“I have brought you a Sorcerer, Your Majesty.”
King Arthur Pendragon’s laughter rolled around the great hall, the derision within the sound almost masked by genuine amusement. Haldig looked warily at the king, having been warned of Arthur’s reputation for quick anger where slave traders were concerned.
Still, he thought, sneering down at the figure huddled at his feet, can’t deny the lad seemed pretty enough under the muck and he’d get good value out of him whatever happened. It had been a struggle to make sure the purity of this prize remained intact all the way to Camelot, and he’d had to stop several of his men taking more than their due, but if the King didn’t want him then that would no longer matter. Haldig licked his lips in anticipation. It might almost be worth it.
Haldig wasn’t a subtle man, but even he couldn’t miss the sudden change in atmosphere and the absolute taut silence, the sense of rising tension, brought his focus back to the King. Haldig felt the heat rise to his face and swallowed hard at the expression of utter contempt on the King’s face. He had just enough sense to recognise Arthur considering seriously whether he should let Haldig leave alive.
“Magic is a myth,” Arthur’s voice was dipped in the same derision. “It’s hardly even a child’s tale. There’s no such thing.” There was the certainty of a rational man in the words, someone who knew without doubt he spoke true.
“There is the tale of the Lost Mage,” Haldig stuttered before he managed to find the words, dredging them from the memory of his encounter with the ancient crone who’d begged for her life in return for information. Haldig had taken the information and slit the idiot’s throat anyway. The tale she had told, though, had lodged within him, setting him on a path to track down this supposed saviour. He took a moment to wonder what had happened to the crone’s body and then hurried on in the face of Arthur’s lowered brows and pursed mouth. The words poured from him, as if learned by rote or spoken by someone else entirely; even the language sounded odd to his own ears.
“The Seers foresaw a time when there would be catastrophic war on magic, when all those who practiced magic, or adhered to the Old Religion, even the peaceful Druids, would be decimated. The Dragons and Dragonlords, the High Priestesses and the Druids held conclave and decided the cost would be too high. They decreed that magic must be hidden until the time of the Once and Future King. When he is born then a sorcerer and Dragonlord will be born, too, and magic will be reborn with him. The Lost Mage will lead the Once and Future King to his destiny and with their joining,” he faltered a little at the way all the fledgling amusement fled from the King’s expression, and then ploughed on to the end of his story, “they will bind their souls for eternity.”
Arthur’s face was black as thunder, and Haldig could hear the whispering throughout the great hall, the way the knights shifted uneasily and placed hands on sword pommels. He gulped. The King’s features relaxed suddenly but Haldig was not sure what the sudden bark of harsh laughter meant.
“You’re wasting my time with your nonsense. You know I do not allow slavery in my realm and yet you dare come here with a child chained at your feet. Leave - before I decide to strip you of everything you own and throw you in the dungeons to rot.
The boy at Haldig’s feet stirred, raising his head and looking straight at the King. Haldig kicked him for his insolence.
That was his final mistake, he realised later.
King Arthur straightened on his throne, all vestiges of his amusement banished and for a moment his eyes were on the huddled, shaking boy. A raised eyebrow was enough to bring one silver and red clad knight to the King’s side. There was a muttered conversation and before he was quite aware of what was happening, Haldig was relieved of the chain tethering the slave to him and was being ushered from the King’s presence.
Arthur stared down at the sorry excuse for a human being he was now left with. He was a king; he had sent men to die, had ordered necessary executions, and had seen the innocent victims of wars, famine and disease. All this he could do with equanimity, able to dispense pity and compassion but without letting it touch him too closely. His father had taught him that to be a king, Arthur had to be above his subjects and must never let his emotion rule him or be seen. Arthur had never been sure his father had been right and there were many ways he now diverged from his father’s teachings – especially in his relationship with his people - but still he could present the emotions he wanted to display despite feeling very different, and it should have been easy to send the boy off with Haldig and forget him with a moment’s regret for the harshness of the world and the lot of life’s victims.
Not today, though, not when one pleading look from blue, so very blue eyes, had swayed him from his original course of action.
It was almost as if he had heard the boy’s voice in his head.
Please save me, please don’t leave me with this man.
Arthur shook his head and glanced around at the court, realising they were awaiting his next decision. For the first time, Arthur spoke to the chained man directly.
“Do you have a home to go back to?”
A shake of the head was his only response, the boy dropping his gaze back to the floor, and Arthur heard the chains clink softly against the stone as grubby hands clenched into fists. Arthur could see the taut line of a jaw held rigid to suppress some terrible emotion, but there was no sound.
An icy draft wound round him, reminding him of winter’s creeping arrival. With another considering glance at the figure still kneeling before him, he motioned the castle steward across.
“Get the boy cleaned up and tended to. Give him a good meal and then bring him to my chambers after the feast this evening.”
Matthew was too well trained to allow his surprise to show, but it was rolling off him anyway. Arthur dismissed him with a hand and Matthew moved across to the sorry excuse for humanity collapsed on the floor.
“Up you come, lad,” he said, and his voice reflected his natural character, kind and with an undercurrent of humour. “We’ll start by losing the jewellery, shall we? It really doesn’t suit you.”
Arthur felt his lips twitch, both at the words and at the way the boy looked up in shock at this treatment. Some of his father’s old council had baulked when he had appointed Matthew as steward. The previous incumbent had been more of Uther’s ilk; serious, unbending and had presided over the castle with a rod of iron. From the start, Arthur had wanted his rule to be different, to take forward some of his own ideas about working with his people, about the need for every person in his realm to realise their own importance, because only by working together and feeling safe and secure and valued, could the people help Camelot prosper.
Matthew managed the castle every bit as well as his predecessor, with the important difference that no one was afraid. Perhaps it was a small thing, Arthur thought, but he was proud of the difference and determined to see it replicated across the land.
Arthur watched as the boy struggled to his feet, flinching and then relaxing as Matthew slipped a hand under a bony elbow to help him. As he stood, Arthur realised the boy was older than he’d thought – a young man rather than a child.
“What’s your name?” He asked on a whim.
The voice was deeper than Arthur was expecting, already broken and with a soft tone. “Merlin. My name is Merlin.”
“I’ll talk to you later, Merlin.”
Merlin bobbed his head in response and then responded to Matthew’s gentle urging as he turned to make his way slowly out of the room, stumbling a little and then leaning against the support Matthew offered.
Once the door closed behind them, Arthur’s attention returned to the rest of the audience who had come to petition him today, putting Merlin and his blue eyes and honeyed voice from his mind.
Merlin stood in the centre of the room he was led to, shivering and fighting against the panic threatening to rise up and swamp him. In his head he knew his situation had to have improved, but the events of the past weeks had left deep scars, a legacy of pain and horror too deep and traumatic to believe easily in this apparent change for the better.
He’d been led down into the bowels of the castle, wondering if he was going to end up in some slave pit somewhere, but instead he was drawn into a warm, damp space and gaped at the steaming tubs. Merlin almost smiled at the pride in Matthew’s eyes.
“Welcome to our bath house, Merlin. I travelled across the sea when I was young and saw the remains of the Roman baths. I persuaded King Arthur to do something similar here. Why don’t you make the most of the hot water, hmm? I’ve sent someone for the Court Physician and we’ll get you checked over.
Merlin felt himself flush and stared nervously at Matthew. After a slight pause, Matthew raised his eyebrows.
“If you’re fine by yourself for a few moments, I’ll rout out the chatelaine’s maid and see if there are some clean clothes that will fit you in the store.” As he left, he paused at the entrance. “No-one will harm you here, Merlin. King Arthur has taken you under his protection and that is enough for us.”
Matthew left before he could muster a response, and instead Merlin stripped quickly and lowered himself gratefully into the steaming water, marvelling at the way it flowed gently through and constantly brought clean in to take the dirty away. For a moment, pure pleasure swept away even the horror and he reclined until he was completely covered. After a few moments, he sat up and grabbed one of the cloths, scrubbing away industriously at the dirt ingrained from those horrible weeks being dragged through the countryside. Grief clogged his throat for a moment and he swallowed it away. Right now, he needed to be in control and to work out what this new life might mean for him.
By the time Matthew returned with another man, the physician Merlin guessed, he’d managed to pull himself from the lure of the hot water and find the warm drying cloths. He was staring at the tattered remains of his clothes and wondering what to do when they entered.
Without making any comment, Matthew handed over the bundle of cloth and Merlin was grateful to see small clothes, breeches, shirt, jacket and a pair of good boots. With a lump in his throat he nodded, though when Matthew made to gather up his discarded rags, Merlin’s hand darted out, catching up a piece of cloth, which he folded carefully and set to the side. Neither of the men commented, though they couldn’t have missed the action.
“Merlin, this is Edwin, our Court Physician. He’ll have a quick look at you then take you to the kitchens to get something to eat before someone will take you to King Arthur.”
Merlin hoped Matthew didn’t notice the catch in his breath at the thought of meeting the golden king again, and he kept his eyes lowered as he nodded, missing the smile Matthew and Edwin exchanged.
“Thank you,” Merlin said, his tone soft and hesitant, and he knew he still sounded as if he expected harsh treatment. He watched Matthew leave, the man ducking slightly to fit his tall rangy frame under the low door, before he turned his nervous attention to the doctor and found he was under close scrutiny.
“Let’s have a look at you, then.” Edwin’s tone was brisker than Matthew’s but had the same undertone of kindness.
Edwin took his time, calm and measured and his matter-of-fact questions about the level of abuse Merlin had suffered at Haldig’s hands helped Merlin to find the same steady detachment as he described how he was beaten and starved. The damage could have been much worse and Merlin tried not to think of the screams of the women and other boys who had been taken in the attack on his village. He hadn’t understood Haldig’s assertion about Merlin being some mythical figure and thought it was probably some trick of the trader’s to try and get more money from the King. He smiled briefly to himself; happy at the way it had so spectacularly gone wrong for Haldig, though he shied away from the thought that they may have attacked the village just because Merlin was there.
“Well, a few days rest, some good food and ointments I’ll give you on the scrapes and bruises and you’ll be fine, my lad. Get yourself dressed and I’ll show you the way to the kitchen. I expect you’re hungry.”
Edwin busied himself tidying up the chamber, keeping his back to Merlin while he dressed, before walking slowly through the corridors, towards sounds that had Merlin nervous even though the scents had his empty stomach rumbling.
Somehow Merlin knew Edwin understood that going for several weeks without much food had left Merlin in a state where he needed sustenance, but was less keen to eat it. He was proved right when Edwin, with a gentle hand, pressed Merlin into a seat at the table in the heaving, hot bustle of the kitchen and brought him a plate of food. Merlin accepted it, seeing that it wasn’t too much and there was nothing overly heavy. The beaker he was offered contained a sweet mix of apple juice and water and was heaven on his parched throat. He smiled shyly at Edwin as he sat across from him with his own plate and mug.
“So, Merlin, why don’t I tell you a little about living in Camelot?” Edwin gestured at Merlin’s plate, inviting him to eat even as he tucked into his own freshly baked bread and slab of cheese.
Merlin picked at the food and listened carefully. It seemed Edwin, as well as being the physician, was also a gifted storyteller and instead of a dry recitation of facts, Merlin found himself enthralled by a series of stories about the people of the Castle and the town, weaving a rich tapestry from individual anecdotes, helped along by occasional laughing comments from passing kitchen staff and a pretend threatened beating by the cook, her eyes dancing even as she swiped her ladle at Edwin. The man was clearly well loved and despite his obvious rank seemed at home amongst them. By the end, Merlin had cleared his plate, drunk two large beakers of the sweet juice and, despite his underlying grief and fear, was almost comfortable.
All his ease fled, however, when Edwin, glancing around the reduced activity in the kitchen, finally got to his feet. “Looks like the feast is drawing to an end. Why don’t I take you to the king’s chambers now.” His voice was kind as he added. “Don’t fret, my boy, the King is a good man and beloved by us all. You’ll see.”
Merlin bit his lip and nodded, getting reluctantly to his feet. He smiled round at those nearby and quietly thanked the cook for his dinner. Her surprised expression morphed into a motherly softness and she ran her hand through his hair and called him a sweet lad. Merlin felt sudden tears clog his throat but he managed a smile before he turned to follow Edwin from the room.
Arthur had chased his latest servant out of the room as soon as he returned, irritated beyond measure by the mealy-mouthed servitude the man insisted on offering up. He sighed. His sister did a wonderful job as chatelaine of the Castle, but even Morgana seemed unable to find anyone that would ever treat Arthur as a human being. Wandering to the window, he stared out to the frost-limned night beyond, and hoped his sister’s sister was well. Morgause had come into their lives shortly after Uther had admitted Morgana’s parentage to her, and the presence of someone who shared a mother with Morgana had confused them all. Uther, though a grim and sickening figure by this time, had accepted it with a better grace than Arthur might have expected, and Arthur himself, already secretly delighted with the news Morgana was his sister, had accepted the widening circle of family with pleasure.
What he hadn’t foreseen, however, was that Morgause would want Morgana with her when she came close to her delivery time. The pregnancy had been difficult and Morgana and Arthur both had been worried about her, and her husband, King Bayard, had written begging Arthur to release Morgana from her duties in Camelot for the laying in. Arthur had agreed at once, though Morgana had snorted at Bayard’s belief that Arthur could have stopped her going and had left three weeks before. She’d promised to return a month after the babe was born, her usual haughty demeanour cracking for a moment when she admitted she would miss him. It had passed almost before Arthur could admit he would miss her, too, though he’d found the words and they’d exchanged a rare embrace. Typical Morgana, he thought fondly, hiding her compassion, her love and her heart so well and so badly all at the same time. Arthur had sent her off with gifts and good wishes for Morgause, her husband and the babe, and did his best to hide the hope that the child would arrive as soon as possible. Morgana’s smile had managed to be both wry and teasing. She knew him far too well.
The characteristic rat-tat-tat signalled Edwin’s arrival and Arthur called for him to enter, blinking in surprise and the tall, lanky figure that entered with him. His memory of the early evening was of a small, slight, almost child-like figure, but this was a young man full-grown, and while he was certainly thin, there was a breadth to his shoulders that suggested strength.
“Edwin.” He welcomed them with a nod, gesturing for them to draw nearer as he moved to the hearth and settled himself in a chair swathed in soft animal pelts.
“Your Majesty.” Edwin bowed with the elegance borne of a life spent at court. The man beside him jerked slightly, reacting to the subtle urging of a discreetly placed elbow, and he ducked his head in his own attempt at obeisance, though Arthur noticed he had scowled. Arthur, so seldom amused, had to bite the inside of his cheek.
“So, you are the Lost Mage, are you?”
“I don’t know what that is.”
Gods help me, thought Arthur, as the low voice seemed to reach inside him and tug at something deep within.
“You haven’t heard the legend, then?”
“I don’t think it’s spoken of much, Sire,” Edwin rescued the young man from his confusion. “It’s hardly mentioned in the town and I expect it’s even less thought of in the villages – certainly outside of Camelot.”
Arthur nodded absently in response, staring at the down bent head. “What’s your name?”
“Merlin,” there was a beat, a pause, another slight jump as Edwin used his elbow gently once again. “Your Majesty.”
“What was the name of your village?”
Merlin swallowed hard before he answered. “Ealdor – in the Forest of Ascetir.”
“I don’t know of it.”
“Why should you? Why would any king think of us common folk?”
Arthur raised his eyebrows and traded a glance with a rather shocked-looking Edwin, but raised his hand, as Edwin seemed about to remonstrate.
“Don’t you believe it’s a King’s duty to care for his people?”
“What does it matter what I think.”
Merlin looked up and met his eyes then and only Arthur’s long training stopped his exclamation at the fire of fury he saw there. Other emotions, too, things he could not name, but it was the anger that fuelled everything else.
It was only for the briefest of moments, as Merlin seemed to recall who he was talking to and dropped his gaze to the floor. That brief look, though, had transformed something within Arthur, sparking an interest in Merlin as an individual, rather than as a victim. Whatever had happened, Merlin was angry about it and was clearly blaming those who, in Arthur’s mind, should be protecting the land and its people.
“Thank you, Edwin.” Arthur could see Edwin was curious and would have liked to remain but he was too well trained to do anything other than offer his courtly bow and leave silently.
Arthur considered Merlin for a few moments before he spoke again.
“I’ve always believed Camelot couldn’t thrive if its people weren’t cared for. I’m as much a servant of my people as they are of me. Together, we’ll build our future.” Arthur could hardly believe he was saying such things to someone he’d only just met. Yet, it seemed important Merlin understood.
It was the first time Arthur had ever articulated his thinking to anyone other than Morgana. Throughout the cold, autocratic reign of his father, Arthur had considered and planned. He’d spent time getting to know his subjects, and despite his father’s dire predictions, the people had responded with a love and loyalty even Uther had finally acknowledged, admitting to Arthur a few days before his death that Arthur would be a better king for it.
Merlin was staring at him again and now Arthur couldn’t read the expression on his face but the anger had gone.
Suddenly uncomfortable, Arthur said. “I have need of a body servant. You’re untrained and no doubt will be terrible, but the place is yours.”
“What do I do?”
“You do what I tell you.” Arthur shifted, and then stood and turned away to fuss with the papers lying on the table, wondering why he was the one who felt like an untrained boy.
“What do I do now?”
“It’s time to retire. You help me undress, tidy the room and bank the fire. Then we sleep.”
“Where do I sleep?”
“In the bed with me.”
Arthur was distracted by the wash of hot colour searing across Merlin’s cheeks, feeling his own skin heat as he realised what Merlin was thinking.
“Winter is closing in and the nights are cold, Merlin. We’ll both be warmer this way. Don’t you agree?”
Merlin shrugged. “You’re my Master.” His eyes were trained on the ground, his skin still flushed and he looked as uncomfortable as Arthur was feeling.
“I am, but it doesn’t give me the right to take anything from you that you don’t want to give. If you are truly concerned at the thought of it, you can arrange for a pallet to be brought in. There’s an antechamber you can use.” He wasn’t sure Merlin believed his assertion, despite Arthur injecting as firm a tone into his words as he could.
