It wasn't all that unusual for people to hide their daemons; not everyone was as fortunate as Arthur, after all, so not every daemon was as beautiful and practical and helpful and, um, big. Some people had mice and spiders and even flea daemons, and those were easy to hide (or in the case of the fleas, difficult not to). Sir Gareth had a leech daemon that Arthur wished he'd hide, instead of taking it out to dangle from his nose or chin at feasts to the delight of the pages and the shrieks of the serving girls. Gaius's daemon had a tendency to crawl up his sleeves or down his collar at the first hint of cold, though you could usually see the shape of her around his neck and shoulders like a strange, rippling noose. Morgana's daemon often rode in her hair or on the neck of her gowns, so still that an inattentive visitor might mistake him for a fantastic bit of jewelry until he suddenly flickered his wings.
And then there was Merlin, who didn't seem to be actively hiding anything, but neither seemed to ever have his daemon where anyone could see it. At one point Arthur even began to wonder if Merlin even had a daemon, though it was such a stupid thought he only voice it to Amaranth, who quite reasonably snorted at him. "It's probably a dung beetle or something," she said while he curried her coat. "Or a weevil. Or a worm. He could keep it in his pocket and we'd never know."
"Doesn't seem like a safe place to keep a daemon that squishy," Arthur said, running the comb down her flanks.
"Remember Lord Elric had an ant daemon? He kept her in a little iron case so no one could step on her." Amaranth suddenly stamped her hoof at him. "Oh, oh, right there, I think I've got some mud on me and it itches..."
"Bossy," Arthur sneered, but obliged her, brushing away the alleged mud until her bay coat lay smooth and glossy. It wouldn't be appropriate for him to appear in public with his daemon looking like she'd run through a sty, after all.
On the subject of daemons, Merlin didn't exactly volunteer any information, either. During, for instance, the doomed lessons on swordwork, Arthur had tried to explain the important of protecting one's daemon. "If it's not big enough to be safe on the ground, you've got to find a place for it under your armor where it'll be protected as you are," he explained.
"Yeah, sure," Merlin said absently; for some reason he was watching the sky.
"Well?" Arthur asked. "Is it?"
Merlin's eyes snapped down guiltily. "Sorry, what's what?"
"Is your daemon protected," Arthur said slowly, "or am I going to kill you the first time I make contact?"
"He's fine," Merlin had said, and fitted his helmet into place. Arthur had glanced back at Amaranth, but she'd been snacking on late clover and not following the conversation.
Arthur knew, of course, that there was nothing unusual about having a daemon the same sex as yourself—it had been one of the first things Gaius put out of his mind, back when the king had decided Arthur should have tutelage in natural philosophy. "It is abnormal in the sense that it's uncommon," Gaius said, "but it has no bearing on one's character or abilities."
"Morgana said it means you're a cocksucker," Arthur had volunteered, being nine and too young to know what that meant except naughty and therefore fun to say.
Gaius had sighed but not gotten angry. "Lady Morgana expresses a popular assumption. The truth is, sire, our daemons reflect complicated aspects of our personalities—that is why it's so hard to judge a man by his daemon. Taking one trait like sex or species and making a sweeping judgment based on that alone is reductivist."
He must've seen the glazed look on Arthur's face then, because he smiled and coaxed his daemon out of his sleeve. "Let me use myself and Meditrina as an example. What does she tell you about me?"
"That...you're Gaius?" Arthur hazarded. He watched Amaranth climb onto the tabletop and transform herself into something like a long, lithe polecat, hissing and chittering. Meditrina tasted the air once and then flicked her head away from the other daemon, coiling more of herself around Gaius's wrist.
Gaius chuckled at Arthur's answer. "Let me put it another way. If you were told someone has a serpent for a daemon, what would you think of that person?"
"I dunno," Arthur said, but Gaius was giving him the raised-eyebrow look, so he thought about it while Amaranth tried to get Meditrina's attention. "I guess...that they were cold, and not nice, and kind of sneaky."
"Do you associate any of those words with me?" Gaius asked with a small smile.
Arthur hesitated. "Well...you didn't tell Father that you brought me honey when I had the pox."
Gaius laughed, just as Meditrina's patience gave out; she bared her fangs at Amaranth, who turned into a squirrel so she could scamper onto the bookshelf over Arthur's head and hiss back. "So I did not. But Meditrina's shape is appropriate in other ways as well, Arthur. I have studied science and philosophy since I was your age, and in warmer lands than ours snakes are believed to be bringers of great wisdom. I believe wisdom is what she has brought to me." He stroked her flat head affectionately; she just crawled back up his sleeve. "So it is with all daemons, Arthur; if you are fortunate, you might know a man well enough to understand why daemon has a certain form, but you can tell nothing of him from his daemon on first sight."
Arthur had the disappointing suspicion that he'd just learned something, but wasn't going to surrender to it without a fight. "But sometimes you can tell things," he protested. "Like a sorcerer."
For some reason that made Gaius go stiff. "Is this something else Morgana has been telling you?" he asked.
"Everyone knows about sorcerers, Gaius," Arthur said. "Father even made a law--"
"We are here to discuss natural philosophy, not legal theory," Gaius said; it was the first time Arthur had ever heard him angry, but he only realized that later, in hindsight; at the time he was annoyed with Gaius for interrupting him. "As it is, I have known of many sorcerers whose daemons were common beasts of the earth and water."
"But a bird daemon always means a sorcerer, right?" Arthur asked. "Because it's not a proper daemon if it can fly away!"
"A daemon is a daemon," Gaius said quietly, "and there is no difference between yours or mine or a sorcerer's, whatever form they might assume."
He'd changed the subject that day, and it had been many years ago. Arthur had eventually accepted the general lesson about daemon-reading and even the specific lesson about sex and sexual preferences, but it was hard to remember a sorcerer's daemon could take any form it pleased when you were busy remembering that anyone with a bird daemon had to be shot on sight.
And none of that really helped with Merlin.
Arthur justified nagging Merlin about it on the grounds that Merlin was fascinated with Amaranth—a natural and entirely justifiable reaction to her, in Arthur's opinion. "I've never met someone with such a big daemon before," Merlin confessed at one point, early in his employment. "How do you, you know, get around?"
"She's more agile than she looks," Arthur explained, "and most of the passages in the castle are sufficiently wide for her. If they weren't before she settled, Father had them altered." He'd complained about, too, but in the end he'd accepted that the trouble of hiring the masons and cutting new doorways was better than the shame of his son and heir sleeping in the stables.
"You'd never get her into the kitchens," was Merlin's comment, and for a moment he looked almost tempted to touch her, hands twitching at his side. Amaranth could tell so, too, and she tossed her forelock flirtatiously, but of course Merlin would never dare. Even peasants knew such things.
Arthur rolled his eyes at him. "Well, it's a good thing I don't have to go into the kitchens, isn't it? That is, in theory, why I have you, and it's not as if your daemon needs to be winched in the windows..."
Merlin ignored this completely and instead asked, "Does she, you know, let you ride her?"
"Would be a waste if she didn't," Arthur said, and even Amaranth was rolling her eyes at Merlin now, behind his back. "Though she's too light for jousting. I have a destrier for that, as well as various coursers and palfreys for other purposes, so I don't wear her out. Incidentally, you're mucking out their stable tonight."
Merlin glared daggers at him, but asked, "What about hers?" with a nod towards the notch in the wall that served Amaranth as a stall. (It had been a closet before she settled, and there was only so much the masons could do about the size without, they said, threatening the strength of the ceiling and walls.)
"What about it?" Arthur said. "Honestly, Merlin, you have the brains of a bird. Clean it as you would the rest of the room, change the bedding and make certain you get all the hair out of her comb. Do I have to explain everything to you?"
Apparently, Arthur did. And Merlin listened, and sometimes actually did as he was told, and refused to be baited into a conversation about his own daemon, no matter how many ways Arthur went about it. Just smiled at him strangely, changed the subject, dropped things—the last of which probably wasn't a deliberate change of subject, but Arthur could never be sure. What it all meant was that in the first few months of their acquaintance he learned only that Merlin's daemon was male and apparently small enough to hide forever; Merlin never even mentioned him by name.
