Merlin didn’t wait to find Gaius before heading to Arthur’s bedchamber, the little stone vial clutched in one hand. Uther was sleeping in the chair by Arthur’s bed, and Arthur himself lay as still as death, with waxy face and waxier lips, the only indication that he still lived the rough, stertorous breaths he dragged with effort through his mouth every few moments. But he was still alive. Merlin was in time.
Bending over the bed, he carefully tipped the prince’s head to the side and poured in a few drops of water from the little vial. Arthur swallowed reflexively, and Merlin knelt by the bed. He couldn’t stop himself from reaching out and taking Arthur’s hand. Please, Merlin prayed. Please, if there’s any gods listening, let this work. Let him be saved.
Dizzy with exhaustion, he couldn’t keep his eyes open. He could feel the warmth of Arthur’s hand beneath his own, though, and as he numbly slipped away from consciousness, he heard Arthur’s breathing start to ease.
Arthur woke slowly from dark, disturbing dreams, where over and over again he was hunting something and then suddenly realized he didn’t have a weapon, or he was up to his neck in sticky tar, with the mud about to close over his head, or he was standing on a high, bare mountaintop and then it crumbled beneath him and he began to fall to the valley below. The bright morning sunlight shone through a chink in his curtains and onto his rumpled bed. The room around him smelled of sweat and sickness, and for a long moment, he could not think where he was, or what had happened.
Then he remembered the Questing Beast, the bite, the injury—Merlin crying out, but not much more than that. And, looking down at the coverlet, there was Merlin, lying half spreadeagled across the bed, his eyes shut with the dark lashes down over them and his mouth hanging open. He looked very peaceful. On the other side of the bed, Uther was sitting in a chair, his head tipped back in sleep, snoring rather loudly. Arthur shook his head a little, smirking at the contrast between his father and his manservant. Good God, but he must have been ill, if they’d both fallen asleep at his bedside.
There was something else tucked beside his pillow, a little stone bottle out of which a few drops of water had bled, leaving a damp spot that even now hadn’t fully dried. Arthur looked at it in confusion for a moment, then reached out to shake Merlin’s shoulder, intending to waken him and tell him to tend to the fire, which was mostly out.
His hand brushed Merlin’s cheek, and Arthur startled back, because his friend was icy cold. The movement disturbed Merlin’s resting place, and the boy simply slid backwards off the bed, lolling backwards and landing in a crumpled, boneless heap on the floor. There was no blush of red in his cheeks, no response to what must have been a rather harsh impact, no sound of breath entering and leaving those frozen lungs.
“Merlin?” Arthur croaked. There was no response from the floor. No. No, God, no, please. Stumbling and half-falling in his haste, he flung still-weak legs over the side of the bed and tumbled down by Merlin’s side. “Merlin, wake up!” If he just shook him, Merlin would open his eyes, he’d have to. But Merlin’s head just rolled limply back and forth, like a doll.
There was a snort from the other side of the room. “Arthur?” Uther’s voice was hollow and almost unbelieving. “My God. What are you doing out of bed?”
Every muscle was so tense Arthur thought he might faint, but somehow he managed to regain command of himself, and stand up. “Father. What happened?”
Merlin still didn’t move, didn’t twitch, just lay on the floor, broken and still. God, God, God, why?
If anyone had asked, before this morning, what Arthur thought of Merlin, he would have said, “an irritating waste of space,” and while he probably wouldn’t have actually meant all that, he wouldn’t have thought much harder about it. But now—now he couldn’t take his eyes away from that still, lifeless form. It wasn’t Merlin anymore—where was he? Where was the boy who was always at Arthur’s side, willing to do anything he was asked, to the limits of his ability? Past the limits of his ability?
Uther had come round the bed and was wrapping his arms around Arthur. “You were dying,” he whispered. “The Questing Beast—its poison filled your veins. Merlin brought you a tonic, but I never thought it would work.”
“What happened to him?” Arthur asked, and he was surprised when it came out sounding measured and calm.
“What do you mean?” For the first time, Uther seemed to look down. “Strange…” he murmured, then tensed a little. “I’m sure it was a coincidence,” he said, in the voice that Arthur had long ago figured out meant that Uther was lying. “The boy was overworked; perhaps he caught an ague fetching the tonic for you.”
Sickness roiled in Arthur’s stomach at the lack of any emotion in his father’s tone. He wanted to yell and scream, cut something in half with his sword. He did none of it, of course. Somehow, he kept the mask of the crown prince on his face. “Well, we’ll—we’ll have to pay for his funeral, of course. He was a good servant.”
“Of course,” Uther agreed, smoothing Arthur’s hair back from his forehead, something he hadn’t done since Arthur was a little child wakening with nightmares. For the first time in his life, Arthur felt his father’s love wash over him and leave him cold.
Gaius stared at his folded hands, wondering why they weren’t shaking. He also spared a thought to wonder why the blank page in front of him seemed so clear. Surely, it ought to be blurry from all the unshed tears. Scarce an hour ago, he had laid into the ground the boy he had called the son he never had. Yet, his hands were not shaking; his eyes were clear. And if his throat ached, well, that could be the cold. Everything was terribly cold, it seemed.
Morgana and Gwen had attended the funeral, although Arthur had not. That had sent a strange prick of irritation through the blank coldness that had become Gaius’s world. Did Merlin mean nothing to Arthur? Was it too much trouble to attend the funeral of a servant?
“Gaius.” Gaius jerked up to see the object of his contemplation standing in the door. For an instant, he thought Arthur was still ill, his face was so pale, his eyes so enormous, and his face holding none of the usual sharp pride. “Tell me truly—what happened?” The prince’s voice was barely more than a hoarse whisper.
“What do you mean, Your Highness?”
“What happened to Merlin, Gaius?”
“He gave his life for yours, and you didn’t even come to his funeral,” Gaius’s mouth said, before considering whether his neck would appreciate the statement in a few days.
But Arthur was gaping at him like a fish left out of water. “He…he what?”
“I’m sorry, your Grace, I spoke out of turn. Please forgive me.” Gaius shook his head, trying to turn back to the page in front of him.
