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Albion's Destiny

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O drakon! E male so ftengometta tesd'hup'anankes!

Merlin looked back at Arthur, barely holding on, and hoped that the dragon had enough breath left in him to carry his king to the Isle of Avalon. He tried to hold back his sobs as he waited, every moment feeling like eternity, the urgency making his magic surge in his blood.

Arthur opened his eyes. “Merlin,” he rasped.

Immediately, Merlin was on his knees next to him, Excalibur clattering to the ground. “Yes, what?”

“You are talking gibberish,” said Arthur with great difficulty.

Merlin opened his mouth, but heard the flapping of giant wings before he could say anything. “Don’t panic,” he said shortly.

Arthur looked up and saw a dragon. The dragon. Of course Merlin was chummy with a dragon. That made complete sense in this new, weird world of his. His incompetent, foolish, clotpole of a servant was friends with a dragon. That, or Arthur had died and was now a wispy soul in the sky having strange hallucinations.

“Merlin,” said the dragon as Arthur gaped at him. “The young king barely clings to life.”

“Kilgharrah. I would not have summoned you, if there was any other choice. I have one last favor to ask,” said Merlin. “Help me save him. Can you carry us to the isle of Avalon?”

The great dragon bowed his head. “Yes. But we must hurry, young warlock. Come, you must carry the king.”

Arthur had no idea which part of the dragon’s booming speech he found most outrageous, but he suddenly felt the urge to snort. Carry him? Young warlock? Merlin? It took him a second to realize that the dragon was right, after all. He still forgot easily that the old sorcerer and Merlin were the same person. It struck him at odd moments, and then he had to go through agonizing, confusing emotions once again. He tried to help Merlin as he bodily carried him on to the dragon’s back. All he ended up achieving was a sort of lethargic swatting at imaginary bees, and even that caused him to sweat.

And so they flew, Merlin keeping Arthur more or less upright, constantly worrying about his weakening pulse. Arthur wanted to tell him to stop crying, that his time perhaps was done, but with Merlin’s cold fingers checking his pulse, he couldn’t find the words to stop him. Besides, he was scared shitless of toppling over into the water. Arthur finally closed his eyes.

“Arthur! No, don’t you dare!”

Even though it felt like too much effort, Arthur opened his sluggish eyes. They were descending back onto solid ground. Loathing how weak he was, how terribly dependent on Merlin’s wiry strength, he nonetheless let Merlin drag him away from the dragon. “I shall wait here,” it said.

“What brings you here?” said a guttural voice behind Arthur, but he was too weak to look. Considering the things he had seen this whole day, it was probably for the best. The voice barely seemed human. But then Merlin turned him around, so that they were facing the same way, and Arthur saw a… creature. He had no means to name it, and no energy to try to think of what it might be. All he knew was that it was blue, small, and hideous. Oh, and it had wings.

It never even looked at him.

“What does the mighty Merlin want? Is he not happy to have finally embraced his destiny? Is he greedy for more?” The thing was mocking, disrespectful. It tellingly never mentioned the dying king in Merlin’s backward embrace.

Merlin hefted Arthur in order to  speak over his shoulder. “I will give all I have recently learned, and more besides. Please, you have to help him. I cannot lose him. He is my friend.” Merlin’s voice cracked, his voice going nasal.

“And what will the sidhe obtain from helping a king live beyond his time?”

Merlin hesitated. Arthur waited for him to speak, realized he didn’t exactly have a plan here, and promptly fainted.

Merlin grew desperate when Arthur slumped in his arms. He panicked, checking Arthur’s pulse for the hundredth time that day, and gulped down sobs at the thready, barely-there pulse.

“Please!” he yelled, not caring about anything anymore. “Save him and you will have… anything you want. Kill me instead.”

The sidhe elder laughed in his face. “Kill you? End such powerful magic for the life of a king who has served his purpose?”

“If he dies, you will rue this day till the world falls apart,” said Merlin hotly. “My magic will be your greatest nemesis.” He thought furiously. The sidhe didn’t want to kill him. Could he bully them into saving Arthur? “You talk as if you know my strengths. Then you know what I am capable of. You know what Arthur means to me. Think, and you will know what I will do if he dies while you just stand there.” Merlin didn’t know the full extent of his new powers, he didn’t know whether or not he was bluffing. All he knew was that he would save Arthur or die trying. If he had to intimidate a being of powerful magic to do so, so be it.

The sidhe looked at him shrewdly, as if gauging his resolve. Then he grinned, his feral teeth on display. He turned and flitted away.

“Come then, Emrys, and bring your pale king.”


Arthur was fairly certain he was not dead.

He was too uncomfortable, too cold to be dead. If this was death, no matter his father’s soul had murder on it’s mind.

“Arthur? Arthur, come on. Get up, you insufferable prat!”

Arthur wanted to yell at Merlin. He was trying, he really was, to open his eyes, to move. His body felt too lethargic, every muscle protesting movement. He felt quite drunk.

“Arthur.”

When Merlin started to sob, Arthur’s eyes opened sluggishly. He tried to speak, then winced internally when he heard the resulting gurgle.

“Arthur,” Merlin sounded exceptionally happy to witness Arthur’s agony. What had happened? Had he been drugged? Where were they?

“You are safe,” said Merlin, his out-of-focus face suddenly looming in Arthur’s view. “You are alive. You are alive,” he was still sobbing.

“Merlin,” Arthur said. “Wha–?”

“You are still weak,” interrupted Merlin. “Don’t talk. Let me just…” Arthur felt Merlin’s hands on him. “Let me help you get up.”

Arthur realized later that he had been on the bank of the lake of Avalon. He was drenched in the water of the lake, and the water felt warm on his skin, strangely so. The day was cold.

He didn’t even know how his side had stopped hurting. He had been absolutely certain he was going to die. But Merlin had… well, he didn’t really know. With a sigh, he trusted his manservant once more, and allowed Merlin to help him back to the bored dragon waiting to take them back to civilization.


“And they just agreed to cure me?”

“Yes.”

“Just like that?”

“Yes.”

Merlin.”

“What?” Merlin sounded exasperated. His horse wanted to speed up in response to Merlin’s terseness.

“Why did the… thing cure me? What did you bargain?”

“Sidhe. They are called the sidhe.”

“And?”

Merlin sped up and didn’t answer. Arthur didn’t even know how Merlin had found their horses again. He had just sat on the bank once the dragon flew away, insisting he needed to focus. Within ten minutes, the horses had come up to him and nudged his face. They had always liked Merlin better.

Merlin!

They rode hard and fast to Camelot. It was a full day’s ride, and with Merlin being cryptic about his new friendship with little blue fairies, Arthur put all his attention into rushing back to his kingdom.

They barely stopped for food and water. The Saxons were running away, someone must have found Morgana and spread the word. Nonetheless, a fire was still risky, it could reveal their location. Arthur felt fighting fit, but Merlin voted against the fire.

“A fight will just be a waste of time,” he said, handing Arthur two apples that had fallen from a tree. He looked around for more. “I want you safe in Camelot as soon as possible.”

Arthur wondered when Merlin had gotten so nonchalant about fighting. This new Merlin was very difficult to reconcile with the man he had known, the one who had stuttered and trembled at the mention of a tournament.

And yet he insisted he was the same man.

Arthur kept his eyes on Merlin’s back as they started riding once again, his mind wandering over the many weird moments of the past years. Why hadn’t he noticed? There could only be so many conveniently falling branches, or rockfalls, or a really long pee… Had Merlin really pulled that story about Bruta’s sword out of his ass? He opened his mouth to ask Merlin, saw Merlin’s rigid posture and hasty riding, and decided he could wait to sit his manservant down and ask him about his version of the past few years. Merlin was obviously in a hurry to get him home.

They were soon in familiar territory, and they gave the horses their head through the familiar jungle. Arthur expected to see a knight at any moment, but even though they were not being stealthy at all, they didn’t encounter any. In the end, Merlin and Arthur simply rode into the castle as they had a thousand times before, like they hadn’t just had the biggest adventure of their life. Arthur still wasn’t entirely certain he hadn’t died.

The entire courtyard stopped moving, as if someone had cast a spell. Everyone turned and stared, and all movement was suspended for a second of disbelief. Then, almost as one, the citizens of Camelot erupted into a great cheer that shook the heavens themselves.

Arthur grinned.

Merlin chose that moment to fall off his horse in a dead faint.

Chapter Text

“He is fine, Arthur,” said Gaius to the young king pacing in his chambers. “He is simply tired.”

“I have never seen anyone tired enough to fall off a horse,” retorted Arthur. Then he remembered Merlin had, once. He stopped to fidget with a bowl of something slimy and green. “It isn’t natural.”

Gaius raised an eyebrow. “Of course it is, if you haven’t slept in days.” He closed the door to Merlin’s chambers and descended the staircase to comfort the young man. “He slept fretfully the last night I saw him. He hasn’t slept since, I am sure of it. That’s four days, Arthur. He is only human.”

Four days? It was no wonder Merlin had fainted, then. Arthur wracked his brain, trying and failing to remember Merlin eating with him, of Merlin looking after himself these past few days. He pushed down the incredible guilt he was feeling. He had been dying. That probably allowed him to feel a little self-involved.

The fatigue certainly explained why Merlin had been so eager to get him to Camelot.

Sighing, worried, he simply sat on the bench and watched Gaius pottering around. The old man mixed some white powder into a bowl of water, took it to Merlin’s room, then soaked a clean cloth into it. He left the door open for Arthur. Arthur watched, curious, as he wrung the cloth gently over Merlin’s full lips, feeding him the water.

“What is that?” he asked.

“Sweetened water, my lord,” said Gaius without looking up from where he was massaging Merlin’s throat to make him swallow. “He needs his strength back, and this is a way to hurry it along.” He paused in his work and frowned deeply as he checked Merlin’s brow for fever. His eyebrow stretched upwards. “Has he…?”

Arthur had a sneaking suspicion Gaius had been about to ask him about Merlin’s magic. “What, Gaius?”

“Has he used a lot of magic?” Gaius said, his eyebrow climbing. Before Arthur could ask for a yardstick to measure against, Gaius started muttering worriedly. “Neither he nor I know the limits of his magic. But the lack of food and sleep cannot actually be helped by exerting yourself.”

“He hasn’t used any… he didn’t do anything today. Just…  rode. Picked apples. That sort of thing.” Arthur waved his hands around nonsensically, trying to explain, then stopped abruptly when Leon walked into the physician’s chambers.

“We are ready for you, Arthur,” he said, peering worriedly at Merlin. “Gaius, is Merlin okay?”

“He will be,” said Gaius. “He is just tired.” For a while, all three men watched Merlin sleep. “I will send him to you when he wakes, sire.”

Arthur started. “No, keep him here. Feed him, let him rest.” He smiled strangely. “I am giving him two days off.”

With a laugh neither Gaius nor Leon understood, Arthur headed for the council gathering upstairs.


There were too many resources to account for at the end of a war. Arthur was glad he had stopped a magical attack from reaching Camelot, the destruction of property and livelihood would have destroyed the lives of the citizens who survived. He was grieved to know the final count of men lost, even though it was ridiculously low. They had had magic at their side too.

Arthur sat for three hours in the council, stinking of sweat and blood, making arrangements and hearing critical reports. He had only used a washing basin to clean his hands and face as Merlin was being carried to Gaius’s chambers. The Saxons were almost gone, and his men had been ordered by Leon to drive the remaining numbers off. Only officers of import were to be imprisoned.

Even though it pained him greatly, he asked for Morgana’s body to be found. She could have magical accomplices, and he didn’t want any dark magic to bring her back.

Tired, both emotionally and physically, Arthur made his way to his chambers, hoping to see a servant scurrying about so that he could ask for a hot bath. He sighed, missing Merlin already, and entered his chambers.

To find Merlin there, pouring water into his bathtub.

“Merlin!” Arthur moved forward, happier than he had a right to be. A second later, he felt guilty for wanting Merlin around when he was certainly tired. He tried to arrange his face into the appropriate scowl. “Shouldn’t you be in bed?”

“And leave you stinking up the palace?” Merlin retorted gaily, and Arthur felt something shift and settle in his heart as they returned to their banter.

“You need to rest, Merlin.”

“Are you worried about me?” Merlin sounded entirely too pleased with himself.

“Well, good manservants are hard to find.”

Merlin smirked as he stepped forward and started stripping off Arthur’s armour. “None that can tolerate your prattiness, sire,” he said gravely as he slipped the spaulders off.

Arthur obediently put his arms up when Merlin started to wrestle his filthy, dented cuirass off. Once the shirt was also off, he slipped behind the folding screen. A towel was there for him. He began switching his breeches with it.

“What did Gaius say?”

“He chewed my ear off for not taking good care of myself.”

“Good,” said Arthur as he came out from behind the screen, one hand holding the towel to his waist.

Merlin was standing next to the tub with his back to Arthur. As Arthur approached, Merlin bent down and put his hand close to the water surface. “Onhǽte þá wæter,” he whispered. The water hissed a little, and Merlin checked the temperature with his hand.

Arthur approached him, and Merlin tactfully stepped away to pick out his nightclothes, turning his back like he always did. Arthur stared at the water a while. How often had Merlin done this? How often had Arthur failed to notice magic around him? Sighing, resigned to re-evaluating every second of the past years, Arthur let go of the towel and entered the deliciously warm water. Hearing the water splash, Merlin turned around and walked over to place his clothes on the bed.

“Anything else you might need, sire?”

Arthur looked around at his manservant. “No, thank you, Merlin. That will be all.”

“Have you eaten?”

“Have you?”

“Yes,” said Merlin. “Gaius made me eat two whole bowls of porridge.”

Porridge?”

“Not all of us can eat meat everyday,” said Merlin with a grin. “Wouldn’t wanna get fat anyways.”

“Merlin?”

“Go away?”

“You guessed it.”

Merlin was smiling when he left.


Merlin’s gobsmacked expression at seeing Arthur dressed and about was worth the trouble Arthur had gone through.

“Good, you’re here,” he said, all business. “I need to talk to you.”

Merlin scraped his jaw off the floor and managed a muttered “That’s never good”. He sighed and came to stand in front of the desk Arthur was sitting at, his eyes suspicious.

Arthur took a minute to gather his thoughts. He pouted at his miserable attempt at a speech. He was going to have to rewrite it all. “How do I do it?”

“Sire?” Merlin’s honorific, as usual, held no actual humility.

“Magic, Merlin,” said Arthur tiredly, feeling the weight of what he was trying to do. Thirty years. He was about to undo thirty years’ worth of bigotry. He was going to undo all that his father did. “I need your help to decide about magic.”

Merlin stiffened but said nothing.

“How do I… What do I say?” He shoved away the parchment he had been scribbling on since dawn. “Magic isn’t… evil. I see that now. It can’t be. So how do I… apologize for years of torture?”

When Merlin said nothing, Arthur looked up at him. His questioning expression softened considerably when he saw the expression on Merlin’s face. He was grinning widely, his face full of wonder. His eyes were shiny, suspiciously wet. He looked as if Arthur had just promised to pluck the moon out of the sky for him.

“You are… lifting the ban on magic?”

“No Merlin, I am writing a speech to inspire the leech collectors to do their job better,” said Arthur with a roll of his eyes. Seriously, hadn’t Merlin realized at some point yesterday that Arthur was going to do this?

Merlin reached out for a chair blindly to support himself. His legs had turned to water. “What?”

Arthur sobered up as he saw Merlin’s reaction. “I want to… fix the mess, Merlin. I don’t know how.”

They were quiet for a moment, looking at each other, wondering how the world had suddenly turned on it’s head. How do you go back after you reveal your deepest secrets? How do you think of someone as the same person as before when you see the very depths of their devotion? In what he had believed were Arthur’s last moments, Merlin had revealed too much. How do you joke about cowardice and idiocy? But Arthur desperately wanted to, he wanted to go back to the banter he had always relied on when his feelings were too big to tackle.

Then Merlin grinned like a loon through his tears. “Give it here, then. Wouldn’t want you thinking too much, your brain would leak out of your ears.”

And Arthur suddenly remembered that not much had changed for Merlin. Even though they still needed to have a frank discussion about Merlin’s magic, Arthur was happy to put it off.


They spent the whole afternoon on it.

The castle was in a tizzy, preparing for the feast that night. Merlin had repeatedly asked Arthur to consult the elders in the council, to take their advice on the matter of magic. It was, after all, the biggest change that Arthur would bring to Camelot.

“I am not a child who needs permission, Merlin,” said Arthur, exasperated.

“No, but you still can’t put on a shirt without my help,” Merlin muttered as he scribbled another point onto the list of important magic issues they were making.

“It’s… it isn’t–I can…!” Arthur spluttered, and Merlin grinned again.

“Magic is a weapon,” he said after a while. “It is neither good nor bad. I have magic, and I can use it to cure people or kill them. Magic is not to blame, as you would never blame a sword for murder.”

Arthur just gazed at him for a moment. The casual manner in which Merlin had mentioned killing someone with magic… had he done that often? He shook his head, determined to not discuss the issue now. They were dealing with the ban on magic. There was a question he meant to ask. “Merlin?”

Merlin made a questioning sound and carried on writing, his lips pursed in concentration. “Why did my father hate magic so?”

Merlin stilled completely, his teeth worrying his lower lip. For far longer than necessary, he kept his gaze on his scholarly handwriting. When he spoke, his voice was hushed. “I don’t know.”

“Lying to your king is treason, Merlin.”

Merlin didn’t reply. Arthur stared at him, willing him to look up, to show Arthur the truth in his eyes. He said nothing, however, simply waited.

“Morgause… that day you–” Merlin broke off and took a breath. “You did meet your mother, Arthur.”

Even though it confirmed what Arthur had been thinking, he felt a surge of anger. Merlin peeked into his eyes after his declaration, but quickly glanced back down at seeing the expression on his face. Arthur took a deep breath, unwilling to rend apart this fragile new relationship they had with his impotent anger. Why? Why the hell would Merlin decide to let Arthur think the worst of magic? Why hadn’t he just rejoiced in the knowledge Arthur had gained? It would have been beneficial for him. It would have given him all that he wanted. Arthur would have freed magic. He would have…

“I would have killed Father.”

Finally, finally, Merlin put the quill down and looked him in the eye. “I know.”

“You didn’t want that.”

“You would have hated yourself for life.”

“But you gave up so much…”

Merlin shook his head resolutely. “I wanted magic to be free, but not at that cost.” He went back to scribbling his speech.

Arthur said nothing else. He was still digesting the life-altering news he had just heard. There seemed to be quite a few of those in his life recently.

Besides, he had a speech to learn.

Chapter Text

It was decidedly strange, having Merlin dress him for the feast.

It wasn’t that Merlin had suddenly become bad at it. He was still good at the task—not that Arthur would tell him that—deft hands pulling out Arthur’s tunic and breeches from the cupboard and picking up his ceremonial sword. It was just… Merlin felt destined for more somehow. It felt strange to have a sorcerer wait on you. Merlin was cheerful as always though. He had skipped into the room without a knock, as always, and kept up calm chatter as he gathered what he needed to dress Arthur.

“Gwaine is being the most horrible patient,” he confided. “He is annoyed at himself, at Gaius, even at me! I mean, I didn’t even do anything! But he threw one of his boots at my head.” Merlin scowled at the boot he was holding, and then started smiling again.

That was it, the final straw. “Why are you so cheerful?” He rounded on Merlin. “It’s a feast, Merlin. We have had quite a lot of those. Why are you skipping about the place as if Christmas arrived early?”

Merlin stilled, giving Arthur a quiet look. “I didn’t think you would be here for this one,” he said honestly.

Unable to look at the emotion in Merlin’s eyes, Arthur looked away. That was it, these looks Merlin gave him. They made him feel so important–like he had hung the moon and stars in the sky. Merlin had this way of looking at him, of believing in him, that made Arthur believe in himself too. It was no small power, to be the source of such confidence in a king. And Merlin never wanted anything in return. Arthur had been thinking, of all those times Merlin had just seemed like a clumsy idiot–the cuts and bruises, the limps and winces. How many of those had been in service to the king? His knights got recognition and status for their services, and Merlin got… Arthur sighed as he felt a twinge of shame. He had gotten boots chucked to his head.

He decided, right then and there, never to hit Merlin again.

“Well, come on then,” chided Merlin, bringing his attention back. “You need to attend this feast tonight.” When Arthur bent from the waist, Merlin eased his red shirt over his torso. It went smoothly, aided by ten years of practice. Merlin turned to the chainmail. “Have you learned your speech well?”

“Well enough,” said Arthur, trying to avoid the question. Merlin smirked as he adjusted the chainmail over Arthur’s torso. They both knew Arthur was going to pull most of the speech out of his ass. Though neither mentioned it, they were both worried about the speech. It was impossible not to fret. This was the biggest change to Uther’s regime Arthur had implemented, and they both knew it. There was going to be opposition from the council. Merlin had asked Arthur, all through the afternoon, to talk to the council elders, to ask their option and ease the path of this change, but Arthur had remained firm. The council could not stand in the way of what was right, what was just. They were still ‘debating’ his truce with the druids. He couldn’t wait long enough for them to debate the pros and cons of such a time-sensitive issue. People were being burned and drowned in the far reaches of his land, and it needed to be stopped. He sat down at the end of the bed, and Merlin knelt in front of him to put on his boots.

Come to think of it, Merlin dressing him was not as strange as he had been thinking.

“As long as you don’t confuse everyone, it should be fine,” said Merlin helpfully. He frowned a little. “Are you sure you want to do this at the victory feast? You could just announce it tomorrow at the council. Have you even thought this through?”

“Shut up, Merlin.”

Merlin smiled and handed Arthur the ceremonial sword, standing back to critically appraise his work.


 

The ribald laughter and general merriment in the room died down instantly when Arthur stood up.

“Friends,” he began. “Knights of the Round Table, brave warriors, esteemed citizens: welcome.” He waited for the applause to die down. “This is a most joyous occasion, for we have brought peace at long last. The threats that loomed in the far reaches of Camelot have been vanquished through your brave actions.” He pointedly didn’t mention Morgana or sorcery. “You fought beside me, and fought for the love of Camelot. I thank you, and welcome you to tonight’s celebrations, to forget the horrors of war and to welcome a brighter tomorrow.”

The hall erupted in cheers, a decidedly drunken feel to them even though they had barely started. Arthur managed not to roll his eyes, but it took effort.

“Working together, we have brought about peace to the five kingdoms. We have formed alliances that are, in my opinion, strong enough to stand the test of time. We have defeated our enemies, for now. Camelot is free and unfettered.” He paused. “But not all within Camelot are free.”

A hush fell over the crowd, puzzled frowns appearing on a few faces. Nobody knew what the king was talking about.

Arthur could feel Merlin standing behind his chair, could feel the very complex emotions from his manservant. Merlin was nervous, he could sense it. He could almost smell the nervous sweat. But he could also see, out of the corner of his eye, how rigidly Merlin held himself in anticipation. He was waiting very patiently. He had waited waited very patiently, for ten years, never complaining, never pushing. The thought of Merlin steadied him. He took a deep breath and continued.

“There are people out there,” he said. “People—men, women and children—condemned to live their lives as criminals for no crime of their making. People of Camelot, living in caves and going to sleep hungry because the very sovereign that should protect them has turned against them.”

He could see the moment when the men sitting along the high table understood him. They sat up straighter, more intent, more focused. Some of them were shaking their heads in disbelief, as though to dislodge the very idea from their brains.

“I talk of magic,” Arthur confirmed, and all through the hall the elders arranged their faces into scowls appropriate for this ghastly discussion. Only the knights who had been at Camlann looked unsure. Arthur took heart in that. “My father believed that sorcery, and magic, is an evil force that corrupts the heart. In the past day or so–” Merlin squirmed in his peripheral vision–“I have had ample reason to believe he was wrong.”

There were scandalized whispers throughout the hall at this. No king had ever disagreed with a predecessor so resolutely before, but Arthur was loath to give any quarter. He hated his father’s anti-magic policy, and it had no place in his kingdom. In a kingdom that magic helped build.

“Magic is nothing but a weapon,” he said. “Like a fine sword. An evil man uses it for evil, and a good man uses it for good.” Unbidden, a memory from a few months ago leapt into his mind. He remembered what the old woman had said. “There is no evil in sorcery,” he quoted. “Only in the hearts of men.” Behind him, Merlin choked on empty air. Arthur almost rolled his eyes. Only Merlin could choke on nothing, the clumsy idiot.

“For the past ten years,” Arthur continued, “magic has lived and thrived in Camelot.” Merlin stilled behind him, stunned. They hadn’t discussed this part, he wasn’t supposed to reveal Merlin’s secret. “Magic has lived in this very castle, helping at every turn, taking untold risks for little admiration—all in secret. Magic has been used by a good man, a decent man, to save my life. To save my father’s life.” He glanced around the deathly silent room, establishing eye contact with everyone in a red cloak. “Most of the men sitting in this room were at Camlann. They saw magic used for good; they saw magic help them fight evil.” He paused. “Most of you would not be here if not for magic. I know I would not.”

Arthur took a deep breath, studiously ignoring the deep frowns of the old council members, who still saw him as a bratty prince sometimes. He wasn’t talking to men who wanted to stick to the old ways—he was talking to the men ready to embrace the new. He was talking to men who had followed him to certain death.

“Magic is neither good nor bad, and it’s use determines it’s virtue,” he said at last. “No one can be judged for the ability he has, only for the use of that ability. And so, I decree this as your king: Magic is no longer outlawed in Camelot.”

There was reigning silence as everyone looked around, wondering what the correct reaction was. All the tables were silent. At his table, his knights looked at him with looks ranging from determination to follow his will (Leon) to a kind of disinterest (Perceval). No one looked as though Arthur had just peed on their tomatoes, and for that Arthur was glad. The silence in the room stretched, making him slightly uncomfortable. Were people so opposed to magic?

Suddenly, slowly, Gauis started to clap.

Arthur looked at the man sitting on his left, glad for the public support. Slowly but surely, all his knights joined in, and soon the entire hall was applauding. It wasn’t a very jubilant cheering, but it warmed Arthur’s heart anyways.

“The practical aspects of my decision will be discussed in the small council tomorrow,” he said. “But from this moment on, no one should be treated any different merely for havingmagic.” He sat back down and curled his hand around his goblet, knowing Merlin would fill it without asking.

Merlin’s hands did appear a minute later than normal, but they appeared to have lost their dexterity. His large hands—with their slender, beautiful fingers—were shaking. Some of the wine splashed onto the table. Merlin didn’t seem to notice. Delighted to have an opportunity to mock him, Arthur turned to him, but the playful comment about palsy died on his tongue as Arthur saw Merlin’s expression.

Merlin was openly weeping, in full view of most of the residents of the castle.

There were tears on his cheek, completely silent but still heart-wrenching. If he had made a sound, it had been drowned out by the drunken speculations on the identity of the secret sorcerer. Meanwhile, the secret sorcerer of Camelot waited on the king in full view, but was still overlooked. Nobody ever looked at him twice.

Arthur swallowed whatever he had meant to say, and turned his attention to his plate. When Merlin refilled Gaius’ goblet, the old man rubbed a hand up and down Merlin’s arm as he said a few quite words. Arthur couldn’t hear these words, but he was glad for them anyways. They made Merlin smile through his drying tears.

 


 

“Gaius said you are the greatest sorcerer ever to walk the earth!” Arthur yelled at Merlin as he sat—mostly fell—at the foot of the bed. In his drunken state, he may have slurred most of it, but Merlin had had years of practice. He understood.

“Maybe,” he hedged. “So?”

“So how can the greatest sorcerer on earth be such an idiot?” Arthur yelled again. “We have to tell, you total buffoon!”

Merlin made a face as he tugged off Arthur’s boots. The smell of sweaty socks made Arthur perversely glad, and he shoved his leg closer to Merlin’s nose. Merlin blanched. “It is not a very complex request. Sire,” Merlin said, spitting out the honorific in his usual insolent fashion. “Even you can understand it. I don’t want people to know of my magic.”

“Well, why not?”

“I—Because…” How could Merlin explain to Arthur? It had become second nature to hide his magic, to hide his abilities. He felt comfortable in the shadows now. He didn’t think he could bear for any of his friends to look at him differently. Unable to think of a satisfactory answer, Merlin turned the question on Arthur. “Why do you want to tell?” He tugged off the other boot.

“Because!” yelled Arthur, waving his arms widely as if trying to spin the answer out of pure air. His momentum compromised his precarious balance further, and he fell backwards onto the bed, his feet still dangling. “Because it is amazing, what you can do. And I want people to know.” He pouted.

Merlin gave Arthur a very fond smile. “Scoot over and sleep now,” he said gently. “We will discuss this later.”

Arthur shuffled to the pillows. “When?” he asked sleepily. Maybe he had had too much to drink. Merlin’s fault, of course. He kept refilling his cup.

“Tomorrow,” he heard Merlin whisper gently before he started to snore.

Chapter Text

When Arthur woke up the next morning, he felt as if his brain had already been tackling a big problem while he was sleeping. By the time he was awake enough to realize that dawn was still a few minutes away, Arthur already had a plan.

 

His problem was simple. He needed Merlin to openly practice his magic, and Merlin was—as usual—being an idiot about it.

 

But he had a plan. A clever plan.

 

When Merlin entered his bedroom about an hour later, he didn’t notice immediately that Arthur wasn’t sprawled in bed like he usually was, drooling into the pillows. He slammed the breakfast tray onto the table and skipped cheerily over to the curtains and ripped them open. Arthur, who had been tracking his manservant’s progress with only his eyes, winced at the sudden brightness.

 

"Rise and shine!"

