He knew it was an ill-omened quest as soon as he learned Merlin wouldn’t be coming along – stuck helping Gaius with a sudden influx of fever in the lower town. While it was true that Merlin was entirely useless with a sword, and cowered behind convenient trees or boulders whenever they found themselves in a confrontation, he had become a lucky charm of sorts and Arthur felt his absence. The knights, too, were uneasy – though no one cared to admit exactly why that was. Still, the rumors of a terrible beast in the forest of Escetir could not be ignored, not with harried villagers bustling into the city seeking the safety of its walls.
Merlin came to see them off at dawn, the only time in Arthur’s memory that he hadn’t needed any prompting to be up so early. In the gray light he looked unnaturally pale and slightly sickly, with dark shadows under his eyes as though he hadn’t been sleeping. He might not have been, Arthur thought. He knew Gauis’ quarters were full of patients, and with Gaius’ joints aching from the cold Merlin was the one running errands and remedies throughout the city. Not for the first time Arthur considered assigning him a page to help with the more menial tasks. Though he knew that Merlin would refuse, it might be worth it just to see the look on his face when Arthur tried to give him a servant of his own.
As Merlin bid Arthur farewell he nervously wrung his hands in the hem of his tunic like a foolish maiden. Arthur was nervous as well, though he hid it behind an emphatic eye-roll and a “don’t be such a girl, Merlin.”
The fact that Merlin didn’t answer with a smarmy come-back meant he was truly worried, and Arthur relented in his teasing.
“Arthur, just-“ Merlin began, and then broke off with a funny twist of his mouth and a slight grimace. “…just be careful, you stupid prat,” he muttered finally, his words falling somehow flat.
He was clearly upset, and Arthur didn’t quite know what to do. His usual go-to cheer-up technique was overzealous friendly punches, but that didn’t seem like the right course of action in this particular situation. In an effort to reassure Merlin, Arthur patted him awkwardly on the shoulder before mounting his horse. He didn’t look back as the column of knights rode out of the castle gates, but he knew Merlin would be standing on the steps, watching until they were well beyond sight.
As they left the city it started snowing, covering the forest in an ethereal hush. The knights were strangely silent, even Gwaine, riding at his left shoulder, refraining from dirty jokes and outlandish stories. Arthur found himself missing Merlin’s unending chatter, but there was nothing to be done and so he shoved his thoughts aside and looked ahead.
The first day stretched seamlessly into the next, while the feeling of foreboding only increased. The column of knights marred the fresh snow, leaving a wide muddy trail behind them, while all around them the forest was pristine and silent. Looking around, Arthur couldn’t see any animal trails through the white powder, and that didn’t sit right with him. Even in the dead of winter a multitude of creatures could be found searching for food and shelter. The knights grew tenser, jumping at every wayward sound.
It was the night of the fifth day when the tension finally broke. The knights were gathered around a weak fire – good dry firewood being hard to find amidst the damp snow – when there was a scream from one of the outlying sentries. They jumped up, drawing their swords as one, and stared off into the darkness. The fire made their shadows dance ominously in the night, and Arthur squinted into the forest.
There was another scream, this one more agonized then the last, and then a terrible screech – like metal being twisted ruthlessly out of shape. Abruptly there was silence, and Arthur felt frozen where he stood. He adjusted his grip on the sword, the creak of his leather gloves ringing out through the stillness, his breath turning to mist before his face. He turned his head and, purely by chance, saw a pair of yellow lights a few meters away.
He gasped in shock, but the lights were gone as soon as he’d noticed. For a fraction of a second he thought he might have imagined it, that it could have been an odd reflection of the moon, or the fire, or swamp gas. But there was no moon, and they were not in a swamp, and he knew, instinctively, that it had been a pair of malevolent eyes.
The knights shifted uneasily. Leon twisted his head to-and-fro in search of the threat, and Lancelot, on his other side, muttered a quick prayer.
And then they heard it, the soft crunch crunch of heavy footfalls in the snow. They dared not speak, but they all followed the sound with their eyes as it circled their camp, getting closer with every step. Arthur spared a brief thought of Merlin, finally glad that he wasn’t there in this horrifying moment, and then the thing was hurtling at them out of the darkness.
Arthur was the first to see it and he stood his ground as it charged, crouching down and getting ready to swing his sword.
It was monstrous in size, as tall as two grown men, with too many limbs and horns and teeth, and it emitted a foul stench like the rot of the grave. It had what looked like two sets of jaws, one on each side of its head, thick hot blood and foul saliva dripping from both, staining its snout and clawed forepaws. Arthur answered its charge with a vicious yell, taking a few steps forward to strike at the thick flesh of its neck. His sword bounced away harmlessly, and yet it still reared back, as though surprised.
“To me!” Arthur yelled, and his knights assembled into a wedge formation behind him.
The beast charged again, snapping downwards with its foul jaws, causing the knights to scatter in its wake. Arthur ducked underneath, slipping under its belly and thrusting his sword upwards. This time the weapon connected, the length of steel sliding up into its innards. The beast roared in pain, or anger, and then a huge paw was colliding with his side, throwing him out from beneath it as easily as a child would thrust aside a rag doll. He lost his hold on the sword, leaving it quivering out of its belly like a pin in a heaving cushion.
He hit his head hard when he landed on the ground, his vision swimming. He quickly regained his focus, and frowned as he saw the beast a few paces away, swatting at his knights as if they were no more than fleas. It turned to him then, its cruel yellow eyes filled with hatred, as though it was more than just a dumb beast, as though it knew that he’d been the one to strike a blow against it.
Gwaine stepped in front of it as it advanced, trying to score a hit on one of the glowing orbs, but it swiped him away easily, sending him tumbling to the ground. Arthur struggled to his feet and drew a dagger from his boot, his heart pounding with fear. And then it was upon him.
The knights were shouting around him but he paid them no mind, focusing only on warding off the monster’s clumsy attacks. It seemed to be growing slower with every moment, perhaps the wound finally taking its toll. Just as Arthur was beginning to feel that the battle would soon be won it lashed out with its jaws, unnaturally quick, and all he knew was pain.
Pain, and darkness.
He was jostled awake an indeterminate amount of time later. There was a warm weight at his back and around his middle. There was another jolt and the pain returned, worse than before, and the world faded.
Voices murmured around him, harsh and frail and worried. He was cold, so cold, and no matter how hard he tried to open his eyes all he could see was darkness.
The creature’s yellow eyes stared deep into him, and all he could hear was a strange low laughter. He cried out in fear, unable to control himself when all he felt was such pain, and a familiar voice gently whispered “hush, it’s alright Arthur.”
For some reason he believed it.
The yellow glow receded and he slipped peacefully into silence.
Arthur floated back into consciousness. Shooting pains ran through his entire body and his teeth knocked together as he shivered uncontrollably. He could vaguely make out his surroundings in the darkness. He was lying in a bed – his own, he thought muzzily – though he found trying to turn his head made his neck seize up in a spasm and he let out an involuntary shocked gasp.
The darkness seemed oppressive and wild and before he knew it his breath was quickening to little more than shallow pants, and the pain was growing stronger and stronger. His lips were chapped and every breath hurt terribly – the inside of his nose and throat felt like dry leather, each puff of air scraping like rusty nails. He tried to move, to turn over, but found that he couldn’t. He couldn’t move. Oh god, why couldn’t he move. His arm was hurting so badly and yet he couldn’t move.
He tried to call out, the darkness suddenly frightening and cruel, and rather than words, a desperate cough broke out of his throat. It wracked his body, a fresh torture, and tears rose involuntarily to his eyes.
Abruptly he remembered someone speaking to him through the darkness, and his mind cleared enough for him to gain control of his mouth, to think of course, and croak out a single word.
“Merlin…” he managed hoarsely. Nothing happened, and that wasn’t right, it couldn’t be right. “Merlin!” he tried again, and then “MERLIN!”
He broke out into another coughing fit, and suddenly there was soft candlelight carving away the dark, and a warm hand sliding behind his head, a cup pressed to his lips. He gulped at the liquid gratefully, impossibly cold water soothing his thirst and numbing his pains.
“Hush, it’s alright, I’m here,” Merlin muttered nearby and stroked a hand through his hair. “I’m here, I’m here,” he continued brokenly, as though his mouth was running away from his control. He continued chattering something about bandages and salves and Gaius, and it all ran together like the soothing sound of a brook. Merlin was here, Merlin was safe, and for the first time Arthur found himself believing that he was safe as well.
Merlin pushed another cup to his lips and he sputtered at the bitter taste, turned his head away.
“Drink it, Arthur,” Merlin urged him, “Arthur, please. It will help with the pain, it will help you sleep…”
Arthur drank obediently, and let his mind drift. “Stay,” he managed.
“I’m not going anywhere, I promise. I’m here, Arthur, I’m here,” Merlin said. As darkness claimed him once again, Arthur could feel Merlin’s fingers brushing the hair back from his forehead.
When he woke there was daylight streaming through the window, filling his chambers with a warm comforting glow. It was all so familiar that Arthur could almost believe he’d imagined the past few days, the snow, the battle, the darkness. Only the pain still wracking his body made him think it was more than just a terrible nightmare.
His head was clearer, and he looked around slowly. His right shoulder and arm felt like they were on fire, and he looked to see how bad the wound was only to see – nothing. Nothing but a cleanly bandaged stump below his right shoulder. He stared for a second and then tightly shut his eyes, because – that couldn’t be right. He could feel his arm, he could feel his cramping fingers and aching elbow, the tight burn of strained muscles.
Panic rose in his chest and he took a few tightly controlled breaths, steeling himself to look again, dreading the thought of opening his eyes.
There was a faint shuffling across the room and then someone was moving closer.
“You’re awake,” Merlin said, voice trembling with relief and what sounded like fear.
Arthur was spared the thought of his arm for a moment longer as he opened his eyes to look at his pale manservant.
“Yes,” he said, staring. Merlin looked like he hadn’t slept for over a month, his skin sallow and his hair greasy and disheveled. Merlin met his stare for a few moments and then turned red and bustled about the room, pouring a goblet of water. He brought it to Arthur’s lips with one careful hand and gently cupped his chin with the other to catch any stray drops.
Arthur drank deeply and couldn’t help but notice the restless twitching of Merlin’s fingers against his neck, the small rust-colored stains on the sleeves of his tunic, the frayed threads on the hem, the tight wrinkles around his eyes. All Arthur could see were the tiny stupid details, his mind grasping at straws and unable to see the whole picture.
“What happened?” he asked once Merlin had taken the goblet away.
Merlin sat down on the side of the bed, something that Arthur may have scolded him for at any other time, but in that moment it was embarrassingly reassuring to have him so close.
“There was a battle-“
“I’m not an idiot,” Arthur interrupted irritably, though his voice came out weak – lacking its usual sting. “The creature?”
Merlin sighed. “Dead. You killed it.”
“And the knights?”
“There were… casualties,” Merlin said, shifting uncomfortably. “A few deaths. Sir Tristan and Sir Kay… Lancelot is alive but he won’t wake, and Gwaine has an infection of the blood and a high fever.”
“Leon?” Arthur asked, and was relieved to see Merlin’s small smile.
“Sir Leon will outlive us all,” Merlin said with a subdued laugh. “He probably fared best, a few scrapes and bruises but that’s all. He’s been managing the castle while you- recover.”
“Good. That’s… good.” Arthur looked away. There was no one he’d rather have managing the kingdom in his stead. Leon was a dependable man, honest and fair.
“Arthur, you’re… badly injured,” Merlin said.
“I’ve noticed,” Arthur said curtly. Merlin looked like he was getting ready to speak again, and suddenly Arthur didn’t want to hear it. He knew it was bad; he couldn’t bear to have it explained in Merlin’s unusually beaten-down voice. “Give me something for the pain,” he gritted through his teeth.
Merlin looked slightly taken aback, but relieved as well. He handed over a cup and Arthur swallowed down the familiar bitter taste gratefully. He felt the effect almost immediately. His vision started to swim, and the pain to recede. The world was far away, and all he could see was Merlin’s wide blue eyes, impossibly clear amidst his haggard face. Arthur smiled slowly and tried to reach out and smooth away the worry there, but for some reason his limbs weren’t working properly, and he gave up with a small sigh.
“Y’should… too,” he slurred while Merlin only frowned deeper.
Arthur came awake slowly, blinked a few times as he tried to orient himself within the failing daylight. A few candles were lit throughout the room, enveloping his chambers in a soft glow. He stared at the dancing flame of a candle on his bed-side table, somehow too cheerful for his mood.
Merlin was nowhere to be seen, and Arthur could only feel grateful. He remembered the stump of his right arm, wanted to be alone in case it was all much more than a fever dream.
He carefully brought the fingers of his left hand to feel at the flesh of his shoulder, let them slide down and down until they felt… nothing. Nothing but bandages. Bandages and air. He could feel his sword arm aching, even as he touched the empty blankets where his right arm should have been resting.
It was gone. Gone.
Even the slightest touch brought a fresh wave of pain cresting over him and he clutched the fingers of his left hand defiantly at the stump of his right. The tears that came to his eyes were because of the pain, surely. He was the King, and not some boy wailing over something he could not change. And this was something he could never change.
He curled into himself and wept. For once, being King meant nothing. And suddenly he was nothing as well – nothing more than a maimed warrior, weak and useless.
Arthur dreamed of yellow eyes and slobbering jaws, an impossible number of clawed limbs wrapping around him and tightening until his armor crumpled as easily as a bucket underneath a heavy boot, the metal screamingwith a human voice – his voice – as it was warped and twisted out of shape.
He jerked awake in a cold sweat, grimacing as pain hit him all at once. Still, his mind was clear enough, and suddenly he wondered how long he’d spent in bed. It felt like days since he’d last been awake, and for a brief second he feared that it had been longer. It was mid-day, oddly soft gray light coming in through the windows, and he decided that he couldn’t stay idle any longer.
Arthur very carefully avoided looking at the stump of his right shoulder, his thoughts skittering cautiously away from the topic of his injuries even as he struggled to push himself up one-handed. The simple act of sitting made his head swim sickeningly and he had to stop and catch his breath. The blankets slid down to his lap and chilled air hit the naked skin of his torso, making him shiver. It helped numb the ever present pain, though, so Arthur did his best to ignore the cold.
He eased his legs off the bed and hissed when his bare feet made contact with frigid stone. He stood slowly and then had to clutch at the bedpost when the dizziness returned. He felt wrong, unbalanced. After a few steadying breaths he chanced taking a step forward and nearly collapsed. His whole body was weak from inactivity, and a fine tremble started in his legs, intensifying until the shaking was so bad his knees were nearly knocking together. Gritting his teeth, he managed to shuffle over to the window and look out through the frosty panes.
