There were several things Arthur wished he could change about Merlin. For starters, he might make him a little less clumsy, or perhaps a little more efficient. He might even make him a little uglier, just for Arthur's own peace of mind, because Arthur had spent more time than he would ever admit mentally sketching the lines of Merlin's face.
More than any of those, though, Arthur wished he could take away Merlin's skill at making himself scarce at the worst moments.
Arthur was bitten by a Questing Beast, and Merlin disappeared. Merlin returned, Arthur recovered, so naturally Merlin disappeared again. Morgana went missing and Merlin sulked out of sight. Winged cat attacked Camelot and Merlin buggered off.
At first, Arthur simply thought that peasants were raised differently to nobles, and that Merlin just found it difficult to cope with trying times and near misses. Maybe he was embarrassed by it, and hid from Arthur to save himself the teasing Arthur enjoyed so much. Arthur knew he sometimes gave Merlin too hard a time, but how could he resist? Merlin was such a perfect subject, with the way he would turn pink and flustered and talk rubbish in response.
It didn't take long for Arthur to revise his opinion of Merlin's ability to cope with danger. Merlin had always had some bravery; it was one of the first things Arthur had admired about him, after all. In the time Merlin had been serving Arthur, he’d proved himself stupidly brave on more than one occasion. Whatever caused him to disappear into the night time and again surely had little to do with fear.
Merlin had acted strangely during the dragon's siege. He had been responsive to the point of subservience, and Arthur found he didn't enjoy it as much as he would have thought. Merlin was always there, waiting to peel Arthur out of his armour so he could catch a few hours of sleep. Food was at his side; wash water steamed in his tub. His armour and weapons gleamed. As Arthur hurriedly prepared himself for more long hours leading the city’s defence, Merlin went on about Arthur how he was certain that Arthur would keep the city safe, and how he was sorry Arthur was having to do it to begin with.
That had been strange enough, although not without precedent. Merlin lived in a world where crown princes cared about what servants thought of them, and somehow had dragged Arthur into this strange dimension. He'd never really noticed how servants looked at him before, but now there were several (fine, two) servants whose good opinion meant more than Arthur cared to admit.
Then there had been their trip to find the mysterious Balinor. Merlin had behaved even more strangely, and no amount of prodding would make him give up his secrets. Even when they sat inches apart, Arthur felt a distance between them he'd never really felt before. Before he could question it too much, though, Merlin had taken up a sword and smiled as they faced an impossible foe together. Arthur was sure that his heart had never felt so big as it did in those moments.
But now that victory was his, and Camelot’s, Merlin was again nowhere to be found. He’d been at Arthur’s side when they stumbled through the city walls; Arthur remembered the relief he felt when he realised that Merlin's warm presence next to him meant they had done it. They'd won, and lived to tell the tale. From his place in Guinevere’s embrace, Arthur had watched as Gaius linked arms with Merlin and guided him back toward their rooms. He had wanted to call out to them, ask Merlin to wait, but in the end Arthur didn’t have the heart to demand Merlin’s attendance, no matter how desperately he wanted his company.
He had returned to his chambers alone, and removed his plate and mail by himself. It took thrice as long as Merlin took, and he snapped one of the straps in the process.
Before removing the rest of his clothing, he ducked into the hall to flag down a passing maid. "You there!" he called out, and the maid rushed over to him, dipping into a curtsy.
"Sire?" she inquired.
"Would you bring me up a plate from the kitchens?"
The maid bit her lip, hesitating.
"Is that a problem?" Arthur asked.
"Cook left early tonight, sire. Her husband was, well, the dragon, and," she trailed off. "I could go fetch her, though? Or one of the kitchen lads?"
Arthur ran his hand through his hair. He was famished, but..."No, of course not. Don't be absurd. Perhaps just some bread and cheese?"
The maid dipped her head and scampered off to do his bidding. Before she made it two doors down, Arthur called out again: "Oh. Another thing."
"Have a plate taken to the Court Physician's chambers as well."
The maid smiled a little in response, and set off again.
"Wait." The maid's expression remained conciliatory, but with a touch of impatience as she turned around. "Your family," he continued. "Are they...okay? After everything?"
She met his eyes briefly, and a dimple winked briefly in her cheek. "Yes, sire, thank you. They're all fine."
Arthur nodded briskly. "Right. Good. I'll look forward to that plate, then."
"Right away, sire."
He should have fallen asleep the moment he collapsed into bed, his belly now full, but sleep wouldn't come. He’d given up after an hour, choosing instead to stare down into the smoking rubble of the courtyard from his window, wondering why he couldn't remember what was likely his greatest triumph to date: felling the last dragon.
Something wasn't quite right in Merlin’s smooth account of what happened. The beast had evidently flown off after Arthur dealt it a mortal blow. Even as Merlin relayed the tale during their walk back to Camelot, Arthur hadn’t quite believed it, but what else could it have been? He and Merlin were the only ones who could have done it, and for all his jokes about saving Arthur's royal backside, Merlin was hardly a dragon slayer.
Perhaps dragons were like cats, and needed to find a private place to die. Arthur would have been happier to bring the dragon's hide back to Camelot, but the most important thing was that it would never harm the people of Camelot again.
Arthur stared down into the courtyard a long while, musing for several candlemarks at least. Just as he was thinking about returning to his bed, movement caught his eye. He recognised Merlin immediately. His manservant was padding across the courtyard, sticking to the shadows while he rushed toward the stables. His jacket was flapping around him.
Arthur straightened. What was Merlin up to at this hour? An errand? Or, heaven forbid, a...liaison? The latter was too impossible to bear thinking about. Arthur kept Merlin far too busy for dalliances.
Was he also unable to sleep then? Arthur wasn't surprised. The thrill and terror of the battle had got to everyone who had survived it; Leon and Geraint and Rhys had stumbled back, still half-concussed and burnt from the dragon's fire. Arthur knew they'd each need time to recover, if Camelot's enemies cooperated. It was no wonder Merlin was affected. Merlin cried over unicorns and men he just met, and whinged for days after Arthur sparred with him. It was rather a shame that someone so brave didn't have the sinew and stoicism to match.
Perhaps it was time to insist Merlin take more physical training, once he'd recovered from their latest triumph. Make him into a proper squire, perhaps bring him along on campaigns, months at a time spent in the woods...
Arthur shook his head at himself. He would consider all that later. Right now, there was still a curfew on, and Merlin should have been abed. Arthur tugged on his spare hunting clothes. If Merlin was planning on another mysterious disappearance, he was going to have to deal with Arthur joining him. Eventually. First, though, he wanted to see what Merlin was up to. He gathered up his sword, his dagger, and his bag, and made for the stables.
The ground was wet; it made tracking Merlin much easier. He was headed northeast, back in the direction of Cenred's kingdom of all places. He must have been really pushing the horse; perhaps using a crop, digging his heels into the horse’s sides in a way Arthur had never seen unless Arthur badgered him into it. Whatever Merlin's errand was, he clearly felt it was urgent.