Merlin looked as if he was considering Arthur’s words but didn’t speak. Instead, he moved away and did a good job banking the fire for the night. Arthur supposed some tasks were the same whether you were a peasant or a king and he watched as long, surprisingly elegant fingers curled around the logs in the small stack of wood, shifting the damper wood closer to the fire where it could dry. To distract himself, Arthur searched through one of the trunks in his room, pulling out soft sleep clothes for them both and made a note to talk to Matthew in the morning about Merlin’s new status. That would set the cat amongst the pigeons, he thought, knowing the role of manservant to the King was a coveted position. He frowned. While he tried to instil respect and a care for others in himself and his subjects, he was too aware of human frailties to expect it to always hold. Hopefully Merlin wouldn’t suffer because of this advancement.
He’d been an arrogant, thoughtless and heedless young man himself, he knew, and it was only Morgana’s astringent criticism and Morgause’s softer explanations and suggestions that had saved him from becoming a carbon copy of his father in his harshness, but without the political and diplomatic skills to match.
Uther would have tolerated the slave trade, but he would have dealt with Haldig for his insolence and sent the boy to work elsewhere. While he had ensured his disapproval of the trade was known far and wide, he had yet to outlaw it within Camelot. Even so, he could just had released Merlin and sent him away. It was just… Arthur was at a loss to explain it, but from the first moment he’d seen him, he hadn’t wanted Merlin far from his sight. Unbidden, his eyes were drawn back to the subject of his thoughts and he almost laughed at what Merlin would think of the turmoil his very presence had unleashed within the king. He was concerned, too, at how thin Merlin was, at the grey tone to his skin and exhausted shadows under his eyes, swamped by a sudden and ridiculous urge to chase away all of the hurts and keep him safe and close.
Dear gods, he was feeling like a young squire on the verge of a first, shattering love. Shaking his head in annoyance, he turned away and attempted to concentrate on some state business, missing Merlin’s flinch at the abrupt movement.
Once Merlin’s task was complete, Arthur, still watching despite himself, saw him rub his hands free of the wood dust before he came to stand before him. Quietly, but with increasing embarrassment and terseness, Arthur instructed Merlin in the correct way to disrobe a king and got them both ready for bed.
Arthur pulled back the covers and climbed in, watching as Merlin puttered about doing his best to tidy up. Eventually, he obviously ran out of things to keep him from the bed and slid in.
There was wonder in Merlin’s voice and Arthur turned his head to witness the first smile.
“Oh, it’s so… I’ve never…”
Arthur was sure in that moment Merlin had no real thought for who he was speaking to and it sounded as if he was talking to someone he’d known for a long time.
“Comfortable?” He was sorry he spoke as Merlin started and his smile dimmed. He looked at Arthur as if he had been pulled from some delightful dream back to a terrible reality.
Merlin nodded, his hands plucking nervously at the covers.
Arthur sighed. “Goodnight, Merlin.” He turned away and settled down, letting his breathing even out. After a long, tense silence there was movement beside him as Merlin lay down. Eventually, it seemed as if exhaustion won over any fear as Arthur almost felt the taut length of Merlin’s body relax into sleep. Only then could Arthur ease into his rest, although even in sleep Arthur retained the awareness of someone sharing his bed. It wasn’t as if it was something new. As well has having lovers in the past, long cold winters had often seen him sharing the warmth of his bed. Aware of his own inclination, on those occasions he would share with two or three of the younger squires, boys who hadn’t yet reached manhood and were of no interest to him. He would smile indulgently as they slept, curled up like pups and felt nothing.
In all the years of his life, this was the first night he had shared his bed for a complete night with a man, a man fully ten years younger than him, perhaps, but still a grown man.
Movement roused him, and he turned his head sleepily to look at Merlin. He was shaking, curled into a ball and his face pressed hard into one of the soft pillows in an attempt to hide his grief. His body was shaking and Arthur realised that was what had woken him from his light doze. For a moment he hesitated, unwilling to intrude on Merlin’s despair and knowing his attention was unlikely to be welcome. Still, he couldn’t be unmoved by Merlin’s distress and he slid across the space separating them to press a hand to Merlin’s back. Merlin stilled.
“Did you lose someone?” Arthur kept his tone as soft and sympathetic as he could.
Merlin nodded, but didn’t attempt to speak.
“I’m sorry for your loss.” What more could Arthur say? There was nothing he could do to change what had happened and it was only time and his future actions that would convince Merlin he was safe.
Merlin didn’t respond, but he did wriggle back slightly, sliding further into Arthur’s warmth. Arthur took that as a cue to close the gap a little, too, and slid his arm to Merlin’s shoulder. A warm, slightly damp hand met his and Arthur curled his own fingers around to offer as much comfort as he was allowed. A shaky sigh breathed out and with one more hitching sob, Merlin’s grip loosened as he fell asleep suddenly.
“You poor soul,” Arthur said, and slid closer still until he could wrap an arm round and draw him in. The need to protect this man was overwhelming and unnerving, especially when he was sure that given the choice, Merlin would be as far away from Camelot as he could get.
Sighing, he pushed his confusion away from him and shut his eyes. He had no doubt that tomorrow would bring a whole new set of difficulties.
The day didn’t start well.
The first thing Arthur was aware of was the sound of the door opening, the second was the weight sprawled across him and he blinked blearily down at the dark head planted in the centre of his chest.
Good morning, Sire, I’ve brought your break –“ Matthew’s voice cut off abruptly and Arthur, even only half-awake, could feel the temperature of the room sink several notches towards frosty. Why was it, he thought, that there were still some people who could make him feel like a naughty child rather than a king.
A sleepy interrogation arose from the man in his arms and Merlin burrowed even closer to him, seeking out the warmth.
Arthur drew in a deep breath and there was a flurry of movement as Merlin shot backwards, slipping off the edge of the bed with a startled, high-pitched squeal. Arthur peered over the edge, trying desperately not to laugh at the scowling, beet-red face turned towards him.
A discreet cough from Matthew had Merlin scrambling up from the floor, standing awkwardly half-hidden behind a bed hanging.
“A rather abrupt awakening,” Arthur said, and decided not to attempt teasing just yet. “Matthew, Merlin will be my new manservant. I’d be grateful if you could give him an idea of his duties later, but to begin with perhaps you could send a servant up with some more food and I will discuss some of what I expect of my manservant.”
Matthew’s expression had thawed a little as he saw both men were dressed and Arthur tried not to feel insulted at the obvious conclusions Matthew had drawn. He met Matthew’s eyes steadily and was slightly appeased at the apology there.
“Of course, Sire. I’ll arrange appropriate clothing, too.” Matthew was far too well trained to comment further and with a bow he left.
“So, Merlin. Your first lesson – how to dress a king.” He couldn’t quite hear the quiet comment Merlin passed then. “Pardon?”
“Second lesson,” Merlin corrected him. “I undressed you last night.”
Their eyes met, and Arthur felt his heart rate increase, wondering about that as well as his inexplicable delight at Merlin’s cheek. He watched Merlin flush as he realised what he’d said.
His own mouth twitched, and he restrained a grin with difficulty. Merlin’s posture relaxed. “Yes, well, my blue doublet from the wardrobe, please.”
Arthur busied himself tidying up the papers on the desk, although he kept half an eye on Merlin and noticed the slight hesitation as Merlin looked at the clothing. He hid his smile as Merlin nearly disappeared into the depths of the wardrobe but ignored the muffled comments about who could need so many clothes. He nearly laughed again at the triumphant expression on Merlin’s face as he emerged with the required piece.
The amusement lasted only as long as it took for Merlin to realise he was being watched and Arthur sighed silently and wondered again what he had let himself in for when Merlin became a pale and silent copy of the lively figure Arthur had seen for those few moments.
Merlin walked rather nervously through the castle corridors, aware of the thinly veiled curiosity of the other servants and some of the knights and nobles, though they were wise enough to ensure it wasn’t visible when the King was present. There was some whispering as he passed, and some disgruntled comments he knew he was meant to hear. In the main, though, people had been remarkably kind and tolerant, teaching him his duties and making sure he’d everything he needed. Even he, coming from farming stock, knew it was unusual for a servant to eat with his master, but Arthur insisted they breakfast together each morning, claiming it saved time while he briefed Merlin on his duties for the day ahead.
Merlin stopped for a moment and stared out of the window. As if the very thought of him had made it happen, he watched as Arthur strode across the courtyard with two of his knights, their silver mail glinting in the sun and red cloaks flying providing a striking image. As he walked, Arthur glanced upward as if he knew he was the subject of scrutiny and Merlin jerked away from the window, standing by it as he waited for his hectic heartbeat to steady.
From the start, Arthur had confused him; leaving him wrong-footed and unsure how to act and what role he wanted Merlin to play. When Merlin had been dragged into that room and heard Arthur’s laugh he’d been filled with a loathing almost strong enough to overtake his grief and fear. Yet it wasn’t long before he recognised the laughter wasn’t aimed at him, and Arthur disliked everything about Haldig and his activities. Before he knew it, the chains were removed and he was clean, clothed and fed. Then when he was led into the king’s chamber, he’d made an automatic assumption. He’d been bought, after all, and he was a slave, even if Arthur didn’t make it as clear as he might have done.
At least, that was what he’d believed, right up until the moment he’d climbed into a bed expecting to be used and was instead comforted and allowed to rest. He swallowed. In the several weeks that had passed since, Arthur had been nothing but kind – if occasionally impatient and sharp with Merlin’s incompetence – and while they continued to share the bed, there had been no overtures.
Every night, Merlin curled into a ball as far from Arthur as he could. Every night the grief hit him like a tidal wave, a storm of weeping, only stayed when Arthur woke. Every night Arthur laid a hand on his back, like a sheet anchor that stopped Merlin from breaking apart completely. Every morning, Merlin woke in Arthur’s arms. He wasn’t a fool, he knew when Arthur was aroused and more recently he’d find himself in the same state, but still Arthur did nothing.
Merlin now believed as well as knew he wasn’t a slave and could leave whenever he chose. Moreover, he soon realised he’d ended up in a privileged position, which Matthew had made sure he understood the very morning he’d walked in on them in bed together.
The grief was still a hard knot within him, and there were days when he felt so dragged down, so lost and afraid, he wanted to pull the covers over his head and stay in that soft beautiful bed forever. It was odd, he thought, how Arthur seemed to recognise it, and on those days Merlin would find himself cleaning a row of boots beside the fire, or putting some of his new skills into practice, working carefully and with painful slowness on sharpening knives or mending clothes. Quiet days, when someone would appear with some lunch and dinner and Arthur would wander in from time to time on some obviously made up pretext, and Merlin pretended not to notice the fond concern lurking in the blue eyes.
No, Merlin was by no means immune to the beauty and courtliness that was King Arthur Pendragon and fought against it with all his power. His life had achieved a measure of stability and he would do nothing to upset it, knowing now that Arthur would never take what wasn’t offered freely.
He glanced around, confused, wondering who’d called his name and then shrugged. No doubt if someone was looking for him then they’d call again. It did break him from his distracted thoughts, recalling he was on his way to the kitchen to collect Arthur’s lunch and that he’d asked for enough to feed four.
Pushing himself away from the wall, he made good speed to the kitchen, smiling shyly at Marian the cook and making his request, standing back to let people work.
“Oh, look, it’s the King’s concubine.”
Merlin frowned. Cedric was a relative newcomer to Camelot and wasn’t particularly well liked. He’d arrived around the same time as Merlin and had tried to ingratiate himself with Matthew, but had been put to work in the kitchens. Merlin suspected that Cedric had his eye on the post of manservant to the King, which would explain why he seemed to dislike Merlin so much. Before he could say anything, however, Marian intervened.
“You hush your mouth, Cedric. We don’t talk like that in Camelot, as you should know by now. There’s a pile of beets down there that need cleaning and peeling. Get on with your work.” She shoved the man, none too gently, in the direction of a great heap of the late-harvested beet. Merlin knew how horrible they were to deal with and grinned at Marian as she approached with a loaded tray.
“Thanks,” he said, and both knew he wasn’t thanking her simply for the food.
She curved a rough hand around his cheek for a moment. “You’re a good lad, Merlin, and you’ve been brought up well. We can all see that. You’re a credit to those that raised you.”
Merlin couldn’t speak past the lump in his throat, managing a watery smile as he ducked his head and made his way back to Arthur’s chambers.
The door was ajar and he could hear voices so he sidled in as quietly as he could, thought the effect was rather spoiled as the tray slipped and he squeaked. One of the knights caught it deftly and set it on the table. He favoured Merlin with a friendly grin and resumed his seat.
Arthur rolled his eyes at him and helped himself to food, gesturing to the others to do the same. When they had, he dumped some meat and bread on a plate and handed it to Merlin with raised eyebrows. Merlin flushed at the glance the two knights exchanged and retreated to a seat over in the corner. Arthur opened his mouth as if to remonstrate and then, with a look at the others, subsided into his own chair before attacking his food with good appetite.
When they were alone, Arthur insisted that Merlin sat at the table with him, but Merlin didn’t feel comfortable doing so when others were present. They’d had an actual argument about it – the first, Merlin thought, but not the last, as it had seemed to ease something in what had been stilted interaction up until then. It was as if by squabbling about a relatively unimportant matter, Merlin had finally become convinced he was safe and secure in Camelot. Since then, his own natural behaviour had surfaced, which included nagging Arthur about eating and sleeping, disagreeing with him, and snapping at him when grief and anger at the past threatened to overwhelm him. In turn, Arthur griped at him about his uselessness, nagged at him in turn about eating properly, and was sharp-tongued following a day in Council.
In short, they seemed to fight every day, but they laughed together every day, too and at night, they would let the soft mattress, smooth linen, and warm wool encase them and shut out the cares of the day. Merlin would shuffle backwards a little, and Arthur would shift towards him, looping an arm over him, his strong, calloused hand covering Merlin’s long fingers and squeezing slightly. Merlin would squeeze back, and then they would sleep.
In the middle of it all, they’d found their compromises and now, eating quietly in his corner, Merlin reviewed the remainder of the day and what he needed to do. There was Council and then a feast for some visiting nobles. Arthur would be bored and bad-tempered by the end of all that, he thought. His attention was drawn from his thoughts when he heard one of the knights speak.
“We’ve increased border patrols as you said. We’ll keep Haldig and his thugs out as much as we can, but even though we know Cenred is supporting his vile trade, there’s no evidence of his direct involvement, so not much more that we can do.
“Thanks, Leon. Have you anything to add, Lancelot?”
Merlin was feeling slightly ill, the food turning to ash in his mouth. Cenred ruled over Ealdor and should be protecting them. Instead, it seemed that he’d happily sell his people into slavery and fill his coffers instead. Queasy, he placed his plate carefully on the floor and clasped his hands tightly together. Cenred. That bastard. He’d happily ring the man’s neck if he ever got his hands on him.
“Merlin,” Arthur’s voice was sharp and jolted him from his spiral of anger.
He jumped to his feet at the tone, hearing sharpness but missing the concern. As he did so, the jug that had held the beer the men were drinking tipped over and rolled off the table to shatter against the stone of the floor.
They all stared at it for a moment, before Merlin leapt into action, glad to have a focus and something to do as he fought to calm himself and find the detachment Matthew had told him was the epitome of a good servant.
Arthur and the knights tactfully left him to it, taking up their cloaks and taking their leave. As Arthur passed, he touched a hand to Merlin’s shoulder and Merlin nodded, accepting it as the comfort it was intended to be. Once they’d gone, Merlin sank onto the bed and buried his head in his hands.
That night, there was a tension in their preparations for bed and Merlin was right to dread what was to come. Once curled up in the dim light offered by the banked fire and the single candle, Arthur asked the question Merlin had been expecting since he’d been dragged into Camelot over three months before.
“Who did you lose, Merlin?”
There was something in Arthur’s voice, some level of understanding that finally unlocked the words, finally opened the floodgates of his grief in a manner other than tears.
“Twenty years ago my father came to Ealdor and married my mother. She told me they were happy, but that he was troubled, though she never said what ailed him. She had just got with child – she hadn’t even had the chance to tell him – when he hanged himself.”
Arthur was silent, letting him tell his tale in his own time. Hesitantly, Merlin turned to face him and slid his hand across the space between them until his little finger rested against Arthur’s.
“People always thought we were a bit odd because of that. I don’t know why. Some of them thought I was some kind of freak, that I’d go mad one day, too. When Haldig came to the village, the rest of them were only too happy to point me out. They probably hoped it would be enough to save them,” Merlin swallowed. “I suppose I can’t blame them for that. But my mother, my mother and my best friend both tried to protect me. They’d grabbed me before Mum and Will even knew what was happening and I couldn’t do anything… and they … killed Will… my Mum… they… made me watch...”
Arthur pulled him in, letting Merlin sob out the grief and anger and hopelessness against his chest. Occasionally, he would run his hand through Merlin’s hair or run his hand across Merlin’s back, but mostly Arthur just let him cry himself to sleep.
Arthur slid out of the bed early, cursing the demands of his body. His desire for Merlin was growing even more as Merlin’s true character finally emerged. His breakdown a few weeks before seemed to have completed the changes Arthur had noted over time, delighting in the spark of rebellion and independence Merlin had been increasingly displaying. Talking about the experience he’d gone through had unfrozen something within him and signalled a change, as if Merlin had finally accepted the terrible loss of his kin and had begun to believe he had found a true refuge in Camelot. With Arthur.
Merlin would be safe; Arthur would make sure of it. Sighing, he made his way behind the screen and dealt with the issue at hand, before opening the door and sending the first passing servant for breakfast. He’d taken to letting Merlin sleep a little longer in the mornings, glad to see colour returning and more covering on his bones. Altogether, he thought, as he stared down at Merlin, he was looking a great deal better than he had when he’d arrived four months before.
Four whole months. Arthur stared out at the snow covered courtyard, thankful the fire seemed to keep his own chambers warm, though a chill wind seemed to be seeping into every other corner of the castle, and people were scurrying around wearing heavy capes and furs even indoors. It had been a long, hard winter. He brooded. There was little chance Morgana would travel in this weather and he accepted he’d have to wait until spring to see his sister again. Her last letter had informed him of the joyful safe arrival of a son for Morgause, and a promise they would all travel to Camelot for a visit when the roads were passable once more. Glad as he would be to welcome back Morgana and to see Morgause again, he sighed a little at the thought of just how smug Bayard would be at the arrival of a healthy heir.