 

It was only then, when he turned to forcibly pull his king out of bed, did Merlin notice that Arthur was awake. Arthur schooled his features into something grave and foreboding, as if some massive problem had befallen Camelot overnight.

 

“Arthur? What is it? What’s wrong?”

 

“I need your help, Merlin,” said Arthur in a somber tone. “I can’t do this myself. Help me? ” Even if the neediness in his voice was making Arthur cringe internally, Merlin’s answer more than made up for it.

 

Merlin squared his shoulders and looked at him with hard, battle-ready eyes. “Whatever you want.”

 

Arthur sighed and sat up in bed, ignoring the sheets falling to pool in his lap. This is where he stopped trying to manipulate the conversation. He was going to be completely, brutally honest, and Merlin would help him. “I… I have been a terrible king to the sorcerers in my kingdom,” began Arthur, and gave Merlin a look when the other man began to interrupt. “Loyalty is one thing, Merlin, and lying to yourself is quite another.” Merlin closed his mouth, swallowing his protest, and Arthur continued. “I have sanctioned the murders of hundreds—if not thousands—of men, women and children. I haven’t killed them myself, not like my father used to enjoy, but every sorcerer in the land knows a Pendragon is death to them. Am I wrong?”

 

Merlin stared at him, his eyes piercing as though staring into his very soul. Arthur got out of bed and walked to the table. “Sit,” he said, still preoccupied, as he took a seat himself, snatching up a grape as an afterthought. “They don’t trust me to do right by them. They shouldn’t. Is that true? Isn’t that why so many sorcerers wanted me dead? Including—” Arthur stuttered on the name, but soldiered on. “Including Morgana?”

 

Merlin lowered his head, as though ashamed on Arthur’s behalf. “Yes.” The confirmation sounded like it had been wrenched from Merlin’s throat.

 

“I want to make it right,” said Arthur with conviction, sliding his plate towards Merlin. “But I can’t do it without you.”

 

Merlin’s head snapped up at that. “I am right here, Arthur. Always.”

 

“Then help me,” said Arthur, the words more a command than the request he wanted it to be. “Are you really the greatest sorcerer ever to walk the Earth?”

 

“Um,” said Merlin. He was blushing like a virgin, even the tips of his ears going red. Arthur barely resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Yeah. Everyone says so.”

 

“Perfect,” said Arthur. “Then they will listen to you. I need you to represent the new position of magic in Camelot. Respected, not feared or abhorred. When you introduce new laws—“ Merlin blanched and started spluttering—“they will see that they are made for their own welfare.” Arthur nodded, decision made. “You will be court sorcerer.”

 

Arthur waited patiently for Merlin’s panicked flailing to subside before he pushed a piece of cheese at him. The noises out of his throat were absurd syllables, but in the end he took a deep breath.

 

“I… What if I do something wrong?” he asked, and Arthur understood that fear far better than anyone in his kingdom.

 

“We do our best, and if we fuck up, we learn to fix it.”

 

Merlin looked at him for a long moment. “I will need Gaius.”

  


 

 

One of these days, Gaius’s eyebrow was going to leap off his face and wriggle its way to history books. Today, however, was not that day. The eyebrow clung to his forehead, just barely, holding on for dear life. The eye underneath that eyebrow, however, looked suspiciously moist.

 

“Court sorcerer?” he croaked, and enveloped Merlin into a hug that threatened to knock over the overburdened table with the sheer force behind it. “Oh, Merlin.”

 

“Oh, no need to be so sad, Gaius,” said Merlin cheekily. “I won’t completely screw up.” Gaius laughed into his shoulder and let him go.

 

Arthur cleared his throat awkwardly, acutely aware that he had never seen such easy camaraderie between Merlin and his mentor before. “So, Gaius. Do you remember how Camelot functioned before my father lost his mind?”

 

Gaius talked for a very long time.

 

He told them things he remembered, in a voice gone soft with memory, smiling a little at the way Merlin hung onto his every word. It was evident Gaius hadn't talked about this in a long while, not even to the sorcerer he had been harbouring. Arthur wondered how painful it would have been for Gaius, sticking close to his father's side, seeing the mass persecution of his friends, maybe even his family. It was no secret that Gaius had practiced magic years ago, and he was now spouting invaluable knowledge due to that. He was telling them of how society functioned before Ygraine's death, and Arthur was spellbound. Was this why Gaius had stayed behind, renounced his craft and schooled his features in the face of genocide? To make sure someone who remembered would remain at the heart of Camelot?

 

"The druids will shun anything that is too fancy," Gaius said knowledgably. "Besides, the crown cannot afford that. All they need are lands where no one disturbs them, where their children can finally sleep in warmth. They will need money, and for that they need land to earn it on."

 

"Can they not do menial jobs? Open shops? Scrub floors?" Arthur asked. Where was he going to find fertile land to give away for nothing? He had extended Camelot's borders a little, true, but he couldn't fuck over all the people living in the adjoining lands by seizing their property. They were his people now. Maybe take the lands of all the disbanded nobles...

 

"That shouldn't be your first priority," Gaius cautioned. "There are a finite number of jobs, Arthur. The people of Camelot will resent the druids if they think that they are being cheated out of something that is theirs." He raised an eyebrow and rolled right over Arthur's protests. "It doesn't matter if that won't be true. It is what the people will think. Three decades of hatred and fear will not disappear magically. It is better for both sides if the druids live a quiet life away from the citizens for a while first." His expression became grim. "Do you know how many men, women and children have died just because they were accused of sorcery? Not everyone made it to the Citadel. People took matters into their own hands at even a whiff of magic. It is—was—a very convenient excuse to rid yourself of an enemy." He spread his hands. "You needed no proof."

 

There was a sort of horrified silence as Gaius' speech was digested. Arthur thought of the old lady who had given him the horn of Cathbad. He thought of the thousands upon thousands of nameless victims who were now looking to him to make things right.

 

Gaius' eyebrow leaped again as he thought of something. "Merlin?"

 

Merlin started a little before leaning forward earnestly. "Yeah?"

 

"Could you... if we rounded up all the barren lands in Camelot, could you revive them all? Make them fit for the druids to cultivate?"

 

Merlin thought about it. He could feel the earth sometimes, feel agony in the air or water or land, but he had no idea of any spells to use for that purpose. He supposed he could, now that most of his magic happened as it had in his childhood—quiet, without a word, and very instinctual. "I could," he said. "Maybe. Find me one and we will find out."

 

Arthur, who had expected Merlin to protest that he wasn't God, gaped at him, acutely aware he looked like a fish, but unable to do anything about it.

 

"Now then," said Gaius. "Let's talk of the library."

 

Arthur groaned. How was the day not over yet?

 

They broke when Arthur's stomach started growling, and Merlin jumped up to fetch the royal lunch. Arthur decided against going down the tower and back up again just to eat in his chambers, so he asked Merlin to bring the food up to Gaius' quarters.

 

"If it isn't too much trouble," he said as an afterthought, and Merlin looked at him like he had grown two heads.

 

Gaius spent the time Merlin was gone reheating some hideous-looking glop in a small cauldron over the fire. Arthur was insanely glad for the chickens the kitchens regularly slaughtered for him. He gleefully accepted his lunch from a pink-cheeked Merlin, and sat down to break bread with the only two true advisors he currently had in this whole magic situation.

 


 

 

One of these days, Lord Hardwood was going to die, and Arthur was going to take a long breath of relief.

 

He felt bad just thinking it, but without the man around to be an annoying, bigoted pain in his ass, Arthur would stop wanting to pull out his hair every time the small council convened.

 

"They are people, Hardwood," he fairly snarled. "Not beasts you can put in a cage and call it a lodging."

 

"They are dangerous people who need to be controlled," Hardwood said passionately, a vein in his head throbbing. "Keeping a regulated boundary means we can—"

 

"I don't care," said Arthur, uncaring that he was being rude. "I don't want to keep an eye on the comings and goings of every sorcerer in Camelot, I want to make them feel at home. Would you like to ask permission from a knight every time you wished to leave your house?"

 

“I am not a threat—”

 

“On the contrary,” interrupted Arthur, very near the end of his rope. “With a sword in your hand you are certainly a threat to anyone you encounter, including your king. But we do not punish for having the potential to cause harm. We will not be keeping the sorcerers like dogs in a kennel.”

 

There was silence as yet another idea to practically implement the reintegration of sorcerers into society was shot down by the king. When no one else dared to present another half-cooked, prejudiced scheme, Arthur spoke again.

 

"The new court sorcerer will be officially appointed tomorrow in court," he said. "He has some ideas as to how we can achieve our goals, and I hope you will work with him. He has helped build Camelot, and now it is his duty and his privilege to help others of his kind." He nodded to Lord Blackwood and Lord Cathal, the only two people who had taken to the task enthusiastically.

 

He also took the opportunity to glance discreetly at Merlin. His manservant shook his head minutely, indicating that he didn't think there was anything else to discuss, and Arthur stood up, the council dismissed.

 

"I am to reveal myself to all of Camelot tomorrow?" Merlin said as he hurried after Arthur.

 

"Unless you want to sit on the round table as a wizened old man with a broom for a beard."

 

"The round table?" squeaked Merlin, and Arthur laughed as he walked back to his chambers, ignoring Merlin's protests.

 


 

 

"I don't need new clothes!" yelled Merlin, scaring the seamstress with her hand dangerously close to his crotch. He should have timed the outburst better.

 

"Merlin,"said Arthur with a roll of his eyes. "I can't have an officer of the court dressed in dirty rags."

 

Merlin spluttered indignantly as the seamstress continued to invade his privacy. "Dirty? I clean these clothes myself--"

 

"There you have it then."

 

"Which means they are very clean! And they are comfortable! I don't want itchy new clothes that will try to strangle me with their stiffness..."

 

“Oh, shut up, Merlin,” said Arthur, sitting back in his chair to enjoy Merlin’s squirming. “You have seen how members of the court dress, and you can’t stick out like a sore thumb. Your ears stick out strangely enough as it is.”

 

Merlin rolled his eyes and resigned himself to the torture. How comfortable can a pair of breaches be, when made in a single night?

 


 

 

The clothes were very comfortable.

 

He marvelled at the softness of his new cotton tunic, the plain white colour somehow reminding him of the tunic he slept in. His jacket was a rich Pendragon red, and the brown breeches went well with everything else. He still had his own boots, which he was insanely grateful for. He was comfortable, or as comfortable as a man can be when he thoroughly believes he will puke up his guts in front hundreds of spectators soon.

 

He had barely made it out of Gaius’ workshop when Gwaine stopped him with a friendly smile and an outstretched arm.

 

“Can we talk?” he said.

 

“I can’t, Gwaine,” said Merlin hurriedly. “Arthur is already dressed and downstairs, and I would have gone too, except I had forgotten the jacket, and the prat sent me back to get it. I am late, and I can’t be, not today.” It took a lot of effort to stop himself from fidgeting.

 

“Merlin,” said Gwaine in a tone that made Merlin pause and listen. Gwaine’s arm was still healing, but maybe he was in pain and needed help. When he stopped and paid attention, Gwaine continued. “The court sorcerer will be revealed today,” he said quietly, his tone all wrong. “I just…” he huffed out a breath, clearly uncomfortable. His gaze was skitterish. “I wanted to say nothing will change between you and me. After,” he added awkwardly. “Nothing will change between us after.” As Merlin wracked his brains to think of an explanation to this behaviour that wasn’t the obvious one, Gwaine shrugged and shuffled his feet. He wasn’t looking directly at his friend. “You are still my friend, and I will still make fun of your lack of sexual experience.” He looked Merlin in the eyes then, his own channelling too much emotion and reassuring camaraderie. “Don’t turn me into a toad or anything.”

 

Maybe the barfing schedule for the day had been brought forward, because with the way Merlin’s heart was beating in his chest he was very sure he was going to paint Gwaine’s shoes soon. He tried to say something, to laugh it off, but all he ended up with was a guttural stuttering of Gwaine’s name. “I… Gwaine, I don’t—I am not—”

 

Gwaine hugged him and hurried down the corridor, leaving Merlin gaping after him, his head filled with questions and disbelief. When the bells rang to signal that the court was convening, he jolted and broke into a run.

 

“Only you, Merlin,” muttered Arthur darkly as Merlin made it to the council chambers right before the pages closed the doors, huffing like he was dying, leather boots skidding on the flagstones. “Only you can be late to your own ceremony.”

 

“Shut up,” muttered Merlin, taking his usual place behind the throne, standing slightly to Arthur’s right.

 

There was a brief moment of complete silence as Arthur gazed at the people assembled in the room, looking each of the closest men in the eye, making sure to stand taller and make his voice carry.

 

“Gentlemen of the court,” began Arthur, startling Merlin a little. “We have arrived here today to honour a man, a sorcerer hidden amongst us. This sorcerer has lived in court all these years, from even before I was king. He has helped me realize this dream of mine, our Albion, without a word of thanks, and often at great peril. He has saved my life, my kingdom, countless times. All without greed, without an expectation of glory, and without an ulterior motive. He did it all for the love of Camelot, and for the love of its people.” Arthur paused theatrically, his expression open and humble. “It is time we return this love. It is time we acknowledge the strength of the magic woven into the very foundation of Camelot, to acknowledge that this wonderful time of peace would be impossible without it. And so, today, I appoint an official sorcerer to the court, who will not only advice on the small council but will also look after the welfare of the magic people of Albion.”

 

Geoffrey came and stood next to Arthur, a pillow with a livery collar seated on it. The Pendragon crest on the pendant gleamed, momentarily blinding those closest to the throne. No one spoke. No one even moved. The entire court waited with bated breath, every eye on the king, waiting to see who this sorcerer was. A few of the nobles were certain the king was enchanted, and were waiting for a devilish ogre to ooze cackling from the woodwork.

 

It was, therefore, very anticlimactic when the king just quietly said, “Merlin.”

 

The assembled guests looked to the man in question, confused. Everyone knew the king’s manservant. Had the king forgotten an important bit of the ceremony? It wasn’t until the king asked Merlin to kneel, and the other man gracefully folded to the floor that people started to whisper scandalously, gripping their chests as though dealing with a physical blow. A few of the servants lining the back wall almost shrieked, and the knights lining both sides of the hall burst out in loud talk. Where there had been a sort of awed, expectant silence before, people were moving and speaking and discussing at alarming volumes. Gwaine was grinning, and Leon let out a sudden bark of laughter. Lancelot was simply smiling, ignoring the daggers his wife Guinevere was glaring at him for his lack of surprise.

 

Merlin kept his gaze on Arthur’s shoes. He could hear the commotion at his back, but all he could focus at in this moment was the sound of his breath, and the sight of Arthur’s shoes in front of him. He felt strangely numb, even though there were goosebumps all over his body.

 

“For your unflinching service to the crown,” said Arthur loftily, his voice stopping every sound in the hall till it was eerily silent again. “For the dangers you faced, without promise of recognition or compensation, for the times you put your life on the line for the love of Camelot, for the pains you bore in secret, and for breath-taking loyalty that knows no equal, I grant thee, Merlin Ambrosius, the office of Court Sorcerer of Albion. May you serve Albion to the best of your ability.”

 

The heavy chain landed on his shoulders, and Merlin looked up when it settled. Arthur’s eyes were warm, proud, and Merlin felt his anxious insides finally settle when he saw his king look at him like that. He felt… validated somehow. Like this moment, right here, was worth all the pain of the past ten years.

 

He couldn’t help it—he smiled widely at Arthur, a big smile that teased out his dimples and threatened to split his face. It was a private smile between a king and his servant in a room full of people.

 

Arthur smiled back.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Merlin didn’t consider himself a violent man. He had killed, of course he had, for his king and the kingdom. But he wasn’t vicious, or blood-thirsty.

But right now he wanted nothing more than to punch George in the balls before stomping on them with his sturdy boots.

Perhaps he was vicious.

“What,” he said a bit too loudly. “Is he doing here?”

Arthur turned from where he was waiting for George to hand him his sword. He was fully dressed. Arthur’s expression brightened on seeing him. “Merlin!” he said. “You’re here, thank God. You can leave now, George.”

The blatant dismissal did nothing to tame Merlin’s stink-eye as George left, though. He didn’t want that boy anywhere near his king. He marvelled at his own jealousy sometimes.

“Where were you?” Arthur whined. “I even went to the tower to look in your room. You were nowhere to be found.”

“In the library,” said Merlin as he tutted and fixed Arthur’s armour. George had left Arthur no room for movement. “I was going through the maps with Geoffrey again. The knights are already downstairs in the courtyard, Sire. We are ready to leave. I am sorry it took so long.”

“No, it–I–” stuttered Arthur, finally seeing the reason for Merlin’s constant tardiness. “I understand. You were busy. Next time, just tell me, and I will ask George to help me dress.” He sat down to allow Merlin to put his boots on.

“No!” said Merlin vehemently from where he knelt before Arthur. “You won’t have to ask him, Arthur. I will be careful. Just… sorry about this time.”

“You really don’t like him, do you, Merlin?”

“I am your servant,” said Merlin stubbornly. “I dress you.” He paused and thought for a moment. “He can empty the chamber pot.”


“Merlin, wait!”

Merlin turned around to see Gwen running down the stairs to where he stood with the horses, her skirts billowing. He waited as Arthur and the knights milled around, and the stable boys finished saddling the horses.

“I–I am…I just–” Gwen panted when she reached him. Realizing how she wasn’t making any sense, she stopped, took a deep breath, and continued. “You are a sorcerer.”

Merlin took a second to tamp down the instinctual, deep-rooted fear that rose in him at the words. “I am, yes.”

“You know magic,” she continued doggedly.

“Yes,” he said, a little unsure. Then he let out an offended ‘hey’ when she punched him arm.

“You could have told me,” said Gwen. “I am your friend! I have always been your friend.” Thankfully, she didn’t seem very offended, just a little cross. Merlin still raised a hand to shield from further unexpected blows. “I was the friend you made here, and you didn’t even tell me you had magic.”

“I did tell you I could’ve beaten Arthur.”

Gwen’s eyes went soft with fondness. “Yes,” she said softly. “You did. I just wish you had trusted me, Merlin.”

Merlin shifted under the weight of his guilt. Then he shrugged. “It wasn’t about trusting,” he said finally. “It was more… second nature to me, I guess. Keeping my magic secret.”

Lancelot chose that moment to sling a friendly arm around Merlin’s shoulders. “Chewingyour ear off now, is she? Better you than me, pal. I was certain I was going to have to sleep in the stables last night.”

“Did you?”

“No, he didn’t,” said Gwen with a laugh. “I am a merciful wife and Lance knows how to beg.”

Merlin laughed as he finally climbed atop his horse. “Mount your horse before Arthur starts yelling, Lancelot. He looks about ready to.” Merlin winced as Arthur, already ready to gallop away, yelled his name. “Oops. Too late.”

 


 

There were only six people in their party–Merlin and Arthur, Lance, Gwaine, Leon and Percy. They were riding out to some of the barren lands in the kingdom, to see if Merlin could make them inhabitable, worthy of sustaining villages. Gaius had been able to find a few spells that might help, but the rest was up to Merlin.

Merlin had been afraid that the knights would behave differently around him now that they knew his secret, but as if by some unspoken pact, they were all the same as before. They teased him a little, but mostly kept up the cheerful banter he had gotten used to. No one referred to his magic for a while.

Of course, as always, Gwaine was allergic to unspoken pacts of any sort.

“If you don’t stop lagging behind like that, Sir Leon,” he said, a bit too loudly to make sure Arthur heard him. “I will ask Merlin to turn you into a turtle.”

There was an indignant squawk from the end of their single file. “It’s not me, it’s my horse. He is reluctant today… Maybe it would be better if Merlin turned you into a steed for me.”

“Oh,” said Gwaine as everyone roared with laughter. “Wouldn’t you buy me dinner before you ride me?”

Leon’s spluttering entertained them for a few minutes. Merlin didn’t say a word, didn’t dare look back at them, but he grinned broadly and let them tease each other at his expense. Soon, everyone had an idea as to who Merlin should turn into what, and the knights kept getting rowdier and rowdier with their suggestion. Merlin blushed but kept quiet. It was an overnight journey, and a little entertainment passed the time.

It stopped when Arthur finally spoke, laughter in his voice. “If you all don’t stop giving me a headache, Merlin will be turning you into rats that will travel in my saddlebag!”

As the knights sniggered in an attempt to quiet their giggling, Merlin leaned over to whisper. “And what if I can’t change them back?”

Arthur thought for a minute. “Then Gwaine might bite you. He will miss his hair too much, and hold you responsible for it’s death.”

Merlin laughed and spurred his horse on.

 



It was dusk when they stopped to rest themselves and the horses.

“Merlin, start the fire and water the horses,” said Arthur. “We will go hunt something for you to cook.”

Merlin let the familiar orders become background noise as he tied the horses to trees. He had heard these instructions a hundred times before. He could mouth along with what Arthur said next. “Make sure you put enough wood on the fire, it will be dark soon.” It wouldn’t have been as funny if he could even light a fire.

Merlin just nodded, pulling the bread and cheese out of saddlebags. There was a brief rustling, and they were gone into the setting sun. Everyone was too tired and hungry–and sore from the full day of riding–to share their food, so Merlin knew they would take a while with their hunting. He stood up to feed the horses.

The fatigue and the isolation made him use his magic. He lit the fire and warmed the bread, rolling the sleeping mats out. He was perched on top of a fallen log, and really didn’t want to leave. He levitated all the supplies, the cooked in, got the spices ready. Then there was nothing else to do. The fire was warm and the night was cool, and soon Merlin was asleep.

He woke to loud cursing.

“Damn it all to hell and back again, let’s just burn it off!”

“We can’t,” said Percy somewhere out of Merlin’s sight. “What if the skin sticks to the meat?”

“I don’t care!” Gwaine sounded ready to stomp his feet.

“I do,” said Arthur, frustration clear in his voice. “I don’t want to eat furry rabbit.”

Merlin burst out laughing before he even woke up fully. “What are you guys even doing?”

“Trying to cook our meat,” said Lance. “But skinning the rabbit is far more difficult than we thought.”

“And why would you do that with me here?” said Merlin as he got up and stretched the kinks out of his neck. “Give it here.” The knights meekly passed over the mangled rabbit. Merlin tutted, but didn’t say anything. “Stew will be ready in about twenty minutes.”

They chatted among themselves as Merlin cooked, bragging about being the most dexterous at the unsolicited quest of rabbit-skinning, and Merlin let the noise lull him to a half-asleep state again. He was happy, he realized. So happy that his friends didn’t think him evil. He was a free sorcerer now.

They ate in silence, tired now, with only the occasional request for more stew. All of them were anticipating rest. They were done pretty quickly. Merlin, too tired to bother, simply cleaned their utensils with a simple whispered Áfeormaþ[1].

Everybody jumped as though Merlin had just pulled out a sword and pointed it at them. Gwaine cursed and Lance grinned. Merlin froze, unsure if he had crossed some line, but then everyone just laughed at themselves for being scared so easily.

“Your eyes change colour,” said Arthur.

“What?” Merlin turned, saw that Arthur wasn’t even smiling.

“Your eyes,” repeated Arthur. “They turn to fire when you cast spells.”

Nonplussed at the observation, unsure what to say, Merlin just nodded.

Arthur stared at him a while longer. “Right, you lot,” he said at last. “Time to sleep.”

 


 

Merlin was surprised by the size of the land.

He had seen the maps, of course he had, but it was just so vast. The villagers a way down the road had been perplexed by their determination to reach this land, and now Merlin could see why. As far as he could see, there was only cracked, dry soil and sparse yellow vegetation. There was no water, nothing to irrigate the land with, and he knew he had a daunting task ahead.

“Er, Merlin,” said Percy hesitantly. “It’s not that I don’t believe in you, because I do, but…”

“Yeah,” chimed in Gwaine as they all just stared. “What he said.”

Wanting to prove to both himself and the others that he wasn’t intimidated, Merlin swung down from his horse and crouched to place a hand gently on the scorching earth. Behind him, the others dismounted, but Merlin ignored them in favour of closing his eyes and letting his magic sweep into the ground. The knights grew silent, still fascinated–and a little surprised–by his newly-revealed powers. When Merlin spoke, he sounded grim. “The soil is toxic. That is why nothing grows here even when it rains.”

“Can you fix it?”

“I can try,” said Merlin, placing his other hand on the ground, crouched like a runner ready for his king’s command. “Hælan þisses Búrland [2],” he said, willing nature to listen to him. He could feel something churn within the ground, and tried to coax it through. “Þurhhælan! [3]” The command was gentle but firm. The ground stirred again. “Béo se cynebót æt éðelléas ríce [4]. Gewæstmbære! [5] Merlin kept his eyes closed, certain his emotions would convey better what he wanted than his meagre words. He kept repeating his words, certain it was working.

He wasn’t sure after a while. He put all he could into it, but the response from the ground was lukewarm at best. Merlin was disheartened, but resolute. Be a home, he implored the land. The people deserve it. He didn’t open his eyes until Leon gasped.

“What the–?”

When Merlin opened his eyes, he understood Arthur’s need to curse. He could see the result of his spells, the cracks in the ground were closing up by themselves, the earth grumbling like a reluctant teenager.

But that was not the most astounding part.

Apparently, Merlin had not only created fertile land, he had also created… a river. There was water struggling through a deep trench in the ground that hadn’t been their minutes ago, merrily running down all the way from the white mountains. The water ran muddy, but it would clear up soon enough. He had absolutely no idea where the huts came from. They looked sturdy, the closest one looking something like the cottage he had spent his childhood in. As he watched, Gwaine walked around it, let out a low whistle. There was an apple tree making it’s way out of the ground three meters from where Lance was looking down a well, shaking off dirt and soil like a dog that had played outside too long. Arthur was gawping at a field of corn that was still growing at an alarming rate.

Merlin had created an entire farming village. He felt quite faint, and he didn’t think it was from the exertion.

“Merlin,” said Arthur in a voice gone breathy with disbelief. He motioned to all the corn, that had now grown to thigh-height. “It’s winter.”

“I… sorry?”

It took them an hour to finish exploring and leave.

 


 

It was nearing dusk when they got back home to Camelot, and two nights of sleeping on the ground had made Merlin desperate to get to his own bed. He followed Arthur up the steps, hoping to get done with any chores as quickly as possible.

Arthur was quiet as Merlin worked. The knights–and their king–hadn’t really said a lot since seeing Merlin’s work on the field, and Merlin was too stunned himself to know what to say. So he didn’t speak at all. He just worked, letting the quiet and familiar tasks lull him into a strange drowsiness. He was easing Arthur’s shirt off his shoulders when someone knocked on the door, and Merlin opened it. It was Lunete, one of the maids.

“My Lord,” she curtsied and entered, talking to Arthur. “The chambers are ready, as you ordered.”

“Thank you,” said Arthur. “You may go.”

She did, swiftly, only sparing a backward glance at the half-naked royal person once. Merlin admired her restraint.

“The chambers, my lord?” he said as he pulled Arthur’s white sleepshirt over his head.

“Yes,” said Arthur. “You don’t need a tiny room in the tower, Merlin. You can have the chambers next to mine.”

Merlin’s hands faltered. “The royal chambers? The ones reserved for visiting lords and ladies? Sire, I am just a servant!”

“I think we accomplished yesterday that you are anything but just a servant.”

“Gaius will be alo–”

“You are relocating to a different part of the castle, Merlin, not exploring the seas,” said Arthur quietly. “It will be easier for you to be in the heart of the castle, to be near my chambers. You can work with the council, and with me, easily enough without running everywhere.”

It sounded like a practical solution. But– “You gave the order before you left.”

Arthur raised an eyebrow as he slid into bed. “Problem?”

Merlin blew out the candle on the nightstand. “No, sire.”

Then he turned and walked to gigantic bed with it’s soft linens. No problem at all.

 

Chapter Text

For the second time that week, Arthur woke up earlier than usual. He tossed and turned, knowing that he still had a good hour of sleep yet, but try as he might, rest alluded him. His mind was churning. They had made the announcements of the villages three days ago, and since then, Arthur had just been too keyed up to rest properly. There was just no way of knowing if their plan was working.

 

He had decided against sending patrols into what he now thought of as the druid villages. There were fourteen in all, three of them so vast that Merlin had dropped in a dead faint (again) after he had finished raising them from the ground. The area around these villages was being patrolled, as all of his land was, but Arthur refused to keep looking in to see if the Druids had taken up residence. They weren’t his pets, nor did they need his constant vigilance.

 

Sighing as he realized his mind was again thinking along those same inexhaustible lines, Arthur slid out of bed. He would take a walk in the forest, clear his head. There was nothing else to do. He didn’t want to bother Merlin either. His own edginess had rubbed off on Merlin, who had worked so hard these past few weeks. The man deserved his rest.

 

Arthur slipped out of his rooms, dressed in his sleepshirt and breeches. He walked down the corridor, trying not to make a noise, the lull of the castle making his boots sound heavy on the flagstones. He tiptoed across Merlin’s door.

 

And froze like a cornered deer when he heard the groan.

 

Merlin.

 

It took him a second to recognize Merlin’s voice, and another second to realize his best friend was in danger. The low groan sounded like Merlin was in pain. Here? In the castle? What sort of person could sneak up on the court sorcerer? Adrenaline pumping, Arthur toed the door open, pleased when it didn’t make a sound. His eyes alert, his hand on Excalibur’s pommel, he entered the dark room, careful to stay in the shadows of the wardrobe.

 

He quickly realized Merlin was alone, sitting up in the big bed with his back against the headboard. Maybe he was sick? He moaned, and Arthur saw enough in the pre-dawn light from the windows to understand why.

 

He went redder than Merlin’s favourite tunic when he realized Merlin wasn’t in pain . Those had been groans of pleasure .

