Sunlight streamed through the windows of the throne room, lighting patches of the floor as the court gathered. He had stood in this room nearly every day of his life since he was thirteen; it should not seem so foreign, so frightening. The throne beneath him was hard and unyielding. The crown on his head pressed in on his temples, worsening the headache that had been threatening since breakfast. Beside him, Merlin fidgeted, a blur of movement in his peripheral vision.
“Merlin.” Arthur spoke through clenched teeth, hiding the conversation from their growing audience. “You’re making me nervous.”
“Sorry!” Then, waiting a beat as if it were a punchline, Merlin added, “Your highness.”
Arthur's eyes snapped up in time to catch the cheeky grin. It disappeared immediately. Before he could reply, Sir Leon entered with a procession of people at his heels, all begging audience with the acting king -- the first audience since Camelot was lost and won again.
Merlin's distraction, as irreverent as riling Arthur at such a moment was, worked perfectly. Ready, Arthur squared his shoulders and waved Leon to begin.
The first to step forward was a peasant woman, her head bowed, clothes torn and filthy. When she raised her eyes to Arthur, it was Merlin who reacted first.
“Mother.” He moved to go to her but Hunith shook her head and gave him a small smile.
“Later, Merlin,” she whispered and focused her gaze on Arthur. “My Lord,” she began and Arthur's chest warmed at the kindness and hope she imbued in the honorific. “I come here to beg help of you.”
Arthur nodded for her to continue.
“Ealdor is once again overrun with bandits.”
“Ealdor is in Cenred's Kingdom,” he replied automatically.
“There is no one to help us, Sire.” Hunith's eyes watered and she looked so much like Merlin in that moment it made Arthur’s breath catch. “Cenred is dead and his army defeated. All around us, even the larger villages, those that were rich enough to warrant his attention and protection, are now in ruins.”
Arthur waved Lancelot forward. “There are many pleas for me to hear today,” he said in apology. “I will take your request under consideration. Until then you are our guest, Hunith.”
“Thank you, my Lord.”
“Lancelot, Hunith is Merlin's mother. See that she is given all that she needs.”
“Sire?” Merlin's eyes were on the retreating form of his mother, begging to follow.
“Your place is here.”
Merlin looked at Arthur, his lips pressed flat, then his eyes flickered to the gathered crowd, to the dozens of people that would be pleading with Arthur, each request needing to be weighed against the other. With a deep breath, Merlin stood a little straighter and lifted his chin.
“You'll see her tonight,” Arthur whispered then turned back to Sir Leon and requested the next person to be brought forward.
Arthur poured himself a goblet of watered wine and sat, absorbing the quiet of the empty room while he waited for his knights to gather. The stone table was rough and cold beneath his fingers. He'd had it retrieved from the castle of the ancient kings in the days following the battle. It fit surprisingly well in his father's private council chambers; it seemed fitting that the place where Uther kept his own council become the place Arthur would use to hear the advice of those who'd earned his trust. When he’d rescued his father from the dungeons, he’d vowed to himself he would not repeat his father's mistakes.
The day the table had been placed in this room, he and Merlin had stood quietly watching the men work, removing his father's large desk, finding the exact center of the room to situate it best. The moment it was done and the last chair had been put in place, the servants scrambled out to catch the end of dinner. He'd stayed behind, mesmerised by the setting sun that played across the room and made the stone shimmer as if enchanted.
Merlin's hand had landed on his shoulder. “This is good,” he'd said in a whisper, as if speaking any louder would break the spell. Arthur had nodded but hadn't turned; he hadn't wanted Merlin to see the brightness of his eyes.
This afternoon would be the first convening of the knights' council to review the needs of the land now that the most immediate post-battle needs of caring for the sick and burying the dead had been dealt with.
Leon was the first to arrive, taking his place at the table exactly where he’d sat that first day. Each in turn arrived, some shuffled spots – Arthur surprised himself in noticing. He knew the place he'd taken, while not the head of the table, as none existed, but directly opposite the door, was the same he'd chosen in the castle of the ancient kings. The markings beneath his hands were the same. It didn’t occur to him to select another.
Merlin was the last to arrive, stumbling in out of breath after, Arthur knew, racing through the castle to try to get there on time. Ignoring the empty place at Arthur's left, Merlin squeezed through to sit at Arthur's right.
“How is she?”
Merlin grinned, knowing he'd been caught-out. “She's with Gaius. There are a few… injuries.” Merlin grin slipped, but only slightly. “She'll be fine. I'm glad she's here.”
“Good. She's welcome to stay as long as she likes. Make sure she knows that.”
Merlin's grin brightened again and he nodded.
Turning to the gathered knights, Arthur caught each of their eyes one by one. He ended on Leon, and motioned for him to begin.
“Sire.” Leon cleared his throat and leaned forward. “I'd like to talk about the unrest in Cenred's kingdom. As we heard today with several people from the bordering villages, that land is in an upheaval.”
“As much could be expected,” Arthur said. “It will settle when Cenred's successor takes the throne.”
Leon shifted a bit. “The problem, Sire, is that isn't likely to happen soon. Cenred was killed weeks ago. After Camelot fell, Morgause boasted to the knights about his death. Then when the immortal army was defeated, they weren't just defeated they…” He waved his hands vaguely, but everyone around the room nodded in understanding. “But that left Cenred's kingdom without even a defeated army returning to them. Everyone. Every soul that had pledged their allegiance to Cenred was wiped out. Even mercenaries, soldiers and knights from neighbouring kingdoms that had joined Cenred's army.”
Arthur's gut churned as he looked between his men. All eyes were on Leon, lips down-turned. War was never pretty, but to lose maybe ten thousand men in the blink of an eye was horrific.
“So what Hunith was talking about today –”
“Was one symptom of a very large problem,” Gwaine provided. “Last night I talked with a few of the people waiting for your audience to get a feel of what to expect.”
“You met them at the Rising Sun, didn't you?” Merlin snickered.
“They may have had a free spot at their table and full tankard.” He grinned back, shameless. “And it was more of the same. A mother of five lost her husband and brother because they'd been in Cenred's army. She was left with nothing after the bandits tore through their village.”
“But why come here?” While Arthur felt for these people, his priority had to be Camelot. They were his.
“There is nowhere else, Sire,” Leon said. “You are the conquering king, without ever setting foot in their land.”
“That's –” He paused, unsure. He wanted to say it was ridiculous but it wasn't entirely. This was unprecedented. He looked around the table and saw a few shrugs. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he said, “Before we get too far on this, I need to know if we do legally have a claim – a responsibility – to assume control of Cenred's lands. Guard!” He called out to the men stationed outside the room. When the door swung open, he requested, “I need to speak with Geoffrey of Monmouth.”
After the guard nodded and left, Arthur addressed the group again. “Beyond any of this we simply do not have the men. Camelot's army and her knights were badly depleted in the siege. We're at maybe forty percent of what were earlier this year.”
Leon spoke first. “There may be pockets of others, those that retreated knowing the battle was lost and went into hiding. Word has not yet spread that Camelot's been regained.”
“It will still be nowhere near enough to capture and maintain control of a kingdom in anarchy. It's barely enough to secure our own safety.”
“We have to do something,” Merlin sputtered.
Arthur shook his head. “We have no army, Merlin.”
“No, but you have people. People who are willing to defend their homes. The people in Cenred's kingdom will pledge their loyalty to you if you offer them stability. They will fight with you, not against you.”
“And Camelot is to be an army of peasants?” The words felt rancid in his mouth; those were his father's sentiments rather than his own.
