“Is something troubling you, sire?” Gaius asked.
Arthur jerked to attention at his side, his chainmail rattling. “Of course not. Why?”
“No particular reason,” Gaius said, as he watched King Olaf’s royal envoy ride their horses across the castle courtyard, toward the assembled Knights of Camelot upon the citadel steps.
King Olaf rode in the lead, stone faced and straight backed with a heavy pelt over his robes to protect him against the winter's day. Five knights flanked him, each of them looking as earnest as their king. Ten servants walked behind, some carrying the flags of his kingdom, others leading pack mules stacked high with supplies and holiday gifts.
At the very back of the group, surrounded by five ladies-in-waiting on white ponies, rode the Lady Vivian.
Gaius noticed Arthur squirm again, adjusting his cloak over his armor, then readjusting it right back where it had been.
Even from this distance, it was plain that the Lady Vivian’s gaze was fixed upon Arthur. Her blue eyes held the hunger of a rabid wolf, upon spotting a large, juicy slab of meat. And if that wasn’t enough to betray her interest, then her dress certainly was, with its Camelot red satin and its yellow dragons embroidered along its hem.
Well, Gaius thought. That certainly answers that.
“Any word from Elyan?” Arthur asked Sir Leon, who was stood at attention behind him.
Leon didn’t so much as twitch as he replied in a voice only the king could hear. “No, sire. But he and the Queen should be back tomorrow morning, if their original plans hold.”
Arthur’s grip on his sword hilt tightened enough so that his leather glove creaked. “Where’s Merlin?” he ground out, his head inclining subtly in Gaius’ direction. “Or is it too much to ask for my lazy servant to actually be where he’s supposed to be?”
Gaius felt his stomach twist with worry at the thought of Merlin in the Darkling Woods, tracking down the murderous kelpie who only the night before had tried to murder the king. “He should be here any moment, sire.”
“He’s in the damn tavern again, isn’t he.”
“No, sire, he’s-“
“Gathering herbs, yes, of course he is,” Arthur said, with a look that suggested that Merlin wasn’t the only one in danger of being thrown in the stocks for lying to his regent.
But Gaius had faced down far worse stares from Uther. “Indeed, sire,” he said, his expression betraying nothing.
Arthur grunted at him in reply, an entire paragraph’s worth of argument in the sound, then started down the citadel steps to greet the royal envoy.
As King Olaf climbed from his stallion, the Lady Vivian rushed to do the same, hurrying forward to greet Arthur, a besotted smile upon her pale face.
“King Olaf,” Arthur said, extending his arm to Olaf in greeting. “We are much gladdened by your visit to Camelot this holiday season.”
The king returned Arthur’s courtly smile, his fur pelt swinging from his shoulders as he clasped Arthur’s arm. “It is good to see you, King Arthur. May I say that I was much relieved to hear of the end of the recent upheaval here in Camelot.”
“I can assure you that such times are at an end,” Arthur said, without flinching at the mention of Morgana and Agravaine’s grab for power. “We look forward to celebrating the festivities in peace and prosperity with you. All of you,” he added, with a nod to Lady Vivian.
“My lord King Arthur!” Vivian burst out, seizing upon the opportunity to surge forward and grasp onto both of Arthur’s hands. “Words simply cannot express my heart’s pure joy at seeing you once again! So very many times I have simply pleaded for my father to-“
“It has been a long journey,” Olaf interrupted, grabbing Vivian by the arm and hauling her backward. “I believe my darling daughter would benefit from a rest.”
“I’m not tired!” Vivian protested.
Olaf gave her a ferocious look that would have cowed armies.
Vivian crossed her arms, tipped up her chin and huffed at him in reply.
Arthur had taken a step back, rubbing his palms on his breeches, seeming to Gaius as if if he very much wished he could retreat farther. Into the next kingdom perhaps. “Why don’t I escort you both to your rooms?” he suggested, his voice not quite as steady as it had been before.
“Oh I would like that!” Vivian said, surging forward, forcing her father to pull her back once again to his side.
Gaius heard several coughs from the knights behind him, all of which sounded like poorly concealed laughter.
Arthur glared at the citadel steps.
The coughing stopped at once.
King Olaf pulled Vivian behind him as he stepped forward. “Where, might I inquire, is Camelot’s new Queen?” he asked, his cheek twitching as he gave a clearly forced smile. “I do hope nothing is amiss with your lovely wife?”
Lady Vivian made a gagging noise, her arms crossing tighter, glowering at the castle architecture as if it had personally offended her.
Arthur’s eyes flicked to her before refocusing rather desperately on King Olaf’s face. “You have no idea how much I wish that Queen Guinevere could have been here to greet you with me,” he said, sounding a bit too emphatic about it, Gaius thought. “She and her brother Sir Elyan are even now hastening back with all speed from delivering much needed aid to our allies on the northern border.”
Gaius felt a great swell of pride in Arthur for speaking of Ealdor in such a way, and an even greater one for the unsolicited help he’d dispatched to the village, after hearing of the destruction wrought by Agravaine’s men.
King Olaf, however, was not impressed. “I look forward to meeting her upon her return,” he said, in the way one might speak of a treaty that had better be signed, lest it come to all out war.
Arthur let the thinly veiled hostility pass, gesturing instead to the steps of the citadel. “After you, sire, if you please.”
With a curt nod, King Olaf hauled his daughter up the steps.
The assembled knights and courtiers disbursed to let the royal envoy enter the castle proper, all of them bowing to King Olaf and Lady Vivian as they passed.
On Arthur’s way up the stairs, he paused next to Gaius.
“Merlin better have his sorry backside at this feast tonight,” he said, sounding more panicked than angry. “If he doesn’t, he’s going to spend so many days in the stocks that the kingdom will run out of vegetables!”
“He’ll be there, sire, I’m certain,” Gaius assured him.
But several hours later, as royalty and knights and courtiers from both kingdoms began filing into the dining hall for the feast, Merlin still hadn’t returned.
Gaius tried to put it from his mind as he sat at the long table with Camelot’s other advisors. At his side, Geoffrey was piling his plate high with mince pies and potatoes and other holiday fare, talking nonstop about King Olaf’s ancient royal family. Occasionally his words were drown out by swells of conversation and laughter from the four long tables set along each of the room’s walls. Every single one of them was filled to capacity, with at least thirty people or more.
Only the royalty at the head table had any elbow room at all, Gaius noticed, as he studied where Arthur sat beside King Olaf at the head of the room. No one else shared their long table. Not even the Lady Vivian.
A rather unusual seating arrangement, Gaius thought, as he turned to look at where the young woman sat, at a table exactly opposite the two kings, at the far end of the room. The entirety of Lady Vivian’s table was filled with women, either courtiers or her ladies-in-waiting. A row of female servants stood lined up behind her, as if to prevent her escape.
Quite obviously this had been done by choice, he thought. He could easily imagine the request coming from King Olaf, to keep Lady Vivian far from Arthur.
Or perhaps from Arthur, for exactly the same reason.
He wondered if either king had realized that the Lady Vivian’s current location gave her the perfect vantage point from which to stare at Arthur all night, which is exactly what she was doing, with an intensity that was unnerving to behold.
Gaius took a sip of ale and turned away from the frankly unsettling young lady, to instead take in the festive holiday decorations filling the grand hall.
The yule log lay upon a platform in the room’s center, adorned with evergreen and winter berries and red ribbons, all of which would be removed when it was lit the next night for the holiday. Tonight only candles burned upon it, red and white and green, matching the hundreds of candles burning in sconces and upon tabletops, turning the cavernous chamber as bright as day.
Over the din of conversation, Gaius heard King Olaf bark out an agitated command, and wave away the court musicians who had offered to play for him. As the minstrels backed away with their lutes and fiddles, Arthur granted them a smile and gestured them to the table where his knights sat together, already calling out requests for holiday songs.
King Olaf scowled in response, but Arthur just leaned casually forward upon the table, his smile containing leagues of charm, speaking with such enthusiasm and animation that the visiting king fell easily back into conversation.
Gaius watched the interaction between the two regents, feeling rather impressed by Arthur’s ever-growing skill at wielding the sword of courtly interaction. Gone was the young boy who had let his emotions rule his reason, and had worn his feelings all over his face.
Though at the moment, Gaius realized, Arthur was in fact looking quite irritated, as his servant dashed forward to refill his wine goblet for the fifth time in so many minutes, after only the barest sip had been taken.
“That’s enough, George,” Arthur said sharply, his voice carrying.
Ah yes, George, Gaius thought. A rather pleasant young man, he’d always found. Though Merlin always spoke of him with his nose wrinkled up, as if he were smelling sheep’s dung.
Arthur turned in his chair to address King Olaf. “My apologies. My usual manservant is… indisposed.”
“I don’t see why you’re apologizing for such attentive service,” King Olaf told him.
Behind Arthur, George puffed out his chest and pursed his lips to suppress a smile, his gaze fixed respectfully on the floor.
“Indeed,” Arthur muttered, taking another sip of wine. When he put down his goblet, he jumped in his chair, because once again George had rushed forward to refill it. “God’s sakes, George,” he bit out, snatching his goblet away, spilling wine all over the table. “Will you go and find something else to do?”