 

One of Merlin’s hands was fisted in the sheets next to him, while the other moved in unmistakable jerks beneath the sheet pooled in his lap. His eyes were squeezed shut--small mercy--and his white sleepshirt was drenched in sweat. He had been at this a while.

 

This wasn’t the first time Arthur had walked in on someone wanking--years with the knights were not without awkwardness--but this was the first time he didn’t really know how to politely escape the situation. The door had swung quietly shut after him, and he was in Merlin’s direct line of sight. If he made a single sound, Merlin would open his eyes and see him.

 

Merlin’s moan brought his attention back to that rhythmically jerking hand. His left hand grabbed at the sheets, desperate and searching, and Arthur had the insane urge to move closer and grab that hand.

 

“Argh,” articulated Merlin, the very image of debauched. He bit his full lower lip, presumably to keep silent, and Arthur felt--to his horror--his cock fill.

 

It’s nothing, he reasoned. Just seeing him like this, it makes you want to do it too . That’s all . He refused to believe the excuse was flimsy, choosing instead to focus on Merlin.

 

His manservant was close. Arthur could sense it. He was rocking into the motion of his hand now, his shoulders tense, the veins in his neck catching the light from the window to make his look ethereal. Arthur stared, transfixed by this apparition, his gaze flitting between Merlin’s face and his lap. The sheet couldn’t disguise the shape of his cock, and Arthur licked his lips without thinking.

 

“Ar...A-A-rgghhhnhh...” Merlin trailed off into a moan as his restless legs bunched up the sheets, displaying calves shiny with sweat. Arthur could hear the little sobs, and the sound of Merlin’s hand on his cock. He could hear that delicious friction.

 

There was a moment of still, a loud sob, a clenching of squeezed-shut eyes, and Merlin came.

 

It was as though the room came with him. A giant gust of wind that felt more like a huge invisible hand knocked things off of Merlin’s bedside, fluttering the sheets dangerously. Merlin’s eyes opened for a second, blindly golden. His sobs were drowned out by the clanging of the knick-knacks on his side hitting the floor, and Arthur took advantage of the noise to escape.

 

It wasn’t until he was in his room, cock and breathing both hard, that he realized that Merlin had finally said the word he had been trying to get out. He had said it as he came.

 

Arthur.

 


 

 

Arthur wasn’t entirely sure how he had never really noticed Merlin’s hands before.

 

He stared at them, wrapped around his proffered Excalibur, his mind already going down the now-familiar path to the memory of that morning. He had spent the entire morning trying to tell himself that he hadn't actually seen anything. He hadn't seen... Merlin's cock, or anything inappropriate. Just Merlin... wanking. It was okay, it was something everyone did, right?.

 

It was just... Arthur was sure that not everyone took his name as they came.

 

He had already thought about the expression on Merlin's face as he had whispered Arthur's name reverently, like he had done so before. It was not exactly appropriate to think about your manservant like this... But then again, it wasn't exactly appropriate to think about your king like this either.

 

Which sort of alleviated Arthur's guilt over his fixation with Merlin's hands.

 

“Arthur?” Arthur started as the owner of those hands stared at him strangely. “You okay?”

 

“Yeah. Fine.” I saw you wank .

 

This was going to be a long day.



While their king thought about his servant’s hands wrapped around his appendages, faithful knights of Camelot were getting spooked by a veritable army of robe-clad druids stepping out of the forest surrounding the castle. There were hundreds--if not thousands--of eerily silent druids just there. Like any well-oiled army, the knights didn’t flounder at all from their perch atop the castle wall, and within seconds, the warning bells were ringing. Runners were sent with news of the strange druid sighting to the throne room.

 

Then they scratched their heads, debating what wrong the druids had actually done by standing around the castle.

 

Meanwhile, Pip, the runner burst into the throne room, interrupting a titillating report about the grain stores to yell about druids in the woods.

 

“Well,” said Arthur, quite at a loss of what to do. “Is there anything they want from me?”

 

“Maybe I should go ask...” Merlin began, but before he could finish his offer, another runner from the gates was skidding to a halt, bursting with more news.

 

“Three druids are heading here, Your Majesty,” he said, bowing deeply. “They wish for an audience with you.”

 

“Oh,” said Arthur, relieved that he wasn’t going to be mobbed by a crowd of angry magical people. “Certainly. Let them in.” He sent an apologetic smile to the granary keeper, and settled back into the throne to welcome his most troubled subjects.

 

There were two men and a woman. Merlin’s slight gasp of recognition told Arthur he knew them before Merlin even opened his mouth. “Iseldir.” He seemed to be talking to the kind-looking man with the silver hair. He looked familiar, but Arthur wished Merlin was not standing behind him. He wanted to see how Merlin reacted to this man he obviously knew.

 

They walked close to the throne, their heads respectfully down, before sinking down to the ground, kneeling before him. Their chins were to their chest, and the part of Arthur that was worried the druids might be angry with the villages finally disappeared. They wouldn’t be kneeling on his throne room floor, foreheads touching their knees, if they were angry.

 

“Please,” he said. “There is no need for this. Rise.” The man Merlin had recognised, and the woman, were old enough to be his parents. The boy, on the other hand, was about half his age.

 

“Your Majesty,” said the man--Iseldir. “We apologise for the…” he vaguely gestured to the ringing bells in the distance, “alarm that we caused. This was not our intention. There was just no stopping all those who wanted to come express their gratitude.”

 

Arthur was silent for a moment. Where had he seen this man before? “It’s quite alright. So the… arrangements are to your liking then? The court sorcerer spent a lot of time and energy making sure you have everything that you need.”

 

“Oh, yes,” gushed the woman. “It is all that we could have hoped for. Our children sleep in dry, warm beds now. Thank you. Thank you, Emrys.” She sank into a grateful, deep bow.

 

Merlin jolted. “Please, don’t. You really don’t have to do that.” He waved his hands about for extra emphasis. “What is your name?”

 

“I am Amara, Master,” she said. “And this is my son, Cahal.” The boy bowed despite Merlin’s protesting sputtering. “You already know Iseldir.”

 

“Yes,” said Merlin clearly while Arthur wracked his brains. “I do. I am glad you like your village.”

 

“It is the greatest gift you could have given us, Master,” said Amara. “The children are safe from nature, I think they might all survive the coming winter.” Her eyes started to fill with tears of gratitude as Arthur wondered if their children died alarmingly regularly. He shuddered with revulsion at his own old policies. “If you ever have need of us, Emrys--”

 

“All you need to do is let us know,” said Iseldir. “We will always serve you, Master. In whatever capacity you need us. We have knowledge to offer you, if you will have it, of the old days and the pure religion. We have much to offer in return.”

 

They were barely even looking at Arthur, so he simply sat back and listened, content in the happiness of his subjects and wishing he could undo the last thirty years.

 

Arthur could feel Merlin’s gaze on his neck, waiting for him to answer. It took him a while to understand that his king was handing him the reins of the conversation here. “Thank you,” said Merlin. “I am thirsty for the knowledge you can provide me. You do not have to be grateful to the king or I for the simple courtesies we have shown you. Your… misfortunes were our fault, and we shouldn’t be applauded for fixing them.”

 

“If you say so, Master,” said Iseldir in a tone that said no way in hell. They looked amongst themselves for a moment, as though silently debating something. The boy looked on with mild unease, his mouth sealed shut. He had probably been instructed to shut up before they entered.

 

“I was-- We were… all of us--” Iseldir took a deep breath and started again. “We did require some assistance in another matter, Master. Or we wouldn’t have come to disturb the peace of Camelot.”

 

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Arthur beat Merlin to the question.

 

“There is a boy,” said Amara slowly. “He is in need of guidance, Emrys, and we are uncertain how we can help him.”

 

“I don’t understand,” said Merlin, stepping forward so that he was standing abreast with the throne. “Is he sick?”

 

“No,” said the boy at last. “He is just… different from us, Master.” Arthur barely stopped himself from rolling his eyes at the honorific. “He is… powerful. There is great magic in him. We don’t know how to help him with it. He needs… he needs to learn how to control it, to channel it. And… we--well, we thought. That is, I-I wanted… He needs--”

 

“We were wondering if he could be your apprentice,” said Iseldir, taking pity on Cahal.

 

“He is a good boy,” Amara hurried to add. “He won’t be any trouble.”

 

“What is wrong with him?” said Arthur, unable to keep the deep suspicion from his question.

 

“Nothing, Your Majesty,” said Isolder. “He is simply more magical than us druids usually are. He can do things… we have no idea how to help him understand or control his magic.”

 

“And he often wonders about why he is like that...”

 

“His purpose in the grand scheme of things?” said Merlin shrewdly. “Does he itch to know why he is this way? What reason the gods had to make him different? Does he try to fit in? Fail?”

 

Arthur could feel the moment this boy’s life started to echo something else in Merlin. Merlin understood what these druids were saying far too easily. There was some underlying story there. Clearly, neither he nor the druids knew, but Arthur tucked that question away to be asked later.

 

“Where are his parents?” said Arthur.

 

“Dead, your Majesty,” replied Cahal. “They were caught by kni--”

 

“Bandits,” corrected Isolder quickly. Everyone pretended he wasn’t lying.

 

“His name?”

 

“Dristan, Your Grace. He is out in the woods.”

 

“And you would like him to…?”

 

“Be an apprentice to Emrys,” said the boy promptly.

 

“Me?” said Merlin, his voice squeaky with shock. “An apprentice to a manservant?”

 

“An apprentice to the greatest warlock ever to walk the Earth, and the court sorcerer of Albion.”

 

Merlin shifted uncomfortably. “I will think about it.”

 

“Anything else?”

 

“I was hoping to talk to your master of coin, Your Majesty, and talk of the taxes expected of us...”




The rest of the day had been spent trying to find solutions to the druids’ problems. They had talked of schools, and of the library. It had been exhausting, and Arthur hadn’t thought about Merlin wanking even once.

 

But now, as he lay in bed in clothes Merlin’s dexterous hands had draped on him, Arthur found it difficult to not think of golden eyes and reverent whispers of his name.

 

It took him a long time to fall asleep.

Chapter Text

Merlin looked beautiful.

 

Arthur acknowledged how absurd the thought was, but it was true nonetheless. Merlin might be sweating and writhing in pleasure, his face almost pained with the intensity of it, but with Arthur’s name on his lips he was the most beautiful man Arthur had ever seen.

 

Arthur moved forward with confidence, his eyes fixed on that elven face, and grabbed hold of Merlin’s cock.

 

Merlin’s eyes opened as he gasped. He saw Arthur and smiled. “Arthur,” he breathed, his voice wrecked.

 

Arthur awoke to a leaking cock against his stomach and an oblivious servant at the foot of his bed.

 

“Rise and shine!” Merlin said, in that way that he had. In reply, Arthur did what he always did. He groaned and turned over, conveniently hiding his morning wood. At least that is what Merlin would assume it was, if he found out. Which would be over Arthur’s dead body.

 

“You have the training of the new knights to attend,” said Merlin as he opened the drapes and puttered around the room. Arthur racked his brains for a way to make him leave without causing him to come closer. Merlin’s cheerful voice wasn’t helping either. “After lunch you have a council meeting. There are delegates from Queen Annis arriving for dinner, so you have to meet and greet in the evening. Then it’s dinner, a bath, and then you can sleep again.”

 

The day’s schedule was enough to get rid of the problem. Now presentable again, he turned around to see Merlin tut at the night shirt Arthur had dropped on the floor the night before. He gave Arthur an exasperated glance, but said nothing.

 

“Dristan arrives today,” he said instead. Arthur grunted out a vague questioning noise, but Merlin was used to his special communicating methods before breakfast. He answered as he placed Arthur’s breakfast plate next to him. “The druid boy I agreed to tutor? Though Lord knows how I am supposed to mentor him in any way. He will be here, however. Today.”

 

Arthur had swallowed half his loaf of bread by now, so he finally found his voice. “I look forward to meeting him. Gaius is fine with the arrangement?”

 

“He really does need someone around to help,” Merlin confirmed. “He is getting on a bit. So, yeah, Dristan will take my old rooms and just… help out, I guess. I really, really can’t do it anymore. I have to meet the masons, figure out how we're going to build this magic library. And I need to talk to Dristan too.”

 

“I get it, Merlin,” said Arthur as she chewed on some cheese. “You’re a busy man.”

 

“You don’t think I was busy before?” laughed Merlin. “The first few years I was here, you ran me ragged.”

 

Arthur grinned at the memory. “Yeah. I did… I didn’t really like being saddled with you.”

 

“Prat,” said Merlin, throwing one of his gloves at him. “Now get up, you need to get dressed.”


He found Dristan in Gaius’ chambers.

 

Merlin knew he was sixteen years old, because he had asked. His clothes hung off of his lanky frame though, making him look much younger. When he turned to face him, Merlin saw that his sandy hair was in need of a cut--it kept falling into his eyes. His grin reached his deep green eyes, and Merlin felt himself responding with a grin of his own.

 

Hello, master, came Dristan’s voice in Merlin’s mind. Thank you for agreeing to this.

 

“Please,” said Merlin. “Call me Merlin. Everyone does. It confuses me when people pretend I am someone so high and mighty I need a grand title.”

 

Dristan shrugged. Suits me.

 

“Do you talk?” Merlin asked. Dristan shook his head. “Can you?” The boy just gave a noncommittal shrug. Well. No one could say he wasn’t intriguing. “Where’s Gaius?”

 

He is out , said Dristan. Said he will be back before lunch, something about a particular herb he needed.

 

“You do talk to him, right?”

 

Another shrug. Merlin took that as a no. They stood awkwardly for a minute.

 

“Would you like to come with me to see the masons and the architect?”

 

The boy nodded eagerly, barely stopping to grab his jacket before he rushed after Merlin.


“We are going to have more than books, Lord Blackwood,” said Merlin. “Some of the magical artifacts we store are going to be big and heavy, possibly. I hope you have taken that into account.”

 

“I have,” said Lord Blackwood with respect that Merlin was still getting used to. “I didn’t think about bulky items, but these floors are meant for the artifacts.”

 

Merlin looked at where the other man was pointing on the rudimentary designs. “The windows are enough for natural lighting to read by?”

 

“Yes, of course,” said Lord Blackwood. “Of course, my Lord, you understand you will be finishing the finer points of the building… I do not mean my building will depend on your magic,” he added hastily. “Just that any extra touches you need will have to come from you.”

 

“I understand that,” said Merlin. “I will help out whenever I can, and of course I cannot expect you to add magical flourishes. I will do those myself.”

 

“Then you may leave the bare bones of the building to me. I trust my ideas here are sufficient?”

 

“More than that,” said Merlin. “I am very grateful for the time and effort you have put into this, Lord Blackwood. If there is anything you need in return...”

 

Lord Blackwood looked away, his cheeks aflame. He was a couple years younger than Merlin, but currently he was reminded of a child asking a strict father for a treat. “Maybe… Do you think it is possible for me to learn magic?”

 

Merlin’s mouth dropped open. He blinked several times in rapid succession, very aware that he looked like an idiot, but unable to do anything about it. “What?” he wheezed finally.

 

Lord Blackwood take one look at Merlin’s reaction and hastily backtracked. “I didn’t mean--I meant… Well, I was hoping, my lord--but it’s not--”

 

“I would love it if you learned magic,” said Merlin. “And please,” he grinned. “Call me Merlin.”

 

Lord Blackwood smiled shyly, and nodded. “Thank you, Merlin.”

 

Merlin smiled in return, then turned around to leave. At the last minute, he remembered Dristan, and called for the boy. He came running, hands full of books he must have charmed out of Gregory. Merlin was impressed.

 

“Can you read?”

 

Dristan shook his head. But I have to start one day, my lord , he said stubbornly.


Arthur was bored out of his skull and the night seemed endless.

 

He was sweaty in his best doublet, his stomach was full to bursting, and he was going to push Excalibur through his own eye if he had to listen to another tale about marital bliss from the not-so-subtle Lord Renhouse.

 

Merlin was in great spirits, on the other hand. Arthur had met his new… apprentice, who had smiled and said not a word. Merlin had explained that he liked to talk with his mind. That had certainly been far more interesting than Lord Renhouse’s bawdy argument that sinking into a bathtub at the end of the day didn’t even hold a candle to sinking into the marital bed. The waggling eyebrows and snorting laughter had made it clear what was sinking where.

 

Arthur sighed and looked at Merlin.

 

Of course he looked uncomfortable, sitting at the high chair. Arthur had asked Merlin to sit on his right, hoping for titillating conversation from one side at least, but Merlin had ignored him and sat his skinny ass down next to Gaius. Arthur hadn’t dared to ask him to come sit next to him, afraid Merlin would actually refuse and make him look like a fool.

 

He looked happy. At least he was eating well, instead of soup and oatmeal and whatever else Gaius considered to be the best nutrition for a grown man. Let him feed the boy his soups, Arthur was going to feed Merlin.

 

He realized he was blatantly staring at his servant when Merlin raised an eyebrow in his direction. Face red, he looked down and debated on the best way to be rid of his present company.



When Merlin undressed him for the night about an hour later, he tutted at the sheen of sweat on Arthur’s chest. Arthur felt himself colour from something that was ridiculously routine between them.

 

“Would you like a bath?” asked Merlin.

 

“The whole castle is asleep,” said Arthur. “I wouldn’t want you to lug all those buckets by yourself.”

 

Merlin grinned. “I don’t have to.”

 

It took Arthur a minute. “Oh,” he said, grinning. “Yes please, Merlin. I would like a magically heated bath.”

 

An unprecedented twenty minutes later, Arthur was in the tub and Merlin was behind him, his sleeves pushed up, ready to soap up Arthur’s back. They had done this thousands of times before, but Arthur was suddenly hyper aware of everything Merlin--the rustle of his shirt meeting the lip of the tub, the naked forearms close to his naked back, Merlin’s gaze on his body… and his hands. Arthur barely stopped himself from arching into the first touch. Merlin probably attributed it to the change in temperature. He shivered, he couldn’t help it. He could feel Merlin’s frown, and a single long finger slid into the water near his hip, the water turning a bit warmer with a whispered word.

 

And then Merlin started soaping his back. Arthur let out a sigh, not moaning through sheer will power. How had he never noticed how sensual this ritual of theirs was? His cock was taking an interest, turning a little chubby, and he folded his knee to stop Merlin from noticing. His relaxing bath wasn’t relaxing him at all.

 

Merlin’s hand slid a little under the waterline, still a respectful distance from his ass, but the tiny splash went straight to Arthur’s cock. He wondered if Merlin wanked to this. What were his Arthur-related fantasies? Did he think about Arthur on his knees, sucking Merlin’s cock, those glorious fingers fisted in his hair?

 

He shuddered again, but Merlin had already moved away. He didn’t notice.

 

Arthur finished his bath with painfully quick efficiency, scrubbing his dick a little mercilessly to turn it limp again before Merlin dressed him for the night. Merlin didn’t even bother putting his night shirt on this time around. He knew what would happen in the middle of the night.

 

Once Arthur was safely in bed, the candles were out, and the water from the bath magically wiped off, Merlin left him alone.

 

Arthur took a long time to fall asleep.


They met in secret, indignant men with hatred in their heart. It had been difficult to find a secure place to meet, until the youngest among them had suggested the dragon’s cave, now empty and echoing. All seven of them spoke in hushed tones, afraid the chilly wind might carry away their traitorous words.

 

“He is enchanted,” said one. “No other explanation for it. The servant boy has enchanted him. Like the time his father married that troll.”

 

“We were mute then too,” another seethed. “Not this time.”

 

“But whatever can we do? It’s not as if we can go against a mighty warlock!” the youngest against them fretted.

 

“Well,” said a tall shape standing away from the rest. “We killed all these cretin once, we finished the whole cursed race off. We just have to think again, and see how we can accomplish that once more.”

 

“He’s too powerful,” muttered the youngest traitor. “He will surely know. Haven’t you heard? He grew an entire village out of the ground.”

 

“And the dragon Uther chained here could have razed an entire village to the ground,” said a bored voice. “What’s your point?”

 

Nobody replied.

 

“We have to break the sorcerer’s hold on him,” said one eventually. “Think on how to do that. And how to eliminate the damned sorcerer.”

 

“Which one? There’s a new one now,” someone grumbled. “A mute, unwashed peasant in the middle of the court… What is the king thinking?”

 

“He’s not,” came the retort. “He can’t think for himself anymore. We either fix him and get rid of the sorcerer, or...” he trailed off, unwilling to complete the statement.

 

“Or,” said the tall shadow standing near the cliff. “We end them both and find someone else to restore Camelot to it’s former glory.”

 

Grimly, they all nodded.

 

Chapter Text

Arthur was not jealous of the boy.

 

He watched Dristan sprint into the courtyard to help Merlin with his reins. The boy completely ignored the organized mayhem of the impending departure of the knights, ignored the king , choosing instead to make heart eyes at his beloved Emrys.

 

But Arthur was not at all jealous of him.

 

At least Merlin and Dristan were finally going to spend some time apart. There had been reports of bandit attacks on Boldwela, one of the villages Merlin had constructed, and the knights were leaving to investigate. Merlin and Arthur would be on a quest together, like they always had, and Dristan was going to stay at the castle.

 

Dristan said something that made Merlin laugh, and Arthur gritted his teeth. He was not jealous. He was not going to be jealous of a boy half his age, who had just met Merlin. Merlin wanks to thoughts of me , he thought triumphantly, then hurriedly rearranged his triumphant expression when Merlin and Dristan walked towards him.

 

“Merlin,” greeted Arthur shortly. “We need to be leaving soon.”

 

“Yes,” said Merlin, looking a bit too excited at the prospect of sleeping on the ground. “Can Dristan come with us? He says Gaius gave him leave.”

 

“Didn’t Gaius need important herbs collected?” Arthur asked as his horse started to fidget. He wished he could fidget himself.

 

“All done,” said Merlin with great pride, puffing his not-so-scrawny-anymore chest out.

 

Arthur racked his brains for a way to refuse. The boy looked so fucking hopeful though, and Merlin was grinning broadly next to him. In the end, he sighed and dipped his head. Dristan grinned, and Merlin whooped.

 

Arthur wasn’t jealous at all.


The knights took to Dristan easily enough. They ribbed him like they ribbed Merlin, and there was no greater way to invite a new member to their merry band. Arthur had thought--okay, hoped a little--that the lack of speech on Dristan’s part would freak some of the knights out, but they were too seasoned. They soon got used to Merlin’s seemingly out-of-turn laughter and the way Merlin randomly started explaining things.

 

“Arthur doesn’t have to go,” Merlin was saying now. “He wants to, in order to show the people that Boldwela--and more importantly the people that live in it--are important to the crown. He is doing this for the people so that everyone can see the crown does not reserve any prejudice against us any longer.”

 

Arthur felt an unexpected twinge of jealousy at the way Merlin so casually clubbed himself with Dristan. He understood it, of course he did, but it still rankled.


“I still have prejudice against you,” grumbled Gwaine behind them. “Where’s my goddamn apple pie? I asked for one almost an hour ago.” Merlin laughed as Gwaine rode ahead to catch up with Arthur. “Might want to unclench your jaw, princess,” he whispered in Arthur’s direction. “Don’t want to end up with a toothless smile now, do we?”

 

“I am not clenching anything,” said Arthur through clenched teeth.

 

Gwaine, the bastard, simply laughed and rode ahead.


 

Lord Blackwood was silently humming to himself as he pored over some of the plans for the magic library. It was looking well enough. The site was close to Camelot, and he would be overseeing the work himself. It was a large clearing in the woods a little ways from the castle, and Merlin had told him that he had talked to the great dragon there a few times. Blackwood still wasn’t sure he hadn’t been making it up.

 

He was thinking of going out and actually surveying the land soon. The woodcutters in the surrounding areas had already been alerted that they would need to expand the clearing if need be, and Blackwood wanted to check and tell if his men had reported the measurements of the land correctly.

 

Still pondering, he started packing up all the maps and scrolls. He would give them back to Geoffrey in the library, and then ask for his horse to be saddled.

 

Perhaps they could build the rooms on top of each other, he mused as he walked. A tower, instead of a flat structure. He would consult the king, and Merlin, before drawing up some alternate plans.

 

Geoffrey’s shouts stopped him in his tracks. He could hear the old librarian across the courtyard. He ran.

 

“Nathan,” said Geoffrey when he saw the young man. “Oh, dear God! Nathan! Help...”

 

And that was when Blackwood saw the flames.


 

Dristan was loving every moment of this.

 

He was on a real-life adventure with Emrys and the king… and the knights! The knights had surprised him, they truly had, because Dristan was used to people being wrong-footed by his reluctance to use speech. Instead, Sir Gwaine had made a game out of it, trying to get him to answer in words increasingly difficult questions. Just before Dristan and Emrys had started to set camp, he had asked Dristan what he thought of Merlin.

 

His wordless thumbs up had made the knight groan.

 

“Dristan,” said Emrys. “Come here and light the fire.

 

Such a mighty sorcerer you are, Emrys, said Dristan in his mind. I thought you would have learned by now.

 

“Cheeky,” laughed Emrys. “Now come here and practice.”

 

Dristan was very conscious of all the knights looking at him. They were nice enough to not stare openly, but they were all interested, he could tell. He shrugged, trying not to be bothered by the scrutiny, and crouched down. Forbærne, he thought, and the fire roared. Now the knights started, jerking back to their tasks, but Dristan didn’t mind. It would take them a while to get used to magic.

 

“Merlin?” called the king, and Emrys left him to see what was needed of him. The knights slowly came to sit next to Dristan. Sir Leon asked about his parents, and Sir Lancelot asked about his magic. His unwillingness to speak didn’t bother them in the slightest. He smiled at each of them in turn.


“Nobody was harmed,” gasped Nathan as Gaius slathered something on his burned wrist.

 

Gaius’ eyebrow shot up. “Really? My tincture of snail slime is exhausted, and you think no one was hurt.”

 

“Well,” amended Nathan. “I do admit I was a bit… overzealous about saving a few of the more important scrolls, but there’s no lasting harm.” He shrugged, then regretted it when his shoulder twinged. He had banged it against one of the bookcases. “Only a small portion of the library is gone,” he told Gaius.

 

“You were quick,” murmured Gaius distractedly as he looked around for more bandages.

 

Nathan flushed. “Geoffrey was quick to move anything flammable away from the fire too…” He sighed. “I am just sad about having to start the planning all over again.” When Gaius made an inquiring sound, he explained further. “It was my table--with the plans for the new library--that burned. I am just going to have to start over again. Well, not completely. I had taken a few scrolls with me to study. But still, it’s a lot of work...”

 

But Gaius wasn’t listening anymore. His eyebrow was stuck to his hairline, and his mind was churning.


Arthur was being petty, but acknowledging this was not the same as correcting it.

 

It was just that Merlin and Dristan were being very loud. They must have been talking to each other in their heads long after the knights fell asleep, because there were giggles and scuffles and playful laughter going on, and Arthur needed to sleep.

 

So he did exactly what anyone else would do too, if they were awake.

 

“Merlin?”

 

“Hmm,” came the sleepy reply. Merlin was pretending he had been asleep. Cute.

 

“I’m cold,” said Arthur. “Could you move closer?” Merlin got up in one swift move, and moved his bedding till he was nearly back-to-back with Arthur. Arthur smiled. “Thank you.”

 

“Of course,” said Merlin, already half-asleep. Then Dristan must have made some joke in his head, for Merlin snorted and shook his head, before finally falling asleep.

 

Arthur wondered if there was some way to join the conversation.


 

When Arthur woke up the next morning, the first thing he noticed was that Merlin and the boy were both nowhere to be found. No one had actually been on guard, for it wasn’t actually needed now that the kingdom was safe. He trusted Merlin, he really did, but it was just like his clumsy idiot of a servant to lose his footing and drown in the river.

 

He sighed, got up, and decided to go look for his manservant.

 

Perceval was munching on an apple, he saw. Everyone looked fed and ready to go, and Arthur belatedly realized that the sun was high up in the sky. He had slept far longer than he should have. He snatched Percy’s apple. “Where’s Merlin?”

 

“Cleaning the utensils,” reported Percival cheerfully. “He said you could directly eat lunch, when we arrive at the village.”

 

“Really?” said Arthur, feigning intrigue. “And how did his majesty decide this?”

 

“You really don’t remember,” said Lancelot with no small amount of wonder. “Really?”

 

When Arthur shrugged, Gwaine laughed out loud. “He did try to wake you. He nearly managed to drag you upright.” He pondered for a moment. “Say what you will, but our Merlin has a kind of wiry strength to him.”

 

And now they were all laughing at him. Perfect. Arthur simply stalked over to the river, intent on finding his idiot and get going.

 

His steps faltered when he heard the splashing and the happy shouts. Gritting his teeth, Arthur followed the sounds to the bank. As he had expected, Merlin and Dristan were playing in the water, their shirts discarded casually on the shore.

 

What he hadn’t anticipated was what they were playing.

 

Both of them were trying to drench each other, that was certain. But they were using magic to mold the water into balls that lifted from the surface of the river to charge at the other, and it was the most magnificent thing Arthur had ever seen. Dristan’s back was to him, but Merlin was completely in his view, even though he hadn’t noticed Arthur yet.

 

Water clung to Merlin, drops taking a meandering route from his shoulders, down his chest and into the well-defined abs to get lost in his belly button. He suddenly looked very grown up to Arthur, the boyishness of his face undercut by the sheer masculinity of his body…

 

Arthur swallowed, his eyes stuck to Merlin’s delectable Adonis belt. The trail of hair below his belly button was calling out to Arthur, and he desperately wished the low-hung breeches weren’t present at all. Arthur wanted to see, to feast his eyes on what he was still too much of a coward to go after.

