The scrap of parchment came into being in a slow, smoky curl on Gaius's work table, as if it were burning in reverse. Across the table, Merlin paused with his spoon halfway to his open mouth. A glob of porridge plopped back into the bowl just as the parchment solidified with a final sizzle. Merlin's mouth stayed open. His eyes slid over to Gaius, who was staring at him, equally agape.
Merlin's mouth snapped shut, and he dropped his spoon into the bowl with a clatter. "It wasn't me this time, I swear."
Gaius stretched his hand out and cautiously snagged the paper between two fingers, reaching for his spectacles with the other hand. "No, indeed, it was not," he said after a moment. "Goodness, I have not seen one of these in many years."
"What is it?" Merlin craned his neck, squinting to decipher the spidery upside down script. "Can I see?"
"I suppose you may." Gaius grunted and slid the paper across the table. "Since it's addressed to you."
Merlin dragged the parchment around toward him, already scanning the writing. His full name stretched across the top of the paper with a small block of text underneath. "The 200th Tournament of All Magicks," he read. "In the town of Banncroft on the first of the New Year."
"Once a generation or so, these invitations would pop up all over Camelot," Gaius remarked. "I even went once myself to watch the spectacle, but of course, that was long ago."
Long before Uther had purged the kingdom of anyone who might have received such an invitation. That, he supposed, was what Gaius really meant. Merlin looked at the paper again, and then looked up at Gaius with a frown. "But how can they still do this? Aren't they afraid Uther will show up with a lot of axes and fiery brands?"
"Banncroft is just over the border of Cenred's kingdom, though at the other end from Ealdor," Gaius said. "King Cenred still keeps a court warlock; it was a matter of great dispute in the last set of treaty negotiations, believe me. Uther wanted Cenred to agree to outlaw magic as Uther has done in Camelot, but Cenred made it clear that he doesn't consider Uther to be High King over him just yet."
"Hope he's not surprised when Uther doesn't agree," Merlin muttered and read the invitation again. "Why are they inviting me?"
"Undoubtedly, because you are you." Gaius smiled, but then sobered. "You aren't thinking of going, are you, Merlin? It would be terribly dangerous."
The thought tugged at something in his stomach, but it wasn't fear. Whatever it was made him almost jittery with anticipation. "Might be fun," he said with what even he would admit was a poor attempt to sound casual. "What could it hurt just to go watch?"
"Well, I don't know, Merlin," Gaius said with that look that people often got right before they told Merlin he was an idiot. "Prince Arthur's servant attending a sorcery tournament. What could possibly go wrong?"
"Yeah, all right," Merlin conceded and sighed as he pushed the parchment away. "Forget I mentioned it."
He watched Gaius incinerate the paper in the fireplace before he gestured to Merlin to go about his morning chores. The invitation was clearly to be forgotten entirely--or at least pondered only in the privacy of Merlin's head.
Not that Merlin had any idea what a magic tournament was like, but he had served Arthur at enough of the regular kind. He imagined it would be much the same.
The roar of the crowd filled his ears, only this time he was not hovering on the sidelines waiting for Arthur to emerge a hero. This time he faced an opponent of his own, a glowing staff in his hand. Arthur would be the one waiting on him, holding his cloak, eyes shining with pride and adoration--
And Merlin sighed as the fantasy fell apart right there and he was left with the mundane reality of getting the mutton stains out of Arthur's tunic. He had to face the facts: he simply was not meant for glory of the public sort. No one but Gaius could ever know what Merlin could do. Arthur would never look at him like that.
A week later he was fetching Arthur's lunch when he overheard two of the scullery maids whispering about the sorcery tournament. He nearly dropped his plate of cheese. They stopped immediately, shooting him twin glares of suspicion as they swept past him.
"Wait!" he called, but had to desist when the cheese started to slide off the tray again. He supposed Prince Arthur's manservant was unlikely to be anyone's first choice of confidant on the subject of magic. The irony.
"Please tell me you didn't forget the bread," Arthur commented without looking up from the arrow he was refletching.
Triumphantly, Merlin pulled the round loaf from where it had been distending his jacket pocket. "Fresh from the oven, no less."
Arthur snorted as he swept his work aside. "I suppose it was when you left to get it. Of course, that was an hour ago."
"Sorry." Merlin laid out Arthur's lunch; then he stood back and waited until Arthur gestured for Merlin to join him. "I was eavesdropping," he confessed as he plunked himself down across from Arthur and stuffed a piece of cheese in his mouth.
"You're worse than the maids," Arthur chided, but he was already grinning. He had not grinned much the last few months. "All right, let's have it. Surely you must have heard something to make my hunger pangs worthwhile."
Merlin hesitated before leaning forward over the plate they were sharing. Speaking of sorcery with Arthur was hardly a good idea, especially since Morgause, and then the dragon, had decimated Camelot. But he never could resist the opportunity to poke an inquisitive stick into Arthur's wounds or his own. "They were talking about a tournament. For, um, sorcerers."
Arthur paused mid-chew to stare at him. He swallowed as though the bread had gone sour. "Ah. That."
He sat up straight as his jaw fell open. "You know about that?"
"Shut your mouth, you look like that trout I caught last week. Of course I know about it. I'm sure everyone in Camelot knows by now, since I fully expect you to be the last to figure out anything."
"True," Merlin agreed easily, though if he'd had any money, he would have bet a fair amount of it that he had been almost the first to hear this particular news. The only surprise to Merlin was that anyone had dared mentioned it within Arthur's hearing. "So what do you know about it?"
Arthur frowned at a chunk of cheese, poking at it with the point of his knife. "Father is worried. And angry, of course. We've tried to contain the gossip, but the people are getting frightened."
"But the tournament isn't even in Camelot. The sorcerers can't come here, surely." In fact, it seemed to Merlin that Camelot would be considerably safer with all the sorcerers distracted at a location that was not here.
Arthur raised his eyebrows, and Merlin belatedly realized that he probably should not know quite that much about it. "As I'm sure you realize, Merlin, Banncroft is practically on the border, just on the wrong side. A gathering of that many sorcerers, so close to Camelot? Of course people are terrified."
Merlin nodded and chewed on the hunk of bread that Arthur had pushed to him, trying to look agreeably in need of education, a trusted ally in the fight against magic. "Will the king do anything to stop it?"
"Less than two years after signing the peace treaty with Lord Bayard, Cenred's ally?" Arthur rolled his eyes and stabbed the knife into what was left of the loaf. "We don't want to go through all that again, do we?"
"No," Merlin replied with feeling, though he still wondered silently what Uther might do.
But Uther did nothing except set extra patrols along the border. He did not send Arthur, who paced the rebuilt parapets more than usual, but said nothing more to Merlin about the rising tension amongst the populace. Merlin asked nothing more, both for fear of giving away the acuity of his interest and because he was not sure he could stand hearing Arthur say anything more about the evil in every sorcerer.
The tension grew as the rumored time for the tournament grew closer. Those who had family or friends within the keep began trickling through the gates, trusting the walls and their king to protect them from the evil gathering at the border.
Merlin's tension was growing as well, but it was quite a different feeling. "What kind of competition is it?" he asked Gaius as they ground herbs one day. "Combat spells, like a joust?"
"Different kinds of spells for different witches and warlocks, as I recall," Gaius said, then looked at Merlin sternly. "All of which would undoubtedly get you killed, so stop thinking about it."
"I'm not, I'm not," Merlin said and proceeded to think of little else.
"All tournaments are pretty much the same, aren't they?" he asked Arthur a few days later as he gathered Arthur's laundry.
Arthur had abandoned the last scraps of his dinner to stare out the window into the dusk. "Yes, more or less," he answered absently. "Depending on the entrants and the weapons."
Merlin paused to calculate the perfect casual tone of voice as he sidled closer to Arthur. "What if the entrants were sorcerers and the weapons were magic?"
A second later the edge of Arthur's bureau dug into his lower back as Arthur pressed him down on it, hand on Merlin's throat. "You," Arthur growled, "need to stop talking about sorcery. And especially that blasted tournament."
"Sorry," Merlin wheezed.
Arthur frowned down at his own hand before pulling it away and taking a step back. "Sorry. I didn't mean—sorry."
"It's okay." Straightening up still left him pinned between the furniture and the heat of Arthur's body. He would not mind that at all, but for the fact that he never could take that last step to bring them together, and Arthur never would.
Arthur looked at him for another moment before taking the inevitable step back. "Why the fascination? This tournament is nothing to do with you."
"I'm worried about my mother," he said, feeling wretched for the lie, but sure his mother would forgive him. "Ealdor is still in Cenred's kingdom, after all. I'm sure the village is even more nervous than the people here."
"You'd think they'd be more used to sorcery," Arthur muttered.
Merlin tried to repress a grimace. "The ways of Camelot hold a lot of sway there," he said, managing to bite back that those ways had created the sole dark spot in an otherwise happy childhood.
Arthur waved a hand in acquiescence to the unspoken request. "If you want to go see your mother, of course you can. Take a horse. But you should go first thing in the morning; the roads will likely be closed as a precaution by the end of the week."
"Thank you," Merlin said and tried not to let his face light up more than would be appropriate under the circumstances.
"In the meantime, don't think you're getting off early to go pack presents. I don't intend to get someone else in to do your work. In fact, you'd better spend the night here in case I want you for something."
This time, Merlin had to turn away to hide his pleasure. The idea of being irreplaceable to Arthur almost made him not want to leave at all. Almost.
He didn't turn away quite fast enough, because Arthur cleared his throat and dropped his eyes in that way that meant Arthur was about to feel the need to compensate for any perceived sentimentality. "Not that you'll be any more use to your mother than you'll be to me," he said. "I should at least send some guards with you to keep you out of trouble."
"The king would never allow it," Merlin pointed out hastily and, lucky for his purposes, truthfully. "Even if he would send soldiers to Ealdor, Camelot's defense comes first. Don't worry, I'll be fine."
"I suppose," Arthur said, and Merlin ducked out the door with an armful of laundry before Arthur could add anything to that thought.
Merlin was lovingly wrapping his spell book in oilskins when he heard Gaius come up the step into his room. "Here, you'll need this as well."
He turned to find a large bundle being shoved into his hands by Gaius, who tried to frown at him. "What's all this, then?"
"If you're going to throw your hat into this particular ring--not that you have a hat worth speaking of--you'll need certain ingredients." Gaius prodded the bundle in Merlin's hands with one gnarled finger. "Potions, poultices, philters, poisons--"
"Poisons?" Merlin gave a nervous laugh. "I'm not going to poison anybody. And no hats are getting thrown into anything."
The look he got in return did not speak well of Gaius' opinion of either his honesty or his intelligence. "Humor me," Gaius said gently. "Just in case."
"All right, all right." Merlin grinned to soften the complaint. He really intended just to watch and maybe have a chat with some fellow magic users, but trouble did have a habit of finding him when he was not looking for it. And he did not mind when Gaius fussed over him, if it made Gaius feel better. And maybe it was a little nice, sometimes.
He stuffed the book into his pack first, and then wedged Gaius's supplies in next to it. Some travel fare and a change of clothes topped off the back before Merlin cinched it shut, attached his bedroll, and swung the whole lot onto his back.
"Right, I'll be off, then," he said, trying to repress his eagerness, the itch in his feet to be off on the road. He recognized the feeling; it had nearly overwhelmed him when he'd set off from Ealdor more than two years ago. It was a craving for adventure, anticipation of the unknown mingled with a touch of apprehension.
Gaius shook his head and looked at him fondly. "Just...be careful, Merlin. For once in your life."
It was also the tug of reluctance to leave those he loved. He had gotten used to relying on his friends for their steady presence and affection. And it was hard now to imagine any adventure not shared in some way with Arthur.
At least this time he'd be coming home to them in the end--provided he resisted the urge to do something particularly stupid, of course.
"Thanks," he said, since he didn't know how to express any of the rest of it. He patted his jacket pocket where the rabbit foot Gaius had once given him resided.
Merlin turned with a quick wave and headed out the door. He pretended not to see how Gaius's eyes misted up.
A full day on horseback had not quenched his thirst for adventure, but it had done a fair amount to quell his happiness at having a horse. When the sun went down, he found a likely camping spot and slid off onto solid ground. He hobbled over to a tree to tie off the reins. Riding was never as much fun as it looked from the ground.
And travel was not as much fun when he was by himself. The last time he had gone any real distance, he had been with his friends. Now it seemed like he could not go ten feet without seeing flowers that Gwen would gather by the lapful, hills that Morgana would tear down like an Amazon, tree branches that Arthur would strip and wave in a playful attempt to unseat Merlin from his horse.
Solitary travel did have a few perks. He sat cross-legged in the clearing and held out one hand, fingers splayed. He certainly was not missing Arthur at that moment, as a rustling and snapping echoed amongst the trees. A moment later, a substantial pile of kindling stacked itself neatly in front of him with an obedient clatter.
A moment after that sparks sizzled in the spaces in between the wood. A single flame licked up like a cat's tongue, then multiplied with a ferocious hiss before settling into a merry crackling.
Merlin beamed at it with pride. He would like to see any of Arthur's gallant knights start a fire without touching it. Half of them were hopeless even with a flint--though not Arthur, of course, who was compelled by royal decree to be perfect at everything.
But even Arthur would have to be impressed by what Merlin had just accomplished. At least for a moment, probably right before he ran Merlin through and then set fire to him.
He sighed and stared into the fire, a little less pleased with it than he had been before. He couldn't be sure when this feeling had begun to burn, this need to share with Arthur everything that he was. Probably one of the many times he had saved Arthur's life had triggered it.
Not that he needed thanks--he was still working off the first thanks he'd received for his efforts. But it was growing more important just to have Arthur understand who Merlin was and that he served Arthur out of love and faith, not because Arthur held any fear or dominion over him.
The night was warm, but he stoked the fire higher with a thought. It was company, of a sort. But it also made him starkly aware of something he had been trying to ignore for some time: none of his magic was a substitute for Arthur himself, nor ever could be.
For the moment, he reminded himself, Arthur's absence was a blessing. A really big blessing. In fact, he should do some more magic right now, just because he could.
He lifted his hand again, not even sure what kind of spell he wanted to cast, just that he wanted to cast something. Before he could decide, the crunch and crackle of someone moving through the brush in the darkness broke his concentration. His horse snorted and lifted her head in alarm.
Merlin felt considerably more sanguine. Nothing on foot was likely to be anything he needed to worry about. Not when he was alone and full of power. He lifted his hands in the direction of the noise.
A woman stepped out of the trees, but did not move out of their shadow. "Who the hell are you?" she greeted him.
Merlin slowly lowered one hand and waggled the fingers of the other at her in a friendly manner. "Um, hi. I'm Merlin. This is my campfire."
The woman moved forward again until the firelight fell across her. She was tall and slender, probably a little older than Merlin, and dressed in the same style Morgana had worn when they had gone to Ealdor, though unlike Morgana, she appeared unarmed. Her skin was a shade darker than Gwen's, and her hair was in tight curls, cropped close to her head.
She held her right hand out towards him as though ready to ward him off--or cast a spell. Merlin's pulse quickened.
"Are you from Camelot?" she demanded. "Your tracks come from the direction of the keep."
"Yes," Merlin said with caution. "I live there."
She frowned and looked at him the way Gaius looked at specimens under his magnifying lens. "You must be an idiot, then, and a suicidal one."
"I've heard that before," he muttered.
"I felt you using magic as soon as I crossed the river," she went on. "The fire, wasn't it?"
Merlin could not decide whether to grin or throw her into a tree and run away. She was a magic user herself, clearly. She did not seem like an immediate threat, but neither had most of the people who had tried to kill him or Arthur over the last few years.
He settled for nodding, keeping a defensive spell at the front of his mind, just in case. "Camelot's not so bad. Just stay away from the king. And all his men."
She looked him up and down before one shoulder twitched up in concession. "I suppose the likes of you would have no reason to meet the king or his men."
"Well, actually, I see them all at dinner most nights." Merlin did grin this time, enjoying the surprise on her face. "I'm the personal servant to Prince Arthur."
Her jaw worked as though she were trying to say something that stuck in her throat. Then a return grin broke over her face. She strode forward, dropped her pack, plopped down cross-legged in front of him, and stuck out her hand.
"I'm Niniane, second daughter of Lord Pelham, and I must shake your hand."
"Lord Pelham?" Merlin took her hand and returned her firm grip. "Then you're from Camelot, too."
"I was born there, but my mother sent me to be fostered with the priestesses in the Lake Country when she thought I showed some ability with magic. I was very young, and King Uther's purge had just begun."
A pang of envy went through him. "It must have been nice to grow up learning about magic. I only started to learn what I could do when I came to Camelot a couple of years ago."
"Really? You're still a beginner, then." Niniane smiled and leaned back on one arm, relaxing for the first time.
"Well, actually—" Merlin began, then stopped. The suspicion had almost faded from her demeanor, leaving her more open and friendly. If she thought he was no threat, maybe she would stay and talk to him more. "Yeah, I guess you could say that."
"How did you learn much at all about magic in Camelot? None of the old masters are left, I know that for a fact."
"I have a book," Merlin offered, though it did not sound as impressive as it might if she knew the kind of use he had made of that book. "I've always been able to do some things, like moving stuff around."
Niniane nodded in mock solemnity. "On purpose or by accident?"
"Some of both," he admitted. "I'm pretty good at it now."
To prove his point, he stretched out his hand and made the purse at her waist lift up from her belt. He made it jangle to get her attention. When her head jerked around, he lifted the purse up and danced it in front of her face.
She laughed, then muttered something. The purse was snatched from his control. It flew around to smack him in the side of his head before settling into the palm of her outstretched hand. "Your control's not bad. I assume you're heading for the tournament?"
"I had to sneak away." Merlin leaned forward and tried not to look too eager. "What do you know about it?"
"Not much more than you, probably." Niniane shrugged and looked off into the dark forest beyond the fire. "My grandmother won the last one, but she was burned in the Purge."
She spoke in the same neutral tone Arthur used when he talked about his mother, or that Merlin heard coming out of his own mouth whenever Balinor was mentioned. He recognized the scar tissue over old pain, but he said nothing. If he could not help Arthur, whom he loved, then he did not imagine there was much he could say to a stranger he had met only minutes before.
Even if she already knew him better in some ways than Arthur did.
"I want to compete," he blurted. "I was invited. But mostly I just want to talk to other people who have magic."
"Have you really never met any other sorcerers before me?" she asked.
"None that weren't trying to kill Arthur at the time."
"I guess you get a lot of that." She shook her head. "I don't know how you can stand it, working for those men after everything they've done to our people."
The words gave him a rush of warmth at being included amongst magical people. It was followed by a touch of cold at the thought of Arthur trapped within the Pendragon legacy. "He's not his father."
Niniane snorted. "Tell me what difference there is. He hunts us, captures us, kills us, just the same as Uther did to my grandmother."
Before he had gone to live among royalty, he would not have understood it, either, that gulf of authority between King and Prince. He wished he could explain how he had seen Arthur argue with Uther's commands, openly in the court or silently within the tense line of his jaw.
But the king's word was law, and Arthur was not king yet. The nobility and honor that would make him a greater king would not allow him to act against the man who wore the crown. It drove Merlin insane sometimes, but that nobility was what had won Merlin's own loyalty.
"Arthur's different," he said stubbornly. "If I do my job, someday everyone will see that."
"You sound like you're in love with him." Niniane started to snort another laugh, but stopped when Merlin could not suppress a wince. "Gods have mercy, you poor, sad little sod."
"Thanks." So much for impressing his fellow magic users; he was already a laughingstock with the first one he met.
"Honestly, I thought you felt pretty powerful when you were casting before, but you are just a pathetic little pup, aren't you?"
"Actually, I'm—" He stopped again and considered his situation. Devoted to a prince who did not appreciate or even know about the true service Merlin rendered. Loving a man who had chosen a different servant to love. "Pretty pathetic, yeah."
Niniane chuckled and patted him on the knee. "No worries. You're not a bad--looking sort. You're sure to have plenty of offers at the tourney for some proper companionship."
"Great," Merlin replied with an effort at enthusiasm. He had never been much for casual...companionship, but he was still a young man, and it had been a while.
"I might even beat them to it," Niniane went on, which was when Merlin noticed that her fingers were still light on his knee. "Unless it's that you don't like girls at all?"
"No," he said, swallowing and thinking of Freya and what had almost been. "I like girls a lot."
"Uh oh. You have that look, like you're thinking of one girl in particular." Niniane pulled her fingers back, though her voice was still flirtatious. "Just how many lovers are you stringing along back in Camelot, prince's man?"
"There was a girl," he admitted. "She was a druid. But she's dead now."
Niniane's eyes widened and she drew back further. "Oh," she said, showing uncertainty for the first time since she had sat down. "Did Uther kill her, too?"
"It was more complicated than that," he said, though a hot surge of anger went through him at Uther who hated so freely and cruelly.
They sat in the quiet for a while with the fire crackling to fill the silence. Merlin felt more comfortable than he probably should, given his past experience. Just having the weight of secrecy lifted induced a euphoria that even dark memories could not dampen.
"You remind me of her," he found himself saying after a while.
Niniane lifted her sculpted eyebrows in amused disbelief. "A druid girl? Really?"
Merlin waved a hand in the air, trying to find words for what he had never had opportunity to express before. "It just feels good, talking to someone who knows."
She smiled and stretched out on her stomach alongside the bedroll he had laid out. "So did you make magic together, you and your druid girl?"
He smiled faintly back. "I tried to make her strawberries. Ended up with rose petals instead."
"I should have guessed you'd be one for the romantic nonsense." She cast her gaze briefly to the dark sky in disgust. "Of course you can't create a strawberry out of nothing. Where would it come from?"
"Um, magic?" Merlin thought he understood the give and take of the Old Religion better than most, but aside from trading life and death, he had not given much thought to what came from where. Spells either worked or they did not. It seemed to have as much to do with the weather or his level of desperation as anything else.
Niniane rolled to her side and pressed her fingers into the earth beside her, burrowing them down until her whole hand disappeared. She closed her eyes and murmured something under her breath.
Merlin waited. Nothing happened.
After another minute he started to clear his throat. Then he choked on the air as Niniane pulled her hand away just as bright green runners burst up from the soil.
The runners grew and spread until they both had to scramble to the side. Leaves of brilliant green sprouted in frilly clusters, dotted with small white flowers with sunny yellow centers.
And nestled amongst the leaves and blossoms lay dozens of perfect, ripe strawberries.
Niniane plucked one and presented it to him as elegantly as if her open palm were a golden platter and Merlin the king of all Albion. Only her smug grin distinguished her from any fine courtier.
"First lesson: you get more good things by asking nicely than by demanding them," she said.
"Funny, that's what I always tell Arthur, too." He grinned back and took the strawberry from her hand. When he bit into it, sweetness flooded his mouth and juice dribbled down his chin.
They shared the rest of the fruit and the food from their packs. Merlin asked Niniane question after question about her upbringing and training, hungrier for the stories than the food.
Niniane seemed hungry as well. She plucked the last berry from the bush and held it towards Merlin's mouth.
The tease of the gesture made his face heat up. He failed to notice she had pulled her hand away until his teeth clacked together on empty air inches from her face.
He saw the sparkle in her dark eyes before the scent drew his gaze to her mouth as she finished off the fruit. His eyes lingered there on the damp curves of her lips.
"I won't even make you ask nicely," Niniane whispered. "Unless you really want to."
"Please," he whispered back and hoped it would do, because his lips were already on hers.
He had not kissed anyone since Freya. Kissing her had sent a deep, sweet pang of inchoate longing through him. Kissing Niniane was both sweeter and sharper, and the pang of longing much more distinct.
