Uther Pendragon was known as an unreasonable, cruel, and demanding man. He hated sorcery, and was ready to execute anyone who even looked at someone else in a way that could be interpreted as magical. He was prejudiced and often vicious and expected everyone to respect him, despite never doing anything to deserve it.
There was one redeeming feature among his otherwise perfectly hateable qualities, however.
He happened to love his children fiercely.
Prince Arthur was heir to the throne, but there was also the Lady Morgana, who had been born out of wedlock and thus couldn’t be called a princess, but she was one of Uther’s nevertheless, and was equally considered part of the royal family.
Uther had also loved his wife, the late Queen Ygraine, though he had shown his love by sleeping with the wife of his best friend, but as you know, these things happen. Be that as it may, the King believed that members of the royal family should always marry for love, because a monarch should be able to love and respect the person they shared the throne with.
In the court of King Uther Pendragon, there were two rules concerning relationships and marriages in the royal family. The first one was that it had to happen for love.
The second was to never, ever fall in love with a sorcerer or a servant.
It was really quite unfortunate that the Crown Prince of all people had to go and fall for his magical manservant.
“Merlin!” Arthur shouted as he strode through the halls of the palace. “Merlin!”
He sighed and muttered obscenities about useless manservants who had no sense of respect or timing under his breath. Then he shouted once again, this time much louder and right in front of Morgana’s door, which may or may not have been accidental.
Morgana opened the door a moment later and peeked out into the hallway.
“What are you shouting at?” she said. “Your yelling could awaken the dead.”
“Have you seen my manservant? I’m supposed to be welcoming our guests in an hour. And here I am, still in my armour, desperately in need of a bath, and all my shirts seem to be at laundry. If he’s lazing around somewhere doing nothing, I swear I’ll...”
“Have you asked Gaius? Maybe Merlin had to run errands for him.”
“I’ve asked him, I’ve asked Guinevere, I’ve even asked the kitchen maids, but no one has seen him for at least two hours.”
Morgana looked like she was suppressing a smile.
“Well then, you don’t really have many options besides either waiting for him to turn up, or having someone else do the work. You should have no problem bossing other people around for one evening.”
Arthur grumped, but knew Morgana was right. He should have someone else do the work. He ordered a bath in his room from a passing maid and told her to bring him his clothes from the laundress, as well. The maid curtsied and went on her way.
“Well, off you go then. You’d better hurry,” Morgana said, making shooing motions and smirking annoyingly. Arthur made another undignified sound and went to see who he could get to help him remove his armour.
When Merlin finally bounced into Arthur’s chambers (without knocking of course), Arthur was sitting in his bathtub and only gave Merlin a passing glance. Merlin’s hair was sticking up and his clothes had burn marks all over them. Arthur felt a touch of worry, but didn’t want to show it, because he was supposed to be mad at Merlin.
“Um,” Merlin said, but didn’t follow it up with anything else. Arthur remained silent and continued washing the dirt off his neck and chest. He didn’t look at Merlin. It wasn’t that he was angry because Merlin had gone missing. To be perfectly honest, it was hardly the first time and Merlin was usually gone for more than just a couple of hours. Arthur was annoyed, but not angry. Morgana was right; Arthur had no difficulties asking other servants to help him if Merlin was unavailable. No, what really drove Arthur up the wall was that Merlin going missing usually meant he was in some sort of trouble, possibly of the magical kind. If Arthur was been completely honest with himself, which he was not going to be about this matter under any circumstances, he would have said he was worried about Merlin. Of course he knew Merlin could defend himself, could defend both of them just fine, in fact, but since Arthur wasn’t supposed to know about the magic and didn’t know exactly how powerful Merlin was, he couldn’t completely shake the uneasiness when Merlin was nowhere to be found.
Arthur rose up from his bath. Merlin was instantly at his side with a towel.
“Do you need any help dressing, sire?” he asked, not meeting Arthur’s eyes.
“Yes. Thank you, Merlin.”
Merlin helped Arthur into his best clothes and seemed for once almost efficient with his movements and lack of casual touches. This was not them. This was the Crown Prince and his manservant, but this was not Arthur and Merlin. They were never formal with each other, they were never polite or careful, and Arthur wanted to make it clear before leaving to the dinner, because otherwise they would just be like this all night.
“Merlin,” he said, and Merlin flinched.
“Yes?” Merlin asked, and then added as an afterthought, “My Lord?”
“I don’t know where you were tonight. I don’t think I even want to know. I trust you had a good reason for it, but you can’t just go missing like that when... When you are needed,” Arthur said, rephrasing the I need you in his head at the last second.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin said, hanging his head.
“Oh, come here, idiot,” Arthur caught Merlin in a headlock and ruffled his hair before letting him go. “Don’t do it again, though. People will think you’ve been at the tavern.”
“Prat,” Merlin muttered, straightening his hair but smiling tentatively as he followed Arthur through the door. Arthur pushed at his arm and Merlin pushed back, and when they stepped into the dining hall, they were bantering like children. They were once again just Arthur and Merlin. Morgana gave a wink to Arthur when they passed her seat. Arthur rolled his eyes back at her.
Arthur tried not to yawn while Princess What’s-Her-Name-Again was telling him an apparently funny story. He could almost hear Merlin smirking behind him. When the Princess stopped talking Arthur gave a small laugh and beckoned Merlin closer.
“I wish to retire for the night, Merlin. I find myself rather tired already,” Arthur said, and Merlin made quite a poor job of keeping his expression neutral. Arthur rose from the table, wished good night to the King, Morgana, and their visitors, and left the hall with Merlin in tow. Outside in the hallway Merlin burst out into uncontrollable giggles.
“It’s not funny,” Arthur harrumphed and began the walk towards his chambers.
“Seemed rather funny to me. Not the story though, that was just awful, but it really does seem kind of counterproductive for your father to parade the princesses and daughters of lords in front of you if they’re all like that. It’s almost like he doesn’t want you to fall in love or marry,” Merlin said, still grinning.
The most counterproductive thing was having Merlin there in the same room rolling his eyes when Arthur wanted to do just that. Even when Arthur happened to find a lady who was mildly interesting to him, at some point Merlin came to fill his cup with his neck and eyes and stupid neckerchiefs, and made Arthur almost forget who he had been talking to. Because Merlin was just Merlin. He was loyal and actually funny and a good friend and always there, and Arthur couldn’t really even think about marrying anyone when he was standing so close. Arthur was quite infatuated with his manservant when it came down to it. Not in love, goodness gracious no, but the way he looked at Merlin might have been just a tiny bit more intense than how people usually looked at their friends, and some very unplatonic thoughts lingered in his mind after Merlin woke him up every morning (or sometimes in the middle of the night).
But he was not in love. It would’ve broken every rule his father had ever instilled in his head. For one, Merlin was a man, which meant they couldn’t have children the traditional way. That could be worked around somehow though. Arthur could take a ward. He could marry someone else and have her bear his children. There were always other possibilities, and that was not the real issue. Merlin just happened to also be a servant, and Arthur’s father had always frowned upon marriages crossing the borders between classes.
Merlin was a sorcerer as well, which was something Arthur was never going to let his father know. The King wouldn’t hesitate to execute Merlin for using magic even if he was Arthur’s beloved. Which he was not, damn it.
“Arthur,” Merlin called and snapped his fingers in front of Arthur’s face. “Where did you go?”
“Nowhere,” Arthur lied. “Just thinking.”
Merlin gave him a look of disbelief, but didn’t comment on it further.
The next morning, Arthur was rudely dragged out of his deep sleep when someone pounded on the door before coming in. It was not Merlin like Arthur had expected, but Sir Leon.
“My Lord, your father is asking for you. It’s Lord Judoc. There’s been an... accident.”
“What kind of accident?” Arthur mumbled, still half-asleep.
“Your father is waiting for you in Lord Judoc’s room. He’s suspecting sorcery,” Sir Leon said, and Arthur rose from his bed immediately.
“Tell him I’ll be right there after I’ve dressed.”
Sir Leon nodded and left the room.
When Arthur reached Judoc’s chambers, he could see what had happened at once and also why his father was insisting there had to be sorcery involved in the incident.
There had been a fire, which was not unusual. Sometimes candles caught in cloth and set the fire going. This, however, was apparently not the case because the wooden door was open and Arthur had never seen such a thing. The inside of it was blackened into charcoal, as was the entire room, but the outer side looked untouched.
He knew magic when he saw it.
“Well? Gaius. What do you think?” the King demanded, and Arthur spotted Gaius standing with him, investigating the door. Merlin was standing in a corner, face covered in shadows. He had such an air of innocence surrounding him that Arthur immediately suspected he had something to do with the incident.
