The crowd was silent. Even the normal shifting and shuffling that accompanied such a huge gathering was missing. The only sound was the wind through the courtyard and Uther’s passionate proclamation.
“The crime of sorcery can have only one punishment,” the king declared. “My people--we must not allow ourselves to grow complacent. A sorcerer can wear any face he chooses. Do not allow a guise of innocence to to sway you. Such deception only makes the perpetrator all the more traitorous.”
Merlin closed his eyes, letting Uther’s words wash over him. Distantly, he heard Gwen’s muffled sob, and cringed, feeling a stab of guilt. He hated that this would hurt her. And Gaius...when they’d led Merlin into the courtyard, he’d been afraid the old physician would collapse. He suspected Gwen’s staunch support, both emotional and physical, was the only thing keeping his old friend upright.
Uther’s voice rang out again, and Merlin wearily turned his head, looking up at the furious king. though he knew he should feel afraid, or even angry, all he felt was tired. Empty. It was as though his life had ended the moment he had performed magic in the king’s presence, and the execution was just a formality. He felt no fear, no anger, nothing but a bone-deep exhaustion. Exhaustion, and a deep, wistful sorrow. Not for himself--at least not directly--but for the people he’d be leaving behind. Gwen, Gaius, even Morgana. His mother.
He closed his eyes. Arthur. Oh, Gods, Arthur. His prince, his king--for it mattered very little to Merlin that Uther still technically wore the crown. His destiny. And he would never see him again.
He closed his eyes as he felt the sting of tears behind his eyelids, not wanting his friends to see his pain, and not wanting to give Uther the satisfaction of seeing it either. He knew Uther had pushed his execution forward so quickly in part to ensure Arthur wouldn’t be here, and he honestly wasn’t sure if he felt resentful or grateful for it. It would have been harder to face this with Arthur watching, but...if he could just see him, one last time, to know he was really all right--that his magic had actually worked. Then he could die in peace, and know his sacrifice hadn’t been in vain.
He opened his eyes, looking up at the king, mildly surprised.
“You have been found guilty of performing magic, and have been sentenced to burn at the stake until dead for this crime. Have you anything to say?”
Merlin gazed up at him, as the already silent courtyard somehow grew quieter still. He wondered what he could possibly say that would mean anything. He certainly couldn’t apologize for who he was, nor could he ever be sorry for breaking the law to heal Arthur. As far as he was concerned, his magic could serve no greater purpose, not if he lived another hundred years.
He turned away from the king’s angry face, looking instead out at the crowd, at his friends. He met their streaming eyes, and gave them a small, sad smile.
“Take care of him for me,” he said softly. Gwen sobbed, but nodded, and Gaius inclined his head in acknowledgment.
“Light the pyre.” The command was cold. Merlin looked up to see Uther’s face set in a stony expression, and he refused to meet Merlin's eyes. Merlin sighed, looking away, turning to face the four guards approaching with the lit torches. He was surprised to realize one of them was Sir Leon--why would a knight have been given an executioner’s duty?
But as Leon approached, Merlin realized he was giving him a pointed look, trying to catch his attention. Merlin watched, and as Leon made to kneel and set the torch to the stacks of wood surrounding his pyre, he managed to subtly bow, inclining his head in a gesture of respect and loyalty. He masked the gesture well, and Merlin knew Uther would have seen nothing out of the ordinary from his vantage point, but Merlin received his message loud and clear, and he gave the knight a smile of genuine gratitude, even as the flame from Leon’s torch set the wood ablaze. Leon returned it subtly, before lowering his eyes and backing away, leaving Merlin alone as the flames began to spread.
Not wanting to watch, Merlin lifted his eyes skyward, and let his mind drift. He remembered scenes from his childhood, watching them play before his eyes as vividly as if he were reliving them: playing in the river with Will, sneaking bites in the kitchen while he helped his mother prepare a meal. Climbing the trees in the orchard. Finding that bird’s nest and bringing it home, asking his mother if he could keep the baby birds when they hatched. Fishing contests with the other boys (and if the fish had always seemed magically attracted to his lure, well, could he be blamed for using the talents at his disposal?). His first awkward romantic fumblings with some of the village lasses (and later, lads).
His first kiss.
The scenes progressed, as the heat around him began to build, and he held onto them like a lifeline, barely noticing the growing intensity as he let his life play out in front of him. He remembered coming to Camelot--how excited he’d been; how scared. Meeting his friends for the first time: Gwen, with her often awkward mouth and her sweet smile and her laugh. Gaius with his stern expressions always belied by the twinkle of paternal affection in his eyes. Morgana, with her laugh like a clear ringing bell and her staunch sense of right and wrong.
Merlin couldn’t stop the smile that crept onto his face, nor the tears that trickled down his cheeks, cool compared to the now scorching heat. He was certain the smoke obscured them, and so he let them fall freely as he thought of his prince. Arthur. The man he’d thought a complete ass, the first time they’d met. The man who sometimes still was. The prince who could be the biggest prat in the kingdom one moment, then shine with all the grace, wisdom and dignity of any king. The man who could in the blink of an eye go from an annoying, spoiled brat tormenting the servants, to a brave, shining knight, ready to ride into battle against impossible odds to defend his kingdom and all those within it.
Merlin had known from the moment they’d met that his and Arthur’s lives were inexorably entwined, though he’d tried to deny it, even to himself. But his magic had stirred the moment he’d looked into those taunting blue eyes, and even then, he’d felt the beginnings of their bond. Two sides of the same coin, the dragon had said, but Merlin knew it was more than that. He and Arthur were two halves of the same soul. It was why he had risked--and lost--everything, to make sure Arthur stayed safe. His own life was worthless, without Arthur in it. And the kingdom needed its heir. No, he didn’t regret what he’d done. Arthur’s life was worth a thousand of his.
But Gods, he was going to miss him.
The heat was nearly unbearable now, and the air harder to breathe. He felt white-hot pain in his calf as a spark suddenly jumped ahead of the rest of the flames, catching his trouser leg and scorching the flesh beneath. He bit his lip, fighting the urge to cry out in pain. From everything he knew about death at the stake, chances were he would suffocate before the flames got much closer to him.
It wasn’t a terribly comforting thought.
He turned his thoughts forcibly away from his fast-approaching fate, letting them return to Arthur. He wondered how the prince would react to his death. Arthur had risked his life for Merlin before, true, but Arthur was a man of honor. He would never allow anyone to suffer on his behalf. It was just who he was.
Still, Merlin suspected Arthur wouldn’t take his death easily. He would have a lot to deal with, when he awoke: learning of his own near-death, of Merlin’s magic, of his execution. Would he be sad? Angry? Would he believe Uther’s accusations, that Merlin was a traitor? Arthur had seen magic used for good, and Merlin had begun to hope the prince’s beliefs about it could be changed. But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t believe Uther’s story, and Merlin wouldn’t exactly be around to explain his side.
A harsh, wracking cough shook him from his thoughts. He opened his eyes, barely able to see through the haze of heat and ash. Each breath yielded less air and more noxious smoke, and he was beginning to feel light headed. The flames at his legs burned the fabric of his trousers, and the hair on his legs beginning to singe.
Yet pain and fear remained thankfully distant. As his lungs began to scorch from the heat, Merlin knew the end was only moments away. He closed his eyes, and involuntarily, his body arched, fighting its own death.
Arthur, he thought desperately, as though even now, his prince could somehow save him. Arthur!
But Arthur did not answer. As a flash of white-hot agony tore through him, Merlin felt his soul cry out, and with a final sob, his body gave up its desperate fight for life. He saw a blinding light that faded to gold, then deep crimson, before the world went black. The flames consumed him, and he knew no more.
* * *
Arthur knew something was wrong the moment he opened his eyes.
For one thing, he was pretty sure he should be dead. He remembered the battle with the manticore--remembered the searing pain as the poisoned barbs fired from the creature’s wickedly curved tail, piercing his chest and shoulder and paralyzing him almost instantly. He remembered hearing (though not feeling) his body impact the earth, the metal clatter of his armor as he found himself staring, unblinking, at the trees above. And, vaguely, he remembered Merlin’s shout, the agonized cry of the beast, and voices calling his name.
But after that, the details got a little bit...fuzzy.
Still, he was fairly certain he was supposed to be dead. Gaius’s book had claimed the sting of the manticore was fatal, and no cure existed.
Of course, Gaius often said that. Arthur smiled as he looked down at himself. Wrong again, eh Gaius?
Not that he could exactly get upset with the old physician. It had probably been Gaius’s hard work that had saved his life. Whatever he’d concocted, it had worked like a charm; Arthur felt fantastic. Ready to take on the world.
That still didn’t explain why he was alone, though. At this hour, Merlin should have been there, breakfast and a bath ready, whistling as he started in on his chores. Or, if Arthur had indeed been gravely ill, Gaius should be milling about nearby, keeping an eye on him, while Morgana or even Uther took it in shifts to sit with him.
He pushed himself up in bed, rolling his shoulders experimentally. They moved easily, no residual stiffness, no lingering ache. He grinned. Whatever Gaius had used, it was powerful stuff. He looked down at his shoulder, lifting the blood-stained bandage, then blinked.
No wound marred the skin, and the only evidence that he’d been injured at all was a faint, star-shaped scar on his chest and one on his shoulder. He frowned, suddenly wondering what, exactly, had happened to him. No potion or salve could heal a wound that quickly.
How long had he been asleep?
A noise at the door drew his attention, and he turned toward it, eager to get some answers. He swung his legs over the side of the bed, straightening with a smile when Gaius entered with a bundle of herbs.
The smile faded swiftly, however, when he noticed the old physician’s bearing. Gaius looked awful. If he’d looked old before, now he looked positively ancient, moving in a slow shuffle with his eyes trained on the floor.
Arthur wondered if it was his illness was making Gaius look like that. Did Gaius not realize he’d recovered?
“Gaius,” he said warmly. “Hello.”
Gaius did look startled, lifting his head swiftly, eyes widening. But he didn’t do more than give Arthur a weak smile. “Sire,” he said in a tremulous voice. “It’s good to see you well.”
Arthur frowned, feeling a niggling sense of fear growing in his chest. Gaius looked about as far from good as it was possible to get.
“Gaius?” he asked warily. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
Gaius swallowed hard, and Arthur was horrified to see tears shining in his eyes. The fear in his heart quickly turned to dread, and he sat up straighter, certain now he was not going to like this.
“It...perhaps it would be best to wait until you are fully recovered, Sire. You were gravely injured, and--”
“And I’m fine now,” Arthur insisted, reaching up to tear off the bandages. “See? Totally healed. What’s going on?”
Gaius looked at his chest, taking in the absence of the wounds, and sighed. “It worked, then,” he said. “That’s something. At least it wasn’t all in vain.”
“Gaius,” Arthur said, growing impatient. “What worked?”
Gaius looked back into his face, and seemed to steel himself. “He healed you, Sire,” he said softly. “M...Merlin, I mean.” Was it Arthur’s imagination, or did the physician stumble over his manservant’s name?
“Merlin?” Arthur frowned. “How did Merlin heal me?” Sure, Merlin had been studying under Gaius some, but Arthur was still certain the old physician’s skills far outstripped Merlin’s. What could Merlin have possibly done that Gaius couldn’t have?
“Merlin...used magic, sire,” Gaius said, watching Arthur. “He was born with the ability, though he tried to keep it secret. But when it became obvious that no traditional means would save you...he took matters into his own hands.”
Arthur’s head was reeling. Merlin? Magic? It didn’t seem possible. The two simply did not want to fit together in his mind. Magic was...evil, and its practitioners equally so. Conniving, scheming, traitorous people; sinister people. They weren’t...bumbling, grinning, big-hearted idiots who looked the other way when Arthur fired the kill shot during a hunt.
”How...how is that possible?” he breathed.
“Sire, please, don’t be angry with him,” Gaius whispered brokenly. “He only ever used it to protect you, I swear it. Don’t let your father’s prejudices change your mind about him--his loyalty to Camelot never--”
“Gaius,” Arthur interrupted, lifting his hand and cutting him off. “You don’t have to. I know.” And, strangely, he did. Though the thought of Merlin with magic was still completely incongruous, he knew there were more pressing matters to deal with; he would have to come to terms with his manservant’s abilities later. “Does my father know?” he asked, certain from the way Gaius was looking at him that he did--and that the verdict had not in any way been affected by Merlin’s efforts to save the prince.
“He does,” Gaius said softly, lowering his eyes.
Arthur nodded once, striding swiftly to the wardrobe and snatching a tunic, tugging it on and and dashing for the door.
“Sire?” Gaius said, frowning. “Where are you going?”
“To make my father see sense,” Arthur answered, tugging open the door and stepping into the corridor.
“Sire! Arthur, wait!” Gaius called after him, but he ignored him, sprinting down the corridor to the throne room. He would make his father understand. Merlin would not be punished for saving Arthur’s life.
* * *
Uther was bent over a table, studying a document spread across the polished surface, when Arthur burst in, startling the guards at the door. His bare feet slapped against the cold flagstone floor as he stormed up to the table and braced his hands on the edge, glowering at the king.
Uther, who had looked up in surprise when Arthur entered the room, was watching him curiously. “Arthur,” he said after a moment. “You look well. Gaius said you wouldn’t be up for a week.”
“Gaius was wrong,” Arthur stated bluntly, impatient. “And you know as well as I do that his remedies had nothing to do with my recovery, so don’t try to pretend you’re serving justice by punishing Merlin.”
Uther blinked, startled by the outburst, but recovered quickly. A frown clouded his features, and he looked back down at the table, his expression closed.
“Father,” Arthur said, trying to curb his temper. It would do no good to anger his father now. If he was going to help Merlin, he would have to try to keep a cool head. “Please. He saved my life--again. That has to be worth something.”
“He broke the law,” Uther stated, in a voice that clearly told Arthur he was in no mood to discuss this. “He betrayed you and all of Camelot. There can be no exceptions, Arthur. And there was only one sentence I could give for his crime.”
“Crime? How is it a crime to save the life of a prince?” He stood, pacing in front of the table, jabbing at the wood in emphasis. “Merlin isn’t evil, father. How could you think he is? He’s served me, served Camelot, with as much loyalty and bravery as any knight. He’s offered up his life for me more times than I can count!”
“He still practiced magic.” Uther glowered at Arthur, but Arthur wasn’t having it. His father’s hatred of magic had never made sense before, not even back when he’d tried not to question his judgment, but now...he couldn’t go on blindly hating it. Not now that it had a face.
“Magic isn’t evil, Father,” Arthur said, conviction in his voice growing. “It’s a tool, just like anything else. A sword in the wrong hands can bring about death and destruction--or it can be used to protect people, to bring justice. What matters isn’t the tool, it’s how someone wields it.”
“You know nothing of the evils magic can do!” Uther spat, slamming his fist down on the table. “You were not here! You did not see the land mired in chaos and destruction, people living in fear of one another. You can’t know, you can never understand, because you have never had to live under magic’s oppressive reign.”
“No, just under yours.” The words were out before Arthur could stop to think about them.
Uther went perfectly still and quiet, and he stared at Arthur as though he’d never seen him before. Arthur swallowed, fear rising to mingle with the anger in his heart, but he refused to back down, even as he clenched his fists to keep them from trembling.
Uther finally broke the gaze, looking back down at the table, straightening the edge of the map. “Get out of my sight,” he said, as calmly as if he were telling Arthur to go and check the grain inventory.
“Father,” Arthur tried, but Uther lifted his hand, cutting him off.
“What’s done is done. You are still young, and I’m certain being so long in the boy’s company has corrupted your judgment, but his hold over you will fade in time. Do not speak to me again until you are ready to apologize.”
Arthur swallowed, lowering his eyes, and drew a deep breath. “Sire,” he said softly, “you are correct--I did speak without thinking. I...” he forced the words out, “I apologize. But please. Please, I beg you. Spare Merlin. Banish him if you will, but please, spare his life. I...I owe him a debt of honor. Surely you can see that. It must be repaid.”
Uther looked at him for a moment, then shook his head. “It cannot be done.”
“Arthur,” Uther interrupted. “The boy is dead. He was executed this morning.”
Arthur stared at his father for a long, quiet moment, the words taking that long to even register. “Wh...what?” he choked, hearing his own voice as if from a very great distance.
Uther shook his head. “Arthur...” he almost looked sympathetic, as he moved around the table and laid a hand on Arthur’s shoulder.
Arthur wrenched away as though Uther’s hand was a branding iron. He stared at his father in horror, certain he’d never seen him before. How had he not known? How had he not seen how corrupted, how... monstrous Uther’s irrational fear had made him? His words echoed around his head, growing louder with each repetition until they became a roar, loud and unending.
Dead. Executed. Dead. Executed.
Dead. Dead. Dead.
No. No. It wasn’t possible. It wasn’t.
“You’re lying,” he heard himself whisper.
Uther’s expression went from concerned to alarmed, and he made to approach Arthur again, but Arthur recoiled so quickly he fell back onto the flagstones. He didn’t stop even then, scrambling backwards awkwardly on his hands and feet as though Uther were going to attack him.
“Arthur!” Uther said, holding up his hands in a non-threatening gesture. “Arthur, calm down!”
“You’re lying!” Arthur screamed, and in one graceful motion, he leaped to his feet and spun around, sprinting from the room at a breakneck pace.
“Guards! Guards, grab him--don’t let him--Arthur!” He heard Uther yelling after him, but he ignored him, dashing easily past the startled looking guards, who didn’t have time to do more than make a halfhearted reach for him. He ran blindly, feet carrying him down the main stair, toward the doors that would lead him to the courtyard, and from there, the dungeon. He’d go there, and he’d find Merlin, sitting in the cell for magic users, shackled and dirty maybe, but alive--grinning his sheepish grin and giving Arthur the same little wave he always did when he’d managed to get into trouble and Arthur had to get him out again. He’d be there, and Arthur would find a way to get him out, and he’d sneak him out of the city the way they had with that druid boy so long ago, and they’d--
He skidded to a halt, as he rounded the corner and came out under the arched doorway to the courtyard.
The smell of acrid smoke and scorched hair met his nostrils, and he gaped, realizing he was staring at the charred remains of an execution pyre. The courtyard was mostly empty; a few guards standing around the edges and one or two somber-looking citizens hurrying across as they made their way to and from the well pump. But for the most part, the place was deserted, save the charred and smoking pyre. The pyre that Uther would leave sitting for three days as a reminder to the fate that awaited those who defied his edict.
The pyre that held the last earthly remains of his best friend.
Arthur took a step forward, then another, walking through a daze of disbelief and horror. The pyre had burnt down to ash, only a few charred logs remaining, along with the scorched, lacquered pole that...that Merlin would have been bound to, by the thick chains Uther had commissioned to hold magic users. The chains were gone, but the pole remained, charred black with bits of fabric burnt into its surface.
Arthur was close, now--close enough to smell the stomach-churning stench of burning hair and ash. The thought that he was smelling Merlin hit him in a wave, and he collapsed to his knees, violently sick to the soul as he heaved the contents of his stomach onto the cold stones beneath him. There wasn’t much, but he heaved anyway, seeing stars sparkling before his eyes as he retched and retched.
But he knew no matter how long he gagged, he would never rid himself of the smell, or of the taste of ash on his tongue.
A gentle hand came to rest at the back of his neck. He heard a rustle of fabric, and a moment later, a pale hand appeared in his line of vision, holding a white kerchief. He accepted it with badly shaking fingers, wiping his mouth, then looked up to see Morgana’s vivid green eyes gazing into his own with sympathy and compassion. Gwen stood a short distance behind her, tears streaming from her eyes, and in her arms she held a small, beautifully engraved silver urn.
“We came to gather his ashes,” Morgana said simply. “Hunith deserves to give her son a proper burial.”
“He’s gone,” Arthur choked, wrapping his arms around his middle and rocking, fighting the urge to throw up again. “He’s really gone.”
“I’m sorry, Arthur,” Morgana whispered, and Gwen sobbed softly behind her, lowering her head and cradling the urn to her chest as though to protect it. “I tried everything, I swear I did. Uther barricaded me in my bedroom--I couldn’t even be there, in the end.”
Arthur shook his head. He wasn’t angry at Morgana--it wasn’t her fault. “Me neither,” he whispered, squeezing his eyes shut. “I...I was still...God, Morgana, I was asleep while he was suffering out here, dying, just because he...used magic to save my life. He died for me, and I wasn’t even here...” And somehow, that hurt as much if not more as the fact that Merlin was gone.
“We were,” Gwen offered softly, voice trembling. “Gaius and I...we stayed with him. He...he wasn’t alone.”
Arthur looked up at her, feeling a swell of gratitude, though it was bittersweet. Merlin had at least had the comfort of a few familiar faces in the crowd, then--he hadn’t had to face his fate unsupported. It wasn’t nearly good enough, but it was something. “Thank you,” he whispered.
“He...” Gwen seemed to hesitate, but at Arthur’s expectant look and Morgana’s encouraging nod, she moved forward. Reaching into her skirt’s deep pocket, she tugged out a scrap of red fabric that Arthur recognized as one of Merlin’s ratty neckerchiefs. She held it out to him, and Arthur accepted it with trembling fingers, clutching it in his fists and bringing it to his chest. “He asked us to take care of you,” she whispered. “With his final words. His last thoughts were of you.”
Arthur made a noise that was half-laugh, half-sob, and bowed his head. Merlin, you great, stupid, loyal idiot...oh, God, Merlin...
“Arthur,” Morgana’s voice broke through his grief, and he felt her hand slip under his elbow, urging him to stand. “Come on. The rain is going to start soon, and we have to gather his ashes. Help us.”
Arthur swallowed, but nodded, knowing he owed Merlin that much. Tucking the precious piece of fabric carefully into his tunic, he rose to his feet, and followed Gwen and Morgana to the pyre.
* * *
* * *
Arthur jerked awake, eyes flying open, heart pounding, one word on his lips.
The shout echoed across the empty room, then faded swiftly, leaving Arthur alone with nothing more than the sound of his own labored breathing.
He fell back to the mattress, bringing his hand up to cover his eyes.
Three days. Three days since Merlin’s execution, and Arthur hadn’t slept more than an hour at a stretch. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw Merlin’s face, contorted in agony as flames licked and danced around him. He heard him cry out, heard him begging Arthur for help. Saw his eyes, wide and frightened, gazing at Arthur pleadingly, crying out a silent question:
And at the end, it was all he could hear: the flames devoured his friend, and their roar swallowed his agonized screams, his broken voice hurt and lost as the word echoed around Arthur’s brain.
Why, Arthur? Why?
He’d woken up in a cold sweat every time, heart pounding and eyes stinging, only to have his momentary relief crumble as he realized the nightmare and the reality he’d woken into were one and the same.
He sighed, curling around a pillow and hiding his face in it. Today was the day he, Morgana, and Gwen would ride out for Ealdor, bringing news of Merlin’s death, as well as the urn bearing his remains, to Hunith. Arthur dreaded it more than he’d ever dreaded anything. Reporting a failure to his father seemed like nothing compared to this.
He sighed, hugging the pillow a little harder. He wasn’t usually a physically affectionate person, but Merlin had always called up the desire for contact: a friendly punch to the shoulder, a tousle of his hair, a supportive hand on his back. Maybe he’d just wanted to assure himself of Merlin’s presence. All he knew was his arms literally ached to hold him in the one way he’d never allowed himself before. He hated himself for being too proud to embrace Merlin when he’d had the chance.
Finally, he released his grip on the pillow, and sat up in bed, glancing out the window. The grey light of dawn was steadily growing, painting the courtyard in muted hues. Below, he could hear the workers tearing down the pyre, and he sighed in relief at knowing he would, at least, not have to look at it every day. It was hard enough trying not to get his hopes up every time he rounded a corner and caught a glimpse of dark hair or a red scarf; hard enough not to turn eagerly whenever he heard the echo of a familiar laugh.
He rose, moving on stiff limbs toward his wardrobe. His chambers were a mess, clothing and papers strewn about the floor, but he hadn’t the heart to let anyone else in to clean while he was there. Maybe now that he’d be gone, someone would come tidy up a bit. He knew, eventually, he would have to appoint a new manservant, but right now, the thought was absolutely abhorrent. He would have to make do on his own.
He dressed swiftly, then headed downstairs to meet Morgana and Gwen.
* * *
Their first day of travel passed more or less uneventfully. The weather, in an apparent show of solidarity, was gray and dreary, the clouds low and heavy with the promise of rain. It fit Arthur’s mood perfectly. He was fairly certain if it had been sunny and cheerful he might have had to hurt somebody.
Gwen and Morgana seemed to feel the same. They rode along behind him, silent and solemn in their procession. Morgana wore dark riding trousers and a deep blue shirt for practicality’s sake, but had topped the ensemble off with a long, black cloak, hood drawn low over her face. Gwen was similarly, if more simply, dressed, wearing brown trousers and a white shirt, but she had also topped it with a funeral cloak, if a little faded. She had taken it upon herself to carry the urn; instead of securing it to her saddle, she cradled it in her arms, body bowed over it as though she could somehow keep Merlin safe that way. She’d barely spoken, her usually sunny features drawn and pale, and Arthur’s guilt was compounded every time he glanced her way. She served to remind him just how many people were suffering because of him--because of what Merlin had been willing to sacrifice to save him.
Merlin, you idiot, he thought despairingly, as he watched Gwen huddle protectively over the urn, why the hell did you have to be so loyal?
He tried to turn his thoughts to other matters, but he found he couldn’t. His thoughts kept turning back to Merlin. To all the times they’d managed to escape from one scrape or another--times Arthur had attributed to simple luck. He knew better, now. He wondered idly just how many times Merlin had saved him. How many times he had risked his life, performing the magic the king abhorred, only to slip back into the shadows afterward, content to let someone else have the credit while he went on being treated like nothing more than a bumbling servant. Arthur had always known Merlin’s loyalty ran deep, but he was only now beginning to appreciate just how much Merlin had been sacrificing of himself for Arthur, on a nearly daily basis.
