They went out hunting: Arthur, Merlin and a party of knights, past a broken section of wall covered in scaffolding, then through the lower town, where refugees lately returned were rebuilding their former dwellings in mud and thatch. They went in commoners’ clothes, for caution, for these were the early days of the peace – but they went out nonetheless.
Gwaine, Percival and Elyan had filled out and enlivened noticeably as the weeks passed, but were still scarred and a little gaunt from their captivity. Leon had emerged from the forest wearing a mantle of care from which he still seemed a little stooped. Still, they were a lively party, calling to and fro and spurring their horses to prancing. Peace was a play in which they were newly cast, and so prone to over-acting.
But Merlin’s part was the same as always. They sighted a boar early in the day. It was not a shy one. Merlin was pushed to the front of the line of ambush, despite his admitted propensity to hold his spear like an egg-whisk.
When the boar charged at them, Merlin attempted to spear it. He might as well have been trying to tap it with a switch; the spear bounced off as if flung. The boar tossed its great, horned head in his direction, irritated, as if at a fly. Merlin staggered back in fright and nearly knocked Arthur down; Arthur made a great production of roaring, ‘Merlin!’
In the meantime Percival had impaled it right through, as if spitting it for the fire, with a single thrust.
Such a coup so early in the day proved deflating. They all milled around while Merlin secured the boar to the packhorse.
‘There’s a brook down that-a-way,’ Gwaine said. ‘Anyone fancy a dip?’
The others looked at Arthur.
‘Sire?’ Gwaine said.
‘Why not?’ Arthur said.
The brook came in sight, in a gently sloping, grassy valley where the trees came less close together.
‘That branch’ll do well for our hairy old bastard,’ Gwaine said to Merlin, spotting a tree with a low branch, by the water’s edge, from which they could string up the boar.
‘Gwaine,’ Leon said.
Elyan and Percival were smiling at the ground.
‘Was he not a hairy old bastard, Sire?’ Gwaine said. ‘Was he not an extremely hairy old bastard in life, who would have happily killed us all if we didn’t get to him first?’
‘I believe he was, Gwaine,’ Arthur said, and shot a grin at Leon, who looked embarrassed.
They dismounted, and Gwaine helped Merlin hoist the boar up – it was heavy. Percival, who presumably could have done it with the top joint of his little finger alone, tutted at them.
‘Who is the servant again?’ Arthur said.
‘I think it’s the one you mock incessantly,’ Merlin said.
‘I don’t recall the last time I mocked you,’ Arthur said, grinning.
A retort about the royal attention span surged into Merlin’s mind, but it was too insubordinate to voice in front of the knights. But something of it must have showed on his face, because Arthur got a calculating look.
But Arthur said nothing, only began throwing his clothes off, as the others were doing. Their commoners’ clothes were a blessing here, for Merlin was not needed to unbuckle mail.
Elyan finishing stripping first, and raced for the water with a challenging cry. The others rushed to finish and chased after him, baying. But his start was unassailable and he bombed himself into the water first with a shout. They all followed moments afterwards.
Merlin braced himself for some shout of injury. But Elyan had chosen his point of entry well: a slow-moving, deep, green place in the lee of the current, round like a pool. None of them had come to grief. They were whooping and splashing now.
‘Are we camping here?’ Merlin called out, as he was finishing securing the horses. No one paid him any attention.
He saw Arthur in a flash of sun, tossing his hair out his eyes, which were bright with mirth. His blond chest hair, sodden, made golden-brown brushstrokes on his skin. The sword wound in his side had faded to a pink kiss. There was no stiffness in the way he moved his body at all.
Arthur had been defeated, cast down, a fugitive; he had almost died of that wound. Now he was well; he was king, soon to be married. There was peace in Camelot. Everything he had wanted – everything Merlin had laboured in secret to give him, at such great cost – had come about. But everything for Merlin was the same.
He judged he should unload the heaviest things from off the packhorse, at least, but not actually make camp.
‘Come on, Merlin,’ Arthur called out to him, in that bluff, derisive tone that always portended danger.
‘You’ll dunk me if I do.’
‘I won’t dunk you,’ Arthur shouted. The knights all hooted.
‘So you see, they agree with me,’ Merlin said.
‘Merlin!’ Arthur shouted. It was a command.