It was snowing lightly, and Arthur felt a sense of relief in his chest – at the back of his mind he’d feared that he’d been drifting through pain-fueled delirium for months, and that he’d look out to find spring had come. It was reassuring to see the familiar bustle of activity in the courtyard – castle business continuing as usual despite the fact that it felt like his own world was slowly crashing down around him.
He exhaled heavily and watched two guards help a man unload a cart, castle maids scurry through the sleet with stacks of wrapped bundles. For the first time he let himself acknowledge the full enormity of his loss. He was – had been – the finest fighter in Camelot. His skill with a sword was legendary. It was the only thing he’d ever truly earned through virtue of hard work and perseverance rather than his title, the only thing that so many people respected him for. Without his sword arm he couldn’t fight, and if he couldn’t fight, he couldn’t lead. Oh, he would keep the pitying loyalty of the few people in his inner circle – Leon, Gaius, Gwen, Merlin. But the younger knights wouldn’t respect him, and the rulers of the neighbouring kingdoms would think him weak.
For the rest of his life he would be a joke, the one-armed King Arthur – sending men off to die for him while keeping to the back lines, useless. He’d always thought of the rest of his life as something unbearably short – an impossible amount of time in which to do all the things he’d wanted to do. Now, the rest of his life seemed to stretch on endlessly with a bleak monotony.
The door opened abruptly, and Arthur didn’t turn away from the window as he listened to Merlin’s unmistakable footsteps. He heard the exact moment when Merlin saw him, the faint shuffle that meant he’d tripped over his own feet, and the small exhale that meant he was about to speak.
“You shouldn’t be out of bed,” Merlin said sternly, in a fine impression of an angry nursemaid.
“How long was I asleep?” Arthur asked, fighting hard to keep his voice strong and even.
Merlin shuffled from foot to foot but didn’t come closer. “Uh, two weeks, about,” he said.
Arthur didn’t remember much of the fever and pain-filled delirium that had gripped him, but he remembered enough – clutching at Merlin’s tunic, begging him to stay, sobbing through nightmares. And he could not bear to have Merlin here now, seeing him after all that. Still, he grit his teeth and asked, “and the knights?”
“Gaius says the danger has passed,” Merlin said with a soft exhale, “they’ll both live.”
“Good,” Arthur said, still not turning around. “You may go.”
There was a stunned moment of silence behind him. “Arthur-“
“Merlin,” Arthur interrupted. “Get. Out.”
“I have to change your bandages, Sire,” Merlin said. For once, the “Sire” sounded properly respectful, which suddenly seemed like the most awful thing in the world.
“Send for Gaius, then,” Arthur said in a tone of unmistakable dismissal.
Merlin still stood there for a few seconds until finally sighing and walking out of the room. As soon as the door shut behind him Arthur reached out to steady himself on the windowsill, the dizziness returning in unpredictable fits. He shuffled back to his bed as he waited for Gaius. At least the old physician would perform his duties with silent respect instead of constant chattering and worried glances.
Gaius came in some time later, carrying a bulging bag of supplies and an over-full bowl of broth. He kept his comments to a minimum while he changed Arthur’s bandages, keeping the conversation focused on Gwaine and Lancelot, recovering in his chambers. Once he was finished he left with a small nod and a reminder for Arthur to eat, and then Arthur was left in silence.
He choked down as much of the food as he could, feeling nausea with every bite despite his hunger. He spent the rest of the day intermittently dozing and forcing himself on short walks throughout the room to start regaining his strength. Merlin came in a few more times with food and bathwater, but Arthur studiously ignored him, the silence between them growing more and more brittle with each visit. And yet Arthur couldn’t force himself to break it and Merlin, for once, didn’t dare.
When Merlin woke him on the following morning he insisted on getting dressed and walking about the castle. He studiously avoided Merlin’s gaze while he wiped the sweat off Arthur’s body with a damp cloth. Merlin was forced to lace up Arthur’s trousers – the laces too awkward to do up one-handed – and Arthur scowled, embarrassed that he wasn’t even capable of getting dressed on his own.
Merlin helped him lean back over the table so he could wash Arthur’s hair in a large bowl. He cradled the back of Arthur’s neck with one hand and worked with the other, slow and methodical. It was soothing in a way, despite the edge of the table digging into Arthur’s shoulders, the bandages pulling at his chest.
Sometimes when Arthur was feeling particularly tired, or petulant, he would order Merlin to wash his hair for him. Merlin always complained, usually while already moving to kneel beside the bath, but his fingers were always gentle and thorough, careful. For all his usual clumsiness he’d never yanked Arthur’s hair or gotten soap in his eyes – a miracle in and of itself. He didn’t linger but he didn’t rush either, not like he rushed through his chores. It always made Arthur feel calmer, cared for in a way he did not like to linger over.
Of course, whatever small measure of peace he’d found in Merlin’s hands disappeared in the embarrassment of Merlin having to towel off his hair after. And that was nothing to the feeling of standing still while Merlin rolled up the right sleeve of his tunic and pinned it closed below the bandaged stump.
Arthur sent him away to the tailor with instructions to fit his trousers and britches with buttons rather than laces. When Merlin quietly asked if he’d like his shirts and tunics modified as well he only flinched and shook his head.
With Merlin gone, Arthur allowed himself a few more moments to wallow in self-pity, and then steeled himself and walked out of his chambers. No doubt the rumors of his injury, his infirmity, had spread throughout the land – and he needed to put them all to rest. The people needed to know that he was still capable of ruling, even though he now doubted that fact himself.
He made his way down to Gaius’ chambers to see his injured knights – Merlin thankfully absent – and was unsurprised to see Gwen sitting by Lancelot’s bedside. Lancelot was asleep and still looked to be on death’s door but Gwen was smiling, and Gwaine woke up long enough to make a crass joke. Now assured that they were both on the way to recovery, Arthur left and slowly walked to the council chambers. A faint murmur went through the room when he strode inside. Leon was handling petitions from townsfolk from where he stood next to the throne, and the people assembled in the hall peered at Arthur with curiosity and no small measure of relief.
Arthur forced himself to smile and nod slightly as he took his seat on the throne, and waved for the proceedings to continue.
The week proceeded monotonously. Merlin would wake him at dawn with bloodshot eyes glaring balefully at him out of his pallid face, and remind him to eat his breakfast in a voice tinged with guilt and unhappiness. Arthur would send him away and struggle to bathe and dress alone, the second made easier once he no longer had to deal with laces. Gaius would arrive and change his bandages without comment, leave again.
Sometimes Arthur would run a few sword-drills left handed, away from prying eyes in his chambers. The hilt felt awkward and too large in his left hand, his movements slow and jerky. When he was a child he’d broken his right arm falling out of a tree, and had been forced to practice the sword left-handed for months, so the feeling wasn’t completely new. He wished he’d kept up that skill, for now he felt woefully inadequate. He was less than mediocre with his non-dominant hand, and the length that he had fallen made his eyes sting with regret.
At noon he would make his way down to the council chambers and hold court while his knights stood awkwardly around him. He handled petitions with less and less grace as the days wore on, the petty problems he was forced to deal with grating on his nerves.
On Friday afternoon he listened with gritted teeth to two farmers – one with a gigantic nose and the other with awfully greasy hair – argue over a calf.
“Tis my cow that birthed it,” Farmer Big Nose said angrily, his breath whistling through the spaces of his missing teeth, “so it’s my calf by rights!”
“Ya ain’t even have a calf without my bull,” replied Farmer Greasy Hair, “so the way’s I see it, calf belongs t’me!”
“Since you can’t decide,” Arthur interrupted as they geared up to argue further, “I claim the calf, the cow, and the bull in the name of the crown. They’ll be butchered in the castle kitchens and distributed as alms to the poor.”
The two farmers stared at him in shock and Leon shifted uneasily. Arthur glared, unwilling to change his decision, and then relented, slightly, to say “and a copper to each of you, for your trouble.” It was nowhere near the value of their lost property, but neither argued – only bowing stiffly with a beaten-down “yes, Sire.”
“Next,” Arthur called, looking out at the restlessly shifting crowd. When no one dared step forward he pushed himself out of his chair and strode purposefully out of the hall, Merlin appearing out of nowhere to trail at his heels.
He didn’t speak until they were inside Arthur’s chambers, at which point he reproachfully said, “That was badly done.”
“What was badly done is that they felt the need to blather on to me about their silly problems,” Arthur answered acidly.
“It’s not silly to them,” Merlin continued fearlessly, “to them a single calf can be the difference between surviving the winter and starving to death.”
Arthur sneered at the disapproval in Merlin’s voice and started trying to struggle out of his coat. “Fine,” he said with a huff, “I’ll have a purse of silver sent to each of them if it’ll stop you nagging.”
“That’s not what I… I only meant- you shouldn’t make decisions like this while you’re so… angry,” Merlin said, not knowing when to leave well enough alone, as usual.
“Then I wouldn’t be making any decisions at all,” Arthur gritted out. The buttons of the coat refused to yield to his shaking fingers. “Now, get out.”
Merlin didn’t leave, shuffling awkwardly from foot to foot somewhere behind him. And then he took a few steps forward, and placed his hand lightly on Arthur’s shoulder.
Arthur whirled around angrily, shoving away from the touch.
“For god’s sake, Arthur,” Merlin exclaimed, throwing his hands up in the air. “You’re being ridiculous!” It was the first time in weeks that Arthur had heard any emotion but resigned sadness in his voice.
Arthur stared at him, wide-eyed. “I’m being ridiculous?”
“Yes! You don’t have to do everything alone! Just let me help you!”
Arthur gritted his teeth and took a deliberate step forward. Something in his expression made Merlin flinch and back away, only to immediately turn red in embarrassment and draw himself up out of his characteristic slouch, unfolding into his full height defiantly.
“Help me?” Arthur asked, voice rising with each word. “And how are you to help me? Will you bathe me, and dress me, and pin up my sleeve? I don’t need your help, Merlin, I need my arm back! And you can’t exactly help me with that, can you?” Arthur shouted. Merlin seemed to shrink back into himself, and looked away with what might have been guilt. “Can you?” Arthur repeated, getting a vicious satisfaction out of the cowed expression on Merlin’s face. He stared for a minute, breathing hard, until the shame crashed down on him and he had to turn away.
He sighed and looked down, mentally scolding himself. It wasn’t fair to take out his anger on Merlin, or those farmers, or anyone. It was no one’s fault but his own that he was crippled and useless. He should have been quicker, stronger, better. He was just about to send Merlin away when he spoke haltingly.
“I… could. Arthur, if you asked it of me… I could. I could do anything.”
Arthur whirled back around, getting ready to shout at Merlin again for his terrible joke, but the expression on his face – determination and wild terror – pulled Arthur up short. He realized Merlin meant it, he meant it. A million thoughts crashed into him at once. Merlin’s devotion and fierce loyalty, the fear in his eyes, the implication that Merlin knew – consorted with – sorcerers! For how else could he be offering such a thing? If there was a physician’s cure, surely Gaius would have already done it? And finally, running through everything, mad, desperate hope.
The air between them was so thick that Arthur could barely breathe, each inhale felt like drowning. They stared at each other for a long moment, and Arthur couldn’t help but trust Merlin, in this as in everything else. Because if he was telling the truth…
“Do it,” Arthur said quietly. Merlin jumped slightly, and then bowed (and when had Merlin ever bowed) and left the room.
Almost immediately Arthur felt regret, and fear. Had he just- He’d agreed to use magic for his own gains – magic which was outlawed in Camelot, outlawed by his father’s laws and his own. He went to go call Merlin back, to tell him that it was all just a foolish fantasy, but his knees buckled and he fell to the floor instead, shaking all over. His right arm throbbed angrily, and he closed his eyes, letting himself, briefly, imagine what it would be like to be whole again.
Merlin was gone for three days. Only a few dared ask Arthur about it – Leon, Gwen, Gwaine. Whenever they did, he could only manage a noncommittal shrug and faint “the tavern, I suppose,” because how could he tell any of them the truth? Gaius seemed to know, however. Whenever he came in to change Arthur’s bandages he subjected him to a serious case of the eyebrow, something he’d refrained from doing in the past few weeks.
It was pure coincidence that Arthur was standing by the window the evening Merlin returned. He watched with his heart beating frantically in his chest as Merlin dismounted in the courtyard and shooed away the stable boys when they offered to carry his bags. Once Merlin was out of sight within the castle Arthur turned away from the window with a shudder, told himself that Merlin couldn’t have found a cure and even if he had, he would take the opportunity to rest before coming up to Arthur’s rooms.
A few minutes later a timid knock sounded at his door before it was opened and Merlin shuffled in. Arthur’s nerves were forgotten as soon as he laid eyes on his manservant. It was undeniable that Merlin had been getting more and more haggard with each day, but now he looked like little more than a corpse – all vitality stripped away by what had no doubt been a difficult journey. His vibrant blue eyes were dull, his cheekbones pressing sharp as knives through the seemingly paper-thin skin of his face, his usually full lips chapped and bloodless. His neckerchief was missing, the gaping collar of his shirt exposing the hollow of his throat and the tips of his pronounced collar-bones. The huge satchel slung over his shoulder seemed to weigh him down as he crossed the room to the table, moving cautiously. Arthur was familiar enough with injuries to see that Merlin was trying to conceal a limp, that he was cradling his right hand carefully within the pocket of his dirty jacket.
Arthur moved closer, drawn to him in morbid fascination. What had he been doing for these past three days? Where had he been, with who? “Merlin, are you…” alright? he’d meant to say, but Merlin clearly misinterpreted his meaning, jerking up to meet his eyes proudly.
“Yes, I did it. I found a way.”
“…Ah,” was all Arthur managed. He stared as Merlin set the satchel on the table and began to draw out potions and powders with his left hand, arranging them with painstaking precision and much more care than he’d ever treated his own things. He lit a large black candle with intricate symbols carved into the wax. It let off an odd spicy-sweet scent, like cloves mixed with honey and iron.
“So we’re doing this… now,” Arthur said uncertainly. He wiped his clammy palm over his trousers, but it didn’t seem to do any good.
Merlin paused where he was setting a plain wooden chalice on the table. He looked up slowly, and met Arthur’s eyes. “Yes, Sire,” he said, “there’s not much time left… If we’re to do it at all, it has to be now.” He must have seen some sign of assent because he quickly returned to his task, filling the chalice from a series of small vials.