George winced as if struck but did as commanded, Arthur glaring at him as if he’d been committing an act of treason instead of tending to his king.
Merlin’s fault entirely, Gaius thought, and hid his amusement with a long sip of ale. Very likely Arthur would never feel comfortable being treated as a king should. Which was actually turning out rather well for the kingdom.
“Gaius, are you listening?”
Gaius shifted his attention to Geoffrey, who sat next to him at the dining table swaying in his seat, his eyes already half lidded beneath his thick white eyebrows. “Norsemen, you were saying?”
“From the third wave of invaders,” Geoffrey said, slurring his words. “Quite an ancient family for the-”
A crash of plates and silverware ceased all conversation. In the silence that followed, everyone turned in their seats, to discover two servants passionately embracing in the room’s arched entranceway, trays and food littered at their feet.
Next to Gaius, Geoffrey tsked severely and turned away.
At the head table, Arthur waved George over and spoke to him in a low voice, gesturing to the archway.
A loud laugh came from the knights’ table, as Gwaine jumped to his feet, his tankard of ale held high. “Looks like the holiday festivities have begun early!”
The knights from both kingdoms all laughed and raised their tankards in toast. The courtiers followed suit a moment later, and soon holiday cheer was being exchanged all through the room.
As the din of conversation and music resumed, Gaius watched George and one of the other castle servants physically separate the young couple. The two lovers staggered back from one another, before being manhandled from the room.
“Not the right one,” the young lover said sadly, as George hurried him past where Gaius sat.
His young lady was lead away in a similar state. “Not the right one,” she said, her voice heartbroken.
“Not the right one,” Lady Vivian echoed in a singsong voice, drawing the stares of the women seated beside her. She squeaked at them in response, clapped her hands happily together, then tore into her dinner as if just noticing it was there.
“Young people these days, eh Gaius?” Geoffrey said, elbowing him so hard that he threw himself off balance. “They make no sense at all, do they.”
Gaius watched the Lady Vivian ripping apart her roast chicken, her eyes wide and feverish and fixed on Arthur.
“That,” Gaius told Geoffrey, “remains to be seen.”
As the night wore on, the feast grew even more jubilant and informal. Tables were shoved to the walls, music grew louder and more raucus, and small groups of dancers formed all around. Knights and nobles from both kingdoms mingled freely, their servants hovering nearby, ready to refill empty goblets.
Gaius stood out of the main flow of the room, one shoulder leaned against a stone pillar, as Geoffrey spoke next to him about the ancient winter solstice festivals and how life had been so much better long ago.
“When was this again?” Gaius asked, the third time that Geoffrey had lamented days gone by.
“You remember, Gaius,” Geoffrey said, bumping into his shoulder yet again as he swayed on his feet. “It was in the old days.”
“Do you mean the old days of drownings and beheadings?”
“Yes,” Geoffrey said enthusiastically. Then his massive eyebrows drew together. “I mean no. Not then. Before then. The older ones. Days.”
“I think you may have had enough, old friend,” Gaius said, reaching for the near overflowing tankard of ale Geoffrey held.
Geoffrey scoffed and jerked away from Gaius’ reach, his ale sloshing from his tankard and splashing all over Merlin, who had just stepped up beside them.
Merlin swore and wiped at his dripping face with both hands, giving Geoffrey an incredulous look.
Gaius felt a heavy weight lift from his chest at the sight of him, relieved as ever that the boy had once again survived heavens knew what kind of danger. “Merlin,” he said, the name more of a sigh than a greeting.
“Gaius,” Merlin said, glaring at Geoffrey's smiling face as he shook the ale from his thin fingers.
“I gave you a bit of a bath there, didn’t I?” Geoffrey laughed, brushing sloppily at Merlin’s shirt with one hand, spilling even more ale on him with the other.
“I’m fine,” Merlin said sharply, stepping out of Geoffrey’s reach, pulling at his half soaked tunic and jacket.
“You’d best not go to the king looking like that,” Geoffrey informed him cheerfully. “His lordship is already none too happy with you, I should say!”
“What else is new?” Merlin asked, glancing around the room until he spotted Arthur standing beside the head table, speaking with King Olaf.
“Everything all right?” Gaius asked, eyeing the dirt on Merlin’s neckerchief and the rips in his trousers.
“All sorted,” Merlin said, staring worriedly at Arthur, apparently less troubled by whatever nightmare he’d faced in the forest than he was by his king’s current mood.
“Are you sure?” he pressed, wishing he could pull Merlin aside, if only to ask if the blood on his boots was his own.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s fine,” Merlin said absently, frowning now at where Arthur was speaking with some seriousness with King Olaf, despite the festivities around them. Several of Olaf’s advisors had gathered close by, and a few of Arthur’s as well. “I’d better go see what that’s about,” he said, and started forward.
Gaius caught him by the arm. “Arthur has George to serve him tonight.”
“George?” Merlin spat out, wrinkling up his nose.
“Lovely young man,” Geoffrey noted, and took a sloppy drink of ale, spilling quite a bit on himself in the process. “His family has served the lords of this castle for four generations. Quite an esteemed lineage. Among certain circles.”
“Really,” Merlin muttered, glaring across the room at where George stood behind Arthur, an enormous goblet of wine in his hands.
“It’s all right, my boy,” Geoffrey said, and gave Merlin’s arm a little pat. “You have your merits too. In your own special way.”
“In my own-!“ Merlin broke off in wide eyed alarm as Geoffrey leaned heavily against him, shoulder pressing to his shoulder, eyes closing as if he meant to nap right there.
Gaius tsked at him and set down his glass on a nearby table. “Come on, you can’t sleep there,” he said, taking Geoffrey by the shoulders and straightening him up.
“Quite right, Gaius,” Geoffrey slurred, and held out his tankard as if to put it down, but then let it go in midair. It dropped to the floor with a clatter, its remaining contents splashing all over Merlin’s boots.
Merlin gave a strangled sound of outrage, glaring at Geoffrey with eyes that Gaius swore held flecks of gold.
“Off with you, old friend,” Gaius said, giving Geoffrey a nudge towards the hall’s entrance. “Go find your rooms, while you're still in a fit state to do so.”
“If I should then they should too,” Geoffrey said indignantly, pointing.
In a shadowy corner of the hall, one of the noblewomen and one of King Olaf’s knights were locked in a passionate embrace.
“Young people these days,” Geoffrey said to no one in particular, as he staggered through the crowd. “No sense of propray- peropur- decency.”
Merlin gave a low whistle as he watched Geoffrey make his way unsteadily through the room. He’s going to feel that tomorrow, that’s for sure.”
“Oh he’s not that bad,” Gaius scolded.
“Wassail!” Geoffrey called out, waving at where Gwaine and Leon and Percival stood together, all of them singing merrily with the musicians.
“A happy holiday to you!” Gwaine called back, lifting his tankard so high that he fell sideways into Percival, though it didn’t budge the larger man at all.
“Wassail wassail!” Geoffrey called back, stumbling over his robes as he walked.
“Really,” Merlin said severely. “Getting himself in such a state at his age.”
Which was honestly just a step too far, Gaius thought. “Despite what you think, Merlin," he said, "life does not end at thirty. Older people are still allowed all of the same pleasures as you young people.”
“Hopefully not all of them,” Merlin said, nodding toward the archway leading to the gardens, where two people were kissing passionately in the shadows.
Gaius studied the two forms. And then felt his eyebrow arch, completely without his permission.
“Wait a minute,” Merlin said, squinting at the two silhouettes. “Are they both…?”
“Yes, I believe they are."
One of the figures moved, sliding against the other in a way that made it even clearer that it was two men there together, entwined with all the desperation of two lovers reunited after many years of separation.
“They shouldn’t be doing that here,” Merlin whispered, sounding scandalized. “This isn’t a battle encampment!”
Gaius noticed Merlin’s cheeks flush pink after he’d said the words, as if he’d let slip something Gaius hadn’t already known about before. “Really, Merlin…”
Merlin cleared his throat and brushed at his ale-soaked tunic. “They’re, um, from King Olaf’s envoy, aren’t they?”
“They are. But those two by the window aren’t.”
“Isn’t that… Lord Bedowyn and Lady Elderwood? But- I thought they-“
“Are both about to be married, and to other people, yes,” Gaius said, a worry growing at the back of his mind. “And quite happily, I had thought.”
“Wassail!” came Geoffrey’s voice again, as he staggered toward the entranceway.
The Cook from the kitchen strode toward him from the other direction, the apron over her large stomach white with flour, her round face flushed red and soaked with sweat, her hair sticking to her cheeks.
“There you are!” she yelled, pointing at where two servants were kissing one another right in the middle of the room. “Get back in the kitchens! There’s pudding to serve!”
Geoffrey stepped into the archway at the same time as the Cook. At once he froze in place, his eyes going wide. Beside him, the Cook did the same.
Then, without a word exchanged, they flung their arms around each other, kissing as if their lives depended upon it.
“The hell,” Merlin said, staring at the scene.
Gaius could hardly blame him his shock, because in all his years, he had never seen Geoffrey express any interest whatsoever in such activities. He simply did not do them. And had not, ever.
“That is really wrong,” Merlin said.
“Yes, it is,” Gaius agreed.
