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Bird of the Gauntlet

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"Merlin, Gaius said you should-- ah!" Arthur said, his words half-muffled by Merlin's mouth, "--take things slowly."

"Don't care," Merlin gasped, pressing Arthur bodily against the thick trunk of a tree.

"You have to ease yourself-- gnh! -- into your routine."

Merlin gripped Arthur's trousers with both hands -- both hands! -- and yanked at them so hard that he heard a seam rip. He let go and the trousers dropped, pooling around Arthur's feet. Merlin seized Arthur's thin summer tunic and pulled it up, sending Arthur's hair into sweaty disarray. Arthur's cheeks were flushed from heat and exertion, his lips were bruised from Merlin's hungry, forceful kisses, and he looked... he looked delectable. Merlin kissed him again, running his hands up and down Arthur's body, revelling in the touch of him, of being able to hold him, finally, finally to hold him.

He was never going to break his arm ever again.

"This is my new routine," Merlin breathed, nipping at Arthur's swollen lower lip. He thrust once and hard, aching inside his trousers, thrilled at having Arthur so entirely at his mercy at last. He buried his face in the crook of Arthur's neck and sucked and nipped at the soft skin there, wallowed in the rich scent and taste of it.

"Is it?" Arthur asked, with a squeak that he would surely deny, when Merlin later taunted him for it.

"Yes," Merlin told him. "If I can't take you in every room in the castle, I'm going to fuck you against every-- single-- tree." He punctuated each word with a thrust, revelling in the groans they dragged from Arthur's chest.

Arthur's hands moved at his back, and one slide up to grip Merlin's hair. With a yank Merlin's head was pulled back, and Arthur feasted on Merlin's neck in turn, until Merlin whimpered and his knees dipped. A tightening of Arthur's arms was all the warning he had before the world spun and he was the one shoved roughly against bark, and he gave a breathy laugh.

"My forest," Arthur purred, right into Merlin's ear. "My trees. If anyone should be marking them, it's me."

Merlin shuddered. Distracted, he didn't react in time to stop Arthur from yanking up his shirt, pulling it up and over his head and then down, trapping Merlin's arms.

Merlin snarled and struggled to free himself. "Don't you dare," he said, teeth bared.

Arthur smirked at him, the smug bastard. "I like the way you struggle," he said, keeping his hold. "It shows how desperate you are for me."

Merlin had no way to argue against that. Arthur knew him far too well by now. "I have better ways to show you how I feel," he promised, and licked his lips.

It had the desired effect. Arthur freed his arms with a swift pull and tossed Merlin's shirt aside. It was a relief to be so rough with Arthur again, now his long recovery was ended. To no longer have to be careful, to no longer have to go through the tedious wrapping and unwrapping of his arm, to no longer be restrained by the sling. Merlin was sick of careful. He wanted to take everything that was his, wanted Arthur to be equally as greedy. He wanted to hold Arthur down and pull him close and feel every inch of him. He wanted to hold nothing back, not even his own noisy moans, which is why he'd dragged Arthur out of Gaius' tower, out of the castle, out across the woods to the private little glade he'd found all those weeks ago.

He wanted to spread himself on his hands and knees on the thin grass, and brace himself as Arthur bent over him and fucked him hard. Wanted to feel the force of Arthur's strength and weight against his hands, and push back against it, meeting it and welcoming it. Wanted to wipe away the fantasies he'd played with here and be full of the real Arthur, full and split with him, with sweat against his back and dirt under his nails and Arthur grunting in his ear, his breath hot and fast.

But before Merlin could catch his breath to suggest just that, Arthur was pulling down his trousers, and his mouth, his mouth--. Merlin pressed his head back against the tree and let out a sob of lust. Arthur sucked cock like he did everything else, which meant he did it to win. Merlin curled his fists in Arthur's hair, kneaded and tugged aimlessly as Arthur's tongue moved hot and slick against sensitive, aching flesh. Merlin couldn't bear it, couldn't get enough of it, and gripped hard at Arthur's hair and thrust, over and over until he was fucking Arthur's mouth, until Arthur was just taking what he gave, taking the snap of his hips and the length of his cock into the sweet, hot depths of his mouth and his throat. Arthur took and took and kneaded at Merlin's arse to urge him on, until finally Merlin pressed himself as deep as he could and came. Merlin fell back against the tree with a thump, leaving a trail of come across Arthur's chin. The bark scraped at his back as he slid to the ground.

"Fuck," Merlin moaned, panting. He leaned his head back, arching his neck, eyes slitted against the dappled sunlight that glimmered through the canopy. "Ow."

Arthur snorted.

"Don't even think it," Merlin said, with all the menace he could summon when his brain had already poured down Arthur's throat.

Arthur appeared over him, and he was clearly struggling not to laugh. Apparently deciding that valor was the better part of victory, he kissed Merlin instead. Merlin showed his appreciation by licking the come from his chin and his lips and then feasting on Arthur's mouth directly.

"I can't take you anywhere," Arthur murmured, because nothing could stop him from being a cabbage head, not even sex.

Merlin mustered a glare, and then squinted very hard at Arthur when Arthur snickered at him.

"Come on, let me see," Arthur said, pawing at Merlin to see his back.

"Stop it." Merlin half-heartedly slapped him away. "I'm fine. I am fine."

Arthur gave him a look, but relented. "All right," he said, and made up for his treating Merlin like some piece of delicate glassware by leaning in and sucking at a nipple. Merlin gave an even more half-hearted attempt at resistance before giving in and pressing Arthur down onto the grass.

Merlin pinned Arthur flat, and smiled at the way Arthur surrendered to him, allowing Merlin to touch and taste as he pleased. It was an Arthur sort of surrender, full of satisfaction at Merlin's eagerness to serve him so, but even that somehow made it better. There was something deep inside of Merlin that twisted with pleasure under the smallest glimpse of Arthur's sovereignty. It was often tangled up in youthful arrogance and an almost unbearable amount of swagger, but it did things to Merlin nonetheless.

He wanted Arthur to rule him, inside and out, body and soul. Arthur was his king and he craved his king beyond all reason. He wanted to hold Arthur down and claim him, so that Arthur could rise up and claim him back. It made him blind with greed and he didn't care.

He gave only the most cursory of sucks to Arthur's cock, and then rolled him over onto his front. Merlin pressed himself against Arthur's back, rubbed himself against him and nosed at his messy hair. Arthur smelled of earth and grass and sweat, of soap from their evening bath. Of leather and steel and polish from the morning's training, and Merlin could taste the streaks of polish and oil Arthur had left behind when he'd rubbed at his neck under the warm summer sun.

Merlin pawed his way down Arthur's body, finally stopping at the crack of his perfect, firm arse. He nosed at the sweaty skin, pulled at the taut muscle with his thumbs. Arthur wouldn't let Merlin fuck him yet, still unable to relax enough because of the bad memories that the act held for him. But Merlin was patient, and would ease him there. For now, he could take this much. He licked a broad stripe over Arthur's tight hole, and enjoyed the way it made Arthur gasp and twist beneath him. Merlin pressed him down heavily and did it again and again until Arthur relaxed for him, muscles loosening and tension easing. He pressed one fingertip against the clenched rose and pushed just enough to sink past the nail, and gently played and licked for a while.

When Arthur's squirms became increasingly impatient, Merlin moved lower still, pressing his mouth between Arthur's spread thighs, nuzzling his balls. He reached between and drew down Arthur's cock, heavy and full in Merlin's hand, and when Merlin began to stroke it, Arthur suddenly rose up and turned on him.

Arthur's eyes were dark with want, and he was tense with need. When Merlin had teased him too long, Arthur would get this way: body taut as if before a fight, mouth drawn thin, only one thing on his mind. Merlin breathed in sharply, revelling in the dominance in every line of Arthur's body, in the set of his jaw and the strain of his muscles.

Merlin sucked two fingers until they were wet, and brought them behind himself. "You want this?" he breathed, pressing inside and letting his pleasure show. "Want to bend me over, right here in the dirt? Want to mount me like the beast you are?"

It would be funny except for the way the words made Arthur's eyes flare with want, deep and endless. The way they made Arthur reach for him and take him, to paw at Merlin's body and pull at his hair, bending him back in straining, willing supplication. Merlin bent for him and Arthur took what was offered.

When Arthur was like this, he didn't worry over Merlin's injuries or treat him like he was delicate. Arthur didn't hold back his strength, but gave it to Merlin in full, capturing him and holding him and wrapping around him with bruising force. Merlin loved it and urged him on, with every squirm and every open, desperate moan. This was the Arthur that Merlin couldn't get enough of, that he yearned for down to his bones and deeper still.

"Fuck me," Merlin hissed, writhing in Arthur's iron grip. "Put me on my knees and fuck me."

"Don't think I won't," Arthur snarled, and tumbled Merlin over, pressed him against the earth. There was a brief absence and a rustling of cloth, and then Arthur was back and his fingers were already slick with oil. He picked up where Merlin left off, working two fingers inside him and then three, stretching and slicking Merlin at a steady but urgent pace. Merlin opened easily for him, his body welcoming the familiar hand, despite the lingering soreness from the night before and the morning after. Merlin had created a monster when he'd convinced Arthur to fuck him, releasing years of pent-up need, and Arthur couldn't get enough of him. Arthur took him with his mouth and his hands and his cock and even, on few memorable nights, a thick candle; Arthur loved the way Merlin stretched for him, loved the clench and heat of him, but most of all he loved how much Merlin needed him, needed to be filled by him.

"So greedy for me," Arthur murmured, as Merlin moaned and writhed and clawed at the grass.

"Please, Arthur, please," Merlin begged, pushing back against his hand. Arthur pushed him down with his free hand and kept going, heedless of Merlin's pleading. His refusal made Merlin clench hard around Arthur's fingers, and Arthur hissed.

"Have to make you open wide for me," Arthur said, voice rough with want. "So I can slide right into you, all the way in."

Merlin swore and writhed, rutting at the earth, his cock hard again and trapped under his body. He felt Arthur's fingers leave and then push in again, and the fourth finger made him stretch with an exquisite burn. Sometimes it felt like Arthur wanted to just spread him apart, to open him up and reveal all the secrets inside him. Merlin's secrets ached to be freed, but he couldn't let them out.

When the fingers left his body, Merlin felt open and empty in their absence. Arthur's arm hooked under him and pulled him up, and Merlin gave himself over, letting his thoughts of secrets fade away. He let all thoughts fade away as Arthur bent over him and pushed inside, with one long, promised thrust. Merlin felt suspended in the moment as Arthur's cock settled deep inside him, Arthur heavy and hot over his back, Arthur's arm like a band around him. When they were like this, everything else was gone, and they were pure and perfect and everything felt right.

And then Arthur started to fuck him, and Merlin couldn't even think of perfection. He could only ride the force of Arthur's thrusts, hard and fast and relentless, like Arthur was when he fought, his sword clashing in the sun. Merlin took it all, welcomed it like the greedy slut that he was: Arthur's slut, hungry for his cock and his hands and his mouth and all of him, starved for him, never able to get enough. And Arthur needed him back, needed him so much that he was beyond words. Beyond the filthy murmurs he loved to bestow, when he would define and map the shape of Merlin's lust.

Merlin wanted to be defined, wanted Arthur to know him. Wanted to give Arthur all of himself and still be held with such ferocity, still be kept so close in Arthur's heart. But if he couldn't have that, he could still have this.

Arthur's fist moved fast and slick on Merlin's cock, so tight it rode the line between pain and pleasure. Pleasure won, and Merlin came with a loud cry, clenching tight against Arthur's relentless thrusts, his whole body taut as he pulsed onto the earth. Arthur released his cock so he could hold Merlin up, hold him close as Arthur's thrusts shortened and shortened, until he was barely pulling out at all and still pushing deep. Arthur snarled as he came, teeth pressing against Merlin's back as if biting would be too much, as if he wouldn't be able to hold back from sinking his teeth as deep as his cock.

And then they were both on the ground, panting and limp, limbs tangled together and Arthur's cock softening but still held deep by Arthur's weight. Merlin clenched again and again around him, making Arthur groan and grasp at him, his hips giving aimless thrusts against his afterglow. Merlin could feel Arthur coming back to himself, out of the haze of lust that Merlin had driven him into. Arthur's grip softened, and he pulled out of Merlin with a grunt. Merlin turned in his arms and curled against him, around him, burying his face against Arthur's chest and just breathing, in and out.

Arthur sometimes turned shy after sex. It didn't do anything to slow them down the next time they fell together, their need rising high, but it was as if Arthur couldn't quite believe how far Merlin could drive him. It was as if Arthur was embarrassed by himself, that he would whisper filthy things to Merlin, that he wanted to stretch Merlin wide and fuck him sore. There was never any regret in his eyes, much to Merlin's relief, but all the same, Arthur would be shy.

Merlin would never tell Arthur how adorable it was.

Instead, Merlin wrapped himself around Arthur and held him, and let Arthur settle, let him reconcile within himself. Arthur was often tender after sex as well, stroking Merlin's hair and petting him as their breathing evened. He kissed Merlin's head and eased into doting smiles. Merlin loved it, pretended to be reluctant just so Arthur would insist on doting more. The rougher Arthur was during sex, the more he wanted to take care of Merlin afterwards, which would result in cuddles and hot baths and Arthur feeding him by hand.

It was an almost perfect arrangement. Even if later on, Arthur would relentlessly taunt him about his little bottom being sore.

"I think we can safely say that you are fully recovered," Arthur said at last.

Merlin laughed and breathed in deeply, breathed out. "Mmm, yes. Arm's healed, the rest of me is broken."

Arthur chuckled. "That so?"

"Definitely," Merlin said, and yawned. He rubbed his cheek tiredly against Arthur's chest.

"Lazy," Arthur chided, but yawned in reaction. "C'mon, up."

"No," Merlin pouted. "Wanna sleep." He wished he'd brought his bag, so he could wrap them up in the thin blanket he kept in it and doze the afternoon away.

Arthur pried himself from Merlin's clinging limbs and staggered to his feet. He plucked up his abandoned clothes and shook them out, trying to make them slightly more presentable, frowning at the torn seam. Merlin curled up and pressed his face against the crook of his arm, trying to snatch a doze. When Arthur tapped him on the arm, Merlin looked up to find him already dressed, his mussed hair smoothed back down. Then he saw nothing as Arthur dropped Merlin's clothes over his head.

Sometimes Arthur was neither shy nor tender after sex, and would instead immediately resume his second favorite activity, which was poking at Merlin with a stick.

"Prat," Merlin muttered, dragging off his clothes. He pulled on his shirt and then his trousers, relieved that this time he hadn't come in them. He didn't want to have to slink back into the castle with a massive wet spot. The grass stains were bad enough. There was also a distinct lack of cuddles. Perhaps he hadn't thought through all the details when he'd decided to drag Arthur out here to have his way with him somewhere other than Arthur's chambers. They couldn't exactly curl up for the night here as they did in their bed. But variety was the spice of life.

Then Arthur kissed him soundly, and Merlin's mood went quite out of his head. Arthur slid a hand down the back of Merlin's trousers and a finger between his cheeks, and he prodded at Merlin's swollen, slick hole. Merlin whined and squirmed, but Arthur tormented him a while longer, proud of what he'd done. He pulled his finger free and made a show of sucking it clean, just to make Merlin glare at him for being so filthy and hot.

"I'm never going to be able to ride a horse again," Merlin pouted.

"It's your own fault," Arthur declared.

The fact that it was entirely Merlin's fault for begging to be fucked changed nothing about the fact that it was entirely Arthur's fault for being so irresistible in the first place. As far as Merlin was concerned, everything was Arthur's fault.

Merlin bit back a yelp when Arthur gave him a hard smack on the arse. "Come on," Arthur said, and flicked one of Merlin's abandoned boots with the tip of his own, impatient for him to finish dressing.

"All right, all right," Merlin said, stepping out of reach before Arthur got into too much of a roughhousing mood. He leaned against a tree as he tugged on his boots. Arthur came over and pulled bits of leaf and grass from Merlin's hair, smoothed it down, ruffled it, and then smoothed it down again. Merlin batted him away, but that only encouraged him. He found himself pinned against a tree again, with Arthur's hands under his shirt, alternating between caresses and tickles that made Merlin giggle and try to squirm free, though not really.

"Stop it," Merlin whined, smiling.

"I'll remind you again who gives the orders," Arthur smirked.

"You are such a child," Merlin said, and lunged to tickle him back. Arthur gave a cry of outrage and jumped back, and Merlin went after him. They chased each other like heedless boys, whooping and giggling, until Merlin ended up with a faceful of leaf litter.

Arthur snickered at him as he cleaned Merlin up. Merlin scrunched up his face as Arthur rubbed at him with the corner of Merlin's shirt and Arthur's spit.

"Why do I always end up sore and filthy, and you don't?" Merlin complained.

"I'm not filthy because I can run through the woods without tripping over my own feet," Arthur said, with no sympathy at all. Then he gave a private smile. "But who said I wasn't sore?"

"Not sore enough," Merlin replied, and gave Arthur a half-hearted punch on the arm.

Arthur just raised his eyebrows at him, unimpressed. "You want to fight me?"

Merlin gave his most determined face. "I can take you," he said, jutting his chin.

Arthur gave him an appraising look, and then his eyes narrowed with speculation. "I'd like to see you try," he said, stepping back and relaxing into a loose stance.

Merlin looked askance at him, suspecting some sort of trap. There weren't any maces involved this time, but he was definitely reminded of his first inauspicious meetings with Arthur. Of course, Arthur was far less likely to have him thrown into the dungeons this time.

Arthur didn't want to roughhouse. He wanted a fight, and was waiting to see if Merlin was man enough for one.

Merlin had learned a bit about fighting since he'd first arrived in Camelot. Some of it was through simple self-preservation, and some of it he'd absorbed by watching Arthur teach his knights the same moves over and over. Most of the time, Merlin only used what he knew as a stopgap until he could use his magic to distract or trip or knock out his opponents. But he could hardly use his magic against Arthur like this, face to face and bare-handed.

"All right," Merlin said, straightening himself up. He rolled his shoulders and hopped on the balls of his feet, then settled into a loose stance that mimicked Arthur's own. "If you want a fight, I'll give you-- wha!"

Merlin had barely swung his first punch when Arthur grabbed his arm and bent it back in a painfully familiar move. Merlin scowled, refusing to let Arthur best him as he had before, and stomped hard on Arthur's foot. Arthur gave a surprised yelp and his grip loosened enough for Merlin to squirm free and catch Arthur with a sharp elbow to the gut.

"Fighting dirty," Arthur said, with a dangerous grin.

"Fighting to win," Merlin shot back, warmed by his success but aware that the fight was only just beginning. Arthur's ego might be outsized when it came to fighting, but he had the skill and strength to back up every boast. Merlin decided that it was better to attack first then wait for Arthur to flatten him. It was inevitable that he would be flattened, of course, but that didn't mean he was going to make Arthur's victory an easy one.

"That will make a change," Arthur said, readying himself as they moved back into position. Arthur brought up his fists and Merlin did the same, and they circled around each other, Arthur smirking and Merlin glaring.

Merlin didn't try for another punch. That would be too obvious, and it would only get him pinned again. Instead he curled forward and went at Arthur in a sudden run. He barrelled into him, sending them both to the ground. Merlin tried to roll away before Arthur could recover, but found himself hauled back, and in an instant they were scrabbling on the ground. Merlin slapped wildly at Arthur, grabbing at his hair and punching and kicking without much of a focus. Arthur caught him with an eye-watering punch to the gut, but Merlin rode it back, rolling with the momentum as he would a magical blow, onto his hands and knees and then onto his feet.

"Not entirely awful," Arthur said, standing up himself and brushing himself off with deliberate casualness.

Merlin's stomach hurt, but he ignored the throbbing pain. It was going to leave a spectacular bruise. "Give up?" he sneered.

Arthur snorted. "You do realize I'm going easy on you."

"Excuses, excuses," Merlin taunted. He circled around Arthur and tried to catch him with kick to his leg, but Arthur anticipated the move and turned it on him. Merlin fell flat on his back, the air knocked out of him. Arthur just stood over him, waiting, and Merlin was angered enough by the arrogance of it to slam his fist down hard on the same foot he'd stomped before. Arthur danced back, and Merlin scrabbled after him, throwing himself at Arthur's legs and dragging him down through sheer bloody-mindedness. He pulled himself over Arthur's back and yanked at his arm to pin him the way Arthur so often pinned Merlin, and Arthur laughed.

"Mercy," Arthur said, intolerably amused.

Merlin scowled and yanked hard on Arthur's arm, and that must have been going too far because Arthur decided the joke was over. The next thing Merlin knew, both his arms were wrenched painfully behind his back and Arthur's arm was pressing across his neck.

"Give up?" Arthur asked.

Merlin tried to speak, but couldn't.

"What was that?" Arthur asked, leaning in, even though he was still cutting off Merlin's air.

"Hate you," Merlin croaked, and collapsed to the ground as Arthur released him.

Arthur just smiled at him, and waited as Merlin tried to remember how to breathe and move his limbs again.

Merlin coughed. "Fine. You win. Happy?"

"You started it," Arthur pointed out. "Though if you really want to fight..."

"What?" Merlin asked, warily. Arthur was always dangerous when he got an idea in his head, and he was looking far too thoughtful.

"Just an idea," Arthur said, keeping whatever it was to himself. He hauled Merlin up and brushed him off, and then pressed at the bruised spot on Merlin's stomach. When Merlin winced, Arthur rubbed at the spot in a way that was probably meant to be soothing.

"You did try to break my toes," Arthur reminded him, when Merlin pouted.

"Your toes are made of steel, like the rest of you," Merlin grumbled. But when Arthur threw his arm around Merlin for the walk back, Merlin leaned into his embrace.

§

That evening Arthur dined with his father, and Merlin attended him. As he watched them talk and argue, Merlin reflected that he had started to think of Arthur as two different people. There was Merlin's Arthur, who was full of heart and hope, and who could be foolish and childish as easily as he could be noble. And then there was Uther's Arthur, who was stoic and dour and wound tight as a spring. Every time Arthur had to spend time with the King, it would take hours for Merlin to coax his Arthur back to him, and Merlin might have to pull out every trick in the book to crack that first hesitant smile.

Sometimes Arthur needed to be alone, but only the sort of alone where Merlin was quietly within reach, puttering about the room, folding and tidying the same things over and over again. Sometimes Arthur needed to be held, and to hold Merlin close as if to keep him from ever being taken away. Sometimes it was better if Merlin told him stories about Ealdor, or funny tales heard over the fire, or adventures from the lower town. Arthur would shake his head in disbelief and end up laughing and smiling, and kissing Merlin to finally shut him up.

Sometimes Arthur needed to hurt something, and for that there was sword practice and the punching bag and sometimes even a hunt, and Merlin did his best to stay out of Arthur's way until his rage subsided.

But most of the time Arthur just needed to talk. He needed to let out all the words that he'd had to bottle up. To speak of all the things he couldn't say to his father, and all the things he said anyway only to have his words rejected. He needed Merlin to listen. When they finally made their leave and were back in Arthur's chambers, it was shaping up to be one of those sorts of nights.

"I can't believe him," Arthur said, because for some reason he could never believe that his father would reject an idea if Arthur considered it sensible enough. He paced back and forth as he talked, gesturing wildly. But that was better than when he would be silent with fury, too angry to express himself for fear of what he might say.

Uther had told Arthur over dinner that once the knights had finished their training, he was going to split them up, sending them to the various far corners of Camelot's border. Arthur had not taken the news well.

"It makes sense to keep them together," Arthur said, repeating what he had told Uther, but now with far more insistence. "They trained together. They work together. They trust each other. They trust me."

Uther had said that it was dangerous for the men to have too much loyalty to each other, lest they band together and foment rebellion. Merlin didn't think any of the knights would do something like that. They respected Arthur too much. But when Merlin pointed that out, Arthur shook his head.

"My father thinks that fear is more important than respect."

Merlin leaned back on his perch on Arthur's desk and thought that Uther was an idiot. He decided that it would be best not to say that aloud. "What do you think?" he asked instead, because putting Arthur's mind to his future reign was better than letting him simmer.

"Men should serve their king because he is worth serving," Arthur decided, his pacing slowing to become thoughtful instead of frantic. "Loyalty should unite them, not divide them. It should give them reason to fight, far better than love of power or gold."

Merlin smiled. "They should fight for Camelot?" he suggested, recalling Arthur's love of the phrase.

"Exactly!" Arthur said, glad that someone understood. "We fight for something greater than ourselves. Something better."

At times like this, Merlin's heart would swell with pride. Arthur would be an amazing king someday. Everyone would love him the way Merlin loved him. Merlin could see the day when Arthur would sit upon his throne, his crown gleaming atop his golden hair, the bright sunlight streaming in through the tall windows of the hall. Everyone would bow to him, and Merlin would too, and it would be everything fitting together like it was meant to be. As far as Merlin knew, it was meant to be, but that didn't mean they didn't have to work to get there. But they would, one day, and they would do it together. It was their destiny.

He suddenly realized that Arthur had stopped pacing and ranting, and was looking at him, watching him. Smiling softly.

"What?" Merlin asked, confused.

"Nothing," Arthur said, and came over to him. He touched his hand to Merlin's cheek, and Merlin couldn't help but lean against it, to rub at it like a cat. Arthur had this funny way of asking Merlin what he wanted, sometimes. As if Merlin ever wanted anything but Arthur, and to be by his side every step of the way. Merlin dreamed of Camelot as it would be, without fear of magic or sorcerers, with a people who loved their King and a King who loved his people. And if what the dragon said was true, that love might even extend beyond Camelot's borders, might cover all of Albion itself.

Not that he was sure he could believe anything the dragon had ever told him, now. He didn't know what he had been told simply in order to manipulate him, and worse, to manipulate Arthur through him. To use Merlin to betray Arthur. That was the worst of it, and what really kept him away after Nimueh, would have kept him away for good if not for Sigan. It was bad enough that the dragon had nearly let his mum and Gaius die, but to hurt Arthur was unacceptable. Merlin was still furious at him for it, even if he wasn't sure what exactly the dragon might have done.

"What's that about?" Arthur said, drawing him from his thoughts.

"What's what?"

Arthur snorted. "Sometimes I wonder what goes on in that head of yours."

"Wouldn't you like to know," Merlin replied.

"Maybe I would." Arthur sat down on the edge of the desk, next to Merlin's cross-legged perch. "Tell me."

"Tell you what?"

Arthur gave him an exasperated look. "Tell me what you're thinking about, assuming there are any thoughts at all rattling around in your empty head."

Merlin wanted to tell him everything. Wanted to tell him about his hopes and dreams, wanted to ask him what to do about the dragon, wanted to be able to share things with Arthur the way Arthur did with him. But he couldn't.

Merlin knocked on his head. "Nope, hollow as a gourd."

Disappointment flashed across Arthur's face, but it was gone as quickly as it came. "Just as I suspected. That must be why Gaius keeps you around. You're a wonder of the age."

"He uses a different word to describe me," Merlin said, with false resignation.

"Featherbrain? Nincompoop?" Arthur said it lightly, but there was an edge to the insults, as if right now he might mean them, just a little. Usually Arthur's insults didn't bother Merlin, because he knew that Arthur was just being a donkeyhead. But Merlin wasn't stupid. He could tell that Arthur knew that he was being shut out, and Merlin knew that Arthur hated being shut out. But Merlin couldn't help it. If he told Arthur the truth, Albion might as well forget ever being united. Merlin couldn't be the one to destroy everything that Arthur was meant for.

"He prefers 'idiot,'" Merlin said, insulting himself by way of apology. "You should join forces. You can give me disgusting chores and mock me for your entertainment."

But mentioning Gaius seemed to be the wrong thing as well. Arthur's mouth went from a downward quirk to a definite frown. Merlin realized that he had to say something before Arthur slipped right back into an Uther mood again.

"Maybe there was one thought. One tiny, unimportant thought," he admitted.

Arthur perked up. "Oh?"

"I was thinking that your father is a dullard." Merlin gave his best idiot smile.

Arthur gaped at him. Then he scowled, but also looked secretly pleased. "Traitor," he said, trying very hard not to smile. "I should have you put in the stocks for that. And flogged."

Merlin held his hands out, wrists together. "Take me to the dungeons!" he said, dramatically. "I can hide the truth no longer!"

Arthur slapped his wrists, knocking down Merlin's arms. "Idiot."

"But I mean it, Arthur," Merlin said, unable to stop himself. "He should listen to you."

"Perhaps," Arthur shrugged. "He's been King for a long time. I can't exactly argue with his success."

Yes you can, Merlin thought. You can because he's a tyrant. A cruel, evil tyrant and it shouldn't matter that he's your father. Everything will be better once he's gone.

But Merlin definitely couldn't say any of that. That would be going too far. Because despite everything, Arthur loved his father. That was why it hurt him so much that they disagreed on so many things. That was why Merlin had saved Uther's life, even when every instinct in him screamed to let Uther die, to just let him die once and for all. Because when Uther died, he would take a piece of Arthur's heart with him to his grave. And if Merlin was in any way responsible for that, if he could have done anything to prevent it and didn't act, Arthur would hate him forever.

"You'll just have to show him that you're right," Merlin said, because he could say that much. Because if there was enough proof, enough undeniable evidence, even Uther could see sense.

"Maybe," Arthur said, but it turned him thoughtful. Merlin could almost see the possibilities turning in his head, grinding away at the challenge like a millstone grinding flour. It would take time, but eventually every grain would be worn down to a powder that was softer than sand.

Chapter Text

Merlin dropped the heavy burlap bag with a grunt, and then joined it on the ground, his chest heaving and arms burning from the strain of tossing it over and over again to clean the mail that was inside. On the field, the knights celebrated the last day of their training by taking turns fighting each other, with Arthur looking on and giving them their last corrections.

All through the knights' training, Arthur had been giving Merlin exercises so he could recover the strength in his arm as it healed. At first the tasks had been fairly light, stretches and some mild lifting, but they had quickly escalated. By the last week, Merlin had been lifting a bucket of water over and over, alternating both arms because Arthur said it would balance him out, whatever that meant.

Now that Merlin's arm was fully healed, Arthur wasn't holding back at all. He'd ordered Merlin to clean every piece of chain mail in the armory, using the burlap bag full of wood chips that was kept for that purpose. Each piece of mail, which was plenty heavy on its own, had to be put into the large bag and then tossed and rolled and slammed about until all the links inside were gleaming. And then once he'd brushed off the wood fragments, he had to do it all over again with the next, and the next, and the next.

Merlin was fairly sure that Arthur was trying to kill him.

It wasn't as if Merlin didn't have enough of hauling things around all day from his chores. It was true that his usual burdens were lightened by the combination of his injury and his change of position, but he didn't see why that meant Arthur had to make up for it and then some. Merlin had been tempted more than once to use his magic to lighten his load, the way he always did with his heavier chores. But he didn't. Not because he was worried that Arthur might notice, but because Arthur seemed to be genuinely trying to help him, even if he was being very strange about it.

And it was nice, being cared for this way. Being pushed to succeed, even if Merlin had no idea what he was supposed to be succeeding at. It was different from the way Arthur had been fussing over him since his fall on the stairs, and that was good because too much fussing chafed on Merlin's nerves.

Merlin knew that Arthur thought he was weak, because Merlin didn't look like much; he'd looked like even less with a broken arm. But Merlin wasn't weak. He had magic that could flatten a whole field of knights if he really let loose. He wanted Arthur to see that he was strong and not worry over him, wanted Arthur to stop trying to protect him so much. He wanted Arthur to respect him, to be proud of him, and not to pity him. It could be incredibly frustrating to pretend to be so much less than he was, and it made him pushy, it made him scrappy. But for all that he pushed and scrapped, Arthur only looked at him with fond amusement and laughed at him for trying.

Merlin could do far more than try. He just couldn't let anyone see him do it, which unfortunately amounted to much the same thing, when it came to Arthur's opinion of him. Really, it was only some combination of luck and Arthur's fondness that let Merlin stay close enough to keep Arthur safe. Merlin never saw anyone else's manservant charging into danger to protect their master. Gwen might stay up to help Morgana with her nightmares, but she didn't go chasing after monsters and sorcerers. Merlin sometimes envied her, because Gwen was sensible and competent and everyone knew that she was sensible and competent, and there weren't any dragons telling her to risk her life for someone who would never respect her.

The clashing of swords tapered off, and the sounds of conversation and laughter drifted from across the field. Merlin stared at the sky and wondered why he'd ever been born. But that was a silly thing to ask. Sometimes he hated knowing the answer to that question, because destiny was a clotpole.

"Finished already?" Arthur asked, his face coming into view in front of a particularly fluffy cloud.

"Dunno if the mail is, but I am," Merlin muttered, grumpily.

Arthur grinned at him, and Merlin realized too late that it was one of Arthur's very dangerous grins. "Take him," Arthur said, and suddenly Merlin was surrounded. He yelped and struggled as the knights grabbed him and hauled him up over their heads, and carried him onto the field.

"Arthur!" Merlin shouted, quite alarmed. "Let me down! Arthur!"

And then all of a sudden Merlin was down, and in the middle of a circle of armored, grinning knights. He did not like where this was going at all.

Before he could figure out an escape, Merlin found himself being passed around like a tavern girl. Except instead of stealing kisses and gropes, the men clad him in armor, forcing him to wriggle into mail and braces. A helmet was pushed onto his head, a shield onto his arm, and a sword into his hand. The men cheered and clapped as Merlin staggered under the sudden weight, his muscles still twitching from tossing the burlap bag around all morning.

"What the fuck, Arthur?" Merlin shouted, too angry to care about propriety.

"He's a live one," said Althalos, and slapped Merlin on the back so hard he staggered again.

Arthur was grinning and looking extremely pleased with himself. Merlin was going to spit in his wine. He was going to piss in it.

"You did say you wanted to fight, Merlin," Arthur said, and twirled his sword.

Merlin gaped at him. "Are you actually serious? If you want a new manservant you can just sack me. You don't have to beat me to a pulp."

"No," Arthur agreed. "They're going to do it for me. Isn't that right?"

The men cheered, and they reached out and slapped Merlin on the back or the arm or the chest. Merlin felt like he was being pelted with rocks. What was Arthur thinking? It was bad enough when Merlin had to be a moving target. At least then he could cower behind a very thick wooden shield.

Merlin glared daggers at Arthur, and Arthur had the gall to wink at him. Merlin was going to do worse than piss in Arthur's wine.

"Come on, boy," Borin said, with a hearty laugh. "We won't hurt you. It's just a bit of fun."

"Prince Arthur says that if anyone can teach us how to survive, it's you," Jarin added, and he seemed earnest about it.

"What do you mean?" Merlin asked, warily.

"You're lucky," said Ronald. "You're an untrained peasant, yet you survive when others fall."

Merlin tried not to panic. They didn't know anything, couldn't know anything. If Arthur suspected magic, Merlin would already be down in the dungeon, or his ashes would have been swept into the gutter to be washed away by the rain. "I must be a coward," Merlin said, overriding his fear with bravado.

"You're not," Arthur said, matter-of-factly. "I know you are no coward. I also know you fight like an goaded kitten."

Merlin huffed. "I do not!"

Arthur just looked at him. Merlin was glad of the helmet, because it hid his flushed cheeks.

"Merlin is all courage but no technique. You lot," Arthur continued, pointing at the knights, "have technique but no courage."

A few cries of protest rang out, but Arthur silenced them with a look.

"So who wants to try their luck?" Arthur asked, pointing his sword across the group. His sword came to a rest in the direction of Borin, who gave Merlin another stone-hard slap on the back. Merlin let the force of it carry him forward, and he hurried over to Arthur to give him a piece of his mind.

"Are you actually insane?!" Merlin hissed.

"Shut up," Arthur said. "If you're going to keep on risking your life for me, you need to be able to protect yourself."

"Shouldn't give me any sharp objects, then."

Arthur laughed. "You fought well enough in Ealdor."

Merlin tried not to feel pleased. "That was mostly panic."

"Maybe," Arthur said, with that dangerously thoughtful look back in his eyes. When he spoke again, it was low enough for only Merlin to hear. "If I can shape a bunch of useless noble sons into soldiers, I can make something out of you."

Merlin licked his lips, torn between feeling weirdly complemented and incredibly insulted. "You can try."

"Show me how lucky you can be," Arthur said, and Merlin could have sworn that Arthur actually believed in him, right in that moment. It was rather breathtaking, and Merlin could see why men would follow him into battle. Why they would give their lives to his service. A white-hot jealousy flared in Merlin's chest, that these men could have that belief directed at them, and Merlin could not. If Arthur wanted him to earn it, Merlin was going to bloody well earn it, and he had no mercy for anyone who stood in his way.

"Right," Merlin said, rounding on Borin and raising his sword in what he hoped was the proper stance. "I'm ready."

Arthur put a hand on his shoulder, holding him back. "Find his weakness. When you attack, hold nothing back."

"Find his weakness," Merlin echoed, his stomach twisting into one massive knot. He nodded, and Arthur slapped him on the shoulder. Merlin was going to have to tell them to stop slapping him, because at this rate he was going to fall down before he even started.

Merlin was definitely going to die. But if it meant Arthur looking at him that way one more time, he would take every man down with him. He was also going to cheat, because Arthur was insane if he thought Merlin could win against a knight without magic. At least his helmet was good for something, as it gave him the perfect cover. All he had to do was lower his eyes for a moment, and no one would know he had done anything magical at all. But he had to make it plausible. He had to do better than falling branches and forge-hot swords. He had to win as honestly as possible, and cheat as subtly as he could. He could be subtle. He'd spent the last year of his life learning how to be subtle. That made him an expert. He bet none of this lot would know subtle from a hole in the ground.

He tried to remember how he had fought during the bandit attack in Ealdor. It truly had been almost pure panic that propelled him, along with the need to protect his mother and his friends and what was once the only home he had ever known. He had killed men in the chaos and rush of the fight. It wasn't the first time he'd killed someone, but there had been something shockingly visceral about plunging a sword into flesh.

Across from him, Borin gave his sword a twirl, an obvious imitation of Arthur's showy trick. He wasn't taking this seriously at all, and probably didn't think Merlin could harm him with his slim arms and blunted training sword. Merlin suddenly wanted to teach him a lesson, and wondered if Arthur felt like that all the time.

Arthur and the other knights formed a loose ring around them, and the men began to shout suggestions to get the action going. He glanced at Arthur, but Arthur was silent, simply waiting to see what Merlin would do. Merlin turned back to Borin and focused, tuning everything else out. Find his weakness. That was what Merlin had to do.

Borin was older than the others, and he was also the most experienced. He had been kicked out by his father to make his way with his sword, rather like Lancelot but without the unyielding honor. Once their father died, his eldest brother had welcomed him back, only to send him here. Borin wasn't afraid to fight dirty, which was a sentiment Merlin agreed with. He was also used to fighting alone, and a few weeks with Arthur wouldn't have done much to change his habits.

Merlin was surprised to realize that he and Borin had rather a lot in common, so he thought about what he would do in Borin's place. He would be naturally wary, wanting to see the strength of his opponent before attacking. He would keep his distance and concentrate on defense before finding somewhere to strike, hard and fast. But Borin was at a disadvantage, because he thought he knew exactly what he was facing, and he was wrong. Borin didn't think he needed to be wary, because Merlin was so obviously useless.

"Come on, then," Merlin challenged, waving his sword. He stepped forward, going against his own instincts, because Borin was pitying him and Merlin was going to make him pay for that pity. Somehow.

Borin stepped forward and brought up his sword. He gave a testing tap against Merlin's, and then a hard blow, clearly meant to knock the sword from Merlin's hand and end the fight before it had even begun. But Merlin refused to let go, and brought the sword right back up again.

"You do have some fight in you," Borin smiled.

"Do you?" Merlin challenged. The other knights laughed and began to urge Borin on, to accuse him of being afraid. Annoyance flashed across Borin's face; clearly his pride had been stung.

"You want a fight, boy?" Borin said, drawing himself up. "I'll give you a fight."

He swung, aiming right at Merlin's chest, and Merlin barely managed to bring up his shield in time to block him. The force pushed him back a step, and Borin attacked again, battering Merlin's shield and forcing him to retreat. The circle parted to let them through, and there were cheers for Borin and for himself. At the next swing, Merlin jumped away and around, and circled Borin with his shield extended and his sword raised, the way he had seen Arthur fight.

If Merlin was going to win, he had to attack. He couldn't stay defensive forever. He risked a lunge, and Borin blocked it easily, so he risked another, another, but Borin kept swatting him away like he was an annoying fly, or a wasp trying to sting. He needed to distract Borin, to make him drop his guard long enough for Merlin to get a solid hit or three.

He realized that when he attacked, Borin stepped backwards, just as Merlin had before. Merlin forced down a smile and lowered his eyes for a moment, and then lunged at Borin with all of his might. He'd show Arthur how a goaded kitten could fight! Borin laughed in surprise and stepped back under Merlin's wild strikes, blocking sometimes with his sword and sometimes his shield. And then his eyes widened as he stepped back and did not find the solid ground he expected. His arms wheeled as he fell back onto his arse, his foot half-sunk into a hole.

Merlin was on him at once. He pressed his sword to Borin's neck, and kicked the shield and sword from his stunned hands. Borin stared in disbelief.

"Who's next?" Merlin shouted, dizzy and breathless but victorious.

Arthur laughed and slapped his hands together. Merlin stepped back from Borin, grinning so hard his cheeks hurt. He'd done it! Arthur looked absolutely delighted, and the other knights were amused and impressed.

"Simple luck!" Borin declared, as he dusted himself off and retrieved his sword. "It was a mole that defeated me, not that boy."

"Yet still you were defeated," said Ronald, handing him his shield.

"A perfect lesson," Arthur declared. "Determination can best experience, if there is enough of it. Never let down your guard. Even the earth itself may act against you."

"Yes, Sire," Borin said, trying to regain his composure. For a moment, Merlin was worried that he had made an enemy, but then Borin slapped him on the arm and laughed as Merlin staggered. "I like you, boy. You went right for my neck."

"He is lucky," agreed Merek. "But that is not enough. Not every opponent will fall so easily."

"Let's see how you do," Borin challenged him.

"If Merlin is willing," Merek said, turning to Merlin. Merlin's exultation sank like a stone. He couldn't pull the same trick twice, and Merek wouldn't go easy on him the way Borin had. Merek might be younger than Borin and less experienced, but he was far more serious and unlikely to be distractible.

"I am," Merlin agreed, jutting his chin. He had faced down worse than Merek. He had stared into the maws of monsters, had battled against powerful sorcerers with only his magic to protect him. He could find a way to beat Merek.

Merek attacked before Merlin had even moved into an opening stance. Merek was nothing like Borin. He was relentless and focused, rather too much like Arthur in style, and it took everything Merlin had to just to keep from falling in the first half-minute. Merlin scurried out of reach, retreating so he could catch his breath, and Merek stalked after him with intent.

"I will teach this whelp a lesson," Merek declared, with a dark smile. It reminded Merlin disturbingly of Nimueh. It was a shame the day was so beautiful. He could really do with a lightning strike.

If Merlin couldn't trip Merek or distract him, there had to be another way to win. He wondered if maybe he could just keep running until he tired Merek out. The flaw in that plan was obvious, because he was already exhausted himself, and he wasn't used to being under the weight of armor or to carrying a heavy shield and sword. Merlin wondered how long Arthur had been planning this, if it explained the water buckets and the mail cleaning. Merlin would have appreciated some warning, but it was typical of Arthur to surprise him like this. Arthur liked nothing better than to put people off their game, so he could use their vulnerability against them. It made him a formidable opponent, and also an intolerable prat.

Merek was probably the same. He had a similar arrogance about him, like he expected to win. Maybe that was his weakness. If Merlin gave him what he was expecting, if he seemed to be as weak as Merek thought he was...

Merlin began to slow down, letting his exhaustion show. He swung his sword like it was too heavy for his arm, which wasn't far from the truth. And he saw the moment Merek caught on to the change, the moment Merek saw victory offering itself before him, ready to be claimed. Merek's long strides closed the distance between them, and Merlin stumbled, stumbled again. And just as Merek reached him, he fell back, cowering under his shield as Merek struck and struck again. The blows sent shocks down Merlin's arm, and he cried out in alarm. He saw pity in Merek's eyes as Merek towered over him and raised his sword for another blow--

And then Merek's eyes went as wide as Borin's had, as Merlin's sword came up under the split of his mail and poked him hard between the legs.

"Gotcha," Merlin grinned.

Merek stared at him, and then smiled back. He lowered his sword and bowed his head, then shook it in amazement.

Merlin sprung to his feet, his exhaustion forgotten. Merek held out his hand, and Merlin reached back, and they shook as equals. Merlin turned to Arthur, elated, and Arthur was smiling with the same amazement as Merek.

I did it. I did it! Merlin thought at him, defiantly proud. You didn't think I could do it, but I did it!

"My turn next," said Jarin.

"No, mine," said Althalos, elbowing him out of the way.

Merlin stepped forward, about to tell them that there was enough of him to go around, when his exhaustion finally caught up with him. His knees gave out from under him and he would have fallen except for Merek, who caught him by the arm.

"I think Merlin has had enough for today," Merek said.

"Probably right," Merlin agreed. He tugged off his helmet and was relieved by a breeze against his face. It was no wonder Arthur preferred not to fight with a helmet on. They were awfully hot.

Arthur took over from Merek, and helped Merlin out of his armor. Every piece gone was a huge weight lifted from him, and he found that beneath it all he was soaked with sweat and prickling with heat. Armor shed, Merlin sank to the ground and drank down a whole water skin in one go. He poured the last of it over his head, and then flopped back onto the ground in a boneless sprawl, his chest heaving.

He only realized then that he hadn't had a chance to use his magic for the second fight. He'd won it all on his own. He grinned up at the sky, feeling stupidly pleased.

§

After Merlin's victories, he was excused from having to clean any more mail. Which was just as well, because he was as limp as wet string, and couldn't have lifted that burlap sack one more time if someone held a sword to his neck. He dragged himself to a spot of shade and barely managed to lie down on the grass before he was out. He dozed with his legs in the sun, feeling quite contented, distantly aware of voices and steel and the rustling of leaves.

When he woke up, the field was empty, and Arthur was sitting next to him, leaning back on his hands and looking relaxed. Arthur shifted and brushed his fingers through Merlin's hair, guiding a lock of it back over his ear. It felt nice.

"The men are cleaning up in the armory," Arthur told him, as his fingers traced the contours of Merlin's ear. "I'm taking them down to The Rising Sun for a celebration. They want you to come along."

Merlin pushed himself up. "Really?"

"They think you've earned a seat at their table," Arthur said. "That was quite a performance."

"Yeah," Merlin said, ducking his head. He looked up through his lashes at Arthur. "What do you think?"

Arthur thought before he spoke, as if he wasn't sure exactly what to say. "It was a good start," he said at last.

"A good start?" Merlin huffed. "I beat them!"

Arthur gave him a look. "You do realize that if it had been real, you would have been killed."

Merlin crossed his arms, quite ready to work himself into a sulk. All that, and Arthur still didn't respect him, would never respect him. What was the point in trying if Arthur would always see him as useless? It would be better if he could simply accept that he would always be less in Arthur's eyes and not fool himself into believing he could change that. He should know by now that wanting only made things harder.

Arthur's hand rested on Merlin's arm, over where the bone had been broken. "You should come," he said, gently.

"Servants can't drink with knights," Merlin said, trying not to be bitter and failing.

"Servants can't lie with princes," Arthur replied. "I know you don't care about rules, or what anyone thinks. So what's this about?"

Merlin stared at the grass. An ladybird crawled to the top of a long blade and lifted into the air, bobbing lazily in the late afternoon sun. He wanted to blurt everything out; he wanted to pretend everything was fine. He was suspended somewhere between the two points, unable to reach either end.

"How good would I have to be?" he asked, staring out at the trees.

"For what?"

"To be more than lucky. How good would I have to be?"

"Merlin, I don't expect you to be able to fight like a knight."

Merlin turned to him. "I want to be good enough for you."

"You already are," Arthur insisted.

"But I'm not! I'm not," Merlin said, his eyes damp. "I'm not a knight. I don't know how to fight. I know what you think of me."

"Apparently you don't," Arthur said, with restrained anger. "Do you think I put you out there to mock you?"

"Why did you?" Merlin asked, genuinely curious. It couldn't have been to teach the knights a lesson. Maybe it gave them a dose of humility, but being bested by a peasant would hardly help them in battle.

"Because I wanted to see what you would do. It sounds ridiculous, but... sometimes it feels like you're holding back. That you know you can do more, and something stops you."

Merlin could barely breathe. "I fight like a goaded kitten."

"But with the heart of a knight," Arthur said, a smile in his voice. But when Merlin finally met his eyes, there it was again, a glimpse of the belief that Merlin craved more than anything else. Albion could be ashes at his feet and he wouldn't care, as long as Arthur looked at him with such faith.

I'll be anything you want me to be, thought Merlin, desperately. I'll give you anything. I'll place crowns on your head and lay kingdoms at your feet. Just ask me and it's yours.

The moment was broken by the calls of the knights, who were finished with the armory and ready for the promised celebration. Arthur stood with a stretch, and offered his hand to Merlin.

Merlin took it.

§

Merlin was not a heavy drinker. He might even admit to being a lightweight. But there had been an awful lot of toasts to drink to, and it would have been rude to refuse a round. And now his cheek was lying on the table in a sticky puddle of slopped ale and he didn't particularly care. He felt like he was full of air and also that everything was very heavy. If he tried to move the world would spin very fast and make him even dizzier than he already was, so it was better to keep still. He closed his eyes, because that also helped.

"Time to get you home."

"Mzuh?" Merlin said, as he was suddenly lifted up. There were hands under his arms, hauling him from the bench, and he was confused because he couldn't see who was attached to them. Then one of his arms was slung over someone's shoulder, and Merlin turned to see that the hands belong to Arthur. Merlin smiled at him.

"Arth'r," Merlin slurred, happily, and tried to snuggle him. He leaned forward to kiss Arthur, but almost toppled over instead.

"Easy." Arthur pulled him back up again and put a hand on his chest, which kept him from falling forward again. "I think you've had enough."

There was a rumble of low laughter, and then the clunk of wooden mugs being rested on the table.

"Sire, can I be of assistance?"

Merlin blinked at the new face. "Aren'chou... 's Leon. Look, Arthur, it's Sir Leon."

Leon raised his eyebrows. Merlin laughed. Everyone had funny eyebrows. He tried to wiggle his own, but they weren't working right.

"We were just passing on patrol and saw you were inside. Is everything all right?" Leon asked.

"Young Merlin can't hold his ale," said Borin, and another wave of laughter passed around the room.

Turning his head made the world spin rather alarmingly, and Merlin clung to Arthur to keep from whirling off.

"Sire, shall I take him to the cells? Let him sleep it off?" Leon offered.

"Cells?" Merlin asked, and he didn't like the sound of that at all. He didn't think he'd done any magic in the tavern. But what if he had? He didn't like to drink too much because he might lose control and stop things from spilling. Gaius would be so mad. He backed away from Arthur, only to immediately crash into something and end up on the floor, one leg splayed over a bench. He winced, his head now hurting from the outside as well as the inside.

People were hauling him up, and Merlin panicked. He struggled against them, not wanting to go to the cells, he didn't want to go to the cells. He hadn't done anything!

"Merlin," Arthur said, suddenly before him. "Calm down." He turned away. "Everything's fine. You can help me take him back to my chambers. He'll sleep it off in his own bed better than he would down there."

"Of course, sire."

And then Merlin was being hauled about again, and then they were outside, the cool night air a relief after the stuffy, noisy, drink-soaked tavern. Neither Arthur nor Leon said much, and it took all of Merlin's shaky concentration just to keep one foot in front of the other.

The familiar creak of Arthur's chamber door finally roused Merlin from his stupor. Leon and Arthur dropped him onto his bed in the side room, then walked out. Merlin lay quietly, willing his head to fall off the way it so obviously wanted to.

Arthur was alone when he came back, and he made Merlin drink a lot of water. He pulled off Merlin's shoes and tucked him under the covers.

"Sorry," Merlin said, realizing that Arthur had left the celebration early because of him. "You should go back. They're all leaving tomorrow."

"I'd rather stay here," Arthur said. "Do you want me to get one of Gaius' remedies?"

Merlin shook his head, then realized that was a mistake. He pressed his hands over his eyes. "Just get me a new head. This one's broken."

Arthur gave a soft laugh. "I should have you banned from the tavern for your own protection."

Merlin couldn't agree one way or the other, because that would require thinking and he was no longer capable of such a feat. But when Arthur stood, Merlin reached out for him.

"Don't go," he said, pitifully.

"Merlin," Arthur began, then stopped. "Stay here."

Merlin stayed put as Arthur walked out into the main room. He heard Arthur moving about, and then the rustle of clothes. Arthur came back inside and closed the connecting door behind him. To Merlin's surprise, Arthur nudged him to slide over, and then crawled into Merlin's bed, trapping him between Arthur and the wall.

Arthur pulled Merlin into his arms, and Merlin let out a long, long sigh. All of himself relaxed at once. He hadn't realized how tense he was, but now he felt safe. Now everything was all right. Arthur was here, and his, and they were safe. Nothing else mattered at all.

Chapter Text

"How's the patient?" Arthur said, very loudly, as he returned to Gaius' chambers.

"Too loud," Merlin whimpered, his head pillowed on his arms. Everything was trying to kill him. The hinges on the doors sounded like griffins. Gaius' shuffling footsteps grated on his ears like sandpaper. The sunlight was trying to melt his eyes and stab forge-hot knives into his skull.

"I just administered a second dose," Gaius said. "It will be some time before it takes full effect." He chuckled. "I don't expect Merlin will go anywhere near a tavern for quite some time."

"He'd better not," Arthur replied, slightly less loudly, for which Merlin was grateful. "As soon as he's able, I'm taking him out for some fresh air."

"I'm sure it will do him good," Gaius said.

"Has he eaten anything?"

"No, but perhaps later. I've rarely seen so strong a reaction. How much did he drink?"

Arthur snorted. "Little enough that I'd think he was exaggerating, if it was anyone else."

"'He' is actually in the room," Merlin said, crossly. He hated it when people talked about him like he wasn't there.

Arthur tugged at his hair and forced him to raise his head. Merlin glared at him as much as he could while also squinting very tightly. Arthur let go and Merlin put his head back down. There was a shift as Arthur sat down across from him and leaned his elbows on the table.

"I've thought about what you said," Arthur said, softly.

"Mm?"

"Yesterday, on the field. Did you mean it?"

Merlin raised his head enough to squint at Arthur, trying to make sense of him. "Mean what?"

"That you want to be good enough for me."

Memories trickled back into Merlin's head, jostling for space. "Oh. Yes, um. Yes. Why?"

"There's a gap in my schedule," Arthur said, his tone casual but his eyes serious. "If you're serious about it. I won't bother if you aren't--"

"Yes!" Merlin said, too loudly, and winced. "Um. Yes. So you'll..."

"Turn you into a knight?" Arthur said, with a crooked smile. "I'm no sorcerer. But I can teach you how to defend yourself. How to kill, if necessary. But I want you to do this for yourself, not for me."

"I can't," Merlin said, without thinking. "I mean, it is for you."

Arthur didn't look happy about that. "I don't need you to protect me. I'm not going to train you up to send you into battle. I'm trying to keep you alive. Do I have to lock you up in my chambers?"

"I'd break down the door and follow you anyway," Merlin said, with absolute certainty.

Arthur shook his head. "And that's exactly why. I know I can't shake you. And for some reason I don't want to try. But I can't..." He trailed off, and Merlin caught a glimpse of fear in Arthur's eyes. Fear for Merlin, for losing him to any of the countless dangers that they might face at any time. It made sense that if Arthur cared for him, he would be afraid to lose him. But it was humbling all the same.

"All right," Merlin said, and meant it as much as he could. Arthur's life would always be more important than his own, but the consequence of having Arthur for himself meant that he had become part of Arthur's heart. So he would have to protect himself, just as he protected Uther, because every piece of Arthur was precious.

Arthur looked relieved. "Good. Excellent." He smiled more genuinely, and slid the bowl of congealing porridge in front of Merlin. "Eat."

Merlin made a face.

"Eat," Arthur repeated, and his smile turned dark. "Until your training is done, you'll do exactly as I say."

Merlin took the bowl and scrunched up his nose at it. He poked at the pale muck with the spoon. It looked as appetizing as mud. "I'm going to regret this, aren't I?" he asked the porridge.

From over in the corner, Gaius chuckled to himself.

When Merlin had choked down half the bowl, Arthur finally looked satisfied. He stood up from the table and walked towards the door. "Tell him to come get me when he's able," Arthur told Gaius, and smirked over his shoulder at Merlin as he left.

Gaius shuffled over with another potion. Merlin drank it without question, though it was even more foul than the hangover remedy. It was usually best not to ask what was in Gaius' potions. Merlin already knew too much, and did his best not to think about it.

"Everything is well between you?" Gaius asked. Cautious as ever, he had asked Merlin that at least once a week since The Incident With Arthur's Bed, which they would never speak of again.

Merlin smiled despite his sore head. "Very."

"Perhaps this will work out after all," Gaius said, amusement glinting in his eyes. "Arthur may succeed where I have not."

"You mean he'll beat some sense into me?" Merlin asked, with a roll of his eyes.

"Nothing else has worked."

"I just want to keep him safe. I can't rely on my magic all the time."

Gaius clasped a hand over his heart. "I do believe it's working already!"

Merlin made a face at him. "Maybe you're the one spending too much time with Arthur. His royal pratness is rubbing off on you."

"You know, he did spend a great deal of time here when he was small," Gaius said, with the fondness of an old memory. "This was one of his favorite rooms in the castle."

"What was he like?" Merlin's head was gradually clearing, and he imagined a tiny Arthur running about the castle, hiding behind the tapestries and carrying swords that were too big for him. Merlin already wanted to pinch his cheek and give him sweets, because tiny Arthur would be desperately affronted by it yet secretly love it.

Gaius gave a bittersweet smile. "Much like his mother. To look at him, you could almost believe she was still alive. He had her eyes, her gentle disposition. Her smile."

Merlin once might have mocked the idea that Arthur could have ever been gentle. But he had seen the truth of it himself. All that love must have come from somewhere, and it certainly hadn't come from Uther. Uther had done everything in his power to smother it, and Merlin was very glad that he had failed.

"What was she like, then?"

Gaius grew fonder. "Ygraine had a wonderful soul. We were close friends before she died. She spent a great deal of time here, working."

"What, here? Was she a healer?"

Gaius gave a shifty look. "She assisted me in certain duties."

Merlin furrowed his brow. He knew by now when Gaius was hiding something, but he had no idea what could possible be worth hiding about Arthur's mum. Gaius had already told him that Nimueh was responsible for her death, and that she died just after Arthur was born. But even that wasn't really a secret, it was just something nobody talked about anymore. Arthur didn't know who Nimueh was, but it wasn't as if she was going to come back from being exploded into bits to gloat about how she used to use magic for Uther.

Nimueh used to do magic for Uther. Gaius used to do magic, too. Merlin's eyes widened. "Gaius," he said, lowering his voice to a whisper. "Did Arthur's mum have magic?"

Gaius gave his best stony expression, the one that he used when he was asked a question he didn't want to answer. Merlin stared back.

Gaius scowled at him, and shook a finger at him. "Uther has sworn me to silence on anything related to Ygraine. I cannot breathe a word of this to anyone."

"I'm not anyone," Merlin replied.

"No, you certainly are not," Gaius declared. He sighed. "Yes, she did. Not very much, mind you, but some. We met through the healing arts. I introduced her to Uther."

"Don't tell me Uther had magic!" Merlin said, trying to wrap his mind around all of this.

"Of course not," Gaius said, as if Merlin was an idiot for even considering the idea. "But at the time he saw no harm in it. When Uther was young, Camelot was like any other kingdom, perhaps moreso. Its borders still contain some of the most powerful sources of magic in all of Albion."

"That was in the books you gave me," Merlin said, recalling the histories that had so fascinated him. That magic had been used freely in Camelot, even after Sigan fell. And not just Camelot. When they'd rescued him, Terit had been shocked by Uther's hatred of magic. And when they'd returned him to Mercia, Terit had been welcomed back with open arms. There had been no talk of corruption or the evils of magic.

Magic wasn't actually illegal in Escetir. But far from the heart of the kingdom, the people of Ealdor and its neighboring villages had been nearly as hostile to magic as anyone from Camelot. His mother had constantly warned him to be careful, the same as Gaius did. And for all the kings and other royalty that visited Camelot, none of them openly brought sorcerers. Merlin had not considered that they might present a magicless face to Uther to keep in alliance with him, yet quietly welcome magic in their own lands.

"But if everyone used magic, and Ygraine had magic, why did he turn against it?"

"Because in the end it killed her. That is why Uther rarely sets foot here, even now. He cannot be in this room without seeing her. He cannot see magic without seeing her death." Gaius pressed his mouth in a grim line.

"That's not fair," Merlin said, crossly.

"Indeed it is not. But you must swear to me that you will never speak a word of this to Arthur."

"He deserves to know!"

"The risks are too great."

"That's what you keep saying about Morgana," Merlin reminded him. "You sound just like the dragon."

"And I will keep saying these things until you understand. Uther is the king. You cannot change that. If you tell Arthur, the consequences will be grave. It will hurt him deeply, and I know you do not want that."

"Of course not," Merlin said, annoyed that Gaius might be right. Arthur deserved to know everything, but the truth about Arthur's parents was as bad as the truth about Merlin's magic. Merlin was supposed to protect Arthur, not break his heart. He slumped over the table, his chin on his palms.

"I should not have burdened you with this," Gaius said, regretful.

"No," Merlin said. "I'm glad you told me."

"You already carry too much on your shoulders. You and Arthur both."

"I won't tell him anything," Merlin promised, then gave what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "I'm good at keeping secrets."

Gaius gave him a doubtful look. "If you think Arthur has the slightest suspicion of your magic, you must tell me at once. You must--"

"--be careful," Merlin finished for him. As if he hadn't heard it the first ten thousand times. "Everything is fine. Do you think Arthur would bother teaching me how to fight if he thought I had magic?"

"It is unlikely," Gaius admitted. "And reluctant as I am to admit it, you do appear to be having a good influence on each other. He has been carrying his own burdens more easily."

Merlin smiled. "Yeah. And this whole training thing will solve a lot. If I can fight, I won't need to use magic to keep him safe."

"Perhaps from mundane threats, and even there I have my doubts. But what about the next magical attack? The next enchantment? The closer you are to him, the harder it will be to hide your true nature."

"Sigan is locked away. Nimueh is dead. I can handle a few magical beasts, and Arthur even helped me with the last one. Everyone keeps telling me I'm this all-powerful warlock. Soon I'll be an all-powerful warlock who's good with a sword. Nobody will stand a chance."

Gaius gave him the eyebrow for that. "Talk like that will only invite trouble."

"Arthur says I'm lucky," Merlin said.

"Arthur has his work cut out for him if he thinks he can knock sense into you," Gaius said, rising to his feet. "If you're feeling better, I suggest you go to him."

Gaius always did have a way of ending a conversation. Merlin huffed and shuffled out of the room. It would be nice, he thought, if Gaius would have the tiniest bit of faith in him. It would be nice if someone did.

§

Arthur couldn't take Merlin out to the training field. If he was seen teaching Merlin how to fight, Uther would find out and put a stop to it. Merlin simply accepted it as another in his growing pile of secrets. What was one more? Besides, he hardly counted something as a secret anymore if both Gaius and Arthur knew about it. It was only the secrets that he couldn't share with Arthur that bothered him. And maybe a few things he couldn't tell Gaius. And the stuff he couldn't share with anyone, now that he wasn't talking to the dragon anymore.

Sometimes he felt as if he was wrapped in layers and layers of secrets, all tightening around him and threatening to squeeze the breath from him. It was no wonder Arthur thought he was an idiot, when so many of the things he wanted to say could not be shared. Maybe someday he could tear himself free, and let the torrent of words pour forth until he drowned under them. But he doubted it would ever happen. He wanted Arthur to see him, and Arthur was the one person who couldn't.

If Merlin couldn't show Arthur who he really was, at least he had the next best thing. He could change himself into something that he could show Arthur. He would never be a knight of Camelot, but he didn't need a title. He could be Arthur's knight and fight bravely at his side. He could fill himself with things that were safe to talk about. He could hide the secret parts of himself away, and only bring them out again when he had to.

He could be good enough for Arthur. He could.

"Head still bothering you?" Arthur asked, as they approached the clearing. Arthur had decided that the private spot Merlin had brought him to was perfect for their needs. It was a large enough space and it was sufficiently private. Prime hunting season was just beginning, and the forest would have plenty of game to take back with them in the evening to explain away their absence. Merlin mentally apologized to all the hares and game birds they were going to have to kill.

Arthur was utterly delighted with the plan. He would get to spend weeks beating Merlin to a pulp in the guise of training him, having sex outdoors, and killing fluffy woodland creatures. It was going to be the most fun he'd had in years.

"Nah. Why?" Merlin asked.

"You've barely said a word all day." Arthur dumped his crossbow and supplies at the edge of the clearing, and Merlin followed suit.

Merlin shrugged. "Haven't felt like talking."

"Now I know something's wrong." Arthur frowned at him. "Have you changed your mind? We don't have to do this."

"No!" Merlin insisted. "No, I want to learn. I really do. I guess I'm just nervous."

Arthur replied with a look that was simultaneously pitying and smug. Merlin replied with a glare. Arthur looked even more pleased with himself. Merlin imagined magically yanking Arthur up by his ankles and shaking him until all the prattishness fell out of him. It would probably take hours.

Arthur laughed and smacked Merlin on the arm. "Come on, then. Let's see what you've got."

"What?"

"Attack me."

Merlin looked over at the pile of supplies. There weren't any swords. "With what? A stick?"

Arthur's smile twitched. "Yes. Attack me with a stick. Pretend it's a sword, if it helps you feel better."

"Fine," Merlin said, and found a decent branch. He broke off a piece of it that seemed the right size, and tried not to feel extremely foolish when he brandished it. If Arthur was going to spend the entirety of this training thing mocking him, Merlin was going to fulfill his promise on the field and do worse than piss in his wine. There were a lot of creative spells in his grimoire, still under the plank in his old room.

"I'm completely unarmed," Arthur said, gesturing for Merlin to attack. "All you have to do is hit me. One hit, anywhere on my body."

Merlin could manage one hit. He narrowed his eyes at Arthur, considering his options, and lunged at him, swinging the stick with all his might. Instead of colliding with Arthur's thick head, it swooshed through the air. Merlin turned and swung again, this time for the bigger target of Arthur's chest. Arthur dodged with ease, so confident in his movements that he stayed close enough for the breeze from the stick to ruffle his fringe.

"Stop moving," Merlin grumbled. It was like trying to swat a fly, except the fly was actively taunting him.

"I'm not teaching you to attack a tree, Merlin."

"You're not teaching me anything," Merlin retorted. The last thing he was in the mood for was more humiliation.

"I can't teach you how to do it right until you know what you're doing wrong." Arthur pulled the stick from Merlin's hand before Merlin could even think to stop him, and just as quickly had the end of it under Merlin's chin, forcing his head up. How did he move so fast? Merlin could actually stop time when he wanted to, and he still couldn't keep up with Arthur's movements.

"Like that," Arthur said.

Merlin stepped back and swatted the stick away. "You know what? Forget it." It was a stupid idea in the first place. Gaius was right. Arthur was right. The idea of Merlin fighting anyone without magic was a joke.

Arthur tossed down the stick. "You're giving up? Just like that?"

"I'm not giving up," Merlin said, angrily. "I'm seeing sense."

"You said you wanted this," Arthur said. He looked confused and maybe a bit concerned. "No, I know you want this."

Merlin looked away. Arthur walked up to him and rested a hand on his side. Merlin tried not to admit to himself how much better even that small touch made him feel. But he couldn't help himself. He turned and hugged Arthur tightly, his chest hurting with everything knotted up inside it. Arthur was stiff with surprise, then relaxed and held Merlin back, rubbing soothingly on his back. Merlin grounded himself on Arthur's touch, and gradually the knot eased. He let go.

"Sorry," Merlin murmured, wiping at his eyes.

Arthur didn't ask him to talk about what was bothering him, even though it was obvious that he wanted to. Every time he did, Merlin could never tell him. And every time Merlin lied, he felt the pain Arthur felt, as if to hurt Arthur was to hurt himself. Merlin wasn't sure if it was a good thing that Arthur was learning not to ask.

"You need this," Arthur said, slowly, as if trying to figure out what to say as he said it. "I don't know why, but you do." He touched Merlin's cheek. "I think it's the only thing you've ever asked of me."

"It doesn't matter," Merlin said, quietly.

Arthur gave an exasperated sigh, and tilted Merlin's head up to face him. "It does." He moved his hand to Merlin's shoulder as he struggled for the right words. When he couldn't find them, he kissed Merlin instead, the kiss heavy with caring and concern. When he finally pulled back, Merlin felt as if Arthur had reached into his chest and pulled apart the knot until it was a pile of single strings.

"Want to start over?"

"Yeah," Merlin agreed, feeling stupidly lucky again. If he told Arthur how precious he was to him, Arthur's ego would be even more enormous and Merlin would never hear the end of it. But it was one secret he didn't have to keep, because he thought that maybe Arthur knew it anyway.

They sat down together, Merlin leaning back against a tree and Arthur facing him. The shadow of the tree ended at Merlin's feet, and Arthur basked under the sunlight, eyes half-closed. Merlin picked apart a blade of grass, tearing it into thin strips and staining his fingertips with green.

"What do you think it means, to know how to fight?" Arthur asked him.

Merlin shrugged. "I have a pretty good idea. I've watched you fight lots of times. And I've watched you train the knights."

Arthur looked at him through lowered lashes. "No, you watched me while I happened to be training the knights. The only form you were interested was mine."

Merlin admitted it with a shrug. "You're distracting."

"Possibly. Still doesn't answer the question."

"I don't know." Merlin stared past Arthur, thinking. "It means being strong. Unstoppable. It means I can take down any threat before it hurts people."

"You're half right," Arthur said. "That's what it means for me, because I'm the best." When Merlin scoffed, Arthur continued. "My father was once the fiercest swordsman in all of Albion, and he taught me to surpass him. I do not know the first time I wielded a blade, because I was too young to remember it. I was born into this as I was born to become king, but I have earned my skill over a lifetime."

Merlin frowned. "So what? I can't learn to fight because I'm a peasant?" Merlin knew it wasn't a fair thing to say, because Arthur had wanted Lancelot to be his knight, and Lancelot didn't even have a family, much less a noble one.

"Of course not," Arthur said, with roll of his eyes. "But I was born and bred to become what I am. I push my knights hard, but I do not expect them to reach the standard I am held to. That is beyond almost any man. It is the duty of a king to be strong and unstoppable, to end any threat to his people. That is not your responsibility."

Merlin wanted to laugh. That was exactly his responsibility, except all he had to train him was some old magic books and two cranky, reluctant mentors. Arthur might have had a sword thrust into his hands when he was too young to lift it, but Merlin had been constantly told not to use his magic, to hide it away and pretend it didn't exist because it was inconvenient. Because if people knew what he was, people like Arthur would see him as a threat to be taken down.

The bitterness of own his thoughts shocked him, and he realized he was jealous, intensely jealous of Arthur for fitting. For being born into a life that had a perfectly Arthur-shaped hole. He craved such a life, all sun and not a trace of shadow. He wanted a piece of it for himself.

"Why can't I be good enough?" he challenged.

"Because it is not expected of you," Arthur replied, calmly. "I do not question your determination, Merlin. You are possibly the most determined person I have ever met. But that is not enough on its own."

"I know it's not enough," Merlin said. "That's why I want to learn!"

"You will," Arthur promised. "But if I handed you a sword, and we were attacked, what would you do with it?"

"I would fight with it. Like I did yesterday."

"That was not a fight. That was a game. A real fight does not stop with the first touch of a sword. A real fight is about survival."

"I know that," Merlin said, annoyed because of course he knew that. He had killed to survive in Ealdor. He had killed to survive in Camelot, and on the Isle of the Blessed. He knew the rush and thrill of fear, and knew how to channel it, to let his magic swell and burn with it until his enemies ran or lay dead at his feet. He even liked it, just a little, because it made him feel powerful and free and so often in the rest of his life he felt neither. But Arthur didn't know any of that (except for half-truths about Ealdor), and there was no reason why he should.

Arthur just smiled in a melancholy way. "You think you do, but you don't. I don't wish to see your innocence taken away."

"I'm hardly innocent," Merlin said, tersely. "And I don't need you to protect me."

Arthur laughed. "You don't listen to me when I tell you that."

Merlin slumped against the tree. "Yeah," he admitted. "Look, can we just... agree to protect each other?"

It was obvious from the expression on Arthur's face that he was bemused by the very notion of Merlin protecting him, never mind how many times Arthur knew Merlin had saved his life. Maybe pulling Arthur out of the way of an enchanted dagger and drinking poison for him didn't require huge muscles and a sword, but they ought to count for something.

"All right," Arthur said, much to Merlin's surprise.

"What?"

"I agree."

"You do?" Merlin asked, uncertain.

"Why did you think I brought you here?" Arthur asked, reasonably. He shook his head and stood, and pulled a bundle from his pile. "Here," he said, and unrolled the fabric in front of Merlin, revealing an assortment of royal knives. Merlin was familiar with Arthur's knives, having polished them enough times, though this was not the same set. Arthur preferred to rely on his sword, but he practiced regularly with other weapons, and liked Merlin to keep them all gleaming and razor-sharp.

"These are for you."

"What, all of them?" Merlin asked. "What am I supposed to do with so many? Throw them?"

Arthur pointed at a set of three identical, relatively plain knives. "With these, yes, if you can manage it." He picked up a hunting knife. "This is for your pack. Not for defense, but so you won't make such a mess when you skin my rabbits."

Merlin took it. The sheath was rich leather, decorated at the edges and bearing the Pendragon crest in red stain and golden thread. He pulled off the sheath, and the blade was a fine thing indeed, and surely fresh from the forge. He would have had to scrimp and save for years to afford even one knife of this quality. The knife he kept in his pack was one of the only extravagances he'd ever bought, a dear purchase once he had actual money for the first time in his life, and it was a thin, blunt piece of tin in comparison.

"Arthur, you didn't..." he began, looking over the other knives and realizing they were all new, all gleaming and perfect.

Arthur gave a shy shrug.

"This is too much," Merlin protested, but his hands tightened on the grip and the sheath. Even though he'd spent over a year as Arthur's manservant, and spent an awful lot of that year sharpening and polishing and handling every manner of weapon, he'd never thought of them as anything but Arthur's. Even the sword imbued with dragon magic had been simply Arthur's.

But these were for himself. They were a gift, a real, proper gift from Arthur. Not just a room and a bed that were meant for Arthur's manservant anyway. Not something that Arthur was lending him, or his leavings and hand-downs. They were suddenly as precious as his grimoire.

He slid the sheath back onto the knife and set it back on the fabric. He picked up what seemed to be a short piece of polished wood. "What's this?"

Arthur took it, and with a flick of his thumb extended the hidden blade. It was short and one-sided, but had a vicious edge that looked like it had been dragon-forged.

"Keep this with you at all times," Arthur said, handing it back. "Practice with it until you can open and close it with one hand and unseen."

"It's not very big," Merlin said, skeptically.

Arthur took it and positioned it in Merlin's hand so that the blade was entirely hidden by his fingers, with his thumb over a slight dent in the handle.

"At the first sign of trouble, you take it out of your pocket and extend the blade. No one will know you are armed. If someone grabs you, slice their arm or their hand, and they will let go."

"Sneaky," Merlin said, approvingly. He played with the knife, trying to gain a feel for it. It was quite a clever contraption. He had to use both hands to open it, but if he had trouble he could always pop it with his magic.

He folded it and put it into his pocket, and found it to be a comfortable weight. He picked up the other small knife, which had a short handle and a slim, unobtrusive sheath. "This one?"

"A backup. It tucks into your boot," Arthur explained, showing him.

"All these small knives. Are you trying to tell me something?" Merlin joked.

Arthur smirked, his eyes flicking to Merlin's crotch and back. "You have exactly two assets in a battle. You have courage, and you look like a stiff wind would knock you down." At Merlin's outrage, Arthur held up a hand. "I know you have muscle somewhere under those clothes, but I like you naked in my bed, not in the middle of a bandit attack. And speaking of..."

Arthur picked up the last two knives, a pair of long, sturdy daggers. They were like small versions of Arthur's longsword. "These you'll hide under your saddlebags when we ride out. If we're on horseback and we're attacked, you pull one out and aim for the head."

Merlin pictured the hilt of one of the daggers sticking out of some Saxon's face and grimaced. "Eww." But Arthur gestured for him to take the set, and he did. "If I'm only supposed to use one, why are there two?"

"So you don't get down from your horse and go after the first one when you drop it."

"Watch yourself," Merlin warned, holding up a dagger. "I'm armed now."

"If you intend to be menacing," Arthur said, unmoved, "you have to take the sheath off first."

Merlin pulled it off in a hurry, and nicked his finger in the process. "Ow," he said, and sucked at the cut.

Arthur just shook his head. "I brought bandages," he said, pointing at the supplies with his thumb. Merlin stood up to get them and the knives fell from his lap with a clatter. He heard Arthur muttering something insulting, but was too busy digging for the bandages with one hand. After about ten seconds, which was the longest Arthur's patience ever lasted, Arthur came over and found it for him, then wrapped his finger tightly.

"At least you only managed to slightly cripple yourself this time," Arthur said.

"It's just a scratch," Merlin argued, and it was his turn to roll his eyes. Honestly, Arthur could be such a worrier sometimes.

"Don't even think of carrying the daggers around with you in the castle," Arthur ordered. "I've had nightmares about some poor girl finding you impaled on them when you're supposed to be doing my laundry."

Merlin just smiled. So Arthur did dream about him.

Arthur tried to look stern, but ended up smiling back anyway. He cuffed Merlin on the arm, then gave him a shove back to where they'd been sitting. "I gave you something nice and you've made a mess of it already. Don't even think about leaving them all over the floor like you do with everything else you own. I expect these to stay polished and sharp at all times. If I see even one flake of rust--"

Merlin rolled his eyes as he finished wrapping the knives back up inside the carrying fabric. Arthur could be ridiculously bossy sometimes. Merlin was sure that even if Arthur had been born a peasant and lived all his life in a hovel somewhere, he would still have ended up bossing everyone around. He would boss around a rock if it was the only thing nearby. "I'll take perfect care of them. I take care of weapons all the time, Arthur," he said, standing up. He walked back over, shoved the bundle into Arthur's hands, and then kissed him. "Thank you."

Arthur looked torn between continuing his lecture (he really did love giving a lecture), kissing Merlin back, and preening at having succeeded in his unusual bout of gift-giving. He set aside the bundle and closed the little distance between them, his hands sliding over Merlin's sides, wrapping around and pulling them together. Kissing won out for now, and Merlin was content in its victory. He held Arthur back, stroking his hands idly down his back as they kissed and tasted each other.

Somehow, Merlin ended up with his back pressed along a tree and Arthur pressing him bodily against it, pinning him into place. For all that Merlin protested his independence, that he could take care of himself and didn't need Arthur to treat him otherwise, he knew that it would be impossible to stop Arthur from being protective. Arthur felt protective about everything that was his, which effectively included the entirety of Camelot, and it was one of the things Merlin loved most about him. It was what would help make him into the great king he was meant to be. Arthur cared for what was his and worried over it and did his best to make it better, and Merlin didn't think anything would ever make him happier than knowing Arthur considered him that way. That as Camelot and one day Albion itself, Merlin was in Arthur's hands, and nothing could make Arthur let go.

He struggled against Arthur anyway, because the only thing more delicious than knowing that Arthur would never release him was making Arthur prove it. Even though his magic could toss Arthur across the clearing with barely a flicker of golden power, all it wanted to do was supplicate itself, for Merlin to offer it wholly to its king, to be bent and turned to Arthur's will and against his enemies. Merlin could feel the pull of it in his chest, his magic aching along with his heart, the both of them yearning for more no matter how hard Arthur pressed against him, no matter how deep Arthur fucked him.

Merlin didn't know if it was love or destiny that compelled his magic, if it loved Arthur because he loved Arthur, if it even made sense to think of them as separate within himself. In Ealdor he had, sometimes, when he had been frightened by the strange and terrible power that flowed through and out of him. But ever since he and his magic had been gifted to Arthur's service, his fear and all the distinctions he had built upon it had washed away. Merlin didn't need to know if the dragon's prophecies and tales of destiny were true, because he felt the truth. He knew it in his bones and in his magic, that this was everything he was meant for, that he was where he was supposed to be. If anything, his magic urged him further, and Merlin had to hold it back. His magic wanted Arthur. It hated being hidden from Arthur as much as Merlin hated hiding it. It could never hurt Arthur, because nothing of Merlin could ever hurt Arthur. It only wanted to be with him, and Merlin couldn't let it.

One day, he promised, soothing his magic and himself both. One day it will be safe. One day there won't be any more secrets.

Merlin surged against Arthur, wanting to capture him, to feel Arthur strain against him and then overpower him. Yet Merlin was quite unprepared when Arthur did just that, spinning him around and pressing him against the tree, pulling his arms painfully back.

"Lemme go," Merlin whined, struggling. He stiffened as he felt Arthur tying his wrists together with coarse rope. "What are you doing?"

"Starting the next lesson," Arthur said, a smirk in his voice. "I'm capturing you so you can learn how to escape."

"Very funny," Merlin said, and tried to pull his wrists from the rope. The rope held fast. "How am I supposed to get free? You tied it too tight."

Arthur tutted at him. "That's the point."

Merlin glared at the tree, since Arthur wouldn't let him turn around to glare at his face. Then he remembered the folded knife still in his pocket, and pulled at his jacket to coax his pocket into reach of his fingertips.

"That's more like it," Arthur said, but reached into Merlin's pocket and took the knife before Merlin could reach it.

"Hey!" Merlin protested. "Give it back."

Arthur waved the folded knife in Merlin's eyeline. "If someone captures you, they're going to disarm you."

"What's the point of carrying it, then?"

"To keep from being tied up in the first place," Arthur said. "The safest place to be is on your horse. If someone tries to pull you down, stab them with the daggers. If that doesn't work or you're on foot, use the hidden blades to defend yourself and run. If you're caught anyway, you need to know how to escape."

Merlin ignored the fact that he could simply magic himself out of the toughest knot or tightest shackles. "How am I supposed to do that if I don't have anything to cut the rope with?"

Arthur tapped at Merlin's head. "You use this." He released Merlin and stepped back. "See if you can get your hands in front of you."

Merlin tugged and wriggled against the ropes until his wrists were sore from the friction, then huffed and reconsidered his line of attack. He sat down on the grass and tried to push himself over the loop of his arms. He might not be strong, but he was limber, and with a bit of work he had his wrists under his thighs. It took some more wriggling before he could work one leg and then the other through, but then he was springing to his feet, wrists held proudly before him.

He still couldn't work the rope off, so he reached for the folded knife in Arthur's hand. Arthur pulled it away, holding it up over his head, and Merlin lunged after it. He chased after it as Arthur led him around the clearing, the knife always just out of reach even with Merlin's slight advantage in height. Merlin finally won by flinging himself into Arthur and tackling him to the ground, where they rolled and laughed as they wrestled until Merlin pried the knife away.

"Got it," Merlin taunted, and then dropped it as his sweaty hands slipped trying to tug open the blade. He snatched it up again before Arthur could take it back, pulled the blade out and sawed the rope apart. He gave a victorious shout as the rope fell away, and barely remembered to fold the knife before he lunged at Arthur again, pinning him down in the grass.

"I win again," he declared, grinning down at Arthur. He leaned in to claim his reward in kisses when the world turned upside-down, and the next thing he knew he was face-down against the grass, arms wrenched back again with the bonus this time of Arthur's knee on his spine.

"The thing is, Merlin," Arthur told him, "you don't win because you say you win. You win when your opponent can no longer move. You win when they are disabled, unconscious, or dead."

"I'm hardly going to do any of that to you," Merlin argued.

"You could tie me up."

Merlin would find the idea more appealing if Arthur's knee wasn't so heavy and sharp. Then again, if Arthur didn't stop kneeling on him soon, other options would become increasingly attractive.

"Do you know what Morgana said to me once?" Arthur said, seemingly at random. "She said you were a lover. As in, a lover and not a fighter."

"Uh, thanks?" Merlin said, not really sure how to take that.

"She said it just after you nearly got yourself killed trying to save Gwen from my father," Arthur continued. If he was trying to make a point, Merlin really couldn't see what it was. "It was sweet and noble and the stupidest thing I'd ever seen. And you know what I realized, watching you confess to sorcery right in front of my father?"

Merlin barely dared to speak. "What?" he asked, and hoped Arthur wouldn't notice when his voice cracked.

"I realized that that is how you do everything. It's how you saved my life. It's how you fight. You get one good idea, or what you think is a good idea, and you throw yourself at it. You don't think about the consequences."

"Can you lecture me without kneeling on my spine?"

"Not if it's the only way I can get you to listen," Arthur said, but he did ease up the pressure somewhat. "You want to learn how to fight. Fine. But you have to learn how to think more than one step ahead. You have to think." He punctuated it with a slap to Merlin's head.

"I am thinking! I'm thinking about stabbing you in your sleep," Merlin said, trying to glare in Arthur's general direction.

"See? It's helping already," Arthur said. "Are you also thinking about how to escape the guards and what kingdom to flee to for asylum? Because I have a list of recommendations."

"You are such a complete prat!"

"I'm also alive, and not because I have been short of people trying to kill me."

"Well so am I!" Merlin said, angry now. "I can take care of myself. I can take care of you, even if you don't believe it."

"Merlin--"

Merlin gave himself a boost of strength with his magic and rolled, and a surprised Arthur released him. "I asked you for help!" he said, standing up, almost trembling from the force of his emotions. "And it's just a game to you. That's all I am. Just stupid, useless Merlin. Can't even do his chores properly. Well fine. Forget I asked."

Merlin turned his back on Arthur and stomped away. He was done, completely done, and if Arthur wanted to stay in the forest and kill things he was welcome to it. Merlin paused only long enough to grab his bag and the bundle of knives, and he stomped off back to the castle, soundly ignoring Arthur's calls for him to come back.

Chapter Text

Merlin didn't go back to Arthur's chambers. He went to Gaius' instead, and when Gaius wasn't there for Merlin to rant at, Merlin went into his old room and slammed the door behind him.

Gaius hadn't turned it back into a storeroom yet, maybe because he didn't believe that Merlin had moved out for good. But it didn't feel much like his room anymore, even though he'd never had many things of his own to fill it with. He checked under his bed, and the Sidhe staff was still there, along with the grimoire under the loose floorboard.

Merlin sulked for a bit, fuming at the world in general, and then gave up and rolled out his knives. Even if he was mad at Arthur, even if they were, in hindsight, a transparent attempt to bribe Merlin into accepting basic self-defense instead of actual fighting lessons, Merlin didn't want to give them back. They still meant something. Arthur still went through the trouble and expense of them on Merlin's behalf. If Merlin didn't have magic, he could not have thought of a better way to protect himself.

He pulled the folding knife out of his pocket and opened it; it was a bit dirty so he wiped it clean on his shirt and practiced opening and closing it with one hand until he had the hang of it. He took the boot knife and attached the sheath to the inside of his boot, then practiced taking it out and thrusting it at some imaginary attacker. He sheathed the boot knife in his boot and put the folded knife back into his pocket.

Merlin pulled over his bag and dug about in it until he found his old knife. He knew there was no point in keeping it now, but he couldn't bring himself to throw it out. It didn't weigh much, so he left it in the bag and added the hunting knife alongside it. He put the two daggers into the front pouch for now; he would figure out where to put them when he was preparing the horses for their next ride.

That just left the throwing knives. Merlin had seen Arthur use a similar set in the archery practice area, and as usual made it look effortless. Merlin brushed himself off and held the first knife by the tip, like Arthur had, drew back, and threw it. It thunked against the door and clattered to the floor. The other two knives did the same, but Merlin picked them up and tried again and again and again, until his arm burned from the effort.

He didn't seem to be getting better at it. For the next round, he used his magic, and all three flew straight and true, embedding deeply into the wooden door.

Merlin fumed some more.

It just wasn't fair. The only reason he couldn't do anything right, the only reason he dropped things and generally fumbled about, was because he couldn't use his magic. It was the broken arm that really drove the point home to him. He had thought, for some reason, that when his arm healed it would be better than it had been before he broke it. He'd thought that Arthur's strengthening exercises would somehow make a real difference. But he might as well have two left arms, because his real right arm was his magic, and it was stuck in its own sling all the time.

He was never going to be of any use to anyone as long as he had to hide his magic all the time. Sometimes he wondered why Arthur put up with him, why anyone did. At least Gaius knew the whole apprentice thing was just a ruse, and had the sense to keep his chores to non-ruinable things like deliveries and gathering herbs, and if there was something else it was under Gaius' direct supervision. Gaius might appreciate it if Merlin studied up on anatomy as well as magic, but he wasn't about to send Merlin off to treat actual diseases all by himself.

It might have bothered Merlin, except that it didn't. If there was something magical about, about all that Gaius could do was look things up and advise him. If there was something magical about, Merlin was in charge. He made all the decisions and did all the work. Gaius respected him, knew his strength and was even awed by it sometimes. Merlin hadn't come to Camelot to learn to be a physician, he came to learn to use his magic. Given that he was still alive and so was mostly everyone else, he figured he was pretty good at it by now.

No one would expect Gaius to help people without his books and potions. No one would expect Arthur to fight without his sword, or rule without... without being handsome. But Merlin couldn't use his skills, couldn't use his strengths, and sometimes it was so frustrating that he could barely stand it.

With a glare, the knives flew one by one to his hand and then back into the door, driving into the wood over and over. Merlin was just sending them back for another perfect round when the door opened and Gaius gasped in alarm as a knife flew directly at his face. Merlin yanked it back with a yelp, and immediately braced himself for a scolding.

"What on earth do you think you're doing?" Gaius shouted. "I could hear that racket from the stairs. What have you done to my door? It's full of holes!" He narrowed his eyes at Merlin, and his voice became less shouty and more concerned. "And why aren't you with Arthur? You said you would be out all day. Has something happened?"

"Everything's fine," Merlin said, wrapping up the knives and stuffing them into his bag. He squeezed past Gaius, glad that unlike Arthur, Gaius wouldn't try to tackle him to keep him put. "Absolutely fine. I'll fix the door later, I promise!"

He ignored Gaius calling for him to come back, and hurried down the steps and out of the tower.

§

Arthur finally tracked him down in the archery area.

Merlin had gone directly to the practice field and claimed a target for himself. Others came and went, occasionally glaring at him for having the gall to be a servant and not constantly apologizing for breathing in the same space as nobility, but all it took was one look at Merlin's face and they wisely chose not to argue. The knives may also have been a factor.

He'd kept at it all afternoon, even when his arms burned for him to stop. He continued on, switching arms because they were both useless and if he was going to learn with one he might as well learn with the other. He might fall down the steps and break one of them again, and he wasn't going to be made even more useless for weeks on end, not if he could help it.

He threw and threw and somehow, maybe pure brute force in combination with whatever he remembered from watching Arthur, he managed to actually get the knives into the target. His aim was rubbish, and even worse with his left than with his right, but he didn't care. He felt a vicious pleasure every time a knife stuck instead of bouncing off, the same way he felt when he beat Merek on the field. He didn't care that Arthur thought it didn't matter, that Arthur would laugh at him and say it was useless because he would only miss, or drop his knives before he had a chance to throw them. Merlin didn't care, and if he sometimes pictured Arthur's pompous, condescending, ugly head in place of the target, he wasn't going to admit it.

"Not bad," Arthur said, as the third knife joined the others in the target.

Merlin ignored him and went to retrieve them. He ignored Arthur some more and threw them back into the target again. It was getting late, and he was sweating and thirsty and he hadn't eaten lunch and his arms felt like they were about to fall off, but he wasn't going to stop. He'd stayed up nights saying spells over and over again to make them work. If Arthur didn't want to teach him, Merlin would teach himself. He would borrow a sword and go out every night and practice in secret, because the only way he could do anything properly was if he did it himself and in secret, because he wasn't allowed to be good at things where anyone could see him.

The third knife thwacked into the center of the target, his first non-magical bullseye, and Merlin just felt glad. Let Arthur see he could do something right, even if it was just throwing a stupid knife at a target. He didn't say anything, just followed after it to begin again.

On the way back, he saw that Arthur was leaning back against a post with his arms crossed, watching him with that narrow-eyed look of his. It meant he was thinking, and Merlin thought meanly that if he overdid it, the smoke that would pour out of his ears would ruin his hair.

Arthur managed not to say anything while Merlin continued on, not hitting the center of the target again but keeping a decent scatter around the outer rings. But it was only a matter of time before Arthur's patience ran out, and he would feel compelled to start talking because he was the prince and people weren't allowed to ignore him.

"Hungry?" Arthur asked.

Merlin's stomach argued in favor of dinner, but Merlin ignored it. He threw another knife.

"It's around now that my manservant usually serves my dinner," Arthur continued. "But I seem to have misplaced him. It's a shame, since Cook's making mutton pies."

Merlin loved mutton pie.

"And I think I smelled boiling grapes on the way here," Arthur said. "This weather is perfect for a grape pudding."

Merlin sniffed. The air did smell rather sweet. He loved grape pudding. A suspicion crept up on him, and he gave Arthur a sideways look.

"A harvest of strawberries came today," Arthur said, seeing that he had Merlin's attention. "I could eat them fresh, or have them baked in a tart."

Merlin swallowed a whimper at the thought of a strawberry tart. He adored strawberry tarts, and last summer he had pilfered all of Arthur's, slipping them into his pocket when he brought up his trays, as a petty revenge for Arthur being generally a brute and a prat to him.

Arthur stopped leaning against the post and started to walk very slowly away. "But if you're not hungry, I'll just get it myself. You can eat with Gaius. He's having turnip stew again."

Merlin wasn't above bribery, and he hated turnips. "Wait, wait," he said, and retrieved his knives and his bag. "I'll get it."

"Oh, I don't want to interrupt," Arthur lied.

"You probably don't even know where the serving trays are," Merlin insisted. "And you have to know how to handle Cook. If you want tarts, that is."

"Maybe that's why I never got any last year," Arthur said, with a hint of a smirk. "Morgana told me how delicious they were, but all I got was crumbs."

Merlin refused to blush. "Must be," he said, and coughed into his hand.

Arthur slid a hand against Merlin's back, and Merlin let him. If only because of the tarts.

§

By the time Merlin returned from the kitchen, Arthur had already settled in for the evening. He'd washed and put on light clothes, and looked relaxed and refreshed. He lounged by the table, hair gently mussed, his sleeves rolled back, the laces of his shirt opened to reveal the light tufts of his chest hair. The edge of sunset was just visible from the windows, and along with the candles it cast him in soft, flattering light. Merlin found himself frozen in the doorway, heavy tray forgotten in his hands.

There were moments when Arthur seemed untouchable. When he seemed perfect and golden and very, very far away. When the distance between them, prince and peasant, Pendragon and sorcerer, the dream of destiny and the reality of the everyday, felt quite insurmountable. Merlin was keenly aware of his own state, filthy from the sweat of the day and their tussles in the woods. He forced himself into the room, closing the door behind him with his foot.

"Dinner," he said, setting the tray down with a thump, and drawing Arthur from whatever reverie he had been lost in.

"Finally," Arthur said, straightening up. "I was about to send down a search party."

"Cook needed time to finish," Merlin said, filling their cups with the usual small beer, so weak it was practically water. "Apparently the order for your dinner was placed late this afternoon."

"How terribly remiss of whoever it was," Arthur drawled. "If you're feeling guilty about it, I'll send it back." He reached for the tarts, and Merlin smacked his hand with the back of his spoon.

"Don't even joke about that," Merlin warned, and placed his tart protectively far away from Arthur.

Arthur just smiled and took his own, leaving it pointedly in the middle of the table. They each took a mutton pie and a bowl of grape pudding. If Merlin's grape pudding happened to be suspiciously larger than Arthur's, which had a suspicious chunk taken out of it, neither of them said anything. Merlin silently dared Arthur to, happy to remind him that just because he had accepted the bribe, it did not mean that Arthur was at all forgiven.

With food finally in front of him, Merlin gave in to his hunger and practically inhaled his mutton pie. He scraped the last bits of it with his spoon and nearly licked the plate clean, but realized Arthur was already staring at him in bemusement and restrained himself. He cleared his throat and tucked into his grape pudding instead, less gluttonous about it now that he wasn't starving anymore. Besides, he wanted to take his time and enjoy it. After a long, hot day, it was just what he needed, sweet and pulpy and with a slight fizz of alcohol. He ate slowly, savoring each mouthful, licking every trace from his spoon.

He didn't look up until he was finished with it, and when he did Arthur wasn't looking at him with bemusement anymore. Merlin felt a shiver at the blatant lust in Arthur's eyes, and licked his lips in reflex. All thoughts of distance and perfection flew away like ash over a fire. Arthur was as flesh and blood as any man, and Merlin had him, had him. Arthur was his.

Arthur was his.

He didn't know why he'd never thought of it that way, but he had been accused of being slow on the uptake before. He had been so obsessed by the fact that he was Arthur's, that Arthur had his love and his heart and all of him besides, that he had not stopped to consider that he might have a similar hold over Arthur. How could he? When Arthur reminded him so often of how useless he was, when Merlin felt keenly all that stood between them? It wasn't that he didn't know that Arthur cared for him, but he felt undeserving. He couldn't truly have Arthur's heart until he could be honest about himself, and he didn't know if or when that would be possible.

But when Arthur looked at him that way, Merlin didn't care about any of that. He only wanted, and knew that Arthur wanted too.

Merlin swallowed, caught in Arthur's gaze. "Arthur," he breathed, voice low with desire. "Arthur..."


Tart by Whimsycatcher (click for full size)

Arthur dropped his eyes, looking down at the table and picking up his strawberry tart. Slowly, he leaned forward, and held the tart up to Merlin's lips. Merlin looked down at it, and the tart was red and glistening in the candlelight, and made his mouth water. He licked his lips again, and met Arthur's gaze, almost hypnotized by it. He opened his mouth and the tart pressed inside, and he bit down slowly, teeth cutting through berry and soft custard and the crack of crust. Juice dripped from the corner of his mouth, and he wiped it off with the back of his hand and then licked it up, not wanting to waste a drop. Arthur watched him intently, licking his own lips, leaving them as red and glistening as the berries.

Arthur fed him the whole tart, bite by bite, and when it was gone he pressed his fingers into Merlin's mouth and Merlin sucked them clean. When they both leaned back, Merlin took a deep breath, his head thick with lust. He looked down at the other tart and picked it up, and instead of eating it himself he leaned forward and held it out for Arthur. Arthur met his eyes and bit delicately into the tart, chewing primly and not shedding a crumb. It was probably part of some royal training to eat so neatly, and it was infuriating. Merlin wanted to see Arthur mussed and messy, wanted to see him ruined with lust. Arthur was so constantly in control, even during sex, that Merlin desperately needed to see him break.

"Let me tie you up," he said, as Arthur bit a crescent into the tart. Arthur cocked his eyebrows at Merlin and finished chewing, and leaned back as if in court, waiting to hear evidence to support some mad request.

"You said I could," Merlin pointed out.

"So I did," Arthur said. He plucked the last of the tart from Merlin's fingers and finished it off. He seemed to be reluctantly considering the idea, but needed something to tip him one way or the other.

"What, don't you trust me?" Merlin teased, smiling and giving Arthur his biggest, most trustworthy eyes.

Arthur snorted, but Merlin could see the moment he gave in. "All right," he agreed, as if merely tolerating the idea out of some vague curiosity. But Merlin knew him well enough to see that his curiosity was more than idle.

"We'll need rope," Arthur pointed out.

Merlin thought about the coarse rope that Arthur had bound him with in the glade, but Arthur had left the rest of that in the armory. And it was too rough besides; Merlin's wrists were still raw from it. No, he needed something softer, something finer. His eyes caught on the curtains, and he went over to them and started to untie the slim, silken ropes that held them back. He needed to draw the curtains for the night anyway.

"I don't suppose you have any idea what you're doing?" Arthur asked.

"I think I can figure it out," Merlin replied, unfazed.

"Do you even know how to tie a knot?"