Of course, then Merlin tried to get himself killed, first by accusing the king of Mercia of poisoning Arthur and then setting out to prove it. Arthur had helped drag Merlin's limp body up to Gaius's workroom, Amaranth following clumsily behind, and watched as Gaius stripped away Merlin's fussy court clothes to evaluate the poison, and--"Where's his daemon?"
"Hmm?" Gaius looked up, while Meditrina continued to taste the air around Merlin's mouth, like she could identify the poison by smell.
Arthur nodded at the tunic that had been flung across the room, too far away to possibly be comfortable if the daemon was in a pocket. "His daemon, he hides it. Where is it now?"
"Comfortable," Gaius said firmly, and started fussing with a sheet. "Your highness, I think you should step outside. I need to undress him and I will not be able to answer any questions until I have finished my examination."
The next time Arthur saw Merlin, just before setting out to find the mortaeus flower, there was a small lump under the blanket, over Merlin's heart. It was only about the size of Arthur's fist, and if he'd been thinking about it, he could've tugged down the blanket and gotten a good look at it then—but there were more important things to worry about at the time, and then there were much more important things, such as for instance, Amaranth's sudden and unanticipated ability to fly
"I'm not delusional," Arthur told Gaius later (after verifying for himself that Merlin was well and would be back to work soon.) "There was a big ball of light that picked her up and carried her out of the cave with me. I don't know why it couldn't have fetched the both of us..."
"Start over from when Nimueh destroyed the ledge," Gaius said. "If you could."
Arthur took a deep breath. "Right. I was trapped on the wrong side of the ledge, and Nimueh said—something like I wasn't destined to die by her hand. Her daemon, I guess that's what it was, it looked like some kind of buzzard and it stooped on Amaranth while Nimueh was talking—nearly put her eyes out." He leaned back on his stool, against Amaranth's flank, deliberately reminding himself that she was still there and all right.
Gaius nodded like he'd expected this. "And after she left?"
"I...well...there were these giant spiders, coming up the wall," Arthur said. "Probably not the best company. I couldn't very well draw a sword just hanging there, so I tried to climb higher, but...but it was too far."
He'd tried, though, at Amaranth's own hysterical urging; he'd pulled himself up one hand at a time, putting distance between them and trying to push down the pain until he was sobbing with it; she had been no better, dancing precariously close to the crumbled edge of the ledge, whining and tossing her head. But at some point his limbs had locked in a spasm, and Amaranth had let out an agonized cry that sounded as much like a human as a horse, and Arthur knew he was done for, that he couldn't go an inch further.
Gaius nodded, as if he understood all Arthur had left unspoken. "And then what happened?"
Arthur shrugged. "There was this...light. I don't know where it came from. A big sphere of blue light—not fire, because it wasn't hot, just...bright. It must've been magical, but I don't know why Nimueh would've sent it. I could see the spiders, and the flower, and the ledge...and then..." This was the crazy sounding part, so Arthur tried to lay it out simply. "The light sort of split in half. One part stayed over me, and the other part flew down to Amaranth and...lifted her up."
He'd been too grateful at the time to question it, grateful for the absence of pain and for the clear path out if only he could climb that far. It was too perfectly convenient to be a threat, he thought, and it wasn't as if whoever had sent the light had actually touched her—so he'd seized the flower and hauled himself up the wall to the surface, just in time to watch Amaranth settle daintily on the grass, just before the light went out.
"It didn't hurt," Amaranth suddenly said, looking at Gaius herself. "It didn't really feel like anything. I was just...flying." Her tail switched anxiously. "Not something I want to do again."
"And you didn't see anyone when you came to the surface?" Gaius asked. "Didn't hear anything?"
Arthur had been a bit distracted by a belated case of the shakes, the burning in his arms and the delirious joy of seeing Amaranth alive and well and close enough to touch, but... "Wings," he said, and Amaranth nodded in confirmation. "I heard wings, like something was flying overhead."
Gaius nodded at that, and said something about Nimueh's motives being opaque to everyone, and never said anything more on the matter.
Arthur eventually let it go, too—after all, it was hard to question something that saved your life. He did not let go of his new hint about the identity of Merlin's daemon, since it had been clearly much larger than a bug, which suggested that Merlin was deliberately keeping it hidden. There weren't many creatures Arthur could think of that would merit that sort of treatment—Merlin had never shown any particular affinity for water, so he thought could rule out frogs, and he didn't see any reason to be ashamed of a rat unless it had fleas. He then spent a week worrying that Merlin was going to give him fleas, but when Amaranth pointed out there had been no excessive scratching, he conceded the point.
"Why do you even care?" Amaranth asked, amusedly, during another session with the curry-comb.
"You aren't at all curious?" Arthur demanded.
"If he's hiding it, he's got a reason," she said with a little toss of her mane. "No need to go on about it."
"What if I want to know the reason?" Arthur asked. After all, Merlin was his servant and Arthur had every right to indulge his own curiosity.
Amaranth sighed. "Look, Arthur, just because you fancy the lad--" She had to stop to let him splutter indignantly. "Don't carry on, you know it's true."
"Isn't!" Arthur managed to spit out.
She turned her head to look for him. "So that's why we risked life and limb to pick him a pretty flower?"
"That is reductivist," Arthur said. (He could learn things, if pressed, and when he did they tended to stay with him.)
"Fine," Amaranth said. "You care deeply about him, as you owe him your life and he's the closest thing to a friend you've got besides Morgana and the fact that he's got adorable eyes is just icing on the cake."
"'Adorable eyes'?" Arthur echoed, choosing to ignore the dig about friends. "Are you sure it's not you who fancies him?"
"You're changing the subject," she said.
"You're clouding the issue!" Arthur made one last swipe with the comb and set it aside. "I am expressing a perfectly natural and healthy curiosity about him. Just because a daemon doesn't tell you much about a man doesn't mean it can't give us a hint."
"Or you could just, you know, get to know him," Amaranth said, but Arthur decided to ignore her, and so she snorted and bedded down for the night.
The world seemed to want to give Arthur object lessons in the irrelevance of daemons over the next few weeks; Lancelot's hound and Edwin's pig hadn't given away anything about their true natures except perhaps in hindsight. Merlin was somehow in the middle of both affairs, of course, or at least skulking about the edges looking anxious; while Arthur was properly annoyed with him for it he was also a bit preoccupied with various monsters and near-death experiences. Worrying about Merlin's mystery daemon went on the shelf for a while.
And then Sophia came to Camelot.
Looking back on the whole affair, Arthur found it hard to remember clearly—like it was a vivid dream, or like he'd been continuously drunk. Sophia was beautiful, and he had been happy around her, but he couldn't quite explain why. He remembered wanting to be with her with a fervor that bordered on physical need, remembered that it had somehow been perfectly reasonable to elope into the woods, remembered riding Amaranth by a placid lake...
"What was I thinking?" Arthur asked Amaranth after Merlin and Gaius had gone. The blankets from her stall and a good deal of straw had migrated to Arthur's bedside, and he wasn't sure which image amused him more: Amaranth dragging them over herself, or her bullying Merlin into doing it for her.
Amaranth snorted at him. "You weren't thinking, prat. Neither of us were."
Arthur glanced at her sideways. "I think Merlin is becoming a negative influence on you."
She just stretched her head up to rest on the bed next to his; Arthur took the hint and started scratching between her ears. "I think he's had quite a positive impact on our lives, actually," she said daintily.
"'Impact' being the operative word, apparently," Arthur muttered. "I can't believe he hit me. I wasn't that far gone, was I?" Surprisingly, Amaranth remained quiet, though her ears switched backwards; down on the floor, her tail lashed, spreading bits of straw in all directions. Arthur frowned. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," she said, and stretched up to whuff his hair a bit. "Just fine."
"Liar," Arthur immediately answered. "Was it that traumatic?"
Amaranth looked like she was going to say something, and the switching of her tail got worse. But in the end she just pressed her nose closer to Arthur's shoulder and muttered. "I promised I wouldn't talk about it."