 

But then Dristan landed one of the water balls Merlin had been fending off, and the moment was broken. Dear God, had he just been salivating over his idiot of a manservant?

 

And Dristan needed to leave before Merlin’s breeches decided to quit the losing battle they were fighting against gravity. He wasn’t allowed to see Arthur’s Merlin like this.

 

Shaking off the weird mood, Arthur yelled to get their attention. “Merlin!”

 

Merlin was still laughing, eyes twinkling, when he looked at Arthur. The sin of that body was lost in the innocence of the face. “Yeah?”

 

“We need to leave.”

 

And Arthur refused to feel guilty about getting Merlin out of the water, even though he looked like he belonged there.

 

Chapter Text

The scars bothered him.

 

Arthur was no stranger to scars on the bodies of his men, and had an impressive collection himself that visiting ladies loved to coo over. But Merlin’s scars were unexpected, far more than he should have had.

 

Now Merlin was dressed again, exchanging his usual banter with Gwaine, but Arthur remembered that brief glimpse he had seen of Merlin’s body. It was the body of a warrior, proudly displaying scars that stayed humbly hidden all day, never asking for recognition, never hoping for reward. The haphazardly-healed wounds were a testament of Merlin’s undying devotion, of all he had endured to keep his king safe. Suddenly, inexplicably, Arthur felt humbled, a strange emotion bubbling in his chest that he dared not name.

 

Merlin was his, not because Arthur had asked him for his loyalty, but because somehow, Merlin had chosen Arthur as his master... and never gone back on his unshakable conviction that Arthur was worthy of this beautiful gift.

 

They rode the last few minutes in complete silence, Arthur focused on the problem ahead of them, and the knights tired of idle chatter. The boy, Dristan, seemed to be having the time of his life, even though he seemed ill-suited to the gentle horse his stable had provided. Arthur fondly remembered when Merlin had complained about the extensive riding, squirming all day atop his gentle mare.

 

The village elders were waiting for them right outside the village, ready to lead them in. They bowed deeply to them--Merlin first. Arthur would have felt a twinge of anger for the way Merlin was a priority to the Druids, but Merlin squirmed and stuttered so much every time that Arthur was actually beginning to look forward to the bows and the respect. Arthur knew he wasn't the visiting celebrity the children gathered near the well were whispering about. He heard many a voices whisper Emrys, remembering suddenly that he had meant to ask Merlin why they called him that. Merlin was currently riding behind him in a completely deliberate maneuver. He wanted the druids to respect his king first. Arthur smiled and rode on.

 

To say Merlin was uncomfortable with the celebrity status he seemed to have with the people was a shoddy assessment, because Merlin was mortified that he was suddenly important to so many people. Arthur grinned broadly every time Merlin protested some special treatment. He laughed out loud when Merlin relented in the face of the disappointed looks.

 

He had been given an empty hut, bigger than the ones around it, as accommodation. While Merlin took care of their belongings and the horses, Arthur thanked the old lady who had introduced herself as Glenda.

 

Merlin poked his head in as she left. “I need to talk to some of these people,” he said. “You all right on your own for a few minutes?”

 

“I am a king, you idiot,” said Arthur. “Of course I can survive a few minutes without you.” He narrowed his eyes. “In fact, Mer lin, I will see you at dinner.”

 

“But--”

 

“It is treason to argue with your king, Merlin.”

 

“Is it treason to argue with the royal arse too, my lord?”

 

Before Arthur could think of a witty comeback, Merlin was gone. Five minutes later, Arthur regretted his decision greatly. How exactly was he supposed to dress for dinner without Merlin?

 

Never one to admit defeat, the mighty king of Albion proceeded to turn about in circles as he tried to loosen the leather strap holding his voiders to his hauberk, looking very much like a puppy chasing his tail.

 

It was in this challenging endeavour that Dristan found Arthur.

 

The boy had far more tact than people believed him to have, though, so he simply stood and smiled until the king noticed him. That is when he smiled and gestured in a vague offer of help.


Arthur wasn’t stupid enough to refuse help a second time, so he let the boy help. He wasn’t as fast as Merlin, of course, but together they managed to get his filthy armour off of him. The cotton shirt and clean breeches felt heavenly, though Dristan didn’t help put them on. Arthur managed that himself.

 

He didn’t know what to say to the boy, how to interact with him. He didn’t understand him, nor could he suddenly trust a sorcerer after so many years of animosity. But Dristan was just a boy, younger than even Merlin was when he first came to Camelot. Arthur shrugged off distrust and smiled at the boy in thanks. He was about to leave when a thought struck him.

 

“Did Merlin send you?” he asked.

 

The boy said nothing, as usual, but his eyes twinkled with mirth.


They discussed the bandits at dinner.

 

They were eating in a modest hall, where he was told the druids all took their meals together. It was small and cosy, and the food smelled wonderful.

 

“Can't you just,” Arthur waved his hands in a vague movement to indicate magic. “When the bandits come?”

 

Glenda sighed. “Alas, Your Majesty, we have always focused on peaceful learning. Not all of us have the gift of magic, and our children never learned for fear of persecution. We have defensive spells aplenty, made to protect us from discovery and capture. We have never had land, not since the days of old, so we never learnt to protect a stable home. When trouble arose, when the bounty hunters came , we simply moved on.” She spread her hands. “We have no defences when these men come galloping. We never learned how.”

 

“I have been teaching some of the village folk, Glenda,” Merlin said from Arthur’s right. “There’s a little magical talent in some of the men. The twins are very capable, too. Brenna has almost mastered a simple attack spell. It won’t maim or kill, but it will render one or two people unconscious when used.”

 

Arthur’s first reaction to the information wasn’t something he was particularly proud of. He wondered what would happen if the sorcerers started using these spells against Camelot. Maybe Merlin should be cautious about what he teaches. Maybe that’s why Dristan had been thrust upon them. He shook his head sharply, and thought about it. What cause had these people given him for doubt? They were peace-loving, and he had wronged them for years. Besides, the spell seemed harmless enough, enough to overpower a small group of bandits, but nothing against the army of Camelot. And Merlin.

 

“The knights of Camelot are at your disposal, Glenda. We will set up a proper patrol through this land, make sure there are red capes seen here twice everyday. They wouldn't dare attack that which their king protects. Merlin,” he said, and his manservant turned his head, listening intently. “Find Leon after dinner, tell him double patrols per day should suffice.”

 

Merlin nodded.

 

The matters of governance done, the druids insisted on entertaining their esteemed guests as best they could. Of course, that meant magic.

 

The knights and their king cheered heartily when a little girl made flowers grow in harmless little pots of dirt. She shyly presented one each to Arthur and Merlin, and blushed prettily when Merlin laughed affectionately.

 

Gwaine, who was eating like a starved pig, demanded his own flower, then processed to charm a blush out of her when she complied.

 

This is what he hated? The thought came suddenly to Arthur, with guilt and shame hot on its heels. He looked away from the happy display, suddenly feeling the weight of all the years. This was what his father had hated. All these men and women, these children. His to protect, but deprived of that protection when a man couldn’t stand up to the scrutiny of his own guilt?

 

“Arthur?” said Merlin. “Are you okay?”

 

Arthur opened his mouth to answer, but the sudden screams from outside made him snap his mouth shut. Loud whispering started all of a sudden inside the hall, and Glenda stood up. “Someone go check--”

 

The heavy oak doors opened at that moment, and the flicker of a fire became visible for a second as a slender girl entered, her skirts held to her knees and her face panicked. “Bandits!” she said, clearly fighting hysteria. “They are near the granary, my lords,” she stopped for a second, gulping in air. “Six, or seven, I think. No more. They are on horses.”

 

Arthur’s knights were already looking at him for the command, and Arthur nodded. “We need someone to lead us to the granary,” he said.

 

Merlin nudged his shoulder. “I can.”

 

Arthur was about to ask him how, before he remembered that Merlin was the one who had built this entire village. That was still too much to wrap his head around. “Okay,” he said as the occupants of the hall really began to panic. He tried to reassure them with a smile. “Keep the chicken hot for us, you lot, and we will take care of this.”

 

“Where are your sisters, Ana?”

 

“Trying to help the others,” said the girl, tears now flowing down her face. “Emrys… they--fire. They set fire to some of the homes.”

 

Merlin moved purposefully down the aisle, away from the high table. He didn’t look back to see if the knights followed, and Arthur realized with a jolt that it was perhaps because Merlin didn’t need them to deal with seven miscreants. He grit his teeth and followed his manservant.

 

It was mayhem outside. There was too much fire, too much smoke to orient himself. Arthur gave up the effort, choosing to keep his eyes fixed on Merlin’s retreating back. He stared like an idiot when he turned to make certain the knights were following. There was barely any fire behind him. Merlin was extinguishing it all as he walked through the streets.

 

The ground was still too hot, and the smoke made them all start sweating in a few minutes. Just as Arthur’s vision started to get impaired by sweat in his eyes, a hurtling black mass to his left alerted him of an attack. The man ran into his side, elbow first, clearing hoping to dislocate or injure Arthur’s sword arm. Even though the impact was jarring, Arthur went with it, turning around with the momentum to jab the hilt of his sword at the base of the man’s neck, disorienting him. He heard shouts and scuffles behind him as he quickly turned his sword about in his hand, and ran the man through.

 

When he looked up again, Merlin was watching him.

 

Arthur smiled and moved towards him. Together, they made it to the granary, a flat, square building with no trees around to give cover. Arthur heard a war cry behind him, and turned to tackle the not-so-clever attacker. Even as his sword swung down to end the man’s life, he heard Merlin’s panicked yell.

 

“Arthur!”

 

Before Arthur could dislodge his sword from the freebooter’s torso and look around, a heavy weight on his back propelled him on top of the miscreant. He heard Merlin’s pained gasp, felt his arms scramble to cover as much of his king as he could.

 

He couldn’t breathe. “Merlin--”

 

Merlin interrupted him with a pained cry, and that is when Arthur struggled from beneath Merlin’s scarily limp form to see what the fuck was going on.

 

There was a sword stuck in the ground next to Merlin’s foot, and blood shone on Merlin’s breeches. Arthur looked around, alerted to the threat of a stealth attack even as he shook Merlin slightly, trying hard not to jostle.

 

“I’m okay,” said Merlin. “Top of the granary.”

 

That is when Arthur saw the bandit, the one who had thrown the sword that would have ended his life. He had a second to register his presence, and then the man swayed drunkenly, falling in a barely-moving heap to the ground. Arthur turned around to assess Merlin’s condition, and noticed that his eyes were glowing in the dark, his irises like fire. His knights had finally managed to get there at last, and Arthur sighed with relief.

 

“Merlin’s hurt,” said Arthur.

 

“Three more,” Merlin gasped. “There should be three or four more.”

 

“Dead,” said Leon. “All of them are dead, Merlin.”

 

That was when Merlin finally stopped struggling to get up. “Oh, good,” he said, and fainted.

Chapter Text

Arthur oscillated between panic and anger as Percival carried Merlin back to the dining hall.

 

He hated feeling like this. He hated the impotent hysteria bubbling up his throat, the mix of feelings he felt for his infuriating, vile, loyal, magical, beautiful manservant.

 

Arthur stood in a corner of the hall, trying not to come in the way of all these people who certainly knew what they were doing. Glenda had the girl, Ana, run to find water, and there was a panicked buzz that was making his skull hurt. He closed his eyes, not arguing when Leon pushed on his shoulder and made him sit.

 

“He will be okay,” Leon said in his ear. “Glenda told me.”

 

And Arthur could breathe again.

 

He watched carefully, as someone ran in with some sort of special salve, as a pair of twins started enchanting with their hands cradling Merlin’s calves. The white light bleeding out of their hands felt good and bright, felt safe. And that is when Arthur understood. Magic wasn’t a weapon, it was a… a way of life. A gift in the darkest of time. It could heal, grow living things out of seemingly nowhere, it could right the wrongs done. It was the reason Merlin was going to be alright… it was the gift God probably bestowed on a lucky few.

 

Merlin had this inside him this whole time. And he had had to hide it.


Merlin woke to a mild headache and an angry king.

 

“You idiot! ” roared the king before Merlin was fully awake. “You self-sacrificing bufoon! Why did you--Merlin.”

 

“Yes, my Lord?” said Merlin, more than a little bewildered. He was lying on Arthur’s bed, his leg swathed in bandages, pain radiating from the flesh beneath.

 

“You are an imbecile, Merlin,” said Arthur. “Are you sure you are the best sorcerer ever to walk the Earth--”

 

“Greatest,” Merlin corrected weakly, struggling to sit up. Arthur turned to glare at him. “The Druids say--”

 

“I don’t care, Merlin!” Arthur was basically screaming now. “You are an idiot and a liability.”

 

“Sure,” Merlin agreed, then waited a beat. “Arthur, what the fuck happened?”

 

Arthur stopped pacing near the foot of the bed. “You took a sword in the leg for me. You fainted, Merlin. Like a girl!” He sneered that bit.

 

“I am fine, Arthur,” said Merlin. “It doesn’t even hurt that bad. I think I can even stand--”

 

Arthur stopped Merlin’s feeble attempts to get out of Arthur’s bed by coming over and shoving Merlin in the chest, making him collapse onto the bed. “No! Just… rest.”

 

Merlin smiled, though he was still bewildered. “Arthur, what--I am fine! I have actually had worse.”

 

Arthur looked into Merlin’s eyes a moment too long, his expression changing from frustration to sadness. “Yes,” he said. “I know.” The hand fisted on Merlin’s chest began to stroke him tentatively. Merlin was too confused to consider even dropping his gaze.

 

Had Arthur been leaning this close into him before? Their faces were mere inches apart, and before Merlin could stop himself, he looked down at Arthur’s full, pouty lips so incredibly close to his. Arthur shifted to sit beside him, and suddenly Merlin snapped out the all-too-familiar feeling of wanting to bed his king.

 

The firelight made some maddeningly beautiful expression flicker in Arthur’s eyes. “How many times have you done this, Merlin? Sacrificed for me? Taken swords and arrows for me?”

 

Merlin shrugged, speechless. What was we supposed to say?

 

“I saw your scars,” said Arthur. His hand moved to gently caress the spot where he had seen the long jagged scar. “Did you get stabbed in the gut?”

 

“Arrow,” said Merlin. “It was a crossbow.” His voice was hoarse.

 

“Who was it?”

 

Merlin’s brain felt fuzzy. “One of Morgana’s men. I don’t--I didn’t--”

 

And suddenly Arthur was kissing him.

 

Merlin felt the first touch of Arthur’s lips like a jolt of lightning going through his whole body, awakening every limb and muscle. His brain stopped working for a few moments as he just thought one single word over and over again. Finally.

 

His magic surged, proud and wanting, clamouring through his whole body as though willing to rip his skin and claim its king. He felt drugged. He felt powerful.

 

Arthur shied back when Merlin failed to respond to his kiss, his heart throbbing in the vicinity of his Adam’s apple. He was suddenly afraid that this was too important for him to laugh off, too much to feel, and too forward of him to go back. If Merlin didn’t want him, he had no way to fix their relationship.

 

“Arthur--” Merlin looked at him, conflicted, his eyes full of wonder, and then he was struggling to sit up for the sole purpose of tackling his king into the mattress and snogging him.

 

All doubts Arthur might have had about how Merlin felt flew away like so much cotton on the wind. Merlin struggled to straddle him, and Arthur would have yelled at him for grieving his leg, but he honestly had no thoughts in his head at all. And then there was no need to think, and all Arthur wanted to do was feel, because Merlin’s lips descended on his with encouraging fervour.

 

Merlin’s kiss was surprisingly graceful, a stamp of loving ownership. His lips murmured over Arthur’s lips, and he gasped aloud when Arthur licked his mouth. Arthur took advantage, slipping past the defences and licking the inside of Merlin’s mouth. Merlin squirmed on top of him, struggling to get closer, to get more, making greedy little noises that went straight to Arthur’s cock.

 

He could feel himself getting harder against Merlin’s thigh, but before Arthur could feel self-conscious about it, he felt Merlin reciprocate. It was a heady feeling, dissolving his Merlin into a squirming, greedy mess, and Arthur applied all the skill he knew to the task. Merlin moaned when he coaxed their tongues into battle, arching his back to find friction where it was needed most.

 

Arthur broke off to breathe. “Merlin,” he panted, and the syllables that came after were variations thereof.

 

Merlin, by dint of his magic perhaps, was uninteresting in such mundane things as breathing. He had taken to nipping lightly at the exposed skin of Arthur’s neck, soothing each bite with a lick. He was driving Arthur insane. Arthur arched his neck and cradled the back of Merlin’s neck to grant him easier access.

 

“Arthur... ” Merlin’s voice was hoarse with passion, and it was a welcome addition to the special way Merlin said his name. “Mine. Mine, mine, mine. ” His hands were scrambling all over Arthur’s chest, stroking him in bursts of movement as though he was unsure where to begin touching. Arthur grabbed the hand closer to his face and licked one of the fingers, feeling a thrill of accomplishment when Merlin squirmed again. The resulting friction felt delicious on his cock.

 

Merlin was almost certain he was dreaming. A gorgeous, most beautiful dream. Or heaven. Either ways, Arthur was letting him kiss his neck while he sucked on Merlin’s fingers with his kiss-blown lips, and it was more than Merlin had ever hoped for. Well, it got infinitely better when Arthur dragged his head back up to kiss again. He was in heaven. Even his head was pounding.

 

When Arthur cursed, long and loud, Merlin realized that it wasn’t actually his head pounding. A spawn of Satan was knocking on the fucking door, the motherfucker.

 

Arthur took almost a minute to reluctantly untangle himself from Merlin’s many limbs, his face dripping apology. His hair was a complete and utter mess, wild tufts riding high where Merlin had fisted his hands in that glorious hair. His clothes were rumpled, and his lips were swollen. In short, the king of Albion looked utterly debauched.

 

Merlin felt quite drunk.

 

Percival was yammering on and on about how Arthur was needed somewhere, and Merlin tried to focus, he really did. He just couldn’t shift his focus away from Arthur’s delectable ass as the man in question tried to talk through the doorway, possibly not wanting Percival to see the state of the patient. Merlin raised a wobbly hand to smooth down his hair, just in case.

 

When Arthur turned to regretfully inform Merlin that he had to go, Merlin nodded even though he only just caught every third word. Arthur would be back, to kiss him more. That was all that mattered.

 

It was only when Arthur was gone that Merlin actually realized they wouldn’t have been interrupted in his dream. He had just snogged his king.

 

Life was good, busted leg or not.

Chapter Text

When Merlin woke up, Dristan was there.

 

Sorry , he said instantly. I didn’t mean to wake you Emrys.

 

“Don’t worry about it,” shrugged Merlin. “Where’s Arthur?”

 

He wanted to interrogate the one we caught alive, replied Dristan. How do you feel?

 

“My head hurts.”

 

That would be the berries Glenda insisted on feeding you . They have almost completely healed your leg. Dristan grinned. They give the not-so-unpleasant feeling of being drunk too… did you feel it?

 

Merlin felt the blush creeping up on him as he remembered what he was doing when he felt drunk. “Yes. Now go away.”

 

The insolent whelp smirked all the way to the door. Merlin suddenly understood Arthur’s urge to chuck things at him.


The twins visited him too, both of them urging him to sit up and chant with him to fix his leg. It still throbbed in its bandages, but the pain was surprisingly manageable. He had had a lot worse.

 

The knights visited too, with Gwaine laughing at him for fainting like a maiden and Lancelot trying to reel their raucous friend in. Percival and Leon were both smarter. They just stood around and tried not to laugh.

 

But Arthur didn’t come back.

 

Merlin slept a lot, and the Druids encouraged it, for they thought his magic was healing him better than they ever could. So he lay in bed, daydreaming about sliding his fingers through Arthur’s soft hair as he had wanted to do for a long time. He thought about Arthur’s lips reddened with his kisses, about the wild look in his eyes. He could still feel the phantom press of Arthur’s mouth.

 

He wanted more of those.

 

He was allowed out of the ruddy room for dinner, which is where Arthur was waiting for him. The grin on his king’s face was fiercely loving, and Merlin felt himself blush like a child at the attention. Arthur seemed… focused on him in a way that felt indecent, and Merlin was sure that Gwaine--who had helped him to the dining halls--would tease him about it soon.

 

But no one commented on the fact that Merlin and Arthur only had eyes for each other.

 

Merlin was hyperaware of how close Arthur was sitting to him. He was assuring Glenda and thanking her, but most of his attention was on his quiet king, who was staring at him in a manner that made Merlin’s ears go red. He turned to his food soon enough, suddenly realizing he was famished. Had he been fed anything in the last twenty four hours? It didn’t feel like it.

 

The chicken got stuck in Merlin’s gullet when Arthur leaned in to whisper in his ear. “I can’t stop thinking about your lips on mine,” he said, his breath tickling Merlin’s ear. Merlin decided this was the most erotic thing to ever happen to him.

 

Arthur couldn’t sit still. He also seemed to be hell bent on feeding Merlin, for he kept heaping mountains of food on Merlin’s plate, urging him to eat with a slight stroke of his hand to Merlin’s forearm. It bothered Merlin how absolutely ordinary touches from his king now made his dick twitch. He was certain he should be embarrassed, but it was as if a floodgate had been opened somewhere, and Arthur’s touches had suddenly become a prelude to other things.

 

Merlin almost squealed like a girl when Arthur’s hand wrapped around his thigh. His fingers landed high on Merlin’s thigh, dangerously near his cock, and the thumb caressed the adjoining flesh almost absently. Merlin could feel the heat of all individual fingers. It was like a brand, telling Merlin he was Arthur's. Merlin's awareness of his surroundings shrank until ask that existed was Arthur's hand marking him, and the presence of the man himself beside him. He barely stopped his whimper, and thanked the Gods for the tablecloth.

 

Arthur’s hand remained there, sometimes stroking lightly, throughout dinner. He would take it off for a while, then start his blasted torment again, making Merlin anxious and antsy. Their faces were a study in contrast: Arthur looked cool, calm and collected whereas Merlin possibly looked like a sweaty opium addict.

 

“I must confess I am very tired,” said Arthur eventually, and suddenly everyone was on the move, ready to get to bed. “Tell me if he says anything at all,” Arthur said to Glenda, and Merlin realized he hadn’t even asked about the prisoner, but before he could even open his mouth, Arthur was dragging him to their makeshift chambers. He seemed to be in a hurry, and Merlin just sort of flailed and tried to gain his balance. He could still feel the heat of Arthur’s fingers on his thigh, like a brand. Maybe he was going mad.

 

Once the doors were closed, Arthur leaned against the door, face first, catching his breath. There was silence as Merlin tried and failed to think of what to do.

 

“I couldn’t stand it any longer,” said Arthur to the door. “Sitting next to you like that, unable to touch you like I wanted.”

 

Merlin just stood there, overwhelmed with love, unsure of what to do. He kept gazing at his king for clues as to what he needed, but there were none.

 

In the end, Merlin just walked forward and did what he did at the end of each day: he took off Arthur’s armour. His touches lingered and his breath came out of him in little pants, but he stripped his king down to his shirt and breeches.

 

“Merlin--” began Arthur, but Merlin shut him up with a kiss. He felt giddy with the knowledge that he could, that he was allowed to touch Arthur now, to love him. He backed his king gently to the bed, applying gentle pressure till Arthur was finally sitting at the foot of the bed. He knelt, face aflame, and tugged off Arthur’s boots. Arthur tried to speak again, to say something, but Merlin didn’t want to hear. He just wanted to feel.

 

So he moved his head a few inches and gently mouthed at Arthur’s covered cock.

 

Arthur’s half-formed words dissolved completely into a gargle of sorts, and Merlin looked up to see if Arthur was okay with this. He didn’t stop his small sucking motions, and when he looked at Arthur’s eyes, wide and lustful, he knew he was doing the right thing. He nuzzled the growing bulge and Arthur let out a strange sound. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Merlin, what--?”

 

“Please?” said Merlin, too painfully aroused to feel ashamed. “I want-- Can I please do this for you? I want to, Arthur.”

 

Arthur stared at him for a few moments, then leaned down to swipe his thumb across Merlin’s full upper lip. His eyes were fixed on Merlin’s mouth. “Your leg--”

 

“Doesn’t hurt me at all.” That was a lie. Of course it hurt, but it wasn’t bad. Merlin didn’t know why he was suddenly so desperate, so eager to please Arthur. He wanted to… oh, his king had given him such a wonderful gift, he just wanted to reciprocate. He could touch Arthur now, he didn’t have to hide his feelings, and he was more than ready to do what he had thought of so many times before.

 

Arthur looked at Merlin in a way that made his heart beat even faster--like he was the answer to all of Arthur’s prayers. Arthur’s hand left the bedding to cup the back of Merlin’s neck, and he gave a little nod. He wanted this. Wanted Merlin.

 

Merlin’s fingers shook madly when he opened Arthur’s breeches to pull out his cock. It was leaking already, fully hard and warm to the touch, and Merlin hesitated. He looked at Arthur, eyes suddenly panicked now that he was getting what he wanted. “I don’t--how? I have never… Arthur.”

 

Arthur’s eyes widened with realization before he closed them and let out a shaky exhale. “Shh, it’s okay...” he muttered when he could trust his voice again. “It’s okay, Merlin. You don’t have to.”

 

“I want to!” said Merlin vehemently, and Arthur was suddenly struck by the absurdity of fighting over this . Merlin proved his willingness by licking the head of Arthur’s cock, and suddenly Arthur’s brain felt like it had been struck by lightning. “I just don’t know what… how do you like it?”

 

“Just...” Arthur’s hand fluttered in an aborted movement. “Just explore. There’s no right way.”

 

Merlin, cheeky and insolent that he was, rolled his eyes before looking determinedly at Arthur’s cock. Then he moved forward and sucked the head with his filthy, pretty lips.

 

Arthur closed his eyes when he realized that looking would certainly make this end early. He grabbed hold of Merlin’s face with both hands, making sure to apply no pressure. Merlin moaned as he tasted him, sucking merrily away, and Arthur had to do everything in his power to stop from thrusting.

 

Merlin’s sinful tongue decided to join the party with little kitten licks to his slit as Merlin went about the task of fitting more of Arthur into his mouth. He got about halfway before stopping, his tongue slowly stretching so that it was no longer licking his slit--it was caressing the underside of Arthur’s cock. Arthur moaned, throwing his head back and marvelling at his good fortune.

 

Merlin was making distressed little sounds in the back of his throat that were reverberating down Arthur’s cock, so Arthur opened his eyes to see what was wrong. As soon as he did, Merlin gave as much of a smile as he could with his lips obscenely stretched by Arthur’s cock, and then he started to suck .

 

Arthur grunted, the wet suction felt heavenly around his dick. Merlin swirled his tongue around, touching various spots, his heated gaze never leaving Arthur’s ecstatic face. With a jolt, Arthur realized that Merlin was studying him. Studying how to please him. He closed his eyes again, his breath leaving him in a whoosh. What had he done to deserve this man?

 

Merlin’s breath was leaving him in little sobs. Arthur had to focus on his breathing himself when Merlin began to move in earnest, his hands clutching Arthur’s naked hips and his mouth trying desperately to own more and more of his king’s cock. He was setting up a rhythm, hard suction going in and wet licks as he pulled out. Merlin’s eyes, still holding Arthur’s captive, were starting to water. His hands were clenching and unclenching desperately near Arthur’s hips.

 

Arthur’s near-constant moan turned to a mumbled protest when Merlin let his cock go with an obscene pop, only to start mouthing at the underside with determined, exploratory lips. Arthur made a distressed sound, loving the view but missing the friction. His hand rose to grab his cock by it’s own accord, but Merlin slapped it away. His mouth descended on Arthur again, and this time it went to the root in the first go.

 

Arthur was making too much noise now, too far gone to worry about people hearing them, too turned on to do anything other than moan obscenely. He looked at Merlin’s wet face, his blazing blue eyes, and his slick red lips stretched around Arthur’s cock. Merlin’s spit was starting to drip to the floor, but neither of them cared.

 

Merlin moaned suddenly, his breath shuddering out of him as he moved, elbows poking Arthur in the thighs. The tiny part of his brain that could still think wondered if Merlin’s leg was bothering him after all, so he looked.

 

It took his lust-clouded mind a little while to note the absence of Merlin’s right hand on his thigh, or to make sense of his hunched posture or jerky motions. He tired to think, to see what the fuck was so important to Merlin during the best blowjob of his life, when Arthur realized what Merlin was doing. He was touching himself. His hand was in the breeches he hadn’t even bothered to open, his hips moving exactly as Arthur wished to move himself.

 

Arthur realized, abruptly, that he wasn’t going to last any longer. He tried to speak, to warn Merlin, but he couldn’t form words for the life of him. Merlin’s eyes were closed, so Arthur simply jerked his hips back, making his cock slip out of Merlin’s heavenly mouth with a sick popping sound. Merlin keened, his mouth seeking Arthur’s cock again as his eyes opened, his left hand leaving Arthur’s thigh to grab ahold of his dick. He leaned forward, hungry for cock, and that image was all Arthur needed in the end.

 

He came with a shout, thick ropes of come decorating Merlin’s sinful face, falling on his high cheekbones and his full upper lip. There was pearly white jizz in the hollow of his throat. Merlin let out a sob, his right hand moving faster in his breeches, as he nuzzled Arthur’s softening cock to tease out anymore cum. He was almost crying now, brokenly whispering Arthur’s name again and again. In that moment, he was more dear to Arthur than all of Albion.

 

Arthur leaned forward with great effort, tucking a finger under Merlin’s chin to tilt his face up. He kissed his Merlin, cum and all, sloppily moving his tongue around and sucking on Merlin’s lower lip. Merlin gasped and let out a cry, and there was a flash of gold before a giant gust of wind pushed him onto his back on the bed.

