It was a long time before Arthur realised that Merlin wasn’t just a man.
Of course, that was partly because the first time he saw Merlin he was six years old, and had hidden under the table in the deserted council chambers while playing hide and seek with his nurse’s son Peter.
He was sitting on the floor, poking at a crack between two flagstones, when the doors swung open, and his father marched in, followed by… a man.
A slightly odd looking man, dressed in the same sort of clothes that most servants wore, but looking a little out of place in them. The only really unusual thing about him (which Arthur, due to being under the table, noticed at once) was that he was barefoot (but Arthur assumed that this was just because it was summer, and therefore hot, and he’d go around barefoot at the moment if his nurse would let him).
His father sat down at the end of the table, and began to speak about… something. The kind of issue that bored Arthur out of his mind.
Once his father had finished speaking, there was a long pause.
“Well?” said the King eventually.
“My Lord,” said the man. “Your son is under the table. Forgive me, but I don’t think you want him to hear this.”
Arthur, therefore, was quickly removed from his hiding place, scolded for hiding under the table in the council chambers, and sent away scowling. He scowled even more when he was found shortly thereafter, desperately trying to find a new hiding place.
The next time he saw Merlin was fleeting, when he was ten, and on his way down a corridor to play outside.
He saw his father emerge from the council chamber, with the same slightly odd man behind him, who turned, bowed, then walked very quickly away.
This time, the fact that the man wore no shoes struck him as very odd indeed, partly because it was now winter, and the flagstones were freezing, especially those in the corridors that were nowhere near a fireplace, but mostly because… well. Who went around barefoot all the time?
But he didn’t think much of it.
It didn’t occur to him that Merlin wasn’t just a normal servant with some slightly odd habits till he was fifteen, and he was heading back to his room in the middle of the night, after a very enjoyable meeting with Erica, a particularly pretty and obliging kitchen maid.
He was making his way across the courtyard, where it was cold and damp (it had been raining for most of the day) and dark, and altogether uncomfortable. He wasn’t far from the door when he heard a sound – a soft thud, like someone jumping to the ground – from somewhere above him.
He looked up, and saw a figure making its way along the edge of the roof, far, far above him. He gaped up at them. They were probably drunk, he decided. No sober person would do anything that stupid.
It occurred to him later that, had they been drunk, shouting at them would be far from the best course of action, as they’d probably just be startled and fall and break their neck, but at the time he was sleepy and cold and stunned at the mysterious drunkard’s stupidity.
“You there!” he shouted. The figure froze, but didn’t falter. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?! Get down from there at once!”
The figure obeyed without hesitation, but rather than going back the way they’d come, or trying to get to a window, or anything logical, they just made their way down in a series of fluid leaps, from the roof to a ledge to the ground, like a cat.
They landed in a crouch, so it wasn’t until he straightened up that Arthur recognised him as the strange man he’d seen before.
And this time, he was struck by all the strange things about him – he was barefoot, outside, on wet, cold, slippery paving (and just a few seconds ago, on wet, cold, slippery roof tiles), he was quite clearly stone-cold sober, and how in God’s name had he managed to come down that way?!
He opened and shut his mouth a few times, suddenly full of questions, but no words came out. And the strange man just walked past him slowly, pausing for a moment to dip his head in a little bow before vanishing into the night.
He saw Merlin (though he still didn’t know his name) a few more times after that, all brief, fleeting encounters.
Things didn’t change until the night of his twenty-first birthday. After the feast, which had gone as smoothly as usual, he was summoned to his father’s chambers.
And there was Merlin, standing by his father’s table, wearing a tunic with the Pendragon crest picked out in gold, hands folded behind his back. He was looking straight at Arthur, his blue eyes strangely intense.
“Arthur,” said his father. “There are some things you need to know, now you have come of age.” He got up out of his chair, and glanced at the strange man. “This is Merlin. I suppose you’ve seen him before.”
“Yes,” said Arthur, his eyes still on Merlin’s. “He’s a servant, isn’t he?”
His father shook his head. “Merlin is one of my most… valued… advisors. And as much as it pains me to admit it, he’s vital to the survival of the kingdom.”