"Keep it up and I'm going to gag you as well," Merlin warned. His patience was still thin, and frankly gagging Arthur seemed like an increasingly good idea. But he had other ideas he wanted to try first, assuming Arthur didn't push his luck. Arthur slapped a hand over his own mouth, signalling that he was going to shut up, or at least try to.

Merlin left the ropes on the bed and cleaned up the table, not wanting to have to worry about chores once they got started. He found the pile of clothes that Arthur had left strewn by the privacy screen and dumped them into the laundry pile, and started tidying up at random when he realized he was delaying things because he was nervous. He made himself stop and return to the bed, and pick up the ropes.

"Lie down," he said, in what he hoped was a suitably commanding tone.

Arthur took one last gulp of his beer and complied. He spread his arms and legs and waited as Merlin began to tie them to the bed, leaving enough slack so Arthur wouldn't have to strain but not enough that he could grab Merlin or otherwise try to take control of the situation.

When Merlin was starting on his ankle, Arthur asked, "Don't you want to undress me first?"

Merlin refused to let Arthur know he hadn't thought of that, too focused on his knots. He looked at Arthur's loose, light clothing and had a very good idea indeed, and replied, "Nope."

Arthur gave a shrug of acceptance and waited as Merlin finished tying him up. Satisfied, Merlin turned away and went across the room to the washbasin.

"You really don't know what you're doing," Arthur said. He gave an impatient tug at the ropes, but Merlin did know how to tie a knot, thank you very much. "Merlin," Arthur warned.

"Shut up," Merlin said, and pulled off his shirt. It was rank, so he threw it in the pile with Arthur's laundry, which he liked to do because it annoyed Arthur and because he was going to have to wash it all anyway so why bother with another pile? He did the same with the rest of his clothing, then carried a washcloth and the basin over by the bed. He began to wash himself off, squeezing the cloth to rinse away the sweat and grime, deliberately making a wet mess of the floor. Arthur glared at him, clearly ready to launch into a tirade, but then found himself distracted.

Merlin soaked the cloth again, then brought it over his head and squeezed. He tilted his head back and closed his eyes, letting the water run down his face and neck and chest. He caressed himself with the cloth, dragging it slowly over the places Arthur most loved to touch him, where he was most sensitive. When he reached his groin, he cradled himself with the cloth, presenting himself as he washed. He watched Arthur under lowered lashes, and was pleased to see him tensed, subtly pulling at the ropes, his cock already swelling under the thin cloth of his breeches.

Let him look his fill. Let him know what it was to want what he couldn't have.

Merlin turned his back to Arthur and washed his legs, his back. He squeezed rivulets down the crack of his arse and then followed the water with the cloth, spreading and rubbing himself. He moaned as he pressed shallowly into his hole, the pleasure causing his own erection to rise. He leant forward, one arm on the table as he dallied there, displaying himself, letting Arthur have only glimpses beneath the cloth.

Merlin finally relented when he could no longer bear the teasing himself. He left the cloth in the basin and went to Arthur's dresser. Inside the drawer was a cache of phials and the leather gloves, clean but no longer suitable for any public use. Merlin took a phial, and then after a moment's hesitation took the left glove.

He crawled onto the bed and kneeled over Arthur, straddling his waist, dripping water onto the bed. Arthur stared up at him, eyes dark with arousal, body taut with the urge to take what Merlin so blatantly offered. But he wasn't allowed. Tonight, Merlin decided what was taken and what was given. He put on the glove and wrapped his hand around his cock, giving himself a few good strokes and a squeeze.

"Want this?" Merlin taunted, moaning as he thrust against his fist. "Or maybe," he said, moving his hand around, "you want this?" He pressed at himself, dry but for the slight slickness left by the water. He pushed two fingertips inside, enjoying the burn and stretch of it. For all that Arthur stretched him wide, he was always so careful about slicking him, and sometimes Merlin needed it to hurt. He needed to feel too much, to drive away everything else.

Arthur was breathing heavily now, his chest rising and falling. But he wasn't straining to get free, wasn't writhing with desperation. It would take more than a bit of teasing to break Arthur's self-control. Merlin left the phial on the bed and leaned forward, crouching bodily over Arthur. He rutted languidly against Arthur, rubbing his cock over the bulge of Arthur's erection, feeling the heat of him through his clothing. Arthur was always so warm, even in winter, heat pouring off him as if from a fire. Merlin wanted to bask in it.

"When I touch myself," Merlin murmured, low in Arthur's ear. "When I wear your glove, I pretend it's your hand around me. Your fingers inside me. You feel so good, Arthur. So good, holding me down, pressing in so deep."

Arthur breathed in sharply, breathed out in a tense groan. Merlin nuzzled his jaw and felt the muscle of it, taut under his skin.

"Do you want to touch me now?" Merlin continued, tasting the smooth skin, the faint stubble. The soft flesh of Arthur's ear. He bit lightly at it, sucked it into his mouth. "Do you want to make me beg?"

"I should," Arthur hissed, sharply.

Merlin chuckled, then rose up enough to see Arthur's face. Merlin smirked at him and kissed him. When Arthur pressed up, trying to capture Merlin with his mouth, Merlin forced his head down and kissed him deeply, fucking his mouth with his tongue, worrying at his lip with his teeth. He feasted on Arthur's mouth until there was no sweetness left of the strawberry tart and the grape pudding, no trace of the mutton pie or the beer. There was just Arthur.

When Merlin finally drew back, he saw a flash of surrender in Arthur's eyes. Only a flash, but Merlin would chase it as he would chase the smallest glimpse of belief and respect. He rubbed himself against Arthur some more, his cock catching against Arthur's breeches with a delicious friction. He kissed the crook of Arthur's neck and tasted him, breathed him in, moaning into Arthur's ear to let him know just what Arthur did to him, without even touching him. Arthur's hands were fists now, and the ropes that held his arms were taut.

"I want to do everything to you," Merlin moaned. "When I watch you fight, the way you move, the way you command." He gripped Arthur's head with his gloved hand, kneaded at his hair. "Gods, Arthur, I just... sometimes I can barely stand it. I want to march right into the field and shove you down. Show everyone who you belong to."

Arthur gave a strangled sound. "And that's... that's you, is it?" he challenged.

"You have no idea," Merlin growled, almost angry with how much he meant it. He wanted to do filthy things to Arthur. Wanted to have him in the armory, wanted to have him in every room in the castle and mark it all as his own. He wanted to bend Arthur over in Uther's bed and fuck him hard, and leave the sheets covered in sweat and come and oil as proof of what he'd done, that he'd taken Uther Pendragon's only, precious son and would never let him go. "You're mine," Merlin said, the words harsh and tight, dragged from his chest. "You're mine and there's nothing you can do about it."

"Prove it," Arthur hissed, breathing hard, thrusting his hips against Merlin. "Show me."

"I'll show you," Merlin growled, certainty flaring in him, compelling him. He crawled backwards over Arthur's body until he was between Arthur's spread thighs, his gloved hand over Arthur's cock, rubbing and pressing through his breeches. "I'll show you," he said, mouthing at the hot, heavy shape of it, the spot of wetness where the head pressed, flush and dripping. Merlin sucked wetly at it, soaking it with spit, making Arthur whine and thrust against his mouth. Merlin pinned down his hips with his right arm and curled himself around Arthur's cock, wetting and pressing the fabric until it clung to the underside of Arthur's cock like a second skin. With his gloved hand he played between Arthur's thighs, squeezing his balls and pressing behind them. Merlin was relentless, worshipping Arthur's cock with his mouth and fondling him roughly until Arthur came, curling against the ropes and hissing air through clenched teeth. Merlin kept licking him, tasting the come seeping through the thin fabric, until Arthur whined and tried to writhe away.

"Looks like you made a mess," Merlin smirked, tracing a finger over the darkened fabric.

Arthur was breathing hard, flushed and mussed. "Clean it up," he ordered, sharp and almost angry.

Merlin shivered. On any other day he would obey. He would lick and suck Arthur clean and swallow down every trace of him. Arthur drove him to such extremes, to an almost animal wildness. Merlin needed him so badly it hurt, a pain in his heart and and in his magic. Nothing was ever enough; the closer they grew, the worse it became.

"No," Merlin said, with a private thrill at the denial.

"No?" Arthur echoed, and there was a look in his eyes that anyone sensible would fear. No one ever accused Merlin of having any sense.

"I think they're ruined," Merlin said, plucking at the soiled breeches. "Can't be saved." He crawled off the end of the bed, tottering briefly, then found his bag by the wall. He reached into the front pouch and pulled out one of the sheathed daggers, and held it up as he returned to the bed.

"Put that back," Arthur warned, with a flicker of fear.

"Don't you trust me?" Merlin asked, as he drew away the sheath. The blade was perfect, gleaming and sharp. The forge of Camelot worked the finest steel in all of Albion. Nothing but the best for the Pendragons. A blade like this could pierce plate armor with enough force behind it. But that wasn't the protection Merlin wanted to strip away.

Merlin slipped the knife up the leg of Arthur's breeches until the tip was pressed up over Arthur's knee. Arthur went utterly still beneath him. Merlin pushed and the knife slid up through the fabric, then pulled back, slitting it easily all the way down. He parted the two sides and moved up, gliding the flat of the blade over Arthur's thigh and then slitting the rest of the pant leg apart. Arthur was barely breathing as Merlin brought the knife under again and over his hip, where one slip could have a very unpleasant result. But Merlin would never hurt Arthur, could never hurt him. The edge of the blade never touched skin as Merlin sliced through to the hem and the long length of Arthur's leg was revealed.

Merlin did the same to the other side, and pulled away the ruined breeches, tossed them to the floor. He re-sheathed the knife and set it aside with the phial, and rested his cheek on Arthur's hip. He caressed the other hip, gentle and almost apologetic, and kissed the damp thatch at Arthur's groin. He sighed and nuzzled there, stroking Arthur's thigh, pressing kisses all over, dragging his lips through the smeared come on Arthur's half-hard cock. Despite his denial he lapped at it anyway, soothing himself as he sucked, feeling Arthur swell against his tongue.

"Merlin," Arthur sighed, tenderly now. Merlin looked up at him, his mouth wrapped around the head of Arthur's cock, and Arthur looked back with indecipherable eyes. Merlin gave a deliberate suck, hollowing his cheeks, and saw lust swell in them, drowning out the shadows.

Merlin abandoned Arthur's cock and crawled up his body, pushing up his shirt as he went until it was bunched beneath Arthur's arms. Merlin crawled up Arthur's body as he had before, this time with no barrier between them. He looked into Arthur's eyes and tried to say all the things he couldn't speak aloud. All the secrets and promises and destinies wrapped up in how precious Arthur was to him, how much Merlin loved him. That they belonged together and that Merlin would do anything for him, anything.

"Give me the knife," Arthur said, softly.

Merlin nodded and obeyed, placing the sheathed knife in Arthur's hand. Arthur flicked off the sheath with his thumb and cut the rope with a turn of his wrist, freeing his right hand. Merlin expected him to cut the rest of the ropes, but he didn't. He rested the flat of the blade against Merlin's cheek, the metal smooth and cold against his skin. Merlin stilled, and Arthur watched him curiously as he dragged the blade lightly down, caressing his jaw, his neck.

"Every time I think I understand you, you surprise me again."

"Sorry," Merlin murmured. The flat of the blade moved back and forth against his neck, warming the steel. He tilted his head, baring his throat for Arthur, closing his eyes. Giving in. It didn't matter that he was supposed to be taking control, it didn't matter that he was supposed to be showing Arthur... something. Something. He couldn't think anymore.

The knife stilled, then turned on its edge. "Aren't you afraid?" Arthur asked, curious.

Merlin didn't move, didn't twitch. The slightest pressure, the slightest movement and the blade would cut through skin, through veins, and it was so sharp he would barely feel it sliding in. He didn't care.

The blade lifted. It came again, the flat of it pressing against his lips, and he kissed it. He heard a swallowed sound from Arthur, and then the hilt of the knife was fed into his mouth. Merlin closed his lips around it and sucked, the pommel hard against his tongue, clicking against his teeth. He cracked open his eyes and saw Arthur staring intensely at him, flushed with arousal. Merlin took more of the hilt into his mouth, his lips wrapping around Arthur's thumb, and he sucked eagerly, moaning softly around it. Arthur's eyes burned into him like coals.

Merlin held his gaze as he sucked the hilt, bobbing on it and hollowing his cheeks and showing Arthur everything he would do for him. Promising him the pleasures of his mouth and all the sweet things Arthur had taught him. It felt right to have been untouched by anyone but Arthur, right that he had given himself like raw clay to be molded. He was born for Arthur, made for him, and even here, even for this.

The hilt was pulled from his mouth. Merlin blinked in surprise as it was pressed into his gloved hand, the sheath slid back onto it. Merlin adjusted his grip to hold the knife by the sheath and the crossguard, and brought the knife around and eased the hilt into his hole.

Arthur cursed, breathing in sharply as Merlin began to fuck himself with the hilt, the wide pommel pressing wonderfully inside him. Merlin whimpered and twitched as he dragged over the sweet spot inside himself. His moans grew open and loud, and when Arthur pressed his hand over Merlin's mouth to muffle him, Merlin nearly came.

"Don't come," Arthur warned, low with want. "Hold back for me. Stay like this. Desperate for me. Only for me, Merlin."

Merlin moaned against his hand, slowing his own. Arthur's hand gripped him firmly, forcing him to breathe through his nose.

"That's it," Arthur soothed, his pupils dark and wide in the candlelight, barely rimmed with blue. "You'll come when I let you. It's my hand in that glove, not yours.

Merlin shivered all over, gave a swallowed whimper of acknowledgement. His gloved hand moved slow and steady, just enough to keep him near the edge but not enough to take him over it.

"Slower now," Arthur murmured, as Merlin obeyed. "Slower. Now leave it there, all the way in."

Merlin's hand dropped, and he clenched around the hilt, the crossguard pulled against his body. When Arthur's hand lifted from his mouth, Merlin swayed, but Arthur's hand steadied him again as it stroked along his side. A slap nudged him forward, and he crawled until Arthur could grip the sheath himself. Arthur turned the knife inside him, playing as Merlin trembled and gasped above him, his arms to either side of Arthur's head.

It took everything Merlin had to hold back, to keep from coming as Arthur teased and taunted him. Arthur steered him with the hilt, forcing him to crawl forward until he was gripping the headboard,
holding on for dear life as Arthur took his straining cock into the soft, wet heat of his mouth. Merlin sobbed, begging for more, pleading that it was too much, desperate for release but holding back, obeying for Arthur. And then he couldn't anymore, he couldn't, and his climax was torn from him as he poured himself down Arthur's throat.

He collapsed beside Arthur on the bed, woozy and shaken. He shivered as Arthur cut himself free in three neat strokes, then pulled Merlin into his arms and rubbed his back, soothing him. Merlin clung onto him, feeling all in pieces. He took in great shuddering breaths and rubbed his tears away on Arthur's rucked-up shirt.

"Better?" Arthur asked, gently.

Merlin gave a soft assent, still too far away from words. When he finally eased his desperate hold on Arthur, Arthur kissed him and then lay him out on the bed, spreading him out and slicking him with oil. Merlin was boneless, unresisting as Arthur folded him up and slid inside him, fucking him with long, easy strokes. He did his best to help, gripping Arthur with his thighs, but Arthur didn't need help. Arthur liked him like this, all fucked-out and loose and gone, so gone.

After, Merlin lay dazed on the bed as Arthur disposed of the ruined ropes and cleaned himself up. He watched Arthur move about the room, naked and at ease, and thought hazily of how beautiful Arthur was. Merlin felt utterly destroyed, used up in a good way. He felt better once Arthur returned to bed and pulled the blankets up around them, and settled with Merlin in his arms. Kissed him. In the dim light from the last candle, Arthur's face was almost entirely in shadow, but even still Merlin saw the reluctant apology in it.

"You're not useless," Arthur said, suddenly returning to their argument in the woods. "I have no idea what you are, but you've never been that."

Merlin mustered a tired smile. Arthur kissed it, then sighed in surrender.

"If I train you, you have to stop fighting me. You have to trust me the way my knights trust me. Can you do that?"

"Always," Merlin murmured, fond and sleepy.

Arthur's snort was rich with skepticism. "Fine. Then we'll start tomorrow, on one condition. You must promise me that you will never fight on your own. If you are to use a sword it will be at my side. Is that clear?"

"Promise," Merlin slurred, relief and happiness chasing away the last of his fears. Everything would be all right now. Arthur would mold him in this too, would make him into a knight. And Merlin would always be by his side to defend him. Arthur would always be safe. Merlin was distantly aware of Arthur moving away to snuff out the last candle, and then he was fast asleep.

Chapter Text

"You're in a good mood this morning," Gwen said, yawning as she waited for Morgana's breakfast to be prepared.

"Yup," Merlin grinned. He bounced on his heels, unable to keep still. "Bad night again?"

"Just the usual," Gwen said, with a tired, tight smile. Merlin knew that Gwen was nearly as devoted to Morgana as he was to Arthur, staying up most nights in case Morgana woke up screaming yet again. "How was your night?" she teased.

"Good," Merlin said, ducking his head and blushing. He was glad Morgana and Gwen knew that he and Arthur were together. It was nice to be able to share at least one of his secrets, and if he he trusted anyone with this one it was Gwen. He hesitated, then leaned closer so he could whisper to her. "Arthur's promised to teach me how to fight."

"What?" Gwen said, surprised. "Merlin, that's--"

"Don't tell Morgana," he begged, quietly. "She'll start... meddling, or something. You know how she gets." Ever since Morgana had invited herself to Ealdor and rallied the women to fight, her interest in swordplay had been rekindled. Arthur refused to fight her, despite her calling him a coward, so she'd roped Sir Leon into her practice duels. She was unrelenting with a sword in her hand. Merlin wondered if it was the only way she had found to fight against her nightmares, as if she could somehow drive them out of herself, or at least exhaust herself deeper than they could reach. None of Gaius' potions ever seemed to do the trick.

Not for the first time, Merlin struggled over whether to tell Morgana the truth about her nightmares. Surely it could only help her if she knew the truth. Merlin had been frightened of his own magic enough times; he could only imagine how awful it must be to be having visions of the future without knowing what they were.

Maybe he should tell her. Maybe the dragon lied about her, too. She had nearly killed Uther, but Merlin could hardly blame her for that. He was relieved that she hadn't, but he couldn't lie to himself and pretend he hadn't wanted her to succeed. Despite what it would do to Arthur, Merlin would celebrate when Camelot was finally free of Uther's tyranny, when Arthur could become the king he was destined to be.

If it had only been the dragon's warnings holding him back, Merlin might have gone to her soon after he'd discovered the creature's lies. But Gaius was even more cautious despite knowing better than anyone how much Morgana suffered from her nightmares. Merlin often thought Gaius was too careful about things, but Gaius could just as easily say that Merlin was too impulsive. The best decisions were usually the ones they made together, when they could meet in the middle. And Merlin couldn't quite bring himself to push on this. Magic or no magic, Merlin was a little bit terrified of Morgana. Sometimes she could be very kind, but when she was riled she was nearly as scary as Uther. And she had seen right through him when he had been unwittingly pining after Arthur. How easily might she realize he had magic too? What if she told Arthur? It was too risky.

Merlin gave Gwen the biggest puppy dog eyes he could manage, and she shook her head.

"All right, I won't tell anyone," she said. "But really, what's got into you? You're not exactly, um."

Merlin made a face. "I'm stronger than I look."

"Of course you are," Gwen said, patting his shoulder. "But you're not... You're a manservant, not a knight. Just because Arthur is always dragging you off into danger--"

"He doesn't drag me off," Merlin pouted. "My place is by his side."

Gwen looked at him with a mixture of pity and affection, like he was a love-addled fool. Which admittedly he was.

"I want to be able to take care of myself," Merlin lied. "This way he won't have to worry about me so much."

Gwen just about melted then, and he knew he'd won her over. "That is so romantic," she sighed.

"If you two ladies are done gossiping," interrupted Huggett, gruffly. The grizzled cook was holding out both their trays, now laden with food. Merlin and Gwen took them and hurried out of the kitchen, trying not to giggle.

Merlin crept into Arthur's chambers and was pleased to find Arthur still asleep, snuggled under the blankets as Merlin had left him. Merlin moved as quietly as he could, placing the tray on the table and laying out Arthur's clothes for the day. Arthur had the usual princely duties for the morning, but then the afternoon would be entirely their own. Merlin could hardly wait, but devoted his restless energy to making sure that everything was perfect for Arthur when he awoke. Merlin was often careless about his official job as manservant, but sometimes he really did try hard to serve Arthur the best he could. His heart was so full for Arthur this morning that he might burst if he didn't do something.

Merlin ducked behind the privacy screen and whispered, and conjured up a small glass vase filled with wildflowers like Gwen had put on Morgana's tray. He sniffed them and found them to be sweet and fragrant. He smiled to himself as he placed the vase on the table and arranged their plates. Arthur would no doubt call him a girl for that, but he didn't care because after the traditional insult, Arthur would smile. Merlin loved Arthur's private smiles most of all, the ones where he was truly happy and couldn't help himself. They were soft and tender and quiet and perfect.

It was too warm for a fire, and Arthur hadn't said he wanted a bath, so there was nothing else to busy himself with. Merlin whispered a heating spell to keep their breakfast warm, then tiptoed over to the bed.

He liked watching Arthur sleep. When they were away from the castle, Arthur was always the last to bed and the first to wake. He would spring alert at the slightest disturbance, and seemed able to sense when he was being watched, which usually resulted in Merlin having to quickly pretend to be asleep. But in his own bed, Arthur turned slothful and greedy for sleep. His indulgence allowed Merlin to indulge. At rest, Arthur was almost a different person. All the lines would smooth from his face, all the tension from his body. There was none of the brash arrogance he wore when he was awake, and instead he looked innocent, vulnerable. It was as if sleep revealed all the parts of himself that he couldn't afford to show when he was awake, and Merlin loved those parts of Arthur most of all. Those were the parts that were the most precious, the most important for him to protect.

"I love you," Merlin whispered. He'd told Arthur his feelings before, but he wasn't sure that Arthur quite believed him. Arthur might talk himself up, but the truth was he was constantly measuring himself against impossible standards. Arthur didn't know how to be loved, and that made Merlin love him even more, as if he could give Arthur so much that he would simply have to accept it. Merlin stroked lightly through Arthur's hair, smoothing down where it was mussed from sleep. He leaned down and kissed him sweetly until Arthur stirred and kissed back.

"Morning," Merlin said, happily.

Arthur looked up at him with a hazy smile. "Hey," he said, and leaned a little into Merlin's hand. The small gesture made Merlin's heart clench, and he leaned down and kissed Arthur again, again, deepening until his kisses were not sweet but possessive, claiming.

When Merlin finally let up, Arthur was pleased and surprised by the sudden display. He rubbed at his mouth and gave Merlin a considering look, and then pushed aside the covers. He was hard. Merlin licked his lips and slid down the bed, and took Arthur's eager cock in hand and into his mouth. It took only a few minutes before Arthur came with a breathy groan and a sigh. Merlin swallowed and sucked Arthur's cock clean, then sat back feeling calmed and content despite his own arousal. Arthur glanced down at Merlin's crotch, poised to return the favor, but Merlin stood up and took Arthur's hand, and tugged him to stand. Arthur resisted.

"C'mon, breakfast won't stay hot forever," Merlin said.

Arthur took in the room, the spread of food and the flowers, the waiting clothing, and Merlin. He looked askance at him. "Who are you and what have you done with Merlin?"

Merlin laughed and tugged on Arthur's hand again. Once Arthur was up, Merlin dressed him, adjusting the clothes so they sat just right, so that the red garnet stone on his favorite necklace rested perfectly below the hollow of his throat. He combed Arthur's fringe, shaping it just so, and Arthur finally stopped him, gripping his wrist.

"Food's getting cold," Arthur said, and there was nothing about his words that should have affected Merlin, but still a shiver ran through him.

"Sire," Merlin breathed.

Arthur smoldered at him for a moment, then sat down to eat. Merlin joined him, and he listened as Arthur talked about the morning ahead of him and the chores he expected Merlin to finish before they left to train. Merlin didn't complain about them as he usually did, feeling too good and too content to care.

Just before they parted for the morning, Arthur pulled Merlin aside and kissed him quite thoroughly. "Not that I'm complaining," he murmured. "But what has got into you today?"

Merlin licked his lips. "I just... thank you, sire. Arthur. I wanted to thank you."

Arthur chuckled. "You won't be thanking me later."

Determination flared in Merlin. "I will," he said, stubbornly.

Arthur smiled at him and kissed him again. "Be careful, or I'll hold you to that." He ran his hands down Merlin's body and gave his half-hard erection a squeeze that made Merlin squeak and bite his lip. Arthur smacked him on the arse and then walked out, looking incredibly smug.

"Prat," Merlin murmured, and it took all his self-control not to take himself in hand and into bed, to muss the sheets further before he took them to be cleaned. He opened up all the windows and took in deep draughts of fresh morning air, then started on his chores, which were enough to finally cool his ardour.

When the room was clean and fresh linens had been laid, Merlin went down to sort out the horses. On the way, he swung by Gaius' chambers. There was no one inside, so he went into his old room and closed the door. He let his magic rise and told it to enter the wood and heal its scars, and after a few tries the knifemarks slowly closed themselves up. Merlin lowered his hand, relieved to have a chance to test his magic. He needed to push himself once in a while, let out some of the power inside him. Healing a door might not be a flashy sort of magic, but healing in general was a challenge for him. He wanted to be better at it so he could help the next time Arthur was hurt, rather than stand by feeling helpless and terrified. He was never going to let anything take Arthur away from him.

He heard noises on the other side of the door, and walked out to find Gaius returning from his morning rounds.

"Fixed the door," Merlin said, casually, avoiding looking at Gaius because he knew he would get a disapproving look for using magic in the castle again. Merlin didn't think that was reasonable at all. How could he get better at it if he didn't use it? He wouldn't be able to protect Arthur if he was rubbish at magic. Of course, if he said that, Gaius would point out that he couldn't very well protect Arthur if he was imprisoned and sentenced to death, either. Merlin glanced over to Gaius and knew he was thinking the same things. They'd had the argument so many times that neither of them needed to say anything, they just had it simultaneously in their own heads.

"Good," Gaius said, not meaning it. "I won't have to take the cost of a new door out of your pay. May I ask what was the cause of yesterday's display?"

Merlin shrugged. "It was nothing." Gaius gave him the eyebrow, as expected, and Merlin sighed. "We had a fight. But it's fine now! Everything's fine, I swear."

"I hope you're right," Gaius said, deceptively placid. "Every relationship has its difficulties, Merlin. Most of all ones under the strain of being hidden."

"We don't have to hide it, not really," Merlin rationalized. "We just save some things for when it's just the two of us." Merlin rather liked it that way. It was easy to forget about the rest of the world when it was just the two of them. He could leave everything else behind, all his fears and worries and secrets, and just be Merlin, just be Arthur's. The both of them were used to presenting one face to the public and quite another in private, even if it was for very different reasons.

Gaius gave up on his cautioning for the day and took out his inventory ledger. "Can the Prince spare you this afternoon? I'm running low on quite a few herbs and we're nearly out of horehound."

"I'll be out all day with Arthur."

"Tomorrow, then?"

Merlin made a face. "Gaius, you might want to think about getting an apprentice. An actual real apprentice."

Gaius took off his reading glasses and gave him a considering look. "Arthur made it clear that he would not keep you from assisting me. Has something changed?"

"It's not Arthur," Merlin insisted, sitting down opposite Gaius and leaning over the table. "I mean, it is Arthur, but it's not like that, I mean--"

Gaius held up his hand, signaling for Merlin to take a deep breath and stop rambling.

"Arthur's going to train me like a knight," Merlin said, all in a rush. He grinned, unable to contain his excitement. "You know yesterday we sort of tried it out, but we're starting properly today. It usually takes him a few weeks to train up the nobles so it'll probably be at least that long, so I'm going to be..." He stopped, eyes widening. "Gaius, there isn't anything--" he waves his hand to indicate magic "--going on, is there? Morgana's having nightmares..."

"Just the normal kind, I assure you," Gaius said, calmly. "And as far as I'm aware, Camelot is not in any danger."

Merlin sighed with relief.

"As for my herbs, I can get one of the kitchen girls to harvest them for me. I will not be finding another assistant, however. I believe it would be premature. Might I remind you that not twelve hours ago you were sulking in your room and tearing up your door?"

Merlin crossed his arms and leaned back. "I was not sulking," he lied.

Gaius gave him a look that said he saw right through him. Merlin stared back at him. It was another argument they'd gone round and round on, neither of them budging an inch. Gaius tried to be happy for Merlin, but he thought being so close to Arthur risked utter disaster. Merlin simply didn't care. He'd been risking utter disaster ever since he'd come to Camelot, ever since he was born.

If there was any truth to what the dragon said, if they were meant to be together, if they shared some grand destiny, surely there was no need to worry. Merlin wasn't so blind that he didn't know there would be difficulties along the way. But he believed in Arthur. Arthur was more than worth the risk. He was worth everything.

"It's not my room anymore," Merlin said, decisively.

"If that's how you feel," Gaius said, mildly.

"It is." He looked away, suddenly uncomfortable. He hated fighting with Gaius. Even though it had only been a little over a year since Merlin had come to Camelot, Gaius had become like a father to him. A far better one than his real father, who he'd never known. He leaned his elbows on the table and ran his hands back through his hair, then stood to leave.

"I'd better get going," Merlin said, inching away. "Arthur's horses aren't going to groom themselves."

Gaius gave a short nod, then softened. "Merlin," he said, meeting his eyes. "You're always welcome here. Always."

Merlin smiled in thanks, then slipped out the door.

§

Arthur was waiting for him when he reached the armory, supply bags already packed and ready. Merlin pulled the first one over his shoulder and nearly toppled over.

"What's in this, boulders?" Merlin complained, struggling under the weight. Arthur helped him with the second large bag, and Merlin grunted and tugged at the straps, trying to make them sit comfortably on his bony shoulders. He was relieved when Arthur took the third bag for himself, though he thought it looked suspiciously like the lightest of the three.

"Come along, Merlin," Arthur said, swinging his crossbow over his shoulder. "It's a beautiful day for a hunt."

It was a beautiful day, and as they traipsed through the woods, the sunlight dappling down through the canopy, Merlin reflected that he would enjoy it a lot more if he wasn't bent over under a ridiculous amount of weight for the hour walk to their private spot in the woods. By the time they got there, all he could do was dump the bags on the grass and then collapse beside them, panting heavily.

"Giving up already?" Arthur asked, smirking down at him. "We haven't even started yet."

Merlin made a rude gesture, and Arthur laughed at him. Arthur wandered around the clearing for a few minutes, aiming his unloaded crossbow at random objects, and then returned and nudged Merlin with his boot.

"Unpack," Arthur ordered, nudging him repeatedly until Merlin sat up. When he was in too good a mood, Arthur could be absolutely intolerable. Merlin should never have given him that blowjob.

Merlin hauled himself onto his knees and opened up the first bag. He pulled out some rather shabby training armor and mail, and... his jaw dropped. He pulled out one of the round, heavy bundles, unwrapped it, and lobbed the uncovered, fist-sized rock in Arthur's general direction. Arthur cackled and jumped aside.

"You unbelievable prat," Merlin yelled, and threw another rock at him for good measure.

"Now now," Arthur chided, grinning. He yelped as the third rock nearly caught him on the leg, and stalked toward Merlin with alarming intent. Merlin took off running. He ended up with his face pushed into the leaf litter as Arthur knelt on top of him, pulling his limbs into awkward and painful positions.

"I should have you flogged for that," Arthur warned.

"I surrender," Merlin gasped, spitting out bits of leaf.

Arthur released him. Merlin's limbs flopped down with a thump. He rolled onto his back and wiped at his face. Arthur moved out of view, then came back and dumped all the armor onto him, and the training sword from the second bag.

"Put it on. We're going running."

§

They ran. The heavy mail and armor and helmet weighed Merlin down and trapped all the heat around him. They made loops through the woods, and each time they came back to the clearing Arthur would let him rest and drink water, only to give him more to carry for the next lap. The helmet made it hard to see, and Merlin kept tripping on tree roots, fallen branches, unexpected dips in the ground. The sword slapped at his thigh and would have cut him in all his falls if it hadn't been blunted for training; as it was it was certainly leaving behind an array of narrow bruises. And then there were the bags of stones.

The whole time, Arthur kept pace with him, or stayed just ahead of him. Arthur in his light, comfortable clothing, who never broke a sweat, who mocked Merlin's running speed as barely a jog.

Through it all, Merlin kept going.

But the second time they entered the clearing with Merlin loaded down with absolutely everything there was to carry, Merlin lay down and knew that he would never get up again. If he tried, he was definitely going to faint, and if he did that he would never, never hear the end of it. If he used his magic he could keep going, make it to the end of this test Arthur was putting him through, but without it he had nothing left.

Arthur looked down at him, obnoxiously healthy and unruffled

"Just leave me," Merlin croaked. He tried to raise his hand to wave Arthur away, but his arm refused to cooperate.

"Lazy bones" Arthur chuckled. "I'll give you ten minutes this time."

"'s too late. Jus' dig a hole and push me in," Merlin slurred. He tried to raise his head, but with the helmet on it was too heavy. Arthur clucked his tongue pulled off Merlin's helmet, splashed water on his face and hair, then brought the waterskin to his lips and made him drink the rest of it.

As soon as he could think again, humiliation crept over Merlin, and he rolled over so he could crawl to the nearest tree and lean against it, abandoning the hated bags. He couldn't remember ever feeling this bad, not even when he'd been feverish from drinking poison, or when he'd been blasted in the chest by Nimueh. His stomach rebelled and he turned aside just in time to throw up all the water he'd drank.

When Arthur came over, Merlin tried to scowl at him, but he couldn't get his face to work. "Guess you're happy now," Merlin panted, and spat out some lingering bile.

"Should I be?"

Merlin slumped back against the tree and closed his eyes. "Proved your point. You win."

When Arthur didn't reply, Merlin opened his eyes again, and wiped the sweat from them. Arthur didn't look smug anymore. He looked worried. Arthur pressed his hand to Merlin's forehead, then his neck.

"You're too hot," Arthur said, and started pulling off the plating, then the mail, and then the surcoat and shirt beneath. Arthur hauled Merlin onto the shaded grass and pulled off his boots and socks, then made him take small sips from the other waterskin.

"You should have told me if you felt sick," Arthur chided.

"Couldn't tell. Everything merged into one ball of awfulness three laps ago."

"Well. We're done now."

Merlin blinked up at the sky, feeling like a failure. He was angry at Arthur for giving up on him, and angrier at himself for not being good enough.

"Guess so," he said, dully. He sat up and rubbed at his face, stiff from dried sweat and feverishly hot. "If you won't need me tomorrow, Gaius said he could use some help."

"You're giving up?" Arthur said, surprised.

Merlin looked sideways at him. "You said we were done."

"For the day, you idiot," Arthur said, exasperated.

"But--"

"I pushed you hard today. I needed to know your limits. And I wanted to get a head start on building up your endurance and strength. Usually I stop before my novice knights nearly kill themselves with heat exhaustion." Arthur gave Merlin a look. "Do you have a headache? Dizziness?"

Merlin stared at him, then nodded.

Arthur frowned. "You should have said something."

"I thought I wasn't supposed to."

Arthur shook his head in despair. He pushed Merlin to lie flat again. "It's my fault. I should have remembered you don't have a lick of sense. Now drink this slowly, and when you're feeling better you'll eat." He put the water skin in Merlin's limp hand, then checked Merlin's pulse and temperature again. "Better. Now lie still. You need to rest, and I need to hunt."

Arthur took out his crossbow and bolts, and put his rock-free pack under Merlin's head as a pillow. He left Merlin with bread and dried fruit to nibble on, and set out into the trees.

Merlin followed Arthur's orders, and dozed very lightly during the wait. When his body cooled down to a healthier temperature, he pulled out the thin blanket from his own pack and curled up in it. His shirt and the surcoat were too soaked to wear.

Maybe he didn't have much sense. He had treated his first day of training as he had the many other challenges he'd faced: something to be tackled head-on and with all his strength until he either succeeded or died trying. He'd ridden nearly non-stop to the Isle of the Blessed and back to save Arthur's life, and then again to save Gaius and his mum, and the last thing he'd cared about had been his own life. The only reason he'd stopped at all was because he'd had to let his horse rest or it wouldn't have gone on. If Arthur knew, he would probably say that the horse had more sense than him.

Merlin was used to his own life not mattering. No sacrifice was too big when weighed against the greater good. But he had sworn to himself to be more careful about such things when he'd realized that it would hurt Arthur if he died. He'd cocked it up again anyway. Apparently self-preservation was easier said than done.

§

When Arthur returned with his game, he saw that Merlin was sitting up and immediately looked relieved.

"I'm feeling better," Merlin volunteered. Arthur touched his forehead and then ruffled Merlin's hair. When he stopped, Merlin smoothed it back down again.

"Are you up for the walk back?"

"Think so." Merlin pushed himself to his feet, and only felt a little dizzy. "But you're carrying the rocks this time."

Arthur steadied him, and Merlin realized he'd been swaying. "The rocks are staying here," Arthur said.

Once he was sure that Merlin wasn't going to topple, Arthur dumped out the rocks and gathered up their things. It was a much lighter load now, and Arthur stuffed all the bags into one. He helped Merlin put on his socks and shoes and the spare shirt Arthur had brought, and then slung the bag over one shoulder and Merlin's arm over the other.

"I can walk," Merlin protested, but didn't try to pull his arm away.

Arthur didn't say much for the first mile.

"Are you mad at me?" Merlin asked, unable to cope with the tension in his current state.

"I'm not mad at you," Arthur said.

"You can shout at me if you want," Merlin offered.

"I'm not mad at you," Arthur repeated, angrily. "Fine, I am mad at you. What did you think I would do?"

Merlin carefully put one foot in from of the other, because if he didn't he would fall down and end up with his whole body slung over Arthur's shoulder and not just his arm. His ego had suffered enough today. "I didn't want to disappoint you."

Arthur took this in, and didn't say anything for the rest of the second mile. When he spoke again, he was quiet, serious.

"Trust isn't just about following orders, Merlin. You need to be honest with me. When something's wrong, you tell me so I can make the right decisions. So I can take care of you, as I would any of my men."

"Oh," Merlin said. He wasn't used to that either. "Was I any good?"

"You weren't," Arthur said, without hesitation.

"Oh." Merlin frowned.

"But neither were the nobles my father sent me. They worked hard, they got better. You will, too."

Merlin finally cracked a smile at that. "You think so?"

"Eventually. Probably," Arthur said, but he was smiling, too.

§

By the time they reached the castle, Merlin was barely staying upright even with Arthur for support. Arthur nearly took Merlin to Gaius, but Merlin insisted he just needed to lie down for a bit and would be fine. Arthur dumped him onto his bed in the side room and kissed his forehead, then left him to rest.

Merlin woke a little while later, and saw that Arthur must have gone to Gaius anyway because there was a draught waiting on his bedside table. Merlin left it there and sat up, feeling incredibly sore all over. He heard a noise from the main room, and walked out to see Arthur watching a servant top off a steaming tub of water.

"Ah, just in time," Arthur said. He thanked the servant and locked the door after she left. "I was about to wake you."

The water was fragrant and there were bits of herb swirling lazily about. "Is this for me?" Merlin asked.

"It's for both of us." Arthur quickly stripped off, and when Merlin was distracted by his nudity, Arthur came over and started stripping Merlin as well. Merlin barely had a chance to resist before he was equally bare, and decided to waste no time in getting into the steaming water. The heat made him shiver as he sank down. He tasted sage, chamomile, lavender. He recognized the tiny rosemary flowers Gaius liked to use in almost all his preparations.

Arthur stepped in beside him, dunking himself thoroughly and then settling against the side of the tub. He tugged at Merlin and guided him over; Merlin lay with his head on Arthur's chest and his legs half-curled, trying to keep as much of himself submerged as possible. Arthur cupped water in his hands and poured it over the bits of Merlin that stuck out, then rubbed him down with a soapy cloth. It was always a bit unnerving when Arthur took care of him like this, because Merlin felt like he was the one who ought to be doing the tending. He was the one who was there to serve Arthur, not the other way around. But he had to admit it was rather nice.

Merlin drowsed in Arthur's arms, and Arthur seemed content to stay this way, touching him unhurriedly and stroking his hair. Eventually the water cooled; in his half-awake state, Merlin nearly re-heated the water with his magic, but he stopped himself in time. Tepid water wasn't nearly as nice to lie in, so they clambered out and dried off.

"Did you take the potion Gaius left you?" Arthur asked. When Merlin shook his head, Arthur gave him a push back to the side room to go get it. Merlin complied, pointedly drinking the potion in front of Arthur and handing him the little bottle. Arthur gave him an approving look that Merlin tried not to instinctively respond to, and failed.

"Will it make me sleepy?" Merlin asked, smacking the thick taste from his tongue.

"No, but lie down anyway."

Merlin obliged, sliding onto the cool sheets of Arthur's bed with a sigh. Arthur climbed onto him, and Merlin tried to turn over, thinking Arthur wanted sex. Merlin didn't feel up for much of anything, but if Arthur wanted something Merlin usually ended up giving in to it. But Arthur only pushed him back down and told him to relax. The minty smell of liniment surrounded him as Arthur opened another of Gaius' little jars, spread the ointment on Merlin's back and began to massage him.

"Ohh, that's... that's nice," Merlin slurred, as Arthur's strong hands wrenched the soreness from his muscles and left him increasingly boneless. Boneless was good.

"I'm going to push you hard again tomorrow," Arthur told him, as he worked his way down one leg. "Harder than I should, but we'll compensate with a soak and massage every night. Otherwise you won't be able to move in the morning. I need you to tell me if you feel any sickness or pain."

Merlin murmured an assent.

When he'd worked his way from head to feet, Arthur flipped him over like a ragdoll and started again on his front. Arthur's cock was half-hard, and if Merlin weren't a complete puddle he would have reached for it. But he could barely even twitch his fingers anymore. He settled for giving Arthur a tired smile.

The liniment left Merlin tingling all over. When he was finished, Arthur flipped Merlin onto his front again, then drew the curtains around the bed. Merlin drowsed as he listened to Arthur dress and call for the servants to return, and then lay quietly as the water was removed and the tub carried out. It made his stomach tumble when Arthur would do this, so confident that no one would open the curtains and find his naked manservant in his bed. Merlin squirmed a bit, aroused despite his exhaustion, helpless against Arthur's confidence, his surety. For Merlin, who lived his entire life in constant fear of discovery, Arthur's boldness was intoxicating.

And worst of all, best of all, Arthur knew the effect it had. Knew it, and when he drew back the curtains, he was naked again and fully aroused, his cock thick and dark as it bobbed in the air. It was glistening with oil, and Arthur wasted no time. He climbed back onto the bed and pried Merlin open with slick fingers, not bothering with permission or gentleness. Merlin couldn't have resisted even if he wanted to, utterly relaxed from the bath and potion and massage. He groaned as Arthur spread him open with his thumbs and pressed the blunt head of his cock inside, sinking in and in with short, sharp thrusts.

Arthur gave a low, contented moan as he settled, his cock fully inside of Merlin's body, pubic hair flush against Merlin's skin, still damp from the bath. Arthur simply lay over him, his weight pressing him into the soft bed. He moved his hips shallowly, staying as deep as he could, kissing and sucking at the join of Merlin's neck and shoulder, making the spot tender and sore when the rest of him was tingling.

"You want to be my knight," Arthur murmured, and nipped at the spot, coaxing a writhe out of Merlin's yielding body. "Hmm?"

"Please," Merlin slurred. His own cock was aching, trapped under their combined weight.

"Then let me in," Arthur entreated, lengthening his strokes.

Merlin gave a pointed clench around Arthur's cock. "I already did."

"Not deep enough," Arthur said, hungrily. "Do you know what you do to me? One minute you're so open, I can see everything. And the next..." He laughed and the vibrations ran all through Merlin's body. "I shouldn't need anyone. I shouldn't need you. And now I can't stop."

"I don't want you to stop," Merlin said, dizzied.

"I won't," Arthur promised. He pressed his teeth bluntly against the sore spot, sucked and sucked at it until it throbbed like a bruise. Merlin realized that Arthur was marking him, claiming him in a way he never had before, and it made his magic sing in his veins.

"Please," Merlin begged, squeezing his eyes shut because he was certain they were glowing. "I'm yours, Arthur. I am."

Arthur's answer to that was to pull all the way out of him, and then thrust all the way in, driving the breath from him. Arthur's arm wrapped around his chest like an iron band, holding him as Arthur fucked him hard and long. He sounded almost pained with need, and Merlin wanted to see it, wanted to know the wildness in Arthur's eyes, but he couldn't dare open his own.

Arthur suddenly stilled inside him, but he didn't come, didn't relax. Instead he turned them together so they lay on their sides, and he released Merlin's chest to take hold of his cock, which was achingly hard. Merlin was certain he had been dripping onto the bed, and thought distantly that he had only just changed the sheets that morning.

"I can't lose you," Arthur said, the words soft yet somehow wrenched, distraught. His hand was urgent on Merlin's cock, pulling him relentlessly towards his climax. He stroked and stroked until Merlin's loose body was pulled taut as a bow, and then released. Merlin shuddered and trembled as he came, Arthur hot and hard against his back and in his arse. Arthur's hand moved up to cover his open mouth and Merlin tasted himself, licked and swallowed until he tasted Arthur's skin. Arthur kept his hand there as he rolled Merlin back down again, muffling him though he was too tired, too wrung out to make much noise at all.

Merlin tried to speak and Arthur hushed him. He moved shallowly inside him again, barely thrusting, seemingly content to stay inside of Merlin: holding him, keeping him. Arthur worried at the mark some more, sucking at it like it soothed him.

Dragged down by exhaustion, by potion, by his sated desire, by Arthur's heat all through him, Merlin no longer had to fight to keep his eyes closed. He wasn't afraid. He went slack, surrendering himself to Arthur, and was gone.

Chapter Text

Merlin had never been very aware of his own body.

For as long as he could remember, he had been clumsy. His mother had tried her best to correct him, to make him pay attention to his own feet and hands, but he had never listened. His mind was often elsewhere when he was a child, distracted by the magic inside him and around him. It felt natural to do things with his magic. Sometimes they even happened all on their own, his reflexes and unconscious thoughts acting before his conscious mind could stop them. As he grew up, it became more important to worry about not using his magic, and he didn't have the attention to spare for anything else. People said he was absent-minded, a dreamer; it wasn't that he wasn't those things, but mostly he was just too busy to pay much attention to the mundanities of the world.

He didn't stop using his magic, but he learned how to use it without being seen, without letting it slip ahead of him so much. Magic wasn't something he chose, wasn't some spell he sought out for his own gain. It chose him, it was him in ways he was still trying to understand.

His body, well, it was what he used when he wasn't using his magic. He fed it when it was hungry, clothed it, generally took care of it, and in return it got him around and kept him alive. It felt more like something he was in than something necessary to himself, the way his magic did. The world was full of things that were alive but without physical form: there were ghosts, there were spirits of the woods and waters. There were gods and goddesses that people prayed to, made offerings to. Not that he was any of those things, but when he was younger he much preferred to think of himself as a wayward spirit than a monster.

When he came to Camelot, he still used his magic, because he couldn't imagine not using his magic, but in order to survive he'd finally been forced to do most things the way everyone else did. Mostly he wasn't very good at them, but once the choice had been taken away from him, once he found that he had a true purpose for his magic, for his strange and unwelcome existence in a world that had no use for wayward spirits or monsters, he'd done his best to use his body the way he was supposed to, even if he still felt distant from it.

He isn't sure when the change began, when his magic and his body finally began to connect. Perhaps it was something to do with becoming a man, that his body needed to reach maturity first. Perhaps it was his increased understanding and control over his power. But it was Arthur who finally made it real to him. It was his need for Arthur that brought his magic and his flesh into harmony. There were no fractures in him when he desired. He loved Arthur with all of himself, all the disparate pieces, and it made him feel whole as he never had before.

For more than a year, he had watched Arthur fight. He had watched him train nobles and turn them into knights. He had even learned a few things himself, because keeping both Camelot safe and Arthur alive was an increasingly dangerous job. But it wasn't until now that he was forced to confront the limits of his endurance. Limits that he had previously ignored or been blithely unaware of, because he had always been able to rely on his magic in extreme situations, and as far as he knew his magic didn't have any limits.

His body absolutely had them. It had all sorts of limits, and he couldn't ignore them anymore. Arthur wouldn't let him ignore them. Merlin was used to braving through pain. He knew how to block out his own suffering so he could focus on what was important, trusting that whatever the consequences were, they didn't matter because he could deal with them later. They would matter even less if later came and he was dead. But despite Arthur's occasional self-sacrificing tendencies, his own willingness to fight to the bitter end, under Arthur's tutelage, Merlin once again had no choice but to change his ways.

It was uncomfortable admitting when he hurt, and almost claustrophobic, as if he was trapped by his own body. He hated how weak it made him feel. He felt like a failure to have to stop, to not simply push himself until he earned another little taste of Arthur's approval. It was even harder to stop himself again and again from letting his magic take care of him the way it always had. He couldn't use his magic in front of Arthur, not when Arthur was so close, not when Arthur knew his body better than he did himself. If he cheated, Arthur would know. And even if he didn't know how Merlin was doing it, he would know that Merlin was lying to him, wasn't trusting him, and the disappointment would be...

Merlin didn't like to think about what it would be, because even the possibility of losing Arthur felt a little like the end of the world.

So he trusted Arthur. Even though it felt all wrong, like he was doing everything backwards, he trusted that Arthur knew what he was doing and would take care of him, would lead him where he needed to be. It turned out to be one of the scariest things he'd ever done, because he was nothing without his magic, absolutely nothing, and he was terrified that Arthur would realize that and...

Merlin stopped thinking about it, and rested his forehead against Arthur's back, felt the steady rise and fall of Arthur's breathing as he slept. He could do this for Arthur. He had to do this.

Arthur could never know what he was, but this way, Merlin could still be worthy of him. Could still keep him safe. It would be enough. It had to be.

Merlin matched his own breathing to Arthur's, let the fear seep out of him. He flexed his shoulder to feel the mottled bruises Arthur had left there, one after the other. He was bruised all over, his whole body full of a deep soreness that persisted despite Arthur's thorough care of him. Every evening when they returned to the castle, they would have dinner, soak in medicinal hot water, and then Arthur would massage him until he could barely even think about moving. Between that and the relaxant Arthur made him take, for a while Merlin wouldn't feel any pain at all.

But he would feel plenty of other things. Many times before this, Arthur had seemed to particularly enjoy fucking Merlin until he was wrecked, addled from climaxes, loosened and opened by Arthur's hands and cock. But every night Merlin was already in such a state when Arthur began. Arthur was never cruel to him when he was so vulnerable, but he was relentless, toying with and savoring Merlin's pliant body without any sort of hurry. Merlin was in no condition to argue, beyond speech as Arthur coaxed out quiet whimpers and the barest writhing. Sometimes he nodded off and woke up again to find Arthur still inside him, cock held deep or fingers spreading him wide; still above him, at his chest or his throat or his mouth; feasting on him and plundering him. Merlin would shiver and surrender himself, completely at Arthur's mercy, completely in his control, and after a long day of being denied it made his magic so very, very happy. The pleasure of it dizzied him.

It made Arthur happy, too. All of it. Training knights was one of Arthur's favorite activities, but it seemed he liked training Merlin even more. Which was a relief, because it meant Merlin didn't have to worry so much that Arthur would come to his senses and refuse him. And once they had settled into a rhythm, once Merlin stepped off the metaphorical cliff and trusted that Arthur would catch him, Arthur became almost alarmingly happy. Merlin couldn't ever remember seeing him so content as when they were back home after a long day of pushing Merlin as close to his limits as they could without tipping him over. It was worth all the bruises, all the hurt just to see him so at ease. It meant Arthur teased him even more than usual, true, but it also meant that Arthur would be tender with him later, washing him in their bath, feeding him his favorite foods. Arthur's hands were on him constantly: firm and guiding, gentle and soothing, and claiming, always claiming, more than ever before.

It wouldn't last forever. At any moment, the world might make demands of them again and their time would no longer be their own. But Merlin never wanted it to end.

§

"I've seen slugs faster than you, Merlin!" Arthur called from somewhere ahead of him. "Keep up!"

They had been running all morning. They had the full day today because some noble's expected visit had been delayed and effectively cleared Arthur's morning schedule for the next few days. Which meant that Arthur could drag Merlin out of bed at an impossibly early hour and torture him before lunch as well as after it.

Merlin had expected that at some point, the training would become easier. True, his body had gradually adapted to the heavy armor and the stones and the running and the exercises, but the moment he showed the slightest ability to handle a given level of effort, Arthur pushed him on to reach the next one. The only thing that slowed them down was that to avoid a repeat of Merlin's heat sickness or some other injury, they would take frequent breaks so Merlin could catch his breath and tell Arthur exactly how he felt and what parts of him hurt more than usual, and then they were off again. The only sign of that Merlin was making progress was that Arthur had finally started to break a sweat himself. It wasn't much, given that Merlin was usually close to breaking down completely by the time Arthur's fringe was a little damp, but it was something.

At the moment, Merlin wasn't quite at the point where he'd have to stop, but he could feel he was getting close. The muscles in his legs were burning and twitching, his upper body strained from the weight it carried, and his lungs felt like they were ready to heave out of his chest. His eyes stung from sweat, and he wiped them clear to see Arthur waiting a ways ahead of him; he must have realized why Merlin was slowing down. Merlin gave a last burst of effort, running as fast as he could until he reached Arthur, and then he sank to his hands and knees, gasping for breath.

"Better," Arthur said, and waited until Merlin stopped imitating a landed fish before he gave him a waterskin. Merlin took a series of small sips, as Arthur had taught him to avoid upsetting his stomach, then handed it back. Arthur took a healthy swig and then wiped his brow on his sleeve. "It's getting warm. Do you know how to swim?"

Merlin flopped onto his back and took a moment to process the question. "What? Um, yeah. Will taught me." Merlin had never been more glad of that then when he'd had to drag Arthur out of a lake. And there was only one lake this close to Camelot. "Why do you ask?" he said, warily.

"You need to cool off. We've already about reached your limit with the usual exercises. A few laps around the lake will use the rest of your skinny muscles."

"The whole lake?" Merlin said, gaping at him. "That lake is huge!"

"Once around to start, then. We'll see how you do."

Merlin put his arms over his eyes and groaned. Arthur was probably going to make him carry the rocks when he was swimming, too. He was going to end up drowned at the bottom of the lake and his mum would cry, and he hated it when she cried. Merlin's eyes widened as he remembered that there was already something at the bottom of the lake, because he'd left it there. The sword.

"Maybe we shouldn't," he said trying desperately to think of an excuse. "I'm sure I can keep running for a few more hours."

"Afraid of a little water?" Arthur mocked, gleefully. "We're definitely going. You've got five minutes, make the most of it."

§

By the time they reached the lake, the day had turned absolutely sweltering. They'd left the training armor and other supplies back at their usual spot, bringing only Merlin's usual bag and their waterskins. As they approached the lake, Merlin had a variety of unpleasant flashbacks. Sophia and Arthur's red, enchanted eyes. The pain as Aulfric blasted him with his staff. The Dragon's fury over the sword. The fear that had choked Merlin when he'd reached the lake and seen no sign of Arthur. There weren't a lot of pleasant memories associated with the place.

Arthur seemed completely unaware that anything was wrong. While Merlin hesitated at the water's edge, Arthur stripped off his clothes and waded in. He splashed water on his face and turned back to Merlin.

"What are you waiting for?"

"Um." Merlin was torn between anxiety and the distraction of an incredibly naked Arthur, all lit up in the sun and flushed from exercise. It was unfair how absolutely handsome he was. Completely unfair. No wonder the Sidhe had wanted him so much.

Merlin looked warily around, worried that the Sidhe were still here somewhere. Gaius had said something about the lake being a gateway to a land of eternal youth, but right now it just looked like a lake. It probably had to be activated with a spell.

Arthur waded back to shore and started yanking off Merlin's clothes again, and Merlin flailed as he was roughly pulled about. "Arthur!" he sputtered. "Will you stop--ackpth!" He was plunged into the familiar water, and in his shock and remembrance of the last time he'd tasted it, he breathed in. He went still in reflex, then struggled, and then he was coughing up water, doubled over in Arthur's arms.

"You can't even go swimming without hurting yourself," Arthur complained. Merlin glared at him as he coughed, and was slightly mollified by the worry in Arthur's eyes.

"You compl--cough cough--complete cabbagehead! I could have drowned!"

"Like I'd let you," Arthur said, apparently refusing to feel guilty. "Stop being such a baby."

Merlin shoved him, and Arthur shoved him back. Merlin managed not to immediately fall back into the water, and lunged at Arthur in a flying leap that took them both down. They swirled together under the water and Merlin shoved away every stupid memory of how Arthur had very nearly drowned and he'd had to force the water out of his lungs and drag him home and he'd lain unconscious for hours and hours until morning. It was done, it was over, Arthur was fine and if he didn't stop thinking about it Arthur was just going to find new excuses to pester him until he smiled again.

When they surfaced again, Merlin kissed him furiously before he could get any other ideas. Arthur gave a little start of surprise, then kissed Merlin back, far more pleased with this than any further roughhousing. Merlin poured all the things he couldn't say into the kiss, all the fear and need Arthur had unknowingly forced him to confront, and when he ended it and swam backwards, they were both feeling rather stunned.

"We should swim," Merlin said. He could feel the presence of the sword from somewhere deeper in the water, and was afraid that Arthur could, too. It was made for him, after all. But for whatever reason, he didn't appear to be affected. Merlin struck out, keeping closer to the shore than the center, towards the bend in the lake that led to the main body of the water. Arthur caught up with him easily, but instead of swimming ahead he kept pace.

When they reached the wider water, Merlin finally relaxed. The lake was warmed by the summer sun but still refreshing after a day spent sweating in the heat. Swimming was loosening him up as well, and it felt like he was gaining back whatever inches he'd lost from being dragged down by the heavy weight he ran with. He smiled at Arthur, and Arthur smiled back.

Halfway around the lake, they stopped under a huge oak tree. Its roots were half-bared, hanging down into the water, and its branches spread wide above their heads, granting relief from the sun. Arthur held on to a root and floated, and Merlin held on to Arthur and floated beside him. It was quiet and serene, and Merlin listened to the lapping of the lake, the sounds of birds and chittering squirrels.

"'s nice," he murmured, his voice muffled through the water around his ears.

Arthur's hand squeezed around his own, and Merlin squeezed back.

§

They only managed the one lap around the lake, but was partly because Merlin decided that the best way to erase the unpleasant associations the place held for him was to make new and better ones. He pinned Arthur down at the edge of the water and kissed him over and over, and then worked his way down his body, feeling the life in it, the quickening beat of his heart, the play of his muscles as he tensed under Merlin's mouth and hands. He wouldn't let Arthur do anything but lie back and enjoy, knowing that Arthur would be having his way with Merlin's own body soon enough.

There was something to be said for a pliant Arthur. Something very good indeed. There was something even better about a writhing Arthur, unable to contain his sobs of pleasure as Merlin licked and played with his opening, sucked and lapped at his balls, and spanked him if he tried to turn over. Arthur was soon streaked with mud, all his glorious perfection sullied, and when Merlin finally let him turn over it was only to take his cock into his mouth, to press two fingertips to his hole and play there. Arthur was grinning as he came, splayed out under the sun, the absolute master of his domain. Merlin slid from his softening cock with a slurp and Arthur crawled back into the water, taking Merlin with him.

Arthur didn't take his time, didn't play with Merlin's body. He seized it, rough and hungry as Merlin clung to him in the deeper water. Arthur slid two fingers inside of Merlin and ground his knuckles down, making Merlin gasp and shudder. Arthur held him tight and fucked him with his fingers and Merlin climaxed almost shockingly fast and hard, his cock pulsing untouched into the water. He was gasping as he came down, the muscles in his stomach jumping. Arthur nuzzled the bruises on his shoulder and nipped at them.

"Still afraid of the water?" Arthur murmured, smugly.

"Try me again tomorrow," Merlin panted. "Might still be some fear to fuck out of me."

Arthur growled and sucked at a fading bruise, making the dull ache of it sharpen and throb anew.

§

Cooled and revived by their adventures in the lake, they returned to their private spot with renewed energy. Merlin felt so good he thought he could run for the rest of the day, but Arthur had other ideas.

"We're going to fight?" Merlin asked, excited when Arthur handed him a training sword and pulled out another for himself.

"Don't get ahead of yourself. First I want to see what you remember from all those training sessions you 'watched'."

Merlin blushed. They both knew that Merlin spent the vast majority of those sessions ogling Arthur, rather than absorbing anything he was teaching.

Arthur smirked. "Thought as much. I'm going to take you through the basic movements. You need to learn how to stand."

"I know how to stand," Merlin said, rolling his eyes. "I'm not a complete idiot."

"Of course you are," Arthur said, and thumped him on the arm with the flat of his sword. "If you don't have good form, it doesn't matter how strong you are. Despite what you think you've learned, fighting isn't about cringing and flailing your arms about, hoping your opponent will fling himself onto your sword."

Merlin gave him a sour look. "Is it about spinning your sword around and showing off?"

Arthur laughed. "Sometimes. If you can make it through the basics, I'll teach you intimidation tactics."

Merlin adopted an approximation of the stance he usually saw Arthur go into when he fought in tournaments. "Standing. Done. What's next?"

Arthur circled around him, and prodded and tugged at Merlin until he was satisfied. The resulting position made Merlin feel off-balance, and he had to strain to hold it.

"Are you sure this is right? Feels weird."

"You'll get used to it. Hold it as long as you can."

Merlin obeyed, holding it even as his muscles began to jump and tremble. It was his arms that gave out first, too tired from all the swimming to keep the heavy sword raised for long. He slumped with a sharp exhalation.

"Not bad. You need to be able to hold that position for at least a half-hour."

It was no more ridiculous a demand than all the rest that Arthur put on him, but Merlin protested anyway. "What's the point of that? So I can stand very still and die with good posture?"

"No," Arthur said, with exaggerated patience. "It's so you can do it properly and without thinking about it. If you have to think about it, you'll be dead before you remember where to put your feet. That's what makes a good fighter. Why do you think I spend hours running the same motions over and over?"

Merlin shrugged. "I thought that was how you had fun."

Arthur gave him a look, then shook his head. "Look," he said, pulling Merlin's body into another stance. "Fighting's not about thinking." Merlin snorted, and Arthur gave him a painful pinch. "Listen, this is important. Do you have any idea what it's like in a battle? A real battle? It's chaos." He sobered. "It's a thousand swords clashing around you. It's men dying. No matter how ready you think you are, it's never enough. I've known men who boasted about their prowess, but in the heat of battle they froze. They couldn't think, and because of that they died."

"Oh," Merlin said, quietly. "So no thinking, then?"

"Fortunately for you, we don't need to break you of that particular habit," Arthur said, dryly. He moved Merlin into another stance. "The goal is to train you into a new set of reflexes. We teach your muscles, not your mind."

"So I just keep a clear head?"

Arthur moved around to his front, continuing to manipulate him. "For now. Eventually you need to learn about tactics. How to read your opponent, anticipate his moves. How to use that knowledge to win. Body and mind acting together."

Merlin gave a crooked smile. "Sounds nice."

Arthur met his eyes, and they were serious and focused and so, so blue. "You can do this, Merlin. Trust me."

"I do," Merlin said, honestly. He wanted to look away, but something in Arthur's gaze held him, made him speak. "It's just... I've never worked very well with myself."

"That's what I'm here for," Arthur said, with such certainty. He stepped closer, the aura of his presence wrapping around Merlin, pulling him in. "You're mine. Every part of you."

"Yes," Merlin whispered.

Arthur smiled, warm and soft. "When a man becomes a knight, he swears himself to his king. His fealty, his strength, his very life. Most knights act the part. They say the words like they believe them, but it's a lie. But not you."

Merlin's heart quickened. His magic stirred. "Sire," he breathed.

"Yes," Arthur said. In that moment, all the arrogance and play was gone from him, and he was stripped down to his essence, regal and powerful. Merlin had already sworn himself to Arthur, but that didn't stop him from wanting to do it again. His magic swelled up, desperate as ever for the king it was denied. Merlin forced it down before it could show in his eyes.

Whatever Arthur saw in his face, it made him soften and touch Merlin tenderly. "You don't have to be afraid."

"I know," Merlin said, his eyes suddenly wet. He wished he didn't have to be afraid. He wished he could tell Arthur everything and know that he would still have this. But he was, and he couldn't, and it hurt. It hurt all of him, all the disparate pieces of himself, united him in painful longing.

Arthur stared at him, and this close Merlin could see every flicker of emotion in his eyes. Confusion and tenderness for Merlin's evident pain, anger and hurt that Merlin still would not share it, would not trust Arthur with all that he kept locked away inside. Acceptance and trust that Merlin would give the rest of himself over with time, with patience. Because so much of Merlin's pain was that he did trust Arthur, did love him wholly, and that much was clear no matter what secrets he had to hide.

"Teach me," Merlin said. "Whatever it takes. I want to learn."

Arthur nodded and took a step back, shaking himself off and focusing on the task at hand.

§

By the the third week, Merlin thought he was starting to get the hang of things. They were back by the lake again, still naked from their swim, cooled off after another long run in the heat, and Merlin was doing drills. Arthur didn't have to hover over him with corrections anymore, so he lounged against a tree, relaxing in the shade as he watched Merlin move, and calling out the occasional adjustment.

"Your left foot is slipping," he said. "Bring it in."

Merlin obeyed, and continued repeating the same downward strike over and over. It was harder than it looked, keeping the same consistent motion, the same tense pose. But there wasn't any way around it. The only way to make his body remember all of the things Arthur was teaching it was through the sheer brute force of repetition. It reminded Merlin of his afternoon throwing knives at a target; he had been improving by the end of that, so the principle was clearly the same.

Despite all the training they'd accomplished, he still didn't know how to fight, but that was all right. Arthur would tell him when he was ready for those lessons. Merlin could feel the changes in his body now. He could keep up with Arthur for longer, could endure for greater periods without needing to rest. He was getting stronger, better. By the end of the day, when they returned to the castle with their game, Merlin would still be exhausted and wrung out. But he also felt exhilarated, energized, and even the relaxant and massage didn't pull it all out of him.

At night, he delighted in his growing strength. Instead of lying there, limp and exhausted as Arthur had his way with him, he had his way with Arthur, tackling him and pushing him down, showing off for him. He displayed his transformation for Arthur, and Arthur welcomed it, was equally delighted by it. They wrestled with each other as foreplay, laughing and knocking things over, Arthur still winning but having to work for it now. They were both rougher and lighter with each other, fitting together in a sort of coarse-edged arrangement, king-to-be and knight-to-be.

Even though Merlin should probably wear the training armor so he could get used to the restrictions of it, Arthur preferred him unclothed during his drills. He claimed it allowed him to observe exactly what Merlin was doing, to see every flex and movement and know they were precise. Merlin thought it was an excuse to stare at him the way he had always stared at Arthur, and from the low-lidded focus of Arthur's eyes, he was at least half-right.

"Stop," Arthur called, and Merlin moved immediately to a rest position. "Let's go through everything, from the top."

Arthur called position after position, and Merlin moved through every one of them with a fluidity that still surprised him. He could probably do them perfectly even in his sleep by now. Arthur cycled through the list several times, and through it all Merlin kept his focus, kept his mind clear and let his body respond by what was at last becoming instinct. It made him feel as though he had been forged like the sword, burnt into something sharp and worthy. He could feel it in the lake, a whisper at the back of his mind. It yearned for Arthur the way his magic did, and Merlin felt absurdly pleased, as if he had beaten them out. That he had given himself to Arthur first, and in doing so claimed him. They would all have to wait their turn.

Arthur stood up and stretched. He picked up his training sword and walked over to Merlin, still calling out positions, weighing him up as he watched.

"Stop," Arthur said again, and Merlin once again moved back to rest, back straight and limbs loose and ready. Arthur only had to command and his body would obey, like a true knight's would.

"Don't move," Arthur said. Merlin held perfectly still as Arthur touched him, stroking over the muscles he had made stronger, feeling the stillness he had trained into them. Arthur tested him with a few pinches to sensitive places, but Merlin managed not to squirm.

"What do you think the most important part of fighting is?" Arthur asked, stepping back to stand at sword's length.

"Um, not getting killed?" Merlin offered.

Arthur fought a smile. "And the most important part of being a knight?"

That was easier. "Protecting you. Keeping Camelot safe."

"Sweet," Arthur said, "but completely wrong. If you enter a fight thinking only of defense, you will lose. The first rule is to attack. Strike first, strike hard, and give your enemy no quarter. Did you manage to hurt any of those bandits in Ealdor?"

Merlin paused, remembering those that died by sword and those by whirlwind. At least a dozen had been blown off their feet and broken their necks. Merlin had not been much in the mood for conversation during the ride back to Camelot; he'd grieved over Will for weeks, and still did when some memory struck him and he remembered that Will was gone for real, and not waiting back in Ealdor with a ready smile and a wry quip. "I killed three of them," he said, counting only the ones that Will hadn't taken credit for.

"That's... actually pretty good," Arthur said, surprised.

"I told you I could kill things," Merlin reminded him.

Arthur gave him an appraising look. "Then let's see what you've got."

Merlin gave a pointed look at Arthur's naked body. "Shouldn't we put on clothing first?"

"I'm not worried about being hit."

Merlin straightened up. "Neither am I."

"I won't hold back," Arthur warned.

Merlin held up his sword in the ready position Arthur had taught him. "Ready when you are."

Arthur swung. Merlin blocked his swing, the force of the hit jarring his arms. He had about half a second to relish his minor victory before Arthur brought his sword around and smacked him painfully on the side with the flat of his sword.

"Ow! Ow ow ow!" Merlin grit his teeth against the pain and hissed in air. He touched his side and felt a broad welt already forming. "That really hurt!"

"Don't leave your flank open. Not every attack comes from the front," Arthur said, moving back into a starting position. "Had enough?"

"Not a chance," Merlin said, shoving away the pain.

"I'll make you a deal. If you can get one hit, I'll let you wear your mail next time."

"You're on," Merlin challenged, and took a wide swing at Arthur's side. Arthur stepped out of the way and brought his sword up hard, leaving another welt on the underside of Merlin's sword arm.

"Fuck fuck fuck," Merlin hissed, pressing the welt hard against his body.

"Don't raise your arm."

"I really hate you, you know that?"

"Giving up?"

"What do you think?" Merlin said, moving back into his opening stance again.

On the third attempt, Merlin ended up with Arthur's sword pressed to his throat, though at least this time he hadn't left a welt. He had merely let the blade come to rest, which was actually more insulting.

"How did you actually manage to kill anyone?" Arthur asked, bemused.

"Guess the bandits weren't as amazing as you," Merlin said, dripping with sarcasm.

Arthur preened. "Of course they weren't. That's why I'm alive and they're not."

You're alive because I stopped them, Merlin thought, angrily. No, it was worse than that. Arthur was alive because Will had sacrificed himself, taken the arrow meant for Arthur's heart. Taken the blame for the whirlwind. Arthur was alive because of all the times Merlin had saved him. Arthur probably didn't even remember Will, probably had forgotten him because Will had taken the blame for Merlin's magic and that made him nothing but a worthless, dirty sorcerer.

Merlin couldn't help himself. He loved Arthur, he did, but sometimes he could make him so angry. He could be such a thoughtless, arrogant prat that Merlin wanted to see him suffer a little, wanted him to feel humiliated for a change. He charged at Arthur with a snarl of fury and swung wildly, not caring if Arthur might be hurt because Merlin wanted him to hurt. His magic slipped out, shifting the loose dirt under Arthur's foot as he tried to move out of the way, and as he fell off-balance Merlin's sword connected, the blunt edge striking Arthur's upper arm.

As soon as he'd done it he regretted it. The sword dropped from his nerveless hand and all he could see was that Arthur was bleeding. He fell to his knees beside Arthur, suddenly near tears, pressing his hands over the wound to staunch the blood.

"Merlin. Merlin. Calm down, it's just a scratch."

"I'm sorry," Merlin gasped, red welling up between his fingers. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it, I'm sorry."

Arthur's hand gripped over his own. "It's my fault. You were right, we should have worn mail. Get some cloth and make a bandage."

"Bandage. Right." Merlin pulled his hands away, Arthur taking over the pressure with his own, and the sight of Arthur's blood all over his hands was almost too much.

"Merlin! Don't you dare faint, you absolute girl."

"Not fainting," Merlin said, breathlessly, but he had to fight back the grey that edged his vision. He took deep breaths and hurried over to his pack, chest hitching as he smeared Arthur's blood all over it, desperately searching for the bandages and salve. He found them and hurried back, hands shaking as he pressed the clean white cotton to the wound.

He focused entirely on the wound. He wanted to use his magic to heal it, to undo what he'd done, but he didn't dare. He could heal it, he probably could, but the price...

After a few minutes, he peeled back the cotton to see how bad the wound was. It was long and thin, more than a scratch but not overly deep. "Might need stitches," he said, uncertain.

"Finish patching me up and we'll head back. Gaius will sort it out."

Merlin nodded and obeyed, smearing the healing salve thickly and wrapping Arthur's arm until he ran out of bandage. He tied off the end and sank back on his heels, wiping the sweat from his face.

Arthur was staring at him like he was more worried for Merlin than for himself. Awash in guilt, Merlin used the last of the cotton cloth to clean the blood from Arthur and then himself. He pulled his own clothes on quickly and then helped Arthur dress, keeping his eyes down and focused. The sight of Arthur's blood on his pack made the grey edge at his vision again, but he shook it away and promised himself that he would spend as many hours as it took to clean away every last stain.

He gathered up the swords and mail and armor and held them against his chest as they walked back to the glade. By the time they reached it, Merlin had calmed, but the guilt had settled inside him, heavy and undeniable.

He tried to stop Arthur from shouldering his part of their supplies, but Arthur insisted. "I've had worse scratches from a bramble bush," he chided. "Honestly, stop looking so worried."

"Sorry," Merlin muttered, hauled his own bag over his shoulder.

Arthur just shook his head.

It started to rain on the way back, the sun swallowed by a line of dark clouds rolling in from the west over the White Mountains. It was a light mist at first, but by the time they reached the castle the rain was falling in fat, heavy drops, and thunder rolled in the distance. Despite the increasing shower, there was an unusual amount of activity in the courtyard, and Arthur pulled aside a guard to find out what was going on.

"A sorcerer's been arrested, sire," the guard said, urgently. "The King is holding his trial in the main hall."

"What!" Arthur hurried towards the steps, and Merlin scrambled after him.

Chapter Text

The main hall was still filling up when they arrived; news of the arrest had yet to fully spread through the castle and the town. A terrified-looking guard was standing before the throne with his wrists bound in iron. Arthur waded his way up to the front, and Merlin followed in his wake, the crowd closing in behind them as they passed.

"What's happened?" Arthur asked, confused by the sight of a guard in chains. He frowned at the man and then walked past him to sit on the throne beside his father's. Merlin faltered at the sight of them together, a united front against the threat of sorcery, and didn't follow to join them and stand behind Arthur's throne as he should. Instead he sought Gaius and found him at the front of the crowd, and went to stand by his side. Gaius looked concerned but not distressed, and Merlin let a hundred silent fears out in a breath. Whatever was going on, it had nothing to do with the two of them.

Uther's mood was as dark and thunderous as the gathering clouds, and he stared at the prisoner as if to kill him by will alone. "Arthur, good. I want you to see this. Are you familiar with the prisoner?" he asked Arthur.

Arthur gave a nod. "Uwen, isn't it? A recent recruit to the castle guard. Father, what's going on?"

"Sorcery," Uther snarled, cold with fury. "At the very heart of Camelot."

"Is this true?" Arthur asks, turning to Uwen.

"No!" Uwen protests. "Please sire, you must believe me. I would never use magic, never!"

"Silence!" Uther barked, and Uwen shrank back. The guards who surrounded him, who had only hours ago been his brothers-in-arms, pressed him forward with their swords. They pushed Uwen to his knees and held him down.

"I did nothing!" Uwen cried, desperate. "I swear it on my life!"

"Lies will not save you," Uther told him, looking down at him with cold disdain. "For the crime of treason, there is only one punishment."

"Father," Arthur said, and Uther turned on him, not softening his furious glare. Arthur stilled, then continued on. "What evidence stands against him? Is Camelot in danger?"

The supplication of the second question seemed to blunt the edge of the first; Merlin recognized Arthur's attempt to question his father without appearing to doubt him.

Uther gestured, and the Guard Armorer came forward holding up the mail and armor of a Camelot guard. It was gleaming and spotless, as if it had never been worn. With a nod from the king, the armorer spoke. "He wears armor that cannot be damaged, sire. It has been enchanted."

"And this is the armor he wore every day?" Arthur asked. "It has not been switched with another?"

The armorer straightened up, affronted. "I assigned it to him myself, sire. I know the armor of every man."

"And how was the enchantment discovered?"

"The guards were apprehending a thief and Uwen was attacked. He was found to be unharmed and the armor unscathed."

"He refuses to confess," Uther said, lip curled in disgust. "Therefore we have no way of knowing what other enchantments he has laid. A thorough inspection of the castle will be made to seek out and destroy any signs of magic. As soon as the rain stops, he will be put to the pyre. Death by fire will quell his sorcery. Take him to the cells."

Uwen sobbed as he was dragged away, pleading his innocence until he could be heard no longer. Uther leaned back in his throne and took a swallow of wine. His anger began to cool, and his expression seemed to say that he took no pleasure in what he had to do, but held utter certainty in the righteousness of his actions. Beside him, Arthur looked far less certain, but he held his tongue.

The crowd was dismissed, and as they walked out, Uther said, "Arthur, you will command his execution."

Arthur stiffened. "Father--"

Uther held up his hand. "You're the Crown Prince. It's time you learnt how to deal with sorcerers."

"Of course," Arthur said, with a formal nod.

"I expect you for dinner in an hour. And make yourself presentable," Uther said, casting an eye over Arthur's dishevelled state. "Is that blood?"

To Merlin's dismay, blood had spotted through the bandage to dot Arthur's shirt with red.

"It's nothing," Arthur said. "Just a scratch."

Uther frowned at Arthur, then looked at Merlin, who froze like a startled deer.

"Let me take care of that, sire," Gaius said, stepping forward and drawing Uther's attention.

"See that you do," Uther said. He waved them away and took another drink from his goblet, glaring at the emptying room as if it had personally affronted him.

§

The wound definitely needed stitches. Arthur bore Gaius' fussing without complaint, but Merlin alternated between being unable to look away from the ugly, swollen wound, and being unable to look at Arthur at all. He tried to busy himself with some sort of tidying but his clumsiness was back in full force, and by the time he'd knocked over a second vial and spilled something yellow and sulfurous all over the worktable, Gaius told him to sit down and stop making such a mess.

Merlin sat and fidgeted instead, jogging his knee and gnawing at his lip. He stared in horrified fascination as Gaius began to sew up the wound.

"Anyone would think you were the one being embroidered," Arthur said. His voice was light but there was a tension around his eyes.

"How did you say you were injured, sire?" Gaius prompted.

"An accident."

"A hunting accident?"

Arthur gave Gaius a long look, which Gaius returned. It wasn't as if Gaius didn't know the true nature of their trips into the woods, so it could only be Gaius' attempt at cautioning Arthur. A bad enough injury would betray their activities to Uther, and he would not take kindly to the truth. Uther would hardly care if Merlin was hurt, but damage to Arthur was another matter entirely.

"It was my fault," Merlin said.

"No, it wasn't," Arthur corrected. "Ow!"

"Keep still," Gaius said. Arthur obeyed, and Gaius finished the last few stitches and knotted off the thread. He slathered the wound with a salve and bandaged it, then patted Arthur's shoulder. "There, all done. I'll prepare a salve for Merlin to use when he changes the bandage, and a potion to reduce the swelling. In the meantime, you should both change out of your wet clothes. Merlin, if you could stop by later?"

Merlin knew an excuse when he heard one. Gaius was probably worried that Merlin would try to save poor Uwen as he had the Druid boy. Merlin braced himself for another round of lectures and warnings. For now, he just nodded and promised to return in the evening.

§

Usually when they were back in Arthur's chambers and the door was safely locked, Arthur would relax, letting out the stresses of the day. But Arthur remained tense and distracted as Merlin undressed him and washed him with a cloth and basin. Merlin kept his actions as neutral as he could, since Arthur was clearly in no mood for teasing of any kind, and if he was honest with himself neither was Merlin. He dried Arthur off and dressed him in a clean blouse and a high-collared jacket, brown trousers and boots. He dried and brushed Arthur's damp hair, cleaned the dirt from his nails, and made sure everything was perfect and in place.

When there was nothing left to do, Merlin stepped back and was forced to acknowledge the mixture of possessiveness and pride and longing that twisted ever-persistently inside him at the sight of Arthur. He clenched his fists at his sides and looked away. Arthur stepped forward, closing the distance, and licked his thumb.

"You have blood on your face," Arthur said, quietly, and wiped at the dried smudge with his thumb.

Merlin let him clean it off, still looking away.

"You can stay here if you wish, but I would like you with me tonight."

Merlin finally met Arthur's eyes. The last thing Merlin wanted right now was to be spending any more time around Uther, but it wasn't often that Arthur genuinely asked something from him. And Merlin could never deny Arthur what he needed. He mustered a smile. "Let me clean up first."

Merlin ducked into the side room to strip down and wash away the dirt and dried blood. He left the door open because he wasn't hiding, but he needed a moment at least somewhat to himself. He was quietly relieved that Arthur was already dressed and could not muss himself by washing Merlin as he often liked to. Normally Merlin wanted nothing more than to be stay Arthur's side, to touch and be touched, but right now it would be too much.

He dressed quickly, pausing in front of his mirror to make sure that all his bruises and scrapes were well-hidden by his clothing and scarf. His loose shirts were a bit tighter across the shoulders these days, and he hoped that no one could tell. But even if they could, a bit more muscle would hardly be suspicious. All they would see was Merlin the manservant, clumsy and mostly useless but faithful and loyal and absolutely not a sorcerer. From the outside, there was nothing magical about him at all.

§

Merlin refilled Arthur's goblet with wine, being careful not to spill a drop. All through the dinner, he'd done his best to imitate Gwen, who served Morgana her food and drink with quiet, graceful movements, and didn't slosh her wine jug or let the dishes clatter on her tray. Gwen was the perfect servant, and therefore perfectly invisible, and right now that was all Merlin wanted to be. He wanted to press himself against the stone walls and sink into them, safe and protected, because then Uther wouldn't be able to see him. Wouldn't glance at him with a vague curiosity, as if entertaining himself by trying to puzzle him out. Merlin didn't want to be puzzled out.

"Merlin!" Arthur said, and Merlin realized with horror that in his distraction he'd overpoured the wine. He pulled back the jug and grabbed the nearest napkin to sop up the spilled wine, which happened to be Arthur's napkin, which earned him another exasperated look from Arthur. Gwen, wonderful Gwen, hurried over to help, wiped the wood clean with a towel and gave Arthur a fresh napkin, all with a little bow and smile.

Merlin could feel everyone staring at him: Uther, Morgana, Arthur, and even Uther's own manservant, a taciturn man named Louvel. Merlin felt like a deer that had stumbled upon a pack of feeding wolves, muzzles red with the blood of some poor creature. They were probably too full to bother eating him, but then again there was always room for dessert.

Gwen tugged on his arm and said something about cleaning up, and Merlin found himself pulled from the room and into the hall that led to the kitchens.

"Merlin, what is the matter with you?" Gwen asked, concerned and possibly a bit exasperated herself.

"Nothing, I swear," Merlin said, as she touched the back of her hand to his forehead. He pushed her hand away. "I'm fine."

"You don't look fine. You've been acting strange all evening." She looked around and then lowered her voice. "Are you hurt? You know, with the--" She mimed the stroke of a sword.

Merlin mustered a smile. "No, honestly. It's been going great. It's, um."

Gwen was a good friend and she cared about him. She was also persistent when she was worried about something, and he had to give her a reason for his behavior that didn't require him to confess his nightmares about Uther grabbing the nearest torch from the wall and setting him on fire.

"Actually, it is about the training. I hurt Arthur today."

Gwen's eyes widened.

"Not badly," Merlin hurried to add. "But Gaius had to give him stitches and if Uther finds out..."

"Oh, Merlin," Gwen said, brow drawn with concern. "No wonder you're so nervous. What was Arthur thinking, bringing you here?"

"It's all right. I wanted to come," he lied. "Besides, how would it look if I didn't?"

Gwen hugged him, and after overcoming his surprise Merlin hugged back. Despite their closeness, Gwen wasn't generally very physically demonstrative, especially in the castle; she always seemed tightly contained, keenly self-aware, but then that was how most of the royal servants were. Gwen was a real servant and not a pretend one, had lived all her life in service to one noble or another.

"You're a good friend to him," she said.

There was a noise from down the hall, and Gwen pulled away and smoothed down her clothes, though they were hardly wrinkled. When no one came along, she relaxed again.

"We should go back. At least you don't look so awful anymore."

Merlin did feel a bit better. "Thanks, Gwen."

"You can always talk to me. You know that, right?"

Merlin nodded.

When they returned to the dining room, Arthur gave him a mildly questioning look, and Merlin returned it with what he hoped was reassurance. Uther and Morgana were smiling as they talked, which was remarkable enough, and then Uther laughed.

"...terribly inappropriate," Uther said, chuckling.

"If you think you're not man enough," Morgana teased.

"Perhaps I should be concerned," Uther said. "Considering what you've done to poor Sir Leon."

"Leon's too afraid to hit a woman," Arthur interrupted. "Especially not the King's ward."

"Or he's not as good as he thinks he is, like the rest of you," Morgana retorted, her smile turning mocking. "In my experience, all men have overinflated opinions of themselves. "

"You're growing far too old for such games," Uther said, simultaneously doting and dismissive.

"I will lay down my sword when Arthur does," Morgana said, raising her chin. "The lives of women are no safer because it is unseemly for them to defend themselves." Uther's fading smile slid into a frown, but Morgana was undaunted. "Most women have far more to lose, and would fight to the last breath for love of family rather than empty glory and honor. Camelot would be twice as strong--"

Uther slapped the table, making the cutlery jump. "That is enough. Do not talk such nonsense."

"I wouldn't call it nonsense," Arthur said, casually. "Morgana's right."

Morgana was as surprised as Uther, but delighted where Uther glowered.

"Since only nobles can be knights," Arthur continued, half-serious, "perhaps we should broaden our ranks by including the daughters of Lords as well as their sons. Or if they are too refined, let the common women fight. I have seen for myself--"

"I see what this is," Uther said, eyes narrowing. "And I have had quite enough. I know the true reason you have spent weeks out in the woods."

Morgana's eyes widened. Gwen gripped at her skirts. Merlin looked distantly at the torches on the wall and the knives on the table and wondered if he was about to die by fire or evisceration.

But Arthur just stared back at Uther, entirely unruffled. "And what reason is that?"

"For weeks you have been in a fit of childish tantrum over the dispersement of the knights," Uther declared. "And I have let it go on long enough. You have responsibilities to this kingdom."

"This kingdom may not survive long enough for me to inherit it if we cannot defend it," Arthur replied, agitated now. "How many knights have we lost in the last year alone? Something must change or there will be one attack too many, and Camelot will fall."

Thunder rumbled in the distance, a reminder of the rain that still battered against the windows.

"Camelot will never fall," Uther growled. "I did not raise this kingdom from its knees to see it fall apart because you refuse to learn how to rule."

"Do you know what I have learned from you, Father?" Arthur said, leaning forward. "I have learned how not to rule."

Merlin was afraid that the two of them were about to leap from their chairs and cross swords, and apparently so was Morgana. "Liar," she said to Arthur, who was pulled from his anger to stare at her with confusion.

"Child, this is not the time," Uther warned.

"Arthur's mad because he knows you're trying to marry him off."

"What?" Arthur says, staring at Uther. Gwen put a hand on Merlin's arm, as if to keep him from doing anything foolish.

Uther leaned back, temper defused. "It may not be necessary."

"But you and Vivian would make such a lovely couple," Morgana said, smirking at Arthur. "I spent a summer with her once. Such a charming personality."

"If the peace talks are successful, the matter need not be raised."

"You mean I'm your backup plan," Arthur said, flatly. "You know that we cannot defend ourselves without help, so you want to use me to ally us to Olaf."

"A marriage is more than an alliance," Uther said. "It will unite our kingdom with his. We can use them to strengthen Camelot with trade and manpower."

"And what if they don't care to be used?" Arthur said, crossing his arms.

"They will have no choice," Uther said. "You will be their prince, and one day their king. They will obey or they will die."

"They will revolt," Arthur argued. "If they are stronger than us, how can we control them from across the sea? Camelot barely has a fleet--"

"I will hear no more of this. You will do what is best for Camelot," Uther said, sternly, "and that is final. You are Crown Prince and I have allowed you to shirk your duties for far too long. It is fortunate that a perfect lesson has presented itself."

"You mean Uwen," Arthur said. "I will not give the order."

Uther stared at him.

"Yes, he broke the law," Arthur said. "But the punishment is too extreme. It appears he was trying to protect himself, and it worked. If we truly want to defend Camelot--"

Uther stood up, cold with fury. "Silence."

"You will not even consider the possibility--"

Uther slammed his fist on the table, and everyone else in the room startled, even Arthur. "Never. Magic is a poison. It is lies. It seduces the weak and makes them think that they are strong while it rots them from within. No man can be saved once he has used magic. When Uwen burns, his sorcery will burn with him, releasing Camelot from his foul enchantments, and you will give the order."

By the end of his rant, Morgana had gone pale, and Arthur was cowed. "Yes, father," Arthur said.

"The pyre will be readied the moment the rain stops. Do not disappoint me." Uther took his goblet and stormed out, a stone-faced Louvel trailing after him.

In Uther's wake, Morgana was left shaken and vaguely ill, and Arthur humiliated and angry. Arthur stood up abruptly and stormed out as well. Merlin moved to follow him, but Gwen's hand tightened on his arm, and Morgana turned to him.

"Don't," Morgana said, struggling to regain her composure. "We all know this is your fault. If you go to him now, he'll take it out on you."

Merlin frowned at her, confused.

"Don't be coy," Morgana said, her color returning. "I've been playing this game a lot longer than you, and you're not nearly as subtle as you think you are."

"What are you talking about?" Merlin asked, panic edging into him.

Morgana gave a thin smile. "He's changed since he took you into his chambers. Did you think you could turn them against each other without consequence?"

Merlin gaped at her. "What? I'm not--"

"Not that I disapprove," she continued. "But you're far too naive for this game. You don't understand the fundamental rules. You see, Uther likes it when Arthur stands up to him once in a while. If you're smart, like I am, you can use that to your advantage. But if you go too far, if you put yourself between them, well..." She shrugged. "He'll always choose Uther."

"You're wrong," Merlin said, pulling away from Gwen's grip. "He isn't like that."

"I'm trying to help you," Morgana said.

"No," Merlin said, and backed away from them. Arthur was a good man, would be a great king. He needed Merlin to believe in him, to encourage him. Arthur wouldn't turn away, wouldn't do as Uther ordered, not when it mattered. "I have to go to him. I have to..."

Merlin hurried out of the room, but slowed to a stop in the middle of the hall. Instead of going up to Arthur's chambers, he walked across the courtyard. He still had to get the medication that Gaius made for Arthur.

When he walked into the room, Gaius was bent over his stew pot, stirring and seasoning the contents. It smelled good, but Merlin's stomach was a tight knot.

"Ah, good," Gaius said, acknowledging him with a wave as Merlin closed the door behind him. "I was getting worried. Now, I know you're upset about Uwen, but I hope you're not planning anything foolish as you did with that Druid boy. There's enough foolishness around as it is. What was the man thinking, using enchanted armor in the castle? Absolutely idiotic, and I hope you haven't done the same to anything of Arthur's." He stood up and turned around, and was suddenly all concern. "What happened? Look at the state of you."

Merlin let Gaius move him and sit him down at the table. His chest hurt and he felt like he was suffocating, like everything was too close and yet so far away.

"You're shaking," Gaius said, checking him over with practiced movements. "Did someone hurt you? Did you see something?"

Merlin managed to shake his head, but he couldn't talk. His throat was tight and he couldn't catch his breath. He felt like he was dying, and his magic flared in reaction, sending a gust of wind through the room and ruffling the papers and dried herbs.

"Merlin!" Gaius called, alarmed. He grabbed something and thrust it under Merlin's nose, and the horrid smell of it made him gasp and finally fill his lungs. The next thing he knew, he was bent over with his head down, while Gaius rubbed his back and told him how to breathe. Merlin slowly straightened up, feeling like he'd been hit with a mace.

"That's better," Gaius said. "Now what put you into such a state?"

Merlin couldn't explain. It had just come over him all of a sudden. He shivered, suddenly chilled despite the summer warmth and the cooking fire. Gaius tutted and wrapped a blanket around him.

"I take it you were serving Arthur at dinner. Did you have anything to eat?"

Merlin shook his head.

"We'll get some food into you," Gaius said. He went to the hearth and filled up two bowls, and sat down across from Merlin with them. He broke chunks out of a round of crusty bread and put a piece beside each bowl. "You're lucky I made extra tonight."

Merlin spooned up a bit of stew and nibbled at it. It was simple food, nothing like the fancy meals that Arthur shared with him, but it was familiar and hearty. His appetite finally roused as he ate, and by the time he'd worked his way to the bottom he felt immeasurably better.

"Thanks, Gaius," Merlin said, voice rusty. "Don't know what came over me."

"What happened at dinner tonight?"

"Nothing," Merlin said. "Just an argument. It's not like you can have the three of them in a room without someone yelling about something."

"About Uwen?" Gaius prompted.

"And other things." Arthur being married off. Arthur ordering the execution. Arthur letting it all happen because he wouldn't stand up to Uther, might never stand up to Uther, might never-- Tears welled up in Merlin's eyes and he quickly wiped them away with his sleeve.

Gaius looked at him with sympathy. "You don't have to tell me about it. Not until you're ready."

"Arthur wants to use magic to protect Camelot," Merlin said in a rush, a fragile smile breaking through even as he kept wiping away tears. "He doesn't hate magic."

Gaius' eyebrows raised to a record height. "He said this to Uther?"

Merlin felt giddy and awful. "He wants to use magic. What if... what if I can tell him?"

Gaius frowned. "What about Uwen? Is Arthur still going to execute him?"

Merlin's smile wobbled, but he wouldn't let it fall. "Yes, but only... it's because Uther's making him. He doesn't want to."

"That's good," Gaius said, cautiously. "It's very good. But I fear it may not be enough."

"You think he'll let me burn," Merlin said, anger rising up from inside him. "He wouldn't. He-- I'm not-- Uwen's--" He took a gulp of air. "Arthur helped the Druid boy escape! He defied Uther for him, why not me?"

"And if you're unable to remain in Camelot, how will you protect him?"

"I won't leave him."

"Then you cannot tell him about your magic. You cannot put him in a position where he must choose between you and Uther."

"Because he'll always choose Uther?" Merlin asked, echoing Morgana's words.

Gaius sighed. "Arthur may not agree with his father on everything, but he does love him. It might be different if he refused to execute Uwen, but as things stand..." He shook his head. "Please Merlin, do not force me to watch you share that man's fate."

"He's going to be a great king," Merlin said, clinging desperately to the dragon's prophecies, even though he no longer knew if he could trust them. "It's my destiny to be with him."

"Destinies are not always fixed," Gaius said, gently.

An awful thought came over Merlin, so awful he could barely stand to think it. If the boy lives, you cannot fulfil your destiny. That was what the dragon said. That the Druid boy would somehow lead to Arthur's death. But what if it was worse than that? What if it was everything? What if by saving the boy Merlin had destroyed their whole future, destroyed Arthur's glorious reign over Albion, destroyed any hope of standing openly by Arthur's side? What if he didn't even have a destiny anymore?

It felt like he had walked out over a chasm, believing there was a bridge that would carry him, and he'd just been told there might be no bridge at all. And if he looked down, if he saw nothing and acknowledged it, he would fall and fall and the enormity of it would crush him into the earth.

He couldn't look down. He had to believe there was still a future for them. That their destiny was strong enough to carry them to the other side of the chasm. He needed that hope.

"I know how difficult this is for you," Gaius continued. "I understand. But right now it's simply too dangerous. One day you will be able to tell him."

"But when?" Merlin asked, tears streaking his cheeks. "When Uther is dead? What if that 'one day' is when I fail, when I'm not good enough to protect him and one of us is dying? Will I have to wait my whole life and only be able to tell him at the very end? How could he accept me then? When I've lied to him for so long?"

"Merlin--"

"He deserves to know!" Merlin cried. "I should to be able to tell him! I love him, Gaius! I love him so much, and I can't--"

"It's not fair," Gaius acknowledged. "None of this is fair. But I have seen too many die at Uther's hands. I will not lose you too, my boy."

Merlin saw that Gaius' eyes were red with unshed tears. Merlin went around the table and hugged him, burying his face against Gaius' shoulder, letting his tears soak into the scratchy wool of his robe.

Merlin wanted to believe that Arthur loved him, that he would do anything for him the way Merlin would for Arthur. But Arthur had never said the words. And everything between them had to be a secret. Even the training, which was the least dangerous of all their secrets, had to be covered up as hunting. If Arthur wouldn't even stand up to his father about teaching a servant how to use a sword, what hope was there? What if the only destiny he had was one of secrets and lies? He would spend his whole life in the shadows, never to tell Arthur the truth. He would live in fear of losing Arthur, and in doing so would never really have him. Their love would be the biggest lie of all.

He couldn't accept that as his future. He couldn't, even if Gaius was right. There had to be a better way. Maybe it wasn't there right now, but he would keep hoping, keep looking for it. He had to.

§

It was late when Merlin finally returned to Arthur's chambers. He'd had to calm down first, and then wait until he didn't look like he had been crying so Arthur wouldn't have any reason to be suspicious. Gaius had given him a draught to settle him, and he already felt a bit muzzy from it. All he wanted to do was curl up with Arthur and sleep and forget.

Arthur was already in bed, reading by candlelight. He was stiff and silent, still angry from dinner. Merlin left the salve on the table and gave Arthur the draught for the swelling, and Arthur swallowed it down without a word. Merlin took back the empty bottle and went to prepare for bed.

But when the other candles were out and he was standing at the side of the bed, he looked at Arthur's tight jaw and his frown and he took a step back.

"Do you want me to sleep in my own bed?" Merlin asked, quietly.

Arthur put down his book and sighed in annoyance. He turned to Merlin as if ready to find some excuse to yell at him, some litany of chores to exile him to. But he faltered before he spoke, and his anger seemed to drain out of him, leaving behind a sort of melancholy.

"Did you have any dinner?" Arthur asked, as if only just realizing that Merlin wouldn't have had anything to eat.

"Gaius gave me some of his."

"Oh. Good."

Neither of them said anything for a long moment, and Merlin swallowed and nodded to himself. "I guess, um. Goodnight, then." He tried not to feel disappointed as he turned to walk back to the servant's room. He didn't want to start crying again, even though he was sure he was all out of tears, after his performance with Gaius.

"Wait," Arthur called. "Come to bed, Merlin. Of course you can sleep here."

Merlin turned back and walked to the bed and slid under the covers. He left as much distance as he could between them, because he didn't know what Arthur wanted from him. He didn't know what he was to Arthur. Nothing had changed but everything was different, and he couldn't rely on his assumptions anymore. It wasn't safe. Nothing was safe.

Arthur rolled his eyes. He snuffed the candle and huffed as he lay down, and then grabbed Merlin's arm and pulled him over. Merlin allowed himself to be moved, but went stiff and still as Arthur held him.

"What's got into you?" Arthur asked, annoyed.

"Nothing," Merlin muttered.

"You don't need to worry about my father. After tomorrow everything will go back to normal." He sighed in the darkness, then stroked Merlin's hair, probably more to soothe himself than Merlin. "I doubt anything will come of the engagement. It's not the first time he's threatened to marry me off. And even if it happened, it wouldn't change anything. Not really."

"All right," Merlin said, unable to deal with princesses and kingdoms on top of destiny and pyres and everything else. He was glad Gaius had insisted on the sleeping draught, because all he wanted to do was close his eyes and make the world go away.