Arthur paled when he remembered Merlin’s absence and the burn marks in his clothes the previous night. Was this what Merlin had been doing?
“It’s hard to say, sire. The entire room burned down. I’m sorry to say this, but it looks like he was in his room when it happened.”
“Who could’ve done such a thing? Surely there must be sorcery involved! How did they get in the castle?” the King said, anger in his voice. Merlin picked up something from the ground.
“Sire, Gaius. Look at this,” Merlin interrupted. He gave something to Gaius. Arthur stepped closer to see better, and Merlin glanced at him briefly before turning his gaze back to the object.
“What is it, Gaius?” Uther asked.
“If I’m not much mistaken, it’s an enchanted jewel. It’s badly burned like everything else, but it looks like an object that...” Gaius looked closer and apparently read the markings on the jewel. “Well, well. It looks like you might have been in luck. This object holds dark magic. It intensifies the power of any food and drink the one who wears it consumes.”
“How does that make it dangerous?” Uther asked, though he seemed appalled by someone bringing a magical object into his palace in the first place.
“Sire, everything can be toxic. It depends on the dose. Even water can be poisonous if you drink enough of it. But I suspect he was going to slip some poison into the food. One drop combined with the power of this object might have been enough to kill a man.”
“Who was the target?”
“I couldn’t tell, sire, but most probably either yourself or the Crown Prince,” Gaius concluded. Merlin glanced at Arthur again, quickly.
“Well then. A stroke of luck, I suppose,” the King said, and Arthur almost sighed in relief because no one would have to be executed this time, but then his father spoke again. “However, we need to find the other sorcerer. Arthur, give the guards a command to search the castle. Question everyone for any odd behaviour someone might have shown. If the person who set the fire is still in here, we will find them.”
Merlin bit his lip, and Arthur had had enough of this.
“Alright, father. I will give the command, and we’ll search the castle after breakfast. If the sorcerer is still here he can wait for an hour more,” Arthur said, and the King nodded. “Merlin, let’s go. You need to fetch my breakfast.”
Arthur grabbed Merlin’s arm and dragged him as far from his father as he could.
“Where were you last night? The kitchen maids told us that the Prince was looking for you,” the guard asked Merlin, who was gnawing at his lip again. Arthur turned his gaze away from the lips in question, because watching Merlin’s mouth was filling his head with thoughts of Merlin licking and biting other things which may or may not have been parts of Arthur’s body.
“You can’t honestly think my manservant would be a sorcerer,” Arthur interrupted. “I can guarantee Merlin was with me for the time period that matters.”
“But sire, the maids...”
“Are you disobeying me? I said, look for suspects elsewhere. Don’t you think I would know if my servant had magic? Merlin was helping Gaius during the day and came back in time to give me a bath. Now stop bothering him, and let’s go find a suspect who isn’t a complete idiot.”
Merlin’s lip was bleeding slightly when Arthur finally led the guards from the room.
“Thanks. You didn’t have to lie to them,” Merlin said that evening. He was going around Arthur’s chambers and cleaning while Arthur ate his supper.
“Well,” Arthur said, “It would be a bother for me too if my manservant was thrown into the dungeons for something he clearly couldn’t have done.”
Merlin glanced Arthur’s way but didn’t comment.
“And besides, the sorcerer who did it, whoever they were, was doing us a favour, so I don’t really see why they should be punished,” Arthur said.
“They did magic. Isn’t that crime enough?”
“No. As hard as it may be for you to believe, Merlin, I don’t always agree with what my father does. No one should be punished for doing good deeds.”
Merlin was quiet until Arthur had finished his meal. When he was undressing Arthur for the night, Arthur couldn’t stand the silence anymore. It was distracting enough to be undressed by Merlin’s hands on a normal day.
“For gods’ sake, Merlin. Spill it. You clearly have something on your mind, so let’s hear it.”
“It’s nothing. I was just thinking how close it was again. The Lord Whoever could have killed you with that jewel,” Merlin said finally.
“It could have been meant for my father?”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“How do you know?” Arthur asked, staring at Merlin. Maybe this was the moment he had been waiting for when Merlin told him the truth.
“It’s never for your father. It’s always for you. They want to take revenge, but it’s never by killing the King. It would hurt him more deeply to see you dead in his arms,” Merlin murmured, and pulled Arthur’s nightclothes on him.
“You are certainly a ray of sunshine tonight,” Arthur said dryly. “Look, I’m still alive, am I not? I’m a soldier. I’m not afraid of death.”
“You wouldn’t be, always putting yourself in danger to save others.”
It pained Arthur to see Merlin like this. He would’ve liked to pull Merlin into his arms and comfort him with gentle touches until Merlin felt better, but he was not sure the touches would be welcomed, so he decided to just diminish the tension the best way he could.
“And besides, you’re not getting rid of me that easily. I’ve had luck so far, so maybe I have a guardian angel watching over me or something. But it’s good to know you worry about me,” Arthur concluded and grinned.
“Who said anything about worrying about you, you prat? I do no such thing,” Merlin laughed a bit. When Arthur pulled his blankets up, Merlin was smiling again. It was weak, but it was still a smile. He put out the rest of the candles and with a quiet “good night” left the room. Arthur didn’t lay awake thinking about it for hours afterwards. He most certainly didn’t.
A few weeks passed without anything unusual happening, so of course Arthur should have seen it coming. One morning, his father called him to the council chamber and announced that men had gone missing near the river not far from the city.
“Why haven’t you told me about this before?” Arthur asked, furrowing his brows.
“Because it’s most probably something magical causing it. I hoped the knights would be able to deal with whatever is causing the trouble, but...” Uther trailed off. Arthur knew how the sentence ended even before he said the words aloud.
“But now even some of them have gone missing.”
“Indeed. Gaius, you had some ideas of what might be causing this?”
“I do, sire, but you will not like it. I believe it some kind of water spirit. Possibly one called a kelpie. I remember there being stories of kelpies being seen in these parts of the kingdom years ago.”
“What does it look like?” Arthur asked.
“They can take many forms. Some prefer that of a beautiful maiden to lure men into their trap, some can take the form of a horse and do the same. They cause the people going after them to drown in the lake or river,” Gaius said, and looked at Uther again. “They are powerful magical creatures, sire. I do not know of any mortal a kelpie has caught who would have returned to tell the tale.”
Gaius stepped back, and Merlin was at his side at once.
“Arthur,” Uther turned to look at him again. “You know what I have to ask of you.”
“I want you to go and see what is going on. If there is sorcery at hand I want you to get rid of it once and for all. I will not have magic in my kingdom,” Uther said. Merlin was whispering rapidly to Gaius. They were talking so quietly that Arthur could not tell the words apart.
“Yes, father. Merlin,” Arthur said and nudged his head towards the door. Merlin stopped talking to Gaius and ran after Arthur.
“This could be dangerous,” Arthur said when they were out the door. “Does Gaius have any further suggestions on how to get rid of the creature?”
“Um, yes. But...”
“But they need magic to work?” Arthur asked. Merlin nodded and didn’t meet his eyes. “We’ll make do. Go to Gaius’s chambers to find out what you can about water spirits and pack what we need afterwards. We will ride at noon.”
Arthur was not clear on details when he woke up. He noticed that he was lying on grass, not in his own chambers, and that he was soaked.
“Arthur. Thank the gods,” Merlin said as he rushed to his side. He looked tired and worried and touched Arthur’s forehead with one hand. It felt burning hot on Arthur’s skin. “How do you feel?”
“Like I’ve been trampled by a horse,” Arthur answered, and tried to sit up. Merlin wore a strange expression and winced at the mention of a horse. Arthur groaned. Everything hurt, especially his backside, and he had no idea how he had ended up like this. “What happened?”
“Gaius was right. It was a kelpie. It... it appeared to be a lost pony, but...” Merlin began, but stammered around the words. “It’s not a threat anymore.”
“Merlin,” Arthur said, and tried to adopt a strict voice. “What happened?”
Arthur remembered the horse. It had been a small one, almost like a pony like Merlin had said, and Arthur had went to it. After that... he remembered singing and darkness and the sense of drowning, but none of the pictures were clear. He had a mental image of bright light piercing the darkness and someone dragging him out of the water.
Then Arthur noticed that Merlin’s clothes were wet too, and he had had enough time to build a fire already.
“You saved me from the water,” Arthur stated. Merlin didn’t answer, but he didn’t need to. “How?”
Merlin poked the fire with a stick and didn’t look at Arthur.
“Merlin, look at me. How did you do it?” Arthur asked again. He already knew the answer, but he longed to hear it from Merlin’s mouth.