 

Well.

 

Arthur didn’t need to notice the lack of rustling sounds to know that Merlin had finally come, because apparently Merlin’s magic pushed things away from him when he came. No wonder he was a virgin at twenty nine.

 

“Arthur?”

 

“Come up here, Merlin,” said Arthur, already half asleep.

 

Merlin muttered something, and Arthur felt the sticky mess on his cock dissipate. He opened his arms and shifted to a more comfortable position when Merlin crawled in with him. Merlin opened his mouth, probably to explain the way his magic behaved when he came, but Arthur was feeling loose and languid and he didn’t want to talk at all. So he gave Merlin a kiss, which turned into a few more, and so they kept kissing lightly until they fell asleep together, wrapped in each other’s arms.

Chapter Text

 

Arthur woke up in the exact same way he woke up every morning. Merlin woke him up with the lure of breakfast, with a side of cheery banter. Even though whatever had happened last night felt enormous, Merlin looked and acted exactly the same he always had. Arthur was glad. He wouldn’t want Merlin to change.

 

“Eat with me,” said Arthur as Merlin went around gathering Arthur’s things, getting ready for their departure. They were leaving for Camelot today, and Arthur was amusing himself by watching Merlin’s tempting ass move. The idiot hadn’t even noticed yet.

 

“What?”

 

“Eat with me, Merlin. Come on, there’s enough for us both.”

 

Merlin sat down with a grin, immediately stuffing his mouth with a big piece of bread. Arthur’s eyes were drawn to the way his lips stretched around the intrusion, and just like that, his thoughts turned filthy. He swallowed when Merlin did, only snapping out of his indecent thoughts when Merlin caught his stare and started to blush.

 

“The horses are ready,” said Merlin to cover up his nervousness. “There’s more than enough food, the druids are insisting on it--”

 

“Yeah, what’s that anyways?” interrupted Arthur. “Why can’t they just make there own food with a few words and molten eyes?”

 

“Because… I don’t know.” Merlin shook his head as his face turned completely red. “Gaius says it’s impossible to create food with magic.”

 

“Bullshit,” said Arthur. “I saw you grow a whole fucking field of corn. In winter.”

 

“Um, yeah. But no one else can… you know, do that.”

 

Merlin looked very nervous about being powerful and special enough to do that, and Arthur smiled. He wondered why he had ever thought that Merlin would be different when he found out about the magic. He was still the same man. He still regularly fell over furniture, was horrible at holding his liquor, and stuttered out the worst ever lies. Merlin was the same, just… more. And his. Arthur understood that the reason why nothing felt like it was changing between them was because sex was a final step in their relationship. They had always been intimate, and Merlin had always been Arthur’s. He just hadn’t cherished what he had before.

 

As Merlin studiously bent to tie various pieces of his armour on him, Arthur thought about how he would like to bite the back of Merlin’s neck, hard enough to bruise--a secret mark hidden under his awful scarves to remind Merlin of Arthur. He was actually sad that Merlin had cleaned away Arthur’s come from his face. He would have liked to see it dry on those delicious cheekbones.

 

“My Lord?”

 

Arthur shook himself off to look at Leon. He had no idea when his second of command actually entered the room. He nodded, hoping he looked like he had been paying attention. Merlin’s fingers were still casually holding his forearm, and he could feel the heat from all individual fingers.

 

“We are ready to leave. The prisoner is secure, and the men have been alerted. Next time the holding wagon rolls around, they will stuff him into it and bring him to Camelot.”

 

“All right,” said Arthur, missing Merlin’s touch when he shifted back, Arthur’s armour in place. “Gather the men, we are leaving.”


Arthur was surprised, once again, that the knights didn’t notice any change in the dynamic between him and Merlin. When they stopped for the night, Arthur sat as close to Merlin as he dared, nudging him with his shoulders and cracking jokes. He touched Merlin at every opportunity, something that made Merlin smile and curl into the touch like a cat. He wasn’t certain why his knights were behaving as though they had all seen this before.

 

The ride the next day was uneventful, save for that one moment where Sir Gwaine spotted an apple tree and made them wait till he had cut down enough apples to feed them all. Arthur made him climb the tree again when Merlin wished for more apples. None of the knights said a thing.

 

Arthur was actually glad to see the flags of Camelot in the distance. It had been a good journey, literally and figuratively, and it was good to be back. There was still so much left to do for the druids. He had seen himself how important the library and the schools were. Those would be built before the prison.

 

He was completely surprised to see an unexpected face in the courtyard, waiting for him.

 

He felt rather than heard Merlin’s sudden intake of breath, recognised the grin in his voice when he yelled. “Mum!”

 

Hunith smiled and curtsied to them both, making her son turn beet red. Arthur and the other knights smirked. “Your majesty, kind knights, and… my lord.”

 

Merlin got off his horse so quick even the horse looked surprised. “Mum, come on. Don’t! You don’t have to dirty your dress kneeling out here like that. The prat won’t mind, come on.”

 

“Merlin!” hissed his mom, completely unaware that the king, in fact, did not mind being called prat. “A little respect wouldn’t be remiss.”

 

Merlin grinned like the country simpleton he was as he hugged her. “I do respect you, mum. A lot,” he said, deliberately misunderstanding.

 

Hunith rolled her eyes at Arthur, who had dismounted himself.

 

“You are very welcome, Hunith,” he said, coming close to grab her hands. “I do trust everything goes well in Ealdor?”

 

“Yes, of course,” said Hunith, stroking his fingers. Her smile never wavered. “I just wanted to come meet Merlin… so much has changed since I last saw him.”

 

“Yeah,” said Gwaine. “Your son has finally grown some muscles.”

 

There was a moment where Hunith probably realized that Gwaine had a strange sense of humor, and then she was laughing uncontrollably as Merlin protested.


Arthur was not jealous of Merlin’s mother, goddamit.

 

He just wished Merlin was here right now, getting dinner ready for them both instead of out in the castle somewhere, probably telling her about his life and about growing villages out of dirt. He wasn’t jealous, he just missed Merlin. He wasn’t even sure he was allowed to go peek in Merlin’s room. Maybe his mom wouldn’t like that. She deserved to chat with him long into the night, for days on end. God knows he would do the same if he so could.

 

There was a thought. Maybe Merlin could do the spell Morgause had done, help him talk to his mum again. He would ask.

 

He sighed when there was a knock on his door. A maid with his dinner, he guessed. She was a bit early, but that was okay. She wasn’t Merlin.

 

Except it turned out to be Hunith. Merlin was hovering excitedly behind her.

 

“Come on, Arthur,” he said, shouldering past his mother and his king. “Where is your cloak? There is someone I want the both of you to meet.”

 

“Merlin, what the hell?” said Arthur, perplexed by Hunith’s unsure smile and Merlin’s bouncy excitement. “Where are we going?” he asked them both. Neither answered.

 

“Not far,” said Merlin as he almost strangled Arthur with the tie to his cloak. “Just to the roof.”

 

“The roof .” Arthur looked at Hunith for confirmation. “He is bundling me up for a visit to my own roof?”

 

“Shut up, it’s cold,” scolded Merlin, and Arthur laughed out loud at the way Hunith’s eyes widened. He was certain she would get used to Merlin’s complete lack of manners or deference.

 

He would drink horse piss before he admitted it, but the roof was cold. Hunith was wearing one of Merlin’s jackets, the one that was more red that brown, and she looked like a street urchin. Arthur rubbed his palms together and glared at his manservant, who might have gotten touched in the head.

 

“Merlin,” he growled. “If you took me away from a hot dinner to show me your pet pigeon I swear to God I’ll--”

 

“She’s not exactly a pigeon,” said Merlin cryptically. Then he turned his face to the sky, and his voice went so deep that Arthur felt a shiver go down his spine. He was quite certain it had nothing to do with the cold.

 

O, Dragarn! E male, soi ftengometta tesd'hup anakess! ” he said, and Arthur could only stare at his manservant as Hunith searched the skies. He tried to look away, to see if Merlin was summoning a dragon, but he was transfixed by how deep Merlin’s voice was, how his Adam’s apple bobbed. His white sleep shirt suited him well, and the infernal neckerchiefs were nowhere to be found.

 

The dragon that appeared was smaller than the one he had seen. It seemed to be ghostly pale as it glided above them, and Arthur suddenly remembered that Merlin had called her a she. This wasn’t the giant dragon Arthur had taken rides on, then.

 

It came to a somewhat shaky landing right next to Merlin, who immediately started to pet her like a dog. Hunith moved forward with wonder, one of her hands holding onto Arthur--for security, he supposed. He didn’t let her break contact. Instead, he walked with her until they were close enough to touch her. Merlin was murmuring things, saying stuff to her like mothers coo to their children, and Arthur was just lost in the beauty of the creature. It looked like a child, with bright, guileless eyes. Arthur was fascinated and afraid.

 

Hunith had more balls than him, apparently, because she stretched out a shaky hand at Merlin’s bidding. She squeaked when she touched the dragon, then kept stroking like calming a nervous colt.

 

“Her name is Aithusa,” said Merlin. “It means the light of the sun.”

 

Arthur crowded around, his hand twitching. “What happened to her wing?” This close, it was clear to see that the wing was painfully deformed, and the dragon listed a bit to one side. It was hurt.

 

“I don’t know,” said Merlin, running a hand down the dragon’s side. It trilled, thoroughly enjoying the attention. “I think it was because of the imprisonment, by the Saarum of Amata.”

 

Arthur snatched his hand back when he realized this was the dragon Morgana had kept, the dragon that had tried to kill him, had killed his men. Merlin saw the expression on his face and started to explain.

 

“She didn’t know what she was doing was wrong, Arthur. She didn’t understand. She loved Morgana.”

 

Arthur wasn’t even sure how he was supposed to stay mad at the thing. It was currently tying it’s damned to wrap itself around Merlin’s legs. Hunith was still petting her.

 

In the end, he just huffed out a breath. “Any other magical beings you got lying around?”

 

Merlin just laughed and tried to get Aithusa to stop licking his hand.

 



Chapter Text

Lord Nathan was a very patient man, according to Arthur. If he had to recreate weeks worth of work in a few days just because of a fire that wasn’t his fault, he would have cursed the air blue. Nathan, on the other hand, was just grateful for the opportunity.

 

“I didn’t think I would get to do it at all, Your Majesty,” he said when Arthur told him how he felt. “I am far too young, and there are so many other builders who submitted designs. I was not very optimistic. I don’t have the experience.”

 

“And yet Merlin liked your idea best,” said Arthur. “He went on and on about it, actually. Tone down the attention to detail next time or he will not let me sleep again.” He tilted his head. “Speaking of, when was the last time you slept?”

 

Nathan laughed, knowing exactly how he looked. The black circles under his eyes and the sickly pallor showed, easily enough, that the man was sleeping poorly, if at all. “I have slept a lot better,” he said finally. “And I will again, once Lord Merlin builds the library.”

 

“I thought the plan was to build the main structure without magic?”

 

Nathan sighed as he pinched the bridge of his nose.“Yes, well, that was before the fire, and before we got weeks behind schedule. The builders had to be released from their contracts, for we had no plans, and were paying them by the day. It is nearly spring. Workers shall be hard to find, they will be working the fields of winter crop, harvesting before the rains. Getting a small army of builders ready will take too much time. The Druids all need to cut their wheat, and a great number of the non-magical men do not wish to… well, help the sorcerers. I tried to gather men from lower town myself. Got spat on twice in one afternoon.”

 

“People spat at a noble?”

 

“Please,” said Nathan. “Do not make this a big issue. It was nothing.”

 

“But--”

 

“It wasn’t their fault,” said Nathan. “They are simply following three decades worth of poisonous outlook. Besides, Merlin insisted he could do it himself.”

 

Arthur snorted. He could, and he would probably end up collapsing like a delicate lady right after. The library was supposed to be huge . It was probably worse than a dozen huts. It was supposed to be solid stone, built to last decades at the very least.

 

Still, Arthur didn’t question Merlin’s decision. Merlin was supposed to look after the welfare of the magical people in Camelot, and he would definitely cut away months of building time. Arthur just hoped he wouldn’t make it a pattern, wouldn’t personally put people out of building jobs.

 

Spring might be fast approaching, but Arthur still huddled against the chill in the air as he passed through the hallways. It was dusk already, and the guards were lighting the torches ahead of him. Dristan passed by him with a quick, respectful nod, bag full of herbs collected all day. He seemed like he looked forward to the soup Gaius had undoubtedly prepared for him.

 

He was halfway up the stairs to his wing when he heard it.

 

“Merlin!” Hunith was almost screaming, and Arthur bolted up the rest of the stairs and skidded past the open door of Merlin’s room.

 

Then he started to laugh.

 

A bed was somehow unfolding itself into existence near the window, a grand affair with bedding to match--a bed fit for a king. The planks of wood and bedposts seemed to spring into existence from out of nowhere. Arthur smiled when he realized Merlin was building a bed for his mother.

 

Hunith seemed to have forgotten that it was okay for Merlin to use magic now, for her face was filled with a quiet horror, and she paled completely when she noticed the king. Arthur grinned. The whole situation looked three different kinds of ridiculous.

 

“My lord, I...” Hunith paused when Arthur’s grin finally made an impression past the panic in her mind. She faltered a bit, and then her kind smile was back in place. “My son is being ridiculous, Your Majesty.”

 

“I have found that to often be the case,” said Arthur gravely, completely ignoring Merlin’s indignant spluttering. “Frankly, I wasn’t even aware he could do anything else.”

 

Hunith giggled like a girl. “He is making me a bed.”

 

“You are the one that didn’t want me to sleep on the pellet, mum.”

 

“That does not mean you… you spout a bed out of thin air!” Hunith waved her hands her bit wildly, trying to imitate the birth of the bed. She looked so ridiculous that Arthur grinned harder.

 

“What else do you want me to do? There’s only one bed! I am giving you another!”

 

“No,” said Arthur. “What you are doing is yelling at your mother.” That shut Merlin up, and he looked sheepish. “Merlin, you idiot, did you even pause to think that perhaps Hunith would like a room of her own?” He ignored Hunith’s little squeak. “Not everyone can bear your imbecilic company for extended periods of time.”

 

“She’s my mum!”

 

“And she is sick of putting up with you,” retorted Arthur. “Why exactly do you think she kicked you out and sent you away?” He cut off Merlin’s retort by giving orders. “Sleep on these two beds tonight, and tomorrow, I will have the maids clean out the room next door.”

 

Merlin looked speechless, and Arthur was disappointed. He had been expecting a clever retort that somehow questioned his brain power. He decided to wait for one, but the silence grew uncomfortable. “What?”

 

“Arthur,” said Merlin in an odd tone, “Those were the prince’s chambers.”

 

“Perfect,” said Arthur. “You take those, Hunith takes yours, and--”

 

“There are perfectly good rooms downstairs! The ones actually made for guests, you clotpole.”

 

“Merlin!” Hunith was still scandalized by Merlin’s made-up words. Arthur could only hope she was going to get used to them, he was quite attached to Merlin's ridiculousness.

 

"It's okay, Hunith," he said. "Do you mind horribly if you take over these rooms?"

 

Hunith looked around at the regal, spacious room. Her entire home could fit inside it, twice. She was bewildered by the polite courtesy in the king's tone. She was a foreign villager. He was being... unreasonably kind to her. A giggle of hysteria rose up. "Thank you, Your Majesty. They are more than adequate."

 

"Good," said Arthur. Merlin rolled his eyes. "Now... Merlin. Hunith and you are dining with me tonight. In my room. Go fix it so it is okay for company."


Merlin groaned as Hunith laughed.


To say that Hunith was uncomfortable was a gross understatement, and the only solace was that Merlin looked uncomfortable too.

 

The king's valet was good at keeping up with all their demands, but Hunith could see easily how better attuned Merlin was to the needs of his king. His eyes kept darting to the king, looking for things to do like a good manservant would. That was not to say he was neglecting his own food, but he was focusing most on the king. He would deposit a piece of cheese on the king's plate without comment, or gesture at the valet before the king's goblet was even empty. In the time that it took George to pick up the pitcher and step forward, the king had taken one last swallow and the goblet was empty.

 

Hunith was proud of the way Merlin was focused on the king's needs. It showed, more than any words that the king could have said, how well Merlin had worked in the past decade. How indispensable he was to the king.

 

"Did you get this wine from the tavern instead of my personal cellars, Merlin?"

 

"Don't be daft," said Merlin crossly. "Of course Cook made Abigail and the boys get it from the cellar. She would kill me if I tried to switch it up."

 

"It tastes… off," said Arthur, then he shrugged. “So I just thought it was the effect of your special touch.”

 

“I spat in it,” said Merlin, making Hunith smile.

 

“You seem to be beaming with pride, Hunith,” said the king that sounded mischievous. “Are you proud of Merlin?”

 

“Yes,” said Hunith without a pause. She looked at Merlin, and smiled when she saw he was blushing. “I am very proud of you, Merlin.”

 

“It seems to me,” continued Arthur, and Merlin narrowed his eyes at the gleeful drawl in his tone. “That Merlin has been neglecting writing letters to you, Hunith. He couldn't possibly have told you all that he has done for me, all the perilous tasks he has undertaken for little or no thanks for years... He must not have told you all of it. Has he?" He chewed a carrot while he waited for an answer.

 

"He wasn't forgetful, my Lord," said Hunith. "Wrote every other week or so, but he was... vague."

 

"He hasn't told you everything, then."

 

"He is sitting right here," said Merlin through gritted teeth. He slurped soup as he continued. "And can tell his own mum everything now. All by himself. No need for the royal arse to do it for him."

 

"Let me help, Merlin," said Arthur with a giant grin. "It's no trouble." Merlin rolled his eyes and chewed on, which was all the permission he needed. He turned to Hunith. “Well then, did I tell you about the time Merlin took a nap in horse dung?"

 

Merlin groaned and Hunith’s mouth dropped open.

 

He regaled story after story, telling the most embarrassing or humiliating ones first of course. He talked at length about the times Merlin had tripped over his own feet in the middle of the woods, his bumbling stupidity on the royal hunts. He only shut up once Merlin started to talk about Arthur's undying love for the Lady Vivian.

 

"Merlin?" said Arthur.

 

"Shut up?"

 

"You guessed it."

 

Hunith took ten minutes to stop laughing.

 

Merlin helped George clear away the dishes, though he had no interest in doing so. It was merely a ruse to get his mum to go to bed before him, for he fully intended to stay with Arthur for a few minutes, saying goodnight. He wanted his mum asleep before he got naughty. He was lucky, for Hunith insisted the laughing had given her a headache. The wine seemed to be working too, for she staggered when she walked, complaining that the good food and wine had made her dizzy.


When Merlin was sucking a spectacular bruise onto his neck later, Arthur vowed to make Hunith drink only the most potent wine he had from then on.


Merlin woke to his mother's screams in the middle of the night.

 

He was up and at her side in a few seconds, bewildered, confused and scared. She was twisting and turning in bed, muttering when she didn't have the strength to scream. She barely registered his presence. His hands traced her body blindly, looking for the reason she was writhing in bed, his magic surging in panic. When the candles next to her bed flared to life, his mum screamed and squirmed to avoid looking at the light.

 

"Mum! What is it? Tell me where it hurts, please! Mum?" Merlin was barely aware that he was crying, though he did turn around when Arthur barged into his room. "Get Gaius," Merlin commanded the wide-eyed king. "Get Gaius, Arthur!"

 

Arthur had barely left when Hunith began to convulse. Merlin held and her started to cry in earnest, his brain too stressed to make sense of her symptoms, his magic too bewildered to help.

 

Chapter Text

Arthur hated feeling like a useless idiot.



There was no monster to slay, no army to fight, no villain to vanquish, and there was nothing Arthur could do. He watched as Merlin and Gaius dashed about Gaius’ workroom, waiting for them to tell him what he could do. They didn’t know what had happened, and were trying to figure it out. Hunith was barely conscious, and Arthur ended up holding back her hair as she puked weakly.



As he changed the wet cloth on Hunith's forehead, Arthur stared at Merlin. He had been crying for the past twenty minutes, ever since they had brought her in, sobbing wretchedly like a lost child. But now his eyes held a fearsome intensity, a potent will to bear down and fight this horror. He was no longer a boy crying for his mother, he was a man at war.

 

Arthur wondered how many times Merlin had done this before, looked at loved ones he had had to say goodbye to. He hoped and prayed that they wouldn't have to say goodbye to Hunith.

 

"Belladonna," Gaius said after a few tense seconds of staring at the rash that was spreading on Hunith's chest, and Merlin finally broke down.

 

Arthur watched wretchedly as Merlin stumbled backwards, his panic returning, his eyes shifting wildly from Gaius to Hunith and back. He didn't cry, he just looked... tired, Arthur guessed the word was. His face lost all animation, and he slumped like a puppet whose strings had been cut. Exhaustion, bone deep and fathomless, was etched on his face. He now looked like a man who had seen too much at war, who had lost too much already, and couldn't believe he was being asked to sacrifice more.

 

Uncaring of Gaius' presence, Arthur stepped forward and hugged Merlin. Suddenly, Merlin was wrapped all around him, his face in the crook of Arthur's neck, his sobbing breaths tickling Arthur's ear. Arthur said nothing, for there was nothing to be said. His heart broke a little when he heard Merlin speak.

 

"Not her," Merlin whispered into his hair. "Please, not my mum, Arthur. I can't afford to lose her too..." Realizing he was clinging, Merlin stiffened, but Arthur refused to let him go. Here was something he could do for Merlin. Here was something he could give, support and a bit of strength. Merlin struggled mildly, then slumped again. His words were angry when he spat them out. "She doesn't deserve this," he said. Arthur realised he was talking to Gaius over his shoulder. "There was no reason to poison her. She is just a simple country woman. She wasn't supposed to be a part of all this. She isn't even supposed to be here."

 

"Sit down, Merlin," said Gaius from behind Arthur. "She isn't dead yet, my boy."

 

"She will be," said Merlin as Arthur helped him collapsed onto a bench. The tears were starting to return, the anger drained. "She will be, Gaius, unless--"

 

"Unless you pull the poison out of her."

 

Arthur decided he needed to sit down too. This was outrageous. "What?"

 

"The poison is in her blood now, Arthur," said Gaius. "I can do nothing now, but maybe Merlin can purge her body somehow."

 

"Yes," said Merlin before Arthur could ask for an explanation. "I will. Just tell me what to do, and I will do it. Just tell me, Gaius. Please."

 

Gaius' eyebrow climbed high. "I don't know any way to do something like this, Merlin. No one has ever done anything like this before. Medical magic is spells and potions. We do not use force against the body, do not use anything intrusive. The druids have explicitly warned against it." He stared at Arthur. “But you have done something similar before.”

 

Merlin’s dull, lifeless eyes were fixed on the weak form of his mother on the cot. He looked like he was barely listening, but he still asked the question Arthur was thinking of. “When?”

 

“You started the king’s heart once it stopped, Merlin.” He ignored Arthur’s panicked sputtering. “You knew what was wrong. You knew what to do, then, without me telling you anything. Try to purify your mother’s blood, see if you can.”

 

Now Merlin turned his head to look at Gaius. “What if I end up doing something terrible?”

 

Gaius said nothing. They all knew that Hunith would die regardless, and no one was cruel enough to say any of that out loud.

 

Gwaine and Lancelot entered the room with news before Merlin could decide. Gwaine strode straight to Merlin and enveloped him in a hug--the big all-consuming kind, which surrounds you and helps you not think.

 

“There was nothing in the wine, Your Majesty,” said Lancelot with a slight bow. “It has been four hours since we fed it to the dogs, and they are fine.”

 

Arthur frowned. “You are sure?”

 

Lancelot gave him a look. “You drank the same wine, my Lord. You seem fine.”

 

Merlin seemed to suddenly realize that Arthur had, in fact, drank the same wine as his dying mother. He struggled out of Gwaine’s hold to stumble up to Arthur, the defeated look on his face giving way to panicking again, and started to peer into his king’s eyelids. “Don’t you feel sick?” he demanded. “Tell me you are fine, Arthur.”

 

“I am fine, Merlin,” repeated Arthur dutifully. “But the wine did taste a little too… bitter?”

 

Merlin, finally satisfied that Arthur was fine, walked back to Hunith’s bedside. “Mum?” he said, his voice quivering. “Can you hear me?” He waited for weak mumble, for the eyes to flutter. “I am going to try to fix you, mum. Gaius says… Gaius says I can do it. I can remove the poison. I am going to try, mum.” Tears leaked from his eyes, and he looked back at Gaius with a wretched expression, waiting for some sign, some confirmation that this was okay.

 

For a while, nobody moved. Arthur didn’t know what to think, or how to feel. His mind felt numb with worry, not just for Hunith but for Merlin too, and for one eternal second he wondered how Merlin would feel if Hunith died due to his magic. Then he shook his head, took a deep breath, and summoned up all the faith he had in Merlin. His friend would not fail.

 

Then Gaius nodded, and Merlin turned to stare at his mother. Neither Gwaine nor Lancelot left. The poison could be tracked later, but right now Merlin needed his friends. Arthur moved closer to Merlin without even thinking.

 

Merlin gingerly placed his cupped hands on his mother’s chest, his gaze intent, his jaw set. Arthur felt the power radiating off of his manservant almost as soon as Merlin began to chant in the old tongue. He could feel Merlin’s desperation, his sheer desperation, and the need to fix this. He could also feel Merlin’s frantic search for something. When Gwaine gasped behind him, Arthur knew that they were all feeling it, that Merlin was simply proclaiming his feelings to Hunith’s body, willing it to cooperate.

 

It took time, but Merlin’s eyes remained a molten gold, and his voice remained strong. “Ic ácnyssan!” said Merlin, and Arthur realized Merlin wasn’t asking Hunith’s body to cooperate, he was demanding cooperation.

 

And he got it.

 

Hunith started to choke on nothing, and Gaius and Lancelot both moved forward, but Merlin waved them back, his words never faltering. Both of them moved away. Arthur stared at the dark, almost blackened cough that started to ooze out of Hunith’s mouth, propelled by her hacking cough, and he knew Merlin was doing. Merlin was dragging the poison out of her. They let him work. The only sounds in the workroom were the coughing and the chanting of mother and son, and when it was over, Hunith closed her eyes, exhaled, and went to sleep.

 

Merlin staggered backward, slumped in complete, bone-deep exhaustion. Lancelot caught him and guided him to the bench, and Arthur stroked his hair. Gaius wiped the blackened sludge off of Hunith and started to check her pupils.

 

“Her breathing is strong,” said Gaius after a while. He was listening to her heart. “Her heart is beating fine now. She will be okay, Merlin. Well done.”

 

Merlin had turned his face to hide it in Arthur’s side, and he didn’t say anything for a while. Arthur felt him take a deep breath. When Merlin finally let go of Arthur, he looked determined, his fierceness highlighted by the dried tear tracks on his cheeks.


“Bring me the utensils,” he said to Gwaine. “Bring me all that remains of dinner.”


Arthur was getting addicted to the shining gold of Merlin’s magic. It was not just in his eyes when he did some remarkable feat, it was in fact all around him in a certain way. The magic was a part of him, and Arthur finally understood what it was about Merlin that had first intrigued him.

 

Currently, Merlin’s hands were spread over the table, broadly encompassing all the dirty utensils from their dinner, the leftover meat and the wine. He had closed his eyes, but they had flared gold before he had.

 

His hand moved, and he blindly grabbed two goblets. One of bigger than the other, and Arthur realized that the bigger one was his.

 

“They were tampered with,” said Merlin, opening his eyes. “They were both laced. The food is fine--”

 

“So am I, Merlin,” said Arthur. “Are you telling me I am immune to poison.”

 

“It wasn’t poison,” said Merlin. “Mum was poisoned. You, on the other hand, were simply given Vervain.”

 

“Vervain?” said Arthur, turning to look questioningly at Gaius. “Why the hell would--”

 

“Maybe someone wishing your goodwill,” said Gaius. His own voice carried doubt over the ridiculous theory. “Vervain is harmless, Your Grace. It is good for you. It heals and soothes wounds, it is a cure for headaches--”

 

“And it breaks enchantments,” said Merlin. He looked at Arthur, his face grim. “It defends against curses. It stops people, even magical people, from doing you harm.”

 

“What does that mean?” muttered Gwaine.

 

“It means someone thinks Merlin has enchanted Arthur,” said Lancelot, “and they are willing to do whatever they can to stop him.”

 

“Merlin,” said Arthur with dawning horror. “You were meant to drink from that cup.”

Chapter Text

 

Arthur had expected Merlin to agonize over the poisoning, over the notion that at least some people believed that he was poisoning his king. He had imagined that Merlin would falter a bit, trying to figure out the best way to tell people he was not a bad guy.

 

He had not expected Merlin to be furious.

 

“They think I have enchanted you?” Merlin whispered furiously a couple days later, scowling at Arthur. Hunith was sleeping three feet from them, warm and safe in her room, and Merlin was determined to not leave her bedside. “They are okay with a troll for a queen, yes, a queen that steals from the people, but a king who ensures equal care for all his subjects must be enchanted. There is no other explanation!” He spat in Arthur’s face by mistake in the middle of that speech, but Arthur let it go.

 

“I need to talk to you about that,” said Arthur. “How do you feel about that?”

 

“About what?” said Merlin, furiously scribbling something down in the parchment he was studying. “About bigoted old idiots passing judgement on their king? About people deciding who deserves to have a roof over their head and who doesn’t? I hate it, Arthur. What else do you want me to say?”