“No, Gaius, wait, please.” And there was something so strange about hearing the usually almost vapid prince utterly such a heartfelt plea. He’d put his hands on Gaius’s shoulders and was turning him now. “Gaius, you must tell me what you mean. I must know. What did Merlin do?”
Gaius’s mouth twitched up sideways at the corner, but it was not with mirth. “Anyone bitten by the Questing Beast will die. Merlin knew that the only way to save you was to offer his life to the old magic in exchange for yours. So he did.”
“For God’s sake, what an idiot,” Arthur said roughly.
“Yes, so you’ve said. Often. A shame you can’t tell him that again.” Again, Gaius spoke without thinking. Yet he couldn’t bear to hear Arthur heaping abuse on Merlin’s memory.
“How can I fix this?” Arthur demanded, and Gaius stared into blue eyes that were unexpectedly shining with unshed tears. “You must tell me. How can I bring him back?”
Gaius barked out a harsh laugh. “Your Grace, I am no miracle worker, to bring the dead back to life.”
“I won’t let him be dead,” Arthur retorted, sounding for all the world like a recalcitrant child. “Tell me how to bring him back.”
“There. Is. No. Way.” Gaius wanted to shake the prince. “Do you think men would still die if there were some way to conquer death?”
“But this wasn’t natural,” Arthur protested. “You said that the old magic was involved. Surely it’s different.”
“Not that different, your Grace. Merlin is gone.”
“No,” Arthur said, stubbornly, hoarsely. “I won’t let him be gone. You’ll see. I’ll make this better.” He released Gaius and stumbled away backwards. If it weren’t for the lack of any scent on his breath, Gaius would almost have thought he was drunk, with the way he staggered to the door. Gaius stared as the door closed behind him. He was certain he had never seen the young prince so troubled.
“Morgana, I need you to tell me how to bring someone back from the dead.”
Morgana blinked, paused, looked up at Arthur, then looked back down at her book. “I have no idea how to bring someone back from the dead,” she said. “And if this is because you don’t want to go to the trouble of finding yourself a new servant—”
“For God’s sake!” Arthur burst out. “Merlin was—is not just a servant!”
“No?” One of Morgana’s mobile, dark eyebrows rose nearly into her hair. “I certainly didn’t notice you at his funeral.”
Arthur’s fist clenched, twitching at his side, and he looked away. “Why must everyone keep saying that?”
“Because it is a clear mark of how little you valued the boy?”
“Or it’s a clear mark of how I was hidden in my bed, sobbing so hard I nearly vomited—” Arthur tried to cut himself off, but the words had already fallen from his lips. They lay in the room like bright burning coals, ready to flare from embers into a conflagration. Morgana stared.
“I see,” she said quietly. “My answer, however, remains the same. I’ve certainly never heard of its being possible.”
“If Merlin could—could give his life for mine, then surely there must be some way of returning the favor.”
“Somehow I don’t think he would appreciate you reversing his efforts.” But Morgana’s lips were pinched, and there were great dark circles beneath her eyes. “I really don’t know,” she said in a low voice. “I’ve never heard of anything like that. And it would be—it would have to be—”
“I know,” Arthur snarled. “Do you think I don’t know that? But for Merlin—I’d—he gave his life for me, Morgana. What kind of king will I make if I simply let that be? If I don’t at least try to—damn him. He had no right.”
“People will die for you when you’re king, Arthur.”
Arthur’s breath dragged desperately into his lungs. “But people aren’t Merlin,” he said doggedly. “He can’t die.” He knew how stupid that sounded.
“Well, he did,” snipped out Morgana, and it was only because Arthur knew that the tightness came from grief that he was able to restrain himself from shouting at her.
“Morgana,” he said, hollowed out of anything but entreaty. “Please. Please.”
“I just…” she squeezed her eyes shut. “I don’t know, Arthur.”
“There’s an old story,” put in a new voice softly, and Arthur looked up to see Gwen hovering in the entrance. “My father used to tell me when I was a little girl. It was about a great bard whose lover was killed by a snakebite. He went to the land of the dead to get her back.”
“And did he?”
“Well…no,” Gwen admitted. “But only because he didn’t do as the lord of the dead told him. He was told he shouldn’t look back, but he did, and so Gwynn took his lover’s soul back again.”
“What an idiot,” Arthur growled. “But—he could have got her back? If he’d done what Lord Gwynn said?”
Gwen nodded slowly. “The way my father used to tell it, yes.”
“All right.” Arthur nodded to himself. “Then I’ll just go to the land of the dead myself.”
Morgana sputtered. “You’ll what? And just how do you expect to be able to do that?”
Arthur licked slightly dry lips. “I…I’ll find a way. There must be old stories or something?”
“There are,” Morgana agreed. “That I do know, but it’s—Annwn is not a place to enter lightly. It’s a cold, remote place, and very, very magical. Unless you’re thinking of Christ’s heaven, instead, but I’ve no idea how you would go about finding that.”
Shaking his head, Arthur brushed a thumb across his lower lip thoughtfully. “No, Gaius said he offered his life to the old magic in exchange for mine. I don’t think he meant anything of Christ. In any case, do you think I’m a coward, Morgana?”
“I think this is beyond anything you’ve ever faced,” Morgana told him, her voice uncharacteristically intense and serious.
“That doesn’t matter. Merlin gave his life for mine. I can do no less than risk mine for his, now can I?”
“Arthur—” Morgana caught at his sleeve as he made to turn, and, frowning, he looked back at her. “Why are you doing this? I don’t need you to answer me now, but I think—from everything I’ve read—that it will be very important for you to have an answer when we reach Annwn.”
“‘We’?” Arthur echoed in confusion, and looked up to see that Gwen was standing in an expectant, waiting sort of way.
“Well, yes, of course,” she said matter-of-factly. “Merlin’s our friend, too.”
In the end, it hadn’t been as easy as Arthur expected. They’d needed a map, and that had required sneaking into the archives in the middle of the night—just him and Morgana, because Gwen could have been punished quite badly if she’d been caught—and then once they’d found the map, they’d found they needed a boat, as the approach to Annwn was down a wide river. The boat was more of a problem. Camelot had sailing ships, of course, but nothing that could be crewed by just one man and two girls. There were some rowboats, but they had a tendency to be leaky, and Arthur had no mind to chance the rapids shown on the map in one of them, not even if there was a chance that said rapids might be artistic exaggeration.