And Arthur had thanked him by treating him like dirt, calling him all manner of names and running him ragged just because he could.
He sighed, tightening his grip on his horse’s reins as he guided the animal over a patch of rough terrain. He knew he was probably being hard on himself; Merlin had, after all, also gotten away with much more than any other servant ever had. He’d had free rein to say and do pretty much whatever he wanted, and he’d taken advantage of that on numerous occasions. He’d said and done things that would’ve sent other servants to the stocks--or worse, gotten them sacked--and Arthur had let him, because Merlin had been so... funny. Much as he called the younger man an idiot, Merlin’d had a way with words--a dry wit that had surprised Arthur again and again, always keeping him on his toes. And his utter refusal to show any respect to Arthur’s title had been strangely refreshing.
At the same time, Merlin was the most fiercely loyal man Arthur had ever known. He’d believed in Arthur more than anyone, too--much more than Arthur had ever believed in himself. Arthur had found himself wanting to meet those expectations--wanting to be the king that Merlin so firmly believed he would be.
He didn’t know what he was going to do, without the constant bastion of support and good humor.
Nor, he realized, was he at all certain he would make it to the throne now. He twisted his mouth into a wry grin at the irony. Uther may have thought he was protecting the kingdom by having Merlin executed, but the truth of the matter was, he had likely condemned Arthur to death at the hands of the next maddened sorcerer or beast who saw fit to attack him. Without Merlin there, would Arthur even survive long enough to be the king he’d wanted him to be?
* * *
A flash of memory grabbed at him, tugging him insistently, and suddenly, Arthur was standing in the banquet hall, inexplicably covered with cobwebs, watching as a wretched old hag who had suddenly taken the place of Lady Helena raised a dagger with a terrible cry, hurling it directly toward his heart.
Except he wasn’t in his own body. He was standing to one side, watching as the scene unfolded with a strange lethargy. The room around him had somehow stilled, the dagger spinning toward his frozen image. But whatever force had slowed the rest of the room didn’t seem to have any effect on him; racing forward, he lunged at himself, reaching out a pair of hands that were far too long and slender to be his own, grabbing himself by the shoulder and wrenching him aside. And in that instant, as he fell alongside himself, the dagger buried itself halfway to the hilt in the solid oak of his chair. Rising to his elbows, staring at the dagger, only too aware that, had he been a second slower, it would have buried itself in his chest.
The next moments passed in a blur, as the room sped up again. He climbed to his feet shakily, standing beside the ‘other’ version of himself--the one who was currently staring at him in utter disbelief. And a moment later, his father appeared in his line of vision, wearing a matching expression of awe.
“You saved my boy’s life,” his father said. “That debt must be repaid.”
He felt himself flush, embarrassed at the attention. Heard a voice not his own but every bit as familiar issue from his lips an awkward mutter: “Oh, well...”
“Don’t be so modest,” Uther insisted. “You shall be rewarded.”
* * *
Arthur jerked back to reality, gasping aloud. Hengroen, startled, reared slightly beneath him, and he reached out automatically, soothing the stallion with a few whispered words and a pat on the neck.
“Arthur?” Morgana called up to him. “Is everything all right?”
Arthur blinked, shaking his head once to clear it of the...memory? “I...yes,” he said after a moment, glancing back over his shoulder to see both Morgana and Gwen watching him with concern. “Everything’s fine,” he said, more firmly this time. “This looks as good a place as any to stop for luncheon.”
Morgana didn’t look entirely convinced, but she let it go, for which Arthur was grateful. He knew she was already worried about him; he hadn’t been sleeping well, and what little sleep he did get was broken by nightmares. She’d seen him several times, sitting at the edges of their camp at night, afraid to go back to sleep. And the exhaustion was beginning to catch up with him; this wasn’t the first time he’d nearly dozed off in the saddle. Still, this was the first time he’d had such a vivid flash of memory in the middle of the day, and he didn’t blame her for being worried.
They dismounted and set up quickly, not bothering with a campfire. It had already begun to sprinkle, and Arthur didn’t want to go to the trouble of gathering kindling only to have the skies open up on them. They huddled together on a log, letting the horses graze while they picked at a cold lunch of jerky, bread and cheese, not speaking to one another, each lost in their own thoughts. When they finished, Arthur rose to his feet, packing their gear away quickly while Gwen and Morgana huddled close together, talking quietly. Gwen had been unwilling to relinquish her claim on the urn, but as they prepared to leave, she approached him with it, lip held fast between her teeth.
He gave her his best effort at a smile. “Gwen. What can I do for you?”
“I...forgive me, sire,” she said, her voice cracking a little. “But I thought...I would see if you wanted to...to hold him, for awhile.”
“Him...?” Arthur frowned, before realizing she meant the urn of Merlin’s ashes. He blinked, then felt the blood drain from his face; he instantly regretted his small lunch as his stomach lurched. “I...” What was he supposed to say? He could hardly refuse, could he...? Merlin deserved this from him, at the least. But...
“I thought it might...help,” Gwen said, when Arthur didn’t answer right away. Arthur looked up, surprised to see the kindness in her face. By all rights, she should hate him; he was responsible for the death of her friend. But she looked downright sympathetic.
Arthur swallowed, trying to get a grip on himself. “I appreciate the offer,” he began, already shaking his head, “but I don’t think--”
“It helps me feel closer to him,” Gwen said, surprising Arthur by cutting him off. She lowered her eyes to the urn, reaching up to trace the intricate silver engraving. “It’s...after my father died, I kept expecting to see him at every turn. But when they let me have his body, let me bury him...it helped. It gave me closure.”
Arthur took a deep breath. He knew she was only trying to help, every word sliced deeper into his heart. “Gwen, I really--”
She looked up again, her eyes gentle but insistent. “I think you need that,” she said, completely ignoring him. “You weren’t...you didn’t get to be with him, at the end. To say goodbye. It might...help you accept it.” She held out the urn, expectantly.
Arthur stared at it, feeling a sudden, completely irrational spike of anger. “Accept it?” he repeated incredulously. “You want me to accept it? Accept that my manservant--a man I trusted--was lying to me about his magic all this time, then used that magic to save my life by sacrificing his own? You want me to accept that I got him killed because I was stupid enough to get hurt in the first place?”
To give her credit, Gwen didn’t back down. She stood before him, still offering the urn. “Yes,” she said softly. “Ignoring it isn’t going to keep it from being real. And if you can’t accept he’s gone, you can’t grieve for him.”
“I will thank you to remember who you’re speaking to, Guinevere,” he snapped, as he tried to shut out the logic of her words. He turned away from her, busying himself with Hengroen’s tack.
“Why?” Gwen pressed, moving around in front of him again. “He never did, did he?”
“That’s enough, Gwen.”
“Sire, I just think--”
“I don’t care what you think!” Arthur exploded, spinning around so fast she had to take a step backwards. He knew he was being irrational, but he couldn’t bear to hear any more of this. His head ached, his heart ached, his stomach had tied itself into so many knots it was a wonder he was keeping down what little lunch he’d managed to eat at all, and he didn’t want to hear this. Not right now. “For God’s sake, Gwen, I’m not a girl. I know Merlin’s dead, and I’m sorry, but if you’re hoping I’m going to have some...some profound emotional revelation just because I hold onto his ashes for a while, you’re wrong. He’s gone, and I can’t change that. Leave it alone.”
Instead of backing down as he’d half-expected, Gwen glared, eyes filling with tears. “So that’s it, then?” she said. “You’ll go on pretending he meant nothing to you just to save your pride? He deserves better from you, Arthur. You were supposed to be his friend.”
“He was my servant, Gwen,” Arthur gritted. “That’s all. My servant.”
Arthur blinked, staring at her in shock. Her eyes narrowed as she glowered at him.
“You can deny it if you like, but you and I both know he meant more to you than that. Why can’t you admit it?” Her eyes went wide suddenly. “You blame him, don’t you?” she said. “That’s what it is. You can’t grieve for him because you’re angry at him, and you feel guilty for being angry. That’s it, isn’t it?”
Arthur felt his hands trembling, her words hitting way too close to home. He closed his eyes, but that didn’t help; all he saw was Merlin’s face, grinning that stupid, idiotic grin, ridiculous ears sticking out. And all Arthur wanted to do was reach out and shake him, scream at him, demand to know how he could have been so stupid.
“I’m right,” Gwen said softly. “Arthur...”
“Please, Gwen,” Arthur pleaded, turning away from her to make a few unnecessary adjustments to Hengroen’s bridle. “Just leave it alone. Please.”
Gwen sighed, but did not argue. Before she left, however, she murmured, “You can’t hide from this forever, Arthur.”
Then, with a swish of fabric, she wrapped her cloak over her shoulders and headed back to her own horse, leaving Arthur shaking, gripping Hengroen’s mane for support.
God. Was that it? Was he angry at Merlin? Was that why Merlin’s screams tortured him at night, following him every time he closed his eyes? Was he unable to let go because he couldn’t forgive Merlin for dying in the first place?
It didn’t make sense. Merlin had just done what he’d had to. Hadn’t he? Arthur would have died, and Merlin would never have allowed that. He’s always put Arthur’s well-being ahead of his own. It shouldn’t surprise Arthur that he’d done it once again--and that this time, he hadn’t been able to save himself.
And there it was. If Merlin had magic, why the hell hadn’t he used it when it really mattered? He knew what a sorcerer could do; why hadn’t Merlin used some of that damned magic and freed himself? Why had he let himself be locked away, then executed, if he had the power to stop it?
Arthur jerked, looking up. Morgana stood next to him, her face unreadable, and he cringed.
“Please, Morgana, not now,” he pleaded. “I...you can scream at me later if you wish, but please.”
“I haven’t come to scream at you,” Morgana said, looking a little hurt. “I was simply going to suggest we get moving before the rain picks up again.”
Arthur blinked, then flushed, sheepish, and nodded, mumbling assent. Morgana watched him a moment longer, then gave him a fraction of a smile, before turning away and mounting her horse. Gwen was already seated atop hers, still cradling the damned urn, eyes lowered. Arthur swallowed, climbing into the saddle, before urging Hengroen into motion once more.
* * *
Camp that night was quiet and a little awkward. At least, it was to Arthur. Gwen and Morgana remained quiet, mostly, as Arthur did his best to build a fire in the relentless drizzle. Finally, he managed, creating a lean-to with heavy sticks and draping an extra cloak over the top of it. Gwen boiled some rainwater and steeped tea, while he saw to preparing their meal. Conditions weren’t ideal for hunting, but after about twenty minutes he was able to snare a couple of hares, which he skinned and turned over to Gwen to cook. That, supplemented with the rest of their cheese and bread, constituted their dinner. Morgana tried to make small talk, but Arthur refused to participate much, and Gwen only answered when asked a direct question, so eventually Morgana gave up.
Arthur took the first watch. They had decided sleeping in shifts would be the best idea, since they would be entering Cenred’s kingdom. Though Arthur sincerely hoped their small band wouldn’t attract any attention, he didn’t want to take chances, either. So while the girls curled up under their blankets and tried to stay dry, he walked a short circuit around their shelter and kept watch.
Though frankly, he doubted even Cenred’s mercenaries would be out on a night like this.
As he walked, he tried to keep himself focused. But his thoughts kept returning his conversation with Gwen that afternoon. Guilt gnawed at him; he knew he should apologize to her. She hadn’t meant any harm, after all. In fact, she had only been trying to help. But he didn’t want any help. He didn’t need anyone trying to tell him how to deal with Merlin’s death. He was a knight; he’d seen hundreds of men die. Men who were his friends. Men who’d trusted him to guide them, lead them. This was no different.
Except it was.
Arthur sighed, settling onto a rock not far from the camp, but far enough that he’d hear an approach long before anyone got close.
This was different. And he knew why. Those men--they’d been trained warriors. Knights. They’d entered his service knowing the risks, and they’d been prepared to defend themselves. Merlin...
Merlin was gentle, and kind, and clumsy and soft-hearted and foolish. He’d practically cried when Arthur had killed that unicorn. Granted, that time he’d been right, but that didn’t stop him from being a girl about it. And it wasn’t the first time. Merlin’s innocence had always been one of his most distinguishing characteristics. He believed--honestly believed--that there was good in everyone, and seemed to take it personally when someone behaved less than honorably. Arthur remembered his disappointed expression when he’d killed the unicorn. The almost hurt look in his eyes. He’d tried to dismiss it at the time, but even then, it had gnawed at him, making him call Merlin names to hide the fact that all he wanted to do was take back that crossbow bolt--undo what he’d done--and get that look off Merlin’s face.
* * *
She was beautiful. He could sense her before he saw her, in the clearing ahead. Not a monster. Something far more unique and rare.
When she looked at him, it felt as though all the impurities in his soul were washed away by a gentle light. She radiated beauty and joy--simple pleasure in being alive. And she didn’t fear him. She stepped forward, ears pricked curiously, delicate cloven hooves moving soundlessly over the rock. He held a hand out to her, and she pressed a velvety nose against his palm, and he wanted to cry with the simple perfection of it. Magic of the purest, brightest kind flowed between them, and he knew he had found one of his own--one of his kin.
But a snap of a twig in the forest brought him back to himself. Alarmed, he turned to her.
“Go, go!” he whispered urgently. “Go, shh! They’re going to kill you--please, go!”
She simply looked at him, liquid brown eyes gazing back into his, trusting and sweet. Panic rose up in him as he tried to get her to run, to understand the danger, but she seemed unaware, perhaps incapable of imagining what was about to happen to her.
He heard the telltale sound of the crossbow being cocked, and looked up in time to see...himself, lifting the weapon, aiming from a vantage point on the ridge above.
“Arthur, no!” he heard himself cry in a voice not his own, but it was too late. He pulled the trigger, and the bow twanged, sending the bolt directly into the unicorn’s side. She screamed in pain and fear, rearing back, then collapsed; the magic flowing from her was no longer pure white, but red with agony and confusion. He fell to his knees beside her, reaching for her muzzle and stroking the silky fur on her cheek as he tried to comfort her.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, as the light faded from her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
A crash behind him, and he looked up to see himself trotting forward, beaming with the success of the hunt. “Aha!” he heard his own voice, triumphant. “Unicorn!”
“What have you done?” he whispered, throat tightening as he felt the unicorn slip away. How could Arthur not see that he’d taken a pure life for no reason at all? How could he not understand?
“Don’t be such a girl, Merlin,” he heard himself sneer, curling a lip in disgust.
He opened his mouth to reply, but froze, glimpsing a figure in white with a staff standing just behind his own shoulder. He opened his mouth to cry an alarm.
* * *
Arthur heard his own voice, loud enough to startle him from the vision, and he was suddenly slammed back into his own body. He had lunged to his feet, standing in the middle of the darkened, rain-soaked forest, sword drawn as he searched for the man who had put them through those tests. The man who had--
* * *
“I had no idea you were so keen to die for me.”
Oh, God, they were here again. He was here again. And instead of looking at Merlin, frowning thoughtfully at the goblets, he sat where Merlin had been, staring at himself. He heard his own voice, and shrugged, using Merlin’s voice to answer with a wry, “Trust me, I can hardly believe it myself.”
Arthur--the other Arthur, the one across from him--chuckled. “I’m glad you’re here, Merlin,” he admitted softly.
He glanced up and saw the other Arthur lower his eyes, gazing at the goblets in despair. And then it hit him--a solution so simple it was almost laughable. “I’ve got it!” Merlin proclaimed. He outlined his solution, and the other Arthur brightened as the simplicity of the answer dawned on him as well.
“You never cease to surprise me,” his counterpart said. “You’re a lot smarter than you look.”
The words sent a shock of surprise and pleasure through Arthur’s--Merlin’s--heart, as he felt himself lean back, fighting the urge to just grin like an idiot. “Is that actually a compliment?” he asked, only half joking, hoping he didn’t sound as...well, hopeful, as he felt.
His counterpart didn’t answer, but after a moment, his eyes flickered to a place over Merlin’s shoulder, and he suddenly pointed, with an alarmed, “Look out!”
Merlin did so, but, seeing nothing, turned back in confusion--only to catch Arthur pouring Merlin’s goblet into his own.
The argument that followed was familiar to him. What wasn’t familiar was watching himself collapse backward onto the rocks, apparently dead. He--Merlin--lunged forward, falling to his knees beside Arthur, leaning over him and shaking him desperately. “Arthur,” he cried. “Arthur, come on. Come on!” And then, when he didn’t respond, cold despair clogged his throat, as he sat back and shook his head in disbelief. “No...”
A flap of white fabric caught his attention, and he spun to face Anhora, grief and desperation in his voice. “Please,” Merlin choked. “Please. Just...let me take his place.”
No, Merlin! he wanted to cry, but he had no control over his--Merlin’s--body, over his mouth.
“This was Arthur’s test,” Anhora said, dispassionate. “Not yours.”
“You’ve killed him!” Merlin cried. “I was meant to protect him!”
“He’s not dead, he’s merely consumed a sleeping draft. He’ll come ‘round shortly.”
Anhora went on, talking about purity of heart, but Arthur barely heard him--until he said, “Arthur was willing to sacrifice his life to save yours. He has proven what is truly in his heart.”
Merlin stared at Anhora for a moment, then looked down at Arthur. And Arthur felt, welling within him, a confusing jumble of emotions. Relief. Hope. Pride. But above that...
Merlin’s lips curved into a smile as he sat beside Arthur, using his jacket to cushion Arthur’s head and settling in to wait for him to wake once more.
* * *
Arthur drew a gasping breath, whirling around. Morgana barely ducked in time to avoid the sword he’d swung around with him. She stared at him, alarmed, as he once again returned to himself, standing in the rainy forest, on his way to deliver Merlin’s ashes to Ealdor.
“Oh God,” he whispered, sword clattering to the stone beneath him as he dropped down to sit heavily on his rock again, burying his face in his hands. “Oh God.”
“Arthur...” Morgana appeared in front of him, kneeling, reaching up to tug his hands away from his face and holding them tightly. “What’s going on? Please, talk to me. Please. You’re scaring me.”
Arthur shook his head, not knowing what he could say that might comfort her. Frankly, he was scaring himself. “I keep...I keep having...” he shook his head again. “I don’t know what they are. They’re like...memories, but they’re more like visions...I...I don’t know what they are, but I’ve...I’ve had two of them now, today...three, I guess...I don’t...” he broke off shuddering.
“What...what kind of visions?” Morgana asked slowly, voice a little guarded. Arthur looked up, wondering what she was thinking.
“They’re...memories. Things that happened. At least...I think they happened. I...I mean, some of them...” he shook his head again. “They’re...in them...I’m Merlin. It’s...things that’ve happened to us, but I’m him, watching them from his perspective.”
Morgana’s expression softened, whatever wariness had overtaken her vanishing. “I’m certain that’s not unusual,” she said, squeezing his hands again. “You miss him. It makes sense you’re remembering him, and you’re exhausted, so of course your dreams are starting to come over you when you’re awake. That happens to me, too, if I haven’t slept well for a time...”
“No,” Arthur said, shaking his head. “It’s more than that, Morgana. It...I know it. I’m seeing things...I shouldn’t be able to remember. I had a vision of something that happened when I wasn’t there, and another that happened when I was unconscious. I shouldn’t know these things.”
“Are you so certain you do now?” Morgana pointed out gently, and Arthur stared at her, uncomprehending. She gave him a sympathetic smile. “They’re not real, Arthur. They may feel like memories, and part of them may be, but I’m sure your mind is just filling in the blanks, based on what Merlin told you afterward, or what you could figure out from what you did see. There’s nothing mystical about it--you’re just grieving for your friend. It’s all right.”
Arthur swallowed, and lowered his eyes, feeling strangely deflated. He knew it was ridiculous--hell, he knew he should hope Morgana was right, because none of the alternatives seemed very good--but he couldn’t help wishing he was somehow witnessing Merlin’s memories. It made him feel closer to his servant, somehow--like a part of him wasn’t completely gone.
But that was stupid. Of course Merlin was gone. They had his ashes; Morgana and Gwen had watched him die. He was gone. And no amount of daydreaming on Arthur’s part was going to change that.
He slumped, squeezing his eyes closed, grateful for the rain that hid the disappointed tears that had managed to squeeze out from behind his eyelids. “I’m sorry, Morgana,” he whispered. “I...I know I’ve been...”
“A royal pain?” she suggested, smiling when he released a startled chuckle. “It’s all right,” she said softly. “You’ve got good reason. But Arthur...don’t shut us out, all right? We’re only trying to help you.”
Arthur drew a deep breath, and released it on a shaky sigh, nodding. “Yeah, I know,” he murmured. “I just...it’s hard. I...I can’t believe he’s really gone. I keep expecting to see him come running ‘round the bend, babbling some apology about being late or something.”
Morgana nodded sympathetically, rising up to sit on the rock beside him. In an uncommon show of affection, she wrapped her arm around him, squeezing gently, guiding his head down to rest on her shoulder. “It’s all right to miss him,” she murmured. “We all do.”
He squeezed his eyes shut again, but this time it didn’t help. The tears pushed free, and he turned his head, hiding his face in her neck as she gently stroked his back.
“I...I do miss him,” he admitted at last, feeling a weight lifting from his chest as he spoke. “More than I ever thought I could.”
Morgana nodded, her hand sliding up to stroking his wet hair. “I know, Arthur,” she said. “I know.”
Arthur closed his eyes, letting the tears slip free as they would, swallowed in the rain as Morgana rocked him gently, and he finally cried for the man he’d lost--the friend Arthur hadn’t realized he’d had until it was too late.
* * *
After a time, Morgana sent Arthur back to the camp, insisting on finishing his watch. Too weary and heartsick to argue, Arthur rose to his feet and gave his surrogate sister a weak smile.
“Morgana, I...” he started, but she waved him off.
“It’s all right, Arthur,” she said, giving him a small, sad smile. “I know.”
Arthur nodded, turning away and heading back to their camp. The rain had let up a bit, so it was relatively dry under the makeshift shelter. Gwen was snoring softly, her back to him, as he crawled inside and curled up in his bed roll. He sighed, settling down in the bedding, and closed his eyes. Before he knew it, sleep had closed in around him, drawing him deep into its welcoming embrace.
* * *
“Merlin! Merlin, it’s suppertime!”
The child didn’t respond to the voice, too intent on his task. Which was, apparently, to cause as many things in the room as possible to float in the air around him. Already two pillows, a blanket, a clay mug, a tin spoon, and three carved wooden toys floated at various heights around him. He giggled, childish and delighted, and pointed at Ruff, the grumpy old tabby his mum kept around as a mouser. The cat rose in the air, still sound asleep, unaware his nap had been disrupted. The child giggled again, and the cat rose higher.
The door creaked, and a young woman entered, a smear of flour across her cheek and on her apron. “Merlin!” she scolded, as she took in the floating objects. “Put those down at once!”
Merlin squeaked, startled, spinning around. In that instant, whatever force had been holding everything up suddenly vanished. The objects clattered to the floor. Ruff, waking from his nap just in time to land on his feet, released a startled yowl, then turned and darted under the bed, growling.
“Merlin,” the young woman sighed, hands on her hips. “What have I told you?”
“Sorry, Momma,” the boy said, ducking his head and looking up at her.
The woman sighed, but her lips twitched into a smile in spite of her scolding. She shook her head fondly. “You, young man,” she stated, as she came forward to scoop the boy into her arms, “are a handful.”
The boy giggled, squirming in her arms. She grinned, hoisting him up higher. “Let’s see how you like being flown through the air!” she teased, gently tossing him up a few inches and catching him beneath the armpits.
He squealed with delight, giggling. “Again, Momma!” he cheered. “Again!”
Hunith laughed, tossing her son into the air again, then swinging him around. “Merlin the great flying Magician!” she announced.
The sound of his laughter filled the air, as the two disappeared, and the scene faded into darkness once more.
* * *
Arthur gasped, eyes flying open, and sat up swiftly, slapping a hand over his mouth to keep from shouting in surprise.
Something had jolted him awake--a strange sensation, like a current going through him--but that wasn’t what made his eyes go wide, his entire body beginning to shake.
In the darkness of the shelter, everything that wasn’t tied down was floating, hovering roughly six inches off the ground as though resting on an invisible counter top in midair. Packs, blankets, canteens--the urn with Merlin’s ashes. All of it sat, weightless, as he stared in mingled horror and fascination.
Before he could say something to wake the still-sleeping Gwen, however, something snapped. As though half-a-dozen invisible strings had suddenly been severed, the floating objects clattered back to the ground. The urn bounced off a rock, rolling down a small slope and coming to rest at Arthur’s thigh, its silver clasp holding tight, fortunately. He stared at it, frozen in shock.
Gwen had jerked awake when the objects fell, and was now struggling to sit up, her face a mask of confusion. Moments later, Morgana appeared at the mouth of their little shelter, sword drawn, looking alarmed.
“Arthur?” she said, looking back and forth between them. “Gwen? What happened?”
“I...I have no idea,” Gwen admitted, blinking as she looked around. Nothing had shifted terribly far, save the urn; the packs had been heavy enough to stay in one place, after they’d fallen back to the ground.
“It...I think it must’ve been the wind,” Arthur said, forcing himself to stop gaping like an idiot.
“The wind?” Morgana looked bewildered. “It’s not that windy out.”
“Then perhaps something in one of the packs overbalanced,” Arthur said, voice more certain now, as he tried to think of a reasonable explanation. He didn’t want the girls to know what he’d seen, though he wasn’t entirely certain why. Other than the fact that they’d likely think he had finally lost his mind.
Morgana seemed satisfied with that answer, though Gwen looked less pleased. Arthur didn’t blame her; she’d been the one to pack things up after they’d eaten, after all. He’d as good as said she’d done a poor job.