“I... It was nothing. When I noticed it had caught you, I ran to save you and um. I struck it with your sword. It was confusing. I’m not completely sure how it happened.”
“Did you pack any food?” he asked, because he was apparently not going to get the magical truth out of Merlin this time either, and he wanted to make Merlin relax by changing the subject.
“I have some, yes.”
“Let’s just eat something and go back home then.”
Merlin only nodded and began to prepare the food for them.
Arthur told his father that Merlin had saved him with courage and loyalty, though he didn’t mention he had been stupid enough to get into the kelpie’s trap first. Uther was glaring at Merlin, clearly unconvinced, and Merlin was blushing horribly, but Arthur kept to his story and didn’t pay attention to either of them. They had changed into clean and dry clothes when they had come back, and Arthur suspected that while Merlin was back in his own room changing, he had told Gaius a very different tale from the one he had told to Arthur. Arthur tried not to be offended by this distrust, but he knew Merlin would tell him in his own time.
Finally, Uther promised Merlin a reward for his actions, though in reality he was clearly unwilling to provide any kind of reward, and dismissed them both. It was only hours till bedtime, so Arthur gave Merlin the rest of the night off and went to his room. He tried not to think about the vague memory of Merlin’s arms around him, pulling him out of the water.
After the kelpie incident life went on as normally as it ever did in Camelot. Merlin kept on doing really obvious magic, and Arthur kept on running right behind him, covering his tracks. There was no one Arthur could have complained about it, unless he wanted to let Merlin know that he knew, but he was still holding on to the hope that Merlin would someday step forward and confess it himself. There was also a slight chance that Arthur could’ve defended himself against most of the magical beasts and people who tried to kill him if he hadn’t been so preoccupied protecting Merlin.
Then the rumour about a horrible beast came in, and the King gave Arthur and his knights the command to go and slay it.
Of course Merlin wanted to come with them. Arthur didn’t see him the whole afternoon before they were meant to ride out to meet the creature, but he didn’t comment on it. If whatever knowledge of magic Merlin had gained during that time would help them beat the beast and survive without losing any men, then it was worth having dirty chambers for one day.
However, they didn’t find the beast; it found them. The group them were sleeping in a cave when it attacked during the night, and only Merlin’s sharp shout of “Arthur” woke Arthur up, before the beast had time to hurt anyone. It was dark in the cave, and the knights were half asleep (and fuck, what had happened to the knights who had been keeping an eye on their sleeping companions in case there was trouble?), so the beast had a while to roam around and scatter the escaping men around the cave. It had stepped on all the fires they had built to keep the area safe and warm.
It also almost stepped on Arthur. Merlin was muttering something in the middle of the chaos, the idiot, and Arthur was too busy making sure no one else heard him to notice that the beast was right behind him. Merlin stopped the muttering and pulled him behind a rock to shelter, and then moved a bit to a place where he could apparently see better.
Arthur wondered whether Merlin would’ve been able to stop the beast on his own. At least, it would have ended in everyone in the cave finding out about his powers and that was honestly the last thing Arthur wished, even if it meant a bit more work for him now. Some of the knights would’ve kept their mouths shut, but some were more loyal to the King than Arthur, and Uther would have found out about the magic as soon as they had returned to Camelot.
Arthur couldn’t use his eyesight, because his eyes were not yet used to the darkness, and he suspected other knights had the same problem. He knew Merlin was behind the rock next to his, and the others were all over the cave. Even though Arthur couldn’t see, he still had all his other senses. He listened to the beast roaring and estimated how far from him it was. He felt the wood of the spear under his fingers and wondered what the possibility of him hitting the beast from this distance was.
“Merlin,” he whispered, and heard an answer from his right side. “Can you see where it is? I only have one spear.”
The fact that it would be his only chance went unspoken.
“Right ahead of you. Slightly to the right. Maybe five or six yards away from us,” Merlin whispered back.
“Right. Well, here goes,” Arthur said, and listened to the noises the beast was making. He was relatively sure he could hit it now and hoped that Merlin had gotten the hint that his magic would be helpful when he threw.
Like Arthur had expected, when he rose up and threw the spear with all his strength, he heard Merlin quietly muttering a spell and the tip of the spear flashed bright gold before sinking into the beast’s side. He could hear the knights cheering when the animal escaped from the cave. It would probably die sooner rather than later, but Arthur couldn’t help feeling a touch of pity for it, because it hadn’t died immediately. The pain of having a spear in the side must have been unbearable. Arthur was a hunter and a warrior, but he did not enjoy torturing anyone, man or beast.
A few of the knights had lit up torches and came out of their hiding places to congratulate their leader. The first two only clapped Arthur on the back, but the third one said,
“It’s funny, but I was almost certain I saw the tip glowing golden before it hit the creature.”
It fell silent for a moment and then someone agreed that he too, had seen the golden glow. Merlin was at Arthur’s side and seemed to be holding his breath.
“I think we’re all tired. It must’ve been a reflection from something,” Arthur said.
“But the night is moonless and the fires were out.”
“Then you imagined it. I didn’t see any golden glow, and it was probably just what you wanted to see. Or came from the beast itself. Do we really know much about the creature?” Arthur asked, annoyed.
“Merlin does,” Sir Leon said. “Merlin lives with the physician and knows about magical beasts.”
Everyone turned to look at Merlin.
“Umm, I don’t know much to be honest,” Merlin muttered and shrugged, clearly uncomfortable with the situation. “I think it must have come from the beast itself or been your imagination, because I can’t come up with any other explanation.”
“Right then,” Arthur said. “Let’s build up the fires again, check the damages, and try to get some rest. We will return to Camelot first thing in the morning.”
He dragged Merlin with him to their bags and bedrolls and made him build their fire again while he looked over the rebuilding of the sleeping area.
Apparently, Arthur had not been hiding his feelings for Merlin as well as he had imagined, or maybe him being with Merlin all the time making sure that the idiot didn’t do any magic in front of wrong people was starting some rumours, because Morgana had begun to give Arthur some very long glances every time Arthur, Merlin, and her were in the same room together. Gaius didn’t say anything, but he was also giving them the Eyebrow more often now. It was probably only a matter of time before Arthur’s father would hear some of the rumours, and that was not a comforting thought. It was the last straw when Guinevere began to ask about their relationship.
“How’s Merlin? How are you two?” Gwen asked Arthur when they met in a corridor one day. It was awkward because Arthur had held a flame for her just a few short months ago, before he had realised that he could never love her as she deserved and that she was still half in love with Lancelot.
“Um, just normal?” Arthur answered.
“Oh, please,” Gwen said. “I know you better than that. Have you two... you know?”
“That’s not a way for a maidservant to talk, Guinevere!” Arthur said, feigning shock.
“That’s a no then.”
“It’s a no.”
“Well, for the love of the gods, why haven’t you made a move yet?” Gwen asked.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I mean the way you look at him. That’s a look you give to a lover, not a servant,” Gwen said, refusing to lower her gaze. Arthur tried to figure out how he was supposedly looking at Merlin, but he couldn’t see it himself, could he? There was no way he was looking at Merlin. None. Gwen was still staring at him though, so finally Arthur answered,
“I don’t want to put him in an awkward position.”
“Not like that,” Arthur blushed. “What has Morgana been teaching you? She’s a terrible influence.”
“You mean, you think everyone would read it as you taking advantage of your poor, helpless manservant who doesn’t know how to say no to you?” Gwen said innocently.
“If you put it like that...”
“That’s exactly how I put it. So, Arthur, when are you going to pass the border?”
“I’m not,” Arthur said, and Gwen raised her eyebrow. (Was everyone in the castle taking lessons from Gaius in eyebrow lifting?) “I should perhaps remind you that my father, the King of Camelot, has forbidden such relationships.”
“Then again, he won’t be a king forever.”
“I can’t...” Arthur said. “I can’t ask... anyone... to wait for me that long. It might be years. Decades.”
“Arthur, you should believe in yourself more. Have you met Merlin? Have you seen the way he looks at you?”
Arthur had no answer to that.
“Now, I can’t talk for much longer, I have a lot of work to do,” Gwen said. “But really, you should talk to him. About... what you’re going to do.”
And with that cryptic message, Gwen left. Arthur wished the words would have been a bit more cryptic, to be honest, because like that he could understand the insinuation just fine and it was all incredibly awkward and embarrassing when you got down into it. Oh joy. It was a wonderful life when your past almost-lover decided to ask personal questions about your love life and push you in the direction of one of her best friends. Well, at least it hadn’t been Morgana who had asked the questions. Arthur had only just thought that when he spotted his sister (speak of the devil), and proceeded to find himself under interrogation about Merlin for the next three quarters of an hour.