"Promised who?" Arthur demanded immediately.
"Ambrosius," she answered, after another long pause.
Arthur pushed himself up on his elbows, taking advantage of a rare change to look down on his daemon. "And who the hell is Ambrosius?"
She huffed at him, but under his glare she eventually answered, "Merlin's daemon," with a sort of equine pout.
"So you've seen him!" Arthur cheered. "What is--"
"Just because you want to know, I'm not telling," Amaranth blustered, and pulled her head back so she could put her neck in an arrogant arch.
"Come oooon," Arthur moaned. "It'll help loads with my recovery. Unless...did he bite you?"
"What?" Amaranth blinked at him. "No, of course not--"
'Did he have to bite you so Merlin could whack me?" Arthur asked. "Run under your feet? Jump on your head and yell 'boo'?"
"He did nothing of the sort," Amaranth protested. "We just...spoke a bit. And I gave him my word of honor not to say anything more."
"Why would you do a thing like that?" Arthur demanded, because while he was certain Amaranth would never keep something truly dangerous from him (as if Merlin's daemon could possibly be a threat, fleas or no fleas) the fact that it was a secret worth keeping made him want to know more than ever.
"Because if anyone should tell you, it should be Merlin himself," Amaranth said, and before Arthur could challenge that, she added, "Besides, it's not his daemon you should be worrying about."
"Attention whore," Arthur sniffed, and reached out to scratch at Amaranth's ears again.
Surprisingly, she twisted out of his reach. "That's not what I meant," she said. "Arthur, what was Sophia's daemon?"
It was such an obvious question that Arthur laughed, but when he tried to answer he realized...but he had ridden out with her so many times, and there had been those moments in the forest...they had stood before the whole court, and yet... "I have no idea," he admitted.
"No one does," Amaranth said softly. "Everyone remembers Sophia and Aulfric, and nobody seems to remember their daemons. Mimir thinks--"
"Mimir is as addled as Morgana," Arthur said gruffly, thinking about the dragonfly buzzing about his face while Morgana tried to talk to him about...whatever she wanted to talk about. That was one of the memories drowned in fog.
"He thinks they didn't have any," Amaranth said, which was just absurd, because every living human had a daemon—even sorcerers, unnatural though they might be. Arthur told Amaranth so, and she dropped the whole conversation, but it was several days before she let Merlin move her bedding back to her stall, and even longer before she'd stop randomly nuzzling the back of Arthur's neck, even in the middle of important meetings. (Merlin himself was little better, come to think of it—perhaps he was guilty about the hitting.)
Arthur was still thinking about daemons when they found the druid boy, the one Morgana and Merlin were so eager to save. Mordred was still young enough that his daemon wasn't settled, but instead constantly shifted forms—pigeon, plover, woodpecker, kingfisher, owlet, robin, raven, wren, though for a little while it turned into a wobbly foal the same color as Amaranth. While the boy was ill enough that the daemon didn't leave his side, when Arthur returned him to his people the woods were full of flapping wings and not one of the green-cloaked druids had had a daemon in sight. It had made Arthur all too aware of Amaranth at his back, and he felt vulnerable in a way he didn't like at all.
"It's unnatural," he groused to Merlin later, having successfully snuck back into the castle despite the distinct lack of faith Morgana had showed in him. (Just because his daemon was a fourteen-hand courser didn't mean he couldn't sneak, thank you.)
Merlin got an odd look on his face then. "What, the birds?"
"The distance," Arthur said. "The...how could they stand to have their daemons flying about like that?"
"Maybe they don't know any different," Merlin said stiffly. "Besides, Morgana's daemon flies."
"Yes, but not to the other side of the castle," Arthur pointed out. "I just...I can't imagine how they can do that without pain. How someone could stand by and just let their daemon go. It's...inhuman."
Something in Merlin's pocket made a high squeaking noise, and Merlin stuffed his hand in there quickly to muffle whatever it was. Arthur himself had a pretty good guess. "You saw he was as human as you or me," Merlin shot back. "Just because he's unusual doesn't mean he's a monster."
"He's a potential enemy of Camelot, which is all the more disturbing," Arthur said sharply. "I accepted that he's an innocent as of now, and I helped you save him; but when I look to the future I have to wonder if it will ever be possible to make peace with those people...if they can even be called that."
There was another squeak from Merlin's pocket that could only be the elusive Ambrosius, and Arthur really hoped he wasn't a hedgehog, judging by how Merlin was obviously squeezing him. Amaranth, surprisingly, nipped at the collar of Arthur's coat, the closest she would ever get to disagreeing with him in front of someone else; he glared at her, and was met with a narrow eye and ears flattened straight back.
"Good night, sire," Merlin huffed, and stomped out of the room with his hand still thrust deep in his pocket.
As soon as the door of Arthur's room was closed, Amaranth snorted. "Of all the insensitive, pigheaded things you could've said..."
"What?" Arthur demanded. "I'm only speaking my mind! Don't tell me it didn't give you the heebie-jeebies!"
"Be that as it may," she said coldly, "you've gone and upset him."
"I'm the bloody prince!" Arthur said, though he couldn't muster the proper feeling. "I'm allowed to upset him! I'm allowed to upset lots of people!"
"Did you really want to, though?" she asked.
Arthur flopped down on a chair by the fire. "I want him to understand what position I'm in. I have to keep my kingdom safe—I have to keep my people safe—I don't have the luxury of absolute moral clarity, not when actions have consequences."
"You know," Amaranth said softly, "you sound an awful lot like your father when you say that."
Arthur glared at her. "I'm going to bed," he declared. "Wake me when everyone's gotten over their treasonous urges." She snorted at him, and he wondered if anybody in the castle agreed with him—even, deep down, himself.
Especially when he got a real look at what something inhuman looked like, with the appearance of the late Tristan du Bois. At least Arthur had been able to hear the daemons of the druids moving about, even if he couldn't see them; it was another thing entirely to see the tall black-clad knight move and speak and know there was no daemon hidden at his side, there was just nothing, nothing at all...Arthur would admit it scared him, a little, the thought of facing a thing like that in battle, but not so much that he was ever going to forgive Gaius. At least, not for as long as it took to replace the door that Amaranth had kicked down. (The advantages to a horse daemon were really boundless.) His father, on the other hand...
"You had Gaius drug me!" he snapped, while Uther stood hunched over the table, still favoring his injured side. Elen was on the table, still her badger-sized armor, which clattered as she hopped down to the floor. Arthur stepped over her and pressed closer to Uther. "I was meant to fight him--!"
"No, you weren't," Uther said coolly, as if not three feet behind him Amaranth hadn't dropped to her knees to nuzzle Elen. The badger reached up and stroked Amaranth's nose in response.
"But the Knight's Code is very--" Arthur tried to protest.
"Be damned!" Uther's shout startled their daemons as much as it did Arthur, though Amaranth made no move to get up and Elen didn't try to move away. "I believed you would die and that is a risk I could not take. You are too precious to me."
Arthur felt himself go very still. The only noise in Uther's pause was Elen, very softly, snorting.
"You mean more to me than anything I know," Uther continued, as if he was lecturing Arthur for another failure. "More than this entire kingdom and certainly more than my own life."
Arthur got a grip on the chair at his side, because Amaranth was still on the floor with Elen and he needed to grab hold of something. His mouth, unattended, ran off without him. "I always thought that..."
"What?" Uther snapped, still looking irritated despite his words.
He could've said nothing, he could've made something up, but Uther had nearly died today, and not for politics or warfare or the future of all Camelot, but for Arthur. "That I was a big disappointment to you," he said, trying to sound neutral about it, as if he were describing the weather.
Amaranth sighed, and Elen snuggled up against the side of her great head. Uther looked as if he'd been wounded all over again. "Well, that is my fault," he said softly, "and not yours." He reached up and gripped Arthur's shoulder. "You are my only son, and I wouldn't wish for another."
