"Stop hogging the pillow!" Merlin said indignantly, jerking it right out from under Arthur's head. Arthur, God help him, found himself smiling. He'd never had a lover like Merlin before. There'd been lots of others, of course, and never anyone who hadn't come to his bed eagerly and happily; but also never anyone who wasn't very much aware of his being the Crown Prince of Camelot, and that it would be very dangerous to piss him off.
Merlin, though, was being his usual insubordinate self, sprawling unselfconsciously over Arthur's entire bed, hogging more than his fair share of the blankets and now all of the pillows, too. Somehow, Arthur had never felt so carefree with anyone else in his bed. He didn't have to try to be the Crown Prince around Merlin - in fact, there was very little point in trying, when Merlin never seemed to take him quite seriously when he did.
Arthur rolled to his side and rested his forehead lightly against Merlin's arm, closing his eyes and drowsing.
"I guess it's about time I left," Merlin said, jerking Arthur out of his doze.
"Wait, what?" he said blurrily, wincing away from the rush of cold air that hit his side when Merlin jumped out of bed. "Merlin, wait, where are you going? You said you didn't have any work in the morning."
"I don't," Merlin said, already tugging his shirt over his head. "Arthur, you didn't imagine I'd be staying the night, did you? You know how the castle gossip mill works. If the servants catch me sneaking out of here in the morning, all of Camelot is going to be talking about it by noon."
Arthur sat up, frowning. Merlin sure was in a hurry to leave his bed. The warm contented feeling in his chest was rapidly dissipating. "You wouldn't have to sneak. No one's going to care who I sleep with. This sort of thing is what people expect young nobles do, before they get married. Sowing your wild oats, kind of thing. You know. And I certainly don't care about any rumours."
It had been the wrong thing to say somehow, Arthur realized when he saw Merlin's face go cold and closed off. "I don't want to argue," he said quickly, placating, making his tone as apologetic as he could stand. It wasn't fair that he was the one having to grovel when Merlin was the one was being all unreasonable about this. "Go, if it'll make you feel better. Training will let out early tomorrow, and I won't have any responsibilities in the evening. We could do it again, then."
Merlin's face did something complicated that Arthur couldn't begin to decipher, and then he quickly looked down, lacing up his boots. "I don't think we should do it again," he said.
Arthur dragged an edge of the blanket over his lap, crossing his arms tightly. The room's tepid air suddenly felt cold on his exposed skin. "You seemed to like it well enough just now," he said. His voice was all rough with sleep; he cleared his throat, swallowed painfully.
There were a couple of sore spots on his arms, where his own fingers were now resting, and for a moment the memory was almost overwhelming - Merlin desperately clutching his arms, whispering Arthur's name like an invocation. It had felt… meaningful at the time.
Arthur shrugged his shoulders slightly, shaking the memory off. The skin over his biceps was smooth, unblemished. Merlin hadn't even left a bruise. "Why are you so worried about anyone finding out? So they'll gossip for a while, and then someone else will do something scandalous, and everyone's going to move on. Besides, it's not like it's going to hurt your reputation any, getting caught with the prince."
"I don't want everyone's attention on me!" Merlin's voice was shaking. He turned to leave, and Arthur knew he was missing something, something desperately important.
He stood, reaching for Merlin's arm - "Merlin, will you just wait -"
Merlin whirled around, shaking off his hold. "Just sit down and let me go," he said, his voice ringing with authority, and for a moment it felt like he was looking at a stranger: Merlin standing before him tall and imposing, with the fire reflecting bright golden in his eyes. Arthur's legs buckled and dumped him on the bed, obeying the command with no conscious decision from his mind.
And suddenly it was just Merlin again, plain, gawky Merlin, who had gone deathly pale and still with fear. "I'm sorry," he whispered, "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to -"
He whirled around and fled from the room in what was clearly genuine terror, leaving Arthur blinking after him in confusion.
For a long moment, none of it made any sense. It had been an inexcusably insolent thing for a peasant to say to his prince, of course, and any commoner should be expected to quake in terror at having forgotten himself so; but this was Merlin, who said five unforgivably impudent things to him before breakfast on any given day.
And then everything he thought he knew rearranged himself around him with a sickening lurch. The strangely irresistible command in Merlin's voice; the way Arthur's body had reacted to it… the fire banked for the night, glowing a dim, sullen red, barely bright enough to see by and surely not reflecting in anyone's eyes…
But it couldn't be, could it? Merlin wasn't… Merlin, who stumbled over his own two feet and endured the stocks with almost cheerful patience, who couldn't even lie convincingly about minor armour-cleaning mishaps, never mind… No, surely he couldn't be a sorcerer. That made no sense, that… would explain quite a few things.
Arthur reached for his tunic with fingers gone numb and clumsy. He didn't know what he believed anymore. Even a banked fire could play tricks on the eyes, and God knew he'd been upset and distracted… but he hadn't imagined the terror on Merlin's face.