Moving away from the window, he smiled down at Merlin, who’d moved into the space Arthur had vacated and was snuffling endearingly. As he watched, Merlin started awake.
“Wuh?” he managed, staring blearily up at Arthur. “Did you call me?”
“No, you must have been dreaming. Time to be up anyway, breakfast is on the way.”
Merlin smiled sleepily at him and then rolled out of the bed, stretching and yawning.
The breath caught in Arthur’s throat and Merlin met his eyes at the sound. Amusement fled and instead Merlin’s eyes dropped to Arthur’s mouth. Arthur swallowed and then licked his lips, bringing startled eyes back to meet his. A dull, rosy flush washed across Merlin’s face and he stepped closer to Arthur.
A knock at the door shattered the moment and Arthur bit out a sharp but quiet curse as Merlin turned away.
Merlin stood behind Arthur as the various petitioners approached and each made their case. Usually he’d find it fascinating as he identified so closely with many of them and the tenuous, difficult lives they led. So far he’d been impressed by Arthur’s handling of the many small issues he had to deal with, witnessing an even-handed approach that dispensed real justice, taking every fact and nuance into account before making his decision.
Over the months, he’d learned to read Arthur’s body language and had received several approving comments from Matthew when he managed to anticipate Arthur’s need for a drink, a break, some parchment, or whatever Arthur needed. Today, though, his thoughts were too involved in their own fine muddle, part horrified and part excited by how close he’d come to kissing his King – kissing Arthur – that morning.
He wasn’t a prude, growing up on a farm at the edge of a village had seen to that, but he was also inexperienced and Arthur was older. Not old, he thought fiercely, but almost ten years older than Merlin and so much more versed in the ways of this world. In a moment of astuteness Merlin recognised that came from the privileged position of being in control of the world around him, living in a place where he could bend much of what happened to his will. Only nature, Merlin thought wryly, listening to the wind whistling outside as a late winter storm raged, could stand against him.
Arthur had all that power, and Arthur wanted Merlin, so much was obvious. Yet not once had Arthur attempted to exert any coercion and hadn’t even mentioned the possibility. They were beginning to talk more seriously as Merlin became more settled in his role and had found the confidence to ask questions. Arthur was generous with information about Camelot and its ways, but was more guarded about his own life before Merlin had arrived.
What Merlin now had to decide was what happened next, because he had no doubt the decision was his. He was excited and terrified in turn; wanting Arthur so fiercely it was like fire in his blood.
All the ease that had built between them during the past months had disappeared when it came time to retire. Merlin’s fingers felt like sausages as he fumbled the fastenings of Arthur’s doublet. Eventually, Arthur’s hands came up to trap Merlin’s against his chest. Merlin stilled and stared down at their joined hands.
“Merlin. Tell me what you want?”
Arthur’s voice was strained and Merlin, stepping even closer, understood why. There was little Merlin could do to hide his own arousal. Confused, sure about what he wanted but at a loss for the words he needed, he reached across instead and pressed his mouth to Arthur’s
In the next instance, strong arms had wrapped around him and the kiss had segued from a raw boy’s first attempt at passion to something altogether more as Arthur took control. Arthur gentled the caress, kissing softly, breaking off the kiss to mouth along Merlin’s jawline and all Merlin could do was hold on and try to stifle his needy whimpers as his desire spiked ever higher.
Eventually, Arthur pushed at his shoulders until there was some space between them and Merlin was gratified to see he looked just as wrecked and aroused as Merlin was feeling. Satisfaction and a predatory possessiveness he hadn’t realised he was capable of had him grinning at the flushed visage Arthur presented. Arthur was sporting a wry smile, and his eyes were twinkling with mirth and desire.
“There’s no need to rush,” Arthur’s voice was low and sent a shiver running the length of Merlin’s back. The strong arms wrapped around him and pulled him close but the urgency had abated and Merlin let out a shaky breath, pushing his face into Arthur’s shoulder and inhaling the musky scent that was now so familiar and he let it calm him.
Arthur had obviously made up his mind to take things slowly and Merlin was glad of it. For all he’d been brought up in the country and understood the way the beasts acted, a physical relationship between two men was something he wasn’t sure he understood. He trusted Arthur, though, and he smiled as he articulated that for the first time. Finally he felt safe, here with his King, and he knew, fierce and undeniable, that he’d kill to keep Arthur safe. He swallowed the sudden lump in his throat and sought to divert himself from the thought of Arthur ever being in danger. Instead, he slipped his hands beneath the open doublet, burrowing further inward until he could touch flesh.
When the touch was reciprocated, there was a moment when Merlin believed he would come with only that and he had to breath deeply, getting used to Arthur’s hands as they moved across his skin, touching him where no-one had ever touched him.
“Arthur,” he whispered, unaware of the reverence in his tone
A gentle tug on the hair at the back of his head brought his face up and allowed Arthur to capture his mouth once more. Merlin was an enthusiastic participant, testing out the nips and licks Arthur was using for himself, learning what Arthur liked. When Arthur licked at the seam of his lips, he opened his mouth, shivering all over again as Arthur’s tongue slipped in and began an exploration.
Slowly, with so much patience and care it brought tears to Merlin’s eyes more than once, Arthur got them both undressed, until they were facing one another, naked, flushed, aroused.
Merlin reached out tentatively, pausing and seeking Arthur’s reassurance. It was received in a smile as Arthur took Merlin’s hand and curved it around his cock. Merlin gasped at the feel of Arthur’s silky smooth skin, covering such hardness, and then gasped again when Arthur took Merlin in hand. The gasp turned into a moan as Arthur’s hand moved, and Merlin copied the gesture, delighting in the groan he managed to elicit from Arthur.
For the first time since the attack on his village, Merlin felt as if he had some control over his life. He knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that if he asked Arthur to stop, then he would. It made him feel powerful and lent him confidence. He captured Arthur’s mouth, putting the recent experience to good effect and he felt a fierce sense of belonging as Arthur opened his mouth to Merlin’s exploration, feeling something deep in his bones that told him that this, this place, this man, would mean more to him than his own life. He had no idea where the certainty came from, only that it settled within him and lent him a strength that was new. He shivered, partly from fear and partly from excitement and wasn’t surprised when Arthur broke the kiss.
“Do you need us to stop?”
Merlin shook his head, well beyond words, but he pressed forward until flesh was against flesh, and all thought disappeared as the heat from Arthur’s body threatened to immolate him.
A confused few moments followed, punctuated by Arthur’s shaky curses as he manoeuvred Merlin to the bed, arranging them both until they were lying on their sides, pressed together once more and moving in a rhythm as old as life itself. When Arthur hooked a leg around him, Merlin knew he was finished, as the feeling surged and roiled and then washed over him. He cried out as he came, burying his face in Arthur’s shoulder. A log in the grate flared as it caught light but Merlin took no notice, holding on tight until Arthur reached his own completion.
Merlin was done, sleepy and contented. When Arthur fetched a cloth to clean them up, he could only smile and blink, halfway to oblivion already.
Arthur chuckled, the sound fond and indulgent. “So much for the recovery of youth,” he said, and ignored Merlin’s grumbles as Arthur manhandled him until they were under the covers. Immediately, Merlin made himself comfortable in the circle of Arthur’s arms and fell asleep, secure and content.
For the first time, Merlin slept through the night.
When Merlin finally woke, he was disappointed to find himself alone. The hangings were closed and he could hear the murmur of voices beyond. He yawned and stretched, and for a brief moment he almost forgot his loss and was happy. Arthur wanted him. Loved him.
The door opened and closed and in the next moment the fabric parted and Arthur, fully clothed and smirking, stared down at him. Merlin blushed, recalling his wantonness the night before, and Arthur’s expression morphed into something altogether sweeter as he sat down on the bed and pulled Merlin into his arms.
“You certainly did. There’s breakfast for us once you’re dressed.”
Merlin smoothed his hands across the soft blue wool of the doublet Arthur was wearing and glanced up at him through his lashes.
Arthur chuckled. “I know what’s on your mind,” and his hand slipped down in a fleeting caress that didn’t help at all. “We’ll have to wait, I’m afraid. The scouts have returned and I need to take their report. Then it’s Council before knights’ training this afternoon.” He pressed his mouth to Merlin’s, covering the disappointed moue.
He couldn’t help it; Merlin was craving Arthur’s presence in a way that should have alarmed him. Arthur drew back and looked down at him, as if he sensed Merlin didn’t want to be parted from him
“It might be helpful if you were around today – there will be some fetching and carrying to be done. Think you can manage that?”
Merlin pushed at him, but wasn’t trying terribly hard to get free and when Arthur merely tightened his hold slightly, Merlin slumped against him.
“It’s a long time until tonight.”
Arthur groaned, “believe me, I know it.” He kissed Merlin deeply and then loosed his hold, pushing himself away from the bed, his features set. “Now put some clothes on or I won’t be responsible for my actions.” He turned away, ostensibly busy putting food onto their plates.
Merlin felt a rush of shame at the thought of the King serving a lowly peasant like him, and he scrambled out of the bed and after a sketchy wash and dressing quickly, he firmly ordered Arthur to sit, and served him his breakfast.
Arthur’s eyes twinkled, but he said nothing and before long they were on their way to the council chamber.
The scouts turned out to be two of Camelot’s knights, though they were almost unrecognisable. Both were ill dressed and decidedly scruffy. In his few months at Camelot, Merlin had become used to seeing even the poorest clean and in decent clothes. With a sudden surge of realisation, he recognised that they weren’t scouts at all - they were spies.
Arthur stepped forward and embraced both men. “Gwaine, Percival, what do you have to report that couldn’t wait until you’d washed?” His tone was warm and teasing but there was a new tension in him and Merlin found his own anxiety spiking. Winter was finally easing but conditions were still harsh. What had prompted the men to travel now? He moved closer to Arthur, hovering just behind him and missed the raised eyebrow Gwaine treated Arthur to.
“Merlin, would you ask one of the servants to bring some bread, meat, cheese and ale. Take a seat, gentlemen.
Merlin scuttled off and was back almost before they’d settled themselves.
Gwaine was speaking and Merlin slipped into his place beside Arthur’s chair. “It’s as we feared. We saw four encampments of Saxons in Ascetir and those were well-hidden.”
Merlin stopped listening, wondering who else was talking in the background. He glanced round as someone called him, smiling absently at the maid as she slipped in with the food and drink he’d requested. She was new and he was surprised she already knew his name. He tended to forget that as the King’s servant, his profile was higher. He nodded in acknowledgement and then turned his attention back to what the men were discussing. Much of it seemed to be numbers and geography, matters of which he had little understanding. He’d ask Arthur later, he decided, when they were on their own.
He only realised he was smiling when the other man, Percival, caught his eye and winked briefly. Flushing, he hid himself behind Arthur’s chair as much as possible and ignored the knowing grin Gwaine and Percival exchanged, and Arthur’s obvious chagrin.
For the rest of the day, Arthur seemed distracted and Merlin did his best to anticipate everything he might need. It wasn’t until the door closed behind them late in the evening that Arthur relaxed and drew Merlin into his arms.
“That was a long day,” he said, and obviously didn’t expect a response when he immediately captured Merlin’s mouth to kiss him deeply.
Merlin melted against him, looping his arms around Arthur’s neck and gave himself up to the passion. Questions could wait, he decided. There were much better things to do first.
There were moments during the night when Merlin marvelled at Arthur’s patience and others when his own impatience drew a rumble of delighted laughter, but when Arthur slid into his body for the first time, all Merlin could do was hold on tight and revel in the knowledge that now he was Arthur’s. No one could ever take that from him.
Later in the night, after they’d made love again, Arthur had talked to Merlin about the growing bands of Saxons entering the lands of Ascetir and his fears of a war against Camelot. He spoke of the alliances he was building and the understanding of those ruling neighbouring kingdoms that this threat to Camelot was a threat to all.
When Arthur slept, Merlin manoeuvred them until the King’s head rested on Merlin’s chest and in the deep dark of the night, a hand over Arthur’s heart, he made his vows; to protect Arthur any way he could, to stand by him, to die beside him if that was how their story must end.
“I would take all your sorrow if I could,” he murmured into the darkness. The fire flared and Arthur stirred, and then settled with a soft sigh.
Merlin tightened his grip and swallowed hard.
Merlin was standing on the battlements with Arthur when he saw them in the distance.
“Isn’t that the patrol from the north?” He pointed towards the splash of colour making its way towards Camelot. “It looks like Elyan in the lead.”
“You have good eyes, Merlin.” Arthur frowned as he watched their slow progress. “They’re not due back for several days and it looks –“ In the next moment he was heading for the door and Merlin, taken by surprise at his speed, scuttled after him to catch up. Arthur caught his arm as they reached the bottom of the stairs. “Go and get Edwin. There are injuries.”
Merlin didn’t waste any breath asking how Arthur could know that and instead took off at a run towards the physician’s rooms.
By the time he helped Edwin gather the immediate supplies he might need, filled his own arms and followed Edwin’s long, swift steps, the patrol was clattering into the courtyard. With dread, Merlin immediately noted the two riderless horses and could almost feel the wash of Arthur’s sorrow and concern as he saw them, too.
Weary, bloody and battered, the patrol still made a valiant attempt to pull themselves straight and tall as they saw their King, and Merlin felt a surge of pride, and knew Arthur was feeling the same.
“Sir Elyan, let us see to your men and horses first, then we shall hear your report.”
“Thank you, Sire.”
Edwin pressed Merlin into service then and he lost sight of Arthur in the general confusion of men and horses. Once he’d helped the last of the injured knights to their room to rest, he made his way to Arthur’s chambers. Elyan was there, still unkempt and unshaven from the journey back. His voice was quiet but was forceful.
“I’m telling you, Arthur, no-one else knew of our route –“ he broke off when he realised Merlin was there.
It registered then, the meaning behind Elyan’s words and he gasped aloud at the implication, the words bursting out of him before he even thought that it was not his place to speak.
“I didn’t say a word to anyone. How could you think that?”
Elyan stared into the goblet of wine in his hand, but his jaw was set and he said nothing. Merlin looked at Arthur to find him already the subject of a thoughtful gaze.
“Arthur,” he whispered. “Tell me you don’t believe I’d betray you. Tell me.”
Arthur’s gaze shifted to rest on Elyan. “Ask someone to send some food, Merlin. We’ll speak later.”
It was a dismissal and Merlin felt a hurt and confusion he’d never known, even through the awful time with Haldig. Without taking any official leave, he stumbled out of the room, retained enough sense to give a maid the order and then fled, running through the corridors to find a quiet corner.
He was soon lost, venturing into parts of the castle he’d never seen before, making his way up some winding steps and opening a door to a surprisingly spacious room that was cluttered shelves and a table holding some of the medical paraphernalia he recognised from Edwin’s chambers, with bundles of aromatic herbs hanging and an upper gallery with shelves stuffed with books. The place was empty, silent and still, yet felt welcoming and the tight band of unhappiness around Merlin’s chest eased a little as he stared round. It almost seemed as if it had been waiting for him. There was a low bed to one side and he sank down on it gratefully to bury his face in his hands, before kicking off his boots and lying down. He curled up into a miserable ball and shut his eyes, trying to banish the memory of Arthur’s cool, considering look.
He hadn’t meant to sleep, and by the time he woke, there was a fire flickering in the grate and he realised he wasn’t alone.
“There you are, my boy. I thought you were going to sleep the rest of the day away.”
Merlin blinked up at the old man smiling down at him, liking him on sight if slightly confused by the immediate warmth and comfort he felt.
“I’m sorry. I was looking for somewhere quiet.”
“And you found me here. I’m glad to finally meet you, Merlin. We’ve all been waiting a long time for you to arrive.”
Merlin clambered off the bed, straightening the covers and moved to sit at the table. “Who are you?”
“I’m Gaius. I was the physician here before Edwin.”
Edwin’s very kind,” Merlin vouchsafed. “He looks after everyone and it doesn’t matter if they’re a noble or a servant or a farm labourer. He treats them all the same.”
“I’m pleased to hear that, as he was my apprentice. I’m glad he’s so well thought of.” He pats Merlin’s hand then. “So, Merlin, why have you found your way to me now?”
The events of earlier swamped Merlin and he swallows hard before he spills out his fear that Arthur might believe he had been betrayed by Merlin. It was more comforting than he could have thought, telling Gaius everything. With an occasional word, Gaius has him telling his life story, blushing a little when he admits how much he loves Arthur and is encouraged by the smile of approval he receives when he says the words.
“Arthur has always been lonely. Uther loved him, but he was a harsh man made harsher when he lost Ygraine. Morgana helps but she’s his sister and can’t give him the love he needs. You are what he’s been seeking, Merlin, even though he’s never been aware of it. You give him your loyalty and your love, and you understand the lives of his subjects and will not hesitate to remind him of his duty to them. Arthur understands that, have no fear.” Gaius patted him on the shoulder. “Why don’t you have another nap, hmm? I’ll watch over you until Arthur comes for you.”
Merlin smiled at Gaius and did as he was bid, lying down once more on the narrow cot; feeling cared for as Gaius settled a blanket over him and pressed a gentle hand to his forehead. Sleepiness washed over him.
“Thank you, Gaius. I’m so glad I’ve met you.”
“And I you, my dear boy. Sleep now.”
He blinked awake, confused and disorientated, his mouth shifting into an involuntary smile when he saw Arthur’s worried gaze on him. Yawning, he pushed the blanket aside and struggled upright. He felt refreshed and ready to talk to Arthur now, convinced he could not possibly believe that Merlin might have betrayed him. He glanced round the silent, dusty room and frowned a little at the cold, empty grate.
Arthur looked at him strangely, but before he could say anything else, Merlin blurted out.
“I didn’t say anything to anyone about the patrol.”
His response was satisfying enough, as Arthur leaned forward and kissed him gently. “Don’t be stupid. It’s dinnertime and I want to eat in our chambers tonight.”
Merlin stared up at him, flushing in pleasure and then grinning at Arthur’s puzzlement as he realised Arthur had no idea what he’d said. Instead, he scrambled up from the cot; his confusion at the state of the room lost amidst the dawning knowledge that Arthur hadn’t believed Merlin had betrayed his trust.