"I'm glad you're here, Merlin," Arthur said, softly. "I'm glad you understand."

Arthur relaxed around him, holding him close. He kissed Merlin's cheek and stroked it, and let his hand wander along Merlin's back and side, aimless and soothing. Merlin let the draught pull him down, let his thoughts drift and fade. He listened to the rain against the window and let the soft pattering wash him away.

Chapter Text

It poured all morning. The heavy clouds seemed barely to move, and Merlin wondered if he was somehow making them stay. If his magic had slipped so far beyond his control that it could hold the storm to the castle's bosom without his awareness or command. That it would do anything to stop the pyre from being built, anything to prevent Arthur from ordering the execution. He'd brought a storm to him before, an instinctive call to strike Nimueh down with fury and lightning, and it had rained for days afterwards.

He might have done it in his sleep.

The courtyard was flooded, the drainage system overwhelmed. The gutters overflowed, waterfalls cascading from the mouths of Sigan's stone gargoyles. The lower dungeon had to be cleared lest the prisoners drown before they were executed. The slightest leak in the ceilings became a steady drip, and the upper floors were increasingly littered with buckets and bowls and chamber pots.

He could make it rain forever. Well, perhaps not that long, but for days, weeks, maybe months. He could gather all the storms around him like a cloak and hide within them. Uther would never light another pyre. No one would ever burn again.

But what would be the point? There were so many ways to kill a man, to kill a sorcerer. The executioner did not need clear skies to swing his axe. Even if it rained until Camelot was surrounded like a boat upon some endless sea, and every whetstone was lost, Uther could still drown his victims like newborn kittens in a sack, dropping them into the water with only stones for company.

Merlin kept himself busy and tried not to think about anything. He took care of chores that he had neglected in the idyll of the past weeks, cleaned all the bloodstains from his pack and belongings, and helped Gwen with the mopping and emptying of buckets. He knew he was avoiding Arthur and for once he didn't care. Let Arthur think Merlin was simply upset about princesses and marriage. It was true enough, even if it paled in comparison to everything else. Jealousy was a wonderfully simple thing to worry about.

Besides, Arthur was hardly better company than Merlin. He brooded as he stared out at the flooded courtyard; brooded as he sat at his desk, his fingers steepled against his mouth; brooded as he paced the room like a caged animal. Merlin was afraid to ask him what he was thinking for fear of what he might hear. He felt compelled to ask, to try to help Arthur the way he always did, but he was all stopped up inside. If he opened himself up, if he started talking, he didn't know what he might say. And every time he passed the great hall, he saw the stacks of wood waiting there, patient and dry.

It was almost a relief when he looked out a high window towards the White Mountains and saw the the clear sky above them. It would be hours before the heavy clouds passed completely, but there was the end of them, plain for all to see. Merlin wondered if Uwen would be relieved that the wait was over, or if it would be better to let him hope until sunlight broke through the small, barred window of his cell.

Merlin went to Gaius for lunch, preferring to scrounge off him rather than deal with Arthur, but Gaius was having none of it.

"It won't help either of you if you're both off on your own sulking," Gaius chided. "Arthur needs your support now more than ever."

"I know," Merlin sighed, but lingered in the doorway.

Gaius lay a hand on his shoulder and gave him a comforting squeeze. "You belong by his side, as you're so fond of saying. Go to him. Be there for him. The only way this will come between you is if you let it."

Merlin knew he was right. They had been through hard times before. Arthur's pride and his belief in his father had nearly destroyed the kingdom with famine and drought after he killed the unicorn, but Merlin had stayed by his side and counseled him, and it had all worked out in the end. Abandoning Arthur was as good as letting Uther win. Destiny had to be fought for, it had to be made, or what was the worth of it?

§

Arthur was at his favorite brooding spot by the window when Merlin returned to his chambers with a tray full of lunch. Merlin set it down on the table and lay everything out with a clatter of plates and a loud slosh of the jug.

"Must you make such a racket?" Arthur said, turning from the window.

"Absolutely," Merlin said, with intentional cheer. He was going to smile until his cheeks hurt, and keep smiling until Arthur stopped being so gloomy. "You barely touched your breakfast. So now you're going to sit down and you're going to eat."

"Do I have to remind you again how this works?" Arthur said, stepping slowly towards the table. "Prince. Manservant. I give the orders, not you."

"Then I guess you'll have to order me not to sit down and eat with you," Merlin said, pulling out a chair for Arthur and then sitting down across from him. "Mmm, this looks nice."

A smile tugged at Arthur's lips despite his best attempts to keep a dour expression.

Merlin winked at him and then took a hearty bite of a chicken leg, a gulp of watered ale. "Delicious," he mumbled, his cheeks puffed out.

Arthur shook his head and sat down. "Fine. But only because if I don't you'll eat all of it, and I'll have to suffer you whining about your stomach."

And just like that, everything was all right again. Not perfect, not anywhere near perfect. But Merlin no longer felt like their problems were insurmountable. As long as he was with Arthur, as long as they were together, there was something solid under his feet. Emboldened, he reached across the table and rested his hand over Arthur's. He met Arthur's eyes and silently promised to always be there for him, to stay by his side no matter the trouble, no matter how dark the storm or how terrible Uther's fury. And Arthur held his hand back, and even if he didn't say it, even if he never said it, Merlin believed that he was loved.

And that would have been enough. They would have made it through the day, through Uwen's execution, and they would have been all right. But then Gwen came to them, and then Morgana, and Merlin realized that destiny was never going to let things be so easy.

§

The rain was finally starting to lighten when there was a frantic knock on the door, and Merlin opened it to find a worried Gwen and another woman he didn't recognize, about their age and probably seven months pregnant. The woman was pale as a sheet, eyes wide and fearful, and Gwen had to pull her along to get her into the room. Merlin closed the door behind them.

"Sire," Gwen began, urgently. "Arthur. I need to speak with you."

"What's going on?" Arthur said, abandoning his papers and walking over. "Has something happened."

"It's about Uwen, sire," Gwen said. "He's innocent."

Arthur sighed. "Guinevere, the case against him was clear."

"There's new evidence," Gwen insisted. She turned to the woman. "We can trust him, I promise. Please, tell him what you told me."

The woman stepped forward, wringing her hands nervously. She bowed and kept her eyes down as she spoke. "My name is Linette, sire. I am Uwen's wife. We have only recently been wed, but I am certain he is innocent."

"What proof do you have of this?" Arthur asked.

"Only my own word, and I hope that is enough," said Linette. "Sire, I... please understand. Uwen did not lay the enchantment. I did."

Arthur stiffened, and Merlin saw him automatically reach to his side, where his sword would be if he was wearing it. He covered the action by resting his hand on his hip.

Linette looked up in alarm. "Please, sire, I know what I did was wrong. I beg you to allow me to explain, and have mercy." She lay her hands over her swollen belly. "Uwen had worked as a farmhand, but when I told him I was with child, he took a position in the castle guard. He sought to make a better life for our family. But I was afraid, sire. The attacks have left so many dead..." She wiped at her eyes. "I have never used magic before, I swear upon my life and my child. But I was told a spell could keep Uwen safe. I could not bear to see our child grow up and never know his father."

"Arthur," Gwen said, gripping at her dress. "Please, she is no sorcerer. She made one mistake, and out of love. And Uwen is innocent." She straightened her back, raised her chin. "Do not let what happened to my father happen again."

He turned to Linette. "Where did you get the spell?"

"A druid, sire. When I was visiting my mother in her village, there was a man, a healer. I went to him for herbs for the baby."

"You consorted with a known sorcerer, and used magic to enchant a castle guard," Arthur said, flatly. "And you did this in defiance of the law."

"Yes," Linette said, ashamed. "And now if he dies it will be my fault. Please, help us. For the sake of our child."

Arthur turned away from them and ran his hand through his hair. "Do you understand what you are asking of me?"

"You're the only one who can help," Gwen said, her dark eyes focused on Arthur. Not begging, but believing that Arthur would do the right thing. Merlin wanted to go to her, to hold her hand and stand united with her in asking this of Arthur. She had seen Arthur argue with Uther, and she had seen Arthur back down in the face of his rage, and still she came to him with Linette. Still she put her trust and their lives in his hands. It made Merlin feel proud of her, made him feel small in his doubts.

"I must tell my father," Arthur said, and Merlin quietly said 'no' at the same time that Gwen said it loudly.

"I mean," Gwen began, uncomfortable with such a blatant contradiction of the prince, "you cannot tell him about Linette. Only that Uwen is innocent. Your word alone may be enough."

"And when he asks for proof? I must give him some kind of evidence." He put a comforting hand on Linette's shoulder. "I believe that your intentions were not evil. I do not know if I can convince him to spare your life, but certainly any punishment can be delayed. My father would not see an innocent child condemned."

Linette's chin trembled. "I... I will confess to him. If it will save my husband and our child."

"You're very brave," Arthur said, and there was sympathy in him. "I will talk to him. You must stay here. If you run, I cannot help you."

"Here, sit down," Gwen said, ushering Linette to a chair. "I will stay with her. Please hurry, we do not have much time."

"Right," Arthur said. He straightened his back and smoothed his clothing, and then strode from the room, and Merlin followed at his heels. Arthur glanced back at him, but did not order him to stay.

Uther was in the council room, reviewing documents and alone but for the usual guards. Merlin stopped by the first pillar and gave an acknowledging nod to Leon, who nodded back. Arthur walked to the table and stood stiffly before the king.

"Father, I must speak to you about Uwen," he said, keeping his tone formal.

Uther looked annoyed. "Arthur, I have made my judgement."

"New information has been brought to my attention," Arthur continued, forging on. "I have proof that Uwen is innocent."

Uther leaned back, focusing on Arthur in a way that would make lesser men tremble. But Arthur stood firm.

"A witness has come forward. The spell was the work of a druid."

Merlin didn't think it would be possible, but Uther's focus became even more intense.

"A druid," Uther said, flatly.

"Yes," said Arthur. He hesitated, then continued on. "The witness is his wife. She is in my chambers."

Uther turned to the guards. "Have her brought to me at once," he commanded. Leon and the other guard hurried out the door to obey.

Arthur swallowed, his throat bobbing as he braced himself for what he had to say. "She is not merely a witness. She confessed to obtaining the spell from the druid, and using it on Uwen's armor without his knowledge. Father--"

Uther slammed his hand flat against the table, and he stood up, furious. "How dare you?"

"She has admitted her guilt," Arthur said, louder to match his father. "She was trying to protect him."

"And that she has achieved," Uther said. "She will die in his place."

"Father, you can't!" Arthur said, panic edging his voice. "She is with child, and the life inside her is innocent. Spare her long enough so that it can be born, so that the father will not lose his child. You of all people must understand how important--"

"Silence," Uther snarled, absolutely livid. "Another word from you and they will both burn."

Arthur shut his mouth, the clench of his jaw visible from across the room.

"The child cannot be saved," Uther said, disgusted. "Its death will be a mercy. Its soul will be purified before the evil of its mother can fully corrupt it."

Arthur breathed in sharply, but said nothing.

"Your mother--" Uther began, and a surge of grief cut him short. When he opened his eyes again, it was gone, submerged beneath his fury. "You are being seduced, and when the sorcerer is found, he will beg for the mercy of the pyre. Tell me his name."

"There is no one," Arthur said, confused. "Father, no one has tried to sway me."

Uther stepped closer, staring into Arthur's eyes, searching for any hint of lies or enchantments. "Was it one of your knights? Lie to me and I will have them all executed."

Arthur stared back, shocked. "I swear on my life, there is no one."

Uther looked around the room, and his eyes came to rest on Merlin. Merlin stopped breathing, and the seconds dragged like hours until Uther turned his gaze back to Arthur. Merlin had never been so glad that Uther thought he was a mentally afflicted idiot, too stupid to whisper in Arthur's ear.

"If a sorcerer is hiding in my castle," Uther said. "He will be found out. I will not see Camelot destroyed, my only son corrupted. I will not rest until all magic has been eradicated from this kingdom." He turned away at last, and grabbed his goblet and drank deeply from it. "The woman will be interrogated, and the druid found and executed. The rest of his vermin camp will be destroyed."

"Yes, sire," Arthur said, his body stiff and his face unreadable.

"Magic is our greatest threat. Let this be an end to your complacency. Return to your chambers. You will be summoned when the pyre is ready."

Arthur turned on his heels and walked away, and Merlin was quick to follow. As they walked through the hall, they saw Linette in the grip of the guards, her wrists bound and her face streaked with tears. When she saw them, hope lightened her face. But when Arthur shook his head, her hope fled, and Merlin saw all the spark of her snuffed out. Arthur's hands were curled in tight fists, the knuckles pulled bone-white.

When they reached Arthur's chambers, Morgana and Gwen were inside. Gwen looked to Arthur with the same hope as Linette, and her horrified realization was just as painful to see.

"Oh no," she sobbed, clasping her hands over her mouth. "Please no."

Morgana marched up to Arthur, already furious. "You have to stop this."

"Don't you think I tried?" Arthur said, tight with anger. "He refused to listen."

"He's going to kill their child before it can even be born," Morgana continued. "How can he call that justice? There must be something we can do."

"It's too late, Morgana. It's done."

Morgana turned cold. "This is your fault. Why did you tell him?"

"What was I supposed to do?" Arthur said, holding out his hands. "Let an innocent man die? She sealed her fate the moment she broke the law."

"And that's all that matters to you? The law?"

"My duty is to the truth," Arthur said, almost pleading. "I had no choice."

"And the execution?" Morgana said, pressing him. "Has he bullied you into that as well?"

Arthur looked away. "I have no choice."

Morgana curled her lip in disgust. "What a wonderful king you will make. I can't believe I ever thought you were better than him." She stormed past him and out the door.

"Morgana!" Arthur called, but she was already gone. Arthur turned and slammed his palm against the nearest piece of furniture.

Gwen went to Arthur and rested a hand on his arm. "Thank you for trying," she said, trying to offer solace. But it was obvious how disappointed she was. Arthur nodded, and she went after Morgana, closing the door behind her.

"Maybe it's not too late," Merlin offered, trying desperately to think of some way to salvage the situation. "We could break her out, like we did the boy. Get the both of them outside the city."

"It's done, Merlin," Arthur said, tersely.

"She only wanted to keep him safe," Merlin insisted. "How can you believe that she deserves to die?"

"She's a sorcerer. She can't be saved."

"You don't believe that," Merlin said, shaking his head.

Arthur finally looked at him, and there was enough of Uther in his stare that it took Merlin aback. "This is about your friend, isn't it? Will."

"What if it is?" Merlin lied.

"Merlin, I know you cared about him, but he was a sorcerer."

"He saved your life! Why does that mean nothing just because he had magic?"

"Did you hear nothing of what my father said? It only takes one spell, Merlin. One use of magic, and it will eat away at you until you are consumed by it. That's what happened to Will. Everyone else in Ealdor saw that he was trouble. You are better off without him."

Merlin swallowed, his throat suddenly tight.

"I have seen what magic does to people," Arthur continued, quieter and sadder now. "How it twists them into hate. I have spent my life defending Camelot from its dangers. I was wrong to forget that."

"No," Merlin whispered.

"Never speak of magic again," Arthur said, turning away from him to stand by the window. "If my father hears of it..." He trailed off, staring at the lightening sky. The rain had tapered off into a drizzle, and already there were voices from the courtyard, the sound of heavy timber being dropped onto stone.

Merlin felt numb. He sat at the table and stared at the wood, tracing the whorls of the grain with his eyes. Arthur remained at the window, watching as the pyre was built, as the last of the rain left and the sun broke from the clouds, warm and bright. The bell tolled, and there was a knock on the door.

"It's time," Arthur said. "My father will expect me by his side, but you may stay here if you wish."

Merlin stood up. "No, I'll come with you."

They walked to the viewing balcony, escorted by the guards as if bound for their own execution. Uther was waiting for them, and for all his hatred of magic he seemed to take no pleasure in its destruction.

Down below, the courtyard was slowly filling up. There was a larger crowd than usual, due to the unusual circumstances and the excitement of sorcery in the palace guards. Uwen was there, in chains between the grip of two guards, and he was already sobbing, devastated. He would no doubt have preferred to die in his wife's place, if given the chance.

The horns were sounded, signalling the start of the execution. The drums began to beat.

Linette was brought out, bloodless with shock under the bright sun. She did not resist as the guards hauled her up onto the pyre and chained her to the stake. She only stared blankly down at her belly, at the future she had tried desperately to save and in doing so had utterly destroyed. Merlin could barely stand to look at her. He turned to Arthur, and saw that Arthur was forcing himself to watch. Merlin could not tell if it was out of guilt, or if he was teaching himself the lesson that Uther had begun.

Merlin could see Morgana and Gwen, the both of them standing at her chamber window, watching silently. Gwen was crying, dabbing at her eyes, and Morgana was ghostly pale, her red lipstick stark against her face. Merlin realized then that on some level she must know that her dreams were more than dreams. She had tried to warn them of dangers so many times. Gaius didn't want her to know because if she did, it would put her in great danger, and it was obvious that she knew that as well. For once, Merlin wanted her to lie to herself, to stay in denial. He did not wish to see her share Linette's fate.

"Let this serve as a lesson to all," Uther began, his voice ringing through the courtyard. "This woman, Linette of Falfield, is judged guilty of conspiring to use enchantments and magic. Pursuant to the laws of Camelot, I, Uther Pendragon, have decreed that such practices are banned on penalty of death." He gestured, and Arthur stepped forward.

"For the crime of sorcery, there is but one sentence," Arthur declared, his voice a match for Uther's, clear and commanding. He kept his eyes on Linette as he raised his hand and brought it down.

The guards lit the pyre, and the wood began to crackle and spit as it caught. Uwen's sobs grew loud and racking, as he begged for clemency for his wife in vain. Linette broke from her stupor and began to scream and scream. The fire rose high, obscuring her and ending her screams, and the smoke turned black and thick. Arthur stared into the flames, unflinching. Morgana and Gwen turned away. Uther gazed out at the ramparts, and Merlin looked at the crowd below.

All those people who had gathered to watch. Were they glad to be rid of another sorcerer? Did they feel relief? Pity? Many of them must have known Linette, been friendly with the pretty young wife of a fresh-faced guard. Even the men who lit the pyre, who held Uwen as he begged for them to stop, as he sank to his knees in despair. What if it was Morgana on the pyre? Gaius? Himself? Would Arthur stand there and let them all burn?

The dragon had told him he was meant to bring magic back to Camelot. But how could he bring magic back to this place? To these people? If he had only let Uther die. If he had allowed Edwin's beetles to take their course. If he had kept the sword away from Uther and let the Black Knight have his victory. If he had said yes to Sigan and joined with him. None of this would have happened.

He had believed that saving Uther would save Arthur. That if Uther died from magic, it would turn Arthur against it for good. But now it seemed that Uther's survival ensured the same end.

"We must be ever vigilant," Uther said, his eyes distant as he gazed upon his kingdom. "Magic must never regain even the smallest foothold."

"Yes, father," Arthur said.

Down below, the crowd began to trickle away. They had seen what they came for. The evil sorcerer was dead, and already the fire began to lower, revealing the blackened corpse. Merlin closed his eyes, unable to bear any more.

They stayed until the fire sank to embers, and Arthur never looked away.

§

That night, Morgana barged into the room, her cheeks flushed with anger.

"Uther set Uwen free," she said.

"Yes, I know," Arthur said.

"He was forced to watch his pregnant wife burn to death. And you just let him walk away. Did you even think about what that would do to him? "

"Has something happened?" Merlin asked, setting aside his polishing.

"You could say that," Morgana said, with a bitter smile. "He killed himself. With the sword that no one had the sense to take away from him. Are you satisfied now? She died for nothing."

"Leave," Arthur said, angrily.

"You should never have told Uther. What were you thinking? He would have killed that Druid boy, why would he care that she was pregnant?" Morgana was wide-eyed, almost desperate with disbelief. "He threatened me. He put his hand around my throat right in front of you. He promised to kill me without a second's thought, just because I helped that boy. What is wrong with you?"

"Leave or I will drag you out of here myself," Arthur warned.

"You're just like him," she snarled. "I should never have saved his life. I was a fool to believe his lies." She turned and stormed out of the room, slamming the door as she left.

The silence was resounding.

"Poor Uwen," Merlin said, trying not to feel the hopelessness that had eaten at him since the execution.

"Don't you start," Arthur warned, his temper already high. "In fact, take what you need and go down to Gaius. I have no need of you tonight."

"Arthur," Merlin began.

"Do not make me repeat myself," Arthur warned. He was taut with anger, the muscles in his jaw jumping as he clenched his teeth.

"Yes, sire," Merlin said, biting back all the things he wanted to say. "Shall I bring you breakfast?"

"No. Stay with Gaius until I send for you."

Merlin rose and collected his things, shoving what he needed into his bag and shouldering it. He took one last look at Arthur, who was staring out into the moonlit courtyard, and left, quietly closing the door behind him.

As he neared Gaius' chambers, he heard someone crying. He followed the sound and found Gwen sitting on a stool in a darkened corridor, wiping her eyes with a kerchief.

"Gwen?"

She started when she saw him, and tried to compose herself. "Oh, I didn't see you. Shouldn't you be with Arthur?"

Merlin put down his bag. "He kicked me out. Just for the night, I think."

"Morgana isn't very good company either, I'm afraid," Gwen said, trying to smile. "This is all my fault. I told Linette that she could trust him. And now..." Her face crumpled and she began to cry again.

"Oh, Gwen," Merlin said, and pulled her into a hug. She sobbed with hitching breaths, and he rubbed her back to soothe her. "It's not your fault. You were trying to help."

She drew back and blew her nose loudly, wiped at her eyes with the corner of her kerchief. Merlin undid the one around his neck and gave it to her. "Here, this one's a bit cleaner."

Gwen gave him a wobbly smile. "Thank you." She dabbed her eyes with it and sniffed. "I miss him. The house is so empty without him."

"Your father?"

Gwen nodded. "I used to think that one day I would be a smithy, just like him. I loved to watch him work, to run the bellows for him. He could take a lump of iron and turn it into the most beautiful steel. He wanted to work for the royal armory, did you know that?"

Merlin shook his head. "Why didn't he?"

"The guild wouldn't let him because he wasn't noble enough. Even though he was a hundred times better than them. He was so happy when I told him about the sword. He was in the crowd when Uther fought, and it was the proudest moment of his life. His sword in the hand of the King. Thank you for giving him that."

She hugged him again, squeezing him tightly. When she pulled back, her tears had finally dried.

"You shouldn't be alone tonight. You should stay with me and Gaius," Merlin insisted.

"I don't want to put you out," Gwen protested.

"Gaius will be happy to see you. You can have my old bed, and I'll take a cot. I'm probably getting the better deal that way."

Gwen managed a small laugh. "All right. Thank you, again."

"It's nothing," Merlin said, shouldering his bag again. He offered his hand and she took it, and he helped her up.

Gaius was labelling a batch of freshly-filled bottles when they arrived. It was obvious that he had already heard the news about Uwen, and he gave them a sad acknowledgment when they walked in.

"Gwen, my dear. Does Morgana need something?"

"We've both been kicked out," Merlin replied.

"Ah," Gaius said, immediately understanding. "Yes, I can't say I'm surprised. Uther was in a similarly foul mood this evening. I've already delivered him a headache remedy and a sleeping draught."

Merlin twisted his mouth, thinking of all the poisons that could be slipped into Uther's medicines. If only there was a way to do it without implicating Gaius.

"Gwen's taking my room," Merlin said. "I thought I'd take the cot."

"There's fresh bedding in the cupboard," Gaius offered, and Gwen went to retrieve them. She was relieved to have something to do, and went to make up the bed.

Gaius looked at him questioningly, and Merlin just sighed. "I'm trying not to think about it," he said, low so Gwen wouldn't hear. He knew very well how much could be overheard from his old room.

None of them could sleep just yet, so Gaius made them a sweet-tasting herbal tea and they sat around the table together, sipping and talking of idle things: castle gossip, the latest scandal from the nobility, the state of the two servants who had snuck off into the woods and tupped right in a patch of poison ivy. Merlin talked about the letters his mum had sent from Ealdor, and Gwen spoke about her brother Elyan, who had left home over two years ago and never written.

"He doesn't know about our father," Gwen said, sadly. "I don't even know if he's even alive."

"I'm sure he'll come back," Merlin assured her. "If he's anything like you and Tom, he'll be all right."

Gwen gave him a grateful smile. She yawned widely and covered her mouth. "Oh, excuse me. I think I'm ready for bed. Thank you so much, both of you."

"Go on, get some rest," Gaius said. "Wake me if you need anything at all."

Gwen stood up, yawning again. She bid them goodnight and went into the little room, closing the door behind her.

"Poor girl," Gaius said. "She puts on a brave front, but she's had a difficult few years. It was her mother's death that drove Elyan away. She worked as a maid in Sir Leon's household. Guinevere and Elyan spent much of their childhoods there, before she became Morgana's maidservant."

"Really?" Merlin said, surprised. "I've never seen Gwen and Leon together."

"Such a friendship would not be considered appropriate," Gaius said.

Merlin frowned. "You know, when I first came here, I walked out from the forest and saw the castle, and thought that I'd never seen anything so beautiful. But it's all a shell, isn't it? Everything is rotten inside."

"The kingdom is not what it once was," Gaius admitted. "But you must not give up on it. Change is inevitable, but we must be ready to make the most of every opportunity."

"I just can't believe he did it."

"Arthur may be the Crown Prince, but he has no power of his own. He cannot change the law until he is king."

"By the time he's king, he's not going to want to change it," Merlin said, frustrated. "He's going to be just like Uther. Why am I even here, Gaius?"

"I believe you are here to prevent that," Gaius said, pointedly. "Arthur is at a crossroads. He is trying to decide what kind of man he is to become. Just as you are, and Gwen, and Morgana. I am old, Merlin, and so is Uther. We are set in our ways. But you are the next generation. You have the potential to transform this kingdom. To make it great again. But you cannot do it alone. You and Arthur need each other."

"You sound just like the dragon."

"I know the two of you have fallen out, but perhaps you should speak with him again."

Merlin crossed his arms. "I don't trust him."

"He helped us against Sigan."

"He doesn't care about anyone but himself. He only helped because he didn't have any choice."

"We always have choices. It is what we do with them that matters." He pushed himself up, slowed by the aches of age. "Perhaps Arthur needs to be reminded of that as well."

Merlin gave a neutral grunt, unwilling to let go of his anger. He'd rather be angry than hopeless and heartbroken, and at the moment those seemed to be his only options.

Before he blew out the last candles, he found a dose of sleeping draught and downed it. It would leave him groggy in the morning, but it wasn't as if Arthur was going to need him. Arthur didn't really care about him, didn't care about anyone but Uther. Arthur would be just fine without him.

Chapter Text

Arthur didn't send for him.

When the first day passed without any messengers knocking on Gaius' door, Merlin told himself that he was glad. That if he saw Arthur, he wouldn't be responsible for what he might do or say right to his arrogant face. He spent his time working out his anger on chores for Gaius, grinding herbs into an unrecognizable paste, scrubbing the floor to a gleam, even voluntarily cleaning the leech tank. Gaius largely left him to it, going in and out of his chambers all day as he mixed potions and treated the castle residents.

Merlin was lying on his back on the floor when Gwen and Gaius returned for the evening. Gwen had accepted their offer of company, not ready to go home to an empty house. Morgana was still in a fury, and in her temper was terse with Gwen and sent her away for the night. Gwen suspected that Morgana was angry with her for going to Arthur first, and blamed her as much as Arthur and Uther for the deaths of Uwen and Linette. Though not related by blood, Morgana's temper was nearly as foul as Uther's, and Arthur's was a close third.

"Merlin?" Gwen said, leaning over him. "What are you doing?"

"Questioning my existence," Merlin sighed.

"Well, you can do that somewhere more comfortable than the floor." She took his hands and pulled until he stood up, and she brushed him off and tried to un-muss his hair. "Did you use your head as a mop?" she chided, pulling out bits of herb and straw and what was possibly a dead leech. She made a face at the last and threw it into the hearth.

Gaius was admiring the unusually pristine state of his chambers, and tapped on the leech tank to greet the leeches. They did not show any sign of greeting him back.

Gwen insisted on making dinner, saying it was the least she could do; she had bought a chicken from the market and soon as had it roasting over the fire while Gaius prepared some vegetables and Merlin cleaned himself up. Merlin's own temper -- what was left of it after wringing himself out all day -- quickly cooled in the face of such happy domesticity. He set the table, which he'd scrubbed clean of odd-smelling concoctions and bits of frog entrails, and by the time they all sat down to eat he was smiling again.

He was reminded of his earliest days in Camelot, when he'd depended heavily on Gwen to help him with the endless chores Arthur piled onto him, as if trying to break him under their weight. He had dogged after Gwen, bewildered by the strange new world he'd been flung into. Camelot had been so entirely different from Ealdor, and after the initial excitement had worn off he had become incredibly homesick. Gwen had become his replacement for Will, just as Gaius had taken the place of his mum (dire warnings and all), and if Merlin closed his eyes he could almost be back with them again, happy together in his mum's dirt floor house, having nothing and wanting for nothing because they had each other.

There was no going back to that place. His mum and Ealdor were safe, but Will was gone, and the visit to Ealdor had shown him just how little he fit into that village anymore. Not that he'd ever fit particularly well, but it had been his home, his world, and things had been simple there. He'd ridden back with Arthur and Morgana and Gwen and accepted that his destiny lay with them, with Camelot. But sometimes it seemed as if that same destiny was constantly trying to pull the four of them apart, straining the closeness they'd felt so intensely in Ealdor. Merlin wanted to pull them all close again, to hold the four of them together, because if they lost each other, it felt as if everything else would fall apart, too. It didn't make any sense; for all his magical abilities he had none of Morgana's visions. But the kernel of fear persisted in him.

They whiled away the evening together, drinking more of Gaius' herbal tea and playing games on his battered old Tafl board. Gwen and Gaius tried to teach him the rules, but he lost rather spectacularly the entire night. He moaned and threw up his hands in despair, but Gwen giggled at him and Gaius smiled and Merlin found he didn't mind losing after all.

§

The second day was easier than the first, and harder. Merlin was in a better mood, but without his anger for protection, the distance from Arthur was like a thorn in his side, persistent and bothersome. Rather than let him mope around the chambers all day, Gaius shooed him out to run errands and gather herbs for him from the forest. Merlin was reluctant to leave in case Arthur came when he was out, but Gaius assured him that an extra hour or two apart wouldn't make any difference.

Merlin did see Arthur once, but he was walking through a hall with his father, listening intently to whatever Uther was saying. Merlin ducked into a curtained alcove until they passed, uncertain if Arthur had seen him and uncertain if he wanted him to have seen him. The meaning of Arthur's straight back and tight jaw was difficult to glean.

After dinner, Merlin asked Gwen what she knew, and she reported that part of Morgana's continued temper was because Arthur was constantly with his father, quietly accepting as Uther lectured him on seemingly every aspect of ruling the kingdom. Along with the fact that Merlin had been removed as his manservant in all but name, Morgana had taken it as a sign that Arthur had returned, as she indelicately put it, to 'licking Uther's boots.'

"What do you think?" Merlin asked.

Gwen looked torn. "I don't know, Merlin. I think that he's a good man, a better man than he believes himself to be. But sometimes..."

She didn't say any more, but she didn't have to. It was Arthur who arrested her father. All too often, Arthur had been Uther's hand, acting out his cruelties upon command -- and worse, out of duty to the kingdom and love for his father. There was little room for questioning in him, little room for doubt of the king that was everything he aspired to be, even as he privately disagreed with almost everything Uther did.

Merlin thought of all the times that Arthur had returned to his chambers fuming and frustrated by Uther's words and actions. There was no one to listen to him now, no one to soothe him and settle his nerves. No one to hold him until he smiled again. It was wrong for Arthur to be so alone. Even if he didn't want Merlin back, even if he was the royalest of royal prats, Arthur still needed to be taken care of. Not because he would be king one day, not because he was supposed to be served hand and foot, but because he had to be hurting as much as the rest of them. Because underneath all his strength and bluster, Arthur's heart was the tenderest of all, and Merlin could not stand aside and let it be bruised and bled.

§

When Arthur didn't call for him on the third morning, Merlin took matters into his own hands. Even if Arthur didn't want to see him, he needed to see Arthur, to know how he was and if he really was licking Uther's boots. Merlin used the morning's deliveries as an excuse to follow Arthur through the castle and spy on him. He hid himself in nooks and recesses and watched Arthur and Uther working together at council and when receiving visitors pleading for assistance and the ruling of disputes.

At first, they did indeed appear to be a united front. Whatever Uther said, Arthur agreed with. When he did oppose Uther, he gave only the barest of arguments, and Uther was pleased by his words and largely accepted them, for they were so very close to his own. Arthur was even more stone-faced than Uther, who had begun to relax in the face of Arthur's unwavering fealty. When Morgana was in room with them, her disgust was evident, risen high even as her grief faded.

But Arthur wasn't happy. He hid it well, but Merlin had made a study of Arthur's moods and knew that there was a great deal roiling beneath the surface. When Arthur and Uther settled in for lunch together, Merlin left them and went up to Arthur's chambers, hoping to find some greater clues to Arthur's thoughts. He let himself in and was shocked by what he found.

The room was an utter mess. It looked like a whirlwind had hit it. Dented goblets and broken plates were strewn on the floor as if thrown at the wall and left there. His fine clothing, clean and soiled alike, was rumpled on the floor and the furniture, and the bed was in disarray. Merlin was almost afraid to look into the side room, but to his surprise it was completely untouched, as if Arthur's rage had been confined only to his own space, unable to pass beyond it.

Merlin sighed and gripped at his hair, not sure where to start. But at the same time, a sort of relief was welling up in him. No matter how composed Arthur might appear from the outside, it was clear that on the inside he was falling apart. Morgana was wrong about him. Arthur was not blindly accepting of his father's rule. He was as upset and in pain as the rest of them, perhaps even moreso because he was the one who had made the mistake of trusting Uther, and the rest of them had abandoned him to his guilt and regret.

Merlin couldn't let this go on. It was wrong, and none of them deserved this. Maybe he couldn't fix it all on his own, but he knew how proud Arthur was, and how difficult it was for him to ask for help or admit his mistakes. Morgana was just as proud and too full of righteousness, and Gwen was grieving and struggling with her own guilt. If he didn't make the first step, this might stand between them forever.

So he did what he could. He cleaned Arthur's chambers, restoring his wardrobe and taking away the laundry. He picked up all the broken wares and put clean sheets on the bed, aired out the room and put fresh flowers on the table. When everything was clean and neat again, Merlin refreshed his own supplies and took them with him back to Gaius'. Arthur would know he had been there because of the flowers; they were his own touch, something he had done regularly since the day Arthur had agreed to train him.

But after all that, he refused to sit and wait in Arthur's chambers. He had made the first gesture, yes, but he needed Arthur to make one as well. He needed to know that Arthur had learned something from this disaster, that Merlin was more than a convenience for him to take or discard as he wished. He went out to the market in the lower town and bought food, then brought it back and started cooking so dinner would be ready when Gwen and Gaius returned for the evening.

§

At first, it took everything Merlin had not to stare at the door, willing Arthur to open it and walk through. He forced himself to focus on cooking, and then once Gaius and Gwen returned, to focus on them. As the evening sky darkened, it got easier not to stare, but for all the wrong reasons. If Arthur was going to come for him tonight, he would have already done so. Merlin tried not to feel disappointed. Arthur probably needed more time. He was probably worn out from the day and only wanted to rest. Maybe he didn't even realize it had been Merlin who cleaned the room, and had found some random servant to yell at for entering his room without permission. Maybe Merlin should have left something more obvious than the flowers. Arthur could at times be startlingly slow about such things.

But he didn't want to go into a sulk. He was tired of feeling sorry for himself. Tomorrow he would find some other way to reach out to Arthur, and damn his own pride. Arthur needed him, even if he was too big a prat to do anything about it.

The three of them spent another companionable evening together, playing games and talking and making each other laugh. Their collective good mood buoyed Merlin, and he forgot about the door entirely. So when Gwen excused herself to go out and fetch some water from the pump, Merlin was the most surprised of all of them to see Arthur standing in the doorway.

Arthur looked surprised, too, as if he hadn't exactly been planning on opening the door. For just a moment, as they all stared at each other, Merlin could see the raw pain in Arthur's eyes, and wondered just how long Arthur had been standing there, listening through the door, trying to make himself open it. And then the moment was over, and Arthur strode inside as if he owned the place, which technically he did.

"You, Merlin, are the only manservant who actually gets better at his job after he's been sacked," Arthur blustered.

Merlin decided not to get distracted by the fact that Arthur had apparently meant to be rid of him entirely, and was so much of a prat that he didn't even have the guts to say it and would have just strung him along for who knows how long. He had to work really, really hard not to be distracted by that. "Consider it a pity cleaning, since it was obvious that you were entirely incapable of surviving a whole two days without me."

Arthur puffed up, affronted. "Well, if I had a proper manservant living with me like I'm supposed to, maybe it wouldn't be such a mess."

Merlin stood up, furious despite himself. "Well, maybe I'll just move back in, then!"

"Maybe you should!" Arthur shouted back.

"Fantastic!" Merlin snarled.

Gaius cleared his throat. "Then I take it that Merin is no longer sacked, sire?"

Arthur sank back on his heels. "No. Yes. He's not..." He glowered at Merlin. "Whatever. Are you coming?"

Merlin just gave him a look and went to get his things. He smiled at Gwen and Gaius and said goodnight very nicely to them, and then gave Arthur an angry squint as he shouldered his bag and walked over. Arthur just glared back at him, nodded to the others, and turned on his heel and stormed off. Merlin rolled his eyes and hurried after him.

Arthur's chambers were the same as they were when Merlin left them that afternoon. There was no sign that Arthur had had any further tantrums to wreck the place. Once the door was closed and locked, Arthur looked rather deflated, but Merlin was still angry about being retroactively sacked, so he went to his own room to unpack. He muttered insults under his breath as he put his things away, calling Arthur a supercilious prat, a cabbage head, a donkey, a clotpole, and a bossy, patronizing, arrogant, egotistical dollophead. He shut his dresser with a satisfying thunk and then sat down on his bed and huffed.

After a few minutes, Arthur knocked on the open door and leaned inside.

"You are an unbelievable prat, do you know that?" Merlin told him. "What if I hadn't come in here? Were you just going to wait until I figured it out on my own?"

Arthur at least managed to be ashamed of himself. "I didn't know how to tell you."

"Maybe there was a reason for that," Merlin peeved. "Assuming there's any sense at all inside that block of wood you call a head."

Arthur stared helplessly at him, but all it did was aggravate Merlin further. He stood up and pushed past Arthur, turned down his bed and began laying out his clothes for the night. Apparently he was going to have to do all the work between them after all, and if that was the way it was going to be, then fine. He was the one who had forced Arthur into a relationship in the first place. He was the one who had demanded to be trained to fight. He was the one who had confessed his feelings, who believed in Arthur when he didn't even believe in himself, who was supposed to keep the kingdom from falling apart at the seams when it would gladly see him die as a traitor. If it was all going to be on him, then fine. Fine.

"Merlin," Arthur began.

"Shut up," Merlin said, in absolutely no mood to hear his excuses. He closed the windows and pulled the curtains, then stood by the bed at attention. "Do you want me to dress you or not?"

Arthur came over to him rather meekly, and Merlin undressed and dressed him quickly, barely touching skin and refusing to linger for a second, no matter how much it hurt to be so close to Arthur and not hold him. That done, he turned his attention to Arthur's arm, and clucked his tongue at the state of his bandage. The dressing was shabbily done, and Arthur had clearly done it on his own because he didn't dare go down to Gaius and there was no one else he could ask for help. Merlin found the last of the salve and a clean bandage and rewrapped it, relieved at least to see that the wound was healing without any sign of infection.

Merlin could feel his anger fading again, and the last thing he needed right now was for Arthur to see him cry. He plastered on a thin smile, because all he wanted to do was pretend that everything was normal. If Arthur just wanted him back as a manservant, then that was what he would get. They would go back to the way things were, and Merlin would keep saving Arthur's life and doing his laundry and polishing his armor and that would be that.

"If you need anything else, I'll be in my room," Merlin said, turning away, but before he could make his escape Arthur grabbed him by the arm and held tight.

"Stop it," Arthur pleaded, voice cracking with emotion. "Please, just stop."

Merlin stilled, but didn't turn around, and Arthur didn't let go. Arthur was breathing heavily, as if he had been running and not standing there uselessly.

"I've never..." Arthur began, and faltered. "I don't know how to do this. So will you please shut up and sit down."

Merlin pulled himself free. "Since you asked so nicely," he said, and sat down on the edge of the bed, his arms crossed.

Arthur paced back and forth a few times, visibly struggling. Merlin almost wanted to put him out of his misery and just forgive him, but if he forgave Arthur without meaning it, he didn't know if they could ever get back what they had lost. It would be lies on top of lies, and Merlin was so tired of lies. He needed something real. He needed to know that there was something worth fighting for.

Merlin lowered his arms. "I'm listening," he said, without rancor, showing Arthur that he was giving him the chance to fix this.

Arthur stopped pacing and nodded, recognizing the gesture for what it was. He rubbed at his face and breathed in, out. "You have no idea what you do to me," he said.

Merlin didn't consider that to be a good start, but he merely raised his eyebrows and reserved judgement.

"I have all these expectations," Arthur continued, dragging out the words. "From my father, from Morgana. From everyone, always pushing to force me to be what they want me to be. All my life, that's how it's been. And then you," he said, pointing at Merlin accusingly. "You come along and you just..." He waved helplessly, struggling. "If you would just do what everyone else does, I could deal with that. I could understand it."

Arthur paused, rubbing at his neck, his hair. Merlin had rarely seen him so agitated.

"Merlin," Arthur said, almost pleading, "you don't make any sense."

"Gee, thanks," Merlin muttered.

"No, look, I didn't mean..." Arthur shook his head. "I just spent three days listening to my father, and he is so certain about everything. He knows exactly how everything in this kingdom is supposed to be down to the last grain of wheat. And I listened to him like I believed him but it was all..." He shook his head. "It's like a joke that everyone goes along with. And I use to believe in it, and now I can't, and the only thing I know is that it's all your fault."

"I didn't do anything!" Merlin protested, wide-eyed.

"Exactly!" Arthur said, as if this was somehow enlightening. "You don't do anything. You don't tell me what to do. You don't try to..." He trailed off with a bitter laugh. "Yet somehow you still... you change everything. I thought if I was alone..." He shook his head, and he looked to Merlin with red-rimmed eyes, with naked pain on his face. "But without you, I..." He hugged himself, and he looked so small and lost it broke Merlin's heart.

Merlin couldn't let Arthur suffer, not like this. He stood up and went to him and pulled him into his arms, and Arthur gripped back so tightly it made Merlin wince.

"Don't you dare leave me again," Arthur rasped.

"I didn't want to, you idiot," Merlin said, tearing up. "You told me to go."

Arthur laughed, a huff of air against Merlin's neck. "You've never listened to me before."

"You absolute prat," Merlin groaned, relieved and exasperated and angrier than ever. He shoved forward until Arthur thumped against the wall, and Merlin punched him on his good arm. "You selfish, egotistical, thick-headed--mmph!" Arthur kissed him, then took advantage of his sudden distraction to turn them so Merlin was trapped between Arthur and the wall. Merlin struggled against him but Arthur wasn't playing around, was pinning him with all his considerable strength.

"I thought--" Merlin choked, furious at Arthur for being so stupid, for doing this to the both of them. Only now could he acknowledge to himself how deeply he had been hurt by Arthur's rejection, how much had been at risk. "If you ever-- Don't you dare, I mean it. You don't know what I would do." If he lost Arthur, truly lost him...

"I wanted to hurt you," Arthur said, low and pained. "Punish you for making me so... so weak. I had to keep you away."

"You wouldn't hurt me," Merlin promised. "I wouldn't let you."

"You would," Arthur said, like it hurt to say. "Sometimes I think you'd let me do anything to you. And it terrifies me."

"No," Merlin breathed.

"I'm just like him," Arthur whispered. "It makes me sick."

"You're nothing like him," Merlin promised.

"Don't lie to me. Please, don't lie. I let him do it. What kind of monster does that make me? How can you..."

"You made a mistake. That doesn't make you like him. I know who you are, Arthur. I believe in you. You're a better man than he ever was."

"Liar," Arthur said, lighter now.

"Don't hate him," Merlin pleaded. "Learn from him. Be better than him. Be the king you're meant to be. For Camelot. For yourself. Please, Arthur. For me."

Arthur shook his head, choking back sobs, denying and denying. Merlin stopped struggling against him and let Arthur hold him, let him use his strength and didn't fight it. Arthur surged against the lack of resistance and pressed Merlin painfully against the stone, but Merlin didn't cry out, didn't wince.

Maybe Arthur was right. Maybe he would let Arthur do anything to him, even hurt him. But he trusted Arthur, he believed in him so fiercely that the belief itself pained him far greater than any bruise. That belief was the only thing Merlin truly had to give him. And maybe that was what Arthur saw in him, what Arthur craved and feared in equal measure. Maybe that was the only thing that mattered.

Arthur was wide-eyed, trembling and staring at him, and it was as if he was balanced on a knife's edge. It hurt to stay where he was, but he didn't know which way to fall. If he was meant to stay his father's son, or follow his own heart, his own truth. And before Merlin's eyes, Arthur made his choice. He stopped struggling, stopped fighting himself, and accepted. It was like the first crack of a butterfly from its chrysalis, or a hatchling from its shell. The fear receded from him, leaving behind relief and a kind of terrible joy, frightening and wonderful. It was a moment that burned into Merlin's memory: the first true glimpse of his king.

Arthur kissed him, fierce and deep, and Merlin met his kiss with equal force. The air seemed to crackle with potential energy, and Merlin knew then that this was real, this was destiny. This was the Arthur he'd been waiting for, longing for. Everything before now had been like light flickering on the wall, and now he was looking into the flame. This was the Arthur he would follow to the very ends of the earth. No matter what happened, Merlin would never leave him again, never be shaken, because Arthur was his, and he was Arthur's, and that was how it was always meant to be.

The release of pressure was so abrupt that Merlin nearly fell, but Arthur was pulling him forward and over to the bed before his knees had the chance to bend. Arthur was already half-naked, clad only in light trousers, so he pulled roughly at Merlin's clothes, frantic to strip him bare. Merlin's fingers fumbled at his buttons as he helped, and he was shirtless with his trousers around his knees as Arthur pulled him into the center of the bed and pressed against him, stared down at him like a starving man before a feast. And Merlin felt just as hungry, just as desperate. It had been nearly a week of tension and separation, of tearing each other apart, and this was the only way to be reclaimed.

Somehow they managed to rid themselves of the rest of their clothes, and then they were gloriously bare, skin against skin, hard against each other's thighs, grasping and kissing.

"Have to fuck you," Arthur growled, pawing at Merlin's arse, pressing a finger to his dry entrance.

"Oil," Merlin managed, trying to reclaim enough coherence to think. "Where's--"

There was a sudden rush of air as Arthur pulled away from him and off the bed, and then just as quickly he was back, thumbing open a phial and pouring out too much into his palm. Merlin rolled over and presented himself to Arthur, and let out a low, satisfied groan as Arthur smeared him and worked two fingers into him, rough and slick. It felt like forever since Arthur last fucked him, but his body opened without hesitation, ready to be taken, to be filled.

"Missed this," Arthur purred, three fingers pressed into Merlin's arse, sloppy from too much oil. "What you do to me..."

"Stop talking and fuck me," Merlin whined, clenching tight around Arthur's fingers. Arthur breathed in sharply and pulled them free, and grabbed Merlin and kissed him and kissed him. Merlin pushed Arthur onto his back and crawled onto him, unwilling to wait any longer. He sank down onto his cock in one long, steady thrust down, groaning aloud as he felt the thick, solid heat of him forcing him open inside.

"You--" Arthur began, and thrust up hard, making Merlin rise and fall and take him deeper. "Have to--" He bared his teeth and thrust again, again, and Merlin met him eagerly, flexing his thighs to sink down as Arthur rose up, the force of it shuddering through his flesh.

Arthur tried to roll them over so that Merlin would be beneath him, so Arthur could pound into him hard and fast, but Merlin wouldn't let him, pinned him with his thighs and his weight. The resistance inflamed Arthur, and he gripped Merlin's cock with his oil-slick hand and began to strip him with it, needing to conquer Merlin in any way he could. And Merlin wanted to be conquered, wanted to be claimed by his king so utterly that Arthur could never let him go ever again.

"Come on," Arthur hissed, squeezing Merlin's cock and thrusting into him as Merlin rode him hard. "Come on, show me. Show me you're mine. Such a slut for me, Merlin, so desperate, so filthy, come on, come on."

It had been too long, and Merlin needed Arthur too much. He came hard and fast, sobbing and hissing in air through his teeth and he clenched around Arthur's cock and spurted all over his hand and belly and chest. Arthur didn't let up at all, still stroking and thrusting as Merlin shuddered through his aftershocks, and even after, until Merlin whined in discomfort and near-pain. Only then was it finally enough for Arthur to release his cock and grab his hips and hold Merlin flush against himself as he poured up into him, and Merlin let his head fall back with a guttural cry.

It wasn't enough, not nearly enough. It barely took the edge off. Merlin leaned forward over Arthur, clenching to keep Arthur's cock inside him, and he dragged his palm through the streaks of come on Arthur's body, smeared it all over him and marked him. Arthur's chest was heaving under his hand as he caught his breath, and Merlin could feel the power and strength in him, coiled up so tightly, waiting for the day it could be fully released.

"I can feel him," Merlin breathed. "My king. Show him to me. My King Arthur."

Arthur made a pained sound and forced Merlin over. He was upon him, curled over him, and then his mouth was over the faded lovebites and sucking hard to make a fresh one, Merlin's shoulder throbbing as his blood rushed up to meet the suction of Arthur's mouth and the gnawing of his teeth.

When Arthur rose up again, the dominance in his eyes left Merlin breathless. This was the man who would conquer all of Albion, who would rule over a golden age. Merlin never wanted to look away. He was in thrall to his king, his high-king to be.

"There," Arthur said, stroking Merlin's cheekbone tenderly, even as he looked upon him with such dominion. "There you are."

"Yes," Merlin breathed, transfixed.

"Do you know what you are to me?" Arthur asked, gentle and unyielding. "A kingdom to be conquered. One so full of mysteries... yet perhaps no mystery at all."

Merlin felt as clear as glass, like Arthur could see all through him, like everything was exposed. And he was safe, he was safe here, held in the grip of his king. "Then conquer me."

Arthur smiled, slow and warm. "I am. I have been. That's what you want, isn't it? What you've been begging for all this time. For me to claim you, shape you, plant my flag into your heart."

"Please," Merlin begged.

"There's so much need in you. I want to open you up and drag it out of you. Make it bend and bow to me, and tame it."

Merlin's magic surged in his chest, thrumming louder than his heart. "Please, please," he begged.

Arthur reached down between Merlin's legs and found his hole, slick with come and oil, and slid three fingers easily inside. "You want more, hmm? You want all of me?"

Merlin nodded, and hitched up his thighs, spread them wider until he felt the strain. He wanted Arthur to reach inside him and pull his secrets from him, wanted Arthur to crack the armor around him and reveal everything hidden beneath. He wanted Arthur to know him, as he now knew his king. They were meant to do this, to bloom together under the sun, to unfurl their hidden wings as one.

"That's it," Arthur soothed, as he worked his fingers into Merlin's accepting body. "My sweet bird. So sweet for me. Open up. That's all you have to do. Just open up for me, so easy."

"Arthur," Merlin sighed, feeling light and heavy, all the tension in him lowered into a dull throb of need that pulsed in time with his heart. Arthur's fingers were warm and wide in him, slippery and probing, sending little spikes of pleasure all through him and making his toes curl.

"Just look at you," Arthur murmured. He leaned against Merlin's raised thigh and Merlin could see his arm flex as he moved his hand. All the hurry was gone from him now, and he was entirely focused on Merlin: on watching him, on splitting him slow and sweet.

Merlin moaned for Arthur, for more, please more. He hooked his hand under his other leg to pull it up to match, and gripped at Arthur with his other hand to anchor himself. He could feel the width of Arthur's hand, still too much as four fingers stretched him over and over. His sword hand, strong and perfect. Merlin knew that hand so well, had held it and kissed it, had bandaged it and been saved by it, over and over. It was entrusted to him as all of Arthur was entrusted to him, and he had nothing to fear from it. He wanted it inside him, needed to be so held, so claimed, beyond all doubt.

The hand withdrew, and Merlin whined and wriggled, empty in its absence. Arthur hushed him and spread his hand low against Merlin's belly.

"I've been thinking about this for weeks," Arthur said, staring at his hand, broad against Merlin's slim body. "I was afraid it would be too much for you. But you're so strong, Merlin. Inside, where it matters. So much stronger than I am."

"For you," Merlin said. "It's all for you, Arthur. All of it."

Arthur gave him a shy smile. "I know. The way you look at me... I want to be what you see. But I can't do it without you. I need that strength."

Merlin let go and put his own hands over Arthur's, cradling it against himself. "You have it."

Arthur leaned in and kissed him. "Do I?"

Merlin's magic burned in his chest, the truth of it caught in his throat, desperate to break free. "I was made for you, Arthur," he said, as close to a confession as he could make it. "Only for you. Whatever you need or want, it's already yours."

"Maddening creature," Arthur rumbled, and gave him another firm, hungry kiss.

Merlin kissed him back, hooking his legs around Arthur's hips, releasing his hand so he could claim him entirely. Arthur was the only thing that mattered, and sometimes that terrified him. For all his magic, all his power, everything came down to one man, as mortal and vulnerable and flawed as any other. Arthur was his heart, his destiny, his home, but all of that was constantly at risk. It would only take one wrong choice, one wrong turn. Merlin only had to fail once to bring their world crashing down around them. That Arthur was so confident, so arrogant could be infuriating at times, but it was also what Merlin needed most: certainty in an uncertain world, a bulwark of strength against all their enemies.

And for a few days, Arthur had taken all of that away. Worse, he believed that he had the right to take it away. If Merlin was meant for Arthur, then Arthur was meant for him. Their destiny could not be divided. For all that he couldn't say, he still needed to make Arthur see that.

Merlin shifted down so he could taste Arthur's shoulder, and he kissed a spot there, mouthed and sucked at it. He was sucking at it urgently before he realized what he was doing, that he was marking Arthur in the same spot as Arthur had marked him, making a sore, swollen bruise that would last for days. Arthur's hand rested on the back of his head, urging him on, and Merlin sucked harder, desperate and wanting.

"Merlin," Arthur groaned, hand tight in his hair.

"You're mine," Merlin moaned, tasting his way up to Arthur's ear. "I need you so much it hurts. It's always going to hurt. Don't you dare leave me again."

Arthur breathed in sharply. "I won't," he promised, brushing aside Merlin's sweaty fringe, stroking his cheek with his thumb. "I can't, not anymore. I tried, but it just--"

"I won't let you," Merlin told him, pleadingly.

Arthur smiled, crooked and endearing. "Good," he said, and kissed him, easy and long and Merlin lost himself again, lost himself in Arthur, in all the sweetness of him. This was all he needed, all that mattered. He could live solely on Arthur's kisses for the rest of his life. They kissed and touched each other until Merlin felt drugged from it.

Arthur lay Merlin down on the bed, and gave him a long, lustful look before leaving him there. He returned with a second phial, and slicked his hand all the way past the wrist. Merlin swallowed at the thought of Arthur so deep and huge inside him, so much more than fingers or cock or even the candle they sometimes used.

Arthur folded him up, sparing an idle caress along Merlin's cock and balls, on the soft stretch of skin behind them. The easy ownership of his gaze and his movements made Merlin clench and open before Arthur even reached his hole.

"Already gaping for me," Arthur murmured, working one finger around the loosened rim, tender from being fucked and worked open once already. Arthur took the still-full phial and eased the mouth of it into Merlin and poured, making Merlin wriggle as the tepid oil trickled up inside him.

"I'm going to be leaking for days," Merlin pouted.

"Mm," Arthur said, stretching Merlin with the mouth of the phial. "Maybe I'll have to stop you up. Come inside you until you're full of me, and then cork you."

Merlin flushed and squirmed. "Arthur," he whined.

Arthur pulled out the phial and turned it around, and pushed the rounded glass inside him, worked it back and forth. It was hard and smooth, so different from Arthur's warmth. When he clenched, it slipped from Arthur's oiled fingers and was pulled inside his body.

"Ah! So greedy," Arthur chuckled, and pressed his fingers in after it. He caught the mouth of it and pulled it out, and Merlin whined at his emptiness. Arthur smirked and gave him two fingers this time, but it was still far from enough.

"Tease," Merlin pouted.

"Wanton," Arthur returned. Merlin clenched, and Arthur laughed. "Trying to pull me in? Do you think my hand will slip inside you as easily as that phial?"

"Yes," Merlin said, and clenched again. Arthur's reply was to skip right back to four fingers, and finally all the slackness was gone, his body taut around Arthur's knuckles like a fitted glove. "Yes," he hissed, and clenched and opened for him, wide and hungry to welcome him deeper.

"Easy," Arthur soothed, slowly working away the burn of the stretch. "My sweet bird. My Merlin. So beautiful when you're like this. When you give yourself so completely. Give me everything."

"Want to," Merlin said, his world narrowing to Arthur's hand, Arthur's voice. "Please, Arthur."

"Shh, don't struggle. You're already mine, remember? Just let me in. Let me open you."

"Yes," Merlin sighed, feeling himself soften, his muscles slacken. Arthur's hand worked in a little further, a little wider. He couldn't clench anymore, just let Arthur spread him impossibly wide. Arthur went so slowly, gentle but ever forward, and Merlin keened with relief. At last he let go of everything. He gave himself completely to Arthur, gave his body without constraint. Arthur's hand slipped in, and in, and oh, oh, oh.

There was the peak of it, the broad of his hand, stretching him and splitting him and sliding past the too-taut ring of muscle, and then it was just like the phial, his body drawing in and Arthur following the pull until Merlin's body closed around his wrist. They both went still, breathing fast, eyes wide at what they had done, at the sensation of Arthur's hand sheathed completely inside Merlin's body.

"Merlin," Arthur said, voice trembling with awe.

"I..." Merlin tried, and gave up, beyond words. He had been breached, his body invaded, but all he felt was the rightness of it. He reached down and pressed his hands over his abdomen, and when he pressed he could feel the solid shape of Arthur's hand within him, undeniable, absolute. Arthur's hand moved inside him, reaching back, and Merlin felt faint and giddy.

"I can feel you," Merlin said, pressing and pressing. "Arthur, Arthur." He laughed, and felt his body flexing around Arthur's hand, and he couldn't... he couldn't...

"Shh," Arthur soothed, stroking him with his free hand. He rested his hand over Merlin's, and the sensation of Arthur touching him from within and without, holding him so completely, was almost too much to comprehend. Merlin had never felt anything like this before, never.

"I could do anything to you," Arthur said, distantly. "Anything."

Merlin gave him a dazed smile. "Stay," he slurred, cradling Arthur inside him. "Please, just..."

"All right," Arthur said. He kept his hand still, only moving his fingers a little, letting Merlin savor him. Merlin rubbed his abdomen, his slim body making it easy to feel Arthur from the outside. He let his leg down so one foot was on the bed, the change in position pulling Arthur fractionally deeper.

"Do you want me to move?" Arthur asked.

Merlin nodded. "Don't pull out. Just... touch me."

Arthur's hand flexed inside him, and Merlin shivered all over as he felt it slide into a fist shape against his hand. And then the fist moved, twisting back and forth, and it was too much, too much. He pressed hard against himself, breathing fast. The fist stilled.

"Merlin?" Arthur asked. There was awe and concern in his voice, and Merlin slowed his breathing, rubbed slow circles over Arthur's fist.

"I'm all right," Merlin said, wanting to reassure him.

Arthur's expression softened, and he kissed Merlin's belly. "I want you to feel good."

"It does. It's just... it's so much. Arthur," Merlin sighed. "Arthur. Thank you."

Arthur gave a soft chuckle. "Should have known you'd love this. You'd take my whole arm if you could."

Merlin felt dizzy at the thought. "Maybe," he breathed.

"Another time," Arthur said. "I don't want to hurt you."

Merlin nodded. He was overcome by what they had done, but the last thing he wanted to do was stop. "You can move now. Slow."

The fist came alive again, spreading into a hand that pressed back against his own. And then it was moving, carefully feeling its way around inside him, gentle but so solid, so strange. Arthur moved above him, adjusting his position, the width of his wrist shifting against Merlin's overstretched rim. Merlin's erection had risen and flagged repeatedly since Arthur had pinned him to the bed and marked him, and it was half-hard when Arthur gripped it with his free hand. It was pleasantly slick from the oil, and Arthur stroked him slow and easy, coaxing his cock into fullness.

"Look at you," Arthur murmured, gazing down at him with wonder and gratification. "So beautiful and open. You're so soft inside, and hot, and wet from my oil and my seed."

Arthur's hand moved, pressing against the sweet spot inside, and Merlin sobbed with pleasure. Arthur rubbed it over and over until Merlin's body clenched around his hand and he came, gasping and keening softly. Arthur caught his come in his palm and brought it up to his own mouth and licked broadly, his eyes staring into Merlin's as Merlin shivered with aftershocks. He fed the rest of it to Merlin, and then fed him his fingers to suck on and moan around as he slowly, gently fucked him with his hand.

"That's it," Arthur purred, bringing the heel of his hand nearly out and then sliding back in until his wrist was buried. With each slow stroke, he grazed the sweet spot again. He murmured soft things to Merlin, praising him, describing him, as he made himself a space inside of Merlin's body. Merlin was floating, hazy and blown, and sucked absently at Arthur's fingers until they were taken away.

"Can you feel how deep I am?" Arthur asked, resting his hand over Merlin's, guiding his touch. "You just keep pulling me in. Your body is so hungry for me."

Merlin couldn't speak. He felt the wider stretch at his entrance, and the way Arthur's hand reached deeper inside him than before. He whimpered and pressed at the solid shape within him, and tried in vain to clench around Arthur's forearm. It was too much, too much, and he shook his head.

Arthur's hand eased back, and when he stopped Merlin felt loose around his wrist. Arthur began to rub inside him again, slow and steady. Every time Merlin felt like he was near another climax, Arthur would still and let him settle again. By the fourth time, Merlin was mad with desperation, begging for release with tears in his eyes.

"So beautiful when you're like this," Arthur said, kissing away his tears. His kissed Merlin's mouth and his lips were salty from them. "When you want me this way. No one else, Merlin. No one but you."

Merlin tried to reply, but then Arthur's hand moved again and he was lost, lost. Once again his pleasure built and built, but then Arthur's mouth was hot and wet around his cock, and Arthur's hand didn't stop. When he came, it seemed to go on forever, the suction of Arthur's mouth and the press of his hand squeezing out every last drop of him. There was nothing left.

Arthur waited for him to settle before he began to pull out his hand. He was slow and careful, soothing Merlin tenderly as they reached the width of his hand again, and then all too soon he was out. In the absence of Arthur's hand, Merlin felt as if he had been hollowed out, felt almost painfully empty, his arse loose and gaping. There was a dip in the bed and Arthur was gone, and Merlin felt as if he was a glove that had been stretched too far and then shucked off. Arthur came back with the wash basin and a soft cloth and cleaned them both up. When that was done, he arranged Merlin so he was on his side under the covers, his head on a pillow, and then climbed in to spoon against his back. Arthur's cock was full and hot between them.

"How do you feel?" Arthur asked, touching him with soothing strokes. Arthur was always so eager to touch him, at every opportunity, and Merlin welcomed it.

"Empty," Merlin said, with a tired, crooked smile.

"In a good way?" Arthur asked, a little shy again, perhaps surprised at how far he had taken them.

Merlin nodded. "Thank you," he said again. Arthur had given him something he would never have known to ask for, but found he needed all the same. To feel so utterly possessed, so undeniably claimed. To know that his own need was equalled in Arthur. It took all the fear and anxiety of the past week and crushed it.

Arthur kissed his shoulder and rested his cheek against it. "I want to fuck you again. Is it too much?"

Merlin thought he was beyond too much, but he inventoried himself as best he could. It was part of being a knight, to know his body, to be honest about it to Arthur. "It's all right. But I don't think you'll get much out of it. I'm so loose." He blushed, somehow still able to blush after what they had done.

Arthur gave a hum of assent, and he touched Merlin's opening. A bit of oil was seeping out of him, and Arthur smeared it as he tugged at Merlin's lax rim. "I like you loose," Arthur murmured, and sank his cock inside with only the barest resistance. He made a choked sound in Merlin's ear, and tightened his hold on Merlin's body as he thrust out and in, his strokes long and deep.

Arthur fucked him tenderly, filling the empty space he had left behind, and Merlin felt as if he had been shattered and the pieces of himself gathered up into Arthur's hands. Arthur was hot and strong and perfect against him, inside him, around him; it was safe to let go here, to let everything he carried spill away. He began to nod off, vaguely aware as Arthur came deep inside him, aware that Arthur didn't pull out, only held him close and touched him, kissed his shoulder, his neck. His body full again, his mind blissfully empty, Merlin drifted easily to sleep.

Chapter Text

Merlin didn't want to wake up. Light touches dipped at the surface of his mind, but he was boneless, full of sated languor, coddled in a warm, soft bed. He resisted the faint tugs at his awareness, grumbling vaguely, and turned away, burying himself deeper under the sheets and against his pillow. The intrusions ceased, and he dozed.

Some uncertain length of time later, the touches returned, and he swatted blearily at them. They were insistent, and Merlin felt warm breath against his neck, and broad, familiar hands. They turned him over onto his back and Merlin cracked open one sleep-gummed eye. The morning light silhouetted the figure above him, catching golden in his hair.

"Morning," Arthur murmured.

Merlin only managed an inarticulate sound, and rubbed at his eyes to clear them. "Mngh," he said, and rolled onto his front, resting his cheek on Arthur's bent arm. "L'me sleep."

Arthur gave a soft huff of a laugh. He stroked a proprietary hand along Merlin's back and through his hair, petting him unhurriedly. It felt nice, and Merlin nearly drifted off again, but couldn't quite manage it. He rubbed his face against the pillow of Arthur's arm and then turned over onto his back again, and winced as soreness twanged through him. It took him a long moment to remember just what he had done to make himself so sore, and then his eyes were open and he was awake, a flush creeping across his chest and face.

Arthur looked down at him with embarrassment and pride, as if simultaneously in sheepish disbelief at what they had done, and arrogant, lordly certainty that Merlin was his to do it to. Merlin might have bothered to be indignant, but the sensation of Arthur's hand moving inside him was still enough to strip him to the bone, even as a fading memory. He swallowed, momentarily overcome, his body clenching around the soreness left behind. He tried to muster some sarcastic comment, a defense against the intensity, but words eluded him, leaving him raw and exposed.

Arthur leaned in, cupped the side of his head, and kissed him, languid yet insistent. Arthur's body moved over him, a heavy, solid weight pressing him into the bed and making him wince against Arthur's mouth. Arthur swallowed the muffled whimper and delved after it, his tongue sliding intimately against Merlin's own.

"Still want to sleep?" Arthur murmured. He gave a shallow thrust of his hip and Merlin winced again.

"Prat. 'm sore," Merlin whined.

Arthur pulled back and gave him a considering look, and then rose off of him and turned him over. Merlin rubbed his cheek against a pillow as Arthur pulled away the covers to inspect him. He slid one finger into Merlin's arse, slipping in fairly easily from the oil and seed still inside him, and Merlin barely had time to squeak in discomfort before it was drawn out again. His entrance felt swollen and tender, and he ached inside.

"No blood," Arthur said, a hint of relief beneath his confidence. "You should be fine with some rest." He kissed the dip of Merlin's spine. "You'll have a soak tonight, and nothing inside you until the swelling's gone."

Merlin turned over beneath him, trying not to wince as he moved. He would probably need to get some kind of salve from Gaius, though he'd have to find some way to ask for it without shrivelling up and dying from utter embarrassment. He certainly couldn't tell Gaius the truth about what they had done, or his eyebrows would fly completely off his face. Merlin gave an involuntary laugh at the image.

"Something funny?" Arthur asked, his own eyebrow raising.

"Nothing," Merlin said, smiling despite himself.

"Oh, I'm nothing, am I?" Arthur teased.

"Your words, not mine," Merlin said, grinning now.

Arthur gave him a mock-annoyed look. "Consider yourself lucky that you're already an invalid. Otherwise I'd have to punish you for your utter insolence. Take away your day off."

"Day off?" Merlin said, perking up.

"If you must call it that. You're on bed rest," Arthur said, tapping his chest with a finger. "And that means you're staying right here. I don't need you until tonight."

"You don't?" Merlin asked, immediately worrying.

Arthur's mood sobered. "My father expects me. I don't want you straining yourself just so you can keep my cup filled."

"I should be with you," Merlin insisted, not wanting to leave Arthur to face Uther on his own.

"You should do as I say," Arthur said, stern but without anger. "I mean it. I know your usual way of following my orders is to do the exact opposite, but I'd rather not have to worry about you today."

Merlin suddenly concerned that Arthur was about to do something rash. "Why?"

"I already told him that Gaius needed you for the week." Arthur gave an apologetic look. "I didn't want to tell him that I was sacking you."

"You didn't want to tell me, either," Merlin said. He was still annoyed about that, even if he had forgiven Arthur for being a complete cabbage head.

"And," Arthur said, forcibly moving past the matter, "it's easier if I deal with my father on my own. If anyone else became involved, it would only make things worse."

"Worse than what?" Merlin asked, warily.

"He's teaching me a lesson. It's not the first time, and I'm certain it won't be the last." Arthur gave a bitter laugh. "As if I haven't been learning the same lessons since I was old enough to sit on his knee."

"Arthur," Merlin said, concerned. He tried to sit up so he could comfort Arthur, but Arthur just pushed him back down.

"He did have a point about the hunting trips. I've been spending too much time away from the castle. I have responsibilities to attend to."

"Oh."

"But I made you a promise, Merlin. I'm not going to let my father stand in the way of that."

"Oh," Merlin said again, this time with warm surprise. "You don't have to, you know. I mean..."

Arthur just gave him a fond look. He began to say something, but a knock on the door interrupted him. "Coming!" he called, and hopped from the bed to pull on some trousers. He came back from the door with a breakfast tray, and the smell made Merlin's stomach grumble loudly.

"I'm going to feed you breakfast," Arthur told him, returning to the bed and setting down the tray. "And then you're going to do exactly as I say. I won't be back until after dinner, so I'll tell Gwen to bring you meals and make sure you don't get yourself into trouble."

Merlin pushed himself up against the pillows. "I don't need to be--" Arthur popped a grape into his mouth, and Merlin chewed it so he could continue. "Arthur, I--" Another grape, and Arthur threatened him with more if he kept going. Merlin gave him a look and crossed his arms as he chewed.

"It will ease my mind to know exactly where you are, and that you're being taken care of," Arthur said.

Merlin uncrossed his arms and sighed. "All right," he agreed. "But only because I've missed your bed."

Arthur fed him a piece of ham. "Careful, or I'll get jealous." He tore off a piece of bread and buttered it, and used it to keep Merlin from interrupting. "You don't have to worry about me. I've been trained for the court my whole life, and despite what Morgana thinks, she's not the only one who knows how to manage my father. And as for what happened..." He fed Merlin another piece of ham. "I think in certain matters, my father cannot think clearly. As Crown Prince, it is my duty to do what is best for the kingdom. I will not see innocents suffer if there is something I can do about it."

Merlin blocked Arthur from feeding him another piece of bread, and swallowed the mouthful he'd already been given. He wanted to tell Arthur how proud he was of him, of his heart and his goodness and how they were the things that would make him a great king, but one look showed him that Arthur already knew what he was thinking. And even if it was almost hidden, subdued behind Arthur's casual air, Merlin could still see the king that was being born in him. Merlin's own heart swelled. Arthur's hand brushed his cheek, and Merlin leaned contentedly against it.

"Good," Arthur said, softly, seeing that Merlin was settled. His thumb stroked Merlin's cheekbone, and the soothing motion took away the last of Merlin's worry. Arthur would be all right.

Arthur leaned in and kissed his forehead. "The sooner you recover, the sooner I can make you sore all over again."

Merlin smiled and blushed. "Maybe not quite so much."

Arthur chuckled. "Not that way. You won't be able to fight if your little bottom hurts."

Merlin's blush deepened, even as he was pleased that Arthur really did intend on continuing his training. He leaned forward and kissed Arthur, mussing his hair as he ravished his mouth. Merlin felt a little breathless as he pulled back, and was satisfied to see that Arthur's cheeks were flushed as well. Arthur cleared his throat and straightened up, trying to compose himself again.

"I think you can manage the rest yourself," Arthur said, nudging the tray over and standing up. He grabbed a handful of food and ate quickly as he went to his wardrobe. He pulled out something suitably formal for a day in court and changed into it. Arthur was quite capable of dressing himself. It was just that usually he didn't see the point, if he had someone else to do it for him.

Of course, that didn't mean there wasn't room for improvement.

"C'mere, you're all crooked," Merlin tutted, and Arthur sat on the edge of the bed and allowed Merlin to straighten his collar and fuss over him. Arthur handed him his circlet and Merlin rested it reverently upon his head.

"There," Merlin said, leaning back against the pillows. "Now you're presentable."

Arthur gave him a long, meaningful look, and then his eyes slid down with a more considering gaze. Arthur went to his wardrobe again and pulled out one of his shirts, then brought it back to the bed. He pulled it over Merlin's head and tugged it down as Merlin slipped his arms into it. It took a moment for Merlin to realize that it was the same shirt that he had been wearing when Arthur returned from Mercia and found him in his bed. Merlin's toes curled with absurd amounts of happiness.

"That's better," Arthur said, and satisfied that Merlin was exactly where and how he was supposed to be, he rose from the bed and strode out to face the day, ready for any challenge that lay before him.

§

Arthur had barely been gone an hour when the door suddenly swung open and Morgana stormed inside. Merlin had been nibbling on grapes while he read one of Arthur's books, and dropped the book in alarm and pulled the covers up to his neck. She was beautiful and vicious in purple velvet, her dark hair cascading around her shoulders, staring at him as if to strike him dead with just her glare.

"I ought to tell Uther about your little arrangement," she threatened. "You'd be lucky if you live long enough to be executed."

"Morgana!" Merlin protested, and then fell backwards as she leaned over him, looming maliciously.

"And here I thought you were better than him," Morgana snarled, furious with him. "I should have known you were as spineless as he is. You deserve each other, only caring about yourselves, about what Uther thinks. Cowards, that's all you are. You deserve what's coming to you."

"You can't!" Merlin protested, wide-eyed. "Please, you don't understand."

"There's nothing to understand," Morgana replied, coldly. "The king's little helper finally decided he didn't want to be without his bed-warmer, and you just crawled right back to him."

"It isn't like that," Merlin said, rallying.

"Then what's it like, Merlin?" Morgana asked, and there was a hint of pleading in her voice, a desperation in her to not want to believe what she was saying. "Explain to me why I just saw the two of them smiling and laughing together, after they murdered three people."

"Arthur is doing what he has to," Merlin defended. "He doesn't mean it."

"Like he didn't mean it when he gave the order to execute Linette?" Morgana shot back.

"Arthur didn't want to give the order. He tried to talk Uther out of it."

"He should never have brought her to him in the first place."

"No," Merlin admitted. "But he knows that now. He knows that he can't blindly trust that Uther will do the right thing."

"Like you do with Arthur?" Morgana sneered.

"I trust Arthur because he's a good man," Merlin insisted. "And you should, too."

Morgana made a dismissive sound and waved her hand. "You're in love with him. And you've been in Camelot for how long? You have no idea how things really work. You think he'd defend you? Defy Uther? Arthur would stand by and let you die, just like he did Linette and Uwen. And yet you trust him with your life?"

"I do," Merlin said, honestly. "Arthur made a mistake, but he won't make it again."

"The same mistake he made with Tom?"

"Arthur helped us with the Druid boy," Merlin countered. "But he can't save everyone. That doesn't mean he wanted any of this to happen. Punishing him won't help."

"You still think you can change him," Morgana realized.

"I have changed him," Merlin said, boldly. "Because I have faith in him. Because I believe that he will be a great king. Uther doesn't believe in him, you don't believe in him, but I do, and I always will, and there's nothing you can say that will change my mind!"

Morgana stared at him, surprised and considering, and Merlin felt rather surprised at himself as well.

"And what exactly has Arthur done to deserve such undying faith?" Morgana asked, sitting down on the edge of the bed.

"Nothing," Merlin shrugged, unable to explain without involving prophecies and dragons and destiny. Without describing the way that Arthur had looked at him last night, and the king in his eyes. The way Arthur made it feel like everything would be all right.

"Oh, I think there's something," Morgana said, clearly on the scent. "Just what have you two been up to these past weeks?"

"Hunting," Merlin said, evasively. He could feel himself starting to sweat, and he tried to think of excuses but his mind went blank. For all that he had learned to be evasive about his secrets, he was still absolutely rubbish at lying when he was confronted directly. It was just as well that Arthur would never think to ask him directly about having magic, because he would probably just fall apart and confess everything immediately.

"But that's not all you've been doing," Morgana surmised. "It's not like Arthur to be so secretive. There's nothing he needs to hide." Her eyes narrowed. "But he might if it had to do with you. If you asked for something that the king wouldn't approve of. Just what is it that you want from him?"

From Morgana's suspicious look, it was clear that she had switched from attacking Arthur to defending him. It was understandable; Arthur and Morgana were nearly brother and sister, and for all that they fought, they tended to band together against external threats. But Merlin wasn't a threat and he didn't need Morgana to classify him as one.

"I would never hurt him, Morgana. I just want to keep him safe," Merlin insisted. He swallowed. "Arthur's training me to be a knight, so I can protect him."

Morgana laughed. "You? A knight?"

Merlin crossed his arms. "Nothing official, obviously."

"Uther would go absolutely spare," Morgana said, her suspicion fading away with her anger. She gave Merlin an indulgent smile. "The way he looks at you, you could twist him round your little finger, and that's what you ask for? That is the most adorable and idiotic thing I've ever heard." She cuffed him on the arm. "You could have just told me."

Merlin ducked his head. "It was private."

"You mean Arthur didn't want me involved." Morgana smirked. "He's afraid I'll show you how it's really done. He never could stand being bettered by a woman." She stood up, gracefully smoothing the folds of her dress. "You won't be running off to the woods anymore, of course."

"No, but--" Merlin said, warily.

"Don't you worry about a thing," Morgana said, with a dangerous sort of compassion. "I know just how to sort this out. And far more skilfully than you two. Neither of you have a lick of sense. If it wasn't for me, anyone could have heard the two of you shouting at each other last night, not to mention what you did afterward."

Merlin went absolutely red.

Morgana laughed, delighted. "Say thank you, Merlin."

"Thanks," Merlin squeaked, quietly dying inside.

"You really ought to be more careful," Morgana said. "But then you wouldn't both owe me such massive favors for watching your backs. I do believe you'll do anything I want from now on."

Merlin reluctantly nodded.

"Excellent," Morgana said, clapping her hands together and looking entirely satisfied. "I think this will work out wonderfully." With that, she turned to leave, off to fulfil her devious ambitions.

"Wait," Merlin called, rising to go after her and then wincing and settling back down.

Morgana gave him a knowing smirk. "Yes?"

Merlin wondered if he would ever be able to stop blushing after this. "You shouldn't be mad at Gwen. She was only trying to help."

Morgana's smile faded. "Gwen is my servant. She should have come to me first."

"Maybe," Merlin admitted. "But you're hurting her, and she doesn't deserve that. She cares about you a great deal."

"I know," Morgana said, regretful. "I care about her as well. Sometimes I forget how much she's been through. She's far too dedicated to me, I'm afraid. It makes her hide herself, for fear of burdening me. As if my nights are not already such a burden on her."

For the first time, Merlin wondered if perhaps there was more to Morgana and Gwen's closeness than mistress and maidservant. If there was something that propriety stood in the way of. But even if there was, they were both too sensible to act upon it. Just as Arthur would have been, if Merlin had not forced the matter.

Perhaps that was why Morgana was willing to protect them, even when she was angry.

"You are not a burden on her," Merlin said, certain of that.

Morgana gave a sad smile. "Perhaps. I will speak with her."

Merlin smiled, relieved. "Thank you. And... thank you."

Morgana actually looked rather touched by that, if also somewhat uncomfortable with anything so earnest. "Massive favors," she reminded him, pointing her finger at him. She turned with a whirl of her dress and walked out.

Merlin slumped back, his pulse finally slowing to normal. So much for a relaxing morning.

§

Merlin's day off continued to be full of interruptions. Gwen came in with lunch, but her melancholy was long gone, replaced with relief and a bubbling happiness. She and Morgana had made up and everything was back to normal between them. Merlin was almost certain that the gentle adoration in Gwen's eyes was similar to his own, when he talked of Arthur. But he understood all too well that some secrets needed to be kept.

Once Gwen had calmed down, she began to fuss over him, concerned that he had hurt himself to the point of bed rest. Merlin turned red again as he tried to explain why he was sore without explaining why he was sore, and when she caught on, Gwen blushed as well. She insisted on getting him a salve from Gaius, and promised to do so discreetly, for which he was eternally grateful. She also gave him privacy to apply it, then fussed over him a bit more before promising to return to check on him later.

Gwen returned again to bring him an early dinner, since she had to serve Morgana at her evening meal with Arthur and Uther. Morgana came by as well, to take Gwen away when she lingered too long, and it warmed Merlin's heart to see the two of them smiling together.

They left him alone, and Merlin finally had a chance to start getting bored before the time Arthur returned from dinner. Unfortunately, he was rather less happy than he had been that morning.

"Arthur?" Merlin called, concerned after Arthur entered and walked over to the window without saying anything.

When Arthur still didn't respond, Merlin eased himself out of bed and walked cautiously over. "Did something happen?"

"Go back to bed, Merlin," Arthur said, tiredly.

Merlin ignored him. "Tell me what's wrong," he insisted.

"It is not your place to tell me anything," Arthur said, and when he turned away from the window it was obvious he was upset about something.

Merlin stood his ground. "Can we not go through this again? I am not leaving. If you throw me out I will come back in again, and if you lock the door I will pick it, so save us both the trouble and just tell me what happened."

Arthur couldn't help but smile at that, though it was a pale effort. "Morgana's blackmailing me."

Merlin laughed. "What?"

"She made an announcement at dinner, right in front of my father. She told him that I'd agreed to spar with her again, rather than let her continue against Leon and the others."

"Oh," Merlin said, understanding dawning on him. "Arthur, it isn't what you think--"

"She warned me she was going to use this against me," Arthur continued, agitated. "This is only the beginning. I refuse to be manipulated."

"Arthur, it's fine--"

"It is not fine!" Arthur said, loudly. "If she tells my father--"

"You know, you should actually listen to him," Morgana said, interrupting them from the doorway. She walked inside, and Gwen followed, closing the door and giving Merlin a smile. "It turns out he's not as stupid as he looks."

"Um, thanks?" Merlin said.

Arthur glowered at her. "What do you want, Morgana?"

"If you hadn't spent the entire meal glaring at me, and then stomped off to your chambers the moment we were dismissed, I would have already explained," Morgana said, exasperated. "You just can't help but think the worst of me."

"Hard-won experience," Arthur shot back, and the two of them glared at each other.

Gwen cleared her throat. "I think what Morgana is trying to say is that she shouldn't have sprung it on you like that."

"Yes," Merlin said, catching on. "And Arthur really wants to thank you for helping us."

"I want no such thing," Arthur protested, and Merlin elbowed him.

"Yes, you do," Merlin told him. "Because Morgana just found a way for us to continue my training."

"She did?" Arthur said, and turned to Morgana. "You did?"

Morgana gave a long-suffering sigh. "Finally. You always have to make things difficult."

"I make things difficult?"

Merlin gave up, walked over to Gwen, and held out his arm. "Gwen, let's go."

Gwen blushed. "Merlin?"

"They're going to be at this for ages. We can go have more of Gaius' tea--" Merlin was suddenly pulled backwards, and Gwen covered her mouth as she giggled.

"Oh no you don't," Arthur said, sternly. "You just said you weren't leaving."

"I said I wouldn't let you throw me out," Merlin protested. "There's a difference."

"You are also not wearing any trousers," Arthur pointed out.

Merlin flushed and tugged down Arthur's shirt. Thankfully it was long enough to cover all the important bits. "Fair point," he admitted.

"Arthur," Morgana said, with as conciliatory a tone as she could probably manage, "I think what you're doing with Merlin is rather sweet. It may also get you both killed. Therefore I fully support it." She smiled at them, and it was only a little predatory. "Uther is happy to indulge me in fighting with whoever I want. And if I feel like sparring with your manservant when I'm finished beating you until you cry, well. He won't even bother noticing."

Arthur reluctantly considered it. "I suppose it makes sense," he said. "But you should have come to me first, instead of putting me on the spot like that."

"Don't tell me what I should have done," Morgana warned. Clearly she had not entirely forgiven Arthur for everything that had happened. "Besides," she continued, softening, "how else was I going to entertain myself? Dinner was going to be absolutely dull otherwise."

"Fine," Arthur agreed, giving in.

"Perfect," Morgana declared. "Merlin, I take it you will need a few days before you're recovered?"

"Um, yes," Merlin said, feeling his ears go hot. He should have stayed in bed and hidden under the blankets. Or possibly not let Arthur put his hand up inside him until he was nearly too sore to walk.

"And Arthur, I assume by then you'll have charmed your way back into your father's good graces," Morgana continued. "So it's a date. Gwen will come along and bandage you up afterwards."

Arthur was unimpressed. "Hilarious as always. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a very chatty manservant to punish."

Morgana smirked at them and left, and Gwen glanced back with bemused concern before following after her. Arthur marched over and locked the door with an extremely firm twist, then rounded on Merlin, who was feeling rather exposed.

"I should get back to bed," Merlin said, sidling over and trying not to wince from the motion. "That's what you said. 'Go back to bed, Merlin.' Here I am, going back to bed."

"There is a saying that describes you," Arthur said, dryly. "Two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead."

"Gaius already knew about it," Merlin said, sliding into bed and pulling up the covers. "That's three people."

"And now it's five."

"Five's a good number for secrets."

Arthur raised an eyebrow. "Is that a saying in Ealdor?"

Merlin shook his head. "No. But every saying has to start somewhere, I thought I could make a contribution." Arthur approached the bed, looking alarmingly determined, and Merlin pressed back against the headboard. "You can't punish me. I'm recovering."

"Oh really?" Arthur said, sitting down on the bed.

"Absolutely," Merlin said, nodding. "First rule of healing. No punishments."

"Does that rule also include punishments that are delayed until recovery is complete?"

"Probably not."

"Perfect," Arthur declared. "Because I have a very, very, very long list of chores for you to complete. I suppose you could end up malingering, but then you wouldn't be able to join me and Morgana on the training field." He clucked his tongue. "Such a quandary for you."

"Do you have to be such a--" Merlin began, and stopped when Arthur's finger pressed over his lips.

"Or, if you're very good, I might be persuaded to find someone else to give some of the chores to. Say, mucking the stables, or washing the dogs."

Merlin squirmed and immediately regretted it. "My persuasion might be rather limited," he admitted.

"Use your imagination," Arthur said, and beckoned expectantly. "I'm sure we can think of a better use for your mouth than telling secrets."

§

Morgana was proved right about Uther's indulgence of her, and as he loosened his grip on Arthur, he made a point of leaving a gap in Arthur's morning schedule for her. And so with Uther's blessing, the four of them found themselves out on the training field, while in the distance Leon led a group of men through their usual exercises.

Uther actually watched them for the first half-hour, as Arthur and Morgana warmed up and sparred, but he soon lost interest and went inside to deal with whatever awaited him. It wasn't until Uther was gone that Merlin could allow himself to relax, and he waited until Arthur and Morgana finished working out their aggression on each other before asking Gwen for help with his mail.

"It suits you better now than it did in Ealdor," Gwen decided, as she buckled his gauntlets.

"Do you really think?" Merlin asked, pleased.

Gwen smiled. "Arthur's been good for you. And you've been good for him, too. He's learning how to listen to people."

"Slowly," Merlin agreed. "But I suppose anything is an improvement."

"I've known him all my life," Gwen said, looking at Arthur as he stretched his sword arm. "Mostly from a distance, but... you help bring him out of himself. He needs someone like that. He'll be a good king one day."

"You really think so?" Merlin asked. He believed it, of course, but he knew that he was hopelessly biased. Gwen's opinion meant a lot.

She turned to him and her smile turned melancholy. "I really do. Camelot deserves a better king. Someone who will be fair and just, who will be loved by the people and not feared. That hope is what keeps me going."

Merlin took her hand and squeezed it in sympathy. "Arthur will be a great king. We'll make sure of it. All four of us, together."

Gwen's smile warmed again, and she squeezed back. "I'd like that."

"Oi, Merlin!" Arthur called, and swung his sword. "Get your lazy backside over here."

"And if that doesn't work out, we can help Morgana stage a coup," Merlin said, rolling his eyes.

Gwen giggled.

Merlin trotted over to where Morgana and Arthur were standing. He was fairly certain that Morgana wasn't just going to sit back and watch them fight. She had that look in her eye that preceded large amounts of meddling.

"Now where were we?" Arthur said, looking at Merlin consideringly. "Ah yes, positions. Let's go through them again."

"Oh, you have got to be joking," Morgana drolled. "You've had weeks with him. Did you even let him hold a sword?"

"Yes," Arthur ground out. "But it wasn't going to do him much good if he didn't have the strength to swing it."

"You could have taught him and built him up at the same time. You were avoiding it."

Merlin stared at Arthur, betrayed. Arthur looked guilty and annoyed.

"Don't worry, Merlin," Morgana assured him. "This way you can learn from the best, instead of whatever he's deigned to allow you."

"Oh, you're the best, are you?" Arthur said, taking refuge in bickering.

"You're a brute," Morgana declared. "You and the rest of your precious knights. There's more to fighting than muscle."

"I had my hands full building him up," Arthur retorted. "He's only ready now because I made him that way."

"I don't care which one of you deigns to allow me anything, as long as someone does," Merlin said, peevishly. He gave Arthur an extra glare for good measure. He couldn't believe that Arthur had been dragging things out after everything that had happened! For that, Arthur could just forget about any imaginative persuading for at least a week. And no extra chores, and he was going to make Arthur sleep in the side room and take the big bed all for himself.

"Then let's get started," Morgana said, pulling on his arm.

"We'll both teach him," Arthur compromised, tugging on Merlin's other arm. Morgana and Arthur glared at each other and then both let him go, much to Merlin's relief. He did not want to be the rope in their tug-of-war.

"We'll take turns," Morgana agreed. "I'm going first. Why don't we see what you can do?" She moved into a ready stance.

Merlin smiled and readied his own stance. Morgana twirled her sword just the way Arthur did, a touch of flashy arrogance. Merlin had seen it all before, and wasn't intimidated.

Each fight was quick, as quick as any with Arthur and with the same result, but they were also completely different. Even though Morgana had obviously learned the same tricks, she used them in unexpected ways. Where Arthur tried to overpower, Morgana worked to undermine, to catch unawares. After five minutes, Merlin was reeling, and one good blow from Morgana was enough to knock him on his arse.

"Your turn," she said, satisfied.

"Give me... a minute..." Merlin panted, catching his breath. Arthur waited about ten seconds, and then impatiently hauled him to his feet.

"Don't think beating him actually means anything," Arthur told Morgana.

"I'm showing him how to fight with his head and not just his muscles," she replied. "What do you think, Merlin? Did you learn anything?"

"Actually, yes," Merlin said, and smiled at her.

Morgana gave Arthur a smug look, and he glared at her.

"My turn," Arthur said, facing Merlin. "I'm not going to go easy on you."

"So you've been saying," Merlin replied, pointedly.

Arthur swung, and when Merlin blocked the force of it sent tremors through him. That was enough to show him just how much Arthur had still been holding back. Merlin managed to survive a merciless two minutes before he was flat on his back and panting, his arms feeling like they were about to fall off.

"Learn anything from that?" Arthur asked, pleased with himself.

"Ow," Merlin whimpered.

"Merlin, are you all right?" Gwen called.

Merlin raised one arm to wave her off, and then let it fall back down. "M'fine. Whoa--" Merlin yelped as Arthur hauled him up onto his feet again and then slapped him on the back.

"Take a break and have some water," he said. "Then it's Morgana's turn again."

"Great," Merlin said, with weak enthusiasm. He was realizing that he had perhaps bitten off more than he could chew. Arthur was bad enough on his own, but with Morgana around they would both be extra competitive. And he was stuck in the middle. On the bright side, he was going to learn a lot about swordfighting, assuming his arms didn't fall off.

Gwen handed him some water, and he gratefully gulped it down.

"Go easy," Arthur reminded him, sitting down next to him.

"I think we've wasted enough time on easy," Merlin said, still mad at him.

Arthur did manage to look apologetic, so perhaps he was learning after all. "I suppose she's right. I could have pushed you harder. Taught you as we went along. But I wasn't avoiding this. I just wanted you to be ready for it."

"I've been ready this whole time," Merlin said.

"You know what I mean."

Merlin made a noncommittal sound. "Don't play games with me, Arthur. Please. This is too important to me. I don't want to believe that I can't trust you."

"No more games," Arthur promised. "Not that I was playing before. I just..." He shrugged. "I liked spending time with you. Out there, just the two of us. I liked watching you grow stronger. I suppose I didn't want it to end too soon."

All of Merlin's anger melted away. "I liked it, too," he said, offering a smile.

Arthur smiled back, then leaned in. "I'll tell you a secret."

"Sure you can trust me with it?"

"Yes," Arthur said, and lowered his voice. "The secret is, I think Morgana's style might be a better fit for you. And if you tell her that, I will absolutely never hear the end of it, so button your lip."

Merlin mimed buttoning his lip.

"Good," Arthur said, straightening up. "Tonight we'll work on your self-defense, just the two of us. I want you to know how to use those knives, and all the other things you've argued with me about. You still have no idea how to get out of a chokehold."

"All right," Merlin said, trying not to sound pleased about it. He had only been upset about the self-defense training because it had stood in the way of the swords, but now it seemed he could have both. And the more he learned, the better he would be able to keep Arthur safe. That was all that really mattered, in the end.

Chapter Text

Though he would never admit it to Arthur, Merlin quite enjoyed some of his chores and actually looked forward to them. Not the laundry, with its caustic lye, or scrubbing the floors, which made his knees hurt, and certainly not anything involving bodily excretions, human or animal. His favorite was tending to Arthur's armor and weapons, because they were important and it was an honor to be the one responsible for them. In a way, he had come to consider them extensions of himself, a mundane sort of magic that wrapped around Arthur and kept him safe, that struck out and felled his enemies. No matter how tempted he had been, he had never actually spelled any of it, because Arthur might be oblivious about some things and eager to take the credit even when he didn't quite remember winning, but as Merlin had recently been reminded, there really were limits to what he could get away with.

His second favorite chore was directly attending Arthur, to bathe him and dress him. Especially now that his hands on Arthur's body were the perfect excuse for more heated activities. Arthur had taken to chiding him for making him late in the mornings and mussing his hair, but the few times that Merlin actually listened to him and tried to keep his distance, it only made Arthur chase after him and end up even more mussed than usual.

His third favorite chore was the grooming of Arthur's horses. There were four of them, huge, beautiful beasts, two brown and two white. They were the finest in the land, strong and well-trained, fierce destriers that would not bolt or shy from battle. Arthur tended to reserve his white horses for more formal affairs, such as visits to nobility or castle festivities. But it was the brown horses that he favored, and they were the pair that carried them on their ventures out into the woods, or on important missions. Arthur always took the stallion, Hengroen, and Merlin the mare, Llamrei, who was the more even-tempered of the two.

For all their power and boldness, however, they were gentle creatures, and Merlin adored them. He groomed them until they were soft as silk, and snuck treats from the kitchen for them, risking the wrath of the cooks. His spoiling of them made Arthur roll his eyes and complain that Merlin was ruining them and making them soft. Merlin responded by doing what he usually did when Arthur started whining, which was ignore him, though as a tactic that had the effect of making Arthur pester him further because he hated being ignored. Fortunately the pestering was far more enjoyable these days.

Merlin had just finished grooming Hengroen when there was a commotion outside the stables. Merlin stroked the horse's flank to assuage him and then went to see what was going on. He caught Edelin as she hurried past, carrying a bolt of cloth. The seamstress must have been in the market.

"Has something happened?" he asked, growing concerned.

"An invasion!" Edelin said, breathless. "South past the mountains. Best go in, the prince will have need of you."

Merlin didn't need to be told twice. He ran into the castle, over the bridge and through the courtyard, up the stone steps and into the the main hall. The room was full when he arrived, and he weaved through the crowd to where Arthur was standing to take his customary place behind him. Arthur didn't acknowledge him, for he was focused on the weary and ragged men who were telling their story to Uther.

"...reinforcements, or more land may be lost," finished the leader of the group.

"Nothing has been lost," Uther declared. "Alined is a fool if he thinks he can hold an inch of my kingdom. We will send aid to Lord Wichard at once." He stood and face the crowd. "Camelot is at war. Arthur, it is your task to drive every last Deorham man from this land. Begin preparations immediately."

"Yes, sire," Arthur said, his back straight and head held high.

"Alined thinks to test our strength. But it is he who will bend under Camelot's might." Uther turned back to the leader. "You must be rewarded for your service. You shall all dine with me tonight..."

Whatever else Uther had to say, Merlin missed it as he hurried after Arthur, who was already striding out to fulfil his orders.

"What's going on?" Merlin asked, very worried now. "I thought Alined was part of the peace talks."

"He is," Arthur said. "He must be desperate. He knows his position is weak, and he wants to strengthen it."

"By going to war?" Merlin said, baffled. "That doesn't make any sense."

"Deorham is the only one of the Five Kingdoms that is directly on Camelot's border. If Alined can take the south and hold it, he can use it as a powerful bargaining tool and force concessions from Camelot. Without it, his kingdom is the weakest of the five."

"Oh." It made an awful sort of sense. "So we're going to drive him out?"

"Exactly." Arthur turned onto the steps, and Merlin followed him up. "Fortunately for us, Alined has more ambition than sense. He does not have enough men for a full-scale war, nor the treasury for mercenaries. He exhausted both in fighting off the Saxons."

Arthur stopped, and Merlin realized that they had come to the archive vault. Arthur nodded to the guards and pulled a key from his belt to unlock the door. Inside was a gated area, which Arthur unlocked with another key, and inside of that was the archive. It was a large space with tall bookcases, which contained the books too precious for even Geoffrey's watchful care. Arthur went over to a sturdy cabinet and unlocked that, and after a moment's consideration pulled out a set of scrolls. He brought them to the reading desk at the center of the room and rolled them out, weighing down the corners with the small weights that lined the desk. They were maps.

"Have you ever seen maps like these before?" Arthur asked.

Merlin shook his head. "Nothing so detailed." He traced his finger along the heavy black line of the kingdom's border. "I never realized Camelot went so far south."

"The castle is centered in the northern half of the kingdom," Arthur explained, pointing, "closer to Escetir than to Caerleon. Directly above us are the Northern Plains. We rode through that and then northwest to reach Mercia, remember?."

"I remember," Merlin smiled, thinking of their visit there. Despite his worries about Bayard and Terit, the few days they had spent had turned out to be surprisingly pleasant, with Terit insisting on lavishing them with praise and rewards for rescuing him from his curse. Bayard had remembered him from the incident with the poisoned goblet, of course, but merely saluted his bravery and his loyalty to his master. And then there had been the private celebrations in Arthur's lavish guest room.

"Good," Arthur said, smiling back. He turned back to the map and cleared his throat. "Now, the upper half of Camelot is bounded by three mountain ranges: the White Mountains, the ridge of Escetir, and the Mountains of Isgard. This affords the castle great natural protection. The downside is that it keeps the lower half of the kingdom somewhat isolated. It's similar to the situation in Ealdor, though obviously the King does not neglect his people the way Cendred does."

"So what's down there?"

"Farmland, mostly," Arthur said, pointing to the little villages and towns that dotted the map, the larger of them with symbols to indicate that they supplied wool or grain or other resources. "There are tower houses placed strategically near the borders to ward off bandits and invaders. The south also has our only access to the sea."