Christ. If Merlin was a sorcerer, and if he knew he'd been discovered…. He wouldn't just be running to Gaius' chambers to hide behind the physician's moderating influence. He'd be running away from Camelot. Which meant he'd be running towards the woods. The woods where people had been spotting roving bands of armed men for the past few days.
Arthur yanked his shirt on with sudden breathless haste. His armour was all the way down in the armoury for repairing, and by the time he got it, he'd never catch up to Merlin. He had his thickest leather vest and his sword, though, and in a pinch they'd do well enough against a bunch of untrained bandits.
Disconcerted servants darted out of his way as he pounded through the castle. The guard at the castle gates stared at him wide-eyed when he barked at him, "Merlin?", but pointed down the road that led out of the town, confirming Arthur's fears.
When he got to the stables, Sir Kay's page had just finished saddling his horse. Arthur grabbed the reins right out of his hand, ignoring the boy's startled squawk. "Extend my apologies to Sir Kay!" he yelled over his shoulder, urging the mare into a hurried trot, which was already faster than it was really safe to go in Camelot, with its streets teaming with people.
The guard at the city gate remembered Merlin coming through, running straight towards the woods. Arthur gritted his teeth. The fool. Fool, and traitor - his mind shied away from the thought, still grasping desperately for an explanation, any explanation other than that one. Surely Merlin hadn't been lying to him for all this time. Surely…
The area immediately around the castle was kept cleared of brush, to offer no cover for any attackers, but it was no more than a few minutes' brisk ride to the edge of the woods.
There was a small, half-overgrown path through the woods leading roughly into the direction of Ealdor. Arthur doubted Merlin was going to choose the main road. Not even he was stupid enough to expose himself quite that much while on the run. He certainly didn't have the woodsman skills to find a straight path through the woods on his own, either, so it seemed the most likely route for him to have chosen.
There were enough roots and fallen branches covering the ground that Arthur had to slow the horse to barely above walking pace. She was nervously twitching her ears, sensing Arthur's impatience and growing worry. If Merlin had taken another way, if he'd managed to get himself lost in the woods, if the bandits found him before Arthur did... If Arthur found him, whole and unhurt and a sorcerer... Arthur grit his teeth and forced himself to stop thinking. Right now, he needed to concentrate on finding Merlin. Later there'd be time to do whatever needed doing.
The woods got thicker and darker here, and the ground was covered in earth instead of springy grass. Arthur breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the fresh footprints, far apart and uneven, like whoever had made them had been running, stumbling with tiredness.
The bandits found Merlin before he did. In fact, it was the shouting that led him there - a little to the side of the path, a tiny clearing just large enough for Merlin and ten armed men. Only they weren't bandits at all.
Arthur jerked the horse to a sharp halt, freezing at the sight of the group of knights - Lord Wallington's men, he knew, even though none of them wore any insignia or identifying signs. Wallington's armourer had a very distinct style, like most of the better arms smiths did, and no mere band of thugs could afford this kind of armour.
This was just like him, too, the coward, sending his men to do his dirty work under cover of anonymity, threatening Arthur's people in their own homes.
"Will you look at that, the Crown Prince of Camelot stumbling right into us," one of the men said with an ugly grin. "God really did bless us with his favour."
"Arthur," Merlin said, soft and shocked, when Arthur halted the horse next to him.
"Merlin," Arthur parroted, in automatic mockery, and then, because uncertainty was clawing at the inside of his chest, even now, in the face of the enemy: "So, you're a sorcerer then?"
Merlin's face went pale and still, and then he lowered his head like someone resigned to the executioner's axe. "Yes. Sire."
It was the first time Arthur had heard him use the title without a trace of mockery, and it cut through him like a sword. Merlin. Merlin, who he'd trusted above all others. Who, only a few hours ago, had clung to him with fierce desperation, kissing him as if it might be the only chance he'd ever get - and who'd pushed him away afterwards as if none of it had mattered anything to him. Merlin, who he didn't really know at all.
"For what it's worth, I never wanted to lie to you," Merlin said, in that same quiet, resigned tone of voice, and he couldn't deal with this right now - shouldn't be trying to deal with this right now, considering that Wallington's men had now formed a loose semicircle around them and were starting to draw closer.
"Shut the hell up," he said sharply, and some part of him was delighted when Merlin flinched at the harsh words, even while most of his mind was busy running through possible strategies. Most of the men he vaguely remembered watching fight in the tournaments. He could have taken every one of them in a fair fight, but like this - outnumbered ten to one, with them in full armour and him with only a sword… His chances were looking less than bleak.
"Take him alive, if you can," the men's leader said. "He'll make a far better hostage than we were expecting to find."
"Go, already. I can buy you a couple of minutes, at least," Merlin whispered, and Arthur whirled to face him so fast his horse shied a little.
Merlin wasn't even looking at him. He was standing with his feet shoulder-width apart, like someone braced for battle, looking for all the world like he really expected Arthur to leave him behind. But of course he did, Arthur realized with a pang of sorrow.