“But this is-“ Arthur stopped, and swallowed heavily as he watched Merlin’s deft fingers move with steady precision. “I can’t…” he tried again, but his heart was pounding in his throat and he couldn’t look away as Merlin lit bundles of herbs and drew runes on the table-top in glittering black sand like he knew what he was doing. Merlin picked up the chalice and swirled a long finger through the liquid within, mouthing something over it that was too faint for Arthur to hear. His eyes caught the firelight oddly for a second and seemed to glow gold. It wasn’t the first time Arthur had noticed such a thing, so he consoled himself with the thought that it was only normal, just one of the peculiar traits that defined the general strangeness of his manservant.
Merlin held out the chalice for him to take, and Arthur instinctively accepted it. The wood felt warm in his hand, surprisingly smooth. He stared at the dark liquid inside. “Where did you even find this… remedy?” he asked. Sorcery, he thought.
“The druids,” Merlin said, meeting his eyes. Maybe it was the odd dancing light of the candle, but Merlin didn’t look frail any longer. The thin yellow flame threw his shadow larger than life behind him, shrouding him in darkness. Merlin leaned back, tilted his head casually. “You’re afraid,” he said.
Arthur drew himself up to deny it, but Merlin kept speaking. “You trust me to bring your meals, and guard your sleep, and treat your wounds… this is no different, Arthur.”
“Isn’t it?” he answered faintly. This was the time to say no, to tell Merlin that he’d changed his mind, that this was all madness.
“You’re sure? That this will work?”
“…with time you’ll be as you were before,” Merlin said. Arthur thought he was being awfully shifty, but it was Merlin, so he drank the contents of the goblet. It tasted sweet as honeyed wine, and slid warm down his throat and through his whole body.
“What was that for?” Arthur asked as Merlin took the goblet away.
“For the pain,” Merlin said.
“…Ah,” Arthur said, blinking slowly. He didn’t feel as cross as maybe he should have, but he was distracted by the fact that the candle flame appeared to be turning bright red.
Merlin came closer and started undoing his shirt laces, muttered “shirt,” as though that were any explanation at all. Arthur didn’t move to help as Merlin pulled the shirt off him and threw it haphazardly over a chair. He turned away and gingerly pulled a long cloth-covered bundle out of the now-empty satchel. He set the bundle on the table, carefully arranging it on top of one of the sand-runes. He placed his left hand over it, and paused. “Arthur, you should go lie on the bed.”
“What is that?” Arthur asked, not moving away from the table, unable to break his eyes away from the mysterious object. His spine prickled uneasily, and his skin seemed to grow hotter the longer he stared.
Merlin sighed, and then started to unwrap it. When the bindings came away Arthur grimaced. It was… well. It was a length of leafy branches wrapped together by vines and grasses, and slathered in dirt. A few rocks were woven into the structure near the middle, and on one end was a thick knot of roots. Here-and-there small wildflowers were woven decoratively into the wood, but the effect was somewhat ruined by the overpowering stench of fresh earth.
Merlin looked up again, and Arthur thought he might be sick. “Go lie on the bed,” Merlin repeated. Arthur went. The world seemed to pulsate around him with every step. He settled into the cushions as Merlin muttered to himself over at the table. Arthur wondered if perhaps the Druids had given him a list of things to do, and he was reciting it to make sure he didn’t make a mistake. He didn’t appear to be looking at a parchment though, so maybe he’d lost it. It would be a very Merlin thing to do, after all. Arthur frowned, and shivered. In the long list of foolish and stupid things that he’d done in his life, this was most absolutely the stupidest.
Merlin returned, cradling the… branch, carefully in his left arm. He set it on the bedside table and turned to Arthur. “I have to undo your bandages,” he said.
Arthur grimaced, but nodded. Merlin began to unwrap the long wide straps, bringing his right hand out of his jacket pocket for the first time. “Merlin!” Arthur exclaimed. Merlin’s hand and wrist were wrapped in the blood-stained cloth of his kerchief; his last two fingers were missing. “What happened?!”
Merlin looked up at him then, though his hands didn’t falter in their task. “What we’re doing is no two-penny magic trick, Arthur,” he said with a narrow smile. “And the Old Religion always demands a price. This time around I’ve made sure to do it right.” He pulled a small ivory case out his trouser pocket and opened it to reveal a thick golden needle and a spool of glistening black thread. Merlin looked back at Arthur, his brows drawing down in concern. “It would be better if you were asleep for this part,” Merlin said, reaching over to place his left hand gently against the side of Arthur’s face. Arthur looked back at him, and this time when Merlin’s eyes went golden he couldn’t tell himself it was only a trick of the firelight.
Arthur dreamed of the monster, only it stared at him with Merlin’s eyes, and spoke to him with Merlin’s voice – hissing strange guttural syllables that Arthur couldn’t understand. Pain stabbed through him in rhythmic intervals, insistently driving him closer and closer to madness. It was ten times worse than losing his arm had been, only now his body felt so heavy that no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t even manage a twitch. He started to scream.
The sharp scent of acrid smoke stung his nose and Arthur opened his eyes blearily. His skin burned, and his right arm ached like it was slowly being pulled out of its socket. He looked down to see the hideous woven branch where his arm should have been, sewed to the stump of his shoulder with neat black stitches slick with blood. He felt bile rising in his throat, his breathing quickening as panic threatened to choke him.
“It’s alright, Arthur, The worst is over now,” murmured Merlin from somewhere above him. He pushed a cup to Arthur’s lips, and Arthur drank the thick liquid within. His head started to swim unpleasantly, and he gratefully let himself slip out of consciousness.
Arthur came awake to the soft grey light of dawn spilling in through the cracks in the curtains. The nightmarish events of the previous night were all too vivid in his mind, and he shuddered at the horror of it all. The room was stuffy with candle-smoke and the remains of sweet-scented potions and spicy powders. He looked around and saw that all evidence of sorcery was gone, all but his new “arm,” now neatly bandaged in plain strips of linen. He didn’t even consider peeling back the bandages, grateful that he couldn’t see the thing.
Abruptly he found himself unable to breathe, and he jerked out of bed to stumble to the window, the newly attached appendage swinging lifeless from his shoulder with every step. He considered ripping it off, away, because it didn’t belongconnected to his flesh. And yet, a thin traitorous ray of hope ran through him, making him pause. He threw the curtains and the shutters open instead, letting in a burst of cold winter air and a flurry of clean white snowflakes. Arthur gulped in a few deep breaths, the fresh air steadying his nerves.
In the light of day, everything seemed slightly less awful, and he gathered the courage to inspect his new “arm” more closely. The bandages were wrapped tightly enough that he could clearly make out the forms of branches, but they looked much less misshapen than they had before. He felt along the length, starting at his shoulder and moving downwards. He could make out the shapes of a few rocks woven into the vines where he now understood was meant to be an elbow, and what had previously been a bulky knot of roots was now a rough approximation of a hand, complete with four fingers and thumb. After some cautious prodding he found that the fingers were thick and unbending, but the elbow join had nearly as much mobility as a normal arm.
He tried, unsuccessfully, to move the branch by sheer force of will. It would not respond to any of his efforts and he soon gave up, discouraged. Merlin had said he would be able to use the arm as before, but Merlin was a liar.
A liar and a sorcerer. Not, as Arthur had been deluding himself for much too long, simply someone familiar with magic in a purely academic context. Arthur tried to picture sending Merlin to the headman’s axe but the vision shuddered away from his mind, unthinkable. He sighed, and turned around to go back to sleep, determined to deal with the issue of what to do with Merlin later.
Only – there he suddenly was, asleep on the stone floor at the foot of the bed with only his dirty jacket to cover him. Of course he wouldn’t have left in the night, Arthur thought, fond despite himself. He would have stayed to see things through, as always. In that moment the question of what to do about Merlin no longer seemed so complicated. Arthur walked over to him on wobbly legs and sharply nudged Merlin’s thigh with his bare toes.
“Mmmmhhf,” Merlin groaned and curled up tighter into himself. Arthur nudged him again.
“Merlin,” he said.
Merlin opened his eyes slowly, looking up at him in confusion. He still looked awful but now there was a bit of color in his cheeks.
“At least sleep on the bed,” Arthur said wearily.
Merlin frowned in droopy-eyed confusion, but then his gaze drifted down from Arthur’s face onto the bandaged limb. He stiffened, coming fully awake in the span of a second. “…Sire?” he said weakly.
“You heard me,” Arthur replied and walked slowly off to follow his own advice. The window was still open, and while it was wonderful to breathe crisp fresh air, it was a relief to climb back into bed, the blankets still warm from his body. He could hear Merlin standing and shuffling closer, then milling about in indecision.
“Well, come on then,” Arthur muttered.
A moment later the bed dipped as Merlin laid down.
“Blanket,” Arthur said.
“Oh,” said Merlin, sounding a bit dumbstruck, and rustled around trying to worm his way under the covers. “Sire... does it- that is… how do you feel?” Merlin stuttered.
Arthur considered the question. He was simultaneously absolutely ravenous and wildly nauseous, shivering with the cold of the winter air and burning from fever. Every inch of skin prickled and stung as though coming awake from numbness and even the hair on his head seemed to ache with each exhale. He felt the cramping of what were now non-existent muscles, though he felt it within the wooden arm rather than empty space. He felt confused, and betrayed, and angry, and most of all, exhausted. I feel awful, he thought. “I feel like sleeping,” he said.
Thankfully Merlin stayed silent, and soon his breaths evened out into slumber. Arthur was in too much discomfort to do the same, and he lay awake staring at the canopy, his mind drifting to dark corners. He wondered why no one had come looking for either of them, why no guards had come in during the night even though he clearly remembered screaming in pain. Had Merlin… done something to them? For that matter, what had he allowed Merlin to do to him? And then he thought of Merlin, sleeping beside him.
It was true that Arthur’s experience with magic was mostly limited to battle – mythical beasts and fleeing sorcerers throwing people about with whispered words. He’d still witnessed a few spells, or the remainders of ones. They were all relatively simple things involving bundles of herbs and beaded charms, old leather tomes, metal medallions and a few chanted phrases. It was nothing like what Merlin had done the night before, cloaked in gold and shadow like a stranger.
Yet, in the morning he looked the same as ever – Merlin, unremarkable but for his ears and piercing eyes, his face as familiar and well-known – maybe even more so – than Arthur’s own. Something of the sorcerer he’d seen last night should have lingered in Merlin’s features, but all Arthur saw was his ordinary, exhausted manservant. The ache running through the wooden arm, however, served as a constant reminder that Merlin was anything but ordinary.
He wondered how he could have missed it, after years of spending nearly every moment with him. In retrospect a lot of things made much more sense – his frequently strange and erratic behavior, the hopeless situations they’d somehow emerged unscathed from, the way Merlin always seemed to know which royal guests were planning assassinations, and more besides.
Arthur knew that he would not, could not, maybe in more ways than one, send Merlin to the pyre. Beyond that… he was lost.
In the following weeks things returned to a semblance of normality. Merlin replaced Gaius in seeing to Arthur’s wounds, and Arthur found himself dreading the days that the wooden limb would have to be re-bandaged. He hated to look at it, the unnatural thing protruding from his flesh and the neat dark stitches that kept it connected to his body.
Still, it was undeniable that it was changing, the wood seeming to become rejuvenated and more sprightly with each day. Within the first week it looked more like a bundle of sinewy vines rather than dry sticks, and by the second the fingers seemed to have developed rock-like joints, giving them some mobility.
He and Merlin didn’t speak of it, or, really, anything. Arthur found himself unable to meet Merlin’s eyes, and the fearful expectation that now always seemed to be lurking within. The days stretched on and yet Arthur still hadn’t come to a decision about Merlin – should he banish him? Send him to the dungeons? Have him flogged? Or, the most radical of all, reconsider the laws on magic?
While he knew that Merlin probably wouldn’t use his magic towards ill gains – otherwise, why was he still darning Arthur’s socks, taking out his chamber pot, scrubbing his floors? – could he say the same for anyone else within his kingdom? His father had said magic corrupts its users, and Arthur found it hard to believe that his father had been completely wrong. Maybe Merlin was just an exception. Or maybe Merlin would yet be corrupted, and Arthur should execute him while he still had the chance.
If anyone noticed the new-found coldness between him and Merlin, they stayed silent. If anyone noticed Merlin’s missing fingers, they didn’t come to Arthur. And if anyone wondered why he suddenly chose to wear a false arm – a practice not uncommon among nobility but widely regarded as vanity, or denial – they dared not ask him about it. Still, he saw the side-long glances and heard the awkwardly stilted speech of those around him, as though they were worried that a wrong word may land them in the dungeons.
Arthur went to court and council, and, for want of something to do – or perhaps in continued attempts to avoid Merlin as much as possible – resumed training with the knights. He kept the arm covered under long sleeves and thick gloves, held tight to his body by a simple sling, and practiced sword-fighting with his left hand. The knights went easy on him, and while he resented that fact, he didn’t doubt that he couldn’t defeat any of them in a fair fight.
The tension stretched tighter and tighter and then, finally, something happened that Arthur hadn’t realized he’d been dreading. A man was brought before him, accused of the crime of sorcery.
He was a pitiful thing, a simple farmer whose ragged clothes hung loosely off his body. He had a wild mop of dark hair and sharp high cheekbones, and as he knelt in the throne room staring up at Arthur with the eyes of someone already resigned to death, it was all too easy to imagine Merlin in his place.
“His neighbor saw him enchant a goat,” Leon said from his place at Arthur’s left.
“A… goat,” Arthur repeated. Out of all the ridiculous things to be caught out for, this was perhaps the most ridiculous.
“Yes, Sire,” Leon said. “The goat was in its death-throes, but this man whispered words over it and it got up and returned to grazing.”
The farmer flinched and looked down at the ground in defeat. Those in attendance muttered quietly and turned their faces away from the man they believed already condemned to death. In Uther’s day that would have been the end of it, but Arthur had never agreed with his father’s fanatic quest to root out magic, how he had executed the people of Camelot on the basis of nothing more than rumors. It was one thing to punish sorcerers who used their arts to harm those around them, but by the looks of things the man had simply healed a goat. And if the crime of healing a goat warranted death, what did that mean for what Merlin had done? For what Arthur had asked him to do?
“Is there any proof?” Arthur asked slowly, hoping there wasn’t any.
A faint murmur of surprise went through the room, and the farmer looked up with the beginnings of hope shining through his eyes.
“Ah… no, Sire,” Leon answered.
“And you?” Arthur said, turning to the man kneeling before him. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
“Errr…” the man started, and then broke off, licking his lips. He glanced around in a decidedly guilty manner. “Uh, your Majesty, I’m… I’m innocent,” he said.
