“Not a word,” Arthur said flatly.
“I didn’t say anything,” Merlin said, as his upside-down face swung by again.
“Of course, if I were going to say something,” Merlin began, and hastily said, “but I won’t!” as Arthur turned an outraged look on him, or as much of one as he could manage under the circumstances, which included being suspended upside down over a pit full of jagged knife-edged spikes, and dripping slime that had a very faint, almost unnoticeable putrescent odor that was almost worse than if it had been a full-fledged stink, because he kept noticing it over and over. Especially as he rotated gently around from the ankles. It definitely didn’t improve his mood at all that Merlin had spent the entire day urgently trying to warn him about goblin traps, which Arthur had of course ignored completely, since everyone knew goblins were made up nonsense to frighten children into good behavior; so whoever had been raiding the villages around the southern border, massacring cattle, they weren’t goblins. They were probably bandits in the pay of one of their neighboring enemies, and there was some perfectly good explanation for why they were apparently carefully taking the innards and leaving the rest of the meat to rot.
“Very wise of you,” Arthur said. “Now get me down.”
“Er, right,” Merlin said, darting his eyes around. “That…might be a little tricky.”
“Merlin,” Arthur said tightly. “There’s a log right next to your foot. Put it across the pit—”
“I don’t mean because I can’t figure out how!” Merlin said. “I mean I think they’re going to try and stop me.” He jerked his chin forward, and on the next rotation Arthur caught sight of the pale gleam of eyes like enormous lenses filled with dim greenish light, approaching on either side from the paths that, in retrospect, he really should have noticed converging on the camouflaged mat that had been covering the trap. Eyes set in round and pebbled toad-faces, above lower jaws bristling with a double row of needle-like teeth.
“Wonderful,” Arthur said, feeling mildly fatalistic. At least his sword was still in his hand. “Get that log under me now.” He’d have to whack apart the rope, land on the log, not slip in the muck, try and clear an escape route to the north—
“Move, and goblins kill king,” one of the goblins, who had a particularly warty face, said, and raised—a crossbow, because of course they had crossbows. Arthur was wearing mail, but not full plate.
“You’re going to kill me anyway if I just hang here!” Arthur said.
The goblin shook his head. “No. You just hang there, why goblins kill you? Goblins don’t want to kill king. Goblins want help.”
“Help?” Arthur said. “You have a funny way of asking Camelot’s aid, by slaughtering our cattle and laying traps for me—”
“Goblins not asking help,” warty face said, making a disgusted expression. “Goblins trade for help. Goblins have king. Goblins give king back, for help.”
“Oh, of all the—” Arthur ground his jaw. His father was going to love this. “There will be no ransom. Camelot does not negotiate with those who offer violence to our realm. If you want our aid, release me at once, and sue our mercy for whatever it is you want.”
“Goblins not want help from Camelot,” the goblin said. “Goblins want help from Emrys.” And then he looked at Merlin. “You help, goblins give you back king.”
“What?” Arthur said, looking at Merlin, who even upside down looked fairly alarmed. “You idiots, that’s Merlin. He’s my servant.”
“Yes,” the goblin said. He sounded mournful. “Emrys serves king. Big waste, you ask me. Us following you all day. Emrys say, ‘Goblins watching.’ King tramp all over making noise. Emrys say, ‘look out trap.’ King go in trap.” He and several of the other goblins all shook their heads disapprovingly, while Arthur seriously contemplated cutting the rope at once and swinging himself onto their heads and seeing how many of them he could take out. “Once and future king, not all he cracked up to be. Emrys not want king anymore, Emrys say so, goblins figure out something else. Goblins have queen, she smart, she not go in trap. You want serve queen?” he asked Merlin.
“Er, no thanks, really,” Merlin said.
The goblin sighed faintly. “OK. Then you want king back, you help goblins.”
“Look, maybe—we could talk about this in private,” Merlin said. “You could let Arthur go, and I’ll go with you—”
“No, you’re not going anywhere!” Arthur said. Merlin probably thought he was being clever, giving Arthur a chance to escape; of course it would leave him in the hands of the goblins who’d be fairly angry when they worked out Merlin really wasn’t this Emrys they were after, but since Merlin had all the self-preservation instincts of a dim lemming, he wasn’t thinking about that. Arthur glared at the goblin as he revolved around again. “What do you even think Merlin’s going to do for you? Fold your clothes? Polish your armor?”