Merlin's face shuttered. “You found honour enough in Ealdor fighting with peasants.”
“That was different.”
“It was not different. People want peace. They want to grow their crops and raise their families. You can give them that. Camelot can give them that. Show them that you are different and they will be loyal to you.” Merlin was nearly shouting by the time he'd finished. The room echoed with his last words.
Arthur's face was hot, hands trembling at being spoken to in such a way: full of faith and lacking in deference. He stared at the table, chest heaving while he tried to understand what he needed to do. The silence stretched out well beyond awkward. “Council is dismissed.” The words were thick and grave, torn from clenched teeth.
Chairs scraped across the floor as each knight stood and one by one left without a word. The chair to his right remained still.
“You are dismissed,” he snapped.
Merlin sucked in a surprised breath, and Arthur knew he must look furious but it wasn't really about Merlin. The weight of Camelot and Cenred's kingdom – what felt like all of Albion – pressed in on his shoulders. He didn’t look up, even after he heard the door close and he was alone. Deep in thought, his fingers idly traced the engraved words at his place of the table. His fingers tingled, sensitized from the rough friction before he’d even realised what he was doing. He stared at the strange markings; he didn't know what they meant but they felt powerful, the table was no longer cold beneath his fingertips.
A soft knock lured him from his thoughts. “Enter.”
The door opened and Geoffrey of Monmouth stood before him and bowed. “Sire.”
“Ah, yes. Geoffrey. Good.” Arthur sat up straighter and shook off his musings. “I need your thoughts on this situation with Cenred. The assumption seems to be that the kingdom is mine for the taking as I essentially defeated him and all his army in the Battle.”
Geoffrey frowned, considering. “It's an unusual situation, to be sure. He has no heir?”
“No heir. No knights. No rival for the throne that was not killed with the army of immortals, as I understand it.”
“I will need to refer to my books.” Geoffrey tugged at his beard. “But, yes. By all accounts that would make you conquering king.”
Arthur wasn’t sure how to feel at that news. Part of him had been hoping for a simple no, but he couldn’t deny the thrill of the possibility of such a large land being his own to merge with Camelot. He would take pride in creating a foundation for a stable prosperous land for both. “All right. Do what research you need to. I will need to know as soon as possible.” His fingers drummed the table as he spoke, and sparks of heat tickled his fingertips. He looked down at the contact between the table and his hand, but saw nothing. And yet. “One more thing, Geoffrey. These markings.”
Geoffrey shuffled over to stand beside Arthur. Reaching out, he waved his hand over the engravings. “They appear to be words, Sire. I’m not sure what they say.”
“Can you find out?”
“I believe this may be from the language of the ancient kings. I have several tomes on that.”
Arthur stood. “Very good.” He moved to the door as Geoffrey sat, quill and parchment in hand, to copy the engraving.
“Sire,” Geoffrey stuttered, a nervous hitch to the word as his hand rested over the first of the markings. “The ancient kings accepted magic as a powerful tool to help their kingdoms flourish. I – I thought you should know.”
Arthur, heart thudding, looked down at the table and reached out again to feel the faint thrum of the stone. “I know.”
More confused than ever, he set off to see his father.
Uther was sitting up in bed. The pillows piled high around him, dwarfing his once broad shoulders. He'd lost nearly a stone since all this began. His cheeks were sunken and eyes red-rimmed. Beside him, a servant read from an old book, the tattered pages crinkling with each turn. Whatever it was, it did not hold the king's attention. He stared ahead, face devoid of any emotion.
“Father.” Arthur took a step further into the room. When the servant looked up, Arthur motioned their dismissal. “How are you feeling today?”
Uther startled then blinked several times as if chasing away his thoughts. A tentative smile appeared when his eyes fell on his visitor. “Arthur?”
Arthur's heart clenched at the confusion in his father's face. “Yes.” Forcing a grin, he took the abandoned seat and pulled it closer to the bed. “Father, are you comfortable?”
Uther rolled his shoulder and winced. Whether it was weeks in the dungeons or the rough treatment from Morgana's guards, the old injury to his shoulder had flared to near constant pain. “Gaius has changed my medication.”
“And is it better?”
“Mmm.” Uther stared off again, eyes blank.
Hoping talk of the state of the kingdom would bring his Father’s attention around, Arthur began his nightly update. “There are reports of chaos in Cenred's –”
Uther interrupted before Arthur could finish the first sentence. “I wonder if he could use magic to heal me,” he said simply, as if a passing thought that might as well be aired as not.
The air seemed to push out of his lungs as Arthur realised his father was in one of his less lucid states. “I don’t understand.”
“Could magic heal me, do you think? Make me healthy, that I could rule another year?” The words were quiet, a whispered secret. His father watched the flames rise in the hearth, his pale eyes growing wide and manic. “Another twenty?”
“Father, you aren’t talking sense.”
Uther laughed, crazed. It sent a shiver down Arthur’s spine. “Oh, I think Gaius could manage it.” Uther frowned, looking directly at Arthur again. “Or another sorcerer, if not him.”
Arthur wiped the sweat from his brow, looking around the room to ensure that they were alone. “Gaius is not a sorcerer. Father, magic is banned. Please no more talk of this.”
“Banned!” Uther snarled. “Of course it is banned to those that would abuse it! Use it to rise up against me. Turn my own daught—” he gasped for breath, choking back a sob. “But just one more time. That I could fix this. That would be worth it.”
“You need to rest.”
“Yes.” Uther nodded, letting Arthur settle him into the bed. “But send Gaius to me in the morning. I must speak with him. He will understand. Some things are worth it.”
Arthur arranged the pillows, not meeting his father’s eyes, not wanting to see this unrecognisable man staring back at him. At last, he pulled the covers up and clasped his hands over his father’s, kissing the loose, snow-white skin of Uther’s knuckle.
Uther petted his hair, half-asleep already. “You’re a good man, Arthur.” His voice was barely more than a breath as he added, “You were worth it.”
Arthur head snapped up. Uther’s eyelids had already shut; the hand in Arthur’s hair stilled and fell away. Arthur shivered, despite the heat of the room, as he broke out in a cold sweat. His father’s last few words played over and over in his brain. He wanted to shake off their meaning. His father had been saying the strangest things in the past few days -- not lies so much as random thoughts that made no sense in context of the situation. Things that his father, if he were in his right mind, would never share. Something about his father’s words and all they implied could not be ignored. They felt too much like an accidental slip of honesty.
All the air seem to be sucked from the room as Arthur gasped for breath, his lungs burning with a desperate need for oxygen. He dropped his father’s hand and stumbled to the door.
The corridors were bustling, even hours after the sun had set. There was still so much to do about the castle, rubble to be cleared away, food and medicine to be delivered to those too injured or traumatised to see to themselves. All eyes were on Arthur as he made his way to the court physician's room. Reverent nods and sincere curtsies met him every few steps. He tried to meet every eye, but the thundering in his ears was disorienting. He focused on keeping himself together, shoulders back and head held high, while in his mind his world was being torn apart. Again.
Arthur found Merlin alone in Gaius’s chambers. “I need to speak with Gaius.”
“Arthur.” Merlin looked up from a table covered in bundles of dried herbs. “He’s in the servants' quarters of the west tower. There’s been an outbreak of fevers with all the damage that was done there. People are living without walls.”
Arthur huffed, exasperated at yet another issue laid at his feet when his world had just been turned upside down. “I’ll see to getting it evacuated until the repairs are done. The inner castle has plenty of empty rooms.” He waved his hand absently.
“You...” Merlin shook his head. “You don’t have to do everything yourself. That’s not what I meant today.”
