Arthur didn't speak to him for a week after he found out.
The second day, Merlin pulled himself out of his bed around midday and limped quietly to Arthur's room. He shuffled through his tasks, clearing away the scattering of dirty plates and clothing that had piled up, and relaid the fire that had died a few days before. He was gone before Arthur came back from drill.
The fifth day, Arthur came back early, before all the work was done. He hesitated on the threshold with his hunting gear and his cloak in his hands and didn't say anything. Merlin didn't look at him. After a moment, Arthur came in and stood before the fireplace, rubbing his hands to warm them while Merlin finished up.
Merlin wasn't limping anymore by the seventh day, though he still got tired easily. Gaius said that it was the amount of magic he'd used, and told him not to try and use it for anything at all, even the least chore. Merlin wasn't sure. He didn't feel like his magic was spent. If anything, it felt stronger than ever, like it wanted to come bubbling out of him every moment.
But he obeyed Gaius anyway for just that reason, because it worried him just how easy it had become—or more, how hard it was to do things any other way. The dishes kept trying to leap into stacks for him. He would turn around for a minute and as soon as he looked back, two of Arthur's tunics had folded themselves neatly on the bed and a third was collapsing half-done, with what Merlin felt was a guilty air. He used flint and tinder to start the fire, or at least he meant to, but he'd barely kneeled on the hearth before the fire was jumping up with suspicious speed.
And then he sort of sat there on the hearth staring into it, watching visions of men in steel riding, dragon-headed ships heaving up onto a shore, a sword rising up out of a lake, until a hand came on his shoulder and Arthur said sharply, "Merlin," in the tone that meant he'd said it at least three times before.
Merlin jerked up in surprise, backing away without thinking, and knocked into the table. It went over and then stopped as Merlin looked at it—the table, and the laden dishes, and the jug, and the wine half-spilled out of it in mid-air. Arthur stared at the shining drops, hanging like bright beads in the light of the half-tipped candle.
Merlin thought about letting it all go crashing down, but his head ached, and he'd dragged it all up from the kitchens—and before he'd even really decided, the wine had tipped back into the jug, the jug had leapt onto the table, the meat onto the plate.
Arthur grabbed him by the collar and shook him. "Are you out of your mind? What if someone had come in?"
"Sorry—" Merlin said, "sorry, I didn't—I didn't do it on purpose!" he managed finally, and Arthur stopped.
"What, you just do magic by accident," Arthur said sarcastically. Then he stared at Merlin.
"Well, not all that often," Merlin said. Arthur's expression suggested that the situation called for a little bit more than that. "Just since—last week."
Arthur didn't say anything, which confirmed Merlin's understanding that they were not talking about the whole incident involving the horde of shambling corpses, and the giant wall of fire, and the three evil witches. Or the bit where Arthur had carried his unconscious body back to Camelot and deposited him with Gaius with a short command to keep him covered up until he stopped glowing.
"Right," Arthur said finally. "You had better—go and—"
Merlin waited. And waited. "Yes?" he prompted. Arthur had never had any trouble coming up with stupid tasks for him before.
"Go and—do something!" Arthur said.
That seemed to be the worst of it over. The next day, Merlin woke up at a normal hour, and his body didn't feel like it wanted to be left behind when he got out of bed, and Arthur was still in his chambers eating breakfast when Merlin got there. "It's the monthly audiences today," Arthur said stiffly, not looking at him. "Get my formal kit ready."
It promptly jumped out of the closet and threw itself joyfully on the bed. Arthur looked at it.
"Er," Merlin said. "Anything else I can get for you?"
"A second lock on the door, apparently," Arthur said.
All right, so it wasn't completely cleared up. But Merlin did manage to spend the afternoon without doing any magic. It helped to be standing three feet away from Uther. Something about being frozen stiff with terror, maybe.
Possibly in reaction, when he got back to Arthur's room that night, he dozed off in the chair and got woken up only by Arthur slamming the door shut very pointedly. "What?" Merlin said defensively, before noticing the steaming bath, the feast laid out on damask cloth on the table, and the faint music that was coming from nowhere in particular.
Arthur picked up one of the fresh strawberries and sniffed at it suspiciously. "Where did you even get these? It's midwinter. Is this enchanted rat dung or something?"
"I don't think so," Merlin said. He picked one up and tried to think about it. He had a vague sense in his head of a sunny field, somewhere very hot, with a patch of bare ground covered with strawberry plants bursting with fruit. A very strange creature, large, with horns and grey skin, was inspecting the plants curiously. "I think I grew them somewhere else."
"Of course you did," Arthur said, rolling his eyes. He did eat the strawberries, though.
"All right," Arthur said, the next morning, after his jerkin had put itself on over his head and his cloak had brightened to a shade of red that no weaver's dye had ever achieved, "something's got to be done about this. And stop that bloody music!"
"Right, sorry," Merlin said.
Arthur glared at him, and then said, "Get a pack, we're going hunting."
They rode out along an old trail, not much used and mostly overgrown, with thick bramble that helpfully crept out of the way and branches that bent themselves up to avoid brushing against Arthur. Deer startled away a few times, but Arthur didn't stop for them; he didn't even unsling his crossbow. Finally they came out into an open field blanketed thickly in snow, broken only by a few deer tracks and a scattering of dead grey stumps, by the side of a bend in a creek: a good three miles from Camelot, with no one and nothing in sight. Arthur tied his horse at the clearing's edge and leaned against a tree and waved a hand.
"All right, do something," he said.
"Er?" Merlin said.
"Obviously you've got to get it out of your system," Arthur said. "So use it until you're tired enough you won't be magicking strawberries from some godforsaken country at night. Now come on, I do want to get some hunting in sometime today."
Merlin tied his horse up and stood there helplessly. He'd never just—used it, there was always something to use it for.
"Honestly, Merlin," Arthur said. "Knock down a tree or something."
Merlin looked at the withered grey stumps in the field, and narrowed his eyes. They started to rip themselves up one after another, tearing loose from the ground and piling up into a heap near the river. Merlin held out his hand and said, "Feadros mealc ybrennin," and they burst into a bonfire.
"Not that, someone's going to see that!" Arthur said.
"Oh, right," Merlin said, and hurriedly pointed at the stream. "Dealna medreth cylnyn." A great gout of water leapt up and doused the fire, a great hissing cloud of steam going up.
"I really don't understand how you've managed to stay alive this long," Arthur said disapprovingly.
"Oi, I've saved your life fourteen times!" Merlin said, slumping against the tree next to Arthur. He did feel a bit tired, at least.
"I only count eleven."
"You didn't count the time with the fairy princess trying to sell your soul," Merlin said darkly.
"I did so, I'm counting all the times I don't remember how I got out of something since you got here," Arthur said. "That time with the flower does not count, I was only doing that to save your stupid life."
"It does so count!" Merlin said. "It doesn't not-count just because you saved my life back."
"I wouldn't even have been there if you weren't a complete idiot!" Arthur said. "Why on earth didn't you just magic the cup away or something instead of running out yelling about poison like a madman?"
"Oh yeah, because nobody would've been suspicious of a goblet just jumping out of your hand in front of the whole court or anything."
"Like you think even for a second about what would make anyone suspicious," Arthur said, and reached over to swat Merlin across the head. Merlin threw a bit of snow at him, half-heartedly, and leaned back against the tree with his eyes shut.
"Merlin," Arthur said.
Merlin opened his eyes and discovered he was lying on his stomach. They were in a pavilion of leather and fur, a brazier full of coals in one corner, with a thick padded cushion beneath and a low table at their feet set with wine and sweetmeats. Arthur was propped up on his elbows, looking around.
"You know, Merlin, I'm beginning to think you're a giant girl," Arthur said.
"Oh shut up, as though you don't like it," Merlin said, blushing.
"So you've just been lazing about in the lap of luxury all this time—"
"No!" Merlin said. "Are you joking? Gaius would beat my head in if I was using magic like this."
"So what's making you do it now?" Arthur demanded.
"I think you're a bad influence," Merlin said immediately, and Arthur rolled over to shove Merlin down into the pillows, sprawling on top of him.
"What was that?" Arthur said.
"mmprh," Merlin said, trying to squirm out from under Arthur's solid weight, unsuccessfully.
Arthur smacked him on the arse once and then swung off him and up to his feet. "All right, come on, this has got to be useful for something more than just indulging your sybarite tastes."
He got his crossbow off his horse and loaded it, and led the way into the woods. "Now let's see if you can find a deer," he began, and a six-pointed stag promptly stepped out of the woods and stood there looking at them with big liquid eyes.
Arthur stopped. The deer blinked. He slowly raised the crossbow. The deer blinked. Arthur dropped the crossbow and glared at Merlin. "Er," Merlin said.
"All right, don't do that," Arthur said. "Shoo," he told the deer, which considered this for a long moment, nibbling on a twig, and then went bounding gracefully away.
A couple of hours later, after several bunnies had hopped up to Arthur's feet, a wild boar had followed them for half an hour, and a flock of ptarmigan had ambled by, Arthur stalked back to the clearing. "I am never taking you hunting again."
"I'm pretty sure that last deer wasn't by magic," Merlin offered.
"That doesn't help!" Arthur said. "It's hard to shoot one after three others have been gazing at you trustingly all afternoon. At this rate, I'll never take any sort of game again."
"You should've seen the thing at the strawberries," Merlin said. "At least that didn't really look all that sympathetic."