His hand was heavy, and for a moment Arthur wondered if he should say something back, and what—because this wasn't what he and Uther did, they weren't good at this, there was a reason they normally related by shouting. He cleared his throat and turned aside, and Uther let his hand drop, looking—maybe--just as relieved as Arthur felt. Amaranth, with a long, exasperated whinny, clambered back to her feet, giving Elen one last nudge before returning to Arthur's side.
After a while, Arthur even to remember to be painfully curious about Merlin's daemon, but even though he'd apparently forgiven Arthur for any rude remarks about the druid boy, he still didn't seem inclined to give up so much as a hair of the beast (and Amaranth still refused to give Arthur a hint). Arthur thought maybe on their trip to Ealdor, Merlin might feel comfortable enough to let Ambrosius see daylight, but if he did, Arthur was too busy to notice it; and afterwards--
Well, afterwards there were more important matters. With the death of Will, Arthur could barely bring himself to talk to Merlin at all, for fear of saying something wrong. Will had had a shaggy fox daemon, and Merlin had touched it, had put his hand on her head as Will lay dying until she faded away completely—and Arthur suddenly wondered about men with male daemons all over again, because mere friends didn't do that, some families didn't do that, some lovers didn't do that sort of thing. But Arthur couldn't reconcile the fact that Will had saved his village, saved him personally, with the fact that he'd used sorcery to do it, and so Merlin was best left to his own grief, or to soft talks with Gwen on the ride back.
"A sorcerer saved us from Nimeuh's spiders," Amaranth argued, late in the night when the others had fallen deeply asleep.
"Nimueh is a sorcerer, if you didn't notice," Arthur hissed back. "One honorable warlock doesn't absolve the whole breed of them."
"A few bad ones shouldn't damn it, either."
Arthur glared into her one open eye. "That's treasonous talk, you know."
"We're not back in Camelot yet," Amaranth said. "And if anyone can entertain treasonous thoughts, Arthur, it's the future king."
"I have a duty to obey my father like anyone else," he reminded her.
She whuffed her nose in his hair. "And when he's wrong, Arthur? If, one day, he goes too far? Who else do you trust to oppose him?"
Arthur couldn't answer her, not then, and not when Gwen sat weeping in Merlin's room while her father's body grew cold in the guardhouse. He came as close as he dared to express his condolences, and if anyone had asked he'd have pointed out that Amaranth couldn't maneuver very well in the cramped workshop; he would never have admitted that while Gwen wept, her daemon, a six-foot-long mastiff, growled at him with baleful eyes. Most servants had dog daemons, but he'd always known hers was exceptional, a sign of strength of character; he'd just never wanted or expected to be on the receiving end of it.
Morgana has strength of character, too, strength enough to voice the kind of thoughts that Arthur choked on and still save Uther's life in the end. Arthur may not have disappointed his father, but he sometimes disappointed himself.
It was after the affair of that damned Questing Beast, when Gaius had finally cleared Arthur to resume "light activity;" his shoulder still hurt on and off, but Morgana and Uther and Merlin had all been acting strange lately, and Amaranth was half-mad from being cooped up as long as he was, and if he didn't get out of the castle somehow he was going to go quite mad. So he sent for Merlin and a few other knights and announced his intention to take a hunting trip.
"As you wish," Uther said, and he didn't interrogate Arthur about the arrangements or when he meant to be back or offer any unsolicited advice about tracking techniques. Morgana didn't even seem to notice anyone else was at breakfast.
And Merlin, when he finally showed up with Arthur's things, was smiling to himself like he'd been dropped as a baby, just like he'd been since he'd returned from whatever journey he and Gaius had taken during Arthur's convalescence. "What are you smirking about now?" Arthur asked, as he had done several times since he first noticed the new habit.
"Nothing," Merlin said, then contradicted himself. "It's a nice day to be outside."
"It would be nicer without your stupid face," Arthur muttered, which was a terribly weak comeback, especially when he had to follow it up with, "Come on, hurry up, are you coming or not?" Merlin just kept smiling his sunny dopey smile, and Arthur wondered, yet again, why he continually kept this idiot around.
Shoulder aside, the air and activity did improve Arthur's mood, to the point where he could even be sanguine about his utter inability to hit anything. (He blamed the wound more than his enforced lack of practice, and no one dared disagree with him.) He even started feeling less weary of Merlin's goofy behavior, or perhaps more willing to confront it. When it came time to finally call the whole party back to the castle—past time, really, but Arthur had no fear of riding the final stretch in the dark—he deliberately steered Amaranth alongside Merlin's spotted rouncey and waited for her to match its pace. (Her bridle had no bit in it, and idiots occasionally wondered allowed how Arthur controlled her without one; he rarely bothered to point out that he didn't need to.)
"So where did you go?" he asked, as his opening feint.
Merlin small smile faded a bit. "Go, sire?"
"While I was recovering," Arthur said. "After you decided to give me some advice on kingship, you and Gaius ran off together for a few days. What was that?"
Merlin's smiled had disappeared completely, and he looked at his hands. "Oh, you know, it was—science stuff," he said. "Gaius wanted to learn more about the Questing Beast, see if anyone else had recovered like you did."
"And where did he go to find that out?" Arthur asked.
Merlin shrugged, one-sided, and gave a belated jerk to the reins when his horse showed a bit too much interest in a shrubbery. "Just, people. That he knew. I didn't, um, I was just there to...help out. And maybe see if they could help my mother."
Right, his mother had been ill at the same time. Arthur had heard about it, but only indirectly; Hunith had hurried back to Ealdor when she recovered. "Well, that sounds scintillating," Arthur said. "I can't imagine what the big secret was, if that's all you did."
"Guess he didn't want to bother anybody," Merlin mumbled, and if he thought he was fooling anybody, he was as simple as he looked.
Arthur decided he was fed up with all the secrecy. Merlin wasn't supposed to have any secrets; he was just a manservant, and a crap one at that, and maybe he was also a bit of a friend and all and possibly had attractive hands, but he was a peasant from a village and he wasn't nearly important enough to have secrets about anything. Not about trips with Gaius. Not about his friend Will (who, granted, hadn't exactly been a secret since Arthur had never asked anything.) And definitely, Arthur decided, not about bloody Ambrosius.
Amaranth slowed her pace, and Merlin, noticing a beat too late, reined in his own horse a bit, letting the others ride ahead. Arthur lowered his voice so the rest of the party wouldn't overhear him, because he wasn't utterly without manners, but he did ask: "So what is your daemon, then, anyway?"
Merlin's eyes went wide with terror, and Arthur wasn't entirely sure how to interpret that—he'd meant to unsettle him, not horrify him—but the next thing Merlin shouted was "Duck!" and the last thing Arthur clearly remembered was thinking, what sort of daemon is a duck, anyway? before the world exploded around him.
Things happened after that, he was certain, but he'd also become quite well versed in how a blow to the head could steal away one's memory. The next thing he knew for certain was pain, in his head and his arms and his shoulder and his ribs, but also in his heart: a sort of full-body ache that made everything else hurt twice as bad. He opened his eyes, but he was shrouded in perfect darkness. He felt a hard floor beneath his knees, cords binding his neck and wrists to a splintery wooden pole across his shoulders, and the kiss of cold air along bare skin where his clothes had been ripped or ripped away. He hadn't been wearing armor, of course, not for a hunt; his boots and socks were gone. And there was something else, something he'd know if only he could think past the pain and the nausea...
"Amaranth?" he croaked, lips brushing against whatever hood had been placed on his head.
Someone in the room laughed, a low, velvety sound. "Don't worry, princeling, your prize pony is in secure hands."
Arthur struggled, vainly, but the knots were strong, and the pole across his shoulders seemed to be fixed in place. His ankles were bound to another pole, one that had some movement to it, but he was still hobbled even if he could get his neck out of what amounted to a noose. And Amaranth's absence burned through him, making him throb all over; they'd taken her away, not far enough to do any real harm but enough to incapacitate the both of them. "Where am I?" Arthur asked, though the first question on his tongue was where is she?