 

Arthur didn’t say anything for a few moments. If he were to be honest with himself, he hadn’t thought that Merlin would react like this. He realized he had been wrong, that Hunith made all the difference. Merlin had already passed the stage where he blamed himself for his mother’s poisoning. Now, he was done with guilt and all that was left was anger. “How did you know?” At Merlin’s inquisitive gaze, he clarified. “The vervain and belladonna. How did you know that?”

 

Merlin checked to make sure they were not waking up his mother. He sighed and put the quill down. “I saw the… life, I suppose, of that cup. The molten metal being shaped, the months of service in the royal kitchens, the nights of celebration and the toasts to fallen friends.” Merlin took a deep breath before continuing. “And I saw the scared little girl who was given tinctures to rub into the insides of the cups.”

 

“Then you know who she is,” said Arthur urgently, half-rising out of his chair. “We can--”

 

“She’s a little girl,” said Merlin placatingly. “A peasant girl barely seven years of age, brought into the castle from the lower town by her father, Hoel.” He placed a hand on Arthur’s arm, his eyes soft and gentle. “Her name is Caelia, and she is very sorry she hurt a royal guest.”

 

Arthur sat back down. “You talked to her.”

 

“The man who talked to her and told her to put the tinctures in the cup had black hair and was wearing rich people clothes,” reported Merlin. “That is all she knows.”

 

“Can’t you… you know?” Arthur made a vague gesture near his temple.

 

“Mess with a child’s brain to extract a days-old memory that is nothing more than a few impressions?” Merlin guessed. “Yes, I can. But there is a reason he chose her. She was too scared of him, of the authority this rich man represented, to pay him too much attention. She doesn’t remember him well.”

 

“She remembers the guy worse than the lifelong memories of a cup?”

 

Merlin sighed. “I will try it soon. I told her to sleep all day first, rest her mind.”

 

Arthur nodded at the parchment littered over the table. “Is that what you are doing? Studying a spell?”

 

“There isn’t one,” said Merlin. “There is no spell to read other people’s minds, Arthur.”

 

“But you can do it, right?”

 

Merlin smiled. “And not so long ago, you insisted I couldn’t do anything right. Apparently, I had trouble finding my own backside.”

 

Arthur held the amused gaze for a second before sighing wistfully. “Currently, even I can’t find your backside. At least not anywhere near my bed.”

 

Merlin instantly sobered. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just… I have so many things to do, and I can’t stop wanting to be next to mum--”

 

“Are you nuts?” interrupted Arthur. “I wasn’t complaining. I am glad you are working so hard, and of course you care about Hunith. Merlin, you idiot, you were her son long before you were my lover. She got poisoned. Do not apologize to me. I was just saying--” Arthur would have gladly continued, but Merlin attacked him. With his lips. On Arthur’s. Arthur wasn’t complaining.

 

He enjoyed the smooth wetness of Merlin’s mouth, of the welcome familiarity of kissing him. His hands tightened around Merlin’s forearms, and he was vaguely aware that he was leaning somewhat painfully on the desk between them. He was also acutely aware he didn’t give a fuck.

 

He tried to keep the kiss clean, even remembered Hunith was in the room with them for about a minute. But then Merlin started to make those needy sounds of his, the hungry sounds that messed with Arthur’s brain and diminished his capacity to think. Merlin was quiet, but his soft whimpering and needy moans were loud in Arthur’s head. They drowned out all logic. He suddenly wanted that infernal table gone, and he wanted his comfortable bed. The better to explore Merlin’s body in. The better to take his virginity in.

 

I wonder if you will squirm like this when I enter you, Arthur thought. I won’t let you come till you beg me like this.

 

He was breathing hard, shocked by his own scandalous thoughts, when he broke the kiss. Merlin followed mindlessly, until he was almost sprawled on the table trying to chase the taste of Arthur’s lips. The needy sounds didn’t abate for a moment, and Arthur was almost ready to throw caution to the wind and have at it again.

 

“I miss you too,” said Merlin. Neither of them spoke for a while, both too rattled by a mere kiss to think straight. Eventually, Merlin continued. “And I worry about you. And I worry about my mum, and Gaius, and even Gwaine.” He sat down, loose-limbed from the kiss. The man was not good for Arthur’s ego. “So I made you something.”

 

“A good something?”

 

“Yes,” said Merlin, fishing in his bag. He handed Arthur something small and stringy, and Arthur took it instinctively.

 

Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a pendant on a string. Arthur knew what it was instantly. Merlin had made him a protective amulet, a red gem embedded in gold. It was unexpectedly warm to the touch, and the strange symbols along the edge shone a little unnaturally in the firelight. The shifting shadows made it seem like there was a golden dragon embossed on the ruby itself, but it was gone before Arthur could really register it. It didn’t flicker to life again, though he kept looking.

 

“It’s for you,” said Merlin. He sounded a little nervous. “It’s just a charm really. You don’t have to wear it, of course, but it will save you from harm… at least, it’s supposed to. I haven’t made one before, so I don’t know exactly how--”

 

“Merlin,” said Arthur patiently. “Stop explaining.” The leather strings were already around his neck, the charm hanging close to his heart. It made Arthur feel… good. Warm.

 

“Yeah, um,” said Merlin, then finally shut up. He started to shuffle around the parchment he had been doodling on.

 

“What have you been up to?” asked Arthur.

 

“The library,” said Merlin. “I am thinking of building it entirely by magic.”

 

“An enormous library,” deadpanned Arthur. “All by yourself.”

 

Merlin was quiet for a while. “I want… I want it to be a safe haven for magic. I want it to be a place where sorcerers can focus on learning the magical arts, without having to look over their shoulder all the time. I will ask the druids for any and all magical artifacts they have. If you give me all the stuff in the vaults, I can put it there.”

 

“And you are going to build it alone.

 

“It will never be safe,” hissed Merlin with a look towards Hunith. “Not unless I put magic in it’s very stones.” His shoulders sagged. “It will never be safe to be magical. They need protection, and the library has to be protected too. I will not have any such knowledge fall in the wrong hands.” He grew quiet. “I had one book, Arthur. One book that Gaius loaned me with great caution, and I know that having more would have helped on several occasions.”

 

“Okay,” said Arthur. “That’s okay, Merlin. I was just surprised. I was just wondering if you… you know, if you can actually build something like that.”

 

“Watch me,” said Merlin with an impish grin.


 

When Arthur went to bed, there was a vast, empty clearing next to the castle. When he woke up, a strong, bold building of white brick rose outside his window.

 

Arthur blinked owlishly at the view, vaguely aware of Merlin prattling on about his mother in the background. There was an entire, gigantic building in his jungle.

 

“Merlin?”

 

“Yes, my lord?”

 

“Do the sorcerers now have their library?” Arthur wasn’t exactly sure which expression was most prominent in his tone. He was willing to bet it was incredulity.

 

There was silence. “I thought you were okay with it.” Merlin’s voice was definitely defensive.

 

“I am,” said Arthur slowly, still not taking his eyes off of the thing. There was a flag of Camelot flying on top of it. “You built it at night? Last night? You started and finished last night.”

 

“Um, yes,” said Merlin. He abandoned setting up breakfast to come stand next to Arthur. “I thought it best to just get on and finish it. I couldn’t sleep so… Want to come and see it?”

 

“Oh, yes please.”


 

The one thing that Arthur could not get over was how big the whole library was. The gray stone could have been a gloomy choice, but there were windows letting in light everywhere, and there were torches--unlit at the moment--every few feet. Even at night, this place wouldn’t get dark. The vaulted ceilings warranted silence, and the empty bookshelves and niches made it clear that Merlin had great things planned for this place.

 

“So is there magic in every brick?” said Arthur. He was staring, he knew, but… he thought the situation warranted it.

 

Merlin blushed next to him. “I… well, yes.”

 

“It doesn’t feel very… magical.”

 

“Then I suggest you take out that sword of yours and try to stab me.”

 

That broke Arthur’s awed gaze over his surroundings. He stared at Merlin. “You… what?”

 

“Stab me,” said Merlin, in a tone similar to the one he used every morning to get Arthur out of bed with his cheery rise and shine .

 

“You want me to stab you?”

 

“Just… trust me.”

 

Arthur did trust him, so he stabbed his lover.

 

Or, well, he tried to. He had Excalibur in his hand, and he did lunge, but his fist collided fruitlessly with Merlin’s torso. His sword was gone in the blink of an eye. Arthur realized belatedly that he could feel the familiar weight of it at his hip again. His sword had returned to its sheath.

 

“This place won’t let anyone harm anyone else,” said Merlin proudly. “Draw weapons if you wish, but if you want to harm, your weapon won’t listen to you.”

 

Arthur stood there for a while, his expression frozen between incredulity and sheer idiocy, before he grinned wide. “Merlin. You are amazing.”

 

Merlin blushed again.



Chapter Text

There was a charged murmur throughout the old hall, the buzzing of fourteen over-excited nobles waiting for someone they considered their salvation from the dire circumstances they assumed they were in. It had been verified, again and again, that they were completely alone in the dark, old ruins of a watchtower long forgotten. It did nothing to calm the old, frayed nerves--the men still jumped every time a rat scampered in search of food. There were no servants, for none of them could risk one, and the fat old fools were having trouble feeding themselves.

 

“What if he doesn’t come?” said one, as he tried to keep his torch away from the windows. They couldn’t afford someone coming to investigate. The lack of castle guards or servants would be too suspicious, and the dubious surroundings definitely pointed at a clandestine meeting.

 

No one would say it, but the fear of the court sorcerer was great.

 

When their savior came, he looked as misplaced as a turtle in a tree. His clothes were lackluster and pedestrian, and his hair twisted around every which way, as if he had flown to the tower. His sudden entry made that quite the possibility.

 

He seemed to relish the way in which the well-dressed nobles stopped their paranoid mutterings to listen to him. He was not that tall, not that charismatic, and his voice certainly didn’t carry like that of a leader. Nonetheless, they shuffled forward intently to listen when he talked.

 

“Aren’t you tired?” he asked in his gentle voice. “Aren’t you sick of following a diseased king into certain doom?” He waited for the murmurs to fade. “For he is diseased, the sorcerer has taken over his mind, his will, his life. The sorcerer is like a leech at the side of our beloved king, and he has our fair sovereign in his grasp. There is no other explanation for the insanity we see every day.”

 

“Hear hear!” said someone at the back. The orator didn’t need an inciting voice or flamboyant clothing. His words were enough.

 

“Do not pretend you don’t understand what this library is. There will be sorcerers there, day and night, right next to the castle. They will be free from prosecution, for the sorcerer has cunningly forbidden any harm be done to that rotten lot. And all the while they will plot, and they will come up with new ways to drag Albion down into the fiery depths of hell!” His weak voice had grown stronger as he spoke, so that he was yelling by the time he finished. He gasped for breath, wiping sweat off his brow as he opened his mouth again. None of the noblemen were talking anymore. Their wide-eyed focus was the rasping man in front of them.

 

“It is time to free our king, to stop playing it safe and drastically pull our monarch from the fire he cannot even see surrounding him. It is time to do something Albion will remember us for in the centuries to come. Ignore this noble call, my trusted fellows, and we will be forgotten right along with our beloved kingdom.”

 

He kept his expression decidedly sombre as the murmurs grew, as concerned voices began to ask questions. He looked at them all in turn, one after the other, making sure they saw in his eyes that he believed they had been ordained for some noble purpose. He let them panic, let them imagine the future he was showing them. When they were all finally babbling at once, need for silence lost in the urgency, he spoke again.

 

“Don’t worry, my friends. I have a plan.”


 

Arthur was trying--very, very hard--not to feel lonely.

 

He hadn’t realized how used he was to having Merlin glued to his side. He had other servants, of course he did, but Merlin was his best friend. And his best friend was busy nowadays, with a sick mother and a library to fill. Druids and magic connoisseurs from all over Albion were tentatively moving forward, coming to the library in droves to submit beautiful artifacts and precious books. Most of them wanted to meet Merlin.

 

And so Arthur was left feeling quite lonely.

 

He sighed, shook his head at his own childishness, and decided to just eat the dinner in front of him and go to bed. That plan went out the window when Merlin opened his door and slipped through.

 

“Hey,” whispered Merlin. “I missed you. Have you had dinner--?”

 

The rest of his words were muffled against Arthur’s lips. Arthur didn’t bother telling his servant that he had been missed--his actions spoke louder. After a stunned second, Merlin realized what was happening, and he melted like so much butter on a hot afternoon. Arthur crowded his pliant body against the door, grabbed his bony hips, and proceeded to suck his soul out of his mouth. Merlin tried to say something, but Arthur had no patience, so he finally gave in.

 

Arthur only let go when he was sure he was getting blue in the face from the lack of air. “I missed you too,” he panted, grinning like an idiot.

 

Merlin’s grin was similar. “Boy, am I glad Mum kicked me out of her room,” he said.

 

“You got kicked out?”

 

“She said I was hovering, and I had other things to do.”

 

“Like me, for instance?” Arthur laughed when Merlin blushed. He often forgot that Merlin was new to all this, to flirting and kissing and… well, everything. A few nights ago, he had confessed, bumbling and stammering, that he had never actually had sex before. It was a memory Arthur used often when he brought himself relief. The thought of Merlin’s untouched virgin arse would sneak up on him at the oddest moments, like that time during council hours.

 

“Are you hungry?” Arthur asked, noting the raspiness of his own voice.

 

“Hmm?” said Merlin. He seemed like he was still distracted by their mutual attempt to snog till death. “I… no, I am not. But I can call for your dinner, if you like? I could eat--”

 

“No,” said Arthur. “Just… come here, please. Merlin.”

 

“Arthur,” replied Merlin, his tone jovial. He must have seen the hunger in Arthur’s eyes, must have gotten some inkling of his intent, for he sobered up and moved closer. His eyes were fixed on Arthur’s now. His tongue darted out to wet suddenly-dry lips.

 

“Would you like some wine?”

 

“Um, no,” said Merlin. “I want… I want to keep my wits about me.”

 

“Good idea,” said Arthur. They barely moved, but suddenly they were kissing.

 

For a minute or so, it was nothing more than that. They kissed hungrily, desperate to touch, desperate to feel… their hands flew wildly, knocking painfully by mistake a couple times, but neither of them noticed.

 

Arthur spun them around so that he could pin Merlin against his bedpost, one hand kneading his delectable arse, the other trying it’s damnedest to rid Merlin of his infernal scarf.

 

“Stop,” panted Merlin, his own hands looking for purchase behind him, making him look like he was actually tied to the bedpost. “Arthur, wait, the knot, you’re strangling me.”

 

“Sorry, sorry,” muttered Arthur. His hand jumped as though burned, and he planted both on Merlin’s arse, using the leverage to grind his erection against Merlin’s thigh.

 

Merlin whimpered, then let out a small sigh when the neckerchief finally came off and Arthur attacked his neck with his mouth, his teeth, his lips. Merlin started to squirm until his own clothed erection rubbed against Arthur’s. They both froze at the sensation, panting into each other’s mouths, then began to thrust with abandon.

 

“Feels good,” said Merlin as he arched against the bedpost for leverage.

 

“Oh yeah?” said Arthur. “Then this will feel great.” He didn’t waste any more words, just fumbled with the knots on their breeches. He faltered and cursed till Merlin helped him. They were too keyed up to find the situation funny.

 

Arthur wasn’t even sure how, but suddenly Merlin was under him, naked from the waist down. His cock, long and beautiful, was rubbing against Arthur’s own erection with every sinful arch of the back. Arthur stilled with great effort, determined to commit this amazing view to memory, but Merlin was having none of it. He was  keening and whimpering as he plucked at Arthur’s shirt, his feet a vise at Arthur’s back, determined to make him move again. Arthur was genuinely afraid of it all ending too soon.

 

He sat back, as much to compose himself as to give Merlin what he wanted. His shirt came off swiftly enough, and then he tugged Merlin’s out of the way too. Merlin looked utterly useless, his pupils blown, his breath hitching. He looked drugged. Arthur leaned in, careful not to let their bodies touch, and spoke in Merlin’s ear.

 

“I am going to fuck you tonight,” he said, delighting in Merlin’s increased struggles to get closer. “I am going to put this cock you seem to love so much up your arse, Merlin, and dear God, I will make sure you love it.”

 

Merlin looked like a panicked animal, his struggles to get close getting more intense with every word. His cock--long, lean and perfect--was begging for a touch, a kiss, anything at all. The angry red head was surging up to meet whatever part of him it could. Rather than let Merlin rut against him, Arthur flipped him over. He pushed and arranged till Merlin’s shoulders were on the mattress and his arse was in the air.

 

“Please, Arthur, please…” Merlin was beyond speech, apparently, too desperate to stay still, too keyed up to stop humping the bed. Arthur let him. The man had earned a little humping, hadn’t he? All those years of fucking his own hand seemed to be catching up with him.

 

Arthur’s cock was throbbing in time with his rapid heartbeat. He plugged Merlin’s mouth with two of his fingers, effectively stopping the breathy chant of his name, and let Merlin suck at his fingers with abandon. His cock drooled as it remembered the sensation of being enveloped in that wet heat.

 

“Enough,” said Arthur when he could wait no more, and Merlin let go immediately, licking quietly at the fingers till Arthur moved them to the crack of his arse. He stilled, a deer caught in the crosshairs, and for the first time since they had started, seemed to shy away from Arthur’s touch.

 

Arthur waited, wondering where this wealth of patience came from. He waited till Merlin relaxed enough into the innocent touch, till he looked back and gazed lovingly at Arthur’s face. Waited till something in Merlin’s face told him he was ready.

 

Then he started to slide his finger lower. Merlin let out a breathy moan, which turned into a sucked-in breath when Arthur pushed lightly at the dusky pink skin of his hole. It was the most incredible arse Arthur had ever seen, and he couldn’t wait to be inside it.

 

He played with it mercilessly, rejoicing in the way Merlin squirmed. He used one hand to massage Merlin’s arse while he played with the hole, tempting it again and again with penetration, only to take his finger away at the slightest resistance. Merlin was moving with him, chasing his finger, pretty soon.

 

Arthur wasn’t sure how long he could take this.

 

“Need to make sure I don’t hurt you,” he explained. “Just need to… loosen you--loosen up. You… I mean, need to loosen you up.” Merlin was incapable of replying. He had begun to whimper in the bedding.

 

He kept up the teasing until his finger was knuckle-deep in his boyfriend’s arse, surrounded by the warmth and the wetness that no one else had ever felt before. He started to ease the other in, too impatient to wait. “Have you ever done this, Merlin? Put your finger in your arse, imagined it was me instead?”

 

Merlin keened with a backward thrust, impaling himself on both of Arthur’s fingers, nodding frantically. Arthur’s eyes nearly rolled back in his head, but he kept thrusting in and out, kept pressing into the liquid heat. He was not losing all this progress, and he sure as fuck was not stopping.

 

He did stop, in sheer amazement, when Merlin’s arsehole started to gush like a woman’s cunt.

 

“M-Merlin?” he asked, hands faltering. There was an obscene sound now, the squelching that usually accompanies a gushing vagina. “Merlin, what did you--?”

 

When Merlin turned around to look at him again, his eyes were wild--a thin ring of fire around his overgrown pupils. “Go on,” he said, his voice raspy with sex. “Just fuck me. I am ready.”

 

And so Arthur did. He wasted no more time in replacing his fingers with his cock, and it was too much to feel. Merlin screamed, and Arthur stopped to let him adjust even though he genuinely thought it might kill him. Then Merlin was sobbing into the pillow, and his hips were shamelessly begging Arthur to move, so Arthur started to move in the wet paradise that gripped his cock. He could feel Merlin’s body all around his prick, he could feel the resistance, the way it wanted him out, but he persevered. And soon, as a reward for his patience, Merlin’s arse was suckling at him.

 

It was too much suddenly, with the begging and the magic and the sweet, sweet adulations of that arse… with the way Merlin begged for it with both body and voice… Arthur was delirious when he reached down, snaked his hand below Merlin to finally grab the cock he had been ignoring in favour of his arse all night. He apologized for his negligence with a stroke that made Merlin scream.

 

It barely took half a dozen frenzied, uncoordinated thrusts, and Merlin came with the gaspy sobs Arthur was slowly getting used to. The wonderful vise around his cock started to massage him in the most sinful way, and before he knew it, he had emptied his tight, aching balls in Merlin’s arse.

 

They were definitely doing this twice again before morning. But for now, Merlin shoved at him till he could turn around, and snuggled. That was nice too.


 

Heather was a good girl. She knew because her mummy said so, and Merlin had told her that too, when her Mama got sick. She knew she was a good girl because Merlin was coming over to meet her tomorrow and she was helping her mother clean up for the visit.

 

She wasn’t very proud of putting the funny water in the cup. She had done it because she was a good girl, she did as she was asked, but she knew that Merlin’s mother had gotten sick. She hadn’t wanted that. Merlin was nice. He stole strawberries from Cook for her sometimes.

 

So she was gonna pick lots of pretty flowers, and make a bouquet to say sorry. She knew how to make one. She had a lot of time.

 

And, she realized as she roamed the tamer parts of the forest near her home, she would also have a friend to help. “Dristan!”

 

The boy turned and smiled at her. Dristan didn’t speak, but that was okay. Heather understood him anyways. “Help me make a bouquet for Merlin? He wants to see me tomorrow.” Dristan nodded, and began to herd her towards a little clump of wild flowers that grew next to her hut.

 

“I want it too be colourful, but everything is white and yellow. I can’t find anything--” She screamed, abruptly, when Dristan started to fall on her, like a puppet with his strings cut off. “Dristan?” she said, trying to turn around under his suffocating weight, but it was too much. Something sticky and warm was in her hair, and Dristan hadn’t made a sound. She tried to gather enough breath to scream into the dark, but before she could gather enough wind or courage, Dristan’s weight was gone. There were people around her. There was help.

 

“Well, look who we have here,” said someone. His menacing tone Heather pause in the act of turning around. She was so scared. “I know you, don’t I, little whelp?”


Someone laughed when Heather finally turned around. It was dark, and the moon was behind them, so all Heather could see were two hulking shapes holding Dristan up. She was so scared. These people weren’t nice. They were bad. She realized she had just peed on herself. “You know what? You can come with.”

Chapter Text

His head hurt. Strangely enough, this was the thought that Dristan woke up to, the thought that swirled in his head for a few seconds before other stranger observations started to rattle him. He wasn’t in the bed he loved, and there was something sticky congealed on the side of his face. Had he passed out? Was he sick? Why was he on the floor? With a lot of effort, he opened his eyes and tried to look around.

 

His neck didn’t cooperate, but the flickering light from the torch nearby was enough for him to know that he was in a cavern. Any other brilliant deductions eluded him.

 

Heather. They had been about to pick flowers, he remembered that… what the hell happened? He knew something was wrong, something he needed to focus urgently on, but there was something wrong with him. No thought wanted to stay in his brain long enough for him to focus on it. Had he been drugged? Who…?

 

“Don’t try.” There were rich, leather boots in his vision suddenly. “You can’t harm us, so don’t try.” The voice was raspy and cruel, and Dristan abruptly wondered where Heather was. He wasn’t liking any of this. He tried to demand answers, tried to demand help, but all he could manage were a few groans.

 

“Doesn’t feel so good, does it?” said another voice behind him, and Dristan realized he couldn’t win this. There were too many people, too many enemies. He felt weak, both physically and mentally. “I imagine this is what we humans must feel like to you.

 

I am human, retorted Dristan in his head. It came out as a hiss, and even that felt like too much effort. The thought flew away like cotton on wind before he had finished thinking it. He couldn’t focus at all, and none of his muscles were willing to listen to him.

 

There was nothing he could do.

 

So he just lay there, in a cavern he had never seen before, fairly certain he was going to die. The thought didn’t worry him at all. In fact, he realized he was probably smiling. He closed his eyes.


Arthur was a few moments away from running Merlin through with his sword. It would be bloody and brutal, and Arthur would go back to sleep once he could stop Merlin’s incessant talking.

 

“Arthur! Are you even listening to me?” Merlin sounded exasperated. Funny. Arthur was exasperated too.

 

Merlin snatched away the pillow Arthur was using to cover up his face. “Arthur,” he said, and the quiet urgency finally pierced the sleep-induced fog in Arthur’s brain. “Dristan is missing.”

 

Well, it was time to get up.

 

It barely took ten minutes to get up and look presentable. Gaius was called and questioned, and yes, his apprentice was missing. He was worried, because Dristan hadn’t made it home for supper, which was very unusual. All in all, everyone’s favourite mute druid had been absent for the past twelve hours. Perhaps more.

 

Palace guards were questions, and Arthur had finally figured out that Dristan had last been seen near the woods when Merlin came running into the throne room with more news. The girl he had been supposed to talk to, Heather, had disappeared too. She had slipped out of her home to pick some flowers for the Court Sorcerer who would visit her the next day.

 

Dristan and the girl had just disappeared. It was starting to look curiouser and curiouser.

 

Merlin looked worried. “I gave him a ring to wear,” he said. “An amulet, sort of like yours.”

 

“Sort of?” Arthur wouldn’t admit it in a room full of servants, but he was worried for the boy. Unlike Merlin, Dristan never just… disappeared.

 

Merlin colored but didn’t elaborate. “I can’t feel the ring anymore. It’s just… not there. I am afraid to even think about what that might mean.”

 

“Maybe… he lost it. Or they took it from him.”

 

“Maybe,” said Merlin, morosely stirring his stew.

 

After lunch, Merlin and Arthur went to the woods. The search had already begun, with knights calling out for both Dristan and Heather, but there were no answers. At least the little cluster of wild flowers gave them a starting point. If Heather wanted flowers, she would have definitely come here.

 

“Quiet,” said Merlin, loud enough that those near him heard and shut up. Arthur crouched down with him as Merlin touched the petal of a bright yellow kingcup, staring till his vision washed gold. He felt the innocence, the bright, childish exuberance of the last person to touch it, the tinge of disappointment at the ordinary colour.

 

Heather.

 

“She was here,” said Merlin. “Heather was right here.” He ignored the mother who started to sob. He couldn’t afford to break his own fragile concentration, not when he finally had a tangible link. He focused on the feelings he could still read in the atmosphere, the anticipation and childish worry… until the worry stopped being childish. He heard the child’s scream in his head, saw the boy topple over and fall on her, the stranger blocking the sun that looked down at her. He squinted and focused, but it was no use. He couldn’t see the stranger’s face. It was obscured and dark, menacing against the sun.

 

Merlin opened his eyes, heart racing from the terror in Heather’s heart. He knew nothing of importance after all.

 

When they returned, a motley group of disappointed knights led by a dejected king and a frustrated sorcerer, George was waiting for them in the courtyard. He was panting, arm outstretched, and Merlin was first to notice the letter he held.

 

“It was on your desk,” panted George. “Your Majesty. I thought it might be important.”

 

“I will get to my letters later,” said Arthur as he started on the stairs. “I don’t have time to--”

 

George elbowed Gwaine out of the way. “No, Your Majesty,” he said. It was both the lack of decorum in elbowing a knight and the refusal to consider the king’s word as gospel that made the whole entourage stop in its tracks. “Your Majesty, I… It’s important. I think it’s--It was addressed to...” He faltered and just thrust the letter at Arthur.

 

Arthur stared at his servant before finally noticing the reason for George’s behaviour. To the sorcerer’s puppet, said the letter.

 

“He’s been taken,” said Arthur with cold certainty. Leon stiffened next to him, his stance going from defeated to alert.

 

To the man who can protect Albion no more,

 

We have the boy, the mute tree-dweller who seems to be the sorcerer’s shadow. The girl is safe. We are not evil. We will not kill a child. We could not allow the girl to be corrupted by the sorcerer, for he would have used her to root out all the men of Camelot who are still loyal to their kingdom.

 

The kingdom is in grave peril, for the king is enthralled. We need you to step up, to see the abomination that our great kingdom has become. The sorcerer bid his time well. He is too powerful for us to stop, and his grip on you is too tight. We want you to fight it, to see that there is evil running rampant through Albion.

 

Your kingdom trusts you. We need you. Our love is the only reason you are still alive. Covert methods have proved useless, so we urge Your Majesty to come meet us where the last of the magic was imprisoned by your esteemed father. In the memory of his sacrifice, find within yourself some tiny glimmer still untouched by corruption. We will try to help. We will try to open your eyes. Come alone, or the boy dies before you even see him.

 

We will make Albion great again.

 

In faith and sincerity,

Your Loyal Subjects.

 

“They are crazy,” said Merlin.

 

“Frankly, Merlin,” drawled Gwaine, “right now I am worried this is a they and not a him . A single person is a lot easier to fight.”

 

“Fanatics,” said Lancelot with dawning horror. “They think Merlin… ensorcelled you?”

 

Merlin looked up from the letter then, eyes wide. “I didn’t! I didn’t do anything to him, I promise!”

 

Leon looked stunned, and Lancelot looked concerned. Gwaine, on the other hand, looked furious. “How dare you?” said he. “How dare you, Merlin?” He advanced menacingly when Merlin began to sputter. “How can you even think-- ” his hand fell heavily on Merlin’s shoulder. “That we would doubt you?”

 

“It’s not--I… What?”

 

“We know you didn’t do anything, you over-imaginative puppy,” said Leon.

 

“Well, you gave us magical jewellery,” said Lancelot. “Other than that… Nope, you did not make Arthur your puppet.”

 

“Just in case you did, though,” said Gwaine. “Can you make him fart less in his sleep?”

 

“Gwaine!” Arthur finally yelled. “Can we focused on the kidnapped Druid you like to harass?”

 

That sobered them all up. Even though Merlin was grateful for the unwavering support he got from his friends, he suddenly felt very vulnerable. Ever since he had come to Camelot a decade ago, there had been a clear distinction between friends and foes. He always knew who he could trust, and who he couldn’t. He knew who to fight. But now… there were no enemies in the open, just condemning shadows lurking in dark corners.

