Arthur was crouched with a clean shot lined up, just waiting for the stag to step clear of the brush, when Merlin's voice came calling out, "Arthur!" and the deer leapt. He jerked to follow its path and managed to bring it down anyway, then he stood up and glared.
"Merlin, I know you like venison," Arthur said, as Merlin came crashing through the bushes, and another ten or twenty hypothetical deer all vanished away like mist into the air. "You gobble it like a pig—"
"I do not!" Merlin said indignantly.
"—like a pig," Arthur continued on, firmly, "any time there's any left over, so you would think that somewhere in that ridiculous excuse for a mind you might draw the connection and not actively sabotage my hunting."
"The king sent me to get you," Merlin said, with a tone that implied strongly that he wasn't rolling his eyes where Arthur could see, but just wait until his back was turned. "He said you're to get changed into formal clothes and meet him in the Great Hall, there's a delegation coming from the Summer Court."
"The elves are coming?" Arthur said, incredulously. "Fine, go get that deer and come on."
"What, you want me to carry it?" Merlin said, looking at the deer. "I'll get all over blood."
"Precisely," Arthur said. "You, as opposed to I, will get all over blood."
"You're in leather, and you're about to get changed anyway!" Merlin said. "And my other clothes are in the wash, so if you'll want me to attend you so you look all consequential and everything—"
"Having you lolling about is more likely to make me look half-witted for keeping such a completely useless servant," Arthur said. He shoved the crossbow and bolts into Merlin's arms, and went to sling the deer over his shoulder. Merlin would probably take two hours staggering back to Camelot under the weight, and ruin the trophy besides.
Arthur dropped it at the kitchens to loud gratitude, the cooks already in a stir so violent Arthur began to believe it was actually true about the elves showing up. "I don't understand, aren't they—magic?" Merlin asked, grabbing a basin and some cloths to follow him upstairs. "Why are they allowed, if—"
"Believe me, my father would love to ban them from the kingdom too," Arthur said, stripping off his jerkin even as they got to his rooms. He kicked the bloodstained leathers to the corner and sat down to get his boots off as Merlin set out the basin, filled it with water, and started to wipe him down. "We can't afford to. The elven kingdom isn't a normal sort of place, you can get into it and out of it all over Albion—they say there's even entrances in Eire. Offend them, and you'll have an enemy army walking out of a hill behind your lines. We even have to pay them bloody tribute," he added darkly, letting Merlin tip his head back to get at his neck and jawline.
"Is that what they're coming for?" Merlin asked.
"No," Arthur said, "we send it to their gates at Danbury Hill every Samhain, and that's usually an end of it; I can't remember them ever coming here. Now get my tunic—no, the red one."
His father was already in a splendid mood, sitting glowering in his throne as the court assembled, murmuring and whispering excitedly. "Any idea what they want?" Arthur asked him, taking his seat.
"None whatsoever," Uther said grimly, "save that it will be something inconvenient we will not want to give. That I am sure we can rely upon. We have a report of seven horsemen coming: I have never heard of such a thing."
Arthur would've liked to look down into the courtyard to watch them coming in, as the noise of their arrival came up: he'd heard rumors about elven horses. But they had to present a formal, impervious front; he wasn't going to start gawking like a yokel.
It was hard to remember that when the doors opened at last and the elves came in: seven knights in helms and full breastplates, armor that glittered like stars where the light struck it, long and elaborately carved ash-grey spears, and the envoy in a sweeping cloak of midnight blue. The envoy put back his hood as he came through the doors, and the murmuring of the court died away as he walked down the hall. Arthur wasn't sure why, exactly. The man was strange-looking, but he wasn't inhuman. The ears were only pointed and the skin a bit pale, with a long braid of silver hair falling down his back, and as he came closer his eyes were a startling blue.
He bowed low, hiding them, and said, "Hail Uther Pendragon, King of Camelot. I am Lord Eldren of the House of Therana, and I bring you greetings from the Summer Court."
Uther didn't say anything for a moment, and Arthur flicked a questioning look at him; there was a strange, fixed expression on his father's face. Arthur shifted his chair a little, bumping the throne, and it went away; Uther cleared his throat and said, "I bid you welcome to Camelot, Lord Eldren. How goes it with King Taranis?"
The elf straightened and blinked those strange eyes up at them. "King Taranis is dead."
It turned out that what the elves wanted was a new king, and apparently they had decided, for reasons passing understanding, that instead of working it out inside their own borders, they needed to do it in the mortal realms. And for reasons passing even more understanding, they wanted to do it in Camelot.
"If I must guess, sire," Gaius said, when Uther had summoned him to his quarters to discuss, "I imagine they seek neutral ground for their decision-making. We do not know who the candidates are, but they must be among the great of their realm: perhaps there is no territory within their own kingdom which would be unconnected with any of them."
"But why Camelot, then?" Arthur said. "They must know magic is banned here, they can't think themselves welcome."
"Just as likely, that is precisely why they have chosen us," Uther said, brooding into his hand. "They take sheer childish delight in irritating and harassing mortal men. You saw that preening lordling half-bewitching the entire court, for no purpose whatsoever."
Arthur frowned, wondering what the hell his father was talking about, except Gaius was nodding. "Elven glamours are powerful things, your majesty," Gaius said. "Still, there is this: though they will mislead and deceive with all the skill at their command, they will not lie outright, nor break an oath; that is clear from all the legends we have."
"That is hardly enough to give me confidence to allow them to make free of the kingdom," Uther said.
"Except the question's not whether we can risk granting their request," Arthur said, "but whether we can risk refusing it." He looked at his father, who nodded. "If we offended them, and they went to Mercia next—"
"Damn the lot of them," Uther muttered.
"I would suggest, sire," Gaius said, "that you set conditions upon your agreement. If they swear to those conditions, they will meet them."
"And that will tell us how badly they want to be here," Arthur said. "There might still be more to this than they're letting on. Lord Eldren wasn't what anyone would call forthcoming."
"No indeed, for all his flattery and fine words," Uther said. "Very well. We will require them to swear that Camelot will not be harmed, nor any of our subjects mistreated." He paused, raised an eyebrow at Arthur.
"Perhaps we could ask them to swear not to violate our borders, or let any of our enemies do so through their lands?" Arthur suggested. "If we could get them to hold to that, in repayment, even after they've gone—"
"That would almost be worth all the irritation this is undoubtedly to bring," Uther said.
Lord Eldren agreed to the requests with so little hesitation that Arthur wished they'd asked for something else besides, and even more so when Eldren added, "Fear no disruption to your realm, your majesty; so long as the Summer Court is here, no mortal enemy will pass your borders."
His father just nodded, absently, as if he'd missed the implications of that. Arthur leaned forward from his seat and said, "You're saying you can prevent an army from entering Camelot anywhere? Not just through your lands?"
Eldren turned and stared at Arthur hard, with a narrowing expression. Arthur stared back, waiting, and Eldren finally said, in an odd tone, "Should any enemy attempt to violate your borders, while the Court is here, they will wander trapped in mists, and never find the road, whether one man or ten thousand."
Bloody hell. Arthur glanced at his father, who had that vague look on his face again—Arthur reached over and touched his arm. Uther jerked and looked at him as though he'd just woken up. Arthur stared, and then turned to Eldren. "We have one more condition," he said grimly. "No more of your glamours, any of you, as long as you are visitors to this court."
Eldren was silent a moment, and then he said, "So be it agreed," and as he spoke his face changed: like watching a film of grime coming off a window being washed. The blue of his eyes seemed to shift and split apart into three rings of different colors, set one inside another, with a rim of unnatural gold around a cat's-eye pupil. His lips thinned and his nose narrowed, giving him a fox-like look; his skin went from pale to a gleaming marble white, and his silver hair took on an inhuman sheen like the slick of lamp oil.
"I said no more glamours!" Arthur said.
Eldren looked at him and blinked—blinked sideways—and spread his hands. "You see me now as I am, your highness," he said, in a voice that was lower and rang in half a dozen tones at once, hard to listen to. "Often we find mortals prefer to look upon us in, shall we say, a different light."
Uther had stiffened in the throne, and Arthur was relieved, looking over, to see him very much himself and glittering with anger. "Here we prefer to see truly," Uther said.
Eldren bowed, still ludicrously graceful but now uncannily so, bending like a willow down and up. "Then there is greater wisdom at your court than many another, my lord."
"And is that why you have chosen to grace Camelot with this request?" Uther said sarcastically.
Eldren paused and said, "Your majesty, our reasons may be made clear only if you have chosen to grant our request."
Uther glanced at Arthur, his irritation writ large; Arthur looked at him and shrugged a shoulder, meaningfully. If the elves really were going to keep enemies out, as long as they were in Camelot, that would mean for the next week or so, King Freidal of Sussex couldn't keep sending his thinly-disguised skirmishers against the southern forts. They'd be able to get more of the southern harvest in, maybe even improve the fortifications and patrols before the elves left again.
"Your request is granted," Uther said, turning back to Eldren. "The Summer Court is welcome to Camelot for the choosing of your new sovereign. And now, you will explain why you have asked this of us."
Eldren turned to the knights behind him. "Is your duty satisfied, Sir Dianys?"
The lead knight took off his helm: a strange, cold face, dark-skinned and almost feminine, with angular cheekbones and a slash of straight dark hair to either side that glowed with reds and violets; his eyes were red and purple rings. "The forms are met," he said, in a clear, strangely high voice. "The ground is chosen. Let the Summer Court come, and let the candidates be named."
Eldren and Dianys, by trolleys
The great bell began clanging outside, suddenly, but not in alarm: an almost joyous sound, and more distantly Arthur could hear bells ringing out all over the city. The windows of the great hall were flying open overhead, and he turned to see something like a wave made of sunlight come sweeping towards them over the courtyard.
His hand didn't have time to reach his sword-hilt before it was bursting in through the windows and over them, and the hall was suddenly as bright as if they stood in an open field at noon, the torches inconsequential. Out of nowhere, the tables were laden with fruit that smelled like the ripest ideal, glowing, and the carvings on the columns had been replaced with living vines, twining hopefully with one another as they climbed.
"What in all the gods' names," Uther said, half rising out of his chair, and Eldren turned.
"The Summer Court is come to Camelot," he said, "and all candidates of the king's bloodline three times removed are now called hence, to stand before the Summer Throne, and contest their right to the crown. I call Ardhiel of the House of Rhehan, Prince of Night Without Stars—"
As he began listing the names, there were suddenly a bloody lot more elves in the hall. Arthur couldn't even see where they were coming from—half of them seemed to be just appearing from behind pillars and coming out of doors that hadn't been there a moment before. The whole damned room seemed bigger.
A tall man with green hair was coming forward in answer to Eldren's call, apparently this Prince Ardhiel; he smiled at Sir Dianys, and took up a position at the start of a line that gradually grew to six people—all of them odd-looking in one way or another, and three of them weren't even men. Morgana glanced over at him with a raised eyebrow, and Arthur tried hard not to roll his eyes at her. If a woman actually won this, he was sure he'd never hear the end of it, even if it was all over in a week and he lived to be a hundred.
As the last woman joined them—hair all pinned away under some sort of veil, except beneath the veil it seemed to be moving—Eldren paused in his recitation. He said, "There is one other candidate to be named," and the six already there turned and stared at him. There was a rustling of surprise among the other elves.
Eldren looked up at Uther and swept out a hand and said, "You asked why your kingdom: it is here alone the final candidate may be called before the Throne. I call the natural-born son of King Taranis—" and there was a roar of noise and protest among the elves, but Eldren's voice rose above it all, "—the natural-born son of King Taranis, named Emrys by the Summer Throne—"
A clatter and a smash behind him like two jousters coming together made Arthur jump. He turned to glare furiously at a stricken, white-faced Merlin, who'd just dropped a tray covered with goblets and a jug now spilling red wine everywhere across the floor, and so Arthur was looking right at him when Eldren finished, "— called among mortal men Merlin son of Hunith, to stand before the Throne."
There was a whole lot of yelling among the elves right after Eldren had finished his apparently very exciting announcement, which was convenient, as it gave Arthur opportunity to do some urgently called-for yelling of his own.
"I didn't know!" Merlin yelled back in a panicky way, trying to tug his arm free. "My mother didn't mention anything about elves!" He tried even harder to shrink back as Uther stalked up next to Arthur.
"So you have been hiding your true nature in my court all this time," Uther said.
"No, I, but," Merlin said, faintly.
"Honestly, both of you!" Morgana said, stepping in between them. "You've both met Hunith! Did she really seem to you like someone who hangs about with elves?" She turned and took Merlin by the shoulders. "It's not your fault in the least, Merlin. I'm sure she had good reason not to speak of it. If King Taranis could father a child and walk away from it, he didn't deserve for her to acknowledge him."
Merlin looked at her with a mix of misery and gratitude that made Arthur want to shove her out of the way. She turned and added, "He hardly looks like them, does he? What possible reason could he have for even imagining such a thing? They certainly don't seem to have known."
Arthur turned to look at the elves, who were arguing furiously in voices that sounded like something between music and the clashing of swords, until their quarrelling was interrupted by a heavy bang, then a second, then a third—the knight, Sir Dianys, was slamming the butt of his spear against the ground.
"All your objections are as folly," Dianys said, his voice carrying clear and sharp across them. "The Summer Throne will not come until all the candidates it has named are assembled, and only thus can the crown be won." He turned and pointed the spear towards Merlin, who flinched back.
"Look, there's been a mistake," Merlin said. "I don't want to be your king."
It looked as if about half the elves were drawing breath to start the arguing again, but Dianys slammed the spear down once again. "The king does not choose the throne," he said. "The throne chooses the king. Step forward, and take your place."
Merlin looked at the door.
"Stop being an idiot," Arthur said, folding his arms. "If they can't choose a king without you, it's your duty to help. Now get out there. I hardly think you need to worry about them actually picking you."
"Well, that's encouraging," Morgana snapped.
"No, that's—actually very reassuring," Merlin said, although he very obviously was about to add something insulting about the way Arthur had said it, before he remembered he was in the great hall and in front of the king.
"At least this explains one thing about you," Arthur said.
Merlin swallowed. "—it does?"
"I hear elves take great delight in irritating mortal men past the point of reason," Arthur said, and gave Merlin a shove out onto the floor with the others.