It was Morgana who solved the problem, triumphantly leading Arthur and Gwen down to the river three days after they’d found the map, to show them a sturdy-looking craft like a wicker basket. “I purchased it from one of the fishermen; he promised it wouldn’t leak, and I—” she paused, a frown worming its way into her forehead, “—I think it will do good work for us. It’s called the Prydwenn.”
“Who calls a boat ‘handsome’?” Arthur demanded rather irritably. “Aren’t they supposed to be female?”
“Are you saying women can’t be handsome?” Morgana tossed her hair at him. “In any case, that’s just what it’s called.”
“We could give it a new name.”
“No,” said Morgana, getting a stubborn glint in her eye that Arthur knew meant she’d made up her mind.
“Oh, very well,” he acceded. “As long as it’s seaworthy—well, river-worthy—I suppose you can call it what you like.”
“You’re welcome,” Morgana told him tartly. Arthur simply shot her a frustrated look and tried to remember that all three of them wanted Merlin back. They were all rough edges because what they were about to do—none of them knew how it would turn out. At the very least, it was skating terribly close to sorcery. But it was worth it, for Merlin.
Why are you doing this? Morgana’s words echoed in Arthur’s mind, and he turned them over uneasily in his mind. Why was he doing this? What Merlin had done—it was foolish, yes, and almost mind-bogglingly selfless at the same time, but it wasn’t just that. In some sense, Arthur knew Morgana was right. To be king was to watch others die for you, and he would never be able to be king if he couldn’t accept that to some degree. But, Arthur thought stubbornly, not Merlin. Not that idiot.
I won’t let you die, he thought, which was stupid, because Merlin was already dead, but he didn’t bother to amend it. A secondary little voice piped up, You’re mine. Come back to me. Please. Somehow, Arthur didn’t think the little voice meant that Merlin was his manservant. No matter what Morgana said about figuring things out, though, Arthur could see that this was not the time for rumination. It was the time for action.
They set off in the early morning, before the sun had risen but not so early that it was still full dark. Morgana and Gwen sat in the back of the boat, hands entwined, while Arthur paddled. Morgana had the map clutched in one hand as well.
The coracle rocked madly and spun about at first, until Arthur started to get the hang of handling it. The Prydwenn was a light little craft, nothing like a rowboat; she seemed to sit on top of the water, bobbing over top of every little eddy, rather than slicing straight through the waves. Arthur already felt rather peculiar in the region of his stomach, but he’d be damned if he was going to be sick now.
Morgana issued a steady stream of instructions from behind him. How she could possibly be reading all of this off the map, Arthur didn’t know. It hadn’t looked that detailed to him, but somehow Morgana was managing not only to keep telling him which channel to take when there was a fork, but also how to navigate along the currents of the swiftly-flowing river without overturning. Arthur would have snarled something like how would you know but he didn’t have time and thus far they had at least failed to capsize.
He had not expected handling the boat to be so difficult; the river had looked peaceful from the bank. It was anything but peaceful now.
After some time, the frantic pace of the river slowed, and an uncanny silence descended. The sun rose, but its light was faint and watery, mainly hidden by the early morning mists rising on both sides of the river, as was most of the landscape through which they were passing. Arthur could just see the dark tops of pines protruding from the top, but the banks themselves were entirely concealed. Even their reflection in the water was ghostly.
Clammy sweat stood out on Arthur’s forehead, and he felt the girls shift behind him slightly. “Careful!” he snapped, as the Prydwenn wobbled terrifyingly beneath them.
“Sorry!” It was Gwen, not Morgana. Her movement stilled as her weight pressed into his arm, and she slid one hand into Arthur’s. “Sorry, I just, I thought you might need someone touching you. Well, not need, obviously, but…”
“Yes, all right, thanks. Thank you.” It was very cold, and Arthur didn’t want to admit how much Gwen’s touch reassured him, but it would be particularly churlish to not even thank her.
There was an arrowhead of white geese just ahead of the coracle’s prow. Morgana squinted at them, her already pale face growing paler. As they turned a little to swoop into a patch of mist to the right, she raised a finger. “Follow them,” she told Arthur tersely, and he turned the boat in the direction she had indicated.
Fog closed in around them, damp and chill. Arthur could barely see the faint forms of the geese winging on ahead, could barely feel Gwen’s hand tight and warm in his own. The honking of the geese seemed to deepen and hoarsen, and the flashing white feathers were exchanged for flashing white fur. One of the hounds running ahead of the boat turned for an instant, and Arthur got a glimpse of red eyes and red-tipped ears. An involuntary shiver ran down him, from the crown of his head to the base of his spine.
It wasn’t much long after that the Prydwenn ran rather violently aground. Arthur jolted forward, and Gwen fell against his back. Behind them, Morgana made an incoherent exclamation. One of the dogs paused, looked back, and then padded over to the coracle, where it sniffed briefly at Arthur’s hair, gave one short, sharp bark, and then turned and scampered away. The fog cleared behind it, and Arthur stared. Beside him, Gwen hissed her breath in with a sudden, shocked gasp.
It had been full, if unsurprisingly wet, summer when they had left Camelot. But here, a layer of snow an inch thick lay across the ground and the trees, glittering incandescent in the sunlight. Despite the crust of snow on the ground, there was none on the trees, several of which still sported crimson leaves—one tree even had green leaves with bright red apples tucked away in its boughs. The hounds had left shadowed footprints in the snow, a trail that led between two rows of high holly bushes whose berries shone beneath a thin layer of crystalline ice. The makeshift road wound up a hill, and at the top there was a tall castle, which shimmered so brightly in the sunshine that Arthur had to shield his eyes and squint at it, and even then he could only make out the outline of its transparent turrets against the sky.
Arthur would have been the first of many to say he was not easily frightened. Even when he was, he scorned to show it. But this was so far beyond anything he’d ever experienced that for the second time in the same hour, he felt a long shiver running down his spine, and this one did not abate as quickly as the first had. Gwen clutched at his hand, and Morgana stumbled up and fell on her knees beside them.
“What is this place?” Arthur finally managed to ask.