But before he could do anything about it, he saw two servants pass through the entranceway next to the pair, each bearing a full tray of puddings.
The moment they stepped under the archway, they dropped their trays and dishes with a massive clatter that stopped all conversation. In the stunned silence that followed, the servants threw themselves at one another, embracing and kissing with such abandon that they fell to the floor.
When it became obvious that they weren't going to stop their amorous activities, Arthur strode towards them, clearly furious. “Someone break them up!”
“Sire, stop!” Gaius shouted.
The words had Arthur freezing in place and drawing his sword, his eyes scanning the room for threats. Arthur’s knights followed suit at once, and King Olaf and his knights as well, tankards exchanged swiftly for swords.
Without the hum of conversation and music, the moans of the many embracing couples were quite loud in the room. None of the people kissing had so much as paused in what they were doing, despite several dozen knights standing among them with blades drawn.
“What’s going on?” Arthur demanded.
In the middle of Olaf’s knights came another clatter, this time of steel hitting stone. All eyes turned towards it, to see two of King Olaf’s knights grab at one another, fingers digging into chainmail and robes, to pull one other into a passionate kiss.
“Sir Arinor! Sir Jamison!” King Olaf shouted, and marched towards them, outraged.
“Don’t move!” Merlin shouted.
“You dare!” King Olaf yelled at him.
“A moment, your majesty, I beg you,” Gaius said to the regent, his gaze following Merlin’s, up to the high arched ceiling above.
“There’s a cluster above every couple,” Merlin said, turning cautiously in place to scan the ceilings above.
“Stop what you are doing this instant!” King Olaf yelled at his knights, who were apparently trying to taste one another’s tonsils. “I will have you flogged!”
“Your Majesty,” Gaius said, “I do not believe that they are in control of their actions. I believe that they, along with all the others, are most likely under some form of enchantment, caused by what we are seeing upon the ceilings and the archways above.”
“What is it?” Arthur asked, staring up at the cluster of green above Olaf’s knights.
“If I am not mistaken, sire, it is Viscum Album,” Gaius told him. “Commonly known as mistletoe.”
“Mistletoe,” Arthur repeated, a look of incredulity on his face.
Arthur sheathed his sword and heaved a loud, aggravated sigh. “Please tell me you’re joking.”
“I’m afraid not, sire,” Gaius said.
“Arthur, don’t move,” Merlin said sharply. “There’s a cluster almost right above you, off to the right of where you’re standing.”
“So nice of you to grace us with your presence, Merlin,” Arthur said, planting his hand on his sword hilt. “Of course you show up now, right in the middle this nonsense. And stinking like the tavern you fell out of, might I add.”
“I wasn’t in the tavern-"
“Then why do you smell like the inside of an ale keg?”
“That was because of Geoffrey!"
Gaius cleared his throat, loudly. Both Arthur and Merlin glanced first at him, then around the room, both realizing that their conversation had become the center of attention.
“Look,” Merlin said in a lower voice, “just move to your left, will you?”
“Fine,” Arthur muttered, stepping sideways.
Merlin lunged forward and grabbed Arthur’s arm, pulling him in the opposite direction. “I said left.”
“I thought you meant your left,” Arthur snapped, shrugging off Merlin’s hand.
“If I’d meant my left, I would have said my left, wouldn't I.”
“No you wouldn’t, you would have just- Did you see that?”
"Is it...? It's moving, isn't it," Merlin said, giving Gaius a worried look.
Gaius squinted up at the ceiling, where the plant closest to Arthur was stretching its vines over the stone, nearly doubling in size, before going still.
“I’ve never seen anything grow like that,” Merlin said.
“Not only that,” Arthur said. “But it-“
“Moved towards you, I know.”
“Towards both of us, actually.”
Merlin and Arthur looked at where they stood nearly shoulder to shoulder. And then over at the embracing couples. And then took several steps away from one another.
“There are several new plants on that part of the ceiling as well,” Gaius said, pointing above Camelot’s knights.
Percival, Leon and Gwaine all looked up in alarm. And then Leon and Percival each put some distance between themselves and Gwaine.
Gwaine shook his head as he sheathed his sword. “My feelings are a little hurt right now, gentlemen, I’m not going to lie.”
In the middle of the room, King Olaf’s knights moaned loudly, licking into one another’s mouths, their chainmail scraping together.
King Olaf’s face turned redder in his fury. “I demand that someone explain what is happening!”
Gaius waited for his king's nod before explaining. “I fear, sire, that we are dealing with an enchanted plant. One which forces amorous activities upon any who walk beneath it.”
“Magic mistletoe,” Merlin muttered, without bothering to hide his amusement.
Arthur glared at him.
“What?” Merlin asked. “It’s funny.”
“It’s hardly that, Merlin,” Gaius scolded. “Especially considering that after the afflicted persons are parted, they are both left in a nearly incapacitated state, judging by what I saw earlier.”
“Oh,” Merlin said. “Well. I didn’t know that part, did I.”
Beneath the doorway, the Cook moaned, and Geoffrey as well, their lips smacking together loudly.
“For pity’s sakes will someone pull them apart?” Arthur asked, averting his eyes from the scene.
“Don't step beneath the plant,” Gaius called to the servants who rushed forward at Arthur's command. “In fact, it would be best to destroy the plant first, before any attempt is made. Torches should serve the purpose. And keep your eyes focused on the ceiling. There may be more of them.”
“Do as the physician says,” King Olaf barked at his staff. “And be careful, by god! I don’t want to see any more of you falling prey to this debauchery!”
“Debauchery is one word for it,” Gwaine said in a low voice, as Olaf continued yelling at his courtiers. “To me, it’s just another Saturday night.”
“To you it’s just another Tuesday night,” Leon said, sheathing his sword.
“Or any other night, for that matter,” Percival agreed.
“I dunno, fellas,” Gwaine said. “It doesn’t look like such a bad way to be enchanted.”
“Of course you would think that,” Percival said. “You would kiss an ass if it stood still long enough.”
“Come over here and let’s find out, shall we?” Gwaine said, and winked at him.
“Gwaine,” Arthur sighed, rubbing at his forehead with weary fingers.
“The torches are ready, sire!” George called from the doorway, holding aloft two torches. “Shall I burn the plants now?”
“Yes, George, for god’s sakes, do it now,” Arthur called over.
“As you command, sire!” George said, and hurried off to comply.
“Bootlicker,” Merlin mumbled, earning a glance from Arthur that was far more amused than chastising.
When George set the plant ablaze, Gaius noticed that it burned much faster than anything so green had any right to. Golden sparks sizzled from it as it the flame touched it, its leaves disappearing instead of falling into ash.
When the plant above the entranceway was gone, Geoffrey and the Cook stumbled apart. Upon the floor, the two servants rolled away from one another, and lay motionless, staring up at the ceiling.
Geoffrey sighed loudly. “Not the right one,” he said.
The Cook pushed out her thick bottom lip, tears sparkling in her eyes. “Not the right one,” she agreed.
As Arthur directed the servants to either burn the rest of the plants or to block off the floor beneath them if they were too high to reach, Gaius carefully made his way over to Geoffrey. With Merlin's help, he guided his old friend to a chair, and sat him down upon it.
“Geoffrey, can you hear me?” he asked.
Geoffrey stared across the room, glassy eyed and slack faced. “Not the right one."
“Not the right what?” Merlin asked.
“I don’t know. I’m not entirely sure he knows what he’s saying. His pupils are extremely dilated, as if he’s under the effect of a poison. And his skin is hot to the touch, as if he has a fever.”
Merlin leaned forward and pressed a hand to Geoffrey’s back. “There’s still magic at work in him.”
“It’s really strong.” Merlin straightened, crossing his arms over his chest. “Strong enough that I can feel it.”
“What’s strong enough for you to feel?” Arthur asked, appearing at Merlin’s side, making him startle so badly that he bashed his kneecap into the table.
“Pain,” Merlin growled out, rubbing hard at his leg. “That’s what I feel. Pain. And irritation.”
Arthur gave him a withering look, but before he could retort, Geoffrey said again “not the right one” in a brokenhearted voice.
“They’re all saying that,” Arthur said, watching people being lead through the room, all of them muttering the same words.
“That can’t be good,” Merlin said, frowning at a nobleman who was being led past.
“No indeed,” Gaius agreed. “In fact, until we know the full effect of this enchantment, I would recommend treating it as a threat. A full search of the castle would be wise, to locate and destroy any additional plants.”
“Agreed,” Arthur said, and beckoned to Sir Leon to approach. “Leon, take two dozen knights and search the castle for any more of these blasted things. I want them gone, and I want to know how many of them you had to destroy to do it, and before the night is through. And for god’s sakes,” he added in a low voice, as Leon turned to go, “be sure to keep a careful eye upon the ceilings. I don’t want any of you to wind up like them.”
They all looked over at King Olaf’s knights, sitting against the wall, dejected and dazed and muttering to themselves.
“No indeed, sire,” Leon said emphatically, before going to gather the rest of the knights.
“So much for a relaxing feast,” Arthur muttered, glaring up at the greenery on the ceiling.
“At least no one can say it was boring,” Merlin said.
Arthur stared at him a long moment. And then cuffed him on the back of his head.
“What was that for!”
