicinity of his heart.

Once it was done, and the midwife pronounced both babe and mother ‘hale and healthy’, she excused herself to both clean-up and to follow with the necessary rituals as well as to give the new family their first minutes of privacy.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here,” Balinor offered once the echo of the midwife’s steps faded to silence, knowing there were no words great enough to express his regret. “I’m so sorry I didn’t make it in time.”

Hunith gave a noisy sniff. “Oh, don’t be silly, husband. You arrived just in time.” She must’ve seen that there were words of protest pushing themselves past his lips because she just clucked an admonishment. “Don’t fret, truly. I’d probably have sent you to wait outside until it was all over anyway.” She laughed, lifting one hand away from the babe long enough to caress his cheek. “I’m only glad you’re here now, at this moment, to welcome our son into the world.”

Blinking away tears that pricked at the corners of his eyes, Balinor bent to press another kiss to Hunith’s brow, and then another to her lips. “Speaking of our son; what shall we call him?”

“That, my friend,” came a voice from over Balinor’s shoulder, “is a very good question.”

“Gaius!” Hunith called out, still weary but ever-smiling. “Welcome.”

Balinor stood and turned, pulling his mentor and old friend into a back-slapping hug. “Gaius, he’s arrived! My son is here!”

“Yes, I had noticed,” Gaius replied dryly, but followed that up with a chortle. “Let’s have a look at him, shall we?”

They both settled back onto the layers and layers of blankets that softened the water-worn stone of the cavern floor. Around them, the light of dozens of candle-flames flickered and danced and reflected hundreds of times over in the many faceted crystals that grew like some geometric flowers from the rock surrounding them. The light dazzled and shimmered and threw a radiant glow over mother and babe.

“Isn’t he beautiful, Gaius,” Hunith stated, breaking off from softly crooning to the nursing child.

“He is indeed,” Gaius agreed. “And born on an auspicious day.”

“Equinox,” Hunith acknowledged.

Balinor had actually forgotten that winter had officially given over to spring, and he blinked down at his wife, who stared lovingly at their child.

“Can you find his name in the crystals, Balinor?” she asked, glancing at one nearest to her head; though it was over an arm’s length away. “I’ve looked but cannot see.”

Balinor frowned. There was as much myth as truth regarding the ancient tradition of giving birth in the crystal cave, but most that still held onto those beliefs did so with hopes of finding their child’s destined name. It was considered auspicious and a sign of a bright future to come if a name could be discerned from gazing into the depths of the crystals. Was there a reason Hunith couldn’t see it?

Hunith must’ve read the concern in his expression. “You know my eyesight’s always a bit dodgy at a distance,” she told him with a pert grin. “And I’ve no mind to interrupt our son from his first meal when his father is just as likely to find his name as I am.”

“Of course!” Balinor replied, grinning now at her teasing. Still, as he shifted nearer a large chunk of the gleaming, translucent-white crystal he hesitated to let his gaze drop to it. What if he didn’t find his son’s name in its’ depths? Did it truly matter? So many considered the idea silly superstition anyway. And who was too know. Hunith had gone to the effort of being brought to the cave when her labor started, and had eschewed the comfort of her own bed or the healer’s lodge. Wasn’t that tradition enough?

“Husband?”

Hunith’s voice was soft, but held a faint warning in it. She’d sussed his nerves for what they were. He swallowed and then gave a brief nod, telling her that he’d heard. Heard and understood. He needed to do this, now.

At first, the mirror-smooth facet showed him only his reflection. He looked past that though. He’d been Gaius’ apprentice as a boy, and knew how to study the crystals and to will his eye beyond the surface. In front of him, like gleaming ice slowly melting to reveal the water beneath, an image began to form in the crystal.

The first figure he saw was an unfamiliar man; tall, proud-looking, crowned with both hair and a circlet of golden hue. Was that his son, Balinor wondered? He didn’t think so… not with that hair. Then a second figure came into view: this one dark-haired, but fair, with ears that were perhaps a bit pronounced, and a curve to his generous mouth that Balinor recognized in an instant. That was clearly his son.

The unknown man and his son faced each other, and they were speaking. Around them the background of the scene blurred at the edges, but he could see trees… a forest? Nothing that set it apart from any other bit of woods he’d known. His son and the man were speaking, but the words were muted and Balinor couldn’t make them out. Whatever they spoke of, it was clearly a matter of contention; his son began to gesticulate wildly, while the blond man crossed his arms over his chest and scowled.

Then, finally, he heard it: his son’s name, spoken by the blond man – whose voice was firm, and quite irritated - and clear to Balinor’s ear as the ring of a sharp bell: “Merlin!”

Merlin…

That was his son’s name.

Whatever Merlin’s response to the other man’s obvious vitriol was lost to Balinor as the vision faded and he found himself looking down at the slick plane of lightly-glowing crystal once more.

He rocked back on his heels, and then turn to Hunith.

Gaius asked first – although it looked like he beat Hunith’s same query by only a breath. “Well?”

Balinor felts his cheeks pull up in a grin so fierce it nearly ached. “Merlin,” he said, this time not blinking away the moisture gathering in his eyes. “His name, is Merlin.”

“Merlin,” Hunith repeated, trying the name out for the first time. She smiled, just as wide and happy, and nodded her acceptance. “Yes, our son. Our Merlin.” She shifted baby Merlin enough that she could crane her neck forward to place a kiss above his tiny ear.

“Oh,” Gaius said, suddenly and with an odd tone of wonder. “But what’s this?” He leaned closer and muttered an apology to Hunith for the familiarity even as he drew Merlin’s arm and clenched fist slightly upward. Merlin squirmed, clearly annoyed at being handled while he was cuddled so close and in the middle of eating. “Oh… oh my,” Gaius said again, carefully letting Merlin’s tiny arm settle back against Hunith’s warmth.

Feeling near dizzy with how fast his emotions were shifting, Balinor’s overwhelming bliss was subsumed by a wash of fear. “What is it, Gaius? What’s wrong with my son?”

Before he could answer, Hunith asked softly, “You saw it too, then?” There was trepidation in the question, but hope as well.

Gaius nodded. “I did, my dear.”

The fear growing deeper in his heart lessened – Hunith only looked mildly chagrinned by Gaius’ confirmation, rather than scared – but obviously there was something quite significant he was missing. “Will someone please tell me what you both saw?”

“On his forearm,” Hunith explained (after Gaius nodded at her, like he was giving his approbation for her to speak instead of him). “Take a look.”

Shuffling closer, Balinor balanced one hand at Hunith’s hip and then leaned over her to examine his son. Gently, he did what Gaius had, and lifted Merlin’s – surprisingly strong – little arm away from the curl of his body. It took him a moment to spot it, and he blamed the flickering glow of candlelight and the damned crystals for not spying it immediately: a mark on Merlin’s forearm, a few shades pinker than his flushed infant skin, and slightly shimmery. It went from elbow to wrist, wrapping around as it did, but there was no mistaking the shape of it:

A dragon.

With a gasp, Balinor almost let his son’s arm drop. Although, apparently his hold was light enough, because Merlin began to fuss again and he squirmed loose and tucked his own limb back against his side, fingers opening and closing in a feeble grip against Hunith’s skin.

“He is the Dragonlord,” Balinor breathed. “My son… is the last Dragonlord.”

Gaius nodded sagely. “It would appear so, old friend.” He smiled, fond and knowing all at once. “But are you truly surprised? Your gift has been the strongest we’ve seen in an age. And the other arts are equally as present in Hunith’s line.  I cannot say that this comes as much of a shock to me. I’ve always known the last dragonlord would be born in my time.”

Balinor’s mind whirled. As one gifted amongst the Druid people with the ability of dragon-speech, he’d been raised with the knowledge of the last dragonlord. He’d been schooled in the history and debated the translations and listened to the elder’s plan and plot a coming none knew they’d ever see.

But he’d never expected it to be about his own son.

“The prophecy,” he muttered.

“Yes,” Gaius acknowledged. “Merlin will be the one to fulfill the prophecy.”

And wasn’t that a heady realization.

Silence held sway for many long moments, broken only by the faint mewling noises as Merlin continued to noisily drink.

Another thought occurred to Balinor then, and he sat back on his haunches and let out a low groan and a curse.

“What is it, dear?” Hunith asked.

Fixing Gaius with a baleful look – for he’d surely already realized this – Balinor stated, “Someone is going to have to tell Kilgharrah.”

Gaius let out a low, amused snort, while Hunith just hefted her non-infant supporting shoulder in a quick shrug.  The presence of the babe excused her from that duty and she knew it. Balinor grunted again, reluctantly accepting his fate. “Yes, I realize that someone is going to be me. Oh, that dragon is going to love this…” 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Merlin.”

Merlin rolled over in his bed, tugging at the blanket tangling his legs and swiping ineffectively at the gnat buzzing his ear. He settled back into his dream – an aimlessly pleasant vision of swimming in the lake with a faceless figure – and a soft snore issued from his slightly parted lips.

“Merlin!”

Snuffling, Merlin once again brushed muzzily at the side of his face with the back of a limp hand. Then he rucked his head deeper into his pillow.

“Merlin, wake up!”

Snore becoming a sleepy exhale, Merlin mumbled out a dry-mouthed, “G’way. Sleeping.”

Before the voice could echo in his head again, the sound of a faint, tentative knock interrupted. “Merlin?” his mother called softly through the closed door. “Are you awake?”

Biting back a groan, Merlin rolled to his back and blinked up at the white-washed wooden boards of the ceiling. “Yes, Mum,” he replied. “I’m up.”

“About time,” the voice said, clearly perturbed.

Merlin ignored it, focusing instead on his mother who followed up her query with a rather cheerful, “Oh good. Breakfast is nearly ready.”

Because complying would be easier that telling his mother that he had no desire to get out of bed today, Merlin answered with a simple, “Out in a few minutes, Mum.”

There was a quick tap of acknowledgement and then the faint sound of retreating footsteps. Pleased he’d just bought himself a few minutes – his mum wouldn’t expect him at the breakfast table for a while, as her ‘nearly ready’ meant she’d wait until he was up to finish whatever she was cooking – Merlin settled back into his pillow for a few more minutes rest. Though the figure in his dream had been vaguely faceless, in the way dream people often were, he’d been quite fit and well-muscled and he’d been quite… playful during their swim. A few more minutes of enjoying that wasn’t too much to ask, was it? Especially today?

“Merlin… stop ignoring me.”

Throwing his forearm over his eyes, Merlin let out a frustrated groan as his watery paramour suddenly transformed into a massive, scaly beast. “By the old gods, Kilgharrah,” he cursed. “Can’t you leave me alone?”

“Not today, Merlin. You know what today is.”

“Fine.” Merlin kicked the blanket off his feet and slid them over the side of the bed as he sat up. “Fine, I’m awake.” Judging by the light seeping through the thick muslin curtains it was already edging toward late morning. Much as he dreaded the day, Merlin knew he couldn’t avoid it.

“Merlin, you need to come see me.” Kilgharrah’s voice, echoing between his ears, was insistent.

“Not yet,” Merlin stated. “You heard my mum. She’s likely done something special for morning meal today. I’m not going to disappoint her. Are you?”

The dragon’s voice went suspiciously silent and Merlin chuckled. Not even the Great Dragon would risk getting in the way of Hunith’s plans and facing her ire.

Merlin hurried through his morning ablutions and dressed in an old tunic and trousers. Later, there’d be ceremonial clothes to worry about, but he had no intention of spending the entire day in that uncomfortable garb.

Delicious aromas assaulted him the moment he opened his door. He paused and sniffed appreciatively, trying to suss out just what special treat his mum had waiting for him. No simple porridge this morning, that was certain. Mouth already watering, Merlin walked the short hallway to the common room and kitchen to see his mother standing at the hearth. “Something smells delicious,” he announced.

Hunith looked over her shoulder at him with a smile. “It’ll only be a minute, my sweet boy. Why don’t you call your father in from the yard? He’s fetching milk from the cold cellar.”

With an eager grin – cold milk meant thick cream, which likely meant something sweet – Merlin hurried to the door. He didn’t even bother with shoes, and he padded barefoot around to the back of the house and crossed to the small byre and the stone building beside it. The ground was free of frost but cold and slightly damp beneath his bare feet, and Merlin relished the chill as it seeped between his toes. “Father!”

“Perfect timing,” Balinor said, coming out of the narrow cold house door. He carried a fresh bucket in one hand and was carefully balancing a brimming jar and a waxed-cloth wrapped bundle in the other, that Merlin knew was freshly churned butter. “Take these in to your mother, would you?” He handed over the butter and jar of cream. “We’ll have fresh milk for our meal as well.” He indicated the bucket that had been carefully skimmed of cream. “I’ll just pour this into the jug and meet you inside.”

Carrying the items with care, Merlin headed back into the house. He wondered, based on the ease at which his father had refrained from making any comments (other than those about dairy), if his father had forgotten what day it actually was?  He hoped so. Although, Merlin realized the moment he stepped into the house, there was no way his mother would let either of them forget.

“There you are, my sweet boy.” Hunith waved him over and then tutted at his lack of footwear. “No shoes?”

“Mum, it’s springtime.”

She rolled her eyes. “It’s not yet equinox, as you well know.”

Technically, she was correct; though it would be at dusk. Still, it was folly to argue with her, so he just handed over the cream with a sheepish grin and at her gesture, carried the butter to the table.

“Take a seat, Merlin. It’ll be just a minute.”

Balinor came in then, and joined Merlin at the table. “Fresh milk,” he announced, setting the jug down. “Maisy’s been quite productive, even though she birthed early.”  

Hunith made a tutting sound again. “She’s not even four weeks past calving, Balinor. You’re going to starve out that calf.”

“Now, dear, I know you’re worried. But that little bull calf is growing like a weed! He’s getting plenty to eat. This is Maisy’s third calf. She’s just settling in to producing, is all.”

Listening to his parents talk about such simple, domestic issues made Merlin smile. He knew what they were doing, and he was grateful for it. Too much of today would be full of rules and ritual and reminders of his place in some ancient prophecy. He appreciated the chance for a bit of normal at home. Well, as normal as the son of two powerful Druids could hope to enjoy.

“What do you sense, Hunith?” Balinor asked. “Does he feel like he’s hungry?”

His mother’s empathy and ability to commune with all manner of beasts was no simple skill, but she barely had to close her eyes a moment before her mouth curved into a small smile. “All right. You’re right this time, dear husband.” She looked down at something she was stirring in a large pot and let out a small chuckle. “He’s got quite a full belly, though he is feeling quite feisty. I think he can sense spring in the air.”

Balinor laughed. “I think we all can.”

For a moment, Merlin allowed himself to ‘see’ what his mother was sensing: he could feel the pent-up energy in the little black calf as he gamboled two laps around the small pen and then ran up to his mother and butted her repeatedly on the flank. Fractious little fellow indeed. Merlin couldn’t always tune into others’ gifts, but those of his parents were easy enough. It helped that he shared some of their abilities as well (less so in his mother’s case, but well-beyond in his father’s).

“Well, let’s follow that little fellow’s example and fill our bellies as well.” Hunith carried over a loaf of freshly baked and still steaming brown bread and set it down, instructing Balinor to, “Slice that, if you please.”  While he did as bade – and Merlin slathered each piece thick with butter - she returned to the hearth, busied herself a few moments and came back with a laden tray.

“Here you are, my darling son.” She set the tray down and began to fill Merlin’s plate with an incredible variety of his favorites. Thick slabs of ham, crisp-skinned kippers, caramelized squash, seared mushrooms and even berry-studded oatcakes. “Happy name-day, my sweet boy. Twenty-one years ago, the gods blessed your father and I with everything our hearts desired.”

Slightly teary-eyed, Hunith pressed a noisy kiss to the top of Merlin’s head, while he did his best not to squirm away. (He really was getting a bit too old for name-day kisses… but his mother would never agree).

“Happy name-day, Merlin,” Balinor echoed, toasting him with a cup of watered ale.

Somewhat boggling at being spoiled so, Merlin could feel a blush creeping up his cheeks. “This is too much,” he tried to protest. Especially when he saw the bowl of fresh berries drenched in sweet cream. “Mother, this is… these are out of season.” Dried and soaked bilberries in the oatcakes he could accept – they likely still had stores from the previous fall – but fresh elderberry and blackberry and even the little wild strawberries?

“Oh, nonsense,” Hunith protested, smiling as she continued to serve Balinor and herself before sitting down at the table. “You know very well that Edwin’s more than capable of pulling berries at any time of year.”

Merlin did know that. Along with Edwin there were several others in the druid community who had such an affinity for plants and could keep flowers blooming and fruit growing even through the dead of winter. But… such excess just for him?

“It’s just–” he tried to protest again, but was cut off.

“It’s a gift, Merlin,” Hunith chided, albeit with a smile. “You’re just going to have to accept it. In fact, most of this lovely meal comes courtesy of our friends and fellows. They wanted to take their opportunity to thank you and celebrate your name-day as well.”

Balinor sniffed in amusement. “You’re just lucky we talked them all out of the feast that was proposed.”

“A feast?” Merlin groaned. “Won’t they get enough of that later?”

Hunith and Balinor just exchanged a look over the table, but Merlin could interpret it easily enough. It said: ‘Nothing’s too good for the last dragonlord’. At least they didn’t say it out loud. So, Merlin chose to ignore it as best he could and tucked into his meal instead.

They chatted while they ate, mostly about simple, nonconsequential things and Merlin relished every bite of food, and every swallow of cold, fresh milk and tried very hard to let himself just enjoy this moment. Eventually though, once the last morsel had been eaten and the final cream-drenched berry had been chased around the bowl, the auspices of the day could be ignored no longer.

“I’m surprised Kilgharrah hasn’t been pestering you,” Balinor said.

Merlin sat back in his chair, hands curled over his slightly too-full belly (he probably ought to have passed on that second helping of oatcakes in honey) and gave a noisy grumble. “Oh, he’s been around already. Wouldn’t even let me have a lie-in this morning. I reminded him that mum would be none too pleased if I skived off breaking my fast to go and see him, though.”

“Too right,” Hunith agreed. “That meddlesome dragon can wait his turn.” She reached out to cup a hand over Merlin’s and gave a squeeze. “It’s not every day that your only son celebrates his name-day.”

“Thank goodness for that!” Merlin muttered; he could do without the whole of the day.

Ignoring him with fond amusement, Balinor asked, “What time does the delegation from Camelot arrive?”

“Late afternoon,” Hunith said. “At least that’s the latest from the auguries.” She looked to Merlin again. “What are your plans after you visit Kilgharrah?”

It went unspoken that Merlin’s schedule after breakfast included a face-to-face meeting with the dragon. “I thought I’d spend it in the woods. Gaius mentioned yesterday he could use more celandine and some rowan and hawthorn bark scrapings. And to see if I can scrounge up any mistletoe or aconite as well.” Foraging in the woods likely wasn’t what most people would expect the last dragonlord to spend the anniversary of his name day doing… but Merlin wanted nothing more than peace and quiet and some time alone before the chaos that waited in the evening.

Hunith’s mouth started to turn down at the corners, but she pushed through a small smile instead. “You should do what makes you happy, Merlin. Just don’t be late to prepare for the ceremony.”

Merlin shook his head. “Don’t worry, I won’t.” Much as he’d like to avoid the proceedings altogether, he knew he couldn’t.

Balinor stood. “Before you go, Merlin, there’s something we’d like you to have.”

When Merlin frowned in confusion, his mother added, “A gift, Merlin.”

“But, gifts aren’t given until after the ceremony.” It was another tradition that he loathed.

“We know,” Balinor said walking across the room to fetch something from the alcove beneath the stairs that led up to his parent’s loft.

Hunith moved to stand beside Merlin’s chair and she curled a hand over his shoulder. “We thought you could do with a little break from tradition. We’ll still make the required offering tonight, of course, but this is just something special, just from us.”

“Here,” Balinor held out a long, slender parcel, crudely wrapped in old parchment and tied with hemp cord. “Open it.”

Merlin took it eagerly and hurried to yank at the rope and tear away the wrapping. It fell away to reveal an ornately carved walking-staff. Made of a solid piece of oak, and decorated with druidic symbols, sigils and designs interspersed with swathes of raw, dark-burnished wood, the whole thing was topped with a beautifully stylistic dragon – wings folded tight to his side and clutching a large polished sphere of amber in his jaws, with inset beryl for eyes. “This is…” Merlin began, unsure of what to say, overwhelmed by the quality and wealth of such a gift. “This is amazing.”

“We originally thought to commission a wood-wright,” Balinor explained, “but Gaius informed us he’d been working on this one since the day you were born. He found that piece of amber that very day and said that the gods had put it in his path for just this purpose. We wanted him here, to present it to you as well, but he refused. Stubborn old man.” The last was said quite fondly.

“Uncle Gaius made this?” Merlin asked in awe.

“Yes,” Hunith nodded.

Gaius wasn’t actually his uncle, not by blood, but Merlin had known him as such since he was a lad and Gaius had always seemed quite fond of the appellation.

“I’ll have to thank him.”

Patting Merlin roughly on the shoulder, Balinor gave a hearty laugh. “You know Gaius, he’ll just fuss and dither if you thank him directly. He’ll definitely appreciate that celandine though.”

Merlin chuckled; his father was right. Uncle Gaius never liked anyone to make a fuss over him. Merlin would have to make sure to gather quite a lot of the flowers, and more herbs and bark besides, to even begin to scratch the surface of thanking his Uncle for such a fine gift.

He stood and leaned his weight on the staff. It was sturdy and felt natural in his hand. At the same time, he hated the thought of marring its lovely surface with dirt and detritus.

As if reading his thoughts, his father added, “Oh, Gaius wanted us to tell you that you shouldn’t just keep it hidden away, either. It’s meant to be used. And often.”

“Right,” Merlin nodded. And there was no better time to try it out. “I’ll be heading off then.”

“Socks and boots before you go,” Hunith cautioned.

Though he didn’t quite roll his eyes, Merlin and his father did share a look of amused commiseration. “Yes, mum.” He pulled on a pair of thick woolen socks and his sturdy boots and gathered up his satchel (for the herbs, and already weighted down by a waterskin and likely something to nibble on later courtesy of his mum). He shrugged into his jacket also, to preempt Hunith’s chiding, figuring that he could always carry it if the day warmed too much.

He turned back to his parents, now standing close – Balinor’s arm over Hunith’s shoulder – and smiled. “Don’t worry, I won’t be late.”

Their responding smiles – fond and full of love – followed him out the door.

The walk to Kilgharrah’s cave – his preferred nesting ground this time of year – wasn’t a long one, and Merlin didn’t exactly hurry. He could sense the dragon urging him on, but he’d long ago learned to stave off impulses that Kilgharrah tried to impart. It was simply too lovely a day to be in any sort of rush. Though, he did want to get this visit over with as quickly as he could.

Every year on his name-day the dragon gave him practically the same speech. It was one about responsibility to his calling and his sacred duty to druid and dragons alike. There were many, many times Merlin wished he didn’t carry the mark of the last dragonlord on his arm, and that his ability to command all of dragonkind was simply the lesser gift of dragon speech that his father possessed. Then perhaps Kilgharrah wouldn’t be quite so invested in him…

“Finally, you arrive.” Kilgharrah’s sonorous tone carried a heavy note of displeasure. “I’ve been waiting, Merlin.”

Passing from the bright sunny day into the dark of the cave left Merlin blinking as his vision adapted to dimness, and he stepped forward slowly until he could see the great dragon curled up at the back of the cavern. Though he had his head laid out across his crossed forelegs, the baleful look he fixed on Merlin was anything but relaxed.

“You can blame my mother for that. If you’ve the guts,” Merlin told the dragon with a smirk.

Kilgharrah lifted his head up, raising his neck to its full length and glared down, so that Merlin would have to crane his neck back to stare up at him. “Your humor is no more appreciated today than it would be any other, Dragonlord.”

Merlin shrugged. “So, what is it that you want? I’ve got quite a busy day ahead of me, as you well know.”

“We must speak of the prophecy, Merlin. The time of the golden age draws near. Soon will come the time that you must seek out the sovereign dragon and fulfill your destiny.”

“You’ve been saying that for six years now, Kilgharrah,” Merlin countered, wearily. “Every year since I turned sixteen and this whole prophecy business kicked off, you’ve told me that this halcyon age loomed near. And that I’d need to set out to tame or defeat this ultimate dragon to bring forth a new age to these lands.” He spread his hands. “But every year, I meet the eldest son or daughter of one of the noble houses we hold fealty with, and every year we go through the same ritual, and every year… nothing happens.” He brought his hands back to his hips and glared upward. “Unless you’ve something different to tell me this year, I’m not seeing a need for a repeat of this lesson.”

The faintest coil of smoke seeped out of one draconine nostril, and cat-slitted eyes narrowed. “You mock me, boy?” Kilgharrah inhaled a long draught of air.

Merlin lifted a hand. “You threaten me, dragon?”

Swallowing hard and then coughing out a massive cloud of smoke, Kilgharrah shook his head, although the irritation was still plain as day on his face. Just as Merlin knew that Kilgharrah’s actions were all posturing, he suspected Kilgharrah knew that he’d never really command the dragon to do anything against his will. This stalemate of theirs was as old as he was.

Still, the threat of being roasted in dragon flame wasn’t one Merlin could ignore. Kilgharrah was the last of the great dragons. It wouldn’t do for the lesser dragons to think that he’d gotten away with being quite so impertinent to the last dragonlord.

“Look,” Merlin began again, calmer this time. “I know what the ceremony tonight means, and I know how important it is. I will be there, as I am bound to do, and I will complete my duty. I just don’t need this,” he gestured around him, “reminder as to what that duty is. I’m quite familiar.”

Kilgharrah’s responding sigh still carried a few plumes of smoke. “Merlin, I am old. I have been awaiting this coming for longer than many of your lifespans, and this duty has been mine for that long as well.”

Merlin knew what that meant. It was dragonspeak for, “Just humor me, would you?” His connection to all dragonkind allowed Merlin to get a sense of just how weary Kilgharrah really was, and it weighed on him. Feeling sympathetic – and recognizing that he’d been just slightly selfish – Merlin relented. “All right.” He sat down on the floor of the cave, propping his back against a water-worn stalagmite. “I am your pupil; guide me, oh Great Dragon.”

There may have been a bit of mocking in that as well, but Kilgharrah just inclined his massive head. “Very well, Merlin.” He settled as well, once again crossing his forelegs and laying his long neck and head out over them. “I shall endeavor to be brief. But the prophecy must be spoken, Dragonlord. It is not simply tradition, but ritual that has power tied to it.”

“I understand,” Merlin said. Though, he didn’t really know what hearing the same prophecy every year really did, other than remind him how much of his life lay down a foretold path. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe it – the pale mark that coiled around his arm made denial impossible – but, he didn’t like to think about it either. Someday, he knew, things would change and the life he’d known would be drastically uprooted, forcing him to bond with some complete stranger, and setting a future in motion that felt too big and too heavy for one simple man to carry its burden. Yet he shared none of this with Kilgharrah, and simply gestured for the dragon to continue.

As he’d done every year since Merlin turned sixteen, Kilgharrah intoned the words of the prophecy in the ancient dragon language.

It was a tongue that pre-dated even the great dragons. Kilgharrah knew the words not as words, but almost as a sense memory rather than true language. Something held sacred in the consciousness of only the greater draconids. Of which Kilgharrah was the last.

There were druid Scholars and Elders who’d spent their entire lives translating and interpreting the meaning of the prophecy from ancient scrolls and tapestries that the predecessors to the druid people had recorded. According to druidic clan history, there’d even been a massive holy war that occurred between two factions of those pre-druids who’d believed in conflicting translations.

It had always troubled Merlin to hear about those kinds of things during his lessons. How was he – the mere son of Hunith and Balinor – supposed to be responsible for something so… powerful and significant and yet divisive enough to cause brother to fight brother.

At some point in history, he knew, a compromise had been reached and there’d come a widely accepted translation taught to every druid child, and shared with the rulers of the various kingdoms that bore treaties with the druids. 

Still, no matter how many times he’d sat before Kilgharrah and felt the dragon’s breath upon his face and listened to the oddly guttural, yet lyrical sounds as they flowed into him… through him, Merlin couldn’t quite fathom this this was all about him.

Even this time, as Kilgharrah intoned the very last note of prophecy into the air between them and Merlin closed his eyes to experience it washing over him, like a wave of warmth and energy that absorbed into his very being. Even this time, he still didn’t comprehend how this was all supposed to act through him.

As a result, he’d become rather blasé about the whole situation.

Although, if he was truly honest with himself, the very first year he’d experienced it, he’d been terrified. Not of hearing the prophecy – that part had been much easier than he’d anticipated, since all it really involved was the dragon sort of breathing-singing at him – but what came after. Hell, he still dreaded that part.

Seven kingdoms had signed ancient pacts with the druid people, and though one of those had long been lost to time, the other six still kept to the old words and complied with those historic compacts. Upon the coming of the last dragonlord, every year one of those kingdoms was required to send their eldest heir to treat with the druids, and proffer that heir as a potential marriage partner for Merlin.

In exchange, the druid people shared with their kingdoms not only trade in material goods and the varied skills of the druid’s people and magics, but the protection of the dragon-guard. A force made up of the still powerful, lesser drakes and their battle-trained druid riders.  With the aid of the dragon-guard, not a single one of those kingdoms had known defeat since signing those pacts.

Which was all well and good for them. Up until Merlin’s sixteenth birthday, they’d had no real responsibilities to the treaties. Some of them, Merlin knew, had even forgotten all about the clause that required them to start sending their royal heirs to the Valley of Fallen Kings once the last dragonlord had come into being.

There’d been some kind of meeting after Merlin was born though, in which the rulers of each land had parleyed with several druid elders, and they’d manage to whittle the compacts down even further. Instead of six potential heirs making an annual pilgrimage to the Valley every Vernal Equinox (the day of Merlin’s birth), they’d agreed only one was necessary, and had worked out some kind of rotation.

So, after hundreds of years of wisdom and protection, all that those kings had to give over in exchange, was one of their kids, once every six years, until Merlin finally got saddled with one of them.

Merlin found the whole thing kind of insulting, and griped about it anytime the Elders brought it up in his presence.

“It’s the way it has always been, Merlin,” Kilgharrah told him rather pointedly.

He was a bit abashed to realize he’d been muttering aloud.

“It’s just ridiculous, Kilgharrah.” He stood, taking up his walking stick and using it to gesticulate. “Especially because they treat it like it’s some major sacrifice on their part.” He affected a high, put-upon tone. “Oh, no! Poor me. I have to go and visit the savages in their dirty little village and I might be married off to one of them.” Merlin snorted and stomped a boot against the stone. “I’m the one that gets paraded before a bunch of visiting nobles every year, and on my name-day, no less. I’m the one that must participate in ridiculous rituals and hope to the gods that I don’t get stuck tied to someone who looks down their nose at me like I’m not worth the horse dung on their fancy slippers!

“And… and, do you know, I know for a fact that last year, Olaf didn’t even send his eldest child! He sent her cousin instead! Because his precious Vivian was ‘too good’ for the likes of me.” He finished his rant a bit wildly and the point of the staff poked Kilgharrah in the nose. The dragon reared his head back in affront. Merlin muttered a quick, “Sorry.”

Kilgharrah just shook his head and grumbled out, “Merlin, just as you have heard every word I’ve spoken about the importance of the prophecy and adherence to the rituals that surround it, so have I heard your every complaint about them.”

“So, I should shut up and get out of your cave then?” Merlin asked, rather hopefully.

Some of the other druids – those with little affinity for dragons – never believed it when Merlin told them that dragons could roll their eyes. Kilgharrah was an expert at the expression though, and this time it was accompanied by a smoky sigh. “So be it.”

Merlin shouldered his pack and took a much more appropriate hold of his walking stick. “Thank you, Kilgharrah,” he said and then hurried out into the waiting morning.

“Don’t be late tonight, Merlin,” Kilgharrah’s caution echoed loudly in Merlin’s head, and Merlin just huffed out a laugh. The dragon always had to get in the last word.

Though he nearly stumbled after going from the gloom of the cavern into the brightly lit day, Merlin scrambled onward nonetheless. The woods he preferred for foraging herbs were less than half a league away and he jogged most of that, shedding his coat and stuffing it in his satchel halfway there. The weather was unseasonably warm and the morning chill that had lingered early had been burned off by an eager yellow sun gleaming overhead in a sky of bright, cloudless blue.

It felt a bit strange, like it always did this time of year, to look up at the sky and toward the mountains and the heavy forests and not see the playful shapes of dragons soaring overhead. As much as he loved the changeover from winter to spring (well, except for the ritual part of it) he did miss the bustle of color and motion that the lesser dragons usually added to the landscape. Although, spring would give way to summer soon enough, and the clutching season would end, and then there would be the fun of hatchlings appearing everywhere. It was a time of both joy and frustration amongst the druid people who called the Valley of the Fallen Kings their home; baby dragons were destructive!

When Merlin finally reached the dense woods and stepped into their cooler, light-dappled depths, he felt no urge to put his coat back on. Though, he did need room in his satchel once he found a spread of hawthorn and scraped off several handfuls of bark for Gaius. He hung the coat over the top of the staff, grinning at his ingenuity, and continued to forage.

The cheery yellow blooms of lesser celandine were easy to spot, and he found several patches of them carpeting the forest floor in places where the trees grew thin allowing more sunlight through and along well-worn woodland paths. Even though Gaius hadn’t asked for them, he also gathered some snowdrops – pleased to see some blooming so late – that mingled with the winter aconite he collected. If Gaius didn’t want them, he knew his mother would appreciate them just the same.

The mistletoe proved a bit more difficult to track down. Usually mistletoe clumps could be found nestled in the slender branches of rowan and hawthorn, but he’d already founds several stands of each – and collected their bark – and not seen any of the bright green clusters. They should’ve been easier to spot as well, considering most of the trees were still bare of leaves or barely budding.

He ventured a bit further into the woods. There was a frequently used game trail to follow, edged in dogwood and Merlin was delighted to find primroses blooming along the verges. Gaius would have uses for them, he was sure. Eventually, he came to a small, semi-clearing where a copse of blackthorn were thick with green clusters in their prickled branches. Granted, it wouldn’t be the easiest time gathering mistletoe without getting scratched-up, but all Merlin had to do was glance at the walking stick to decide it was well-worth the effort.

He’d managed a few handfuls, carefully working the little plant bunches out of the black-barked trees, when a sound caught Merlin’s ear. It wasn’t a normal sound of the woods around him – the scratchy whisper of bare branches clashing in the breeze, or winter birds calling out challenges to one another, or the rustle of eagerly foraging creatures rummaging beneath the carpet of leaves.  No, this was rhythmic and urgent. Merlin focused his senses toward the source and suddenly became aware of an intelligence. Primitive – which mean some kind of beast or animal – and clearly frightened.

The rhythm he realized, was the impact of hooves striking the soil. Merlin recognized the mind he touched as that of a terrified horse. Though his talent at communing with animals (other than dragons) wasn’t nearly as strong as his mother’s, he still had some small ability. He sent out a simple, calming thought; something that would soothe the horse’s fear.  After a few moments, the panicked gallop slowed to a less frantic lope, and finally it was a sweaty, but much calmer mare that trotted past him.

Merlin watched her go, continuing to focus on sending her those sensations of safety and serenity. Though she’d gone out of sight, he could sense it when she eventually came to rest and although her tail twitched against her hocks and occasionally the skin over her withers juddered, she lost the urge to flee entirely.

He was just considering what to do about her – she hadn’t been an animal he recognized from the village and he didn’t know where she’d run from – when another sound caught his ear. This one was clear enough from the get-go: a man’s voice calling for the horse (whose name was apparently Lily).

Merlin didn’t have long to wait before the owner of that voice strode into view. He pushed through the trees rather crudely, calling out the horses name every few minutes. He was wearing a bright red cloak over chainmail and his hair was golden like summer wheat. The embroidered dragon sigil on his cloak and tabard told Merlin he was from Camelot. Judging by the look of him – the armor and sword – he was some kind of guardsman or knight.

He also startled and cursed when he spotted Merlin, nearly stumbling back into the wide trunk of an alder tree.

“Who the hell are you?” The man eyed Merlin with suspicion. “What are you doing out here?”

Before Merlin could reply, the stranger looked him up and down, taking in his (now rather muddy and bedraggled) plain trousers and shoddy tunic with a sneer. “Oh, you’re one of those druids, aren’t you?”

Affronted on behalf of his people moreso than himself, Merlin drew himself up to his full height and sneered right back. “And just who’re you? You’re trespassing on our land, you know.”

The man had the audacity to roll his eyes. “If you must know, I’m with the delegation from Camelot. We’re here on invitation.” Then he scoffed and flipped his hand in a dismissive gesture. “Some ritualistic nonsense your people insist upon.”

Merlin gawped.

Oblivious, the man looked past Merlin. “I don’t suppose you spotted a horse running this way?” He finally looked back at Merlin’s face and gave a little jerk of his head, as if he was surprised by the expression on Merlin’s face. “What?”

“Ritualistic nonsense?” Merlin repeated.

The man at least had the good sense to look a little bit abashed. “Look,” he said, quite clearly not interested in conversing, “I’m sure it’s of great cultural significance to your people. It’s just… have you seen this horse or not? She belongs to Lady Morgana’s handmaid, Guinevere. The mare got spooked by some damn great wolf that stalked us and she threw Gwen to the ground before she bolted. I gave Gwen my horse and I promised to find her.”

Softening, despite himself… well, and because he knew that the ‘damn great wolf’ the man referred to was likely one of the hunting hybrids – crossed between wolf and deerhound – that a few of their druid rangers partnered with. Most of the rangers were beast-speakers, like his mum, and one or two would’ve been sent with the welcome party to greet the Camelot envoys. He knew they liked to make a show of their communion with their massive, frightening companions…

“How is she?”

“Who? The mare? How the hell am I supposed to know?”

Merlin shook his head. “No, this Guinevere. Is she all right?” He hated to think what it could mean for the ceremony later if one of the Camelot party were injured because of a druid having a bit of fun at their expense.

Again, a strange expression crossed the man’s face. He gave Merlin another of those searching looks. When he wasn’t scowling or glaring, Merlin realized he was rather handsome. “She’s fine,” he finally answered. “Bit startled, but Gwen’s an experienced rider. She’s more concerned about Lily. And whether or not there are any more of those blasted wolves out here.” His hand curled around the hilt of the sword that was belted at his waist, as if he were mere seconds from drawing it out.

“You needn’t worry about the wolves,” Merlin told him. “The one you saw, he was likely tame. Uh…” He scrubbed at the back of his neck. “They’re just a bit scary when you first come upon them. I can understand why the mare was startled.”

The man sniffed haughtily. “Oh, so that animal belonged to one of your people then? Should’ve figured. I’ve heard that some of you people commune unnaturally with beasts.” He mock-shuddered.

And there went all of Merlin’s softness.

“So, have you seen her?” The man asked again. “The mare, I mean,” he clarified unnecessarily. 

“Yes,” Merlin nodded curtly. He pointed westward. He was less interested in helping, and much more interested in getting away from this utter prat. “She’s about half a league in that direction.”

“Damn,” the man said, his broad shoulders slumping wearily. “I’d hoped not to have to keep chasing her.”

For a moment – a very long moment – Merlin was tempted to tell him that the mare was still running, and that he’d never catch her. But, he could picture his mother’s face if he were to do something so unwelcoming, especially to some bothersome knight in the Camelot retinue. Her disappointment looming large in his mind, Merlin shook his head. “You won’t have to. Chase her, I mean.” He closed his eyes a moment, searching out the mare’s mind. She was just where she’d been before, nosing through detritus for the green shoots beneath. “She’s standing still now, and she’ll wait there for you.”

Merlin opened his eyes to see the man staring down his nose at him with suspicion once again. His rather stormy blue eyes were nearly hidden away by his squinting. “You’re one of those…” he made a strange gesture with his hand.

