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It took Arthur three weeks to find Merlin, and when he did, Merlin was out of his mind.

*****

The battle against Mercia was intense, but with Merlin’s help the tide had turned in Camelot’s favor.

At dawn, Merlin had helped Arthur into his armor. Arthur had plenty of squires, and it was menial work for the court sorcerer, but it was a ritual that they both treasured. They never actually spoke the words, but they both knew that Merlin wanted Arthur to himself in the last moments, in case this was the day Arthur fell in battle.

Arthur had never let himself imagine that it would be Merlin who would fall.

He had told the idiot to stay back from battle, to use his magic from well behind the lines. He couldn’t spare Percival or Elyan or any other of his key knights to be Merlin’s minder, but he had assigned a new knight that he trusted, Geraint, to stay by Merlin’s side and make sure he didn’t do something stupid.

He’d known the man for eleven years, and he should have known better than to think he would refrain from stupidity.

As near as he could reconstruct it afterward by questioning everyone involved, Merlin had seen that Gwaine was in trouble, cut off from the main force with a small group and under heavy attack. Merlin had left the safe overlook where Arthur had ordered him to stay, and tried to get closer to Gwaine to assist him with magic.

Fucking Gwaine, always Merlin’s knight, and his friend. Arthur knew that Gwaine stayed in Camelot not for him, but for Merlin.

Fucking Gwaine, who he knew had shared Merlin’s bed before Merlin was even twenty. And who still looked at Merlin longingly, despite Merlin’s many faithful years with Arthur.

Fucking Gwaine, who had had the balls to come to Arthur on the day after his wedding to Gwen, and tell Arthur it was time to let Merlin go.

Arthur had let his hand stray to his dagger, and had told Gwaine that his relationship with Merlin was none of his business. He had forbidden Gwaine to bring the subject up again, and Gwaine had swaggered away after favoring Arthur with a look of contempt.

Gwaine needed to know that Arthur was never going to let Merlin go, no matter what.

To his credit, Geraint had tried to stop Merlin from going to Gwaine. But Merlin had shaken him off like a leaf, his magic giving him the strength of three Percivals. Geraint had followed him, hurriedly gathering a few knights to protect the King’s consort, but Merlin had been too fast for them.

Merlin had used a lot of magic that day, bringing a hail of fire down from the sky and shielding Arthur and the knights around him as best he could. Apparently he was tiring by the time he went to rescue Gwaine, and he didn’t have enough strength to protect himself while he blasted magic at the enemy soldiers surrounding Gwaine’s little band.

A lucky arrow pierced Merlin’s side and brought him down, bright red blood blooming on his simple blue tunic. And then one of Mercia’s men clubbed him in the head, and as Geraint and the other knights watched in horror, an unconscious Merlin was lifted like the featherweight he was and carried off behind enemy lines.

Gwaine saw what was happening and fought like a demon to get to Merlin, but it was too late. The witnesses speculated that sorcery was involved, because Merlin seemed to disappear as soon as he was a few feet away from the skirmish.

The battle still raged, and none of the knights was able to go after Merlin’s captors. They had to take the field before they did anything else.

Arthur had seen none of it, busy on another part of the line. Afterward, he wondered at himself, that he could have not felt it when his love was spirited away. But he just kept wielding his sword and rallying his men, oblivious to what had occurred.

And when it was over and the prisoners were being rounded up and the wounded were being tended, Arthur saw Leon’s face and knew that something terrible had happened.

He kept calm, because he was a soldier first and always. But his lips were stiff as he forced out the words. “What is it?”

Leon’s face was white and drawn, but he was a brave man, and he kept his eyes on Arthur’s as he said evenly, “It’s Merlin, sire.”

Time seemed to come to a standstill for Arthur as he said, “Dead?”

“No, sire. Or rather, we’re not sure, but we think not. He was wounded, and carried off the field by the enemy.”

And then Arthur gave the orders that were necessary to make all secure following the battle, and turned his attention to recovering Merlin.

*****

The three weeks they searched for Merlin were the longest of Arthur’s life.

They picked up a trail that seemed hopeful, but it was a dead end. Arthur sent out spies and used his gold liberally to find any news of Merlin, and finally it paid off when a Mercian peasant stepped forward with a possible sighting of Merlin. He was questioned first by Leon and then by Arthur, and he seemed reliable.

The Mercian told them of a village with an inn where shady business was conducted, and where a dark-haired man appearing to be near death had been carried on the day after the battle.

Arthur had gone into the inn with a dozen of his most trusted knights, expecting a fight and getting one. By the time he fought his way to Merlin, chained to the wall in a room in the basement, his sword was red with blood, and so was his mail.

He was the first one in the room, automatically sweeping it with his eyes to make sure there were no guards other than the two he and Gwaine had already slain. Then he rushed to where a body was huddled in the corner, chained at the ankle and so small and frail that it looked like a bundle of rags.

He wasn’t even positive that it was Merlin until he pulled the man into his arms, and he gasped at how awful he looked. He’d tried to prepare himself mentally for finding an ill-treated Merlin, but this was far worse than he’d been able to let himself imagine during the long weeks of the search.

Merlin seemed semi-conscious, and he wasn’t opening his eyes. He looked half-starved, the skin stretched tightly over his cheekbones, and when Arthur pulled up his filthy shirt to check on his wound, his ribs showed in sharp relief. The wound itself seemed to be healing well, and Arthur briefly gave thanks for that, even as he yelled over his shoulder, “Find the key to the shackles. Now! And a cup of water.”

Lance plucked the key ring from one of the dead men’s belts, and quickly freed Merlin, exclaiming over the sores on his ankle. Percival brought the water, and Arthur looked up from where he’d been stroking Merlin’s hair, crooning to him and trying to get him to open his eyes.

Percival said, “Let me, sire,” and pulled Merlin semi-upright so that Arthur could hold the cup to his lips. Arthur tilted the cup so a little water went into Merlin’s mouth, and he seemed to wake at that, reaching greedily for the cup.

“Not too fast, love,” Arthur said, unashamed to be openly affectionate under these circumstances. He wasn’t revealing anything to his knights that they didn’t already know.

He let Merlin have some sips of water, then moved the cup away and promised, “More in a minute or two.” His brow creased as he realized that Merlin hadn’t acknowledged him or looked at him directly, and he said softly, “Merlin, can you look at me? Please?”

Arthur had faced many horrors since he first became a squire at fourteen. Manticores, were-creatures, witches, the Darocha, an attack on Camelot by a girl he had grown up with and loved like a sister. But he had never been as frightened as he was when Merlin finally met his eyes, and he saw an icy blueness that he did not recognize.

Merlin tried to speak, his voice rusty from disuse. “Why…” he started, and then had to pause to cough. Arthur gave him another sip of water, and rubbed his back, wishing he had time to take off his gloves so Merlin could feel the warmth of his skin. But he was determined to get Merlin out of this hellhole as soon as possible.

When the dry coughing ceased, Merlin looked straight at him and said, “Why did you do this to me?”

Arthur could see on the faces of his men that they were as dumbfounded as he was, and he sat back, unable to think for a moment. Leon, who was always there when he needed him, said quickly, “Sire, he’s in shock. We need to move quickly, this is a raid in Mercia’s kingdom, and we need to get Merlin out of here now.

Arthur nodded his agreement, and reached to take Merlin from Percival. But Merlin flinched away from him, looking terrified, and Percival hurriedly intervened. “I’ll take him, Sire, his weight will be lighter to me.” He rose with Merlin in his arms and turned to Gwaine and said, “A blanket? He’s cold.”

That snapped Arthur into activity, and he rose from where he’d been kneeling on the floor. His voice was sharp as he said, “No. We’ll wrap him in our cloaks. I want nothing from this place touching him.”

Percival nodded, and moved toward the stairs. The other knights grouped around Percival and Arthur, automatically protecting their king and their injured friend.

