Special thanks to my wonderful betas: Binglejells - who didn’t know me from Bob when I asked if she’d be willing to sign on as a beta for a potential monstrosity – and did so, with bells on! Lilithilien - handholder, cheerleader, taskmaster and no-holds-barred editor who didn’t bat an eye when I told her I wanted to slap her because she said something didn’t work and I had to rewrite it. This story would not have happened without her insight, encouragement, brilliant ideas and occasional whip cracking. And to my cheerleaders: Beeej - who was here while Lilith was away to say “It’s good!” and “Keep going!” when I needed a pat on the back, and Moonlitpines - who pushed and prodded me along at the end when all I wanted to do was play video games. And most very much not the least, Ladyflowdi - who took the bad smut and made it good. (I feel obligated to add in a mention of my husband and daughter, who for the last few days before the first draft due date kept asking every evening “Are you done yet?” and refused to let me download that new video game until I was. There’s nothing like a little domestic support for fandom things.)
* A glossary of the Old English used for spells is included at the end of the fic.
Table of Contents
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where-" said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
"-so long as I get SOMEWHERE," Alice added as an explanation.
"Oh,A you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."
~Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
The Wyrd Sisters, for that is how they are known among the men of Albion, gather round the shallow pool of glimmering water, intent on the struggles playing out before them. They are known as the spinner, the weaver and inevitability, but to each other they are Wrencan, Wefan, and Gewiss, and their true forms have never been glimpsed by mortal man.
“His power has grown quickly.” Wefan’s brow knits together in dismay.
Gewiss seems less disturbed by this turn of events than her sister. “It has always been and always shall be.”
“The sorceress's demise is unexpected. Without the Dragon, there is no guide.”
“He is a selfish fool,” Wrencan tells them quietly. “Decades of captivity have made it crazed. We can no longer rely on the Dragon.”
“They are not ready,” Wefan insists. She glances toward her fair-haired sister. “They must have a guide.”
Wrencan nods in agreement. “The sorceress has a destiny that must be fulfilled. She shall return. She will be called Nyneve, and she will be given another chance. Are we in agreement?”
“So it is.”
“And so it shall be.”
The ride back from the Isle of the Blessed is a long and silent one. While Gaius had initially expressed nothing but pleasure over Nimueh’s demise, there remains an unspoken something that settles between him and Merlin. It hangs in the quiet between them, thick and choking until Merlin thinks he might suffocate from it before they reach the gates of Camelot. He ignores the furtive glances cast in his direction; he rides, staring ahead, ignoring the clouds behind him in the distance, and the sinking feeling that nothing will ever be the same.
It is late at night when they finally reach the city. Two days ago, Merlin had left Camelot, fully expecting not to return. Now that he is here, riding across the portcullis into the courtyard, he realises he had been right.
That Merlin is dead.
Hunith sees it instantly, and Merlin hates himself a little bit for that. After he relieves Gwen, thanking her for her vigilance at his mother’s bedside, Hunith awakes, smiling at the sight of him. And then he takes her hand and forces a smile in return, and she sees it. She looks into his eyes, and her own fill with tears, and then she pulls him to her.
He does not cry with her.
He wonders what it is she sees. She has not asked him anything, and as he sits across from her at the table while Gaius moves – slower than usual, Merlin notes – around them, bringing each their breakfast, he realises he is too afraid to ask. Hunith makes pleasant conversation with Gaius, smiles when appropriate, and seems so much stronger than before Merlin had returned to the Isle of the Blessed. But there is a difference in how she looks at him, the occasional glance across the table, the sad smile she offers before taking a bite of her meal.
Merlin makes fists under the table and stares at his food.
“I believe I shall be fit enough to make the journey back to Ealdor tomorrow.”
“What?” Merlin looks up sharply at her words. “You can’t. I mean… you could stay here.”
Beside him, Gaius remains silent, moving the spoon about in his bowl of porridge.
“You know I cannot,” Hunith says softly, meeting his gaze and holding it for the first time that morning. “Ealdor is my home. I don’t belong here.”
“Then I’ll go back with you.”
He knows the words are a lie the moment he says them, and his mother does not bother responding, dropping her eyes back to the bowl before her and quietly eating. Merlin presses his own meal away, having little appetite. If it bothers Gaius or Hunith, neither of them says. The same silence that seemed to hang between himself and Gaius has now spread to his mother.
Merlin is beginning to wonder if there will be anyone left he can speak to.
It is from Morgana that Arthur first hears of Merlin’s return.
His shoulder still bothers him, and with strict instructions from Gaius, he is unable to return to training with his knights until further notice. He hates feeling like an invalid, so he trains by himself in his chambers, thrusting and parrying against his imaginary opponent. Arthur needs the physical activity; otherwise he would simply sit around, stewing in his own thoughts, wondering where the hell his servant had gone off to and why the last thing he had said to Arthur had sounded so much like goodbye.
Merlin annoys Arthur to no end. He has yet to have ever made any sense to Arthur. And yet every time he exits Arthur’s life there always seems to be… well, something missing. Not that Arthur will admit such a thing to Merlin, or even himself, but he feels it just the same. The distinct lack of something. It makes him more restless than usual, filling him with the need to go off and –
He stabs at his invisible opponent, imagining a killing blow, but whatever smile may have appeared is replaced by a wince as pain shoots through his shoulder. Frustration sweeps over him at the weakness and he tosses his sword across the room. It skitters over the floor, landing at Morgana's feet, where she stands just inside the door. Arthur sighs, half with regret at what could have happened, and half in acknowledgement of what he knew was coming.
“Playing with your imaginary friend?” she asks, perfect brow sweeping upwards mockingly. “I thought you gave that up years ago. Looks as if he is still beating you.”
Arthur chooses to ignore the tease. “I’m sorry about that.” He waves a hand toward the sword as she bends gracefully to pick it up.
“It is nothing to apologise for. After all, it is not as if your aim has ever been particularly good.”
“Is it your sole purpose in life to abuse me, Morgana?” He sits gingerly in the chair beside the hearth, reaching up to place his hand against the mending wound at his shoulder.
Her eyes widen a bit, and it really does not make her look as innocent as she is attempting. “Not my sole purpose, no, but it is fun.” She moves over to him, placing a soft hand against his uninjured shoulder. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” he snaps.
Morgana is used to his surliness so she does little more than smile at the response. “Merlin has returned.”
“Oh? Was he gone?”
Morgana rolls her eyes at him and pinches the shoulder beneath her fingers. “Gwen told me this morning when she returned from tending to Hunith –“
“Hunith?” Arthur ignores any stabbing sensation in his shoulder as he stands and turns to stare at her. “What is Hunith doing here? And why was Gwen tending to her?”
Failing once more in her attempt to look innocent, she asks, “Did Merlin not tell you? His mother has been ill.”
And just like that, Arthur stomps out the door.
Merlin knows he is avoiding Arthur. He tells himself he simply wishes to spend time with his mother, and then offers to help Gaius because of what the physician has been through, and he should rest. But really, he is avoiding the inevitable because he knows Arthur, and he knows Arthur is going to ask questions, and he knows he is not in the mood to deal with those questions right now. He wishes that he could understand a little better what has happened to him. Ever since his confrontation with Nimueh, things have been different. He is different; he feels it. It is as if before he had only suspected what he was capable of, or maybe had not even questioned. And now... now there is so much more. The air around him feels charged like the air before a storm. He has to repeatedly stop himself from automatically using his ability. Insects are easiest. There is no reason to feel remorse and Gaius never catches him doing it. He sees one, focuses on it, conjures an idea in his mind, and it winks out of existence. It has never been so easy before. It is terrifying and addictive. He cannot stop himself.
And still, Merlin knows what Gaius would say if he caught him using magic even for simple tasks or play. So he pretends to leaf through a book on anatomy while occasionally flashing furtive glances in his mother’s direction where she is softly talking to the physician.
The door opens, and Merlin looks up to see Arthur step inside, eyes narrowed into a familiar expression of annoyance. Their gazes meet, however briefly, and then Arthur glances away from Merlin to where Hunith and Gaius are both coming to their feet. Hunith immediately offers a small curtsy as Gaius utters a greeting.
“Hunith.” Arthur walks toward her. “Forgive me for not coming by sooner but I was not” – his eyes flash quickly toward Merlin and back to her – “informed that you were here.”
Merlin can tell his mother is appreciative of the prince’s attention. Admittedly, when he actually tries to behave like a human being, Arthur does seem to have a way with people.
“Your Highness, you are very kind,” Hunith tells him with a smile.
Arthur seems to flinch at her compliment, discomfort wafting momentarily across his face. It is one of those things that if a person did not have the chance to get to know Arthur, they would never realise how much he despised being acknowledged for… most everything, really. Merlin has learnt that he hates being thanked, hates being told when he does decent things. Merlin is certain the only person from whom Arthur truly craves such recognition is his father.
“I hear that you were ill.” Arthur gives Merlin another quick look. “I trust you are better?”
“Yes, sire.” Hunith hesitates only a moment. “Thanks to Gaius.”
Arthur smiles tightly. “Yes, well, seems you’ve been flooded with patients recently, Gaius.”
“If only they all had the bedside manner Hunith has displayed,” Gaius says, and Merlin allows himself a small smile at the barely contained flicker of annoyance on Arthur’s face as he realises he has just been insulted. Gaius continues as if not noticing, “I thought I had suggested you keep the sling on for another day, sire?”
“As you say, you suggested,” Arthur points out, flexing his shoulders to make a point that he is fine. He glances back at Hunith. “It is good to see you again. If you do not mind, your son has been woefully derelict in his duties and I am afraid I need to… borrow him.”
Merlin’s eyes snap over to Arthur as his mother murmurs her understanding. “Arthur, I would rather – “
“Now, Merlin.” Arthur’s jaw actually clenches.
Ignoring the pleading look from his mother, Merlin frowns at Arthur but follows him out the door. The moment it closes behind them, Arthur turns to him.
“Thank you for informing me that your mother was here, Merlin,” he begins. “And that she was ill. I have always been appreciative of the easy communication we share.”
He is not sorry. He moves around Arthur to start down the steps toward the courtyard. Some part of his mind starts to wonder if he would have eventually blamed Arthur had Hunith died.
“Sorry?” Arthur follows behind him. “First I was wondering if you had left for good, having had no idea where you’d gone, and then I have to find out from Morgana – Morgana - that your mother has been ill. Anything else you would like to share with me, Merlin? Like maybe that you are actually a competent servant, and you have just been pretending all this time to be an idiot!”
“You’re not my keeper,” is all he can think to say.
“Actually, I am.”
Arthur moves ahead of him, taking the lead across the courtyard and back up the steps into the castle. There is an occasional glance in his direction, as if Arthur is waiting for Merlin to say something, except there is nothing he can think to say. It would be like removing one pebble from a mountain of pebbles – they all start to tumble. He cannot explain his absence without explaining his mother’s illness without explaining Arthur’s recovery without explaining what he actually is. And then there would be more admissions, and at the end of it all, a chopping block, with his head on it.
So he says nothing, all the way back to Arthur’s chambers, which appear tidier than usual; he supposes that has to do with whoever had taken over for him during his absence.
Honestly, Merlin does sometimes wonder why Arthur keeps him around.
“So where have you been?” Arthur stops beside the table. It is only in that moment that Merlin realises he still moves with a slight stiffness, favouring his shoulder.
“Does it matter? I’m back, aren’t I?”
“Yes, well, I have yet to decide if that is a good thing or not.”
Merlin just shakes his head, trying not to notice Arthur's wince as he sits down. He walks to the fire, crouching before it to toss on a few logs from the pile to the side, reaching out for the poker to stoke it.
“You’re really not going to tell me, are you?” Arthur seems surprised by this realisation. When Merlin turns to glance over his shoulder at him, the prince is frowning as their gazes hold for a moment. “I don’t like secrets, Merlin. Wherever you were… what if you had needed my help?”
He looks away quickly, suppressing the unreasonable laughter that bubbles up inside of him. He pokes at the fire once more before standing. “I don’t need your help.”
It is true, and something about the statement makes Merlin feel lonelier than he ever has. He sets the poker aside and turns to look at Arthur, whose frown has deepened, but he’s no longer looking at Merlin.
“Is there anything else that you need, sire? Otherwise, I will muck out your horses.”
Arthur shakes his head.
Merlin leaves before their discussion can continue.
Its late afternoon when Arthur is alone in his room. He had dined with the king, an elaborate lunch meant to help speed his recovery, and Arthur cannot honestly remember the last time he and his father had simply sat together and talked. There had been no orders given, no arguments between them, no discussion of the weightier matters affecting the kingdom. They had talked of hunting, and the best spots for fishing, and upcoming tournaments around the neighbouring kingdoms. Arthur had left with the oddest feeling of… fulfilment, he supposes, and it still lingers as he gazes out his window, watching his knights’ sparring below.
The knock at his door is soft, and he ignores it at first until it comes again. He glances over his shoulder. “Enter.”
Hunith steps inside, dropping her gaze as he stares at her in surprise. “Your Highness, I hope I am not interrupting –“
“Of course not.” He moves away from the window, offering her his full attention and a friendly smile. “Is there something I can do for you?”
“I…” She appears hesitant, hands clasped before her, wringing together. “I have no right to ask –”
“Nonsense,” he says it immediately and means it. “You may ask anything of me.”
The look she flashes him embarrasses Arthur. He has never understood what exactly he is supposed to do with the appreciation people offer him. He has only ever done what he is required to do; he is the crown prince, and when his people need him, he means to be there. And though Hunith may not live within the borders of Camelot, she is as important as any other subject in all of Albion. More, perhaps, but Arthur cannot quite bring himself to admit that just yet.
“Well…” He watches as she draws that strength around her he found himself so admiring when she had come to ask the king for help. She steps up to the table standing between them, and lightly rests her fingers against it as she meets his gaze. “It’s about my son.”
“Merlin?” Arthur raises his brow. He is not expecting that. “What about him?”
“Lately, he’s been…” She pauses, as if trying to find the right words. “He has a tendency to keep things bottled up.”
Arthur barely suppresses his snort.
“You’re… a good friend to him, sire. I’ve seen how you care for him.”
Crossing his arms over his chest, Arthur glances away from her steady gaze. “Yes, well, he is my servant and –”
“Oh, it’s much more than that.” When Arthur looks back at her, shocked into silence at her words, she drops her eyes to the table. “Few would have done what you did for Ealdor, and I know that was because of Merlin.”
He wants to argue that point but the words do not come.
“I don’t know if he’s ever said so but it matters to him. I know it does.”
Arthur is beginning to understand where Merlin gets his ability to dance around subjects. He purses his lips slightly, taking a step forward in the hopes that she will come to whatever point it was she is trying to make. “Hunith.”
She looks back up at him and smiles, and her inability to simply express what she is trying to say is instantly forgiven. “A mother worries, especially when separated by such distance from her child. But I know… well, I feel comfort in knowing that Merlin has you. And I know you have no obligation to do so, but should my son ever have the need to… talk to you, I ask please that you listen to him. I believe there is much that he needs to say, but I think he fears there is no one around to listen.”
There is an odd feeling in the pit of his stomach, like the remembered blows from Knight Valiant slamming into him over and over again. Similar words were spoken to him by Merlin, just before he ran off to wherever it was he had run off to: you must learn to listen. Well, and there was the whole thing about being a prat, but he doubts Hunith would ever speak to him in such a way. No, only ever Merlin.
And Morgana, of course.
“Hunith…” he begins again, wanting to reassure her, but not quite certain how. He hesitates as she steps around the table, smiling at him again.
“I know he’s safe with you,” she says, and she leans up and presses a light kiss to his cheek. “Thank you for taking care of my son, sire.”
She is gone not moments after and Arthur cannot help but think there was some hidden important meaning in her words to him.
Merlin does not take Arthur his evening meal. He asks a chamber maid to do it for him, choosing to evade the prince for as long as he can. He spends time with his mother until she grows tired and he bids her goodnight. Restless, he makes his way outside, sitting on the steps in the courtyard and staring up at the night sky. He cannot help but notice that ever since his confrontation with Nimueh, everything around him feels different. Merlin wonders if he has always known; if somewhere deep inside he had always been certain that he could simply raise his fingers and command the very elements. He stretches his hand out in front of him, and the light breeze wafts over his skin; like tendrils it seems to wrap around his hands, twisting through his fingers, curling over his wrist. His to command, to guide, like the small wind storm he had created in Ealdor.
If there is a drought, can I end it? he thinks, remembering the clouds as they had gathered ominously above him. If there is a flood, can I command the waters to recede? Trembling slightly at the very thought, Merlin wraps his arms around his chest and huddles in on himself. He had always been very proud of his magic; now he realises he is just a little bit afraid of it. Afraid of what he might choose to do with it when pushed.
“I get the feeling you are avoiding me.”
Merlin does not bother turning to look up at Arthur as he feels him come to stand on the step beside him. His shoulders tense, though, as he reins in the feel of the air around him, fingers curling into fists against his arms. “I’m not.”
“You did not bring my evening meal.”
“My mother needed me.” It is kind of unfair of him to use that excuse because he knows Arthur will not question it.
Arthur is quiet for a moment, and then, “Why are you out here?”
The sigh Arthur utters is a familiar one; filled with the frustration he has never had a problem expressing. “What am I going to do with you, Merlin?”
It is an odd question and actually causes Merlin to glance up at the prince. But Arthur is not looking at him, his gaze focused on a distant something on the other side of the courtyard. He finds himself wanting to offer an explanation, however imperfect.
“I’m sorry. I just… ever since my mother showed up ill and I didn’t know what to do for her and…” He trails off a moment, searching for the right words as he waves his hand in front of him. “And you were dying and…”
Now Arthur is looking down at him. “I most assuredly was not dying.” His tone says he refuses to believe such a thing could have been possible. “But I am pleased that you were worried about me.”
Merlin frowns at him. “That’s not what I – I wasn’t worried about you.”
Arthur smirks and Merlin realises it is foolish to try to argue the point. Shaking his head, he wraps his arms around his legs and drops his chin onto his knees. Silence stretches between them for a few moments before Arthur speaks again.
“You say I need to learn to listen, Merlin. I’m listening now.”
It figures. Merlin sighs, wishing he understood why everything seems so difficult suddenly. “I don’t… I have nothing that needs to be said.” And then he thinks, If only you had listened before.
He is surprised when, instead of arguing with him or demanding he think of something to say, Arthur sits down on the step beside him, their shoulders brushing briefly. The heat of Arthur’s body beside his seeps into him, and Merlin finds himself leaning just a bit closer, and still Arthur says nothing, just sits there, offering silent companionship. Merlin hates it a little bit when Arthur is like this; when he suddenly ceases being a prat and allows Merlin to see a little bit of the great king he will one day be. He hates it because if Arthur had just always remained a prat, Merlin might not care as much as he does. He might not have to feel as if his entire life is tied up in this one person, not because it is meant to be, but because he wants it. It is moments like this when Merlin knows he is right where he wants to be, and he cannot imagine anything changing that.
No matter what he might become.
“When I was six,” Arthur begins, breaking the silence, his fingers tapping idly against his knee. “I decided that my father should remarry so I could have a mother.”
Merlin glances over at him in surprise. Not in all the time they have known each other has Arthur ever spoken of his mother.
“I remember my father just looked at me and patted me on the head. So I took it upon myself to find one. My nanny would not do – she just was not queen material. I went down into the town and began knocking on doors. I remember there was this contingent of my father's guards following along behind me, house to house. And to each woman who opened the door I would ask ‘Will you be my mother?’, and they would just stare at me, obviously in shock. How exactly are they supposed to say no to the little prince?” Arthur snorts softly. “I had an armload of sweets by the end of the day, and one of my father’s knights had to carry me back because I was so tired. Never found a mother, though.”
Merlin does not know if he is supposed to respond or not, so he simply sits there, watching Arthur.
When Arthur frowns, as if he realises he has said too much, and then adds, “Your mother… you are lucky to have her.”
It takes a moment for Merlin to understand there is a point to what Arthur just did; that he is offering an intimate look inside of himself in an attempt to make it easier for Merlin to do the same. Only, sharing the fact that you miss the mother you never knew is a little different from ‘Hey, I’m a sorcerer and I used that magic to kill someone because she made me angry.’ So Merlin just sits there, knowing Arthur is waiting for him to respond with something deep and thoughtful, and he has no idea what he should say.
Arthur finally turns to him, their eyes meeting, and Merlin draws in a breath as a sudden need to just say everything rushes through him. He trusts me, Merlin thinks, and then just as quickly the desire to tell him everything dissipates, and Merlin is left with nothing once more.
“Sire, I…” He has to look away from the probing blue eyes focusing on him. He rubs his thumb back and forth over his lips, thinking. Finally, he says with as much honesty as he can allow himself, “I wish I were worthy of my mother’s love.”
“What in God’s name are you talking about?” Arthur sounds annoyed. “Aside from being a horrible manservant, I am at a loss for why you would think such a thing.”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Well, at least we can agree on that much.”
Merlin makes a face at him and Arthur rolls his eyes in response, and it is odd how easily they can fall back into this when everything feels so different.
“I’m sorry I disappeared.” He does not know where it comes from, but it feels right to say.
Arthur frowns slightly, looks back out at the darkened courtyard. His fingers stray to his wounded shoulder, rubbing against it. “There was obviously something you felt you needed to take care of.” The unspoken words hang in the air between them: Next time, let me help.
Stretching his legs out in front of him, Arthur leans back onto his elbow on the step behind them. It shifts him a little closer to Merlin, their thighs pressing together. Neither seems to find it necessary to move. “I expect you to be up early tomorrow. I want to get back to training with my knights.”
“But Gaius said -–”
“Last time I checked, I was the crown prince. Not Gaius.”
Merlin smirks, watching as Arthur reaches out, plucking a piece of lint from Merlin’s sleeve. The intimacy of the gesture both thrills and soothes him. “Prat.”
When Arthur glances up at him, offering a smile in return, his eyes twinkle brightly in the moonlight. “Idiot.”
This time they drift into a comfortable silence.
They gather within the circle of stone, the Sisters Three, enshrouded and purposeful. Forming a triangle, they chant in the words of the Old Religion. It is Wrencan who steps forward, hands rising to the sky, beseeching the very elements that begin to swirl about them. Wind and rain rages through and around the triangle.
“Wé ácíege ðu, Nimueh! Eftcyme fram díegol ond æfnest úre géosceaft! Onwæcan, Nimueh! Eftcyme æt þý hwearft ond befylgest þý síþfæt ácorena be sé Burgrún! Onwæcan, Nimueh! Onwæcan!”
Gewiss and Wefan pick up the chant. “Onwæcan! Onwæcan! Onwæcan!”
Wrencan bends down, a bag clutched between her thin fingers. The bag is overturned, its contents scattering about the ground – bits of cloth, strands of hair, and pieces of bone. The wind picks up, the remnants of the bag eddying within its grasp, twisting and spiralling upwards as lightning cracks through the sky.
Stepping back, she returns to complete the triangle and their chant continues to build.
“Onwæcan, Nimueh! Onwæcan!”
The air grows heavy and the Sisters grow still, voices’ fading as a bolt of lightning descends toward the centre of the stones.
Silence follows until a sharp note of high-pitched laughter fills the void.
From the moment he steps onto the training field, Arthur can tell that his knights are going easy on him. The blows do not come as hard as they should, their footwork appears clumsy and stilted, and whenever one of them does seem to accidentally get the upper hand, he notices the surreptitious glances they quickly cast toward one another. Frustration fills him as the behaviour continues throughout the morning. His shoulder aches and he is more winded than he is used to, and the knowledge of his own potential weakness only serves to stir his anger further. It is when Sir Gareth loses against him entirely too easily that Arthur’s temper finally snaps. He calls Gareth the worst knight he has ever faced before turning away. Pulling off his helm, he tosses it to the ground and stomps over to where Merlin is watching on the sidelines, a flask of water held out to him as he approaches.
“Every single one of them is fighting me as if I am… a girl,” Arthur says as he takes the flask from Merlin. “They are giving ground on purpose.”
Merlin flashes him a look as if to say that is the most obvious statement Arthur has ever made. Arthur is fairly certain every time he says ‘You’re an idiot’, he is being far more obvious.
“You really can’t blame them, sire. You are the only person out here who thinks you should be out here.”
Arthur swallows back a mouthful of water and gives Merlin his most terrible frown. “I am not an invalid, Merlin.”
“No.” Merlin takes the skin from him and leans against the sword rack. “But you did almost die.” If there is an odd tone to Merlin’s voice when he says it, Arthur tries not to notice. “And every one of them,” he nods toward the field of knights, “will have a hard time forgetting that.”