“Fine.” Arthur shrugged, the argument from earlier the furthest thing from his mind. “You see to getting them moved.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow.
“Fine.” Merlin huffed, but he was smiling. The tension in the room dissipated a bit.
“Did you want to leave a message for Gaius? He’ll be back late.”
Arthur considered why he’d come here, if it had been to pass along his father’s request or to just find answers. He wasn’t sure he wanted to do either. “No. I just had a question about Father’s new medication.”
Merlin picked up a wrap of herbs and stood on a chair to hang them. “I’ll let him know.”
Merlin hung the bundle, fiddling with the string before reaching down and grabbing another. Arthur watched him work through the table, grouping the herbs, arranging then winding the string and tying the knot. The question was on the tip of Arthur’s tongue for a full five minutes before he spoke it.
“Merlin.” He took a step forward, laying a hand on the table. “That time with Morgause, before. When she showed me my mother.”
Merlin stilled; the hand lifting the next bundle of herbs trembled. Arthur’s stomach sank, guessing the truth already.
“Did you believe she was telling the truth?”
Merlin found his voice after a pause. “I told you, Sire,” Merlin said, his eyes not meeting Arthur’s. “She was manipulating you.”
“Yes.” Arthur touched a brittle twig of an unfamiliar plant. It snapped in his fingers, crumbling to a powdery dust. “I’m sure she was. But was it the truth?”
“She wanted you to kill your father.” Merlin spoke his well-chosen words with conviction.
Arthur laid a hand on Merlin’s shoulder until Merlin lowered the bundle he’d been trying to hang and met Arthur’s eyes. “Do you believe what my mother, the vision of my mother, said was the truth?”
It was raining. Arthur could hear the crash of it against the windows as he waited out Merlin’s answer.
“I do,” Merlin said, at last.
Arthur’s fingers tightened until Merlin winced. They were close now, foreheads practically touching. “Don’t lie to me again, Merlin.” Arthur was ashamed to hear the crack in his own voice. “I need to trust you. I need to be able to trust you implicitly.”
“I couldn’t let you kill your father.”
“It doesn’t matter.” The shrill of his voice made him cringe and he tried to swallow his anger. “I must come up with the right decisions on my own merit, Merlin! Not because you tricked me into doing the right thing. Do not lie to me for my own good. You can’t lie to me. Promise me.” He wanted to shake Merlin, make him understand. All he could do was clutch him tighter.
“Arthur, I—” Merlin’s eyes were brimming and it dampened the fire that had been burning in Arthur’s chest.
The door creaked open and they broke apart.
“I’m sorry. I’ll come back.”
They turned to find Hunith in the doorway, eyes on the floor.
“No. I was just leaving.” Arthur’s throat tightened and he rushed out before he could witness the comfort from a mother that he would never feel.
The morning was again a blur. The audience took twice as long. Three new people from Cenred’s kingdom appeared, battered and bruised, penniless from the raids. The bandits were becoming more organised and fearless as time went on without opposition.
At lunch, Arthur bumped into Gwen, which inspired an odd combination of joy and confusion. They danced around each other, uncertain. She was still a servant, and Arthur had no idea how to make her not a servant without the type of grand declaration that was inappropriate for a kingdom in such unrest. She’d insisted there was much work to be done around the castle; she had quick, capable hands.
He could ask her to stop helping, to do something more dignified – she’d only smile and shake her head if he tried.
So they were back to passing each other in hallways and exchanging resigned glances as their lives took them in different directions, as if the kiss in the courtyard had never taken place.
He simply hadn’t had time to fix that.
Merlin unexpectedly brought him lunch in his chambers before the council meeting. Most days other servants seemed to pick up his chores. Fires were lit and laundry cleaned by young girls who kept their head bowed and mouths closed as they worked. At some point things had changed with Merlin, and Arthur hadn’t even realised it was happening. Now, seeing him hovering about the room without a clothes basket or fire poker, he seemed lost.
“Sit down.” Arthur set one of Merlin’s favourite sweet rolls at the place across from him. “Your fidgeting is giving me indigestion.”
“I’ve spoken with Helga. There are several rooms being cleared to move the servants from the west tower.” Merlin paused, took a bite and chewed slowly. “They’re to be set up in Morgana’s suite of rooms until the tower is hospitable again.”
Arthur eyes widened; Merlin gave him a toothy grin.
“I also might have mentioned that they are welcome to cut up the dresses they find for scarves and sashes to sell in the lower town.”
Arthur choked on a bit of cheese.
“They lost everything, Arthur. They need something to replace what meagre possessions they had. They’ll spread it amongst themselves.” He bit his lip, more tentative this time. “What else would you have done with them? Gwen would rather burn them than wear them.”
Merlin looked at him as if gauging his reaction and Arthur schooled his face to be suitably put out. “You should have consulted me.” He thought of the servants tearing into Morgana’s wardrobe and rebuilding their lives from the rags, and grinned. He tried to hide it with another forkful but Merlin’s snicker told him he’d failed.
“I thought so.”
“Shut up, Merlin.”
It was late afternoon by the time the knights gathered in Arthur’s private council chambers. They sat again at the table with no head, only two empty spots. One by the door and the other to Arthur’s left. Once everyone was settled in the identical spots of the day before, Arthur began.
“Geoffrey of Monmouth is looking into the situation with Cenred’s kingdom for any precedents that have been set in similar situations. I need to know if I have an obligation to these people beyond sympathy. Until then, I’d like to hear your thoughts on how to solve the most immediate problem: our lack of men.”
Lancelot spoke first. “Sire, there are mercenaries to the north, those that didn’t join Cenred’s army. They are not noble, and many not very honourable.” Percival snorted and Lancelot shot him a grin. “But they are able men that will do their job for you, should you pay them.”
“Good. Send word out immediately.” Arthur mentally tallied a vague sum to his current man count. It still fell far short of what they needed. “Unfortunately, that will barely fill in our army to support Camelot’s needs. What other suggestions are there, if we are to” — Arthur’s eyes flickered to Merlin — “venture into Cenred’s Kingdom?”
Gwaine cleared his throat and looked around the room as if deciding whether or not to speak. “I don’t know politics or what it takes to conquer a kingdom, but I’ve spent many years in Cenred’s lands. And not just in the taverns.” He winked at Merlin, and Arthur had to stop his lips from curling at their familiarity and focus on what Gwaine was trying to say. “I’d offer the local farmers a day’s work in exchange for a meal, or a bed for the night. They’re good people, strong men, willing to break their backs to fix a neighbour’s roof.”
Beside Arthur, Merlin was nodding and looking at Arthur as if the solution was right there in front of them. But it was never about whether these people were worth saving or not. The practical side of it was that he couldn’t just will it to be done, as Merlin seemed to think. He waved Gwaine to continue.
“All right, let’s say you go into these villages. Tell them who you are, what you are trying to do. Talk to them. Don’t conquer them.”
Merlin cut in, practically bouncing off his chair. “And maybe offer them more than future promises. Give them something – some grain from the stores or some gold to replenish what the bandits have taken.”
“Yes. That would go far.” Gwaine was nodding too, getting excited, as a plan seemed to take form between the two of them.
But Arthur still could not fathom it. “How could we afford this?”
Ignoring him, Merlin continued, “And in exchange, ask their men to join you in fighting for their own freedom.”
Arthur shook his head. “Untrained men will be slaughtered in battle.”
Arthur’s eyes widened when Leon voiced his support of the idea. “These are bandits, not an invading army. The villagers should be taught to defend their own homes.”
“I cannot teach the men of every town we encounter.”