 

“I know where he is,” said Merlin. “But how do we--?”

 

“Just tell me where,” said Arthur.

 

“You want to go alone?” said Gwaine. “See, now I definitely know you are not under Merlin’s spell. He would never say something that stupid.”

 

“You can’t,” insisted Merlin. “It’s me they want. I will go, alone.”

 

Gwaine sighed and finished his thought. “On the other hand...”

 

“Neither of you is going to meet a group of zealous idiots alone,” said Lancelot. “I daresay none of the knights will allow it.”

 

“I am not your king,” said Merlin stubbornly. “You have no responsibility to protect me.”

 

“You’re as good as our king, you dolt,” muttered Leon. “And no one is walking into a trap alone.”

 

“Then what do you suggest we do?”

 

There was silence as they crowded around, thinking. There was no way to know what dangers awaited them, what plans they had in place to ensure compliance with their demands.

 

“You show me the damned letter and let me think,” came their favourite cranky old voice from behind them.


Of course. They all turned in unison to face the sharply arched eyebrow.

Chapter Text

Arthur entered the dark cave with sword in hand. He had never been down here, though Gaius said the Great Dragon had been imprisoned here for over twenty years. His steps were cautious, his eyes trying to peer into his dim surroundings.

 

There was silence, but all he could hear was the rapid beat of his heart. There seemed to be no one there. They must have been wrong. Dristan was not here.

 

His swiveled wildly, sword at the ready, when he sensed movement in the abyss in front of him.

 

He was still standing very close to the doorway that would lead him back to safety, but he could finally see enough to realize what he had thought of as an abyss actually had a outcropping that seemed larger than the ledge he was standing on. The cave was enormous. He tried to avoid coming into the cavern completely.

 

“Your Majesty,” said a raspy voice from the dark, the thrill in the words palpable. “We have been waiting.”

 

Arthur gripped his sword tighter, trying to see better. Where was Dristan?

 

Finally, someone lit a fire. He heard the sound of the flint a second before the torch flared to life, illuminating the enormous cave and highlighting the plunging chasm that stood between Arthur and the men.

 

There were three, Arthur noticed. The men were huddled around at the edge of the rock, standing still and staring at him. Their gazes looked fiercer than they should have, possibly because of the masks they wore. The white masks covered their whole faces, until they seemed like a triad of expressionless statues. They were being careful.

 

“I am here,” said Arthur carefully. “Let Dristan go.”

 

“You are not in your right mind, my Lord,” said the tallest of them. “This vermin has infected you.” It was only when he looked behind him in disdain that Arthur understood. Dristan was somewhere behind them, possibly hurt. He tried to see, stretching his neck. He could barely make out a figure behind them.

 

“We believe you are here because you are not completely under their control,” said the faceless man again, drawing Arthur’s eyes to himself. “You are kind and just, your father’s son. All we want to do is help.”

 

Arthur thought for a moment about the best way to reply. In the end, he remembered what Gaius had told him. As long as Dristan was in danger, go along with their insanity. Behave as though they are being completely rational. “Help me,” he whispered, hoping he sounded conflicted enough.

 

The man took the torch from his henchman, his movements quick and gleeful. The hole in his mask that allowed his mouth to be seen was too small to see his smile, but Arthur knew his compliance was making the man happy. He hoped it was enough to save Dristan.

 

Arthur jerked back a few steps when the man blew on the torch, the embers suspending strangely in midair before they literally flew towards Arthur. He barely stopped his unmanly yelp. Magic from anyone who wasn’t Merlin still took a lot of getting used to.

 

The embers fell to the ground near him, but didn’t fade out like Arthur had only half-expected them to do. The embers flared into a roaring flame that surrounded him in seconds. He didn’t flinch. He didn’t even stare at the perfect ring of fire around him. His eyes were stuck on the man chanting in what Arthur now knew to be the old tongue. He couldn’t make out what the spell was, of course.

 

What he could feel instead was the locket around his neck. It was starting to heat up, the flames too far for the gem to be as hot as it was. He felt the heat but showed no outward signs, determined to keep his talisman a secret as long as he could. He only needed to hold on a little while longer. It wasn’t easy, especially as Gaius had suggested he keep it tucked underneath his tunic. He was sure it was going to burn a hole through him.

 

But he couldn’t take it off. Merlin had made him promise that he wouldn’t let anyone take the protective charm away from him, and Arthur was going to keep his promise come hell or high water.

 

He could see the confusion and rage in the sorcerer’s stance. The man was seething as his magic failed to reveal the enchantment on Arthur. What should Arthur do? Hiding the talisman was clever, it was currently all the protection he had, but it wasn’t going to work in the long run. The man was just going to double down on him. They were convinced he was enchanted.

 

And Gaius had been clever enough to plan for this too.

 

Arthur hissed in pain and grabbed his right hand, his fingers trying desperately to get rid of the ring Merlin had placed there just that morning. It was glowing, though it didn’t hurt at all. But he knew how to fake pain, or in this case, pretend it was coming from somewhere else. He let out a yell and collapsed to his knees.

 

The fire died down and the talisman next to his heart cooled down immediately. Arthur hid his face by staying on his knees and staring at his hand with his head bowed.

 

“That is the source,” said the sorcerer loftily. “That is the cause of all of this blasphemy, Your Majesty. He has enchanted you with powerful magic, and it needs to be gone. You need to be purged of all his influence.”

 

The other two goons murmured amongst themselves as Arthur stood. His stance and breath were both shaky, and he wasn’t faking it at all. “I… have been cursed?” he asked in a tone of incredulous anger that would have made his father proud.

 

“Throw me your ring, Your Majesty,” said the sorcerer. “Throw me the ring, and I will destroy it. That is all you need to do.” Was his voice really that hypnotic or was he trying to influence Arthur? Talk about hypocrisy.

 

Arthur obediently took off his ring and walked closer to the edge. He threw the ring to the man, all the while wondering how to get more information out of him. This was crucial; they might never get another chance. “I am lucky to have you three men willing to help,” he said finally.

 

“There are over thirty of us, my liege,” said the sorcerer distractedly. His attention had been arrested by the ring in his hand. The gleam in his eye made it clear to Arthur that he could feel the power Merlin had imbued the ring with. “But their presence was not required.”

 

Frankly, Arthur wasn’t sure the other two goons were important either. But he didn’t say a word. The sorcerer obviously thought he was running the show. Why argue with him when Dristan’s life hung in the balance?

 

Arthur waited with barely concealed impatience as the sorcerer stared at the ring and muttered under his breath. The man finally took a deep and fortifying breath. “ Ábrecan !” he said finally, and the ring glowed brightly before it jumped from his hand and exploded.

 

Arthur thought it had been way less dramatic than they had thought it would be.

 

Since all three faceless men were staring at him, he pretended to stumble and wheeze, wondering if the hand to his heart was indeed too much. They seemed to be pleased, so Arthur shrugged mentally and straightened.

 

No one said a word. They didn’t thump each other on the back. They just stared, and it became obvious after a while that they were waiting for him to speak. “The boy, is he dead?” he asked finally.

 

Arthur knew the minute the words were out of his mouth that it had been the wrong thing to say. They were suddenly suspicious of his compassion, but he couldn’t take the words back. He resisted the urge to open his mouth again and explain like a child caught in a lie.

 

“He will be,” said the sorcerer in a dangerously low voice.

 

Even as his heart started to beat wildly again in dread, Arthur nodded. “Good.”

 

The sorcerer smiled, and nodded to the man on his right. Now, Merlin! Arthur thought with all his might. Now! He watched with mounting horror as the henchman disappeared from his view for a while only to come back with Dristan. The boy was naked and unconscious, bleeding sluggishly from a wound on his head. He groaned when the firelight fell on his face, but didn’t regain consciousness. Arthur worked hard to keep the concern from his face.

 

“We await your instructions, Your Majesty,” said the sorcerer. “What shall we do with the boy?”

 

Arthur realized that they wanted to test his resolve themselves, make sure he was Daddy’s good little genocidal boy again. The anger he wanted to feel at that thought somehow got lost somewhere in his deep concern for how this was going. Hurry up, Merlin.

 

“He helped his… master poison my mind,” said Arthur, hoping to buy more time. “He must have.” The others shifted around, and Arthur saw one of them elbow Dristan hard. The boy’s head lolled, and he didn’t wake up. “He deserves to die for this treason, doesn’t he?”

 

The others nodded eagerly, even as the sorcerer eyed him shrewdly. “And, of course, for the use of magic?”

 

“Of course,” said Arthur. “Magic is an evil most foul.” Magic is also fucking late, the wanker.

 

“Then you agree he should die, Your--?” The menacing question ended abruptly when the heard the commotion overhead. The sorcerer looked up, as did his goonies, while Arthur just grinned. The flapping of giant wings and the soft growling heralding Aithusa’s entry into the cave, and it couldn’t have come any sooner. Arthur had been about to lose command of the motley group of rebels.

 

The men shouted in surprise and agitation, drawing swords from their hoods and scattering comically. The sorcerer yelled something Arthur couldn’t understand, and thin magical spears raced through the air to ricochet uselessly off Aithusa’s scales. They didn’t leave a mark, and Aithusa didn’t notice. Her attention was focused on Dristan, who was being dragged carelessly as the men holding him tried to evade the dragon that had descended from the top of the cave.

 

The men must have noticed Aithusa’s priorities, for they panicked. In the blink of an eye, they just chucked Dristan off the rock.

 

Aithusa’s growls became a roar as Dristan fell freely to his death. Arthur screamed, but no one noticed him. He watched with bated breath. Aithusa raced to get to Dristan, enemies forgotten. Arthur finally began to breathe again when she caught the boy in her talons, careful not to hurt him.

 

With the flapping of giant wings and an indignant roar, Aithusa was gone.


“Well,” said Arthur with a grin. “That was one giant bird, wasn’t it?”

Chapter Text

 

 

When he saw Arthur, the first thought in Dristan’s befuddled mind was that Merlin must be dead.

 

Merlin wasn’t behind Arthur. He wasn’t hovering close, he wasn’t protecting his king like he insisted he was born to. Something was definitely wrong.

 

He could barely make out the golden head of his king. It was too dark in the cave, and he realized with a sinking feeling that Arthur couldn’t see his kidnappers either. He tried to call out, to warn, but his scream had no sound. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he lost consciousness.

 

Dristan was very vaguely aware of the strange hands that were manipulating his body like a puppet. He impotently tried to move away, because he knew they were dangerous, but he couldn’t. The thoughts, the instructions needed to pull himself away from danger wouldn’t stay in his head long enough. Then his eyes were burning, and he found the strength to move a little. It didn’t help.

 

He felt the bruises, in a disinterested sort of way. A puppet with its strings cut. He couldn’t really feel them, but they were there, right under his skin, ready to hurt as soon as he was stable enough to feel them. He couldn’t bring himself to care. There was no choice but to lie facedown on the rough surface. He could hear men talk. He only liked one of the voices. The others were evil.

 

He felt like protesting when he was pulled away from the rough stone. It had felt good and cold against his feverish skin. He wanted the stone back, didn’t want to stand. It was too much effort. He passed out again when he was thrust forward, the flash of something big and white his last memory.

 

He had no idea where he was when he woke next. There were hands scuttling over his body like spiders, and the thought made him laugh. He tried to push them away, brush away all the filthy little spiders, but he couldn’t. They were hands. Persistent, old, and surprisingly insistent hands. Spidery hands. He started to giggle again.

 

“Opium,” he heard someone say. He knew that voice too. Herbs. Collecting herbs. Was he supposed to be collecting herbs? He tried to get up, but he didn’t think he moved. There was an annoying chittering sound nearby, and it stole his attention.

 

“He is going to be okay,” said the voice. Dristan’s nose was itching. “We need to warm him up. Help me carry the boy upstairs.”

 

The king! Where was the king? Dristan needed… he wanted to scratch his nose. He also wanted something else. He couldn’t think what it was. As hands started to grab hold of him again, he thought and thought, willing himself to not get distracted by the tickling in his nose. He needed to help the king! He needed to help the king do something.

 

The hands did not appreciate his sudden, lethargic movements. They started to pat him like a startled dog. Idiots. Didn’t they see he needed… something?

 

“It’s okay, Dristan,” said the old voice again. “We are trying to help.”

 

Help? Were they helping the king. The king needed help. He was alone. Dristan swallowed his drool and tried to speak. The words wouldn’t come at first. “King’s alone,” he said finally. He wasn’t sure he hadn’t spoken in his head again, but everything around him stopped, even the chittering of the animal. He must have said it out loud. Good. King’s alone.


“No, he isn’t,” said a different voice. Lilting, sing-song. Pretty hair. Why was he thinking of pretty hair. The voice was pretty. “When does Merlin ever leave Arthur alone?”


 

“Well,” said Arthur with a grin. “That was one giant bird, wasn’t it?”

 

The sorcerer’s neck was turning an interesting shade of aubergine, and Arthur wondered if there was any way to remove the mask and see the matching face. The goonies behind the sorcerer just looked scared. They didn’t seem to understand why exactly Arthur wasn’t quivering in his boots.

 

“You dare!?” roared the sorcerer. “You haven’t been cured of anything, you devil spawn. That evil warlock still has his claws deep in you!” He raised his hands threateningly, seemingly unaware of Arthur’s uncaring grin.

 

“Actually, I cut my nails regularly,” said Merlin as he finally popped out from behind Arthur. Arthur felt rather than saw him take his habitual place at Arthur’s right shoulder. “His, too.”

 

The sorcerer looked taken aback, and Arthur really wished he could see the man’s face now. The men standing next to him were shaking and sweating, stumbling backward as though physical distance for Merlin could protect them.

 

With a cry of outrage the sorcerer flung both his hands forward. “ Forbærne! Ácwele!

 

Fireballs burst forth with great speed, straight for Arthur’s head. The two goons started to scream, looking for a way down from the rock they were standing on, fear making them lament their faith in their leader.

 

Arthur suffered no such crisis of faith, and dutifully moved aside when Merlin nudged him. Merlin’s fingers were long and graceful as he stretched them out, and the firelight seemed to light his eyes on fire too as he chanted a spell. “ Lyft sy þe in bǽlwylm ac forhienan se wiðere!

 

The fireballs seemed to lose interest in Arthur, slowing to a standstill in the middle of their path. A giant gust of wind whooshed down the stairs and into the cave, stirring up Arthur’s hair as it went. The wind picked up the fire, and suddenly the sorcerer and his men were diving for cover behind nooks and crannies, for the fire seemed to be chasing them.

 

“Come quietly,” said Merlin over the roaring of the stolen fire. “If you do not fight us, we will not harm you. You have our word.”

 

In retaliation, the sorcerer screamed “bæl on bryne,” causing the fire to mold itself into a wall suspended in mid-air, heading for Merlin. It did not reach, seemingly hitting an invisible wall. Merlin’s expression was that of an annoyed and disappointed parent.

 

“Merlin,” said Arthur finally. “This has gone on long enough.” He looked the sorcerer in the eye. “Just end this.”

 

Merlin nodded grimly, his expression still firmly conveying he had expected better, and raised his hand. “ Ástríce ,” he said, and both the men cowering behind the sorcerer shot up in the air as though bucked from spirited horses. They landed close to the edge of the rock. The sorcerer didn’t even look back at his fallen allies. There was clearly no love lost there.

 

Merlin’s quiet “ onbregdan ” brought both the unconscious rebels floating to their side of the cave. The bodies touched down a little roughly, and Arthur was disappointed. He had sort of wished the men would wake up and see themselves floating high above an impressive drop.

 

Oh, well. You can never have everything.

 

“You cannot win this,” he said as the sorcerer’s anger finally gave way to bewilderment. He stared at Arthur, who continued. “Give up. Give in.”

 

“Just tell us who else wishes to harm the king,” said Merlin.

 

The sorcerer was silent for a long while. He glared in anger and resentment, but they waited him out. For a while, the only sound was the crackling of the fire that still smoldered all around him. “I concede,” he said finally. Arthur felt Merlin breathe a sigh of relief next to him. He hadn’t been looking forward to killing the man. “I give up. I will tell you all I know.”

 

Merlin raised his hand, and suddenly there was a great grinding of stone on stone. Pieces of the cliff they were standing on seemed to break apart and float, and Arthur backed up instinctively. Within a minute, there was a roughly-hewn pathway for the sorcerer to walk on, straight up to the point of Arthur’s sword.

 

“Nice,” commented Arthur. The sorcerer wasn’t in a complimenting mood.

 

He did, however, seem to be in a compliant mood. Saying nothing, he started to walk the perilous path, closer and closer. Arthur kept his sword trained on the man. He was staring down at the levitating stones beneath his feet, and Arthur didn’t really mind. He would’ve too, if he was walking on flying rocks.

 

Once the sorcerer was on relatively safer ground, he lifted his head a few inches. His behaviour was suddenly docile, and made Arthur suspicious. The man’s gaze seemed fixated on Arthur’s chest somehow, and it took him a second to realize what the man was staring at. His amulet. The sorcerer could see the lump of it inside his thin linen shirt.

 

“What--?” Arthur began to say. He never got to finish, because with a cry of outrage and righteous fury, the sorcerer stuck a dagger in his heart.

 

Everything happened too quickly after that.

 

Arthur stumbled, stunned, as Merlin let out a scream behind him. He didn’t feel any pain. He couldn’t feel anything except equal amounts of bewilderment and confusion. What the fuck just happened?

 

The dagger clattered to the ground. The wetness and lack of pain made him stare at his own chest like an idiot. It wasn’t blood. His amulet was leaking. The sorcerer had stabbed his amulet. Thick, golden rivulets flowed freely from it, and Arthur felt a strange kind of dread as he saw the oddly shining liquid escape from the jewel.

 

Behind him, Merlin was panting. He sounded like he was in pain. In between Arthur’s feet, the drops of gold mingled with a dark, red rivulet. He wasn’t bleeding. Neither was their prisoner. In a split second, Arthur’s thought-process reached a horrific conclusion.

 

The pain and fear and anger filled him to the brim, and he didn’t even think about his decision before he raised his sword and opened up the man from gut to chin. There was an obscene squelching sound, and the sorcerer was dead.

 

“Merlin!” said Arthur wildly. “What--What happened? What did you… Oh, God!”

 

Merlin was bleeding from his nose, coughing up blood as he tried to sit up. He didn’t have any gashes, or knife wounds, so Arthur didn’t exactly know what to do. He knew he was panicking, but he couldn’t stop himself.

 

“It’s okay, Arthur,” said Merlin. The effect of his pained smile was ruined when he coughed up more blood. “I’ll be okay.”

 

“What happened?” asked Arthur as he helped Merlin stand.

 

“The sorcerer tried to end the connection between us,” said Merlin. “He thought the amulet helped keep my control over you.”

 

Arthur tried not to yell as they left the two men and the corpse behind. Most of his energy was focused on getting Merlin to Gaius. “I know what he thought, Mer lin. I am asking what he ended up doing.”

 

“The amulet...” Merlin paused to pant. “The amulet held a bit of my magic. To… to protect you, if I wasn’t there. To keep you safe.”

 

“How much is a bit?”

 

Merlin didn’t answer immediately, and Arthur knew he was going to start deflecting. “Well, who can tell, you know. I mean, was it a third of my magic? A quarter? It might have been a pinch. We have no way to tell, do we?”

 

The flippant tone just made Arthur want to smack his already injured manservant. “Gaius can tell,” he said darkly, and felt satisfied when he heard Merlin’s terrified whimper.


Gaius’ eyebrow was going to leap off his head soon.

Chapter Text

Merlin knew from the intense pain in his skull that he had fucked something up again. He didn’t remember what had happened, but he knew it before he even opened his eyes. He had to get to Gaius.

 

The light against his closed eyelids was proof that it was day, and he knew the sunlight would hurt as soon as he opened his eyes. Resigned to searing his eyeballs, he blinked them open.

 

There was no need to get to Gaius, he saw instantly. He was already in the cot that adorned his mentor’s workshop. He was safe. Where was Arthur? He spotted Gaius fiddling with something at his work table, and opened his mouth to let the man know he was awake. Alas, his throat was parched, and all that came out was a tiny croak.

 

It was enough to make Gaius’ head turn around. “Merlin,” he said in a tone that told him he had done something stupid. “How do you feel?”

 

Merlin croaked again, realized the fruitlessness of trying to talk, and looked around for water. With an outstretched hand and a thought, the skin of water hanging off the door zoomed into his hand, narrowly avoiding Gaius, who was hurrying to his side. Merlin drank the whole thing in one go, struggling to sit up and not drown himself by mistake. He felt very weak.

 

“What happened?” he finally asked.

 

Gaius’ eyebrow began to rise dramatically. “You don’t remember? The sorcerer that had Dristan, he is dead.”

 

And just like that, Merlin remembered it all. He remembered the heat of the sorcerer’s fire, the rumble under his feet when he had created the bridge for him. He remember the panicked, ugly feeling of having his magic ripped out of him, of feeling the very essence of him spill out on the floor.

 

“Is Arthur safe? Did the sorcerer--”

 

“He is okay,” said Gaius. “He killed the sorcerer as soon as you were harmed.” Gaius peered at him with his own particular brand of reproach and worry. “What you did, Merlin, was… It wasn’t wise. It wasn’t very clever of you, boy.” He looked away for a second, and the naked fear in his face told Merlin how close to dying he had come. “Distributing your magic to objects, putting your life essence into things… it leaves you vulnerable to fatal attacks, Merlin.”

 

Merlin shook his head, but stopped abruptly when it throbbed in protest. “Arthur needs my protection. Even when I am not with him.” His tone was respectful, of course, but it brooked no argument. Arthur came first.

 

Gaius was quiet for a while, his expression hard to read. He seemed to realize the futility of trying to change Merlin’s mind. Softly, he asked the boy to lie down again, then called in the guard who had been posted at his door by Arthur, just so that he could run and call Arthur when Merlin woke.

 

“Dristan?” asked Merlin once the guard was gone.

 

“He is in better condition than you, I suppose,” said Gaius as he handed Merlin some more water. It was sweetened. “He was poisoned so that his mind wouldn’t function. I suspect they wanted to make sure he couldn’t use his magic. They succeeded, but thankfully they didn’t use enough opium to kill him. He slept for a long time, but he is okay now. He and Arthur both had to be dragged away.”

 

“Dragged away?” Merlin smiled at the mental image.

 

“They refused to leave the room, to leave you,” said Gaius. “I finally kicked them out. They needed to eat, both of them.”

 

“Merlin!” said Arthur as he strode into the workroom with the biggest grin Merlin had ever seen on him. The king seemed ready to tackle him into a feisty hug, but remembered himself at the last moment and stopped just shy of the bed. Merlin was disappointed. “You’re awake,” he said lamely.

 

“And thirsty,” Merlin quipped. Gaius rolled his eyes and puttered away.

 

Arthur looked around till he spotted the goblet Merlin had just abandoned, snatched it up and walked away with it before Merlin could protest. He returned with a goblet full of water, which he unceremoniously thrust at Merlin.

 

Merlin just stared. Dumbfounded. What the hell just happened?

 

“What did you do to my amulet, Merlin?” said Arthur finally. “That isn’t regular magic, is it?”

 

“Very regular,” said Merlin. “People use it all the time. Keeps other clotpoles safe. A way to be there when you aren’t there. Not a big deal.” He drank his water.

 

Arthur stared at him, worry and reproach written clear on his face. He wanted to say more, Merlin could easily see that, but in the end he didn’t say anything. Merlin was glad. He wasn’t going to listen. He was going to get better, and repair the amulet. He was happy to see it was still around Arthur’s neck, where it belonged.

 

Neither of them said anything for a while. Merlin finally asked the question that was bothering him. “The two idiots with the sorcerer, are they awake yet?”

 

“Screaming for retribution and glory of Camelot in the dungeons,” said Arthur.

 

“I want to talk to them, figure out who else--”

 

Arthur sat down on his bed with a soft look on his face. “Let them stew in their own filth awhile, Merlin.” His hand caressed the side of Merlin’s face.

 

Merlin smiled and leaned into the touch. He decided to do as Arthur suggested. He was tired, after all.


Arthur stayed until Merlin fell asleep.


 

The courtroom was silent, for everyone knew of the grave reasons why they were all gathered. Treason was no laughing matter, and the king had expressly commanded the presence of every member of the castle. All the servants lined the walls, and guards stood at attention outside. No one was going to escape.

 

The traitors shivered on the floor in their ruined leathers, more terrified than cold. Even though there was immense curiosity amongst those gathered, no one dared to talk. They just stared. A couple of days ago, these men were one of them.

 

“I know there have been rumors,” said Arthur in a high, clear voice. “I know some of you know of the Court Sorcerer’s ward being kidnapped. Allow me to tell you the irrefutable truth: these men kidnapped the boy, along with a girl from the lower town. They threatened not only their lives, but the life of their king. Their accomplice, a sorcerer, tried to murder the Court Sorcerer himself.” Arthur stopped as the murmurs finally grew. “He has been dealt with,” he continued shortly. “Now we are ready to hear their public confessions.”

 

The two men in the middle of the hall took some time to realize that the king was waiting for them to speak. The older one, Lord Reagan, looked up at his king. The younger one, Lord Riley, was a mere boy, barely old enough to shave. He was quaking with fear and crying piteously. His eyes stayed on the ground.

 

Arthur didn’t break Lord Reagan’s resentful stare. He waited for the man to speak. The silence was overwhelming. “Lord Riley,” he said finally. The boy’s face whipped to look at him. His sobs were loud in the silent room. “Seek solace in doing the right thing,” said Arthur. “Confess your sins.” The boy didn’t say anything, but he wasn’t being belligerent like Reagan. He just looked lost, as if he had no idea what to say.

 

“My lord, I…” he trailed off as he looked at Reagan. “I conspired against your Grace, along with several others.”

 

“To kill me?”

 

“No!” he screamed, his voice shrill with panic. He winced at the sound of it. “It was never my intention to harm you, Your Majesty. We thought you had been enthralled. So--”

 

“So you kidnapped a couple of children, forcing me to endanger my life?”

 

“Your Majesty--”

 

“I stand before you now,” said Arthur. “Do I look like a man who is not in control of his own mind?” He paused to read the mood of the room in their murmurs. He needed them to understand that he was in control, that he was not anyone’s puppet.

 

“A man under a spell would say the same,” said Reagan at last.

 

“There is no spell on me,” said Arthur clearly. “I am not the one who almost killed a mere boy of fifteen. The little girl is still missing!” He let his anger show clearly. “The sorcerer you called to Camelot came at me with a knife.”

 

This gave Reagan pause. It directly contradicted his defense that they were not trying to harm him. “He must have had his reasons,” he said finally.

 

“I know the reason,” spat Arthur, true anger pouring out of him. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Heather’s mother. He had called her to witness this trial. He had a duty to her, to the sweet little girl. “He thought I had been cursed by a sorcerer. Shame that he didn’t think of that when he was hurling curses and fireballs at me!”

 

The indignant chatter of the crowd grated in Arthur’s ears. Any other day, he would have rejoiced in the concern of his people, but today he knew that over thirty of the men gathered were willing to kill Merlin under a misguided sense of purpose.

 

“You have committed treason,” he said after a deep breath. “Do either of you deny it?”

 

Reagan stubbornly kept his mouth shut. Riley began to cry.

 

“I want the names of all the others,” said Arthur. “I want at least thirty names from you, and I promise mercy in return. Cooperate, and I will not forget it.”

 

“I don’t know!” wailed the boy. “I don’t know anyone!” He had run out of tears.”They always wore their masks!”

 

Arthur didn’t even look at him. He and Lord Reagan were stuck in another staring match. When Reagan spoke, his voice had grown soft, as if he were diverting a great secret. Since everyone in the room was listening with bated breath, everyone heard the first name.


“Nathan Blackwood.”

Chapter Text

“Nathan Blackwood.”

 

There was a moment of stunned silence. With a collected in-drawn breath, every person in the room started to comment on this reveal, heads tilting and eyes squinting in search of the man in question.

 

Merlin felt the disgustingly familiar sense of betrayal grip him. He had thought Nathan an ally, a good man… Had he made the mistake of trusting the wrong person once again? He saw Arthur’s spine stiffen, saw the betrayal in the tense set of those shoulders. He wished he could walk the few steps that would take him to his friend. He wished he could hug Arthur, take him away from such ugliness.

 

But his lover was a king, a man sworn to uphold the justice of the land. So Merlin said nothing. He stared at Nathan when the man stepped forward.

 

The whole room was staring at Nathan, waiting for him to start… something. Maybe he would spew obscenities. Perhaps he was going to plead his innocence. It was like the most dramatically macabre theatre ever conceived.

 

“I am innocent, Your Grace,” he said in soft tones that forced everyone to pay attention to his words. If he had been hysterical or screaming, it would have been far easier to dismiss him. “But a traitor would say the same, so... ” He thought for a minute, and even though his hands shook with fear, he maintained a calm exterior. “I have full faith in the king’s justice,” he said at last.

 

Merlin stared at the stoic stance and panicked eyes, wondering. Nathan was not behaving like a guilty man… Any guilty noble worth his salt would have alibis and proof of innocence at the ready. They had known for a while that their accomplices were rotting in dungeons. Why was Nathan still here?

 

“Lord Cathal,” continued Reagan.

 

Merlin’s head whipped around to look at the man who was taking obvious pleasure in naming these men. Reagan sat on his knees, his back straight. His mouth smiled even as his eyes laughed. He had the wicked look of someone who was doing something very, very wrong and doing it very, very well. Even before Cathal strode forward to stand next to Nathan, Merlin knew that Reagan was lying. He was going to get rid of everyone that openly supported Arthur.