“And you, Merlin?” He is only teasing when he asks. “Are you having a hard time forgetting it?”
There is a flicker of something in Merlin’s gaze, and then he smiles broadly. “I’m having a hard time forgetting I was almost out of a job.”
“Yes, we wouldn’t want that, now would we?”
Arthur glances back out to the field, watching as Gareth and Cador square off against one another. He frowns as Gareth’s skill against the other knight is significantly improved since facing his prince. He shifts his shoulder slightly, the pain growing the longer he wears his armour, the longer he holds his shield in his hand. Knowing he cannot exactly ask Merlin to run and get him something for the pain from Gaius as he would never hear the end of it, Arthur draws in a slight breath and steps back out onto the field, scooping up his helm as he passes it. He steps over to his knights, pleased that they are at least eyeing him warily, as if they are entirely certain he knows what they have been doing all morning.
“Imagine my surprise at discovering that my knights have grown so… inadequate,” he begins, watching as at least half of them raise their chins in challenge. “It seems as if I will have to intensify my search for warriors worthy of being knights of Camelot, as this group appears to be sorely lacking.”
When they all look suitably outraged at his words, Arthur slips his helm back on and says, “Now, which of you is prepared to fight your prince instead of insulting him?”
He is not entirely surprised when it is Gawain who steps forward. In fact, he is pleased by it. Of any of his knights, Arthur knows Gawain will provide the most accurate test of his fitfulness to return to his duties. Giving his knight a nod of acknowledgement, Arthur turns and makes his way out into the centre of the training area, turning and crouching slightly into ready position.
Gawain immediately launches into an aggressive attack, and Arthur is not used to being on the defensive. He staggers slightly under the first few blows before finally gaining his footing and pushing back against Gawain's attack. Their contest is not pretty. Gawain's attacks come too quickly, without forethought, fuelled by irritation. Arthur knows his own responses are growing sluggish – each blow against his shield vibrates up his shoulder and through his torso. He falls back twice before taking on the offensive once more; forcing himself past the pain and the exhaustion to drive Gawain down the field. When he moves to strike a vertical cut, Gawain ducks and somersaults to his right, sweeping his legs beneath Arthur's feet. Arthur jumps, but just barely, then lands incorrectly on his left ankle and stumbles. He rights himself quickly, spinning just in time to block Gawain's horizontal cut with his shield. The sword lands with such force it feels as if the bones of his arm shatter, and Arthur draws his arm back, thrusting forward with his sword, forcing Gawain to block.
“Need a nap, my lord?” From anyone else it would have been an insult. From Gawain, it is friendly banter.
“Why? Are you hoping for a break?”
The knight chuckles as he spins, sweeping an arc back toward Arthur's shield; he has obviously caught on to his prince's weakness. Arthur drops to his knee to block, bringing his sword up and Gawain dances out of reach, eyes flashing with surprise as Arthur moves him back into defence. Arthur pauses just a moment as they both settle back into position, blinking away the drops of sweat burning his eyes. Shifting the set of his shield, he moves forward again; horizontal cut to the left, swinging cut to the right, horizontal left, vertical. Gawain parries and brings up his shield, slamming it into Arthur's stomach, pushing him back. Arthur's own shield wrenches back with the movement, pulling at his shoulder, and he falters slightly, losing sight of Gawain's sword arm only for a moment. It is just enough though to cause Arthur to miscalculate, and he expects a vertical when Gawain sweeps to his left. Arthur does not correct in time and the surprising feel of steel cutting through his leg is enough to knock him off balance. He hits the ground hard, pain arcing through his shoulder to mingle with the sharp burning in his thigh.
“Your Highness –“
Arthur does not give himself time to think. He pushes himself up instantly, waving away Gawain's concern and the hand held out to him. Closing his eyes against the ache that screams through him, Arthur stands, bending quickly to pick up his sword. Slipping his sword into his scabbard, he pulls off his helm and gives Gawain a quick nod.
“Excellent attack, Gawain. I fully expect you to train the others half as well.”
Gawain's eyes stray to Arthur's thigh before he offers a slight bow. “Thank you, sire. I shall do my best.”
Moving past him, Arthur reaches out to give his shoulder a quick pat. “Thank you for not holding back, my friend,” he says quietly before heading back toward the other knights who suddenly appear far more subdued. Arthur is fairly certain he cannot stand another round but he is not about to walk away after having just been knocked on his arse. “Now, who's –“
“Sire,” Merlin's voice interrupts. “Do not forget, the king is expecting you.”
It takes everything Arthur has not to sigh at the obvious lie. All right, so maybe Merlin is not quite the worst servant in the world. Second worst, perhaps.
Glancing over his shoulder, he gives Merlin a brief nod before turning his attention back to Gawain. “A few more hours, then,” he says. “After training, I would like for you, Cador and Lionel to patrol the east road. There have been more reports of wolf attacks.”
“As you wish, sire.” He and the other knights incline their heads as Arthur moves off the field toward the castle.
He hears Merlin's footsteps moving at a slow run up from behind him. As his servant reaches him, he takes Arthur's shield and helm. They are both silent as they move through the courtyard and up the steps to the keep. If Merlin has purposely slowed his walk to match Arthur's, neither acknowledges it. Once they step out of the sunlight, Arthur realises his limp has become pronounced and noticeable. It makes him irritable.
He snaps, “I suppose I should have you thrown into the stocks for lying.”
“I suppose I should have let you fight again, and end up confined to your bed for weeks to come.”
He glances sideways at Merlin even as his servant moves in closer, placing a hand at his waist. Arthur cannot seem to stop himself from leaning into the offered support. “You should have Gaius look at that insolence problem.”
“You should do the same for your pig-headedness.”
Arthur would smile if he were not in so much pain. He notices that Merlin hesitates at the corridor, and Arthur flashes him a frown. All he really wants to do is get to his chambers, preferably before someone catches him leaning against his manservant.
“You honestly should go see Gaius,” Merlin says, the arm around Arthur’s waist beginning to tug him in that direction.
He does not budge. “I’m fine.”
Merlin steps away before Arthur realises what is happening. He barely catches the wall before he stumbles, and unfortunately places all of his weight on his injured leg. He clenches his teeth to hold back the breath that threatens to escape and turns a very annoyed expression to his servant, who appears unsympathetic to his plight.
“You’re bleeding, Your Highness,” Merlin says all matter-of-factly, pointing at his thigh.
“I have no doubt that it is your fault.”
“My –?” Merlin stops himself, apparently deciding it is best not to argue. He waves a hand in the direction of the physician’s chambers. “Come on. It won’t take long, and then we can get you tucked back into your bed all nice and cosy.”
Arthur feels his eyes twitch. “I hate you, Merlin.”
He iss going to his chambers, with or without Merlin's help.
Turning away, Arthur places one hand against the wall and moves gingerly toward the stairs. He steps up with his good leg, leaning heavily into his hand as he does so. And then another step. And another. He is about halfway to the top when Arthur realises he might not make it any further and pauses, taking a few breaths. The armour, his shoulder, his leg – he is uncertain which of them are worse at the moment, and he positively hates the fact that he knows Merlin is standing down there at the bottom of the steps, watching him.
With the next step that he takes, his hand trembles, slipping out from him, and before he can catch himself, Merlin is beside him, wrapping his arm around his waist once more to take his weight. Arthur wants to shake him off, but he is really too tired to do much more at that moment than stand there, breathing hard against Merlin’s side.
“You really are the most stubborn, prideful prat I have ever known.”
“I am not prideful,” Arthur mutters, frowning as he gives in and allows Merlin to guide him up the rest of the stairs. Thankfully, his chambers are only two doors down, and soon he lowers himself into the chair, closes his eyes, and rests his head against the back.
Merlin stares at Arthur as he lowers himself into the chair before finally shutting the door behind him. He drops the helm and shield onto the table with a couple of loud clangs, and Arthur opens one eye, glaring. Merlin glares right back and considers one of the many remarks already formulating on the tip of his tongue. They all seem to revolve around Arthur's pig-headed inability to concede the fact that he might not be invincible. But then Arthur closes the eye he was glaring with, and his brow seems knitted with pain rather than annoyance. Merlin glances down at the tear in his trousers where the material is lined in red, and decides the insults can wait.
“I really do insist you let Gaius look at that,” Merlin says as he crosses the room to pour water into a bowl and grab one of the cloths piled on the chest.
“It is not as if he took my leg off.”
“And if he had, you still would have insisted on walking back all on your own.” Merlin makes his way back to the table beside Arthur, kneeling and setting the bowl on the floor beside him. “You'd probably claim it was just a flesh wound.”
Arthur seems to smile just a little at that without opening his eyes. “I swear you turn into an old woman more and more each day, Merlin.”
Merlin reaches up and rips a huge hole into Arthur's trousers in response.
“Hey!” Now Arthur's eyes are open and he is glaring again. “What was that for?”
“As if you don't have plenty of others.” Merlin prods at the cut flesh with his fingers, relieved to see the wound is not as bad as he thought. He doubts it will even scar. “A little cleaning and maybe you won't lose your leg...”
"Are you pretending to be a physician again?"
Ignoring that comment, Merlin dips the cloth into the water and proceeds to clean the wound. When Arthur is silent, Merlin glances up to see that he has once more closed his eyes, resting his head against the back of the chair. Looking back at the wound, Merlin moves his fingers over it lightly, thinks 'Áwane sár' and watches as a brief golden light flickers across the skin. Arthur shifts slightly, and Merlin presses the wet cloth against the cut once more, glancing up to see Arthur's brow set into another frown.
“Is it very painful?”
Arthur's frown deepens a moment, and then he shakes his head. “No. Oddly it does not hurt at all.”
Merlin smiles slightly, washing away the last of the blood before tossing the cloth into the bowl. He stands, moving behind Arthur to begin removing his armour. Luckily, Arthur is in a cooperative mood, leaning forward to grant him better access to the buckles. He sets the hauberk and spaulder aside before moving to the side of the chair to work at the vambraces.
“You're going to have to stand, sire.”
Arthur looks like he wants to argue. In fact, Merlin is fairly certain he is ready to fall asleep right there in the chair. He finally opens his eyes and lurches to his feet, muttering something about demanding and insubordinate servants. Merlin just rolls his eyes; he helps Arthur out of his surcoat, chain mail, gambeson, and shirt before pressing him back into the chair. Then he goes behind the screen to grab a jar of ointment.
“I understand your mother left this morning,” Arthur's voice calls out.
It is Merlin's turn to frown as he picks up the jar and makes his way back over to Arthur. “Yes. She insisted.”
“I'm surprised you did not go with her.” Arthur is watching him now, one of those searching looks that say he is trying to figure something out.
Merlin avoids his gaze; he opens the jar and steps behind him, dipping his fingers into the greasy substance. “She wouldn't let me. Said I was needed here.” He spreads the ointment over the back of Arthur's shoulders, pausing as Arthur flinches momentarily before resuming.
Truthfully, Merlin is torn. He wanted to go with his mother, at least to make certain she made it safely to Ealdor. But he felt Gaius needed him as well; what had happened on the Isle of the Blessed had taken a lot out of the physician. Too, there is Arthur, and the past few nights Merlin has not been able to shake the nightmares of someone deciding his life had not truly been paid for with Nimueh's demise. He hates thinking about what had almost happened, what had happened, and yet, inevitably his mind always returns to the price asked for Arthur's life. He wonders if it ever truly came down to it, if he had to make the choice, could he sacrifice the life of another for the life of a future king. He knows he would willingly give himself up; the sacrifice would be a small one. But for another...
Merlin knows he should not worry himself over it. Arthur would never allow such a thing anyway.
“I am sure she will be fine,” Arthur says after a silent moment. “Your mother is strong.”
Merlin knows he is right, but after the last week, it is difficult not to want to take all of the people who mean everything to him and lock them away in the highest tower he can create. He has thought about it more than once; he wonders what Arthur would think if he told him he needs to be hidden away until he is ready to be king. Merlin smiles a little at the thought, knowing Arthur would snap over the mere suggestion. For all of Arthur's increasingly endearing traits, he is still a prat, and not a very bright one, either. This morning's exertions on the training field prove that.
“How's your shoulder?”
Arthur responds with some kind of noise that is not exactly speech; a non-committal sort of grunt that could mean 'It hurts like hell', 'Doesn't hurt at all' or 'Stop asking about it - I'm the prince! I could be bleeding out my eyes and I wouldn't tell you it was uncomfortable'. Merlin figures the latter is most accurate. Once more he finds himself refraining from berating Arthur over his foolishness; it would likely just get him locked in the stocks for the next few days anyway. When Arthur decides to be stubborn, there's no deterring him from his course. While at the moment he seems pliant, muscles relaxing beneath Merlin's fingers as they rub ointment into his skin, Merlin knows better. Arthur is anything but compliant. Merlin's life would prove far easier if he were.
As he slides his hands down Arthur's left bicep crouching beside the chair, Merlin finds himself remembering the first time he had been charged with this job. It had been the first night of the tournament, and he had stared at the prince in disbelief, asking why he could not put the ointment on himself? Arthur had rolled his eyes, quipped that he did not have to because he had a servant, and then had shoved the jar into Merlin's hands. It had been the singular most uncomfortable task he had ever been told to do – that is until he was ordered to wash the royal back. For some reason, the act of soothing Arthur's muscles had felt incredibly intimate to Merlin, and something that certainly was not to be left in the hands of a servant. It took Merlin a long time to discover that he had been correct in his assessment – in the past, Arthur had never allowed his servants to do such a thing; he usually went to Gaius. But then, there has been an odd bond of trust formed between them from the very beginning, and once Merlin realised that, he no longer questioned the simple things like caring for the odd bruise or sprain.
He looks up to find Arthur's eyes have drifted closed, and for a moment he finds himself watching the prince in silent repose. For some reason unknown to him, he smiles.
“You're not falling asleep, are you?” Merlin teases softly. “You're too heavy for me to carry you to your bed, sire.”
Arthur smiles, eyes drifting open to slide in Merlin's direction. “Can a prince not relax without his servant punishing him for it?”
“Let me think about that for a moment.... Hmmm. I'd say no.”
Shaking his head, Arthur tugs his arm out of Merlin's hands and stands, rolling his shoulders gingerly. Merlin finds himself staring, eyes drawn to the ripple of muscles that move down his back with the motion. Not certain when it began, but somewhere along the way Merlin discovered he has been watching Arthur, a lot. For instance, he knows that there are three scars on Arthur's chest and stomach - two are older and fading, one appears newer, deeper, and extends from the top of Arthur's left hip inward toward his belly button. Merlin has wanted to ask about it since he first noticed it, but figures he either would not get an answer or be teased for asking. There are four on his back, all fading - two near his right shoulder blade, one in the centre in almost a perfect line along his spine, and another on his lower left back. There is a small one on his right thumb, one on his right knee and another along his left calf. Merlin thinks maybe he should be embarrassed at how well he knows these things, but he reasons that any servant would know the same.
Just the same, he drops his eyes quickly; moves to stand and empty the bloody water into the hearth. When he turns back, he catches the grimace on Arthur's face as he struggles to slip a clean shirt on. Making no mention of his obvious discomfort, Merlin steps up to help him. He ties the laces at the neckline and raises his eyes to find Arthur watching him. As per usual, his thoughts are unreadable. Merlin knows it is something Arthur has been taught from birth but he does not have to like it. It seems to him that the only acceptable emotions for royalty are anger and frustration, and the Pendragon men appear incredibly adept at both.
Feeling his face warm under Arthur's silent gaze, Merlin finishes the knot and steps back. “What is it, my lord?” he finds himself asking.
Arthur does not answer immediately. He turns away and picks up his belt, slipping it on with his back turned toward Merlin. Finally, he says, “I just... it is good that you did not leave with your mother.”
The words are surprisingly reassuring. When Arthur glances over at him, Merlin offers him a small smile. He may not be aware of the circumstances, but Merlin thinks his prince might just be trying to listen after all.
Merlin spends the remainder of the day cleaning and polishing Arthur's armour, and sharpening his sword. It is mindless work, and he is grateful for it; he finds himself glad for the work, losing himself in it for a time, and even though he is tempted, he does not use magic. The more he concentrates on the work before him, using hands and muscles and doing as opposed to thinking, the less he worries about elements and insects and the power over life and death. In fact, once the armour is finished, he makes his way to the stables to muck out the stalls and brush the horses. When supper rolls around, and Arthur is dining with the king and Morgana, Merlin finds himself feeding the half dozen hunting hounds and spending time in their pen, where they climb all over him with slavering tongues and too-big paws that leave bruises.
By the time he heads back towards Gaius' chambers, Merlin begins to wonder if maybe everything will be all right. Maybe he is worrying over nothing. Perhaps soon his conscience will put everything that happened at the Isle of the Blessed behind him, and he will feel normal again. Well, as normal as he has ever been able to feel.
Glancing up, he notices two of Arthur's knights entering the stairwell that winds past Gaius' chambers and into the castle. He does not know either of them all that well, as they have both only been knighted in the last few months. It takes him a moment to remember their names -- Aldrich and Nyle, he thinks. He recalls Arthur saying something about Aldrich's excellent jousting skills.
“What a fool he made of himself this morning on the training field.”
Merlin draws himself up slightly at Nyle's words, eyes narrowing as he slips closer to the wall, out of sight, and follows them up the stairs.
“You probably should not be saying that too loudly,” Aldrich cautions, dropping his voice. “He is still the prince.”
Nyle snorts. “Some prince. He gets bitten and he cannot remember how to hold a bloody sword! I always thought his legendary skill was all talk. This morning we had proof!”
“They say he was very near death after the Questing Beast.”
“Probably scared to death,” Nyle says, and both knights snigger.
Merlin's anger is swift. It is not so much that they dare to speak of their prince and future king in such a disrespectful manner, but that Merlin knows how very close to death Arthur had been. That he knows what the fear had felt like, settling in his stomach as it had; the image of Arthur's inert body being carried through the courtyard by the king is one that will never fade from his mind. He knows what it almost cost him to make certain Arthur lived; a sacrifice he is still struggling to come to terms with. It is that knowledge that makes his eyes narrow and Nyle's foot miss the next step entirely, that makes the knight fall in a mass of limbs and armour, slamming in to Aldrich as they both tumble down the stairwell. Merlin steps out of the way as they land in a heap at the bottom, his gaze wide with surprise as he stares at them.
“My lords are you all right?” he asks.
Aldrich is the only one who moves, disentangling himself from Nyle and struggling to his feet to stare down at the other knight. It is only in that moment that Merlin notices Gaius, who must have been there all along, because he is glowering at Merlin as he hurries over to kneel beside Nyle. He checks the man's pulse and his pupils and glances up at Aldrich.
“Help me get him to my chambers. I believe he may have struck his head.”
The knight pulls Nyle up onto his shoulder, turning and following Gaius back up the steps toward his chambers. Merlin stares after them, something gnawing in the pit of his stomach before he quickly follows after, two steps at a time.
Luckily, Gaius is correct. Nyle has only hit his head. A few minutes later, he is sitting up, head in his hands, complaining of the throbbing, and being teased by Aldrich for being so clumsy. Sitting quietly at Gaius' workbench, Merlin watches as Nyle is given something for the pain and told to take it easy the next few days. Gaius instructs the knight to let him know if he has any vision problems or nausea, and finally sends them on their way. Once the door closes behind them, Merlin steels himself for what he knows is coming, jaw clenching slightly as Gaius turns and fixes him with a disbelieving gaze.
“Please tell me that you were not responsible for Sir Nyle's injury?”
Merlin shrugs and looks away. “All he did was slip.”
“They both could have been killed!” Gaius tells him, his voice rising slightly. “What would you have done if their necks had been broken?!”
“They were insulting Arthur. Talking about the prince behind his back! Saying –“ He cuts himself off, not wanting to think about the Questing Beast again. “What was I supposed to do?”
“Ignore them.” Gaius shakes his head. “People talk, Merlin, and they do not always say nice things, even about their sovereign. What are you going to do? Prevent everyone in Camelot from having an opinion?”
He thinks if I have to, and says, “What they were saying was untrue - not an opinion. And maybe now Sir Nyle will think twice before slurring the Crown Prince.”
Gaius is staring at him as if he is speaking another language. “Are you listening to yourself? Using your magic out in the open like that when you know what will happen should Uther ever learn of it! Your magic is not to be used as an instrument of revenge –“
“How do you know?!” Merlin jumps to his feet, stalking toward him. “How do you know what my purpose is? I've been told all manner of tales about my destiny and my purpose and my magic. And the only thing I've really learnt is that others will make your purpose out to be whatever it is best suits their needs!” He stabs a finger in Gaius' direction. “You stand there and preach to me about my magic not being an instrument of revenge but I know, Gaius. I've seen what I can do – what I've done! I killed Nimueh, and it wasn't to protect anyone, it wasn't in self-defence. I wanted her to die!”
“Merlin.” Gaius' voice is very soft. “What happened on the Isle of the Blessed wasn't your fault. The Fates chose –“
“I made it happen, Gaius! It wasn't a spell or some ridiculous words out of an old book - it was me. I wanted her to die and it happened. And you expect me to be afraid of Uther? Do you know what I could do to him?”
Gaius' eyes widen. He looks shocked. “Merlin!” he warns in a hush. “That's treason!”
“I don't care!” Merlin shouts, throwing his arms wide. “Let them come! At least I won't have to hide it anymore. I can be who I am – what I am!”
“And what of Arthur? When you are driven from the kingdom and no longer at his side to protect him as you have – what becomes of him, then?”
Almost instantly, the fight goes out of him. Merlin looks away, unable to acknowledge that Gaius is right. After all, everything has been for Arthur. What he did to Nimueh happened because in the beginning he had been protecting Arthur. If he were exiled now, it will have all been for nothing. In the end, Merlin suddenly understands, he keeps his secret for Arthur's sake, not for his own.
Gaius steps up to him, reaches out to touch his shoulder, but Merlin steps out of the way, pushing past him and heading for the door.
He ignores the sound of his name, slamming the door hard behind him and hurrying up the steps. Deep inside, he knows Gaius is right; he should not have used his magic against Sir Nyle. But somehow, that knowledge does not alleviate the tiny part of him that is pleased with what he did. He enjoyed seeing the knight sprawled on the ground before him, if only to teach him a lesson. If the man had died... well, he is certain he would feel differently. The point is, he had not died, and Merlin had not meant for him to die.
He is almost entirely certain of that.
The tips of his fingers tingle; he feels as if his entire being is wound so tightly it could snap at any moment. That is what he cannot seem to get Gaius to understand. He is holding all of this back, and it took what he did to Nimueh to even get himself to realise it. This cannot be natural – walking around, pretending he is nothing when he is something. If he closes his eyes and just allows himself to be, Merlin imagines he would light up like the sun with the magic he feels thrumming through him every second of every day lately.
When he finally reaches his destination, Merlin does not even bother questioning what brought him here. He knocks lightly on the door and presses it open, stepping just past the threshold and looking over to the chair where his prince is seated by the fire.
Arthur glances up as Merlin enters the room, eyes squinting slightly as he frowns. “What are you doing here? I thought it was past your bedtime?”
When he says nothing in response – just stands there and wishes he could say something, say everything, scream even – Arthur's frown slowly settles into something else. He looks as if he is trying to figure something out again. Merlin thinks, please, don't ask, and then Arthur is waving toward the door.
"Well, come inside and close that, at least. You are letting in a draft."
Merlin does as he is told, hand lingering over the door latch for a moment as he takes a breath and relaxes his shoulders. He turns to find Arthur still watching him, and it makes him self-conscious. He wonders if Arthur can see it, the magic.
"There is some mead in the cask," Arthur says, nodding toward the table. "Help yourself. Maybe it will make you behave a little less... odd."
Merlin rolls his eyes in response, and flashes a look that he hopes conveys exactly how much of a prat Arthur really is before pouring some of the mead into a goblet. Making his way over to the hearth, he settles himself on the floor beside it, pulling his knees up to his chest and sips at the drink. It warms his throat and belly, and he takes a second, bigger swallow. When he finally looks up, Arthur is no longer watching him, his gaze now focused on the fire. Merlin wonders what he is thinking, but does not ask because it might cause the prince to ask him in return, and that is not what he wants. He wonders as he is sitting there, his anger slowly dissipating as the silence stretches between them, if maybe this is what he has craved all along. Maybe this is what his mother sees when she says that they need each other.
Because, Merlin realises, nowhere has he felt he belonged more than right here, at Arthur's side.
Wrencan stares into the scrying pool. "We are losing him."