“I might’ve kicked something over in my sleep, too,” he offered, hoping to satisfy her. “I’ve not been sleeping very restfully lately.”
That seemed to do the trick. Gwen’s face cleared, and she cast a sympathetic glance at him, before looking knowingly at Morgana. Arthur fought the urge to sigh, wondering when the two of them would stop treating him like a piece of glass that might shatter at any moment. Still, he supposed he couldn’t blame them. His actions hadn’t exactly been inspiring confidence lately.
“Well. It’s nearly morning; I’ll take the last watch, if you want to get a few more hours of sleep, my lady,” Gwen said to Morgana, and that seemed to be that. Gwen took up her own short sword, while Morgana climbed into her bed roll and snuggled in under the blankets.
“Do you want to put that back over here?” Gwen asked Arthur, indicating the urn, which Arthur had righted but had left sitting beside him.
“I...no,” he said, softly. “I think I’ll carry it from here, actually, if that’s all right.”
Gwen looked surprised, but after a moment, gave him a nod, looking pleased--or at least, as pleased as circumstances could allow. Arthur gave her a small smile, knowing it wasn’t much as apologies went, but hoping it would satisfy her.
She returned the smile gently before turning away and heading out of the shelter to take her turn at the watch.
Arthur waited until Morgana’s breathing had evened out before he settled back down himself, mind racing.
He’d seen magic. He was certain of it. He hadn’t just imagined it, and it hadn’t been an extension of his dream. Their things had been floating, and magic had to be the reason.
He swallowed, looking at the urn, heart pounding as he reached out to trace its gleaming silver sides. A notion had begun to form in his mind, faint and ludicrous, and he knew it. But it was the only thing that fit all the facts.
He’d dreamed of Merlin as a young child, causing objects to levitate with his magic--and then he’d awoken to the same sight. It couldn’t just be a coincidence.
But...even if it wasn’t...what did it mean?
He didn’t know. But there was one logical place to start. He’d have to ask Merlin’s mother if the images in his dream had really happened. It wasn’t the best plan ever, but it was the best thing he had to go on.
Thus decided, Arthur settled down again, gazing at the urn until weariness dragged at his eyelids, and he drifted off to sleep once more.
* * *
Arthur drew in the horse’s reins as they crested the small ridge, pausing a moment to take in the sight of the village spread out below them.
Ealdor had fared better than it might have, after the attack from Kanan’s men. Though the fire they’d lit to fence them in had been well-contained, there had still been a few singed walls and fences--small prices to pay for ridding the village of the thieving bully, true, but still a nuisance.
But the village had recovered well, each pitching in and doing his part, and soon, but for the newer wood and fresh thatching on some of the rooftops and walls, you could hardly tell there had been a battle.
Well, Arthur amended, as his eyes drifted over the fields, that, and the new markers in the cemetery.
He lowered his head, closing his eyes momentarily. Every time he came here, it seemed, he left another grave in his wake. This time would be no different. He shifted the silver urn in his arm, drawing it closer to his body, wondering if Hunith would want to bury it or keep it in her home, on the mantle or near her bedside.
He urged the horse forward at Morgana’s pointed glance, and soon they were riding through the center of the little village. Around them, villagers attending to their chores paused, straightening to stare at the little entourage as they moved through the rows of homes. Arthur recognized many faces, but the welcoming smiles faded swiftly to guarded looks as they noted Merlin’s absence. A few gazes darted to the urn cradled in his arms, and Arthur swallowed when he saw their eyes widen with comprehension. One young woman rose from her garden and darted ahead of the convoy, heading directly toward Hunith’s home. She called her name, and Arthur felt a guilty twinge of relief that he would not be the one breaking the news. At least, not entirely.
Sure enough, Hunith appeared in her doorway just as Arthur and the others arrived at her gate, her face ashen and her eyes wide with disbelief and denial. She looked into his face, and then at the urn in his arms, and when she looked up at him again, he knew she knew.
He swallowed, dismounting from his horse and moving toward her slowly. He was certain that the few steps it took to cover the distance between them were the most difficult he’d ever had to take, and he knew from her trembling that she felt it just as he did: the terrible burden settled between them, crushing them beneath its unspoken weight.
She looked from his face to the urn, as he came to a stop in front of her. He knew he should speak; knew he should say something, anything, to break the terrible silence. But the words stuck in his throat. All he could do was cradle the urn close to his chest, bowing his head over it as he waited for her to break the silence.
She did, finally, with one word that shattered what was left of Arthur’s heart. “Merlin?”
Arthur looked up then, meeting her tear-filled eyes with his own. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered, knowing how terribly inadequate it was, but unable to say anything else. What could he say? What could he possibly do that would make this any easier to bear, for either of them?
Hunith closed her eyes, and a moment later, it was as though a string had been cut. She simply collapsed. Arthur cried out in alarm, reaching for her, though it was too late; she fell to her knees, a low keen escaping her as she curled her arms around her waist and began to rock back and forth.
Arthur fell to the ground before her, choking on a sob of his own as he drew her into his arms, the urn a cold, heavy weight between them. He feared she might push him away, but instead, she curled into his embrace, clutching at him as her keens grew into wails that echoed in the empty space of Arthur’s soul. He held her, uncaring of the mud that soaked into his trousers as Merlin’s mother grieved for her son.
* * *
It took two days before Hunith could speak to anyone of her son’s death.
During those days, Arthur, Morgana and Gwen stayed in her house, doing what they could to fix it up and see to the repairs Merlin doubtless would have been taking care of himself, if he’d been there. Arthur climbed onto the roof and replaced old thatching. Morgana and Gwen cleaned and swept, and Gwen organized the pantry and set to baking. Things that would keep, mostly, that she could wrap in cloth and store so that Hunith would not have to see to it herself for a long time.
The neighbors helped out as well. The young woman who had first run to Hunith’s home when Arthur and the others had arrived came to weed the garden. She showed Arthur how to tell a weed from a healthy plant, and he spent the afternoon after they arrived kneeling in the mud, tugging at the small shoots and tossing them into a pile. He patched holes in Hunith’s walls while Gwen laid traps for the mice and Morgana mended her clothes. The three of them did their best to fill the hours productively, waiting for Hunith to emerge.
She finally did, the evening of the second day, just as Arthur, Gwen and Morgana were settling down to a meal of bread and salted bacon. It wasn’t the fanciest of fares, certainly, but none of them had been able to eat much anyway, and there was no need to waste time and supplies on a meal none of them could taste.
Chairs scraped against the stone floor as all three of them rose immediately, but Hunith gave them a weak smile and motioned for them to sit back down. Morgana and Gwen did so, but Arthur stepped aside, pulling his chair back for Hunith. She sat, and he pulled a stool from the corner under the sewing table to join them. Morgana retrieved a plate, and Gwen dished some food onto it, handing it silently to the woman who seemed to have aged ten years in two days. Hunith accepted it quietly, picking up a piece of the cornbread and nibbling at it.
The rest took this as their cue, resuming their own meal, Arthur rising to refill their cups with water when necessary. No one spoke while they ate, but the air was heavy with waiting. When Hunith finished the last bite of the pork on her plate and sighed, Arthur straightened instantly, ready even to be told off for letting Merlin die if it meant an end to the silence.
“What happened?” she said, keeping her eyes trained on the plate as she braced herself for the answer.
Arthur swallowed, opening his mouth, but found he couldn’t speak. The words stuck in his throat, and after a moment, he closed his mouth again, lowering his eyes in shame.
“He...performed magic in front of the king,” Morgana said at last.
Hunith shuddered, but nodded, and Arthur knew she’d been expecting the answer. “It was for...a good reason?” she asked, looking up at them now, desperate to know her son hadn’t thrown his life away for nothing.
“He saved my life,” he heard himself say, sitting forward, wanting her to know he understood the gravity of the decision, and ready to accept whatever retribution she wanted to bestow upon him for letting Merlin trade his life for his.
Hunith, however, simply nodded again. “Good,” she whispered, closing her eyes; Arthur watched as a tear trickled down her sunken cheek.
“Good?” he repeated, stunned, his voice coming out a little louder than he’d intended.
Morgana frowned at him, and even Gwen looked startled. Hunith opened her eyes and met his for the first time. She nodded.
“If...if it had to happen,” she said, “then I’m glad it wasn’t for any lesser cause than that.”
“What do you mean?” Arthur frowned, bewildered. He’d thought Hunith would be angry with him; thought she’d blame him. He’d expected her to yell, maybe throw things at him, strike him. He’d been ready for that.
“You are going to be a great king, Arthur,” she said, firming her jaw in an achingly-familiar expression of determination. “The kingdoms will be united under your banner. You must live to fulfill that destiny.”
“Destiny?” Arthur repeated. “You think this...Merlin’s death...you think it was destiny?” His voice was nearing hysteria, he knew, but he couldn’t help it. This was so far from what he’d been prepared for, he honestly didn’t even know how to process it.
“Merlin believed it was,” she said firmly, meeting his gaze unflinchingly. “He knew it was his duty to protect you. He told me more than once he would trade his life for yours if it came to it. I simply hoped...” She bit her lip and trailed off, but there was no missing the flash of disappointment in her eyes as she gazed at him.
Arthur swallowed hard, nodding. “You hoped I’d protected him,” he said flatly.
“No,” he interrupted her, shaking his head. “You’re right. I should have protected him. He was obviously too great an idiot to protect himself.”
“Arthur!” Gwen’s voice was astonished, and Morgana paled, but Hunith held his gaze steadily.
“It was the way he would have wanted it,” she said simply.
“Oh? Well, it’s not the way I wanted it,” Arthur snapped, rising to his feet, the stool clattering to the floor behind him. “I never asked for this. I never asked him to trade his life for mine. I never wanted this.”
“He would not have regretted his choice.”
“What about me?” Arthur demanded, eyes stinging with angry tears. “What about my choice?”
“This was not your choice,” Hunith said, rising to her feet, meeting his temper unflinchingly. “I know you’re used to getting your way, Arthur, but you have to accept that this was Merlin’s decision. You dishonor his memory if you can’t respect that.”
Arthur shook his head. “It wasn’t his choice to make,” he said, throat clogging with emotion. “I never asked this of him. I never would have demanded his life for mine. I never wanted this!”
His fist came down on the table, making it rattle on uneven legs, and he felt his chest constricting. It was almost painful to breathe, and his vision was beginning to cloud at the edges. He wondered, wildly, if he was about to pass out. But before he could draw another breath, the scene before him vanished, and he felt his body spinning out of control, slamming into the ground with such force it seemed he should go crashing through the earth beneath him.
It wasn’t stone beneath him now, however. It was grass.
A place he didn’t recognize, and a woman he did. The same woman who had led him into the cave of the Morteus flower; the woman who had proclaimed it was not his destiny to die at her hand.
She stood before him now, talking about life and death, about balance and prices paid.
And then he spoke, in a voice not his own.
“I willingly give my life for Arthur’s.”
The woman--the name Nimueh whispered through his mind--smirked. “How brave you are, Merlin,” she mocked. “If only it were that simple.”
“What do you mean?”
“Once you enter into this bargain, it cannot be undone,” she warned, ignoring his question.
“Whatever I have to do, I will do,” Merlin stated firmly, advancing on Nimueh. When he spoke again, his voice had softened, aching with something Arthur couldn’t identify. “His life is worth a hundred of mine.”
“NO!” Arthur was on the ground this time, as Hunith’s house came back into focus around him, and he found himself sitting stupidly next to the table, the three women staring at him in shock. Morgana and Gwen looked alarmed. Hunith, however--there was an expression in her eyes like none he’d ever seen. It was a strange combination of disbelief and...
“Arthur,” Gwen broke the silence first, rushing around the table and kneeling beside him, reaching to touch his shoulder hesitantly, as if whatever madness had driven him to his knees might be catching. “Are you all right?”
“I...I don’t...” Arthur closed his eyes and swallowed, hard. His head was spinning, throbbing with a dull ache that wasn’t exactly pain.
“He’ll be fine,” Hunith said suddenly, moving forward and sliding her arm under Arthur’s elbow. “He just needs to rest. I imagine he hasn’t slept properly in days.”
“I...what?” Arthur frowned, bewildered, though he didn’t fight her, when she pulled him to his feet and began guiding him toward her bedroom, and the only bed in the house. “I’m fine, I don’t...”
“Don’t argue,” she murmured to him, out of earshot of Morgana and Gwen, who were both watching the scene unfold with matching expressions of bewilderment. To them, she said, “I’m going to make certain he’s not got fever. Gwen, did you see the patch of lavender under the window on the western side of the house? I’m all out of dried, but I can make a tincture for him to help him rest. Would you gather some for me? Perhaps Morgana can help you.”
Arthur saw Gwen and Morgana exchange glances, and he knew they were perfectly aware they were being shooed from the house. But though they hesitated, neither of them argued, and Arthur wasn’t sure if he should feel grateful or abandoned.
Hunith continued to herd him toward the bed, pushing him down onto the mattress (that was really not much better than sleeping on the floor, truth be told), and gripped his shoulders, staring at him, hard.
“How long?” she said.
“I...what?” Arthur blinked, thrown. “How long what?”
“I saw your eyes,” she said, shaking her head and backing away in order to pace. “His eyes always did that. Every time.”
“Arthur,” Hunith turned back toward him and stared at him. “This is very important. I need to know. How long?”
“How long what?” Arthur asked, frightened and frustrated now. What about his eyes...? What on earth was going on?
Hunith stepped forward, leaning very close to him. Her next words shook Arthur to his very core.
“How long have you been able to do magic? ”
* * *
* * *
The cup on the table did not move.
Arthur stared at it. He squinted at it. He gave it looks that would have sent grown men running for the hills.
It still didn’t move.
“You must concentrate, Sire,” Gaius murmured beside him, and Arthur fought the urge to snap at him.
“I am concentrating,” he gritted.
“I know,” Gaius replied, the very patience in his voice frustrating Arthur further. “You are trying. But this is not just a matter of command, it is a matter of will, of belief...you must have faith it will happen, or it will not.”
Arthur scowled. “How am I supposed to make myself believe something?” he demanded, trying for reasonable but fairly certain he was coming across as petulant. “I’ve never been able to do magic. Why should I suddenly be able to now?”
“Almost anyone can master the simpler magics, given enough study and time,” Gaius replied, still in that same infuriatingly even tone. “Merlin’s gifts are--were innate, but he was not typical in that. Many others with less strength of mind than you have mastered this much, I assure you.”
Arthur glowered at the physician, though the mention of Merlin tempered his immediate response somewhat. He sighed, shaking his head. “I still don’t know why we’re doing this,” he muttered, even as he adjusted himself, staring at the cup again.
“You first showed signs of magic after Merlin’s death,” Gaius said, not entirely able to suppress the catch in his voice, when he spoke the young man’s name. “And your visions have been of him. There may be some connection...”
Arthur swallowed, but shook his head. “But to what end?” he said softly. “I...Gaius, this isn’t going to bring him back.”
“Merlin’s magic never did anything without a reason,” Gaius said sternly. “If it sought you out, it must have done so for good cause.”
“But why?” Arthur rose to his feet, pacing across the small room, bringing his hands to his hair in frustration. “Why? Of all the useless things to do--why not save him? Why just...come to me?”
“Perhaps that’s the only way it could save him!” Gaius snapped, raising his voice for the first time in Arthur’s memory. “But if you do not master even this, we will never know.”
Arthur stared at him, stunned. “How does giving me his powers save him?” he asked. “He’s dead, Gaius. I held his ashes myself. Even if I learn to move a bloody goblet around, how does it help?”
“Moving the goblet is a first step,” Gaius said, the momentary anger gone, making him look old and tired once more. “One you must master, before I can send you within yourself to seek the answers we’re looking for. You do not hand an untrained boy a lance and tell him to joust, nor do you send an untrained magician to become lost in his own mind.”
Arthur sighed, shaking his head as he flopped back down in his chair and leaned forward again, staring at the goblet.
It had been like this for days. Ever since Hunith had told him about the flash of gold she’d seen in his eyes, about the way Merlin’s used to glow with the same unearthly light when he performed his magic. She’d insisted on accompanying them back to Camelot, and to the one man who might have an answer for them.
But Gaius had been at a loss, unable to find anything in the literature or in his own experience that would explain why Arthur had apparently been imbued with Merlin’s powers. After a short time, he’d determined that the only logical step would be to instruct Arthur on how to use them--something Arthur had assumed would be easy enough. After all, if Merlin could do it, surely he could too.
However, three days into his training, Arthur was ready to throw something out a window. Preferably Gaius. Or the damned goblet.
At least then it will have moved, he thought sourly, tempted to check and see if Gaius hadn’t bolted the bloody thing to the tabletop.
“Now,” Gaius said, leaning down beside him. “Concentrate.”
Arthur wondered what Gaius thought he’d been doing for the last three days, but he bit back the retort, focusing instead on the goblet in front of him.
God, he just wished he knew what was going on. After they’d returned, and Hunith had told Gaius about what she’d seen--and what Arthur had witnessed, that night at his camp--the two of them had been animated, talking excitedly about what it could mean. They seemed to think Arthur somehow held the key to helping Merlin--that the magic had come to him for a reason, and that he would be able to...
Well. To do what, Arthur honestly had no idea. Did they expect him to resurrect Merlin from the ashes or something? Because he had to say, if they had to wait around for him to get good enough to do that, chances were they’d have all died of old age and it would be a moot point anyway.
Not that he didn’t want to help his friend. That was what made it harder. He knew--knew--that they were counting on him to do something miraculous, hinging their hopes of seeing Merlin again on Arthur’s ability to master his new-found powers, and he couldn’t bear that he was disappointing them.
After all, if he couldn’t even move an empty goblet, what hope could he possibly have of bringing his manservant back from the dead?
After another hour or so of staring ineffectually at the ever-still goblet, Gaius finally sighed, and shook his head, calling a halt to their efforts.
“We’ll try again tomorrow,” he said wearily, as Arthur rose, ashamed, to his feet. He had a splitting headache, but he couldn’t bring himself to ask Gaius for a remedy. Instead, he gave the physician a brief nod, refusing to meet his eyes as he gathered his discarded jacket and headed toward the door.
“Arthur,” Gaius’ voice stopped him, and he paused in the doorway to look back at the old physician.
Gaius gave him a small smile. “Don’t be too hard on yourself,” he said gently. “I know you’re trying.”
“But it isn’t good enough,” Arthur pointed out, giving Gaius a little shrug. Gaius had no answer for him, and Arthur turned away, heading out into the silent corridors and back toward his chambers.
The castle was quiet, the only light coming from the moon outside the windows and the occasional torch mounted to the walls. They had been restricted to working late at night, mindful of the king’s unrelenting opinion of magic and all its practitioners and unwilling to test his tolerance, even when it was his own son in question. Arthur rather suspected that Uther would not punish him, but would instead shift the blame to the next likely target--Gaius--and he was unwilling to put his old friend at risk.
And so they worked at night, after the rest of the household had gone to bed and there was little chance of arousing anyone’s suspicions. They had worked out a back-up plan anyway: there were, after all, any number of reasons the prince might be visiting the physician after hours. Arthur was more than willing to let rumors of an embarrassing affliction spread, if it meant keeping their secret safe.
Arthur paused, turning as he heard his name hissed from behind a tapestry. He frowned, moving forward, and after a moment, Gwen poked her head out from behind the fabric, having emerged from the servant’s corridors hidden behind it. He sighed, checking the corridors to ensure the coast was clear before shaking his head sadly.
Gwen looked disappointed. “Nothing?”
“No,” Arthur said, fighting the urge to snap because it wasn’t her fault he was failing so miserably. “Gaius says I still don’t believe.”
“I see.” Gwen was silent for a moment, studying him in the darkness. “What about the dreams?”
“What about them?”
“Well, aren’t they enough to make you believe? I mean, you’re seeing Merlin’s memories, aren’t you?”
Arthur sighed. “It’s not like that, Gwen,” he said. “I mean...it’s not that simple. Yes, they’re his memories, I think, but...” he shook his head. “They’re more like...I don’t know. They’re too fast, and I don’t have any control. It’s not like I can do anything in them. I’m just seeing what’s already happened. It doesn’t help me control things now.”
“Oh,” Gwen said, frowning. After a moment, she sighed, and nodded, giving him a small, tight smile. “Well. Keep after it, I suppose. I’ll tell the others.” The others, Arthur knew, consisted of Morgana and Hunith, who had accompanied them back and was currently staying with Morgana, helping Gwen with her duties and visiting with them both. They were happy to tell her tales of Merlin’s exploits since he’d arrived in Camelot. Arthur supposed he was grateful Hunith hadn’t decided to stay with Gaius; it was bad enough seeing the physician’s disappointed face every time he couldn’t make the magic work. It would make things infinitely harder, if he had to see hers, too.
“Thank you, Gwen,” he said, a little stiffly, but if she noticed, she didn’t say anything. Instead, she nodded, and vanished back behind the tapestry.
Arthur sighed again, heading toward his room. His steps dragged a little; he was exhausted. Gaius kept him until well after midnight, and he still had his duties to attend to during the day. He was not permitted to mourn, even though it was all he felt like doing right now--his father would never hear of it, not over a servant and certainly not over a sorcerer. Arthur knew he had to keep up appearances unless he wanted to arouse the king’s suspicion. But it meant the little sleep he did get was broken by further visions and memories.
Arthur reached his chambers and pushed the door open, barely pausing to glance at the cold dinner left congealing on his table as he plodded to his bed and fell heavily atop the covers, face-first. He didn’t bother moving to right himself, tugging at the blankets (the bed had been made, but he didn’t know by whom; he’d been careful to avoid the servant who had taken over Merlin’s duties) and kicking his feet until his boots slipped off, falling to the floor with a thud. And then, exhaustion already pulling at him, he closed his eyes, and fell into a deep sleep.
* * *
Arthur was dreaming again.
He was in a forest unlike any he had ever encountered. The dream was a gentle blur of gold and green, as he walked among giant trees stretching into a golden dawn. He wore no shoes, but it didn’t matter; there didn’t seem to be a stick or stone to be found in the thick grass beneath his feet. As he walked through shafts of sunlight and dappled green shade, he felt no weariness, no hunger or thirst, only a gentle peace. He didn’t know where he was, but he knew he was safe.
Though he had no destination in mind, his feet seemed to know where to take him. He walked the unfamiliar forest as though he’d done so a thousand times before, following an invisible path through the trees, over crystal streams and past cool, clear lakes. The only sounds were the rustle of the leaves in the breeze and the trickle of water over the smooth stones in the creek bed. There were no birds, no sounds of animals or insects. It seemed to be only he, walking through the trees, alone with the golden sunlight and the looming trees.
After a time, he found himself approaching what looked to be the source of the golden light: a clearing, just beyond the grove of trees in which he currently stood. The grass beneath his feet turned to moss, and the air was alive with energy, almost buzzing. It brushed against his skin, friendly and welcoming and almost playful, as it urged him forward, drawing him inexorably toward the clearing.
He obeyed, following the golden light to its source, knowing, somehow, that he was supposed to see what was there. The light was warmer than sunlight, almost brighter, and it made Arthur feel safe and happy, as he hadn’t felt since Merlin’s death. He swallowed, his bare feet leaving prints in the moss as he walked.
The clearing was just ahead. He remembered, suddenly, of his vision of the unicorn: the place seemed to radiate that same pure innocence and goodness. Though the light was very bright now, it didn’t hurt his eyes, as he stepped through the last copse of trees and found himself standing in the clearing from whence it emanated.
At first he couldn’t see anything but that light. It surrounded him, drawing him into its embrace, and Arthur smiled, feeling welcomed and wanted. But when the light began to fade, he gasped, his heart pounding.
A figure lay curled upon the forest floor, his naked body cradled in the soft, carpet-thick moss. Though his back was to Arthur, there was no mistaking his pale skin, his thin frame, his short, dark hair—or the one visible ear that stuck out from his head at that familiar, ridiculous angle.
“Merlin,” Arthur breathed.
The air around him stirred, the light shifting, swirling around Merlin’s body. As Arthur watched, Merlin sighed, and turned, rolling over to face Arthur and curling his body again, one arm pillowing his head while the other lay tucked protectively about his waist. His lashes lay long and dark against his cheeks, and his lips were parted slightly as he breathed, softly and slowly. He appeared to be asleep, and from the way he occasionally twitched, Arthur suspected he was dreaming.
“Merlin,” he whispered again, as the light welcomed him, urging him forward. He swallowed, dropping to his knees beside him, reaching with one trembling hand. The skin of Merlin’s shoulder was just beneath his fingertips—so close, he could feel the heat radiating from him, so close. If he could only touch him, wake him up—
* * *
A sudden crash woke Arthur, and he gasped, eyes flying open as the forest around him faded, his own chambers coming into focus instead. He blinked, then heaved a breath when he heard rain falling outside. A rumble of thunder answered the one that had awoken him, though it wasn’t as loud as the first, and Arthur looked out the window, in time to see another bolt of lightning split the sky.
He sat for a moment watching the storm, head reeling, before throwing the covers aside, leaping to his feet and racing toward the door to his chambers.
The storm made it impossible to determine the time, but the castle was still and quiet, so Arthur suspected it was not yet dawn. No one stirred in the corridors, and Arthur’s footsteps fell loudly against the flagstones as he raced through them, his breath heavy and echoing off the stone walls. He reached Gaius’ chambers in short order, pounding on them forcefully.
“Gaius! Gaius, wake up!”
Gaius appeared in the doorway a moment later, and to his credit, he didn’t look particularly surprised or alarmed. Arthur supposed years as a physician would have accustomed him to frantic late-night visits.
When he recognized Arthur, however, his brows drew together, and he looked bewildered. “Sire,” he said, “what on earth are you doing here? It isn’t even dawn yet.”
“I know,” Arthur said, pushing past Gaius and into the physician’s chambers beyond. “Gaius. I know why I can’t use Merlin’s magic.”