Merlin took his clothes off. It was not the most agreeable thing, to be the only person taking your clothes off while everyone else was safely ensconced in the relative dignity of the water and free to peruse you at will. He tried to comfort himself by telling himself that things were clearly about to get a lot worse, so, relatively speaking, this was not actually that bad.
He waded into the water, hands kept raised above the surface. It was cold. He was the only person here whose biceps weren’t larger than an orange. He saw them all looking at him. He was aware of a slightly mincing look on his face.
The detente broke. Water struck him from all directions, hard as a slap. There were many hoots and cries.
Now the worst thing: Arthur led the charge. He seized Merlin bodily to dunk him: parody of a passionate lover. Merlin’s face was pressed to the swell of Arthur’s chest, so deep and masculine now. Arthur’s wet chest hair and cold-peaked nipple brushed Merlin’s cheek as he struggled. For a fraction of a second on the way down, Merlin smelled the sweet, still-boyish scent of Arthur’s underarm.
Merlin was down. He was drowning, flailing, sinuses burning. No, he was up again, spluttering and heaving. Arthur was clapping him on the back with unhelpful force. They were all laughing. Merlin was fine.
There was a fantasy that Merlin sometimes had when it was very late at night and he was too tired and heartsore to defend himself from himself. In it, magic was legal, Arthur was king, and Merlin was Arthur’s Court Sorcerer. They had adjoining chambers. When he slipped into Arthur’s bed at night, Arthur might well very seize him and hold him against his chest like that.
Merlin had coughed up all the water now. Merlin was fine. He launched himself away into a swim. ‘The word of the king of Camelot, eh?’ he said.
‘Oo-ooh,’ said some knights.
‘What word?’ scoffed Arthur. ‘I gave no word.’
They did make camp there by the brook, and roasted the boar and feasted before they slept.
They had brought a small canvas tent for Arthur to sleep in, out of some notion of kingly dignity. Merlin slept in it with him, to be available at Arthur’s convenience. Merlin’s bedroll was not nearly so heavily padded as Arthur’s; their eye-lines were not level. But still when they settled down to sleep, they were looking into each other’s faces, which, as their eyes adjusted to the starlight through the canvas, felt awkward. Merlin rolled over and turned his face away, in the hope it would stop Arthur ordering him to switch ends so they lay top to toe. Arthur said nothing, so Merlin concluded he had been successful.
Merlin slowed his breathing, settling himself to go to sleep.
There was a sound outside. Merlin craned to hear. A slight shift in Arthur’s bedroll suggested he was doing the same.
It was a kind of a scratching sound, like someone steadily scrubbing a pot.
Someone made a low sound, which gave way to a panting breath. Percival’s voice?
Oh. Merlin twigged. It was Gwaine and Percival. They definitely weren’t scrubbing a pot.
Merlin heard Arthur turn himself over onto his back, in a sulky, aggressive way.
Higher pitched sounds now, under Percival’s breath.
It went on. Arthur started breathing irritably through his nose.
Gwaine was vocalising softly now too, low-pitched, in call-and-answer with Percival.
Arthur surged out of his bedroll with a huff, threw the tent flap back and charged out into the night. His footsteps tracked away from camp. There were surprised noises from around the banked campfire.
Should Merlin go after him?
Merlin went after him.
He didn’t stop to get his boots on, since Arthur hadn’t either. He took great care not to notice the position that any of the person-sized lumps around the campfire might be in.
Arthur’s white shirt could be seen ahead through the trees. The ground was grassy and not too inhospitable to bare feet. But the trees came more closely together as they got further away from the brook, and soon there were sticks and acorns underfoot. Merlin was poked quite hard by a stick in the tender arch of his foot, and stumbled.
At last Arthur noticed him following and stopped. But he did not come back to meet Merlin; instead he waited for Merlin to stumble and wince his way over to meet him. The way he was standing, which was reasonably visible in the starlight due to the white shirt, seemed irritable, and that impression was confirmed as Merlin came closer.
Merlin came to a stop, and soothed his hurt arch by perching that foot on top of the other one. Arthur put his hands on his hips.
‘All right?’ Merlin said.
Arthur made a scoffing noise, but then looked at the ground, embarrassed, instead of speaking.
‘Bit awkward to have to listen to it,’ Merlin said.
‘Yes,’ Arthur said.