Apparently when the elves said the throne would come, they meant it a bit more literally than you might have thought: as soon Merlin stepped in line with the other six candidates, there was another clamoring of bells, and then an extremely strange moment where the throne appeared. It didn't pop into existence in a cloud of smoke, or fade in, or anything; instead it was just there suddenly, standing at the far end of the hall opposite his father's throne. Arthur had the bizarre feeling it had always been there, and always would be, and the rest of them had moved to join it.
"The challenge begins in the morning," Lord Eldren said. "Prince Ardhiel, name your champion."
He turned to the tall green-haired man, who smiled and held out a hand and said, "Sir Dianys of the House of Venith, Knight of Ghosts and Eventide, I name you my champion before the throne." The dark-skinned knight went and took his hand, and the bell clanged once above, deep and low.
The other candidates were naming champions one after another, other elves coming to join them: all fighters, Arthur noticed, in armor.
"This isn't fair!" Morgana hissed. "Merlin doesn't have a champion, he doesn't even know what's going on! Uther, you have to do something—stop them, make them explain what he's supposed to do—"
"This is hardly our concern, Morgana," Uther said flatly. "The servant boy is no longer a member of this court, but theirs."
"Arthur!" Morgana said, wheeling towards him, her eyes flashing. "Are you just going to sit there and watch?"
Lord Eldren turned to Merlin and said, "Emrys, name your champion."
"Er," Merlin said, staring at him with deer-wide eyes. "If—if I don't have a champion, may I step out of the challenge?"
Lord Eldren looked down his narrow nose and said coldly, "Name your champion, or stand as your own."
Arthur stepped forward out of his father's range and said, "He names me." Merlin turned to stare at him.
"Arthur!" Uther snapped.
"I know what I'm doing!" Arthur said, jumping the rest of the way down the dais, and walking past the elves whose heads were turning to look at him. "Go ahead, name me," he told Merlin, stepping down the stairs.
"I'm not going to get you stuck in this!" Merlin said, and then waved an utterly insulting hand at the six elven warriors who'd already been named. "Look at them!"
Arthur glared at him, almost speechless with indignation. "And what are you going to do on your own, bleed on them? Shut up and name me, and that's an order."
"Arthur, you will withdraw this instant!" Uther said.
"Now, Merlin, I mean it," Arthur told Merlin, flatly, and grabbed Merlin's hand.
The mulish look slid away from Merlin's face as though it had been washed off. Arthur's heart was beating oddly quick. He even thought for a moment that a golden glow of light whirled brilliant and dazzling in Merlin's eyes, and the bell above their heads was already clanging, even before Merlin had finished saying, "Prince Arthur of Camelot, I name you my champion before the throne."
"What were you thinking!" Uther roared, slamming the door to the council chamber behind him with enough force to rattle the windows.
"I can't believe you did anything so stupid," Morgana added, for that extra bit of spice.
Arthur had opened his mouth to explain, but he stopped to glare at her. "You were yelling your head off for me to do something!"
"I was saying to stop them, long enough to find a way to get Merlin out of it!" Morgana said. "Not to throw yourself in with him."
"In that, at least, we are in perfect accord!" Uther said. "You will have to withdraw at once."
Arthur was fairly certain that his father wouldn't want to hear that Arthur didn't think he could. He was very carefully not looking at Merlin, because it had been oddly difficult to drag his eyes away, back in the hall, when his father had furiously ordered them both to follow him. The problem was Merlin kept looking at him that way. It was the same look Arthur had woken up to on a rocky shore by the sea, with the taste of wine still on his lips, when he'd thought he'd never wake again.
"Father, I know you're angry," he said, "and I apologize that I acted without consulting you, but I only realized in the last instant what an opportunity we had before us."
"An opportunity?" Uther said.
"An opportunity to put an ally of Camelot on the throne of the elves," Arthur said. "To end the tribute we pay them, and secure our borders, perhaps forever."
"Wait, what?" Merlin said, voice rising. "You actually—you want to win?" Arthur could look at him again with no problems at all; sputtering incoherence didn't seem to have the same distracting effect. "Are you out of your head? I thought you were just being nice!"
Uther had paused; he looked at Merlin and ignoring him, said to Arthur, "And you imagine they will put him on the throne?"
Arthur looked at Merlin, all gawky elbows in his too-large servant's clothes. Merlin stared back at him somewhat murderously. "Well," Arthur said. "Not really, no. But he's one of only seven candidates, and that's more chance than none."
"And that's what you're risking your life for?" Morgana said. "Against those warriors?"
That was starting to get offensive. "They are flesh and blood like any other," Arthur snapped. "Father, if nothing else, we show our own people and those of the neighboring kingdoms that we are not afraid to pit our best against theirs—that we do not fear them."
Uther stood leaning on the back of a chair a moment and breathed out his wrath, which was a good sign, and after a moment he said, "I cannot like taking such a risk with you."
"There was no time to discuss the matter," Arthur said, by which he meant he would've let another knight of Camelot do it over his broken and ice-cold corpse. "I doubt they would let Merlin make a substitution now."
"Uther, you can't seriously be thinking of letting this go on," Morgana said. "You don't even know what the challenge entails—we barely know anything about the elven kingdom at all!"
"Morgana, your caution is not unmerited," Uther said, "but at times it is the duty of a king not only to guard what is already his, but also to reach out for what might be, in the service of his people." He nodded to Arthur. "You have been able to keep a clear head in the face of these elven bewitchments, when many were befuddled; this is an opportunity, and one which ought to be pursued."
Merlin managed to find his voice again. "In case I haven't mentioned it loudly enough, I really don't want to be king of the elves!" he yelled.
Uther turned back and glared at him. Merlin paled a little.
"I—I'd be a really terrible king?" he said, more quietly, and looked at Arthur pleadingly.
"Honestly, Merlin, you'd think someone was asking you to go to the executioner's block," Arthur said. "I'll tell you what to do, if you're that hard up how to manage."
Morgana stood up, eyes flashing. "I don't believe you!" she snapped at Arthur. "You'd force Merlin into this, for your own advantage—"
"For Camelot!" Arthur snapped back.
"Camelot has been doing just fine without meddling into the affairs of the elven kingdom!" Morgana said.
"The elven kingdom has now seen fit to meddle into our affairs," Uther said. "Turnabout seems only fair." He looked Merlin up and down one more dismissive time, then turned to Arthur. "See what you can do to make him a more plausible candidate."
Arthur nodded, and Uther left. Morgana made a noise of fury and swept from the room after him.
"All right," Arthur said, and took Merlin by the arm. "Come on—I can see this is going to take some doing."
"No, it's not, because I'm not doing it!" Merlin said.
"Yes, you are," Arthur said.
"No, I'm not!" Merlin said.
"Please can we stop now?" Merlin said, plaintively and muffled, as Arthur shoved yet another tunic over his head. He'd dug back into chests with his old feast clothing, about six years back now, and he was finally starting to find things that didn't hang on Merlin like he was a scarecrow. They were all ridiculously short in the wrist and waist and legs, but the shoulders fit, and a seamstress could add some bands of fabric more easily than make wholly new things.
Arthur pushed Merlin back to arm's length and studied the effect critically. "Well, you're certainly not going to win any prizes for beauty, but at least you won't be a disgrace."
"Yes, I will," Merlin said, waving his arms. "Arthur, you're not serious about this?"
"Of course I am," Arthur said. "Did you think I just jumped out there and committed myself and Camelot without thinking?"
"Yes," Merlin said. Arthur scowled at him, and then went to stick his head out into the hallway and shout for someone to bring the palace tailor. "Arthur, look, you can't ask me to do this! I don't even know these people. I don't want to know them, much less become their king, and they've made it pretty clear they don't want me."
"Of course they aren't happy," Arthur said dismissively. "I'm sure each of them has their favored candidate, and you just made the odds worse."
"Their king didn't even want to acknowledge I existed," Merlin said.
"Well," Arthur said, and stopped; Merlin was staring at the floor, an odd sort of twisted-up expression on his face. Arthur went to him and took Merlin by the shoulders and made him look up. "All the more reason to prove how mistaken he was."
Merlin looked at him, and a little warm color came into his face. Arthur felt suddenly odd and breathless, and Merlin's eyes seemed all at once very deep and dark blue again. Merlin put his hands on Arthur's, where they rested on his shoulders, and they stood there in silence, looking at each other, until a knock came on the door. The tailor looked in, hesitantly. Arthur let go and stepped back, clearing his throat, and gestured. "Can you do something with this?"
The result wasn't completely nightmarish by the time they stepped out onto the field behind the castle the next morning. The blue-and-silver tunic suited Merlin, and Morgana had grudgingly let Guinevere help, so his hair had been beaten into capitulation and was lying smooth. "Congratulations on having your sacrificial lamb properly decked out," Morgana sniped from her seat behind them.
"Good luck," Gwen whispered, with a smile.
"Thank you, Guinevere," Arthur said, loftily, and ignored Morgana entirely.
Eldren stepped forth onto the field and said, "The first challenge shall begin. Let the champions of Lord Verhaien and Lady Meraudis enter the lists, remembering that you may bear into the circle only that which your candidate gives you, before the eyes of the assembled witnesses."
The two champions stepped forward with their candidates, and then started—taking off their clothes. Arthur stared.
"Well, Arthur," Morgana said, as more and more skin was revealed, "at least your subjects will gain a new perspective on you from this tournament."
He turned and glared at her speechlessly, then looked back as the crowd's noise rose abruptly. Lord Verhaien's champion was a woman. She'd just taken off her shift. Her breasts were, er, rather remarkable.
Merlin was gawking next to him, too. Then Lord Verhaien stepped up to his champion and held his hands over her shoulders and spoke some strange mysterious words. A shimmering silver light spilled from his hands, pouring over her shoulders and down her body past her waist. It firmed into a mail shirt, sleeveless, low at the neck, and going to mid-thigh.
Some of the elves applauded. Next to them, Lady Meraudis had just draped her champion in a simple black tunic, and now was doing something peculiar with her hands that was making a sword take shape out of thin air.
"Merlin," Gwen said abruptly, behind them, as the two champions stepped into the fighting ring. Arthur was trying to find someplace to look that wasn't the woman's almost bare legs or the opening at the neck that reached nearly to her waist.
"Yeah?" Merlin said vaguely.
"Merlin, does this mean Arthur can't wear any armor, or take in a sword, unless you—make it?"
Arthur stopped watching the fight and turned to stare at Merlin, who was staring back at him in horror.
"Actually," Morgana said, "unless you can spin clothing out of the air, it looks as though he can't wear anything at all."
"Shouldn't we go and speak to Lord Eldren about your pulling out?" Merlin said urgently.
"Shut up and start practicing," Arthur said, dragging Merlin behind him into his pavilion on the tournament grounds.
"What exactly are you expecting him to do?" Morgana said, following them inside.
"He's half-elf!" Arthur said. "It stands to reason he's got to have some magic in him. Start trying!" he added to Merlin.
"It's not like he was born knowing how to use it!" Morgana said.
"I really think maybe you ought to withdraw," Merlin said. "I could run away somewhere, perhaps—"
Arthur wheeled on him and shoved him up against the main support of the tent. Merlin stared at him. "We are not going to withdraw from the challenge and humiliate all of Camelot before the elven court. If it means I have to go out there and wrestle their champions naked, I damned well will!"
"There's a charming plan," Morgana said. "Arthur! Hasn't this gone far enough? When you're pressing Merlin to do sorcery—"
"You, get out!" Arthur said, and yanked back the flap of the pavilion pointedly. Morgana threw up her arms and left. He turned back to Merlin and waved a hand. "Now—do something!"
Merlin just stood there a moment, and then he said, "Arthur—if—if I did use magic—and then we don't win—"
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Merlin, I'm not expecting miracles of you. I'd settle for a shift at this point. I can get a weapon away from my opponent, they can't stop that."
"That's not what I meant," Merlin said. "I mean if we don't win the crown. If I'm—if I use magic, in front of everyone, then I can't—I'd have to leave Camelot, afterwards. Forever."
Arthur paused. Merlin wasn't quite meeting his eyes, flicking a glance up and then away. There was a cold pallor in his face, the first thing that had made him look anything like the other elves at all.
Arthur said after a moment, "No. You won't."
"But—the king," Merlin said.
"I have named myself your champion," Arthur said. "If you were to be charged with a crime, I would have the right to defend you in trial by combat, and not even my father can deny me that. If, on the other hand," he added pointedly, "you could use magic, and you sent me into a battle stark naked instead—"
"I don't want to send you into a battle at all!" Merlin said. "You're Camelot's prince. You shouldn't be risking yourself in this quarrel."
"It's too late for that," Arthur said. "Besides, this is for Camelot."
"This is for you to show off like the tremendous prat you are," Merlin said.
"Has it already been that long since the last time we had a conversation about proper forms of address?" Arthur said.
Merlin folded his arms. "If I'm an elven prince now, I think I can call you anything I like."
"Oh, is that what you think," Arthur said, stepping closer, and Merlin swallowed and then Gwen pulled open the pavilion flap and said, "Arthur! They're calling you—I mean, they're calling Merlin, but his champion, so they're—"
"Right," Arthur said grimly, and followed her out to the field.
Prince Ardhiel and Sir Dianys were leaving the field, the knight in full glittering armor with a bloodstained spear in his hand that almost seemed to glow. The other champion was being carried from the field, with one of the other candidates, a lady, anxiously following the bier away.
On the other side of the ring, Lord Ealdros, the other knight, was already stripping. His skin was oddly marked with black tattooed lines, but Arthur was more concerned that he looked near seven feet tall. Arthur turned to Merlin as he started taking off his armor. "Try for mail first, then a sword, then a shield. All right?"
"I've never done anything like this," Merlin said, low, unbuckling Arthur's shoulder-guard and lifting it off. He was casting anxious looks across the ring. The candidate, Lady Imantia, was chanting words in a clear ringing voice, and a huge double-handed broadsword was shaping out of nothing in front of Ealdros.
"Merlin," Gwen said, as she helped lift off the hauberk and held her arms out for Arthur's chainmail, "my father always used to say, mail's just making a single link, over and over. If you can just make one good link—" She trailed off doubtfully, also looking over at the elven knight.
"Right," Merlin said, swallowing. "One good link."
Arthur put his swordbelt on top of the pile of armor in Gwen's arms, feeling naked already. "You'd, um—better go, er, put that away," he said to her.
Gwen blinked at him, and then Arthur pointedly started untying the laces of his shirt, and she blushed. "Oh, right! Yes. I'll—go do that," and turned and fled.
"Is Morgana watching?" Arthur muttered, pulling his shirt off.
"—no?" Merlin said.
"You're lying, aren't you," Arthur said.