“Sire!” Gaius closed the door hurriedly, giving him a stern look. “You must be more careful what you say, and when you say it. These walls have ears, you know.”
Arthur shook his head impatiently. “No one’s awake, Gaius,” he insisted, waving a hand. How could Gaius possibly think he cared about that right now?
“Still,” Gaius said, looking anxiously toward the door. “We can’t be too careful. Your father—“
“Oh, sod my father! Gaius, you’re not listening!” Arthur shook his head, beginning to pace. “I know why I can’t use his magic!”
“And why is that?” Gaius said, arching an eyebrow doubtfully at him.
Arthur grinned, stupidly, too excited to care about being patronized. “Because it’s not mine,” he said, beaming. “It’s Merlin’s.”
Gaius didn’t react, obviously waiting for further explanation. Arthur sighed, exasperated. “Don’t you get it?” he said. “I can’t use it because I don’t have it. He does. He’s…” Arthur hesitated, then stopped, lifting a hand to his own chest. “He’s here, Gaius. I think…I think he’s in me.”
“In you?” Gaius repeated, looking bewildered. “How…how is Merlin in you?”
“I don’t mean—I mean, it’s not him physically, I know his body was…was destroyed, but I think he’s…” Arthur shrugged, helplessly. “His soul, or his consciousness, or whatever you want to call it. I think he’s…I think that’s why Hunith saw his magic in me—why I have access to his memories. I think he’s here.”
“And what brought about this revelation?” Gaius said, face unreadable, though Arthur could see the doubt in his eyes--and the worry. But beneath it, he thought he detected a glimmer of hope, and he drew strength from it, moving to stand in front of the elderly physician.
“I dreamed of him,” he said softly. “I don’t remember how it started, exactly, but…but suddenly it was like before, when the visions came, except not. I was in a forest, but not like any I’ve ever seen. There was a presence there, guiding me--leading me to something. And I started walking, letting it guide me, and…I saw him.”
“Merlin?” Gaius whispered, and there was definitely hope in his eyes now.
“Yeah,” Arthur said, his eyes stinging as he smiled, remembering the vulnerable figure curled in the moss. “Yes. In a clearing, lying on the ground, asleep. Only he was curled in on himself, naked as a newborn babe, and I knew it wasn’t just a dream, or a vision. It was him, Gaius. I’m certain of it. He’s here.”
Gaius was staring at him in awe, and Arthur could see the struggle in his eyes. He wanted to believe Arthur, that much was clear, but he just as obviously couldn’t quite bring himself to. At least, not yet. “How...how is this possible?” he murmured.
“I don’t know,” Arthur shrugged helplessly. “But think about it. I’m having visions that are his memories. I apparently can do his magic—but only when I’m having those visions. And when I saw him, he was asleep. He’s here, but...I think he’s...asleep, somehow. Hibernating, like an animal in winter, to keep himself safe. I think…I’m having his dreams, and that’s why I can’t do the magic on my own. It’s not mine to control. It’s his.”
“And he’s doing it unconsciously. Like sleep walking,” Gaius said, looking thoughtful—and increasingly hopeful.
Arthur laughed, nodding. “Or sleep talking,” he agreed, hugging himself. “He’s doing magic in his sleep. Only he’s in my body while he’s doing it.” His face hurt from the width of his grin. Only you, Merlin, he thought, giddy with fondness and desperate hope.
“This is incredible,” Gaius whispered, turning away so quickly Arthur thought for a moment he’d collapsed. But he was heading for his bookshelves, moving more spryly than Arthur had ever seen, as he began perusing the scrolls and books that only he could identify, as their titles had long since faded, if they’d existed at all. But Gaius knew them intimately, and he moved unerringly toward one corner of the shelves, fingers drifting over the cracked spines until he came across a large, dusty tome.
“Here we are,” he muttered, pulling it free of the shelf and heading for the table. Arthur hurried forward, moving aside bundles of dried herbs to leave a space for the huge book; Gaius set it down with a grunt, and they both coughed at the resulting cloud of dust. The leather cover creaked as the physician pried the book open, flipping through the cracked and yellowed pages and scanning their cramped, faded writing swiftly.
“What are you looking for?” Arthur frowned as he tried to make sense of the writing, but after a few moments, it became clear that the book’s language was either very archaic or completely foreign. Arthur recognized a word here and there, but not nearly enough to understand any of it.
“The only magical explanation I can think of is a soul bond,” Gaius said as he flipped through the pages. “There is very little literature on the subject matter, and not just because of Uther’s ban on magic. It is a very ancient practice, and I’ve only heard tell of it happening a handful of times.”
“A soul-bond?” Arthur frowned, squinting at the pages. “What does that mean?”
“It means two people who care for one another very dearly may choose to join their lives in more than simply the traditional sense,” Gaius told him. “A soul bond is a very complicated and very powerful magic. Once created, it cannot be broken, not even by death.”
“Well, that would explain it, wouldn’t it?” Arthur said, excited by the news. “If his soul somehow bonded itself to mine, that’s why he’s here, right? Why he’s not really dead?”
“It doesn’t work that way,” Gaius said, frowning. “The ritual to bond two souls takes days, sometimes longer, and it is extremely complicated. Both souls have to consent, and work actively to achieve the bond. It’s not something that can happen automatically.”
“But...how else would Merlin’s soul still be here, alive?” Arthur said, frowning. This had been Gaius’ idea, hadn’t it? “You said the bond couldn’t be broken even in death, right?”
“Yes,” Gaius said, looking up at him solemnly. “But that doesn’t mean if one of the bonded pair dies, the other houses his soul. It means if one dies...” he trailed off, but Arthur understood his meaning.
“If one dies, the other does too,” he murmured, frowning.
Gaius nodded. “Precisely.”
“Then...what happened here? How is Merlin with me?”
“I don’t know,” Gaius said, returning his attention to the book. “But perhaps this can give us some answers. I will see what I can find out.”
Arthur nodded. “What should I do, in the meantime?” he asked.
Gaius looked up from the book. “In the meantime,” he said, “try to talk to Merlin. Perhaps if he can be awakened he can tell us what happened.”
Arthur felt his eyes widen. “Try to... talk to him?” he repeated, turning the idea over in his mind--and growing more excited by the moment. It would be the next logical thing, wouldn’t it? If Merlin’s soul had somehow tied itself to Arthur’s, why not his mind, too? His thoughts? Arthur was already seeing his dreams. How much more difficult could it be, to hear him speaking?
“Yes,” Gaius said. “If Merlin is there, he might be the only one who can give us the answers we seek. This is beyond any magic I have ever heard of--far beyond anything I have ever encountered. But Merlin is also the most powerful sorcerer I have ever met, even if his powers are still fairly unrefined. It’s possible his magic did something out of an instinct for self-preservation, and he himself won’t know how he did it, or how to undo it. But it’s a start.”
“More than a start,” Arthur murmured, the thought of possibly getting to talk to Merlin again making his throat feel strangely tight. He smiled at Gaius, and nodded. “The knights won’t train today, with this storm,” he said. “I’ll tell the servants I’m going to be studying strategy in my chambers, and I don’t want to be disturbed.” He hesitated, frowning slightly. “How...how should I go about trying to reach him?”
Gaius frowned. “I’m not certain,” he said. “You may need to return to sleep. Or you might be able to reach him through meditation alone.”
Arthur nodded, once. “I’ll try that first,” he decided. “If that doesn’t work, I can always try to dream again.”
“Be careful,” Gaius said, looking worried. “You don’t know what will happen when Merlin wakes up. Or even if he can be awoken at all. You must be cautious, Sire.”
“If there’s a way, I’ll find it,” Arthur assured him, determined. Merlin had risked himself for Arthur more times than Arthur could count. Arthur was more than willing to do the same, if it meant he could somehow help Merlin now.
Gaius nodded, though he still looked a little apprehensive. “I will continue to do research here,” he said. “If I find anything I find useful, I will be certain to send word.”
“Thank you, Gaius,” Arthur said, reaching out to squeeze the physician’s shoulder. “I promise, I won’t let you down.”
Gaius smiled at him, nodding, before turning away, moving back to the tome. Arthur took that as his dismissal, and left the physician’s chambers, heading back to his quarters with a new sense of purpose.
Don’t worry, Merlin, he thought. We’re going to figure this out. I promise you.
Maybe he could save his friend yet.
* * *
Six hours later, Arthur was feeling decidedly less optimistic.
Though he’d spent the entire time doing his best to reach the forest in his mind, all he’d managed thus far was to give himself a miserable headache. He sighed, unfolding his crossed legs and swinging them over the side of his bed, rubbing at his temples irritably.
He’d never been particularly good at meditation. Though his father had tried to instill in him the importance of focus and concentration, he’d always been a man of action; sitting still for long periods was contradictory to his nature. And sitting still in order to concentrate was akin to torture.
Gwen had been by with a tray of food, but he hadn’t touched it. He knew Gaius had informed her of the most recent development, because she’d been silent as she entered, trying not to break his concentration. But to be honest, he wished it had been some other servant--perhaps a clumsy or noisy one who would give him an excuse to vent his frustration.
He sighed again, rising to his feet and heading toward the table. It was high noon by now, though the storm still hadn’t let up outside, and he’d yet to eat anything. Perhaps that was contributing to his headache.
He sat down at his chair, reaching for a the first thing on his plate--a piece of bread--and picked it up, chewing thoughtfully.
Trying to reach Merlin through meditation wasn’t working, obviously. Whatever hidden part of his mind or soul Merlin had taken refuge within, Arthur could not find it without help. He took another bite of his bread, trying to make sense of it.
If he couldn’t access Merlin through sheer will alone, the next logical step would be to try to reach him in a dream again. But Arthur couldn’t control his dreams. Once he was asleep, they took him where they would, and he really didn’t have any say any longer.
But perhaps that was the point. He frowned, swallowing, and lowered his hand. If he didn’t have control over the magic--maybe he couldn’t control the dreams, either. Maybe he had to let the magic do what it would, in its own way and its own time. Maybe he had to stop fighting to control it, like he’d been doing with the goblet, and let it guide him instead.
He sighed, setting down his bread. That sounded all well and good, but how to go about doing it was another matter entirely. Should he simply...wait and hope he had another dream? Or should he go to sleep, and hope the magic chose to guide him to the forest? He didn’t know if Merlin’s time was infinite, after all. It might be that his ability to safeguard himself in Arthur was temporary, and he needed Arthur to find him and figure all this out now.
Arthur sighed, frustrated. He hated not knowing how to proceed. It was unfamiliar territory, facing a foe he didn’t know how to conquer. He was a man of action, not one of sitting around and hoping some outside force would make its will known.
Still...this wasn’t just any outside force. It was Merlin. Maybe an unconscious Merlin, but Merlin nonetheless. And hadn’t he said he trusted Merlin with his life?
Of course, he thought grimly, that doesn’t mean I trust him with his own. Merlin’s sense of self-preservation where Arthur was concerned had never been precisely strong.
But he could hardly hope to change that if he could never reach him. With a frustrated groan, Arthur pushed himself to his feet, leaving most of his meal untouched, and plodded to his bed. He flopped down onto the mattress, shoving his feet beneath the covers and rolling onto his side to face the window, watching the rain roll down the glass.
And, though he’d had misgivings about his ability to fall asleep in the middle of the day, the week’s worth of poor sleep had apparently caught up to him; his eyelids grew heavy, and to his surprise, he slipped into sleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.
And just as quickly, the nightmares began.
* * *
Arthur was drowning. Dressed in full armor, the sunlight filtering through the water in ripples, he sank through the water, eyes closed, unmoving. He didn’t struggle, as he sank, silvery bubbles slipping free of his slack mouth to flutter to the water’s surface. Above him, a woman with long blond hair--Sophia--faded in and out of focus with the ripples on the surface. She held out her hand out as she watched him sink. She made no move to help him. And, though Arthur did not remember the scene himself, he felt a powerful sense of terror, heard a panicked litany of, “Arthur, Arthur, Arthur, no, no, no” in a voice that was not his own. And just as it seemed he would drown for sure, an arm emerged from the darkness, wrapping around his shoulders and chest and dragging him toward the surface.
* * *
There was a cave and a beast. The Questing Beast. Arthur recognized it--could never forget it. Saw himself facing it down--and heard his voice that was not his voice cry out his name. His vision blurred, and he heard Merlin’s voice again, this time in the strange, unfamiliar syllables he’d come to recognize as Merlin’s spells. Glowing an unnatural blue, his sword rose from the rock where it had fallen, and thrust itself at the beast; Arthur watched in amazement as the beast fell, slain by the sword that penetrated its hide easily with the help of Merlin’s magic.
And then Merlin collapsed beside him, begging him, pleading with him, shaking his shoulders--then drawing his hand away, staring in horror at the blood that coated his palm.
* * *
Arthur was in his bedroom, staring at himself lying in bed. He felt a shock ripple through him: he looked...well, like death. His skin was pale and clammy, damp with sweat; his hair lay matted against his brow. A bandage around his shoulder and chest was soaked through with blood. And his chest heaved with uneven, labored breaths.
* * *
A table by the seaside, made of stone, and two goblets; he saw himself, gazing at one held close to his lips, while Merlin pleaded with him. He ignored him, lifting the goblet to his mouth and drinking in spite of the protests; he sat for a moment, giving Merlin a weak grin, before his eyes fluttered closed and he collapsed backwards, falling from his perch to lie, motionless, on the rocks.
* * *
Arthur gasped, opening his eyes, expecting to see his bedroom ceiling above him. Instead, he found himself looking up at boughs of trees, and the sky beyond. But this time, instead of being still and peaceful, the forest was dark; the trees whipped in the wind, the leaves rustling, and beyond them, the clouds were dark, low and ominous. Occasionally, Arthur could hear the low rumble of thunder, like the threatening growl of an angry beast.
He sat up swiftly, looking around. The forest was no longer warm and welcoming, but cold, fraught with a deep sense of foreboding. Shadows lurked between the trees, ominous, and Arthur could almost imagine a hoard of dangerous beasts prowling just beyond his line of sight, stalking him as he sat helpless and unarmed.
He frowned, pushing himself to his feet, and tried to get his bearings. Merlin had to be here somewhere, and Arthur suspected the nightmare visions he’d had before appearing here were largely responsible for the forest’s appearance now. Merlin was no longer sleeping peacefully, and the haven he’d created for himself had changed to reflect that.
Arthur turned in place, trying to find a familiar landmark. But though he had known exactly where to go last time, guided by the gentle touch of magic, this time he felt lost, confused, and disoriented.
“Merlin!” he cried, deciding it was worth a try, but he received no answer; instead, the wind picked up, and the thunder growled again, louder than the last time.
Unwilling to stand around and wait, Arthur picked a direction and began to run. The ground was no longer soft beneath his feet, and he cringed as rocks and pebbles poked at the bare soles. But he didn’t slow down, even as a few of them dug deep enough to break the skin. He ran, calling out for Merlin, more desperate to find him than ever.
But Merlin did not answer. And no matter how far Arthur ran, he could not find the clearing or his manservant. Finally, exhausted, he collapsed to his knees, huddling in on himself as he fought to catch his breath. A frigid drop of water landed on the back of his neck, then another on his shoulder; he looked up in time to see the skies open up, and a deluge of water poured from the darkened clouds. He huddled in on himself, shivering, pushing his drenched hair from his brow.
“Merlin,” he moaned, shaking his head. “Where are you? Just tell me where you are!”
Merlin did not reply. Arthur pushed back against the trunk of one of the large trees, sheltering himself from the rain as best he could, and curled up to wait.
* * *
Arthur jerked, coming awake abruptly and finding himself staring into the bewildered--and annoyed--face of his father.
“I...I’m...um...” Arthur blinked, disoriented, and pushed himself upright--or tried to. He’d fallen asleep with his arm tucked under his body at an odd angle, and the entire limb was numb, unable to support his weight. He fell back to the blankets in an undignified heap, and flushed, embarrassed.
Uther, however, seemed to interpret the gesture differently. He frowned, leaning forward. “Are you ill?” he asked, reaching out to lay a hand against Arthur’s brow. “You barely touched your lunch.”
Arthur thought quickly. A glance out the window told him it was mid-afternoon or so, which meant he’d been asleep for at least an hour. Probably more. Though the continuing storm outside did mean there were duties he could not perform, he knew Uther would not be pleased with him lying in bed all day, either--at least, not without good reason.
Swallowing, he decided he’d rather face the lesser of two evils. Facing his father’s stiff, awkward concern was far less troublesome than dealing with his ire. Closing his eyes and furrowing his brow, he let out a soft moan, and nodded. “I am,” he said, clutching at his stomach for good measure. “I...my head is killing me, and I think I’m going to be ill.”
Uther frowned. “Shall I send for Gaius?” he asked. “Perhaps he can bring a remedy for you.”
“I…” Arthur hesitated. On the one hand, if Gaius came, he could ask him about what he’d seen, in the dreams. But if Uther thought he was ill enough to require Gaius, he might not leave Arthur alone.
He didn’t get a chance to decide. At the sight of his hesitation, Uther seemed to make up his mind. “I’ll send for him,” he said, in a voice that did not allow for argument. “Is there anything you need now?”
Arthur shook his head. “I just want to rest,” he said, hoping his father would get the hint and leave him alone.
Luck was not on his side, it would seem. Though Uther nodded at Arthur’s request, and rang for a servant to fetch Gaius, he also pulled Arthur’s chair toward the bedside, settling down into it.
“Actually,” he said, “I was hoping to speak with you. Perhaps now would be a good time.”
Arthur bit back a frustrated groan, hiding it in what he hoped was a pained sigh. He hadn’t really spoken to his father, apart from cursory reports about the knights’ training and other such matters, since their fight in the throne room the morning of Merlin’s execution. He knew his father had been avoiding the topic, but he also knew his luck wouldn’t hold forever. He’d said some things that wouldn’t please Uther, and he knew his reprieve would not be permanent.
“My head really does hurt,” he tried anyway. “Perhaps another time…?”
“This really can’t wait any longer,” Uther said, shaking his head, and Arthur nodded, closing his eyes.
Still, nothing could have prepared him for Uther’s words, when his father spoke next.
Arthur’s eyes flew open; for a moment, he wondered if he’d managed to slip into another dream. But he was definitely awake, and his father was sitting beside him, staring at his hands, which were clasped in his lap.
“You’re…what?” Arthur stared at his father, certain he’d heard him wrong. He could not have possibly just said—
“I’m sorry,” Uther said again, looking up at Arthur now. “You’re my son, Arthur, and my heir. I don’t want there to be…bad feeling between us.”
Arthur stared at his father in disbelief. “You don’t want bad feeling between us?” he repeated. “Then maybe you should have thought of that before you killed my friend!”
Uther winced, and sighed, shaking his head. “Arthur,” he said gently, “even if the boy hadn’t broken the law, it was beyond time I put a stop to this.”
“A stop to what?” Arthur pushed himself up in bed, ignoring all pretense of illness now. “Just because he was a servant, he couldn’t be my friend?”
“No,” Uther said, and Arthur stopped, his momentum cut off by the abrupt answer. “But you have your duties to consider, Arthur. You are the Crown Prince of Camelot.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“You are my son, and heir to the throne,” Uther stated. “And you are expected to produce an heir of your own. I looked the other way before I knew what the boy was, but it was past time I stepped in and put an end to this. For that, I apologize; I let you grow too fond of the boy. Too used to his . . . company.”
The way he said the word that gave Arthur pause. He frowned at his father, aware that something was being said here, something he was expected to understand. He most decidedly didn’t.
“His company?” he repeated slowly. Certainly Merlin had never been far away from Arthur, but he was his manservant; wasn’t that only to be expected?
“Yes,” Uther said, giving Arthur a pointed look. “You’re young, and I know the boy must have seemed a safe prospect, but it is time we found you a suitable consort.”
“Time we...what?” Arthur stared at his father, utterly mystified, unable to see the connection between his duties to his kingdom and his friendship with his manservant. What did marrying and producing an heir have to do with Merlin?
Uther shook his head. “I looked the other way for a long time, Arthur,” he said. “I indulged you too long. But perhaps having the boy gone will make it easier for you. In time, you will forget him. I promise you, your duties to your kingdom will see to that.”
Arthur glared at his father, furious, his eyes stinging with angry tears. He blinked them back, not wanting to seem to be throwing a tantrum like a child. “You’re wrong,” he gritted.
Uther sighed, shaking his head and rising to his feet. “Perhaps it is still too soon,” he murmured, looking at Arthur sadly. “But someday, you will understand why I say it was for the best. A clean break.”
Arthur wanted to demand his father give him further explanation--a clean break from what? But Uther held up his hand, shaking his head, and said, “Get some rest. I will send Gaius with a remedy for your head.” Before Arthur could reply, Uther turned and left the room.
Arthur scowled, tossing his blankets aside, far too riled to try sleeping now. He rose and moved to the window, pushing it open and staring out at the rain falling onto the courtyard flagstones.
No matter how he turned it over in his head, however, he couldn’t make sense of his father’s words. Uther believed Arthur had gotten too attached to Merlin—that much he understood. And perhaps he had a point; Arthur couldn’t think of any other manservant for whom he’d have gone the lengths he did for Merlin. But…Merlin wasn’t just his manservant, was he? Even if he had said so to Gwen, on the way to Ealdor. He’d been far more than that to Arthur, even before he knew about Merlin’s powers. A memory flitted to his mind—not a vision, this time, just a memory, and he knew it for his own, not Merlin’s.
“Don’t worry, Father, I’m not going to die. I think I’ve got someone watching over me. Keeping me from harm.”
“Maybe you’re right. You’ve a long journey to become king. You’ll need a guardian angel.”
It had been Merlin all along, and Arthur had long since stopped trying to figure out how he possibly could have missed it. But that still didn’t explain Uther’s strange accusations. Because they had felt like accusations, somehow. But Arthur had no idea of what he was being accused.
Well. He wasn’t going to figure it out sitting here and staring at the rain. He’d learned long ago that one person would always tell him what it was he was missing, and that she’d do so with particular glee, if it was something that should have been as obvious as the nose on his face.
He pushed himself away from the window, and went to find Morgana.
* * *
Morgana looked surprised, when she saw him, but opened the door nonetheless. “Arthur? Did it work? Have you spoken to Merlin?”
Arthur shook his head, stepping into her chambers, grateful to see Gwen and Hunith weren’t there. At his questioning glance, Morgana said, “Gwen took Hunith to get more fabric from the linen stores. They’re making her some new garments.”
Arthur nodded, glad his step sister and her handmaiden had taken Merlin’s mother so completely under their wing. “Morgana,” he said, “I need to talk to you.”
“Yes, I had assumed that much,” she said, though her tone was not as biting as it could have been. “What is it?”
“I just spoke to Uther.”
Morgana’s face darkened, and Arthur cringed, wondering if Uther had any idea how much he’d ostracized his surrogate daughter when he’d killed Merlin. For once, Arthur was glad to have Morgana so firmly on his side.
“He came to apologize,” Arthur said, moving into her chambers and beginning to pace a little as he spoke.
“Apologize?” Morgana said in disbelief. “He’s actually sorry for what he did to Merlin?”
“No,” Arthur said, turning to face her. “He’s not sorry—I mean, I don’t think he regrets doing it. But he seems to think he owed me an apology anyway.”
Morgana frowned, staring at him. “Yes, I suppose I can see why he would,” she said. “But I can’t fathom him actually realizing that. He’s got all the emotional sensitivity of a rabid boar. What did he say?”
“He said he…that he’d let it go on too long, and that I had to think about my duties to Camelot,” Arthur said, frowning. “This is where it gets weird, though. He said I had gotten too attached to Merlin—and then in the same breath, he told me I would have to produce an heir for Camelot when I was king. I have no idea what the two of them have to do with one another. I mean, what does…” he trailed off, suddenly, when he saw Morgana bite her cheek and look down. He blinked, staring at her. “You know what he meant.”
She looked up at him, and he was surprised to see amusement in her eyes, though it was tempered by sadness. “Oh, Arthur, you really are blind,” she said, shaking her head fondly.
“Blind to what?” Arthur frowned at her. “Morgana, please. I’m tired, my head is killing me, and I’m fairly certain I’m currently housing the soul of my dead manservant, who by the way was also a powerful magician and had been risking his life to protect me for the last year and a half, and I’m really not in the mood to play guessing games.”
“Arthur.” Morgana shook her head. “Merlin is…was…?”
“Is,” Arthur stated firmly, and Morgana nodded.
“Merlin is in love with you.”
Arthur stared at her, wondering if he’d heard her wrong. “I…what?”
“Merlin is in love with you. He has been for…I don’t know how long. Ages. Probably since that time we all went to Ealdor, if not before.“
“He told you this?” Arthur said, head reeling. This couldn’t possibly be what his father had been talking about. Could it…? And even if it was…what did it have to do with him? He hadn’t even known…
“No,” Morgana admitted, shrugging. “But it was obvious. He put up with you, didn’t he?” she added dryly.
Morgana sighed. “Arthur. Do you really think Merlin would risk his life for you that many times just out of loyalty”
“All right, bad example,” Morgana said. “But trust me. He put up with far more than any other manservant ever would.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Morgana,” he said, “just because your romantic sensibilities wanted to see something doesn’t make it true. Merlin was…is…Merlin’s my friend, but he wasn’t...he’s not in love with me.”
“Romantic sensibilities?” Morgana scowled. “Arthur Pendragon, do you honestly believe I spend any more time than necessary thinking about your love life?”
“Well, whatever it is you think you saw, you’re wrong,” Arthur stated, ignoring the jibe. “Yes, Merlin was my friend. Probably my best friend.” He felt himself flush as he said the words, feeling a small, guilty thrill; he’d never had a best friend before, but there was no denying that Merlin filled the role he’d carved out for such a person, during the long, lonely hours of his childhood when he sat alone fervently wishing he wasn’t a prince so he could go outside and play with the other children. “But that doesn’t mean he was in love with me. If anything, I think he was interested in Gwen.” And why did admitting that aloud make his gut twist a little?
