It wasn’t often that Arthur went to ride on patrols anymore. As prince, he had gone on countless of them, leading his knights around the citadel, in far away villages, by the border— any and all parts of Camelot. But now as king, his schedule was much too demanding to include patrols in his daily routine.
But occasionally some patrols required his presence. There had been recent reports of strange activity toward the northern border, of villagers seeing hooded figures pass by and kidnap men. Hearing about trafficking was not uncommon, and in most situations, Arthur would’ve just sent his knights to investigate. But there had been rumors of a sorceress with dark hair and green eyes with them.
Although there was no confirmation, Arthur knew from the sinking feeling in his gut that it was Morgana. She had disappeared for years without a trace, and now it seemed she had finally returned. Despite his advisors urging him to stay to focus on other matters, Arthur had to know the truth for himself. He summoned his most trusted knights and left the next day.
They rode out to the village. The wind was cold and bitter from the lasting winter, the ground was wet and muddy from the recent rains, and most of the animals were still hibernating away until the nearby spring approached, leaving the group with little game to hunt.
And yet Arthur couldn’t remember having this much fun in a long time.
The bantering with his knights, the freedom of being able to travel, the thrill of the unknown in the air as they drew closer to their destination. It all reminded Arthur of a simpler time. A time when he didn’t have to fret about the state of Camelot, worry about his abilities as a ruler, or hear advisors nag him about marrying a noble and siring an heir. For the first time in years, Arthur felt free.
But the journey was cut short. By the time they reached the area, there was no sight of the mysterious men or Morgana. Arthur had tried to track down their whereabouts, following their most recent trail from the villagers’ account, but the tracks had suddenly stopped mid-footprint, as if they had vanished from the earth.
It was strange and worrying. But there was nothing Arthur could do for the time being. After telling the villagers to report back to him if they discovered anything new, Arthur and the knights set their sights back to the citadel to work on a new plan. And so that was where Arthur was now— cold, tired, and disappointed as they journeyed back.
“I thought the afternoon was supposed to be warmer than the morning,” said Gwaine from atop his horse, teeth chattering and talking to no one in particular.
Arthur rolled his eyes. He enjoyed traveling with his knights, but Gwaine’s mindless chatting was an unfortunate consequence of it.
“Considering our luck, are you surprised?” sent back Leon. “I’m sure there’ll be a snowstorm just as we settle down for the night.”
“Don’t tempt Mother Nature!” cried Elyan. “It’s cold, but not cold enough to snow... Hopefully.”
“If it does, I’m sleeping next to Percival,” said Gwaine, unabashed. “Man is as warm as the sun. And those muscles would scare any snowstorm away, isn’t that right, Percy?”
A beat passed before Percival responded in a deadpan, “You better be careful before they scare you away first, little man.”
Gwaine chuckled and they continued to banter back and forth, but Arthur had stopped paying attention. He heard the sound of leaves crunching some feet away from their group. Staring into the distance, he tried to look for any animals or people who could’ve made the noise. But he saw nothing more than the swaying of branches.
As the group progressed further into the forest, Arthur started to feel more and more on edge. His skin prickled and he couldn’t shake the feeling that a pair of eyes were watching him. He continued to look around, staring past the trees, but found no one there. He tried to tell himself that he was paranoid. But still the feeling didn’t ease.
A twig snapped. Whipping his head around to the source of the sound, Arthur again found nothing. This was no longer a coincidence.
Frowning, he quietly said to the rest of the group, “Someone is following us.”
The knights tensed up and reached for their swords. Arthur raised his hand to stop them.
“Act natural. But keep your guard up.”
For a few minutes, they continued traveling with no interruptions, the air tense with the scent of alphas on edge. However, that came to an end when Arthur heard a large thud and a pained gasp towards a stretch of trees. He veered Llamrei in that direction, his knights following behind him.
Arthur lifted his sword, steeling himself for the worst— that Morgana was there, ready to ambush them with an army of sorcerers. He was surprised when they instead came across a lone figure lying prone on the ground. A dark blue cloak completely hid the person’s face and body. For a moment, Arthur thought them unconscious, but then he saw slight movement and heard a muffled groan.
Arthur looked down and saw a large tree root closeby. The person must have tripped over it. He resisted the urge to snort. Amateur.
“Traveler,” Arthur called, pointing his sword at the figure, “why are you following us?”
The person on the ground stiffened. Gradually, they sat up, but still kept their face turned away, obscured from the group. Arthur gestured his knights to surround the person, keeping a wary eye on their movements. Amateur or not, he didn’t know what this person was capable of.