For years, Arthur had stood by and watched his father slaughter Merlin's kind. Of course Merlin expected to be thrown to the wolves. It was what he should be doing - let the warlock and the enemy knights tear each other apart, and come back with the guard to cut down anyone who survived the fight. It might be the kindest thing to do, even. Let Merlin die a hero in battle, spare his friends the pain of watching him burned for sorcery.
Arthur took a deep breath, and then he leaned out of the saddle, grabbed Merlin by the arms, tossed him over the horse's neck with a brutal heave, and kneed the startled mare into a gallop. The men had cut off the way back to the path, but there was a gap between the trees leading onto a narrow deer path they hadn't been able to cover.
Arthur leaned deep over the saddle, shielding his face and Merlin's body from the low-hanging branches that were whipping against his shoulders. Merlin had given a startled gasp when he'd picked him up, but he was quiet now, holding himself very still, even though the saddle had to be digging painfully into his stomach. Arthur could feel his quick, panting breaths against his chest.
He didn't know what he was going to do about Merlin. He didn't know what to think. The only thing he knew for certain was that he could not have left him behind to be slaughtered.
The path all but disappeared after a few yards, and Arthur had to slow the horse down. If she broke a leg or tossed them now, they'd both be done for. Wallington's men were catching up to them already. In thick woods like this, men could go faster than horses.
Arthur shifted his weight in the saddle, trying to find a position that would let him use his sword without dropping Merlin. If only they could keep ahead of them for a few minutes longer. There were open fields just a bit to the south of where they were, where the horse would be far more of an advantage.
"You're a sorcerer - make yourself useful already," he said, and Merlin twisted to look up at him, wide-eyed. Arthur gestured at the knights, who were only a few yards behind them, now, and drawing closer. "Any turning-people-into-toads skills you have would come in handy right about now," he said tensely.
Merlin stared at him for a second longer, and then he said a word in a strange, rough language, his eyes flared gold, and suddenly the wind was rising around them. It barely stirred the hair on Arthur's head, but not a yard behind them, it was tearing loose earth off the ground, forming a shield of whipping air and debris between them and the knights.
The horse shied, snorting nervously. Arthur stared. If he'd let himself think about this, Merlin the Sorcerer, he'd have expected the kind of kitchen magic people managed to conceal in Camelot even now - a bit of fire-starting, maybe, or enough healing to soothe a fever. But this was serious sorcery, the kind of battle magic other kings paid a lot of money to secure for their courts.
"I don't know how long it's going to hold," Merlin said tentatively, and Arthur shook himself out of it.
"Right. Let's get out of here."
A few of the men were shouting angrily behind them, trying to walk around the wind barrier, but a louder voice cut them off. "Let them go. The sorcerer will get them."
Arthur had a moment of horrified confusion - was Merlin working for them somehow? But no, that made no sense.
"They have a sorcerer?" Merlin squawked, and Arthur swore.
"Great. That's just what we need. More bloody magic." He felt Merlin flinch, but he couldn't bring himself to regret the words. There was a sullen, slow anger growing in his chest at the thought of the sheer power Merlin had been hiding from him all this time.
Still, no one bothered them until they were a good way out of the trees and onto the communal pasture around the village, where he'd be able to see any attacker coming from a long while off. Arthur let himself relax a little, which meant he nearly got thrown when the horse cried out in sheer terror and reared.
He could probably have regained his balance with a little effort, but it would have meant dropping Merlin, who was still hanging awkwardly over the saddle like a sack of grain. The horse was panicked enough that she might well trample him. Arthur let go of the reins and grabbed Merlin instead, managed to get both of them down and out of the range of the whirling hooves in a half-controlled fall. The horse bolted the second she got her head free, and it took Arthur a moment to get himself properly balanced and his sword in his hand before he could look around and see what had spooked her like that.
"What in all the… I thought they were all dead," he said.
"They've got a dragon?" The disbelief in Merlin's voice mirrored his own.
There were not supposed to be any dragons left but for the one in Camelot's dungeons, and certainly no one with the knowledge to tame them. But there it was, landing maybe twenty yards away, with Wallington's sorcerer climbing off its back as casually as someone dismounting a docile plough horse. There was a chain wrapped around its head like a bridle, although it didn't have any reins connected to it.
It wasn't a very large dragon, nothing like the one down in the dungeons, but it was still easily three times the size of a large horse, with the wings and tail adding another few yards to its size, and talons as long as Arthur's forearms. It would have been a hard beast to kill if he'd had a score of good men with lances. On his own, with no armour to speak of and a short sword as his only weapon, Arthur probably wouldn't be able to accomplish anything against it except to look incredibly ridiculous while getting himself killed.
"Surrender yourself, and you won't be harmed!" the sorcerer called.
"Guess that's the best offer we're going to get," Arthur answered, subtly elbowing Merlin's side when Merlin opened his mouth. He let the sword dangle loosely from his fingers, demonstratively harmless, and started walking towards the sorcerer. "Say, how did you get a dragon to do your bidding? Legends say they're none too keen on that kind of thing," just making conversation, keeping his body language friendly, relaxed. His fingers felt cold and clammy with sweat, but the sword's hilt was well wrapped with rough leather, it wasn't going to slip. Ten yards to the dragon, eight, seven -
"Drop your sword," the sorcerer said nervously.