Morgana rolled her eyes. “He wasn’t interested in her,” she said, folding her arms. “She was the one he talked to, when you were being particularly difficult or obtuse. Who do you think told me he was in love with you?”
Arthur blinked. “You don’t mean Gwen…?”
“He told her,” Morgana confirmed. “They used to talk about it, when it got too hard for him to be close to you and not show you who he really was, and what he felt.”
“Did…did Gwen know about his magic?” Arthur whispered, feeling like he’d just been slapped in the face. He’d always thought himself a fairly astute person. How much had been going on right under his nose, without him ever knowing it…?
“No,” Morgana said softly. “No one knew about that—no one but Gaius, I mean. I don’t think Merlin would risk anyone else’s safety by telling them his secret.”
“No,” Arthur whispered, hugging himself, feeling lost. “I suppose he wouldn’t.” Damn—he thought he knew Merlin. Thought he understood him. But every day he learned just how much his manservant had hidden from him. And every new piece of information just made his gut twist a little tighter, though he wasn’t entirely sure why. Merlin certainly had his reasons for keeping his secrets, after all.
But it still…hurt, somehow, knowing he’d kept so much of himself secret from him.
Didn’t you trust me, Merlin? What on earth did you think I would do, if I found out…?
“Arthur,” Morgana murmured, coming up behind him and laying a gentle hand on his shoulder. “He didn’t do it to hurt you. He just…”
“Didn’t trust me?” Arthur murmured, and Morgana sighed, her hand falling away. He shook his head. “Morgana,” he said, “thank you. For telling me. I…I think I need to be alone for awhile.”
“Of course,” she agreed gently. She hesitated, then reached out, pulling him into a brief hug. “Hunith and Gwen will be back soon,” she said. “They’re eager for news about Merlin.”
“Tell them I will speak with them tonight,” he said softly. “I haven’t been able to reach him yet, but I won’t give up until I do. Morgana…thank you,” he added, unable to meet her eyes, but hoping she knew how much it meant to him, that she’d been there for him through this.
“Of course,” she said again, backing up a few steps, smiling. “And Arthur?”
Arthur lifted his eyebrows, looking up at her.
She grinned. “Go easy on him, when you do talk to him?” she said. “He’s not the first person in the world to fall in love with someone he knew he couldn’t have.”
Arthur blushed, but nodded, giving her a brief thanks and heading out the door.
He managed to hold off his roiling thoughts until he got back to his corridors, but once he entered, he fell against the door, shaking.
Merlin. Oh God. Merlin was in love with him? How had he missed that? And that meant Uther…Uther thought it was mutual, thought they’d been…
“Oh God,” Arthur groaned, staggering to his bed and flopping down onto it, face-first. His father thought he’d been…been buggering Merlin. Or worse, that Merlin had been buggering him. He’d just had the most humiliating conversation of his life, and he hadn’t even known it.
Nor could he account for the images that sprang, unbidden, into his mind: images of bared, sweat-slicked skin, flushed cheeks, and lips open on gasping breaths.
He swallowed, rolling over onto his back, feeling his own breath quicken as he tried, unsuccessfully, to banish the images from his mind. But once planted, they only became more vivid, and after a moment he gave up, sliding his fingers down over the bulge in his breeches.
He hadn’t thought of Merlin that way before, but there was no denying his manservant was an attractive man, if a bit unconventionally. Sure, his ears stuck out ridiculously far, and he was skinnier than a beanpole, but his face was intriguingly angular, with eyes the color of a summer sky and skin the envy of any lady. The memory of that skin as Merlin had lain in the forest, bared as Arthur had never seen it, played before his mind’s eye now: the smooth, pale expanse of his back, his narrow shoulders, the tender nape of his neck. And below, the small, pert buttocks, long, lean legs and thin, sinewy arms. Arthur knew Merlin was much stronger than he looked, and seeing him naked had only affirmed that; as Merlin had rolled to face him, Arthur had seen muscle and tendon rippling smoothly beneath the pale expanse of flesh. For all his apparent delicacy, Merlin was certainly no fragile flower. He was male, through and through.
And if the muscle and sinew hadn’t been enough to confirm that, the glimpse Arthur had caught of his shadowed groin, and its generous endowment, certainly was.
Arthur swallowed again, letting his thighs fall apart as he squeezed himself through his breeches and flung his free arm over his eyes. His face felt hot, shame and something else coloring his cheeks and making his mouth part on breath that was altogether too quick.
He hadn’t given it much more than a cursory glance at the time, but he found himself lingering on the memory now. His imagination wandered, and he let it, too far gone now to think about stopping. Did Merlin, like Arthur, grow when he was aroused, or did the existing length simply harden? Did it curve? What color was it, when flushed and hardened with lust? Arthur swallowed a moan, picturing silky skin over hardness beneath, a reddened length and lovely purple head, tip glistening with moisture. Did Merlin moan, when he took that length in hand? Did he gasp aloud? Or had years of growing up in close quarters, first in his mother’s home and then in Gaius’ chambers, taught him to take his pleasure in silence?
Arthur moaned softly, squeezing himself, then reaching up and fumbling at the lacings of his breeches. He tugged open the flap and plunged his hand into the fabric, pulling himself out into the air. Freed, his length grew quickly to full hardness, and he bit his lip, curling his fingers around it and beginning a fast, loose stroke. He was already on edge; he hadn’t taken himself in hand for some weeks, but beyond that, the image of Merlin was proving to be far more potent than he would have imagined. He swallowed again, hips shifting restlessly against his mattress as his mind continued to wander, painting pictures for him as his hand moved.
Merlin would be responsive; of that, Arthur was certain. He wondered if his manservant had ever lain with anyone before. Had there been hasty, awkward fumblings in the forests of Ealdor, or behind sheds? Had he ever felt someone else’s fingers tugging and stroking at his flesh? Had he ever known the bliss of a warm pair of lips, wrapped around the sensitive head, or the flick of the tongue gathering the early drops of pleasure? Had he gone further, burying himself in a lass’s tight, wet heat, or sliding, saliva-slicked, into a lad?
Or had he been the one to lie, legs spread and eyes trusting, letting someone slip inside him?
Arthur groaned at the thought, hips bucking a little, and he had to squeeze himself at the base to keep from ending things before he’d had a chance to dwell on that particular image.
Perhaps Merlin hadn’t ever received before. Perhaps he’d never known the pleasure Arthur had discovered in heated explorations as a youth then, later, with the knights. Perhaps he’d never felt the bliss of a strong, smooth length parting him, spreading him open and stretching him carefully, before impaling him in a single, gentle thrust. Perhaps he’d never known that spark of incredible pleasure as that thrust found its mark, striking that place deep inside that always made Arthur’s cock twitch and weep, and his balls draw up tight against his body.
Perhaps he would have let Arthur be the one to show him. Arthur could see him now: pale skin and flushed cheeks, lips full and bruised from kissing--or, perhaps, from slicking Arthur down to make the journey home easier for both of them--gazing up at Arthur with eyes that smoldered with heat and trust, perhaps even a little bit of apprehension. Arthur would soothe it away with gentle kisses, using his fingers to open Merlin until his manservant was pliant and willing and writhing against him, panting and begging for more, now.
And then Arthur would slide home, gentle and slow, letting himself breach Merlin little by little and pausing to let him get used to the sensation. But at last he would sink in completely, sheathed to the hilt, buried inside Merlin and locked together in perfect bliss. Arthur would hold Merlin’s gaze for a moment, watching as the momentary pain melted into pure pleasure, watching as the desire in Merlin’s eyes grew to frantic, hooded lust. Watching, as Merlin began to squirm against him, thrusting ineffectually and grasping Arthur’s arse in an effort to make him move. Waiting until Merlin’s gasping breaths turned into heady, demanding moans; until Merlin told him to get on with it, already.
And then he would move, sliding in to the hilt with hard, powerful thrusts as Merlin arched and cried out and scrabbled desperately at his back, his arms, his hair--anything he could reach. Watching as Merlin rubbed his own aching flesh against Arthur’s abdomen, or perhaps as he reached down to take himself in hand, stroking frantically as he mouthed Arthur’s name and moaned and pleaded and demanded. Watching as his pleasure reached its peak, and crested, and he spilled, coating his belly with his seed as his head snapped back and his eyes fell shut and he cried Arthur’s name...
Arthur sobbed once, hips snapping up hard as his hand flew over his cock. One, two, three more hard strokes, and he was coming, his first spurt reaching all the way to his chest in his excitement. The second fell across his belly, and the rest dribbled over his fist, which continued its frantic strokes, squeezing and tugging until his flesh was completely spent. Only then did he release it to lay, sensitive and twitching against his belly; he fell back against his bed, breathing heavily as a few more spasms of pleasure rocked through him.
But it was bittersweet pleasure, mixed with a deep pain. No matter how he could imagine Merlin now, he would never know how Merlin might really respond to his touch. He would never know the feel of Merlin writhing beneath him--would never get to feel the press of his lips against Arthur’s own, or feel the warm, slim weight of him in his arms. He had missed his chance, and even if he could somehow reach him, he would still be simply a presence in Arthur’s mind. Preferable to never seeing or speaking to him again, of course. But certainly no substitute for what they’d had--and what they might have had, if Arthur hadn’t been so blind.
He closed his eyes, squeezing them tight against the sudden sting of tears. His heart was a confusing tangle of thoughts and emotions, and he was nowhere near to sorting it out. But he knew this much: Merlin meant more to him than he’d ever known, and he’d ignored the signs, hurting him in the process. And now it was too late to fix things.
Swallowing the lump of grief and guilt in his throat, Arthur rose long enough to shuck his soiled clothing and wipe the evidence of his shame from his skin. Then, heart sore, he crawled into bed and curled beneath the covers, letting exhaustion drag him back into its embrace.
* * *
The forest was calmer this time, though still less peaceful than it had been on his first visit. At least it wasn’t raining now. Instead, a heavy, low mist lay amidst the trees, leaving the forest almost impossible to navigate. He squinted, moving forward carefully, the moss beneath his feet cool and damp with dew. He felt encouraged by this, however; the grove where Merlin slept had been covered in moss, while the rest of the forest was grassy. He was close, this time—he was sure of it.
“Merlin?” he called, but the mist swallowed his voice almost instantly. He blinked rapidly, and moved forward, hands outstretched in front of him so as not to walk straight into any of the trees.
He was so focused on not running into the trees at eye-level, he forgot to watch the ground. His foot bumped against something warm and soft, and he suddenly found himself sprawled on the ground, breath knocked out of him as he landed face-first in the soft moss.
He blinked, lifting his head, eyes going wide at the sound of the very familiar voice.
The mists swirled a little, clearing some, and Arthur realized what he’d tripped over.
“Merlin!” Arthur scrambled into a sitting position, then up onto his knees, crawling forward. Merlin had pushed himself up from the ground and now reclined propped on his elbows, blinking blearily. Arthur crawled up beside him, grinning so broadly his cheeks hurt.
“Arthur?” Merlin mumbled, lifting a hand to massage his skull. “Did you just…kick me in the head?”
“Probably,” Arthur agreed, reaching out with a trembling hand, but drawing it back before it connected with Merlin’s skin.
Merlin blinked at him, seeming to consider things carefully, before tilting his head in a familiar gesture of bewilderment. “Why?”
“Didn’t want to risk kicking anything important, did I?” The words fell from his lips easily, the banter a familiar habit in the completely unfamiliar situation. It comforted him, reminding him that, no matter what else, this was still Merlin.
“Why’d you have to kick me at all?” Merlin grumbled, before lowering his hand and looking around, suddenly noticing their surroundings. “Where are we?”
“Physically? I don’t think we’re anywhere,” Arthur said, shrugging. He’d decided, some time ago, that this place was somehow of Merlin’s invention, but he’d long since given up trying to determine an actual where.
“Oh.” Merlin took the strange answer in stride, looking around a moment longer, before looking down at himself. “Why am I naked?”
Arthur blushed before he could stop himself and looked carefully at Merlin’s face, the memory of his recent actions flitting guiltily through his mind. “Don’t know that either,” he said, shrugging out of his jacket and handing it to his manservant. Their fingers brushed, as Merlin accepted the jacket and placed it modestly in his lap. Arthur had to fight the urge to gasp, as Merlin’s fingers touched his, and he ducked his head, averting his eyes and feeling unaccountably shy.
Merlin noticed, and gave him the same tilted head look of bewilderment. “All right,” he said after a moment of awkward silence. “So, um…what’s going on?”
Arthur hesitated. “What do you remember?” he asked after a second, deciding that would be the best place to start. If his manservant didn’t remember anything, Arthur didn’t want to somehow muddle things up by breaking it all to him too quickly.
Merlin frowned, looking at him thoughtfully. For a long time, he didn’t speak, but simply stared at Arthur. Finally, when Arthur was beginning to feel uncomfortable, Merlin tilted his head. “I remember you,” he said softly. “I remember...you were hurt. By the manticore. I...I had to find a way to save you...” he broke off, then, looking hesitant.
Arthur suspected he knew why. “You decided to use your magic,” he agreed, giving Merlin a level look.
Merlin swallowed, but nodded. “Yeah,” he said slowly, watching Arthur as though afraid he might snap any moment. “I did. You were dying, and...it was all I could think to do.”
Arthur sighed, shaking his head. “I wish you’d thought of something else,” he said, lowering his eyes. “Or at least waited until my father wasn’t right there.”
“You were dying, Arthur. He wasn’t going to leave your side.” Merlin suddenly sat up straight, looking distraught. “Oh, no,” he moaned. “Arthur...does this mean...?”
Arthur swallowed, but nodded, meeting Merlin’s eyes again. “It does,” he said, feeling grief clog his throat again.
“Oh, no,” Merlin moaned again, hands flying to his hair; he tugged at it in obvious anguish. “Arthur, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I tried...”
“You tried?” Arthur repeated, taken aback. Of all the ways Merlin could have responded to the news of his own death, Arthur hadn’t expected that, exactly. “To keep it a secret? I know that, Merlin...it wasn’t your fault.”
“No,” Merlin said, looking up again, shaking his head; Arthur was alarmed to see tears gathering in his eyes. “I mean, yes, I tried to keep it secret, but...that’s not what I...I mean, I tried to save you. I tried to heal you.” He swallowed, lip trembling, and shook his head in shame. “I’m so sorry, Arthur. I thought it worked, but I guess it didn’t, and now Albion will never be united, and Camelot will fall...I’m so sorry.”
“Merlin!” Arthur cut him off, shaking his head in bewilderment. “What on earth are you on about? You did save me.”
“I...what?” Merlin frowned. “I did?”
“Yes,” Arthur said, reaching out and letting his fingertips brush briefly over Merlin’s, the most contact he dared make. But even that, fleeting as it was, sent a thrill down his spine. Merlin’s skin was warm and solid, and he felt real. “You did.”
“So you’re...” Merlin swallowed, hard, then drew a trembling breath. “You’re alive?”
“Yes,” Arthur murmured, wishing he could feel as good about it as he should have.
“You’re alive,” Merlin whispered to himself, and his distraught expression faded into one of relief. But that quickly morphed into confusion, as he looked up at Arthur and tilted his head. “Then...what’s wrong?” he said.
“Yeah,” Merlin shrugged. “You’re alive, right? So everything’s all right?”
“Everything is not all right!” Arthur scowled, wondering how Merlin could be so thick. “You’re dead!”
Merlin blinked. “Well, yeah,” he said after a moment. “That’s what happens when someone does magic in front of your father.” He shrugged, as nonchalantly as though he’d simply been put in the stocks for a few hours for some minor transgression, not burnt at the stake for sorcery. He tilted his head, considering Arthur carefully. “It’s not your fault,” he said after a moment. “If that’s what you’re thinking, you can stop worrying. I made my choice.”
“That’s just it,” Arthur snapped, climbing to his feet and beginning to pace in agitation. “You decide you’re going to play the hero, and you go and pull a stupid stunt like that and get yourself killed because of me. And now I’m supposed to just...live with that?”
“Arthur, calm down--”
“I will NOT calm down,” Arthur grated, glowering at Merlin. “Don’t tell me to calm down, Merlin. You have no right to tell me what to do. I got you killed, and I’ve got to figure out how to go on without you and I didn’t even get to say thank you, or goodbye, or even...even...” he swallowed, wondering why it was suddenly so hard to speak, or why the forest around him had suddenly gotten all...watery. “I didn’t even get to tell you that...that I...”
“Arthur?” Merlin whispered, and Arthur spun around, startled at the voice that came from so close behind him. Merlin stood before him, blue eyes wide and worried, and Arthur wasn’t sure he could’ve stopped himself if his father and the entire royal court had been there watching. He surged forward with a small, wretched cry, capturing Merlin’s face between his hands and crushing their mouths together in a salty, desperate kiss.
For a second, it was perfect. Merlin, who had frozen against him, melted in against him, and Arthur thought he heard the younger man sigh. He lifted his hand, carding his fingers through Merlin’s hair, and pressed closer, daring a brief dip of his tongue before drawing away to meet Merlin’s gaze.
Merlin stayed perfectly still as Arthur retreated. His eyes, which had gone half-lidded, opened wider, and after a long, stretched moment of silence, he lifted his fingers to touch his lips. Arthur felt his own mouth curving into a smile, and when Merlin moved toward him, he closed his eyes, anticipating the returned kiss.
Instead, he felt a sudden sharp bolt of pain, as something hard collided with his jaw.
“Oy!” Arthur’s eyes flew open as he staggered back, lifting his hands in an automatic defensive gesture. He blocked Merlin’s second punch--Merlin wasn’t a fighter, and his fists were clumsy, ill-aimed, and terribly braced. But he was strong enough--and angry enough--to land the blows with some force, and Arthur could feel the dull throb of a bruise already starting along his jawline.
When Merlin flailed at him again, Arthur caught his hand, dragging it up behind his back and twisting his manservant around, capturing his other elbow with his free arm. “Merlin!” he snapped, as he drew the struggling body tight against his. “Stop it. Calm down!”
“You bastard,” Merlin grunted, twisting and squirming against Arthur’s grip. “Let me go!”
“Do you promise not to hit me again?”
“Then I’m not letting you go,” Arthur stated, drawing Merlin up tighter against him.
“You bastard,” Merlin moaned again, still struggling ineffectually against Arthur’s grip, though his struggles weakened as his voice began to crack. “You damned arse, you great royal prat.”
“I’m sorry,” Arthur murmured, heart sinking. Morgana had been wrong, then. “I shouldn’t have...assumed you felt...”
“Felt what?” Merlin demanded, squirming, forcing his way out of Arthur’s grip. This time, Arthur let him go.
“It’s just...Morgana said you told Gwen...” Arthur flushed, feeling hot embarrassment creeping up his cheeks at the glower Merlin was giving him.
“That I was in love with you?”Merlin growled.
“Yes,” Arthur whispered, lowering his eyes and nodding shamefully.
“And why did that make you think you should kiss me?”
Arthur wilted a little, shrugging helplessly. “It’s...I mean...it seemed like the logical thing to do next.”
“Why?” Merlin said, and Arthur looked up, surprised at the way the word quaked, Merlin’s voice on the razor-edge of breaking. His expression matched, his lips pressed tightly together, jaw trembling as tears perched precariously on his lashes. “Why did you kiss me? Did you feel sorry for me? Is this your way of...of trying to assuage your guilt?”
“What?” Arthur stared at Merlin, gobsmacked, but Merlin didn’t stop there.
“I’m dead, Arthur!” he cried, half-hysterical, as he brought his hands up to tug at his hair in agitation. “It isn’t as though you have to mean it, is it? This could...could well just be your idea of a consolation prize. ‘Oh, poor Merlin, burned alive. I suppose the least I could do is give the poor lovesick idiot a kiss, what’s it going to hurt anything now?’”
“That’s not fair!” Arthur said, the relief at knowing Morgana hadn’t been wrong tempered by the rising indignation at Merlin’s accusations.
“You want to talk about fair?” Merlin demanded, hands curling into fists at his sides. “How is it fair that my whole life I had to hide who I really was because if anyone found out I’d be killed? How is it fair that I came to Camelot and got told by some crazy old dragon that I had to protect the prince, who by the way was a complete prat who hated my guts, because it was your destiny to unite the kingdoms? How is it fair that I had to go and fall in love with you when you’re such an arrogant pig, completely oblivious to everything I had to go through to keep you alive?”
“You could have told me,” Arthur returned, scowling. “God, Merlin, it’s not my fault you decided you couldn’t trust me, after everything we’ve been through together. What did you think I was going to do? Haul you off to the dungeons?”
“Well, why not?” Merlin snarled. “Like father, like son.”
This time, it was Arthur’s fist that flew through the air, connecting solidly with Merlin’s cheekbone. He was trained to fight, and much stronger, so the blow sent Merlin reeling, falling back and landing on his arse. Arthur stared at him, shocked, cradling his aching hand to his chest. “Merlin...I...”
Merlin stared at him, reaching up to touch his cheekbone, then looking at his fingers as though expecting to see blood. Arthur swallowed, wondering what he could say to fix this. He’d never lifted a hand against Merlin before. Never.
After a few moments, Merlin began to shake, and Arthur felt his heart clench painfully as he took a hesitant step forward, ready to fall to his knees and beg for the other man’s forgiveness. But then Merlin looked up at him, and though there were tears on his cheeks, Arthur saw he was laughing.
“God, Arthur, look at us,” he said, shaking his head.
Arthur blinked, then felt a small, hesitant smile tugging at his lips. Merlin sat sprawled on the grass, hair all askew, with a rapidly purpling bruise on his cheekbone. Arthur was standing dumbfounded before him, a matching bruise on his jaw, without the faintest idea what he should say or do next. He had to admit, as far as heartfelt declarations went, he’d never expected this.
“I suppose we aren’t precisely behaving our age,” he admitted, giving Merlin a tentative grin.
Merlin returned it, shaking his head. “Not really,” he said, lowering his lashes and giving Arthur a sheepish look. “I’m sorry I hit you.”
“Me too,” Arthur said, moving forward to stand beside Merlin. He offered him a hand up, but Merlin shook his head, patting the ground beside him instead. After a moment of consideration, Arthur settled down on the grass next to his friend.
They lapsed into silence for a few minutes, Merlin looking at the ground and picking at the grass, Arthur letting his eyes drift through the surrounding trees. The mist was beginning to clear, he noted, and a faint hint of sunlight could be seen through the leaves of the trees. He wondered idly how long he’d been here, in this strange in-between place with Merlin. It only felt like a few minutes, but did time translate to the outside here? Would he wake and find it had grown dark, or would a matter of mere seconds have passed?
“Why...why did you kiss me?”
Arthur looked back at Merlin, drawn from his thoughts, and found the younger man still staring at the ground. His ears were flushed red, though, as was his neck, and Arthur could see the tension in the set of his jaw.
He smiled, feeling a little shy himself, but emboldened by Merlin’s own obvious nerves. Instead of answering, he slid closer, and slipped his hand over Merlin’s, lacing their fingers against the cool grass.
Merlin looked up at him then, searching his face, and Arthur met his gaze steadily, for once not hiding behind his usual barriers. It was a strangely exhilarating feeling, like staring down from the top of a tall cliff, but if anyone had ever deserved his honesty, it was Merlin.
The younger man apparently saw what he needed in Arthur’s face, because he grinned brilliantly, ducking his head again. But he tightened his grip on Arthur’s hand, sliding closer, leaning shyly against him.
Arthur shifted, drawing him in, and soon they were settled together, Merlin’s bare side pressed along Arthur’s, his head resting against Arthur’s shoulder, one arm draped loosely around his waist. Arthur’s own arms encircled Merlin’s shoulders, holding the smaller man close against him, his chin resting against the crown of Merlin’s hair as he breathed in his servant’s familiar scent.
“What do we do now?” Merlin asked quietly, after some time had passed.
Arthur sighed, angling his head a little to rest his cheek against Merlin’s hair instead. “I don’t know,” he admitted. He wanted to assure Merlin they would find a way to fix this, to bring him back, but in all honestly he didn’t have the first clue how they could do that--or if it was even possible.
“I’m dead,” Merlin said, and Arthur closed his eyes, pain lancing through him at the words. Merlin gave him a small squeeze, but kept talking. “If this is an afterlife...it’s a damned strange one. How are you even here, anyway?” he added, lifting his head to look at Arthur. “I mean...where are we?”
“I don’t know,” Arthur sighed. “I fall asleep, and this is where I wake up.”
“You’ve been here before?”
“Twice,” Arthur confirmed. “The first time I didn’t know what was happening. I saw you asleep, but before I could reach you I woke up. The second time I couldn’t find you at all. Then this time...”
“You found me,” Merlin said, nodding slowly. “But...how did you even know to look? I mean...what makes you think this isn’t just a dream? It’s not,” he added hastily, eyes wide. “I mean...I don’t think it is. I feel real to me, at least.”
“I know,” Arthur said, smiling a little and leaning forward to plant a reassuring kiss on Merlin’s temple, making him blush. “I don’t think I could’ve dreamed all of that, anyway. I’m not that creative.” Merlin chuckled, and Arthur’s smile broadened at the sound, comforting even now. “As for how I knew...I think you’re somehow...inside me. Your consciousness, I mean,” he added, feeling his cheeks flush as he realized how his chosen words sounded.
“I am?” Merlin tilted his head, frowning a little. “Why? I mean...why do you think that?”
“You mean apart from the fact that I’m apparently sharing your dreams and your nightmares?” Arthur shook his head. “I’ve got your magic.”
“My magic?” Merlin blinked, startled.