When no response came, Arthur prodded his sword into the person’s back, careful not to injure them.
Another beat passed and nothing happened. In frustration, Arthur almost told one of the knights to grab the person. But then the figure lowered their hood and turned towards him.
Arthur found himself looking at bright blue eyes, pale skin, and a mop of dark wavy hair. His heart skipped a beat and then it suddenly leaped to his throat, stealing his breath away. He knew this person. Someone who had been in his thoughts for years, who he thought he would never see again.
Arthur smiled from ear to ear. Sheathing his sword, he jumped off Llamrei and nearly tripped in his haste to rush over. Merlin rose in turn.
As he got closer, however, Arthur realized something wasn't right about Merlin. The finer details he had somehow missed in his first glance now stood out prominently: the face was much too round with youth, the jaw too wide, the ears too small.
And he was about two times too short.
Arthur blinked. A boy. It was just a young boy.
Arthur shook his head. He was truly going mad to think that this child was his former manservant. After all, there was no chance he’d ever see Merlin again. But in the heat of the moment, Arthur had forgotten the reality of the situation— that Merlin hated him and wanted nothing to do with him.
Arthur swallowed and approached the boy. As he neared, the boy tensed and held his arms in front of him defensively. Arthur slowed down and put his hands up.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said. “Why were you following us?”
The boy stayed silent. His jaw dropped and he stared at Arthur in awe. From this distance, Arthur could smell his faint scent: an alpha. He showed no obvious signs of fear, not even a whiff of it in his scent, despite being surrounded by knights with swords. Odd.
“Why are you out here alone?” Arthur tried again.
For the tiniest second, the boy’s face fell. But then his expression changed, his face hardening and eyes narrowing in distrust.
“Are you King Arthur?” he finally spoke. If Arthur wasn’t mistaken, he swore he heard a touch of a sneer in the boy’s voice.
“Yes, I am him.”
The boy looked him up and down. Sizing him up.
“...You’re fatter than I thought you’d be,” the boy commented boldly.
“Excuse me?” spluttered Arthur. He heard the knights snigger behind him and nearly turned back around to glare them down.
The boy rolled his eyes, his lip curled scornfully. “Deaf too. You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you?”
Arthur stared at him, almost not believing what he heard. It was one thing to handle derision from an adult, which Arthur had dealt with plenty of times before, but from a child… This was unknown territory for him.
Arthur arched an eyebrow. “Where did you get such a smart mouth?”
The brat had the audacity to shrug at him. As if stalking and disrespecting kings were nonchalant hobbies of his and not things punishable by execution.
Arthur cleared his throat. “Well, you’re certainly…” Foolish. Insolent. Abrasive. He could keep the list going, but he decided to settle on, “...fearless.”
At this, the boy smirked and puffed his chest out. “So I’ve been told,” he said.
“You know, these woods are quite dangerous for a little boy. Even for a brave one who likes to shadow kings.”
The boy scowled. “I’m not a little boy. I know these woods, and I’m not afraid of anything.”
Arthur chuckled and his knights did the same. Ah, to be a reckless youth again, convinced that you’re invincible. The boy reminded him a little of his own childhood. Minus the raging impudence. Arthur had the sudden urge to ruffle his hair, but judging from the intensity of his glare, the boy would probably bite his arm off.
“Where are your parents?” asked Arthur, looking around as if they could pop up at any moment. “It’s getting late. I’m sure they’re worried for you.”
The boy glanced down and fidgeted with his hands, his face twisted in a frown. He was silent for so long that Arthur considered repeating the question, but at the last moment he started to speak.
“My papa’s been kidnapped,” he muttered.
Arthur’s eyes widened in alarm. “Kidnapped? By who?”
His first thought was of the mass kidnappings and Morgana. Arthur would like to think that the once kind-hearted young woman would never kidnap a little boy’s father, but he knew now that she would do anything in her pursuit of power. There was a good chance she was behind this. Though he wouldn’t let the boy know that.
“I don’t know.” The boy shrugged, his body drooping. Then he looked up at Arthur, straightened his posture, and said vehemently, “I’m rescuing him.”
“That’s a big responsibility.” Arthur frowned. “Where’s your mother? Is someone looking after you?”
The boy shook his head. “I don’t have a mother. And I don’t need anyone. I can look after myself!” he insisted.
Arthur glanced at his knights, saw the concern written on all of their faces, and looked back down at the boy. Despite his outward confidence, the boy must be scared to be out here, trying to rescue his father alone. Any child would be.