“Beast-speakers,” Merlin offered, not unkindly. “They’re called beast-speakers, and there’s nothing unnatural about it.” With a heavy sigh, Merlin pointed again. “Your mare is that way, and if you’ll excuse me, I must be heading back to my pathetic little village.”

He tromped away through the brush before the man could say anything else. For a moment Merlin thought he heard something, but he couldn’t make it out and he wasn’t interested in hearing it anyway. His peaceful time alone before having to face his twice-damned destiny, had come to a frustrating, disheartening end and he wanted nothing more than to get the rest of the day over with.

At least he had a visit with Gaius to look forward to.

He made Gaius’ small, homey cottage his first stop on reaching the outskirts of the village. He didn’t think he was ever more thankful that his ‘uncle’ lived so far from the center of things. Not that he didn’t appreciate the kind words and cheery ‘hellos’ of the rest of the people who made the Valley of the Fallen Kings their home, but he just wasn’t in the mood to be on the receiving end of their well-wishes and bits of advice and queries about tonight’s ceremony. He knocked on Gaius’ door and barely waited for his invitation – a welcoming, “Come in!” – before scrambling inside and shutting the door heavily behind. He let his coat and his satchel drop and he leaned the staff against the wall and slumped back next to it with a weary sigh.

“Goodness, Merlin,” Gaius declared as he looked up from whatever concoction he was brewing at his workstation. “You look as though you’ve brought half of the woods with you!”

Picking at a few brambles and the occasional bit of twig or dried leaf in his hair, Merlin couldn’t disagree. He’d trudged through the trees with little thought to his appearance or even his well-being (as evidenced by the numerous scratches that peppered his hands and arms), just an overwhelming urge to leave that place behind.

“Err, well. I had a rather unpleasant run-in with one of the fellows from Camelot.”

“Oh?” Gaius asked, setting down whatever he was mixing in a mortar and pestle and crossing the room. He took Merlin’s arm and towed him over to the table – the one he ate at, which was the only clean surface in the place – and pushed him to sit. He fussed a moment with some items at a shelf and when he came to take a seat it was on a stool, pulled up close to Merlin, rather than across the table from him. The things he’d gathered, Merlin realized, were medicinal: neat squares of cloth, a vial of something Merlin suspected would sting like anything, and a soothing salve for after.

“So, tell me about this fellow,” Gaius instructed, already dabbing a dampened piece of cotton over the reddened scratches on Merlin’s hand. He was right: it did sting.

“Well, I was out gathering those herbs for you,” Merlin began, and got then sidetracked immediately as he pointed to the satchel that he’d dropped near the door. “I found everything you’d asked after, by the way. I even picked some snowdrops and primrose, in case you might have a use for them.”

Gaius tugged his hand back – since he’d pointed with the one that Gaius was treating – and nodded. “That’s wonderful, my boy. And snowdrop and primrose both have their uses, so I thank you for that. Though, you didn’t have to spend your name-day gathering herbs and flowers you know.”

Merlin shrugged. “It’s what I wanted to do, Uncle Gaius. I mean, it was the least I could do after I’d learned you made me that waking staff. It’s really tremendous.” Since his hand was held tight, Merlin just inclined his head to indicate the staff leaning against the wall.

It wasn’t often that Gaius blushed, but Merlin could definitely see a bit of a flush rising in his cheeks. “Yes, well… think nothing of it, my boy,” Gaius said, clearing his throat noisily. “Anyway, you were saying about this man from Camelot?”

Recognizing that he’d be put off in any further attempts to thank Gaius – at least with words, fresh herbs on the other hand, he knew Gaius would accept without protest – Merlin returned to his story. “So, I was just getting some bunches of mistletoe out of a buckthorn when I sensed a startled horse running by. Naturally, I tried to calm her, and eventually she did slow down and then stop.” He frowned. “I’m sure my mum could’ve gotten her to come back, and I guess I could’ve focused a little harder,” he waved that off, “but anyway, before I could follow or anything, this man came after her. I recognized the crest on his cloak and tabard. It was the Pendragon sigil, and he was wearing chain and had a sword. So, I assume he was some kind of guardsman or knight.”

Still dabbing away at the small scratches, covering them with a thin layer of the unguent now, Gaius made a noise of vague assent.

“But, Gaius, he was awful!” Merlin groaned. “He was rude and he insulted our people and ugh…” he trailed off with a long, disgusted noise. “Honestly, if he was at all representative of the people of Camelot, I want nothing to do with them.”

“Now, Merlin,” Gaius began (which was exactly what Merlin had expected), “you mustn’t judge an entire population based on one example. Knights and their ilk can sometimes be a brash, ill-mannered lot. I’m sure their nobles are much more refined in their behavior.”

Merlin reluctantly agreed. “I know you’re right, Gaius. It just didn’t put me in the best mood. I suppose I’ll just have to hope that whichever prince or princess they sent for the ritual is a decent sort.”

Gaius fixed him with a look – brows dipped inward and eyes narrowed – that made Merlin duck his head like a chastened student. “You don’t even recall who it is that represents the Kingdom of Camelot? Merlin.” His disappointed tsking was almost worse than the glare.

“I know… I know. Elder Alator would be furious with me for forgetting. It’s just… well…” He really had no excuse. Instruction in the rulers and lineages of all of the kingdoms they treated with had been part of his education since he was a boy. “Uh, this knight… he did say something about a Lady Morgana, I think? That sounds familiar.”

Clucking his tongue, Gaius shook his head. “The Lady Morgana is not the heir. Really, Merlin.  You should know all of this. The person you meet at the grove this evening could potentially be bound to you for the rest of your life.”

“You think I don’t know that, Gaius?” Since Gaius had finished with all of Merlin’s little scrapes and cuts, he stood and began to pace. “I’ve looked across that grove on my name-day for the past five years with the knowledge that I might be stuck marrying the person stood across from me. And do you know what I’ve seen looking back at me?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “At the best, curiosity or boredom. At worst, contempt and disdain. I mean, it’s one thing to be this last dragonlord,” – he shoved up his right sleeve, displaying the pale shape that had marked him since birth – “I’m kind of stuck with that. But this ritual business is just so unfair. I don’t want to disappoint anyone, Gaius, but sometimes I hate how much my life is mapped out for me. It’s just so tiring.” Rant over, Merlin’s shoulders slumped and he let out a weary sigh.

Gaius stepped over to him and patted his shoulder and his tone held genuine commiseration when he said, “I know, my boy. It’s not an easy path that’s been set for you to follow. But I know you’ll do yourself and our people proud when the time comes, and there is no one better suited to carry the weight of your destiny than you, Merlin.”

“Thank you, Gaius,” Merlin said, feeling… well, not exactly better, but at least slightly mollified. “And speaking of that destiny, I suppose I should go and get ready for it.”

“Yes, I suppose you ought to. Wouldn’t do having you show up to the grove with sticks in your hair and mud on your cheeks, now would it?”

“Well, it would serve that Camelot fellow right, if I did,” Merlin said with a chuckle, which turned into a guilty cough at Gaius’ formidable eyebrow. “Right, well. I’ll be off. Thank you again, Uncle Gaius, for the walking stick.” He picked it up and admired it a moment. “It really is wonderful.”

Handing Merlin his jacket, Gaius just smiled. “Go on, my boy.”

Leaving the cozy familiarity of the cottage behind, Merlin headed for the hot springs. This time of day he could only hope they wouldn’t be too occupied. He could’ve – if he’d really wanted – asked for some of the acolytes that served the Elder’s Council to prepare him a bath, but Merlin never liked to abuse the privileges of his birthright. It would be bad enough later, when those same acolytes would have to aid in dressing and preparing him for the ritual.

Through the trees and rocky outcroppings that formed around the lowland springs, Merlin could hear laughter and splashing. He hesitated a few minutes in one of the stone-walled passages, debating going on or turning back, when something about one of those laughs – a ridiculous, trilling giggle - caught his attention. 

It couldn’t be?

“Freya?” Merlin blurted as he came around the corner.

Damp dark hair floating around her narrow shoulders, he recognized Freya by the back of her head even before she turned around. “Merlin!” Her normally wide eyes were nearly squinted shut by the push of cheeks curving over her massive smile.

 “Oy, there you are!”

He’d not even glanced at the second body in the pools – attention caught in shock at seeing Freya – but at that, Merlin’s gaze shifted and his jaw went slack.

“Will?”

Not only Freya, but Will too. His two oldest friends were there, soaking in the water and smiling up at him in utter delight.

“Will! Freya!” Merlin almost couldn’t believe it. They’d never come back for the ritual before. Not since they’d both become part of the dragon-guard. “No, no!” Merlin waved them off when they both started to climb out of the rocky pools. “I’m coming in.” He hurried to scramble out of his clothes, tossing everything in a haphazard pile on top of his boots and stripping down with alacrity.

In just a few minutes he was naked and he scurried down the damp, slick shelves of rock and practically leapt into the steaming water. He gasped, first from the shock of the heat, and then from having the air knocked out of his lungs by two bodies crushing him from either side.

“I can’t believe you’re both here!” he managed to exclaim from between the press of them both. “What… what are you doing here?”

Freya stepped back before Will – who seemed intent on slapping Merlin’s back and ruffling his hair until he was as wet as the pair of them – and she let out another of those giggles. “You’ve forgotten, haven’t you? Oh, Merlin.”

“Forgotten? What have I forgotten?”

Will took that opportunity to push Merlin’s head down, dunking him completely. When he came up sputtering, Will was laughing and Freya had a hand up over her mouth like she was trying not to laugh but was failing utterly.

“We’re dragon-guard for Camelot, Merlin,” Will told him, the ‘you idiot’ unspoken but evident in his tone.

“Ohhh!” Merlin had forgotten. Well, not only that Will and Freya had been assigned to Camelot in their duties for the dragon-guard, but also that members of the dragon-guard returned to the Valley, accompanying their royal charges to the ritual. “Uh, right.”

“You getting daft in your old age?” Will asked, laughing and looking like he was getting ready to dunk Merlin again.

Merlin paddled away, putting Freya between them as a barrier.

“Oh, don’t be too hard on him, Will,” Freya teased. “Must not be easy being stuck here, while the rest of us are off getting to see the world and meet new people.” She was smiling when she said it, but Merlin could tell there was real sympathy there.

It wasn’t far from the truth. He had been happy when his two closest friends were selected for positions in the guard – it was an honor granted to only a select few – but disappointed because he knew it would mean they’d travel far away in the course of their duties. He didn’t want Freya to feel too bad though, so he just chuckled. “Oh, I’m sure I’m missing out. Stuck on overnight patrols, out in the cold. Nothing to keep you company but a surly dragon.” He snorted. “I’ll take my warm home and getting to visit these hot springs every day over that.”

That got him splashed by both Freya and Will, and kicked off a water battle that soaked the limestone walls around the springs and probably left all of their clothing damp. Panting and exhilarated, Merlin finally settled on a submerged shelf, leaning his back against the wall of the spring that had long been worn smooth by water and countless bodies. His friends took up similar spots around the circumference of the pool.

“It is good to see you,” Merlin told them, sincerely.

“Good to see you too, mate,” Will answered.

A thought occurred to Merlin then. “Where are your dragons?” Because he didn’t see Dhace and Vahrri anywhere. Normally if dragon-guard were in the hot springs, there’d be lazy, indolent dragons lounging nearby.

“Faffed off to their caverns,” Will said with a dismissive gesture.

“Returned to their clutch-homes,” Freya corrected, sticking her tongue out at Will. “They’ll come if they’re called, but you know what this time is like for them, Merlin. The urge to protect their families, even if they’re long grown, is hard for them to ignore.”

Merlin didn’t quite know what the bond was like between lesser dragon and dragon-guard, but he figured it might not be too different from his own bond with Kilgharrah. He did know – could sense very strongly – the feelings of anxiety and urge to shelter; if he so much as reached out lightly with his sense to any of the lesser dragons he’d likely have been overwhelmed by it.

“Right, I don’t know why I didn’t think about that.”

Freya grinned and then went on to ask, “Are you nervous about tonight?”

Merlin shrugged. “No more than I’ve been the last five times I’ve had to do this.” They’d still been around for the first three years, so they knew what he’d gone through and what the ritual entailed. He pushed a hand across the surface of the water. “Honestly, I’d rather not talk about it right now. I’d much rather hear about what you two have been up to.”

There was opportunity here, he recognized, to get more information about Camelot, and the royal heir he was to meet later, but Merlin just didn’t want to think about it. Because they were still his best friends, both Will and Freya seemed to understand.

They spent the better part of the next hour regaling Merlin with wildly implausible stories, and sharing ridiculous and embarrassing anecdotes about people Merlin had never heard of, and – quite memorably – flashing Merlin far more of Will’s arse than he ever wanted to see to show off a truly impressive scar (the story behind it had been less impressive, and much more embarrassing for Will). They stayed in the water until their fingers were pruning and Merlin felt hoarse and lightheaded from both heat and laughter.

Eventually, it was Freya who brought it up. “He’s handsome, at least. Strong and brave as well. A good warrior by all accounts.”

“Who?”

“She means Prince Arthur,” Will explained. “The Prince of Camelot,” he added when Merlin just blinked dumbly.

“Ohhh!” he finally exclaimed. “Right. So that’s who it is. I’d uh… forgotten earlier. And Gaius sort of yelled at me, so I didn’t want to ask. I thought it might’ve been the Lady Morgana.”

Will shook his head. “Nah, you’re stuck with the Prince. Too bad though. Lady Morgana is quite the looker.”

Freya rolled her eyes. “He fancies her.”

Mocking the expression with a noisy raspberry, Will countered, “Yeah, well, she fancies this Knight called Gwaine.”

“I do not!”

“Or maybe it’s Elyan this week?”

Over Freya’s noisy protest, Merlin started to ask, “Oh, that reminds me, I was wondering about one of the Camelot knights. Do either of you know a bloke who’s sort of tall, my height I guess and blond–”

“Merlin!”

It was Hunith. He recognized her tone – and her voice, of course – even before she came around the stone shelves of the springs’ entrance.  

“Oh, Merlin, there you are!” She stayed well back from the slippery edges of limestone their earlier splashing had drenched and frowned regretfully at the three of them. “Hello, William. Hello Freya. It’s so lovely to see you both.” They both responded with warm greetings. “I do hate to interrupt, but Merlin’s needed. The acolytes are waiting to prepare him for the ceremony.”

“We understand,” Freya said, although Will groaned in disappointment.

Hunith flipped a hand at Merlin impatiently. “C’mon, darling.”

“Mum, I’m naked here. At least give me a minute to get dressed.”

Her eyeroll was almost as good as Freya’s. “It’s nothing any of us haven’t seen before, Merlin. Now hurry up and get out of that water.”

With his friends giggling, Merlin gave up any attempts at retaining his dignity and scrambled up the slippery rocks. His tunic and trousers were – as he’d suspected – soaked, and trying to pull wet cloth over damp flesh proved equal parts impossible and embarrassing.

“Oh, for the sake of the old gods, Merlin,” Hunith chided, but she tittered right along with Will and Freya.

Finally, he managed to struggle into the garments and just picked up his boots and small clothes. Out of the burbling hot water, Merlin certainly felt the chill of the just-turned-spring air, but he only had a short distance to walk and didn’t bother putting anything else on. “I’ll see you both at the ceremony.” He gave a desultory little wave to Will and Freya.

“See you there, mate.”

“Good luck, Merlin,” Freya added, smiling encouragingly.

Merlin started for the acolyte’s lodge. Hunith picked up his walking staff and followed behind him. He could tell the entire time they walked that she was biting her tongue on lecturing him about catching cold. Luckily, the large, completely circular structure was heated – a cheery fire was kept ever-burning at the center of the singular room – and he’d be getting out of the wet clothes in a matter of minutes.

He stopped just outside of the large double-doors and turned to his mother. “On my own from here. No mums allowed,” he quipped, though it fell a bit flat judging by the way Hunith’s lips thinned.

“Oh, my darling boy.” She took Merlin’s face between her hands, her palms hot on his cheeks. “I know this is hard on you. Just remember that your father and I love you and are always proud of you, no matter what. I know you’ll do your best and I want nothing more for you than your happiness.” Blinking away tears, she drew Merlin’s head down so she could place a kiss on his brow.

Warm from more than the press of her hands, Merlin just muttered a quiet, “Love you too, mum.”

Hunith stepped back then. “Here,” she held out the staff that she’d tucked under an arm. “You take this. It’ll look quite regal with your ritual clothes.” She traded him for the damp boots and jacket. “Good luck, Merlin.”

He nodded. “Thanks, mum.”

He’d been right about the warmth of the lodge. Almost as soon as he stepped inside, the heat washed over him and he felt like the damp-chilled places on his body would start to steam like dragon’s breath at any moment. The four acolytes – two men and two women, all older than he was – hurried over to escort him in. In silence, they began their work. And they’d stay that way the entire time as well.

Earning a place among the Elder’s circle had many prerequisites and serving three years as unspeaking acolytes was just one of the trials they had to endure.  Merlin couldn’t fault them their dedication (he’d never be able to keep his mouth shut that long) although he’d always found it just a bit creepy going through the preparations in total silence.

Not that he had to stay silent. Sometimes he found it easier to just keep up a running commentary of what they were doing to him. Once in a while his chatter got him the barest of grins or fleeting expressions of amusement.

This time he stayed almost as silent as they got to work, only making the occasional comment: “Oh, it’s the ambergris and sandalwood this time?” as they anointed him at all his pulse points with scented and blessed oil; “Tickles,” when he couldn’t stop snickering at the feel of the brush tip painting ancient sigils across his chest and shoulders and abdomen in ebon ink; “I swear these pants are getting looser,” while they helped him step into the night-blue raw-silk trousers that were threaded at the hems and along the sides of the legs with silver embroidery. “These, on the other hand, are definitely getting tighter,” once they’d laced up the knee-high, dyed black, kid-skin boots. 

They daubed his head with more of the oil, working it through the dark, close-cropped strands, then dusted his cheeks and brow with powdered mica and brushed a stain made from crushed rosehips and rowan berries over his lips. They highlighted his dragonmark as well, outlining it with a mix of the ink and berry stain, and carefully applied more of the glittering mica, so that when they were done every twist of his forearm or flick of his wrist made the image shimmer and dance like dragonscale.

Upon his brow, they placed a circlet that was purest silver, dulled by long years of sitting dormant in a chest while it waited for the arrival of the last dragonlord. Some skillful silversmith of ages past had crafted the thing to look like twining rowan branches that swept up above his ears into dragon’s wings. Matching cuffs went on each wrist and Merlin had to fight the urge to twist at them (they tended to chafe).

Finally, they were left only with the cloak. This was the part that always made things real for Merlin. There was a ceremony and solemnity to donning the ritual cloak. Trimmed in snow-white ermine and colored the blue of richest azure, it connected across his collarbones with silver chains in such a way that it hung down from his shoulders like great wings, dragging the ground behind him. His arms and chest were left bare, exposing both the inked designs as well as the pale, gleaming shape of the dragon that marked the length of his forearm.

The acolytes stepped back when they were done. One gave a small smile, while the others bowed their heads in approval.

Merlin could only hope he looked all right; he certainly felt like a fool dressed like this.

To his surprise, an acolyte handed over his new staff, and when he took it in his right hand – his dragon-marked arm - and set its heel into the earthen floor, the rest of them nodded again.

He fought the urge to snort in derision. Maybe this is what the previous rituals had been missing? A staff. Still, it gave him something to lean on as he made the long walk.

Preparations completed, the acolytes moved to the doors of the lodge. They would escort him the entire way to the Druidic Grove where the Elder’s council and the Camelot retinue would be waiting. His parents, and Gaius and many of their fellow villages would be there as well.

So would this Prince Arthur.

That’s what made Merlin the most nervous. He’d long since gotten over his fears of embarrassing himself in front of his own people, but the judgement of strangers still rankled.

Outside the lodge, dusk had begun to fall and the temperature lowered with the sun. The cloak kept his shoulders warm, but a crisp breeze tickled along his belly and sides and he shivered as it snuck beneath the draping fabric. He set off at a steady, not too brisk pace and the acolytes kept pace with him, slowing or speeding up as he did.

The very first year, on his sixteenth name-day, it had been cold enough for late-season snow, and he’d been so anxious about the entire thing he’d practically jogged the entire way there, both to keep warm and to stay his fragile nerves. Unfortunately, that had left him panting with exertion by the time he reached the ritual site and the Elder’s had been forced to wait until he’d caught his breath before beginning. Standing there with the eyes of everyone he knew as well as strangers from a foreign kingdom watching him bent over, one hand pressed against a stitch in his side, gasping for air… well, it’d certainly featured in his nightmares ever since.

The moon – a thin sliver of waning crescent – peeked out beyond the distant trees. It would rise over the grove as the ritual progressed and he’d made a habit (well, as much as doing something once a year for the past five years could be called a habit) of focusing his gaze on its softly arcing light. It helped him to clear his mind and keep his breathing steady. 

On he walked. The silent acolytes flanking him might not have even existed, but for the occasion rustle of a sandaled foot in the grass.

All too soon, the inviting, yellow-orange glow of firelight came into view through the trees ahead. He could hear the buzz of low voices, all waiting on his arrival. Just at the edge of the woods that surrounded the grove, Merlin paused. He inhaled deeply, scenting the evening air – the mingling scents of wood smoke and juniper most prevalent - and letting it fill his lungs. His exhale was long, through pursed lips, and it centered him… left him clear-headed and calm.

The ritual space, he knew, would be cleared of all but the central plinth. It was there he was to stand and wait.

Mouth set in a determined press, he walked on. The path through the trees had been well-cleared, bare birch and alder and scruffy pine trimmed away to form a vague tunnel. He could’ve reached out with both arms outstretched and his fingertips would’ve barely brushed the pruned branches. A carefully cultivated circle of massive junipers ringed the grove, and its circumference was large enough to allow a great dragon to land in the clearing at the center.

There was good reason for that.

There were no platforms or seats, save a few hew logs to accommodate the aged or infirm, and even the members of the Elder’s Council stood patiently at the outer edges of the central clearing. Only a line of torches served as any kind of barrier for the crowd, though none stood beyond that unseen line. As Merlin slowly walked passed the spectators he tried not to see them, focusing instead on that bare stone dais at the very middle-point.

The acolytes stopped pacing him then, stepping back to blend into the crowd, and Merlin slowly took his final steps alone, stopping only when he could touch the cold marble under his fingertips. His grip on the staff tightened, and he was suddenly grateful they’d let him keep it. It seemed to ground him somehow.

A hush fell over the grove.

Three of the Elders stepped forward. They were the most venerable of the Council, and Merlin knew them all by name. He liked to think they considered him a friend, or at least as more than just the puppet of a prophecy, but sometimes it was hard to know. They were a mysterious lot.

Taliesin, the Eldest, spoke first. His deep, powerful voice belied his age. “Who stands before this council?”

The words were always the same; as was Merlin’s answer. “I am Merlin. Son of Balinor and son of Hunith. The last Dragonlord.”

The second Elder, Iseldir, asked, “By what right do you claim this title?”

Here Merlin raised his right arm. “By the right of my birth and the mark bestowed upon me by the old gods.” There was a subtle buzz through the crowd. Merlin suspected most of it came from the Camelot host. Likely they’d knew little about the ritual or what to expect. Outlined and painted as it was, Merlin knew the dragonmark stood out stark and glittering in the torchlight.

lastly, Anhora, the final of the three Elders, concluded the opening words to the ritual. “And do you, Merlin, son of Balinor, son of Hunith and bearer of the mark, accept the words of prophecy and your part in it as the last Dragonlord?”

Merlin inclined his head gravely. “I do.”

He’d never thought to ask what would happen if he said no…

“Very well,” Taliesin went on. “Then by the compacts witnessed and promised by our forefathers and blessed by ancient dragon kin, we invite the suitor and sacrifice to come forth.”

Swallowing hard, Merlin forced himself to look up and across to where the crowd parted.

“Arthur Pendragon,” Anhora called out, “Son of Uther Pendragon, son of Ygraine DuBois, Prince and heir apparent to the throne of Camelot, come forward.”

Merlin watched, heart in his throat, as a man stepped three paces toward him.

The first thing that he noticed was the glisten of blond hair that caught the firelight like spun gold, shining so bright it almost obscured the crown perched atop it. The second was red: from his flowing cloak to his well-fashioned doublet, he was a glorious vision of blood red and glittering gold.

Finally, he realized that he knew the man.

“You!” Merlin hissed.

The horse-chasing prat from the woods… of course. Who else could it be?

Prince Arthur crossed the open sward and came to stand opposite him. He squinted at Merlin, looking puzzled for a long moment.

Then his eyes went wide and the tentative upward curve to his mouth turned down sharply. “Oh,” he grumbled – albeit not loud enough for it to carry beyond them – “it’s you.”

Merlin scowled.

In years past, it had been his responsibility to instruct his potential suitor during the remaining parts of the ritual. Merlin found it very hard to do anything other than glare.

The sound of a throat clearing – Anhora or Iseldir, he couldn’t tell which – prompted Merlin to remember his duty. Biting back a sigh, he rather curtly said, “Come stand next to me, at the dais.”

Arthur frowned – clearly, he was no more interested in obeying Merlin’s instructions than Merlin was in giving them – but he complied readily enough.

It bothered Merlin to realize that up close he was even more handsome that Merlin first realized.

“Now what?” Arthur asked, pitching his voice for Merlin’s ear alone.

“We wait. They’re going to bring out the stone.”

“What is –” Arthur started, but broke off when the crowd parted again.

Three Elder Apprentices – the next stage up after Acolytes – carried in a large, ovoid stone. Shaped somewhat like a teardrop, it was perfectly smooth and looked like it had been carved from a large piece of grey granite. They carried it over to the dais and placed it down into a recessed dip at the center of the plinth very carefully.

“What’s that supposed to be?” Arthur asked softly.

“It’s a stone representation of the egg of a Great Dragon.” Merlin explained. “As there’s only one remaining Great Dragon, and no eggs, this stone stands in for the purpose of the ritual.”

Arthur nodded, but still looked puzzled.

“And now,” Taliesin said, addressing the both of them as well as the assemblage, “we ask that the last Dragonlord show his power. Call the Great Dragon to us.”

Merlin hated this part. It was ridiculous. All that he really needed to do to summon Kilgharrah was to think at him. Even at this distance, their mind-speech was usually easy to manage. It was only after they got a few leagues between them that it began to fail. But that wasn’t what Elder Taliesin was asking for. He needed to call out to Kilgharrah in the dragon’s own tongue, aloud.

He took a deep breath. “O drakon, e male so ftengometta tesd'hup'anankes!”

His voice went guttural and it echoed around the clearing like rumbling stone. Beside him, Arthur flinched away at first.

“What the hell was that?” he hissed out urgently once Merlin was done.

“Calling the dragon,” Merlin told him. When that didn’t seem to mollify Arthur, Merlin just said, “You’ll see.”

They didn’t have long to wait. Only a few seconds later the steady, rhythmic sound of massive wings flapping, booming louder than loose sailcloth in a storm, could be heard.

Beneath that approaching sound Merlin could hear mumbling and noises of alarm from the Camelot side of the gathering. “Stay still,” he urged to Arthur. “Trust me.”

They didn’t need a repeat of his eighteenth name-day, when Princess Elena’s nursemaid came running into the clearing in a panic and tried to drag her charge away, resulting in them both nearly getting trampled by Kilgharrah as he landed.

“He comes!” Merlin called out, shouting to be heard over the noise of the dragon swooping down.

Though folk from the Kingdoms were probably familiar with dragons – thanks to the dragon-guard and their varied beast that ranged in shape and color and size – only the Great Dragon truly fit that moniker in both size and presence. Fortunately, the people of Camelot seemed to be made of sturdier stuff than Elena’s nursemaid – or perhaps they took their cue from their prince who stood stoic at Merlin’s side – and while there were a few gasps and quiet cries of fright, everyone stayed in place as Kilgharrah’s bulk lowered gracefully to the ground.

“You have called, Dragonlord,” Kilgharrah intoned – again more words of ritual – and inclined his massive head. “And I have answered.”

Merlin leaned his staff against the plinth and stepped toward him, pressing the palm of his right hand over Kilgharrah’s snout, right between his nostrils. “Welcome, Kilgharrah, last of the Great Dragons.” He turned back to Arthur then, and beckoned him over.

This was usually the part where the potential faltered.

Not Arthur.

He stepped forward confidently, moving right to Merlin’s side like he hadn’t a care in the world that he was stood before a beast that could swallow a horse whole. There was a bit of defiance on his face, Merlin realized… like he was proving some kind of point to Merlin.

It probably should’ve irritated him, but Merlin found it rather interesting instead. “Place your hand next to mine,” he instructed.

Though he moved slowly, Arthur didn’t hesitate to lay his palm flat over the dragon’s smooth scales, his thumb brushing Merlin’s pinky.

“Kilgharrah, I present to you Prince Arthur of Camelot, the suitor and sacrifice.”

Beneath their hands, Kilgharrah’s muzzle vibrated with the low register of his voice. “Well met, Prince of Camelot.”

Merlin elbowed Arthur.

Who side-eyed him with annoyance, but answered back, “Well met, Kilgharrah.”

“Do you accept his bid and his role in answering the prophecy?” Merlin asked the dragon. It was another of the ritual questions and one that Kilgharrah had always answered in the same manner.

“I do.”

Lifting Arthur’s hand away and taking it in his own, Merlin led him back to the plinth and the waiting egg. When they got there, he put both of their hands on the egg. “Now we wait here, like this,” he told Arthur. “This part takes a bit of time. There’s a prayer, and then the speaking of the prophecy.”

The three Elders gathered together, all facing inward, and began a low-voiced chanting. The intonation was done in a Druidic tongue that Merlin had been taught only bits and pieces of. He’d heard the prayer often enough he could’ve probably joined in though.

Arthur ducked his mouth close to Merlin’s ear, to be heard beneath the droning voices, “What’s with this sacrifice business?”

Trying to ignore how Arthur’s breath tickled the side of his neck, Merlin gave a quick shrug. “It’s just what you’ve always been called. You, being my potential uh… spouse, or what have you.”

“Huh,” was all that Arthur said to that. He moved away again, but kept his head canted towards Merlin’s.

A few minutes passed and Merlin knew the prayer was coming to an end. He remembered the step that followed and decided it would only be fair to warn Arthur about it ahead of time. He turned his head and leaned in, whispering, “Oh, I should probably tell you something, so you don’t panic.”

The skin down Arthur’s neck juddered, but he glared sideward at Merlin. “I don’t panic,” he stated flatly.

“Whatever,” Merlin scoffed, turning away. “Never mind then.”

Arthur hesitated a moment, then bowed his head close again. “No, tell me. What is it?”

Though he couldn’t resist a put-upon sigh, Merlin decided to answer. “It’s just that while the elders read out the translation of the prophecy, Kilgharrah will sort of …uh, breathe on us. Over our hands and the egg.”

Arthur blinked. “Why would that startle me?”

“It’s just… it’s not quite breathing. It’s, well, it looks like he’s breathing fire. He’s not though. It’s barely a warm breeze, but it just looks… uh, flamey.” He didn’t know how to explain the way that Kilgharrah shared his magic.

One of Arthur’s brows lifted, but he just hefted his shoulders briefly. “All right.” He looked like he didn’t know if he should be concerned or not.

But it was too late to explain further. Anhora, Iseldir and Taliesin had stepped away from their huddle and Merlin knew they’d begin the recitation of the prophecy. They spoke together, three voices as one, and began to recite the words:

 

“Let it be known that shall come the day when the greatest among us are no more but one. Only stone shall remain. Into that time, among our small-boned kin shall be borne the last of his kind, a lord who shall bear our mark. Upon his ready arm will rest our likeness and through him shall come about the time of our greatest peace.”

 

When they began to speak, Kilgharrah arched out his regal neck. He lowered his head and opened his mouth. Out from his maw came the breath of translucent flame. Merlin felt Arthur’s fingers twitch, like he was fighting the urge to flinch, but he stayed still as the candescent exhalation washed over their hands and the granite egg. It felt like holding a hand high above the embers of a campfire, or a damp, warm breeze coming off the sunbaked water.

 

“With the sacrifice at his side and by fire’s gleaming heart, they shall know their union is blessed. And lo shall the stone be not stone when the two halves are forever made whole.

United in bond shall they carry the stone to the source of all dragonkind.  There shall the last of the lords of us lay low the sovereign one, the penultimate of dragons.  Upon his defeat shall the egg be borne into the fire’s heart once more.”

 

As one, their voices went silent and Kilgharrah’s mouth closed at the same moment.

Merlin was just about to let his hand fall away – the same as he’d done every previous year when nothing happened after the recitation – when he suddenly realized that although Kilgharrah had stopped sharing his breath, there was still a fiery light flickering over their hands and the stone egg.

“Taliesin,” Merlin heard Anhora gasp. “Look!”

“What is that?”

“What do you mean?” Arthur asked, and Merlin realized he’d been the one to ask that question aloud.

“The light,” Merlin exclaimed. “That’s never happened before.”

It was Arthur that provided the answer. “It’s coming from that stone. On the end of the staff.”

Oh hell. Merlin had forgotten that he’d leaned the staff against the plinth when he’d gone to greet Kilgharrah.  And Arthur was right; the amber stone held in the wooden dragon’s jaws was glowing bright.

“Fire’s gleaming heart,” Arthur whispered, more to himself than anything.

Merlin heard him though, and turned to him in alarm. “What?”

Arthur gestured a bit wildly with the hand that wasn’t pressed over the stone egg. “That prophecy. It said something about fire’s gleaming heart.”

“Oh,” Merlin said, and then realization dawned. “Ooohhhh,” he echoed, feeling suddenly like he might need to sit down. “Oh, by all the old gods,” he muttered faintly.

Because… the line after that one in the prophecy was: “they shall know their union is blessed”.

The Elders all gathered around, watching intently as that golden-orange light continued to flash and flare and throw fiery highlights and deep warm shadows over their hands and the stone.

“Merlin,” Anhora said, his face almost beatific in its expression. “Do you know what this means?”

“The egg,” Iseldir interrupted softly, before Merlin could respond. He sounded almost puzzled. “Look at the egg.”

Merlin stared down at the stone beneath his palm, but had no idea what Iseldir was talking about.

Apparently, Arthur saw it though. “It’s changing.”

“Huh?” Merlin blinked at him in confusion.

“Look, Merlin,” Arthur said firmly, again gesturing with his free hand. It was the first time he’d said Merlin’s name, he realized. “It’s…changing color. Don’t you feel that? It doesn’t feel like stone anymore either.”

He was right; it didn’t feel the same. It was still smooth, but there was a strange grit to it now, and Merlin had spent enough time pulling eggs from beneath sitting hens to know what eggshell felt like. “Oh, by the old gods,” he exclaimed, “it’s alive!”

Behind him, a strange sort of rumbling began to sound. It took Merlin far too long to realize what it was: Kilgharrah, laughing. It was a rusty, yet delighted sort of sound.

Eventually, the light from the amber faded as the gemstone went dormant once more.

Unsure of what to do, Merlin looked over the egg at the eager Elders. “Uh, can we move our hands now?”

The three conferred a moment and then Taliesin nodded. “Yes, yes. That should be fine.”

Slowly, he and Arthur drew their hands back at the same time. The egg – no longer mottled, grey granite, but now a pale, powdery blue – didn’t change any further. No one seemed very inclined to touch it, though a few searching fingers did test its surface warily.

“You cannot break it,” Kilgharrah told them.

All heads turned toward the Great Dragon.

“The egg,” he repeated, “you cannot break it.”

Rather boldly, Merlin thought, Arthur tapped the egg with a pointed finger. “Are you sure? It feels like a regular egg to me.”

Kilgharrah scoffed. “That is the egg of a great dragon, young Prince. Only a dragonlord may call it from its shell.”

“What does that mean?” Arthur asked.

It seemed a bit ridiculous to Merlin that Arthur – the Prince from Camelot who had no experience in these matters or this prophecy – was the one asking questions, while the Druid Elders continued to chatter excitedly amongst themselves. Around them, the audience seemed just as caught up in what was happening. Merlin couldn’t blame them. They’d witnessed five rituals of prophecy prior to this, and all of them had come to a rather lackluster end after the prophecy was spoken and nothing happened.

“Think on the words of the prophecy,” Kilgharrah instructed, speaking to both Arthur and Merlin.

“Yes!” Iseldir agreed. “The prophecy continues to be fulfilled. The half has found his whole.” He gestured to Merlin and then to Arthur. “Your union has been blessed.”

“Our union?” Arthur echoed. “You mean…” he let that trail off.

“Yes!” Iseldir repeated with just as much enthusiasm. “You are bound now.”

Rather stubbornly, Merlin thought, Arthur continued to look poleaxed. “Bound? As in…”

Merlin took pity on him. “Yeah, we’re married now.” Or maybe that wasn’t pity. Maybe it was a bit deliberately cruel. He felt only a modicum of guilt at the way that Arthur’s face paled.

“But, I thought… I thought this was just.” He spread his hands, like he was reaching for an explanation. “Ah…a ummm… preliminary thing. That it just decided if we were compatible.”

That’s kind of what Merlin had always thought too, but he wasn’t going to give Arthur the satisfaction of sharing that with him. The expression on Arthur’s face – shock and dismay and denial – were doing little to warm Merlin to his new spouse.

Around them, people were starting to come forward. Merlin saw his parents pushing their way out of the crowd, as well as more of the Elder’s Council, and several people from Arthur’s retinue were crossing the clearing as well.

He was beginning to feel quite overwhelmed.  Before he could say anything though, there was a sudden cacophonous growl and then a gout of flame blazed skyward toward the heavens.

Everything and everyone went instantly silent.

“Enough!” Kilgharrah roared out. “There are many things that need to be discussed. But here and now is not the time. Elders, I advise you to gather together and review your translations of the prophecy. There are plans to be made for the egg. A journey must be undertaken. And in the meantime, by rights, the Dragonlord and his mate should be escorted to the marriage tent. I shall take up the egg and keep it safe until the journey is decided.” He did just that, stepping forward and picking up the egg gingerly in between jaws that Merlin knew could shatter the thick trunk of an old oak. He held it carefully in the cradle of massive teeth, and then launched himself into the air.

Once he’d disappeared over the trees, several of the lesser Elders looked to Merlin – surely, their faces said, the last dragonlord could countermand the instructions of the Great Dragon – but Merlin just shrugged. “Better do what he says.”

It wasn’t that he was looking forward to being escorted to the marriage tent – he rather dreaded it actually – but there was just so much chaos and confusion and Merlin needed to get away from it all. He knew Kilgharrah must’ve sensed it radiating off him.

However the Elders felt about the way things had gone, the rest of Merlin’s people were clearly ecstatic. Only a few minutes after the dragon’s announcement and departure, they filled the clearing and circled around Merlin and Arthur eagerly. All around them people were offering their congratulations and urging for them to follow. It seemed that the only option was to go with the flow of the tide, or get swept away by the current.

Arthur stayed close by his side, and they were left relatively alone while they walked, a calm space in the swirl of bodies, but he seemed subdued and silent. Now and again he glanced around like he was looking for familiar faces. Merlin couldn’t blame him. He knew his own parents were out there, somewhere and he wanted nothing more than to hear his mother’s soft voice and feel his father’s hand on his shoulder.

Luckily, the marriage tent had been set-up fairly close to the woods that housed the Grove, so it wasn’t long before their well-wishing escorts were peeling away – heading towards the dancing and feasting that they were used to following on the heels of the ritual – and the crowd began to thin. Eventually, Merlin heard his mother’s voice calling out to him.

“Merlin!” she dashed up to him, towing Balinor after. “Oh, my darling boy.” She practically threw herself into his arms, hugging him tight. Merlin looked over her shoulder at Balinor, who smiled fondly at them.