All of the men who had been in the inn when Arthur arrived were dead, the price of trying to keep Arthur from Merlin. There were a couple of whores who probably also served as barmaids standing outside of the building, blank-faced and scantily dressed with their arms crossed across their chests.

Arthur watched as Elyan and Leon wrapped Merlin in several warm cloaks and handed him up to ride in front of Gwaine, already in the saddle. He fought down his hurt, knowing that he should be the one to ride with Merlin. But the mission was to get Merlin safely home, and with Merlin so confused Arthur could not take the chance that Merlin would fight him and injure himself more.

He realized with a pang that Merlin didn’t seem to be afraid of anyone but him.

But he was not in the bed he shared with Merlin, where he had the time to explore tender feelings. He was a commander behind enemy lines, and he was responsible for all of their lives.

He didn’t take his eyes off the scene in front of him, Gwaine settling Merlin in front of him and wrapping strong arms around him, as he said tersely to Lance, “You have checked that no one is left in the building?”

“Yes, sire.”

“Burn it,” he ordered, swinging into the saddle.

*****

They rode hard for an hour before Arthur signaled for a halt. They wouldn’t be able to take a real break until they were safely within Camelot’s borders, but the horses needed a rest, and Merlin needed what medical attention they could give him.

They stopped by a stream, and the team of knights worked efficiently, those who were not in the inner circle of Arthur’s friends moving to water the horses while Leon and Lance laid out a bedroll on the ground and Percival carefully settled Merlin on it.

Gwaine was hovering, staring down at Merlin with a face like stone, and Arthur stepped past him, saying, “Make yourself useful and fetch some water for him.”

He kept his voice neutral. It wasn’t Gwaine’s fault that Merlin loved him, and was a loyal friend who would do anything for any of the Round Table knights. And he knew how fearful they had all been for Merlin’s life, and how hard they had tried to hide that fear from Arthur.

He knelt down next to Merlin to feel for his pulse, holding on and saying “I’m not going to hurt you,” when Merlin pulled away. It seemed steady enough, although rapid. Lance was lifting Merlin’s shirt to check for additional injuries, gently turning him over to look at his back. He briefly looked to Arthur for permission before loosening Merlin’s trousers and examining his lower body.

Merlin was filthy and covered in bruises, and the wound on his side had been inexpertly stitched. But it didn’t seem to be infected, and except for undernourishment and general mistreatment, he didn’t seem to be too badly off in a physical sense. There was dried blood in his hair, which was sticky and matted, and Arthur felt sick when he realized that the blood must have been there since the day of the battle.

Gwaine appeared with a water flask, and Arthur tried to give Merlin some water. But he flinched away again, shaking in terror, and Arthur wordlessly handed the flask to Lance. He heard Elyan behind him saying worriedly, “What on earth do you think happened to him, he always responds best to Arthur…” and Gwaine answering quickly, “Not now.”

Arthur would have liked to heat some water to clean the dirt off Merlin’s face, at least, and a fire would enable them to make something soft and bland enough for Merlin to eat. But there was no time, so he told Lance, “Soak some bread in water, see if you can get him to eat it. We leave in five minutes.” He said, “Elyan, trade horses with Gwaine. His will be tired from the double weight.”

He accepted Merlin riding with Gwaine again, knowing that right now, all he could do was get Merlin back to Gaius. Whatever was wrong with Merlin, it couldn’t be fixed on the road.

*****

When they stopped to make camp that night, they were within Camelot’s borders, but still a hard day’s ride away from the castle.

They started a fire, and Arthur motioned Lance over. “You know what to do. Clean him up, put some salve on his ankle, get some porridge in him. There’s a sleeping draught if we need it. He seems calmest around you and Gwaine, see if you can get him to talk about what happened to him. There are some spare clothes in my pack, his are ruined.”

Lancelot nodded his understanding and turned to leave, but paused and laid a hand on Arthur’s arm. “It will be all right, Arthur. He’ll be all right.”

“I hope so,” the king answered grimly.

He decided to take a couple of the others hunting, needing to get away from this nightmarish place where Merlin cowered away from his touch instead of welcoming it. They had good luck, bagging three rabbits within half an hour. When they returned to camp, they heard raised voices, and they ran back to view an uncomfortable scene.

Merlin was crouched low to the ground, looking like a panicked animal. Percival and Gwaine and Lance were in a circle around him, and Lance was holding Arthur’s spare tunic. Merlin looked cleaner, although they hadn’t been able to do much with his hair except sponge the dried blood out. Without the dirt, the various cuts and bruises stood out more clearly, and Merlin’s emaciated condition was even more striking. He was wearing a pair of trousers that were only staying on him because they were belted tightly. Arthur could see that there had been considerable damage to his hands.

He strode over, saying to Lance, “What happened?”

Lance’s concern was heavy in his voice. “He was fine while we bathed him, but when I went to put the shirt on him, he tried to bolt.”

Merlin looked at Arthur, then ducked his head. He said in a small but clear voice, “The shirt. It smells like him.” And he shot Arthur a look of revulsion.

Arthur could see Percival behind Merlin, ready to grab him if necessary. Merlin was shivering in the cold, half-naked, and Arthur knew it was time to end this stand-off. “For pity’s sake, find him another shirt. It doesn’t have to be mine.”

He handed the game to Sir Lionel to clean, and stalked off into the woods, muttering something about relieving himself. He couldn’t bear the shocked gazes of his knights, their eyes flickering between him and Merlin in disbelief.

Leon, ever tactful, gave him ten minutes alone before he followed him. Arthur was slumped on a log in the twilight, trying to stop his whirling thoughts.

Leon sat next to him. “It’s cold, Sire, you’d be better to sit by the fire. And supper is ready. You should come back.”

Arthur ran a hand through his hair in frustration. “It doesn’t feel like him, Leon. It feels like a stranger. What the hell do you think happened to him?”

Leon sighed. “You aren’t going to like this, but I can’t keep it from you. He was deliberately hurt. All ten of his fingers… they’re badly damaged. One of his thumbs is broken, and it looks like they tortured him by slipping a dagger underneath his fingernails.”

Arthur bit back a sound. He knew how exquisitely painful that was.

Leon pretended he didn’t hear, and continued, “It appears that sorcery was used to create an illusion. Merlin thinks that the man who tortured him was you.”

“Wha-a-a-at?” Arthur said slowly, unable to believe his ears. How could Merlin believe this, bright Merlin, his Merlin?

Leon plowed on. “We tried to explain it to him, to tell him that you were with us the whole time, that you searched tirelessly for him and would never hurt him. But he doesn’t believe us. In fact, he recognizes us, but he won’t say our names, and we’re not entirely certain that he remembers anything about us except for our faces.” Leon paused and seemed to be choosing his next words with care. “Sire, while his physical condition is poor, I’m afraid his mental condition is much worse. He’s very fearful, and doesn’t seem to have his wits about him. He seems to have lost big chunks of his memory; he seems to think he was kidnapped on his way from Ealdor to Camelot to apprentice for Gaius. We asked him how old he was, and he said he was eighteen. ”

It was a blow, and Arthur bowed his head to let his body absorb it. Then he rose and said, “Go back to camp. I’ll be along in a minute. We’ll get him back to Camelot and go from there.”

Arthur watched Leon leave, the bile rising in his throat at the thought of Merlin’s beautiful skillful fingers being deliberately harmed like that. When he was sure that Leon was out of hearing, he let go of his control and retched up what was left of his breakfast in painful dry heaves.

Then he wiped his mouth with his sleeve and headed back.

*****

Arthur was a man of iron discipline when it was necessary.

He choked down some food, knowing that he would need his strength the next day. He sat across the fire from Merlin and didn’t try to touch him or make eye contact with him, because he knew that was what Merlin needed.

He wished Merlin would respond to him. He wished he had Gwen here; his wife’s calm good sense and nurturing heart were badly needed. He wished he could snap his fingers and they would be in the courtyard of Camelot without the grueling journey that faced them tomorrow.

But if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. He had to deal in reality.