"Sure," Arthur said, giving him a big, cheerful grin, holding the sword out by his side like he was preparing to drop it. Five yards, four -
"Now!" The sorcerer yelled. "I won't ask again!" He raised his hand, palm-out, threatening, and Arthur gripped his sword, brought it up in a thrusting position, and charged at the dragon.
This surprise attack was the only chance he was going to get, and it wasn't a great chance, either. But these weren't just some thugs Wallington had sent into Camelot to spread unrest among the farmers. Ten knights in full armour, a sorcerer, and a dragon: that was a strike force to be reckoned with under the best of circumstances. Arthur couldn't let himself be captured to be used as a pawn against his father. If death was the only choice he had, so be it. He only hoped he could take the dragon with him. There was no telling how much damage the beast might do, if they let it loose on Camelot.
He'd gotten in close enough that he could cover the remaining distance in the blink of an eye, the dragon's unprotected flank turned towards him, the softer spot behind its front leg where a sword might be able to penetrate to the heart. His own voice was ringing in his ears, a breathless, incoherent battle cry, and desperate hope flooded through him. Maybe this really was going to work.
The dragon turned with inhuman speed, batting the sword right out of his hand, as easy and contemptuously as a man might swat a fly out of the air, leaving Arthur's entire arm numb from the force of the blow. It launched itself into the air before he could recover his balance.
"Kill him! Kill them both!" the sorcerer yelled. The chain around the dragon's head lit up with bright silver light, and it screamed, a chilling, almost-human sound, like a child in pain.
It turned in a tight arc, flying straight towards Arthur. He could hear Merlin scream something behind him, and a bright flash of lighting arced out of the sky, striking the dragon's side. It didn't even seem to notice.
"Stop wasting your strength, you can't kill a dragon with magic! Just run! Warn Camelot if you can!" Arthur yelled at him. If he couldn't save himself, at least Merlin was bloody well going to live.
As it turned out, Merlin literally wouldn't obey an order to save his life. "What are you doing, you bloody idiot!" Arthur yelled, when Merlin's hands closed over his shoulders. "Run!"
It was too late now, anyway - the dragon was right in front of them, and Merlin, the fool, was holding him so tight he wouldn't even be able to dodge effectively.
"Trust me. Please," Merlin whispered, a desperate intensity in his voice, pushing down on Arthur's shoulders. Arthur could still fight him, duck away under his grip and roll, get himself out of the dragon's way. He didn't have any reason to trust this new Merlin: warlock and traitor, calling wind and lighting out of the sky. He might as well be a stranger. This was insanity.
"Please," Merlin repeated, his voice breaking with fear, standing right behind Arthur in the face of a dragon like a complete bloody lunatic. Arthur let himself be pushed to his knees, Merlin standing guard over him.
The dragon didn't slash at them like he'd expected. It slowed its descent a couple yards above and in front of them to breathe a torrent of fire at them. Arthur's entire body tightened with the urge to dodge, but Merlin was still standing behind him, his legs brushing Arthur's back. Whatever his plan was, it clearly involved them staying right where they were. Arthur could only pray he knew what he was doing.
A moment before the flames would have reached them, Merlin thrust out his hands above his head, palms out in a warding gesture. Impossibly, the fire parted before them, flowing around them to the ground as if he was holding an invisible shield.
The ground cracked and blackened around them, the whole top layer of grass and earth turned to ashes. Even inside Merlin's shield, Arthur could feel an echo of the heat, his skin turning slippery with sweat. He didn't know how the bridle wasn't melting in the heat of those flames. He could see the bit in its wide-open mouth, bizarrely decorated with a fist-sized gem.
They were in the dragon's reach for only a few seconds before momentum carried it past them, and it had to spend a little time struggling higher into the air so it could turn without crashing into the ground, giving them a few precious seconds of respite.
"What are you waiting for, kill them already!" the sorcerer yelled, and the chain lit up again. The dragon screamed again, but obviously there were limits to how fast it could turn its great mass around, despite its best effort.
"He's using the chain to control it," Merlin said, in a rough, shaky voice.
"Are you all right?" Arthur asked.
"I'm not sure how long I can hold it off," Merlin said, which didn't answer the question; but then, Arthur could see perfectly well that Merlin wasn't doing that great. His face was pale and drawn, and he was shaking, weaving a little on his feet. Clearly holding off the dragon's fire had taken monumental effort.
"We need a plan, and quick," Arthur said, but the dragon didn't give him any more time to think before it was on them again. Merlin cried out when the fire hit his shield again, staggering, and Arthur reached out one hand to steady him. He could feel Merlin's magic prickle against his palm like a shower of painless sparks, alien and strange, and he couldn't help but flinch from it. Merlin made a choked-off sound of pain and fell to his knees. It brought the top of the shield that much closer to Arthur's head, the heat hitting his face like a physical blow.