It took Merlin a moment to remember that Arthur was still at his side. He should probably introduce his new… husband? Was that the right term? His Prince?  Whatever the appropriate description, he figured now was a good time as any to make introductions. Though it took a few minutes to extricate himself from his mother’s embrace, Merlin finally managed to take a step back and he gestured to Arthur.

“Father, Mum, uh… this is Prince Arthur.”

Like he hadn’t just had his entire life upended, Arthur stepped forward and offered them a warm smile. Merlin didn’t know how much of it was genuine, and how much was courtly manners he’d been trained in since birth, but he couldn’t help being a little bit grateful for it.

Arthur bowed low before each of them, and then took Hunith’s hand and kissed the back of it. “It’s an honor to meet you both.”

“The honor is ours, Arthur,” Balinor insisted.

Hunith nodded gravely. “Welcome to our family, Arthur.”

“Arthur?” Someone called out, and from the way that Arthur’s head went up and he looked around eagerly, Merlin wondered if it was someone from Arthur’s own family. He had no idea who’d accompanied Arthur to the Valley (well, other than the Lady Morgana and her handmaid called Guinevere) and if any of his family members were present.

Balinor watched Arthur scan the crowd as well, and he took hold of Hunith’s hand. “We’ll leave you be for tonight, Merlin.”

“We will?” Hunith asked, startled.

Balinor nodded. “Merlin knows where to find us, wife.”

Hunith sighed, heavily, but she nodded. “Right, he does.” She reached out to cup his chin a moment. “You will come home if you need to?”

Merlin bobbed his chin readily. “Of course, mum.”

She hugged him one more time, squeezing tight and mumbling, “Oh my darling boy. My baby,” under her breath, and then surreptitiously wiped at her eyes as Balinor pulled her away.

Merlin watched after them, smiling softly at the way Hunith ducked under Balinor’s arm and he drew her so close. When he turned back to Arthur, a comment about his overprotective parents waiting on his lips, it was to see Arthur mid-embrace with a stunningly beautiful woman. He bit his tongue on the words.

The stab of jealousy that spiked through his gut seemed to come out of nowhere and surprised the hell out of him.

What did he have to be jealous of? It made absolutely no sense.

Still, Merlin stood back, feeling awkward while Arthur clung to the woman. Eventually she drew back, and her smile was fond as she cupped his cheek and shook her head at him. “Only you, brother dear.”

Brother?

The woman turned to him them. “And you’re Merlin,” she said, elegant brows arching speculatively. “Well, Merlin. I am quite pleased to make your acquaintance.” She gave a hasty curtsy. “I am Morgana Pendragon. Arthur’s half-sister.”

“Oh!” Merlin said, rather dumbly. No one had mentioned that the Lady Morgana was Arthur’s half-sister. Although, he suspected that was one of those things he was supposed to have learned under Elder Alator’s tutelage. He was just glad Gaius wasn’t around to cluck his tongue and waggle his brows in disappointment. “It’s really nice to meet you, Morgana.”

“You as well, Merlin. I’m looking forward to getting to know you,” she said with a sharply curling grin in a tone that sounded vaguely like a threat.

“Leave him alone, Morgana,” Arthur said mildly.

“What?” she laughed. “I am looking forward to it.”

They were interrupted by another arrival and Merlin was quietly grateful (Morgana seemed kind of scary and he didn’t know if that was a good thing or not). This time a young man and woman approached, both with warmly dark skin, curly hair – hers much longer than his – and similar attractive smiles. These two, Merlin was sure, were siblings.

“Gwen!” Arthur called out eagerly. “Elyan!” He slung an arm around each of them and pulled them both in close.

“Gwen,” Morgana explained in a low aside to Merlin, “is my maidservant and dearest friend. Elyan is her older brother, and one of the Knights of Camelot.”

“Oh, I’d heard of him,” Merlin said, recalling Will’s teasing Freya. “A friend of mine fancies him.”

Morgana grinned even more wickedly if possible. “Oh? Who is that?” She pursed her lips a moment and then smacked them loudly. “Oh, I know. One of the dragon-guard, right? I’m guessing Freya? I’ve seen them talking a time or two.”

She’d sussed that out faster than he expected.  He reevaluated his initial impression of her: she didn’t just seem scary, she was scary.

“You’ll meet the rest of the Knights soon enough, I imagine,” Morgana continued, seeming oblivious to Merlin’s mental recategorization. “All of his best came with Arthur. They’re the closest of friends, like brothers really.”

Merlin was starting to get just a bit frustrated with her. He didn’t know her well enough to know if that tone was saying something entirely different, or if she just always talked in that double-edged sort of way. “I look forward to meeting them,” was all that Merlin said in reply.

“Oh, don’t worry, Merlin. They’ll adore you.” She drew out the vowels in the word adore, and accompanied them by a not-so-subtle leer.

It was then that Merlin remembered he was still in his ceremonial garb in all its berry-stained lip, glittery mica and painted on sigils glory.

“Oh, by the gods,” he grumbled. “Look, this” –he gestured down at himself– “is not how I normally look. Ask Arthur. He saw me in the woods earlier–”

From Morgana’s utterly delighted grin Merlin should not have just said that.

“So, you’re the simpleminded druid that Arthur encountered when he was chasing after Gwen’s horse?” She gave him another of those searching looks.

“Simpleminded?” Merlin echoed. “At least I wasn’t a boorish cabbagehead.”

The delighted grin became a ridiculously amused chortle. “Oh, Merlin. I do so like you already.”

Fortunately, Arthur chose that moment to bring Gwen and Elyan over. He made introductions and Merlin shook both of their hands rather gratefully.

“It’s wonderful to meet you, Merlin,” Gwen said. Up close she was even prettier, and had a delightful dusting of dark freckles over the bridge of her nose. “We really didn’t know what to expect when we arrived,” she went on, “I mean, you hear things, you know.” When Merlin frowned she hurried to add. “I mean, everyone’s been lovely! Of course. But we’ve not had much contact with Druids. I mean, other than the dragon-guard. And well, they’re a different sort, aren’t they?”

“She means,” Elyan said, before Gwen could get even more tangled in her words, “that they’re the military type, like our Knights. We’ve not had any experience with your regular folk.”

“Yes,” Gwen nodded, her cheeks bright. “That’s what I was saying.”

Merlin got the impression she babbled a bit when she was nervous, and as it was a trait he also shared, it was easy to forgive her. “Yes,” he agreed. “The dragon-guard are definitely of a different ilk than the rest of us.” He grinned conspiratorially. “But, I can say that about them because two of my best friends are dragon-guard. They’re based in Camelot, actually.”

“Oh?” That was Arthur.

“Yeah,” Merlin nodded. “Will and Freya.”

Arthur just bobbed his head, and Merlin didn’t quite know what to make of that.

Elyan made a considering noise though. “Freya’s one of your best friends?”

Nodding again, Merlin added, “Yeah, since we were quite young. We grew up together.”

Before Elyan could ask anything further, though he clearly wanted to, Gwen grabbed her brother by the arm. “We should really let you two be. I understand there’s to be a feast?”

“And dancing,” Merlin agreed. “Just follow the trail and it’ll take you to the main part of the village. There are tents and the great hall is opened as well.” He pointed to the torch-lined path that lead back into the village proper.

Morgana took Gwen’s hand, clasping it tight in her own. “We’ll just see what this celebration of yours has to offer, shall we?”

Arthur sighed for some reason that Merlin didn’t quite fathom, but he dismissed them with a nod. “Go on, have fun. Tell the others I’ll catch up with them soon.”

“Bye, Merlin,” Gwen said, even as Morgana began to drag her – and by the grip she had on Elyan’s arm – her brother away. “It was good to have met you.”

“You too!” Merlin called after them.

Arthur stood beside him in silence for a long time, long after his half-sister and their friends disappeared into the night. Merlin fidgeted quietly, but didn’t know quite what to say to break the odd quiet that had fallen over them.

It was a night mistral, once again slipping under the depths of the cloak to send a chill up his spine, that decided the issue for him. “I’m uh, just going to go into the tent and get out of this… stuff.” He plucked at the thigh of one pant leg. He felt especially ridiculous standing there next to Arthur who – while finely dressed – wasn’t ‘decorated’. He said as much, “I feel ridiculous.”

Arthur’s attention finally seemed to fully come around to him then and he gave Merlin a similar head-to-toe study as Morgana had given just a few minutes ago. “It’s not so bad,” Arthur said.

And was that a grin? Was Arthur actually smiling? Merlin didn’t know if he could trust his own eyes. “Well, it’s better than mud stained trousers and a torn-up tunic, I imagine?”

“Look,” Arthur said, “about before. In the woods–”

Merlin waved him off. “I don’t think either of us was at our best there. Today was… well, today has been…” Merlin threw his hands up. He didn’t know how to begin to describe what the day had been.

He got another of those soft, brief, not-quite-a-chuckles from Arthur. “Yeah. You can say that again.” He gestured to the tent. “Do you want me to wait outside?” he asked.

Merlin shook his head. “No. I’m beyond caring at this point,” he admitted. “I just hope there’s something comfortable to wear inside.”

“Well, let’s see, shall we?” He pushed open the heavy flap of the tent and waved for Merlin to precede him.

The last few years of ritual Merlin had sort of vaguely known that the marriage tent had been set up, but owing to the outcomes of each of those rituals, he’d never actually been inside. He was surprised to see how homey the space was.

Yes, there was a bed, central to everything. Well, calling it a bed was a bit of an overstatement, but it was a makeshift mattress of straw-filled sacks with a thick, down-filled comforter laid over the top of it, as well as quite a few furs and woolen blankets and pillows piled on. It didn’t look all that uncomfortable; Merlin had slept in worse places to be sure.

There were also a table and chairs, and other bits of makeshift furniture laid out with platters of food, and an assortment of pitchers and casks which Merlin assumed contained mead or wine. It was pleasantly warm, thanks to a low-burning coal pot fitted with a stovepipe that funneled smoke outside the tent. Several oil lamps were set-up around the space as well, so the area was well illuminated.

All-in-all it wouldn’t be a terrible place to spend an evening. Though with the company it promised to be awkward.

Sadly, there was no bath, but there was at least an ewer and basin. Merlin crossed to those immediately and picked up a washing cloth. He dipped it in the slightly tepid water and then wrung it out.

“Ah, there are some clothes over here,” Arthur offered from where he stood on the other side of the tent. “Trousers and a sleep shirt and the like.”

Scrubbing at his face with the wet cloth, Merlin made a grateful noise. It felt good to get clean of all the powder and paint. He rubbed roughly at his lips, remembering how the berry juice stained. The painted-on ink markings would need more than just water, so he took up a cake of soap and brought up a light lather in the towel. He then tried to scrub it over his chest, but he kept getting the towel tangled in the closure chains of the cloak.

“Um, Arthur,” he asked.

“Yes?”

“Ahh,” Merlin began somewhat sheepishly, “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to help me with this?”

It embarrassed him to admit it, but Merlin had never had to get out of the ceremonial garb on his own. In previous years, he’d gone straight from the failed ritual back to the Acolyte’s lodge, where they’d helped him disrobe and cleaned him off, and he’d donned his regular clothing before joining the festivities. There was a trick to the cloak that he couldn’t quite figure out, and though he didn’t know if the cloak would serve any purpose after tonight – since it had been crafted purely for the ritual – he still didn’t want to wreck it will trying to get it off.

“Sure. Yes,” Arthur agreed. “I can do that.”

“It’s just,” Merlin explained, not wanting to appear quite so helpless or foolish, “I’ve never… I mean… It’s part of the ritual,” he finally blurted. “Getting me all garbed in all of this.” He waved vaguely at the outfit. “There are Acolyte’s you see, who assist, and they usually do the undressing as well.” He could feel his cheeks burning bright from more than being roughly scrubbed by the towel. “Look it’s not…”

Arthur held up a hand, interrupting his babble. “No, it’s fine. I actually understand. I usually have a manservant who assists me with things like this.” His mouth twisted to the side. “Well, not exactly like this, but with dressing for feasts and ceremonies and the like.”

“Oh? Did he travel with you?” He was fairly sure he could send someone to fetch him if that was Arthur’s preference.

Exhaling a derisive snort, Arthur shook his head. “No. No… George doesn’t travel. I don’t think he’s left the confines of the castle in all the years I’ve known him.”

Merlin gave a soft laugh. “That seems strange. I guess I thought you’d have a whole retinue of attendants.”

“Really?” Arthur asked even as he crossed the short distance to start working at the bindings of the cloak. “Why would you think that?”

“Oh, just some of the other… um,” he didn’t know what to call them now. Suitors seemed strangely inappropriate, considering the circumstances. “Well, the other Sacrifices, I guess.”

“Right,” Arthur said. “You’ve done this whole thing a few times now, haven’t you?”

“Yes,” Merlin agreed.  “This year was my sixth ritual.”

“It must be so strange for you. Being offered up like that was certainly odd from my perspective, but to have gone through it more than once seems like it would get trying after the first.” His face took on a distant cast, like he was thinking about it, and then with a blink he was back to work on the cloak fastening. He finally seemed to get it figured out, and whisked the thing off Merlin’s shoulders and then laid it down neatly over a nearby wooden chest.

It was gratifying to hear Arthur’s commiseration, and also gratifying to have the weight – physical and metaphorical – of the cloak removed as well. “Thank you for that. And, I I’ve gotten used to it, I guess.” He didn’t want to bore Arthur with his whining on the topic though. “But, as I was saying, some of the other nobles who came in the past years, well, they brought what felt like armies of servants and dressers and pages and cooks, and one of the Princesses had a personal taster, even. Wouldn’t trust a single thing we put down in front of her to eat.” He chuckled at the memory.

Arthur raised an eyebrow. “Well, you’ll find that in Camelot, we’re still a little bit more self-reliant than all that. Although, I think I know which Princess you’re talking about. I’ve been to visit each of the Kingdoms that are part of the treaty, so I have an idea what you mean.” He pointed to the circlet. “Need help with anything else?”

Merlin nodded. “Oh, yes. That’d be nice, thank you.”

It felt strange having Arthur reach up to take the silver circlet from his brow. He did so quite gingerly, fingertips barely brushing Merlin’s forehead. Of course, he was wearing a crown of his own, so he was likely used to handling them.

The matching cuffs on his wrists Merlin removed on his own, and he set them down on the pillow Arthur had used for the circlet.

“I can get the rest,” Merlin said. He felt even stranger standing there bare-chested, without the protection and cover of the cloak to hide him away.

Arthur pointed to his chest. “What about those?”

Merlin realized he was referring to the painted-on ink symbols and designs. He held up the towel. “I can get those, I think.”

“What about the ones on your back?” Arthur asked.

“Ahh,” he’d forgotten about those. It felt strange, vulnerable, to ask a man he hardly knew and hadn’t exactly had the best first meeting with (their whole being married thing aside) to scrub his back for him. “Would you terribly mind?” he asked hesitantly?

Arthur shrugged. “It’s not a problem.”

Merlin handed him the towel before he turned to face away from Arthur. It wasn’t the first time he’d had someone scrub his back, but usually it was silent Acolytes who worked so noiselessly and seemed so remote from everything, he sometimes didn’t even think of them as real people. Arthur, on the other hand, though his touch was either too tentative or too hard, at least asked what the symbols meant, and wondered about the meaning of some of the designs before scrubbing them away.

“This one here looks rather like a big cat,” was just one of his comments. And, “Does this three-pronged curling pattern have significance? It’s just repeated quite a lot.” Also, “What do these odd wavy lines mean?”

Merlin knew it was just polite conversation to get them past the awkwardness, and he tried to answer where he could, but mostly he just shook his head. “A lot of the minutia of the ritual I honestly think is just a lot of nonsense made up by a bunch of bored druids as they went along.”

That seemed to shock a laugh out of Arthur. The gust of his warm breath lifted the hairs at Merlin’s nape, causing him to shudder. “Really?”

Merlin’s shoulders went up in a shrug, before he realized that the gesture would press them up into Arthur’s hands. He ducked them down immediately after. “Well, I don’t know that having all of this stuff inked all over my body or wearing these uncomfortable boots or that silver circlet made any different in the ritual.” He sighed. “I really don’t think it would’ve mattered if I’d shown up wearing that same marred tunic and dirty trousers you saw me in this morning, to be honest.”

Arthur’s second laugh was another burst of heat against the back of Merlin’s neck. “Well, that would’ve been interesting to see, for sure. If it’s any consolation though, I think it did add to the solemnity of the occasion.”

“Really?”

“Mmm hmm,” Arthur hummed in the affirmative, and then amended, “Well, maybe solemnity isn’t the right word. The aura of it? The mysticism. The pageantry? I mean, look at it from the perspective of one of your sacrifices: especially one coming to the Valley of Fallen Kings for the first time. We’ve got no idea what to expect. We show up, we meet some of your people and then we’re taken immediately to this ancient grove where we’re told we’ll receive instruction as things go along. I mean,” Merlin couldn’t see the gesture, but there was something in the way that Arthur’s hands moved over his middle back that told him Arthur had shrugged. “Although, maybe that’s not quite fair to say. I suppose in a way we’re prepared for it all along.

“I’ve known this was something I’d have to do for the last six years. And even before that, once you were born, I guess, the idea of the responsibility was always there. But, it’s still completely foreign, all of this. There’s very little in the way of magic, or ritual where I’m from. It’s not something that’s quite as embraced or accepted. My father–”

“King Uther,” Merlin stated, just to confirm. He remembered that much from Elder Alator’s lessons.

“Right,” Arthur agreed. “My father, well...” He paused a long, weighty moment. “He doesn’t truck with magic unless it’s a necessity these days. He used to be more open-minded, but when my mother took ill, he began to blame the healers that were unable to help for her sickness. Any that see her now, well, at best he calls them charlatans. Let’s just leave it there.”

That was the first Merlin had ever heard about Arthur’s mother being sick. “I’m sorry, Arthur,” Merlin said. “I didn’t know.”

Arthur waved it away – a hand flicking out in Merlin’s periphery – like someone used to glossing over the details of a distasteful topic. “It’s the reason that I’m the last in the rotation of suitors. My mother has…  been ill again, and he needed my support in running the kingdom. That’s why my father made the request during the treaty meeting with the rules of the six Kingdoms and your Elder’s council that I be allowed to wait.”

Ignoring what Arthur chose not to talk about – though he couldn’t blame him being taciturn about his mother’s health – Merlin let out a huff of surprise. “Huh. I’d always thought it was just random.”

“Oh, trust me,” Arthur said with a bitter chortle. “If my father is to be believed, there was quite a bit of negotiation around the roster. It was quite contentious. There were also a few who attended that meeting who wanted to try to weasel out of the bargain entirely.”

“I don’t suppose King Olaf was one of them,” Merlin asked with a knowing sort of grumble.

Arthur gave Merlin’s back one last wipe with the towel and then he tossed it back into the basin. “You’ve got that right. To tell the truth,” he added as he moved a few paces away from Merlin – to give him space to finish his cleansing – and sat down heavily in a chair, “I’m surprised my father wasn’t part of that faction. But, this has always been one commitment he takes seriously.”

Merlin picked up the cloth, giving it a few good rinses in the water and getting it lathered again, and then went back to work scrubbing the ink off his chest and abdomen. “Why is that, do you suppose?”

He liked this. This easy conversation. After their run-in that morning in the woods, Merlin wouldn’t have expected they could just chat like this.  Although, he wondered how much of it was the circumstances making strange bedfellows of them, so to speak.

“Oh, that’s easy enough to answer. The dragon-guard. Camelot sees much more conflict than any of the other Kingdoms, mostly due to our central location. Rivals are always trying to usurp a bit of land here or move boundaries there. We’ve never been defeated in battle, though.” He puffed up slightly, even seated his posturing was easy to spot. “I give my Knights as much credit for that, of course. They’re the best in all six kingdoms.”

Merlin could tell that for as boastful as that sounded, Arthur genuinely believed it.  “Morgana said that several of your knights came with you? Besides Elyan.” He looked down at his bare chest and belly and didn’t see any more spots of ink or black smudges. That just left his arm and the dragon-mark.

“Yes, quite a few. They were…”

Arthur’s voice trailed to a rather peculiar silence and when Merlin looked up at him, he saw Arthur staring at his forearm.

“What is it?” Merlin asked, feeling suddenly even more self-conscious.

“Your arm. The uh, dragon. I guess I didn’t realize that it was so… plain.”

Drawing his arm back to his chest, Merlin’s goodwill started to fade. “Plain?” he bit out.

Either Arthur didn’t hear the sharpness of his tone or he chose to ignore it. “Well, it’s just paler skin isn’t it? I mean, you’re already pale, so it’s like a birthmark, just in reverse.” He cocked his head to the side, still staring. “It’s not nearly as impressive that way.”

First his dragon-mark, and then his skin tone. Merlin bristled. “Well I’m sorry the mark of my birthright given to me by the old gods isn’t to your satisfaction.”

Arthur’s gaze darted up to Merlin’s and a pink hue chased up the line of his throat to color his cheekbones.

Merlin hated that he noticed how much it made the stormy-blue of his eyes stand out.

“Ugh, you’re being ridiculous.” Despite the guilty flush, Arthur rolled his eyes. “I didn’t mean anything by that. It’s just a bit deceptive, is all. The paint and…and,” he looped a hand in the air. “Well, whatever that shiny stuff on your arm and face was.”

“Ridiculous and deceptive as well?” Merlin shot back. “Well, at least I’m not a rude, arrogant, clotpole.”

Arthur blinked at him and his mouth fell slack.

Perhaps Merlin felt a tiny bit of his own guilt after saying that. He wasn’t going to take it back though. He’d let himself get falsely comfortable… caught up in assuming their shared circumstances meant they were more than strangers to each other; he wasn’t going to make that mistake again. Ignoring Arthur’s rather gob-smacked expression, Merlin stalked across the room to the low bench where a stack of clothing waited. Keeping his back to Arthur, he yanked off the too-tight boots and then pushed down the slippery silk trousers. The Acolytes had never bothered with underclothes – Merlin suspected they’d ruin the lines of the pants – so once he kicked those away from his feet, he stood stark naked.

Behind him he heard a rather choked noise, but Merlin refused to let himself feel embarrassed in front of Arthur any more. He was a druid, and if druids were freer and more comfortable with their bodies than Kingdom folk like Arthur, that was Arthur’s problem, not his. 

He did hurry to dress though, pulling on the comfortable sleep trousers and airy linen tunic (both his own, he realized. The Acolytes – or whoever it was that prepared the tent - must’ve gone to his mother for them).

When he finally turned around, Arthur’s gaze was fixed on the ground. Merlin stood there a bit awkwardly, unsure of what to say. “Um, are you hungry? There’s food.” He gestured rather inanely, seeing that anyone with working eyes would’ve already spotted that.

Arthur finally looked up at him. “Is it permissible to leave the tent?”

Merlin blinked in confusion. “Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t it be?”

Blowing out a sigh, Arthur said somewhat sharply, “I don’t know, Merlin.” He put a strange emphasis on Merlin’s name and Merlin couldn’t decide how he felt about it. “I’m not the one who knows the rules of all of this prophecy and ritual that you people are so fond of. For all I know, we’re stuck here in this damned tent for the rest of our lives.”

He surged to his feet on the last, and his nostrils were flaring.

“But… that’s just silly.” Merlin waved around them. “I mean, I’ve never been in the marriage tent either you know, but I wouldn’t assume we were stuck here unless they told us we were.”

“Fine, then I’m going to go and check out this feast they’re having in our honor.” He stalked toward the tent flap and then seemed to gather himself. He paused there, swallowed hard and then gritted out, “Do you want to join me?”

Though he was tempted to comment on the tone of the invitation – he’d heard ice crackling with more warmth – Merlin decided to keep his answer short and simple. “No, thank you. I’m already in my night clothes.” Which was rather pathetic, as far as excuses went, but Merlin just wasn’t in the mood to listen to any more words of congratulations or excitement over having taken the prophecy one step further or queries about his first night alone with his new… husband.

“I’ll be back later then,” Arthur said curtly and then he pushed out of the tent.

“Prat,” Merlin muttered. 

Alone, Merlin didn’t really know what to do with himself. He really wasn’t all that tired, despite how long of a day it had already been. Hell, the sun had only gone down just before the ritual began, and it couldn’t be more than an hour later… perhaps a bit more. With nothing else to do – and because it had been several hours since the morning feast his mother had prepared - he helped himself to some of the food that had been left, and a few cups of still-chilled mead. Thinking about his name-day breakfast, Merlin remembered the conversation that had followed. Well, the one with the Great Dragon, not the one with his parents.

Kilgharrah,” he thought, focusing his mind to the consciousness of the Great Dragon.

I am here, Merlin.”

Are you free?” He wasn’t sure if the Elder’s Council would be pouring over prophecy in the Great Dragon’s cavern.

I am.” Either he could sense Merlin’s concerns, or it was just a likely conclusion, he added, “The Council meets in the temple. I will call upon them later.”

Oh. That’s good. Uh, how is the egg?” He figured it would be polite to ask.

Even though the words echoed only in his mind, Merlin could feel how much pleasure they contained. “The egg is thriving, young Dragonlord.”

So, what you were saying earlier. About the prophecy. The next line is: ‘united in bond shall they carry the stone to the source of all dragonkind’.  I assume that’s referring to me and Arthur? I mean, doing the carrying? We’ll need to bring the egg somewhere?”

You assume correctly.”

He’d figured as much. “It’s the next bit that has me confused. Where is the source of all dragonkind?”

Kilgharrah’s sigh was like a warm breath in Merlin’s mind. “Now that, young Dragonlord, is a good question. That is, in fact, what your Elder’s Council now researches and heavily debates.”

Merlin caught a hint of something hidden in Kilgharrah’s tone, something smug. “But you’ve got an idea already, don’t you?”

Perhaps,” Kilgharrah agreed.

Well, where is it?” Merlin asked excitedly. If they knew where to go, he… well, he and Arthur could head there right away.

To his surprise, Kilgharrah answered, “Merlin, I think you ought to wait until the Council makes their findings known.”

But…  but,” Merlin mentally sputtered. “That could take days! Or weeks. Kilgharrah, there’s a living dragon’s egg. And if we can figure out where to go, we can take it there and I can hatch it! You said it takes a dragonlord to call the dragon from the shell.”

Merlin.” This time the dragon’s tone held caution and worry in equal amounts. “What you speak of would bring me no greater joy. But, not all of the prophecy is fully understood. What we act upon is mere mortal interpretation. Look at what was needed to see it progress tonight. Would it not have been for a bit of luck, you might never have brought that walking staff with you and the egg would’ve remained dormant.”

But, Kil–”

The dragon cut him off. “No, Merlin. Think on the final lines of the prophecy” ‘there shall the last of the lords of us lay low the sovereign one, the penultimate of dragons.  Upon his defeat shall the egg be borne into the fire’s heart once more’. We do not know the meaning of these words.”

“I think it’s pretty clear, Kilgharrah,” Merlin protested. “I am to find the Sovereign Dragon, obviously in the original home of the dragons, and tame him or defeat him. It’s what we’ve always talked about. What we’ve always assumed.”

A heavy sigh seemed to sweep through Merlin’s mind. “I know that it is what we’ve always assumed. But now, I fear we might be wrong. It is too great a risk, Merlin.”

A thought, one that was niggling and subversive, crept into Merlin’s mind then. “You know, Kilgharrah,” he thought at the dragon almost casually, “I could, if I really wanted, command you to tell me where this place is.”

The mental scoff of vitriol that sounded between Merlin’s ears was loud and resonating. “You wouldn’t. Merlin.”

I didn’t say I would. But the thought is there.”

Another of those weighty sighs whirled around Merlin’s brain. “I would ask you not to do that, Dragonlord. But as you seem so determined in this, I will make you this offer: let me meet with the council tomorrow and if their conclusions in anyway coincide with mine, then I will share with you the destination.”

Since he had no real desire to force Kilgharrah into anything or to upset the careful balance they’d always maintained between last of the great dragons and last dragonlord, Merlin found his compromise more than acceptable. “All right, Kilgharrah. But just remember, if I don’t hear from you tomorrow morning, I’m coming to your cavern before midday.” He let the implicit threat hang in the space between them.

Get some rest, Dragonlord,” Kilgharrah told him abruptly. “I think you need it.”

You too, Kilgharrah,” Merlin thought back, a bit smarmily and felt it when the dragon closed off mental contact with him, like a door slamming in his mind.

Now that he knew there was a potential goal waiting out there somewhere – an end to all of this prophecy business that had followed him his whole life – he was eager to see it done. He did consider Kilgharrah’s words though, that they acted upon mere mortal interpretation of an ancient dragon tongue that hadn’t been heard or spoken in eons. Long before even Kilgharrah’s time in the world. What if Merlin hadn’t brought the staff, and left it leaning against the plinth during the ritual earlier?

Merlin glanced around the tent for the object in question. “The staff,” he muttered aloud, realizing it wasn’t in the tent with him. “Damn.” He must’ve left it behind when they got swept up in the press of the villager’s celebrations.

Well, it wasn’t that far back to the Grove, and he knew that there was no way anyone would’ve taken it. At least not the villagers. He doubted anyone from Camelot would’ve dared touch such a strange artifact either.

As he had nothing better to do…

The temperature had dropped when he pushed open the tent flap and stepped out into the night. For a moment, he considered ducking back inside to at least throw on the ceremonial cloak and uncomfortably tight boots, but decided against it. It was only a short jaunt to retrieve the staff, and a brisk walk would do him good.

In the distance, he could hear the sounds of revelry: voices and music carrying far in the crisp night air. He wondered how Arthur was getting on. Had he met up with his fellows? Was he drinking and dancing and having a festive time while Merlin trudged in the dark, on bare feet to an empty circle of trees in the midst of the woods?

Merlin pushed the thoughts out of his mind. It didn’t matter to him what Arthur was doing. Let him carouse and celebrate the whole night through; Merlin didn’t care. He’d started to wonder, if the prophecy had been wrong… or at least misinterpreted about what was needed to turn the egg back from stone, maybe it had also been wrong about the whole ‘two halves that made a whole’ and he and Arthur being joined?

He stepped into the clearing several minutes later and immediately crossed to the stone plinth that seemed to glow with an eerie, stark whiteness against a circle of green leeched of all color by the night. To his surprise, it was bare and empty. The staff wasn’t there.

“Who the…?” he started to mutter when a voice interrupted behind him.

“It’s right here, Merlin.”

Hand flying to his chest, Merlin spun around with a gasp. “Gaius!” he blurted. “You startled me! What are you doing here?”

Gaius, who was much better accoutered for the late evening temperatures, was seated on one of the few half-logs that were set-up in front of the surrounding ring of junipers. “Come here, my boy.” He waved Merlin over, patting the flat of the log next to him. In his other hand, Merlin could see that he held the staff.

Merlin hurried to accept the invitation, his feet crunching on grass that was just starting to crisp with frost. He took a seat next to Gaius, grateful for the shelter of the trees that took him out of the wind that swept through the exposed center of the grove.

“You’re not exactly dressed for wandering the woods at night, Merlin,” Gaius chided.

Merlin ducked his head sheepishly. “I know, Uncle Gaius. It’s just that I was talking with Kilgharrah and I realized that in all the excitement earlier, I had forgotten my staff. And I didn’t want to leave it out here all night.”

Gaius patted the stout wooden stick. “Have no fear, Merlin. I saw that you left it behind and came to retrieve it. I knew that if you’d not gotten the chance to get it yet, it would still be there. And it was.”

“Thank you, Uncle Gaius.” He looked at the handsomely carved staff, at the amber stone set in the dragon’s mouth, the one that had glowed and flickered with fire earlier but was dormant now. “Gaius, can I ask you something?”

“Of course, my boy.”

Merlin tucked his feet up under him, sitting cross-legged on the broad flat of the log, to get them out of the cold grass and he worked his arms into his tunic enough that he could cover his fingers with the sleeves.

Gaius tsked at him.

Accepting the scolding for what it was – it really had been a bit foolish to leave the tent in only his nightclothes – Merlin gave a culpable little nod. “Yeah, I know,” he said. “But what I wanted to ask. Earlier, when my father gave me the staff, he said that you’d found that amber stone on the day I was born.”

“That’s true,” Gaius agreed. “I did.”

“Well,” Merlin wondered, “Did you know, or have any idea that it was… special? I mean, I don’t want to sound rude or ungrateful, because that staff is beautiful and truly a magnificent gift, but why did you wait until now to have it given to me, instead of on my first name-day when I was deemed old enough to participate in the ritual?”

With a huff of laughter that sent a cloud of breath into the air, Gaius said, “Well, I’ll be honest it’s as simple an answer as this: the staff wasn’t complete. You see, I did have the stone, but I am not the fasted wood carver by any means.” He held out his hands – wisely encased in fingerless woolen gloves – and examined them a moment. “My hands are usually occupied with other things. Treating illness and injury, mixing potions and grinding herbs. You know this.”

Merlin grinned and nodded. He’d spent plenty of time in Gaius’ workshop, watching him work or helping him out with all sorts of tasks, or running around the village delivering his medicines and concoctions when Gaius’ personal, hands-on healing wasn’t needed.

“So that is the simple truth of it, my boy. I finally finished it. Just a few days ago. It seemed ideal that it would be ready for your name-day.”

“Did you have any inkling when you found that stone that it would be important?”

“Now that is a good question, Merlin,” Gaius said. He looked away a moment, staring out over the open grounds of the grove’s central clearing. “It certainly seemed auspicious at the time. I remember going to the Crystal Cave to see you, not an hour after you were born. And I sat with your mother and your father while your father looked into the crystals and drew your name from them.” He smiled fondly at the memory. “It was a wonderful evening. Quite magical in its own right, I’d say. And later, your father and I left the cave together. He went to go speak with Kilgharrah, to share the news of your birth, while I returned to my cottage to gather a few things for your mother and you.

“Just a few jars of salve,” he added at Merlin’s raised brow. “To help your mother with chafing. Plus, you had a few patches of dry skin.”

Merlin didn’t know why, but he blushed at that.

“I parted ways with your father, he went in the direction of Kilgharrah’s den while I turned off on the path to my workshop. Just a few paces later, I stumbled over a stone. Now, I’d made that walk from my cottage to the Crystal Cave many times, in brightest day and darkest night, and never before have I come across anything like a large chuck of amber just sticking up out of the ground. So yes, I would say that at the time, I thought it was very auspicious.” He held up a hand. “I did not, however, expect its connection with the prophecy. Perhaps I should’ve done so sooner?”

He shrugged a bit helplessly, and Merlin patted him on the shoulder. “I think your timing was fine, Uncle Gaius. I definitely wouldn’t have been ready for this when I was sixteen.” He sighed. “I don’t know if I’m ready for it now.”

“What’s troubling you, my boy?”

“Well, remember I was telling you about that prat I met in the woods who lost a horse?”

“Yes, of course,” Gaius said. “I’m not so old that I forget a conversation we had earlier today,” he teased.

Merlin gave a short laugh. “I know, Uncle Gaius. It’s not that. It’s just that the man? The one I said was arrogant and rude? That was Prince Arthur.”

Gaius’ mouth formed into a wide ‘o’. “Oh, I see. I can understand how that would be troubling, Merlin.”

“I mean,” Merlin flailed his arms a little helplessly. “We’ve managed to talk a bit. And some of it’s been all right. Almost good. But then, other times, I just think I had the right impression of him in the woods when I decided he was an arrogant, pompous, prat. And I’m sure he thinks no better of me.”

“Where is your, uh…”

“Yeah,” Merlin said when Gaius didn’t seem to know how to end that question. “It’s hard to know what word to use. I mean, the ritual itself is basically a formal ceremony rather than simply a betrothment and it’s as binding as one, but there weren’t really traditional nuptials or even a hand-fasting. So, technically we’re… I guess we’re bonded, married? So, that means he’s my spouse? Partner? Husband? Consort? Which one is right? All of them?” He rubbed a hand over his face, through the shirt-sleeve. “It just happened so fast, I don’t think I was really expecting it.”

Perhaps it was a bit late to have a fit, but Merlin figured he was allowed a bit of an opportunity to freak out. “I’d always assumed I’d know. That I’d feel something when I met this other half to my whole.”

“And you feel nothing?” Gaius asked, concern in his voice.

“Well, not nothing,” Merlin admitted, cheeks going hot. “I mean, he’s nice to look at.” He ignored Gaius’ snort. “But, we have nothing in common except that we’re both victims of this prophecy.”

Gaius reached out and patted one of Merlin’s covered hands. “Give it time, my boy. You’ll get to know each other. I’m sure you’ll find that the prophecy wouldn’t be wrong about this. You two were meant to be. It’ll work itself out.”

Merlin blew out a breath that plumed into the night air. “I hope you’re right, Uncle Gaius.”

“Speaking of, where is your prince?”

“Oh,” Merlin jerked a thumb over his shoulder, gesturing vaguely back toward the village. “He’s at the feast. Probably drinking and dancing and who knows what else. He came here with a bevy of his friends, so I’m sure he’s found them and they’re having a wonderful time.” He hoped he didn’t sound quite as bitter as he felt.

“I hope you’re right about the prophecy,” he added. “Although, speaking of… I probably shouldn’t mention this, and you can’t tell anyone, Uncle Gaius, but Kilgharrah may know where we need to travel to fulfill the next part of it.”

“Oh, really?” Gaius sounded extremely interested in that.

“He won’t tell me where. Not yet. But he’s promised that he’ll confer with the Elder’s Council tomorrow. Because they’re meeting tonight, I guess, to review all the various interpretations of the prophecy over the years, to make sure they can come to consensus on where this is supposed to be. If they do, Kilgharrah said he’d tell me. Then, well, I guess Arthur and I will go there. Take the egg and find the source of all dragonkind, and I’ll tame or defeat the sovereign dragon as I’m destined to. And?” he threw up his hands, spreading them wide, fingers slipping out of the ends of his sleeves. “And, that will be it, I guess. And then… and then what? That’s the end of the prophecy.”

“I suppose you find your own path then,” Gaius said, like it was that easy.

“Yes, but…I mean, Arthur’s the crown prince of Camelot. Will we go there? I don’t know. And, how is that going to look for the people of Camelot if he’s got a druid for a consort? Is that even something they’ll accept? You remember King Alined?” He sniffed in derision. Well, that and because his nose was starting to run from the cold. “He threw a fit when his son was presented on my nineteenth name-day. Said it was abominable and against the will of the gods.”

“Have you talked with Arthur about any of this?”

Merlin shook his head. “As I said, we haven’t really talked about much at all, really. And so far, we just end up at odds whenever we do speak.”

“Well, I think that’s the best course of action, my boy. Talk to Arthur. Hear his concerns. Perhaps with this new change in his situation he won’t be required to return to Camelot? Perhaps you’ll stay here? But you won’t know unless you speak to him, Merlin.”

Sighing heavily, Merlin nodded again. “You’re right, Gaius.” He shivered then, a whole-body shudder that rattled his teeth.

“And now, my boy, it’s time to head back to your tent. And take your staff with you.”

“Right,” Merlin stood.  He hadn’t realized quite how cold he’d gotten. Before he took up the staff – which Gaius held out to him – he leaned in and caught Gaius up in a firm hug. He felt one of Gaius’ arms come around him and pat him heartily on the back. “Thank you, Uncle Gaius. You always know the right thing to say. And thank you again, for the staff.” He stepped back then, and took it in a tight grip. “I have a feeling I’m probably going to need it in the days to come.”

He didn’t know why he said that, but it definitely felt right.

“I hope it treats you well, my boy. Happy name-day.”

He helped Gaius to his feet and they walked side-by-side in silence down the wide, sculpted corridor of trees and brush that connected the ancient grove to the land beyond the woods. One past the egress, Gaius turned in the direction of the village. Merlin gave a final little wave and then hurried back to the tent.