It was the world's most ridiculous chase, really. A few times, Arthur got close enough to see Merlin, illuminated by the bright moonlight, and then Merlin would turn his head or pause, so Arthur would fall back further. He felt foolish, ducking and hiding in his own kingdom, but Arthur was determined to find out what had been troubling Merlin so much lately. And why he didn't turn to Arthur for help.
Several hours into the journey, Arthur wasn't sure this was worth it at all. He had nearly reached the end of his endurance when Merlin finally stopped. With a final tug, Arthur tethered his horse to a tree and set off after Merlin on foot. He recognised these woods; indeed, the path Merlin was following was one they'd pounded into the forest floor themselves in their haste to return to Camelot with the news of the last Dragonlord's demise.
When Arthur finally found Merlin, he was bending low to the ground in the early morning light. He seemed to be looking for something, although Arthur couldn't fathom what they might have left behind. They'd gathered their things well before leaving their campsite. Merlin had even spent a few frantic moments digging through the foliage until his hands had closed on something that he quickly hid.
Arthur had pretended not to notice.
Arthur crept closer, crouching behind a fallen log as he watched Merlin crawl on his hands and knees, pawing at the earth until he found...what, exactly?
He didn't have to wonder for long. It soon became obvious that Merlin had located the shallow grave they had hastily carved out together for Balinor. Merlin had been quite vehement that they not leave the man's body to be scavenged by animals. He had been willing to help Camelot, even if he had been thwarted, and he deserved better than that. Arthur had agreed, and deliberately ignored Merlin's tears as they worked together with hands, Arthur's dagger, and sharpened branches to dig in the loamy ground. Arthur left Merlin to it after a time so that he could tend to their horses, and when he returned, Merlin had nearly finished digging.
"I'm used to menial labour," he'd said with a shrug. Arthur hadn't even asked. Merlin could be quick, when he wanted to be.
Now Merlin was back, scrabbling in the dirt they'd piled over Balinor's blanket-wrapped body.
Arthur couldn't take his eyes off Merlin's hands; the long, nimble fingers that prepared him for every battle, that had rubbed salve into his wounds and that Arthur had gripped in his own before they faced down bandits and dragons together. He watched those hands now, saw the way they now clenched fistfuls of mud while Merlin's head hung loose between his arms. He looked utterly defeated, and Arthur couldn't bear to see him look that way.
He rose, stepping forward to tease or console; which, he wasn't yet certain. His boot hadn't hit the ground, though, before Merlin's head raised and he all but hissed in a strange, sibilant language Arthur didn't understand.
Arthur arms flew to cover his face as dirt rose up everywhere. When it settled, Merlin was kneeling beside a mound of earth, a hand pressed to a blanket-wrapped bundle. When he lifted his head, he looked right at Arthur.
Merlin looked stunned, his other hand hand frozen halfway to his face. Arthur was similarly immobile, unable to process what he had just seen. It shouldn't, couldn't be possible.
Had Merlin just used magic?
Apparently Arthur had asked that question aloud.
They faced each other, each breathing heavily into the silence, Merlin still on his knees next to Balinor's body. Arthur palmed the hilt of his sword, but made no move to unsheathe it. The movement seemed to spur Merlin into action. He rose to his feet, gathering up his full height in a way that might have been endearing if he didn't seem to be daring Arthur to react instead. For a moment, Arthur wondered if this was really Merlin at all, or if Arthur was still in his bed, and this was a strange fever-dream, leftover blood-rush from the week's events.
He dismissed the thought quickly. This was no dream. Merlin was real. Arthur could hear his hitched breathing, could all but see the pulse at his neck as it jumped. Still, neither of them moved.
"How?" Arthur asked, when the silence threatened to overwhelm him. His throat was dry, like he hadn't spoken in days instead of the hours it had been since he left Camelot. He couldn't quite breathe. A memory rose unbidden. Merlin is a wonder, but the wonder is that he's such an idiot. There's no way he's a sorcerer.
"Arthur," Merlin started. "Arthur, listen--"
Arthur's fingers ached from clenching within his gloves. He had nowhere to put the anger bubbling through him, nowhere it could go but out, but Arthur couldn't even find a way to shout. He couldn't make his arms move. He focused instead on the one thought he kept coming back to. “You lied to me."
“Yes.” Merlin didn't look away; didn't fall to his knees with pleas for clemency or mercy like dozens had before him. Arthur didn't really expect him to, but Merlin had surprised him before.
“This whole time, you’ve been lying to me.”
“Don't speak to me.”
Merlin fell silent.
“You're a sorcerer,” Arthur said. It still didn't seem possible.
Merlin lifted his chin and looked right into Arthur’s eyes. “Yes, Arthur, I am. ”
Before Arthur even knew what he was doing, he unsheathed his sword and pointed it toward Merlin. He wasn't close enough for the blade to touch him; it was only a threat. Merlin didn’t look afraid, though. He looked…disappointed, looking Arthur up and down once before dismissing him to turn back to the blanket-wrapped body he'd just dug out of a grave. Was Merlin some strange sort of necromancer? Arthur had heard whispers of such unnatural magical acts.
The dismissal burned. Merlin wasn't the injured party, here. He didn't get to look disappointed. “Don’t you turn your back on me,” Arthur said, his voice low. He lunged forward until the tip of his sword rested between Merlin’s shoulder blades. Merlin shifted minutely when he felt the blade against his back, and Arthur watched as a tear opened up in the soft leather of Merlin's jacket. He could press harder and watch Merlin's skin split in the same way; by law, that was what he was obligated to do. It would be easier, too, this way. He wouldn't have to look Merlin in the face while he did it.
"Go on then, Merlin. Stop me," he ordered. "Use your magic to stop me."
"Your magic not good enough then?"
Merlin didn't respond.
"Damn you," Arthur said, his voice breaking. "At least do me the courtesy of fighting back."
"Do whatever you want, Arthur. You always do," Merlin said, sounding wearier than Arthur had ever heard him sound before. He didn't turn around, though, just returned to fussing over the corpse of the fallen Dragonlord as if he wasn't moments away from being run through by cold steel.
Arthur took a breath, pulled his elbow back to a perfect position to strike. He paused there, trembling. His face felt hot and wet. He saw himself as if from a distance, watching the way his sword shook in his hands.
Yesterday, Arthur had watched as Merlin had cried over a man he didn't know, and it had troubled him. Arthur counted on Merlin to help keep his own spirits up; Merlin was the one who could make him laugh even in the the middle of a sleeping sickness or a siege. Merlin was going to be his servant in their next life. Merlin wasn't supposed to cry over someone he'd just met.
It felt like another betrayal, one that made Arthur fling his sword down to the ground.
Arthur had meant it when he told Merlin that no man was worth his tears. He didn't want Merlin to cry over him, but then, maybe he's just said it because he feared all along Merlin actually wouldn't cry over him anyway. It made him snarl from where he now sat, still watching Merlin work, as Merlin used a strange combination of potions and spells on the man's corpse. Every so often, Merlin would reach up towards his eyes, and Arthur didn't need to see Merlin's face to know that tears were once again tracking their way down Merlin's face.