Lancelot chimed in. “You have us, Sire. And the other knights. Leave one or two of us behind in each village to protect the villagers and train the men there.”
It was conditional on these people wanting help, wanting peace. And went against every kind of battle strategy Arthur had ever read.
“There will be those that will not want this,” Elyan argued, as if reading Arthur’s mind.
“There will be.” Gwaine looked between Arthur and Elyan as if determining whom to address. “Then we’ll move on. Leave that town to its own purpose – and see in another six months. They will change their minds as the towns surrounding them flourish under your protection and the bandits find them an easy target.”
Arthur sank into his chair, letting his head fall back. He stared at the cobwebs gathered in the far corner of the ceiling, mind racing to catch up with all the suggestions and possible outcomes. “There are too many unknowns. We’d be spreading ourselves thin without any guarantees that these people will stand with us.”
The room fell quiet. Arthur could hear the rustle of fabric as they shifted about in their chairs. It was too much of a risk, but still he wished there was a way. If they could do this, if there was a way, it would be brilliant.
“All right, we will set this aside for now. I will look into a few things. In the meantime, we have our one kingdom to see to. Let’s go over what was asked of us this morning.”
There were nods around the table, everyone seemingly happy with the delay rather than an outright decision.
“We can't do it.” Arthur threw down his quill in frustration. The ink splattered along the parchment. The records keeper would be annoyed at him for that, but it was the least of his worries. “There's not enough money in the treasury. And there's nothing left in the grain stores from this past winter.”
Merlin was tight-lipped, not arguing as he fussed about with the fire.
Arthur scowled at the back of his head then picked up his quill and made another note on the margin of the report he'd been poring over for the last hour.
“Maybe something will come up?”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “You may go. I'm sure you're anxious to get back to your mother.”
“Thank you, Sire.”
Arthur watched the door close, grateful to be alone with his thoughts. He'd been to see his father before retiring, only to find him worse – babbling about things that would be treason from any other man. When Gaius arrived with his medication, Arthur had pulled him into the antechamber.
“His mind is going, Sire,” Gaius had explained. “I fear dementia.”
“But the things he talks about…”
“Ramblings of a man who has lost all sense of reality.” Gaius had looked him in the eyes, his voice steady. “Pay them no mind.”
Arthur's shoulders tensed; he was more confused than ever. “I see.” Arthur had wanted, had hoped to get something more out of Gaius but Gaius was loyal as ever. The question was: was he loyal enough to lie, straight-faced, to the prince?
“The best I can do is sedate him as his body heals, and maybe with it, his mind.”
“I-” Arthur had looked at his father, so small, curled in on himself in that large bed. “Do what you think is best. But make sure he is comfortable. We can't have any servants overhearing his ramblings, as you say. I'll limit who is permitted into this room to only the most trusted servants.”
“Very good, Sire.” Gaius had bowed with a stiff deference that set Arthur's teeth on edge and set him wondering about secrets kept and lies told all in the name of loyalty. Loyalty to whom, he wondered.
The candles were burning low and the report margins were covered in his scribbles when the knock came.
Arthur huffed at the interruption. “Enter,” he snapped, the frustration of the evening eating at his nerves.
Arthur looked up in time to see Hunith's gentle curtsey. “Hunith!” He stood and walked towards her with a wide grin. “Is everything all right?” He motioned for her to sit, but she shook her head.
“Yes, Sire. You are more than generous in your hospitality.”
“No more that you were to me.”
A sly smile snuck across her face, and he recalled with a bit of humility the food he'd turned down and wondered how many grumbled complaints she'd overheard.
“Merlin tells me you are doing everything you can to help us. I wanted to thank you.”
Arthur waved off the thanks. “I may not be able to do anything.” He looked back at the table covered in a mess of parchment. “Merlin shouldn't get your hopes up.” The words were tired, bitter with defeat.
“Sire.” She approached him, her gentle smile and kind eyes drawing the tension out of his shoulders. “It matters that you think us worthy enough to try.”
She took his hands in hers and squeezed them gently. Her hands were rough, callused and worn. His were ink stained.
“You are doing so well, Arthur. Your mother would be proud.”
He pulled away, needing more space in the suddenly hot room. He closed his eyes and bit down on the tremble in his bottom lip. He may have been spoken to like this once, as a child. A nursemaid might have soothed him after a scraped knee, or patted his head for getting his sums to add properly. If it had ever occurred, he had no memory of it.
After a long time, he turned back, embarrassed at how deeply her kindness had affected him.
She gave Arthur a watery smile and tapped his cheek. As she quietly slipped out the door, she stopped. Head bowed, she whispered, “When the time comes, my Lord, I beg you to forgive him.”
It was a long time before Arthur could find sleep that night. Hunith’s words turned over in his head until the wee hours of the morning, and still he could make no sense of them.
The next morning beside Arthur’s breakfast platter, Merlin set down a leather sack. Arthur eyed it then looked up at Merlin, who sported a ridiculous grin, which said he thought himself very clever this time and thought Arthur couldn’t possibly argue otherwise.
Weighing the sack in his hand, Arthur narrowed his eyes. It wasn’t coins, but heavy enough. The feel was more of a handful of pebbles. “You’re not going to just tell me, are you?”
With a huff, Arthur loosened the string and looked inside. Merlin snorted and Arthur knew his jaw had dropped. He poured the contents carefully onto the table.
Jewels of different shapes, sizes and colours glittered in the morning sun. Arthur picked up a large ruby, the size of his thumbnail, thick and square. It was beautifully cut, shimmering in the palm of his hand as the light caught each facet.
“Where in the hell did you get these?” He put the ruby back into the pile. There were another dozen at least of that size and twice that amount of smaller gems.
“Morgana’s crown.” Merlin laughed. “I removed all her jewellery and such from her rooms before the servants moved in. There was so much of it! The crown alone – as you can see – well, this would go far, yeah? In your campaign to win Cenred’s kingdom. The peasants know the worth of these stones; they’d use them in trade.”
The excitement in Merlin’s voice was contagious, and, as Merlin babbled, Arthur felt hope spring in his chest, warm and tingly.
“I mean, it’s not the same as a gold coin. But the gold from the crown! I talked to Gwen, and she said the mint would melt it easily. You should have seen her smile when she said that! She guessed a few hundred coins from the crown alone. It’s all more valuable to common people than a brooch or something that can’t be divided up amongst families and... you’re not saying anything.”
Incredulous, Arthur looked from the pile of jewels to Merlin’s expectant face. It would certainly go far, dispersing one or two of the stones amongst poor families. Earn their trust. Maybe enough for a dozen towns. Maybe enough to pay for fifty men, or more.
“And you... how did you ever remove these without damaging the stones?” He’d once watched a jeweller change the setting of his father’s ring. It had taken him nearly an hour to remove three stones with expert hands. He knew stones could shatter or chip under the pressure if not removed properly.
Merlin fidgeted under his gaze. “With... tools and such.” He waved his hands. “Tools made for these things. It took – um – all night?” His voice raised at the last as if it were a question and not an answer.
“I’m sure it did,” Arthur replied, confused.
“Gwen said she would take the gold to the mint tonight, if I finished off the rest of the jewellery. But I wanted to ask you first.”
“Ah. So now you want my permission?”
Merlin lifted his shoulders and gave his best innocent grin.
“What am I going to do with you?” He placed a hand on the back of Merlin’s neck and Merlin tensed. Arthur laughed. “It was a very clever idea. Do the rest of Morgana’s bobbles. Let’s make something good come of her vanity.”