Arthur folded his arms. Merlin was aware of hovering, probably annoyingly.
‘Have you ever lain with a man?’ Arthur asked suddenly, bluff.
Merlin coughed, startled. ‘Yes, I have.’
‘Oh,’ Arthur said.
There was a long silence.
‘Yes. It was nice. It was fun,’ Merlin said briskly. ‘Yes, I’d do again with the right man. If that’s what you’re asking.’
‘Oh.’ Arthur sounded put-out.
There was another silence.
‘What did you…?’ Arthur began, stilted. ‘Did he do it to you, or…?’
‘That’s too much,’ Merlin said, finally allowing himself to be angry. ‘That’s too much to ask me.’
‘No, no, you’re right,’ Arthur said, miserable, ‘sorry, I just need to…’ He turned on his heel and walked away into the trees.
‘Arthur!’ Merlin took a step after him.
The whole world became smeary, like they were enclosed in aspic. Gradually, gently, they began to fall over.
They were in a bright, hazy place, which strained their eyes. There was no middle distance, only haze. They had fallen to wallow in a bed of yellow flowers; the scent of pollen was heavy.
Merlin shook his head; his brain bounced and spun in his skull, as if he was drunk. Arthur was blinking at him. Arthur reached out to him. Merlin wobbled to his elbow and shifted towards him. Pollen exploded beneath him. The ground was pillowy. Arthur had a silly look on his face. He took Merlin’s hand and examined it curiously.
Merlin tried to speak, but it was difficult to come up with words. The feeling of drunkenness had escalated; his brain was an apple bobbing in a trough. Arthur looked so puzzled, examining Merlin’s hand, that Merlin laughed. Arthur’s eyebrows squashed together.
Arthur launched himself at Merlin and rolled him over onto his back, Arthur on top. It was like how Arthur sometimes wrestled Merlin, except usually that ended in Merlin tied in knots or being hurt in some way, but this time Arthur just huffed a giggle in his ear. Merlin wriggled. Arthur rolled them both over again, giggling more. Now Merlin was giggling too, and pretending to fight but mostly just flailing for the fun of it. Arthur rolled them again. Merlin beat his fists on Arthur’s back and played at kicking his legs like a baby. Arthur murmured laughingly.
Arthur rolled them again, but this time he got to his elbows and looked into Merlin’s face.
Arthur gazed at him steadily. His eyes were very blue. He was no longer laughing. He ran his fingers through Merlin’s hair, cupping his head.
Arthur kissed him.
Merlin’s eyes drifted shut. Golden lights exploded behind his eyelids.
Arthur whined into his mouth, kissing him wetly, clumsily. Merlin’s whole spine was a cord pulled taut; he arched up. He needed to eliminate every possible space between their bodies.
It was exquisite. This was what finally tipped Merlin off that something was wrong. This was just not something that would ever happen to him.
‘Am I the right man?’ Arthur slurred. ‘Could I be the right man?’ The one that Merlin would do it again with, he meant.
‘It’s magic, Arthur. There’s something wrong,’ Merlin managed to say.
‘Don’t you like me?’ Arthur said, needy as a little boy.
‘Yes, hell,’ Merlin said. ‘I love you.’
Merlin’s cock had become the fount of his entire life’s essence. His whole body was going to liquefy and funnel itself into a jet upwards to the sky.
Something moved in Merlin’s peripheral vision. He tore loose from Arthur and lurched to his feet, wavering.
Someone had cast this magic, and that someone was here now.
A creature, stooped, waist-high to a man, skin like tree bark. It tilted its head, assessing. Its teeth were longer than human fingers.
It swivelled its head. Now it was looking at Arthur. Arthur was still wallowing on his back, a dreamy look on his face.
‘Get back!’ Merlin cried drunkenly.
The creature resettled its teeth over its lip, squared its stance.
It was not going to hurt Arthur.
Every ounce of feeling in Merlin’s being exploded out of him in two great waves of force, which crushed the creature between them. Its bones snapped audibly.
It fell to the ground, shrivelling, a broken leaf.
Instantly a golden lamp was put out, and the world was grey and dim. The ground lurched.
‘That was magic!’ Arthur said comically.
‘Yes,’ Merlin said.
‘I’ve thought you had magic for ages,’ Arthur said.
The air shattered.
They woke up in the forest, approximately where they’d been before. But it was autumn; the oaks were dropping their leaves.