Arthur winced slightly at just how awful of a liar the man was. Still, with no proof and the man’s clear, if unconvincing, denial of his crimes Arthur could do the right thing without dismissing his father’s legacy out of hand.
“You’re free to go,” he said.
The man looked shocked, but not nearly as shocked as the guards that came over to release him from his shackles. “Thank you, Sire,” he managed as he was being led out the door. Arthur watched his progress through the room and, quite by accident, locked eyes with Merlin, who was standing near the back. He couldn’t begin to decipher the expression on Merlin’s face, and didn’t have to when Merlin turned and left the hall.
The rest of the session proved uneventful, proceeding in a haze of easily-handled issues and boring reports. Finally it was over and Arthur trudged up to his chambers, unsurprised to find Merlin waiting for him there.
“That was…. good of you,” Merlin said hesitantly.
“I won’t execute a man on the basis of a neighbour’s accusation and no proof,” Arthur answered.
“And… what about me then?” Merlin asked.
“What about you, Merlin?” Arthur replied. He knew that the time for stalling had passed, and as much as he hated to admit it, that thought frightened him.
“You know what I mean, Arthur,” Merlin said, a touch of defiance entering his tone.
Arthur didn’t answer for a long moment. “Why are you still here?” Arthur asked finally. “You’re powerful, that much is clear. Possibly the most powerful sorcerer that I’ve ever seen. So why are you here? What do you want?”
“I want only to serve you,” Merlin answered.
“I find that hard to believe,” Arthur said. Merlin reeled back as if he’d been struck. He stared at Arthur with wide eyes and when he spoke again, his voice quivered uncertainly.
“I’ll prove it! Just tell me how; tell me what to do and I’ll prove it to you. Anything, Arthur!”
“There’s nothing you can do,” Arthur answered coldly.
Merlin’s lips tightened, and his hands curled into fists at his side. He was suddenly fierce, as if getting ready to go into battle. “If there’s nothing I can do, then why don’t you tell me why I’m still here? Why haven’t you had me killed, or banished? What is it that you want, Sire? Are you too much of a coward to have me executed outright? Do you need an excuse?”
Merlin stepped forward, his eyes flashing dangerously in anger, gold gathering at the edges. “Fine, I’ll give you an excuse! I’ve broken your laws and stolen from you. I’ve killed, Sire, for you and your kingdom. I’ve poisoned Morgana, and freed the Great Dragon, and I was the one to send him away again! I’ve enchanted you to smuggle you out of Camelot, and I’ve done worse besides. There, you have your excuse now!” Merlin broke off, breathing hard. “Shall I go down to the dungeons or would you like to summon the guards? Sire?”
Arthur gritted his teeth and looked away. It shouldn’t have come as such a shock that Merlin could have done those things – not after he’d seen for himself the magic Merlin could wield. Still, hearing it said out loud sent a shiver down Arthur’s spine. Hearing that Merlin had killed, had released the monster which had nearly burned Camelot to the ground, had enchanted Arthur against his will… and worse besides? What could be worse than learning that the man he’d trusted more than anyone had also been deceiving him more than anyone? At least it was clear that Merlin was on Camelot’s side, but Arthur wondered if maybe he shouldn’t send him to the dungeons anyway.
He was dangerous. Perhaps the most dangerous man Arthur had ever met. But he was also Merlin, same as ever, trying to look fearless in the face of imminent judgment.
“Get out,” Arthur said finally.
“No,” Merlin said, glaring. “Tell me what’s to become of me. I need to know, Arthur. I can’t bear the silence any longer.”
“You’ve lied to me since the day we’ve met, but it’s the silence you can’t bear? How much of it was real, Merlin?”
Merlin looked away and Arthur released a small sigh, spared the feeling of being pinned by Merlin’s gaze. “I lied about a lot of things,” Merlin said slowly, “but never about how I feel about you.”
Arthur couldn’t help it; he laughed. The sound was sharp and too-loud in the stillness of the room, a note of hysteria ringing throughout. “How you feel about me? And how exactly do you feel?”
“I…” Merlin said, wringing his hands nervously in the hem of his tunic.
Arthur laughed again and turned away from him, going over to gaze out the window. The familiar bustle of activity outside was soothing in a way. No one in the castle had any idea about what was happening within these rooms. To them, this wasn’t happening at all. Arthur envied them.
“How must I look through your eyes?” Arthur asked quietly, almost to himself. “A complete buffoon, too blind to notice my manservant sneaking around right under my nose. Too stupid to do the right thing without you tricking me into it, too weak to accomplish anything on my own.”
“Arthur, no,” Merlin breathed out. “That’s not how it is!”
“How is it then? Why do you even bother?” Arthur muttered. There were faint footsteps behind him as Merlin shuffled uncertainly closer.
“Because it’s my destiny. Because you’re a great King, Arthur. Because you’re brave, and strong, and kind, and you care about your people before all else. But most of all because I-“ Merlin broke off suddenly, and when Arthur turned to look at him he was surprised to see that Merlin’s usually pale cheeks were flushed a bright red. “…Because I love you,” he finally muttered, not meeting Arthur’s eyes.
Arthur stared at him, dumbfounded, but Merlin didn’t look up from his feet, the tips of his ears a bright Pendragon red. The whole destiny thing sounded a bit rubbish, he thought, but everything else was reasonable enough. And the way he’d said it was so blindingly earnest that Arthur found himself unable to doubt the words. Merlin often told him that he would be – was – a great King, but it was warming to hear the word “love” pass his lips, approval of all that Arthur had done for Camelot. This time when he laughed, it was with relief and no small amount of joy.
“Well, I already knew that much, Merlin.”
Merlin looked up then, and his face twisted into the oddest expression – like relief mixed with disappointment. It was gone so quickly that Arthur thought he’d imagined it, and then the corner of Merlin’s mouth was quirking up into a small smile. “Don’t go getting a big head, you prat!” After a moment he grew somber once again. “Are we… that is. Are we alright, then?”
Arthur considered the question. “I don’t know,” he said. “I think… I think we will be.”
Merlin took a small step closer before his face pinched into an uncertain grimace. Arthur took pity on him and reached out, pulling Merlin that last little bit into a one-armed embrace. Merlin sagged against him, clutching tightly at his shoulders, a fine tremble going through his body. They stayed like that for a while, swaying slightly.
Arthur didn’t want to break the moment, but he had to know. He turned his head, his nose pressing into the space behind Merlin’s ear. “Were you ever going to tell me?” he murmured against Merlin’s dark hair. Merlin tensed up, but when it was obvious that Arthur wasn’t pushing him away he relaxed again.
“Yes. I wanted to, I wanted to tell you so badly. But there was never a right time and… and… I sort of… told you a few weeks ago, didn’t I?” he said, his words muffled into Arthur’s shoulder.
“Sort of,” Arthur mimicked with a snort. Merlin finally pulled away, swiped at his eyes surreptitiously with his sleeve.
“What about… what about the arm?” Arthur asked. It was the first time he’d acknowledged the damn thing out loud, and Merlin flinched slightly. “Were you lying then, too?”
“Um,” Merlin began. “Well- yes and no.”
“And that means…”
“Well, it was all true except for the bit about the druids. I didn’t go to them. I… well. I asked the dragon.”
“The dragon? You mean the dragon?” Arthur asked incredulously. Merlin shrugged, looking away.
“Well. Yes. The Great Dragon.”
“So you… what? Just, chat with dragons, then?”
Merlin shrugged again, looking increasingly uncomfortable with each passing second. “Um, yes? I’m actually a Dragonlord, as it happens.”
“Of course you are,” Arthur replied with a vehement eye roll.
“Well. I spoke to him, and he taught me the spell. Other than that it was all the truth. The arm will work just as well as your own did, with time.”
“How much time, Merlin? It’s been ages and I still can’t even wiggle a finger! Why are you so certain?” Arthur asked.
Merlin finally met his eyes. “Because I asked for help on your behalf and the land, your land, answered. Because it was a gift from the very earth, from Albion – which accepts you as its Once and Future King. And most of all, it will work because I will it so.”
Arthur stared back at him while he tried to process the, frankly, very odd statement that Merlin had made, as though the land was a living, conscious thing. Apparently his manservant wasn’t quite finished.
“There’s nothing wrong with the arm itself, just your attitude towards it.”
“My attitude?” Arthur asked scornfully.
“Yes! Are you so convinced that you can’t possibly be the problem? Here,” Merlin said, pulling at Arthur’s right arm. He maneuvered the dead limb proprietarily, taking it out of its sling and then cradling the elbow in his left hand while he unsheathed the dagger at Arthur’s belt without so much as a by-your-leave. “Watch,” Merlin said, and sharply pricked the wooden arm with the dagger.
“Ow!” Arthur said in surprise, and watched as the wooden fingers twitched reflexively.
“Do you see?” Merlin asked, sheathing the dagger once again, then letting go of the arm so that it hung at Arthur’s side. “Nothing wrong with it. It’s just that you don’t consider it your own, a part of you… so you can’t control it.”
“And how, exactly, am I supposed to change that?” Arthur asked. He stared down at the appendage, trying desperately to get the fingers to twitch again, this time without the knife.
Merlin shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know… sorry.”
Arthur sighed and gave up. “Some great wizard you are,” he said with a wry smile.
“Hey! There are some who say I’m the greatest sorcerer to ever walk the Earth!”
“If only that were true,” Arthur said with a disgruntled eye roll.
“You just have to be patient, and believe in yourself,” said Merlin earnestly.
“It seems like all your advice can be boiled down to ‘believe in yourself,’” Arthur muttered.
Merlin shrugged. “S’good advice though, right?”
“Good enough, I suppose,” Arthur answered with a crooked smile. His stomach grumbling, though, very much spoiled the moment.
“Shall I fetch your dinner, Sire?” Merlin asked. The old mischievous note was finally back in his voice, and Arthur suddenly realized how much he’d been missing it.
“Yes,” he said with a smile. “Bring enough for two.”
The days continued much as before, only now Arthur’s relationship with Merlin had warmed once again. They bantered and insulted each other, and generally proceeded in a way completely inappropriate for a King and his manservant. Arthur could swear he felt a sigh of relief echo through the castle at the change.
He still couldn’t get the right arm to give so much as a twitch, but his training with the knights progressed quickly. Soon he was slightly better than mediocre with his left hand. Once he stopped judging himself by his previous skill and started to judge based solely on improvement, his mood lightened. Perhaps sensing that his self-esteem was no longer so fragile, the knights mostly abandoned the tactic of letting him win – going instead for revenge for all the times he’d landed them on their asses with a mean smirk. As a result he returned to his rooms much more bruised and battered than before, only for the feeling of disgruntled misery to disappear as soon as Merlin bustled in to help him into his bath.
Spring was soon to come, and the kingdom was quiet. Arthur was just beginning to relax when a harried woman was ushered into the council chamber, clutching her few belongings to her chest.
“There was a beast,” she said through shaking sobs. “In the forest- it was… It had so many claws. It- it came out of the night- with a scream and- It took my husband, my children… took them from me!” she broke into uncontrolled tears and Arthur looked out through the hall. Lancelot was pale and still beside him, Gwaine looked faintly green with nausea, and Leon was holding himself so tightly that he was trembling faintly where he stood.
“It sounds like the monster we encountered some months ago,” Arthur said slowly.
“I can gather the knights, send out a patrol…” Leon said, as though each word was struggle to push past his lips. Under different circumstances Arthur might have praised Leon for his sense of duty, for he was sure that the monster had shaken his men and he didn’t know who else may have had the courage to volunteer for another encounter. Gwaine narrowed his mouth into a tight line and stayed silent.
Arthur didn’t want to send his knights back into that battle, but what else was he to do? He couldn’t let the beast ravage his people. He was in the process of mentally picking out a list of men to send – those not so green as to get killed outright, those not so valuable as to devastate the Kingdom should they not return, men who would be able to function in the face of overpowering fear – when he met Merlin’s eyes across the room.
“No,” he said.
Leon looked over at him in surprise. “Sire?”
“No, don’t send a patrol,” Arthur said, desperately trying to come up with some sort of reasoning for his decision. “We can’t spare the men, not now.”
The crying woman looked up at him accusingly, and he ordered for her to be given a meal and a bed for the night, if only to escape her gaze. Afterwards he couldn’t focus on any of the other petitions, and he retired to his chambers early. For once he had to wait for Merlin to show up, but nearly an hour later Merlin shuffled in with his dinner, looking desperate for escape the whole time.
He nearly managed it too, but Arthur called him back right as he was trying to slip out the door.
“Merlin,” he said pointedly.
Merlin sighed and turned around from where he was standing, one foot in the hallway. “Sire?” he asked as innocently as he could, not very innocently at all.
“Could you slay the beast?”
“You heard me.”
Merlin grimaced and stepped back into the room, letting the door shut behind him.
“If you had been there, could you have slain it? With… you know,” Arthur said, wiggling his fingers vaguely. “Could you slay it now?”
“Arthur. I know what you’re thinking, and no,” Merlin said. “We are not going alone. Send the knights, please.”
“Merlin…” Arthur said. “I can’t send the knights! Not again, so soon after the last time. Did you see Gwaine’s face? They’re not ready. And I won’t put them into further danger, not if you and I can take care of this ourselves.”
“Arthur!” Merlin groaned. “No. You’re the King, you can’t risk yourself like this!”
“Arthur! No, for the last time, no!” Merlin said, running a hand through his hair. “This is an awful idea! Possibly the worst idea you’ve ever had! We don’t even know what that thing was, much less its weaknesses! Gaius and I have been searching through the books for weeks now and we haven’t managed to find anything close to what you saw out there!”
“That doesn’t matter,” Arthur said decisively. “You know I’m right. You and I stand a much better chance than a dozen knights ever will.”
Merlin narrowed his eyes and huffed out a sharp breath dismissively. “You are an idiot.”
Arthur laughed. “Ah, but I have it on such good authority that I am a brave, strong, kind King. Even a… Great King, some might say.”
“So you’ve decided then,” Merlin said.
Arthur only raised a pointed eyebrow, and Merlin sighed.
“And you want to leave at dawn, I suppose. And what, exactly, are you going to tell the knights?”
“I’m not going to tell them anything,” Arthur said. “You’re going to tell them we’re going on a hunting trip.”
Merlin threw up his hands in exasperation. “Really? You haven’t gone hunting in over two months, and now you’ve heard about an evil beast ravaging the countryside.” Merlin raised his eyebrow. “And you’re going hunting.” Merlin stared at him for a long moment. “Don’t you think someone may figure out your brilliant plan?”