It was still empty when he arrived, not that he’d expected otherwise, but it was warmer at least. Much warmer. Merlin set the staff down, leaning it against a wall of the tent away from the door so that Arthur wouldn’t trip over it when he came back.

If he came back.

Merlin didn’t even know at this point what Arthur would do. Maybe he’d find better companionship somewhere else?

Trying not to think such dark thoughts, Merlin readied himself for bed instead. He turned down the wicks on all the lamps and shuttered all but one of them.

It still wasn’t all that late, but he had plans for the morning now. Plus, there was another part of his mind reminding him that if he turned in early and woke early, and if Arthur came in late and slept late, they could avoid each other. Which was a rather pathetic thing to think, he knew, but it didn’t stop him from shaking out a couple of blankets and bunching up a few of the pillows and settling into the nest of bedding.

He laid there in the dark for quite a long time, staring at nothing, thinking on the events of the day. And on the prophecy and its meaning. And on the strange twists of fate brought about by little things like amber stones and runaway horses.

He must’ve dozed off at some point, because the next thing Merlin knew he was blinking up at a dark shape hovering over him; a figure blacker than the surrounding grey. With a gasp, he scrambled backwards. “Who–”

“Merlin,” Arthur held his palms out. Merlin could barely see them as pale shapes in the gloom. “Merlin, it’s just me.”

“Oh,” Merlin said, a bit sleep-addled, and hoping Arthur couldn’t hear the rapid staccato of his heart.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.” And he did genuinely sound like he regretted it. He kept his voice low as he went on. “I just got a little bit turned around. Um, I was looking for one of my trunks. I know they carried them in here. It has my night clothes in it. Do you mind if I light one of the lamps?” he asked, and the way he asked the question was oddly restrained.

“Yeah, of course. Go ahead,” Merlin said. “There’s one on the table by the door that’s still burning but shuttered.”

He closed his eyes then, listening as Arthur walked the few steps over to the table, and then heard the squeak of a metal lid being moved, and he could see behind his eyelids when the lamp was opened and turned-up, flooding the room with warm, yellow light. Slowly, he eased his eyes open.

His vision was still a bit fuzzy – he was blinking to adjust – but he saw Arthur look his way. “I’ll just be a moment,” Arthur said.  Again, he sounded strangely subdued.

He’d honestly expected that if Arthur came back at all, he’d be stinking drunk; loud and clumsy and oafish. But he wasn’t.  In fact, Merlin could tell he was trying to be quiet and careful, and considerate of Merlin. It was strange.

Merlin shifted back down in the bed, nestling into the heavy, down-filled pillows, but he didn’t try to sleep. Instead he watched the play of lamplight on the tent canvas above him – trying to give Arthur a modicum of privacy - and listened as Arthur prepared himself for sleep. He tracked Arthur’s movements by the position of the lamp, noting when it crossed to the far side of the tent where the ewer and basin were located. His assumptions were confirmed when he heard a brief splashing.

Eventually Arthur returned to the bed, this time the unoccupied side, and set the lamp down on a low bench. He sat down on the edge of the bed, perching carefully on the makeshift mattress, but didn’t make any move to lie back or douse the light.

“Arthur?” Merlin asked. “Is everything… are you okay?”

Arthur took in a deep breath. “Yes,” he said abruptly. “Yes. I’m fine. Fine. So, um… did you want the lamp kept burning for this or do you prefer to do this in the dark?”

“What,” Merlin wondered, confused. “Sleep? Well, normally I do that in the dark, but if you prefer to keep a lamp lit or a candle burning, that’s fine.” He shifted up a bit in the bed so that he could see Arthur better.

He was even more confused when Arthur made a pained sort of noise. “No, I don’t mean sleeping.”

“What are you talking about?”

Arthur groaned, propping his elbows on his knees and burying his face in his hands. “I’m talking about this bed, Merlin. It’s our marriage bed.”

“Well, yes. It’s a bed,” Merlin agreed, humoring him somewhat. And then he remembered what Gaius had advised about working on better communicating and he started to wonder if perhaps things were different among the Kingdom folk. “Arthur, you don’t think that we have to… uh…” What was the best word to use?

“What?” Arthur barked out, hoarse and a little muffled since he spoke into the cup of his palms.

“You don’t think that we have to consummate this marriage tonight, do you?”

Arthur lifted his head then, craning it to the side to stare at Merlin. “Isn’t that what the whole purpose of this tent and this bed are?” In the dimness, the tent lit by only the one small lamp, it was difficult to see his expression clearly but Merlin got the sense that he was looking at a man who’d just learned he’d been granted a stay of execution, but didn’t want to trust the news.

Merlin shook his head adamantly. “No, it’s not. No. It’s just a bed. To sleep in.” He paused, considering. “I mean, I guess,” he went on, not trying to think about it too much, “if, well… if we’d wanted to. It’s up to us. But there’s no… it isn’t some kind of requirement.” He didn’t know what else to say.

“There’s not going to be any proof needed?”

“Proof?”

“On the sheets tomorrow,” Arthur waved a hand over them, but his voice had perked up just slightly.

“What are you even talking about?” Merlin asked, feeling quite confused.

Arthur’s eye-roll was visible enough, the whites of his eyes flashing momentarily. “When a man and wife share a bed and uh, intimacies for the first time…”

Merlin gawped. “Oh!” He knew about all that; virginity and moonblood and women’s lunar cycles and childbirth. He’d practically been Gaius’ apprentice for a time, and he didn’t think he was squeamish about things like that. But talking about them with Arthur, in this context, made him feel strange. “Oh, goodness no. No, Arthur, this is… no…” he found he could only shake his head and repeat the word, “No,” rather inanely.

A few seconds later, he had to ask. “Is that something that’s expected amongst people in your kingdom?”

Arthur’s nod didn’t seem very sure. “It can be,” he admitted. “If the court demands it. They will either look for some kind of confirmation, evidence, that the marriage was consummated, or witnesses to the fact.”

“Witness?” Merlin blurted. “You mean someone watches?”

Arthur nodded again.

“Oh gods, that’s horrible.”

“Well, it’s not everyone,” Arthur shot back a trifle defensively. “It’s not every marriage and not every kingdom follows those practices. But I’ve heard of it before.”

“Oh. Well that’s just…” Merlin shook his head. “Trust me, Arthur. No one is going to be checking the state of the sheets tomorrow. We are perfectly fine to just go right to sleep. You needn’t worry.”

He tried not to be offended at the way Arthur’s shoulders slumped forward and he let out what was clearly a sigh of relief.

Although, this conversation did remind Merlin of something he and Gaius had spoken of. Maybe now was a good time to bring it up.

“Um, before you do though. Uh, settle in for sleep, I wanted to ask something.” He paused, thinking how best to word it. “Is this,” – he gestured between the two of them with a pointed finger – “going to be a problem for you? I mean, it’s not an issue here. But I don’t know how things are done in the kingdoms. Well,” he amended, “I do know that in Alined’s kingdom it was a rather large issue. They almost refused to participate in the ritual because of it.”

This time it was Arthur’s turn to be confounded. He twisted on the bed to stare at Merlin with utter confusion. “What are you talking about?”

“Uh, this,” Merlin repeated the gesture. “The fact that we’re both men. When Alined found out his son might have to wed a male druid there was almost bloodshed!”

Comprehension dawning, Arthur looked away again. He made a vague sort of motion, something like the heft of a shoulder, and then held out a hand flat and waggled it from side-to-side. “It’s not unheard of, but it’s not… well, it’s something that’s kept quiet, let’s say.” He let out another of those heavy sighs. “Honestly, I have no idea how my parents are going to react. I’d rather hoped we’d…” he didn’t finish that thought.

A moment later he continued on a different tack. “As I mentioned earlier, I think there was an assumption that this whole ritual was more of a preliminary, um, test of compatibility. Not an actual matrimonial event. I didn’t realize that its success meant we’d be immediately joined… wed, what have you.” He threw up both hands. “I don’t know what the right term is. But I didn’t realize we would be bound if I was somehow chosen. And I know my father thought this was something we could still negotiate.” The laugh that followed was short and bitter. “It’s probably not going to thrill him when I come home with a…” he gestured loosely at Merlin.

“With a druid?” Merlin offered dryly.

Arthur’s next little huff of laughter sounded surprised, but also genuinely amused. “Right,” he said. “A druid.”

“Well, what about you, then?” Merlin asked, rather boldly he thought. “Do you personally have a problem with this. I mean, you must know that I’d never ask anything of you… I mean, just because we’re these two halves that make a whole, I don’t assume or expect anything. But, um…” how did he admit this? “Well, I have no problem that you’re a prince instead of a princess.”

Scrubbing a hand up over the back of his head and through the hair at his nape, Arthur shrugged. “I’ve never really given it much thought,” he admitted. “I always known that as the heir apparent, my spouse would be chosen for me, so my personal feelings didn’t really factor in. It would be some princess or lady from a kingdom or land that my father wanted to curry favor with, or for the purposes of a treaty. I never expected that I’d get to marry for love. And I’ve accepted that, but I’ve also been quite limited in my experiences.”

He turned to look at Merlin then. “Two of my Knights,” he continued, seemingly apropos of nothing. “They’re, uh together. They’re two of my dearest friends, and two of the best men I know. So, I don’t have a problem with the idea of it. But for myself? I… don’t know, I’ve never…” he trailed off.

That was fair, Merlin thought. He’d asked quite a bit of Arthur there. The unguarded honesty was both surprising and refreshing. For now, he’d not push for more.

“Well, like I said, you’ve nothing to worry about from me. I mean, you’re attractive and it’s not that I wouldn’t, but, ummm…” Merlin let his own inane babble trail off. It was just too awkward. “But no pressure,” he added. “In fact, if there were someone… I wouldn’t object.”

“Someone?” Arthur repeated.

“I mean, someone you’d rather, you know… be with, in that way. Like, I dunno: that Gwen, maybe?”

Arthur chuckled, and shook his head. “No, Gwen is a dear, dear friend, but in my father’s eyes that would be no more appropriate than me marrying you. She’s a servant, even if her brother is a knight. Besides, Gwen and another of my best knights, Sir Lancelot, have been together for quite a long time. They’re sickeningly happy.”

“Oh,” Merlin said, not quite sure why he felt so relieved to hear that. “Oh, well. I mean, but if there ever were anyone. Or if you just felt the urge to… I wouldn’t fault you for that.” He suspected that if the light were any brighter it would be revealed that the both of them were colored as red as Arthur’s cloak. This was certainly the kind of conversation one could only have late at night, in the near-dark.

“Well, thank you, I guess,” Arthur said somewhat awkwardly. “But, I’m not someone who breaks a vow.”

Merlin sighed. This was something they’d obviously have to talk more about later. He couldn’t imagine spending his life bound to someone who planned on nobly suffering through the whole of it. But for now, it was easier to just say, “So be it. Are you, uh, comfortable sharing this bed then?” he asked slowly. “I mean, otherwise there are enough pillows and blankets. I could make-up a pallet on the floor.”

“No,” Arthur shook his head firmly. “I’m not putting you out of your bed.”

“Technically it’s our bed,” Merlin retorted.

Arthur ignored that. “I am a knight, Merlin. We are as close as brothers and I’m no stranger to sharing a bedroll in a cold encampment on an overnight campaign. I have no problem sharing this bed with you.”

“Oh, okay. Well, good. Just think of me as another knight then,” Merlin offered.

For some reason that made Arthur laugh. “Right. Right, I’ll do that.”

The night was catching up with him. Though Merlin was oddly enjoying this conversation – something about the late hour and quiet dark making them both less defensive, allowing them to get along again, as awkward as things were – he was fighting back a yawn.

He’d wanted to tell Arthur about his conversation with Kilgharrah and delve further into what the future might hold, but that could all wait until morning. Arthur’d had enough of a shock for one day. He didn’t need to be given the news that he’d soon have to set off on a journey to slay or tame a dragon, right before settling into sleep.

Slightly viciously Merlin thought: first thing in the morning would do just fine.

“Good night, Arthur.” Merlin said.

Arthur closed the shutter on the lamp and Merlin felt the straw-stuffed padding beneath them shift as Arthur settled.  Some of the blankets were tugged and shifted and he felt more than saw Arthur make himself comfortable. “Goodnight, Merlin.”

Though he’d not really expected to get much in the way of a good night’s sleep considering: well, he’d already napped a few hours before Arthur’s late-night return, there were myriad thoughts swirling through his mind, and not to mention he was sharing a bed with a near stranger, somehow all of it must’ve caught up with him. Because Merlin woke the next morning slowly and with a luxurious stretch and a slow blink and a feeling of being extremely well-rested. In fact, it was only when he continued to stretch out further, extending both arms and splaying his fingers, and one of his arms smacked into another figure in the bed, that everything came flooding back to him.

“Right,” he muttered, yanking his arm back to his side.

The lump under the blanket that was Arthur grumbled something unintelligible and curled up into a tighter cocoon into the bedding.

Merlin took stock. It was definitely morning judging by the soft light illuminating the tent. Not too late, he didn’t think. He couldn’t hear much of anything outside the tent, although there was a reason they set-up the marriage tent where they did – to keep it away from the interruptions and prying eyes of the general populace, and to give them privacy.

Not that they’d needed it, but still. It was at least comfortable and quiet.

He also probed at the back of his mind for that curious connection that he and Kilgharrah shared but it lay quiescent. So, either the dragon was sleeping – though Merlin didn’t know how much sleep the Great dragon needed – or, he was already meeting with the council. He tended to shut Merlin out, blocking his thoughts when he was talking with others because he claimed that Merlin ‘distracted’ him. Unless Merlin wanted to strain his focus – which often left him with a headache – he usually didn’t try to force Kilgharrah’s attention when he was closed off like that.

With that avenue of conversation closed to him, he thought about getting up, though was a little bit loathe to leave the warmth and comfort of the bed.  He’d apparently gotten enough sleep though, because when he tried to close his eyes and lose himself to dreams, they just popped back open again. His mind was too alert, too occupied, to slip back to lazy day-dreams.

Taking care not to jostle the still-sleeping Arthur too much, he got out of bed. He left the tent for a few minutes to visit the separately housed privy and relieve himself, and when he came back there was an Acolyte waiting with a breakfast tray at the tent’s entrance.

Which, he did find a little bit creepy, because that meant they were watching for him, waiting for signs that he or Arthur were awake.

“I can take that in,” he told the Acolyte. It was the younger of the two women, the one who’d managed a couple of sly smiles at him when the others weren’t looking yesterday. There was another grin playing at her lips as she passed over the laden tray, and she nodded.

Rather than disabuse her of any notions, Merlin just said, “Thank you,” and took the heavy tray that had been piled high with platters and pitchers of food and drink. Though, he didn’t object when she held the tent flap open so that he didn’t struggle with it. “Thanks again,” he uttered and stepped inside.

Whether it was the light flooding in, or the chill of cool air wafting into the tent, Arthur stirred. He groaned and rolled onto his back and blinked up at Merlin balefully. He propped himself up on his elbows, squinting and bleary-eyed and looked like he was trying to figure things out.

Apparently, things came back to him much the way they’d done to Merlin, because he suddenly let out a groan, threw a forearm over his eyes and flopped back onto the bed.

“Yes,” Merlin said, rather flatly. “Yesterday really happened. You’re really here.”

Arthur just made some kind of groggy noise that Merlin couldn’t interpret. Leaving Arthur to whatever dramatics he felt the need to wallow in, he carried the tray over to the largest table and set about making up a plate for himself.

Deciding to be civil, he offered, “Do you want me to bring you up a plate?” He glanced over his shoulder after there was no response for a long moment. When he looked back, Arthur was sitting up, his legs over the side of the bed. He’d apparently gone to sleep shirtless, wearing only thin trousers and his hair was a delightful bird nest of pillow-induced cowlicks and spikes.

Merlin swallowed hard. It was unfair that someone could be so mussed and yet attractive this early in the morning.

“No,” Arthur finally groaned out. “I’ll join you in a moment.”

“Right,” Merlin agreed. “There’s a privy tent,” he gestured vaguely outside.

“Right,” Arthur echoed. He started to stretch then, arms out to his side, exposing his firm chest, and belly going taut…

Turning hastily back to his meal, Merlin poured a goblet of watered wine and drank it down in two quick swallows.

A few minutes later he heard Arthur get up and stumble out of the tent.

He refocused on breakfast… Alas, there was no fresh milk this morning. But there were definite indications that the villagers were continuing to share in their celebrations through gifts of food. In addition to fried ham, and sautéed mushrooms and poached quail eggs, there were more of the out-of-season berries, and – though they weren’t his mother’s, clearly – more of the oatcakes, plus thick, dried-fruit and nut-studded sweet bread slathered in honey and butter.

Merlin set to eating and decided that when Arthur returned he’d tell him about what he and Kilgharrah had talked about the night before. About the prophecy and his plans to follow-through with it.

When Arthur stepped back inside, he definitely seemed a bit more awake. He must’ve dunked his head in the rain barrel outside the privy, because his hair was damp and finger-combed into a bit more order, and there were still droplets scattered over his chest and arms.

Wordlessly, he slumped down into the chair on the opposite side of the table.

Merlin gestured to the tray and Arthur’s empty plate. “I uh, didn’t know what you’d like.”

Arthur just yawned and nodded. “This is fine. I can serve myself.”

Merlin noticed his attention first went to the fresh berries in their thick cream. He plucked one up, studied it. “How? I didn’t see any trees. These are fresh, though. Not dried.”

Apparently, Arthur wasn’t the best conversationalist in the morning, but Merlin got the gist of what he was asking. “Oh, well you know that there are various skill sets among the druid people. Like the beast-speakers, and our healers. Some of us have a strong affinity with plants and growing things. Some are herbalists, others are green-wardens or grove-tenders.” Arthur was staring at him in interest. “So, essentially, there are those who are strong enough to encourage trees and the like to remain green all year round. They have special glass-walled huts, that stay warm all year, where these fruits can be cultivated.”

Arthur’s eyebrows went up, putting a delightful wrinkle in his forehead. “Well, that seems handy. Why don’t they just do it with all the trees? Instead of letting them go bare?” he asked, already dipping a spoon into the cream-coated berries.

“It doesn’t quite work like that,” Merlin explained, patiently. “For all druids with skills, our power is limited. It relies on a connection to the world, and the earth and using it too much can be exhausting, or dangerous. The hot-houses are kept small, and tended by several different druids. Sharing their power and responsibility.  Besides,” he shrugged, “it would go against the nature of things entirely to reshape the seasons. And probably mess up the natural order of things.”

Chewing and swallowing (and closing his eyes a moment in obvious delight) Arthur pointed his spoon at Merlin. “Still, there’s something to be said for eating strawberries in the middle of winter.”

“Well, it’s not winter any longer,” Merlin countered.

“Right,” Arthur conceded. “First day of spring.”

“Yes,” Merlin agreed.

They continued eating for a while in silence. If his appreciative noises were to be believed, Arthur certainly enjoyed the bounty provided and helped himself to seconds and thirds of nearly everything. Though his attention did keep drifting back to the berries.

Eventually when Merlin had eaten his fill, and Arthur pushed his own plate away with a decadent groan, Merlin said, “Arthur, there’s something I wanted to talk to you about.”

Eyeing him suddenly warily, Arthur asked, “It’s not about our conversation last night, is it? Because, I mean… I’d been drinking and…”

Irritated, Merlin scoffed. “No, it’s not about that. But it’s nice to know how you really feel that we managed to have a decent conversation without shouting at each other.”

Arthur’s face took on a strange cast of not quite affronted and not quite chagrinned.

Merlin waved that away; too interested in sharing his thoughts about the prophecy to get caught up in the fact that Arthur was being boorish. “Look, no. It’s not about that at all. It’s actually about the prophecy. You see, last night after you left, I had a conversation with Kilgharrah. We were discussing the remaining lines of the prophecy itself and what they could possibly be telling us.

“I mean,” he hurried to say, not wanting to sound like he spoke ill of the translations, “my people have always had an understanding of what they mean. What they’ve worked out over years and years of study and research. As you know, that’s why we’ve always had the accords with Camelot and the other Kingdoms.”

“Right,” Arthur nodded.

“Well, the next lines speak of taking the stone, which we now know is the egg, on a journey.”

“What kind of journey,” Arthur asked. He’d shifted forward in his seat with interest.

“There is a passage from the prophecy that refers to the ‘source of all dragons’. Which was always understood to mean that there’s a place, though no one’s really sure where it is, where dragonkind originated. Now, Kilgharrah believes he knows where that is.”

Arthur perked up even further.

Merlin hastily went on, “Now, he wouldn’t tell me where it is. Because he’s concerned about the rest of the translation being perhaps, slightly misunderstood. Based on the way things happened yesterday.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, that whole part with the staff,” Merlin explained. “I’d only gotten that staff yesterday, as a name-day gift.”

“Yesterday was your name-day?” Arthur asked before Merlin could continue.

“Well, yes. Why do you think we hold the ritual on the Vernal Equinox every year?”

Arthur shrugged. “I just always thought it was some traditional or meaningful day for your people. Spring being a time of rebirth or what have you.”

“It’s meaningful to mean,” Merlin stated flatly. “But, no. It’s entirely tied-up to the day I was born. Anyway, my parents had given me that staff yesterday as a gift. And it was rather by chance that I happened to bring it along to the grove last night. I’d never had anything like it with me before. And I found out also, from Gaius –”

“Gaius?” Arthur interrupted.

“Yes, he’s an old friend of my parents. Kind of an uncle of sorts to me. He’s not really my uncle, but I think of him as one. He’s one of our most powerful healers and physicians. He makes most of the potions and healing draughts and wound salves and poultices that are used throughout the village. And he trains all of our apprentice healer-druids.”

Arthur was listening patiently, but made a ‘get on with it’ gesture when Merlin got too sidetracked.

“Anyway, Gaius told me last night that he actually found that amber stone – the one set into the headpiece on the staff – on the day I was born. And he’d been working on making me that staff since then. Just here and there over time.”

“Gaius made you that?” Arthur looked across the tent at the staff which was still leaned against the canvas wall.

“Yes,” Merlin smiled fondly. “It was an impressive gift. I didn’t know he was so skilled at woodcarving.”

“It is a fine piece of craftsmanship,” Arthur agreed.

Merlin’s smile widened at the praise. “Yeah. So, yesterday was the first day I ever had it, so it hadn’t been present at any rituals prior to this one. So, Kilgharrah’s worried, since that wasn’t something that was understood, with regard to the prophecy -  I mean, needing that staff or that amber stone to complete the ritual – he’s worried that perhaps there are other mistranslations or misunderstandings of the words.”

Arthur frowned. “So, it’s possible if you’d had that staff with you in any of the other years during the ritual, things might’ve worked out differently?”

Merlin’s frown matched Arthur’s. “Well, maybe?”

He didn’t miss the way that Arthur’s gaze went slightly wistful. He changed his mind, biting out, “Actually, no. Even if I’d had the staff from the very first year, I don’t think it would’ve worked that way. It wasn’t waiting for just anyone to come into that grove with me and the staff. Sorry to say, but it was fated to be you.”

Getting more riled, he pushed on. “Look, I’m sorry that yesterday happened to the be the day that things were finally set into motion, but we’re equally caught up in this you know. I didn’t ask to be born this ‘last dragonlord’ and stuck with a destiny I cannot change, any more than you asked to get stuck wedded to a druid.” His nostrils flared as he breathed out harsh, short breaths.

“I know,” Arthur said softly, looking down at his hands.

A heavy silence fell over them.

Eventually Arthur broke it, prompting, “So this prophecy?”

“Right,” Merlin replied, pushing down on his ire to focus once again. “As I said, it talks of taking the egg to the source of all dragons. But then it also speaks of the sovereign dragon. It’s always been assumed that this referred to a unique, singular dragon. Perhaps the father of all dragons?”

“So, where’s this dragon been then?”

It was a good question.  “There were theories, but now that we’ve seen what happened with the egg – the way it turned from stone to a living creature inside a real shell – my speculation would be that it’s like that. Maybe a dragon stuck as stone, or sealed away somehow, eternally slumbering?”

“And your arrival at that place, with the staff in hand, would have a similar effect? I mean, exposing it or bringing to back to life?”

“Right,” Merlin agreed, pleased Arthur was catching on so readily. “Well, our arrival though. The prophecy speaks of both of us going there.”

Arthur scratched thoughtfully at his chin. “So, if we find this place and rouse this dragon, then what?”

“Uh, then as the last dragonlord, I’m to uh… tame it. Or defeat it.”

“You don’t know?”

Merlin spread his hands helplessly. “It’s prophecy, Arthur. It’s meant to be vague.”

Arthur snorted, his opinion of prophecy quite clear.

“But anyway, we had always assumed that I would have to go there with my consort and find this sovereign dragon and use my powers to ‘bring it low’ as the translation says. But now, Kilgharrah worries whether the language of the ancient dragons has been interpreted correctly. That there might be something they missed.”

“But, you want to go there,” Arthur stated. “You want to go and find this dragon and do what needs to be done.

Merlin nodded eagerly. “Yes.”

“What happens after that?”

“Well, according to the prophecy, after I’ve defeated the dragon, I’ll be able to hatch the egg. And there will be another Great Dragon. And uh…that will somehow bring forth an era of peace and prosperity. And, uh…” he flicked a hand through the air. “I guess that’s it then.”

“That’s it?” Arthur repeated, unimpressed.

“Well, the prophecy ends there. And,” he admitted, “I’m kind of looking forward to that.”

Arthur studied him a long moment with a strange look on his face. “I think I understand,” he said finally.

“You do?” Merlin asked.

“Yeah,” Arthur bobbed his head. “We’re not that dissimilar in that regard, Merlin. My whole life has been tied-up being the son of a king. Every decision I’ve made, every decision that’s made for me, is made with that in mind. I’ve had very little say in my future.” He gestured with a hand that took in the whole of Merlin. “You’ve always had this prophecy shaping your life. To look beyond that, finally…. Well, I can see why it tempts you so.”

“It applies to you too,” Merlin said, feeling strangely guilty about his desperation to know a freedom beyond a life guided by things outside of his control.

“Perhaps,” Arthur said softly. “So, that’s why I think you’re right. That’s what I think we should do. We should set-out on this journey to find this source of all dragons. And then you can,” he made a strange sort of gesture at Merlin with his hand, “you know, tame it or what have you. Or maybe I’ll have to fight it with you?” He looked like the idea intrigued him. “And then we’ll see the egg hatched and move on with our lives.”

Merlin wasn’t ignorant to the implications of that last statement.  ‘Move on without each other’ it said. He didn’t know why that bothered him, so he ignored it and focused instead on the fact that Arthur seemed not only willing, but eager to go along with his plan.

“So, how do we get this location from Kilgharrah?” Arthur asked. “You said he didn’t want to tell you?”

“Well, I told him he had the night to mull it over and study the prophecy with the Elder’s Council. But that I’d resort to forcing him to tell me if he didn’t volunteer the information yet this morning.”

Arthur’s brows flew up again. “You can do that?”

“Yeah,” Merlin nodded. “That’s what being the last dragonlord means. I can not only communicate with all of dragonkind, but I can control them as well.”

“Huh.” Arthur seemed to stare at him with what looked like a newfound respect.

“I don’t like to do it though,” Merlin hurried to add, not wanting Arthur to get the wrong idea. “In fact, I’ve really never had to command him outside of ritual. And that’s just that one silly moment.”

“Right,” Arthur said. “Where you call him?”

“Exactly. But I told him that I’m willing to do it this time. So, he’s promised that if the information the council brings him, based on their latest study, matches what he’s already surmised, then he would tell me.”

“So, we’re just waiting on hearing from the dragon, then?”

“Yep,” Merlin gave a short nod. “Although, I did tell him that if he didn’t reach out to me by late morning, then I’ll head to his cavern to have a little chat with him.”

“Good,” Arthur said. “I’ll go with you.”

That surprised Merlin. “Thanks,” he said somewhat roughly. “I would like that.”

Arthur sat back in his chair then, and stretched indolently. “I don’t suppose it would be possible to get a bath, would it?”

“Oh,” Merlin said, startled by the change in topic. “Well, yes.” He could just summon the acolytes and have them bring in a tub and buckets of hot water. “Or,” Merlin offered, “we could go to the hot springs?”

“Hot springs?”

“Yes. They’re these naturally fed springs, they stay hot all year round. They’re particularly pleasant this time of year.”

“That sounds good,” Arthur agreed with a grin.

“Great,” Merlin said and gestured vaguely over his shoulder. “I’ll just get uh, changed.”

“Right,” Arthur nodded.

“I’m sure there’s more clothing here.” Though Merlin didn’t know for sure.

“Right,” Arthur said again. He pointed to the side of the tent. “They brought in my travel chests, so…”

“Right,” Merlin echoed inanely. “Uh, let’s just…”

They both scrambled up from the table and crossed to different sides of the tent.

A heavy silence, punctuated only by sounds of creaking chests and tossed clothing and low-voiced swearing (from Merlin, when he couldn’t find his comfortable boots), fell over them while they each got dressed for the morning. Merlin did his best not to glance over at Arthur, though he couldn’t help getting a peek now and then of bare skin, and he could tell that Arthur was doing the same intent ‘not-looking’ (although considering how often their eyes met, and then immediately darted away, they were both failing miserably).

Eventually, Merlin finished tying on his scarf and he took up his coat and muttered, “I’ll wait for you outside.”

Compared to the stifling confines of the tent, the air outdoors was a refreshment. He drew in several lungfuls through his nose and exhaled them through his pursed lips.

Of course, he was mid-exhale when Arthur stepped outside, and the rest of his breath got blown out on a sputter.

Damn the man. Did he have to look good in everything? Though he was dressed similar to Merlin, in a regular tunic and trousers – no armor or fancy doublet today – something about the way that the red linen fell across his wide shouldered and draped over his body… not to mention that Arthur had only partially laced up the collar, so both sides fell open, exposing quite a bit chest. Well, it made Merlin tug self-consciously at his own scarf that he had tied loosely around his neck.

Merlin’s exhale turned into a bit of a cough. “Uh, this way,” he managed to gasp out, and began leading them toward the village.

They walked mostly in silence, although Merlin occasionally pointed out things he thought Arthur might find interesting; the hothouse he’d described earlier, and the dragon pens – empty now due to the season – and the path to the Crystal Cave.

As they neared the springs, Merlin could hear boisterous noises echoing up from the winding limestone path. It sounded like there were already a number of people enjoying the revitalizing effects of the water. He tried not to be disappointed. He’d been hoping to get to enjoy them with Arthur… alone.

Although, he knew that if he asked, the Acolytes wouldn’t hesitate to clear the springs… Merlin couldn’t bring himself to do something petty or selfish though. It wasn’t as if Arthur would appreciate the gesture anyway.

When they stepped out from behind the rock ledge that surrounded the pools, a loud cheer went up.

“There they are!”

“Congratulations!”

“Hey, it’s the happy couple!”

It took Merlin a moment to search through the throng – because it was a throng, no doubt: the main pool was packed with nearly a dozen bodies – until he finally spotted some familiar faces. Will and Freya were there. He also recognized Morgana and Gwen and Elyan.

Arthur stepped up beside him, laughing. “Well, I see you lot have discovered the hot springs.”

“They’re amazing, Arthur” a good-looking man with wavy, longish, dark hair and the scruff of a beard said.

Next to him, a fellow who was massive – all muscles and bulk and height, not to mention also quite attractive – slapped the dark-haired man on the shoulder. “Gwaine’s right, Sire. We need to find a way to bring these back to Camelot!”

Yet another handsome fellow, this one with a short beard and blond curls, splashed water at them both.

“Thank you, Leon.” Arthur said.

“Hello, again, Merlin,” Gwen called out. She was sitting on the submerged ledge, water lapping at her collar bones. Seated next to her – by the gods above – was another rather gorgeous specimen who bowed his head to Merlin in greeting.

Was every man that Arthur knew handsome?

“Yes, hello, Merlin,” Morgana echoed honey-sweet. She was even more unnerving naked and seemed not to care a whit about paddling around with a pool full of equally naked men.

“Guinevere, Morgana.” Merlin inclined his head to each of them, hoping they couldn’t see that he was gritting his teeth.

Feeling a bit off-kilter, Merlin asked Arthur in an aside, “I take it you know everyone?”

Arthur – to his surprise – was quick to come to his rescue. “Ah, everyone, since most of you were unable to make formal introductions last evening, allow me to introduce my…” –he stumbled over the word choice for only the briefest second – “consort, Merlin.”

“Well met, everyone,” he called out, getting a laugh for some reason.

Arthur stepped to his side and began pointing. “That is Gwaine, and the big fellow is called Percival. The other tall one there, with the curls, is my First Knight, Leon. You already know Elyan. Sitting next to Gwen is Lancelot. They’re all my knights, by the way.”

Morgana pouted prettily. “You forgot me, dear brother.”

“He already said hello to you, Morgana.”

“Still, you know I don’t like to be left out.” She swiped the back of her hand through the water, but the spray missed them both by some distance.

“Oi,” Will called out. “You know us already!”

Merlin groaned and turned to introduce them to Arthur, but he waved Merlin off. “We’d met previously, in their duties as dragon-guard, remember?” Arthur explained, and Merlin nodded – he’d forgotten for a moment - then Arthur gave a wry grin. “Although apparently, they and my knights became the best of friends at the feast last night.”

Another stab of something dark and ugly shot through Merlin’s chest. It seemed his new spouse, his dearest friends and all of Arthur’s had all become bosom companions the night prior, while Merlin had been left alone. He tried not to let it rankle; it was his own fault after all.

“Well, are you coming in?” Gwaine asked. He was leering slightly at Merlin.  The big fellow, Percival elbowed him.

Merlin remembered that Arthur had mentioned a pair of his knights being together; he wondered if it was those two.

Arthur turned to look at Merlin, “I suppose we are.” But his eyebrows were asking the question.

Gods, in the springs with all those ridiculously attractive naked people and a naked Arthur? Merlin didn’t know if he could handle that. He started to beg off, scrambling for some excuse, “Uh, well –”

Merlin?”

Oh, thank the gods. “Thank you, Kilgharrah! Your timing is impeccable!” Merlin thought back at the dragon, nearly gasping with gratitude.

It sounds as if you genuinely mean that, Merlin.”

You have no idea, Kilgharrah.”

“Merlin?” That was Arthur, who was staring at him in puzzlement.

“Sorry,” Merlin rushed out. “Sorry, it’s just,” he pointed to his head. “The dragon. Kilgharrah has news.”

I do indeed, dragonlord. You should come see me.”

“I’m sorry, Arthur. I have to go.”

While others began to cajole them from the water, encouraging them to come in, Arthur frowned. “Should I come with you?”

Yes, you should bring the sacrifice as well.”

Merlin tried to parse the three-way conversation he was involved in. Sometimes that got a bit challenging.

“Merlin?” Arthur said again.

“Um, sure,” he nodded. “That is, if you want to. I mean, you don’t have to.” He gestured to the steaming, burbling water and all of Arthur’s friends. “I can do this part alone. You can stay here. Enjoy yourself.”

Arthur made an odd face. “Don’t be ridiculous, Merlin.” Decision apparently made, Arthur turned once again to face everyone in the pool, who were watching them with (quite literal) naked curiosity. “I’m sorry, my friends, but duty calls. We’ve got a dragon to visit.”

There were groans and words of mock-complaint, but everything mixed into a rather general cacophony of disappointment.

“Sorry,” Merlin added, spreading his hands helplessly.

“We’ll join you later if we’re able!” Arthur promised, before taking Merlin by the elbow and towing him back up the path.

Once they were out of sight of the water, Arthur lowered his head close to Merlin’s. “Did the dragon really summon you?” he asked, keeping his voice low.

Offended, Merlin yanked his arm away and turned to face Arthur. Who was staring at him in confusion. “Yes,” Merlin stated brusquely. “He really did.”

“Okay,” Arthur replied, holding up a hand like he was warding Merlin off. Then his expression went knowing. “Oh. It’s not that I didn’t believe you,” Arthur complained, rolling his eyes. “It’s just that I thought you wanted to get away from there as badly as I did. I thought you were covering for us?”

“Ohhh,” Merlin thought about that a minute and frowned. “Wait, you wanted to get away from there too? I thought you wanted to join them all in the springs?”

Arthur shook his head fervently. “Are you kidding? My sister and my knights, at this time of the morning? Half of them are likely still drunk. Or already on their way there! I’m honestly surprised we weren’t hit immediately with prying remarks about our evening. Come on,” he tugged Merlin’s elbow again to get him walking.

“What do you mean?” Merlin asked a few minutes later, once they were back on the cobbled path that led to Kilgharrah’s den.

“Hmm?” Arthur wondered. He’d been staring around at the village as they walked.

“What prying remarks?”

“Oh, that.” To Merlin’s surprise, the tips of Arthur’s ears went pink. “They’re knights, Merlin. They can be rather crude sometimes.”

Remembering their late-night conversation, it didn’t take Merlin long to put it together. Of course, it started him wondering why any of Arthur’s knights would even assume anything might have happened at all?

Unfortunately, before he could ask, they reached the mouth of the dragon cavern.

“Follow me,” Merlin instructed. “It gets a bit dark inside, as we go in, and the footing is slippery.”

Though the entrance was high and wide enough to allow a dragon ingress, the caves’ depth also meant they had to walk quite a while to reach the end of it. And Kilgharrah, of course, was curled up like a cat right at the very furthest depths.

Untucking his head from where he’d had it nestled under a folded wing Kilgharrah blinked up at them. “Ah, dragonlord. I’d not expected you so soon.”

Arthur looked over at him, but Merlin just shrugged. He had no idea what the dragon meant. “You said we needed to talk, Kilgharrah. So, we’re here.”

“Well yes, Merlin. But I’d assumed that the morning after your nuptials would be spent in conjugal bliss. I didn’t expect to see you until at least mid-afternoon.” His lips curled away as he bared his teeth in what could only be called a grin.

Now it was Merlin’s turn to flush. Kilgharrah had a vicious streak sometimes, and Merlin knew he’d crossed the line last night, threatening to command him to give up his knowledge. He hadn’t known quite how devious the dragon could be, though. The subject of his teasing also made him wonder if Kilgharrah was privy to his confused attraction to Arthur. Ugh, he hoped not!

Hoping that Arthur would ignore the baiting for what it was, Merlin brushed past it quickly. “Well, we’re here now, Kilgharrah. So, please. Tell us what we need to know! Did the Elders confirm your theory?”

Kilgharrah blew out a sulfurous sigh.

Next to him, Arthur coughed. “Sorry,” Merlin said in a low aside, “he does that sometimes.”

“Yes,” the dragon finally said, nodding his wagon-sized head slowly. “The Elders and I are in agreement. You must take the egg far north of here, to the lands your ancestors. There you will find the Three Sisters, a group of mountains. High up within the first of these mountains is a cave, called Ossian’s Cave. It is there you must bring the egg and the staff.”

“I’ve never heard of this place,” Merlin admitted.

“Even now, the Elder’s Council gathers maps and scrolls to guide you.”

“Good,” Merlin said. “I’m sure we’ll need them. How long of a journey do you think it will be?”

Kilgharrah canted his head to the side and considered. “Oh, should you take fast horses, and not encounter any inclement weather, I’d say you’ll be there and back in a fortnight.”

“When are we to leave?”

A wide grin split the dragon’s maw. “I am glad to see you so eager, dragonlord. Does your consort agree with the urgency of this journey?”

Arthur took a step past Merlin, like he was tired of not being addressed directly. “He does. Although, he has a question.”

“Go ahead,” Kilgharrah invited.

“Why can’t we just, uh, fly there?” He lifted a hand and gestured to the dragon’s bulk. “That would make short work of such a long journey.”

Kilgharrah fixed a baleful gaze on Merlin.

“He’s new to these lands, Kilgharrah,” Merlin protested, feeling weirdly protective.

