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And No Birds Sing

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And No Birds Sing

 

 

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,

    Alone and palely loitering?

The sedge has withered from the lake,

    And no birds sing.

Along the lake shore, the world is black and white. Dark branches reach up to the endless sky, while birds fly in swooping arcs overhead. Sound travels far: the faint echoes of cracks and the crunch of his footfalls, punctuate the silence of the day. Merlin takes a deep breath, the air burning with cold as he fills his lungs; when he exhales a white cloud appears before him. He walks on, looking, he is sure, as if he moves with purpose. He has none, apart from the desire to keep moving, and besides, there is no one here to see him.

In his past, he knows he was searching, for something or maybe even someone, but he has long forgotten what it is. For a time, he remembered little more than his name, and his magic. Now Merlin is satisfied with the way his days pass, in walks and the familiar tasks necessary to keep him warm and fed, back at his hut, hidden from view in amongst the rocks and brambles. He is no longer searching – for how can he search without knowing what to search for? – but instead feels as if he is waiting. He lives his patience, sunrise after nightfall, over and over again, in the peace and the quiet of the wilds.

He misses the sound of birdsong. If nothing else can persuade him that he has been cursed, it is this absence of chirruping and chattering that leaves each day empty. But on a bleak mid-winter’s day like this, the quiet is fitting.

Sedge marks the edge of the lake, dead and brittle: some dry, some rotting gently into the water. A month before it was still standing proud, but it is now bent and broken, blown down by wind and rain. He is sure that creatures lurk below, but has no desire to seek them out. Let them slumber through these cold months, their tiny hearts beating slow in the warmth of their nests.

He walks on, the ground hard with frost, leaf litter almost unrecognisable as the green leaves which had fluttered so gently in the summer breeze. His fingers ache with the cold, and he thrusts them into his pockets, wishing that he had thought to bring his gloves. At the same time though, it doesn’t matter as he is never really that far from the simple comforts of home. These walks give him the illusion of being a force like the sun or the rain, about to be swept away on the wind, but he knows it is not true.

His eyes are drawn back to the lake shore. A shadow mars the edge. He squints in the low sun, and at first he thinks it is a bundle of rags and wood, washed up after a winter storm. Then he sees what could be limbs, and he has a moment’s sadness at the thought of an animal caught out for too long in the cold water, ending its life in an icy numbness. His feet quicken though, when he sees white fingers stretching out from the lumpen mass.

As he approaches, he sees that it is no driftwood, no dead animal: it is a man, curled up and shivering. Relief floods through him, and he is shamed by the knowledge that he was more scared of finding vacant eyes and the stench of death than he ought to be. Questions rise and crowd in his mind. Merlin steps closer, first noticing the glint of metal; and then faltering at the sight and smell of rusted chain mail and dulled armour. Surely this is a knight, a man-at-arms. But why is he here, alone and so weak?

“Sir Knight?”

The knight raises his head, a slow movement of pain and weariness. His gaze is blank, and his skin so pale that it appears to be semi-translucent, like thick winter ice. Deep lines of worry or sadness carve down between his brows, and his eyes are sunk and shadowed. There is something feverish about him – Merlin can’t tell if the shivering which rattles his teeth is due to the cold, or to the tint of rose at his cheeks, the gleam of sweat on his brow. Even as he looks though, the colour is fading, and the fever turning to something else, something more deadly. Merlin realises with a shock that he must get this man warm, and fast.

Merlin crouches down, and removes his coat. Even as he wraps the knight in the worn wool and rubs his back and arms in an attempt to create heat, Merlin still feels the keen bite of the winter’s day and knows that somehow, he too must keep warm.

“The lady.” The words croak out of the knight’s mouth in a rush of stale breath. Merlin looks up. The knight’s eyes are wide with what looks like desperation. Or fear.

“The lady?”

The knight smiles, pale lips pulling back over loose teeth. It is a death grimace. “She appeared to me on a summer’s day. So beautiful. Her hair… it fell down her back like gold, and her feet danced as if made of air,” he says, a catch of wonder lighting his voice, and his eyes sparking briefly. But then the knight falls silent, lost in the memory. Merlin pulls him closer, until he is embracing him fully. The smell of unwashed flesh is sour and the taste of blood lingers in the air from the thick rust. Beneath his sheath of metal though, the knight feels as if he could snap in two. Long ridges of bone shift in Merlin’s arms as he continues to try to rub warmth and life back into the knight.

“Eyes… wide and wild….” The knight’s hands rise, tracing a fluttering circle in the air. Merlin doesn’t know whose eyes he is talking about. He’s not looking at Merlin, it can’t be his; perhaps this man is mad. “White flowers and shining leaves for eyes so bright, so….” For the first time, he turns to face Merlin. “She was beautiful,” he whispers. “And she looked at me as if I was the sun rising on a perfect day. I took her up on my horse—“

The knight’s head snaps up with such force Merlin almost expects to hear a crack. “My horse.” His voice is filled with loss, and he stops talking for a while and stares into the distance. Merlin is haunted by blue eyes, red rimmed and raw with exhaustion and grief. He knows it is not for the horse, although he can feel, in his arms, the emptiness of that loss too. They sit like this, as a small group of birds wheel overhead, a changing and stretching shape that darts along hidden lines of air. The sight fills Merlin with a familiar bitterness, for he knows that these birds are silent. To him, anyway.

They are both lost, as the birds fly above, to sadness. Every bare branch and even the open sky mock how empty they feel, until Merlin remembers that he is not alone, no matter what he has forgotten or lost. He moves closer still, holding on tight. The knight’s eyes turn back to him, but they are unfocused, and his head falls forwards. Merlin begins to shake with the cold, and his teeth to rattle, and he’s aware suddenly, of quite how long they have been sitting here. He knows they have to find either shelter or heat. He weighs up the risk of his magic being revealed against their need. In the end he calls wood to him with a word and a gesture, before setting it alight with a flare of his eyes. The knight is now slumped against him, and there is nothing more Merlin can do but continue to rub, and hope the warmth of the fire does its work.

After a while, Merlin’s teeth still their shivering, and his body begins to warm. In his arms, the knight relaxes and then becomes a heavy and unwieldy weight. A soft noise rises from him: he is asleep. Merlin shifts until the knight is lying across his lap, eyes purpled and closed. Merlin holds out first one hand, then the other, towards the crackling flames, warming the stiff and cold joints, and then he tries to prise open some of the fastenings holding the armour in place. Somehow his fingers seem to know the order to do this in, but everything is fused together with rust. In the end, he cuts the stiff leather straps with magic, and the plates at the shoulder pull away with a hard tug.

He brushes his fingers over the rough beard on the knight’s chin. It looks like the sedge behind them, straw-coloured with mysteries hidden beneath. Tiny lines are visible, travelling away from the knight’s eyes, telling a different tale to the line of worry and sadness between his eyes. Merlin traces all the lines on the knight’s face, trying to divine his story, but all he can see is that this man has known happiness and great sadness in his life. He does not even know his name.

Merlin sits until his legs ache, locked as they are beneath him. But the knight’s breath is even and steady, and his cheeks begin to regain a healthier glow. Merlin cradles him, and stares into the fire, aware that this is the longest he has spent with another person in months. He picks out the twigs and burrs from the knight’s hair, and then his hand begins to move, passing across the matted and dirty hair, over and over again, in the memory of comfort and his mother sitting with him by their own fire.

When the knight wakes up, his eyes are clearer. After a little water, he is able to sit up. He stares for a minute into the flames, as if it has been a long while since he had last seen the curling lick of a fire.

His voice when he speaks is a low whisper.

“Are you really here, or have I imagined you too?”

His skin has lost some of its ashen cast, although it is still streaked with both great weariness and layers of dirt. Merlin ignores his words and the shiver of fear at the thought that this might indeed be a man who has lost his mind.

“I am really here. And you… seem a little better,” says Merlin. These words are the most he can offer as reassurance. Looking at the man, at the rusting armour and breathing in the stink of abandonment in the air, he makes his decision. He can’t leave this man here, to die. Madman or not. “But we will need to seek shelter before night falls. I have a small… my home, not too far from here. Or not too far if you were well. If we leave now we should get there by the time darkness falls. Can you move now?”

The knight nods, and begins to pull himself up. Merlin helps, as much as he can. The knight tries to push him away, but his body is too weak to stand without help.

“I need to remove your chain mail. It will be easier to move without it weighing you down.” Merlin moves to tug it off, but the knight’s eyes narrow in anger, and he tries to pull Merlin’s hand away. His fingers though, fail to form a strong enough hold, and he sags in defeat against Merlin. With a heavy heart Merlin removes the chain mail, his fingers cold and stiff.

There is something deeply wrong in seeing a man of action reduced to this weakened state. With an arm about Merlin’s shoulders, the knight can manage a slow, limping walk. Slowly, they leave behind the dying embers of the fire, and the rusted armour and chain mail, which lies abandoned in the mud.

For a while the only sound to be heard is huffing and the steady fall of their feet. When Merlin glances over, the knight’s lips are thin and tight.

“I was not always like this.” These words are said with a pride that would seem out of place, if it wasn’t for the look which accompanies them. It is haughty and speaks of a life of privilege.

“You are a knight.” It is not a question.

“I am. I was a great knight, once. Or so I seem to recall.” Loss mixes with the pride as he speaks.

“What is your name?” Merlin asks after a while. He needs to have something to call the knight. He seems so lost, and a name is important.

“My name… my name is….” The knight is silent a while, as if searching his memory. “My name is Arthur,” he says, in the end. Merlin feels him stand a little straighter as Arthur remembers who he is. Or at the least, his name.

They walk through a copse of bare silver birch trees, bark white against the grey sky. There is an eerie lack of noise in the air, and it makes Merlin uncomfortable. He concentrates on the shuffling sound of their feet, but it seems hollow and unimportant. He clears his throat and speaks, needing to hear a voice in the quiet.

“My name is Merlin.” Arthur grunts in answer, and Merlin realises that he is beginning to drag his feet a little more, that he is tiring. “We can rest for a moment,” he says, looking over at Arthur.

“Merlin,” says Arthur, and beneath the fatigue lies is a hint of command. “I’m tired, but we need to go on. How much further?”

Merlin looks out through the slender tree trunks, to the sun lowering through the sky. “We’ll get there just after dark.” He pauses. “I don’t like this quiet,” he adds, sharing his unease. He looks back at Arthur. “I’m not a very good hermit.”

“You’re a hermit?”

Merlin shrugs. He isn’t sure what he is, really. He has been a seeker, searcher, but then he forgot what it was he sought. “I’m waiting. But I don’t know what for. And I don’t like being alone.”

Arthur looks like he is about to speak, but it is a long moment before he does. “You’re not alone now.”

“I still don’t like the quiet.”

“Then tell me how it is that you are a hermit who doesn’t like being alone, or the quiet.”

Merlin tries to order his thoughts. He hates how his knowledge of how he has come to live in his little hut is blurred and incomplete.

“I’m waiting.” He moves his grasp on Arthur’s side, his arm and shoulder beginning to ache. “I remember before, that I lived with a kind man who treated me like his son. But then I lost something, and came to look for it.” He is reluctant to describe anything about magic or curses, but Merlin knows, deep down in his bones, that he has been cursed, and that this is somehow his penance for losing something precious to him. To others too, he suspects.

Arthur seems satisfied with this answer, and they walk on. Merlin has many questions he wants to ask, but silence wins out as he feels Arthur tremble at his side, and sees the grey tint returning to his face. They need to keep moving.

The sun touches the horizon, sending light low and far before it sinks for the night, leaving behind darkness, when Merlin sees the lightning-blasted elm tree which marks the path to his home.

The hut is dark, and quiet. Merlin lights a fire, and brings a blanket to Arthur to try to warm him again. But Arthur is shivering, as if now that they are safe in the hut, he can finally let go. It worries Merlin, and he stops to take a deep breath, his heart tight in his chest as panic rises. Suddenly he too, is lost: he doesn’t know what to do, how to help. Merlin looks back at his new guest, and from deep within him, a memory rises, unbidden and sharp with pain: a young woman, pale and dirt-stained too, wrapped in a blanket. He feels old regret pull at him, and something else. Something that makes his heart ache all the more, and his breath catch in his throat. Without thinking about it, he crosses the room and wraps Arthur in his arms again, rubbing his hand up and down Arthur’s bony back.

“It’s ok,” Merlin whispers. “You’re safe now. You’re home.” He babbles on, aware that half of what he says is nonsense, but Merlin feels the sag as the body in his arms relaxes; the shaking stops. And at that point he realises that it isn’t nonsense, that his words are true: Arthur is safe, and this is his home. He looks now, to see how Arthur is doing, and is met by a sad stare. This moment of connection brings a sense of triumph, until Merlin sees lips part and remembers that this weak man is probably, literally, starving.

Merlin has porridge, cold in a pot from the morning. Arthur stares at the bowl that Merlin places in front of him, as if it is an illusion, a vision that will disappear if he comes too close.

“Go on.” Merlin hands him a spoon. “Just– not too fast.”

Arthur looks up at him, his trance broken, and nods slowly. “Porridge.” He shakes his head. “I don’t think I like porridge, but this looks good.” He takes a cautious mouthful, and puts the spoon down and closes his eyes. “I was wrong. This…” He groans, and picks up the spoon again, taking more porridge this time. He chews, his eyes closing again. “This is wonderful.” Merlin sits opposite, eating a little of his own cold porridge, for he is hungry too, but doesn’t feel that he can bring out any other food while Arthur eats. He watches as Arthur empties the bowl, scraping it clean at the end, and wonders if this is how a mother feels, watching her child eat: this glow of satisfaction. Arthur sits back and groans, his mouth still moving as if his tongue is seeking out every last swollen oat stuck to his teeth.

They share some ale, and bitter warmth fills Merlin. Arthur’s movements slow, his eyelids dropping a little more with each blink of the eye, until his heads begins to fall downwards too. He starts up, but his eyes are unfocused. Merlin nods at the pallet in the corner, and Arthur shuffles over. Before Merlin can cover him properly with the blanket, he is asleep. 

The next morning finds Merlin curled up in his cloak by the fire, too tired to care much where he slept when he finally lay down the night before. But the cold of the floor seeping through his clothes, through the coarse wool of his cloak, is enough to make him sit up, and after glancing over at the still-sleeping shape of his guest, Merlin heads out for a piss, his breath white before him in the sharp light of morning. He gets the fire going again before checking on Arthur. Gentle snores reassure him before he moves close enough to see the look of repose on Arthur’s face. Merlin hopes that this augurs well. Looking at him now, it is hard to imagine that this is a man who has lost his mind. Arthur is filthy and gaunt, but he looks so peaceful, his chest rising and falling with each breath.

Blue eyes open and stare at him, Arthur’s forehead creasing in tension as he wakes. The illusion of peace fades. “You are real,” he croaks, and Merlin nods.

“I am. You’re safe now. And I hope you slept well. I know it can be a bit lumpy.” Merlin babbles on about the brightness of the day outside, and tells Arthur about Betty, his goat, as he goes about making some more porridge. Arthur shows no sign of having heard any of the words, but Merlin feels a need to fill the silence, now that he is not alone any more.

While Arthur finds a spot behind the bushes to relieve himself, Merlin goes to see his goat. He returns with a steaming bowl of milk, to find that his fresh pot of porridge is about to burn. Arthur is hunched by the table, his head in his hands. Words of reproach die on his lips, as he sees the broken look of sorrow on Arthur’s face. After rescuing the pot from the fire, Merlin sets the porridge on the table and passes the bowl of milk to Arthur.

“Drink.” He pushes the bowl closer when Arthur does not move. “It will help you regain your strength.” Slowly, Arthur raises his eyes to Merlin, blinking as if he doesn’t understand the words Merlin is saying. “Drink,” Merlin tries again. Arthur stares at the roughly hewn bowl, and nods. He reaches for the bowl and brings it to his lips, and the spell of sadness is broken, just a little. They eat in silence but sounds from the world outside creep in, the wind in the trees, the creaks and sighs of the day.

Arthur looks as if he is on the verge of something – collapse, tears, Merlin finds it hard to say – and Merlin doesn’t want to push him. The sadness has crept back up, a deadening blanket, and Merlin remains quiet.

Merlin cleans up when they have finished, and goes out to fetch some water from the nearby stream. The world feels alive around him, the wind whipping his hair and the air crisp and bright with promise. His fingers ache as he fills a bucket, but the glint of darting silver in the water reminds him that there is life all around. Merlin avoids looking into the trees though, not wanting to be reminded of his curse.

As Merlin heats the water, he sneaks quiet glances at his guest. Arthur sits on the bench, his eyes vacant. He looks big in the small room, with his broad shoulders and traces of pride even in his stillness. Even exhausted and numbed, Arthur still carries an air of nobility. He wears it like a fine cloak. The fire is the only sound in the room. His earlier talkative streak is over, exhausted by the lack of response. Merlin is used to his own company, used to the quiet, but he can’t help but notice the tall man, thin and stinking, currently filling his room. Words, or no words.

Once the water is warm he scoops some of it into a large bowl, and adds a few dried herbs to help clean any cuts he finds. Some old strips of linen, saved for bandages, soon soak up the fragrant water. Merlin sets the bowl down in front of knight, and clears his throat.

“You need to wash.” He is unsure of how the knight will react: he seems so proud. Merlin keeps his voice quiet and gentle, almost as if talking to a wild animal. But Arthur remains motionless. “I have warm water, and you have some wounds which need cleaning.” Still, there is no response. Gingerly, Merlin approaches. “I can…” His eyes search Arthur’s face for a flicker of acknowledgement, a sign that he is listening. Merlin swallows. “I can help, if you don’t mind. But it really does need doing.” He reaches out, and touches Arthur’s arm. At this, finally, Arthur turns to face him.

“If you must. If it stops you from babbling on.” The words are whispered out through cracked lips, and then Arthur turns his eyes to the wall again, blank and lost. Merlin considers where to start: he can see that there are many fine scratches and grazes on Arthur’s skin. A thin red line pokes out from the top of what was once a padded jacket, but is now rust-stained and water-marked, so full of rips that Arthur’s arms are practically bare. Arthur’s clothes also stink, with the rancid sourness of long wear and the tang of rust. Merlin determines to ignore the smell – which, to be honest, is probably only a little worse than his own – and sets to work, moving the table to one side, bringing the stool so that he can sit before Arthur.

After cutting the ties to the jacket, Merlin carefully eases the coat off his broad shoulders, revealing a filthy tunic beneath. Gently, ever so gently, he begins to pull the tunic up. He sucks in a breath, not at the sight of the wounds, but due to the thinness of Arthur’s body. The tunic itself is half-rotten, and Merlin wonders just how long Arthur has been lost; that Arthur is still alive is surely a miracle. As if to make the point clearer, Arthur groans as Merlin tugs, and Merlin feels a sickening rush of shame. He needs to be more careful: this is a man very near—

“Keep going.” Arthur’s face is pale beneath the dirt; his brow knitted tight, his lips held tight as though he is biting down in pain. Merlin nods, quickly, and helps Arthur to raise his arms and pull off the ragged tunic. It is good for nothing more than burning, and Merlin casts it aside. Gently, he brings the wet cloth up to Arthur’s arms, and begins the slow process of wiping away what looks like months’ worth of dirt.

Merlin does the best he can with the cuts and scrapes, aware all the time of each flinch that Arthur makes. Mostly Arthur remains silent, but it is clear that this takes all his energy. The bowl is emptied and refilled again, and Arthur begins to sway. Merlin focuses on his back, and then helps him to lie down. By the time he sets to work on the deeper cut below the neck, Arthur has fallen into a sleep so complete that he does not move at all, even as Merlin rubs hard to clean the wound. 

The rest of the day passes in cool grey light and a low mist of rain. Merlin is on edge, not used to sharing his space with anyone else, even someone who barely speaks. His rhythms are upset by Arthur’s presence, but strangely Merlin doesn’t feel guilty that he has missed his usual walk by the lake. Whatever it was that he was searching for, he cannot deny that he has found something. Someone.

Merlin takes the chance to sort through his meagre belongings, giving Arthur his loosest clothing. Checking on which remedies he needs to make to sell at market day, still more than a week away, he casts a quiet eye at his unexpected house-guest.

Arthur sleeps, the long slumber of the truly exhausted. In repose he looks almost peaceful – without the haunted look in his eyes – but not quite. His face is too drawn, the shadows too dark for it to be the face of a man at peace.