“Tell me something, Merlin,” Arthur said. Merlin looked over his shoulder back at Arthur. “Why do you cry over this man?”
Merlin shook his head, not stopping his work to even turn around. "Can this wait?"
“No, it cannot wait. Tell me, did you like him?” Arthur pushed. Why was he more important to you than I am?
“I barely knew him.”
“Did you fancy him, then? I did tell you what a man does in his free time is up to him, but really, Merlin, we were on a mission.”
Merlin's shoulders began to shake, and Arthur felt a vivid burst of satisfaction at having scored a hit. It didn't last, however.
“Or did you feel some kinship with him? Dragonlord and sorcerer, two traitors together?” Only traitors weren't given to sacrificing their lives to save others, to save Camelot, were they?
"I don't have to explain myself to you," Merlin bit out.
"I'm the only one you need to explain yourself to!" Arthur yelled. He leaped to his feet, sword once again in hand.
“He was my father.”
Arthur almost dropped his sword again, certain he'd misunderstood Merlin's quiet declaration. “What?”
Merlin whirled around to face Arthur, his face a picture of misery. “He was my father. He left my mother and left me because Uther hunted him like an animal, all the way to another kingdom! Instead of a cave, he could have been with me. He could have been teaching me how to follow in his footsteps, like your father did for you, only Uther couldn't allow him even that.”
“Your father,” Arthur repeated.
“My father,” Merlin agreed, wiping at the skin beneath his eyes. “And he was going to help us even though Camelot ruined his life. So don't you dare point that sword that I sharpened for you at me and act like you're the only person in all of Albion who has ever been wronged or lied to or betrayed.”
Arthur let his sword arm fall to his side. He just watched as Merlin fetched his horse and struggled to bring Balinor’s body over to it, until Merlin's eyes darted toward Arthur and a decision was made. Arthur watched in fascinated horror as Merlin's eyes flashed a golden colour, and Balinor's body laid itself over Merlin’s horse, flopping like one of the dolls on strings a visiting bard once used to entertain a child prince.
“What are you doing?” Arthur asked, finally.
Merlin sighed. “What does it look like? I’m taking him home for a proper farewell.” With that, Merlin lifted himself into his saddle, and pointed his horse in the direction of Ealdor. Instead of riding off, though, he looked down at Arthur expectantly. "Well?" he asked.
"Well, what?" Arthur wasn't sure how he had lost the control in this situation. Merlin was a sorcerer. Merlin's father had been hunted by Arthur's; Merlin's father had been killed because he chose to help the same person who wanted him dead. Arthur had held his sword to his manservant, a sorcerer but still the same manservant who faced a dragon with him, expecting to run him through and instead found he couldn't do it. Couldn't imagine doing it.
"Get your horse, Arthur," Merlin said. "We both know you're just going to follow me anyway. Just promise me you'll let me do this first. My mother--" Merlin's voice broke off. "My mother deserves to know."
Arthur was about to protest--really, Merlin, you can't talk to me like that--but at the mention of Hunith he held his tongue. Hunith was kind, and brave, and had given birth to a sorcerer and apparently had sent him to live in Camelot. It was as if everything Arthur'd ever known had been tumbled like rocks inside a pot until they were smooth and foreign and caught the light in strange new ways.
Arthur fetched his horse without another word.
They rode side-by-side, a few hours' uneasy truce, picking their way through the woods that grew denser as they approached the border regions. When the sun was high overhead, they stopped to rest and water the horses. Arthur hadn't brought any food, but Merlin's pack held cheese, bread, nuts and some ripe, red apples. He shoved one at Arthur. Arthur took it, and looked down at it like it was made of nails.
"Where did you get these?" Arthur asked. The setting was so familiar it hurt, the two of them sat around a fire like this.
"Sorcery," Merlin said.
Merlin rolled his eyes. "Obviously, I cast a spell on Camelot's kitchens so that I could have all the food while the court starved. That explains why I'm so fat compared to the nobles."
"That doesn't even make sense," Arthur said.
"Exactly. I got the apples off an apple tree, Arthur, like a normal person. Or, rather, like a normal person who has to fetch his own damned food instead of having it served to him. This cheese, though? Definitely from an enchanted cow. Eat it at your own risk."
Arthur took a piece of cheese gingerly, half expecting Merlin to send up a huge cloud of smoke or turn him into a toad. "Well, at least I won't have to add theft to the list of charges, then."
Merlin scowled, and returned to his food.
They ate in silence. After he finished his share, Merlin poked at the fire he'd lit with a flick of his hand, smirking as Arthur looked away.
"Do you have to keep doing that in front of me?" Arthur asked.
"What difference does it make?"
"Oh, I don't know, Merlin. Only that we're still in Camelot, and sorcery is against the law, and the law is upheld by the royal family and oh! That would be me."
"A man can be killed for using magic once, Arthur. Are you going to kill me four times if I use magic four times?"
"Merlin, what have I told you about trying to be funny?"
"Funny? Yeah, the subject of my upcoming demise is really hilarious."
"Merlin," Arthur said with a sigh.
"Do you really expect me to kill you?"
"Not yourself. You already proved you don't have the balls to do it."
Arthur's eyes narrowed and he had to count to ten. "Do you really think I'll turn you over to my father?" he tried again through gritted teeth.
Merlin sighed, and started gathering his pack together. "No, Arthur. I know you. I think you'll leave me at the border and return to Camelot, where your father will ask where I've got to. You'll make up a story, he'll doubt it, and I'll spend the next several years of my life wondering when I will wake to find knights beating down my mother's door. At which point she and I will flee Ealdor, and I'll probably spend the rest of my life in a cave hiding from Camelot until one day you need my help and it gets me killed."
Arthur looked away.
The rest of their journey felt unbearably slow. They stopped a few times when Arthur thought he heard suspicious movement. At once point, he shoved Merlin behind him as he went to investigate a noise; it was second nature to him by now. The ambush never came, though, so they rode on.
The closer they got to the border, the more uneasy Arthur grew. When the hills finally came into view, he looked over at Merlin, seated in front of his own fathers' corpse. He searched for something to say, before settling on the obvious. "Why didn't you save him?" he asked, finally.
"What?" Merlin looked stricken.
"With your magic, " Arthur clarified, gesturing to Balinor's body. "Why didn't you save him?"
Merlin blinked rapidly, then shrugged one shoulder. "Not sure I could have. It happened too fast."
"And I was there," Arthur said. He didn't phrase it as a question.
"Would you have been able to save him if I weren't there?" Arthur asked. "If you hadn't been worried about being seen?"
"Not everything is about you, Arthur. If I could, I would have done no matter who was there."
The thought was oddly comforting. "You told me once you never knew your father."
"I didn't. I... only found out while you were sick. He asked where I was from, if I knew a woman named Hunith. I worked it out from there."
"Is that so? Seems quite a coincidence."
Merlin nodded, but wouldn't meet Arthur's eyes.