“Annwn,” Morgana said in a hushed voice.
“So, that castle—”
“Is the hall of Gwynn ap Nudd, the lord of the dead.”
“And that’s where Merlin is?”
“Y-Yes.” Morgana’s voice was hushed; she barely even seemed irritated at the slight tremor in her voice.
Somehow, despite the fact that all of his limbs were now trembling—with cold, he hadn’t dressed for winter, after all—Arthur managed to push himself up onto his knees and from his knees to his feet. “Then that’s where we’re going.” He reached for his sword, then thought better of it and held out one hand to Morgana and one to Gwen, instead.
They walked, uncontested, from the river and up the winding hill to the sprawling walls that formed a sloppy ring around the castle. The trail fetched up against the wall, and Arthur halted, frowning. There was no obvious gate.
A creaking voice from somewhere overhead said, “Mortal children, I am quite sure. Are you not?”
Although he craned his neck upwards, Arthur could see no one speaking. There was just one of the taller trees that seemed to droop forward slightly over the castle walls, its spreading leafy branches nearly brushing the snow beneath.
“Who is asking?” he demanded.
“Why, I am.” The branches of the willow waved a little.
“Where are you?” Gwen asked. “We can’t see you. Are you in the tree?”
“No,” the voice replied. Then, apparently muttering to itself, “Stupid mortal children.”
Arthur opened his mouth to let loose a fiery retort, but Gwen’s hand tightened in his and he shut it again, letting her speak.
“We’re not very used to this place,” she said softly. Pleasantly. As if she were smoothing out some misunderstanding between two angry knights. “If we’re being stupid about something, would you mind explaining?”
There was a creaky rustle. “Oh, very well. I suppose since you ask so nicely. I am Salec, the Eldest.” The tree dipped and one of the branches moved as if it were bowing.
“You’re the tree!” exclaimed Morgana.
“Very clever, youngster. Yes. Salec, the Eldest. You’re fortunate I am not Sleuw; she is not nearly as patient as I am.” Arthur snorted under his breath, and a long whip-like branch snaked down and cuffed him behind the ear. “If I had been Sleuw, you would be on your backside for that,” the tree told him.
“Could you please tell us how to get to the castle?” Gwen said, pinching Arthur’s hand again in a please-be-quiet sort of way.
Creak-crack-creak. It took Arthur a moment to realize that the noises the tree was making were a kind of woody laughter. “Oh, well, since you’ve asked so nicely, I suppose,” it said. “As long as you pay for your passage.”
“What sort of payment?” Morgana put in cautiously.
“Just a few drops of blood each,” murmured the tree, branches waving eerily. “Put out your hands.”
The three of them exchanged looks. “We haven’t much choice,” Morgana said quietly, and Arthur gritted his teeth but nodded. He put out his hand. Beside him, Morgana and Gwen were doing the same. Three branches writhed down over the wall like snakes; one of them wrapped around Arthur’s wrist. There was a sharp pinprick of pain, but he refused to react. Beside him, Gwen twitched slightly, and Morgana hissed in a swift breath.
“Ahhhhh,” Salec groaned. “The taste of mortal blood. I had forgotten. I had forgotten.”
“Now let us pass,” Arthur said tersely.
“A bargain’s a bargain, mortal prince, have no fear.” The branch around his wrist surged suddenly upward, and he was hoisted into the air, carried across the top of the broad wall, and set down on the other side, although with Gwen and Morgana. Both of them were breathing heavily, and Arthur could feel the trembling in Gwen’s hand as she took his again, but she was the one who turned and said, “Thank you,” to Salec.
“You’re welcome, mortal queen.”
Gwen blinked. “Oh, I—I’m not—”
Again, that creaking laughter. “Polite, too. On with you, then, before I forget myself. The blood is quite delicious, you know.”
“On?” Morgana repeated.
“On to the hall of Gwynn ap Nudd. It’s there you’ll find what you’re looking for, I should think.”
There were no further difficulties as they approached. In fact, the courtyard and approach to the castle were almost eerie in their emptiness. Arthur resolved not to pay any heed to it and practically dragged Gwen and Morgana across. He didn’t expect a protest from Gwen, but he was surprised when there was none from Morgana either.
They passed through a set of huge double doors made from translucent, rosy glass. The doors were ajar, and two guards stood on either side, but, though their eyes tracked the movement of Arthur and his two companions, they made no movement to interfere. The three mortals walked unmolested down a glittering hallway and through a tall archway, after which they finally reached the dining hall.
The hall of Gwynn ap Nudd was so large that one end of it vanished into the curling fog through which they’d come. What Arthur could see was richly decorated in red and white, and the table was groaning with more food than even he had ever seen in his life. A man—loosely speaking—who must be Gwynn was seated at the head of the table, with a white hound curled at his feet; he looked up as the three friends entered. A pair of vast, curling antlers protruded from his forehead. At his right hand was a figure dressed all in crimson robes but wound around and around with silver chains. Merlin’s dark head was slumped forward in despair or maybe boredom, but he looked up to see Arthur, and his eyes went wide. Their normal blue had faded, replaced by a flickering gold like a hawk’s.
Arthur choked with anger and another feeling he couldn’t name. “How dare you tie my servant up like a common thief?” he demanded. Gwen gave a shocked intake of breath at his side.
Gwynn leaned backwards in his chair. “Have a care how you speak to me, Arthur Pendragon. Your position here is on sufferance, mortal man. As for your…servant—” He brought his cup of wine to his lips and sipped, an amused smile playing across his face. “Only cold iron will hold as powerful a sorcerer as he is, even in my realm.”
“S-Sorcerer?” Arthur repeated dumbly, his eyes seeking Merlin’s face. The gold in his eyes flared with inner light, and then those dark lashes came down, and Merlin looked away, something like pain flitting across his face. “Merlin?”
And suddenly, a number of things made sense. Lancelot, with Merlin at his side, somehow killing a creature that could only be harmed by magic. Merlin, storming in and confessing to having healed Gwen’s father. He hadn’t been in love with Gwen after all. Somehow, Arthur felt his heart beat a little faster at the revelation. And—and then there had been Arthur himself, clutching desperately at a cliff in the Forest of Balor, only managing to save himself when a wispy ball of light appeared from nowhere. That had been Merlin too, hadn’t it?