As they kissed, she drew him closer. When he broke the kiss to pull her against him, her tunic fell open enough to show the dip and rise of her collarbones. He bent his head to drag his lips, then his tongue over the bone.
She shrugged one shoulder until the tunic slipped from it and left that first small part of her bare. Merlin followed the line of her throat to the curve of her shoulder, tracing it with his lips. She shivered as he breathed softly over the line he had just traced. He kissed the silky flesh of her shoulder as she shifted herself into his lap and began to wrap her legs around his waist.
The sound of hoof beats made them break apart with a gasp and stagger to their feet. As the sound grew closer, Merlin realized it was only a single horse, but he braced himself by the fire, ready to fight if necessary.
Niniane gave him an exasperated look, grabbed her pack, and headed for the darkness of the forest.
"Wait, where are you going?" he hissed.
"A single horseman traveling at night?" she hissed back. "If it's a highwayman, I'll help you fight. But if it's a knight or bounty hunter, you'll be better off on your own, prince's man."
He could not argue the logic of it, nor did she give him the chance as she melted back into the woods. Merlin did not particularly wish to meet with any knights or bounty hunters himself. He remembered a time when he had not thought of them as the same thing.
The horseman drew closer and slowed, obviously having spotted the fire through the trees. Merlin tensed. When the horse emerged from the woods into the clearing, he wished he was surprised to see Arthur in full travelling armor on her back.
"There you are, Merlin," Arthur called, as though he had been looking for Merlin in the storerooms. He pulled up his horse and guided her to the tree where Merlin's mount was tethered.
"Hello, Arthur," Merlin replied, resigned. "What are you doing here?"
Arthur dismounted and tethered his mare next to Merlin's. He sauntered over to the fire, already shaking his head. "Honestly, Merlin, you should be glad I’m here. You're going in the wrong bloody direction. God knows where you'd have ended up if I hadn't come after you, but it certainly wouldn't have been Ealdor."
"Well, you know me." Merlin offered a weak smile. "I'm such an idiot I can't even find my way home."
"Just what I'm saying." Arthur grinned and clapped him on the shoulder with one gloved hand. Then he stopped and looked to the side with a frown. "How on earth did you find a strawberry plant in bloom at this time of year?"
"It was just there," Merlin answered and did his best to look hapless.
Arthur bent over and rummaged among the leaves. When he straightened, he held one last strawberry that Merlin and Niniane had missed in their private feast. He looked at it in wonder. "Amazing. Perfectly ripe at the end of October."
"It's been a warm year, sire."
Arthur turned his frown on Merlin. "There were more strawberries, weren't there, Merlin?"
Merlin nodded. "Yes, sire."
"You ate them all, didn't you, Merlin?"
"Yes. Yes, I did."
Arthur huffed with indignation, as though Merlin should have known he was coming and saved him his portion. "Then I'll feel no guilt about this," he said and scarfed the berry down in one bite.
He tilted his head back with delight as he chewed. It allowed Merlin the privilege of watching his long throat work as he swallowed. Merlin swallowed once himself and looked away. Niniane had started the work of heating him into arousal, and now here was Arthur with the worst timing in the world.
Arthur finally brought his head down and looked at Merlin with wide eyes. "That tasted even better than it looked. Honestly, Merlin, how do you come up with these things?"
"Only the best for my prince," Merlin replied, which made Arthur smile that rare, sweet smile of true pleasure. Merlin smiled back with a little sadness. Arthur could have perfect strawberries every day of the year--once Merlin figured out the trick--if only he could accept where they came from.
Arthur smacked his lips once in a display of satisfaction. He turned and went to pull his bedroll off the back of his saddle, his saunter another indication of his relaxed good mood.
Merlin sighed. He was not, it seemed, going to spend the night in the embrace of a beautiful, magical woman. Instead, he got to sleep next to Arthur while his blood was still rushing fast through his body.
"We've lost a day, thanks to your complete lack of any sense," Arthur called as he finished collecting his things and tending his horse. "But if we cut through the valley a few miles south, we might still make Ealdor by noon, day after next."
That was not going to work for Merlin at all. "You really don't need to come with me, you know."
Arthur dropped his pack and his bedroll next to Merlin's and shook his head. "Obviously I do."
"I'll be fine from here, now that you've set me straight." He did his best to look innocent, confident, and appreciative all at the same time. "They need you in Camelot."
"Not particularly." Arthur unrolled his bed with a kick, not even looking at Merlin's artfully arranged face. "I'll be of much more use patrolling the outlying regions, which I can do on the way to and from Ealdor."
"Wait," Merlin said, suddenly feeling as slow as Arthur often accused him of being. "You were following me to Ealdor? On purpose?"
Arthur still was not looking at Merlin's face, but this time it felt much more deliberate. "Yes, Merlin, some of us do go places on purpose, rather than just aimlessly wandering about the woods."
Merlin squinted at him, as though the firelight flickering over Arthur's features would reveal the mysteries of his behavior. "But why?"
Arthur wriggled his shoulders, and Merlin automatically stepped over to help him unbuckle his armor. "I didn't want to be so blunt about it, but really, Merlin, you should have asked me to come with you in the first place. How did you think you were going to defend Ealdor from sorcerers all by yourself?"
He stopped with his fingers in the shoulder buckle and stared at the side of Arthur's face. Had Merlin actually been going to Ealdor, the answer would have been that he could defend it considerably better without Arthur's presence.
"I can't imagine," he said after a beat, deadpan.
Arthur grinned at him. "See, you need me," he said as the plate armor came off into Merlin's hands. Arthur took it from him and set it aside, confirmation that he was in the mood for friendly companionship more than servitude.
That should have been enough to make Merlin's day, but it only deepened his frustration. Usually he worked hard to sustain this kind of mood for as long as possible, but right now it only meant that Arthur would be that much harder to get rid of.
"But you said yourself there was probably nothing to worry about," he tried. "And don't you think the king is going to be a bit peeved that you've skipped town right now?"
Arthur's jaw tightened, then relaxed. "Let me worry about my father."
"Right. Let me rephrase that. Don't you think the king is going to throw me in the stocks for a really long time for using you as my personal army? Again?"
"Merlin." Arthur looked at him with a mock frown. "I'm starting to think you want to get rid of me."
Beneath the feigned pout, Merlin caught a glimpse of genuine hurt. It made him ache, as it always did. He was completely screwed.
"Of course I'm not," he said and tried to smile. It would be nice to see his mother. He didn't need to be a champion, or have sex, ever again.
His reward for crushing his own dreams was another happy smile and staggering clap on the shoulder. "Good. I know this may sound strange, but you had the right idea."
"I think we've both spent enough time moping about the castle lately." Arthur stretched until his back cracked and his chain mail rattled. "A little fresh air and adventure is just what we need."
"Not too much adventure, let's hope." If Merlin was not going to compete in a tournament for honor and glory, then he was not keen on spending his holiday in another life or death fight, stuck magicless in Arthur's view.
Arthur dropped down to sprawl on his bedroll. "Oh, come on, Merlin, where's your spirit?" One booted foot reached out to nudge Merlin's ankle. "Just you and me, out in the forest, like old times. What could go wrong?"
As he looked down at Arthur's beaming, ridiculous face, he felt his resentment melt away. He had missed Arthur, so much. Even before Morgause, and the dragon, and the rebuilding, they had so many things distracting them. He was a fool not to be glad for this chance to spend uncomplicated time with his friend, away from Camelot and all the shadows that fell between them there.
"Okay," he said, feeling a matching grin break over his face. "But you're not allowed to complain about my mother's cooking."
"No deal," Arthur responded instantly, pointing a finger at him in accusation as though Merlin were attempting to trick him.
Merlin laughed and started to taunt him about his spirit of adventure. But his mouth snapped shut when, for the second time that night, he heard hoof beats coming towards them from the dark forest.
Arthur heard them a second later, and his playful grin vanished. He reached for his sword as he jumped back to his feet.
"I don't suppose those might be some of ours?" Merlin asked with feigned hopefulness.
"The knights went out in pairs," Arthur replied, lifting his sword and watching the darkness carefully. "I count at least five coming our way."
"Wonderful. Bandits, then. You had to wish for adventure."
Arthur's grin returned, this time slightly mad, and he pointed back to the trees behind him. "I've handled worse. Just go stand back there and look pretty. If anyone gets near you, hit them with a stick."
"Does that include you?" Merlin muttered under his breath. He rolled his eyes for good measure, but he went. It would be easier to sneak in a magical assist when he was not in Arthur's direct line of vision.
The bandits burst through the trees into the clearing a moment later. One found himself run through with Arthur's sword even as he tried to swing his own. Two more were quickly unhorsed, and a third met with Arthur's hunting knife in mid-air.
That left one bandit on horseback while Arthur dealt with the two on foot. The bandit pulled his horse to a halt to regroup under a large oak. Merlin grinned. As it happened, hitting people with sticks had become something of a specialty of his.
He concentrated on a heavy branch over the bandit's head, extending his hand and muttering the spell. The branch creaked and cracked. Finally, just as the bandit was spurring his horse towards Arthur again, it crashed down on the man and knocked him to lie motionless on the ground.
In the meantime, Arthur had disposed of his third bandit. The fourth eluded his sword. Even as Arthur lunged for him again, the man seized his fallen comrade's horse and swung up onto its back.
He urged it forward, clearly intending to trample Arthur beneath its hooves. At that range, Arthur had no chance of evading it. Merlin raised his hand again, his panicked brain scrambling for a spell that would save Arthur without giving himself away.
Suddenly a fireball swirled up from the campfire. It hovered in the air, and then smashed into the last bandit. Howling, he fell from the horse and writhed on the forest floor in an effort to extinguish his burning clothes.
A moment later he stilled under Arthur's sword. Quiet fell again, except for the cheerful crackle of the fire and the fading ruckus of the frightened horses fleeing into the night.
Arthur turned around to stare at Merlin with shock. "What the hell?"
Merlin looked back with equal surprise. He had not done that. He was almost completely sure he had not done that.
A rustle to their left made them both turn to look. Merlin relaxed as he saw Niniane step out from her hiding place again. He had almost forgotten that she might still be nearby, though he was grateful that she had been.
Arthur only tensed more, swinging his sword around to point it at Niniane. "You must be the sorcerer," he growled.
"If you mean the sorcerer who just saved your life, then I suppose I am," she said, taking a cautious step back. "From your manners, you must be the prince."
"I am Prince Arthur of Camelot," Arthur replied, still wary but not yet homicidal.
Niniane looked over at Merlin. "I can't even imagine what you see in him."
Merlin winced as Arthur darted a startled look at him. "He grows on you."
She laughed, still looking at Arthur as she spoke to Merlin, clearly enjoying the amount of trouble she was getting Merlin into. "Well, feel free to look me up if you come my way, prince's man."
Then she took another step back and vanished. Arthur ran forward, but stopped at the edge of the clearing. No sounds came from the darkness beyond the firelight, and no tracks showed that she had ever been there.
That left Merlin alone with Arthur. Ten minutes ago, that had been a nice thing.
"Is there something you want to tell me, Merlin?"
Merlin took a breath and did his best to look very, very stupid. "Er, that was Niniane?"
When he dared to look at them, Arthur's eyes were bugging out with astonishment in a way that did not bode well for Merlin's getting a good night's sleep. "Niniane? You--I--Nini--Merlin, you ninny!"
"That didn't make sense," Merlin said, and immediately cursed himself for his helpfulness when Arthur's face turned bright red with fury.
"I'll tell you what makes no sense," he ground out after a long stretch of ominous breathing. "I let you out of the castle for less than a day, and you're out here cavorting with--with sorcerers!"
"She was quite friendly," Merlin offered. It was unlikely to help, but he was tired and was not sure he had the energy to go along with another anti-sorcery diatribe.
Arthur did not rant any further, but stared at Merlin, looking confused, almost lost. Then his shoulders slumped.
"I don't understand you sometimes, Merlin," he said quietly. "I really don't."
Merlin watched in silence as Arthur turned away to begin dealing with the bodies. As Arthur lifted the first dead bandit by the shoulders and started dragging him to the tree line, Merlin shook himself and went to help.
They worked without speaking until they had disposed of the last bandit, the one Merlin had taken out with the tree branch. Arthur gave the branch an odd look as he stepped over it, but continued not to speak until they were back at their bedrolls, staring into the fire.
"I take it your friend is heading to that sodding tournament?" he said at last, making Merlin startle.
"Yes. I mean, I think so," he answered. "That's what she said, anyway. I think."
There was another silence before Arthur heaved a deep sigh. "Is that where you were going, too?"
Merlin's head spun until he had to suck in as much air as possible to keep his vision from blurring. The tone of Arthur's voice warned him against lying again. He thought he might be running out of lies, in any case.
"Yes," he said, breathing out the word on a sigh of relief and terror. He wondered if Arthur would hear all the answers that one word contained.
When Arthur leaned his head forward onto his knees and closed his eyes, Merlin suspected that he had. The thought that the moment had finally come sent his pulse racing until he could barely hear his own voice as he spoke again.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm sorry that I lied to you."
"Merlin," Arthur mumbled into his knees. "What am I going to do with you?"
He could have offered a number of suggestions, beginning with an avoidance of anything fatal and ending perhaps with Arthur being willing to love him anyway. But despite what Arthur might think, Merlin knew there were times when there was nothing to be gained by talking, even if he could make his voice work.
Finally Arthur heaved another sigh. He lifted his head and shook it.
"Even if you've changed your opinion on sorcery yet again," he said. "I can't begin to think why you thought it would be a good idea to wander into an entire town full of dueling sorcerers."
Merlin's stomach did a slow roll, and he felt as though it were physically swinging between relief and disappointment. Arthur had figured out the what, but not the why. His secret was safe--and still a secret.
"I thought it would be interesting," he said, which was honest, albeit incomplete.
"Yes," Arthur said grudgingly. "I suppose in a way it might be interesting to see what...."
He trailed off and stared into the fire with a peculiar expression until Merlin dared to nudge his knee. "Yeah?" Merlin prompted. "What what?"
"I can hardly believe it, let alone say it," Arthur replied. "But you've actually had two good ideas in one day."
"I have?" Merlin was no less surprised himself.
"Well, you'd never have been able to pull it off by yourself, of course." Arthur's face was starting to light up with an expression that reminded Merlin instinctively of rotten vegetables in his face.
"Arthur," he said. "You're not thinking of actually going to the tournament yourself, are you?"
"Of course I am. We can't pass up a chance like this." Arthur threw himself back on his bedroll, face now fully alight with the joy of his scheme. "We'll infiltrate the very heart of sorcery and find out what's going on."
A little thrill went through Merlin at the idea, but one of them had to keep a cool head. "I don't think a sorcery tournament would be a great place to be the prince of Camelot," he pointed out as he stretched out on his own bedroll. A strawberry runner tickled his cheek; he flicked it away and slid a few inches down, hoping Arthur would not notice.
"I'll hide my armor and surcoat in the woods." Arthur turned on his side to face Merlin, eyes shining with firelight and glee. "We'll leave the horses somewhere and walk in like two regular spectators coming to gawk. I know you can gawk, Merlin."
"Like a professional," Merlin promised, giving up the argument in favor of curling up close enough that the knuckles of his hand brushed Arthur's sleeve.
He dozed as Arthur expounded on his plans. Just before he slipped into sleep, he thought he heard Arthur sigh one more time and murmur, "And I'll finally decide for myself if Father is right about it all."
In the morning light, Merlin decided it must have been a dream.
"There it is," Arthur said as they cleared the top of the ridge and looked down at the town nestled in the valley below. "The den of sorcery."
Merlin eyed the fields and sheep wandering along the outskirts. "It looks like Greensward to me."
They had crossed the border on foot around midday, dodging a patrol of Uther's knights on one side and Cenred's on the other. Arthur had stripped off everything recognizable, down to his ring and necklace now hidden in his pack. The rest of Arthur's gear lay hidden in the brush behind them. Ahead of them lay Banncroft.
Arthur cocked his head and squinted. "Yes, it does look rather like Greensward, doesn't it?"
"They had a great inn," Merlin recalled with fondness. "Really great ale."
"Yes, I remember." Arthur cast him an amused glance. "I also remember you vomiting profusely over the side of my horse because you couldn't stay on your own. All the way back to the castle."
"Yes, that, too," Merlin agreed, though all he remembered was general illness and Arthur hauling him back into the saddle again and again. "But it was worth it, wasn't it?"
"Well, yes." Arthur started down the slope. "Let's hope Banncroft lives up to the image. But be careful. I don't want you drinking anything enchanted."
"Me?" Merlin glared at Arthur's back. As he followed his friend down the ridge, he muttered his opinions on enchantments and their respective records on succumbing to them.
They entered Banncroft through the main avenue that wound through the length of the town. No guards manned the rudimentary fortifications, though Merlin felt a shiver of magic run over him as they entered. He glanced around as they walked, but no one came running to accost Arthur and accuse him of being King Uther's son.
The street went through the market, which also strongly resembled the market in Greensward, or any other town, including Camelot itself. Merchants stood by carts and storefronts to hawk their wares. The wares were also the same as they saw daily back home. Merlin spotted a butcher, a smith, and a potter, but there did not seem to be anything magical about any of them.
Arthur stopped in the middle of the street and looked around, hands on his hips, as the townspeople bustled around him without paying him any mind. "I have to say, this is anticlimactic."
Merlin almost kept walking, but jerked back and gave him a conspiratorial grin. "You, too?"
A woman who might have been around Uther's age was pushing a cart past them. It looked exactly like the cart Maeve the baker's wife used to sell sweet honeyed rolls to the children of Camelot. The sight of the cart made Merlin's mouth water. Maeve always gave Merlin an extra when he came to buy some for Arthur, who was too mature and important to be seen buying children's sweets.
Arthur eyed the cart a little hungrily as it approached. "Yes, I was expecting something more blatant. But I suppose it is just a normal town most of the time."
Merlin also looked at the cart with anticipation, which turned to disappointment when it came close enough to tell that it held only rustic jewelry and small bottles. He turned away to exchange a silent, sheepish glance with Arthur.
"I know," he said. "But I keep looking at everyone, wondering if they're...you know."
He made a little head wiggle meant to indicate sorcery. It also meant magic, people who are like me. It made his stomach ache worse than hunger, as these half truths always did, to share even this much of it with Arthur.
"Bloody tourists," griped the woman pushing the cart as she trundled past them.
Arthur, who had just opened his mouth to reply to Merlin, turned a thunderous frown on her. "I beg your pardon?"
The cart stopped its forward roll. The woman turned to face them, and her scowl could give Arthur's a good competition in any tournament.
"I said bloody tourists. You lot always come looking for razzle dazzle cheap tricks." She waved her hand at her cart. "But you wouldn't recognize real magic work if it bit you on the nose. And if you wander about with your nose in the air, don't be surprised if it does."
"Those cheap trinkets are magic?" Arthur cast a scornful look back at the cart.
Merlin, who had learned a healthy respect for magic trinkets, sidled up to the cart and peered inside with new interest. "What kind of magic?"
The woman's demeanor changed as she pulled the cart open to display her merchandise. "Love, my dear boy, the only magic that matters."
Arthur approached the cart with greater hesitation, looking at it as if it might bite him after all. "Love? As in potions and such?"
She ignored him in favor of squeezing Merlin's shoulder. "A handsome young lad like you must have someone back at home, yes?"
"Um," Merlin said, ignoring Arthur's displeased sound at being ignored. "Not exactly."
Her smile widened. "Not a lover yet, then, but someone you'd like to be?"
He could not help himself--he looked over to Arthur. Arthur shot him a dark look in return that provoked a surge of panic in his chest.
Then he remembered Arthur's old reproofs about his visits to Morgana. His panic subsided in favor of irritation. Morgana had been gone for months, and it had been none of Arthur's concern in the first place.
"At the moment, no," he said, turning back to the cart. "Not a bit."
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see when Arthur's glare subsided, mollified. It only made Merlin seethe harder.
The woman gave him another motherly squeeze before reaching into her cart and pulling out a handful of charms. "Should you think of someone, you might consider taking one of Lady Elaine's trinkets home with you."
He fingered a charm shaped like the sun. The magic tickled his fingers like the nibbles of a playful fish. "What does it do?"
"One look at you wearing this charm will dazzle the eyes of your beloved until they can see nothing but you." Elaine plucked the charm from the bunch and pressed it into his hand. "Yours for one of those sweet smiles, dearie."
Merlin turned it over between his fingers. He thought of Arthur looking at him with shining eyes, like Merlin was the sun, and he needed nothing else to live.
Then he thought of Sophia, and he thought of Vivian, and the way Arthur had looked at them.
He handed the charm back. "Thanks, but I think I'd better get by on whatever charms I already have."
"Who said you had any?" Arthur muttered, but he was smiling when Merlin glanced at him.
Merlin shot him a dirty look anyway. Morgana's theoretical virtue would be safe from Merlin for another day, never mind what had almost happened to Camelot because Merlin had not kept a close enough eye on her in the first place.
Elaine did not seem concerned with the loss of custom. She added the charm back to her bunch with a flick of her fingers. "I'm sure you'll do fine, dear. You have those eyes, those cheekbones...never mind about the ears."
He clapped his hands to the sides of his head. "What? What's wrong with my ears?"
Arthur burst into gales of laughter. Merlin turned to him in bewilderment, still holding his hands protectively over his perfectly normal ears.
"Oh, they're charming to one in love, I don't doubt." Elaine braced herself against her cart to get it moving again. "But if you decide you'd rather not take the chance, come see Lady Elaine any time."
With that Elaine trundled away, leaving Merlin still holding his ears and Arthur nearly doubled over, wheezing with laughter.
"What?" Merlin asked again, plaintive. "Arthur, what's wrong with my ears?"
Arthur straightened up and wiped his eyes. The occasional chortle still burst out like a hiccup as he stepped over to Merlin.
He wrapped his fingers around Merlin's wrists and pulled his hands away from his head. Merlin waited as Arthur studied him the way he would study a new horse. He braced himself for an exhaustive inventory of everything wrong with his face.
But Arthur only smiled and shook his head fondly. "Nothing at all," he said. "They're just your ears, Merlin."
"Oh," Merlin said. He reached up again to poke at one.
Arthur sighed and pulled his hand back down. "Your 'lady' Elaine was just trying to sell you something. I doubt it was real magic at all. Now come on, I want to take a look at the tournament field."
A thrill wiped out any lingering worry about his vanity. Even if he could not compete now that Arthur was here, he was eager to see what was happening. "Where do you think it is?"
Arthur shrugged. "Where they usually are, I imagine. Come on."
Now that Arthur seemed to have his bearings, he stalked with purpose through the town. He ignored everything he passed, focused on his mission.
Merlin could not look around him enough, now that he knew to look for the magical amongst the ordinary. He veered one way to check if the apothecary's potions promised more than natural medicinal effects, and then the other way to peer at a display of odd-looking things that turned out to be weathervanes.
He jogged to catch up again.
The tourney grounds turned out to be exactly where Arthur thought, near the edge of the town. If he squinted, Merlin could have believed they had stepped back into Camelot with its rippling flags and tall stands and wide sandy field.
Even the tall pegged board with the shields of the competitors looked the same there beside the registrar's table--except that Merlin did not see any coats of arms of the noble houses. Instead, the wooden seals bore strange serpents, birds, and trees twining in vivid colors around even stranger names.
Merlin's heart fell. Even if he was free to join the queue at the registrar's table, he had no shield, no symbol, no placard to hang. He did not even know where to get such a thing. Arthur's coat of arms had been carefully painted by a royal artisan.
Arthur was also staring, eyes wide and nostrils flaring. "Those," he said, "are definitely sorcerers."
His breath caught. While taking in his surroundings, he had forgotten those people queuing up to add their names to the tourney rolls. He had forgotten that they were warlocks, witches, sorcerers--people like him.