“He’s also standing right here,” Arthur interrupted. “What is he… what am I missing?”

Merlin turned to him, ignoring the annoyingly grinning dragon for the time being. “It’s the time of year, Arthur.  I mentioned earlier, I think, that most dragons have gone to their dens for winter. It’s why the dragon pens were empty.” Arthur nodded. “The transition from winter to spring, the Vernal Equinox, is followed immediately by the hatching. It’s a very delicate time for young dragons. That is when Kilgharrah’s responsibility as Great Dragon, the last of his kind, is at its greatest. He watches over the dragon dens, and he is guardian of the hatchlings. He cannot leave the Valley.”

He abhorred making the suggestion, especially when they were so close to seeing the prophecy through, but for Arthur’s sake, he offered: “We could wait. Until after the hatching ends?”

“When is that? How long would we have to wait?”

Merlin looked up to Kilgharrah, then back to Arthur. “Summer solstice.”

Arthur shook his head and Merlin didn’t try to hide his sigh of relief.

There was one other compromise. “The only other choice would be to pull Dragon-guards away from their posts. Though, it is a breach of the treaties to do so without just cause or prior agreement.”

Arthur nodded his understanding. “That is why my father has to send letters to the other Kingdoms if he thinks he may need their aid. He chafes at that.”

“Right, and it would take time to negotiate that agreement.”

“Several weeks, at least, if memory serves,” Arthur said.

Merlin nodded. “Yeah, at least. And I doubt that any kingdom would want to give up even one dragon-guard for more than a few days.”

With a snort of wry laughter, Arthur nodded. “I know my father wouldn’t. He’s upset that we had two accompany us here.” He looked at Merlin then, eyes going wide. “Wait, what about Will and Freya? They’re already here, already away from Camelot.”

That could work! But when Merlin looked up to Kilgharrah for confirmation, it was to see the dragon shaking his head back and forth. “I’m afraid that’s not possible, Merlin.”

“Why not? Have they been called back to Camelot?”

“I do not mean it is not physically possible, Merlin. I mean that should the Elder’s Council and myself agree to let you go on this journey now, we cannot allow you to travel by dragon.”

“What?” Merlin sputtered. “Why not?”

Kilgharrah sighed again, and Arthur surreptitiously waved away smoke. “I’m afraid, dragonlord, that they fear that to do so would alter the conditions of the prophecy and risk its failure. And I am in agreement with them.”

This time Arthur was the one stuttering out a protest (though his was hindered by a faint cough instead of indignation), “What do you mean, the conditions of the prophecy. It’s a single line. There are no conditions.”

The dragon lifted a forepaw from the ground, pointing a wicked, sword-length claw at Arthur. “Ahh, but in that you are wrong, young prince. The prophecy states that the last dragonlord and his other half will carry the egg. Only those two and no one else. You must travel alone.”

Arthur threw up his hands in frustration. “Fine. Fine. So, we’ll have to travel there on horseback, just the two of us.” He looked to Merlin. “You’ll still be willing to do this, right?”

Merlin blinked. He thought he was the one who would have to convince Arthur! “Yes,” he nodded fervently. “Yes, of course.”

“Fine, it’s settled then. We’ll go on horseback as soon as possible.” Arthur turned back to glare up at the dragon defiantly.

Unfortunately, that only seemed to amuse Kilgharrah even further and he chortled a smoke-laden laugh.

“Stop that, Kilgharrah,” Merlin warned. He knew the dragon didn’t need to exhale smoke with every breath. He was doing it just to be annoying.

Kilgharrah made a rather put-upon sound, but gave a deep inhale, sucking all the smoke back in through his nostrils.

“How soon can we be ready?” Merlin asked. “How soon will the Elders have the maps and such?”

“If all can be made ready on your end, per my discussion with the Elders, you and your consort could leave tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Arthur repeated, and while he seemed a bit startled by that pronouncement, it didn’t sound like he objected at all.

Merlin turned to him. “Do you think you can be ready in that time?”

Arthur huffed in amusement. “All of my things are still packed up from our journey here. I don’t think it’s going to be too difficult. But what about horses and provisions and gear?”

“Oh,” Merlin waved that away with little concern. “That shouldn’t be a problem. Between the villagers and my parents, I’m sure we’ll have no trouble gathering the suppliers we need in that time.”

“Good,” Arthur nodded. “That’s good.”

Merlin looked up at Kilgharrah. “Will you let the council know of our decision? That we’ll plan to leave tomorrow morning?”

A corner of the dragon’s mouth curled up knowingly. “The council has made certain assumptions already, Merlin. I think you’ll find they’re preparing as we speak. But I will pay the Elders a visit.” He inclined his head. “We shall ensure the necessary records and documents are made ready for you.”

“Thank you, Kilgharrah.”

“Thank you, dragonlord,” Kilgharrah returned with sincerity. “And you, young prince.” He bowed his head to Arthur.

“We’ll come back for the egg tomorrow then?” Merlin asked. He’d glance briefly around the cavern when they’d first arrived, but the egg was out of sight.

“That would be best.”

Merlin could tell that Kilgharrah didn’t want to let egg out of his protection any sooner than he needed to. “Right. We’ll see you then.” He turned his attention to Arthur. “C’mon, let’s get started.” He reached out to tug at Arthur’s sleeve, but found that Arthur needed little prompting to get moving. He simply gestured for Merlin to lead the way.

They exited the cavern, and stopped just outside on the neatly kept path.

“Why don’t I go speak to my knights,” Arthur suggested. “Explain what’s going on.”

From his tone, Merlin understood, “They’re not going to be too happy with you about this, are they?”

Arthur shook his head. “No. Their prince going off on a quest, on his own? It’s not just that they’ll be loath to see me go off without their protection, it’s as much the fact that this is exactly what the knighthood is all about. To them, daring, dangerous adventure is what they thrive on. Being told they don’t get to share in our glorious adventure… they’ll be devastated.” He was at least grinning as he said it.

Still, Merlin couldn’t help but feel a little bad for them. “Maybe next time,” he said with a laugh. Wondering why he felt so light-hearted all of a sudden, he made a clumsy pointing gesture over his shoulder, “Um, while you do that, I’m going to go speak to my parents,” he explained. “If anyone can rally the villagers to get us what we need, it’s my mother.”

Arthur’s responding grin was rather knowing.

“Not that my mother is a gossip,” Merlin hurried to clarify, though he was smiling also. “But, she does know almost everyone in the village and she can be a bit chatty…”

“I won’t tell her you said so, Merlin. I promise,” Arthur winked.

Merlin’s heart did absolutely not flutter. Clearing his throat, he asked, “So, uh, shall I meet you back at the tent, later then?”

“Sounds good.”

“Oh,” Merlin asked, just as he was starting to turn away. “Do you need any help getting around the village? A guide or anything?” He realized that for all that they’d been wandering around today, Arthur probably wasn’t all that familiar with navigating the village yet.

“No, I’ll be fine, Merlin. You go ahead.”

“Okay, good.” Merlin turned again, starting to walk away and then felt overcome by the urge to say something more. He spun back around and Arthur hadn’t gotten more than a pace away. “Um, Arthur?”

“Yes?” Arthur asked, pausing but not turning.

“I’m glad we’re doing this. It absolutely feels like the right thing to do.”

Arthur did turn then and his head was cocked to the side and he seemed to study Merlin in that quiet, squinty-eyed way for what felt like a very long time. Finally, he gave a brief nod. “You know, it does feel like the right thing to do. I’m glad we’re doing this too.”

Pleased that they were both in agreement, finally in harmony on something instead of feeling like they were at odds or just not understanding each other, Merlin smiled and then gave an equally quick nod of acknowledgment and turned to head on his way.

It was only a short walk to his parents’ cottage from there. He imagined they’d be surprised to see him, especially so early. But at least he’d – hopefully – be free of obnoxious innuendo about how he’d spent his evening. When he reached their cottage he paused outside, hesitating before opening the door. Strangely, for the first time in his life, he felt like he should knock. He compromised with himself by tapping at the door with his knuckles while he opened it, and calling out, “Hello, Mum. Father. It’s me.”

When he stepped inside, Hunith was already on her feet – he’d apparently interrupted their breakfast – and hustling towards him. “Oh, Merlin. What are you doing here?” She looked surprised, and then pleased and then concerned all in the span of a few seconds.

“I’m all right, Mum,” he hurried to reassure her, to allay at least one of those emotions. “Everything is fine. But I do need to talk to you and father about something.”

“What is it, Merlin?” Balinor asked. “Come, sit down and tell us.”

He joined his parents at the table, but declined his mother’s offer of a meal, telling her that he’d already eaten. “Though, the oatcakes weren’t nearly as good as yours,” he said, to mollify her yet again. “Um, well as you both know, the prophecy is moving forward. And the next line in the prophecy talks about me… well, me and the half that makes me whole –”

“Arthur, you mean,” Hunith said gently.

“Yes,” Merlin agreed, not sure why he kept dancing around that that fact, when it was written in the prophecy for everyone to know. “So the prophecy speaks of the two of us taking the dragon’s egg somewhere.”

“To the source of all dragonkind,” Balinor supplied.

Merlin had nearly forgotten that almost every druid child had been taught the prophecy at a young age, and would’ve been required to recite it from memory often, so it was no wonder his father hadn’t forgotten the exact words.

“Exactly,” Merlin agreed. “Well, Kilgharrah and the Elders have been in discussions, reviewing all of their records and translations and they’ve come to a consensus that they know where this location is.”

“Really?” Balinor’s eyebrows rose. “I’d not realized they’d agreed on that.”

“So, you’ll be going there,” Hunith stated. “How soon?”

Merlin tugged at one earlobe – a boyhood habit he sometimes fell back into when nervous. “Well, that’s just it, mum. We’d like to leave tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Hunith blurted. “But, you just got married yesterday.”

It felt quite strange to hear that from his mother. And even stranger when he realized her objection wasn’t because of him going on a dangerous journey, but that he was doing so right after having been rather suddenly wed.

“I know,” he acknowledged. “It’s just that the prophecy is clearly in motion. It feels like we need to keep that momentum going. Kilgharrah and the Elder’s Council agree: we have an egg, we have a destination, so why wait?”

Hunith fussed with her napkin a moment, folding it and straightening it out and refolding it again. “Well, I don’t like the idea of you leaving so soon. I’d hoped you’d get a chance to settle in with Arthur a bit. But, I’m glad you’re doing what feels right and I’m especially glad that Arthur is going with you.”

Merlin didn’t quite roll his eyes, but it was clear that his own mother was quite taken with his new husband. He tried to ignore that and just said, “Yes. He’s just as adamant as I am about undertaking this journey right away.”

“Good,” Balinor said. “I think it’s the wise choice, Merlin.”

“You do?” Merlin hadn’t been surprised that his mother’s reaction had been to initially worry, but he’d kind of expected Balinor to have some reservations as well.

Balinor leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table and folding his hands. “Merlin, I know what the driving force behind this decision is. I’ve watched you live your life with a kind of shadow over you through the whole of it. Not necessarily in a bad way, you understand. But it’s been there. So, to fulfill the prophecy; to no longer have that shadow touching your every action or decision… Well, I can’t blame you for wanting to get that over with.”

Cheeks warming and a tight, prickling at the corners of his eyes, Merlin nodded gratefully. It felt extremely wonderful to be understood. Especially by his father. He didn’t say anything, but he kept nodding and Balinor’s wise smile echoed his.

“So, I suppose you’ll need to get ready for a journey,” Hunith said, breaking into their moment of silent communion with a tender smile for each of them.

“Yes. And, that’s one of the reason’s I came here. Well, to tell you of course, but I was also hoping you could ask around the village. We’re travelling north, so we’re going to need a pair of horse, and camp gear,” he started listing things off, ticking them off his fingers one by one.

Hunith laid a hand over his, stopping him mid-list. “Two?” she asked. “What about all of those nice young men who travelled with Arthur? Won’t they be going along too?”

Merlin refrained from letting out a wry scoff. Naturally, his mother had met all of Arthur’s knights and was equally enamored of them.  

Balinor just gazed at his wife fondly. “It’s the prophecy isn’t it, my boy? It doesn’t say anything about knights or a group or even dragons going to this place, does it?”

Merlin shook his head. “No, it doesn’t. So, it’s to be just Arthur and I, on horseback.”

“I see,” Hunith said. She still looked a bit put out by that, but if there was one thing she’d learned to accept having the last dragonlord for a son, it was that prophecy sometimes took precedence over good sense. “Well, I suppose that does make things easier I guess. Preparing for a journey for two will go quicker than for a half score. Although, you do know that there’s likely supplies and sundries aplenty in the great hall? You never stopped by last night to claim your oblation.”

He’d entirely forgotten about that and admitted as much. In previous years, because the prophecy had gone unfulfilled and Merlin had never felt right accepting them, the gifts and offerings given by the denizens of the Valley were generally either returned or – more often – shared out among the villagers in a rowdy celebration. Most of it was food stuffs, lots of baked goods and all things pickled or salted or spiced. There was also the occasional hand-crafted item: clothing, tools, home goods and – though rarely - sometimes even pieces of furniture. The intent of the largesse was to provide the newly bonded couple the basics to sustain them while they set-up a new home.

But he supposed this year, there was no giving things back or sharing them out. This time the prophecy was fulfilled, so the things were his and Arthur’s. It couldn’t hurt to go to the Great Hall and sort through it. 

“We could have it all brought to the tent,” Hunith suggested.

Merlin grinned. That was an even better idea than trying to go through all of it by himself and having to find a way to lug it back. “Thank you, Mum.”

“And don’t worry, Merlin. We’ll have a word around the village. You know everyone will do what they can to help out. They all know the importance of the prophecy and there isn’t a one of them who wouldn’t be honored to help the last dragonlord.”

“Right,” Merlin said, ducking his head, again feeling just a little bit overwhelmed. “So, I was going to pack up some clothes,” he pointed in the direction of his room.

“Oh, well,” Hunith said, a bit abashed. “Most of your things are in the tent already. The Acolytes came and collected it yesterday. Didn’t you find it there?”

Merlin frowned. “I guess I hadn’t realized that.” Although, there had been several trunks and chests in the tent that never opened. He’d stopped looking once he’d found one that contained familiar trousers and tunic.

“I’ll make sure I pack up your winter things as well. It may be early spring, but you said you’re heading north?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, then. You may still encounter snow, to say nothing of the cold. Right then,” Hunith stood and dusted her hands off on her apron. “I’ll get what you need in that regard and we’ll have it taken to your tent as well.”

Balinor stood then also. “And I’ll go and see Ruadan about getting two of his best horses. Unless Arthur would prefer one that he brought?”

Merlin shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Let’s assume you both need mounts,” Balinor advised and Merlin found it easier to just agree. “If Arthur changes his mind, we can always switch over gear in the morning.”

With both his parents on their feet and ready to get to work, Merlin rose to his feet. “I should get going then.”

Hunith stepped up to him and put her hands on Merlin’s cheeks. “I’m proud of you, my darling son. It won’t be easy, knowing you’ll be so far. You’ve never even been beyond the borders of the Valley…”

Covering her hands with his, Merlin squeezed them softly. “I’ll be fine, Mum. Don’t you worry.”

“I know, Merlin,” she said, exasperated. “But let a mother worry for a moment, would you?” Hunith may have occasionally gotten emotional but she was quick to snap back from it, her pragmatic nature overruling her more sensitive side. “Just do us proud, son. And don’t be afraid to ask that young man of yours for help.” She pinched his cheek.

That got Merlin laughing. “All right, Mum. I will. I’m due to meet Arthur back at the tent, so I’d better be going.” He backed to the door.

“Where is he, by the way?” Hunith asked, eyes narrowing like a hawk.

“Uh, he’s meeting with his sister and his knights. To explain the situation.” He thought it safer not to mention they were conducting that meeting at the springs. “I’m not sure if they’ll stay here, in the Valley, once we’ve gone. Or if they’ll return to Camelot. But if they do stay…”

“Don’t you worry,” Hunith said, following his thought precisely. “We’ll make sure they’re welcome and looked after.”

Merlin had no doubt that she would. “Thank you again, Mum.”

“I’ll walk you out, son.” Balinor said. He moved to wait by the door.

Hunith swept Merlin up in a hug, squeezing him very tight for a long moment, before she stepped back and nodded. “Good luck, dear boy.”

He stepped outside then with his father and they began walking. They strode in silence for several minutes, and Merlin soaked in the familiar feeling. He’d spent many an hour as a boy following his father around as he went about his duties as a dragon-talker; assisting the dragon-guard trainees with their mounts, and aiding healers with recalcitrant patients, and visiting with the wild dragons to socialize with them. He sometimes missed those simpler times.

“You’ll be careful, won’t you?” Balinor asked, but it was more a statement than a question. He stopped walking and put a hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “I didn’t want to say anything in front of your mother, you know how she worries. You’re experienced in so many things, my boy, I don’t even think you know quite how much strength you’ve got or what you’re capable of, but this is a dangerous undertaking.”

“I know, Father,” He had a feeling he was missing something though – something beyond just a bit of fatherly caution.

“It’s just, well, you’re going to have to trust this Arthur, and he’s going to have to trust you. And, you’re also going to have to remember that you’re more than just a dragon-talker, like me. You’ve also got your mother’s heart and some of her affinity with beasts, and you know Gaius has given you knowledge of medicine and healing as well. And I know you have other strengths and virtues you’ve not even begun to discover. Just remember that there is a reason you were chosen, my boy. A reason you bear that mark. Do not forget it.”

It was oddly weighty advice, and Merlin could only nod dutifully in response. Balinor ruffled his hair and then prodded him forward, “Now, get on with what you need to get done. And don’t you worry. Your mother and I will make sure everything is handled.”

“Right. I’ll see you later, then.”

“See you, my boy.”

Merlin watched as Balinor veered off the path that would take him to see Ruadan and then he turned to head back to the tent. He took a few steps and then slowed and stopped. It might be a better use of his time to speak with the Elders, he realized, to get a quick look at the maps. With knowledge of the terrain, they could plan ahead for any specific gear they might need and pack appropriately.

As he was only a short jog from the central road through the village, Merlin cut between two small homes, waving at a mother and her young daughter who were tending to some chickens. He came out on the wide, cobbled roadway and turned to follow it to the Elder’s Temple.

There were two Acolytes on either side of the entrance, standing stoic and silent, like guards grown of stone. Merlin gave them a little wave. “Hi. Hello again.” He gestured to the door way. “Uh, can I go in?”

The two exchanged a look – and apparently held some kind of conference with their eyes – and then the man on the left inclined his head in approbation.

“Thank you,” Merlin said quickly and he dashed inside. It had always made him uncomfortable to encounter the Acolytes outside of their lodge during ritual. They’d painted him up and had seen him naked, for the old gods sake.

He walked the long, stone corridor – one of the few stone and mortar buildings in the village, rebuilt from the ruins of an ancient time – and down a short set of stairs, and could hear the sonorous echo of voices resounding off the cool stone coming from below. He ducked below a low-handing plinth and into the central chamber, where several of the Councilors as well as the three Eldest were stood around a table covered in all sorts of parchments and books and scrolls.

Merlin cleared his throat noisily – as they were in rather intense discussion. “Um, hello.”

A bevy of faces turned to him and Taliesin immediately held out his hands in invitation. “Ah, dragonlord. We’d hoped you’d come.” He waved Merlin over to join them. “Come, come. Take a look at the maps we’ve found.”

Elder Alator beckoned him in at his side and leaned over, eagerly pointing out landmarks on the map and giving historical details on them. He instinctually slipped into his role as an educator and Merlin was reminded of many hours he’d spent under Alator’s tutelage.

“Elder Alator,” Merlin said with a chuff of teasing laughter, “I’m not here for lessons.”

Alator somewhat abashedly inclined his head in acknowledgment of that. “I know, Merlin. But you’ll forgive an old man falling back into old habits. Now,” he pointed again at the map, tracing a finger along various lines. “This here is where you’ll need to avoid this lake, and we suspect this area here might be heavily forested.” He continued to describe landmarks and terrain and possible alternate routes.

After listening for quite some time, and trying to absorb as much as he could, Merlin finally had to call for a pause. “Will I be able to take these along?” The parchments and scrolls they’d been reviewing were yellowed and faded or aged to brittleness in corners and even crumbling in some cases.

“No.” That was Iseldir, who stood peering over Merlin’s shoulder. “No, but we’re having new maps drawn up for you, consolidating our findings, to clearly mark the stages of your journey. They’ll contain more information than is held on any single one of these.”

It made sense and Merlin was relieved to hear it. Alator had guided him from one map to another parchment to a dusty scroll… having to sort through all of that – while on horseback and in the elements – would’ve been rather tedious at best. “That’s wonderful. Thank you.”

Iseldir shook his head. “No, Merlin. It is we who thank you. It is your courage and faith in choosing to take the next step in fulfilling the prophecy that guides us all. Without your cooperation and dedication, all of our work is for naught.”

That brought a thought to Merlin’s mind. “What do you think will happen after?” He’d wondered about that, a little bit, but never voiced the question before. “I mean, the prophecy ends at a specific point. And if I’m successful, what will that mean for all of you?” He gestured with an arc of his arm at everyone in the room. He hoped they didn’t consider it a rude question.

However, from the reactions – smiles and amusement – no one took offense. “Well, Merlin,” Anhora said, “we believe that fulfillment of the prophecy is not an ending, but a beginning to a new, enlightened time. It’s something we look quite forward to.”

“Oh,” Merlin said, glad to hear he wasn’t going to be invalidating the life’s work of all these men and women. Not to mention all of the Apprentices and Acolytes and others whose work impacted the Elders.

“Do not fret for us, Merlin,” Taliesin added, with a gentle smile. “While we appreciate your kind thoughts, again we are confident that our paths lie beyond what is writ. We will have a new place in the order of things to come.”

“Well that’s good,” Merlin said a bit awkwardly.

“Now, did you have any other questions?” Alator asked.

Merlin shook his head. He’d been given a fairly thorough overview of what to expect regarding terrain and weather and risks, which also gave him some additional ideas about things they’d want to pack. “Oh! I did have one questions. I know I’ve been over this with Kilgharrah, that going with the dragon-guard is not permissible, and so Arthur and I will be going alone, on horseback.”

Iseldir and Taliesin nodded.

“But, are we allowed a pack horse?” It may have been a silly question, but he didn’t want to make assumptions. “Uh, it’s just we may need a lot of gear and I didn’t want to assume…”

The three eldest looking at each other, conferring in their strange, silent communion for a few moments. It was Anhora who responded. “We don’t see that should be a problem. It is really only other persons or dragonkind being present that we’re worried about.”

Which made sense. If they released, or woke (or whatever the case would be) the sovereign dragon, it might not necessarily be a good thing to have another dragon present. “That’s good, thank you. I think that will help greatly.”

“Anything else?”

He thought about it for a moment and then shook his head. “No, that’s all I can think of. I’ll be off then.”

“Farewell then, Merlin,” Anhora said.

“Let us know if there is anything else you require,” Iseldir added.

“And go with our thanks,” Taliesin concluded.

They bowed their heads to him and Merlin returned the gesture – if a bit less formally.

He left the temple then, and headed to the Great Hall. On his arrival though, he found it empty of both gifts and people. He hadn’t realized he’d spent quite so much time in the Elder’s temple, but apparently he’d been occupied long enough to miss the mass-exodus, and everything was now likely waiting at the tent… the tent where he should really go and meet up with Arthur.

Although, since he’d gotten permission to bring along a pack horse, he wondered if it’d be a better use of his time to track his father down instead to make sure that got arranged. He wasn’t avoiding Arthur, necessarily, he just wanted to make sure that everything was made ready…

Deciding to just double-check the number of mounts his father had arranged, he walked to the far side of the village where Ruadan kept his livery stable.

“Ah, Merlin!” Ruadan called out cheerily upon spotting him. “Getting ready to go on quite the adventure I hear,” he said with a booming laugh.

Merlin joined in the laughter. “Yes. Apparently, I am. And speaking of my journey, I was just wondering how many horses my father made arrangements for?”

“Oh, don’t you worry, Merlin. We’ve got three of my best, and a fourth if you so desire it. They’re sturdy and strong and fast if they need to be. They’ll do well for you.”

“I know they will,” Merlin agreed, which made Ruadan grin. “That’s why my father came to you. Only the best for this venture.”

“If you need anything else, my boy,” Ruadan offered, “you just let us know.”

“I will,” Merlin agreed. He said a quick farewell and then retraced his route through the village. He wondered if it would be ridiculous to visit his parents again. Deciding it would be, instead, he detoured to Will’s parents’ house. He’d not gotten to talk to Will – or Freya – after everything happened at the ritual the night before (barring a brief hello at the hot springs, earlier) and figured he owed his friend at least a few minutes of his time.

He knocked on the door and Will’s mother, Joanna, answered. “Oh, Merlin,” she said, delighted and then called out a loud, “William! Merlin is here,” over her shoulder. “And how are you, my boy. How is married life treating you?”

Merlin grit his teeth and feigned a grin. “Well, it’s new. Very new.”

“Yes, and off so soon to fulfill the prophecy, I hear?”

Word certainly did get around the village quickly.

“Yes,” Merlin said, “that is our plan.”

Joanna patted him on the shoulder. “Well I’m certain that will give you and your prince time to know one another.” Her eyes were flashing with merriment.

“Aw, leave off, Mum,” Will said, coming up behind her. “He’s got enough to deal with than worrying about that prat.”

Joanna scoffed at her son and reached over to grab him by the ear but he ducked away. “You may be a dragon-guard, William, but don’t think I won’t box your ears.” (Their familiar refrain amused Merlin to no end, once again bringing him back to many familiar memories from their childhood).

“Have to catch me first, Mum.” Managing to sidle past her and slip outside, he clapped Merlin on the shoulder. “C’mon, Merlin. Let’s go get Freya and have a quick nip for old time’s sake.”

Waving a farewell to Will’s mother, Merlin let himself be dragged along for a few paces. The weight of his responsibility dragged at him equally and he thought about turning down Will’s offer. But, he did want to see his friends, and talk to them – maybe not about the prophecy, but about some other things that were on his mind – before he embarked on his long journey (the first he’d ever been on).

When they were young, he and Will and Freya had made a habit of sneaking off to the hay shed behind Freya’s parent’s home and it felt just like stepping back in time when he and Will knocked on their door and her father called her from her room, and she ran out with them giggling (a jug of cider hidden in the folds of the cloak she carried).

They climbed to the loft and settled in piles of hay, legs dangling over the edge, and Will was the first to pop the cork on the jug and take a drink straight from it. When he eased the large vessel away from his mouth, he stared at it mournfully. “It just doesn’t taste the same when we don’t have to sneak it.”

Merlin shook his head and Freya chided him, “I’ll have you know, that I did have to sneak that. My father would take a switch to my hide if he knew I’d lifted one of the good jugs of berry cider.”

“Oh,” Will shrugged and tipped back another long drink. “That’s better then.”

He passed the stout jar to Merlin, who gulped down a few swallows, but wasn’t quite so indulgent as Will. After wiping his mouth with a sleeve, Merlin handed the jug to Freya.

She took a quick swig and then asked, “So, what is it you wanted to talk to us about, Merlin?”

“Well, obviously you’ve both already heard that Arthur and I are leaving tomorrow.”

“Right,” Will said dryly. “Off to fulfill a prophecy.”

It sounded rather strange when he said it. Merlin chuckled. “Yeah, well. That’s the plan anyway.”

Will elbowed him in the side, “Wish we could go with you, mate It’d be an easy thing just to load the two of you up on Vahrri and Dhace,” he said referring to his and Freya’s dragons. “But we’ve been told that’s not allowed.”

“Yeah,” Merlin frowned and shook his head. “Kilgharrah and the Elders think that might affect the outcome of the prophecy.”

“Well, you know if we could’ve, we would’ve.”

“Absolutely,” Freya agreed.

Merlin could definitely appreciate that and after lifting the jug in a toast and taking a long pull, she passed it to Merlin. “Cheers.” He took a much more measured sip and then passed it to Will (who, unsurprisingly, downed quite a bit more).

“So, what is it you did want?” Freya asked, always the shrewder of the two.

“Well,” he admitted a bit sheepishly, “I wanted to ask you what you both knew about Arthur. And about Camelot. I guess there’s still a lot I don’t know about what we’re doing after this journey and where we’ll end up. I just wanted to find out… I dunno. What can I expect?”

His friends exchanged a speaking look. “Uh, we’re probably not the best ones to tell you about all that,” Will said, regretfully. “I mean, we do get into Camelot proper now and again. But we spend all our time with the warriors and the knights, not the nobles. And, the townsfolk seem kind of afraid of us. Well, afraid of the dragons.” He rolled his eyes.

Freya lifted an eyebrow and fixed a glare on him. “And who’s fault is that? Don’t get me started on how many times he’s flown Dhace low over the countryside just to startle some poor farmers sheep.”

Merlin made a tsking sound. “Will,” he chided.

“What?” Will shrugged. “It’s funny. They really scatter. We’ve gotta have our fun somehow, Merlin. Anyway, I mean… it’s a nice enough town. People are good, decent folk. Knights are a whole lotta fun.” This time the look that passed between he and Freya was quite speaking. “So, other than that, don’t really know your prince that well. We’ve gone into combat with him. He’s a steady hand with a sword, stays cool under pressure. Good leader.”

“What Will is saying,” Freya continued on, “is that we really don’t know him that well personally. He’s quite close with several of his men, but also keeps himself apart. I assume it’s that whole ‘heir to the throne’ thing.” Her fingers marked the air sarcastically. “But I don’t think that there’s a man, woman or child in Camelot that doesn’t respect him. I mean, the Knights… they have their jokes. And he can sometimes be a bit…”

“Bit of a prat,” Will broke in.

“Right,” Freya acknowledged. “But for the most part, he seems like a very good man, Merlin. If that’s what you’re worried about?”

Merlin didn’t exactly know why he was asking what he was asking. He gave a half-hearted shrug. “I’m just… I’m not even sure why I’m talking about this.’ He hesitated, but this was an opportunity to have his curiosity sated, and that was worth any embarrassment it might cause. “I guess, um… In the pools before, after he and I left, Arthur made a comment that he was surprised that none of the knights had made any suggestive comments or prompted us about how our evening had gone. I guess it struck me kind of strange.”

For a third time Freya and Will looked at each other and held a private little chat with just their eyes. “Uh, Merlin, is there something you want to tell us,” Freya asked gently.

Merlin rolled his eyes. “There’s nothing to share,” and he didn’t know if he felt relieved or disappointed about that.

Freya clearly leaned towards disappointed on his behalf; Will the opposite. “Good,” he said with a firm nod. “Don’t want you givin’ up too quick to the likes of him.” He knocked his fist into Merlin’s shoulder.

“Ugh,” Freya sniffed.

“That’s not exactly what I’m thinking about anyway,” Merlin went on. “It’s just that we did talk a little bit. And he mentioned that … well, I was trying to get a feel for how he felt about things like that.”

“Oh!” Freya said brightly. “Well you know that Gwaine and Percival are–”

“Going at it like rabbits,” Will broke in while Freya had been casting about for a polite thing to say.

She balled up a handful of straw and threw it at him.

Merlin laughed and shook his head mock-sadly at Will. “Serves you right. And yeah, Arthur did tell me two of his knights were together, though he didn’t mention their names. I kind of figured that out this morning. So, it’s good, yeah, that he’s openminded about his friends. But… that’s not… it’s more like…” he flailed his hands about a little wildly, “his own feelings on the subject. last night he made it seem like it wasn’t something he’d ever even considered. But then this morning, the way everyone talked. I dunno,” Merlin tried to wave it all away. “Nevermind. I just need more to drink.” He reached over Will and yanked the jug from his hands. “And,” he added after a few thirsty swallows, “I’ve got much more to worry about. I’ve got to fulfill a prophecy, for the sake of the gods.”

“Too right,” Will agreed, stealing back the jug to toast him with it.

Although Freya brows were knitted, like she was troubled over something. “Um, Merlin, if it helps any, I did overhear him talking to Sir Leon – he’s the tall one with the curls,” –Merlin nodded, he remembered– “I think he’s the closest of Arthur’s friends. They’ve known each other since boyhood from what I understand. Um, he did say something about being…” she hesitated.

Merlin frowned at her. “What is it?”

“Well, he did say that he thought you were quite nice to look upon in your ceremonial garb. So, if he said he doesn’t know his own mind in that regard, whether he could fancy you… or a man in general, he might’ve been withholding a bit of the truth.”

“Oh!” Merlin said, trying not to look too pleased at that little kernel of knowledge, while Will groaned and clutched at the jug and flopped back into the hay with it.

“All right you two,” Merlin said with a laugh. “Thank you, Freya.” He leaned over to press a light kiss on her temple. “And you too, I suppose,” he added, kicking at Will’s leg. “But I should really be getting back now.”

“Right you should,” Freya agreed.

Will, still supine in a hay pile, lifted up the jug. “To you, Merlin! And to your journey to fulfill the prophecy!” Somehow, he managed to pour a steady stream into his mouth.

As an aside to Freya, Merlin asked, “Has he been drinking non-stop since yesterday?”

Freya laughed, “Probably. Don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on him. Not every day our best friend gets married to a prince.” She threw her arms around him in a quick hug.

“To you, Merlin!” Will handed over the -significantly lighter – jug.

Merlin raised the jug. “To me and to my new prince!” He managed a few longer gulps – the more he drank, the easier the berry-flavored cider went down – and then pushed the jug into Freya’s hands when he was done.

“To you and Arthur,” she agreed, proceeding to drain the vessel dry.

“Oy!” Will complained.

Sensing there’d be roughhousing to follow, Merlin decided that was the right time to leave. To his surprise, Merlin’s legs were a bit wobbly when he jumped down from the loft. He bumped a shoulder on the doorframe when he stepped outside. He was even more surprised to see that he’d whittled away quite a bit of the day already and dusk had fallen.

He really did need to get back to the tent now, and find Arthur.

He wandered in that direction (perhaps a bit slowly, in deference to his light headedness) and when he arrived, he found several people milling about outside, packing up satchels and arguing over bedding. He approached with a bit of a raised eyebrow. “What’s all this?”

Two of the people there – apparently overseeing – were both old friends of Gaius’: Alice and Finna.

“Everyone’s chipping in, lad,” Finna told him – while Alice chided two young lads to be careful with a crate of preserves. “To make sure you’ve got everything you need for your journey!”

“Yes,” Arthur’s voice came from behind him. “They certainly are.”

Merlin spun around to see him standing in the opened entryway to the tent – the flaps had been tied back and he was backlit by the warm glow of the lamps within. Merlin could see the silhouette of his torso beneath the draping fabric of his tunic. It was rather distracting.

“They’ve been most helpful, Merlin,” Arthur said through a thin smile and likely gritted teeth. The tone was sharp enough to pull his attention back to Arthur’s face.

It was fairly obvious that he was more than a bit tired of well-wishing villagers ‘helping out’ (which likely boiled down to wanting to have their say in how to prepare for their trip and feeling the need to offer a plethora of unsolicited advice). He couldn’t blame Arthur for the wild desperation in his eyes that said, ‘Get rid of them!’. 

“Ahh, that’s wonderful, Finna. Alice. I can’t tell you how thankful we are,” Merlin said with exaggerated appreciation. “We really couldn’t have done this without you. But, uh, Arthur and I should really get to work on making our plans for tomorrow.” He gestured between them. “You know… uh, just the two of us.”

Naturally, Finna and Alice shared an all-to-knowing titter. “Of course, lad. Of course!” They worked quickly to start ordering everyone else to be on their way.

Merlin finally ducked into the tent and Arthur followed him in, closing off the flaps behind him. He wasn’t surprised to find that the tent was also crammed with crates and sacks and piles of blankets and a hundred other sundries they likely wouldn’t need.

“Uh, wow,” he said, eyes going wide as he took it all in.

“Your people certainly know how to show their appreciation,” Arthur replied, sounding rather impressed.

“I didn’t quite expect all of this, to tell the truth.” He scratched at his head. “It’s going to be kind of difficult to sort through, isn’t it?”

Arthur shook his head and leaned in, whispering, “I wouldn’t worry about it. I’ve been doing my own packing and rearranging behind everyone’s back. We’ll be fine.”

“Oh, thank the gods,” Merlin gave a relived sigh. “But what do we do with the rest of it?”

“Apparently it’s ours?” Arthur shrugged, looking a bit bewildered. “Traditional gifts from the ceremony?”

“Oh, right.” Merlin just hadn’t expected to see so much. There were a few new pieces of furniture in the room, some handsome furs and piles of clothing… He began to suspect that several people had added to their contributions upon hearing about their plans to complete the prophecy.

“Your mother stopped by earlier,” Arthur told him. “She brought by your clothes, showed me what she’d packed up. I think she did a fine job; gathered a good assortment of things.”

“Good, I’m glad to hear that. Oh, and my father arranged for horses,” Merlin said.

“Right. He also came by earlier to mention that. He wanted to know if I was all right taking one of your druid animals instead of the horse I rode here.”

“Are you?”

“Yes,” Arthur agreed easily. “Mine could use the rest anyway. We did have a few days travel to get here.”

With a sigh, Merlin slumped down into a chair and waved for Arthur to do the same. “I’m sorry about that,” he said. “I’d kind of forgotten that you’re only a few days out from Camelot. I hope it’s all right then, that we go ahead with this so soon?” He felt suddenly very selfish for pushing this.

Arthur waved away any concern that he had. “No, it’s more than all right, Merlin. I want to see this done as much as you do. Hell, as much as everyone in this village does.” He softened that with a laugh.

“So, how did your men take it?” Merlin asked, remembering his conversation with Will and Freya.

From Arthur’s heavy sigh, it hadn’t gone as well as he’d hoped. “Well, obviously they’re none too happy being left behind. And I’m sure if word gets back to my father, he’ll be equally displeased. But,” he gave a lazy shrug, “I’m doing what needs to be done, and there’s nothing they can say about it.”

“I’m sorry they can’t go with us. They seem like a good group of men.”

“Oh, they are,” Arthur agreed immediately. “The best. It’s just…” he let that trail off, obviously unsure how to finish the sentence and his gaze dropped to his hands which lay in his lap.

“It’ll just be nice to not be treated like a prince, and to just be yourself?” Merlin offered.

Arthur looked up at him, surprise lifting his brows high. “Right,” he said. “That’s it exactly.”

“I know how it is,” Merlin told him and then gave a soft laugh. “Well, not exactly. I mean, I’m not a prince, obviously. But you know, the prophecy thing. Every time I talk to someone, that’s usually what comes up. It’s not often I get to just be myself and not be ‘the last dragonlord who shall fulfill the prophecy,” he put a bit of a booming affectation on the last.

They nodded at each other and the silence that fell was comfortable, easy.

“Oh!” Arthur said a few minutes later. “There’s food. They brought a meal.” He nodded to the table across the tent. “Have you eaten?”

Merlin shook his head.

“Venison stew,” Arthur said as he stood.

He held a hand out to invite Merlin to stand as well, and Merlin let himself be drawn up from the chair. “Thanks.”

“It smells rather good,” Arthur continued a bit awkwardly as he led the way to the waiting table. “We should enjoy a hot meal while we can.”

They took up the same seats they’d used over breakfast, and Merlin nodded. “Yes, I’m sure you’re right. We should enjoy good food while we can get it.”

“What? Are you telling me you’re not going to be preparing me hot meals every day?” Arthur asked.

He sounded like he was joking, but there was a grave cast to his eyes. Merlin didn’t know him well enough to know if that look was one he should take seriously.

“Why would you assume that I would be cooking?” Merlin shot back, playfully, hoping he’d read the situation right. “You’re the knight who goes off on adventures.”

“Yes,” Arthur conceded. “But, I have knights and servants who do that for me.” He smirked.