‘Are you all right?’ they both said to each other at once, then grimaced.
They got up. Merlin shook his head to confirm; he felt coldly sober. He looked at Arthur. Arthur was looking up at the bare branches.
‘Right,’ Arthur said, looking at Merlin at last, business-like. ‘Shall we just go…?’ He began to walk in the direction the camp had been.
‘I don’t think it’s there anymore,’ Merlin said, following.
‘No, I don’t either,’ Arthur said, ‘but I just want to…’
‘See for yourself?’
They walked in silence, barefoot through ankle-deep leaf cover, hissing when they stepped on something sharp – which was frequently, since you could not see what was under the leaves. Arthur looked resolutely ahead.
It was down to Arthur’s woodsmanship that they found the place at all. There was nothing there to Merlin’s eye. But Arthur toed aside some leaves and uncovered the scars on the earth where the campfire had been. Now Merlin could recognise the shape of the trees.
‘I think that’s this year’s. Can’t be more than a year old.’ Arthur looked at Merlin. ‘So I think it’s still this year.’
‘I don’t have any way of knowing,’ Merlin said, answering what he suspected was an unasked question.
Arthur looked down.
‘We should follow the brook upstream, so we’ll have water,’ he said at last. ‘There’s a road at the edge of the forest, eventually.’ He turned to go.
Merlin did not follow.
Arthur turned back.
‘If I’m going to my execution, I’d just as soon go the other way, if that’s all right with you,’ Merlin said. ‘Am I?’
‘I…’ Arthur began crossly. ‘I don’t know, all right. Can you just…’
‘Just give me some time to think, will you?’ Arthur said. ‘You might as well come with me for now. Won’t do either of us any good to be wandering off alone.’
‘All right,’ Merlin said.
They drank at the brook. There was no way not to get their feet wet at the bank.
Then they walked a long way in silence, with cold, damp feet.
‘Am I right in thinking you could kill me with a thought, anyway?’ Arthur said at last.
‘I suppose,’ Merlin said, and attempted to smile.
‘You don’t know?’
‘Oh, I know whether I could. It’s just…’
‘I love you. It’s unthinkable.’ There did not seem to be any point in Merlin not saying this, anymore.
Arthur’s footfall hesitated a moment, but then carried on.
Merlin let some time pass. ‘Also, why would I not have…’
‘Done it already, years ago, if you were planning to? That’s what I’m asking myself, yes,’ Arthur said.
They walked on up a small rise, which took them away from the bank of the brook for a time.
‘You said you’d thought I had magic for a while,’ Merlin said.
‘With part of my mind, I suppose,’ Arthur said. ‘And then the other part thought, no, that’s ridiculous. I suppose I didn’t really want to know.’
Merlin waited to see if Arthur was finished.
‘The magic called me to Camelot from Ealdor,’ Merlin said. He did not think it was a good idea to bring up the dragon just now. ‘I was supposed to help you ascend the throne, because you’re the Once and Future King, and all that. You were rather a git to me and I was a mite peeved when I found out, I don’t mind telling you.’
Arthur kept walking.
‘Since Morgana went bad, it’s just seemed impossible to mount any kind of argument that we’re not all evil. So I just… gave up on the idea of ever telling you.’
Still Arthur walked on, silent.
‘You might as well know, I did kill Agravaine. And all his men, in the caves,’ Merlin said. ‘It wasn’t so much a diversion as… a murder, really. I lured them away; they attacked me; I killed them all.’
Arthur stopped and put his hands on his hips. He looked in Merlin’s direction, but his focus seemed to be far into the distance.
‘Well, good,’ he said finally. He smiled. It was the saddest smile that Merlin had ever seen.
They went on, tracking back around the rise to find the brook again.
‘There’s obviously a lot more I could say,’ Merlin said.
‘No, please, no more for now,’ Arthur said.
‘All right,’ Merlin said. ‘Ask me when you’re ready.’
It was getting dark. Low to the ground nearby, there was a scuffling sound.
‘Pheasant!’ Arthur cried, and groped for a weapon he didn’t have.
Merlin’s stomach gurgled.
The scuffling sound happened again, further to the left.
Before he could think better of it, Merlin reached out with his hand – and his magic.
‘I’ve got it,’ he said, ‘if that’s, um, all right.’