Once every three years Camelot and its allies held a friendly tournament and practice camp together. It was a chance to meet old friends, practice with knights from other kingdoms, and get absurdly drunk with them. Even though the King usually came to see the tournament, this time he decided to stay home, while Arthur and his knights left the city for four days of merriment. Some knights were left to protect the citadel, but it was usually more as a punishment than anything else if anyone was forced to miss the camp.
“Come on, Merlin. Don’t fall asleep now, we’re almost there,” Arthur said to Merlin, who was looking around cautiously.
“Are you sure this route is safe? We usually get attacked every time we ride here,” Merlin said.
“Of course it is. We’re still inside Camelot’s borders. We won’t be soon, though. The camp is right ahead.”
They always gathered on neutral ground. There was a field in the middle of the forest where all their borders crossed, and it was usually there where they held their tournament. Even when the road there had sometime in the past proved to be less than completely safe, Arthur trusted in his knights enough to lead them through.
“See? Nothing to worry about,” Arthur said when they finally reached the field and greeted their fellow soldiers enthusiastically. “We’ll be completely safe here.”
Usually, Merlin didn’t get involved in Arthur’s battles, because he respected Arthur’s need to prove himself and didn’t want to steal Arthur’s glory of a fair victory. But even the knights from the friendly kingdoms weren’t always completely innocent, so Merlin definitely did something during one of the fencing matches.
Arthur was in the middle of a seemingly friendly battle with a knight who was admittedly a stranger to him, when Arthur began to feel weak and sweaty. It was as if he had fallen sick in the middle of a match, and Arthur fought to keep his eyes from closing. His sword handle was slippery, and it was hard to keep his stance in front of his opponent. There was definitely something wrong, but his thoughts were jammed and slow, and by that point he was only standing because of the intensive hours of training and routine. His opponent seemed to be fine and while Arthur was not attacking, even in his current condition he still managed to avert every hit successfully. He would have to yield soon if...
As quick as it has started, Arthur felt his thoughts clear like a weight had been lifted from his mind. He saw straight again and felt the sword heavy in his hand, and once again he knew exactly how to use it and what to do to win the battle. After that it was easy, so easy, to strike the other knight down.
When Arthur walked away from the battlefield with the sound of applause still ringing in his ears, he saw Merlin breathing hard and staring at him from close by.
“What did you think? Good battle, huh?” Arthur said to him nonchalantly. It began to make sense now. The other knight must have done something magical to make Arthur feel sick, and Merlin had defended him by fighting the spell back. It was possible that the knight wouldn’t have killed Arthur, but Arthur’s pride and reputation would have suffered from the lost match and the other knight would’ve always been known as the one who had defeated Prince Arthur of Camelot.
“You seemed to be having some difficulties in the middle of it,” Merlin said, still trying to calm his breathing.
“Rubbish,” Arthur said. “I was fine. Were you worried about me? You seem a little nervous. I’m touched by your concern, Merlin.”
Arthur grinned in a way that would surely get an eye roll out of Merlin, and he was not disappointed.
“Of course, sire,” Merlin said, unimpressed. “I can’t describe how much I worry about you every single minute of my existence.”
“I knew it,” Arthur said. “Now are you going to just stand there or give me some of that water?”
The camp was full of soldiers, men at the height of their fertility, so of course at some point the discussion was going to turn to women. There was a lot of bragging, and especially at the end of the day when they had taken the wine and cider out, the conversation began to flow louder and much more freely. The air was full of laughter and jokes that were appropriate for neither civilised nor sober company. Arthur was mostly quiet and didn’t comment on the conversations of conquests and past lovers. Of course Arthur had experience with women just as much as the next man, but since Merlin was sitting so close, the thought of discussing those things made him uncomfortable. He was listening to the stories and drinking from his cup, until,
“So, your highness, you’re still single, I see? How is the hunting for a wife going?”
Arthur laughed uncomfortably, because he did not really know the other man well enough to discuss marriage. He had heard his name, but for the life of him couldn’t remember it right now.
“I’ve currently no plans of getting married. I don’t feel like rushing the decision.”
“You’re picky, then. You know it doesn’t have to be for the rest of your life, right? It’s fine to have a mistress on the side. Most royals keep them anyway.”
Next to Arthur, Merlin tensed.
The other knight leaned closer to Arthur and whispered rather more loudly than necessary,
“Or maybe take a male lover if you’re that way inclined. You wouldn’t be the first one of that kind either.”
Merlin was staring at the fire, and Arthur knew he had heard every word.
“Thank you for your advice. I will think about it,” Arthur answered dryly. “But I have no plans of getting married just yet, as I already said.”
“Sorry, I need to...” Merlin said, and left the company. No one but Arthur paid him any attention.
Over the next few days, Arthur received more than one offer of marriage with a sister or cousin of some lord or knight. Of course Arthur told them politely to come and visit the court of Camelot sometime with the young ladies in question, because he would be delighted to meet them, but he was not very enthusiastic about the prospect. Merlin didn’t say anything about it, but he knew how Arthur felt about meeting all those hopeful women who had dreams of the prince falling in love with them and about becoming the queen of Camelot. Merlin’s own tense reaction to the offers was probably caused by sympathy and the possibility of more feasts and visitors, meaning that Merlin would be forced to wear the ceremonial robes again. Or maybe he was worried that some of the guests would try and kill Arthur. Whatever the reason, Merlin had been very quiet for the last day of camp, not chatting with the other servants or squires like he had when they had first arrived. Arthur tried to bring him into discussions with gentle teasing and insults, but Merlin never took the bait.
The night was as always full of drinking and singing and general enjoyment, even more so than the other nights had been. They were all tired after so many days of intensive training, but everyone wanted to take this last chance to meet friends they probably wouldn’t see again for a long time, if ever. Arthur laughed and joked with the others, but he noticed that Merlin was still oddly quiet and staring into his cup. Arthur went to sit beside him.
“What’s wrong?” Arthur asked. There was no reason to pretend that Merlin was just fine when he had that expression.
“Nothing,” Merlin said.
“No, really. I’m fine. I was just thinking.”
“Thinking? You? Are you sure you should be doing that?” Arthur tried to joke, but it fell flat, and he ended up just looking at Merlin instead. “Thinking about what?”
Merlin turned to look at him.
“Things,” he muttered. Then he added, “Are you going to run off to some far off kingdom to marry a princess?”
Arthur hadn’t expected that question, and he didn’t have an answer ready, so he just shook his head.
“They were talking, you know, the other knights,” Merlin continued. “They were talking about how you should marry soon and were comparing all their relatives and making suggestions who might be a good match for you.”
“And? There’s always that kind of talk when soldiers gather together,” Arthur pointed out. It was a weird subject to discuss with Merlin.
“But they thought you should be married already. They think you have a secret girlfriend, a lover, something, and that’s why you haven’t yet taken a wife.”
Arthur raised his eyebrows.
“I didn’t know you listened to rumours, Merlin.”
“I don’t! Usually. And I know it’s not about that, but I was also wondering... Why haven’t you? I mean, I’ve met some of the candidates your father has offered you and most of them were terrible. But some were nice and even sometimes smart and sensible enough.”
“Maybe I’m waiting for the right one?” Arthur offered. Merlin snorted.
“Now you’re just pulling my leg. I can’t really see you as a romantic.”
“I could be. Merlin,” Arthur said. “When the right one comes along, when I meet the person I want to spend the rest of my life with, I will know. Trust me on this one.”
Merlin nodded and turned his gaze to the campfire.
“And I trust in you to tell me if I’m doing anything stupid. I know you, and I know you will,” Arthur added.
“Do you really?” Merlin muttered, and then tried to smile it off. “But you never listen to me.”
“Of course I don’t. Now come on. Have something to eat and have a drink. It would give everyone great entertainment to see you drunk, I’m sure,” Arthur said, nodding towards the other knights sitting around the fire.
Arthur had his own tent with him, and so did some other soldiers. Most of the party was sleeping out in the open though, among them Merlin. Arthur had difficulties getting to sleep. He tossed and turned and couldn’t find a comfortable position, no matter what he tried. In the end he got up and decided to see if anyone he knew was still awake. It would be good to have some company.
When Arthur stepped out of the tent he noticed a familiar figure leaving the camp and that the place where Merlin had been sleeping was empty.
Arthur always noticed when Merlin wasn’t there, but no one else in the camp apparently had. Fair enough, most people were already asleep, and there were only a few drunken voices echoing around anymore. Even those were coming from further away. It was usually the other way around with them, Arthur sneaking into places and Merlin following him, but somehow it still felt good and natural to see where Merlin was going. It was the middle of the night! It wasn’t about being nosy or too curious; it was about keeping Merlin safe from the dangers that might lurk in the depths of the forest. Arthur had been worried about Merlin and what he might be planning all night, and now he might have the chance to find out something. Of course he was going to take it.