When he wakes, his brows knit in the darkened room. The sun is once more sinking down below the horizon, and the room is lit by the warm glow of the fire and the soft flicker of a rush light. His hands reach for a sword that isn’t there, and falter at his side at the rough touch of his tunic.

Merlin watches Arthur’s memory of what has happened return, and says nothing. Instead, he makes soup. Even after all this time, he still makes it badly. He tries his best to make it palatable, but he knows that it is watery and the vegetables old. Merlin dreams of better food than this, but hermits don’t tend to live a life of riches. Arthur has not said a word since he awoke, and the silence makes Merlin uncomfortable. This is nothing like the quiet of solitude, and Merlin has been so lonely, so in need of company. To find it now, but empty like this, is making Merlin’s skin itch in frustration. And, he can admit, curiosity. Who is Arthur? What brought him so low?

“Can you… tell me more about what happened to you?” Merlin returns to heating the pot of soup, but casts his eyes up to see Arthur’s reaction to the request. Arthur is hunched under a blanket, warming himself on the other side of the fire. The flames hold his gaze, until he looks up to meet Merlin’s eyes.

“If I close my eyes, I still see her,” Arthur says. “She haunts my dreams.” Merlin knows this already. He heard Arthur moan in his sleep, in the night, and he felt sadness for this broken man, although at the same time… he felt uncomfortable, as though he was trespassing on a private moment. His desire to know what happened is stronger than his discomfort, and he pushes away the tight knot of unease. He fetches two bowls.

“Tell me,” he says, as he ladles out their meal. “Maybe it will help.”

Arthur’s eyes return to the fire. “I rode all day, I– I didn’t know where I was going. There was only the rhythm of the horse, and soft white arms.” The crackle of flames fills the room as Merlin waits while the knight shivers as though with cold, eyes wide as he stares at his far-off memory. “All I knew was her song, the words, the melody, a brush of hot breath on my face as she bent towards me: a faery song.” A single tear falls from his eyes, and Merlin does not know if it is for the beauty of the song, or the loss of song and the lady.

“For hours all I heard was her singing. When I swung her down from my horse, she was so light, and her laugh had me entranced. I was hungry, and so she found tender roots and honey, and fed me with her own hand.” He pauses, and spoons some soup into his mouth. Judging from the frown that passes over his face, it doesn’t really compare to honey from a fair maid’s hand. “I sucked the sweet juice from her skin. She spoke in some strange language and yet somehow I knew that they were words of love.”

He shakes his head. “It was all I knew, and all thoughts of my life, my responsibilities, fled my mind. If you had asked me my name then, I don’t know if I could have answered. It felt like love, mad and all-consuming, but now,” he shudders, “it feels like a curse.”

Merlin feels the echo of his own situation in Arthur’s words. He too, has felt his knowledge of his own life float away and begin to seem unimportant. Except for the waiting: he knows he has managed to hold onto that. Is Arthur cursed, as Merlin is?

“She took me by the hand and led me to a cave, soft with moss, and then she wept. I felt my last thread of resistance break at her tears. I soothed those wild eyes with my lips, and silenced her crying with my kisses, and then…” Arthur touches a finger to his lips, lost in the memory for a moment. The flush in his cheeks suggests that he is remembering more than kisses. “Afterwards, I fell asleep to the sound of her singing, golden in the sunlight…” He trails off, and any pleasure at the memory, no matter how bittersweet, is gone.

“Everything changed. The lady disappeared, and the hill had vanished. I was no longer in a dream of summer; I was now falling into a nightmare. It was a vision of death: lines of men, all chalk-white, no life in their flesh. One by one they raised their voices in a cry of fear and warning. I can hear it still. ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci hath thee in thrall!’ Their mouths were black holes of my dream, gaping and empty.”

The hairs stand up on the back of Merlin’s neck. He wants to reach out and touch Arthur, to show that he is here, that he is listening. But he stays firmly on his side of the table, and instead lets his eyes dart from Arthur’s glazed stare as he revisits the horror of his dream, to Arthur’s thumb, rubbing up and down the length of his spoon, to his own bowl of soup, rapidly cooling and nearly forgotten.

“And what then?” Merlin cannot help the question from escaping him, and longs to push it back into his mouth: but it is too late. He should let Arthur tell him this story in his own time, but he wants to hear what comes next.

“Then?” Arthur raises his eyes, and bitterness runs through his voice. Loss, too. “Then I awoke, cold and alone, on the hill side. All colour had gone from the world, and I wandered until I fell where you found me. You should have left me there, to fade into the mud. I have seen a light too bright… and now everything is like dust to me.”

Merlin shakes his head with the wrongness of this. Arthur cannot see it, but an air of destiny lies about him, a sense of greatness. Every instinct in Merlin’s body is telling him that this was some kind of enchantment, that Arthur has been cursed too. He tries to convey reassurance as he says, “No, no, you’re wrong. It is merely the winter: the sedge has withered from the lake, and no birds sing, but it is not forever.”

More questions rise within Merlin; he wants to know who was this woman who seduced Arthur then disappeared? Where has Arthur been? His attempts at asking are greeted with a stony silence, and Merlin gives up.

That night they lie together on the pallet in the corner of the room. When Merlin looks over, he sees that Arthur is still awake; the glint of the fire’s dying embers reflected in his eyes.

They lie awake for a long time, but neither speaks. 

The silence is getting to Merlin. After so long alone, he wants to talk, to ask questions. He wants to revel in the company of another person. But when he tries to talk, Arthur answers in single words, always distracted, always sad. Merlin has been mulling over exactly who this lady is, and a strange feeling of familiarity is tugging at the edge of his mind. Whenever he tries to face it properly, it slips out of view. His need to find the truth becomes an unbearable, unreachable itch.

Instead of talking or seeking truths, Merlin fusses. He milks his goat and chops wood, badly. He also spills his ale, almost sets fire to his hut, and accidentally causes the table to hover an inch above the ground with his magic, thankfully while Arthur is facing the other way. He is reluctant to leave Arthur alone, but he needs some fresh air, and to use up some of the energy coursing through his body.

Merlin wraps his warm cloak about him, and tells Arthur that he is going to fetch more firewood. As he walks towards to the woods, he listens, as always, to the sound of each footfall. The tips of his ears begin to hurt in the wind, but he presses onward, trying to think through how his life has changed, again.

A week ago he was waiting, his life repeating day after day. Now, he has a house guest, and suddenly life is unpredictable, with unanswered questions multiplying the more he thinks on them. He kicks a stone with his foot. Maybe this is what he has been waiting for: if he can help Arthur, maybe his own curse will be lifted. The only part of being alone that he has missed, is being able to stare up into the dead branches above, and look for birds. Arthur is probably too grief-ridden to notice, but Merlin doesn’t want to explain this, not yet. He waits, until he sees it: a bird perched on a branch, its silhouette neat against the sky. Merlin assumes that the air is filled with the bright sounds of bird song. The familiar ache fills him: why has he stopped hearing them, at all? As he moves to see the bird better, he steps on a twig and the bird spreads its wings and flies off, startled. Merlin returns to the task of collecting more wood, his eyes once more on the forest floor.

Once he has an armful of wood, Merlin heads back for home. Clearing the forest, there is open sky all around. His feet move easily on the gentle slope down to his hut, and he can see the sparkle of light on the lake in the distance. The sky fills with clouds: towers of soft grey and white that move in the biting north easterly wind. Merlin hugs his cloak more tightly to his body, but his eyes keep moving upward, seeking out the changing shapes. It reminds him of smoke on a hillside in autumn, and somehow of the warmth of his mother. He can’t tell whether the clouds reach far up, or whether they hang low. But today there seem to be more of them than there is of this flat, dead landscape. He ignores the twigs cracking underfoot, and lets his heart fill with the softness of the light from above. Something is still moving and changing out there, even if it’s something that he can’t touch. As the first flurry of tiny icy flakes appears in the wind, he laughs: he can’t touch them, but the clouds have reached down to touch him.

When he gets back to Arthur, still sad, filling the closed space of his hut, Merlin brings something of this feeling of change with him. For the first time since he brought his knight home, Merlin feels the stirrings of hope. Arthur will not remain silent forever, and one day he will remember who he is. Merlin will have answers to his questions.

One day Merlin will remember what it is that he seeks.

Part 2

Merlin watches Arthur, in the quiet spaces between doing and eating that punctuate the next few days. Since he has told his story of La Belle Dame, the Fair Lady, Arthur has barely spoken. He can remain silent, it seems, for the time it takes for the odd stripes of light, streaming through gaps in the door, to move from one wall to the other. Even at noon the hut remains in gloom, and their eyes smart from smoke, but they must keep the fire burning to stave off the freezing cold. Each morning the ground outside is hard with frost, a glinting shield under tall blue skies.

Arthur sits on the pallet, and stares into space, a mere shell of a man. Merlin brings him food to eat, hard bread and hard cheese, and Arthur does bring it up to his mouth, but eats as though it has no flavour. Merlin watches him chew, watches his jaw move up and down and his throat bob as he swallows. But Arthur’s eyes remain blank.

After a week of this, Merlin decides that he has had enough. Having this silent body in the room is unnerving, and he determines to raise some form of a reaction. When he brings a cup of ale to Arthur with his next meal, Merlin deliberately trips and pours it down Arthur’s chest. The dark stain spread across Arthur’s tunic, along with an open-mouthed look of shock. He is rewarded by Arthur jumping slightly – the most focused move he has seen him make so far – and raising wide eyes to meet his own. Merlin holds his breath, suddenly fearing a swift change of mood, but all Arthur does is stare, then look back down to his sodden tunic. Bewilderment flutters across his face.

“Sorry.” Merlin knows he probably sounds less than apologetic. But then he did intend to spill the drink.

Arthur opens his mouth to speak, but no words emerge. He frowns, then shakes his head and wipes at his front. “I’m wet.” He is definitely not amused. “And cold.”

Merlin takes this as his cue to jump up and seek out another tunic. The one he brings is woven from thick wool, and is a rusty red that reminds him of the scent of blood that Arthur first carried with him. Arthur pulls the stained brown tunic over his head, revealing a body still healing, still painfully thin – and then Arthur wraps his arms around himself, and Merlin feels shame for looking when what he should be helping. He tries to ease Arthur’s arms into the sleeves of the tunic, but Arthur shrugs him away.

“I can do it, you know. I’m not a child.”

“I know.” Merlin step back, and watches in silence as Arthur puts on the tunic. He smiles as Arthur smoothes the fabric down, but fails to straighten his face in time as Arthur looks over.

“What is it now?”

“Nothing.” Merlin pours more ale for Arthur, and slides the cup across the table. “Just…” He deliberately doesn’t finish, and instead sits and picks up his own drink.

“What?”

“Well… it’s only that I bet that… before… you were vain.”

“Vain?” Arthur looks affronted.

“Oh yes,” says Merlin, as seriously as he can. “With your swishy hair and only the finest of cloths against your fair skin.”

Something flickers in Arthur’s eyes, and Merlin holds his breath.

“My hair does not swish.”

“Not now, not stuck out here in the dead of winter. But in a stone keep, with hot water brought to you by buxom maids, I bet that you were a... a vain swain.”

“A vain swain?”

“Poetry, I know. And possibly quite true to life.” Merlin is beginning to enjoy this. “I can see you, swanning around with your fine clothes.”

“I would not swan around. I’m a knight, not some simpering courtier.”

Merlin shakes his head. “My version is as likely.”

“It is not. And must you always prattle on so? There’s nothing wrong with peace and quiet.”

“I can see you now, dressed in your finery and your parents worrying every time a friend visits and brings his daughters.”

Arthur inhales sharply, and Merlin worries that he has said the wrong thing. Pain dulls Arthur’s eyes, and he shakes his head. “Only a father,” he says. “No mother—” Arthur’s mouth closes soundlessly. “No mother,” he repeats softly. “I… I remember…” He squeezes his eyes shut, and Merlin wills him on silently. But when Arthur opens his eyes again, there is no joy of memories returned, no awareness of his past. “It keeps slipping away!” He slams his hand down on the table, causing the bowls and cups to leap, and more ale spills. Merlin watches it pool, then begin to drip down onto the pressed-earth floor.

“Careful.” He rights the cup and mops the spill as best he can, then shuffles some dry dirt onto the damp patch with his foot. “I don’t want a muddy floor.”

Arthur sits back, and stares at the floor. His voice is tight when he speaks. “Flagstone floor, swept clear each day.”

“What is it that you remember?”

“Nothing, really.” Arthur shakes his head and frowns. “It’s more like a memory of a dream. I– I think I see something, and then La Belle Dame replaces it all.” Merlin wants to see that flicker in Arthur’s eyes again. Anger, annoyance – they are all better than this dragging sadness. He is beginning to hate each mention of the mystery lady.

He resolves to find more ways to see Arthur alight with something other than this tortured fixation on a woman he has only met once. 

 

Market day is approaching. Merlin has been selling and bartering from his store of healing balms and tonics all winter. There are not many of the fragrant jars left, and he knows he cannot rely on his meagre supply to feed him for much longer. But now he has Arthur to think of too. He rubs his head, willing away the ache that is springing there.

He wishes, for a moment, that Arthur could be left tied up under a tree like the goat. It would be much simpler if he ate grass. Arthur eats more with each meal, and Merlin’s pride at seeing him begin to heal mingles with worry about having enough food for them both. Merlin has a book, his only treasure, filled with the scratchy hand of an old man. In it are written instructions for making a number of simple unctions and potions, remedies for itching skin and stinking breath, for a heavy head after a night at the tavern, or a gentle balm to cool a child’s fever. His first few attempts were disastrous, but Merlin has learned to pound, measure, boil and brew, until he can make a passable attempt at them all. He makes enough to sell at the market, although the noise and the bustle of people, pigs, and chickens is almost too much for Merlin after the quiet of his hut and the silence of the wheeling birds overhead.

He crumbles dried feverfew into the small, dark cooking pot he uses solely for his brewing. The pungent aroma brings back memories of the summer, when foraging for herbs was easy. As Merlin moves around his hut, pulling down bunches of herbs and checking in his book from time to time, he forgets about Arthur. It feels good to be busy, to have a sense of purpose. He lines up the small clay jars he uses for this ointment, and carefully pours in the hot fat and herb mixture.

A slight sound draws his attention. Arthur is sitting on the pallet, legs crossed, watching Merlin. “You’re not always clumsy.”

“Not always.”

“How did you learn to make these?”

“I’ve got a book, and I’ve got better with practice.”

“It smells vile, you know.”

“You’re not going to eat this. It’s a salve, for headaches.”

“In that case I should let you get on with it: I’m going to need one of those for when you’re in a talkative mood. However did you cope, being alone?”

Merlin flushes. “I told you that I wasn’t a good hermit. And I, er, I talked to myself.”

Arthur snorts. “It sounds like perfect hermit behaviour to me.”

Resisting the urge to poke his tongue out at Arthur like a child, Merlin returns to his pot. He smiles, for Arthur is beginning to emerge from his shell of exhaustion and loss. He has told Arthur the truth: he is a terrible hermit. He hates being alone. Merlin enjoys the moments when Arthur comes to life like this, and is greedy for more. As he stirs, questions about Arthur’s identity twist through his mind. Who is he? Where does he belong? Why is Merlin eager to help him – is it purely because he has been so bored and lonely?

His thoughts are disturbed by the sound of Arthur clearing his throat. “These balms you make, do you have something to help with shaving?” He rubs a hand over his bristly chin. “Much as I hate to feed your fantasy of my life of vanity, I would quite like to shave. And I notice that you manage fine.”

Instead of answering, Merlin wipes his hands on a cloth and fetches his shaving blade and balm for Arthur.

“Thank you,” Arthur says, his fingers brushing Merlin’s hand. Merlin returns to his pot at the fire, but keeps half an eye on Arthur. First, Arthur holds the blade up to the light, turning it and examining it closely. Then he runs his hand over his face again. A sharpness has come to his eyes, and it is good to see him focused on a task. Merlin continues his slow stirring, but he is not paying any real attention to what he is doing.

Arthur pours a bowl of water, from the jug on the floor. He uses his hands to mix some of the soft soap balm and the water, and wets his bristles with the resulting mess. Then, Merlin watches as he carefully scrapes away. Everything about Arthur’s movements speaks of control, from the way he holds still, to the even strokes with the blade. He does not cut himself once; when he finishes, his face is clean, his jaw cutting out clearly. Merlin has forgotten about his own task, and he jumps as his hand touches the hot side of the pot. Arthur looks up.

Merlin cradles his hand, but the touch was a brief enough not to have raised any blisters. “I’m fine,” he says. “Just—”

“Clumsy?”

“It was just an accident.” Merlin scowls, and looks down at the pot. The mixture is bubbling, and is in danger of burning. He removes the pot from the fire and hopes that he hasn’t ruined this batch.

Arthur touches his face again. He is, Merlin realises, seeking out any patches he may have missed. Merlin can’t see any: Arthur looks perfect.

“Vain,” Merlin murmurs with a smile.

Arthur shakes his head, but smiles back.

 

The fire light is at its lowest, a faintly glowing red that does little to heat the room. Still, Merlin turns to it for comfort. Traces of smoke sting his eyes, but he is awake now, and he blinks until the tearing has stopped. His dreams have been strange, since Arthur arrived. Some nights he dreams of Arthur’s lady, all dressed in white, with long hair flowing in the wind. She stands on a hillside, but her face is obscured by her hair, and as she speaks, Merlin cannot tell what exactly she says. He wakes with his heart racing and sweat cooling on his brow. He does not know why he feels such fear at the thought of her. On other nights he dreams of Arthur, his armour shining and a full red cloak billowing behind him as he rides his horse. In this dream he sees Arthur disappear into a fog, or watches him falling, without any sound, from his saddle and into a pile of bent bones and metal. Neither version is good, and both leave him with tears in his eyes and a dropping sensation in his heart. Tonight it was the falling dream, and Merlin turns to Arthur, beside him on the straw pallet, needing to see that his body is still whole.

A long, low groan comes from Arthur, and Merlin is unsure if he woke because of his dream, or if this noise awakened him. The moans sound pained, and Merlin chances a quick spell to check for illness or injury, his own dream still playing over and over in his mind, but he can find no physical reason for Arthur’s discomfort. His dreams, then, must be distressing him so.

Merlin lies still beside Arthur, feeling every shudder and hearing every whimper. Words rise in the air about them: “My Lady and “song so sweet” mingling with moans that lie halfway between desire and grief. The sense of loss in his words is like a knife, and even though Merlin suspects that an enchantment has caused it, he still feels the cut. There is something else, in the moans. A heat, the keening voice of lust calling out into the night. In the darkness of the room, Merlin begins to feel the familiar but unwelcome swelling of his own arousal, and panic fills him. This cannot happen now. Guilt and the thought that he should be helping Arthur are enough to wilt him, and Merlin lies still for a few heartbeats longer, deciding what to do. In the end, he turns towards Arthur and reaches out an arm, touching him on the shoulder. Merlin begins to stroke from shoulder to elbow, over and over again. He continues, maintaining a firm pressure and flowing movement, until the cries lessen and Arthur’s breathing returns to the steady in and out of peaceful sleep.

Every night is like this, the air heavy with the memory of lust, the pain breaking through in sobs, the need to offer physical comfort. Neither mentions anything about bad dreams or waking in the morning.

Daylight, cool and clear, floods in from the door. Arthur stands there, framed in the light, like some silent guardian. He stands between the heat and darkness of the room, and the open cold of everything that lies outside. Merlin is unsure which he is guarding; whether the truth, all the memories and details missing from their lives, lie inside with the secrets of the night or outside with the birds.

Merlin joins him. Arthur is watching the birds in the brambles beyond.

“They seem to be the only creatures alive here.”

“We’re here,” says Merlin quietly.

Flashes of crimson appear as the birds fly up. Redwings, so aptly named.

“Sometimes I wonder…” Arthur trails off, watching the birds fly off towards the woods. “I have such clear memories of the Lady. It– it feels like… but I don’t know who she is. Was it all a dream? I think…” He turns to face Merlin. “Do you believe in magic? I think she cursed me, I think she took my memories from me.”

Merlin is silent. He knows enough to guard the secret of his magic closely. Fear and mistrust always run through any talk of magic at the market. There is no question in Merlin’s mind that Arthur is correct, he has been cursed to forget. As has he.