“Well, I’m no servant,” Merlin was quick to point out (and then belied the statement by scooping the steaming stew into both of their bowls).

Arthur’s smirk became a strange little grin. “That you are certainly not, Merlin.” He looked down to his meal then. “I’m sure we can figure out the cooking situation. I actually do know how to roast pheasant and rabbit and manage a few other things.”

“I can make stew,” Merlin admitted. “My mother taught me how to cook. And I know plenty about herbs and such from Gaius.”

“Well good. We won’t starve at least.”

They spent the next little while going over the things Merlin had learned in his visit to the temple. Arthur had plenty of questions – all good ones, that prompted Merlin to remember more details. And they managed, over their meal, and for a few hours after to craft a very solid plan for their journey. It helped that shortly after they’d eaten, one of the Elder Apprentices showed up with a newly inked version of their map that showed all the notations and markings and topography of all of the reference materials combined onto a neat heavy parchment that had been treated with a thin layer of wax to protect its’ contents.

After thanking him for it, they hurried back to the table and unrolled it, pushing aside the remains of their dinner, to pour over it. They pointed and argued and agreed and conceded and finally called their task done. And then they moved on to finish gathering the gear and supplies they’d need. Merlin added snowshoes and picks to their pile for the pack horse, while Arthur debated if one length of rope was sufficient or they’d need two.

It was late by the time they finished, but Merlin felt confident that they’d be ready to head out early the next morning.

Arthur suggested they call it a night, and Merlin could only agree.

“We need to be well-rested for tomorrow.”

“Yes,” Arthur said, one side of his mouth pushing up in a grin. “That would probably be a good way to start this adventure.”

“Great. Let’s get to bed then, shall we?”

This time it was much more comfortable as they headed to their respective sides of the tent and got changed into night clothes. Merlin didn’t offer to lay a pallet on the floor, and Arthur didn’t make any comments about sharing the bed. So, they settled in and Arthur shuttered the final lamp and said a soft, “Goodnight, Merlin.”

Merlin answered in kind. “Good night, Arthur.”

Like the night before, Merlin didn’t think he’d find it easy to fall asleep. However, between his head being stuffed full with strategy and his belly stuffed full with food (not to mention the lingering effects of a bit too much berry cider) he was drawn under almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.

Perhaps that was why he woke the next morning rather slowly and fuzzy-headed. He stirred, and knew only that he was warm and comfortable and that he’d slipped into lazy wakefulness on the heels of a rather intense, pleasurable dream. Shifting slightly in the cozy blankets, he could feel that his body was in no rush to come awake either… well, except for a part of him that was rather eager to revisit that dream. He was pleasantly hard, his cock throbbing with every slow beat of his pulse, and it seemed like the easiest thing in the world to reach down and tuck his fingers beneath his trousers and take himself in hand.

He let out a low, breathy groan as his fingers closed around his length. Between how much he already ached, and thinking on the rather vivid details of his dream, it wouldn’t take him long…

“Uh, Merlin.”

Merlin’s eyes flew open. His entire body went still as stone.

Arthur was standing over him, though he’d averted his gaze politely. The room was dark still, except for the lamp – right next to the bed – that Arthur must’ve lit.

“Oh, gods,” Merlin sputtered. “Oh… by all the old gods, I forgot…”

Still staring pointedly away, Arthur cleared his throat. “Right, well. I thought you’d like to get up… I uh, mean, we should wake. And get ready.”

Laying there, cheeks burning and hand still down his pants and curled loosely around his (thankfully slackening) cock, Merlin squeezed his eyes shut in utter mortification and squeaked out a, “Right, yes. I’ll uh… just be a moment.”

He waited until he heard Arthur walk away and then he yanked his hand from his trousers and threw his forearm over his eyes and groaned for an entirely different reason.

By the gods… Arthur had just seen him wanking. Well, he’d not actually got ‘round to the wanking part, but his intent had been quite clear.

That was certainly an auspicious start to such a significant morning.

Berating himself mentally, Merlin knew he couldn’t lie about in mortification the whole day – much as he’d have liked to do nothing more than chuck the whole prophecy business and hide under the blankets for the rest of his life – he did need to rouse.

Fortunately, for the sake of his sanity – to say nothing of his humility – Arthur seemed to think that not even acknowledging the awkward start to their day was the best way to progress. He remained polite, if a bit stiff-lipped, but once Merlin hurried to wash and dress, he didn’t seem to have a problem divvying up tasks and working by Merlin’s side.

Still, Merlin mourned the more lighthearted civility they’d managed the night before, and he burned with anger at himself for ruining his chances to get Arthur to see him as more than just a nuisance druid that he was bound to by ancient pacts.

Ruadan arrived with the horses shortly before dawn. He tapped politely at the flap of the tent.

Arthur greeted him.

“Oh, Prince Arthur, it’s good to meet you.” He held out his hand and Arthur shook it.

“Likewise,” Arthur stated.

From inside, where he was folding up the blankets they’d decided on, Merlin couldn’t help but listen to the conversation.

“I’ve brought you three of my finest!” Ruadan declared.

Arthur had left the tent flap tied when he stepped outside, and Merlin ducked his head to get a peek at the horses.

“They’re certainly handsome beasts,” Arthur told him. “Different than the stock we have in Camelot, that’s for certain.”

Merlin remembered the bay mare that had passed him in the woods – gods, was that only two days ago? It felt a lifetime – and how she’d been sleek and well-groomed. Not shaggy-footed and thick-bodied like the horses he was used to seeing.

Deciding to leave off folding for a moment, he joined Arthur outside.

“This is Milkthistle,” Ruadan was explaining, leading a mouse-colored dun forward. “She’s to be your pack horse. She’s stronger than an ox, and steady as stone.” The mare lipped at Arthur’s hand when he held it out and her over-long, dark forelock fell across her broad face. With coal dark points and more primitive leg banding, her large brown eyes seemed to shine behind a cobwebby black mask.

She was already tacked in a harness that could be loaded with gear, and had a halter and lead rope. Arthur took the lead and led her to the side of the tent nearest the flap, so they could begin to get her loaded up. When he returned, Ruadan had two more horses waiting. One was a beefy, dappled grey with an iron mane and tail and snowy, feathered socks, plus a pink spot between his nostrils. The other was a slightly leaner, slightly less shaggy seal bay with pale tender areas and white socks and stockings of various heights on all four legs, and a thin stripe down his face that dripped onto his upper lip.

“These boys are Rowan,” he indicated the bay, “and Snowdrop,” the grey.

Arthur commented on both geldings appreciatively, while Merlin fought back an urge to shake a fist at the sky and the gods. Rowan and Snowdrop… just what he’d been searching out in the woods when he first encountered Arthur. It felt as if some guiding power were trying to send him a particularly unsubtle message.

Like Milkthistle, they were already saddled and bridled.

“Thank you, Ruadan,” Arthur said. “We can’t tell you how much we appreciate your aid. They’re lovely animals. We’ll take good care of them.”

“Just take good care of yourselves, and each other,” Rhuadan chided, waggling a finger at each of them in turn. “Do you need aid in getting them loaded?”

Merlin waved that off. “No, we’ll handle that.”

He hoped that was still their decision; it was what they had agreed upon on the night prior. That it would be better to manage things themselves, and that too many helpers would just slow them down. Although, after Merlin’s horrifying behavior, he didn’t know if maybe Arthur might want someone to stick around, to act as a buffer between them.

But Arthur just echoed Merlin’s sentiments. “We appreciate the offer, Ruadan, but we’d like to manage all the packing ourselves. Just to keep a better eye on where everything goes,” he added with a chuckle.

Ruadan laughed and though he seemed reluctant to leave, he wished them well and headed back in the direction of the village.

“They’re fine animals,” Arthur remarked a short while later, as he worked on tying bags of dry feed to Milkthistle’s harness.

Desperately clutching at the lifeline Arthur seemed to be throwing him, Merlin nodded. “Yes, they are. I notice that the horses you came on are slighter, less hairy.” He risked a light laugh and was doubly pleased when Arthur echoed it.

“Yes. We do have heavier horses – draft-crosses, like these – in Camelot, but they’re not often used for riding.”

They chatted a bit more about horses and small observations they both made while loading everything up, and even when they focused on their work, and the conversation slacked, the silence around them seemed to change, becoming less fraught. As dawn fully broke – the sky glowing with riotous oranges and pinks along the horizon as the sun peeked out beyond the tree line – Merlin found himself feeling quite a bit better about things.

Especially when he realized something rather significant. “Um, Arthur,” he asked, fastening his bedroll beneath the saddle’s cantle.

“What’s that, Merlin?” Arthur responded, sounding distracted as he looked to be deciding the best way to position their fishing rod when tying it to Milkthistle’s back so it didn’t poke the mare in the neck.

“Where is everyone?”

He’d fully expected the entire village to show up to see them off.

“Oh, that,” Arthur said, like it was a simple matter. “I told everyone we were leaving at midday, so we could avoid the crowds.”

Merlin blinked. “You what?”

“Everyone who stopped by yesterday, when they offered to come and help us get ready, I told them we’d start packing up just before midday.”

“Arthur, that’s…” he trailed off, unable to find the words.

Arthur looked over at him, and his expression was unreadable. Or… perhaps not. Maybe Merlin was getting a little better at reading him at his most inscrutable; he looked concerned, maybe worried he’d made the wrong choice.

Hurrying to disabuse him of that notion immediately, Merlin blurted, “Arthur, that’s brilliant, is what it is!”

“Yeah?” Arthur asked, and Merlin knew he wasn’t mistaking the slight smile quirking up the corner of his mouth.

“Oh yes. I was dreading this, I’ll be honest. Dreading the thought of having to deal with everyone’s help, and saying all of those goodbyes. I feared we’d not get on the road until midday for all the help we were to get.”

That got a laugh out of Arthur, a genuine, open one. He gave Merlin a rather sly, sideward glance. “Well, much as I don’t want to lose your esteem over my brilliance, I have to be honest: it was your mother’s idea.”

“My mother?”

Arthur nodded. “Yes. She’s a wise woman, your mother is. I think she caught on to the way I was starting to feel yesterday,” he waved an arm loosely at all the goods and foodstuffs that still surrounded them – they’d be leaving so much behind. “And she took me aside and made this suggestion. She told me it was for your behalf –”

“Mine?” Merlin interrupted.

“Yes. Said you hated being the center of attention. That the ritual ceremony was bad enough for you, but this would be worse.”

“Well, she wasn’t wrong,” Merlin admitted ruefully.

“But I knew she suggested it for me as well. Your people – don’t get me wrong – they’re wonderful from what I’ve seen. But this,” he repeated that sweep of his arm, “is a bit more than I’m used to.” Before Merlin could ask, he answered the question he must’ve known would be on Merlin’s tongue. “Yes, even though I’m a prince. It’s just that in Camelot, a prince is viewed as someone much more… untouchable. I’m sure if I rallied Camelot’s citizens for a good cause, they’d be up to the task, but all of this was done without asking. It’s a bit overwhelming.”

“They are good people,” Merlin agreed. “But everyone’s lives here have been so centered around this prophecy for so long, they’re all a bit excited to see it happening in their lifetimes, I’m sure. I’m just glad for the break from it all, to be honest.”

“I can imagine,” Arthur agreed, laughing again.

After that, the rest of the work went quick. They worked efficiently together and – luckily for Merlin – everything else seemed to have been forgotten. In no time, all three horses were readied. Merlin ducked back into the tent, looking around for anything he might’ve missed.

“Got the map?” Arthur asked from behind him and Merlin spun about, startled.

He was standing closer than Merlin had expected and Merlin’s turn put them nearly chest-to-chest. Merlin couldn’t help but let his gaze lock on Arthur’s expressive blue eyes – like dark storm-water in the dim light – and he opened his mouth, but couldn’t think of what he was supposed to say.

“The map, Merlin,” Arthur repeated, his voice held that teasing edge and his eyes flicked down to Merlin’s lips when he swallowed nervously.

“R-right,” Merlin stammered. “Uh, the map. Uh, yes. Yes.” Did he have the map? Merlin might’ve forgotten his own name at that moment, lost in the intensity of Arthur’s attention.

“Don’t forget your staff,” Arthur said.

Why did Arthur’s lips look so good forming words? “Huh?” Merlin muttered.

“Your staff,” Arthur said and he finally stepped back.

For a long moment that connection stretched between them like gossamer threads that Merlin could feel pulling taut, and then they snapped, and Arthur was holding out Merlin’s staff to him, and Merlin blinked and took it from him.

“Uh, thanks.”

Arthur looked back at him for just a moment wearing a sly grin, “Well, we rather need it, don’t we?”

“Right,” Merlin agreed, saying it to Arthur’s back while he pushed out of the tent. “Right,” Merlin repeated more firmly, his fingers curling tight around the solid bulk of the staff, “That we do.” He followed Arthur out of the tent.

The stillness of the morning was broken by the distant sound of heavy wings, cutting through the air.

I come,” Kilgharrah told him. “I bear the egg.”

We’re ready,” Merlin replied.

“The dragon?” Arthur asked, obviously starting to recognize the way that Merlin’s face went slightly distant as he mentally communicated with Kilgharrah.

A few moments later Kilgharrah appeared over their heads. He circled once and then alighted on the grass in front of the tent. The egg – pale blue and prettier than Merlin remembered – was held gently between his massive jaws. He lowered his head, and Merlin held up his hands to accept the egg.

Mouth free, Kilgharrah watched as Merlin tucked the egg into the padded sack they’d readied. “We’ll keep it safe, Kilgharrah,” he promised.

“I have faith in you, Dragonlord.” Kilgharrah turned to Arthur. “And you, Prince Arthur.”

Arthur didn’t say anything, but he did bow his head.

“Luck go with you both!” Kilgharrah called out just before launching himself into the air again. They both watched him go and once he was out of site, Merlin hurried to get the egg safely stored on the back of his saddle. He’d left one of his saddlebags empty just for that purpose.

“Are we ready,” Arthur asked when he was done.

Merlin nodded. They were.

They mounted up and Arthur got the pack horse’s lead line tied to his saddle and then he gestured for Merlin to take the lead. He’d mentioned he’d prefer to ride in front later, once they’d left familiar territory behind, but Merlin knew the best route out of the Valley.

They rode quietly through the still sleepy village, the breath steaming from their horse’s nostrils in the early morning chill. They both wore thick cloaks, in deference to the cold, but the sky overhead was already brightening to a crisp, clear blue that promised warmth. Merlin kept them to the back roads and less-used paths, although they were spotted well before leaving the borders of the Valley. Fortunately, no one seemed to be interested in stopping the last dragonlord once he was on his way, so other than a few waves and hearty greetings, they made it to the edge of the village – and through the massive gates that guarded it – without having to stop.

Once they got a few miles behind them on the main road, Arthur called for Merlin to slow. “Take Milkthistle’s lead, would you?” he asked, untying her rope and handing it off.

Merlin looped it through the ring that tied one of his saddlebags down and then waited while Arthur urged Snowdrop past him. Rowan snorted and tossed his head irritably at losing his front position, but Merlin just sent him a soothing thought and he settled quickly.

“Think they could handle a good gallop?” Arthur asked over his shoulder. Beneath him, Snowdrop seemed fractious, hopping on his heels and prancing in place.

“I’m sure of it,” Merlin called back. He could sense it from both their animals… they ached to run.

“Good,” Arthur kicked at Snowdrops barrel and he launched forward in a burst of power and energy.

Rowan didn’t even need that much encouragement before driving himself after. Merlin clung tight to the pommel and waited held tight until his body got uses to the peculiar rocking motion and he could sit it comfortably, without being tossed around.

He probably should’ve mentioned he wasn’t very experienced on horseback.

They rode at that breakneck pace for a few miles, until the horses’ breath steamed from their nostrils, and they’d run out their little bucks and hops and kicks and were content to just be ridden, and then Arthur finally reined in somewhat, slowing them to a much easier to sit lope.

Merlin was panting when they finally slowed, and as Arthur held Snowdrop back so their horses could come abreast, he glanced over at Merlin and frowned. “You all right?”

Merlin nodded. “I’m fine. Just… been awhile since I’ve been riding.”

“Sorry,” Arthur offered, seeming chastened.

“No,” Merlin waved off his concern. “That was good. It was fun. The horses hadn’t been out in quite some time and they were feeling pent-up. They needed that.”

Arthur gave him a peculiar side-eye. “I’d forgotten you can do that,” he admitted. “I mean, the talking to beasts thing.”

“Oh, well, I really can’t. Not like a true beast-speaker.”

“What’s the difference?” Arthur asked, and he sounded genuinely intrigued.

It wasn’t exactly easy to carry on a conversation while riding at their pace, but Rowan and Snowdrop were content to stay parallel to each other, so Merlin didn’t have to raise his voice all that loud. “I can sense them, and reach out to them. Mostly it’s good at reading their mood or calming them down. My mother, who is a true beast-speaker, knows them in ways it’s hard to describe. She knows why a calf might go off its feed, or if a hen isn’t laying because it’s sick, or just because it’s being moody.” He chuckled. They had a hen that needed regular encouragement to lay.

“At her most powerful, she can control animals entirely.”

“Really?” Arthur looked impressed. “I guess I hadn’t suspected that from her.”

“She’s stronger than she looks,” Merlin said a trifle defensively.

“Oh, I believe that,” Arthur hurried to say. “It’s just, she’s so kind and unassuming. It’s hard to imagine her facing down a charging bull and telling it to go back to It’s stable.”

“Funny you should mention that,” Merlin told him and they both laughed.

Changing terrain made conversation more difficult after that, as they ended up wending their way through dense woods on narrow cart-paths, but whenever they got an opportunity, one or the other was quick to take it and offer an anecdote or question.

Merlin shared quite a bit about his people and especially their skills and abilities. He hadn’t ever realized how unaware the people from the kingdoms were to what druids were really like.

For his part, Arthur shared in kind, telling Merlin about how the kingdom of Camelot was managed, and about their relationships with other kingdoms, and about the day-to-day life of regular citizens.

Occasionally they gossiped about this princess or that prince that Arthur knew, and Merlin had met during ritual. During those moments, their laughter echoed through the countryside.

They stopped at midday to break for a quick meal and consult the map.

Merlin felt a bit wobbly as he dismounted and Arthur was quick to catch him by the elbow. He held on until Merlin got his footing and then let go, but Merlin could feel the heat where his fingers had curled tight around his forearm for a long while after.

“I’ll fetch something to eat, if you want to take a look at the map,” Merlin offered.

Arthur accepted that readily. Probably a bit too readily… but Merlin was willing to overlook it for now. They’d been enjoying the day too much to bring up something so minor.

“So, if that pond there,” Arthur said, a short time later, with the map unfolded across his lap, “is this,” he pointed to a small circle with wavy lines inside indicating water, “then, we’re making very good time.”

Merlin had shared out thick wedges of bread with cheese and apples and ham slices and they’d eaten while sitting in the shade of a large oak not too far from that pond. The morning had warmed considerably – they’d both shed their cloaks a few hours earlier – but with the sun high overhead there was a welcome coolness beneath the shadow of a thick trunk and leafless branches.

Studying the map along with him, Merlin nodded. “It looks like we’re sticking to the route quite well.” He reached over to trace his finger along the dashed line that represented their ideal route, following it from the stylized little village icon to where they were near the pond.

Arthur’s breath seemed to catch and he cleared his throat roughly. “Um, yes. Yes, though I expect that may change.”

“Oh? Why is that?” Merlin stared at Arthur’s profile, wondering why he’d picked up a bit of color along his cheekbones and the tips of his ears.

Arthur continued to stare down at the map with an intense focus. “Well, we’ll lose the roads eventually. At this point here,” he tapped a sketchy area that was probably supposed to represent trees, “we’ll need to veer away from any established roadways. We’ll be riding cross-country, which will slow us some.”

“Ah,” Merlin said, and he couldn’t help but notice the way that Arthur seemed to shudder as Merlin’s exhale on the word breathed a gust of warm air over his neck. Feeling just a bit impish, Merlin leaned in just a little closer – pressing their shoulders together – and once again dragged a finger over some lines on the map. “What about this here? Isn’t this a road of some kind?”

“Uh,” Arthur’s voice seemed to go a bit higher, “well, um, no. No, that’s a… uh.” He swallowed hard, the line of his throat moving enticingly. “That’s a boundary line, just showing the borders of Alined’s kingdom. His is the furthest north.”

“Ohhh,” Merlin breathed, letting the word linger.

“Right,” Arthur said sharply, jerking forward, and he lifted the map and began to roll it up hastily. “That reminds me. We’ll be riding through Cenred’s lands tomorrow. He’s always refused to sign any treaties with the other kingdoms, and should we encounter any of his patrols, we’ll need to be on our guard.”

Biting back on a disappointed sigh – he figured that teasing Arthur, just a little, was simply payback for that moment in the tent earlier – Merlin just nodded again. “Right. Do you think they’d give us trouble?”

Arthur stood, and he reached out to offer Merlin a hand to his feet. Merlin readily accepted, and if his fingers lingered in Arthur’s grip for a few extra seconds once he was standing, well… that was just fine by him.

“Unfortunately,” Arthur said, already returning to the grazing horses, “they probably would. From my prior run-ins, I can tell you that Cenred’s men are little more than organized bandits. They’ll see two men traveling heavily laden, with three horses, and assume we might be worth the risk and the profit.”

Oh, Merlin hadn’t really considered other people when he’d thought about all the dangers this journey might entail. “What do we do if that happens?” he asked, feeling a tightness in his gut. Druids, by nature, were peaceful, and other than those in the dragon-guard, very few had ever been trained with weapons in combat.

Arthur turned back to him from stowing the map in his saddle bag. He must’ve been able to read the worry on Merlin’s face because he’s stalked the few feet that separated them and took Merlin by the shoulders. “Don’t worry. It’s unlikely we’ll run into any patrols. And, if we do, I am the best warrior in Camelot. That is no boast.” He stared at Merlin, eyes darting about like he couldn’t bring his gaze to alight on any one part of Merlin’s face. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

There was a promise in those words… Merlin could only blink and slowly nod. “Thank you, Arthur,” he said softly.

Blue eyes zeroed in on Merlin’s mouth then, staring intently. Merlin licked his lips and through the hands gripping his shoulders, he could feel Arthur’s whole-body shudder.

“Merlin…” Arthur said, his voice quiet… intimate.

Merlin’s heart clenched tight in his chest and he held his breath.

“Right,” Arthur said suddenly, hands clapping Merlin on each shoulder just once – a little overly hard – and he spun away.

“Right,” Merlin echoed, trying not to let the disappointment color his tone.

Fortunately, neither whatever that moment had been, nor its awkward ending, seemed to color their interactions as they continued on. With the knowledge that soon enough they’d no longer have neatly delineated roads and paths to follow, Arthur urged them to as much speed as they could manage for the remainder of the day. They alternated between a steady, ground-eating canter and a jog that gave the horses a chance to cool down some.

Conversation wasn’t as easy to maintain, although they managed snatches here and there, and when they stopped to let the horses drink from a stream and to refill their waterskins, Arthur regaled Merlin with a story about his knights, and a tavern and a wager that left them both laughing like loons.

It wasn’t until nearly dusk that Arthur finally signaled a halt. “Those trees over there,” he called out, pointing to a copse of birch trees that formed a loose circle around a stand of rocks. “We’ll shelter there for the night.”

They reined in and dismounted. Merlin was a bit less unsteady, although his calves and thighs were starting to ache.

Arthur must’ve noticed the way he winced. “You okay?” He asked as he began to untack Snowdrop.

“Yeah,” Merlin nodded, forcing a quick grin. “Just a bit sore. Not used to spending all day in the saddle. I’ll get used to.” He started to work on Rowan’s gear.

“Why don’t I get the horses,” Arthur offered. “You should probably walk about a bit. Stretch out. It’ll help.”

Thankful, Merlin nodded.

Though, he began to question the kindness of Arthur’s offer when he found himself wandering around to collect firewood and setting up their camp. It definitely became an issue when Arthur carried over some of their supplies and handed Merlin a cook pot.

“What’s this?” Merlin asked.

Arthur stared at him. “Uh, the pot. I thought we might have that stew you mentioned?”

Merlin glared.

“What?”

“And I thought we agreed that I wasn’t going to do all the cooking. I’m not your damn manservant you know,” Merlin barked.

Arthur looked down at the pot in his hands and then at the neatly ringed campfire Merlin had just coaxed to burning. “Uh, right.”

With a sigh, Merlin relented. He reached out and took the pot. “Fine, I’ll do it tonight.”

“No,” Arthur shook his head and tried to tug the pot back. “No, you’re right. I can do it.”

“No, it’s fine,” Merlin protested. “I already said I’d do it.”

“Merlin,” Arthur growled, and yanked harder.

“Arthur,” Merlin grumbled back, using his leverage – since he was seated near the fire while Arthur stood over him – to drag the pot down to the ground with him.

Unfortunately, that had the added effect of dragging Arthur down with it. They went down in a messy tumble of sprawling limbs and pointy elbows and noisy grunts.

Merlin couldn’t help himself. He was laid out flat on the cold ground, Arthur splayed on top of him with the pot pressed between both of their chests. He let go of it, arms flying akimbo over his head, and he began to laugh.

Propping himself on his elbows, Arthur un-wedged the pot from between them and looked down at Merlin balefully. Laughter was infectious though, and their circumstances truly ridiculous, and he couldn’t hold his glare. A few moments later he let himself collapse fully on top of Merlin and his uproarious laughter echoed Merlin’s.

When they finally tapered off, calming slowly with hiccupping gulps of air, Arthur lifted himself up on his elbows again. “Look, Merlin,” he started to say… but it trailed off to heavy silence.

They were both breathing hard, and their chests pressed tight with every inhale and Merlin couldn’t help but notice how good it felt having Arthur’s weight splayed over him.

“Arthur,” he said softly, licking his lips.

So slowly Merlin thought he might be imagining it, Arthur’s head began to lower towards his. But no, it wasn’t just wishful thinking on Merlin’s part; Arthur’s face loomed closer and his eyelids began to flutter closed. Merlin’s mouth parted on a soft sigh, just as Arthur’s lips pressed against his. The kiss was gentle, tentative… the faint brush of plush lips ghosting against his, and it ended far too soon as Arthur pulled away.

His eyes opened wide and he stared down at Merlin with an unreadable expression.

“Uh,” Merlin managed in a tight, hoarse whisper. “What was that?”

Arthur seemed to think on that a very long moment – eyes never leaving Merlin’s – and finally he smiled a barely-there grin and said, “An apology. To my new husband. For treating him like a servant.”

Merlin wondered if it was possible to melt from joy. He certainly felt like every part of him had gone weightless and he returned that grin with a tentative smile of his own. “You’re forgiven.”

Grin spreading to push dimples in his cheeks, Arthur gave a little nod. “Good.” Then he pushed himself up from Merlin, stood and brushed himself off. He extended a hand down. “C’mon.”

Somewhat ruefully – as pleasant as that moment had been, he supposed they really couldn’t stay in it forever – Merlin accepted Arthur’s help and was practically yanked to his feet. Merlin was the one who picked up the cook pot.

“A compromise,” Arthur suggested, still wearing that pleased grin. “Why don’t we split up the chores equally, by the day. I’ll finish with the horses tonight, and you can cook and then tomorrow we’ll swap.”

“That sounds good,” Merlin replied with a happy nod. “And, Arthur. I don’t mind doing the cooking. If I’m asked. It’s just the…” he made a vague gesture with his hand.

“Right,” Arthur acknowledged. “The expectations and being ordered about. Well, I may ask for your help now and again, but I’ll certainly pull my weight.”

Happy with their agreement - and even more pleased with the lovely moment they’d shared – Merlin got to work on preparing a hearty stew using some of the dried venison and coarsely chopped root vegetables they’d brought an abundance of. Someone – he suspected Gaius – had thoughtfully included a wide selection of herbs and spices in their supplies, so he didn’t skimp on seasoning. He hummed as he worked, and listened to the sounds of Arthur occupied with currying down their horses and picking their hooves.

He could get used to this, Merlin decided. Maybe not the whole ‘fulfilling a prophecy’ thing, but this simple domesticity with Arthur.

As quickly as that thought formed, it was chased immediately by something darker, like dread. Because… once they did fulfill this prophecy, things would change. They’d not discussed what would happen after. Maybe Arthur would want to return to Camelot alone? They might be wed, but he’d never given any indication that he wanted Merlin at his side, always.

Merlin scowled at himself, frustrated that he couldn’t keep those gloomy thoughts at bay even on the heels of feeling Arthur’s lips on his. And Arthur had been the one to kiss him! Not the other way around – as Merlin had suspected it would have to be… if it ever happened at all.

But one kiss didn’t make a binding relationship.

He stirred the stew pot rather aggressively.

“And what did the turnips do to offend you?” Arthur asked with a chuckle – clearly amused at himself.

“Nothing,” Merlin hurried to say. “Nothing, just didn’t want things to scorch.”

“Ahh,” Arthur replied, but his tone made it clear he didn’t believe Merlin one whit.

“Should be ready soon,” Merlin offered, to change the subject. “Just a bit longer for the vegetables to soften.”

“Sounds good. Shall we have some bread with it as well?” He had one of the small loaves in his hand.

“How many of those do we have?” Merlin tried to remember how many he saw in one of the sacks. They had several more days of travel… he didn’t want to run out too soon.

“Enough,” Arthur said. “Plus, we should eat them before they go off.”

He wasn’t sure why, but Arthur’s calm pragmatism began to chafe. “If you think that’s best.”

Apparently not willing to be baited into bickering by Merlin’s sharp tone, Arthur sat down by the fire, only an arms-span away. “What’s troubling you, Merlin?”

“Nothing,” Merlin spat out.

Arthur sighed. “You know, I thought that little uh… incident with the pot made it fairly clear; we should be more open to communicating with each other.”

Merlin ducked his chin, abashed. Arthur was right. But how did he put this into words? “Sorry,” he said, stalling for time. “You’re right. We do seem to do better when we’re willing to talk.”

“Yeah,” Arthur agreed. He leaned over and poked Merlin in the ribs with the pointy end of the crusty loaf. “So, talk.”

Squirming away – it tickled! – Merlin kept his attention on stirring the thickening stew, but nodded. “It’s just… I guess I’m nervous about the prophecy.” It wasn’t exactly a lie, although it wasn’t the whole truth either. “What it means… what we’ll face. What if…” he looked across to Arthur then, “What if I can’t do it?”

To his relief Arthur didn’t just wave that away or offer a dismissive reassurance. Instead he pursed his lips and thought quietly a moment. “You know what I think?”

“What’s that?”

“I think that it’s going to happen just the way it should. Now, I’m not saying it’ll be easy or we’ll always know what to do, but I think things are going to happen as they’re meant to.” He laughed then, a bit rough. “Look at how it’s gone so far. It’s not been what anyone expected – least of all me – but as strange and unexpected as it’s been, the prophecy is still managing to be fulfilled.”

Merlin thought about that. “So, you think that even if I don’t know what to do, and even if I fumble my way through things, they’ll work out?”

Arthur nodded firmly. “That’s exactly what I think.”

Feeling a bit better – even if he really hadn’t gotten to the other part of his concerns – Merlin gave him a sly look. “Huh.”

“What?” Arthur asked, eyes narrowing warily.

“Nothing,” Merlin said dismissively. “It’s just… I guess I thought you were more the realistic sort. You know: focused on what we know and what’s fact. I’m surprised to hear you so accepting of … well, of simple hope.”

Arthur glanced down and away and Merlin could’ve kicked himself. “Sorry, it’s just –”

“No,” Arthur said before Merlin could apologize. “No, you’re right. Normally, I am that sort. Realistic, pragmatic. It’s the way I was raised, by my father. He’s found hope a hard thing to hold onto. But my mother…” he trailed to silence a moment, though his eyes were bright and his mouth turned up at the corners. “She’s the hopeful one. Even during her bad days, when the illness steals her breath and leaves her in agony, she manages to find hope in things.” He lifted a hand and dragged his fingers through his hair, mussing it handsomely. “I sometimes wonder how different I’d be if she’d been around more. I think I’m too like my father sometimes.”

“I’d like to meet her,” Merlin said softly, hoping he wasn’t overstepping. “She sounds like a lovely woman.”

To his relief, Arthur just smiled. “She is. She’s beautiful and kind and generous. Exactly my father’s opposite, but I suppose that’s why he loves her so.” He looked over at Merlin. “She reminds me a bit of your mother, actually. There’s a sense of fierceness there.”

Merlin beamed back. “Yeah, that’s my mum. Kind and gentle, but fierce as a she-dragon protecting her nest if need be.”

They both chuckled.

“I’d like it if you did,” Arthur said after a moment. “Meet her,” he clarified when Merlin frowned in confusion.

Not wanting to drag this pleasant conversation into territory he wasn’t ready to hash out yet, Merlin just nodded. “Perhaps after this is all over?” he said simply.

Arthur nodded, and seemed content to leave it there as well.

They switched their attention to the meal then, as Merlin declared the stew done. Arthur complimented him quite profusely as he ate, and laughingly threatened that if Merlin was going to cook that well, then perhaps he should do it all the time. Merlin just threw the heel of his bread at Arthur’s head.

They shared the tasks of cleaning up after they ate and got their bedrolls laid out on either side of their banked fire. It was probably earlier than Merlin would’ve normally slept, but it had gone full dark some time ago, and the night brought with it a drop in temperature. Plus, they’d had a long – surprisingly exhaustive – day in the saddle and Merlin felt all the aches and pains of using unfamiliar muscles sapping him even more.

Arthur too, seemed sleepy. Merlin wondered if he’d not slept well the night before. Of course, thinking on that got him remembering how he’d woken and he scrambled to push that memory away.

Tucked under two layers of blankets on top of a thick stuffed pallet and warm furs, Arthur rolled to his side and looked at Merlin. “Sleep well, Merlin.” He said, voice already going thick and eyelids drooping.

“You too, Arthur,” Merlin told him.

Merlin watched for a long while after, as Arthur’s eyes closed and his face went slack as he was drawn deep into slumber. With that vision – Arthur’s face gone soft and peaceable, limned by the faint orange glow of low-burning coals – Merlin finally succumbed to sleep.

The started the next morning out fresh, and eager. Merlin woke just before dawn to find Arthur already restoking their fire. He’d gathered more kindling and even had some water and their cookpot standing by.

“You should’ve woken me,” Merlin chided, though he really didn’t regret the opportunity to sleep in a bit.

“I’ve not been awake long,” Arthur assured him. “Just long enough to get some water from that stream we passed and to drop some fodder for the horses.”

“Oh, okay.”

“Speaking of fodder,” Arthur went on. “What would you like for breakfast?”

Sitting up in his bedroll and stretching his arms out – rather surprised that he wasn’t stiffer from sleeping on the ground after a day in the saddle – Merlin thought about it. “We’ve got plenty of oats.”

Arthur grimaced. “I’m not all that fond of porridge.”

Merlin rolled his eyes. “How can you not like porridge? It’s… it’s a staple of a druid’s diet.”

Arthur just made another disgusted face and stuck out his tongue. “It’s watery and pasty and flavorless. How can you like it?”

“Well, you’ve just never had it made the right away,” Merlin protested. “Here, let me show you.” He got up from his bedroll and walked over to their packs to dig out one of their many sacks of oats. It didn’t occur to him until he already had the water simmering over the fire that he was doing the cooking again.

Had Arthur done that on purpose?

He looked over at Arthur, who seemed intent on getting Milkthistle tacked and reloaded. Though, he did glance Merlin’s way now and again, and he seemed to be smiling.

Merlin couldn’t find it in himself to be annoyed. He may have been played, but he really didn’t mind. Besides, if he could convince Arthur of the goodness of well-made porridge, it’d be worth it. Luckily, his mother must’ve had a hand in packing up more of their foodstuffs than he realized, because he found dried apples and plums and pears in their stores, along with a small supply of dark sugar and a cask of salt. Raiding their herbs, he found savory and cinnamon and anise.

All of it went into the pot with the oats. He only wished he had some cream as well, but water would have to do. While everything slowly simmered, Merlin stirred the pot occasionally and Arthur continued to pack-up their gear.

Again, Merlin was struck by the simple joy of it all. Instead of letting himself get drawn to wallowing in the dark miasma of concerns over what the future might bring, he decided just to bask in the pleasure of a lovely morning.

By the time the porridge was cooked to just the right consistency, Arthur declared them ready to travel.

“After you eat your breakfast,” Merlin insisted, handing Arthur a heaping bowl and spoon. “It’s best if you can pour fresh cream over it, but I think you’ll find this better than the gruel you described.”

He laughed as he watched Arthur curl his lip even as he lifted a spoon – that had scooped up the barest amount of porridge – to his mouth. Arthur took a bite though, and he slowly considered it as he chewed and swallowed. Finally, he gave a reluctant shrug. “It’s not as bad as I remember.”

Merlin let out a noisy scoff. “Just can’t admit it’s good, can you?”

Arthur ate another spoonful, this one much fuller. “I’ll say this, for porridge, it’s the best I’ve ever had.” He pointed the spoon at Merlin. “I’m still not fond of the stuff, though.”

Accepting his victory, Merlin grinned and fetched his own bowl. He mocked Arthur after devouring his own – it was delicious – and then teased him even more when Arthur’s bowl was emptied. That playful mood carried on as they cleaned their dishes and finished stowing everything away, and even when they mounted up and rode out.

They were still following a rough road – little more than overgrown wagon tracks – and it led them through patches of brush between small stands of woodland. Eventually, Merlin knew, the edges of forested land would give way to open moors, and as much as he looked forward to not ducking under trees, he also wondered at being so exposed.

Near midday they paused at a small brook to refresh their mounts, but they agreed to continue on without a lengthy stop. Instead they ate a light meal of dried jerky and more bread and cheese in the saddle (and Merlin quipped that Arthur was probably still full from all the porridge he had at breakfast) and rode onward.

Toward dusk, Merlin found his attention wandering, and he stared idly through the thinning stands of trees at a rather pretty sunset. He blamed that for the reason that he’d not noticed that Arthur had drawn Snowdrop to a halt in front of him. Luckily, Rowan was more in tune with Arthur’s mount than Merlin was, because he lurched to a stop.

“What is –” Merlin started to ask, but bit off his words when Arthur held out an arm, hand clenched in a fist.

He noticed it then: the strange, heavy stillness around them. The chatter and chittering of the birds had gone silent.

Chest going tight, Merlin reached back and got a hand around the staff that was stuck through the bracing straps of a saddlebag. Ahead of him, he saw Arthur draw his sword.

“Merlin,” Arthur hissed, “stay close to me. I don’t know how many –”

He was interrupted by the shout of a man – bandit or one of Cenred’s men, Merlin didn’t know – rushing them from the trees. His cry was taken up by others and Merlin could see they were surrounded. Following Arthur’s lead, Merlin leapt off of Rowan and herded him back out of harm’s way. He brandished the staff, unsure what he could do other than stand there and try to look menacing.

Arthur, meanwhile, had charged the first bandit that cleared the woods. He moved with silent, brutal efficiency and his sword struck out and caught the man beneath the edge of a ragged leather jerkin before he could dodge. Arthur didn’t even pause, just yanked the gore-covered sword from the man – who clutched at his ribs and fell over- and ran to meet the next.

Apparently not suspecting a quarry who would fight back, a few of the nearest men slowed in their approach. Merlin saw as gazes went from Arthur to him, and he raised the staff when it became clear that he was the lesser threat.

Arthur was faster though – with a cry of, “Merlin!” he lunged across the space between them – and before a dirty, scar-faced man with a toothless grin and a notched ear could swing his cudgel at Merlin, Arthur was there, separating the man’s arm from his shoulder with a vicious slice.

Unfortunately, his hurried defense of Merlin left Arthur exposed and Merlin saw it happen in slow motion: a bandit wielding an axe charged at Arthur, his weapon swinging unerringly down toward Arthur’s unprotected back.