He followed Merlin, staying close but hidden, and found himself on the edge of the forest in another clearing that was smaller than the one in which the knights were camping. Merlin turned his face towards the sky and spoke.
Arthur didn’t expect the noise that left Merlin’s mouth. It was like another language, but more powerful, more arousing than anything Arthur had ever heard. He swallowed and hid behind a tree, wondering what was going on when a shadow swept over the moon and landed in front of Merlin.
His mouth fell open. It was a dragon. It was a real, live, fully grown dragon, and Arthur thought about attacking before it could eat Merlin or worse, but then Merlin was talking again.
“I have a question for you,” Merlin bellowed at the dragon. “I need answers.”
“What do you need to know, young warlock?” the dragon answered.
“What happens if I leave Camelot? What happens if my destiny remains unfulfilled?”
“Big questions, Merlin, and ones that even the wisest couldn’t answer. It is your destiny to remain at the prince’s side, but I can’t tell you what happens if you refuse to accept it. It might alter the lives of many.”
“But I can’t stay there. They keep trying to marry Arthur off, and I have to hide who I really am from him, because if his father found out I would be dead before the morning.”
“I can’t answer your questions, young warlock, but you must know this. Young Pendragon wouldn’t let it happen. He would fight against his father’s will and think about the consequences later.”
“How can you know?” Merlin asked quietly.
“Merlin, both of you have sacrificed so much to save each other. Do you really believe that he would see you executed like that?”
Arthur felt sadness. He couldn’t believe Merlin thought so little of him. So little of Arthur’s feelings for him.
“No. I guess not. But would he really take my side against his father if he had to choose?” Merlin asked.
Yes, Arthur answered inside his head. I would. There’s no question about that.
“He is not his father. Maybe it’s your destiny to turn his head about his stance on magic.”
“Should I tell him, then?” Merlin asked. “Should I tell him about my powers? Only, I don’t know if I can keep it secret for much longer.”
“You need to look out for the answer yourself, Merlin. You, better than anyone, know what the young Pendragon has in his heart. Only you can have that discussion with him. Maybe it’s time.”
Arthur wanted to cheer for the great big lizard Merlin was talking to. He also wanted to shout that he agreed with the talking bit and that he should have several interesting discussions with Merlin, but instead he bit his sleeve to stop himself from making a sound.
Then the dragon was flying off, and Arthur realised Merlin would be returning to the camp and would start to worry if Arthur was not there. He rushed towards the camp as fast as he could, and when he got to the edge of the forest, he practically tripped over Merlin
“Arthur?” Merlin asked, confused. “What are you doing here? You should be sleeping.”
“I... I had to go and...” Arthur tried to come up with plausible excuse for strolling around in a forest in the middle of the night.
“You had to... Oh. Oh. Okay,” Merlin said, eyes widening, and Arthur understood what he must think Arthur had been doing. He did not deny or confirm, but quickly changed the subject.
“Where have you been then?” Arthur asked.
“Oh, nowhere. I just went for a walk. Couldn’t sleep.”
A guard spotted them. Of course none of them would’ve ever spotted a real enemy sneaking into the camp; Arthur felt a touch of annoyance for the interruption.
“Halt! Where are you going?”
“Back to my tent, thank you,” Arthur said with his most authoritative voice. “I’ll take my manservant with me if you don’t mind.”
Arthur pulled Merlin close by his arm.
“Of course, sire. Sorry, sire. I didn’t recognise it was you. Good night, sire.”
Arthur felt glad that at least he could still command someone even though a guard was not the same thing as a dragon.
“Thank you. I don’t think he would’ve let me in alone,” Merlin said, and shuddered a bit. “I would’ve had to sneak in some other way.”
“That’s what you get for going to walk around the woods in the middle of the night alone,” Arthur commented. “Are you feeling cold?”
“I’m fine. It was a bit chilly in the clearing there, but I’ll be warm again in a bit.”
“Well, if you’re too cold, you could sleep in my tent tonight. Plenty of space in there for another person.”
“You...” Merlin began. “You mean it? Or are you joking again?”
“Oh for gods’ sake. Just collect your things and come to my tent. I don’t want you to freeze to death during the night. Training another manservant would be too much bother.”
“Okay,” Merlin said, and smiled. The smile made Arthur’s heart beat a little faster. “Okay then. I’ll be there in a minute.”
During that minute Arthur had some time to think through what he had seen. A dragon. It had to be the same one that had been attacking Camelot months ago. It looked like the same one, even though Arthur hadn’t seen enough dragons to fully form an opinion on how similar all of them looked (especially since this was probably last of its kind). In any case, it had been a huge beast, and Merlin had... commanded it. Arthur’s hopeless, clumsy, adorable manservant had commanded a dragon. Merlin had talked to the dragon, and it had answered him. The thought made Arthur’s head spin. It wasn’t enough that Merlin was beautiful and funny and sometimes smart (even if he was a complete idiot most of the time); of course he also knew how to speak dragon tongue, which aroused Arthur more than he would’ve thought possible before tonight.
“Arthur?” Merlin peeked inside the tent. “Where can I sleep?”
“Anywhere. I’m sleeping on the ground too, but at least it’s warmer than outside.”
“Thanks,” Merlin said, and put his bedroll down several feet away from Arthur. Arthur felt a little offended. What did Merlin expect him to do during the night? Eat him? Take him by force? Neither of these things was in Arthur’s plans so he only rolled his eyes, took his cloak off, and pulled his own blankets around himself.
It was almost quiet for a moment. Merlin sounded like he was still shivering from the cold, so finally Arthur said,
“For heaven’s sake, Merlin. Come closer and share my body heat. I’m not going to stand you being that noisy all night.”
Merlin didn’t say anything but rolled a bit closer.
“Good. Now stay there,” Arthur said as he wrapped his arms around Merlin. It was for keeping warm. There was no other reason why Arthur should’ve been so happy to fall asleep with Merlin in his arms.
No other reason at all.
Going through the Valley of the Fallen Kings never boded well, so of course on the way home they were attacked by bandits. Arthur killed more than a few and tried to keep his eye on Merlin, even though it was likely that no one was paying much attention to his magic at the moment. Merlin was throwing people off their horses, conjuring animals to scare them, and even waving a sword.
“Go,” Arthur yelled when he heard the voices of more men coming from the woods. He didn’t know if they were friends or enemies so it was best to retreat. “Go back to Camelot! We can come and beat them later!”
Some of their group of knights were already back on their horses and riding towards Camelot, but Arthur couldn’t leave without Merlin.
“Merlin! I said we need to leave now,” he yelled, and Merlin gave him a sign of understanding. He climbed onto his horse, and Arthur did the same. The other knights were nowhere to be seen.
They came to a crossroads, and Arthur turned.
“But Camelot is the other way,” Merlin said. His horse was following Arthur’s.
“I know that, idiot, but we lost the others, and we can’t fight the bandits off on our own. I don’t want them to follow us. Let’s find another way.”
They rode in peace for a couple of hours, stopped to eat at midday, and continued their journey in silence. It was not the awkward kind of silence you sometimes had when you honestly had nothing to say to the other person, but comfortable, companionable silence that came from them both already knowing what the other was thinking.
“So is it far yet?” Merlin asked. His sense of direction or distance had never been any good. Arthur had ridden in these areas with the knights half of his life, and he knew exactly where they were.
“It’s in that direction for about six hour’s ride.”
“There’s no path,” Merlin said. Arthur snorted at that.
“I know. That’s why we’re not currently riding that way.”
“Oh. Right,” Merlin said, and continued to glance around worriedly.
“Stop fidgeting. You’re making me and the horses all edgy,” Arthur commanded after a while. “What is it?”
“I’m just... sensing something. Something not nice,” Merlin answered. “I’ve been feeling it for the last half an hour.”
“It’s nothing. There’s nothing in here. For once could you just relax...?” Arthur didn’t have time to finish the question when he felt a sharp pain in his shoulder. He touched it, but it was not an arrow. It was something magical, something that was piercing his shoulder and radiating pain all over his body.
“Arthur!” Merlin yelled, but the voice was muffled to his ears. He felt a soft thump on his side and then he only saw black.
When Arthur woke up again, it was to Merlin’s hands shaking him.
“Arthur, you need to be alright. Please, be alright,” Merlin pleaded, and Arthur opened his eyes groggily. He saw Merlin’s face in front of him and sat up.
“What happened?” he asked. His head was pounding, but when he touched his shoulder, it felt fine. The piercing feeling was gone, and Arthur was glad. It hadn’t been a nice feeling, not being able to defend himself against pain.