“I wish it was her that I couldn’t remember.” Arthur sighs. “I wish I knew who I was.”

“I–” Merlin clears his throat. “I can’t remember who I am, either. Maybe this whole place is cursed.”

“Maybe. I… I hate being weak like this. I want to do something; I wish there was something to fight. But all I have is the memory of some enchantress.”

“You seem sure of that now.”

“She wasn’t like you and I. For one, I can’t imagine her burning the porridge.”

“I don’t burn the porr—” Merlin stops as the familiar acrid smell reaches his nose. “The porridge!”

They eat their burnt porridge in silence. Merlin wonders if Arthur can hear the birds singing outside. He wonders if the dreams will stop, now that Arthur is so sure that he has been magicked into love, or lust, or whatever it was with the Lady.

That night, the dreams come anyway. Arthur’s face squeezes tight in pain, tears forming in his eyes even as his body twists, as the low moans form and roll through him. Merlin turns to Arthur, soothing him back to the blankness of a sleep free from nightmares. Once Arthur’s face is slack again, Merlin falls asleep.

In his own dreams, Merlin sees a woman in the distance, white robes flowing about her, standing on the crest of a hill. She looks up and her eyes meet his. He wakes, unsettled. Merlin does not know if he is haunted by a memory, or if Arthur’s talk of the Lady has filtered into his own mind. Either way, he lies awake listening to the mice and the wind in the eaves until the cool light of dawn creeps in.

“Merlin?”

“Yes, Arthur?”

“How long have I been here?”

“Three weeks, I think.”

The hut is dark, only the dying fire and a stinking and smoking tallow candle to cast more than a feeble light between them. The cold of the night seeps in through every crack and crevice in the hut’s walls and roof. Merlin can hear the scratching of a mouse in the corner, and is glad that all their food is shut up tight within the wooden chest by the door.

Merlin shivers. At night he is thankful for the warm body lying beside him. When he accidentally brushes against Arthur, he no longer feels the bony hardness of a half-starved man. Now that Arthur is eating, drinking all the milk that Merlin’s goat can give, he is growing stronger by the day. His face is filling out, and he looks less like a vision of death and more like the commanding man he must have once been. Sometimes Merlin finds himself staring, as though by looking hard enough he will unravel this man’s mysteries. Arthur does not seem to notice, at first, his eyes and heart still so far away.

“I want to thank you, for taking me in. For looking after me.” Arthur’s voice is quiet. Soft as smoke, Merlin is sure that it fills the room. They are drinking the last dregs of their ale before it is time to retire to the pallet in the corner. Merlin hasn’t heard Arthur thank him before, and he sits a little straighter before responding.

“I couldn’t really leave you out there, alone.” Merlin shrugs, and glances over, grinning. “Although if I’d known how useless you are, I think I might have done.”

A small smile lights Arthur’s face, and Merlin thrills to see it. Each smile feels like a victory against La Belle Dame. “If I’d have known about your cooking, I might have insisted on being left in the mud.” Now they are both smiling, but whatever they say, Merlin knows that he is glad that Arthur is here.

“You’re always welcome to have a go yourself, you know.”

“I can honestly say that I would not know one end of a cooking pot from another.”

“Confirming my theory that you are some spoilt brat, lost out in the wilds.”

“Do you call everyone you meet names?” Arthur shakes his head, but then the light fades from his face. “I would hope that I wasn’t a spoilt brat. I’ve simply been cursed to forget everything.” If he could, Merlin would take his words back. The smiles have gone, and Arthur is distant now. Merlin feels that he is trespassing, simply by sitting here. A closed look of pain crosses Arthur’s face, and Merlin’s thoughts return to La Belle Dame. When Arthur dreams, there are no cries of desire now. Only loss. Arthur is sure now that she cursed him. When he speaks of her, deep in the dark of night, it is always with a tone twisted by hate.

Merlin wants to reach out, as he does at night, to offer comfort to Arthur. Even as they sit, leaning into the warm of the fire at night like this, it is clear to see in the muscles of his shoulders and the set of his jaw that Arthur has done great things. Anger swells in Merlin, aimed at the faceless woman who has reduced this knight to life in this wretched hut, day after day, drinking milk like a child and frowning at what he can’t remember, or worse, what he can.

The room begins to grow colder, fire or not. Once both have been outside to piss behind the hut, they know that it is time to sleep. The cold night air seems to have shaken Arthur from his melancholy, and Merlin breathes a little easier when Arthur smiles at him.

“I meant it, before. You saved my life.”

Merlin doesn’t know what to say in return, so merely nods then checks that everything has been put away properly so that they can go to bed.

There is no awkwardness now, as they climb onto the pallet together; Merlin first, then Arthur. Wrapped in cloaks and blankets, they lie close enough to share some warmth, and watch the fire die out as they fall asleep. It doesn’t take long to hear Arthur’s breaths lengthen, a soothing rhythm of in and out that fills the space around them. Arthur always falls asleep quickly, and Merlin thinks that perhaps it is because he sleeps so badly at night. Even as Arthur’s body grows stronger, the dark shadows beneath his eyes remain. Some part of Merlin also suspects that prior to his bewitchment, Arthur was a man used to a less humble bed, and the security that comes with a full stomach and the knowledge that tomorrow will bring the same. He sleeps – or falls asleep, at least – like one who is sure of these things, of his place in the world. Merlin is almost serious when he teases Arthur for being some soft nobleman. He doesn’t think that Arthur is weak. But noble? Yes.

Lying beside this knight without armour, though, Merlin cannot drift off peacefully. Ever since he has lived here, a haunting ache has possessed his body, especially in these quiet hours when he cannot busy himself. The sense he has that he has lost something has never left him, and if anything, has grown stronger now. Seeing another struggle with his memories has forced Merlin to face the enormity of his own loss. He feels it keenly, even though he cannot even remember what is gone. Every night Merlin wills himself to remember, following the lines of his memory back as far as they can go. Beyond the endless days of walking, and the time spent in this hut, they grow vague: he remembers a kind man, a room of his own, and fetching and carrying. He was a servant, he knows that. His magic has always been a secret. It feels as though there were more to his life. The ‘more’, though, is what he has lost.

But now his thoughts of loss are woven with a growing awareness of the man lying beside him. Arthur radiates heat like the fierce fire of a blacksmith’s forge, and Merlin gravitates towards it. In sleep Arthur is still filled with the potential to move. He is like a great bear, fierce to see even in hibernation. This time now – lying together here night after night, moving through their days with their last memories haunting them – is a type of sleep-walking, Merlin can see that. He knows that he simply needs to make the right connection, and somehow all of this will make sense.

Beside him, Arthur shifts in his sleep, turning to face Merlin. His chin is again rough with a few days-worth of hair, and his breath brushes Merlin’s hands, raised to pillow his head.

The staring Merlin does by day is nothing to the staring he does at night. After Arthur sleeps there is barely enough light from the fire for Merlin’s eyes to trace his features. He knows now, the soft curve of these lips, the fine eyelashes, the small scars that go to make a man. He watches Arthur, every night, even going so far as to raise a ball of magical light to help. At first it was simple curiosity, at how this face would look in repose, but now it is something more. Merlin is drawn to this face, to this man. He takes comfort in watching him breathe at peace like this. The bad dreams are receding now: they still happen, but not quite every night, and the touch of Merlin’s hand, on Arthur’s arm or side or back, seems to drive them away quickly. Some nights, when Arthur’s sleep is undisturbed, Merlin has to force himself not to reach out anyway, not to wrap an arm around the sleeping man beside him. He lies, stiff and still, thinking about how Arthur’s skin feels, all hot through soft roughness of linen. Merlin listens to him breathing until he too can sleep.

Arthur is chopping wood. Merlin can slice through the boughs and trunks with his magic, but Arthur has never mentioned the fire by the lake, and only mentions magic in the same breath as cursing La Belle Dame. Merlin is cautious about revealing his magic. Arthur heaves up the axe, and it falls, the loud crack of the wood splitting filling the air. His tunic hangs a little less loosely now. His rhythm and concentration are faultless, and Merlin wonders what became of his sword: the way he moves suggests years of daily practice. Arthur moves with a heavy kind of grace, and Merlin is captivated by the movement of his arms, the muscles beneath his skin, the sweat on his brow. He should look away, but there is nothing else to see here. The rest of the world seems to be asleep, waiting for spring, perhaps. There is only Arthur, standing and heaving and swinging.

When he stops chopping, his hair is damp and his face under the rough stubble of his chin is reddened with the effort. He adds the wood to the stack beside the hut. Redwings and fieldfares return to the bushes of berries beyond, some hopping on the ground. Seeing their mottled feathers, Merlin misses bird song more than he can say: he misses the happy chatter of the fieldfare, which he has always found comforting mid-winter. Now though, he is glad to have Arthur here. He feels less alone. Sometimes he has felt like the last man alive, almost the last creature alive, with nothing but the dead-looking trees and cold wind for company.

“You look so pensive.” Arthur’s words break the silence. Merlin has not told him that he cannot hear the birds any more. Or that sometimes they sang to him, and he could understand their songs as clearly as though they were spoken in words. He knows how to walk and talk and build a fire, and he can feel his magic, an energy crackling though him, but the only clear detail of his past that he can remember were the birds singing to him, of nests and worms and the open sky around them. He has not told Arthur of this detail of his own curse.

“I was watching you chop wood.”

“It was thirsty work.” Arthur carries the axe in, storing it carefully, but then sits on the bench and waits. Merlin cannot help but note the way that Arthur waits, as though expecting to be served. Yes, this is a man used to a far different way of living.

“If you’re thirsty, get yourself a drink.” Merlin stands by the door, arms folded.

“I see. So you stand there, watching me do all the hard work, and you can’t even bring me some water?”

This kind of exchange is becoming familiar. Merlin hides a smile: he would fetch water, immediately, for anyone else, but it is far too enjoyable to annoy Arthur like this. A great man reduced to the whining of a child. As Arthur moves closer, Merlin remains where he is. Arthur comes to a halt directly in front of Merlin. He is close enough that Merlin can feel, as well as see, the damp heat from his exertion. The warm sweet-sour scent that is Arthur, that recalls dark nights and a hot body beside his own, rises between them. Merlin's mouth waters, and he swallows. Arthur leans forwards, and Merlin can see a bead of sweat gathering on his nose.

Merlin can’t remember why he doesn’t want to fetch a drink for Arthur. He can’t quite give in yet, but as he watches the drop of sweat drip down, he knows that he will turn and dip a cup of clear water from the jar. “You stink, you know,” he says, while he tries to focus his thoughts again. “And you are disgustingly sweaty.” Merlin pushes Arthur away, his hand flat on a chest that is hot and damp.

Arthur falls back, sprawling onto a stool. Merlin draws them both up some water. Arthur takes a long drink before sitting back and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. The door is half open to let in light and let out smoke. Merlin hopes enough of the heat will stay inside too: this day is as cold as all the rest. Colder, even, given the clear blue skies above. It won’t take long for that sweat to cool on Arthur’s skin.

Merlin settles by the fire. Its heat is almost uncomfortable, but it feels so good to be warm that Merlin doesn’t move away. They sit, sipping their water as the fire crackles and burns.

“I wish I’d found you earlier.” Merlin pokes the fire with a stick. “Chopping wood is so boring.”

“Boring?”

“Boring, tedious—”

“But necessary,” Arthur says.

“Well, yes.” Merlin nods. “Although it’s lucky that you can chop wood, because otherwise, you’re not that useful to have around.”

Arthur snorts. “Such lovely manners you have.”

“I am an irascible hermit, you know. I do have standards to maintain.”

“You admit yourself that you are useless at being a hermit. Don’t think that you can blame anything on that being your role in life.”

“I’m not really a hermit. Exactly like you’re not really a…” Merlin looks over at Arthur, not sure how to describe him.

“A woodcutter?”

“Ha! No. Not that.”

“So what are you then?”

Merlin longs to be able to say sorcerer, but he knows that is an impossibility. He cannot reveal his secret. Instead, he thinks of the vague memories he does have. “An apprentice, maybe. To a healer.”

“I’ve seen your little jars. If you were an apprentice, you can’t have been doing it for long.”

“Now who has the lovely manners?” Merlin says, and Arthur’s answering smile spurs Merlin on to say more about his past. “If I wasn’t an apprentice, then I was… I think I was a servant.”

Merlin jumps as Arthur brings his hand down and slams it onto the table, with a bark of laughter. “You, a servant?” Arthur shakes his head, still laughing. “If you were a servant, you were a terrible one.”

“I take offence at that!”

“I don’t see why, you wouldn’t even get me a drink just then.”

“Well, I’m not your servant.” Merlin thinks about what that would be like, looking after Arthur. Helping him undress, seeing him hot and sweaty after a day on the tourney field, not chopping wood like a peasant. Merlin’s ears burn as his own skin heats at the thought. This is becoming his other secret, this way of thinking of another man. Arthur is watching him. “And even if I was your servant, I wouldn’t bow and scrape. You’d be unbearable if I did, being pampered and spoilt as you are.”

“Merlin, you are a strange man, I hope you know that. And most definitely not servant material.”

“At least I’m not a prat.”

It seems easier to call each other names than question who they really are, or where they come from. One day, Merlin will ask, but for now he is content to see Arthur growing stronger. He feels more comfortable when Arthur is teasing him than he ever did when Arthur sat, morose and silent, for hours on end.

“Are you sure that you don’t want to come?” Merlin asks. He is packing up his bag, placing each jar of salve with care. Market day has arrived again, and he plans on returning with a bag filled with bread and whatever else he can find at the market.

“To sit out in the cold all day?” Arthur has wrapped a blanket about his shoulders, and is huddled close to the fire. The night was cold, and the sun is not yet up.

Merlin tries again, because however cold it is, he would like to have some company. “To see something other than this place. To see other people.”

“Other people who want to haggle over the price of one of your salves?” Arthur says, drawing the blanket closer. “No amount of people will make up for the fact that today is freezing.”

There is still a certain dampness to the air that suggests rain, and Merlin looks at the fire with longing. If he had a choice about it, he’d stay here too.

But as Arthur will not come with him Merlin goes alone. The market is as busy, and smelly, as usual. He knows that he needs to buy more, because Arthur eats so much, and so he makes every effort to clear his stock of healing potions. The faces of the people passing through are distant, and Merlin feels invisible. Slowly though, women come to seek out remedies to ease pain, or herbs to add to their own poultices. His hangover draught sells well, as it always does.

Apart from haggling, no one really speaks to Merlin. He knows that they call him ‘Merlin the Wild’. He misses Arthur’s company; it’s only been a month, but he has got used to having someone to talk to. Merlin wonders how someone can so quickly become part of his life. He almost feels as though he has known Arthur for years already.

His behind cold and numb from sitting on his cloak for so long, Merlin at least ends the day with a fresh supply of bread, cheese, a rare pot of honey and some eggs.

Merlin returns as the day grows dark, following the long shadows lying across the ground, across ruts of mud already frozen hard. He doesn’t know what he expects to see when he opens the low door to his home: certainly, it isn’t this. Arthur is sitting by the fire, and the room tastes of metal. He looks exhausted, and the reason for this is clear: he has returned to the lake to retrieve his armour, and is now working on trying to restore it. Merlin’s heart falls when he sees that this is a futile task: rust has worked deep into the pauldron, and the chain mail has fused in places. He says nothing as Arthur continues to rub away at it with an old cloth.

After a while, Arthur stops, and there are tears in his eyes. The sight is unsettling, and Merlin’s stomach lurches, tiredness from his day turning to a rolling nausea.

“This is all useless. I want to be….” Arthur throws down the armour. “I want to know who I am! I have to. Yet whenever I close my eyes I still… I still see her there. I know that it wasn’t real, that she was some sorceress but somehow still my heart is lost, along with all knowledge of who I am.”

“Maybe this place is cursed,” says Merlin. “No one will come out here.” He thinks of the suspicion he always sees when people meet him, the hermit of the wilds. “And also I have memories that—”

“You—” Arthur looks up, his eyes sharp despite their red rims. “You aren’t cursed. Unless clumsiness is a curse.”

Merlin scowls, but secretly he is pleased to see that Arthur is not entirely defeated by this. He can’t be, to still talk like this. He sits next to Arthur, and gently removes the armour. “I should have told you earlier. I– I really am cursed, too.”

Arthur stares at him, his eyelashes arcing down in slow blinks, before he frowns. A fear that Merlin hasn’t seen for weeks creeps into his eyes. “Did you see her, too?” he whispers.

“No.” Merlin shakes his head. “I don’t think so. If I did, not like you. I only know that this… it wasn’t always my life, I haven’t always lived here. Once, I had… friends, and a purpose. I lost something, and came here to search for it. But then… then I couldn’t remember what it was. I kept looking; I would go for long walks, every day, hoping that if I found it, I would somehow know what it was that I had lost.”

“But all you found was me.”

“Just you and your armour.” They both look down at rusted plates of metal, at the fused chain mail. “I hate to say it, but I really don’t think that you can polish that back to life.”

With a sigh, Arthur puts it down on the floor. He still treats it with care though, and Merlin wonders exactly how much it means to him. “I know,” Arthur says. His gaze remains on the armour while Merlin rises to put away the food he has brought home.

“I’ve got some fresh bread, and some winter apples, and a round of cheese.”

“Good.” Arthur comes to the table, and sits, as he always does, waiting for his meal.

Merlin shakes his head. “Would it hurt you to get out the bowls and the knife? I’ve walked for hours today, and sat out in the freezing cold to get us this food.”

Instead of moving though, Arthur sits back, stretching his arms above his head. “I’ve been out too,” Arthur says, but then he lets out a long huff of breath as he sits up again. “Today wasn’t exactly fun, you know.”

“You didn’t need to go back,” says Merlin, glancing over at the rusted armour.

“I did. My armour’s about the only clue I have about who I am. You say that you’re cursed too, that you can’t remember. Wouldn’t you do anything to find out who you are?”

Merlin thinks about it. Would he? Or would he stay here, under the wide, grey sky, and this peaceful, uncomplicated life. “It’s not only the memories.”

“What do you mean? You don’t have any, do you?”

“No,” Merlin says, shaking his head. “It’s not just that I’ve forgotten what I was looking for. I know I’ve been cursed, because—” He breaks off, because how can he say this aloud? His curse goes beyond the soft familiarity of lost memories: everyone forgets. There is no denying that it is beyond the ordinary, that it is a curse, and he is wary of Arthur’s response to magic. Deep down, perhaps, he doesn’t want to know if Arthur’s response is negative. It has been enough to hear the anger as he utters the word ‘sorceress’. Merlin wishes her no well either, whoever she is. But in general, he has yet to gauge Arthur’s feelings about magic.

“Well go on then! You can’t start a sentence like that and then not finish it.”

“It’s going to sound stupid.”

“I hate to break it you, Merlin, but that won’t be too unusual for you.”

“You are such a… no manners,” Merlin retorts. “An ill-mannered oaf.”

“Just spit it out.”

He can hear the fire, the shift of the wood and the lick of the flame. He can hear himself breathing. Arthur’s attention doesn’t waver but nor does he press Merlin. In the end, Merlin clears his throat, then whispers, “I can’t hear the birds.”

“Your hearing is affected?” says Arthur. There is a calmness to his air, which encourages Merlin to speak on.

“No.” Merlin searches for the right words. “I can hear everything else perfectly. But when I see birds, whether they are close or far away, I can’t hear them sing.”

Arthur frowns. “Not at all?”

“I see them fly and hop, but I don’t hear a thing. Only the wind and the rain, and the creaking of the trees in the forest.”

“Of course you would have a strange curse,” Arthur says, shaking his head. A tightness, akin to panic, grips Merlin. Arthur will run away now that he knows the truth. “Haven’t I already said that you’re a strange man?” A smile plays on Arthur’s face, and it takes Merlin a moment to understand that Arthur is accepting his explanation.

Merlin can’t ignore Arthur’s teasing tone, and gives him a little push. “And you’re a spoilt brat, who waits for me to serve him.” He feels curiously light, now that he has confessed his secret and nothing terrible has happened. For a heartbeat, he wonders how he would feel if he were to confess his greatest secret. But Merlin discards the idea. It does him no good to speculate about these matters.

“I’m starving. Where’s this bread and cheese you promised?”