 

The next name to fall from his lips only confirmed it. “The court physician, Gaius.”

 

The throne room erupted in scandalized uproar. Everyone knew that Gaius had been the first person to hold the king in his arms. They knew that he was like a father to Merlin. He was the oldest man at court, and had been here forever. That he would work against the king was not only surprising, it was dangerous. Gaius was seen as a man who would do whatever was best for Camelot. His apparent support for the traitors’ cause could turn them into martyrs in the public eye. It could legitimize this movement against Arthur.

 

Merlin didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t force the truth out of Reagan with magic, because everyone would think he was protecting Gaius, and perhaps the others. If he used magic, all the courtiers gathered wouldn’t believe the truth out of Reagan’s mouth. They would suspect that they were hearing exactly what Merlin wanted them to hear.

 

He racked his brains even as Reagan kept naming the most loyal of Arthur’s subjects. Pretty soon, the best of Arthur’s knights had joined the others--Gwaine, Lancelot, his wife Gwen, Leon and Percival were all awaiting the king’s justice. Merlin could see the excitement of the crowd, the stoic anger and frustration of the knights.

 

He had to do something.

 

Stefn sé sóþcwide ,” he whispered under his breath, hoping no one would see the telltale gold flash in his downcast eyes.

 

The self-satisfied smirk on Reagan’s face faltered even as his words did. He stopped accusing the best people in Arthur’s court. The damage had already been done, of course. The gruesome list of names had stopped, but not without an impressive amount of people already under the crowd’s scrutiny.

 

Arthur , said Merlin in his head, hoping his friend would hear him. He saw the answer in the slight twitch of Arthur’s shoulders, in the way he stiffened. His head turned a little to his right, as though he was listening to Merlin over his shoulder.

 

I have spelled him to speak the truth , said Merlin. Just ask him questions. He can only speak the truth now.

 

Arthur nodded once, and then faced Reagan again. “Lord Reagan, why have you named all these men?”

 

“I want you to punish them. Kill them,” said Reagan. His voice was strangely devoid of the venom his words warranted.

 

“Are they guilty of treason? Of plotting against my life?” said Arthur. Lord Reagan stayed silent, probably realizing he was spouting truth he had better not speak. “If you do not speak now, I will hang you in the courtyard. Answer your king!”

 

Arthur’s raised tone did the trick, and Reagan spoke. “No,” he said.

 

“Then why did you want me to kill them?”

 

“They are loyal to you, like bitches to their master,” said Reagan, and there was real venom in his voice now. “If it weren’t for these people, you would have been far easier to kill. You and that puppet-master of yours.”

 

The silence of the hall was once again lost to the scandalized whispers. People were starting to see what was happening. What was more, Reagan’s uncensored words were making it clear exactly how crazy the traitors were.

 

“Name the rest of the people you conspired with. Name all your accomplices.”

 

And Reagan did.

 

Upon asking, they were told that Heather was “stashed” at the home of Lord Hardwood, the old councilman who had made Arthur’s life a living hell when he was discussing the reforms with his small council. Arthur remembered how much he had wanted the old man to die soon. He was sure he would get his wish.

 

Apparently, the fanatical men believed that they were the good kind of people who would never harm a little girl, and so there had been incertitude in the ranks regarding what should be done with her. They found the girl unconscious in the basement of Lord Hardwood’s sprawling manor. She looked malnourished and the sight broke Arthur’s heart. Even as Gwaine carried her up to the castle for Gaius to take a look at, everyone was subdued. The knights were distracted for a while. Arthur didn’t comment on it. He was distracted too.

 

Some of the nobles had been secure in the knowledge that Reagan would never betray the cause. They were caught in their homes, napping or doing something equally mundane. Arthur wondered at the weakness of their conscience. They had been killing a little girl, had been willing to kill both Dristan and Merlin. How did none of this ever influence them?

 

Merlin helped immensely in finding out the seven men who had escaped. He climbed to the top of the castle, his hair fluttering wildly as he looked out over all of Camelot. There was a flash of gold, and suddenly Merlin could see the past, see the men hurrying out of their homes and onto their best horses. He followed the men, one by one, till the golden tint of the past faded away and he was looking at them in the present.

 

One by one, he dispatched knights to bring them all back, screaming and begging.

 

They were all gathered in the courtyard by the time night fell, the men accused of betraying their king, now begging for mercy and cursing their king in the same breath. Some were praying, some were standing in a sort of trance, while others were openly weeping. There were several proclamations of innocence, but none of the knights guarding these men batted an eyelash. They all remembered the grim manner in which Gaius had informed them of Heather’s raging fever. He wasn’t certain of her fate.

 

Arthur had ordered the courtyards to be opened to the public, for he wanted this message echoing throughout the kingdom. The courtyard looked eerily like it did when Uther was king. People had gathered to see the king’s justice done in a gruesome and macabre way. They had gathered to see the punishment, equal parts anxious and eager, their earnest faces seemingly flickering in the candlelight. Arthur had thought about it long and hard, about what he was about to do. It was unexpected, but it was still something Arthur felt was right, mercy had to begin somewhere. He would take the first step.

 

“You are all accused of treason against the crown,” he said. Silence fell in the courtyard. “You have been named by your own accomplice, and your homes have been searched for proof.” He let that new piece of information sink in. “We have questioned your wives and your mistresses, talked to your favourite whores. We have found letters in some of your homes. So do not dare to tell me you are innocent, because all of you are guilty as sin.” He paused. “However, if any of you has genuine proof of their innocence, you are welcome to show it.”

 

It wasn’t necessary to give them this chance. Arthur knew that they were guilty. Reagan had named them all when he could speak nothing but the truth. The men huddled together under the knights’ watchful eyes stared back in dismay, wracking their brains for any way to prove their innocence. Each of them had been presented with the evidence found in their homes when they had spent the afternoon in the dungeons. Tomorrow, every letter and every testimony would be public. They had no way to argue their innocence. They stood wretchedly, awaiting their fate.

 

Arthur took a deep breath. When he spoke, his voice carried. “You think I am controlled by the Court Sorcerer. You think this, because I insist on treating people like people, because I refuse to condemn my own countrymen. Because I refuse to be my father.” He looked at the gathered people. “Most of you are older than I am. You have lived in a world where magic is neither evil nor fearsome, where all it meant was that your neighbour could find your lost chicken or predict the rains.” He tried to keep the anger out of his voice. “I am never condemning an entire people.”

 

He looked back to the men who were shivering in the night chill. “You are the ones who have committed horrible crimes in your zeal to prove you know how best to rule this kingdom. You have decided, on your own, that I don’t suit you as king anymore because I am not cruel enough to people you consider superior. You conspired against me, against the Court Sorcerer. You almost killed him, almost killed his ward. The girl you kidnapped and stashed unconscious in a dungeon is battling lung fever and may not see her seventh birthday.

 

“None of you deserve to live.”

 

Arthur let all his anger and hatred show in his face as everyone around him gaped at him. They all knew the penalty for treason. They all knew Arthur was well within his rights to take their heads. They had known this when they had first started whispering of his incompetence.

 

“There is a lesson to be learned here today,” he said at last when the silence was overwhelming. “All lives are created equal. They are equal. The magical children come into the world squalling and naked, as did I. As did you all. As did these men before you. We are all the same, and all lives matter in this world. To prove this, to show you that I do condone mercy and equality, I will let you live.”

 

The traitors in front of him said nothing, but the crowd that had gathered more than made up for it. They didn’t whisper or mutter, they screamed. They were shouting and cheering the mercy of their king. There were more than a few cries demanding grisly murder. Arthur ignored them all. They needed to learn that he was the final source of justice.

 

“Know this: I am not my father, who would definitely see you all dead. But I am going to give you a chance. This is your last chance, so use it wisely, or I will take off your heads. Anyone found guilty of treason ever again will be killed. Your lands and your titles now belong to the crown. They will be redistributed as I see fit. You will be escorted by my knights to the north border. Our spies in Essetir have been warned of your arrival, and they will keep an eye on you. You will have nothing but the clothes on your back. You will never meet your families again. You will never go home. You are banned from Camelot, and will return on pain of death.”

 

Even as people erupted in cheers and the younger traitors started to sob at his mercy, Arthur looked back at Merlin. He had insisted that he needed to stay in the shadows, that Arthur needed to announce the beheadings on his own, lest people think he was still being controlled. Arthur hadn’t told Merlin what he was planning to do. He looked at Merlin, hoping he understood. Hoping he had made the right choice.

 

Merlin’s slight smile and little nod told him a lot of things Merlin didn’t need to say. They told him Merlin was proud of him. It meant the world to him.

 

He looked back again at his rejoicing people. Maybe, one day, he could actually tell them about his love. Maybe, one day, Merlin won’t have to hide in shadows.

 

He could only hope.

Chapter Text

Five years later

 

Arthur was so fucking tired of sneaking about his own damned castle.

 

Normally, so late after sundown, most of the castle would be asleep. But there were still hundreds of tiny things left to prepare for the celebration the next night, and there were still servants running helter skelter in the courtyard. It was going to be tough to make it to the stables.

 

Most of the castle didn’t know of the dozen or so people who were going to run away from the castle that night like naughty children off to an adventure. The entire party had been deemed too big to escape unnoticed, so everyone was supposed to leave in twos or threes. The gods had deemed it fit to torture Arthur one last time before giving him immeasurable happiness: he was going to ride with Gwaine, who was already waiting for him in the stables, horses at the ready.

 

If only he could get out of here.

 

This wasn’t the first time, of course. Sneaking had sort of become second nature to him, and gained him further appreciation of the way Merlin had kept Camelot safe while lurking in the shadows. His lover’s expertise had been helpful those first few years of their relationship, because Merlin knew all the nooks and crannies to steal kisses in, and he had been gracious enough to show Arthur.

 

Not that they needed to hide any of it now.

 

All of Camelot now knew Merlin was Arthur’s consort. They had stopped trying to hide it when they realized even visiting royals had called Merlin “his Highness”. The first time it had happened, Merlin had snorted and inhaled an ungodly amount of wine, but he was used to it now. All the neighbouring kingdoms knew well enough. Most of them were coming to attend the royal wedding the next day. Mithian had already arrived and taken up residence at the castle.

 

The one he was studiously trying to escape.

 

It took time, and effort, and gained him new appreciation for Merlin’s skills. But at last, he was in the stables, his horse snorting next to him.

 

“The princess Mithian is a beautiful woman,” Gwaine said in lieu of a greeting.

 

Arthur eyed him suspiciously as he swung atop his horse. “Gwaine...”

 

“What?” Gwaine’s offended look would have worked better if it was genuine, or if Arthur’s suspicion had been unwarranted. “I simply meant it as a compliment! She liked it when I told her,” he said.

 

“What is the rule, Gwaine?” Arthur whispered as they moved out of the stables and into the shadow of the night.

 

Gwaine sighed. “Never flirt with visiting nobles,” he recited, with as much enthusiasm as a child reciting a hated lesson. “Easy for you to say,” he continued. “You are getting married. The rest of us still have to find someone, you know?”

 

“Maybe find someone other than Mithian,” Arthur suggested through gritted teeth. “That woman has been through enough.”

 

“She thinks I am beautiful too,” Gwaine said cheekily. “Men who are getting a fairytale wedding don’t get to piss on other people’s romance.” He spurred his horse on till they were trotting abreast. “Do you know what she said to me?”

 

Arthur groaned out loud. This was going to be a long ride. He was not going to survive till the morning.

 

While they rode, Gwaine talked. Amidst the important pieces of news, like how much the princess Mithian seemed to like his beard, Gwaine also managed to tell Arthur of the news they had received from Amata. Another one of the traitors who had rebelled against him years ago was dead. There were so few left now. They had all been scattered skillfully, exactly as Arthur had commanded. Not all had made their way to Essetir five years ago. Some had been sent to Caerleon, others to Gawant and Nemeth.

 

As promised, Arthur kept an eye on all of them. Lord Maltyre was currently seeking shelter at a druid village, which amused Arthur to no end.

 

He shook the matters of state out of his head as they neared their destination. The early morning sun bathed the stones of Nemeton in a fiery, otherworldly light. Arthur had been doubting his decision to perform the ceremony here, but one look at the place was enough to remind him why this was the perfect place to say his vows, the perfect place to promise himself to another.

 

Tomorrow, he would marry Merlin in an elaborate ceremony where Merlin would be crowned King Consort. Today, he would marry his best friend and his lover in a simple druid ceremony, in front of his closest friends and family. Today, he wanted to be married as equals.

 

The hours of riding had apparently not agreed with Gaius, for his eyebrow was high and his expression was dour, but he was commanding everyone to their places around the circle with surprising dexterity. There actually was a circle in the middle of the stones, purple wildflowers that grew out of the ground in a perfect circle. Arthur knew Merlin had conjured them, like he knew Merlin had conjured the altar, the tree that had suddenly sprouted in a strange, knotted flat shape in the middle of the circle, dripping with red and gold flowers. It was as if nature itself were serenading the union. Gwaine dismounted and ran to join the circle forming, carefully placing his feet behind the line of purple flowers. Arthur looked around wildly for a glimpse of his betrothed.

 

He found Merlin shyly standing near the edge of the circle himself, listening to Gaius with a cutely furrowed brow. They had all ridden from the castle, so most of the preparations required for the wedding were Merlin’s magical responsibility.

 

Arthur took a while to just gaze at the love of his life. The stand up collar of his midnight blue doublet accentuated his cheekbones, giving him the regal look Arthur loved. Merlin caught him staring, and his boyish face split into a grin. Arthur was not a poetic man, but he was sure his heart was full of love in that moment. He couldn’t remember a time when he had been more content.

 

As Gaius’ eyebrow climbed higher, Heather ran over to grab Arthur’s hand and pull him to take his place at the edge of the sacred circle. She was growing fast… The elaborate floral crown she had, probably woven herself, was brushing Arthur’s neck. He shook his head and followed where she led. Merlin was being similarly dragged by a grinning Dristan. He and Merlin both stood on either side of Gaius as the other guests finished up the circle.

 

Merlin leaned back to look at Arthur behind Gaius’ back. “Hi,” he said.

 

“Hello,” Arthur replied with a smile.

 

Finally, they were all ready. The grooms flanked Gaius. Lancelot stood next to Merlin while Gwaine stood next to Arthur. Gwen, Hunith, Dristan, Arthur’s best knights, Heather and her mum, Cathal and Lord Blackwood completed the circle. There wasn’t a lot of them. It was exactly as Arthur wanted.

 

Gaius called for silence. For a while, the only sound was the peaceful early morning chirping of the birds. “We gather here in peace for this sacred occasion that is the Rite of Marriage between Merlin and Arthur. As our Circle is woven and consecrated, this moment in time and this place, become blessed. Let each soul truly be here, let the spirits of those gathered be blended in one sacred space, with one purpose and one voice.”

 

Arthur felt calm. His heart was hammering, but he was acutely aware of every breath he took. He was getting married. To Merlin. This felt like the beginning of the rest of his life.

 

Gaius was chanting a prayer of purification. Merlin had explained that to him, but Arthur was still intrigued. “Let there be peace in the East, so let it be,” said Gaius as he faced the sun. He continued to face each direction as he named it. “Let there be peace in the South, so let it be. Let there be peace in the West, so let it be. Let there be peace in the North, so let it be.” Finally, he faced the front. “Let there be peace through all the Worlds. So let it be.”

 

Merlin grinned as he stepped into the circle at Gaius’ bidding. Arthur felt too… dazed to do more than smile. Was this really happening? This was it. No more hiding. Merlin was his now, for everyone to see.

 

“Spirits of the North,” said Gaius, “powers of winter, guardians of earth and stone, who you teach us of love and loyalty, great bear of the starry skies, the rich soil of creation, I ask that you honour this our Circle as we honour thee. Witness and bless this rite. Hail and welcome!”

 

As he finished his serenade, a gentle rumbling rocked the ground. The revellers, who had been asked to expect this, forgot the instructions for a second. They looked around, uneasy, and when the wildflowers bloomed their way out of the ground, they laughed at their own skittish behaviour. The flowers settled, a rich red canopy at the northern edge of the circle, and all was silent once more. 

 

“Spirits of the East,” continued Gaius, “powers of spring, regeneration, vision of falcon and blackbird’s song, swallows’ freedom flight, sylphs of the wind, breath of life, my Lord of the rising sun and all new life, I ask that you honour this our Circle as we honour thee. Witness and bless this rite. Hail and welcome!”

 

The pleasant early morning winds picked up speed till they were sharp enough to blow the knights’ capes dramatically. It really did seem that the gods were listening to Gaius’ old, experienced voice. There were falcons--Merlins--flying overhead, chasing blackbirds. There was magic in the air. The wind seemed to be flowing in through the East, blowing Heather’s pretty hair into her face. She pouted and tried to control the flowing locks. Arthur smiled and winked at her.

 

“Spirits of the South,” continued Gaius, his voice rising to be heard over the sudden wind. “Powers of summer, pride of stag and fire wit of fox, dragons of the land, sprites of the dancing flame, you who teach us of courage and the power of truth, I ask that you honour this our Circle as we honour thee. Witness and bless this rite. Hail and welcome!”

 

Arthur laughed out loud when he heard the dragons roar. Aithusa, in her enthusiasm, was racing towards them, and Arthur knew without being told that Kilgharrah had had trouble keeping her away till it was time to appear. Aithusa had recently rediscovered her great love of flying, when the druid books entrusted to Merlin had finally helped him cure Aithusa. Now she was regularly spotted flying over Albion. And she never shut up.

 

But tonight she did. It might have been Kilgharrah’s ancient, frail presence by her side that sobered her, or the sanctity of the ritual, but for once, Aithusa was quiet. She winked at Dristan, who grinned wildly.

 

The dragons took their positions in the South, their majestic wings an impressive backdrop for Hunith and Gwen. They were both crying, beautiful in their riding clothes. He smiled at Hunith. Her returning smile was watery.

 

“Spirits of the West,” continued Gaius with a nod at Kilgharrah, “powers of autumn, cat who stretches to hunt at dusk, wisdom of salmon and otter’s play, undines of chuckling brook, my Lady of the Seas, tides of being, I ask that you honour this our Circle as we honour thee. Witness and bless this rite. Hail and welcome!”

 

Heather was giggling by the time the cats sauntered their way over to her. The cats were quiet, happy but solemn, and of every colour imaginable. There were easily a dozen of them, all taking up their positions at the west of the circle. One of them was being followed by an otter. Arthur was really surprised Merlin wasn’t behind any of this. Where was all this magic coming from?

 

Perhaps it was the special magic of the stones of Nemeton, oozing out of them because the greatest sorcerer ever to walk the Earth was standing in their midst. Arthur lifted his face to the sky and breathed deep. He felt… free.

 

“It has taken long for Merlin and Arthur to get here,” said Gaius, and Gwaine snorted. “To sacred ground to say the vows that will bind them together. In the name of our gods and the gods of our ancestors, we give thanks for all those who have shared with us their lives, their wisdom and their love. On this sacred day of their wedding, we give thanks especially for the blessings bequeathed to Merlin and Arthur by their ancestors of blood and spirit, both those newly departed and those of old. We honour in particular Hunith, Balinor and Ygraine, ancestors present in this rite in body and in spirit. Acknowledging all that has been given, the sacred gift of life, the hardest lessons taught through love and tears, the bond you share and the individuals that you are, let these ancestors too be honoured at this time.”

 

Hunith was sobbing now, and she stepped forward to take her gift from the grooms. Her hands were shaking as she held them out to take the gift Merlin and Arthur had toiled over… Arthur had designed the silver tiara , laboring over every elegant line, waking up in the middle of the night to change something until Merlin had feared the design would never be ready. He had been blown away by the finished design when Arthur had shown him, and had waited eagerly for the craftsmen to finish making it. There was magic in there, all the protective spells Merlin knew. Now Dristan was finally handing it over to the grooms, a gift fit for a queen mother.

 

Hunith’s eyes were wide when she saw what her gift was. Arthur had deliberately kept it simple but elegant, knowing what Hunith would like. The circlet of knotted silver was thin and delicate. The dragons that curled on both sides looked fierce, in direct contrast to the flair of silver that finished off the tiara. It was an acknowledgement of how important she was, in both their lives. How important she was to the kingdom. Since she was shaking too badly, Arthur stepped forward and took it from her, gently placing it on her head. She looked up at him with watery eyes. He smiled and kissed her brow.

 

The sudden whispers of the gathered crowd alerted him to something strange, and his hand automatically went to the sword he wasn’t wearing around his waist. Merlin snaked a hand around Gaius’ back to stroke his arm soothingly, and Arthur relaxed. He tensed again when he saw what had unsettled the guests.

 

His mother stood next to the dragons.

 

Arthur stared, feeling his eyes fill up. He had only ever seen her once. He had never seen a portrait, for Uther had banned all likeness of her. He looked his fill now, his gaze desperate. She smiled at him, her face pale and blue. He nodded at her, swallowing thickly. Arthur turned with the intention of thanking Merlin, but Merlin was staring at Balinor, who was standing next to Kilgharrah. His skin was pale too, and Merlin’s expression as he stared at his father was enough to tell Arthur that he had not summoned their parents. They had come on their own.

 

Gaius himself was getting emotional. He tried to speak several times, each time stopping because his voice would break. He finally cleared his throat, nodded at both Ygraine and Balinor, and carried on with the ceremony.

 

“Merlin and Arthur,” he said finally. “Do you come to this place of your own free will?”

 

With great difficulty, Arthur tore his eyes away from Ygraine. “I do.”

 

“I do,” said Merlin, and Arthur was glad that he wasn’t steady either.

 

“Let us honour the four directions of our world,” said Gaius, “that their blessings may be brought to this couple.” He led them both to all four quarters of the circle, one by one.

 

He led them first towards the falcons that were hopping around the eastern quarter, their gazes uncanny and interested. “Spirits of the east, spirits of air, let us feel your breath!” said Gaius. “Through times of uncertainty,” he asked, “through winds of change, will you still love and honour each other?”

 

“I will,” said Merlin.

 

“I will,” echoed Arthur. He had never been surer of anything in his life. He thought the falcon approved.

 

“Then may you be blessed by the powers of the east,” said Gaius. “May together you find the freedom of flight in the clear mountain air, may your marriage be reborn with each new dawn.”

 

Next, they moved on to the two dragon who were watching the ceremony with a strange combination of proud amusement. Kilgharrah smiled at Merlin and bowed his head. Aithusa winked at Arthur. “Spirits of the south,” implored Gaius, “spirits of fire, let us feel your power!”

 

Ygraine and Balinor smiled at them, their hands reaching out to ghost their fingers on their child’s face, their movements in sync as if they were thinking with one mind. Both dragons breathed gently in their faces, and Arthur felt the warmth of Aithusa’s breath instill him with peace. He could feel the ancient magic of the dragon, feel the acceptance and love she felt for him.

 

“Through the flames of passion,” said Gaius, “and when the fires burn low, will you still love and honour each other?”

 

Arthur tried not to think of Gaius saying the word passion. “I will,” he said.

 

Merlin smiled at him. “I will too. I will love you forever.”

 

“Then may you be blessed by the powers of the south,” said Gaius. “May together you dance the road of courage and vitality. May your home be filled with warmth.”

 

The cats began purring as Merlin and Arthur were led to them. A pure white one meowed at Merlin. Another, a playful orange one, weaved through Heather’s legs and stared at them. A courageous tabby tried to wrap itself around Gaius’ leg.

 

Gaius studiously ignored it. “ Spirits of the west, spirits of water, let us feel your flowing energy!” He turned to the grooms. “Through the white water currents and deep still pools of emotion, will you still love and honour each other?”

 

“I will,” said Arthur.

 

Merlin’s eyes were misty. “I will,” he echoed solemnly.

 

Gaius nodded once. “Then may you be blessed by the powers of the west,” he said. “May together you weave and blend your desires, flowing with the beauty of the ocean tides. May your life together be filled with love.”

 

A furry little badger had claimed the little patch of red flowers by now, his little paws carefully settled in the spread beneath him. He barely spared a glance at them as Gaius led them to the north of the circle.

 

“Spirits of the north,” said Gaius, “spirits of earth, let us feel your certainty! Through times of cold restriction, when problems seem immovable, will you still love and honour each other?”

 

“I will,” said Merlin.

 

With a smile, Arthur echoed his answer. “I will too. Always and forever.”

 

“Then may you be blessed by the powers of the earth,” said Gaius. “May together you root in sweet fertile soil, that your union may grow strong. May your lives together be rich with that fertility and its perfect fruitfulness.” He led them to the altar, where Gwaine handed him the red ribbon that had been entrusted to him. Gaius took their hands, clasped them together, and tied them. “Merlin and Arthur, are you ready to declare your vows to each other, vows that will bind you together, soul to soul, heart to heart, joining the bloodlines of your ancestors, witnessed by those who have gathered here this day, in spirit and in body, in this sacred Circle?”

 

“I am,” they said together. Even Arthur felt like he was going to bawl at any moment. It was supposed to be just a simple ceremony, something that was just theirs, and now it felt like his heart was going to leap out of his chest and scamper away. But it couldn’t now, could it? His heart was now promised to Merlin.

 

“All things in nature are circular,” said Gaius in a clear, carrying voice. “Night becomes day, day leads into night which again gives way to day. Moon waxes and wanes, and waxes again. There is Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, then Spring returns again. These are the flowing rhythms of the Cycle of Existence. Yet in the Centre of the Circle is the stillness of the Source, eternal and brilliant.” He turned to Lancelot, who was again at Merlin’s side. “Merlin and Arthur, do you bring with you this day your symbols of these mysteries of life?”

 

“We do,” said Merlin as Arthur nodded. Lancelot dutifully stepped forward and handed Gaius the rings. They were identical, simple bands of gold. Each ring was just thick enough to be emblazoned with a dragon along its length. A small, simple ruby winked in the one visible eye.

 

Gaius took the rings. “Then be they blessed in the name of the old gods of our land, for they are an outward sign and a sacred reminder of your commitment witnessed here this day.” He placed the rings on the altar. “As the sun and moon bring light to the Earth, do you, Merlin and Arthur, vow to bring the light of love and joy to this your union?”

 

“I do,” they said, together. Within the sweet confines of the ribbon, Merlin flexed his fingers to squeeze Arthur’s hands.

 

Gaius lit the candle that had been placed on the altar. “Do you vow to honour each other as you honour that which you hold most sacred?”

 

“I do,” they said again, perfectly in sync. The high winds somehow didn’t affect the flame of the candle at all.

 

Gaius handed them their rings, and Arthur felt a strange lump in his throat as Merlin placed his ring on his finger. He blinked rapidly, afraid he was going to cry. Merlin looked ready to cry too. He kept staring at the ring that Arthur placed on his finger.

 

Gaius untied their hands, and Merlin smiled at Arthur’s reluctance to let go of his hand. He squeezed Merlin’s fingers before finally letting go. Gaius picked up the smooth, polished stone that Merlin had found and engraved with their names and the Pendragon crest. He had spent hours at the banks of the lake looking for the perfect wedding stone. Arthur had wanted to use a precious gem. After all, it was a stone. But now he was glad they hadn’t chosen a ruby. The big, white stone felt far more… real. A ruby would have been too pretentious. And pretenses were for the wedding later in the day. Here, they were just a couple in love.

 

Gaius turned back towards the grooms. ”This sacred Earth is our home,” he said. “It offers us the power of life, nourishing us, body and soul, holding us from birth until we let go once more into the worlds of spirit. Each rock and stone, each pebble and gem contains within it the stories of all time.” He held out their wedding stone. “You have chosen this stone together as a foundation stone of your marriage from this point on,” he said. “Do you now swear upon it, as a symbol of this sacred land and our holy Mother Earth, to keep your vows?”

 

“We swear,” they said, their hands on the stone that Gaius held.

 

“Then let the Earth bear witness that Merlin and Arthur are joined in love and joy and freedom. So let it be!”

 

“So let it be!” said all those gathered, their voices jubilant and loud. Arthur was suddenly aware that there were others here, and he grinned at all the happy faces. His mother blew him a kiss.

 

“Let your vows be sealed with a kiss,” said Gaius, and he was smiling too.

 

When Arthur finally pulled Merlin in for their first kiss as a married couple, he finally felt… peace. It was done. Instead of the giddy excitement of a few seconds ago, he felt thankful to be allowed his one true love, to be allowed the chance to get used to these lips, to the beat of this man’s heart against his palm. He was Merlin’s now, as surely Merlin was his. A single tear escaped Merlin’s eyelid, and it’s matching tear rolled down Arthur’s cheek.

 

“Let all bear witness that Merlin and Arthur are joined in love,” Gaius declared to the cheering circle. “Through this rite of their marriage, witnessed and blessed, may their love partake of the beauty, majesty and power of this sacred Earth.” He hugged both Merlin and Arthur in turn, his expression the closest to happy Arthur had ever seen. “My own blessing,” he said, “and the blessings of all those assembled here be with you. The blessings of your gods and the gods of your ancestors be with you. The blessings of the ancestors be with you. With you and with all that comes of your union. So let it be!”

 

The revellers bent down to the little baskets of petals that had been placed along the circle. The sounds of jubilant celebration echoed off the plains. Petals rained down upon the newlywed couple.

 

“The rite is complete,” said Gaius. “May our memories be rich with it. Let us thank the powers of nature for their presence.”

 

As Gaius thanked the spirits of all four directions, sending the assembled animals on their merry way, Merlin hugged Arthur. Arthur held tight, ignoring Gwaine’s jeering, feeling his heart thud with happiness that seemed too vast to contain.

 

This was the first day of the rest of his life.

 

“I love you, clotpole,” said Merlin in his ear.


“I love you too, you idiot,” laughed Arthur.