"There is yet to be seen what is still to come," Wefan assures her quietly.
"Quiet now." Gewiss glances at her sisters. "It is only the beginning."
Arthur dreams he's in a cave. Behind him, Merlin is murmuring something about being careful and Arthur just wishes he'd shut the hell up. His wish comes true when the wild cry of the creature he is hunting echoes through the cave in front of them. Merlin grows silent, and when the echo dies away, all Arthur can hear is the sound of his own heart slamming into his chest. He grips his sword more tightly and continues into the dark, the way ahead lit only by the torch Merlin holds in his hand. A little further now; no, don't look at the bones beneath your feet, there's no such thing as fear. You cannot be afraid. Fear is not allowed. That heartbeat you hear is Merlin's, not yours. There is no creature that is unbeatable. Not for you, Prince Arthur of Camelot.
The silent assurances come easily. He has heard them many times, and he clings to them now just as before, even as the giant claws swipe toward him from the darkness. Behind him, Merlin screams –
Arthur jolts awake, gasping softly at the ache that shoots through his neck and shoulder. He reaches back, rubbing hard at the pain, brow furrowing as he realises he is not quite certain what it is that awakened him. He is chilled, and cramped, and he wonders why he fell asleep in the chair by the now extinguished fire as opposed to his comfortable bed. The grey light of dawn is streaming in through the window, indicating that he slept through the night. His empty goblet is lying in his lap.
Sighing, he picks it up and moves to stand only to notice Merlin sprawled across the hearth, his own goblet folded into his arms like a loved one. Arthur makes a face and shakes his head, taking a step over to his servant and kicking him lightly in the stomach. "Hey! Wake up. Looks like I need to add 'lazy' to your long list of faults."
"Hmmm... wha –?" Merlin rolls onto his back, eyes squinting open as he stares up at Arthur in confusion. "Arthur? What're you doing in my room?"
Arthur rolls his eyes and snatches the goblet from Merlin's arms. "We're in my room, you idiot! You fell asleep on my floor."
"Oh." He sits up, twisting slightly from side to side until there is a popping sound from his back. He yawns loudly and Arthur is entirely certain Merlin planned this whole thing out just to annoy him early in the morning.
"Since you are here," Arthur says as he moves behind the screen to get out of the clothes he slept in. "You might as well go to the kitchen and get my breakfast. And bring more wood. You let the fire die last night."
" – own wood, sire."
Arthur peers out from behind the screen. "What was that?"
Merlin is standing beside the corner of the table, smiling and wide-eyed. "I didn't say anything."
One, two, three... "Are you just going to stand there?"
"I'm going! I'm going!" Merlin looks exasperated and amused, and as he heads out the door, Arthur allows himself to smile just a little bit.
The smile is gone by the time Merlin returns forty-five minutes later. Arthur is leaning against the table, drumming his fingers as his servant hurries into the room, almost upsetting the bowls of porridge and fruit set precariously in his arms. As it is, only a little bit of the porridge hits the floor before Arthur snatches both bowls from him and sits down. He cannot help but notice that Merlin has also changed his clothes.
"Where is the wood?" he asks, tossing a grape into his mouth.
"The wood for the fire."
"Merlin, if you become any more forgetful, I swear you will not remember how to breathe."
"I'm not that forgetful," he argues as he moves behind the screen to gather Arthur's clothes for the laundry.
Arthur wonders if it has ever even occurred to Merlin that he is not supposed to argue with his prince. He doubts it. He has honestly never encountered a servant as insubordinate as Merlin – surely no one ever has. He supposes he should do something about it. Instead, he eats his meal and watches Merlin as he moves around the room making it look as if he is busy, when it is completely obvious to anyone watching that he really is not doing much of anything.
"So." Arthur pushes the porridge away and concentrates on the grapes. "Want to tell me why you feel asleep in here last night?"
Merlin freezes, looks as if he would suddenly prefer to be in the stocks than where he is, and then shakes his head. "Not particularly, sire."
He rolls a grape between his fingers. "I could order you to do so." They both know that will not happen. So Arthur says, "Nightmares, then. One would think you'd be old enough to have outgrown those by now." He ignores his own occasional nightmare.
"One would think," Merlin says cheerily.
Knowing the conversation is going nowhere Arthur stands and makes his way to his bed where he sits to pull on his boots. There is a knock at the door and before he can say anything, Merlin is all ready pulling it open.
"Your Highness." The young page at the threshold bows slightly. "His Majesty requests your presence."
Arthur nods, turning his attention back to his boots as Merlin appears beside him, red jacket in hand. When he gets to his feet, Merlin helps slip the jacket onto his arms and over his shoulders, and for just a moment Arthur wonders why it is that every so often, Merlin seems to get things right. He glances at the dark head behind his shoulder, and considers trying once more to find out what had been bothering him the night before. It is not as if Merlin has ever been particularly skilled at hiding his emotions, and last night when he'd appeared in Arthur's chambers, his cheeks had been flushed and his eyes bright with something like anger. He had been tense and agitated in a way that Arthur had never seen him before, and it had only been because Merlin seemed disinclined to talk about anything that he'd not asked.
But this morning, his concern is beginning to get the best of him.
"Merlin," he begins, and he knows he is not going to get anything by asking. "If there's anything bothering you, anything I can help with... I am crown prince, after all. People have to do what I say. Well, people not you."
Merlin's fingers pause over his shoulders where they were busy smoothing the jacket just seconds before. When Arthur turns a little, their eyes meet, and for the briefest of moments, he looks like he wants to say something.
But then it is gone, and Merlin just offers a slight smile. "Everything's fine, sire."
And oddly enough, for that moment, Arthur believes him.
Uther is surrounded by his advisers when Arthur arrives in the Great Hall. He grabs an apple from the bowl on the table and sits down to wait, half-listening to the conversation regarding the trade treaty with Powys. If there is one thing Arthur is more than happy to let his father handle for as long as possible, it's trade negotiations. He knows they are necessary, and his father has always had a remarkable ability to get more than Camelot offers to give in return – a skill Arthur hopes he has picked up from watching him. But honestly, the most he has ever got out of sitting through a trade negotiation is a really good nap.
"You forgot this."
Arthur glances to his left at the softly spoken words, frowning at his servant. Merlin is holding a tiny vial of that disgusting pain reliever potion Gaius forces him to drink – a vial Arthur had intentionally left on the chest, untouched. "On purpose," he whispers.
"Gaius wants you to take it for a reason," Merlin whispers in return, and then has the audacity to reach out and snatch the apple from Arthur's hand, replacing it with the vial. He says, "Drink it." Then warns, "Or I'll tell."
"That'll be a difficult thing to do when you're spending your day in the stocks," Arthur replies, but opens the cap and drinks the horrible tasting liquid anyway.
Arthur is almost entirely certain Merlin is about to stick his tongue out at him. But by the time he finishes swallowing, Merlin's expression has changed, his eyes focused on Arthur's throat. He narrows his eyes at his servant and gets a blink in return before the vial is pulled from his fingers, the apple returned to him.
"Ah, Arthur," the king calls out, turning away from his advisers to focus his attention on his son. "Excellent."
He gets to his feet, tossing the apple back to Merlin – who, to his surprise, actually catches it – and moves over to join his father. "You wanted to see me, sire?"
Uther turns away from him for a moment, rolling the parchment in his hands and giving it to a page with instructions to take it to Sir Geoffrey. "A rider came from Gelli this morning," he begins, picking up his goblet of wine from a nearby cupboard. "A child was attacked and killed by a pack of wolves last night."
Arthur frowns at the news. It is one thing to lose livestock; that is an annoyance. The death of a child is something else entirely. "My knights rode out along the east road yesterday. They found nothing. No trace of the wolves."
"That is why I would like to you to ride to Gelli. With any luck, the pack will make the mistake of entering the village while you are there. Then you can dispose of the menace."
"Of course, father." He inclines his head, smiling at a little at his father's conviction of his success. Not that he does not share the same confidence in handling the problem, but occasionally he likes hearing of his father's faith in his abilities. "I should be ready to leave within the hour."
Smiling, Uther reaches out and places his hand on Arthur's shoulder briefly. "Bring back the pelts."
The king turns then to speak to one of the knights hovering in the background, and Arthur bows slightly at the obvious dismissal. He steps back and turns to move toward the door. Merlin follows, nibbling at the apple that had belonged to Arthur a short time ago. When Arthur flashes him a quick glance of annoyance, his servant shrugs.
"I didn't get breakfast because I was getting yours, sire."
"You had plenty of time to change, though."
"You're right. Next time I'll just stay around you all stinky and rumpled." He wipes his mouth across the back of his sleeve, effectively ruining the point of changing his clothes.
Arthur finds himself watching the action, gaze drifting toward Merlin's throat as he swallows the apple, and suddenly he remembers Merlin watching him in a similar manner. He makes a face and says, "There wouldn't be much of a difference."
Merlin does not respond, just takes another bite. Through a mouthful of apple, he says, "I don't understand why the king is sending you to Gelli to take care of the wolves. Can't he just send some of the knights?"
"Do I have to spell everything out for you, Merlin?" he asks in exasperation. "The people like to see that their sovereign truly cares about the problems they face."
"So, the crown prince – that's you – shows up, waves to the villagers, kisses babies and whatever else a crown prince is supposed to do," Merlin sounds far too pleased with himself, "then swoops in to kill the pack of dangerous wolves. Only he ends up with his arse in the dirt because he can't even make it through a full morning's training with his knights."
Arthur stops walking and turns to stare at Merlin. He is so insulted that he cannot even come up with a fitting comeback. He ends up just crossing his arms and glaring really hard.
Apparently realising he might have gone too far, even for being the most impertinent servant in the history of the world, Merlin takes another bite and waves his hand toward Arthur. "I'm just pointing out a fact, sire. You weren't in the best of shape yesterday, and I know your royal ego doesn't like hearing such things but it's not like it isn't the truth." He swipes at a drop of apple juice on his chin with his fingers. Arthur finds himself staring, almost missing Merlin's next words. "The king didn't even bother asking about your shoulder."
"He would not. Not in front of the court," Arthur is careful to explain that as if Merlin is a very young child. "Besides, he asked about it yesterday."
Merlin is looking at him with obvious scepticism. "And? What did you say?"
"The truth. My shoulder is fine. Well-healed and" – Merlin slaps him in the aforementioned shoulder – "OW! What in the hell was that for?! I could have you strung up for hitting the crown prince!"
His servant does not even try to look concerned by the threat. Sighing, Arthur begins walking again, still rubbing at his shoulder.
He swears Merlin is actually biting back a smile as he says, "So, you were saying about your shoulder being fine..."
Arthur knows that putting his foot out to trip Merlin is extremely childish and completely beneath him. He opts for a different method of revenge. "You are coming with me, you know."
"What?" Merlin stops in the middle of the corridor. "Why in –" He gestures wildly with his hands as if he suddenly does not know how to complete a sentence. "I know nothing about hunting wolves!"
"As if I did not already know that." Arthur rolls his eyes and keeps walking. "But I need someone to carry my gear."
"No, you just need someone to yell at when your shoulder starts aching and you get all annoyed and ill-tempered," Merlin says as he jogs to catch up.
Arthur purses his lips. "I am not ill-tempered."
Merlin stops suddenly once more, his laughter following Arthur down the hall.
It is dusk when they ride into the small farming community of Gelli, and Merlin finds he cannot wait to get out of the saddle; though they took the journey slowly, rarely moving their horses beyond a trot, Merlin wants to stand on his own two feet for a bit. Eyes are cast their direction as they ride through the gates and he can see the recognition and relief on the faces around them; these people obviously know their prince. A man moves forward to greet them; older, with weather-worn skin, greying hair and a round, friendly face. He bows low as Arthur pulls his mount up in front of him and swings his leg over the cantle, dropping to the ground gracefully.
“Your Highness. You honour us with your presence.”
“Osric.” Arthur greets the man with a slight incline of his head.
As Merlin slides to the ground from his horse, he cannot help but feel a surge of pride at the fact that the royal he serves knows the names of ordinary villagers. It is another moment that augments his confidence that he has indeed chosen the right path to follow.
He takes his mounts reins in hand and steps over to Arthur, who is pulling a couple of gold coins from a pouch.
“Stable the horses,” he instructs, holding the coins out for Merlin to take. “Bring the packs and weapons. I’m going to talk to Osric about setting up camp outside the village.”
Merlin nods, takes the other set of reins from Arthur’s hand and starts in the direction of the stables beside the smithy. Arthur’s stallion is restless, and apparently annoyed at being separated from his master, and Merlin cannot help but think how the animal still has so much energy after the eight-hour journey. He stops in the middle of the road as the horse tries to dance backward in an attempt to pull the reins from his grip. Luckily, his mare just stands there, as if watching the battle of wills with interest.
“Líðigest,” he says quietly, reaching out to touch his fingers to the nose of the bay and instantly it ceases its unease, head dropping against Merlin’s touch. Smiling, Merlin slides his hand over the stallion’s head for a moment before continuing on toward the stables.
Once both horses are settled, the stable keeper is well-paid in gold, and Merlin is struggling to carry far too many items for one person, he stumbles his way through town, trying to determine which direction Arthur has disappeared in. He finally stops a pretty young woman with smudges of flour on her cheeks and a dusting of it in her red hair. She points to the northern edge of the village, letting him know that the prince is in the tavern. Merlin thinks, The tavern, of course, then thanks her and gives her a smile before shifting the gear in his arms and heading in the direction she pointed.
When he finally reaches the small building with a thatched roof that is tilting so far to the east it appears as if it may slide off at any moment, Merlin shoulders his way in through the door and attempts to kick it shut with his foot. Unfortunately, he falls off balance just slightly, the crossbow tucked into his right elbow jostles loose, and the entire armload of gear, weapons and bedrolls tumbles to the ground. Loudly.
After a moment there is finally silence, and Merlin chances a look to find almost two dozen villagers all staring at him. More than a dozen of them are gathered around the table where Arthur – watching Merlin with an expression somewhere between amusement and resignation – is sitting. Merlin just flashes them all a sheepish smile, shrugs a little and bends to gather up the mess. He piles it all in a corner by the door before finally making his way over to the table to hear a farmer describing the loss of his livestock.
“Ripped to shreds they was, sire,” the man explains, splaying his hands wide as if he could somehow show them the scene. “I couldn’t even salvage them for meat, tiny bits strewn about to and fro’.”
“Same what with happened to my goats, my lord,” another adds. “M’ little girl found ’em. She still ’as nightmares.”
Arthur nods in response, flashing a brief look in Merlin’s direction. He just raises his eyebrow in response, and wonders if Arthur is now wishing he had brought one of the knights instead.
“And what of the child attacked last night?”
“The baler’s youngest son, poor thing,” the hosteller responds as she leans over Arthur’s shoulder to refill his tankard of ale. “Nothin’ anyone could’ve done by the time he was found.”
Murmuring a few words of thanks to the woman, Arthur swallows back some of the ale before setting his tankard down and laying some gold coins on to the table – more than were actually needed for the ale and the trencher of bread, cheese and dried herring beside it. He stands, and the villagers stand with him.
He steps around the table to join Merlin. “I would ask that everyone stay in their homes this evening until the beasts are killed. Where does the baler live?”
“West side of town, sire,” Osric says as he joins him. “I’d be more than happy to take you there.”
Arthur nods, thanking the villagers for taking the time to speak with him before shoving an elbow into Merlin’s side to press him forward. Once near the door, Merlin stops to begin loading up his arms again, and pauses just a moment to glance up to see if Arthur has any intention of helping. Unfortunately, Arthur is already walking out the door, hand on Osric’s shoulder, talking to him quietly, asking questions about the baler and his wife. Sighing, Merlin tries to stack things a little more efficiently this time before staggering to his feet and following.
They spend little time at the baler’s cottage, and for this Merlin is grateful. The entire family is obviously grieving – the parents and their four surviving children – and yet, they do their best not to show this to their prince, seating him at their table and offering what meagre food and ale they have. Their appreciation for the small kindness of Arthur’s sympathy is noticeable; the baler continues to thank him, heaping praise upon praise until Merlin actually begins to feel a pang of pity for him. Arthur is squirming in his seat five minutes into their visit, and though his smiles remain kind and patient, Merlin can see the embarrassment in his eyes with each flattering accolade.
When they finally take their leave, the sun having disappeared from the sky, Merlin cannot help but glance over at Arthur in appreciation. His look does not go unnoticed.
“Oh, nothing. Just…” Merlin shrugs as he tries to put into words what he wants to say without actually complimenting Arthur. The movement almost causes him to lose hold on their gear. He thinks a nice bundling spell would make this a lot easier. “That was a thoughtful thing you did there with the baler and his wife.”
Arthur furrows his brow. “Yes, well… I have my moments.”
Merlin smiles. “Yes, you do. Few and far between though they might be.”
He thinks he catches a small smile flash at his remark.
They set up camp just outside the small village, but there is no fire and Arthur continually disappears into the darkness before reappearing at Merlin’s side and scaring half the life out of him every time. He thinks Arthur is enjoying himself, skulking around in the nearby trees, eagerly anticipating the fight. Merlin means to keep an eye on him just in case something were to go terribly wrong, but sometimes his prince moves too quietly and stealthily to watch. Merlin ponders the problem for a few moments, wondering if he could cast a tracking spell without being noticed.
“Merlin.” The whisper is a warning, an impatient call to join him quickly.
He scrambles to his feet and follows in the direction of the call. Catching the glint of Arthur’s eyes in the darkness, he moves over to him, crouching down where Arthur is kneeling with crossbow in hand, his gaze centred on the trees to the south. Merlin tries to glimpse what he is looking at, but sees only trees and darkness. Nothing seems to be moving.
“What—?” he begins but Arthur holds up a hand to silence him and then waves at him to follow.
With knees bent low, they creep quietly through the forest, and Merlin still is not certain what it is they are tracking. Surely they would be able to hear a pack of wolves by now. And then it reaches him – a low, guttural growl coming from the bushes ahead. Arthur stills, one hand reaching out and grabbing Merlin’s arm, forcing him behind as if he believes Merlin was going to throw himself out there and yell ‘Come eat me!’
Arthur crouches once more, readying the crossbow, setting his sights as his body becomes very still. There is a long pause; then the bolt is released and sailing through the air before the thud of it meeting its mark breaks the silence.
The growl from earlier turns into a snarl, and the trees in front of them begin to move. Or actually, as it appears to Merlin, the entire bloody forest begins to move. “Umm, Arthur… that’s no wolf.”
“You have a keen grasp of the obvious, Merlin,” Arthur mutters in response, slowly standing and pressing Merlin back as they both gaze at the enormous creature stalking out of the darkness toward them.
While it is the general shape of wolf, with wolf-like ears and wolf-like jaws, it is in fact about five times the size of one. It growls low in its throat as it stalks towards them before finally planting its feet and lowering its head, snarling in a way that flashes its very sharp teeth. The whir of another bolt flies through the air, and Merlin lets out a “whoop!” as it lands squarely in the creature’s chest. It barely flinches at the impact.
“What is that thing?” Merlin asks as Arthur presses the crossbow into his hands.
“A worg.” Arthur draws his sword. “Stay back.”
Arthur charges forward, swinging his sword at the worg as it snarls and snaps its jaws in return. Clutching the crossbow to his chest, Merlin looks around for something, anything that might assist Arthur in the battle. Unfortunately, there is nothing that he can do without blatantly using his magic. A broken tree limb would do little damage – would probably barely faze the creature. Merlin is not particularly skilled with a crossbow, and Arthur knows this, so if he were to use magic to ensure the bolts aims were true, Arthur would want to know how. It is moments like this when Merlin feels most helpless; he knows he can kill the creature with just a thought, but Arthur does not know that, and he cannot know that, and if Merlin were to give in… well, then he would know.
And everything will have been for nothing.
The worg snarls and swipes a big paw toward Arthur who ducks beneath it just in time, somersaulting out of the way and coming up beside its other front leg, swinging at it. The worg moves slightly, not enough for Arthur to miss entirely, but the cut is minor and only serves to further anger the animal. Arthur uses speed over strength, darting around the worg as it tries to circle and follow him, getting a cut in here, a jab there. Merlin finds himself holding his breath occasionally, thinking Arthur just might have this fight, and then the creature seems to think and swivels the opposite direction that Arthur goes, bringing its hip against him. Arthur is knocked backward, sword flying from his hand, and the worg is on him, razor-sharp teeth snapping toward him.
“Hey!” Merlin runs out toward the animal, throwing the crossbow at it. “Hey! Over here!”
He thinks, look at me, and the creature swings toward him with a snarl.
Arthur is shouting but Merlin is not listening, eyes trained on the animal now focused on him, and he barely has time to blink as the huge paw swipes at him. Time slows; just enough that Merlin pulls back and then the worg’s claws are ripping through his shirt, slicing across his stomach. Merlin starts to yell “Arthur!” which turns into “Ouch!” and ends in “Hell!” before he hits the ground behind him.
“Merlin!” He hears Arthur yelling his name from behind the worg, and the worg howls as if in pain and spins back around at its attacker.
‘He can’t do it’, Merlin finds himself thinking as he is laying there in the dirt, staring up at the canopy of trees above. Arthur cannot do it alone. And he leans up on his elbows and holds out his hand, and as he watches Arthur stab toward the worg’s chest, he just whispers, “Þu oflinnest heortscræf. Ic ádíedest þu”, and the beast lets out a strangled howl before collapsing to the ground.
He struggles to sit up, glancing at his ripped shirt and the shallow cuts lining his stomach. He touches them gingerly before looking up to find Arthur hurrying toward him, sword dripping fresh blood to the ground.
“What are you trying to do? Get yourself killed?!” Arthur kneels, laying his sword beside him.
Merlin bats at Arthur’s hands as he reaches for him. “What are you –? I’m fine!”
But Arthur ignores his protests, holding Merlin down with one hand to his chest while he pulls up his shirt with the other. He is frowning as his fingers move over Merlin’s stomach, and Merlin squirms as if he is ticklish, and he is, but Arthur’s touch is not tickling him. It is doing something else entirely and it makes Merlin uncomfortable until he finally has to sit up, pushing the prince away as he tugs his shirt back down over the scratches.
“I’m fine,” he says again.
Arthur’s frown has turned into an actual glare. “I do not know how one person can be so stupid! I had everything under control until you decided to run in there and play hero –”
“Under control?” Merlin is exasperated. Annoyed too, but exasperated mostly. He climbs to his feet, and the cuts across his skin sting a little, but he knows they could be a lot worse. “You lost your sword!” He points out. “What were you going to do? Yell at the bloody thing a lot?”
“Are you questioning my skill?” Arthur stands as well. He does not look angry, but his voice is dangerously low.
Merlin throws his hands in the air. “Oh, that’s just –! No, Arthur. I am not questioning your skill. But even great warriors sometimes can use a little help.”
“Help is not throwing yourself in the way and getting gutted.”
“I wasn’t gutted! Look!” Merlin pulls his shirt back up and points, and all right so there is blood pooling around the scratches and the front of his shirt is in shreds, and if anything, Arthur looks even angrier. He shoves his shirt back down and says, “If I were in mortal danger, I wouldn’t be standing here having this argument with you, now would I?”
“I am not so certain about that,” Arthur mutters.
“Your Highness!” Osric is jogging toward them until he spies the carcass of the worg. He slows, staring wide-eyed before finally pulling his gaze away and continuing over to them. “Are you all right? One of the villagers said they thought they heard screaming.”
“That would be Merlin –”
“I didn’t scream.”
“Are you calling Osric a liar?”
Merlin glares. And when Arthur just turns away, he glares some more.
“We are fine, Osric,” Arthur assures the man, ignoring Merlin. “And, it seems, Gelli should be safe from that menace now.”
“You truly are a great warrior, my lord. We cannot thank you enough. We must spread the word and celebrate!”
There is that familiar shift of discomfort in Arthur’s shoulders at the compliment, but Merlin does not feel much sympathy towards him at the moment. “Yes, well… hopefully there should not be any further trouble.” He glances at Merlin. “Just the same, I think it best we stay out here to make certain there’s only the one. And then head back to Camelot in the morning.”
Osric insists on cleaning Merlin’s wounds back in the village, under the eyes of all the villagers who keep asking if the prince will return to feast with them that evening. By the time he returns to their campsite – arms laden with all manner of breads and meats and cheese, and even a elderberry pie from Osric's wife – the moon is half-full and high in the sky, and the hide of the worg is laying out to dry. Arthur is leaning on his bedroll, tapping a twig against the ground, not bothering to look up as Merlin sits down beside him, laying out the spread of food in offering. Nothing is said between them for the next few minutes, and Merlin shifts uncomfortably as the salve Osric put on his cuts begins to itch.