Merlin smiles, and fetches the bowls, knife and food. When he looks at Arthur though, he notices that his eyes keep returning to the armour on the floor. As they eat, he sees the sadness in Arthur’s face. It seems… tighter, than normal. The pain more focused.

“I think,” says Arthur, once they have eaten, “that we need to find out what has happened, to us both. I can’t stay here forever, feeding off your hospitality like this. I– I went to the lake today, to retrieve my armour, because I need to be doing something.”

Will Arthur leave him? Merlin doesn’t want him to. He wants to help Arthur, and then… Merlin doesn’t know. “I told you once, that I had lost something.”

“Yes.”

“Sometimes I wonder if it is you that I lost. Maybe… maybe I was sent to find you, when you went missing?”

Arthur raises his eyebrows. “It’s possible. Although…”

“What?”

“I’m a little concerned that they’d send out someone like you to find me.”

Merlin is stung by Arthur’s words even though he knows that Arthur isn’t entirely serious. But he understands what Arthur means. As far as Arthur knows, he is merely some servant, and worse still, a half-man, lost under a curse of his own.

“I– If I can help you, I will. There’s… more to me than meets the eye.”

Arthur snorts, but thanks him anyway.

Later, as he carefully moves the armour to a corner, out of the way, Merlin notices just how well made it is. There are small decorative details that suggest that this was the armour of someone of high rank. He looks over at Arthur, who is slicing himself more bread, and wonders exactly who his house guest is.

The sky feels low, and frost still covers the ground, although it is no longer morning. Even with the fire burning all day it is still cold in his little home, but now they are out, away from the dark and the smoke of the hut. The air filling his lungs is invigorating, and he retraces the familiar path, through the trees, over the low hills, towards the lake. There are no shadows on this cloudy day, and without birdsong the day is too still, too quiet; the few words Arthur has uttered have made this unlike any of his walks before. Merlin looks up at the grey sky, feeling the tips of his ears begin to ache in the cold.

“Hurry up!” Arthur’s voice calls out from amongst the trees. Without further ado, Merlin gets on with pissing against the tree. Steam rises, along with the acrid smell, but soon he is back with Arthur, small twigs cracking underfoot as they make their way through the small wood.

He stops again, to cut a pair of spears from ash. His knife is hard and cold in his hand, and by the time he has finished, his fingers ache. Arthur takes a spear, while Merlin sticks one hand under his arm in an effort to warm it. As they leave the woods, the lake is visible ahead.

Whereas Merlin’s walks were always, he thought, purposeful, they were nothing on the way Arthur tackles the proposition: he drives them forward, setting a hard pace. If Merlin slows at all, Arthur is quick to complain. Arthur enjoys complaining, it is what has brought them out to the lake. Now that Arthur is no longer starving, now that he is chopping wood and helping to carry water, he is beginning to grumble more about the monotony of their diet. So they are going fishing.

When they get to the lake, a thick crust of white ice marks the edges. The sedge is fallen and dark.

“And how exactly do you propose that we get to the fish?” Arthur asks.

“There’s a stream which feeds into the lake. It should still be ice-free, and I’ve found fish there before.”

Merlin begins to walk, Arthur following with long, confident strides. He walks as though he owns this land. Merlin wonders how Arthur sees this lake, whether it is as cold and empty for him as it is for Merlin.

“Do you really not hear the birds?” Arthur asks, looking over to where tufted ducks swim and bob, some brown, others black and white, all echoing the drab winter landscape around them.

Merlin’s eyes linger on the ducks. Their glossy chests are puffed out, a flick of feather at the back of their heads. They remind him of his idea of Arthur as a vain swain. “I can hear a splashing, when they dive down. But nothing else.”

They walk on, until they reach the place where Merlin found Arthur. This is, of course, the other reason they are here. Since Arthur brought his armour back, they have talked about what they can do to unravel the mysteries of their lives.

The ground is disturbed, and Merlin can see where Arthur dug away to pull up his armour. It must have been cold, and what did he use, to break the earth? Did he have a stick, or did he tear away at it with his hands? Merlin can’t bear to look at Arthur, because he suspects that it was the latter. He does not want to imagine that kind of desperation in Arthur; for him, Arthur is becoming a solid presence, sure of himself even in the face of his memory loss. He is too proud a man to scrabble around in half-frozen mud.

Looking down for any extra clues about Arthur, Merlin notices the glint of metal, amongst the grass and earth. He pushes it with his foot, and it moves. Feeling Arthur’s eyes on him, Merlin bends to pick it up. It is a silver clasp, a circle, with a simple pattern within. A faded red thread clings to it.

“Is this yours?” Merlin asks, dropping it into Arthur’s hand.

Arthur brings the clasp up to the light. “I don’t know,” he says. “It’s likely, isn’t it?” He holds onto it, hidden from sight within his hand, as they start walking again.

Rocks rise up from the water, grey, worn smooth by wind, rain, and endless movement of the lake waters themselves. A shore, of sorts, lines this part of the lake; broken stones and dead wood lie underfoot. Behind them, huge boulders poke up from gorse and scrub. Everything wears a shroud of white frost. A deep, green fissure runs through the land: a rushing stream of cool, clear water. It dances and bubbles where it joins the lake. Merlin appreciates this song, and crouches down, scooping up a handful of water. He drinks the ice-cold water, sweet in its freshness.

He spies movement, and picks his spear up from where it lies in the grass. He doesn’t know if his magic helps guide his hand, or if this is a hard-won skill, but Merlin is good at seeing fish and knowing when to throw. Arthur watches then snatches up his own spear.

“I want to have a go.”

The way the wood sits in Arthur’s hand, Merlin knows he has held spears before. His fingers grasp the wood with a loose grace, a confidence that only comes with familiarity. All of Arthur’s attention is focused on the water. Merlin holds his breath as Arthur stands, ready to strike yet pausing. He is a hunter, with no movement wasted. It is beautiful, if a little terrifying, to behold. Merlin wonders what else Arthur has tracked, stalked, caught. He also wonders how his own fishing skills appear to Arthur. Did Arthur notice him in this same way? The tension of the body held still, the brightness of the eye so intent on tracking its prey?

Muscles bunch as Arthur holds his hand aloft, and then the spear comes down. The thrashing in the water is enough to let Merlin know that Arthur has been successful.

Triumph is written all over Arthur’s grin as he lowers a fish to flap on the ground beside Merlin’s catch.

“Beginner’s luck,” Merlin says, even though he can see that Arthur is no beginner. It doesn’t matter if he has fished before, or if this is his first time: Arthur can hunt. Arthur is a knight trained to use weapons with deadly force. Merlin shivers at the thought.

“We’ll see about that,” says Arthur, turning back to the water.

That night they eat fresh fish, and smoke many more. Any feelings of success though, are not quite enough to stop Arthur from glancing over at the ruined armour when he thinks that Merlin isn’t looking. Arthur’s shoulders dip, only slightly but enough for Merlin to see how deeply Arthur feels the loss. It also doesn’t escape his notice that clutched tight in Arthur’s hand is a small disk of silver: the clasp from a cloak, all traces of mud carefully washed away in icy-cold water.

Is it worse to know nothing, or to have these tantalising hints about the past? Merlin can’t tell, but his chest squeezes tight when he sees Arthur run his fingers over the cloak-clasp. Tension tightens Arthur’s eyes as he stares out to the horizon between tasks, as though he is trying to see what lies beyond it. To Merlin, it speaks of a restlessness, a need to find answers, and he realises that he cannot imagine Arthur not being here. He doesn’t want Arthur to leave: to leave him. He doesn’t know what to do with this realisation, so Merlin tucks it away with all the rest of his unanswered questions and regrets. One day he will pull it out, but not today.

He spies Betty wandering across the shrub land, and points her out. It was easier, before, when he could use his magic to track her and bring her home. But Arthur has a real talent for tracking. Of course. He leaps from rock to rock, pointing out bent twigs and the dry, hard, pellets of her droppings. He spies the indent left by her hooves, and they always manage to find her. She leads them a merry chase some days, and Arthur calls her ‘that stupid vanishing goat’, but he is always gentle with her regardless.

It does them both good, to be out walking with a purpose, one not tied to either of their pasts. Betty roams far and wide in search of food, and she seems to eat anything that grows. The store of sweet bundles of hay in Betty’s shed is saved for the worst of the weather, and for milking.

One day, Arthur follows Merlin when he goes to milk Betty. He watches in silence. There isn’t much else to do at the hut, and Merlin is only surprised that he hasn’t come earlier. The second time Arthur watches though, he has questions. They come thick and fast.

“What does it feel like?”

“Why doesn’t she kick you?”

“Have you tried sitting on the other side of her?”

Merlin ignores all the questions, partly because he is concentrating, and partly because he knows that his silence will annoy Arthur.

The third time, Arthur asks to have a go. Merlin explains it all, the need to distract Betty, the gentle touch, the way the fingers squeeze one after the other rather than pull. Arthur has a look of child-like pleasure on his face as he succeeds, and uses two hands to fill the pail.

They have settled into a routine. It feels… domestic. It feels comfortable, and although they have spoken of finding the truth, of returning to their lives, Merlin can imagine this winter continuing forever. He can picture the two of them – and Betty – living in their ramshackle hut, warm inside as the cold wraps the land outside. He knows though, that spring will come, and that things will change.

“You idiot!”

“Idiot? Really?” Merlin pauses from setting up the hay, putting down the bundle to give Arthur his full attention. “What’s got you upset now?”

“Did we, or did we not have a discussion last week about raising up Betty’s hay?”

“Well I remember you talking about it. I’m not sure that I’d count that as a discu—”

Arthur waves Merlin’s words away. “Yes, well, the point is, there is only one sensible way to set up the hay. My way.”

“Really?” Merlin’s mouth begins to quiver. He tries to stop himself from smiling, but the look of righteous indignation on Arthur’s face is too much to bear. Merlin bites his lip, in an effort to look serious, but it is too late.

“And now you mock me?”

“Why shouldn’t I?” says Merlin. “You are, after all, being ridiculous. We are talking about feeding hay to a goat.”

“I am not, being ridiculous.” Arthur splutters. “If anything, you are, with… with those ears of yours.”

Merlin raises an eyebrow. “Onto the personal insults so soon?”

“It’s not my fault that you make it so easy.”

“Well if it means so much to you, you can do it.”

Arthur hooks some hay up on the wall, and Merlin hates to admit it, but it does make the milking easier: Betty seems more content with her meal within such easy reach. Merlin accepts being pushed aside so that Arthur can milk Betty instead. Luckily Arthur’s attention is on his task, on the squeezing roll of the teat in his hand, because Merlin cannot contain his smile at the sight of Arthur milking Betty. Arthur looks faintly silly, his knees high as his legs fold up to sit on the low stool. He frowns in concentration, his tongue peeking out between his lips as he milks the goat. Merlin thinks that this is probably one of his favourite ways of seeing Arthur. The sight is almost better – but not quite – than Arthur drooling in his sleep.

The sound of milk squirting into the pail fills the room, and Merlin realises that the calm he feels is happiness.

The conflicting sensations are confusing, as Merlin wakes to consciousness. His nose aches with cold, and as he opens his eyes his breath mists before him. The fire has been out for some time, and Merlin knows that he should rise and build a new fire.

And yet at the same time, Arthur’s breath is hot against the back of Merlin’s neck, and he can feel the weight of Arthur’s arm across his side. They are huddled close together. Merlin wonders when in the night Arthur wrapped his arm around him like this. Somehow it is so typical of Arthur, to fling his arms out in this strangely possessive gesture, as though Arthur owns this bed. The soft touch of air against his skin is becoming almost unbearable, but not because it is unpleasant. Merlin is aware that his own breathing is growing uneven, and he makes an effort to breathe a little more normally.

Arthur begins to stir, and regret pulls at Merlin. He wants to stay like this just a little longer, wrapped in Arthur’s heat. Safe. But he feels the moment that Arthur wakes, the moment his body tenses as he realises that he is hugging Merlin close. Arthur clears his throat and rolls away. The bed is narrow enough that their bodies are still touching, side to side, but this is normal. Merlin mourns, though, the intimacy of Arthur pressed up against his back.

It is best, Merlin knows from experience, to rise as quickly as he can. What he loses from the heat of bed can be almost made up for by moving with purpose. And a fresh fire will help ease the bitter cold of the room.

Merlin keeps his eyes down, ignoring Arthur, as he sweeps away the cold ashes and lays the new wood. He doesn’t look over as Arthur gets up and wanders outside. Instead Merlin focuses on striking the flint, on getting the kindling alight. Only when the fire is burning, does Merlin dare to glance over at Arthur.

Today is going to be a difficult day, he can see. Arthur looks troubled. He has only shaved a few more times since that first time, and his face is thick with golden stubble. He always looks a little more brooding like this, but Merlin can see beyond the scruff; there is a darkness to the furrow in Arthur’s brow, and he has not said a word yet. Beyond concern for Arthur lies another feeling: every time Merlin looks at Arthur, he can’t shake the feeling that, somehow, he knows him. The idea that Arthur might be the thing Merlin is seeking won’t go away. Everything about him seems familiar, and Merlin can’t tell if it’s because they have been living together for almost two months, or because the clotpole was already somehow part of his life. Not knowing leaves Merlin confused and frustrated.

Once the fire is burning with the fierce blaze of the new, Merlin leaves a still-quiet Arthur to warm himself. The walk to the stream is silver with frost. None of the light snow that they’ve had recently has lasted more than a day. Everything always returns to the same dead black and white. His nose and ears both ache and grow numb in the cold, and Merlin’s fingers are stiff as they hold onto the bucket’s handle.

A robin sits on a low branch, fluffed up in the cold, its tail dipping and rising in rapid flutter. Its beak opens and shuts, but Merlin hears nothing. It flies off to a higher branch, and Merlin wonders if it was telling him anything important, or merely singing the usual song of borders and boundaries.

When he returns home, the bed is neatly made, and bowls are set out, ready for their morning porridge. There are also two small bowls of fresh milk on the table. Merlin sets about making a fresh pot of porridge, enough to last a day or two.

“Betty was in a funny mood,” Arthur offers.

“She’s always in a funny mood.”

“She tried to eat my tunic.”

Merlin smiles as he stirs. “She’ll eat anything. Even your stinking tunic.”

When he passes Arthur his bowl of porridge, their hands touch, just briefly. A tingle travels up Merlin’s arm as Arthur’s thumb brushes across his fingers, and he thinks again of waking wrapped in Arthur’s arms.

“We need to repair that hole in the roof of Betty’s shed today.” Arthur spoons the porridge up with purpose. He likes to make plans each day, and sometimes Merlin feels that Arthur would like nothing better than to spend all his time ordering him around. Actually, he’d be happiest bossing more than one person around. Merlin is probably serving the role of a small army here, meeting Arthur’s need to be in charge. Surprisingly, and despite his protestations, Merlin doesn’t mind. Arthur seems so much more comfortable when he has someone to boss around.

When Arthur slips, and nearly comes tumbling off the goat-house roof, Merlin surreptitiously catches him with magic, and pushes him back up. Arthur complains about how hard he seems to end up working, while Merlin watches idly from the sidelines.

Their fingers touch again when Merlin brings Arthur some water. He wonders what passed through Arthur’s mind when he awoke with his arm flung over Merlin, whether it felt as natural for Arthur as it did for him. And then Arthur calls him an idiot, and Merlin doubts that Arthur thought anything at all.

The stars are bright in the cold, clear sky above. Arthur seems to sleep more easily now, yet Merlin finds that peace eludes him in the dark. Although Merlin doesn’t have to wake to soothe Arthur any more, Merlin still lies awake for hours. Some mornings his head aches with tiredness, and Arthur teases him for being slow or lazy. But it is becoming a sweet torture, to lie here, with Arthur so close. He has tried to ignore how he feels, but Merlin can’t help but imagine what it would be like to run his hand down Arthur’s arm, or back. How would it feel, to touch that lip, slightly parted and rough with stubble? To run his fingers along that jawline?

He wonders how it would be to touch Arthur elsewhere. Or even more excruciatingly, what it would be like to have Arthur’s fingers travel along his own body. To find Arthur’s face turned towards him, eyes open. To see something of how he feels, reflected back at him.

It is a madness, to think this way. If Arthur knew the thoughts that pass through Merlin’s mind in the deep of the night, he’d probably run away and never return. And yet Merlin cannot help the ache, starting deep inside and spreading all the way to the tips of his fingers and toes. Some nights Merlin’s skin fairly crackles with it. He hardens with desire, but does not dare touch himself, not with Arthur lying so close. At the same time, Merlin is unsure whether he has already passed some terrible boundary with his secret night-time longings. He knows from talk at the market that it is normal for men to be filled with desire like this, but no one talks of two men together, only of men with women. And yet Merlin is certain of what he feels. He buries his lust during the waking hours, deep beneath the cold and a faint mantle of shame. In the dark though, nothing quite feels real. Merlin falls into his secret longing, night after night.

Some part of him is scared. What if these feelings only exist because somehow he recognises Arthur? What if none of this real, and he is merely mistaking familiarity for desire?

When it gets too much to bear, real or not, Merlin creeps out of bed. He stands outside the hut, the moon the only witness as he allows himself this moment of weakness. He can never truly relax, as his skin prickles with cold and shame, and his chest tightens with each freezing breath; he fears that Arthur will wake and find him. And yet Merlin’s hand finds its way down, and as quickly as he can, Merlin brings himself to release under his cloak.

The peace it brings is short-lived, because once he has cleaned himself, he must return to inside the hut. He lies back down beside Arthur, and the torture begins anew. Now he imagines it had been Arthur touching him, or him touching Arthur. Merlin does not know whether this is something he has done before, with other men, or if this is just what happens when a person lies beside a powerful man, night after night, feeling the heat of another body against his own.

In the morning, Merlin can smell himself on his own hands. He wonders if Arthur can smell it too, the stink of his seed, the smell of his secret shame. Merlin always heads off early to fetch water from the nearby stream. Before he fills the water bucket though, he washes his hands carefully in the water, ignoring the ache and sting of the cold.

As he pushes open the door, on his return, Arthur’s face, still half-fogged with sleep, makes Merlin’s breath catch a little. But then he puts the night behind him, and tries to focus on the day to come. He pretends the nights are empty. This approach works, until the sun goes down again, and they sit and yawn and make their way to bed.

 

The morning feels quieter than normal, and when Merlin opens the door to fetch the water as normal, the world is white with snow. Merlin squints, dazzled after the dark inside.

“I told you it was cold enough to snow,” says Merlin.

“Yes, yes, O madman of the wilds,” Arthur says, coming to join him by the door. Merlin can smell his particular Arthur-sleep-scent. “Most clever of you to work out that it might snow in the dead of winter.”

“Do you always have to be such a prat?”

“Something about you seems to brings out the best in me.” Arthur bends and scoops up a handful of snow. Before Merlin knows what is happening, Arthur has thrown the loosely-packed ball at him. The snow is cold, and some falls under Merlin’s tunic. The icy trickle shocks him into a short yelp.

“Don’t be such a girl.”

Merlin gathers up a snowball of his own, and tries to put it straight down the back of Arthur’s tunic. He has forgotten though, that Arthur is now stronger than him. Arthur grabs his hands, and pulls Merlin away. For a moment Merlin is powerless, and he feels the magic rise in him. Panic at the thought of an accidental burst of magic is enough to help Merlin to pull away, and then he can’t resist flinging the snow so it hits Arthur’s face. It sticks to the se’ennight’s growth of hair on Arthur’s face, turning it into a white beard and lending him a venerable air.

“Now you look like the mad old hermit.” Merlin grins, then sticks out his tongue. The air is cold, and neither of them is dressed for the snow, but it doesn’t matter.

“Oh, this is war.” Arthur is already reaching down for more snow, but Merlin snakes out of Arthur’s reach, and is quicker to scoop and throw. The messy snowball hits Arthur’s side, making a satisfying noise and leaving a white mark across the red wool. Arthur’s eyes widen, and Merlin takes a step back without realising it. Instead of bending down to the snow, Arthur launches himself at Merlin, knocking him down.

Arthur’s weight pins Merlin to the ground. The air is knocked out of him, and Merlin fights to draw in a breath. Arthur’s face is close, and Merlin sees the widening of Arthur’s eyes, he sees each individual eyelash sweep out. And then the weight is gone, and Arthur is looking at him as though he has sprouted antlers.