"Did he know you were his son?"
"Not until he joined us on the road. I told him then," Merlin said.
"Why did you keep it from me? We needed his help! It might have persuaded him to join us more quickly. "
"And that was the important thing, wasn't it?" Merlin's voice was brittle. "It wouldn't have mattered. He'd still be dead."
"You should have told me."
"He spent 20 years running from Uther. Why should I have told you?"
"Because I'm your master," Arthur snapped. Because you call me 'friend', he wanted to say, even if he was a pretty shite one. Merlin was winning any friendship prizes, either. They really were a pair. "You should tell me everything. Instead you tell me nothing, apparently. Tell me, Merlin, since you saw: how exactly did I slay that dragon, again?"
Merlin looked away, a barely perceptible shake of his head. "Don't, Arthur."
"How many others then, Merlin? How many of my great deeds were actually the work of a sorcerer? How many times have you saved my royal backside, as you so eloquently put it?" Arthur felt the fury mounting again. One minute it was easy to pretend nothing had changed, and another minute he wanted nothing more than to order Merlin to bury it, to never use magic again, to not get himself killed. To not make Arthur watch him die.
A muscle in Merlin's jaw started to twitch. "At least once time too many, it would seem," Merlin said. "You're welcome, by the way, you self-centered prick." He pressed his heels into the horse's flanks and left Arthur staring after him.
A quick shake of the head, and Arthur set to catch up.
"Why are you still following me?" Merlin yelled over his shoulder.
"You told me to follow you before. Had a change of heart then?"
"No, Arthur. That's you."
"Changing your mind. I never know which Arthur I am going to get when I wake you in the morning. Am I your trusted servant or your jester? Half the time you treat me like a joke. The other half of the time, it seems like you might...well, never mind," Merlin finished, bitterly. "I was obviously wrong about that."
"You do. You've been doing it even now. You can't decide what to do about me. Turn me in? Let me go? Whatever it is, just make up your mind because I've got things to do, and keeping up with your mental jousting is too hard."
"Merlin, we're still in Camelot and I'm the prince. I can do what I want."
Merlin lifted his eyes toward the sky. "Right, of course."
"Yes, right," Arthur echoed. They fell silent once again, the forest thick and close around them.
"Look, will you at least let me cross the border alone?" Merlin asked suddenly. "Please. My mother has been through enough. Don't bring this to her door."
Merlin's voice wasn't made for pleading. It sounded all wrong. Arthur suppressed the impulse to reach out and cover Merlin's mouth so he wouldn't have to hear any more. Instead, he gave a slight nod, and Merlin seemed to relax the slightest bit.
They rode on, Arthur following Merlin in a strange juxtaposition of their norm. Everything about this was wrong.
Arthur really should have stayed in bed and left satisfying his curiosity for another time.
The border was marked by the change in the road near the top of a hill crest. Arthur rode up to sit side by side with Merlin. Together, the two of them looked out over the valley, the river that led to Ealdor glinting in the sun.
"You know, he saved my life," Arthur said.
"Bal...your father. I was sick, and he saved my life. Did he know who I was?"
Merlin gave Arthur a long, searching look, and nodded.
Arthur squinted a bit as he surveyed the view, not looking at Merlin. "Camelot made him its enemy. Had I known what he was I would have been sworn to kill him. But he still saved my life."
Merlin only sighed. "Runs in the family, I suppose," he said, finally.
"Why?" Arthur asked.
Merlin shrugged and looked off into the distance. "I thought I knew once, but I'm not sure anymore. Maybe there's just something about you, Arthur."
Arthur flushed warm with the memory of a bravely idiotic boy swinging around a mace. "You just can't put your finger on it?" he asked, with a hesitant smile.
"Something like that, yeah." Merlin ignored the overture, instead pulling on his reins to guide the horse back to the road. "Goodbye, Arthur."
"Merlin," Arthur said. "I'll--"
Merlin just shook his head sadly. Arthur could only watch with an aching heart as Merlin rode away into Cenred's kingdom, toward Ealdor. Away from Camelot.
Away from Arthur.
Arthur had every intention of turning back toward Camelot after Merlin disappeared beneath the horizon. He really did. His father would want him to be there at council that afternoon; there was the rebuilding to consider. Arthur knew his hastily scrawled message about he and Merlin going out to find the dragon's carcass would buy him a little time, but if he spent too long away from Camelot, Uther would surely grow suspicious.
Arthur started to head back to the road, but he was famished again. It had been hours since the tense meal by the fire and while he had packed no food, he had his dagger and a flint. Perhaps he could hunt. At the very least he might find some berries or tree fruit.
When he reached into his pack, though, he found cheese and a quantity of hazelnuts. Merlin, still looking out for him, even after Arthur held a sword to his back.
The warmth in his chest felt like affection, but was chased by something else Arthur couldn't name. He spent a long time sat alone by the fire, eating Merlin's hazelnuts and considering what explanation to give for Merlin's departure from Camelot. He barely noticed the wind kick up.
Arthur cursed when it began to rain, and sought refuge in a hollowed-out tree to wait for the storm to pass. It stormed for hours, violent rain that had Arthur wondering if he shouldn't try to find a cave somewhere, instead of sitting trapped in a tree, but in the end, a lack of sleep overcame him.
He dreamt of Merlin, of watching Merlin burn, of the agonising smell of charred flesh. He dreamt of Gwen's eyes, red-rimmed and accusing. He dreamt of Gaius, walking slowly around the castle like a wraith, and Uther, full of approval that never lasted.
He dreamt of himself, kneeling beside Merlin by the block, insisting he had to tell Merlin something important. He had to tell him how much--
It was dark when Arthur's eyes shot open. The rain had passed, leaving only puddles and the thick scent of sodden earth and rainwater behind.
When Arthur finally set out again, he considered the road before him for a long time. Finally, he turned his horse turned north, into Cenred's kingdom, toward Ealdor. Away from Camelot.
Arthur rode quietly into Ealdor. The little village hadn't changed much in the year since he'd been there. A new roof here, a different vegetable patch there, but otherwise the same. A few of the villagers smiled and raised their hands in greeting when they saw Arthur; he supposed Merlin wasn't exactly shouting his fugitive status from the village centre.
Hunith was just walking up the path to her door when she saw Arthur approaching. As he felt the jolt of recognition, Arthur knew he hadn't given Hunith enough thought in this, how she might react to seeing him. He'd been too preoccupied with his own sense of betrayal. When she looked up the road, her eyes went wide, and the firewood in her arms tumbled to the ground at her feet.
Arthur lunged off his horse and strode toward her, his palms out, his heart beating painfully in his chest. "Hunith," he said, watching as she seemed to debate whether to run away or hit him. "Hunith, it's okay. I'm not--"
In the end, she neither ran nor hit him. She just stood, regarding him with a defiant gaze and a slightly trembling lip.
Arthur recognised the look, and it hurt. He'd seen it countless times, on the faces of those condemned to the block or pyre, in the eyes of the villagers when the knights rode through to conscript foot soldiers for the army. He'd never seen it on the face of someone he knew, who had fussed over him. Not like this.