They exchanged a smile then tucked into a shared breakfast. With every bite, Arthur eyes fell to the pile of gems then to Merlin. There was a sparkle in Merlin’s eyes when Arthur gave him even the smallest praise, and Arthur realised how much her loved to see it there.
Arthur stopped short as he turned a corner on the way to the council chambers. At his side, Merlin whispered, “What is it?”
He didn’t bother to reply. His attention was at the other end of the corridor, on Lancelot bowing deeply to Gwen and her bright smile as she set down a bucket of water. Arthur stayed where he was, half-hidden by a pillar.
“My Lady.” Lancelot’s voice was gallant, smooth in a way that Arthur never seemed to manage around Gwen. “Let me relieve you of your heavy burden.”
“Sir Lancelot. You are too kind.” Her voice was warm and as she clasped Lancelot’s hands. Arthur blinked, unsure whether to believe what he was seeing. “Lancelot, I'm so proud of you. A knight!”
“Thank you, my Lady.” Lancelot bowed. “Arthur is a good man.”
Arthur felt Merlin tugging at his shoulder, silently begging him to move, but Arthur was frozen in place.
“He will make a great king,” Gwen said, proud, formal. She and Lancelot shared a look that Arthur couldn't quite name.
“You will be happy with him.” Lancelot stumbled over the words and things became clearer.
Arthur swatted Merlin’s fist on his sleeve and shot him a warning look. He was not leaving. When he looked back, Gwen's face had hardened in a way Arthur had never seen.
“And is that why you left all those months ago? You decided I would be happy with him?” There was a chill to her tone that carried down the corridor and made Arthur’s neck rise in gooseflesh.
“He is in love with you.”
“He hasn't spoken to me in a week.”
“I have not forgiven you for leaving me without a word.”
Arthur could barely hear the words, barely process them over the ringing in his ears.
Lancelot stepped away and began pacing back and forth. “He is a prince and a good man.”
“And you are a knight and a good man.”
Lancelot stopped, brow furrowed and lips down-turned. “What you said to me then, when Hengist had you in his dungeons...”
Merlin’s hand was no longer tugging at him. His fingers had curled on Arthur’s arm, his other hand held Arthur’s shoulder, grounding him. Arthur leaned into the comfort of it.
“You were frightened and alone.” Lancelot looked up at her and his eyes were so filled with emotion that Arthur’s cheeks burned to witness something so intimate. “You are free to love whom you choose.”
“Am I?” she said, her voice cracking as she picked up the bucket. “Am I really?” She spun on her heel, blinking wildly as she walked away.
Lancelot stood for a moment longer, watching her disappear. With a sigh, he rubbed at his eyes and walked off in the other direction.
Arthur waited in Merlin’s strange embrace until his head cleared enough to let him move. When he finally felt like he could breathe again, he clenched his teeth and walked quickly to the throne room in long powerful strides, Merlin blessedly silent at his shoulder.
His people were waiting for an audience with their acting king.
The morning had been long. It was to be the last pleas to the king for a long while and people seemed desperate to have their issues raised, as passionately and as detailed as possible. Arthur’s head pounded from skipping lunch. Being barely able to make eye contact with Lancelot wasn’t helping. He accepted the wine Merlin poured for him gratefully and sat at the round table with his gathered knights. Geoffrey of Monmouth stood, books and parchments clutched in his arms, hovering at the back of the room.
“Geoffrey.” Arthur nodded as the old man entered his council chambers. “What have you found?”
The table had the same two vacant seats. When Arthur motioned for Geoffrey to join them, he chose the one in front of the door. Everyone else was seated as they had been for the previous three days as if their names were etched on the spots.
“Sire,” he began. “I have found a number of similar situations to this one but none quite like it.”
“In the great war of Cornelius Sigan, he had invaded lands to the souths, only to be pushed back...”
Arthur cleared his throat, in no mood for a history lesson. “In your opinion, what are Camelot’s obligations and rights at this moment?”
Geoffrey blinked, startled at the interruption before collecting himself. “In my opinion, Cenred’s kingdom belongs to Camelot unless it is claimed by someone else before Camelot solidifies her claim.”
Around the room heads nodded to Geoffrey’s words. “Thank you, Geoffrey.”
With that settled, it was time to make some decisions. Arthur set aside his frustrations of the moment and began to plan. “We have two issues: our lack of men and our lack of resources to entice recruits. We believe we have a solution to the latter.” He flicked a glance to Merlin, who grinned.
He looked to Lancelot and his first thought was to send him far away, but he buried it quickly as petty. “Lancelot and Percival, I want you to send word to those you met in your travels, any who may be interested in supporting our campaign.”
“Right away, Sire.”
“Gwaine and Leon – I’d like you to go fishing. Take a group, the size of small patrol, and go east to the towns inside Camelot’s borders. See what men will join us and be taught to fight.”
Merlin jumped in to add, “Planting season’s almost over. There may be a few farmhands with some idle days ahead. If you could guarantee they’ll be back for harvest--”
“We cannot guarantee they will be back at all, Merlin. They aren’t going on a holiday,” Arthur snapped. Then, more calmly, he turned to Leon. “We can say we need them at least until harvest. But we don’t know more. Bring back as many as you can in three days. We’ll train them here and mix them with our remaining army; their inexperience will be less noticeable.”
Leon and Gwaine nodded at each other, then back at Arthur.
“Percival and Elyan, if Gwaine and Leon are successful, you will do the same to the west.” There were no concerns raised and every face had a set, determined look. Arthur began to believe. “If we have enough men, I want to set out to Cenred’s borders by month’s end.”
He was about to dismiss everyone when Geoffrey cleared his throat.
“Is there anything else?”
“The translations you requested.” Geoffrey pushed a large stack of parchments toward Arthur.
Arthur stared at the pile, confused for a moment, but then he remembered. “Oh, yes. The table. What did you find?” Arthur kept his hands folded in front of him. He’d rather not read twenty pages of scribbles that he knew Geoffrey could summarise in under two minutes.
Geoffrey looked around the room, tugging at his beard and appearing oddly uncomfortable. A thrill ran down Arthur’s spine at the thought that there was indeed something important about this table, these etchings.
Picking up the pile he’d moved toward Arthur, Geoffrey carefully leafed through the parchments until he found what he was looking for. “Here we are,” he said, pulling one from the stack.
He cleared his throat again. “As you suspected, Sire, the markings at each place on this table have meanings. It was believed that this table of equals, with each placement bringing forth different gifts, would produce the strongest kingdoms.”
“In front of you -- Bargu.” Geoffrey read carefully from the sheet then pointed at the letters under Arthur’s fingertips. “Meaning High King.”
Arthur’s pulse raced as Geoffrey spoke. It felt right. Bargu. Interesting how the seat had drawn him in.
Geoffrey pointed to the empty spot at Arthur’s left, the one Gwen had sat in and which had remained empty since the table had been brought to the castle. “This place is Éadlufu, meaning Love.”
Arthur glanced at Lancelot and saw the longing in his eyes as he stared at the empty chair. Remorse twisted in Arthur’s gut.
Geoffrey went on, clockwise, naming the ‘gifts’ each placement was intended for. With each, Arthur’s conviction grew that the people at the table had not been randomly chosen or seated. Sósfœstnes, Fidelity, was Elyan’s place. Ellenweorc, Heroic Deed, was Gwaine’s.
Next Geoffrey indicated the spot in which he sat himself and with mild embarrassed said, “Rœsbora, Leader in thought.”
Geoffrey added Mœgen, Bodily Strength for Percival and everyone snickered.Scamu, Modesty and Aeoling, Chief Prince were Lancelot and Leon respectively.