Arthur squared his shoulders. “In any case, he is my manservant, and I’ve come to retrieve him from you.”
At that, Merlin’s mouth actually dropped open, his eyes flickering from Arthur’s face over to Gwynn’s. Gwynn, for his part, merely chuckled. “I see. And is it as your manservant that you bargain for him?”
The hackles on the back of Arthur’s neck rose. “It is as my friend,” he spat, keeping his chin high. He heard Merlin give a soft little intake of breath, almost a sob.
“Your friend.” Gwynn was smirking as he leaned forward and took a long draught from a jewel-encrusted silver cup. “So you storm into my hall and demand that I release the sorcerer Merlin. And what is it you offer me in return for his soul, Arthur Pendragon?”
Arthur found himself frowning. He didn’t know what to offer. Gwen’s story hadn’t told him that. And what could he offer, in any case? All he had was his sword, his cloak, and his armor, none of which seemed like they’d be any use to Lord Gwynn. But there was Merlin, right there, looking up at him with frustrated, confused eyes, and Arthur’s mouth opened and he found himself responding, “Anything you want.”
Gwynn ap Nudd, master of the wild hunt, escort of the grave, and lord of Caer Sidi, choked on his wine.
“Are you insane?” Merlin snapped from the other side of the table.
“Oh, good, you can still speak, I was getting worried,” Arthur retorted. “When you’ve quite finished insulting your master—”
Merlin sputtered. “You just offered the king of the Tylwyth Teg anything he bloody well pleases!” he wheezed. “Never mind the fact that you’re here at all, if you’re lucky he’ll just take your soul and have done, but he’ll probably take all three of you, and then, great! Good job! We’ll all be stuck here!”
“I did say in return for you, he can’t take you in return for you, that’s not—”
“You said anything! He’s not mortal, Arthur, he doesn’t have to obey unwritten rules—”
“Silence!” Gwynn cut in, and, though Merlin’s eyes flared brilliant gold, he subsided. “I have considered your offer,” the lord of the dead said, his voice so soft it was almost a whisper, “And my price is simple: your death, Arthur Pendragon.”
Arthur sighed, swallowed, and shifted from one foot to the other. “Well, it seems a shame to waste all of Merlin’s work,” he said, but he was already squaring his shoulders. “But all right.” After all, he’d been the one intended to die in the first place.
“You misunderstand, princeling. I do not ask for your life, but for your death.”
“Eh?” Arthur asked coherently.
“I ask,” Gwynn said, leaning forward across his wine, “that you bind yourself to protect this land and the people in it forever and always, until the end of time, until the world crumbles, and until even I shall have no dominion any longer.” His eyes were shining pale silver, and his face no longer looked remotely human. “What say you, Arthur Pendragon?”
Forever was a very long time. But Arthur looked back to the frantic and utterly ridiculous motions Merlin was making now, which were either an attempt to shake his head no or an attempt to dislodge the chains and which were absolutely useless at either, and he knew there was no choice, not really. “Yes,” he said. “Of course.”
“You absolute clotpole!” Merlin yelled, and then made a hacking, choking, voiceless noise as Gwynn’s eye fell on him.
“Then it is a covenant,” the lord of Annwn said, holding out a hand. Arthur took it, and there was a sudden, dizzying moment of pain, a moment when he seemed to see the countryside stretched out above him and to feel the press of stone all around him. Then the moment was gone, and he was once again standing on his feet with the translucent glittering walls of the glass fortress rising around him.
“Can we have Merlin back now?” Arthur asked.
Gwynn chuckled. “You have made a bargain for him, and he is yours, if you can take him. I should warn you, that will not be straightforward.”
“Of course.” He should have known there would be more complications. Arthur cracked his neck back and forth. “All right, what do I have to do?”
But Gwynn’s gaze was sliding past him to his left. “Three tasks,” he said softly. “Three tasks for three uninvited guests.” He raised a hand and pointed to Morgana. “Morgana of the Fey, will you take it upon yourself to unbind him?”
Arthur and Morgana exchanged a confused look, but she nodded. “Yes, I will.” She pushed past Arthur, made her away around the long table behind Gwynn, and reached out for the chains that bound Merlin. As soon as her hands touched the metal, she gave a little cry and retracted them. “Wh-What?” she asked, voice rising uncontrollably.
“What’s the matter?” Arthur asked sharply.
“It—it hurt me.” Her confused fear mirrored Arthur’s.
“Morgana, you said you’d undo him,” he reminded her.
“I know, and I will, damn you,” she spat, rounding on him in a way that reassured him, but there was still a strange, pained timbre to her voice as she glared from him to Merlin, whose eyes slid away from her, and back to the white lord at his white table. “I just—why does it hurt?”
“I told you,” Gwyn ap Nudd smiled, lips thin, mouth wide and somehow reminiscent of a serpent. “Cold iron repels sorcery.”
Morgana went white to her lips, her wide eyes seeming impossibly dark in her suddenly-hollow face, but she said nothing; instead, she turned back to Merlin and began to unwind the chains from around him. She did not flinch at all, though she bit her lip until a trickle of blood ran down her chin. It took her a good five or ten minutes, but finally she stepped away and let the chains clatter to the ground around Merlin, who let out a gasp of relief. “Thank you,” he said sincerely, sweat trickling down his forehead, and then he vanished.
Arthur yelled in outrage, not even capable of framing the feeling into words. Gwynn smiled and spread his hands like a conjurer—not a sorcerer, but a cheap charlatan at a carnival fair, Arthur thought vindictively. “Guinevere of Camelot,” he said, turning his gaze to Arthur’s other side. “Will you point out what it is you want to carry out of my realm?” As he spoke, the wall behind him seemed to spool away into the distance, like a hall of mirrors, except that at every junction there was another little trinket. Some were recognizable items—Arthur caught sight of a small dagger, a worn leather belt, and a doll made of straw, to begin with—while others appeared to just be twisted hunks of metal or earth. At least one of them had a shape that made his stomach twist in knots just to look at.
He stared at the wavering line of objects that seemed to reach infinity. “You want Gwen to pick Merlin’s soul out of that lot?” he demanded. “That’s ridiculous! She can’t even see all of them!”