"Yeah," Merlin said apologetically. "Sorry. Everyone's watching, actually. Even the elves."
"Wonderful," Arthur said, heeling off his boots. "Are you ready? I don't feel like showing myself off for an hour here."
"I don't think they'd give me that much time anyway," Merlin said.
Arthur pushed his breeches down and stepped out of them. There was a smattering of applause behind him. Probably Morgana had organized it, he thought bitterly. He stood in front of Merlin and Merlin tentatively put his hands on Arthur's shoulders. He took a breath and shut his eyes and said, "Liadro," and something cool and small shaped on Arthur's shoulder—a single link.
"Not to be discouraging, but—" Arthur said.
"Oh, just shut up," Merlin said, and then he looked at Arthur and a sudden wash of gold flared in his eyes, like sunlight. He said again, with intensity, "Liadro," and mail was suddenly spilling down Arthur's shoulders, links flaring into existence one after another, traveling down his arms to the wrist, reaching to the knee and even a coif forming around his neck. It was so snug the links clung to him like stretched wool, but they didn't catch on his skin at all—he barely even felt the weight.
"Are you making these things out of cobwebs?" he said dubiously, rubbing a bit of the sleeve between his fingers.
"If you want to take it off and go in naked after all," Merlin began.
"Make me a damned sword already," Arthur said. The crowd was silent behind them, waiting.
Merlin bit his lip and tried—the golden light flared in his eyes again, and then faded; he tried two or three different magic words. Lord Eldren cleared his throat, pointedly. Arthur muttered, "Try a dagger, if it's too big."
"No, it's not that—it keeps shoving in, trying to come, but I didn't make it, so I don't think it's allowed," Merlin said, making no sense, and then he frowned hard and said, "Cetros," and shaped a mace out of the air instead.
"Perfect," Arthur said, snatching it—as light as the mail, and the whole thing shone like it had been washed in gold—ridiculously showy, but it was a damned sight better than anything else Arthur had been hoping to get. It might even work better than a sword—Lord Ealdros didn't have mail, or a shield, and with that massive reach, Arthur was going to want to keep a good space clear around him.
"Wait!" Merlin said, and grabbed Arthur's shield-arm with both hands, even as Eldren called, "Let the champions enter the ring!"
"Be careful," Merlin said, and Arthur stepped away from him with a golden shield on his arm, a cup emblazoned in silver on the front of it.
There was a low swelling murmur from the elves as he entered the ring drawn on the grass in glowing lines of magic, and Lord Ealdros narrowed cold green and orange eyes at him. "You will regret your effrontery," he hissed as they closed, and moving quick as a snake swung the blade down at him with both hands.
Arthur would really have liked a less urgent first test for the shield, but it held against the blade, even though the impact nearly drove Arthur to his knees. Sparks skittered as the edge slid off and scraped down Arthur's mailed arm, and then Ealdros was having to fling himself back to avoid the whirl of the mace.
Arthur kept it going over his head: Ealdros was tall enough he couldn't come in under it. "Merlin has as much right before the throne as your lady," Arthur said.
"The only right he has," Ealdros said, "is to watch you bleed for his insolence, in claiming the chalice for his sign." He dived to the ground and swung the blade at Arthur's knees. There wasn't time—damn, but he was fast!—for Arthur to do anything but throw himself forward and away. And then keep rolling—the blade came down again before he even had a chance to regain his feet, and once more bare inches away.
Arthur took a chance and swung the mace around the blade as it stabbed into the earth, then used his whole body for leverage to jerk it from Ealdros's hand. It went flying loose, sliding across the grass, and Arthur rolled up to his feet and lashed the mace right into Ealdros's face, keeping between him and the sword.
Ealdros crouched, hissing, and then abruptly the air around him flared, and his body seemed almost to come apart—
"What the bloody hell!" Arthur said, and then there was a damned tiger in the ring with him, and it leaped right for his head. Arthur barely managed to fling the shield up, and its claws scraped horribly at the metal, a shrieking noise.
Arthur fighting Ealdros, by trolleys
Its weight forced him to his knees, and it clawed at him with a hind leg, snagging on the mail. Arthur was having to use both hands to keep the shield up, to hold it off him. He clenched his jaw and managed to get one knee up to brace the lower corner of the shield. It gave him just enough room to swing the mace, even if only in just a really pathetic sort of half-arc. However, under the circumstances, he didn't feel even the slightest compunction about aiming for where it would do the most good.
The tiger screamed in a human voice and rolled away curling up around itself, and Arthur staggered up. Blood was trickling down his legs, where the claws had gotten at his flesh. He shoved the mace into his belt and picked up the broadsword and went over warily. He hesitated—he felt like an idiot talking to a tiger, but he put the blade at its throat and said, "Yield, or you die."
"No! No, he yields!" Lady Imantia cried from the sideline, and threw herself into the ring and onto the tiger. Arthur had to jerk the sword up and out of the way just to keep from cutting her by accident. The tiger shuddered and turned back into Ealdros, who glared at him full of hate as Imantia helped him limp out of the ring.
All the court of Camelot was cheering wildly, women waving kerchiefs at him, and Arthur raised a hand to them before he stepped off the field. Even his father was smiling, that broad, satisfied look he almost never got. Merlin, on the other hand, was just standing there at the side of the ring looking deeply relieved, as if he was astonished Arthur had managed to avoid getting himself killed. "Don't look impressed or anything, just because I defeated a terrible magic-wielding elven warrior," Arthur snapped.
"As if you need any encouragement. We need to clean that," Merlin said, tugging Arthur into the pavilion and kneeling down to look at his leg. "I can make greaves for the next round." His hands were warm on Arthur's calf, and then he put his hand over the clawed gashes and whispered, "Fealnoth." A wave of coolness washed over Arthur's leg, and then up and over his entire body, like a sudden breeze in the heat of summer: the pain of the gashes eased and every muscle unwound, sweat and grime and aches all gone at once.
Of course, so was the armor. Merlin was still on his knees in front of him, looking up. Arthur stared down at him, trying to think, and then Gwen ducked under the tent flap with a jug of water, saying, "Your highness, they're going directly into the next—" She stopped, and said faintly, "Oh! I—sorry, I didn't—I—" and fled. A moment later, she lifted the very bottom corner of the tent flap and set the water down just inside, without looking in again.
Arthur drank most of it straight from the jug while Merlin bandaged up his leg, and then wrapped himself in his cloak to go out and watch Sir Dianys finish beating the hell out of the last of the seven champions who hadn't yet fought, another woman. What the hell was on with these lords choosing women to stand for them, Arthur damned well wanted to know; were they all a pack of cowards?
Dianys certainly wasn't letting it hold him back; the spear flashed forward like a snake, and came back dripping blood once, twice, three times; then the other champion stumbled, and Dianys swept her legs out from under her with the butt of the spear, then came to a stop with the tip at the hollow of her throat. She raised her hands, yielding, and Dianys helped her up.
Merlin came out to arm him again: this time he put his hands lightly on Arthur's shoulders and slid them slowly down his whole body, shaping the armor directly onto him. Arthur stared straight ahead the whole while, trying not to think about what Merlin's hands were doing on his legs at that minute, and out of the corner of his eye caught Dianys and Ardhiel watching from their pavilion. The other elves were watching also, silent but intent, where before they hadn't even merited that much attention.
Arthur looked across the field and belatedly realized he was going to be facing the winner of the first bout, Lord Verhaien's champion, the woman—Lady Rienlis. "Merlin!" Arthur hissed down at him.
"What?" Merlin said absently, finishing the greaves.
"Stop it, take it off me; I can't face a half-naked woman while I'm in full armor."
Merlin sat back on his heels and glared up at him, outraged. "I am not undoing all of this!"
"Yes, you are!" Arthur said, and went to tug off the gauntlets, except they wouldn't come off. "Fix this!" he said, waving a hand in front of him.
Merlin stood up and folded his arms. "No!"
"Then I'm not going out there!" Arthur said.
"Fine with me," Merlin said. "I don't want to be king."
Arthur glared at him. "It's not fair."
"It wasn't fair Ealdros turning into a tiger and trying to eat you last time, either!" Merlin said. "Maybe she's not wearing armor for a reason."
"But—" Arthur said, and looked over at her. She was wearing her own thin silvery mail shirt, and sweeping two narrow blades in flashing patterns around her. "Dammit, Merlin, look at her, she's half my weight."
"I don't care!" Merlin pushed the mace into his hands again, and the shield.
"What is this, anyway?" Arthur said, jerking his chin at the cup on the front of it. "Ealdros had a fit over it."
"I don't know, I didn't put it there on purpose, I just wanted a shield for you." Merlin put his hands on the shield, but the cup stayed, even when he glared at it golden-eyed. "It's like the sword, it just—it wants to be there."
"What sword?" Arthur said, but Eldren was calling them into the ring.
Arthur stumbled out again ten minutes later and sank gratefully into the camp chair Merlin shoved under him. "And you wanted me to take the armor off!" Merlin snapped, jerking plates off him urgently.
"Shut up," Arthur said muffled, trying to get his nose to stop bleeding. "Ow!" he added, as Merlin wrenched off the heavily dented hauberk.
"Don't talk, sire, you'll make the bleeding worse," Gaius said, joining them, and gently pressed his fingers to everywhere on Arthur's body that hurt like blazes, which turned out to be a lot of them. Gaius shook his head. "You have a broken nose, a broken collarbone, and at least three broken ribs. The left shoulder is dislocated. Thank you, my dear," he added to Gwen, taking some cloths she'd brought him, and wiping blood from Arthur's legs. The mail had stopped Rienlis's blades, which was why he was still breathing, but she'd still managed to jab him twice in the thighs, just through the side-slits where the mailshirt opened to let him move.
"Let the champions of Prince Ardhiel and Emrys enter the ring," Lord Eldren announced, behind them.
Merlin jerked his head up. "Arthur's just come out of it!"
Eldren looked at him and said, coolly, "The challenge does not wait. Does your champion concede?"
"Like hell I do," Arthur said. "Gaius, put the shoulder back in, and wrap up my ribs." He looked across the way at Sir Dianys: Ardhiel was already adding more plate onto his armor, and he still had the bloodstained spear. "Merlin, can you make me a full breastplate? I'm going to need it against that spear."
"Be careful of it," Gwen said. "It's magic. I mean, it's really magic, not just—made out of magic. Oh, I'm not explaining right—Ardhiel didn't make Dianys's things himself, not all of them. Dianys already had a mail shirt on, and the spear, at the start of the first round, and Ardhiel just added on the plate."
"I thought that wasn't allow—ow!" Arthur yelled as Gaius shoved his shoulder back into its socket.
"Better with no warning," Gaius said apologetically. "I can't do much for the collarbone, and those wounds need to be bound up." He looked over. Eldren was coming towards them, his eyes narrowing. "Sire, are you certain—"
"Let me try," Merlin said. He stood in front of Arthur and put his hands on Arthur's chest again, fingers spread out, and the golden power rose in his eyes, shimmering.
Arthur swallowed. He was supposed to fear this, to loathe it, the idea that this sorcerous power was going to be touching him. Instead he was catching his breath waiting for Merlin to send it shining over him. Not three rounds of a tournament and a single morning gone, and already he wanted this like water.
Then Merlin gave it to him, pain fleeing before the cool wash of power like night yielding to the sun. Golden light poured into him like he was a cup to be filled, and Arthur felt his bones move, knitting together; his wounds closing up easily as doors being shut. He opened his eyes hazily, wondering when he'd closed them. Merlin was swaying down towards him, his eyes heavy-lidded and still golden, and Arthur stood up to hold his weight.
"Oh," Gwen said, in a stifled voice, and Arthur realized he was naked again, dammit, and also putting on a display.
"Merlin," he hissed, trying to turn his hips away from the stands. Merlin said half-drunken and grumblingly, "Yes, fine," and pushed armor onto him again in what Arthur felt was turning into a really slapdash way.
Eldren had pulled up short just a few steps away, watching them with sudden wariness. He cleared his throat now. "The challenge is called. Is your champion ready or no?"
"I'm ready," Arthur said, and tried to prop Merlin up against the chair: he'd gone drooping.
"Wait!" Merlin said, hauling his head up. "Why's Dianys get to use the spear?"
"Whatever may enter the ring is permitted," Eldren said. "The Spear of Luneth goes where it wills."
"That's not what you said before!" Arthur said. "So I could've just taken my sword—"
"Your mortal-forged blade would not be able to enter the ring," Eldren said contemptuously.
Merlin dragged himself straight and said, golden eyed, "Try this one, then," and grabbed Arthur's hand. He took it and plunged it into the wash-water basin Gwen was holding, the water still pink with blood.
"What are you doing—" Arthur said, but Merlin was shoving his hand deeper—deeper than the basin was, and Arthur's hand was brushing something cold and hard.
He put his hand around the hilt, and slowly drew the sword out, water spilling from the cross-brace and running down the blade like rain. Gwen stared wide-eyed at it, and down into the basin, which was looking just like a basin again.
"There," Merlin said, smugly, and fell over. Arthur barely managed to catch him with one arm, the sword in his other hand. Merlin clung to his shoulders and smiled up at him, dazed and stupidly happy-looking, and Arthur's mouth went dry as parchment.
"It's wet!" he made himself say, because otherwise—otherwise—
Merlin frowned at him. "It's been in a lake! Stop complaining." He pushed on Arthur's chest, which didn't do much good as he was still only being held up by Arthur's arm. "Now go win."
Arthur dumped Merlin into the camp chair, quickly, to make himself do it; he didn't want to let go. "Try and keep him from falling over and making an ass of himself, if that's possible," he told Gwen, and turned to face Dianys in the ring.
About thirty seconds into the fight, it became perfectly clear to Arthur that he was about to lose spectacularly. Dianys was being cautious—checking the range of Arthur's sword, probing his armor to find the weak spots. But that was all that was keeping it going. Arthur had tried a couple of passes, and Dianys made Ealdros and Rienlis look as though they'd been standing still. The spear darted faster than his eyes could even follow. If he tried to block it in one direction, it caught him entirely on the other side.
Grimly, he stepped back a few paces, getting some room, then tossed the helmet and the shield out of the ring, and pulled down his coif. He needed the speed and the broader field of vision more than the defense, if he was going to make this anything like a fight instead of a slaughter.
At least the sword settled into a two-handed grip comfortably. It felt better than good, right, and he had the absurd feeling it was happy in his hands; then Dianys was coming at him again. Arthur almost blindly struck back, going by instinct instead of thought. The spear and the sword clanged, and he'd blocked at least that one blow; he whirled the other way, letting the sword's tip lead him, and just missed Dianys's side on the backswing.