“Do you really think there's another out there?” Merlin asks, disrupting the silence.
“No, I am sure there is not. Worgs are solitary, territorial creatures. You have nothing to worry over.”
“Oh.” Merlin looks over, confused to realise that Arthur made up a story about a second worg. Could he really prefer to spend the night out here, on the uncomfortable ground, when he could be bedded in the nicest home of the village? “Osric is singing your praises,” he points out.
Arthur frowns at that and climbs to his feet. He picks up his sword. “I’m going to patrol the area, just to be certain.”
And as he passes by Merlin, he says, “Ever do something like that again, and I’ll kill you myself.”
Merlin stares after him as Arthur disappears once again into the dark.
They stop a few hours outside of Camelot when Arthur’s horse gets a limp. It is yet another testament to everything no one would consider about the prince when he refuses to push his mount, choosing instead to let him rest and see if the swelling is down by morning. Merlin allows himself these few magnanimous thoughts even though Arthur has repeatedly snapped at him ever since waking that morning.
He takes his time making a clearing for a fire, kicking twigs and rocks out of the way while Arthur unpacks the horses. By the time there is a small circle cleared of everything but dirt, Arthur is standing a few feet away, arms folded over his chest, looking even grumpier and more irritable than he has all day.
“What?” Merlin snaps, feeling grumpy himself. “Is it not good enough?”
Arthur just raises an eyebrow in his direction. “I am going to find us something to eat. Try not to get yourself in any more trouble while I am gone.”
As Arthur moves away, grabbing his crossbow as he passes the pile of their belongings and disappearing into the trees, Merlin scowls hard at his back. He wants to shout that if it had not been for him, the worg would have killed them both, but he cannot say it because it will ruin everything. The scratches on his stomach itch, and he rubs at them as he continues to stare off to where Arthur disappeared, frowning at the loss of his favourite shirt. Arthur owes him a new one, but he figures he will wait to bring that up once they reach Camelot. After all, Merlin had not asked to come along and hunt giant worgs with huge claws and deadly teeth. He was “volunteered”, a fact that he plans on reminding Arthur about at every available opportunity since he cannot very well point out that he was responsible for saving their lives.
Turning away, Merlin stares down at the ground a few moments, before glancing back once more in the direction Arthur had disappeared. Making certain he is not sneaking up on him or anything – because that is just the kind of thing Arthur would do – Merlin raises his hand and holds it out toward the trees.
The sound of the rustling of twigs and leaves fills the air, and then a scattering of branches lifts from the ground and moves toward him. Merlin steps back, waving his hand toward the cleared space where the bits of wood settle neatly into a pile.
As the fire roars to life, Merlin allows himself a small smile. It always relaxes him to use his magic, and the more he learns about his capabilities, the truer that has become. When he had caused Sir Nyle to slip down the stairs, the reaction had been instinctual, necessary even. It does not make it right, and he knows that. To give in to his baser urges without controlling them would make him no better than the worg they had killed. Of course, the ability to ignore them recently is just as impossible, and it worries Merlin to think there might not be a balance between the two.
Settling himself on the ground beside the fire, he frowns as he considers the last few days. When he had gone to Arthur’s chambers after his argument with Gaius, the frustration that had been choking him had almost immediately dissipated. He had felt… safe, he supposes, secure; from himself, from the overwhelming need to let everything he is just burst out of him. And since they had left Camelot, it has been the same. While Arthur continues to annoy and frustrate him, at least his mind has not been focused on what happened with Nimueh. If anything, he has found himself thinking about it less and less, and he wonders if that is a good thing, or not.
Arthur finally returns near nightfall with a couple of lapwings, dropping the dead birds in front of Merlin. “I take it you stayed out of trouble while I was gone?”
“As a matter of fact, some raiders rode up after you left,” Merlin says as he considers throwing the lapwings back in Arthur’s direction. “I compromised; gave them all of your stuff, told them what a prat you are, and allowed them to take both horses.”
“That probably would be a lot more convincing if you had bothered to hide the horses.” Arthur sits beside the fire, opposite from Merlin. “By the way, I am hungry, so…” He waves towards the birds at Merlin’s feet.
“The last time I checked, you have two hands. If you’re so hungry, cook them yourself.”
Arthur’s brow shoots way up. “This may come as a surprise to you, Merlin, but you are my servant. Not vice-versa. And in case you did not know, that fact does not change outside the walls of Camelot.”
Wrapping his arms around his legs, Merlin just looks away, ignoring the lapwings.
A few silent moments pass, and then Arthur asks, “All right. What is this all about?”
“Nothing.” He chances a sideways glance; Arthur is making a face at him, lips pursed and disbelieving.
“It’s not fair that you’re blaming me for what happened last night.” Merlin looks forward again, toeing one of the birds with his boot. He wants to add Especially since I’m the one who saved our lives, but he refrains. “You’ve been snapping at me all day. And I did my part, too.”
“And what was that exactly?” Arthur crosses his arms over his chest. He is frowning again. “Other than get in the way?”
“See, that! Right there!”
Merlin stalks over to their belongings at the base of a giant oak tree. He digs around in his saddlebag for a knife, knowing he is going to clean the birds because he happens to be hungry, too.
“I’m not helpless or worthless, no matter what you apparently think. I did just fine against Kanen’s men, even if you’ve never bothered to acknowledge that, and I was helpful last night, too.”
“Last night you almost got yourself killed.”
When Merlin stands and turns; Arthur is on his feet as well, facing him and looking angry. “I got scratched,” Merlin points out. “And I distracted the worg long enough for you to kill him.”
That is not entirely true, of course, and even Arthur had questioned the cause of the creature’s death, but that was something they did not need to go into right now. Or ever, actually.
“Distracted? Is that what you call getting yourself nearly disembowelled?!” Arthur’s eyes have darkened – he is obviously very angry. He’s nearly shouting.
His anger only fuels Merlin’s temper. ”I was not 'nearly disembowelled'! I swear, Arthur, if you only knew what I –” He breaks off, realising what he was about to say.
“If I only knew what?” Arthur presses, taking a step toward him. “Why is it that lately it seems everything is a secret with you, Merlin? What is it you cannot tell me?”
“I… nothing.” Merlin drops his gaze to the knife in his hand; he is not all that hungry anymore. “I know I’m just a servant to you, Arthur, and honestly I can’t imagine ever wanting to be your friend, anyway.”
“Is that so?”
"Yes, it is."
When Merlin looks back up, it is to find Arthur watching him, yet again as if he is trying to figure something out. Merlin feels tired; tired of hiding, tired of constantly trying to prove himself, and tired of Arthur not understanding. "So seeing as I'm just a servant, maybe you should not worry about whether or not I'm going to get myself killed and ... stop yelling at me, all right?"
Arthur does not respond. He just stands there for a very long while, staring at Merlin silently, before he finally moves forward. It takes everything Merlin has not to shrink back even though he knows Arthur would never hurt him. He takes the knife from his hand, and Merlin watches him in confusion, wondering if he's actually going to attempt to cook his own meal. Instead, he tosses it back toward their things, and Arthur returns his attention to him.
"Did you ever think, Merlin," Arthur says very softly, "that you make it entirely impossible not to yell at you?" And then his hand is reaching out, curling around the back of Merlin's neck, and tugging him forward.
It is the moment that Arthur’s mouth closes over his that Merlin understands where all of the yelling and bad temper over the last few hours has stemmed from. Arthur was worried about him. He feels like he has been stumbling around in the dark all this time, and a torch suddenly flickered to life, lighting his way. He senses it as an arm curls around his waist, pulling him closer. All of those times he had been shoved to the back had not been so he would not get in the way; they had been Arthur’s way of protecting him.
And suddenly, as quickly as the anger had flashed, it is gone, and all Merlin wants is to touch him; he cannot seem to touch Arthur enough, pulling at the laces of his tunic and sliding his hands over his broad shoulders. Someone moans, low and broken, and pleasure snaps inside like a string pulled beyond endurance. They are moving before Merlin realises it, Arthur’s hands huge on his hips just before he shoves Merlin up against the oak, hard wood against his back, against the crown of his head, so hard his ears ring. Arthur’s lips slide from his mouth to his neck, and then there is teeth and tongue. Merlin shudders a little and thinks if ever there was a time he might light up with his magic, this would be it.
“So stubborn,” the words are whispered against his neck. “So bloody stubborn,” and another nip of sharp teeth on his skin as if to emphasise the point.
The ability to give a proper response flees him as Arthur’s mouth returns to his, and Merlin cannot help but slide his tongue over Arthur’s teeth, press inside, swallow the moan uttered against him. He whispers Arthur’s name and tangles his fingers into the hair at the nape of his neck and brings him closer, cannot pull him close enough. And maybe Arthur feels the same because the bark from the tree is digging into Merlin’s back as Arthur pushes against him and he does not even care. He realises that every time Arthur has said “You’re an idiot, Merlin”… well, he has meant “You’re an idiot, Merlin” but only because he really is an idiot. How else could he have completely missed this? How else could he not have known that this is what he has wanted all along?
Merlin sucks in a sharp breath as Arthur’s fingers slide over the front of his trousers, slipping the laces free, hand wrapping around his cock. He makes an unidentifiable sound when teeth close around his lower lip and Arthur’s fingers squeeze before sliding along the length. Up, and then down again, and Arthur is sucking on his lip and teasing with his tongue, the slow, torturous slide of his fist so indecently good it is as if Arthur has lit fire inside him. Merlin would not say he actually whimpers, more of a choked off gasp really, but Arthur, damn him, laughs out loud against Merlin’s mouth as if he did. He wants to hate him a little bit for that, but then his prince is slipping to his knees and taking him into his mouth, and Merlin thinks only oh, god.
It does not matter where Arthur got so skilled at this. It does not matter that Merlin loses some semblance of control, fingers sliding through golden hair, gripping and pulling. His hips thrust forward of their own volition and it does not matter because Arthur’s tongue continues to slide flat along the underside of Merlin’s cock and his hands cup his ass, encouraging. The incoherent words of need he mutters do not seem to matter either, because Arthur seems too busy to be listening anyway. Just as it gets good, the kind of good that has his eyes drifting closed and his head thumping back into the tree, Arthur is pulling away and moving back up his body. Merlin lets a groan of disappointment escape.
His lips still tingle from remembered kisses and the return of Arthur’s mouth on his only heightens that sensation. He has never imagined being kissed like this, did not even know it was possible. He thinks he could crawl inside Arthur’s mouth and drown in this.
“Tell me you want this, Merlin.” Arthur’s tugging at his neckerchief, sliding it away. “Tell me –“
“Yes... yes,” Merlin breathes into his mouth. “God, yes – ”
They separate, or try to, anyway, except Arthur keeps touching, and Merlin keeps dragging him forward by the v of his shirt for that mouth. Each touch is bringing Merlin higher and higher, heat pooled low in his belly, the sort of heat that makes him want to spread his thighs open.
“Merlin,” Arthur finally gasps, and wrenches away long enough to yank the shirt over his head, shove his trousers down. And even though it is only moments, it is too long before Arthur is holding him again, all naked flesh and muscle and warm hands sliding over him.
Merlin takes a moment to think about a blanket, Arthur’s cape taut in its pack roll, before Arthur is grabbing him around the thighs and dropping him down onto the mossy forest floor as easily as he would bring a dog to heel. The press of the ground beneath him is cool and twigs poke into his skin and Merlin does not care because Arthur’s mouth is on his shoulder and his tongue is tracing his collarbone and his hand is sliding between them again, cupping, stroking.
It seems as if he loses all sense of time; with kisses, the press of fingers along his skin, the tangle of limbs and the heated touch of Arthur’s erection against his own. It is not as if he has never slowed time before, and he thinks, if only for a moment. And as lips move against his chest, teeth grazing against a nipple, Merlin slips his fingers through strands of blond hair and wills time to slow. The body above his seems to still, but he can feel Arthur’s fingertips just barely sliding along his ribs. Merlin moves his hands along warm, taut skin, tracing each scar on the back of his shoulders and along his spine. For just a moment, he wraps his arms around Arthur’s back and pulls him closer, and then time slips from his grasp and it is speeding along too fast once more.
Arthur’s kissing him again and they are arching into each other, and Merlin wonders if maybe he had accidentally sped time up. He cannot tell if its seconds or hours before he is watching Arthur slide two fingers between his lips, suckling against them as their gazes hold. He reaches between them and Merlin pulls his knees up, opening himself, eyes drifting closed at the press of a finger. The slow burn, sliding, testing, and then another, bringing the cool feel of Arthur’s ring dragging against the taut, quivering muscle he is trying to breach. There is stretching, fingers curling and pulling back before pressing in again, and he shudders, draws in a shaky breath. Arthur’s mouth moves over his, whispering words like “relax”, “want this so much”, and “Merlin” and the waiting and wanting becomes too intense.
“Now, Arthur,” he allows himself to beg just a little. “Can’t wait -–”
Arthur’s fingers slide from him and Merlin feels a little broken at the momentary loss. It never felt like this with Will; never this desperate, this needy, like he cannot breathe if he does not feel Arthur moving inside of him.
“Arthur,” he sobs out, finally, thighs open and quivering and waiting. “Arthur!”
“Wait, wait,” Arthur hisses, and presses his fingers back in. Merlin throws his head back against the leaves and moans. Arthur is shoving at things, moving, reaching over Merlin’s body, and the opportunity is too good to pass up. He leans up and latches his teeth around one tight, pebbly little nipple and gets to hear Arthur’s low, aching groan up close and personal. He sucks and Arthur drops his face into Merlin’s hair, gasping, so Merlin does it again, and again, and finally Arthur is moving, dragging Merlin’s pack through the leaves around them.
Merlin has no idea what he is doing, drunk on sex and the feeling of Arthur’s fingers twisting inside him, and so it is not until he smells the sharp, acrid bite of Gaius’ healing salve that he understands. “Yes,” he gasps, and lifts his legs up around Arthur’s back, as Arthur drags shaking, wet fingers over his cock, slick and shiny. “Yes!”
And then Arthur is there, pressing in, filling him, and everything that Merlin should be feeling is overwhelmed by them. Him and Arthur, and the rightness of them.
Arthur seems to feel it as well because he is frozen above him, gazing down, eyes wide, and maybe a little bit afraid. Merlin reaches up, pulling him down until their lips are pressed together again and he whispers, “Arthur… Arthur, move…”
The moment is gone, lost amidst the feel of Arthur thrusting into him, skin slapping against skin, panted breaths and deep moans. Their movements are clumsy and hurried at first before they fall into a matched rhythm, the rock and slide of their hips into each other, lips against necks, fingers exploring. Merlin’s skin quivers from the brush of a soft breeze, the air clinging to him, wrapping around him. The leaves rustle in the trees above them as Arthur kisses him, and he knows there had not been wind before, and it is him that is causing it. With each thrust of Arthur’s hips against him, into him, the magic hums.
He gasps as Arthur shifts over him, moving deeper, and he does not know if it is from the building pressure at the base of his spine or the roiling of his blood as magic surges through him. Both, maybe, because from the very first the repression of his magic and Arthur have been intertwined, and it seems right somehow that now would be when it would threaten to break free. And Merlin wants that so bad, to just let go –
“Right” – he gasps – “Arthur, right there. Oh, hell -”
Merlin feels his magic drumming through him, threatening to burst through his skin, and he panics and tries to hold on to it, fingers pressing into Arthur’s back with the need to hold on to something. Desperate not to let go, not to ruin this moment with a secret he is not ready to give – soon, soon - he clamps his teeth into Arthur’s shoulder and bites until he tastes blood.
It gets the expected response. Arthur jerks against him, slamming into him twice more and then he is coming, choking out Merlin’s name, fingers twisting and tugging around his cock. Merlin loses himself in the sensations; the pull and the sound and the thrum of Arthur’s heartbeat, and he holds on. When he follows, body tightening, magic howling through him, screaming for release, it is the feel of Arthur – in him, around him, a part of him – that keeps him from coming apart.
Arthur cannot sleep; he lays there on his back, staring up at the stars that occasionally flicker between the leaves of the trees above them. They had not been on the ground long before Merlin had complained of the cold, and Arthur had got up to lay out their bedrolls, overlapping them. Then they had crawled between them, and Merlin had pressed close and been asleep within moments. He supposes the ability to fall asleep that fast anywhere came from growing up sleeping on the ground, and while Arthur has spent his share of time sleeping on forest floors and battlefields, he has not quite got the hang of ignoring rocks and twigs poking him in various uncomfortable places. Too, it is impossible for him not to lay awake tonight, to stare at the sleeping figure beside him and wonder why it feels as if he's always been there.
There is a lot about Merlin that Arthur still has trouble figuring out. The majority of the time Merlin seems to stumble around his life behaving in the most idiotic manner known to man, and yet Arthur doubts he could have survived this long truly being that stupid. So he watches him, has watched him from the very first, and there have always been moments when Arthur has found himself wondering if maybe he is the idiot. He does not like feeling this way, and it further frustrates him that it happens to be Merlin who makes him wonder such things. Merlin who makes him constantly question his own decisions and choices and look at himself and his father and the whole of Camelot in a way he might not have bothered. This skinny, pale boy with big ears who is not only the most incompetent servant in all of Albion, but who also spends his day's challenging Arthur at every turn. And for the life of him, Arthur knows he would not want it any other way. When Merlin had ridden off to Ealdor to look after his mother, Arthur had let him go, telling himself everything would be all right and Merlin was a big boy and could take care of things. And then a few hours later he had ridden off after him because he could not imagine Merlin not coming back. Arthur went there to take care of Kanen's men, to make things safe for Hunith and the village, and with every intention of bringing Merlin back to Camelot.
Shifting slightly to dislodge the twig poking into his lower back, Arthur feels the warmth of the thigh next to his and stills, relaxing. He moves his hand, fingers finding and brushing over Merlin's hip. His thoughts drift back to what brought him here. Barely weeks after Ealdor, when he had apparently faced certain death – and Arthur still cannot bring himself to admit that his father's obvious distress meant he had been that close to death's door – his servant had shown up in his room, behaving for all the world as if he were saying goodbye again. And that had hurt. If he had truly been so near death, a part of Arthur had fully suspected Merlin to be the one clinging to his bedside telling him he could not die, not his father and Guinevere. But no, apparently Merlin had only waited to come and see him after he was all better, and then only to give some odd kind of goodbye speech, disappear, and return a few days filled with more secrets.
And that is another thing that aggravates Arthur beyond reason when it comes to his servant – the secrets! Servants are not allowed to have secrets from their masters, and yet, Merlin seems to have them in spades. Arthur knows he has every right to demand to know what is going on; just as he knows full well if Merlin does not feel like telling him, he will refrain from doing so. It is the not-knowing that is worst; it allows his imagination to run wild. From the very beginning, there have been moments when he has found himself wondering...
But, no. The mere thought of such a thing is ridiculous. Merlin? It would be the cruellest of tricks the Fates ever decided to inflict on mankind.
Sighing, Arthur rolls over onto his side. Merlin is still sleeping, slack-jawed and open-mouthed, occasionally snoring and looking for the entire world like he would sleep through another invasion by the Romans. Arthur smiles, reaching out to trace his fingers along the shell of one of Merlin's too-big ears. He often tells himself it does not matter, the secrets, his own wild imaginings. Merlin has proven time and again to be the truest friend Arthur has ever had, willing to die for him not because it is his duty but because Merlin seems to see something inside of him that Arthur is not entirely certain is actually there. Sometimes he finds himself going out of his way to do what he thinks Merlin expects of him simply because Arthur hates it when he gets that disappointed look in his eyes – eyes that are almost always focused in his direction.
Over the last day, he has received more than his share of incensed looks. He knows he deserved them; he should not pass on the blame for his own failing in keeping Merlin safe during the battle with the worg. It is easier to let anger take over though, rather than admit his fears had got the best of him. Princes are not allowed to be afraid; Arthur spent much of his early childhood learning this, and it is a difficult lesson to unlearn. Until last night, when Merlin had told him he did not want to even be his friend, and that had hurt more than Arthur thought possible. He had meant to show Merlin the true depth of his feelings. Once he had realised he was not alone in his desires, he had not been able to hold back.
He does not know what will happen now. His father had already questioned his devotion to Merlin more than once, and if he were to ever truly understand how deep it runs, Merlin's life would be in danger. Arthur has never been one to look too far into the future; the future holds a life for him that he is not ready to contemplate. Though his entire existence has revolved around preparation for the future, he never wants to think about it too much. He loves his duties as prince; he does not envy his father. Someday he will be ready, he knows; someday he will be the best king that he can be. But for now, all he wants is this – the freedom to spend a night in the forest with Merlin.
Sliding his hand over Merlin's shoulder, he plucks at the blanket covering him and folds it down to his hips. Arthur gently draws his fingers along the four shallow cuts that mar the pale skin of Merlin's belly. Not deadly, no, but they could have been. One too many times he has held the insides of men willing to die for him on a battlefield in his hands, and it terrifies him, the thought of doing the same with Merlin. Merlin, who by all rights should not have even put into the situation – he should not have even been there – but Arthur knows he is selfish. He likes having Merlin by his side; he wants him there. He should not have let it happen, he knows; he should have had better control. But now there is no turning back – he would not want to, even if he could – and the need to protect the man beside him is all-consuming. He bends, pressing his lips between the first set of cuts, then the next, and the next, mouthing his way along the thin band between them until he feels fingers slide through his hair. Smiling, he leaves one last kiss against the skin now riddled with goose pimples before raising his head to find Merlin watching him sleepily.
“I thought it was all a dream,” Merlin says softly, and then yawns.
“Oh?” Arthur stretches up along his body, leaving a kiss on his shoulder. “Dreamt about this happening often?”
Merlin shakes his head. “Never.”
Arthur laughs, does not believe him as Merlin tugs on his hair and pulls him down for a proper kiss. Merlin makes a sound something like a hum against his mouth, and Arthur stores it away to tease him with later. Unlike the kisses the night before, this one is unhurried, no longer smacking of desperation just to touch. He decides he likes kissing Merlin, and thinks he may just have to figure out a way to make it a habit. He puts it at the top of his list of priorities when fingers slide through his hair, pulling him closer, and then Merlin does this thing with his teeth and his tongue against Arthur's lower lip.
They part for air and Merlin is beaming up at him. “So all of those times you've yelled at me, it's just because you're worried about me, isn't it?”
Arthur arches an eyebrow at him and huffs. “Once or twice, maybe.”
“You're such a prat.”
“You like me this way.”
Smiling, Arthur slides a hand over Merlin's waist and tugs his body against his own, curling around him as Merlin turns on his side. He moves his mouth over a pale shoulder as Merlin tucks their hands together.
“I never thought you'd be so affectionate,” Merlin teases. “You don't seem the type.”
Arthur nips at the skin beneath his mouth. “And you are never going to mention it again.”
Merlin's laughter says otherwise.
There is ensuing silence and Arthur closes his eyes, allowing himself to enjoy for as long as he can the simplicity he has always felt when it has just been the two of them. He is not entirely shocked though, when Merlin ruins it with a whispered question.
“What happens when we get back to Camelot?”
Arthur presses his nose into the soft dark hair, kisses the back of Merlin's neck. “Get some sleep,” he tells him. "There are still a few hours before dawn.”
“... so Will loses his grip and I'm left hanging there with nowhere to go but down... and well, you can imagine it didn't exactly go to plan. Of course, my mother found out and boxed both our ears!”
“Must have taken her quite a long time to box both of your ears.”
“Oh. Ha. Like I didn't see that one coming.” Merlin flashes him an exasperated smile.
They are only an hour outside the castle at the unhurried pace they are riding, and Arthur's not eager to shorten it, even if Merlin has spent the time regaling him with tales of his childhood. While he has not minded it all that much, he is amazed at Merlin's seemingly endless stream of conversation. It pleases him that any hints of awkwardness between them seem to be missing. They had begun the day as usual – arguing. Merlin complained that Arthur hogged the blankets, and Arthur responded by pointing out Merlin's snoring. They ate some leftover bread given to them by the people of Gelli, and Merlin had helped him dress as if they were back in Camelot, though admittedly there had been a lot more touching than before. And when Merlin had quipped that now “I don’t think it necessary to teach my prince how to dress himself,” Arthur had kissed him until he shut up. All in all, it had not been a bad start to the day.