"Oh-oh, if you think we're going to tell you that, you're quite mistaken," the same voice said, and then the hood was whipped away. Arthur found himself in a small hut, simple but well-made, with a single door covered by a sheet and a small, smoky fire burning near the opposite wall. The pole across his shoulders was fitted firmly into posts that reached to the roof and would not budge; the floor was dirt, but cut into the dirt around him was a deep circle, almost a small trench. Another, larger circle occupied the opposite side of the hut, and in the center of that stood more posts, cords hanging slack from stout iron rings. A straight line connected the two circles, and straddling that line was a young man—almost a boy, really—in a black cloak. A red-eyed gull daemon sat on his shoulder. A sorcerer, then.
"This is all you're going to know of your whereabouts," he was saying while Arthur groggily took in his surroundings. "It's more than you need to know, but I wanted to make sure you knew who was doing this to you."
"What exactly is 'this?'" Arthur asked, because somehow the circles didn't make him optimistic for a ransom request.
The sorcerer snorted. "That's not something you need to know, either. Except it's going to hurt. A lot."
"Yes, because that's so terrifying," Arthur said, trying for a sneer and not quite making it.
"It should be," he said firmly. "I really don't know if you'll survive it. I don't know if you'd want to. That's why we chose you over all others for our first experiment, despite the added complications."
Arthur studied the sorcerer's face, but there was nothing there he recognized. "Who are you?" he asked.
The sorcerer smiled. "My name is Auen. Son of Tauren."
Tauren. Shit. Arthur didn't feel fear, exactly, but he knew it couldn't possibly be a good thing to be held captive for ill-defined experiments by the son of your father's enemy, especially after Morgana had ensured Tauren was martyred to his cause. He looked again at the posts across the small room, with the thick, sturdy cords, and wondered what was meant to go there, what they were planning to do. It was enough space to tie down a a full-grown buck, or a cow, or--
Somewhere in the distance he heard Amaranth scream, and he felt—not pain, exactly, but a wrongness that was even worse. He thrashed again at his bonds, futile though it was, because he knew that somewhere beyond the curtained door, Auen and his allies had Amaranth, and they were touching her, hurting her, and it was too great a violation to be borne.
Auen laughed at his struggles. "Don't worry, we won't harm her badly. We simply need you both...cooperative...before we can begin the experiment." His daemon flew off—and oh, how Arthur resented that now, that freedom, when his entire body was throbbing—and Auen pulled a scarf up over his mouth and nose before he emptied a small pouch into the fire. The air inside the hut almost immediately took on a pungent smell, a little like sage and a little like burnt hair, and Arthur coughed on it. "We'll be back shortly, Arthur," Auen said. "Savor what time you have left."
He left, and Arthur glimpsed nothing but darkness beyond the curtain—night had fallen, but without seeing the stars he couldn't really know how many hours he'd been unconscious. Long enough for one of the others to get back to Camelot? Long enough to mount a rescue? Or had Auen and his friends left anyone alive? Was Merlin...? The drugs in the fire were making the nausea and dizziness of the concussion worse, but even if he'd been clear-headed, even if he could find a way out of these ropes...they had Amaranth. It was as good as if they held a sword of Arthur's own throat. Even if he could escape, he couldn't leave, not without her, and if they hurt her—damn it all, if they hurt anyone else--
The smoke inside the hut made things a little hazy, and the fire was not bright, but Arthur didn't miss the twitch of the sheet that meant something had come inside. It took a few moments for him to focus on it properly, though, and when he finally did he was surprised. The smallest owl he'd ever seen stood just inside the doorway, its breast feathers puffed out in anger or anxiety or both. And it was looking straight at him. "Piss off," he croaked, almost gagging on the terrible smoke. "Go tell your master I'm still awake."
The owl made a high-pitched noise more like a squeak than a hoot, and waddled forward a few steps before launching itself into the air. It landed on the pole across Arthur's shoulders, and squeaked again.
"What, somebody set you to watch me?" he asked, hating how his words slurred. "Think I'm going to get away? Are they scared of me, featherbrains?"
He didn't really expect the owl to respond; daemons rarely spoke to anyone but their masters. It did, however, start shuffling down the pole, until it came to where Arthur's left wrist was bound. It studied the knots with a look of furious concentration known only to birds, and then, very carefully, took a section of cord in its beak and started tugging.
"What the hell are you doing?" Arthur asked, watching the owlet flap and tug wildly. The cord didn't give, but he appreciated the little beast's efforts, especially as it nearly went tumbling off the pole in the process. When it finally gave up the fight, it make another trilling squeak—at the cords, most likely—and shook itself all over, feathers puffing out.
It was cream and brown and russet in color, about the size of Arthur's fist, and he'd never seen anything like it. Well, of course he hadn't; bird daemons were not welcome in Camelot. But he also couldn't shake the feeling—possibly drug-induced—that he had seen this owl before, somewhere, or maybe not exactly seen, but still somehow known... "Who are you, then?" he asked. "Where's your master?"
The owl looked at Arthur and visible wilted, all its feathers going flat. It inched closer along the pole, until it was very near his face...and then, suddenly, flapped its little wings. Arthur flinched away, until he realized the breeze coming off those wings was clean, not heavy with the stink of Auen's drugs. And when the owl stopped, that bubble of clear air remained, no matter how deeply Arthur gasped.
Magic. Of course. Who else would have an owl daemon? But what sorcerer would be fighting against Tauren's son and sympathizers?
"Thank you," he said to the owl, which was still watching him with something like distress. It edged even closer, up the pole, until it was very close to Arthur's ear, barely even within his peripheral vision anymore. And then, very softly, it whispered to him in a surprisingly low voice:
"Be patient, sire, help is on the way!"
And then that small feathery body nuzzled up against the side of Arthur's face, making him gasp. It was warm and soft and he could just feel its tiny, raging heartbeat. And it felt...good. Not wrong, not disturbing. It didn't feel like touching Amaranth would, just that moment, but it helped somewhat to ease that hollow pain of her absence. Arthur knew it was too intimate, too much a violation, too close to whatever Auen and company were off doing to Amaranth...except this owl, this daemon, had made the first move, had chosen him. It was giving this freely, because...why? He couldn't say. Even with clean air to breathe, his head was muddled, and his heart and body ached, and for a moment he couldn't, didn't, think about what he was doing; for a moment, he leaned into the owl's easy act of affection, even if he wanted to feel horsehair and not feathers against his skin.
Then there was a flash of light visible though the curtain, and a horse—not Amaranth—screamed; the owl squeaked again and took off, skimming under the sheet and outside, leaving Arthur feeling bereft all over again. Think, he scolded himself, pushing away pain and loneliness. How do you get yourself out of here? What can you do? They're going to expect you drugged to unconsciousness, how do you use that?
With a tremendous effort, and no small amount of choking, he managed to get his feet under him. Which was a start, though instead of kneeling was now squatting in position, which made his legs hurt in new and interesting ways. He tried to break the pole across his shoulders, driving himself upwards with all the strength he could muster, but it was too thick and the angles were all wrong and he achieved little more than some fresh abrasions on his wrists and neck and a more intense headache. He could hear shouting outside, see flashes of light, but it was distant and blurry and hard to focus on. Stupid drugs, stupid head injury, stupid sorcerers, stupid prince for getting himself captured in the first place--
Amaranth screamed. Arthur knew the sound of her anywhere, and realized she was closer, closer than she had been. The ache of her absence was easing, just a little. He redoubled his efforts to get free in spite of the pain, but he had slumped from pain and exhaustion and lack of air long before Auen, his dark cloak gone, stumbled in, dragging Amaranth by the reins. They'd fitted her into a bridle with a bit, and her flanks were covered with the marks left by lashes; her mane had come half-free from its careful braid, and she was staggering like she was drunk, like she'd inhaled the same noxious smoke as Arthur. "Come on, damn you, come on," Auen snarled, and Amaranth whine and rolled her eyes and dug in with her hooves, but another sorcerer shoved her from behind, slapped her rear and left a black handprint of scorched hair.
"Let her go," Arthur said desperately through the too-tight cords around his neck. "Stop touching her."
"Oh, just a minute, Arthur, just a minute," Auen said, "and then your little friend out there will have gone to all this trouble for nothing..."