It made his stomach clench, so he took a deep breath and walked until he stood before her. Bending down, he gathered the wood Hunith dropped and held it awkwardly to his chest.
"Prince Arthur," Hunith said, her eyes darting to her home. "Please--"
A pleading Hunith was even more upsetting than a pleading Merlin. Hunith stood up to bandits and kings and took up arms when her village was threatened.
"You dropped your firewood," Arthur said, before she could continue.
Her fear seemed to give way to puzzlement. "I--yes, I did, thank you," she replied. "Prince Arthur," she began again, "what--"
"I don't know, Hunith," Arthur rushed to interrupt her. "I'm not even sure why I'm here, or what Merlin's told you, but you have nothing to fear from me."
Hunith looked down. "You know. About Merlin's...gift."
"I know," Arthur agreed. "Can we go inside?"
Hunith nodded, and they walked together to her home. Arthur used the hand not holding the firewood to open the door for her. Once inside, he set the bundle down on the table. For a moment, the wood clacking together as it tumbled down was the only sound.
"Where's Merlin?" he asked, looking around.
"I'm...not sure," Hunith said. "I had a few things for him to do, and we have to prepare for the rites."
"The rites?" Arthur asked.
Arthur looked down at Hunith. She was so matter-of-fact, but surely she was hurting. Arthur imagined how she could have spent nearly 20 years imagining a day when Balinor could return, and how all that hope could be dashed in a glimpse of a body slung over a horse as her son rode up to meet her.
They both jumped as the door was flung open, and Merlin tore into the house. There was a piece of hay in his hair, and Arthur's fingers itched to brush it away.
"Mother, are you all right? Whose horse--" Merlin's eyes looked wildly about the room until they fell on Arthur standing with Hunith.
"Hello, Merlin," Arthur said.
Merlin paled, but his eyes went stony. "Damn you, Arthur," he whispered.
Hunith looked back up at Arthur. He rested his hand briefly on her shoulder, and tried to smile a bit.
"Merlin," Arthur said, giving Hunith's shoulder a pat he hoped was reassuring, "come outside with me, would you?"
"No." Merlin folded his arms over his chest. "I'm not going to trot along at your heels so that you can force me back to Camelot, or kill me, or--"
Arthur gritted his teeth and unbuckled his sword belt. He unsheathed his dagger, next, and shoved the lot at Hunith, closing her fingers around the metal and leather while she looked at him in alarm.
"There. Now will you come outside with me?"
Merlin didn't move but his expression softened a little.
Arthur threw his hands up in exasperation. "Please?"
Merlin raised an eyebrow at that. "How could I resist such a gracious invitation, sire?"
They sat side by side on the roughly-hewn bench where Merlin had once told Arthur that he just needed to believe in people, and the rest would sort itself out. It seemed a lifetime ago, when they had come to Ealdor, stupid and overconfident, four children taking on a practise dummy of a foe compared to all that faced them now. Morgana, abducted by a sorceress; Guinevere, fatherless, a servant without a mistress; Merlin, apparently able to take care of himself after all.
"For a sorcerer, Merlin, you inspire a strange sense of loyalty," Arthur began. He suspected that included his own.
"What?" Whatever Merlin has expected, Arthur doubted very much it was this.
"Take your friend Will. He knew, didn't he?"
"And you let him die believing that people would know him forever as a sorcerer."
"I let him die? It was your arse he saved."
Arthur nodded. "Yes, I suppose it was."
"When he was dying," Merlin continued, "he lay there and said only that I needed to stay hidden, because one day I would serve a great king. Like it was my destiny."
Arthur bowed his head. Time would tell the truth of Will's last words. Time, and every choice Arthur made from now until his death. Had his father ever sat somewhere when he was still a prince himself, wondering what time would tell of him?
"Everyone seems to think it's my destiny to serve you," Merlin said. "Even before your father rewarded me with thankless, life-long servitude, I had people telling me you were my destiny."
"What people?" Arthur asked. He couldn't keep the surprise from his voice.
"Well, I suppose he doesn't count as people, actually," Merlin said, hedging.
"It doesn't matter. You didn't know him."
Neither moved from where they sat, just watched as Old Man Thomas and Hector argued about the planting, and a few children scratched pictures into a patch of dirt.
"What about you? What do you want?" Arthur asked.
"I want you to leave my mother alone," Merlin blurted out. "Leave Ealdor alone. I'll go back with you to Camelot. I'll face whatever your father wants to do to me. Please, just leave them out of it."
Arthur flinched. "I deserve better than that from you, Merlin."
Merlin stood up in a rush. "You deserve better than that? You deserve? Go to hell, Arthur Pendragon. Go to hell and go back to Camelot." With a final glare, Merlin took off toward to copse of trees next to the stream.
When Arthur caught up with him, Merlin was pacing back and forth between two great oak trees. An agitated Merlin usually made for fine entertainment, but not this time. He looked up, and for a moment Arthur thought he was about to be cursed or ensorcelled within an inch of his life. Merlin looked like a man with nothing left to lose.
"Is this about earlier?" Arthur asked. "You know I didn't mean it."
"You didn't mean what?"
"I was angry. Your...magic," and Arthur had to force himself to say the word, "caught me off guard. I reacted badly."
"Mmm. Yeah, I was there." Merlin picked up a leaf and began worrying it between his hands.
"Yes, so that's settled. Good."
"That's...settled? Just like that? You once told me you would cast me in chains yourself if I ever came between you and your father."
Arthur flushed, and suspected this new, uncatalogued emotion was something close to shame. It seemed Merlin was determined to take him to all sorts of new places.
For a moment, he mourned for the person had been before he ever met Merlin. He might not have been a better person, but things had made more sense. "Did you really think I wouldn't protect you?"
"I don't know."
"That doesn't really answer the question."
"You told me it was more clear to you than ever that those who practise magic are evil and dangerous," Merlin reminded him.
"Yes, and I seem to recall that was thanks to you."
Merlin tossed his leaf to the ground. "Yeah."
"You really aren't very good at being an enemy to Camelot, are you, Merlin?"
Merlin bit his lip, squinting into the sun. "No, I guess I'm not. More fool I."
Arthur's blood chilled with the memory of Morgause. "She was lying, like you said, wasn't she, Merlin? That wasn't actually my mother." Arthur felt like he was trying to strike a bargain with every new revelation. Just one truth in all the lies, he wanted to say. This one truth, and I'll forgive you all the rest.
Merlin had the audacity to chuckle, but it wasn't filled with humour as much as disbelief. "We really are going to have it out today, aren't we? Gods."
"I don't know, Arthur." Merlin rubbed the space between his eyes, uneasy. "Sorceress or not, she wanted to manipulate you."
Arthur nodded. He felt numb.
"She wanted to turn you against your father," Merlin continued, "and whatever her motivations were, you can be sure they weren't pure."
Arthur stared out toward the stream. "I would have done it, you know. I would have killed him, ended the persecution of magic. Whether she was lying or not."