He gritted his teeth and wrapped his arm around Merlin, pulling him in tight so they were pressed together all along their sides, holding him steady. When the dragon finally went out of range, Merlin was panting in great, ragged breaths, his entire body shaking. They couldn't keep this up; it wouldn't be long until either Merlin's shield failed or the dragon got bored with its fruitless attempts to roast them and stomped them into the ground instead.
"You've got to hold it off one more time. You hear me? Just one more time," he said, squeezing Merlin's shoulder as if he could push some of his own strength into him.
"One more time," Merlin repeated, voice laced with exhaustion, smiling tiredly at Arthur, full of blind trust. Arthur's heart was beating hard against the inside of his chest. He let go of Merlin, who fell back to sit on his haunches, looking like he might collapse any second. Arthur gave a desperate prayer for Merlin's strength to hold out just a little longer, and then took several steps backwards.
Merlin made a pained, bone-weary noise when the fire hit his shield for the third time, and right before the dragon passed him, Arthur could see the shield start to give. The fire washed over Merlin's hands. He screamed, a horrible animal sound that tore at Arthur like a physical force. But he couldn't allow himself to be distracted now.
The dragon was right above him now, at the lowest point in its flight path. Arthur jumped with the strength of desperation and managed to hook one hand into the chain by the side of its head, letting himself be pulled along into the air. He'd expected the fire-washed metal to burn his hand, but it felt almost icily cold against his fingers. So it really was magic, then; Merlin had been right at least this far. The dragon made an angry sound, shaking its head irritably, but Arthur was holding on for dear life, and it couldn't breathe fire at him from this angle.
He brought his sword up, not with the point but with the knob first, swinging it in a wide arc at the dragon's open mouth. He honestly hadn't expected this part of the plan to work; it had been an insane, last-resort kind of idea, and the only thing he'd really expected to happen was to get his arm bitten off. But at the last second the dragon seemed to realize what he was trying to do - or maybe it was just so baffled by this idiocy it didn't know how to react - in either case, the great jaws opened wide, and neither teeth nor fire touched his skin when he brought the sword's heavy knob down hard on the crystal in the middle of its tongue.
The gem shattered, a bright wash of light spilling out of it and dying down. The dragon made a wild, triumphant sound. It twisted in the air, using a paw to pluck Arthur off its head with almost gentle force. He hit the ground rolling and lay stunned for a long moment, the dragon rapidly gaining height above him. It breathed a bright stream of fire, and this time the chain melted right off, the way silver should.
The dragon wheeled around, crying its joy with a voice like a great ringing bell, and turned on the sorcerer. Arthur didn't wait around to watch him die. Merlin was a limp heap on the ground a few yards from Arthur, lying curled around his hands. Arthur heaved himself to his feet with a groan and limped towards him as fast as his stiff legs would move. His entire body was sore and bruised, although nothing felt broken.
Merlin stirred weakly when he saw him coming, and when Arthur fell to his knees beside him, he turned his head towards Arthur as if the little movement took all the strength he had left. "You did it!" he said, grinning tiredly up at him.
"I would have been toast without you," Arthur said. His chest was clenching. "You're actually slightly less useless as a sorcerer than as a manservant."
Merlin started to laugh, and immediately stopped himself with a wince.
"You okay? Let me see your hands," Arthur said. He carefully lifted one of Merlin's arms, cradling his forearm, and closed his eyes in sorrow when he saw what the fire had done to Merlin's hands.
"It's okay. Barely even hurts," Merlin slurred, exhaustion blurring his words. Arthur swallowed painfully around the lump in his throat. Those were the worst kind of burns, the painless ones. Merlin would likely never get full use of his hands back, if he didn't lose them altogether; Gaius was a great healer, but burns got horribly infected.
"Don't try to - No. Oh, God, no, that's not fair. We freed it!" Arthur said, fear and exhaustion squeezing his chest. The dragon was coming at them again. "That's not how it works in the tales! Once you get the monster to turn on its master, it's not the hero's problem anymore!" He took a deep breath, hearing the note of hysteria in his own voice.
He struggled to his feet. His sword was lying on the ground somewhere yards away. Merlin was curled up helplessly at his feet, and there was nothing he could do to protect him.
The dragon landed gracefully in front of them. "Arthur Pendragon," it said, in its great ringing voice - a young girl's voice, Arthur realized in amazement. It had been rather obvious from its size that it must be young, and he supposed it only made sense that there had to be lady dragons. And yet, it seemed bizarre that such a great, deadly beast could be a girl.
"I know you, son of the dragon slayer," the dragon said.
Merlin was struggling to rise, awkwardly getting up on his feet and falling right back down to his knees when they failed to carry his weight. Arthur caught him before he could collapse any further, easing him back to lean against his side. "No," Merlin said, in a weary, broken voice. "No, please. Don't hurt him."
He raised his hands in that same warding gesture; his burned, bloodied hands. Arthur's heart felt like it might burst in his chest. Even now, horribly injured and tired to the bone, Merlin was trying to defend him.
The dragon looked down at him with her huge golden eyes, and said almost gently: "Step aside. My grievance is not with you, and I have no wish to hurt you."