“Well...at least, it’s being housed in me the same way you apparently are,” Arthur clarified. “I haven’t been able to control it myself, in spite of Gaius’s every effort, I might add. But your mother saw my eyes turn golden right as I had a flashback of one of your memories, and one night I woke from a dream about you and everything in the camp around me was floating.”
“Floating,” Merlin repeated, looking astonished. “That’s...”
“Really strange? Yeah, I thought so too,” Arthur agreed. “We’re not sure what it all means, but we’re trying to figure it out.”
“Gaius and I,” Arthur clarified. “Along with Morgana, Gwen, and your mother.”
“My mum,” Merlin said, suddenly going pale. “Arthur, is she all right? I didn’t even...oh, gods...”
“She’s okay,” Arthur assured him quickly. “Well, I mean...she’s not okay, but she’s safe. She’s staying with Gwen and Morgana in Morgana’s chambers.”
“Is that safe?” Merlin frowned, looking worried. “Uther won’t...?”
“He won’t,” Arthur assured him, tightening his grip on Merlin’s shoulders. “First of all, he doesn’t know she’s here, but even if he saw her, I doubt he’d remember she’s your mother. But even then, he has no cause to suspect her of anything.”
“I hope you’re right,” Merlin said, brow drawn, worrying his lower lip between his teeth.
“Hey,” Arthur murmured, nudging Merlin’s chin with his fingertip, gently angling his face up to meet Arthur’s eyes. “I won’t let anything happen to her. I promise. All right?”
Merlin looked at him for a moment, then smiled, relaxing a little and nodding. “All right,” he said, settling back against him with a sigh. “Thank you.”
“Of course,” Arthur said, turning to press his mouth to the top of Merlin’s head again.
He didn’t know how long they stayed like that. It could have been minutes, or it could have been hours. But after a time, he realized he could feel reality around him beginning to break, the trees wavering in his sight, the ground growing a bit insubstantial. Merlin felt just as solid as ever in his arms, but Arthur knew whatever force had brought him to this strange place, he didn’t have much time left.
“I think I’m waking up,” he said, as he became distantly aware of his real body, lying sprawled on his mattress.
Against him, Merlin stiffened a little, but when he looked up, his expression was brave. “I suppose it had to happen sooner or later,” he said, trying to tease, but Arthur could see the fear in his eyes.
Ignoring the joke, he took Merlin’s face in his hands, stroking his cheekbones with his thumbs, carefully avoiding the bruise. “Merlin,” he said, “I promise you. I’m going to figure this out. Whatever this is...I’m going to figure out how to fix it. I swear.”
Merlin swallowed, but nodded. “I know,” he whispered. Then, giving Arthur a trembling grin, he added, “You’re far too pig-headed to give up.”
“Don’t forget it,” Arthur agreed haughtily, returning the grin, heartened to see Merlin’s smile. But now even he was beginning to fade from view, and Arthur knew he only had seconds left. “I’ll be back,” he promised, leaning in to press a desperate kiss to Merlin’s more and more insubstantial lips. “I will. Wait for me, Merlin.”
“Don’t think I’ve got much choice there, have I?” Merlin asked, reaching up to take Arthur’s hands. But his own passed straight through them, and he bit his lip, hugging himself instead. “Arthur?”
“I’m here,” Arthur said, desperately trying to cling to the dream, even as his body began to feel less and less real. “I’m here.”
“Don’t be long, okay?” The words were almost too faint to hear, coming to him now as though drifting in on a breeze. But Arthur nodded, vigorously.
“As soon as I can,” he promised. “I promise. As soon as...”
* * *
“...I can,” Arthur slurred suddenly, and the sound was loud and strange in the silence of the room around him. It startled him awake, and he opened his eyes, momentarily bewildered.
But a moment later he understood, and he sighed, falling back to his mattress, frustrated.
He only allowed himself a moment, though. Disappointed as he might be, he couldn’t very well wallow in self pity. He’d seen Merlin, spoken to him (kissed him!), and he had to tell the others. If they were going to make any progress, figure out how to help him, he had to let them know.
He pushed himself up, rising to his feet and heading toward the table. Some servant or other had brought a fresh wash bin and clean towels, and cleared away the soiled trousers. He’d been asleep for some time, then, at least a couple hours. It hadn’t felt that long in the dream, but that was usually the way of things, wasn’t it? He sighed, picking up the cloth and dunking it in the water, before wringing it out and bringing it up to his face. Maybe the cold water would help him wake up a little. He still felt so groggy, like a part of him was still back in that forest, and he’d have to--
He dropped the cloth in surprise, staring at his fingers, then lifting a hand to gingerly touch his jaw. A deep ache welled up in response to the probing touch, and the skin felt hot, tight, and swollen under his fingertips.
Arthur spun on his heels, dashing across the room to the mirror hanging on the far wall. And stared.
His own face stared back at him, jaw slack in shock, as he took in the dark, purple bruise on his jaw. A quick glance down at his hand also revealed reddened, scraped knuckles, the kind he often got after landing a blow with his bare fist.
He blinked at his reflection. Had he managed to somehow hit himself, in his sleep? It seemed unlikely; the bruise was spreading across his left jaw, and his knuckles were bruised on his right hand. He attempted to angle his hand the way he would have to, to get that kind of a bruise. It would be very difficult; his hand would have to be tilted back at a strange angle on his wrist, and even then, it wouldn’t end up looking like that, without the kind of force behind it that only came with a blow from another person.
All grogginess forgotten, Arthur dressed himself hastily, and took off at a dead sprint toward Morgana’s chambers.
* * *
Morgana answered his pounding, expression startled and wary. When she saw him, her eyes widened, then narrowed. “What on earth have you been doing?” she asked, reaching toward his chin.
He batted her hand away. “Never mind,” he said, pushing past her and into her chambers. Hunith, Gwen, and Gaius all sat around Morgana’s table, sharing a simple meal of stew, cheese and bread; they all stared at him as he barreled past, heading straight for the window, and the silver urn that sat on the sill.
“Arthur? What are you doing?” Gaius’s voice was concerned.
“Arthur?” Morgana now, and her voice held no small amount of alarm. “Arthur, what...?”
Arthur ignored them both, picking up the urn and staring at it for a moment. He lifted it, shaking it, and heard the ash moving inside. He frowned and shook it again, listening carefully, but the sound he waited for never came.
“Arthur? Is everything all right?” Hunith asked.
Arthur turned around and looked at them, then moved over to join them at the table. He pushed aside the plate of bread, clearing a space--then opened the urn and overturned it, spilling the ashes across the polished wood.
The reaction was instant. Hunith gasped, and Gwen cried out in shock; Morgana and Gaius both began speaking at once.
“Arthur! Have you gone mad?”
“What on earth are you doing?”
“Quiet!” Arthur barked, holding up his hand, and for once, they were too startled not to obey. Arthur sat down in front of the pile of ash and began to sift through it, spreading it out on the tabletop, patting it down and feeling through it. And, as he suspected, finding nothing.
He couldn’t help it. He started to laugh.
“Arthur? Are you...feeling all right?” It was Hunith who finally dared to speak, and he felt her hand alight tentatively on his shoulder. It only made him laugh harder, shaking his head.
“This isn’t Merlin,” he said.
There was a long moment of uncomfortable silence, before Morgana spoke. “What on earth are you talking about? Of course it is.”
“No,” Arthur said, certain of it now, as he turned to grin at his step sister. “It’s not. Look at it. What do you see?”
“Ashes,” Gwen said suddenly, her eyes going wide, and Arthur knew she’d gotten it. He beamed at her, as she turned to stare at him in shock.
“Well...of course they’re ashes,” Morgana said, still looking bewildered. “What else would they be...?”
“Ashes,” Arthur repeated, looking at Gaius, who was frowning at the pile on the table, and then at Hunith, whose eyes were beginning to dawn comprehension. “Just ashes. No bones, no teeth. Ashes. Gwen, you’ve worked forges--how hot does a fire have to be, to destroy everything of a man?”
“Far hotter than it would ever burn on a pyre,” she said, confusion and hope sparking in her eyes as she looked at the pile of ashes, then at him. “What...?”
“This isn’t him,” Arthur said, grinning so broadly his cheeks ached. “It’s just ash. Burned wood, maybe some of his clothes. But Merlin didn’t burn.”
“But...if Merlin didn’t burn...” Gaius frowned, looking up at him, eyes going wide.
“Exactly,” Arthur said, beaming at them each in turn as they stared at him in dawning comprehension.
“Merlin isn’t dead. ”
* * *
* * *
Arthur scowled at the text in front of him, as though he could intimidate the strange, archaic writing into making sense. The writing didn’t seem impressed, remaining as vague and indecipherable as ever, and he sighed, sitting back and slamming the huge tome shut with an annoyed grunt. It might not have been the most mature move, but he had to admit it was satisfying.
Gaius didn’t look up, but Arthur saw his brow crawl toward his hairline. “You cannot pull answers from books by beating them, Sire,” he said mildly.
“No, but it sure makes me feel better,” Arthur grumbled, and Gaius’s lip quirked in spite of his words. The physician glanced up at him.
“You said you wished to help Merlin,” he pointed out.
“Yes, but like this?” Arthur groused, rising to his feet and pacing around the ancient archive room. Gaius had gained access to the room by insisting the prince was plagued with night terrors, and claiming he wanted to make sure the sorcerer Merlin hadn’t cast some sort of curse on him before he died. Arthur had bitten his lip hard enough to taste blood, but he knew their lie was necessary. Even if it went against everything in him to blame Merlin.
Three hours later, though, he was beginning to wonder if their subterfuge had even been worthwhile. If there were any deep dark secrets being guarded in these forbidden books, they needed no spell or lock to guard them: their own utter dullness was more than enough. And half of them were written in a language Arthur had never encountered. It vaguely resembled the Latin he’d had drummed into him as a child, but only vaguely; the ornate text was enough to disguise anything that looked vaguely familiar. In the end, all he could really do was stare at the pictures, hoping to find one that might offer him some explanation.
But he didn’t know what picture would explain the fact that Merlin had been burnt at the stake, then vanished, then appeared in Arthur’s head.
He watched Gaius read his own scroll a moment longer, then sigh and roll it up once more, setting it into the growing pile of texts that held no answers to their peculiar problem. But rather than give up, Gaius simply reached for another text, untying the string and unrolling it carefully.
Arthur bit back a groan, flopping back down at the table and letting his head fall forward. “If you would just give me a sleeping draught,” he started again, but Gaius cut him off.
“We’ve been over this,” the physician said. “We don’t know what that might do to your ability to reach him, nor do we have any idea if it might affect him. Until we do, I don’t want anything that might unnaturally interfere with your sleep.”
Arthur growled, but sighed, knowing Gaius was right. Still, it was frustrating. He knew the fastest way they could find their answers was for him to ask Merlin, because if anyone might know what had happened, it was the warlock himself.
But to do that, Arthur had to fall asleep. And Arthur had already slept more in the last week than he had in the last month, and it was getting increasingly difficult to force himself to drift off—and increasingly difficult to stay that way. He was over-rested for the first time in his life, and it was driving him crazy. He needed to sleep. He needed to see Merlin.
“I’m going to go try again,” he mumbled at last, rising to his feet and grabbing a particularly dull-looking text, heading for the cot they’d set up in the corner. If Gaius wouldn’t put him to sleep, maybe the book could.
“Good luck,” Gaius said, and if there was a trace of amusement in his voice, his face revealed none of it. Arthur glared at him for a second before flopping down on the cot and stretching out on his back, propping the tome on his chest and staring at it. It turned out to be a very detailed description of the uses of various herbs in certain spells, and Arthur bit back a groan. He’d never realized magic was so boring.
Still, complain though he might, he had to admit their search had a plus side. The longer they spent trying to figure out what Merlin had done, the less they had to think about what they might do, once they found the answer to that question—and, more importantly, what they might do if it was possible to undo it.
A knock at the door made him jump, and Gaius stiffened, but after a moment, Morgana entered, giving them a tiny wave. “Any luck?” she asked.
“Nothing yet,” Gaius sighed, rolling up the current scroll and retying it carefully before moving on to the next. “And Arthur can’t sleep.”
“Maybe we should ask Uther to hold a diplomatic ball,” Morgana suggested dryly, glancing at Arthur with a quirked brow. “Five minutes of listening to the dignitaries’ speeches always seems to put him right out.”
“You try listening to someone waxing rhapsodic about treaty law,” Arthur snorted, trying to pretend he wasn’t glad of her intrusion. It was a welcome relief from the monotony of the text he held. “What do you want, Morgana?” She hadn’t just come to ask about their progress, Arthur was sure.
Morgana hesitated, glancing behind her, before moving inside and closing the door. “I’m going to find the Druids,” she stated, firming her jaw and looking expectantly between Gaius and Arthur.
Arthur blinked, his immediate reaction one of fear and alarm. But he quelled it, considering her proposal. It made sense, he realized—the Druids were active practitioners of magic, and if anyone might have the answers they were looking for, it would be them.
“Morgana, it’s too dangerous,” Gaius said, frowning.
“It’s the only way we might be able to help him,” Morgana insisted. “You’ve been in here for hours—“
“And there is a lifetime of information in here. You can’t really expect us to be able to find our answer in hours. It could take years—“
“Which is precisely why I have to go,” Morgana said, cutting off the physician. “Merlin might not have years. If we’re going to help him, we have to do it soon. I can feel it.”
Gaius fell silent, which settled it for Arthur. If even the physician couldn’t find a decent argument against it—Gaius, who was the very picture of caution—it must be their only option. He nodded, setting the tome of herb lore aside and swinging his feet over the edge of the bed.
“I’m going with you.”
Morgana looked surprised, but gratified. Gaius, however, still looked troubled.
“If anyone asks, we went out looking for deadly nightshade,” Arthur said, smirking. “It’s an ancient ward against nightmares.”
“So you were actually reading,” Morgana said dryly. “Here I thought you’d just been looking at the drawings.”
“And I know deadly nightshade when I see it,” Arthur quipped back, not really interested in arguing with her, particularly since he could read the relief and gratitude in her face. “Let’s go.”
“You’re not talking me out of this, Gaius,” Arthur said, holding up a hand and cutting the physician off. “I’m not any help to you here anyway. Morgana’s right; if anyone can help him now, it’s them.”
Gaius, however, simply nodded. “I know,” he said softly. “I wasn’t going to try to talk you out of it.”
“I just wanted to ask…” he hesitated, then swallowed, rising to his feet and moving forward, wrapping Arthur in a hug. Arthur, surprised, returned it hesitantly.
“The next time you talk to Merlin,” he said, drawing away, “will you give that to him for me?”
Arthur blushed, but nodded, coughing a little. “Of course, Gaius,” he said, reaching out to squeeze the old man’s shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he added, softly. “We’re going to get him back. I promise.”
Gaius nodded, lifting a gnarled hand to wipe at his cheeks, and Arthur looked away, embarrassed to catch him in such a private moment. “Of course,” the physician murmured. “You’re too stubborn not to.”
Arthur simply grinned at him. “Glad we understand each other.”
“Go on, get out of here,” Gaius said, waving a hand and returning to the table, and his pile of ancient texts. “Every moment counts.”
“Right.” Arthur nodded, then turned and followed Morgana out of the room.
* * *
The forest looked different, this time, and Arthur frowned, wondering if perhaps he hadn’t made it back to the dream where Merlin’s consciousness resided after all. It felt the same, but the forest was no longer non-descript. Instead, it now looked vaguely familiar, though Arthur couldn’t place exactly why. He could hear the trickle of a stream nearby, and could see a fallen log, thick with hanging moss. Overhead, he could hear birds and squirrels among the leaves, though he couldn’t see any when he looked.
“Merlin?” he called, uncertain.
A voice reached him through the trees, and a moment later, Merlin appeared, looking slightly disheveled. Arthur looked at him. He wasn’t naked, this time, but instead wore the familiar clothes Arthur had grown so accustomed to seeing him in: brown trousers rolled to his knees, a tattered, faded blue shirt, belted at the waist, and a red neckerchief. His brown jacket and his boots were missing, but otherwise, he looked much as he always did, and the sight sent a shock of longing through Arthur’s chest.
“You’re dressed,” he said, then flushed, realizing how inane the comment sounded.
“Um, yes,” Merlin said, looking down at himself and shrugging. “I can…change things, here.”
“Is that why the forest looks different?”
“Yes,” Merlin said, looking around them, a small, fond smile on his lips. “This is the forest I remember from my childhood. I used to play here with…with Will.” He looked sad, then sighed, lowering his eyes. “I always thought after I died I’d see him again,” he murmured. “And my father, and…and the others who died in the battle. This is not how I imagined it would be.”
Arthur bit his lip, not sure what it meant, that Merlin could manipulate his environment, but certain he now knew why Merlin hadn’t rejoined his lost friends and family. “Merlin,” he said, moving forward across the uneven ground, “We need to talk.”
Merlin looked surprised. “That doesn’t sound good,” he said slowly.
“No, it’s…it’s good,” Arthur said, moving forward. “Is there somewhere we can go sit down?”
Merlin watched him for a second, the nodded, waving him forward. “This way,” he said, leading Arthur through the woods. Soon, they entered a small clearing, next to the stream he’d heard before. Large trees stood by the bank, their branches full with summer growth, and a pile of large, flat rock sat beside the water. Arthur saw the familiar brown jacket and boots sitting atop the rock, and he smiled, seeing Merlin’s footprints on the rock. A quick glance down at his feet showed him Merlin’s feet were covered with dirt and small pieces of grass, sticking to the wet skin.
“I was fishing,” Merlin explained, gesturing to a long, willowy stick, with a piece of string affixed to the tip.
“Fishing?” Arthur repeated, surprised. “Are you hungry?”
“No,” Merlin shrugged, moving to sit back down on the rock. “I don’t need to eat, I don’t think. I mean, being dead and everything.”
“No.” Merlin grinned sheepishly. “But it’s still fun.”
Arthur chuckled, warmed by the grin, and sat down beside his friend, letting their thighs touch. He rolled up his own trousers, and dipped his feet into the water, finding it cold but not unpleasantly so. It was a lovely contrast to the warmth of the stone beneath him, and he sighed, feeling contented. “It’s nice here,” he said softly.
“It is,” Merlin said, and Arthur felt him lean some of his weight against him, hesitantly. He smiled, leaning back, letting their sides press together fully.
“What did you want to talk to me about?” Merlin asked after a few more moments passed in companionable silence.
Arthur blinked, surprised that he’d almost forgotten the reason he was here. It was so easy to get lost, in the peaceful world Merlin had created—so tempting to just stay here, ignore the reality he’d left behind.
He pushed the treacherous thoughts away and drew back far enough to look into Merlin’s face. “Merlin,” he said softly. “Your eye isn’t bruised.”
“What? No,” Merlin said, frowning as he lifted a hand to touch the spot on his cheekbone where Arthur’s punch had landed, last time he’d been here. “I mean, it wouldn’t be, would it? It wasn’t…” he trailed off, as he looked into Arthur’s face, studying him carefully for the first time, and catching sight of the purpling bruise on Arthur’s jaw.
“You’re bruised,” he said, eyes widening. “Arthur? How…?”
“It’s there when I wake up, too,” Arthur agreed, leaning into Merlin’s fingers as the other man lifted them to touch Arthur’s face lightly.
“But…that’s impossible,” Merlin said, frowning. “I mean, in order to be bruised, you’d have to really be here, physically. Wouldn’t you?”
“Yes,” Arthur said simply, studying Merlin’s face as he took that in.
“But if you’re here…” Merlin frowned, and shook his head. “I don’t understand,” he said at last, looking up at Arthur.
Arthur took a breath. “I don’t either,” he admitted. “Not entirely. But when I saw the bruise last time, I went to look for your ashes.”
“My ashes?” Merlin looked a little pale at the thought, shivering, and Arthur wrapped his arm around the smaller man’s shoulders, squeezing him briefly.
“They weren’t yours,” Arthur murmured. Merlin blinked, staring up at him in confusion. Arthur explained, “When people…burn, there’s always something left behind. Teeth, fragments of bone. There was nothing, Merlin. You weren’t there.”
“But…I remember it,” Merlin whispered, eyes widening. “I remember the flame, the smoke…”
“Yes, but what after that?” Arthur said, leaning forward and capturing one of Merlin’s hands in his own. “What happened next?”
“What do you mean? I died!”
“No,” Arthur said, shaking his head vigorously. “No, Merlin, I don’t think you did.”
Merlin stared at him, then laughed, drawing away and climbing to his feet, beginning to pace the rock. “This is crazy!” he said. “Of course I did. Your father tied me to a stake and I…I burned. I’m dead, Arthur.”
“Then how did you punch me?”
“I…I don’t know!” Merlin shook his head. “I don’t know. None of this makes sense. But…”
“But nothing,” Arthur said, climbing to his feet, heart aching for his friend. He caught Merlin by the arms, stilling his pacing, and looking into his face. “I looked, Merlin. There was nothing left. Just wood ash. Your body didn’t burn. Maybe…I don’t know, maybe it started to. Obviously it started to. But…something happened then. You did something, or your magic did, and you…you brought yourself here, because it was safe.”
“But…where is here?” Merlin whispered, staring at Arthur with wide eyes.
Arthur sighed, releasing him and taking a step back. “I don’t know,” he said softly. “All I know is you’ve given me access, somehow. You’ve let me be a part of…of whatever this is. I see your memories, I feel your dreams, and…and when I go to sleep, I can talk to you here. I don’t know how, or why. But I think…I think you have to undo it, Merlin.”
Merlin stared at him. “Undo it?” he said softly.
“Whatever it was you did that got you here,” Arthur explained.
“But…how am I supposed to do that? I don’t even know where here is!”
Arthur sighed. It had been a distant hope, he knew, but he couldn’t help be disappointed. “You have no idea, then?” he said glumly. “How you ended up here?”
“I…” Merlin hesitated, shaking his head slowly. “I don’t think so…I…the last thing I remember was the fire, and…” he froze, then, and his eyes widened, going distant. “I…I remember something,” he said.
“You do?” Arthur moved forward, looking into Merlin’s face carefully. “What? What is it?”
Merlin shook his head. “I…I don’t…” he frowned. “It’s just a flash. It was…I thought it was just…you know, I thought it was just what dying was like. But maybe…”
“Merlin. What did you see?”
“Light,” Merlin said. “It was…gold, at first, but it faded to red—crimson, deep red.” His eyes drifted down to Arthur’s shirt, made of the same deep red fabric as much of his wardrobe. “It was Camelot red—Pendragon red.” Merlin reached up, laying his fingertips over Arthur’s chest. “I saw it, then…nothing. It was just black, after that, until you woke me up here.” He looked up at Arthur, frowning. “Do you think that means something?”
“It could,” Arthur said, frowning a little. “I don’t know. But it’s something to ask when we find the Druids, at least.”
“You’re looking for the Druids?” Merlin’s eyes widened, and he looked fearful, suddenly. “Why?”
“To find a way to help you, of course,” Arthur said, frown growing at Merlin’s obvious distress. “I thought you of all people would be all right with that.”
“I…” Merlin hesitated, then shook his head, drawing away and walking back to the rock, staring down at the water. “I don’t think it’s a very good idea.”
“Why ever not?” Arthur moved up behind Merlin, laying a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “They’re magic, aren’t they? If magic did this to you…”
“I don’t trust them,” Merlin said, looking back up at Arthur. “I…I mean…you’re Arthur Pendragon, son of the man who slaughtered their children, their kin. What will they do when you suddenly appear in their midst?”
“I helped you and Morgana save that boy, didn’t I?” Arthur said, bewildered by Merlin’s behavior, and growing a little irritated at it. It was almost as though Merlin didn’t want them to help him.
“You did,” Merlin said softly, shuddering a little. “But I don’t…I mean…” he broke off, biting his lip, and glanced up at Arthur. There was something he wasn’t telling him, that much was clear. Arthur reached up, taking Merlin by the shoulders and turning him to face him.
“Merlin,” he said softly. “Just tell me.”
Merlin swallowed, and lowered his eyes. “The Druid boy,” he said softly. “Arthur, I…I don’t trust him. I’m afraid…what might happen if you show up there.”
“You don’t trust him?” Arthur blinked. “You were the one who helped me save him!”
“I know,” Merlin murmured, despair coloring his voice.
There was more to it, Arthur knew it. “Merlin. Tell me. Whatever it is, just tell me.” He squeezed Merlin’s shoulders, trying for a bit of levity. “Whatever it is, it can’t be worse than you having magic and never telling me, right?”
Merlin bit his lip, and Arthur felt his heart sinking. Somehow, he knew, it was going to be worse. Much worse.
“I was…warned,” Merlin whispered, hugging himself tightly, refusing to meet Arthur’s eyes. “About…about the Druid boy.”
“It’s my destiny to protect you,” Merlin continued, as though he hadn’t heard Arthur. “I’ve known that almost from the moment I arrived. And I…I was told…if I saved the Druid boy…I could not fulfill my destiny.”
Arthur blinked, trying to make sense of that. “Someone told you if you saved him, you wouldn’t be able to save me?” he said slowly. “Why?”
“Because…because he would one day kill you,” Merlin whispered, closing his eyes, trembling visibly.
Arthur was stunned. “He would kill me?” he repeated. “Why? I saved his life. Why on earth should he want to…” he paused, then, a memory surfacing abruptly. “Merlin?” he said softly. “Is that why you were late? You weren’t going to come?”
“I’m sorry,” Merlin whispered, voice breaking. “I shouldn’t have come. I should have stayed away. I was warned, but I…I could hear him in my head, begging me for help, and I couldn’t…I thought I could still protect you, as long as I was careful, watched out for you closely. I’m so sorry--”
“No,” Arthur cut him off, abruptly, and Merlin flinched. Arthur hurried to explain. “Merlin,” he said firmly, lifting a hand to touch Merlin’s chin, force him to look up again. Merlin did, and Arthur saw his eyes were tormented, wet with tears. “You did the right thing,” he said firmly, pouring every ounce of conviction he felt into the words.