“I see,” said Arthur, who didn’t.
The King nodded at Merlin, who bowed, and retreated to the far side of the room, near the door. “Sit down,” his father said softly, once Merlin was still again, up against the wall.
Arthur sat. His father followed suit. “Father I don’t understand.”
His father gestured for him to keep his voice low. “Merlin is… Merlin is not like you and I, Arthur,” he said. His eyes searched Arthur’s face for any sign of comprehension, but found none. “He’s not a man,” he said. “He appears to be, I know, but he’s not. He was never born,” he said. “He’ll never die. He’s been in the service of our family for nearly four hundred years.”
“What is he?” said Arthur.
“He’s an aeriel spirit,” said Uther. “Or he was, once. He was bound to our family by one of our ancestors, King Eadred, in less… enlightened times.”
“Enlightened?” said Arthur.
“He’s a creature of magic,” said Uther flatly. “It’s undeniable.”
“Then why’s he still here?” said Arthur, frowning. The thought made his skin crawl. “I mean, could you not-”
“He’s immortal, Arthur,” said his father. “There’s no way to kill him. I could free him, but once he’s no longer bound to obey, there’s no telling what he might do. After four hundred years of enforced servitude, his feelings for us cannot be at all pleasant. And he has unimaginable power, in his unbound form.”
Arthur turned to look at Merlin over his shoulder. He looked so young, he realised; had he not known better, he wouldn’t have said he was older than eighteen or nineteen. He never noticed that before. He supposed it was because, prior to this, Merlin had seemed older than he was.
He turned back to his father. “So you made him an advisor?”
“His services are useful, Arthur,” said his father. “You must recognise that. I don’t doubt that he’s helping to keep Camelot safe.”
“Against his will?” said Arthur.
His father nodded. “He’s bound to obey anyone directly descended from Eadred without question,” he said. “Though the king above all others. So be careful how you speak to him.” He sat for a moment in pensive silence before he spoke again. “It’s late,” he said. “You should go.”
“Of course,” said Arthur, getting to his feet. “Goodnight, father.”
He had to walk past Merlin on the way out. The spirit’s blue eyes followed him, and he was smiling slightly, as if he knew a secret that Arthur didn’t.
It was unnerving.
But, as Arthur soon discovered, everything about Merlin was unnerving. Two days after that he found himself attending one of the private council sessions his father held with the spirit.
He sat and listened while his father explained the border disputes they were having with King Harald, to the south.
Merlin thought for a moment before he spoke, comparing it to a similar incident in the rain of King Edwy.
“Who?” said Arthur. Merlin raised his eyebrows.
“He ruled around two hundred years ago, my Lord,” he said, then turned back to Uther, and began to speak at great length about how King Edwy had dealt with the situation.
That was why Arthur began to think that Merlin had nothing but contempt for him. He was proved very much wrong when he met him in as passage way near his rooms in the small hours of the morning, after having spent an enjoyable few hours with his knights and some very good wine.
“Oh, hello,” he said. “You’re up late.”
“I don’t sleep,” said Merlin, who had assumed the same stance he always seemed to take when in the presence of Arthur’s father (hands clasped behind his back, feet slightly apart, back straight).
“Oh,” said Arthur. “Really?” Merlin nodded. “How strange.”
“You fall unconscious,” said Merlin. “Become temporarily paralysed, hallucinate vividly for hours on end, then have amnesia about the whole experience. And somehow I’m the strange one.”
“Well,” said Arthur, slightly taken aback. “When you put it like that…”
“Personally, the whole idea just seems creepy to me,” he said. “I don’t know how-” he broke off, and stared intently at Arthur for a few seconds. “I’m sorry, my Lord,” he said. “That was unnecessary.”
“No, it’s alright,” said Arthur. “What do you do all night?”
“Take some time to myself,” said Merlin, with a slight shrug.
“Wander around on the roof?” said Arthur. Merlin just smiled.
Arthur realised that he had resumed walking to his room, and that Merlin was walking beside him. “Are you following me?” he said, stopping.
“You didn’t dismiss me,” said Merlin.
“Oh,” said Arthur. “Sorry. You can go.” But Merlin didn’t move. “Didn’t you hear me?” he said. “You can go.”