He watched as Lance and Leon fussed over Merlin, who was now dressed in somebody else’s spare tunic, and a leather vest that he was pretty sure belonged to Gwaine. They gave him a bowl of porridge and coaxed him to eat it, praising him when he was able to hold the bowl on his own.

Percival kept a watchful eye on Merlin, and Gwaine glowered at Arthur from his position at Merlin's side. But that was a matter of indifference to Arthur, who was busy making mental notes about Merlin’s demeanor and condition, so that he could share it all with Gaius.

The biggest thing he noticed watching Merlin was that he never smiled, not once.

After everyone was finished eating, they arranged the bedrolls in a circle around the fire, and Arthur had Leon give the orders for the watch, and to prepare the camp for the night. He was just too mentally exhausted to deal with it.

He lay down with the others, but sleep eluded him. Which was just as well, because it meant he wasn’t roused from a sound sleep when Merlin started screaming.

The others rolled out of their bedrolls with their swords already in their hands, but fortunately they were well-trained enough to realize that they were not under attack, and to grab Merlin as he crawled to the fire. When Elyan jumped on top of him, he was reaching for the embers, about to stick his hand into them.

Arthur called for a torch, and again that day found himself crouching in front of a terrified Merlin. He took him by the shoulders and shook him, not too hard, demanding angrily, “Merlin! What do you think you’re doing? You almost put your hand right in the fire.”

Merlin’s voice was anguished as he answered, “My hands hurt. The fire will clean them, and they won’t hurt anymore.” And then he wrapped his arms around his legs and started rocking back and forth, sobbing inconsolably. “I want to burn, let me burn.” He repeated those phrases over and over again, his voice rising.

Arthur had seen cases of hysteria stopped in their tracks by a brisk slap to the face, but he couldn’t bring himself to do that after all that Merlin had been through. He looked at Lance, and asked quietly, “Did you give him something for the pain?”

“I did, Sire, before he ate.”

“Then it will have to be the sleeping draught,” Arthur said grimly. Lance got it from their bags, and Gwaine and Elyan and Leon held a struggling Merlin down as Arthur poured it down his throat.

He seemed to calm as the medicine took effect, and Arthur gave new orders. “Everyone back to sleep, we have a hard day in front of us to get to Camelot by nightfall. Percival, I want you to sleep next to Merlin, and keep your arms around him. The man standing watch is to make sure Merlin doesn’t get up until morning.”

They lay Merlin’s bedroll down next to Percival’s, and by this time Merlin was groggy and pliable from the strong medicine. Percival curled up behind him, his front to Merlin’s back, and clamped an arm around him.

Arthur finally drifted off to sleep with his mind playing an endless loop of Merlin skittering away like a crab from a shirt that smelled like Arthur.

Just before he lost consciousness he found another memory, one that broke his heart with the contrast to the day’s events.

He’d come upon Merlin sitting on the floor in a sunny alcove, reading a book and eating an apple, wearing a ratty old tunic that was too big for him and that Arthur distinctly remembered consigning to the rag bin.

“Mer-lin!” he scolded. “You’re supposed to look like a court sorcerer, not a ragamuffin! And I threw that tunic away, it’s worn out.”

Merlin took another bite of his apple and answered with his mouth half full. “I like it. It smells like you.”

*****

They broke camp quickly in the morning. They’d brought an extra horse for Merlin, and he seemed somewhat stronger, so they let him ride alone, knowing they would make better time that way. Arthur took Elyan and Percival aside and told them to make sure they never got more than a few yards from Merlin.

Merlin’s horse was a sturdy gelding named Abloec, personally chosen by Arthur as a mount suitable for Merlin’s horsemanship, which to Arthur’s chagrin was still only average despite years of his best efforts. Merlin and Abloec had a bond, and Arthur hoped that being on his back, doing something familiar, would be good for Merlin’s mood.

But while Abloec seemed glad to see Merlin, it didn’t seem to Arthur that the reverse was true. Lance helped get him in the saddle, and gave him his own gloves to protect his hands, and they set out.

They had to take more breaks than they usually would have because Merlin tired easily. By the time they finally reached the castle, it was nearly dark, and Merlin seemed about to fall off his horse.

Gwaine and Elyan helped him down this time, and Arthur choked back the bitter feelings that came from seeing Merlin accepting everyone’s touch but his. Merlin was staggering when he tried to walk, and Gwaine had an arm around him instantly. He looked at Arthur and said, “Shall I take him to Gaius?”

Arthur nodded his agreement. “Take someone else with you in case Merlin tries something funny again, and wait with him until I can get there.” He turned to Leon, saying, “Please inform the Queen of our return, and of what has happened to Merlin. Then you are all relieved for the night.”

He would get to Merlin as soon as he could, but he still had a kingdom to run. He walked to the armory, listening as his seneschal walked beside him and reported on events in Camelot since he’d been gone. He also needed to hear a report from the acting Captain of the Guard, and he did that as a squire helped him out of his armor.

With those obligations out of the way, he went to his chambers, where a fire was already lit and a hot bath was waiting for him. An efficient manservant was standing by, and there was ale and a plate of bread and cheese on the table. He silently blessed Gwen for her attentiveness, and slipped into the bath with a groan.

He’d been living rough for three weeks, bathing in streams when he could and most of the time just washing his face and hands in camp. The water felt like heaven on his sore bones. He was thirty now, and when he was away from home he missed his hot baths and soft mattress.

He didn’t have long, he needed to check with Gaius. And he was sick with worry about Merlin. But he suspected that this was not a problem that was going to disappear overnight, and there was no point in appearing in Gaius’s rooms filthy and disheveled.

He washed his hair and his body quickly, then let himself soak for a few minutes as he puzzled over Merlin’s situation.

As near as he could figure, Merlin was either too ill to use magic, or didn’t know he had it. Which was probably a good thing, because an insane sorcerer would be very difficult to control. The last thing he wanted to have to do was to put Merlin in iron chains to cut off his magic. The very thought made him heartsick.

As he rose from the bath and dressed, a third possibility occurred to him, and it wasn’t comforting. If Merlin thought he was still a boy and on his way to Camelot, he would still be listening to the advice his mother had given him- to never reveal his magic to anyone.

If that was the case, and Merlin knew he had magic but was concealing it, there could be serious trouble ahead.

*****

When he got to Gaius’s chambers, what he saw was not reassuring.

Merlin was slumped in a chair near the fire, appearing totally listless and withdrawn. Gaius looked grave, and Gwaine and Lance looked like they had just received some very bad news.

“How is he?” Arthur quietly asked, trying not to be hurt by the way Merlin hunched his shoulders when he saw him.

“We need to speak privately, Sire,” Gaius answered. He led him to a table in the far corner of the room, the same table where Merlin had sat wrapped in a blanket when he first came to Camelot and had drunk poison for Arthur.

Arthur saw no point in delaying bad news. “Tell me,” he ordered.

“Physically, he’s weak, and I think in pain. The wound isn’t infected, which is something of a miracle considering the conditions he was kept in, from what Gwaine said. He’ll need rest and proper nutrition, of course.” Gaius paused, and Arthur stifled his desire to rush the old man, knowing that he was being careful to be precise in his wording.

He continued, “He seems very confused, and he thinks Uther is still the King. As far as he knows, he met me for the first time today. He seems well-disposed toward your knights, but he told me that “Arthur” is an evil man who tortured him. He’s afraid of you, and he seems to hate you. Which is understandable if he thinks that you are the one who hurt him in such horrific ways.”

Arthur nodded his understanding. “We will have to clear that up for him, and he will learn to trust me again.”

“I hope so, Sire. But I have to tell you my biggest concern; Merlin seems to be suffering from a form of hysteria. He thinks that there is a creature of some sort, like an insect, inside his brain, telling him to do bad things. It’s telling him to harm himself, and he says it is angry with him. He will have to be closely watched to make sure he doesn’t do himself an injury.”