"What thing at the strawberries," Arthur said dispiritedly, shoving his crossbow back into his gear. He took the hunting spear down and looked at it sadly.
"I've never seen anything like it, it was just this big sort of—" Merlin tried to size it with his arms "— and it was grey, and horned, and—"
"Where was this?" Arthur said, skeptically. "In Brittany or something?"
"No, a lot farther," Merlin said. "It's summer over there."
"Right, of course, a country where it's summer, in midwinter," Arthur said.
"It is!" Merlin said. "Look, I'll show you." He put a hand on Arthur's shoulder and tugged, and then they were standing in a field under a blazing sun, tall grass waving and thick and waist-high.
Arthur turned himself around three times, staring, and then said, "Merlin, you idiot."
"What?" Merlin said indignantly.
"You just—" Arthur waved a hand incoherently.
"I can get us back," Merlin said.
"Not if I kill you first," Arthur said.
"Look, aren't you at least a little bit interested," Merlin said, sweeping an arm around them. "Here we are, in—in—all right, I don't know where we are. But you have to admit, it's different!"
Arthur looked around and grudgingly said, "All right, fine, I've never seen anywhere like." He frowned, taking a better grip on the spear. "Is that the thing?"
"Is what the thing?" Merlin said, turning to look behind him. There was a pony-sized grey creature with enormous ears standing near the edge of the forest, looking at them curiously. "No, the other thing was bigger, and it had horns, and not that weird nose-thing."
"Well, at least it's different sort of game," Arthur said. "We'll take its head back, and Gaius can tell us what it is." He took a few steps towards it, hefting up his spear. Then the trees behind the animal shook, and another one came out. Another much, much larger one.
Arthur stopped, staring up at it. It had tusks.
"I think that's the mother," Merlin said, staring too.
The mother pawed the ground uneasily and made a strange deep trumpeting noise through her long nose. "Merlin," Arthur said, calmly.
"Yes?" Merlin said.
"Run," Arthur said.
The giant animal charged.
"I am going to kill you," Arthur said, clinging to the tree. It shook as the beast rammed into it again.
"This is really not my fault," Merlin said, clutching at Arthur's arm as the branch they were sitting on trembled.
"Can't you send the thing away?" Arthur said. "You made all those others come to us."
"Oh, yeah," Merlin said, and shut his eyes for a moment, then looked down and said, "Feadroth mel—ulp!" He grabbed onto Arthur again as the tree rattled with one more thump.
Arthur glared at him. Below, the beast trumpeted noisily one more time and then turned and stomped away, smashing the undergrowth out of its way as it went.
"I guess it worked," Merlin said brightly, after it had stayed gone for several minutes.
Arthur shoved him out of the tree.
Merlin hit the ground and rolled a few times, then struggled up to his feet. Arthur dropped himself down out of the tree and staggered woozily. Merlin limped to his side and pushed him over onto his arse. Arthur hauled himself up and jumped Merlin to the ground, and then there was a lot of rolling around and wrestling that ended only with the discovery of the nearby thornbushes.
"Bloody ow!" Arthur said, jerking a three-inch-long sliver out of his arm. He reached down and pulled Merlin up. "Here, you look ridiculous," he muttered, shoving his handkerchief at Merlin's nose, which was dripping blood where he'd whacked against a tree-root a bit earlier.
"Thags," Merlin said, muffled. He looked around. "Suppose it's gone?"
"It probably went to get more of its kind to come back and eat us," Arthur said. "Now get us back to Camelot so I can finish murdering you."
"That's not really the biggest incentive," Merlin said, taking Arthur's hand, and then they were standing in the snowy field again, a scattering of fresh snow drifting down and melting on their sun-heated clothes, and the horses snorted uneasily and edged back from the smell of strange animal upon them.
It was getting dark already here, long blue shadows stretching over the ground. Arthur looked around with an odd expression on his face, and then he stared at Merlin. "How did you even—do that?"
"Well," Merlin said, "it requires extreme concentration—you must be aware of the, the rhythm of nature—"
"In other words, you have no idea," Arthur said.
"Yeah, not really," Merlin admitted.
Arthur rolled his eyes and swung back up onto his horse. "Put some snow on your nose."
Back at the castle, Arthur slid into a magic-heated bath and told Merlin to go get himself cleaned up. "Before people think I've started beating you, not that you don't deserve it," he added.
"Well, you did throw me out of a tree," Merlin said, and ducked the boot Arthur tossed at his head. He paused at the door. "So—tomorrow?"
Arthur lifted his head and stared at him. After a moment he said, "I'll have to be back by one, there's a council meeting."
"Right," Merlin said. "I'll come by at nine?"
Arthur hesitated only a second. "Yes," he said.
The next day they went swimming in a lagoon humming with dragonflies and ringed with sprawling messy trees whose roots poked out of the water like a tangle of vines. They ate sweet oranges fresh from a tree, lying in a field deep in springy moss and wildflowers. Merlin picked a few flowers to take to Gwen. Arthur swatted him, called him an idiot, and scattered them before they went back to Camelot and the extremely boring council meeting.
Merlin stood against the wall wearing his best innocent look while the council members droned on through their reports, hoping it conveyed no I was not just magicking the heir to the throne off to some enchanted forest before this at all.
Then Sir Phedros said, "I am sorry to report, sire, that the hydra continues to menace the road through the marshes. A band of six knights attempted the reward offered, but so far none have returned to claim it, and we fear the worst. The villages along the marsh borders can get no transport for their harvest, save across-country, which takes all the profit of it."
Uther nodded grimly. "We must give them some tax relief, until the beast can be dispatched."
He moved on to the next report. Arthur looked over at Merlin. Merlin looked back at him.
They rode out together in the grey hours just before morning, Arthur's cloak pulled shut over his armor. Merlin waved to the guards at the gate, and they turned their horses onto the forest road. Merlin reached, and the woods changed slowly around them in an almost dreamlike haze, a thick palpable silence. The faint rotting smell of marshland came in a rush as the trees firmed back into solidity, branches locked in a struggle overhead for light and laden down with ivy.
Arthur drew his sword, and they rode warily onward. There were marks in the road and spatters of blood, like a large animal had been dragged along it lately. The smell of blood grew stronger, and their horses shivered and snorted unhappily until they dismounted and left them behind.
The hydra was feasting on the entrails of a dead ox whose milky eyes seemed to be staring at Arthur and Merlin through the trees as they crouched, looking at the thing. It was hideous, the snake heads writhing as they tore off lengths of intestine and chunks of meat, occasionally snapping at one another. The hydra's body wasn't much bigger than the cow's, but its limbs were thick, ending in brutal-looking clawed feet. Bits of broken armor and scraps of cloth were scattered around the clearing, and picked-clean bones.
"Gaius's book says, when you cut off one head, it grows another," Merlin whispered. There were a few that looked like exactly that had happened, two thinner necks bursting out of a thicker trunk at odd heights. It had so many it was hard to count them all, but Merlin was pretty sure there were at least nine. Ten. Nine. Maybe eleven—"The stumps need to be cauterized after they're cut off."
Arthur nodded absently, his eyes intent on the beast. "Can you do that?"
"Yeah," Merlin said. "I'm going to need to be in closer than this, though, or I'll get you caught in it."
"Just make sure you stay at least ten feet from wherever the forward foot is planted. That should keep you out of range of the heads," Arthur said. He pointed forward. "All right, when I give the word, start a fire in that heap of bracken behind it—"
"What good is that going to do?" Merlin said.
"Cut off its escape route," Arthur said. "If it can grow back bits of itself, stands to reason it's going to run away towards the end, and those heads would be nasty to deal with on a narrow trail where I can't move around them." One of the heads was curving backwards to drink from the marshy puddle next to the hydra's back leg. "That's one hell of a range of motion."
He looked around behind them, thoughtfully. "It might try to come this way also, if I have it flanked."
"I can keep it from running over me," Merlin said.
"Good," Arthur said, and drew his sword.
The hydra jerked all its heads up as the bracken burst into flames, and edged suspiciously away, three of the heads dragging the cow with them, others looking in all directions. Arthur burst out of the trees and charged it, getting in close enough to lop off one of the larger heads before he backed out of reach again, ducking as the other heads screamed furiously and lashed at him, hitting against his shield with dull thuds and a horrible scraping as their teeth ran over the metal.
Merlin winced and pointed at the blazing bracken, and a thin lash of fire went arcing over the distance and seared the thrashing stump. As soon as it died away, Arthur moved quick as lightning, knocking away several of the lunging heads with his shield, and took off another two. The hydra lunged at him, but backed away again from the fire Merlin called, and they found a rhythm—the heads came off, and Merlin scorched them while Arthur distracted the beast, giving it a target, then Merlin's fire dazzled the hydra's eyes as Arthur went after another of the heads.
The hydra was down to three heads when it tried to break out. "Merlin!" Arthur shouted as it barreled past him, fleeing, and Merlin hastily dropped the fire and threw up a shield with both hands. The hydra hit it like smashing into a wall and knocked itself and Merlin both off their feet, tumbling. The beast shook its heads and heaved back upright while Merlin was still trying to claw his way up a tree-trunk, a ringing in his ears, and its remaining heads focused in on him with a malevolent hiss. They all three lunged at him together.
Then Arthur was there, pushing him down behind the shelter of his body and his shield, and with one tremendous sweep had off the last three heads.
The hydra's neck-stumps kept thrashing wildly for a long time after that, even once Merlin had scorched the last ones. The body went lumbering blindly around the clearing, bashing into trees, while Arthur and Merlin caught their breath. "Is it—dead?" Arthur said doubtfully, as the thoroughly decapitated hydra tried to claw at a boulder.