“My Lord, if I may, I’d rather not,” said Merlin; then, when he saw Arthur was confused: “I’d like to stay.”
“And do what?” said Arthur. Merlin just shrugged.
But somehow, that lead to the first time he had Merlin in his room.
Merlin, who just sat and watched as he took off his jacket, and then his boots. And then, once Arthur sat down next to him, just stared at him for a long time, with that strange ‘I-know-something-you-don’t-know’ look on his face.
“Do you not get lonely during the night?” Arthur said eventually.
Merlin shook his head. “Not at all,” he said. “I don’t really speak to anyone during the day, anyway. And I prefer my own company. I always have.”
“How old are you?” said Arthur. Merlin just smiled. “Tell me,” he said.
“Old,” said Merlin simply.
“How old?” said Arthur.
“Very old,” said Merlin.
“How did you come to be in my family’s service?” said Arthur.
“I was bound,” said the spirit.
“Why?” said Arthur. But Merlin just shrugged, and stayed silent. “What did you do before that?”
Merlin’s eyes lit up, and he suddenly seemed to be gazing off into the distance. “I just… was,” he said. “Always. All the time.” He closed his eyes for a moment, then turned and smiled at Arthur.
“Sounds… nice,” he said. “You miss it, then?” Merlin nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright,” said Merlin. “It won’t be long now.”
“What do you mean?” said Arthur.
“When I was bound,” said Merlin. “The witch who bound me – she prophesised that I’d be freed, one day.”
“One day soon?” said Arthur. He drummed his fingers against the table top.
“In the reign of the twelfth king descended from Eadred,” said Merlin, smiling.
“And that’s soon?” said Arthur.
“Well,” said Merlin. “Your father is the eleventh.”
Arthur’s hand stilled. “What?” he said. “That’s – I mean – I-”
“It’s alright,” said Merlin. “I know what your father told you. I understand. But you’ll change your mind. It’s destiny.”
“And what will you do then?” said Arthur. “I mean – you won’t-”
“Don’t worry,” said Merlin. “I’m sure I can manage to be gracious enough to leave your city intact.” Arthur relaxed. “May I be dismissed, my Lord?” said Merlin.
“You can go,” said Arthur. And this time Merlin went.
A few weeks later, during the next council session, Arthur’s father disregarded Merlin’s advice completely. Arthur saw the spirit’s face harden, but he didn’t speak up, just glared for a few seconds, before letting his face return to a neutral mask.
Arthur found himself alone with that night, again when he was coming back to his room late. But this time Merlin was just lurking in the shadows outside his room, waiting to appear when Arthur arrived.
“Don’t do that!” said Arthur, startled.
“Sorry, my Lord,” said Merlin. “May I join you?”
“Of course,” said Arthur.
Inside, he stood by the table and poured out a cup of wine for himself, then glanced up at Merlin. “Do you drink?” he said.
“Sometimes,” said Merlin. Arthur hesitated, then shrugged, and poured out a second cup. He slid it across the table to Merlin, who stared down into it curiously.
“Are you angry with my father?” said Arthur.
“I’d rather not answer that, my Lord,” said Merlin.
“I’m ordering you to,” said Arthur.
“Yes,” said Merlin, the words barely out of Arthur’s mouth. “Yes, my Lord. I was angry.”
“What do you think of him?” said Arthur. “Really?”
“He’s the king,” said Merlin simply. “I couldn’t speak ill of him.”
“I see,” said Arthur, sipping his wine.
Merlin finally tore his gaze away from his own cup. “Do you order me to tell the truth, my Lord?”
“If you like,” said Arthur.
“I think he’s arrogant, cruel, and close-minded,” said Merlin. “I’d look forward to his death even if it didn’t mean my freedom.” Arthur frowned. “I apologise, my Lord,” said Merlin.
“It’s alright,” said Arthur.
Merlin’s gaze dropped back to his cup. He reached out hesitantly with one finger to touch the surface of the wine lightly, then dipped his finger into it, and raised it to his mouth. Arthur watched as he let a drop of wine slide into his mouth, then went back to staring intently at the cup.