Now Merlin is saying something about Arthur's knights – he catches the names Aldrich and Nyle – but his attention is quickly diverted when he begins to realise something is wrong. The forest around them has grown quiet; the birds are not singing and the leaves beneath their horses’ hooves do not rustle. Even the air seems to have become heavy and still. Beside him, Merlin has likewise grown silent, and they both bring their mounts to a halt in the centre of the road. Arthur slowly draws his sword. Beneath him, his stallion moves restlessly, ears twitching first one direction and then another as Arthur tries to calm him with a shift in his saddle. It does little and his mount half-rears, backing down the road as if to escape whatever is ahead. It is Merlin's sharp intake of breath that brings Arthur's gaze forward and he resists the urge to rub at his eyes because he can swear the woman walking toward them now had not been there seconds before.
It takes Arthur a moment to recognise her. The gown she wears is befitting of a princess – heavy and blue, embroidered with silver thread – and her hair settles around her shoulders, a silver circlet on her head. But the eyes and slow smile she greets them with are unmistakable – she is the same sorceress he met in the Forest of Balor. Arthur jumps down from his mount, sword held out defensively as he steps toward her.
“You know you have nothing to fear from me, Arthur Pendragon,” she says with obvious amusement as her gaze drifts past him. “And you, Merlin. I would think you, at least, would have a fitting greeting for the woman you murdered.”
Arthur snaps his head around to follow her gaze. “Merlin. What is she talking about?”
But Merlin is ignoring him, his eyes focused solely on the sorceress. There is something in his expression that Arthur has rarely seen from his servant – a mixture of anger and fear.
“You do not know?” She is speaking to Arthur again, and she laughs. “You mean to tell me that the great crown prince of Camelot does not know that his ever-loyal servant, so willing to die for him” – her voice mocks – “is a sorcerer? A sorcerer with power over even life and death.”
It does not hit Arthur the way he has sometimes imagined it might. The only emotion he allows to show is a tightening of his grip on the hilt of his sword, and he turns again to look at Merlin. There is a silent confirmation in the gaze that meets his; a confession, however overdue. There are a lot of things that Arthur wants to say in that moment, a lot of things that he wants to ask. But there is a witch in the road, and she had already left him to his death once before. He doubts very much she is there to wish them a safe journey.
Taking another step toward her, he points his sword level with her chest. “What do you want?”
“Arthur, don't –“ He hears Merlin dismounting behind him.
Her smile lingers as she gazes at him silently for a long moment, and it does not waiver as Merlin steps up beside him. “I am here for your sake, Arthur –“
“Leave him alone, Nimueh,” Merlin says and he moves beyond Arthur toward her. “Your fight is with me.”
Arthur thinks he is more angry at the moment that Merlin knows this sorcerer than he is over the confirmation that Merlin himself uses magic. Nimueh. The name is familiar to him, though he cannot place from where. It is as if he has heard it whispered within the halls of the castle.
“I am not here for a fight, Merlin. You have already proved your superiority when it comes to taking life.” Arthur stares at her when her eyes move back to his. “I am on your side, Your Highness, though you may not believe it.” She takes a few slow steps toward him, and he thinks he should kill her now and be done with it. But there is something in her smile, something he finds himself wanting to trust. “And I may be the only one. For every person you have ever cared about has lied to you.”
Merlin says, “Get out of here! Before I have to –“
But it is Arthur who cuts him off. “Shut up, Merlin,” and he means it. He feels Merlin staring at him and he ignores it. He jabs his sword toward Nimueh once more. “Why should I trust anything you have to say? The last time we met, you tried to kill me.”
“Stop you, Arthur,” she corrects. “Never kill.” Nimueh reaches out, presses her fingers to the tip of the sword, slides her hand along the blade as she moves closer to him. “I was mistaken, of course. There are far better ways to dispose of a nuisance.” At this, her gaze moves to Merlin once more, however briefly, before returning to him. “Besides, why should I want to kill the very person I was responsible for bringing in to this world?”
Arthur's gaze narrows; every instinct within him screams to end this now, to not listen to anything she has to say. He feels Merlin shift closer to him, as if he is trying to protect him, and then it hits Arthur that he apparently can. And he draws in a breath when what he really wants to do is scream "No!" and force the man beside him to admit that the helpless servant routine has not all been a lie.
Lies. From the beginning.
He steps away from Merlin, putting distance between them because he has to, because he is angry, and there is nothing he can do about it right now. He focuses on the witch, instead. “What are you talking about?” he demands. “Be quick about it. I lost my patience with you in the Caves of Balor. I assure you, it has not returned.”
Nimueh is smiling again, apparently quite pleased with herself. “Sometimes you are very much like him – Uther,” she says. “And sometimes, you are not. Tell me, Your Highness, has your father ever told you why he hates magic so much?”
“Because of people like you.” Unbidden, his eyes move to Merlin as he says it and it aches a little bit inside to watch him blanch. Still, he does not look away as he adds, “Magic users know only treachery and lies. They cannot be trusted.”
“Sire, please,” Merlin begins softly. “It's not – “
But Nimueh's laughter cuts him off. “Our lies?” Her laughter ends abruptly and her eyes flash with anger as she nears him. “It is the lies of a king that have led to the deaths of hundreds of innocents, the murder of my kin! Your father's lies, Arthur Pendragon. It was he who asked that I use magic to give his barren wife a child. He who ignored the rules of the old religion as if because he was king, he was above the balance of nature. He who regrets the death of his wife for the life of his son!”
Arthur thinks he should feel something; something other than the gaping hole of emptiness that spills open inside of him.
“Do not speak to me of lies,” Nimueh hisses. “You, the son of the father of lies.”
“Don't listen to her, Arthur.” Merlin's voice is pleading. “She's the one who is lying –“
“There are many things I can be accused of, Merlin, but lying is certainly not numbered among them.” Her eyes slide back to Arthur, and the anger seems to have vanished, replaced with a smile. “Besides, you know the truth; do you not, Your Highness? You feel it. Deep inside, you have always known Uther's hatred of magic stemmed from somewhere.” The smile grows slightly. “And you have always wondered why he has never quite loved you as he should.”
Arthur's anger erupts. He runs toward her, sword swinging an arc as he attacks, but there is a blinding flash of light and laughter, and he is falling forward, landing hard in the dirt, sword skittering out of his hand. His ears are ringing and everything is still far too bright; he hears rather than sees Merlin beside him, reaching out to him, asking him if he is all right. Arthur feels his touch, shoves him away, stumbles to his feet. He sees shapes now, blurs; he moves in the direction he lost his sword, feels around in the dirt until he finds it.
The ringing. He wants the ringing to stop.
His father. He was born...
Oh god, his mother. She died because...
The sword slips from his grip once more. Arthur doubles over, losing the contents of his stomach.
“Arthur.” A cool hand presses against the back of his neck, fingers moving through his hair. “Arthur, please... I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.”
Merlin. Merlin was... He cannot do this. Not right now.
“Stop. Just... stop.”
He pulls away and forces himself to stand. He can see now, and Merlin is kneeling in the dirt, staring up at him, eyes pleading. Turning away, he starts back toward his horse, and realises he forgot his sword when he hears Merlin picking it up behind him. He stands beside his mount, staring at nothing, trying not to think as the sword is quietly pressed into his hands. He slips it into its scabbard, reaches for his saddle, and just stands there, clutching pommel and cantle between his fingers.
Two days ago, Arthur had left Camelot to do his duty as the crown prince, to protect his people. He had set out to destroy a menace, to make his father proud. And he had given in to the one person in his life he believed he could trust.
But that Arthur Pendragon is dead.
“Sire.” Merlin's voice is very soft behind him.
It is enough, though, and Arthur pulls himself up into the saddle. He does not spare Merlin another glance as he races toward Camelot.
The return to Camelot is quicker than it should have been; it is as if Arthur is doing his best to escape Merlin's presence. He tries to keep up but Arthur's mount is undoubtedly faster than his own, and before long he has to slow or risk the chance of injuring his horse. So Merlin slows and Arthur keeps going, and soon he loses all sight of him.
It is for the best. Merlin's anger at Nimueh's revelations is hard to hold in. He considers more than once turning around and going back to find her. It is only the thought that his prince needs him that prevents Merlin from attempting to exact some kind of revenge.
He still does not understand how she could be living and breathing when he watched her die. Undeniably. At his hand.
The wind around him picks up the more he thinks about it, the more his emotions stir. Thunder rumbles overhead and it is not until he catches sight of the city in the distance that he bothers to do anything about it. He tries to rein in his anger and focus on more pressing matters – such as finding Arthur and convincing him that Merlin had never meant to lie to him. Not really. And as he rides over the portcullis, the clouds overhead begin to dissipate, the sun peeks through, and he ignores the looks of the townsfolk around him as they gaze up in curiosity at the sky.
Arthur's stallion is already stabled, brushed and munching on a mouthful of hay. Merlin finds himself hesitating instead of hurrying, taking the time to put the tack away, brush his mare, linger as long as possible. He trusts Arthur; he tells himself that over and over. And yet, he still fears what will happen when he enters the castle. Guards move past and he tenses, waiting to be dragged before the king and sentenced to execution. As he told Gaius, it is not Uther or execution he fears, it is the simple knowledge of his secret – that everything would change. The thought of being forced to leave Arthur now, to be taken from his side... Merlin will not allow that to happen.
Knowing he has tarried long enough, Merlin gives the mare a final pat before exiting the stables and making his way up to the keep. There are no cries of “Sorcerer!” as he makes his way through the castle toward Arthur's chambers; no one watches him in suspicion. And Merlin mentally berates himself for even considering that Arthur might turn him in. He knows better. Maybe he always has.
It still does not prepare him for the utter look of betrayal Arthur flashes him when he enters the room and quietly closes the door behind him.
“I do not remember inviting you to join me,” Arthur snaps.
Merlin nods in acknowledgment of that. “No. In fact, it was quite obvious by the way you rode off without me that you want nothing to do with me.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Because we need to talk.”
Arthur snorts. “I have nothing to say to you.”
“Then you'll listen –“
“There you go forgetting how this whole prince-servant thing works!” Arthur advances on him and Merlin holds his ground. “Or the fact that at this very moment I hold your life in my hands.”
“Yes, you do.” Merlin holds his eye. “So I guess the question is what do you plan on doing with it?”
Arthur remains silent for a long moment. He turns away abruptly, tugging at his chain mail. Merlin wants to offer his assistance, but he knows Arthur well and now is not the time to get in his way. So he stands by the door and waits to hear of his fate, watches as Arthur struggles out of the chain mail and tosses it to the table.
When Arthur finally speaks, his voice is still ringed in anger. “There have been so many times when I have wondered,” he says; the ties on his gambeson are knotted and he rips them impatiently. “So many times I have thought 'That could not have happened unless...' But no, Merlin would have told me. Merlin would have said...”
Merlin's eyes widen at the confession. “If you suspected, then you should have said something!” He knows they are the wrong words before he finishes the sentence.
“I should have said something?” Arthur looks angry now. Really angry. “I am the crown prince, Merlin. It is not my duty to sort out your secrets! I trusted you. I have trusted you – with my life, with the safety of Camelot. And what do I get in return? A servant, a friend, a –,” he cuts himself off, draws in a sharp breath, “who lies to me, day after day while pretending to be something he is not.”
“I’ve never lied about being your friend,” Merlin says quietly. “I’ve never lied about any of that – what you mean to me, that I would die for you, none of that.”
There is a long pause as Arthur stares at him. He says, “No, Merlin. You only lied about who you really are.”
Arthur turns away from him before he can respond. Merlin watches in silence as his prince runs a hand through his hair, shoulders flexing with tension before he shrugs out of the gambeson and tosses it over a chair. He wishes he could wave a hand and make this go away; whisper the words of a spell and make Arthur forget. Not for himself, of course, but for Arthur.
“Just answer me one thing.” Arthur has turned back to him, hands on his hips as he stares across the room at Merlin. “And try to give me the truth... if you are capable of such a thing.”
Merlin winces at his words, but answers quickly, “Anything. I promise. Ask me.”
“What Nimueh said, about you killing her and having the power over life and death. Is it true?”
He is not sure how to answer that. He blinks in silence and Arthur turns away from him in obvious irritation.
“Yes. I... I don't know. What happened with Nimueh is – I don't know how to even explain it.”
“I just want the truth, Merlin.” Arthur does not turn back to face him. “I’m tired of your secrets. Your lies.”
Merlin nods and makes his way across the room to be closer to Arthur. It may not be the smartest move – he has seen how Arthur's temper can erupt without warning – but he needs this, to be closer to him. “I... “ He hesitates and searches for the right words, trying to begin again. “You don't know what it was like, seeing you there so pale and... lifeless. Dying. I'm supposed to protect you, Arthur, and I didn't. I failed. And I - I was willing to do anything, whatever it took, to save you.”
Arthur turns slightly to look at him, but says nothing.
“So I went to a place... the Isle of the Blessed, and Nimueh was there and I... I offered my life in return for yours.”
“You have to understand, it's my destiny to protect you –“
“Says who?” Arthur sounds offended at the very thought.
“That doesn't matter. It doesn't matter because I'd do it anyway, even if it weren't my destiny, and maybe I'm just now realising that and –“ He breaks off, knowing he is not making sense and Arthur is looking at him like maybe he has lost his mind, which is not very far from the truth.
There is a long silence between them, and then Arthur asks, “Is that when you killed her... Nimueh?”
Merlin thinks it would be easier to just say yes, and then he wonders why lying has suddenly become the simple way out. “No,” he admits and drops his gaze. “She gave me the means to save you, and I thought... but then you were safe, and I was alive, and I didn't realise... “
Arthur grabs hold of his arm, fingers biting into him painfully. “Who?” he demands, though Merlin is certain he all ready suspects. “Who else was sacrificed?”
He lifts his gaze but does not respond. It seems to be confirmation enough. “Your mother?! Your own mother!” Arthur shoves him back, moving past him, pacing in agitation as he shoves his hand through his hair once more.
“That's when I went back,” Merlin tells him quickly. “When I said –“ He cannot bring himself to say the word 'goodbye'. “But Gaius beat me there. And he was... I wanted Nimueh to take me. I told her – and when I saw Gaius laying there I... I don't know. I was so angry. I just wanted her dead. And I commanded it. And it happened.”
Arthur is on him again; drags him close by the shoulders and shakes him hard. “No one is supposed to die for me, dammit!” He shouts, and shakes him once more. “No one! Not Gaius! Not your mother! Not you! Do you understand me, Merlin?” His voice raises an octave with the name and his hands tighten over Merlin's shoulders. “Did you ever stop to think, stop to wonder how I would feel when I knew –“
Merlin stumbles back as Arthur releases him and turns away, and he feels like the world's biggest idiot because he finally understands. This is not about him; this is not about his being a sorcerer and the lies he has told and what might happen now that the truth is out. He has been so completely selfish and self-centred ever since Nimueh had appeared to them in the forest, focused only on what all of this has meant to him. Arthur might be angry for the lies, and he might feel betrayal at Merlin's secrecy, but that is not what seems to be tearing him apart.
“Your mother's death wasn't your fault, Arthur,” he says softly, and knows he is right when Arthur's shoulders tense with his words.
“You heard her. You heard what she said.”
“You can't trust Nimueh. I've learnt that the hard way.”
“Yes. Apparently trust is not a guarantee when it comes to sorcerers.”
There is little Merlin can say to that, so he just says, “I'm sorry.” He waits, and when Arthur does not respond he steps over to him, hesitantly lays his hand against his arm. “Arthur – “
“I know it is true.” Arthur lifts his gaze to Merlin's, and they stare at one another a silent moment before he continues. “In my heart, I know. She is right – I have always known. I have fought so long to earn something I was never going to receive.”
“Your father loves you,” Merlin tells him. “I saw it. When you were bitten by the Questing Beast. He wouldn't leave your side. It almost broke him.”
But Arthur is shaking his head. “No. He just did not wish to lose me, Merlin. To lose me would make the sacrifice of my mother” – his voice trembles slightly on the word – “meaningless.”
“You don't really believe that.”
“What else am I to believe?” he snaps.
“Blame Nimueh,” Merlin says. “Don't blame your father. And for pity's sake, don't blame yourself.”
Arthur shakes his head, turning away again, wandering over to the window. He leans a shoulder against the sill. “I have never spent much time questioning my father's hatred of magic. It just was. I have never thought much of it; never wondered why or where it came from. Until recently, that is. When Guinevere was accused and you tried to shoulder the blame – telling the truth, of all things – and the druid boy...” He trails off; reaching up to rub at his eyes, hand sliding down over his face and Merlin can see how tired he suddenly seems. “But I think I understand now where that hatred stems from.”
Merlin tries to understand too. He thinks of his own actions recently, and how easily magic can be used for all the wrong reasons. He also thinks of the countless times it has been used for the right reasons. He says, “It's the user, not the magic, Arthur.”
There is a snort of disbelief, and Arthur turns his head to look at Merlin over his shoulder. “Tell me one good thing to ever come of magic.”
There are so many things, but he says the one he thinks Arthur needs to hear. “You.”
Arthur clenches his jaw, and he turns away. “Get out.”
“I said get out!”
Knowing that Arthur has reached his limit, Merlin makes his way over to the door without another word. Pulling it open, he glances back to see his head in his hands, his shoulders shaking. He feels a weight pressing into his chest at the sight, and wishes they could just go back to that morning, waking up in one another's arms, when everything had seemed perfect. If he could will time to go backwards, he would never let them leave that place. And maybe he can; maybe time has no meaning for him.
But Merlin thinks that now is not the time to use magic for any reason.
Merlin lays awake in bed, staring out the window as the night sky grows ever lighter. He has not slept; he cannot sleep, cannot even begin to close his eyes. There are too many questions he cannot find answers to – how is Nimueh alive? Why did she tell Arthur such secrets? And what is going to happen now? He had not known what to say to Arthur last night; everything had seemed like the wrong thing. He wishes Arthur were not so well-trained in keeping everything bottled up. Sure, the prince is known to throw the occasional tantrum, to throw things when upset or snap when angry but always the crux of those emotions, the reasons behind them and the feelings that should be expressed are kept deep within. Merlin has the terrible feeling that this time will be no different, and he hates it because right now they only have each other.
He stumbles out of bed before the roosters begin squawking down in the Lower Town. He washes and dresses, and wanders out of his room to find Gaius preparing breakfast.
“Merlin!” He smiles in greeting. “I didn't hear you come in last night. Was your journey a successful one?”
He does not even know how to answer that, so he just says, “Arthur killed the worg. Er, that's what it was. Not wolves. A worg. The village was very grateful.”
“I'm certain they were. Worgs are nasty creatures. Luckily, there don't seem to be many left in the kingdom.” He sets a bowl of porridge on the table and waves Merlin over to eat. “I trust your own services weren't required?”
Merlin sits down, thinking of the night spent in the forest with Arthur, and he is wondering how Gaius could have guessed... oh, wait. He means his magic. “Umm, a little, I suppose. Nothing noticeable.”
Gaius sits down across from him and there is a long silence where he is just looking at Merlin with that all too-familiar look of knowing everything, and then he says, “All right, Merlin. What is wrong?”
“Wrong?” Merlin blinks. Other than Nimueh being alive and Arthur knowing about my magic and being told his life is responsible for his mother's death, nothing's wrong, Gaius. He thinks his mentor looks old suddenly, and tired, and he remembers holding him in his arms in the rain, and he was dead. And Merlin cannot bring himself to cause the man any more suffering. “Nothing. I'm just tired. You know, too many hours spent under Arthur's constant nagging and complaining. Speaking of...” – he takes a few quick bites of the dark bread and then stands – “I should get to work.”
If Gaius knows he is avoiding discussing something, he does not mention it.
A short while later, arms laden with food and reports from the guard houses, Merlin pushes the door open into Arthur's chambers only to find them empty. The bed does not even appear to have been slept in. Frowning, he sets the tray down and pokes around a bit. The clothes Arthur wore the day before are discarded on the floor, but his armour is missing. He makes his way to the window and peers out, staring through the morning mist until he catches the unmistakable figure of Arthur already on the training field, swinging his sword at the wooden pell. There was avoidance, and then there was getting up before dawn in order to not be in your room when your servant arrives. Merlin often marvels at Arthur's ability to take things too far.
He wraps some bread, roast pork and a pear up in a cloth before making his way through the corridors where other servants are bustling, quietly beginning to wake up the castle. The sun is barely breaking through the thin clouds above as Merlin jogs through the courtyard and out through the gates to the training grounds. The grass is covered in dew that coats his boots, a sure signal that soon they will be dragging out the heavy tapestries and pelts to cover the drafts around the keep as winter begins to set in. It seems fitting that today would be overcast and dreary, Merlin thinks, and finds himself missing summer. Surely the most difficult times are more easily faced when the weather is warm and bright.
Arthur is whacking away at the pell quite brutally as Merlin approaches. There is a determined set in his shoulders, a dark gleam in his eye, and Merlin hangs back a moment, hoping the prince is not picturing him there instead of the knotted piece of wood. He inches his way around, hoping to catch Arthur's eye before moving in too close. He knows the moment Arthur sees him because there is a sudden jerkiness in his next swing that causes Arthur to mutter under his breath as his blade gets caught in the post. He yanks it out, throws a glare in Merlin's general direction, and goes back to whacking.
“You're up early,” Merlin says after a moment. When there is no acknowledgment of his words, he holds the cloth of wrapped food out in offering. “I brought food.”
He stands there, holding it for a long moment as Arthur continues to take his aggression out on the helpless wood. Thwack. Thwack. Sighing, he finally sets it on the small table where Arthur's crossbow and a dozen daggers lay.
“Any instructions for the day?” He waits a beat. “I thought I'd start by mucking out your horses. Maybe take your dogs for a walk.”
Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.
Merlin feels his patience wearing thin. “You can't just ignore me forever, sire.”
THWACK. He might as well have said, 'Watch me'.
“Well.” Merlin toes the grass beneath his foot a moment. The pell shudders under the next few strikes. “I'll see you later, then.” He watches Arthur a couple of seconds longer before finally turning away.
That night, Arthur retires to his chambers far later than usual. Merlin knows he drilled his knights for more than twelve hours; the servants are all talking about it. They always look to him for answers regarding the prince's behaviour, and that is probably why he is not often included when the other servants gather together in the evenings. He never tells them anything. Usually he pays no attention to castle gossip, but he knows that Arthur is not helping to quiet it at the moment, and a lot of that is his fault. Between the Questing Beast and Merlin's frequent disappearances and Arthur's recovery and now... this. Merlin cannot walk through the corridors without feeling as if all eyes are on him, and he knows he would not like what most of the whispers are about.
Arthur barely spares him a glance when he enters his chambers. He sits at the table and pokes at the meal Merlin had brought up earlier – he had gone out of his way to get the kitchen to prepare all of Arthur's favourites. Unfortunately, Arthur seems less than impressed, ignoring most of the courses. He picks at the venison and stewed onions before climbing to his feet and making his way over to the side of his bed. Merlin moves to him automatically, quietly unbuckling the clasps of his armor, removing each piece and setting them aside until Arthur is clad in only shirt and trousers. When he reaches to help once more, Arthur steps away, murmuring something about Merlin leaving, though the words unclear. He slips his shirt off and Merlin cannot help but notice the bruises covering his shoulders and arms. There is even a deep coloured mark at the edge of his wrist that looks suspiciously as if a sword might have clipped him there.
Shaking his head, Merlin goes to the chest to grab the jar of salve. When he turns back to Arthur, he ignores the look of silent protest; he simply moves around behind him, pulls off the lid and proceeds to spread a liberal amount over the muscles he know will be painfully sore in the morning.
“Your shoulder is still bothering you, isn't it?”
Arthur remains silent.
Taking that as a yes, Merlin's touch gentles as his hand slides over that area. Selfishly, he takes his time; touching Arthur is the single-most important thing in his life at that moment, and he wants it to last as long as possible. He thinks the night in the forest should be enough to last him a lifetime – asking for more seems a little like tempting the Fates. But he wants more; he can think of little else. He had spent their first night back in Camelot clutching his pillow against him, wide-awake, unable to stop thinking about his magic and Arthur and what had happened between them. From the moment Arthur had kissed him, Merlin had realised so much that he has either blithely ignored or been too much of an idiot to recognise. Maybe it had been a little bit of both. But now he understands it all, and he tries not to think petulantly how unfair it is that Nimueh had appeared when she did to ruin it all.
If he ever finds her again, her death will not be quite so quick and painless.
When Arthur pulls away from him, Merlin realises he had been too lost in his thoughts. He stares at the broad back a moment as Arthur slides his shift on before finally gathering up the armour to take back to his room with him to clean. He tries once more to get Arthur to speak, “Is there anything else that you need, sire?” It is probably the most earnestly he has ever asked that question.