Dianys fell back a few steps, dropping into a crouch, and Arthur was glad for the room. At least he'd managed that much, put a blade on Dianys somewhere; even if he lost, it wouldn't be quite so humiliating. He flicked a quick glance back: Merlin had pulled himself together and was watching white-faced with Gwen and Gaius both holding on to him. It wasn't that bad, Arthur thought irritably, and then threw himself flat backwards as the spear came at him. In pure desperation he flailed a blow at Dianys's legs and rolled up to his feet, and then he was flat on his back again and wondering a little blankly how that had happened: he had lost a few seconds of time entirely. His ears were ringing, and the world had gone blurred.
The sword wanted to go left, so he got up and went left, moments before the spear slashed down. Arthur had a dazed thought that perhaps he should be making his own decisions instead of listening to a sword, but the twist he had to make to dodge the next spear-thrust left that idea and the rest of his head somewhere a few spaces behind him. The sword took him forward, into close quarters: Dianys was forced to take the spear into a two-handed grip and use it to block his blows, one and another and another, Arthur's shoulders aching with every impact as though he was in a forge hammering out dented armor, not fighting in a ring.
Dianys thrust the spear-haft between his legs, and Arthur went down again, but the sword led him through the roll and up. He spun back to strike the next thrust away, and on the return he lashed out a sweep that made Dianys leap back three paces. A low hissing gasp rose from the stands where the elves were sitting.
The sword wanted to go after Dianys at once, but Arthur could barely breathe; he dropped into a crouch, buying a little rest, and vaguely thought an apology at it. He felt thoroughly sick to his stomach from the head-blow: the price for taking off his helm. But he had the advantage in muscle weight on Dianys. If he could just—
The spear came flashing at his eyes, and Arthur dived under it, curling around the sword, and coming up slammed into Dianys body-to-body. He just kept going from there, driving back towards the edge of the ring. Dianys managed to bring a mailed fist up under his chin, snapping his head back, and hit him three body-blows with the haft, quarterstaff-style, to open up room between them. Each strike felt like an entire beating with iron bars.
Arthur just managed to keep his feet, swallowing down the vomit that was climbing his throat, and staggered back to the ring's edge while he tried to get his balance back. He didn't think his legs would carry him for another charge. His arms didn't even want to move enough to raise the sword, even with it clamoring at him wildly. Somehow he did it anyway, with the memory of drills long into the night when he'd been so tired he wanted to weep, and his father's voice saying to the swordmaster, "You underestimate his strength. Again, Arthur." It had been less impossible to do what he was ordered than let his father change his mind.
Slowly he brought the blade up to a waiting stance. Dianys had been closing in, but hesitated now and stopped several paces away. In his clear high voice he said, "You have fought bravely. Will you yield?"
Just the idea of being able to sit down felt like a treasure of priceless worth. Arthur settled his hands around the hilt. "No," he said.
Dianys stepped back a pace and shifted his hold on the spear into a throwing grip, hefting it lightly. "Arthur!" Merlin called out anxiously.
Dianys glanced at Merlin and looked back. "Once more will I ask," he said.
"And my answer is still no," Arthur said, through clenched teeth, waiting.
Dianys nodded, saluted him with the spear, and with two quick steps hurled it across the ring. Arthur was swinging the sword in an arc almost before the spear had left Dianys's hand, and he struck the haft as it flew towards him.
It was like—he had no words, nothing to compare it to. Maybe as though lightning had struck the ground at his feet. The world went soundless for a moment and full of white light, and he had to reach to the heart of himself just to keep standing. It felt like he was trying to heave a catapult-shell with his bare hands: the sword rang like a bell, and then he finished the arc, and knocked the spear aside. A few inches, no more: the head of it seared through his mail and drew a burning-hot line of blood across his arm, right at the level of his heart, as it flew on past him and skidded into the ground outside the ring.
There was utter silence, all around him. The sword continued on its arc, and he fell with it to his knees, one hand on the ground and only the blade propping him up at all. He was trembling like a fever had gripped him. He could barely imagine moving. Then his father—his father, who had never said a single encouraging word in any tourney he'd ever fought in his life, shouted, "Arthur! Arthur, get up!" Habit did what will alone couldn't, and Arthur clawed his way back up to his feet, braced on the sword. Blood dripped down his arm.
Dianys was standing only a few steps away, empty-handed now. He stared at Arthur and said, "The Spear of Luneth will never miss what it is thrown at."
Arthur stared back and heard himself say, "One who holds Excalibur may never be defeated, so long as his courage lasts." He shut his mouth on it in surprise, wondering where the hell that had come from, and looked down at the sword. At Excalibur, he supposed, and knew that what he'd said was true.
Arthur took another deep breath and lifted Excalibur chest-high, put the point at Dianys's throat and said, "Do you yield?"
Dianys inclined his head, graceful as a dancer even in the armor. "I do."
"Oh, thank god," Arthur muttered, letting the sword sink, and then he offered Dianys his arm.
Dianys paused. There was a low murmuring from the stands, and someone called out, "Dianys, inrahil!"
Dianys turned a suddenly cold face and said icily, "Idreath mehelin tannar?"
No one answered, and Dianys turned back and reached out and clasped arms with Arthur. Arthur glanced at the stands and said, "If they were telling you all you needed to do was give me one more good push, they were right, actually."
Dianys didn't actually smile, but he looked as though he just might have been willing to entertain the suggestion of possibly smiling at some moment ever. "The ring is not only a trial of arms, but of honor," he said. "I am not interested in half a victory." He nodded and stepped out of the ring, going to Ardhiel, and the stands exploded in cheering. At least, from the people of Camelot. The elves all seemed to have gone very quiet.
Arthur limped very carefully out of the ring, where Merlin promptly shook off Gaius and Gwen and lunged for him, so they ended up flat on the ground. "Ow," Arthur said, after a moment.
"No, ow," Merlin said, squashed under him.
Gwen gave him a hand, enough to help him up onto his knees. Eldren came over and looked down at them, his face very cold and stiff. Arthur didn't even try to stand the rest of the way up, but he raised his head. "Yes? Was there something else?"
Eldren glanced at him and then spoke to Merlin, who was still lying flattened on his back. "Your champion has been victorious in the ring. In the morning, the honor of going last shall be yours."
Merlin stared up at him. "Going last in what?"
"In the second challenge," Eldren said, and walked away.
Arthur stared open-mouthed after him. "That wasn't it?"
"I knew this was a bad idea," Merlin said, and let his head fall back.
Arthur spent the entire afternoon—well, the entire afternoon after he'd gotten back the strength to walk the distance from his pavilion back to his quarters—in a bath. Everything hurt. He thought a little longingly of asking Merlin to use the magic on him again, but Merlin had fallen asleep on the ground inside the pavilion and had needed to be carried into the castle like a sack of potatoes. He hadn't even stirred when Arthur had told the servants to dump him onto the bed.
Arthur settled for making a couple of the kitchen servants go in a constant round to and from his bath, taking out a bucket of cooled water and pouring in hot straight from the boiling cauldrons downstairs. After a few hours, he finally groaned and dragged himself to his feet, bright pink all over and still sore. The cut on his arm from the spear hurt like fire, even though Gaius had stitched and salved and bandaged it.
He had to sit in a chair to dry himself off, and it was enough of a struggle to lift his arms that he didn't even bother with the shift, just shoved Merlin further over on the coverlet and crawled between the sheets naked. There would be a feast tonight, of course; he was sure his father was going to want to get in some quality gloating. Any other time, Arthur would have been more than happy to join in, but at the moment he'd just as soon not have had to move again for a week. He'd close his eyes for a minute or two, that was all.
The light outside the windows was pearl-grey with coming dawn when he woke up deliciously warm, not sore anymore, with Merlin lying in his arms. Even the pain of the cut on his arm had faded. He pulled away the bandages and found a clean white scar, a single line. "Better?" Merlin murmured, sleepily.
"Much," Arthur said, and let his head tip back into the pillows. Then he belatedly noticed that he was naked and snuggling Merlin. "Did you take your boots off before you got under the covers?" he said, squirming hastily out of the bed before Merlin got any stupid ideas.
"I dunno?" Merlin said, raising his head and blinking owlishly out from the bedding. As it turned out, he had; Arthur nearly tripped over them on his way to getting hold of his shift, still lying draped over the foot of the bed.
"Well, come on," Arthur said, pulling the shift on over his head. "It's nearly morning, we've slept the night through. I have no idea why no one came to get us for the feast." Then he looked and noticed that the furniture in the room had been rearranged: it was piled in front of the door, bracing it shut. He frowned and looked at Merlin.
"I didn't do it on purpose?" Merlin said, defensively.
Arthur rolled his eyes. "If you're trying to stay in my father's good graces, that wouldn't be how. Now clear the door."
Merlin looked at the furniture. His eyes shone, brilliant in the dark room, and the furniture obediently slid back into its places. "Do we have to get up yet?"
Arthur had a brief flash of getting back into that bed with Merlin and the golden light curling warm around him, and he swallowed and turned away to pour himself a cup of water. "Yes," he said over his shoulder. "And you need to wash, you can use the bath there."
Merlin groaned a little and finally crawled out of the bed. Arthur realized too late that he was about to get a show, and he hurriedly went to go to the window to look outside while Merlin stripped off his clothes and climbed into the tub from the night before. "Mialthos," Merlin said, and Arthur looked around to see steam rise up from the tub. Merlin sighed and let his head tip back.
"Could you always do that?" Arthur said indignantly.
"Yes?" Merlin said drowsily.
"And why was I bathing in cold water all February?"
"Er," Merlin said, opening his eyes and looking warily at Arthur. "You said the kingdom was low on firewood, not to use any for—"
"You don't seem to be," Arthur said.
"Well, how would I have explained it?" Merlin said.
"You could've tried the truth," Arthur said.
Merlin looked away, his shoulders curling in. "The truth would've meant—having to go," he said quietly.
Arthur hesitated and said, "There are courts where kings pay sorcerers."
Merlin said, "They're not Camelot."
A timid knock came on the door while Merlin was drying before the fire: the tailor, with another altered tunic. Arthur put on a tunic himself this time instead of his mail, but he still belted on Excalibur. His hand liked to rest on the hilt, or possibly the sword liked his hand on it. Gwen came to help, whispering to Arthur, "Your father wants to see you," as she hurriedly whisked their hair into place and tugged them both straight with quick efficient strokes.
Uther turned as they came into his quarters, and he gripped Arthur by the shoulders with that smile he wore only when he couldn't help himself. "Are you recovered?" he said, shaking Arthur a little.
"Elf magic does seem to be good for a few things," Arthur said, glancing at Merlin.
Uther looked coldly at Merlin, who swallowed and looked nervous. "And you have taken no ill effects from being subjected to it?" he asked Arthur. "You are certain?"
"Yes, father," Arthur said, and carefully didn't mention that actually, it was the sort of thing he could get used to. "Father, yesterday after the tourney, Eldren said there would be another challenge this morning, but nothing about it—"
Uther shook his head. "They are damned close-mouthed," he said. "All their conversation at dinner last night was nothing but fine words and no substance behind them."
"Maybe they've guessed that you're trying to put a puppet on their throne and find the idea objectionable," Morgana said, sweeping in.
"That is enough, Morgana," Uther said.
"I, on the other hand," she continued without pausing, "had an extremely illuminating chat with Sir Dianys yesterday. I don't suppose it occurred to either of you to wonder just why all the other champions are of opposite gender to the candidates?"
Arthur frowned. "They aren't. Dianys is Prince Ardhiel's champion, and they're both men."
"Dianys is a woman, you ass," Morgana said.
"Dianys is not a woman!" Arthur said. "I think I would know, seeing how I fought him yesterday morning."
"And I think I would know better," Morgana said, "seeing how I bathed with her last night."
They all stared at her.
"And she very kindly explained," Morgana said, folding her arms, "that the champion of the victorious candidate becomes the royal consort." She tilted her eyebrows at Arthur. "They were a bit surprised when you jumped into the running. But don't worry. I'm sure you'll make a really wonderful Queen of the Elves."
After a moment, Merlin ventured, "Does this mean I can be let out of this now?"
"No!" Arthur said.
"I'm really flattered you want to marry me," Merlin said, "but I don't think it's a very good idea!"
"That is not funny!" Arthur yelled.
"I really must disagree," Morgana said.
"Morgana!" Uther roared.
"Don't bellow at me!" Morgana said. "I'm not the one who let greed and pride run away with him. I told you not to leap into something you didn't understand—"
There was a knock at the door, and they all stopped talking as Gwen looked in. She curtseyed, nervously, and said, "I'm sorry, your majesty, but the elven court is assembling outside and going to horse. I think they're planning to begin the next challenge somewhere else on the grounds."
"Arthur—" Merlin said.
Arthur grabbed Merlin by the scruff of the collar. "We're going!" he said. "We'll—figure something out later. If there weren't some way out of it, they wouldn't have let us do it in the first place."
He towed a protesting Merlin all the way out of the castle. The elves had assembled in the courtyard and were riding out—without warning or explanation to anyone else, naturally, so most of the court of Camelot was milling confused in the courtyard watching them. "Sire!" Sir Kay said, catching Arthur as he came out. "I've ordered a guard for you: the men are getting into their armor."
"Good man," Arthur said, and pushed Merlin at his horse.
They rode out after the elves to the edge of the forest behind the castle, where the trees were kept cleared back for a hundred yards to offer no cover to a besieging foe. The elves settled themselves in a half-circle on the grass as though they were ready for a picnic, leaving the other side for the court of Camelot. In the center Eldren stood with seven other elves, men and women all in green clothing, most of them with green hair and eyes, so they almost blended into the trees. Each one of the elves had a seed in their hands—oak, holly, birch, rowan, mistletoe, hawthorne, and apple.
Eldren said, "Lady Meraudis, first choice is yours," and she stepped forward.
"How does losing the tournament get you first choice?" Arthur muttered under his breath, glaring at Eldren.
Meraudis chose the rowan seed and knelt to plant it in the ground, then stood back and raised her hands. Nothing happened for several minutes. She had luridly pale skin, almost tinged with blue, and it flushed purplish along her sharp-planed cheekbones as she stood there straining, before finally the ground quivered. A tiny green sapling poked out of the earth and began to grow straight up. Her mouth was open, heaving breath, as the smooth narrow trunk climbed higher and higher, until it stopped a little over her head and put out a few tentative and feathery green-leafed branches.