"I'm not just going to stand there and watch you kill him, either!" Merlin said, and something in Arthur was stirring in answer to his words.
"Why risk your life to protect him, warlock? His family's reign has brought as much suffering to your kind as mine," the dragon said, and Arthur thought he could hear an echo of the same wonder he felt in its voice.
"He's not Uther," Merlin said fiercely. "He'll be a hundred times the king his father is, but you have to give him a chance to be. Please. For the sake of both our kinds." His arms had started to tremble uncontrollably, and he let them fall by his sides, shifted himself so he was shielding Arthur with his body. "You want to kill him, you'll have to go through me first."
"Merlin, no!" Arthur said, exasperated, trying to twist so Merlin would be out of the way of an attack. But Merlin wouldn't let him, and he didn't dare use too much force for fear of hurting Merlin's hands.
"Such loyalty," the dragon said, tilting her head. "Do you think yourself worthy of it, Arthur Pendragon?" There was a biting sharpness to her voice, a blatant challenge that reminded him of Morgana.
Arthur tucked Merlin more firmly against him, wrapped an arm around him and felt his heartbeat thrumming steady against his palm. "I don't know if I am," he said, his voice catching in his chest. "But I will spend my life trying to be." He felt the gravity of the words like a weight on his shoulders, an oath more binding than any he could have sworn before the king himself.
Maybe the dragon felt it, too. She closed her eyes for a long moment, and when she opened them again, her inhuman face looked younger, almost friendly. "Very well," she said. "This is an oath you have made to all of dragonkind. Do not break it lightly." She reached up with one great claw to scratch lightly at her face where the chain had left the scales broken and abraded. "I thank you for my freedom. I did not like the thought of killing you."
"Right, about that. How on Earth did he end up catching you, anyway? Is Lord Wallington going to march in here with an army of captive dragons?"
She hissed, a low, angry sound that raised the hairs on Arthur's neck, and turned her head to spit a plume of fire at a nearby bush, reducing it to a pile of ashes. "We hibernate in winter, while we are young. His sorcerer found me helpless in my sleep, or he could never have done this. He wasn't capable of any great magic; I do not think he even made that chain himself. It smelled like very old magic. Do not worry about the safety of your kingdom. It will be my pleasure to deal with his men myself." She hissed again, although she held her fire this time.
"And do not worry about me, either. I will return to my mountains, where there are no people to come after me with lances for taking their sheep."
"I'm glad we could free you," Merlin said, the hopeless sap. Arthur could not bring himself to give much of a damn about the dragon when her freedom had been bought at so steep a price.
The dragon smiled at Merlin, an eerie expression in a creature with teeth that huge. "Let me see your hands, young warlock," she said, and Merlin stretched them towards her before Arthur could protest. She brought her huge head almost close enough to touch, and blew a stream of air over the wounds. There was no heat in it this time, but the air still rippled the way it did over hot rocks in the summer.
The broken skin rapidly started to knit up; burnt, blackened bits sloughing off like snakeskin to show healthy new skin underneath. The entire process took less than a minute, and then Merlin was wiggling his fingers, pink and healthy and not even scarred.
"Thank you," Merlin breathed, stunned. Whatever she'd done had given him some of his energy back, too; he didn't yet look completely recovered, but there was a healthy colour back in his cheeks, and he was taking his own weight.
"Thank you so much," Arthur echoed. He turned his head away, surreptitiously wiping his eyes. It was only sweat dripping down his face, of course, but it wouldn't do to give them the wrong impression.
"A token of my gratitude," the dragon said gravely. She turned away, extending her wings to their full length, and crouched, the powerful muscles along her thighs coiling tight for the jump that would launch her into the air. "I bid you farewell. Remember your oath, Crown Prince of Camelot!" she called over her shoulder, and jumped. Her great wings beat the air, churning up a storm that almost knocked both of them to the ground. Arthur instinctively grabbed for Merlin, who'd been reaching for him at the same time; their arms almost collided.
"Will you watch it!" Arthur yelled, but he didn't shake off the arm Merlin had put around his waist.
He watched the dragon until her black silhouette became indistinguishable from the darkening evening sky, and then took a great deep breath. "Right. Let's never do that again."
Merlin snorted. "Which part?"
Arthur glared at him. "You running off half-cocked into the woods! Fleeing from hostile knights! Getting caught by an evil sorcerer! Fighting a bloody dragon! There is no part of today that I would like to revisit in any way, shape or form, ever!"
"Right," Merlin said. "Let's not."
He was still grinning. Arthur knew that kind of feeling, the powerful rush after a battle won that left men fevered and giddy; he also knew that when it passed, it would leave Merlin deeply exhausted. The sun had already sunk below the horizon, and night was falling fast. There was no way they'd make it back to Camelot before nightfall, and with Wallington's men still loose in the woods, it didn't seem safe to try and cross them in the dark. Never mind that the thought of the hours-long walk made Arthur want to fall over and die.
There was a deserted shepherds' hut across the field. It would be safe enough to spend the night there.