“You’re… very strange,” he said. “Are you going to drink that properly?”
“Unlikely, my Lord,” said Merlin. “But don’t take it away. I like having it.”
“Do whatever you like with it,” he said. Merlin smiled, and took another drop. “Where does it go?” said Arthur. “I mean – do you even have – what’s inside you?”
“I don’t know, my Lord,” said Merlin. “I’ve never looked.”
“Did you ever take this form before you were bound?” said Arthur.
“No,” said Merlin.
“Was it… strange?” said Arthur. “I mean… is it very different? From what you were before?”
“Yes,” said Merlin. “Yes, very.”
“How so?” said Arthur. “How did it feel?”
“Felt… heavy,” said Merlin. “Constricting. Earthbound. I don’t like it.”
“Can you change back?” said Arthur.
“If I’m ordered to,” said Merlin. “But it’s not the same.” He sat back in his chair. “It could be worse, though. One king tired of me, and had his sorceror bind me to a tree. I wasn’t released until he died.”
“How long was that?” said Arthur. “Years?” Merlin nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“Trees are nice,” said Merlin. “Peaceful. They talk to each other, you know. I always knew that, but I could never speak to them. They talk so slowly. I could never wait for them to finish a sentence. But once I was bound to one… they were very kind.”
“I see,” said Arthur.
Merlin lifted his cup, and took a proper sip of his wine. “It’s strange,” he said.
“The wine?” said Arthur.
Merlin nodded. “I haven’t had it since before.”
“You drank wine?” he said.
“Yes,” said Merlin.
“Why?” said Arthur. Merlin remained silent. “Tell me.”
“People used to make offerings to spirits sometimes,” said Merlin. “They don’t any more.”
“Why?” said Arthur. Merlin just shrugged.
Shortly thereafter, the border disputes with King Harald started to become uncomfortably close to an all-out war.
The next thing Arthur knew, he was on a horse headed South, riding to meet an army.
And Merlin was there too, on horseback, which (as he confessed to Arthur when they stopped for the night) made him very uncomfortable.
“It’s an animal,” he said. “It thinks. It breaths. It has a will of its own. It shouldn’t be treated this way. But I’m ordered to ride.”
Then he carried out what seemed to be a long conversation with the horse, whispering in its ear and listening intently to some sound Arthur couldn’t hear. As Arthur walked away, he heard a short burst of laughter.
“Evidently horses make jokes,” he muttered.
He rode without tack on the second day. The set he’d been given had disappeared overnight, in circumstances that Uther found mysterious and very aggravating, but they didn’t have time for anything more than a quick search.
So Merlin rode bareback with his hands twisted into the horse’s mane. He earned some nervous glances from men in their party for it.
It was just as Arthur had thought. Everything Merlin did was unnerving.
As it turned out, what he’d seen so far wasn’t unnerving at all. Not compared to what Merlin could be like.
They met with King Harald around noon, while the rest of their party and his army stood back.
“You’ve hardly brought any men, Uther,” said Harald. “Are you here to surrender?”
“Not at all,” said Uther. “I’m here to give you a change to retreat.”
Harald scoffed. “And why should I do that?” he said. “I want my land, Uther Pendragon!”
Uther didn’t answer him. He just turned to face Merlin. “Warn him,” he said.
Merlin’s eyes glowed gold.
Then his body seemed to melt away into blue and gold, raising up a howling wind that billowed around them all. The sky darkened. Thunder rumbled somewhere.
Arthur was just glad it wasn’t directed at him. Harald and his men were clinging to any nearby object for dear life, panicking, yelling words to each other that were swept out of their mouths. Some of them were blown off their feet, away to god knows where.
He could still make out Merlin, a vague, blurry shape above them, but also all around them, in the wind, and the rain that was beginning to beat down, and in the clouds, and in the lightning that struck suddenly, hitting the ground between the two kings, scorching away the grass.
Uther raised a hand. The wind died down.
“Do you surrender your claim?” he called to Harald, who, stunned, could only nod.
Uther dropped his hand to his side. The storm stopped at once, and Merlin’s body reformed out of the air, weaving itself back together.