“I…I did?” Merlin whispered. “But…”
“No buts,” Arthur said. “No man should suffer or die for something he might one day do. We’re all masters of our own fate, Merlin. I would never have you bear the guilt of a child’s blood on your hands, just because someone told you that child might someday do something bad. I would never ask you to bear that burden.”
Merlin stared at him, stunned, but he looked as if a great weight had suddenly been lifted. “You…you think I should have saved him?” he whispered. “Even though…?”
“I don’t know who told you the boy would kill me,” Arthur said, squeezing Merlin’s shoulder, “but the fact of it is, he hasn’t yet. And if someday he does, that will not be your fault. It is his decision, Merlin. Not yours.” He smiled, then, reaching out to brush a strand of Merlin’s hair from his brow. “I’m proud of you, you know.”
“You...you are?” The tears were beginning to tremble on the edge of Merlin’s lashes, but Arthur could read the hope in his eyes. He wondered how long Merlin had needed to hear this from him, and felt a stir of guilt that it had taken him so long to say.
“I am,” he said firmly, pushing away the squirmy feeling of discomfort writhing in his gut at saying something so...well, girly. But he couldn’t even bring himself to care, a moment later, when Merlin’s face split into the broadest grin Arthur had ever seen. He grinned back, reaching out to stroke Merlin’s cheek, and when Merlin ducked his head shyly, Arthur couldn’t resist. He took Merlin’s face between his palms and brought their mouths together, kissing him softly.
It was nothing like their first kiss. That had been frantic, desperate, full of grief and rage and anguish at the time they had lost.
This kiss was the opposite: it was soft, almost chaste, deliberate and tender. The one thing it had in common with the first was the taste of salt, as Merlin closed his eyes and the tears that had been dancing on the edges of his lashes slipped free at last. Arthur broke from the kiss to lap them up, kissing a line up Merlin’s cheek and drawing the salty moisture into his mouth before returning to Merlin’s waiting lips.
They exchanged several more slow, shivery kisses before Arthur finally drew away again, looking into Merlin’s face, searching for the answer to the question he’d been asking without words. Merlin looked dazed, but when he opened his eyes again, Arthur saw shy acceptance underneath the lingering confusion in his manservant’s eyes.
He smiled, then, and drew Merlin close, pulling him into a gentle embrace before drawing away. “That was from Gaius,” he said.
Merlin’s eyes widened comically, and Arthur realized his mistake. He laughed, and shook his head. “Just the hug,” he clarified.
Merlin lowered his eyes and grinned around a blush, but nodded, peeking up at Arthur from beneath his matted lashes. “A bit relieved to hear that,” he admitted.
Arthur laughed softly again, before drawing Merlin back down to the sun-warmed rock, pulling him to sit before him. He leaned back against a smooth expanse of stone, drawing the smaller man against him, and Merlin sighed, settling with his back to Arthur’s chest, Arthur’s legs snug on either side of Merlin’s. Arthur leaned back, resting against the rock behind him, and wrapped an arm loosely about Merlin’s shoulders, holding him gently against himself.
“When will you reach the Druids?” Merlin asked after a few long moments had passed in contemplative silence.
“I don’t know for certain,” Arthur admitted. “Morgana and I left yesterday afternoon. We travelled through until it grew too dark to see, then made camp. She seems to know where we’re going.”
Merlin nodded slowly. “That would make sense,” he said, though when Arthur cast him a questioning glance, Merlin didn’t acknowledge it. “Arthur...be careful. I don’t know if the Druids will trust you, even if you did help save Mordred. Entering their territory could be very dangerous.”
“I know,” Arthur said, squeezing Merlin gently. “Don’t worry so much, Merlin. We’ll be careful.”
“Who says it’s you I’m worried about?” Merlin said dryly. “From the sounds of things, you and I are sharing a body right now. Maybe I’m talking about self-preservation here.”
“That doesn’t seem likely, from the man who tried to trade away his life to save mine,” Arthur murmured, not rising to the gentle tease. He felt Merlin stiffen, and saw the younger man’s profile edged by the sunlight as he turned his head to look in Arthur’s direction.
“What are you talking about?”
“The questing beast,” Arthur said softly, arching an eyebrow. “You sought out a sorceress and traded your life for mine, didn’t you?”
Merlin looked caught, and for a moment Arthur nearly took pity on him. But only for a moment. He held fast, waiting for the reply, and after a moment Merlin sighed, slumping back against him once more.
“I tried,” he agreed softly. “It...wasn’t as simple as all that, in the end.”
“You let me think Gaius had cured me,” Arthur mused, recalling that time, not so long ago. He rolled his shoulder automatically, feeling for the scar that still sometimes ached, when he moved his arm a certain way. “Then you came to say goodbye without telling me what you were really saying.”
Merlin sighed. “I didn’t see what good it would do,” he said, shrugging. “It wasn’t like it could be undone at that point. I was just so happy you were alive...nothing else really seemed to matter.”
“Not even getting credit for saving the prince’s life?”
Merlin snorted. “If I had a penny for every time I’d done that and hadn’t got credit, I wouldn’t have to work for you anymore,” he said, elbowing Arthur lightly in the ribs.
Arthur smirked. “That many times, huh?”
“You have no idea.”
“I suppose I don’t,” Arthur agreed, squeezing Merlin gently. “You’ll have to enlighten me sometime. After all this is over.”
Merlin fell silent for a few moments, before venturing, hesitantly, “Arthur?”
“Magic...isn’t as simple as it sometimes seems,” his manservant said slowly. “It might look like you can trade one thing for another, but it’s almost always more complicated than it looks. Promise me...promise me you won’t promise the Druids anything until you talk to me first?”
Arthur frowned. “Assuming I can get back to you, you mean?” he said. “Assuming they don’t tell me it’s imperative we act immediately, for your sake?”
Arthur shook his head. “You can’t ask something of me I might not be able to do, Merlin,” he said gently. “You once willingly offered your life to save mine. You can’t think I wouldn’t do the same.”
“But it’s not the same,” Merlin said, sitting up and twisting around to look into Arthur’s face. “You’re the future king of Camelot. You’ve got a great destiny to fulfill.”
“And that destiny includes having you by my side,” Arthur said firmly, lifting his hand to still Merlin’s protests. “No, Merlin, this is not up for debate. Whatever great things you think I am to accomplish, I know this much: I will not accomplish them without you. If you truly want to do what’s best for Albion, you must let me do what’s best for you.”
“I don’t care one fig about what’s best for Albion,” Merlin said, frowning. “I care about you, you prat.”
Arthur couldn’t have stopped the grin that spread across his face if the gods themselves had ordered him to. “Then that’s all the more reason to let me do what I have to do to bring you back,” he said. He shook his head. “Relax, Merlin. I’m not going to let them draw and quarter me without getting some pretty convincing reasoning first. I’d like to get us both out of this alive.”
Merlin studied him for a moment, before sighing and leaning back against him once more. “I suppose I’ll have to accept that,” he said, shrugging his shoulders as he squirmed in against Arthur’s chest. “You’re too stubborn to do anything else.”
“Glad we understand each other,” Arthur said, amused at the echo of a very familiar conversation.
Thus determined, they settled in together to watch the water trickle by. After a time, the combination of the sunlight and the contented feeling of warmth at having Merlin so close began to take effect, and before he knew it, Arthur was drifting off, falling asleep within the dream. The last thing he knew before the darkness pulled him from Merlin’s world completely was the soft press of lips against his wrist, and a murmured whisper:
“Please, Arthur. Please be careful.”
* * *
Arthur turned in his saddle, glancing back at Morgana, who had drawn her horse to a halt. She had a strange, distant look on her face, as if she was listening to something far away; Arthur opened his mouth to ask what it was she heard, when suddenly he heard it, too.
Prince Arthur Pendragon. Why have you come here?
Arthur jumped, startled, spinning around in his saddle again in an effort to locate the source of the voice. It seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once, and he frowned, resisting the urge to reach for his weapon. Somehow, he suspected that would not be a welcomed gesture.
“Where are you?” he called after a moment. “Show yourself.”
You are not in any position to be making demands, Pendragon.
Arthur frowned, glancing toward Morgana, but her gaze was fixed ahead, toward a gap between two trees. Arthur looked forward again, and saw a shadowy figure approaching through the trees. He stiffened, as others appeared, surrounding them as they moved from their hidden positions and to gaze down at the path on which Arthur and Morgana stood.
The Druid directly in front of them stepped forward, into the light, and Arthur swallowed, thinking he recognized the man from his brief encounter with the Druids in the past. He could only hope the tentative peace they’d reached during that encounter would hold.
“Please,” he said, lifting his hands and holding them up where they could all see, “I’m not here to cause any trouble.”
“Then why are you here?” the leader asked, moving closer still. Arthur could see the wariness in his expression.
Arthur held his hands up for a moment longer, before moving to dismount. He could hear the others in the forest tensing, and the sounds of bowstrings growing taut, but he knew he would look a good deal less imposing on the ground, and it would be far more obvious that he wasn’t wearing armor or even armed, apart from a small skinning dagger. He knew it was more dangerous, coming this way, but he also suspected the gesture of goodwill would get them further than if he’d appeared ready for battle, and it was a risk he was willing to take.
“I need your help,” he said, holding his hands up again, letting them see him. He felt the man’s eyes roving over him, taking in the blue tunic and thin leather vest, the simple trousers and boots. He’d not come dressed as a prince, either, knowing his father’s name would not endear him to these people. If they did consent to help him, it would not be because of his title.
The man looked up into his face again, frowning still, but he did at least reach up and push his hood away from his face. “Why would the son of the mighty Uther Pendragon need the help of the Druids?” he said, barely hidden disdain in his voice at the mention of his father’s name.
“Because my father has made a terrible mistake, and someone I care for dearly has paid for it,” Arthur said softly, wishing he had figured out how to communicate with Merlin while awake. He could have really used the younger man’s confidence right now, foolhardy as it sometimes was.
The man tilted his head back, gaze hooded and unreadable. “That is a burden my people have borne for twenty years,” he said. “I have lost countless of my own kind to your father’s blindness and hatred.”
“Then we have something in common,” Arthur said, knowing he was playing a dangerous game, but desperate to try. If anyone could get Merlin back, it was these people. If only he could somehow make them trust in him--in his intentions.
The man’s eyes hardened, and he stared at Arthur, contempt lining his features. “Tell me, son of Uther,” he said, “what loss have you suffered that could even come close to comparing with ours?”
Arthur swallowed, taking a step forward. The man didn’t back down, but he could hear the rest of them shifting in agitation. Arthur didn’t even glance in their direction, keeping his eyes trained on the leader. “My father murdered someone I care about very much,” he said softly. “Some I...someone I care about a great deal.” (Here, Morgana snorted, but Arthur kept his eyes fixed forward, determined not to back down). “For no other crime than saving my life. My manservant--my friend--used magic to heal me when I was dying. And for this my father had him killed.”
The man’s eyes softened some, during Arthur’s speech, and his expression was now nearly sympathetic. But there was regret in his face, too. “And what precisely do you propose to ask us to do about it?” he said. “We cannot raise the dead, young prince. I am sorry for your loss, and perhaps it will make you think twice about your father’s edict when the throne of Camelot is yours, but as for your friend, I don’t believe there’s anything we can--”
“Arthur! Lady Morgana!”
The man broke off, startled, as every head turned to stare at the newcomer into the clearing. Arthur blinked, then felt his face break into a smile.
Morgana’s face split into a broad grin, and she was off her horse faster than Arthur would have imagined possible, kneeling to embrace the boy who raced into her waiting arms, hugging him tightly. When they drew apart, Mordred looked up at Arthur, then at the druid leader. “What are you doing here?” he asked, peering at the horse, then trying to see around Arthur’s back. “Where’s Emrys?”
“Emrys?” the druid leader repeated the name, eyes widening.
“The one they call Merlin,” Mordred said by way of confirmation, looking up at the man. “He helped me escape, along with Arthur and Lady Morgana.”
“That’s why we’re here,” Arthur said, filing away the strange name to ask about later. “Merlin was executed for using magic to save my life.”
“Executed?” Mordred frowned.
“Burned at the stake,” Morgana murmured, face hardening at the memory.
“But we think he’s still alive,” Arthur said. “I can feel him. Here.” He tapped his forehead. “And when I fall asleep, I can speak to him.”
The Druid who’d stopped them frowned, looking doubtful, but Mordred looked thoughtful. He stepped forward, and following an unspoken command, Arthur knelt, putting himself at eye-level with the child. “I can see his memories sometimes, too,” he said softly, as Mordred approached him. “Once I even accessed his magic.”
“Do you mind if I...?” Mordred lifted his hands, letting them hover beside Arthur’s face.
Arthur nodded, closing his eyes, submitting to the druid boy. “Whatever you need to do,” he murmured, and he felt Mordred nod.
Try to relax, he heard in his mind, before the boy’s hands alighted on his skin, fingertips at Arthur’s temples.
Arthur drew in a sharp breath, as he felt Mordred’s presence enter his mind. His thoughts twined with Arthur’s, seeking the truth of his words, the memories of the things he’d seen. Arthur held still, barely daring to breathe, as Mordred’s consciousness explored his own. It was extremely strange, even after growing used to feeling Merlin’s presence in his mind. The druid boy’s presence was louder, even if Arthur couldn’t read any of his thoughts in return.
But finally, he felt the presence withdraw, hands falling from Arthur’s face, and Arthur released the breath he’d been holding.
“Well?” he whispered, looking into Mordred’s eyes, half-afraid to hear the boy’s answer. As much as he wanted to believe it, a part of him was terrified he would learn it had all been a vivid dream--that Merlin was really gone, for good, and that no amount of wishing on Arthur’s part was ever going to bring him back.
But after a moment, Mordred nodded. “He is there,” he said softly.
Arthur slumped, relief surging through him, but he didn’t give himself long to feel it. “Can we help him?” he asked. “Can we bring him back?”
Mordred frowned, looking to the other man. The Druid elder hesitated, then sighed.
“You’d better come with us,” he said.
* * *
It was impossible to tell which direction they were going. After a time, Arthur stopped trying. The Druids had insisted on blindfolding them to lead them to their encampment; though he hated to waste time, Arthur couldn’t exactly blame them. His word or not, these people didn’t exactly have a lot of cause to trust a Pendragon.
Still, when he began to suspect they were being taken in circles to further confuse their sense of direction, he had to bite his lip to keep from growling in annoyance.
At last, they arrived, and Arthur and Morgana were permitted once more to remove their blindfolds. He supposed it said something that their hands hadn’t been tied as well.
He blinked a few times, letting his eyes adjust to the late afternoon light that glinted through the leaves. It was difficult to tell, as they appeared to be in a protected dell of sorts, but it looked to be late afternoon, perhaps a few hours until dark. He glanced at Morgana, but she appeared none the worse for wear. He turned and dismounted, moving to pat the horse’s shoulder absently as he began to survey their surroundings.
He’d never been to a Druid encampment before, so he didn’t have much to compare it to, but from the looks of things, they weren’t particularly hedonistic. In fact, apart from a few canvas tents and campfires, the place was almost completely wilderness.
“You can leave the animals here,” the man, who’d introduced himself as Aglain, told Arthur, moving to stand beside him, laying a hand on the horse’s muzzle. The animal whuffed at the man, ears pricked forward and Aglain smiled. “The children will see to them, and they won’t wander far.”
Arthur nodded, following Aglain as he beckoned Morgana and headed toward the most elaborate of the tents in the small village. As they moved forward, Arthur saw there was more to the place than he’d first assumed. It simply...fit, with the wilderness around them, instead of trying to overcome it. The tents were arranged on the flattest expanse of ground in the dell, but Arthur saw many of the Druid’s possessions stored and nestled amidst the crags of the rocks and trees around them. Bundles of dried herbs hung from tree branches; furs were stretched over rocks to dry in the sun. Animals wandered freely through the camp: a few goats, some chickens, a handful of pigs. It was impossible to say who they belonged to--if, in fact, they belonged to anyone at all. A dog or two seemed to be keeping watchful eyes over both the livestock and the small children who were playing on the banks of the small creek; they paused in their game to stare in awe at Morgana and Arthur as they passed.
“It’s so peaceful here,” Morgana murmured, as they moved through the small settlement, and even Arthur had to agree.
“Yes,” Aglain responded, glancing back at her and giving her a warm smile. “We live simply, and simplicity is the key to true peace.”
Morgana blushed a little, glancing down at her finely woven clothes, her beautifully tailored cloak, and Arthur reached out, nudging her arm and giving her a little smile when she looked up at him.
“So you think you’ll be able to help Merlin?” he said, turning back to the druid leader.
“It depends,” Aglain said with a small frown. “We won’t know for sure until we know what he did. It may be that he’s simply haunting you.”
“Yes,” Aglain shrugged, unconcerned with the disbelief in Arthur’s voice. “It happens sometimes, if a spirit is particularly attached to a person or a place. It doesn’t have to be malicious,” he added, glancing at Arthur and arching an eyebrow. “It simply means his soul isn’t moving on because he’s not ready to let go yet.”
“Oh.” Arthur frowned. “If that’s what it is...can he come back?”
Aglain sighed, sadly, and shook his head. “No,” he said, opening the flap of the tent and gesturing them inside. “It doesn’t. Once a body is dead, no earthly magic can return it--not the way it was, anyway. If he decides to move on, he may be reborn, if that is his chosen path, but he will not be the Merlin you knew.”
Arthur swallowed, heart in his throat. “So...there’s nothing we can do?” he whispered, spirits sinking.
“I didn’t say that. We don’t know for certain if he is haunting you. That’s what we need to figure out first. Please, step inside.”
Arthur obeyed, ducking into the tent, and blinking a little to let his eyes adjust.
“Please, come in,” a soft voice called from deeper within the tent, which, Arthur saw with some shock, was decorated and furnished almost as extensively as a room in the palace. Tapestries hung from the canvas walls and woven rugs covered every surface; in the back, a long, low cot covered in furs was pressed up against the wall. A silver pot hung from a wooden support in the ceiling, and Arthur could smell some strange combination of fragrant herbs from within. Stacks of scrolls and a few books lay here and there,
And sitting in the center was an older woman, holding a drop-spindle as she carefully threaded wool into yarn.
“This is Lana,” Aglain told them, as Arthur stepped aside to let Morgana into the tent. “One of the council elders. The others are away on a diplomatic mission to the south kingdoms.”
“A diplomatic mission?” Arthur repeated.
“Yes,” Lana said, peering in his direction. “Not every kingdom feels about us as yours does, young Prince.”
Arthur flushed, wishing he could find a way to convince these people he was not his father. He supposed actions would speak louder than words, but it was frustrating in the meantime. “How did you know who I was?” he asked instead, moving to stand before the woman.
“Arthur Pendragon, heir of Uther Pendragon, son of Ygraine,” she said, twisting her fingers and letting the spindle drop further. “You come to us seeking help for your friend Merlin, the one we call Emrys, whom your father had executed for saving your life with the magic he hates.”
“How...how did you know all that?” Morgana whispered, eyes wide, and the woman glanced in her direction before smirking.
“Mordred came in a few minutes ago and told me,” she said, smiling. “No need to use magic when the old fashioned ways are just as good, dear.”
Arthur snorted, startled into a half-laugh. He moved forward, sitting down beside the woman to watch her work.
“Can you help us?” he asked after a few moments.
“That will depend on him, and on you,” she said.
“I’ll do whatever I need to do,” he said immediately.
“Will you?” She arched her eyebrow, closing her eyes and testing the length of yarn with her thumb and forefinger before feeding more wool into the spindle. “Many say that until the moment arrives when they have to make good.”
“Merlin gave his life for me,” Arthur said firmly. “Whatever it takes to help him, I’ll do it.”
She glanced in his direction, though her eyes didn’t focus on him; he realized with a start that she was blind.
“You have a good heart, child,” she said softly, setting the spindle aside and reaching one weathered hand unerringly to cup his cheek. “So like your mother that way. She was a gentle soul, too.”
“You...you knew her?” Arthur whispered, swallowing as the woman seemed to regard him, despite her blindness.
She simply smiled. “Arthur Pendragon,” she said, “there is a way to save your friend.”
Arthur blinked, then grinned, broadly, sitting up straight. “There is?” he said. “How? Whatever it takes, I’ll do it.”
She smiled again, and it looked a little sad. “The price will be very high.”
“I don’t care,” Arthur said. “Whatever it is, I’ll pay it.”
“What is it?” Morgana sounded more wary, staring at the woman from her position standing near the entrance.
“To save your friend,” Lana said softly, reaching out to lay a hand over Arthur’s, “you will have to die.”
* * *
Merlin was sitting by the creek when Arthur found him, humming to himself and stripping the bark off a sharpened stick. Arthur watched him for a few moments, as Merlin swung his legs back and forth over the water, his pant legs pulled up to his knees and his toes skimming the surface. He looked like a child, carefree and happy, and Arthur’s heart constricted a little.
Merlin looked up after a second, and his grin broadened into one of surprised welcome. “Arthur!” he exclaimed, tossing the stick aside; it landed in the water with a splash. “How long have you been here?”
“Can’t you tell when I arrive?” Arthur smiled as Merlin pushed himself to his feet and scrambled over to stand, beaming, in front of him.
“Not always,” Merlin shrugged. “Not if I’m not paying attention. I didn’t expect you back so soon. Isn’t it still mid-day?”
“The Druids gave me a sleeping draught,” Arthur explained. “So I could come and talk to you.”
“Oh.” Merlin considered this, then said, “I’m guessing that means there’s something they need you to talk to me about.”
“Smarter than you look, Merlin,” Arthur said, but his heart wasn’t in it, and by his frown, he guessed Merlin could tell. The younger man took his hand and tugged him forward; Arthur went willingly, as Merlin guided him back to his spot on the riverbank, pulling him down to sit beside him in the grass.
“What is it?” he said softly.
“They found a way to bring you back.”
Merlin’s eyebrows shot up. “That’s...not what I expected you to say, given the look on your face,” he said. “Wasn’t that why you went to s--” he broke off abruptly, and frowned. “Wait,” he said. “There’s a price involved, isn’t there? What is it?”
Arthur drew a breath. “It’s nothing,” he said, shaking his head and giving Merlin a small smile.
“Well--it’s not nothing. But it’s going to be all right.”
Merlin frowned. “Arthur. What is it?”
Arthur hesitated, then braced himself. “It’s just that...it’s dangerous. The ceremony to bring you back, I mean. It...has risks.”
“Yeah. I, uh...” Here goes nothing. “I kind of have to...well, die.”
Arthur cringed, holding up his hands. “I know it sounds bad,” he started.
“Sounds bad? You’re telling me you have to die to bring me back and you think it just sounds bad? It sounds more than bad, Arthur!”
“It’s not like that,” Arthur insisted. “It’s not permanent. It’s...Lana explained it to me, she’s the druid woman who figured it out--something about a balance or something, I didn’t follow, but you died to save me, so if I die to save you...” he trailed off, and shrugged. “It...fixes things. Somehow.”
Merlin frowned. “But you’ll be dead,” he said. “I don’t see how this is any kind of option, Arthur.”
“It won’t be permanent, if...”
Arthur wrinkled his nose, and sighed. “If everything goes well. There’s a ceremony--Lana showed it to me, in one of her old texts that she’s translated, and if they do it right, then we both die for each other and so we both get to live. I didn’t quite understand it, but it looked pretty good to me. I just have to be a ‘willing victim’ or some such and everything gets turned around.”
“No. No. No, absolutely not.”
Arthur sighed, watching as Merlin leaped to his feet and began pacing in agitation. “Merlin...”
“No!” Merlin snapped. “I didn’t do all of this just so you could throw it all away in some foolhardy gesture of honor or whatever the hell it is you think you’re doing here. I didn’t die for you just so you could turn around and die for me, Arthur!”
“If everything goes well I won’t be dying,” Arthur argued. “As long as the ceremony goes the way it’s supposed to--”
“And how do they know for sure? You said this Lana translated some ancient text--has anyone still alive ever done this, or seen it done, even?”
“Well...no, but...we don’t have much of a choice, do we?” Arthur said, frowning a little. “Aglain said you couldn’t last here forever. Eventually, your soul will have to either reestablish itself in a physical form or...or move on.”
“So I’ll move on!” Merlin exploded, but at Arthur’s flinch, he sighed, shaking his head. “Arthur,” he said, voice a little calmer but no less forceful. “This was all borrowed time anyway. I saved you knowing it would cost me my life. The fact that I got to say goodbye was a bonus. But you can’t risk yourself to bring me back. What if it doesn’t work?”
“It will,” Arthur said stubbornly. The truth of the matter was, he knew Merlin was right: logically, the risks were too great. He was the prince, heir to the kingdom, and if Merlin’s sacrifice was going to mean anything at all, he had to stay alive to fulfill that destiny.
But logic and emotion had never been good bedfellows, and Arthur had never been one to listen to reason anyway.
“You don’t know that, Arthur,” Merlin said, and now there was a hint of desperation in his voice. He moved forward, standing right in front of him, and slipped a hand up to cup Arthur’s cheek. “I know you feel bad about all of this,” he said, “but getting yourself killed isn’t going to help anything.”
“Feel bad about this?” Arthur repeated, frowning a little. “You think I’m doing this out of some misplaced sense of guilt or honor?”
“No!” Arthur drew away, stung. “Good lord, Merlin, I thought after last time you’d have figured that much out, at least.”
Merlin swallowed, lowering his eyes, and Arthur sighed, anger vanishing at the sight of his friend looking so vulnerable. “Merlin,” he said, moving forward, tipping Merlin’s chin up with his thumb. “I’m not doing this because I feel guilty.”
Merlin stared at him for a second, and Arthur smiled, leaning forward to press his lips to Merlin’s firmly. “I promise,” he breathed, when he drew away.