As they were about to go their separate ways, Arthur placed a hand on Merlin’s arm, drawing him in until he could speak softly.
“I wish I could have left you wondering, Merlin, for it could have made trapping our spy easier if he thought his plan to incriminate you had worked.” He smiled, mouth quirking into ruefulness. “You looked so sad and I couldn’t…” With a sigh, he finished. “Sometimes you make me weak, Merlin.”
Merlin, buoyed by such an overt display of Arthur’s innermost thoughts, reached out and cupped Arthur’s cheek in his hand. “You could never be weak, Arthur. You’re a good King, and your people love you.” He grinned, suddenly full of a confidence he thought lost forever. “I can play a part for you?” He stepped back and recalled his early days in Camelot, feeling his shoulders hunch, his head drop and let his happy expression fade to woebegone and disgruntled.
Arthur barked out a laugh and Merlin stood tall again.
“Very well, then. Let’s see what we can do.”
Merlin paused only long enough to cast a grin at Arthur before he headed off towards the kitchens.
Over the following weeks they maintained the fiction that matters had gone awry between them and though it didn’t seem to fool any of those closest to them, outside that trusted circle Merlin did notice a shift in the attitude of others around the castle. He did his best to ignore it, the snide comments and occasional nastiness and reminded himself that Arthur trusted him and that they were playing a role. Once they had discovered the spy, this would end and at least, Merlin thought grimly, he would know who his real friends were.
Arthur checked with him every night, willing to dispense with the charade if it was becoming too much but Merlin was adamant. This was a way he could help protect Arthur and he would do so much more if he had to.
It had its benefits, too, Merlin thought. Elyan had spoken privately to him, apologising for believing for a moment he might betray Arthur. Arthur, apparently, had informed Elyan in no uncertain terms that Merlin had his full trust and that had warmed Merlin. The other knights, too, seemed to have no doubts.
They watched and planned and waited, dripping out information carefully to see what was acted upon, meeting in Arthur’s chambers to share intelligence and begin to narrow down the list of suspects.
In the meantime, Merlin watched life return to the earth as the snow finally retreated and the trees began to put out hopeful buds and the ground to be covered in a soft carpet of new green, and he fell so deeply in love with Arthur and with Camelot that it almost eased the deep grief he carried.
One night, when Merlin had finished pottering around and had closed the window to shut out the freshness of the cool spring night, and slipped naked into the bed, Arthur kissed him gently and handed him something.
Frowning, he looked down and then heat suffused him as he saw the little vial of oil. “Arthur?”
“Yes, Merlin. Let’s see how well I’ve taught you.”
There was an attempt at a teasing arrogance but there was something in Arthur’s eyes that caught the breath in Merlin’s throat.
“Have you…? I …” Merlin didn’t know how to ask.
“For you, Merlin.”
Arthur whispered the words and there was such love in his eyes that Merlin’s own sight blurred for a moment. He blinked and reached up to kiss Arthur softly, then he grinned and tumbled them over until Arthur was on his back. Arthur laughed, and Merlin thought there was relief in it as the heightened emotion eased and became passion.
Merlin couldn’t help but be nervous, even though they’d been lovers for some time now and had an ease with one another’s bodies, but they’d never done this – and Merlin had never really taken the lead. Now, though, he sense that with this gift, Arthur had also ceded the control and he wanted Arthur to know how much he was loved, how much Merlin appreciated this.
Hands trembling, he unstopped the oil and tried not to spill too much of it. Arthur’s eyes followed his every move, dark with desire, Merlin hoped, rather than apprehension.
“Arthur, are you sure?” He had to ask again.
An annoyed huff of breath and a roll of his eyes was Arthur’s response, but as he slid his legs apart, the movement a soft susurration on the sheets, it was all Merlin needed.
Merlin knew by now it would probably be easier for Arthur if he was on his front, but over the months they’d both learned that they preferred making love face to face and Merlin accepted that this was what Arthur wanted now.
He kissed his way up the inside of one knee, while his fingers smoothed around the puckered entrance to Arthur’s body, and he took his time readying Arthur, glorying in the noises, the demands for more, the quiet pleas. Leaning forward, he took the hard cock into his mouth as he slipped the first finger into a hot, tight channel, feeling rather than hearing Arthur’s groan.
Before long, he was using the oil on himself, breathing deeply to calm himself and then he pressed forward, pausing at Arthur’s startled cry as the head of his cock pushed beyond the rim and inside. He paused, letting Arthur get used to the feeling but obviously waited a little too long as with a grumble, Arthur tilted his hips and bore down.
Merlin cursed at the sudden swift slide into Arthur’s body and without any conscious thought he thrust hard once, twice, before he managed to exert some control and paused for a moment. He reached up until he could tangle the fingers of each hand with Arthur’s.
Words were battering at him, surging like an unstoppable tide and as he set up a smooth, steady rhythm, they poured from him.
“I would bind myself to you, Arthur Pendragon – my life, my body, my essence. For today, tomorrow and for all time. I’m yours.” He’d no idea where the words were coming from but they felt so right tumbling from his lips.
Arthur stared at him in wonder, his eyes reflecting firelight as he pulled Merlin ever closer. “And I would bind myself to you, too, Merlin – life, body, essence – for now –oh,” He arched under Merlin. “Forever.”
The logs crackled in the fire, sparking and sending up a shoot of flame that seemed to bathe the room in gold for a moment, but both men were oblivious as they became lost in one another and in chasing their release.
Morgana Pendragon reined her horse in as they reached the top of the rise and she could see Camelot spread out before her in all its glory. She couldn’t help the soft smile that surfaced then, faced with the sight of home. Camelot was gleaming in the light of an early spring afternoon, the lowering sun casting a golden glow to the stone. She glanced across at Gwen and saw the same love for home etched in her expression. Gwen caught her look and grinned at her, the sparkle in her eye reminding Morgana not just of the place, but also of the people who waited as well. She chuckled aloud and then blushed as Morgause rode up to join them, her own face reflecting a sly amusement.
“The thought of being home fills you with joy,” Morgause said, and grinned at them as they both blushed. “I wonder why?”
“Oh, hush,” said Morgana, attempting sternness though she couldn’t quite manage to stop her smile.
Bayard arrived alongside. “Shall we continue, beloved? I’ve no doubt our son will soon be making himself heard.”
He raised his eyebrows as he gestured at the child wrapped securely against Morgause.
“True enough,” she said, and urged her horse forward.
The cavalcade followed, wending its way down the hill and before long they heard the echo of a cry from the tower as the watch caught sight of them.
Morgana grinned at Gwen and urged her horse into a trot as they reached the meadow. Gwen chuckled and did the same and before long their horses, as eager to be home as they, despite the long journey, were racing across the grass towards the gates opening to receive them.
As they clattered into the courtyard, friends and family were gathering to meet them. Morgana smiled up at Arthur as he descended the steps towards her, cloak catching the wind with a dramatic flourish. Behind him trotted a tall young man and her eyes passed over him without taking much notice other than to note that Arthur seemed to have acquired a new manservant.
Without waiting for help, she swung herself off her horse and dropped a swift curtsey. Arthur took her hand and pressed a swift kiss to it before catching her up in a hug.
After a moment’s surprise, she returned the embrace. They loved one another, but they’d not been brought up in an environment that had encouraged easy displays of affection. This was rare and even rarer for being in public. She swallowed sudden lump in her throat and knew her eyes were suspiciously bright when they parted. But then, she reasoned, Arthur seemed to be in the same state, so that was fine.
“Morgana, welcome home.” Arthur took a moment to look at her. “You are well?”
“I’m glad to be home,” she said, and then looked past him to the man standing to the side, his eyes fixed on her face
Arthur coughed, as if he was hiding a laugh and he turned away to greet Gwen, who was already wrapped up in Lancelot’s arms, and Morgana hid her chagrin at being so easily read.
“Leon,” she acknowledged him and he responded by bowing deeply and pressing a kiss to the back of her hand.
“Welcome home, Your Royal Highness,” he said.
She winced a little at the reverence in his voice and sighed, wondering what it was going to take for him to break through the boundaries of rank. With a roll of her eyes, she reached up and bussed his cheek. “I missed you, Leon,” she said. There, she thought, I really can’t be any clearer. She smiled at him, enjoying the flush of colour on his cheeks, and even more the sudden light in his eyes.
“Morgana,” Leon said, his voice hopelessly fond.
Their attention was taken by the more sedate arrival of the rest of the party and Morgana was gratified to see the warmth with which Arthur greeted her sister and husband, taking time to meet the babe and give his congratulations. She exchanged a glance with Morgause, sharing her pleasure at Arthur’s obvious delight.
“Merlin,” Arthur called out, and Morgana watched as the servant skittered forward, seemingly nervous, halting at Arthur’s side and listening carefully, head cocked to one side.
“Yes, Sire,” he said, breathless and unsure. He glanced up then and caught her watching him, starting, before his own eyes shifted from her and he blushed. He spun away from Arthur and moved across to Bayard’s manservant, as they began the task of getting everyone settled. One of the other castle servants got in the way and Morgana saw the elbow that caught Merlin. The young man ignored it, and continued in his work.
Morgana saw the way Arthur watched Merlin, saw the slight frown colour his features, before his attention was taken by Bayard’s approach.
Over the days following, Morgana became increasingly puzzled at the odd relationship between Arthur and his new servant. She acknowledged that in the eyes of most in the castle, Merlin was well established, but to her he was an unknown quantity and there was something about him that unsettled her. The knights seemed to like him well enough, but some of the other servants seemed hostile and it was as if they had split into two camps where Merlin was concerned. As the Chatelaine, it was a real cause for concern. Morgana had always prided herself on running the castle smoothly, but nothing could cause dissent quicker than cliques or divisions in the servants’ hall.
“What do you think of Merlin?” she asked Gwen, her attempt to be artless and casual failing as Gwen turned to face her, frowning.
They were alone in Morgana’s chambers and had been sharing a companionable silence while Gwen pottered around unpacking the great chests that had arrived in the carts earlier that day.
“Why do you ask?” Gwen said. The last vestiges of her deference to Morgana and shyness in her presence had been dispelled by the travels they’d undertaken together, and now she stopped what she was doing and subsided into the seat opposite Morgana.
Morgana shrugged. “I can’t make him out at all,” she confessed. “There are times I think Arthur doesn’t like him and then I catch him watching the boy with the oddest look on his face.”
“I know he shares Arthur’s bed,” Gwen clapped a hand over her mouth, as if she hadn’t meant to let that slip.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean – I know Arthur prefers – but he’s shared his bed in the winter in the past.” Morgana stumbled from one thought to the next.
Gwen sighed. “There’s some gossip in the servant’s hall that he talks out of turn, that he’s responsible for the last patrol being ambushed. That other new servant – Cedric? – he thinks Merlin should be dismissed from Arthur’s service. The others like Merlin though. I think the cook has a real fondness for him.” Gwen’s voice altered then, her tone becoming thoughtful. “Merlin would be around the same age as her Thomas – and looks a little like him. He’s a squire at Alined’s court now and I know she misses him. She’s always had a real fondness for the King, too - her first boy died the day he was born. I think that’s why Arthur was determined to do his best for Thomas.
“Arthur wouldn’t keep anyone close who betrayed him, though.”
“Unless he was trying to catch him in the act, I suppose?”
It sounded like a question, but Morgana waved it aside. It wasn’t as if she could offer any answers. “I don’t like that I don’t understand him. I don’t want Arthur to be hurt.”
Gwen got to her feet and moved back to the trunk she had been sorting through. “He’s a man full-grown, Morgana. I’m sure he’ll manage.”
There seemed little more to be said, but Morgana made herself a silent promise to learn more about the young man who seemed to be at the centre of Arthur’s life now.
True to her decision, she had half an eye on Merlin the next time the council met. She’d been surprised to see him there, hovering behind Arthur, bright, eager eyes glancing around the room and taking everything in. She tore her eyes away from him and considered the current meeting. The mood of everyone sitting at the great round table was sombre. The various knights, Lords and ordinary citizens who made up the inner council had heard the reports of the various scouts. Bayard and Morgause had been asked to join the Council, too, adding the intelligence from Mercia that matched what was being told to Arthur; all along the borders, groups of Saxons were gathering. War was coming.
Arthur hadn’t really wanted to call the council meeting at all. He knew it would last for hours as they tried to find ways to defeat Cenred, and he knew that with the Saxons strengthening their presence and bringing in increasing numbers, there was little to be done to prevent the inevitable end. The interception of Camelot’s patrols was also taking its toll and Arthur knew nothing could be planned to deal with the bigger issue unless they could use their gathered intelligence to stop the leak.
Arthur sighed and looked around at his closest friends and allies and they all stared back at him, waiting for him to speak. The idea came to him between one heartbeat and the next. “There is only one last thing to try. Camelot must despatch an envoy to Cenred and try to convince him to stop, that peace is our way ahead.” He paused for a few moments; aware that what he was about to say would not be welcome. “I must go.”
The outcry washed over him, and he was glad of it as all the reactions ran true. If their spy was in the room then this would be enough to convince them that he was serious. He’d thought carefully about how to draw out the traitor and knew at this stage it was imperative that the reactions from his friends and family must be unmistakeably real. Everyone had to believe in this first moment, that he really meant to travel to Ascetir.
Morgana retained her dignity but her tone was biting as she refuted his suggestion, and many of the others expressed their own disquiet. Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw Merlin standing with the other servants, his face chalk white. Oh, there would be a reckoning there, he realised and accepted he had handled this badly. In his determination to be a King, he’d lost sight of the fact he was a man with very personal ties. Even though he was setting in motion a ruse, Merlin was the one person he should have shared this with first. He deserved better consideration.
He held his hands up to try and stem the tide of dissent washing over him from all directions.
“I will reconsider if anyone can offer me an acceptable alternative,” he managed to keep his tone mild and glanced around the table, catching people’s eyes and reminding them, by the force of his will alone, that he was king. Looking last at Merlin, he tried to convey the same. He wasn’t sure it had worked nearly as well, if the clenched fists and hunched shoulders were any guide.
Bayard alone had retained his seat and he nodded in approval at Arthur’s statement. There was a look in his eye that suggested he’d determined Arthur’s real strategy. The rest of them sat and in the general confusion of settling down, Arthur took his eyes off Merlin, and when he glanced back to the corner, it was empty.
Morgana accompanied Arthur back to his chambers without invitation and in complete silence. To any who passed, she appeared as serene and calm as always, the epitome of the graceful and gracious princess they all recognised. Arthur, however, knew her better and could almost feel the waves of seething anger emanating from her.
As soon as the door was closed behind them, she let fly.
“What were you thinking, Arthur? Of all the foolhardy ideas – you can’t seriously mean to go through with this?”
She paced around the room as she spoke, which meant she was out of Merlin’s view when he barrelled through the door in a tearing fury.
“Are you out of your mind?” He all but shrieked the words. “Are you trying to get yourself killed, you great dollophead –“
“Is this how you address your King?”
The ice in Morgana’s voice effectively doused the fire of Merlin’s anger.
“Be grateful that your Lord is kind – too kind it seems – and we do not flog servants for such effrontery.” As the Chatelaine of the Castle all matters relating to the servants came under her purview, so she was within her rights to take issue with a servant’s conduct, even in the presence of the king.
She didn’t know, Arthur realised. Since her return he and Merlin had been maintaining their fiction in public that Merlin had lost Arthur’s favour. She couldn’t possibly know what Merlin meant to him – what Merlin was to him.
“Morgana,” he interrupted her.
“No, Arthur, you are too soft. I will arrange to have a more appropriate servant assigned to you. One who knows his place.”
“It’s fine, Sire,” Merlin spoke, his eyes fixed on the floor and face red with mortification rather than anger now. “I apologise for my behaviour. If you’ll excuse me –“
“No,” Arthur was adamant.
“Sire,” Merlin’s eyes met his.
Arthur saw the anguish there, and nodded in defeat.
With a shambolic attempt at a bow, Merlin was out of the door and both Morgana and Arthur stood in silence as the patter of his fleeing steps retreated.
“What is going on?” Morgana asked.
“You’ve always known I’m not one for women, Morgana.” Arthur thought it best to be blunt. “I haven’t had a chance to talk to you properly since your return or you would have known about Merlin."
The expression of disbelief on Morgana’s face had him amused, but also bristling on Merlin’s behalf, before he acknowledged that Morgana could not yet know Merlin’s worth.
“That boy? Really?”
Arthur shrugged, unwilling to explain to Morgana what Merlin meant to him. Even after their months together, he still found it difficult to understand the way he’d been so completely captivated, drawn in from the start. Merlin was special. Arthur didn’t know why he was so sure of the fact, but sure he was. There was a closeness between them now that defied explanation and he could feel Merlin’s embarrassment and anguish as if it was his own.
“Outside these four walls I am the King, but in here, when the two of us are together, then we are equals and he speaks his mind without fear or favour.”
“That can never be true, Arthur, you are always the King.” She chided him.
“You’re wrong,” and he hoped she couldn’t hear the desperation in his voice. “He is my equal. I need it to be so.”
“But he will always defer to you.”
He smiled then. “Do you think he was deferring to me earlier?”
“But he would have done eventually.”
“You don’t know him. Don’t presume to judge.”
“I know you, though, Arthur. You have always been in control. You have always had to be in control.”
“Only because I never found someone I could trust enough –“ He stopped himself, but from the way Morgana’s expression changed, he knew it was too late. Still, he tried to explain. “A partner, Morgana, you know I trust you.”
Her frozen hurt morphed into a rueful smile, “I know – and I know it’s a different type of trust.” She sighed. “Your suggestion about Cenred is madness, he’s right enough about that.”
“I know,” he grinned at her, “but we’re going to run with it and see what it smokes out.”
Her eyebrows rose. Had she really believed he would be so foolish as to put himself in Cenred’s control? He saw the moment she understood and they shared a smile of satisfaction.
“Shall I put preparations in place for a feast, then, dear brother? A last dinner before you ride out on your noble quest?” She dropped a deep curtsey, but the effect was spoiled by the smirk.
He rolled his eyes at her as she rose, and she was half way through the door when he recalled something she’d said earlier.
“Morgana? What do you mean you know it’s a different type of trust? Morgana?”
“Ask me no secrets and I’ll tell you no lies,” her voice was a mocking sing song and then the door closed quietly and he was left gaping at the wood.