Suddenly, something seared through Merlin, and he lifted his hands, and his vision whited out and he threw his head back and shouted in a hoarse, guttural scream.

Around him, everything went black, and his head swam and he knew that there was chaos around him -men screaming, the heat of flames, shouts of fear and alarm – but Merlin held onto that blackness… seeing only Arthur behind his eyes.

“Merlin…”

That was Arthur’s voice.

“Merlin, it’s done. It’s over.”

Arthur was alive…  that was Arthur’s hand on his cheek.

Slowly, Merlin came back to himself. He let his arms lower – surprised at the way they ached – and pried his sticky eyelids open.

“Arthur,” he breathed, startled by the raw, painful sound of his own voice. “What happened?”

Arthur – whole and apparently unharmed – cupped his hand tighter on Merlin’s cheek. His expression was wild and wary, but full of something else as well. “I… I don’t know,” he admitted. “Suddenly, it was as if there was this… shape around you.”

“A shape?” Merlin asked.  He felt lightheaded and strange. But also, weirdly alive and tingly. Like every nerve in his body was touched by lightning.

“A dragon,” Arthur admitted in disbelief. “There was this figure around you, like a nimbus of fire and it was shaped like a dragon. The men, the bandits, they burned from it.” His fingers went up to trace Merlin’s brow. “And your eyes, Merlin. They glowed with a golden light.”

Awe, it was awe that predominated Arthur’s gaze. “You saved me. Us. You saved us both.”

“There was a man,” Merlin said, feeling sheepish and confused and yet somehow settled and… right. “He had an axe. He was going to kill you, Arthur. You were too busy saving me and…” He trailed off.

“He didn’t. You stopped him.” Arthur gave a little laugh that held a note of madness, but sounded genuine for all that. “You stopped them all.”

Merlin blinked. He finally glanced around them – well, best as he could with Arthur’s hand still curved possessively around the side of his face – to see that, to a man, all the bandits were dead. Many of them little more than charred husks, although a few had definitely been defeated by Arthur’s blade.

“Oh, uhh,” he opened his mouth to say something, anything, but little more than wordless sound came out. Those men were dead…had died in agony.

“It’s all right, Merlin,” Arthur assured him, stroking his cheek. “You did what needed to be done.”

“I… don’t know what I did,” Merlin admitted, the enormity of what had happened catching hold. And along with it, the fear.

How could Arthur stare at him like he’d done something wondrous, when Merlin felt guilt well up, threatening to subsume him.

“Merlin, no,” Arthur shook his head urgently. “It’s not a bad thing you did. It was wonderful. Miraculous. It was…” he trailed off, lost for words. Actions apparently, were easier to express.

He pushed his fingers into the hair at Merlin’s nape and drew him forward urgently. Then he caught Merlin’s mouth in a messy, open-mouthed kiss.

Everything else – the fear, the guilt, the confusion – faded away at the feel of Arthur’s lips crushed against his, at the tease of Arthur’s tongue and the sharp sting of over-eager teeth. Merlin could only clutch at Arthur’s tunic, fingers scrabbling desperately, and pull him close while kissed back.

They kissed, and kissed, and Merlin never wanted it to stop. Arthur’s tongue was hot and it slid and twined impatiently against his and he bit at Merlin’s mouth like he was starving and he fisted his fingers into Merlin’s hair, taking control and holding tight.

Eventually though, they were both gasping and breathless and Arthur reluctantly, gradually pulled away, letting Merlin’s lower lip slowly slide out from the press of his teeth as he did. He stayed close though, keeping his forehead pressed against Merlin’s and they panted shared breaths into the steamy air between them.

“Merlin,” Arthur said, voice ragged. “Thank you.”

Lust-addled, Merlin could only nod his head, rocking Arthur’s with it.

“Thank you, Arthur,” Merlin finally managed when he’d regained use of his voice. “You saved me first. You said you’d protect me and you did.”

This close, it was hard for Merlin to see it, but the way Arthur’s cheeks plumped and his eyes narrowed, Merlin knew he was grinning. “I protect what’s mine,” Arthur said fiercely.

Merlin jerked back then, startled by both the vehemence and promise inherent in those words.

And Arthur must’ve realized the weight such a statement carried. He let his hands fall away from Merlin and he took a step backward. “Um, sorry.”

“No,” Merlin shook his head. “No, don’t be. We uh… we’re bound, aren’t we?” He offered it as a way for Arthur to rationalize, but then worried – at the way Arthur’s face fell – that it’d been misconstrued.

Before he could explain, Arthur gave a curt nod. “Right. Right, exactly. The prophecy.”

Mentally kicking himself, Merlin started to protest.

But Arthur had already closed off to him. He turned to take in the carnage. “We’ll leave them here. The bodies. But the horses spooked. We’ll need to find them.” When he looked back at Merlin his face was calm, devoid of the scary passion that had marked it only moments earlier. He started to say something and then hesitated.

Hating the space he’d once again wedged between them, Merlin hurried to ask, “What is it?”

“Could you,” he did something with his hands that Merlin couldn’t interpret. “The horses. Can you find them?”

“Oh!” Merlin nodded. “Yes, of course.” He closed his eyes – both to concentrate and to block out the site of Arthur looking so unaffected once again – and reached out for the minds of the animals. He found them, not too far away, bunched together and milling about, still nervy and anxious, but a few soothing whispers of thought calmed them easily enough. He encouraged them to wait and to graze while they could, reassuring them that they were safe.

When he opened his eyes, Arthur was staring at him. Some of that … something, was back in his expression. Merlin didn’t dare name it, but he was glad to see it nonetheless.

“They’re all right,” Merlin said. “They’re not far from here.”

Arthur blew out a relieved sigh. “I’ll get them. Can you tell me where?”

Merlin glanced around, wanting nothing to do with waiting around this awful, place that stank of smoke and blood and death. “I’ll go with you,” he said firmly.

Luckily, Arthur didn’t argue.

They walked in silence through the trees, staying close though – never drifting too far apart – and eventually, Merlin led them down into a little gully where all three horses were standing, idling lipping at the undergrowth.

“There you are,” Arthur said warmly, clearly pleased to see them.

Merlin could sense that it wasn’t just that he was glad that they hadn’t lost their mounts and gear, but that Arthur genuinely cared about the wellbeing of the horses themselves. It warmed him to hear it.

They checked each animal over, tightening girths and picking up hooves to look for stones, but luckily – other than a few loosened straps and a spilled sack of oat – they were none the worse for the wear.

“We should camp,” Arthur suggested.

“Are you sure?” Merlin asked. They’d ridden later the day before.

Arthur nodded. “By the time we get back on the road and get past…”  he stumbled over saying it, “uh, the bodies a goodly distance, it’ll be too late to continue on tonight.”

Merlin looked up through the trees – the bright pinks and warm coppers and lavender-bellied clouds that had dominated the western sky only a short while earlier had faded to a thin band of golden-orange along the horizon – dusk was soon to follow.

“Right,” Merlin agreed.

They walked the horses back through the trees, skirting the road until they were well past the area where the battle had taken place, and then Arthur spied a likely spot for them to camp. It was a bit more exposed that Merlin would have liked, but he didn’t think they’d have to worry about any more bandits.

Arthur asked Merlin to stay with the horses while he took up a crossbow and headed out into the brushy plains that they could see just beyond the tree line. Merlin didn’t know how much luck he’d have, considering that it was almost dark, but Arthur came back just a short while later with a pair of pheasants.

“Dinner,” Arthur announced, and from his somewhat stilted tone, he was trying in the only was he knew how to normalize things between them again.

Clutching at whatever lifeline Arthur was willing to share, Merlin – probably over-eagerly – offered to cook them. “I can do that. I know a way to roast pheasant that’s really quite delicious.”

He saw Arthur hesitate.

“C’mon,” he tried to tease. “You shot them, the least I can do is cook them.”

Fortunately, Arthur seemed willing to grasp right back at Merlin’s own attempts at normalcy. “I won’t argue,” he said, and though it was small and a bit tight – he was smiling.

“I’m not cleaning them, though,” Merlin pointed out.

“Ugh,” Arthur groaned, but he carried the carcasses outside the boundaries of their camp and when he came back it was with both birds gutted and plucked.

Though a strange sort of tension lingered between them as Merlin worked to spit the pheasant and stuffed their cavities with all manner of things to flavor them, and Arthur once again fed and rubbed down the horse, it faded as the night went on.

By the time they were sat down on either side of a merrily burning campfire, perfectly roasted pheasant shared out between them, Merlin could almost pretend things were back to …well, their sort of normal.

“You know, Merlin,” Arthur said, picking at the last bits of succulent meat on a pheasant leg, “if you keep cooking this good, I may have to go back on my word to swap duties with you.”

Merlin laughed. “Well, just for that, tomorrow I’ll have to burn the porridge.”

And maybe it was his choice of words, that image of fire, but Arthur’s gaze met his over the flames of the campfire and he knew they were both thinking about their experience with the bandits.

“Look –” Merlin began.

“About earlier –” Arthur said at the same time.

They both stopped. Merlin gestured for Arthur to speak. He’d been the one to make things uncomfortable between them, the least he could do was hear what Arthur wanted to say.

“About earlier,” Arthur repeated, and Merlin knew he wasn’t talking about the battle itself. “Things got…I got… carried away. I didn’t mean to just…” he trailed off, closing a fist on the air like he could pluck a word from nothing.

“Kiss me?” Merlin offered?

To his surprise, Arthur shook his head. “No, uh… that I meant to do.” He stated it surely, with no hesitation.

Merlin’s pulse beat a little bit faster. “Then, uh…”

“What I said, after,” Arthur explained. “It was… selfish. And clearly the wrong thing and…” he shook his head.

“No,” Merlin had to protest, and he hurried on before Arthur could speak, needing to explain. “I only said what I said about the prophecy because I thought…well, it never occurred to me you might…” Damn, he couldn’t figure out how to express what he needed to say.

To his utter shock, Arthur offered the exact words: “That I might not object to being bound to you?”

Cheeks burning, Merlin nodded and dropped his chin to his chest. “Yes,” he admitted. “I guess, I assumed you were… disappointed at how things had turned out. I mean, with the ritual and everything.”

“No, look –” Arthur began, but Merlin spoke over him.

“And, I understand. I do, Arthur. I’m sure the last thing you wanted was to be stuck with some… some… druid,” he used the word a bit sardonically, “and it must’ve been even better that said druid was a man. I mean, even though you knew that I was long ago. But still, you didn’t expect to come to the Valley, to some strange place with these strange people and their strange ways,” – he’d said strange a few too many times –  “And, I know I wasn’t what you expected and I’m sorry, Arthur, that you’re stuck with me–”

“Merlin, will you shut up,” Arthur sniped. “Listen. You need to understand something. Yes, I was overwhelmed by everything. I told you, I didn’t have any idea that the ritual itself was the ceremony. I thought we’d meet, we’d go through this ritual I’d been hearing about almost my whole life, and if it happened that I was chosen – as I’ve been preparing for since I was a child – that we’d go on from there and we’d have time to plan an actual ceremony and make arrangements,” his voice cracked slightly, “and that my mother could be there… and… and, I didn’t know it wouldn’t happen in the span of a few minutes in the middle of some trees with a giant dragon standing over me! I was shocked and rather confused and… for the first time in my life, I didn’t know what my future had in store. It was overwhelming.”

He was panting slightly, and eyes were wide, but he stared unflinchingly across the fire at Merlin.

“Arthur…” Merlin started to say, but Arthur cut him off again.

“It’s not you. It’s never been about you.” He blinked and seemed to reconsider. ‘Okay, maybe when I first stepped into the grove and realized you were that messy, obnoxious druid I’d encountered in the woods earlier,” he snorted in amusement. “But even then, it wasn’t about you. It’s just been this entire situation. To be honest, that’s why I’m finding this quest we’re on to be a comfort. My life has a set path to follow once again.”

Shocked to silence, Merlin could only blink while his mouth opened and closed soundlessly.

“You don’t…” he began, many long minutes later. “You truly don’t mind that it’s me?” He gestured rather loosely at himself. “I mean, I’m just…I’m no prince, or the princess you expected to marry.”

Arthur huffed out a laugh, “Well, I don’t know about that last bit, you can be a bit of a girl’s petticoat, Merlin.” He grinned to take away the sting of it. “But, no. I don’t mind that it’s you.” Arthur was the one to duck his head then, abashed. “I like that it’s you.”

“Oh,” Merlin said. He felt his own shy, sort of idiotic expression come over his face. “I uh… like that it’s you too, Arthur.” Just to prevent things from getting too soppy, he added, “Anyone was better than Princess Sofia.”

Arthur honked out a startled-sounding laugh. “Oh, well, I’ll take that for the high praise it is!” He tossed his well-gnawed pheasant leg-bone at Merlin’s head.

And suddenly, things were all right between them. Merlin knew there were things still to be said – they’d not talked at all about what would happen after – but… he felt better about this strange, growing thing between them.

They kept the conversation between them light, and easy, mostly joking about the different ‘sacrifices’ that Merlin had met during ritual and how much luckier he would’ve been ending up with any of them over Arthur (which was especially humorous considering Arthur was the one making most of the jokes – “C’mon Merlin, just think how great it would’ve been to end up with Prince Myron and his perpetually smelly feet!”).

When they settled into their bedrolls a short while later – full and tired and belly-sore from laughing – Merlin expected that they’d go right to sleep. It had been quite a day already. But to his surprise, after tucking his blankets up around his neck and pressing his head into his pillow, Arthur said Merlin’s name softly. 

“What is it?” Merlin asked, just as quiet.

“What happened to you before. With the bandits, I mean. I know it’s new… and it frightened you. But, I think it’s just your abilities, coming into their own.”

Merlin frowned. He’d been studiously avoiding thinking about that. “You think so?”

“There’s never been another last dragonlord before, has there? I mean, the qualifier of ‘last’, indicates that there’s been at least one before, but everything I’ve learned over the last few days here tells me that no one really has any idea what that means.”

It surprised Merlin to admit it to himself, but he’d never really thought about it that way.

“It’s been what? Hundreds of years since all the other greater dragons died out, right?”

There’d been more to it than that, but it wasn’t worth going into. “Right,” he agreed.

“So, there probably hasn’t been a dragonlord since well before that. Since the time the prophecy was written? Wasn’t that the point of the prophecy in the first place?”

Merlin felt a stab of something fiercely proud spike through him, realizing not only how much Arthur had thought about this – about him – but how much he’d put together on his own. He nodded, too overcome to say anything.

“So, there you have it,” Arthur went on. “Just like all the other druids who have powers are capable of great and wondrous things, it only makes sense that you are too.”

“Great and wondrous?” Merlin repeated, a bit shyly.

Arthur huffed out a mock-cynical laugh. “Merlin, what you did today was amazing. And, if you can learn to control it, to channel it… well, who knows what it could mean for your people or for dragonkind? I have a feeling that’s part of the whole prophecy making itself known as well.”

And that… that was something else huge and overwhelming that Merlin hadn’t considered either. He thought about it all, about what these new powers could mean and about the prophecy and about… well, mostly about Arthur.

“You okay?” Arthur asked, and Merlin realized he’d let silence fall between them for a very long time.

“Yeah,” he said, meaning it. “Yeah, I’m good. Thank you, Arthur.”

Even by the dim glow of embers he could see Arthur’s smile. “You’re welcome, Merlin. Get some sleep now,” he instructed, rolling onto his back and closing his eyes.

“You too. G’night, Arthur.”

“Night, Merlin.”

After that, sleep came easy.

The next morning dawned behind a thick layer of cloud-cover, and the Merlin blinked up at the grey sky with a frown.

“We may see some snow,” Arthur confirmed from where he’d already sat up in his bedroll. “Temperature’s dropped as well.”

Merlin’s nose definitely felt chilled and he was suddenly very glad his mother had insisted on packing all his cold-weather gear. He had a thick scarf and knitted gloves somewhere amongst his things.

“It’ll get colder too,” Arthur said as he got to his feet. He wrapped his hands around his arms and rubbed some warmth back into them. “The further we go north.”

The chill seemed to sap some of their energy and they roused slowly and didn’t speak much as they ate a quick meal – hot porridge, Merlin insisted was worth the time it would take, despite Arthur’s protest that he still hated the stuff – and readied their mounts for the day.

When they got underway, Merlin huddled under his cloak and wrapped his scarf tight. Other than a few heavier tunics and his ever-present cloak, Arthur hadn’t brought his own winter garb, but never let it be said that Hunith would let someone under her care go without! She’d packed up an extra pair of the warm, knitted gloves – thicker than Arthur’s leather ones – and a hand tied scarf. Arthur had scoffed at it at first – it was colorfully done up in a pattern of sheep’s wool that had been dyed with blue and purple berries – but after they rode on for a few miles, he was quick to wrap it tight around his neck and over his ears.

A few hours later, nearing midday, Arthur’s prediction about the weather proved true and faint snowflakes began to flutter down from the overcast sky. At first, they melted when they hit the ground, but soon enough a thin layer of white started to coat the surrounding countryside. They’d reached the rolling, hills and dales of the moors, and protection from the elements was almost non-existent.

They stopped for a quick rest – eating a hasty, cold lunch and feeding the horses some of the grain they carried – but didn’t stop for very long. Even then, by the time they got moving again, the delicate little flakes had become heavy and fat and snow began to accumulate.

Arthur urged them to go faster, plunging ahead rather recklessly as visibility began to drop. The storm seemed to bring on early dusk and eventually they were forced to slow and finally stop when the snow got too thick underfoot and it swirled around them wildly, whiting-out the night.

“This way!” Arthur called urgently, his voice hardly carrying over the whistling of the wind, but Merlin focused on his Camelot- red cloak – the patches that were still visible beneath a coating of rime – and urged Rowan to follow close.

He understood Arthur’s intent a few moments later when they rode into a high-walled stand of crumbling stones – some kind of ruins. They cut the wind and though the snow piled up on the far side of them, in the center of three remaining walls, the ground was relatively clear.

“We’ll encamp here!” Arthur shouted.

Gratefully, Merlin followed him inside and when he climbed stiffly off of Rowan’s back, he nearly fell over.

“Are you all right?”

In the lee of their shelter, the sound of the storm lessened and Merlin could hear Arthur much better.

“Yeah,” he called out. “Just stiff. Sore.” He hadn’t realized how tightly he’d been pressing his thighs to the saddle or how urgently he’d been gripping his reins.

“Me too,” Arthur agreed, shaking the stiffness from his own cold hands.

They explored the small boundaries of the ruins, and found little beyond what they could see. They were fortunate to discover a large section where all but two of the framing walls had crumbled, but there was still some overhang of a ceiling. They agreed to bed down the horses there, to keep them out of the worst of the storm.

“It’ll be a cold night,” Arthur said morosely. “We’ll not find enough firewood.” The few pieces they’d scavenged from a hanging window shutter and a long-broken door wouldn’t sustain them even long enough to get anything cooked.

“Well, we can get a fire started, at least,” Merlin suggested. “We’ll keep it low, banked. Maybe that’ll make what kindling we’ve got last longer?”

Arthur nodded, but he didn’t look too convinced.

Luckily, they had leftovers of the pheasant from the night before, and still had plenty of bread and dried venison and wedges of cheese. So, while it was a cold supper, it wasn’t all that disappointing and they both ate their fill. Their waterskins were rather drained though, as they’d not been able to refill them since early morning.

“We can at least melt snow,” Arthur pointed out. “To refill those, and for the horses.”

That was as good a reason as any to get a fire going, and they huddled around the desultory little thing, holding their hands out for its meager heat in between turns at ducking out from behind the shelter of the ruins to bring back potfuls of snow. Eventually they melted enough to refill their skins and also to fill the single bucket they had for the horses.

Once they’d eaten and the horses had been fed and watered, there was little else they could do except huddle close to their little fire and feed it sparingly to keep it going as long as possible.

“You should try to get some sleep, Merlin,” Arthur suggested.

“So should you,” Merlin countered.

Arthur frowned. “One of us needs to stay awake, Merlin, to keep the fire going.”

Merlin gestured to their rapidly dwindling pile of wood. “It’s not going to last long as it is, Arthur. C’mon. This isn’t a time to be all noble. Let’s just combine the bedrolls and we can uh… share our warmth.” Luckily his cold cheeks were already pinked, otherwise his blush might’ve been more obvious.

When Arthur didn’t say anything in response, and his lips thinned, Merlin pressed. “Or, do you have some kind of problem sharing a bed with me now, prince?” he taunted.

That got the glare he’d been hoping for. “No, of course not.” He coughed, somewhat delicately. “It’s just… I don’t want you to feel… uncomfortable.”

“Uncomfortable?” Merlin frowned.

Sighing at Merlin’s lack of comprehension, Arthur waved a gloved hand between them. “If we’re too close. I mean, I did kiss you earlier, Merlin.”

Yeah, Merlin was still confused. “And why is that a problem?”

Obviously exasperated, Arthur just looked heavenward and groaned. “Save me from simpleminded druids.”

“Hey,” Merlin shot back. “I’m just not understanding what the problem is. So… you kissed me. I think we both understand that that was… well, not exactly unwelcome.”

“Exactly,” Arthur nodded.

“So?” Merlin shrugged.

This time Arthur’s groan was just noise. “Look, it could make things,” again he gestured something mysterious and impossible to interpret between them. “strange.”

Suddenly, Merlin understood. “Ohhhh,” he let that drag out. The flush that had filled his face grew hotter (which was actually rather welcome in the cold). “Look, I said I was sorry about that.”

Arthur turned to him with complete confusion. “Sorry about what?”

“The… the other morning,” Merlin sputtered. “You know, when I woke up and was feeling… uh… well, rather good?” he put a throaty emphasis on the last word.

Jaw-dropping, Arthur shook his head. “You’re unbelievable, you know that?”

Was that a compliment or an insult? Merlin genuinely couldn’t tell.

“Merlin,” Arthur said through tightly gritted teeth and it looked like it too all of his effort to keep his gaze locked to Merlin’s instead of seeking out anything else at all to focus on. “I don’t want you to feel like I expect anything from you,” he bit off each word.

“But, I don’t!” Merlin argued. “And, I kissed you back, remember?”

From the way that Arthur’s gaze went vaguely distant for a moment, he did remember.

“And, I’m telling you right now, if it happens again, I’ll be kissing you right back again, because I want to,” he added. Old gods save him from prideful princes!

“Fine,” Arthur huffed.

And that seemed to be the end of it, because Arthur dragged their bedrolls from their packs, laid them out together, shoved tight into the corner where the wind would be blocked the most, and then began to pile them up with all of the blankets and furs they carried. He yanked off his gloves with his teeth and shucked off his cloak and kicked off his boots and unwound the scarf from his neck and he set them all on top of a saddle to keep them out of the snow.

“Well,” he said, standing there shivering, like his words were a challenge.

Merlin didn’t need to be told twice! He scrambled up and shed just as many layers as Arthur, and without the thick, fur-lined cloak and the protection of the scarf, the cold swept in and bit at Merlin’s skin like a living thing.

“C’mon,” Arthur urge, crawling into their makeshift bed and holding out the blankets to invite Merlin in.

For the first few minutes after they got settled, tucking the blankets tight and arranging one over their heads so it would block the cold but still let in enough fresh air that they could breath, they just laid there, side-by-side but hardly touching, and shivered.

“Oh th…this isss daft,” Merlin said, teeth chattering. He rolled into Arthur, wrapping his arms around Arthur’s chest and pulling him closer.

Arthur went all-over stiff for a long moment, but eventually he let himself relax. He shifted his legs so that their knees fitted together, one on top of the other, and then snaked his arms around Merlin’s waist.

“Better?” Merlin asked, nose pressed into Arthur’s neck, where the skin was bare and smelled of sweat and wood smoke and horse and Arthur.

“Better,” Arthur agreed, albeit reluctantly. He had his face buried against the pillow and Merlin’s shoulder both.

They lay in silence for a few minutes, listening to the storm whistle and blow beyond the borders of the crumbling walls. Merlin felt a sleepy sort of lassitude come over him. “You know,” he said softly, the words barely a whisper because nothing louder was needed. “That morning… when I woke up and forgot I wasn’t alone?”

Arthur’s “Yeah?” was equally soft, but intense, urgent.

“I’d been dreaming about you,” Merlin admitted. “That’s why I woke up that way.”

Against Merlin’s shoulder, Arthur’s breath huffed hot through his tunic. “Really?”

“Yes,” Merlin said, rather boldly speaking the word against Arthur’s pulse.

“Merlin,” Arthur groaned, low and nearly pained. He rolled them enough that he could get his mouth to Merlin’s.

There was no hesitation to his kiss, no doubt. He caught Merlin’s mouth with his own and worshiped it, kissing, and sucking and learning the taste of him. He dragged his teeth along Merlin’s jaw and nipped at the underside of his chin and peppered Merlin’s cheeks with soft kisses and sucked hard at the pulse point beneath Merlin’s ear. Merlin welcomed it all, relished it and returned every kiss and every bite and every suck with fervor.

They kissed for what felt like hours; the space beneath their blankets growing almost too hot, and almost too stifling. Merlin’s cock was even hotter, and he could feel Arthur heat and hardness pressed firmly against his thigh.

It would’ve been an easy thing to just rub off against each other, Merlin knew, but… he didn’t want that. Not like that, not tonight.

Neither, apparently did Arthur, because eventually – even though Merlin knew he was still hard and had to be aching (just like Merlin was) – his kisses slowed, lingering and slackening until they were little more than two mouths pressed close and breathing together. Eventually, he dragged his lips away from Merlin’s and lowered his head into the curve of Merlin’s shoulder. “It’s late,” he said, sounding sleepy and sated both.

“Yeah,” Merlin agreed, happily.

They shifted a bit more, finding a comfortable position (Arthur cursing when Merlin accidentally lifted one of the blankets too far and let a gust of icy air in) and settled in for sleep. The feel of Arthur’s chest rising and falling beneath his, and the soft skirling of his breath into Merlin’s ear, and the warmth of his entire body fitted so close, was the best soporific Merlin had ever known. In the space of a few breaths and one teeth-clacking yawn, he was asleep.

When Merlin woke the next morning, it was the awareness of cold – a fierce biting thing that plagued his dreams, showing him visions of frost drakes nipping at his heels – that prodded him, grumbling, from sleep. He took stock, realizing that his feet had gotten loose from the blankets at some point during the night and now they felt frozen.

“Oh damn,” he hissed as he tried to move his toes.  

“Wha’?” Arthur asked, his face still buried against Merlin’s shoulder. “Y’ ‘kay?”

Sleepy, befuddled Arthur was certainly charming, but Merlin had a real problem here. “Uh, I think my feet are frozen.”

That was enough to bring Arthur fully awake. He sat up and began cursing soundly as the blankets fell away and the cold rushed in to subsume all of their carefully cultivated warmth. “Sorry,” he muttered, rubbing at his eyes with the back of his hand. “Sorry. What did you say about your feet?”

Merlin tried shifting back, but pain shot through his calves and up to his knees as he did so. “I must’ve kicked them out from the blanket,” he said, biting back another hiss at the stabbing sensation. “Sometime during the night. They’re frozen.” He tried to sound annoyed rather than genuinely panicked.

Arthur panicked for him. “What do you mean? How cold are they?” Ignoring Merlin’s protest at losing the remaining cover of the blankets, Arthur shifted around so that he could get to Merlin’s feet.

“Gods, Merlin,” he said after examining them (and it worried Merlin that he didn’t feel it where Arthur’s hands had been pressing at his socks). “They’re like ice.”

“Uh, what do I do?” He’d never experienced anything like it. He’d helped Gaius treat frostbite before, but he didn’t know if that’s what had happened here. And… a few times Gaius hadn’t been able to save digits that had been too-far damaged by freezing, resulting in a toe or finger needing to be amputated.

Arthur frowned but it was clear he was trying to stay focused. “Look, let’s just get you warmed up. We’ll rebuild the fire…” he trailed off. Their small stack of kindling had been picked down to scraps, but nothing that would build a substantial blaze. Arthur stood and dragged Merlin back so that he was propped against the walls, careful to put a few still-warm pillows between him and the frozen stone. He got Merlin his cloak and his scarf and his gloves and covered him with more blankets.

Then he hurried to dress himself, layering to block out the cold. “Look,” he said after he was done, just tugging on his second glove. “The snow has stopped, and it’s going to get warmer soon. I’ll go and dig out some firewood.”

Merlin nodded, but he knew from the concern on Arthur’s face that he didn’t think it would be enough.

“How daft am I?” Merlin complained. “Go off on an adventure to fulfill a prophecy, only to have my gods-be-damned feet frozen off. Brilliant, isn’t it?” he went on, hating his own melancholy but unable to control it. “Well, I suppose the prophecy didn’t say anything about the last dragonlord showing up with both feet.”

“Wait!” Arthur blurted. “That’s it, Merlin.”

Looking up at Arthur like he was the one who’d frozen an extremity, Merlin asked bitterly, “What is? Freezing my feet off?”

“No, you idiot,” Arthur barked. “Your powers. As a dragonlord. You summoned fire yesterday, Merlin. Maybe you can use them to heat yourself up?”

At first, Merlin wanted to laugh, and then he rather wanted to yell at Arthur for mocking him, but then he realized that Arthur was sincere. “Arthur,” he whined. “That’s ridiculous.”

“But it’s not,” Arthur protested immediately. He dropped to Merlin’s side, falling so hard on his knees that Merlin winced, and pressed a gloved hand on either side of Merlin’s scarf-covered face. “It’s not,” he implored. “Merlin, I know you can do this.”

If Arthur hadn’t looked at him like that, hadn’t had that unshakable faith in his eyes, Merlin didn’t think he’d ever try something so… impossible. But with Arthur there – blue eyes so wide, bluer than the damned sky – he figured, why not? The least he could do was fail… which was probably all that would happen anyway.

“Okay,” Merlin nodded. “Okay, but you realize I have no idea what I’m doing?”

Arthur’s grin was blazing, “Yeah, but has that ever stopped you before?”

Damn him, Merlin thought (although really, he thought quite the opposite) and he couldn’t help but grin.

He closed his eyes, feeling for that white-hot place deep within himself he’d felt yesterday when facing the fear of losing Arthur.

Nothing happened.

“It’s not working,” he said softly, not wanting to disappoint Arthur.

“Keep trying,” Arthur urged.

He screwed his eyes tightly shut, straining to feel for… something. He could hear his own blood rushing in an escalating thrum through his ears, and he could smell the bitter cold and the snow. He focused and clenched his fingers tight and pressed his lips together and his whole body went all-over taut and…

… nothing.

Just as he was about to give up, let it all go and call it a wasted effort, Merlin felt the hot press of two points of damp heat against his forehead.

A kiss, from Arthur.

Suddenly, he could see that golden light behind his eyes, and he focused on the warmth rising within him. It felt like submerging in the hot springs, like hot, silken water washing over him and lapping at every point of his body. And when it reached his feet, Merlin gasped and cried out – the pain was almost too much – but it was working, he felt it working.

“That’s it…”

Merlin came aware of Arthur’s low voice, crooning encouragement. He slowly let the heat subside, feeling it drain away like emptying a bath. When he blinked his eyes open, slowly, he saw Arthur grinning at him smugly.

“Knew you could do it,” Arthur said, with the propriety of someone who’d just done the impossible all by himself.

“How are you giving yourself credit?” Merlin asked, though he was laughing, because it had felt… wonderful.

Arthur ignored him and reached down to carefully wrap a hand around Merlin’s foot. “Can you feel this?”

There was still a lingering pins and needles feeling, but that terrifying numbness was gone. He nodded. “Yep. Your hand feels warm.”

“Good,” Arthur said and climbed to his feet. He insisted that Merlin needed to layer on a second pair of thick woolen socks before putting his boots on (despite Merlin’s protests that his boots wouldn’t fit over two pairs of socks that thick) and while Merlin slowly got to his feet, Arthur shifted his attention to breaking camp.

Walking wasn’t the most comfortable sensation at first, but it worked itself out soon enough. Merlin stepped carefully to one of the low points of the wall and looked out past their tumble-down shelter and gasped.

“What is it?”

“Look,” Merlin pointed. Radiating out in a perfect circle at least four body lengths in every direction was a barren patch of scrub and earth where snow had melted completely.

“Oh yeah,” Arthur agreed. “That’s how I knew it was working. Well, that and your eyes glowing again.”

He sounded so unruffled that Merlin couldn’t help but stare at him.

“What?”

“Don’t you come from a kingdom where magic is almost non-existent? How are you so comfortable with this,” he spread his hands wide, taking in their surroundings.

Arthur just grinned. “I’m adapting.”

Merlin muttered something decidedly uncomplimentary under his breath, but Arthur’s simple joy was too hard to ignore.

“Well, unfortunately, I think we’re due for a cold breakfast,” Arthur said after digging through their stores. “I don’t know that we’ll be able to scrounge up enough wood to get a fire hot enough to boil water for porridge.” He didn’t sound all that regretful about that. Though he looked up at Merlin a moment later, speculative. “I don’t suppose you could focus that ability, keep it channeled long enough…”

He trailed off at the incredulous look Merlin shot his way. “No, Arthur,” Merlin said, clipping the tail end of each word with a snap of his teeth. “I don’t think I can harness my newfound mystical power long enough to cook bloody porridge.”

“Right,” Arthur said with a tight nod. “Cold breakfast it is.”

Despite his fit of pique, Merlin helped Arthur put together something substantial enough to serve as breakfast – Merlin found that he was ravenous! – and then after they ate, the pair of them worked together to get the horses readied for another day of travel.

It was a cold, but clear morning they rode into. Arthur had consulted the map, excitedly pointing out that the ruins they’d sheltered in were one of the scratchy little images the Elders had transcribed. They had – at most – half a day left before they reached the mountain, and that sense of nearing completion drove them onward eagerly despite the drifting snow and bitter cold.

The sun peaked high overhead, glaringly white in a pale sky, and Merlin – who’d been doing little more than clutching his cloak tight about him and focusing on the bright red of Arthur’s cloak to keep him going – saw Arthur halt.

Remembering the bandits, how Arthur had come to a similar sudden halt, Merlin yanked back hard on Rowan’s reins. He felt the horses’ irritation and sent a mental apology to his mount.

“What is it?” Merlin asked, looking around for whatever had grabbed Arthur’s attention.

“What do you make of that?” Arthur asked, sounding only mildly concerned. He pointed in an easterly direction.

 Merlin followed his guiding hand and for a moment he wasn’t sure what Arthur saw.

“That… smoke, Merlin,” Arthur explained.

“Oh!” Merlin finally spotted it: billows of steam wafting into the sky like fluffy white cloud pouring right from the earth. “Hot springs!” he cried out.

“Ahh,” Arthur replied and tapped his heels into Snowdrop’s barrel, starting him trudging through the snow-covered fields once more.

“Wait,” Merlin called. “Arthur, hold on.”

Arthur looked back over his shoulder, and fortunately he also halted his mount. “What is it?’

“They’re hot springs, Arthur!”

“You’ve said that already, Merlin.”

He really could be quite thick sometimes, Merlin decided. “I know, and we should go visit them.”

“Why?”

He lifted both hands and gestured them rather flailingly. “Because they’re hot springs. And,” he pushed on before Arthur could repeat himself, “it’s cold out and they’re warm and it was a trying morning and I’d like to enjoy them.”

Arthur looked forward again and Merlin saw his shoulders drop, like he was sighing in resignation. He didn’t answer aloud, but Arthur reined Snowdrop in that direction and started the grey gelding walking.

“Thank you!” Merlin called out happily. Arthur might be reluctantly acquiescing to Merlin’s wishes now, but Merlin knew he’d be thanking him later. He tapped his heels lightly, urging Rowan – and the trailing Milkthistle – to follow.

It didn’t take them long to reach the springs and Merlin nearly leapt off of Rowan in his eagerness. He paused only long enough to worry out a pair of blankets from Milkthistle’s packs and hurried ahead. He ignored Arthur, who was grumbling, and scurried up the snow-laden rocks to where the heat from the springs had melted it, and everything was slick and damp. It was risky, he knew, to put a finger or toe in unfamiliar springs – there were some, he’d heard of, that would boil a person’s skin right off – but Merlin pulled off a glove and held a flattened palm over the swirling water. The heat that licked up at his fingers was warm, but not overly so. He lowered his hand further, and though the steam roiling up made his palm sweat, Merlin knew it was no hotter than the springs at home.

There was one central pool, shallower than the ones he knew, but it was ringed by several smaller pools and in one area the meltwater running down from the heated rocks created a small waterfall. “This is perfect,” he said, waving Arthur to join him, and then he started stripping down.

The combination of wafting steam and brisk cold left him feeling almost feverish by the time he finished undressing, but it was worth it when he put a foot in the mineral blue water. Gingerly, letting each point of his body adjust, he lowered himself into the springs’ depths. “Ohhhh… Arthur,” he moaned once he was fully submerged and the water swirled around his throat. “You have got to try this.”

He looked over the rocks surrounding the spring to see that Arthur had at least dismounted, although he was still standing in calf-deep snow, staring at Merlin like he’d lost his wits. “C’mon,” he urged, waving a hand invitingly.

Finally, Arthur approached. “You druids certainly aren’t shy, are you?” He wrinkled his nose. “And it smells a bit.”

Merlin laughed. “It’s a mineral spring, Arthur, be grateful it doesn’t smell of sulfur. Plus, it does wonders for the body. And, shy? What about your knights? They didn’t seem too troubled by the nature of druids?”

Arthur fought a losing battle against a grin and shook his head. “Well, I blame your druids for being a bad influence.” Despite his complaints, Arthur started getting undressed.

Worried that Arthur might be bashful, Merlin offered, “Do you want me to turn around?”

Arthur just rolled his eyes. “I think knights are probably as comfortable in their skin as druids. You needn’t worry for my virtue.”

Merlin laughed again, utterly delighted.

He swam a few lazy circles while Arthur finished undressing, but Merlin couldn’t help watching as Arthur hooked his thumbs under the waistband of his pants. For a split second, it looked like Arthur might hesitate, then he gulped a swallow and shoved both small clothes and trouser down in one quick motion.

“You’ll want to go slowly,” Merlin cautioned, “your first time. Especially after the cold.”

And that was true, but Merlin also wouldn’t complain about the sight of Arthur’s lean, golden body slowly easing into the water. Every part of Arthur was well-formed, from his shapely feet to his taut calves, to the slightly thick thighs… even his cock – laying quiescent against his thigh – was lovely. Merlin’s gaze travelled upward, cataloguing more details: the deep divots that arrowed beneath a belly that looked both firm and gently padded, defined muscles over a wide ribcage, a broad chest with delightfully pink nipples under a smattering of gilded hairs, and firm, rounded shoulders.

He was almost disappointed when Arthur finally submerged his body up to the smooth line of his throat.

“Oh, by the gods,” Arthur groaned. He looked over at Merlin, who asked a question with a raised brow.

“Yes,” Arthur admitted, “this was worth it. Gods, how do you not spend your entire day in those springs at home? No wonder my knights were so taken with them.” He pushed away from the water-slicked rocks and crossed the length of the pool in three short strokes.

“Not a lot of room for swimming,” Merlin said when Arthur turned back.

“That’s all right. Just soaking is wonderful.”

They paddled around a little and Merlin found a nice little submerged shelf that he could settle on without needing to lift more than the top edges of his shoulders out of the water. Arthur tried a few more laps but eventually he gave up and let himself float.

“You can join me over here,” Merlin invited. “There’s a bit of rock sticking out, under the water. Makes a perfect seat.”

Arthur looked just a bit wary, but he floated easily through the water and joined Merlin a moment later. When he climbed up and got settled, he looked to Merlin with a grin. “All right. Yes, this is perfect.” There was just enough room for the two of them to sit with their shoulders pressed together.

They both reclined against the rocks, just soaking in the steaming, faintly mineral scented water.