Arthur rested a hand on the boy’s shoulder, who tensed a little at the touch but didn't argue.
“We’ll take you back to Camelot with us and organize a search party for your father. How does that sound?”
Arthur expected to hear in response ‘thank you sire, so sorry for insulting you earlier, you’re actually not fat at all.’ Instead the boy glared and knocked his hand away like he was nothing but a pest.
“No!” he shouted. “We need to find him now. We can’t afford to wait.”
Arthur sighed. “We need to get you safe first. I’m sure your father would agree with that. Then I’ll get a group of knights to investigate—”
“That’s not good enough!”
Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose. He knew the boy was worried about his father, but he couldn’t drop everything for two complete strangers. Especially if the boy was from the northern village. They had no current means of tracking the kidnappers down.
“This is what I can offer you,” he said gently, looking into the boy’s eyes. “I promise you that we will do all we can to bring him back to you.”
Instead of placating the boy as intended, the words only seemed to cause his face to scrunch up in anger.
“My papa said you’re a good man. He was wrong about you,” he spat, clenching his fists so tightly his knuckles turned white.
Arthur squinted his eyes in disbelief. Here he was, offering this boy all the help he had to give, and still it wasn’t adequate. Instead the boy was treating him as if Arthur was his enemy. It was strange. And all the insults thrown at him felt oddly personal, as if the boy had hated him for years.
“Have I met you before?” asked Arthur. His stomach churned. He had a feeling he wouldn’t like the answer.
“No,” sneered the boy. “But you know my papa. He used to work for you for some dumb reason. I don’t know why— you’re annoying. His name is Merlin.”
Arthur froze and stared at the boy with wide eyes. He searched the boy’s face, looking once again at the straight bridge of his nose, the ivory of his skin, the gleam of determination in his blue eyes. Arthur’s heart thudded loudly.
He didn’t know why he was in shock. Only one look at the boy was necessary to tell that he was a tiny version of Merlin. They even had the same level of sass and blatant disrespect for authority. And yet…
Merlin had a child? His Merlin? His former clumsy, omega manservant? Before he could stop himself, Arthur imagined Merlin, holding his large pregnant belly, as he waddled around. Merlin, with a small babe cradled in his arms, smiling and looking completely in love with his child. Merlin, in the arms of another alpha man and with a claim around his neck, as they satisfied his heat…
Arthur felt sick to his stomach.
“You’re Merlin’s son?!” Gwaine stepped forward, clasping an arm around Arthur’s shoulders and saving him from the embarrassment of keeling over in front of the boy. “We love Merlin. There’s never been a greater man in the whole world.”
The boy smiled brilliantly and looked up at Gwaine with eyes as wide and round as the moon.
“You must be Gwaine!” he exclaimed, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “My papa told me so many stories about you.”
“Did he?” Gwaine winked. “Only good things, I hope.”
The boy nodded enthusiastically. “Yes! Very good things. I want to be like you someday.”
“I’d think twice about that,” Elyan cut in, grinning.
The rest of the knights laughed. Arthur couldn’t find it in him to follow suit. All he could do was look at this little boy, with his bright smile and endless nerve, and think about Merlin. Merlin, who had moved on with his life. He had a son, a mate, and had forgotten all about Arthur. Arthur always knew this day would come, but he never imagined how sharply it would sting.
“If you aren’t going to help me find my papa, I’ll be on my way then,” said the boy, raising a defiant eyebrow at Arthur.
The knights also glanced at him. Arthur knew they all wanted to help Merlin and if he said no, they’d resent him. Even though there was likely not much they could do to find him now. But Arthur would never say no to helping Merlin, no matter how many years in bad blood had passed between them. He owed him that.
“Hold on. Of course we’ll help you,” said Arthur. He swallowed. “We’d do anything for Merlin and his son.”
The entire group cheered. Even the boy shot Arthur a grateful grin.
“We’ll set up camp here tonight, and then we’ll begin our search in the morning,” commanded Arthur. He turned to the boy. “And we’ll need to hear your story about what happened to Merlin. What’s your name, boy?”
The boy hesitated, looking at him with narrowed eyes. Arthur sighed in exasperation.
“We’re helping you now. We need to know your name so we know what to call you by.” He smirked. “Unless you prefer to be called little boy?”
The boy lifted his chin up and looked Arthur square in the eyes. “Henry,” he said.
Arthur crouched down and held out his hand for Henry to shake, who grabbed on with a strength Arthur didn’t know children could possess. He shook his hand so vigorously Arthur was surprised his arm didn't pop off. He smiled anyway.
“It’s nice to meet you, Henry.”