“You…” Arthur frowns. “I saw you just now, as if in a memory.”

“A memory?”

“It was you. But less smelly.”

“Smelly?”

“Stop repeating everything I say, Merlin. I’m trying to think.”

Merlin remains silent, but he can’t stop the questions that rise up. What did Arthur see? Does this mean that he is right, they do already know each other? Who are they to each other? Who are they?

“You– you wore blue and red.” Arthur’s hand goes to his own throat. He frowns. “You called me a—”

“Prat?”

“No! A… a clotpole.”

Merlin stares, then bursts into laughter. He laughs until he has to hold onto his thighs, his sides hurting.

“Are you sure it wasn’t a memory of me talking to you here?” There are tears in the corners of his eyes.

“No, it was inside a castle. There were stone walls.”

“It could be from a dream.”

Now it is Arthur who is silent. The hint of a blush rises from Arthur’s neck in the time it takes Merlin to understand why. “Wait… you have dreamt of me, then? Only not with stone walls?”

Arthur won’t meet his eye. Merlin can’t look away from the flushed skin, from the tremble of Arthur’s pulse along his neck. His own throat feels tight. Merlin shivers, aware of how damp his feet are, of the encroaching aching cold numbing his toes.

“It’s cold,” Arthur says, turning towards the door. “We should go back inside.”

Merlin is left standing on the scuffed snow, the icy cold of melt-water on his neck.

Inside, Arthur is tugging off his tunic, revealing his torso, which is so much better fleshed than it was before. Merlin can still see the curve of ribs, but they are no longer skeletal. His mouth dry, Merlin swallows. He wonders how Arthur’s skin would feel, hot beneath his fingers. He looks away, worried that he is staring and hopes that Arthur has not noticed his naked interest. Soon, too soon, all the skin is covered with a brown tunic anyway.

As clearly as though it were the day before, Merlin sees Arthur in his mind’s eye, pulling off another tunic. Behind him is a grand bed, the type Merlin has always imagined Arthur would sleep in. He blinks, and the image is gone. Is this a memory? Is it no more than an echo from his own dreams? Merlin hates that he doesn’t know.

Arthur takes much care in folding the snow-soiled tunic, making it into a neat bundle. Merlin is grateful, as it gives him time to collect his thoughts.

“Sometimes I think… I feel… that I know you already,” Merlin says quietly.

Finally, Arthur looks up. “I think… maybe we do. Or maybe we have spent so long cooped up together in this shack of yours that we think we do. You are the only man whose name I know. Yours is the only face I can see clearly when I close my eyes.” His eyes are focused on Merlin, and the breath seems to have left Merlin entirely. He forces himself to shrug.

“Maybe.” The end of the word is lost on a shiver, and Arthur frowns.

“You need to get out of those wet clothes.” He rises and moves to where the bucket sits by the door. He reaches for his cloak. “Let me get the water, this morning. I didn’t get as wet as you.”

“That’s because you were too busy sitting on me.”

“Exactly. I’m not stupid enough to lie down in the snow.”

“That’s not fair—” Merlin’s words remain unsaid as Arthur winks, and marches out of the door, whistling.

Merlin stokes the fire with a word of magic, and watches as the yellow flames leap and splutter into life. When Arthur returns, Merlin has laid out the wet clothes to dry, and is ready to make the porridge.

Despite the fire, it is cold, and they sit close for warmth. Merlin is still a little shaky, but he doesn’t think that it’s anything to do with the temperature in the room. He can’t forget Arthur’s rising blush as he thought about dreaming about Merlin. What has he dreamt? Does he too, look, and want to touch? Or is Merlin assuming too much?

When they have finished eating, their empty bowls pushed away, they stay where they are. Arthur’s hands are squeezed tight between his knees, and Merlin can feel the tension in his body: Arthur is holding himself stiffly, as if he doesn’t dare move. Are they too close? Does Arthur want to be closer? Merlin does not know. Things have been easy between them, but now it feels less domestic. There is a tension in the air. Everything is already beginning to change.

 

Merlin is surrounded by green leaves: he is standing on a wide bough, the ground far beneath him. He can feel rough bark beneath his fingers as one hand grasps the tree trunk for balance. On the branches around him, a hundred birds sit. He hears their song, for this is a dream. It brings with it a sense of peace he hasn’t known since he came here. Carefully, he sits, and listens.

What you seek is here to find.

The words are repeated, over and again, around his head. Immediately, Merlin thinks of Arthur. He thinks of the way Arthur looks while he avoids milking Betty, or the strength in his arms as he lifts the axe high to split wood. He remembers him spearing fish as if he had been doing it all his life. Merlin closes his eyes and remembers the feel of fingers brushing against his own, of a body hot and still beside him at night.

Everything is swimming in his head, but when Merlin opens his eyes he is still perched in the tree, as if he too is a bird. Bright sunlight is filtered green, and the warmth of the summer sun calms him. This green and light-filled calm is all so far from the snow and the constant wind, and the cold that seeps through walls and coats and into his bones.

There is more, he can feel it, pushing at the edges of his senses. Looking through the leaves he can see a castle above the trees, and then he spies men on horses, armour glinting in the sun and red cloaks flowing behind them. As they grow closer he sees them in more detail, but it is the man leading them that draws his interest, because he sees the blond hair – indeed swishy, as he predicted – and stern jaw, whisker-free, of Arthur.

What you seek is here to find.

When he wakes in the dark and cold, Merlin longs to return to the heat of summer. But then he feels the furnace-like heat of Arthur beside him, and he moves closer. He thinks about his dream, about his vision of Arthur riding on his horse. He is becoming surer and surer that Arthur is what he came here to find.

In the corner, hidden by shadows, lies Arthur’s neglected armour. Neither has mentioned it since Arthur brought it to the shack, but both know it is there. Merlin has seen Arthur’s eyes resting on it, while he sits, lost in reverie.

An idea is born, a tiny spark that will not go out. There is something now, between them. It isn’t quite real, in that it hasn’t been named or even happened yet, but Merlin is no fool and he knows that when he looks at Arthur his heart and stomach flutter in a way that they do for no other man. He has noticed the way that Arthur now chooses to sit next to him, their legs barely touching. Was this why he came to seek Arthur? Is this why a sense of loss haunted him when he was here, all alone? Why didn’t he recognise Arthur when he first found him by the lake then? Merlin doesn’t know the answers to any of these questions, but it doesn’t stop them rising in his mind.

If Arthur had his armour again, what then would happen? 

The sky is filled with snow. Fat flakes fall through the air, forming stiff white layers on trees and grass, on every trembling berry. They have a well-stocked wood store, and Betty is safely in her own little home, with hay and water and a door bolted shut.

The fire burns high, and Merlin and Arthur sit close to keep warm. They are sitting, without talking; just watching the flames lick at the wood.

Arthur breaks the silence. “I know that things have been strange, recently. It’s only… I—” He takes a steadying breath. “I can– I’m beginning to remember more.” He turns to Merlin, and touches his arm. “When we’re close, I get these… glimpses, and I know that they’re of my past.”

A log shifts, and sparks fly up. Merlin swallows. He can’t quite stop himself from looking at Arthur, although some part of him longs to tear his gaze away. When Arthur touches him, he feels grounded, more like himself. Memories swim tantalisingly close, glimpses of stone staircases and the flow of silk. He also feels heat, but he doesn’t think that is what Arthur means. “I… I know. I’ve been remembering, too.”

“I’ve seen you. In my past. You were an idiot then too.” Arthur grins, but somehow he still looks shy. Merlin is aware of Arthur’s hand, still resting on his arm.

“And you were a prat.”

“I see you, but it’s not the same as now,” Arthur says, and then, without taking his eyes off Merlin, he moves his hand up to Merlin’s face. His fingers touch Merlin’s jaw, and a shiver works its way down his neck. Arthur is close, and Merlin can see the light of the fire reflected in his eyes. Merlin wants this; his body is clamouring to pull Arthur closer still, to return his touch. But he needs Arthur to know the truth about him. He wants to show Arthur who he is.

“There is more to know about me.” Merlin pushes Arthur’s hand away from his jaw, but does not let go once it is lowered.

“I know enough. It doesn’t matter if you’re a servant, and I’m a knight—”

“It’s not that.”

“At night, sometimes I—”

Heat rushes to Merlin’s skin. “It’s not that, either.”

His eyes never leaving Arthur, Merlin reaches out his hand towards the armour. He remembers the word to restore metal, and wills his magic to the task. There is a flash and the armour shines once more.

Arthur jumps back, knocking over the bench as he does so. When Merlin looks, he sees fear and mistrust in Arthur’s eyes. Merlin’s own heart is beating faster than it has done in a long while. He cannot remember wilfully revealing his magic like this to anyone before. Suddenly he sees quite how tall and broad Arthur is, and how easily he could hurt Merlin, if he wished.

“You have magic.” The words are choked out, twisted with shock. And disgust. It feels as if something is breaking, within Merlin. “Was it you, who cursed me?”

“No! Never. I would never hurt you.”

Arthur’s hands, despite himself it seems, reach out to touch the armour. “It’s like it never was lost,” he whispers. He kneels beside it, and his hands pass over the metal, feeling out each curve and rivet. Everything about the way he moves is filled with reverence, from the utter stillness of the rest of his body to the slight bow of his head. Merlin doesn’t know what to say, or do. He doesn’t dare move, and barely remembers to breathe.

Yellow flames lick the log, its edges black while its centre glows red. Merlin can feel the heat of it on his face, yet his fingers and toes are cold. He is, he realises, shivering.

“How long have you kept this secret?” Arthur’s eyes are wary, but at least he is talking to Merlin.

“Since I was a boy.”

Arthur is silent. His fingers haven’t left the armour.

“I told you that you don’t know me.”

“No,” Arthur says. “I can see that I don’t.” He takes a deep breath, and cocks his head, his chin rising in an open challenge. “So go on then, show me who you are.”

Whatever Merlin has been expecting him to say, it isn’t this. “I–” He flounders. “I don’t know if I should.”

“I think it’s a little late to be so coy, don’t you?”

Instead of answering, Merlin turns back to the fire. He raises a hand, and whispers. The sparks above the fire converge and form the body of a dragon. With another whisper, the dragon stretches out its wings then with a few powerful beats, rises up into the room. Merlin manages to make it swoop once before the sparks fade into the darkness.

“Merlin,” Arthur’s voice cracks. “Who are you?”

“Just me. The same me who milks Betty and makes porridge and wants to be…” Merlin can’t bring himself to say the words. With you.

“Wants to be what?”

Merlin shakes his head.

“Did you know that when you do… magic, your eyes light up? They flashed bright like the sun just now.”

“So I’ve been told.”

“Others know about you?”

“Not really, but I have memories of a man helping me.” Merlin wishes that he could remember his name. He can see white hair, an old face that has known the pain of years passing, and a kind smile. He always feels a glow of love, like for a father, when he thinks of him. He knows though, just as he knows his own name, that the man is not his father.

“I… I thought I was still dreaming, but… when you found me by the lake, did you do some—” Arthur waves his hands.

“Er. Yes.”

“I don’t know what to say.” Arthur’s eyes are still staring at where the spark-dragon faded. “You have all this power, but you live in this shack in the wilds.”

“It’s not like I can openly use my magic.”

“Who is going to argue with you?”

“It is banned, you know.”

Arthur frowns. “Yes… I think I do know that.” He finally releases the armour, and comes to sit next to Merlin again. “So what do you do with your magic, then?”

A memory surfaces, of standing under an arching roof of trees, and stopping an arrow from hitting… Arthur. Merlin blinks, for this is an old memory, from before. “You…” he reaches out to touch Arthur. “I think that I saved you, mostly.”

“I doubt it. I bet I saved you more.”

“Maybe we saved each other.”

“You can’t walk across a room without falling over. I can’t see you saving—” The words die as Merlin levitates the armour in the air. It looks like an invisible knight is watching over them.

Arthur’s eyes are wild when Merlin turns back to him. “I don’t think I will ever get used to seeing you do… I can’t believe that you are sorcerer.”

“I think that we both need a drink.”

Having a cup of ale gives them both an excuse to keep their hands busy, to avoid looking at one another. Merlin thinks though, of the touch of Arthur’s hand on his face. Arthur stares into his drink, and Merlin cannot begin to fathom what it is he is thinking.

“I’m going to need some time to think about this,” Arthur says, without looking up. “It’s a pretty big revelation.”

“I know. But I am still just—”

“The same idiot as you ever were. Yes, I know.” Arthur raises his head. His eyes waver, as though he would flinch if Merlin made too sudden a movement. “None of my memories really make any sense, not now.”

It hurts, to see Arthur wary of him, but Merlin swallows the feeling back. “Why don’t you tell me what you do remember?”

“Can I trust you?”

“Of course you can! Please, I’d like to know and maybe it will help you.”

“I’ll need more ale.”

Merlin rises to fetch more without complaining. When they both have full cups again, he sits and waits.

“I remember little details, but not anything more than that. I remember a room—”

“With a carved wooden bed?” Merlin thinks to his own vision, but Arthur shakes his head.

“—I was going to say with knights wearing red cloaks. But yes, I do remember a bed chamber too.” He takes a sip of his ale. “I remember you, knocking things over and getting in the way. But not exactly what either of us said, or did. And… I remember other half-blurred faces. It’s strange, I didn’t miss anyone before, but now I’m beginning to wish for more. I can almost see my father’s face, but not quite. I want to go back.”

“Back where?”

“That’s the problem, isn’t it? I still can’t remember where. Can you?”

“No.” Merlin shakes his head. “I wish that I could, but I can’t.”

After a second drink, the edges of the room begin to soften, and a warm glow slowly spreads through Merlin. Whatever might have happened, if he had not revealed his magic, will probably never come to pass now. But looking over at Arthur, Merlin decides that he couldn’t keep it from him. Not if… He closes his eyes. Arthur touched him. Whatever happens now, Merlin will always remember the way Arthur looked at him. As if… as if he wanted to be closer, just the way Merlin does with Arthur.

Instead of touching, or talking, the two drink their ale, and watch the fire. When Merlin goes to bed, Arthur stays by the fire, feeding it with more wood and staring at the flames. Merlin doesn’t know what he sees when he looks, but he hopes that when he wakes in the morning, Arthur will still be there.

When Merlin wakes, he is alone; the familiar heat of Arthur is missing. His bed seems huge, and empty. Merlin does not want to open his eyes to see that Arthur is gone. Eyes shut tight; he can pretend that Arthur is still near. That Merlin is not alone, once more.

The sound of the door opening, along with a blast of cold air, is enough to force Merlin to sit up. Arthur is at the door, the water bucket in his hands. He stamps the snow off his feet before turning to Merlin.

“You stayed.”

“I almost didn’t.”

“I thought that you’d gone.”

Pain fleets across Arthur’s face. “I almost… but I couldn’t leave like that.” The words wound Merlin, but he pretends that they don’t. He’s not sure how successful he is: he’s never been good at hiding how he feels. “I needed to go out, to think. I… I hoped I’d be back before you woke.” He puts the bucket down. “I thought that for once I’d get up first and fetch the water.”

There are dark circles beneath Arthur’s eyes, the kind that Merlin hasn’t seen recently. He wonders if Arthur has been to bed at all. Merlin can’t ask though. He doesn’t know what he can say. So he rises, feeling oddly purposeless with Arthur trying to complete all the morning tasks.

He hates to admit it, but Arthur makes better porridge than he does.

The burden of their shared secrets lies between them, weightier than any curse. The familiar pattern of their day is now filled with awkward silences, and when Merlin goes to milk Betty later that morning, he is grateful for a reprieve. The quiet is strange, without Arthur commenting on his every move. Betty’s shed is too quiet, and Merlin hums to himself under his breath. When he returns with the milk, Arthur looks at him strangely until Merlin realises that he is still humming.

“We can’t go on like this,” Merlin says when they sit to eat their lunch. The bean soup is filling, but bland.

“I know. You’d think that you’d be better at cooking by now.”

Merlin is so surprised, it takes him a moment to laugh. “So it would have been easier news to bear if I had better food for you?”

“Maybe.” Arthur shrugs. “I sometimes have visions of feasts, you know.”

“Well, it isn’t a feast, but there is something that I’ve been saving.”

“Oh yes?” Arthur puts down his spoon and looks up with interest. “And what would that be? Pickled turnips? Old onions?”

“If you’re going to mock my food I won’t show you.”

“Fine.” Arthur folds his arms. “Please can I see this foodstuff of wonder that you have kept hidden from me?”

“That’s not much better!” Merlin says. “Anyway, I don’t want this soup going to waste. Eat up, and I’ll show you later.”

Arthur grumbles, but at least they are talking again.

It is only when the sun is setting that Merlin fetches some bread, the knife, and the jar of honey he bought at the market. The bread is dry and stiff, but he cuts thin slices and heats them by the fire.

“Is that…?”

“Yes. Honey.”

The bread is warm and crisp, and the honey a thick silver-gold as Merlin spreads it. It has been months since Merlin last had honey, and he can’t help the groan that escapes him at his first taste. The sweet taste of sunshine and flowers and bees fills his mouth; Merlin can almost hear them buzzing. He closes his eyes, and just enjoys his bread and honey.

A wet sucking noise makes Merlin open his eyes. Arthur is licking his lips, his hand by his mouth. His lips are wet, and Merlin knows that he is staring, but he just can’t look away. Eventually, his brain catches up with what he is seeing.

“Did you just stick your finger in the honey jar?”

Arthur blushes. “Maybe. But it is so good.” Before Merlin can stop him, Arthur has dipped his finger into the jar again, except this time he brings his honey-laden finger to Merlin’s lips, not his own. “Go on, you have some.”

Merlin’s gaze settles on Arthur, and the heightened colour of his cheeks. Arthur’s eyes widen, but he doesn’t move his hand, and Merlin opens his mouth to suck the honey from Arthur’s finger.

His tongue curls around Arthur’s finger and he sucks. The honey is shocking in its sweetness, and this second taste is just as good as his first. But what Merlin is most aware of is not the honey. It is the weight of Arthur’s finger on his tongue. He can feel the knuckle; he can feel the smooth hardness of the nail, the sharp edge at the end. He cannot help it: he licks around the finger, not for a taste of honey, but for the savoury salt of Arthur’s skin. He wants to suck and lick more of Arthur’s skin, but maybe this will be all he ever knows. He wants Arthur to know though, just how much Merlin desires to consume him.

The sweetness is gone, and Merlin reluctantly releases Arthur’s finger from his mouth. Arthur’s lips are parted, and his eyes are on Merlin’s mouth. Merlin licks his lips, capturing the last traces of honey, and of Arthur.

If Merlin thought that the touch from yesterday was forgotten before, it has now been obliterated by this experience. All he can hear in the room is his own heart beating, and he knows that his ears are pink; they feel like they are burning. It is too much, and Merlin can’t read the look on Arthur’s face.

Arthur opens and closes his mouth, but says nothing. Instead, he drags in a breath. They sit there, staring at each other, until Arthur speaks, his voice strangled as he says, “I’ve been thinking—”

“Always rough going for a clotpole.” Merlin is unsure what will happen now. He waits, watching Arthur carefully.

“—Maybe we should have another look at the armour,” Arthur says. The words are not what Merlin hoped to hear, and he swallows down his disappointment. “The… the magic should have restored it exactly to its original state. Perhaps there’s something that we missed, something that will tell us where we belong.”

Arthur gives Merlin a dark look, which confuses him, then fetches the armour. There are several pieces, and they clang as he gathers them in his arms. Together, Merlin and Arthur examine each part of the armour.

“It’s well-made.” Merlin watches the way Arthur’s fingers grip the metal, and thinks of the way Arthur’s flesh felt in his mouth. Sweet, hot. Calloused and gentle.

“Practically faultless.”

“Yes.” Merlin has to look away. He rubs at his eyes; the smoke from the fire stings. “I just need to go… you know.”

“Fine.” Arthur is engrossed in his study of his armour again. Merlin leaves him to it, and staggers outside for a welcome dose of cold air. He hopes it will be enough to rouse him from his madness. Because surely it is madness to look at Arthur like this? The sky has cleared of cloud now, and the sky is filled with stars. The world glows with an eerie light: it is never really dark when there is snow on the ground and a moon in the sky. The white landscape is bright, and Merlin looks around in silence. It all seems so peaceful. Cold, but quiet. Here, he doesn’t have to think about fingers or touches, or a hot body close to his own. Curses and lost memories also seem far away. He breathes in the night air, and wonders briefly whether an owl hoots nearby.