Arthur’s face was still a moment. Then he shrugged. ‘Why not.’
‘It’s over this way,’ Merlin said. They walked.
‘Damn, it’s still alive,’ Merlin said. ‘It’s looking at me.’
The poor thing was twitching, frozen in mid-step, terrified in its invisible bonds, eyes flickering frantically.
‘All right, I need to,’ he said, and took a wincing step towards it.
It peeped pitifully, and he froze. He started to advance on it with one eye closed.
‘Oh, here, I’ll do it,’ Arthur said, in something like his old, blustery way. He stepped in and wrung the creature’s neck, quickly and firmly.
Relief flooded Merlin.
‘The mighty sorcerer, eh?’ Arthur shook his head.
‘My magic doesn’t want to… do that. It’ll do it if I make it. But it just wants to make things, or feed things, or just be a firefly, zipping over here or zipping over there. I don’t know how Morgana hurts things all the time, to be honest.’
‘Well,’ Arthur said, shaking the pheasant, ‘now what?’
They made camp in a clearing. Merlin swept all the leaves together in a pile with magic, and they were able to pick all of the loose sticks out the pile to make a fire – which Merlin started with magic.
‘I’m thinking you’ve reached your maximum possible amount of shocked-ness, so I’m all right to…’
‘No, I don’t think I’m actually at maximum. I feel as though maximum could kill me,’ Arthur said. ‘But the fire’s fine.’
Merlin managed to make a rough incision in the pheasant with magic. He began to try to gut it. The look on his face made Arthur say, ‘Oh, give it here,’ and take it away into the trees to sort it out.
After they’d eaten, Arthur stared into the flames, arms around his knees, a long time. ‘Damn,’ he said at last. ‘I suppose I should ask. Is that creature – from the glowing place – definitely dead?’
‘Oh yes,’ Merlin said. ‘It’s dead.’
‘What was it?’
‘Don’t know. Have to ask –’ Merlin said, then froze.
It wasn’t the fact that he’d said it, he realised, hating himself – it was the fact that he’d frozen.
Arthur had gone very still also.
‘Can you pretend I didn’t say that?’ Merlin said.
‘No,’ Arthur said. ‘Tell me who knows.’
‘How many shall I take with me to the gallows?’ Merlin said. ‘No, I won’t. Anyway, you might reach maximum level and die.’
‘So it’s people close to me?’
‘Do you really want to ask me?’
‘Well, I don’t want to say. For now. Maybe you need to give me time, too.’
Arthur seemed to shrink into himself. At last he said quietly, ‘I am so contemptible, my entire acquaintance conspires against me.’
Merlin put his hand on Arthur’s shoulder. But Arthur gave a shrug, and Merlin withdrew.
They had stared silently at the fire so long, Merlin felt he had turned into a fallen log and forgotten the power of speech.
Arthur spoke in a low voice. ‘I’m sorry I was trying to force myself on you in that place. I was confused by the magic and I –’
‘What are you talking about?’ Merlin interrupted.
‘In the place with the golden light. The creature’s lair,’ Arthur said.
‘You weren’t trying to… If anything, I was trying to force you.’
‘It’s not like I haven’t desperately wanted to tup you since the instant I laid eyes on you, or anything,’ Merlin said.
‘Oh,’ Arthur said.
There was a silence. Merlin waited.
‘Since we’re being honest,’ Arthur said, ‘I’ve never actually lain with anyone.’
‘Oh,’ Merlin said.
‘Yes, rather pathetic –’ Arthur began to bluster.
‘No it’s not,’ Merlin said. ‘Perfectly sensible in your position, I’d say.’
Then, into the silence, before he could think better of it, Merlin said, ‘Do you want to?’
‘Yes,’ Arthur said.
They stared at each other.
Merlin shifted fractionally closer to Arthur. He felt terribly uncertain he was understanding this correctly.
Arthur shifted closer to him in turn. Still their eyes were locked.
Merlin shifted again and Arthur did, too.
They arranged themselves by increments so they were sitting thigh to thigh. Now they were breathing on each other’s faces.
Their noses bumped.
Arthur kissed Merlin. Merlin sighed in relief and opened his mouth a bit, coaching Arthur how to do it.
Merlin could not stand it. He pushed Arthur down onto his back and lay on top of him, sliding his tongue into his mouth.