“I’ll read you my list of reasons later,” Arthur informed him.
Across the room, King Olaf was ranting at his royal court about their behavior. A court which, Gaius realized, had one person in particular missing. “Sire,” he said to Arthur, “might I ask where the Lady Vivian can be found?”
“Lady Vivian was escorted to her rooms an hour ago,” Arthur said, then glanced at where King Olaf was safely out of earshot and added: “Thank the gods.”
“The Lady Vivian is here?” Merlin asked Arthur, in the tones one would use to inquire about an outbreak of plague.
“Yes,” Arthur said, in the same tone.
Merlin’s dark brows arched high in question, and in response, Arthur’s expression twitched minutely for several seconds, a silent communication that Merlin somehow understood, judging by the laughter which followed.
“And with magic mistletoe in the castle,” Merlin said, as if concluding a thought Arthur had spoken aloud.
"Exactly." Arthur returned his attention to the ceiling. “The question remains…”
“How it got there,” Merlin said.
“Perhaps it was brought in accidentally with the other decorations. But by whom? And how is it spreading? The castle ceilings are solid stone. It couldn’t possibly be setting roots into that. But it is growing, isn’t it.”
“Growing and multiplying,” Merlin said, pointing to the front of the room, where Arthur had been speaking with King Olaf. “If that bunch had been there a few minutes ago, then you and King Olaf would be-“
“Stop right there," Arthur interrupted.
“I’m only saying-“
“Yes, and I’m telling you to stop saying it.”
“Merlin has a point, sire,” Gaius interjected.
“About what, exactly?” Arthur asked, his lips twisting in clear distaste.
“If you and King Olaf had indeed fallen prey to the plant,” Gaius said, “then you both would have been rendered unfit to rule.”
“Which would make both our kingdoms vulnerable,” Arthur said, sounding exhausted. “So then this is an attack.”
“I’m not certain,” Gaius said. “I’ll need further study before I can say for sure.”
“Set to it at once,” Arthur said. “Because we…” He drifted off, his attention captured by something in the middle of the room.
Gaius and Merlin both turned, to see two of the noblewomen embracing wildly by the yule log, their hands roaming over one another’s bodices, thin fingers sliding over narrow shoulders and curved backs, before moving lower still.
Arthur’s eyebrows raised into his hairline.
Merlin’s mouth dropped open and stayed that way.
Gaius gave them a moment to remember their manners and avert their eyes.
And then had to clear his throat. Loudly.
Both men startled, looking abruptly away from the display and going pink in the cheeks when they saw the look Gaius was giving them.
“Perhaps I should begin my research into this threat against Camelot,” Gaius said severely.
“Yes, of course,” Arthur told him. “Absolutely.”
“Research,” Merlin agreed. “Right.”
Behind the three of them, the women moaned softly, the sound echoing in the much emptied room.
“Return to your chambers!” Arthur called out to those who remained. “My knights will have the castle cleared by morning!”
Gaius nodded and turned to leave, then stopped abruptly, because George was stood in his way, his hands clasped behind his back, a broad grin on his face, his entire attention focused upon Arthur.
“Your majesty!” George said happily. “Shall I ready your chambers and your royal person for the evening?”
“No you shall not,” Merlin snapped. “That’s my job.”
George eyed him with a look of thinly veiled disdain. “I believe I asked the question of his esteemed royal majesty.”
“Yes, and since I am his esteemed royal majesty’s personal servant, I am telling you on his behalf that the answer is no.”
“I believe his majesty can speak for himself."
“And I believe I told you to bugger off."
Arthur made a choking noise, and put his hand to his mouth as if wiping it, though it did little to hide his smile.
“King Arthur,” came King Olaf’s voice from nearby, causing Merlin and George to cease their bickering.
“King Olaf,” Arthur said, drawing his shoulders back, and letting his voice fall into its regal tones. “My sincerest apologies for the events of this evening. My knights are already dispatching this… magical annoyance... from the castle. I assure you, by the morning, everything will be sorted.”
“I should hope so,” Olaf grumbled, and gestured for the knights surrounding him to escort him from the room.
Arthur watched him go with a thoughtful air. “That’s actually a good idea. Merlin. George. Escort me to my chambers. Both of you in the lead.”
The two men looked at each other, then back at their king, horror reflected in their faces.
“But what if there’s mistletoe?” Merlin burst out.
“And I walk beneath it!“ George said in dismay. “Next to him!”
“How do you think I feel?” Merlin snapped.
“Better you than me,” Arthur said, and pointed to the door.
Merlin swore under his breath but started forward, his gaze glued to the ceiling, his arm outstretched to his side to keep George a good distance away.
“Goodnight, Gaius,” Arthur said, and followed his servants from the room, looking more pleased than Gaius had seen him all night.
“Sleep well, sire,” Gaius said, wishing he could follow that advice himself. But it wasn’t very likely. Not until he found the source of this insanity.
It took half the night of reading by candlelight before he found even a small piece to the puzzle of the mistletoe. Though it gave him no answers as to how the plant had gotten there, it did give him a clue about what to expect. Which unfortunately was hardly good news.
He’d fallen asleep on his books before learning much more, awaking abruptly at sunrise when Merlin dropped a bowl of porridge in front of his nose.
“Sleep well?” Merlin asked, taking the seat opposite him at the breakfast table, already freshly washed and dressed and far too energetic for so early in the morning.
Gaius pushed himself up, wincing at the pains in his neck and shoulders and back. “I feel like I’ve been rolled by a hay cart,” he muttered, cursing his old bones and his uncomfortable sleeping position.
“Did you find anything?” Merlin asked, around a mouthful of porridge.
“Only a part of it,” he said, turning the book to face Merlin. “Look here. Mistletoe by its very nature is a parasite, taking nutrients from its host. Our mistletoe has obviously been endowed with magic. So it must be feeding upon magic to spread so rapidly.”
“But there’s no magic here in Camelot,” Merlin said.
Gaius tilted his head and cocked his eyebrow and waited for Merlin’s brain to catch up with his mouth.
“Oh,” Merlin said, with a bashful smile. “Well. Yes. Except for me. And you, of course.”
“And,” Gaius added patiently, “the hundreds of magical artifacts stored within the castle vaults.”
Merlin dropped his spoon into his bowl of porridge, splashing glops of food onto the page. “Are you saying that the mistletoe was feeding on the magic in the vaults through the castle itself?”
“Don’t look so surprised. Mistletoe has long been used in the most ancient rituals of the Old Religion. It is deeply connected to the ancient forces of the Old Religion itself. Any magic placed upon such a plant would be both highly potent and extremely unpredictable.”
"A good thing we’re rid of it then."
Gaius hummed thoughtfully, and pulled his bowl to him, to begin eating.
“What?” Merlin asked, leaning forward on the table. “Come on, what is it? I know that look, Gaius.”
“Nothing. Or, well, most probably nothing, anyway. I suspect we’ll find out soon enough.”
“You’re being as mysterious as the old dragon.”
“I shall take that as a compliment."
“That’s not how I meant it.”
Before Gaius could argue, there was a firm knock on the door.
“Come!” Gaius called.
But there was no response.
“Come in!” Gaius called again.
Merlin climbed from the table and jogged up the steps, then pulled open the door.
Sir Leon stood in the archway to their chambers, swaying on his feet, eyes focusing instantly on Merlin as if he were the only thing in the world.
“Leon?” Merlin asked, and started forward.
“Don’t move!” Gaius shouted, pushing himself awkwardly to his feet. But his damn knees were stiff and refused to support him, and he sat back down hard, knocking his porridge bowl to the floor.
Merlin ran back to his side. “Are you all right?”
“When I say don’t move it means don’t move, Merlin, honestly!” Gaius snapped, as Merlin helped him to his feet. “It’s just lucky for you that you moved in the right direction.”
“Lucky?” Merlin asked curiously, turning back to the doorway.
A thin layer of mistletoe had grown over the entirety of the entranceway, right above their thick wooden door. Sir Leon stood swaying beneath it, one hand gripping the stone archway, his fingers lost in a mass of leaves.
Merlin’s eyes went wide. “If I’d stepped into that doorway…”
"Indeed," Gaius said.
“Why’s he just standing there like that?” Merlin asked in a lowered voice, taking a nervous step backward.
“Most likely because he stepped into the doorway alone,” Gaius said, wishing he’d at least been able to have a cup of tea before facing an armed and enchanted knight at his door.
“Will it hurt him if we destroy the plant?”
“Only if we don’t move his hand from the leaves before we burn it. Here, hand me that broom.”
It took a few minutes, but after poking at Leon with the broom handle, they managed to get him to drop his hand from the archway. Another poke to his chest had the knight falling flat to his back into the corridor, so that Merlin could destroy the plant with nearby candles.
When the flames died away, Leon sat up in the corridor, groaning. “Oh my head."
“Well there’s a good sign,” Gaius said to Merlin, as they joined Leon in the corridor.
“What happened?” Leon asked.
“Don’t you remember?”
Leon frowned a long moment, clearly still half dazed. “I remember leaving the king. Coming here to summon you at his command. He's awake and wants to know what you've learned.”
“What about after that?” Gaius pressed. “What else do you remember, before waking up on the floor?”