"Merlin." Arthur's elbow nudged his ribs. "Go check it out."
"Me? Why me?"
"Because you're the one who's suddenly chummy with sorcerers." Arthur nodded towards the registrar. "Isn't that your new lady friend there, in fact?"
He looked. Niniane stood at the head of the queue, one person away from the registrar.
"Right," Merlin said. "I'll be right back."
He slipped into the flow of the crowd before Arthur could change his mind or say he was kidding. Niniane's look of surprise when he appeared at her side gave him a moment of triumph.
"So the prince's man escaped the prince a second time," she said. "I'm impressed."
Merlin barely restrained himself from looking back to check on Arthur. "Maybe not quite so loud about the prince thing?"
This time her surprise was both greater and less satisfying. "You brought him here?" she hissed, leaning closer. "You mad fool."
"He wanted to come," Merlin protested, feeling like she should think better of Arthur for it.
"And what if you're not the only secret warlock who decided to sneak away from Camelot?" she said. "All it takes is one person to recognize your handsome prince and he'll never make it out of here alive."
"I'll make sure he does." It did not matter whether she believed him any more than it mattered how many people wished Arthur harm. Merlin would keep him safe.
Nonetheless, he risked a quick glance over his shoulder to make sure Arthur was still glowering where Merlin had left him.
"Next," called the man sitting at the registrar's table as the warlock in front of them moved away and Niniane stepped up. "I am Nennius, officiant for this tournament. State your name."
"Niniane, daughter of Pelham, of the Lake Country."
As Nennius inscribed her name, Merlin noticed a stack of the blank wooden placards next to his roll of parchment. When the registrar was done, he picked up one of the blank tiles and laid it down in front of Niniane. "Display your proof."
She lay her hand over the wood and murmured something. Smoke curled up from between her fingers, silvery and pungent. When she took her hand away, the tile was covered in green and gold.
A glorious tree spread out as though growing from the wood and curling around the edges of the placard. The letters of her name tangled amongst the leaves like golden vines and ripe fruits. Merlin had never seen anything so beautiful.
Nennius took it from her and gave it a cursory look before tossing it over his shoulder to his assistant. The assistant, a gangly boy, caught the tile and tossed it toward the great rankings board.
It flew, wobbled a bit, and spun rapidly in the air. Just as Merlin was about to ask if there was something wrong with it, it wobbled again and slammed onto the board with a loud crack.
The boy turned red and shrugged at Niniane. "Sorry," he croaked.
"You'll face Cluthe in the first round tomorrow," Nennius said after a glance at the board. "Be here no later than the noon hour for the oaths. Next!"
Merlin hopped to the side with Niniane to make way for the next competitor. "I'll come watch you tomorrow," he said, a bit wistful.
"You're an odd duck, Merlin." Niniane shook her head. "Cute, but I get the feeling there's more to you than I thought. I don't know if I'm sorry you're not competing or glad. I'm here to win."
He gave an innocent shrug. "I might surprise you."
"I bet you would." Her smile took on a lascivious edge. "If you can escape your prince a third time, I'll give you the chance to finish proving it."
Tournament-level magic suddenly seemed less interesting compared to the remembered magic of her skin. Merlin tried to clear the memory from his mind as he cleared his throat. "I'll see what I can do."
And then she could see what he could do. If Arthur had no such need for him, it did not seem like too much to ask for someone else to appreciate his abilities.
He watched her walk away before he turned to find Arthur again. The instant he found Arthur's face on the edge of the crowd, he knew he was in trouble. That glower was a shade deeper than it had been when last he looked.
"Merlin," Arthur said in tight, snipped tones as soon as Merlin returned to his side. "I believe I sent you to gather information, not make a tryst with a damned witch."
"I wasn't, I didn't," Merlin protested, which was almost true on a technicality, given that he had not arranged any specific time to meet with her.
Arthur's eyes flicked downwards for a moment before he looked away. Merlin's face burned. Clearly Arthur had noticed that Niniane had left him slightly tight in his trousers. Knowing Arthur had noticed, that hint of a sexual connection between them, was only making the problem worse.
"The first round starts tomorrow at noon," he said, determined to ignore his embarrassment until it went away. "We'll go watch, right?"
"Yes, of course." Arthur squinted off at the field and the stands as though planning the best strategic vantage point. "I never miss a match in any tournament if I can help it. That's the whole point in having them in the first place."
"Really?" Merlin fell into step beside him as Arthur moved back onto the main street.
"Yes, of course." He cast Merlin an amused glance. "Did you really think my father risks thousands of gold pieces just to watch me prance around in fancy armor and hit people?"
Actually, that was exactly what Merlin had thought up until that moment. "Um, no?"
"The point of a tournament is that every king and lord sends his best men to compete. So what does that mean?"
For Merlin, it generally meant a lot more laundry. "You get to see who's the best?"
"Yes!" Arthur beamed at him and wrapped his arm around the back of Merlin's neck. "We test each other's skills to see which lord has the best fighters to send to war."
"Right," Merlin agreed, though his interpretation had been more egocentric than strategic.
"Why do you think the kings and lords of Albion have been so eager to make peace with my father?" Arthur drew himself up with a quiet pride, far removed from the puffery he affected in front of the court during those same tourneys.
Merlin slipped his arm around Arthur's back in return and smiled at his prince and his friend. "Because you're the best in the land, obviously."
Arthur smiled back as if Merlin's opinion mattered more to him than any other. Merlin did not mind enjoying that illusion.
"Let's go get a room," Arthur said and pounded Merlin on the back when he choked. "Honestly, Merlin, walking and breathing at the same time should not be too much to ask."
"Right, breathing," Merlin wheezed. "A room. At an inn. Where we can breathe."
"As long as they don't put us over the stables, anyway." As he finished the sentence, Arthur looked like he was already reconsidering the incognito scheme.
They walked back through the town in search of lodgings that would meet Arthur's standards. He slowed as they passed the only stone building they had seen in the town. It also seemed to be the only place sporting conventionally armed guards.
The building was circular and seemed large here, though it was small by Camelot standards at only two stories. Merlin had been inside several before--it was the typical building where representatives of the king or local lord came to conduct business during their occasional visits to the larger towns.
"So who's sponsoring this particular gathering, I wonder?" Arthur mused. "And what are they hoping to see?"
Merlin had wondered that himself, though with a less politically strategic eye until now. He started to ask if Arthur thought it might be Cenred himself--but he lost the thought as a familiar figure caught the corner of his eye. Wild blond hair spread over a dark cloak as she hurried out of the stone building and down its steps.
Arthur saw her at the same moment. "Morgause," he breathed and managed three strides before losing sight of her in the street. "Merlin, go around back that way and cut her off. I have things I want to discuss with that witch."
Merlin nodded and took off in the direction Arthur had pointed. He had even more things to discuss with Morgause, though none of it was for Arthur's ears.
But when Arthur's indication of "that way" took him back by the tournament grounds, he slowed in his pursuit. No one remained in front of the registrar's table, and Nennius the registrar had begun to pack away the blank placards into a satchel.
Desire rose, hotter than anything Niniane had made him feel. He wanted to compete. If what Arthur said about the purpose of tournaments held true here, maybe he needed to compete. The magical world should know that Camelot was protected.
Before he made the decision, he was running towards the table. "Wait!" he called, wriggling his way between people and pushing them out of the way when necessary. "Don't leave. There's one more to register."
Nennius paused to look at him, unimpressed, as Merlin skidded up to the table. "You were here earlier. Should have registered then."
"I couldn't then." Merlin tried to sound so sure and reasonable about it that the man would not ask for any further explanation.
He did not ask, but nor did he look any more impressed. "But you can now?"
"Yes, exactly," Merlin answered and planted himself there to wait until Nennius heaved a put-upon sigh and unrolled his parchment again.
"Name?" Nennius picked up his quill and looked up at Merlin expectantly. "Oh, come now, it's not a difficult question. Or do you need to go away again to think about it?"
"No, it's just...." Merlin hesitated again, because obviously he could not use his real name. Distracting Arthur long enough to compete unnoticed would be difficult enough. He could hardly keep Arthur from ever looking at the ranking board.
The registrar sighed again and started to roll the parchment again.
"Emrys," Merlin blurted, because it was the only other name anyone had ever given him.
"What did you say?" Nennius froze with his fingers caught in the scroll.
"Emrys," Merlin repeated with more confidence. When the druid boy had called him Emrys, Merlin had been confused and not a little unsettled. But the more he said it, the more it felt like something that belonged to him.
Nennius also looked unsettled, until his spooked look faded into annoyance. "Boy, I don't know what game you're playing, but let me give you some advice. Claiming a name out of prophecy is never wise unless you can back it up with power."
"I can." Merlin considered that sufficiently true. His faith in other people's prophecies had diminished of late, but he had chosen his destiny and got by pretty well on the power he had.
"We'll see, won't we?" Nennius muttered as he set one of the blank tiles before Merlin. "Show your proof."
Merlin put his hand over the tile with a sudden burst of nerves. He understood this to be a test of magic, and perhaps identity, more similar to the chivalric coat of arms than he had thought.
Niniane had used a spell, but he had not overheard the words. He looked at the blank space, focused his magic, and thought in the old tongue, ácostne mín sigespéde.
For a moment, nothing happened. Nennius grunted.
Then all of Merlin's longing and power found the path through his fingers. The hum of the magic drowned out all other sound in his ears, and golden light filled his vision.
When the power faded, he blinked the last of it away and looked at the registrar. Nennius gaped back at him.
Merlin looked down at the placard and saw only black between his fingers. That could not be a good sign.
With a sinking feeling he removed his hand. The entire placard had been burned black. In the middle, his name--Emrys--was inscribed in simple, bold letters that still burned with gold fire.
"Will that do?" he asked.
Nennius closed his gaping mouth, opened it again to speak, but had to clear his throat to get any sound to come out. "Yes," he said at last. "Yes, lad, I think that will do."
His assistant had gone, and Nennius seemed reluctant to touch the tile with his hands. He muttered a levitation spell, and the placard rose up and drifted in a lazy arc to settle on the board with a contented rattle.
"You'll face Morwena at noon tomorrow," the registrar said. "Winner moves on to the next round."
"Thanks," Merlin said. As he headed off to find Arthur, his feet hardly touched the ground with the giddy combination of elation and dread.
He found Arthur not far from where he had left him. "Did you see her?" Arthur demanded as soon as he caught sight of Merlin.
"No," Merlin answered with a shake of his head, glad not to have to lie outright this time. "No sign of her."
Arthur blew out a long breath of frustration. "Damn her. I don't know how we're going to find one sorceress in this crowd, but we have to."
"Why?" Merlin felt it should be self-evident that it was a bad idea. "You can't make her give Morgana back. She's already bested you with a sword, and now we're on her turf."
"I might be able to reason with her," Arthur said. "Find out what she wants, come to an understanding."
Merlin stared at him in disbelief. "I thought you decided she was a liar."
"No, you and my father decided that." Arthur shot him a dark look that quelled the last of Merlin's giddiness. "I still have some questions I intend to ask."
"Whatever." Merlin turned away so Arthur would not see his clenched jaw.
Arthur grabbed his shoulder and spun him around again. "No, Merlin, you don't get to whatever me on this. You're the one who wanted to come play with the sorcerers, and now you're angry because I want to talk to one?"
"I'm not angry." He was angry, but he could not tell Arthur why. He could not tell Arthur that being lumped so casually onto Uther's side made him sick inside. He could not tell Arthur that he almost destroyed his own soul to save Arthur's, and risked doing it again every day he pretended to serve Arthur's father, the man who had taken away Merlin's.
And he certainly could not tell Arthur that if he wanted to have a conversation with a sorcerer, well, done and dusted.
Arthur's lips thinned in annoyance, but he glanced around and held his tongue. They were starting to attract attention, and this was not the right crowd for an argument over Camelot's laws on magic use.
"It's getting dark. Let's find the inn," Arthur finally said, and Merlin nodded in neutral agreement.
They could not use Arthur's name to secure the best room in the best inn, but the gold in Arthur's purse achieved the same purpose. While the previous occupants of the best room were being ejected from their lodgings, Arthur and Merlin sat down to dinner in the tavern.
"Look," Arthur said after they had devoured most of a roasted chicken together in silence. "I just want to find Morgana before Father goes mad--or to war--trying to get her back. I'd think you would care about that, too."
Defiantly, Merlin took the last drumstick, even though he knew it was Arthur's favorite part. "I don't know why you're talking like my opinion matters so much to you," he said around a mouthful of meat.
"It doesn't," Arthur snapped back and swigged another mouthful of ale. He had already had two full tankards and color spotted his cheeks.
"Then stop asking for it." Merlin had not drunk more than water, much as he longed for the fuzzy comfort of the ale. He had too many secrets to keep in close quarters tonight.
Arthur drank two more tankards as though daring Merlin to say anything. Merlin said nothing until the owner of the inn came to tell them the room was ready.
The room was clean and comfortable with fresh rushes on the floor and fresh water in the wash basin. A warm quilt covered the wide bed with its fluffy ticking.
Merlin had slept in beds like this before, when they had been traveling and Arthur was feeling generous enough to pay for two beds. After their quarrel tonight, he had no reason to suppose he would be sleeping anywhere but the floor.
Resentment flooded him. This was his journey, his tournament; Arthur had done nothing but get in the way. And now he would sleep in the cozy bed while Merlin tossed and turned and plotted how to keep him out of the way the next day.
"Merlin, why are you glaring at the bed like it ate your grandmother?"
"I'm not sleeping on the floor." As the words came out of his mouth, the surprise he felt matched the surprise on Arthur's face a second later.
"I hope you're not suggesting that I should sleep on the floor." Arthur's chin lifted in a silent dare to make any such suggestion.
"You're the one who invited himself along. I don't see why I should be the one on the floor." He already regretted starting this squabble, which he knew had nothing to do with the accommodations.
"And I paid for the bed, so I don't see why I shouldn't sleep in it." Arthur crossed his arms over his chest, looking stubborn, angry, drunk, and a little bit lost. "For God's sake, Merlin, I never said you had to sleep on the floor."
"Oh." Merlin still felt irritation swirling inside him, but the semi-conciliatory words knocked some of it out of him.
"The bed's not as big as mine, but it's big enough to share." Something stiffened in Arthur's expression, a nearly imperceptible hardening of every facial muscle. "Unless you object to the idea of sharing."
"Of course not," Merlin replied, though the closeness would not be as pleasant while he was still trying to be irritable. Still, Arthur had always shared what he had with others, especially Merlin, especially when they were alone. It was not something Merlin wanted to discourage.
"Generous of you," Arthur sniped, but his face softened as he started to undress.
Knowing Arthur was unlikely to need his help, Merlin worked on pulling off his own boots, hopping a few feet across the room in the process. When he heard Arthur suppressing a chortle, he made sure to hop all the way back to the door while dealing with the other boot.
"I thought I was the one who's drunk." Arthur climbed into bed and settled onto his stomach with another snort of laughter.
"You are," Merlin answered, fondness overcoming the last of his unhappiness.
He would figure everything out, he promised himself as he crawled into bed next to Arthur. And someday they would be able to figure things out together.
For now, he would have enough to do figuring out how to keep Arthur away long enough for Merlin to win one tiny little competition tomorrow. Arthur started snoring softly into his pillow. Merlin got in a good minute of thought before the comfort of the sound and the bed lulled him to sleep.
In the morning, Merlin sat cross-legged on his half of the bed and watched Arthur continue to sleep. Downstairs he could hear the clatter and clamor of the inn serving an early lunch to everyone who wanted to get to the tourney grounds by noon.
The smell of the food made Merlin's empty stomach rumble. A wave of nerve-induced nausea rolled through right after.
He had gone down an hour before to secure food for himself and Arthur. But even the scent of fresh roast pig had not stirred Arthur, and Merlin could not eat a bite himself. After a while Merlin had stuck the tray in the cupboard.
Outside the window, the sun shone high overhead in the deep blue sky. If Arthur slept much longer, Merlin would not need to worry about creating a distraction.
After a few more minutes, Arthur stirred a bit without opening his eyes. He mumbled something completely incomprehensible to anyone but Merlin.
"No training today." Merlin brushed the sleep-damp hair back from Arthur's face, at least the part he could see. "Go back to sleep."
And with another sleepy mumble, Arthur did.
Merlin stared down at him, not daring to blink. His plan had not included plying Arthur with ale, but if he had done it on purpose, he would have felt clever. Arthur rarely drank heavily and always slept heavily and long when he did.
Carefully, Merlin climbed out of the bed. He changed into the best clothes he owned. They had once been Arthur's, a rare perk of his job, since Arthur almost never gave up his comfortable workaday clothes. Putting them on now felt like having Arthur's support, even though nothing could be further from the truth.
As for Arthur himself, Merlin pulled the curtains and made sure no errant draft would cause so much as a sliver of light to cross Arthur's brow. He drew the quilt up around Arthur's bare shoulders so no hint of late autumn chill would disturb his rest.
For a moment he considered casting a spell--a little one, gentle, to discourage Arthur from waking for just a little longer than the drink would cause. But he had always been reluctant to work magic directly on Arthur's person, unless he had to save Arthur from something much worse.
Someday, he wanted to swear to Arthur with an honest heart that he had never worked magic against him. He would have only a few tiny things he would have to ask Arthur to overlook.
He left Arthur sleeping and stepped out into Banncroft, finally free to see if this was where he belonged.
His name was still at the bottom of the board when he arrived at the list field. People were already thronging into the stands as Merlin looked around for some sign of where to go.
He used Arthur's logic: if this were Camelot, the knights would wait in tents at the far side of the field. When he squinted in the right direction, he did see tents of drab canvas, lacking the colors and pennants of the chivalric nobility.
But they must have been the right place, because Niniane ducked out of one of them and moved to join a group of people waiting along the edge of the lists. Merlin's heart and his feet picked up speed. This was real, and those were the people he intended to measure himself against. He wondered which of them was Morwena.
Niniane looked up and smiled as he hurried to join the group. "Come to wish me luck, prince's man?"
"Sorry," he said with a broad grin. "I think I better keep my luck for myself."
Her eyes widened. "What, you? When did you register? I didn't see your name on the board."
"Last night, but I could hardly use my own name, could I?" He felt delighted with himself, swimming with the possibilities of what he might do next.
Niniane shook her head, but before she could say anything else, another voice called out over the ambient noise.
"All right, all warlocks and witches who intend to play upon this field, gather now."
Merlin turned to see Nennius the registrar standing out in front of them. Today he was formally dressed in robes similar to what Merlin usually saw Geoffrey wearing in the archives, and equally dusty. He paced along the front of the group with his registration scroll, looking from scroll to sorcerer as though taking attendance.
His eyes lit on Merlin last and lingered for a heartbeat. When he looked away, he let the scroll roll closed and stood with it clasped in front of him.
He said something under his breath, and a ball of light formed over his head. When he spoke next, the light shimmered and his words boomed out over the entire arena.
"Welcome, fellow mages, druids, students of the magical arts, and spectators all. I am Nennius, historian of the court of Cenred, and officiant over these games."
Niniane leaned over and whispered in Merlin's ear. "He wrote the defining works on the magical history of Albion. I had to memorize every page during my lessons."
Merlin fought another pang of envy as Nennius continued speaking. "Combatants, you have all registered and proven your right to be here. This tournament will begin now. The winners of each round will compete each day until one remains."
"What do we win if we win?" Merlin whispered.
Niniane shrugged. "Just a cup. And a place in immortal legend, if you believe Nennius."
Merlin did not mind the sound of that, though he had rather been hoping for some gold or a powerful artifact of some sort.
"All who intend to test themselves on these grounds must swear these oaths with me." Nennius looked up as the ball of light grew brighter.
The light made Merlin squint, and something tingled in the back of his skull. He probed at it like a sore tooth, but it eluded him.
"I swear to abide by the laws of the Old Religion and to accept their justice," Nennius began. "I will interfere in no match that is not my own. I will not betray the secrets of any magic user to any who would do them harm."
That gave Merlin a pang, and he wondered again if bringing Arthur here had been the right thing to do. But he had to trust his friend over the prince, the king that would be over the king that was.
So when Nennius finished his recitation, Merlin mumbled his agreement along with the others around him. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, the magic in the back of his head flared to life. For an instant he could see it connecting all of them, bound by magical pact.
"The two hundredth tournament of magical combat has now begun," Nennius declared, and the ball of light blinked out. "Emrys and Morwena, as the last to register, you will be the first to compete. You have one half hour to prepare."
At the mention of Merlin's false name a murmur went through the crowd of sorcerers. Near the front of the crowd, a flame-haired woman craned her neck to look around--Morwena, he guessed.
Merlin ducked his head and tried to look unlegendary. Niniane had already turned to go back to the tents, but stopped and threw him a sharp look. "You? That's the name you chose? To use here, of all places?"
"It was the only thing I could think of," he said with a shrug.
She grabbed his arm and pulled him toward the tent from which she had emerged. "Come on, you better use my rest tent to preserve your mystique a little longer. You can meet my first teacher. I'm sure she'd love to see the fool who decided to name himself Emrys."
He had a moment to anticipate meeting an actual teacher of magic before he was pushed into the tent--and instantly recoiled.
"Morgause," he said through gritted teeth.
Morgause drew in a sharp breath as she rose from her chair. Then she burst out laughing, an unpleasant sound.
"Lady?" Niniane said behind him. Merlin could feel her tense.
"I knew Uther Pendragon had a serpent in his nest," Morgause said to Merlin, ignoring her student. "I looked and looked. I should have guessed it would be Arthur's idiot manservant, always interfering where he doesn't belong."
Merlin barely heard the insult. "Where's Morgana?"
"Far from here," she spat.
"What have you done to her?"
She clenched her fists and took a step toward him. "What have I done? What right do you, her murderer, have to even speak her name?
"Murderer?" His heart contracted at the word. In the dark days after the Knights of Medhir, the conviction that Morgana still lived had been one of his few comforts. "You said you could save her."
"And I did, but not for you or your false king. She belongs to us now. She chose the people you betrayed. Tell me, Merlin, do you have loyalty to anyone?"
"Only to Arthur," he said. "I've found no one else who deserves it."
"The prince is here in Banncroft, Lady," Niniane interjected. She had not let go of Merlin's arm, and her grip now felt more menacing than friendly. "He came with this one."
For the second time Morgause looked surprised. "Is this true? Does he know what you are?"
"No," Merlin had to admit. "He doesn't know."
"And yet he is here," Morgause mused under Merlin's glare. "I will have to think about what that means."
"It means he's not his father and you should leave him alone."
"Perhaps. And yet despite my best efforts, he remains blind to the truth and allows Uther's reign to continue." She narrowed her eyes at Merlin. "Did you have anything to do with that, strange little warlock?"
"I have no love for Uther," Merlin said, Balinor's face in his mind's eye. "But I won't destroy Arthur along with him, and I won't let you do it, either."
Niniane laughed at him, but Morgause did not. "I respect the wish to protect one whom you love," she said softly. "And perhaps my hope for Ygraine's son is not completely lost. But he will only get so many chances."
A boy, Nennius's assistant from the day before, stuck his head in between the tent flaps. "Emrys? You're due in the lists."
"Emrys?" Morgause looked amused. "Who gave you the right to bear that name?"
"The druid boy, Mordred, called me that," Merlin answered.
Arthur might have scolded him for giving up a strategic advantage, but Merlin enjoyed watching the smirk fade from Morgause's face. He turned and pushed past Niniane to leave the tent.
So much for his new friendship, he thought as he followed the boy out to where Morwena stood waiting for him. And so much for this being a safe place for Arthur to be, although at least Morgause seemed less eager to harm him this time. But if Morgana was evidence of how Morgause treated those she claimed to love, Merlin was not trusting her anywhere near Arthur.