The hut was in surprisingly good shape, the boards of the walls fitted tightly enough to keep out the wind, and there was a large pile of clean straw in one corner, which they both gratefully collapsed on.
Of course, as soon as he was lying down, Arthur felt the straw begin to itch and scratch every exposed bit of his body. The floor was uncomfortably hard through the uneven layer of padding, and both of them stank of smoke and a faint, horrible hint of burnt flesh. Arthur irritably tugged a pointy blade of straw out of his collar. "When we get back to Camelot, I will make someone pour us a nice hot bath, and then we're going to soak for an hour." He moaned a little just thinking about the way the heat would soothe his aching muscles.
"Arthur…" Merlin said, soft and pained, and at his tone Arthur felt his muscles bracing themselves as if for a blow. "I'm not coming back to Camelot."
The words felt like a bucket of ice water poured over his head. "What? Merlin, you cannot possibly believe at this point that I would hand you over to my father to be executed. I know it can't have been easy to have to hide all the time, and God knows why you would ever have come to Camelot, of all places, but hasn't it been worth it?" He reached out a hand and put it tentatively on Merlin's shoulder. "You've got me to cover your back now. It'll be easier now, you'll see."
Merlin swallowed hard, staring at Arthur's hand, but then he squared his shoulders and shook his head. "It's not just that."
Arthur irritably tugged his hand back, and then changed his mind and curled it firmly into Merlin's shirt. "What is it, then? You're not seriously still on about that stupid fight we had earlier, are you? I'm sorry for over-reacting, although in all fairness I didn't know you had a good reason to not want to draw any attention to yourself. Which, by the way, excellent job you've been doing there. I'm surprised the entire court didn't find out the day you arrived!"
He took a deep breath. "Merlin, please. We can keep that a secret, too. And even if you'd really rather not do it again…" Without conscious thought, his fingers had clenched tight around the fabric of Merlin's shirt. He made himself loosen his grip. "I would still very much like you to return."
For a moment, Merlin looked torn, but then he shook his head. "Don't you realize? I used magic to make you do what I wanted!" he said desperately.
"Sit down and let me go!" Arthur suddenly remembered him saying, in what he could now recognize as Merlin's sorcerer tone of voice; remembered the automatic way his body had obeyed the order.
"So you did!" he said indignantly, frowning. "Bleeding well never do that again!"
"But that's just it! I didn't do it on purpose, the magic just… came flowing out! It does that, it just gives me things I want, sometimes! Don't you understand? I didn't mean to do it that time, and I don't know how to stop it!" Merlin said, his voice rising until he was almost yelling with frustration.
"Wait, so you've got enough magic to hold back a dragon and bend people's minds, and you can't even control it properly? That's so reassuring, Merlin, really, I'm so glad you told me."
"Oh, shut up!" Merlin said, his eyes flaring gold, and Arthur's jaws snapped shut like someone had clamped them in a vice.
"Oh God," Merlin stammered, "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to…"
"Just shut it for a minute," Arthur said, when he felt the magic release him. "I've never actually seen you do magic before today, so I'm going to assume you can usually control it well enough. Right?"
"Yes," Merlin said. "But- "
"Shut up," Arthur repeated, in the Crown Prince voice that was its own kind of spell. "But you've lost control of it before. In emergencies? Or when you've learned something new?"
"Both," Merlin said.
"Right. So this is new, you were upset, you lost control - that's easy enough to fix. We'll just get you some practice, and then the next time we have a row, you'll be able to control yourself."
The expression on Merlin's face was full of open longing, but he still shook his head. Arthur suppressed the urge to scream.
"You still don't get it! I didn't know I was able to influence people like that, and it just happened. For all I know it's been happening all along. I don't know what else I might have made you do."
His voice broke at the words, and Arthur suddenly got it. "Wait. Are you saying you're worried that you magicked me into bed?"
"I… yes!" Merlin said, flinching, his voice full of shame. Arthur stared at him. He remembered the complicated tangle of his feelings when he'd reached out and pulled Merlin in for that first kiss - nervousness and longing and desire all tangled up with something deeper and more fragile; compared it to the feeling of Merlin's magic pushing him down onto his bed, as subtle as an armoured glove. He couldn't help it. He started to laugh.
"What!" Merlin said, indignant. "This isn't funny! I don't think you -"
"Merlin, you haven't mackiged me into doing anything. I don't think you could make me do something I really didn't want to if you tried. If you hadn't taken me by surprise…"
"I'm pretty sure you're underestimating what I can do," Merlin said, like Arthur had stung him in his sorcererly pride. He rolled his eyes.
"Try it, then," he said, levering himself to his feet with a groan. "Make me kneel down."
"Come on, try it! You'll need practice to get this under control anyway."
"Fine! Kneel down," Merlin said, irritated, with no conviction and certainly no sorcery behind it.
Arthur sighed. "Again. Try harder this time."
"Kneel." Nothing happened that time, either. "See, I told you, I can't just turn this off and on!"
"That's what you're calling practice? It takes me longer than that to get a good shot in with a new bow! No wonder you're a rotten sorcerer, if you can't be bothered to put in the work!" Arthur said, and Merlin's eyes flared with an angry golden glow.