“I can remember... ducking into your doorway…. And then… nothing. I woke up here with you two here next to-” Leon broke off, his eyes going wide. “Please don’t tell me that I- With either of you-“
“No,” Merlin told him. “Absolutely not, no.”
“Good,” Leon said emphatically, and then frowned at his words, clearly confused about whether or not he'd given offense.
"The feeling is entirely mutual, believe me," Merlin assured him.
Leon gave him an awkward smile as he climbed to his feet, brushing dust from his red cloak. “I’d best gather the knights to inspect the rest of the castle for more of these plants. Gaius, you’ll tell the king what’s happening?”
“Right away, Leon,” Gaius said, and the knight gave him a stiff nod and marched off, careful to keep his eyes fixed on the ceiling as he went.
Gaius sighed after him, realizing that not only his tea but also his porridge were both lost causes. “Come on, Merlin. Let’s go see the king.”
Their progress to Arthur’s chambers was slow, because at every archway they had to scan the next section of ceiling for greenery. The plants were sporadic for the most part, but when they reached Arthur’s corridor, entire sections of ceiling were covered in leaves, making their passage difficult.
“Guards!” came Arthur’s shout down the hall.
“Look there,” Gaius said to Merlin, pointing to the alcove near Arthur’s door, where both his guards lay on the floor together, arms and legs wound around each other, kissing passionately.
“Guards!” Arthurs shouted again, sounding panicked this time.
Merlin glanced sharply around, then thrust out a hand, whispering: “Bæl on bryne!”
The torches set into the walls all blazed high, fire sweeping over the entirety of the ceiling, brilliantly bright and impossible for anyone to miss if they happened to be coming around the corner.
But before Gaius could lecture Merlin for his carelessness, the boy sprinted forward and darted into Arthur’s chambers. Gaius hurried after him, to discover the Lady Vivian chasing Arthur around his dining table, Arthur pausing only when she did, with the table always between them.
In Vivian’s hand, Gaius realized, was a thick tangle of mistletoe. Merlin had spotted it as well, and was staring at it with a perplexed look on his face, clearly trying to decide what to do.
“Please stay still my love!” the Lady Vivian called to Arthur, and she chased after him again, her white nightdress flowing behind her, her long blonde hair loose and bouncing around her shoulders.
Gaius watched Arthur round the table, and realized that the king was barely dressed, still barefoot and in sleeping breeches, his white tunic unlaced and loose. “Gaius! Merlin!” Arthur burst out. “Thank god!”
“Don’t you recognize me, my love?” Vivian called to Arthur, as she darted forward. “It is I, your heart’s desire, your one true love, your Vivian!”
“Where the hell have you been?” Arthur snapped at Merlin as he ran past. “Where are my guards?”
“They’re a bit busy,” Merlin said, watching the Lady Vivian hurry past in pursuit.
"Busy!" Arthur shouted, clearly outraged. "Doing what?"
"You know," Merlin said, his arched eyebrows rather comically trying to suggest various lurid acts of impropriety.
"God's sakes!" Arthur growled, as he abruptly changed direction, because Vivian had done the same thing.
“Sire, above you!” Gaius called, pointing up at the ceiling, where a patch of greenery was rapidly expanding towards where Arthur was headed.
Arthur looked up, swore, and ran over to stand behind Merlin, his hands falling hard on Merlin’s shoulders, shoving him forward at Vivian as she approached.
“I don’t want to kiss her!” Merlin protested, shoving himself backward and into Arthur.
“Don’t you dare!” Vivian snapped at him, pausing in her pursuit to put her small hands on her hips and glare at him. “I’ll have my father run you through with a sword if you do! What are you doing here anyway? Go away!”
“He’s here to escort you back to your rooms!” Arthur informed her over Merlin’s shoulder.
“But I belong with you!” she insisted, and started forward.
She only took a single step before her feet went out from under her for no visible reason at all, and she fell flat on her back. Merlin moved forward at once, kicking the mistletoe away, sending it tumbling across the room.
“Let me go!” Vivian snapped, as Merlin hauled her to her feet.
“Take her back to her rooms,” Arthur said, sitting down hard on the edge of his dining table.
“Oh please do not send me away!” she said to Arthur. “Too long we have been parted! Our souls belong together, yours and mine! You are the only one right for me!”
“The right one,” Merlin said, and looked over at Gaius.
Gaius crossed his arms thoughtfully. “Or not the right one.”
“What is it?” Arthur asked them.
“I believe we’ve discovered the source of the spell placed upon the mistletoe,” Gaius said, and tilted his head towards the Lady Vivian.
Arthur’s jaw worked as he ground his teeth together, his face flushing in anger. “You’re telling me she's responsible for this love spell?”
“It isn’t a love spell,” Vivian said, sounding offended at the idea. “It’s a beautiful spell of unity, to bring together two souls who are parted, and two hearts that belong together! Oh please, Arthur, just kiss me under the mistletoe, and you’ll know that I’m telling the truth!”
“The only thing I know,” Arthur said in a tight voice, “is that you broke the law and used magic in my kingdom, putting myself and my people in great danger!”
“Please don’t be angry with me,” Vivian said, her blue eyes filling with tears. “Please oh please, my lord, my love….” She drew in a choked breath, and covered her face with her hands, weeping in such anguish that her knees went out from under her, and Merlin had to catch her around the back, and guide her to kneel on the floor.
“Sire," Gaius said, "before you judge her too harshly, there’s something you should know.”
“What, that the daughter of one of the five kings has broken the highest law in Camelot and should therefore be put to death?”
“No, sire. That the daughter of one of the five kings is quite obviously still enchanted by the same love spell which once affected you yourself.”
“That can’t be true,” Arthur said, confusion instantly cooling his anger. “That was… It was years ago.”
“Yes, sire. It was.”
Arthur actually paled as he stared down at the weeping woman. “You don’t mean… That all this time…”
“She's been enchanted to love you and only you. I’m afraid so."
"It can't be," Arthur said again, but soft, and to himself, clearly pained.
Vivian lifted her head, her eyes red rimmed and shining with tears. “My lord,” she choked out, gazing up at Arthur in helpless adoration. “Please... Please stand under the mistletoe with me.”
Arthur dropped to one knee before her, clearly relenting, even offering her a kind smile. “Is that what will break the spell?" he asked. "For us to stand together under the mistletoe?"
“Yes, oh yes!” Vivian said, pulling from Merlin's grip to press her small hands to Arthur's chest. “The magic only wants what is right! It will cause us no harm, my lord. The old woman swore it to me before she died. She was so very grateful for my father saving her village. She just wanted her princess to be happy. Her princess and her love... Queen Vivian and King Arthur... Together for all time...”
Arthur took hold of her hands and guided her to her feet. “Merlin, take the Lady Vivian back to her rooms."
“Oh please no!" Vivian cried out, throwing her arms around his shoulders, holding on tight.
“Just for a while,” Arthur said, guiding her away. “Because even though I'm sure you didn't mean to, you’ve still put the kingdom in great danger. Both our kingdoms. I need to tend to that first. Then we will address the rest."
Vivian pouted but let go of him. “I shall be counting the seconds until I see you again, my love,” she said in parting, as Merlin lead her away.
After they’d vanished into the corridor, Gaius turned to Arthur, who had sat down upon the dining table, rubbing his face with his hands. “That was very kind of you, sire."
“It’s as you said before. She isn’t in her right mind.” He cast a wary glance up at the patches of greenery on the ceiling. “Though none of us will be in our right minds very soon, if we don’t find a way to deal with this.”
“I believe the Lady Vivian has given us the answer to our problem. All we must do to end the enchantment is to give the magic what it’s looking for. By bringing together two hearts who are parted.”
“How in the world can we find two people who fit that description?”
“I believe one such person is already here in this very room,” Gaius said, cocking an eyebrow at Arthur, because apparently Merlin wasn’t the only one who could miss the blatantly obvious.
“Of course,” Arthur burst out. “Guinevere. When she returns today, then we’ll have exactly what the spell wants. Two hearts reunited. You think it will work?”
“Your love was strong enough to break an enchantment before,” Gaius assured him.
“Whose love broke an enchantment?” Merlin asked, striding into the room, with a noticeable lack of princess on his arm.
“Where’s Vivian?” Arthur asked.
“I handed her off to George in the hallway. She’ll be fine,” Merlin added, when Arthur gave him a stern look. “George is the very model of propriety and courtly behavior, isn’t he.”
Gaius didn’t miss the way Merlin’s cheek twitched as he’d said the last words.
“Fine,” Arthur said, running an exhausted hand through his hair. “Come on, help me dress, will you? Then get me breakfast for god’s sake. I want to be ready for when Guinevere returns, so we can break this damned spell without delay.”
“Oh! Right! True love’s kiss,” Merlin said, smacking Gaius on the arm, before trotting after Arthur, his gaze flicking upward, as they headed to his wardrobe. “I just hope she gets back soon."
Soon, Gaius later discovered, was almost not soon enough. By noon, when the Queen's envoy returned, large sections of the castle had already been blocked off, their high ceilings a solid mass of green. Entire corridors were filled with servants, all nervously wielding long torches, to burn away as much of the infestation as they could.