Arthur felt a chill run down his spine, but he made himself sound confident as he said, “Believe me, he will be watched. In the meantime, I would like you to look into the possibility that he is bespelled, or even that some malicious magical object has been introduced into his body. It wouldn’t be the first time.”

When Merlin had finally told Arthur about his magic, a year after he had taken the throne and three years after they became lovers, they had spent many long nights in front of the fire in Arthur’s chambers. Merlin had told him many stories, including the one about how Morgana had implanted the Fomorroh under his skin. It hadn’t been the easiest time for them, with Arthur learning that much of what he believed about his life since Merlin had arrived in Camelot had been based on the quicksand of lies and deception.

But they had worked through it, and Arthur had eventually come to understand that Merlin had acted as he did out of fear for his own life, and the lives of Gaius and even Hunith.

It was sobering to realize that in a sense they had stepped back in time, and that he was once again dealing with a Merlin who would go to great lengths to conceal his secret. And who was possibly too fragile to just be told outright that everyone knew about his magic.

It was late, and Merlin was drowsing in his chair. Arthur told Gaius “Keep me advised on the progress of your investigation,” and went over to Merlin, reaching out to touch him before remembering and pulling his hand back.

“It’s time for you to come with me,” he told Merlin gently.

The look he got back was full of fear, but also had a trace of “sullen teenager” in it. Merlin said, “Why?” at the same time as Gaius said, “Sire,” and Lance said warningly, “Arthur…”

“It’s late, and your hair is still filthy, you need a bath and then some sleep,” Arthur said patiently.

Gaius cleared his throat. “I thought it might be best for Merlin to spend the night here, in his old room. It will be less disorienting.”

“I don’t see how,” Arthur answered. “Every room in this castle is as strange to him as the next.” Gaius didn’t have an answer to that.

Gwaine said urgently, “Arthur, a word.”

Arthur’s patience was fraying fast, but he let Gwaine lead him out to the hallway. “Make it quick,” he ordered.

Gwaine lifted his chin defiantly as he locked eyes with Arthur. “Excuse me, your highness. But while you were having a nice bath and checking in with your wife, I was holding Merlin’s head while he vomited after Gaius re-set his thumb. And I’m thinking that you are not the best person for Merlin to be staying with tonight.”

Arthur moved a step closer to Gwaine and kept his voice low so Merlin wouldn’t hear him. “I am letting this pass because I know how concerned you are about Merlin. But in the future you will refer to the Queen by her title. And you will not meddle in things that you know nothing about.”

Gwaine stood his ground, too stubborn to yield.

“I know a lot about Merlin.”

“That may be, Gwaine. But you don’t know much about me and Merlin.” He walked away, but turned back angrily and said, “Merlin will sleep where he always does. With me.”

*****

Arthur wasn’t afraid to be alone with Merlin, although a small part of him thought that perhaps he should be. But at Lance’s insistence he had brought two guards with him to station at the door of his chambers, and they trailed along as he walked Merlin back, a hand on his elbow because he was weaving from exhaustion.

He’d ordered another bath brought up before he left and also sent a maid to get some clean clothes from the chambers where Merlin nominally lived. The atmosphere when they returned was reminiscent of many other nights the two of them had spent together in these rooms: a steaming bath, a roaring fire, candles lit to give the room a soft glow. But the emotional temperature was all wrong.

Merlin hesitated by the bath, and Arthur’s frustration with the situation came out in his clipped tone. “You aren’t getting into my bed with all that dirt on you. No one is going to make an attempt on your virtue. Now get your clothes off and get in the bath, or I’ll call the guards to assist you.”

Merlin turned pink at his words, and Arthur remembered that in Merlin’s mind, he was a virgin. Hell, maybe he still thought he liked girls. He turned his back to him so he could get undressed and went to sit by the fire, picking up a book to pretend to read. He positioned himself so he could keep an eye on Merlin without being too obvious about it.

Merlin was half-heartedly washing himself when Gwen came into the room, and his look of outrage at being naked in front of her might have been funny in other circumstances. Gwen crossed the room to Arthur and said, “Don’t get up,” as he started to rise. She leaned down and kissed his cheek, and said, “I’m glad you’re back, both of you.”

She went over to the tub, where Merlin was trying to sink under the water, and said, “Hello, Merlin. I’m Gwen. I’m Arthur’s wife. Don’t be embarrassed, please. I used to be a servant, and I’ve done my fair share of assisting tired men in the bath.” She knelt down next to him and gave him a genuine smile. “Would you let me wash your hair for you? I could help you get the tangles out. It would be a shame if we had to cut it.” She didn’t wait for him to answer, just dipped a cup in the bathwater and said, “Tilt your head back for me.”

He seemed to respond to her easy confidence, and looking across the room Arthur could see his tight shoulders relaxing as the warm water and Gwen’s gentle touch worked their magic. She kept talking to him softly as she took the washcloth from his hand and washed his back and his hands and arms and legs.

When she was done, she said, “I’m going to go talk to Arthur now. Don’t worry, I won’t peek. There are clean clothes for you on the bed.”

She joined Arthur at the fire, and they talked about castle business, giving Merlin privacy to get dressed. Then she said, “Walk me to my room, dearest?” and Arthur answered, “Of course.” She paused by the bed, where Merlin was sitting stiffly in sleeping clothes, and said, “I will see you tomorrow, Merlin.” He nodded but didn’t look up at her.

Arthur tilted his head at one of the guards to indicate that he should go in the room while he was gone, and walked Gwen the short distance down the corridor to her suite. “What do you think, Gwen?” She looked up at him and he could see how concerned she was.

“He’s obviously very damaged. I could see traces of the nice boy he was when he first came to Camelot, but he seemed so passive and so weary. Like he’d given up hope.”

“He was alone for three weeks, and he was tortured.” He saw her wince at his words, but plunged ahead. “That can destroy a man’s mind forever.”

“But not Merlin’s,” she said firmly.

“But not Merlin’s,” he agreed. Because the alternative was unthinkable.

*****

It wasn’t the easiest night Arthur had ever had.

Merlin flat out refused to get in the bed, his voice rising toward hysteria again, and Arthur finally called for a pallet to be brought and set on the floor next to the bed.

Fearful of Merlin trying to burn himself again, he ordered the fire doused. It was a cold night, and would be colder by morning, but he couldn’t afford to take any chances. He also had all of his weapons removed from the room, except for the dagger that he always kept under his pillow. His Merlin knew about the dagger, but this one didn’t, and Arthur and his father before him had been attacked in their chambers too often to go without weapons entirely.

Merlin was lying rigidly on the floor, his back to Arthur, when Arthur doused the last candle. Arthur could tell the difference between when Merlin was asleep and when he was pretending to be asleep, but in this case Merlin wasn’t even trying to pretend. Arthur lay there, too, until exhaustion finally claimed him.

He woke well before dawn to the sound of sobbing, and immediately looked for Merlin on the pallet. But he wasn’t there. He lit a candle with hands that were shaking, the sound of Merlin’s muffled sobs tearing his heart out.

He found him in the corner of the room furthest from the bed, rocking and clawing at his arms. Arthur slid down until he was sitting against the cold stone wall, close enough to touch Merlin but careful not to do so.

“Merlin, what’s wrong?”

“Go away. I hate you.”

“No, you don’t. You don’t know me well enough to hate me. This has been explained to you. Someone used sorcery to take on my form and my face and my voice, but it wasn’t me. You and I are friends, and eventually you will come to remember that.”

Merlin quieted somewhat at Arthur’s calm words, and Arthur continued, “If you tell me what is wrong, I will do my best to help you.”

Merlin scrubbed the heel of his hand at his eyes, and said sadly, “No one can help.”

“Try me.”

“There are insects in my brain, and some of them have hatched and crawled out of my ears and now they are crawling all over me!” He scratched more deeply at his arms and drew blood.

Arthur yelled, deliberately. “Stop that!”

He’d forgotten the guards just outside the door, who rushed in at the sound of his raised voice, weapons at the ready.