“Umm, it was a sorcerer,” Merlin began, and Arthur just looked at him. “Said we were crossing his area. I... got rid of him.”
“Is he dead?” Arthur asked.
“No. Surprisingly enough, he didn’t want to hurt you after he found out you were a knight of Camelot.”
Well, that was certainly something new. Usually the sorcerers, with the exception of Merlin, were jumping up and down at the chance of having a knight in their grasp. Arthur thought Merlin might have had something to do with the sorcerer being so obedient about it, but he didn’t ask. Not now.
“You shouldn’t get up yet,” Merlin said when Arthur tried to. Well, that was just silly, because if they wanted to make it to Camelot before nightfall, they should be on their way soon. Arthur said as much, but Merlin insisted that he had to sit down for a while before it was safe for him to mount a horse again. They fed and watered the horses while waiting, and Merlin told him what exactly had happened with the sorcerer. Arthur listened distractedly, but there was something missing in the story and he reminded himself that he should ask about it one day when all the secrets were on the table.
“So,” Merlin said cheerfully after finishing the unconvincing story. “Ready to go then?”
“Sure. We really should,” Arthur said as he stood up. He was sure they couldn’t reach home before tomorrow, because he had spent so many hours unconscious, but he was willing to try their luck. When they were readying the horses, Arthur heard an animal make a high-pitched sound.
“Only a boar,” Arthur murmured and calmed his horse with a warm hand. “Nothing to worry about.”
“Arthur!” Merlin said. “Are you sure about that?”
Merlin was pointing into the woods.
A giant boar was running right towards them.
“Do something!” Arthur yelled, because during the moment of panic it slipped his mind that he shouldn’t have known about the magic.
Merlin had only raised his hands before an arrow flew from the woods and hit the boar in the neck. It collapsed only a few feet from their legs. Merlin was breathing hard, hands on his knees, and Arthur’s heart was beating wildly. Today was just full of bad luck, and this was the last straw. They were in the middle of nowhere and alone and everyone kept attacking them, and Arthur really wanted something good to happen before the day was over.
He seemed to be out of luck, because someone very familiar rode out into the open then. He had longer hair than the last time they had seen him, but the careless smile was the same, and Arthur had to think a while before he remembered why exactly he shouldn’t be grateful for seeing this person and his bow.
“Gwaine? What the hell are you doing here? You’re inside Camelot borders,” Arthur said. He was annoyed, because Merlin was looking at Gwaine like he had been sent by the gods.
“Living on the edge, princess. Nice to see you too,” Gwaine said, and winked at Merlin. Gwaine hopped off the back of his horse.
“What Arthur meant to say was it’s good to see you, Gwaine. Especially since you saved our lives right there,” Merlin said and went to hug Gwaine.
“Well, if I hadn’t been hunting it wouldn’t have tried to attack you in the first place,” Gwaine admitted, but hugged Merlin back tightly. A bit too tightly if you asked Arthur. Arthur felt like he should’ve gone and parted the two and dragged Merlin away or possibly shouted ”Off!” which was ridiculous, because Merlin wasn’t his. He could hug his friends if he wanted to.
It didn’t mean Arthur had to like the touches and winks Gwaine sent Merlin’s way.
“It’s been a while. How’s he treating you, Merlin?” Gwaine asked.
Merlin laughed uncomfortably.
“As well as expected.”
“If you ever get tired of playing a maid, you know you can always ditch the princess and take off with me. We could be on the run together,” Gwaine said and grasped Merlin’s shoulder in a way that could be called flirty. Gwaine was flirting with Merlin. Arthur’s Merlin. Jealousy burned in Arthur’s veins, and he cleared his throat.
“We should get going,” he said stiffly.
“You’re far from home, princess. You can’t reach Camelot before nightfall. It would be better to take shelter for the night.”
Arthur knew that, of course he did, but the thought of spending the night watching Gwaine flirt with Merlin was appalling.
“He’s right, Arthur. I think I saw a place where we could make a fire further down the stream.”
“Alright then. We’ll ride back home tomorrow,” Arthur said. He mounted his horse and began to ride towards the stream. “I’ll go check the place.”
By which he meant, “I’ll leave you two to your flirting, because I don’t want to watch it any longer.” Gods, he needed to pull himself together before he made a fool of himself.
“How have you been, Gwaine?” Merlin asked him when it was almost dark. They had a fire burning and Merlin was preparing food from the boar Gwaine had shot down earlier and some supplies they had found in their bags. Arthur was sitting close by and listening to the conversation.
“Getting along. You know me, I never stay in one place for very long,” Gwaine answered, taking a taste of whatever Merlin was cooking. “Mmm, this is good. You would make an excellent wife, Merlin.”
Arthur wanted to pout, but kept himself in check. There was no way he was going to let the two of them know that he was pining after Merlin. Not that he was pining, of course.
“Glad you like it. It should be ready any minute now,” Merlin laughed. He didn’t seem to be bothered by Gwaine’s behaviour, but neither was he flirting back. This cheered Arthur up a little bit.
“So what are you two doing here? Another quest?”
“No, nothing like that. His highness,” Merlin nodded towards Arthur, “and I were part of a group of knights. Bandits attacked and we got divided from the others and decided to come this way to avoid further attacks. Not a good plan in the end.”
“Not really, no. I guess the boar wasn’t the first thing that tried to kill you today?”
Arthur shook his head.
“As usual I saved your backsides, and here we are then,” Gwaine finished Merlin’s story. “What’s wrong with you today, princess? You usually have something to comment on everything.”
“I’m fine,” Arthur grunted.
“You weren’t hurt during the attack, were you?” Merlin asked. There was worry in his voice.
“Just exhausted. Is that food ready or not? I want to go to sleep soon.”
“Yes, it should be,” Merlin said and rushed to pull out some plates from his bag. “Here you go.”
Arthur took the offered plate. Merlin was still looking at him worriedly, and Gwaine was watching their interactions with a slight frown.
“Thank you, Merlin,” Arthur said, and began to eat. Gwaine raised his eyebrows.
“What else is new in Camelot then?” Gwaine asked when he too had a steaming plateful of food in front of him, and Merlin began to tell.
Arthur woke up in the middle of the night to sounds of whispering close to his sleeping place. It took him a moment to remember where he was, and then he realised it had to be Merlin whispering with...
“There is no way I will tell him. I can’t. He’d get me killed.”
“Merlin,” Gwaine said in an exasperated tone. “Your problem has always been that you think the princess doesn’t like you. Or sees you as just a servant. You know neither of those things are true.”
“But he does,” Merlin whispered. “See me as a servant. And he keeps an eye on me all the time nowadays. I can’t go anywhere without having him following after me.”
“Have you considered that it might be because he’s worried? As worried as you are for him, I should say. Or maybe it’s because he wants to...” Gwaine trailed off.
There was a loud slapping noise and an angry “Gwaine!”
“He doesn’t. How could he? He’s the prince. He doesn’t see me that way. Maybe as a friend, but...”
“Just keep telling yourself that, Merlin,” Gwaine said, and Arthur heard the smirk in his voice. “But I have seen the way he looks at you and you cannot go on insisting that it doesn’t mean anything.”
The whispering continued, but Arthur was already slipping back into sleep. He felt that he should’ve stayed awake and listened more, but his eyes slid closed on their own and before he knew it he was snoring softly.
“Ugh,” Arthur said when he woke up in the morning. It took him a while to get his eyes fully open and stretch his muscles. The ground really wasn’t the most comfortable place to sleep, no matter how much Merlin insisted that he had slept on the floor most of his life. He saw Merlin cooking breakfast, but there was something missing.
“Where’s Gwaine?” Arthur asked after a moment.
“Oh, you’re awake then. Gwaine said he had to go. I think he wanted to leave before you woke up just in case you decided to arrest him for breaking his banishment anyway,” Merlin answered, still focussed on the task at hand.
“I wouldn’t have, you know,” Arthur said, and then remembered the whispers the previous night. He couldn’t remember what had been said, but Merlin had definitely been whispering with Gwaine. “Did you stay up for long?”
“Hmm?” Merlin voiced before he seemed to understand what the question had been. “Not for too long, no. I had things to discuss with Gwaine, since we haven’t seen each other in such a long time, but we went to sleep eventually.”
“You didn’t take his offer though?” Arthur asked just because he couldn’t stop himself.
“Offer? What offer?” Merlin asked, clearly confused.
“Ditch the princess and run off with me? Would you want to be my wife and constantly on the run?” Arthur said, trying to imitate Gwaine’s lazy note to the best of his ability.
Merlin burst out laughing.