Merlin closed his eyes. "You still could do, one day."
"Perhaps. But you stopped me. You."
"Why? He'd have no problem watching you die."
"It wasn't for his sake, Arthur." Merlin laid his hand on Arthur's shoulder for a bare moment, before pulling back as if he'd remembered himself. "Anyway. If you're determined to be here, help me gather some wood," he added abruptly.
"Your mother already fetched some."
"Yes, and we'll need still more than that for the pyre."
Arthur frowned. "The pyre? What pyre? Merlin, I told you. I'm not--"
"Not that kind of pyre, Arthur. For my father's pyre."
It was less awkward than Arthur expected to sit at Hunith's table next to Merlin. The food hadn't got any better, but Arthur devoured it like it was the finest game and the sweetest fruit. He ignored the shrewd way Hunith kept looking first at him, then at Merlin, then back to him, like she was answering a question Arthur hadn't even figured out how to ask.
That afternoon, Balinor's body was set alight. A small group gathered to watch, mostly elders who remembered Balinor from the short months he spent in Ealdor a lifetime ago. Merlin's arm hugged Hunith to him as she wept. Even at a distance, Arthur could see her shoulders shake, could see Merlin rest his cheek on the top of her head as Balinor's spirit was released back to the earth and sky.
Arthur didn't join the mourners, choosing instead to keep himself busy repairing a hole in Hunith's roof. Balinor had lost everything at the expense of keeping a Pendragon from standing over his pyre. Arthur wasn't going to ruin that, even in the man's death.
Merlin seemed to relax after their blow-up in the woods. In the presence of his mother, Merlin became almost unbearably sweet as he helped her with chores, or reached up to the highest shelf for her to retrieve a dusty basket. He still didn't quite seem to know what to make of Arthur's continued presence, or the fact that Arthur seemed to grow increasingly less concerned about dragging Merlin back to Camelot, and more concerned about playing wooden swords with the village children.
Arthur entertained the children for hours, pratfalling on demand and letting each of them "slay" him with their little sticks. Arthur looked up after one such triumph to see Hunith smiling at him fondly. From where he was weaving rushes together, Merlin just looked confused. But the line between his eyebrows was gone, so Arthur counted it a victory. He'd rather have seen Merlin smile, but there was time to coax one out of him later.
"There's something I don't understand," Arthur said to Hunith as they sat together outside in the dying light. Merlin was running a small errand for Will's mother, who still lived in the village, all alone now. Arthur had gone by to pay his respects earlier.
"What's that?" Hunith asked, looking up from her mending.
"How could you send Merlin to live in Camelot? After, well, everything," Arthur trailed off. A place where magic was outlawed and punished by death. A place that had caused the flight, and then the death, of Balinor, whose pyre still smoldered while they talked.
Hunith pressed her lips together, looking lost in thought. "Merlin used to be so open about his gift. He would use it for nonsense. Childish tricks, pranks, mischief. Some of the villagers grew suspicious of him, and then the hatred of magic began to spread from, ah, neighboring kingdoms. There were times I feared for his future."
Arthur imagined a younger Merlin, giggling to himself over tripping up unsuspecting bystanders, or making toys dance in the air. A far cry from evil and corruption, unless that was how it ensnared people to begin with. Arthur still didn't know the answer, only that evil and corrupt were two words he couldn't fathom in connection with Merlin.
"You didn't fear for his future in Camelot?"
Hunith closed her eyes, her face a picture of sadness. When she opened them again, they were remarkably clear. "I've known Gaius my entire life. I trusted he'd keep Merlin safe whilst he helped Merlin learn to control his gift. In any other kingdom, he'd have been alone, or worse, taken in by those who want to use his powers to benefit themselves."
"You won't make me regret telling you that," Hunith said, with a small smile.
"You have more confidence in me than your son does."
"I see things he can't just now."
"I don't understand," Arthur said. "What things?"
"He's angry right now, and not only at you. He just needs a little time to come around," Hunith said, avoiding his question.
"He's not the only one."
"No, but you know what they say. Quicker to anger, quicker to forgive."
Arthur ignored the part about forgiveness. "Merlin doesn't anger very quickly, though."
"I meant you," Hunith said. "Merlin will catch up."
Arthur couldn't think of anything to say to that.
"Oh, he's back now." Hunith nodded to where Merlin was ambling back up the path. She slid her cool, callused hand against Arthur's cheek, the way he'd seen her do to Merlin, and smiled at him with tired affection. "You're going to be a good king, Arthur. I hope I live long enough to see it." She gave him a final pat and rose from the bench.
It was almost too easy to roll his blanket down on the floor next to Merlin's. Not head to foot this time, but face to face, because Arthur wasn't done talking, no matter how many times Merlin ignored him, diverted the conversation, or just begged him to shut up about the magic already.
After dark, they'd lain together on the ground, not close enough to be touching, while Arthur continued to mull over the events of the past few days. Not the dragon, not his knights, not the crumbling ruin of Camelot, not Morgana. That would all keep while he finished sorting out the matter of Merlin. Arthur already knew he wouldn't reveal Merlin's secret to anyone else. He'd made that choice the moment he dropped his sword on the forest floor. Hell, he'd probably made that choice when he'd ridden out in search of the Morteus flower. But that didn't make it any easier to sort out the rest.
If he brought Merlin back to Camelot, how could Arthur live knowing Merlin could be found out and killed, no matter how much Arthur tried to stop it.
If he left Merlin here, how would Arthur explain it to everyone back home?
Could Arthur live with never seeing him again, if it meant he was safe?
The thought of someone else leaning over him to unfasten his gorget, or bickering with him over the temperature of his bath water, or standing next to him to save Camelot filled him with an unmistakable sense of loss. Arthur knew there were dozens of servants in Camelot who would serve him with deference, efficiency, even reverance, but he didn't want that. He wanted Merlin.
Arthur stared at the ceiling for a long time, listening to Merlin breathe and shift around on his pallet as he tried to get to sleep. Just as Merlin looked like he was about to drift off to sleep, Arthur spoke. "I think about you a lot, you know."
"You what?" Merlin blinked.
"There were times, Merlin, when I used to think to myself, 'if I only could figure out what he's hiding, he'll go back to being my Merlin, and life will go back to how it was.'"
Merlin ignored the unguarded possessiveness of his statement, at least. "What have I told you about thinking, Arthur? You might injure yourself."
Arthur kicked out from under his blanket to hit Merlin in the shin. "Funny."
"I thought so."
"Thing is, Merlin, I know what you're hiding now, but it only makes me understand you less."
It was the last thing Arthur remembered saying before sleep claimed him.
Arthur dreamt that night of a body, lifeless, moving itself here and there while Merlin's eyes glowed, as Merlin controlled it. Dream-Arthur edged closer, expecting to see Balinor's face underneath the blanket's folds. Instead, Arthur looked right into his own own lifeless eyes and screamed.