“Ah,” Arthur said, sidling closer to wrap his left arm around Merlin’s shoulders. “You’re forgetting one very important thing,”
“Which is…?” Merlin asked, obviously unconvinced.
“I’m the King, Merlin,” Arthur said with a smirk. “If I want to go on an extended and possibly suspicious hunting trip, who exactly is going to stop me?”
“Not me, apparently,” Merlin muttered.
“Fine!” Merlin exclaimed before taking his leave as quickly as possible.
Arthur prepared himself for bed alone, and that night he had the best rest of his life. For the first time since he’d lost his arm he felt like he was capable of helping his people, of doing something. In the morning Merlin woke him with a surly retort, and they rode out of the East gate at dawn.
Arthur waited as long as he could, but he felt uneasy in his own skin, itchy and numb at the same time. He pulled his horse to a stop as soon as they were out of sight from the castle. It took Merlin a minute, but when he noticed that Arthur had fallen behind he turned around.
“Arthur?” Merlin asked.
“My armor,” Arthur ordered while dismounting. He struggled out of his jacket while he waited for Merlin to come around with the rest of his things. And then Merlin was handing him his gambeson and helping slide chainmail over his head. The weight was a familiar comfort. Arthur stood quietly while Merlin reverently arranged the rest of his armor, whispering the occasional hushed phrase that he’d once explained as a superstition he’d learned in Ealdor, but that Arthur now understood to be a magical charm. Merlin slowly ran his hands over each link and buckle, double checking the fit and strength. He stepped back to inspect his work critically, and watched with narrowed eyes while Arthur arranged the right arm in its sling.
“This is a terrible idea,” Merlin muttered and went off to fetch Arthur’s cloak, only for Arthur to wave him away.
“Not the cloak, Merlin,” Arthur said.
“What? Why?” Merlin asked.
“We’re in disguise, obviously,” Arthur answered.
Merlin rolled his eyes, but shoved the cloak back into the saddlebag in a semblance of obedience. “What an excellent disguise, Sire,” he said sarcastically. He pulled out two long, cloth-wrapped bundles. The first was Excalibur, which Merlin slid into the scabbard at Arthur’s saddle in place of the plain sword that had been resting there. The second bundle turned out to be a long staff with a large blue crystal set into the top of it.
“You have a magical staff?” Arthur asked, staring.
Merlin shrugged uncomfortably.
“Where have you been keeping it, under your bed?” Arthur laughed.
Merlin avoided his gaze, his ears turning a brilliant red.
“Oh my god,” Arthur exclaimed. “How have you not been caught yet? Honestly.”
“We should get going, Sire,” Merlin interrupted.
“Indeed,” Arthur said. He mounted his horse again with some difficulty, and then they were off. They stayed silent for the most part, stopping occasionally to water the horses and eat a quick meal. Arthur’s good mood deteriorated with the failing light, and when they came across the first set of monstrous tracks a sense of dread settled in Arthur’s gut.
He’d never gotten a clear look at the creature; it had been too dark, too sudden, too hectic. The fire had been too weak to illuminate anything more than teeth and claws, confusing the scene with shaking shadow more than revealing the beast’s true form.
Looking at the wide trail of its dragging legs, even in the falling gloom, made Arthur realize it was probably larger than he had originally thought, longer. More like a gigantic centipede than any beast he was used to. They slowed to an easy trot as they followed the trail through the woods until it led them to the mouth of a cave.
“This just gets better and better,” Merlin grumbled as Arthur got off his horse.
Arthur wasn’t too excited about going down into a cave either, but he, at least, had the decency to keep that thought to himself.
“Don’t be such a girl, Merlin. We get in, you magic it dead, we get out and go celebrate at a tavern. Easy.”
“Yeah, easy for you maybe,” Merlin muttered under his breath. Arthur didn’t choose to dignify that with a response. Merlin helped him buckle the scabbard around his waist and, after some deliberation, they left the horses free as they walked down into the gloomy cave.
“Wish we had a torch,” Merlin said after a while.
“Yes. Or, you know, a sorcerer,” Arthur replied.
“Right, sorry,” Merlin said with a nervous laugh, and then his eyes flashed golden and a glowing blue orb blossomed to life between them. Arthur stared at it in surprise, the memory of a different cave so long ago standing out in his mind.
Of course, he thought. Of course it had been Merlin, protecting him even then. Merlin, as usual, didn’t seem to understand the importance of Arthur’s revelation and only stared at him expectantly, clearly wanting to get this whole thing over with as quickly as possible.
They followed the monster’s path deeper into the cave, trailing the shallow gouges it had left in the stone. Arthur gripped Excalibur’s hilt tightly in his left hand as he walked. The only sounds were his and Merlin’s quiet footfalls and shallow breaths as they made their way over stone and loose gravel. The temperature dropped as they got deeper, until Arthur could see his own breath clouding before him in the eerie blue light.
Eventually the path widened and they walked out into a large chamber. Arthur could hear dripping from somewhere ahead, and then a faint rustle. He paused and cocked his head to listen more closely.
There was another rustle before the sound died down completely, leaving only the dripping and his and Merlin’s ragged breathing. And then two yellow lights blinked on in the distance, and there was a sound like twisting metal as the monster rushed them.
Arthur only had time to shove Merlin with his shoulder, pushing him out of the creature’s path, before it was upon him. He warded off the beast’s snarling jaws with Excalibur, letting out a faint yell and sidling off to the side, away from where Merlin was struggling to his feet. There were so many teeth and claws that Arthur only barely managed to duck out of the way of each of its attacks, and then the cave was lit up with a flash like lightning as Merlin fired a blast of magic from his staff.
Arthur was momentarily blinded, falling back against the cave wall and raising his sword in an attempt to block any of the beast’s further blows. For a second he thought that it had been slain, but just as he was blinking the spots out of his vision, he heard its angry roar.
Merlin hesitated for an instant, and then Arthur heard him chanting a different spell. Fire spilled from his fingertips, and flames began to lunge at the creature like the tentacles of a gigantic squid. It reared back – roaring again. The flame didn’t seem to do much good, but Arthur took the opportunity of the beast’s distraction to slide forward and thrust Excalibur into the side of its neck, the flames parting before him.
The sword glanced off the creature’s hide like no more than a twig, causing exactly zero damage. Its bright yellow gaze fell back on him, and he took a few uneasy steps backwards. The fire went out as Merlin changed tactics, summoning a tornado instead. The creature seemed completely unaffected, but it did pause for a moment, swiveling its eyes slowly between the two of them.
“Merlin,” Arthur gritted out.
“I don’t know why it’s not working!” Merlin exclaimed, already starting to chant once more, trying to call up another spell.
The monster lunged at Merlin and Arthur threw his body forward to intercept the blow, managing to block its teeth even as one of its claws sliced deeply into his thigh. He fell with a yell, and felt Merlin catch him by the inside of his elbow, yanking him backwards. The cave began to rumble ominously as Merlin continued calling out harsh syllables, simultaneously sliding under Arthur’s arm to pull him away.
“Run!” Merlin gritted out, and they shuffled away as stones began to fall behind them. They stumbled along for a few harried minutes, the glowing blue ball leading the way, illuminating the clouds of dirt and stone dust swirling around them.
Finally the rumbling died down, and they came to a stop. Arthur leaned against the cave wall as the adrenaline faded, pain rushing back into his body. When he tried to take a step, the wound in his thigh throbbed sharply and his leg gave out. He fell to one knee with a strangled shout. Merlin was at his side instantly, pushing him into a sitting position and laying his hands around the deep cut in his leg.
There was a faint sound like something crashing against a stone wall, and Arthur knew that while they were briefly safe due to the rock fall, the creature was most certainly still alive and coming for them.
Merlin whispered a short charm, and when nothing happened he whispered it again. The blue ball of light hovered over them obediently as Merlin repeated the charm a few times with the frenzied determination of a man trying desperately to push back panic. Arthur covered Merlin’s hands with his own, stilling his manservant’s frantic movements.
“Merlin,” he said calmly, “it’s alright.”
Merlin met his eyes for a second, and then looked back down as he fumbled with the neckerchief around his throat. He used it to bandage the cut in Arthur’s thigh with sharp, jerky movements.
“We’re going to die,” he said, his voice shaking.
“I do so love your optimism, Merlin,” Arthur said lightly. If these were really to be their final moments, he didn’t want to spend them wallowing in misery. “We’ll be fine, just like always,” he lied.
Merlin shot him a disbelieving look before returning to his task.
“So it looks like it’s impervious to magic,” Arthur said.
“A bit, yeah,” Merlin replied, though he seemed slightly calmer than before. He tied a sharp knot in the neckerchief, making Arthur wince.
“And in order to fight it, I’ve brought a sorcerer, a magic staff, and a magic sword,” Arthur continued, letting his head fall back against the wall of the passage. “Oh, and the trusty but completely useless dagger I keep in my boot. Wonderful.”
“Excalibur should work against it!” Merlin exclaimed. “It’s forged in a dragon’s breath! It should kill anything!”
“Maybe there’s a restriction,” Arthur ventured good-naturedly. “Something like, only effective on creatures with up to six legs.”
“You know, that dragon is useless,” Merlin muttered. “I can see why your father locked him up. What a bastard.”
Arthur had only spoken to the Great Dragon once, when he had snuck down into the dungeons as a boy. Even after that brief experience he could agree that the dragon was indeed, a bit of a bastard. And an incredibly dramatic one, talking about the sides of coins and the true meaning of nobility as if it knew about either.
Merlin finally finished the bandage and sat back against the wall, his body pressing warmth against Arthur’s side.
“How did you even know Excalibur was a magic sword?” Merlin asked suddenly. “I don’t think I ever got around to telling you that part…”
Arthur rolled his eyes, a gesture that probably went unseen in the gloom. “Oh I don’t know, I noticed a few things. Like the bit where I pulled it out of a rock, or possibly the clearly magical runes along the blade.”
“…Oh,” Merlin said.
“Haven’t you wondered why I’ve never taken it into battle? Can’t say that I had much faith in magic up until most recently. Clearly that was a mistake,” Arthur added, nudging Merlin with his elbow. “Where’s my other sword?”
“With the horses,” Merlin said.
“I’m beginning to see the benefit of this whole research thing. Maybe next time I’ll listen to you.”
Merlin laughed weakly, which brought a small smile to Arthur’s face.
“Can we get out through these tunnels?” Arthur asked, looking over to the dark stretch of passages before them. Merlin’s only answer was the glowing of his eyes while he looked briefly intent. The glow faded and he sagged backwards.
“No,” he said, wiping at his eyes with his sleeve. “They only circle back to that chamber where that… thing is.”
Arthur sighed. Perhaps it was the darkness, or maybe it was the sense of impending doom, but Arthur reached out to grasp Merlin’s hand. “Merlin,” he said solemnly, “it’s been an honor.”
Merlin turned to meet his gaze, his eyes bright with unshed tears. “Arthur,” he said before his voice broke. “Arthur,” he breathed, leaning forward.
Time seemed to slow down as Merlin uncertainly pressed his lips against Arthur’s own, as if afraid that Arthur was about to push him away. As if Arthur could ever push him away.
Arthur regained his senses just as Merlin was pulling back, defeated, and raised his hands to cradle Merlin’s face, surged forward to press their mouths more firmly together. Merlin let out a small sigh and practically melted against him, wrapping his arms around Arthur’s neck.
Arthur regretted the chainmail, the armor, everything. All he wanted in that moment was to feel the solid warmth of Merlin’s body against his own, the heat of his skin through his thin tunic. He contented himself with the feeling of Merlin’s mouth sliding slickly against his, the triumph of Merlin’s needy groan as Arthur parted his lips with his tongue, bit lightly at Merlin’s ridiculously plush bottom lip. Merlin’s hands tightened in his hair, and Arthur pulled him even closer, only for Merlin to suddenly jerk away.
“Merlin?” Arthur asked in practically a whisper.
Merlin cocked his head to the side, staring off somewhere into the middle distance. “Do you hear that?” he said.
“Hear what?” Arthur asked.
“It’s… talking to me.”
“Well, don’t listen to it,” Arthur said, appalled.
“Arthur. I think… It wants to make a deal.”
“Merlin,” Arthur said even as Merlin pulled away from him, climbed to his feet. “Merlin, it’s a monster! You can’t believe a word it says!”
Merlin clenched his hands into fists and then took a step down one of the passages.
“Merlin, come back here,” Arthur said, his voice too loud against echoing stone.
Merlin only took another step further away. He looked back to Arthur, took a deep breath. “No,” he said. “No, it’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. Just trust me, yeah?”
“Don’t do it. Whatever it is you are about to do, don’t do it,” Arthur said as sternly as he could. Merlin looked back at him, and then his eyes glowed and the blue ball of light seemed to brighten.
“Arthur,” Merlin said quietly, “please, I have to. I have to. Just. Follow the light, it will lead you out of the cave. We’re not going to die, not today,” he added, but the inflection of that sentence was all wrong. “I’m sorry,” Merlin said before breaking into a run.
“Merlin!” Arthur tried again, reaching for him, but it was already too late. “MERLIN!” he yelled, not realizing until Merlin’s form was lost in the gloom that he was reaching with his right hand.
Arthur stared for a moment, but almost as soon as he started to pay attention, the life seemed to slip away from the limb and it dropped to the ground. When it did he felt a jolt of… something run through his body.
He nearly tore his glove in the hurry to pull it off, and then, careful not to think too hard about what he was doing, pressed his right hand against the stone, spreading his fingers against the ground.
He felt a pulsing energy running through the cave, a silent river that knew him, pulled at him. He recalled Merlin’s words about the sentience of the land, how it had chosen him, and knew it to be true. He could feel the energy running through the stone like a slow, even heartbeat. He could feel it yearning for him, calling him. It wanted him for its master, wanted to cradle and nurture and obey him. It was the easiest thing in the world to just… pull, and then it was surging through him, filling him with strength and vigor.
He pulled the short and thankfully un-magical dagger from his boot and stumbled up into a standing position before tearing off after Merlin, occasionally skidding over loose gravel. Merlin’s blue light stayed stubbornly behind him for a moment, trying to lead him in the opposite direction. And then it started to follow him begrudgingly, never letting him pass outside the circle of its glow. He followed the passage, trailing the fingers of his right hand against the stone as he went along, drawing strength from Albion itself. He found he could almost feel the tunnels around him, how they twisted and turned and connected.
The glowing orb went out with no warning. Arthur was suddenly plunged into darkness, and wasn’t able to stop himself quickly enough to prevent tripping over a large rock. He fell hard against the ground, scraping his knees and palms against the stone. The pain was nothing compared to the fear he felt for Merlin.