Merlin had run to the one place he always felt safe. Sometimes, Gaius would be there, speaking to him quietly and Merlin would drink in the stories he told, of strange creatures and people doing the oddest things. Other times, the room would remain silent and still, as if no one had lived there for a long time. Today it was quiet and there was no fire in the grate. Shivering a little, Merlin curled up under the dusty blankets on the cot, hugging himself tight and tried to get over the cutting shame that had come on the heels of Morgana’s sharp words.
Arthur had made it so clear that he could speak his mind when they were within his chambers and alone, but he’d never really thought what it might mean were someone to overhear them. His thoughts were a miserable tangle, and he was afraid that his anger over Arthur’s plans on top of Morgana’s presence when he’d berated the King would have repercussions. What exactly might happen, he couldn’t guess, but he was tired and upset and not at his most rational. With a gulping sigh, and against his will, his eyes closed.
A hand threading through his hair brought him back to wakefulness and he blinked up into Arthur’s concerned face.
“Wha-? he said, before he rubbed his fists across his eyes and blearily tried to focus.
Arthur chuckled, seeming a little breathless, and Merlin felt all his doubts and anguish washed away in the clear bright eyes looking at him with such fondness. Arthur was perched on the edge of the narrow bed, managing even in such a precarious position, to look poised and regal.
“Hello,” Merlin said, feeling stupid and inadequate in the face of Arthur’s brilliance, but still happy in the knowledge that Arthur cared for him, even if Merlin was only a lowly servant.
“Merlin,” Arthur shook his head, mouth quirked upwards. “Morgana understands now, I promise. I’m sorry I didn’t make it clear to her when she arrived.”
“I shouldn’t have shouted,” Merlin said.
Arthur grinned at him. “I like it when you shout,” he admitted and though he was smiling his eyes had become serious. “It makes me feel like you really care.”
Reaching up, Merlin cupped his hand round the strong jaw, feeling the tension in it. “I do care. There’s no one I care for more. You know that, don’t you?"
His question was not answered with words, but Merlin felt he received quite a satisfactory response, as he let Arthur pull him into his arms.
There had been no attempt to hide the supposed approach to Cenred Arthur proposed and as he wove his way through the milling servants in the anteroom to the kitchen, Merlin could hear enough of them gossiping about it. He tried not to feel upset when they stopped talking any time he got closer. It was as if they thought he couldn’t hear them at all. He paused and frowned, watching the little groups talking, hands in front of their mouths, eyes darting from side to side. They were all trying to be quiet and yet if Merlin concentrated, he could hear what they were saying. He shrugged it aside and instead concentrated on his own duties, as he gathered together the food set aside for Arthur’s tray. The talking had gone long after dinner and now most of the council seem to be taking supper in their rooms, if the press of servants and the harried cooks were anything to go by. Still, he thought frowning; this tray was for the King. He caught one of the kitchen serf’s eyes and motioned him over.
“See if you can find some honey cake for the King, and the new red wine from France unwatered.”
The serf looked as if he was about to argue, but Merlin had spent months in Camelot now, and he knew both his own place and his own power. Despite the unpleasant rumours floating around about him, there was no gainsaying that he was the King’s man and his orders took precedence over any of the other servants. Across the hall he caught Marian’s approving look. Some of the servants were hostile, believing the lies Cedric was spreading about him in his jealousy at Merlin’s position, but Merlin had seen and heard Marian’s reaction to anyone who spoke against him and knew she still believed in him. He smiled at her, and then turned his head, wondering who had called him.
He started, wondering how anyone could shout his name so loudly without anyone else taking any notice. When he turned back, the serf was there with the food and drink he’d requested. The boy had a slightly grubby air and had the permanently hungry look of a young boy just hitting his growth spurt, but Merlin was surprised at the volume he’d managed.
“No need to shout,” he said, taking no notice of the puzzled look he was offered in response.
There was no point saying anything further, and instead he thanked the boy before hefting the laden tray up and making his way towards Arthur’s rooms.
As he walked, he thought about the feast that would take place the next night, ostensibly to send Arthur on his way to Ascetir. Merlin swallowed, and was glad he wasn’t going along. At first he’d argued to be part of the group, saying the king would have his servant along. Arthur had countered it firmly by announcing that he was taking a squire and he would do well enough. Merlin had subsided, wondering whether to feel slighted when he caught the concern in the look Arthur cast at him. On reflection, he’d traced the route Arthur might well be taking and felt some of his colour leach from him as he recognised it was almost the same route as he’d travelled at the mercy of the slavers.
He swallowed against the bile the memory elicited, and concentrated on his journey to the King’s chambers.
Arthur was alone when he entered and Merlin was glad of it. Lately, it seemed either Morgana, Morgause or Bayard were always in the room and it had begun to feel as if he really was just a servant. Before Morgana had returned it had really only been himself and Arthur who inhabited the chambers in the evening. Some of the knights would often join Arthur for lunch if they had matters to discuss, but there were no invitations for dinner for knights or nobles. Morgana, of course, was family and the others Royalty and Merlin certainly felt the difference.
For the moment he pushed the slight melancholy away and met Arthur’s grin with one of his own, happy when Arthur approached and began helping to transfer the food from the tray to table, before they pulled up their chairs and Arthur poured them each some wine. Merlin pouted when he saw he’d only been allocated half a cup.
Arthur chuckled. “This is strong. Let’s see how you manage on this first. I don’t want you falling asleep on me later.” His leer was so overdone that Merlin nearly choked on his first mouthful of the wine, and Arthur laughed out loud, apparently well satisfied with this reaction.
The evening had been perfect, Merlin decided, as he lay sleepy and satisfied in the circle of Arthur’s arms a few hours later. During supper they’d talked quietly about Camelot, Arthur speaking about his plans for the future and asking for Merlin’s opinion. He’d listened carefully, too, and had picked up and expanded on some of Merlin’s thoughts. Then, Arthur had taken him to bed and made love to him with a sweetness and a joy that had brought glad tears to Merlin’s eyes, having to explain to Arthur that they were happy tears. Arthur had smiled at him and kissed them away before pulling Merlin into his embrace and settling them for sleep.
Merlin thought about his life for a few moments. The sting of grief over what he’d lost was still there and he thought perhaps it always would be, but loss was not the end, he could see now, because however deep the pain, it didn’t mean there couldn’t be love and laughter, too. He thought of his mother, her soft hair and eyes and her gentle laughter and he fancied he felt the touch of her lips brush his forehead in approval as he slipped into slumber.
The next morning Merlin was sent on a number of errands he knew were fabricated specifically to keep him out of the way of any discussions taking place about the trip to Ascetir. Arthur’s sweetness the night before had, Merlin realised now, been a pre-emptive apology, because the exclusion today was marked and while in his heart he knew it was a ruse, it didn’t stop the knowing glances and the way other servants nudged one another. Part of the day he spent with Edwin, and was soothed by his easy conversation and endless anecdotes. Edwin kept his mind and his brain busy, teaching Merlin some herb craft as they prepared potions, and amused him with his stories of Camelot and its inhabitants.
Merlin wanted to ask him about Gaius, missing the comfort the old man had offered him on the few occasions they’d met. Some reticence held him back though and instead he voiced the concern that was over-riding everything else.
“If everyone knows what Arthur is planning, how will it flush out a traitor?” He spoke quietly, for though Edwin was part of the inner circle who knew about their ruse, it wouldn’t do for anyone else to become aware of it.
Edwin stopped in the middle of a juicy tale about the miller’s second son and regarded Merlin with a smile.
“Arthur announced to everyone what he was going to do and when – but he didn’t say anything about how he was going to do it, did he? He didn’t mention exactly when he was leaving, or what route he intends to take. And whatever route it is, and whatever happens, you can be sure that everyone in the Castle will be well aware you were nowhere close when those discussions took place. Arthur is smoking out the traitor and removing all suspicion from you at the same time.”
Merlin wondered if he looked as besotted as he felt at this further evidence of Arthur’s thoughtfulness in relation to him, and flushed as Edwin chuckled and rolled his eyes. That was the answer to that, then, but he couldn’t find it in himself to care about Edwin’s gentle mockery.
“And to ensure his plan works, you can come with me on my rounds and carry my bags for me. I’m not as young as I was, you know and I could use an assistant for the day.”
Merlin snorted. Edwin was a fine figure of a man and probably only a few years older than Merlin. Edwin laughed at him again, and then spent the next few moments loading him with bags of lotions and potions, before he decided they were ready to leave.
The rest of the day was spent trotting around the town and castle, being introduced to a whole range of people, from lowborn to high. By the time he was sent off to gather up Arthur’s dinner, Merlin had gained even greater respect for Edwin, witness to his even-handed approach to everyone he dealt with, and his ability to reassure, to chivvy and to downright bully his patients into following his advice, and all done with humour and compassion.
As Merlin loaded up Arthur’s tray, he thought he’d learned more in one day than he ever had – not just about the duties of a physician, but in how to gauge people’s temper, how to look beyond the surface to see what was driving them. Edwin’s astute asides and explanations had been illuminating. He smiled a little as he made his careful way out of the kitchens and towards Arthur, feeling the little tension beneath his ribs lessen the closer he got.
Frowning, Merlin turned to see who had called him and then froze.
The corridor was empty.
Arthur had made his plans carefully, after discussion with his closest knights, Morgana, Morgause and Bayard, they had identified three possible traitors. Morgana had wanted to add Merlin to the list, but Arthur had steadfastly refused, until he’d admitted his actions in ensuring Merlin would not know any of the information they would be disclosing. Morgana had looked triumphant at first until she had chased down his motivation, at which point she’d raised her eyebrows at him. At least she had subsided and instead just offered him the occasional thoughtful look.
That was unnerving enough.
Their three possible suspects were all relative newcomers to Camelot, but none had ever admitted to hailing from Ascetir. Cedric was their front-runner, a loathsome man everyone disliked and who was a notorious and spiteful gossip. The other two seemed less likely; Sefa was a new maid who’d joined Morgana’s staff and was a quiet and pleasant girl, while Gilli had drifted into Camelot almost six months ago, found work in the Castle stables and was spoken well of by the ostler.
To try to determine who was actually responsible, Arthur had ensured each of the three had ended up privy to information relating to a different route Arthur was ostensibly taking. It hadn’t been easy, working out how to introduce reasons for the deviation from the most straightforward of routes, but Arthur hoped they’d made it believable enough. The only real concern he had was whether there was more than one of them involved because if they compared what they’d learned then they would have to realise they were suspected. All he could do was set a careful, discreet watch on the three of them and see how their plans panned out.
New patrols were due out in the morning and Arthur’s own knights were at their head. Instead of their usual routes, they would be in place at each of the three points where ambush would be likely. It was all rather tenuous and less certain than Arthur would like, and he could see his concerns reflected in those around him, but for the moment it was the best plan they could come up with. If it failed, then they would have to think again.
Arthur watched the patrols leave in the morning, Merlin silent and fretful at his side. The soft folds of Arthurs cloak hid the swift press of his hand around Merlin’s cold fingers, before they were swept apart to their respective duties. Arthur had wanted to keep Merlin with him, but knew it was best they keep their distance for the moment. The lost look Merlin cast at him as he headed off to help Edwin once more had enough understanding in it to ease some of Arthur’s guilt. Just a little.
The following morning it was Arthur’s turn as, with an appropriate level of pomp, a Royal retinue creaked into motion and out through the gates. This was not the swift departure of a small fighting force, but an embassy and it contained gifts for Cenred and their supplies for the journey.
Even Merlin didn’t know the carts actually contained extra weapons rather than gifts, and all the paraphernalia they might need should battle be joined. At the thought of Merlin, Arthur glanced up and if he’d thought on it he might have wondered how he always knew where to look. Merlin stepped out of the shadow of the door, his features pinched and complexion sallow. Arthur tipped his head in recognition of the nod he received. They’d already said their farewells, in a manner that would have been entirely satisfying if Arthur hadn’t had to leave and if the edge of desperation had been due only to want instead of fear. Now, Arthur just needed to return safely.
With a final acknowledgment of Morgana, and a last glance at Merlin, Arthur mounted his warhorse, arranged his cape to his satisfaction, and followed the retinue out of the gate, moving through it until he was at its head. He tried to ignore the little knot of dismay at the parting from Merlin, telling himself firmly that he was not a silly maiden to swoon at parting from her first flirtation.
It didn’t really help.
The route Arthur had chosen took them through the Valley of the Fallen Kings. It was always an eerie place and somewhere he generally tried to avoid, something about the great overgrown statues with their empty eyes that seemed to judge him in some way. He also avoided it for more pragmatic reasons as the narrow pathways winding their way through the rocky outcrops were a prime place for any ambush to take place. At least this time he was expecting it. This was the route he’d ensured Cedric had overheard, and he was almost convinced Cedric was their man and though the other routes would have patrols in place to surprise any of Cenred’s men who happened to turn up, this was the one that actually had the trap baited.
Even though he was expecting it, the war cry that split the silence shocked him, but instinct born of years of training and battle had his sword clear of his scabbard and his horse spinning on its hocks ready to meet the attack.
“On me!” he shouted, and was gratified by the smooth response of his knights and men at arms. The coverings of the carts were cast aside and men who had seemed unarmed servants accompanying the retinue were seen in their true colours. Should any of the men attacking them have time to wonder, they might have been uneasy that a king travelling to on embassy was wearing full battle armour.
They had little time to wonder anything, as the knights who had waiting to support them rose up behind the attackers, their bright red cloaks, which had been hidden until then, a sudden intimidating presence.
Arthur saw the understanding of a battle already lost enter the eyes of the men who’d attacked them and then the hardening resolve. Grinning, he raised his eyebrows, spun his sword in a showy spin that would have had his sword-master smacking the back of his head for him, then he swung the blade and there was only the focus that came with battle.
It didn’t take long. Cenred had despatched a small force because he was expecting an easy fight and hadn’t accounted for the possibility his plan might be discovered. They were good warriors, Arthur had to admit, and noted they seemed to be under the command of one of the Saxons, which Arthur filed away to think over in more detail later. For the moment, in a lull in the battle, he glanced around and saw that the discipline of their enemies had crumbled and those remaining alive were fleeing.
“Hold.” He stopped his men pursuing him – he wanted some of them to return to Cenred, to report they were expected and to ensure Cedric would find no welcome if he tried to return.
With deep satisfaction, he allowed Leon to take charge of the battle’s aftermath, happy in the knowledge none of his own men had been injured. Once Leon had approached and informed him the dead were disposed of and the injured tended, Arthur gave the order to return to Camelot, sending two scouts on their way to the other two routes to stand down from their ambush and to return to the revised patrol schedule Arthur had ordered. Hopefully this time the patrols would be able to complete their duties without further harassment from either Cenred’s men or the Saxons.
As they approached Camelot, Arthur rubbed at the space beneath his ribs, taking in a deep breath as the slight ache that had been troubling him since he left finally eased. They clattered into the courtyard and unerringly Arthur’s head turned to meet Merlin’s eyes, grinning at the relief he could see there, before slipping off his horse and dropping until his feet hit the cobblestones of his home.
Merlin’s grin changed abruptly to alarm and before Arthur could look around to see what had caused the alteration, Merlin cast his hand out in front of himself and shouted.
Arthur spun around and was faced with a Cedric far removed from the obsequious, fawning servant he’d known. This was a madman, a raging assassin with only one thing on his mind. There was no time to draw his sword and all Arthur could manage was to dodge to the side, avoiding the long thin blade Cedric wielding by the skin of his teeth, trying to gain enough time and space to draw his own sword and defend himself.
It had all happened so quickly that only now people were starting to notice something was amiss but all was confusion and a sudden melee, and Cedric was turning to come at him again.
“No!” The anguished cry was again from Merlin and in the same instant, Cedric tripped, on what Arthur had no idea, but it gave him just enough time and as Cedric stumbled and fell forward, he impaled himself on Arthur’s hastily drawn blade.
Arthur watched as the hate turned to shock and pain and the madness faded with the life in his eyes. Arthur withdrew the sword from Cedric’s body and let it slump to the ground. He lifted his eyes to look at Merlin and saw the way he stood, arm still outstretched, his other hand pressed to his mouth. Then Arthur was overwhelmed and surrounded by a crowd of knights and nobles with their exclamations and questions. When he next looked to the steps, Merlin had disappeared.
Arthur didn’t find it easy to get away for the next few hours and in the end caught Edwin’s eyes, bringing him to the fore to take his report on the few injured. When he was done, Arthur leaned forward.
“Could you track down Merlin for me, Edwin. I think he was rather shaken by the attempt on my life.”
Edwin raised his eyebrows and Arthur saw the understanding there. Merlin had already lost so much, no surprise that an attack on Arthur would have repercussions.
Edwin’s eyebrows rose higher at Arthur’s next words.
“When he’s upset, he tends to go to Gaius’ old rooms. I expect that’s where you’ll find him."
“I’ll go at once, Sire, and I’ll ensure he gets safely back to your rooms. Would you like me to stay with him until you return.”
“I would like that, Edwin. Thank you.”
Edwin bowed and withdrew, ceding his place to the next self-important Lord concerned about the impact of the Saxons on their trade routes.
Edwin worked his way through the corridors, taking the shortcuts he’d used in the years he was apprentice to Gaius. He smiled slightly as he walked, remembering the days fondly and wondering a little where the years had gone. He sobered as he recalled some of the tales his mentor had told him, the things he’d believed. Edwin, as was the way of the young, had dismissed them as fanciful meanderings of an old man, but there were things about Merlin, this poor boy from another land who had captured the heart of a noble king so quickly and so completely, that had Edwin unnerved.
Once up the little-used stairs, he slipped in the door to find Merlin curled on Gaius’ cot, his arms wrapped around his knees.
“There you are, my boy.”
Merlin looked up sharply, the smile fading as he saw the identity of his visitor.
“Edwin,” he said.
Edwin watched as Merlin flushed and sat up straighter.
“I’m sorry, Edwin, it’s just - I thought it might be Gaius. I haven’t seen him for a while. I hope he’s well.”
Edwin wasn’t quite sure how to answer that. “You’ve been talking to Gaius?” he asked instead, and felt sure his confusion was clear.