Arthur growled and rolled them over so he was on top. Now he used his own tongue. Merlin locked his legs around Arthur’s hips, arching up. This was like it had been in the golden place, but so much better: the weight of Arthur’s body, slightly stifling, the pain of a small rock under Merlin’s hip, the smell of Arthur’s sweat.
Merlin made an interrogative murmur and rolled them over again. ‘Can I?’ he asked, tugging at Arthur’s shirt.
At last he was sliding Arthur’s shirt up. Combing his fingers through his chest hair. Tonguing the faint coppery sweetness of his nipples.
He unbuttoned Arthur’s trousers. Oh, it was Arthur’s cock. He’d never seen it hard before; it was delightfully larger, and so pink. A vein down the left. The head glistened.
Merlin had it in his hand, hot and pulsing with life. ‘Let me?’ he said, as he lowered his head.
Arthur made a choked, affirmative sound.
‘Merlin, Merlin, I want to…’ Arthur said, tugging at his hair.
Merlin released Arthur’s cock from his mouth – it made a wonderful, wet sound. ‘You want to have me?’ Merlin was made out of white light, all shyness obliterated.
Merlin magicked his clothes off. Then he tried to take Arthur’s clothes off by hand, so he could touch as he went. But he was clumsy and it was too hard, so he magicked them off too. Arthur laughed to find them suddenly gone.
Merlin conjured some slickness in his hand so he could work it into himself, easing the muscles loose. Why shouldn’t he, at this point? Why shouldn’t he do anything?
Arthur watched him avidly. When Merlin was ready, he gave Arthur a little smile, and watched Arthur’s belly heave in excitement.
He straddled Arthur’s hips and rubbed some slickness on Arthur’s cock. He held it steady and lowered himself so that it nuzzled against his tender, slippery entrance. A twist of desire cramped beneath his ribs. He cupped Arthur’s face. ‘Look at me.’
Coaxing his body to let it in, he did not release Arthur’s gaze. He was able to see the exact moment when Arthur was no longer physically able to focus his eyes.
They woke up in the morning toasty, in a bubble of warm air that Merlin had conjured for them, in a half embrace. They began to kiss almost immediately, and then to roll about a bit, lazily.
Then they accidentally rolled off their bed of leaves and out of the bubble, which dispersed. ‘Bloody hell!’ Arthur said, and squeezed Merlin for warmth.
‘No, it’s all right, we’d better get up.’
They stood, shivering. Leaves were stuck to them in unwholesome places. Arthur was blushing faintly. ‘Should we bathe?’
‘How much colder can it be?’ Merlin said.
They went and splashed in the brook briefly, goosebumped and quaking all over. ‘I was wrong to pose that as a rhetorical question,’ Merlin said.
‘I cannot disagree,’ Arthur said.
They got out and assessed their clothes. Arthur looked expectant. ‘I don’t really know to dry things reliably without sometimes setting them on fire. Or boiling them,’ Merlin said, ‘sorry. I mean, the warm air thing’ll take hours, so…’
‘No, fair enough,’ Arthur said. ‘Let’s not do that.’
They put their clothes on wet, hunching from cold.
‘The solution to this is a nice brisk walk,’ Arthur said.
‘What an agreeable coincidence,’ Merlin said.
They set off, eating the last scraps of the pheasant as they walked.
By the time the sun was high in the sky, they were mostly dry, but hungry again. The light became brighter up ahead. ‘Is that the edge of the forest?’
‘Looks like it,’ Arthur said.
They carried on. The trees were thinning.
At last they could see it ahead: the road.
‘I’d better tell you something else,’ Merlin said.
‘All right,’ Arthur said.
‘Morgana is alive and up to something, I don’t know what. I found her by scrying – she’s made her way to the northern wastes. She’s travelling about with a man, a Druid sorcerer. They have some Saxon followers who look like bandits.’
‘She’d lost her magic, when we fought,’ Arthur protested. ‘And she took a wound!’
‘Oh, the magic thing was me,’ Merlin said, sheepish. ‘I snuck into the castle the night before and put a hex under her bed. It would have only lasted till she next went to sleep. And she must have survived the wound.’
They reached the road. It was more a narrow, crudely cobbled trail. At the edge of the trees, Arthur paused and said, ‘But that was months ago now, if this is autumn. Where is she now?’