His thoughts still whirled as he took his place on the field and smiled absently at Morwena. He was not sure how he was going to keep Arthur away from Morgause and away from Merlin's matches at the same time, all while protecting Arthur's identity and his own.
With his luck, Morgana, Mordred, and the Great Dragon would all show up for tomorrow's bout.
The gasp of the spectators made him look up in time to see a shimmering net floating down over his head. Across the field, Morwena had her hand raised and lips moving as she guided her conjuration down to trap him.
Merlin looked back up at the net, which seemed insubstantial until he felt the magic behind it. He flung his hand up over his head and muttered a spell he had once used to dissipate the smoke in Arthur's rooms when Merlin had forgotten to have the chimney cleaned.
A sigh ran through the crowd as the net dissolved into pinpoints of light. Merlin took a deep breath and resolved to worry about the match he was fighting now before he worried about tomorrow's.
Morwena looked enraged and immediately flung another spell at him. He flung his hand out with the same kind of shield he had used when the Dragon got cranky. The spell hit the shield and twisted it, trying to transform whatever it could touch. Merlin did not want to know into what.
There was one way to find out. He grunted as he muttered a repulsion spell that sent the writhing magic back to its source. Another gasp went up from the crowd and Morwena herself as she reeled back from the impact.
She tumbled backwards onto the ground, tumbled back and back until the woman was gone and only a tiny mouse remained on the field with Merlin. She skittered around in a circle before making a break for the shelter of the stands.
"Well, guess that shows what she thought of me," Merlin said to himself as he watched her dash away.
From his seat next to the ranking board, Nennius gestured to his assistant. The boy ran out and summoned the mouse into his hand. He carried her carefully to Nennius, who examined her and then motioned Merlin over.
"I think it's fair to say you have won this round, Emrys," he said when Merlin approached. "You will move on to tomorrow."
"Thanks," Merlin said, watching as Morwena's placard cracked in two and Merlin’s moved up a level. The victory still felt unreal, considering he had not even noticed the match beginning.
"Now that we have that formality out of the way," Nennius went on, stroking the mouse's back to soothe her. "Would you might telling me what spell you used on the young lady?"
"Um," Merlin said, embarrassed. "I think you'd have to ask her. I just made it up as went along."
"I see." Nennius handed the mouse back to his assistant, who ran off with it. "Then so shall we. Same time tomorrow, young man. You may join the audience if you wish to know who your opponent shall be."
"Thanks," Merlin said again before shuffling awkwardly off the field. He did want to stay and watch the others, but first he had to go and fetch his sleepy prince.
He only made it a few yards from the grounds when his worlds collided once more. A flash of gold and red was his only warning before a strong hand closed around the back of his neck and dragged him in against Arthur's side.
"Merlin, what a pleasure to see you," he said, and Merlin felt a rush of relief right before Arthur's fingers tightened to the point of pain. "Especially since I was denied that pleasure when I woke up this morning."
Merlin already had his rationalizations ready to go. "I thought you must be tired after fighting all those men yesterday. I didn't want to wake you."
"You thought I'd be tired?" Arthur said in disbelief. "After that little bit of exercise?"
"You deserved a lie-in, so I came to scout things out." Merlin course corrected, and then could not help sabotaging his own efforts. "You do get cranky when you're tired."
"Oh, do I, Merlin?" Arthur had already started working himself up into a good crank as if to prove Merlin's point. Merlin braced himself, but then Arthur made a visible effort to rein in his temper. "All right. I'll make a bargain with you."
Merlin pulled away far enough to let Arthur see the suspicious look Merlin was giving him. "What sort of bargain?"
"I'll stop being cranky if you stop trying to ditch me at every opportunity."
That did not seem like the best bargain for Merlin, given that he would need to ditch Arthur at least once every day they were here, if he was lucky. But no magic shield had ever protected him from Arthur showing genuine emotion.
"All right," he said, aching for the closeness more than the trophy.
Arthur grinned in genuine relief. His arm slid back around Merlin's shoulders, this time companionable and affectionate. "Good. Now come on, what have I missed?"
"Just the first bout," Merlin said happily. "The guy who won was amazing."
He fell easily into step beside Arthur as they headed up into the stands. Today he intended to enjoy. He would just have to think of something for tomorrow.
By the next morning, he had not thought of anything. His heart raced, his nerves so focused on Arthur that he had not any left over to worry about the competition itself.
The day before had been worth it. They had watched the rest of the first round together high up in the stands. Arthur had tensed the first time someone launched a magical attack, but soon he was as caught up in the action as if the combatants were knights jousting in Camelot's own tiltyard.
"That one can't keep his left side covered," Arthur tutted over Niniane's opponent just before the warlock in question was pulled into the air by his left hand. He dangled there helplessly as Niniane accepted her victory applause.
They had spent dinner dissecting the competition like every other patron in the inn. Merlin concentrated on not betraying too great a knowledge of magic use, allowing the burly drayman at the next table to school Arthur while Merlin stored up every bit of strategy for later use.
Afterwards they had lain in bed late into the night, still talking. "I wish I understood more," Arthur had mumbled before falling asleep, half on Merlin's arm.
"I wish you did, too," Merlin whispered and let his hand rest on Arthur's back as he fell asleep.
Now as they left the inn together, Arthur bright eyed and eager, he wished it more than ever. He had only half an hour before he was meant to be competing again, and he still had no idea how to manage it, with or without breaking his promise to Arthur.
Arthur was already analyzing his predictions for the day's match-ups. "And I didn't get to see this Emrys fellow, thanks to somebody," he was saying with a heatless glare at Merlin. "But I don't much fancy his chances against that Garvin."
"I don't fancy his chances, either," Merlin muttered.
"Garvin conjured an entire bear. Out of thin air! Did you see that?"
Merlin had seen it. And while he was thrilled that Arthur had taken so well to seeing magic used around him, he wished Arthur was not quite so keen on viewing Garvin's next match.
Arthur paused and looked down a side street. "What's going on there?"
A long line of people, mostly women, sat cross legged in the middle of the street, one behind the other. Each of them had a plain stone bowl in front of them. As he followed Arthur towards them, Merlin saw that each bowl was filled to the brim with water.
"I have no idea," Merlin finally answered, though the sight of them gave him a chill.
"Those are the seers," a familiar voice answered. They turned to see Lady Elaine, the merchant of love charms and potions, coming up behind them, this time without her cart.
"Seers?" Arthur said with a frown.
"The ones who dream into the future," she replied.
The chill solidified into ice along Merlin's spine. He looked reflexively up the line of seers to see if Morgana sat amongst them. He dreaded and longed to see her face, but he did not find it.
"But what are they doing?" Arthur pressed.
"Competing, of course," Elaine said. "The tourney isn't only about the flash and glamour over in the lists, you know. The seer who correctly predicts the outcomes of all the matches will take home a hefty purse."
That did not seem fair to Merlin, given that he did not stand to win any actual money himself--assuming he made it past, or even to the next round.
"In the meantime, some of them are happy to do a little business on the side." Elaine held up two silver coins and rubbed them together with anticipation. "After selling charms and potions all day, a girl wouldn't mind a little something for her own love life."
Merlin felt ill at that, but Arthur just scoffed. "A maker of love spells who needs someone else to predict her romances? That doesn't say much for the quality of your wares."
She muttered something about ignorant men before pocketing her silver and poking Merlin in the side with one fingers. "Have you reconsidered my offer, boy? I can give you a potion that will make the object of your desire burn with a fire only your seed can quench."
"All right, that's enough of your charlatanry." Arthur seized Merlin's arm and pulled him away--surprisingly, in the direction of the seers.
"What are we doing?" Merlin pulled back, reluctant to go any closer. Arthur might want to hear more about what a great king he was destined to be, but Merlin did not think it was the best idea to spread that news around town right now.
"We came here to see what sorcerers could do, didn't we?" Arthur pulled Merlin inexorably past the first few seers before he stopped and pulled the purse from his belt. "Well, let's see what these can do."
"I don't think--" Merlin started to protest, but Arthur was already spilling a handful of silver coins into his palm. He knelt on one knee and pressed one of the coins into the hand of the nearest seer.
"Tell me the future," he said in a low voice. "Tell me the future of Camelot."
She turned to him, eyes glittering with a silver mist. "Golden kingdom," she murmured. "Golden king."
Arthur stared hard at her. He rose without a word and moved to the next seer. "Tell me about Camelot," he said as he dropped the silver into her lax palm.
This seer did not look at him at all. She kept her eyes on the glassy surface of the water in front of her. "Camelot will lead a new age of prosperity for all of Albion."
This time Arthur looked almost angry. He got up without waiting to hear more and moved to the next, a young man this time.
Merlin followed him from seer to seer. Each time, the seer spoke of the glory of Camelot's future and her future king and queen and noble knights. It was the same promise on which Merlin had founded the last two years of his life.
Arthur only grew more agitated. Merlin put his hand on Arthur's shoulder after the sixth repetition of the pattern. "We should go. The tournament's about to start," he said, instead of what he wanted to say: don't worry about the future--that's my job.
"You heard the woman, Merlin," Arthur replied without looking at him. "This is part of the tournament, too."
"Arthur," he started, but a high, thin voice from further down the line made him lose his argument before he could make it.
"Camelot will be betrayed. Darkness will fall on the shining realm. Love no woman, King Arthur."
She was a young girl, slender to the point of insubstantiality. Dark hair fell over her olive-skinned shoulders. Her eyes might also have been dark if they were not glittering like stars, brighter than all the others.
Arthur was on her in two long strides. "What did you say?"
The girl bent her head and whispered something to him. Merlin hurried to join them, but caught none of the exchange. "Arthur?"
"Go, Merlin," Arthur said without taking his eyes from the girl. "Get us seats and watch the first match for me."
Merlin wanted to argue and pull Arthur away from any talk of darkness or betrayal. Then the girl turned her unsettling gaze on him with an incongruously sweet smile. "Yes, go. Emrys has a destiny of his own."
His throat went dry at the realization of this unexpected gift. Arthur would not be budged. For as long as the girl would talk, Arthur would not move. "All right," he said slowly.
Arthur poured all but one of the remaining silver coins into the girl's cupped hands. As she giggled with delight, he looked up at Merlin over his shoulder with a small smile.
"Here, see if anyone's taking wagers on Emrys." He flipped the last coin up to Merlin. "Maybe I was wrong about him after all."
Merlin caught the coin, tried to say something coherent, then gave up and hurried away. As soon as he turned the corner back onto the main street, he started pelting full speed towards the tournament field.
When he got there, breathless with gratitude that this was not a physical contest, Garvin was already waiting for him in the lists. "Thought you'd done the smart thing and forfeited," Garvin sneered as Merlin scooted past him. "Got something special planned for the renowned Emrys."
"Can't wait," Merlin replied as he passed. He was starting to think the Emrys thing was getting out of hand.
As he took his place in front of the packed stands, Niniane looked on from the sidelines. Her face was stony. He saw no sign of Morgause.
He allowed himself one last regret for the forest, and then he focused on the man across from him. Garvin was a huge bear of a man, which would mean nothing if Merlin had not seen him create a literal bear out of nothing the day before.
Merlin would need to end the fight quickly--to avoid being eaten by a bear, and because sooner or later Arthur would lose his patience with the seers and come looking for him. He braced himself as Nennius took his seat, lifted his hand, and dropped it to begin the fight.
Instantly Garvin lifted both his hands and pushed them forward. He shouted, and the ground erupted around Merlin.
Merlin stumbled, but stayed on his feet. He thought he could replicate the spell, though it did not seem all that effective.
Garvin seemed pleased with it. He grinned as he planted his feet in a wide stance and spread his arms out towards the crowd. "Now see how Garvin deals with imposters who pretend to greatness."
Merlin could not hear the exact words Garvin incanted next, but he suspected bears were involved somewhere. He was wrong.
Twin streams of fire erupted from Garvin's upraised hands. They joined above his head in a flaming mass that quickly took shape.
"Great," Merlin said to himself. "Another damn dragon."
The fire dragon roared up into the sky and circled over the crowd before hovering between Merlin and Garvin. It looked at Merlin with murderous intent.
Merlin looked back with resignation.
"Kill him!" Garvin shouted.
As the dragon reared up above him, Merlin tried to remember if Nennius had mentioned any rules against killing your opponent. He was pretty sure he had not. At least now he understood why Garvin had broken up the ground: it made it impossible for Merlin to run away.
The dragon blew a stream of fire at his face. Merlin was ready for that and already had his hand up to deflect it.
"Oh, the fire breathing trick," he said with unconvincing confidence. "I was expecting something original."
The dragon stopped in the middle of working up another blast and snapped its fiery jaws shut. "You object to my methods of effecting your demise?" it said in a voice that roared in Merlin's head like the greatest pyre ever built.
He tried to snap his own jaws shut as he gaped at the dragon. It was a creation of magical flame, not a living creature. He had not been expecting conversation. "To be honest, it's the demise part I object to the most," he tried.
The flaming face took on an abashed air. "I regret the necessity, but my master has commanded it. I have no choice but to obey."
"Actually, I'm the one you have to obey." He took a deep breath; time to see how real a dragon this was. "I am a dragonlord, and he isn't."
The dragon considered. "That is true," it conceded. "But he is my creator."
"Dragonlord trumps creator," Merlin said quickly. "Plus, he's kind of an ass, don't you think?"
"In the few moments of my existence, I have not formed a favorable impression of him, no." The dragon gave a contemplative sigh. It singed Merlin's hair, but as a sign of trust and power, he did not shield himself.
"Then obey my commands," Merlin said in the firm tone he used with Arthur's dogs.
"You are a dragonlord, so I suppose I must." This dragon sounded more cheerful about the prospect than Kilgarrah had. "Would you like me to kill him?"
"No, that's all right," Merlin replied. "Maybe you could make him scream and run around a bit? Just until he begs for my mercy."
"That will be a simple matter," the dragon said and flew off.
As the dragon chased Garvin around the field, Merlin made some dramatic gestures to make it look like he actually had any control over it. Eventually he gave up and stepped back to the safety of the wall to enjoy the show along with everyone else.
The onlookers screamed in fear at first to see the dragon turn on its maker, but then started cheering every time it cut off Garvin's escape or singed part of his clothing from his body. Merlin grinned until his face hurt.
He stepped to the middle of the field with a flourish as the dragon drove Garvin toward him for the grand finale. "Mercy, mercy," the other warlock gasped. He flung himself at Merlin's feet and tapped frantically at the ground in the universal sign of surrender. "Mercy, great Emrys."
Merlin could get used to hearing that. He motioned to the dragon, which let out one last punctuating gust of flame into the ground behind the groveling sorcerer.
Then it bowed deeply to Merlin amid the gasps of the crowd. "Thank you for the opportunity to serve you, Dragonlord."
"Oh, my pleasure," Merlin answered, distracted as he waved to the screaming crowd while trying to discreetly get Garvin off his boots.
"The golden one is watching you very intently. Is that the one you wished to impress?"
Merlin looked up in alarm. His gaze went straight to the side of the stands and--Morgause. Her hair gleamed gold in the sun.
He wanted to gloat and let her see what power she was up against. But she only smiled as though she were the one who had gained a victory.
She inclined her head to him. Then she turned and looked over her shoulder, a triumphant invitation to follow her gaze.
Several paces behind her, frozen in the midst of his pursuit, Arthur stared at Merlin like his world had just cracked in two.
"Arthur," Merlin whispered and took a step towards him, kicking Garvin away.
"Good luck," the dragon said and dissipated into a thousand sparks across the sand.
Arthur turned and stalked away. Ignoring the cheers of the crowd and Nennius proclaiming his name as victor, Merlin ran after him.
He stopped and turned on Morgause as he passed her. "Whatever game you're playing this time," he growled, "don't think I'll let you use him the way you used Morgana."
"I was only a catalyst for what you knew must come." She looked at him with pity, but no mercy. "If he is what you say he is, it is long past time."
"You don't have the right to decide that." He held her gaze, equally unrelenting. He ached to blast her into dust.
But Arthur was getting too far ahead. There could be no question as to who was more important. Without another thought for Morgause, Merlin took off running again.
He did not waste time apologizing to the people he knocked out of his way as he ran. Arthur was getting further ahead. Merlin had a horrible feeling that if he lost sight of Arthur now, he might never see him again.
With a burst of speed he caught up and got his hand onto Arthur's shoulder. "Wait, Arthur," he gasped, struggling to hold on against Arthur's forward momentum.
Arthur spun around and knocked Merlin's hand from him. "Don't touch me," he snarled, but he stopped and stood facing Merlin.
"Arthur, just stop, let's talk about this." He had only seen Arthur this enraged once before, and that had been with a sword to his father's throat.
"Oh, now you want to talk, do you, Merlin?" Arthur was panting; it could not be from exertion, only rage. "I practically beg you to tell me whatever strange things are going on in your head, but now you think you deserve the chance to lie to me some more?"
"I never wanted to lie. I didn't have a choice." Arthur had to see that. To protect himself, and Arthur, there was nothing else he could have done.
Arthur seized him by the shoulders and shoved him into an alleyway. Merlin stumbled backwards into a stack of abandoned crates.
"Choice? Of course you had a choice. You could have chosen to trust me the way I've trusted you." Arthur put his hands to his head. "God, I trusted you with everything. Everything."
Merlin pushed himself out of the crates and tried to stop himself from shaking. "I swear by everything sacred, Arthur, I have done nothing that wasn't to serve you."
"And what does a sorcerer hold sacred?" Nothing but scorn filled Arthur's voice, but Merlin could see his hands and they were shaking, too. "You told me yourself: sorcerers are evil. They all have underhanded motives. I guess you would know."
He had never doubted that someday he would pay for those words. "Morgause has her own agenda, and I don't know what it is," he said. "I still don't know how much of what she said was true. But what I'm telling you now is. What I did then, and everything I've done in Camelot, was only for you, to protect you until you become king."
Arthur was breathing even harder, his face bright red with anger. "What, so you'll have a puppet on the throne?"
Merlin sputtered. "How can you even think that?"
"How can I not?" Arthur gesticulated in the direction of the tourney field. "I saw you, Merlin. You had a dragon kneeling at your feet."
The blood drained from his face, leaving him cold. He had not had time to think of how that might look to a Pendragon prince.
"No, see, the dragon was his idea," Merlin said with a desperate wave in the direction he had last seen Garvin groveling. "And I didn't tell it to bow. I didn't even tell it to exist."
Arthur stared at him, and his face was as stark white now as Merlin's felt. "You controlled the dragon," he breathed, and Merlin understood they were no longer talking about Garvin's creation.
"Only after Balinor died," he said. "He was my father, but I didn't find out until we met him."
"Your father." Arthur turned to lean one hand on the wall and bow his head. "You didn't tell me that."
He had wanted to, ached to talk about it with Arthur, who was the one person who might understand even while he was the one person Merlin could not risk telling. "What would you have done if I had?" he asked and watched Arthur's jaw twitch.
Finally Arthur straightened up and half turned back to Merlin. His voice was still hard, but something in his eyes had given way.
"I'm going to walk away now," he said. "If you follow me, I promise you'll regret it."
Merlin nodded. There was so much more he wanted Arthur to understand, but he knew Arthur and the limits of where he could push.
All he could do was watch in an agony of anxiety as Arthur walked away. All he could do was hope Arthur was truly the man and the friend Merlin thought he was. He had to trust him.
The misery had overcome all but the most stubborn core of the trust by the time Merlin lay alone in bed that night.
After Arthur left, Merlin had wandered without aim. He found himself back at the tournament field and climbed into the stands. It was somewhere to sit, and somewhere Arthur would think to check if he came looking for Merlin.
Arthur did not come. Merlin sat and stared at the field while the rest of the crowd rose up and down around him in surging excitement. He had missed Niniane's match, which was just as well. By the end of the day, the rest of the competition was a blur around an endless reanalysis of every word he and Arthur had exchanged.
On the way back to the inn, he stopped and stared at the seers. As one, they lifted their heads and stared back at him. He wanted badly to know what they had said to Arthur before Morgause had lured him away, but he knew better than to ask.
At the inn, he sat down in the tavern. "Your friend joining you, dearie?" the barmaid asked as she set a tankard of mead down in front of him.
"I don't know," he said. She patted him on the shoulder and brought him his dinner for one.
He shoveled the food into his mouth without tasting it. The magic had left him famished; Arthur had left him with no appetite.
While he ate, other patrons stared at him and whispered. "Emrys," he heard one of them exclaim before being shushed by her neighbor. His anonymity had taken a serious blow on all fronts today. Glory, it turned out, was nothing like he had imagined. He went upstairs as soon as he finished.
His stomach churned as he opened the door to their dark room, but Arthur was not there. A wave of relief nearly dizzied him when he saw Arthur's pack still lying by the bed. Part of him had been certain that Arthur would be halfway back to Camelot by now, already writing Merlin's banishment decree in his head.
He sat on the bed, drew his knees up under his chin, and watched the candles flicker. When he felt too pathetic to be allowed to breathe, let alone call himself a fabled warlock, he extinguished the candles with a thought and stretched out on top of the quilt.
Exhaustion drew him into a fitful doze, slipping in and out of fretful dreams. At one point he thought he was talking to Arthur, but woke to the unbroken silence of the empty room.
When the door finally opened, Merlin thought it was still a dream. His muzzy thoughts sharpened slowly with Arthur's footsteps as he crossed the room. One boot hit the floor with a thud as Arthur pulled it off, then the other. He was making no effort to be quiet.
Merlin was fully awake by the time Arthur climbed up onto the bed, though he kept his eyes closed, body stiff. Arthur did not lie down beside him, but shifted around before settling into stillness.
After a long moment, a finger poked Merlin in the hip. He cracked open one eye to see Arthur sitting facing him, watching Merlin with an expression of deathly calm.
"This is your chance to tell me everything," he said when Merlin's eyes opened fully. "Everything you've ever lied about or withheld from me, this is your one chance for honesty."
Slowly, Merlin pulled himself upright and mimicked Arthur's cross-legged pose. He rested his hands in his lap and let his knees press against Arthur's. Merlin wanted Arthur to feel the solid reality of him, Arthur's friend.
"All right," he agreed, matching Arthur's solemnity, and lifted his hand to light the candles around the room.
Arthur did not flinch. "Everything," he reminded Merlin. "If you lie again, I won't forgive it."
Merlin nodded his understanding. Then he took a deep breath and started talking.
He left nothing out--or almost nothing. His eyes stayed trained on Arthur's face, cataloging every reaction. He barely paused for breath.
Arthur listened, mostly in silence. Emotions flashed across his face from time to time. He looked startled when Merlin mentioned the lights in the cave and impressed when Merlin described his defeat of Nimueh, though Merlin carefully edited his explanation of what his bargain with her had entailed. He was not sure he was ready for Arthur to know the full extent of the magic's betrayal or his own devotion.
Sometimes, Arthur interjected. "I said not to lie," he put in sharply, bright red even in the candlelight as Merlin took care to share every detail of Arthur's behavior under the influence of Sophia.
"I am not lying," Merlin promised with relish. He had waited a long time to rub this in. "And I'm not done. We haven't even discussed Vivian yet."
Other times, Arthur's face grew grim. "What kind of potion was Gaius giving Morgana?" he asked as Merlin picked his way painfully through the truth of what had happened to her. "Who was she talking to? Did you actually see where she went?"
Merlin's voice was almost gone by the time he finished with the story of his encounters with Morgause there in Banncroft. Arthur had leaned his elbows onto his thighs, putting his head where Merlin could rest his own head on Arthur's hair if he bent just a little.