Merlin swallowed, staring at him, and Arthur saw the glint of frustrated tears in his eyes.
He sighed, and drew away a little. “I know you don’t like it,” he said, shaking his head. “But I don’t actually need you to agree to it to go through with the ceremony. It’s my decision, and I’ve already made it. I just promised you I’d tell you, before I went through with anything, so...that’s what I’m doing. If you hate me for it, I guess I can understand that, but I can’t let you die if there’s something I can do to save you. I’m sorry if that makes you mad, but I can--mmph!”
His rambling speech was cut off as Merlin launched himself at him, mashing their mouths together in an angry kiss.
Arthur was startled--enough so that he lost his balance, stumbling backwards and falling against a tree. Merlin followed, pushing in against him, still kissing him hard enough that Arthur knew he’d be waking up with bruised and swollen lips. The kiss was brutal, and Arthur suspected Merlin had been torn between kissing him and throwing a punch. It would seem the kiss had won by only a very thin margin. He moaned against the onslaught, as Merlin squirmed closer still, jamming a thigh between Arthur’s and grinding in against his growing arousal. He could feel Merlin’s answering hardness crushed against his hip, and when he drew away to gasp, Merlin released a feral growl and bit down none too gently on Arthur’s neck, thrusting against him.
It was a mess of limbs and panting breath and desperate, angry movements, and Arthur knew if he didn’t bring it to a stop things were going to end far too quickly and none too pleasantly.
“Merlin,” he said.
Merlin’s only response was to growl and bite down harder on the juncture of neck and shoulder, hard enough now that Arthur knew he would be leaving a mark.
“Merlin,” he demanded, bringing his arms up and gripping Merlin’s shoulders, pushing him back a little.
Merlin shook his head, trying to burrow close again, and Arthur did the only thing he could think to do: he tugged them both down to the grass of the forest floor, then rolled until Merlin lay beneath him. He captured the smaller man’s hands, pinning them above his head, and gazed down into Merlin’s face, which was scrunched up tightly, eyes closed and jaws clenched shut.
“Merlin. Look at me.”
Merlin obeyed. Reluctantly. Slowly, he prised one eye open, then another, blinking up at Arthur, pupils blown wide with frantic lust and something else. As Arthur watched, Merlin’s face crumpled, his eyes filling, and he ducked his head, looking away as his struggling ceased and his whole body went limp.
Arthur released his hands, and made to roll to the side, but Merlin reached up, gripping the front of his shirt tightly and holding him in place. He looked up again, eyes wet, and for a long moment, neither of them dared move.
Then Arthur lowered his head, capturing Merlin’s lips again in a kiss that was everything the previous one was not. His mouth ghosted over Merlin’s, feeling the moisture from Merlin’s tears against his skin as he lightly drew the full lower lip into his mouth. He suckled gently for a moment, feeling Merlin go limp and pliant below him, and soon Merlin was returning the kiss, arching into Arthur’s body and sighing softly.
Arthur fought the urge to close his eyes, wanting to watch Merlin beneath him. If this was their only chance, he wanted to memorize everything about him. Wanted to map his skin, catalog his every response to Arthur’s touch.
They undressed one another tenderly, taking the time to kiss every new patch of exposed skin. Arthur paid particular attention to the underside of Merlin’s jaw and throat, and Merlin shivered, arching slowly as Arthur worked his way down to his exposed chest. His hands found their way to Arthur’s hair, and he moaned in encouragement as Arthur’s lips found one hardened bud and latched on, suckling gently.
Soon, too soon, Merlin was panting, gasping beneath him, and he knew their first time would not be a slow, tender mapping of every inch of one another’s bodies. They simply didn’t have time. He rose to his hands and knees, moving back over Merlin’s body and lowering himself atop the other man gently, supporting most of his weight on his elbows and aligning their groins carefully. They both moaned as his weight pressed their cocks together, silken skin over straining heat and hardness. He began a gentle undulation, easing Merlin’s squirming counterpoint into a more synchronized rhythm. Merlin clung to him, lifting his legs to wrap them around Arthur’s waist, and Arthur groaned as the motion allowed him a better, more satisfying movement. He panted softly, watching as Merlin arched and moaned beneath him, fingers scrabbling at Arthur’s back. Beads of sweat broke out over their bodies, easing the friction somewhat and making the slide of their skin even more heady. Arthur felt drunk with it--the burn of his muscles as he held his body over Merlin’s, the scent of their musk mingling, Merlin’s panting moans in contrast with his deeper groans. Already, he could feel his approaching orgasm beginning to tighten his gut, making his balls draw up against his body and his spine tingle in anticipation.
Merlin’s release took him first. With a broken cry against Arthur’s neck, the smaller man jolted up against him, and a new, slick heat spread between them. Arthur groaned, breathing in the scent, familiar and foreign at the same time. Another few deep thrusts, and he followed Merlin, cock twitching as he spilled between their bodies.
For several long moments, the clearing was filled with nothing more than the sound of their harsh breathing. Arthur again moved to roll to one side, not wanting to crush Merlin with his greater bulk, but Merlin clung to him, dragging him down on top of his body and wrapping his arms and legs around him. Arthur huffed softly, working an arm beneath Merlin’s head to cushion it, and let the other slide under Merlin’s slim waist.
“Aren’t I crushing you?” he murmured at last.
Merlin shook his head. “I don’t care,” he whispered. Arthur sighed, hearing the way his voice cracked a little.
“You understand why I have to do this.”
“Yes,” Merlin mumbled. “That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
Arthur chuckled softly, turning his head to nuzzle Merlin’s neck, just below his ear. “No,” he agreed. “I suppose it doesn’t.”
“And there’s no way I can talk you out of it.”
“None springs to mind.”
Arthur smiled, hiding it against Merlin’s neck. “Bumbling idiot.”
“You’ll be careful?”
“Of course.” Arthur lifted his head now, looking down at Merlin and reaching up to stroke his cheek. “I meant what I said. I’d rather we both get out of this alive.”
Merlin sighed, closing his eyes and leaning in against Arthur’s hand. “I guess I can’t stop you,” he whispered. “I’ll do whatever I can to help.”
“I know you will.”
Merlin bit his lip, looking up at him, and hesitated for a moment. Arthur smiled, leaning down to kiss him, drawing the abused lip out from between Merlin’s teeth. “I know,” he murmured, when he drew away. “You don’t have to say it, Merlin. I know.”
“I want to say it,” Merlin said. “I just...”
“Wait,” Arthur said, laying a gentle finger against his lips. “Wait until...until this is over. I want to hear it the first time...out there. When we’re both alive, and it’s not just because it might be our last chance. All right?”
Merlin sighed and nodded. “Yeah,” he agreed. “All right. But...I do, you know.”
Arthur nodded, leaning in to kiss him again. “I know.”
Merlin sighed, shoving at Arthur’s shoulder a little; Arthur obligingly rolled aside, and helped Merlin to his feet. “When?” he said, looking up at the sky, which was beginning to cloud over.
“Tomorrow night. Full moon. They said the magic moves more easily that way.”
Merlin closed his eyes. “So soon,” he said. “Not much time for them to get ready.”
“I know. But we don’t have much time. You can’t last here much longer, Merlin. I won’t take the chance of waiting.”
Merlin sighed, and nodded, turning toward Arthur again. He moved forward, laying a hand on Arthur’s chest; Arthur reached up and rested his own hand over the top of it, squeezing gently.
“Please be careful,” Merlin whispered, looking into Arthur’s eyes again.
Arthur nodded, leaning forward and capturing his lips in a gentle kiss.
“I promise,” he whispered.
* * *
* * *
“Well, aren’t you a sight?”
Arthur turned, startled by the voice, then flushed. “Morgana!” he cried, moving to cover himself, though it was unnecessary--he did, at least, have a loincloth on. Still...
Morgana laughed, waving off his embarrassment. “Oh, come on, Arthur,” she said. “We grew up together. I’ve seen you naked hundreds of times.”
“We were kids,” Arthur grumbled, scowling a little bit as she walked into the tent.
“Mm. Well, I have to admit, there is something...extra about you now.” She eyed him up and down, and he flushed, knowing he made an interesting picture: naked but for the thin linen loincloth at his waist, every inch of exposed skin had been painted with a light blue paint. Strange symbols and runes covered his arms and legs, half moons in painstaking detail rested proudly on each of his cheeks while a third sat upon his brow, and on his chest, centered over his heart, a huge spiral spun out from the center and reached to his nipples. The druid women who had painted him had explained the runes as they went; some, they’d said, were spells of protection. Others asked the gods for their favor, and for assistance with what they were about to do. The spiral was an ancient symbol of power, and the three crescent moons were symbolic of the divinity of three: the cycle of birth, life, and death which they were about to invoke.
Of course, the small, finger-shaped bruises at his hips and shoulders, not to mention the small love bite on his neck, was a bit more telling than he would have liked Morgana to see.
Fortunately, if she noticed any of these, she didn’t mention it. “Is everything prepared?”
Arthur drew a breath and released it in a steadying rush, nodding. “Almost,” he said. “They’re...preparing the pyre now.”
“You’re really going to let them burn you alive?” she whispered, and even though coming to the Druids had been her idea, she looked frightened by the prospect now. “For Merlin?”
“He did the same for me,” Arthur pointed out. “I couldn’t very well call myself his friend if I wasn’t willing to return the favor.”
“His friend?” Morgana’s voice was sharp, and she gazed at him shrewdly enough to make him squirm a bit.
“And...more,” he offered weakly.
She snorted. “You are pathetic,” she said fondly. “But I suppose he knew that going into things. All right. For what it’s worth...I’m proud of you. Not many people would risk what you’re about to for someone else.”
Arthur blushed, but shrugged. “I care about him,” he mumbled.
She smiled, reaching up and carefully squeezing his shoulder, making certain not to mess up any of the symbols. “I know you do,” she murmured, blinking rapidly. “Arthur...if this doesn’t work...”
“Of course.” Morgana drew away, nodding sharply. “Well. I don’t want to hold up the works here. Just...” she broke off, and bit her lip, then moved forward, leaning up and pressing a swift kiss to his chin--the only spot on his face that didn’t have paint on it. “Be careful.”
Arthur smiled. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that lately,” he said.
She smirked. “Well,” she said, “maybe if you weren’t usually such a bumbling oaf we wouldn’t have to remind you of it.”
“Please, stop. I hate it when you get all mushy on me.”
Morgana smiled, ducking her head. But before either of them could speak again, the flap of the tent opened, and Aglain peered inside at them. “Morgana? Arthur? It’s time.”
“You ready for this?” Morgana asked him.
“As I’ll ever be,” Arthur agreed, straightening and giving Aglain a nod. “Lead the way.”
* * *
The ceremony was far simpler than Arthur had imagined.
A pyre had been hastily constructed out of fallen trees, but Arthur had politely declined the Druids' offer to tie him to the pole in the middle of it. He had no intention of trying to escape.
But he was glad for the support, as he climbed onto the hastily-constructed pyre; the logs beneath him rolled treacherously, and he grabbed the center pole, steadying himself as he found a sturdier position.
The Druids were gathering around him; though only a few were needed for the ceremony, many had offered to assist. Arthur watched as they joined hands in a circle around the little clearing, eyes drifting closed and lips moving in murmured spells. He couldn’t understand the words, but he guessed they were meant to help things along, or protect him--he hoped, at least.
He turned his attention to the three figures standing just before the pyre. Lana stood one one side, holding a bundle of dried herbs. Aglain stood with a small bowl filled with a dark substance Arthur couldn’t identify, though it moved like blood.
The third figure moved forward, lifting his hood, and Arthur blinked, surprised to see Mordred standing before him, gazing up at him with a small, enigmatic smile.
Prince Arthur, he heard the child’s voice in his mind. Are you ready to give yourself for another? Do you forfeit your life for him?
Arthur swallowed, but nodded, meeting the boy’s eyes steadily. “I do,” he murmured, hoping they could hear him better than he could hear himself. It seemed his heart was pounding loudly enough to alert everything in a five mile radius. He held out his arms, palms up, in the gesture they’d instructed him to use. “My life so he may live,” he recited, “my body so he may breathe, my heart so his may beat, my soul so his may return.”
Mordred smiled, looking pleased, and nodded in a gesture of acceptance. Then, lifting his hand, he murmured a word, and the wood around Arthur spontaneously caught fire. Arthur fought a slightly hysterical urge to laugh. Looks like Merlin was right: Mordred is going to kill me.
Aglain and Lana stepped forward, tossing their offerings onto the flames; they changed from bright orange to vivid, dancing blue.
Arthur drew a sharp breath through his nose and closed his eyes, feeling the flames climb closer to his body. The smoke that rose around him smelled heavily of fragrant herbs, lavender and lilac mixed in with some kind of cedar and something spicier Arthur didn’t recognize, and he coughed a little, fighting to keep his breath.
He didn’t have to fight long. Accelerated by the magic, perhaps, the flames climbed to his flesh in a moment, burning bright and hot; a flash of white agony, and suddenly Arthur was surrounded by light, lifted from his pain and pulled up in a surge so powerful he would have blacked out, if he still had a body.
But he didn’t.
Am I dead? the thought reached out into the strange, bright eternity that surrounded him, and he felt it echo in the emptiness. It had happened so fast--where was he? What was happening...?
Don’t be afraid.
He gasped, and turned, blinking in surprise for two reasons. One, that he suddenly had a body that could blink--and two, because he suddenly wasn’t alone. A figure was approaching him through the light, and as it neared, he squinted.
But it wasn’t Merlin. The light faded around the figure just enough, and Arthur blinked, looking into the face of a woman a few years older than he, with long blond hair that fell in gentle, cascading curls around her pale cheeks and shoulders. She wore a simple white gown trimmed in silver, and her feet were bare.
“Hello, Arthur,” she said.
He blinked again, then swallowed suddenly, drawing a sharp breath. Her eyes...he knew them. They were the same eyes he saw every time he looked into a mirror. The same eyes he’d seen his father turn away from time and time again, as though looking into them were simply too painful. He’d always assumed that was because his father was ashamed of him. But now...now he understood.
“Mother,” he whispered.
Ygraine’s smile widened, and she nodded, moving forward and drawing him into a tight hug. He stood frozen for only a moment before lifting his arms and wrapping them around her slight frame. Abruptly, he found himself clinging to her, head buried in her shoulder as he inhaled a scent he didn’t even realize he’d missed. His body began to shake as she ran her hands over his back and stroked his hair. After a few moments, he realized he was crying.
“Oh, Arthur,” Ygraine whispered, rocking him gently. “It’s all right. It’s all right, shh. I’m here.”
“Mother,” he choked, shaking his head against her shoulder, resisting the urge to burrow closer still. “I...I’m...I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I...”
“No, Arthur,” she murmured, drawing back to look up into his face. “My son--there is nothing to apologize for. You’ve done nothing wrong.”
“But I...” Arthur swallowed staring down at the woman he’d always dreamed about, but never thought he would have a chance to meet. There was so much he wanted to say, but now that she was here, he found he didn’t know where to start. “I...it’s my fault--you...”
“No.” Ygraine cut him off sharply, lifting a finger to his lips and shaking her head. “Sweetheart, no. It’s not your fault. It’s not anyone’s fault.”
“But you died,” Arthur whispered, her figure blurring as his eyes filled again. “If I...if I hadn’t...”
“I would die again,” Ygraine said firmly. “I would die a thousand times over, Arthur, to keep you safe. To let you live. It was more than worth that small sacrifice, to see the man you’ve become, to know the man you’re going to be.” She smiled, then, broadly, and squeezed his shoulders. “It’s never a difficult choice, to give your life for someone you love, is it?”
Arthur blushed, ducking his head. “No,” he agreed. “I suppose it isn’t.”
She chuckled warmly. “Oh, Arthur. I’m so proud of you.”
“You...you are?” Arthur looked up at her, feeling a weight that had rested on his shoulders his entire life suddenly beginning to ease.
“I am,” she agreed. “You have grown to be as kind, as selfless, and as noble as I ever could have hoped. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there to help you. But it looks like you’ve done well enough on your own.”
“Not on my own,” Arthur whispered, dozens of memories flitting through his mind. If he was the man she seemed to think he was, he knew it wasn’t thanks to him.
“Whatever goodness Merlin has brought out in you, he could not have done it if it wasn’t already there,” Ygraine said.
Arthur glanced at her, surprised at the way she’d seemed to read his thoughts. “I’m not sure,” he said. After all, he’d never felt any guilt about picking on servants before Merlin came along. But something about Merlin’s disappointed looks always made Arthur’s gut twist. He hadn’t wanted to admit it, but Merlin made him want to be a better person.
“You love him,” Ygraine said, giving simple voice to the feeling that had so daunted Arthur, before. It seemed so easy now, though, to nod, and agree.
“Then let that guide you,” she said. “If you can’t trust in yourself yet, trust in him. Trust that he sees what I see in you. He gave his life for you, Arthur, and I know he would do it again. Just as I would.”
Arthur swallowed, tears stinging his eyes. “I don’t know if I deserve that,” he whispered. “From either of you.”
She shook her head, and leaned close, pressing a gentle kiss to his cheek. “Then trust that we think so,” she said, smiling at him, then glancing at a spot over his shoulder.
Arthur turned around, following her gaze, and felt his heart catch in his throat. “Merlin,” he whispered.
He didn’t know how long Merlin had been there behind them, but he looked shy, shifting awkwardly and clasping his hands behind his back. He bobbed his head at them. “I’m sorry, I...didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“Not at all.” Ygraine smiled, holding a hand out to him; after a shy glance at Arthur, Merlin stepped forward and accepted it. Ygraine drew him closer, bringing Arthur’s hand up and joining it with Merlin’s. She gazed at them both for a moment, before saying, “You’ll look after him, Merlin?”
Merlin nodded fervently. “I promise,” he said.
She nodded, leaning up to kiss his cheek as well, then clasped her hands over their joined ones, looking back and forth between them. “Take care,” she said. “A promise made to each other here can’t be broken. You are bound to one another, for better or for worse, now. Do you accept this responsibility?”
Arthur glanced at Merlin, and nodded, looking into the other man’s face. “Yes,” he said.
“Yes,” Merlin echoed.
Ygraine nodded. “Then go,” she told them, stepping back and releasing their hands.
Arthur looked at Merlin, then back at his mother, wondering where he was supposed to go, exactly. But before he could open his mouth to speak, he felt the world around him beginning to dissolve. He swallowed, keeping his eyes fixed on her face as she began to fade, watching as her sparkling eyes and proud smile vanished into the growing, flickering light. He swallowed again, looking at Merlin, clinging to his hand as the flickering light grew to tongues of cool white flame that licked at their legs and danced around them.
“Arthur,” Merlin whispered, and Arthur stepped forward, wrapping his arms around Merlin and drawing him in close. Merlin returned the embrace, as the roaring, swirling flames surrounded them, growing to blinding intensity. He felt as if he were falling apart, bits of him breaking away and scattering. The only thing that kept him grounded was the feel of Merlin’s arms around him, the sound of his heart--or was it Merlin’s?--pounding in his ears.
And then, as quickly as it had started, the flame faded to nothing, and darkness swelled to take it’s place. Between one heartbeat and the next, Arthur fell into it’s embrace.
The first thing he heard was rain against canvas. It pelted down around him gently, a soothing rhythm that threatened to lull him back to sleep.
But something else was tugging at him more insistently--a soft, familiar sound that he hadn’t heard in weeks. Not since the night he and his men had made camp, during their hunt for the manticore.
The gentle sound of Merlin’s snoring.
Arthur’s eyes flew open, and he gasped, sitting upright on his cot, dislodging the furs that covered his body. And then promptly overbalancing, falling off the narrow bed onto the dirt below.
A slightly louder, startled snort, and Merlin’s head appeared over the edge of the cut, hair in disarray as he blinked at Arthur in bewilderment.
For a moment, they simply stared at each other. Arthur found himself distantly aware of his surroundings--he recognized Lana’s tent, and the small cot that had been in the back (barely wide enough for one person; no wonder he’d fallen off, if he and Merlin had been sharing it). The light outside spoke of early morning, though it might have been later; the steady rainfall made it more difficult to tell. Around them, little stirred; the majority of the camp seemed to still be asleep.
He filed these observations away automatically as he gazed up at his manservant, alive and well and looking slightly grumpy at being awoken so early and abruptly.
“Merlin,” he finally said, as much to break the deafening silence as anything.
Merlin blinked, staring at him for a moment longer, before his face split into a broad grin, and he launched himself off the cot and onto Arthur, sending them both sprawling into the dirt in a tangle of limbs. “Arthur!”
Arthur huffed a laugh, struggling to right himself, but giving up after a second when he found he couldn’t detach the young man now clinging to him tightly. He shrugged to himself and wrapped his arms around him, hugging him in return, until the awkward position began to make his limbs protest. “Uh, Merlin? Could we get up off the ground, at least?”
“Huh? Oh, sorry.” Merlin released him, pushing himself up and back so he sat on his heels, and grinned shyly down at Arthur, holding out his hand to help him up. Arthur accepted, hauling himself into a sitting position, then returned the smile.
“So,” he said. “You’re back.”
Merlin giggled softly, ducking his head, and nodding. “So are you.”
Arthur nodded, grinning, before drawing back to look around. “Where is everyone?” he asked.
Merlin shrugged. “It’s early,” he explained. “Lana was here before, when I woke up, but she left when she was certain you were all right. You took forever to wake up, as usual,” he added, and though he clearly meant the words to be teasing, Arthur could hear the strain in his voice.
“I’m sorry if I worried you,” he said gently, leaning forward to kiss the corner of Merlin’s mouth. Merlin blushed, but smiled, relaxing visibly.
“Morgana was here earlier too,” he said. “She’s heading back to Camelot now to let Gaius and my mum and Gwen know what happened. Lana said we could stay as long as we like.”
Arthur nodded, frowning a little. “I wouldn’t mind the chance to recover a bit,” he admitted. “If nothing else, these past few weeks have been a bit exhausting.”
Merlin blushed, ducking his head again. “I still can’t believe you went to all that trouble for me,” he said, looking down at the ground between them.
“Of course I did,” Arthur said, leaning forward again and tipping Merlin’s face up so the other man’s eyes met his.
“Why?” Merlin whispered, searching his face for an answer.
Arthur simply smiled, leaning forward to kiss Merlin softly. “Because I love you,” he murmured as he drew away, looking into Merlin’s eyes again.
“Oh!” Merlin’s eyes widened, and the kiss he gave Arthur in return, as he launched himself into his arms, was far from gentle or chaste. Arthur found himself on his back again, but this time, he discovered, he didn’t mind one bit.
When they drew apart again, some time later, and Merlin lay trying to catch his breath at Arthur’s side, he finally responded: “I love you too, of course.”
Arthur glanced down at Merlin’s kiss-bruised lips, his flushed cheeks and chest, and the arousal clearly outlined in his trousers, and had to laugh. “Of course.”
Merlin grinned, shrugging. “Well, I thought it bore clarifying.”
“It’s always nice to hear,” Arthur agreed, leaning down to kiss him again, half in apology. “I’m sorry it took me so long to say it.”
Merlin shrugged again, waving off the apology. “No, don’t be. I could have said it earlier too. We both acted like idiots this time.”
“Hey!” Arthur pouted at Merlin, even as his heart filled to the brim with happiness at the familiar banter. “I was not an idiot. I didn’t know I was in love with you. You knew the whole time you loved me and you never said anything.”
“That’s your big defense?” Merlin said dryly. “I was suffering from unrequited love, hiding a terrible secret that threatened to tear us apart, while you were simply being your great royal oblivious self, and I’m the idiot?”
“Glad we’ve got that sorted,” Arthur agreed with a huff, but he couldn’t help but grin when Merlin laughed, burying his face in Arthur’s shoulder.
They lapsed into silence for a time, before Merlin sighed, tracing light patterns over Arthur’s chest and paying particular attention to the place the manticore had stung him. “There’s going to be hell to pay, when we get back to Camelot,” he said softly.
“What do you mean?” Arthur asked, a bit distracted by the feel of Merlin’s fingers dancing over his skin through the thin fabric of his shirt.
“Well, it’s not every day someone your father had executed walks back through the front gates,” Merlin pointed out.
Arthur snorted, and shrugged. “We’ll just tell him it didn’t take.”
Merlin poked him in the side, but Arthur felt his smile against his neck. He smiled in return, and sighed. “I can’t even bring myself to worry about it,” he admitted. “After everything that’s happened, facing down my father feels like a stroll through the countryside.”
“Dying did put a few things in perspective, didn’t it?” Merlin sighed, snuggling closer, but Arthur could tell he was troubled. A few seconds later, Merlin spoke again. “I just keep thinking maybe it would be easier for you, if I just...stayed out here, for a few years, or something. Until...”
“Until I’m king?” Arthur shook his head. “I don’t think so. I just got you back, Merlin, and I don’t intend to let you very far out of my sight from here on in. Father will just have to deal with that.”
“You make it sound so easy.”
Arthur grinned. “It’s us,” he pointed out. “When has it ever been easy?”
Listening to Merlin laugh, Arthur knew it was not going to be simple. Even if the king didn’t try to have Merlin killed outright, he was not going to easily suffer a warlock to live within the boundaries of his kingdom, let alone so close to his son.
Still, what he’d said was true: after everything they’d been through, dealing with his father’s paranoia felt anti-climactic. He had no idea what he would say to his father, but he knew one thing: he was not going to face the rest of his time as prince without Merlin by his side. If Merlin’s shared memories were anything to go by, he wouldn’t survive if he tried.
Smiling down at the man still giggling in his arms, Arthur knew it didn’t matter, not really. One way or another, they’d figure it out, the way they always had. Together.
He was pretty sure that was how it was supposed to be.
* * *
Epilogue courtesy of Catsinthecoffee