“MERLIN!” he bellowed. There was no answer.
He wearily struggled to his feet, and then pressed his right hand against the wall of the cave. He focused as hard as he could, and the shape of the passages seemed to materialize before him. He could practically feel Merlin’s presence somewhere further along, and moved forward steadily.
He tripped again a few minutes later – but even when his right hand slid away from the stone he could still feel the shape of the cave around him, awareness flowing through him even through the soles of his boots.
“Arthuuuur…” he heard Merlin’s voice rolling through the cave. It seemed wrong somehow, too low, too cruel.
“Arthur… Where aaaare you? Arthur?”
Arthur gritted his teeth against the painfully familiar sound of Merlin’s voice. It wasn’t truly him, Arthur was sure of that.
He didn’t answer.
“Arthur!” the voice called out, sounding harsh with anger.
Arthur moved through the gloom as quietly as possible, feeling himself get closer to the large chamber with every step.
“Oh A r t h u r…” the voice murmured, echoing through the passages. He heard a soft sigh and then, “I’m going to feast on your blood, Arthur…”
The large chamber was just ahead, and Arthur gripped the dagger more tightly in his left hand. He winced with pain as his skinned palm curled around the rough metal hilt, blood making the grip slick and uncertain.
“I’m going to pick my teeth with the splinters of your b o n e s…”
Finally he reached the edge of the large chamber and transferred the dagger into his right hand. He still let his wooden knuckles drag against the wall, getting a feel for the area. The monster was there, constantly shifting its weight as it looked around. Merlin was there too, lying deathly still in the center of the chamber. He couldn’t be dead though, Arthur thought. Couldn’t be.
Arthur could feel the creature moving through the cave, and blocked out its evil words. He could tell that it was looking around nervously by the shifting of its glowing eyes. One of them seemed dimmer than before, dripping a faintly shining liquid.
Arthur dropped into a crouch and slid forward silently. He could feel the creature before him, blocking his way to Merlin’s body. It didn’t seem to be able to sense him, and Arthur crept up behind it, carefully maneuvering his body around its legs.
He barely dared to breathe for fear of disturbing the air and making his presence known, but somehow the creature remained oblivious until he was underneath it. He vividly remembered the fight with the first creature, its vulnerable underbelly. It was true that his current weapon was woefully inadequate, but it would have to do.
He thrust himself upwards out of the crouch to stab the dagger into the creature’s chest. He worked quickly, managing to cut a slit nearly the length of a hand span in an effort to reach its heart before one of its legs was knocking him back to the ground. The monster screeched in pain, flailing angrily.
Arthur rolled to the side on pure instinct, missing a follow-up hit from one of its claws. He scrambled away. It followed him, but when he stilled it seemed to feel a bit lost, pausing to sniff the air. Arthur stared at it from his place on the ground, not daring to move. When a few moments had gone by, he twisted to his feet – careful not to let his chainmail drag against the ground, or for his boots to make a sound as he turned.
“You’re hiding, Arthur… like a c o w a r d…”
Arthur crept forward until he was under the creature’s belly once again, repeated his attack to try and cut into its throat from the other side.
The beast reared back and flailed around with its limbs, throwing him backwards purely by accident.
Arthur thought he may have lost consciousness for a moment because the next thing he knew was the creature’s senseless muttering.
“I’ll kill him, eat his flesh, then yours, and Aaaaaarthur…! Where are you? Where? …where are you, Arthur?”
Arthur climbed to his feet as silently as before, and thanked the stars – or perhaps he should be thanking the earth – that he hadn’t yet been discovered.
“Where?! W H E R E? I’ll eat him, Arthur! I’ll kill him while you watch, how good you’ll taste after you’ve seen him die…Bitter and full of rage!”
He did rage at that, the thought of it killing Merlin just to get to him. Arthur felt the creature turn and move towards where Merlin’s body lay lifeless on the stone, and he threw himself forward with a yell. It turned its bright yellow eye towards him, the other a mess of oozing liquid and dimming gore.
It screeched then, opening its wide jaws towards him. Arthur felt a wave of putrid breath, like a mixture of old fish and sour milk, enveloping him. He only grit his teeth against the foul presence, and pushed himself harder. He ducked under its first awkward attack, throwing himself underneath flailing limbs to come up next to its underbelly. He thrust the dagger up into nearly the center of its stomach, the muscles of his arms straining as he pulled the blade inexorably downwards.
It flailed above him, emitting the most horrific sound Arthur had ever heard in his life, like thousands of swords clashing, thousands of knights screaming. He evaded each one of its flailing limbs as if by instinct, as though he knew where each blow was coming from even despite the dark.
Hot viscous blood and slick innards spilled over him as the beast cried out its last shriek, toppling over and nearly crushing him in its death throes.
Arthur crawled away from it on his hands and knees, occasionally rolling away from huge twitching claws, and then, finally, he was by Merlin’s side.
He wiped his bloody hands as best he could against the fabric of his trousers, and gripped Merlin’s shoulders to give him a good shake.
“Merlin. Merlin!” he called out.
Merlin didn’t respond, and Arthur shuddered in fear. He slid his hands upwards, one curling into the thick mop of Merlin’s hair, the other investigating the ominous slickness in the dip of Merlin’s collarbones.
Arthur failed to contain a broken sob when his fingers reached the ragged flesh of Merlin’s neck. “Merlin!” he whispered.
Merlin’s throat was a mess of torn skin and thickly pulsing blood and- and Arthur could still feel the stuttering efforts of his breath. Arthur laughed desperately and then-
He didn’t know how he’d even thought of it, but suddenly it seemed so simple. He spread the fingers of his right palm against the stone by Merlin’s head, covered the gaping wound over Merlin’s throat with his left, and pulled.
The lifeblood of the earth flowed into him, and he pushed that energy into Merlin’s body, felt the skin and muscle and veins mend beneath his touch. A soft golden light filled the chamber, filtering through Merlin’s closed eyelids as his lips parted around a prolonged hiss.
It was over quickly, with Merlin stirring in his arms and asking, blearily, “Arthur?” while Arthur could only laugh and laugh and laugh and pull him desperately closer.
It was nearly dawn when they stumbled into the nearest tavern. The innkeeper shot them a very nervous look from the corner of the bar where she was polishing glasses. Arthur couldn’t blame her. Merlin was covered in dirt and had a wide swath of drying blood all down the front of his tunic, and Arthur wasn’t looking much better. He walked with a pronounced limp, and his clothing was stained with the creature’s thick blood which, in the light of the candles, looked to be a sickly purple. He left a trail of dark dust as the links of his chainmail rubbed together, shedding dried flakes of blood and the creature’s saliva, and he only wore the one glove, having discarded the other back in the cave.
“A room,” Arthur commanded tiredly. “…and a bath,” he added as an afterthought.
The barkeep came closer, staring at them with narrowed eyes. “A room we have – though you’ll have to share,” she said slowly, “but a bath? At this hour, your lordship?” she added sarcastically.
Arthur only sighed and pulled a few gold coins out of his belt pouch. She inspected them for a second.
“…why don’t I get you some stew while you wait?” she asked with a suddenly friendly smile, and bustled away.
The stew was thick with meat and potatoes, warm and filling. They ate in silence as they watched a few yawning children, still in their night-shirts, scurrying up and down the stairs with sloshing buckets. It didn’t take very long for the innkeeper to return. She and two young boys took their saddlebags, though Merlin kept hold of his now re-wrapped staff and Arthur kept his left hand closed over Excalibur’s hilt at his waist.
They were led into a small room, though the bed was wide enough and the floor clean enough, and, thanks to the braziers arranged in the corners, the air warm enough. Best of all – a small steaming tub sat before them, taking up nearly all the free space in the room.
Arthur barely even waited for the innkeeper and her boys to leave before struggling out of his chainmail and pulling off his irreparably soiled clothes to toss them into a corner. He quickly scrubbed off the worst of the filth at a small basin, and then climbed into the tub with a barely-concealed groan. He let himself rest for a moment and revel in the warmth and at the feeling of his muscles relaxing and unknotting after hours of fear, cold, and tension. Merlin puttered around doing… something, behind him. Looking through saddlebags, Arthur guessed by the sound of shuffling cloth.
If he let himself sit there for much longer he knew he’d fall asleep, so he forced himself to move. Merlin yawned with a quiet sigh as Arthur reached over to pull a bar of soap out of the small dish, grinning when he realized he’d unthinkingly picked it up with his right hand.
It had changed slightly since the last time he’d seen it, when he’d gotten dressed the previous morning. The roughness of bark was now completely gone, replaced by smooth tendrils that varied in color between the dark brown of the earth and the light green-gray of a young birch. Some years ago, when he’d been loitering in Gaius’ chambers while waiting for Merlin, he’d flipped through an anatomical text that portrayed the muscles of the body below the skin. The arm looked similar to that, a vibrant bundle of thin cord-like vines. The stones that marked the elbow and wrist and finger joints showed through in places, though they were now smooth and white like bones rather than jagged shards of rock.
The arm no longer felt so out of place, and even the still-prominent black stitches brought a smile to his face, a reminder of Merlin’s love and devotion. Arthur flexed his fingers before his eyes, curled them experimentally into a fist and then let them relax. He could feel the water, the hard edge of the tub, the slickness of the bar of soap. If he’d had any remaining doubts, they were all gone. Merlin hadn’t been lying when he’d said that with time Arthur would be as he was before.
Arthur let his attention slip away from examining the arm and washed quickly, dunking his head a few times to scrub his hair.
“Arthur,” Merlin said, and then a balled up drying cloth sailed through the air to land over his head. The corner of it fell into the tub, getting soaked instantly, but Arthur managed to catch the rest well enough.
“Merlin,” he complained as he got up. He dried himself off efficiently before wrapping the damp cloth around his hips.
“Clothes’re on the bed,” Merlin murmured, and yawned again.
“Oh…” Arthur said, looking over to the bed where there was, indeed, a nightshirt laid out neatly. He looked back at the tub, then at Merlin still wearing that awful blood-stained tunic. “Water’s warm,” he said after a beat, “if you want to…”
Merlin looked up at him in surprise, obviously taken aback, and then broke into a wide smile. “As if I need your permission, Sire.”
Arthur searched around for a sarcastic retort, but his mind was sluggish with exhaustion and the moment passed, so he went over to sit on the bed instead. He pulled the nightshirt closer with the full intention of putting it on, then looked up and realized he may have made a slight miscalculation with this whole bathing thing. Because Merlin was standing with his back to Arthur, barely a meter away. And he was getting undressed in quick, efficient movements. Well, efficient for Merlin, which meant he only tripped over his own feet twice.
He pulled off his tunic and tossed it easily into the corner with the rest of Arthur’s things, muttering a brief lament over having to clean them all later. And then he was pulling down his trousers, only of course he had forgotten to remove his boots first, so he flailed around a bit. He was thin and gangly and stained with dirt and blood and there certainly wasn’t anything attractive about him, except.
Except for how everything was impossibly attractive about him. Arthur couldn’t stop staring, abruptly aware that the most he’d ever seen of Merlin was his forearms, and, on one particularly hot afternoon, his calves. And now here he was – standing naked and completely unconcerned as he waved a hand over the bath, causing fresh rivulets of steam to fill the air.
Arthur watched as Merlin finally slid into the water. He nearly tripped again, and swore quietly when he banged his shin into the side of the tub. Arthur’s knee-jerk reaction was to tease him, but he couldn’t quite force himself to form the words, mesmerized by the play of muscles shifting underneath Merlin’s skin.
The candle-light made everything seem soft and close. Arthur watched the straight lines of Merlin’s shoulder-blades moving as Merlin bathed, slow with exhaustion. With each wide swipe of the washcloth Arthur wondered what it would feel like to run his hands over Merlin there, and there, and there…
Merlin had kissed him, back in the cave, and in that moment Arthur hadn’t the time to consider all that it could mean. He had the time now – with no monsters coming after them, no knights or councilors vying for his attention, no sounds at all to distract him from the faint splashing of water and Merlin’s occasional hitched breaths as he stretched out cramped, aching muscles.
A fresh sheet was laid out on the table, out of Merlin’s reach, and Arthur vaguely considered bringing it over to him. Except. If he didn’t – Merlin would have to get out of the bath and walk, naked, across the room to get it for himself.
Arthur didn’t move, a slow wave of heat rising through him. The shirt slipped through his fingers to pool, unnoticed, on the ground.
Merlin washed his face, spending a few extra moments on a cut that was still bleeding sluggishly on his forehead, and then dunked his head under the water while very inelegantly pinching his nose shut. He surfaced with a small cough, then held out his hand and the sheet flew into his fingers.
Right, magic, Arthur thought with disappointment. Not too much disappointment, though, because that was when Merlin rose out of the bath and treated Arthur to a fine view of his perfectly curved ass for the few moments it took him to unfold the sheet and throw it around his shoulders. He rubbed half-heartedly at his hair and forearms, before turning around with a yawn.
He jerked in surprise when he saw Arthur looking, and then nearly flailed his way back into the tub. “Arthur! I thought – thought you’d be asleep by now.”
Merlin’s eyes narrowed, and even in the dim lighting Arthur could tell he was going a bit pink in the ears. “Were you… watching me bathe?” he asked.
There really was no good answer to that one, so Arthur only said, “someone had to make sure you didn’t drown.”
“Ah,” Merlin said, his shoulders sagging a little. “You’re very funny, Sire.”
He turned away to get fresh clothing from their saddle-bags, but Arthur called him back with a faint, “Merlin?”
Merlin looked at him quizzically, and Arthur beckoned him closer. Merlin stopped just in front of him, and Arthur slowly reached out and settled his left hand onto Merlin’s cloth-covered hip.
“What is it?” Merlin asked.
Arthur tugged lightly, pulling Merlin another step closer so that he was standing between Arthur’s spread knees.
“You know…” he said, looking up into Merlin’s face. He carefully slid the hand on Merlin’s hip up his side, up to his elbows and forearms and then hands, clutching the sheet closed over prominent collarbones. Merlin’s breathing quickened, the blush darkening.
“You’ve seen me in the nude so many times,” Arthur continued, exerting a faint pressure on Merlin’s hands, drawing them downwards and taking the sheet along with them, revealing the pale planes of Merlin’s chest, the still-damp dark hairs that spanned the space between his nipples. “And all this time you’ve been hiding yourself away from my sight. Doesn’t seem fair, does it?”