“Emrys save goblin children,” the goblin said.
Arthur paused. Merlin said, “What?”
“Witch come to goblin caves,” the goblin said. “She says, goblins go kill men, bring her their hearts. Queen says, then men come to caves with fire and smoke. Queen says nope. Next day, goblin children cursed.”
“So they’re sick?” Merlin said hurriedly. “You want me to cure them—Arthur, I can do that. Gaius has taught me—”
The goblins all shook their heads. “Children not sick,” the warty one said. “Children turned to stone.”
Merlin stopped, his mouth open. “Yes, Merlin’s certainly going to be able to help you with that,” Arthur said sarcastically.
The goblins all nodded and looked up at Merlin. “Goblins not take men hearts,” the goblin said. “Goblins take deer hearts, give witch, say it men. Witch get suspicious though. Spell not working. She say she not take curse off until spell work. Queen say, we need big wizard help.” All the goblins nodded in unison again, like a row of bobbing toys. “Queen say, go take cow hearts. Leave meat. Then maybe king come, bring big wizard. See, queen smart,” the warty one added, pointedly. “You sure you want king? Queen give wizard jewels and pie.”
“Um,” Merlin said, awkwardly. “That’s—a really nice offer, but—”
“Pie made of what, intestines and liver?” Arthur said. “Look, will you get it through your warty heads, Merlin’s not a wizard.”
“You make king not know?” the goblin asked Merlin.
“What—no!” Merlin said.
“He just that dumb, huh?” the goblin said. They all looked at him critically. “Him so ugly too. Pale hair. Tiny eyes. No teeth.”
“I have every last one of my teeth, and if you don’t think that’s an achievement, let me down and we’ll see who gets some knocked out first,” Arthur snapped.
“Goblins not dumb,” the goblin said. “Goblins not letting you down until after Emrys save children.”
“Right, look, why don’t I just—go with you and have a look at the children—” Merlin said.
Every single one of the goblins slung off a heavy carrysack they were wearing and brought out—a tiny curled up petrified child, small enough to fit into both their broad palms held together, each one with absolutely horrible levels of detail, down to straggly eyelashes and drips of snot rolling down from their noses and tongues poked halfway out and awkward positions, nothing like statues at all; Arthur had seen brilliant stonework, even plaster casts, and it wasn’t remotely the same. The goblins lay them all down before Merlin’s feet and gazed up at him with expressions as piteous as hideous toad-monster creatures could possibly have managed.
Merlin stared back at them, his own face stricken, and the warty one looked down at the bodies and shuddered all over and looked up and said, “We say, goblins not ask, goblins trade. But goblins—goblins ask too. Goblins ask.”
And he went down on his knees, and all the rest of them did too, and Merlin said in a cracking voice, “Look, I’ll help you, just—just let Arthur go, and—”
Arthur snarled under his breath and heaved himself up with every muscle in his gut, seized the rope and slashed it just below his grip, and even though his hand slipped in the slime, he managed to swing himself over far enough to go tumbling onto the ground, just short of the edge of the pit. The goblins all sprang up, going for their weapons, and Merlin made a move to step between them, but Arthur gripped his shoulder and pushed him back, facing the warty goblin. “Right,” he said grimly. “Where’s this witch?”
The goblins looked up at him and looked at each other, and then at him again. “Why you want know?” the warty one said.
“So I can kill her, and break the curse,” Arthur said pointedly. “That is what you’re after, isn’t it?”
The goblins all stared at him. The warty one said, “But you free now.”
Arthur ground his jaw. “You didn’t need to throw me in a trap and cover me with slime to get me to help you save your children from an evil witch! Next time, try asking to begin with. Now where is she?”
Merlin then tried to come up with a dozen reasons why he had to stay behind with the stone lumps of children and absolutely couldn’t come with Arthur to kill the witch. There was something wrong with him: half the time he’d try to throw his life away like he was playing hot potato, and as soon as you suggested that possibly he might come along and make himself useful in some way on a task with a modest bit of danger involved, he’d panic. Arthur had to grab him by the scruff and tug him along. The goblins all looked fairly unhappy about it too; they clearly preferred their own marvelous idea that Merlin was a great sorcerer who’d wave his hand and turn all their children back in an instant.