He woke with a start, confused by the silence around him. Merlin snored a short distance away, and Arthur could hear Hunith's light breathing behind the thin tapestry she hung for propriety. He hadn't woken either of them.
It was well before dawn, judging by the light. Arthur tried and failed to fall back asleep, his own conflicted thoughts and the rough ground conspiring against his need for rest. He crawled out from under his blanket to gather up Hunith's cooking knives and a whetstone. He could be productive if he couldn't sleep.
Running the stone up and down the blades had a soothing effect; he wondered if perhaps he shouldn't tend his weapons more often himself. Merlin just seemed to like doing it, so he left it to him. The thought of Merlin together with his weapons gave Arthur pause. Merlin's care for his armour and weapons were at times the only reason Arthur was still alive. What if that care came with a higher cost? What did Merlin want?
Did he want the lifeless, puppet king of his dream? Was that the long game?
What other reason could there be?
He heard muffled footsteps shuffle behind him in the otherwise soundless night. Lamplight spilt into the darkness, giving the scene a strange cast. Perhaps Arthur was still dreaming? He kept his head down as Merlin joined him on the bench. Once Merlin was seated, Arthur swung around to grab Merlin by the throat.
"What--" Merlin choked out.
"Will you stop me?" Arthur asked.
Merlin didn't answer, just glared.
"Stop me," Arthur insisted.
Arthur gripped harder. "Defend yourself this time, damn you."
"No," Merlin said.
Merlin looked into Arthur's eyes, and Arthur knew he was wrong, this wasn't a dream. This was folly fuelled by the horrible ideas his dream had planted. Was his life his own, his deeds his own? He thought back to what Merlin said, about not having a choice. Neither of them had much choice in anything, but Arthur at least had a choice in this. He let his hand fall from Merlin's neck.
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
Merlin just rubbed at his neck, silent and haunted.
"What do you want from me, Merlin? What are you after, staying in Camelot?" Arthur asked. Instead of a reply, he was pushed sprawling into the dirt. As he struggled to sit up, he felt Merlin's weight on his chest, pinning him down.
"I'm helping you become a great king, because an overgrown lizard once told me it's my destiny, and for some stupid reason I believed him."
"Destiny again?" Arthur asked.
"It's already written, you know. Out of all the possible futures for both of us, I know the one that will happen. You'll be a great king."
"And you'll be pulling my strings from behind the throne?"
Merlin let Arthur up. "I already told you once. I'm happy to be your servant, 'til the day I die."
"Do you really need to ask?" Merlin's eyes locked on Arthur's.
Arthur often accused Merlin of being the biggest idiot in the five kingdoms, but it seemed he had competition in the form of the crown prince of Camelot. In all those unfinished thoughts and half-examined feelings, he never thought that somehow, Merlin might have them too.
Half the time you treat me like a joke. The other half of the time, it seems like you might...well, never mind, Merlin had said on the road.
He went with his first impulse in response. He reached out to grab a fistful of Merlin's tunic, dragging Merlin to him until their faces were a scant inch apart.
"What are you doing?" Merlin demanded, trying to struggle out of Arthur's grip. "This isn't a joke, Arthur. Please."
"Will you stop me now?" Arthur asked, his voice a whisper. He couldn't see Merlin's face very well in the dark, but he didn't need to. He understood now.
"Stop you from doing what?" Merlin asked. He stopped trying to pull away. "What are you playing at?"
"I'm not really sure," Arthur admitted. "But I'm going to do it anyway, if it's okay with you."
"If what's okay with me?"
Arthur leaned in to press their lips together.
It was the merest hint of a kiss, at first, their eyes open and breaths panting warm between them. When Merlin started to pull away, Arthur just slid a hand into Merlin's hair and used it to draw him back in. He held Merlin's face still for the kisses he pressed into each corner of his mouth, making Merlin dig his fingers into the soft linen of Arthur's tunic. It was all the encouragement Arthur needed to run his tongue over the rough, chapped surface of Merlin's lower lip, over the groove made from Merlin's nervous habit of biting his lip when he was uncertain what to do. The groove was pronounced, but then, Merlin had had quite the uncertain week.
Arthur wasn't sure how long they stood there, and he tried not to imagine the picture they made--a prince and a servant, of a height with each other, drinking each other in the wide open of what was practically enemy land. Arthur was committing more than one sort of treason by being here with Merlin, by kissing Merlin, but none of that mattered as much as the little noises Merlin was making and the feel of Merlin's hands, now nimble at Arthur's laces. Merlin had done this so many times before, this simple act of undressing, but at the same time they've never quite done this, never rutted against each other in the open air. Arthur felt his knees give out when Merlin's fingers found his cock, and somehow he and Merlin fell easily to a ground far softer than any ground had a right to be.
"You really have magic," Arthur breathed as they pushed and pulled against each other.
Magic, his mind screamed at him. What are you doing?
His body had an altogether different opinion on the subject. It clearly preferred conjured softness over rocks digging into his arse, and really, his mind had been keeping him from acknowledging this for far too long. His mind could bugger itself. His body had better, more immediate plans, and judging by the state Merlin was in, his was in complete agreement.
Arthur moaned when Merlin finally stretched out on top of him, covering him, and he felt heat press into his hip when Merlin leaned down for another kiss. When Arthur felt the head of his own cock brush low against the hair on Merlin's belly, he had to press into it again, and again, until he was straining up into it, until Merlin had to push into Arthur's hipbones to keep from being thrown off by Arthur's thrashing about.
"You're an idiot," he gasped, as Merlin's fingers pressed Arthur's tunic up, his nipples tightening with the first rush of cool night air. "A brilliant, fucking, magical idiot. Keep doing that."
Arthur desperately looked for the rhythm that promised release, but it eluded him. The night was quiet, still, and all Arthur could hear was his own harsh panting and Merlin's answering groans. When Merlin grabbed his hand and licked his palm, warm, and wet, and sloppy, the images it placed in his mind made Arthur's head to fall back to the ground. When Merlin closed Arthur's slick hand around both of their lengths, though, Arthur whispered yes, please, that, finally and together they worked until Arthur couldn't take it anymore, had to stuff his fist in his mouth to muffle the scream as he came and Merlin followed. Merlin always followed him.
He might have dozed off, because he wasn't sure how they came to be sat on the ground with their backs to the bench, laces fastened enough for modesty, and Arthur too tired to even hold up his own head. He was using Merlin's shoulder for a pillow. "You didn't stop me," he said.
Merlin snorted, a little dazed. "Obviously."
"You could have done, though, right?"
Merlin shrugged. "Bit irrelevant really."
Arthur hummed, and felt Merlin shift beneath his head.
"Why now?" Merlin asked. "I mean, this doesn't just fix everything, you know."
"Merlin. Can we talk later?" Arthur said with a yawn. He was feeling far too pleasant and loose-limbed to take this up now.
"You've been trying to get me to talk more since you found me in the forest," Merlin pointed out. "Now we're not going to, because you don't want to?"