But the plants were multiplying faster than they could be destroyed. And by the time Gaius was summoned to the royal chambers, forty more people had been afflicted. Gaius had seen them all, and had sent them all away. There was nothing he could do to break the enchantment. That task could be done by the King and Queen alone.
When Gaius led Merlin into the royal chambers, he found Arthur standing at the foot of his bed, beneath one of the few relatively clear patches of ceiling.
A dozen small plants dotted the ceilings of Arthur’s rooms, amid several patches of scorched stone. Over Arthur’s bed was another much more enormous plant, its leaves covering the entire ceiling above the canopy, its vines wound down around his bedposts.
“That one just appeared not five minutes ago,” Arthur said, gesturing to the bed. “I think they’re spreading even faster than before.”
“Not for much longer,” Gwen said, stepping out from behind the dressing screen, a clean violet dress replacing her earlier riding gear. After settling her long hair over her shoulders, she stepped cautiously to Arthur’s side, her gaze upon the ceiling as she walked.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Arthur asked her.
“It seems tailor made for the two of us, doesn’t it?” she asked, with a shy smile. “Two hearts that were parted, reuniting?”
“If you’re certain, then I am as well,” Arthur said, turning to her, and picking up her hands. “Are you ready?”
“Always,” she said, tilting up her chin, to receive Arthur’s kiss.
Gaius lowered his eyes to give them their privacy, and elbowed Merlin to do the same.
After a few moments, Arthur said: “It doesn't seem to be working.”
“The mistletoe,” Merlin pointed out. “You and Gwen need to be standing under the mistletoe.”
“Let’s try over here,” Gwen said, and pulled Arthur by the hand to the bedside, until they stepped together beneath the mass of greenery spreading out above it.
Both Arthur and Gwen froze, and then turned towards each other, their eyes wide and dazed. Without a word exchanged, they flung their arms around each other, kissing with single minded focus.
Several moments passed, in which Gaius studied the ceilings.
The plants, he realized, were not receding. If anything, they were growing.
“It’s not working,” Merlin said.
“No, it is not.”
“I don’t understand,” Merlin said, glancing at Arthur and Gwen, who were kissing with the same intensity that all the others had. “It’s what the spell wanted. It should be working.”
Arthur gave a low moan, and Gwen a small whimper, as they embraced by the bedside.
“Maybe we should… separate them?” Merlin asked.
“Perhaps so. Just don’t get too close. The plant above them is still spreading.”
“Should I…?” Merlin whispered.
"Carefully," Gaius murmured back.
Merlin ducked his head and muttered to himself, his eyes closed to hide the flash of gold.
Gwen and Arthur staggered away from each other, parted by an invisible hand.
“Not the right one,” Gwen said, sounding dazed. With a sigh, she sat herself down upon the stone floor in a puddle of flowing purple dress.
Arthur sat down upon the edge of the bed, his eyes glassy. “Not the right one,” he said, and with his own heavy sigh, he leaned sideways against the bedpost.
The vine above him twitched violently, its tendrils slithering like snakes down the post, winding around Arthur’s neck.
“Arthur!” Merlin yelled, and rushed under the massive plant to rip the vines away.
Lightning split the clear winter sky, and thunder shook the castle foundations, as a wind rose up and swept through the room, whipping through the plants above, which were all thickening with leaves and blooming with flowers and setting forth berries of gold and red.
By the bedside, Merlin had gone still, and was staring down at Arthur.
Heedless of the violent tempest, Arthur rose from the bed, lifting his hands to cup the sides of Merlin's face, gentle and reverent like a lover. “Merlin,” he said, the word almost lost in the hissing of the wind through the leaves.
Merlin's expression transformed, pure bliss lighting his features. "Arthur,” he said, his voice breaking on the name.
Gaius watched in astonishment as golden light rained down from the plants, sliding down Merlin and Arthur's bodies like water, before spilling in sparkling waterfalls to the floor.
Arthur wrapped his arms around Merlin’s back, pulling him close. Merlin moved to him eagerly, gazing in perfect adoration at his king.
“Yours,” Merlin said to Arthur, his voice echoing in the thunder.
“Yours,” Arthur said in reply, the word reverberating through the castle stones.
Merlin’s expression melted into anguish, and he wound his arms tight around Arthur’s body, closing the distance between them, pressing his forehead to his king's. “Stay with me,” he begged.
"I can't," Arthur said, sounding as if the words were being torn from him.
"Arthur," Merlin choked out, tears sliding down his cheeks.
“Wait for me," Arthur breathed. "Merlin-"
“Always,” Merlin said, his lips brushing against his king's.
"Always," Arthur told him, and tilted his head to Merlin's, to seal his oath with a kiss.
Beyond the windows lightning again split the winter skies, thunder shaking the world, as Arthur and Merlin kissed one another as if reuniting after centuries, or parting for an eternity. Their every touch was filled with adoration and joy and pain and grief, tears sliding down both their faces, leaving glowing trails of magic in their wake.
Magic was everywhere, all around him, terrifying and dizzying, sending Gaius staggering from his feet, to fall hard into a chair.
But he was only vaguely aware of the sensation.
Because visions were filling his mind. Visions of things he’d never seen before.
Of a lake, and a tower, and a sword, and a castle.
He saw his young warlock and his young king standing together upon the lakeside shore, both of them wearing strange clothing, embracing just as they were now, except they were smiling and laughing as they did it, their expressions full of love and devotion.
They were free, Gaius found himself thinking, though he had no idea why. They were free, and they were happy, and the entirety of the world and its magics along with them.
Another ancient swell of power had Gaius thrusting a hand forward out of sheer reflex, hissing a spell of protection without thinking, to deflect an explosion of magic that washed over him, rippling out into the world.
When its echoes died away, he felt the fabric of things settle back into place with a sigh he could feel echo in his very bones.
Gaius dropped his arm to the table and leaned heavily upon its wooden surface, breathing far too quickly for a man his age, dizzy and disoriented by what had just happened.
It took him a few moments to come fully back to himself. And even longer than that to get his thoughts in any semblance of order.
In a daze, Gaius looked over at the spot where Arthur and Merlin had been standing. But they were no longer there. Instead, Arthur lay sprawled upon his bed. Merlin lay at his side, apparently having fallen with him. Both of them were as unconscious as Gwen.
For several long moments, Gaius stared at the scene before him.
My whole life I’ve felt magic, he thought. But never have I felt anything like that. I didn’t even know magic could feel that way. Good gods above, what had that even been?
Upon the floor Gwen gave a small sigh, stirring upon the uncomfortable stone beneath her.
With a grunt of effort, Gaius got to his feet, still unsteady from the raw power that had pulsed over him. He could still feel it vibrating in the air, a massive magical shockwave that had apparently emanated from the two men passed out upon the bed.
Gaius stopped by the bedside, and stared down at them. They were still locked in a desperate embrace. As if afraid to be parted. Their arms were wound tightly around one another, their bodies pressed close like lovers, their faces turned towards each other even in sleep.
Two souls reunited, Gaius found himself thinking. Two hearts that belong together.
Upon the bed, Merlin whimpered.
Arthur tilted his head down, his nose pressing into Merlin's hair.
In response, a small smile pulled at Merlin's lips, and he shifted closer, relaxing into Arthur's embrace.
Gaius put his hand to his chest. Felt his breath catch and hold.
Oh Merlin, he thought.
Gwen made another noise, this time sounding quite distinctly as if she were coming around.
Gaius hurried forward, grabbing onto Merlin's arm. I’m so sorry, my boy, he thought at Merlin, and hauled him up with all his strength. Merlin grunted at the movement but Gaius kept at it, first sitting him all the way up, and then shoving him forward, so that he spilled into a heap upon the stone floor. He landed with a grunt, loud enough to make Gwen stir, her eyes fluttering open.
“My lady,” Gaius said, going to crouch by her side, a hand placed gently upon her arm.
“Ow,” Merlin mumbled, and planted a hand on the floor to push himself up. After a few unsuccessful attempts, he collapsed back to the stones. “Ow.”
“Oh my head,” Arthur moaned, shoving himself up to his elbows.
“Gaius?” Gwen asked, sitting up with his help, blinking at him in obvious disorientation.
“Who hit me?” Arthur muttered as he sat up.
Merlin had rolled onto his back and was frowning up at the ceiling. “I’m on the floor,” he said hoarsely. “Why am I on the floor?”
“When the spell was broken, we all lost consciousness,” Gaius told them all, as he helped Gwen to her feet.
“The spell,” Arthur repeated, blinking against the daylight in the room.
“Do you not remember, sire?” Gaius asked, glancing nervously from Merlin to Arthur and back.
“Last thing I remember,” Arthur said, “was…”
“Stepping under the mistletoe,” Gwen finished.
“Right,” Arthur said curiously. “We stepped under the mistletoe... and then…”
“We broke the enchantment,” Gwen said, looking around the ceiling. “Look, Arthur, the plants have gone.”
Merlin was scowling at them both. “I don’t think-“
“-that it could have gone any better, no,” Gaius finished for him.
Arthur frowned down at Merlin. “What are you doing on the floor? God’s sakes, Merlin, this is no time for a nap.”
Merlin grabbed onto the mattress and tried to pull himself to his feet, only to drop to his knees at the bedside. “You fainted too.”