Merlin seemed oblivious and the unhappiness in his expression extended beyond the drama that had just played out in the courtyard.
“He’s been very kind. He’s explained things to me.” Merlin twisted the blanket in his hands.
“You can always talk to me - or to the King.” Edwin offered, feeling his way through a conversation that seemed slightly unreal.
“I know. It’s just -” Merlin bit his lip and looked away, shrugging a shoulder up.
“Let’s not worry for the moment, hmm,” Edwin shelved the problem for the minute, making a mental note to discuss it with Arthur later. “The King was concerned for you and asked me to find you.”
“Is he angry?”
“Of course not, Merlin, not at all. He’ll be in his chambers shortly, why don’t you meet him there?”
Merlin nodded and scrambled off the cot, pausing for a moment to smooth out the covers, before he cast a shy smile at Edwin and slipped out of the door.
Edwin was left, looking around the empty room, and before he left to follow Merlin to the King’s chambers, he murmured. “What have you been up to, old friend?” The room remained silent and still and yet Edwin drew in a deep breath and fancied the scent of honey and lemons scented the air.
For the next few weeks the patrols were mostly unscathed and those skirmishes they became involved in were chance encounters with small bands of bandits or Saxons. Occasionally they returned with refugees fleeing from Ascetir and they brought with them useful intelligence within their frightened renditions of life under Cenred and the Saxon overlords. Arthur met with as many of them as he could, and they were given help and support in either settling in Camelot or moving on to one of the other Kingdoms.
One of the patrols came back with a pitiful group that were the remnants of a group who had been captured by Haldig. Elyan was leading the patrol and announced, where he was sure Merlin could hear, that Haldig and all of his men were dead.
Arthur had felt Merlin’s satisfaction as his own, even though it was tinged with the memory of grief. He’d respected Merlin’s obvious need for some time alone and had let him slip from the room.
Arthur wasn’t sure when he first became aware something was wrong with Merlin. It was only when he’d woken up alone and realised it had become the usual state of affairs, that he began to take notice. It shocked him a little, how accustomed he’d become to Merlin’s presence in his life, but acknowledged the familiarity of having him close by most of the time meant he didn’t necessarily pick up on small changes.
Pulling himself up in the bed, he frowned at the empty room. It was clean and surprisingly tidy. One of the many facets of living with Merlin, Arthur had discovered was his ability to walk into a room and instantly turn it into a muddle. This neatness, this order was disconcerting. As he considered the sight before him, the door opened silently and a loaded tray swayed into view, with Merlin attached to it. Arthur watched as he padded to the table and was rather shocked at how silent Merlin was; as if he’d been practicing – or had just had practice over the past couple of months.
Merlin looked drawn and he was even paler than usual. In the months following his arrival in Camelot, Merlin had gradually gained weight and while pale, his skin had gained a healthy sheen to it. Now Arthur could see he was almost as thin as when he’d arrived, and sheer fright rushed through him, pushing him into speech.
With a start, Merlin turned to face him, looking slightly alarmed and Arthur knew his shock had leached into his voice. Without another thought, Arthur pushed aside the covers and was at Merlin’s side in two long strides. He cupped a hand round Merlin’s cheek.
“What ails you?” he asked, drawing a gentle thumb across the soft skin of Merlin’s neck.
There was sudden heat under Arthur’s palm where it lay against Merlin’s cheek and he watched as the long eyelashes were cast down, effectively hiding their expression.
“Nothing, Arthur. I’m fine.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
Merlin flinched and then sighed. “I’m not sleeping well,” he admitted eventually.
There was something else there, something he wasn’t saying. Arthur was a warrior and a diplomat and understood equivocation and half-truths. He sighed and Merlin flinched again, attuned enough to Arthur to recognise the knowledge as well as the irritation and concern it brought.
“If you can’t trust me, then at least talk to Edwin.”
“I do trust you,” Merlin protested, obviously stung by Arthur’s words. “I just – I just don’t know how to explain it.”
Arthur pulled him into his arms, already penitent at his brief temper, even if it was born from worry, and Merlin melted against him, pushing his face against Arthur’s bare shoulder and breathing deeply.
“Then tell me when you find the words.”
He felt rather than saw Merlin’s nod of agreement, and they stood in silence until the early morning chill brought goose bumps to Arthur’s skin. When Merlin noticed he began to scold Arthur, fussing around him with tunics and furs and reheating wine over the fire and Arthur let him, glad of the attention.
Others began to notice Merlin’s failing health and Morgana in particular was casting ever-more reproachful looks at Arthur, as if she suspected he was mistreating Merlin in some way.
Merlin remained tight-lipped about what was ailing him, but Arthur couldn’t miss the way he would start and look around as if called. There seemed to be little he could do, other than hold Merlin close at night and try to comfort him in his obvious distress. Eventually though, it became too much for Arthur to bear.
He’d woken in the night to find the space empty beside him, though he could hear harsh breathing and an occasional whimper from elsewhere in the room. He sat up and as his eyes became accustomed to the dim light of his chamber, he saw Merlin. He was hunched into a ball, as if trying to make himself as small as possible, with his knees drawn to his chest, head down and arms clasped tight around his head.
Arthur was by his side in an instant, wrapping his arms around him and holding tight, saying nothing until Merlin at last let loose a weary sob and relaxed his limbs to fold himself into Arthur’s embrace.
“Enough,” Arthur kept his voice soft, but it was firm. “Tell me what is wrong.”
“I’m going mad.” As if a damn had been breached, the words tumbled out. Arthur felt his heart grow cold as fear gripped him, but he didn’t interrupt and Merlin continued on. “I thought people were calling me but then there was a voice and no one was there. Then I realised it’s the same voice. It’s always the same voice.” Merlin pressed his face against Arthur’s chest, as if admitting this had taken the last of his strength.
Arthur swore internally. If someone was playing some cruel trick on Merlin, they would see a different King than they’d ever known. For the moment, he hugged Merlin close to him, waiting until he’d calmed down enough to get him back to the comfort and warmth of the bed.
As he cradled Merlin in his arms, he spoke. “In the morning, we will talk to Edwin and see what he believes can be done. For now, sleep and I will keep you safe.”
He felt Merlin nod against his chest, the slide of a smooth cheek against the hair of his chest and he worked hard to keep his own breathing clam, to remain relaxed even though fear was clawing at the very heart of him.
Edwin listened carefully and without any comment while Merlin explained was happening to him. Arthur could see Edwin’s expression become gradually more concerned, even though he tried to hide it. Fortunately, Merlin’s eyes remained downcast and he didn’t notice the change.
“Well, my boy,” Edwin said, after Merlin had ground to a halt and there had been a long silence. “This is a pretty puzzle you’ve brought me. You say it’s always the same voice? Can you describe it?”
Merlin thought for a few moments. “Rough, old, as if they have a bad throat or haven’t spoken for a long time. It was quiet a first – just a whisper, but it’s been getting louder.”
He looked so frightened, and Arthur reached out and gripped his hand. There was little doubt in the castle, and possibly throughout the kingdom by now, about the nature of the King’s relations with his servant, but they were necessarily reticent outside their own chambers. Arthur ignored the slight rise of Edwin’s eyebrows, and the doctor didn’t make any comment, merely asking.
“Is the voice becoming louder, Merlin, or is it coming nearer?”
Merlin blinked in surprise. “Louder,” he replied, his voice sure. “It wants me to go to it.”
“And if you were going towards it, what direction would you take?”
Unerringly, Merlin turned and pointed towards the White Mountains and the furthest reaches of Camelot’s lands.
“There’s nothing that ails you other than the voice?”
“No, but it hurts me now, all the time, like a buzzing in my head.”
“You’ve lost weight and colour – mainly due to worry. I want you to take a little nourishment at a time – but to eat often and nothing too rich. I see no need for you to stop working, though light duties only. I’ll consult my books and will speak to you this evening.
Merlin glanced at Arthur, who nodded and squeezed his hand. “Well, Merlin, looks like you’ve managed to wheedle your way out of cleaning my armour today. You’d better go and get us something light to eat – we haven’t broken our fast yet.”
“I like cleaning your armour,” Merlin replied, his tone indignant and Arthur chuckled at getting the rise.
Merlin mock-scowled and muttered something under his breath clearly maligning his King, but when he stood he tightened his grip on Arthur’s fingers for a moment before he let go, and Arthur recognised his gratitude.
The two men left remained silent as they listened to the patter of his steps retreating.
Arthur sighed and knew his own anxiety was clear. “Edwin –“
Edwin held up his hand. “I do need to consult my books – and one or two of Gaius’ as well.”
“You have an idea –“
“An idea so fantastical I can scarce credit it.” Edwin shrugged. “You knew that Merlin likes to go to Gaius’ old rooms when he’s troubled.” Edwin hesitated. “Has he ever told you that sometimes he sees Gaius? Talks to him? I’ve asked him about it and everything he’s repeated to me sounds just like Gaius – his odd sayings, a turn of phrase, his method of comforting a lonely boy. No one could have told him all of that – other than me perhaps, and I have barely mentioned Gaius to him.
“What are you saying? What are you telling me?”
Edwin shook his head. “I need to consider this further. I have a potion to make for Princess Morgana. She is being plagued by nightmares and some of what she’s told me –“ he managed a half-smile at Arthur’s confusion. “I’ll attend you this evening, Sire, if you’ll grant me an audience.”
“Dine with us, Edwin,” Arthur said. “I will ask Morgana to join us.” He hadn’t missed the concern in Edwin’s voice when he’d spoken of Morgana’s dreams – the same concern when he spoke of Merlin.
Edwin hesitated and then bowed deeply. “An honour, Sire. Thank you.”
Their evening meal started as farce and Edwin stood, arms folded inside the sleeves of his robe as the King of Camelot argued with his manservant. At the table already, Morgana witnessed their display, eyes watchful, as if she was trying to work something out. Edwin was struck, too, by the brief flash of fear he saw when she looked at Merlin. Gwen was standing by the door, looking on in bemusement, her hands twisting together and the light periodically catching on the ring Lancelot had placed on her finger scant weeks before. Just as well, Edwin thought laconically, as he could see she was already quickening.
Morgana halted the comedy. “Merlin,” she broke into the continuing hissed conversation and pointed an elegant finger at the chair opposite her. “Sit down.” Merlin dropped into the seat like an obedient dog, a look of surprise at his actions making Edwin want to laugh aloud. She turned her attention to her brother and pointed at the seat next to Merlin. She ignored his muttered comment and turned to smile at Edwin.
“Please do join us, Edwin. Gwen, once you’ve served us you’re free to go. I know you’re anxious to return to your husband.”
Gwen flushed but met Morgana’s eyes and raised her brows, and Edwin was treated to the unusual sight of Morgana blushing. She raised her hands in defeat and pointed at the table as if annoyed, though her eyes were twinkling and she couldn’t hide her mirth.
They ate with only desultory conversation between them and Edwin sensed they were all anxious. Arthur was ensuring Merlin was eating and he did the same with Morgana, looking in approval at the dishes Arthur had requested – all of them light and easily digestible. He shared a quick glance with Arthur and saw his own slightly rueful acceptance that they would both be raiding the kitchen for bread and cheese later. For the moment, the light soup, and dainty treats were doing what was needed.
When the dishes had been cleared away, Edwin brought some books to the table and looked around at three expectant faces. He sighed, wondering about the reaction he would receive when he put forward his theory.
“I hardly know where to start,” he admitted. “I was there when Haldig spoke of the Lost Mage and I was struck by the words and the language that came from such a brute. It reminded me of some of the tales Gaius used to tell me.” He turned his attention to Merlin, knowing that what he was about to say would be a shock.
“Merlin, you said you’ve spoken to Gaius.”
Merlin nodded, looking wary.
“I’m sorry, my boy, but Gaius died five winters ago.”
“No, no I spoke to him. I saw him.” Merlin was chalk-white and got to his feet despite Arthur trying to stop him and calm him down.
“I believe you.” Edwin spoke the words as clearly as he could and met Merlin’s shocked eyes, waiting until he sank back into his seat before he spoke again. “Over the years I’ve kept a diary. It was something I once showed to Gaius and he encouraged me to continue. He also told me some of the myths surrounding magic and the Lost Mage. The diary notes odd occurrences, strange things I couldn’t explain. Over the past few years the number of these happenings has increased. I believe the voice Merlin is hearing is part of this. I believe your dreams are, too, Princess Morgana.”
There was a long silence while they all stared at him.
Morgana broke it, looking at Merlin. “Sometimes I dream of you – of you killing me.”
“No,” Merlin’s voice cracked. “You know I’d never harm you.”
“I know,” she reached across and pressed her hand against Merlin’s for a moment. “Just as I know I would never turn against Arthur or try to kill him – but I’ve dreamt that, too.”
Arthur drew one of Edwin’s journals to him and with a glance at Edwin for a nod of permission, he began to leaf through some of the entries. It was quite a catalogue of oddities and earlier entries were annotated, cross-referenced to others and then further notes mentioning patterns and reoccurrences.
Once he closed it, he looked around at them and, voice calm, he said. “You believe Merlin really is the Lost Mage.”
“I do, Sire.”
“Why are you so convinced?”
“Because I have another of those journals that relates to me and to Gaius – people we’ve healed when perhaps we shouldn’t have been able to. Most of the other journals have a number of people who occur again and again. Some of them dream of things that come to pass, some of them heal, some of them have lit fires. It usually manifests when they’re under stress, but there’s no doubt that it’s happening more often and with increasing numbers of people.”
“What does it mean?”
“Perhaps… perhaps that magic really did exist, like it says in the story and for some reason it’s returning. I don’t know. I’m a scientist and this all goes against everything I’ve been taught. Still, as a scientist, I can’t ignore the evidence in front of me – I believe Merlin has seen to and spoken to a dead man; I believe someone or something is calling him; I believe Morgana has dreamed of what might have been.”
“I believe it, too.” Surprisingly it was Morgana who spoke first. “What can we do?”
“I need to take Merlin to find whoever is calling.”
“Arthur. You can’t leave Camelot – not just now.” Morgana glanced quickly at Merlin, who was staring at the tabletop.
Edwin sat back and listened to the two of them argue, both adamant.
“I can go myself.” Merlin broke in, his jaw set. “Morgana’s right, you know that Arthur.”
“I don’t care.” It was a brief, unusual spurt of temper from Arthur, reminding Edwin of the young man he’d been before Morgana and Morgause had arrived to influence him.
Arthur raised his hands, offering a silent apology for his outburst and he continued more calmly. “I will take two knights and a two squires with us. If we have not reached the source at the end of a seven day then I give my word that I will send a knight on with Merlin and will return to Camelot.” He bit his lip and turned to Merlin, his tone suddenly wretched. “I’m sorry, my love, but –“
“No,” Merlin took his hand and raised it to his lips, pressing a kiss to it before he spoke. “Camelot must come first. Camelot must always come first. You know I would go alone.”
Morgana’s eyes were wide and she was staring at Merlin as if she’d never seen him before.
To Edwin’s eyes, Arthur had never looked more torn, more conflicted and he watched as Arthur met Morgana’s gaze and then saw his shoulders slump.
“A seven day, Arthur,” she said. “And I wish you both every success in your quest.” She rose then and they all rose with her. She nodded her thanks to Edwin and then curtseyed to the King. As she was about to leave she hesitated and hugged first Arthur and then Merlin.”
Once she had left Merlin said. “She hugged me.”
He sounded so shocked and Edwin traded a glance with Arthur, could only chuckle. Arthur was looking at Merlin with an expression that was so fond and loving it caught the breath in his throat.
“I’ll leave the journals and books with you – they may be of some help.” He made his escape, leaving the two men together, and wondered at the love the two men obviously shared. Merlin was younger by almost ten years but experience had given him maturity and Edwin had been surprised at his understanding of Arthur’s responsibilities. Love had changed Arthur, too, adding a gentleness and care for others to his character, extending beyond Merlin himself though he was at the root of it. Together, they were better men than they would have been on their own. For now, he pressed a hand to the wood of the door separating him from them and offered a blessing before he took himself off towards the kitchens.
They set out the next day, a small party, with only Leon and Gwaine and their squires travelling with them, but the departure of the King was never going to make it a quiet affair even if quiet. Morgana was Arthur’s heir and she stood on the steps to watch them leave, her face calm and unconcerned. Long training stood them all in good stead and the quickly fabricated excuse of a visit to nearby Lord Godwyn, was enough to have those in the courtyard gawping with interest but without raising any concerns in either the court or the general population.
The squires were driving a small wagon carrying supplies. Arthur glanced around, exchanging a final nod with Morgana and then gave the order to move out.
Over the next three days they travelled towards the mountains and the nearer they got the whiter and weaker Merlin became. By the morning of the fourth day he was unable to ride, dizzy and disorientated. Arthur had confided in Leon and Gwaine and while they were troubled and disbelieving, they accepted there was a reason for Merlin’s weakness and helped where they could. That morning, they put all their bedrolls into the bed of the small wagon and Merlin was bundled up and lay down amongst the supplies. Arthur checked him every so often and became increasingly concerned at his pallor – and at the way time was slipping away from him. At least they had reached the foothills of the White Mountains.
Green, verdant growth surrounded the mountains in front of them, reaching up the sides of the hills, thick at first and then becoming sparser as the hillside steepened and there was more rock than trees, and then only the rock, stretching up to the sky. One slightly lower hill stood before them and the majesty of the jagged peaks and Arthur There was a bite to the air and Arthur shivered, disturbing Merlin who stirred and blinked his eyes open.
“Where are we?” His voice was husky and his eyes slitted until they were almost closed, as if even the dim light around them was causing him pain.
“We’ve reached the mountains. We can only go up from here, Merlin. How are you?”
It was a loaded question, asking something much more, something that the two squires driving the wagon could know. Was Merlin still hearing the voice in his head?
“Louder,” Merlin could only manage a pained whisper. “But we’re close now, so close. They’re pleased.”
I’ll give them pleased, Arthur thought, whoever they turned out to be. He urged his unwilling horse forward, surprised when Hengroen shied away. This was a trained warhorse, and Arthur frowned, wondering what could have spooked him. The other horses were in no better state, sweating and snorting, refusing to a beast to climb onto the rocky outcrop in front of them. Merlin had dragged himself up as the horses hitched to the wagon tried to turn and threatened to tip him out. Finally, in exasperation, Arthur called a halt.