The others all went in order, until finally Ardhiel stepped forward and hesitated a moment before he took the apple seed, leaving only the acorn behind. The others had all managed to bring up saplings, some of them smaller than others; the mistletoe Verhaien had grown was only a small bundle of twigs in the branches of the birch tree, but the elves had all applauded it, apparently because it had a few actual berries on it.
Ardhiel's green hair seemed to move without wind as he stood with his hand over the apple seed, and the sapling sprang out of the ground almost at once. He didn't look as though he was struggling, just quiet concentration on his face as the tree climbed steadily up, putting out branches and leaves and flowers. The smell made Arthur want to lie down and nap in the sunlight, preferably not alone; it spoke of summer beginning, and then of something richer as some of the flowers curled in, leaves broke out in five shades of green and small fruits began to appear. They grew, like watching all summer passing before their eyes, apples shading to golden, just touched with a faint red blush.
Ardhiel stepped back and left the tree there with fruit and flowers and leaves heavy on its branches all at the same time, at the center of the line of saplings, and inclined his head to the applause. Arthur looked at Merlin, who got up and went slowly to the last elf, a tall, hard-faced man who held the acorn in his hands.
The elves were all murmuring to each other now, watching him, and though they were speaking in their own language, Arthur didn't need to understand the words to catch the tone: a little amusement and a good deal of sneering. Merlin knelt down and put the acorn on the ground, not really buried so much as pressed into the dirt, and he stood and stared down at it with a kind of baffled look on his face.
Arthur went over to him—if anyone wanted to stop him, he thought, they could try. "What are you doing? Just make it grow!" he hissed.
"It doesn't want to!" Merlin hissed back. "It's not an ordinary oak, it's odd. It's not ready."
"So give it more time! That apple tree looks ten years old," Arthur said.
"But—" Merlin said, helplessly, looking down at it, and then he said, "I think it wants a winter."
Arthur poked him. "I did not nearly get myself killed by a woman yesterday so you could stand here and flub growing a tree."
"I'd like to see you do it!" Merlin hissed at him, and then he held his hand over the acorn and focused his eyes. Abruptly Arthur's breath was hanging white and cold in the air, and the grass around the acorn was frosting white and curling small upon itself, crystal flakes of ice making a white rime upon the earth.
It was there only for a few moments, and then gone, and then the acorn was stirring a little. The husk split open, and the cap fell off as a tiny green seedling poked its way out, and roots began to crawl like pale skinny worms into the earth. It stretched up a little, and then its leaves went yellow and red and brown and fell off. A titter of laughter went around behind them.
"Merlin!" Arthur hissed.
"Shut up!" Merlin said, and his voice sounded odd; Arthur looked at him and saw the tendons standing out on his neck. "This isn't—easy."
The frost was glimmering white on the ground again, on the bare dark wood of the sapling, and then it was melting anew; small buds came out and broke into fresh green growth, a couple of branches unfolding themselves. It wasn't growing like the other trees had, in a fervent burst of energy; instead it inched up, then went a little further, then stopped and put out a few leaves more. The leaves darkened again and fell again; the frost returned; the tree climbed higher still, and they had to step back to give it a little bit of room.
Merlin had both his hands outstretched now, as though he were holding not just the tree but the very air around it in his arms. It was a four-year oak now, just beginning to be a real tree. Merlin stopped and gulped for breath, dropping his hands, then he reached his hands out again and his eyes went molten, and the tree began to grow.
Merlin and the oak, by trolleys
The frost swept over, like the blink of an eye, and then spring and summer once again. The grass beneath the tree died with it, and rose again at the same time. The laughter had stopped now, even as the leaves went red and curled up into death once more. The years started to go in stuttering blinks, and Arthur had to put his hands on Merlin's shoulders and draw him back from the tree as it grew: Merlin's eyes looked almost blind with power, and his skin glowed warm under Arthur's touch.
The trunk was thickening, branches spreading out; the leaves when they turned became a red Arthur had never seen, a furious blazing crimson flashing for a moment before blurring into brown and back to green. Insects buzzed briefly amid the leaves, and a pair of small birds darting out of the forest dipped and landed on the branches. In a blink there was a nest, and eggs, and then small cheeping mouths; then five birds flew out and back into the trees.
The oak was taller than the rowan now, and even the birch; the bark furrowing into ridges as it climbed. Another year, and another, and it was higher than the apple tree. More spun by, and acorns were dropping from its leaves, and then another year slid past and the ground beneath the tree was stirring as a few tiny new saplings began to squirm themselves out of the earth.
"The hand of past and future," one of the elves said, behind him, a low hiss that meant nothing to Arthur, and then Merlin shuddered and was falling into Arthur's arms. He caught Merlin up and lifted him, and carried him away from the spreading oak as it stretched its leaves to the sunlight.
Merlin looked different in his arms. His skin seemed almost to be glowing, as though that golden light had taken up residence inside him, and there were reflections gleaming off his black hair that didn't disappear when Arthur got him inside and out of the sunlight. He murmured in Arthur's arms, one hand clutching at Arthur's tunic.
Arthur kicked open the door to his room and lowered Merlin to the bed. Gwen was right behind him, anxious, with water in a jug. Merlin wasn't quite unconscious: he pushed away the cup with a hand and shifted restlessly against the sheets, something almost painfully graceful about the feverish movements.
"What's happening to him?" Gwen said.
"Get me a cloth," Arthur said, and dampened it in the jug, wiping Merlin's face. But there were no traces of sweat, though Merlin arched into the cool touch.
"I'll get Gaius," Gwen said, and Arthur didn't stop her, although somehow he didn't want Gaius, for no reason he could have named; he let her go because he didn't want her there, either. He wanted to be alone with Merlin. And as the door closed, Merlin opened his eyes and looked up at him: looked up at him with gleaming three-ringed elven eyes, gold and blue and gold all together, shimmering.
"Your eyes," Arthur said, and stopped talking, because Merlin had reached up and cupped his face.
"Arthur," Merlin said, dreamy and urgent all at once, and Arthur swallowed.
"You're not yourself," he said, struggling to keep a level voice, and he reached out and tried to push Merlin's hand away.
Merlin frowned and didn't let go. Abruptly Arthur felt himself being drawn down to the bed as though by invisible hands, pulling him. He fell forward, catching himself just short of falling on top of Merlin, and jerked in surprise: his clothing was being taken off him. "Merlin!" he said. "Are you—what am I saying, of course you're doing this. Stop it, that's an order—" and Merlin laughed up into his face, and pulled him down to kiss.
It was like drowning in sunlight. His clothing was stripping off him quicker now, boots falling with thumps over the side of the bed; then he was being pushed over onto his back and Merlin was over him, naked, eyes wild and blazing with magic. Arthur felt his heart pounding, like being in the front rank at the start of a battle, watching the enemy advance. Except this was Merlin, stupid, ridiculous, utterly incompetent Merlin, with his stupid hair and his stupid nose, and his stupid mouth that was taking Arthur's again, in more of those terrifying kisses.
Arthur fell back against the pillows, gripping Merlin's shoulders, drinking magic from his mouth. He was going to—he was going to stop this. Merlin was obviously out of his head, and Arthur was going to push Merlin off and shake some sense into him. He broke away, struggling to catch his breath as Merlin kissed his throat, his jaw. Merlin's skin was shining through his fingers, so bright that the edges of Arthur's hands were limned with it, and Arthur couldn't get purchase on him: something terrible and great was building under his hands, power that whispered at him, wordless and uncontrollable.
"Arthur," Merlin whispered again, full of so much longing it curled into Arthur's stomach as though it was his own sensation, and maybe it was. Merlin's cock was brushing against his, hot and slick; Merlin was nosing softly at his face, and then with an oddly thoughtful air, he bit down on Arthur's lip. Arthur jerked, hot and coppery taste on his own tongue, to see the slick of crimson bright on Merlin's mouth, marking him, and Arthur's whole body shocked all the way through with something so far out of his experience it took him a moment to recognize it as pleasure.
"Merlin," Arthur gasped, and cried out aloud as Merlin bit him again, his cock jerking wildly as Merlin's teeth scraped across the thin sensitive scar upon his arm, as they tugged to the point of pain on his tightening nipples. Magic was sparking off Merlin's fingers and lips wherever they touched him, crackling like rubbed wool in winter, tiny flashes of electricity that brought Arthur's hips twisting and arching upwards off the bed.
It felt as though the laws of his body were being rewritten. Anything Merlin did was endlessly, dangerously good, like being so drunk that you could burn yourself without noticing. Merlin closed his mouth on Arthur's cock, teased him and sucked him; even delicately took a fold of skin between his teeth and bit. Arthur tried to stifle the noise against his own fist, shuddering as his cock jerked and the head left glistening streaks on his belly; his other hand was clenching into Merlin's hair, convulsively.
Merlin raised his head, eyes feverish and blazing, and pushed Arthur's legs apart, spreading him. Arthur couldn't get his breath, somewhere between terror and aching need; he'd never—but Merlin inside him, thrusting all this power crackling deep into him— Arthur shuddered and opened to him, helpless to resist, Merlin shining on him and over him, elemental and burning and gone past mortal, murmuring his name against his skin.
"Yes," Arthur said, "yes, Merlin—" and reached up and clenched his hands on the headboard as Merlin drove into him. For a moment there was nothing but savage, tearing pain; and then the magic was driving that and everything else away, crashing over him like oceanic waves, surging up into him and spilling everywhere. He screamed beneath it, because it couldn't be borne and had to be; because there was no bracing to meet it and no escape; and because it would end, and that would be even harder to bear.
He threw himself up to meet it as Merlin made wordless desperate cries and fucked him in stuttering bursts and jerks, both of them being driven towards something pure and impossible and terrible. "Merlin!" Arthur said, groaning and urgent. Merlin sobbed and pushed him open wider still, Arthur's thighs and back aching with the strain, and yes, that real and human edge of pain was what he needed, just that, and everything drew together into one single timeless moment that went on and on and on.
A thousand years later, or a minute, or ten; he was drifting, quieted in some essential way he'd never known. Merlin was saying, "Arthur?" in a broken, frightened voice, and that was the only thing that drew him back into his skin.
Arthur couldn't speak yet, but he touched Merlin's face, and mouth, and stroked his knuckles down Merlin's throat until some of the terror left Merlin's face. Merlin kissed his hand, and his wrist, and then bent almost dazedly to his mouth again. Arthur slid his hand into Merlin's hair—had it grown longer? he thought absently—and took long slow kisses from him, each one sweet as wine.
He was gradually beginning to return to himself enough to realize this was becoming ridiculously soppy, and then Merlin whispered, "Are you—are you hurt?" in a really offensive manner, as though he thought even talking too loud might be too much for Arthur to handle at the moment. Arthur did stretch just a little cautiously, because he could still feel the pounding; but there was only a faint delicious ache, like a memory of hard but satisfying work.
"No," Arthur said. "Now get me a bath," and shoved Merlin out of the bed.
Merlin conjured up a tub of truly ludicrous size, so there was no reason for them not to use it together while it was hot and the water fresh; although Arthur noticed after a little while that the water didn't seem to cloud or get dirty, even after they'd climbed in and scrubbed off with soap. The heat was soaking into his muscles, and he felt nearly weightless, wholly spent and satiated both. Although Merlin would keep flicking worried, anxious glances at him from the other end of the tub, as though he thought Arthur wouldn't notice if he did it quick enough.
"I promise you, Merlin, it would take a good deal more than your worst," he said irritably. "Stop peeping at me as though I were made of glass."
"Right, sorry," Merlin said, and peeked at him again five seconds later. "No, I wasn't—!" he said defensively, when Arthur glared. "That one wasn't for worrying, that was for—" He stopped and glowed a bit brighter along the cheekbones.
"Oh," Arthur said, and cleared his throat. He had his arms spread along the sides of the tub, and their legs were tangled together in the middle. He kicked Merlin in the shin. "Wash my legs."
He could see Merlin about to make one of his usual complaints, and then Merlin paused and got the soap instead. It occurred to Arthur, as Merlin's hands slid easily up his calves, fingers curling into the hollow of his knees, that possibly that hadn't been very wise. Or else it had been extremely wise. Yes, in fact, he was increasingly certain it had been brilliant.
"Is this—can I—" Merlin said.
"You know, Merlin, I'd be happy to reassure you that I can beat you unmercifully any time I like," Arthur said warningly, because that was quite enough in the way of interruption.
"No, that's all right," Merlin said hastily, and slid the soap further along Arthur's thigh.
Arthur let his head fall back against the tub, his breath quickening. He hadn't quite—looked at the details in his memory yet. Everything had been so shattering. They were beginning to come back to him now, though, with Merlin's fingers slipping over the tender inner skin of his thighs. Arthur hooked his leg around Merlin's back, drawing him in closer, his eyes shut as he remembered: the taste of Merlin's skin, mazed with sweat and magic both; the way Merlin's breaths had fractured as he'd pressed in; how they'd moved together, so nearly one, and the sound of his own voice. The sound of—
Arthur raised his head and said in dawning horror, "Merlin, did—before, while we were—did anyone—" He stopped and swallowed and said, "Did anyone try to come in—"
Merlin's hands froze as his expression slid to equally horrified. They both looked at the door. It was shut and barred, with the wardrobe and the chest slid in front of it, but—it looked as though perhaps someone had been—pushing. Arthur thought he vaguely remembered—
"Maybe it was Gaius?" Merlin said, in weak hope, but Arthur was unwillingly recalling the sound of armor and—yelling involved —
"Oh, God," Arthur said.
"I'm going to be put to death the instant we leave this room, aren't I," Merlin said, in calm terror.
Arthur did consider the option of simply staying in the room, forever; Merlin could probably magic food in to them, since he could grow oak trees in a day, and keep everyone out. "I don't suppose you can erase memories?" Arthur asked, without much hope.
"I—have no idea how to do that," Merlin said.
"Right," Arthur said. "Let's get the worst over with."
"Couldn't we—perhaps not, just yet?" Merlin said.
"No," Arthur said, and dragged himself up out of the water.
They had a fresh surprise when they were dry and dressed and could no longer put off opening the door: the hallway was empty, except for Sir Dianys standing outside with his—with her spear. She looked at them both up and down, then nodded and walked away without a word. Merlin blinked after her, puzzled. "What was that about?"