Even after Arthur had killed the witch—Merlin lost his head and fled in a burst of fear at some point during the fighting—and he came back to the clearing and found Merlin there amid a gaggle of tiny goblin children all sitting up and toddling around none the worse for wear, the goblins mostly aimed their thanks at Merlin, and tacked him on grudgingly, as if they were resentful about Arthur having slowed things down more than anything.
“But you come have pie too,” the warty goblin said.
“Yes, well, with all due gratitude for your offer of hospitality,” which wasn’t much gratitude at all, in Arthur’s opinion, “I’d rather have a bath.”
“You have bath too,” the goblin said.
Arthur was still fairly skeptical, but it was a day’s ride to the nearest keep, and then Merlin said, “I really think we should just go,” and Arthur was still annoyed with him, so that clinched it.
“Don’t be uncivil, Merlin. Lead the way,” he told the goblin.
The goblins had a hot spring in the back of their cavern network. It was possibly the single most glorious bath Arthur had ever had in his life. He took five minutes to wash off every last speck of slime and dirt, and then he just lolled back against the stone ledge that had been carved in the perfect spot, halfway between the bubbling, seething vent near the wall and the cooled water near the edge of the pool.
“You’re turning the color of a cooked shrimp,” Merlin said. “I really think you should get out now. Shouldn’t we be going? Your father’s going to be worried.”
“It’s a week’s ride back to Camelot!” Arthur said. “My father’s not counting the days. He’ll assume we’ve stayed a night at a lord’s keep.” He squinted up. “Have you not even bathed at all?”
“I’m just—waiting until you’re ready to go,” Merlin said.
“You can’t be afraid of hot water,” Arthur said. “Stop hovering and get in. You can rub my shoulders.”
“I can what?” Merlin said.
“Patrick isn’t here, so it’s you or nobody,” Arthur said. “I’m not asking some goblin to give me a massage.”
Merlin heaved a sigh and finally shucked his clothes and got in. “Oh, that’s nice,” he gasped, instantly.
“Yes, it is,” Arthur said. “ ‘Thank you, Arthur, for allowing me the privilege of sharing your bath—’ ”
Merlin splashed him with the colder water, so Arthur ducked him thoroughly—the better to get him clean, since he apparently had some sort of aversion to bathing—and then they both just lolled together in the glorious hot, and after that Arthur tried to make Merlin rub his back, except Merlin just sort of slid his hands up and down incompetently, and Arthur ended up having to show him how it was even done. “Oh, oh,” Merlin moaned, arching up under his hands, and Arthur finally gave him a smack on the shoulder.
“That’s how, now your turn,” he said, turning his back, and then had to swallow a yelp, as Merlin had gotten the idea very aggressively. Also he had hands made of iron or something, and he managed to ferret out every single tender spot in Arthur’s back and shoulders and neck. Arthur even made Merlin do his legs after. His ankles still hurt, damn the goblins anyway.
But all in all he was beginning to feel in charity towards them, and even more so after moving on to the pie, which was in fact fantastically good: the crust meltingly rich and heaped inside with carrots and mushrooms and tender meat in an unctuous sauce of wine and broth that tasted as though it had been cooked down for a week. The cooks at Camelot would have wept. Even Merlin stopped trying to get him to leave, at least for long enough to wolf down his share.
“Emrys like pie?” he was asked by the goblin on his other side passing him a second slab, a raving beauty with a bristling patch of coal-black hair, eyes the size of serving platters, and an absolute forest of teeth, all of which had been capped with elaborate steel points.
“Yeah, ’s really good,” Merlin mumbled indistinctly around it, nodding.
“Pie every day, if wizard stays,” she said, cajolingly.
“He’s not staying!” Arthur said, indignantly. It was a bit much for them to still be trying to poach Merlin after he’d slain an evil witch for their sake. “And he’s not a wizard.”
The goblin eyed him narrowly, and then she looked at Merlin and said low and even more insinuatingly, “King burn wizards. So Emrys not tell king. Emrys stay, serve me, no lying. No burning. Goblins hide you. King never find wizard again.”
Arthur stared at her in utter outrage, drew a breath to shout her into next week, and made the terrible mistake of looking at Merlin before he let loose, to see just how much Merlin was enjoying this and how much of the shouting he deserved to be in for, and Merlin’s face—was exactly as stricken, looking at her, as if she’d just laid something priceless on the ground before his feet, something he almost couldn’t bear to refuse.