There was a symbol on the map, a set of concentric circles with a dark center. "That's the labyrinth where Anhora tested us," Merlin observed.

"The port is south of there, at a natural harbor. The rest of the coast of Meredoc is rocky and unsuitable. Because of the trading port, the lord of the keep is quite rich, and has some very fine swordsmiths. Remember Merek? That's his family."

"Will he be coming to help?"

Arthur nodded. "His strategic knowledge will be invaluable. Even the best map is no substitute for a man." He slid one of the other maps over. "This is a closer view of the south and the kingdoms around it. Deorham takes up most of our southern border, but there's also Nemeth, which keeps trying to lay claim to Gedref, and over there is Gwent."

"Too bad there aren't any mountains there."

"Indeed," said Arthur. "The area is valuable, yet we have not protected it as well as we should. Our attentions have been on Mercia, but with the treaty we can afford to strengthen our fortifications elsewhere. Fortunately our treaty with Cenred has held over the years. The eastern border was where I fought my first campaigns." He sighed. "No sooner do we secure one front, then another opens up."

Merlin didn't like it when Arthur worried. He was usually so confident, it was a bad sign when he wasn't. "Do you think Alined will be a problem?"

"No," Arthur said, only somewhat hesitant. "But it concerns me. All our reports have been that Alined does not have the resources to spare for such an attack. Yet from this latest news, the castle at Gedref has been taken. To do so with only three hundred men... he must have some other advantage."

"They took our only sea port?" Merlin said, quite alarmed despite having not been aware of its existence until now.

"And we're going to get it back," Arthur said, his confidence returned.

"Do we leave tomorrow? Should I start packing?"

Arthur chuckled. "You have a lot to learn about campaigns, even for a skirmish such as this. It will take time for men and supplies to be readied. We need enough men for a siege. Five, six hundred. More if we cannot gain a swift victory."

Merlin tried to imagine such an army, and worse, how many might die. The scale of it seemed impossible. The whole of Ealdor barely reached a hundred people, from the oldest grandmum to the smallest babe. True, Camelot was a bustling city of thousands, and Nimueh's plague had killed dozens, but that had been awful enough.

"Don't look so worried," Arthur said, clasping him on the shoulder. "I've faced far worse."

"Right," Merlin said, mustering his courage.

Arthur softened. "I know that you have never seen battle, and I will not lie and say it is a pleasant thing. If you wish to stay behind, I will not think less of you."

That was all it took to stoke Merlin's bravery. "You already know my answer to that," he said, fully determined to remain by Arthur's side, no matter the danger. He had faced down griffins and sorcerers and Sidhe to keep Arthur and Camelot safe. He would not be cowed by an army.

"I know," Arthur said, with a fondness and pride that filled Merlin's heart. He rolled up the scrolls and fixed them with a ribbon. "Come on, we have a great deal to do."

§

The next few days were the busiest in Merlin's life, and that was saying something. Both castle and town threw themselves into the preparations, and everyone was put to work. Gwen fired up her father's cold forge and assisted the smithies, and Morgana pitched in to help Gaius pack bandages and fill batches of various remedies. But it was Arthur who stood at the center of the organized chaos, coordinating and directing, with Merlin as his messenger and general dogsbody. Merlin barely had a moment's rest, running between the stables and the armory, the kitchens and the seamstresses, the leather workers and the carpenters and the forge, helping each of them where he could and passing messages from Arthur before noting their progress for his own reports back. And then there were the gathering soldiers, the mounted knights and the archers, and the discovery that a battle was not merely men but a whole train of servants behind them, nearly as many as were fighting: to cook, to mend, to sharpen, to clean.

It was dizzying and exhausting and exhilarating, too, despite his fears. Everyone else was going about their duties as if this was no more unusual than the bustle before a royal feast. Dissents faded into the background, the everyday squabbles and spats set aside in the joined spirit of unity against a common threat.

Merlin had not thought much of the fact that shortly after his arrival in Camelot, Uther had signed the peace treaty with Bayard. Ealdor was an isolated village, its people poor but largely content, and with little interest in distant lands. Will was his only connection to the idea of cities and castles, of kings and knights, and Will had bitterly rejected the whole lot of them. The sudden appearance of the Mercians in their sumptuous blue was merely another novelty in a host of novelties, and one that quickly turned sour with Morteus poison. Merlin had been too focused on protecting Arthur -- and then too delirious with fever -- to pay much attention to the greater drama that had unfolded around him.

Camelot had been at war with Mercia, and before that with Escetir. It was very strange to think of his old kingdom -- as far as he ever considered himself to be a part of Escetir, which was very little -- as a threat to his current home. At some point, a younger Arthur had crossed the ridge between their kingdoms, marched right past Ealdor with neither of them the wiser. Arthur had fought in two wars, led men into battle and brought them home again, victorious enough to help Camelot win two treaties against powerful foes. And all of these people, the villagers and servants and nobles, to them this was just one more skirmish, another in a long line of wars stretching back for years, decades.

Maybe to them, the war on magic was just more of the same, the Great Purge and all that came after it just one more threat in a land full of threats. For all his faults, for all his tyranny, Uther was a powerful man, a strong leader, and his people might fear him but they also had tremendous faith in him, faith that he had earned through hard-fought victories. If he lied to them, they had no reason not to believe him. And even if they knew better, they might not want to. Merlin only had to look around to see how everyone banded together against a distant and relatively minor invasion. Who would dare dissent in the face of a greater threat?

"You're being quiet again," Arthur said, nudging him and drawing him from his thoughts.

"Hm?" Merlin said, startled. "Oh. Yeah, just thinking."

"Don't strain yourself," Arthur said, mildly, then gave Merlin a considering look. "You were frowning. Worried about tomorrow?"

"Nah." Merlin grinned broadly. "Alined won't know what hit him."

"Oh, he'll know," Arthur said, with a menacing glint in his eyes. "I'll make certain of it."

"I bet," Merlin said, finding such a confrontation very easy to imagine. "I can't wait to see his face."

"If only," Arthur said, and leaned back in his chair and stretched. "Alined might wear a crown, but he is more suited to scurrying behind walls than standing on a battlefield. He would not have the courage to lead such a raid. It will be one of his lords, or some relative with ambition."

"That's disappointing. I was looking forward to running him through."

Arthur looked at him with surprise, then broke into a grin. "That reminds me of something." He took one last drink from his cup and then was halfway out of the room before Merlin caught up with him.

"Do we need to go over the inventory again?" Merlin asked, thinking about what they might have missed. Nearly all the men had arrived, and the supply train was fully stocked. "We've got weapons, armor, shields, arrows and spare bows, gloves, saddles, grain for the horses, grain for the people, dried meat, potatoes, oh and the carpenters finished with the ladder parts, are you sure they shouldn't put them together before we go?"

"Not unless you want to carry a thirty-foot ladder across half of Camelot," Arthur said, turning to take them down the steps. "They will be assembled once we know what we're facing. Have I mentioned how much I hate sieges?"

"Once or twice," Merlin lied. Arthur had been going on about it incessantly.

"I don't know what's worse," Arthur complained, clearly not bored with the topic. "Being stuck on the inside, trapped with dwindling supplies and no escape, or on the outside, wasting lives against a wall. Give me an open battle any day, with a nice even plain. It might be bloody but at least it's quick, and if you're lucky it's over before anything starts to rot."

Merlin scrunched up his nose. "Ew."

Arthur looked equally displeased. "At least the heat's finally going. You don't know what stench is until you've smelled a summer siege. If time was not so short, we could gather our full forces. Six thousand men, maybe eight if we pressed every able-bodied man into service."

"Against three hundred? I like the sound of that."

"It would take weeks, months to ready such an army, and it is better that we strike quickly with a smaller force than wait for Alined to gain more ground. He could use the gold from the keep to buy mercenaries. He may have already made promises to them, expecting to be able to pay their wages with his spoils." They walked out across the courtyard, in the direction of the armory. "The peace talks cannot come soon enough."

"Do you think your father can get everyone to agree?"

"I think everyone is eager for peace," Arthur said, thoughtful. "This endless squabbling is a waste of lives on all sides. Especially with the harvest coming up. Too much war means both sides starve, and grain rots in the fields."

Merlin had lived through enough hungry winters to understand. There were years when Cenred taxed them so heavily that they barely had enough to eat, and had to scrounge in the forest for acorns to make it through to the spring. It was only now that he realized that those taxes had helped pay for the war against Camelot.

"What would it take to really stop it?" Merlin asked, almost to himself. "To put an end to war?"

"It's been done before," Arthur said. "In the time before the fall of the Fallen Kings. And once again before that. All of Albion united under one shield, one High King. Golden ages of peace and prosperity."

A chill ran down Merlin's spine. "Maybe it could happen again."

Arthur chuckled. "Perhaps. But I do not envy whatever fool tries to achieve it."

The armory was empty, and stripped nearly bare as its resources had been diverted to the supply train. Arthur went to the far wall and opened a cabinet that usually contained a large number of gauntlets. "Close your eyes," he said, as he reached inside.

"What?" Merlin said, smiling with confusion.

"I said close your eyes," Arthur insisted, amused.

Merlin rolled his eyes and then put his hands over them. "Happy?"

There was a soft clink of metal. Merlin nearly peeked, but managed to restrain himself. He had no idea what Arthur was up to, though it was probably trouble.

"Now open them."

"Bossy," Merlin muttered, and dropped his hands. Arthur had laid out a complete set of armor and mail, along with a sword and shield. Merlin frowned at it, still confused. "Do you want me to dress you? I didn't think you had time for practice."

Arthur hit him on the arm. "These are for you, idiot." He grinned and leaned in. "You can't be a proper knight if you don't look the part."

Merlin blinked at him, then stared at the armor, then back at Arthur again. "Are you serious?"

"Of course I'm serious," Arthur said, and it was his turn to roll his eyes. He picked up the surcoat and shook it out. "Let's see how it fits you."

Merlin wasn't entirely sure that this wasn't somehow an elaborate joke, but he slipped off his jacket and kerchief and raised his arms so Arthur could dress him. First there was the surcoat, then the mail, then the braces and plating. It wasn't the battered training armor he was used to, or even something leftover from another knight. Everything was new and gleaming, as finely made as anything Arthur wore.

"Arthur," Merlin breathed, entirely at a loss. He looked to Arthur in astonishment, but Arthur just smiled and put the helmet onto his head.

"There's room on the belt for a knife as well as a sword," Arthur said, buckling the sword belt around his waist. "Use one of the pair of long knives, like Morgana showed you." A long dagger was her preferred weapon outside of the castle, he had discovered, since it was not allowed for her to go about wearing a sword and mail like Arthur did, and anyway a lady had to have more class and poise than a knight, even when travelling. "And last but not least, your shield and sword."

The shield bore the Pendragon crest on its front, and rested comfortable but heavy on his arm. The sword was fine and sturdy, lighter than Arthur's sword so it would be easier for him to swing, but long enough for his height. Merlin gave it a few experimental swings, and turned to Arthur, grinning and speechless.

"Oh, and one last thing," Arthur said, and picked up a strip of red cloth and tied it around Merlin's arm. It was a favor. A favor.

Merlin was not going to cry. He was not. But even Arthur had a suspicious sheen to his eyes, and he was looking at Merlin like he was proud of him, really, truly proud of him.

"For good luck," Arthur said, letting go of the end of the cloth. "I expect you to keep it on under your shirt until this is over. Pack your armor with my things, and you'll start wearing it once we reach the Mountains of Isgard. And remember, all of this is to keep yourself safe for me, so you can stay by my side. Don't even think about charging off on your own."

Merlin nodded, overcome. His heart felt so full it might burst from his chest. Arthur had made him his knight, and at long last Merlin truly felt like one. He stood tall and proud in his armor, feeling the weight of it but not dragged down. He had never felt so utterly, absolutely safe, so much like he belonged, that he had been accepted. There was only one thing he could do.

He knelt before Arthur and bowed his head. "My king," he said, full of meaning.

Arthur took the helmet from him and tipped Merlin's head up to face him. "My knight," he said, with fondness and no trace of mockery. He held out his hand for Merlin to take, and then pulled him to his feet.

"Guess it fits me," Merlin said, shyly.

Arthur's answer was to kiss him, slow and sweet and thorough. When he pulled away, he left Merlin feeling rather weak in the knees.

"We leave tomorrow at first light," Arthur said, collecting himself. "I know how busy you've been, so take the afternoon to sort out anything you need to, pack anything you'll want with you. I know Gaius will want to see you before we go."

"Right, yes," Merlin said. He put down his shield. "I should pack this first."

"Let me," Arthur said, and swatted Merlin's hands down. Merlin let him fuss, realizing that Arthur might put up a good front, but underneath he was as nervous and worried as the rest of them, and Merlin had long come to understand that Arthur actually found it soothing to do things for him, to spoil him and fuss over him. In moments like this, private and close, that coil of tension in Arthur would unwind and reveal so much tenderness inside.

§

Once his new armor was safely packed away, Merlin did go to see Gaius, who was dealing with his nervousness in his own way, by cutting out bits of frogs to use for something foul-tasting. It took a lot to ruffle Gaius, but when he was upset he was a terror to the amphibian population. Merlin felt a bit guilty for being the cause of a significant population drop since arriving in Camelot.

Morgana was gone from her usual spot, as all the medical supplies had been prepared and packed. It made the room feel emptier than usual, and Merlin felt a twinge for leaving Gaius on his own. It was the same twinge he felt for leaving his mum alone in Ealdor, even though of course he saw Gaius almost every day. But he was about to be gone for weeks, and didn't know when he would be back. He touched the knot of the favor under his sleeve.

"Arthur says we're leaving tomorrow," Merlin said, sitting down across from Gaius. There was an unidentifiable bit of frog on the table and he flicked it away. Gaius glanced up, then turned back to his work. The last time Merlin had seen him so angry, Merlin had just traded his life for Arthur's and had come home expecting not to make it through the night.

"You know I have to go with him," Merlin said, wanting Gaius to understand. "It's what I'm for."

Gaius relented and put aside his tools. "I know, my boy. But it isn't easy to sit and watch you march off into danger."

"I'll be all right. The mood Arthur's in, I'll be lucky if he lets me out of his sight the whole time."

"Arthur will be too busy to keep an eye on you," Gaius said. "And I'm well aware that you'll be too busy watching out for him to watch out for yourself. You've actually managed to become even more single-minded about him than you were before, a feat I hardly thought possible."

Merlin stuck his tongue out at him.

"How very mature," Gaius said, but amusement softened his frown.

"Are you going to come see us off tomorrow?" Merlin asked.

"Of course, and so will Gwen and Morgana. So no goodbyes just yet." Gaius picked up his tools and quite deliberately went back to his flayed frog.

Merlin gave him a wry look. He understood that Gaius had his own way of dealing with worry, and knew that tomorrow morning he would be hugged within an inch of his life. He also thought that perhaps Gaius had a point about Arthur. No matter how determined Merlin was to stay by his side, he had no idea what might happen when they reached the keep. If he was relying on his new sword to keep Arthur safe, and doing his best not to risk using his magic in the midst of hundreds of magic-fearing soldiers, he was going to need some help. Something that would give Arthur an edge against his enemies. After what had happened to Linette, Merlin could not risk enchanting his armor, but there had to be something else, something that wouldn't be suspicious, something...

The sword. The sword. That was what he needed. It was perfect. Uther himself had used it without suspecting it was magic. And if Uther didn't realize, Arthur wouldn't either, nor would anyone else.

"I have to go," he said, standing up. "I just had a really good idea."

"I'm afraid to ask, so I'm not going to," Gaius said, dryly.

Merlin grinned at him and hurried out.

§

It was strange to be back at the lake without Arthur. They had not returned there since their training had been interrupted, and without Arthur there, the placid waters did not feel quite so welcoming. Merlin stripped quickly and dove in.

Even though he could feel the general proximity of the sword, the dragon magic in the blade making his own magic sing in his veins, it took a while to actually get to it. His swimming stirred up the silt, clouding the water, and the center of the lake was actually quite deep. But eventually his reaching fingers touched metal, and he grasped the hilt and swam to the surface, his lungs aching.

As his feet found purchase on the muddy bottom, Merlin raised the sword up from the water. It was as golden and perfect as it had been the day he threw it into the lake, without the barest hint of rust.

"Take me up," Merlin said, reading the engraved markings aloud. The wind stirred in the trees, and he shivered, the back of his neck prickling. He suddenly felt that he was not alone. He hurried out of the water, looking around for whoever might be watching, but he didn't see anyone, and the wind died down again. He hurriedly dried himself off and dressed, then wiped the sword clean and wrapped it in the damp towel.

For all that he had come to love this place, and the swimming and training and other things he had done with Arthur here, there was still something unusual about the lake. It was the dragon who had told him to hide the sword here, and Merlin had been in no position to argue with him at the time. Yet it was odd to have hidden it in the same place where he had peered into the gates of Avalon. Perhaps it had not been wise to put something so powerful anywhere near the Sidhe. He had never told the dragon about that particular adventure, but then again the dragon usually knew what was going on before Merlin told him. And he was quite smug about it, too.

But there were no glowing Sidhe at the lake now, no impossible glimpses of their home. The lake was just a lake. The sword was safe in his hands, and soon it would finally be where it belonged.

§

It was nearly dark by the time he reached the castle, and with the long day ahead Merlin wasted no time in returning to Arthur's chambers. He burst inside, still a little breathless, and was greeted by a frowning, angry Arthur.

"Where the hell have you been?" Arthur said, walking over. "I've been looking for you for hours."

"I had to run an errand," Merlin said, defensive, caught off-guard by Arthur's irritation. "You said I should take care of things."

"You missed dinner."

"I'll get something from the kitchen," Merlin said, waving the matter off. "Arthur--"

"This is the last time we'll be alone for weeks," Arthur said, definitely pouting now. "And you just disappeared. Why do you smell like the bottom of a lake? What are you hiding behind your back?"

Arthur reached around him, but Merlin skittered out of reach. "It's a surprise," Merlin said, as Arthur closed in on him. "I'm sorry it took so long, but it was important."

Arthur stopped, his eyes narrowing. "Important?"

Merlin backed toward the side room. "Just give me a minute. I want to do this right."

"Do what right?" Arthur asked, but Merlin was already safely behind the closed door. He breathed out, slumping in frustration, and then shook it off. This wasn't going quite how he had hoped.

Merlin lit the candles in his room with a glance and unwrapped the sword. He wiped off the smudges of dirt and gave it a brief rubdown with a polishing cloth, just for good measure. He didn't have anything fancy to present it on, like velvet or silk, so he folded up the blanket from his bed -- it was the nicest cloth he owned -- and lay the sword upon it before folding it over once again. The sword probably deserved a more ceremonious presentation than this, but Merlin was used to making do.

"Close your eyes," he called through the door.

"Merlin," Arthur began, impatiently.

"Come on, I did it for you. Just close your eyes."

"Fine," Arthur said, like he was doing Merlin a massive favor and wasn't happy about it. "They're closed."

Merlin shook his head. Sometimes he really wondered what he was doing with his life. He cracked open the door and peered through, making sure that Arthur had indeed closed his eyes. Arthur was sitting on the edge of his desk, his arms crossed and his eyes shut. Merlin crept over to him and went down on his knees and held out the covered sword.

"You can open them now."

Arthur did, and gave him a curious look. "What exactly was this errand?"

"It's something I was supposed to give you a long time ago. And I couldn't, but I think you should have it now. To help keep you safe during the battle."

Arthur lifted the corner of the blanket as if he was half-expecting something to spring out and bite him. His wariness faded and his brow furrowed as he drew away the covering, revealing the gleaming blade beneath.

"Where did you get this?" he asked, awed and wary.

"Um, Gwen's father. Before he died."

Arthur gripped the hilt and raised the sword to inspect it. "It definitely looks like Tom's work, but I've never known him to do any engraving."

"That was, um, something special I had added."

Arthur raised his eyebrows at him. "I know exactly how much you're paid, and I know that you send most of it to your mother. There's no way you could afford this."

"It didn't cost anything. Gwen gave it to me to help protect you. When you were supposed to fight the black knight."

Realization dawned in Arthur's eyes. "This is the sword my father was talking about. The one that went missing."

Merlin nodded.

Arthur held out the sword and swung it a few times, cutting the air. "He was right about the balance. It's almost perfect." He pushed off from the desk and swung the blade around, testing it out, then smiled, delighted. "No, it's actually... it is perfect. Like it was made for my arm. Merlin, this is fantastic."

Merlin smiled, incredibly relieved. He folded the blanket and set it aside. "You really like it?"

Arthur was transfixed by the blade. "I do. Absolutely."

Merlin gave a little hum of happiness; it felt like a persistent itch that had finally been scratched, like the completion of a long-unfinished puzzle. Even the sword seemed to feel it, the timbre of its call dropping to a contented hum as Arthur fondled the hilt.

Arthur lowered the sword and shook himself, as if breaking from a trance. He turned to Merlin, who was still kneeling, and looked down at him.

"Gwen must be repaid for her father's fine work," Arthur said, low and thoughtful. "And since that sword is worth a king's ransom, you've just given me a very expensive present."

"But... but it was a gift," Merlin protested. He moved to stand but Arthur pushed him back down. "Gwen said she didn't want anything."

"That makes her an extremely generous friend, one who would do anything to help when my life was in danger. But it's not in danger now. You will repay her."

"What?" Merlin squawked. "You just said I couldn't afford it."

"Then I'll just have to give you a raise."

Merlin snorted. He hadn't had a raise since coming to Camelot. Not even when Arthur had officially moved him in. "I don't think any servant is paid enough for that."

"No," Arthur admitted. "There is another option. You could give the sword back--"

"I can't!" Merlin said, alarmed. He could only imagine how furious the dragon would be if Arthur gave the sword back to Gwen. What if she sold it? Only Arthur was meant to wield it. "No, absolutely not."

"Oh, you forbid it, do you?"

"Yes, I do," Merlin said, firmly.

"Then that just leaves us with one choice."

Merlin dreaded to think. "I sell my body in the lower town?"

Arthur chuckled. "It's not yours to sell."

"Oh," Merlin said, squirming at Arthur's proprietary tone, and the fact that Arthur was still keeping him on his knees with one firm hand.

"Do you know the reason that Camelot's lords continue to send their sons for knighthood?"

Merlin furrowed his brow, baffled at the change in topic. "Um, so they can protect the kingdom?"

"Mostly," Arthur said. "But they're given something extra. When a man is knighted, a reward is paid to his family, in gratitude of his service and in compensation for the risk to his life. It keeps the nobles happy and it keeps our armies full."

Merlin looked at the seriousness in Arthur's eyes, at the sword in his hand, and he shook his head and laughed. "Arthur, you can't. I'm not really a knight." It did hurt to admit it, but he never had any illusions about it ever being real. It was a game between them, a play-act, and that was fine. He didn't care a whit about money or titles. The only thing that mattered was that he could be good enough to keep Arthur safe, that he could be worthy of Arthur's love.

"You went down on your knees before me and you pledged yourself to me," Arthur said, with weight behind his words. "More than once you have sworn yourself to me."

"Yes, but--"

"Can you look me in the eye and say you didn't mean it?"

Merlin met his gaze. "I meant it. Every word. But--"

"Is there any reason why I should doubt your word?"

Merlin stilled, his mind racing. Because I have magic. Because I'm a sorcerer. Because I'm a liar. And all of it was true, all of it was every reason why Arthur would doubt him if he knew. But as long as Arthur didn't know, none of it mattered. Yet still he hesitated.

"Merlin?" Arthur asked, softly.

"Because I'm nothing," Merlin said, before he could stop himself. Shame flushed through him. He was nothing without his magic. All his life he had felt that way. He feared that his power made him a monster, but loved that it made him special. In Ealdor, he had constantly wavered between the two, embracing and rejecting his magic in turns, and yet for all his struggles he could not imagine life without it. And now he knew that he was magic, that he was a creature of magic, perhaps no more human than the dragon. If he denied that magic, if he cut himself from it, what was left? There was nothing. He was nothing.

"I know you don't mean that," Arthur said, stern with concern. "A man who believes he is nothing has no passion, no courage, no love. And the man I see before me has all of that and more. He is the bravest man I know because he fights even though he should not. Because he loves when he should not. And in everything he does, everything that matters, he gives everything he has. He is not nothing. Not to me."

Merlin didn't know what to say, and his throat was too tight to speak. He had confessed one of his deepest fears, and Arthur had simply swept it away, banished it in the space of a few breaths. He had wanted so badly for Arthur to believe in him, to believe in Merlin the man, because he had been convinced that that part of himself wasn't real, could never be real. That all of his worth was in his magic. But if Arthur believed in him, maybe that would be enough. Maybe that would make him real.

But for all his hopes, he had been certain it would always be a dream. That it would be enough for him to give everything he had for Arthur, and for Arthur to accept that and make what use of it that he could. It was all right that way, because he was meant to serve Arthur, he was meant to sacrifice for him. And if he died for Arthur, if he drank poison for him and traded away his life for him, gave his body and heart for Arthur to keep, all of that would be enough. It would be all right. Because Arthur mattered, and he didn't.

But he mattered to Arthur now. Maybe it was only the version of Merlin that was half made of lies, but even if he couldn't see the magic, Arthur could still see right through him. And Arthur still wanted him, still cherished him, still wanted to bloody knight him. And more than anything else, that was what Merlin needed. He was born for Arthur, made for him. And if Arthur wanted him to be his knight, then Merlin would be his knight. He would be it with everything he had.

"Do it," Merlin said, his eyes clear. "I'm ready."

Arthur stared down at him, concern and pride and so many other things flickering in his eyes. It almost hurt to look at them, but Merlin would not turn away. He stared up at Arthur and let him see all the belief he held inside himself, all the love and pride and worship of his king, his Arthur. He knelt with his back straight and his head held high, and no matter what Arthur did next Merlin had already made his choice. The choice that he had made before, that he would always make. The choice that he was born for, with or without his magic.

"I will fight for you, my king," Merlin said, swearing his own oath. "Against any foe, and with all my strength. I will serve you as your knight and nothing will keep me from your side. Everything I am is yours."

With the dragon-forged blade, Arthur knighted him, first one shoulder and then the other. And at Arthur's command, he rose, transformed.

Chapter Text

Merlin rose to his feet ready to take on all of Albion in Arthur's name. He stood for Arthur, proud in his service, and Arthur looked back at him with pride that gently overflowed. Merlin remembered that day in the training field, which seemed so long ago, when he had first glimpsed such belief. Even as a servant, Merlin would have followed Arthur into battle, would have given his life for him without hesitation, as he had before. But it was all different now, because now Arthur saw him, now he understood. Because he was Arthur's knight.

This was where he belonged. This was what he was made for. He had no doubts, no apprehension. His heart sang pure and true, a clear tone resounding within him. His magic hummed with satisfaction.

"My liege," he sighed, contented. "My lord. My king."

"Merlin," Arthur murmured, tenderly. He smiled, soft and shy, perhaps flustered by the depth of Merlin's fealty. He brought the back of his knuckles to Merlin's cheek, and traced the curve of it.

"Tell me, my lord," Merlin said, shifting closer, his joy making him daring. "How may your knight best serve his king?"

"You will stay by my side. You will fight for me, and with me, and come home again." Arthur gave a wry smile. "That is an order. And as my knight, you must actually obey me."

Merlin grinned. "Must I?"

"Unquestioningly," Arthur insisted. "And without evasion or complaint."

Merlin affected indignation. "When have I ever disobeyed?"

Arthur gave him a look. "Would you like a list?"

Merlin shifted closer still. "Upon review of that list, I think you will find that each time it was for your own good."

"Perhaps," Arthur said, his hand cupped against Merlin's neck. It slid back to comb into the short tufts of Merlin's hair, then guided him forward. The kisses that followed were soft and sweet, unhurried. Arthur held him, and Merlin held him back, savoring the feel of Arthur in his arms and against him.

"You'll come back alive and whole," Arthur murmured against his lips. "Disobey me, and I'll have you in the stocks for a week."

Merlin laughed in surprise, but the tension in Arthur's body gave away what his light tone did not. "We'll both return safely," he promised, certain that he would do anything to make it true.

"Don't," Arthur warned, tensing further. "Such promises are bad luck."

"You don't believe in luck."

"No," Arthur admitted. "But I'd call upon it for you."

"Arthur," Merlin protested, deeply touched.

"I know you'll be brave for me. I know that you'll make me proud. But I wish this hadn't come so soon."

"Whatever happens, we'll face it together," Merlin said, calm and certain in the face of Arthur's worry. He brushed his fingers through Arthur's hair and kissed him again, trying to soothe him. "There is not an army in all of Albion that could keep me from you."

Arthur gave a shuddering sigh, and Merlin could see a crack in the defenses that Arthur guarded himself with. Behind them was all the fear that Arthur harbored in his breast, all the tension and worry that had filled him up over the days since the attack was reported, hidden under a front of absolute confidence. Merlin remembered Ealdor and their moment together before the battle.

"It's all right to be scared," Merlin said, echoing Arthur's words. Arthur tried to look away, but Merlin guided him back. "I'll keep you safe."

Arthur gave a strangled laugh.

"Trust me, Arthur," Merlin said, stroking down his back. "Let me take care of you."

Arthur shook his head, trying so hard not to be vulnerable.

"Trust me," Merlin said, soft and certain.

Arthur held his gaze for a long time, searching into the depths of it for any hesitation or fear. But there was nothing like that to find, not in the love and faith and trust pouring freely from Merlin's heart. The old fears and frustrations that had dammed it up were gone, broken and washed away because Merlin belonged now, he belonged to Arthur and with him and for him, and nothing could stand against such knowledge.

Arthur's acceptance was slow and wary, but the relief in him was palpable as he slumped in Merlin's arms. Arthur took deep, shuddering breaths and let himself be held, and Merlin held him, welcomed him into his heart. He wanted to wrap his magic around Arthur, keep him safe in its warm, golden glow. Arthur had given him so much, more than he had ever thought he could have, and Merlin wanted only to share it back.

Merlin stepped back and took Arthur's hand and led him to the bed. Arthur was unresisting as Merlin sat him down and began to undress him, slowly and reverently. When Arthur was naked before him, the vulnerability in his eyes was almost painful to look at, and Merlin ached for him.

"Lie down," Merlin said, and Arthur complied, settling onto his front. Merlin climbed onto the bed and straddled him, and began to work the stress from Arthur's shoulders, kneading and massaging the taut muscle and sinew. He worked his way down Arthur's body, down to his fingers and toes, until the tension was forced out of him and his breathing was easy and even. Merlin kissed Arthur's shoulder and rolled him onto his back and continued on, and Arthur watched him with increasingly hazy eyes.

"Better?" Merlin asked, as he kneaded Arthur's thigh.

"Mm," Arthur hummed, and gave a little thrust of his hip. He was half-hard, and Merlin had deliberately skipped past his cock. "Going to take care of this?"

"Eventually," Merlin said, fighting a smile. Arthur's mood had to be improving for him to be so cheeky.

"Tease," Arthur said, but relaxed again as Merlin moved down to his calf. He finished with Arthur's other leg, then climbed off the bed and retrieved the wash basin, dosing the clean water with rose oil, which Gaius recommended for relaxation. He knelt over Arthur and began to wash him with the scented water, first his feet and then working his way up, moving the soft, damp cloth in slow circles, careful not to spill onto the sheets.

"Can't go into battle smelling like a girl," Arthur muttered, but it was obvious that he was enjoying being so pampered. He almost purred as Merlin washed between his fingers and rubbed the soft skin of his wrists.

When Arthur had been cleaned on both sides, from head to foot, Merlin set aside the basin. Arthur was on his back again, utterly pliant and smiling softly. Merlin felt a swell of fondness for him, for his stubbornness and pride, for the big, soft heart that all his defenses protected. Merlin undressed at last and straddled Arthur's legs, and bowed to serve his lord with pleasure.

"Oh!" Arthur gasped, roused from his languor by Merlin's mouth and hands. His hands came up to settle in Merlin's hair, resting there as Merlin nosed and lapped at his thickening cock. His skin tasted of roses and musk, and Merlin savored it as he took his time, feeling Arthur's cock grow heavy and hot against his cheek and mouth. When he finally took Arthur in, it was to suck him all the way to the root, and Arthur hissed in and groaned, his hands tight in Merlin's hair.

"I'm going to miss this," Arthur groaned, as Merlin's lips pressed against the trim, crisp curls of his groin, and his tongue laved the underside of his cock. The head of Arthur's cock pressed into his throat, and Merlin drew back when he needed to breathe. When he sheathed himself around Arthur's cock again, Arthur gave a helpless rut against him. Merlin hummed and slackened, and let Arthur take control.

Arthur was almost gentle as he fucked his throat, pulling back to let Merlin breathe and not pulling too hard at his hair. But there was no doubt of his dominance as he buried himself to the root over and over, thrusting slow and holding deep. There was no question that Merlin's mouth was his to use, to fill and fuck, and Merlin wallowed in the certainty of it all. And when Arthur held himself deep and came, Merlin hummed with satisfaction, savoring the traces of Arthur's seed as he pulled out.

When Arthur released him, Merlin bent down to Arthur's spit-soaked balls, continuing his worship without pause, a pleasant, dull soreness in his throat and Arthur's come sliding into his belly.

"Merlin," Arthur said, voice cracking with emotion. Merlin looked up at him through his lashes and saw how wrecked Arthur already looked, glassy from climax and breathing ragged. Merlin shifted and spread Arthur's legs so he could taste the soft skin of his inner thighs, and Arthur moaned low and gave himself over to Merlin's supplication.

"Have to fill up on you," Merlin murmured, as he kissed his way up Arthur's front. He stopped at a nipple and sucked at it, feeling it crinkle against his tongue. He rolled the nub of it lightly between his teeth, and relented only when Arthur was squirming and swallowing back whimpers. Then he went to the other nipple and did the same, until the whimpers were no longer swallowed back.

"Merlin," Arthur moaned, dragged him up to kiss him. Their tongues slid together as Arthur chased the taste of himself in Merlin's mouth. They rolled over together, and Arthur was heavy over him, pressing him down and trapping him. Arthur was hard again, and frotted against Merlin as he took his own fill, tasting his mouth and his neck, caressing and teasing his body. Merlin laughed as Arthur's roaming hands tickled over his sensitive sides, then moaned as they gripped him, claiming and possessive. Arthur pulled one of Merlin's legs up to hook around him, giving him room to thrust between his thighs.

Merlin could not deny that he was tempted, especially since it would be weeks before he could have Arthur inside him again. As incorrigible as Arthur was about fucking him, Merlin knew he was just as bad about needing to be fucked. They had managed to steal a few minutes in bed that morning, but hands and mouths were only enough to whet their appetites, especially after days so busy that all they had been able to do every night was collapse into sleep. He pushed away Arthur's insistent hands and wriggled free, which took some effort as Arthur was keen to hold on to him.

"Where do you think you're going?" Arthur said, somewhere between a pout and a smirk.

"Where do you think?" Merlin replied, retrieving a fresh phial of oil. When he brought it back, Arthur tried to take it from him, but Merlin held it out of reach. Clearly being pampered had made him even bossier than usual, a feat which should barely be possible.

"I believe I said something about obedience," Arthur reminded him. "Or are you going to be as terrible a knight as you are a servant?"

"And I said it was for your own good," Merlin retorted, unamused by Arthur's jibe. He had worked hard to become Arthur's knight, and it was far too new a thing for jokes. The battle still lay before them. When all this was over and Merlin had proven himself, then Arthur could tease him all he wanted. Which he assuredly would. Merlin doubted that he would ever grow out of being a pest.

Unable to reach the phial, Arthur brought his hand between Merlin's legs instead, teasing him with caresses that deftly avoided all of Merlin's most sensitive areas. "Intolerable prat," Merlin whined, trying not to squirm because that was what Arthur wanted him to do. Arthur wanted to make him desperate enough to give in, but Merlin wasn't going to let him win tonight, no matter how good it felt to lose.

But Merlin's resistance only made Arthur more determined, and the next thing Merlin knew, he was on his back and Arthur was mouthing up his inner thigh, one hand pinning his hip as the other played behind his balls. Merlin's grip tightened on the phial as he moaned loudly.

Arthur stopped his teasing and crawled over him. "So noisy already?" he smirked, rubbing his knee between Merlin's legs and making him moan again. Arthur caught the second moan in his mouth, and the third and fourth as one hand joined the teasing to rub and tweak a nipple. "Going to have to gag you tonight," he murmured, smug as his words made Merlin breathe in sharply. But when he reached for the phial again, Merlin gathered his lust-addled wits and dragged it out of reach.

Arthur crawled after him, stalking like a cat. "Going to be like that, is it?"

"You're impossible," Merlin laughed. "I'm supposed to be taking care of you tonight."

"So you are," Arthur admitted, his ego pleasantly flattered. "And how exactly do you intend to serve me?"

"I wish to give my king pleasure," Merlin said, pressing his advantage until he had Arthur pushed onto his back and was over him. "Something to keep him warm on the cold, lonely nights ahead."

Arthur gave him a lazy, arrogant look, raking his eyes up his body. "Better than the warmth of your arse clenching around my cock as you come?"

Merlin struggled not to squeak, and felt his cock twitch. "Possibly," he said, annoyed at how breathless he sounded. "Consider it my reward."

Arthur gave a fond, indulgent smile. "Your reward for being my knight? What about the gold?"

"Give Gwen my gold," Merlin declared. "Pay her for her father's sword. It's worth a hundred tourney chests if it keeps you safe."

"Every knight of Camelot should be so generous," Arthur said, pleased. He touched the favor that he'd knotted around Merlin's arm. "She'll be the richest servant in the kingdom."

"No," Merlin said, leaning down to kiss him. "Because I have you. And the gold of a hundred million tourneys couldn't buy you from me."

When Merlin drew back, Arthur's cheeks were pink, and he had turned shy. "That's more than all the gold of Albion."

"Yes," Merlin agreed, and ran his fingers through Arthur's hair, the silken gold of it glinting in the candlelight. All the gold of the east would still not be enough to rival the worth of one strand of Arthur's hair. "So you see, I'm being terribly greedy, when you think about it."

"Absolutely," Arthur agreed. "It's fortunate for you that I'm so terribly generous." He brought his hand down to Merlin's erection, and held it in his warm, rough hand. "Tell me how you'll spend your reward."

Merlin bit his lip as Arthur's thumb rubbed teasingly at his foreskin. "I want..." he began, trying to find the words to describe what he wanted to do to Arthur. "I want to show you what you do to me. To make you squirm and beg under my hands."

The dark of Arthur's eyes widened, and his thumb pressed deliciously on the underside of Merlin's cock. "Tell me more."

Merlin swallowed back a moan. "I want to make you come until you can barely stand the pleasure of it. To make you so hungry that you'll never have enough. I want to press my tongue into you and open you up with my fingers, with my cock."

Arthur's hand stilled, but he didn't let go. "To fuck me?" he asked, quietly.

"Please, Arthur," Merlin begged, his need for it burning in him. "Please. I'll never hurt you. I can't."

"I know," Arthur said, gently.

"Do you know how it feels, when you're inside me? You fill me up and claim me. You make me know that I'm yours." It hurt to say it all aloud, but he needed to tell Arthur everything. He didn't know what was waiting for them in Gedref, if this would be the last chance he'd have to share this pleasure with Arthur. Not because Arthur would fall, because Merlin would not allow that to happen, but because ensuring Arthur's life might require the sacrifice of his own. And he would make it gladly, but the selfish part of himself wanted as much of Arthur as he could get, for as long as he could. He wanted everything.

"I want all of you," Merlin continued, pained by the admission. "That's how greedy I am. I want you to know that you're mine."

Arthur didn't reply. For a long moment, he looked vulnerable and afraid, and so very young. Merlin imagined that this was how Arthur had looked all those years ago, when some rough knight took him with little care and made him bleed. But Merlin had not forgiven himself for the now-healed wound on Arthur's arm. He would never again make Arthur bleed, would never treat him so cruelly.

"If it hurts at all, I'll stop," Merlin promised. "But it won't. You feel so good in me, Arthur. I want you to feel that, too."

"All right," Arthur said, giving in despite his reluctance.

Merlin grinned and kissed him, thanking him wordlessly. He knew how difficult it was for Arthur, how much it meant that Arthur was willing to give him this. He also realized it was going to take some work to get Arthur relaxed enough to make this completely painless. He coaxed Arthur onto his front and began to massage him again, using a bit of the oil on his hands as he kneaded the tension from Arthur's back and thighs.

"You can just keep doing that," Arthur slurred, and Merlin chuckled.

Even after the massage made him nearly boneless again, Arthur began to tense up as Merlin touched his arse. Fortunately, the slick press of Merlin's tongue was familiar enough to ease him again. He had no objections to having Merlin's mouth anywhere on his body, and hummed low with pleasure as Merlin feasted on him and rubbed between his thighs.

"That's nice," Arthur slurred, and clenched around his tongue.

"I knew you always wanted an arse-licker," Merlin snickered.

Arthur laughed, warm and open. "No one licks arse like you," he said, and gave an eager push back to demand more. Merlin obliged him.

When Arthur seemed amenable, Merlin finally stopped and tipped some oil into him, which made Arthur clench and squirm at the sensation. Merlin slicked his fingers before abandoning the phial again, and began the slow work of opening Arthur up. Fortunately, Merlin had a plan, based on months of experience of being opened up himself. When he found the sweet spot inside of Arthur, he began a relentless tease of it, brushing it with his fingertips and then abandoning it to stretch at his rim before delving back to it again, over and over. He kept at it until Arthur was squirming beneath him, pushing back against his hands and opening and clenching eagerly, his hands fisting at the sheets and his toes curling. Merlin smiled to himself as he pressed his fingers in again, and this time would not relent, but rubbed and kneaded at the spot until Arthur clenched hard and came, gasping sweetly.

"Want me to stop yet?" Merlin teased.

"Don't you dare," Arthur said, thick with lust.

Merlin chuckled and slid another finger in alongside the first two, and stretched the rim until it was pleasantly lax. Merlin was achingly hard, and had to give himself a painful squeeze to take the edge off his arousal, lest he come too quickly. He slicked himself and tipped a bit more oil into Arthur for good measure, and then positioned himself, and pressed in.

Arthur tensed at once, and Merlin stopped, the head of his cock just barely inside. He rubbed Arthur soothingly, telling him not to worry, that they were taking this slowly. He pulled away and kissed Arthur's back, rubbed between his legs at the soft skin behind his balls. When Arthur nodded that he was ready to go on, they tried again. The second time, Arthur clenched painfully tight around the head of Merlin's cock, but told him not to pull out, to let him get used to it. And gradually, slowly, he did.

It took a long time for Merlin to work his way down. The process was almost agonizing in its slowness, in the patience it took as Arthur tensed and relaxed again, a fraction of an inch at a time. But it was worth it, so worth it to sink into Arthur at last, to know that Arthur felt no pain, to give him this and to take it.

And then he was there, sheathed completely in the slick, tight heat of him. He couldn't move at first for fear of coming instantly, and he rested his sweaty brow against Arthur's back, struggling for self-control.

"'s good?" he asked, voice tight.

Arthur gave a choked, strained laugh. He was breathing fast, but he reached back to grip Merlin's arm. "Yeah," he said, sounding faintly amazed.

Merlin laughed in relief, a breathy huff against Arthur's back. His arousal finally began to edge back to something he could manage. He shifted, and Arthur gave a very unkingly squeak, and Merlin smiled to himself. He pulled back a fraction and then pushed in again, and Arthur made a high, tight sound, so raw and tender that Merlin was instantly addicted to it.

"I think I hate you right now," Arthur gasped.

"Oh really?" Merlin said, giving him another shallow, sound-inducing fuck. "Doesn't sound like it."

"If my father could see me now," Arthur said, a trembling smile in his voice.

A bolt of furious lust ran through Merlin at the thought of Uther seeing this, seeing the manservant sorcerer staking his claim on his son. His hips snapped almost involuntarily, and he hissed in air as Arthur gave a startled, heavy groan.

"Let him see," Merlin snarled, finally starting a rhythm. "He'll never take you from me."

He fucked Arthur steadily, holding him close, cherishing him as they gasped and moving as one. No one else had ever had this part of Arthur, not even the man who had taken something so precious as Arthur's trust and damaged it. No one had ever held Arthur as he writhed, had felt the vibrations of his moans, the clenching heat of his body. No one else knew these sounds, this sweat that soaked their bodies and the sheets, the long, slow ache as Merlin sank in to the root. If this was the last pleasure he would ever know, Merlin would die with no regrets.

Arthur shifted beneath him, fisting himself as Merlin's thrusting quickened. When he came, the tight clenching of his body was too much for Merlin. He gasped in near-sobs and pressed his mouth against Arthur's back to muffle the loud cries of his climax. They slumped down together, trembling and panting, Merlin's limbs wrapped around Arthur because he didn't want to ever let him go.

"Always... full of surprises," Arthur gasped.

Merlin laughed tiredly. "You have no idea."

Arthur pried himself loose and turned over, making Merlin's cock slide out of him with a wet sound and their mutual groans. He kissed Merlin, sloppy and open-mouthed, and hummed with contentment.

"I should have let you talk me into this months ago," Arthur murmured, dazed and happy.

Merlin laughed and kissed his nose. "Yup."

"You're going to be insufferable now."

"No, one insufferable prat in this relationship is more than enough," Merlin said, wryly.

Arthur laughed and rolled away from him and onto his belly. He stretched out and sighed, splaying widely as if to steal the whole bed for himself. He looked far too smug, and Merlin sat up, determined to find a way to wipe the smugness from his face. And then he saw Arthur's arse, and his reddened, fucked-out hole, loose and wet with oil and come. His mouth watered, and he bent down and lapped at it, tasting himself in the musk of Arthur's body. Arthur hissed and clenched around his tongue; he thrust back in encouragement, though Merlin needed none. He feasted on Arthur's body again, pressing his fingers inside to draw up the come and oil he'd left inside, cleaning it out of him. The air was filled with Arthur's strangled moans and whimpers as he tried to keep himself quiet.

Finally Arthur had had enough, and turned over and pulled Merlin up. "Greedy thing," he growled, and kissed him, tasting whatever traces he could find. He pushed Merlin onto his back and claimed him with kisses and eager hands, and Merlin felt drugged from him, as if his body had soaked up Arthur like a sponge.

Merlin hardened again under Arthur's hands, which was hardly a surprise as he'd only come once tonight. But Arthur was hard again, too, and he'd come three times.

"You stallion," Merlin smirked, stroking the hot, swollen flesh. "Can't get enough of me?"

"Guess not," Arthur said, eyes twinkling in the dim light. "Though I can't decide if I want to fuck you, or to have you inside me again."

Merlin whimpered with lust. "Both?"

Arthur chuckled. "I don't think I can manage five rounds without one of Gaius' special potions."

"Gaius has special potions?" Merlin asked, having not heard of this before.

"I have the unfortunate knowledge that my father requested some when the Lady Helen visited," Arthur said, making a face. "I try not to think about it."

Merlin laughed. "Just as well. Can you imagine if we asked Gaius for some?"

"I'd rather not," Arthur agreed. He smiled fondly as he stroked Merlin's cheek. "Fuck me again?"

"If I do, you'll be sore tomorrow," Merlin warned him.

"I don't care," Arthur said, and rose up over him. He grabbed the abandoned phial and slicked himself with fresh oil, and before Merlin could gather enough of his wits for a protest, Arthur was sinking down onto his cock, and Merlin was writhing under him.

"Fast learner," Merlin strained, gasping as Arthur set their pace with none of the careful tenderness that Merlin had taken.

"I needed to see your face," Arthur said, flushed and breathing hard. He rode Merlin at a canter, emboldened by the conquering of his fears. Merlin appreciated the position himself, as it allowed him to see the strength and flex of Arthur's body as he rose and fell, and the lust and tenderness in his eyes. Arthur was magnificent and beautiful as he fucked himself on Merlin's cock, flushed and sweaty and with his fringe plastered to his forehead. The clean perfection of him was ruined now, but the wreck that replaced it was just as glorious, maybe moreso.

Merlin came first, lost in the heat of Arthur's body; Arthur leaned forward and muffled him with a broad hand, holding him tight inside as he trembled and pulsed. When it was over, Arthur ground down hard to keep him inside, clenching tight as he softened, and fisted himself until he came, head back and grin triumphant. There wasn't much come left in him, but what little there was he caught in his palm and fed to Merlin, who took it with kittenish licks.

When Arthur finally released him, he sprawled back to his earlier position and cast a lazy wave to Merlin, indicating that he should put his mouth back to its earlier use. Merlin cleaned Arthur out again, lazily lapping at him even after he could no longer taste any trace of himself. Merlin didn't want to stop because he didn't want the night to end, didn't want to face whatever dangers lay ahead. He wanted to trap Arthur in this bed and never let him leave, because that way he would always be safe. But it was only a fancy, because he knew that nothing about their lives was safe, and that was just the way it had to be.

Arthur fell asleep first, smug and very sated. But Merlin lay awake in the darkness for too long. He held Arthur tightly, and prayed to the old gods to watch over him and keep him safe, and not to blame him for his father's sins.

§

Dawn came too soon, and Merlin felt his lack of sleep as they made their way out to the courtyard. The horses were already waiting, and snorted in the pale light as the last bags were tied to their saddles. Merlin yawned as both Llamrei and Hengroen nosed at him, and he stroked them and rubbed his cheek against their foreheads. He pulled out the two hunks of honeycomb he had snuck from the kitchens for them and they each took their piece with a delighted nicker.

"Stop spoiling my war horses, Merlin," Arthur chided, but when Merlin turned to look at him he was smiling softly.

"You're just jealous," Merlin said, as the horses nosed at him again.

"Of you or them?" Arthur said, eyebrows raised.

Merlin stuck his tongue out at him. He rested his head against Hengroen's neck and yawned again.

"My horse is not a pillow," Arthur said, pulling him back by the collar of his jacket. He put something heavy into Merlin's arms, and Merlin blinked down at the wooden chest.

"Should I put this on our cart?" he asked, confused because he thought everything had already been packed.

"No, you should go give it to Gwen," Arthur said, and pointed past his shoulder at where Gwen, Morgana, and Gaius were walking down the steps, having risen early to see them off.

"Oh. Oh!" Merlin said, realizing what it was. He hefted the chest with some amazement, and then Arthur gave him a push towards the steps. When he reached them, he held the chest out to Gwen, who looked at it with polite bafflement.

"Gwen, um, this is for you," he said, handing it to her. "Payment for your father's sword."

"Oh!" Gwen said, quite surprised as it had been nearly a year since she had gifted it to him. She opened the chest and gave a high-pitched squeak and shut the lid. Morgana took the chest and opened it up and her eyes widened.

"It's from Arthur," Merlin explained.

"Does that mean he has the sword now?" Gwen asked. "Did the king give it to him?"

"Sort of," Merlin said, not eager to explain. "And yes, he has it."

"Has what?" Arthur said, having snuck up behind Merlin because he was a nosy sneak.

"The sword, sire," Gwen said, peering at where the cape covered Arthur's side.

Arthur saw her interest and flipped back his cape, revealing the pommel. He gripped it and unsheathed the blade; it gleamed brilliantly even in the pale dawn.

Gwen touched the sword carefully, her fingers stroking the golden runes. "My father's finest work." She looked up at him, clearly affected. "He would have been so proud to see you carry it into battle."

"It's worthy of a king," Arthur said. "I only wish I could have thanked him directly."

"As do I," Gwen said, softly.

"It's remarkable," Morgana said, enviously. "What do the engravings mean?"

"It's, um, just a decoration," Merlin said, before Gwen could answer, because the runes hadn't been on the sword when she gave it to him. Still, as long as Uther didn't consider them suspicious, nobody else would. Except of course for Gaius, who was currently looking at him with mild disapproval. It was a good thing they were about to ride off to their possible deaths, because it meant one less uncomfortable conversation.

Arthur must have noticed Morgana's interest, because he resheathed the sword before she could get her hands on it, as if afraid she might not give it back -- which given their history of squabbling, was not out of the question.

"Sire -- Arthur -- this is too much," Gwen protested, trying to hand him back the chest.

"Nonsense," Arthur said, refusing it.

"But--"

"It's yours. Merlin was quite insistent."

Merlin felt a blush creeping onto his cheeks.

"Then thank you," Gwen said to Merlin. "Thank you so much." She hugged Merlin tightly, and then Arthur, who looked startled. She turned to Morgana. "My lady, will you keep it safe for me? I wouldn't want to risk keeping so much in the house."

"Of course," Morgana said, and gave a wry smile. "I hope your newfound wealth won't tempt you away from me?"

Gwen ducked her head. "Never, my lady."

Arthur cleared his throat and looked towards the horses and the gathered knights. "If you'll excuse me. Ladies, Gaius," he said, nodding to them, and strode off to be commanding. "Come along, Merlin," he called.

Morgana pulled Merlin into a tight hug. "Guard your left flank," she told him, and pulled back. Her eyes looked suspiciously damp. "You're still leaving it open."

"I will," Merlin promised. They had grown much closer since his training with her began, and he would miss her as much as he would miss Gwen and Gaius. Morgana could be intimidating at times, but her heart was as great as her passion, even if it was well-guarded. He knew then that when he returned, he would find some way to help her. She did not deserve to suffer in ignorance, no matter what Gaius or the dragon said. She was his friend and had helped him, and he could not be hers and refuse to help her in return.

Gwen gave him another hug. "Stay safe. Come home. Both of you," she whispered.

"We will," Merlin promised.

Gaius went last, and there was a tremble in his arms that Merlin knew was fear. He knew how hard it was for Gaius to see him head off into danger time and again, and this was surely even more dangerous than even the Isle of the Blessed. Gaius didn't have any words for him, only silent understanding and careworn belief. Merlin didn't need to promise him anything, because Gaius knew that he would do whatever had to be done, and that was that.

Merlin followed after Arthur, who by then was already mounted on Hengroen and swinging him around to inspect the knights. Merlin made one last check of his bags and hopped onto Llamrei. She welcomed him with a nicker and he stroked her neck, anticipation and nervousness warring in his gut.

They rode out of the castle and down to where the others waited, and took their place at the head of the line.

They rode south.

The army was a thousand men and women in a long train dotted with horses and carts. The noble knights rode at the head, and behind them walked the archers, bows and quivers slung over their backs. Behind them were the common fighters, the foot soldiers with their leather armor, their swords, shields, and pikes. Then there were horses again, pulling carts loaded with supplies, with tents and cloth and spare arms, with food and cooking pots and horseshoes and countless other items that Merlin had inventoried and helped pack. And the long tail of the train was the servants and the makers, the smiths and seamstresses and carpenters and other skilled men and women whose hard work would keep Arthur's army running smoothly.

And truly, this was Arthur's army. Uther may have given the initial order, but there was not an item in the supplies, not a man or woman that Arthur did not request or approve. It was Arthur who rode at the head, the knights that he himself had trained directly behind him, and at his sides were the men he trusted most: Sir Geraint, his second-in-command, who helped lead the attack against Sigan's stone monsters; Sir Merek, whose family owned the keep they were to rescue; and Merlin.

Merlin rode at Arthur's side as tall and proud as any of the knights, no matter that he still wore his servant's clothes. Arthur's favor wrapped around his arm like an embrace, kept safe and secret beneath his shirt and jacket. Merlin was quite certain that even after the battle was over, he would not take it off. He would wear it always, against his skin and close to his heart.

Arthur was focused and sober, his mind busy with the task ahead, with tactics and logistics and possibilities. Merlin had never seen him quite like this before. He knew the Arthur of the court, of the hunt, of intimacy and play. He had seen him lead small groups of knights many times in Camelot's defense. But this was the Arthur of war, with the weight of the kingdom on his shoulders, the lives of thousands in his hands, and everyone's expectations heavy upon him.

Arthur was a leader and a warrior, and Merlin was so proud of him for that. But no matter how great his strengths, Arthur was still a man, and Merlin only had to see the slight squirm in his seat to have confirmation of that. He smiled privately at the memory of their night.

As they crested the first ridge, Merlin looked back over his shoulder. Camelot was below them, nestled like a white jewel amid the heavy green of the forest, the gold of ripening grain, and the white smoke of morning fires in the surrounding town. This was their home, and it was depending on them. All the people left behind, the nobles and the servants and the townspeople, the magic-haters and the secret sorcerers, the friends and enemies, united in hope of victory.

This was their kingdom, and Arthur was sworn to keep their kingdom safe. That was what kings were for. But Merlin would keep Arthur safe, no matter what it took. Because he was Arthur's knight, and that was what knights were for.

Chapter Text

The first thing Merlin learned about being in an army was that armies did not move quickly.

When he'd thought about such things before, which was not something he did with any frequency, Merlin had always imagined something like a large scale version of Arthur's usual charges with one or two dozen knights: swift, tactical, precision attacks that, in non-magical situations, were deadly effective. He'd thought that going to war would be a rushed affair, with everyone hurrying south so they could free the port as quickly as possible.

By the end of the first day, Merlin could swear that even the horses were bored.

The army moved at a plodding pace, and there was nothing swift or tactical about them as they marched past the countless little villages and towns between the castle and the mountains. People came out to watch them and children darted out to march along with them for a few minutes until they ran off again. Some would try to climb up onto a cart for a ride, only to be shooed off. It was reassuring that the people of Camelot were so friendly to the sight of a marching army, but it didn't instill Merlin with any great feeling of military confidence.

When Arthur called them all to a halt, Merlin could scarcely believe how little distance they had covered. When he'd ridden this way before, following after Arthur for Anhora's final test, they had nearly reached the mountains by the end of the first day. At this rate, it would be another two days at least before they even got that far.

Merlin hopped down from Llamrei and rubbed his arse, sore from the long ride. He glanced over at Arthur, but despite the fact that his arse was certainly more sore than Merlin's, there was nothing in his manner to betray it. For someone who could be so unbelievably petulant about his creature comforts, Arthur turned remarkably stoic on the trail.

As soon as everyone had stopped, the orderly army broke into a milling crowd, as servants and soldiers alike began to make camp for the night. Firewood was gathered for the cooking fires and some went out to hunt game or gather plants and berries to supplement their rations. Merlin tended to the horses while Arthur, Geraint, Merek, Ronald, Jarin, Athalos, and Borin stretched their legs and relaxed together. Somehow Merlin ended up inheriting the knights' horses on top of Llamrei and Hengroen, and had only just finished with the last of them by the time he had to serve dinner.

Merlin brought over eight bowls of stew and bread, and managed to snatch mouthfuls from his own bowl as he kept everyone's cups filled and went to get seconds for those who wanted them. The knights were all happy to see him again, having greeted him with friendly smiles when they first saw him riding up with Arthur to lead the line. But in many ways they were typical nobles, happy to let a servant do all the work if one was around, even if it was one they were friendly with. The fact that he'd sparred with two of them and they'd invited him for a drink as an equal did nothing to change the fact that all the usual class lines were firmly in place, with Arthur and his knights on one side and Merlin on the other. It was just like how Leon and Gwen weren't allowed to be friends, even though they had basically grown up together.

It wasn't as if Merlin had stopped being Arthur's manservant when he became his knight. It wasn't as if Arthur didn't expect him to clean and serve and carry and all the tasks Merlin had become accustomed to performing. For all that had changed between them, from the outside nothing about their lives was significantly different than it had been before Merlin broke his arm. But sometime between becoming Arthur's lover and his knight, in the privacy of their room or the forest, Arthur had begun to treat him as close to his equal as anyone could be. They shared their table, shared their beds, spoke without formality, and so many other things, little things that added up into something far greater. Even if Arthur could be unbearably bossy at times, even if he thought he was better than everyone else, even if he was an arrogant prat, Merlin put up with it because it was impossible to untangle all of those things from Arthur's better qualities. From the protectiveness and leadership, from the sense of pride in his kingdom and his people, from the belief in an ideal Camelot where people were treated with respect and equality, and knights behaved with honor and nobility that was more than an accident of birth. Everything that could drive Merlin up the wall was the other side of the coin to everything that made him look to Arthur with pride and made hope swell in his chest, that made him believe with all his heart that Arthur would become the king that Camelot and its magic needed.

But it felt like a loss to have to sit apart from Arthur now, instead of with him. It chafed to have to hide yet another part of himself because people wouldn't understand, wouldn't accept in so many ways. To have nowhere to hide away, no privacy to steal a kiss. It wasn't even the sex, though Merlin already missed the sex. It was being able to hold Arthur and be held. It was being able to look into his eyes and make him smile and touch him, to feel safe in his arms the way he didn't anywhere else. Merlin was going to have to live without all of that for weeks; it had barely been a day and it was already getting him down.

Merlin must have sighed more loudly than he realized, because the next thing he knew there was the butt-end of a piece of bread bouncing off his face and landing with a splat in the dregs of his stew. Merlin looked up to see Arthur giving him a crooked smile, and he couldn't help but give an exasperated smile back. He picked up the bread and ate it pointedly, and Arthur responded to that by briefly sticking out his tongue in a very unkingly manner and then winking.

Merlin's smile broke into a grin, and he ducked his head, thinking that Arthur could be a bit wonderful sometimes.

"I'm simply saying that if more men had been assigned to the southern border, Alined would not have been able to cross," Merek insisted. He had been in a mood since his arrival in Camelot. Understandable, as it was his family that was at the heart of the danger, but it did not make him pleasant to be around.

"He's just mad because he missed all the action. Wants to fend off an army all on his own," Althalos joked, elbowing Jarin in the ribs. Jarin rolled his eyes and rubbed at his side.

"Better than wasting my time in the Forest of Escetir," Merek scowled. "We need to be guarding the borders of war, not peace."

"If we turn away from Cenred, we'll end up with a sword in our backs," Ronald said. "The man has little honor."

"Alined has no honor at all," Merek replied. "The snake should be excluded from the Five Kingdoms treaty. He would not respect it even if he signed it in his own blood."

"He'll have no choice," Geraint interrupted. "If he breaks it, he'll forfeit all protection. Even Alined would not be so foolish."

"You underestimate his greed," Merek said.

"Enough of politics," Borin said, waving his hand. "Leave that dull bickering to the kings. What I want to know is the gossip."

"Yes," said Jarin, his interest roused. "Is it true? Was there a sorcerer in the palace guard?"

Merlin went still. He had to force himself to swallow the bread he'd been chewing, suddenly tasteless in his mouth.

Geraint snorted. "No. The only sorcerer was his fool of a wife."

"I heard they were both sorcerers," said Althalos, who leaned forward as if gearing up to tell some ribald tale. "That they conspired to enchant the whole guard and leave the castle defenseless."

Arthur frowned, but said nothing.

Geraint waved off the idea. "By the time any news reaches the Northern Plains, you'll be lucky if there's a scrap of truth left in it to nourish you."

"Then what really happened?" asked Jarin.

"A witch burned, and a good man died," Geraint said, anger seeping into his voice. "I blame myself for leaving him alone, but that woman..." He shook his head. "She had no respect for her husband, no respect for the laws of this kingdom, for the sacrifices that we must make to keep it safe."

"You have no sympathy for her?" Borin asked. "I heard she was trying to protect him."

"Every knight swears his life to the safety of his kingdom. It is the same for every guardsman. I do not seek death, but I know that it will come to me, and I would rather face it with bravery than cower behind Druid magic." Geraint spat on the ground. "She had no claim on his life, not once it was pledged. She was an arrogant cow, and she sullied her husband's honor."

Merlin stood, intending to collect the emptied bowls from each knight. He couldn't sit and listen to this anymore, not when he was already gritting his teeth against all the things he wanted to say to Geraint.

"That's enough," Arthur said, in a tone that made everyone go still, even Merlin. Arthur stood, his back formally stiff. "If you have the strength for idle gossip, spend it on something useful. Full armor, run three circuits, then swords until dusk. Merlin, squire them." And with that, he marched off, probably to inspect things and boss people around.

Merlin moved first, gathering up the bowls and leaving them in a crooked stack for later. He retrieved the knights' shields and handed them out; thankfully, they were already prepared to fight, so he only had to check that everyone's armor was on correctly and tighten a few buckles. Minor adjustments done, the knights took off on a run around the perimeter of the camp. Merlin tagged along, eager to rid himself of the stiffness from the day's ride. Despite the fast pace of the knights, Merlin found he could keep up with them easily, especially as he wasn't burdened down with mail and plate. He ran alongside Borin at a lope, trying not to smirk when the knights glanced at him with surprise.

"Ho, what's this?" Athalos called, as Merlin passed him.

Merlin smiled back over his shoulder. "Can't keep up with a servant?"

Ronald, who was in the lead, laughed and sped his pace. "Let's show him what a knight can do."

Athalos caught up to Merlin again, but Merlin wasn't going to give in so easily. He buckled down into a full-out run, heart pounding in his ears as he inched past Athalos, past Geraint, Jarin, Merek, and finally Ronald. He held on to his lead as they looped around the perimeter a third time, and staggered to a stop at the finish, flushed and panting and trying not to grin.

"Well won," Ronald admitted, clapping him on the back. Once, such a slap had nearly toppled him, but now it merely drove him forward a step.

"I thought there was something different about you," Althalos said, giving him a look of renewed consideration.

Merlin rubbed the back of his neck. "I have to keep up with Arthur all the time. You know how he is."

"Arthur's making him do more than run," Geraint said, smirking. "Tell them, Merlin."

Merlin realized that everyone was staring at him with curiosity, and perhaps showing off wasn't the smartest idea. "Oh, it's nothing," he demurred.

"Surely it's not nothing to spar with the Prince," Geraint continued. "Even if it is at the behest of a lady."

"A lady?" Althalos said, waggling his eyebrows. "You are full of surprises today."

"It's not like that!" Merlin protested.

"What's it like, then?" teased Jarin. "Who is she?"

"The Lady Morgana," said Geraint. "She tired of testing her sword against us knights, and convinced the King to lend her the Prince. It seems she took a fancy to Merlin and insisted he join in."

Merlin had never thought that their sparring would be interpreted as anything romantic -- certainly not between himself and Morgana! He wasn't sure if he was more outraged on her behalf or embarrassed on his own. "It's really not like that," he insisted.

"So have you learned anything?" Ronald asked, perhaps taking Arthur's anti-gossip stance to heart.

"He had some bite to him last time," Borin said, apparently eager for a rematch, from the way he was thumbing the pommel of his sword.

"Think he'll catch you out again?" teased Althalos.

"Oh, I'm wise to his tricks," Borin said, and unsheathed his sword. "Come on, boy. It's time I won my honor back."

"I don't think that's a good idea," Merlin said, glancing past the knights at the resting soldiers and servants. A few had turned to watch them, obviously considering them the evening's entertainment.

Jarin, who was the closest to Merlin's size, put his sword in Merlin's hand and started tugging off his armor. Althalos came over to help him, and the next thing Merlin knew, he was wearing Althalos' mail and the two of them were strapping on the plating and gauntlets. Some things never changed. Merlin wondered if it was the case that all knights were incorrigible manhandlers, or if it was something that rubbed off on them from Arthur.

Merlin touched the edge of the sword, still not certain that this was a good idea. Despite the armor and sword tucked away with his things, he'd only fought with a blunted sword since beginning his training. Then again, he was headed into a battle where he would be fighting for his life. It was probably a good idea to get used to the real thing.

"All right," he said, squaring his shoulders. "First touch wins, like before."

The other knights stepped back to give them room, and Merlin and Borin moved into ready stances, two sword's lengths between them. Ronald gave the call, and they both swung into action.

What came next was nothing at all like their first sparring, all those months ago when Arthur had pulled him into the last day of the knights' training. Merlin no longer needed to rely on distance to save him, had no need to run or evade. He stood his ground like a proper knight, blocking with shield and sword, and swinging with full intent. Merlin pressed his attack, focused and controlled, and Borin retreated in surprise, but this time Merlin didn't need to conjure a hole in the ground to beat him. As Borin was still recovering from his retreat, Merlin saw an opening and struck, and his sword thumped satisfyingly against Borin's side.

"If the Lady Morgana taught you this, I would like to spar with her," Borin said, impressed. "That was not one of Arthur's moves."

"She's really good," Merlin said, rather proud of her and himself.

"She must like to surprise her opponents, as you do," Borin said, moving back into a starting stance. "Best two wins out of three? I won't be so easy to beat now that I know of your skill."

"You're on," Merlin said, eagerly. He felt distantly amazed at how different it was to fight Borin now, how different he felt after months of building up his endurance and strength and technique. Arthur and Morgana were both such strong fighters that Merlin was used to always having to push himself, always having to strive hard to come close to matching them, even though they had completely different styles. In comparison, Borin was practically his equal, though he still had plenty of advantages with his greater size, strength and experience.

When Borin attacked, Merlin was reminded of the times that Arthur would tell him he wouldn't hold back anymore, and then come at Merlin with significantly more force than he had until then. It took quite a few times before Merlin felt like Arthur was genuinely trying to best him, and even still he knew that Arthur wasn't giving his all. He had seen Arthur fight against packs of bandits and terrifying creatures, and it was obvious that Arthur was never going to spar against him as he would an enemy.

Unleashed, Borin was both more and less of a threat: he didn't have the finesse of Arthur or Morgana, didn't have their grace behind his power. But if any of his blows connected, they would damn well hurt, possibly even crack bone. Merlin took refuge behind his shield, was driven back and to the ground, and finally was stilled by the point of a sword at his throat. It held there for just long enough, and then Borin smiled at him and pulled away his sword. He offered his hand and pulled Merlin back to his feet.

"Now we can have a fair fight," Borin said, eyes twinkling. "Still think you can best me?"

"Absolutely," Merlin said, grinning back, already thinking of ways to use Borin's brute strength attacks against him, as Morgana had taught him. But before he could do anything to back up his words, the sword was wrested from his hand, and Merek was there, staring at them with fury in his eyes.

"That is enough," Merek spat at Borin. "This is war, not a game for serving boys." He rounded on Merlin. "Remove that armor at once, you look ridiculous," he hissed, keeping his voice low so their audience couldn't hear. "It's one thing for you to fool around with a sword on the training ground, but you will not waste our time on this nonsense. I don't know why the Prince or the King's ward thought it right to let some slip of a servant above his station, but I will not be party to it."

Merlin was absolutely speechless. He had fought with Merek that day as well as Borin, and Merek had been nice to him, even been respectful. Merek had toasted him in the pub that evening. He might have expected such snobbery from Geraint, who seemed to think as little of servants as he did of women, but not Merek.

"Someone take that off him," Merek ordered, and Jarin hurried over to unbuckle the plate and help Merlin out of it and the mail. Without the familiar weight, Merlin was surprised at how naked he felt. It hadn't felt strange to be in his normal clothes before he had put on Jarin's mail, but now all he wanted to do was go to his pack and pull out the armor that Arthur had given him. He wanted to show Merek that he wasn't just a servant, that he was a knight now, that he had earned the right to fight by Arthur's side, the same as Merek had. But he held his tongue. It wasn't time yet, not until they reached the mountains.

"Good," Merek said, once Jarin's armor was back on and buckled. "Now leave us. The last thing we need is more distractions."

Borin gave him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder, and Merlin gave him a small nod and walked away from the group as quickly as he could, back where they had eaten dinner. He picked up the stack of bowls and carried them down to the river where the other servants were cleaning the cooking pots and bowls and plates of hundreds of meals. He grabbed a spare washcloth and knelt by the water to take out his frustration on the bowls and spoons. When they were clean, he took one of the heavy pots from the pile of dirty dishes and bent to scrubbing out the burnt bottom.

"I'll show him fooling around. See if he thinks I'm a distraction then," Merlin muttered, glaring at the pot. Merek and Geraint both. At least Merek would find out soon enough just how wrong he was, that Merlin was as good as knight as any of them, that Arthur trusted him. Geraint was another matter, and all the more frustrating.

Merlin was fine with no one knowing the truth about his magic and all the things he did to keep Camelot safe. He was absolutely fine about it, and was happy to let Arthur or anyone else take all the glory. But sometimes he longed to shove the truth in everyone's smug faces. Oh, all magic was evil, was it? It was so awful they would rather die than be saved by a sorcerer? Well, next time Merlin would just sit back and let everyone be squashed to bits by stone beasts. He'd let the giant boars and griffins and plague monsters roam free without lifting one magical finger to stop them. See how Geraint and all the other knights liked it when he wasn't there to save them. Without him around, Camelot wouldn't last a week.

He huffed and sank back on his heels, knees damp from the river bank. He left the heavy pot in the river and watched the water swirl past it and away. There were times... there were times that he wanted to leave. To forget about his destiny and let the burden fall from his shoulders. He could breathe freely again, somewhere else. There wasn't anywhere he wanted to go; he just wanted to be away from Camelot, from Ealdor, from everything he knew. He wanted to feel like he had when he'd walked down the ridge of Escetir for the first time, when his future was wide open and everything was possible.

There were places that magic wasn't hated. Where he wouldn't have to hide. And if Camelot was meant to become one of those places, that future sometimes seemed very far away. He knew that he could never leave Arthur, and he didn't want to. But if he ever lost Arthur, if he failed to keep him safe, Merlin wasn't sure there would be any reason to stay.

"Are you all right?"

Merlin started and wiped his eyes with his cuff. There was a woman kneeling beside him, about his mother's age, looking at him with concern. Her lined face looked kind in the failing light. "Yeah, sorry," he muttered, and dragged the pot out of the water. "Had to let it soak," he lied, and reached for his cloth to start scrubbing again.

"Merlin, isn't it?" she asked.

"Um, yes," Merlin said, surprised. He didn't recognize her from around the castle. "Sorry, have we met?"

"Ethelia," she said. "And no, we haven't, but we do have someone in common. I thought you were doing very well, by the way. It's a shame that some knights have such a temper. Thank goodness the Prince seems to have finally grown out of his."

Merlin looked at her in confusion. "You know Arthur?" He definitely hadn't seen her before, and he knew all the castle servants at least in passing by now, and quite a lot of the townspeople from his trips to market and forays in the stocks.

"I used to look after him," Ethelia said, with fond recall. "Only one of many, of course. We all had to take our turns, before you came along."

"Oh." Merlin wasn't sure what to say.

Ethelia took a plate from the pile and bent to wash it. "It seems we just missed each other. I had to leave shortly before the arrival of Lady Helen, which I believe is when you arrived. I remember being so disappointed that I would miss her singing, but..." She shrugged. "My father was quite ill."

"I'm sorry," Merlin said. "Is he better now? Is that why you're back?"

"No," she said. A wave of sadness made her careworn, but then she rallied again. "But I've always found it's best to keep busy. So here I am."

"It's good of you to help," Merlin said, and hauled out the pot, which was as clean as it was going to get. He put it on the grass with a thump and took another from the pile. "They do like to keep us busy."

Ethelia chuckled. "A servant's work is never done. Nor a mother's. My son is over there." She nodded towards where the common soldiers were bedding down for the night. "My Eduard. As soon as he heard about the attack, he packed his bags and marched to the castle to volunteer."

"You must be very proud of him," Merlin said, smiling despite himself.

"He's so excited to finally be old enough to fight. Especially alongside the Prince himself. When he was young, he would find any excuse to join me at the castle, just for a glimpse of Prince Arthur." She cast a look of fond exasperation over her shoulder. "He wanted so badly to be a knight. Made himself a wooden sword and practiced all hours. His father said it would only lead to heartbreak, but do you know what happened?"

Merlin shook his head.

"One day, the Prince pulled me aside and gave me one of his old swords. Said to give it to Eduard and tell him to use it wisely. The next day, the King took him off to battle against Cenred."

"How old was Arthur?" Merlin asked, intrigued.

"Oh, ten years, I think," Ethelia recalled. "Still quite young. Eduard was five or six. That sword still means the world to him."

"Arthur's a good man," Merlin said, feeling quietly proud of the boy Arthur used to be. Gaius had said that Arthur was a gentle child, but riding off to war at ten, he must have been already been transforming into the warrior he was now.

"He is. And he was a sweet boy. But those years in between, oh, such a terror."

Merlin snorted. "Somehow I can believe that. What did he do?"

"Fought with the King on all manner of things," Ethelia sighed, thinking back. "Fought with Lady Morgana, when the poor girl came after losing her father. The two of them were cats and dogs for years."

"Nothing's changed there, then."

Ethelia chuckled. "The King was quite in despair for a time. He decided the best medicine for the Prince's rebellious streak was to send him off with the knights at every opportunity, even when it wasn't the season for it. It was only patrols and practice, of course. No one would war between the start of harvest and end of sowing."

Merlin bit his lip, knowing what he did about what Arthur and the knights did during those off seasons. "I guess it was good for him?"

"Mm," Ethelia hummed, apparently not quite agreeing. "What he needed was his mother. Such a shame what happened to her. She was a lovely woman, and a good influence on the King. He was never the same after she died." She shook her head. "It was around the peace with Cenred that the Prince began to settle down. He was sixteen, ready to take on more responsibilities, spend more time in the castle than with the knights. And then a year later Mercia attacked, and off he went again. I was so relieved when they reached an armistice. I must admit I didn't want my Eduard to fight. But peace never lasts."

"Maybe," Merlin said, thoughtful. If Arthur was meant to unite all of Albion, surely that would create a peace that would last. The treaties were a start, but it was becoming apparent to him how fragile a truce could be. They had a truce with Alined and an upcoming treaty negotiation, yet here they were, riding to fight off his invasion. "If anyone can make it last, it'll be Arthur."

"I've seen that look before," Ethelia said, with fond amusement. "Same as my Eduard. Same as a lot of people. There's something special about him. Something that inspires. He gives people hope."

"He does," Merlin said, with quiet pride. "He's going to be a great king. Maybe the greatest Albion has ever seen."

"I see why he chose you."

Merlin laughed. "He didn't. It was sort of an accident."

"You saved his life. Eduard told me all about it. But that's not what I meant."

Merlin gave her a sideways look, not sure what she was implying.

"In all the years I've known the Prince, I've never seen him grow close to anyone. He's always been so private, so self-contained. I wouldn't have thought that he could change so much in less than two years, but he has. And I suspect we have you to thank for that."

Merlin swallowed against the lump in his throat. He shrugged shyly. "I'm just his servant."

"You're his friend," Ethelia said, resting her hand on his arm. "And I don't think he's ever had one before."

Merlin thought of the times that Arthur had said that princes couldn't have friends. There was always so much regret in his voice when he said that. And he knew then that Ethelia was right. "I should get back to him."

"Go on, then," Ethelia said, with a soft smile.

§

Merlin wandered around the camp looking for Arthur, but night was falling fast. The sunset was burning down in the west, smoldering behind the distant ridge of the White Mountains. Campfires had sprung up, dotting the long stretch of carts and bedrolls, and Merlin used their light to make his way to the front. The knights had ended their practice and scattered; Jarin and Ronald were lounging on their bedrolls, but he didn't see the others or Arthur.

Ronald called for him, and Merlin walked over.

"Merek didn't mean what he said," Ronald said, his half-smile lit by the flickering fire. "He's in a bad state, worrying about his family. His sisters. He fears we may arrive too late to save them."

Merlin nodded. "I understand."

"You're a good lad," Ronald said. "The Prince is over there. Go bring your master a drink."

Merlin looked and saw Arthur, Merek, and Geraint at the edge of the camp, heads bent together in hushed discussion. He found a candle and lit it from the nearest fire, then retrieved a wineskin and some cups. He watered the wine to third-strength, as Arthur preferred, then brought the lot over, the cups clanking against each other as he walked.

"Quiet as a mouse," Arthur drawled, turning around as Merlin approached. "Remind me to work on your stealth when we get back."

"I wasn't trying to be quiet," Merlin replied, glancing sideways at the knights. "I thought you might want some wine before bed. Help you sleep." He held out the first cup; Arthur took it and the others followed his example. Merlin filled each cup and then sat back to wait.

"We'll split off the advance party here," Arthur said to the knights, pointing to a spot on the map. "Head over the mountains, see what's ahead of us. There may be other survivors still making their way north. Hold it upright, you're wasting wax."

Merlin straightened his candle. He scraped the cooling wax from where it had dripped on the ground and fed it back into the flame.

A smile tugged at Arthur's mouth, but he cleared his throat and put back his serious face. "There must be others who've escaped, and we can gather better information from them. It's possible that Alined's forces have decided to push north and try to capture more land, but I can't imagine they have the men to stretch far."

"I don't like this," Merek said, sourly. "I don't like any of this. We're practically going in blind."

"We know as much as we can," Geraint said, staring soberly at the map. "The King is preparing for a second march in case we find that Alined has scraped up the money for mercenaries or an ally who shares his poor sense."

Merlin half-listened as they argued about possible threats, about how many men they might face. Merek shared information about the invaded castle, about gates and siege tunnels. Merlin tried to put it all together in his head at first, but after a while it was like listening to one of Gaius' anatomy lectures and it all blurred together. He filled their cups until the wineskin was empty, and scraped curls of wax from the side of the candle with his thumbnail to pass the time. It was a clear night, all the stars on display, and a crescent moon that would wax full by the time they were on the way home, if all went well.

"Merlin. Merlin," Arthur said, and Merlin looked down from his stargazing to see that the others had already left. Arthur's soft smile was edged by the flickering candlelight. "I hope you actually listened to some of that."

"Oh, lots," Merlin said. He so much wanted to lie with Arthur, to kiss him softly and curl against him. To feel the rise and fall of his breathing as he slept.

Arthur blew out the candles, and in the darkness he touched Merlin's hand. It felt like a lifeline, like the only real, solid thing in the whole world.

"Maybe I should stay behind, when you go."

Arthur made a surprised sound. "Don't tell me you're afraid."

"Oh, I am," Merlin admitted. "But that's not..." He bit his lip. "It's going to make trouble. A servant dressed up like a knight. I don't want to be a distraction. Not if it puts you at risk." If he had to, if it came to it, Merlin could follow after them. He could stay at a distance and watch over Arthur in case anything bad happened. Arthur had no idea how stealthy he could be, when it was important and not about sneaking up on defenseless animals.

"If I thought you would be a liability, I would have locked you up in the castle to keep you from doing anything foolish. I don't treat any of this as a game, and I never have. You asked me to trust you to take care of me, and I did. Trust me to take care of you. Trust that I believe in you."

Even in the darkness, Merlin couldn't bear the honesty in Arthur's voice. It hurt because he knew that he still didn't deserve it, because he was still a liar, even if he tried to tell as much of the truth as he could. That he was magic, that they shared a destiny, that he was born to protect Arthur; all the talk in the world of coins and halves and wholes couldn't really matter more than the fact that he loved Arthur beyond all sense and reason; that he would lay down his life for him in a heartbeat; that he was Arthur's knight and his lover, his servant and his friend, anything and everything that Arthur needed him to be.

Except to not be a sorcerer. Except to not have magic. Except to not be everything that he was, beneath the skin. Servant's clothes or knight's armor: neither of them could hide the gold in his eyes.

"My life is yours," Merlin said, because it was the truest thing he knew.

Arthur gave a little sigh and pulled his hand away. But before Merlin could worry that the truth he could tell wouldn't be enough, Arthur's lips pressed briefly against his own, leaving behind the faint taste of wine. Merlin's breath caught.

"I know," Arthur said, and the certainty of him was a relief. The ground turned solid again, and the world snapped back. There was the rustling of paper as Arthur rolled up the maps, the distant voices of the camp, the sweet smoke of the fires. It all sprawled to life from the locus of Arthur's touch, his kiss.

Merlin knew, then. He knew that he had lost all claim over his own life. Like Uwen, he had given it over to his king, and it could not be taken back. It would be Arthur's forever now, and he had to believe that one day, one day, he would be able give his trust to Arthur just the same. He would no longer be fractured, no longer torn between love and destiny and duty, because they would all resolve into one and make him whole.

He was halfway over the chasm, and every tremulous step was taking him closer to the other side. If only the bridge would hold; if only Arthur would be there at the end to meet him.

Chapter Text

The forests and farms of Camelot gave way to rolling grasslands dotted with fluffy sheep, and orchards whose gnarled branches bowed heavy with ripe peaches and still-green apples. At nearly every little village they passed, they were given a basket of plump peaches, until they had more than enough for any in their army who wanted them. The last evening they spent before they reached the Mountains of Isgard, Merlin found himself with a basket of the most bruised peaches, the flesh soft and messy but still delicious, and he gorged on them, splitting his treasure with Llamrei and Hengroen. Arthur chided him when he wandered back to the bedrolls, for his hands and face were a sticky mess and he had somehow got peach pulp in his hair. Merlin had licked his lips, thinking of how much more delicious it would all be if Arthur kissed the nectar from his sweetened lips, then reluctantly went off to wash.

Merlin's anticipation grew stronger as the mountains grew nearer, and then at last they were there, the hooves of the horses grinding into the worn, gravelled path that turned and twisted through the pass. When Arthur called the line to a halt, Merlin's stomach twisted nervously, and he glanced at the knights around him. Merek was still foul with worry and anger, but perhaps the rest would understand.

Arthur nodded to Merlin, then went to exchange words with the knights that were staying with the army. They had already discussed their plans, but Arthur wanted to confirm that everyone understood what was to happen once he went on ahead. Merlin wove his way to their cart and retrieved the bag of armor, shield, and sword, and carried it back to secure it to Llamrei's saddlebags. He expected that Arthur would want them to get over the next ridge before he changed.

But when Arthur came back, he hopped down from Hengroen and said, "What are you doing? Give me the bag."

Merlin gave him a puzzled look. "Right now?"

"Yes," Arthur said, with exaggerated patience.

"But they'll see." Merlin looked to his right, at the six knights, and to his left at the others who would bring the army to Gedref. They were all nobility, and all clearly starting to wonder what Arthur and his manservant were doing, standing there and whispering to each other.

Arthur rolled his eyes and gave Merlin his best 'trust me' face. Merlin returned it with his best 'are you entirely mad?' face.

"The bag, Merlin," Arthur said, holding out his hand. He crooked two fingers to show his impatience.

Merlin decided that Arthur had definitely gone mad. Absolutely, utterly mad. He had taken one too many hits to the head during those ridiculous tournaments he was so fond of. But Merlin had little choice but to untie the bag and hand it over.

"Take off your jacket and scarf," Arthur said, pulling out the surcoat.

Merlin did not like this. He did not like having the attention of dozens of knights focused on him, especially when he was about to do something that was certain to make them want to put him in the stocks for a week, with a dozen lashes for good measure. It made him want to crawl out of his skin. But Arthur had asked him to trust him. And Merlin had given his life to Arthur to use as he saw fit. So with his heart in his throat and fumbling fingers, Merlin obeyed his king.

Right in front of everyone, Arthur dressed Merlin in the gleaming new mail and armor. He buckled on the sword belt, the plate armor, the gauntlets.

"Sire, what's going on?" asked Ronald, uncertain.

"Merlin's coming with us," Arthur said, and held up a glove for Merlin to slide his hand into.

When Merlin looked up, he wasn't surprised by the reactions that earned. There were varying levels of concern, bemusement, and anger, most of the last coming from Merek and Geraint.

"What?" said Geraint, baffled.

"Is there a problem, Sir Geraint?" Arthur replied, with a formal tone that seemed meant to remind the knights that their rank was below his own.

"Arthur, you can't bring a servant on a scouting mission!" Geraint said, his disbelief clearly enough to overcome his normal sense of propriety.

"Actually, I can," Arthur said, evenly. He gave one last check to Merlin's armor and judged it ready. He helped Merlin up onto Llamrei, ignoring the others, then handed him his shield. "Leave the helmet off for now. Do you have your knives?" he asked.

Merlin patted the handles of the long knives peeking out of his saddlebags, and twitched his boot to indicate the sheathed knife tucked into it. His sword was a comfortable weight on his hip. Arthur patted his thigh in approval and swung himself back up onto Hengroen.

"If we run into the enemy, he'll be killed," Ronald protested.

Merek was furious, even angrier than he had been when Merlin had fought with Borin. "Sire, I know you're fond of the boy, but this is folly. Leave him with the other servants where he will be safe. If he comes, he will be a distraction and a burden that we cannot afford."

"He won't," Arthur said, calm and commanding. "Because I trained him as a knight, just as I trained you."

All of the knights stared in shared disbelief. Geraint frowned at Arthur as if he had somehow betrayed him. And in a way, he had. He had broken the First Code of Camelot, in spirit if not in letter. The only law Uther held higher than his ban on sorcery. Merlin sat with his head high, matching Arthur's own posture and determination, but inside he was reeling with a dawning mix of horror and amazement.

Merlin had never meant for things to go this far. He had only wanted to learn to fight the way Arthur fought, and he had thought that fighting would be against bandits or beasts. He had thought that it would be just another tool, something less powerful than his magic but less fraught with complications. But once he made the request, it was Arthur who set the terms, Arthur who defined the limits. It was Arthur who was not satisfied with merely training him as a knight, who made it more than a game, who made it real.

Arthur, who had asked Merlin to trust him completely.

How long had he been planning this? Merlin knew that Arthur had wanted to knight Lancelot, and nearly managed it before Lancelot's honor got in the way. Uther had given in to Arthur's request once Lancelot had proved himself against the griffin. How far did Arthur want this to go?

Their secret had been exposed. And though Merlin had not thought about the ramifications, Arthur had expected them, had sought them out. He wanted this to happen.

"Tell me this is another test," Merek pleaded. "Talk of his determination and then send him back."

"Insult him one more time, and you will be insulting me," Arthur said, with steel under his calm. "If I speak of his determination, it is because it has driven him to prove himself a dozen times over. I trust him with my life. If you do not trust me with yours, then do not follow me."

And with that, Arthur urged Hengroen on, and trotted past the astonished knights and up the path. Merlin hurried to catch up and then match his pace.

"Why didn't you warn me?" Merlin hissed, forcing himself not to look back, terrified that Arthur had just made a massive mistake.

"What did you think was going to happen?" Arthur replied, with an ease that he certainly couldn't be feeling. "That I would smuggle you into battle? You wanted to fight by my side."

Merlin gaped at him, struck dumb. He wasn't sure which of them was the bigger idiot right now. Arthur was absolutely mad, but he was also right. Merlin's magic was effectively invisible, and he could get away with a lot in the middle of a forest, with trees to duck behind as he felled branches and raised roots. But people would notice that he was wearing armor and carrying a sword in the middle of a battle, with hundreds of men all pressed together, fighting side by side. They could never have kept this a secret, which anyone with any sense at all would have realized. But Merlin didn't have any sense.

All he'd cared about was keeping Arthur safe. He'd been so worried about keeping his greater secrets from being exposed that he hadn't considered that these lesser ones would be exposed instead. He'd had one good idea and thrown himself at it, and hadn't thought about the consequences. And now here they were, riding away from an army, alone.

No, not alone. Merlin gasped with relief as he heard the sound of horses trotting up the path behind them.

Arthur had gambled that the loyalty of his knights was greater than their loyalty to the First Code. And so far, he had been proved right. But everyone would be watching Merlin closely from now on to see if this had been an act of folly or perspicacity. If Merlin failed, it would reflect badly on Arthur, and perhaps even taint him: Arthur could not rule as a great king if the people did not trust him. But if he succeeded, it could be the key to Arthur's dream of tearing down the First Code of Camelot.

Arthur had said that he believed in Merlin. And if anything proved the strength of that belief, it was what he had just done. Everything hung in the balance now: the safety of Camelot and the hope of its future. Everything depended on Merlin living up to the promises he had sworn: to fight for Arthur against any foe, and with all his strength. To serve as his knight and let nothing keep him from his side.

If that was what Arthur needed of him, Merlin was determined to give it. He would be the brave knight that Arthur saw in him, gather every scrap of courage, give everything he had. Because that was the Merlin that Arthur loved, the Merlin that Arthur believed in. And that was all that Merlin wanted to be.

§

Even though the knights had accepted Arthur's decision, the mood of the group was still tense as they made their way past the Mountains of Isgard and into the southern half of the kingdom. Without the army to slow them down, they made steady progress down towards the farmland that spread out beneath them like a lush quilt, scattered with forests and countless little villages. It looked absolutely peaceful, and from the slope of the pass there was no sign of any disturbance.

Merlin dearly wanted to pull Arthur aside and shout at him for a bit. Maybe Arthur was cunning in his madness, but at the very least Merlin deserved a proper explanation. He needed to know what Arthur's intentions were. But with the stares of the knights burning into his back, Merlin had to swallow his questions down.

He hoped they weren't going to be hostile to him for the whole journey.

They stopped to rest the horses and freshen their waterskins. Merlin had reflexively went to take the others' waterskins to fill them, but Arthur stopped him.

"Everyone can fill their own," Arthur said, and walked over to the stream to do just that. The message was clear: Merlin was not to be treated as a manservant, not as long as he rode with them as an equal.

Merlin stood there, feeling a bit stunned as the knights followed Arthur's example and filled their waterskins. Arthur stood and took a swig from his own, and then stood aside and motioned for Merlin to kneel down in his place. Merlin obeyed, keeping his head down and not looking at the others. He closed his waterskin and cupped water in his hands, washing the road dust from his face and swallowing mouthfuls of the mountain water.

A hand appeared before him with a piece of cloth. Merlin looked up to see that Jarin was offering him his kerchief. Merlin took it with a quiet thanks and wiped his face and hands, then gave it back.

Merek and Geraint had left to talk to Arthur downstream where the horses were drinking, and their voices were low enough not to be intelligible from this distance. But Jarin wasn't the only one who had stayed. Ronald, Althalos, and Borin knelt with him around the stream, and they were all looking at him.

"You and Arthur lied to us," Ronald said, his disappointment evident.

It wasn't a fair accusation, because Merlin hadn't exactly planned for it to go this way. He'd thought it was only supposed to be the six of them that were to find out that he was Arthur's knight. But then, that only gave more credence to their sense of betrayal. "I'm sorry," he said, genuinely regretful. "We had to wait for the right moment."

"You mean until we were far enough away from the castle," surmised Althalos. "The King won't like this."

Merlin nodded. If Uther found out, he would be furious. Merlin had no idea what Arthur had planned for their return to the castle, or if he had anything planned at all. It was entirely possible that they wouldn't survive -- or at least, that Merlin might not survive, because Arthur was going to live no matter what it cost. He supposed that if he died saving Arthur's life, it would be considered a sign that Arthur had made the right choice in turning his manservant into a warrior.

Borin laughed, and slapped Merlin on the arm. "You've been training right under his royal nose," he said, with some approval. "A bold move."

The others nodded, and Merlin was relieved to see that they considered a bold move to be a good thing.

"The Prince is a Pendragon," Ronald said, consideringly. "It's a bold line."

"You were not a fighter when we left," Jarin said, curious. "When you sparred, you spent most of the fights running away."

"Um, tactical retreats?" Merlin offered. No wonder Arthur had thought so little of his skills that day, if that was how he had been seen by the others.

"When did it start?" Ronald asked. "Geraint said it was weeks ago, but when we left you were..."

"A pile of twigs with a broken arm?" Althalos offered, smirking.

"It wasn't broken when we sparred," Borin said. "Tell us, Merlin, come on. No more secrets."

If only they knew. "It started the last day of your training," Merlin admitted. "After what Arthur did, making me fight you and Merek, I asked him to teach me."

"Just like that?" Jarin asked.

Merlin ducked his head. "Sort of. He--"

But before he could explain further, Arthur was calling them back. He was already astride Hengroen and looked impatient to continue on. They hurried back to their horses.

"What have I said about gossip?" Arthur said to them, the quirk of a smile belying his strict tone.

Merlin took his customary position beside Arthur as they resumed their journey.

"Everything all right?" Arthur asked, quietly.

"Think so," Merlin said, still chewing over the significance of the conversation. "Yeah."

"Good," Arthur said, and at last there was a hint of relief in him. Merlin was used to Arthur's various moods, and used to being able to read them without difficulty. But Arthur had been so stoic these past few days. Merlin had assumed that it was just how Arthur dealt with going to war, but now he realized that it was more than that. He could not have afforded for anyone to see weakness in him, or uncertainty or fear. Not when everyone was looking to him to lead them, and not when he was planning to reveal his servant-knight to all and sundry. Merlin was going to have to keep a closer eye on Arthur from now on, to make sure that Arthur didn't have more surprises hidden away.

§

The south of Camelot was as peaceful from the plains as it had been from the mountains, but Arthur and the knights didn't seem very happy about that. A day's ride past placid villages and quiet farmland had only deepened Arthur's frown. When the sun was low, they gave up and struck camp, taking the horses away from the road and a ways into a small forest. Again Arthur made a point of tending to Hengroen himself. Merlin would not be stuck caring for all eight horses as he had before.

Of course, with all the knights taking care of themselves, Merlin did feel rather at loose ends. They couldn't have a fire because Arthur was concerned about drawing attention, so they had a meal of dried meat and hard cheese.

"I think I saw some berries on the way in," Merlin said. He looked to the knights to see if they wanted any, happy to bring some back to share, but they declined. Arthur rolled his eyes, as if Merlin was failing to be a proper knight by being generous. As if only servants could afford to be friendly and do things for people, not because they were obligated but because it was nicer that way. In Ealdor, everyone had shared everything, because if they didn't, no one would have anything. Merlin supposed it was different for nobles, who lived their lives having too much and expected everyone else to give them more.

Still, that meant more for himself. Merlin found the patch of bilberries and grazed his way along, happy to stuff them directly into his mouth rather than try to gather them up to bring them back to camp. The berries were soft and small, easily crushed, and their purple flesh stained his hands and mouth. They were delicious, their sweetness refreshing after the dry meal. When he'd had his fill, he took the waterskin from his belt and rinsed himself off, not wanting to return looking too un-knightly.

He was just closing up his waterskin when he turned to find Geraint leaning against a tree and watching him. Merlin straightened up and wiped at his mouth again to clean away any lingering stain.

Geraint was tall and well-muscled, a few years older than Arthur. Merlin had never paid much attention to him in the past, but he knew that Geraint was Arthur's official second-in command, often sent out to deal with the more mundane problems that the Camelot patrols uncovered. If there were bandits seen crossing the border, or unrest in a town somewhere, or an important visitor needed to be escorted on his journey from and to the border, Geraint was usually the one to lead the effort. It freed Arthur up for his duties as a prince, and allowed him time for politics and tournaments and the occasional magical threat. Leon, another of what Merlin thought of as Uther's knights, was in contrast usually assigned to the castle, so Merlin was far more familiar with him and the others who guarded the heart of Camelot.

"There's something special about you," Geraint said. "And I've been trying to figure out exactly what it is."

"What, me?" Merlin said, trying to sound casual rather than wary.

"I asked myself, what could make Arthur break the First Code? And why, if you wanted to help save the kingdom, didn't Arthur send you off with the rest of the commoners? Is it because you think you're too good for them?"

"Of course not."

Geraint smiled thinly. "No. You're humble, I'll give you that. Not many would be, if they shared their bed with the Prince."

Merlin went very still, and his mouth went dry. "What? That's ridiculous," he lied.

Geraint stepped away from the tree. "He chose you, I expect. That's how he likes it. Arthur's always needed to be in control. Uther holds him back too much, always has. It makes him restless. So he takes his satisfaction where he can." He stopped a few steps away from Merlin, his arms still crossed, exuding a sort of patient menace.

"I understand why he did it," Geraint continued, when Merlin said nothing. "Arthur likes his knights. He likes a warm body on a cold night. Better to lie with us than stuff the serving girls with bastards. But whatever you think you'll gain as his favorite, it isn't worth it. Not to you, not to Arthur, and not to the kingdom."

"I don't want anything from Arthur," Merlin said, defiantly. "The only thing I want is to keep him safe."

Geraint gave a harsh laugh. "You're sucking his cock for what, a chance to die for him? I don't think so."

"You're jealous," Merlin realized. Arthur had said, however vaguely, that he had often lain with his knights in the past, and it shouldn't have been a surprise to find out that Geraint was one of them. Geraint usually called Arthur by his name instead of some title, and besides Uther and Morgana the only person who did that was Merlin himself.

"I'm trying to protect him."

"What, from himself?" Merlin asked. "Arthur knows what he's doing. He needs us to trust him. To stand by him no matter what."

But Geraint wasn't listening. He stepped closer and jabbed Merlin in the chest with his finger. "Whatever you're up to, the King will put a stop to it soon enough. I will not stand by and let you threaten Camelot--"

"That's enough."

"Arthur," Merlin breathed, relieved. Arthur was standing where Geraint had been, and he didn't look happy.

"We talked about this," Arthur said to Geraint. "I made my position very clear."

Geraint turned to Arthur. "You're not thinking straight," he said, worried. "You said you were done with us. For the good of the kingdom. So your father can marry you off to the highest bidder. That's what you said. And then you turn around and take up with some serving boy, and dress him in armor and parade him about! And for what? You're risking everything for him."