"She stopped them trying to break down the door," Morgana said, after they'd sneaked over to her quarters to find out just how bad the situation was. "You were being extremely loud," she told Arthur, with what he felt was cruel satisfaction. "Your father was about to call in the entire guard."
Merlin made a small terrified noise.
"Then she informed him you and Merlin were having it on," Morgana added, because she was utterly without a heart or soul, "and that it could kill both of you to interrupt, although more likely Merlin would just slaughter everyone who came in. If he didn't reduce the whole castle to ruins."
Arthur stared at her.
"Are you happy yet?" she said. "Still determined to put Merlin on the throne, or have you finally thought better of your brilliant plan?"
"It's too late for that!" Merlin said. "I have to win it now. I'm going to need an army."
Morgana gave him a sympathetic look, which Arthur thought was not really fair. "First you're going to need clothing," she said. "Dinner is in an hour."
Merlin magicked formal garments for them, in red and pale gold: the cup appeared on the surcoats again, this time with a dragon coiled around it, which couldn't have been more of a declaration if he'd thought it up on purpose for driving Uther to murder. "I can't make it go away," Merlin said evasively, though, and Arthur didn't press him. In some secret way he badly wanted to wear it. He belted Excalibur on, and they went down to the great hall. The doors opened before they touched them, and the elves nearby turned to look; for the first time a few of them inclined their heads as they went by.
Uther was in his throne already, his expression fixed and murderous, looking at Merlin. Arthur was fairly certain his father was only just restraining himself from drastic action because of the necessity of preserving face before an enemy host. Then Uther transferred the look to him, and it suggested that if Arthur had in fact spent the afternoon being thoroughly buggered by his poncy magic-using half-elf manservant, it would be best for all concerned if he didn't confirm as much anytime in the foreseeable future.
Dinner had all the warmth and easy conversation of a pitched battle during a midwinter blizzard. It wasn't improved by the several visits to the high table during the meal by elven nobles who came offering Merlin congratulations on having come into his power. Evidently he'd done something notable with the tree: they were calling him Lord Emrys now, and several of them mentioned the hand of past and future again, which Arthur gathered was some sort of special elven way of talking about magic. He didn't see how one sort of magic was different from another, but evidently the elves thought a good deal of this one, enough to make them polite.
Or their notion of polite, anyway, which Arthur wasn't finding an improvement. The whole night took a particular turn for the very much worse with the visit of Lady Soliris. "It has been a long time since there was a lord of past and future," she said, actually fluttering her lashes at Merlin, Arthur noted indignantly, and then she added, with an arch look at Arthur, "and I hear that you were blooded after in bed and not in battle—and with a mortal! Such control, for one so young."
"Er," Merlin said, faintly. Uther slowly turned his head to stare at Lady Soliris; he looked as though he didn't entirely believe she had actually said the words out loud. Arthur was feeling rather appalled himself; half the court of Camelot was in earshot and listening with all their might. Did the woman have no discretion at all?
The answer was evidently no. "As you have no House of your own," she went blithely on to Merlin, not even bothering to keep her voice low, "I thought perhaps I would mention that the House of Tienla would welcome you, if you have made no arrangements for this night before your final challenge. It is often said that an exercise of virile energies pleases the gods of the grove."
As he understood what she was saying, a wave of sudden rage made Arthur's hands clench. "Are you propositioning Merlin?" he snarled.
She blinked at him with her rose-pink and sapphire eyes, puzzled, and then her face cleared. "Oh, no, no," she said, and before he could draw a breath she explained, "Of course we invite you both." She then turned and waved a hand towards her table. There were perhaps two dozen elves assembled around it, men and women, all watching with active interest. Some of them raised their goblets.
A brief uncontrolled sound escaped Uther, for just a moment, and there was a creak where his hand gripped the arm of his throne. Arthur very carefully didn't look, even as he heard Morgana choking quietly on her wine on Uther's other side.
"Thanks but—" Merlin said a little squeakily, "but—" He stopped.
"He's going to be holding vigil," Arthur said, through his teeth. "Privately."
Lady Soliris smiled at him brilliantly. "Then I wish you both good fortune tomorrow in the grove," and glided away back to her table.
No more orgy invitations were issued during the meal, but the damage had been done. As the dishes were carried away and the tables emptied, Uther said to them flatly, "You will attend me in the council chambers," and swept up from his throne and away.
Arthur squared his shoulders and followed, ignoring Morgana's look, which very plainly said I'm sorry for you but if you had listened to me none of this would be happening. Uther said nothing before the doors were closed and even the handful of guards dismissed. "I hardly know whether to hope that you are under some unnatural influence, or have simply taken leave of your senses," he said to Arthur icily.
"You were as much for all this as he was!" Merlin said behind him, choosing precisely the worst moment to leap in.
Uther wheeled on him and snapped, "You will be silent! And as for you," he added, turning back to Arthur, "if you have forgotten the dignity you owe yourself, you will remember what you owe the kingdom. You will report to the captain of the guard for six lashes, and I trust that will prove sufficient reminder."
Arthur stiffened. "Yes, sire," he said. There was nothing else that could be said.
"If anyone touches Arthur, I'll kill them," Merlin said.
They both turned, and Arthur's plan to yell Merlin down before his father could start going died in his throat, because Merlin's eyes were blazing gold and there was murder crackling in the air around him.
"How dare you," Uther said. "The next time you speak out of turn—"
"What?" Merlin interrupted. "What do you think you can do to me, exactly?" Arthur had never really thought of Merlin as tall before: slope-shouldered and skinny, he would have said, and certainly no presence to speak of. But now he was drawing himself to his full height, magic a golden haze around him, caught beneath his skin and in his eyes and hair as though all his body was nothing but a fragile cage to hold it in.
Uther was momentarily speechless, and Merlin said, "You wanted this. You wanted power, and now you've got what you asked for, so don't you dare take it out on Arthur, or—"
"Or what will you do?" Uther snarled.
Merlin's eyes glittered. "Or else I will give him a throne higher than Camelot's, and you can find yourself another heir."
Arthur had enough time to experience the unutterably horrible thought that Morgana was right, and then he lunged between Uther and Merlin and grabbed his father's hand where Uther had started going for his sword.
"Merlin, shut up, and that's an order—and Father, stop—look, it's not his fault he's an idiot who can't hold his magic any better than his liquor!" Arthur said, improvising rapidly, and trying to make sure he blocked as much of Merlin from Uther's sight as possible. "He doesn't know what he's saying. What matters is the plan—our plan—is working. The elves wouldn't have gone respectful on us otherwise."
"Respectful?" Uther said.
"Granted, their notions of propriety leave much to be desired, but yesterday morning they couldn't be bothered to look at him, much less issue propositions," Arthur said. "At least some of them clearly now think he's become a serious contender for their throne."
"And having done so, he has evidently jettisoned all loyalty to the throne of Camelot," Uther snapped. "We are not trying to put him on the throne for his sake—unless your loyalties have also changed."
Arthur felt as though he'd been struck across the face. He let go of his father's arm and took a step back. "I have earned better than that from you," he said, after a moment.
"Arthur," Merlin said, behind him, softly.
"Damn you, be silent!" Arthur snarled, because the last thing he needed right now was anything like comfort. Uther's face was still hard and suspicious and angry. "Merlin will obey me," Arthur said, after a moment. "And I am Crown Prince of Camelot and your servant, until you choose otherwise. I have not failed in my oaths."
"And yet you have orders, and instead of obeying them you stand here before me, defending this traitorous sorcerer, who speaks of murdering for your sake, and giving you a crown untimely," Uther said.
"If you need me to bleed at your command to trust me, you shall have what you wish, my lord," Arthur said, bitterly. "I will not let Merlin interfere."
He turned and went for the door, seizing Merlin by the arm to pull him along. "I'm not going to—" Merlin started.
"If you love me, you will be quiet," Arthur said, shaking him, and Merlin fell silent as Arthur dragged him out into the hall and slammed the door shut behind them. "Now go to my quarters and bar the door, and you will bloody well stay there and keep out of any more trouble until I return."
"You're joking," Merlin said.
"I don't want an audience for a flogging," Arthur snapped, "and you are not killing the guards of Camelot for following orders."
"No!" Merlin said. "Arthur, this is unjust—you've done nothing—"
"I cannot serve Camelot if the king doubts me!" Arthur shouted at him. "Do you understand? You stand there in front of him and make clear that you and your power are at my command, not his. If I use that to refuse his orders, what use am I? What use can I ever be, if I will place my own judgment above the king's?"
"Your judgment's better than the king's!" Merlin said.
"Whether it is or not doesn't bloody well matter," Arthur said. "Two men cannot rule at once."
"All right, then let's go back in and tell him he can have me flogged!" Merlin said. "I'm the one he's really angry at—"
"You are not getting flogged," Arthur snapped. "It wouldn't do any damned good, anyway; you can't dictate to the king who can be flogged!"
Merlin folded his arms. "I bet he'd go for flogging me."
"So would I," Arthur said. "He wouldn't let me off, however, so stop being an ass." He turned and stalked away.
Merlin caught him up a few steps later. "I'm still coming with you," he said, a dangerous and final glitter in his eye.
Arthur told himself that was why he didn't argue, and not because—not because Merlin would probably heal him again, with more of the magic that was still glowing golden in him, throwing flickers of reflected light against the low curved ceiling of the passageway down to the guard station. The men rose when he came into the room, and threw uneasy glances at Merlin.
"Storrow, I'm to have six lashes," Arthur said, and clenched his jaw all over again as the captain's eyes widened. He'd taken floggings before, but not in years; he'd been sixteen the last time, not yet made knight. And then it had been for drunkenly trying to climb in at Lady Haldren's window, which would have merited a day in the stocks; and accidentally climbing in at her virgin daughter's instead, which would have gotten him married if the girl hadn't had a stupid and wakeful chaperone, who'd screamed at once instead of waiting until Arthur was in the bed.
His father had wanted to make an impression upon him; now also, Arthur supposed, but with no care for what it would do to the men, or how the knights would think—it would seem to them the king would flog them, too, if he'd do as much to the prince. Storrow was already looking unhappy, as well he might. Arthur had led him and these men into battle a dozen times the last few years; they took his orders, and lived and died by them.
"Choose a man for it, and have him put on the hood: there's no need for me to know his name. We'll use the grating in the lower dungeon; have him come there at once," Arthur said, the little he could do to make it easier on them all, and turned for the door without waiting: he wasn't going be led down to it.
They used the lower dungeon for longer floggings, usually; the ones for thieves and rapists. The grating was in a small room of its own instead of out in the hall, and behind enough of a door to muffle some of the screaming. Storrow came down himself, of course: he was a good man, and wouldn't have put this duty on anyone else, but he wore the hood, and that would be enough to let them all pretend.
Arthur took off his surcoat, folding the gold and red silk Merlin had given him, finer than any work of mortal hands; then his tunic and his shift, and took off his swordbelt, and laid them all upon the bench in the corner. There were rags in a bucket in the corner, for mopping; Arthur tied a few of them them around his waist to save his breeches from dripping blood. "All right," he said over his shoulder, to Storrow, and stepped up to the grating and put his wrists up.
Merlin was standing next to the grate watching darkly. He was still glittering with magic like a cloak, golden tendrils of it fraying off to curl possessively around Arthur's legs and wrists. Arthur could feel them like thin lines of warmth against his skin.
Storrow's hands were shaking a little as he closed the manacles, and he kept throwing looks at Merlin, nervously. Arthur ignored them both and gripped the iron bars. "Go ahead," he said, staring through the grating at the far wall, and braced himself.
But the blow didn't come; instead there was the whip-crack and then a muffled exclamation, and when he looked over his shoulder, the whip was in Merlin's hand. His eyes were blazing with furious light, and Storrow had backed up all the way to the wall. The mask hid his face, but not enough: the whites of his eyes were showing all around, through the eyeholes, and there was fear in every line of his body.
"Merlin!" Arthur snapped.
"I can't!" Merlin said, "Arthur, I can't—"
Arthur managed to twist around in the give of the manacles enough to give Merlin a savage glare. "Then you are going to leave."
"No!" Merlin said defiantly, and then his voice cracked. "Arthur, please. Please don't make me let this—let him—"
He sounded desperate. His hands were clenched on the whip, and his magic was glittering along its length, outlining it with gold in the dark room. Arthur stared at it, Merlin's need plucking at him as though he were a bowstring. In a voice he didn't entirely recognize as his own, he said, "Then you can give me the strokes."
Merlin was about to protest, and then he caught his breath and stared at Arthur, his eyes gone a little more wild, and Arthur added, "Guardsman, you will wait outside the door for witness: there will be six strokes."
"Yes, sire," Storrow said, voice shaking with relief, and was out the door almost before Arthur had finished speaking.
Merlin said, low and soft, "Arthur," and touched his bare back, his fingers trailing down over Arthur's skin like a promise, before he stepped back.
Arthur shut his eyes and pressed his forehead to the grating, trembling. "Begin," he said, harshly, and the lash cracked against his back; the tip, laced with golden light, curled over his shoulder and caught him across the chest.
The brilliant flash of pain went through him like a shock of cold water, and then the heat of the magic blazed in after it: the welt healed even before it raised, leaving only sensation behind to coil up heavy and liquid in his belly. Arthur clung on to the grating, trembling; if his jaw hadn't been locked, he would have moaned out loud. The magic murmured softly over his skin as it faded, a final caress.
"Arthur," Merlin said, "are—is this—"
"Don't talk," Arthur grated out, and Merlin stopped. The whip spoke, instead, and the second stroke drew another sweet, lingering line of fire all the length of his back. Arthur swallowed a whimper and turned his head to press his cheeks one after the other against the cool, blessedly cool bars of the grating. His cock was filling, straining hard against his trouser lacings.
Sweat had sprung up across his shoulders and was already dripping down his back. The lash slid as it struck the third time, wrapping around his side and landing furious and hot across his nipple. Arthur arched against the grating, shuddering with the effort to stay silent as the magic cooled the blow. The lines where the whip had touched him were still faintly marked, a shimmer beneath his skin where the magic lingered; his nipples were pebbled tight. He gulped for breath, almost a sob; he wanted—he wanted more than this; Merlin's hands on him, Merlin's mouth, Merlin's tongue tracing the marks —
The fourth blow seared up his chest, and the tip just barely stung him at the hollow of his throat, drawing one single drop of blood. Arthur felt it trembling on the ledge of his collarbone for a moment before it trickled down; then the bright spark of the healing magic flared, and he couldn't help a noise, something animal and desperate. The fifth blow came quickly on its heels, too soon to recover between, obliterating. Arthur jerked helplessly to where the manacles drew him up short, and a full cry broke from him, uncontrollable.