He was exhausted and empty and had nothing left to lose--so he did just that. Arthur's hair was soft under his cheek. When Arthur's fingers brushed his, he had to scrunch his eyes shut to hold back the sudden burn. He knew he was forgiven.
Arthur straightened up after a few minutes and swiped the moisture from Merlin's eyes with his fingers. "You may be some kind of powerful sorcerer, Merlin, but you're still a girl."
"And you're still a plonker," Merlin shot back, though he knew he was smiling stupidly.
Arthur smiled stupidly back, but abruptly stopped and made a gruff noise. "So what are we going to do about Morgause? What's her real game?"
"I'm not sure," Merlin admitted. "She wants to bring down your father more than anything, but I don't know why she hates him so much. Well, any more than any other sorcerer, I suppose."
Arthur raised his eyebrows.
"Just for the obvious reasons," Merlin finished. "Er."
"Do you hate him?" Arthur asked, blunt and offering no quarter. "You must, surely."
Merlin hesitated, wondering if the compunction to honesty applied to this. "I try not to think about that too much. He's the king and your father."
"And he took yours from you." Arthur looked down again. "And my mother from me. I noticed how carefully you avoided mentioning either of them just now, but you must feel something about that."
"Of course I do, but it doesn't change my duty or yours," Merlin said. "It doesn't change the fact that he's your father and he loves you."
"It changes a lot of things."
He resigned himself to giving up the last of his secrets. Arthur had the right to know and make his own judgments. Merlin had to trust him. "Nimueh, the sorceress. I didn't quite tell you the whole story about how she died."
"Merlin." Arthur groaned and tipped his head back. "Why is it so hard for you to be honest with me?"
"We're still in the amnesty period," Merlin reminded him. "And I didn't really want to talk about you dying."
Arthur shifted impatiently. "At the risk of pointing out the fucking obvious--"
"The Questing Beast killed you, Arthur. You just hadn't stopped breathing yet." Merlin dropped his head so Arthur would not see the memory in his face. "I tried every spell and potion anyone's ever invented, but you just kept slipping away."
Arthur's fingers curled around his bare ankle like a shackle. "So you went to Nimueh and got the water of life to save me. She tried to double cross you, so you killed her. You told me this already."
"I didn't tell you how she double crossed me."
"She tried to kill you."
"No, she was supposed to kill me. That was our deal."
Arthur's arm went stiff, his fingers tightening on Merlin's ankle. "What deal?" he said. "What deal, Merlin?"
"The Old Religion has the power over life and death, but there's always a price." Merlin watched the tendons flex in Arthur's hand. "If you ask for a life, you have to give a life back to restore the balance."
"Merlin," Arthur ground out, sounding like his throat had turned to stone. "You idiot. You bloody fucking idiot."
"Don't you dare." Merlin looked up sharply, eyes burning into Arthur's. "It was my right to give my life for yours. I'd do it again. Someday, I probably will."
Arthur looked back, breathing ragged, but saying nothing.
Merlin looked away again. "But the Old Religion doesn't honor its bargains. I offered my life, and she tried to take my mother. When I fought her, she tried to take Gaius. So I paid the price with her life instead."
He watched Arthur's knuckles turn white. "Your mother?"
"Fine. We're all fine." And because of that, he would never regret what he had done. "Once the balance was restored, it was over."
Arthur leaned closer, until he was almost leaning on Merlin. "What are you saying? That my father tried to exchange his own life for my birth?"
"All I know is that he made a bargain, and the old magic takes the highest price, not the one that was agreed on." Defending Uther Pendragon was not something Merlin enjoyed doing, but he would do it for Arthur and the peace he needed to reconcile his past with his present. "I think maybe it cheated him when it took your mother, and that's why he hates it."
One by one, Arthur's fingers uncurled, and Merlin pretended not to see the tremor in them. "And I was born of it."
"He loves you more than anything. That I know for certain. He isn't half the man or the king that you'll be--I'm sorry, but it's true." Merlin overran Arthur's frown, pouring his heart into his words. "But he's your father, and he loved your mother, and he loves you."
Arthur shook his head, though in denial of what, Merlin was not sure. "So you defend his crown."
"I defend your crown," Merlin corrected. "And your head until it's time to put the crown on it."
Arthur gave a faint smile. "My guardian. And here I thought you were just a pain in my neck."
Merlin narrowed his eyes at his friend. "You knew there was something more. I know you did. Admit it."
"I knew you were different, but everyone knew that." With the same faint smile, Arthur dropped his head to touch Merlin's. "I understand a lot more now, but I still don't know what to do. I guess I'm not ready to be king after all."
Uncertainty was not what Merlin wanted to hear. Uncertainty made his stomach twist with the revival of fear. At the same time, it made Arthur readier to be king than Uther at any point in his long reign.
He stayed silent as Arthur broke away and flopped onto his back on the bed.
"For example," Arthur went on, staring up at the shadowy ceiling beams. "That was a nice moment we had just now, but I still don't know what to do about Morgause."
"Morgause?" The name burst out of Merlin, and he narrowly avoided the urge to kick Arthur in the side. "Excuse me, but I'm a little more concerned with what you're going to do about me."
"Ah." Arthur's face did not change no matter how hard Merlin stared at it. "Yes, you."
"Arthur, I did what you asked. I told you everything."
"I know, and you told me everything I needed to know about who you are and what you've done." Arthur's voice was gentle, though he still did not look at Merlin. "But as you pointed out, I'm not king yet."
His heart pounded up into his throat. "So what are you going to do?"
"As prince of Camelot, I should haul you back to Camelot in chains and see you burned for your treason." Arthur spoke conversationally, as though debating whether the blue tunic or the red would be more appropriate for the banquet. "As your friend, I should leave you here and tell you never to go back to Camelot."
"And as Arthur?" Merlin leaned over him, trying to make Arthur look at him. "What does Arthur want to do?"
Arthur finally turned his head to meet Merlin's eyes. There was a tenderness there Merlin would have given much to see when his life was not on the precipice of ruin.
"Arthur wants Merlin to shut up so he can get some sleep," he said and gave Merlin's arm a rough tug.
Merlin tumbled down next to him, giving Arthur's shoulder a frustrated thump. Arthur laughed once, and then settled into silence. He was done talking, but at least he had listened. The rest could wait until morning.
"Wake up, Merlin." The words sounded muffled, half by sleep and half by the pillow that had just hit him in the head.
Merlin groaned and tried to burrow down and away from the incredible annoyance that was Arthur and his loud voice. "Too early."
"Not even by your slothful standards is it early," came the reply, too loud and distinctly unfair. Merlin liked to sleep, like normal people, which did not make him--
"Late!" He jumped out of bed, stumbled over his discarded boots, and crashed into the night table.
Arthur gave him a wry look. "Relax, you have the day off. Apparently they're still trying to get that Mercian out of the boulder."
"Oh," Merlin replied and knocked the water pitcher off the night table as he pushed himself upright to stare at Arthur. He remembered what else was significant about this morning.
"In the cold light of day, it turns out you're just as clumsy, incompetent, and lazy as ever," Arthur drawled, sounding overly satisfied with that fact. "It's quite reassuring."
"I'm sure it is, sire," Merlin grumped, but he was already starting to grin.
Arthur knew. He knew, and while they had not resolved everything, Arthur was still there. He was still there, looking at Merlin with the same old bemused affection, and he had even--
Merlin squinted at the tray in Arthur's hands. "You brought me breakfast?"
"I brought food, which we will both need to shore us up for the long day we have ahead of us," Arthur corrected.
Merlin grinned and snagged a sausage before Arthur's words fully registered. "Wait, what long day? I thought you said it was a day off?" he accused around a mouthful.
Arthur was already chewing on his own share as they sat down at the small dining table. "I can't believe you wandered into a tournament without any training." He stuffed another sausage in his mouth. The last two he pushed toward Merlin. "Go on, you'll need your energy. I'm sure you didn't eat a thing last night, pining for me."
Actually, Merlin had eaten quite well, but this meal tasted much better. He took one of the sausages and used the cheese knife to split the last one between them. "Where was I supposed to train for a magic tournament in Camelot?"
Arthur shrugged, more interested in the hunk of cheese on the tray. "Wherever you perform the rest of your sneaky sorcery, I would think. But it's no matter. I'll take care of it now."
"You? You're going to train me?" He felt his skepticism was more than justified, given Arthur's previous attempts in training him for combat, not to mention that Arthur's only experience with magical combat was as victim or unconscious bystander.
"I admit, there may be one or two things I still need to learn." Arthur seemed unfazed as he dug into his share of the bread with breezy confidence. "But nobody knows combat strategy better than I do. I've seen enough to know that it applies here the same as any other tournament."
Merlin nodded slowly. "I think my strategy's been pretty good so far, don't you?"
Arthur shot him a pitying look, which would have been more condescending without the breadcrumbs on his chin. "I asked around yesterday. Emrys is supposed to be the most powerful sorcerer in Albion. Is that really you?"
The breadcrumbs on the plate suddenly became much more interesting. "I don't really know where all that comes from," he said, torn between pride and embarrassment. "But yeah, it seems to be me."
To his relief and curiosity, Arthur only looked thoughtful at the admission. "Yes, I saw most of your fight yesterday. This morning I got that drayman to give me the blow by blow of your first match. You're muscling your way through."
"Muscling?" Merlin cast a furtive look at his arms in their loose sleeves. No one had ever called him muscular before, but he rather liked the idea.
"You wait for them to attack, and then turn their attacks against them because you're counting on being more powerful than they are."
"It's worked so far," Merlin protested.
"It's a good strategy to start off a fight," Arthur agreed. "Always let them come to you, take their measure, and then use their strength against them."
"That's exactly what I did," Merlin insisted, not knowing whether to feel offended or vindicated.
"And you were lucky that they didn't have any other tricks up their sleeves that you couldn't counter." Arthur leaned forward over the table in full training lecture mode. "But in the later rounds, they'll be ready for you. You'll have to learn how to strike."
"Strike?" He had thought the dragon did some pretty impressive striking.
"Yes, go on the offense immediately after you defend. Go at them with something they won't be expecting." Arthur put all his fingers and thumb together and made a darting motion with his hand. "Like a viper."
"Like a viper," Merlin repeated, straight-faced only by the grace of a previously undiscovered magical power.
Arthur nodded and made the imaginary viper strike the air again, and then again, looking earnestly at Merlin to see if he understood. The viper slowed as Merlin's magical straight face began to fail him.
Merlin was up and out of the chair before Arthur lunged after him. The laughter bubbled out of him as Arthur growled and tackled him.
The clumsy scuffle would not have impressed the royal dog pack, let alone a tournament crowd. Merlin grappled with Arthur, but was laughing too hard to make much of a go at it. Arthur threw them both off balance so they fell onto the bed.
They rolled over and over across the mattress, and then tumbled straight off the other side. Arthur let out a wheezy "oof" as his back hit the ground, then another as Merlin fell on top of him.
Before Merlin could get his own breath back into his lungs, Arthur had him flipped onto his back and pinned down by his shoulders. He straddled Merlin's thighs and looked down at him, tensed as though waiting to see what Merlin would try next.
Merlin just grinned up at him, relaxed and happy. He knew he could have sent Arthur flying into the ceiling, and Arthur knew it, too. Once he would have done it just to prove he could.
Arthur pressed down on his shoulders, an almost curious push. Merlin stayed in his loose-limbed sprawl, enjoying the heat and weight of Arthur above him, though the best of this intimacy was not the physical. Finally, he could share everything with Arthur--except for that one last secret. Arthur could read it in his eyes right now if he chose.
For a moment, Merlin thought he might. Then Arthur gave one last gentle push to Merlin's shoulders and climbed off him. He held his hand out to help Merlin up.
"Come on. We obviously have a lot of work to do," he said as he pulled Merlin to his feet. "If I'm even going to consider harboring a sorcerer in my household, then he is damn well going to be the champion sorcerer of all Albion. Oh, stop grinning at me, you loon."
Merlin could not help it, though he also felt the pressure of Arthur's words. He supposed it was no more than Arthur felt every time he stepped into the lists. "I'll make you proud," he promised.
Arthur cleared his throat and turned away. "Right. Okay. Let's see what we have to work with. What kind of spells do you know?"
Merlin grinned again and went to fetch his book and the things Gaius had given him from the hiding place he no longer needed.
They spent the rest of the day poring over the spell book to see what could be adapted to a combat situation. Merlin had already made extensive notes on the topic, but Arthur had an eye for how to adapt them into a full-fledged strategy based on the strengths and weaknesses he had observed in each of Merlin's potential opponents.
Merlin had listened to Arthur work out strategy before, and even participated himself, but this was the first time Arthur had been focused on Merlin and his capabilities. The intoxication of equality, of respect from the man he respected more than any other, made all the other challenges seem distant and easily surmountable.
At dusk, the innkeeper brought supper and fresh candles. She did not seem surprised to find them huddled around a spell book. Arthur had stepped fully into Merlin's world at last.
Dinner and good ale broke Arthur's professional focus. Merlin was happy to close the book, shove aside their notes, and spend the rest of the evening laughing together until they cried.
"And then I got Gaius right side up again, and his robe went flap! flap! flap! all the way back down."
Arthur choked on his own laughter. "Did he give you the eyebrow again? You must be immune to it by now."
"Never," Merlin replied, mournful through his stifled giggles. "There's no magic power that can overcome the disapproval."
The laughter faded, and Arthur stared down into his empty tankard. "No," he said. "I suppose there wouldn't be."
Merlin sobered as well, in mood if not in coordination. He stood when Arthur did and started getting ready for bed.
As he pulled off his tunic, his arms got stuck in his sleeves halfway over his head. "Oh, fuck it," he muttered from inside the erstwhile tent of his shirt.
Firm hands stilled his half-hearted struggles. "Let me. Always hopeless, aren't you?"
"Just an act to entertain you, sire," Merlin mumbled into the bunching fabric as Arthur worked it over his head.
Bright eyes watched him with amusement as the tunic cleared his face. He blinked at Arthur, who smiled and pulled the shirt free from his head.
He tossed it aside and ran his fingers slowly over Merlin's head, rubbing through his hair. "There, no harm done," he said.
"Thanks." Merlin rubbed his bare arms, aware that he was rumpled and naked from the waist up, and so was Arthur.
"Let's go to bed." Arthur padded barefoot around the bed to his side. His breeches hung low on his hips to display the dip at the base of his spine.
Merlin sighed at his own inability to look away until Arthur climbed into the bed. Then it was Arthur's turn to watch him. He felt awkward under the weight of his gaze until he slid under the covers and had to sigh again at how good it felt to be cocooned in the warmth with Arthur.
The candles guttered out as one around the room, but Arthur still turned onto his side to look at Merlin. His face looked strange in the shadows.
It ought to have felt strange, too, this watching each other in the warm intimacy of the bed. Merlin did have a peculiar feeling in his stomach, and lower even than that. Within the veil of darkness, he could imagine that same queer feeling lurked in the dim lines of Arthur's face and the muted glitter of his eyes.
"Good night, Merlin," Arthur said at last and turned over.
Merlin watched the broad plane of his back for a while longer. He would have liked to lay himself along the breadth of that back and have Arthur take his arm to pull around his middle. It did not seem like such a great step after what they had shared today.
But it was still too much to ask, and he would not risk greed after gaining so much. He turned his back to Arthur's and shut his eyes.
He had barely set foot outside their little room, but it had been the best day of his life.
The next morning, Arthur was in a mood. "This water must have been heated last night," he griped as he lowered himself into one of the inn's two full-sized bathtubs.
Over in the other tub, Merlin splashed in the water as it grew warmer around him. Even tepid, it was nicer than the cramped washtub in Gaius's quarters. "I could--" he began and finished by waggling his fingers towards Arthur's tub.
To his surprise, Arthur turned as red as if his bathwater had been steaming hot for some time. "No," he said and grabbed a cloth to begin washing.
Merlin tamped down his instinctive annoyance. He had only boiled Arthur's bathwater that one time. Unless Arthur was not as comfortable with the idea of Merlin using magic on him as he was on other people.
That thought make him slouch down in silence, swishing the water around and now feeling disgruntled at its warmth. Across the room, Arthur was scrubbing himself with undue haste, as though the water might disappear.
The water did disappear over the sides of the tub when Arthur surged up out of it. Before Merlin had time to look up, Arthur was wrapped in a sheet and wrenching his clothes over his wet limbs.
"I'm going to go check something out," he said without looking at Merlin. "I'll meet you at the field."
Merlin sat up abruptly enough to send his own bathwater splashing out over whatever floor Arthur had not already flooded. "Hold up, I'll come with you."
"No." The single word held no room for argument. "Stay here."
"You shouldn't be running around here on your own," Merlin argued anyway. "If anyone recognizes you, or if Morgause comes by for another go, you'll need me."
"I kept myself alive for twenty years before you came along, Merlin," Arthur shot back. "I think I can manage another ten minutes. Wash behind your ears--God knows what's growing back there."
Merlin cupped his hands over his ears as Arthur strode out the door. "I thought you liked my ears," he said to the empty bathing room.
Then he scrambled out of the tub and dried himself with a quick blast of hot air. Arthur's behavior was stranger than usual. That was never a sign of anything good.
He got into his clothes and out the door in under a minute. If someone had managed to cast some kind of enchantment on Arthur inside the inn, he sure as hell was not letting Arthur wander out into their clutches.
And if it was just Arthur being crabby, or having second thoughts about Merlin...well, he still had to keep an eye on him.
Arthur was out of sight by the time Merlin burst out the front door of the inn. He whispered a locator spell that had always been handy when he needed to find Arthur in a hurry.
A tug under his sternum drew him down the street and only stopped when Merlin entered the market square. He craned his neck for a glimpse of bright hair and spotted Arthur next to a familiar cart, talking to Lady Elaine, the seller of love magic.
Talking might have been an inadequate word: Arthur was looming over the woman with the same menace he exuded while hunting criminals through the lower town of Camelot. Merlin hung back to watch as Arthur began to shout. He could not make out the words, but he recognized an interrogation when he saw one.
Unlike Arthur's usual targets, Elaine shouted back. They gestured at each other for a few exchanges before the woman grabbed Arthur by the front of his shirt. She spoke with rapid intensity. With her free hand, she thumped him repeatedly on the chest over his heart.
When she was done, he bowed his head. If Arthur had been anyone other than who he was, Merlin might have thought he looked humbled. The rigid set of his shoulders slumped in defeat as he walked away.
Merlin ducked behind a slow-moving ox cart as Arthur returned the way he had come. He felt a shiver run through him as Arthur passed, as though some strange energy was arcing between them.
As soon as Arthur moved out of sight, Merlin made a dash for Elaine. "Hello," he said as he skidded up to the cart.
She looked up at him and rolled her eyes, jostling her cart into motion. "Lovely, I get the full double act of the idiot twins. I knew I shouldn't have had that extra tankard last night."
"Yes, um, I was just looking for my friend." Merlin offered her the least idiotic smile he could muster. "He said he wanted to ask you something?"
She stopped the cart, almost on his foot. "I don't give children's lessons in the principles of magic, boy. Not unless you're buying something."
"Still don't need anything," Merlin said hastily. Neither should Arthur; anything he needed to know about magic, he ought to have asked Merlin first. "Sorry if he bothered you. He's a bit daft about magic, among other things."
"You don't have to tell me that. Coming to me ranting about love spells, of all things!"
"Wait, love spells?" An uncomfortable knot jammed halfway up his throat.
"Oh, I know. I can hardly believe the lack of education these days. When I was a girl, the first thing we learned what was magic can't do. It can't produce gold, it can't raise the dead, and it can't make anyone fall in love with you."
The gold thing was true--Merlin had tried it, more than once--and the death thing had certain technical loopholes, but-- "He wanted a spell to make someone fall in love with him?" he asked, befuddled because he could not conceive of Arthur doing that, no matter how much he wanted to win Gwen's affections.
"That I could work with. I could make you desperate for me right now before you could think twice about it." Elaine made a derisive sound in her throat. "But he obviously thinks better of himself than that. He wanted to know if a very powerful sorcerer could have made him fall truly in love with someone."
The knot in his throat solidified and froze. "What?"
"Someone inappropriate, says he." Elaine made that derisive sound again, trailing off into a scornful laugh. "Infatuation, attraction, lust, that any hedgewitch can handle, though mind you, not at my quality or my reasonable rates."
"But not love." No spell existed that could change the human heart. Magic could control the mind, fool the senses, make men do ridiculous things, as Merlin could attest through extensive observation, but no more. If it could touch the heart, someone might have healed Uther's long ago and saved them all a great deal of pain.
"Of course not. See, I knew you were the sensible one." She beamed at him, which only made him feel ill. "By comparison, at least."
He gave her a weak smile, but could say nothing else. As he retraced his steps out of the market, anger began overrunning his shock. All the warmth, all the acceptance and trust he had felt from Arthur yesterday was now just a sour taste in his mouth.
How dare he.
A roar of crowd noise swelled up over the town: the tournament was resuming. Merlin hesitated before he turned his steps toward the tourney field. His enthusiasm for all their plans and strategies had deflated in seconds, but he had not gone through all this to quit now.
The first bout had already begun when Merlin arrived at the field. He looked around for Arthur, expecting him to have secured a prime spot in the stands. Instead, he found him after several minutes off to the side, leaning against a wall with his head tipped back and his eyes closed.
Half an hour ago, Merlin would have let his eyes trace the line of Arthur's long throat. Now he only wanted to punch Arthur in the same spot.
Arthur opened his eyes and gave Merlin a tired smile. The curve of his lips was sweet, as though he had not just been looking for evidence that Merlin had forced him to fall in love with...someone inappropriate. As though the high and mighty Prince Arthur could ever have looked at a servant girl and found her worthy of love without some kind of magical intervention.
"There you are," he said. "Good thing you're not going first today. Did your ears really take that long to clean?"
He looked at Arthur with no idea what to say that would not take more time than he had. "Stay where I can see you," he finally said and moved toward the waiting tents. He still did not have one of his own, but lurking there would be better than staying with Arthur.
Arthur caught up with him in a few strides. "Merlin, it was a joke. I didn't mean anything about your ears."
"I don't really care what you think about my ears, sire," Merlin answered, even if some part of him did still care. That was the part of him that hurt the most.
When he stopped near the entrance to the lists, Arthur stopped with him and gave an affectionate tweak to his earlobe. "It's all right to be nervous. I know you're not used to this kind of thing. But you're not going to have any trouble with this guy. He got lucky in the last two rounds."
Of all the things Merlin needed right now, Arthur being sweet was not one of them. "Would you just go watch from the stands like everyone else?" he said through gritted teeth.
Arthur continued to miss the hint. "But I'm not like everyone else," he said. "I'm your support team."
Despite his anger, his mouth twitched. "You mean you're my servant?"
"No, certainly not." Arthur's answer was firm, immediate, and predictable; then his voice took a contemplative turn. "I suppose I wouldn't mind being a magical squire."
Merlin choked on the laugh that tried to escape him. "Seriously, go away. This isn't the safest place for you."
Arthur shrugged. "Your friend Niniane isn't competing for a while yet. If Morgause shows up early, I'd be more than happy to see her."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Merlin muttered as the crowd roared again for the victor of the previous match.
Then it was his turn to step onto the field with his next opponent. The warlock was a slight man with a distinct look of weasel in his face. He reminded Merlin of Cedric. As they took their places and waited for Nennius to signal the start of the match, Merlin thought that if Cedric did reappear, he could have Arthur with Merlin's blessing.
When the match began, the weasel man began shouting a spell before Nennius's hand had finished dropping. Merlin heard the words: a rather boring binding spell. A length of rope appeared at Merlin's feet and began slithering around his ankles.
He was not in the mood to be there, and he was not in the mood for the weasel man. Merlin did not bother with a spell. He lifted his hand and flicked his fingers toward his opponent, sending the rope whipping across the field.