"I don't—it doesn't have a head anymore," Merlin said. "Can something live without a head?"
"I don't know," Arthur said.
They stood watching it for a while longer. It kept going around in circles smacking into things. Arthur picked up a long tree branch. "Here, sharpen this for me." He edged cautiously in, and waited until the hydra had paused, then with a few running steps planted the makeshift spear deep into the hydra's body and pulled it back out.
Blood spurted, and the hydra thrashed silently, turning around itself towards the wound. Arthur jabbed it again and backed away. "It's very unnatural to hit something that doesn't make any noise," he called to Merlin.
Merlin looked at the eleven toothy heads scattered around the clearing, the magical fire blazing, and the thrashing headless monster. "I hadn't noticed!" he called back.
Finally the hydra seemed to accept that it was no good trying to go through life without any head, and it thumped over and was still. Arthur poked it a few more times just to be sure, but the blood had stopped flowing. Merlin came out and stood next to him. Arthur pushed back his coif and wiped his sweaty brow; he hadn't worn his helmet, so he could see better.
"Wow," Merlin said. He looked at Arthur, who had sat down heavily on a log and was eyeing one of the larger heads, poking it with his spear to turn it a bit. "Your father's going to be pleased?"
"When he hears about it," Arthur said.
"Don't you want to tell him?" Merlin said.
"If my father knew I'd gone off to kill a hydra alone, do you know what he'd do to me?" Arthur said.
"Alone!" Merlin said indignantly.
"All right, Merlin, how exactly were you planning on describing your involvement?" Arthur said.
"Oh, right," Merlin said.
Back at the horses, Arthur finished tying the hydra's head to the saddle, and stopped before mounting. "We killed it," he said.
"That—was the idea?" Merlin said.
"No, I mean, half a dozen good knights together tried to kill this thing," Arthur said. "There's a reward of a thousand in gold—before that, four parties of soldiers were sent out—" He was starting to grin, and Merlin found himself grinning back, stupidly, and then they were laughing and Arthur was pounding him on the back.
Uther was pleased when reports came that the hydra had apparently disappeared, if a little perplexed. "Perhaps it moved on when the pickings grew scarce, sire," one of the councilors suggested.
"Little matter, save that it be gone for good," Uther said. "Get the wagons in to those villages, before the grain rots in the fields."
That evening, Arthur and Merlin sprawled on Arthur's bed while the armor polished itself and clothing swished around in a washing-tub. Arthur was stretched out on his back, one leg propped against the other. He ate another strawberry and said thoughtfully, "I've heard there's a manticore living in the hills around Mercia."
"Yeah?" Merlin said, drowsily, his head pillowed on his arms. Arthur's bed was a lot nicer than his was. Especially since it had expanded a little, and the mattress had gotten firmer. "Tomorrow?"
"No, I've got drill in the morning, and the audiences in the afternoon," Arthur said. "It'll have to be Wednesday."
A few months later, there were about two dozen unnatural-looking skulls piled up in a dusty and unused back corridor of Camelot's dungeons, and rumors spreading all over Albion. They'd been spotted a few times riding to or from the scene—or Arthur had, anyway; people were reporting a knight in full armor and red cloak. Merlin was a little disgruntled that his extremely valiant sorceror companion had passed unnoticed.
It got really weird later that week, when Master Gideon, the famous bard, came to Camelot and performed a song about the red-cloaked knight before the whole court at dinner. Arthur threw Merlin a ridiculously gleeful look during the performance, which also didn't mention the hero getting any help from anyone. Merlin glared back at him.
"Don't be such a stormcloud, Merlin," Arthur whispered in his ear, taking Merlin's cup and drinking half the wine he'd just talked out of the serving maids. "You don't see me sulking, and it's not as though anyone knows it's me either."
Merlin snatched his cup back and drank off the rest before that could get stolen, too. "Too bad, if the bards only knew what a prat you are," he retorted, but Arthur just grinned at him and took the wine cup back again: it was brimming full. Merlin rolled his eyes, but he couldn't help grinning, too.
A few steps away, Uther was speaking with one of his knights when Gideon approached him and bowed.
"Sire," Gideon said, "by your leave, I would remain here in Camelot a while."
"A bard of your gifts must always be welcome, Master Gideon," Uther said. "If you wished to make your home with us—"
"A bard who does not travel soon finds whatever gifts he has grow less," Gideon said. "No, your highness, but I would stay a little longer: I am pursuing a song."
"I hope we shall soon hear it, then," Uther said.
"You have heard its beginning today, my lord," Gideon said. "But it cannot be complete without the hero's name."
Arthur and Merlin stared at him.
"All right, this is bad," Arthur said, back in his chambers.
"Bad? This is a disaster," Merlin said. "He's got nothing to do but snoop around and catch us."
"Look, maybe I should just tell my father it's me," Arthur said. "He'll be angry, true, but perhaps he'll be pleased as well. We've killed seven great beasts that were menacing our own people, not to mention all the others—"
"And what about when your father asks how you got from Camelot to Roxburgh and back in time for dinner, the time we killed the harpies?" Merlin said.
"So we—" Arthur made a vague gesture—"rode really fast, or something."
"It's two weeks from here!" Merlin said.
"Oh," Arthur said.
They slumped down on his bed. "We're doomed," Arthur said gloomily.
"We?" Merlin said. "Uther's not going to cut your head off."
"I don't really feel like relying on that, thanks!" Arthur said. "I don't really want to be disowned, either."
"I suppose if we stop, he won't have a chance to catch us," Merlin said.
Arthur was silent, then he said, "If it were just for glory—but Merlin, these creatures are menaces. They steal livestock from the weakest pens, and attack the poorest folk, who cannot afford either defense or to travel around them. We can't sit idly by and let that happen. Whatever the consequences to ourselves."
Arthur did that sort of thing every once in a while, like shrugging off a cloak, and it always made Merlin feel strange, like he was seeing Arthur and somebody else at the same time. Somebody who wasn't ordinary flesh and blood, not just a king but the shape of a king, the truest meaning of the word, and Merlin really really hated it.
"Merlin," Arthur said.
"Yeah?" Merlin said.
"We aren't going to need to worry about the bard catching us if you keep that up."
"What?" Merlin looked up. There were vines curling gently up the posters of the bed, and up the walls and twining around the windows and the mantelpiece, huge flowers of purple and gold and pink opening on them.
The report came in five days later, of a hideous demon-creature prowling the coast near Tintagel, less than a day's ride from Camelot. At dinner, Uther announced that he was giving all his knights liberty for the next day. Gideon sat near the door of the dining hall, plucking soft music from his harp, watching all the knights as they passed from the room.
"It's a trap," Merlin said. "Arthur, he's practically inviting us to get ourselves caught."
"We'll sneak out of the castle early, the back way, and if anyone sees us, we'll tell them we're going hunting for the day. What better idea do you have?" Arthur said. "It's not like he's going to be able to follow us."
"What if he already suspects it's you?" Merlin said. "Everyone knows you're the best knight in Camelot, and if he sees us vanish off the road, he'll understand everything. All he has to do is sit outside your door and wait for us to go out—"
"We'll tie our horses up at the guards' stables, with our gear, and I'll spend the night in your room," Arthur said. "Even if he lies in wait, he won't see us then."
"You have seen my room, right?" Merlin said.
Merlin's bed didn't want to grow very much, and his pillow only sullenly multiplied, and the one blanket completely refused to turn into three. "Why does this not work on your things?" Arthur said over his shoulder. "Shove over."
"I'm as far over as I can get!" Merlin said. "And hush, Gaius will hear you."
"Gaius knows you're a wizard, you idiot," Arthur said.
"He doesn't know we've been riding out alone to kill monsters!" Merlin hissed.
"At least he can't throw you into the dungeons," Arthur said.
"He can be really disappointed in me," Merlin said, and tried to tug away a bit more of the blanket.
"All right, that's it," Arthur said, and rolled over onto his other side and tucked up behind Merlin. "There."
Merlin lay very still and told himself it made perfect sense. They took up less room, the blanket could cover them both, they could even share both pillows. Arthur's breath was softly puffing on his neck. He swallowed.
Arthur cleared his throat. "It'll be warmer this way," he said.
"Right," Merlin said.
"At least you're not actually unpleasant to share a bed with," Arthur added, after a moment.
"Oh?" Merlin said. It might have come out a little—squeaky. "Oh." He stared at the thin shaft of moonlight coming in through the window. "You're okay. Too."
"Well, of course I am," Arthur said, loftily. "Go to sleep, Merlin."
"I am going to sleep!" Merlin said. "You're the one who's talking."
"No I'm not!" Arthur said. Then he hastily reached around to put his hand over Merlin's mouth. "And neither are you. Be quiet."
Merlin was going to mutter something appropriate, but Arthur's hand was on his mouth, all warm and callused and suddenly dangerous, so instead he settled into the pillows and shut his eyes.
They crept past Gaius's snores the next morning, very carefully, and Merlin shoved Arthur into his armor by feel in a back stall of the guardsmen's stable, one eye on the door. It was an hour before dawn, and no one was stirring; a candle or a torch, enough to see by, would have stood out a mile. All the windows of the castle were dark as pitch, save the ones in the kitchens, faint noise drifting out. They led the horses out by the reins and got to the gatehouse without any challenge, then rode out at speed down the forest road.