Merlin felt himself starting to drift, getting a bit light-headed and drowsy from the heat, when the tentative touch of something against his thigh made him suddenly sit bolt upright.

“Sorry,” Arthur hurried to say. “I just thought…” he looked away, and didn’t finish his sentence.

Merlin searched out Arthur’s hand under the water, catching it in his fingers and grasping tight. “You thought right,” he said fervently.

“Oh,” Arthur said, and the doubt that darkened his features melted away when Merlin leaned in and caught his mouth in a kiss.

Where last night’s kisses had been soft and intimate, these were wild and desperate. There was finally so much skin to explore and map with their fingers and occasionally lips and tongues. Merlin hooked one arm around the back of Arthur’s neck, holding tight and then traced the flat of his other hand all over that firm chest that had so intrigued him.

Arthur petted at Merlin’s chest and his thigh, stroking bold hands over his belly and down his spine until he wiggled one under Merlin’s arse and squeezed.

Giving a yelping giggle, Merlin nipped at the point of Arthur’s shoulder and his hand slid southward in retaliation. It bumped over the dips and ridges of Arthur’s ribs and then traced a slow path down to his belly – soft and a little plump when he was sitting, but firm beneath – until finally it reached the soft hairs nestled above Arthur’s cock. Against the back of his knuckles, Merlin could feel that it was firm and full.

“Arthur,” he husked out softly, still pressing kisses into the tight arc of muscle below Arthur’s neck.  

Before he could get the words out – figuring it might be better to ask before just taking Arthur in hand – Arthur’s free hand was there, guiding Merlin’s fingers and wrapping with them around his own cock.

Merlin let out a whimper, while Arthur threw his head back with a low, rumbling groan. Pressing teeth into the exposed line of Arthur’s throat, Merlin slowly began to stroke. The water impeded any quick, jerking motion, but the slow and steady gliding pull had Arthur cursing out a low ululation after only a few minutes.

The fingers tangled in his tightened, so Merlin squeezed hard and dragged his palm and Arthur’s foreskin over the tip with every languorous stroke, and Arthur’s legs kicked out and he gasped a noiseless cry. Merlin eased him through it, until Arthur’s cock began to soften and then he let go when Arthur’s limp fingers scrabbled rather uselessly at his.

He continued plying Arthur’s collar bone and throat and the line of his jaw with playful kisses while Arthur breathed in and out in a heavy, open-mouthed pant. Eventually his breathing evened out and he tipped his head forward, ducking toward Merlin’s mouth to kiss him feverishly.

A whine built in Merlin’s throat as Arthur practically mauled him with biting, open-mouth kisses and delving tongue. He shifted, trying to turn on the narrow rock shelf so he could press his aching cock against Arthur’s… well any part of Arthur really.

“I’ve got you,” Arthur breathed out against his mouth. He got both hands on Merlin’s sides and lifted him bodily until he was straddling Arthur’s thighs and then let go. Merlin wrapped both arms around Arthur’s neck and settled down against him, gasping as his cock pressed hard against Arthur’s abdomen. He rocked his hips rhythmically, rutting with abandon, rubbing himself off.

“Let me,” Arthur grunted urgently, and he managed to work a hand between them, curving it around Merlin’s cock, trapping it tighter between his palm and belly. With his other hand, Arthur cupped Merlin’s arse again and encouraged the rolling motion of his hips.

“Arthur,” Merlin cried out, rocking his hips faster and faster. With a last, hard thrust, Merlin’s back arched and his hips jerked forward and he came so hard it left him breathless.  Arthur was quick to catch Merlin once his arms fell slack, losing the tight hold they had around Arthur’s neck, and he nearly flopped backward off of Arthur’s lap.

“By all the old gods,” he slurred, still whimpering as aftershocks shuddered through him.

“I’m going to take that as a compliment,” Arthur said, once again smug.

Barely able to lift his head far enough for a baleful glare, Merlin settled for sticking out his tongue.

“C’mon,” Arthur urged, “you should sit up. Your hair’s getting all wet and it’s going to freeze later.”

Merlin waved that away, hands swishing lazily through the water. “I’ll use my scarf to dry it.”

“Oh?” Arthur asked, a bit of a demon in his tone.

Merlin raised his head a few inches, peering at Arthur. He really ought to have listened.

With a rather spectacular heave, Arthur lifted Merlin as far as he could out of the water and threw him back so that he landed in the water with a massive splash.  Sputtering, Merlin came to the surface to the sounds of Arthur’s braying laughter.

“Oh? Really?”

And since the splash had already soaked Arthur’s blond hair – dampening it to a dark gold – Merlin felt no compunction whatsoever about launching himself at Arthur and dragging him to the small waterfall and shoving him under it.

They both shivered and gasped – the water trickling down was a peculiar combination of icy cold and warm.

Calling an unspoken truce, Arthur tugged Merlin back through the water and got them settled on the rock ledge once again. “Do you think these springs could be the source?” Arthur asked playfully. “I mean, maybe we should stay and explore them a bit more. You know, before we move on?”

Merlin snorted. “Weren’t you the one who didn’t want to stop?”

“I am fully prepared to admit when I am wrong, Merlin,” Arthur said… And then didn’t say anything else.

Merlin splashed him.

Unfortunately, Arthur’s mention of the purpose of their mission was enough to remind them that – no matter how much they might’ve wanted to – they couldn’t tarry any longer. Merlin was the first to ease himself out of the springs and he grabbed up one of the blankets and wrapped himself in it.

“You thought ahead,” Arthur said, grinning.

“Well, the other day I forgot to bring a drying cloth and my mum made me hop right out of the water and get dressed. Damp clothes over damp skin didn’t work so well.”

Arthur moved to the edge of the pool and lifted himself out on strong arms. He stood, his whole body juddering with the loss of heat and the chill of the air. Merlin hurried to hand him a blanket. After he’d wrapped it around himself and scrubbed an edge roughly through his hair, mussing it pleasantly, Arthur asked, “Why did your mum make you get out of the water?”

“Oh, well, it was right before ritual. I had to go to the Acolyte’s lodge and get all,” – he gestured down at himself – “ceremonial.”

“Ahh,” Arthur replied and then he gave a very naughty sort of grin. “I thought you looked very good in your ceremonial robe and paint.”

Merlin finished drying and started to dress. “Wait, I thought you said I was deceptive for the decoration over my dragonmark?”

“Merlin,” Arthur scoffed. “You’d had me washing you down and you were standing there all bare and glistening. Not to mention, I was still a bit overcome from the whole suddenly married thing. I think you should forgive me for a stray, thoughtless remark.”

Merlin considered it for a moment. “Fine,” he offered reluctantly. Then he peeked over at Arthur, watching him pull on his tunic. “You liked the ceremonial outfit?”

“You looked fey and magical. I was entranced. Well, before I got distracted by the whole dragon, mystical fire, egg thing.” He snickered.

Blushing, which was silly considering what they’d just done, Merlin said. “Well, I thought you were unfairly handsome when I first ran into you in the wood.”

“Why unfairly?”

“Because you were such a prat,” Merlin teased.

They continued trading barbs and laughter while they finished dressing, but once they’d finally donned cloaks and gloves and scarves, Arthur reluctantly led them away from the spring and back to their waiting horses.

“We really shouldn’t have too far to go,” Arthur said as he lifted himself rather effortlessly into the saddle. “I expect we’ll find the cave before nightfall. We can encamp one more night and explore in the morning.”

Merlin found that plan to be fully satisfactory, so he nodded and hauled himself into his saddle.

The day had actually warmed, and the fluffy fields of white slowly became a thick, heavy mass which made their passage a bit more slow-going than Arthur had hoped. The wet snow clung to the thick feathering around the horse’s fetlocks and more than once they had to stop to work out thick clumps from the tangle of hair or built-up under hoof.

Fortunately, as they rode further north, they headed into rockier landscape, full of deep kettles and peaked drumlins and ridges of exposed stone. Though the elevation was higher, the storm seemed to have mostly bypassed the area and eventually the ground – while hard and frozen – was free of snow. The mountains they rode towards, the Three Sisters – three similar peaks, just as Kilgharrah had said and just as aptly named – rose in the distance and grew with every league they traversed.

Delayed as they were, it was after sunset by the time Merlin spotted a dark, incongruous shape high up on the nearest mountainside. “There!” he called out. “That must be it.”

Arthur’s gaze followed Merlin’s finger and he seemed to need to lift his head a very long time until he was looking at the tall, narrow hole in the mountain. “That’s Ossian’s Cave?”

“I believe so,” Merlin said, but he was strangely sure of it.

“Well,” Arthur said, and it sounded like he was trying very hard not to be discouraged. “That’s going to be interesting to get to.”

“We’ll manage,” Merlin told him. “Trust me.”

They rode on a bit longer, getting further into the foothills of the mountain until Arthur found a place he considered suitable for camping. “Plenty of wood, at least,” he said after dismounting and exploring the area a bit. “Though it’ll be another cold night. And we’d best move quickly, or we’ll lose the light entirely.”

“Stew again?” Merlin offered, knowing that a hot meal would be especially welcome after several chilly hours in the saddle.

Arthur fixed him with a fond look. “Only if you don’t mind, Merlin.”

Merlin dismissed his concern with a shake of his head. “Not at all.”

They settled into a routine that had become easy, comfortable. Arthur took extra care with the horses, combing balls of ice out of their feathery legs and checking hooves with diligence. Merlin, meanwhile worked quickly to prepare his stew, eventually chopping turnips by the light of the campfire. It was well into night, the stars and a crescent moon lighting the dark curtain above, by the time they both finished up and the stew was cooked.

“Delicious,” Arthur said once they were both seated close together by the fire.

“Thank you,” Merlin replied, quite pleased. “Someday though, you’re going to have to learn to make stew you know.”

Arthur chuckled but he nodded as well. “I suppose I will. Although… I can usually just call down to the castle’s kitchens if I’ve a desire for a well-made stew.”

Merlin didn’t say anything then, choosing to focus on the warmth of his meal and simple pleasure of Arthur’s conversation, but he knew that they’d need to talk about it soon. Tonight, most likely.

Arthur must’ve sensed that he had something weighing down his mind though, because after they’d eaten and the bowls and cookpot were rinsed, Arthur placed their bedrolls together once again and urged Merlin to get ready for bed.

Cuddling together again, finding all the ways their bodies fit together naturally and comfortably, Merlin was reluctant to disturb the warmth and quiet.

“What is it?” Arthur asked, not letting him avoid it. “What’s troubling you?”

He didn’t want to bring it up… he was afraid what he might learn, but Merlin knew it couldn’t wait. He rolled over in their cocoon of heavy covers, nestling his back against Arthur’s chest and pulled Arthur’s arms tight around him. Even though it was dark and they couldn’t really see each other any longer, Merlin found it easier to speak without facing Arthur directly. “What you said earlier,” he began, searching out a way to start the conversation. “I mean, about the castle and the kitchen. Uh, we’ve not talked at all about what will happen after… well, uh, after tomorrow, I guess.”

Their heads were close and Arthur’s heavy exhale stirred the faint hairs at Merlin’s nape. “You’re right. We’ve really not talked about that.”

“Will you… go back to Camelot?”

Again, Arthur let out a sigh. “I hope to, Merlin.”

“Oh,” Merlin said, hoping the disappointment wasn’t too evident in his reply.

“But Merlin,” Arthur added, “I want to take you with me.”

“Oh,” Merlin said again, but this time with an entirely different inflection.

“Look,” Arthur said, nearly pressing his mouth into Merlin’s hair as he spoke, “I told you that I’ve known my whole life that I’d marry as I was told. And, I am bound by my role as heir to the throne of Camelot, and as a knight, and the son of Uther Pendragon, to hold to my word and my vow.” He gave a bit of a demonstrative squeeze. “Like it or not, Merlin, we’re bound. That is not some… temporary thing. I take my vow seriously and will do whatever it takes to make a life with you.”

Before Merlin could respond – his voice caught in a knot of emotion in his throat – Arthur continued. “I do not know what will happen tomorrow. It’s possible that whatever does happen, it could mean that we’ll need to stay in the Valley of Fallen Kings. If that’s the case, I imagine I’ll have to abdicate in favor of Morgana – and the gods help Camelot if that happens – but I won’t abandon you, or this. Though,” he admitted in an even softer voice, “I do want to take you home to meet my mother.”

The knot untangled itself around a watery gasp – that was absolutely not a sob – and Merlin clung tight to Arthur’s arms. “I want that too, Arthur. And, I feel the same… my whole life has brought me to this… to you. I don’t want to lose that.”

“You’re not crying, are you?” Arthur asked suspiciously, though Merlin suspected that was just to cover up the way his own voice shook.

“No,” Merlin protested. “I’m just shivering. It’s cold out you know.”

The hot breath of Arthur’s laugh gusted against Merlin’s neck. “Right. Right.” He kissed Merlin’s nape. After a few quiet moments passed he said softly. “I’d like a ceremony. A real one. In Camelot. None of that druid ritual nonsense.”

Merlin scoffed in protest. “Hey!” Though he couldn’t disagree. “That’d be nice. I’d like it if my parents could be there.”

“Yeah,” Arthur agreed, “I want my mother to attend, if she’s able. We could always hold it outside her window if she’s not feeling well enough.”

“You know,” Merlin offered. “I could bring Gaius along too. He’s the most powerful healer amongst all the druids. He might be able to help her?” He didn’t want to promise anything – obviously they’d had a lifetime of failed attempts – but he also wanted to give Arthur some small sliver of hope.

“I would be grateful.”

His next kiss, just below Merlin’s ear, had a lazy, sleepy feel and Merlin could tell from the way that Arthur’s breathing was slowing, evening out, that he was drifting. He didn’t mind. They might not have all the answers, and there would still be decisions to follow, but he was content that they’d make them together.

“Sleep well, Arthur,” he whispered.

Arthur’s reply was a barely-heard, but still audible, “You too, Merlin…love you…”

And perhaps Arthur hadn’t meant to let Merlin hear, or hadn’t meant to let the words slip out, but they filled Merlin’s heart to bursting and Merlin let that buoyant joy carry him into a peaceful slumber.

Morning brought with it a layer of crisp frost over everything, and the blankets over them were stiff and heavy.

“Merlin?” Arthur grunted. They’d shifted very little from their positions the night before and Arthur still had his arms around Merlin’s torso and his lips close to Merlin’s neck.

“Yeah?” Merlin asked.

“Just checking.”

“Checking what. If I’m awake or if I’m alive?”

Arthur snuffled a noise below Merlin’s ear. “Both. Making sure you didn’t freeze up overnight.”

“Thanks,” Merlin grumbled. “Just for that, you’re getting porridge for breakfast.”

“Damn.”

“Come on, Arthur,” Merlin prodded. “Let’s get going. Today’s the day we fulfill the prophecy. Whatever the hell that means.”

Unfortunately promises of prophecy fulfillment weren’t enough to entice Arthur to wakefulness. However, the gust of cold air sweeping in as Merlin whisked off one of their blankets certainly was.

“Merlin,” Arthur complained. But he let Merlin loose from his embrace and he stretched and eventually dragged himself up from their makeshift nest.

Merlin hurried to stoke up their fire.

Grumbling, Arthur went to work breaking down their bedding and getting the horses fed and watered.

“Porridge?” Arthur asked a bit later, looking over Merlin’s should while he ran a wooden spoon around the circumference of the cookpot.

“You’re going to learn to love it, you know,” Merlin insisted.

Arthur made a doubtful noise, but he didn’t complain – much – at the steaming bowl of fruit and nut laden, delicately sweetened and spice oats that Merlin offered him. In fact, he scraped the pot of the small portion leftover in the bottom.

Merlin just smiled smugly.

“We’ll need to leave the horses here,” Arthur said after they’d finished their breakfast. “We’ll leave enough fodder to last them the day, plus there’s some dry grasses, so they shouldn’t go hungry. I’ve unpacked the ropes and the pick. I think we’re going to need them to get up there.” He glanced up to the side of the mountain where the entrance to Ossian’s Cave seemed to hang unnaturally against the rock face.

“Right,” Merlin agreed. He understood Arthur’s concerns, but he had no doubts about their ability to make it up that far.

“Should we bring our other gear?” Arthur asked. “We have no idea what’s waiting for us or how long we’ll have to be up there. Might not be a bad idea to bring packs and enough food and water and equipment for at least a night.”

Again, Merlin agreed.

That decided, he helped Arthur pack-up two satchels, stuffing them both full of anything they thought they might need. Arthur ensured they had the makings of one pallet and blankets for two, while Merlin packed enough dried meat and the last of their little hard loaves and a few other sundries to keep them sated. They also had to find a good way to secure Merlin’s staff, managing with a little trial and error to tuck it through Arthur’s pack and tie it on to keep it from sliding free. lastly, they brought the egg out of Merlin’s saddlebag where it had been hidden away securely the past days. Despite Kilgharrah’s insistence that they couldn’t break it, Merlin still took extra care to tie it tight to his satchel.

It was late morning by the time they declared themselves ready to make the ascent.

True to Merlin’s predictions, the climb went easier than Arthur had feared. Although it was still a bit more harrowing than he’d anticipated. Arthur went first, and he had a rope tied tight around his waist while the other end was looped around Merlin’s. He used the pick quite judiciously as he slowly inched them further and further up the mountainside. Luckily some areas were wide enough that they could climb much like they would uneven steps, and best of all, there was a rather large, flat plateau just before the entrance to the actual cave.

Arthur took Merlin’s hand, hauling him up the final few feet, and they slumped heavily onto the plateau to catch their breath.

“See,” Merlin said, his breath coming in a short, sharp pant that gusted steam into the air. “Not so bad.”

Arthur laughed and flung an arm at him… missing entirely.

Eventually, rested and recovered, Arthur helped Merlin to his feet and they approached the odd, narrow ingress to the cave.

“Doesn’t look all that deep,” Arthur remarked.

Merlin didn’t want to agree – he’d been expecting that it opened wide beyond its rather thin mouth – but he was forced to nod. “Maybe it’ll change once we get inside?”

 “Right,” Arthur said, though there was doubt in his tone.

Merlin went in first, peering into the darkness.

Arthur stayed outside a moment, futzing with something in his pack, and when he finally stepped into the gloom, it was brightened a moment later by the spark of flint and then even more fully by the cheery, dancing light of a torch. “Thought we could use one of these,” he offered with a grin.

“Thanks,” Merlin said, and though he appreciated the gesture, he was too focused on exploring the small space to say anything else. It was temperate enough inside that they discarded their cloaks and gloves and scarves, piling them near the entrance, and Merlin went back to his studious search. The cave did widen slightly towards the back, but not too significantly. Still, Merlin gamely explored every wall and every surface and he even lifted the torch as high as he could to examine the ceiling.

There was nothing… no sign of a stone dragon or any other hints of dragon at all. There were no markings or writing on the damp stone walls. The cave was empty.

Still, Merlin searched. He ran his hands over rock and prodded at small crevasses, and kicked up the layer of moss on the ground.

Eventually though, he had to admit defeat. “There’s nothing here,” he said morosely.

“Maybe we just haven’t found it yet?” Arthur suggested.

“Or there’s nothing to find,” Merlin countered.

“Or,” Arthur countered right back, “maybe this isn’t the right cave?”

Growing frustrated with Arthur’s damnable reasoning, Merlin shot back. “Or, maybe the Elders and Kilgharrah were wrong and this isn’t where we need to be at all and we’ll never find the place where I’m supposed to go and complete this damn prophecy!”

“We,” Arthur said softly after a moment, blinking passively in the face of Merlin’s ire.

“What?”

“We,” Arthur repeated. “We’re supposed to go to this place and we’re supposed to fulfill the prophecy. Together.”

There was hurt tugging lines around his eyes, Merlin realized.  A hot flush of shame swept over him. “I’m sorry, Arthur,” he said, reaching out to hook his fingers in Arthur’s. “You’re right. We. We’ll do this. Together. No matter how long it takes.” He squeezed Arthur’s fingers tight, relieved when Arthur squeezed back.

Despite that statement, the weight of Merlin’s failure dragged at him. Arthur stayed a stolid, silent support while Merlin paced and brooded. Eventually, he got a fire going near the cave’s entrance and started on getting a meal ready.

“C’mon, Merlin,” he encouraged some time later. “Get something to eat.”

Merlin started to protest. He’d taken up a kneeling position near the very back corner of the cave, propping the egg near him, and simply stared up at the high walls and sloping ceiling, hoping inspiration would come. He’d even tried reaching out mentally to Kilgharrah, to no avail.

“I can hear your stomach growling from over here,” Arthur pointed out.

And Merlin had to admit, he was getting hungry. He joined Arthur at the fire, and looked down at the bowl that was set in his hands with a raised brow. “You made stew?”

“You said I needed to learn how,” Arthur said, a sly smile playing at his lips.

Tentatively, Merlin dipped his spoon in, scooping a heaping mound full of thick vegetables and chunks of meat. No matter how it tasted, Merlin told himself, he was going to reassure Arthur that it was good.  He may have blown a stream of air over it for longer than necessary to cool it, but when he couldn’t delay the inevitable any longer, he opened his mouth and took a bite.

It was… delicious. Savory and well-seasoned and there was a hint of something unusual in the perfectly thickened broth. Merlin swallowed it down and then gaped at Arthur.

Who was hiding his impish smile behind his own bowl.

“You bastard!” Merlin shouted, but it was accompanied by a guffaw of laughter.

“To be fair,” Arthur said, “you never actually asked me if I could make stew.”

At that moment, not even the crushing disappointment at finding the cave empty and lacking all sign of what to do next, could weigh down Merlin’s heart. Even if they never did fulfill the prophecy, Merlin had Arthur… and that was better than any destiny of dragons.

Merlin kept that thought to himself, but he did gobble down the rest of his stew.

“It’s too dark to climb back down now,” Arthur said after they’d eaten (scraping the cookpot clean with heels of bread). “We’ll sleep in here tonight.”

Though he didn’t relish the thought of spending the night in this place that had so disappointed him, Merlin knew it made sense. He helped Arthur get their one pallet and bedroll laid out and the blankets spread out over the top of it.

To his surprise, instead of just kicking off his boot and getting into the bedroll fully dressed, Arthur continued stripping down. He fixed Merlin with a look that could only be called lustful.

“Arthur?” Merlin asked, swallowing hard.

“It’s been a long day, Merlin and a long journey. It’s comfortable in here, secluded, and we don’t have to huddle under blankets. Let’s… enjoy this night.” His hot-eyed gaze swept over Merlin from head to toe and Merlin’s skin tingled.

Merlin lurched to his feet and began peeling off his clothes. The fire had warmed the air considerably and Merlin didn’t even feel chilled as he kicked his trousers away from his feet – though he did leave his socks on – and then scrambled to meet Arthur atop their bed.

Arthur caught his hand and towed him in, and then drew him immediately into a kiss. They stood for a while, kissing and caressing, pressing their bodies close and touching everywhere, but eventually Arthur took Merlin’s hand once more and lowered him gently to the bedroll.

He laid Merlin on his back and pressed a hand on his chest to keep him there. Then he trailed a line of hot, sucking kisses from Merlin’s throat to the point of his hip, where he sucked and licked. Just inches away from Merlin’s cock, which strained and dripped and ached to be touched by those lips.

“Arthur,” Merlin whined. “Please.”

Huffing out a laugh against Merlin’s skin, Arthur finally gave in. “Just be patient,” he teased, but he was quick to put Merlin out of his misery. His lips pressed lightly at the tip of Merlin’s cock, sliding through the beading moisture, and then his tongue darted out, flicking over the flat of the head with a firm stroke.

Merlin’s hips bucked, and he sputtered out a breathy, “Sorry… sorry.”

Arthur just laughed again, though he threw an arm over Merlin’s hips to pin him down. Then he returned to his slow, lingering exploration.

When Merlin was writhing, and begging for something… anything more, only then did Arthur take Merlin’s cock into his mouth. He engulfed Merlin’s cock slowly in that tight, wet heat and when he’d gone down as far as he could, he sucked gently.

Only the firm weight of Arthur’s body holding him down kept Merlin from thrashing wildly. “Arthur,” he cried out desperately.

Arthur’s head bobbed up and down in a slow, infuriatingly slow, steady rhythm and he sucked on his upstrokes and pushed his tongue against the tip on the down. It was the most mind-blowing, agonizing thing Merlin had ever felt.

Finally, finally Merlin felt his orgasm build. He tried to thrust up, to get just a little more friction, and just when he thought Arthur was stepping up his tempo to bring Merlin to release, Arthur pulled off.

“Noooo!” Merlin howled. “Arthur… please.” He opened eyes that had been squeezed painfully tight. Arthur was staring down at him with the wickedest, most self-satisfied grin. “Arthur,” he pleaded. “Arthur, please,” he cajoled.

Arthur shook his head. “There’s something else I want, Merlin.”

Throwing his head back into the bedding Merlin whimpered. “There’s something I want, Arthur,” he whined and reached for his own aching cock. Only to have his hands slapped away.

“Sorry,” Arthur said, though he didn’t remotely sound it, “but I’ve got something else in mind for this.” He pressed a too-brief kiss on the side of Merlin’s cock.

Merlin frowned up at him, watching as Arthur’s gaze went from heated and teasing to utterly imploring.

Damn, there was probably nothing Merlin wouldn’t do for that look. “Fine,” Merlin exhaled with a groan.

“Good,” Arthur said, nudging him with an elbow. “Move off.”

“Huh?”

Arthur bit at his lip rather coyly but he prodded Merlin again. “I’d uh… like to lay down.”

“Oh,” Merlin said, frowning. Then, “Oh!” as comprehension dawned. He scrambled up from the bedroll, wincing as his heavy cock knocked against his own thigh. He knew he’d made the right call the moment Arthur stretched out in his place. On his belly, Arthur rested his head on his crossed arms and the sideward smile he fixed on Merlin made his heart skip and his cock throb.

“Arthur,” Merlin breathed. “Are you –”

Before he could even get the question out, Arthur nodded. “Very sure.”

And Merlin wanted. Oh, how he wanted.

“Um, don’t we need… something to uh, ease the way?”

“It’ll be fine,” Arthur said.

“No,” Merlin shook his head. “I’m sure I can…” He thought hard, finding it so very hard to focus his attention with Arthur laid out before him so inviting. He couldn’t help tracing fingers over the curve of Arthur’s pert arse.

“Salve!” he blurted.

“What?”

“Salve. Uh, it’s for scrapes and burns. I’m sure I’ve got some in my pack.” He scrambled to his feet awkwardly, the drag of his swinging cock making walking a straight line rather farcical. Luckily, the packs were near the cave’s entrance, and the cool air seeping in staid Merlin’s libido slightly. He crouched down and pawed somewhat desperately through his satchel. “Please let me have brought it,” he muttered, suddenly fearful that his small stash of Gaius’ herbals and tonics had been moved to another container when they’d packed for their climb.

But no… there it was: a small clay jar with a cork stopper that Merlin knew was full of a soothing, slick unguent. He grabbed it and hobbled back to Arthur’s side.

Arthur had apparently watched all this with great amusement. He was chuckling. And occasionally grinding his hips down into the soft layer of bedding. And if Merlin’s erection had flagged slightly from the cold, that sight brought it back to aching hardness.

“I’ve never actually done this,” Merlin admitted, even as he yanked the stopper from the jar with his teeth.

Arthur laughed again, gazing up at Merlin rather adoringly. “Me either,” he said, “but I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

He coated his fingers and gently worked a generous amount of the salve in the hot space between Arthur’s cheeks. Then he pushed in a single digit, feeling that tight, clenching heat engulf him, and he waited. 

Arthur gasped and squirmed. But he reached back to grope at Merlin’s thigh. “Keep going,” he urged.

Merlin did, pushing deeper.

After only a few minutes Arthur nodded against the blankets. “More,” he said.

“It’s too soon,” Merlin protested halfheartedly, although he was already pulling out, ready to push back in with two fingers.

“Merlin,” Arthur said, voice pitching into a whine.

“Fine,” Merlin said with mock-aggravation. He delved in with two fingers, pressed close together. A shudder worked its way down Arthur’s spine, and his breath started to come in a light pant. “Go on,” he insisted. “More.” 

A third finger joined the first two, and he saw Arthur flinch. He started to pull them out, but Arthur barked out, “No. No, it’s okay. It’s good. Keep going.”

Trusting that Arthur would stop him if he needed to, Merlin did pull out then, but only to coat his fingers with more salve. He eased only two fingers back in, but pushed them deep.

Arthur let out a hiss. “Yesss, Merlin…”

Merlin couldn’t hold back any longer. He withdrew his fingers – swallowing hard at Arthur’s aching noise of loss – gave his cock a perfunctory swipe with a dollop of salve and then moved to kneel in between Arthur’s legs.

“Arthur,” he said, trying to find even a modicum of calm within a body that urged him on, to rut, to claim, to make Arthur his. “Arthur… promise me you’ll stop me if it’s–”

“Merlin,” Arthur bit out through gritted teeth, though he was smiling as well. “Please, just take me. Now.”

“Right… uh. Right.” He curled over the bow of Arthur’s back and nudged his knees harder into Arthur’s thighs, forcing him to spread wider. Then he took hold of the base of his cock, tightening his fingers in a firm ring – he wanted to last long enough to get inside Arthur – and then he pushed forward. The tip of his cock slipped into place, and almost before he knew it was happening, Merlin felt Arthur’s tight heat close around him.

He exhaled a long, gloriously agonized moan.

Arthur, meanwhile, grappled back for Merlin’s thigh again, and urged him on. “C’mon, Merlin. I can take it.”

Biting his lip, Merlin drove his hips forward slowly, until the full length of his cock was buried inside Arthur. He held his breath, and moved his hands to Arthur’s hips, holding him so, so tight. His forehead pressed into the dip of Arthur’s spine between his shoulder blades and he tried very slowly, to remember how to breathe.

Beneath him, Arthur shifted restively. “Merlin,” he whined.

“Just... give me a minute.” Merlin warned. “You have no idea how good this feels.”

Somehow, without saying anything, Merlin could feel smug radiating off Arthur. He finally caught his breath and got the barest grip on his burgeoning orgasm and then slowly pulled out. He drew back until only the tip was inside Arthur, and then plunged forward again.

The sound that escaped from Arthur’s lips was one that Merlin knew he’d never be able to even think on in polite company without going immediately hard as stone in his trousers. It was… bliss. And something about that noise – that utter ecstasy – allowed Merlin to hold just a little bit tighter to his control. He wanted Arthur to make that noise again, and again; to shout it, to hear it dragged from his throat until it was raw from screaming.

He worked his body in a slowly building tempo, going from deep thrusts to shallow rolls of his hips and Arthur responded beautifully to it all, only calling out for more and deeper and harder… He rocked back to meet Merlin, their bodies finding a rhythm that seemed impossibly in sync.

All too soon, Merlin could feel his control slipping. “Arthur,” he managed to gasp out. “Arthur, I’m going to come.”

“Wait,” Arthur – impossibly – pleaded. “Just… a little bit more.”

“I’m sorry,” Merlin choked out. In a few more thrusts of his pistoning hips he’d be gone.

Before that could happen though, Arthur clambered back for Merlin’s hand, dragging it from its death grip on his hip to clench, their fingers entwined, on Arthur’s heavy, hot cock.

Arthur made that desperate sound again, agonized and exulting all at once, and Merlin felt wet heat pulse over his fingers and then his vision went white and he drove deep into Arthur’s body and came with a wordless, throat-scraping gasp.

“Merlin…”

“Merlin…”

It took Merlin a very, very long time to realize that Arthur was speaking his name. Granted, it was more a repetitive pant that he gasped and groaned, but still… Merlin could only desperately suck in air as his galloping heart threatened to lurch right out of his chest. His body was collapsed, limp and wrung-out, over Arthur’s in a boneless heap.

“Oh, by all the old gods,” Merlin breathed.

“Merlin,” Arthur said again. And when Merlin continued to ignore him, Arthur wriggled the hand that was still laced around his cock out from beneath him and slapped a come-sticky hand at Merlin’s thigh.

“Ugh, Arthur,” Merlin complained petulantly, “Just let me enjoy the afterglow.”

“Uh, I’d really like to, Merlin, but is the afterglow supposed to be this… literal?”

Blinking, Merlin raised his head from the slope of Arthur’s spine and immediately he realized what Arthur was talking about. There was a warm, flicking orange glow brightening the whole of the cave… and it wasn’t coming from the campfire.

“What the hell?”

Merlin lifted his chest away from Arthur’s back slowly, easing their sweat soaked bodies apart. He craned his head around trying to find the source of that odd light.

Then he spotted it:

The staff!

The amber stone in the dragon’s mouth burned bright.

“It’s the staff,” Merlin said. And then, “Sorry about this,” He pulled his spent cock from Arthur’s body – frowning at Arthur’s noise of complaint – and got to his feet. He walked over and picked up the staff. It felt weirdly alive in his hand, like it was humming with the buzz of a thousand bees.

“Merlin, look!” Arthur – who’d rolled up to his side to watch Merlin – was pointing past him, toward the back of the cave.

Except when Merlin turned, there was no back to the cave. Instead, it opened up into a secondary chamber.

“We have got to check this out!”

“Here,” Arthur tossed trousers at him. “At least put these on. You don’t know what’s in there.” But beneath the caution, Merlin could hear that his excitement equaled Merlin’s own. They both hurried to dress, tunics and trousers only, and then Arthur came to stand by Merlin’s side.

“Shall we go in?”

Merlin nodded. He stepped cautiously past the dark boundary that had been a cave wall only a few minutes earlier, and peered into the space beyond.

It was difficult to see much beyond the immediate area around them, illuminated as it was by the staff, but Merlin could see that the floor of this much larger cavern was littered with chunks of rock and small boulders.

He took another step forward.

“What is that?” Arthur asked, pointing to the smooth, oddly polished walls.

Merlin stepped closer, leaning the light of the staff nearer so he could see.  Scratched into the wall, or maybe seared in, were rows and rows of some kind of text.  It was familiar to him in a strange sort of way that made his brain itch. After staring at it for a few minutes, Merlin blinked with realization. “It’s… it’s the prophecy.”

“The prophecy?” Arthur echoed. “How do you know? All I see are strange, squiggly lines.”

“Arthur!” Merlin gasped out, “I can read it. I can read the ancient dragon tongue.”

He scanned the familiar lines on the wall and then frowned… they weren’t so familiar after all. “No,” he began to mutter, “that’s not right. And that’s… not what. Uhh… Wait.”

“Merlin?” Arthur asked, stepping up to his shoulder. “What’s wrong?”

Merlin shook his head, disbelieving. “This is the prophecy, but it’s… wrong. I mean… my people, the Elders and even Kilgharrah, they interpreted it wrong.”

“They did?”

For a moment the alarm in Arthur’s voice surprised Merlin, but then he realized what Arthur might fear. “No, not about us,” he hurried to reassure him. “I mean, that part is still there. You and I, we’re still two halves that make the other whole, and I’m still the last dragonlord. It was still our coming together that set things in motion.”

“Then what’s wrong?”

“Well, quite a few small things. But uh… one rather large one.” He turned to Arthur. “It’s uhhh… not the sovereign, penultimate dragon that was waiting for.”

“Oh?” Arthur frowned. “Well then what was it?”

“The uhh,” Merlin swallowed hard. “The royal Pendragon.”

“The royal Pen…” Arthur trailed off. “You mean I was called out in this prophecy from eons ago?”

“Yes,” Merlin nodded.

Arthur eyed him knowingly. He’d learned to read Merlin too well already. “But there’s still something else.” He thought about it for a moment and then snapped his fingers. “But didn’t the prophecy say something about you defeating the sovereign… I mean, the Pendragon?”

“Uhh,” Merlin gulped again. “Well… sort of? The translation that you heard at the ritual said: ‘there shall the last of the lords of us lay low the sovereign one, the penultimate of dragons.’”

“Right,” Arthur agreed. “And I’m the sovereign, penultimate one.”

“Yes.” Merlin said.

He could see Arthur work it out. “last of lords is you. The last dragonlord. Uh, lay low…” Arthur’s eyes shot open wide. “You mean, because you… because we. Uh, because I uh…”

Keeping as tight a hold on his hysterics as he could manage, Merlin nodded. “Yes. The uh, literal translation is much more prosaic. And a bit more graphic.”

Arthur’s jaw fell open. “You mean, there’s been an eons old prophecy about you and me and how we needed to fuck?”

Merlin couldn’t hold back any longer. He roared. He laughed and laughed until his sides began to ache and he couldn’t stand upright any longer.

Fortunately, after only a few minutes, Arthur joined him.

When Merlin finally got control of his hysterics, it was only his tight grip on the staff that kept him upright. It was still glowing merrily, throwing peculiar shadows around the room.

He thought about that light, and what had happened to the egg under its glow during ritual. “Hold this,” he thrust the staff at Arthur and then hurried back into the antechamber to retrieve the egg.

When he came back in, he sat down in the middle of the floor, set the egg in front of him, and instructed Arthur to hold the staff close, so the light of it fell over its pale blue surface.

Closing his eyes, Merlin concentrated, remembering what Kilgharrah had said: only a dragonlord could call a great dragon from the shell. Deep within himself he felt something surge upward and before knew what was happening, a name spilled off of his tongue in a low, guttural voice. “Aithusa!”

At the sound of cracking, Merlin opened his eyes. “It’s hatching!”

Arthur dropped to the ground beside him, pressing close and they watched as the shell continued to split and fracture and eventually small pieces fell out. Then a tiny snout poked its way through a gap. Clawed feet followed and Merlin couldn’t resist any longer, he pulled away a large section of shell and gaped at the baby dragon resting within.

Pearl white and tiny and perfect it – no she, Merlin knew immediately – she gazed up at Merlin with bright, intelligent blue eyes. “Aithusa,” he repeated, beaming so hard his cheeks began to ache.

“Hello, little one,” he greeted, reaching out tentatively with his mind.

There was a response, though it was faint and not in the common tongue that he and Kilgharrah had always conversed in. Still, he could understand it.

“Ahh, Merlin,” Arthur’s voice broke into Merlin’s intense study of the little creature. He flicked his fingers at Arthur somewhat dismissively. There was a baby great dragon on the floor in front of him.

“Merlin,” Arthur repeated, with much more force.

Loathe to do so, Merlin let his gaze be pulled away from Aithusa and up to Arthur’s face. The expression waiting there caused his heart to clench. “Arthur? What is it?”

“Look,” Arthur said, and he held out the staff to its fullest, swinging it in a slow, steady arc around the cave.

What Merlin had taken for tumbled rocks and small boulders in the gloom were revealed to be eggs… dozens, no three-score, or maybe even more… eggs. And each one of them began to change as the light of the staff passed over them, transforming from grey, speckled, stone to a bevy of pastel colors.

“Oh, by all the old gods,” Merlin uttered. And then he began to laugh and laugh once again, overcome with amusement.

“What is it?” Arthur asked once Merlin managed to get himself under control.

Merlin shook his head. “Kilgharrah is going to love this.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

They spent another night in that cave, Merlin laying Arthur low once more just for good measure, and in the morning - woken by Aithusa's eager chirruping - they planned their return to the Valley.

Later, riding side-by-side once again, Merlin with an infant dragon curled in the makeshift sling of his scarf, Merlin and Arthur made plans. "Do you think Camelot has any prophecies for us to fulfill?" Merlin asked. 

"Prophecies, probably not," Arthur admitted, "though I'm sure my mother will plan some equally baffling and arduous celebrations for us."

"I don't mind," Merlin replied, "as long as you're the one who gets painted up like a peacock for them!"

Arthur chuckled and then he flashed a dazzling grin in Merlin's direction. "Wait, I've forgotten, there is one prophecy we'll absolutely have to fulfill. It's the one about a Pendragon laying low a Dragonlord in the comforts of his royal bedchamber."

Merlin laughed, flush with love and full of hope for his future. "I look forward to it."