“I’m not much to look at,” Merlin said. He glanced off to the side, embarrassed, but he didn’t say anything about Arthur now very obviously staring at his torso. The smoothness of his skin was broken up by scars, dozens of them. Some like small burns, others that looked more like cuts and arrow wounds, others still that crisscrossed his body like the faint impressions of... chains. One particularly big jagged mark ran across his upper arm, and Arthur drew the fingers of his left hand gently over it.
“How did you get this?” he asked.
Merlin shifted nervously. “A hedge-witch, a few years back. She was planning on poisoning your mutton and she hit me with a spell when I… stopped her.”
“And this?” Arthur asked, spreading his palm over a puckered burn mark right below Merlin’s heart. Arthur could faintly feel the steady rhythm of Merlin’s pulse where his fingers rested over his skin, a reassuring beat.
“Um. That one was from the witch Nimueh,” Merlin said. “She tried to kill me with lightning, but… that didn’t work out too well. For her.”
Arthur nodded faintly, lifting his palm just enough to trail his fingers over Merlin’s body, occasionally stopping to ask Merlin about other, smaller marks. Finally he reached something familiar, the scar from when Merlin had been slashed in the side by a bandit on horseback – the time that Arthur thought he’d lost him.
Their room was on the second floor, removed from the land and the soil, but he could still feel the faint energy of Albion calling to him as he pressed his palm against the long white line. He gave a faint push, and when he drew his hand away, the skin was fresh and unmarred.
“Arthur!” Merlin said.
Arthur was about to repeat the process on another scar close by when Merlin shifted the sheet into one hand and stilled Arthur with the other.
“Arthur, stop,” Merlin said, a little breathless. “You can’t just go around doing magic willy-nilly. It always has a price.”
Arthur looked up into his eyes, remembering with a sharp jolt Merlin’s missing fingers, and the price he’d paid to give Arthur his arm back.
“It’s not magic,” he said, a little dumbly. Because what he was doing wasn’t magic, was it? He wasn’t chanting spells or brewing potions, he couldn’t feel his eyes glowing or anything of the sort.
Merlin laughed a little. “What did you think it was? Wiping scars away like little more than dirt? You can’t waste it on this.”
“It’s not a waste,” Arthur said, perhaps a little petulantly. He looked down again, staring at Merlin’s navel as he continued. “Every one of these scars represents a time I failed to protect you.”
Merlin smiled. “Well, not every one,” he said, and then pulled the sheet a little lower over his hip, revealing a small star-shaped mark. “This one is from when I tripped over some shelves and fell into Gaius’ work bench.” At Arthur’s disbelieving stare he added, “well they can’t all be glamorous.”
“Merlin,” Arthur said abruptly. “Back in the cave…”
Merlin went a little pale. “…yeah?” he said faintly.
“Was that… was that a ‘we’re going to die and I just want to kiss someone’ sort of a kiss, or was that a- ‘we’re going to die and this is my last chance to show my feelings’ sort of kiss?”
Merlin huffed out a small snort and looked away nervously. “Well, I’ve been showing my feelings all along, it’s not my fault you were too thick to notice.”
Arthur smiled and pressed an open mouthed kiss against the scar over Merlin’s hip, the one that was a sign of clumsiness and not the danger Merlin constantly threw himself into to protect him. Merlin exhaled a sharp breath, and Arthur kissed the scar again, feeling Merlin’s heart beat quicken.
“You know, occasionally I am a little slow on the uptake,” Arthur murmured against his skin.
“I know that,” Merlin said breathlessly, “I just didn’t think you knew that.”
“And what else do you know?” Arthur asked, pulling the sheet loose and finally letting it drop to the floor.
“Um, that I… need to shut up?” Merlin guessed weakly, his hands descending to settle onto Arthur’s shoulders.
“No,” Arthur said, “never,” and drew Merlin down into his lap. Merlin settled against him, warm and easy, as though there was no place in the world he’d rather be. He ran his hands through Arthur’s hair the same way he ran them over Arthur’s armor before battle – reverently, like a prayer.
Arthur hesitated before cupping Merlin’s cheek with his right hand, the now-smooth dark wood looking strange and out of place against Merlin’s pale skin. Merlin only smiled though, and turned his head to press a small kiss against the inside of Arthur’s wrist.
Arthur slid his hand to the back of Merlin’s neck and pulled him down into a kiss. Their mouths moved against each other for long languorous minutes while Arthur mapped out the span of Merlin’s back with slow swipes of his hands, running his fingernails lightly over Merlin’s ticklish spots to feel him gasp and squirm in Arthur’s lap.
After some trepidation Arthur finally let one of his hands drift between Merlin’s legs, stroking him uncertainly. Merlin broke away from the kiss to moan into the side of Arthur’s neck, arms tightening around Arthur’s shoulders and hips hitching into Arthur’s hand.
Emboldened, Arthur tightened his fist, pulling another drawn-out moan from Merlin’s lips, feeling Merlin’s breath ghosting over the damp skin where his neck met his shoulders. It was a heady feeling to see Merlin so undone when he was usually so controlled – a mask always ready to fall into place.
“Arthur,” Merlin murmured brokenly, pulling at the sheet that was somehow still wrapped around Arthur’s hips. It only took a few seconds, and then Arthur was taking the both of them in hand, pulling Merlin even closer.
It was easy after that, as though they’d been doing this sort of thing for ages rather than scant minutes. They moved against each other dreamily, filling the room with soft moans and quiet gasps. It was over rather quickly, as extended and fairly traumatic monster battles didn’t lend themselves to marathon sex.
Merlin’s fingers tightened over his shoulders and he made a sound almost like a sob, and then he was coming. Arthur followed him over soon after with a strangled “Merlin!” and they were engulfed in silence.
A fine tremble ran through Merlin’s body and Arthur slid his arms around his waist, pulling him closer. They stayed like that for a minute, Merlin straddling him on the bed, shaking as he wearily nuzzled at the side of Arthur’s neck, whispering endearments too soft to make out.
Finally Merlin pulled away, muttering a charm that left them both fresh and clean.
“If you can do that, why did we even bother with the bathing?” Arthur asked with a tired smile.
“Um… nudity?” Merlin said.
Arthur laughed and pulled him into another brief kiss. Certainly “nudity” wasn’t something he could argue against. They arranged themselves into the narrow bed and Arthur fell asleep with his nose pressed against the nape of Merlin’s neck, his arm around Merlin’s waist.
Arthur groaned and buried himself further into the bed sheets.
“What,” Arthur said grumpily.
“It’s nearly midday. I thought you’d be wanting to get back to Camelot.”
Arthur shifted until he was looking out into the room, when he saw Merlin fully dressed above him.
“What?” Arthur asked.
Merlin paused for a second. “Camelot? And… we need to get back?”
“Mmmfh,” Arthur groaned, turning his face into the sheets.
“Arthur,” Merlin repeated, disrupting his otherwise very successful attempt at going back to sleep.
“When did you tell Leon we’d be back?” Arthur asked, his words muffled by the pillow.
“Um, I told him we’d be back in a few days,” Merlin said.
“Ugh,” Arthur groaned, without making the least effort of getting up. “That means we have a few days still,” he said finally.
“What?” Merlin asked.
“Come back to bed, is what,” Arthur said.
“You’re… serious?” Merlin asked, incredulous. “But. Camelot! They’ll worry, you know.”
“Let them worry. You said a few days, right? It’s barely been two, so why don’t you get back in bed and we’ll figure the rest out in about… oh, three days from now.”
“I…” Merlin said, clearly unsure. Arthur heard some rustling, though, so he felt that he was potentially in for a victory. “Arthur, are you sure?”
“Merlin,” Arthur groaned, reaching out for him blindly. Soon after, Merlin was sliding back into bed, naked but for an old pair of worn trousers. Arthur considered complaining, but Merlin was warm beside him, so he only pulled him closer and drifted back off into sleep.
A few hours later Merlin brought up lunch and they ate from one plate, their legs and arms tangling on the narrow bed. Afterwards Merlin laid back and smiled as his eyes went golden, and at the languid wave of one of his hands the braziers burst back into life. Sparks began to flow easily into the air, forming streams and loops to the tune of Merlin’s long fingers. Arthur laughed when the sparks turned into two knights jousting with spoons while a fat dragon made slow circles over their heads, yawning occasionally.
Merlin’s smile turned wicked as the knights dismounted their horses and mounted each other... Arthur had to tackle him into the mattress at that, and preceded to kiss him senseless. He knew he’d succeeded when the knights disintegrated, sparks fading from the air as if they’d never been.
Merlin was hot and insistent against him, impatient. Arthur wasn’t about to waste the golden opportunity that was laid before him, though - an entire afternoon with nothing better to do than run his mouth all over Merlin’s body. So he pinned Merlin to the bed and explored him leisurely while Merlin huffed out outraged little gasps about him being a tease and called him Sire in a very pointedly displeased way that shouldn’t have been nearly as arousing as it was.
It was hard to choose what he wanted most when he wanted everything and all at once, but finally Arthur came to a decision. He kissed Merlin again, then pulled away and said, “oil?”
Merlin breathed out a shaky, “fuck,” and a bottle of oil was whizzing out at them at terrible speed. Arthur caught it purely by instinct, his palm going slightly numb from the impact. He glared at Merlin, but Merlin was glaring right back at him, his face flushed and his hair a ridiculous mess.
“Well what are you waiting for?” he asked, already turning over to lie on his stomach. “Arthur!” he whined, when Arthur still hadn’t moved, too busy staring.
“Come on,” Merlin said, peering at him over a shoulder.
Arthur laughed, and moved to cover him with his body, kissing the side of Merlin’s neck while his hand slid down his back, and lower. He opened Merlin slowly with oiled fingers, until Merlin couldn’t form words anymore, stifling his moans into a pillow. His whole body clenched and rocked forward whenever Arthur’s fingers grazed his prostate, and he’d be perfectly silent for a second before letting out a shuddering sigh.
Arthur thought he wouldn’t mind watching Merlin like this all day, but he was already going a bit mad with it, so he drew out his fingers and nudged Merlin’s legs further apart so he could settle between.
“Finally,” Merlin groaned, and hitched his hips up shamelessly, reaching back to grab Arthur’s thigh and pull him closer. Arthur pressed inside him in one slow push. Merlin went a bit still underneath him, but his grip on Arthur didn’t loosen even a fraction. Arthur stopped, breathing heavily. Fuck.
Merlin was tight and hot around him, already starting to shift restlessly, muttering for him to just start moving. Arthur shut his eyes and curved his body over Merlin’s, bracing one arm on the bed and curling the other around Merlin’s waist, pressing his forehead to the damp skin of Merlin’s back. His heart was beating so hard he wondered if Merlin could feel it where they were pressed together.
“You’re so…” Arthur moaned.
“Come on,” Merlin insisted breathlessly.
“…bossy,” Arthur said, and smiled. He didn’t want it to be over so quickly, so he just… stayed for a moment, pressed a kiss to Merlin’s shoulder, to his spine. And then he nudged Merlin’s thighs open even wider, and began to move. He started slow and even, but he couldn’t hold back for very long, not with Merlin pushing back against him, breath catching on every thrust. Arthur’s own breath was loud in his ears, ragged and shuddering.
Merlin moaned when Arthur reached down to stroke him in time with the movement of his hips. Merlin’s hand tightened in Arthur’s thigh, his fingernails no doubt leaving deep crescent-shaped indents. He begged Arthur to go faster, harder, and finally Arthur listened.
It only took a few sharp thrusts and Merlin was coming with a sobbing moan, his body seizing and shuddering. It seemed to take ages, and the whole time Arthur kept pressing into him, teeth closed over Merlin’s shoulder to muffle his own groans, rhythm falling apart into something ragged as he let himself go at last.
They collapsed together, breathing hard. Arthur pulled out and curled around Merlin’s back, lying half on top of him. Merlin didn’t complain for once, instead pressing further back against him, pulling Arthur’s arm around him and shifting closer. They drifted for a while, content to burrow into the blankets and not do much of anything.
Arthur woke sometime after dark, rested and restless. He trudged over to the small washbasin to rinse the sweat and come off his body, and then brought the moist cloth over to do the same for Merlin.
Merlin came awake at that, turning over with a sleepy smile. “I must have moved up in the world if I’m getting a bath from the King himself,” he murmured
Arthur didn’t even pause. “I’m in disguise,” he said as seriously as he could.
His stomach was growling insistently with hunger, now. Merlin was completely boneless beneath the sheets, so Arthur got dressed and headed down to the common room of the inn. A few people threw him dubious looks as he crossed the room to talk to the innkeeper but he paid them no mind. He was back with Merlin a few minutes later. They ate slowly – still in bed. Full and impossibly happy, they drifted back to sleep.
Sunlight pushed its way through the curtains some hours later, and Arthur stretched with a wide grin, very much looking forward to another day filled with more of the same. Everything was absolutely splendid until about an hour past lunchtime, when a chorus of hooves and clanging metal rose outside.
Arthur was splayed out on this back doing his very best impression of a starfish, his hands and feet hanging off the edges of the bed. He was vaguely considering ordering Merlin to come over and suck him off, or perhaps do more magic tricks. Both, maybe. At the same time or one after the other, Arthur wasn’t feeling too picky about the details.
Merlin, meanwhile, was sitting at the dining table on the other side of the room, sharpening Excalibur with a look of intense concentration. He seemed very competent and professional, aside from the fact that he was wearing Arthur’s tunic and not much else.
He set the sword aside and trudged over to the window to see what the commotion was. Arthur looked up just in time to see Merlin go pale and jerk away from the window, pressing his back to the wall beside it.
“Arthur,” Merlin hissed, turning to glare at him.
“What?” Arthur asked, starting to get a little worried. He propped himself up on his elbows and mentally took note of where all his weapons were throughout the room.
“Your knights are here!” Merlin said.
“What?” Arthur said.
“Your knights,” Merlin said, “are here!” He snuck a surreptitious look out the window before ducking back into the room. “Twelve of them! Led by Leon!”
Well. If his knights were here, then obviously this wasn’t exactly a life-threatening situation. Arthur laid back with an easy sigh. “Wonder what they’re here for?” he mused.
“They’re here for you, you idiot!” Merlin groaned and rubbed his hand over his eyes. “Oh god, they’re here for you and you’re lying around naked in bed and I’m wearing your tunic!”
Merlin sprang into motion, rummaging through the room for his own clothes, getting dressed quickly and with no small amount of magical help. “Good thing you didn’t wear your cloak, else someone might have recognized you!” Merlin grumped.
A clump of wadded-up clothing hit Arthur right in the face.
“I’ll go stall them, but get dressed, alright?”