"If I'm risking everything, it's for Camelot," Arthur corrected. "We both know that the kingdom is weaker than it's ever been. Cenred is waiting for any excuse to break the treaty, and we do not have enough men for another five, ten years of war. First we will starve, and then we will fall. Something has to change, and if my father will not accept that, I have no choice but to act."

"And he's your answer to that?" Geraint asked, almost pleading. "It's madness. He's using you."

"Merlin is not a threat. He's an opportunity. I have never known any knight as loyal and devoted, as willing to sacrifice his life for the greater good."

"He's not a knight!"

"He is now," Arthur said, firmly. "Because I made him one. I knighted him."

Geraint stared in shock. "That's treason."

"It's treason to leave Camelot defenseless for the sake of a law!" Arthur said, angrily. "It's treason that I see dozens of common men who would give their lives gladly, and instead my father gives me the dregs of the nobility. There are not enough nobles in all of Camelot to be the strength we need."

"No," Geraint said, shaking his head. "There has to be another way."

"Give me one," Arthur challenged. "Because my father is breaking into the vaults of sorcerers for gold. Harvest yields keep falling no matter what we do, and it's only a matter of time before we don't have enough to last a winter. We have suffered attack after attack, and all my father cares about is avoiding concessions to Mercia. If nothing changes, I will not have a kingdom to inherit."

Geraint's shoulders slumped, and he rubbed his face. "I didn't know it was that bad."

"I can count those who do on one hand," Arthur said, then glanced at Merlin, who was gaping with shock at the revelations. "Well, two hands now. Even the council doesn't know the whole truth, because my father refuses to tell them. But I do, and I will not fail in my duty to my people. Merlin is not using me. I am using him. So you will not say a word to my father when we return."

Geraint nodded. "All right. But what about everyone else? You can't tell them the truth."

"If we succeed, if I can lead them to a sufficiently glorious victory, I will have their loyalty," Arthur said, with a weary certainty. "And Merlin is well-liked. That will be enough."

"I hope you're right," Geraint said, the anger gone from him. He turned to Merlin. "I'm sorry. I was... hasty, in my judgement of you."

Merlin nodded, relieved that Geraint was no longer against him, but reeling at everything Arthur had confessed.

"This must stay between us," Arthur said. "If I agree with my father on one thing, it's that the truth risks a panic. Swear to me that you will keep this secret."

"With my life," Geraint said, bowing his head.

Arthur nodded in acceptance. "Leave us."

"Sire," Geraint said, and walked back to where the others were camped.

"I think I need to sit down," Merlin said, once they were alone.

"Don't let me stop you," Arthur said, and chuckled as Merlin wobbled over to a tree and sat down to slump against it. Arthur kicked away a rock and sat down beside him.

"Why didn't you say anything?" Merlin asked, his voice sounding small to his own ears. "I wouldn't have told anyone."

"I couldn't," Arthur said, with a sad smile. "Not directly. Though somehow I ended up telling you most of it anyway. You're too easy to talk to. It just came out in pieces. I'm afraid you have only yourself to blame if you didn't put them together."

Merlin thought back to all the times Arthur had come back from council or dinner with Uther and ranted about not having enough knights, about concerns about the harvest, about not having the funds for some extravagance or other. And he realized that it was all there, right under his nose, and he hadn't seen it. He'd been so focused on cheering Arthur up that he hadn't paid enough attention to what was upsetting him in the first place.

"I'm such an idiot," Merlin moaned.

Arthur laughed. "That's three revelations for you today."

"Who else knows? About Camelot being on the verge of collapse?"

"Geoffrey, because he keeps the accounts," Arthur said, picking up a leaf and tearing at it. "And Gaius."

Merlin gaped. "Gaius!"

"My father tells Gaius more than he does me," Arthur said, with a frown. "I thought maybe he said something to you."

"He never said anything," Merlin pouted. Or wait, there had been that one time. Gaius had said something about Camelot not being what it once was. But that wasn't very specific, and anyway it had been right after Linette's execution, and Merlin hadn't exactly been thinking clearly.

"Gaius is good at that," Arthur said, then shook his head. "I'm sorry about what I said."

"About using me?" Merlin leaned his head on Arthur's shoulder. "It's all right. You can use me. I don't mind."

Arthur smiled. "Good."

"But really Arthur, one more surprise like that and I'm not going to survive long enough for the actual battle. A little warning next time? Please?"

"Sorry," Arthur said, managing to sound very much not sorry about it, if a bit embarrassed. "People lie so easily, especially in court. When I surprise them, their reaction gives me something real. But I'll try not to spring anything else on you. If anyone will tell me the truth, it's you."

Merlin felt like a slug that had just been sprinkled with salt. "Right," he lied, with as much confidence as he could muster.

Arthur didn't notice anything was amiss. "It's getting dark. We should get back." He pulled away, but instead of standing up, he looked carefully around their perimeter. Then, satisfied that they were unobserved, he pulled Merlin in for an eager kiss. Merlin gave a surprised squeak and then gave in, trying to shove the bitterness of his lie away so he could cherish Arthur properly. It wasn't easy, but fortunately Arthur's kisses were as distracting as ever.

§

Merlin couldn't sleep. At first, all he could think of was Arthur's mouth against his own, and the way his lips tingled after Arthur had kissed them so forcefully. Once the euphoria of that had faded, everything it had held at bay crowded into his thoughts at once. Camelot on the brink, Cenred hungry for war, Arthur exposing him as a knight. Images of Arthur and Geraint together insisted into his mind, arousing him and riling him with pointless jealousy. How many men had Arthur been with? Was it all of his old knights? There weren't many of them left these days; the lifespan of a Camelot knight was rather similar to a fly. It was no wonder Arthur wanted to rid the kingdom of the First Code. It was like a noose, strangling the kingdom's defenses.

Merlin had been jealous about Arthur plenty of times. He was jealous about whatever men and women he had been with in the past. He was jealous of the princesses that Uther wanted to marry him off to. But it had all been in abstract until Geraint's admission. At least Merlin knew that all the newer knights hadn't been with Arthur that way. He wondered if anything had ever happened between Arthur and Leon. Or Owain and Pellinore, who had been killed by the Black Knight. Arthur had been fairly close to them. Merlin couldn't help but wonder if Arthur had liked them better in some way or other. If they hadn't died, if Arthur hadn't said he was 'done' with knights, for the good of Camelot... But what did that make him? Was Geraint right? What if Arthur was making a mistake? What if all their training wasn't enough? What if, in the heat of battle, he failed? What if everyone saw? What if he did magic and everyone saw? Arthur would hate him, and everyone would hate Arthur, and Camelot would be doomed and it would all be his fault.

Merlin groaned pitifully, and wanted to bludgeon himself unconscious.

"Can't sleep?" Arthur asked, quiet so as not to wake the others.

Merlin opened his eyes and saw that Arthur was awake, and at some point in Merlin's tossing and turning had switched with Ronald, who had taken first watch. "No," he sighed. "Can't stop thinking."

"That's a first," Arthur teased.

Merlin rolled his eyes at him, not caring that it was too dark for Arthur to see it. "Can you just find a large rock, or a heavy branch, and bash my head in? That would be great, thanks."

"Have you considered talking about what's bothering you?" Arthur said, with some exasperation. "I hear it's all the rage."

"I'll take the head bludgeoning," Merlin muttered. "Ow!" He flailed at whatever had just hit him, and found that Arthur had actually thrown a rather large stick at him. "I can't believe you did that!"

"You asked for it."

"Clotpole," Merlin grumbled.

"Oh, haven't heard that one in a while," Arthur said, amused. There was a shuffling sound, and then Merlin was unceremoniously dragged from his bedroll. Merlin gave a token struggle, but with the state of his head he welcomed the distraction. Arthur sat him down on the log, then sat beside him. "Come on, talk to me. I'm tired of watching you imitate a rabbit on a spit."

"Fine," Merlin grumbled. "I'm worried."

"Obviously," Arthur said, and elbowed him. "Be more specific."

"I'm worried about everything! I'm worried about so many things I don't even know where to start."

"All right. I'll tell you something I'm worried about, and then you'll tell me something. I'm worried... about the fact that we haven't seen anyone fleeing north."

"That's a bad thing?"

"It's suspicious, and I don't like suspicious. Someone else should have escaped after the castle was taken. That's how we find out what's going on. And yet..." He gestured at the quiet night. "Nothing. Your turn."

"Now I'm worried about that," Merlin sighed. Apparently as overfull as his head already was, there was always room for something else to fret over.

"Nope, try again."

Merlin gave a frustrated sound. "Fine. I'm... I'm afraid I'm going to let you down."

"About?"

"About everything! Pick anything, Arthur!" Merlin felt bad about speaking so tersely to Arthur, but his head was so full of problems it was ready to explode. "I'm going to let you down and it's going to ruin everything. Happy now?"

"It's a start."

Merlin slumped and leaned forward on his elbows. "I'm so tired. I feel like I'm being slowly crushed. Or drowned. Or something, I don't know."

There was a long pause, and then: "I'm sorry. I know I've put a lot of responsibility onto you today. I suppose I'm so accustomed to it, I didn't realize how badly it would affect you. You're not used to having a kingdom depending on you. A destiny you can't escape."

Merlin gave a strangled laugh. "I have an idea."

"You do now," Arthur admitted. "You know, it's like that pretty much all the time for me. It's awful, feeling trapped, like I have no control. And at the same time, knowing that absolutely everyone is depending me, and they're watching my every move."

"How do you cope?" Merlin asked, genuinely wanting to know.

"Lots of ways. I was raised for this, which helps. It's all I've ever known. But to be honest, that's part of the problem. So I keep busy. I train, I fight. I take my victories where I can. I control what I can, and make far too many secret plans."

"So I've found," Merlin said, wryly.

Arthur chuckled. "Sometimes I dream about leaving Camelot. Running away to a farm somewhere, where no one would know who I was. Work some scrap of land. I used to think I would raise pigs, but after Terit I've switched to chickens."

Merlin smiled, feeling some of the pressure ease in him. "I'm picturing you surrounded by chickens. It's very messy. Lots of feathers."

"Ah, but that's why you'll be there. To muck out my coops and toil in my fields."

Merlin stared out into the darkness, unaccountably touched. "You want me around to do all the hard work, then?"

"I want you for more than that. I told you I'd never let you go," Arthur said, meaning in his voice. He rested his hand on Merlin's back, and the weight of his touch spread through Merlin, pushing all the fears right out of him. Merlin nearly wept with relief.

"Besides, most of how I really cope... is you."

Merlin turned to look at him, and in the filtered moonlight he could see Arthur's shy, honest smile, which was private and only for him. Only for when Arthur was the most vulnerable, for the rare times that he dropped all his defenses. It washed away everything else, and filled Merlin up to the brim with soft, warm joy.

And then Arthur's eyes widened, and he shoved Merlin down hard. Merlin landed with his face in the dirt, sputtering in outrage before he realized what was happening. Arthur had flung himself down beside him, and was crawling forward and waking the others with urgent shakes and hisses. They roused abruptly, fumbling for their swords as Merlin pulled out his own.

If Arthur hadn't warned them, they would have been caught completely by surprise. As it was the knights brought their swords up just in time to block their attackers, men in mail and dark grey clothes with red and blue crests.

"Arthur, what--" Merlin started, then had to stop because talking was not conducive to staying alive. His head was still catching up with what was happening, but thankfully his reflexes had started without him. He blocked the swing of an attacker, and the force of it juddered down his arm. A pained cry came from his left, and he turned his head to see that Arthur had just killed another man who had been bearing down on him. And then the first man was swinging again, and Merlin had to focus right now.

Think training. Think Ealdor. Think bandits. Block, and block, and find a weakness, everyone has a weakness. There, an opening, stab him, stab him! Merlin stabbed, and the man fell to the ground, sliding off his sword with a sickening sound. Merlin was wide-eyed, shocked at how fast everything was happening, and then there was someone else, another man, they must be Deorham men, Alined's forces. Everything had been so quiet, everything had been peaceful, where had they come from, had they abandoned the castle, were they surrounded by hundreds? Merlin spun around, spun again, raising his sword to block before the next attack could even come--

"Merlin, stop!"

Arthur's shout cut through the panic in his head, and suddenly Merlin realized that the fight was over, and there were dead men all around them. There were dead men at his feet, men he had barely been aware of killing. One of them was still dying, blood welling up in his mouth, eyes wide with panic as he drowned in his own blood.

Merlin staggered back, breathing hard, heart pounding painfully fast. And then Arthur was there, checking him for wounds until he was satisfied that he was unharmed.

"Sire!"

Arthur moved away, cursed, knelt down. Merlin followed after him, still numb, and saw that one of their own was among the bodies, and it was Geraint.

"Arthur," said Geraint, voice strained with agony. There was blood all over the front of his mail. He had been stabbed in the gut. There was a knife handle jutting out of him.

"You'll be all right," Arthur said, though he had to know it was a lie.

Geraint shook his head. "I'm sorry. I was too slow. Half asleep... Guess it'll be... one hand again..." He coughed up blood, speckling his lips with black in the moonlight.

"Merlin, get the bandages!" Arthur shouted, and Merlin hurried to obey. He fumbled at his saddlebags and pulled out ointment, rolls of white cotton.

"Tell me one of them is still alive," Arthur demanded.

"I have one," said Merek, teeth bared as he stared down at the Deorham man he was kneeling on. He was injured, blood on his leg and both arms, but he was alive.

"Tie him up," Arthur ordered. "I want to question him."

Merlin hurried to Arthur's side. Arthur eased out the knife, and Merlin was ready with the bandages, pressing hard on the wound as Arthur pushed the mail and surcoat aside. The knife was a long, slim dagger, very similar to the ones that Arthur had given him to defend himself with. It had gone right through the little spaces in the mail as if it wasn't there at all.

Geraint focused on Merlin, and turned back to Arthur with a sad smile. "Your boy fought well. I bet... you could train... half the kingdom into knights." He coughed, and when he breathed in it sounded wet and wheezing. Merlin remembered one of the men who had lingered in Gaius' care after Sigan's attack. That sound meant he had a hole in his lungs, and it was very bad.

"You're not going to die," Arthur said, with such fierce certainty that Merlin could almost believe it to be true.

It had all happened so fast, but Merlin couldn't help but feel that he could have done more. If he'd used his magic, maybe he could have prevented this. Maybe he could still save Geraint, try to heal him, heal the hole in his lungs like he had the holes in Gaius' door. He didn't know if it would work, but he could try. He had his hands right over the wound. He could try. But he couldn't. He couldn't risk it. It might not even work, and Arthur would see, the others would see...

And then Geraint shuddered under his hands, and it was too late. Too late, but Merlin couldn't let go, couldn't stop pressing, because he could have saved him and he hadn't and he was such a coward, letting good men die when Camelot didn't have enough.

Arthur finally pulled him away, grief and fury pouring off him in waves. Arthur raised his sword and stabbed it right through one of the dead Deorham men, and the sword sank half into the earth from the force. Arthur gave a pained, wounded cry, a broken sound, and then the storm of his anger was over. It couldn't be gone, there was no way it could be gone, but if Arthur had loved his knights then he had mourned too many of them already, and until the battle was won, he did not have the luxury of mourning another.

"A scouting party," said Merek, who was staring at the captured man. "That's what this was. You were headed north, looking to gather information. And we were headed south along the same road."

The man glared at Merek, and then spat in his face. Merek slapped him so hard it made Merlin jump.

"Do you want to end up like your friends?" challenged Borin, looming over the man. "Because that can be easily arranged."

"Nothing will make me talk," hissed the man.

"Do you know who I am?" Merek asked. "I am the son of the lord whose castle you took. Tell me something that will stop me from killing you."

"You want to know about your family? Your pretty sisters?" The man grinned, his mouth bloodied by the slap.

"Yes," Merek said, desperation cutting his voice. "Tell me and I will let you live."

"I'll tell you," the man said, delighted. "They're dead. All of them. You're too late, little lord, so go home and--" His eyes widened as his voice stopped, and Merlin realized that Merek had stabbed him, run him right through with his sword.

"No," Arthur growled, furious. He stormed over to Merek and wrenched his arm. "He was lying!"

"You don't know that!" Merek shouted, distraught.

"He wanted you to kill him so we couldn't interrogate him. The most important part of war is the hostages," Arthur shouted back. "You take the nobility and you keep them alive. Bargaining chips. Ransom. Alive, the right noble is worth a fortune. You know how greedy Alined is. Do you seriously think he would give that up?"

Realization dawned on Merek's face. Arthur saw it and let him go, disgusted. He turned away, and then turned back to Merek again.

"One more thing," he said, calmer now but no less furious. "A knight of Camelot does not kill a helpless captive. There is no honor in such actions. Do anything like that again, and I will strip you of your title. Is that clear?"

"Yes, sire," Merek said, cowed.

"Clean yourselves up," Arthur ordered. "Pack your things and put the bodies by the road." He marched back over and drew his sword free with a mighty heave.

"What about Geraint?" asked Jarin. He was wide-eyed and pale, and looked painfully young.

"Leave him to me," Arthur said.

Merlin helped the others clean up, and found that even though it was awful having to carry dead bodies about, he was still so numb from the fight that the awfulness didn't quite reach him. He'd had to do this before, anyway: helping Gaius with bodies during the plague, helping Gaius with bodies after Sigan's creatures had killed dozens, burning the dead bandits in Ealdor so their bodies wouldn't bring disease. They didn't have time for a pyre now, not for the Deorham men and not for Geraint, who deserved a hero's fire of his own.

Arthur cleaned Geraint up and wrapped him in his knight's cloak. He carried Geraint to the roadside and placed him down gently.

"Should we just leave him there?" Merlin asked, uncertain.

"The others will come by soon enough," Arthur said, straightening up. "They'll take care of him."

Merlin swallowed against the lump in his throat. Geraint hadn't been perfect, and he hadn't always been nice. But he had been a good man, and he fought for Camelot and gave his life for his prince and his kingdom. That was how he wanted to die. There was some peace in that.

And Arthur had loved him. Arthur had loved him, and now he was dead.

Arthur had once shouted at Merlin for saying that his life didn't matter. He had pleaded with Merlin not to die for him, but to live. Merlin hadn't understood then, but he did now. He realized now why Arthur hadn't wanted to teach him how to fight. Why Arthur had insisted on self-defense. Why Arthur had pushed him so insanely hard all through his training. Arthur was surrounded by death, and despite all his losses he had still found the strength to open his heart yet again. Merlin was awed by the realization. There must be so much love in him, to be able to do that.

Knights died like flies in Camelot. If Merlin was going to live for Arthur, he had to stop trying to think like a knight. He had to be better, he had to be smarter. And he was going to have to use his magic, because that what had kept them both alive through all the dangers before now, all the threats they had faced together.

As much as he'd wanted to deny it, as many things as he could not trust to be true, Merlin knew that the dragon had been right about one thing above all else: he was a creature of magic. And if there was one thing he was certain of with his magic, it was that it had no limits. He hadn't been born with all this power just to waste it on healing the holes in doors and cleaning stains from Arthur's clothes.

His magic was going to keep them both alive. It was going to win this battle and it was going to save the kingdom. He was going to do it all. He wasn't sure exactly how he was going to manage it, but he would just have to figure it out as he went along. For Camelot, for destiny, and most of all, for Arthur.

Chapter Text

It wasn't until well after dawn that Merlin's exhaustion finally caught up with him. Wide-eyed after the fight, he had thought he could go on for days without stopping to sleep. But the shock and adrenaline had gradually faded, reminding him that even though the others had managed a few hours each, he had not slept at all. He tried to go on as long as he could, struggling to keep his eyes open; a flash of light from a stream looked like the glint of armor from the corner of his eye, and his jumpiness gave him short, sharp boosts, but even these wore off eventually.

If he just closed his eyes for a moment. Just for a moment...

"Merlin!"

Arthur's sharp cry jerked Merlin awake again, barely in time for him to stop from falling right off his saddle. "Sorry," Merlin slurred, gripping at the saddle and pulling himself back up.

Arthur cast a weary eye over the landscape, and raised his hand to call a halt. "Let's give the horses a rest."

No one argued. The other knights had not known Geraint long, but they were grieving him as any knight would grieve the loss of his fellow. Worse, they had lost a strong fighter, with years of valuable experience.

Merlin guided Llamrei to the stream and leaned against her as she drank, idly stroking her flank. He closed his eyes and let her warmth soak into his cheek. If he could just nap for a few minutes, he could keep going. He felt something tug at the saddle, and turned blearily to find that Arthur was pulling out his bedroll.

"Come on," Arthur said. Merlin followed him over to a shaded, grassy spot on the bank, and watched as Arthur spread his bedroll and patted it. "Lie down. You need to sleep."

"We have to keep going," Merlin said. Despite his exhaustion, he was still thrumming with urgency. There was so much he needed to do, so many problems he had to find some way to solve.

"Everyone needs to rest," Arthur said, and gently but firmly pushed him down. "There may not be much time for sleep once we reach Gedref." Arthur moved to stand.

Now that he was lying down, Merlin could barely think, much less argue. But he grabbed Arthur's arm, not wanting to let him go. "Stay?" he asked, tired and sad, knowing that Arthur was tired and sad, too. It would be better if they were together. It was always better that way.

"I have to keep watch," Arthur said, but he touched Merlin's cheek with the back of his hand. He mustered a thin, fond smile, and Merlin knew how much pain had to be behind it.

"I love you," Merlin said, because he needed to. Because he needed Arthur to hear it, as many times as he possibly could.

"I know. Now rest," Arthur said, and Merlin closed his eyes.

§

When Merlin woke up, something had changed. He cracked his eyes open and saw the stream, saw the horses grazing at the forest's edge. The other knights were asleep on their bedrolls, scattered along the bank. A hand stroked through his hair. Arthur.

Merlin realized what was different now. He wasn't lying flat on the ground but with his head resting on Arthur's lap, with a blanket to cushion him from the mail. He closed his eyes again, chest twinging with a mix of relief and surprise. He was glad that Arthur had stayed with him after all, that Arthur had sought the comfort that he needed, even if it was on his own terms. But before, Merlin had not been thinking clearly; he knew now how this would look to the others.

Maybe they wouldn't be all that surprised. Geraint had figured it out. And knights gossipped even more than they fought. Scattered as they had been along the breadth of Camelot's borders, it would only have taken one long evening around the fire for an older knight to tell any one of them a story of the Prince and his favorites. No wonder Arthur had such distaste for gossip.

Maybe Arthur hadn't cared. Maybe after losing Geraint, he had needed this more than he feared exposure. Maybe things were different out here, away from the castle, away from watchful eyes. If the knights were willing to keep one secret to protect them, it was likely that they would keep another. As long as Arthur could prove that he was worthy of their loyalty, they would follow him anywhere.

Merlin knew how they felt. He sighed and snuggled his cheek against Arthur's thigh, feeling relaxed and placid for the first time in days. Arthur would keep them safe.

He dozed a while longer, lulled by the idle play of Arthur's fingers in his hair.

"You fought well yesterday," Arthur said, his soft words catching Merlin at the edge of sleep.

Merlin rolled onto his back and looked up at Arthur. "It was over so fast. Is it always like that?"

"An ambush like that? Pretty much." Arthur brushed at Merlin's sleep-mussed hair. "Two, three minutes. Sometimes less. You killed four of them."

"I barely even saw them. I just reacted."

"That's the idea," Arthur said, fondly. "Remember?"

"Fighting's not about thinking," Merlin recalled. "I didn't realize you meant it so literally."

Arthur chuckled. "It changes once you have more experience. A seasoned fighter is always thinking ahead, checking his surroundings. I used to teach tactics first, if you can believe it. I thought it would be better if a knight thought before he acted. It cost men their lives. So I threw away everything I knew about training, all the old rules, and came up with my own."

"Like how you taught me?"

"And it kept you alive. It kept all of them alive."

"I'm sorry about Geraint," Merlin offered.

Grief flashed across Arthur's face. "He was a good man."

"You loved him?"

Arthur stared out into the distance. "I gave him what I could," he said at last.

It wasn't exactly an answer, but Merlin wasn't about to press the matter. His stomach growled noisily, distracting them both from their thoughts.

"You should eat," Arthur said, and pushed Merlin to sit up. "We'll wake them when you're done."

Merlin got to his feet and rubbed the sleep from his face. He followed Arthur over to the horses and let him ply him with dried fruit, cheese and flatbread. Arthur watched him eat, taking whatever odd sort of satisfaction he always did when he gave Merlin food or fed him by hand. And then, hidden from the sleeping knights by the horses, Arthur kissed him quite thoroughly, and didn't stop until Merlin was flushed and flustered. When they broke, Arthur rested his forehead against Merlin's and sighed, then pulled him into his arms and held him, fiercely tight and then looser, hands caressing him as they had when Arthur checked him for injuries after the ambush. Merlin merely held him back, glad for the chance to give Arthur the reassurance and comfort he needed.

§

As their path turned to the west, the terrain changed again. The ground rose to steep, undulating hills, with sparse trees and rocky soil. Merlin recognized fewer of the plants, and wished he had one of Gaius' heavy books with him so he could know if any of them were good for wounds or fever, which were safe to eat and which were poisonous. Strange, red-leaved shrubs grew on the sides of the hills, clinging stubbornly to the thin earth.

The path to Gedref wove crookedly, taking them higher and higher until they reached the crest of the tallest hill, and it was there that they finally caught the salt of the sea upon the air, a faint trace on a wisp of wind from the far shore.

"There," Merek said, pointing to a shape in the distance. Merlin squinted, and he could just make out the grey stone towers of the castle, nestled along the coast. From above, it looked almost like the harbor had been carved from the rocky shore by some great hand. Arthur had said it was a natural harbor, and Merlin's only other experience with the sea had been at the end of the nearby labyrinth. But the labyrinth had been magic, and Merlin wondered if the harbor was, too, at least in origin the way the castle at Camelot was. The Isle of the Blessed was only a day's ride north from the castle. Perhaps the High Priestesses had given Gedref its harbor, the way Sigan had given Camelot its castle.

He didn't think Gedref's castle had been built by magic. It was a rather more humble affair than Camelot's or Bayard's castle, though it was still quite respectable. It looked like there was a keep at the center, almost as tall as the towers.

"Once we're over the next hill, we need to stay off the roads. Merek, lead us in. Bring us as close as you can without risking exposure."

"Yes, sire," Merek said. He had been far more subdued since the ambush, and showed deep regret for his rashness. It wasn't very pleasant being on Arthur's bad side, and if that wasn't punishment enough, they had come across no more Deorham men or escapees from Gedref. In his grief and anger he had taken away their only source of fresh information. They were headed directly into a dangerous situation and had almost no idea of what was waiting for them.

They brought the horses as close as they could, then crept the rest of the way on foot, leaving the horses loosely tethered. Arthur wanted to check the lower town first; it was more of a lower village, with rows of little huts for the fishermen and longshoremen. Arthur had explained back in Camelot that Gedref depended heavily on trade and fishing, as the surrounding lands were poor and the steep hills isolated it from the populous farmlands beyond. A forest had been planted near the castle centuries ago and stocked with deer and small game, to supplement the noble's diets and provide them with sport. Merlin had rolled his eyes at yet another example of ridiculous excess, but now he was glad, for the forest was their only decent cover.

Arthur and Merek left the rest of them behind in the forest and snuck into the lower town, hoping to find more information. But when they came back, they reported that the little huts were all empty, and the castle gates were shut and guarded.

"Everyone must be locked inside the castle," Merek guessed.

"What about the siege tunnels?" asked Ronald.

"Locked," Arthur said, frowning. "We tried to force the gate but it wouldn't budge."

"So what, they're just going to stay in there?" Merlin asked, confused.

"They're already prepared for a siege," Arthur surmised. "If they'd been able to hold on to the few that escaped, we might not have known they were here for weeks. That would have given plenty of time for Alined to use the gold to buy mercenaries." He looked a little happier at this revelation.

"So what do we do now?" Merlin asked. "Just sit and wait? We still don't know what's happening inside."

"It will be days before the army gets over that hill. In the meantime, we find out what we can and we plan for the battle. Merek has given us the layout. The throne room, the dungeons, living quarters."

"We could capture one of the guards?" Merek offered.

Arthur shook his head. "We need to preserve the element of surprise. I want them as unprepared as possible. It might be our only advantage."

§

Merlin could only stare at a map for so long before his eyes started to cross. So far, war seemed to be quite a lot of riding and walking and sitting about doing nothing, and very little actual fighting. Not that he was exactly eager for the battle, but all this not knowing was driving him mad.

Arthur, on the other hand, was in his element, and clearly happy to talk to Merek and the others for hours about siege tactics and lines of attack and where this or that person might be at this or that time. Merlin didn't see the point. It was all guessing games until they could find out what was actually going on.

And there was something... off. Something not right about the castle itself. It was like a persistent buzz, like being trapped in a room with a fly and not being able to find it. Even if battle planning hadn't turned out to be as dull as a council meeting, Merlin still wouldn't have been able to sit still.

Maybe he had been wrong. Maybe the castle had been built by magic. But the warm, low hum of Camelot's stone was nothing like this, which felt foreign to him in some indefinable way.

"Merlin, will you please stop twitching," Arthur said, for at least the dozenth time.

"I can't help it," Merlin whined.

"Go... find a tree or something," Arthur said, exasperated. "And stop drinking so much water. If you're bored, you could actually try paying attention."

Merlin wasn't going to pass up a perfect excuse like that. "Tree it is," he said, giving Arthur a smile before slipping off for some privacy.

As soon as he was far enough away, Merlin crept closer to the castle. The siege tunnels were probably the best option, he thought. If he could get close enough, he could tell if it was the castle itself he was feeling or if there was something else going on. It would only take a few minutes, and then he would be back before Arthur had the time to even think about starting to worry. And then he might actually be able to stop twitching and sort this whole situation out.

Besides, when had a locked door ever stopped him?

There was a clearing around the siege tunnel exit, so Merlin snuck from shrub to shrub until he was as close as he could get without being entirely exposed. He knelt and reached out his hand, and whispered, "Aliese!"

Nothing happened. Merlin frowned and tried again, but the gate didn't budge. Maybe it needed more of a push, he thought, and tried a more forceful opening spell. "Tóspringe!"

His magic surged out, and Merlin yelped as it snapped back at him, as if it had bounced off of some invisible barrier. He was going to have to get closer. After a quick check that there was no one around, he scurried across the open grass and up to the siege gate. He gave the iron bars a shake but they were held fast. There wasn't even any of the usual wiggle from a loose hinge.

Forget the gate. He needed to break whatever magic was sealing up the castle. It was powerful, he could tell that much. But Merlin had faced powerful magic before, and something about it had always felt familiar to him, like it was somehow connected to his own. Nimueh's magic, the dragon's magic, even Sigan's, they all drew from the Old Religion, from the same shared source.

He pressed his hand into the space between the bars, and felt the tingle of the magic against his fingertips. When he couldn't press any further, he closed his eyes and reached out, letting his magic slip out and spread along the surface of the barrier. It was solid and smooth, almost like glass, and it didn't so much prevent him from physically passing through, as make him not able to move forward once he touched it. It was so odd, he just couldn't figure it out. He'd never felt anything like it.

He had, however, felt the press of a sword against his back before.

"Turn around, nice and slow," said a gruff voice.

This was not how Merlin wanted this to go. He had already spent too long poking around the barrier. If he didn't get back soon, Arthur was going to start worrying, and then he would be angry, and then he would be upset, and none of these were things that Merlin wanted to be responsible for. Worse, he had just single-handedly ruined their only advantage. As soon as word got back to the castle that a knight of Camelot had been caught, the element of surprise would be completely gone.

Merlin had always had to be careful with his magic before. His mum and then Gaius had drilled caution into him, and fear of discovery held him back further. If he had a choice between running and fighting, he'd been taught that it was always better to run, or if he could not escape, to feign weakness. He could make either choice now, but he chafed at both of them now. A knight would stand his ground, a knight would be strong.

He was tired of the old rules. Arthur had thrown away everything he had been taught to find a better way. Merlin was certain he could do the same.

For once, Merlin was going to stop holding himself back. He was going to use his magic right out in the open, and let these men see what he truly was. And then he was going to kill them.

Merlin turned around slowly, his magic already risen high from his attempts to open the gate. There were six men, in the same grey and mail as the Deorham men who had ambushed them. He had killed four before. Six shouldn't be a problem. The one with the sword was closest to him, and Merlin was going to get rid of him first. "Ástríce!" he called, sending a bolt of power from his left hand as he drew his sword with his right. The first man went flying back.

"Sorcery!" cried another, and they all came at him in a rush.

Merlin shoved down his instinct to flee and lashed out with his sword. The first rule is to attack. Strike first, strike hard, and give your enemy no quarter. He cursed himself for not bringing his shield, because it was a lot harder striking out when there were five other swords striking back at him. He caught a glancing blow on his arm, but the mail kept him from being cut.

He wanted to call for Arthur. If he shouted loud enough, he might hear. But it would be just as likely to bring more of the Deorham men down upon him, and worse, he had already been seen using his magic. He had made his choice to start this; he was going to have to deal with this himself.

"Scildan!" he hissed, creating an invisible barrier of his own. The men battered their swords against the shield, but it had held against dragon fire, it wasn't going to fall to a human-forged blade. But holding them off wasn't the answer either. If they ran, this was all for nothing.

He understood exactly what Arthur meant about not thinking in the middle of a fight. It was so hard to recall all the spells he knew when he was trying not to die. He should never have neglected his practice all these past months, but there hadn't been any time. He'd been so busy training to be a knight, to be able to use a sword without thinking, that he hadn't given any thought at all about using his spells the same way. And he'd spent so much time with Arthur, there hadn't been any opportunities to practice the way he used to when he lived in Gaius' back room.

Think bandits. Think Ealdor, without having to worry about anyone watching.

"Ahatian! Ahatian! Ahatian! Ahatian! Ahatian!" In quick succession, all five blades glowed hot, and the men dropped them, staring at their swords in shock. Merlin dropped the shield spell and lunged, killing a second man, then struck at a third. That one he injured, but then someone jumped on his back and knocked the air from his chest and the sword from his hand. Merlin gasped "Onbregdan!" and the sword flew back into his hand, and he swung at the legs of the nearest attacker, who fell back in alarm.

"Ástríce!" he called again, blasting the man from his back. Merlin scrambled back to his feet. Three down, three to go.

"Take him alive," said one of the men to the others.

"I'd like to see you try," Merlin dared, smiling dangerously. He had never used so much magic all at once like this. It was exhilarating not having to hold himself back, not having to hide and whisper.

"Ástríce!" he called, but this time his target leapt away from the blast. He lunged at another with his sword, then had to turn quickly to block the third, who had taken the unheated sword from the first man. He fell back, trying to catch his breath and figure out what everyone was doing, it was getting harder to keep track. Where had the first man gone?

The answer came from above, as the man leapt from the top of the siege tunnel exit and landed hard, driving the breath from Merlin again. This time, an arm hooked across his throat and pulled, cutting off his air so he couldn't speak. But Merlin didn't need words to do magic. He let his magic lash out, blowing the man with the sword from his feet. Merlin bucked and writhed to free himself from the man on his back, but he was heavy and strong and tenacious.

Get off, get off, get off! Merlin thought, and in his efforts to fling away the man on his back, he was carried along with him. Which might have worked, except that the man managed to somehow twist them around in midair so that Merlin was the one on the bottom when they landed. And he still hadn't let go of Merlin's throat.

Tactics. What he needed right now was Arthur and his bloody tactics. His vision was starting to grey at the edges. There were only two of them left, he could handle two. He had to stop them, had to... He lashed out again, trying to blow the one in front of him from his feet, but it only pushed him back a few steps. Merlin looked for his sword and sent it flying, and nearly crowed with victory when it skewered the man right through the middle.

That just left...

That just...

That...

§

It was the buzz that dragged Merlin back to awareness again. That strange magic that kept him out of the tunnel. It made the insides of his ears itch, which was fairly minor compared to the pain in his throat and the aches everywhere else, but it still managed to annoy him the most.

"...a lot of trouble taking him alive," said a voice.

"There's no way one of Uther's knights is going to use magic," said a second.

"Do you want to wait until he wakes up so you can see for yourself?" asked the first voice, sounding quite annoyed.

"He said not to waste it," complained the second. "If he's just a knight, we should kill him. It'll be one less mouth to feed."

"He killed five of us, and you're worried about having your rations cut? Give me that."

"All right, all right. I'm just saying, there aren't supposed to be any sorcerers in Camelot. That's the whole point."

Something wet touched Merlin's forehead, and it tingled with the same magic that was around the castle. His own magic tried to resist it, but he pushed it back down and let the strange magic wash over him. His head might be pounding like he'd drunk a whole casket of unwatered wine, but there was an idea forming in there somewhere. Maybe there was a way to salvage this after all.

He'd gone and done the same thing he always did, without thought to the consequences. But he'd had to. He had to sneak away to find out about the magic. He had to do it on his own, because nobody else could know. And for all that Arthur lectured him for acting on his own, what choice did he have? The knights might not have his power, but they had their fellows to watch their backs. And maybe that was what Merlin truly had been jealous about, more than not having to hide, more than not being afraid, more than having actual resources that weren't random books salvaged from a bonfire twenty years ago.

As a sorcerer, he fought alone. And if anything went wrong, he had no one to rely on. Not out here, far away from the warm clutter of Gaius' chambers.

But when Arthur had tried to fob him off with self-defense training instead of actual swordfighting, when he'd finished yelling at Merlin for being single-minded, he'd told him that he had to start thinking more than one step ahead. So that was what Merlin was going to do. Arthur might even be proud of him, when he was finished with being absolutely furious at him for getting captured in the first place.

"Yeah, well that's why I didn't just cut the bastard's head off myself," said the first, giving Merlin a sharp kick in the side, because apparently his survival didn't mean his captor was obligated to be nice. Merlin bit back a groan; his mail did little to protect him from blunt force.

"Idriys won't like this," the second man said.

"I don't care if he likes it," grumbled the first.

Hands hauled him up, holding him by his legs and under his arms, and they carried him right through the barrier as if it wasn't there at all. They put him down on the other side, and someone wiped the spot from his forehead. The strange magic dissipated.

Well.

Merlin decided to consider the first stage of his brand new plan a success. He was inside the castle, and if he could just avoid being tortured and killed, he might just be able to gather all the information Arthur needed. And then all he had to do was find a way to escape back to Arthur alive, with his secret intact.

He cracked one eye open just enough to see where they were. He saw a yard full of men wearing grey and mail, sitting around looking rather bored. Some were sleeping and others were grouped together playing dice. Nobody seemed interested in the sight of one more captive being hauled inside. He shut his eye again when he was suddenly grabbed by the waist and hauled over someone's shoulder like a sack of potatoes. It took everything he had not to tense or cry out. If they knew he was awake, he was going to have a lot more than a few bruises to worry about.

He was carried into the keep. He heard a door being opened, and then he was dumped onto a chair with little ceremony.

"Where's he been hiding all this time? We searched every inch of this bloody town."

"He used his magic, idiot," sneered the first man. "Give me that cloth. We have to gag him before--"

He never got the chance to finish. Merlin sprung to his feet, opening his eyes just in time to aim his spell. "Wáce ierlic!" he rasped, sending both men flying back against the wall. They slumped to the floor, unconscious.

They'd brought him into some sort of study, with a tall bookcase and a writing desk. Merlin hurried over and shut the door, leaning back against it as he sorted out what to do next. He looked at the unconscious men, and realized with regret that he was going to have to kill them.

Merlin didn't especially like killing people. Ideally, he wouldn't have to kill anyone at all, and everyone could just be sensible and talk things out. But his first week in Camelot, he'd had to take a life to save the lives of others, Arthur's included, and he hadn't stopped since. But it had always been in the heat of the moment, something done out of desperation and instinct and defense. He'd never looked down at his victims, unconscious and helpless, and coldly considered taking their lives. Merek had killed their captive, and Arthur had been furious with him for that, because there was no honor in killing the defenseless.

But if Merlin let them live, even if he found out everything he needed to and escaped unharmed, it could still ruin everything. It could ruin Arthur's attack. It could expose Merlin's magic. They were defenseless now, but their knowledge was the most powerful weapon they could wield. And he couldn't let them use it.

To his surprise, the long knife was still on his belt; between his magic and his sword, he'd been too busy to think of using it in the fight, and there hadn't really been a good opportunity for it anyway. He pulled it free and took a deep breath, let it out. He placed the blade against the first man's throat and -- grimacing -- pulled it down and across, opening a bloody gash. The man choked and his body shuddered, but he never woke up, and Merlin was glad of that. He didn't want the man to suffer.

The second was the same. And then it was done.

Merlin leaned back, feeling queasy and sullied, but he told himself not to be so weak. This was the sort of thing that knights had to do. Arthur wouldn't be sick just because he killed two of his enemies. Merlin wiped the blade clean and sheathed it. He went through their pockets, but the only thing he found of significance was a little bottle of oil, its contents laced with the same strange magic. It was down to its last dregs. Maybe that was why the man was worried about wasting it. Merlin opened it and sniffed it, but didn't recognize the type of oil. And in one way or another, he was familiar with pretty much all the oils in Camelot.

But now he realized he had a problem. It was only a matter of time before someone wondered what had happened to the patrol, or stumbled over their bodies, and the man with the oil would be missed as well. Merlin couldn't afford to be caught sneaking around the castle in Camelot armor. He was going to have to find a way to blend in. He needed a way to hide in plain sight.

Fortunately, Merlin had quite a lot of experience with hiding in plain sight.

He pulled off his armor and mail and surcoat, sparing a sad frown at his empty sword sheath, and bundled them all up as tightly as he could inside the surcoat and belt, tucking the knife and the little bottle inside. As tempted as he was to keep the knife with him, its presence would only betray him. Unarmed, his peasant boots and simple clothes would allow him to blend in with the servants of Gedref as easily as he did with the servants of Camelot. He rubbed his throat and felt the bruising from his strangulation; fortunately, there was an easy way to hide that as well, and it would complete his disguise perfectly. He took the scrap of cloth that the men intended to use as a gag, and tied it around his neck as kerchief.

A sorcerer disguised as a servant, disguised as a knight, disguised as a servant. Merlin would have laughed if his throat didn't hurt so much.

With the innocuous bundle under his arm, Merlin left the study behind, locking the door with a whisper before lowering his eyes to the ground and assuming a subdued, servile posture. Soldiers passed him without so much as a glance in his direction. Obviously when it came to servants, some things were the same in every kingdom. And if the barrier kept anyone from getting in or out without that oil, the invaders would have let down their guard. It was easy to become complacent when you thought you were safe.

He wove his way deeper into the castle. Merek had said that the entrance to the siege tunnels was in the armory; Merlin wasn't sure if he could sneak in there right now, but he might need to make a speedy exit when the time came.

He wasn't surprised to see that there were guards posted outside the armory, so he walked past the entrance as if he had no intention at all of trying to go inside. He turned a corner and, with no one in sight, whispered open the door to a cupboard. He tucked his bundle of armor into the back of the bottom shelf, then quickly closed the cupboard and whispered it locked again. And then quite calmly, looking as cowed as possible, he walked past the same guards and back upstairs.

He breathed out in relief. If anyone pulled him aside now, there would be nothing suspicious for them to find. Merlin had dealt with enough searches in Camelot to know that the best defense was to be as completely innocent as possible. Gaius always used to chide him for falling asleep with his magic book open on his bed. Of course, these days it was gathering dust under the floorboards. When they got back, he would have to find some excuse to get away from Arthur for a couple of hours a day so he could research and practice again.

It had been nice, pretending he didn't need his magic. Pretending he was just a man like any other, that only blood flowed in his veins. But he couldn't lie to himself any more. Not now that Arthur needed him for so much more than saving his life. He had finally earned his moment in the sun, standing proudly beside Arthur before his knights, but the light didn't fill him up, didn't make him shine like Arthur did. It only cast the hidden parts of him deeper into shadow, swallowing them in blackness.

He hoped Arthur wasn't worrying too much, then admitted to himself that Arthur probably knew that he'd been captured by now, and likely feared that he was dead. And worse, he was probably blaming himself for it.

Wait for me, he pleaded, silently, wishing he could project his thoughts like the Druid boy, like the dragon. Please, Arthur, don't do anything stupid. Not until I'm there to save you.

Merlin rubbed his throat again. He could really do with some honey right now.

§

The kitchens were always busy in Camelot. There was always someone working away, even in the small hours of the night. Someone had to stay up to wash and clean after the feasts ran late. Someone had to be up to make the bread so the servants could carry it away at the crack of dawn. And all day long, there would be vegetables to chop, animals to roast, stews to stir and recipes to plan. A castle ran on its stomach, and so did an army.

Gedref's kitchen was, of course, not as sprawling an affair as Camelot's, but it was as bustling as Camelot's on a grand feast-day. All those Deorham men and all those prisoners must make a lot of hungry mouths to feed, and he recalled that the one man had complained about rations. Arthur had been quite vocal on the unpleasantries of being on the inside of a siege, with starvation being the primary offender.

But it was early in the siege, and no one was starving just yet. Great pots bubbled over the cooking fires, some with porridge and some with stew. Merlin guessed that the porridge was for the prisoners and servants, but even that made his stomach rumble. He saw a tray of rolls left to cool and snatched one, slipping it up his sleeve as he walked past them to the cupboards. He searched the shelves and found several jars of honey; he took the first and pried it open, then scooped a great dollop with his finger and sucked at it, glad as it gradually soothed and warmed his throat. He took another scoop and slathered it on the roll, and scarfed it down in a few huge mouthfuls.

He was just sticking another fingerful of honey into his mouth when someone cleared their throat, and Merlin turned to find one of the servants staring at him. She was a few years older than him, and looked a mixture of amused, baffled, and irritated. Merlin was used to that look being turned on him, as it was one of Arthur's favorite expressions. He pulled his finger out with a slurp and smiled as innocently as possible.

She looked over her shoulder at the guards by the doorway, then stepped forward, forcing Merlin into the narrow space between the cupboard and the door. She took the jar from him and placed it on the shelf, and stared intently at him, as if trying to fathom him out.

"You're not one of us, and you're not one of them," she decided. "But nobody gets in or out without their permission. Believe me, we've tried. Are you spying for them?"

"What? Of course not," Merlin protested, his voice somewhat less raspy for the rest and the honey.

She narrowed her eyes at him. "I wouldn't put it past them. That Idriys is a sharp one, I'll give him that."

"Who's Idriys?" Merlin asked, remembering the earlier mention of the name. "Is he their leader?"

She blinked at him. "Either you're telling the truth or you're incredibly stupid. Possibly both."

"Mira?" asked a man, leaning his head in. "Is something wrong?" He saw Merlin and went through the same expressions as Miren had. "What's going on? Who is this?"

"That's what I'm trying to find out," Mira said, crossing her arms and giving Merlin a stern look.

"I'm here to help you," Merlin said, keeping his voice low. "I'm... I'm a scout for Prince Arthur. I came ahead of the army, but I was found and brought inside. I escaped, and now I need to find out what's going on so I can get the information back to the Prince." He didn't want to tell them he was a knight, because the way he looked now there was no reason they would believe him, and it wouldn't help his situation if they thought he was lying.

"The Prince!" said the man, but his relief was short-lived. "We can tell you, but it's not going to do you or him any good," he said, regretfully. "Just because you made it in doesn't mean you can make it out again."

"Assuming he's telling the truth," Mira said, skeptically. "He wants to know who Idriys is."

The man chuckled. "Then tell him. If he is one of theirs, it's not like you'll be telling him anything he doesn't already know. Sorry lad, you're stuck here with us now. Might as well get use to it." He took a sack of something from the shelf and went back to whatever he was cooking.

"I suppose he has a point," Mira sighed. "What do you want to know?"

"As much as you can tell me," Merlin said, eagerly.

Mira glanced over her shoulder again, then reached into one of the bags and pulled out a handful of flour. Merlin only had a moment to give her a puzzled look before he ended up with a faceful of flour. He coughed heavily and tried to clear it from his eyes.

"Look what you've done!" said Mira, loudly, as she hauled Merlin away from the cupboard. "Clumsy idiot, wasting good flour."

"Sorry," Merlin choked, playing along as she hauled him away from the watchful guards and over to the wash basins. She batted his hands down and began to dab at his face with a damp washcloth.

"If you are a spy, this is the least of what you deserve," Mira muttered. "But I'll tell you. Lord Idriys is their leader, a cousin of King Alined. They surprised us in the middle of the night. We tried to fight them, but it was over too fast." Her frown deepened with distaste. "They have a sorcerer. Horrible man. It's his fault we can't get out. If it wasn't for his evil magic, they'd have never taken the castle in the first place. You ask me, he deserves worse than the pyre."

Merlin gave an internal sigh; attitudes towards magic were the same in the south of Camelot as they were in the north. Though given her situation, he couldn't blame her for her anger. "What do you know about him? His magic?"

"Lord Idriys has been keeping him busy upstairs," Mira said. "All I know is that they keep taking away our cooking oil, as if we don't have enough trouble feeding everyone."

Merlin recalled the man who'd implied there were a lot of mouths to feed. "They've got a lot of people down in the dungeons?"

"In any room they could find to lock up. Took most of us alive, which is the only mercy in all this," Mira said, wryly. "At least my Eian is safe, even if he is going mad down there. Last time I saw him, he was with a group that had broken out and tried to escape. They didn't make it any farther than the rest of us. No one gets out as long as that foreign bastard lives." She spat on the ground.

"You mean the sorcerer?" Merlin guessed. It might explain why the magic felt so strange. "He's not from Deorham?"

"Not hardly. I can barely understand a word he says." Mira rinsed the washcloth and wiped the flour from Merlin's hair.

"What about Lord Wichard?" Merlin asked, thinking of Merek's grief. "His family? Are they..."

"Oh, they're all right," Mira said, softening a bit at his concern. "Barely a scratch on 'em."

Merlin gave a huff of relief. "Merek will be glad to hear that."

Mira blinked at him. "You know Merek?" She smiled. "Why didn't you say so in the first place. I would have aimed lower with the flour."

"Oi!" called a guard. "No chatting, or you'll be back down with the rest, eating porridge instead of cooking it."

Mira's back was to the guard, and she rolled her eyes before she turned with an obsequious bow. "At once, sire." She headed back to the cooking area, pulling Merlin along with her. "Tell me you can make bread," she said under her breath.

"Of course," Merlin said. As if his mum would raise anyone too stupid to make bread. She'd had to stop him from raising it with magic, of course, because he'd been too impatient to let it rise on its own when he was young. But there was a sort of magic already there in the transformation of a bowlful of grains into a freshly-baked loaf, crusty on the outside and steaming and soft within.

"Good," she said, putting him in front of a bowl of dough that had been resting. "It'll make up for that roll you pinched."

Merlin found himself assimilated into the kitchen staff, and as he helped he was able to glean a few more pieces of useful information. Alined had come to Gedref with about four hundred men, but lost a few in the fighting and a few more from the escape attempts. There had been several, which resulted in a tightening of security around the cells and a high turnover in the kitchen; anything that could be used as a poison or weapon had been confiscated, the servants' quarters were frequently searched, and the armory and the forges had been raided for Alined's men. Mira was quite disgusted at the fact that Gedref's fine swords were in the dirty hands of the Deorham.

Most importantly, Merlin learned that no servants had been allowed into the upper levels of the keep since the invasion, not even to empty the chamber pots. In his experience, the more closely a place was guarded, the greater a reward could be found within.

When it came time to carry the food out to be served, with Mira's help he was able to secure a spot with the group headed to the heart of the castle rather than down to the cells or out into the yard.

The stew smelled delicious as it was ladled out to Lord Idriys and the others. "Any chance there'll be leftovers?" Merlin whispered to Mira.

"None you'll want," she replied, a smirk curling her mouth despite her stoic servant's expression. "Rab's been sneaking piss into their food since this started."

Merlin gaped at her. Rab was the servant who stood by the cooking pots and kept them stirred and simmering. "That's awful," he whispered, but couldn't help the admiration that crept into his voice. The people of Gedref might have had everything taken away from them, but they would not be beaten down, would not let their spirits be defeated. It wasn't the most palatable sort of rebellion, but it was courageous in its stubborn defiance.

Merlin was given an ewer of wine and ordered to keep the cups filled for a lower table full of rough-looking knights. He needed to get closer to Idriys so he could eavesdrop on him and the younger man he was talking to; Mira had whispered to him that he was Sir Aeddan, Idriys' nephew; apparently Alined liked to keep power within the ranks of his family. Idriys, Aeddan, and the sorcerer were all residing in the upper chambers vacated by Lord Wichard and his family.

Things did not seem to be entirely harmonious between Idriys and Aeddan. Aeddan bore a perpetual frown and looked restless, and was impatiently listening as Idriys lectured him about something. If he could only get closer...

"Oi, boy," a knight said, waving his cup. "If my cup runs down one more time, I'll have you thrown into the cells. It's a privilege serving us, and you'd best remember that."

"Sorry, sire," Merlin said, trying to make his servility appear genuine. The lot of them would be quite surprised when they saw him on the battlefield, in gleaming armor and standing proud at Arthur's side.

How to get upstairs? He couldn't just bluff his way up the way he had when he'd strolled through the halls earlier. He could use his magic to create a distraction, but there was too much risk of being caught before he could find what he needed, and he wasn't even sure what he was looking for yet. He had to preserve his cover as a servant. He had to get upstairs. But only three people could get upstairs, and no servants were allowed.

No servants. Shouldn't they have brought personal servants with them? Mira hadn't mentioned any, and he couldn't get over to her to ask her. There weren't any serving them now, only the kitchen staff.

There was another idea forming in his head, and this time he didn't have to struggle against a pounding headache to help it grow. Merlin had never intended to become a manservant when he'd come to Camelot. He hadn't gone to the feast with Gaius intending to save Arthur's life, even after everything the dragon had told him. It had been luck that he was there as Gaius' attendant, luck that he'd ended up exactly where he needed to be to keep Arthur safe. And Uther, who had no reason to trust a boy who was from another land, a boy who had fought publicly with his son twice in as many days, had been so pleased by Merlin's actions that he had ignored all reason and appointed him as Arthur's manservant, right then and there.

Maybe Merlin could make his own luck this time.

There were large iron chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, just as there were in the dining halls of Camelot. Even better, one of them was right over the table where Idriys was sitting. He just had to find an excuse to get over there.

A knight at the other end of the table raised his cup to demand more wine. Merlin started over, but let the ewer slip from his fingers, to clatter noisily on the stone floor. "Sorry," Merlin said, grabbing a napkin from the table to mop up the spill.

"Clumsy idiot," grumbled the knight whose napkin he'd taken.

"I'll just get some more," Merlin said, grabbing the empty ewer and hurrying away, his head down. There was more wine by the wall, and he'd have to pass by the main table to get there. All he had to do was time this right...

"Abricaþ benda," he muttered, covering the spell by coughing into his hand.

It all happened at once. The chain holding the chandelier snapped, just as Idriys stood from his chair and stepped away, just as Merlin looked up in alarm and cried 'Look out!' and lunged.

When the dust settled, Merlin was on the floor with Aeddan beside him, and Idriys was a few steps back from where the chandelier had fallen, staring at it in shock. Everyone else in the room was staring at the three of them in equal surprise, but as the surprise wore off, their reactions were not all the same.

"Aeddan, are you all right?" Idriys said, hurrying to his nephew's side.

"I think so," Aeddan said, sitting up carefully. He turned to Merlin in surprise. "You saved my life."

Merlin had intended to save Idriys' life, but he'd take what he could get. "It was nothing, sire," he said, respectfully.

"It was hardly that," Idriys said, holding out his hand for Merlin to take. He pulled Merlin to his feet and clapped a hand on his shoulder. "Your friends would have stood back and let us be crushed. You must be rewarded."

"No, honestly, you don't have to," Merlin said, humbly.

"Such a debt must be repaid," Idriys insisted. "You shall stand as an example to the others of the merits of cooperation. If there were more like you, willing to see sense, this situation need not be so unpleasant."

"I only wish to serve my lords," Merlin said, bowing his head.

Aeddan elbowed Idriys and whispered something to him. Idriys shook his head, but Aeddan whispered insistently, then gave him a pleading look. Idriys rolled his eyes but relented.

"What is your name, boy?" Idriys asked, turning to Merlin.

"Merlin, sire."

"Are you a hard worker, Merlin? Are you willing to serve the new Lord of Gedref as you did the old?"

"I only wish to be useful, my lord."

"Excellent," Idriys said, and slapped him on the back. "We've been in need ever since our servants were poisoned by your friends. Let's hope you have a tougher stomach, eh?"

Merlin glanced around the room, and was dismayed to see that all the servants were now looking at him with utter disdain. If they had doubted him before, they would surely believe him to be against them now. Even Mira was sneering at him like he was a bug to be squashed.

"Finally," sighed Aeddan. "If we have to be stuck here, at least I won't have to empty my own chamber pot anymore. The floors need scrubbing, and the bedclothes need to be changed, and..."

Merlin sighed internally as Aeddan rattled off the list of cleaning duties that awaited him tonight. Ridiculous amounts of cleaning, the disposal of bodily excretions, and a high risk of death by poisoning: he had done too good a job of replicating his early days as Arthur's manservant.

One thing was different, because even if Idryis was styling himself as the new Lord of Gedref, the people of Gedref clearly had other ideas. Merlin might have ingratiated himself into Idriys' chambers, but he'd made a lot of enemies in the process.

Arthur was out there somewhere, and the army was growing nearer with every hour. If Merlin didn't find a way to stop the strange magic that protected the castle, the siege attack would fail, and Camelot would be in even greater peril than it already was.

Everything was depending on him. He had to find what he needed quickly, and make his escape tonight. Time was running out.

Chapter Text

The rest of the dinner was increasingly unpleasant for Merlin, with the other servants alternating between cold shoulders and gimlet eyes. He was tripped, elbowed, spilled on, and nearly stabbed in the arm with a serving fork. The servants of Gedref were a proud people, and they did not take kindly to traitors, especially a traitor who saved the life of such an important enemy. He only wished that he could explain that he was nothing of the kind. That he was doing all this to save them, to save lives, to save the kingdom from Alined's greed. But he had no choice but to swallow that secret as he had so many others.

Idriys watched Merlin closely, doing nothing to stop the servants from their petty revenges; it was clear that he was trying to decide if -- life-saving aside -- the whole business was genuine, or if it was all a show put on to fool him into lowering his guard. But the servants' anger was as real as Merlin's dismay. If Merlin was sent to the servants' quarters for the night, it was entirely possible that he might not live to see the morning. So when Idriys and Aeddan finally retired to their chambers, Merlin was honestly relieved that they took him along with them.

As he walked a few steps behind his new masters, Merlin found that he was no longer as invisible as he had been before. The guards watched him with a wary suspicion, and some gave him their best menacing glares. They must have borne the brunt of the various escape attempts and other rebellions of the servants and other prisoners. He had no doubt that if and when his treachery was discovered, their punishment would be swift.

When Merlin returned to Camelot, it would be with a newfound appreciation. For all that he had to hide, at least there were people who knew his secrets, who trusted him and believed in him. Even if they each only knew some of his secrets and not all of them. There would probably never be anyone he could be completely honest with, not even Gaius. Arthur was right about Gaius, that he revealed only as much as he wanted to reveal. Merlin understood why; Gaius was a physician and Uther's closest advisor, and on top of all that he was a sorcerer who taught magic in the heart of a kingdom where the practice of magic meant death. Any one of those roles would be enough to encourage a lifetime of secrecy. But every time Merlin asked a question that Gaius refused to answer, it made it that much harder for Merlin to be honest back.

Worst of all, Merlin knew that he turned around and did exactly that to Arthur, that his lies by omission were no better than Gaius'. And yet Arthur trusted him anyway. Arthur believed in him so much that he staked his reputation on the strength of Merlin's devotion. Maybe it helped that Merlin tried his best to be completely honest about everything that he could be honest about. Maybe that made up for the silences and the lies. But maybe Arthur trusted him in spite of all that, because Arthur was a good man, a better man than Merlin could afford to be.

When they reached the landing of the upper chambers, Idriys raised a hand to hold Merlin back. "Aeddan, go and make sure everything important is locked up. Best to keep temptation away from the boy. We'll wait here until you're done."

Aeddan nodded and went on ahead. Merlin couldn't help but watch after him with a certain longing. Whatever Aeddan was going to lock up was certain to be exactly what Merlin needed to steal. But now was not the time to go after it, not with everyone watching him closely, not with so many guards and soldiers awake and alert. He'd never make it out alive.

And there was still the matter of the barrier.

"I hope you're not disappointed," said Idriys.

"Sorry?" Merlin said, confused.

Idriys smirked and shook his head. "Tell me about yourself, Merlin. Tell me why a conquered servant would protect and serve his conqueror. The truth this time."

The truth. Merlin couldn't go within miles of the truth, not if he wanted to keep his head on his neck. But he could already feel himself breaking into a cold sweat. He would just have to give as much of the truth as he could. That was something he was good at.

"I'm not from here," Merlin admitted. "I grew up in a tiny village in the mountains. I left for... a better life, I suppose. I've only been here for a year or so."

"A year is long enough to start a new life," Idriys replied. "You must have made friends. Settled down."

Merlin shrugged. "The first few days I was here, I upset someone important. Lord Wichard had me locked up for a while. When he let me out, I was stuck doing all the worst jobs. Mucking the stables, that sort of thing."

"It wasn't what you'd hoped."

"No. And I thought with time that would change, but..." Merlin shrugged. "I was thinking of leaving, before you came and trapped us here. And then I saw the chandelier and... and I thought maybe I could start over. Earn the favor of the new Lord of Gedref." He gave a crooked smile. "That was probably a stupid thing to do."

Idriys was still scrutinizing him."Then why do it?"

Merlin thought back, not to the dropping of the chandelier in Gedref, but to the one in Camelot. On the surface, there had been no reason for him to save Arthur's life. He had magic, and Arthur's father had executed a sorcerer practically the moment Merlin first set foot in the courtyard. Merlin had told the dragon that he would have been happy to stand aside and let anyone kill Arthur, who had already proved himself to be an arrogant bully who liked beating people up for fun. Merlin had not believed in their destiny, not then.

But he had saved Arthur's life anyway. Before he loved Arthur, before he knew him as anything but a prat, before he believed that Arthur could be the one to bring magic back to Camelot. It was the same reason why he had saved Gaius' life with magic only minutes after watching a sorcerer's execution.

"Because he didn't deserve to die," he said at last. "No one does. And... and when you took over, you could have killed a lot more people. You still could. But instead you're keeping us alive and feeding us. It was only fair to return the favor."

Idriys stared at him for a long moment. "You value the lives of others more than your own?"

"Yes," Merlin said, meeting his gaze, unafraid because it was the truth.

Idriys pursed his lips, then nodded. "Good. Thank you, Merlin, for being honest with me. It suits you better than that pitiful grovelling act."

Merlin was a bit disappointed to realize that Idriys hadn't been fooled in the slightest down in the dining hall, but perhaps it was just as well. He was even worse at grovelling than he was at lying.

Just as Aeddan returned, a soldier came hurrying up the steps. "Sire," he said, with a bow of his head. "We have a problem."

"What is it now?" Idriys frowned. "Don't tell me those idiots have broken into the wine again. They can drink all they want when they're at home, but not under my command."

"No, sire, it wasn't-- it was the last patrol, sire. They never reported back, and Seward's gone missing as well. And, well..."

"Come on, spit it out," Idriys said, impatiently.

"Four dead, sire. All from the patrol. We found them outside the siege tunnels. Whoever killed them, they put up a hard fight."

"I was told that everyone was accounted for," Idriys said, with a cold sort of fury. "Every man, woman, and child."

A guilty look flashed across the soldier's face, though it was quickly suppressed. "Someone may have sailed in, sire. It is a harbor. If they moored near the cliffs--"

Idriys stepped closer to the soldier. "How many did you let escape?"

"Four at most," the soldier admitted, reluctantly. "We sent men after them as soon as we could. They were injured, they should have been easily killed. But our men have yet to return."

Idriys hissed out a breath. "They may have come back, but it is equally likely they went for help. Thanks to your incompetence, we may have an army breathing down our necks." He rubbed at the scruff on his chin. "You said you found four. What of the other three?"

"Still missing, sire. But Seward wasn't supposed to be with the patrol. He was on gate duty this afternoon."

"I don't like this," Idriys said, frowning deeply. "Sweep the grounds again, and search every room in the castle. If you can't find them, recheck the town, then sweep the forest. If there is anyone out there, they won't have anywhere left to hide."

Four bodies? Merlin thought he had killed five, but maybe he had been wrong. He schooled his features so as not to betray his worry. He knew that the bodies would be discovered eventually, but he'd hoped that it would take a little longer. If he had only stayed with Arthur instead of sneaking off to find out about the magic. But if he hadn't, the army would have arrived and been unable to breach the shield, allowing Idriys and his army to simply wait until Gedref's gold bought them reinforcements, and the whole thing could lead into an all-out war that Camelot could not afford. And now Arthur and the knights were in danger, and the army was still too far away to help. If Arthur was captured, it would be all his fault.

Idriys glanced back at Merlin, then over to Aeddan. "Put him to work and keep an eye on him. I'll be back shortly." And with that, he marched off down the steps with the guard, still giving orders. "Move all the servants we can spare down to the cells, and double the guard. If this is another one of their little tricks, they're going to be very sorry for it."

Aeddan grabbed Merlin by the arm and pulled him into the first room. "Start with the bedclothes," he said, pointing to a stack of clean sheets in an open cupboard. "Empty the chamber pots in the garderobe at the end of the hall. I'll have a guard bring you a bucket and rags for the floor. If you can manage that I'll give you more to do, and you'd better do it right unless you'd rather spend the night down in the cells with the rest of them."

"Of course, sire," Merlin said, trying to muster some enthusiasm. It wasn't working, but at least Aeddan didn't seem to care. He moved toward the cupboard, but Aeddan stopped him again.

"And don't even think about trying anything," Aeddan warned. "Betray us, and there's nowhere for you to run."

Merlin nodded, and Aeddan gave him a push towards the cupboard. It was going to be a long night.

§

When Arthur had warned him that there might not be time to rest once they reached Gedref, Merlin hadn't expected to be wearing out his knees scrubbing floors all evening. Not that being a knight had been particularly glamorous so far, but at least fighting for his life was exciting (in a terrifying sort of way), while scrubbing the floor was decidedly not. Neither were dirty laundry and chamber pots. Aeddan's socks smelled even worse than Arthur's. It would have been nice to be able to magic everything clean, but that was hardly an option.

At least he'd figured out where Aeddan had hidden the important documents. They were in a drawer on the desk in Idriys' room. He could tell because every time he got close to it, Aeddan watched him like a hawk. No doubt the drawer was locked, but since there wasn't any strange magic protecting it, that wouldn't pose a problem.

Though there was plenty of strange magic about. Aeddan's chambers were next to the sorcerer's, and when Merlin knelt close to the wall during his scrubbing, the magic was so thick it made his eyes water. Nimueh had reeked of power on the Isle of the Blessed, stripped of her maidservant disguise, and the air had tasted like the aftermath of a powerful storm, metallic and sharp. The dragon's magic was also strong, but subdued, perhaps restrained by the huge, enchanted chains that kept him bound to the earth. The dragon always smelled of smoke and wood ash, even when he wasn't breathing fire. Perhaps it was related to the way elemental magic worked. Merlin surreptitiously sniffed himself, but he didn't seem to smell of anything unusual. He could, however, do with a wash. After a week on a horse, half of that in full armor, he was not at his freshest.

Not that he could tell if his magic smelled like any of the elements, not with the overpowering scent from the sorcerer's chambers. If it smelled like anything, it was like the sap from a pine tree, but that wasn't right either. Nobody else must be able to smell it or he couldn't imagine how they could bear it. It had to be the sorcerer himself he was sensing, and not just some product of his magic.

He had moved on to the boot cleaning by the time Idriys returned, but instead of entering his own chambers, he walked past and into the sorcerer's. Merlin tried to look as bored as possible as he listened in.

"Palaemon," said Idriys, angrily. "We have a problem."

"Eh? Now what?" The sorcerer's-- Palaemon's voice was disgruntled, and it had a thick accent he didn't recognize.

"You said no one could get in. You told me that quite clearly."

"I said no one!" Palaemon said, affronted. "No one has."

"Are you absolutely certain about that?"

"I am certain."

"The way you were absolutely certain about the oil?" Idriys said, tartly.

"Was not my fault," Palaemon insisted. "Your king is too cheap to give me what I need. This rancidum opscenum you call oil is of no use to me. I can do nothing until the ship arrives."

Ranchi-what? Merlin wondered. Perhaps that was some sort of spell. It was a very angry sounding spell.

"We cannot afford to wait for the ship. Find a way to make it work," Idriys ordered. "I have two dead soldiers in my castle with slit throats, and if I find out that you've been lying to me, the wrong oil will be the least of your troubles."

Palaemon's door slammed, and a moment later Idriys marched into his own room, glaring thunderously at room before sitting down at his desk. He thumps his fist on the wood. "Tell me, Merlin," he said, without turning to look at him. "How exactly am I meant to lead my men to victory when they lie to me at every turn?"

Idriys seemed to expect an answer, so Merlin did his best to reply. "Do they lie for a good reason?"

"Every man believes his reasons are just," Idriys said, dismissively. "In truth what they fear is shame and embarrassment. And for such petty reasons, they risk our lives."

"Oh," Merlin said, unexpectedly stung, even though there was no way Idriys could know enough to judge his own reasons. "I'm sorry."

Idriys barked out a laugh. "Do you know, you're the first person who has apologized to me tonight and actually meant it. And yet you are the only one who has nothing to apologize for." He looked over the room. "You make a fine manservant, for someone who spent a year mucking out the stables."

"If there's one thing that dirty work is good for, it's motivation to clean," Merlin replied.

Idriys laughed again. "And a jester as well," he said. "Do you joke because you're afraid? Many men do."

"Afraid, sire?"

Idriys shifted in his chair. "If I lose, you will be hung as a traitor."

"It's a good thing you're not going to lose, then," Merlin said, giving him the sort of grin he would give Arthur, if Arthur was doubting himself.

Idriys snorted and shook his head. "Do you know, there is something about you, Merlin. Something quite unusual."

"So I've been told," Merlin said, cheerily.

"I have no idea what it is, but I think I like it." He rubbed his chin again. "Come, take off my boots. They haven't had a good clean since we marched."

Merlin went over and knelt to oblige. Idriys groaned as each foot slipped free, and out of sheer habit Merlin set aside the boots and began to massage Idriys' feet. Arthur always liked it when he did that, especially after a long day.

Idriys leaned his head back and groaned with relief. "Perhaps I'll have someone else taste my food tomorrow. It would be a shame to waste such hidden talents."

"Thank you, sire," Merlin said, switching to the other foot. When he finished, he reached for the boots. "Shall I go clean these now?"

"In a hurry to leave?" Idriys asked.

Merlin faltered. "Um, no, sire?"

"Sit with me, Merlin," Idriys said, gesturing for Merlin to sit on the floor beside his desk. "I've always been told that a proper manservant is neither seen nor heard. But I have no time for people who think they are furniture. You can clean my boots just fine from here."

Merlin sat where Idriys indicated, and bent to cleaning Idriys boots. Cleaning boots was a little bit like polishing a sword, with the same relaxing, rhythmic motions. Idriys pulled out some blank paper and began writing on it, though from his low position Merlin couldn't see what was on the paper. That was probably the point of having him sit where he was. It was impossible to snoop from here, and Idriys could keep him in plain sight without being distracted from his work.

Merlin realized that he was, quite neatly and with little effort on Idriys' part, entirely trapped. He was exactly where Idriys wanted him, doing exactly what Idriys wanted. But that was exactly where Merlin needed to be. He needed to prove to Idriys that he was trustworthy, needed Idriys to like him enough to let him stay. He needed to be the servant that Idriys wanted him to be.

It wasn't that bad, really. Merlin had expected Idriys to be more like Aeddan, who looked down at him and was simply glad that there was someone around to do the dirty work so he wouldn't have to sully his own hands. Or like Arthur's description of Alined, a greedy warmonger who cared only for gold and not at all for his own people. He wasn't even like Uther. Obviously he had a temper, from how he'd shouted at Palaemon, but it was no worse than Arthur's when he was mad at his men for failing in their duties.

Idriys was much older than Arthur, with grey streaking his temples, but he was still in his prime, still powerful. He wasn't bloodthirsty and didn't seem to be especially greedy or arrogant. He wasn't a bad person, and if they were on the same side, Merlin rather liked the idea that they could be friends. Well, it was more likely that he would be friends with Arthur, because Idriys was a noble, and nobles weren't friends with servants, as Arthur used to often remind him. Thankfully, Arthur didn't tell him things like that anymore, but that didn't mean that Idriys believed any differently, comments about furniture aside.

Merlin gradually realized that Idriys had stopped writing, and looked up to see that Idriys was watching him with curiosity and regret. Regret was not something Merlin wanted to be looked at with.

"Sire?" he asked, warily. He looked down at the boots but there was nothing wrong with them. If anything, they were starting to look the way boots ought to look. Arthur had always insisted that his boots be polished to a shine. Nothing less was fit for a prince.

"I can't keep you here," Idriys said, regret now in his voice as well. "I can't trust someone who lies to me."

Merlin's mind raced as he tried to figure out what he'd done wrong. Idriys had seemed to almost trust him just moments ago, and now he was a liar? "I don't understand," he said, at a loss.

"You're a good boy, and I know you meant well. The others will understand that." He pushed back his chair and stood. "I'll have the guards bring you to the cells."

Merlin tried not to panic, but he could feel his whole plan slipping away from him. If he ended up in the cells, even if the people of Gedref didn't hurt or kill him for betraying them, it would mean all of this was for nothing. He would be trapped unless he used his magic to escape, and if he did that he was sure to be discovered, and then he would be hunted down and executed. Arthur wouldn't be able to save him, not with the shield still in the way, and once he found out the truth he might not even want to save him.

"You can't send me back," Merlin begged, desperately. "Please, they'll kill me."

"The guards will make it clear that you only saved my nephew in order to ingratiate yourself to me."

"They won't believe them," Merlin insisted, rising to his knees. "They already think I'm a spy. Please, don't do this."

Idriys stopped and looked down at him, frowning. "What do you mean, they think you're a spy?"

Merlin cursed himself for the slip. It was hard to keep his stories straight when he was lying to so many people. "You're right," he said, mind racing. "I didn't tell you everything. I lied because... because I was ashamed. I didn't want you to think less of me."

Idriys looked away and sighed, then sat back down in his chair. "Very well. This is your last chance to tell me the truth. The whole truth."

"Thank you," Merlin said, sinking back on his heels. He had to think fast, had to give a reason why the servants would think him a spy. An idea sparked, and he fanned it desperately. "I wasn't lying about why I saved Aeddan's life. I swear I wasn't. But I lied about why I came here. About what happened before you took over."

"I'm listening."

Merlin swallowed and tried to focus his thoughts. "I didn't leave home for a better life. I left because I had to. I was... the people in my village, they didn't like me. I was a troublemaker. And when I came to Gedref, I kept making trouble. I picked fights. Stole food. That's why I was arrested." He glanced up at Idriys, and then bowed his head. "When I wasn't in the stocks, I had to scrounge for work, but nobody would hire me. But I did have one friend. Will. He, um, he was an apprentice to the blacksmith."

"Ah," Idriys said, thoughtful. "And this Will, if I have him brought up from the cells, he will tell me the same story?"

"No," Merlin admitted. "He can't, because he's dead. He was working as a beater on a hunt. He went to pee and when he was walking back, a nobleman thought he was a boar and shot him. He died and I couldn't..." He wiped at his eyes, his grief for Will swollen up inside him from where it had slept. "Sorry," he sniffed, "I just... I miss him."

When Merlin looked up, Idriys' expression had softened. Merlin wiped his face with his sleeve and let out a shuddering breath. He was nearly there now, he could do this.

"He was a good friend?" Idriys asked.

"The best," Merlin said, meaning it. Will had been his only friend in Ealdor, his best friend. Will had known who he was and accepted him without question, without judgement. Will had been honest and brave and loyal, and Merlin's cowardice had killed him. "He protected me. He wanted me to turn my life around. But the blacksmith wouldn't hire me, so Will would sneak me into the forge after dark and let me share his work, and he gave me a little of his pay. During the day I cooked and cleaned for him. I owed him so much."

"You shined his boots," Idriys realized.

That was what had given him away. The boots. Merlin wanted to laugh, that something so small could almost destroy him. "Yes," he said. "And the blacksmith and the tanner worked together. I did a lot of polishing at night."

Idriys nodded, accepting the story as genuine. "So why would anyone think you a spy?"

"Because I left," Merlin said. "When Will died, there was nothing here for me. I tried to go home, back to the village, but... there was nothing there for me either. I snuck back into town and no one was living in Will's hut, so I hid there. I didn't want anyone to know I was there, because they'd kick me out. I went out at night and caught fish. Stole food. I hated it, but there wasn't... I didn't have anywhere else to go."

He had sometimes imagined having such a life. If Uther found out and Merlin had to leave his life behind. He couldn't leave Arthur unprotected. He would have to live like a ghost, a thief in the night, scrounging for food and shelter. He would use his magic to keep hidden from the guards and watch over Arthur, follow after him to keep him safe from whoever might try to hurt him. It would be awful and lonely, but at least he would still have a purpose. At least there would still be a reason for him, for his magic. If that was all he had, if he could still keep Arthur safe, that would be enough.

"But when you came, your men found me. They thought I was just another servant. But the servants didn't trust me."

"I see," Idriys said, and rubbed at his chin. "Very well. I won't send you back tonight. But tomorrow the servants will be questioned. If their story is different from yours, you will be put into the cells and you will stay there. You may be a prisoner for the rest of your life. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sire," Merlin said, swallowing.

"Do you swear on your life that you are telling me the truth?"

Merlin looked up, and forced himself to meet Idriys' piercing gaze. "I swear, sire," he said, forcing himself to believe it, for it all to be real. It had to be real or everything would be lost.

"Then your life is mine, now," Idriys said, brooking no doubt. "If you are truthful, I will take care of you. If you lie, you will suffer." He took Merlin's jaw in his hand and tilted his face up, to better stare into his eyes, searching for any sign of artifice. "If what you say is true, you have no allegiance to Gedref or to Camelot. They have rejected you. Is that true?"

It was so close to Merlin's fears, so close to his nightmares of discovery, that it was easy to believe that it was. "Yes," he said, his voice breaking with emotion. Fresh tears welled in his eyes. If Arthur found out, that's what would happen to him. If Arthur found out, he would be alone. He could not go home, because he would have no home. He would lose everything. Everything.

"Then swear yourself to me. Right now." Idriys released him and stood over him. "Not to Deorham, for I am not in Gedref on Alined's behalf. I have had enough of fighting for his greed, and intend to keep this land as my own."

Idriys wasn't here to use Gedref as a bargaining chip for Alined. Maybe that was what Alined intended to happen, but Idriys was changing the game. Merlin had to stop him, had to stop this battle from spiralling out of control. And do to that, he had to be what Idriys wanted him to be.

He had sworn himself to Arthur so many times, and each time meant it more and more. He could give himself to Idriys just for now, just for one night. He could forget the truth of himself the way he tried to forget the truth of his magic, hide it deep down and be Idriys' servant, just as he had become Arthur's knight. He could tuck himself away and make a shell around himself and be safe, until it was time to come out again.

He took the story of himself that he had weaved for Idriys and wrapped it around himself, anchored it in the truths that it contained. He turned his hours in the stocks from joy to bitterness. He merged Gwen and Will and turned the armory into a forge. He let every nightmare of discovery sharpen into fact. If people knew who he was, who he really was, they would hate him, and so it was easy to believe that they hated him now. Easy to believe that he would have to hide in the darkness, rejected, alone. And someone so alone would be desperate for a chance to make a new start, a new life. To make his past go away and belong to someone who could protect him, who could give him a purpose and a place in the world. Idriys would give him somewhere to belong.

He knelt on the floor, broken, alone, tears streaking his cheeks. His chest was tight with fear that he would be cast out, that he would be left to mercy of the mob. Idriys was the only one who could help him, the only one who could save him. Merlin had to give himself entirely, for Idriys would accept nothing less.

"My life is yours," Merlin said, trembling, his voice tight and choked. "Everything that I am. I swear myself to you, and only to you. Please."

It hurt the way it hurt to swear himself to Arthur, and it hurt because it wasn't Arthur he was swearing himself to. His magic recoiled in him, and he tried to soothe it, to remind it that this was only for the shell, only for the false Merlin that Idriys saw. But that false Merlin had to be real, and he had to believe that it was true, all true, or Idriys would know.

He shoved his magic down as hard as he could, harder than he ever had before. It retreated, and he sobbed at the loss. Idriys knelt before him and lay a hand on his trembling shoulder.

"Shh, it's all right," Idriys soothed. "Come, let's put you to bed."

He helped Merlin up and guided him to the servant's room in his chambers, his hand solid and steady on Merlin's back. He opened the door and brought Merlin inside. It was a small room with a narrow bed, a chest and a table. A servant's place, where a servant belonged.

"Thank you," he said, shakily, as Idriys brought him to the bed and lay him down. Merlin wiped at his eyes. He couldn't stop crying.

"The truth, Merlin," Idriys said, softly. "That's all I ask from you. Nothing more. No matter what it is, I'll understand."

Merlin nodded, sniffing and wiping at his cheeks. "All right."

Idriys smiled at him, warm and understanding. "Thank you," he said, genuinely. "You're a good boy, Merlin. You'll make a fine servant. Remain loyal to me and I won't let anyone harm you. That is my promise to you. Now get some rest."

Idriys patted his arm and tucked the thin blanket around him. He walked out the door and there was a jangle of metal and the turn of a lock. Idriys had locked him in.

Merlin curled under the blanket, trembling hard. He let out a gasping breath, as if he had been holding it all this time. His heart was racing as if he had run for miles.

It was too much to deal with, too much to process, what had happened just now. What he had done. It was too real and it had shaken him to the core. It felt as real as it did with Arthur, and he was dizzied by the fear that maybe that was just as false, that none of it was ever real. There were just so many lies, his whole life was lies and lies miles deep. So many secrets, so much pretense.

He needed Arthur. He needed Arthur's belief in him. But even that was false. He wished Will was still alive, wished Will was with him now. Will knew who he was. Will would tell him the truth, even if he didn't want to hear it, because that was what he did. Will didn't lie, didn't make up stories, didn't act polite for the sake of anyone's feelings. That was why people hated him in Ealdor. That was why he was a troublemaker. Because Will told the truth, no matter what the cost.

Except at the end, when Will had lied for him. Will had lied for him and died for Arthur, because Merlin needed Arthur to be safe, and Merlin had to lie so Arthur wouldn't hate him.

Merlin cried himself to sleep, grieving for Will, grieving for Arthur, grieving for the mess his life had become. He thought he knew who he was, but he didn't. He only knew who other people wanted him to be. Gaius and Arthur and the dragon and Idriys, Gwen and Morgana and Uther and the knights and the servants and everyone. He had to be so many different people to make them all happy, to stay alive and have a purpose for his magic. The magic he had pushed away, the magic he didn't want to have, the magic that was all that he was, under all the hollow shells of himself. He was a warlock, a creature of magic, and that was all he was.

§

It was dark when he awoke, with no flickering candlelight visible through the crack in the door. His stomach was sour and his head was sore, but he groggily pushed himself up and sat on the edge of the bed, rubbing his face. He hadn't meant to fall asleep, but at least he was awake now, and he still had a chance to finish this. He had to get those papers, and he had to get into Palaemon's room and find out what he could about the shield. He focused on his mission. Everything else would wait. The important thing now was the plan.

He reached down and was pleased to find that the knife in his boot was still there. He pulled it from its sheath and held it the way Arthur had taught him, so no one would see it until he had already struck them.

He peered out of the space under the door, listening for any signs of life. He heard a soft snoring that must be from Idriys, but otherwise the chambers were quiet, and there was no noise from the hall. It must be the middle of the night, with most of the castle asleep. There would never be a better time than now.

He whispered the door open and crept carefully out. There was enough moonlight peeking out from the curtains to light his way to the desk, and he crept slowly over to it. This was not a good time to bump into things, as he often did when he was trying to sneak past Gaius at night. If Idriys woke up and caught him, everything he'd done would be for nothing. It was life or death, and he was not going to fail, not this time.

First the documents. He whispered open the locks on the drawers until he found them, a thick stack of maps and documents. He eased them out as silently as he could and rolled them up tightly, then tied the bundle with his belt.

He peered through the keyhole on the door to the hall, and saw the guards standing on watch. He needed to distract them so he could get to Palaemon's room. He tried to remember what he had seen as they walked up the stairs. There were torches, wall hangings... yes, a fire. Innocuous, but enough to keep them busy for a few minutes. They might even still be dealing with it when he needed to make his escape.

He usually relied on being able to see the things he was moving, but hopefully his memory would be enough. He screwed his eyes shut and pictured the stairwell, pictured the torches on the walls. Pictured the fire leaping from the torch to the tapestry and catching, rising. For a long minute, there was no sign that anything had happened, and then he smelled smoke, and the guards rushed away to put out the fire.

Merlin didn't waste a second. The moment the guards were gone, he opened the door and closed it silently behind him, then rushed to Palaemon's door and hurried inside.

The room was a mess, the surfaces covered in empty bottles of wine and all manner of jars and bottles of oil. It appeared that Palaemon had been doing some sort of experiment with the oils, and it reminded him of the way Gaius would end up surrounded by a clutter of jars and bottles when he was experimenting. Palaemon was asleep in his bed with the ungainly sprawl that only the frequently drunk could achieve. The curtains hadn't been closed so there was plenty of moonlight, and Merlin could see that he was a rather seedy-looking sort, with heavy eyebrows and balding hair, and a ruddy nose that spoke of too much drink.

He didn't look like much, as sorcerers went. But there was plenty of power coming off him, and the piney scent of his magic was strong. Besides, Merlin knew better than anyone not to judge someone by their appearance alone. Especially when magic was involved.

Merlin had initially thought to find more of the oil that had been in that little bottle, the stuff that allowed him to cross the shield. But it was clear that they were running out of the stuff. Even if he found some, there might not be enough for all of Arthur's men, and it wasn't as if they would be keen on using magic in the first place. No, better to find the source of the shield's spell. Maybe he could use his own magic to undo the spell, once he found it.

That was something else he was going to practice more at, once he was back in Camelot. There was so much he didn't know, so much he hadn't learned. Gaius was more interested in teaching him to control his magic than to strengthen it. It had been the dragon who taught him of his true power. In the early months, when Merlin would sneak down to the cavern on a regular basis, and the dragon was still trying to convince him of his destiny. He would let Merlin practice and advise him the way Gaius wouldn't, urging him not to hold back his magic, to use its full strength so that he could become the great sorcerer that he was destined to be.

But that was over. The dragon had betrayed him, had lied to him. Merlin couldn't trust the creature anymore. He didn't know if any of its prophecies were real, or if it was all just a game to manipulate him, to use him so that he would be freed. The promise he'd made in exchange for the Sigan spell still weighed on him.

He couldn't think about all that now. He had to find the source of the spell. He crept through the room, feeling for something unusual, though it was difficult when the room was already so thick with magic. He looked for something protected, for such an important spell would have to be kept safe.

In the end it was obvious. There was a heavy wooden box tucked into a corner, and it was decorated with unfamiliar runes. He opened it and his magic reacted instantly, trying to reject it as it had the oil. Merlin pushed past it and picked up the glass globe from its velvet cushion. It was beautiful, nearly perfectly round, with a two-faced figure engraved on it. The strange magic shivered through him, and for a moment he was somewhere else. A dry, warm breeze caressed him, and he smelled the salt of the sea, strange perfumes and spices. A distant land, with strange music and voices he didn't understand. And then it all faded, and he was back in the room.

"Put that down, boy."

Merlin turned to find Palaemon awake, pushing himself to his feet, his eyes wide and alarmed. Merlin stood, holding the globe close. There was no way he was going to let it go, not now.

"You should not be in here," Palaemon warned, stepping forward, raising his hand. Merlin sidled away from him, but something caught his eye: a ring on Palaemon's hand. That was where the power was coming from. Palaemon might have some magic of his own, but it was the ring that made him dangerous. Merlin wasn't sure how he knew, but he did. The ring was powerful. If only he could get it...

He could fight Palaemon right here, right now. He might be able to defeat him, knock him out, take the ring. But it would be a gruelling fight and he didn't only have Palaemon to worry about. He had to get out of here, preferably without his magic being discovered. He shifted his grip on the globe and the rolled papers so he would be able to use his knife.

"Stay away from me," Merlin warned.

"You do not know what you are doing," Palaemon warned, slowly closing the distance between them, trying not to startle Merlin into dropping the globe. He didn't want it to break, that much was clear.

Merlin was almost to the door. Just a few more steps... But as he reached for the handle, Palaemon lunged at him, hands outstretched to snatch back the globe. Merlin struck out, his heart in his throat and the knife handle slippery from sweat, but he struck home: Palaemon fell back, grasping at his bleeding hand.

Merlin opened the door and ran.

Behind him, Palaemon was already shouting for the guards, shouting at them to get the boy but not to break the globe, whatever they do, don't break the globe. The guards who had just finished putting out the fire looked up just as Merlin rushed past them, and then they were in pursuit. But Merlin was fast, he was faster than they were, weighed down with their armor and mail. He was faster than all of them. And they didn't dare tackle him, because if he dropped the globe it would shatter, and they were afraid.

They should be afraid. He was going to stop them, he was going to stop them all, he was going to find Arthur, and they were going to win. The battle was over and Palaemon and Idriys and Aeddan and Mira and all the servants and all the soldiers and all the nobles, they were all going to know he was the one who beat them. They were going to know the truth, and he couldn't wait to see their faces.

But first he had to get out of here. He had to get his mail and armor from where he'd stashed it by the armory, and then get into the siege tunnels. He glanced back at the pursuing guards as they rushed down the steps after him and he tripped them with his magic, sending them sprawling onto a landing as he turned down the next flight. Another flight down and he was running past the armory, and the guards outside the armory automatically ran after him, because that was what guards did when someone ran past them. He turned the corner and tripped the guards with his magic, sending them both crashing into the wall. He didn't know if they were dazed or knocked out, but he didn't have time to care. He grabbed his bundle from the cupboard and, arms full, ran into the armory.

He found the siege tunnel entrance and unlocked it with his magic, climbed inside and locked it again. Even if they figured out where he had gone, they would still have to get the key before they could pursue him, and by then he would be long gone. Sometimes it was rather fantastic to have magic. No lock could stand in his way.

He crawled through the narrow tunnel until it grew large enough to stand in, then ran all the way to the end. There was the gate, the gate he'd tried to open from the other side at the start of all of this. He just had to get it open.

He put everything else down and examined the globe. There was something rattling around inside it, and through the thick glass it looked like a chunk of stone. He had no idea how the spell worked, and no idea how to undo it. But if Palaemon didn't want him to break it, then he might as well give that a try. If it didn't work, he would just use the oil to escape and figure the globe out later.

He raised the globe high over his head and slammed it down on to the stony ground. The force of the explosion slammed him back against the wall, knocking the breath from him and making the earth shake. He wondered if perhaps that was a very bad idea after all, but the shaking stopped, and when he dusted himself off and stood, the shield was gone.

The shield was gone! He grinned so hard it made his face hurt. He'd done it!

He unlocked the gate with his magic, and it swung right open for him, easy as that. He grabbed his things and leapt out, barely remembering to lock the siege tunnel behind him.

He was free. He was free!

He ran full out into the woods, back the way he had come, back to where he had last seen Arthur. He had to find Arthur. Idriys' soldiers wouldn't have been searching the woods in the middle of the night, but they would be after him now, once they realized what had happened and where he had gone.

Arthur wasn't where he had left him, but that wasn't much of a surprise. Arthur would have moved on to somewhere else in the forest, somewhere safer. But where? Merlin had only worked out his plan as far as escaping. He hadn't worried about what he would do once he was out. He'd just assumed that he would find Arthur, because... because he would. Of course he would.

He slowed his run to a jog as he moved deeper into the woods. Arthur wouldn't have moved closer to the castle with Idriys' men tromping through it. Retreat was the only sensible option, and Arthur was nothing if not sensible.

Merlin saw something ahead of him, something that shone in the moonlight. Curious, he crept closer. It was a man in mail and grey, one of Idriys' soldiers. When he saw the man's face, he started in surprise. It was one of the soldiers he had fought at the siege gate. What was he doing here? Was he the one who had only been injured? How--

A heavy weight slammed down on Merlin from above, knocking the bundles from his hands and driving the breath from him again. Merlin gasped for air as a sharp blade pressed to his neck. He had the barest moment of horror as he realized he was about to die, after all that, after his great and hard-won victory he was about to die, when the blade eased back from his throat instead of slicing it open.

"Merlin?!"

The weight lifted from him, and hands rolled him over. Arthur stared down at him, wide-eyed with shock.

"Surprise?" Merlin squeaked, still trying to get his breath back.

"Merlin?" A surprised Borin came into view. "You're alive!" He dragged Merlin to his feet and hugged him. "We thought we'd lost you! Sire, he's alive!"

No sooner had Borin let him go then Arthur grabbed him, but not to hug him. Arthur slammed him up against the nearest tree, absolutely furious.

"What did I say?" Arthur snarled.

Merlin gaped at him. "What?"

Arthur tightened his grip on Merlin's shirt, pulled him forward and then shoved him back again. Arthur looked... he looked mad, out of control. Merlin stared at him in utter confusion, until understanding washed over him.

He had done this. He had done this to Arthur. Arthur had thought him dead. Arthur had mourned him.

"You were supposed to be safe," Arthur said, tight with anger and pain. "You promised me that you wouldn't go off on your own. That you wouldn't fight alone. So explain to me why I found your sword sticking out of that dead man."

All the joy Merlin had felt at his victory, all the happiness he had felt at reuniting with Arthur, all of it soured and sank inside him. "It was an accident," he said, the excuse painfully weak. "I didn't mean... They surprised me."

Arthur shook his head. "You should have stayed close, where I could hear you. Where I could save you. Did you break your promise to me? Or did you ever mean to keep it?"

"Sire," Borin said, concerned.

Arthur released Merlin, but that was even worse than being pinned by him. "Hide the body," Arthur told Borin. "We're done for the night."

"Arthur," Merlin tried, but Arthur glared at him with cold fury. Merlin felt as if he had been slapped, like that time in the armory. No, he felt worse than that. He felt as though he had been gutted. As if Arthur had not pulled away his sword but had run him through with it. Maybe that was what he deserved.

Arthur turned his back on him and walked away, and Merlin nearly sobbed. He only realized that he was trembling when Borin gave him back the two bundles that he had dropped. He pressed them tightly to himself, as if they were all he had left in the world. It might be true.

If he lost Arthur, he lost everything. Everything.

"He's been, er, a bit upset," Borin said, apologetically. "I'm sure he'll calm down now that you're back." When Merlin tried to speak, to explain, Borin held up a hand. "You can tell us everything once we're in the caves. It's not safe here."

"Caves?" Merlin asked, as Borin put a hand on his back and guided him along after Arthur.

"Come on, lad. From the look of you, you've got a long story to tell. And from the smell of you, you could use a wash."

Merlin smiled weakly, wishing he could laugh. But all he could think of was Arthur, and the promise Merlin had made to him that night. The night that Arthur had agreed to teach him how to fight and not just how to defend himself. When Arthur had agreed to teach him how to be a knight. The one condition he had set.

You must promise me that you will never fight on your own. If you are to use a sword it will be at my side.

Merlin had broken that promise. He had not meant to, but he had. And he didn't know if Arthur would ever forgive him for that. He had fought for Arthur, survived for him, planned and plotted and turned himself inside-out for him. He had made it through the gauntlet for Arthur. But Arthur had not known to wait for him at the end of it.

Chapter Text

They left the forest under the cover of darkness. Arthur led the way, watchful of the possibility of night patrols. They snuck past the shoreline, past the fishermen's huts, out to the end of the harbor where the rocks rose high and craggy. It was a steep climb, with a long, sharp fall beneath, but they were not the first to pass this way. The weathered rock was pocked with handholds that carried them safely out of sight of the harbor and into a narrow entrance in the rock face. They crawled inside and the narrow tunnel widened, opened into a larger space. This was the cavern.

"Oh," Merlin breathed, amazed.

The cavern was unlike any he had known, and Merlin had no doubt that it had been made with magic. The space that had been hewn out of the stone was decorated with elaborate carvings and paintings on the walls. Narrow spaces had been opened to let light in, and they were filled with colored glass in vivid hues.

"It's beautiful," Merlin said, trying to look everywhere at once. "How did you find it?"

"Merek," Borin explained. "He found it after a big storm a few years back. There are other ways in, but they're all sealed. No one else knows about it."

It must have been a temple of the Old Religion, Merlin realized. Or maybe only part of one, if there had once been a building on the rocks above their heads. Maybe the priestesses sealed it off themselves, so when Uther's Purge destroyed the building, the sacred space below it would survive.

He blinked hard, his eyes suddenly wet. So much had been lost, so much. But some things, the things that had been kept secret, they were saved.

And now it had been found. And if Arthur told his father, if any of them did, all this precious beauty would be destroyed. It wasn't right. It wasn't fair. If only everyone could see this, see the wonderful things that magic could do. No one could hate this place or think it evil.

Arthur had not stopped to admire the moonlit glass or the decorations. He marched ahead and through an archway, and Merlin heard the voices of the other knights as they greeted him. Merlin and Borin followed after him.

"Sire?" Ronald was asking. "Has something..." He trailed off as he turned and saw Merlin, who mustered a smile for them.

"Surprise?" Merlin said, trying his light-hearted greeting again.

Thankfully the knights were happier to see Merlin than Arthur was, though they were no less shocked. Ronald, Jarin, and Althalos circled around him, slapping his back and expressing their amazement at his return.

Merek was the only one who stayed back, staring at Merlin with a stony expression. Merlin pried himself from the other knights and went over to him, ready to give him the bundle of papers, ready to explain what he had found and done. But as he opened his mouth to explain, Merek reared back and punched him in the gut.

Merlin went down hard, gasping and coughing and clutching his stomach. Merek glared down at him and looked ready to add a kick to Merlin for good measure, but the other knights pulled Merek away.

And Arthur, Arthur just stood there.

Merlin dragged himself up onto his hands and knees, trying not to retch. "Why?" he gasped.

"You idiot!" Merek snarled. "I don't know how you survived, and I don't care. You should never have been here in the first place!"

Jarin went over to Merlin and helped him up. Jarin looked at Arthur and then back to Merek, and some bravery took hold of him. "Well he's here now. We don't know what happened. He deserves a chance to explain."

"There's nothing to explain," Merek said, coldly. He looked to Arthur, and when Arthur still said nothing, seemed to take that as confirmation. "You are not a knight," he continued. "When this is over, I will personally see to it that you are punished. If you're lucky, the King will only have you whipped within an inch of your life!"

"That's enough," Arthur said, finally breaking his silence.

"Sire--" Merek began, but Arthur's glare cut him short.

"Merlin will not be fighting with us," Arthur said. "He will stay here until the battle is over, and he will be sent home with the injured."

"Arthur, no," Merlin cried, bereft. He staggered over to Arthur, desperate to claw this situation back from the brink. He had to be there with Arthur, he had to be there to stop Palaemon. Everything he had done, everything he had stolen, it still wouldn't be enough if he couldn't stop the sorcerer. "Please, you don't understand. I have to be there. I have to be with you. I have--"

Arthur slapped him. Merlin reeled back. Arthur had slapped him.

So this was it. This was what had happened to his great destiny. He was going to be their sparring dummy and then he would be sent back to Camelot for Uther to punish. Well he'd had enough of hiding who he was. He'd had enough of bowing and scraping and smiling and doing everything without the slightest recognition. He didn't care if anyone accepted him anymore, as a knight or a servant or even as a sorcerer. He didn't care if Arthur didn't want him because he'd broken one little promise. He didn't care if everyone hated him.

It was his life. His life, not theirs.

"Here," he spat, shoving the bundle of papers into Arthur's hands. "The leader of the Deorham men is named Idriys. These are his plans. He's going to betray Alined and keep Gedref for himself. He has a sorcerer who used magic to keep anyone from going in or out of the castle but I stopped him. I broke the shield." He turned to face the knights and stared directly at Merek. "So now you and your army actually have a chance of winning, instead of standing there like idiots while their archers shoot everyone dead!"