“Gwaine didn’t expect me to take him up the offer. He knows full well that I belong in Camelot,” Merlin said, putting some food on a plate. “You should eat now if we want to make it back today.”
Arthur wasn’t convinced that Merlin was speaking the whole truth, but he began to eat and promised himself to think about it later.
Back in Camelot, Merlin seemed to be everywhere. Of course, it was Merlin’s job to follow Arthur wherever he went, but for some reason Merlin had only now seemed to realise it.
It wasn’t that Merlin was behind every corner, but more that he was doing magic behind every corner. When Arthur went to the armoury Merlin was there polishing Arthur’s chainmail and several other objects that clattered down on the floor when Arthur stepped in. Merlin had a scared, half-hysterical expression, but Arthur only told him to clean up after himself better and watch out where he was doing his work. When Arthur visited Gaius’s rooms, Merlin was mixing herbs in a bowl and muttering something in a low voice. When Arthur had meetings with his father or the council, Merlin was always standing in the corner, listening to all that was said.
And when Arthur stepped into his own chambers, Merlin was usually there as his own cheerful self and Arthur’s fire and bathwater and candles seemed to have gained life of their own.
It was slowly driving Arthur mad. Merlin was acting cheery, but sometimes Arthur saw him looking at him from the corner of his eye and frowning. Maybe Merlin had wanted to go with Gwaine. It would’ve explained his mood during the last few weeks since they had returned to Camelot and why he suddenly seemed to have a wish to be executed for performing obvious sorcery.
The truth was that maybe Merlin would’ve been better off with Gwaine. Gwaine didn’t have all these responsibilities and complications; he was easy-going and flirty where Arthur was shuttered and insulting, and Gwaine had action and adventures whereas with Arthur Merlin was stuck in endless discussions about taxes and food resources. It would’ve been better for Merlin to take his gifts far away from Camelot. The thought depressed Arthur.
The worst thing may have been Morgana’s continued smirks and Gwen’s smiles and the fatherly claps on the shoulder he received from Gaius. They all seemed to think that there was definitely something going on between Arthur and his manservant, but Arthur couldn’t go and tell them all that there was nothing like that going on. That things were awkward enough as they were.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Arthur said to himself when he lied down after one long and hard training session with the knights. He felt like he was only a visitor in his own body, and he was just running through daily errands without ever thinking about them even for a moment. He needed to get out of the castle. Just for a few days. He couldn’t possibly stay and see what foreign princess the King would suggest as his next wife and look at Merlin pining after Gwaine. The walls felt like they were closing in on him, and Arthur just needed to get out of the palace, get out of Merlin’s horrible attempts at hiding his magic, and get away from all the knowing glances everyone was giving him when none of them were actually deserved.
Arthur rose up and pushed some clothes into his bag. He should inform his father that he was going to be away for a couple of days. Maybe there was a quest or a patrol he could do.
Someone opened the door and walked into the room without knocking.
Of course it had to be Merlin.
There was a moment of complete silence.
“What are you doing? Are we going somewhere? Has something happened?” Merlin asked.
“I’m going somewhere, and I’m going alone.”
“Oh, great. When are we leaving?” Merlin asked, delighted now.
“What part of alone do you not understand, Merlin?”
“You...”Merlin said, and this time sounded lost. “I can’t come with you? Why? Did I do something?”
Arthur felt tired.
“Look, I need some time to myself. I need to get out of the palace for a day or two. Can you understand that?”
“Of course. But... Arthur, please. I won’t bother you. Please, let me come with you? Please?”
Arthur sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers. He had absolutely no defence against Merlin looking so sad and lost. He had two options: Tell Merlin that he was going alone, in which case Merlin would probably follow him anyway like he always did, but would have that sad, lost look on his face the whole time. Or take Merlin with him.
“Fine! Fine then. Come with me. But if you’re any bother I’ll send you back here, alright?” Arthur said, trying to sound threatening even though he only felt tiredness. Merlin gave him a brilliant smile.
“Yes! Of course.”
“I’ll go and talk to my father. You can finish packing, get some food, tell Gaius where you’re going to be, and ready the horses, okay?” Arthur asked. He wasn’t sure how he felt about Merlin coming along, because Merlin was actually the reason for all his troubles, but it would be nice to have some company even though Arthur didn’t want to admit that even to himself.
Merlin nodded and began to pack. Arthur sighed again and left the room.
Riding in the forest with a surprisingly quiet Merlin beside him calmed Arthur a bit. He felt more like himself already, and even though the official point of this journey was to patrol the nearby areas, it was relaxing compared to the fuss of the castle. In there, the feeling of being trapped intensified, but out here he could breathe freely and just enjoy the peace and nature around him.
Merlin seemed to sense Arthur’s mood and didn’t try to make any conversation. Arthur was glad about it even though he usually liked Merlin’s chattering. Not that he would’ve ever admitted it aloud. Arthur caught a couple of rabbits for their dinner, and when they set up camp for themselves when it was beginning to get dark, Arthur was ready to talk again, but he didn’t yet. The riding, fresh air, food Merlin had prepared, and Merlin’s company made him wish for a moment that this could be his life. Without baggage or responsibilities or trying to find his true love when he rather thought he already had.
That was not a conscious thought, and it made him sit up quickly and reach to get some water. His throat was suddenly too dry, and he tried his best to get rid of the ridiculous thought.
“Everything okay?” Merlin asked him.
“Yes, of course,” Arthur answered, looking at Merlin. He was beautiful sitting there in the light of the campfire, looking back at him. He remembered his father’s warnings about getting involved with servants or sorcerers, and Gwen’s gentle questioning about his intentions. He could almost see Morgana smirking at him and asking where Merlin was, and Gaius lifting his eyebrow at him. But none of them were there; in the end it was not their choice to decide what Arthur was doing with his life. Still, Arthur couldn’t make himself take that step, because he wasn’t sure how Merlin would respond. What if Merlin said no? It could all become very awkward very fast.
That wasn’t what Arthur wanted.
“You sure? Are you still hungry? It’s been a long day,” Merlin said, and without further questions put the rest of the food in the cooking dish on Arthur’s plate.
“Thank you,” Arthur said.
“So what’s up? Do you want to talk about it?”
“What do you mean?” Arthur asked, even though he knew full well what Merlin meant.
“You’ve been acting odd since we returned to Camelot. You haven’t been eating or sleeping properly. If there’s something wrong...”
“Nothing you can do,” he answered finally when the silence was stretching uncomfortably.
“Okay,” Merlin said. “But I’m here if you want to talk to someone, okay?”
“Now, should we try to get some sleep?” Arthur asked, and Merlin went to pick up their bedrolls.
Somehow Merlin ended up sleeping in Arthur’s arms again, and even though they both insisted it was only for warmth and safety, it wasn’t about that at all, at least not for Arthur who slept better than he had in a long time.
Arthur was the first to wake up in the morning. He was still wrapped around Merlin in a protective way and tried not to notice how right it felt. He stretched and rose up and went to wash in the river nearby. He took his time, washing away sweat and dirt, drinking and cleaning his teeth, and thinking about everything that had happened. He decided there was not much he could do about the situation he had found himself in, but if it was in his power he would continue protecting Merlin from people who might notice him doing obvious magic. Arthur wouldn’t let anyone hurt Merlin if he could do something about it.
Thinking about that he walked back, the first thing he saw was the same beast that had once attacked the knights in a cave.
The second thing he saw was Merlin, arms lifted and eyes blazing golden. He spoke words Arthur didn’t understand, and even though Arthur knew he should turn away and pretend that he hadn’t seen anything, for the life of him he couldn’t turn his back on the sight of Merlin doing some very impressive magic indeed. The beast still had a wound in its side and when Arthur watched, blood began to flow through the old injury, and the beast let out a screech. Merlin didn’t give it any mercy, or maybe this was mercy because the animal had to be suffering; soon it was on the ground and Merlin was beside it comforting it and muttering further words of magic. The beast whined and closed its eyes, falling into sleep it would never again wake up from.
Arthur stepped forward, and Merlin lifted his head. He stared at Arthur, and all Arthur could see was pure terror. There was none of the powerful sorcerer left in Merlin’s appearance.
“Arthur,” Merlin said. “I... I can explain.”
“You killed it,” Arthur pointed out and stepped a bit closer. “That was... very impressive. Could you have killed it the first time?”
“I’m not sure,” Merlin answered. He was still holding the beast’s head and staring at Arthur. “It was dark, and I only learned this trick afterwards.”
“Does this mean I can stop pretending I didn’t know all along?” Arthur asked as he went to touch the beast. He was acting like it wasn’t a big deal, even though this was it. This was the moment he had been waiting for, for such a long time.