Merlin practically ran out of the room and Arthur sighed, pulling the clothing closer. He got dressed without any real sense of urgency, and was just setting his newly-covered right arm into its sling when a knock came on the door. The door didn’t open immediately afterwards as he was used to, so he called out an imperious, “enter!”
Sir Leon strode in confidently, Merlin sliding sheepishly in behind him.
“Sir Leon,” Arthur said.
Leon bowed. “Sire,” he said.
“What are you doing here?” Arthur asked.
“We were worried, Sire,” Leon said. “When you left on your… hunting trip, we though perhaps you’d gone after the beast. And when word reached Camelot that you may be here, we thought it would be prudent to… check.”
“I see,” Arthur said thoughtfully.
“Though, clearly… there was no need for our… interruption,” Leon continued, less sure. He threw a quick glance at Merlin, who was beet red in the corner. “I apologize, Sire.”
Leon took an uncertain step forward, and then threw another glance at Merlin, clearly indecisive about something.
“Sire,” he said finally. “Sire, you know you don’t need to…” he trailed off.
“What?” Arthur asked once it became clear that Leon was unlikely to finish that sentence.
Leon shifted from foot to foot, ran a hand through his curls, and then took another step closer. “Arthur,” he said, a bit uncertainly. “You know you don’t need to… erm.” Leon grimaced. “Leave Camelot if you wish to… to be with Merlin. The knights and I will protect your privacy as we always have. Sire.”
“Ah,” Arthur managed. From the sound of it, Leon and the knights have been thinking that he and Merlin had been… well. Together, for ages by now. There really was no way of dissuading them of that notion without explaining that that whole business was relatively new, and that wasn’t going to be a comfortable or necessary conversation for anyone. “Is there any word of the beast?” Arthur asked instead.
Leon seemed to sag with relief. “No, Sire,” he said. “No further attacks have been reported.”
“Good,” Arthur said, trying hard to keep the smugness out of his voice.
“So, the knights and I… um, will. Leave you to it, then. Sire,” Leon said.
Arthur glanced over at Merlin, still standing by the door. His face was so red he looked like he was about to burst into flames. Arthur considered the relative drawbacks of staying at the inn while the knights headed back to Camelot, the jokes and innuendoes they’d share, the speculation on what he and Merlin were getting up to in the meanwhile. Of course, the other option was returning with the knights, and getting most of the jokes and side-glances to his face, dealing with the surreptitious and unspoken rearrangement of bed-rolls so that he and Merlin would end up beside each other. Which, admittedly, they usually did anyway, and- suddenly that made a whole lot more sense.
“Yes, see that you do,” Arthur said finally.
Leon bowed. “When shall we expect your return, Sire?”
“I believe a few days will be sufficient,” Arthur said stiffly. Merlin glared at him, and that brought a smile to his face. “Have a safe journey home.”
“Thank you, Sire,” Leon said, and turned around to head for the door. He paused as he passed Merlin, though, clapped him on the shoulder and said “Merlin,” in a sort of congratulatory tone.
“Well that was mortifying,” Merlin said as soon as the door had shut.
“It wasn’t so bad,” Arthur said with a smile.
“Yeah, you didn’t have to hear what they had to say down in the stables!”
Arthur frowned. “The knights weren’t… unkind to you, were they?”
“I wish,” Merlin said with a shudder. “Oh no, that would have been simple. Instead they decided to offer advice. Advice, Arthur! Who knew old Sir Caradoc was so versed in the art of lovemaking between men? But Gwaine was the worst, with his awful euphemisms.” Merlin shuddered again.
“Well if Gwaine is here, I’m doubly glad not to be going back to Camelot with them,” Arthur said.
There was a timid knock on the door before it cracked open and the innkeeper shuffled inside, her eyes downcast. “I’m sorry about the service, Sire,” she said with a terrible curtsy. “If we’d only known who you were! We’ll have you moved to a better room in just a moment, and we’ll find you a room for your… servant as well.”
Arthur smiled tightly, abruptly aware that he and Merlin had been none too quiet in the past day and a half.
“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary. It’s time for us to be moving on,” he said. There were going to be plenty of rumors flying around about this as it was.
She curtsied again and left, looking more relieved than disappointed.
“What’d you say that for?” Merlin asked, looking after her. “I thought you meant to stay a few days.”
“Well, not here obviously,” Arthur said. Since it didn’t seem like there were any more forthcoming interruptions, he pulled Merlin into an easy kiss, sliding his arms around his waist to hold him tight.
He pulled away after a minute, and favored Merlin with a wide grin. “Suddenly I’m feeling in the mood for a hunt!”
“Ugh, Arthur,” Merlin whined. Arthur only laughed, and pulled him closer.
*** (epilogue) ***
“Merlin, you’d do anything for me, wouldn’t you?” Arthur asked slowly.
Merlin looked up from where he’d been lacing up the sleeve of Arthur’s jacket, and frowned slightly. “Of course, Arthur. Is something the matter?”
“And you trust me, don’t you?” Arthur asked again.
“You know I do,” Merlin said.
“Then you’ll wear that,” Arthur said, motioning towards a neatly-wrapped bundle of cloth on the dining table, “to the feast tonight. Won’t you?”
Merlin’s eyes narrowed, instantly suspicious. Rather than give an outright refusal, though, he went over to the table, unwrapped the bundle slowly. He pulled out a fine surcoat in a blue so dark it was nearly black, the Pendragon sigil embroidered over the breast in gold thread. Besides the surcoat there was a thin belt made of high quality leather stamped with images of dragons and fire, a pair of trousers in dark wool, and a new pair of boots. Finally, since Merlin’s love of neckerchiefs was legendary throughout the castle and Arthur knew he’d be wearing one of his ratty old ones unless he provided another, there was a bright red kerchief, the hem of which was embroidered in gold thread to match the surcoat.
This was, of course, the item that Merlin lingered over, running the soft wool through his fingers, his eyes wide with awe. Just as Arthur was starting to mentally gloat, Merlin turned to glare at him.
“Arthur, you can’t be serious.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow. “Oh, I’m perfectly serious.”
“But this is… this is fit for a nobleman! I can’t wear it!”
“And why-ever not?”
“Because I’ll look ridiculous pouring wine and serving food dressed like… like… that!”
“Oh, did I forget to mention?” Arthur asked slyly. “You won’t be serving at this feast. You’ll be attending as a guest. You’ll be my… right hand man, as a matter of fact.”
Merlin pulled a grimace. “Because the other servants don’t hate me enough as it is,” he muttered.
“Which servants are these?” Arthur asked, narrowing his eyes.
“Um. No one. Nobody. All the servants love me. And the ridiculous privileges I get, like attending feasts,” Merlin said.
“Good,” Arthur said imperiously. “They should be happy for you, moving up in the world.”
“Arthur,” Merlin said, horrified. “Moving up? You’re not going to try and knight me, are you?”
Arthur laughed. “You’d make a terrible knight, Merlin.”
Merlin didn’t look any more relaxed. If anything, he grew even paler, his eyes widening. “Oh god,” he said faintly. “You’re going to announce that I’m your… your royal consort or something, aren’t you.”
“Of course not,” Arthur said with a snort. “I think you’ve made your feelings on that perfectly clear.”
Merlin gaped for a minute, switching between staring at Arthur and staring at the clothes now neatly laid out on the table.
“As it so happens, I’m the King,” Arthur said, “and I’m pretty sure that means you have to do as I say. And I say you’ll wear this to the feast, and you’ll sit at my right hand, and you’ll not complain about it any further.”
Merlin glared at him, and then gathered up the clothing and left the room. Arthur was forced to lace up his other sleeve by himself, a process that took him three times as long without any help. Still, he could only smile with pleasure as he imagined the feast later that evening.
It certainly didn’t disappoint. It was a feast to celebrate the coming spring, which had finally arrived after the long winter. The great hall was decorated with garlands of wildflowers, and thick white candles were arranged throughout, filling the room with warm dancing shadows, making the guests seem somehow ethereal in their fine clothes and shimmering gowns.
Merlin arrived late, perhaps in an effort to draw less attention to himself. That backfired spectacularly though, and the whole room started to mutter as he seated himself in the empty chair to Arthur’s right.
Merlin looked even better than Arthur had imagined. Finally he was wearing clothing that accentuated his features rather than disguising them. Arthur heard more than a few ladies remarking on Merlin’s narrow waist, long straight legs and strong shoulders. The servants, of course, looked slightly affronted. All but Gwen – who looked at Merlin with legitimate pleasure and pride. Someone – Gaius, perhaps – had convinced Merlin to comb his hair for once, and so it was brushed back neatly from his forehead, making his face seem more open somehow, handsome and sincere.
Merlin still glared at him as he sat down, but Arthur only grinned in response and motioned a servant over to pour Merlin a goblet of wine. Arthur waited for an hour or so, until Merlin had drunk two cups, his shoulders relaxing and his cheeks growing a bit pink. He seemed happy as he chatted with the people around him, Arthur’s knights mostly, but a few lords and ladies as well. That was when Arthur pushed himself back from the table and stood up.
The hall grew slowly silent around him, and he waited until the last person had put down their knife and turned to look at him in anticipation.
“As you know, we are here to celebrate the coming of spring,” Arthur said slowly, drawing his left arm out wide to encompass the whole hall. “And with spring, come new beginnings,” he said.
Merlin glared up at him suspiciously from his seat, but Arthur ignored him. “My father was a great man, and a great King. All he did, he did for the good of Camelot. But every King is a man at heart, and men make mistakes.”
A surprised murmur ran through the hall, and Merlin glared harder.
“Now that I am grown, I realize that my father was misguided in his hatred of magic. Magic, though often dangerous, is a tool like any other. It is not good or evil in itself, but made one or the other at the hands of those who use it. I have seen it used for evil. I have seen it used to hurt me, and my knights, and the people of Camelot. And yet,” he said, smiling now. “I have also seen it used for great good. I have seen it used to protect, and heal, and mend.”
Arthur looked throughout all the surprised faces in the hall. And then he, very slowly, pulled his right arm out of its sling and let the fabric drop to the floor. A surprised murmur went through the chamber, and he raised his right arm to call for silence.
“Magic has long been at the heart of Camelot. In fact, it never left. Magic protected us in the face of Morgause’s undead army. Magic cured the sickness Nimueh sent raging through the city. Magic warded off Morgana’s ceaseless attacks. And magic deserves to regain its place in people’s hearts. For not all spells are evil, and punishing all magic users equally does more harm than good – creating enemies where there would be allies.
“To that end, I would like to announce to all of you present – lords and ladies, knights, and servants – that the use of magic will no longer be punishable by death in the kingdom of Camelot.”
Another murmur went through the hall, and Arthur chanced a glance at Merlin, whose face was spreading into an uncontrollable smile.
“The laws regarding magic will be revised, so that those magic users who do no harm will be able to practice their arts freely, without fear. To aid me in this, I would like to name a Court Sorcerer, to join my council and protect Camelot from the magical threats we may face in future.
“He is a man of unflinching loyalty and integrity. A man whose power is only matched by his dedication to the people of Camelot, a man who has served me truly and faithfully, and has never backed down from the challenges set before him. Among the druids, he is known by the name Emrys.”
There was a clang as Merlin dropped his goblet, spilling wine all over the table. Arthur continued without pause. “But he is better known to us all as Merlin of Ealdor.
“Merlin of Ealdor, please rise,” Arthur said, turning to him.
Merlin stared at him in shock for a long moment, and Arthur couldn’t help but feel pleased. Finally, he was getting a bit of payback for the surprise of Merlin’s whole “I’m actually a powerful sorcerer” revelation. Gwaine clapped Merlin warmly on the shoulder, prompting him to stand. Merlin shuffled over.
“Kneel,” Arthur commanded quietly. Merlin went to his knees without comment.
“Merlin of Ealdor, do you vow to be faithful and loyal to the Kingdom of Camelot, and to me, its Sovereign? To protect the weak and defenseless, to keep faith and to fight for the welfare of all, to speak the truth and to never turn your back on a foe, for as long as you shall live?”
“Um,” Merlin said uncertainly. “…yeah?”
Arthur raised an eyebrow, prompting Merlin to blush hotly and try again.
“I mean, yes I… I do so vow? Uh… what you said.”
Arthur had to stifle a snort, and decided that that was probably as good as it was going to get. He unsheathed Excalibur with his right hand, and touched it lightly to each of Merlin’s shoulders.
“Rise, Court Sorcerer Merlin of Camelot,” Arthur commanded. Merlin rose, dumbstruck. He seemed to be on the verge of tears, he was so overcome with emotion.
“Geoffrey,” Arthur said. The old man approached slowly, and Arthur kept speaking as he waited. “There was a time when magic was welcome in the court of Camelot,” he said. “And in that time, the honor was marked by a head-garment that was passed from Sorcerer to Sorcerer.” That bit was complete bullshit, but Merlin wasn’t the only one who could make up myths when it suited him.
Merlin started to look a lot more dubious, and then Geoffrey was there at Arthur’s left, holding a pillow upon which rested a large leather hat. Merlin frowned, his cheeks growing red. It was a fine hat, Arthur thought. Tall and pointed, with a large red feather pinned to the brim with a golden brooch shaped like the Pendragon sigil.
Arthur couldn’t contain a smirk as he reverently took the hat from the pillow, and placed it over Merlin’s head. It was too big, the size not as carefully measured as the rest of Merlin’s feast clothes. It slid down over Merlin’s forehead, covering his eyes, until Merlin pushed it back with a disgruntled huff.
“May I present – Court Sorcerer Merlin!” Arthur exclaimed. The people in the hall rose to their feet in applause.
“I hate you and I hate your awful taste in hats,” Merlin muttered.
Arthur didn’t know why he was so displeased. The hat was relatively restrained by Arthur’s standards. It could have been much, much worse. It only had the one feather! Arthur grinned.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Arthur said out of the corner of his mouth. “Think of it as your… organizational hat. As you organize the laws of this land.”
“Oh, ha ha,” Merlin said derisively. “Why don’t you just call it the sorting hat? To help me sort out all your crappy business.”
“That’s even better,” Arthur said with a grin.
“Your wit will never cease to amaze me, Sire,” Merlin muttered.
“A little gratitude would be nice,” Arthur said. “With these new magical powers you’ve accidentally given me I could have been my own Court Sorcerer you know.”
Merlin snorted in derision at that, but Arthur could tell he was happy by the way the corners of his lips were twitching as he tried to keep back a smile. Arthur took Merlin’s hand and raised it over their heads. The attending courtiers and servants clapped all the harder, and Arthur couldn’t contain the laugh that bubbled up out of his throat.