They went further than usual this time, nearly a mile away from Camelot, deep into the woods, and then Arthur led them off along a deer track. They stopped the horses and listened, but there was no sound of pursuit, and no one around them. "All right," Arthur said, sliding his sword from its sheath. "Let's go."
The demon-creature was particularly hideous, seven feet tall with immense horns curving from its forehead, huge clawed hands, and a mouth full of bloodstained teeth. It was carrying a large cloth-wrapped bundle back to its cavern lair when they caught it. When Arthur charged in and hamstrung it with a slash of his sword, it howled and dropped the bundle, which turned out to be a small weeping child.
Arthur spared one horrified look down at the little girl, then yelled, "Merlin!" and ducked under a sweeping blow of the demon's arm. Merlin stared at the girl and felt his eyes heat, and she whisked over the ground and thumped into his arms. She clung to him with one arm, still crying, and he saw the other had been savaged, ragged tooth marks where the demon had worried her flesh. "Shh, it's all right, don't worry," Merlin said, trying to see Arthur past her cloud of tangled hair. "You're safe—"
Arthur whirled under another swipe of clawed arms, and scored the demon's back with a gaping red wound that only seemed to madden the creature. "Merlin, a little help, here!" he shouted. There wasn't time for finesse: Merlin swung the little girl onto his hip, pointed at a huge boulder in the ground, and flung it at the demon bodily, dirt and pebbles and smaller rocks rattling away as it flew.
The boulder smashed the demon into the cliff wall. It roared in fury, and struggled to push the boulder off. Arthur was crouched low, watching it with narrowed eyes, waiting. Merlin called, "Arthur," and threw him one of the javelins instead when Arthur had sheathed his blade. Merlin pointed at it and whispered, "Ydran plian wydratha," and the javelin glowed blue and gold with power as the demon finally heaved the rock off and came at him again.
"Ugh," Arthur said, coming over as he peeled off his ichor-stained gloves. The demon had died messily. The little girl was still sniffling miserably, even though Merlin had healed her arm, mended her dress, and conjured a toy for her. "Here now, a brave lady like you wouldn't cry," Arthur said, picking her up, which infuriatingly made her stop crying and look up at him with wide eyes.
"What do we do with her?" Merlin said.
"Take her back to her village, obviously," Arthur said.
"Mama," the little girl said, latching on to Arthur's cloak.
"And when we—walk into the village?" Merlin said.
"We'll go up to the village," Arthur said.
They managed to get lucky—it was a fishing village, and with a fine clear day, near all the men were out to sea, all the women near the village square working on salting the previous day's catch, and one woman was near the low wall, calling with only a slightly anxious note, "Bethy! Bethy, where have you got to?"
"Mama!" the little girl said, wriggling, and Arthur lowered her down from his horse. She dragged the doll bumping in the dirt behind her as she ran down the hill to the woman, who caught her by the hand, scolding, and never even looked up the hill as she turned back to the village square.
"There, what did I tell you," Arthur said, as they snuck in through the back door of the castle, back in Camelot, without seeing another soul. "Nothing to worry about. Demon slain, child rescued, bard avoided. A good day's work, and no one the wiser."
Then he pulled open the door to the cellar where they'd been keeping the heads, and froze. Gideon was sitting at the end of the row of tusked, horned, and toothy skulls, and Uther was standing over them, studying one held up in his hand, while Sir Grenadius and Sir Vercet and two guardsmen waited at the back of the room.
Uther stared. Arthur was still in his ichor-splattered mail, holding the giant horned demon's head in his hand.
"Er," Arthur said.
"You," Uther said, "you are the—" His voice seemed to fail, and then he looked over at the heap of skulls. The first ones were very neatly ordered, the hydra and the manticore and the nichtmare, and then they'd gotten a little lazy about it, so the chimaera's three heads were messed in with the basilisk, and a few of the snake skeletons had broken off the gorgon's head and were lying in a corner.
"Well," Arthur said. "I can explain?"
"No," Uther said. "No, you cannot." He turned to look at Arthur. "If you had asked my permission to go, I would have denied it to you. And you knew it full well."
Arthur swallowed. "Father—"
"And I would have been wrong," Uther said, and Arthur stopped with his mouth open. Uther looked over the trophies again and shook his head, a small half-smile upon his face, and then he stepped forward and gripped Arthur by the shoulders. "The honor you have won here is not for you alone, but for all the realm."
Arthur stared at him, and then Uther pulled him into an embrace. There was something wavering and uncertainly happy in Arthur's face when Uther let him go. "Sir Vercet," Uther said, turning, "arrange to have these trophies mounted in the Great Hall, that all Camelot shall know what their prince has done." Sir Vercet bowed, and went out past them. Uther still had a hand on Arthur's shoulder, and he shook Arthur a little and said, "And tomorrow we shall hold a feast, in your honor."
"Father," Arthur interrupted, "wait—I cannot—I cannot take the credit for that which I did not do. This was not my work alone." He turned and Merlin stared at him in horror, trying to make little no! no! take the credit! motions at him. "Merlin has been with me in every battle. It is through his—" no no no! Merlin twitched frantically—"through his studies that I have known how to defeat these creatures."
Uther turned and looked at Merlin, who went totally still. "It is not many men," Uther said, "who would dare even to go into the range of such monstrous creatures as these, and fewer still who would be of any use. Such service, too, is worthy of great reward."
"Oh—" Merlin said faintly. "I don't—I don't need anything, your highness. It is my honor to serve the prince," he added, and to not have my head cut off.
"So it is," Uther said. "But we must see to something more, I think. For now," he added, turning back to Arthur, "you are fresh from the field and a hard ride, and must be tired. Leave that—good God, what a hideous creature—and go and rest."
"Merlin, calm down," Arthur said, slinging his chainmail over the back of the screen. A sponge was already hovering in anticipation. "No one is going to ask."
"We've killed two dozen monsters and no one is going to ask how?" Merlin said.
"No," Arthur said, "they're not. I should have realized," he added, dropping himself into his chair and stretching his boots to the fire. Merlin glared at him; he didn't think Arthur had even noticed that the fire had just sprung up five seconds before.
"Right, enlighten me," Merlin said.
"If we'd killed one or two, then there would've been questions," Arthur said. "Killing twenty, that's different. Now I'm an official hero with the most famous bard in Albion going around singing my praises, and a hero is good for a realm to have. Other kingdoms will respect our power even more, great lords will want to foster their sons with us. Why do you think my father was so keen to help Gideon catch us? He must be over the moon. No one in Camelot is going to be asking any questions, they're all going to be too busy inflating the story even more."
"He's over the moon because he hasn't worked out you had help from a sorceror," Merlin said, slumping into another chair at the table and taking an apple from the bowl.
"And he won't," Arthur said. "He doesn't want to, Merlin." Then he leaned forward and propped himself against his knees. "I'm sorry."
"What?" Merlin said, looking up. "Don't be stupid, you think I mind not having Uther know?"
"It's not right," Arthur said. "I don't deserve the credit. I couldn't have done any of this without you, and with you, another knight might have."
"Right, because there are a load of knights out there that would fight ridiculous monsters for no reward and not get killed on the first pass," Merlin said. "Honestly, you and Lancelot—"
"What?" Arthur said, looking up.
"I enchanted his spear, so he could kill the griffon," Merlin said, "and then he insisted on leaving Camelot just so he couldn't take the credit! You're both utter—what? Why are you—" His chair skittered back a little bit as Arthur came up out of his chair.
"Lancelot knew before I did?" Arthur said dangerously.
"Er," Merlin said.
"You'd known him a week!" Arthur said.
"I didn't tell him!" Merlin said, getting out of his chair and putting it between him and Arthur. "He got a little suspicious when he heard me yelling magic words and then his spear burst into blue flames."
"Where the hell was I at the time?"
"Unconscious and half-dead on the ground?" Merlin said, backing away. He looked at the door. "I'm sure you're tired, I should—"
Arthur shoved him up against the door instead, almost hard enough to hurt; there was something hard and bitter seeping into his voice. "So you really trust me so little?"
Merlin shoved him back, which didn't work very well but made him feel better, starting to feel the anger catch in him, too. "Your father chops people's heads off for brewing false love potions—the first day I got here, I saw a sorceror executed. What did you expect me to do, write you a letter? 'Dear Arthur, have been using magic since I was two, please don't burn me at the stake?' "
"I expected you to be honest with me!" Arthur said. "I expected—I thought you—that you—"
And it was so bloody unfair it nearly stopped Merlin's breath—when there wasn't anything Arthur couldn't have of him—when there was no way Arthur couldn't know—"You are a complete blithering idiot!" he yelled. "Of course I do! Look around!"
Arthur stopped, staring at him. Then slowly he let go just enough to turn and look back into the room behind them. The armor and the clothing was laid away, wine glowing red in goblets by the fire; swathes of velvet curtaining the bed, held back with golden chains, rich sable and samite within. His swords gleamed with a burnishing edge of yellow flame, a drift of fresh-fallen snow on the window's sill but the air as crisp as spring.
Arthur's hand was still clenched in Merlin's shirt, holding on. The light was behind him, limning him, so Merlin could see his throat work as he swallowed. Arthur's voice was still a little raw and unsteady as he said, "You are a complete girl, I knew it," and turned back and kissed him.