“What?” Merlin gasped. “You knew?”
“I’ve known for months. Do you have any idea how hard it’s been to cover your tracks when you insist on doing magic right in front of my father?” Arthur asked, trying his best to keep his voice steady when he got back to his feet and stepped away from the dead animal. After hiding his feelings for so many weeks and months, it was difficult not to shout when he said, “Do you have a death wish, or what have you been playing at, living in Camelot and doing obvious magic almost daily?”
“Um,” Merlin said, and rose to his feet as well. “I... I’ve been protecting you.”
“What about protecting yourself? Are you completely insane?”
“Are you going to banish me?” Merlin asked. Not have you told anyone, not are you going to tell your father, not will you execute me. It was as if Merlin was mostly just worried about Arthur sending him away.
“I wish I could,” Arthur said, and sat down next to the place where they had slept the previous night. “I should do that.”
“Then why won’t you?” Merlin asked quietly.
“You wouldn’t leave,” Arthur muttered, and Merlin bit back a laugh. “And I’m rather used to having you around. I... I don’t think it would do either of us much good to have you leave Camelot.”
Merlin was hovering next to Arthur and didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands or feet. Arthur made some room for Merlin and patted the ground next to him.
Merlin sat down.
“What now?” Merlin asked.
“I don’t know,” Arthur answered truthfully, and rubbed his eyes and the bridge of his nose. He could feel the headache starting inside his skull. “Maybe you should’ve gone with Gwaine when you had the chance. At least I’d know you’d be safe and out of Camelot.”
Merlin shook his head before Arthur stopped talking.
“It wouldn’t have worked. I don’t want to go with Gwaine. And you wouldn’t survive a day without me.”
Arthur laughed then.
“You know who you’re talking to, right?”
“A prat? Someone who would’ve been drowned by a kelpie without my help? Someone who needs a guardian angel looking over him?” Merlin asked.
Arthur smiled at him and elbowed him in the ribs.
“Since when have you talked to dragons?” he suddenly asked. If the secret was in the open now, he could find out the rest as well.
There was a moment of silence when Merlin turned to stare at him.
“You know about that?”
“Answer the question.”
Merlin bit his lip before saying,
“Balinor was my father. I’m... I’m kind of the last Dragonlord now after he died?”
“Of course you are,” Arthur groaned. “What the hell am I supposed to do with you?”
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before,” Merlin murmured and looked at the ground.
“I think we’re even. I didn’t tell you I knew either. So is it because of you the sorcerer didn’t kill me before we met Gwaine? He trusted you, because you’re like him?” Arthur asked.
“Umm, uh, yeah,” Merlin said, discomfort showing in his sudden tensing. “About that. Um. The sorcerer was actually a seer. He... He said he was meant to be there to council me during my moment of uncertainty, whatever the hell that means.”
“So what did he say? How did he encourage you?”
“It was the same things they always say. Kilgharrah, the Great Dragon I mean, has been saying it for years. About my path lying together with yours and how we build a great kingdom together,” Merlin said, and blushed. “He... The sorcerer was there to say that my doubts were unnecessary, and I shouldn’t leave your side even if another possibility opened up. That all the secrets would be revealed sooner rather than later, and I shouldn’t fear the outcome of the reveal.”
“Rather good seer then!” Arthur commented. “Seems pretty accurate to me.”
Merlin was quiet.
“...unless you have still more secrets you’ve kept from me?” Arthur continued dryly.
“Maybe some,” Merlin murmured. “A few. One.”
“Shit,” Merlin said as he pulled Arthur closer. “You asked for this, just so you know.”
Then he pressed his lips on Arthur’s.
Arthur answered the kiss immediately. He was not a seer, but this had been inevitable now that he thought about it. It had been only a question of when.
“I’m not sure this was what the Dragon had in mind,” Merlin gasped when Arthur had his lips attached to the skin of Merlin’s neck.
“Fuck the Dragon. I don’t give a damn,” Arthur answered and continued his mission in marking the pale skin.
“Arthur, stop. Do you want everyone in the castle to know what we’ve been up to?” Merlin asked, and pushed Arthur away. “Half of them already think we’re shagging on a regular basis. Gwen and Morgana have been unbearable.”
“At least those bloody neckerchiefs would be good for something for once,” Arthur muttered, but let go of Merlin’s shoulders. Merlin leaned closer and kissed him again. Arthur felt Merlin’s tongue touch his upper lip and opened his mouth to let it in. Merlin’s chest pressed against his, and yes, this was an acceptable substitute for covering Merlin’s neck with bite marks. At least for now. He was sure he’d get his chance to do the other thing later. Maybe when they were less dressed and not in the middle of a forest.
“Let’s go home?” Merlin asked after a couple minutes of frantic kissing. Arthur just nodded his agreement.
Uther was surprised but pleased to see Arthur back so soon. Arthur gave no clear answer to why he hadn’t taken this chance to spend some more time outside the citadel, but Uther didn’t ask too many questions. He told Arthur there would be a council meeting that afternoon. Before that, Arthur had to go and talk to Sir Leon about how training with the knights had gone that morning.
Merlin had gone to take care of the horses after they had returned, and Arthur hadn’t seen him since. He was probably helping out Gaius or washing Arthur’s clothes or something similar. Before going, Merlin had given him a soft smile and said that he would see Arthur later.
Arthur kept busy the whole day and only returned to his room that evening. Surprisingly enough Merlin had dinner ready for him and the room was clean. When Arthur asked how Merlin had succeeded at this miracle, Merlin flushed and murmured that he had some talents he’d kept secret. Arthur knew he was talking about magic, but somehow the sentence made him flush, because it made him think about what other hidden talents Merlin might have. Merlin helped to remove his armour, and after that Arthur pulled him closer.
They only kissed, though Arthur wanted to ask Merlin to stay for the night. But that had to be Merlin’s choice; Arthur wouldn’t be the one to make the suggestion, because that could too easily be interpreted as him taking advantage of his servant.
Every night after that Merlin seemed to be more reluctant to leave Arthur’s room, but it took him almost a week to realise what Arthur was not saying aloud. In addition, he had apparently found out that Arthur had a certain fondness for his magic, but it was a complete surprise for Arthur when one night Merlin didn’t let go after their (rather long) goodnight kiss.
When the kiss continued past the point where Merlin usually pulled back and told Arthur he should go, Arthur was surely not going to do anything to interrupt it. He almost missed it when the magic began to prickle in the air and on Arthur’s skin, but even he couldn’t miss it when Merlin pushed his hands under Arthur’s nightshirt. (Arthur didn’t usually wear one to bed, but he hadn’t wanted to assume anything by spending too much time shirtless in Merlin’s presence. It was all well and good when they hadn’t acknowledged their feelings, but now... Well, it was a different situation.)
“Arthur,” Merlin whispered, and kissed Arthur’s jaw. The magic against his skin felt stronger now. Maybe it was just Merlin’s normal reaction to being aroused or maybe he was teasing Arthur with it, but either way it was appreciated and welcome.
Merlin pulled Arthur against his body and began to move them both towards the bed. The door clicked shut and locked itself.
“Merlin,” Arthur began. He was going to ask if Merlin was sure, if he had done this before, if he had thought it through, but Merlin kissed him deeply before he could open his mouth.
“Shut up, you fucking noble prat. Yes. Yes to everything.”
And really, was there anything Arthur could say to that? Actions spoke louder than words anyway.
“I had no idea magic was a thing for you,” Merlin said. He was drawing shapes on Arthur’s bare chest with a finger.
“Shut up,” Arthur said, content and already half-asleep. “Maybe I don’t find it entirely repulsive.”
Arthur had his eyes closed and Merlin squeezed close against his side when Merlin said something. It took him a moment to realise that it had been the real Merlin who had spoken and not the one in his dream world.
“What did you say?” Arthur asked and opened his eyes.
“I asked what’s going to happen next,” Merlin repeated and stared at him. “Obviously I have no expectations, but...”
“What happens next is that you will never again sleep in Gaius’s rooms,” Arthur answered. “My father will keep on throwing women on my way, but I’ll just pass their advances like always. You will tell me more about your magic and won’t keep secrets from me ever again. Together we’ll make sure that no one else finds out about it and that neither of us gets killed, and one day when I’m the king we’ll live happily ever after.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
“Well then,” Merlin said. “Maybe I should tell you that I do have a few more tricks up my sleeve than the ones I used tonight. Gaius had a book about pleasure spells.”
“First you forced me to talk about my father in bed and now you mention Gaius? Can I still change what I said about our future?”
“Nope. You’re stuck with me,” Merlin said, grinning. “I’ve been reliably informed it’s destiny.”
THE END (or maybe just the beginning of another story)