‘Don’t know,’ Merlin said. ‘I’d have to scry again. I’d need some equipment.’
Arthur said nothing, walking on.
They advanced to the edge of the road. ‘Which way?’ Merlin said.
‘That way,’ Arthur said. ‘I think there’s a village, from memory.’
They turned left and walked. ‘Oh hell, I forgot,’ Merlin said, stopping. ‘There’s something else.’
‘What now?’ Arthur almost looked amused.
‘Well,’ Merlin said. He took a breath. ‘I’m Dragoon the Great.’
Arthur did not look amused anymore.
‘I didn’t kill Uther,’ Merlin said. ‘I was trying to save him. But Morgana already had a spell on him. I didn’t work it out till it was too late.’
Arthur was staring at him, perfectly blank.
‘Also, Morgana knows me in the guise of Dragoon. But the name she knows me by is Emrys. Which is my name among the Druids. Emrys is Morgana’s doom, according to prophecy. Which is encouraging.’
Arthur was still staring.
‘I use a potion to transform,’ Merlin said, ‘so I can’t show you right now, sorry.’
Arthur pointed at the road. They walked a while.
‘Have you hit maximum?’ Merlin asked as gently as he could.
‘Getting there,’ Arthur said, pre-emptory.
It meant shut up, so Merlin did.
They walked. Merlin was very hungry. The cobbled road was smoother underfoot than the forest, but much colder.
There was a sound. It was hooves on cobbles.
‘Quick, hide!’ Arthur said. They dashed for the trees.
It was two knights of Camelot, in red cloaks. They had helmets on, so you couldn’t see who they were.
Merlin looked to Arthur.
Arthur shrank back into the trees, putting his arm across Merlin’s chest as if he thought Merlin was going to burst forth.
The knights rode on, passing them and carrying on.
They were approaching a bend in the road now, and would soon disappear behind a far stand of trees.
‘I need a while,’ Arthur said. ‘I just need a while.’
‘All right,’ Merlin said.
When the knights were out of sight, they stepped out of the trees, returned to the road and walked on.
Arthur stayed silent. Whenever Merlin looked at him, he was staring pointedly straight ahead.
Cautiously, they followed the bend in the road that the knights had disappeared around. But ahead was another stretch of empty road – the knights had already passed. Arthur and Merlin walked on.
At the end of that stretch was a signpost. It read: Breslin ½ mile.
Arthur stopped in front of it for a moment, hands on hips. Merlin almost thought he would speak. But he just walked on again, more slowly now.
Now the road was winding around stony hillocks, among low trees barely taller than a cottage. They would not have a view of the village until they were almost upon it.
At last they crested a hill and saw it: the rough timber palisade of a village wall.
Arthur grabbed Merlin’s arm and led him back down the road, out of sight.
Arthur seemed unable to speak.
‘Do you want me to go the other way now?’ Merlin said. ‘Is this what you’re telling me?’
He was not going to weep in front of Arthur. He had no other resolution, no idea what he would do next after this. But he was absolutely determined not to weep while Arthur was here.
He tried to memorise everything he could about Arthur’s face. The severe, not-quite beauty of the aquiline nose, against the frank beauty of the eyes. The way the thatch of the eyebrows lay. The fullness of the mouth.
He became aware also of how the air smelled here, and the particular quality of the light.
‘No,’ Arthur said, in a wan voice. ‘I want you to come with me and help me. Will you do that?’
Merlin could not take this in right away.
‘Do you still want to do that?’ The smallness of Arthur’s voice was terrible.
‘Yes,’ Merlin said. ‘Yes, for pity’s sake!’ He took a step toward Arthur.
Arthur seized him and kissed him. ‘Oh, thank the fates.’
Down the road they came towards the palisade. Ahead was a flash of red – the knights, leaving the village by the gate.
Arthur raised his hand in a hail.
One knight stiffened as if slapped. His horse, reacting, reared.
It took him a while to get the horse under control. As soon as he did, he dismounted and gave his reins to his fellow, then tore his helmet off. He was tall, blond. He charged up the road towards them on foot.
‘Leon!’ Arthur called.
Arthur clapped an arm around Merlin and they began to walk down together. Merlin really was about to shed a tear now – happily. From the looks of him, so was Arthur.
So was Leon, when he arrived, shouting joyfully, ‘Arthur! Merlin!’