"I don't do it on purpose," Merlin argued, wrestling Arthur's shirt up over his head. Arthur's belt was helpfully undoing itself, which was good, as Arthur wasn't being any use at all with the clothing. He pushed Merlin flat on the bed and went for his hipbones, biting his way up from there to Merlin's neck, scrape of his fine beard's growth utterly maddening. Their boots had tugged off and put themselves away, and Merlin got his hips up just enough for his trousers to finish struggling free, and they were naked, and oh, all the gods in all the heavens, Arthur was beautiful.
"Take that back," Arthur said, golden in the firelight and his eyes blue and annoyed.
"I didn't say pretty," Merlin said, "although—" He yelped as Arthur flipped him onto his stomach and pinned him down.
Arthur pressed him deep into furs and silks and breathed, "Yes? What was that?" down his neck, so it shivered over Merlin's skin and curled into his ear.
Merlin shut his eyes and let himself slide past the limits of his flesh, let himself become the wisp of wind skimming cool and light over Arthur's skin and the touch of the fire's glow, the stone and wood that bore their weight, the taste of wine and water in their mouths. Arthur shuddered over him, or maybe it was under him, quick and startled, and Merlin was kissing him again, twisting in his arms easily, feeling like he could dissolve into the air if he had to. The curtains were drawing shut, and they were him also, all the world was him and all the world loved Arthur, helplessly.
"Merlin," Arthur said, hoarse and honest. "Merlin."
"Yes," Merlin said, out loud or in the rustling of the wind and the crackle of the fire, and rolled them over again and again in the endless stretch of the bed. Arthur was laughing a little, breathless, and then all at once sitting up, pushing him back and pushing into him, driving Merlin back into his own flesh with hungry kisses, strong hands gripping his thighs and both of them working together madly.
"Oh fuck," Arthur said, his head dropping low between his shoulders and his eyes squeezed shut. Merlin sparked lightning over his skin to get him to move again, now, now, now, dug his hands into Arthur's hair and tugged, wild with urgency, and Arthur groaned and in desperation managed, and again, and—
And then they were collapsing back into the bed, only barely slid apart and panting. Merlin noticed after a bit that he still had his hand tangled into Arthur's hair, and uncurled his fingers and petted him. Arthur was slumped over him, his head on Merlin's chest. "Oh," Merlin said, staring up at the canopy.
"Mmph," Arthur said vaguely.
"That was—that's not how it—" Merlin said after a moment. It was a remarkable effort to try and make words fit together. "Usually, I mean," he added.
"No," Arthur agreed, with feeling.
Merlin nodded, just checking. He petted Arthur's head some more. A little while later, he suggested doing it again.
Arthur made a noise.
"Did you just whimper?" Merlin said interestedly, nuzzling.
"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur said, and pulled him in.
The feast was really special, Merlin could see that, even past the blinkering quality of terror. There were dishes in honor of every kill: a peacock made up to look like the hippogriff, a minotaur sculpted out of mincemeat and pastry, and for the final course, the castle cooks had done up a huge subtlety of Camelot menaced round by every one of the monsters whose heads were already mounted on the wall, and a figure of Arthur on horseback with a cape made of rose-petals, and armor out of golden foil.
He'd been seated at the table on Arthur's right, which Arthur took as an opportunity to lecture Merlin on manners and about not eating enough. "I'm not hungry!" Merlin hissed. "Panic is not the best sauce."
"It's fine, Merlin, now eat some of the roast leucrota," Arthur said with maddening calm. "With the fork, this time."
"—it is just rabbit, right?" Merlin said, pausing.
"Obviously!" Arthur said.
The constant stream of instructions would've been annoying enough even if it hadn't made Uther glance over at them regularly, which instantly made Merlin freeze up and drop whatever he'd been about to eat. Arthur rolled his eyes.
He did get briefly distracted halfway through the feast, when there was a brief respite in the constant barrage of food for Gideon to perform his revised version of the song. About ten minutes in, Merlin realized in dawning outrage that the wise old man Gideon kept singing about was meant to be him. Arthur was leaning on his hand against the table trying not to laugh. Merlin glared at him.
After the final course had been demolished, Uther rose up, raising his cup, and said, "Court of Camelot, I give you—your Crown Prince. All hail Arthur of Camelot."
"All hail!" the whole crowd roared, and again, and the applause went on for a long while, while Arthur's face got a bit pink and Merlin tried to scowl at his own cup, because he was not getting maudlin no matter what Arthur could do with his mouth.
When the cheering finally ended, Uther was still standing, and he proceeded to give a long speech, all about how a knight went to battle with many weapons, "the greatest of which, though it has no edge and strikes no blow direct," he went on, "is knowledge of his enemy, acquired through study and wise counsel. Merlin of Camelot, rise," he said, turning around—like a striking cobra, Merlin thought wildly. He stood up mostly because Arthur jabbed him with a fork and also because he thought that was probably the best position to start in for running away.
"You had not been in Camelot a week, and still a callow boy," Uther said, "before you had saved Prince Arthur's life. I think perhaps we must see in this the workings of fate, that you should now have proven yourself, if not a knight by training, birth, or inclination—" Merlin's eyes went wide with horror, Uther couldn't be making him a knight—"at least most assuredly equal to one in courage and in loyalty. In recognition of your service to the realm and to Prince Arthur, and by his request, I hereby name you Councillor to the Crown Prince, and in that post a member of the High Council of Camelot."
He raised the cup and Merlin looked helplessly at Arthur who spun his hand around urgently. What do I say? Merlin fired at him, and Arthur jumped and then thought back at him, THANK YOU, IDIOT. "I—thank you, your highness," Merlin said hurriedly. "I will always do my best to serve Camelot, and Prince Arthur," he added, feeling that was pretty safe ground, and then stopped in relief when Uther nodded.
"Well said," Uther said, and if the court's applause was polite, the applause from the servants startled Merlin by making up for it, and he looked around to see Gwen beaming at him hugely from behind Morgana as he fumbled his way back into his chair. He felt sort of shaky.
The clapping started to die down, and when he thought it might be safe to look up from his plate, Arthur was smiling at him: a real smile, warm all the way through, something gentle but a little serious in his eyes. Merlin looked at him, his throat tight, and it seemed as though the whole room blurred before his eyes. For a moment, there was a crown of steel and gold on Arthur's head, and a woman sitting on his other side whose face Merlin couldn't see, and a great round table before them full of knights in armor; their shields and banners hung all along the hall, brilliant in red and gold and blue.
Arthur was still smiling at him in the very same way, clear even through the vision's haze, and Merlin thought, we will be those men, and raised a cup to him in answer.
"But," Merlin said afterwards, "what exactly does a councillor do—"
"Mostly it means you have to attend all the hellish council meetings," Arthur said smugly.
"You make me do that all the time anyway!" Merlin said.
"Yeah, but now you have to sit next to me and look interested," Arthur said.
"How is this a reward?" Merlin said.
"Who said anything about a reward?" Arthur said. "I just wanted to be able to poke someone when it gets intolerable." He rolled over and muffled Merlin's protest in the best possible way.
Though, Merlin found he couldn't help but be interested—he'd seen grain-wagons going out of Ealdor with the yearly taxes, and known the struggle to make enough to feed yourself and not just the lord. He'd never really understood what it went to, and why, and how they were levied. Now he was able to read the papers, he started to see the way the grain went to storehouses and then out again, and how that became the foundation of the kingdom's wealth: how many men Uther could support in his army, and therefore field in battle.
The first time he spoke in council was small and ordinary: someone asked how much grain there was in the storehouse at the town of Fedroth, and when no one else answered, Merlin said, "Four hundred and twenty-three measures." Arthur stared at him, and so did Uther. "By—by Sir Baldron's last report?" Merlin added uncertainly, glancing back at the pile of parchment scrolls on the table behind them.
The conversation resumed and went on past him, much to his relief. Arthur leaned over and hissed, "How do you possibly remember that?"
Merlin remembered because the pages were in front of his eyes again if he thought about them, like he'd just finished reading them. After he did it a few more times, the other councillors started looking at him for the numbers, and he had the really strange experience of overhearing Uther say to Arthur, "Do you know, that servant of yours may actually prove a worthwhile councillor to you someday." Even if Uther did sound extremely doubtful about it.
The numbers mattered right now, because Arthur had been right: having a hero was a good thing for the realm. Another dozen would-be knights had come to Camelot in just the last two weeks, all of them good enough to make Arthur's eyes gleam as he put them through their paces on the training grounds. A quiet negotiation was underway with King Lot of Orkney, who had three young sons he wanted to foster out together. All these would have to be fed, and armed, and mounted, and provided with servants; and then on top of that, Uther had decided they could now afford to field another company of foot soldiers.
"I like how it all fits together, s'interesting," Merlin said, when Arthur jibed at him about turning deadly dull and reading parchments in bed. "Anyway, you're the one who's at the training grounds at first light every day," he added, poking Arthur in his bare backside.
Arthur hauled him down and bit his ear by way of retribution. Merlin swatted him with the rolled parchment and promptly got himself wrestled flat, wrists pinned. "You don't even bully me less," Merlin grumbled, and his breath hitched as Arthur nudged his chin up and did interesting things to the hollow of his neck.
"What fun would that be?" Arthur said. "These new men are all good," he said, idly nipping at Merlin's fingers. "My father only wants to add six full knights, but I hate to lose any of them. Lionel of Gaunnes is the weakest of them, and he's still better than half the knights already in the ranks."
For a moment, Merlin saw the round table again before his eyes, and the seat with Sir Lionel emblazoned at its place. "You should keep them," he said, and blinked the table away.