Merlin stopped, and Arthur threaded his fingers into the grating to hold himself up, trying to remember how to breathe. His hips were straining into the air, waiting for it. For the blow, and the hot pleasure that would come right after; waiting, and it didn't come, and didn't come, until finally he snarled out, savagely, "Finish it." The last stroke curled around his hips and wrapped over his cock before it slapped across his upper thighs, and Arthur came in a blinding rush.
He could barely see, much less make his tongue form words; his legs were trembling underneath him. "Tell him," he managed finally, "Tell him it's done." He heard the door open and then shut, and Storrow's hasty retreat down the corridor, and said, "Merlin, damn you, get over here now," and Merlin was there, jerking Arthur's lacings open, shoving his trousers unceremoniously down his thighs. Arthur clung to the grating, groaning desperately while Merlin fucked him. Merlin was pressed up against him, the silk clinging to Arthur's sweat-sticky back and thighs. Merlin was still dressed, was still—
Arthur came again, pulling wildly against the manacles as Merlin thrust up into him, nearly raising him off the balls of his feet, and Merlin groaned wordlessly and pressed his forehead to Arthur's shoulder as he came.
Shakily, a little while later, Merlin undid the manacles, and Arthur turned and dragged Merlin into his arms and kissed him, sliding his hands into Merlin's half-open trousers, cupping his ass and pulling him close. Merlin wound his arms around Arthur's neck and kissed him back urgently, as urgently as if they hadn't just—and Arthur found his own breath coming quicker and more desperate.
"Not here," he said, breaking away, and abruptly they were in his bedchamber, the clothing in a heap on the floor and Merlin clinging to him with dazed, golden eyes. Arthur stared at him, then said, "Right, good, that's better," shoved Merlin onto the bed, and climbed up onto him.
They never got around to closing the bedcurtains, which was just as well, as only the sun hitting him full in the face woke Arthur up. There was a jar of salve on the table that hadn't been there earlier in the night, with a short note in Gaius's spiky handwriting: For your back, by the king's order. I thought it best not to wake you.
Even at that bare length, the note somehow managed to have a disapproving air, Arthur thought, cringing. "Can't people bloody stay out of one's bedroom at night?" he complained to Merlin, who just yawned at him, pink and unconcerned, and said drowsily, "Come back to bed."
"No, get up," Arthur said, throwing a shift at Merlin's head. "We've a crown to win."
The elves had assembled at the trees from yesterday, which had all somehow grown overnight, the branches interlocking to form a grove. The oak stretched above the other six, majestic already and laden with acorns, and at the other side the apple tree's branches were heavy with fruit. Verhaien's mistletoe bore clusters of white berries. The other four trees were full-leaved, but there was no fruit on the branches, and Eldren said, "Three seeds have borne fruit; these lords may now enter, and bring out what gift the grove chooses to bestow upon them. Verhaien, Lord of Summer's Ending, and Rienlis, Lady of Silver Death, you may go within."
Verhaien and Rienlis clasped hands and stepped into the ring of trees and out of sight. Arthur didn't quite understand how; there were shadows between the tree trunks, but it was broad daylight, and there wasn't any undergrowth to hide them. There was no glimpse of them, though, even as the sun began to creep quietly across the sky.
The elves were all settling in for what they evidently expected to be a long wait; some among them were playing music, or singing in clear shining voices; others were laying out food and drink, and others were—Arthur stared.
"Er, are they—" Merlin said.
"Yes, they are," Arthur said. "Stop watching." He caught Merlin by the collar and dragged him away to one of the pavilions the castle steward was having put up.
Morgana joined them, a little while later. "Are you all right?" she asked Arthur, in an undertone.
"Fine," Arthur said, uncomfortably, and even more so as she narrowed her eyes at him speculatively. "What, no more lectures?" he said, by way of distraction.
"It's too late for that now," she said, glancing at Merlin, who was on the other side of the pavilion, talking with Gwen. "I managed to talk to Dianys a little more after dinner last night: you're not going to win."
Arthur rolled his eyes. "As far as we've come, and you still—"
"Don't be an ass," Morgana said. "There's nothing you can do to win. The final choice rests with the council of the elven heads of house."
Arthur stared at her.
"The challenges are a display," Morgana said. "It's to demonstrate to the court that you are worthy. It's no more binding than someone beating you in a tournament here in Camelot would make them heir to the throne. Oh, yes," she said impatiently, when he was about to protest, "they matter, a little; an elf ruler has to have a strong champion and be a strong sorcerer, so he can't be killed in frivolous dueling, and he has to receive the blessing of the grove. But unless Merlin comes out of there carrying a crown, scepter, and orb, there's no way the council is going to anoint him over Ardhiel."
Arthur opened his mouth and shut it, speechlessly. Then he sat down.
"Would you like a drink?" Morgana said sweetly, and poured him a cup of wine. Arthur took it, morosely, and swallowed. Then it occurred to him that if Merlin had won—if he had won, then—he would have had to go live in the elven kingdom with his subjects.
"Well," Arthur said, cheering up a little, "it's something to have beaten their best."
"I'm glad you think it's worth the price," Morgana said.
"What price?" Arthur said, taking another drink.
"Merlin, obviously," Morgana said, brutally. "After all, you don't really think Uther would ever let him stay in Camelot now?"
She waved a hand, and Arthur looked, unwillingly: Merlin stood shining bright against the dim corner of the tent, the dazzle of his skin and his eyes, motes of sunlight caught still in his hair. The awkward pokiness of his skinny arms and legs had shifted, just a little, to take on something like the suspended grace of a deer. Arthur thought, in cold unpleasant shock, that maybe even his ears had gone a little pointed.
"He's gone elven," Morgana said. "Even if the two of you hadn't made a spectacle of yourselves, there is no way he would ever be welcome in Camelot under Uther's rule. Of course, at least he will be welcome among the elves, now you've brought him into his power," she added, the coldest comfort imaginable. "Not that Uther will ever let you visit, but—"
"Shut up," Arthur said, harshly.
She raised an eyebrow, merciless. "Oh, so you do care? That's a pity. You've behaved all this while as though you were perfectly happy to send Merlin away and cut him off from everyone he's ever known, all to save the kingdom the yearly cost of a dozen horses and some gold."
Cold and stricken, he stared up at her. Morgana gave him a cool, expectant look back; yielding not at all. Arthur stood up, hands clenching, and said, "Damn you, Morgana—"
"That's not a good way to start, is it?" she said. "Are you ready to listen to me, or not?"
He shut his mouth, his hands tightening. "Fine," he said, clipped and short. "I apologize. I should have listened to you. Now bloody well help me."
"Well, finally," Morgana said. "Gwen, Merlin, we'll be back in a moment," she called across the tent, and said to Arthur, "Come with me, and nod thoughtfully at the appropriate moments."
She led him to the next pavilion over, where Uther was sitting alone, brooding expression fixed on the trees of the grove. Arthur slowed, but Morgana forged ahead right into the tent and beckoned him in impatiently, and as Uther began to say something, she interrupted and without preamble said, "You have to listen to me. You don't want Merlin to win the crown."
Uther paused. "We don't?" he said, dangerously.
"No," Morgana said. "We can't let the elves have him."
"If you imagine he is going to stay here—" Uther began.
"Do neither of you understand what he did there, yesterday, with the oak?" Morgana said. "All elves have some sorcery; that's how the others grew their trees. But the great among them also have special hands of power—over elements sometimes, or in this case—over time itself. Merlin can alter its flow to suit him."
"One sorcery or another, what difference does it make?" Uther snapped. "We can wait for the oaks to grow."
"This isn't about growing a tree a hundred years in a day," Morgana said. "What if he did as much to the wall of an enemy castle?"
Arthur saw that make his father pause, and didn't blame him. Maintaining the walls was an endless struggle: mortar wore away in the rains, ivy and moss ate away brick. A year without attention would bring a dozen leaks and cracks; ten would begin to crumble away the towers and battlements. A hundred years—a hundred years, and there would be little more than ruins left, of the outer fortifications.
"If he could do it with an acorn," Arthur said abruptly, "he could do it with a field of wheat. Sow it, bring it to harvest in five minutes—you could feed an army on the march, with a fraction of the usual supply—"
Morgana nodded. "Now do you understand why they suddenly began to be so friendly to him?" she asked Uther. "This isn't a power that wins challenges. It's a power that wins wars. Even if he loses the crown, the elves will want him to go back with them. They'll never want to leave such a power in a mortal kingdom. They might even want him to win the crown, now, to secure him and his gift for themselves. It's certainly worth a great deal more than what we pay in tribute."
It occurred to Arthur, watching Uther caught struggling between his hatred of magic in two directions, that Morgana was bloody dangerous.
"There," she said, as they left Uther's tent, to go back to Arthur's pavilion. "Now just do try not to do anything special in the grove, and you may actually get out of this without spending the rest of your life alone and moping."
"As if I would ever—" Arthur began, indignantly, and then they came into the tent and Merlin looked up at him and glowed, smiling, and Arthur swallowed hard against the sudden and desperate thump of his heart.
Morgana looked at him. "You were saying?"
"Thank you," Arthur said. "I was saying, thank you."
Verhaien and Rienlis came out of the grove after two hours, looking tired but pleased, with Verhaien carrying an orb of polished gold cupped carefully in his hands, inlaid with pearls and glowing red jewels that caught the light inside them as though they were lit with flames. There was a low approving murmur among the elves as the nobles inspected the orb.
Then Eldren rose and said, "Ardhiel, Prince of Night Without Stars, and Dianys, Knight of Ghosts and Eventide, you may go within the grove."
Two hours of waiting passed, and then two more, and then another. The sun was already past its zenith, beginning to lower towards the trees, and Arthur was wondering if they would have to continue tomorrow when Ardhiel and Dianys came out, Ardhiel looking a little dazed and leaning against her, and Dianys held up her hand and a roar of approval went up from the elves: she was holding up a silver circlet, set with pale green gems.
The elves all seemed immensely relieved, and wine and congratulations began flowing freely among them: the nobles were already bowing over Ardhiel's hand, and saluting Dianys. It was enough to make Arthur want to march into the grove and come out with an army and ermine robes—except for the look of utter relief on Merlin's face, and the small curling loop of magic that Merlin wound around his wrist absently, just touching, like a promise.
"Come on, then," Arthur said to Merlin, and took his hand and stepped forward, giving Eldren a pointed look. Some of the celebrating died down; Arthur even heard someone murmur, "It shouldn't be allowed," as others slanted looks over at him and Merlin. But no one raised their voice to object openly, and Eldren said unenthusiastically, "Emrys, Lord of Past and Future, and Arthur, Prince of Camelot, you may go within the grove."
Merlin pushed aside a low-hanging branch of rowan, and Arthur elbowed away some of the sprawling hawthorn, and they went inside. Behind them all the noise of conversation died away abruptly, and Arthur found himself suddenly ducking under more branches and pushing through leaves. They walked for what felt like a long time—long enough they should have gone through the grove entirely. Arthur somehow didn't worry. Excalibur sang softly on his hip, and Merlin's hand was warm in his own as they opened the path together.
The leaves thinned before them at last, and they came out of the trees at the base of a white hill sloping gently up, and when they had climbed it, at the summit they found a tree standing alone: old and dark and lightning-blasted, half its roots clinging onto dry grey rock, and the ground beneath newly broken by the first green grass of spring.
Arthur turned to look at Merlin and stopped; Merlin looked suddenly different. Older perhaps, though his face was still unlined; there was a quiet shining of years and ages in his eyes. He was smiling at Arthur; he said softly, "My king," and Arthur felt suddenly that he was different too. The weight of his body had shifted a little: more muscle in his center, which would come with the years, and there was a weight of a crown upon his head.
He said to his councillor slowly, "We've been here before, haven't we?"
"No, I don't think so," Merlin said. "But we will be here again, and we can only be here once, in all the worlds and times there are."
"Then," Arthur said, "isn't everything decided?" But he knew, even as he asked it, that it wasn't; this was a new choice, one he hadn't ever had before, and he could refuse; they could walk down from this hill, and leave unchanged, to step back into the course of an earlier destiny.
Merlin's hand was clasped in his, waiting, and Arthur knew that Merlin's choice was already made; had been made long before ever they had climbed this white hill, and would never be unmade while time lasted. Merlin would still love him, still serve him, no matter what Arthur did here in the grove. Arthur remembered flashes distantly, like something from childhood or a story someone had told him—a wizard by his side helping him shape a kingdom, a dear friend and a clear voice in the dark. That was a mortal life waiting, and the choices a mortal king could make. There might be quiet stolen nights, there might be secrets and sweet yearning; but another choice was offered him here, something stranger but no less true.
Arthur took a deep breath and turned, and took Merlin's other hand in his. "Merlin," he said, all he needed to say, and kissed him to plight their troth; then they were tumbling to the pale spring grass, young again, and Arthur tugged on Merlin's clothing with hands gone clumsy with desire.
Merlin shuddered and made small desperate noises, as though the least touch of Arthur's hands was enough to drive him wild, and fumbled at Arthur's clothing with exactly as much enthusiasm and coordination. "This is easier with magic," Arthur muttered against Merlin's neck, trying to decide if he could bring himself to stop kissing Merlin long enough to get his shirt off, and whether boots really had to be removed, first.
There was some awkward but splendid rolling around with their breeches tangled around their knees, then they reluctantly agreed that yes, the boots really did, and broke apart long enough to strip. Arthur threw his shift on the ground and stood bare beneath the tree, panting, and Merlin was naked before him, his mouth already bruised pink with kisses.
The earth was lush and welcoming as a bed, a meadow in springtime, and the grass was coming in thick and green and verdant, crushing beneath their bodies with a clean sweet smell. Arthur pulled Merlin into his lap and tangled his hands into Merlin's hair to hold on, gasping, as Merlin wrapped both of his hands around them. He kissed Merlin urgently, over and over, his mouth and his nose and his cheekbones and the ridiculous pointy ears, which made Merlin yelp interestingly and say, "Arthur," and then do some very remarkable things with his hands.
"Oh, God," Arthur said, pressing his forehead to Merlin's; Merlin's eyes were shut, and Arthur could feel him smiling in what he was sure was an utterly idiotic way. Arthur couldn't manage to say anything about it, though, because Merlin's thumb was slipping over the head of his cock gently, teasing at the hood and sliding it back and forth, slow and shudderingly intimate for the easy, almost casual way Merlin handled them, both, together. His fingers were shining-slick, curling around them.