He waved at them in dismissal. “Go away. We’re just talking.” They backed out, bowing, but he was already done with them.

He said firmly, “Merlin, if you don’t stop hurting yourself, I will call the guards back and have them bind your wrists. Neither one of us wants that, so please stop.”

Fresh tears started. “But what will I do about the bugs?”

Arthur sighed. “We have medicine for the bugs.”

*****

The poppy syrup put Merlin back to sleep, although he refused to come out of his corner. Arthur waited until his head was drooping and went to the door to get the guards, telling them, “Put him in the bed. Gently.” He covered Merlin with the warm blankets and slid in next to him, trying to warm his icy cold limbs .

It was a long time before Arthur fell asleep again.

The next morning Merlin was fairly cooperative, and Arthur made a mental note to ask Gaius why Merlin seemed so much worse at night. They sat at Arthur’s work table for breakfast, and Merlin mostly pushed his food around his plate, even though the kitchen had sent up some of his favorites.

Which probably meant that gossip about Merlin’s condition had reached to the lower hall.

Merlin eyed Arthur warily. “They tell me you are the king?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Then you have the power to grant me a request?”

Arthur didn’t like the idea of bargaining with Merlin in the condition he was in, but he said, “Yes, I can grant you a request if it is reasonable and it is not contrary to your best interests or the best interests of the kingdom.” He looked over at his lover, who looked so thin and ethereal that it seemed like he might float out of the chair. “I will not hear any requests until your plate is empty.”

Merlin looked mutinous, so Arthur tried to tease him. “You’re nothing but skin and bones. We could stand you up in a corn field and you would frighten away the crows.”

The teasing didn’t get the response Arthur had hoped for, but Merlin did reluctantly pick up his fork and make a manful effort. Arthur felt that he had made some progress with Merlin, and it seemed that Merlin had accepted that Arthur was not the same man who had tortured him.

When Merlin was finished eating, Arthur said, “You may ask now.”

Merlin’s simple honesty was heartbreaking. “I am very sick in my head. I know that. I think I would be better off if I returned to Ealdor.” He paused and said softly, “I think my mother would know what to do.”

Arthur had to look down so Merlin wouldn’t see the shock in his eyes. He tried to center himself, so that he could sound convincing.

“It isn’t safe for you to travel right now. The people who took you before might try again, and I can’t risk that.” He could see the disappointment in Merlin’s face and continued hurriedly, “But I can send to Ealdor for your mother, and ask her to come and visit you.”

Merlin said, “Thank you,” and added awkwardly, “Sire.”

He told Merlin, “Get dressed. I have things to do today, but we will figure out something to occupy you.” Merlin left the table, and Arthur leaned back in his chair, a hand shading his eyes.

He couldn’t escape the irony that the first smile he’d gotten from Merlin since he’d been recovered was based on a lie.

Hunith had been dead for over a year.

*****

Merlin, believing that he had come to Camelot to be a servant, asked Arthur if there were any duties he wanted him to perform. Arthur shook his head, saying, “You’re not recovered yet from a severe battle wound, and your hands are not up to laundry or scrubbing. I want you to rest today. Gaius will come by to examine you later this morning. For now, I’ll send Gwaine to keep you company. ”

Arthur fought down the flash of jealousy that he felt when Merlin’s face lightened at the prospect of a morning with Gwaine.

He trusted that Gwaine would stay within the proper boundaries. Merlin was sick in body and mind, and Gwaine had his own brand of honor, and he wouldn’t cross that line.

Besides, Gwaine was well aware that if he ever touched Merlin inappropriately, Arthur would run him through.

He found some books that Merlin had enjoyed reading in the last few months, and left him with those as well as some parchment and a quill. Before he left, he gestured for the guards to enter the room and another pair to guard the door. Gwaine gave him an exaggerated eye roll, which made Arthur angry. He took him aside and hissed, “Are you immune to magic now, Gwaine?”

“I’m not afraid of Merlin,” Gwaine hissed back.

“The more fool you,” was Arthur’s response. “The guards stay.”

He gathered his most trusted councilors at his big round table. Gwaine wasn’t much of a planner, he was a man of action, so Arthur felt comfortable leaving him out of the meeting.

Leon was there, and Lance, and Gwen. He needed her insights about Merlin, who had been one of the people closest to her since he’d first come to Camelot. Gaius arrived, looking exhausted, and Arthur knew that the old man had stayed up far too late doing medical and magical research on how to help Merlin.

They all looked grave as Arthur described Merlin’s behavior during the night, and Arthur concluded, “We have to bring this to an end as soon as possible. I left him writing a letter to his mother.”

Gwen gasped in sympathy, and the men exchanged glances full of concern for Merlin.

“All right, I need thoughts on how to proceed from here. Gaius, what have you found out? What treatment do you recommend?”

Gaius spoke slowly. “He seems to exhibit some of the behaviors of people who have cracked under great stress- apathy, withdrawal, melancholia. The hallucinations may be a different matter. He could have been poisoned somehow, or had a spell put on him that addled his brain. Or… ,” he hesitated.

Arthur tried to not snap at the older man, who loved Merlin like a son. “Just say it, Gaius.”

“Sire, there is a type of illness that comes on in young people, usually somewhere between the beginning of adolescence and the mid- twenties. It is characterized by hearing voices, by visual hallucinations, and by odd sensations such as the feeling of insects crawling on the skin. ” He hesitated and then said, “If this is the affliction Merlin suffers from, it might have somehow been precipitated by the mistreatment he received. Merlin is twenty-nine, he is a bit older than the usual age for the onset of this malady, but I have seen cases of the disease developing later.”

This time Arthur did allow sharpness to enter his voice. “I know how old he is. I threw a feast in honor of his birthday last Beltane.”

He would have said more, but they heard running footsteps at the door. A member of the household guard burst into the room. “Sire, it’s Lord Merlin. You must come.”

Arthur was out of his chair and sprinting across the room before the guard had finished his sentence, with the others at his heels, Gwen picking up her skirts so she could run faster.

They all burst into Arthur’s chambers, Arthur in the lead, to see a very scary tableau unfolding.

Gwaine was sitting on the floor, holding his head and looking like he’d taken a hard hit. Obviously, Merlin had overpowered him with magic, since he could never have done it by physical strength alone. Merlin was sitting in the open window, perched precariously half in and half out. His legs dangled toward the room, but his upper body was twisted so that he could take a head-first dive. There were three guards in a circle with swords drawn and pointed at Merlin, about three feet away from him. Merlin looked scared, like he wasn’t positive he wanted to jump but just might do it anyway.

“Put your weapons down, you fools,” Arthur barked out. He pushed his way through them, and time seemed to slow as he locked eyes with Merlin. It felt like they were the only people in the room.

Praying to the gods of all religions, old and new, Arthur put out a hand in supplication. “Merlin, you don’t want to do this. We’re three stories up. Chances are good the fall would kill you, but it might just cripple you for life. Think about that. Why don’t you just get down from there and we’ll talk?”

“Talking doesn’t help,” Merlin said sadly, looking back.

“You haven’t really tried it yet. I’ve only had a few dozen words out of you. You could try talking to Gaius, you know.” Arthur scrabbled for the right thing to say to calm Merlin. “You can trust Gaius. Hunith entrusted you and your secret to him, didn’t she?”

Out of his peripheral vision he caught a slight movement from Gwaine. He kept talking, his voice calm. “If your mother trusted him, don’t you think you should, too? He’s a physician…”

Arthur stopped mid-sentence when he saw Gwaine lunge for the window and grab Merlin’s ankle, pulling him down. He helped Gwaine wrestle Merlin to the ground, pinning his arms so he couldn’t use his hands to cast a spell.

But Arthur knew better than anyone that Merlin didn’t need his hands to do magic.

As soon as he saw Merlin’s eyes glow gold, he punched him in the temple, hard.

Lance helped Arthur to his feet, and he looked down at the unconscious form of the man he loved.

“Take him to the dungeons, and put him in iron chains,” he commanded. He hoped he didn’t sound as wrecked as he felt.