"Convince my father of that," Arthur said, and Merlin was poking through the files the next morning trying to figure out how he could persuade Uther that he could afford twelve knights instead of six, when a scout came stumbling into the Council chamber, panting.
"Lord Councillor," the soldier gasped out, clutching at a wounded arm, and Merlin had a moment before figuring out the man meant him, "sir, the Mercians have crossed the border, the whole army—" and Merlin called for a servant to go and get the King, and stuck his head out the window overlooking the training grounds and shouted for Arthur.
He had what felt like forever waiting for them all, so he threw maps and papers out upon the table, working off a confusing double vision that showed him what he was going to be looking at, even as he put it down. Uther scarcely noticed as he and the rest of the Council swept in, Arthur barrelling in still under arms to join them, and they began to put pieces on the board: knights and men and horses.
More scouts streamed in with early reports over the next two days. King Bayard and his men had come only a little way over the border, over the mountain passes, and they had already seized the ground where they meant to offer battle: a brief expanse of level plain near the town of Lorian, bounded to the east by the peaks and overlooking the road which ran from Camelot to Mercia, and carried her trade farther westward as well. They were fortifying their position as swiftly as they could.
"We will destroy them to the last man," Uther said flatly, and in the morning they all rode out: the host of Camelot with twelve freshly minted knights among them, and wives and children waving anxious farewells as they went.
Spring was creeping slowly over the countryside, but the ground was still cold, a chill creeping into the tent; Arthur had insisted on no magic. "I'm not going to sleep like an emperor while all my men are lying on the ground cold," Arthur said.
"And it does them some kind of good for you to be uncomfortable?" Merlin said, but he squashed down all the attempts his magic made to squeak out and tuck a nice brazier into a corner somewhere it wouldn't be noticed, or to turn the serviceable bedroll into a featherbed.
Instead he put down a couple of blankets with some hay borrowed from the supply trains stuffed between them, as a bit of padding, and put their bedrolls next to each other on top, with a carefully calculated two inches between them for plausible deniability. He was pretty sure having sex with the crown prince wasn't all that much better on Uther's scale of punishable-by-nasty-death than sorcery.
Arthur came in late and tired after walking the perimeter of the camp, his eyes full of the men who wouldn't be coming back. They were quiet while they worked his armor off together and laid down side by side. Merlin blew out the candle, but Arthur's eyes didn't close, and when Merlin slid his hand across, Arthur's met him halfway. Their fingers tangled together in the blankets.
"I just don't understand why Bayard has attacked again now," he said to Arthur the next morning, as they packed for the day's ride. "He's just violating the treaty for no reason?"
"It's not no reason," Arthur said quietly. "He sees Camelot's star rising, and he's worried about our increased strength. He thinks if he leaves us be, we'll grow too powerful for him to defeat, and then turn on him." He fell silent.
"So you think this is because we—" Merlin said, feeling a little sick himself.
Arthur shook himself after a moment. "It's because Bayard has proven himself false," he said. "If he was willing to violate a treaty he had signed, he would have found some other reason if it hadn't been this one. Better that we are the ones grown stronger, than that he were."
At the councils Uther held, each night on the western road, the picture of the battle grew clearer and yet more dark. Bayard had established a supply line back to Mercia, taking a few smaller forts along the road: he could not be easily starved out. They would have to meet him on the ground he had chosen, or risk his becoming entrenched and pillaging the countryside between his position and the borders. The third day's journey brought them to this battleground, late in the morning, with Bayard's banners and pavilions in sight across the valley.
"He's only brought light archers," Arthur said. "If we could knock them out, his infantry would have no cover, and cavalry to cavalry we outweigh them too much for them to overcome. His whole army would roll up like a scroll."
"He has the archers sheltered up against the mountainside," Uther said. "We cannot get to them; put that out of your mind. We will have to defeat him with hard and determined fighting and discipline alone. Sir Ydros," he said, turning, "I want you to take a company of men and ride around the armies, and dig trenches near the southern perimeter of the battlefield."
Merlin hissed to Arthur, "What's the point of that?" and flinched when Uther looked at him.
"When we drive them from the field," Uther said, "the trenches will cross the route of their escape. Those who fail to meet their end on our blades will meet it with broken necks."
"But," Merlin said, and swallowed, when they all stared at him. "Look, are Bayard's knights weak? Badly trained, or dishonorable?"
"The knights of Mercia are excellent," Arthur said. "They use lighter armor than ours, and fight more with the lance than the sword, but no one can fault their skill or honor."
"Then," Merlin said, and stopped, until it became clear it wasn't obvious to anyone else at the table. "Then why do you want to kill them?"
"They're invading our country, you idiot," Arthur said, swatting him.
"Right, so you want to stop them," Merlin said. "But what if you need them someday?"
"You do understand," Uther said, coldly, "that these are knights? They have sworn fealty to Bayard and to Mercia. They are not about to turn their coats to serve Camelot."
"They might serve Albion," Merlin said. Then he looked at Uther's face and said, "Right, I'll just—be shutting up now."
"Do so," Uther said.
"If we could just flank him," Arthur said to Merlin that night, back in his tent. He was poring over a copy of the battlefield map again. "And what were you on about there earlier?"
Merlin sat up from the bedroll. "Why didn't we only kill the monsters in Camelot? Why not leave the rest of the kingdoms to manage for themselves?"
Arthur looked up. "Those monsters were tormenting the weak and helpless. Bayard's knights—"
"Are just following their lord's orders," Merlin said. "If they'd been trained in Camelot, they'd be your knights."
"But they didn't, so they're not," Arthur said. "Look, if all his knights were willing to come over to us en masse or something, I'm not saying I'd say no—except they'd be traitors if they did, so I wouldn't want them—"
"I'm not saying get them to turn traitor!" Merlin said. "What happens if you beat Bayard tomorrow?"
"He sues for peace, and we get to dictate the terms," Arthur said. "We'll probably take some land from his eastern provinces—"
"And then there's all of this to do again in five years," Merlin said. "How many wars has Camelot been in, that you can remember?"
"A dozen or so," Arthur said.
"And what's changed?" Merlin said. "How many people have died, how many have starved, just so you could skirmish back and forth—"
"So what do you want me to do?" Arthur said, throwing up his hands. "Conquer all of Albion and make myself High King and impose peace on all the land or something?"
Merlin blinked. "Yes!" he said. "Yes, that!"
Arthur stopped, mouth open and half-ready to laugh, and stared.
"Well?" Merlin said. "Why not?"
"Why—" Arthur spluttered. "Merlin, there's enough to do to rule Camelot properly, much less picking fights with every other king in Albion—"
"You didn't pick this fight," Merlin said, "but it's come looking for you anyway. All right, wait, forget about all of Albion for a minute, just think about Mercia. Wouldn't it be better if Mercia never invaded again? If you could win this war, and that would be the last one?"
"You're completely mad," Arthur said. "It's going to be hard enough to just win this battle, in our territory. To actually conquer Mercia, to hold it, we'd need at least another sixty knights—"
"Like Bayard's?" Merlin said pointedly.
"Who won't obey us!" Arthur said. "I can't just win and say, right, now you're all my men, so go home and start sending me your taxes. They won't do it. You can keep them for ransom, obviously, but soon as you send them home, they'll go back to following their own lords."
"So—so swap them," Merlin said. "Send some of your proven knights to take over Mercian property, and give Bayard's men property here in Camelot, until you're sure of them."
"That's like letting the wolf in the door and sending your dogs outside," Arthur said. "What if they betray us?"
"They won't," Merlin said, "if you can give them something worth staying loyal for. If you can give them—give them a realm they want to be part of."
"I don't even know how you'd begin something like that," Arthur said after a moment, but a little more thoughtfully.
With you, Merlin thought, looking at him, but he wasn't going to say that out loud, destiny or not. Arthur was already insufferably smug all the time lately, mostly because he kept luring Merlin into vulnerable moments by being beautiful and amazing and sometimes getting this soft look in his eyes, and then Merlin wouldn't be able to keep from making a spectacle of himself, and then Arthur would go around for days afterwards radiating how supremely pleased he was with the wonder that was him.
"Anyway, for now I'd just settle for getting out of this fight without losing half of our army," Arthur said, low, turning back to the map and leaning over the table. "Bayard's outnumbered, but he's picked really good ground. He must have been scouting this for a long time. If we go at him head-on tomorrow, it's going to be a bloodbath, even if we do win."
Merlin got up and went over to the map. The mountains were blue arrowheads on the map piled up all along Bayard's left flank, an impassable border. "Belianath threanalos," Merlin said softly, putting his hands over the map, and pulled up, hills and mountains rising from the surface of the paper, dotted with trees and campfires glowing like tiny orange coals in the midst of the dark mass of Bayard's force.
Arthur leaned in over the mountain, frowning. "If there were only a pass—" he said.
Merlin reached for Arthur's wine cup. "Let's find a way," he said, and whispered, "Lichne wilnes trioth," as he poured a thin stream down over the mountain, and the red wine found a narrow track from the far side of the mountain, all the way over to the campfires beyond.
Merlin pressed the mountains flat into the paper again, the purple stained line still in place on the map. Arthur was already reaching for his mail.
"Willem!" Arthur called his sleepy page in from outside the tent. "Go and tell Sir Colgrevance and Sir Lucan that I want them, right away."
The track was old and nearly overgrown, its trailhead half-buried behind a fallen tree and thornbushes sprung from the remains. They rolled the rotten log away and crept along the trail, using daggers quietly when they had to cut the growth away to push through. Going last, Merlin lagged behind the knights, and whispered soft charms to the bracken and ivy so they curled a little further back from the path instead of springing back.