He took the bundle of armor and shoved that into Arthur's hands, too. "Keep it. It was never mine in the first place."

Arthur gaped at him, completely speechless.

Merlin turned to Borin. "You said something about a bath?"

Borin nodded dumbly, then pointed to another archway.

Merlin was half undressed by the time he saw the bath, but it wasn't a bath at all. It was a sacred pool. If he started laughing he might never stop, so he just stripped down and waded in. He felt like he was falling apart, like he had been falling apart for months and Arthur's slap had jarred everything loose, sent all the pieces of him skittering across the floor. He couldn't quite breathe, but he didn't know if it was the punch or panic at what he'd just done, or if it was just his magic trying to put him out of his misery because he'd just destroyed whatever tatters were left of his destiny.

Maybe Idriys would take him back, after he and Palaemon defeated Arthur's army. Maybe Idriys would give him another chance. It wouldn't be a bad life, being his manservant. But Idriys had promised to imprison him for life if he betrayed him, so that was probably out.

There wasn't anyone left. There wasn't anywhere left. It was over.

He huddled in the water, shaking like a leaf, smiling brokenly as tears streaked down his cheeks. His hand brushed the favor still wrapped around his arm. Gaius would have advised him not to tell Arthur about the magical shield. It would raise too many questions that he wasn't supposed to answer. But Gaius wasn't here, and Merlin was so tired of lies. He was sick from them, bursting at the seams with them. All they were was noise in his head, making it throb and ache, and he wanted them out. He wanted it all out, wanted to throw up every lie and secret that roiled inside him. He wanted to empty himself out because it was the only way he would know what was real, what was left behind when all the false shells were stripped away.

Maybe he should just drown himself. That seemed like the easier option.

Maybe if he told Arthur that he had magic, Arthur would kill him.

As if summoned by the thought, Arthur walked in. Merlin splashed water on his face to hide his tears, trying to gather some fragment of dignity. But he couldn't stop shaking.

His stomach throbbed. His jaw hurt. He wondered if his cheek was going to swell up. He was already covered in bruises from the fight, from the explosion, from being strangled and slammed about. He wasn't made for this. He wasn't built for this. He wasn't a knight. It had all been such a joke. His whole life was a joke. A powerful sorcerer too afraid to use his magic. He was such a coward. Maybe he should run away to the Isle of the Blessed and live there, like Nimueh had. Maybe he would hide in her hut instead of the one from his story. Maybe he would be a hermit for the rest of his life. Arthur had his farm and his chickens. Arthur could pluck his own chickens, muck his own coops.

"You're shaking," Arthur said.

"I'd noticed, thanks," Merlin said, teeth chattering. The water was rather cold. It was probably fed by an underground spring.

"You'll make yourself ill."

"What do you care?" Merlin asked, bitterly. "I'm sure there's plenty of servants in Camelot who'd be happy to be your punching bag. That's how we met. What was his name? The one you liked to hit?"

"Morris."

"Morris," Merlin echoed. He moved away from Arthur, deeper into the water. The cold numbed his bruises, his aches. Maybe if it was cold enough, it would numb his heart.

There was a little magic left in the water from whatever had blessed it all those years ago, before it was sealed away. It wasn't like the magic from the castle. It was like his own, familiar and soothing. He closed his eyes and let his own magic seep out of him, just a little, and let it mingle with the water's. It felt nice, like he wasn't alone.

He leaned back and let the magic pull him down. The water closed over his head, and here at last was silence. Here all the weight was lifted away, and he could simply float. Let the water hold him, let the water take away his pain. He wondered if it was a healing pool. He didn't know much about the Old Religion. His mum had barely told him anything. Secrets upon secrets, even in Ealdor.

When he surfaced again, Arthur was gone.

§

When Merlin finally left the water, he was stiff with cold and his nails were tinged blue. He gathered up his clothes and held them against himself, and shivered his way to the main room to find his pack. He pulled out a clean change of clothes and a sliver of soap, then went back to the pool. He washed his dirty clothes and laid them out to dry, then dressed. Not like a knight, not like a servant, but like himself. They were his clothes, his things and no one else's.

There was a little room where the magic felt strongest, and he took his pack and bedroll there. There was no light in the room, no vivid glass, but there was the stub of an old candle. He blew the dust from it and lit it. There was dry food in his pack, and he ate it out of some vague sense of hunger. He'd barely eaten since lunch, just a roll and some honey.

He lay down and pulled his blanket tightly around himself, chilled to the bone. He was numb now, for all the good it did him.

Even though he'd slept in Idriys' chambers, he was tired. More than that, he was weary. He just wanted to sleep until everything went away. Until Arthur went back to Camelot and told Uther, and Uther ordered the temple sealed up again. Or worse. He would probably try to burn it, but he couldn't burn stone. Maybe he would just smash it all to bits instead. Break the glass, poison the water, reduce the carvings to rubble and stomp them into dust. That was what he had done to the Isle of the Blessed. Surely it hadn't been a ruin before the Purge.

He tried to sleep but only managed to shallowly slip in and out. The voices of Arthur and the knights drifted through the temple, soft words he couldn't distinguish and didn't want to. He heard the rustling of papers and wondered if they had bothered with the bundle he had stolen, or if they were only going over Arthur's documents, his maps and plans. He hadn't had a chance to really look at the papers. Maybe they were useless. Maybe Palaemon would be able to fix the shield. Maybe it had all been for nothing.

But then, that was all he had ever been. Nothing. He had no destiny, no purpose. That had all been the dragon's lies. He was just a creature, a monster. A wayward spirit. He didn't belong, not in Arthur's world. Not in anyone's.

He wondered if his father was still alive. Who he was, or what he was. Maybe that's what he would do. Try to find his father. His mum must know something about where he had gone. She would have to tell him now. He would go back to Ealdor and demand the truth, and then he would go wherever that led him.

He must have slept because suddenly Arthur was there, sitting in the doorway and blocking it. The candle had burned out, but the temple was filling with light as the dawn filtered in through the glass. A dozen colors glinted off of Arthur's mail and in his hair, casting him in a shimmering silhouette.

Merlin moved to sit up, but every bruised inch of him screamed in protest. He lay back down, gasping. He should have made a poultice for his back or heated some stones. The cold soak had been a stupid thing to do and now he was all seized up. He gave a tight, bitter laugh. He could barely move, much less fight.

"Here," Arthur said, holding out a little bottle.

It was the muscle relaxant that Arthur used to give him after a hard day of training. Merlin wanted to refuse it, but unless he wanted Arthur to bring him a chamber pot next, denial wasn't the best option. He took the bottle and thumbed it open, swallowed the potion in one gulp. It would take a while to kick in.

"Your back looked awful," Arthur said, by way of explanation. "Want to tell me what happened?"

"Do you want to hear it?" Merlin asked, sourly.

"I would," Arthur said, with the calm tone that said he was refusing to rise to the bait. "I'd like to know how you did something so completely impossible."

"I did a lot of impossible things. You'll have to be more specific."

"Merlin--"

"No," Merlin interrupted. "Just because you have me trapped here, it doesn't mean I'm yours. You wanted to know what was going on inside the castle. You wanted information. I gave it to you."

"I didn't ask you for it," Arthur said, exasperated.

"You needed it," Merlin said, angrily. "You needed it so I gave it to you. That's how this works."

"Is that what you think?" Arthur asked, bewildered. "That I only want you as... as some kind of insane errand boy? Merlin, you walked right into an occupied castle!"

"And I walked right out again!" Merlin said back, loudly. "I came back to you, but that wasn't enough!"

"I didn't want you to leave in the first place!"

"I didn't have a choice!" Merlin shouted. He was breathing hard, and he slumped back. That potion could start working anytime now, that would be fantastic.

"Why?" Arthur asked. "You've always done this, right from the start. Why do you keep trying to die for me?"

"What does it matter?" Merlin asked, bitterly. "Does this count as the third time you've sacked me or only the second?"

"I didn't sack you. But it wouldn't matter if I had, because I can't get rid of you anyway!" Arthur clacked his teeth together, as if trying to catch the words as they left his mouth. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that."

"You did," Merlin said. "Isn't that what you said? It's only when people are upset that they tell the truth."

"No, it's when they're surprised," Arthur corrected. "When people are upset they say a lot that isn't true. They do things they regret. Things they don't mean."

Merlin touched his cheek. It felt warm and a little swollen. "It certainly felt like you meant it."

"I shouldn't have hit you. And I should have stopped Merek."

"Yes," Merlin agreed. "You don't get to do that, Arthur. You don't get to hurt me every time you get scared."

Arthur rubbed his face. "I know. I know. My father..." He shook his head. "There's no excuse."

"Then don't do it. Just because he did it to you doesn't give you any right to do it to anyone else."

Arthur gave him a sharp look. "I never told you that."

"You didn't have to," Merlin said, and sighed. "What do you want from me, Arthur? Do you want me to forgive you? Fine, I forgive you. You can go off and kill people with a clean conscience."

"Stop it. Stop trying to push me away."

"Is that what you think I'm doing?" Merlin asked, exasperated. "Arthur, I'm just trying to survive."

"By walking into occupied castles?"

"I didn't 'walk in', I was captured," Merlin said, fed up. "I made the best of a bad situation. I escaped and I blended in with the servants. I gathered information. I managed to meet with the leader and convinced him to take me on as his manservant."

"You what!"

"Shut up, I'm not finished. Once he was asleep, I stole his papers, then I went into his sorcerer's room and found this... glass thing. It was clearly magic, so I broke it. The shield dropped and I escaped through the siege tunnels. And then you landed on me and nearly killed me, and what were you doing up in a tree in the first place?"

"I couldn't get into the castle," Arthur admitted. "It must have been the shield. The others had to drag me away. I was..." He shook his head. "Merek hit you because he couldn't hit me. Because the moment you were dead, everything else stopped mattering. And if I couldn't get in, I was going to kill as many of them as I could when they came out."

"You realize how completely insane that is," Merlin said, trying not to feel touched.

"Completely," Arthur agreed. "As insane as you trying to single-handedly win my battles for me."

Merlin had to stop himself from saying that he'd done it before. "It worked, didn't it?"

"I have no idea how," Arthur said, but his disbelief was tinged with pride. He reached behind him and handed Merlin the bundle of armor and his missing sword. "These were always yours. I gave them to you because you earned them. Try and give them back again and I'll give Gwen my sword."

"Don't you dare," Merlin said, but didn't take the bundle. Arthur put it down on the floor. Merlin sighed. "Arthur..."

"Go on," Arthur said, lightly. "Tell me how this can't work. How you're not cut out to be a knight. How they'll never accept you. How much trouble it will cause. Go on."

"Can't you even apologize without being a prat?" Merlin whined.

"I'm not apologizing," Arthur corrected. "Funny thing about swearing your fealty. You don't get to un-swear it."

"You still sacked me."

"I didn't sack you."

"You sacked me as your knight. You were going to send me home to be whipped!"

"I was upset," Arthur defended. "I didn't mean it."

"Oh, we're back to that," Merlin said, rolling his eyes. He gave his muscles a testing flex, and found that he could actually move again, if stiffly. He sat up with a groan.

"Merlin, what you did..." Arthur gave him an earnest look. "Even I couldn't have done that."

"You would never have been able to pass for a servant," Merlin agreed.

"True," Arthur agreed, "but not the point. If you hadn't done what you did... You were right. We would have been slaughtered. They would have just stood on the parapets and picked us off, and we wouldn't have been able to touch them. You saved our lives."

"Battle's not over yet," Merlin mumbled, trying not to smile.

"Which is why I need you with me," Arthur said, giving the bundle a nudge. "I'd make it an order but I've yet to see you actually follow one. So I'm going to leave it up to you. But I would be... I would be very honored if you would fight at my side. And so would they. And Merek wants to apologize."

"I'll believe that when I see it," Merlin said, swallowing against the lump in his throat.

"We'll be waiting," Arthur said, nodding his head towards the main room. "Come out when you're ready."

Arthur stood and brushed himself off, and with a crooked smile he turned and walked away.

Merlin sighed and slumped back against the wall. It was just like Arthur to do this to him. He was such a complete clotpole, being nice and thanking him and apologizing and actually meaning it. And then leaving it up to him to decide if he wanted to fight. Not even giving him an order so he could pretend to follow it. No, Arthur had to go and give him a choice.

No one had ever given him a choice before. His mum had packed his bag and shoved him out the door. The dragon had manipulated him with prophecies. Uther had outright given him to Arthur as some kind of bizarre, backwards reward. And until now, Arthur had simply taken what was his.

Merlin picked up the sword, and the colored light caught on its polished surface and cast bright shapes upon the wall. There were odd scribbles on the stone, nothing at all like the beautiful art that decorated the other rooms. What was this room for, anyway?

Even the Druids thought they knew about him. Calling him Emrys. What did that even mean? It was all probably nonsense, dreamed up when someone ate the wrong sort of mushroom. The once and future king who will unite the land of Albion. What did 'once and future' mean? Wouldn't it be the 'now' king? Or the 'once Uther is dead' king? It was madness. Complete insanity. Why had he ever... why had he...

Merlin's jaw dropped.

There on the wall, in shaky hand, in the same Old Religion runes that were on Arthur's sword, was the word 'Emrys.' He had a sudden, violent shiver, and leaned forward to read the rest of the writing. His magic curled out to light the words as if drawn to them.

"The time..." Merlin murmured, reading aloud. "The time of fire is upon us. The time of retribution, brought about by... by our own pride. But when we are humble, the time of magic will return. The Emrys and the once--" He bit his lip, feeling faint. "The once and future king will rise. And all of Albion--"

Merlin rocked back. All of Albion will bow to them. Them.

He read it again and again, but the words didn't change. Someone had written this prophecy. Before he was even born. Maybe even before Arthur was born. And the priestesses had believed it and sealed up the temple. And now he was reading it.

He had to talk to the dragon. He had to talk to him as soon as he possibly could.

All of Albion will bow to them. Not him. Them.

It was madness. Even if it was true, even if it was all completely real, it was still madness. But what the dragon had said... the dragon had said that he had to protect Arthur. He had to keep him safe from threats. So Arthur could unite Albion. His destiny was to protect Arthur, to give his life for him. It wasn't to rule with him. Was it?

All of Albion.

Was it?

Merlin stared at the walls. There were traces of other writing, too, but it had been washed away. There was enough light now to see the room clearly, and he saw dusty pillows and blankets abandoned in a corner, some kind of burnt offering in a tray. Was this... was this some kind of seer's room? A room for meditation? For prophecies? No wonder the magic was still strong here. That's why it was away from everything else. Why there was only the candle stub.

He gathered up his things. He rather thought that he would sleep somewhere else tonight.

§

Merlin decided that important decisions were best made after breakfast, so he left his things in the main room and went out to the cliff entrance to eat his rations. He gave Arthur a nod as he walked past, and saw that he and the knights had practically filled the floor with maps and papers, both Idriys' and Arthur's. He let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding. The papers weren't useless. It hadn't all been for nothing. He really hoped that Palaemon wouldn't be able to fix the shield. He wished he'd gotten his hands on that ring. But trying for that would probably have been pushing his luck too far.

The sea breeze was invigorating, and he liked listening to the crash of the waves against the rocks, the high calls of the gulls. He ate slowly, trying not to think about anything in particular, even though there was quite a lot going on in the back of his mind

Reading that prophecy had shifted something in him. Not a huge shift, but it was as if everything had moved one step to the right. It was all the same, but it wasn't. And Arthur asking him to fight. Giving him the choice. Saying he was wanted, was needed. That he mattered.

He didn't want to be nothing. It was awful. It was miserable. That story he had told Idriys, it had come out of him so easily because deep down it was true. Deep down, that was how he felt, even at the best of times. He felt like an awful person, a liar and a thief, taking things that didn't belong to him. He felt like he deserved to be hated. Not because he was magic but because he had to live a lie. He had to live lies upon lies. And he loathed it. He loathed himself for doing it.

But he was trapped in it. And there were only two ways of out of a trap, if you were an animal. You gnawed your own leg off or you waited for something to kill you: the elements, another animal, or the hunter who set the trap. And that was what he had been doing. If he died for Arthur, in one way or another, he would be out of the trap. Simple as that.

But he wasn't an animal. And a person didn't have to gnaw their own leg off. Death didn't have to be the only release. He had hands, and if he was strong enough he could pry the trap open. He could set himself free. Make his own choice. Put himself into the light and let it fill him.

And to do that... to do that, he would have to be honest.

There would be consequences. He might be killed. He might be burned alive or chained up under the castle for the rest of his life. Arthur might hate him forever. And right now was absolutely not a good time to tell Arthur the truth. Arthur had fallen to pieces when he thought that Merlin had died. Merlin had no idea how Arthur would react when he told him about his magic.

No, after the battle. When they were home and it was just the two of them again. That's when he would do it. When, not if. When.

He was going to tell Arthur the truth. He breathed in deeply, breathed out. He already felt better. He could feel his hands on the trap, readying to pry it apart.

It was bittersweet, because this might be it. This might be his last moment of glory. His last days at Arthur's side. Prophecies were not absolute. Fate was a chance, not a certainty. But better to die free than spend the rest of his life bleeding and in pain. Better to have one day, one hour, one minute of freedom, of complete honesty, of being himself, than to live an eternity as a coward.

He rather thought that Will would be proud of him.

§

In full daylight, the temple was breaktaking. If he had thought it beautiful in the moonlight... it was the difference between the sun and moon themselves, between the source of light and its pale reflection. The colored light from the glass cast on the walls to form patterns and pictures that came alive as the sun slowly moved overhead. Flowers bloomed, green trees turned to red and gold, fish and birds flew through sea and sky. Whatever magic was behind it, it was so far beyond his own skill that he had no idea how it worked.

It might be the only place left of its kind. A seer's words had preserved it against all the odds. He felt deeply honored to see it now. If it had been the Old Religion's pride that caused its downfall, surely that pride had been justified. And how far the Old Religion had been humbled to be reduced to the little camps that the Druids lived in, only able to keep as much as they could carry because Uther's raids kept them always on the run.

Maybe it was all true. Maybe he was meant to see this, as he was meant to meet Arthur. That in the depths of his despair and his doubt, he would find his true purpose here, instead of the half-truths of a dragon who spoke in riddles.

Merlin didn't know how long he stood there gaping, but the clearing of a throat finally forced him to turn around. Merek was standing there, looking uncomfortable. No doubt he'd come to apologize. But Merlin's head was full of light, and Borin had said that Merek was the one who found the temple. That he had kept it secret when any good citizen of Camelot would have reported it. It was unquestionably a place of magic, and yet he had said nothing. If anything he had kept it safe, because no seabirds roosted here, no animals had moved in once the storm had opened it. It could be that magic protected it from harm, but Merlin had felt no barriers, no wards when he had entered.

"You kept it safe," he blurted out. "I mean, this place. It's magic. You know that."

It took a moment for Merek to switch topics. "Oh. Um, yes." He rubbed the back of his neck, and looked guilty. "I knew it was wrong, but... I couldn't..." He looked up to the moving light upon the walls. "I walled the entrance back up, after I found it. After I saw..." He gestured around them.

"Thank you," Merlin said, grateful.

Merek gave him an odd look, then shook his head. "I'm supposed to be apologizing to you."

"Because you want to, or because you have to?" Merlin asked, perhaps too boldly. But he felt bold.

Merek huffed out a breath. "You don't make things easy, do you? No wonder the Prince knighted you."

"Yes, he did," Merlin said, challengingly. "I'm a lot of things to Arthur, and one of those things is his knight. Is that going to be a problem?"

Merek gaped at him, then laughed with disbelief. "I don't think I have a choice. I was worried about the Prince, but perhaps I should be more worried about you."

Merlin smiled, serene and dangerous. "The men of Deorham should be. Because we're going to take back that castle. And I am Arthur's servant as well as his knight, and if you have a problem with that you can hide here until the battle is over. Because there is not an army in all of Albion that could keep me from Arthur's side."

Merek stared at him, wide-eyed with surprise. For a moment, Merlin had no idea what he was going to do, if Merek was going to strike him again for his insolence. But what Merek did do shocked him even more.

Merek gave him a long, steady look, and then bowed his head. "I apologize, Sir Merlin, for my previous insult. My actions and words were unworthy." He straightened up. "You have acted with great courage and honor. You have saved countless lives, including my own. I would be proud to call you my brother."

Merek held out his arm, and Merlin took it. They shook as equals.

"Thank you, Sir Merek," Merlin said, smiling to himself as he bowed, his cheeks warm with a mixture of embarrassment and pride. "Oh, and I meant to tell you. When I was in the castle, I asked about your family. The servants said that they are alive and unharmed."

"I know," Merek said, relieved. "Idriys mentioned it in his papers. You have lifted a great shroud from my heart, and I cannot thank you enough for that."

Merlin saw movement out of the corner of his eye, and he turned to see Arthur and the other knights watching them. His blush deepened and he stepped back, uncomfortable with the attention. But when he saw Arthur's face, everything else fell away.

Arthur was looking at him with pure, undiluted pride. It hit Merlin like a hammer blow, stealing his breath and his voice. He barely knew how he was still standing. The most beautiful magic of the Old Religion paled against the light of Arthur's pride, glowing through the blue of his eyes.

Merlin knew, then. He knew that if he did not have a destiny with this man, if he could not spend the rest of his life by his side, he would not want anything else. In all the world, there was only Arthur. His course was set. His fealty could not be un-sworn. His life could not be given to any other, could not be taken selfishly back. And his magic, oh his magic, it burned like never before, a searing fire in his chest, all through him. And the magic of the temple seemed to sing in accord, in harmony with his own, urging him to union with his king.

§

But union, like so many things, would have to wait. It would be a while before the army arrived, and until then they could only hide and plan. Merlin paid attention this time as Arthur and the other knights went over everything they had discovered from Idriys' papers. Idriys knew his way around an army and he documented everything meticulously. Now they knew how many men Idriys had, how many knights and archers, an inventory of his arms and gold and of the food stores in the castle. They knew how many prisoners were kept, common and noble. They knew of Alined's plans and the revisions that Idriys had made to them. Information was power, and Merlin had handed them all of it.

They were going to win. And if it was only Idriys and his army they had to worry about, they would win handily. But there was a wild card in the form of Palaemon.

"Alined was the one who found him," Arthur explained, searching for the papers that discussed the sorcerer. "He's supposed to be very powerful. But he had enemies in Rome and was exiled. Now he makes his living as a mercenary."

Merlin felt a twinge of sympathy but he ruthlessly stamped it out. Palaemon might have magic, might be a sorcerer who had lost his home, but that did not make him a friend. Especially after Merlin had shattered the glass globe. When Palaemon saw him again, he would want revenge. And a sorcerer who wanted revenge was the most dangerous kind. He knew that all too well.

"So that's where he's from?" Merlin asked, wondering if that explained the strange magic. "He had an accent."

Arthur nodded. "Unfortunately, Idriys didn't know much about him. Palaemon was very secretive. Most of what he did write is about some kind of holy oil they needed. That's how they passed through the magical shield."

Merlin looked at the paper Arthur was holding out. "Olive oil? What's an olive?"

Arthur smiled. "An important fruit from the east. The oil is common there but very rare in Albion. It's incredibly expensive here. Apparently Alined was supposed to provide them with a supply, but he balked at the price and found something cheaper. The oil he did give them was unusable."

"I know what it was," Merlin remembered. "Palaemon called it... ranchidoo oops enam, or something. Is that another fruit?"

The knights snickered into their hands, and Arthur laughed.

"What?" Merlin asked, confused.

"It means 'rancid piss'," said Althalos, grinning. "He was speaking Latin. That's the language of the Romans."

"Oh," Merlin said. So it wasn't a spell after all. He didn't know any Latin, didn't know much of anything about Rome, except what he'd read about the Romans who were Arthur's ancestors. He wanted to flaunt some knowledge of his own, but he couldn't exactly boast about speaking the language of the Old Religion.

Merlin skimmed through the papers. Idriys described the globe, and apparently had managed to persuade Palaemon to explain it to him, perhaps over too much wine. It was a holy object from the temple of a Roman god named Portunes. Portunes was the two-faced god of doors and gates, and the only way to enter his temples was with a blessing of holy oil. It was the globe that made it work. A piece of the temple building was magically placed inside the globe, and the whole building was then protected. It kept thieves from the temples and allowed the priests to collect a tithe for the blessing. Apparently doors and gates were pretty important in Rome, so everyone put up with the tithe.

Palaemon had taken the globe with him when he left Rome. That was good. It meant it wasn't something he had made himself, so it wasn't likely that he would be able to fix it now that Merlin had smashed it into quite a lot of very small bits.

Bolstered by the knowledge, Merlin decided to be bold again. To do something Gaius would tell him was risky and foolish. But Merlin was doing things his way now, not Gaius' way. And lying by omission was just as bad as lying with words. Besides, it was good to practice telling the truth. He was going to have to get better at it so he could do it right when he told Arthur about his magic.

"I know something about the sorcerer. Something Idriys doesn't."

Everyone looked at him. Merlin swallowed.

"Well?" prompted Borin. "Don't keep us in suspense."

"Palaemon, he um, he had a ring," Merlin began, realizing that he had to phrase this carefully. He couldn't just come out and say he felt the magic in the ring, because that would basically be confessing that he had magic himself. "A magic ring."

"There was nothing about a ring in the papers," Arthur said, taking them back and skimming them.

"I don't think Palaemon wanted anyone to know it was important," Merlin said. "But when I snuck into his room... When he woke up, the first thing he did was put it on. I think he needs the ring to do magic." It was partly a lie, which was disappointing, because Merlin really didn't want to lie anymore. But it was only a tiny bit of lie and a whole lot of truth, and it was important that Arthur know that Palaemon had a weakness. "I think if we can get the ring off him, he'll be helpless, or at least a lot less powerful."

"Someone would have to get very close to do that," Merek said, thoughtful. "And there would be a struggle. It might be easier to just cut off his hand."

Arthur considered this. "A distraction tactic could work. One of us keeps him busy while another comes from behind."

"They'd still have to get close," said Merek. Then he turned to Merlin with a thoughtful look. "But we know someone who's good at being sneaky."

They all smiled at Merlin, who gave a nervous smile back. "As long as I'm not the bait. He's not going to be happy to see me again."

"That's the beauty of it," Arthur said, pleased. "If you come up from behind, he won't see you until it's too late." He made a chopping motion.

Merlin scrunched up his nose. He didn't much like the idea of chopping off someone's hand. But they were going to have to fight their way into the castle to get to Palaemon, and there would be a lot of soldiers in the way. He was going to have to do a lot worse than chop off a hand. And really, he already had. He'd killed eleven men already: four in the ambush, five at the siege gate, and two in the castle. War was not a place for the squeamish.

"All right," Merlin agreed. "But who's going to be the bait? What if he's just cutting people down left and right? I wouldn't have time to sneak up on him."

"It'll have to be me," Arthur decided. Everyone protested, Merlin the loudest, but Arthur cut them off. "He won't kill me. I'm too valuable as a hostage. As soon as he knows who I am, he'll want to take me alive. And as the strongest fighter, I'll be able to hold him off longer than anyone else."

"I don't like it," Merlin grumbled.

"It's my decision," Arthur said. "And it's decided. Just make sure you don't miss. I doubt we'll get a second chance at him."

"Then I won't miss," Merlin said, definitively.

"Better get that sword as sharp as you can," Borin said, only half-joking.

Merlin would stay up all night with a whetstone if that was what it took. If Arthur had to risk his life, fine. But Merlin wasn't going to let him down. Palaemon would wish he'd never come to Albion. Palaemon would wish he'd never left Rome. Palaemon would wish he'd never been born.

Merek slapped Merlin on the back, grinning. "I don't think we have anything to worry about. I've seen that look before. Anyone gets on Merlin's bad side, they're going to regret it."

The others grinned and laughed, but it wasn't a mocking laugh. They actually meant it. They were glad to have Merlin on their side, and they believed that he would be a powerful asset. They had accepted him as one of their own. Merlin straightened his back and smiled with them.

They were going to do this, all of them together. He wasn't fighting alone. He was fighting with Arthur, with Merek and Borin, with Althalos and Ronald and Jarin. They were fighting as knights, as a team. And this was what Arthur had been so insistent about when Uther had split up the knights after their training. They knew each other, trusted each other, and that made them so much more powerful than they were alone. Uther ruled through fear, but loyalty was so much stronger than fear. It was no wonder that Uther did so many things to divide his kingdom: nobles from commoners, magic from non-magic, knight from knight. Uther wanted everyone to be as alone as he was, as afraid as he was, because that made them easy to control.

If he trusted Arthur, if Arthur trusted him. If they stood together, if the people followed them, they could do anything. They could rule Camelot. They could rule Albion. They could bring magic back. They could change the world.

They could do anything, if they trusted each other. And Merlin was going to trust Arthur with his life, as Arthur was going to trust Merlin with his. Not just in the battle, but when they were home. Merlin was going to trust him. And as terrifying as that would be, as hard as that would be, whatever the costs would be, it would be worth it. It would be worth it.

Chapter Text

Merlin had been serious about staying up all night with his whetstone. When they had had enough of planning for the day, Merlin took his sword and whetstone to the cavern entrance and set to work. Maybe it wouldn't be as sharp and powerful as a dragon-forged blade, but his sword would be as good a weapon as he could make it. He might even enchant it later if he could think of the right spell, though with the close quarters he wasn't sure he would be able to find the privacy he would need. And he had not forgotten the lesson of Linette and Uwen. Even though he was going to tell Arthur the truth, that was no excuse to be sloppy. And besides, he wanted to tell Arthur his own way, in his own time, and not be found out by accident.

He worked the blade until it was razor-sharp and then set to polishing it. He watched the sun go down over the ocean, slowly sinking below the waves. Gedref was a beautiful place, and if these were his last days, he was glad he had them here.

Arthur found him just as the last sliver of sun slipped away. Orange and yellow and pink still reflected on the thin clouds over the water, and above them the sky was fading to a deeper blue. He could just see the first stars, glimmering brighter as the night darkened. The gulls had ceased their cries, tucked themselves away in their roosts, but the waves beat steadily on. The ocean went on as far as he could see, with no hint of a farther shore. It was bigger than anything he'd ever seen, and it was surprisingly constant. Maybe all that changed when a storm blew in, but storms always blew out again. Men were born and died, kingdoms rose and fell, even empires, but the ocean was the same. That was good. It was good that some things endured, no matter what men did to each other.

The Night and the Sea by procoffeinating

The Night and the Sea by procoffeinating

"You'll need this," Arthur said, breaking the quiet. He held out another bottle of relaxant.

"Thanks," Merlin said. He was still feeling rather sore, but as long as he'd kept moving it wasn't too bad. Taking this now meant he would actually be able to move in the morning, so he did, then handed the bottle back to Arthur. It meant a lot that Arthur still wanted to take care of him. Even though Merlin had unquestionably made his choice to be Arthur's knight, they had not had any chance to speak of more personal matters.

"Once the army arrives, it will take time to prepare the siege," Arthur said, scraping his thumbnail along the rim of the empty bottle. "But if you're not healthy, you won't be able to fight." Merlin opened his mouth to protest, but Arthur held up a hand. "I didn't mean it like that. I know you can fight through pain, but that will slow you down more than you realize. You were injured and I need to know how badly. And I can help you recover faster, if you'll let me."

Merlin knew what that meant. And he wouldn't have any objections to it if they were alone. But once Arthur had him naked, things might get... noisy.

"If you're worried about them hearing, they already know," Arthur said.

"You told them?!" Merlin whispered, shocked.

"I didn't need to," Arthur admitted. "When I thought you were dead. I..." He stared out at the twilight, at the sea, his throat bobbing as he swallowed. "I thought I could handle it. A lot of people have died for me. A lot of good men. It never gets any easier." Grief creased his features.

"Arthur," Merlin began, concerned.

"No, let me finish," Arthur said, dragging in a breath. His features smoothed again, but when he spoke there was such pain in his voice. "My father taught me never to love. He loved my mother and her death destroyed him. Do you know, when I first began to lie with knights, I tried to hide it from him. As if he hadn't known from the start. He might have even given the order. Keep the Prince satisfied. Because men could not love other men, not like my father loved my mother. Nothing could ever come of it. And when my father told me that he knew, do you know what he said?"

Merlin shook his head.

"He said that it was good. That I should bed as many of them as I could. To prove that I had the Pendragon lust, the Pendragon drive. And because it would make the men loyal to me. As if it was right to use them to prove some kind of point. And the worst part was, it worked. Men like Geraint, like Owain, they were only too eager to lay down their lives for their beloved Prince Arthur. They loved me, but I never loved them back. Because I wasn't allowed to love. Because love would make me vulnerable, and a Prince could not be vulnerable. A King could not be weak."

"That's stupid," Merlin said, angry on Arthur's behalf, that he had been taught something so cruel. "Love doesn't make people weaker, it makes them stronger."

"Then why does it hurt?" Arthur asked, turning to him, his eyes wide and anguished in the gloom. "Explain that to me, because I don't understand."

"Because it matters," Merlin said, urgently. "Because it's real. Sometimes it tears me apart to love you, Arthur. Sometimes I look at you and I can barely breathe. But I will never give you up because you are worth fighting for."

"Because I'm your Prince?" Arthur asked, old bitterness lacing him.

"You are more than my Prince," Merlin said. "But I love you as a man. You're just a man, Arthur, just like any other. And any man deserves love."

"I thought I was your King," Arthur said, quietly.

"And you are my King," Merlin said, gently. "As I am both your knight and your servant. We are never only one thing, Arthur. You have to allow yourself to be more than your crown. More than your sword."

Arthur shook his head, but said nothing.

"I'm sorry I hurt you," Merlin said, reaching out to him. He rested his hand on Arthur's back. "I'm sorry I broke my promise. But I'm not sorry that I did what I did once I was in the castle. I'm not sorry that I came back to you. I made a promise about that, too, remember? To always come back to you, alive and whole. The whole time I was in there, that's what kept me going. No matter what I had to do, I knew that I had to make it back to you." He smiled crookedly. "I even did your tactics thing. I thought more than one step ahead. I made actual plans, you know that? Because you taught me that. I would never have survived if it wasn't for you. You saved me, Arthur. That's what love does. That's what your love gave to me."

Arthur took in a sobbing breath and held it, and let it out in painful chokes. Merlin pulled him into his arms and held him tight. Arthur held him back even tighter, and it hurt against Merlin's bruises but he swallowed back his pain. Arthur's tears seeped into his shirt, though he barely made a sound as he cried, only tight, harsh breaths, caught and lost. A father who would not let his son love would surely not let his son cry.

Arthur was a mess when he finally pulled away, his eyes red and his nose wet, his face ruddy and tear-streaked. "'m sorry," he said, turning away in shame.

"No," Merlin said, firm but kind. "Don't be sorry."

Arthur wiped at his face. He let out a rushed breath. "Is it wrong that I actually feel better now?"

Merlin smiled. "It's exactly right. Nothing like a good cry."

Arthur laughed. "I didn't think crying could ever be good."

"It can be," Merlin said. "It's no good to bottle things up. It's like... if you keep something inside you for too long, it turns sour. It eats away at you. Until one day you're empty. You're hollowed out, and all you have is secrets and pain."

Arthur looked at him, really looked at him. "How did you get so wise?"

If there was a perfect moment to tell Arthur the truth, it was now. When there was nothing between them, when it was only the two of them and the night and the sea. But it was also the very worst moment, because soon they would have to fight and Arthur needed to have his head clear. He needed to be sharp. If he was distracted, if he was in pain, it would slow him down. It would get him killed.

The easiest choice would be to play it off as a joke. To pretend to be the idiot that Arthur so often accused him of being. But they'd come too far for such games, and even if he couldn't tell Arthur everything just yet, he wasn't going to lie.

"When I was little, I asked my mum why children were cruel," he said, quietly, lowering his eyes. "She told me that it was because they didn't understand. So I asked her why they didn't understand, and she told me that it was because they were innocent. When I complained that she didn't make any sense, she said I would understand when I was older. And she was right. Because until you've suffered, you can't understand anyone else's suffering. Not really."

When Merlin looked up again, for a long moment, it seemed as though Arthur would press him to explain. That he would question Merlin as Merlin had questioned his mum, all those years ago. But the moment passed, much to Merlin's relief. He wondered if he would ever stop feeling like he was taking his life into his hands with every admission. He wondered what it would be like to talk without fear of what might be heard.

"A wise woman, your mother," Arthur said. He breathed in deeply, let it out. He looked better, lighter. He looked happy. Content, in a way that he never had before. Unburdened.

Merlin was glad to see it. He was even a little jealous. Soon, he promised himself. Soon.

 

§

When they returned to the main room, the knights had made themselves scarce. Merlin gave Arthur a look of disapproval, but it was to no avail. He'd even laid out their bedrolls together.

"We could have used one of the smaller rooms, at least," Merlin protested, feeling bad for the knights, and rather exposed. It was one thing for the knights to know that the two of them were lovers. It was another entirely to give them a show. But it was clear that Arthur had no such modesty. It wasn't as if he'd ever had much privacy when he lay with knights in the past, out on patrol or in the woods or wherever they did it. For all that Arthur jealously guarded his privacy in Camelot, it was evident from their earliest days together that he had something of an exhibitionist streak, taking off his shirt at every opportunity, showing absolutely no embarrassment when he splayed naked in the bath and ordered Merlin to wash him, even back when they could barely stand each other's presence. And of course he was a show-off, even if he claimed otherwise.

He wondered if this was Arthur showing him off. Merlin tried not to like the idea and utterly failed.

"I like this one," Arthur said, admiring the walls, the carvings.

Merlin was hesitant to bring it up again, but he couldn't help his curiosity. "Arthur, you do know this place is magic. It's a temple."

"It's just a building, Merlin. It's not going to do us any harm. Besides, this room is a lot nicer than that tiny one you were in last night. I slept here with the men. It's fine."

Merlin had to give him that. And even though this was their only choice of refuge, it warmed him to know that Arthur liked it here. That like Merek, Arthur could look at something magical and accept it, or at least not find some excuse to hate it. He hadn't broken the glass or smashed the carvings. He wasn't his father.

Arthur wasn't his father.

Merlin stepped into the middle of the room as Arthur busied himself at his pack. Would it be considered sacrilegious for them to have sex in the middle of a temple, or would it be consecrating? There was a prophecy about them on the wall, after all. If they were supposed to bring back magic, the Old Religion would probably approve of the Once and Future King giving the Emrys a lengthy massage and making him come. If it wasn't quite the union that the magic was waiting for, it was certainly in the right direction.

Besides, Arthur was in a good mood now. When he was in a good mood, there was no stopping him.

And speaking of taking off his shirt. Arthur was already down to his trousers and boots and was folding his shirt and surcoat and mail into a neat pile. Arthur raised his eyebrows at him, urging him to get naked already. Merlin rolled his eyes at him and obliged.

He lay down on his bedroll with some care. Even with the second dose of relaxant, he was quite stiff and sore. His bruises had had time to settle in, and he was almost as colorful as the temple, splotched with a rainbow of ugly hues. It was making it hard to get comfortable. If he lay on his back, the mass of bruises there protested loudly. But Merek's punch had left his stomach tender as well, and he had bruises scattered pretty much everywhere from the fight at the siege tunnel and from Arthur's surprise attack in the forest. If he hadn't been so numb from cold last night, he might not have been able to lie down at all.

Merlin finally admitted defeat and just sat up; by some miracle, he'd managed not to bruise his arse. Arthur stared at him, his good mood drowned under his concern.

"Why didn't you say anything?" Arthur said, kneeling beside him and fretting over him. "That stupid kerchief. Tell me you killed him."

"Who?"

"Whoever strangled you." Arthur touched the necklace of bruises with the gentlest care.

"I did, actually," Merlin said. "Once I woke up again."

Arthur frowned. "You didn't tell me you were unconscious."

"Do you want a detailed list?" Merlin asked, exasperated.

"Yes," Arthur said, quite serious. "If it's too much trouble, maybe next time you'll think twice about running off without me."

Merlin glared at him. "I didn't keep track. I don't know. There was a lot of tackling and slamming about. The strangling is how I was captured."

"You were lucky," Arthur said, somberly. "You took out five men. When they had you unconscious, they should have just killed you."

Like Merlin had with the two men in the castle. "They wanted to question me," he admitted. "There wasn't supposed to be anyone outside the castle. I was a mystery." It was all true.

"Lucky," Arthur said, shaking his head. "Next time, you call for me. No matter how far away I am. You shout yourself hoarse if you have to. I will come for you, do you understand?"

Merlin gave him a wobbly smile. It was only really hitting him now how close he had come to dying. If that one man hadn't been curious about why a knight of Camelot would be using magic, he never would have woken up again, and it wouldn't have mattered what was written on a wall. Arthur was right. He had to stop being so bloody stupid about his life. He couldn't help Arthur rule Albion if he was dead.

"Do you understand?" Arthur repeated.

"Shout myself hoarse, got it," Merlin said.

"Good," Arthur said, sternly. He looked Merlin over and shook his head again. "I should have taken care of you last night. You wouldn't have even taken the relaxant if I hadn't given it to you."

"I wasn't thinking very clearly," Merlin admitted. "It was... there were things I had to do. In the castle. It messed with my head."

"Tell me," Arthur said, and gave a poke to one of the few unbruised parts of him. "I don't want you going all sour and hollow inside."

Merlin wouldn't have been thrilled to have this conversation even if he wasn't naked. He rubbed at his arms, feeling a bit chilled. "Right now?"

"Right now," Arthur insisted. He took the blanket from his bedroll and wrapped it around Merlin. He still had his trousers on, and the cold never bothered Arthur much. Not that it was a cold night. It was still summer, if just barely. It was only a little cooler because they were near the ocean. And Merlin realized that he was rambling inside his own head, because he didn't want to talk.

But Arthur was sitting there, waiting, and he wasn't going to leave this alone. Merlin almost missed the old days, when all it took to avoid a difficult conversation was a joke or two. Arthur used to be fine with letting things lie. Arthur used to laugh and shake his head at him and turn away. And now he looked Merlin in the eyes and cared too much and didn't back down. Merlin knew that he only had himself to blame.

He didn't want to be sour and hollow anymore. But he was so used to bottling things up. Not just his magic, but everything else. For all that he talked a good game about sharing feelings and opening up, he was really quite awful at it. It was true that there were a lot of things that were hard to talk about because they were tangled up in his magic, but there were a lot of things that weren't, or that could be shared in part. But he didn't. Out of habit, out of fear. He blathered and he babbled to fill a silence, and he was good at listening and giving advice. But when he was upset, he closed himself up. He turned inward because that was the only way he knew how to cope.

He didn't want to be that way anymore. He wanted to change. Arthur didn't know how to allow himself to feel his emotions, and he was brave enough to try. Merlin had to be just as brave. He had to give just as much of himself to their relationship as Arthur did, or it would never be strong enough to last. And he wanted it to. He wanted a lifetime. A full one, where they were together until they were both old and grey and mostly deaf, and they had to shout at each other to be heard and still got half the words wrong. He wanted them to save each others' lives a thousand times over. He wanted to stand with Arthur on the parapets of Camelot and watch the sun rise and set and rise again.

"You're crying," Arthur said, wiping away the tears that streaked down Merlin's cheeks, fast and hot.

"Guess it's my turn," Merlin sniffed, unable to stop them from pouring out.

"Is it a good cry?" Arthur asked.

"I don't know," Merlin said, voice tightening up. His chin wobbled dangerously, and the next thing he knew he was wrapped around Arthur and absolutely bawling, his whole body shaking as he sobbed and gasped. Arthur held him and hushed him, stroking gentle circles on his back.

"You're safe," Arthur soothed. "It's all right. Shh. You're safe now."

That only made Merlin cry harder. He wanted it to be safe, he wanted that so badly. But it wasn't, it wasn't, and it might never be. He didn't deserve Arthur and he never had, and when Arthur found out the truth, Merlin was almost certain to lose him. There were so many ways that it could all go wrong and there was nothing he could do about it. The moment he told the truth, he surrendered his entire life to Arthur's judgement. And if Arthur judged him as a traitor and a liar, that would be it. That would be it.

"I think this has gone past a good cry," Arthur said, joking to cover his concern.

Merlin laughed through his sobs. "Can't stop," he gasped, as a fresh wave of tears poured out of him. He couldn't even breathe properly, only in little hiccups that made his body convulse. He didn't even know what he was crying about anymore. If it was what had happened in the castle or if it was about admitting the truth or if it was just everything, his whole life and all the pain and fear and sadness that had poured and poured into him. He'd put it all into little bottles inside of him and let them fester in the darkness, and now they were popping open and it was all rushing back out.

Arthur picked up his kerchief and wiped Merlin's face with it, blotting gently as even more tears poured forth. At last his sobs stuttered and slowed, and he took the damp kerchief and blew his nose in it.

"Good thing you've got a spare," Arthur said.

Merlin gave a hiccup of a laugh. "Lots of spares," he said, voice shaking.

Arthur looked at him with such concern that it almost set Merlin off all over again. But he was all cried out, at least for now.

"I ruined our romantic evening," Merlin sniffed.

"It's all right," Arthur said, calmly. "I've never been very good with all that girly stuff. You're the one who's always putting flowers all over the place."

"I thought you liked my flowers," Merlin hiccuped.

"I love your flowers," Arthur said, and smiled softly. "I love you."

"No," Merlin moaned, distraught. "No, don't. Please, take it back."

Arthur stared at him, baffled. "Why?"

"It's too soon," Merlin said, pleadingly. "You'll jinx it."

"Fine," Arthur said, though he clearly thought Merlin was mad. "I take it back. Is this because of the battle? Are you worried I'm going to make some big romantic gesture and then die in your arms, like in a poem?"

"Take that back too," Merlin said, wondering if Arthur was actually trying to drive him insane. "You can't just say things like that."

"You say things like that all the time," Arthur replied. "Well, you say you love me. A lot, might I add. Why can't I say it to you?"

Merlin had no way to explain, not in any way that sounded remotely sane. He didn't want Arthur to love him until he could tell him the truth. Arthur didn't know who he was until then. He just saw the false Merlin, the bits of Merlin that fit into his world. He didn't want Arthur to love that Merlin because then he might not love the rest of him.

As if Arthur hadn't loved him for months already. Of course he had known that. Of course he knew that Arthur loved him, even if Arthur couldn't bring himself to say the words because he was so emotionally constipated. He'd never needed words to know how Arthur felt. It had all been right there in his eyes.

"Just... don't say it unless you mean it," Merlin said, lamely.

"I do, actually," Arthur said, as if he was trying on the idea and found that he liked it. "So you're just going to have to put up with it. I love you."

"Augh," Merlin groaned, covering his ears.

"I love you," Arthur said again, pulling his hands away.

"Nooo," Merlin moaned, scrunching up his face.

"I love you," Arthur said, bringing his face right up to Merlin's. He pecked a quick kiss to Merlin's scrunched-up lips. "I love you."

"I hate you so much right now," Merlin muttered.

Arthur just laughed and kissed him again. "This is fun. No wonder you like saying it so much. Hey, guess what?"

"What?" Merlin asked, knowing he'd regret it.

"I love you," Arthur said, smugly.

Merlin gave up. Nothing could stop Arthur when he was in a good mood, and he was looking thoroughly happy now. It wasn't like Merlin really believed in luck anyway. In his experience, if something went his way, it was because he threw himself bodily at it. And even then it was often only by the skin of his teeth. It just looked like luck from the outside because he had to hide how much of it he did by magic.

"I love you, too," Merlin sighed, resigned. He had been doomed from the start, from the moment he had walked up to Arthur and said, 'You've had your fun, my friend.' And he had called Arthur an ass and Arthur had called him stupid. And then Arthur had manhandled him. Really, nothing important had changed since that first meeting. They'd just added a few new insults and some more pleasurable forms of manhandling.

Arthur's grin widened. It was even the same grin, the same smug, delighted, challenging grin that Arthur had given him that day as he waited for Merlin to take a swing at him.

Maybe that was a good thing. Maybe there was something abiding between them, something that might rile up in a storm but always returned to constancy. Maybe they had an ocean of their own, and if they learned how to sail it, they could travel on it forever.

"I love you," Merlin said, softer now. "I do."

Arthur kissed him, long and soft and sweet, and then deep and insistent. "That's better," he said, when he pulled back. "Now tell me what happened."

"You never give up," Merlin said, peeved. He tugged the blanket up from where it had fallen around him and pulled it up to his shoulders.

"Nope. I can do this all night. We might need more kerchiefs, though."

Merlin slapped him on the arm. "Prat."

"So you woke up in the castle, and..." Arthur prompted.

Merlin covered his face with his hands. "It's going to sound so stupid now."

"I've never worried about being dazzled by your wit."

Insults and manhandling. They would be eighty years old and all of Arthur's beautiful hair would be white and thin, and Merlin's ears would be so big they would flap in the breeze, and they would still be insulting each other and pushing each other around. He could do this. He talked about things all the time. He just put one word after the other until he had a lot of them all in a row. Sometimes he even made sense.

He told Gaius things. Well, he summed things up, and Gaius either called him stupid for doing something risky or made him a nice treat for defending Camelot, and oftentimes it was both. But Gaius was a bit too fatherly to really admit things to, or at least how Merlin had always imagined a father would be. Not that having a real father was necessarily any better, if Uther was any guide. Gaius was certainly parental in any case, and his mum had always despaired of getting him to tell her anything important until it was weeks too late to do anything to help. It was just that she often seemed so fragile, and he hated upsetting her, and for a long time she was really all he had in the world, and...

Oh. Oh.

Arthur liked his mum, but he probably didn't appreciate being treated like her. His mum didn't even appreciate being treated that way, what with all her despairing.

There was always Will. But Will usually figured out Merlin's problems before he even had a chance to realize them himself, and told him what they were long before he would have been able to find the words on his own. With great relish and detail, as if Merlin was simply too dim to ever sort it all out on his own. He was such an utter nuisance.

No, Merlin was going to have to face facts: he was absolutely rubbish at talking. It was like the last day of the knights' training all over again. He thought he could spar like a knight, but all he was really doing was running away. Arthur had made him stop pretending and learn it all for real. It had been one gruelling step at a time. It had been weeks of sweat and pain and perseverance, of doing the same things over and over until he could do them right. And it had worked. In the end, and with help, it had worked, and here he was.

So he was just going to have to start with the basics. He just hoped it wouldn't take months to learn how to be truthful. He didn't think he could wait that long.

"You said something messed with your head," Arthur said, prompting him again because he was no doubt tired of watching Merlin think himself in circles. "Did someone try to hurt you?"

"No," Merlin said. "Not once they thought I was one of the servants. The knights were a bit rude, but that's knights for you."

"You do realize that you're insulting yourself," Arthur said, pointedly.

"Noble knights, then," Merlin compromised.

"Now you're insulting me."

Merlin smiled primly at him. Arthur reached out and aggressively ruffled his hair, and Merlin squeaked and batted him away.

"So no one tried to hurt you," Arthur prompted. "Was it the other servants? Couldn't handle being back with the commoners again? Are you going to be even more insolent when we get home?"

"No," Merlin said, rolling his eyes. "Don't be ridiculous. They were all very nice to me."

"So it wasn't the servants and it wasn't the knights," Arthur summed up. "It was Idriys. How painfully does he have to die?"

"You don't have to kill everyone who hurts me," Merlin protested.

"That's up to me, not you."

"It wasn't..." Merlin began, and had to try again. "He didn't hurt me. He was nice to me, too."

"So everyone was perfectly nice to you. Except it was awful."

"Yes!" Merlin said, relieved that Arthur had got there first. Maybe Will had had a point about him being dim about words. Then he sobered. "Yes. Because the whole time... the whole time, all I did was lie to them. And they were nice to me. They wanted to help me. And I betrayed them, both sides. And they all... they all hate me. How many hundreds of people in that castle, and every single one of them hates me, Arthur." He looked at him sadly. "But I had to do it. I had to do it, for you. For the kingdom. But I don't think they'll understand." He blinked, and a few stray tears escaped his eyes. He wiped them away.

Arthur considered this for a long moment. "Remember what I said this morning? I couldn't have done what you did. I am who I am, Merlin. I was born into this life, and it's all I've ever known, and all I ever will. I'm never going to run off and become a farmer. Even if I actually tried, I'd last maybe two weeks before I went absolutely stir-crazy."

"A week is probably generous," Merlin corrected. "I'd give it three days."

"I know what Ealdor was like. I saw the way you lived there. I believe the expression is 'dirt poor,' but I doubt you could even afford dirt. But you survived. You thrived. You left that tiny village in the absolute middle of nowhere and you came to the biggest city in a completely different kingdom. You didn't even know who I was -- and everyone knows who I am --, yet in a matter of days, you had two important jobs in the royal household. And you were absolutely awful at them both."

"I got better," Merlin defended.

"You did. Eventually you became mediocre. But when you found something you really cared about, when you decided something was actually important, you put absolutely everything you had into it. And that's what's special about you. You let nothing stand in your way. And it took you from a peasant farmboy with only the clothes on his back, to a manservant to the Prince, and now to a knight. No one else has ever done that. I know how to be a prince, and I'm pretty sure I know how to be a king. But only you can look at a knight and say to yourself, that's what I'm going to be, and actually pull it off. And then turn around and --" he snapped his fingers "--turn right back into a servant again, in a completely different castle. And then --" snap "--persuade the enemy to trust you enough to be his manservant. And then --" snap "--back you come, and half a day later you're dressing down noble knights like you were born for it."

Merlin was flustered. It was all rather a lot when Arthur strung it together like that. "But they still hate me," he protested. "I betrayed them. Mira, she was so mad, and the other servants kept tripping me and making me spill things, and Idriys said if I lied to him he'd lock me away for life, and all I did was lie right to his face."

"So what if they hate you," Arthur said, unperturbed. "Once you come charging in with me and save the castle, the servants will be falling over themselves to thank you. And Idriys isn't going to be locking anyone away for life. If anything, he'll probably be impressed. I'm impressed, and I have no idea how you made him trust you."

Merlin made a neutral sound, unwilling to explain that part.

"It's war, Merlin," Arthur continued, undeterred. "That's what happens in war. People lie. Do you think Bayard and my father tell each other the truth when they're negotiating? In fact, do you think the councillors and lords and my father all tell each other the truth? No, everyone wants to save face. No one wants to be seen as weak. So they lie and say they have more money and grain than they really have. But then they can't afford the taxes, so every year, one by one, they petition my father in private."

"But that's ridiculous," Merlin said, astonished. "If they all just told the truth--"

"It would only take one of them to lie, and then everyone else would be trying to catch up again," Arthur said. "It's a game and everyone knows the rules."

"So that's it, then?" Merlin asked, trying to make sense of all this. "Everyone lies and betrays each other and it's fine?"

"There are unwritten rules and unspoken limits. Both of which are frequently broken, because everyone wants to push one step farther than everyone else. But yes, essentially, that's it."

It was a lot to chew on, but Merlin couldn't help pushing one step further himself. "How can you ever trust anyone?"

"If you never trust anyone, they'll never trust you back," Arthur shrugged. "Those that are loyal will prove themselves worth the risk. I trust my men to follow my orders to the best of their ability, and they trust me to lead them to the best of mine. But beyond that... Morgana told me that I never trust anyone, but I don't think I ever really tried, before you."

When Arthur said things like that, it made Merlin want to stab himself in the eye. "I'm the only one you trust?" he asked, trying very hard not to wince.

"You're sort of important to me, Merlin," Arthur said, earnestly. "I don't hide in trees all night for just anyone."

Merlin sighed and fell back against the bedroll, then curled onto his side, quietly miserable. He pulled the blanket over his head. He could practically hear the ocean draining away.

"Merlin?" Arthur asked, leaning over him. He pulled up the edge of the blanket and peeked in, but Merlin pulled it back down. "Merlin, what are you doing?"

"What if I tell you something you don't like?" Merlin asked, through the blanket. "What if I'm secretly an awful person? What if you never trust anyone ever again and it's all my fault?"

"Are you secretly an awful person?"

Merlin considered this. "I don't think I am," he ventured. He pulled back the blanket so he could look at Arthur. "But... there's a lot about me that your father would hate, if he knew. And other people would hate me. I'm... I'm not perfect, Arthur."

"I had noticed," Arthur said, dryly. "In fact, you are extremely imperfect. You're a knight that isn't noble, and a servant who doesn't follow orders, and you're absolutely not a princess, though I can check if you think anything's changed in the last five minutes." He reached under the blanket and goosed Merlin right between the legs, and Merlin yelped and turned onto his other side to escape. "My father would be absolutely livid if he found out the truth."

"Then why are you going around telling everyone everything?!" Merlin said, suddenly on the verge of tears again. "Why couldn't you leave it alone? Why couldn't it just be ours?"

"I won't let him hurt you," Arthur said, somewhere between offended and concerned.

"Don't," Merlin said, pulling the blanket back. "Don't lie to me. What's going to happen when we get back? Do you really trust a thousand people all to keep me a secret?"

"Individually, no," Arthur said. "But as a group, yes."

"That doesn't make any sense."

"If I was just a man, or if I spoke with them one by one, it would become a matter of gossip and eventually make its way to my father's ear. But it's not gossip if everyone knows, and I am not just a man. I am their Prince, their Crown Prince. When my father dies or becomes unfit to rule, I will become their King, and be their King for the rest of their lives. That means little to you, because you are an uncivilized peasant from a village without a kingdom, and haven't the slightest concept of sovereignty or hierarchy. But a king's word is law. A king's power is absolute. As far as the people are concerned, a king is the earthly manifestation of a god. And I chose every one of those thousand people to come with us and they know that they have been chosen. I know their names and I know that they are loyal to the crown, and one day that crown will be on my head. My father is not a young man, and he is not what he once was. He may only be fit to rule for another five years, ten at most. I will be fit to rule for decades. When the man who will hold your entire life in his hands asks for your loyalty, you give it."

"My head hurts," Merlin whined, rubbing his forehead. "I've actually forgotten useful information because all your nonsense pushed it out. The only thing I know now is that is that everyone is completely insane."

"Merlin, I was made Crown Prince last year," Arthur continued, apparently in the belief that stuffing even more nonsense into Merlin's head would somehow cause the crazed jumble already inside it to make sense. "I have to start taking power for myself or everyone will think I'm unfit. My father doesn't like it, but he expects it. Just like the lords and councilors have to lie in public and petition in private. It's an unwritten rule. Right now, everyone is looking to me to figure out what kind of king I will be, so they can adjust their expectations accordingly. It's like... a sample of bread from the baker. They're still working their way to the end of the old loaf, but they want a taste of the new recipe."

"What am I?" Merlin asked, bewildered. "Am I even in the bread? Am I one of those little seeds that gets stuck in everyone's teeth and they have to spend ages picking them out?"

"You're the yeast," Arthur said, as if that made any sense either. "No, you're the starter for the yeast. By the way, I'm using bread metaphors because you have often gone on to me about bread when you were supposed to be quiet so I could hunt."

"Yes, I understand how bread works," Merlin grumbled. "Is this what you meant when you told Geraint that you were using me?"

"You're something different," Arthur said. "I want the people to know that I'm going to rule in my own way, that I will not be simply following in my father's footsteps. Or as Morgana would say, licking his bootheels. She's been yelling at me to be my own man for years, and she's right. But you gave me the key to it. You gave me what I needed."

"What did I do?"

"You don't fit in anywhere. But at the same time, you somehow fit in everywhere. Just like you did in the castle. You're outside the rules, but not in a way that threatens them. You're kind, so people want to help you. You give of yourself without asking for anything in return. With the money you gave Gwen, she could live modestly for the rest of her life and not work another day. Or she could invest it in the forge and hire men to work it. You could have paid her a fraction of that and it still would have been generous, but you didn't take even a single coin for yourself. And do you know what else?"

"If I don't ask, you're going to tell me anyway," Merlin said, resigned.

Arthur smiled. "You have faith in me. You have so much faith in me, Merlin. You called me your king and you believed it. So I believed it too. I realized then that I will never become the king I want to be unless I start acting like I already am king. That it was time to stop complaining and begging my father to change, because he never will. And he thought it was some sort of punishment to give me more responsibility, so I let him. It was perfect."

"Do you want to know what I think?" Merlin said, after a long pause where Arthur finally stopped yammering on.

"Yes?" Arthur asked, eagerly. He'd probably had this all bottled up inside him for ages, some of it for years, and hadn't been able to tell anyone until now. No wonder it had all spilled out at once. It was like Merlin's tears, except that Arthur was full of hope instead of pain.

"I think my head hurts even more than my back," Merlin said, and pulled the blanket back up.

"I'm sorry," Arthur said, sounding slightly regretful. "Did I break you?"

"Into tiny bits," Merlin agreed. "Lots of tiny pieces."

"I thought you'd be used to all this court intrigue, after all the times I've gone on about it to you. I suppose you weren't actually listening to a thing I was saying?"

"Not really," Merlin sighed.

"I take back everything I said. You really are just an idiot."

Arthur reached under the blanket again, and this time he grasped Merlin's cock. It was soft, because there was nothing arousing about crying or listening to complicated and confusing explanations about politics. But Arthur was not dissuaded. Merlin squirmed and tried to pull away, but Arthur only tightened his grip until Merlin didn't have any choice but to lie still.

"What do you think about becoming my advisor?" Arthur said, leaning over him.

"I think you want to get me killed," Merlin said. "I think you're insane."

"You convinced an enemy leader to take you on as his manservant, into his private chambers, after knowing you for what, a few hours?" Arthur reminded him. "If I train you up, let you loose on the council, they won't know what hit them."

"I didn't like doing it."

"You don't like fighting or killing people. You still became my knight."

"That's different," Merlin protested.

"Not really." Arthur pulled the blanket away and tossed it aside. "You, my sweet bird, are the grain of sand that will make Camelot into a very shiny pearl. Whether you like it or not."

"Mmph!" Merlin said, because Arthur was kissing him and stroking his cock, and it was all feeling lovely enough that he was starting to forget about his bruises. He supposed, distantly, that it wasn't very likely that Arthur would become the King of all Albion if he didn't have ambition. It was just a shock to find himself at the center of it. He was still trying to get used to the idea that he hadn't been born solely to keep Arthur from one hideous death after another. It was all happening too fast.

He couldn't believe how devious Arthur had turned out to be. And to think that the knights had accused him of being sneaky! Arthur had hoards of secret plans. Maybe the ocean wasn't drained away after all. Maybe Arthur would understand why he'd had to lie, why he'd had to keep secrets. Maybe Arthur would want to use his magic the way he did everything else about him. Maybe this was the start of their true destiny together.

"All right," Merlin breathed into Arthur's mouth.

"Mm?"

"I'll do it. Be your advisor, your knight, whatever you want me to be. Your grain of sand. Even your yeast starter, though really Arthur, do you actually understand what a starter is? Because it doesn't-- Mmph!"

Kissing. Kissing was better than talking, quite a lot better. And Arthur's hand was very nice, stroking and squeezing.

"You'll be everything I want you to be," Arthur murmured, pleased and warm. "I think, with you... With you, I could do anything."

Another violent shiver ran down Merlin's spine, just like in the seer's room. He didn't know if Arthur meant that he could mold him into anything, or that together they could do anything they wanted, but it was probably all the same in the end. Arthur had made him into his knight, and Merlin had practically won his battle for him. And this was only the beginning.

All of Albion will bow to them. All of Albion. How long would it take? Five years? Ten? Thirty? Arthur had said that he didn't want war, but how to unite a fractured land of squabbling kings without war? How to earn the loyalty of distant peoples? Merlin wanted to make Arthur stop and tell him everything, to let him read all the maps and documents that he'd hidden away inside himself, in some countless number of locked drawers. But Arthur might not even have the answers yet. They'd left Camelot without any idea of what dangers lay ahead, and look how far they'd come. Victory was half preparation, half improvisation, and maybe even half something else that Merlin hadn't encountered yet. And Arthur didn't even know about Albion. He didn't even know about their destiny and it was happening anyway. What would happen once he actually found out?

It was a dizzying spiral, and Merlin wasn't sure if they were flying or falling. Arthur said that he was selfless, but Merlin could be greedy, too. And this, this was what he wanted. He wanted to give this to Arthur, wanted to be part of it, wanted to see the shining pearl that Arthur dreamed of. He wanted to see how far a peasant boy from a tiny village could go under Arthur's guiding hand. He wanted magic to rise, he wanted Albion to unite, he wanted a golden age of peace and prosperity. And together, they could do it all. With Arthur's ambition and heart and skill, and Merlin's determination and magic. Together, they could do anything.

The prophecy was real. It was real.

He kissed Arthur back and thrust against his hand, hooked a leg around Arthur's thigh. "Everything," he moaned, hard and wanting now.

Arthur gave a murmur of approval, and Merlin could feel the hot, heavy press of his cock through his trousers. Merlin fumbled at the lacing and shoved the fabric down. Arthur was already dripping, his cock swollen full. It had turned him on to tell Merlin all this. To surprise him and push him as far as he could, and claim him anew. All the things that Arthur loved to do to him, over and over again. All the things that were maddening and wonderful about Arthur, all the things that made him an impossible, unbearable, amazing man. All the things that made him Merlin's King.

"My King," he breathed, gripping Arthur's cock, stroking it as Arthur dragged him to his own fullness. "My King."

"Your King," Arthur purred, thrusting against his hand.

They moved against each other, building to a frantic pace, Merlin's arousal rushing up to meet and match with Arthur's. He felt as he had in those blissful, arduous days in the woods: that this was right, that this was what they were meant for, that this was the way it should always be between them. That he never wanted this to end. And it wouldn't. It wouldn't, because they were two halves of a whole. Two sides of a single coin. He was born for Arthur, and Arthur was born for him.

They were close. They were so close, their shared cries coming fast and high. Arthur was a fraction ahead of him, and as he came he threw his head back and high. His hair caught the moonlight that streamed in through the colored glass, and just for a moment, Merlin saw it, golden and true: the crown of a High King, all ablaze on Arthur's head. Merlin came, eyes squeezed tight against the magic that surged fierce and hot within him, rushing out from his body to the temple, rushing in from the temple to his heart.

He was shaking as he came down, trembling like a leaf in a sudden storm. The magic eased in him, but the vision it had granted him was burned into his mind. He clung to Arthur as Arthur clung to him, and Merlin wondered if he had felt the power, if he had felt it as the Old Religion took their offering. If he realized what he had done when he had placed their bedrolls at the heart of the temple, where prayers and sacrifices were given up to the gods. But there was no fear in Arthur's eyes when Merlin opened his own, only love. Only love.

Chapter Text

They heard the army arrive before they saw it.

The silence around Gedref was like a held breath, with Idriys and his men stunned and wary from the loss of their shield, and Arthur keeping their little group safely ensconced in the temple. The clamour of a thousand men and women and all their horses and carts shattered the calm, rolling down the hills like distant thunder. It was even noisier than it had been on the other side of the Mountains of Isgard, with servants banging pots and pans together and knights and common fighters alike singing marching songs to intimidate their enemies. The resulting ridiculous cacophony was possibly the most beautiful music Merlin had ever heard.

Arthur would not let them rush out to greet them. It would take a full day for the army to crawl down into the valley around the harbor, and to expose themselves too soon would make them an easy target for the Deorham men who still scoured the woods and shore for Merlin. Since Merlin had come back to them, Arthur would not even let Merlin out when the other knights went out for their regular brief scoutings, no matter how much Merlin protested and wheedled and pouted at him.

"Not until you're well," Arthur said every time, unmoved by even the most reliable of Merlin's tricks.

"I am well," Merlin would insist. To which Arthur would reply by poking him on one of his many florid bruises, and Merlin would scowl at him and rub at the spot and call him a bossy prat.

And Arthur truly was excelling himself at being bossy, at least as far as Merlin's health was concerned. After Arthur had finished having his way with him on the temple floor, he had given him a thorough but gentle massage. The next morning, Merlin found himself put on a strict regimen of relaxant, massages, poultices, and soaks. He was at least allowed to join in with the exercises that Arthur led the knights in to keep them active and sharp, but otherwise Arthur seemed determined to pamper him within an inch of his life. It was all a bit embarrassing, but again Merlin found that the knights took such things in stride. They knew how dangerous pain could be in a fight and they recognized the purpose of Arthur's care. After all, they had been under his care themselves during their training, and were again now, even if in a more limited fashion.

As self-conscious as it made Merlin feel, it was probably for the best that the knights were there, or Arthur's tending would have been even more concentrated. Arthur liked to be in control and waiting gave him very little of that. His care of them and his incessant reviewing of Idriys' papers were the only ways of coping he had available to him. He would not leave the temple himself to join in on the scouting because he refused to let Merlin out of his sight. Even sex was limited to what they could do with their hands and mouths, as Arthur would not risk either of them being compromised by soreness from penetration. Arthur was absolutely determined that they leave the temple as fit and able as possible.

And as was usual of late, Arthur was right. By the time the army had spilled into the forest, chasing the patrols back into the castle, Merlin was feeling miles better. The bruises would take a long while yet to fade, but all the stiffness and the deep ache of them was gone. He could move freely and without pain. And just in time, because at last Arthur deemed it safe to leave their hiding place.

By the time they reached the forest, they found that no time had been wasted. Camp had been struck and weapons and defenses were being readied.

"Is it already starting?" Merlin asked, as they made their way to the heart of the camp. The other knights had split off from them to rejoin the noble knights and return all of their supplies and bags. "Are we attacking the castle today?"

"We have them trapped," Arthur said, casting a pleased eye over the busy camp. "We'll attack when we're ready." He smirked to himself. "Thanks to you, they might even give themselves up."

"Really?" Merlin asked, surprised.

"Well, probably not," Arthur admitted. "If I was defending Camelot, I'd fight to the last man. But this isn't their home, and they don't have enough men even with the advantage of high walls."

"But they have Palaemon," Merlin said. It felt so strange to be discussing magic openly with Arthur, even if it wasn't his own magic. It was a bit like when they'd rescued King Terit from his curse, but this time around, Arthur wasn't dragging his heels and loudly doubting him all the way. Instead, he was interested, eager to hear as much as Merlin could tell him. Which wasn't a huge amount, admittedly, but Arthur seemed happier with every detail he could muster. And not for a moment had he launched into any Uther-like rants about how evil the sorcerer must be. Instead, he was treating Palaemon just as he would any other opponent, with cautious respect rather than fear and rage. A dangerous, unpredictable opponent whose limits were unknown, but an opponent nonetheless.

"We'll take care of him," Arthur said, with more confidence than he probably felt. But even Arthur's false confidence was reassuring.

"We will," Merlin said, unable to stop the grin from breaking across his face. Maybe this was what it would be like all the time once Arthur knew about his magic. He would be able to tell Arthur everything he knew, and then he and Arthur would go out and they would win. And it would be like the fight at the siege gate, except better. Because Arthur would teach him how to be just as good with his magic as he was with a sword. And Arthur would watch his back and lead him. And Merlin would be able to keep them safe with charms and shields as they fought. There was so much they would be able to do!

Arthur gave him a fond smile and clapped a hand to his back. "Come on, we have a lot of work ahead of us."

Arthur took Merlin on a tour through the camp, and it was quite similar to what they had done when they were preparing the army in Camelot. Except this time, Arthur wasn't sending Merlin about with lists and errands. This time, Arthur kept Merlin squarely at his side as he checked with the heads of each group of fighters and workers and servants. Merlin was dressed in his armor, a match with Arthur, and he stood with his back straight and his head high. Merlin wondered if Arthur was trying to get an early start on teaching Merlin how to become his personal advisor, because Arthur made him ask at least one question to everyone they spoke with, even if it was something he already knew the answer to. And he made sure that the person who answered them addressed Merlin with their answer, and not Arthur. Of course, Merlin had worked closely with all of them during the days of preparation in Camelot, but it was different now. Arthur was making it different.

Because they started at the back of the camp, they reached the noble knights last. Merlin waved at Althalos from across the group, and then realized that Althalos was standing with the horses that they had left behind for the army to recover. And there were Hengroen and Llamrei, grazing calmly on a copse of saplings. Merlin immediately hurried over to greet them, and the horses nuzzled him affectionately.

"I missed you, too," he told them, stroking their necks and combing his fingers through their manes. Days on their own in the woods had left them scruffy, with brambles and bits of leaf in the tangles of their hair, and he was definitely going to have to give them a good grooming. They looked healthy otherwise, having spent the time in a grassy field by a stream at the far edge of the woods.

There was the sound of a throat being cleared, and Merlin turned to see Arthur looking at him with fond amusement, though his arms were crossed with impatience.

"Jealous again?" Merlin asked.

"They're supposed to be fierce war horses," Arthur said, dryly.

"They're very fierce," Merlin defended.

"At least this time you're not using them as pillows," Arthur replied. He beckoned to Merlin. "I'm not done with you yet."

"You're never done with me," Merlin said, blushing even as he said it. He hadn't meant it quite like that, but then again he had. He hoped Arthur would never, ever be done with him.

When they had started their review of the camp, there had been some resistance to Merlin's presence, as to them he was still just a servant who had been dressed up as a knight. But people had warmed to them as they went along. And now that they were speaking with the noble knights, Merlin realized why. The first thing Merek, Althalos, Borin, Jarin, and Ronald had done when they met the others was catch them up on what had happened in Gedref, and the gossip had spread through the camp like wildfire. They had been back for barely over an hour, and already everyone knew what Merlin had done, and the story had been blown entirely out of proportion.

Now, he had not been surprised and captured, but had intentionally killed the whole patrol except one and used the last to break his way into the castle. He had not merely taken refuge in the kitchen as a servant, but had organized the servants into resistance against the invaders. He had saved Idriys instead of Aeddan, and he had smoothly tricked his way right into Idriys' chambers, where he had immediately stolen all the papers. And his feats against Palaemon! That he had fought back the sorcerer with only a knife and defiantly smashed the globe right in front of him.

It flustered Merlin, and at first he tried to correct them, but Arthur just slapped his back and loudly called him modest. And that made everyone laugh the way the knights had laughed in the temple, when Merek talked of his determination. They were impressed by him, and more than that, they were impressed by Arthur's cunning. Because that was the other part of the story that had changed. Now, Arthur had sent him into the castle to spy. Now, Arthur's actions in training up his loyal manservant were seen as an act of unusual foresight. No noble knight could have done what Merlin did, and neither could any normal servant.

Merlin was different. He was outside the rules. In shattering Palaemon's defenses, in stealing Idriys' papers, Merlin had proved that Arthur's bold gamble was a perspicacious one. And where they had seen Arthur as an untested leader, where they had doubted the wisdom of his young years, now they looked at him with greater respect, renewed consideration. They were seeing a man who was not afraid to step out of his father's shadow, who was not afraid to blaze his own trail.

It was truth and it was lies and it was mad and it was absolute genius. It was half preparation and half improvisation, and the other half was the sheer, bloody-minded courage it took to try and change the world. Merlin was in awe. No one would be able to argue against Arthur once he finally moved to strike down the First Code, not with this victory under his belt. That battle was over before it had even begun, just like this one.

If anyone could bring magic back to Camelot, it was Arthur. He was probably the only one who could. All he would have to do is want to do it, and he would find a way to strike down Uther's laws and change the hearts of the whole kingdom. With his tactics and his endless drawers of secret plans and Merlin's help, he could absolutely pull it off.

This was his King. This was Arthur acting like the King he wanted to be, in order to truly become him. It was really happening.

§

The rest of the day was intensely busy, yet somehow without turning frantic. The very air was heavy with expectation, and many of the less experienced were nervous. But Merlin's victory had given the whole army a boost of confidence, and Arthur's calm assurance was enough to hold their spirits high.

Tree after tree was felled, and the forest was filled with the sound of sawing and hammering. Branches were fashioned into pole slings, extra arrows and crossbow bolts were made, stones were gathered and rough-hewn planks were fashioned into barriers and shields. Despite the advantages Merlin had gained them, Arthur was taking no chances. They had gone over every potential plan that Idriys had written down, and no matter what Palaemon did, Arthur was determined to be ready for it.

They ate together, rested together, and walked in step as they guided and assisted in the preparations. If in the past Merlin had glued himself forcibly to Arthur's side, now Arthur was keeping Merlin firmly where he belonged. The elevation of Merlin's status meant that now people were watching him nearly as much as they watched Arthur. While it was certainly still unnerving, it was nothing like it had been that day at the foot of the Mountains of Isgard. For possibly the first time since he'd come to Camelot, maybe even for the first time in his life, he was being seen and he was being accepted. And even if it wasn't quite all of him that was visible, it was still so much more than he'd ever thought possible.

This was what it was like. This was what it was like for people to know.

When night fell and Arthur finally let him go, Merlin sat down in a quiet spot and leaned against a tree, exhausted and dizzied and stupidly happy. Even with the battle ahead, even with all the things that could go wrong, he couldn't stop smiling. He was almost afraid he was going to wake up, because he had only ever been this happy in his dreams. Any minute now he was going to wake up in his old narrow bed and Arthur would stomp in, all exasperation because Merlin had overslept and missed serving him his breakfast again, and Merlin would be punished by having to go clean the kennels and muck the stables.

Any minute now, the dream would end. Any minute.

He breathed deeply, tasting the sea and smoke and the forest loam. He'd never felt so awake.

The campfires crackled as they were fed with fresh wood, some of it still damp from the brief rain the day before. The army was settling down, with a good number of men on guard at the perimeter in case the Deorham tried anything in the night. But they were far enough back that they were safe from arrows, and all the enemy had done so far was peer out from behind the crenels of the parapets. They knew they were in trouble, which was satisfying to see, but their desperation would make them fight harder. Not better, though, because desperation was a wild thing, and Arthur said it made men both sloppy and dangerous. Merlin knew that all too well.

Arthur came over and sat down beside him, lounging back with a grunt. He gave a great yawn and a long stretch of his arms and legs, rolled his neck and flexed his shoulders. It was a familiar ritual, the start of Arthur's winding down for the night, and the familiarity of it made contentment fill Merlin from his ears to his toes.

Arthur turned to face him and stilled, caught in the filtered moonlight, in the scattered glow of the fires. He stared at Merlin with a strange expression on his face, a mix of melancholy acceptance and bittersweet joy.

"What?" Merlin said, suddenly self-conscious. "Have I got something on my face?"

"No, it's..." Arthur trailed off. He ducked his head, and when he looked up again, there was an earnestness about him. "I just never realized."

Merlin prompted him by raising his eyebrows.

"Until the last few days," Arthur said, struggling with his answer. "You were never happy before. Not like this."

That finally made Merlin's smile fade. "I wasn't unhappy," he protested.

"But you weren't happy," Arthur said, certain. "You smiled and you joked. But there was always..." He picked up a twig and snapped it. "It puzzled me. You puzzled me. You're the bravest man I know. But sometimes, when things were quiet, you would seem sad. Afraid. Even when you were smiling. Even when you swore to give me everything, you held that back."

"And now?" Merlin asked, a little afraid of the answer.

"Now you're happy," Arthur said, stating it as a fact.

Merlin relaxed again. "I am," he said, his smile returning, fond and warm. He felt so grateful for everything Arthur had done for him, for everything they had, for the future that awaited them. Even though he had no idea how they were going to do everything they were supposed to do, even though it would probably be painful and terrifying and dangerous, that was all right. Because they would do it all together. Protecting each other, supporting each other, all the way to the end, whatever happened.

Arthur stared at him, laughed and shook his head. "You're still a puzzle. Maybe you always will be."

"I wouldn't want you to get bored," Merlin teased.

"No," Arthur agreed. "Never that." He took a deep breath. "Merlin, I know how... difficult it can be. I know how it is to keep things inside. That's all my life was, until you." He reached out and rested his hand over Merlin's, holding it. "We're going to win this battle and we're going to go home. But I don't want things to go back to the way they were. It's not enough for me to only have a part of you. Maybe that's selfish..."

"No," Merlin said, sobering. "You're right. There are things..." He trailed off, silenced by the extent of how much he had to admit. How much he had been holding back. "I want to tell you. I do."

Arthur looked glad, relieved. "Good. I'll hold you to that."

"Arthur," Merlin began, because even though he was going to tell Arthur the truth when they were home, he wasn't ready yet. Not here, not now. He wasn't ready, and the thought of Arthur forcing him to admit everything made panic spike in his chest.

But Arthur saw his panic, his struggle, and stopped both with a squeeze to his hand. "When you're ready."

"Right. Yes. Sorry." Merlin willed his heart to stop racing. If it was that scary just thinking about telling Arthur, it was going to be so much worse when the time came. But he had to do it. He would just do what he always did, put his head down and run full speed until he made it through.

"Worried about tomorrow?" Arthur offered, giving him an easy out.

Merlin took it gratefully. "Moderately terrified," he admitted. It was all well and good to say that the battle was won before it had begun, but it still had to be fought. They still had to charge in, swords drawn and shields raised, and not get themselves killed. And they still had to take down Palaemon. Merlin couldn't use his magic like he had when he'd fought at the siege tunnel, not right in front of Arthur. He was going to have to fight like a knight, but he'd seen knights fight against magic before. He'd seen Arthur fight against magic before, and end up unconscious and injured and vulnerable on the ground.

He suddenly wished Lancelot was here, because Lancelot already knew. Lancelot might be willing to give him the cover he needed to take down Palaemon with magic. But Lancelot was off somewhere trying to prove himself. He might not even be in Camelot anymore, and he certainly wasn't anywhere near Gedref. As always, Merlin would just have to do the best he could with what resources he had.

"How did you know it would work?" he asked, the question coming to him suddenly.

"How did I know what?"

Merlin chewed at his lip. "What if I hadn't been captured? What if I hadn't broken the shield? How did you know what I would do?"

"I didn't."

"But everything you said in the temple. About using me. All that sand and pearl stuff. And today, what you had the knights tell everyone. If I hadn't done all that, what would you have done?"

"If I had known what you were going to do, I would have hauled you up into a tree and tied you to a very sturdy branch," Arthur said, making it very clear that he was not joking.

"But--"

"I expected you to do what I expect you to do tomorrow," Arthur interrupted. "To prove yourself as a knight in battle. To use your determination and training to help Camelot to victory."

"But--"

"That would have been enough for me and enough for them," Arthur continued. "And as grateful as I am for what you did, it was so incredibly idiotic that if you even think about trying anything like that again, I will tie you to a tree. Is that clear?"

Merlin tried not to smile because Arthur was so perfectly serious. But all he could think was 'insults and manhandling', and it made the happiness swell right back up inside him.

Arthur saw him grin and gave a long-suffering look of exasperation. He punched Merlin on the arm. Merlin smiled wider.

"You are absolutely hopeless," Arthur declared.

"You love me anyway," Merlin said quietly, heart skipping as he said the words.

"I suppose," Arthur sighed, but there was a sparkle in his eyes.

"Don't worry," Merlin said, cheerfully. "You're stuck with me. That's just the way it is."

"You're very certain of that."

"I am," Merlin said, nudging him with his elbow. "Like I'm stuck with my King."

"Your King," Arthur echoed, fondly. "I want them to be proud to call me their King, the way you are." He nodded his chin towards the army at large. "I want to make Camelot a fair and just kingdom. I want to be what they need."

"You will be."

"Do you remember when I was in the fever from the Questing Beast?"

Merlin nodded. There were many times that he had nearly failed to save Arthur's life, but that was the closest. It wasn't something he was ever likely to forget.

"I was in and out, barely conscious at the best of times. Gwen was there, watching over me, and she said something that made it past my delirium." Arthur grew more focused, his voice quieter yet more intense. "When I was young, I believed that my father was always right. That he was what a king was meant to be. But as I grew older, I realized that he wasn't perfect. That there were times when this great man, who spoke of the justness of his rule, did and said things that were cruel and unjust. I couldn't understand how my father, the King, the greatest warrior Camelot had ever known, the man who raised the kingdom from its knees, could be so utterly wrong. How could he know that his people starved yet turn them away? How could he see the loyalty of others and not return it in kind?"

He had leaned forward in his intensity, but leaned back, rocked by the strength of his confession.

"Gwen's father was a good man, yet my father did not hesitate in ordering his death. It mattered nothing to him that Tom was good-hearted, that his skill rivalled those of Gedref's smiths, that his daughter has served our household faithfully for years. One mistake was all it took, with no mercy earned by loyalty and service."

Arthur paused, but Merlin simply listened.

"Gwen has every right to hate him. To hate all of us and turn bitter from her loss. But she hasn't. She's remained as Morgana's servant. She watched over me and she asked me to please be better than my father. To be a fair and just king. Not for herself. Not for the memory of her father. For Camelot." Arthur leaned forward again, intent. "She is only a servant, yet that is how much she loves this kingdom. That is how much she is willing to forgive for its sake, while my father shows no forgiveness at all." This last he said angrily, betrayed himself by his father's actions.

"Gwen has a good heart," Merlin said, when Arthur's silence ran long.

"She has the heart of a queen," Arthur said, meaning it. "Yet my father would say she is nothing. That you are nothing. When I defied him for you and went to Balor for that flower, he was furious. He thought it better to teach me a lesson than to save your life, but I knew in my heart that he was wrong. Because you matter. Gwen matters. All of the men and women who are part of this kingdom, every one of their lives matters."

Despite his quiet tone, Arthur's cheeks were flushed from the heat of his words, and his eyes were wide with urgency. He believed passionately in what he was saying despite the fact that it went against everything he had been taught. Arthur had seen that the old rules were wrong, and he was throwing them out and finding new ones.

"You have no idea how much I want to kiss you right now," Merlin whispered.

Arthur laughed and the tension in him eased. "I tell you all that, and that's all you have to say?" he teased. But he looked to Merlin as if he needed something more. He was still struggling with the contradictions inside him, and as with his admissions in the temple, he had probably never told anyone this before. It had been all bottled up.

"I think," Merlin began, meeting Arthur's hopeful eyes, "that you have the heart of a king. A true king, who will not only be fair and just, but kind. A king who will love his people and protect them."

Arthur ducked his head shyly. "That's what you see in me."

"Yes," Merlin said, and gave him a fond look. "Even when you're being a prat."

Arthur smiled and shook his head. "How can you have such faith in me?"

Merlin shrugged. "Can't seem to help myself. Would you like me to stop?"

"Never," Arthur said, as if even the thought of it shook him. As if he needed Merlin to believe in him so he could believe in himself.

Merlin turned his hand beneath Arthur's and gripped it in silent promise, and Arthur squeezed back.

§

When Arthur woke him at dawn, the camp was already stirring to life. Merlin sat up blearily and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Today was the day. Today was the battle.

He suddenly wanted to throw up. He fumbled for his waterskin and sipped at it until the urge passed, but some queasiness remained. When Arthur returned with breakfast, Merlin tried to refuse it, not certain he could keep it down, but Arthur wouldn't take no for an answer.

"You'll need the energy," Arthur told him, shoving the bowl back into his lap. "Eat it, or you'll wait out the battle tied to a tree."

"Is that going to be your favorite threat from now on?" Merlin groused, prodding the mix of porridge, nuts, and dried fruit with his spoon.

"If you don't like it, then stop finding new ways to get yourself idiotically killed," Arthur replied.

"We're about to go into battle," Merlin replied, unimpressed right back at him. "Doesn't that qualify?"

"Knights are supposed go into battle. We're trained and prepared for it and we don't go in alone. That's what makes it the opposite of idiotic."

Merlin rolled his eyes and dutifully swallowed down his breakfast. He wasn't going to admit that that Arthur had a point. Arthur had been right about so many things lately, it was a miracle that his head hadn't swelled up so enormously that he couldn't stand up without falling over. It seemed that it took a war to keep him in check. Or maybe it was that this was the kind of situation where his ego was actually in proportion to everything else. Arthur was quite comfortable being bossy to a thousand people at once; it was no wonder he was overbearing when it was just Merlin he had to order about.

Maybe Arthur was born with more bossiness than anyone else, just as Merlin had been born with more magic than anyone else. If that was the case, Arthur actually made a lot more sense. It was clearly just as frustrating for Arthur to not lead lots of people as it was for Merlin to not use lots of magic. They had both been held back all their lives. He wondered if Arthur sometimes felt like there was too much pressure inside him, like he had to let it out or he would simply explode. No wonder he used to get so cranky. No wonder he was so much happier when he took complete charge of a situation.

Which was what he was doing now, as the fighters gradually gathered at the front of the camp. Merlin finished off his breakfast and picked up his helmet and shield, then went to join them.

The goal was simple: get the army past the castle walls and force a rout. Idriys was a sensible leader, and despite his ambitions, Arthur was certain that he would surrender once it was clear that he could not hold on to Gedref, either for himself or for Alined. And once the walls were breached, if Arthur's army could overpower Idriys' army, Idriys would have no choice but to surrender.

But Gedref had not been chosen merely for the harbor; in its long history, it had suffered many attacks from the sea. Its walls were high and strong and its front gates were heavily reinforced. Even the siege tunnel was designed to prevent invasion; even if an attacker got past the locked gate, the tunnel narrowed as it approached the armory door, forcing any invaders to arrive in single-file and thus be easily dispatched. Arthur had discarded it as an option, considering it little better than a death trap. Whatever use it might have had during their scouting attempts was lost once the Deorham knew they were there.

That left two options: use ladders to breach the parapets, and use a battering ram to force open the front gates. A volunteer group had been assembled to man the ladders, as this was the more deadly and difficult option. They would be facing a rain of arrows and stones and whatever else the Deorham might have to throw at them, even fire or boiling water, and a high enough fall would certainly break bones. Those who climbed would guard themselves with shields, and their ascent would be covered by archers and slingers from below. For those that made it to the top, the challenge would then be to fight off any Deorham on the parapets.

As dangerous as the ladders were, they were their best chance of victory. Merek had described the front gates of Gedref with a mixture of pride and regret. The outer barrier was a sturdy iron portcullis, and behind that was a door of heavy oak reinforced with iron studs and bands, and then behind that was yet another portcullis. They had withstood countless attacks. But Palaemon's magic had opened them in the dead of night, and the Deorham had simply walked inside.

The portcullises and the oak door were too heavy to be moved by hand. They were controlled with winches in a fortified room next to the gates. If even one man made it over the parapets and over to the winches, the way would be opened and the full might of the army could pour inside. From there it would be a test of strength and swords as the two armies tried to push each other back. Right now the odds were in their favor, as between the initial attack, the scouts and the patrol, and the escape attempts and revenges of the citizens of Gedref, Idriys was starting out with less than four hundred men, and Arthur had five hundred. But if too many were lost on the wall, that advantage would be lost.

Palaemon seemed to be as good at doors as Merlin was with locks. Merlin wondered if maybe that was all he was good at. If Palaemon's magic was somehow tied to that god of his, Portunes. Maybe he wouldn't be any good when it came to actually fighting. He certainly hadn't looked like much of a fighter. But Merlin knew better than to underestimate Palaemon, not with all the power that had been pouring off that ring. If he proved to be as strong as Sigan or Nimueh, there was no telling how much damage he could do.

If only Merlin could do what Palaemon did for Idriys and simply open the way for Arthur's army. Even though he was rusty with his magic and there was a lot he needed to learn, there were so many ways he could be of help. He could shield the men on the ladder. He could use stunning spells to knock down the Deorham on the parapets. He could try and force open the gates, heat all the swords in the enemy's hands and disarm them. He could win Arthur's battle for him. If he was good enough, maybe no one would have to die at all.

But he couldn't. Uther's hate held him back, even here. It was Uther's fault that good people were going to die today. Alined and Idriys and the men of Deorham didn't have any problem using magic, but the people of Camelot panicked at the mere mention of sorcery. They let their family and their friends die rather than challenge Uther's laws. Merlin tried not to hate Uther, because he was Arthur's father and Arthur loved him, and because hate could be even more poisonous than secrets. But sometimes it was hard. When he saw people suffering, when he saw cruelty and injustice, when he had the power to stop it and fear held him back, it was hard.

He had to help these people. He had to use his magic to tilt the battle in their favor. Maybe he couldn't win Arthur's battle for him, but he could help the way he always had. He could be subtle. He could give them the luck they needed to end the battle quickly and decisively. That was what Arthur was always saying about him: that he was lucky. And Merlin always gave Arthur what he needed.

Merlin looked up at the parapets and tried to calm his nerves. His magic was unsettled, ready to lash out at the slightest provocation. He had to keep it under control. But he also knew that when the time came to use it, it had to be as fast as his sword. And as worried as he was about Arthur's peace of mind, his own stability was important too. He had to keep himself from panicking or becoming desperate. Desperation would make him sloppy, and once inside the castle, any mistake could be his last, or worse, Arthur's.

Merlin looked around at the knights and common fighters gathered around him. He wasn't the only one who was anxious and tense. The confidence of the night before had ebbed away in the face of what lay ahead. Even if everything went as well as it possibly could, people were going to be hurt and people were going to die. Any of them could die, common or noble, and that was simply the truth. For all his training and experience, Geraint had fallen to the ambush. Even with all his magic, Merlin had been overpowered by the patrol. A lot of these men, good men, were going to give their lives for Camelot, and those who survived would bear the scars of their survival.

He felt oddly glad that he had already faced the ambushes of the scouts and the patrol. He needed all the experience he could get. He had survived those fights, and he could survive this. Arthur would be by his side, and Arthur was not only the best swordsman in Camelot, but he had a dragon-forged blade that could slice through even the strongest armor.

From inside the castle, a fighting chant rose up, loud and rhythmic. He couldn't make out the words, but it still sent a chill up his spine. Murmurs stirred up around him, and from somewhere in the gathered crowd another chant rose up. It spread through the ranks until it was almost deafening, both sides trying to shout each other down, to heat themselves up. Merlin joined in, stomping his foot in time with the others, feeling his heart begin to pound like a hammer in his chest.

And then their own chanting stopped, coming to an almost abrupt halt, as Arthur stood before them and held up his hand for silence. In the distance, the enemy chanted on. But when Arthur spoke, his voice carried loud and clear to every man.

"Today we do battle," he began, casting his gaze across every man. "Our enemy believes they have the advantage. They hide behind strong walls and claim this land as their own. But those walls and this land belong to Camelot, and they are strong because we have made them strong. Because we stand together and no threat, no army, no sorcery can defeat us. Greed drove them to invade our kingdom, but it will be our honor and our pride that will drive them out."

Arthur drew his sword and lifted it high into the air, gold and steel gleaming in the morning sun. "For the love of Camelot!"

"For the love of Camelot!" shouted the crowd, and Merlin shouted it along with them, exhilarated and proud. Shields were raised, helmets were fitted and ladders were readied. The battering ram was taken up, and the archers and slingers were armed.

They marched out of the forest and onto the field around the castle.

"Shields!" Arthur called, as arrows rained down from overhead. Merlin flinched as crossbow bolts smacked into his shield, the dense wood exploding into a rain of splinters as their fellows crashed into the ground, throwing sprays of dirt into the air.

The battle had begun.

Chapter Text

After its dramatic start, the pace of the battle slowed. The rain of arrows ceased as Camelot raised up its defenses. The Deorham had enough sense not to waste their ammunition against the sturdy wooden barriers that had been carried out of the forest and set up alongside the castle wall. Their attacks on the shielded battering ram had also trickled off, as the top of the shield already bore a resemblance to a hedgehog yet the men beneath it were unscathed and unhindered. Instead, the archers on the parapets had turned their focus on anyone running between the barriers and on men on the ladders.

Those on the move were not entirely defenseless. On the ladders, they climbed slowly behind their shields, doing their best to deflect the attacks from above. And from below, Arthur's archers aimed their longbows at the gaps between the parapets, forcing the archers above into temporary retreats.

For a while, it seemed like Arthur's plan was going to go smoothly. The Camelot fighters inched up the ladders and the Deorham were kept at bay by the longbows. And then one of the Deorham was too slow in his retreat, and an archer caught him dead-on with an arrow. There was a hiss of victory from those who saw the Deorham man stagger back, followed by a murmur of confusion when he failed to fall.

The arrow had bounced off his mail. Merlin turned to Arthur, and saw that Arthur was coming to the same conclusion.

"Palaemon enchanted their mail," Merlin said, getting there first. "The arrows can't get through."

"Like Uwen's armor," Arthur said, frowning deeply. "I was afraid of something like this." He turned to the archers. "The arrows won't work!" he called out. "Switch to staff slings!"

"How's that going to help?" Merlin asked, worried. "They can't be hurt."

"After Uwen was arrested, I sought information about the enchantment. The men who witnessed the attack said that he was stabbed, but the blade couldn't penetrate the mail."

Merlin tried not to look as surprised as he felt. He knew that Arthur had been curious about the enchanted mail from the disastrous dinner with Morgana and Uther, but at the time he'd thought Arthur had obeyed Uther and dismissed the magic as corruption. Arthur had certainly said nothing about it to him.

"How does that help us?" he asked, warily.

"I think the spell acts like unbreakable plate armor," Arthur said, pointing at the plating he wore. "It can't be penetrated, but the force of the blow still carries through. You saw the one up there, how he was knocked back?"

Merlin nodded, starting to understand. "So if we hit with something heavier, like the rocks for the staff slings--"

Arthur smacked his fist against his palm. "All it takes is a good, hard blow. Slings aren't as precise as arrows, but they don't have to be."

"What about swords?" Merlin asked, thinking about what would happen once they had men inside the castle.

"We swing for force," Arthur said, thoughtful. "Don't try to pierce with forward thrusts. A hard enough blow with a longsword can break bones, and anything less will still bruise, and that will slow them down."

Merlin knew the truth of that from his own bruises. He thought of how the slim knife had killed Geraint, sliding right through the holes of his mail, and realized that his death must have felt doubly cruel if Arthur had still wanted to make use of the enchantment. To know that the very thing that could have saved Geraint's life was just out of reach. Would he be angry when he found out that Merlin was magic, that if he had told Arthur the truth sooner, he could have given Geraint and all the other fighters that protection? Why hadn't Arthur told him sooner? What about Uther?

"But the ambush," Merlin began, trying to make sense of all this. "The men I fought at the siege gate. Their mail was normal."

"Idriys was relying on the shield," Arthur surmised. "Once that was gone, he knew that he needed to regain some sort of advantage."

"Maybe when I broke the globe, it freed up a lot of Palaemon's magic. If he enchanted everyone's armor, that would take a lot of power. He probably didn't have enough to do both at once."

Arthur gave him an approving look. "I'll make a tactician out of you yet," he said, pleased, then hailed messengers to relay his modified orders to the rest of the army.

Merlin tried to think ahead to find any other problems the enchanted mail would cause. "What about Palaemon's hand?" he asked, once Arthur returned.

Arthur held up his own arm and pointed to his bare wrist. "It's only the metal that's enchanted. Uwen had a cut on his hand from when he grabbed the knife."

Merlin puffed out his cheeks and exhaled. "I hope you're right." Merlin never thought he'd see the day when he was taking advice on spells from Arthur. He could imagine Gaius' reaction, but it only made him smile to himself. Gaius was just going to have to get used to that sort of thing, if everything went the way Merlin hoped.

The staff slingers had replaced the longbow archers, and they began a volley of fist-sized rocks. At first most of them bounced off the castle stone, but as they warmed up, their aim improved. The first time one of the Deorham was hit and fell, a cheer rose up from the waiting army.

"Keep at them!" Arthur called, and the slingers redoubled their efforts, encouraged by their first victory.

A few of the archers returned to the firing line, this time with crossbows. They weren't the lighter crossbows that were typically used, but the expensive new ones that Arthur had brought along to test out. They were much larger and more powerful. At close range, they could actually make a wooden target explode.

"You think they'll have enough of a punch?" Merlin guessed.

Arthur nodded. "Even with the long range, they should be an asset. I'll have more commissioned as soon as we return to Camelot. Have the men retrained on them. Once we're inside, a close shot to the chest should be enough to knock a man off his feet."

Merlin was impressed. He had sometimes wondered how Camelot had ever survived before he arrived, what with all the magical dangers it faced. But Arthur was a force that even magic had to reckon with, and as he had learned most of what he knew about fighting from Uther, it must have been the same in the past. Everyone had a weakness. There was no magic so powerful that it couldn't be challenged. People were still flesh and bone. They still made the same choices and the same mistakes. It was only that the cost was higher, but Uther had never shied away from a sacrifice. Perhaps that was why Camelot was not what it once was. Perhaps Uther's Purge had been won at too high a price.

They settled down to watch as the change in tactics took effect. Between the stones and the bolts, the Deorham were forced back and the men on the ladders were able to ascend more quickly. The first made it to the top but it was hard to see what was happening. Merlin could hear shouting and the clashing of steel against steel. To his dismay, one by one the first men were dumped back over the battlements, their limp bodies crashing to the ground below.