But again, there is no reply.
The next two days are more of the same. Arthur eats his breakfast quietly, allows Merlin to help him dress, and then doesn't return to his chambers until late. He's given up glaring when Merlin goes to rub the ointment over his muscles though, and Merlin considers that a small victory. It's the touching he's most grateful for, and he hopes that he somehow conveys his concerns to Arthur with each and every caress. At the moment, it is all he has, and of course, it is not enough. For as much as he might complain about Arthur's prattish behaviour – the well-placed insults, the biting remarks, the yelling and general dissatisfaction with everything Merlin does – every bit of it is better than the silence. After all, if Arthur is yelling, Arthur is paying attention. But this...
There are moments Merlin wonders if Arthur is pretending he does not even exist, and that hurts more than he could have imagined. An outsider might not be able to see it, but their banter has always held a certain amount of affection, and that stands out to Merlin even more now when there's nothing but silence. If there is one thing Merlin has slowly allowed himself to acknowledge about Arthur, it is that he is only ever moody about those things that matter most.
That third night, Merlin is especially attentive as he works the ointment over Arthur's skin. He actually begins to feel the muscles beneath his fingers slowly relax. In fact, it is the moment he feels the shoulder beneath his hand begin to tense up that he realises he is done... or is expected to be, anyway. He pulls back, slipping the lid on the jar as Arthur moves away. Unable to think of anything to say – he has tried every topic of conversation the last few days, and all have seemed to fall on deaf ears – Merlin gathers up the armour and starts for the door.
“How am I ever supposed to trust you again?”
He freezes at the quietly spoken words. They are unexpected; it takes him a moment to process what was even said. And as he does, he knows he has to give the right answer or it could all be over here and now. So he takes a breath, and he does not turn around. He just says, “When have I ever given you cause not to, sire?” and he leaves.
Merlin's head hurts. It has been a constant, dull and nagging pain in his temples for the last few days, but this morning when he wakes, it is more than that. He feels like his eyes are going to burst from their sockets. Even his hair hurts, as if every little strand is standing on end. He reaches up and runs his fingers through it, wincing as he does so, an odd current moving through his fingertips as he stares up at the ceiling above. There are voices coming from outside his door but he tries not to listen, too intent on the pulsing in his head that thrums through his blood right to the very tips of his fingers. When he does finally sit up, the pain only intensifies, becoming an almost high-pitched hum in his ears. Merlin frowns and the bed beneath him rattles slightly.
He realises somewhat belatedly that when the bed shook the pain had lessened, even if only somewhat, and he does not like what that seems to imply. He stands, and glances at his blue shirt hanging from the door of the cupboard, and when it flies through the air into his outstretched hand, the pain lessens once more.
It has been days since he had last used magic for anything – perhaps out of fear or some lingering regret over everything that has not been said between him and Arthur, he does not know – but Merlin thinks it is a real problem when the non-use of his magic is manifesting itself in physical pain. He momentarily gives in, using magic to dress quickly, wondering when it began to feel so good to give in to something so simple, before pushing open his door and loping down the steps into Gaius' chambers. Gwen is sitting at the workbench, watching as Gaius pours some potion into a small vial. They both look up as he enters.
“Morning, sleepyhead,” she beams at him, and Merlin cannot find the ability to suppress a smile in the face of her cheer.
“I was beginning to wonder if I would need to send the king's guard in to wake you,” Gaius says.
“I'm feeling a bit of an ache in my head.”
“Well, small wonder. Prince Arthur has appeared in a mood the last few days,” Gwen says matter-of-factly, without a hint of searching for idle gossip. “Morgana was teasing him yesterday that he hadn't even bothered to insult her.” Her eyes widen suddenly and she corrects, “Not that His Highness likes to insult people but that he and Morgana seem to like to tease each other, and he hasn't teased her recently... like she was teasing him, I mean.”
At Merlin's grin, Gwen seems to relax a bit, returning it as she stands and picks up the vial Gaius sets on the table before her. “Well, I should probably get this to Morgana.”
“The nightmares aren't getting any better?” Merlin asks.
Gwen's brow furrows with worry. “No. Worse, it seems.”
“This should help,” Gaius assures her, reaching out to pat her arm. “Have her take just a few sips this morning and try to rest. I will be by in a few hours to check on her.”
“Thank you, Gaius,” Gwen says with a grateful smile as she turns to leave.
“Here. I'll walk with you,” Merlin says quickly as Gaius fixes him with a look. His avoidance is becoming blatant, Merlin knows, and he cannot hide from Gaius forever, but he would rather not face questions with a headache.
And before everything is mended with Arthur.
And a half dozen other reasons he comes up with as he follows Gwen out the door.
A few hours later finds Merlin in the forest, out of view of the castle turrets, the earth around him moving in slow, circular waves. He wiggles his fingers and the ground to his right erupts upwards, twisting and churning in a strange dance that sends gravel and weeds and bits of moss careening through the air before it dips back down, and then the earth to his left rises up to do the same. His head does not hurt now; his fingertips are pulsing with magic that seems relieved to be free. The trees around him bend and sway, caressing him with their light breeze and whispers that seem to say, 'Everything's going to be all right, Merlin'. He raises his hands slightly, and the ground around him flattens as if never having been disturbed; the leaves in the trees rustle and then just as quickly fall silent, the entire forest around him settling into an unnatural calm.
His hands are shaking a little, as with relief, and Merlin is not entirely surprised when he glances up to find Arthur standing in the clearing, silently watching him. There is a long moment where they just stare at one another, and then Merlin lifts his right hand and holds it palm up, a ball of fire materialising in it.
“I've always been like this,” he says. “Well, not like this – all of this,” he turns his hand downward and upward and the ball of fire bounces along with the movement, “has been more recent. But magic... I’ve been magic for as long as I can remember. It was not something I learnt or actively sought to know. It's just who I am.”
Arthur is drawing closer, gaze steady on the dancing ball of fire, one hand resting on the pommel of his sword – whether habit or something else, Merlin does not know. “Is that confession supposed to mean something to me, then?”
Merlin sighs and makes a fist. The fire disappears. “Yes. No. I don't know. It's not meant to be a confession. I just... want you to know.” He looks at Arthur, but the gaze is not returned; the prince is staring at the ground at Merlin's feet. “Does this mean you've decided I'm worth speaking to again?”
When Arthur meets his gaze, the look is softer than what he is expecting, open and maybe the slightest bit vulnerable. “Why?” he asks quietly. “Just tell me why you lied to me all this time? I do not –" There’s a momentary flash of anger across his face. “Is it – you do not trust me, do you? You thought I would turn you over to my father.”
“No, it isn't that. It was never... “ Merlin trails off, realising that is partly a lie. A part of him has always had that fear of being discovered, but the belief that Arthur would betray him has been so infinitesimal as to not be important. “It wasn't that. If I had told you, sire, you would have been forced to lie to protect me. Lie to the king... to your father. I couldn't -- I wouldn't do that to you. I wouldn't ask you to choose between your king and the law, or me and my secret.”
Arthur continues to stare at him for a very long, silent moment. Finally, he says, “Do you not think the choice should have been mine to make?”
There is not much he can say to that because Arthur has a point. He sits down on the recently churned earth and hugs his knees to his chest and thinks what he might say to make this better. He drags his thumbnail over his teeth, and Arthur continues to stand slightly off to the side as the birds resume their normal cadence in the trees above.
Merlin tells him, “Magic's always been a part of me. But now ever since I k-killed Nimueh it’s been something else. I've always been taught to hide it, and I understand that, but now I just don't want to. And it physically hurts when I don't – when I choose not to use it. I'm a little bit... afraid that I'm losing control.”
“If anyone were to find out –“
“I know, all right?” Merlin does not bother to hide his frustration as he looks up at Arthur. “I'm very well aware of what would happen. I know, Arthur. I've seen the executions. And even now that I know the root cause of your father's hatred of magic –“ There is a sharply in-drawn breath above him and Merlin belatedly realises what he has said. “I'm sorry,” he says quickly, watching as Arthur's previous amenability melts away. “I didn't mean –“
“I do not want to talk about it.”
For once, Merlin lets the subject go. He nods and glances toward the trees, allowing Arthur a private moment to collect himself. There is more silence and he finds himself stretching out his hand, palm down, watching as the bits of leaves and twigs and moss along the forest floor tremble as he moves his fingers above them. Arthur sits down beside him, and it is impossible not to lean toward him a bit, to let their hips brush against each other; their shoulders press together and remain that way. His fingers curl into his palm as he realises Arthur has not yet pulled away.
“I’m not angry,” Arthur says after another moment. “Well, I was... not angry, maybe. Hurt, I suppose. The thought of you not trusting me – I hate it." He pauses and adds, “Not that I suppose I have ever given you reason to.”
Merlin looks at him then, frowning. “That's not true. You've never given me reason not to trust you, sire.”
Arthur arches a brow at him and they both seem to relax a little. Merlin realises his hands are no longer shaking from the restlessness that had earlier consumed them.
“You have saved my life.” It is a simple statement of fact.
“And you've saved mine,” Merlin finds himself pointing out. “Arthur, my magic... what I am, what I can do, in no way diminishes what you do, who you are.”
“No. I know.” Arthur nods, a hint of a smirk appears on his lips. “I mean, you may be a sorcerer – possibly a very powerful one at that. But that does not necessarily mean you are all that bright.”
Merlin's smile is instant. “Is that so?”
Arthur shrugs. “Nothing to be embarrassed about. I suppose even great warlocks need someone to point them in the right direction.”
“You do know I could turn you into a rodent, right?”
A speculative pause. “Could you? Really?”
Breathing a soft sigh of relief at the realisation that things might once more be all right between them, Merlin feels comfortable as he jokes, “I don't know. But sometimes you make me want to give it a try.”
“I do not understand!” Nyneve rails as she paces between the Sisters. “Merlin should have been executed by now! Or at least, banished from Camelot! Why has Arthur not told Uther the truth?”
Wrencan turns to look over her shoulder at the priestess. “It is not Arthur's fate to betray Merlin.”
Nyneve arches a brow in her direction. “Are you saying it was Merlin's fate to murder me?”
The Sisters glance at one another; they do not respond.
“Why did you bring me back?”
“It was unavoidable,” Gewiss responds. “Your Fate is entwined with that of the King and the Warlock. As theirs is with yours.”
Nyneve looks disbelieving.
Moving her hand in a slow circle over the scrying pool, an image of the prince and his servant shimmering in the reflection, Wefan says, “They are tied together. Neither will break the bond.”
“Apparently, I need to take care of this myself,” Nyneve states, a determined gleam appearing in her eyes.
“My name is Nimueh!” She stabs a finger at them. “It is who I am and who I always shall be! What gives you the right to say otherwise?”
Gewiss regards her coolly. “We are the Fates.”
Nyneve smiles in triumph. “It seems Merlin and Arthur are not the only ones to ignore the dictates of Fate then, hmmm?”
Wrencan and Gewiss glance at Wefan, who smiles in response.
Arthur balances the point of his dagger on his middle finger. The tip presses into his skin just barely as it hangs there in the air as if held up by invisible strings. It is a useless talent he has developed over years of sitting through boring speeches and council meetings. There is no point to it, except that it does seem to impress the ladies, and has an added bonus of annoying the hell out of his father. Arthur tends to balance the dagger on the tip of his finger until he has drawn the attention of most of those in the room with his amazing ability of... whatever, and then he will let it fall when it is certain to make the most amount of ruckus. He has done it more than a few times over the past several days; a fact that he is certain has not gone unnoticed by the king. Unfortunately, Arthur has yet to decide if he gives a damn or not.
At the moment, he is not really doing it out of any sense of rebellion but simply because Merlin seems fascinated by it. He is standing just behind Arthur's right shoulder, completely ignoring the flirtatious smiles of the serving wench and Arthur's empty goblet, his gaze focused solely on the dagger. Arthur caught him watching almost a mark earlier on the candle, and has been doing it ever since. He would let it fall, but he knows Merlin would do something completely stupid like attempt to catch it – and whether he would use magic or not, Arthur cannot picture any scenario in which his doing so would end well.
“I still say youare cheating,” Dagonet's voice accuses from the circle of knights sitting on the flagstones a few feet in front of Arthur. “No one's that lucky!”
“They are your dice,” Gawain points out. “Perhaps you are just really unlucky.”
“Unlucky at love, unlucky at dice,” Gareth interjects before ducking Dagonet's swing.
Arthur's only respite from the confusion of his thoughts over the last week has been spent in the company of his knights. They spend late evenings in their barracks, playing dice and drinking far too much ale, and Arthur has taken to joining them if only to get away from the castle. Tonight is the first time he's brought Merlin with him though, and his servant's presence has unfortunately negated the purpose of the excursions. It is a bit difficult not to think about magic with Merlin around, and once Arthur finds himself thinking about magic, he thinks about his father and his mother and everything becomes a bit morose. And if there is one thing Arthur cannot stand, it is people who tend to go morose.
“Sire,” Gawain calls out as he tosses the dice back to Dagonet. “Tell us again about the worg you killed – “
“Wait. I thought it was three worgs?” Lionel asks from across the room where the giggling serving wench is attempting to wiggle out of his arms.
“No, no, no. There were almost a dozen last time he told it.”
Gawain laughs as Arthur throws all his knights a good-natured grin. “You have it all wrong. He said there were six worgs, and six damsels he had to save. That is where you are getting your dozen.”
“The only damsel there was Merlin,” Arthur corrects.
“Oi!” His servant takes a few steps closer so that presumably Arthur can get the full effect of his glare.
“Oh, that's right,” Gawain nods as he leans back on his arms. “Describe to us, Merlin, that brave manoeuvre of yours – was it 'Ahhhh!' and then you threw yourself down in front of the beast?”
Merlin sets the jug of ale in his hand down on the table with a loud clunk as he pulls a perturbed face at the knight. “Actually, I threw myself on the ground first, and then screamed.”
As the knights laugh, Arthur throws Merlin a quick smile and drops the dagger back into his palm before sheathing it and standing. “Well, before the tales grow too outrageous –“
“We only seek to compete with you, Your Highness.”
“Careful, Gawain,” Arthur warns. “Or you may find yourself in the stocks.”
“Nonsense! I would never wish to take that job from Merlin.”
Laughing, Arthur nods towards an obviously disgruntled Merlin, beckoning him to follow as Arthur heads out of the barracks. The courtyard is empty, and the moon above high and bright. Merlin falls into step beside Arthur, close enough that their arms occasionally touch as they walk. Arthur does not bother questioning the fact that he finds himself craving the contact. Very little in his life has made much sense since meeting the meeting in the forest with the sorceress. The realisation that having his servant close by has been the only time in the last week that Arthur has felt some sense of normalcy in his life does not come as much of a shock. Even with the revelation of the lie that existed between them, Arthur cannot help but feel that Merlin is the only person he can honestly trust anymore. Ridiculous, when he thinks about it. Merlin? Really? He has been having difficulty reconciling what Merlin is to him; all he does know is that he wants him there. Beyond that, Arthur finds himself not wanting to think too much.
“You haven't spoken to your father yet, have you? I mean, about what... what Nimueh said.”
Arthur snorts. After that slip earlier that afternoon in the woods, when Arthur had found Merlin playing with his magic, he was certain the subject would not be brought up again. He had been wrong. “And what, exactly, would you like me to say? 'Oh, father, by the way. I ran into a witch in the forest and she said you have been lying to me my entire life about my mother's death, the reason for your hatred of magic and pretty much everything else!'?”
The shoulders beside his shift slightly. “Sorry. I just – “
Arthur waves him to silence. “No. It is all I think about anymore. And I cannot decide if I am angrier at my father or the witch for putting these thoughts and doubts in my head. Even though I tell myself I should just let it go, I find I cannot. It is like... finding out my entire life is a lie.” He winces as he admits that.
“I'm sure he's just protecting you. He is your father, Arthur.”
Most people tend to underestimate Arthur Pendragon, and he is just fine with that. He learnt early on that he had a certain knack, he supposes, for living up to the lowest of expectations. Merlin would more than likely argue that Arthur is simply born to be a prat; it comes naturally to him. And while he would be inclined to argue the point for argument's sake – he is the Crown Prince, after all, and Merlin has no right to say such things to him, even if that does not necessarily deter him from doing so – deep down, Arthur can at least admit to the truth to himself. There is no point in denying certain hidden talents, and he just happens to have always been very, very good at being a prat.
Even his father once said to him: “Let your enemies underestimate you, Arthur.”
Not that Arthur considers his father his enemy, even with the revelation that he has spent his entire life being lied to by the man. In all honesty, he has not figured out exactly what he is thinking and feeling yet.
Frowning, he finally replies, “I do not need protecting. What the hell kind of king am I supposed to be if everyone is running around molly-coddling me?”
He can feel Merlin's smile. “Oh, I don't know. I think you like being molly-coddled.”
Merlin is surprisingly quick, dodging just out of reach of Arthur's light swing and laughing as he lopes into the castle. Arthur follows, taking a quick shortcut through the passageway, and catching Merlin outside an alcove beside the staircase. He pins him quickly, twisting his arm behind his back, reminiscent of when they had first met, though this time is slightly different; Merlin is still laughing and Arthur's hold on him is light. He thinks he should teach his servant better self-defence techniques, and then he realises just how stupid that thought is as he remembers what he saw in the forest that afternoon. The thought sobers him, and he drops Merlin's arm, moving to step away.
As if sensing his sudden withdrawal, and maybe even the reason for it, Merlin reaches out, grabbing hold of Arthur's shirt and pulling him close, kissing him. Arthur tenses at first, not certain he needs any added complications at the moment, and then his body quickly takes over and his thought processes shut down as he presses Merlin deeper into the alcove. Fingers curl into the hair at the nape of his neck and Merlin tugs him closer, insistent and impertinent as he nips at Arthur's lower lip with his teeth, teases him playfully with his tongue – always pulling back when Arthur moves in to take. He growls with mounting frustration as Merlin smiles, placing light, brief kisses over his mouth before ending the contact.
“I'm sorry,” Merlin says. “It's just... I've been wanting to do that for days now and –“
“Shut up, Merlin,” Arthur murmurs as he brings their lips together again to make his point.
And this is what he has needed, Arthur realises as his fingers slide across Merlin's jaw, cupping his face as he deepens the kiss. For all that he might have believed he had every right to turn Merlin over to his father or to be angry with him or to cast him out of Camelot for his too long silence, Arthur knows that the truth is he needs Merlin; he wants him there. Wants this: the press of Merlin's body against his own, the needy noises issuing from the back of Merlin's throat, the sweep of his tongue along Arthur's lower lip. Things like sorcery and lies and the truth of his life seem distant and irrelevant. All that matters in that moment – maybe all that has ever mattered from the moment their paths had crossed – is this.
Arthur wakes to a slight chill. He reaches out for the warmth of the body beside his – only to find slightly cooled sheets. Frowning, he opens one eye to glare at the empty space as he rolls over onto his back, opening both eyes to stare at the canopy above. There is a hint of light coming in through the curtains, and he wonders how long he has slept before he hears a scuffling sound followed by a jostle of his bed.
Immediately picturing another rat infestation, Arthur rolls over, pressing the curtains aside to be greeted by the sight of Merlin's arse sticking out and up from underneath his bed. He is momentarily disappointed that it is not a bare arse before reaching out to flick a finger hard against the material of Merlin's trousers. There is a loud "thunk" beneath him as Merlin's body jerks upward, followed by "Ow!", and then a few words that would make his knights blush. Arthur smiles broadly as Merlin wriggles out from beneath the bed and sits up, rubbing his head and scowling at him.
“What the hell was that for? Are you trying to bruise my brain?”
“As if there is a brain to bruise,” Arthur says, barely leaning back into his bed before Merlin pounces on him and wrestling for dominance quickly ensues. He can win, of course, but he gives this one to Merlin, smiling as his manservant pins him to the mattress, arms stretched above his head.
“You weren't even trying,” Merlin accuses, bending to brush his lips along Arthur's jaw, and lower to nip at his neck.
“Yes, but if I were to use brute strength against you,” Arthur points out, “then you would be forced to use magic, and as we both know magic is forbidden –“
Merlin leans up to look down at him, all serious and frowning suddenly. “I'd never use magic against you, Arthur.”
Not enjoying the shift in tone and wanting the joviality back, Arthur says, “Not even if I asked?”
The smile that appears on Merlin's face is beaming, inviting him to elaborate on the request. Arthur sits up with Merlin straddling his thighs, and he leans in to place soft kisses over full lips. “What if I were to say 'Merlin, hold me down in a way that only you could'? Or 'Merlin, touch me without touching me'. Or possibly I could say 'Merlin, surely we can divest of our clothing in a more efficient and speedy manner! Have you any suggestions?'”
Arms loop loosely around his shoulders, and Merlin is still smiling wide. “You know,” he says, “too often I've thought the only purpose of my magic was to save your life. Now I see there's a lot more to it.”
“You have absolutely no imagination,” Arthur says with a shake of his head. “Think of the time that has been wasted!”
Merlin rolls his eyes before leaning in for another kiss. “It's always about you, isn't it?”
“As opposed to what?” Arthur asks, trying his best to maintain an expression of innocence but Merlin just flashes him one of those looks that clearly says he knows better. Deciding to divert Merlin's attention to more important things, Arthur begins tugging at his shirt. “Why are you out of bed anyway?” He adds, in a slightly offended tone, “And dressed!”
Merlin slaps at his hands. “Because, in case you have forgotten – and apparently you have - you're expected in the king's council meeting this morning.”
“The king can keep his own bloody council,” he grumbles, catching Merlin's wrists and tugging him back onto the bed. “Nothing will be said in there that has anything to do with me.”
“That may very well be the case,” Merlin agrees as he struggles to extricate himself from beneath Arthur, using a foot against Arthur's thigh for leverage to push him away. Once free, Merlin bounds to the floor and turns back with a look of admonishment on his face. “But personally, I'm not too keen on spending the rest of the day in the stocks after coming up with some ridiculous excuse as to why you weren't in the meeting.”
Arthur sighs, rolling on to his side to rest his head on his hand. Seconds later, a red shirt lands on top of his head, obscuring his vision just after he is certain Merlin is smirking at him. “You're not very much fun, Merlin,” he says in resignation, grabbing the shirt and sitting up to slip it on.
A pair of trousers hits him in the side of his face in response.
Some time later Arthur is finally presentable, sitting at the table and eating his breakfast, while in the corner Merlin grumbles as to how and why Arthur gets his boots so dirty. Resisting the temptation to admit that the more Merlin whines, the more Arthur goes out of his way to stomp through mud and horse droppings, he leans back in his chair and breaks apart the slice of bread in his hand, piece by piece, and simply flashes a grin in his manservant's direction. Merlin appears more than slightly exasperated as he gives the extra pair of boots in his hand a final swipe and tosses them over his shoulder.
“You should probably be on your way,” he says as he climbs to his feet.
“I think you are trying to get rid of me,” but Arthur knows he will have to deal with his father's scowl if he is late, so he drops his feet from the table where they are perched and moves to stand just as the door is thrown open.
“What is the meaning of this?” he asks, frowning as two guards make their way into his room. They march past him to Merlin, grabbing him by the arms.
“Oi! What's going on?” Merlin's question is directed at the guards but his eyes sweep toward Arthur, a quick flash of fear appearing momentarily in their depths as they pull him toward the door.
Arthur quickly follows, fingers twitching to go for his sword. “Where are you taking him?” he demands, trying to ignore the panic in Merlin's eyes.
“Apologies, Your Highness,” one of them says without turning as they continue down the corridor. “We have orders.”
“It is going to be all right, Merlin,” Arthur assures him quietly as he sweeps past the guards, taking up the lead position as they make their way towards the throne room.
For all of his assurance to Merlin, there is a growing feeling of unease in Arthur's stomach. Merlin's usual infractions that draw notice from the king rarely involve summoning by palace guards. A week ago, he would not have felt such concern. He would have followed out of sheer curiosity, wondering what it was Merlin had done to get himself sent to the stocks this time. Ever since learning of Merlin's magic though, Arthur grows worried simply when Merlin is within the king's presence. More than once he has found himself wishing Merlin possessed a greater instinct for self-preservation; he seems to like drawing attention to himself, especially the king's attention.
He ignores Merlin's quiet call behind him as he sweeps into the throne room; his father is pacing before Morgana, who is perched anxiously on the edge of her seat. Arthur briefly catches her gaze, which seems to be quietly begging him to do something, dammit, before he rounds his shoulders and focuses his attention on his father, trying his best to appear nonchalant.