When Merlin rejoins Arthur by the fire, Arthur doesn’t look up.

“I can’t quite trust my eyes. This was buckled metal and rust. It’s almost as if nothing I saw before counts, as though any conclusions I came to were meaningless. There seem to be a whole new set of secrets to be discovered.” Arthur sighs. “Just like you. I thought– I thought that I knew you. But now I wonder how many more secrets you’re hiding.”

“Arthur.” Merlin can barely hear his own voice, but Arthur raises his head. “You know my greatest secret now.”

“Do I?”

“My magic is the secret I have kept all my life.. I still can’t believe that I told you.”

Arthur looks back at the pieces of armour in his lap. His finger traces the leather straps and buckles. Everything is shiny and new. “No, nor can I.”

“I–” Merlin reaches out to touch Arthur’s arm. “I don’t want it to change anything.”

“It changes everything. Surely you can see that.”

“I’m the same person I ever was.”

“But who is that? Neither one of us is really ourselves, not without our memories.”

Merlin tries again. “I’m the same man who found you, and taught you to milk goats.”

Arthur sighs. “And I suppose you will still burn the porridge tomorrow.”

“And you will sit and wait to be served.”

“Merlin.” Arthur moves his hand and places it on Merlin’s hand. His fingers are cold, which is a surprise, because Arthur always radiates such heat. “You have done so much for me, but you do know that we can’t stay here forever.”

“I know,” whispers Merlin. “But sometimes I wonder what would happen if we did.”

Their hands are still touching, but Arthur’s eyes are cast down. “I’m beginning to remember who I am,” he says softly.

“How much?” Merlin is scared that Arthur is going to remember that Merlin is a nobody, that he is unimportant to him. He worries, sometimes, that this will be the truth of how Arthur sees him.

Finally, Arthur looks up. It’s as though he doesn’t see Merlin: his eyes are distant. Merlin wants to see them focus on him. He needs to know that Arthur sees him. “Fragments, really,” Arthur says. “Dreams, and little glimpses. It sounds strange but… touching you helps. At night—”

“Me too. I mean, the remembering. And…” Merlin squeezes Arthur’s hand. Something about touching Arthur like this makes him feel closer to his past.

“My father. I can’t remember everything, but I know that he is stern and powerful. He must be worried about me, and I haven’t even known that he existed until recently.” He pauses. “I still can’t believe that he sent you to fetch me though.” The look Arthur gives Merlin suggests that he sees his memory of Merlin as well as the man in front of him.

“I can believe it. I remember… I remember always being near you.” Merlin’s voice wavers. “Always caring about what happened to you.”

“You were never this close though,” says Arthur, and he brushes his thumb across the back of Merlin’s hand. Merlin feels a corresponding tightening across the top of his back. His mouth opens, just slightly, as if he is about to speak. Yet no words come. “It was never like this before. You were there, but I don’t know if I ever saw you.” Arthur’s thumb moves again, drawing a slow circle on Merlin’s skin. And then another. “I see you now.” His voice is low, his eyes intense.

“I…” Merlin loses the end of the word in a sad exhale. Arthur touches his lip with a still-cool finger.

“I see you now,” he repeats. “I don’t think that I ever really appreciated just how– just what you look like.” He runs his finger from Merlin’s mouth, up to the top of his cheek. “Beautiful,” he whispers.

There is no air in the room. “This isn’t—”

“I don’t care. I can’t spend another night lying beside you without seeing what happens if I do this.” Arthur leans forward until his lips meet Merlin’s. Hot breath washes over Merlin. “Don’t tell me you haven’t—”

Merlin’s tongue darts out, as if to lick his own lips. Instead though, it is Arthur’s mouth, still sweet with honey, that he touches. Arthur’s words become a kiss, full of possibilities. He kisses like he does everything: with conviction, but also a surprising degree of tenderness. It is an intoxicating combination, and leaves Merlin dizzy. The armour still sits between them, and a hard edge digs into Merlin’s ribs. He doesn’t care. All that he is really aware of is Arthur’s mouth, and the way Arthur’s hand has moved to Merlin’s head, his fingers wrapped firmly around the back of Merlin’s neck.

Merlin’s eyes are closed, and it feels as though he is melting into the heat of the kiss. When Arthur finally relaxes his hold, his lips are swollen and shiny. Merlin stares at them, biting his own lip, then looks up to find Arthur watching him intently. “I didn’t think that was a possibility,” Merlin says.

Arthur’s smile is slow, and a little sad at the edges. “It wasn’t. But things are different now.” This time it is Merlin who stops Arthur from talking, by taking another kiss. They are breathless when they stop. Arthur sets his armour aside – carefully – then turns back to Merlin. The next kiss brings hands threaded through hair, as heat and tenderness turn into an aching need.

Merlin remembers sitting opposite Arthur, the sound of waves breaking in the background. Two chalices lay on the table between them, and Merlin knew that he would willingly drink any poison, if it meant that Arthur would live.

The shock of the memory, so clear, makes Merlin let go of Arthur.

“I would have done anything for you.”

Arthur accepts this statement without blinking, and Merlin wonders what he sees, in his memories. “And now?” Arthur asks.

“Anything doesn’t seem like enough,” Merlin says, as he moves towards Arthur again.

These kisses are about more than physical need, even though Arthur’s hand is now under Merlin’s tunic, running a path along his back. They feel right: it feels as though Merlin is finally where he belongs. There are probably a thousand questions to consider, but all that Merlin cares about is finding his way to feel more of Arthur’s skin. He tugs at the bottom of Arthur’s tunic, pulling up until it comes off. Arthur does the same for him, and looking lower Merlin sees an arching bulge.

Arthur catches him in another hungry kiss, while his hands – hot once more – run across Merlin’s skin. He settles into a tight hold on Merlin’s hip, and Merlin is left feeling breathless. They both fumble to remove the rest of their clothing; it seems important to remove them all. Merlin wants to be shy about this, but Arthur moves too fast for any doubt or coy reticence. Instead, they grasp at each other’s bodies, Merlin’s eyes fluttering shut as he finally kicks off the last of his clothing, barely feeling the sting of cold air as his body presses up against Arthur’s.

He feels the soft pressure of Arthur’s flesh against his cock, and the hard heat of Arthur’s in return. Desire, sharp and sweet, runs through him. He opens his eyes, and touches Arthur’s face with his hand. “I don’t think I’ve ever done this before,” he whispers.

How can he really be here touching this perfect knight? A prince, the words swim to the forefront of his mind. Merlin isn’t surprised by the revelation: he has always known that Arthur was someone important, someone powerful. “What if—”

“There are no what-ifs.” Arthur holds Merlin in his gaze. “This is more real than any of those curse-dreams. I… I need to do this, right now.” A note of pleading has entered Arthur’s voice, and Merlin thinks of the long weeks of Arthur crying out in his sleep. Merlin thinks he understands: Arthur needs to replace all the memories of La Belle Dame, with Merlin. With something real.

He doesn’t say anything, but pulls Arthur down to sit on the bed they have shared already for months. Every night of suppressed longing is wrapped in these blankets. Merlin lowers his head to Arthur’s neck, breathing in the scent of skin and sweat. It is the smell of the dark of the night, of every urge to reach out and touch.

“What if,” Merlin whispers into Arthur’s skin, “I touch you here?” He kisses Arthur’s shoulder. “What if, I touch you, like this?” He moves down Arthur’s body, and licks across his nipple, noting the tightening of the flesh as he does so, shivering in sympathy with Arthur.

“Do you ever stop talking?” Arthur says, his head falling back. Merlin continues his journey down Arthur’s body, seeking out every possible taste of skin. He wants to see Arthur’s face, and pulls back to look at him. Arthur’s skin is flushed, the pink extending down to his chest. His lips are parted, and his eyes closed. Merlin can see the wet marks where he has kissed, and licked, the soft rise of goose pimples on Arthur’s arms. Merlin aches at the sight of Arthur lost like this, but then Arthur cracks open an eye, and frowns.

“Merlin, trust you not to be able to do this properly. You’re not supposed to stop.”

“I’m not exactly sure what I’m doing here,” says Merlin. “I’ve never– that is, I don’t think I have. I don’t remember if—”

“Merlin.”

“Yes?”

“Shut up.” Arthur leans forward and puts a finger on Merlin’s lips. The room is quiet but for the crackle of the flames. “It doesn’t matter if you have, or if I have. It only matters that we’re here, and that we will.”

Merlin nods.

“Luckily, I’m not as pathetic as you are.” Arthur pushes Merlin down onto the bed. “Let me show you just what you were doing to me when you decided to stop.” And then Arthur’s mouth is on Merlin’s neck, and his weight is pinning Merlin down. Arthur kisses and sucks gently, and Merlin feels a tendril of delight curl through his body. He didn’t know that he could feel like this – it is nothing like lying beside Arthur at night, or a hurried hand under the stars. The thought of hands makes him groan, and he hears Arthur chuckle.

“Good, isn’t it?” Arthur’s breath blows cold against Merlin’s wet skin, and then Arthur moves lower. Merlin shivers as Arthur mouth brushes across his nipples. His skin is more sensitive than he ever thought possible, and he wants Arthur to do it again, but Arthur continues to travel down Merlin’s body. When his tongue dips into Merlin’s navel, Merlin can’t help the small moan and brief hip-buck; when Arthur keeps going until his tongue touches the hot head of Merlin’s prick, Merlin’s body goes completely still.

He squeezes his eyes shut as warm, wet, sucking heat surrounds his prick. He can’t breathe, and then Arthur’s mouth begins to move, and Merlin shudders. This is nothing like his hurried night time striving; it is heat and comfort, and his body wanting to rise from the bed and melt into Arthur.

Cold air suddenly replaces the warmth of Arthur’s mouth, and Merlin’s eyes fly open. Arthur is looking up at him, his lips red and slick. Merlin’s prick bounces in front of Arthur’s face, and the gentle touch of Arthur’s breath on it is a sweet torture.

“See,” Arthur rasps. “Not supposed to stop.”

Merlin groans. “You do know that if you carry on, I’m going to—”

He stops talking as Arthur crawls back up the bed, until Merlin feels the bob of their pricks touching. He swallows. Any disappointment at Arthur’s mouth moving away from his cock is replaced by the need for more. Whatever that more is.

“Here,” Arthur says, his voice rough. He reaches for Merlin’s hand and together they grasp both pricks. Flesh against flesh, skin against skin. Arthur’s prick is just as hot as the rest of him, and Merlin wants to see it too, as Arthur has seen his. He wants to know how it feels in his mouth, to see if Arthur makes the same noises he did when Merlin tasted the honey from his finger. Before he can do anything else though, Arthur’s hand – firm over Merlin’s knuckles, their fingers slotting into place together – begins to move. Merlin bites his lip, because it feels so good, both the hot flesh beneath his hand, and Arthur’s tight grip. The relentless up and down, and the curling lick of desire it ignites, soon becomes better than good. His desire is a shiver at the back of his neck, and an ache in his belly. His need is the thrust of his hips, up into their hands, and the desperation with which his mouth reaches for Arthur’s for a quick kiss.

Their breath comes in short pants of need. Merlin has spent so many hours not quite daring to think of this, while simultaneously wanting it more than anything else in the world. He closes his eyes to the sensation. He can hear the huff of Arthur’s breath, and feel the way Arthur’s body strains towards his own. Soon, too soon, he whimpers and his dick throbs and spurts. Arthur stills their hands for a moment, then renews his efforts, each pass of their now-wet hands over Merlin’s sensitive flesh causing fresh shudders, the pressure and the sliding being almost too much to bear. The feeling is close to pain, and if Merlin had any more to give he would surely be emptying himself again. In a few strokes, though, Arthur moans and Merlin opens his eyes in time to see Arthur’s jaw fall slack as he spills his seed all over their joined hands.

Arthur groans, and collapses onto Merlin. The breath is forced out of him, but Merlin can’t move to push Arthur off. He doesn’t really want to, as Arthur, hot and sweaty on top of him grounds him so that he is aware of every part of his own body, pressed into the bed. Added to this is the spreading warmth after his release.

“Merlin.” Arthur’s breath tickles Merlin’s neck. “Why didn’t we do that sooner?”

Merlin laughs, but it comes out as a bit of pained wheeze. He attempts to push Arthur off him, needing to breathe properly. “I knew you were eating all my food, you pig. You’re squashing me.”

Arthur grunts and rolls off Merlin. “If you can call it food.”

“My cooking’s not that bad!”

“No, it’s not,” Arthur admits. “But porridge and beans do get a little… boring, after a while.” Arthur yawns. “I don’t want to talk about food.” He reaches for the blankets, and wraps them both up close. Instead of lying side by side as they usually do, Merlin is pressed right up against Arthur. He is grateful for Arthur’s heat, and buries closer still. He knows that really he should be concerned about the mess they have made, about what this all means, but he too is growing sleepy.

As Merlin’s eyes drift shut, his last thought before succumbing to unconsciousness is that the extravagant honey was well worth its price.

It is cold, but instead of Merlin’s breath misting in front of him, as is usual when he wakes, Merlin finds his face warm against Arthur’s skin. Every detail of the night before comes flooding back. Merlin can taste skin and smell sex again, and it is wonderful but suffocating. He needs fresh air. He needs to understand what has happened with Arthur.

The gentle rhythm of Arthur’s breathing is soothing, as it always is, except that this time Merlin feels a creeping sense of possession. He doesn’t have to admire from afar any more. He drops a kiss onto Arthur’s shoulder then carefully extricates himself from the bed. It doesn’t take long to pull on some clothes. He needs to see the sky; he doesn’t know why, but it seems important to him.

The sky, when he opens the door, is a soft blue, and high, impossibly high. Merlin steps out, feeling as though he has woken from a long dream in which the world has been blurred. Everything seems so much brighter and clearer. A few more steps on and he stops, the soft warmth of the sun discernible even in the cool air of early morning.

A gentle voice sings a greeting to the sun. Merlin turns in wonder to the trilling wren perched in the bush beside him. Such a small bird for such a loud noise. He remembers his mother teaching him the names of the birds. He remembers his mother: the soft smell of smoke on her clothes as she held him tight as a child. Even at his lowest point he has been able to name all the birds. Hunith taught him well. Hunith. He remembers her name! He wants to sing along with the wren. He remembers when he first began to understand their song, the dips and rolls of their chatter. He remembers everything.

He can see again, how he learned to spear fish with Will, and how Will pushed him into the river. He smiles at the memory of the scolding Hunith gave him, her anger barely softened by the quantity of fish they’d caught. He remembers arriving at Camelot, and meeting a princely prat. Merlin’s heart catches at the thought of Gaius, and his many kindnesses and wise counsel. The deep roar of a dragon’s voice echoes through his mind, and with the memory comes the certainty that Merlin has a destiny to fulfil.

He keeps returning though, to Arthur, golden in the sunlight.

Arthur. Always Arthur. A hundred memories, of Arthur calling him an idiot, or rushing to save someone’s life, or smiling gently. No wonder being with Arthur has felt so familiar, so right: Arthur has been the most important person in his life for a long time.

Merlin closes his eyes. Despite the chill of the early-morning air, he can still feel the warmth of the sun. He thinks of his dream of being high in a tree, listening to the birds. Trying to settle his trembling body, Merlin concentrates on what he can feel, what he can hear. The ends of his fingers tingle with cold, and he can hear the soft whisper of the wind, and the muffled thud of snow falling from branches.

Above all this though, Merlin can hear the tremble of the wren’s song. He hears the music, but the meaning eludes him at first. The wren makes its wobbly trill three or four times before Merlin grasps what it is singing about. It is a lament, for the long winter and all it has lost. And then it is an ode to the delicious creatures in the dead sedge by the lake, who have kept this bird alive during the time of cold. Finally, there is a song of hope, of small green shoots and warmth. The wren, too, is longing for spring.

Opening his eyes, Merlin can see now that he cannot live in the winter forever. He will need to return to Camelot with Arthur. Everything has changed, but they will stand side by side. They have a chance at a fresh start.

Stripes of light, from between the cracks and gaps of the shack, fall across Arthur. For once Merlin doesn’t resent them for letting in a hundred chills and breezes. Arthur’s hair is golden and almost glowing, the lines of his body accentuated by lines of shadow. Merlin can see the even rise and fall of sleep, and he strips as quietly as he can, eager to return to Arthur’s side.

Gently, Merlin climbs back into the warmth of the bed, grateful as ever for the heat that Arthur gives off. Arthur flinches though, when Merlin’s cold hands and feet touch him. He growls, and tries to push Merlin away.

“That is not a pleasant way to wake up.”

“But it’s such a beautiful morning!”

“I don’t care.” Arthur pulls the blanket over his head. “Go away.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“I do.”

“I’m sure I can think of a better start to your morning.”

Arthur grunts.

Merlin burrows under the blankets, into the heat and muskiness of the bed. He finds Arthur’s cock, lying heavy, if not hard, across his balls. He feels it grow beneath his lips, as he drops soft kisses along its length. A strange new feeling of power makes Merlin smile before he takes Arthur’s hardening prick into his mouth. Somewhere above him, Arthur groans. Merlin remembers how this felt, when Arthur did it to him the night before. He remembers not being able to breathe, and not knowing what to do except feel. He moves his mouth, licking and sucking and relishing the feel of Arthur hot and full on his tongue. He is aware of more sounds coming from Arthur, a series of moans which travel straight to his own cock, now leaking and needy as he rubs against the pallet.

When Arthur’s prick jumps and shoots liquid into his mouth, Merlin is almost surprised. He shouldn’t be, he knows, because where else was this heading? The taste is new, and yet it is Arthur. Merlin continues to rut into the bed until he too feels the tightness then jerking release of orgasm.

He pushes back the blankets and turns into the cold air to take a huge lungful. He falls back to lie with his head by Arthur’s side. Arthur’s skin – and Merlin’s too – shines with a thin layer of sweat. Neither talks as they both breathe deeply.

“I was wrong,” Arthur says in the end. “It is a good morning.” He shivers. “If still bloody cold.”

Merlin brings the blankets back over them, wriggling back up beside Arthur, reaching for his mouth. The bristles on Arthur’s chin tickle, and he feels Arthur’s mouth curl up in a smile. “You always were a terrible servant. If only I’d known you could do that.”

Merlin laughs, then Arthur’s words sink in. “You remember…?”

“Yes.” Arthur slips an arm around Merlin, and they settle into each other. “I remember everything.” Arthur’s chest rumbles with each word.

“Everything?”

“I know who I am.”

“Me too. I woke up this morning and it was as if I had never forgotten.” Merlin runs a hand across Arthur’s chest. “Although I don’t remember doing anything like this before.”

“No. I hadn’t really thought of it, to be honest.”

Merlin’s heart drops at Arthur’s words. “Does that mean that you now realise what a mistake this is?” Merlin asks, trying to mask his apprehension with humour. He doubts he’s carried it off: there’s no mistaking that tremor of anxiety in his voice.

Arthur runs a finger across the bones of Merlin’s wrist. It makes Merlin want to close his eyes, and just feel. “No, this is no mistake. How can you even ask that?”

“You’re a prince.”

“You’re a sorcerer, you idiot.”

Merlin sighs. “Do you have to be such a prat about it?”

Arthur snorts. “It is reassuring to know that even without our memories, we knew what to call each other.”

“Our names?”

“No, not our names, Merlin.” Arthur pokes him gently in his side. “I always knew that you were an idiot, and for some reason you decided to call me a prat.”

This feels more comfortable, and relief makes Merlin giddy. “Oh. Well that’s because it’s your nature to be a prat: there’s no escaping it.”

Arthur’s fingers move to Merlin’s hand, and squeeze. Merlin turns his head, and his lips catch the corner of Arthur’s mouth again.

“I don’t know what this is,” Merlin whispers. “But it’s good, isn’t it?”

Arthur is silent but pulls Merlin closer. The warmth is soothing, and Merlin rests against him, feeling as well as hearing Arthur’s regular heartbeat. Merlin’s eyes grow heavy, and he is almost asleep again when Arthur shifts against him.

“Merlin, wake up. We can’t stay here all day.”

“Why not?”