The pale king’s thin lips quirked up slightly. “I am giving you the chance to recover your lover’s soul. Would you prefer I refuse?”
“No—but—it has to be possible—and hang on, wait, who said anything about lovers?” Arthur sputtered.
“Really?” Morgana gave him a long look. “You already said you weren’t bargaining for him as your manservant.”
“He’s my friend!” Arthur objected. “My—my dearest friend! But we’ve never…it’s not…it’s not like…” he trailed off as Morgana’s smirk widened.
“Would you like it to be?” she asked, and for a moment Arthur was blushing, and all that mattered was the absurdity of the statement, and then the sudden vivid image of Merlin’s face looking up at him shyly from beneath his long dark lashes. And then the fog closed about them again, and they were in the hall of Gwynn ap Nudd, and Gwen had to find Merlin’s soul out of what looked like an infinite number of objects of different shapes and sizes and materials.
Gwen, however, did not look like a woman facing an impossible choice. A slight smile hovered around her mouth. “There,” she said firmly. “Just at the front edge there.”
Gwynn’s eyes flickered to where her pointing finger indicated. “Are you certain?” he asked. “Then take hold of him.”
“Of course I’m certain.” Gwen took two steps forward and gently took up the little wooden carving of a bird. “Do you think I don’t know what a merlin looks like?”
“Well done, White Enchantress.” Arthur stared, slack-jawed, because they could not all—surely they could not all—Gwynn laughed lazily. “Ah, how the languages of man have changed,” he said. “It is only what her name means; do not look so fearful, son of Uther.” Arthur bridled, but before he could make a retort, Gwynn’s gaze snapped to him. “And now—” he smiled. “Undying king, you must carry him from this land in your own arms. Should you release him, his soul will return here, and you will go back to Camelot without him.”
Arthur thought it was remarkably restrained of him not to say, Of course I won’t release him; after this I’m never going to let that idiot out of my sight ever again, and instead to just hold his hands out to Gwen. She placed the little wooden carving between them, and, as soon as Arthur’s hands brushed the smooth wood, there was a popping sound, and he was holding a live falcon in his hands.
It became immediately apparent that Merlin did not want to be held. He let out a harsh, screeching cry, and promptly twisted around and took a vicious bite out of the top of Arthur’s wrist. Arthur gritted his teeth and held out, ignoring the pain and the blood welling out. “I think it’s time we left,” he said to Morgana and Gwen. Merlin chose this moment to twist in the other direction and lash out with one of his powerful talons.
By the time they had reached the courtyard, Arthur had decided that although this was painful, it was not too difficult. He had been concerned he might be hurting Merlin, but judging from the continued squawking noises and attempted fluffing up of his feathers, he was just angry. And then they stepped outside, and Merlin turned into a bear.
One minute Arthur’s hands were encircling delicate bones beneath a feathered breast, and the next they were sunk an inch deep into coarse, dark fur. He barely had the wit to throw himself forward and wrap his arms around Merlin’s midsection before the bear roared and then took off at a run. It’s all right, Arthur thought, he’ll have to stop for the wall. Not ten seconds later, there was a violent shock, and a very loud noise. Rocks fell around both of them. One of them bounced off Arthur’s shoulder, and another caught him on the head. He swore loudly.
Another three paces after that, and he was holding onto an extremely angry cat, black as midnight, and almost as long as Arthur was tall. It hissed and spat at him, and then the two of them were rolling over and over in the muddy grass, the cat trying to bite and claw at him, and Arthur trying very hard not to let that happen while simultaneously not letting go. “Merlin!” he shouted. “Dammit, Merlin, I’m trying to get you out!”
It was no good. It was all Arthur could do to keep those vicious claws from entirely gutting him. He heard Gwen yelling, but couldn’t make out words, there was just Merlin’s breath in his face and the grass beneath the two of them as they rolled over and over and the vicious snap of teeth near his face. Then there was a popping noise, and he was holding a hissing, striking snake that sank its fangs into his neck.
Arthur gave a cry of pain, but at least the relative lightness of this form let him stagger to his feet and start to run. Fog boiled up around him, and he felt his head starting to swim as the venom began to circulate through his system. But there was nothing for it to keep going, even as his limbs turned to lead, even as he could no longer tell if it was the fog or his swimming eyes that made the journey treacherous. Merlin transformed twice more, once into a bee—and Arthur thought for a moment he really had lost him, but thankfully that transformation lasted almost no time, and he was able to close his hand around the tiny body long enough to keep him from flying away—and once into a dagger so hot it was almost molten. Arthur heard himself give a keening noise, but he kept stumbling forward.
One step more, two, three—his feet sank beneath him, abruptly swallowed by a numbing chill. There was a heavy weight in his arms, and no matter how much he tried, he couldn't stop himself from stumbling forward onto his knees, his head still spinning. The agonizing pain had faded from his neck; even his thumb wasn’t hurting anymore. And then he looked down and forgot all about his own state, because enfolded in his arms was Merlin, just Merlin, face covered by a translucent membrane.
“Merlin,” Arthur got out hoarsely, but he was exhausted and the sudden weight was too much for him, so he got Merlin onto his back among the reeds that appeared to have sprung up everywhere, and carefully cleaned the strange film from his face. “Merlin, can you hear me? Are you all right?” The dark eyelashes seemed to flutter, and then the movement subsided, and he was very still and ghostly pale. “God,” Arthur said helplessly, sliding a hand along Merlin’s cheek. “Please. Merlin, please. Come back. For me.”
The eyelashes fluttered again; Merlin gasped in a harsh, rough breath and started to cough wildly. After a moment more, he groaned, opened his eyes, and sat up quickly. “Arthur?” he said dubiously. “Wait, am I dead? I can’t be dead. You’re not dead. Are you?”
“I—” Arthur looked around. Those damned reeds everywhere, and a few feet to his right, the Prydwenn, fetched up on the shore. Did that mean they were safely out of Annwn or not? “I don’t think I’m dead,” he said cautiously. He thought his neck had been hurting, but he couldn’t quite remember why, anymore. In his head there was a strange muddle of white and red and a terrible promise, but none of it was clear. He remembered arriving clearly enough, remembered the geese and the hounds, but everything beyond was stirred up into a series of confused impressions. “Of course I’m not dead,” he said, finally. “Neither of us is dead.”