A sleepy grin unfolded across Arthur's face, and he slung an arm around Merlin's neck. "Yes, exactly. Now you get it," Arthur replied, sliding down further onto Merlin's shoulder. He wasn't the most comfortable pillow, not with all his sharp angles and wiry limbs, but he'd do.
Merlin muttered something that sounded very much like "arse," and Arthur sighed.
"Because now I know you could stop me," Arthur said, finally, answering Merlin's first question. He smirked at Merlin's uncomprehending expression. "A prince has power over his servants. I don't abuse that. Not in this way, I mean," he added at Merlin's incredulous look. "But I think we both know you don't have anything to fear from me."
"Says the one who takes great pleasure in battering me with weapons and using me for target practise," Merlin grumbled, but it seemed half-hearted at best.
"Only to give you more time to spend with my armour. You should be thankful."
They sat together in silence until Arthur shifted again and felt the unpleasant sensation of cooling come soaking into his breeches. He hadn't brought any others along; he hadn't foreseen the need. He started to ask Merlin if he would mind washing them for him when he did his own. They wouldn't dry in time, so he'd just have to cope with damp breeches for the journey home.
Instead, Merlin threw up a hand, said something incomprehensible, and their clothes were as pristine as if they had just been pressed by Camelot's laundresses. When Arthur looked askance, Merlin just stuck out his tongue. It made Arthur want to get filthy all over again, but he settled for leaning back into Merlin and stroking his fingers through Merlin's hair.
"You know, Merlin. I really am sorry about your father. And for, well, you know," he trailed off, gesturing indistinctly. "Earlier. It just...took some time to sort out in my head."
"It was a fascinating insight into your thought processes too, since you did most of the sorting out loud," Merlin said mildly. "A little alarming at times, though. You're lucky I have a forgiving nature."
"Eventually. If you're lucky."
"I mean it, though. You deserved a chance to know him."
"It wasn't your fault. It was Uther's fault," and Merlin paused at that, waiting perhaps to see if Arthur would protest, "and Cenred's fault, and the dragon's fault for attacking Camelot. And...the fault of whomever let the dragon escape."
That brought Arthur up a bit short. There'd been no time yet to investigate how the beast might have escaped, but Arthur was starting to sense that there was more at work. Arthur had known that Uther had killed all but one of the dragons, but he'd never seen fit to share with his heir that it was imprisoned within Camelot itself. He wondered if his father had still more secrets, and if they were better or worse than the ones Merlin still had.
"Why do I suspect there are more things you're not telling me, Merlin?" He felt Merlin grow tense beside him.
"Because you're not actually as dim as you seem?" Merlin offered, weakly.
Arthur didn't qualify that with a response. "Right. Well, it's no matter right now. You can tell me back in Camelot." Arthur didn't look forward to that discussion; he suspected there were some difficult revelations still to follow. They'd work through them, hopefully a bit more smoothly the next time. At the very least, with less of the shouting, sneering and choking and more of the blinding orgasms.
"No," Merlin said with a sigh. "I should tell you now, before you go back."
Arthur heard the you instead of we. "Merlin. I don't need to know it all right away. It'll keep a little longer. And if you think I'm going back to Camelot without you, you'd best think again."
"Time only makes it worse," Merlin said. "If I've learnt anything, it's that."
Arthur stretched out his legs alongside Merlin's, their bare feet entangled together like it was something they did every day, get each other off and then confess their deepest secrets like young children whispering faery stories. Maybe from now on it could be.
"I was thinking, you know, earlier today," Arthur began.
"Twice in one day?"
"Shut up. Anyway, I was thinking, and it occurred to me: do you know how many people I've killed, Merlin?" Arthur asked.
"Or how many people I have caused to be killed?" Arthur continued. "Or how many people who are dead because I didn't speak out on their behalf?"
Merlin shifted. "I imagine it's a great many."
"Yes. Yes, it is."
They fell silent, watching as the barest hint of light began to spill over the tops of the trees. Ealdor would wake soon. There were eggs to collect, a cow to be milked, water to be fetched. Anything Arthur wanted to say under the cover of darkness, he needed to say now. He leaned in a bit closer to Merlin.
"When I was fifteen, my father took ill and was confined to his bed for weeks. He was unable to hold audiences, or meet with the council, or send down judgements.
"I served as regent while he recovered, under the watchful eyes of his council, of course. I condemned four people to death for sorcery. I watched each of them shoved to their knees before the block.
"One of them was a maid, younger than I, accused of enchanting a knight to fall in love with her. I'd seen it myself, how besotted he was; he was hardly circumspect, especially when he was in his cups.
"I found out later that the knight seduced her and when she fell pregnant, he accused her of witchcraft rather than deal with a by-blow. She had no way to prove her innocence. And I had her killed for it, because I idolised my father and it made that disapproving look in his eyes go away for a little while. He looked proud of me, for once."
Merlin shuddered, and tried to pull out of Arthur's embrace but Arthur only squeezed him closer.
"Whatever horrible things you think you've done, you're not alone."
"We all have to live with our mistakes. Learn from them if we can."
"Mine weren't all mistakes, though. Some of it was terrible, but necessary."
"That's often how it goes," Arthur acceded. "But, you know. I've...got a bit better at dealing with mistakes since you showed up."
Merlin gave a watery chuckle. "I know what you mean. My own mistake-making abilities have improved tremendously since meeting you."
Arthur flicked Merlin's ear, hard. "Ah. There's the surly prat I know and...uh, I mean...," Arthur trailed off.
They both squirmed for a moment, until Merlin finally spoke. "Well, since this can't possibly get any more uncomfortable. You asked me before what why I stayed in Camelot, and I told you it was destiny."
Merlin reached a hand toward the moon. It hung full and bright. Arthur watched in awe as the moon bent and swirled to Merlin's command, until the familiar shape of the Pendragon crest glowed from the sky.
"But destiny isn't the only reason," Merlin said. "It hasn't been for a long time."
With a final wave of Merlin's hand, the moon returned to normal.
"That was...Merlin! The whole of Albion will have seen that!"
"I hope they did. I hope Cenred and Alined and Olaf and Odin all saw it, too."
Merlin grinned at Arthur. "Don't worry. Most people are like you. Won't see what's right in front of them."
Arthur growled and grabbed Merlin in a headlock and knuckled the top of his head. He only managed it for a moment before Merlin turned the tables on him, pinning Arthur to the ground with his eyes gone gold around the edges. When he looked up, Merlin had an eyebrow raised in challenge.
It was a challenge, a question, maybe even a promise. Arthur felt the spell release him as he accepted the hand Merlin held down to him. Not that he needed ta hand up. He just liked Merlin's hands.
"I'm going back to Camelot later today. I have a long list of mistakes still to make." Arthur looked down at their hands, still clasped. "I... could use some help."
"Making the mistakes or fixing them?"
"Both, I imagine."
Merlin gestured to the space between them. "Is this one of your mistakes?"
Arthur ran a finger down Merlin's cheek. "No," he said.
Merlin seemed to search Arthur's face for a long time. He must have seen what he was looking for, because he took a deep breath.
"Okay then," he said.