Around the room, there were smirks and sincere nods, acknowledging the accuracy of each placement.
But after Leon, Geoffrey paused. “Many of these have various translations. It’s a complicated process.” He began to leaf through the pages as though to prove his point. “I went with the most consistent.” He took a deep breath and looked at Merlin, who was restless, squirming in his chair like an errant child, pink eared and biting his lip. Arthur was tempted to lay a hand on his shoulder. There was no question in Arthur’s mind that Merlin’s gift to the kingdom was valuable, whatever the name his placement had been given in years past.
“I –” Geoffrey shuffled through his papers again.”This marking, Sire. There was only one meaning that I could find.”
Arthur waved him along, impatient.
“That marking is Drylic - Magic.”
Geoffrey handed the parchment to Arthur, a circle with the words and translations in each spot.
On another day, he might have simply laughed at the thought of Merlin having magic. But his perception of the world around him was slowly being torn apart, eroded with each wave of truth that crashed against his convictions. Today it felt like he knew nothing at all for certain. When the time comes, forgive him, Hunith had asked. Arthur stared at Merlin, the frantic bob of his Adam’s apple as he swallowed. His eyes were shut and he was shaking his head almost like a tremble, quick jittery movements. And Arthur knew.
Gwaine’s cough broke the silence and snapped Arthur out of his thoughts.
He needed to say something. It was only right to say something flippant, to blow off the weight of the accusation that if taken seriously would mean Merlin’s life. But all the words caught in his throat. He didn’t dare look away from Merlin, look at his knights and let them see the treason in his eyes.
“Council is dismissed,” he choked out at last, eyes falling to Geoffrey’s notes, the word Bargu and at its right hand, Drylic.
After a dozen heartbeats of dead silence, the room emptied in a flurry of noise. Merlin, the last of them, hovered. Arthur could feel the tension coming off him in waves, but he refused to look up from the parchment in his hand and the scratched words that turned his world upside down once more.
Merlin would likely be waiting in Arthur’s chambers so Arthur avoided that side of the castle entirely. He wandered the halls, stumbling his way through the wreckage of the west tower, poking his head in the abandoned rooms. The few meagre possessions left inside were rain-soaked from the gaping hole in the outer wall and the previous night’s storm. The cold spring wind whistled through the abandoned tower, chilling him numb.
When it became too dark to see any longer and Arthur tripped over rubble, smacking his knee onto the stone floor, he decided it was time to visit his father.
The servant at Uther’s side disappeared the moment Arthur walked in. His mind reeling from the day, Arthur simply sat, held his father’s hand and watched him sleep.
He hated the rush of fear at the thought of Uther opening his eyes, of being well again and taking the kingdom back. The burden was Arthur’s now, and he couldn’t imagine sharing it, telling his father all that he’d decided in his absence and handing back the reins.
He would never strip his knights of their titles. And he could never find the words to explain away the meaning of Merlin’s marking. Not when he couldn’t understand it himself.
Arthur looked up, startled to find Gaius by his side.
“Merlin told me about the misunderstanding.”
“The misunderstanding?” Arthur’s eyes widened, incredulous as Gaius’s wording choice.
“Yes. The etchings on the table, Sire.” Gaius rocked back and forth on his heels, the picture of casual. “The ancient kings would keep a court sorcerer at their right hand. You happen to keep Merlin at your right hand. It's pure coincidence.”
Gaius was so confident in his words, his tone calm and logical. Arthur's mind flashed to the woman, Alice, who Gaius once hid, and to the way Gaius had looked as he lied to Arthur's face while his father lay dying on the floor of these chambers.
“Tell me, Gaius.” He chose his words carefully. “Did you know my father used sorcery before I was born? That he associated with sorcerers?”
Uther's hand was cold, his skin like thin worn parchment in Arthur’s own. “And what made him stop? What made him determine they were evil and had to be … purged?”
There was a long uncomfortable pause, but Arthur waited it out, not giving Gaius an inch. “He was betrayed,” Gaius said at last.
The fire crackled across the room and Arthur turned to it. The blaze was high for the king's comfort. Arthur's neck was damp with sweat. “Betrayed how?” he asked, sick of these word games and half-truths.
“He had requested something of a sorcerer and received something unexpected in return.” Gaius's voice shook as he spoke, the first crack Arthur had ever seen in Gaius's well-practiced neutral tone.
“You've been defending him for a long time, haven't you?” Arthur let the ambiguity of who hang in the air. It seemed Gaius was a well-practiced liar, whether it was for Merlin or Uther.
“I'm not sure I follow you.”
“My father was willing to let you use magic to restore his health. He told me to instruct you to use whatever means necessary and that you would understand.”
“He was obviously delirious.”
“What else has he asked you to do, Gaius? What other secrets has he asked you to keep?” Gaius stumbled backwards, mouth open to reply, but nothing came out. Arthur was grateful for that, at least. “Do you keep as many secrets for him as from him? Is that how it balances out in your head?”
A log fell in the hearth and Gaius startled. It took a moment for him to gather himself. “You are upset. It's been a trying week. You should get some rest.”
Arthur barked out a bitter laugh. “You are very loyal, Gaius. But very rarely honest.” He swept out of the room. The lies in the air scuttled under his skin; he clenched his fists not to claw at his arms and neck, his pounding chest.
Arthur entered his chambers, unsurprised to find Merlin there. Merlin jumped like a started rabbit when the door crashed open. “Well, if it isn’t the man on everyone's mind,” Arthur snarled, letting all his festering anger seep into his words.
“Sire.” Merlin rushed towards him as if proximity would help plead his case. “That placement was a coincidence, Arthur. I just picked a spot at the table.”
Arthur heard the well-practiced tone in Merlin's words and imagined Gaius and Merlin, together deciding on their approach. How they would 'deal' with Arthur's suspicion. Suddenly the two of them became transparent. It was mortifying. “Yes, Gaius was just telling me how random the seating was. How it all means nothing.”
Merlin looked confused for a minute, unsure how to reply, and Arthur wondered if maybe he would get an honest answer. But a flicker of hope passed over Merlin’s face. “Of course. I mean, none of us knew what the markings meant. I was just as likely to sit on your right as on your left.”
Arthur let his lip curl into a smirk. “Looking to take Gwen's spot, are you? It's currently vacant. Though the chance of beheading seems equally high.” He hated how bitter he sounded, but there was no stopping it.
Merlin's cheeks bloomed red. “That's not what –”
Grabbing both Merlin's wrists in a tight hold, he shoved Merlin back against the door. He vowed to not let go until he heard the truth. “Do you have magic?”
“I—” Merlin opened his mouth and closed it again, his eyes searching Arthur’s face.
“Yes or no.” Arthur was pressed up against him, almost too close to see properly. “My life is too full of lies, Merlin.”
Merlin's face crumpled, pathetically pinched lips and wrinkled brow. After a heartbeat, he raised his chin and held Arthur’s gaze. “I have magic.”
Arthur exhaled, a puff of air in Merlin’s face. It was a relief to hear it, oddly. The truth was soothing, despite the myriad of problems it created, the underlying betrayal of it. He clung to Merlin's wrist like a lifeline as the revelation was absorbed and sunk into his fevered skin. Merlin didn’t try to free himself, even as Arthur’s grip tightened.
He needed to understand. “Have you ever used magic to manipulate me, to change my opinion or make me feel something I did not?”
Merlin considered the question. “I haven’t, Arthur, I swear.”
“Have you ever used your magic against Camelot?”