“Merlin! Arthur!” Morgana and Gwen were running toward them through the water, hand-in-hand. Morgana fetched up breathlessly once they had passed the coracle, but Gwen dropped to her knees beside Merlin and Arthur. “Are you all right?” she demanded.
“What happened?” Merlin asked, and then he looked back to Arthur’s face, his eyes growing very wide. “You know, don’t you?” he said, and then he bit down on his lip, pain flickering into his blue eyes and painting them gold.
And that, Arthur remembered. Merlin had magic. Morgana had magic. Gwen…probably didn’t have magic? Magic. He nodded—and Merlin flinched. It was just a momentary, almost involuntary motion, but he flinched as if he expected Arthur to strike at him. “Are you going to…” Merlin trailed off quietly. “Are you going to kill me?”
Arthur stared at him. “Are you daft?” he demanded.
“Are you absolutely and completely off your head? Because that’s the only explanation I can think of for you asking the person who just dragged you out of the land of the dead whether he was going to kill you. Do you really think I want to waste all of that hard work, you idiot?”
Merlin stared at him. “Oh,” he said. “Um. Uh. Okay, I guess I hadn’t really thought that one through, had I? It’s just, your attitude towards magic is a bit, um.”
Groaning, Arthur passed a hand across his face and then, for good measure, through his hair. “Fine,” he said. “I’m a clotpole. Are you happy now?”
Merlin’s mouth hung open for a second, and then a wide grin spread across his face, and he started to laugh. One flailing hand reached out and grabbed Arthur’s shoulder as he leaned forward, still shaking with laughter. “What?” Arthur said. “What? Gwen, he has gone daft.”
She was smiling broadly at both of them, but it was Morgana who leaned down, smirking, and said, “I don’t know. I think laughing at you is probably the saner option.” Arthur growled at her, but couldn’t do much more because now Merlin, who was still laughing, was leaning his full body-weight into Arthur, and he needed to pay attention to avoid dropping him back in the mud. Besides that, Merlin was naked as a newborn child, and for some reason that was oddly distracting.
Finally, Arthur settled onto the bank and drew his manservant—sorcerer—friend against him so that Merlin could laugh weakly into his side. “It will be complicated, you know,” he said irritably. “Trying to make sure Father doesn’t find out. You’re not very careful.”
Merlin butted his head into the side of Arthur’s. “Oh, because you knew about it.”
“We’ve just established I’m a clotpole,” Arthur grumbled. “And—” he blew out an angry breath. “I ought to have known,” he said, in a low voice. “I ought to have paid more attention to you—how many times have you saved my life?”
“I gave up counting after the first week in your service,” Merlin answered simply, and Arthur shook his head, feeling a frown fighting with a smile. And then he found himself looking to the side and down at Merlin, who was looking up at him, weak with laughter, a very lively flush still painted across his high cheekbones.
“Oh, damnation, Merlin,” Arthur said, and kissed him.
He tasted strangely of strawberries and a hint of salt, but Arthur wouldn’t have cared if he’d tasted of a dungheap. He was a little concerned for a long moment when Merlin made no motion to respond, but then his friend gave a little hiccupping gasp, and then Merlin’s tongue was all over the inside of his mouth, so that was all right.
It was not the most skilled kiss Arthur had ever had in his life, but it was definitely up there for enthusiasm, and about the point he thought this was the point that Merlin’s hands were in Arthur’s hair and Arthur’s hands were on Merlin’s face, and they were starting to tend in a horizontal direction. It was only a stray giggle from Gwen’s direction that made Arthur pull back reluctantly and look down at Merlin. Both of them were breathing hard. “I—uh—” Merlin said. “Sorry?”
“Don’t,” Arthur told him, and Merlin stared at him in blank incomprehension. “Don’t apologize? Just—you don’t need to, for God’s sake. I—” He pulled Merlin in again, just close enough to kiss him swiftly on the forehead. “I thought I’d lost you,” he said, because Merlin needed to know this. “I thought you were dead, and I was crying so hard I couldn’t even go to your funeral, I think Gaius thought I hated you, but it wasn’t that, it was that if I’d seen your body again—like that—I’d have known it was real, and I couldn’t bear it. God. Merlin. Don’t you dare ever do that again.”
“I didn’t really have a lot of other options,” Merlin said, but he pressed himself into Arthur’s side, and blew out a breath. “I mean—look, you were dying, and there just wasn’t a way around that, and I’m supposed to be protecting you, and I couldn’t just…let you die.”
“Obviously, I couldn’t let you die either, so I suppose I can’t blame you for that.”
“I blame both of you for being idiots,” Morgana said caustically. “And now we have to get all the way back to Camelot in that stupid coracle with four people instead of just three.”
“We do,” Arthur agreed. “I’ve no doubt your magic can get us there safely again, though.”
Morgana went red, and then she jabbed out her chin. Arthur, who had been starting to feel a stirring of concern for her as well, was comforted. “I didn’t know that’s what it was,” she said, mulishly, “but I’m not in the least bit sorry.”
“You shouldn’t be,” Gwen agreed, before Arthur could say anything, so he just nodded.
“I can’t imagine either of us will be able to change Father’s mind about magic,” he said heavily. “And without changing his mind, there’s no guarantee that we change much about Camelot either.”
“That is not a problem we’re going to solve sitting here in the mud,” Gwen pointed out practically.
“Also, and I’m just pointing this out because you may have forgotten, but you did storm the halls of Annwn and whisk me out under the nose of Gwynn ap Nudd,” Merlin put in. “So I feel like saying that you can’t do something as simple as fixing your entire kingdom just because you haven’t figured out how yet is a little premature.”
“Are you calling me a clotpole again?”
Merlin shrugged, then grinned slyly. “Well, I wasn’t going to say it.”
“All right, Gwen’s right, it’s time for us to go home. Merlin, take my cloak, or you’ll freeze.”