"Sire," Lucan whispered from the lead, eager with triumph, and they all caught him up to see they'd reached the summit, and the campfires were burning below.
Arthur silently thumped Merlin's shoulder with his fist, and then touched them all quickly and put a finger across his lips. They nodded, and Arthur pointed to Lucan and himself, motioning down, and to Colgrevance and Merlin, and to the ground.
Merlin glared at him, but Arthur stabbed a finger down again, eyes glinting with impatience, and the two of them slipped on along the trail. Merlin sulked down and gave Arthur half an hour in his head, but within twenty minutes they were back, and Arthur nodded to them all and motioned them to turn back down the trail.
"We'll come out not ten feet from where his archers will be standing, on good, level ground," Arthur told Uther, in his tent, while the battle plans were hastily redrawn before them by candlelight. Uther nodded, eyes fierce and intent on the plan of the field. "They're only lightly armed—I saw no mail among them, and only short swords. Twenty good men would be enough."
"Twenty will not be enough to hold the position, or to cover your withdrawal again in safety," Uther said. "No; we must commit to this attack. You will take fifteen knights and thirty of the infantry, with spears. When you have destroyed the archers, you will hold the position there if possible, or withdraw along the trail with the spearmen to cover your retreat. We have enough men to hold the front, without that force."
Merlin woke up before dawn to the soft jingle of Arthur's armor: he was getting ready. "Is it time yet?" Merlin said, yawning.
"For me," Arthur said. "We're going to need to go slowly along the trail to take them by surprise."
"I'll be ready in a minute," Merlin said, pushing up.
"You're not coming," Arthur said.
"What?" Merlin stared at him. "You're joking. You think I'm going to stay behind—"
"Yes," Arthur said, flatly, and when Merlin opened his mouth he cut him off. "No, Merlin. This is an order you will obey."
Merlin scrambled up to his feet. "Do you think I can't—"
"If I took you along, you'd either get yourself carved in two or show yourself a wizard to half the army," Arthur said. "You're too valuable to risk on something like this."
"So I'm more valuable than you, am I?" Merlin said.
"No," Arthur said, "but this is what I'm for. To fight, and to lead men into battle. All you could be today is another warm body—you don't even have the training to manage a spear. There's no gain worth risking you on."
"And if something goes wrong," Merlin said. "If they catch you coming out, or Bayard's men move fast enough—"
"All the more reason for you not to be there," Arthur said. "No, listen to me, Merlin." He stepped close and gripped Merlin by the shoulder. "One day," Arthur said quietly, "all my court will know who you are. They and our enemies will know that this kingdom is guarded not only by our knights, but by the power you command."
Merlin stared at him.
"But when that day comes," Arthur said, "they must not begin to rely on sorcery. Your power alone cannot protect the whole of Camelot. My men have to be ready to fight with all their heart, with all their strength. And they have to know that I can win battles without sorcery. When they know the truth, they're going to look back at every battle I've fought, every tournament, and ask themselves, did I truly win, or did you enchant my enemies—"
"I don't mind not being known!" Merlin said. "We can just—"
"I do mind," Arthur said. "It's bad enough I have to lie about it now, and I am only right to do it as long as it's for Camelot's sake, not mine or yours. Camelot is going to need you for the things only you can do. This—this isn't some magical creature that can only be killed by an enchanted blade. It's not sorcery. This is a battle of mortal men, and," Arthur finished gently, "it's a battle we have to win or lose without magic."
"Arthur," Merlin said, groping for something, anything, to argue back with, except it wasn't coming, and then Arthur was kissing him, which just made things worse, seeing how Arthur was saying stay here while I ride off and maybe get myself killed and therefore never come back and kiss you some more, especially because Merlin had the awful feeling that Arthur wasn't just being a prat or even overprotective, but might actually be right.
"You're the one person in the world I'll never be able to compel," Arthur said softly, breaking off. "But if I'm to be your king, you're going to have to follow my orders."
"Catch me doing that," Merlin muttered.
"All right, it was a halcyon dream," Arthur said, and his hand cupping Merlin's face tilted him back up to meet his eyes, and Arthur said seriously, "I'll settle for just the real ones."
Merlin swallowed miserably, looking at him. "Swear to me you'll be careful."
"I've already given Sir Lucan the right to be first off the trail," Arthur said. "I know my duty, too."
Merlin ducked his head and said roughly, "All right, give me that hauberk; you can't tighten it properly putting it on yourself."
He stood outside the tent with his arms wrapped tight around him, watching the line of knights and spearmen move quietly off into the dark on foot, shadows in fog, only the quietest muffled jingles of their armor. Arthur hadn't put on his helmet yet, and his golden head shone in the torchlight as he passed the borders of the camp. Merlin swallowed and went to join Gaius in the medical tent, while around him the rest of the camp stirred, and men began to put on their mail.
Gwen looked up from folding bandages as he came in. "Hey," Merlin said, trying to sound cheerful, and she handed him a pile of the clean rags.
"Best to keep busy, ay?" she said, attempting a wan smile, and Merlin smiled back a little, for as long as he could, and bent his head over the bundles.
As many bandages and poultices and medicines were ready as they could fit into the tent when the trumpets sounded, and Merlin stepped outside to watch. Uther spoke to the army briefly from his horse, his standard bearer beside him with the red and gold dragon banner snapping out crisply in the wind, and the knights and soldiers alike raised their swords and shouted, "For Camelot!" as they rode down into the field, with Bayard's army pouring down from the other side to meet them.
As the ranks marched towards one another, the glitter of early sunlight on armor shone out off the mountainside, behind Bayard's archers. Merlin flicked a quick golden look up at the sky, and a thick billowing of white clouds rolled in, the flashing reflection vanishing away. He looked hard across the field, and abruptly his vision narrowed in and he could see across that whole distance, Arthur crouched dark-eyed and waiting, the other knights around him, all their swords naked in their hands.
Distantly Merlin heard the trumpets sing out again, and the yells of the infantry as they charged across the field to meet, but all he cared about was that Arthur was moving: knights creeping slowly out of the underbrush one after another, until they had one line of five abreast, then another, and Arthur coming out with the last.
The archers were busy firing, their commanders bellowing the count, and then one turned to get a new arrow and shouted warning: but the knights were already charging across the ground. The hail of arrows faltered and died as the archers turned desperately to meet the attack. Behind them, the spearmen were scrambling down off the trail, planting themselves and making a wall of bristling points around the struggle, so the rest of Bayard's army could not come to the rescue.
"Quarter!" Arthur was shouting, even as he fought. "Quarter to any man who throws down his arms!" and Merlin wanted to yell at him, I didn't mean the ones who were trying to kill YOU, but he didn't dare break his focus. Three archers had thrown themselves at him with their short blades, and Merlin almost felt their hearts beating across the distance, with all the calm knowledge of how he could reach out over that space and squeeze them until they burst.
Instead he bit his lip and stood, shaking, while Arthur ducked under one swipe, knocked the hilt of his sword into the man's temple and dropped him, then spun around and nearly cut another in two, dragging his blade free while he hooked the last man's sword on his vambrace and jerked it out of his hands. "Yield or die," he told the archer, and the man dropped to his knees. Arthur pointed him to the back and whirled to give some support to Sir Lionel, next to him.
It all happened so fast: Merlin hadn't quite realized before how unstoppable a knight in full armor was, if you didn't have any of your own, until he watched the knights smash through Bayard's men. It seemed like only minutes before the archers were nearly all down, dead or sitting slumped against the face of the cliff, prisoners: the Camelot squires were tying their wrists up with their own bowstrings.
Merlin looked away, distracted for a moment: there was something happening closer by, near him: a roar of noise from the battle joined in the valley below. But he couldn't make it out; all the world around him looked like nothing more than a bright smeared blur, like trying to see something when it was held right up against your face.
He looked back at Arthur, where everything came into focus again. Some of Bayard's knights had turned from the field and were jabbing at the spearmen with their lances, trying to break their line. In return, Arthur had set the spearmen to attacking the Mercians' horses: as they were dismounted, the knights of Camelot were moving to meet them, almost a series of single combats. Arthur hadn't yet gone into one, but Merlin bloody knew that any moment now—
And then abruptly, the whole thing dissolved into chaos. A party of Camelot's knights from the main battlefield, on horseback, appeared behind Bayard's men: an arrow-head formation with Sir Dithnys in the lead and the dragon standard waving furiously above his head. He brought them smashing through the ranks of the Mercian knights and almost up onto their own side's spears.
Arthur was looking up at them and yelling furiously, pointing at the field, "What the hell are you doing? You're weakening our whole front line—"
But Dithnys was ignoring him, bellowing, "Camelot! To the Prince! Camelot!" He leaped down from his warhorse into the melee: he was one of the biggest knights, and the sweep of his broadsword cleared a space around them. Then he was literally grabbing Arthur by the arm and shoving him at his own now-riderless horse, almost physically heaving Arthur up onto the mount, saying, "Sire, your father is taken from the field—!" and Merlin jerked as Gaius grabbed his arm.
"Dammit, Merlin, I need you!" Gaius shouted in his ear, a shapeless form in front of him. Merlin stared at him, and then blinking his eyes hard back into focus on the world, to see four men carrying Uther's limp body into the medical tent behind him.