*****

The meeting reconvened once Merlin had been carried off. He’d ordered Gwaine to see to it that Merlin was secured and then to join them, and when he did, he looked subdued and lacked his usual swagger.

When Arthur motioned for him to sit down, he stayed on his feet and bowed his head. “I’m sorry, sire. He seemed glad to see me, and we were talking and playing dice, and out of nowhere he attacked me.” He finally raised his eyes, looking sick at heart, and said, “You entrusted him to my care, and I let you down. I should have been more careful.”

Arthur shrugged. “It’s hard to be distrustful of someone who seems so familiar. But we all have to remember that we are not dealing with our Merlin. Fortunately, no lasting harm was done.” But they both knew that if Merlin had plunged to his death, Arthur would neither have forgotten nor forgiven.

And that applied to Gwaine, and to Arthur himself.

Gaius was outlining a plan to treat Merlin with herbs for clarity of mind, such as sage and rosemary, and valerian to help with his sadness. Arthur was willing to try anything, but it seemed unlikely that herbs alone could cure such a severe mental imbalance.

Leon had seemed lost in thought while Gaius was talking, and he spoke at the first opportunity. “I have heard of cases where torture or severe duress has made a man lose his memory and revert to a babbling infant. But Merlin was never weak-minded. He seemed so much stronger than that.”

Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose the way he did when he was deep in concentration. Finally he said, “I think we have to remember that while a skilled torturer will always be able to break any man, given enough time, Merlin is more than just a man. He has powerful magic at his disposal, and mind control disciplines that he learned from the Druids. Even if they were able to keep him from using his magic, he still would have inner resources to fight them with.” He looked around the room. “Let’s start at the beginning, even if it seems obvious. What would be the motivation for taking him?”

“He’s the most powerful sorcerer in Albion, and the Mercian king hoped to gain his power for himself,” Lance answered promptly.

“He has strategic information about Camelot’s defenses and future plans, which could be very valuable to enemies of Camelot,” was Leon’s response.

Gwaine said what no one else wanted to say. “It’s an open secret that he shares your bed.” He saw Gaius wince, and added, “I’m sorry for being indelicate, Gaius. But it’s Merlin’s life and sanity at stake here, and there’s no point in beating around the bush. He might have been kidnaped solely to hurt Arthur, by someone who has a personal grudge against him.”

Arthur did his best to synthesize the answers into a single picture. “So let’s say he was taken by someone who hoped to personally hurt me through him, but also hoped to use his knowledge and his power to win Camelot and remove me from the throne.”

Arthur continued to think out loud. “It would take a very powerful sorcerer to create the illusion that he was me, right down to looking and sounding and even smelling like me. And assuming that Merlin did not lose his memory under the stress of torture, it would take a very powerful sorcerer to wipe his mind clean like that, to erase all traces of his life in Camelot and take him back to the age of eighteen.”

Leon cut in. “Mercia is known to have sorcerers, but their magic is primarily battle magic, and Merlin always said that it was not particularly impressive. I have never heard that they have a sorcerer who even approaches Merlin’s skill.”

Gaius said gravely, “Merlin is the most powerful sorcerer who has ever lived. There is only one other who holds a faint candle to him.”

It was clear from the quick glances around the table that everyone knew who Gaius was talking about. They had lost track of Mordred two years ago, and some of them had hoped he was dead, but Merlin had always been certain that he was still out there somewhere, plotting against Arthur.

Arthur was still struggling to come up with a theory for what had happened to Merlin. “What is the single most outstanding thing about Merlin, something that everyone in the Five Kingdoms knows about him?”

“That he is absolutely loyal to you,” Lance answered.

Arthur always seemed to think better on his feet, and without realizing it he was up and pacing around the table. “And if Merlin thought that he could save my throne by sacrificing himself, would he do it?”

Gwaine drawled out, “I assume that’s what you well-educated types call a rhetorical question?”

“So let’s say Merlin was captured, wounded, in pain, not by any means at the top of his game…” Arthur continued. “He’s being mistreated, there’s at least some torture, so maybe he thinks the best way to protect me is to not know anything about Camelot’s defenses…”

Gwen was the first to grasp his train of thought. “So he takes himself back to the time before he arrived at Camelot, so he would still be Merlin, but would not know anything that could be used against you.”

Leon looked stunned. “So you think the sorcerer who did this to Merlin is Merlin himself?”

“I think we need to explore that possibility,” Arthur said grimly. “Gaius and Lance, come with me. I think it’s time to see what young Merlin has to say for himself.”

*****

Merlin was in a cell in the dungeon, but it wasn’t like the old days when he would get pitched into a room holding nothing but a pile of straw and a thin blanket. He was huddled on a cot, but it was piled with blankets and furs, and there was a small fire in a brazier just outside the bars to take the chill off the damp stone walls.

He looked up when the guard unlocked the entrance, and Arthur pushed back the emotions that flared up when he saw Merlin with iron chains looped around his wrists and a thin iron collar around his neck. It was all Arthur could do to keep from reaching out to him, to comfort him and order the chains removed. But that wouldn’t help Merlin in the long run, and getting the Merlin he knew back was Arthur’s first priority.

Merlin shot him a resentful look and turned his face to the wall. “None of that, Merlin. It’s time you and I had a conversation,” Arthur said firmly.

“You put me in iron chains. I can’t feel my magic, and it hurts.

“And you attacked Gwaine, a man who would cheerfully die for you, and tried to harm yourself. You gave me no choice.”

“You could let me go. Of what importance to you is some youth from Ealdor?” Merlin was getting angry, and he sat up straight. “And while we’re on the subject, why am I wearing such rich clothing? And why are you so insistent that I sleep in your chambers? Am I your bed slave?”

“Hardly. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

“What does that mean?”

“It doesn’t matter right now. I need you to tell me, what is the last thing you remember?”

Merlin’s voice took on a rote quality, as if he had repeated the story often, although he had not done so in Camelot. “I bade my mother farewell, and set out for Camelot on foot, with my backpack and a bedroll. I was looking for a position with Gaius, the court physician, who was a friend of my mother’s.”

Arthur let his voice get sharper. “I didn’t ask you what the story you told for three weeks was. I asked you what the last thing you remember is. Think, Merlin. It’s your only chance of getting better.”

Merlin’s mouth was set in a stubborn line, and Arthur could see his chance of getting anything from him slipping away. He was considering yelling (because that always works with Merlin, great plan, Arthur) when Lance touched his arm to get his attention and spoke to him in a low, urgent voice. “Arthur, could you let me try something? It’s something I saw in my travels in the East.”

Arthur shrugged. It was worth a try.

Lance said, “Gaius and I will need some time to prepare,” and he had a whispered consultation with the physician. A servant was sent to fetch the necessary items from Gaius’s workroom, as Merlin and Arthur eyed each other unhappily.

The servant returned with a hot drink for Merlin, which he was reluctant to take. But Gaius said, “It contains something to relax you, but it will not make you unconscious or harm you in any way. You have my promise of that.” Something of Gaius’s concern for him must have breached Merlin’s defenses, because he took a cautious sip and then another, and over the next five minutes drank the whole cup. Lance also lit some incense that Gaius said had been enchanted by Merlin to have a beneficial effect on the sick, and the air filled with its sweet resinous scent.

Finally, Lance knelt in front of Merlin and said, “I want to try something that might help you remember. It won’t hurt. Will you try it with me?”

Merlin nodded, and Arthur took a deep breath and tried to control his hurt that Merlin was responding to Lance better than to him. The two had always been close, and Arthur knew that Merlin was still reacting to the illusionary Arthur who had mistreated him, but still…

Arthur resolutely turned his thoughts away from the path they were treading and concentrated on the matter at hand.

Lance’s voice was low and soothing as he said, “Close your eyes, and think of a place that you like very much, someplace that has happy memories for you.” Merlin obediently closed his eyes, and after a minute or two Arthur could see some of the tension leaving his face.