“I most certainly did not faint,” Arthur said, getting to his feet, then swaying, and sitting down again.
Merlin snorted at him and clung to the bed, resting his chin on the mattress, bleary eyed and clearly as disoriented as his king.
Arthur stared down at Merlin, his brows pulling together. His gaze was fixed upon Merlin’s fingers, where they were gripping the bedspread.
Gaius noticed Merlin’s gaze lift to Arthur’s face, and then slide down to his lips. He was frowning, as if trying to chase down a thought.
Arthur reached out, placing a hand upon Merlin's wrist, as if to pull him up. But instead, he just sat there, holding onto Merlin's hand, staring down at him in wonderment. "Are you...?"
"Yeah... I..." Merlin frowned at Arthur's hand on his his own, but didn't pull away. He just stared at it a long moment, blinking slowly, before dragging his eyes up to Arthur's face. "The bedpost," he said abruptly. "Wasn't there something about-?"
“Come along, Merlin,” Gaius said sharply, going over to grab his arm and pull him to his feet. “We must see how the rest of those afflicted by the spell are faring.”
Merlin staggered as he was pulled to the door. “Wait- I- Will you both be all right?” he called over his shoulder.
“Of course,” Arthur said, as Gwen sat by his side upon the bed.
“Of course,” Merlin said absently, and let himself be led from the room.
It took them until they were halfway down the hall before Merlin was able to walk on his own.
“What exactly happened in there?” Merlin asked.
“Arthur broke the spell,” Gaius told him.
Merlin gave him a strange look. “It wasn’t working though. I swear I remember it not working. Didn’t it? And then…”
“And then the spell dissolved with a rather spectacular magical explosion.”
“If that’s true, then why aren’t you falling off your feet like I am?”
Gaius guided Merlin into their chambers, then closed the door behind them. “There’s nothing wrong with me because I used a shielding spell to protect myself.”
Merlin’s eyes went wide. “Gaius,” he said, sounding scandalized. “You used magic in the king's chambers?”
“It was an accident,” Gaius said, allowing himself a small smile. “Not that you’d know anything about those.”
Merlin grunted at him and rubbed at his face with both hands. “I think I need to lay down. I feel like I’m going to fall off my feet.”
“Why don’t you go and do that. I can check in on those who were afflicted myself. You just go and rest.”
Merlin dropped his hands and gave him a highly suspicious look. “First you’re blatantly using magic in the castle, then you’re telling me to rest in the middle of the day… What’s next? You’re going to wash Arthur’s socks for me?”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Gaius said, and shooed Merlin off to his bedroom.
By the time Merlin awoke, it was nearly past time for them both to attend the yuletide feast. The dining hall was twice as full as the night before, the yule log burning brightly in its center, the decorations refreshed with a noticeable lack of greenery, with everyone in attendance dressed in their best festive clothing and on very distinctly good behavior.
After the plates had been cleared and the tables pushed to the walls, Gaius strolled around the room, a goblet of wine in his hand. Every few minutes, an awkward encounter would play out nearby, between those people recovering from the mistletoe. Although the afflicted didn’t remember what they’d done, their friends most certainly did, and were seizing every opportunity to recount it in the most embarrassing way possible.
Gaius watched both Arthur and Merlin eavesdropping on these stories as they were told, each of them hiding their reaction due to the needs of their station. But minutes later, they would find each other in the crowd, and share a private conversation filled with grins and laughter, before wandering off in separate directions, called off to their duties again.
Gaius noticed Gwen watching them fondly from beside the head table, apparently unbothered by Arthur’s absence. Quite possibly it was because the Lady Vivian was providing such excellent entertainment nearby, yelling at her father for nearly a half hour now, and in front of much of his court, as well.
“Looks like someone’s back to her old self,” Merlin said as he stepped to Gaius’ side, an enormous goblet of wine held in both hands. “Though whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing….”
Gaius tsked at him. “If you ask me, it’s a reassuring sight. Much better than the way she walked into the castle."
"If you say so," Merlin said, arching a dubious eyebrow.
"Which reminds me," Gaius added. "It's rather a curious thing, isn't it, that Lady Vivian wound up enchanted as well.”
Merlin made a humming sound and rocked back on his heels, looking out into the room with a vacant expression that was far too familiar.
“And for her to wind up enchanted with George, of all people," Gaius pressed.
"George, was it? You don't say."
“That young man is always so conscientious," Gaius said, arching an eyebrow of his own. "It's difficult to believe he would have accidentally lead the Lady Vivian beneath a cluster of mistletoe. One might say almost impossible to believe.”
“I don't know about impossible,” Merlin began, casting a wry glance at him, finally yielding to a grin.
“Merlin,” Gaius huffed.
“What?" Merlin asked, clearly unrepentant. "You ask me, it was a good thing it happened. She was freed from her own love spell when the enchantment on the mistletoe was broken, wasn't she?”
"That is not the point," Gaius said, trying for severe but with too much amusement in his voice to achieve the desired effect.
Across the room, Lady Vivian's voice rose sharply above the din of conversation and music, shrill even at a distance.
“She is really, really angry, isn’t she,” Merlin said.
“Can you blame her?" Gaius asked, as he held out his cup for Merlin to fill. "She has no memory at all from the past several years, you know. When she awoke from the enchantment, she still thought she was at the treaty negotiations between the five kings. It took all of her ladies in waiting to keep her from tearing down the castle in her rage when she found out what had happened to her, and just how long it kept happening for.”
Merlin gave a low whistle as he poured Gaius some wine. “Glad I wasn’t there for that.”
“And how are you feeling?” Gaius asked, looking Merlin over, but finding only his usual bright eyed cheer. “A bit better after your rest?”
“Much better,” Merlin said, wrapping both arms around the heavy wine jug. “I still can’t believe I fainted from a simple spell on mistletoe being broken. Doesn't make any sense at all.”
Gaius hummed a response and sipped at his wine.
Merlin studied him for a long moment, clearly suspicious. "You're really not going to tell me what happened.”
Gaius thought of the golden light dancing around his young warlock and his king, and the words they’d exchanged, and the tenderness of their embrace, and the strange visions of a place he somehow knew he’d never see in his waking life.
“It’s for the best, Merlin,” he said finally.
“It's just that you look like the cat who ate the cream, is all,” Merlin said, cocking an eyebrow. “You sure there’s nothing I should know?”
“Merlin,” came Arthur’s voice, and right behind them, loud enough that the boy startled, and splashed wine on his tunic and neckerchief.
“You did that on purpose,” Merlin grumbled at him, brushing wine from his clothes.
Arthur stepped to Merlin's side and leaned in to sniff at him. "You smell like a tavern again. Why must you always smell like a tavern?"
Merlin rolled his eyes and sighed loudly as Arthur leaned in to sniff at his neck.
The king was standing quite close to the boy as he did it, Gaius noticed. Yes, quite close indeed.
“I do not always smell like a tavern," Merlin protested. “And anyway, I already told you. The other night, it was Geoffrey who-“
“Yes yes nevermind,” Arthur interrupted, and draped his arm over Merlin's shoulders, his fingers grabbing a handful of Merlin's ceremonial jacket. “Tell me all about it later. First, I simply must tell you about this very important piece of information I just learned.”
“Important information?" Merlin asked, his dark brows arching with mischief.
"Very important information," Arthur said, looking as if he was about to burst with laughter.
"Right, very important information,” Merlin agreed, nodding earnestly at Gaius, as if it were serious business indeed.
“Excuse us,” Arthur said to Gaius, and then pulled Merlin away, his hand sliding down Merlin's back, as he leaned in to speak right next to Merlin’s ear.
“Fifteen,” Gaius noted, as he sipped at his wine. Fifteen times the king had touched Merlin in some way or other in that evening. How on earth had he never noticed ow often Arthur had his hands upon Merlin? Or how often Merlin’s entire focus was upon Arthur, to the exclusion of all else? “Sixteen,” he added, when Arthur put his hand upon the back of Merlin’s neck. Before striding away, Arthur followed the touch with two pats to his back. “Eighteen,” Gaius concluded in wonder. And the evening was far from over.
“And what exactly are you counting, old friend?” Geoffrey asked, stepping beside him, holding a plate bearing an enormous piece of cake.
“Where did you get that?” Gaius asked, looking around at the servants with their trays full of very small treats.
“Agatha, in the kitchens. It’s good to have friends in the right places,” he added, with a wink.
“That all sorted then?” Gaius asked, which was the closest he was going to get to ever mentioning what he’d seen Geoffrey and Agatha the Cook do in the archway the night before.
“Oh my yes. We had a lovely chat this afternoon while she was working. Fascinating woman, really. Can’t remember a thing that happened either. So we did it again, just out of curiosity.”
Gaius spat out his wine, then covered his mouth with the back of his hand.
Geoffrey’s eyebrows had raised in amusement. “Honestly, Gaius,” he said, nodding to the nobility and knights around them. “Manners.”
“You kissed her again?” Gaius asked, because he couldn’t help himself. “Intentionally?”
“Just wanted to see what the fuss was about,” Geoffrey said, looking out at the mingling crowd, licking some icing from his fingers. “Or lack of it, I should say. I always said books were more interesting than such pursuits. Agatha agrees completely. For her it’s cooking, of course. Do you know she’s never read a recipe book? She didn’t even know such things existed!”