“Sire, my manservant – “
Arthur breaks off when the king spins towards him, eyes dark with anger usually reserved for sworn enemies... and magic users. Icy talons of fear clench at his heart as his father moves past him to Merlin, who the guards push to his knees as their sovereign approaches.
“Explain yourself!” Uther demands as another guard steps forward and hands a book to him. He throws it to the floor in front of Merlin. “Explain why this book of magic was found hidden in your chambers!”
It is Arthur to whom Merlin immediately glances, and he closes his eyes, pressing his fingers to the bridge of his nose in dismay as his father rails, “Look at me when I address you! My son cannot help you with this charge of sorcery!”
“Sire, I... “ Merlin's voice is soft but devoid of fear.
Morgana interrupts before he can continue. “Surely there is an explanation for this that does not include nefarious purpose, Your Majesty.” She gets to her feet as Arthur glances over at her and shoots him a hard look.
It is on the tip of Arthur's tongue to suggest that perhaps the book belongs to Gaius but he stops himself before speaking the words. Gaius is old; he cannot imagine the man surviving long in the dungeon even if they scrambled to get him released before he could be executed. All this time that Merlin has been using magic right under their noses and now the truth comes to light... Now, when Arthur realises he needs him most.
“I am certain the book is not Merlin’s,” Morgana continues after a brief pause when she seems to realise Arthur has nothing to say. If she had the ability, Arthur is fairly certain the look she is currently aiming in his direction would turn him to stone. “Perhaps someone else hid it there,” she suggests. “Perhaps Merlin has an enemy –“
Arthur frowns at her words. An enemy – of course! Nimueh must have either disguised herself to report the book or used magic to make someone else to do it.
The king snorts and waves a hand toward Merlin. “He has admitted to sorcery in the past.”
His father's words cause Arthur to understand there is really only one course of action that can be made at the moment. The charge cannot be levelled at Gaius because the man is too old, and it cannot fall to Merlin because, in all honesty, he is probably the only person who could think of a way out of this mess. Making up his mind, Arthur steps forward, laying a hand on Merlin's shoulder lightly as he glances up at the king.
“The book is mine, Father.”
A heavy silence follows. Arthur finds himself thinking that if this is truly all it takes to silence the court, he should have made such an announcement long ago. At his feet, Merlin makes some kind of noise – disbelieving, shocked, and maybe even angry – Arthur is unable to decipher it. Instead, he stares at his father, whose expression is clearly disbelieving, perhaps even somewhat mocking. Arthur steels himself for the fight he knows is coming.
The king laughs disbelievingly. “What is the meaning of this, Arthur? If you think you can save the life of your servant by falsely – “
“The book is mine,” Arthur says again, quiet and determined. “I gave it to Merlin to hide, telling him only that it was precious to me. He had no idea as to its contents –“
“Your Majesty, it isn’t true!” Merlin protests. “Arthur isn’t –-“
Arthur's hand tightens on the shoulder beneath it as he feels Merlin attempt to stand. “You need not try to protect me any longer,” he says quietly, glancing down to fix Merlin with a steady gaze. He tries to convey that this is the safest alternative. “Your loyalty to me, to Camelot, has been enough.”
Merlin's mouth falls open as he stares. Arthur holds his eyes only a moment longer before directing his attention to the king. In those short seconds, his father's countenance has changed – his eyes have narrowed, breath coming more quickly. It is quite obvious that Arthur's announcement has not yet been accepted as fact, but that he should think to challenge the king's word in front of the court is something that cannot be allowed.
“I do not believe you,” Uther hisses, and his attention darts toward Merlin once more, a flicker of growing hatred burning in the depths of his gaze.
Arthur's mind works quickly. He must force his father's hand; by standing up for Merlin, he has only worsened the situation. Latching on to a single fact that he knows his father cannot ignore, he lifts his chin and mockingly remarks, “Why else do you think I returned the Druid boy to his people?”
There are shocked gasps throughout the room. Uther's face seems to drain of all colour, as if he is only now beginning to realise what his son, the Crown Prince of Camelot, is saying. For a moment, Arthur regrets the words, wishing that things were different between them, that their relationship was not built on so many lies. But then he feels Merlin struggle to his feet beside him, shrugging off his hand and preparing to probably do something stupid and pointless. He turns his head very briefly, if only to signal his manservant to remain quiet and please, for once since the day they first met hold his tongue. Their future... Everything depends on that moment, on convincing his father that Arthur is the guilty one. He glances over at Morgana, who is staring at him with what might be the first expression of approval he has ever seen on her face and Arthur finds the words he is searching for.
“Why is it so difficult to believe, Father?” He crosses his arms over his chest, adopting his most arrogant stance. “I have always wondered what it is you are so afraid of.”
His father's rage is terrifying in its rapidity. Face darkening with fury, he moves quickly, storming toward him and lashing out with a powerful backhand. Arthur takes it, staggering beneath the force before straightening and facing his father once more, undaunted. He can feel Merlin tensing beside him, coiling with unleashed energy that almost vibrates off him, and he moves slightly, unnoticeable to most, his fingers just barely brushing over the back of Merlin's hand. Arthur may not understand Merlin's true strength, but he knows he has the power to kill, and he has no doubt that his father will be a dead man if he does not convince his manservant to stay his hand. Merlin may not use his magic to protect himself, but Arthur has few doubts of what could happen when it comes to his prince. The thought both touches and terrifies him.
Silence continues to stretch over the court as Arthur and his father, prince and king, remain with gazes locked. Finally, after an interminable amount of time in which Arthur begins to fear that maybe his father will call his bluff, the king steps back, snapping his wrist in Arthur's direction.
“Guards!” The king's gaze continues to hold his as the guards flank Arthur, pushing Merlin out of the way. “You may be willing to break the laws of the land,” he warns, “but I am not. Lock him up until such time as his execution –“
“My Lord, no!” Morgana shouts in denial.
“- is set.” Without another word, Uther turns and steps past his throne, disappearing toward his chambers. Morgana stares at Arthur, expression still heavy with shock before she hurries after the king.
“Arthur!” he hears Merlin call out to him. He flashes a quick, tight smile before the palace guards lead him towards the dungeon.
“Gaius!! Gaius!” Merlin ignores the fact that the door to the quarters he shares with the court physician opens before he reaches it, closing behind him once he steps inside.
Gaius has his back toward him, setting his medicine satchel down on his workbench before he turns to face him with a furrowed brow. “Calm down, Merlin. No need to shout the roof down. I’m right here.”
Rushing past him, Merlin leans into his room, staring at the floorboard that has been discarded beside his bed, the hiding place tucked away beneath it empty. “Where were you?”
He takes a breath as he sweeps back around to Gaius, fists clenching at his sides. He knows he needs to calm before he can be of any use to Arthur, but for the moment he can do little beyond wishing to resort to the most extreme measures. He had been so very close to allowing his anger to control him in the throne room, to unleashing his fury once again as he had done on the Isle of the Blessed. If not for the staying touch of Arthur's fingers, Merlin is fearful to think of what would have happened. He asks again, “Where were you?”
Apparently sensing Merlin's urgency, Gaius takes a step towards him as he waves a hand to his satchel. “Tending to a sick child in the Lower Town. Why? What has happened?”
“Someone found the magic book,” Merlin says, and finds himself pacing. “They knew where it was hidden, Gaius. They gave it to the king.”
Gaius glances toward Merlin's room. He asks, “But who would do such a thing?”
Merlin knows. He has sensed it from the moment the guards had burst into Arthur's room to arrest him. “Nimueh.”
“Nimueh?” Gaius stares at him as if he has lost his mind. “But Nimueh is dead.”
“She isn't.” He looks over at Gaius with a guilty expression, knowing he should have shared what had happened the moment he'd returned to Camelot. “Gaius, I don't know how, but Nimueh is alive. She confronted Arthur and me in the forest on our way back from Gelli.”
“What?” Gaius frowns his disapproval as he steps up to Merlin. “And you didn't think this was important enough to share with me?”
“It didn't concern you!” Merlin snaps, instantly contrite at the flicker of hurt on the old man's face. He amends, “After what happened, I didn't wish to worry you. I thought I could handle it. That Arthur and I could – “
“Arthur? What does he have to do with this?”
Merlin sighs as he sinks onto the bench. “She told him, Gaius. About me –“
“And that wasn't all,” he adds quickly before Gaius can launch into the lecture Merlin probably deserves. “She told us... She said that Arthur was conceived in magic, Gaius. That the king had asked for a son, and that she – that magic was responsible for his birth. And now because of all of this, because of what I am, the Crown Prince is currently sitting in the dungeon out of some ridiculous noble intention of protecting me!”
He looks up when his admission is greeted only with silence to find Gaius looking away from him, as if suddenly unable to meet his gaze. Merlin watches him for a long moment, noting the resigned slope of his shoulders and the tight set of his mouth. His stomach seems to twist inside of him. “You knew.”
Rising to his feet, Merlin slowly walks around Gaius to face him once more. “All of this time, you've known about Arthur's birth and you never told me?”
Gaius purses his mouth, fixing Merlin with his high arched brow. “The details of Arthur's birth have nothing to do with you, Merlin.”
“Nothing to –“ Merlin cuts himself off as he feels something like hysterical laughter bubble to the surface. “You mean to tell me that you actually believe the true reason for Uther's hatred of magic – for Nimueh's repeated attacks on Camelot – aren't important enough for me to know?” He runs a hand through his hair as he stares at Gaius a moment longer before turning and pacing away.
Apparently, Camelot is steeped in omissions and lies.
“We all make mistakes, Merlin,” Gaius tells him quietly. “None of us are ever so perfect as to know what is right when it comes to protecting those we care about. The true circumstances regarding Arthur's birth have only ever been shared by three of us – the king, myself and Nimueh. Not even Igraine knew how she came to be with child. And that was how Uther meant for it to remain. He has never wished for Arthur to know the truth.”
“He's never wanted Arthur to think for himself,” Merlin charges. “He's never wanted him to see that these attitudes regarding magic were biased and wrong.”
Gaius shrugs slightly in acknowledgement of his words. “The king is a prideful man. He always has been. It is quite possible that even he has come to regret some of his decisions over the past two decades, though it is likely we will never know.”
There is such resignation and acceptance in Gaius' tone that Merlin can do little but stare at him in disbelief. He finally says, “And you've stood by and watched him slaughter magic users, or those simply associated with magic users, all the while knowing the king himself is guilty of using magic? All the while knowing, and never saying a single thing to stop it?”
“And what would you have me do, Merlin?” Gaius turns slightly, gesturing toward the keep. “I do what I can for whom I can in this position. I counsel the king toward leniency as much as I am allowed. I care for and look after Prince Arthur and Lady Morgana. And might I point out that I have looked after your welfare as well.”
At Merlin's silence, Gaius continues, “What good would it have done you to know the truth? You are a terrible liar, Merlin. Could you have held your tongue around the king? What about Arthur? Would you have not spent every day trying to sway the prince with regards to magic once you knew the facts behind his birth? Consider things carefully before you begin making accusations about which you know nothing. I have forced myself to watch each and every execution that has been carried out in the name of the king's vengeance.”
Merlin's anger abates slightly, if not completely. He still cannot understand how either Gaius or Uther could justify keeping such information from Arthur.
“What we must focus on at the moment is getting you away from Camelot as quickly as possible.”
He is certain he did not hear Gaius correctly. “What?”
“Uther is not stupid, Merlin, no matter what your opinion of him may be,” Gaius says, moving past him to find a piece of parchment. “Arthur's gallant attempt at distracting him will only last for so long. I have an old friend in East Anglia who I will send you to, along with a letter of introduction. He's –“
“I'm not going anywhere!” The surfaces around them shudder; a book and two bowls tumble to the floor.
“Merlin!” Gaius whispers harshly in warning.
He takes a steadying breath, though no part of him wishes to calm his fury at the moment. “I am not leaving until Arthur is safe. And I can't believe you would even consider asking me to do so.”
Stepping over to Gaius, he pushes his anger to the side and reaches out to touch his arm. “Gaius, please. Arthur took the blame because he trusts me enough to find answers. I can't let him down. I can't just run away.”
Gaius stares up at him silently before asking, “And what if Arthur made this sacrifice specifically to give you enough time to escape?”
Oddly, Merlin finds himself smiling a little. “Oh, I think he knows me a little better than that.”
Uther isn't stupid. Gaius' words come back to Merlin when he is stopped by the first guard who informs him that absolutely no one is allowed to see the prince as he attempts to make his way down to the dungeon. And by the guard's steady gaze as he says “no one”, Merlin takes that to mean him, specifically. In fact, he is very certain his mere attempt will be reported to the king, as will every movement he consequently makes. Gaius had warned him about being careful before he had left their quarters; the wrong move made or word uttered would make Arthur's sacrifice for naught.
Merlin had considered a memory spell, but Gaius had cautioned that such a thing could be far too dangerous, especially considering the specific group of people he would have to target. Beyond that, it would only be a temporary solution to a far bigger problem. It was Nimueh that had to be dealt with – and preferably in a manner that was a little more permanent than previously. When Merlin had asked how it was possible that she was still alive, Gaius had promised he would look into the matter. Knowing he had to trust his mentor, no matter the unresolved lies between them, Merlin had left Gaius to his devices while he went to check on Arthur.
The difficulty in getting to see Arthur is not unforeseen, and after nodding in acceptance of the guard's demand that he leave immediately, Merlin turns the corner, quietly whispers, “Swefe”, and backs out into the corridor as the well-meaning guard slides to the ground, fast asleep. He pauses only a moment as he hears a similar thump just ahead, then moves forward, continuing to whisper, “Swefe”, before rounding each corner and making his way deeper into the dungeon. Coming up on the cell block, he pauses, focusing specifically on the guard standing next to Arthur's cell; it would be rather pointless to make this trip only to put the prince to sleep as well. Instead of taking the chance of speaking the incantation aloud, Merlin concentrates on the mind of the man leaning against the wall, suggesting sleep through his thoughts. Moments later, he watches as the guard's eyes slide shut and he slowly slips to the ground. A breath of relief escapes Merlin as he steps through the threshold into the cell block.
Arthur stands in the centre of the cell, arms folded over his chest, staring at the now-sleeping guard with a thoughtful look. He does not appear the least bit surprised as Merlin moves up to the bars. “You do not have an ounce of self-preservation in you. Do you, Merlin?”
“I could say the same thing about you. After all, I'm not the one currently behind bars.”
The response is a heavy sigh. It has only been a few hours but the set of Arthur's shoulders and the tone of his sigh show the prince is far more tired from recent events than he wishes to let on. He finally moves over to the other side of the cell bars, flashing Merlin a brief look of exasperation that speaks volumes about how much he's not supposed to be there - and yet, it is clear Arthur has expected him. And maybe, even though he will not admit it, there is a bit of relief that he came.
At least, that is what Merlin tells himself even as Arthur says, “You should not be here.”
“As if I'm going to start listening to you now.”
“Where else am I supposed to be other than at your side, sire?” he asks, fingers curling around the bars of the cell. “Except maybe in there, instead of out here.”
“It is safer this way.” Arthur steps closer to the bars; when he reaches out and lays his hands over Merlin's, their fingers entangle. “My father will not execute me. I am certain he is trying to decide what I am playing at."
Merlin stares at their hands silently for a moment, his thumb brushing against Arthur's fingers. It shocks him a little, when he stands there and thinks about it, what Arthur has done truly means; how much he obviously cares for Merlin.
“He was so angry. The king. I mean,” he glances up at his prince, “he hit you.”
Arthur shrugs, though the hard look that settles over his features says it means more than his next words indicate. “It was not the first time.”
Shaking his head in disbelief, Merlin drops his eyes once more. “I was so furious, I could have –“
“I know.” The fingers between his tighten until Merlin meets his gaze. “But you did not. Someone else might have, but you did not. And that is why I trust you with my life.”
He snorts in derision, kicking at one of the bars with his boot. “Maybe you shouldn't. Look where you are now.”
“We both know whose fault it is that I am here.”
Merlin looks up; nods. “Nimueh.” He frowns as he says, “I just don't understand what she hopes to gain by doing this.”
“Revenge, I am certain.” Arthur shrugs a little. “I doubt she ever expected that I would step in. The first time I met her, she said it was not my destiny to die by her hand.” He smiles and adds, “Of course, she never said anything about indirectly killing me.”
Merlin cannot help but glare at Arthur's flippancy given the situation. “I don't see how you can make jokes. If you haven't noticed, Arthur, you've admitted to sorcery!”
“What I have done is given us time –“
“Time for what?!” He pulls his hands away from the bars and spreads his arms wide. “Sure, I suppose I have plenty of time now to get your chambers cleaned, seeing as you won't be needing them anymore.” Merlin's exasperation at the current situation only grows as Arthur begins laughing at him. He pulls a petulant expression, saying, “I really don't see how any of this is funny.”
“It is really not as dire as you seem to believe,” Arthur tells him as he reaches through the bars to grab one of his hands and pull it back. He squeezes Merlin's fingers reassuringly before placing them once more against the cell door and holding them there. “My father is not going to execute his only son and heir. And that is what I mean by saying I have given us time. While my father is deciding how he should respond to my admission, we must figure out a way to prove that Nimueh is behind it. Put the blame squarely on her shoulders, and disabuse my father of the notion that you are a sorcerer.”
Merlin thinks it sounds easier than it will prove to be, but he refrains from pointing that out to Arthur. The last thing he should be doing is adding further concern. The prince is already being forced to deal with convincing his father he is that which Uther most hates in the world. It bothers him that Arthur has been put into this position when it is Merlin who should be looking out for him. He cannot help but wonder if he had been honest with Arthur earlier, if he had told him about his confrontation with Nimueh, then maybe things would be different; maybe they would have been better prepared for this. He is not sure what, but he thinks there had to have been other possible paths he could have taken.
Sighing softly, Merlin presses his forehead into one of the bars, gazing at Arthur. “Why did you do this?”
“If I had been marked with an assassin’s arrow, what would you have done?”
“That’s different. It’s my job to protect you.”
“And when I … if I am King, it will be my job to protect my subjects.”
Merlin looks away for a moment, brow knitting together in a frown. “Is that what I am to you? A subject of Camelot?”
Silence. Then, “You know what you are to me, Merlin.”
The fingers around his tighten. Merlin turns back to find Arthur’s soft gaze on him, the one he knows so few ever have the chance to see; himself, Morgana maybe.
“You’re not going to go and get all weepy on me, are you? I would prefer to leave that to the women.”
Merlin rolls his eyes. “I’m not going to cry.” At least, not in front of Arthur. Never in front of Arthur. He would probably remind him of it the rest of their destinies together… however long that might be. “Besides, you’re not worth crying over.”
“Oh?” Arthur raises a haughty brow.
“Of course not.” Merlin shrugs, relaxing as they settle into familiar territory. “Not enough blankets on a cold winter’s night, now that’s something to cry over. Dropping that last bowl of thick stew you’ve been looking forward to all day, that’s very worth crying over.”
“But the prince you so loyally serve sacrificing himself in the face of your own impending execution is not worth crying over?”
Merlin purses his lips and shakes his head, shrugging once more. “Happens all of the time.”
Arthur makes a sound very much like a growl. He leans his forehead against the bars of the cell. “Next time, I’ll refrain from my impetuosity.”
And just like that, Merlin feels his heart tighten in his chest again; his throat aches. “Arthur –”
“Stop.” The prince is staring at him intently. “I knew very well what I was doing. It is going to be all right.”
There is a lot Merlin can say in response to that, but he feels the words die the moment they reach his tongue. Instead, he leans forward, placing his forehead against the same bars as Arthur. Their gazes hold, long and silent, and Arthur presses in slightly bringing their lips together in a brief – but oddly reassuring – kiss.
Merlin is reluctant to leave Arthur, but knows he cannot be found when the guards awaken. As an extra precaution, he had placed one of Gaius’ sleeping draughts in the stew that had been delivered to them, just to make certain no one could blame what happened on sorcery. There seems to be enough of that going around.
He is still not quite certain how they will manage the situation. He is not capable of doing it on his own. Arthur will need to help as well, and that will require releasing him from the dungeon, and Merlin does not know if Arthur will accept that or not. For now, he seems bent on defying the king; something Merlin believes stems from the truth regarding his birth. He is certain that Arthur will move past that though, and Merlin does not think Arthur will continue to challenge the king when it is Arthur's own life on the line. For anyone else, yes, but Arthur does not think reasonably when it comes to facing danger on his own.
As Merlin makes his way down the corridor, mulling over different possibilities for their plan, he hears his name called quietly. He glances towards the doorway leading out onto the turrets and spies Gawain watching him, inclining his head silently in request to join him. Brow furrowing, Merlin makes his way outside, gazing at the knight curiously when he reaches him.
“You wish to speak with me, my lord?”
Gawain glances into the corridor before setting his hand on Merlin's elbow and pulling him around to the side of the wall, hidden from view. His blue eyes focus on Merlin steadily for a long moment before he says quietly, “I only wished to tell you, Merlin, that whatever plan you are hatching to protect Arthur, his knights are with you.”
Merlin blinks. Forcing a smile, he says, “I don't know what you're talking about...”
“You are safe, Merlin.” Gawain is amused, and it is an odd look on him because the knight is interminably frowning and intense. There is a permanent crease between his eyes, and combined with the smile it is both strange and somehow fitting. “We have seen your loyalty to the prince. It is something that is shared.”
“I didn't mean –“
Gawain waves him to silence. “None of us actually believe Arthur is guilty of the crimes he is accused. Magic would be too easy for him.”
Merlin glances at his feet; shifts uncomfortably.
“Not that I believe you would do anything foolish,” Gawain continues, and that odd smile reappears. “But should there be those planning to come to the aid of the prince – whatever the manner – I would be appreciative if myself and the others were allowed to assist.”
Merlin looks up at him. He has always liked Gawain the most of Arthur's knights, and now he knows why. Still, he feels the need to remind him, “Such a thing could be considered treason.”
“Loyalty to the Crown Prince is not, and never will be, treason,” Gawain dismisses quickly. “The king may call it as he wishes, but it is to Arthur that our loyalty remains fast.”
Merlin stares after him as the knight turns to walk away, and he wonders how bold he dare be before he calls out, “My lord?”
Stopping, Gawain turns to look at him in question.
He licks his lips nervously and steps forward. “Sir, it may not be my place to say this, I know I'm just a servant, but...”
“Speak up, Merlin. What is it?”
“I believe you should know that perhaps not all of the knights are as loyal to the prince as you.” His heart is slamming into the wall of his chest by the time he finishes his sentence. This would not be the right time to wind up in the stocks, but if Gawain is serious about helping Arthur, then Merlin cannot allow any chance for betrayal.
Gawain is frowning as he seems to consider Merlin's words. “Who is it you make this accusation toward?”
“Sir Aldrich and Sir Nyle,” Merlin says. “I heard them mocking His Highness' injury from the Questing Beast. They called him a fool. Said that he had almost been 'scared to death'. I'm not saying this out of maliciousness, Sir Gawain. I just... I thought you should know.”
“Does the prince know of this?”
Merlin shakes his head.
“Very well. I will take care of it.” He does not move immediately, a slow smile appearing as he reaches out and lays a hand on Merlin's shoulder. “Relax. I have no reason to believe you are not being truthful, Merlin.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
“We will speak again soon?”
Nodding, Merlin remains outside as he watches Gawain disappear back into the castle, feeling for the first time since he was dragged before the king that maybe things will be all right after all. It makes him relax a little, knowing that Arthur’s knights are willing to help, that they believe in their prince enough to outwardly disobey the king. Merlin finds himself marvelling at the loyalty Arthur stirs in people. He is no more immune to it than any other.
“How is the prince?” Gaius asks as Merlin closes the door behind him to their chambers.
“As well as to be expected,” he responds, unable to dispel the odd feeling of betrayal now that he is once more in Gaius’ presence. “He tells me not to worry, but I fear that the king can be far more unpredictable than Arthur is giving him credit for.”
“Once Uther’s anger dissipates, he will see more clearly with regards to his son. Come here and look at this.” Gaius waves him over, waiting until Merlin is standing beside him before continuing, “I think I have uncovered a possible explanation for Nimueh’s return.”
Merlin leans over the book Gaius has open on the table, staring at the crude drawing of three women next to the physician’s fingers. “Who are they?”
“The Wyrd Sisters.”
Gaius nods in confirmation.
“But why would the Fates bring Nimueh back to life?” Merlin stares at his mentor with incredulity. “I thought they weren't supposed to interfere in the lives of mortals.”
“Perhaps it wasn't her time to die.”