Morgana was following them, tearful, her hair wild and loose over her armor and her sword stained red with blood. "Is he all right?" she cried, and seized Gaius by the arm. "Gaius, I didn't see it in time," she said, her voice breaking. "Everything was happening so quickly—I didn't reach him quickly enough—"
"Hush, Morgana, hush; these are fancies. You cannot blame yourself," Gaius said, loudly, for the benefit of the soldiers laying Uther on a camp bed. "Only be calm, and we will tend him."
Merlin was pretending to unbuckle the remaining armor straps, covering them with his hands as they undid themselves swiftly. He and Gwen lifted the plates away, then raised Uther from the bed to take the mail off him. The blow was an ugly greenish line from belly to collarbone, speckled with blood, where a lance had struck and creased all the links into the flesh, until striking against the hauberk, which it had thrust up into Uther's face. Blood was everywhere, still leaking from his broken nose, but for the most part the skin was unbroken, and he stirred weakly already even as they examined him, his arm half rising towards his face.
"Don't move, sire," Gaius said sharply, touching the edges of the injury with his fingertips.
"It's not there," Morgana said, standing over him and heaving a breath. "It's not there—I saw a lance pierce him through and through—I tried to block it—"
"Yes, the blow was deflected," Gaius said. "All the intestine feels whole to me, as do the organs. He will recover. Sire," he said, leaning over Uther, "can you open your eyes?"
Uther opened them and stared cloudy-eyed straight up for a moment, then he said groggily, "I must—return to the field."
"Sire, you must lie still," Gaius said, but Uther was already pushing him aside, beckoning the soldiers, who came and took his arms, and helped him rise.
"Uther, you can't!" Morgana said, putting herself in his way.
Uther stared at her, vaguely, and said, sounding more puzzled than angry, "I saw you on the field." He shut his eyes and bent his head forward, pressing a hand to his forehead. He took it away, stared at the blood on his palm, then said, "Someone give me water."
Gwen dashed to his side with a cup, and said, "Sire, let me—" and offered him a wet bandage; he took it from her and wiped the worst of the blood from his face. He drained the cup, and another, and then in a stronger voice said to Morgana, "We will discuss your presence here later," more like himself, and gestured to the soldiers. "My armor."
"Uther, you can shout at me all you like, but you can't go back out there!" Morgana said. "You were carried here half-dead, you are not well—"
"I will be less well still if Bayard wins this day and we are overrun," Uther said, and then made a strangled noise as he tried to bend to put on the mail. One of the soldiers brought a chair instead, and they dropped it straight down onto him, then strapped the plates back on.
He limped outside, Morgana chasing him. Merlin went out after them, wondering if he should try and magic Uther's horse, maybe make it throw a shoe, something that would keep him back a little longer. But Uther had stopped just a little way outside, and was staring at the battle, Morgana beside him with a hand on his arm.
"Camelot!" Arthur was shouting down below, standing in the stirrups with his sword raised high, and then he wheeled his borrowed horse to lead the cavalry-charge across the field. Bayard's infantry were melting away into the woods, swords and shields scattered behind them, and the Mercian knights were forming up in ranks before their king.
The thunder of the charge drowned out every other noise, even standing so far above the battlefield, but it sounded even louder in Merlin's ears as he watched, Arthur's face set and calm as his mount pounded away the gap between the armies. The crash made Merlin look away involuntarily, blinking, and then he turned back to see Arthur beating his way through the front line, seven or eight knights in a knot around him, and break through to Bayard himself.
King Bayard's face was grim even as their blades met, and Merlin saw Arthur give him a nod over the crossed steel as their hilts locked, a moment in the midst of war. Then he shoved Bayard back, and struck. Bayard met one blow, and caught another, but he couldn't match Arthur's speed, and on the next pass, Arthur caught him on the parry and disarmed him with a twist of his blade. Bayard's sword flashed as it fell. Before it even hit the ground, Arthur seized him by the shoulder with one hand, and drove home his sword with a single straight thrust.
Bayard's body toppled slowly from his horse as one of Arthur's knights seized the wavering Mercian standard from the herald beside him. The Mercian knights were falling back from them, regrouping under the shouted orders of an older knight, and the knights of Camelot surged forward.
"Hold!" Arthur shouted, raising his hand, and Merlin bit his lip and glanced hurriedly at Uther, but the king had no eyes for anything but the field.
"Bedreath mergenne," Merlin whispered, and Arthur's voice rang out a little louder over the field, as much as Merlin could do without making it sound unnatural.
"Knights of Mercia," Arthur called to them, "your king is dead. He was a noble lord, and you have fought with honor this day in his service. But there is no honor in spilling blood in a quarrel that is ended." He gestured to the field, where the Camelot infantry were drawing up in ranks to either side of his knights, a net of shields and swords drawing tight around the knot of Mercian cavalry.
"It is no reflection on your courage or your loyalty to recognize that this battle has been decided, and your oaths of fealty are ended with the death of your lord," Arthur said. "I am Arthur, Crown Prince of Camelot, and to any man who lays down his arms, I swear to him both clemency and honorable treatment for himself and his chattels. He shall not be despoiled, and, if he choose to take service with Camelot, will not be held for ransom."
He looked at the older knight a few paces away. "Sir Berinak," Arthur said, "we have faced one another on the tourney field in Essex. I know you to be a full worshipful knight, and a valiant. I have no wish to see your strength wasted on this field, or that of these your fellows." He paused, and then said clearly, "Will you yield?"
Berinak looked at him uncertainly, and then looked around at the knights beside him, many of them with expressions as confused and hesitant. Merlin dug his nails into his palms, whispering, "Come on, come on, don't be an idiot—"
Slowly, Berinak drew out his sword again. He held it up for a moment, looking at it, and then he laid it across his hands, and held it out to Arthur. "Your highness," he said, "I do yield myself."
Arthur spurred his horse the few steps across the field to him, and reaching out closed Berinak's hands around the blade. "Keep your sword," Arthur said. "Your word is enough for me."
Merlin shut his eyes and slumped with relief as one by one the Mercian knights began to step forward to offer Arthur their swords. He opened them again and looked over at Uther, who was still standing there. The soldiers had brought him his horse, and he was leaning on it, one hand on the saddle, the other on Morgana's shoulder as they watched the Mercians surrender. There was a strange expression on Uther's face, almost frowning.
Arthur was giving some final orders on the field, directing some of his knights to go with the Mercians back to their tents and secure them, and then he mounted back onto his horse. The cheering started as he came back into the ranks of his knights, "Camelot! Camelot!" shouted again and again as he rode through them and up the hill, and as he came into the camp, and Merlin couldn't stop grinning with joy and with relief as the white horse came into view.
The cloud cover was rolling back from the sky, and Arthur had taken off his helm and pushed back the coif. His armor gleamed brilliantly, no dirt or blood marring his shield or his mail, the dragon standard flying behind him and the white horse prancing without a mark on it, mane and tail flowing silken in the wind with Arthur's red cloak streaming away.
He drew up before the tents, swung down and went to his father in two strides. "You're all right?" Arthur was saying. "Shouldn't you be—"
"I'm fine," Uther said, and gripped Arthur by the shoulders, looking at him, almost into him, still with that strange expression on his face. Abruptly he said, "Your mother was the daughter and granddaughter of kings, and the wife of one," and Arthur's eyes widened. Uther paused a long moment and then added, "She would rejoice to know she was also the mother of a greater still than they."
Arthur stood there gone pale, and then he knelt down on one knee before Uther and said, in a choked voice, "You do me honor, sire."
Uther kept his hands on Arthur's shoulders a moment longer, then he squeezed them and said, "All right, stand up; I need the support, I had half the sense knocked out of me," and Arthur rose up smiling in a sort of watery way, and then he noticed Morgana and stared.
"What?" she said, with a glint in her eye, her color beginning to recover a little.
"I shouldn't even ask, should I," Arthur said, eyeing the bloody sword.
"My, demonstrating valor and discretion." She flashed him an arch smile, and saluted him with it.
"Sire," Gwen said to Uther; she'd come up beside them. "Will you please come lie down again? Gaius says we should bandage your ribs and poultice the wound."
"Yes, I will," Uther said, and clapped Arthur firmly on the shoulder. "I can use the rest, and you can use some practice in how to manage a camp after a battle."
"Yes, father," Arthur said, smiling.
Uther paused as he turned back towards the tents and came around facing Merlin. Merlin gulped and tried to look small and meek and not even a little bit like a sorceror. Uther looked between him and Arthur for a moment, and then shook his head and went back into the tent, which was very nice as it let Merlin breathe again.
Arthur came over to him, grinning, his eyes brilliant. "Nothing to it, what did I tell you?"
"Oh yeah, I wasn't worried or anything," Merlin said.
"Come on then; you were lazing around all day, now you can do a little honest work and help me get this camp in order," Arthur said, slinging an arm around his neck, staggering Merlin a little with the weight of mail and plate, "as soon as you get me out of this armor. I think that's going to take a while," Arthur added, with a slightly raised voice. "Some of the buckles bent."
"Yeah?" Merlin said, confused; Arthur knew he could fix the buckles —
Arthur gave him a pointed look.
"Oh," Merlin said. "Really?"
"Really," Arthur said. He turned and said, "Sir Dithnys!" and jerked his head towards the white horse; one of Arthur's squires was holding its reins as it tossed its head. "Thanks for the loan."
"It was my honor, sire," Dithnys said, looking at the horse with a slightly puzzled expression. "But my horse was piebald."
Arthur looked at Merlin. Merlin coughed.
= End =
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