As it did so, Arthur thought he had a brief glimpse of Merlin, wrapped in chains in a dungeon somewhere, screaming and screaming…
“Does it hurt?” he asked Merlin that night, as they stood near the campfire. “Being bound? Tell me the truth.”
“It’s… agony,” said Merlin softly.
A week later, he met Merlin outside his room again.
This time, as soon as they were inside, he pinned him against the door, his whole body pressed against Merlin’s form. It was the first time they’d touched. It was not the last.
“What you did,” said Arthur. “It was… terrifying.”
“It wasn’t the first time,” said Merlin. He tilted his head forward and rested his forehead against Arthur’s. His skin felt strange, a little too cold, and it tingled slightly.
He’s not real, Arthur thought. He’s not real. You know what he is. He’s not human.
Merlin lifted his head slightly. Their eyes met.
He’s not real, thought Arthur. Oh God, oh God… he’s not real…
He leaned forward. Their lips touched.
He found their positions reversed a few minutes later, found himself on his back on his bed, barefoot, wrists pinned down against the pillow, Merlin exploring his face and neck with his lips, soft, almost chaste, kisses.
But then Merlin’s lips were on his again, and that all went out the window. Merlin’s kiss seemed to brand him, set his body on fire, and then he was pulling back to look down at him, smiling. I know something you don’t.
“May I?” he said simply. Arthur nodded.
His wrists were released, and then Merlin was tugging his tunic over his head, revealing smooth, hairless skin.
He had the Pendragon seal on his chest. It looked almost as if it had been burned into him, thick red lines. Arthur reached out to trace it with his fingers, but Merlin caught his wrist again, stopped him.
They kissed again almost lazily, and their clothes seemed to have vanished somewhere, probably by magic. Merlin’s skin felt strange against his, sometimes more like a breeze brushing against him than flesh.
Then Merlin was riding him hard, and he was soft and warm around him, nails scraping the skin of his chest. Arthur moved his hands to Merlin’s hips and held on tight, following the movement, trying to anchor himself. He could feel the wind building around him, like he was going to be swept away to god knows where any second now. This wasn’t real. Merlin wasn’t real.
Then he looked up, and found Merlin staring down at him, enraptured, his hair damp with sweat, and looking more human than Arthur had ever seen him, and suddenly nothing had ever seemed so real, and it so so good, too good-
He found Merlin draped across him, making little purring sounds of contentment, like a cat.
“I shouldn’t have let you do that,” said Arthur. “That wasn’t right.”
Merlin twisted his head around to look up at him. “You didn’t order me to,” he said.
“No, that’s – that’s not what I meant,” said Arthur.
“That what is it?” said Merlin.
“Well – you’re a man, for starters,” said Arthur.
Merlin pulled himself up on his elbows. “This form is male,” he said. “I never thought about that until I was bound. I was what I was. I still don’t think of myself that way.”
“That’s the other thing,” said Arthur. “You’re not human. You’re not really – well – I don’t know what you are.”
“Does it matter?” said Merlin, sliding off Arthur to curl up on the bed next to him.
“Yes,” said Arthur. “Yes, it does. You’re… different.”
“I know,” said Merlin.
Neither of them spoke for a while.
Then Arthur rolled over on to his side, to face Merlin.
“I… wouldn’t have thought you’d enjoy that,” he said. “Pleasures of the flesh and all.”
“S’the next best thing to flying,” said Merlin.
He was still there when Arthur woke up the next morning, sitting cross-legged on the end of his bed, watching him intently.
“Have you been watching me sleep?” said Arthur. Merlin nodded. “Please don’t. It’s very disturbing.”
“I’m sorry, my Lord,” said Merlin.
To the best of Arthur’s knowledge, his father never found out about what had happened between him and Merlin.
It happened again a few times, but they never spoke of it, after the first night.
Merlin sat with him one night while he ate dinner. He sat slumped over the table with his head pillowed on his arms, watching in silent curiosity, looking more relaxed than Arthur had ever seen him.
“D’you want some?” Arthur said after a few minutes.
“May I?” said Merlin. He reached out, and took a little sliver of meat off the side of Arthur’s plate.