“Leon, take the squires and the horses back to the trees. They were calm enough there. Leave the squires with them and get back as quickly as you can. It looks like we’ll have to go on foot from here.”
“I can’t –“ Merlin managed, his voice a low husky murmur, as if even forcing out that level of sound was painful.
Arthur was sure exactly what Merlin was objecting to, but knew it could be anything form he couldn’t walk, to he couldn’t bear the pain in his head any longer, to any number of other permutations none of which could be good.
“We’ll take care of you, Merlin. I promise.”
From a face as white as milk, Merlin still managed a slight smile. “I know you will,” he whispered. “You always did.”
“I always will.” Arthur realised his fierce determination to find out the cause of this and to help Merlin get well again was so obvious it generated another smile from Merlin and a quiet snort from Gwaine, who had come to Arthur’s aid in helping Merlin out of the wagon.
Arthur stared after the horses, regretting their loss even as he turned to lift his pack. He started when Gwaine intercepted it and placed it along with his own on top of a small outcrop.
“Leon said he’ll pick them up. We can manage Merlin between us,” Gwaine said.
While Arthur didn’t really want anyone else touching Merlin, he knew Gwaine was right and nodded his thanks. Merlin tried to stifle the whimper of pain as he was lifted and Arthur was shocked how light he was, how he seemed to have been worn to skin and bone. He exchanged a panicked look with Gwaine and saw his own fear reflected there.
“Almost there, Merlin,” Arthur could only hope he was not lying. “We must be close.”
Leon arrived at a loping run and despite the chain mail and armour he wore, he was barely out of breath. As soon as he joined them and grabbed all the packs, Arthur and Gwaine began a slow walk forward, trying to jostle Merlin as little as possible as they began to work their way across the strange, barren landscape.
It was a slow, painstaking journey and Arthur couldn’t help but wince every time he put his foot down on the strangest rock he’d ever encountered. There was something about it that seemed to give slightly with each footstep and he had the oddest sensation that if he happened to free a hand and touch, it might even be warm. Shivering, he concentrated on Merlin, grief-stricken at the evidence of pain and suffering, feeling the damp of sweat and tears against his neck where Merlin had buried his face to try and hide away his distress.
They stumbled into a clear, flat spot, covered by rock and sparse grass more in keeping with what Arthur had expected from the terrain. They hadn’t been walking long, but a sudden increase in the tension in Merlin’s body had Arthur calling a halt.
“It’s here. We’re here. Tell the rest to go, Arthur. They’ve got to go.”
Something in the corner of Arthur’s field of vision moved, and at the same time he heard Gwaine curse. When Arthur spun around to see if Gwaine had seen the same movement, it was to find Gwaine looking in an entirely different direction.
The sudden sense of foreboding washed over him. “Leon, Gwaine, get back to the horses. Wait for us there.”
Typically it was Gwaine who protested.
“No argument, Gwaine. Go.”
With a number of concerned backward glances, they did as they were bid, and as they scrambled across the rocks, he heard them begin to curse. Easy enough to see why as it became increasingly impossible to ascribe the movement to imagination.
Merlin struggled weakly in his arms and Arthur set him down carefully, sinking with him as he slumped down onto the ground, one hand pressed hard against his head.
“Stop it. Stop it. STOP!”
The movement around them stilled for a moment and Arthur felt the tension in Merlin ease just as he gasped out in relief.
Who? Arthur wanted, but was afraid, to ask. Instead, he hugged Merlin’s trembling form closer to him as the shifting, irregular movement started again, all around them and this time there could be no mistaking it
The odd rock formations Arthur had stumbled across were moving and shifting and with utter shock, Arthur watched as a single, huge, monstrous head lifted and he was suddenly the focus of great, golden eyes. Merlin gasped.
In the midst of his instinctive terror at the sight, Arthur tightened his grip on Merlin and said, “This is what was calling you, Merlin, wasn’t it? You weren’t going mad at all.”
Merlin seemed to be beyond words, but he reached up and touched Arthur’s face with trembling fingers and managed to smile a little and nod. Relief more than anything, thought Arthur, was making Merlin look better already.
In the moment he’d shifted his focus, there had been more movement and as he looked up again Arthur saw more of the huge heads, followed by wings and bodies. It seemed as if earth and vegetation was sloughing off them like some reptile shucking its skin and Arthur began to see colours, iridescent golds and greens and browns and purples as the mass of shapes coalesced into individual creatures. From outside the circle he heard the cries of alarm from his knights and roared out.
“Do nothing. Stay away.” Without a doubt, he knew that any aggressive move towards the beasts would end in disaster for them all. After that, he trusted them to follow his orders, because all of his attention was on the milling, swirling, surging mass of creatures around them. He couldn’t count them as they shifted position but eventually they rearranged themselves into a circle, with Arthur and Merlin at the centre.
One beast, greater than the others, moved forward and lowered its head.
“You have awoken us from our long sleep, Dragonlord.”
“It was you,” Merlin said. “You’ve been calling me.”
Arthur’s sudden anger left him shaking and unmindful of either the size of the dragon, a dragon, or the huge teeth and talons. “You fool! You nearly drove him mad. Was it so difficult to talk to him properly and give him some idea what was going on?”
The dragon reared up and the others shifted uneasily. “Do not presume to judge me, little man.”
The resonance of his voice thrummed through the rock they were huddled against but Arthur stared at him steadily, refusing to back down. He was surprised as Merlin struggled to free himself from Arthur’s tight grasp and got to his feet. Arthur surged up, too, slipping a hand under Merlin’s elbow to steady him as he stumbled.
“Do not talk to King Arthur in such a way,” There was a tone in Merlin’s voice, a sternness and directness that fired Arthur’s blood in a way completely inappropriate for the circumstances in which they found themselves. “He is the King of this land. He is my King and you will treat him with respect.”
To Arthur’s complete amazement, instead of eating them, the dragon bowed its head in submission.
There was silence until Merlin spoke again.
“Why did you call me here? How could I hear you and no-one else could?”
He was still thin and worn down, but already there was a hint of colour on his cheeks and Arthur acknowledged the mere acknowledgement it had been real had helped to ease the one thing making him so ill – the sheer tension generated from the fear of losing his mind.
“I could not speak, I could only call. You are the last Dragonlord. The magic of the world was placed within your line for safety. It was only you we could call. It was only you who could wake us.”
The dragon stared down at them and Arthur fancied he could see concern and worry in the ancient eyes, and there was a long pause before it spoke again.
Dear Gods, he realised, Edwin spoke the truth. He listened as the dragon continued.
“The prophets and seers all spoke of what was coming; a purge against the magic of the land and a cleansing so thorough we would never recover. The sights they saw drove some of them to madness and despair. It was decided to do what we could to protect magic, to hide it from harm. To do so, we had to remove it from the minds of man, to turn it into less than legend, just a few fireside tales that no one would ever give credence. All the warlocks and sorcerers, the witches and the hags, the dragons and the unicorns, the druids and the Catha, we all worked together to make it so. One piece of magic only we allowed, and that was the spell to ensure a barren woman would bear a child. Without knowledge of magic’s use in the conception, magic itself was not blamed. Magic was hidden and all were protected.”
The look the dragon cast at Arthur then had something hungry in it and weak as he obviously was, Merlin moved closer to his side. Really, as if Merlin could protect him from a dragon – and yet, somehow Arthur thought he probably could.
“Magic was locked within the Crystal Cave, the very place where it had been born, and the knowledge it had ever existed expunged from the minds of men. Creatures of magic were doomed to sleep until the day the Once and Future King met the last Dragonlord and were bound together for all time.
“The knowledge was to be carried by the Dragonlord line, and with it, the Crystal of Neathid, which is the key to the Crystal Cave.”
Merlin stumbled. “I don’t have a crystal.”
Arthur looped an arm around his waist and the dragon was suddenly very still. Arthur glared.
“Magic is leaking from the cave. It is beginning to be felt in the land. It woke us years ago and we believed the time had arrived. We called our Dragonlord but he did not come.”
“You drove him mad with it,” Arthur retorted, his words blunt, coloured by his concern. Now he realised what must have driven Merlin’s father to suicide. Merlin seemed to have reached the end of his tether and was only staying upright because of the tight grip Arthur had on his waist. “You nearly drove Merlin mad.” The anger boiled up in him. “You great overgrown reptile – how could you all come up with a plan that was obviously going to go horribly wrong?” He could hear the venom in his own voice, and felt Merlin flinch.
The dragon reared back as if it had been struck.
There was a long moment of silence before the great beast seemed to gather some dignity about itself. “We have caused harm and distress to our Dragonlord. He is ill with the magic and we need to care for him.”
Merlin sagged in his arms and carefully Arthur went to his knees, taking the now lax form with him.
“Merlin,” he said, and hoped the fear he was feeling did not bleed into his voice.
Thankfully Merlin roused a little and he looked up at Arthur with an unfocussed stare, his blue eyes speckled with a glowing gold.
“You have to leave me with them, Arthur.” he whispered. “You’re needed in Camelot.”
“No,” Arthur breathed the word into Merlin’s hair, even though they both knew Merlin was right.
“I’ll be fine with them. They can’t hurt me,” There was a glimmer of amusement in those familiar, strange eyes. “That’s what I realise now. I’m the Dragonlord. I really am the Lost Mage.”
“It’s the fever, Merlin, you’re talking nonsense.”
The dragon intervened before Arthur could carry out his intention of staggering to his feet, throwing Merlin over his shoulder and making a break for the horses and the trees.
“Do not be foolish, King Arthur. The Dragonlord is right. He must remain and you must go.”
“Merlin,” said Arthur. “His name is Merlin. If you harm him I will make every nightmare your seers and prophets had come true.” His voice was tight and choked.
“The bond is strong and that bodes well for us all. We will care for him and will return him to you, well in mind, body and spirit. It was always our role to be the gatekeepers, to protect the line and to renew the world of magic. He is our destiny and you are his. Do not fear.”
“Arthur,” Merlin reached up and pressed their mouths together. “I’ll come back to you. You know I will – even from beyond the grave, like Gaius.”
He choked out a laugh and hugged Merlin close. “Be well, my love, and I’ll look for you every day. Don’t leave me waiting for too long.”
Carefully, he lay Merlin down, pressed a kiss to his brow and walked away. Every step was an agony and he was aware of the weight of golden eyes following him. Already under his ribs he felt the loss as he strode across the grass and away from Merlin.
Six months later
Arthur stared out across the valley and felt his heart sink. The mass on the horizon had become rank upon rank of men. The Saxons had come in force and the armies Arthur had at his command were vastly outnumbered. A figure detached itself from the front and rode towards them, a standard bearer accompanying him. Ascetir.
Annis moved her horse towards Arthur. “You are our leader, Arthur. You must be the one to meet Cenred and hear what he has to say.”
“He’s going to offer terms for our surrender.” Arthur said.
“And you know our response,” She nodded across to where the other Kings were ranked - Nemeth, Mercia, Godwyn and the rest.
With the Pendragon crest on its standard catching the light and turning golden, Arthur rode forward to meet Cenred.
“Ascetir,” he acknowledged.
“Arthur, good to see you. I’m sorry about the circumstances.”
Arthur felt his eyebrows rise. “There’s nothing stopping you taking your men and leaving.”
“I’m afraid it’s rather too late for that,” Cenred said, and there’s something grim in his eyes, something telling Arthur that Cenred regrets his actions.
It is too late, though. In the background Arthur can see the man he recognises as the leader of the main band of Saxons and in the hostile look and stance, Arthur understands Cenred is close to losing control. Somehow, whatever the outcome of the day, Arthur is convinced Cenred will not see its end. For Merlin’s sake, he feels an intense satisfaction, even as he acknowledges the silent message of one King to another.
“I urge you to surrender, Arthur.” It’s an appeal, an honest appeal. “You are vastly outnumbered. You cannot stand against them. If you surrender I can ensure your safe passage, I can ensure your people and lands undergo a peaceful occupation.”
Arthur glances past him. “You cannot give me those guarantees, Cenred.” It’s a bleak assertion and one Cenred doesn’t attempt to deny. “You’ve unleashed a beast and it will not come to heel when you call. We’ll fight because we must. We’ll fight for our very survival.”
“So be it.”
There’s understanding between them and Arthur sees Cenred’s regret, but it’s too late. Even if Cenred joined them now, it would make no difference. Arthur isn’t a fool, he knew without a miracle, they were doomed.
As he rode, stately and calm, back to the other sovereigns, he spared a thought to be glad Merlin isn’t here now. Without a doubt, Merlin would have insisted on standing with his King. Wherever you are, my love, he thinks, be safe and be well. He prays the dragons will take care of him, will not leave him to grieve alone when he hears of the death of Camelot and Arthur.
Bayard rides up to him, “To the death, then,” he says.
“To the death.”
“You know that Morgause and Morgana are both here,”
Arthur nods, exchanging a wry glance with Bayard. “They are better warriors than many of the knights,” Arthur says. “And they have as much right to defend their land.”
The tight knot that has been sitting beneath his ribs since he lost Merlin has eased a little for the first time in all those months.
Bayard inclines his head, acknowledging his words. The Five Kingdoms and their allies will not submit tamely and, before the end, everyone would fight.
“You must address the men, Arthur.” Bayard says and then wheels his horse round to join the others. Arthur wondered when he had de facto become the head of the army.
What was there to say? He met the eyes of each and every one of the kings and queens, princes and princesses who were ranged in front of the army. He met Morgana’s defiant gaze and nodded once, knowing his pride was clearly visible and he saw the spark of surprise and the warmth of her smile. His eyes took them in, the women who’d refused to be left behind, gallant Elena, sitting on her spirited stallion, haughty Vivien who looked terrified but resolute, her brilliant hair hidden under an iron helm and Mithian, so calm and still. Morgause looked every inch a warrior in her mail, but the look she shared with Bayard was soft and Arthur watched as he reached out and squeezed her hand.
A pang of loss hit him hard, even as the ever-present knot eased further. He took a deep breath before he spoke.
“Men and women of Albion, I stand before you today not as a king, but as a man; a man who, like you, fights for his land, his home, his way of life. I stand with you and know we will be victorious. We will be victorious because we fight for what we love.” The field was silent and everything seemed unnaturally still with every eye fixed on him. He gathered his voice and roared to the skies. “For Albion!” He drew his sword and saw it spark in the early morning sunlight
Merlin, be well. Be happy, my love.
The roar of approval shook him from his moment’s distraction and he heard the slide of weapons coming free from scabbards and then the other riders were on their way towards him. He wheeled his horse around and prepared to lead the charge at the enemy.
Arthur. Hold. We’re coming.
The sudden hope was almost too much to bear. “Wait.” He held his hand aloft and scanned the skies. Did it mean what he thought it meant?
Bayard urged his horse up to him. “Arthur?”
Arthur wasn’t sure what was in his expression but Bayard’s eyebrows shot up.
“I think we might be saved.” As Bayard opened his mouth to speak, another thought occurred to Arthur. “The horses. We need to get the horses off the field.”
“Arthur, what are you talking about?”
Distantly, Arthur could hear the hoots of derision from the Saxon front line, but he was too busy scanning the skies.
Bayard hesitated for the briefest of moments and then his mouth stretched into a grin, and he placed a hand briefly over his heart. “Always, my King.”
Arthur experienced a moment when he felt as if his breath had been knocked out of him at Bayard’s declaration, but there was no time even to react.
“Elena,” Arthur dismounted as she cantered up to them. “Get everyone dismounted and get the horses as far away from the front lines as you can. Can you do that?”
Bless her, she didn’t even query his order.
“Mithian and Morgana are the best riders. If they’ll help, we’ll drive the horses to the forest and get them under cover.”
Without another word, she wheeled around and was gone. As he scanned the sky again, he heard her shout her orders, and while there was some confusion, he was aware of everyone dismounting. He grinned suddenly as he saw a few specks far away.
“Hurry,” he shouted, and a few moments later he heard the sound of hooves thundering off towards the trees.
Bayard and Annis arrived at his side, stately and in control – as far as the people behind them were concerned at any rate.
“Arthur what are you doing?” Annis asked.
“Look.” Arthur raised his eyes in the direction of the specks, gradually closing the distance.
“At the birds?”
Annis looked at him as if he’d completely taken leave of his senses, and perhaps in a way he had, because now he thought he might understand the easing of the knot of Merlin’s absence, and he knew his joy was obvious. Given the circumstances, all of his allies could be forgiven for thinking he was suddenly mad.
“They’re not birds, Annis.”
“If not birds, then what – no.” Bayard sounded shocked beyond belief. “Legend, less than legend. You can’t believe –“
“I know. I have seen them before. They’re coming to our aid.”
“How can you know that? They could kill us all. If their power is even a fraction of what legend says –“
“It is – but they are no risk to us.”
“How can you be sure? How can you possibly be so sure?
He heard it and felt it, an explosion of warmth and need flooding into him and he looked skyward once more. He knew his own exultation and love had been felt and was being returned. He would be alone no longer. Arthur turned and faced the crowds of nervous people behind.
“People of Albion. Put your trust in me and stand firm. Whatever happens now – stand firm and we will be saved.”
A rustle of movement and murmured conversation swept through them, like the summer wind though a stand of ripe wheat. There was obvious concern, yet no one stirred from their spot.
Across the dividing sward of the field, the Saxons were shifting nervously, catching onto the fact something out of the ordinary was happening. Those on horses or ponies were already struggling to control them and everyone now could smell the faint brimstone and fire coming in on the breeze.
Arthur grinned at the sight of their salvation and sent as much love and trust as he could through the bond he now knew they shared. It spun back to him, not his feelings but Merlin’s and Arthur’s joy was nearly all encompassing, mitigated only slightly by the massed ranks of the army waiting to attack them.
The keen-sighted amongst the masses on both sides were beginning to point at the sky and Arthur could soon see the sweep of great wings as they came ever closer.
“Stand firm!” he ordered, raising his voice and hoping it would carry to all.
The Saxons were breaking ranks, and Cenred was unable to do anything as his plunging, screaming stallion took off in the same direction as Elena had taken their mounts. Most of the other horses bolted in the same moment, scattering riders and whoever happened to get in their way. The panic of the horses was infecting the foot soldiers and many were beginning to run for cover.