It took a moment. Arthur could tell Merlin's mind was racing, knowing everything was riding on his complete honesty. “I used it to help free the druid boy, Mordred. I used it to become Dragoon the Great in order to manipulate the king into freeing Gwen.”
Dozens of questions ran through Arthur’s mind at that. A tickle of laughter bubbled up in his chest at the thought of Merlin as the ridiculous Dragoon, but the humour died with Merlin’s next words.
“I freed Kilgharrah.” Merlin squeezed his eyes shut and turned away. “The Great Dragon.”
Arthur's hand flew up and clasped Merlin's neck before he even realised it. “You what?”
“I had to,” Merlin said, defeated. His Adam’s apple bobbed beneath Arthur’s palm. “I agreed to free him in exchange for information to save Camelot. It was the only way. I didn't know what he'd do.”
There were hundreds – hundreds! – of Camelot’s people killed by those attacks. He’d lost seven knights, men he’d known since he was barely able to hold a sword. His fingers curled around Merlin’s throat.
“I swear to you,” Merlin rasped, the air barely escaping through Arthur's fingers. “If I'd known, I would have let him rot down there.”
Arthur snatched his hand away and stepped back, needing distance, needing far more distance than his chambers afforded. “That, I cannot forgive.” He looked at Merlin then, and did not know him.
“Arthur, please.” Merlin was broken, lost, his cheeks blotchy and wet as he rubbed them.
Arthur shook his head, unable to meet Merlin’s eye, and flew out the room.
The weight of the sword in Arthur's hand and the chill of the early spring breeze at his cheeks calmed him as he strode to the line of hay-stuffed men. It was past midnight and the moonlight lit the armour with an ethereal glow. The first strike was satisfyingly loud in the quiet night.
He was well past the point of exhaustion, his shoulders burning and lungs aching with each breath when Lancelot found him.
“The letters are sent, Sire.”
Arthur froze, sword high and ready to fall on the sole remaining practice dummy – the others were nothing but dented metal at his feet. “Go to bed, Lancelot.”
He let his sword fall and the amour cracked, spilling hay into the wind.
“Sire.” Lancelot's voice was a soft, even tone. “With all due respect, you should take your own advice.”
“I don't feel like it.” He sounded more the petulant child he'd been at fifteen than the king he'd needed to be now. Deflated, Arthur lowered his sword.
“I saw Merlin.”
“Don’t.” He was here to forget.
“He knew he'd have to tell you someday. He knew you'd be upset.”
“Upset.” Arthur snorted and kicked a hauberk that lay on the grass. “Yes.”
“He's saved my life a dozen times at least. Yours even more than that, I imagine.”
Arthur looked up at the sky wondering if he'd be more willing to listen if it were Gwaine or Leon pleading Merlin's case and not Lancelot, who just that morning all but crushed Arthur's hope of marrying Gwen. And yet, at the moment, Gwen's uncertainty paled in terms of consequence compared to Merlin's betrayal.
“If he'd told you before – if he'd told you that he could win back Camelot and defeat an entire army of immortals with one blow, would you have accepted his help?”
“I – I can't answer that.”
“He didn't know either. And he couldn't risk it.” Neck bowed, Lancelot shook his head. “I didn’t agree with his decision. You deserved to know.”
“We agree on that, at least.”
They sat on the grass together, looking up at the stars. Arthur looked there for answers, wondering if saving Camelot from an evil Queen somehow balanced releasing a dragon upon those same people. Did the universe weigh those lives on the scales of judgement and find Merlin worthy of thanks or punishment? Was it up to Arthur to decide?
“How did he do it?”
“Hmm. That's not my story to tell, your highness.”
“Gwen. You and Gwen. Is that your story to tell?” The words came out too loud.
“There is nothing to tell.”
“Do not lie to me!” Arthur’s voice was nearly shrill now and he took a calming breath and added more softly, “Not today. God, not today.”
Lancelot took a moment, seeming to gather his thoughts before admitting, “I love her. I left her only because I guessed your affections.”
Arthur remembered. He remembered the hurt, lonely picture Gwen had made during their journey back to Camelot. The way she'd look over her shoulder and check if they were being followed only to force a smile back on her face when Arthur assured her that she was safe, how it was only months later that the light had returned to her eyes.
“Now she is yours. And I could not have asked for a worthier man to bow to.”
“I release her.”
“I don't understand.”
“Any obligation she feels towards me – I release her of it. She is free to choose to marry as she will.”
“She has already chosen you.”
“As the only other option, maybe. I will not have that.”
Lancelot pursed his lips and looked away. “I can go again. I can leave and not return.” Arthur believed him.
“That is not the answer. Stay. Court her, if you wish. I – I leave this up to fate and Gwen's heart to decide. I will not marry someone who loves another man. There are enough lies in this castle.”
He stood and offered Lancelot his hand. They walked back inside in silence.
Gaius's room was dark and empty. He was likely still with Uther, waiting to give the last dose of medicine for the day before he retired. A light flickered through the crack under Merlin's door and Arthur approached it.
He stared at the thin, brittle wood and remembered how this had been a large storage cupboard before Merlin had come along. How the walls had been lined with shelves, stuffed with herbs and books that were now scattered about the main chamber. This was where the saviour of this kingdom slept, hidden in the shadows like a dirty little secret. Camelot's walls seemed to bleed with those.
He knocked and listened to the scramble and thuds as items around the room seemed to hit the floor. A moment later, a flustered Merlin opened the door. “Arthur,” he said, shock evident on his face.
Arthur's mind blanked and he regretted not having waited until morning, until he'd decided what to say and maybe practiced it a few times over before facing Merlin again. At a loss, he pushed his way into the room and looked around. Jewellery was scattered all over the bed, at Merlin’s pillow a pile of nothing but gold and silver settings empty of stones, and at the foot of the bed a pile of untouched brooches, earrings and necklaces. Between them was an open leather satchel.
“Ah.” Arthur nodded in understanding.
Merlin blushed. “In case you were going to arrest me, I wanted to get this done. You’ll need it for Leon tomorrow.”
Arthur rolled his eyes at Merlin’s failure at self-preservation. He should have been already halfway to Camelot’s borders by now. Funny how it hadn’t occurred to Arthur that Merlin would run. “Well, let’s see this then.”
Merlin hesitated, but just for a moment. Then, he stretched out his hand and whispered a word. A necklace of purple amethysts rose from the pile. Merlin said something else – an indiscernible slur of vowels – and the necklace shimmered. Each of the dozen gems fell into the sack and the remaining gold chain moved to the end of the bed.
“Clever,” was all Arthur could manage to say at the simple elegance of Merlin’s magic.
“It would honestly take forever to do it all by hand.”
Arthur cracked a smile and the tension seemed to leave his body on the next exhale.
“You could have told me.”
“I thought you weren't ready.”
Arthur’s eyes narrowed, but he knew it would be a cyclical argument on that point. No matter when Merlin had decided to tell him, they would have needed to work through the betrayal. Immediately before attempting to regain Camelot would have been poor timing, to say the least.
“Lancelot said you defeated the immortal army.”
“With one blow.”
“Yeah.” Merlin looked away, scratching the back of his neck, but his smile was wide and sincere. “I was given a weapon, by a friend, and with Lancelot's help we got close enough to knock over the cup. That's what needed to be done, spill the blood in the cup and—” Merlin curled his hands into fists then flicked out his fingers so they spread wide. “Poof. They were already dead, you see, as soon as Morgause made them immortal, they had forfeited their lives and …”
“You and Lancelot saved Camelot.”
Merlin picked up a ring and inspected it, then dropped it again. “Gaius helped.”