“Well, for one we’re both pretty disgusting.” Merlin hasn’t thought of it yet, but now he is aware of the smell of sex in the air, of the state of the bed they are lying in. A rumble disturbs the quiet of the room. “And hungry.”

“Of course you are.” Merlin stays where he is.

“Come on, you lazy lump!”

“I’m not your servant right now.”

“I know. And I don’t think I can stomach porridge again, not now I can remember eating proper food.”

“You are going to be unbearable now that you can remember who you are, aren’t you?”

Arthur laughs. “Maybe. But it won’t all be bad.” He kisses Merlin again, and Merlin believes him.

After a breakfast of bread and honey, they heat water and wash each other down. Merlin is reminded of when he first found Arthur. He traces the same paths over Arthur’s back and arms, except now he stops to kiss the skin, and is washed in return. They spend the morning, exploring each other’s bodies, along with their memories. Does Arthur remember the time a troll seduced his father? Of course. Does Merlin remember the Questing Beast? Naturally. Neither remembers ever meeting La Belle Dame before: she remains a mystery.

Merlin can hear the faint sound of birdsong, and he wonders if the wren he saw earlier is still sitting in the bushes outside. He realises that he hasn’t told Arthur yet about his other discovery. “The birds… I can hear them again.”

“You can?” Arthur turns to him, his face lit with a smile. “Your odd little curse is lifted?”

Merlin nods, a smile of his own quirking his lips.

“So… with our memories returned, and you and the birds…” Arthur frowns. “Does it mean that the Lady’s enchantments are at an end?”

“Perhaps. There’s so much about this that I don’t understand. But…” An idea takes shape. “The way you spoke of the Lady when I first found you, it was as though you were… in love.”

“That wasn’t love.”

“I know. But maybe, our…” Merlin trails off and blushes as he searches for the right words, “being together. Maybe it was enough to break the spell?”

As they talk, a sense of unease builds in Merlin, for he sees that there are still many secrets between them. Everything has changed so much and is still so new: Arthur knows some, but not all, of his secrets. He doesn’t know yet, that Merlin can talk to birds. And dragons.

His worries lessen as the questions mingle with Arthur’s touches then cease altogether as caresses grow more heated, until they get themselves sticky and messy once more and have to start all over again.

The wind has changed, and the snow is beginning to melt. Where a few days ago everything was pristine, sparkling in the sun, patches of grass and earth have begun to appear. There is a constant dripping as the snow on the roof melts. It feels as though everything they have shared is washing away, and Merlin finds it strangely disquieting. He knows that he cannot hold on to winter – his magic ripples at the thought, and Merlin quashes it: some things should never even be thought – and he knows that spring will be a time of hope. And yet the future is still uncertain, even now he can remember his past. Instead of endless questions about who he is, there is a gnawing worry about what is to come.

He has become too comfortable, Merlin realises. He and Arthur have lived a life without danger, their concerns rooted in their daily needs: building fires and chopping wood, milking Betty, catching fish, and washing bowls. Beyond these mundane tasks lies a world of unfamiliar and overwhelming responsibilities, and Merlin is scared.

The liquid song of the blackbird accompanies Merlin as he fetches water. He realises, yet again, how empty his world was without it.

The lines of the trees are blurred by hundreds of tight buds. Everything feels as though it is on the edge of some precipice, and only the lightest of touches will push it over. Merlin longs now for spring, for fragile new leaves and chirping fledglings in nests.

When he sees the lightning-struck elm, Merlin pauses. A thick grey line runs down its trunk, and it is mostly dead. Yet along a few branches, he sees buds. This tree has survived, after all. It will never be the same, and Merlin wonders if it will have enough leaves to live. What is a tree without its leaves? But then, looking around him at trees still bare from winter, Merlin can see that they are all, despite their lack of leaves, alive. The elm tree though, hovers between both states. It can become either.

Ringing cracks echo through the trees: Arthur is chopping wood again. As Merlin comes to the edge of the woods, he sees Arthur, red tunic damp with sweat, his grip on the axe firm. It looks even more incongruous now that Merlin knows that Arthur is a prince. Yet as Arthur swings the axe up, his face set in concentration, he looks perfect. Merlin puts down the water, so he can watch without fear of knocking it over.

He has watched Arthur so many times now, not just here, but in their life before, too. When did his begrudging acceptance of his destiny, of the need to protect Arthur at all costs, turn into this feeling of being trapped in his own chest? When did it become like birdsong, filling his heart? Now that Merlin has known the touch of Arthur’s lips, has felt his body shudder in release, he can see what he was blind to before: his devotion to Arthur has long had an element of… of love to it. Of wanting to be close, of wanting to touch. Before he could hide behind duty, but out here, just the two of them, there is no denying how much he simply wants Arthur.

Merlin picks up the water, and makes his way to Arthur. The blackbird sings and the sun shines with the pale light of late winter. Both seem too frail to last.

In the evening, when everything has been washed and put away, and Betty is safely in her shed, Merlin and Arthur sit by the fire. Merlin makes the flames dance for Arthur. He stops when Arthur pulls him close and kisses his eyes.

“Such power.”

“You like that?”

“ I would be lying if I said no.”

“What are we going to—”

Arthur kisses him again, then sighs. “I don’t know. I know that I need to return, but at the same time—”

“Not quite yet.”

“Exactly. Just a little more time, to enjoy this,” Arthur’s thumb strokes Merlin’s thigh, “without having to worry about anyone else.”

Merlin agrees.

Arthur’s hand is still moving, and Merlin closes his eyes. Worries about tomorrow, about other people can wait. As he slides his hand up under Arthur’s tunic, he stops thinking about anything other than the hot skin beneath his fingers.

Afterwards, just before Merlin falls asleep in a sweaty heap with Arthur, he smiles in the dark. This feeling, this sense of peace, is worth all the possible complications to come.

As soon as Merlin sees her, he knows who she is. Fine white linen flows over a ripe body, hair like spun gold falls across her shoulder, but there is a cold glint of calculation in her eye. She stands on top of a hill with impossibly green grass, the blue sky of summer behind her.

Merlin cannot help but notice that no birds sing, and he knows that this a dream. The absence of the song brings back the feeling of being lost he lived with for so long.

“So you have found me, Emrys,” she says, and her voice is like liquid silver. Merlin shivers.

“This has gone on long enough. I don’t remember everything—”

“But you remember enough, do you not?” Her voice is arch, and there is a sneer to the pink curve of her mouth. Merlin thinks of what he does remember, of Gaius, of Kilgarrah. Of Arthur.

“I know who I am. I know that I have found what you took away, and that Arthur is nearly ready to return to Camelot.”

“Yes, I see.” She looks him up and down. A warm breeze that he knows is not real brushes over his skin. “I have seen much.”

Merlin flushes at the memory of heated skin and fierce kisses. How he can manage to blush in a dream, he doesn’t know. But he does know that this dream is more real than it seems. He holds on to the way Arthur looked at him the day before, all possession and wonder. “It doesn’t matter what you see, or what you wish. I’ve worked out the cure to your curse.”

“You think you have.”

He looked at her sharply. Her smile is serene. “I know I have. You seduced him away, as you have seduced away kings before, with a false love. Real love can break your enchantment.”

“How very clever of you,” she says. “And noble, too. Love your Lord and save him at the same time. Such a pity then, that you do not understand the full extent of my enchantment.”

“The birds are singing to me again.”

“Yes, love works to counter both the curses.” She is still smiling. “But I have not lost.” A hint of steel rings through her voice. “My aim was to remove at least one of you from the future of this land. I did not foresee this, that two men could love one another enough to break my spell. But in a way, this is even better.” Cold fear prickles across Merlin’s back. He knows that beneath her veneer of glowing beauty and confidence, she must be frustrated at having her plans thwarted. And yet she carries an air of triumph. He tries to think of what he may have missed.

“They are a nuisance, the birds. But it is of no matter. Your king holds you in his heart now.” A fragile feeling – the soft warmth of hope, for his fledging closeness to Arthur and also for the future of magic in the land – blooms in Merlin at her words. Arthur has always been in his heart, he knows that now. To have those feelings reciprocated is more than he has ever hoped for. “Your love is written across your face, Emrys. But it will not help you.”

“Why not?”

“Because your love cannot exist with Arthur’s destiny. But I think that you know this. The curse is not truly broken. You will see: the closer he draws to being your prince of old, the more he will forget this time you’ve had together.”

Merlin feels as though he is falling, down into a deep hole with no end. “No,” he whispers. “It is not true.”

“You can choose, if you wish, to live out your lives under this wild sky. Together. But Arthur will be King only of your heart.” Her teeth gleam in the bright summer light. “Or you can return to Camelot, but the nearer to his throne you become, the more Arthur will forget this new love. He was cursed to remain lost in love. Your love has merely taken the place of mine: he will not care for his kingdom unless you release him.”

“No.”

“Only death can break this curse. But that will be too late for you, I fear.”

Horror fills Merlin at the thought that his love traps Arthur just as much as the Lady’s enchanted seduction ever did. He cannot deny the truth of it; he feels it in his bones. The ground opens beneath him. His fall into the darkness is endless, pale and screaming faces his only measure of time.

When he wakes, his eyes are wet with tears. Arthur is lying beside him, warm, solid, real. He smells of sweat and sex, and Merlin wants to stay, just like this, forever. He blinks away the tears, and tries to think, but his heart is beating too fast and there is a crushing weight on his chest. Carefully, he peels back the blanket and sits up. He pauses to watch Arthur, so at peace in his sleep, the hint of a smile curling the corner of his lip. After dropping a soft kiss on his head, Merlin pulls on some clothes and leaves the hut.

It is a grey dawn, the light pale and watery. He sits by the old elm tree, and listens to the morning song of the birds. They sing of nests and eggs, of far-off lands and the freedom of the sky. They sing the ballad of the dragons, and of the magic woven through the world. Merlin listens to it all, until his breathing has calmed and he can think.

When he rises to return to the hut, the sky is a pale blue, his shadow trailing behind him. He knows what he must do.

Part 3

 

“I can’t go back looking like this.” Arthur’s hand rasps across his chin. He has Merlin’s highly polished tin mirror in his other hand, and is angling it in the light to better see his face. “No wonder I’ve not bothered shaving much – I can remember now that I always preferred for you to shave me.” He turns to Merlin. “Do you think that you could…?”

Merlin nods, and rises to fetch the shaving things. While the water heats, he comes to sit beside Arthur.

“I wish you could keep this a little longer,” Merlin says, touching Arthur’s cheek. He likes the feel of Arthur’s hair, here and elsewhere: his scratchy chin, the patch on the small of his back, the smattering on his chest. The rough and smooth of it, beneath this fingers.

“I know.”

Merlin doesn’t want to do it. This Arthur, with scraggly whiskers on his cheek, is his. This is the Arthur who pulls him back into bed when they wake in the morning. This is the Arthur who bites tenderly on his shoulder. Merlin knows that once he has shaved Arthur’s face clean, he will once more see the face of Prince Arthur, heir to the throne at Camelot. Uther’s son. Merlin’s lord and prince.

Arthur has his heart, he always has. But now Arthur holds something more precious: a fragile warmth like birdsong. Merlin has lived for long enough without birdsong to know just how empty his life will be without this new feeling, buried deep in his chest. Merlin can’t say the words aloud, but they live within him now. Love. Hope. He reaches, anyway, for the blade he uses to shave his own face. Arthur stops him with his hand, and Merlin closes his eyes.

“Wait,” Arthur whispers, and Merlin knows that he feels this too, this sense of impending loss. They will never be able to live this simply again, just the two of them in one room, free to love like this. Arthur, Merlin is sure, is worried about how they will manage when they return, about how much they will keep secret. The truth of course, is that Arthur will have nothing to hide by the time they get back to Camelot.

“This has to be done,” Merlin says into Arthur’s shoulder. He smells of sweat, and wood smoke, and of heat in the dark of night. Strong arms wrap around Merlin, and they cling to each other. Merlin pulls back until he can see Arthur’s eyes. “You need to become Prince Arthur again.”

“I have always been Prince Arthur.”

Merlin thinks back to the way Arthur carried himself, even when half-starved and in the midst of a cursed-heartbreak. He nods. “You have. And one day you will be king. A great king, the greatest of them all.”

“You’re only saying that because I sucked your cock last night.”

“No! I… I’ve always thought like this.” It hurts to smile, but Merlin does it anyway. He takes a deep breath. “It’s your destiny, you know.”

“You’ve always been there for me, haven’t you?” Arthur is looking at him as if he hasn’t ever really seen him before. Not truly. In many ways, he hasn’t.

Merlin nods. “And I always will be.”

Arthur bends his head forwards, and Merlin feels the brush of his beard on his skin, then the warmth of Arthur’s lips. The kiss is tender and full of longing. For a moment, Merlin is ready to forget the shaving, to stay here and keep on kissing Arthur and forget about curses and birds and kingdoms.

His throat is tight with unshed tears when he smiles back at Arthur.

“It will be fine,” Arthur says, running his thumb down Merlin’s cheek.

He has to ask. He can’t just throw this away without knowing what Arthur would do, if he had a choice. Already the guilt of having made this decision is eating at Merlin, stealing from his last moments of happiness. He reaches up and holds Arthur’s hand, before asking his question.

“If you had to either stay here, just the two of us, or return to Camelot but forget this ever happened, what would you choose?”

Arthur frowns, and Merlin waits one breath, two, three, four before Arthur answers. “I think… I think that it is an impossible question. But if I had to answer, now I can remember who I am, I… I just can’t not return. I need to know how my father is. But more than that, my whole life has been built around my role as prince and, one day, king. I can’t walk away from my duty.”

“That’s what I thought you’d say.” Merlin’s chest is squeezing tight, because of course Arthur gives this answer.

“But it is a ridiculous question, because just as I never want to forget Camelot again, I can’t see how I’m ever going to forget you.”

“We’ve both forgotten everything about ourselves before.”

Arthur closes his eyes, and this time, it is he who leans into Merlin. “Please understand, but if I had to choose, I think I would have to choose my duty.”

“I know,” Merlin murmurs, because he really does. It doesn’t make hearing it any less painful though. “It’s what will make you such a great king.”

“That I would be willing to forget you?”

Merlin shakes his head. “No, that you would make the decision, even if it hurt you, for the sake of the kingdom.” The feeling of sadness now is overwhelming, and Merlin fears that his hand will not be steady enough to shave Arthur. He is on the verge of trembling. He seeks out another kiss and it is enough to soothe him. He might have to give this up soon, but while he can he will relish each and every moment between them.

He remembers watching Arthur shave, and nearly burning his hand in his distraction at the sight. He touches Arthur’s face, his fingers tracing Arthur’s mouth.

The stool creaks as Arthur pushes the shaving kit towards Merlin. “It’s time,” he says, and Merlin knows that he’s right. Gently he makes a creamy lather with the shaving salve, and applies it to Arthur’s face. He’s reminded of Arthur’s snow-beard, and remembers the first time he felt Arthur’s weight on top of him. The memories aren’t helping, so Merlin focuses instead on the feel of the blade, heavy in his hand, and the wetness of the salve on Arthur’s face, the way he can feel the prickle of stubble beneath his fingers. The air is fragrant with chamomile and comfrey, and Merlin takes a deep breath, then begins. With each scrape, he removes a little of the Arthur he knows. The rhythm of scrape and wipe soothes him, and beneath his hands he feels Arthur relax a little too.

When he is finished, Prince Arthur of Camelot sits before him, clean-shaven and proud. Merlin wants to cry. Instead, he bends to kiss those soft lips, while he can.

The dim light of the end of the fire is still visible when Merlin wakes, although most of the room is lost to the dark. Hot skin stretches out beneath his fingers: his hand is resting on Arthur’s chest. He wants to feel more of it. His hand seeks out the dips and ripples of flesh and muscle. Merlin’s touch is light, but it is enough to rouse Arthur, who turns to face him. They seek each other’s lips out again. This kiss is so sweet it hurts, but then Arthur’s hands begin to move, strong hands that sweep over Merlin’s back. They cup his arse, pulling Merlin close. Merlin’s cock begins to swell and harden, and he feels an answering insistent poke in his thigh.

The kissing is not enough, and Merlin groans as Arthur’s hands continue their roaming, and pull on his cock in long, confident strokes. A practised hand. On himself or on others too? Merlin doesn’t know, and won’t ask. Whatever has happened in the past, there are only the two of them in this moment.

In the dark, there are no words, no teasing or names. There is Arthur, bending over Merlin, his mouth hot on Merlin’s skin. There is the taste of salt on Merlin’s tongue, the smell of wood smoke and tallow mingled with sweat and a hint of ale in the air. Their bodies move against each other, both seeking some kind of purchase against which to rut. Merlin’s prick is the hardest it has ever been, but nothing they do seems enough.

When Arthur’s hand grasps Merlin’s arse, kneading it as he kisses, Merlin responds by kissing deeper, with hunger. They haven’t spoken about this, but Merlin has been thinking about it. He thought about it the first time he saw Arthur’s prick, proud and erect. He thought about it the first time he touched it with his hand, and the first time his mouth closed over it.

“I want to,” Merlin whispers. “Please.”

"Merlin.” His name is kissed into his skin.

One of Merlin’s balms is close at hand, and soon the sweet smell of broken summer flowers rises between them. Arthur moves his fingers in circles and lines, until Merlin is pressing himself into Arthur’s hand. He wants more, always more.

When Arthur slowly pushes inside him, it still doesn’t feel like they are close enough. Merlin wants everything. It is only when Arthur begins to move, his breath hot on Merlin’s neck, that it begins to feel like it might be close to what he needs. A part of Merlin’s body that he never really knew existed before is coming to life. A fierce blush of heat runs from the top his face, down over his chest. Merlin’s skin feels like it is glowing, and he wonders if this is how Arthur feels all the time. His chest squeezes tight, and even the light of the fire disappears: Merlin can’t tell if it is because his eyes are shut tight, or because they have just failed him in the intensity of the moment. It doesn’t matter which it is, because Merlin is blind to anything other than the feeling of Arthur slowly pulling out and pushing in. They are connected, finally. He can feel it.

Arthur begins to grunt with the exertion of each thrust as he pushes harder. He is all the way in, and still it is not quite enough. Arthur pauses, his fingers come to link with Merlin’s. And then Arthur begins to move in earnest.

Merlin’s whole body is thrust forward, again and again. The slap of flesh on flesh mingles with grunts and groans.

When Merlin comes, stars of light fill his vision before everything goes dark again. Arthur thrusts on until he calls out Merlin’s name and slumps, spent. The room twists and whirls around them, and Merlin’s face is wet with tears.

They fall asleep clinging to each other like drowning men.

Small green points show through the dead-brown of the old sedge, and a fresh breeze stirs ripples across the lake’s surface. Whereas before the lake was a silent place, now Merlin can hear the gentle booming of bitterns. Somehow, spring is arriving. Of course it always does, but for some reason these signs of the new season surprise Merlin. Despite the worries that Merlin bears, the fresh secrets he must keep, he feels a lightness he has not known for months.

“I can’t imagine what it must have been like, not hearing the birds,” Arthur says.

“Um. Quiet?”

Arthur stops walking. “Can you never be serious?” He reaches forward, and brushes Merlin’s hair from his eyes. It has grown longer, over the winter. “I was just listening to the birds, and thinking that if they went silent, I would assume something had happened – or was about to happen. A storm coming, or a threat of some kind.”

Merlin turns Arthur’s words over in his mind. They do make sense. It is certainly comforting to hear the booms and trills and chatter of the birds now.

“No threats now.” The harm is already done, of course. Merlin sighs.

Arthur starts walking again, and Merlin scrambles to keep up.

“Now what would be useful would be if the birds could tell me where my sword is.” Arthur shields his eyes from the bright sun, and scans the distance where light glints from the lake. “I found my armour here before, but not my sword. I think that we’re the only two souls to ever come this way: surely my sword is still here, somewhere.”

Since they were here last the landscape has changed subtly. When the snow melted, the ground looked different. Darker, somehow. The world seems filled with greater mysteries, greater potential. Out of this rich black earth will grow the spring. And, Merlin hopes, a sword.

They walk on. Arthur is able to find the place where he’d found the armour, where Merlin had found the silver cloak clasp. But there is no sword to be found. Not beneath the gorse nor behind rocks.