It was too late for them.
Arthur had no idea who shouted, but it finished the job as the Saxons panicked and ran, heading desperately for the forest.
Merlin, don’t let them get to the trees.
One of the great beasts sheared off and flanked the fleeing men, turning them back to the mass of those still trying to get away and in the melee men were being trampled and crushed to death. It was horrible to watch, but Arthur stood stoic and composed. Others could turn away from the sight, but he was the king and would watch the very human consequences of war.
The dragons swept down, five of the great beasts catching the light of the rising sun and sparking iridescent and many-hued. It was a breath-taking sight, but what really took Arthur’s breath away was the lone figure perched atop the lead dragon. It continued towards him, while the others wheeled around and began to circle the men attempting to flee.
There was a shiver of movement in the massed force behind him as the dragon approached and Arthur’s voice was sharp as he ordered.
“Hold. The dragons are our allies. You will stand firm.” He was gratified to see them all settle and felt a real moment of pride when he realised that every man and woman trusted him. If it were not for the figure sitting on the back of the dragon heading towards them, Arthur was not sure he would be as sanguine. But there was a feeling like a bell tolling under his ribs, signalling a joy so profound it made him feel renewed.
With a deft upswing of wings the great beast settled, flicking its wings until they lay against its side. A leg was extended and the head lowered, allowing Merlin to slip gracelessly to the ground. He stumbled a little as he landed and Arthur felt his lips twitch in response at such a tangible reminder that, whatever happened to him, Merlin would always be Merlin.
As Merlin came nearer, Arthur could see the lithe figure was dressed head to toe in a fabric that looked initially black but had the same sparking iridescence of the dragons’ hide and, together with the fine cloak swirling around his legs as he walked, it turned him into an imposing presence.
Merlin stopped in front of him and dropped to one knee.
“My liege,” and Arthur wondered at the way the voice carried, surely heard at every corner of the field. “The dragon army is yours to command.”
Arthur swallowed and reached out, desperate to touch Merlin for the first time since the night on the mountain so many months before. His hand rested on Merlin’s shoulder and slipped down his arm to his elbow as he urged Merlin to his feet.
“Arise, Dragonlord, and be welcome. All Albion is grateful for your support.”
He felt the start of surprise from Merlin as he spoke the title, but he recalled the dragons themselves calling Merlin by it and was keen to ensure from the beginning that Merlin – clumsy, bumbling, beautiful Merlin – was accorded the status he was so obviously due.
As Merlin stood, Arthur drew him into an embrace. It was not the one he wanted to bestow, instead it was the salutation of allies, of one king to another.
“Well, are we to kill them all?"
There was a ripple of movement as the ranks of their allies all simultaneously attempted to shuffle backwards and not be obvious about it. Arthur saw Merlin’s mouth twitch, whether in annoyance or amusement he wasn’t sure until Merlin met his eyes.
The breath caught in his throat once more as he saw the merry twinkle in eyes crinkling as Merlin smiled. This was the way Merlin should always have been, Arthur thought, before Haldig and his thugs destroyed his family.
“You couldn’t wait for another moment, Kilgharrah?” Merlin didn’t move from his position, still standing as close to Arthur as he could, but he turned his head and attempted a glower that was belied by the fondness he couldn’t hide.
Well, well, Arthur thought, recalling the fear that had paralysed them both when they first saw the dragons, and Merlin’s grief when they had dismissed Arthur and separated them. There were stories to be told, he saw, and looked forward to hearing all that Merlin might have to say.
“What is a moment when you have Eternity? And there is a task that must be completed.”
Arthur accepted the rebuke, for rebuke it was. He glanced sideways at Merlin, not wanting to give the order he knew he had to give, but all he saw there was calm acceptance and an understanding of the role of a king.
“Let a few - only a few - of the Saxons live – make sure they are chased and harried far away and will take the tale of Albion’s strength and protection with them. Kill the rest of them. I want Cenred and his men to live, but round them up and bring them to us. Those men were under Cenred’s command and had little choice. They will be able to return to their homes and lands once they have sworn an oath of allegiance to the kings and lords of Albion."
“A hard decision – but the right one Arthur, King.” With a great upsweep of his wings, Kilgharrah launched himself into the sky and turned to race towards the rout still unfolding.
It was bloody and brutal and Arthur stood on the hill, with Merlin by his side and the other kings and queens ranged behind them. It was on his orders that these men would lose their lives and it was right that he bear witness. Merlin, too, however much it pained Arthur to let him see this. Merlin must understand that the dragons were under his command and he needed to see the terror a word from him could unleash.
Merlin remained stoic, though Arthur could see his features were set and pale. As subtly as possible, he moved until their shoulders touched. Merlin’s clenched fists relaxed and Arthur glanced quickly at him as cold fingers curled around his hand, the sight masked from the others by the folds of their capes.
The last few of the Saxons were being harried from the air by the dragons, when Arthur spotted Cenred’s men being herded towards them by Lancelot and some of the Mercian knights.
Lancelot stopped and bowed to them, flashing a quick grin at Merlin that stirred sudden unwelcome jealousy in Arthur. A swift elbow in the ribs and an exasperated eye roll from Merlin indicated that it hadn’t gone unnoticed and he managed a rueful shrug.
“Welcome, Sir Lancelot. Your report, please.”
Fingers tightened on his and Merlin was smiling.
“Sire, King Cenred is dead. He was thrown from his horse and broke his neck.” He turned to the prisoners and motioned one forward, a tall, grey-haired knight dressed in Cenred’s livery.
The knight stepped forward and bowed. “I am Dinadin, Lord of Ascetir. My men and I surrender to Camelot.” His mouth set in a hard line and there was no request for mercy.
Arthur considered him for a long moment. There was defiance in his stance, but there was nobility and strength, too. Here was a man who would accept his fate without flinching.
“You do not surrender to Camelot alone, My Lord. You surrender to all the kings and queens of the five kingdoms and our allies. You surrender to Albion. Give your surrender again.”
Annis, Bayard, Godwyn, Alined and the others stepped forward to join Arthur and they all saw Dinadin bite his lip and flush in shame. There was a reason for the reminders in Arthur’s assertion, wanting to see the mettle of this man and the level of trust his countrymen had in him.
Dinadin glanced behind him at the cluster of knights and the foot soldiers ranged behind. Taking a deep breath, Dinadin drew his sword and knelt.
“On behalf of Ascetir, I surrender to Albion.” Dinadin offered up his weapon.
Would one of the dragons accompany them to Ascetir?
Yes, if I command it. And you command me.
Heat washed through Arthur.
“Keep your sword, Sir Knight, and stand. You will return to Ascetir in the company of Sir Percival and Sir Gwaine. They will assess the kingdom and you will then accompany them on their return to Camelot to discuss what is best for the future of your people. One of the dragons will accompany you.”
As he was speaking, one of the great beasts came into sight.
Merlin smiled. “This is Caradosia. She will accompany you.”
Arthur could only stare at his lover for a moment, drinking in the strength and confidence he exuded, almost able to catch a hint of it as a scent. Merlin turned his eyes back to Arthur and started, then coughed and ducked his head, suddenly bright pink to the tips of his ears.
The sight startled a brief huff of laughter from Sir Dinadin and when Arthur raised his eyebrows the knight busied himself with the checking and sheathing of his sword, but when he raised his eyes to meet Arthur’s, there was nothing but respect to be seen.
“I thank you for your courtesy, King Arthur, and I am confident that you will treat our people well. That is enough to gain our co-operation.”
It was a careful enough speech and Dinadin did not attempt to either excuse what Cenred had done or to shift the entire blame for what had happened onto a dead man. Sir Dinadin had honour and had made his oaths to Cenred. In life he had kept them but with those few, well-chosen words, Arthur recognised that Dinadin, and probably others among Cenred’s knights, had tried to dissuade him from this ultimately disastrous course. Although if it hadn’t been for Merlin and the dragons, it would have been an entirely different story. At that thought, Arthur inclined his head to Dinadin in dismissal and turned his attention back to Merlin.
Merlin was waiting and Arthur’s breath caught in his throat when he realised that Merlin was waiting for Arthur to give him his orders or to give him leave. He had meant what he said, then, when he’d asserted that he was Arthur’s to command. He drew in a deep breath, the first he’d been able to take without pain since the moment he’d had to leave Merlin behind months ago.
“Dragonlord,” Arthur raised his voice slightly to ensure it carried to those nearby, knowing the words he spoke would be carried through the ranks like the wind through a field of wheat. “I bid you welcome to Camelot and offer you Albion’s thanks for your help. Please know that we will do everything within our power to offer you and the dragons our hospitality.”
Merlin managed a creditable bow. “We serve Camelot and Albion, King Arthur and we are yours to command.” He’d also raised his voice and the words resonated.
Arthur stepped forward then, unable to resist the pull, the need to touch Merlin for one more moment. He placed his hands on Merlin’s shoulders and kissed him on either cheek and then he murmured, too low for anyone else to hear. “Well met, my love.”
When they drew apart Merlin’s eyes were sparkling and he was biting his lip.
Keeping his voice low, Arthur continued. “See to the dragons and then join us in the Council Room?”
Merlin nodded, bowed deeply once more and then wheeled round to stride towards the dragons, which were now landing in the field beyond. Kilgharrah stayed for a moment, his ancient eyes amused, though they were thoughtful, too. “My liege,” he said finally as he lowered his head before turning to follow Merlin, leaving Arthur open-mouthed.
There was not much space at the Round Table by the time the various kings and queens had clustered around it, but Arthur ensured the seat at his right hand was left vacant. Morgana, with an amused smile, had slipped into the seat at his left. The room was crowded, with several royal courts finding space to sit or stand around the walls. There was a murmur of conversation, everyone sounding relieved to have the battle over and to have routed the Saxons so convincingly for no loss. Arthur tried to ignore as much of the wild commentary as he could, wondering what the legends would tell of this day, when every retelling by people who were actually present seemed to become more fantastical. For Arthur, the reality was quite fantastical enough.
The great doors were opened and the last of their number arrived. Merlin had removed his cloak and gloves, leaving him a tall, lean figure with broad shoulders and an easy gait. Straight-backed, his chin tipped up and head held high, he approached the table. Only someone who knew him better than he knew himself would be able to tell that Merlin was scared. Arthur smiled.
“Welcome, Merlin Emrys, Lord of the Dragons.” Arthur stood and brought his hands together, applauding. He raised his eyebrows as Merlin paused, flustered and blushing as everyone around the table copied Arthur and the acclamation spread until everyone in the room was part of it.
Statue still, recovering his dignity, Merlin waited it out. He met Arthur’s eyes and the slightest smile touched his mouth but there was a sadness in his eyes that worried Arthur, though he let no hint of it show. There would be time to talk later.
As the room quietened, Merlin stepped around the table and dropped to one knee, bowing his head as he had done on the field of battle.
“King Arthur, you are my liege lord and I await your command.”
There could be no doubt, not in the minds of the other monarchs or the council members or the knights, about who Merlin would follow. Arthur caught the glance that passed between Bayard and Annis, and saw the latter lift a shoulder in a philosophical shrug. They were both smiling, however, which Arthur took as a good sign.
Drawing in a deep breath, he left his place and moved towards Merlin, drawing him to his feet and leading him to the seat by his side.
“Arthur – I can’t.”
It was Morgana, seated once more, who leaned forward from her place at Arthur’s left who said. “Oh, Merlin, I think you must.”
Arthur glanced at her quickly and was relieved to see the amusement lurking in her eyes and could see she was struggling to contain it.
With a deep, fortifying breath, Merlin eased gingerly into the seat Arthur offered, and Arthur himself settled once more, shifting his leg slightly so it knocked companionably against Merlin’s. Merlin relaxed slightly and Arthur brought the meeting to order.
Most of the business was centred on what would happen to the lands and people of Ascetir. One or two of the more bloodthirsty monarchs muttered about retribution, but the saner heads of Bayard, Godwyn and Annis as well as Arthur and Merlin prevailed. Morgana, too, was indignant at the thought of the ordinary people of Ascetir being forced to suffer.
“For surely they’ve suffered enough already,” she finished a tirade that left those advocating violence shame-faced, and her eyes lingered on Merlin, whose was studying the tabletop intently. “We need to protect them, not punish them,” she concluded softly.
Merlin looked up then and smiled at her, his eyes bright and mouth trembling just a little. She returned the smile and Arthur felt something within him relax.
Merlin took his own part in the discussion around ensuring there were no further Saxon incursions, offering the dragons as a means of patrolling the furthest and most inaccessible parts of Albion. Arthur applauded his tact. It gave the dragons a useful purpose but would not encroach on the role of the knights, or be startling the population too often. Wisely, Merlin also refrained from mentioning magic and Arthur made a mental note to talk to him later. The way they had communicated earlier had been exhilarating, but he needed to know if it was just between them or was linked to magic in some way. For the moment, the existence of dragons was enough for them all to be dealing with.
The meeting was concluded with the decision that a victory feast was required to keep up appearances and then they broke up into small groups. Arthur walked round the room, gaining the tenor of the conversations. Bayard and Godwyn were discussing horses, Morgause, Morgana and Alined of all people were cooing over Morgause’s son, a clutch of knights were discussing what dragons ate, and another group were talking about a particularly memorable night at the Rising Sun. Needless to say Gwaine was part of that group and Arthur almost offered a caustic comment until he caught Gwaine’s eye, and he smiled instead before moving on. Manoeuvring closer to a group of those nobles who’d been the most recalcitrant, and who were locked in an intense debate, he discovered that the subject was, in fact, whether Camelot’s beef was better than Mercia’s. His lips twitched and he finally relaxed, trading a quick, satisfied look with Morgana before, unable to help himself, he searched out Merlin.
Merlin was watching him, a smile hovering around his mouth, though his eyes were still troubled. Well, there was a clear indication of what his first priority was, he thought. He looked again at Morgana, and she made shooing motions with her hands, which he took to be acceptance, understanding and an indication that she would deal with anything that might arise.
Come with me
Merlin smiled and offered a short nod, working through the crowd to Arthur and the door. Once there, they slipped out and into the corridor beyond, and Arthur led the way to his chambers.
As soon as the door closed behind them he turned to embrace Merlin, shocked and distressed when Merlin twisted away from him and moved to stand by the window, twisting the gloves he still carried around and around in his hands.
“I don’t understand.” He tried not to let his hurt show, but Merlin winced.
There was silence before Merlin drew in a deep breath and launched into speech. “The dragons told me many things, Arthur. They’ve told me I should be the most powerful mage the world has ever known, but they bound magic within the Crystal Cave. Even so, the magic leaking through was enough for me to tap into. There is a bond between us. The oath I made – the oath we made – the first time I made love to you has bound us for now and forever. I swear I didn’t know it would do that to you, I swear.”
Arthur understood Merlin’s sadness now.
“Oh, love,” he grinned, happiness flooding through him and he let it flow, watching as the tension faded from Merlin’s face and warm colour replaced the pallor. “I think I fell in love with you the very first moment I saw you. Whether magic had a place in that, I care not. You are for me and I am for you and that is all I will ever need to know.”
As Merlin, strong, tall, beautiful Merlin strode across the room to gather Arthur into his arms, it was Arthur who folded in against Merlin’s chest, who was held and cradled and comforted.
They stood in silence for some time, giving and receiving comfort, before Merlin curved his hand around Arthur’s face and they stared at one another. Arthur leaned forward and captured Merlin’s mouth.
Passion flared, zinging back and forth across the bond they shared until they were scrabbling at clothes, only stopping when Merlin stood naked before Arthur and Arthur could see the tattoo, the Pendragon crest, etched over Merlin’s heart. He shook his head, beyond words, and drew Merlin to the bed.
Much later, there was a pounding at the door before Morgana entered, an embarrassed Leon hard on her heels. Merlin, quite adorably Arthur thought, squeaked and pulled the covers over them, while Arthur sat up and leaned against the pillows.
Merlin groaned and pulled the covers over his head until only dark curls were visible.
Arthur tugged on his hair and a naked arm emerged from the blankets to bat feebly at his hand.
“I’m going to marry Leon,” she announced.
“About time,” Arthur returned, before mock whispering at Leon, “are you sure? You can still run.”
Leon barked out a laugh and then drew Morgana to him. “Thank you, Sire, but I’m perfectly happy.”
Arthur smiled at Morgana then. “I’m glad then, Morgana, glad for you both. I know you don’t need my approval but you have it anyway.”
Morgana smiled sweetly in response which should really have been its own warning.
“Why, thank you, My King. Shall we announce a double betrothal at the feast then?
That had Merlin shooting upright and staring open-mouthed at her.
Arthur glared at Morgana and she laughed in response, before dragging Leon out and closing the door gently.
“Arthur?” Merlin’s voice was cautious.
“You are a Dragonlord, Merlin. You have the rank and status to more than match any of the nobles. There is a seat at the Round Table for you and a place at my side – not as my servant, Merlin, but as my Consort.”
Merlin – the Lost Mage, the last Dragonlord, potentially the greatest sorcerer the world had ever known – flung himself on Arthur and gave his answer in the most emphatic, enthusiastic fashion Arthur could have wanted.
“Arthur?” Merlin walked into their chambers, discarding his cloak and flying gloves over the nearest convenient surface.
Arthur looked up at him and raised his eyebrows, glancing down at his paperwork before tossing down the quill and pushing the chair away from the desk. Merlin dropped into Arthur’s lap, startling an oof from Arthur that was muffled by Merlin’s mouth and he gave into the inevitable, taking the time to enjoy the greeting.
It had only been two days since they’d been together but every parting was too long for them both.
“What news?” Arthur asked eventually.
“Kilgharrah thinks they might have heard some rumours about a crystal. Something about a young boy who’s been using a crystal to tell fortunes.”
“You think it might be the Crystal of Neathid?”
“I think so this time – Edwin says there’s been a surge in his odd incidents and that might tie up to the crystal’s use.”
“So, a quest then?”
“A noble quest for a noble King.”
“A noble King and his Dragonlord Consort.”
They grinned at one another, the prospect of an adventure in their future and the certainty of their love, and the peace across Albion leaving them content and eager to face the future.
Many miles away an old crone stared down at them on the surface of the water in her bowl and smiled a toothless smile.