Arthur's jaw clenched as he watched, but he didn't signal for the climbers to stop. Merlin realized that this was the cost of progress. That even if each ascending man killed one or more Deorham when he reached the top, each would still be outnumbered and doomed. They could only hope to wear down the enemy faster than they could be killed themselves, so eventually there would be enough of Camelot's army there to force back the Deorham from the parapets.

If the siege tunnels were a death trap, then each ladder was one as well, with the same single file slaughter. It was agonizing to watch, but Merlin wouldn't look away, not as long as Arthur didn't. There were definitely casualties on the Deorham side, but their progress was just so slow.

"There has to be another way," Merlin said, as another limp body was thrown over the wall.

"There's fire," Arthur said, reluctantly. "But it's an ugly weapon. Indiscriminate. I want a surrender, not a massacre."

Merlin knew for certain that Uther would have used fire, because he wouldn't care who was hurt as long as he achieved his victory. But Arthur cared and it was holding him back. If the gates were too strong and the walls too fortified, if Arthur didn't want to rely on starvation or slaughter, then Merlin would have to give him an alternative. One that was the opposite of fire. Something targeted and subtle, something that would minimize the loss of lives.

"Let me go up," he said, boldly.

"No," Arthur said, without even hesitating.

"It's all volunteers, right?" Merlin challenged. "Well, I'm volunteering."

"I am not sending you up there to be slaughtered!" Arthur hissed, quiet but angry.

"You said I was here to prove myself as a knight. To use my determination and training to help Camelot to victory. I can't do that if you don't let me fight."

Arthur narrowed his eyes at him, clearly peeved that Merlin was throwing his own words back at him. Then the corner of his mouth twitched. "You can go, but only if I go with you," he said, clearly thinking that he had trumped Merlin, because Merlin would never put Arthur in such danger if he could help it.

But Merlin wasn't going to give up so easily. "You're the leader. You have to stay so you can lead the army once the gates are open."

"You fight by my side or not at all," Arthur said, throwing Merlin's promise back at him. "You are not throwing your life away."

"What do you call that?" Merlin said, pointing at the ladders. "It's all commoners. None of the knights volunteered. You said that every life matters. Or is it only knights that matter?"

"No," Arthur said, angrily, then growled in frustration. "No. Merlin, I need the knights for the main attack. We won't have enough skilled fighters--"

"You need us now," Merlin insisted. "I won't go in alone. Knights don't go into battle alone. There's enough ladders for all of us to go up at once. If we all go at once, we can force them back."

"And the moment you do, the archers inside the castle will pick you off," Arthur retorted.

"Then we bring our own," Merlin said. "Ones with the new crossbows. And once we clear the way, you can send up men with wooden defenses and some staff slingers to back us up."

"You'd all have to make it up the ladders together," Arthur said, reluctantly considering the idea.

"Throw everything you've got at the parapets to keep the Deorham back. They can't shoot at us if they're hiding. Can the slingers and archers aim over the parapets entirely, right into the middle of the castle?"

"Of course."

"Then that will give us cover on the inside, too," Merlin said, challenging Arthur to find a flaw.

Arthur visibly chewed the plan over, but eventually he had to swallow it. "Fine," he relented. "But it doesn't have to be you."

"Yes, it does," Merlin said, defiant. "I want to do this. I have to do this. I'm the only one who can."

"And why is that?"

"Because I'm lucky," Merlin said, boldly. "That's what you're always saying about me. And if you don't... if the others go and not me, they'll all know. Everyone will know that you're protecting me. We can't afford that. They'll doubt you, and they'll tell Uther about me, and--"

Arthur held up his hands in surrender. "Enough. You've made your point." He ran his hand through his hair and huffed in frustration. "I need to talk to Merek first."

"Not without me," Merlin said.

Arthur gave an exasperated chuff. "And I thought you were insolent as a servant." He called Merek over.

"Sire?" Merek asked.

"Merlin has an idea," Arthur said, managing to restrain his reluctance. "He thinks if he and the five of you go up at the same time, you can force back the Deorham from the parapets. We fire over the wall to give you cover and send crossbows for defense, then bring up wooden barricades and slingers to hold the position. Is there a safe path from there to the winches?"

Merek considered it, rubbing his chin as he thought. "It's a good plan. But getting down to the winches... I'm not sure. As soon as we leave the barricades, we'll be easy targets. They'll expect us to head for the gates."

"What about the keep?" Merlin asked. "It's right against the back wall. Can we get down to the ground that way?"

"It's on the opposite side from the winches," Merek said. "Assuming we could get there without being noticed or hit, we'd still have to fight our way through the keep and then across the yard."

"Maybe we don't have to fight," Merlin said, thinking. "All we need to do is blend in."

"Swap for Deorham mail," Arthur said, actually seeming to like the idea. "Sneaky. And you'll have extra protection from the enchantment. Use the advantage against them."

"Er, is that wise, sire?" Merek said, uncertain. "It would mean using magic. Such an act would be considered treason. And they say it only takes one spell..."

Arthur wavered, but shook his head. "No spells will be cast. And my father does not need to know every detail of our victory." He gave a short nod towards Merlin, reminding Merek that they had larger concerns than the brief wearing of an enemy's armor.

Merek seemed to accept this. "If I can swap my armor and enter the keep, I believe I will be able to reach the winches and open the gates. With your permission, I will bring Merlin with me. He is the only other of our group who has first-hand knowledge of the castle, and he has proven his skills in subterfuge. The rest will remain on the parapets to draw attention and hold the position as a fallback in case there is any reason that the gates cannot be opened."

Arthur nodded his acceptance. "Gather the others and tell them the plan. Prepare the archers and the second wave. When they're ready, bring them all here."

Merek bowed his head and left. Arthur pressed his lips together, obviously still struggling with letting Merlin head into danger without him.

"Alive and whole," Merlin promised him. "I came back to you before and I always will. Trust me, Arthur. Let me do this. For you. For Camelot. For all the lives we can save."

"I don't have a choice, do I?" Arthur said, with some bitterness.

"We always have a choice," Merlin said, believing it in a way that he never had before. Their destiny would not simply happen on its own. They had to work for it, fight for it, live for it. If they wanted a better world, it was up to them to make it better. "You brought me here to help you win. You made that choice, just as I made the choice to be your knight. I trust you to take us to victory. Trust me to open the way."

Arthur huffed out a breath, fear and grief showing in his eyes. It had only been days since he had thought Merlin dead in that castle, and now he was sending him right back inside. Merlin understood why Arthur was struggling with this, even though it was the best plan they had. Even though it would save dozens, maybe hundreds of lives. In many ways, Arthur truly didn't have a choice in letting him go in. But Merlin needed Arthur to accept the decision. Even though he had no intention of dying, he couldn't bear the thought of parting this way.

"I swear to you," he began, somberly, "that I will always come back to you. I don't want to die for you anymore, Arthur. I want to live for us. Please. Let me do this for us. For our future. Our Camelot."

Arthur's eyes shone with unshed tears, and he blinked them away. He took a shuddering breath and took Merlin's hand, clasped it in his own. He squeezed it tight and closed his eyes, as if making a wish. And then he breathed out, letting go of his fear, and opened his eyes.

"I believe you," he said, softly. "I don't know why, but I believe you." He kissed Merlin's hand and then let it go.

§

The men already on the ladders were called back, and they passed the waiting knights with a mixture of relief and confusion. Apparently it was not expected for knights, noble or otherwise, to be part of the first group in a siege ascent. Certainly not with an assortment of archers, slingers, and barrier-bearing common fighters behind them. But if Merlin had learned anything from Arthur, it was that sometimes the best thing to do was throw out all the old rules and make some better ones.

The ladders themselves were steadied and held in place by a combination of wood props, sandbags, and strong men, who were protected beneath a wooden roof that was nailed between the legs and props. The ladder tops stopped just shy of the parapets, to help keep the Deorham above from pushing away the ladders. It meant that any who ascended had to balance precariously at the very top and fend off attacks as they climbed up and over, but better to have a rough dismount than to never make it to the top at all.

Merlin adjusted his grip on his shield. Even with the cover of the slingers and longbows, they were still going to be shot at by the more daring of the Deorham. And when they made it to the top, they were going to have to be ruthless in their attack if they were going to clear a space on the parapet that they could defend. Merek had pointed out that there was no barrier on the other side of the parapets, so it would be easiest to simply batter the Deorham back and force them over. He was glad that they had drilled together in the temple during the long wait for the army's arrival. It gave them at least some practice in properly integrating Merlin into their group. Timing and cooperation would be everything in their attack. If any of them became isolated from the rest, they would be picked off in seconds.

In Arthur's absence, Merek was their leader, and they all looked to him for the signal to start. Merek looked to Arthur, and Arthur gave the signal for the slingers and archers to loose their barrage of stones and arrows. The Deorham above shouted, and Arthur signalled to Merek that the way was clear. Merek gave his signal and they began their climb, shields braced over their heads.

They ascended at a steady pace, and together; if one slowed, the others slowed to match him. The barrage had one downside: a considerable number of arrows and stones ended up bouncing off the wall and raining down around them. It was a nuisance and some of the rocks were quite heavy as they bounced off Merlin's shield. But the rain eased as Arthur yelled at the men below to be more careful in their aim.

Cries from the other side alerted Merlin to the danger before he saw it. And then there they were, six kitchen cauldrons steaming with boiling water, being hauled up to the edge of the parapets so they could be dumped down onto the ascending knights. Even if they caught most of it on their shields, some damage would be done, and the metal of their armor would only aggravate the scalding. Merlin couldn't protect them with anything as obvious as a magical shield, but the control of water was something that came naturally to him. Even as the water began to spill down, he hissed a rapid succession of cooling spells. When the water hit, it was only as hot as a fresh bath. After they recovered from the shock of their dousing, Merek signalled to Arthur that they were all right, and they all continued on, dampened but none the worse for it.

The Deorham retreated again as more volleys flew at them, but they were close enough to the top now to hear someone shouting about not taking so long in bringing the water from the kitchens, that it had cooled too much and was useless. Merlin smirked under his helmet. He might only be able to pull off that particular trick once without raising suspicion, but once was all they needed.

They paused just before they reached the top to let Arthur send out an especially heavy, focused volley at the spaces between the parapets. The volley stopped abruptly, and that was the signal. It bought them a few essential seconds to launch themselves over the top, and each knight attacked the nearest Deorham with the hardest swings they could muster. With the enemy driven back a step, they were able to come together and form a phalanx, their overlapping shields forming a wall that protected them from the swarming Deorham. As soon as they were up, the volley returned, but this time arcing over their heads and down into the mass of men in the castle yard below, forcing them to scatter.

They let the enemy surround them, and on a count they lunged forward, forcing a half-dozen of them over the edge, and then pulled back against the wall. The remaining Deorham hesitated in surprise, and under Merek's direction they ran at the groups to the left and then to the right, forcing them back and clearing a space. Merek turned and whistled loudly, and the second wave hurried up the ladder as quickly as they could. With the Deorham's attention split, only a few scattered arrows were loosed down at them from the ends of the parapets. Every second passed slowly until they had made it up over the wall and dragged the barriers into place, and the knights were able to slump down in safety as bolts and stones were loosed steadily at the Deorham at each end.

Borin turned to Merlin and gave him a slap on the back. "Arthur better hold on to you," he grinned. "Luckiest bastard in Albion, that's what you are."

"When I saw those cauldrons, I thought we were done for," Jarin said, with the shaky grin of someone who had survived certain doom.

"Amateurs," Ronald said, with a relieved glee. "Can't even boil water properly."

"Don't get cocky," Merek chided, though he couldn't quite suppress his own grin.

"How are we going to get to the keep?" Merlin asked, more concerned with the dangers that lay ahead than the ones he had already averted.

"Let's take out as many as we can," Merek said, sobering. "Then we'll move towards the front to fake them out, see if we can get them all looking the wrong way. We can take the mail from the first bodies we pass, then Merlin and I will play dead while the rest of you keep going. Once you're far enough away, we'll crawl towards the keep. With the volleys overhead, it will look like we were hurt in your attack and are retreating to safety."

They did as Merek said, their clustered group crawling along, the air filled with stones and arrows and bolts from all directions. Merlin was more than glad to pull on the Deorham mail and helmet, even if it was tingling with Palaemon's Roman magic. He and Merek lay down as if knocked unconscious, and managed not to flinch as wayward projectiles crashed around them. At Merek's signal, they pretended to rouse and then crawled on their bellies towards the keep.

"Quick, quick!" shouted a Deorham man, who urged them behind his shield. "Are you hurt?"

"Dazed," said Merek, affecting a slight accent that was a match for the Deorham's.

Merlin groaned and clutched at his chest.

"Lad was hit right in the chest," Merek explained. "I thought this magic was supposed to protect us."

The Deorham man snorted. "Fucking charlatan. Ask me, he couldn't keep that shield going and blamed it all on that serving boy. Probably killed the lad himself just to send us all on a wild goose chase."

"I'd better get this one inside," Merek said, putting a protective arm around Merlin, who affected trouble with his breathing.

"Hold on." The Deorham man waved over some of his fellows and they escorted the two inside, protecting them from further injury with their shields. Once they were inside the keep, Merek thanked them and let them go back to the parapets.

They were in.

Merlin kept up the pretense of his injury as they made their way down the central staircase. It was more than a little strange to be back here again, in yet another disguise. As they reached the second floor, Merlin motioned for Merek to stop.

"Do you hear that?" Merlin asked. It was a thudding sound coming from down the hall, and he realized it was someone was trying to get out of a locked room, slamming bodily at a door.

Merek nodded and they followed the sound down the hallway. The door in question was tingling with Roman magic.

"Make sure no one's coming," Merlin said, before Merek could try the door himself. "I'll get it open."

Merek agreed and went down to the end of the hall to keep watch.

When Merlin was sure that the coast was clear, he raised his hand to the door and whispered, "Aliese!" There was resistance as Palaemon's locking spell fought off his magic, but this spell was much weaker than the globe's protection. He whispered again and again, pouring more magic into his spell until it overwhelmed the Roman magic and broke it. Just as he did, the person inside slammed at the door again and broke through. Merlin blinked in surprise, recognizing the man from the kitchens. And standing in the doorway, with fury in her eyes, was Mira.

Merlin yelped as she lunged at him, and then she had him back against the wall and was kicking and punching him with all her might. He didn't want to hurt her, but his sputtered attempts to tell her to stop were useless. And then she was pulled away, and Merlin was relieved to see that Merek had returned. Mira had already turned her vengeance on him, but the moment he pulled off his helmet she froze and gasped.

"Merek!" she squealed, and then clapped her hands over her mouth. She lunged at Merek again, but this time it was to wrap him in a fierce hug. "Oh, you're a sight for sore eyes."

Merlin removed his own helmet as the other servants warily emerged from the room. They didn't seem to recognize him at first, but once they did, they looked utterly confused.

"Mira, I'd like to introduce you to Sir Merlin," Merek said, with a crooked smile.

Mira turned and stared at Merlin for a long moment. Then she laughed and slapped him hard on the arm. "You, a knight! I've never met a liar such as you," she declared. "And to think you were telling us the truth the whole time!"

"Sorry about everything," Merlin said, relieved but still needing to apologize.

"Sorry?" Mira said. "It was you that broke that foreign bastard's magic. I'll never throw flour in your face again, I'll tell you that."

Merlin didn't know what to say to that, so he moved on to more immediate concerns. "We're headed for the winch to let Prince Arthur's army in, so we can retake the castle."

"Finally," Mira sighed.

"Will you be all right? We can't linger," Merek said.

"Wait," Mira said. "If you're headed for the winch, you'll need a distraction, right?"

"It wouldn't hurt," Merek admitted.

"I know just the thing," Mira grinned. "Eian and the rest have been going mad down in the dungeons. If we break them out, that'll keep those Deorham busy."

"It'll be dangerous," Merek cautioned.

"It's our home," Mira said, firmly. "And if you want to go on without us, we'll go free them ourselves."

Merlin was quite certain that she would, possibly single-handed. He looked to Merek and put back on his helmet. "I'm ready if you are."

Merek chuckled and put on his own helmet. "Think you can pretend to be our prisoner?" he asked her.

Mira put her wrists together behind her back and suddenly looked as if she was about to cry. Merek shook his head, clearly used to her antics, and took one arm while Merlin took the other. The rest of the servants said that they would wait until the commotion drew away the last of the soldiers from the keep, then join in to the fray.

Merlin hadn't been to the dungeons on his last visit, so he followed Merek and Mira's lead. Again, Merek used his Deorham accent to bluff their way past the guard. And again, Merlin sensed the Roman magic, this time as soon as they reached the cells. Had Palaemon used his magic on every lock in the castle?

It was going to be tricky opening these because he couldn't just stand in front of each cell door and whisper spells, not with everyone watching. But his magic absolutely hated the Roman magic and was eager to force it out. He didn't know why, but maybe he could use that to his advantage. Let his magic do what it wanted.

"We need the keys," Merlin whispered.

"Guard's belt," Mira whispered back.

"Hey, we need you to open a cell," Merek called.

The guard with the keys grunted. "Can't. Lord's orders."

"We've got a battle to fight," Merek said, annoyed. "We don't have time to hang around down here. You take her."

He pushed Mira towards the guard, and Mira sobbed in pretend fear. The moment she was close enough, she kicked the guard right in the crotch. He went down like a sack of potatoes, his face red as he grasped at himself in agony.

Merlin grimaced in sympathy. Clearly he had gotten off lightly with a bit of flour to his face.

Mira took the keys from him and then kicked him again for good measure. She tossed the keys to Merlin, who had to shake off what he'd just seen in order to focus on what he had to do. He pretended to flip through the keys as he closed his eyes and thought about unlocking very, very hard, letting his magic flow freely into the keys. It was something he used to do when he was little, before he understood about spells, before he learned to hold back his magic rather than let it act for him. At the time, he'd thought of it as wishing for something very hard until it came true, like the time he had so longed for apples in the middle of a hungry winter that one morning the bare tree outside sagged with ripe fruit. His mum had been nearly as grateful as she was furious, and they had spent the morning gathering up every apple and hiding them before anyone could see.

Unfortunately, he was never able to make the most important wish come true: his father never came home. And then he had been too old for wishes.

The keys were absolutely soaked in his power. If he was right... He slid the first key into the first lock and the two magics collided with a burst of light, startling everyone. Merlin pulled and the door swung open.

"You all right?" Merek asked, concerned. He took the keys from Merlin and peered at them warily.

"That sorcerer was down here last night," said a man as he left the cell. "He did something to the locks."

Merek carefully slid the second key into the second lock. There was another burst of light, but this time they were expecting it. Again the door swung open.

"Guess it's safe," Merlin ventured, privately relieved that it was working. His raw magic was overpowering Palaemon's spell.

Fortunately, freeing the people of Gedref was more important than worrying about the peculiarities of foreign magic. Everyone was happy to chalk the oddness up to Palaemon and his unreliable spells. The loss of the magic shield appeared to have lessened everyone's confidence in the sorcerer. And because they didn't trust him, they were all too eager to blame him when things went wrong.

With all the cells opened, the dungeon was filled. All the adult men and women, the ones who posed the biggest threat, had been put down here. The rest of the population, the young and the elderly and mothers with small children were elsewhere in the castle. All agreed that it was best to leave them where they were until the battle was over. Merek asked only for volunteers to fight.

"We'll all go," Eian said, and Mira stepped forward with him. All were eager to take their castle back from its invaders. What they didn't have was enough weapons.

"It's our swords they're fighting with," growled a rough-looking man who had the burns of a blacksmith. "We'll take them back one by one if we must."

"With your help, Gedref will be returned to the hands of its people," Merek said, proud of them. "The Deorham wear enchanted armor, like this," he said, taking the knife from his belt and showing that it could not breach the mail. "Do not try to stab or cut them, but instead overwhelm with force. A single man will fall against many, no matter how strong. Do not try to take on the whole of their army, but attack those who are cowering from the assault. Let the strongest of you take their weapons and armor for yourselves, then form a circle. When they surge against you, hold together and defend. Sir Merlin and I shall open the gates and then the Deorham will have Camelot's might to contend with, and their attention will be split."

Merlin and Merek left the dungeons first. They found that little had changed since their infiltration began. The air was still filled with volleys, and Camelot still held one wall of the parapets, though it appeared that Arthur had sent up reinforcements to strengthen their offense, as they could do much more damage from the parapets than from the other side of the wall. Their rain of stones and crossbow bolts had forced the Deorham into defensive huddles, their ranks formed into phalanxes with their archers shooting over the shields of the common fighters. They had no longbowmen and no staff slingers, but an abundance of crossbows. They were only the usual sort, but Camelot's mail was not enchanted, and a normal crossbow packed more than enough strength to kill.

Merek led the way as they inched along the wall to avoid being hit. Disguised as they were, they had to worry about their own side as well, for they had no way to avoid being a target without revealing themselves to the Deorham all around them. And targets they would be when they made their break for the winches, for they had no shields. They would just have to be quick and reach cover as soon as they could.

They were almost to the front when a commotion broke out at the back. The people of Gedref had left the dungeons and were doing as Merek commanded, swarming around any soldiers standing alone and taking their weapons and armor, leaving them wounded and unconscious on the ground. They won quite a few victories before Idriys rose from one of the phalanxes and shouted fresh commands to rout the rebellion.

Idriys. Despite his age he still cut a commanding figure on the battlefield, his calls ringing loud and clear, his men scurrying to obey his orders. Perhaps out of some residue from his ordeal in the castle, he felt a slight tug to go to Idriys' side, to protect him, but he shook it off. Idriys had been kind, but he was still the enemy, and Merlin had sworn himself only out of necessity. His fealty to him had been a lie of war and nothing more. He only had to think of Arthur, to feel the rush of belonging and loyalty and love he felt for his King, to know where his true fealty lay. His magic stirred and settled again, as if satisfied with what it had found.

"I don't see Palaemon," Merlin said, scanning the crowd. "Or Aeddan."

"Lord Idriys must be holding his knights in reserve," Merek said. "He would not want to waste them on the front lines."

"Shows what he knows," Merlin said, grinning to him through his helmet.

Merek smiled back. "Come on," he said, and they left the shelter of the wall and headed for the gates.

There were enough soldiers who had not held their formations that it wasn't too suspicious for them to be running across the yard. A thump against Merlin's back knocked him forward as an arrow from over the wall hit him, but the Roman magic held true. Merek grabbed him as he stumbled and dragged him along as another arrow and another thudded into the earth around them.

"Lucky again," Merek said, breathing hard as they dodged their way to the winch room.

Merlin agreed; even with the spell, he was going to have another bruise to add to his fading collection. He hoped that Arthur was faring well on the outside. He must already be in position in front of the gates by now, though the battering ram was still thumping futilely against the outer portcullis.

The winch room was guarded, of course, and at first Merlin thought they would be able to bluff their way past the soldiers here as easily as the others. But the men here were far more wary than the ones who had not suspected any danger in the keep or the dungeons.

"You can't come in here," said one soldier, pushing Merek back with a hand to his chest. "Lord's orders."

Merlin and Merek both looked around at the yard behind them. Everyone's attention was either fix up at the sky and parapet above, or at the commotion at the back from the rebellion of the people of Gedref. Merlin and Merek looked at each other and nodded, and both drew their swords.

They each got one good strike in before the Deorham recovered from their surprise and drew their own swords. With everyone protected by the enchanted armor, both sides had the same advantage. Merek used his strength to batter his opponent with powerful blows, but despite Arthur's intensive training, Merlin had never gained the same sort of bulk that the other knights had. He used the methods Morgana had taught him and swung for the weak points, for any areas that weren't covered by armor or mail. His own opponent was a strong fighter, and had the benefit of a shield to block him, but all of Morgana's cautions about leaving his own side unguarded proved to be of use. Without having to worry about a shield, he had two hands free for weapons, and he drew a long knife from the back of his belt. He tricked his opponent into a high lunge that left his arm raised and the split in his mail exposed, and Merlin thrust the knife in deep. The man cried out and fell.

"Impressive," Merek said, having battered his own opponent to the ground. He took the key from the man's belt and put it into the lock, but it didn't turn. Merek frowned and tried again.

Merlin groaned under his breath. Palaemon had struck again. If he'd only grabbed the key first, he could have done the same trick as he had in the dungeons, but now it was too late. Maybe if he could distract Merek for a minute...

A crossbow bolt thudded into the door, and they both turned to see that they had been spotted. An archer from the nearest phalanx had turned their way, and an alarm was being shouted over to Idriys.

In a panic, they grabbed the shields of the felled men and raised them just in time to avoid being shot at. This close, the force of the bolts was powerful as they slammed into the shields, and they were pinned against the door, trapped.

"What now?" Merlin asked, as the first phalanx advanced towards them, murder in their eyes.

"Take off your helmet," Merek said, removing his own.

"Are you mad?!"

"Just do it," Merek urged, and then jumped out and waved at the Camelot men on the parapet. Merlin realized what he was doing and followed suit. Someone up above waved back, and it was only seconds before a wall of stones and bolts was rained down on the advancing Deorham, driving them back.

"Yes!" Merlin shouted, gleeful in his relief. Backup was a glorious, wonderful thing to have. But his wide grin faded as he saw Idriys staring at him from across the battlefield. He looked absolutely furious. Merlin gulped and lunged for the door ahead of Merek, hissing a rapid volley of 'Aliese!' spells under his breath as he grabbed the key. The door opened and they lunged inside, and they slammed the door shut behind them, leaning hard against it.

"Must've been jammed," Merlin said, not caring that it was a flimsy excuse. He wanted Arthur and he wanted him now, and the only thing that stood in the way was getting those gates open. But of course Palaemon had wrought his work here, too. His magic riled at the Roman magic soaking the room, and he felt an overpowering irritation. His magic wanted Arthur, too, and Palaemon's magic was in the way, and they were both sick of it. They were absolutely fed up with Palaemon's tricks and his strange, dissonant foreign magic.

"Don't," he said, grabbing Merek as he moved to take hold of the handle of one of the three winches. "There's something wrong with them."

"What are you talking about?" Merek asked, impatient.

"I don't know. It's... that sorcerer, he did something to them, all right? Like in the dungeon. If you try to touch them, something might happen."

Merek stared at him in confusion, and then suspicion crept across his features. "How do you know that?"

Merlin said nothing. What could he say? If only he had come here alone. But he wouldn't have made it this far without Merek's help. He couldn't let Merek be hurt by the spells that protected the winches; he couldn't stand by and do nothing and let the siege fail.

They stared at each for a long, agonizing moment. It was Merlin who finally dared to break the silence, because they didn't have long and every second counted.

"You sealed up the temple after you found it," he said, urgently. "Tell me why."

Merek gaped at him, speechless. "I... I don't know."

"There had to have been a reason!" Merlin urged. "You discovered something magic and you protected it, you kept it safe. Why didn't you destroy it?"

"Because I couldn't!" Merek said, the struggle he felt clear in his eyes. "I was going to, as soon as I saw it I knew I had to, but I couldn't. It felt... it was..." He closed his eyes tight, and when he opened them, a trace of gold flared in his eyes.

Merlin gasped, but Merek didn't seem to be aware of what had just happened. He had magic. He had magic, but he didn't know it. Like Morgana and her dreams. Merek must have felt the magic in the temple just as Merlin did, and taken comfort in it, felt safe and welcome and as if he had come home. It was no wonder he had protected it, no wonder he had kept it a secret. Even if he was only as powerful as Gaius, who had admitted to Merlin early on how little magic he had of his own, he would still have felt the temple's magic. Was he sensitive to Palaemon's as well?

But they didn't have time to stand around asking questions. If the cat was not fully out of the bag, it was certainly yowling and clawing at the canvas.

"I can get the gates open," Merlin said, slow and clear to reach past Merek's panic. "You should stand watch."

"Yes," Merek said, distantly. He nodded, more to himself than to Merlin, and turned to face the door. Merlin knew there would be questions to answer after this, that Merek might not like what he needed to hear, but they would deal with it later. At least since Merek had magic, he wasn't likely to reveal that Merlin did, assuming he didn't choose the safety of denial.

Merlin cleared his thoughts as best he could and focused on the winches before him. This was more powerful than the spells he had cast on the doors and the cells. Those had been simple locking spells. But this, this was something more. Idriys must have wanted to make sure nothing would get those gates open, not force or subterfuge or cowardice... or magic? A worry niggled at him, but he shook it off. The winches were what was important right now.

He didn't know how to know what a spell was just by looking at it, he only knew that it was powerful. The only way to find out what he was dealing with was to see how it responded when he tried to counter it. He'd start with something simple.

He walked up to the first winch and took a deep breath. "Aliese!" he whispered, then grabbed the handle.

He had been right to be wary. A violent shock of power slammed him back, and he landed painfully against the wall. He was really getting tired of being blasted into walls. His hands hurt, too, as if he had grabbed hot coals, but there were no burns on his palms. The Roman magic lingered on his skin until his own magic smothered it.

"You all right?" Merek asked, warily.

"Yeah," Merlin said, pushing himself back up. Right, so no touching. He would have to open them with his magic alone. The question was, how far did the protection go? He hadn't felt it when they passed the gates, so it didn't go that far. He could try forcing the gates up without the winches, but they were heavy and he would have to hold them, and then he wouldn't be able to fight. Not to mention how obvious it would be when the gates were raised but the chains were slack.

Aha, maybe the chains were the answer. He returned to the first winch and reached carefully out, but when he touched it there was no shock. Neither was there any response from the spool that the chains wrapped around. So it was only the handle that was guarded from being touched. He steadied himself and commanded the chain to pull itself down, but it didn't budge. It was like when he had tried to force open the siege gate. Palaemon might not have been able to rebuild the globe and its spell, but he still had managed to put some of that same magic into the winch.

But no Roman magic was going to stop him. No Roman magic was going to stand between himself and Arthur, between Arthur and victory. Merlin would break Palaemon's spell if it took everything he had.

Anger flared in him, and he felt his power rise as it had that day on the Isle of the Blessed. When Nimueh had struck him down and turned her back, thinking him defeated. He had not been defeated that day, and he would not be defeated now. His nostrils flared as he drew more and more power from that deep place inside him, the well from which it all sprang. The hair on his neck stood on end and the room filled with a sharp scent -- not the dragon's fire or Nimueh's storm, but like everything at once, like the earth and the air and fire and water and forests and towns and everything all mixed together into one.

This was his magic. His magic was not water or fire or any one element. It was everything.

When he spoke, it was in the language of the Old Religion, the spell pouring from his tongue almost before he could think the words to know them. "Wincan áspinnest!" Winches spin! "Ábregdan bendas þæs áféhaþ gatum!" Pull the chains that hold the gates! "Ætýnest þæs gamenwáð be hréþe Arthur!" Open the way to Arthur's glorious victory!

One, two, three, the winches broke from the magic that restrained them and began to turn wildly, yanking the slack from the chains. As they caught the weight of the doors they slowed, but then kept a steady pace, turning and turning as the portcullises and the oak door groaned upward. He heard the cheering of Arthur's army as the way opened for them. He heard Arthur's command to hold steady until the way was clear. And as the chains went taut and the winches stopped turning, he heard Arthur lead the charge.

Merlin let go, gasping as his magic released its spell. The huge swell of power retreated within him as it had after he had struck Nimueh down, sensing that its work was done. His heart was racing, his pulse pounding in his ears. Merek was staring at him in unrestrained awe.

"We have to help Arthur," Merlin said, before Merek could say anything, before he asked questions that Merlin would have to answer. But Merek didn't move. Merlin had to give him something. "He doesn't know," he confessed, hoping Merek would understand, that his instinctive need to protect the temple would extend to other magic in Camelot. "I'm going to tell him, but not right now. Not today. Please."

Merek swallowed, then nodded. He took a deep breath, let it out, visibly trying to collect himself, to clear his head for the battle that still needed to be fought. Arthur needed every one of them if they were going to succeed, if they were going to be victorious. And they would be. Merlin would make sure of that, one way or another. It was a fact inside him, more certain than anything he had known.

They cracked open the door and they were met with madness. Arthur's army had advanced into the castle, but only just. The Deorham had met their advance and stopped them only a few feet from the gate, and the two lines were furiously battering at each other as arrows and stones and bolts continued to fly back and forth. But a few feet was enough. They grabbed their shields and slid along the wall towards the open entrance and the bulk of the army. And there was Arthur, fighting right at the front and center of the line, a magnificent sight, fearless against the battering swords. Merlin tried to go to him, but Merek pulled him away and outside.

When the men waiting outside saw them, cheers rose up, and they were given hearty slaps on the back as they worked their way over to a clear spot by the wall. Merek pushed Merlin down to sit, and Merlin did, only then realizing how much he was shaking.

"Let them have a turn," Merek said, slumping beside him. "We need to rest."

Merlin nodded. The rush of their ascent and infiltration, of freeing the people of Gedref to fight, of reaching the winches and then breaking Palaemon's spell, it had all taken a lot of out of him, more than he'd realized. Merek accepted a waterskin from one of the men and drank, then handed it to Merlin who gulped it the rest down. Gods, he was thirsty. And he was soaked in sweat. He handed back the emptied waterskin and leaned his head back against the stone, waiting for his heart to stop racing.

Merek pulled off the grey Deorham shirt that sat over his mail, and Merlin did the same, glad to be rid of the disguise. He would have to get his own armor back from the parapets once this was all over. He crumpled up the grey shirt and threw it away, then rubbed his face and ran his hands through his sweat-damped hair, brushing it back.

They'd done it. They'd really done it. The battle wasn't over yet, but he'd given Arthur what he needed. He'd opened the way, and now he could trust Arthur to take them to victory.

There was a shift in the waiting army, and everyone took a step forward. The men from the front of the line filtered back through the crowd, and there, pulling off his helmet and wiping the sweat from his forehead, was Arthur.

"Merlin!" Arthur cried, seeing him and breaking into a huge grin. Merlin rushed up to meet him, and Arthur caught him in a hug and swung him around, laughing. He put Merlin down again and slapped him on the arms, looking fit to burst with pride. "I don't know how you did it, but... thank you. That was..." He shook his head, amazed.

"Merek did most of it," Merlin said.

Arthur gave him a doting smile, one that said that Arthur didn't believe Merlin for a second. Merek pushed himself up and Arthur shook his arm and slapped his back. "Camelot will thank Gedref for the fine work of her son."

"Gedref will thank Camelot for the fine work of her's," Merek returned, looking better now that he was back in familiar territory. "We freed the prisoners from the dungeons and set them against the backs of the Deorham. They fight on two fronts."

The army moved up another step as the front of the line filtered back to the end of the line. Each set of men only fought for a short time, and then a fresh set took their place. That way no one would fight to exhaustion, and by the time their turn came around again they would be recovered. Inside, Idriys was likely ordering his own army to do the same. The volleys in the air tapered off as both sides took a rest from flinging things at each other. The battle had switched to brute force between the two armies, each trying to force the other backwards, each front line bolstered by the deep wall of fighters behind it.

Merek continued updating Arthur on everything they had seen and done in the castle, but left out what had happened in the winch room. He only said that they had turned the winches once they were inside. There was no mention of Palaemon's spells, and certainly no mention of Merlin's magic. Merlin breathed out a sigh of relief and his pulse finally returned to normal.

Once again the pace of the battle slowed. Merlin, Arthur, and Merek joined the waiting lines, and eventually their turn came to fight. Their line was packed close together in a phalanx formation, their shields giving them nearly complete coverage, with just enough room to swing their swords forward.

"Stay close, keep your shield up, and don't hesitate," Arthur told him, as the line before them finished their turn. They were at point position, flanked by men at either side, with hundreds at their backs. When they stepped forward, the whole army stepped with them, like a solid wall at their backs. But in front of them was a solid wall, too, a wall of angry Deorham soldiers with enchanted mail and sharp swords. Merlin's heart leapt into his throat, but he only had a bare second to be terrified. And then he was fighting, letting his reflexes do the work as Arthur had taught him, as he had during the night ambush. He struck hard, putting all his weight behind his swings, because there was no room for evasion or subterfuge here. It was battle in its purest form, two lines of men battering each other into submission.

Merlin was so focused on his swings that he didn't realize his turn was up until Arthur grabbed his arm and pulled him back. Once they were outside the castle again, Merlin found that again he was panting and trembling, and possibly even more soaked in sweat than before. If he took off his surcoat now, he could probably wring out enough from it to fill a bucket. He bent over and leaned his hands on his thighs, glad for the breeze from the ocean.

All that fighting, and the battle line hadn't moved more than a foot.

"This is going to take a while, isn't it?" Merlin asked.

"Welcome to war," Arthur said, wryly.

"At least no one's dying," Merlin said. And surprisingly, they weren't. More lives had probably been lost to all the arrows and stones and bolts than to the two armies battering each other senseless. The shields on both sides provided too much protection, and the changing lines meant that no individual was fighting for very long. The line advanced, and Merlin moved to rejoin it, but Arthur held him back.

"I've got something else for us to do," Arthur said, pulling Merek aside as well. He pointed at the forest, and waiting there were the knights on their armored horses, and saddled and ready were Hengroen and Llamrei and Merek's horse, too. "If you're up for it, of course."

"Always," Merlin said, breaking into a grin. "When do we go in?"

Arthur laughed. "It's not even noon yet. I know you want to win my entire battle for me, but give the men a chance to earn their victory."

Merlin couldn't help but laugh with him. Fighting as Arthur's knight had gone so far beyond anything he had hoped. It felt so good to belong, to not have to fight alone. And if someone like Merek had magic without knowing it, there must be others like him and Morgana, people born with magic that lay latent until it was woken, until it was trained. So many of the sorcerers he had met since coming to Camelot had been consumed by revenge, but those were the sorcerers from the old days, the survivors of the Purge. Maybe once Arthur was king, all the magic that slept in the people would rise, would return.

Magic would return. That's what it meant. The time of magic will return.

A lump formed in Merlin's throat, and he rubbed at his eyes, not wanting to cry. But they were tears of happiness, of relief, of joy. Of understanding that even as a sorcerer, he wasn't alone. That he was only meant to be the first of a whole new generation of sorcerers, that he was meant to open the way for them, just as he did for Arthur and his army. The time of magic was returning, and he had been born to help it into the light.

"Merlin?" Arthur asked, seeing his reaction. He frowned, looking Merlin over. "Were you hurt? You have to remember to tell me when you're hurt."

Merlin shook his head, dragging in a breath. "I'm all right," he said, genuinely. "It's just..." He shook his head, smiled. "Everything's all right," he said, trying somehow to convey that everything really was all right. That everything was as it was meant to be. That the future was unrolling before them, and it was bright and glorious and golden.

Arthur just gave him that look that said that Merlin was entirely made of nonsense, but he loved him anyway.

§

The battle line inched forward. While they had lost men to the parapets, so had Idriys, and the exchanges of arrows and bolts and stones had proved far more costly to Idriys' army than to Arthur's. Now it was clear why numbers mattered so much. An extra hundred men on Arthur's side meant that his army would take longer to tire as each of Idriys' men had to fight more times to keep up with the line changes. Sadly, the people of Gedref had been subdued again, forced back into the dungeons, but their efforts had paid off, costing Idriys even more able men. The line moved inward with increasing progress, until at last they held a full fifth of the yard. The men trapped on the parapets were helped down, and the last of the knights joined with the mounted group waiting for Arthur's command.

And then Merlin saw what Arthur had been waiting for. Idriys had realized that he was losing, and had decided to make one last push to hold on to the castle. The whinnies and snorts of horses filtered out over the clash of swords and shields, and there at last was Aeddan, leading his knights from the back of the yard. And at the center of the cavalry rode Palaemon, clad in mail and armor, his helmet in the crook of his arm.

Palaemon looked angry. Merlin wasn't surprised. He had been thwarted at every turn, and he didn't even know by who. Well, except the globe, which he knew Merlin had stolen. And Idriys had seen Merlin go into the winch room. Merlin bit his lip as he realized that perhaps Palaemon knew who had thwarted him after all.

It was one thing for Merek to keep his secret. Palaemon was an entirely different matter. But Palaemon wouldn't be able to recognize him with his helmet on. To the sorcerer, he would just be one of many knights. There was no point in worrying just yet.

The archers and slingers were waiting with them at the back of the army. They had rested and been resupplied with ammunition, and they were ready for the final push. Unfortunately, so were Idriys' archers with their crossbows. As with the common fighters, Arthur had an advantage in numbers, but Idriys was clearly counting on Palaemon to make up for any deficits.

"The important thing," Arthur had told him, as they saddled up to ride, "is to stay on your horse." Arthur had never had a chance to teach Merlin about fighting on horseback, so he had delivered a short burst of instructions to keep Merlin from doing anything especially likely to get him killed. Mostly it amounted to not falling off when hit, and not letting himself be surrounded and pulled down. Balance was apparently very important. "Use your thighs," Arthur had told him, with a smirk that said he knew exactly how strongly Merlin's thighs could clench.

Arthur's destriers were, of course, the best of the best, which meant among other things that they could go into battle without a rider and kick the enemy fighters into submission all of their own accord, so all Merlin would have to do was hold on, not fall off, continue to stay on his horse, and defend with his shield as he would on the ground.

Arthur was a firm believer in learning through repetition, though it was obvious that he thought Merlin needed a little extra repetition than most.

Along with their swords, all the knights were given chained maces, just like the ones he and Arthur had fought with when they'd tussled in the marketplace. They would deliver a harder blow than swords could against the enchanted mail, and the spikes would be brutal if they caught flesh. Arthur couldn't help but chuckle as he gave Merlin his, remembering that day himself.

Arthur didn't tell him to change out of the enchanted Deorham mail and helmet. If anything, he seemed relieved that Merlin was wearing it as they headed back into battle. Merlin only wished Arthur would don some himself, but apparently that was a step too far for Arthur as far as the use of magic was concerned. But he didn't tell Merek to change out of his, either. It seemed that Arthur could tolerate magic if, like the temple, it wasn't doing any harm and was proving to be useful in the moment. But he wasn't going to actively seek it out if he didn't absolutely have to.

Merlin was all right with that. It was a lot better than Uther's mindless hatred. Merlin would just have to gradually get Arthur used to magic and prove that it was always useful, that it wasn't harmful as long as it was used wisely, like anything else. It would probably take some time until Arthur was completely comfortable, but they would get there. They had a lifetime ahead of them to figure everything out.

But first they had to make it through this last fight, the both of them alive and whole and hopefully victorious.

So far what had struck Merlin the most about their battle was how structured it was. Each side had roughly the same sort of weapons and fighters, and moreover they used them at the same times. It wasn't like the bandits who tried to steal and terrorize with their indiscriminate slaughter, or like an ambush that was about pure survival. A battle like this was all in the open, it was fair in a very strange way. Maybe it was because Arthur knew in advance all of Idriys' plans, but he didn't think so. Both Arthur and Idriys were experienced commanders, and this seemed to be simply the way things were done.

Arthur lined them up to charge into the castle, and at the other side, Aeddan's knights readied for their attack. Arthur was going to lead them into the heart of the battle. They had more knights, but if any of them fell off their horses, they would be surrounded by Deorham soldiers. But if they could clear a path for their own soldiers, if they could knock the Deorham knights from their horses, if they could defeat Palaemon, Idriys would have no choice but to surrender. And the plan they'd formed in the temple still stood. It would be up to Merlin get into position to cut off Palaemon's hand, while the rest of the knights did most of the fighting.

"Ready?" Arthur asked, checking that Merlin was properly seated and prepared.

Merlin nodded and flexed his shoulders, hefted the shield on his arm, tightened the grip of his thighs. Llamrei snorted and stomped her hoof, eager for battle. She had been bred and trained for moments like this, and she was as ready to fight as any knight. Merlin's stomach was in knots of worry over Palaemon, but he took comfort in the knowledge that Arthur would be protecting him, that the other knights would come to his defense, that even Llamrei was ready to give her all to keep him safe. If they all worked together, if they trusted each other and trusted Arthur to lead them, they would succeed.

"For Gedref!" Arthur cried, raising his mace high. "For Camelot!" And at his urging, Hengroen leapt forward.

The common fighters parted to let the cavalry through. The archers and slingers rushed in behind them, and then the knights were crashing into the shielded lines of the Deorham. The charging horses trampled through their defenses as if they were nothing, sending the Deorham into disarray. Merlin glanced back to see that the Camelot fighters were filling in the path they had opened. The line fighters were forming long phalanxes on each side, with the archers and slingers filling in the center, splitting the Deorham ranks in two.

Merlin turned back just in time to see that Aeddan saw what they had done and was leading his own charge to meet them and halt their progress. The Deorham at the back lunged out of the way as Aeddan's knights thundered ahead.

Stay on the horse, stay on the horse, Merlin told himself, gripping desperately to Llamrei as the two groups of knights rushed to a collision. Arthur's obsession with jousting suddenly made a lot more sense. All the knights had brought their maces up to swing, their shields up to defend, and Merlin swallowed against the dryness of his mouth and did the same as he saw that one of the Deorham knights was headed right for him, his sword raised to strike.

The impact of the Deorham's sword was like galloping right into a tree branch. All the air rushed out of his chest and he felt Llamrei slip out from under him as he flew backwards. He landed hard, gasping and disoriented, barely aware that he had somehow managed to hold onto his shield and mace. He had to get back up. He dragged in a painful breath and pushed up onto his hands and feet, and then a motion out of the corner of his eye caught his attention and he turned to see Deorham soldiers charging at him, recovered from their disarray. He cried out and raised his shield, but before they could reach him, Llamrei was there, kicking them back with powerful blows. He grabbed her saddle and hauled himself up, already promising to spoil her even more. He was going to give her whole beehives worth of honeycomb when they got back to Camelot.

Another Deorham knight charged at him, seeing that he was vulnerable, but a Camelot knight came from the side and swung a brutal blow with his mace, knocking the knight from his horse. The Camelot knight came around to Merlin's side and warded off another lunge by the soldiers on foot. It was Ronald.

"You all right, Merlin?" Ronald asked, alert for the next threat.

"Think so," Merlin said. He was earning a whole new set of spectacular bruises, but it didn't feel like anything was broken.

"Stay by my side," he said, swinging his mace down again. Llamrei snorted and kicked at a Deorham, soldier, and Merlin saw the felled knight had stood up and was coming at them. Merlin swung his mace in the air for some momentum and then crashed it down on the knight's helmet, and this time the man stayed down.

"That's it," Ronald encouraged. "Come on, I'll force the dismount, you finish them off, all right?"

"Got it," Merlin said, and Llamrei followed after Roland's horse.

They weren't the only knights to pair off into a team. He saw that other groups of two or three knights had done the same. Others were in single combat with individual Deorham knights, the pairs standing up in their stirrups and battering each other as if fighting on solid ground. Arthur was busy with Aeddan, and Merlin winced at the brutality of the fight. It was like an especially vicious tourney fight, one to the death instead of surrender.

He and Ronald had beaten back another knight and a surge of fighters when he wondered where Palaemon was and what he was up to. And then he found out the hard way, as every Camelot horse suddenly staggered and crumpled to the ground. Merlin cried out in distress as he reached for Llamrei, but her breathing was deep and even. Palaemon had put a sleeping spell on all the horses.

Arthur had recovered from the sudden loss of Hengroen, and the other Camelot knights were changing tactics as well, ganging up on the Deorham knights that were still mounted and dragging them down.

Merlin looked for Palaemon, furious at the sorcerer for hurting Llamrei and Hengroen. He wanted to forget Arthur's plan and just attack the Palaemon now, but Ronald yanked him back just as a volley of crossbow bolts went flying past them. The archers had made it through and they were throwing everything they had at Palaemon. But Palaemon threw up his magical shield just in time, and the bolts were bouncing harmlessly off and down to the ground.

Ronald pulled Merlin away to fight back the Deorham fighters on foot, and after a minute of this, Merlin heard a confused nicker. The horses were waking up! Palaemon saw this and suddenly dropped to the ground, his eyes glowing gold as he cast the sleeping spell again. He'd had to drop his shield to do it, and he brought it back up again once the horses had slumped back to sleep.

Palaemon could only do one spell at a time. Merlin wanted to crow at the discovery, but he was too busy fighting off Deorham soldiers. And even if Palaemon had to repeatedly knock the horses out to keep them down, it meant that the Camelot knights couldn't rely on their horses and had to stay on foot. Fortunately, by this point most of the Deorham knights had been dismounted themselves. And the Camelot fighters and the rest of the archers and slingers were making good progress, joining the knights to extend their phalanxes and force back the Deorham.

Merlin looked for Arthur, and found that he was still fighting Aeddan. Both were on foot now, gradually trying to wear each other down, entirely focused on each other as if there was no battle raging around them. Merlin tugged at Ronald's arm and pointed at the fighting pair. They headed over to help Arthur, and saw that Merek and Althalos were doing the same. And then they were flying through the air again, because Palaemon had dropped his shield again, just long enough to throw stunning spells into the fray.

Merlin stayed down this time, dazed from the cumulative impacts of the day. He'd always been able to fight through pain, but this was getting ridiculous. Ronald got back up and dragged him away from the worst of the battle, away from Palaemon and away from Arthur.

"No," Merlin gasped, trying to get his lungs to fill properly again. "Let me go. Have to go..."

"Not yet," Ronald said, propping him up against the wooden wall of a building and checking him over. "If you die, Arthur will kill us. Let us protect you." He turned and waved, and Borin and Jarin headed over, a little unsteady themselves from the stunning spell. They felled a few stray Deorham along the way, and formed a protective barrier around Merlin as they took stock of the battle and regrouped.

Palaemon was really going at it now, shielded by the last of the Deorham knights as he tossed stunning spells at the central swath of Camelot fighters. If no one stopped him, there was a real chance he could force everyone on foot out of the castle, and everyone who was knocked unconscious would be captured and locked up with the people of Gedref. Arthur would be taken as a hostage.

Where was Arthur?

"Arthur," Merlin gasped, struggling to his feet. He swayed and fell back against the wall, head spinning.

"He's all right," Borin assured him, pointing across the way.

Arthur had finally defeated Aeddan, who was lying unconscious on the ground. Arthur looked exhausted, but as he saw what Palaemon was doing, his expression hardened into fury. He shouted commands at the Camelot archers and fighters, mustering a fresh defense against Palaemon's attack. Idriys, meanwhile, was telling his own army to pull back so Palaemon could strengthen his attack without hitting any of the Deorham in the process. Arthur realized this and responded by ordering his own men to break ranks and force their way into the Deorham lines. The result was absolute chaos as all sense of order broke down, but it stopped Palaemon's attacks.

Frustrated, Palaemon searched for a fresh target to attack, and Arthur was more than ready to give him one. Merek and Althalos had recovered from their own bout with the stunning spells and were flanking Arthur along with a handful of other Camelot knights to form a fresh phalanx. And the archers had also recovered, and were in position behind the phalanx. Palaemon and his knights formed their own phalanx, with the sorcerer in the place of the archers. Arthur gave the order and the archers started shooting, and despite the protection of the phalanx Palaemon put up his magic shield again.

As long as Palaemon was on the defensive, he couldn't throw out any more stunning spells. But as long as he had his shield up, Merlin couldn't get to him to cut off his hand. At least his head was finally clearing and the world had stopped tilting and spinning about.

"This is it," Merlin told the knights, as he wracked his aching head trying to figure out a plan. "I have to get behind Palaemon without him seeing."

"Look, the horses," Jarin said, pointing. The Camelot horses had woken back up, and Palaemon was too focused on Arthur's attack to notice. They pushed themselves back up and shook themselves off, visibly trying to reorient themselves.

Borin gave a sharp whistle with his fingers, and his horse perked up and saw him. It trotted over, and the other horses saw and followed it.

"If we get back on, the sorcerer will just put them back to sleep," Ronald said.

"Let him," Borin said, a sly look in his eye. "We'll be ready when he does, and while we keep him busy Merlin will be coming up from behind.

Jarin reached over to a fallen Deorham soldier and pulled off his grey shirt. "Here," he said, handing it to Merlin. "Put this on. It'll help you blend in, like before."

Merlin tugged it on. The knights mounted up. Llamrei nosed at him, trying to encourage him to join them, but he shook his head. "You go with them," he told her, petting her neck. "I'll be all right."

She nosed him again, still worried for him, but left with the other knights as they headed at Palaemon. They charged hard, forcing Palaemon's phalanx to scatter before their horses faltered and stumbled back to sleep. Merlin wasn't close enough to reach Palaemon when he was casting the sleeping spell, but he trusted the knights to give him another opening. At the moment, they were busy battering the scattered Deorham knights into unconsciousness.

Merlin had left the mace and his Camelot shield behind. He had his sword in hand as he drew nearer to Palaemon, and everyone was so occupied with the chaos of the battle that they didn't pay any attention to one lone man who wasn't even attacking anyone. The slight stagger to his walk probably made him look like he was simply disoriented and would probably topple over at any moment, and so was no threat to anyone.

He didn't feel like a threat anymore. As soon as this was over, he was going to lie down somewhere quiet and dark and sleep for a week.

Palaemon was on his own, his attention entirely focused on the two groups of Camelot knights that were attacking him. He dropped the shield long enough to cast a stunning spell, but before Merlin could take advantage of it, the shield was back up, and both groups of knights were flat on their backs. Merlin bit back a cry, afraid that it had all gone wrong.

But there was Arthur, sweaty and exhausted and spattered with other men's blood. He stood up and strode right for Palaemon and began shouting at him in the most arrogant tone he could muster. Declaring that he was Arthur, the Crown Prince of Camelot, the mightiest kingdom in Albion, and he wasn't going to let some sorcerer stand in his way. That if anyone dared hurt him, King Uther Pendragon would unleash his fury on them and crush them, that he would kill a weak sorcerer like Palaemon as easily as he had every other. And on and on, until Palaemon roared in anger and lashed out. Not with a stunning spell, because as close as Arthur was, a stunning spell could kill him, and he was too valuable to kill. But he used some kind of magical grip that held Arthur immobile, his feet lifted off the ground. And then it was Palaemon's turn to gloat at him, to talk of taking Uther down himself, not for revenge but for pride, that even Rome would welcome him back if he carried Uther's head back with him.

But to keep Arthur immobilized, Palaemon couldn't use his shield. He didn't think he needed to, because he'd taken out every threat he could see. But that was only because he didn't see Merlin.

Merlin covered the last distance between them at a run, his sword raised high, and brought it down with all his strength. His sword cleaved through Palaemon's outstretched wrist. He had a bare second to see the victory in Arthur's eyes, hear the pain of Palaemon's scream, and then he was blown back again as the magic of the ring was released in a massive burst of power.

It wasn't only Merlin that went down this time, but everyone. The castle itself trembled as it had when Merlin had shattered the globe.

The world faded out, and when it faded back in, Merlin's ears were ringing. He tried to move, to get up, but he was done. There was nothing left in him, not even air as he struggled to drag it back into his abused lungs. Gradually he was able to rasp in some reedy breaths, but his whole body was screaming in pain.

And then suddenly he was moving, lifted up into the air. When he was carried upright, as his feet left the ground, he saw to his dismay that it was Palaemon. Whatever magic he had without the ring, it was still enough to keep him going and to attack with. Merlin's helmet had been knocked off, and Palaemon was staring at him with undiluted fury. The stump of his wrist wasn't bleeding, having been somehow cauterized by his magic.

"You," Palaemon snarled, having found his true enemy, the one man who had thwarted him at every turn. Merlin's magic tried to rally against the grip of the Roman magic, but he couldn't muster more than a weak resistance.

Palaemon's snarl slid into a smirk. "Of course," he said, as if it all made sense now. His magical grip tightened, making Merlin's reedy breathing even more difficult. Palaemon had felt his magic, and now he was going to kill him, and Merlin was too weak to stop him. Merlin sobbed as he felt his destiny rushing away from him, all the wonderful things that he and Arthur had dreamed of fading into the mist. It couldn't end this way! It was supposed to be theirs!

And then Palaemon's smile faded, and he gave a choked sound. He looked down at himself to see the gleaming, perfect point of a sword sticking out of his chest. He stared at Merlin in astonishment, but somehow he still didn't fall. And then the sword pulled out of him, and Merlin saw a furious Arthur behind him, bringing the sword back and up and high, and then swinging with all his might.

Palaemon's astonished face slid away with the rest of his head. His decapitated body hit the ground just as Merlin did. And then Arthur was there, calling his name and feeling for broken bones, searching for injuries.

"Arthur," Merlin gasped, his relief so intense that it nearly finished him off.

"Keep still," Arthur said, gentling him and straightening him out from his crumpled position. "I just have one more thing to take care of, and then we can rest, all right? Can you hold on for me?"

Merlin gave a soft assent, and Arthur kissed him on the forehead. Arthur stood up straight, pulled back his shoulders, and marched across the field of fallen, groaning men. Merlin turned to watch him, and saw as Arthur went right over to where Idriys was sitting and clutching his head in pain.

In the end, Arthur didn't need to declare victory. He simply placed the tip of his sword against Idriys' throat, and Idriys bowed his head in defeat.

They had won. They had won! Merlin slumped flat and stared up at the blue, blue sky, and breathed in, breathed out, the sun warm and welcome on his face.

Chapter Text

Merlin managed to stay conscious until Arthur finished securing the surrender of the Deorham, but only just. The last thing he remembered was Arthur scooping him up in his arms and carrying him away. After that, there were flashes of awareness: the groans of a field full of injured men, the concerned faces of the knights, being lifted and pulled about as his armor and clothing were removed. Being held in Arthur's arms as he was carried up a set of stairs, and in his addled state wondering if maybe he was back in Camelot, if everything that had happened since he broke his arm had been a long dream from the nasty crack of his head against the steps. A soft bed with soft sheets, something foul-tasting being poured down his throat, something damp against his back.

He dreamed of the ocean, of swaying gently as the waves broke against the shore, steady as a heartbeat. He felt Arthur's hand around his own, but he was too tired to squeeze back. He was just so tired.

He was roused and made to drink more of something, and he felt the gentle stroke of a hand in his hair as he closed his eyes again

"Arthur," he sighed, and slept.

He woke with a sore head and a full bladder. He tried to move and found that the rest of him was sore as well, and he groaned as he cracked open his eyes. The room was dimly lit, but daylight peeked through the drawn curtains. There was something familiar about this room, this bed, but he couldn't place it. His thoughts felt as slow as treacle.

"Oh, you're awake," said a voice, and the person the voice belonged to came into view. It took a moment for Merlin's addled head to provide her name.

"Ethelia?" he said, slurring slightly. He tried to push himself up, but she stopped him with a gentle hand.

"You need to keep still so you can heal," she told him, with the firm but kind tone of a mother.

Merlin shook his head slightly. "Have to... um..."

Ethelia smiled as she realized. She picked up the chamber pot from under the bed and pulled back the blanket, put it into position. "Don't be shy. It's nothing I haven't seen before."

Merlin hadn't needed help like this since he was twelve and had that terrible fever. His mum had had the same tolerantly professional air about her. Though she had reminded him that she had bathed him and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and changed his nappies, so there was no point in him being bashful. He had blushed red as he'd obeyed his mum, and he did so now as he obeyed Ethelia. But it was a relief when he was done.

She took the pot away and came back with a cup of fresh water and a bottle of medicine. She made him drink both, then checked the poultices on his back before tucking him in again.

"Where's Arthur?" Merlin asked, the taste of the medicine lingering on his tongue. There was something in it that reminded him of Gaius' sleep draughts, and he was fairly certain he was going to end up sleeping whether he wanted to or not.

"You've been calling his name in your sleep," Ethelia said, with soft amusement. "Don't you worry, he's just fine. He's been visiting whenever he can, but he has a lot to take care of."

"How come you're here?" he asked. The last time he had seen her had been a brief greeting the day before the battle. She had been collecting stones for the slingers.

"I volunteered to watch over you. One of a few, might I add. But this is my turn."

"How long have I been asleep?"

"A day," Ethelia said. "It's nearly lunchtime. The battle ended about noon yesterday. Are you hungry?"

"A little," Merlin said, though he couldn't really tell. He probably needed to eat something anyway, if he'd been asleep that long.

"I'll get you something," she said, but stayed and stroked his hair. "My Eduard... He was one of the men on the ladders, when you and the other knights went up in their place. If you hadn't gone in..." There was a tremor in her voice, and she paused until it passed. "Thank you. For saving his life."

She was gone before he could think of anything to say. And perhaps that was all right. He closed his eyes and let sleep pull him back down.

When he woke again it was still light, but the sun was low in the sky. Ethelia was gone from the chair beside the bed, but in her place was Arthur. He was dozing, his head tilted against the high back. He had shed his armor and cleaned himself up, but the exhaustion and stress of the battle had clearly caught up with him at last. He had one hand resting on the bed, and Merlin took it and held it against his cheek.

He opened his eyes again, and the room was dark, with a single candle casting its warm glow. Arthur was awake, and when he saw Merlin stir, his smile was just as warm and soft as the candlelight.

Before either of them could say anything, Arthur leaned over the bed and kissed him, gentle at first and then harder, needier, until he finally tore himself away, dragging in a harsh breath as he struggled to regain his composure.

"I was so worried," he said, voice tight with emotion. He leaned back, rubbing his face, breathing out sharply. He took a moment to collect himself before he continued. "Lord Wichard's physician thought you might have swelling in your head, but clearly that's impossible because there's nothing in your skull to begin with."

"Guess not," Merlin said. The last round of medicine and sleep must have helped, because he wasn't slurring anymore, and he felt better in general. The poultices had been removed from his back, but the soreness there was familiar from the past week. He really needed to stop getting slammed into things, or maybe start walking around covered in pillows. "How bad was it?"

"Bad enough," Arthur said, pressing his lips thin. "I want Gaius to check you over once we're back in Camelot, just in case. But the physician here said that you would probably be all right as long as you woke up today."

Arthur looked like he needed a hug, and frankly Merlin needed one as well. He shifted to make room on the bed and patted the empty space. Arthur didn't need to be told twice. He slid in beside Merlin and pulled him close, holding him as if he was afraid Merlin might shatter with too hard a squeeze. Arthur breathed shakily as he pressed their cheeks together, and he reached up and gently stroked Merlin's hair.

"Alive and whole does not include being scrambled inside like an egg," Arthur said, with shaky sternness.

Merlin couldn't help but laugh. "How's everyone else?"

"We ran out of bandages," Arthur said, but he didn't say it like it was a bad thing. "I don't think anyone who fought came out unscathed, but casualties were the lowest of any battle I've ever fought."

"Really?"

Arthur kissed him, and this time it was less desperate and more grateful. "Four hours, start to finish. Including setting up the barricades. Including rounding up all the Deorham for their surrender. Do you have any idea how many lives you saved? How differently this could have gone without everything you did for me?" He smiled. "You are officially the hero of the battle."

Merlin blushed and bit his lip. "Really?"

Arthur kissed him again. "Well, you, me, and Merek. But don't let it go to your head. The last thing it needs is more swelling."

Merlin snorted and rolled his eyes. "I think I can manage not to turn into you."

Arthur laughed at that, genuine and open. "Maybe I should make you my court jester, as well as my advisor, knight, and manservant."

"As long as it's not all of them at once. Sounds exhausting."

"No," Arthur said, calming. "I think we've both had enough of battle for a while."

Merlin sighed and settled into a more comfortable snuggle, the heat of Arthur's body soaking into his aching muscles. "Is it a bad thing if I'm still tired? Does it mean I'm too scrambled?"

"It's good. Sleep is healing," Arthur said.

"I'll sleep if you sleep too," Merlin insisted, then yawned widely. He hooked a leg around Arthur to make sure he wasn't going anywhere.

"Mm," Arthur hummed, gentling him with soft caresses.

Merlin closed his eyes. Arthur's heartbeat lulled him to sleep, as steady against him as the waves against the shore.

§

Merlin was roused far too early the next day when Arthur's grumpy morning voice accused him of latching on like a very aggressive vine. Merlin wasn't really conscious enough to do anything other than continue to insistently try and keep Arthur with him in the bed, but as Arthur was actually awake, he inevitably won out and pried himself free. Merlin burrowed into the warm, Arthur-shaped and Arthur-scented spot he'd left behind and promptly fell back to sleep.

The smell of food woke him properly some time later. He definitely had to be on the mend for his stomach to growl so noisily. There were clean clothes left on the chair and some toiletries by the mirror, as well as doses of relaxant to take as needed. He finally realized why the room had felt so familiar: it was Aeddan's room. Or rather, the room he had taken during the occupation. Merlin dressed, took his medicine and made himself presentable, then went out in search of the source of the delicious smells.

He had been in the keep three times now: in the guise of a servant of Gedref, in the guise of a Deorham soldier, and now finally as himself. But he was not the only thing that had changed. While he slept, the keep had been transformed. All signs of the Deorham's occupation had been swept away, and the banisters and walls were decked with ribbons and flowers and brightly colored fabrics in celebration of Gedref's freedom. Laughter and conversation floated up the staircase as he descended, so different from the tense atmosphere of the occupation. Somewhere, someone was playing music.

His nose led him, unsurprisingly, to the great hall where he had first met Idriys. The chandelier had already been re-hung, but bright sunlight streamed in through the stained glass windows, making candles unnecessary. They were not as fantastic as the colored glass in the temple and did not cast magical images upon the walls, but they were pleasing all the time, and had a similar warmth about them, in contrast to Camelot's stateliness.

The hall was filled with people. Merlin recognized many from the army, but there was an equal mix of Gedref stock, a few of which were familiar to him. Breakfast seemed to be a casual affair, with nobles and commoners and servants scattered in groups amid the long tables. Merlin's stomach rumbled at the smell of eggs and ham, at the bowls of late summer fruit and the platters of cheese. A fresh tray of bread was carried past him, still steaming from the kitchens.

"Merlin!" called a voice, and he turned to see Borin waving at him. Merlin waved back and went over. Borin was sitting with the rest of their group of knights, absent Merek and Arthur. They all looked hale and hearty, already recovered from the battle. They shifted to make room for him as Ronald flagged down a servant to bring Merlin a plate. Merlin grabbed an apple from the nearest fruit bowl and bit into it eagerly, finding the flesh crisp and tart. He moaned and took another bite, another, before he had even swallowed the first.

"Slow down there, lad, save some room," Borin laughed.

"Hungry," Merlin mumbled, his mouth full. He eyed the cheese and licked the juice from his lips. "Can I have some of that?" he asked, leaning over.

Althalos was closest, and he cut a chunk for Merlin, who finished off apple and cheese in two-fisted delight. Did everything here always taste this wonderful? As he licked his fingers clean, a plate loaded with hot food was placed down in front of him, and he barely had time for his mouth to start watering again before he was scarfing it down.

"Trying to make up for lost time?" Jarin smiled.

Merlin nodded, unwilling to pause for words. He felt like he hadn't eaten in weeks, like there was an endless pit in him that needed to be filled. Even the butter tasted amazing, thick smears of it melting into the freshly-torn bread. He felt like he could eat a whole extra plate, like he could eat forever.

His progress slowed as he polished off the last of the eggs and ham, and by the time he stopped his stomach reminded him that it was not in fact bottomless. He slumped, overfull but contentedly sated.

"There now, no going back to sleep," Ronald said, nudging him with his elbow.

"'m not," Merlin said, straightening up. He was feeling a bit tired, though. Perhaps it would take some time before he was entirely recovered. Thankfully he had been well cared for as he slept, and the medication was keeping the worst of his aches and pains at bay.

"We were glad of the news when you woke up yesterday," Jarin said.

"It'll take more than a few knocks on the head to stop me," Merlin joked, but he could see the concern that lingered in the knights' eyes.

"Then let us hope your luck ever holds," Ronald said, patting him on the shoulder.

Now that he wasn't occupied by his hunger, Merlin realized that people were glancing at him from all around. Most were trying to be polite about it, but he had the definite sensation of being the center of a lot of people's attention. It wasn't a new thing at this point, but he'd only ever experienced it when he was with Arthur. It was rather less comfortable on his own.

"Where's Arthur?" he asked.

The knights all seemed amused by this. "He said something about the forge," offered Borin.

"You should take things easy," Jarin insisted. "Now that you're awake, we'll all be leaving together tomorrow. It'll be a long journey back."

"And you don't want to wear yourself out before the feast," added Althalos.

"I don't think I can fit anything else," admitted Merlin, placing a hand against his full belly. He brought his hand up to his mouth to cover a burp.

"Better make some room," advised Borin. "Lord Wichard will be disappointed if the guest of honor doesn't have an appetite."

"What, me?" Merlin asked, rather overwhelmed by the idea.

"Better get used to it," said Althalos. "You're a true hero now, after going up against that sorcerer. Nearly dying only made the story better."

Merlin wondered if Arthur had made a story of Merlin's actions in the castle the way he had before. Of course, this time around there was a lot less that needed altering because he had done things Arthur's way, for the most part. No one knew about all the magic he'd had to do. Except for Merek.

"Where's Merek?"

"Off with his family," said Borin. "He's spent most of his time with them since the battle ended, when he isn't helping the Prince."

"Not surprising, with how worried he was about them," Ronald said. "I wouldn't be surprised if he stays behind."

"Can he do that?" Merlin asked, not sure how it worked with knights. They had been assigned to various places after their training was done, and it hadn't seemed like they had a choice in the matter.

"If the Prince gives permission," Ronald said. "And he likely will, since others have volunteered to stay and help with the prisoners. Gedref did not lose many in the invasion, but most of the ones to fall were from the guards and knights."

"As is the way," Borin said, with an air of solemn resignation. "They will be honored tomorrow with the rest."

The reminder only heightened Merlin's need for Arthur. Arthur's life had also been in danger, and the few minutes he'd been awake yesterday were not enough to soothe his own fears. He knew that Arthur was fine, but he needed to see for himself.

He also needed to talk to Merek. But Arthur came first.

"Which way is the forge?" he asked, standing up.

§

Merlin headed out to find the forge, which was actually outside the castle. He got turned around a few times before he found it, but there was always someone nearby eager to be helpful and point him the right way. It took him a while to figure out what was bothering him about it. Surely everyone was just being so helpful and nice to him because they were so happy about finally being saved from the Deorham. But then after one man smiled at him obsequiously and bowed his head and called him 'sire', realization hit him like an arrow from above.

The people of Gedref thought he was a knight. An actual, proper, noble knight. And that's how they were treating him. The people from Camelot treated him with respect now because he had earned it, but even after the battle there was a sense that he was a novelty. There was still that initial hesitance as they saw him, as they reminded themselves that he was a knight now and not a servant, or at least something of both. But as far as Gedref knew, he had always been a knight.

And then the second arrow hit, but this time it brought relief as well as shock. Arthur hadn't lied to him about what would happen when they returned to Camelot, not if Gedref was any guide. No one wanted to ruin the story of Arthur's brave and loyal knight with talk of pretense and broken codes. Why would they want to, when such a victory had been won?

Merlin wasn't sure how it would work when the story had to change, but it felt safe not to fret about it for now. Arthur clearly knew what he was doing, and right now Merlin wanted to get rid of his worries, not add to them. He wanted to be as happy as everyone else and celebrate their unqualified victory. There were only two things he had to get off his mind, and he would be able to relax and carouse with the best of them at the feast.

He walked into the forge, and revised his list to three.

"Ah, Merlin, good," Arthur said, looking relieved. He turned to a very nervous-looking man and waved him towards the door. "Go on, it's all right."

The man bowed his head and practically ran out the door. Sadly, it wasn't a mystery why he was so afraid. Right next to the large stone forge was a large pile of Deorham armor.

"Grab that bellows, would you?" Arthur said, peering critically at the coals.

Merlin held his tongue and obeyed, grabbing the lever for the large bellows and pulling it down. He managed a few dozen pulls before he had to stop, feeling dizzy.

"You'll have to go faster than that," Arthur said, frowning at the coals. But when he looked up at saw that Merlin was leaning against the wooden props, he quickly sobered. He came over to Merlin and ran through one of his 'bleeding or broken bones' checks before concluding that Merlin was merely not fit to be pumping bellows. He gave Merlin a quick kiss on the forehead and nudged him towards the pile of mail.

"I'll handle this," Arthur insisted, pulling off his shirt. "Just start putting pieces in when I say."

"Why are we heating them?" Merlin asked, picking up one of the helmets.

"We can't let the Deorham keep it," Arthur said, flexing his arms as he prepared to work the bellows. "Can't chop it to bits. Can't leave it lying around, and if we bury it someone will dig it up." He grabbed the handle and started pulling at an impressively steady rate, his muscular body flexing in a very distracting manner. "Fire's usually the best cure for anything magic."

Sadly, such talk put a damper on even Arthur's attractiveness. "And everyone else is too afraid to help?"

"They'd do it if I ordered them to," Arthur said, barely breaking a sweat as the coals flared red hot. "But I'd rather do this myself. My father was right about one thing. I need to learn how to deal with magic. If there's more like Palaemon out there, I can't always rely on your luck to sort things out for me. Go on, put it into the crucible."

Merlin carefully lowered the mail into the large ceramic bowl that was nestled within the coals. With the thin links, it didn't take long for the metal to start to glow hot. Unlike the destruction of the globe or the cutting of Palaemon's hand, there was no spectacular explosion, only a sparkling mist that dissipated as the enchantment was released from the metal.

Merlin continued to add the helmets and mail and plating until the bowl was full of glowing steel. Then the two of them used a big iron tool to lift the bowl and carry the de-enchanted metal over to a large pit of sand and poured out the armor to let it cool. Then they put the bowl back, paused for water, and continued on.

As Merlin watched the fine mist of the enchantments fizzle away, he reflected that this must be the first time that Arthur had truly gone head-on against powerful magic. Of course he'd faced magic plenty of times, but all Merlin had to do was look at what happened with the griffin or the Questing Beast, or even Sigan. He had been angry when Arthur had said that Gaius was incompetent because he was always saying that such threats could only be killed by magic, but what else could Arthur think when he awoke each time and found that he or Lancelot or some other knight had apparently ended the threat with nothing more than a sword or a jousting lance? It must have seemed like magic was actually quite easy to defeat, that it was all bluff and bluster.

But not Palaemon. It had taken a dragon-forged blade to kill the sorcerer, and Arthur thankfully didn't realize the significance of that. But this time Arthur had been fully awake and aware through to the end, and Merlin had done nothing to stop Palaemon himself. Arthur had seen exactly what Palaemon was capable of and how hard he was to kill. And Arthur had nearly died, and he'd had to sit by Merlin's bedside and hope he would wake up again. It was little wonder that Arthur wanted to be more prepared for the next threat. For the next time another kingdom brought a sorcerer into battle. Merlin could only assume that the only reason he hadn't fought sorcerers in the wars with Cenred and Bayard was that Uther had already killed everyone in Albion who was powerful enough for such battles, and Nimueh hadn't seemed the type to join in.

They slowly worked their way through the armor. By the time they were near the bottom, even Merlin had taken off his shirt, and they were both soaked with sweat. As Merlin picked up one of the last pieces of mail, he was surprised to see that there were other things beneath it that weren't armor. There were books, trinkets, and a familiar chest. Palaemon's belongings.

And there, nestled among the trinkets, was Palaemon's ring.

"Let's empty this one out," Arthur said, and turned to get the lifting tool. Before he could turn back, Merlin snatched the ring and shoved it deep into his pocket. It was little more than a reflex action, and only after he'd done it did he decide that he'd taken it because he wanted Gaius to look at it. Maybe it would help explain about why his own magic had reacted so strongly to the Roman magic.

But only after they'd dumped out the bowl did Merlin realize that he hadn't felt the now-familiar tingle. The ring had felt as dead as the cooling armor. Still, as he picked up the metal trinkets and tossed them into the bowl, it might be worth holding on to.

§

By the time they finally left the forge, Merlin had decided that Gwen and her whole smithing family were absolutely mad if they actually enjoyed being roasted alive all day. He wiped another smear of sweat and soot from his brow and sat down on the grass, done in.

"Lemme just... lie down..." Merlin panted, closing his eyes. He had about five seconds of rest before Arthur took his arms and dragged him back to his feet, then pulled him along.

"Arthur," Merlin whined, tugging to free himself, but Arthur's grip could not be wriggled out of. He found himself dragged down to the shore, at the end of the beach where the stony cliffs rose up over the water. Arthur held on to him as they clambered up onto the large, uneven rocks.

When they reached the end, Arthur pulled off his boots and trousers, unconcerned with the people milling about the town in the distance. Merlin yelped as Arthur yanked down his trousers, and in the struggle Merlin ended up flat on his back as Arthur unceremoniously stripped him bare. Thankfully the ring didn't fall out of his pocket, because he didn't know how he'd explain having it.

"Come on," Arthur grinned, eager as a puppy as they stood together and looked down at the water. "Count of three? One." And he jumped, pulling Merlin down with him.

Merlin began to yell at Arthur for being an utter prat, but ended up with a mouth and nose full of very salty water for his troubles. He flailed as he surfaced, the chilly water shocking him from his tiredness.

Arthur surfaced a few yards away, bobbing as a wave carried him up. Merlin struggled to keep his head above water as the wave hit him and then swirled against the rocks behind him, but Arthur waved him over and he found that it was easier once he was a distance out.

The ocean tasted awful, though, with all that salt. He made a face and spat out more of the lingering taste of the ocean, snorted out air to clear the burn from his nose. Arthur watched him with fond amusement as he scrunched up his face and rubbed at it.

Merlin liked swimming in lakes. You knew where you were with a lake. It didn't try to knock you down with waves and it wasn't full of salt. But he couldn't stay mad when Arthur looked so happy.

"One of these days I'm going to throw you into the water," Merlin told him, the corners of his mouth tugging up against his will.

Arthur's smile widened, declaring his utter confidence that such a feat would never ever happen. "Come on," he said, turning to strike out towards the opposite end of the harbor.

If Arthur had bothered to ask, Merlin would have told him that he didn't feel up for a swim. He'd worn himself out in the heat and exertion of the forge. But now that he was in, he felt much better for it. The cold water pulled the heat out of him, and he felt surprisingly buoyant, like the waves were carrying him as he swam up and down the swells. Arthur wasn't swimming out ahead as he sometimes did at the lake, perhaps worn out himself from pumping the bellows.

They paused at the center to tread water and float for a while, holding hands to stay together as the ocean carried them up and down. Out past the end of the harbor, the ocean simply went on forever, vanishing into the curve of the horizon. Merlin turned to look back at the shore, and saw the town with its forge and scattered huts, its resting boats. Behind them, the castle stood proud and strong, the gates open as tiny people walked in and out, going about their day. Around the castle was the forest, still lush before autumn began to replace its deep green with gold and orange and red. And behind that, the rolling hills.

"I like it here," Merlin said, deciding that he did. "It's beautiful."

"It's not Camelot," Arthur said, because of course nothing was as beautiful and glorious as Camelot. "But it does have a sort of rustic charm."

"Rustic charm?" Merlin laughed.

"Mm hm," Arthur hummed, swimming up against his back and wrapping one arm around him, planting kisses on his neck. "Fortunately, I've developed a fondness for rustic charm."

"Arthur," Merlin chided, self-conscious.

They were far enough out that no one would probably be able to see what they were doing, at least. As usual, Arthur had figured out just how far he could push things, and took them right up to that line. But Merlin was tired of always having to be the reasonable one, the sensible one. He was tired of being cautious and worrying about being seen. Arthur had forced him into the light and the world hadn't ended. Everything had turned out all right. Maybe it was time to stop overthinking everything and just let go. Just be, and trust that Arthur would take care of him.

Merlin sighed and relaxed. He let the water carry him, let Arthur hold him, touch him. He let his head fall back against Arthur's shoulder and watched the distant shore through the veil of his lashes. He hummed contentedly as Arthur's hands roamed unhindered, as he kissed the salt water from Merlin's shoulder and neck and ear.

"That's it," Arthur purred, as his hand played between Merlin's legs, his fingers moving slow and teasing. He guided Merlin about until they were pressed together, and Merlin wrapped his arms loosely around Arthur's neck as Arthur coaxed him to fullness. He moaned and gave a shallow thrust against Arthur's fist, feeling the push of water from the steady tread of Arthur's legs.

There was no hurry here, no rush. It had been two weeks since the Gedref men had reached Camelot, two weeks of frantic preparations, of long days on horseback, of surviving emotional and physical exhaustion and exhilaration. It felt like a lot longer than two weeks. Surely he had lived a whole lifetime between then and now. He felt like he had been heated like the Deorham armor, battered and burnished into something new.

But he wasn't finished yet. He wouldn't shine like Arthur's sword until Arthur knew all of his secrets. But he trusted that soon he would be able to lay the last of himself bare. That Arthur would take the rough gift of his magic and batter and burnish it, too, and then take the whole of Merlin and polish him until he gleamed, until he shone golden in the sun. Whatever Arthur wanted him to be, Merlin would be it, as easily as the sword to his hand.

When he came, it was as gentle as the carrying waves, a swell up and then a slow sigh down. His tiredness caught up with him all at once, and he felt boneless and soft. His arms tightened around Arthur's neck and he nuzzled sleepily.

He yawned and forced himself to pull back, giving Arthur an apologetic smile. "Sorry, I don't think I'm up for returning the favor."

"Later," Arthur said, untroubled. "Let's get you to shore."

They swam back to the rocks. Arthur climbed up first, then hauled Merlin up with a grunt. The rocks were warm from the sun, and Merlin thought he would like nothing more than to bask on them like a lizard. But Arthur insisted they pull back on their trousers and boots and clamber back to the forge. They stopped at the water pump and rinsed off, then grabbed their shirts and went back to the castle. By the time they made it to the keep, Merlin was barely upright, and he had to lean heavily against Arthur to make it up the stairs.

Once they were back in their room, Merlin shucked off his wet clothes and crawled back into bed, sighing as he settled into its softness. Arthur also stripped, but he dressed again in clean clothes from a pile on the table. Someone must have laundered their things.

"Stay?" Merlin asked, as Arthur pulled the blanket up around him. He wanted to curl himself around Arthur again and never let go, no matter how insistently Arthur tried to escape.

"You need to rest," Arthur said, carding his fingers through Merlin's damp hair. "And I have things to take care of. Tonight, after the feast, all right?"

Merlin made a reluctant noise, but accepting seemed to be working out so far, so he did. It was nice, trusting Arthur. It was easy. He decided to do more of it. And Arthur stayed with him, sitting beside him and stroking his hair, until once again he was floating.

§

Merlin wasn't sure how long he had slept, but it felt like a few hours. His eyes were all gummed up, and he rubbed them open as he slowly roused. It had been a good nap, and he nearly slipped back into it. But he heard the chair creak as someone shifted in it, and turned to find Merek sitting there.

"I didn't want to wake you," Merek said, by way of explanation. "How are you feeling?"

"Better," Merlin said.

"You look better," Merek decided. "Even asleep, you're better than you were."

Merlin remembered something that Ethelia had said about not being the only one to volunteer. "You watched over me?"

Merek nodded. "I needed to think. To decide what to do."

Merlin scooted up to sit against the headboard, pulling the blankets along with him. Somehow he kept having these sorts of conversations when he was in various states of undress. Maybe it was because it was only when he was safely tucked into bed that Arthur left him on his own for any length of time. "And?"

"I decided to wait until you were awake." Merek's wry smile faded as he braced himself to continue. "You have magic," he said, a crack in his voice as he said the last word.

"Yes," Merlin said, surprised at how calm he felt. Maybe because he was finally ready to stop hiding, to stop being afraid. Maybe because Merek had held on to his secret for this long, and that meant he wasn't likely to go into a panic and start shouting for help. If he truly hated magic, there were any number of ways he could have made sure that Merlin never woke up after the battle.

But those who had magic couldn't hate it, not really. You couldn't hate something that was so much a part of you.

Merek swallowed, rubbed his hand over his mouth. "What did you see? In the winch room, you looked at me and you saw something. You were surprised."

"Are you ready to hear it?"

Merek gave a desperate laugh, edging on a sob. "Just say it. I need you to say it."

"You feel things," Merlin said, drawing on his own experience, hoping it would be the same for Merek. "Like in the temple. You felt like you belonged there. And... and there must have been times when things happened that you couldn't explain."

Merek hissed in air through his teeth, shuddered it out. "Yes," he admitted, forcing out the word.

"When did they start? When you found the temple?"

"Before," Merek admitted. "I think the first time... I was out at sea, alone, and there was a storm. A wave pulled me in, I thought I was going to die."

"But you didn't."

Merek shook his head. "It felt like... I don't know. But it saved me. And then the storm was over. I tried to ignore it, but..." He made a fist, grasping at nothing. "That's how I found the temple. I thought maybe it had to do with the storms. I stood on the cliff, waiting, and then a wave came and the stone gave way. The next thing I knew, I was lying in that entrance."

"It's like that for me too, sometimes," Merlin admitted. "It saves me. Like... a reflex, or something more than that."

"You don't know?" Merek asked, surprised.

"I'm still figuring it out myself," Merlin said. "I was born with it, but all I really know is that my magic is... strong. Stronger than pretty much anyone's."

"Why does it happen? Why am I like this?"

"I don't know," Merlin said, wishing he had more answers. "Before I came to Camelot, all I knew was that I had to hide it."

"You're not from Camelot?"

"No, Essetir."

Merek sputtered. "Magic's legal there!" he said, in an urgent hush. "Why didn't you just stay?"

"I had to go," Merlin said. Because his mum had told him that he had to go. Because Gaius was the only one who could teach him. Except that wasn't quite how it had worked out, now that he stopped and thought about it. Gaius had helped him a little with control, with basic spells, but apart from that and the book, it had been the dragon that had actually encouraged him to use his magic, to push himself to learn. Gaius was always telling him not to do any magic at all unless Arthur or Camelot needed it. He filed the thought away for now. He had a lot to talk to Gaius about, once he got back home. Even apart from the ring...

Merlin suddenly remembered his discarded trousers, but saw to his relief that they were exactly as he had left them on the floor. Arthur was always chiding him for leaving his clothes on the floor. He used to throw them at Merlin's head to make a point, but when Arthur stopped throwing things at him, he started actually folding them and putting them aside himself. It was such a remarkable thing to watch, the Crown Prince tidying up after his manservant, that Merlin was tempted to leave things on the floor on purpose. But he did it often enough out of sheer exhaustion and forgetfulness that he never went through with anything intentionally. And anyway, Arthur would probably know if he did, and then he would end up paying for it one way or another.

"You should tell someone," Merlin said, the words slipping out.

"Are you mad?" Merek said, eyes wide. "I couldn't even admit it to myself, until you went and-- and--" He made a gesture that apparently equated to Merlin blasting away Palaemon's magic and making the winches turn.

"When we get back to Camelot, I'm going to tell Arthur," Merlin said, and it felt so good to say it. Every time he affirmed his intention, it made it more real, more definite. He saw Merek's wary reaction, and smiled to reassure him. "Don't worry, I won't tell anyone about you. It's not my secret to share."

"If he knows of your magic, it will be his duty to tell the King."

Merlin shook his head. "He won't. And... and even if he does, it doesn't change anything. I have to tell him. I can't lie to him anymore. That's why you have to find someone you trust and talk to them, right away. Promise me, please?"

"The Prince kept saying you didn't have any sense," Merek said, shaking his head. "But as it may be your last request, I will do as you ask."

Merlin slumped back, relieved. "Thank you," he said. No one should have to bear such secrets alone. He was going to help Morgana, and he needed to help Merek, too. They were good people, and they deserved better than to live in silence and fear. Everyone with magic did. And if it was up to him to help each and every one of them himself, that's what he would do. Not because he was the Emrys, whatever that was, but because it was the right thing to do.

"I don't know how you've stayed alive this long, living in the royal household. Is magic how you survived when you were captured?"

"It's how I got out," Merlin said. "And most of how I got in. But everything else was the truth. I only use it when I have to."

"Then why didn't you use it to stop Palaemon? You nearly died."

"I couldn't," Merlin said, regretful. "I wanted to do more. I took his magic off of all the locks, I cooled the water, but--"

"Ha!" Merek cried. "All that talk of your luck. I should have known."

Merlin shrugged. "It's as good an excuse as any."

Merek shook his head, marvelling. He was still struggling to understand, but on the whole he was dealing with it all surprisingly well. It probably helped that he'd had a couple of days to think things over, and that Merlin's magic had done so much to turn the battle. It certainly smoothed things along to be a heroic knight, rather than a troublesome servant.

"You are a strange man, Merlin," Merek said. "I admit that there have been times when I thought the Prince a fool for his faith in you. You make very little sense, even now that I know how you have done all you have for us."

"Someone once told me that I'm 'a question that has never been posed before,'" Merlin said, recalling Gaius' words to him in those first days. Merlin had understood him to be saying that it was his elemental, instinctive magic that made him special, but Morgana had certainly not studied magic to gain her prophetic dreams. The druid boy may have been trained, but here was another who was born with magic.

The more Merlin learned about magic, the more he realized that he understood nothing. That if he had not been lied to by Gaius and the dragon, he had certainly been misled. Gaius had done to him the same things that he did to everyone else, the same things Merlin had been doing to Arthur: telling only half-truths, lying by omission. Keeping important information from him that, once learned, could change everything.

He loved Arthur, and Arthur loved him. Arthur wanted them to be together for the rest of their lives, wanted him to be the catalyst for his transformative reign. If Arthur was to rule as a true King of Camelot, of Albion, he needed to know everything. No more secrets, no more lies. As soon as they got back to Camelot, everything was going to change. Merlin was terrified, but he had been terrified about going into battle, and here they were, alive and whole and victorious. He would trust Arthur just as completely. He would be Arthur's brave knight, giving him what he needed, opening all the doors, giving him all the information so he could make wise and just decisions. He would trust Arthur. He would trust his King.

Merlin realized that Merek was smiling at him. He gave him a quizzical look back.

"I will miss you, Merlin," Merek said.

"You're not coming back with us?"

"I have too many reasons to stay," Merek said. "To be with my family again, after nearly losing them. To assist in managing the prisoners until their ransom can be paid. To strengthen Camelot's southern defenses, for right now they are too weak to prevent further invasions." He looked down. "And I must stay for myself, to consider my actions. I did not always behave with honor, these past weeks. The Prince was right to chastise me. I cannot be a true knight if I act with cruelty." He looked up again, a silent apology in his eyes.

Merlin nodded, understanding. "And now your magic," he added.

"Yes," Merek sighed. "Having been to Camelot's heart, I can say that things are not the same here. Magic is forbidden in Gedref as it is throughout the kingdom, and people do fear it. But in all my years, I have never seen a sorcerer executed. I have never stood and watched a man burn. I am not so brave as you, to go back there."

"I belong with Arthur," Merlin said, but there was a part of him that envied Merek's freedom, his refuge. To have the choice, and not have to walk willingly to his perilous fate. But the future of Albion and its magic depended upon him. If he must be brave for them, as he was for Arthur, he would be.

"Then I hope that you truly are as lucky as they say," Merek said. He drew himself up, bracing himself to face the world with the new knowledge inside him. "And while you remain, I am honored that you accept our hospitality. Your presence here helps wipe away the memory of the Deorham's occupation. This was my room before I left to be a knight, and I will reclaim it once you and the Prince no longer have need of it."

Merlin had the distinct impression that Merek was giving him and Arthur permission to have sex in his bed. "Um, thanks," he said, tugging the sheets against himself.

Merek patted Merlin's leg through the blanket and stood up. "I will see you at the feast tonight? It would not be the same without the guest of honor."

"I'll be there," Merlin agreed. Merek left, closing the door behind him, and Merlin slumped back with a heavy breath.

Once he had let the conversation with Merek settle in his mind, he slid out of bed and went to change. He found that along with his own clothes, Arthur had left him something new to wear: a fine, deep blue shirt and dark trousers, and a brown dining jacket with a high collar, similar to Arthur's favorite red one. It was a far cry from the official ceremonial robes that Arthur had once made him wear. They were the clothes that a noble knight might wear. Or perhaps a royal advisor.

Merlin smiled to himself and dressed, cleaned himself up in front of the mirror. He took his dirty clothes from the floor and bundled them up to take them to the laundry. Before he left, he moved the ring to the deepest part of his bag, down with the nearly empty bottle of holy olive oil. It would be safe there.

And with that, the last of his worries was gone. They would return to Camelot and what would be would be. But for now, in Gedref, he felt at peace.

Chapter Text

There was no room in the keep even remotely large enough to fit the entire population of Gedref and Camelot's army. Rather than separate the nobility from the commoners, the feast was to be held outside in the wide yard of the castle. Long bolts of cloth were laid out and weighted down with stones, and every cushion and pillow in Gedref was brought out and placed down as seats. Iron poles were sunk into the ground and decorated with the banners of Camelot and Gedref, with ivy and pine boughs and nosegays, and twined with bright ribbon. Though the feast would start before sunset, torches were prepared for a long evening, and high piles of wood were built outside the gates, for celebratory bonfires by the water's edge.

Merlin perched on a barrel by the wall and watched the bustle of the preparations. He'd always been awed by the feasts in Camelot. He still remembered the shock he'd felt at that first feast, the one where he'd saved Arthur's life and been made his manservant. There had been so much food! And it was not just the quantity of it, because even Ealdor had its harvest festival, but the abundance of it. So much meat, and whole piles of fruits he didn't recognize, and the desserts! He hadn't been allowed to eat at the feast itself, of course, but Gaius had brought him a plate of leftovers from the kitchens. He had not wasted a single morsel, swiping up the grease from the meat with his fingers and sucking them clean, delighted and amazed that so much food could be left over.

Ealdor had truly been the humblest of villages. The mountain soil was thin, and it seemed that the harvest was never quite enough to carry them through the year. In Ealdor, you never left anything over, because every spoonful of porridge, every crumb of bread, every shrivelled crabapple or ground-up acorn or bit of gristle from a skinny hare could mean another day of survival until winter passed, until the first fresh green of spring came and the thick ice melted from the streams and ponds. In Ealdor, there was only the grain and whatever bounty the gods of the forests would provide.

Merlin did not pray very often. The Old Religion was as unwelcome in Camelot as magic, and he had only ever worshipped in secret with his mum in Ealdor. But he had prayed to keep Arthur safe, and that prayer had been fulfilled. He closed his eyes now and sent his thanks to each of them, to the high gods that had been generous in their mercy and protection. Brighid, goddess of healing and wisdom; Cernunnos, god of nature and fertility; Lleu, god of the sun and sky; Rhiannon, goddess of beasts; Silus, goddess of the waters; and most of all to Modron, the mother goddess, triple goddess of birth, life, and death.

When he opened his eyes, he saw Arthur walking out of the keep, alongside an older man. Lord Wichard, Merlin guessed, from his age and finery and bearing. They were deep in conversation, but as they headed towards him, Merlin slid from the barrel and straightened his clothes. He was sure that Arthur would want him to make a good first impression. He suspected that Lord Wichard had seen him before, when he was unconscious, but that probably didn't count.

"The guest of honor at last," said Wichard, pleased to see him. He held out his arm as an equal and Merlin shook it, quite unused to being so welcomed by high nobility. "Sir Merlin. You're feeling better, I hope?"

"Yes, sire," Merlin said. He glanced to Arthur for help, but Arthur merely smiled encouragingly. "Much better. I understand I have your physician to thank for it?"

"Oh yes, a fine man," Wichard said, accepting the flattery for himself as well as his physician. "It was the least I could do for such a brave knight. The Prince and my son have both told me that without your actions, Lord Idriys and his sorcerer would still have us in their grip."

Merlin felt his cheeks start to heat. "They are too generous, sire. I only played a small part in the battle."

Wichard chuckled and clapped him on the shoulder. "I like him," he told Arthur. Then he leaned in and lowered his voice conspiratorially. "If Camelot proves to be full of servants like him, our enemies will not dare invade us."

"I'm afraid Merlin is one of a kind," Arthur replied, smoothly. "A rare bird, you could say. But there are many common men, even here in Gedref, who will make fine knights one day."

"We will see, we will see," Wichard said, but he was obviously warming to the idea. They began to walk again, and Arthur gestured for Merlin to stay with them. He took his usual position at Arthur's side, their strides slipping into a match with the first few paces.

From Arthur's satisfied expression, it was clear that Merlin was performing as expected. Wichard would make a strong ally when the time came to change the First Code. Gaius had told him that Uther made the law because he'd only trusted the families that had sworn allegiance to him. Had that been during the Purge or before it? Wichard must have sworn allegiance to Uther. What would he do if he found out that Merek had magic? Would he put his own son to the pyre?

But Merek had said that no sorcerers had ever been executed in Gedref. Not as long as he could remember, at least. And Wichard didn't feel like the sort of man who would do something that heartless. Not like Uther, whose arrogance and callous cruelty had been evident to Merlin upon first sight of him. Perhaps not all the lords of Camelot shared Uther's eagerness for the obliteration of all sorcery. Perhaps Wichard could be swayed to the return of magic, the way he was being swayed towards the removal of the First Code. Perhaps if he knew his own son had been born with magic, that would be the key to it.

Merlin thought that he was starting to get the hang of this whole forethought and planning thing. Perhaps Arthur had the right idea about unleashing him on the council. Once Arthur knew the truth, once he'd become accustomed to Merlin's magic and the good that it could do, it might be safe to tell him about the others who had magic, about Gaius and Morgana and even Merek. The thought of them all working together, a team of sorcerers protecting Camelot under Arthur's command, did funny things to Merlin's insides and put happy shivers through his magic.

"...agree that defense is Camelot's first priority," Arthur was saying, as Merlin pulled himself from his thoughts. He focused on the conversation, because Arthur wouldn't want him there if it wasn't important for him to listen.

"The southern border must be strengthened," Wichard agreed, sobering. "The King must take a firm hand with Alined. We have taken the brunt of his incursions for too long, with too little support."

"He has gone too far this time," Arthur said, the tone of his voice betraying his anger at the invasion. "He has his cunning, but he is greedy and desperate. He makes pretense of strength, but his actions are that of weakness. He cares more for gold than his people, and neglects them."

"He has offered more than once to use that gold to buy his way through a long winter. To stock his own larders, I expect, and not the land's. I have always refused, and I am sure that my denials played a part in his scheme."

"Camelot's wealth has always been in her land. Though we have had some issues with the harvest in recent years, up north. I am glad to see that the south has not faltered. Our army passed many plentiful farms and orchards."

"We have kept them so," Wichard said, proudly. "Wise management of resources, and generous assistance to any village that suffers difficulties. A healthy land will give the bounty of a healthy people."

"I understand that you have made arrangements with Lord Aleyn to take stewardship of his farms," Arthur said. "That is the fourth such arrangement in recent years, and if this continues you will soon have half the south. I welcome the results of your management, but I have concerns that my father may see the amassing of such power as a threat."

"The King knows he has my fealty," said Wichard, unequivocal. "I have given him my eldest child and only son in defense of our kingdom. I do not take the lands for myself, you will note. A portion of each harvest is given to Gedref as payment, and if the crops fail we take nothing at all. As the hills around us are good for little but defense, it ensures that we ourselves do not starve."

"Few have been the instances where you have overseen a poor harvest," Arthur admitted.

"The soil of the south is rich, as all know," Wichard said with pride. "We harvest vegetation from the sea and till it with the compost each spring. Ships of trade bring us new knowledge and techniques as well as the goods and materials that Camelot needs to run smoothly."

"Perhaps I should convince my father to allow you to manage his lands," Arthur said, wryly.

"I doubt he would tolerate my presence north of the mountains," Wichard said, with some regret. "The King's wisdom must be respected, of course." He winked at Merlin.

Merlin blinked in surprise. Clearly Arthur was not the only person in Camelot who did not always do things Uther's way, who was more obedient in appearance than in deed. Arthur worked to strengthen Camelot's defenses; Wichard intervened to ensure the harvest; Gaius used his knowledge to help Merlin with the magical forces that threatened the kingdom. Each action could be seen as a threat to the status quo and a lack of confidence in Uther's rule, but they were also necessary for the good of the kingdom as a whole. It was a dangerous game for all of them, but one that had to be played.

Arthur gave a thoughtful hum. "You are right that Gedref has earned stronger protection. We are truly grateful for all that you have done for the kingdom. The wars in the north have been a great distraction, but as long as our treaties hold, we have men to spare. And I am certain that my father will be able to negotiate very favorable terms for Alined's formal surrender. He will need to empty his treasury to ransom back his nobles and his army. I will ensure that Gedref is paid a generous portion in recompense for our failure in defense."

"Such a payment would be more than generous, after the speed and efficiency of your rescue," Wichard said, looking very pleased indeed.

Merlin noted that he had not turned down the gold. It reminded him of the payment to Gwen. Arthur must see a great deal of value in both Gwen and Wichard to reward them so amply. But it was easy to contrast this to Alined; what good was gold if you had no food? What good was a harvest if you had no men to reap it, because they were all wasting away as prisoners? A kingdom was a complicated thing, and it seemed that everything depended on everything else. Perhaps Camelot was not so different from Ealdor after all. Even in a kingdom so vast and wealthy, everyone had to share what they had, or no one would have anything. And if Uther, like Alined, was not wise in his management, others would have to intervene as good stewards.