With a frantic look, the man chanted a repulsion spell, but the rope ignored him. It lashed around his legs, then his arms, then finally gagged his mouth to render him helpless. Merlin doubted he could do anything without a spoken spell.
As he expected, the weasel man wobbled until he tipped over. He lay writhing on the ground, trying to free himself even as the crowd cheered his defeat. Merlin was heading off the field before Nennius could finish declaring him the winner.
He made the mistake of looking up as he walked back toward the tents. Arthur was standing where Merlin had left him, grinning like a madman. It was pride and joy and everything Merlin had ever wanted to see in Arthur's face--and it was worse than nothing.
"Right, that's taken care of," he said as soon as he was within earshot of Arthur, not slowing down. "We'd better get seats if we want to see the rest of it."
"Merlin, that was fantastic," Arthur exclaimed as Merlin moved past him. "Merlin?"
"Yeah, it was fine," Merlin muttered as he climbed up into the stands and jostled for space at the end of a bench.
"All right, so it wasn't much of a chance to practice your offensive strategy." Arthur crowded in next to him, still grinning and pressing close against Merlin's side. "But that was brilliant the way you just flicked your fingers, cool as you please, and took him right down."
"Not like Edvard was much of a challenge," the woman behind them scoffed. "We'll see what Emrys can do when he faces a real wizard."
Arthur twisted around with a thunderous expression. As he laid into the woman, and then the man next to her, and eventually the entire row behind them, Merlin stared stony faced out at the field. He concentrated so hard on ignoring Arthur's defense of his abilities that he missed most of the action in the lists. He would never understand Arthur, never.
"What's gotten into you?" Arthur said as they shuffled from the arena at the end of the day's events. "Look, I'm sorry if I was a little short this morning. I had some things on my mind."
"Sure you did." They broke free from the crowd, and Merlin faced Arthur head on for the first time in hours. "I heard all about it from Elaine."
Arthur stopped and his face went blank and still. His throat worked and his eyes stared past Merlin's face. "I see. I won't talk about this here."
"Yeah, wouldn't want anybody to know how you feel." His anger and hurt had dulled over the course of long afternoon; they swept back over him now in a fresh wave of unhappiness.
"Not everyone needs to bleed their feelings into the street." Arthur started walking again. "If you want to scorn me, you can give me the dignity of privacy."
He had a great deal of scorn to heap upon Arthur, so Merlin followed him back to the inn. As the door closed behind them, Arthur turned and leveled an icy look on Merlin.
Merlin shot it right back. "Was there something you wanted to say to me?"
Arthur looked nauseated, which Merlin hoped was guilt eating away at him. "I never really thought you would do that. I didn't want to think it."
"But it was easier to blame the evil sorcerer than have the courage to admit you have feelings for a mere servant." Even as he spoke, Merlin felt the unwelcome sting of hypocrisy. He had taken the easy road himself, more than once, to avoid showing Arthur his true heart.
"It's not my pride that matters, hard as that may be for you to believe." Arthur was still looking past Merlin to the door behind him, face and voice tight. "If I give my heart badly, Camelot will pay the price. I'm not afraid, but I have to be sure my heart is my own before I take that risk. You saw what happened to my father."
"And to you," Merlin retorted, but Arthur's wince was not as satisfying as Merlin had hoped. "I would never do that to you, Arthur, not even if I could."
"I know that. I’m sorry." Arthur's gaze finally settled on Merlin's face. The quiet resolve there deflated the last of Merlin's indignation. "But you know this isn't easy. I won't fight it now. I can't anymore."
He should feel happy for his friends. He should not want to run and get that love charm back from Lady Elaine. "So you're going to propose to Gwen?"
Arthur's mouth dropped open and his eyes widened in exasperation. "I don't--Merlin, have you been listening to a single thing I've said to you?"
"Yeah, I think I got the gist of it." Merlin clenched his jaw to keep his emotions from spilling over. "You're in love with Gwen, you want to marry her, but you wanted to be sure I wasn't trying to influence you. Fair enough. I understand. Can we please stop talking about it now?"
Arthur just looked at him. He knew his misery showed clear in his face, but there was not a damned thing he could do about it.
"The fact that anyone as dim as you is allowed to possess magical powers frightens the hell out of me." His voice held the same thick fondness Merlin had reveled in yesterday. Maybe they could finally get back to normal now.
Then Arthur crossed the space between them, took Merlin's face between his hands, and kissed him. A shock of pleasure flooded him down to his toes. It was less arousal than a shout of pure joy from every inch of his body.
He broke away from Arthur to glare at him with what he hoped was terrifying sorcerous intimidation. "You have to be kidding," he said before pressing back into Arthur's mouth for another kiss, then another. "You better not be kidding."
"Nothing funny about this," Arthur said, though he laughed into Merlin's mouth before their tongues slid together again.
His hands slipped down Merlin's back to pull him closer. Merlin's brain sputtered a protest but had to give into the utter joy of kissing Arthur.
They were twined together on the bed, clothes loosened and skewed, by the time any thought returned to Merlin's head. "What about Gwen?" he asked against the damp of Arthur's throat. He pushed his hands further up under Arthur's shirt, gripping his back as if bracing against the answer.
Arthur pushed him over onto his back and stretched him out over the bed. He pressed a new kiss to the hollow of Merlin's throat. "Don't, Merlin. Not now."
"I know you care for her," Merlin persisted even as he arched up to feel the pressure of Arthur on the growing bulge in his trousers.
"As much as she cares for me," Arthur replied, which dampened the ardor shivering its way through Merlin's limbs.
He started to push himself up on his elbows. "I know how much she cares."
"No, I don't think you do." Arthur took advantage of his position to slide his arms under Merlin's back, cradling him and pinning him at once. "Everything is a grand drama to you, isn't it?"
Merlin stopped talking for the time it took to kiss Arthur again, unable to stop himself. This was grand to him: the press of their tongues, the way Arthur's lips moved against his. He dug one hand into Arthur's hair while the other pulled Arthur's tunic up enough that he could feel the bare skin of their bellies touching.
Arthur kissed his way to Merlin's ear and tugged on the lobe with his teeth. "Are you going to make me talk about this now?"
"No," Merlin answered, because when Arthur had moved, his loosened tunic had also moved. The thick muscle of his upper shoulder lay exposed, and Merlin could not miss the chance to get his mouth on it.
The pressure of the muscle against his teeth made him shiver. The heat of Arthur's breath in his ear deepened it into a shudder.
Then Arthur gave an unhappy groan and rolled away from Merlin. The cool air shocked Merlin's skin; he had already gotten so used to Arthur's heavy warmth in his arms.
Arthur lay on his back and rubbed his hands over his flushed face. "Dammit, Merlin. Why do you always have to make me think? I was a much less complicated person before I met you."
"You have never in your life been uncomplicated," Merlin said and tried not to think about how simple Arthur's honor could make this, how fast he could lose what he barely had.
Arthur cast him a wry look. "Do you know why I first noticed Gwen?"
"She's pretty?" Merlin had tried often to convince himself of all the reasons his friends were right for each other, but it hurt more to think about it with the taste of Arthur still in his mouth.
"Pretty enough, I suppose." Arthur, whose head had been turned by many a pretty face, gave a dismissive shrug. "But mostly, it's that she started to remind me of you."
"Me?" Other than the fact that they were both servants with an inconvenient devotion to their future sovereign, he did not see much resemblance.
"You both talk to me like I'm a person," Arthur said. "You both make me feel comfortable in my own skin--and uncomfortable, like I'm outgrowing myself all the time."
Merlin sat back on his hands, needing more distance from Arthur and the intimacy they had been creating. "She's good for you," he forced himself to say.
"Yes. I'm probably going to marry her." Arthur frowned up at the ceiling as though it were a battle map. "You think she would be a good queen, don't you?"
"Yes," he had to answer, though it seemed unfair to make him say it now. "She's kind and strong, and the people will love her because she's one of them. And they'll love you for marrying her."
"Yes. I always thought I would marry a noble lady," Arthur said. "But honestly, you've met most of them now. Can you see Lady Vivian as queen of Camelot?"
Merlin had seen more than enough of the spoilt Lady Vivian in any capacity.
"I thought I could always marry Morgana, if it came to that," Arthur went on. "But that's not likely now."
"No. And you have to have a wife." Merlin closed his eyes. "So what is this? Something to pass the time until the wedding?"
"I don't love her, Merlin." Arthur still did not look at him, still frozen in that frown. "She doesn't love me, either. Not as a woman loves a man."
"No, she loves--"
"She loves the king she sees in me, and I love the queen I see in her. Yes, she'll marry me, with understandings, but I'm not the man who won her heart. I think we both know who did."
"And what about your heart?" Merlin asked around the tight clench of his chest and throat.
Arthur finally turned his head to look at him with warm resignation. "I also think we all know who won that, don't we?"
Finally, he did. The relief melted the tension holding him upright. He smiled at Arthur with giddy happiness. Slowly, Arthur's smile widened with the same shared joy in their new understanding.
His body had calmed since Arthur broke away. On the heels of the calm came the weariness Merlin could no longer stave off. He stretched himself out next to Arthur. After spending the day tense with anger and fear, he was left rubbery with a pleasant ache.
Arthur's fingers made a hesitant brush against his arm. The touch reminded Merlin that he had the right to touch and curl himself around Arthur with abandon now. So he did.
Arthur made a contented noise in his throat and adjusted his position until they had a comfortable entanglement. As Merlin drifted, he felt Arthur's breath in his ear once more.
"That's what the seer was trying to tell me before," Arthur said with a drowsy slur. "We have to accept who we are, or what we build won't last long enough to matter."
"I hope she wins the competition," Merlin mumbled and then fell asleep.
He woke the next morning to find Arthur staring at him from a few inches away.
"Good," Arthur said. "I was afraid you'd sleep away all the time we have left."
Without needing to answer, Merlin pressed into Arthur's kiss. Their lips were dry and Arthur's breath was terrible, but passion got them through until the kiss grew slick and wet.
His body came awake inch by inch under Arthur's hands. Merlin ran his own fingers along Arthur's spine, drawing the fabric of his tunic up. Arthur arched and squirmed into his touch.
As they kept touching, Merlin felt a familiar throb renew between his legs. Between Niniane and Arthur, he had been aroused too much without relief in recent days. Even a hasty toss off had been impossible.
Merlin rolled onto his back and pulled Arthur to climb on top of him. He wanted Arthur's weight on him, something to buck and rub against.
Arthur straddled his hips. He slowly pulled off his shirt; then he reached down and tugged until Merlin sat up enough to let Arthur pull the tunic over his head. Arthur tossed it aside.
A sheen of arousal covered his eyes as he held himself over Merlin on his hands and knees. The bulge in his breeches confirmed his state. Arthur grunted and shifted his hips as he stretched himself over the length of Merlin's body, adjusting himself until the thick ridge of his erection curved up to his stomach under the tight fabric.
Merlin had to feel him. He craned up to Arthur's lips and wrapped one hand around the back of Arthur's neck. With the other hand, Merlin gripped Arthur's shoulder to drag him down to Merlin's body.
The prickle and slide of bare skin on skin made him groan into Arthur's mouth. The groan stuttered into a cry when Arthur finally settled fully onto him and the ridge of Arthur's arousal pressed into his groin.
"I really want you." Arthur sounded plaintive, as if he had not noticed Merlin's hardness answering his.
"Okay." Merlin worked his hand down between them to tug at the laces at Arthur's waist. "That's good."
"No, it's not good." Arthur gave a stifled whimper as Merlin plucked at the laces right over his cock.
He grabbed Merlin's fingers and pinned both his hands out to either side of his head. Merlin started to squawk a protest. Then he found his tongue stroking into Arthur's mouth, which seemed a better use for it.
Several kisses later, Merlin managed to free one hand and curl it around Arthur's bare shoulder. His fingertips dug into the muscle to feel it flex under the soft skin. Just a few more minutes, a little longer to enjoy this, and then he would test how the rest of Arthur's body moved.
Outside, the noon bells rung.
"Oh, fuck." Merlin pulled Arthur tighter, freeing his other hand to get a grip on his back. "Come on, we can hurry."
His love-addled brain took several seconds to register that Arthur was pulling out of his arms. "We do have to hurry," Arthur said as he slid off the bed and reached for his tunic. "You're the second one up today."
Merlin stared at him, double checking to make sure the bulge of Arthur's cock was still where he remembered it being. "Um, maybe it slipped your undertaxed royal mind, but we're in the middle of something here?"
Arthur's head popped out from the neck of his shirt, rumpled and wearing a manic grin. "Got the blood pumping, didn't it? No better way to get ready to compete."
In an instant Merlin was off the bed and pinning Arthur to the wall with his body and magic. Arthur made a small sound of yearning as Merlin showed him what he thought of his strategy. When he kissed back, Merlin unpinned his arms to allow him caressing privileges. The rest of Arthur stayed secured and pliant under Merlin's body.
"Don't you want to win this tournament?" Arthur said even as he stroked his hands down over Merlin's arse.
"Don't you want to get off?" Merlin countered before fastening his mouth to Arthur's neck. He was discovering that he had a favorite spot there that felt amazing under his tongue. The way it made Arthur tremble felt amazing as well.
"Probably twice as much as I already did before you pulled this little trick." Arthur ran his hands back up to Merlin's shoulder blades and clung. "But you can win this whole thing. I won't be the reason that you don't."
"I'm pretty sure I can do both." Merlin traced his fingertips over the laces that strained above Arthur's cock.
"Sex depletes the vital energies, which are even more important for you than for a regular knight in tournament."
The way Arthur's lecturing tone hoarsened with arousal was doing fine things for Merlin's vital energies. "Not a problem, got plenty," he mumbled against Arthur's skin.
"I can always tell which knights are going to go out in the second round, no matter how skilled they are in the first. Do you know how I can tell?"
Merlin sighed and gave up his assault on Arthur's neck in favor of slumping against it in defeat. "How can you tell?"
"By which knights brought their lovers with them," Arthur concluded, sounding smug for someone who was talking himself out of getting laid.
Merlin sighed again. He really wanted to have sex. He also really wanted to win this tournament--and if there was one thing Arthur knew how to do, it was win tournaments.
He stepped back out of Arthur's arms and reached for a clean tunic. He was going to need a long one today. Behind him, Arthur stumbled away from the wall as the magic released him.
"Don't worry, Merlin," Arthur said as he changed his own clothes. "Even the most evil sorcerer in the world never killed anyone with blue balls."
Considering the way his balls ached, Merlin was not ruling out sorcerous intervention of some kind. "Please don't talk to me right now," he said as he jammed his boots onto his feet and headed to the door.
Arthur just grinned at him with that manic battle grin, loving the challenge of it more than any mentally healthy person ought. It was no mystery that competition was as good as sex to Arthur. In his view, they were probably having sex right now as they walked together to the tourney field.
But once Merlin stood on the field, alive with the hum of the crowd and his own power, he felt the sexual drive of it. Over by the tents, Arthur stood amidst a throng of sorcerers looking on. When their eyes met, he grinned at Merlin and nodded with eager encouragement.
Merlin grinned back. This was the first time he could revel in Arthur watching him compete. The magic sizzled through him in anticipation.
He turned his grin on his opponent as the man, called Dirk and more than a match for Merlin's size, walked past him to take his position. "This is just fantastic, isn't it?" he said.
Dirk paused to give him an incredulous look. "Are you deranged?"
"You're not the first one to ask," Merlin called after him.
At the officiant's stand, Nennius lifted his hand. Merlin ran through the combat strategy Arthur had drilled into him: wait for the attack, get the measure of it, and then launch his own attack.
Merlin bounced on the balls of his feet. On the other hand, he already had a pretty good measure of Dirk. There did not seem to be much point in wasting time.
Nennius dropped his hand. Merlin raised his.
"Hringe æledfýres," he intoned.
Flames shot up from the ground and circled Dirk until he was surrounded with no way out. Dirk frowned, but did not look alarmed. He raised his hands and chanted a water spell, then a freezing spell, then a smothering spell.
The freezing spell made the flames flicker slightly, but nothing else had even that much effect. When Dirk found that he could not cast anything outside the boundaries of the fire, his frown finally turned to worry.
Merlin grinned at him again when Dirk looked over at him with helpless rage. He could have left it at that and still won the match, but he could feel Arthur watching him.
He did not know a spell for what he felt like doing, but did not think he needed one. All he needed to do was lower his hand, and then lift it in a fist to--
The ground shook under Dirk's feet before shooting up into the air and taking Dirk with it. Sand poured away in a circular cascade as the bedrock pushed up in a narrow, thrusting column high above the field. Dirk stumbled and started to fall. He wound up clinging to the top of the column, screaming.
"And the winner of this match, once again, is Emrys," Nennius announced to the crowd that was screaming even louder than Dirk. "The next match will be postponed until the field can be stabilized--and extinguished."
Merlin gave a hasty wave at the fire circle to put it out. He considered bringing Dirk down from his perch, but he supposed he should conserve his vital energies. Plus, the man had called him deranged and could probably use a few more minutes to think about that as he clung shrieking to the crumbling tower of rock.
Besides, Merlin had somewhere to be. Arthur was waiting for him.
At the tents, other warlocks and witches surrounded him, pounding his back and asking question after question about what he had done and how he had done it. He mumbled some vague answers--he was never entirely sure himself how he did anything--and kept moving until he brushed past the last person and stumbled into Arthur.
Arthur was frowning. "Merlin, were you showing off?"
"No, I wasn't," he responded and made no attempt to wipe the proud grin off his face.
"Admit it, you were showing off for me." Arthur's frown wavered with the effort of keeping it steady as he stepped close against Merlin. "You weren't thinking about strategy at all, were you?"
"Sure I was." Merlin let his nose brush Arthur's. "I was thinking a lot about the best strategy for getting your trousers off."
"Oh, well done, then," Arthur murmured, and it was as good as coming when Arthur kissed him there in front of everyone in the flush of his victory.
They tried to watch the rest of the day's competition, but people kept approaching, wanting to congratulate the mysterious Emrys and question him. Merlin enjoyed the attention, especially with Arthur hearing every word and looking at him with a fierce pride.
Arthur grunted and looked away when he noticed Merlin watching him. "We're not getting any useful information with all the interruptions from your fans," he groused.
"Yes, you're right," Merlin agreed.
He grabbed Arthur's arm and pulled him up. Arthur looked surprised, but followed him from the tourney grounds without protest.
They wandered to the edge of the town until they found a tree with soft ground and hospitable roots. Merlin pulled Arthur down beneath it and made the most he could of his newfound celebrity.
That night, Arthur crawled into bed, a drowsy smile on his kiss-stained lips. He flopped into Merlin's arms, planted his face against Merlin's chest, and fell asleep within seconds.
He could live like this forever, Merlin thought, here in this perfect life where magic was accepted, even celebrated--where Merlin himself was accepted, and even celebrated. And here he could walk with Arthur as his brother in arms, a knight instead of a servant.
Arthur was brighter and sweeter here in Merlin's world without the onus of his princehood. Here Merlin had him close by his side and close in his arms where he could keep him safe.
They could stay here forever, except that the lack of orgasms was going to become a problem. Merlin stroked his fingers through Arthur's hair to settle his head on Merlin's shoulder. But for now, the warmth of Arthur's body and his regard were enough to sate him.
The rest of the week passed in the same manner. Merlin won his matches with ease before spending the rest of his days alone with Arthur, sharing long kisses and rambling conversations. His body still ached for passion, but his heart was wholly content.
Now they stood before the nearly-empty rankings board on the day of the semi-finals. Merlin's seal had moved steadily up until it was only one row from the top, still burning with magical fire. At the other end of the row, Niniane's placard hung with two others between them. If they both proved victorious today, they would face each other tomorrow for the championship.
"She'll be the one," Arthur commented beside him.
"Yeah," Merlin agreed. "I think so."
"In the meantime, better worry more about getting past Surya, or you won't have to worry about Niniane at all."
"I'm not worried," he said, though he was a little bit worried. Surya was a small, round woman with merry eyes and a booming laugh. That laugh had echoed through the tavern last night, right after she had chased her opponent clear out of Banncroft with a crocodile bigger than most of the buildings.
Arthur really liked her after that.
"Giant crocodile," he said now with relish, not for the first time. It was starting to vex.
"You don't think I could handle a giant crocodile?" he asked.
"I think it would chase you around while you screamed like a small girl," Arthur replied dreamily.
"If I can handle a dragon made out of fire, I think I can deal with a crocodile made out of...whatever the hell that goop was."
"Sure, but you have special dragon powers." Arthur poked Merlin triumphantly in the chest. "Unless you can come up with some crocodile lord in your family tree, I think there'd be some running and screaming."
"I wouldn't rule it out," Merlin conceded as his eyes traced the bright reds and purples of Surya's seal.
Arthur's sidelong glance made him wish he had not said anything. "Merlin, there's no reason to be nervous. You can beat her."
"I can, but that doesn't mean I will." Merlin kept looking at the board so he would not have to look at Arthur. "It's all been easy so far, but at some point, my luck's going to run out, right?"
"No, it's not." Arthur's hand squeezed his shoulder until it hurt. "I don't believe in luck."
The implication of what he did believe in made Merlin's face warm. "Except my bad luck the day I walked into Camelot?"
"Well, there's that." Arthur gave him an affectionate shake before holding up a finger. "Wait here, there's something I need to go get."
Merlin grabbed his arm before he had taken more than a step. "Hang on, didn't we talk about you going off on your own around here?"
"I don't know, but I know we've talked about you not telling me what to do." Arthur shook him off. "I know right where I'm going. I won't be long. Just wait right here."
Arguing never helped; Merlin sighed and watched Arthur jog off. He could not imagine what Arthur had forgotten to bring with him. Whatever it was, it could not be worth leaving Merlin alone with nothing to do but think about exceptionally large reptiles.
"Merlin. I want to talk to you."
He turned around and the breath went out of his body. His ears started to buzz. Niniane had never looked so beautiful, though she wore the same competition clothes he had seen her in a half dozen times now. They were the same clothes she had worn when they met, when they had almost--
"Merlin, are you listening to me?" Her voice sank down through his ears, cloying like honey in his throat and chest before pooling in his groin. "I wanted to apologize to you."
"For what?" he asked. He could not imagine what wrong she could have done.
"I wasn't very nice to you after the Lady Morgause told me who you really were." Her fingers closed around his, tugging him toward her. "Come have a drink with me. I have wine in my rest tent."
"I'd go anywhere with you," he heard himself saying. His words sounded distant to his own ears, but he had never meant anything more in his life. "I'd do anything you wanted."
"Oh, I know." She put her hand on his back to steer him towards her tent.
He ducked inside and stood in the middle of the small space, waiting for her. Niniane left him there while she stepped over to a small table where a single goblet of wine sat. She picked it up and brought it to him.
"Aren't you going to have some, too?" he asked, because nothing was more important to him than giving her everything she wanted.
"Of course I am," she purred. She pressed the goblet into his hands and then slid her own hands around his waist. "You don't mind sharing, do you?"
"No," he said as she lifted his tunic enough to make him shiver from the touch of her fingers on his bare skin. "I'd--"
"Share anything with me? Oh yes, I know. Don't worry, you're going to give me something very important."
"I am?" The idea delighted him; she might smile at him again and touch him some more.
He started to offer her the goblet first, but she pushed it back towards his lips. "Just have a drink, lover boy."
The first gulp burned down his throat and into his blood. The wine was potent and sweet, cloying like her voice. For a moment, the world wavered around him as though there were two of everything and they were no longer in alignment.
Something was wrong; some instinct screamed that this was not where he was supposed to be. He groaned with a sudden, intense arousal. His heart sped up until it seemed to be pumping blood directly between his legs.