“Where are you, Merlin?”

“The swimming hole by Ealdor. Will and I used to spend all our free time there, in the summers, swimming or lying on the bank in the sun and talking.”

“That’s good, very good,” Lance said. “You’re at the swimming hole, and you’re safe, and no one can hurt you. It’s warm, and the sun is shining, and you’re happy. And if you remember something that frightens or distresses you, just step back from the memory and remember how the sun feels on your skin. Can you do that?”

Merlin nodded. He seemed to be lulled into a different state by Lance’s calm voice.

Lance said, “Tell us what you remember about your imprisonment. But remember it isn’t happening to you right now. Just try to watch it as if you were an outsider and you are not involved in it.”

Merlin closed his eyes and was quiet for a minute. Then he started speaking, slowly. “I remember being afraid. Very afraid. I remember wanting some water and he told me I couldn’t have any until I told him things. I told him I didn’t know anything. And then he kept hurting me.”

“What kinds of things did he want to know?” Lance asked softly.

“He wanted to know about Excalibur, and he wanted to know about the secret tunnels underneath the castle and where the entrance was and where they led. And he wanted to know what kind of magical protection and wards I had around Camelot and the King.”

“What did you tell him?”

“I told him that I had no idea what he was talking about.” Merlin shuddered. “And then he got out a very small knife and slid it under my fingernails and I screamed and screamed until I was hoarse and he did them one at a time and then I think I fainted.”

“Calm down, Merlin. You’re safe, and you’re at the swimming hole, and Will is there.”

Merlin smiled, and he looked soft and young, like he really was an eighteen year old. “Will is my best friend. He always has my back.”

That cost Arthur a pang. He remembered Merlin’s grief at Will’s death, and how ungiving he had been in the face of that grief. He remembered his harsh words, “You should have told me, Merlin.”

He snapped back to the present when Lance said, “And when you told him that you had no idea what he was talking about, was it true?”

“Yes!” Merlin’s sincerity was beyond question. “I don’t know what Excalibur is, and I don’t know anything about the castle, and I don’t even know any spells.” His voice was growing ragged with emotion. “I have magic, but mostly it’s a huge disaster and it gets me in trouble and I can’t even control it very well.”

Lance’s voice got even lower and more hypnotic, and he said, “It’s all right, we’re almost done. You’re doing really well. I only have one more question, and I want you to just tell me the first thing that comes into your mind.”

He paused, and put his hand on top of Merlin’s where it was resting on the fur covering of the cot.

“Why didn’t you know anything about Arthur and Camelot?”

“I locked it up in my mind and threw away the key.”

*****

Merlin was exhausted by the time the conversation was over, so he curled up on the cot and slept. Leon and Gwaine had joined them in the cell by then, and they talked in low tones so they wouldn’t disturb him.

“So Merlin did this to himself? Clever man.” Gwaine said proudly. “He protected Camelot by making absolutely certain that he couldn’t reveal anything.”

“Not so clever if we never get him back,” Leon pointed out.

“We’re getting him back,” Arthur said grimly. It was unthinkable that the life he’d shared with Merlin could simply be gone.

Gaius was trying to walk through the implications. “So if Merlin became younger and untrained in magic, he was unable to defend himself against Mordred’s illusions. And not just about Arthur. Mordred has become a vicious creature, and he probably planted the thoughts about the insects and self-harm just to be cruel.”

“He’s known to have a hatred for you, Sire,” Lance added. “And what better way to hurt you than by wrecking the mind of someone who is dear to you?”

Arthur was already on the next step. “All right, we know that Merlin used magic to shut off his memories. What can be done to reverse it?”

“He needs to call a dragon to heal him. A magical illness of the mind will only respond to a magical cure.” Gaius answered instantly. “And if Kilgarrah was able to cure Merlin of the Serkit bite and bring Morgana back from the point of death, he could certainly restore Merlin’s mind.”

Leon glanced back to make sure that Merlin was still asleep. “He doesn’t know he’s a dragonlord. Who will call the dragon for him?”

Arthur had never been more certain of anything in his life. “He and I will call the dragon together.”

*****

They waited until Merlin woke up, because Gaius said that sleeping was good for him, and then Arthur ordered the chains removed, and he and Merlin rode out with Leon and Gwaine and Lance. Gaius had wanted to come, but Arthur dissuaded him by promising that they would bring Merlin straight back when it was over. It was dark by then, which suited Arthur’s purposes. Dragons avoided the daylight.

When they reached the clearing where Merlin always summoned Kilgarrah and Aithusa, Arthur and Merlin left the others with the horses at the edge where the woods ended. Horses were notorious for disliking dragons, and Arthur did not want his knights to overhear what he was about to say to Merlin.

Merlin didn’t seem so distrustful of Arthur now, but Arthur took care not to touch him or get too close.

When they had walked to the center of the clearing, Merlin said, “I don’t know why we’re here. I know nothing about dragons, I’ve never seen one, and I certainly don’t know how to call one to me like a favorite dog.”

“When the time comes, you will know what to do. For right now, I hope that you will listen to me with an open mind.”

Merlin didn’t agree, but he didn’t protest either, and Arthur took that as good enough.

There was only a faint moon, and Arthur wanted to be able to really see Merlin, so he gave an order.

“Hold out your hand and say, ‘Accendo.’”

Merlin did as he was told, and broke out in a delighted grin when a large ball of light appeared, bright enough that the whole clearing was illuminated. “I had no idea I could do that,” he said in a tone of wonder.

“That’s just the tiniest part of what you can do,” Arthur answered. “Now, I am going to tell you who you are, and who you are to me.”

Merlin said warily, “I’m listening.”

“You came here eleven years ago and almost immediately saved my life, and my father gave you the position as my manservant. We didn’t care for each other much at first, but eventually we became friends, and you were convinced by the dragon Kilgarrah that our destinies lay together. He told you we were two sides of the same coin.”

Merlin frowned. “What does that even mean?”

“Hush. I’m telling you the story of your life. You were afraid to tell me about your magic because of my father’s hatred of anything magical, and because your mother had told you from toddlerhood that concealing it was a life or death matter, so you hid it from me for the first five years you were in Camelot. When you told me, I was very angry at first, but we worked through it. You are my official court sorcerer, and I would not still be king of Camelot if you had not been here. As you are fond of telling me, you’ve saved my royal backside countless times.”

Merlin seemed to like that idea, if the small smile he gave Arthur was any indication.

Arthur steeled himself for the harder part of what he needed to do.

“You prefer the company of men to women. You were in a relationship with another man for a year or two, but eventually we realized that we loved each other in all senses, physically as well as emotionally. We have been together ever since, and the whole court knows that you are my consort.”

Merlin sputtered. “But… but what about Gwen? She’s so… perfect.”

“She is perfect. She’s kind and wise and an invaluable councilor to me, and the people love her. But it’s a marriage in name only. I needed a queen to appease my courtiers and my advisers, and to run my household and be my official hostess. But she and I have never shared a bed. I occasionally spend the night in her rooms, but it’s only for form’s sake. And if she gives me a son or daughter, it will be my heir, but Lancelot’s child.”

“You don’t care about having a legitimate heir?”

“Not as much as I care about you.”

Merlin looked like he’d been pole-axed, with his eyes wide and his jaw dropped open. Arthur reached out and ran his thumb along Merlin’s lower lip and teased, “Close your mouth. It isn’t an attractive look on you.”

Merlin did as he was told, but he still looked stunned. Then he slowly said, “Ohhhh…. I guess that explains why I had those strange feelings about you.”

“Yes, that explains it. And I’m happy to know that you have feelings about me, strange or otherwise.”

Arthur grew serious. “You and I have made vows to each other. I will have none other than you, for the rest of my life. And you have sworn fealty to me, and promised to obey all of my commands.” He took Merlin’s hands in his own, and gazed intently into his eyes. “I am commanding you. Call the dragon.”

Merlin whispered, “I don’t know how.”