Friend? Arthur thought dimly. He had friends?
"Shut up, Auen," the other sorcerer said, one with a long, gray beard and a deep scar in his cheek, like someone had stabbed him through the mouth. "We have to hurry, and we can't wait for your prating! Get it tied."
One more wrenching tug forced Amaranth halfway into the circle, and Auen lashed her reins to one of the iron rings. Another slap from the other sorcerer had her all the way in the circle, and the cords rose up by magic to bind her there, twining around her legs and neck and body while she thrashed and kicked and whined. So close and so far, enough to break Arthur's heart. "Amaranth, stop it!" he called across the room. "Stop before you hurt yourself!"
She shook her head fiercely, either too far gone for words or unwilling to speak in front of the sorcerers. Auen sneered. "Advice you would've been wise to take yourself," he said, and came close enough to tug some slack into the cord round Arthur's neck again. Arthur, in gratitude, tried to bite him, but wasn't quite quick enough.
"Hurry, Auen," the other sorcerer said, propping a long, thin bundle against the wall. Arthur decided he must be the leader, even if Auen had the pedigree. So given the chance, Arthur would be sure to kill him last.
A gesture from Auen put out the fire, briefly plunging the hut into darkness. Then Arthur heard the sound of water flowing, and with a few chanted words from the leader the grooves cut into the earth began to glow an unearthly green, throwing up rippling light throughout the room. Arthur was wreathed in it at one end, Amaranth at the other, and the thick channel in the center connected them both.
Auen reached over the glowing line of water without stepping on it, and Arthur barely saw the knife flash before Amaranth shrieked and bucked again; blood that looked black in the weird light spilled out over her shoulder, and Auen let a few drops ooze onto the knife, and from the knife blade, drip into the water. It turned a sulfurous yellow.
Then he came at Arthur, and Arthur had one last bit of fight left in him after all, but it wasn't enough to stop the same knife from plunging into forearm, adding one more brilliant point of pain to the mixture. When his blood was added to the water—or maybe not water—it flared to a terrible, firey red, and the leader reached for his bundle, saying, "Now, and quickly--"
That was as far as he got before fire burst through the doorway. The bundle, whatever it was, fell across the connecting furrow, along with the leader's charred corpse, and Arthur half-hoped it would spoil the experiment and save them. But Auen just kicked his friend's body aside and snatched at the bundle, saying, "It's too late, warlock! You're too late! Watch him die!"
And Merlin was standing in the gaping doorway, Merlin with fire in his hands and eyes, and Arthur couldn't help thinking This must be some sort of insane joke even while Merlin raised a hand to Auen and said, "You won't touch him." But before he could loose the fire he held, a dark shape of wings suddenly flared around his head—Auen's gull, attacking him, distracting him.
Long enough for Auen to unravel the cloth of the bundle, and reveal a beautiful, deadly, jeweled axe.
Long enough for Auen to raise it over his head.
Long enough for Auen to let the axe begin to fall.
"No!" Merlin shouted, and fire burst from his open palm, a pillar of it plunging into Auen's chest like a lance, and the shrieking cries of the gull suddenly went silent. But the axe was still falling, still falling towards the main channel, and Arthur stupidly watched the blade touch water--
There was a moment of pain more crippling than anything he'd ever felt—worse that the Questing Beast's bite, worse than when he nearly lost Amaranth in the cave of spiders. It was as though that axe had plunged deep into his body, into some necessary part of him, and carved it partway off. He thought for one terrible moment that this was dying; then he blacked out.
The next thing he knew, he was laying on his back on the dirt floor of the hut. The hellish red light was gone; instead, a familiar blue sphere floated near the ceiling, cool and bright. Merlin was kneeling over him, gently probing his ribs, which, oh yes, hurt. "Ow," he said, but made no move to curl away from the touch; he didn't have the energy.
"Oh, thank the gods," Merlin blurted, and his hand moved up to clutch Arthur's arm—which also hurt, from being bound and from his attempts to get out, but not as badly as the ribs. "I'm so sorry, Arthur, I should've been faster, I should've found you faster--"
He shook his head and tried to sit up, and failed. It was the days after the Questing Beast all over again, all weakness and shaking, shit. "Amaranth?" he asked.
Merlin shifted, and Arthur could see her, laying among the shredded remains of the cords that had bound her and breathing slowly; as if to make sure of the job, that little red owl was perched on one leg, busily tearing apart some of the cords with his beak and his oversized feet.
"Ambrosius?" Arthur guessed, as the facts began to fall into place.
Merlin nodded, mutely. He looked too miserably and terrified to speak.
"You saved my life," was the first thing that Arthur could get out of his muddled head. "Again. You keep doing that."
"You're the one who keeps getting into trouble," Merlin said, but it was high and weak and nervous.
Arthur shut his eyes for a moment, concentrated, and pushed himself upright. Merlin caught him before flopped right back down again. "Amaranth," he said. "I need--"
"Yeah, yeah, okay," Merlin said. "Just take it slow, okay? You're injured."
It even hurt to laugh. "I noticed that, thanks."
With Merlin's aid, Arthur got to his feet; he was ashamed to say Merlin did most of the forward locomotion after that, but he lowered Arthur gently to Amaranth's side, and Arthur collapsed into the comfort of her presence. She started awake when he touched her, but he shushed her and stroked her neck until she rested again. She was probably in at least as much pain as he was, but she shifted her legs so Arthur could lean against her flank and she could bend her head around to nuzzle his hair.
"We're going to talk about this," Arthur said to Merlin as he shut his eyes. "Later." But with Amaranth alive and safe against his back, sleep stole over him before he could hear Merlin's answer.
When he awoke, it was daylight, and he was outside that terrible little hut, though how Merlin had managed that...well, Arthur wasn't sure he wanted to know. He was laying on his side, with Amaranth curled around him like he was her foal, and they were both under a simple sort of lean-to made of scorched canvas. There was a small fire a few feet away, and Merlin was prodding a small iron pan with a twig—who knew what might be in it. Ambrosius, unsurprisingly, was nowhere to be seen.
"Morning, sleepyhead," Amaranth said quietly; she sounded just as drowsy as Arthur felt. He sat up so he could throw an arm around her neck, and noticed as he did that his ribs no longer pained him; the wound in his forearm was likewise gone, as was the gash in her shoulder. "Merlin's been busy," she said when she noticed him looking.
"Couldn't he have done something about my head?" Arthur asked, because something like I'm glad you're safe or I thought we were going to die was just a little too much to be voiced, even to her. "Are you okay?" was all right, though.
"I'm not the one who got clubbed on the head by a giant," Amaranth said, a clear diversion.
Arthur glared. "There wasn't a giant. I don't remember any giant."
"Probably because he clubbed you on the head."
He sank his fingers into the tangled mess of her mane. "Seriously. Are you okay?"
She whickered and tossed her head a little bit, then turned to rest it in his lap. "I'll live. I'll be fine. You need to talk to Merlin, anyway."
Arthur glanced at him, but Merlin had very obviously turned to put his back to them, so he'd noticed that they were awake. "You knew about him," he said, not looking at Amaranth. "You kept it from me."
"They saved you from Sophia," Amaranth said. "She was going to kill you and Merlin saved your life. Do you really think I made the wrong choice?"
"No," Arthur had to admit. There was three times he owed Merlin, then...possibly more he hadn't known about. And he had to admit, if Amaranth had told him back then, he wouldn't have taken it well.
He wasn't at all sure he was taking it well just now, but he felt too weak and sore to kill anyone, which meant at least Merlin would get a fair chance to give his side of the story.
It was harder than he thought it would be to stand up, not because he hurt but because he had to step away from Amaranth. He shuffled over the brittle grass to the fireside, where the pan turned out to contain some frying eggs and lumpy cakes of some kind. Merlin looked up at him nervously. "Morning," he said. "How, er, how d'you feel?"
"Abused," Arthur settled on. "Where's Ambrosius?"
Merlin became very interested in the pan. "Watching for people. More sorcerers, riders from Camelot, whatever."