"Niniane?" Her hands were still caressing him, but it felt wrong. He was not supposed to be feeling this, not here and not with her.
She stroked the hair back from his forehead. "Just relax. It's only a little something to get us back to where we were before, when we met in the forest. Don't you remember how much you wanted me? You were gagging for it."
The goblet fell out of his hand, spilling the tainted wine across the carpeted ground. He let out a pained groan. Without knowing what he was doing, he reached out for her, crushing her to his body.
"That's more like it." She gave a breathless laugh and wrapped her arms around his neck, avoiding his attempt to kiss her. "I knew you had it in you, prince's man."
Her words sent another note of discord through his haze of lust. Prince's man--he belonged to someone else. He was not meant to be here at all.
But her breasts pressed so sweetly between them; she unlaced the ties of her bodice to free them for his hands and mouth, large and warm. He nuzzled at her breasts, biting at the pendant that hung between them. He throbbed with the need to crawl into her, thrust into her, dominate her with his body until she sated him. His mind cleared: nothing else mattered except getting inside her.
His back hit the ground, knocking what breath he had left out of his chest. He had not noticed the pile of blankets in the corner of the tent until he landed on them. Not that he minded--Niniane was climbing onto him, straddling his thighs.
"Do you want me to suck you or ride you?" she asked. "Oh, you don't care, do you, as long as you get off?"
Merlin fought not to whimper his agreement. "Whatever the lady wants," he said, his attempt at gentility ruined with the involuntary thrust of his hips as another spasm of need shot through his loins.
"I want you to stay right there. Then I can take what I want." She laced her fingers through his and moved his hands up over his head. "You just have to stay where I put you. In fact, let's make sure of it, shall we?"
When the leather cuffs closed around his wrists, panic flickered through him. But a surge of lust consumed the flicker as the cuffs tightened and Niniane's hips rocked against him as she fastened his wrists to the tent pole behind him.
"Such a good boy," she said. "You're almost ready."
"I'm very ready." He choked on the last word when her hand covered his erection through his trousers.
"Not bad." She squeezed and rubbed until he ached from his hardness. "There, that's even better."
Then her hand clamped down on his cock so hard that he yelped with pain. "Oh, um, careful," he said with a high-pitched laugh. "You're going to want that soon."
"I doubt it.Ásæle werháde."
Magic surged through him. At first it was ecstasy, like she was pushing inside him. Then the full force of the spell hit him, and it was no longer her magic but his own. And then he screamed.
It shook through him like orgasm, but without pleasure. When it released him, he was more aroused than he had ever been in his life, trembling with the pain of it. "Niniane?"
Niniane sat back with a satisfied smile. She closed her hand around the pendant on her breast and pulled until the thread broke. "I have to admit, I didn't believe the old lady at first, but her goods were worth every penny."
She cast it aside, and the buzzing in Merlin's ears ceased. His vision cleared, and the reality of the situation crashed into him. He snarled and thrashed against the straps, then lashed out at Niniane with his magic.
But the straps did not budge--and neither did his power.
"Don't bother. I've got you tied up good and tight." Niniane smiled at him almost fondly as she pulled her bodice up over her breasts and began to retie it. "I didn't expect you to be that susceptible. Has it really been that long since you got laid? You've been so kissy-face with your prince all over the place."
Arthur. "Oh, fuck," Merlin moaned, not least because thinking of Arthur made his cock ache more.
"I'm sure you'll get it done eventually." Niniane stood and swung off him in a smooth motion. "You'll have to if you ever want to stand up again. But not until after you forfeit your match."
"That's what this is about?" Merlin gasped. He kicked out at her legs, but she stepped away easily.
"You're powerful, Emrys," she said, suddenly grave. "And it's important that I win this. I can deal with Surya, but I can't be sure of you."
"What did you do to my magic?"
"Just temporarily rerouted it through your prick." Niniane paused on her way to the tent entrance. "Which is how it usually goes for you boys, anyway. Good luck, prince's man."
"Niniane!" he shouted after her and struggled to free himself again. Neither physical nor magical means had any effect. Trying to cast a spell aroused him once again to the point of nausea, but accomplished nothing else. He pulled as hard as he could against his restraints, hoping to bring the tent crashing down, if nothing else, but the tent pole seemed magically stabilized.
He subsided, panting. Tears of frustration burned his eyes. His predicament seemed irresolvable: Niniane's spell ensured that he could not use magic until he came, but he could not get himself off without his hands, and he could not free his hands without magic.
Outside, he heard the rumble of the crowd as the start of the semifinals neared. He could not lose this tournament because he had been bewitched by a love charm and sex potion. Arthur would be disgusted if he could see Merlin now.
"Merlin? Someone said they saw you come in here with--bloody hell."
The voice from the front of the tent made Merlin cringe and wish he could crawl underneath his pallet of blankets. Grateful as he was that Arthur had found him, he was not looking forward to explaining this.
"Merlin, why are you tied to a tent pole? With what seems to be another tent pole in your trousers?" By the time Arthur came into view, he was scanning the interior for threats and thankfully not looking at Merlin.
"Never mind. Just untie me and give me a few minutes, would you?" Merlin looked away as Arthur came up beside him.
Arthur bent down and scooped up the goblet and the pendant from where Niniane had discarded them. "I don't suppose it has anything to do with these, does it?"
Reluctantly Merlin turned his head back to look at the charm dangling from Arthur's fingers. He already knew what it was, now that it had lost its power. "I told you she wasn't a charlatan," he muttered. "Don't taste that!"
"No, I suppose only one of us should be incapacitated by evil sorcerers at one time." Arthur sniffed at the dregs of the potion again, and then lowered the goblet from his face. "Let me take a wild guess: Niniane?"
"Trying to make sure I forfeit the match." Merlin pulled against the straps again, more out of frustration than any hope of them loosening. "Would you please just get me out of this?"
Arthur continued examining the goblet. "You're the magician. Get yourself out."
"I can't. I can't use magic right now."
That finally got Arthur's attention. "Why not? Is the tent going to blow up or something if you do? Did she booby trap it?"
"That's one way of putting it," Merlin said under his breath. "She cast a spell binding my magic to my...other vital energies."
"Oh." Arthur looked at him with color burning high in his cheeks. "So you can't--until you--"
"Right. Now if you could just get my hands free?" He looked up at his bound wrists in hopes of distracting Arthur from the real problem between his legs. All he really wanted was to beg Arthur to suck him off and solve all his problems at once, but it was already going to be difficult enough to live this down.
Arthur knelt down by Merlin's shoulder and reached for the buckles of the straps. His fingers brushed Merlin's wrists as he pulled at the leather, and Merlin could not bite back a moan. At the light touch, the painful arousal melted into pleasure, which only increased the urgency of his need.
"What the hell?" Arthur grunted and pulled harder at the restraints. "These aren't budging. Magic?"
"Probably." Merlin grimaced. "Which means it'll take magic to get them undone. Great."
Arthur sat back on his heels to look at Merlin. The loss of his touch left Merlin cold and aching again. "I could go find someone," he said hesitantly. "We're not exactly short of magic users around here."
"Yeah." Merlin swallowed and did not look at Arthur's face. "I'm sure someone would help."
"Oh, this is ridiculous." Arthur sighed and reached down to cup Merlin's face, drawing him to meet Arthur's eyes. "Just let me help you? It's nothing we didn't already want to do, is it?"
The heat of his hand made Merlin shiver. "Yeah, but not exactly something I can just ask."
Arthur gave a sharp laugh before shifting himself to straddle Merlin's thighs. The position thrust his hips forward so that Merlin could not miss the hard bulge of his cock. "I know, it's a big ask, making you come when you're all tied up and turned on," he said. "But twist my arm, and I'll see what I can do."
Relief flooded him in a warm wave that traveled down his body with his sigh. "Okay," he said and felt the urgency settle into his limbs, awaiting the promised release.
Arthur shifted again to lean over Merlin, resting his weight on one hand while the other stroked Merlin's cheek and brow. Merlin slowly relaxed into the tenderness of the caresses and the kiss that came next. He felt safe, almost adored. Arthur's lips pressed sweetly to his mouth, then his jaw, then his ear.
"And I know," Arthur breathed, "that I'm never going to hear a word about Sophia or Vivian ever again. Am I?"
Merlin burst into a snort of laughter against Arthur's neck. "Sorry, that’s not on the table."
Arthur gave an annoyed sigh, but he was smiling when he kissed Merlin again. Merlin arched up against him as the magic pulsed through his body, so strong surely even Arthur must feel it.
His cock felt too stiff even to throb by the time Arthur touched him there. Even through the fabric of his trousers, the stimulation was almost too much. Arthur rubbed him gently, and then set to work freeing him.
When he got Merlin's cock out, it stood up huge and red from the loosened fabric. Arthur's mouth hung slightly open as he sat back on Merlin's thighs and looked at him. He fumbled at his own trousers without breaking eye contact.
Arthur’s cock was already half hard when he pulled it out, and the sight of it made Merlin's trapped magic surge. Arthur wet his hand and wrapped his fist around it. His gaze travelled slowly up and down Merlin's body as he stroked himself fully stiff.
Merlin needed more than just Arthur's eyes on him. He needed pressure and heat and friction. His arms were immovable and his legs were pinned by Arthur's weight, but he could still buck and squirm until he got the message across: no more waiting.
Arthur's mouth quirked up, but he obeyed the demand. He rocked forward until his fingers captured Merlin's cock and squeezed it together with his. Merlin let out a strangled cry at the shock of sensation that flared in his groin and then spread throughout his body on the current of his magic.
"Arthur," he gasped as Arthur kept fisting them together. "Oh, fuck, Arthur."
"I can feel it," Arthur said, letting go of their cocks so he could rub his hand over Merlin's stomach. "It's like your skin is buzzing."
He stretched out over Merlin and kissed him hard. Merlin moaned, mouth slackening against Arthur's as his cock finally got to rub up under Arthur's tunic against the softness of his belly. He braced one foot on the floor, the better to grind himself up against Arthur.
The magic surged stronger with every thrust, pressing to escape through his cock. Arthur kissed his neck and met his thrusts, grinding into him. When he groaned Merlin's name, Merlin gasped again and dissolved into orgasm.
As he came, the restraints tore themselves off his wrists, reduced to tattered shreds by the escape of his pent--up power. Body and magic celebrated their freedom by rolling Arthur until he was sprawled on his back with Merlin pinning him to the ground.
His cock was still throbbing its pleasure, still smearing come over Arthur's belly as Merlin gripped Arthur's hip. He pulled Arthur against him and urged him to thrust up even as he kept him pinned down with magical force.
Arthur thrashed against the invisible hold even as he ground himself wildly up into Merlin. His eyes squeezed shut. "Merlin," he groaned again and came.
Merlin collapsed on top of him, exhausted as the magic fled his body in a rush. Their chests heaved against each other as the pleasure faded and their bodies cooled. Arthur's arms came up to hold him; his hands rubbed a fitful pattern over Merlin's back.
The roar of the waiting crowd seemed very distant compared to Arthur's rough breathing. Then it rushed in on him, getting louder until he jerked his head up in a panic. "They're going to disqualify me."
Arthur lifted his head and listened. "Not quite yet. But we’d better hurry."
Merlin scrambled up and held out his hand to help Arthur to his feet. They stood with their hands loosely clasped for a moment; Merlin let his fingertips brush over Arthur's pulse.
"Are you all right to compete?" Arthur asked with a hopeful look.
"Oh, yeah." Merlin gave him a big, blissful grin. "I feel fantastic."
Arthur's face fell. "That's what I was afraid of."
His knees only wobbled a little as they ducked out of the tent and hurried to the field. Surya stood at the side, speaking with Nennius. Merlin left Arthur at the edge of the lists and ran to join them.
"Emrys," Nennius greeted him as he approached. "Kind of you to join us. Had you delayed much longer, I would have been force to award the match to Surya uncontested."
"And what a shame that would have been," Surya exclaimed, beaming at him and seizing his hand to shake it. "I've been looking forward to this so much."
"Yeah, sorry. I was, um, tied up." Merlin offered her a friendly smile before liberating his fingers. She seemed so nice. Maybe she would go easy on him.
"Oh, this is going to be such a treat for both of us." She clasped her hands together in happiness and chortled. "I was saving some of my best for the finals, but when I found out I'd be facing you today--well, you can't hold back when you have the chance to go head to head with the real Emrys, now can you?"
Merlin felt his smile go sickly. So much for being nice to him. "Great. Can't wait."
Nennius shooed them away. "Then don't wait. If we get behind schedule now, gods know when I'll get my dinner."
He trailed after Surya to the center of the lists as the crowd renewed their cheers now that it seemed there would be a competition after all. Merlin scanned the stands until he found Niniane staring at him. He took a moment to enjoy the look of shock and fury on her face before he turned away to find Arthur.
The moment he spotted him, his knees went wobbly again with the echoes of what he had felt in Arthur's arms. Arthur did not look as stalwart as usual himself; he met Merlin's gaze with worry overlaid with a hazy satisfaction.
He offered Arthur a bright smile to reassure him that Merlin's vital energies were all intact and geared up for the match. Arthur did not look particularly reassured.
Nennius raised his hand in a perfunctory lift before dropping it to signal the action to begin. Merlin forced his attention back to Surya just as she lifted her hands in a fluttering gesture. She was also not wasting any time, and Merlin braced himself for the attack.
Nothing happened. He glanced around on surreptitious watch for crocodiles or other outsized vicious creatures that were Surya's trademark. He saw nothing except her eager smile and heard nothing but the clamor of the crowd. The clamor grew louder, undoubtedly because they were waiting for him to do something.
He seemed to have the leisure to contemplate his offense, which was a nice change. His brain fuzzed out a bit when he tried to think. As he tried to force his mental wheels to turn, the crowd grew louder still.
Typically, Arthur outshouted them all. "Merlin, you imbecile, get out of there!"
Get out of where? Merlin looked back to Surya to see if she had done anything else, but she still stood in the same spot, watching him with that same anticipation. Their eyes met easily on a level across the field.
It occurred to Merlin that, moments ago, Surya had been considerably shorter than him. Moments ago, he had also had visible feet. She had turned the entire field around him into quicksand, and he was sinking steadily.
He had an abrupt flail of panic, which drove him deeper into the morass. It came up over his boots now and began soaking his trousers. He tried to take a step forward, but it only made him sink down past his knees.
A quick succession of spells--levitation, solidification, summoning a raft--yielded no results. Merlin started to get worried. If he sank much further, his legs would be immobilized and he would need assistance to get out, giving Surya the victory.
Merlin tried to concentrate the sand under his right foot until it was solid enough to step on. The little stepping stone sank and dissolved after a scant few seconds, but it had held his weight for a heartbeat. With a gesture he created a dozen more, staggered in an upward slope through the wet sand to the edge of dry ground.
He hopped from step to step as light and quick as the sand would let him, moving his weight to the next step just as the current one began to sink again. His heart grew lighter was well; another few steps and he would be free.
The tugging motion of the sand behind him warned him an instant before the gasp of the crowd. He twisted around as best he could with the quicksand still dragging at his ankles. A set of giant teeth formed out of ice snapped shut inches from his head; only his loss of balance had saved him.
It also drove him back down into the sandpit. He tried to stay still and scan the sand to see what manner of creature was attacking him. All he could see was a ripple in the sand, circling back around towards him.
A sharp fin broke the surface--or rather, the surface became the fin, made out of sand and no less menacing for it. But when the creature leaped from its primordial materials, Merlin was ready for it this time. A blast from his hand broke the creature's form. He had time to notice that it was shaped like no fish he had ever seen, before it scattered in a wet shower of sand.
Another giant toothy fish emerged while the component grains of its predecessor were still raining down. This one got close enough for Merlin to feel the cold from the frozen shards of its teeth before he blasted it into mud. Wet sand stuck to his face as he sent a wave of power through the sand to disrupt the formation of any new attackers long enough for him to get the hell out of there.
He stumbled out of the quicksand and fell to the solid ground almost at Surya's feet. "What is it with you and the animals?" he said, squinting up at her through the grit stuck in his eyes.
"Oh, I've always loved them. My family owns a petting zoo back home." She looked over his shoulder. "Oh dear, I think you'd better get up quickly."
Merlin snatched his leg back just as a set of icy teeth snapped shut an inch from his foot. The creature subsided back into the quicksand before he could blast it, but he could not afford to let it go unscathed. Now that he was out of the pit he could cover the whole area with a desiccation spell, drying the pit until it was only normal sand over dirt once more.
He got to his feet and backed away from her, aware that he was muddy and frazzled while she did not have a hair out of place. Exhaustion tugged at his limbs; much as he hated to admit it, Arthur had been right about the vital energy thing. His magic hummed in the back of his head, eager for nothing more than a nap.
If he could not finish her quickly, he might not finish her at all. She was already smiling and lifting her hands to bestow him with whatever treat she had lined up for him next.
Containment, he thought and flung his hand out to send the thought at her with power behind it. He had no time to give the containment an impressive form, or any form at all. For a moment he was not sure it had even worked; he flinched as Surya finished casting her spell.
Then she flinched as the spell rebounded with a brief flare and died in her hands. If Merlin squinted at the spot he had seen the flare, he could make out a faint bubble around her, nearly transparent. It looked too fragile for Merlin's comfort, though it held as she threw spell after spell at it, looking more curious than frustrated.
She was going to wear through it if she kept hammering at it; Merlin could feel it shivering. All the ideas he and Arthur had thought up for this match seemed unrealistic now, even if he could remember them. He just wanted her to go away.
He did not realize how forcefully he had wished it until he looked at her again--and had to look up this time. She hovered about a foot above the ground, and jumped a few inches higher than that when she noticed.
Surya turned in a circle in mid-air, examining her situation as the bubble carried her slowly higher. It was easier to see now that the bottom of it curved under her feet. Her laughing face grew serious as she hit it with as many disruption spells as she could.
But now that Merlin had the basics in place, he felt stronger. He held out his hand and reinforced the bubble; then with a dramatic flourish he sent Surya floating up and away.
She struggled to free herself for another minute, but when she floated out over the crowd of spectators, she plunked herself down at the bottom of the bubble and started to laugh. Her waist-length black hair and long tunic floated gently around her as she waved down to her fans. As she cleared the top of the stands, she saluted Merlin and cast a spell to make the bubble sparkle with bright colors in the sunlight.
He waved back with a grin. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Arthur jumping up and down and hollering with joy. The bubble finally disappeared over the town, leaving only the fading sound of Surya's laughter.
"Although that was one of the strangest conclusions to a match I have seen in this tournament," Nennius announced, "the clear winner of this contest is Emrys. He will compete in the final match for the championship."
As he spoke, the ranking board trembled. Surya's placard cracked in half; Merlin's rose to take one of the two open spots near the top. The fiery letters of his name seemed to burn hotter in victory.
He bowed to the screaming audience before making a beeline towards Arthur. People swarmed around him to congratulate him, but he did not slow down. Finally, a solid wall of Arthur fell into his arms and hugged the breath out of him.
"I thought she was going to have you for lunch," Arthur exclaimed into his ear. "But you did it. You're in the final. You're going to win this whole thing."
Merlin laughed as Arthur almost wrenched his spine out of alignment. "Glad you're finally having some faith."
"The pride of Camelot is resting on your shoulders. You can't blame me for being a little nervous." Arthur secured his arm around Merlin's neck and started to drag him free from the crowd of well wishers. "Excuse us, out of the way, please. The great sorcerer Emrys needs his rest."
"I'm fine," Merlin protested as they escaped the grounds and took refuge in the quiet area behind the stands. "Never felt better. Energies fully vital."
"Oh, that I don't doubt," Arthur replied with a snort. "Seems like I can't leave you alone for a minute without your vitals trying to run away with you."
"Which reminds me, where did you swan off to in my hour of need?" Merlin leaned back against a tree and folded his arms over his chest.
He did not expect Arthur to flush and look away. "I just wanted to get something from my pack. For you."
Merlin narrowed his eyes in suspicion. "I had lunch, and unlike some people, I don't need anything sharpened, washed, or polished. What was so important for me to have?"
"It's nothing really." Arthur was bright red now and shifting with discomfort. "It's just that it was an important match, and I thought you should have something to carry. From me."
With that he reached up around his collar and plucked out the cord around his neck. Merlin had not noticed he was wearing it again, but then he was so used to seeing it under normal circumstances. "Your necklace. You went back for it--for me?"
Arthur pulled it over his head and shoved it into Merlin's hand. "I know, it was a stupid idea. But there it is. No need to make a big deal out of it."
Merlin squeezed the familiar talon in his hand. It was still warm from Arthur's body. "So you're giving me your favor."
"A favor like from a lady."
"No, not like from a lady." Arthur glared and tried to grab it back. "It's just something for good luck."
Merlin hastily pulled it over his head. "You don't believe in luck."
"I'm not your lady, Merlin."
"It's a real dragon claw." As Merlin rubbed his thumb over it, he could feel the lingering dragon magic. "Did it come from one of the ones your father killed?"
"No, it's much older than that." Arthur stretched out a forefinger to touch the claw, though he could not have felt the magic in it. "My ancestors were friends with the dragons. That's how we got our name."
"So maybe we're not such a strange match after all." Merlin kept his head bent, but glanced up at Arthur with a small smile. "A Pendragon and a dragonlord."
"Don't give yourself airs, Merlin," Arthur said as he gripped the cord and used it to drag Merlin's mouth to his.
"Are you nervous?"
Merlin walked faster in a vain attempt to get away from Arthur. "I'm not nervous."
"You're quite pale." Arthur jogged a few steps to catch up.
"I've always had a delicate complexion." They were almost to the lists, and Merlin's nerves could not stand to hear much more about themselves.
"I don't blame you. Last I heard, they still haven't managed to pull that guy out of the man-eating plant."
Merlin rounded on him. "Will you cut it out?"
Arthur grinned. "There you are. Keep that dander up."
"I can't believe your knights have never considered regicide, if that's your version of a motivational speech." Merlin turned and kept walking. He could see the field now. Niniane was already there, waiting for him.
"My knights win," Arthur insisted. "And so will my sorcerer."
Merlin let out a long breath and cast a sidelong smile at Arthur. He did feel better. "Just go up in the stands, and try not to refer to me as your sorcerer."
"I'll watch from the tents like usual," Arthur said.
After yesterday, Merlin was taking no chances. He wanted Arthur secure away from the line of fire, out of reach of anyone with a lingering grudge against Emrys or a debt to Niniane. Arthur being recognized was no longer chief among his worries.
"I'd have left you at the inn if I could," he said and ignored Arthur's hurt look. "Go on, up the stairs."
Arthur started to set his jaw in that stubborn look he favored, but Merlin was ready for him. "Merlin!" Arthur exclaimed as an invisible force corralled him toward the stands. He dug his heels in, digging grooves in the dirt as Merlin continued to push him. "This is a grievous abuse of your powers."
"I’m sorry. Really," Merlin muttered as Arthur finally consented to move under his own power up into the crowd.
Niniane waited by Nennius's seat next to the ranking board. Her name now sat next to his, one space away from the pinnacle. In a short time, one of those seals would crack and leave the other the sole victor.
She turned to face him as he approached with a calm smile. "So, just you and me at the end, eh, prince's man?"
"Despite your best efforts." He returned her smile with no effort at warmth.
Nennius looked from one to the other. "Well, this should be one for the histories," he said. "Take your places."
Merlin followed Niniane out onto the field. When he stood facing her, he had a clear view up into the stands. Arthur had found a perch at the top of the stands at the end of a row where Merlin could spot him easily.
Arthur smiled a little when he saw Merlin looking. He made a series of complicated gestures that he probably intended as a reminder of all the strategy he had concocted for this match. Merlin smiled back and chose to interpret them as a silent signal for, I have the utmost confidence in you, Merlin, and you will surely be victorious.