Arthur squeezed Merlin’s hands, and dropped to his knees. He looked up at Merlin with all the love and trust of their years together, and said, “Husband. Call the dragon.”

And Merlin did.

*****

The guttural tones of Merlin’s dragonspeak had just finished echoing through the clearing when it became filled with the sound of beating wings, so loud that Arthur had to fight back the urge to cover his ears with his hands.

He watched in awe as not one but two dragons landed a few yards from them.

Arthur had been introduced to Kilgarrah before, and Merlin had told him about Aithusa and that he was a powerful good omen for the future he and Merlin would create together. But nothing had prepared him for the magnificent sight of two huge beasts bowing their heads in homage to Merlin.

Kilgarrah was powerful and scary, with a human-like face that Arthur privately thought was creepy on a giant lizard. Aithusa was smaller, not fully grown yet, and solid white with blue eyes. He had a playful air that stood out in contrast to Kilgarrah’s look of concern.

Aithusa greeted Merlin enthusiastically. “Master! I am so happy to see you! Can I take you for a ride?”

Kilgarrah silenced Aithusa with a look, and said to him, “Not now, hatchling. Our dragonlord is troubled.” He seemed to study Merlin intently. Arthur moved a bit closer to Merlin, his hand on the hilt of his sword, just in case. His mind knew that the last two dragons on earth were allies of his kingdom, but his body still carried his childhood fear of them.

And he had not forgotten the deaths and destruction caused by Kilgarrah’s attack on Camelot in the last years of his father’s reign.

After long moments, Kilgarrah spoke. “Young warlock,” he said, once again inclining his head respectfully to Merlin. “Why have you summoned us?”

Merlin didn’t seem afraid. He supposed it was the same phenomenon as with the knights, that Merlin knew their faces even though he didn’t know who they were.

Merlin spoke, quietly but confidently. “I am ill. I was captured and tortured by Mordred. Gaius and Arthur say that I have wiped my mind clean of my memories to protect Camelot, and I am troubled by visions of things that are not real. They tell me that I am a dragonlord, and that my father was one before me, but I remember none of this. Can you heal me?”

Aithusa squeaked at the mention of Mordred, and Kilgarrah looked grave. “We will assist you, young warlock,” he responded solemnly. “You and Arthur Pendragon have a great destiny ahead of you. Your names will still be spoken in a thousand years. But you cannot fulfill your destiny in your current state. You were wise to come to us for help.”

The two dragons consulted quietly in their own language, and then Kilgarrah jerked his head toward a large rock and said, “Sit, dragonlord, and your king with you. We will begin.”

They sat on the rock, their legs touching, and Arthur wrapped an arm around Merlin’s waist. Kilgarrah began incanting words in a low hum, and Aithusa joined in with his higher voice. The incantation became more like a song, and soon the air around them was filled with the sound of hundreds of beautiful voices, male and female, and somehow Arthur knew that dragons past and present had gathered to heal Merlin.

Arthur dragged his attention from the sight of Kilgarrah and Aithusa, bent over singing to Merlin like a mother would sing to her child in its cradle, and took a look at Merlin. Merlin’s eyes were closed, and his face had a peaceful, rapt expression.

The beautiful sound continued for long minutes, and when it ended Merlin opened his eyes and the magical creatures bowed to him once more.

Kilgarrah spoke to Merlin. “You are healthy in your mind once again, young warlock.” Then he turned to Arthur with what could only be described as a smirk. “I have restored his memories in all respects but one. All of his memories will be his again in twenty-four hours. You can thank me later.”

The dragons launched themselves into the sky, shaking the trees around the clearing, and Aithusa turned and called to Merlin, “Goodbye, Lord Merlin, we will meet again,” as Merlin waved at him.

Merlin turned to Arthur with a sweet smile, his eyes revealing the man of twenty-nine and not the boy of eighteen. They embraced wordlessly, holding each other tight.

Finally Merlin pulled away, and said, “My mother is gone.”

“Yes, she is. I’m sorry.”

They walked back to the knights, Arthur’s arm looped around Merlin’s neck in an affectionate half hug, pulling him close to his side. Right where he belonged.

*****

Arthur had kept his promise to Gaius to let him examine Merlin when he returned, but he smiled to himself as Merlin convincingly feigned tiredness and quickly cut short the procedure.

Finally they were alone in Arthur’s chambers, and Arthur fully intended to extend a good “welcome home” to the man he hadn’t made love to in more than three weeks.

He reached for Merlin’s velvet jacket and started unbuttoning the small buttons down the center. When the jacket was off, he pulled Merlin’s loose linen shirt over his head, running his fingers along the healing wound on his chest. “Are you well enough for me to take you to bed?” he asked huskily.

“Always,” Merlin said, but there was a note of false bravado in his voice that Arthur noticed.

Arthur pulled off his own shirt and started unfastening his trousers, toeing off his boots at the same time. He was a man on a mission. But he wasn’t going to let the slightly off tone of Merlin’s voice go unremarked.

He put his hands on Merlin’s bare shoulders, and said, “Merlin. What’s wrong?”

Merlin blushed and looked down, but Arthur cupped the side of his face with his palm (his cheekbones were very sharp, Arthur would have to have a word with the kitchens about fattening Merlin up) and said, “Please tell me.”

Merlin dared a look, and said softly, “I know that we’re longtime lovers. But I have no memory of the actual physical acts.” He blushed even deeper and murmured. “I, um, I feel like I’ve never done this before.”

Arthur gave him a predatory smile. “I will take very good care of you. In fact, you are going to love every moment of this.”

“I see the trauma of losing me hasn’t affected your ego, Sire.”

“If it’s true it isn’t bragging,” Arthur whispered into Merlin’s ear, making the words sound absolutely filthy.

Arthur lay down on the bed, still wearing his trousers and socks, and smiled up at Merlin. “C’mere,” he said softly.

Merlin sat next to him, looking uneasy, and Arthur said, “Here’s something you may not know. Your magic has always liked me. In fact, some days your magic likes me better than you do. Your magic will do just about anything to make me happy.”

He lifted Merlin’s left hand to his lips, and kissed each finger, starting with the thumb and working his way to the little finger. As Arthur kissed each one in turn, the blackened fingernail became pink and healthy, and the lingering pain disappeared.

Merlin looked at him in awe. “Do you have magic?”

“Not an iota,” Arthur answered cheerfully. “But you do, and as I told you, your magic wants me to be happy, and it knows that I am unhappy when you are injured. So it fixed your fingers to please me. Now give me your other hand.”

Arthur pressed five more kisses on five more fingers, and they were instantly healthy again. He gently licked his way up the messy scar on Merlin’s side, and it disappeared, leaving Merlin’s skin white and unscarred.

“So that’s how you got me to call the dragon, you simply wished it?” Merlin asked in a tone of wonder.

“It’s not quite that simple, but that’s basically it. When I want something very badly, your magic tries hard to give it to me. It isn’t infallible, but I gambled that your magic’s desire to please me would trump your memory loss. And I was right.”

“You don’t have to sound so smug,” Merlin complained. “In fact, I think you can put that mouth to much better use than blathering on about how great you are.”

“Is that so?” Arthur said casually, just before grabbing Merlin’s arm and neatly flipping him onto his back.

Merlin was unable to answer the question because he had some great egoist’s tongue down his throat.

Arthur had always cherished his memories of his first time with Merlin. Merlin had been incredible, passionate and skilled and insatiable. He’d even had to grudgingly acknowledge (but only to himself) that Gwaine may have taught Merlin a few tricks worth knowing.

But this Merlin was something else entirely. Sweet and virginal, he moaned the first time Arthur sucked on his nipple. He yelped when Arthur reached into his trousers and palmed his cock. And he screamed and pulled Arthur’s hair when he came down Arthur's throat.

Later, Arthur ran his fingers through Merlin’s thick hair and smiled as he remembered that Merlin had another eighteen hours of “firsts” in front of him.

“Get some sleep, my love,” he murmured. “You’ll need your strength tomorrow.”