Arthur panted, open-mouthed; he couldn't keep his eyes open. "Oh," Merlin said, waveringly, his mouth brushing over Arthur's jaw; he was nosing at Arthur's cheek. He touched his wet fingers to Arthur's mouth; Arthur licked at them, sucked, both their mouths meeting to taste, while Merlin's other hand kept working on them. Sunlight was baking-warm against his bare skin.
"Merlin," Arthur said, urging, so very near it was almost painful. He bit Merlin's fingers, his lip, and then it was on him. Merlin's arm wound around his neck and Arthur's hands tightened on Merlin's back, pulled him closer; he stifled his desperate cry in Merlin's mouth as he rose and rose and rose, and Merlin rose with him. They spilled together, hot and dripping all over their thighs, the ground wet beneath them.
Arthur eased back dizzy and breathless to the earth, and brought Merlin with him in his arms, their bodies tangling together. There were petals drifting onto them, small and white, clinging to their skin and fragrant as summer roses. A spring of clear water was bubbling from the rock, running down the hill. Above their heads the dead branches of the tree were putting out new blossom, quivering.
Arthur and Merlin in the grove, by trolleys
"Not that I'm complaining, but this was hardly much of a challenge," Arthur said, drowsily, some time later, stroking petals out of Merlin's hair. Merlin was lying curled up against his side, his head pillowed on Arthur's shoulder. "Where do we find this gift we're supposed to take back?"
"Mm," Merlin said, and after a moment he struggled up. Arthur made a protesting noise, and feebly tried to catch at Merlin's arm to pull him back down, just missing. He pushed himself up and watched as Merlin went to the tree and knelt down by its split and hollowed trunk.
Merlin reached in and brought out something small and carried it back to him: a peasant's drinking cup, roughly carved of wood. "It's not quite a crown, is it?" Merlin said. "I'm sorry."
Arthur took the cup and turned it in his hands. It was plain and unadorned, so old its rim had worn down to a soft rounded edge. Nothing like a crown or even a jeweled orb, he was glad to see. He handed it back to Merlin and shrugged with elaborate unconcern. "It's just as well. You'd have been a really terrible king."
Merlin glared at him, speechlessly. Arthur stretched back out on the grass. "And now, as you'll be going back to being my servant, you can get me a drink," he added, feeling extremely pleased with himself.
"You're an utter ass," Merlin said, but he went and filled the cup for him at the spring anyway. The water was cool and sweet and fresh, and Arthur drained the cup to the dregs. Then he put it aside, and pushed Merlin flat onto the ground.
"Shouldn't we—" Merlin started saying, until Arthur kissed him.
"I don't see any reason they can't wait a little longer," Arthur said.
Walking back out of the grove was much quicker. They stepped into the forest and were stepping out again from beneath the trees, with the sunset lighting the leaves of the oak crimson above their heads, and their hands still clasped. The elves weren't paying much attention, all of them gathered around the other candidates, talking to one another and paying court to Ardhiel; even Eldren had his back to the trees. Most of the Camelot nobles were occupied with conversation.
Gwen and Morgana were still waiting for them, at least, just in front of Arthur's pavilion; and came to meet them as they came out. "Are you all right?" Gwen asked, anxiously, offering Arthur a cup of water; he shook his head, not thirsty.
"What took you so long?" Morgana said, typical.
Arthur glared at her, then put his hand meaningfully on Excalibur's hilt as Eldren finally turned to them, just in case any of the elves got the notion to make snide remarks about their gift.
"We found this," Merlin said, holding out the cup, and all the color drained out of Eldren's face.
Everything became extremely noisy for a while.
"You really are an idiot," Morgana informed Arthur, not very discreetly, as they gathered in the great hall for dinner again; the elven nobility were all looking pale and worried, whispering among themselves. "Why didn't you just bring out a rock?"
"It's a bloody cup made out of wood!" Arthur hissed. "How was I to know it was some mystical elf artifact? Maybe it isn't," he added, looking at the cup, which was standing on a table that had been placed before the elven throne, along with the orb and the circlet. It looked ridiculously incongruous next to the rich-hued embroidery of the tablecloth, the jeweled treasures, the glittering throne. "Maybe it just happens to look like—"
"The magical grail they lost a thousand years ago," Morgana said, sarcastically.
"Dammit, Morgana!" Arthur said. "Are you just enjoying the opportunity to make clever remarks, or do you have anything helpful to offer?"
"I'm sure you'll enjoy being Queen once you get used to it?" Morgana said.
"Isn't it about time she was married to some lord extremely far away from here?" Arthur demanded of his father, as Uther joined them at the high table. "One who'll beat her," he added darkly, glaring at Morgana.
"That is enough, both of you," Uther said. "Try not to be absurd beyond reason. Even if the elves were lunatic enough to ask it, Arthur is not going to marry the boy."
He said this with particular emphasis, glaring at Eldren, who had approached the high table. Eldren raised his slanted eyebrows and said, "Lord Emrys and the prince are already wed: those who enter and leave a seven-wood grove hands-clasped are bound for all their days."
"What?" Uther said.
Morgana was staring eyes-wide, which comforted Arthur a little bit amid the rising noise level among the court; at least for once she hadn't known either. Merlin edged a little bit closer to Arthur, trying to keep as much away from Uther as he could manage.
Eldren ignored the general dismay and said to Merlin, "Lord Emrys, come forward with your champion."
They lined up beside Ardhiel and Dianys, Verhaien and Rienlis, in front of the throne, and then the heads of the elven houses—one from each of the thirteen tables—came forward, each carrying a flower. Eldren gestured to the table with the gifts and said, "The grove has given its blessings. Judge therefore, who is called to the Summer Throne."
One lord at once threw his small flower at Verhaien's feet: the one from the table where Verhaien sat; another lady threw to Ardhiel. And then the rest just sat there without moving; eleven lords and ladies remained, looking at the table and the three gifts as though they were having a hard time deciding. And then Lady Soliris smiled, suddenly, and turning threw her small golden flower at Merlin's feet.
Arthur stared at her in horror. None of them in their right minds could want Merlin as their king, magical cup or no magical cup. But the other lords all stood there looking grim, and no one did anything useful, like call for a physician to help the lunatic woman away.
One tall ash-haired woman with eyes of violet, blessedly more sane, said, "No; the Goddess forgive me, but I will not hand the realm to a boy raised by mortals, not even yet of age; it will be the destruction of us all," and threw hers at Ardhiel's feet.
Another of the lords said, slowly and reluctantly, "He has come into his power," and a spray of blue flowers was thrown at Merlin's feet. Another replied, "He has not yet lived even one mortal life's length," and one more went to Ardhiel.
Another four decided: two went to Ardhiel, and two to Merlin. Ardhiel was still ahead by one, Arthur consoled himself, so unless all three remaining went to Merlin—
And then another lord hesitated, and threw to Verhaien. There was a sort of low contemptuous murmur, as though he'd made a coward's choice, and then only two were left: a tall red-haired man, with dappled spots of gold up and down his neck, and a lady: one of the only elves who looked even a little bit old. There was the faintest tracework of wrinkles barely noticeable at the corners of her eyes, her skin a deep nut-brown, and though her hair was still black, there were threads of silver woven into it. She held a small white rosebud in her hands.
The red-haired lord looked at her, and then bowed, and threw his crimson flower at Merlin's feet; making it even: five at Ardhiel's feet, and five at Merlin's, and two more at Verhaien's.
The lady stood silently, looking at Ardhiel and then at Merlin, as though that were a choice any sensible person would have any difficulty with. Arthur gripped his hand tight around Merlin's. He was not letting Merlin go. He thought that he'd known somehow, even before Eldren had spoken, that they were bound now and in some way deeper than any law or king's decree could manage. He could feel it, like a current of joy running beneath his skin, through his veins. To lose Merlin wasn't a choice Arthur could ever make, but to follow him and abandon Camelot, his home and his people—
And then the lady said softly, "I remember when the chalice left us." Holding out her hand, she let the flower drop, and the rosebud opened into bloom as it fell softly at Merlin's feet.
A sigh ran around among the elves, and the hall fell entirely silent.
Eldren said, very low, "Lord Emrys, you are called to the Summer Throne," and bowed to Merlin, before he stepped aside and gestured to the throne.
Merlin didn't move. His hand was locked into Arthur's, and his magic was wrapping small desperate coils around Arthur's wrist, as if they weren't already bound so tight that parting would gut them both to the skin. His eyes were glittering and full of blue and gold and panic, but beneath that Arthur could see an elven king: the one Merlin could become, magic as much a part of him as breathing, time sliding backward and forward at his will, and so far away from anything mortal. So far away from Arthur, and he wanted to ask Merlin to say no, to give the throne away; he wanted to say, stay with me.
It made Arthur hate himself for selfishness—he'd brought Merlin here, pushed him every inch of the way and made both of them drunk on power and magic and shallow victories. Morgana was right: he'd offered up everything that Merlin had, and nothing of his own. If Merlin asked him now, come with me, it would be no more than ordinary justice for Arthur to go. To leave behind everything he had, everything he knew, as he'd asked Merlin to do.
Merlin turned and looked at him. Arthur drew himself straight and tried to be ready, to meet the question with grace. He tried not to look at his father, tried not to think about his oaths; he could see the fault line running straight through his own heart, but he wouldn't make Merlin pay for asking.
Merlin's hand was cupping his face. Arthur met his eyes, and made himself smile, though he felt it wavering. Merlin pulled him in and kissed him, suddenly; Arthur heard his father's nobles murmuring in shock and prurient interest, and didn't care; he put his free hand around Merlin's face and kissed him back. He drew his head close after and murmured, "It's all right. Merlin, it'll be all right."
Merlin shut his eyes and leaned against him, breathing, and then he straightened up and said, slowly, "It will be."
Arthur blinked at him, and Merlin turned to Eldren and said, "When do elves come of age?"
Eldren looked confused, and then said, "When one life of mortal men is spent," a little warily.
Merlin said, "That sounds about right, then," and reached out his free hand. The silver circlet, with its gems, floated up off the table and came to him. He turned to Ardhiel and held it out. "Will you be regent for me, until I come of age?"
Ardhiel, nonplussed, looked at Dianys; she was smiling, possibly, a very little bit. "Please?" Merlin added with a note of excessive urgency, and Arthur barely restrained himself from swatting Merlin: you didn't beg someone to accept the honor of being regent. On the other hand, Arthur's knees were doing their best to tremble with relief and joy, so it was probably safest not to move that much.
The Summer Court was leaving. The throne had vanished moments after Merlin had put the circlet on Ardhiel's head, and the elves had one by one gone, vanishing into corridors that closed after them, and the nobles of Camelot wandered away from the Great Hall too, with vague puzzled frowns on their faces, as if they were trying to remember the answer to a riddle. Arthur stood by the window in his chambers as the late-summer light slipped away gradually, and the stones looked once again solid and grey.
Arthur watched the colors fade, and he didn't miss them; there was a quiet peace settling over the castle, like letting out a long-held breath, and he found himself thinking with pleasure that tomorrow morning there would be an ordinary drill, and in the afternoon a hunt, perhaps, and at night—
He turned and looked at Merlin, who was puttering around the room putting things away, as though he couldn't just magic them back into their places; Arthur supposed maybe he liked the ordinary feeling, too. Somehow Merlin even looked a little less elven: his ears had lost that pointed cast, and his eyes gone back to a more ordinary blue.
"Are you doing that on purpose?" Arthur asked.
Merlin blinked. "What?" He looked in the mirror when Arthur pointed. "Oh—not really on purpose," he said, after a moment, frowning. "I suppose I just—feel more human."
"Well, keep doing it," Arthur said. "My father may actually get over wanting to strangle you in only ten years or so."
"Actually, I have a plan for that," Merlin said.
Arthur raised his eyebrows. "You do."
Merlin looked a bit embarrassed. "It might possibly be—Morgana's plan."
"Oh God," Arthur said.
"But I think it's a good idea!" Merlin said.
"So who are we conquering?" Arthur said, feeling rather fatalistic about it.
"I'd like to think of it more as—making peace?" Merlin said.
"Right," Arthur said. "And who are we going to be making peace with?"
"Er," Merlin said. "Everyone, really. It's just," he hastily ran on, "she made the excellent point that if you leave anyone out, it's just asking for more wars to go on, and—"
"And yes, my father will probably like you if you conquer all of Albion for him."
"Well," Merlin said, "I was thinking more—for you."
Merlin's eyes were very soft and gold. Arthur crossed the room to kiss him, and stroke his thumb across Merlin's cheek.
Merlin cleared his throat after a minute. "I'd expect it would take a while, after all—uniting all Albion," he said, with emphasis.
"One life of mortal men," Arthur said. "And then—you'll go to them?" It made him happy, and sorry, all at once. He liked for his own sake the idea that Merlin would go on after him; and yet was so desperately glad it wasn't him, that he wouldn't have to learn how to continue without this bright shining feeling in his chest, after only one lifetime of having it.
Merlin paused and smiled a little uncertainly, and then he said, "One life of mortal men, and then—we'll go." Arthur stared at him, and Merlin said softly, "You drank from the grail, Arthur."
Arthur hadn't thought of it, though his mouth was still cool with the memory of water, of the cup somehow old and very real against his lips. He stood a long moment with his hand cradling Merlin's cheek, and looked out the window at his realm: his realm for now, to build as bright as he could, and another one to come after.
"And you'll be my king?" Arthur said, meaning to sound skeptical about it; but privately he felt a deep, possessive satisfaction in the thought: Merlin always by his side, in any kingdom, in any world and time.
Merlin smiled at him slowly, eyes glittering and equally possessive, and leaned in for another kiss. He curled his hand around the back of Arthur's neck. "It seems only fair," he said against Arthur's throat, dropping soft sucking kisses along the line of it. "After you've been mine."
"Reasonable enough," Arthur agreed, breathlessly. "I'm still not going to be queen, however," he added, just to make that perfectly clear.
Merlin hummed, noncommittally. He brought Arthur's wrist to his mouth and kissed it, licked the tip of his tongue over the pulse. Golden threads of magic curled happily around Arthur's hand, drew loops like golden rings around his fingers, intertwined together up his arm.
"Merlin— " Arthur said, trying for a firm note and failing.
Merlin only grinned and kissed him some more, drawing him back towards the bed.
The amazing fic trailer by nerjav (if you don't see it make sure you have Adblock etc turned off for the AO3):