Gaius thought of the many interesting things he’d been served at court, some of which he’d sworn were still moving, but he held back his comments because of the delight in his friend’s face. “Really?” he asked carefully.
“She nearly fainted when I told her about all the recipe books I have in the library. She’s going to visit me there tomorrow so I can show them to her. Of course I’ll need to teach her how to read before she can use them. Five generations of cooks in Camelot and none of them readers! Why, her grandmother Evelyn…”
Gaius fought back a chuckle as Geoffrey went on, recounting the generations of cooks who had staffed Camelot’s kitchens.
A half hour later, well into Geoffrey’s tale of the surprising history of the mince pie, Gaius finally excused himself, to get his own piece of cake. When he reached the desert table, he found Arthur standing there with Olaf, very clearly reassuring the older man of something, a hand even upon his shoulder.
“That is most gracious of you, sire,” King Olaf was saying, which was the first time Gaius could remember him using that title with Arthur.
"It's the only just decision," Arthur told him. "The Lady Vivian wasn't in her right mind. So she should not be held accountable."
King Olaf bowed his head in open gratitude and respect. "I find myself in your debt. I and my kingdom as well."
"All I would ask of you is your friendship," Arthur assured him. "Good friends are hard to come by, especially in times such as these."
“That you will have, whenever you need it," Olaf said, clasping Arthur's forearm, when he extended it to the king.
After Olaf had walked away with two plates of cake, Gaius stepped to Arthur's side. “That was very generous of you, sire,” he said.
“What Lady Vivian did wasn’t her fault,” Arthur said, staring across the room at where Vivian was yelling at her father as he approached. "Neither she nor King Olaf should be punished for it."
Merlin appeared at Arthur’s other side, a plate of half eaten cake in his hand. “There’s also nothing wrong with having a grateful king on your side,” he noted.
Arthur took Merlin’s fork from him and sliced off a piece of his cake. “Better a grateful king than an angry king,” he said, shoving the forkful of desert into his mouth, and nodding at King Olaf’s knights. Tonight his men were only barely participating in the festivities. Especially the two knights who had been enchanted the day before.
“They are not going to have a pleasant trip home tomorrow,” Merlin said.
“Their unhappy times,” Gwen said as she joined them, “are most likely going to start sooner than that. Because the Lady Vivian has demanded that they all assemble in her rooms after the celebration, to explain why none of them broke her love spell before now.”
"Remind me later to stuff my ears with cloth to drown out the shouting," Merlin said to Gaius, taking the fork back from Arthur, to slice off another piece of cake.
"I don't think there's enough cloth in the entire kingdom to do that," Arthur noted, staring in obvious amusement at Merlin's ears.
Merlin snorted at him and lifted a piece of cake to eat it. Arthur grabbed the morsel from his fork and popped it into his own mouth instead.
Gaius lifted his glass to his mouth, hiding the upward quirk of his lips.
“The two of you, honestly," Gwen scolded them both, and stepped forward to kiss Arthur on the cheek. “I’m for bed. I’m simply exhausted today. Goodnight Gaius, Merlin.”
Across the room the Lady Vivian’s shrill voice pierced the conversation and music, as she demanded a much larger piece of cake, because for god’s sake she wasn’t a peasant, and in case they hadn’t heard, she was simply having the worst day she’d ever had in her life.
“That is a formidable woman,” Arthur said, in the admiring but wary tones of one who was glad it wasn't his problem.
"That's putting it lightly," Merlin said in a voice that was rather too loud.
Arthur nudged him gently with his elbow, and Gaius took another quick sip of wine, thinking to himself: 'Twenty-five'.
Across the room, Lady Vivian's voice once again pierced the rather loud music being played by the musicians.
"Good gods," Arthur said, though he was smiling cordially as he said it, and holding out his goblet for Merlin to fill.
“You sure you don’t want this instead?” Merlin asked, handing him the entire goblet.
Arthur snorted and knocked him on the forehead with his cup.
“I was just joking,” Merlin said, pouring the wine sloppily into Arthur’s cup.
“Clumsy idiot,” Arthur said, brushing liquid from his ceremonial robes.
“Spoiled royal child.“
Gaius cleared his throat.
Arthur and Merlin both looked at him as if they had no idea whatsoever why he’d done it.
Gaius couldn't help but smile, remembering something Merlin had told him long ago. A description used by the druids for the both of them. Something he hadn’t quite understood then. But which was ridiculously obvious now.
“What is it?” Arthur asked.
“Gaius?” Merlin pressed.
“I think I shall retire as well,” Gaius said. “It’s been a long day, and I’m an old man.”
Merlin scoffed at him. “You’re going to outlive us both, Gaius.”
“Absolutely,” Arthur agreed.
Gaius felt a moment of dizziness come upon him, and had to close his eyes.
For just a moment, he saw Arthur and Merlin standing by a lakeside, the sky alight with evening blues and purples, a broken tower standing on an isle in the distance. Golden light wound around them as they embraced, and laughed, and held tightly onto one another.
“Gaius?” Merlin asked.
Gaius blinked, and the vision was gone, and it was just Arthur and Merlin standing before him, confused and worried.
“Too much wine, I’m afraid,” Gaius said, handing his cup to Merlin. “I’d best be off to bed. Goodnight sire. Merlin.”
For no reason he could explain, Gaius bowed to them both, feeling strangely awed, and even more amazed, his thoughts full of wonder and of magic.
Merlin and Arthur watched Gaius walk away, frowning at his back as he went.
“What was that about?” Merlin asked.
“No idea,” Arthur said.
For a while they stood there together, watching the festivities carrying on around them. After a few minutes, Merlin yawned at length.
Next to him, Arthur did the same.
“Shall I-“ Merlin began.
“Yes, I think so,” Arthur said. “And be sure to-“
“Right, King Olaf and Lady Vivian, wouldn’t want them to think-“
“No indeed, my thoughts exactly. Come on then,” Arthur said, and set a hand upon Merlin’s back, pulling him along by the jacket.
“This has been the best yule festival I can remember,” Merlin said happily, as he let himself be dragged along at Arthur’s side, wine jug still in his hands.
“I think your definition of ‘best’ needs some work,” Arthur told him. “Though it was certainly eventful.”
“What with the Lady Arinor-“
“And don’t forget the Lord Greenbriar-“
“And then what happened in the laundry between-“
“Oh god I forgot about that,” Arthur said, laughing. “You’ll have to tell me that one again.”
“See?” Merlin said smugly, falling into step beside him as they crossed the room together. “It was a great yule festival.”
“I could have done without seeing King Olaf snogging his servant within an inch of his life.”
“You actually saw that?” Merlin asked, aghast.
“Walked in on them in the council chambers,” Arthur said in a very low voice.
“Ugh, that is awful,” Merlin said, depositing his wine jug and Arthur’s glass on a table they passed.
“It really was quite awful,” Arthur said, wrinkling up his nose in disgust.
Merlin frowned at him. “Wait. Why do you think it’s awful? I’m the one who should think it’s awful.”
“I assure you that you have that entirely backwards,” Arthur said emphatically. “God’s sakes, I’d sooner kiss a cow than kiss you.”
“Well I’d sooner kiss an ass.”
“That can be arranged,” Arthur informed him.
Merlin gave Arthur a scandalized look.
Arthur flushed pink, realizing what he’d said. “You know what I meant!”
“A good thing it wasn’t that kind of mistletoe!” Merlin said, with a wicked smile.
Arthur opened his mouth, gone wide eyed, and then burst out laughing. He reached out, ruffled Merlin’s hair, then shoved him playfully.
Merlin shoved him back, knocking Arthur into the archway as they went through.
Arthur returned Merlin’s challenging grin, glanced around to make sure they weren’t being watched, then charged after Merlin, who was already racing down the hallway, laughing.
From the shadows in the corridor, Gaius watched them go, listening to their laughter echoing from the stone walls as if it were part of the castle itself, dwelling there alongside the spirit of Camelot, and the heart of magic, and the legends that stretched out into the distant future.
A child born of magic, he found himself thinking. And a child filled with magic.
By all the gods of heaven and earth, it was no wonder the spell had reacted the way it did.
Because it was obvious, what was there between the two of them, if he'd only taken two seconds to look.
Gaius drew in a deep breath, hope truly filling his heart. Not only for himself, or for his warlock and his king, but for all of Albion, and for the future ahead, no matter the trials they were to face.
“How are you doing, old friend?” came Geoffrey’s voice, as he stepped from the dining hall, rosy cheeked and with a tankard of ale in his hand.
“I'm doing well," Gaius said, still smiling at the warm feeling bubbling within his chest. “Yes. I'd say I'm doing quite well indeed."
"That's the holiday spirit for you," Geoffrey said, and raised his tankard in silent toast.
"You're right, of course, of course," Gaius said, slapping a hand on Geoffrey's shoulder, feeling positively giddy now, and entirely unable to even consider sleep. "Say, why don't we retire to your library? You can tell me some of those stories you were going on about earlier this evening.”
“What stories?” Geoffrey asked, though he looked delighted at the prospect.
“All of them,” Gaius told him cheerfully. “For the night is still young, my friend. And the world, you see, is simply full of promise.”