There was a long, horrible moment. Then Merlin said, “No,” barely over a whisper, choked in a way Arthur could almost, almost have convinced himself, with a massive effort, was the pie clogging his mouth. “Thanks. No. I can’t.”
The goblins led them out of the forest the next morning. They gathered their horses back from the farm where they’d left them and began riding back to Camelot. Merlin didn’t say a word the whole day, not a single moment of rambling or yammering on. “We’ll make camp here,” Arthur said, as the sun began going down, when they crossed a small brook with a good-sized hillock of dry land on the other side, three big healthy trees to shelter beneath. Merlin still didn’t say a word, just got down and started tying up the horses.
Arthur went hunting, leaving Merlin to arrange the camp. On his way back, with three rabbits, he noticed he was making a great deal of noise, letting twigs snap and leaves crackle beneath his boots. It was a rotten habit for a hunter; the goblins had been right to sneer at him. He didn’t know when he’d gotten into it. Except he did, of course. He knew exactly when he’d gotten into it. He’d gotten into it this last year, since his father had inflicted an incompetent twat of a manservant on him. His father, who burned wizards when he caught them.
Arthur stopped on the edge of the brook, the rabbits dangling from his hand, his heart somehow thumping in the hollow of his throat, a garrotting sensation: Merlin’s face was before his eyes again, that stricken look. No lying. No burning. Really it was—a pathetically minimal offer, even if you did throw in pie and hot baths, and even if you didn’t count having to live with goblins; what kind of idiot would even have to think about it? The kind of idiot whose other options were lying or burning, or for a special treat, both. “But what do I do?” Arthur said out loud to the running water, his voice cracking, because if it wasn’t enough for him not to know, if lying was almost as bad as burning, then—
He went up the hill, with the rabbits. A fire was burning and wood gathered, the bedrolls laid out. Merlin still said nothing; he took the rabbits as Arthur butchered them and started them cooking, and after the stew was on, the fire crackling, nothing to do but stare into the flames, Arthur said, harsh and desperate, “Tomorrow we’ll be along the border of Nemeth. King Rodin—keeps a court sorcerer. He—” His voice wavered, up and down, thick and breaking; he stopped. King never find wizard again, she’d said, and he knew it was true. But he couldn’t—he couldn’t see Merlin’s face the rest of his life, miserable, hunched in on himself, afraid—afraid of him, afraid that he would—
Arthur didn’t want to look away from the flames. But beside him Merlin caught his breath on a hard gulping noise; Arthur looked over, and—Merlin’s face was stricken all over again, as if it was just as bad. Merlin didn’t look back at him. His mouth worked, and he didn’t speak, just bowed his head, trembling as if he’d been sentenced to die instead of given an open door. Arthur wanted to shout at him, to grab him by the shoulders and shake him, the absolute unbearable wretch: what did he even want, what could he want? He didn’t want to burn, and he didn’t want to leave, and he didn’t want to lie, but he had to lie; he had to lie to stay in Camelot. “Listen, you mad idiot, if my father finds out, he’ll kill you,” Arthur said through gritted teeth, and Merlin went utterly still, and slowly did look over at him, at him, with his face not stricken at all, illuminated suddenly instead with hope, as if all that mattered was that Arthur—
Arthur could have gasped with relief. “And you’re the most useless wizard in all of Albion,” he said instead, his voice cracking just a bit more despite everything he could do. “Did you let me walk into that slime trap on purpose? I should have you thrown in the stocks for a week.”
He was trying, but it wasn’t working; Merlin had looked away again and put his hands up over his face and was making a truly awful gargling noise behind them, and Arthur leaned over and pushed Merlin’s hands away and took Merlin’s face between his hands and kissed him in desperation, just to stop it from getting any worse. Merlin threw his arms around him and kissed him back so hard he toppled them over. Arthur whoofed out a strangled breath as Merlin’s weight came down on him, but then he rolled them over and oh, thank goodness, the crying had stopped; Merlin’s hips were rutting up against him wildly in eagerness even before Arthur shoved his hands down Merlin’s trousers, and Merlin’s hands were in his hair holding him for kissing so frantic that neither of them could have said a word.