Nennius projected his voice across the field. "This is final match of the two hundredth Tournament of All Magicks. Emrys and Niniane will do battle until one is disabled, deceased, surrenders, or flees. The winner will be known as the greatest living mage in all of Albion. You are reminded of the oaths you have sworn."
Merlin turned his attention back to Niniane. They watched each other warily as Nennius raised his hand slowly for maximum drama. Merlin had time for one wistful thought to the day he thought he had finally made a friend of his own kind. He was beginning to realize that might never happen at all; his loyalties could not be divided.
Nennius dropped his hand. Merlin braced himself. Niniane always attacked fast.
A ball of blue fire hurtled towards him before he saw her throw it. He had control of it before it was halfway across the field. She threw herself aside just as it hit the ground where she had been standing.
Niniane rolled to her feet, already mouthing another spell. The same blue fire circled around his feet; he watched as streams of it arched up to form a cage around him. When it was done, he skimmed his hand over one of the fiery bars to test the strength.
Then he took a deep breath. As he exhaled, he pushed out around him with magic and stepped out of the cage. The bars flickered, but did not impede him.
The crowd cheered, and Niniane frowned. She did not look surprised--she could not have expected the cage to hold him for long--but she was staring at his mouth with a certain consternation.
Merlin smiled and looked up at Arthur, who was clenching his fists on his knees. Arthur had noticed the way Niniane watched the lips of her opponents, giving her precious seconds to counter their spells before the words were even spoken.
Unfortunately for her, Merlin had realized over the course of the tournament that in general, spoken spells only slowed him down. It was much easier to think about what he wanted to do and let the magic take care of the details.
When the blue fire swept back in a river across the field to engulf her, Merlin was still smiling.
She adapted quickly to the loss of her advantage. What felt like hours later, they had torn up the field and each other. Rocks and timber and the remnants of a half dozen tents littered the grounds. Niniane's left boot sat quietly dissolving in a shallow pool of radiant yellow sludge on the other side of the lists.
Niniane was breathing in labored heaves as they stared at each other across the field in a momentary lull. She dropped to one knee and toppled forward until her hands caught her, palms flat on the ground, trying to catch her breath.
Merlin staggered back a few steps, happy enough for the respite. The ground was softer here, still damp from Surya's quicksand, and a welcome relief to his knees.
He supposed he should finish Niniane off, but he had often watched Arthur step back to allow an opponent to pick up a dropped weapon or recover their wits after a hard blow. It was the noble way to do battle; Merlin wanted to show he could be as noble as any knight of Camelot.
He glanced up at the stands to find Arthur and the look of proud approval he knew he would see. Arthur was standing on his seat, making a stabbing motion in the air and shouting something. Finish her! he mouthed. For God's sake, Merlin!
Merlin directed a disappointed look up at Arthur. Arthur looked back in confusion; then he made hooks of two fingers and hesitantly made viper striking motions.
Shaking his head, Merlin sighed and turned back to Niniane. So much for nobility. Time to finish this.
He took a step toward her--or tried. His arms flung out and wavered to keep his balance as he discovered that his feet were rooted to the spot and no amount of tugging could shift them. He looked at Niniane, and she looked back, eyes glowing with power.
Something about that look struck a chord of fear through him. His feet still would not move. When he looked down again, he realized how literally he had become rooted into the ground.
Bark was growing around his feet, then up around his legs. He could feel the roots now, sinking deep into the earth; he sent a blast of power into them to kill Niniane's creation at the source. The tree only grew faster, as if his magic had been a cool drink of water.
It widened to engulf his torso, trapping his arms at his sides. He had only seconds before it would cover his head: not enough time for a spell if he could think of any, so he looked up at Arthur until the wood covered his face.
Inside the tree was dark, quiet, and peaceful. He could hear only the rustle of its leaves as they grew and the slow, slow throb of life within the trunk. Happily, though not easily, he could breathe.
Merlin tried to calm the pounding of his heart and the panic in his mind. Nothing had ever trapped him for long; this would be no exception once he figured out a strategy. He willed the wood to split open and let him out, but the tree absorbed his magic like water once again.
Each subsequent attempt made the inner wood throb gently around his legs. The tree was an oak, enormous and as ancient as it was newly created, and it urged him to calm and rest within its confining embrace. All he needed to do was close his eyes and--
"Sorry, not interested," Merlin said through gritted teeth. "I don't suppose you could just let me out, could you? I'm sure having me here isn't very comfortable for you, either."
The tree squeezed tighter around him, which he took as a no. At least he could still speak, if he could think of any spell that could cut through the magic of the tree.
The only thing he knew that could defeat any other magic was dragon fire. But he did not have a dragon here. The best he had was a claw from a dragon who had been dead much longer than Merlin had been alive.
When he thought of it, he felt a prickle against his chest where the pendant rested. His heart thumped with sudden hope, and he concentrated on the claw. Something stirred when he tried to focus his magic into it. He pushed harder, but it skittered away.
He needed a better focus. Merlin wiggled his fingers. His body was pressed tight against the inside of the tree, but he had no choice.
Slowly, he started working his fingers up through the almost non-existent gap between him and the tree. He hissed as the wood scraped the skin off his knuckles and his elbow, even through his shirt. Once he got his hand across his hip, he sucked in his stomach as much as he could until finally his forefinger brushed the tip of the claw.
The magic surged. "There you are," he breathed and ignored the pain until he had wiggled his hand up enough to rest completely over the pendant.
The dragon remnant clarified his vision and enhanced his power. He could see the magic flowing through the tree and under it into the earth. Casting a spell out or down would take a long time to have sufficient effect to free him.
But casting it upwards was a different story. Above him, the magic was thinner amongst the branches. Above him was the sky. The tree drew its energy from the earth and the air, but up in the heights of the sky, the dragons had ruled.
Merlin grinned. That was his magic.
"I'm really sorry about this," he said to the great oak. "But it's you or me, friend."
He called to the sky with all his power. He felt it leap from the hand that held the dragon claw. When the response came, he was dizzy with exhilaration.
Even inside the tree, he heard the crack and the rumble. Then the power slammed back into him the same instant the tree split in half.
As he stepped out of it, his body crackled with the stored lightning. Across the field, Niniane gaped at him and started to back away. Merlin looked down at himself and admired the silver-blue energy flickering up and down his arms.
Then he sent it arcing across the field to rain down on Niniane. She got her hands up to deflect some of the energy; the rest seized her and bent her nearly double backwards before dropping her like a rag doll to the ground.
Niniane struggled to get to her feet. Merlin admired her stubbornness, while at the same time, he really just wanted her to stay down.
So he called the lightning again. It struck in front of her, sending her reeling backwards. She turned the other way, but only made it a few steps before the lightning dug a crater in the ground. It hit the right side of her, and then the left before she could turn around.
Only a couple narrow strips of ground remained as an escape. The lightning scorched one of them, sending Niniane sprawling.
This time she made no move to get up. Merlin took a moment to look up at the storm clouds roiling overhead, then over to the stands. He ignored all the shrieking, babbling spectators; his eyes went straight to Arthur. Who was not there.
Merlin frowned and scanned the sidelines of the field in case Arthur had come running down during the tree incident. He saw nothing but Nennius wearing a shocked expression.
When he looked up at the stands again, Merlin finally spotted Arthur several yards from where he had sat before. His moment of relief cut short when he took in the full tableau: Arthur was flanked by two men, arguing with them. Merlin recognized the armed guards in Cenred's livery from the stone building in the town square.
Dread replaced the last of his relief when he saw who stood behind one of the guards, draped in a heavy green cloak: Morgause. She said something that made Arthur's eyes widen; then she waved her hand over his head until his head fell back and he started to crumple to the ground.
The guards caught him and dragged him away. Morgause started to follow, then paused and looked down at Merlin. She did not smile, but only gave him a small nod of acknowledgment before sweeping off after Arthur's abductors.
Merlin spared a single glance at Niniane, who was trying to push herself into a sitting position. One more strike would have trapped her, but the clouds were already dissipating, and Arthur was in danger. Ten minutes ago, he had cared about this victory more than anything.
Now he turned and ran.
Nennius shouted something after him. Merlin neither paused nor listened. He raced pell-mell out of the lists and into the streets. When he burst into the town square, he got a glimpse of Arthur's boots as they carried him into the stone building.
The wooden doors slammed shut behind them. When Merlin bounded up to them, they were locked and warded. He could have opened them, but he had no doubt that would alert Morgause. He would not add to the risk that she might harm Arthur before he could get to him.
Merlin circled around the back. The building had never been meant to be fortified, and it did not take long to spot an open window up on the first story. A large tree grew several yards from the wall, though none of the branches reached close enough for him to reach the window.
"Ask nicely," he muttered. Asking nicely had not gotten him anywhere with Niniane's tree, and he was not keen on getting too close to another one so soon. But a quick check revealed no better ways into the building.
He laid his hands on the rough bark and sent an inquiring tendril of magic into the tree. It responded with a dreamy curiosity. He told it what he needed, in what he hoped was a polite manner to a tree.
Leaves rustled overhead in what sounded like a giggle. Arboreal magic washed over him, taking his measure, and he tried not to shudder. A grown tree was quite a different thing from a strawberry seed. It had to want to help him.
The magic receded and the leaves rustled again. A low creaking followed as the tree stretched a strong branch over to the open window.
"Thank you," Merlin breathed and pressed his lips briefly to the trunk in gratitude before hoisting himself up into the branches.
He slithered through the window, for once glad that he was not quite as broad in the chest as Arthur, and fell into a crouch on a stone floor. Behind him, the tree rustled a farewell and withdrew.
Voices came from somewhere below him. Merlin was inside a rotunda, on the balcony that encircled the whole interior. He crept to the balustrade and peered through the carved stone railing down into the open space below.
"My lord, this is a clear act of aggression. King Cenred must be informed at once."
"An act of aggression?" That was Arthur's voice, alive and awake to Merlin's relief. "I came as a private spectator, like everyone else. You could hardly expect me to announce myself."
As Merlin's eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, he made out Arthur's figure, somehow towering above the other people in the room. It took him a moment to realize that Arthur was suspended in mid-air, held by nothing the eye could see. Arthur had his arms crossed over his chest, looking down at his captors with regal disdain.
Morgause stood below him with the two guards, who Merlin now realized must be knights of Cenred, and another grim-faced man Merlin had not seen before. At least a dozen shadowy figures stood ringed around them. Squinting from one to another, Merlin recognized each of them from the tournament. He kicked himself for not realizing earlier that whatever Morgause's current scheme to destroy Uther entailed, she would use this gathering to secure a small army of her own.
The grim-faced man was finely dressed and looked up at Arthur with the same arrogance of nobility. "King Uther's son is hardly a private spectator. Tell me why he sent you."
"He didn't. I came to see for myself what this was."
"And tell me, what did you find, Prince Arthur?" Morgause had pushed her hood down, her hair a pale nimbus around her. "Do you still share your father's views on magic? Or did you discover something that might give you some pity for all the innocents you've helped lead to the slaughter?"
Merlin could not see Arthur's face well enough to read his expression, but the sober tone of his voice was clear. "I no longer believe as my father does. But the word of the king is law, and I have little hope of changing his mind."
Her voice hardened with rage. "You are twice the hypocrite he is if you will suffer these atrocities to continue, rather than give Uther Pendragon the end he deserves."
She raised her hand and clenched her fist. Arthur choked back a scream as his body arched and twisted. Merlin bit back his own cry. He no longer trusted Morgause not to murder Arthur in cold blood if Arthur did not give her what she wanted.
When the magic subsided, Arthur hung limp in his invisible bonds. "I have done my duty to my king," he panted, forcing his head to stay high with obvious effort.
"You have shamed your mother," Morgause said coldly and raised her fist again.
This time Arthur did scream. Merlin fought to stay hidden. All he wanted was to leap up and leave a crater in the floor where Morgause used to be. But the other dozen sorcerers meant Arthur would be dead before the smoke cleared.
As Arthur went limp again, Merlin crept around the high balcony, looking for any angle that would let him stage a rescue without risking harm to Arthur. Nothing short of a massive strike of power would buy him any time, and that only a few seconds.
"Enough," the nobleman interjected. "Remember your place, Morgause. King Cenred is not interested in your grudge against Uther, only your ability to defeat him."
"His only heir as hostage seems a fine place to start," the second knight said.
"Perhaps, but I don't think you'll be allowed to take him," Morgause said--then looked up to where Merlin crouched behind the balustrade. "Isn't that right, Emrys?"
The balustrade exploded outward, and Merlin stumbled forward. He caught himself on the jagged edge of the balcony and dangled over the open air for a stomach-churning moment. The stone scraped bloody gashes in his hands and arms as he hauled himself back up to solid ground.
"This, gentlemen, is the sole magical protection of Camelot," Morgause announced as his legs flailed in the final effort to roll back onto the balcony.
"A scrawny boy?" the noble said, voice dubious.
"He's stronger than he looks, though he cannot stand alone against our forces." Morgause raised her hand toward Arthur. "He could not even stand against my protégé without running to save his prince."
She hit the wall before the blast of energy had formed in her hand; Merlin was taking no more chances. The nobleman raised his sword in unison with the knights, but the weapons went flying. So did the men, hitting the wall with grunts of pain.
"Merlin, look out," Arthur cried as the surrounding sorcerers turned as one and sent fire blazing up into the balcony.
Merlin threw himself to the side, deeper into the shadows. He had seconds to think; Arthur would be the next target if they could not find Merlin.
The fire spread around him. He gave it a dirty look and pushed his palm out towards it, commanding it to go back where it came from.
It roared up, and then poured itself over the balustrade in a cascade, hitting the floor and spreading out to surround the enemy sorcerers. Merlin ran to the railing. He met Arthur's frantic gaze for a moment before looking down into the fire.
"Besæge," he said, and the fire sank down into the floor.
One of the warlocks, the one Niniane had defeated in the semifinals, looked around and laughed. Then he smirked up at Merlin and raised his hand towards Arthur.
Merlin tensed--and then a witch on the other side of the circle started to scream. The stone was melting beneath her feet. Across the entire rotunda, the floor glowed bright red and started to bubble.
Chaos broke out below as the sorcerers made a desperate break for solid ground. One of them tripped and fell face-first into the liquefying stone. The smell of burning flesh wafted up as he sank into the floor.
Arthur thrashed in mid-air as the heat reddened his face and sent rivulets of sweat down his face. "Merlin, stop showing off and get me out of here!"
Merlin climbed up onto the balustrade railing. He was almost out of tricks, almost out of energy, and decidedly out of time. Across the rotunda, Morgause was struggling to her feet, already lifting her hands towards him, face twisted with rage.
Magic helped propel him to Arthur. Merlin slammed into him and seized onto whatever part of Arthur he could grab. They started to sink fast toward the boiling floor.
"What the hell?" Arthur grunted as fire streaked through the air above them. The first blast had missed them, but the second one would not.
"Just hang on." Merlin pushed his hand in the air and created a shockwave of power radiating out from his fist, out to Morgause and down to the floor.
It bought Merlin precious seconds to wrap his arms tight around Arthur and suffuse them both with power as he willed them elsewhere, anywhere safe--
They tumbled onto wooden floor slats amongst fresh rushes. Merlin blinked up into the peaceful sunbeam coming through the window of their room at the inn.
Arthur got to his feet and hauled Merlin up with him. "Come on, we'd better get out of here while we still can."
Merlin grabbed onto the bed post to steady his knees. He had never done translocation magic before; he suspected that had been an overly ambitious way to start. "I think you're starting to take me for granted again," he complained.
His spell book hit him in the chest, followed by his half-full knapsack. "I appreciate you in every possible way, Merlin. Now move," Arthur ordered as he stuffed his belongings into his own pack.
They left enough gold to pay for their room and a few hours of silence. As they hurried through the town, Merlin felt a wave of questing magic wash over them. He brushed it aside, grabbed Arthur's arm, and pulled him in a different direction.
Merlin breathed easier when they made it out of Banncroft with no further confrontation. Arthur did not relax until they had found Arthur's cached belongings and retrieved their horses from the outlying farm where they had stabled them.
"We'll have to ride hard back to Camelot," he said as he tightened the cinch of his saddle. "My father needs to know at once that Cenred is preparing for war."
Merlin stopped in the middle of securing his pack. "Do you really think he'll attack Camelot?"
"Why else would Cenred's war leader be there?" Arthur yanked harder at the strap and then stroked his mare's neck in apology when she startled. Merlin also startled; he had not realized who the nobleman was. "They wanted to draw us out and see what protection Camelot has to stand against Morgause."
"And all you have is me." Merlin suddenly felt rather small in the face of an entire army.
"At least you won the tournament," Arthur said. Merlin winced, drawing a sharp look. "You did win, didn't you?"
"I...don't think so, no."
Arthur's mouth dropped open. "What do you mean? You had her." He banged his fist down repeatedly on his palm. "With the lightning. It was incredible. There's no way you didn't have her."
"Yes, but then I ran away to save your arse, which will probably count against me in the final score." The loss would rankle when he had more time to think about it, but his choice had never been in question. "Morgause knew you were there for days. She only struck when things started going badly for Niniane."
"She had to be sure Niniane won," Arthur mused as he mounted. "So she could convince Cenred that he would have the strongest sorcerer on his side. Even if that's obviously not true."
Warmth pooled in his stomach at that, but Merlin still found himself reluctant to mount his horse and follow Arthur out of the stable. It had been easy to forget in his happiness that Arthur had never pronounced his final judgment.
Arthur clopped out into the barnyard. A few moments later he clopped back in with eyebrows raised. "Planning on joining me?"
"I don't know. Should I be?" He tried a hopeful smile. Something in him needed to hear the words before he turned his steps toward Camelot--to hear that he still had a home there.
"What are you--? Oh." Arthur frowned in discomfort. "Merlin, you're being ridiculous."
"Probably," Merlin agreed. "But you always say that you're the one who makes the decisions."
"Pick now to remember it," Arthur muttered and sighed before pulling himself up into full royal bearing. "Then I must make the only decision I can in accordance with my duty as crown prince of Camelot."
A small chill went through Merlin. He hoped he had not pushed Arthur too far.
"Clearly, I can't kill you."
"I would hope not," Merlin burst out, indignant.
"My personal feelings can't enter into this, Merlin, you know that." Arthur gave him a stern look. "But clearly that would not be practical as you are the most powerful sorcerer we have ever dealt with, and I would be endangering my own life in a futile attempt."
"If I can't kill you, then duty demands I arrest you and take you back to Camelot for the king's justice."
Merlin rolled his eyes. "If you can't kill me, I don't think you stand much chance of capturing me."
"Precisely. And if I did manage to get you back to Camelot through some means, obviously you would use magic to escape from any prison or attempt at execution." Arthur narrowed his eyes. "Wouldn't you, Merlin?"
"Obviously," Merlin said. "That would be my duty as a nefarious sorcerer."
"So if I can't kill you or imprison you, I must banish you from Camelot and command you never to return."
That had been Merlin's true fear. His throat closed around the smart remark he would have made.
"However," Arthur continued hastily upon seeing Merlin's stricken look. "Since you came from Cenred's kingdom, I could never risk your returning there and using your powers against Camelot."
"I wouldn't," Merlin said under his breath, a quiet oath to himself and whatever destiny followed him.
"Therefore, I must take it upon myself to keep an eye on you and make sure you don't get up to any mischief." Arthur gave a decisive nod. "Which means, of course, that I'll have to keep you as close as possible at all times."
A slow smile broke over Merlin's face. "Yeah, I suppose that is the only possible decision. Very well reasoned, sire."
"Thank you," Arthur said. "Now get on your horse and let's go home. Never mind a war--we have to start training you for the next tournament."
They rode into Camelot late the next afternoon after riding hard with only brief respites. Gaius was crossing the courtyard to the castle steps, but hurried to meet Arthur as he and Merlin swung off their horses.
"Sire," he called. "I'm glad you're back. The king has been concerned about your whereabouts."
"Didn't he get my note?" Arthur said as he handed the reins to the stable boy that scurried up to him. "Servants these days."
"He did, but he was concerned that you might have encountered trouble," Gaius said, gaze shifting to Merlin with his own concern. "The situation along the borders is still quite tense."
"More than he even knows," Arthur replied. "I'll attend him at once. Merlin and I infiltrated the gathering of sorcerers, and I have a great deal of intelligence that he must hear immediately."
"Very good, sire," Gaius managed even as he turned pale and tried not to look at Merlin. "Sire, if you don't require him at the moment, I have been missing Merlin's assistance the last few days."
"Yes, that's fine." Arthur paused with his foot on the steps and turned back to level a heavy look at Merlin. "But Merlin, I expect you to attend me tonight. With your full attention."
"Of course I'll attend you, sire," Merlin answered, eyes locked with Arthur's until Arthur gave a little smile and turned away. He kept watching Arthur jog up the steps even as Gaius came to his side and took his arm with shaky hands.
"Merlin, did you really take Prince Arthur to the tournament?" he hissed and began pulling Merlin towards their chambers. "What were you thinking?"
"He followed me," Merlin protested as he stumbled alongside. "I couldn't exactly stop him from coming along once he figured out where I was going."
That made Gaius look distinctly ill. As soon as they were in the cool shelter of the corridor, Gaius looked around before bending his head close to Merlin's. "Does he--? Did he--?"
"It's all right, Gaius," Merlin interjected. "I was very discreet. See, not imprisoned."
Gaius did not look impressed as Merlin held up his hands to show off the lack of shackles. "Then you didn't compete in the tournament?"
Despite the frequency with which he did it, Merlin did not like lying to Gaius. But as they rode home, he and Arthur had worked out the details of the story they would tell. Reluctantly, Merlin had agreed that it would be easier and safer if he revealed the true identity of Emrys to no one, not even Gaius.
"No," he said. It was not difficult to conjure up a wistful look when he thought of his lost victory. "I couldn't possibly with Arthur right there, could I?"
Gaius swayed a little with relief. "Well, I wouldn't put it past you to try," he said and patted Merlin's arm. "But I'm glad you showed some sense for once. Come along, I was just about to have dinner."
"Great, I'm starving," Merlin said, happy to be off the hook and in range of the first food since a very scanty breakfast that morning.
The familiar workroom was warm and cozy when they entered. Merlin even hung up his jacket instead of tossing it over the nearest scientific instrument. He hoped he would be spending most of his nights with Arthur from now on, but this would forever be home.
Gaius ladled out bowls of stew while Merlin cleared the table of books, bottles, and arcane metal things no sorcerer would even recognize. Merlin sat down and picked up his spoon with relish--then dropped it as the table in front of him began to hiss and smoke.
"What on earth is that?" Gaius paused half out of his chair, staring in shock at the object materializing in the middle of the table.
The object looked like a large cup, almost a chalice. Merlin's heart leapt and sank at the same moment. He reached for it, but Gaius was still standing and had the better reach.
"How curious," he said as he examined it. "I think I've seen something like this before. And there seems to be a note inside."
Gaius put on his spectacles and unfurled the paper while Merlin sat and twitched. His eyebrows rose as he read, furrowed abruptly, and then rose again. Finally he looked up at Merlin and held the note out to him without comment.
Merlin took it, sensing his doom before he even started to read.
Emrys, or Merlin, whatever your name truly is--
They keep trying to give me this cup, but whatever you may think of my game play, I don't take what I haven't earned. We both know you were the victor. This time. Your seal never broke.
I'll see you again, prince’s man, very soon.
Across the table, Gaius cleared his throat. "Is there something you forgot to tell me, Merlin?"
He looked up with wide eyes, but gave up on the innocent expression when he saw the implacable look coming from under those eyebrows.
"Well, actually," he said. "That's kind of a long story."