Jealousy curled deep in his belly at the trust Merlin had placed in those two men and not in him. “It should have been me.” Arthur stepped closer. “It should have been me by your side, winning back the kingdom.”
“I was afraid.” Merlin’s voice was soft, quiet words spoken like an apology.
“I know.” Arthur moved to let Merlin’s bowed head rest upon his shoulder. His fingers threaded the silky hair at Merlin’s nape. “Idiot.”
“I couldn’t lose you,” Merlin breathed into Arthur’s collar, warm and wet. It sent a delicious quiver down Arthur’s spine, settling deep in his groin, a sudden need that Arthur couldn’t name. But when Merlin raised his head and their cheeks grazed, Arthur’s eyes fell shut. Instinctively, he shifted, tilting his head to catch the corner of Merlin’s lips with his own. They stayed like that, not quite a kiss, but Arthur could feel the tremble of Merlin’s jaw as they breathed each other’s air. Then Arthur moved, just enough to drag his mouth, feather-light, across Merlin’s. A rumble of pleasure broke the quiet and Merlin’s tongue swept out, wetting Arthur’s bottom lip and tugging it gently.
The spark of need Arthur’d felt before caught flame. Arthur’s hands buried in Merlin’s hair, clinging to him as their mouths met again. This time there was no pretending it was anything but a kiss.
“I asked you before.” Arthur broke away, but didn’t move far. “This time I want you to mean it. Do not lie to me. Promise me, Merlin. I need to trust you – you above all.”
“I won’t, Arthur.” Merlin trembled in his arms, face open and sincere. “Never again.”
“I believe you,” Arthur breathed. “God help me, I believe you.” His eyes stung at the raw ache in his chest. Trusting would never again come easy for him. But he clung to Merlin anyway, his need to believe greater than his need to protect himself. He was hot all over, their bodies pressed so close, their mouths dancing, slick and desperate against each other. He’d never imagined kissing another man, never thought he’d want anyone as desperately as he wanted Merlin at this moment. He poured everything into the kiss, his anger, his loneliness, his jealousy. He gave it all to Merlin.
A dam broke, then. Merlin was everywhere, his hand scrambling under Arthur’s tunic, clawing at him like he would never get enough. Arthur was drowning, swept away in the intensity of Merlin's reaction. He hissed as Merlin nipped at his lips, demanding entrance and suddenly it was wet and messy and in no way like Arthur had been kissed before. This was nothing like the awkward tumbles he'd had in the past – all conscious thought and focused, calculated moves.
With a strangled noise from Merlin’s throat, he pressed his hands to Arthur’s chest, getting a bit of distance between. “What about Gwen?”
Arthur groaned at the interruption and shook his head to clear it. “Gwen has her own decisions to make. And I have mine.”
Merlin frowned at that and Arthur kissed the furrow of his brow. “I would be a hypocrite if I expected anyone to marry for anything but love.”
Hoping that was enough, or at least enough for now, Arthur dove in again, capturing Merlin’s lips. He hummed in approval when Merlin met him eagerly.
There was an 'oof' as Merlin's back hit the wall and Arthur hadn't even realised they'd moved. That he'd walked them across the room to pin Merlin with his thigh between Merlin’s spread legs. They gasped into each other's mouths the moment their groins connected.
“Next time, it will be me by your side. Promise me.” He rolled his hips and watched Merlin’s head fall back at the contact. He latched onto his exposed neck and suckled.
“I promise, Arthur.” Merlin said in a breathless gasp as Arthur marked his neck. “It's always you. Always.”
Merlin tugged his hair until their lips crashed together again. They found a rhythm, deep slow kisses that were edged with promise and heightened by every roll of their hips. The tingle of his skin told him he wasn't far off from embarrassing himself. But his hips were thrusting involuntarily, dragging the most delicious noises from Merlin. There was no way he could step back at this point.
“Gaius!” Merlin squeaked into the kiss, turning his head away.
Panting onto Merlin's cheek, Arthur squeezed his eyes shut and listened. Beyond the door, there was the shuffling of feet and clatter of items being moved about a darkened room.
They stayed still for a moment, panting, foreheads pressed together, hands tangled in hair and under tunics. Finally, Arthur moved back. He rearranged his clothes, trying to gather what he could of his dignity despite the obvious tent in his breeches. His cheeks burned at how far he’d let the moment take them, the intensity of his feelings towards Merlin that he’d never acknowledged before.
Merlin visibly shuddered and ran his hands through his hair. “I love Gaius, really. But sometimes...” He smiled, flushed cheeks and a mischievous glint to his eyes.
Arthur chuckled and pressed a quick kiss to Merlin's swollen lips, just because he could. When he moved away, Merlin's mouth chased his, nipping and trying to prolong the contract. Something in his chest tightened and took hold. This was what love felt like. The realisation crashed onto him and took his breath away.
At the door, Arthur turned. “I think it's time you move out of Gaius's storage cupboard. Tomorrow, pack your things. There are more empty rooms in this castle than we know how to fill at the moment.”
He made a mental note to make sure it would have a door that barred.
Merlin burst into Arthur’s chambers three days later, out of breath and limbs flailing.
The past few days had been filled with preparations, readying for the campaign to claim Cenred’s kingdom that they still weren’t sure was happening. The nights were reserved for Merlin and exploring this tentative something they now shared – gentle kisses and desperate touches, peppered with the stories of Merlin’s magic, what it could do, had already done, in the defence of Camelot and Arthur.
The campaign would be ready by month’s end if Leon’s fishing net came back full enough, which Arthur still doubted and Merlin did not. Arthur had already decided Lancelot would remain in the castle – with Gwen – while Arthur, with Merlin at his side, entered Cenred’s kingdom. After that, he’d let fate and time take its course.
“Arthur!” Merlin ran to the window and fumbled it open. “Sir Leon’s returned.”
A little numb with surprise and trepidation, Arthur didn’t move fast enough apparently because Merlin was beside him in a blink, tugging at his elbow.
He shook off Merlin’s hand and stood. “I’m coming, Merlin.” With a deep breath, he pulled his coat straight and lifted his chin. His stomach flipped as he moved towards the window overlooking the courtyard.
Leon and Gwaine where still on their approach, sitting high in the saddle, red cloaks billowing in the breeze. Behind them were another ten of Camelot’s men, the group they’d gathered to travel with. But behind that were at least three dozen horses and still more coming as far as the eye could see.
“They came for you, Arthur.” Merlin pressed up against his shoulder. “These are the men you’ve shaken hands with and looked in the eye each time you visited their village. These are the men you’ve excused from taxes in bad years and whose families you've protected from raiders.”
Arthur stared out the window while Merlin’s words poured into his ear. The riders were a ragtag collection of men -- from farmers who’d seen as many winters as Uther, to young farmhands and apprentices, looking at the citadel wide-eyed and slack-jawed.
“They came for you because they believe in the world that you will build for them.”
Arthur spun on his heel. “I should greet them.”
“Arthur, wait.” Merlin scrambled through Arthur’s wardrobe and pulled out a heavy cloak with a bold Camelot dragon embroidered on the back.
“All right.” Arthur huffed. “Quickly.”
Once he was dressed, Merlin considered him a moment before grabbing his crown and gently placing it on his head. Merlin looked him up and down, and dipped his head in a small, proud nod. “Go. Meet your people.”
Chest warm and heavy, Arthur grinned and rushed out the door, knowing Merlin would be at his heels.
His father had conquered Camelot at Arthur’s age, but at that moment Arthur felt himself destined for something even greater.
- FIN -