Merlin went pink to the ears again, but he took the cloak that Arthur pressed into his hands and wrapped it clumsily around himself. As the four of them rose to set off in the Prydwenn again, Arthur took Merlin’s hand in his and squeezed, just to remind himself that Merlin was here, was safe, was alive. He’d done it. They’d done it. And then he had to turn and kiss those strawberry-tinged lips just once more. Merlin made a vaguely protesting sort of noise, but he laced both hands around Arthur’s neck to hold him more securely.
Gaius was still cold. It had taken a great deal of effort for him to get out of bed in the morning—significantly more effort than it usually did. Usually, he was awakened by the sound of Merlin whistling as he made porridge for the two of them to eat. He hadn’t realized how much he relied on that silly little noise to drag him out of bed until it was gone. For two days now—was it two days? The hours seemed to drag by—he had risen significantly after dawn, shuffled out to a cold kitchen, and sat at his bench, thinking that he ought to eat something. Then he had made himself some watery, tasteless tea—he never seemed to let it steep for long enough—and then he stared at his experiments for a few more hours. He hoped the court remained in good health for some time to come.
The sun was climbing towards noon—so late; when had it gotten so late?—when there was a clattering noise out in the courtyard, followed by a peal of laughter, unmistakably Gwen’s. Then Arthur’s voice, rising sharp and plaintive. “I need you to get me a change of clothing, immediately.”
“Sire, with all due respect, I’d like to be wearing clothes myself first.” Gaius tapped his ear, because he knew that voice, and it wasn’t—it wasn’t possible. Surely, Arthur couldn’t actually have—
“You’re my manservant, and if I tell you to—”
“Oh, yes, I’ll just waltz through the castle naked, shall I? ‘Good afternoon, Uther, I know all my bits are on display, but your son and heir just couldn’t wait five minutes for me to find a respectable outfit because he’d gotten a bit damp. Which was his own fault, by the way.’”
“It was not, if you hadn’t decided to grab onto me right then—”
“I’m so sorry if I’m bit twitchy after being dead—”
“Oh, God,” Gaius said out loud, and he found that he was twining his hands about each other. “God. Please.”
The door to the courtyard was shouldered open, and Gwen, Arthur, and Morgana all tumbled through, all three forming a protective cocoon around the central figure, who, despite his protestations of nakedness, was wrapped securely in Arthur’s heavy woolen cloak. A dry sob caught in Gaius’s throat.
Merlin paused just inside the door, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot. His dark hair was plastered to his head, and the other three looked just about as soaked as he was, if not more. “I could have drowned, you know,” Arthur was saying loftily. “In all this armor, I’d have sunk straight to the bottom—”
“We were basically back in Camelot,” Merlin sighed. “The river was three feet deep.” Then he looked up, and his blue eyes flashed momentarily gold, and Gaius watched in stupefaction as a momentary roaring gust of hot wind twisted around all four of them, leaving behind no traces of the moisture, the only sign of its passage the ridiculous way Arthur’s hair was sticking up. “Hello, Gaius.”
“My boy.” He ought to be chiding Merlin for using magic so carelessly, in front of the crown prince and his sister, though to judge from their lack of reaction, that secret had already been revealed. Besides, there was nothing inside him that could possibly say a scolding word to Merlin now. “It’s a miracle.”
Merlin took a few tiny, stumbling steps across the stone floor toward him, looking hopeful but nervous at the same time, and Gaius met him in the center and embraced him, pulling the gangly boy down into a full-body hug. “I thought I’d lost you,” he whispered in Merlin’s ear, rocking him back and forth, and Merlin went rigid for a moment and then relaxed.
“I thought I’d never see you again,” he whispered in Gaius’s ear. “I was so frightened, and I’m so sorry, but I—I—”
“I know,” Gaius told him. “It’s all right. It’s all right.”
They stood like that for several minutes, and then Merlin took a long, trembling breath and stepped back. “I don’t exactly know what happened,” he said, with an attempted smile. “I don’t remember all of it. None of us do. But Arthur—” he reached back and pulled the prince forward. Arthur made a soft, surprised noise, but took two steps up to stand before Gaius.
“I’m sorry,” he said, awkwardly. “For not coming to the funeral and for demanding that you—” His face was flushed a dull red.
“Please.” Gaius raised his hands in front of him. “Too much and I’ll think you’ve taken sick, Sire.” He cleared his throat. “Besides, what you have given me today is more precious than a thousand apologies.”
“I won’t let it happen again,” Arthur told him, and he put a protective arm around Merlin’s shoulder, drawing him close. Merlin flushed scarlet but only sidled closer, and Gaius said nothing but let his eyebrow climb into his hair. That was a discussion for another time. All that mattered now was that Merlin was home and safe. Gaius felt his shoulders slumping as tension he hadn’t realized was present drained suddenly out of him, and he wobbled on his feet.
Like an eel, Merlin wriggled away from Arthur immediately and inserted himself under Gaius’s shoulder, taking Gaius’s weight and helping him into a chair. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yes, yes.” Gaius patted Merlin’s arm. “Just overwhelmed.”
“Let me get you some tea and porridge?”
“No,” put in Lady Morgana, suddenly. “You sit down next to Gaius. Gwen and Arthur and I will get you anything you need.”
“My lady, we couldn’t possibly—” Gaius tried to object, and Merlin tried to say something similar at the same time. Arthur glared at both of them.
“As your prince, I command you to sit there and take it easy,” he said. “And don’t argue.”
“But—” Merlin tried.
“No,” said Arthur.
“I just think—”
“Well, stop it.” Merlin sighed and rolled his eyes, but slumped back down. Gaius hid a smile.
“It’ll do you no harm to rest for a bit,” Gaius told him. “Just enjoy the prince looking after you for a change.”
“He’ll be insufferable tomorrow,” Merlin grumbled.
Gaius ruffled his hair fondly. “I’m inclined to let him. He brought you back to me.”
“You don’t have to clean his room, wash his boots, polish his armor…”
“Would you actually trust anyone else to do all that?”
Merlin tipped his head to the side to give Gaius a half-grin. “Well, no,” he said, quietly. “But don’t tell him that.”
“No need to worry.” Gaius reached out and pulled Merlin against him again. “There’s nothing whatsoever to worry about it.” Nothing at all, Gaius thought, as Merlin’s grin widened, when he had his son restored to him.