"Get down on your knees," he gritted out, and the magic sort of clubbed Arthur over the head and collapsed his legs under him with force. Arthur's knees hit the floor with a crack.
"Ow! Bloody hell!" But he knew the feeling of it now, and as he had suspected from his vague memory of it, it wasn't the irresistible force Merlin apparently thought it was. He peeled himself off his bruised legs, dragged some of the straw into a heap in front of him, and waved Merlin off in the middle of his stammered apology. "Again."
"Kneel." It wasn't a physical force, not like the shield had been. But it kind of felt like one, now that he was expecting it, and knew where to look - like a blanket pushing down on his mind. He pushed back against it, and suddenly it felt shockingly, inexplicably intimate, as if he was pushed up against Merlin naked, but with their minds - only that didn't quite do the feeling justice, either. He had no words to describe what it felt like, even inside his own mind.
"Oh," Merlin said, shocked, breaking the spell, and they both flinched away from the feeling. Arthur fell to his knees into the pile of straw.
"Again," he said, and his voice came out low and rough. He cleared his throat, blushing.
"Arthur…" Merlin said hesitantly. Arthur knew that they were both sensing the line they were about to cross.
"Don't you want this?" he asked quietly. "Say the word, and we stop this now. I'll get you a horse and safe passage to Ealdor, or wherever you want to go."
Merlin held his eyes for a long moment, and then he smiled. "Kneel," he said gently, and Arthur felt the magic wash over him again.
He didn't flinch from it this time, just leaned into it, pressing against Merlin's magic, Merlin's mind. He knew how to resist the push now. They were inside his own head; he knew the terrain, and that knowledge was half the battle in any fight. He kept resisting until he found the weak spots in the attack, pushed back against Merlin's hold until he felt it give, just to prove that he could.
"Still worried about magicking my mind by accident?" he said, or maybe he only thought it, at the place where their minds were still touching. It seemed to make no difference either way.
"No," Merlin said. He sounded as dazed as Arthur felt. Come here, he told him, through the magic, and this time Arthur didn't fight it at all, just let it push him down, pressing greedily into the warm, flowing feeling of it. He ended up stretched out on top of Merlin, braced over him in the straw, being kissed so hard his lips felt bruised. Their clothes were starting to come undone by themselves. He could feel that magic, too, but with his body, not his mind; a soft, feathery brush against his skin, carefully peeling back his vest and pushing his tunic up.
He slid off Merlin at that point and took over undressing himself, because magic or not, the whole thing was going to become a huge tangle if Merlin tried to undress them while Arthur was still lying on top of him.
He caught Merlin staring at him all wide-eyed and impressed when he was finally naked, which Arthur could not help but secretly bask in a little; it totally made up for being naked on top of an itchy pile of straw and discarded clothes. Merlin reached for him, splaying both hands on Arthur's naked chest, and then flinched a little. "Oh," he said, surprised, looking down at his hands.
"What is it? Do they hurt?" Arthur asked, instantly worried. If the dragon hadn't healed Merlin's hands properly after all….
"No, it's fine - they're just really sensitive right now."
Arthur reached for one of Merlin's hands, cradling it carefully. The skin was pink and new-looking and incredibly soft, no calluses at all. He pressed a gentle kiss to Merlin's palm, whole and unscarred, giving silent thanks; kissed the tip of his thumb, the pads of his fingers, and then he drew a finger into his mouth, sucking carefully. "Oh wow," Merlin said, his eyes slipping shut, although he immediately opened them again to stare at Arthur's mouth. "Wow, that should not feel so amazing."
He'd dropped the mind magic at some point, although Arthur had been too distracted to notice when exactly that had happened, and now he was using a purely physical force to draw Arthur closer. It felt strange and prickly against his naked skin; not unpleasant at all, but odd. He pressed his hands against Merlin's chest, feeling the magic move underneath his skin like little sparks, and then carefully stretched out on top of him, leaning his entire body into that unsettling feeling. He moaned at the feeling of their cocks pushing together between their bodies, and Merlin made a shocked little sound and let his head tip back in pleasure.
He wrapped his legs around Arthur and put his hands on Arthur's back, clinging to him with legs and magic and the careful pressure of his palms.
Arthur was so close already. He buried his face against Merlin's neck, panting desperately, trying to hang on just a moment longer, vaguely aware of waiting for something…
"Come," Merlin said, and the touch of his mind was a bright shock of pleasure, completely irresistible. He could feel Merlin right there with him, all the way through it.
He collapsed half on top of Merlin, awkwardly curled to keep as much of his body away from the straw as possible while still letting Merlin breathe.
"That was amazing," he said. He reached out and gripped Merlin's arm. "Come back with me to Camelot. At least give us a chance to make this work," he said, and then, embarrassed by his own desperation: "I promise you can make me do things all day long."
It came out a little awkward, too sincere, but Merlin laughed anyway, a relieved, happy sound. "Yes," he said. "Yes, of course, sire."