Arthur looked to the sky, but the owl was so small he was unlikely to make even a shadow at this distance. And Merlin seemed unconcerned, unbothered by having his daemon so far out of sight, when Arthur could barely stop himself from glancing over at Amaranth every third second. From the shadow of the lean-to, she snorted at him, and he tried to school his face.
"So what are we going to say when we get home?" he asked.
Merlin looked pleasantly surprised by the use of we, and Amaranth's watchful eye kept Arthur from pointing out that was still hypothetical. "I sort of...ran away without the others," he said. "So I figure I can say I found you by dumb luck and untied you, and then you sort of...found a sword somewhere and...had at them." He looked around the camp. "We can say the fire was their fault."
"You'd let me take all the credit?" Arthur asked.
Merlin seemed on the verge of saying something, but swallowed hard and shrugged. "Better than getting my head chopped off," he muttered.
He produced one actual plate and one chipped piece of clay that was probably some kind of pot lid, and served breakfast, such as it was. The cakes were bland, mushy on the inside and blacked on the bottoms, and the eggs were in roughly the same shape, but Arthur was surprisingly hungry and managed to keep them down anyway. When he was done eating he set the plate on the ground and studied Merlin. There didn't seem to be any point in avoiding the critical questions any longer. "What the hell possessed you to come to Camelot when your daemon is an owl?"
Merlin sort of choked on his egg, and balanced his pot lid on his knees while he cleared his throat. "I...well...my mum was worried about me," he said. "Gaius offered to take me in. He—he didn't know, about, you know. I didn't even know until I was already on the road."
"Gaius obviously knows now," Arthur said, more to himself than Merlin. "But how do you keep him hidden? I mean, you've been at court for nearly a year, somebody must've seen something."
"I...he...er..." Merlin shoved some food into his mouth, made a face, and spit part of it back out again. "He can sort of be invisible."
Arthur blinked. "Invisible?"
"Back in Ealdor, people...didn't like him, at first," Merlin muttered. "Threw rocks at him and stuff. Even Will was a bit spooked when he settled. So he sort of learned to...not be seen. It's not that he's actually invisible-invisible," he added quickly, "I mean, he's still there, people just...don't notice him much. I mean, he's little. And he mostly stays in my room anyway, during the day, or outside the castle, so I mean..."
Arthur rubbed his aching head. "You are a sorcerer with an invisible owl daemon and you have been washing my socks unsatistfactorily for nearly a year."
"I don't think that's a word," Merlin said quietly.
"Shut up," Arthur told him without much feeling while he tried to sort that all our in his head. Then had to contradict himself. "Tell me. All of it."
"All of what?" Merlin asked.
"Your secrets," Arthur said. "Every time you've used magic in my father's borders. I want to know what you did and why." Merlin gave a put-upon sigh. "What?"
It was Amaranth who answered. "He's already been over it with me," she said. "I made him tell me before I promised to keep his secret."
"There's been some, erm, updates, though," Merlin added. "Maybe I should just do those?
"Give me the whole story," Arthur said. It would be an excellent test, to see if he told it the same way twice. Merlin rolled his eyes again and started talking.
It was a surprisingly long telling. Merlin seemed to have trouble looking at Arthur, whether he was admitting to cheating in a fight (ha, Arthur'd known it—and he still won!) or to saving somebody's life. Amaranth got up, grazed around for a bit, and then laid down at Arthur's back again; perhaps she was as antsy as he was for the contact. Eventually, Merlin's voice went hoarse, somewhere around the point where he mentioned power of life and death, he suddenly stood up and walked away.
"Where are you going?" Arthur demanded.
"To get a drink," Merlin muttered, barely intelligible behind hunched shoulders.
"You're in the middle of telling me you have the power of life and death and you have to stop to get a drink?" Arthur asked incredulously. Amaranth whickered at him, scolding.
"Thirsty," Merlin called, going to a barrel near another of the little huts. He took a drink and then stood there for a moment, shoulders slumped; in a burst of leaves and feathers, Ambrosius landed on on the edge of the barrel and hopped into Merlin's hands. Arthur looked away.
When Merlin came back to the remains of the fire pit, he didn't sit down, but stood with his fists clenched and Ambrosius clinging to his shoulder. "I thought," he said, "I thought it meant I could protect you. This life and death stuff. I thought it meant I had the power to protect people from this kind of thing. But I don't, I can't...you could've died last night, because I wasn't quick enough. I'm sorry."
Arthur looked up into Merlin's pinched face. "You know, saving my life isn't actually part of your job description," he said slowly.
"Yeah, it kind of is," Merlin said. "I made it my job."
"Which, thus, made it necessary to lie to everyone about being a sorcerer," Arthur concluded. "Merlin, you do realize that you're a bit daft, don't you?"
He seemed to relax, just by a hair, enough that he could sit down again at least. "Technically, I told you I was a sorcerer ages ago," Merlin said. "During the afanc's plague. Not my fault you didn't believe me."
"Well, how was I supposed to know you were telling the truth?" Arthur looked at Amaranth, who just snorted at him. "You do realize you're risking your own life, right? That if anyone ever catches you using magic or talking to Ambrosius, my father will have your head?"
Merlin looked at Arthur oddly. "Thought I was already caught," he said.
Arthur shut his eyes. Too much had happened too fast, there was too much information to take in at once, because he had a duty to obey the law, his king, his father. And yet—he thought of flying knives and enchanted shields and a light that had guided him to safety, that had borne up Amaranth on invisible hands. He thought of Merlin's indignant outrage on behalf of the druids, of his final words when he'd apparently thought he was riding to his death. He thought of Will, and Tom the blacksmith, and what would happen if---when--his father had to be stopped.
He swallowed. "It would be a pretty poor thanks for saving my life if I sent you straight to the headsman from here." Amaranth nuzzled into his hand again, Ambrosius made a shrill noise and fluffed out all over, and Merlin kept staring at Arthur like he'd grown horns. "What? Look, I just gave you good news, normal people would be happy."
"You'd go against your father for me?" Merlin asked, dumbfounded.
Arthur sighed. "Look at it this way. You already told him once. It's not our fault if he didn't believe you. And if he doesn't ask...well, why should we tell him?"
Merlin ducked his head; he looked like he was fighting a smile. "So you still want me around, then?"
There were reasons Arthur wasn't good at this sort of thing, and Merlin had offered him the perfect opening for escape, but there were also some things that needed to be said. "I'm happy to have you with me," he told Merlin. "Until the day I die."
Merlin's eyes went wide, and Ambrosius fell off his shoulder entirely. Arthur looked down, at his hands, one of which was picking at Amaranth's braid; he could've sworn she winked at him.
"So what happened here?" Arthur asked, before either of them could start gibbering like women. "The last thing I remember is riding back from the hunt."
"Er, yeah," Merlin said, and took a long time clearing his throat. "They must've been tracking us for a while, but they were using magic to cover their trail. I don't actually know how it all ended, because once I realized they'd knocked you out I started following them—they were going slow, because of Amaranth, but I was afraid if I made the first move..."
Arthur nodded. There was always the chance that men without honor would kill a hostage if things became too problematic; he was rather proud that Merlin had recognized that on his own. "So you followed us all the way back here?"
"Ambrosius helped," Merlin muttered, and scooped the little owl back onto his shoulder. "I watched them for a couple hours, figuring out a plan—I had to get to you and Amaranth both pretty quickly or they might've...you know."
Oh, he knew. "What was the point, though?" he asked. "What was that...that thing, in the shed? With the axe?"
Merlin took a deep breath. "I think...I mean, Ambrosius and I overheard some stuff, and I think maybe...they wanted to see if it was, y'know, possible to break the connection between a man and his daemon."
Arthur reached reflexively for Amaranth, thinking of that blinding pain when the axe fell. "What the hell kind of...I mean, why? What's the point?"
"I dunno. I don't think they knew." Merlin prodded the coals of the fire a bit, though the sun had risen sufficiently that it wasn't really necessary anymore. "It's never been done before. Nobody was ever mad enough to try it. They had that axe, though..."