“Where does it go?” said Arthur, as he reached out again and took a pea. “I mean… does it come out the other end? Or do you not… do that?”
Merlin frowned, sat back in his chair, and looked down at himself. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve not given it much thought. I suppose it just stays there.”
“That’s… kind of disgusting,” said Arthur.
“And what you do isn’t?” said Merlin.
Arthur laughed. “Alright,” he said. “We’re as bad as each other.”
“Sometimes I think it might be better,” Merlin said to him a few nights later as they lay side by side on Arthur’s bed. “If I could eat and sleep. Because I’m not… what I was. Not any more. But I’m not a man either.”
“Where do you live?” Arthur asked him one day. Merlin just shrugged. “Do you have, I don’t know, a room or something? Tell me.”
“Yes, my Lord,” said Merlin.
“Can I see it?” said Arthur.
“I’d rather not, my Lord,” said Merlin.
“Show me,” said Arthur.
And Merlin wasn’t happy. Arthur could tell he wasn’t happy, even though it hardly showed on his face. He felt like he was abusing his privileges, but… he was curious, damn it.
Merlin’s room was on the far side of the castle, in amongst rooms that hadn’t been used for years. They were used so little that the floor was coated in dust, with footprints left by bare feet in trails up and down it.
“It’s a bit out of the way,” he said.
“Your great-grandfather had his chambers near here,” came the response. Then they came to the end of the trail of footprints, by a door set back in a little alcove.
“In here?” said Arthur. Merlin nodded.
There was nothing much inside but a bed, with the blankets folded up at one end, and a wooden chest with two pairs of shoes arranged nearly on top.
“So you do have some shoes, then,” he said.
“Yes, my Lord,” said Merlin.
“You just… don’t wear them,” said Arthur. Merlin nodded. “Why?”
“I don’t like them,” said Merlin simply.
“I see,” said Arthur. “Why the bed if you don’t sleep?”
“Your great-grandfather was quite insistent that I have a bed,” said Merlin. “I did tell him I don’t sleep, but he didn’t care. I sit on it sometimes. I don’t have a chair.”
“D’you want one?” said Arthur. Merlin shook his head.
The window was surprisingly big, and was standing wide open. Arthur crossed over to it – it was only a few steps – and peered out.
There was a ledge not far above it. He could see how someone with Merlin’s kind of agility might be able to get from here to the roof. And there was birdseed scattered across the sill.
“Is this how you get to the roofs?” he said. Merlin nodded. “Do you feed the birds?” Merlin nodded again.
Arthur turned, and realised that there was something hanging by the window – a long string made of dried grass and leaves woven together, with a few small brown and grey feathers mixed in, and a pebble fixed to the bottom (a weight, he supposed).
“What’s this?” he said, taking hold of it. Merlin shrugged. Arthur turned to face him, about to say that yes, of course Merlin knew, and he was to tell Arthur what it was, because Arthur wanted to know, but the look on his face quite clearly said don’t ask. “Is it… something personal?” he said eventually.
“Yes, my Lord,” said Merlin. He crossed the room quickly, and took it out of Arthur’s unresisting fingers, let it hang where it would. “Have you seen enough, my Lord?”
Arthur didn’t go there again.
But after that, he tried his hardest not to order Merlin to do anything when he didn’t have to. When it wasn’t something important.
And he got better at judging his moods. It was hard, because so often he kept his face neutral (he wondered if it was part of the binding, or something some former king had ordered him to do at all times, or just Merlin being secretive). He realised, much to his discomfort, that Merlin really, truly hated his father. He hated every order the King gave him. And he realised that his father knew that too.
He sat and watched as, one night, Merlin calmly said that Uther was being a fool (he didn’t use quite those words, but the meaning was clear).
Uther struck him, once, around the face, then dismissed him sharply.
“You will not speak to me like that again.”
But his father died, eventually, of course. He watched Merlin’s face carefully as he told him, trying to see any hint of emotion, but there was none.
But he didn’t free him.
He thought about it the night his father died, and the night of his coronation, and the night of his wedding, but he couldn’t do it. And he didn’t know if it was because of his father’s warnings, of because he didn’t want to let Merlin go. He wanted to keep him.