Merlin thinks, trying to think what they might be missing. Slowly, an image comes to mind, of a woman, white robes flowing. “I’ve seen her, sometimes, in dreams,” Merlin says. Arthur looks up sharply; there is no need to elaborate about who Merlin is referring to. “She always seems to be standing on a hill.”

The sun moves in the sky, as they search, just enough to shorten their shadows slightly.

“There is another way,” Merlin says. “It’s your idea, actually. But I don’t know how you’d feel about me using magic.”

Arthur takes it seriously enough to stop and sit down on a low rock. “Magic?” He frowns. “I don’t know.”

“I’m not sure if it would work, but…” Merlin scans the sky. He is not sure exactly what he is looking for, until he sees the angled shape of a merlin swooping overhead. The words from a dream return to him.

What you seek is here to find.

It takes him a moment to realise that what he hears is not a memory, but a cry on the wind. It is the merlin, sweeping lower until his fierce eyes are visible and he lands on a nearby rock.

“My namesake.” Merlin bows.

What you seek is here to find, the bird says once more. I will lead you to it. Merlin glances over at Arthur, whose face is ashen as he watches Merlin converse with the bird. Will Arthur ever truly accept Merlin’s magic? He doesn’t know.

The merlin takes to air again, circling above them before calling out in triumph and flying down. Its tail fans as it comes to rest on the branches of a tree in the distance.

Merlin starts to walk towards the bird, but stops when he realises that Arthur has yet to move. “Come on.”

“I– I’m not sure. We’re really going to follow a bird?”

“Yes, we are.” Merlin takes Arthur’s hand and pulls.

The merlin’s black eyes seem sharp as it watches them approach. It leaps from the tree, and comes to land near their feet. Arthur’s hand tightens in Merlin’s grasp. The bird begins a strange hopping run to the left, until it comes to stop on the edge of a large gorse bush. Its yellow flowers are bright in the grey-green of the lowlands. What you seek is here to find, the merlin repeats.

Arthur’s hand slips from Merlin’s. “Look!” Arthur says. “I saw a flash of metal!” All of Arthur’s apprehension is forgotten now that his sword is in sight. Merlin doesn’t know if Arthur sees the merlin fly off on powerful beats of its wings. He whispers a thank you into the wind.

The gorse is thorny, and no matter how Arthur tries, he cannot reach his sword. He yelps and pulls his arm back. A line of red appears on the back of his hand, rapidly swelling beads of blood which smear at his touch.

“Let me try.” Merlin steps forward, and calls to the sword. They both watch as it flies through the bush, catching on branches but sliding off all obstacles, until it lies in Merlin’s hands. Arthur’s hand is clasped over his bleeding hand, and he steps forwards, then stops.

Merlin kneels. “Your sword, my lord.” The more formal words seem most apt as Merlin presents Arthur with his sword. Arthur reaches for it, but hesitates before he grasps the pommel.

“Don’t call me that.” He looks into Merlin’s eyes. “Not yet.”

“Fine. Your sword, your prattishness.”

Arthur laughs. “Much better.” Sword in one hand, he hauls Merlin up with the other. Merlin stands back and watches as Arthur swings the sword in low arcs, becoming accustomed once more to its weight in his hand. Arthur looks like the Arthur of old. All he needs is armour and a red cloak, and will be Arthur of the wilds no more; he will be Prince Arthur of Camelot again.

“Arthur.” Merlin prods Arthur’s shoulder. It is the third time he has tried to get Arthur’s attention, but he has yet to get a response.

“Yes?” Arthur finally looks up from checking over his armour and sword.

“There wasn’t any more honey.”

“Honey?” Arthur’s brow creases in confusion. “What are you talking about?”

“At the market. There wasn’t—”

“Yes, no more honey. You said.” Arthur shakes his head, as if Merlin’s words are those of a simpleton. “But did you manage to find the things that we need?”

Merlin stares. Arthur licked the last of the honey from Merlin’s lips, no more than a few days past. Each sweet taste brought back the first time they shared the taste of summer between each other’s mouths.

“You don’t remember…?”

Arthur sighs, and puts down his sword. “What are you prattling on about now?”

“I—” Merlin forces himself to take a deep breath. They haven’t even left yet, but it has already begun. He squeezes tight the ball of loss blooming inside his chest. “I managed to get you a padded jerkin.”

“Good.” Arthur nods, and returns to his task. Merlin walks away. He doesn’t want to know how much Arthur has forgotten. Panic grips him, and he is shaking by the time he gets to the lightning-struck elm. He leans against the smooth scar, trying to get his breath back. It can’t be happening, not yet. The birds sing on, and all at once he wishes they would be silent. He doesn’t want to hear them, not now.

The price is too high.

Later, Arthur comes to find Merlin, who is standing in the empty goat shed staring at the milk pail.

“Sorry about before. I spent all morning thinking about my father. Thinking about what it will be like to return.” He slides an arm around Merlin, who wavers, not trusting how much Arthur remembers but desperate for this touch, this familiarity. Arthur draws him close, and kisses his shoulder. “So you managed to sell Betty then?”

Merlin nods, not willing to trust himself to words quite yet.

“I’ll miss her.”

He thinks of Betty, of her warm goaty smell and habit of kicking Arthur in the shins. He remembers Arthur drinking her warm milk, when he was still weak, of the strength it gave him. “Me too.”

“You always knew that we couldn’t stay here forever.”

“Sometimes I wish…”

“I know.”

Merlin turns so his face is close to Arthur’s. “One day, you will become king, and I will remember you milking a goat.”

“And I’ll catch your eye and I’ll know that you’re thinking of Betty.”

Merlin buries his head in Arthur’s shoulder, and says nothing at all. He’s not sure how much of this time Arthur will remember. But Merlin has a good memory: he will remember it all. Always.

Arthur is wearing the padded jerkin, and Merlin helps him to strap on the armour. The action is new and yet familiar, his fingers aching with the unaccustomed task, even as they know exactly what to do.

“You are ready now, my lord.” Arthur looks every inch the prince of Camelot.

There is a pause, a beat of the heart when Merlin waits for Arthur to tell him not to call him that, but Arthur doesn’t speak. He is still busy, checking over the armour. When Merlin catches sight of Arthur’s face, there is a hard set to his jaw, as if he is ready to go into battle, there and then. Merlin falters as he realises that this is who Arthur is now: the knight, Camelot’s prince, Merlin’s lord.

Merlin does not know if this is because Arthur is trying to be the Prince again, to remember what it is like to wield that power, or if it is simply that he is beginning to forget. Merlin does not want to know which it is, because whatever the reason, Merlin knows that this enchanted winter is now over.

Merlin stands in the doorway of what he has always known is little more than a hovel. But it has been his home. His, and Arthur’s. Without his possessions, it looks empty. There is still a stack of firewood in the corner, and a pile of rush lights on the shelf, but only the stink of tallow and wood smoke speak of recent occupation. Some clothes and blankets, the last of his salves, a meagre supply of money are all they have to carry. There is a little food, too – some dry bread, old cheese and wrinkled apples – but it is strange to think that in a week or so they will once more be eating food fit for a king, and sitting in the light of fragrant beeswax candles. Merlin wonders how much of this existence Arthur will remember when he returns to the riches he was born into.

He wonders how much Arthur will remember about any of his time here. The secret hope that Arthur will remember everything, that La Belle Dame is wrong, lies deep within Merlin. He doesn’t dare acknowledge it, because he can’t deny the strength of the curse they have both been under. Each time a bird sings he remembers.

“Come on.” Arthur is in his armour, and for Merlin the sight always brings with it a sense of two worlds blurring together. The prince of his memory stands, as impatient as ever, while his Arthur smiles gently.

With one final sigh, Merlin shuts the door. He doubts if he will ever return, but some part of him wishes to be able to. It is probably a terrible idea to perform tiring magic at the beginning of a long journey, but Merlin whispers the words to hide it from prying eyes anyway.

Arthur’s face is unreadable when Merlin joins him. They have a long walk ahead of them, and don’t look back.

When they stop to drink from a stream, Merlin sits on a fallen tree, easing himself down carefully until he is sure that it won’t roll over or crumble beneath him. He looks through the coins he has collected over the winter. There is enough money for some food, but what they really need are horses. They still have a long way to go.

A flash of light makes Merlin look up. Arthur is standing before him, his silver clasp in his hand. It is a familiar sight, often held between Arthur’s fingers as he sits, frowning, thinking about Camelot. It has been Arthur’s tie to his past when that history was still unknown. But when Merlin looks at it now, it is not Camelot he sees, but a small and rather shabby hut.

“This should be enough,” Arthur says. He sighs, and hands the clasp to Merlin. He won’t quite release it though, and his hand rests in Merlin’s.

“Are you sure?”

Arthur nods, but looks away when Merlin pockets it.

Selling the silver clasp brings them enough money to buy two horses. Merlin’s is an ugly brown mare, not long for this world. But she is gentle, and when Merlin looks in her eyes he feels that somehow she sees his pain; she nudges his hand with her nose and regards him with solemnity, and it makes him smile.

With Arthur sitting high on his grand horse, armour bright in the murky sunshine, and Merlin trailing behind on his old nag, they are once more master and servant. When they stop to make camp though, Arthur still pulls Merlin to him by the fire.

After a long day’s ride they reach a small town. When Merlin sees the look on Arthur’s face when they get to the inn, he knows that tonight they will not be sleeping under the stars.

The innkeeper has the portly stature of one who often partakes of his wares. He talks without cease, and the sound of it is both comforting and a little alarming after the months of quiet they’ve enjoyed. He shows them to their room, asking questions all the way there. He doesn’t seem to care whether they answer or not.

“Are you one of the knights looking for the lost prince?” he asks. “We’ve not had one come this way yet.”

Arthur gives him a half nod, but does not answer.

When they are alone, Merlin helps Arthur to remove his armour. He lays each piece out with care. Arthur has called for a bath, and the innkeeper’s wife and a quiet servant girl – or perhaps it is their daughter – make many trips up to the room, bringing enough hot water to fill a wooden tub.

“At last,” Arthur says. “I don’t have to stink any more.”

“You do realise that another few days riding in your armour will undo any good this does?”

“I don’t care, Merlin! I haven’t had a bath since I left Camelot.”

“You’ve washed—”

“It’s not the same. I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”

“Do… do you need any help?” Merlin looks at Arthur from under lowered lashes.

Arthur scowls. “Do I look like a child? I’ll be fine.”

Merlin does help, in the end. He picks Arthur’s clothes off the floor, and pours Arthur some wine. He watches Arthur walk naked to the tub, knowing how every inch of skin feels, tastes, smells. He waits, hoping that soon Arthur will call him over to scrub his back, or even to join him.

“Do you think Morgana’s returned yet?”

“I– I don’t know.” Merlin doesn’t care about Morgana. He doesn’t care about anything other than Arthur. He wants to cross the room to Arthur, and kiss him, kiss him until he remembers. Instead he builds the fire up, his back to Arthur.

“My poor father. It must have been hard for him, this winter.”

“Yes,” says Merlin. “Very hard, I’m sure.”

That night Merlin sleeps on a pallet in the corner. Alone.

A soft rain begins to fall, washing the colour from the far hills. A song of joy pulls Merlin’s attention skyward, and he envies the birds their happiness, and their freedom. His eyes fall again on Arthur’s back, broad beneath his cloak. Arthur will be welcomed back as a hero, a saviour, when they reach Camelot. He will be pulled into lengthy discussions with long-faced men, and fierce bear-hugs with his knights. Merlin will retreat into the background. And sleep at night in his narrow bed, missing the soft snores and sprawling limbs of his liege and lord.

He can see the soft curl of hair at Arthur’s neck, and remembers the feel of it threaded through his fingers. His throat feels tight with grief, and he swallows down with difficulty. The price is too high, and he longs to pull them back, back to the fog of forgetfulness and their humble home by the lake. But he knows that he cannot.

It is too painful to look at Arthur, and Merlin turns his head, blinking away tears.

The rhythm of the ride soothes Merlin, and slowly he clears his mind. He gazes ahead, without thinking. Gradually he becomes aware of what he sees: sharp green leaves poking up through the ground; the small bumps of nascent buds dotting passing branches; glimpses of shocks of white, half-unfurled hawthorn blossom; the odd squirrel hopping along a branch, russet tail bouncing. Winter is over, and spring is coming.

As they ride towards Camelot, faces turn and mouths open at the sight of the prince returning. By Merlin’s reckoning it has been half a year they have been away, maybe a little more: when Arthur disappeared it was mid-summer.

Red cloaks appear on the horizon. Fine men on fine horses, armour bright despite the rain. Merlin needs to know if it has all gone now, all the memories, all that they have shared during their involuntary exile.

“Arthur?”

“Yes, I see them. We’re nearly home.” Arthur turns in his saddle. “You’re not going to start complaining about something, are you?”

“No. I just…”

Arthur turns back to face the approaching knights. “What is it?”

“I’m glad I found you.”

With one more glance over his shoulder, Arthur smiles. “So am I.” Then he spurs his horse on, and they ride to meet the knights.

Sir Leon is the first of the knights to greet them. His open face is tender with emotion as he calls Arthur’s name. He swings around to Merlin.

“You found him! We thought that you were lost, too.”

Merlin feels a pang at the thought of Gaius, worrying about him.

“What happened?” Leon pulls in beside Arthur.

“I was cursed by a sorceress, who left me for dead. Merlin here found me, and nursed me back to health. I– my memory of the time is dim.”

“As soon as Arthur was strong enough, we came back,” says Merlin. He would rather like to disappear, to fly away like one of the birds overhead. He would fly all the way to the sun, singing of his loss.

“You’ve been gone months. The leaves were still on the trees when you disappeared.”

“A foul enchantment indeed, to make me lose so much time. But tell me, how is my father?”

Merlin rides behind Arthur and the knights. He looks at Arthur’s broad shoulders, and knows that even though he will have to tell the king and his advisors of the curse they have been under, his part in this story is finished. There will be many more to come, he is sure; but this one, of heated nights and gentle touches, is over.

The sky continues its subdued weeping, the rain more mist than anything. Merlin is glad, for his tears are hidden as they continue the ride back to Camelot.

The rain slowly clears, and by the time they ride through the lower town, a weak sun smiles down on them. Uther stands by the gate to the keep with Gaius beside him, and in that moment Merlin can forgive the king every harsh word he has spoken about magic, because he sees both the new lines of worry on his face and the look of love he gives Arthur.

As for Gaius… Merlin had thought all his memories returned, but the nearer he gets to Gaius, the more he remembers about the man who has been like a father to him. When Gaius sweeps him into a hug, Merlin feels his tenuous control over his emotions begin to slip. His throat is tight with tears, but at least he remembers that he is not alone.

Back in Gaius’s chambers, Merlin looks around with a stranger’s eyes, at the flasks and books and herbs. He remembers the first time he saw this room, the hope that filled him. Gaius is talking, but Merlin doesn’t really hear the words. His mind is still trying to comprehend that the winter is over, that he must go back to his old life.

“Merlin?” Gaius frowns and leans forward to touch Merlin’s sleeve.

“Sorry. I’m just tired.”

Gaius sighs. “It sounds like a hard winter. I’m glad you’re back: I’d almost begun to think that I wouldn’t see you again.” His smile is kind, but Merlin can see the pain in it. His heart aches for Gaius, who has been waiting and hurting too. “You should get some rest. Your room is ready for you.”

Merlin nods, and pushes away his untouched food. An empty room sounds inviting; he wants to be alone, to lose himself to memories, and then the peace of sleep.

The evening sky runs from pale blue to softest blush, and the old castle stones glow gold with the light of the day’s end. Beyond the great walls and gates, branches laden with tender new leaf nod gently as a blackbird salutes the setting sun. Tomorrow will be another day.

Epilogue

 

Low voices fill the woods. After a hard day’s ride, the knights and their king are happy to make camp. Gwaine tells a bawdy tale, but Arthur seems lost as he sits by the fire. Merlin watches, as he always does. As the firelight turns Arthur’s hair gold like honey, Merlin is assailed by memories. He can still taste the sweetness on Arthur’s lips, and the warmth of waking wrapped in Arthur’s arms. In the dimness of the night, in the silence of the roosting birds overhead, their eyes meet. Is there a glimmer of recognition or memory in Arthur’s eyes? Merlin can never tell. His heart hopes, always, but Arthur never speaks of their lost winter.

Merlin sees again dark nights, snowfall; the mournful silhouette of bare winter trees. Wood smoke gets in Merlin’s eyes, and he blinks away the tears. When he looks again, Arthur’s gaze has moved on and Merlin is alone with his thoughts and regrets. Is Arthur haunted by dreams, by memories, the way Merlin is? Does he ever long to reach out and touch Merlin, the way Merlin does him? These questions bring more pain than comfort. He doesn’t think that Arthur remembers anything, but sometimes their fingers touch, or Arthur sighs, and Merlin is left wondering again.

As sparks rise, red and gold, from the fire, Merlin lingers on the memory of those few days when Arthur knew of his magic. Whatever happens now, he will always have that memory, that knowledge that Arthur could indeed accept that Merlin is a sorcerer. He knows that one day he will tell Arthur again. Who knows, perhaps at some point they will find La Belle Dame, and Merlin will destroy her curse. He holds onto the hope. It is all that he has.

A skein of geese fly past, but do not dip down to the lake. They have their sights fixed on some far-off destination. But for Merlin, his journey ends here. He stares out across the water. Light reflects off the surface, a thousand shards of broken sun. There is a hole where Merlin’s heart once thrummed.

Autumn hovers near, the trees at the water’s edge touched by the merest brush of yellow and gold. Merlin sees no colour, except for when he closes his eyes, and hears the roar of battle at Camlann, and sees again the red of Arthur’s life, seeping away.

There is nothing left for Merlin but to wait. He could have stayed in Camelot, he knows. They wanted him to help, but he has done enough. It would not be the same, without Arthur.

He gave up his chance to be happy, all those years ago.

When she appears, skin still pale and flawless, he realises that he was expecting this, that he was waiting for her. The birds have always brought him news of far off lands, but they have remained silent on the subject of the Lady, La Belle Dame. Arthur looked for her for a while, seeking to punish the enchantress who had cursed him to lose so much, but to no avail. Over the years she has been all but forgotten, leaving only Merlin to continue the search.

Deep down he has always suspected that it would happen like this, that she was not someone to search for or find.

“It has come to pass as I said that it would,” she says. Her voice is like cold water down his spine.

Merlin nods.

“And do you still think that you made the right choice?” She turns to face him, her eyes as cold as the lake, but bright with light too.

A breeze pushes ripples across the water. In the distance, Merlin can hear the chatter of birds. He has made many choices, in his life. He sees again, in his mind’s eye, the great dragon Kilgharrah, and hears his words. Arthur is not just a king. He is the Once and Future King. Take heart, for when Albion's need is greatest: Arthur will rise again.

He does not turn back to The Lady, but instead keeps his eyes on the water. Even in his sadness, he knows that this is not the end. When he turns back, she has gone.

He will go to find his small hut, to live with his memories and wait. It will, he believes, be worth it in the end. Arthur will rise again, and without the curse, it will be different. Next time.

Merlin hears the rushing hush of rain, as it passes over the heavy leaves of summer. He steps out from under the arching oak, into the half-light of angry grey clouds. The trees have grown over the years, and yet they never really change.

Wet, wet, wet, cheeps a chaffinch, in the green above.

As Merlin stands still to listen to the gentle tapping become a drumming roar, the rain begins to soak through his clothes, cold upon his skin. Water drips down his beard, grown as he cannot bear to shave again. In his little hut, the act brings back too many memories of Arthur.

His life is a simple one. There is comfort in the familiarity of his days. He chops wood, fetches water, and takes walks along the lake shore. He waits, and at least this time he knows what it is he seeks.

Across the land, songs are sung and tales are told of the great King Arthur, but there remains one story that is known only to Merlin and the birds. It is sung to the morning sun, lamented under the midnight moon, and trilled from hedgerows, river banks and the deepest forests. Sometimes Merlin listens. More often than not though, he doesn’t need to. The words are engraved on his heart.

The sound of rain and leaves and wind is all that he can hear now; the birds are silent. Merlin looks up into the grey sky and rain, then begins to walk. He will wait, to find what he seeks. He has done so before, and he will wait until the end of days if need be.

The memory of honey is on his lips as he strides away.

And this is why I sojourn here
    Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake, 
    And no birds sing.