Arthur swallowed. "But it didn't work, right? I mean, we're still alive and all..." He looked at Amaranth, who looked just as uncertain as he did. That terrible pain...
Merlin looked up with a grimace. "I tried to stop the axe from falling. I mean, I'm normally good at that, you know, moving objects and all."
"Normally," Arthur asked in a strained voice.
Merlin looked down. "I think...I think he might've, erm, nicked you."
Arthur didn't feel nicked. Arthur didn't know what nicked even meant in this context. He didn't feel any different, except of course for the part where he'd been beaten and restrained the day before. He didn't feel less of anything. Amaranth was still here—did daemons even exist separately from their masters? Did he really exist without her? "You're going to have to be a little more specific," Arthur said weakly.
"I can't," Merlin said. "I don't know. I just told you, nobody's ever tried something like this before."
"How do you know?" Arthur demanded.
"I asked Gaius once," Merlin said. "About daemons, and why Ambrosius could fly so far...I mean, why it doesn't affect me like it would other people. And he mentioned this theory, that it's something to do with magic, and some people have tried, you know, killing their daemons, or to make them settle a certain way...though Ambrosius could run away from me even before he settled. But he never said anything about cutting the connection. I didn't think it was possible, until I saw the axe."
Times like these, Arthur's mouth did tend to run away from him. "So you have got...I mean, I always thought it must be different for sorcerers." But now Merlin, Ambrosius, and Amaranth were all looking at him like he was an idiot, and he was perhaps inclined to allow that on a temporary basis, because, well, he'd touched Merlin's daemon. He'd felt the difference, which was really no difference at all.
So he cleared his throat and looked around. "Where is the axe, anyway?"
"I smashed it to pieces," Merlin said, pointing. "And chucked it in the river about ten minutes' walk that way."
"Good," Arthur said firmly. "So let's never speak of it again."
Except they did. They had to. Because after they agreed on a story and rode back to Camelot (Arthur on a stolen horse, Merlin walking ahead and Amaranth behind) and told their story and got commendations and hugs and the odd insult, after Gaius had checked them all over and found them sound, long after it all should've been over, it still nagged at Arthur and kept him up at night.
Nicked. What did that even mean, when nobody had ever done it before?
And so on the next fine day he could justify the trip, Arthur took Merlin into the forest, just the two of them, over Uther's heavy protests. (The fact that they were arguing again was actually something of a comfort; the fact that they could argue and Arthur could win was still unsettling.) Arthur rode Amaranth, with another horse walking behind in case she got tired; Merlin rode the same spotted rouncey, and as soon as they were out of sight of the castle walls, Ambrosius swooped down and landed on his shoulder, as if it were the easiest thing in the world to do. Arthur couldn't help but notice that Merlin's back straightened a little when Ambrosius was with him, his chin lifted ever so slightly; just because he could bear have his daemon miles away clearly didn't mean he enjoyed it.
"Are you sure you want to try this?" Merlin asked at least three times as they rode.
Each time, Arthur answered, "Yes, I'm sure, all right? We wouldn't be going if I wasn't sure. Stop asking me that." And Amaranth rolled her eyes at him at least once that he noticed, and they kept riding. It had been Arthur's idea in the first place, so he didn't know why Merlin kept asking him about it. Perhaps because Amaranth had been sleeping next to his bed ever since they got back. Perhaps because Arthur couldn't stop himself looking over his shoulder for her, even when she was literally breathing down his neck.
Which was why he'd got the idea. He had to be sure.
They found a suitable clearing, and Arthur dismounted, letting the reins fall to the ground. Merlin tied up the horses, and Ambrosius launched into the air, vanishing among the tree-tops. "He'll warn us if anyone's coming," Merlin said.
"Good," Arthur said.
They all stood there for a while, looking at each other. Amaranth very deliberately turned her back on Arthur and started nibbling on the grass.
"Are you sure you want--" Merlin started to ask again.
"Just shut up," Arthur snapped, and turned around, looking at the clearing and the young trees crowding its edges. It was twenty, perhaps twenty-one yards to those trees—well within bowshot, if he'd been hunting them. Not far at all. He could hear the rustling of Amaranth's tack at his back.
Merlin sighed, and put a hand on Arthur's shoulder, making Arthur jump. "Maybe this'll help," he said, and Arthur was about to ask if he was going to do some sort of magic, but Merlin released him. A moment later, a blur of red cloth flashed in his eyes, and Arthur found himself being clumsily blindfolded, with a scarf that smelled like Merlin's skin.
"How is this supposed to help?" Arthur asked, even as he submitted himself to the exercise.
"I'm not going to let you fall, don't worry," Merlin said, and when he'd finished pulling Arthur's hair into the knot he put both hands very firmly on Arthur's shoulders. "Go on, start walking."
Merlin's indulgent amusement was what got Arthur to move, because Merlin was....well, many things...but not a single one was permitted to be amused by his prince. He took careful steps forward, feeling out the ground ahead of him, not that he didn't trust Merlin to catch him if he fell but because he didn't have any intention of falling in the first place. Merlin did ensure he kept in a straight line, or at least sort of straight, as he carefully evaded roots and hummocks and the odd entire tree.
Arthur walked away from Amaranth, and tried not to count off the steps in his head, tried to tell himself this was any other boyhood game, just like when they'd once played at chasing each other across the fields. It'd been a pointless exercise, since neither of them could outrun the other by more than a few feet...and surely Arthur had walked that far already, already crossed the clearing. Or had he?
He kept walking, and waiting, until he finally felt it—that tightness in his chest, the mental lurch. It had never before been such a relief. He probably could've gone a bit further before it transformed into debilitating pain, but there was no need. He whipped the blindfold off and looked around at the trees, the old, hairy trees, and then over Merlin's shoulder at the barest hint of sunlight in the distance.
"Reckon you could get into the kitchens now," Merlin said as Arthur contemplated just how far he'd walked.
"I don't need to go to the kitchens, I have you," Arthur said automatically. So this was what it meant to be nicked. Was that two hundred yards? Two hundred fifty?
Merlin stood next to him, judging the distance for himself. "I wonder if you could learn magic now," he said, almost to himself.
"Absolutely not," Arthur declared. Merlin went very still. "I don't need to. I have you."
"You do?" Merlin asked, because he was an idiot. "I mean, of course you do." He swallowed loudly. "For as long as you want me."
And wasn't that suddenly an intriguing idea? Arthur tore his eyes away from the clearing, to Merlin's blushing cheeks and raised chin. He was really not good at this part. "I, er."
"Yeah?" Merlin said hopefully.
"I would've thought Amaranth would've come after us by now," he blurted, glancing back (just the once) in case she was coming.
"Maybe she's trying to give us a bit of privacy?" Merlin suggested.
Arthur snorted, because that was perhaps the stupidest thing he'd ever heard of—privacy? From your daemon? But then Merlin was coming closer, and perhaps Arthur was really bad at the talking part, but there were other things he could do just fine. Some of them even still involved his mouth. And there was a certain novelty in the idea that, just maybe, he might get to know something his daemon didn't.
And in the clearing, Amaranth lay down in a sunny spot, stretching her neck out to lay flat along the ground. After a few moments, Ambrosius landed, and hop-waddled his way to the end of her nose. "They, er, they might be a while," he said.
"Mmm. I guessed as much," she answered without opening her eyes.
"Really?" The owl turned his head nearly all the way around, peering into the shadows. "I didn't think—well, I mean, I knew Merlin was interested--"
"Everybody knew he was interested," Amaranth said. "Except for Arthur. Who barely even knew he was interested. He's not particularly bright about these things."
"I wasn't going to say anything," Ambrosius murmured. He started pulling at the grass with his feet and beak, trying to make himself a comfortable place to rest for a while.
Amaranth sighed, nearly blowing him over. "Will you just get on with it?" she asked.
Ambrosius' head snapped up, and he looked nearly as guilty as an owl could. "You don't mind?"
"I hardly think it matters, under the circumstances," Amaranth said, and sighed again as Ambrosius bounced up between her shoulders and settled in for a quick mid-afternoon nap.