Merlin liked the sound of that. Maybe he could use it as part of his explanation when he told Arthur the truth about his magic and the things that he had done in secret to keep Camelot safe. If his actions were placed in such a light, surely Arthur would understand. He would see that they were not treason but good stewardship. Good defense. Things that Camelot needed to thrive. Arthur could not hate something that was so valuable to the kingdom's existence. Arthur wouldn't want to burn away the very magic that kept Camelot protected, once he understood, once it was explained that way.

As they walked, nobles and commoners alike had gradually arrived, everyone dressed for the festivities: the commoners in their best clothes, and the nobles in fine but simple outfits, befitting the outdoor setting and informal atmosphere, so that rich and poor were brought close together. The outfit that Arthur had given him was a perfect fit, and quite similar to the one that Arthur wore himself, though Arthur's shirt was of course Pendragon red, and he wore a simple circlet on his head as Crown Prince. No doubt that was as intentional as everything else Arthur did. If Arthur wanted to make a statement about Merlin's position, that he was Arthur's trusted man no matter what his title might be, what better way to than by matching Merlin's outfit to his own?

Merlin was proud to wear such a token, perhaps even more proud than he was to wear his armor as a knight. Arthur had many knights at his command, but there was only one man that he trusted, one that he would share all his secrets with. One man that would stay at his side through any danger, help him against any threat, enable him to change the whole of Camelot for the better.

Soon the last barriers between them would fall away, and Arthur would see all of Merlin. Not just the shell, though Arthur already saw more of him that that. Arthur saw such potential in him, wanted him for far more than just a manservant, than just a lover, than even just a knight. Every piece of him would be welcomed and gathered into the safety of Arthur's hands. Every part of him would belong and be cherished. Arthur's love and acceptance would make him whole.

It was hard to wait. Merlin ached to tell Arthur everything, to give his King his magic as he had his fealty, for good and without constraint. But there was a long journey ahead, and despite his trust in Arthur, he did not want circumstances to complicate his confession. He did not want to put Arthur into a position where he would be distracted and vulnerable. Whatever other duties Arthur needed him to perform, Merlin's highest priority would always be to keep Arthur safe. Not because it was his purpose to protect Arthur, but because he simply could no longer imagine a life without him. Because if Merlin had a destiny of his own as the Emrys, it was not meant to happen without his King there beside him.

Their circuit of the yard finally brought them back around to the keep. As they did, an older woman emerged, trailed by two teenaged girls, and then Merek, all dressed to match Wichard's finery.

"Ah, my pride and joy," Wichard said, holding out his arms to welcome them. He beamed with delight to see his family together, restored after their captivity and Merek's absence. "Sir Merlin, I introduce to you my wife, the Lady Helewisa."

Merlin bowed politely. "I am honored, my lady," he said, doing what he thought was a decent impression of a noble's greeting. He glanced at Arthur, and Arthur seemed satisfied, so it must have been at least passable. Though Merlin had no doubt that Arthur was silently adding court etiquette and decorum to the long list of things Merlin needed to learn to do properly. Arthur would probably spring them on him when he was least expecting it, too. But Merlin was growing wise to his tricks.

"The honor is all mine, to finally meet the Prince's heroic knight," Helewisa replied, smooth and gracious.

"And our daughters, Milessent and Mahenyld," Wichard continued, as they stepped forward to give their greetings.

"Please, call us Millie and May," insisted Mahenyld, the younger of the two. "They're much less of a mouthful." She gave a glance of mild exasperation towards her parents.

"May," chided Milessent, and gave Merlin a more formal greeting. She looked to be around fifteen, and while Merlin had had no sisters of his own, he knew that that was about the age when the girls in Ealdor would begin to pull away from the younger children and adopt a more mature air.

"Milessent is a lovely name," Merlin said, warmly. Milessent blushed and smiled, clearly pleased with the attention.

When Mahenyld saw this, she looked vexed, but Arthur intervened. "May is my favorite month," he told her. "I'd wager you've leapt high over the Beltane fire."

Mahenyld immediately perked up. "Higher than anyone," she declared, proudly. "And this year, Millie wouldn't even try. She was afraid."

"I wasn't afraid! You know I couldn't bear to singe my dress," Milessent insisted.

Behind them, Merek was smiling to himself, trying not to laugh. It was clear that he loved his sisters. The three of them were certainly of a kind, as strong-willed and spirited as any in Gedref. And Wichard and Helewisa were the same, if tempered by their years.

"Girls, girls," Helewisa said, with a fond sternness. "This is the Crown Prince and his knight. You must hold yourselves with bearing and respect. Now go take your seats." She ushered them along.

Arthur clapped Wichard warmly on the back. "They remind me of my father's ward. I imagine they're a handful."

Wichard nodded. "But I would not have it any other way. They will grow into the grace of their mother, but they must hold on to their spirit." He and Merek looked to each other, and there was a sadness there.

Merlin remembered then what Wichard had said. There were no other sons to inherit his land and title, and so if Merek did not survive his time as a knight, Gedref would pass to his daughters. It was odd that Merek had been sent away at all, now that Merlin thought about it. The other knights that Arthur trained had all been second or third or fourth sons. The dregs of the nobility, Arthur had called them. But Merek was hardly a dreg. Perhaps because Gedref faced so many dangers from the south and from the ocean, it had been considered vital for Merek to become a knight. It was certainly of benefit now that he was back and was determined to see the border strengthened. And the close relationship that Merek had with the Crown Prince was also a valuable asset. Arthur would have saved Gedref with or without Merek, but perhaps without him, the bond that was forming now would not be so close.

They went to take their seats, as the rest of the rows of cushions had already been taken, but for a few stragglers hurrying in through the gates. Their assigned places were at the center of the rows, surrounded by the nobility of Gedref and Arthur's army. Wichard took the center seat, with his family to his left and Arthur and then Merlin to his right.

Merlin greeted the other knights as he sat down, waved to others he knew beyond them. He recognized most of the faces around him. He had fought beside them, been helped by them, protected and freed them. At Arthur's side, with Arthur's knee against his own, Merlin suddenly felt a rush of love all through him, love for these people and back from them, and it felt almost like the rush of magic out and in from the temple. He looked to Arthur and saw the serenity in his eyes, the belonging and care and love that flowed from him, and knew that this was just a glimpse of how Arthur felt about being King.

And then Arthur turned to him, and all that belonging and care and love was focused on Merlin alone, and it was like coming out of winter and being drenched in sunlight. Arthur reached over and took Merlin's hand and held it, a simple but public gesture. Merlin squeezed back, letting all that love pour through him and back out again, feeling crystal-clear and yet so safe, wrapped in Arthur's own serenity.

Here was their ocean. Here was the love that could carry them forever. They were at its shore, the calm waves lapping at their feet, their boat waiting for them to climb inside, for its sails to be raised to catch the wind.

There was the sound of metal against metal, and they broke their shared gaze to look up. Wichard was standing and rapping his knife against his goblet, gradually silencing everyone.

"Today we celebrate Gedref's freedom," Wichard said, his voice ringing out stentorious and clear. "With this feast, we give thanks, and we have much to be thankful for. Camelot's steadfast protection. Her swift and certain victory against the Deorham and their sorcerer. The preservation of our lives and of our lands. And most of all, for the unbowed spirit of our people." He raised his goblet higher. "Today, we honor our guests, who have given us more than we can repay. We honor Prince Arthur, who has shown the courage, skill, and strength that is the mark of his line. We honor his knights, who braved battle against the sorcerer's might. Of his knights, we honor Sir Merlin, who gave great aid to the Prince and nearly gave his life in the sorcerer's defeat. And we honor my son, Sir Merek, and welcome him safely home." He drank, and everyone drank with him.

Arthur stood up beside him, and raised his own goblet. "Thank you, Lord Wichard, for your generous words, and for the generous feast ahead," he began, his voice as strong and resounding as Wichard's, ringing out across the yard so all could hear. "Let our gathering here today reaffirm the strength of the friendship between Gedref and Camelot. It is our union that makes our kingdom strong. We share this meal together seated as equals, for our victory would not have been won without the contributions of all. It is the victory of the bold resistance of an imprisoned Gedref. It is the victory of the craftsmen who bend their skill to our weapons and defenses. It is the victory of the servants whose tireless work fuels and tends our army and our castles. And it is the victory of all who fought, men of all ranks and class who risked their lives for others." He raised his goblet in a silent toast, and drank.

When Arthur sat down, Merlin gave him a proud smile, and Arthur grew shy from it despite his easy confidence. Arthur was truly becoming the King he wanted to be, and Merlin wanted so badly to kiss him, to kneel for him and show his fealty and adoration. He hardly thought he could stand to wait through the long hours of the feast and the evening celebrations. But then he smelled the food, and his attention was entirely diverted.

A line of servants paraded out of the keep, their trays still steaming from the kitchens. They carried the food around the long rows of people, displaying the food before it was to be served. And such a feast! Such delicious smells!

The first of the servants ended their parade behind Arthur and Wichard, and two servants took tongs and served them simultaneously, with practiced coordination. It neatly avoided any issues of rank between the two, and also seemed symbolic of their speeches of unity. The servants then each took a platter from the larger tray and moved in opposite directions, serving out portions as they went.

One by one, the dishes were served. With so many people, there was enough time between each serving to finish what they were given, so they did not need to change plates as was done at some feasts in Camelot. As there was no hurry, instead of stuffing his face as quickly as possible -- something he had learned to do in Ealdor in times of hunger -- Merlin took his time, savoring each bite. He did his best to match Arthur's dinner posture, which was refined and upright, with nary a drop of wine spilled or a morsel of food dropped. He had a lot to learn about courtly life so he could make a good impression as Arthur's royal advisor one day.

But it was the food itself that truly made him want to savor his meal. There was lamb and venison and pig and poultry, roasted tender and rich with foreign spices. Soaked fruits stuffed with sharp cheese. Cabbages and artichokes and piles of dark, leafy greens.

Merlin had thought that the food at breakfast had tasted so good because he'd been so hungry. But everything still tasted amazing. There just seemed to be more foodiness in the food. Everything tasted fresher, better than even the best at a royal feast. Maybe it was because they were closer to the best of Camelot's fields and farms and orchards, or because the soil was better south of the mountains. Certainly the food in Ealdor had never been much to speak about, but hunger had a way of making flavor a luxury. But he had never tasted such sauces, some of them spicy enough to make his eyes water.

He gulped at his wine to cool his mouth, until Arthur pried his goblet away out of concern that he would make himself drunk. One of the Gedref nobility told him that bread was a far better antidote, and to Merlin's relief he was right.

"Your cooks have a remarkable style," Arthur said, wiping his own eyes as the spices struck him.

"I will have to introduce you to my head cook tomorrow," Wichard said, his cheeks flushed as well. "She was a stowaway on a trading ship. She offered her Eastern skills in exchange for our hospitality. Her dishes are worth the expense of the spices."

"I think it may take some getting used to," Arthur admitted, reaching for his bread.

Wichard laughed, delighted.

Musicians played in turns, their music lilting above the chatter of the crowd. As evening fell, the torches were lit. There was a lull in the feast, allowing everyone time to digest and chat with their neighbors before the desserts were brought out. And then there were tarts and breads and custards, glistening with fruits and honey. Merlin couldn't resist a single bite.

Finally it was time for the bonfires. The crowd slowly filtered out of the castle and down to the shoreline. The children of Gedref stood at the front or sat on their fathers' shoulders, eager despite the lateness of the hour.

Wichard stood before the unlit bonfires, flaming torch in hand. He held it up aloft to silence the crowd, and the loud murmur settled down until all that could be heard was the gentle lapping of the surf and the restless sounds of tired children.

"This has been a hard summer," Wichard spoke, his voice booming out once more. "But the wheel of the year turns, and we are blessed once more. Soon the feast of August will be upon us. As many here will be travelling on the sacred day, let us now mark the changing of the seasons. Let us be grateful for the bounties of nature and family. For the grain of life and the sickle of harvest time. Tonight, all quarrels and offenses are forgiven, all regrets shed like chaff and left behind."

There was a murmur through the crowd as all assented. Wichard bowed his head, then raised it again, and brought the torch into the central bonfire and continued as the dry wood caught and flared.

It was good to hear such familiar words. The harvest season was celebrated in Camelot, just as all the fire festivals were, but last year Uther gave only a perfunctory speech, and nothing so much like the prayers of Merlin's youth. Of course, there was no mention of Lleu's fading or Modron's pregnancy as the sun god died to be reborn. Such outright worship of the Old Religion was as banned as magic itself. But the intent behind it, the meaning behind the prayers, somehow lived on.

As the bonfire began to climb high, Merlin added his own silent prayer. He gave thanks for the great bounty that he had received, of Arthur's love and a place forever by his side. He did his best to let go of his regrets. It felt right that he would be giving Arthur the full truth at the start of the new season. All his falseness would be burned away in that cleansing fire, and only the truth of himself would be left for Arthur to take as his harvest. He felt as ready as the dry bonfire wood, eager to catch and burn.

"Tonight, let us celebrate!" Wichard continued, his voice again full of cheer. "Let the music play! Let the ale flow!"

An answering cheer came from the crowd, and the remaining bonfires were lit. The musicians began to bow out a jig, and more cheers rang out as a cask of ale was carried out. This seemed to be the signal for the tone of the evening to shift, and the younger children were taken home, along with any who were too tired for further festivities. This thinned the crowd somewhat, and whatever formality that remained to the evening at last dissipated.

"Come dance with us?" asked Milessent, asking them with the shy boldness of her years.

But her sister had no such shyness. Mahenyld took Arthur's hand and pulled him towards the large gap between the fires, where couples were joining up to dance. Arthur laughed and let himself be pulled along, delighted by her daring and utter lack of decorum. Merlin smiled and held out his arm for Milessent.

They ended up next to each other, the sisters across from them as they tried to match themselves with the other dancers. It was a common dance, one Merlin had done at countless gatherings. But to his surprise, Arthur looked rather lost, embarrassed by his halting steps as he tried his best to follow along.

Merlin knew he shouldn't laugh, but he couldn't help himself. He'd finally found something that Arthur was rubbish at, and it was dancing. Merlin was certain that Arthur could do an expert turn at whatever passed for dancing among the nobility, but down among the common folk he was as wobbly as a newborn foal.

When the jig ended, Merlin and Arthur bowed to the sisters, who bowed back before being called away by Helewisa. They both pouted when they were told that they would have only a little longer before they would be sent to their chambers as well.

Arthur looked relieved that he would not be called upon for another jig, but Merlin wasn't going to let him escape that easily.

"I thought princes knew everything," Merlin teased. "Do you seriously not know how to dance?"

"Of course I know how to dance," Arthur defended. "I just don't know this one."

"You just need a good teacher," Merlin said, stepping closer. The night was deepening fast, becoming full of contrasts: the cool night and the fierce flames, the dancing light that whipped up with the ocean breeze. The close anonymity of the crowd, the fast flow of ale erasing all dividing lines.

The music started up again, a reel with a faster beat. The other couples paired up to dance, and Merlin pulled Arthur slightly away from the group so they wouldn't be pulled along with the others.

"You'll like this one," Merlin said, moving Arthur into position. "It's called the fennel."

Arthur gave a skeptical look. "Who names a dance after a vegetable?"

Merlin declined to rise to the bait. He took Arthur's hand and lifted it up. "Just do as I do, and stay with the beat. Step away, then back again. Away, back." He smiled as Arthur imitated him. "That's it. Now we walk around… Now switch hands and go the other way… and hook arms and swing!" He and Arthur hooked elbows, and they both got carried away in swinging the other around, until Arthur's tension evaporated into laughter.

"Now the other way?" Arthur asked, eyes shining with amusement. They hooked arms again, this time managing not to spin each other dizzy.

Merlin walked Arthur through the clapping motions that came next, and then came the last stage. Merlin tried to take Arthur into his arms to lead him, but Arthur wasn't having any of it.

"You can't expect me to follow!" Arthur protested.

"Boys followed in Ealdor all the time," Merlin countered, unmoved. "And girls led. You had to be adaptable or you might not get to dance at all."

"I might not know all your little claps and turns, but I was taught by the finest instructors in Albion." Arthur placed his hand on Merlin's back, forcing Merlin to rest his own hand on Arthur's shoulder. He stepped forward with the beat, making Merlin step back. "I can sweep any princess off her feet," he continued, making Merlin dance back and back and spinning him around until they were back at the starting position again. They had taken almost twice as long as everyone else to do a single round, but they were just in time for the third.

"I thought I wasn't a princess," Merlin said, fond and soft under Arthur's certainty.

Arthur just smiled. He walked Merlin into the group as the round began, and stepped confidently along with the beat, the bonfire light shining in his eyes like golden magic.

§

As the evening wore on, it became clear why the children had been ushered away. Fire festivals always had a way of encouraging the romance-minded into more wanton forms of revelry, but with the heady air of victory over the Deorham, with tomorrow's departure, with the easy flow of ale and the heat of dancing around the bonfires, the evening was rapidly degenerating into unrestrained bawdiness. Everyone was having more than a good time, and those unable to find a partner to sneak off with into a shadowed corner were happy to group together for loud and lewd drinking songs. Even Wichard and Helewisa had abandoned all refinement as they tangled together, their mugs of ale toppled and forgotten in favor of long, tender kisses. Clearly the romance had not gone from their marriage.

Merlin had spent the night stealing sips of Arthur's ale between increasingly close dances, and though Arthur had not let him become drunk, Merlin was pleasantly tipsy, with all the sharp edges of the world worn away. As the fires had burned lower, the dances had become slower and more intimate. Merlin had been hesitant to be so daring, but as bold as he felt, Arthur was bolder. And in the easy atmosphere, the covering darkness, Merlin felt as he had during their swim in the ocean. That if Arthur thought it was safe, Merlin could trust that it was. He could let go of his worries and relax in Arthur's strong embrace.

They finished another dance, one that seemed more an excuse to press against each other than anything that required actual steps. Arthur kept hold of Merlin's waist as he had before, but instead of heading towards the ale casks for another drink, Arthur steered them away from the singers at the water, and out to where the couples clung together, entwined in the shadows.

"Arthur?" Merlin asked, pulse quickening. For all the intimacy of the evening, for all that they had danced so closely and barely been out of reach, Arthur had not kissed him even once. Perhaps he might have if Arthur had been as drunk as the rest, but despite mugs of ale and goblets of wine, he'd remained remarkably clear-eyed. Merlin ached to be kissed. He ached for a lot of things.

But Arthur didn't stop for a convenient shrub or a shadowed doorway. His steady pace brought them to the forge, of all places. Merlin realized the genius of it at once. Even in their drunken states, no one had come near the forge, still wary of the magic that had burned there. It was almost private.

The moment they were past the threshold, Arthur was upon him, grabbing him and trapping him against a sturdy post. Merlin's whimpers were swallowed up as Arthur claimed his mouth with starving kisses, as Arthur's strength and his heat pressed against him until he felt as if he might glow like forged steel. If Merlin had hungered for Arthur all evening, it was clear that Arthur had harbored an equal appetite. The feast, their dancing, the hours spent close together in one way or another, it had all whetted their desperation to its sharpest edge.

They needed each other too much to hold back. Their kisses were open-mouthed and sloppy, teeth and tongues clashing as they battled for control. Merlin gradually became aware that he was humping Arthur's hip, whining high and needy as he grasped at Arthur's arms and back and tried to shimmy up him like he was a tree.

Arthur growled and thrust against him, the hard press of his arousal a match for Merlin's own. But then he broke the kiss and pulled away, and when Merlin tried to follow, Arthur pinned him back against the post. Merlin groaned with need and strained against his hands.

"Look at you," Arthur murmured, low with lust. His nostrils flared as he breathed in, taking in the scent of him. "Look at you," he breathed, soaking him up with his eyes.

Arthur was a sight himself, even in the dimness of the forge. His lips were wet and red, his face was flushed and his hair was in disarray, his golden circlet askew. The laces of his shirt had been opened by their dancing, and his jacket was rumpled. Merlin could just see the faint wisps of his chest hair as his body heaved with each breath.

Merlin wanted him. He wanted every inch of him, wanted to take him whole and be taken whole. He wanted to drown in his perfection and his ruin, in his scent, in his touch. Wanted a feast of Arthur greater than any meal.

"Please," Merlin begged, baring his need.

Arthur pressed in close again. "Do you want to come for me?" he cooed, sweet in Merlin's ear. "Do you want to rut yourself against me and come in your trousers like a filthy wanton? Or do you want me inside you, fucking you so hard that you scream my name?"

Merlin choked back a cry, nearly coming just from Arthur's words alone. But it was barely even a choice. "Inside," he groaned, though his self-control was in such tatters that he didn't think he could last long enough unless Arthur had brought a phial of oil with him to the feast. Which was entirely possible, knowing Arthur. "Fuck me. Fuck me, Arthur, please," he begged, straining for a kiss that was just out of reach.

Arthur gave him an approving smile and hushed him tenderly. With one hand pinning Merlin's chest, he reached up with the other to stroke Merlin's fevered cheek. His thumb pressed past Merlin's parted lips, and Merlin suckled at it, his cheeks hollowing with promise. He still owed Arthur for their moment together in the harbor.

"That's it," Arthur sighed, as he rubbed the pad of his thumb against Merlin's tongue. The action soothed Merlin, the knowledge that Arthur was in control easing him back from the brink. He could wait, if it was what Arthur wanted of him. He could wait, if it meant he could give Arthur pleasure.

"My sweet bird," Arthur purred, easing the pressure of his hand as Merlin calmed for him. "Always so good for me. So beautiful." He pulled his thumb free, and gifted Merlin with soft kisses, almost chaste. "Will you stay like this for me?"

"Yes," Merlin sighed, held unresisting by the gentle dominance in Arthur's eyes.

Arthur rewarded him with more kisses. "Just like this," he said, and took a long step back to see if Merlin would obey.

Merlin gave a shaky sigh at the loss of him, but stayed just as Arthur had left him, pressed back against the post, cock aching and lips tingling. Arthur's gaze raked him with an almost physical touch, and Merlin swallowed against his need. His hands moved of their own accord, reaching falteringly for his aching cock, caught between his own satisfaction and Arthur's.

"No," Arthur said, taking hold of his wrists and pulling them away, keeping him from touching himself. Merlin bit his lip and whimpered as Arthur pressed close again, and he thrust against him, mouthed at his jaw to lap away the salt of his sweat. Merlin wanted to be good. He wanted to do as Arthur bade. But he was so close, and it was so hard not to take everything he could reach.

Arthur tutted and stepped away again, and Merlin gave a keening whine. He clenched his hands into fists at his sides as he strained to hold himself back.

Arthur's eyes were wide in the darkness, with only a trace of blue escaping the breadth of his arousal. He stared at Merlin with something like awe, like Merlin's need was too much even to look upon. But Arthur didn't look away. He remained fixed on Merlin, taking in the full scope of him, soaking him up like he was a challenge to be solved, a kingdom to be conquered.

When he stepped forward again, it was with intent. He took hold of Merlin's wrists again and pinned them above his head, against the post. "I'll fuck you," he promised, quiet and tense with control. "But not yet. Not here. And you won't…" He faltered, took in a hissed breath. "You'll come when I say, or not at all."

Merlin shook his head. With Arthur so close, he didn't think he could last another minute, much less all the way back to the castle, to their chambers. He could feel dampness where his cock pressed full against his clothes. If Arthur touched him… if Arthur touched him, he was certain he would come in an instant, that he would never make it to their bed. "I can't," he choked. He wanted to be good, to wait, to be still. But so much of him wanted everything now, wanted to seize Arthur and claim him in a frenzy. He wanted to gorge himself on Arthur as he would a bush of ripe berries, have him all at once until he was messy and full. But he wanted the slow feast, too, to savor every delicate bite as Arthur patiently fed him.

"You can," Arthur said, confidence growing now. "I'll help you, if you'll let me. Do you trust me, Merlin?"

"Yes," Merlin sighed.

"Will you give yourself to your King?" Arthur murmured, sweet and soft at his ear. "Will you give me everything?"

"Everything," Merlin echoed, feeling the brush of Arthur's hair against his cheek as he nodded.

"Mmm," Arthur purred. He kissed Merlin's ear, each press as light as a whisper, and then caught the lobe between his lips and sucked on it, nipped it. "Don't move," he ordered, and stepped back, releasing him all at once.

If not for the support of the post, Merlin would surely have fallen. He pushed back against the sturdy wood, pressing his hands against it to keep them in place. He watched through slitted eyes as Arthur unfastened his belt and pulled the leather out between his hands, stretching it taut and then letting it lie limp across his palm. He stepped close again and took Merlin's wrists from where he'd left them, and brought them down and back. Merlin did not resist as Arthur pressed them together and bound them with the belt, pulling the leather tight before loosening it enough that the position did not strain his arms or cut his skin. There a clink as the buckle was fixed, and then it was done.

"Oh," Merlin breathed, tugging against the binding to feel it hold him. The solidity of it felt like permission: that it was safe now to let go, to give himself fully into Arthur's care and not have to struggle. His hands loosened from their fists and he felt calmed, even more than he was by the press of Arthur's thumb against his tongue. He still ached, still needed, but it helped.

His reward was immediate. Arthur took him in his arms and kissed him, sweet and soft and light, the same as the caress of his hands up and down Merlin's sides. Arthur was gentle as he began his slow feast, first Merlin's mouth and then his neck, pulling the collar of Merlin's shirt as wide as it could stretch so he could leave a trail of licks and kisses all along his shoulder. He did the same on the other side, though there he began to suck and nip, leaving fresh marks where there had once been an array of lovebites.

When Merlin tried to hold back his moans, to silence himself lest they be discovered, Arthur kissed his mouth open again.

"No," Arthur said, gently chiding. "Tonight you hold nothing back from me. Every moan, every whimper, those are mine. There is nothing of you that is not mine."

"Sire," Merlin sighed, grateful beyond words. All he wanted was to give Arthur everything, his body and his magic and all the pieces of himself, and they all curled together to be claimed and bound by his King.

Satisfied that Merlin understood, Arthur moved down, lowering himself to one knee. He reached up beneath Merlin's shirt and traced one finger along the line of crisp hairs that ran from his navel to his groin, slowly peeling away Merlin's trousers as he went until they fell free and pooled around his ankles. Merlin's cock was almost painfully full, arching proud and swollen from its dark nest of curls. Unable to beg for relief, all the words were caught in Merlin's chest, leaving only lost, desperate sounds.

"Want me to touch you?" Arthur asked, deceptively softly. "Hmm?"

"Yes, but…" Merlin tried, dragging in air in an attempt at clearing the thick fog of his lust. "I can't…"

"You can't?" Arthur teased, his voice warm and low.

Merlin bit back a whimper as the seduction of Arthur's voice sent a fresh ripple of arousal through him, and he felt the slow slide of pre-come as it leaked out of him and dripped. Arthur caught the clear slick on his fingers as it fell. He stood again and smeared it across Merlin's lips before kissing it away.

"Then I'll just have to help you," Arthur murmured against him, and then stepped back again. He reached up and pulled out the lacing from his shirt, and as with the belt he stretched it out, examining it and considering its application. Then he knelt and wrapped the red lace carefully around Merlin's balls and the base of his cock, binding them.

"How does it feel?" Arthur asked, checking that nothing was pulling too tightly.

"Strange," Merlin said, taking in the novelty of the sensation. It made his arousal both sharper and yet somehow farther away. "Good, I think."

Arthur quirked a smile at this. "No pain?"

Merlin shook his head. He shifted his hips, feeling the way the rope pulled him taut, the way his cock and balls now felt hot and swollen. "It'll stop me?"

Arthur nodded, pleased that Merlin understood. "It will help," he said, and rewarded Merlin with an easy stroke along his shaft, a teasing caress to the tight skin of his balls. Merlin gave a shaky gasp as Arthur finally touched him, but he no longer felt like he was about to fall apart. Not when Arthur was holding him together.

Arthur left Merlin's cock and pushed up his shirt, exposing the fresh and faded bruises that mottled his skin. Arthur kissed every one of them, as if thanking him and apologizing for all the pain he'd taken as Arthur's knight. Each kiss drew away more of Merlin's tension. He wanted to let go completely, to forget about everything else, to only exist in the safe space that Arthur gave him. He had worked so hard to be strong for Arthur, to be his brave knight, to be his victory. But now that it was over, in this rare moment of peace, he wanted to be weak. To let go and simply trust his King.

Once Arthur had kissed every bruise, he returned to them again, this time to mark and claim them, to write over every mark with his own. He chased them along Merlin's collarbone and chest and belly and sides, mouthing his nipples and biting gently upon them. He traced the lines of his ribs and his muscles with his fingertips and then brought his hands around to splay against Merlin's back as his mouth claimed the jut of his hip. It seemed that not an inch of him was left untouched, the way his whole skin tingled and throbbed.

"I was wrong, you know," Arthur murmured, as he idly rolled one nipple between his fingers, twisting it as Merlin squirmed and whimpered, every moan loud in the quiet of the forge. "Well, not entirely wrong. But there was more I needed to understand."

Merlin had no idea what Arthur was going on about, and he wasn't sure if he was currently capable of caring. But then Arthur stopped his delicious torments as if waiting for a response, and Merlin had no choice but to make an effort.

"What..." he began, and swallowed as Arthur's hand moved down to his inner thigh, where it pressed to urge Merlin's legs to spread wider. "What'd you need... to understand?"

Arthur dipped his head down and mouthed where his hand had been, sucking and nipping as his head pressed and rubbed against Merlin's throbbing genitals, a few drops of pre-come smearing in his hair. The contrast with the gleaming circlet nearly stole the last of Merlin's sense, but the bruising pull of Arthur's mouth surely finished the job. His open moans, so unrestrained, surely could be heard all the way back at the bonfires. But he couldn't stop himself, wouldn't stop himself, not if Arthur wanted all of Gedref to hear and know that Merlin was his.

Arthur's hands hooked behind his knees, forcing them to bend, sliding Merlin down the post into a kneel. Arthur cupped his jaw and opened his mouth with his thumb, and kissed Merlin's parted lips.

"Everything," Arthur murmured, kissing the jut of a cheekbone. "When you say that, what it means." He pulled back enough to look Merlin in the eyes, though Merlin could only look back hazy and half-lidded. "It's never been just words for you. It's this. It's being my knight. My weapon, my shield. Whatever I need of you."

"Yes," Merlin sighed, chest tight with relief.

"All day, you've been trying so hard for me. Even at the feast, I saw you. I watched you becoming what I need. Listening to Lord Wichard, fitting in with the nobles, copying me so you could make me proud. So you can become my advisor. Just because I asked it of you. You'd lay whole kingdoms at my feet, if I asked it."

"Yes," Merlin whispered. Anything, for Arthur.

Arthur made an approving hum. "It truly is like you were made for me," he said, seeing the fact of it now, seeing all through Merlin to the heart of him. "And that's what makes you perfect. Even if you'll never be my princess."

Arthur smiled at the last, trying to blunt the strength of his words with the joke, but Merlin didn't care about that. He blinked against the sudden tears that welled up in his eyes and spilled away, but they were tears of joy and not sadness. He smiled through them at the sight of Arthur's concern, sniffing and laughing as Arthur wiped at his cheeks.

"My King," he said, trembling. "My King. My King."

Arthur took him in his arms and held him, cradled him, soothed him. Kissed him, over and over, pouring love and gratitude and belonging into Merlin until he felt as though he might burst.

"That's better," Arthur said, when he saw that Merlin's eyes had dried. And then without warning, he lifted the circlet from his own head and placed it upon Merlin's.

"Sire," Merlin protested, shocked at such a gesture.

"Wear it for me tonight," Arthur said, neither asking nor ordering. "For all that you have done for Camelot. For all that you have done for me. And if not for that, then because you can deny me nothing."

"Then I have no choice," Merlin said, as lightly as he could manage.

"None at all," Arthur agreed. He adjusted the circlet and smoothed the tufts of Merlin's unruly hair. There seemed to be more inside him, but nothing he was prepared to voice. He had already said so much.

Arthur kissed him soundly as he brushed his hands through Merlin's hair, feeling the crown upon it, the joining of his two most precious possessions: his kingdom and Merlin. For once, Merlin did not feel jealous, for a kingdom could not be so held, so ravished. A kingdom could not feel the press of its King against it, hot and hard, soft and gentle, taking everything it gave and more.

When Arthur finally broke the kiss, he was trembling, overcome with lust and emotion. Even Arthur's self-control had its limits, and at last he had reached them. He pushed himself up, already struggling with the laces of his trousers, and when he freed himself, his cock was full and dark, the head glistening with smears of pre-come.

He fed Merlin his cock without preamble, needing no permission. He gripped Merlin's head as he eased them both into position, and groaned loudly as Merlin swallowed him without resistance. Merlin needed to be used, and Arthur needed to use him, and it was good and right and Merlin's magic curled up in his chest like a well-scratched cat, warm and pliant.

Arthur tried to hold back, but it was a futile effort. He fucked Merlin's mouth, his throat, with stuttered moans, his hands grasping tight in Merlin's hair as he stared down at him. The more Merlin gave, the more Arthur took, his thrusts coming faster and harder, almost punishing. But in such a state he could not last long, and all too soon he held himself rooted, a keening sob wrenched from his chest. His legs were trembling, and he fell to his knees as soon as he finished, come smearing Merlin's mouth and chin and he pulled abruptly free. And then Arthur was holding him so tightly, chest heaving against Merlin as he caught his own breath, as he swallowed what Arthur had left inside him.

"You all right?" Merlin rasped, wishing he could hold Arthur back.

Arthur gave a soft affirmative, easing his hold but not letting go. His breathing eased and he sighed against Merlin's ear, petted him. "Never better," he said, as he finally pulled back to face him. Arthur kissed him, lapping up the smears on his face and feeding them to Merlin from his tongue, tasting himself in Merlin's mouth. He only stopped kissing once every trace of come had been swallowed down. Arthur's broad hand caressed his jaw and his throat and then his chest, as if following the path of it, as if feeling that it was where it belonged.

Calm again, Arthur rose and tucked himself in, pulled his clothing back into place. He took deep draughts of the night air, and then helped Merlin up onto his feet as well, guiding his arms as he slid him up the post. He looked down at Merlin's swollen, aching cock with affection, and stroked it lightly, smearing the long streaks of pre-come that had dripped down like candle wax. His slick hand cupped Merlin's taut balls, and rubbed across the lace that held him bound.

"So lovely," Arthur sighed, admiring the sight of him, so ruined with need, so bared in his restraint. Arthur knelt down to pull up Merlin's trousers, and before he finished he gave a quick suck to the head of his cock, coaxing another strained sob from Merlin before he tucked him carefully away and tied his trousers closed. Merlin's cock bulged obscenely beneath the fabric, kept full and high from the lacing.

Arthur moved behind him to release him from the post. He opened the buckle and eased the belt from Merlin's wrists, then came around and kissed the marks the belt had left behind -- not from the tightness, but from how Merlin had strained against the leather in his desperation. Arthur rubbed at the marks to soothe and ease them, and then pulled Merlin's arms back behind him again and slipped the belt back on, this time without the post.

"Um," Merlin began, not sure what Arthur had in mind. They still had to get back to the castle, and even though he had not yet been fucked, Merlin was certain that he looked like he had been. His obvious erection was bad enough, but did Arthur mean to keep his wrists bound as well? There were lines and then there was lines.

"Don't look so worried," Arthur said, amused by Merlin's concern. He took off his jacket and draped it around Merlin's shoulders, pulled it closed and secured it with a single button. It was large enough on Merlin's frame that it just managed to hide both his bound wrists and his arousal.

"Right," Merlin said, trying to relax again. He didn't know why he always worried so much, when Arthur always had things in hand, with all his secret thoughts and plans. Arthur wouldn't leave him so vulnerable if he wasn't confident he could protect him.

Merlin mustered a smile for him, and Arthur rewarded him with a sweet kiss and the straightening of the circlet on his head.

"It won't be long now," Arthur soothed, his hand steady against Merlin's back, guiding him towards the door. "Just follow my lead."

It was easy for Arthur to look so at ease when he wasn't the one all tied up and desperate to come. But Merlin did his best to walk naturally as Arthur guided him back to the bonfires and towards the castle gates.

Though they had not been gone long, it was clear that celebrations were at last coming to an end. The musicians had gone home, and only the hardier souls were still working their way through the last of the ale. The bonfires were mostly embers, and the torches were fading. Even the scattered lovers were fleeing to their cozy beds, for sleep or other private things. Still, every time they passed someone, it gave Merlin a strange thrill, a mixture of fear and excitement that was not dissimilar to how he felt every time Arthur put him out in the open for everyone to see. The fear was not new, but the excitement was, and he wondered if Arthur was training him into this as well, if he could grow to enjoy such exposure. He supposed that he would have to become accustomed to it, if only because a life at Arthur's side necessarily meant that people would be watching him closely, once they knew that he was more than a servant. He had already experienced that much in Gedref.

Apart from one especially friendly drunk, they made it back to their borrowed chambers without incident. Still, Merlin only truly relaxed once the door was closed and locked behind them. Locked doors were their friends, after all. And as much as Arthur enjoyed riding the line between private and public, it was only in such a safe place that he truly relaxed himself. When it was just the two of them and the thick walls around them, in a tiny kingdom all their own.

Arthur lit some candles and stripped himself down first, taking a moment for himself before he unwrapped the gift he had made of Merlin. He had his own bruises, mostly on his arms and one nasty welt on his side. Merlin had seen them when they'd had their ocean swim, of course, but there had been too many distractions at the time. He wanted to kiss each one of them, to put his love into them to help them heal. He wanted to soothe Arthur's wounds the way Arthur had soothed his. He also wanted to come very, very badly.

Having taken the edge off his own need, however, Arthur was in a patient mood. He removed his jacket from around Merlin and put it aside, then helped him out of his boots and trousers. He looked openly regretful that he had to unbind Merlin to strip him completely bare, but freed his wrists anyway and rubbed at the fresh marks on them. He took off the circlet, stripped away Merlin's jacket and shirt until all he wore was the red lace that Arthur had tied him with. Arthur ran his thumb along it, and along the sensitized skin beside it.

Merlin whined and thrust against Arthur's teasing fingers. "Arthur, please," he begged, unable to bear it much longer.

"Not yet," Arthur said, guiding Merlin onto the bed and laying him out. There were slats in the headboard, and Arthur still had the belt with him. He ran the belt through the slats and overcame Merlin's petulant resistance to secure his wrists again. "I'm going to untie you," Arthur said, soothing his pout. "But you're not to come until I say. If your hands are free, you won't be able to help yourself. You'll make such a mess."

There was a knowing, arrogant tone to his words that made Merlin want to fuck Arthur until he was the one who writhed and begged, but it also made Merlin want to curl himself into Arthur's mercy and let him do absolutely anything to him. The combination left him dizzy. And then Arthur was plucking at the knot that held the lace, and Merlin gave a long, desperate keen as the lace was loosened and pulled away and the pressure on his cock was finally released.

"Don't come," Arthur said, his command soft but unyielding as he wrapped his broad, warm hand around Merlin's aching cock and held it. Not squeezing, not stroking, simply holding it as Merlin writhed and groaned and slowly settled. He waited until Merlin lay calm, with his breathing even, and then rubbed at the marks from the lace as he had the ones on Merlin's wrists. All Merlin could do was concentrate on holding back his arousal. It took everything he had.

"Good," Arthur soothed, approving. "Very good. My sweet bird, always so good for me. I know it's hard, holding back. But I know you can do it. I know you can be strong for me."

Arthur's words helped, somehow, his belief in Merlin's strength helping him to be strong. The need to come eased in him until he no longer felt like one good thrust of his hips would finish him off. If Arthur needed him to wait, he would wait.

Arthur smiled at him, and Merlin smiled back, encouraged by Arthur's pride in him. They kissed for a while, slow and easy, bodies only just touching. Arthur didn't tease him or touch him in any way that would drive his arousal high again, only unhurried and gentle caresses. Merlin felt Arthur's own arousal return, rising until his cock was hard and hot against Merlin's hip.

"Soon," Arthur said, smiling at Merlin's hopeful glances. "But I want to do something else first, if you can be good for me and wait. I want to ride you again."

Merlin suddenly had a much harder time not grabbing Arthur and rutting at him until he came. If he hadn't been bound, he probably couldn't have stopped himself. As it was his hands were tight fists as he strained against the belt, as he hissed in air through gritted teeth. Arthur smirked at him and watched as Merlin's cock twitched and dripped at just the thought of thrusting into Arthur's hot, tight arse.

"Thought you'd like that," Arthur chuckled, looking awfully smug about it. "Good. I liked it, too. The stretch as you filled me, and then your cock all hot and thick inside me. And the way you looked, the way you gasped and writhed beneath me, so absolutely helpless with need. Like you are now."

"I can't," Merlin said, biting back a groan. "One thrust and I'll be done, Arthur, I swear." And gods, even the thought of coming inside of Arthur made it even more unbearable. At this rate, the moment Arthur straddled him, he was going to make a mess of himself right then and there, and forget about anyone fucking anyone.

"It's been long enough," Arthur said, considering him. "It'll be safe to tie you again. Do you want me to lace you up, all nice and snug?"

Arthur truly was an unbelievable prat, and cruel, and awful, and a tormentor. And if this was his torture, driving Merlin mad with pleasure on the condition that Arthur decided when he'd earned his release, then Merlin would lay himself at his mercy. "Please," he groaned, letting his head fall back against the pillows.

At least Arthur wasn't going to make him beg for it. He left the bed and returned with the red lacing, a phial of oil, and a determined gleam in his eye. As always, Arthur was unstoppable when he was in a good mood, and Merlin wouldn't have it any other way.

Arthur laced his cock first, which was just as well because without that, Merlin might have come just from the sight of Arthur pressing slick fingers up inside himself. Merlin stared openly, biting his lip as he watched the oil glisten as Arthur's hand worked at the cleft of his arse, back and forth, opening him up and making him all nice and slippery. Arthur moaned as he fingered himself, smiling because he knew that his pleasure only added to Merlin's torment. It was his own impatience that finally made him abandon his self-pleasure and anoint Merlin's throbbing, oversensitive cock. Even the slide of Arthur's slick hand felt like too much.

Arthur crawled over him, caging him with his limbs as he kissed Merlin's bitten lip, tutting as he tasted blood where Merlin had broken the skin.

"I don't want to have to gag you," Arthur said, gently. "But I will if you hurt yourself this way."

"Sorry," Merlin breathed, oddly ashamed. He was used to having something to bite down on, he supposed.

Arthur hushed him and kissed him again, forgiving him. "Would it help? I wouldn't mind."

Merlin thought of how loudly he might scream as Arthur clenched tightly around him, if he had nothing to bite down on, and nodded. It was all right to admit to Arthur when he needed help, so he wouldn't hurt himself. Not just as his knight, but all the time. He was starting to understand that. It helped so much that Arthur never judged him in those moments, was never anything but gentle with him when he was hurting and admitted that he needed help.

Arthur left him again, and returned with one of Merlin's kerchiefs, freshly laundered and neatly folded. Arthur shook it out and folded it into the required shape, and then brought it up to Merlin's mouth.

"Wait," Merlin said, and Arthur pulled away the kerchief. "I just… before you put it on. I wanted to say, um. Thank you."

For tonight, he added, silently. For helping him be a brave knight, for trusting him with so many things, for being kind and caring and full of so much love. It was all too much to say aloud, but he looked into Arthur's eyes and saw that Arthur knew it anyway. Arthur knew him, and that was the thing that Merlin was grateful for most of all. Arthur knew him.

Arthur kissed him once more before placing the kerchief between his teeth and knotting it behind his jaw. Even in this, Arthur took such care of him. Because Arthur loved him, he loved him, and all he wanted was for Merlin to be good for him and happy and strong and brave. All he wanted was for Merlin to trust him and tell him the truth, to let out the secrets inside him so they wouldn't hurt anymore. And Merlin would. As soon as he could, as soon as they were home, he would open up every last bottle inside him and pour them all out into Arthur's hands. And Arthur would be kind and understanding and everything would be all right. Arthur would still love him, just as he did now.

Arthur's slick hand on his cock drew his attention abruptly back to the present moment. Arthur had been watching him as he'd been briefly lost in his thoughts, but if he'd gleaned any of them it was clearly of less interest than the way Merlin was all tied up for him now, gagged and bound and laced, entirely surrendered to his mercies, tender or otherwise. Arthur teased him with languid strokes to his swollen cock, clearly eager to see Merlin writhing and moaning helplessly once more. It didn't take him long to get what he wanted.

Only then did he finally kneel astride Merlin's hips. With one hand gripping Merlin's cock, he impaled himself at his own pace, cautious at first and then working himself lower, working Merlin deeper. Merlin could only tremble beneath him, barely breathing as he was sheathed into Arthur's body, and it was somehow even better than he'd remembered. Maybe because Arthur was in complete control now, not driven by fear or exhilaration, but savoring this as if he had all the time in the world. He clenched and relaxed as he rode up and down, wiggled and screwed his hips to see how different motions felt. But most of all he watched Merlin, stared at him as he moaned and writhed and sobbed into the gag, as he strained against the leather belt and Arthur's focused weight, trying to thrust up but denied unless Arthur wanted to allow it. It was a slow, agonizing torment, and Merlin lost himself in it.

Merlin wasn't sure how much time passed, how long Arthur drew out his pleasure. It seemed like forever, all blurred together as Merlin rode the very edge of his arousal but was unable to crest it, too well-bound by Arthur's lacing and his command. In a brief moment of coherence, he wondered if Arthur would be able to train him to only the command itself, if he would claim Merlin so entirely that Arthur would one day be able to make him beg and strain for hours until he'd earned such permission. Merlin wasn't sure if the idea scared him or excited him, or maybe both, as he had felt as Arthur escorted him past drunken revellers, all unaware that beneath his clothes, Merlin had been so lewdly marked and bound. If there was a line within Merlin that could make him deny Arthur, that could keep him out, that could not be crossed, it was one that shifted and changed against Arthur's insistence. If there were rules within him, Arthur was rewriting them, little by little, shaping him until he fit just right. It frightened him, sometimes, but it did not feel wrong. Not deep down, in his heart, in his magic. Not from his King.

His beautiful King. Arthur was so handsome as he drove himself on Merlin's cock, riding it with ease and the flex of a strong body, strong thighs, all flushed and damp with sweat. Even the bruises made him beautiful, echoing the fierceness with which he fought. Arthur did not touch himself until he was on the very brink of his climax, teeth bared against his need, and then when he did it was only to hold his cock down as it pulsed, streaking Merlin's belly and chest and neck with long, white lines.

Arthur settled back with a long sigh of contentment, clenching around Merlin's almost painful arousal, savoring the feel of it inside him. He stayed like that for a few long minutes, admiring the sight of Merlin below him, with his low, constant whimpers and the restless shifting of his hips as he strained for and against the release he was denied. Finally, he leaned forward, not releasing Merlin but pinning his thighs together with his bent legs, and leaning one hand on the bed so the other was free to trace idle patterns in the streaks of his come. He toyed with it, with Merlin's body, having captured him so entirely that no resistance was even possible. He spread the come across his skin, rubbed circles as if to work it into his skin, marking him on the outside as he had on the inside, when he had come deep into his throat, into his belly. And all the while, he kept Merlin's cock nestled inside himself, tucked away so only Arthur could enjoy it.

At last Arthur's dominance was sated, and he eased off of Merlin with a wet sound and a long groan. Merlin was barely coherent, soaked in pleasure but taut from denial. He felt lost and found, safe and scared, fragmented and bound so tightly into a whole. He sobbed and keened into the gag, and Arthur was tender with him, smiling down at him, stroking him, gentling him until he calmed. Until he no longer felt devoured by his own need, until Arthur mastered it and made it safe again.

Arthur lay beside him and held him for a while, kissing him sometimes and telling him over and over how good he was, how sweet and perfect and right he was, about the things they would do together once they were home. His words wrapped around Merlin's heart and swaddled it, holding it as firm and gentle as Arthur did his body. As Merlin came back to himself, he realized that Arthur was stroking himself, making himself hard as soon as he could so he could give Merlin what he'd promised, what he had asked for, back at the forge. So Merlin could come with Arthur deep inside him, pounding into him as Merlin screamed his name. So Merlin could be given permission, so he could be released.

Seeing the clarity return to Merlin's eyes, Arthur removed the gag, the kerchief now soiled with spit and deep bite-marks. "Hey," he said, with a soft smile.

Merlin wanted to reach for him and wrap himself around him, but the belt stopped him. "Untie me? Please?" he asked, his voice rough and rasping.

Arthur obliged him, and rubbed at the marks as he had before, his hands sticky and slick from oil and come. He eased Merlin's arms down and rubbed them to work out the strain they had been under in their confinement. Merlin reached for him, and though his arms felt weak, Arthur helped him and pulled them together so Merlin could cling to him. He was still trembling, and even the press of their bodies felt like too much for his oversensitized cock.

"I wish we could do more," Arthur said, petting his hair and his back. "When we're home, when we don't have a week of riding ahead of us. When I can keep you in my bed for days. I would have given you my hand, but not tonight."

As wrung-out as Merlin was, despite being so aroused he was nearly numb from it, he felt a deep, warm shiver at the promise. "That'd be nice," he slurred, thinking of how good he'd felt that night, how calm and right and safe it had been to have Arthur reach so deeply inside him. As if he could reach all the way to his magic, even to the deep well of it. That he could draw it out like forge-hot steel from the crucible of his body, and use all his strength to hammer it true. And then Merlin would be its sheath, keeping it safe until Arthur chose to draw it out of him and wield it. It would not be his magic, but theirs, as Camelot would be theirs, as Albion would be theirs.

When they were home. Arthur would open him up and reap the harvest of him, his magic and his secrets and all his love. And Merlin would reap a harvest, too, of belonging and trust and understanding and hope, of a future together, of the peace they would bring. Together, they would plant all the little seeds of their dreams, and they would nurture the seedlings until they grew into grain, into forests, into mighty oaks.

Merlin kissed Arthur, then, and moved against him to show that he was ready. He was ready for Arthur's last gift of the night. For their idyll here in Gedref to end, and their new life to begin.

Once Merlin was eager enough to rut against Arthur's hip, Arthur stopped him and pressed him flat again. He carefully unlaced Merlin's cock, and this time Merlin braced himself against the rush of sensation that resulted. He keened and whimpered, but he did not bite his lip, did not hurt himself. He let Arthur hold his cock until he could hold himself back, obedient to Arthur's command alone.

At last, Arthur spread Merlin's thighs and pushed them up, guiding Merlin to hold them that way. He grabbed the phial and pooled oil into his hand, and gave Merlin a generous slicking, leaning one arm against the underside of his thighs as he stretched Merlin open and pushed the oil deep. He lined himself up, and pressed until he sank into Merlin with a rumble of contentment. Once rooted, he let Merlin's legs fall and hook around him, and he braced his arms to either side of Merlin's body.

He fucked Merlin with long, steady thrusts, with the patience of a man who had already come twice and lost all his urgency. Each thrust forced a little grunt of air out of Merlin, and drove him against the pillows and into the mattress. Merlin put all that was left of himself into holding back his arousal, though at this point he was so far gone it would be hard to tell if he was close. It was simpler just to do as Arthur said and not come, to hold it all back like a long-held breath, until Arthur gave him air again. He let go of everything else, and his magic stirred from its contentment, as if sensing that satisfaction was near. It suffused him, spreading out under his skin instead of the tight coil Merlin always kept it in, and it was like a warm bath, like he was floating inside himself. He smiled and laughed, and Arthur laughed, too, a breathy huff of amusement between his thrusts.

"Arthur," Merlin sighed, feeling his magic sigh, as his arousal rose and rose, mounding up instead of spilling over, because he had to wait for Arthur. "I'm ready," he groaned, realizing that he was panting, that his heart was racing, his body soaked in sweat. "I can't… you have to tell me. You have to tell me."

"Oh," Arthur gasped, and looked down at Merlin so lovingly, so tenderly, as he fucked him harder, harder, his hips snapping. "Almost time," he gasped, sweat dripping from his fringe. "Almost. Almost."

Merlin moaned Arthur's name, moaned for him over and over as the mound of his need piled higher and higher. He grabbed at Arthur, scrabbling at his arms and his sides, clenching with his thighs to urge him on and in and up. Arthur was making tight, fast noises now, and Merlin's words were slurring together, and his body was pulled taut, waiting, waiting.

"Now," Arthur snarled, as he came himself, and he cried out as Merlin's body tightened impossibly and then released. Merlin's climax felt wrenched out of him, pulled from his straining grip by Arthur's command. He poured out and out and out, pulsing and clenching, sobbing incoherently, sobbing Arthur's name.

When it was over, he lay wrecked and trembling in Arthur's arms, and listened as Arthur whispered to him, "I love you. I love you. I love you."

Chapter Text

Merlin was roused by the familiar sloshing of water being poured into a tub. He gave a soft grumble and rubbed his face against his pillow, and let out a long breath. He felt that he could gladly have slept for hours more, but he cracked open his eyes. From the light, it was still early, but Arthur was already up and about. One day, Merlin would have to break him of his obsession with dawn.

He shifted and was reminded of one of Arthur's other obsessions. He was a bit sore, which was to be expected considering that it had been weeks since Arthur last fucked him, and his arms were stiff, but he'd certainly woken up with worse. He examined himself and found that he was a bit filthy as well; Arthur had not cleaned him up as he usually did. Obviously, coming three times in a row had left him as sleepy and addled as it usually did Merlin. He smiled to himself, thinking that any amount of mess was worth what they had done last night. The dancing, and then the forge, and then in this very bed. It was all a mad, glorious dream, but dreams did not leave him covered in Arthur's marks and his come. He closed his eyes again, rubbing at one of the tenderest of the marks, remembering the sharp suction of Arthur's mouth as he marked over every single bruise, one by one. He could not think of the blows he had taken to earn them, only the kisses and marks that Arthur had covered them with.

The door to the antechamber opened, and Merlin opened his eyes again to see Arthur coming towards him. Arthur sat down beside him and kissed his shoulder, then pulled the covers all the way down to Merlin's knees. Merlin let him look, knowing that Arthur liked to savor what he had done before he had to take any of it away. He let Arthur caress him, to gauge his injuries and to watch Merlin shift restlessly from his body's tenderness. When Arthur finished, Merlin captured one hand and rested his cheek against it.

"Come on, lazy daisy," Arthur said, smiling as he used Merlin's past morning cheer against him. "Any longer and the bath will get cold."

Soon, Merlin would be able to keep their baths hot for as long as they wanted. They could soak together for hours and never get chilled. "Can't have that," he said, reluctantly releasing Arthur's arm and pushing himself up.

Arthur kissed him on the forehead and stood up. He stripped off the loose shirt and trousers he had worn while the servants had been in the antechamber, and strode gloriously naked out the door. Merlin shook off his sleepiness and hurried after him.

In the antechamber, Arthur was already climbing into the tub, easing back into the hot water with a groan. Everything was laid out for them, with a small table placed beside the bath to hold towels and their breakfast. Merlin wasted no time in climbing in, and dunked himself fully beneath the water before surfacing again and settling beside Arthur.

"Let's just stay here all day," Merlin murmured, as the heat soaked into his bones.

Arthur reached for the soap and a washcloth and began washing Merlin's front. "Wish we could," he said, with some regret. "It's going to be a long day. And not an easy one."

"Because we're leaving?"

Arthur nodded. "That, and I need you to do something for me. Something difficult." He gave a crooked smile. "But I know you will."

Merlin gave a soft affirmation, and relaxed as Arthur rubbed slow circles with the washcloth. It was freeing to have Arthur finally know and accept the lengths that Merlin would go for him. He didn't have to plead and struggle to convince Arthur to let him help, didn't have to go behind his back. Arthur knew he could rely on Merlin now, knew he could tell him what he needed and Merlin would simply do it. As his knight and his advisor, and soon as his sorcerer. Anything, for his King.

Arthur didn't say what he needed, but Merlin was content to wait. He let Arthur finish washing him, and then returned the favor, planting kisses on Arthur's wet skin. They fed each other breakfast, and when their closeness inevitably led to arousal, stroked each other to pleasant completion.

They climbed out of the bath and dried off. They dressed in clean clothes and surcoats, but Arthur stopped him before they put on their armor.

"Merlin," Arthur began, and then looked past him. He nudged Merlin over to a pair of chairs and they sat, facing each other. "I am grateful for everything you have done for me. You will always be my knight. But when we return to Camelot, you must go back to being my manservant."

"I know," Merlin said. And he did, of course he did. Arthur was already his King, but to everyone else he was still only Crown Prince. There were limits to how far Arthur could bend Uther's laws without breaking them. Merlin could be a knight in Gedref, but not in Camelot's heart.

"The people here with us now see you as my knight. At the feast, they celebrated your victories. They see that a common man can be as valuable as any noble, if he is brave and has the will to defend."

"They'll support you against the First Code."

"I believe they will," Arthur said. "But until the day comes to challenge it, they must see you as a servant again. I will not make you give up your armor until we are past the mountains again, but before we leave, you must give up your victories. If you don't, the temptation to mention them will be too great, and my father will find out what you have done. If that happens, I will do all I can to protect you, but he will not be forgiving."

Merlin knew what that meant, because he'd seen it happen to Lancelot: arrest and imprisonment, and probably exile. But he'd lived in fear of worse since the moment he'd stepped foot in Camelot. He squared his shoulders. "Tell me what I have to do."

The look that Arthur gave him was equally regretful and proud, laced with relief that Merlin truly was as good as his word. "Before we leave, a mass funeral will be held for our dead. I will say a few words, and then I need you to step forward and ask that your victories be given to Geraint, in honor of his passing. He was a good man who served our kingdom well, and he gave his life protecting his Prince. By passing your victories to him, he will be remembered to my father and his death will be honored. And through him, your actions will also be remembered and honored."

Merlin nodded, settling the task within himself. He still felt guilt for Geraint's death, that if he had not been in denial about his magic, he could have saved him. Passing his glory to Geraint would balance that failure, and it made sense that the people would also want to pay their respects to Arthur's former second-in-command. It was a good plan. "I will do it," he said, calmly.

Arthur put a hand on his shoulder. "And that is why you are my brave knight," he said, grateful.

§

Armor on and bags packed, they left their temporary chambers behind. They found the knights nursing their hangovers in the main hall, looking as worse for wear as everyone else. Lord Wichard's physician was there, handing out little bottles of what Merlin assumed were hangover cures. He must have been working for days to prepare enough, as it seemed that the only people who weren't hungover were those too young to partake at the bonfires, and Merlin and Arthur. But Arthur never liked to drink to excess, and ever since he'd discovered that Merlin could get tipsy from a good whiff from a barmaid's apron, he had not allowed Merlin to overindulge. At least, not with drink. They had their own special, private indulgence, one that Arthur eagerly encouraged.

When the physician came over to them, Arthur politely declined for the both of them. "I am relieved to have no need of such a cure myself this morning," Arthur said. "As useful as it is, I am not fond of the taste."

The physician seemed amused by this. "Gaius still serves the royal household, does he not? He has always been a firm believer in, ah, natural aversion. If it tasted good, it would only encourage his patients to excess."

"You mean he makes it that awful on purpose?" Arthur asked.

"Let us say, he chooses his ingredients for the best effect," the physician said, smoothly equivocating. "Do give him my regards. I trained as his apprentice in my younger years."

The physician was not a young man, but he was still in his prime. "You lived in Camelot?" Merlin asked, curious.

"For a time," the physician said. "But my heart was here, and I returned to complete my education under Lord Wichard's previous physician." He excused himself to give his cure to the next haggard survivors of the revelries.

Arthur was giving the physician a considering look. He was probably tempted to interrogate the man about what else Gaius was doing with his belief in 'natural aversion.' Given how awful Gaius' hangover cure tasted, Merlin couldn't blame him. And he had his own interrogation to conduct, once they were home. Two of them, if he counted the dragon.

As the others weren't ready yet, Arthur and Merlin took their bags outside and over to the staging area where the army was slowly reassembling itself for travel. Once their own belongings were properly stowed, they helped whoever needed the extra hands. Those already at work were just as hungover as those still inside the castle, and progress was steady but slow. Fortunately, the trip home would have a much lighter load than the one they'd carried here. Quite a few were staying behind to assist with the Deorham prisoners, and of course there were those who had not survived, and those who were too injured to travel, due to broken bones or fever. The latter would remain under the physician's care until they were well enough to return. The army would return from battle with far more servants than fighters.

They would soon have one addition, however: the nobles of Deorham, including Idriys and Aeddan. They were still down in the cells, but they were to be taken back to Camelot and used against Alined as ransom. Merlin had not seen Idriys since the battle, and at the moment he had no desire to.

Finally the time came. The crowd that assembled was nearly as large as the one for the feast, but the mood was far more somber. The bodies of the dead, each wrapped in a shroud, were carried on biers as they all made their way up to the top of a hill that overlooked the sea. There, cremation pyres had been built, one for each of the dead, and one by one the bodies were laid upon the crossed timbers. The shrouds were folded back, and the friends and families of each of the dead placed upon them pieces of armor, flowers, and other tokens of remembrance.

A torch was readied, but before the pyres were lit, Lord Wichard stood to give the eulogy. He was dressed in mourning clothes, with no jewelry or adornments, and his family was the same, for all of Gedref was their kin, and theirs to mourn.

"Even in the greatest victories, there are always losses," Wichard began, looking out upon the crowd. "In the past weeks, we have all lost friends and family, under the yoke of oppression and in the defense of our people. We stand here now, in freedom, because of their sacrifices, and for that we are deeply grateful. But we are poorer for the loss of them. While we grieve, we must not lose ourselves to sorrow. They have passed through the Veil, and there they will wait for us, far from the cares of this world. They rest, free from illusion and regret, and one day they will return with Summer's rising."

After the subtle references to the Old Religion at the bonfire, Merlin was not entirely surprised to hear more of them from Wichard now. There was still no mention of the Gods, of course, but the Veil, and the promise of rebirth, these were all unmistakable.

Hard winters in Ealdor had always brought death, culling away the sick and the weak. And after each funeral, when everyone else was asleep, he and his mum would burn a humble offering to the gods and pray together, to help guide the souls of the dead once they were freed from their earthly bodies. That way they would pass through the Veil and be at peace, to be one with the Gods as their bodies were made one with the earth and the sky. In time, they would return, first in the life that was nurtured from the soil and water, and then in full when their souls were given new life. First rest, and then renewal, all in its time.

Life and death were one, as the river and the sea were one. Animals must be killed so they could be eaten. Grain must be harvested to make bread. In the forest, old trees had to fall to make way for saplings to thrive, and the old wood rotted and nurtured the soil. The Mother Goddess blessed the full cycle of life, cherished death and decay as equally as birth and growth. All that was given must ultimately be returned, so that it could be given anew. That was the balance.

Wichard finished his eulogy and stepped aside, and Arthur stepped forward to speak.

"The strength of Camelot is in its people," he began. "Without you, our fields would lie fallow. Our castles would stand empty. But the greatest honor is given to those who sacrifice their lives in the kingdom's defense. The nobility of their spirits will be celebrated for generations to come. They will not be forgotten." He held out his hand, and the torch was given to him. "I, Arthur Pendragon, mourn the death of Sir Geraint of Dumnonia. He served Camelot bravely, first as a squire and then as a knight, and then as my second. From those who marched from Camelot, he was the first to fall, giving his life to save mine. Let his deeds be honored."

"Let his deeds be honored," murmured the crowd.

Arthur handed the torch to Merlin, and Merlin took it, realizing that this was the moment. He took a deep breath, and braced himself as he gathered his words and spoke.

"Sir Geraint defended Camelot with his life, faced his death with bravery," he began, trying not to let his voice waver with nervousness. "But he died before his time. Had he lived, he would have fought bravely to free Gedref. I have nothing of his to give to his memory, but instead I will give what is precious to me." He swallowed. "All that I have done in service as a knight, all the victories I have won against the Deorham, I hereby yield to Sir Geraint of Dumnonia. When you speak of them, let them be in his name, and let mine be forgotten."

There was visible surprise and shock that Merlin would give up so much glory. Knights were meant to amass honors, not surrender them to the dead.

"Let his deeds be honored," Arthur said, calm and clear, showing that Merlin's sacrifice was accepted.

"Let his deeds be honored," said the crowd, bowing their heads in acknowledgement. Whatever qualms they might have, they would not question a funeral offering, certainly not one that was backed by the Crown Prince.

Merlin passed the torch to the next mourner, who gave the name of her dead husband and spoke his praises. When she finished, she lit the wood beneath his body, and passed the torch on. One by one the dead were honored and the pyres were lit. Merlin stood with his head bowed in respect, listening as each mourner spoke, and found himself thinking of Will again, and of his pyre. Merlin had not been able to say anything when Will died. It had all been so fast, and bound up in Merlin's anxiety about his magic and the weight of responsibility. He had been ready to tell Arthur everything, that day, if only because Will had badgered him into it. And then in a matter of moments, Will had saved Arthur's life, taken the blame, given Merlin absolution, and then died. Merlin's voice had been stolen from him, and he had stood silent, numb with shock and grief.

To this day, he still did not know which of Will's words were the right ones. If he should have told Arthur the truth in Ealdor and stopped living a lie. He nearly had, despite Will's absolution, as he'd stood over his best friend's body and cried. He'd nearly charged out of the door and told Arthur everything right then and there. But fear held him back, as it always had, as it still did, despite all his hopes. But if that day in Ealdor had not been the right moment, then the right moment was waiting for him now, a week's journey away. And this time he would be brave.

§

The pyres would last until the afternoon, but they could not wait until the fires burned down to cinders and ash. Those from Camelot gave their leave and went down to the staging area for final preparations. Arthur lingered in private conference with Wichard, and Merlin found himself being pulled aside by Merek.

"I have much to tell you," Merek said, hushed and urgent, as he brought him far enough away that no one could overhear.

"Is something wrong?" Merlin asked, worried.

"I did as you asked," Merek said, glancing towards his father, and at his mother and sisters, who still stood in mourning. "I told someone I trusted. I told my mother. And Merlin, you will not believe this. She wasn't surprised."

"What?" Merlin gaped. "She already knew?"

"Yes," Merek said, shaking his head and nervously smiling. "She has magic. And so does my father. And my sisters will, too, when they are older. My family has magic."

Merlin stared at Merek, and then stared at his family. "But… Uther. The King. How?" They should be dead, they should have been killed in the Purge. How could a Lord of Camelot have magic and still live?

"They gave it up," Merek explained, though he seemed to barely believe it himself. "She said they swore allegiance to King Uther against the Old Religion. Forswore all magic and the passing of their inheritances. That's why I had to become a knight. When my father dies, Gedref is meant to pass to the King so he can choose a new Lord. But Merlin, they are using magic again, for the crops, so Camelot does not starve. And the King suspects--"

"What?!"

"Quiet!" Merek hushed. "The King suspects, but as long as there is no solid evidence of magic, he cannot act against us. And without us, Camelot will not have enough food, so it is an impasse. If it holds, I may inherit after all. And mother says that they will teach me, as long as I tell no one."

Merlin was dumb with shock. Merek's whole family had magic, and they were using it, and Uther was tolerating it. Merlin had been feeling bad about not having the chance to help Merek with his magic, but now it seemed he would have more than enough support and guidance. In fact, he was going to have more than Merlin did himself. Bitter jealousy twisted in his gut. Merek was staying in Gedref, and would have position and safety and knowledge and family, and Merlin was going back to Camelot and facing the possibility of losing everything.

"The Prince does not know about any of it," Merek continued, oblivious to Merlin's turmoil. "And I did not tell my mother about you. Your secret is safe, that I swear, and I hope you will keep mine. I know you intend to tell the Prince of your magic, but it is a delicate situation with the King, and if the Prince finds out about us, it may force things into the open."

"I understand," Merlin said, distantly. Of course he would not endanger Merek or his family, or the survival of the kingdom. But inside he was absolutely reeling. He had thought he was all but alone. He had thought that all that was left of magic in Camelot was trapped in fear and revenge. But he was wrong, and it turned his world upside-down.

Wichard and Helewisa had survived the Purge by publicly renouncing magic, like Gaius must have done. And now that Uther's position was weakened from the poor harvests, they were bringing magic back to Gedref in small but important ways. They were restoring the Old Religion and sowing Camelot's fields with magic. No wonder the food had tasted so good. It was like the apples his magic had grown for him in the dead of winter, perfect and crisp and delicious. And the worse Camelot's other Lords fared with their harvests, the more would come under their sway.

Merek and Milessent and Mahenyld would be taught everything they could wish to know, and more. What had Merlin been thinking, that he would have anything to offer Merek, or any of the new generation of sorcerers? All he had to share was his own fear and ignorance, a smattering of paltry knowledge, a few spells of battle and subterfuge. It was laughable to think that he would be paving the way for anyone, when he was stranded in the wilderness and they were safely at the heart of a fortress. Whatever it meant to be the Emrys, it was obviously not that.

"Merlin? Are you all right?" Merek asked, concerned.

Merlin nodded, and did his best to mean it. "Just a shock," he said, mustering a weak smile.

Merek opened his mouth to say something, and then went stiff. "There are few who would have given up their victories as you did," he said, slightly too loudly. "It is a mark of your humility. Gedref will be a poorer place without you."

"Trying to talk Merlin into staying behind?" Arthur said, and extended his arm to Merek. "Sir Merek, it has been an honor to fight with you. I hope that the border will soon be secured, and you will be free to return to Camelot."

Merek took Arthur's arm and shook. "Thank you, sire."

"You and Merlin did make a good team," Arthur said, giving the pair of them a proud look. "But I'm afraid I must take him with me. There is only one place where he belongs, and that is at my side."

They bade their goodbyes, and Merlin had to stop himself from begging to stay a while longer, for even just one more day. He had so many questions, and there was so much he needed to know, to learn. Were there others who had renounced their magic? Were there others who worked their magic in secret? Did they know about the prophecy, did they know what it meant that he was the Emrys?

But there was no time for even a single question, and to ask them would mean revealing himself to others. Arthur deserved to know about his magic before anyone else found out. Merlin had always felt rather bad about Lancelot knowing when Arthur didn't, even if it had been nice to have his acceptance for that brief moment. And now Merek knew as well. If Merlin didn't tell Arthur soon, he was going to end up being the last to know, and that wouldn't do at all.

It was going to be a long journey home.

§

The army plodded forth. Merlin's impatience got the better of him, and it felt like the army was actually going even slower than it had before just to spite him. But after Arthur noticed his mood and started trying to pester him out of it, Merlin did his best to leave his regrets behind him. It would be the feast of August soon, after all. And besides, Merlin had had enough of regrets. He would tell Arthur the truth, apologize for his lies and secrets, and they would make a fresh start together. It would probably take some time for Arthur to forgive him, but they loved each other, and their love would carry them through the storm. He trusted that. He had to trust it.

Evening fell, and they were still in the hills. They made camp, and the mood was a mix of sadness from the funeral and their goodbyes, and the anticipation of returning home. Merlin was certainly of a similar mind, though he felt torn in both directions at once. Gedref sat below them, full of safety and belonging. Camelot waited beyond the mountains, full of danger and destiny.

He knew there was no choice. He had to be by Arthur's side, and that meant taking Arthur's path and not his own. But that didn't make it any easier.

Arthur sat down beside him, and handed him a bowl of stew. They ate together in silence for a while, taking in their last glimpse of Gedref and the sea before the hills obscured it again.

"It's never easy, you know," Arthur said, quiet with reflection. "Going home after a battle or a war. The longer you're away, the harder it is to go back. You're never the same person that you were, when you left. But everyone at home expects you to be the same. It's like squeezing into clothes that you've outgrown. Nothing fits anymore, and all you want to do is tear it all away so you can breathe again."

Merlin realized that Arthur thought he was having trouble letting go of being a knight. When the moment came to it, when they reached the mountains, perhaps he would. But right now, thinking about what was to come, what he was leaving behind, he had other concerns.

"What do you do about it?" Merlin asked, understanding that Arthur needed to talk about it. That even if it wasn't at the forefront of his own troubles, that didn't mean it wasn't worth hearing. There were a lot of things that Merlin had missed hearing, because he had not thought there would be any point to listening. Why make the effort to invest in his future when he had none? When he was destined to die, one way or another? But his understanding of his destiny had changed.

"Remember that you are not alone. Spend time with those who understand," Arthur said, staring out into the distance. "Those who fought with you. Your fellow knights. And now I have you, and you have me." He turned to Merlin and gave him a soft thump on the arm.

Merlin thumped him back. "I suppose that will have to do," he sighed, and when Arthur smiled, Merlin smiled back. Insults and roughhousing, he thought, and their boat felt sturdy beneath him.

§

The days passed slowly as they retraced their route. Merlin was glad that Arthur was eager to keep him close, because he wanted nothing more than to glue himself permanently to Arthur's side so they could never be separated again. Staying close to Arthur kept him from becoming a complete nervous wreck, and the closer the mountains loomed, the clingier he became.

But there were times when Arthur did need to detach Merlin from his clinging and take care of one thing or another, and so at the foot of the Mountains of Isgard, Merlin was shooed away and firmly told to go and stretch his legs, possibly before Arthur tied him to a tree in a fit of exasperation.

He took the long way around the camp, remembering how he and the knights had run circles around the army just on the other side of the mountains. He wondered if there was going to be a time when he didn't look back and feel like he had been a blindly naive fool. Hopefully there was some kind of threshold he was going to reach, once he'd gained enough experience and wisdom.

At the center of the army, between the fighters and the servants, were the prisoners. Merlin could admit to himself that by staying at the head of the line, he'd been avoiding coming near them, but if he was going to face Idriys again, it would be best to do it while he was still a knight.

The men guarding the Deorham nodded as Merlin approached.

"I'd like to speak to Lord Idriys," Merlin said, hoping his authority hadn't entirely faded away yet. "In private."

The men looked to each other, uncertain, then back to Merlin. "If you're sure that's wise, um, sire," one said.

"He can hardly run in those chains," Merlin said, speaking as Arthur would in such a situation. "And even if he tried, he has nowhere to go."

There was a fallen tree by the edge of the field they were camped in, and it would do for a place to sit. Merlin had the guards bring Idriys to it and then shooed them away.

"Lord Idriys," Merlin said, trying not to let his wariness show.

"Sir Merlin," Idriys said, with a short bow of his head. "I was hoping to have a chance to speak with you. I see you are of the same mind."

They were in very different positions than they had been the last time they had spoken. Then, Merlin had been a tearful, pleading servant, and Idriys had been in command of an army and a castle. Now Idriys was in chains, with only his title left to protect him. He looked haggard from his imprisonment. He had not been actively mistreated, either in Gedref or on the road, but neither was he given any particular consideration. He had a scruffy beard and had not washed in days.

"I wanted to apologize," Merlin said, as it was the first thing that popped into his head. "I have been assured that there is nothing wrong with lies told in war, but… I still feel I owe you that. You were kind, and I abused your hospitality. I don't regret what I did, but I'm sorry."

Idriys cracked a smile, evidently amused by this. "I must say that this is the first time I've been apologized to by my captors. Should I grant forgiveness to the man most responsible for my downfall?"

"I did what I had to," Merlin said, with confidence. "You had no right to invade Gedref and Camelot."

"Perhaps," Idriys admitted. "Though they say that all is fair in war. And they say that King Uther did not inherit Camelot, but won it from his cousin in a duel. Surely that is no more honorable than to win a land through battle."

"In the dead of night, using magic?" Merlin parried.

"With barely any casualties," Idriys returned. "Is that not the benefit of engaging a sorcerer? Is that not the point of the expense?"

They were talking around what they both knew. There was no way Idriys didn't know, after he saw Merlin go into the winch room, and the gates open. But Merlin could not be the first to say it. "Camelot has no sorcerers. Magic is illegal here."

"Which makes Uther twice the fool," Idriys said. "The question is, is his son?"

Merlin said nothing.

"You have a fondness for opening doors," Idriys continued, giving Merlin a knowing look. "But you are a poor strategist. When you left that night, you should have stolen my keys."

Merlin swallowed, silently cursing his hastiness that night. He had been so intent on escaping with his stolen treasures, and of course locks could always be picked. But not so quickly, and in such rapid succession. He had given himself away long before the winches.

"It is a brave man that walks willingly into the arms of his enemy," Idriys continued, watching Merlin intently. "Who serves him in subterfuge, and works towards his undoing. You swore your loyalty to me, but that was a lie of war. How far do your lies go, Sir Merlin? Manservant to the Prince, who wears the aspect of a knight?"

"I am loyal to my King," Merlin said, meeting his gaze.

"To Uther?" Idriys scoffed. "No, not to him. To his son. I've watched you together, as there has been little else to do these past days. It's clear that he protects you, that you are his favorite. But he doesn't know."

"He will," Merlin said, keeping his voice quiet. "Do not think that you can use what you know to manipulate me. If you try to harm Arthur in any way, you will not live to regret it."

"I would not think of it," Idriys said, reassuringly. "My intent was not to threaten, and I apologize for any offense."

"Good," Merlin said, though he did not relax an inch.

Idriys gave him a thoughtful look, then spoke. "I found it difficult to understand how I misread you, after your escape. The loyalty that I saw in you was true. But I see now that it was simply not for me. True loyalty is a rare thing, Merlin. Any master would be fortunate to have such a servant, no matter what his talents."

"What are you saying?" Merlin asked, not sure what Idriys was getting at.

"My offer stands," Idriys said, as if he was still the lord of a captive Gedref and not a prisoner. "When my ransom is paid, I will return to my home. And while I am not a prince, I have land and wealth of my own. And I am still in need of a manservant," he finished, though by manservant it was clear that now he meant sorcerer.

"I am loyal to my King," Merlin repeated, entirely uninterested.

"That is true," Idriys allowed. "But your 'king' is not yet king. And he does not know. And if the day comes that he does not see your true value, that he does not accept your loyalty, your false words to me may become painfully true. Camelot will no longer be your home, and you will need a new master."

"I am loyal to my King," Merlin said again, emphatically. "I will never need another master. My place is by his side and no threat or bribery or danger will take me away from him."

Idriys nodded, accepting. "Very well. But should you change your mind, the offer stands, for as long as I live. I will keep your secret, for it's to my advantage that such a valuable asset not be damaged, if there is any chance it might be mine."

"Then we have nothing left to talk about," Merlin said, with finality. He stood and waved for the guards to return and place Idriys back with the other prisoners.

"For your sake, I hope you are right," Idriys said, and bowed once more to Merlin before he was taken away.

Once Idriys was gone, Merlin sat back down on the log, this time facing the forest. First Merek, and now Idriys -- or rather Idriys and then Merek, now that he knew how quickly he had been found out. One day to cross the mountain pass, and then two days from there to Camelot, and then the moment of truth. Surely there was no chance that anyone else would discover his magic before then. At least both men were sworn to secrecy, if for their own, very different reasons. Merlin had been lucky with Lancelot's honor, with Merek's magic, with Idriys' self-interest. It was not likely that he would be so lucky a fourth time.

§

Where the rest of their journey had crawled slowly enough to make a snail jealous, their way through the mountain pass seemed to take no time at all. All too soon they were on the other side, and when they stopped to rest the horses, Arthur gave Merlin a regretful look. It was time.

Arthur did not announce it. But they stood together in front of the army, as they had before in this same place, and Arthur removed Merlin's armor and his mail, piece by piece. He took his time removing it, as he had in dressing Merlin, for now as then he was making a point, marking the transition between Merlin's two states. And this time, there was not shock in the eyes of the noble knights, but pity.

Arthur placed the armor back into its carrying bag, and handed it to Merlin with solemnity. "Go put it in the cart, Merlin," he said, a gentle but clear order, the order he would give a servant. Merlin nodded and obeyed.

It was hard, walking back to the cart, with everyone staring at him, or worse, trying not to stare. It was harder than he had thought it would be, giving up being Arthur's knight. He had hardly had time to become used to it. He did not care about personal glory. But none of that made it any easier. It didn't stop the clench of sadness that gripped his heart.

He tried to hold on to the advice that Arthur had given him. He would not be alone. There would be those who understood. He would have Arthur. But Arthur did not understand. Arthur had only ever been what he was, would only ever be a Prince and then a King. He did not understand, even then, that Merlin would not have any fellow knights, because he would not be a knight, and knights could not be friends with servants. He would not have understanding or fellow feeling, but pity, because they felt sorry for him. They all felt sorry for him, common and noble alike, and Merlin had never felt so alone, as he put his bag of armor away.

He would not be a knight again. Not unless there was another war, and he did not want Camelot to go to war. And even if there was a battle, it would not be for months at least, because there was the harvest and then the winter, and then sowing season in the spring. It was only after the snow had melted, after the seeds had sprouted pale green, that his armor would have the chance to be of use for anything but the collection of dust and rust.

Before he went back, he took a clean kerchief from his pack and tied it around his neck. His transformation was complete. When they made camp, he would no longer sit with the knights, but would fetch and carry for them, serve them food and clean their bowls in the stream. They would be kind, but they would not be companions.

As he approached, he saw that the knights and Arthur were in conversation. Merlin kept his head down as he drew near, feeling too raw to face any of them just yet. But he could not help but overhear.

"...have our pledge," said one of the older knights, a man that Merlin had not spent much time with outside of the heat of battle. "When the time comes, we will ensure that you have the support of our houses. If you can find more men of such worth, they will be welcome in our ranks."

"I thank you all for your honor and your generosity," Arthur said, warmly. "When I am king, your understanding in this matter will not be forgotten."

The First Code was dead in all but name. It was Arthur's final victory in the Battle of Gedref. Merlin had to admit that it was his own victory, too, and not like the ones that he had given away. Perhaps it was not a flashy as riding into battle with his shield high, or breaking the Deorham's ranks upon the wall, or even the stealing of Idriys' plans. Perhaps, like his magical achievements, it could not be spoken of, could not be shared, because its time had yet to come. But there was value in it, and while this humble victory did not remove the pain from his heart, it did at least ease it.

He would not be a knight again. But for Arthur, it was worth the sacrifice.

§

That night, things went as Merlin had expected. There was a somber mood to the camp, as if Merlin had died and not merely been demoted. But there was one bright spot, and that was when Ethelia found him washing bowls in the stream, and introduced him to her son, Eduard.

"I know that we must not speak of this when we are home," Eduard said. "But all of us wish you to know that your actions will not be forgotten in our hearts. You saved my life and many others. Sir Geraint was a good man, but he would not have done what you did." He placed a reassuring hand on Merlin's shoulder. "Your secrets are safe with us, Merlin. We will remember your victories, and so should you. For one day, it will be safe to share them."

Merlin thanked him, not sure if he was going to laugh or cry, and trying hard not to do either. Everyone was so happy to keep his secrets. He wondered what Will would say, if Will would call him brave or a liar.

In two days, in less than two days, they would be home. It was too soon, and it was forever from now. Merlin felt like all the things that had been holding him together were being stripped away. But he had trusted Arthur to build him up, to turn him from a useless servant into a valued knight. He had to trust Arthur as he was broken down again. He had to trust that he would be safe when they were home, that Arthur would protect what was left of him, what was important. That Arthur's love would hold him together, even through the storm. He had to trust it, or there was nothing, no boat and no ocean, just the chasm under his feet, and he did not dare look down.

"Don't look so worried," Arthur said, as they lay down on their bedrolls for the night. "Everything's going fine. We'll be home, and everything will be fine." He smiled, and there was only love in his eyes, only calm reassurance.

"I know," Merlin said, and it wasn't a lie but it felt like one.

"Knight or servant, you belong by my side," Arthur said, resting his hand on Merlin's arm. His voice was quiet against the low murmurs of the camp, the crickets chirping in the grass. "That has not changed, and it never will."

Merlin did cry, then, tears streaming out of him hot and fast and silent. Arthur pulled him close and held him, his hand soothing against Merlin's back as Merlin shuddered, breathing tight, harsh breaths, barely making a sound.

Chapter Text

As they crested the last ridge, the land sloped away below them. And there, nestled like a white jewel amid the heavy green of the forest, the gold of ripening grain, and the white smoke of midday fires in the surrounding town, was Camelot.

Nothing had changed. Of course nothing had changed. They had not been gone a month, not even long enough for the harvest to begin or the leaves to change. Still, it felt wrong. So much had happened, how could it all still be the same? Panic spiked in Merlin's chest as Llamrei carried him closer and closer, and his breaths drew short and tight, like he was being strangled from within.

"Merlin?" Arthur said, quiet but concerned. He brought Hengroen up close, so that their legs brushed against each other. "Remember what I said. It will be all right."

Merlin nodded, tried to calm himself. "Good thing we weren't gone longer," he said, straining to make a joke. "I might not have wanted to come back at all."

Arthur gave a start of mock offense. "Then as your master, I would've had to order you back."

Merlin wanted to reply with a joke about how insolent and useless a servant he was, how he never followed Arthur's orders. But even as a jest, the words felt false and wrong on his tongue. His insolence had been born of necessity, for when his duty to protect Arthur conflicted with his duty to serve him. And he didn't want to be useless again, not now that he knew what it was to be valued. What he wanted was to be Arthur's knight, brave and determined and loyal, but that was the one thing he could no longer be.

"You should order me back, then," he said, glancing at Arthur and then away, the quiet admission leaving him bared.

He would go back, for Arthur. He would walk willingly to his fate, and submit himself to Arthur's judgement. But he needed something. He needed the order, he needed Arthur to need it. He could always be brave for Arthur, when he couldn't for himself.

Arthur didn't say anything at first, and when Merlin glanced sideways at him, he saw that Arthur was giving him a considering look. Measuring him up, perhaps, or seeing that Merlin was not the same as he had been, when they left. Seeing what was left of the knight in him, now that the armor and position were stripped away.

"Merlin," Arthur said, with deliberate care, "I order you to return with me to Camelot, and to remain at my side until you are released from my service. Which will be, at current estimation, roughly never. Is that clear?"

"Yes, sire," Merlin said, relief dulling his panic. It wasn't much, in the face of all that awaited him, but it would have to be enough. His breathing eased.

Arthur guided Hengroen back into position, rather pleased with the persistence of their new dynamic. No doubt he was enjoying the idea of Merlin being as faithful and obedient a servant as he had been a knight. Merlin could only hope that when he placed his secrets into Arthur's hands, that persistence would be reassurance enough that Merlin would never lie to him again.

And he wouldn't. Once he'd told Arthur about his magic, he would tell him everything, all the secrets that were his to share. And once it was safe, once he had permission, he would tell Arthur about Morgana and about Merek and his family, and about all that magic was already doing to preserve and protect the kingdom. And perhaps they could visit Gedref again together, this time without bringing an army with them. Lord Wichard and Lady Helewisa could teach them both what they knew about magic, as they must already be teaching Merek. And Morgana could come, too, so they could help her with her nightmares.

Yes, he liked the sound of that. He and Arthur and Morgana, and Gwen, too. Gedref would be good for all of them. The prospect of returning there calmed Merlin's fears another notch. Merek's family would have answers and guidance, and Arthur could work with them to make Camelot as safe and bountiful as he dreamed it could be. And from there, their future would be wide open with possibilities.

Merlin relaxed his grip on the reins and straightened his posture from his anxious hunch. Arthur was looking ahead, sitting tall and proud, glad to be nearly home after the long road and everything along it. Merlin did his best to match him, to share the gladness he saw. He knew now what it was to be in harmony with his King, and he would hold on to that memory as the road brought them down.

§

As they reached the edge of town, they were surprised to find it empty. Merlin and Arthur looked to each other with matching frowns, and then coaxed their horses cautiously forward, the army's line narrowing behind them. But as they approached the open gate that led into the lower town, cheering rose up from within.

It seemed that the entire population of the town was there to welcome them, lining the streets, cheering and waving brightly-colored flags. The way to the courtyard was similarly decorated, with swaths of bright fabrics that transitioned to Pendragon red and gold as they made their way into the castle proper. Merlin couldn't help but grin, and he grinned even wider when he saw that Arthur actually looked bashful beneath his calm, noble posture.

"You're a hero," he teased Arthur, as they rode into the courtyard.

"I'm their Prince," Arthur said, unruffled. "I did my duty. I have no need for all this… fussing."

"Admit it, you like a fuss."

Arthur shrugged. "It's not unpleasant."

Merlin laughed.

Even if his own victories had to be hidden, he still shared the larger victory of the battle itself. He shared it with Arthur and the whole army. And even though army was about to break apart, in this last moment together, he and they were celebrated as one. They had won a good victory in Gedref. Many lives were saved, just as Eduard said. That was what mattered. And he did not have to be a knight to continue to save lives. He had been saving lives for a long time, for far longer than he had been Arthur's knight. And he would keep on saving lives as Arthur's sorcerer. They would have new ways to fight side by side, protecting Camelot together.

As the streets had been full of commoners, the broad steps to the castle were spilling over with nobility and castle servants. With perfect timing, Uther strode out to greet them as they brought their horses to a halt.

"Welcome home, my son," Uther said, bursting with pride and relief.

"Father," Arthur nodded. "It's good to be home." He dismounted in one smooth motion, and stepped forward to meet his father's embrace. They shook arms and patted each other's backs.

"You must be tired from your long journey," Uther said. "You must tell me everything, but formalities will wait until tomorrow. In a few days, we shall have a feast to celebrate your splendid victory. Absolutely splendid!"

"Thank you, father," Arthur said, and Merlin could see that he took pleasure in Uther's praise in a way that he had not from the festive crowds. It was something quieter, deeper, and Merlin was happy to see it in him, even if he would rather Arthur not be taking pleasure in anything from Uther. But of course, Uther had no idea that Arthur had so utterly undermined his precious First Code. Merlin could not deny that he took a viciously personal satisfaction in that.

Merlin heard his name called, and he turned to see Gwen and Gaius waving to him and walking over. He dismounted and was immediately pulled into a tight, tight hug by Gwen.

"I'm so glad you're all right," she said, grinning ear to ear as she released him. "The messenger Arthur sent barely told us a thing!"

Gaius was next, holding him close and sighing with relief. "It's good to see you home, my boy," he said, warmly. "You and Arthur both. I imagine you've had quite an adventure."

There was so much to tell, so much say, that Merlin barely knew where to begin. He wasn't even sure what he should tell. But then, Gaius and Gwen and Morgana all knew that Arthur had taken him into battle as more than just a servant. And when he could get a moment alone with Gaius, there were things he needed to talk to him about that even Arthur didn't know about yet. And then there was Morgana...

"Where's Morgana?" he asked, looking around to find her, thinking that perhaps she would greet Arthur before anyone else.

Gwen's grin faded. "Resting," she said, though her concern indicated that there was more to it than any sudden desire for a nap. "But she said to pass on her welcome and that she would absolutely be better in time for the feast."

The feast that was days from now. Merlin grew even more concerned, but before he could inquire further, Arthur had returned. "Ah, Gaius, good. I need you and Merlin to take care of the injured."

"Of course, sire," Gaius said, with a bow of his head. "And Arthur, it's good to see you home."

Arthur nodded his reply.

Merlin wanted to help Gaius, but he also wanted to stay with Arthur. "But you need me to take our bags. Stable the horses." He was aware that Gwen and Gaius were both looking at him with surprise, but it was only Arthur's reaction that mattered.

There was understanding in Arthur's eyes. He didn't want things to go back to the way they were, either. He didn't want to have to give Merlin up to anyone else, just as Merlin didn't want to leave him. But things couldn't stay the same. They were home now, and things were different here. They would have to adapt and try to fit themselves into their old lives again, no matter how tight the squeeze.

"I need you where your skills are most useful," Arthur said, giving him a gentle order. "And right now, that is with Gaius. Even a prince can carry a few bags."

Arthur gave him a soft, fond smile, and Merlin wanted to live in it forever. He recognized the gesture for what it was, and it warmed him. Even if Merlin was only a manservant again to everyone else, he was still a knight in Arthur's heart. Not everything had to go back the way it was. Not everything had to be taken away.

"Sire," Merlin said, softly acknowledging. The word earned him a quiet approval that was as close to a hug as he could get in the middle of the courtyard.

When Merlin forced himself to turn away from Arthur, he found that if Gwen and Gaius had been surprised before, now they had matching eyebrows of astonishment.

Gaius cleared his throat. "Well, then. Shall we?"

"Yes," Merlin said, a blush heating his cheeks.

§

Despite the worst of the injured staying behind in Gedref, and Merlin's medical skills being both limited and out of practice, the large number of injured knights and fighters gave him more than enough to keep him busy. And with the other complaints that resulted from a long journey, mostly involving feet, even with Gwen assisting the two of them, there was barely a moment to rest. There were bandages to change, wounds to clean, poultices and draughts to prepare. He was glad he had been unconscious directly after the battle, because if it was this bad now, he could only imagine how busy things had been with two full armies to tend to. No wonder they had run out of bandages.

As the afternoon faded into evening, Gwen abandoned them briefly to check on both Morgana and Arthur. She made up for her absence by bringing them dinner, which Merlin hurriedly devoured, and the news that Arthur was still in his long meeting with Uther, giving him his private report on the battle. Merlin wished he was there to hear what Arthur was saying. But then again, what was there that he didn't already know? He had been by Arthur's side every step of the way, more or less. And if he was honest with himself, he could, in fact, live without hearing all his actions attributed to Geraint. He would no doubt hear enough about that once word got out to the rest of Camelot

As he dug into his dinner, he wondered if any of the food in Camelot was harvested from a Gedref-tended field. There must be, since the Lords paid most of their taxes in grain. So some of the bread would have magic. And then the chickens and other animals that ate the grain would have magic. It would be weak, because all the grain was mixed together in the silos, but it must be there. If Merlin had felt a vicious satisfaction about the First Code, he was almost gleeful at the thought of Uther Pendragon choking down his food in the knowledge that it had magic in it. For a man who insisted so much on having the best of everything, Merlin doubted he could resist Gedref grain.

How it must sting, for a man who so utterly devoted himself to the annihilation of magic to be forced to suffer it as a lesser evil. It was an act of breathless hypocrisy to burn a pregnant woman alive for daring to use a single protective enchantment to protect her husband's life, and then to turn around and allow the south of Camelot to be seeded with magic. But if what Arthur had told him was true, the alternatives were mass starvation or the exhaustion of Camelot's gold through the purchase of grain from its neighbors. And the latter would be such a sign of weakness that it would be the invitation of an invasion, especially from Cenred. Uther had choked down his pride along with his food.

Merlin supposed that in a way, it meant that Uther couldn't be as mindlessly against magic as he seemed to be. In the choice between the caretaking of his kingdom and his hatred, he had shown at least a reluctant wisdom. That did not mean, however, that if push came to shove, he would not go against that wisdom and set himself against Lord Wichard. No wonder Merek didn't want him to tell Arthur about it. It was a delicate balance between them, cloaked in careful deniability. To bring it into the light could result in mutual destruction.

"Thanks," he told Gwen, his cheeks full of food. "How's Morgana?"

Gwen looked down at the table between them, obviously worried. "The nightmares are back again. Everything was quiet for so long, I'd really hoped they'd stopped. But now every night seems worse than the last." She bit her lip, not wanting to speak the worst of her fears.

"What about the sleeping draughts?" Merlin asked, swallowing his mouthful.

"They help, but..." Gwen began, lowering her voice. She glanced across the room to where Gaius was busy changing the bandage on a man's arm. "Gaius is giving her something new. Something stronger. And he keeps giving her more of it, because she's still suffering. But it's taking so much from her. This morning, I worried she might not wake at all."

There were shadows under Gwen's eyes, and Merlin wondered if the cost of Morgana's sleep was the loss of Gwen's. Merlin could not imagine being forced to watch Arthur suffer and suffer and slowly slip away. It would be unbearable, unthinkable. He would do anything to stop it, but he also had the option of using his magic. Gwen had to rely on Gaius and Morgana, and both seemed set on their course.

"What if…" Merlin lowered his voice to a whisper. "What if she stops taking the draughts? Just… lets the nightmares happen?"

Gwen shook her head. "I can't imagine how ill she would be if not for Gaius. When her nightmares started, it was so awful for her. Gaius' draughts were the only thing that helped. At least with the draughts, she doesn't remember her dreams, even when she wakes up screaming." She grimaced. "Except the worst ones. And then she's so afraid..."

"Maybe I should go talk to her," Merlin said, torn between helping Morgana and telling Arthur. If he could convince her not to take another dose...

But Gwen shook her head again. "Maybe tomorrow?" she offered. "The nightmares will stop soon, I hope. They always have before."

Morgana was a seer. Her nightmares were frightening because they were premonitions, warnings about terrible things, and they only stopped once the danger was past. She had dreamed about Sophia and the Questing beast, and both times Arthur had come incredibly close to death. If she was having premonitions again, did that mean Arthur was in danger? If she was still having them, it couldn't be about Gedref. It had to be a threat that was still to come. Merlin needed to find out, and soon, so he could warn Arthur of the danger and protect him.

But once he told Morgana about her magic, there was every chance she might realize he had magic of his own. And then not only would yet another person know before Arthur did, but Morgana might just take matters into her own hands and try to tell him herself. No, Gwen was right. Tomorrow would be better. And it was one more reason to tell Arthur tonight, once he was done helping Gaius and Arthur was done speaking with Uther. Tonight, when they were alone in their chambers. It was only a matter of hours, now.

"Let me talk to Gaius," Merlin said, reaching out to give her hand a reassuring squeeze. "There was a physician in Gedref, and he helped me when I hurt my head. In fact, he probably saved my life. I'm certain he could find some way to help her."

Gwen's relief was immediate. She had been caring for Morgana on her own for so long, the first helping hand must feel like a lifeline. "You really think so?"

Merlin nodded, and knocked on his own head. "See? Mine's working just fine. And you would not believe how much it got banged around." He wondered now if the physician was also using magic. It certainly seemed likely. Merlin wondered if he would be able to learn healing magic from him, when they brought Morgana to Gedref.

Gwen's focus shifted from Morgana to Merlin. "Then Arthur let you fight? Come on, Merlin, you haven't told me anything about what happened!"

Merlin opened his mouth, mind racing as he tried to decide where to begin.

Gaius loudly cleared his throat. "You can eat or you can work. Gossiping is neither."

Merlin shut his mouth with a click, then rolled his eyes, much to Gwen's amusement. "It'll take hours anyway," he said, shovelling the last of his food into his mouth. "Tomorrow. I'll tell you and Morgana the whole story. I just have to pry myself away from Arthur first."

"It looked like he was having trouble prying himself away from you," Gwen said, with a blush. She had often told him that they were adorable together, what with the way they gazed into each other's eyes all the time. Gwen was just as incurable a romantic as he was himself. But she did tend to grow shy about the physical side of their relationship.

Gwen ate the last of her food and went to help Gaius, leaving Merlin to finish his.

Merlin wondered if she had ever been with anyone. There had been a bit of a flirtation between Gwen and Lancelot, and in hindsight Gwen had even flirted with him, though he had been too focused on Arthur even then to notice such things. Well, there had been that kiss, but he'd nearly died, and she had been hugging Gaius before that, so he didn't think it counted. But she hadn't so much as mentioned Lancelot since he left, and there had certainly been no one since then. Only Morgana. But he didn't know if he was simply projecting his own relationship with Arthur onto the two of them, or if there was truly something more. And it wasn't the sort of thing he could just ask about.

The love of women was hardly unheard of. But like the love of men, the acceptance of it varied greatly. Arthur was still expected to marry, after all, and Merlin would never be a princess. But as a king, it would not be considered unusual for him to take a consort. As a knight, he could lie with other knights without fear of censure, as long as it was not flaunted -- though Gedref had shown Merlin that Arthur was not above defying convention in that. There was a pair of old women in the lower town who the gossips said had left their husbands for each other decades ago, but all young girls were expected to find good husbands, and all young men good wives. Mostly it seemed to be about ensuring the birth of lots of children, because Camelot never had enough, what with all the wars.

Morgana was the King's ward. She would be expected to marry soon, just as Arthur was. And Gwen did not have prophecy or destiny to tie her to Morgana. He could understand if she was reluctant to give her heart openly, knowing that at best she would never be more than a consort. Without her family, she had to support herself, and a husband would make her life easier. Of course, now she had the chest of gold, so perhaps she did not have to worry about that so much. He wondered what her dreams were, beyond simply looking after Morgana. What she would choose, if given the choice. What he would have chosen for himself, if he had been like her and not born with magic, with a destiny. If he had never found Arthur.

He could not even imagine such a life. If there had been other paths open to him,