“I don't see how –“
“Merlin” – Gaius' tone takes on a note of strained patience – “we all have a purpose, a destiny that needs to be fulfilled. Be it as simple as selling the flour that makes the bread that feeds our army that wins our wars. If Nimueh had not met that destiny – either by Uther's hand when he began the Purge, or by yours when you took her life out of anger – then it is possible that the Fates felt it important enough to give her another chance.”
Merlin cannot help but frown at the reasoning. “So, you're saying that it's Nimueh's destiny to succeed at getting me out of the way or ruining Camelot or whatever it is she has set out to do?”
“I should hardly think her destiny should be the downfall of Camelot, Merlin.”
“But what if it is?” Merlin feels a tremor run through him. The Dragon had already lied to him regarding his true purpose for wanting Merlin to protect Arthur. What if there is more he is not telling him? What if no matter what Merlin does, in the end he will not be able to protect Arthur? If the Fates have so chosen, Arthur could die at Nimueh’s hand tomorrow and there would be nothing Merlin could do about it.
He runs a hand through his hair and turns away, nausea roiling through his stomach at the thought. All of this… everything Merlin has fought so hard for, that Arthur has fought for, would be for nothing. Everything Merlin has sacrificed, and Arthur could still be torn from him, the future could be no better than things were right at that very moment.
“I can’t – I won’t allow that to happen,” he says as he turns back.
“Camelot is important to both of us,” Gaius tells him softly. “But even you, Merlin, with all of your power, cannot prevent it if this great kingdom is meant to fall.”
Merlin’s hands clench at his sides. “And Arthur?”
Gaius hesitates, as if he knows what Merlin wants to hear even if he has to lie to say it. So he seems to choose not to answer. “It is not for us to know the purpose of the Fates. Perhaps it is as you say; or perhaps there is more to it that we simply do not understand.”
It is impossible not to feel a thread of anger at the response. Merlin finds he is growing quite annoyed with destiny and the path that he and Arthur are apparently forced to follow, regardless of their choice. He wonders what the point of making any decisions at all is, when in the end, his life will be guided toward a preordained fate anyway. It is difficult not to allow himself to believe that just perhaps, the Fates are conspiring against him.
Arthur had not been entirely honest with Merlin. The fact of the matter is, he has never truly understood his father; to say that he knows what he is thinking and how he will ultimately react is a lie. Truthfully, he is a little worried. That the king has not come to see him yet – and that he announced to the Court he meant to execute his own son – has been enough to concern him. He could not let Merlin know that, because Merlin would worry enough for the both of them, and then probably – no, definitely do something stupid and foolish. Arthur considers himself an expert at internalising and burying the majority of his fears, and this time is no different. No one needs to know that, for the first time in his life, Arthur is worried about his future.
Pulling his knees to his chest, he drops his forehead to them and tries not to think about it too much, concentrates on how much he hates the dungeon. He thinks he should be used to it; his father has always seen the dungeon as a fitting punishment for the prince, going as far back as to when he was a child. Being locked in the darkness with the rats and the muffled cries of prisoners used to terrify him. He remembers his first night spent in a cell as if it had only been yesterday – he had been nine years old, and he had cried until he had no more tears left to spend.
The dungeon no longer frightens him, but he still does not like it. He hates the smell, the floor is cold and uncomfortable, the companionship of the rats leaves something to be desired, and the cries of the prisoners... they wear on Arthur's conscience more than he cares to admit. There had been a time when being confined to the dungeon meant humiliation because he was the prince, above being sent there. Lately it has become more of an abject lesson than perhaps his father understands, forcing him to think about the type of king he wants to be, and how he wishes to rule Camelot. His thoughts go from not like this to if I live to be king, that is...
The sound of approaching footsteps and jangling keys pulls Arthur from his thoughts. He recognises his father's tread even as the guard beside his cell stands at attention. Arthur does not get up, forcing his expression to neutrality as the king appears at the door, stepping inside as the guards pull it open. He is dressed in full regalia – crown, mantle draped over his shoulders and looped around his arm, even a sword buckled at his side as if he means to intimidate Arthur in every manner possible. Unfortunately, it seems to work; Arthur's shoulders tense as he realises he is facing his king, not his father.
Uther stares down at him for interminably long seconds before finally saying, “I understand that the guards on duty fell asleep last night. According to the court physician, there was something in their food.”
Arthur shrugs. “I know nothing about that.”
“Of course not.” His father's mouth tightens a moment, and then he begins to pace the length of the cell. “What you have done is beyond understanding, Arthur. Beyond reason. To lie to me before the Court simply to protect a servant –“
“It was not a lie,” and as Arthur says it, he realises this much is true. “I am magic.”
His father pauses, turning to glance back at him, his gaze mocking. “Is that so? Then perhaps you would like to perform some of this magic for me now, hmm?” He waves a hand toward Arthur. “Please. Do as you will. Turn me into a sheep, if you can,” he dares.
Arthur holds his father's gaze as he slowly climbs to his feet and insists, “I am magic.” As the king scoffs, he adds, “How else would you refer to someone born from magic?”
The only indication that his words have struck a nerve is a slight tensing of the king's jaw. “What are you talking about?” he asks with a note of dismissal as he turns his back to his son.
Clenching his fists at his sides in an attempt to remain calm and rational (even Arthur can admit that occasionally he tends to leap without looking – case in point, he is in the dungeon), he says, “I know the truth, father. A sorceress, Nimueh – I believe you are acquainted with her – told me of my birth. That she was responsible for my conception.”
The king turns back to him, his expression neutral save for the tell-tale flicker of apprehension in his gaze. “The words of a magic-user can never be trusted,” he says with a note of dismissal.
Arthur's patience ends instantly. “Stop lying to me, father!”
It gets a reaction. His father blanches slightly at the outburst, and then turns his gaze away. It's as effective an admission as any words could have been. Arthur leans into the wall behind him for support, realising only in that moment that a part of him had still been hanging on to the hope that Nimueh had been lying. But now the truth is there, screaming out at him from the rigid set of his father's shoulders, the silence of his words, and the inability to meet his son's gaze. Reaching back to rub at his neck, Arthur closes his eyes and takes a breath, attempting to organise his thoughts. He is slowly learning that any argument with his father has to be handled rationally; too much emotion and Arthur comes off sounding like a spoilt child simply wishing to have his way.
“I'm not –“ He stops himself, uncertain how to word what he is feeling. He opens his eyes and looks over at the king who still has not turned back to him. “I just want you to be honest with me. I just want... I feel I have the right to know the truth.”
A shadow seems to fall over his father's face, his expression distancing itself as he says, “All Igraine wanted was to have a child, to be a mother. She spoke wistfully of such things since before we married. She... “ He pauses, head lowering slightly. “I remember discussing the brood of children we imagined having – half a dozen, at least. The halls of Camelot ringing with the sound of Pendragons.”
The king seems to come back to himself suddenly, as if realising he has said things he never meant to be speak of, his eyes darting back to Arthur. “But Fate conspired that such a thing was not meant to be, and forced me to put my faith into the hands of the wrong people.”
Arthur frowns, unable to picture his father actually turning to a magic user. It is the image of a man he has never known. “You turned to Nimueh?”
“Igraine never knew.” He reaches out, laying his hand against one of the cell bars. “She was so happy when she realised she was with child. There was never any cause to believe... That conniving witch never said... “ He straightens once more, meeting Arthur's gaze. “Magic users practise in deceit, Arthur. That you should fall prey so easily to their words worries me.”
“I do not understand how you can condemn so many for the act of one single person,” Arthur tells him, pushing away from the wall to take a step toward his father. He remembers Merlin's words and says, “It's the user, not the magic –“
“And what would you know of it?” his father demands, complexion ruddy with his rising anger. “Tell me, Arthur, how many magic users have you come to know so well as to divine their intentions?”
Arthur knows it is a trap, and one he does not step into. Maintaining the illusion, he answers, “I know my own intentions.”
Uther snorts with disbelief and turns away to resume his pacing. “The only reason that servant of yours has not been sent to his death yet is because I feel there is more to this – more that you are not telling me. It is a dangerous game you are playing at, Arthur, and one you are not yet capable of winning.”
Any goal Arthur had regarding rationality is forgotten. “You have no idea of what I am capable, Father!” he yells, ignoring the fact that the tone of his voice would only be enhanced if he were to stomp his foot. “You have always underestimated me, always held me at arm's length, always looked at me as if I was not who you thought I'd be – not who you would choose me to be. And all of my life I have blamed myself for that. Forced myself to strive harder to be more worthy of being the Pendragon heir, to make you proud, to make you look at me as a father should. Instead of that air of disappointment that seems to cloud whatever compliment you see fit to toss my way.”
“In case you have forgotten, I am raising you to be a king,” his father snaps out. “Unfortunately, your behaviour over the last few hours indicates my apparent failure at doing so successfully.”
Had it not come from his father, the words would still have stung. As it is, his father's disappointment hits Arthur as it always has. Immediately his mind frantically searches for ways to prove himself; for something to say that is the right thing to say. But this time, it is different. There is no tournament to win for the pride of Camelot, no champion to best. Fighting the ghosts of the past is not much of a fight at all, and the only way to make his father happy this time is to give up the one thing in Arthur's life that seems to have any meaning to it anymore.
Arthur will not give up Merlin. He cannot give up Merlin.
There is an impasse before him and Arthur cannot see a way around it. It saddens him to think of all that he could have had. He believes in his heart that his father's love has always been there, but his mother's death and the circumstances surrounding it – the guilt Uther Pendragon must feel for sealing his beloved wife's fate – has cast a shadow over that love. There is no way to make this better, to bring his mother back or right the wrongs of something wished for that should have brought only joy. Arthur hates to think of himself as anything less than the Crown Prince of Camelot, and because of that he knows there is only one option left open to him.
He will stand up for the rights of the subjects of Camelot – magic users like Merlin, who are not responsible for the action of one – even if it means going to his own death.
Meeting his father's gaze, he speaks slowly and carefully, without a hint of the emotion that threatens to spill. “If there has been any failure, it is only due to your own continual acts of cowardice.”
The silence that meets his words is deafening. Arthur knows he has struck his father where it hurts worst – his pride. For a moment he braces for a quick lashing out with violence, like what happened in the throne room. Instead, a hard look slowly settles over his father's features as the seconds tick by.
The king takes a step back, indicating his exit from the cell as the guards straighten at attention. He stares at Arthur a moment longer, and then says, “My only failure was in asking for an heir.”
Arthur remains standing and quiet as Uther leaves, the door closing with a clang behind him. He knows his father does not mean what he said.
The same way he knows they are words his father will never be able to take back.
Merlin pretends to be busy, pretends that nothing is different. He continues with his chores around the keep, all the while knowing his every action is being watched; he is careful not to give in to the desire to use magic. It frustrates him because the more he is forced to not use it, the more he finds himself wishing that he could. Simple things that he might normally not make use of it for now scream at him to take the easy way out. At least, that is how Gaius refers to it: 'Taking the easy way out'. Merlin would like someone to explain to him how the usage and consequences of magic could ever be considered 'easy'.
After his little stunt with the sleeping spell, Gaius had once more threatened to send him off to East Anglia. Merlin had commented he would go gladly if he took Arthur with him, and the conversation had been summarily dropped. Of course, leaving would be an admission of guilt, and one of the reasons that has held Merlin back from going after Nimueh alone. Well, that and the fact that he is certain Arthur would never speak to him again. Arthur’s own personal code of honour would not allow for him to let Merlin remedy this situation by himself. Merlin knows Arthur – he has placed himself into the role of protector and for Merlin to ignore that would be a matter of betrayal in Arthur’s point of view. Merlin has no wish to disappoint him again.
He has just picked up Arthur's clothes from the laundress, having neatly avoided answering as many questions as possible when queried as to the rumour that the prince is a magic user, when he is passing by Morgana's chambers. Normally he might have stopped in to say hello to the Lady Morgana and Gwen, but he knows he is not the best of company at the moment, and he fears he would end up dragging them into a situation he himself does not yet know how to handle. So he continues past until the voices from within bring him to a halt.
“You cannot possibly be entertaining the idea of executing your own son,” Morgana says, her voice a mixture of venom and disbelief.
“He has forced my hand,” the king responds. “What kind of king am I to condemn my subjects but turn a blind eye to my son?”
“What kind of father are you not to?!”
There is silence. Merlin presses back against the wall, heart racing as his mind repeats the words he has heard over and over: executing your own son. No, he would not. Arthur said it would never come to that.
“I did not ask for this, Morgana.” This time when Uther speaks, his voice is strained, as if it is difficult for the words to even travel past his lips. Surely that means something! “I did not ask for my own son to betray me – to betray Camelot!”
There is a rustle of silk as Morgana moves across the floor. “You know very well Arthur betrayed no one. Arthur loves Camelot; he loves you.”
“And yet he takes the side of his servant!” Merlin winces as Uther's voice rises. “If that is not betrayal, Morgana, then I must believe that this boy has cast a spell upon him! It would not be the first time that a magic user has sought to usurp a kingdom through lies.”
“Merlin is no more a magic user than Arthur,” Morgana replies steadily. “Nor has he any desire for power, Uther.” Her voice has softened, gentle and softly pleading. “So many innocents have already died from rash decisions. I know you mourn those deaths; you are not a cruel man. Please, do not make a mistake that will bring unimaginable heartache not only to you, but to Camelot as well.”
Merlin holds his breath as the moments pass by, waiting to see if Morgana's earnest plea has been enough to break through. Dealing with Nimueh will be easier if both he and Arthur are allowed to go back to things as they were, to ride out with a contingent of knights and face her together. Merlin is not so certain of their ability to take on both Camelot and Nimueh.
“What option is left to me?” The king's voice is resigned. “Arthur's defiance will only serve to encourage magic throughout the kingdom. To let his admission go without recourse would mean an end to everything I have worked so hard to build over the years. I have brought peace to Camelot, Morgana, and whether my son has simply behaved foolishly or not in this instance is not what matters. I am Arthur's king first, his father second. I must make an example of him if peace is to continue to exist in the kingdom.”
There are footsteps headed toward the door and Merlin flattens himself closer to the wall, knowing he does not have time to make his escape. Before he sees the king, he hears Morgana call out, “Such a decision will only gain you more enemies than you can possibly imagine. Many of them right here within the walls of Camelot.”
The king stops long enough to respond, “It would not be the first time.”
Merlin is staring as the king sweeps out of the room, headed in the opposite direction and therefore his presence remains undetected. Clutching the armload of clothing to his chest, his fingers twitch as he uses every ounce of willpower within not to let loose, to 'take the easy way out' as it were and simply make the problem disappear. If the king were to suddenly collapse – his breathing to stop, perhaps – no one would be any wiser. It would be so easy, he thinks, stepping out from his hiding spot and into the hall, watching as the king continues away from him. The right word whispered, the right thought –
“I would not blame you.”
He jumps slightly, turning to find Morgana watching him from the threshold of her room. Her cheeks are coloured with anger, mouth set in a firm line. Merlin thinks she is the last person he would ever want to truly be angry with him. “I – I don't know what you mean.”
She continues to watch at him a moment longer, and then says, “I would not blame you. But Arthur might.”
Merlin does not try to deny anything. He is too consumed by the knowledge that she knows, and that she is right and that the only reason he continues not to lash out at Uther is because he could not do that to Arthur. To them. He does not even wish to imagine the way that Arthur would look at him, even if he were to simply suspect but never know the truth of what had happened. It is a thin thread, and there is a brief moment of nausea when Merlin realises how close he is to becoming exactly what it is the king accuses magic users of being. Killing Nimueh out of anger had only been that first step. Using magic as he had lately, at the merest provocation, had been the next. If he were to use it against the king...
He swallows and looks away from Morgana's piercing stare. “He's going to kill Arthur.” Saying the words does not make them seem any more real.
Merlin looks up at her words. He has no fear of dying. But the idea of Arthur dying, combined with his sacrifice being for nothing, settles something deep within him.
“Whatever you are going to do, Merlin, you had better do it soon.” Morgana holds his gaze for a long moment before turning away.
Merlin stares after her, wondering how long she has known about his magic, and just as quickly realising it does not matter. Secrets do not remain so for long, it seems, and there is no reason to think that he should be any different. What she expects him to do with his magic, in this case, does matter. He is still at a loss, unable to devise a solution beyond getting Arthur away from Camelot. Beyond that...
It is a leap of faith that carries Merlin out of the castle and out to the training field where Gawain is working with the other knights. As Merlin stands on the sidelines watching, he notices the differences in their movements – a lack of enthusiasm for the training. They all seem to be going through the motions, even Gawain, who is calling out each stance that clearly says his focus is elsewhere. Merlin fights back the impatience that urges him to go out onto the field; the last thing he needs to do is call too much attention to himself, and approaching the knights without direction from the prince would certainly do so. He is forced to wait, bouncing slightly on his feet in an attempt to catch Gawain's eye as he hovers beside the sword rack.
Finally, Gawain glances in his direction, gaze flitting past him at first before coming back to stare. Merlin is suddenly at a loss for what to do when the knight calls out to the others to take a break, and makes his way over to Merlin, ignoring him at first while he glances over the weapons. He chooses one, holding it out to Merlin.
“I need this sharpened, and seeing as how you apparently need something to do... “ His voice trails off as he waits.
Merlin reaches out to take it, looking up as Gawain holds it longer than necessary. “Tonight,” Gawain says quietly. “I shall be waiting outside the tunnel from the burial vaults.”
He does not respond. He blinks once at the knight, then takes the sword, turns and walks away. He does not know how Gawain is so certain that Merlin can release Arthur safely from the dungeon.
And as with Morgana, he does not care.
Arthur has always been an act first, worry about the consequences later, kind of guy. But as he watches the guard outside his cell once more slump into a deep sleep on the floor, and consequently knows Merlin's appearance is soon to follow, he finds himself arguing all of the reasons he should not do what he is certain Merlin plans on suggesting. The words are on the tip of his tongue as his servant appears outside the cell door, eyes bright and breath coming in short, quick gasps.
“Come on,” Merlin says without preamble, moving his hand toward the lock on the cell. “Aliesan clústor .” When the lock clicks, he pushes the door open and waves for Arthur to follow.
“I'm not going.”
Arthur doubts he could have seen Merlin look more shocked if he had suddenly turned into a woman. “You –“ Merlin breaks off and shakes his head. “What?”
“I said I am not going.”
“Arthur, you can't –“
“It is better if I stay.”
“That's ridiculous!” Merlin waves his hands around, mouth gaping like a fish, as if he cannot even form words. “If this is some ridiculous notion of nobility –“
He smiles a little. “It will only make things worse if I escape. That makes me look guilty – makes us look guilty.”
“Worse?” Merlin repeats, and then stares at Arthur for a moment as if perhaps he has lost his mind. He takes a few steps closer, and when he speaks it is as if he is speaking to a very small child. “Arthur, it cannot get any worse. I know you have not had the chance to look outside lately but they are preparing for an execution –“
“My father would never –“
“How often has the king done something that surprised you?”
Arthur grows silent. He still does not believe his father is capable of such a thing; thinks that if it were to come down to the last minute, Uther would come up with an alternative. But there is something in Merlin's eyes that brings him hesitation in arguing the matter. He could stand here and list the many, many things he has seen his father do that have been right, and he does not think it would sway Merlin in the least. Unfortunately, Arthur knows he is clinging stubbornly to the need to see his father choose him – his own son - over his hatred of all things magical.
As if reading his mind – and Arthur sometimes wonders if Merlin is capable of that very thing – Merlin lays his hand on Arthur's arm and says quietly, “Your father loves you, but he isn't thinking clearly. And you have to admit, your behaviour has done nothing to deter that.” Arthur raises an eyebrow at the accusation but says nothing. Merlin continues, “We need to confront Nimueh. And I don't... “ His fingers tighten momentarily as he pauses, and he finally adds, “I don't want to do it alone.”
It is a surprising admission. Arthur has resigned himself to the fact that Merlin believes himself competent enough to handle any situation on his own. He has fully expected his servant to disappear hours ago to find the sorceress. Still, he hesitates, searching his mind for an alternative.
Equally determined, Merlin steps up to him, curling his hand around the back of Arthur's neck and pulling him in for a brief kiss. He presses their foreheads together; whispers, “Please, sire. I will not leave you here any longer. I will confess the truth to the king if you do not come with me now.”
Arthur frowns. “I'm not a fan of blackmail, Merlin.”
“I don't care.”
He opens his mouth to protest further, to point out how unfair such a threat is, but the words are lost as Merlin's lips cover his once more. Arthur breathes into the kiss, knowing that he will give in to what Merlin asks of him. It does not even take the gentle touch of Merlin's hand against his cheek, or the soft, soothing nips along his lower lip, or the whispered words of “Please”, “Won't go without you”, “Arthur... ” Settling his hands at Merlin's waist, he pulls him closer, pressing their bodies together as he deepens the kiss, only just realising how much stronger and braver he feels knowing he does not have to face this alone.
“We need to go,” Merlin whispers with regret as he ends the kiss, pulling back just slightly as if needing to reassure himself that Arthur has agreed to come with him.
Nodding, Arthur makes his way out of the cell, taking the lead as he steps over the sleeping guard's legs and leads the way down the darkened corridor, deeper into the dungeon. With no complaints, Merlin follows close behind, glancing back occasionally as if uncertain whether his spell is holding. As much as he has come to depend on Merlin recently, Arthur suddenly finds himself doubting his servant's abilities at planning an escape.
“Merlin,” he begins in a whisper after they have descended deeper beneath the keep, and then up slightly, turning twice down darker corridor's before Arthur can finally smell the fresh air ahead. “I trust you have made arrangements beyond simply getting me out of my cell?”
“Don't worry,” Merlin says behind him.
His quick assurance only causes Arthur to worry further. As they reach the narrow tunnel leading out of the burial vaults, Arthur quickens his steps, moving up to the barred exit, which had recently been replaced from his escape with the druid boy. The barrier seems a little more secure this time.
“Now what?” he grumbles, glancing over his shoulder at Merlin.
“Move.” Merlin unceremoniously pushes Arthur to the side as he lays his hands over the centre bars. “Gewéest slegeu”, he says, and the steel bars seem to waver for a moment, and then Merlin is tugging at them, stretching them apart until the space is large enough to climb through.
Arthur raises his eyebrows, impressed. “Well, that could come in handy,” he remarks as he slides through the opening.
When they emerge, Arthur takes a deep breath as he looks around, unable to refrain from noticing the lack of horses. “Merlin – “ he begins, only to immediately silence himself at the sound of approaching riders.
Quite a few approaching riders.
Grabbing his manservant, he pushes him back toward the tunnel, hoping to lose the guards in the endless twists and turns beneath Camelot. The alarm has not yet been raised, so it is likely someone had followed Merlin and their capture had been planned from the first. Arthur is so wrapped up in his thoughts and concerns that it takes him a moment to realise that Merlin is not moving, refusing to go back the way they came.
“Arthur.” He turns and sets his hands on Arthur's shoulders before pointing ahead. “It's all right. Look.”
Arthur follows the direction of Merlin's finger to see the group of riders heading toward them through the darkness. He frowns a little as he realises they are approaching without haste. It is another moment before he recognises the lead rider as Gawain. Shooting Merlin a quick, warning glance, he steps forward as the knights pull to a stop in front of him.
“Sire,” Gawain greets with a nod. “I trust everything went well?”
He cannot help but frown. “Gawain, what are you doing here?” He glances over his shoulder at Merlin who is grinning broadly. “Did Merlin drag you into this?”
“Not at all,” the knight denies, glancing to Cador who moves his mount forward, leading Arthur's stallion and the mare Merlin usually rides behind him. “I made the request to your servant that we be included in any plans he made for your escape. We are all here of our own will and choosing, Your Highness.”
“You should not be here,” Arthur snaps, yanking the reins from Cador's hand and swinging himself into the saddle. He gives Gawain a hard look but the knight steadily meets it. “I am not going to ask any of you to risk your future tonight. By helping me you are committing a treasonous act against your king.”
“As we see it,” Gawain pauses to look behind him at the other knights, each nodding in turn, “we are simply supporting our future king.” At the quiet murmurs of agreement around him, Gawain smirks at Arthur. “And, pardon me for saying so, sire, but what we do, we do for Camelot. Not for you.”
Arthur shakes his head in response, hoping that none of his knights can see how touched he is by their loyalty. While many of the knights that serve Arthur and king have returned to their homes for the winter, these before him have always stayed behind. Lionel, who has no family other than those inside the walls of Camelot; Geraint whose father died in battle fighting alongside Uther; brave Gareth who once threw himself in front of an arrow to protect his prince; and others – Bors, Balan, Agravaine, Dinadan, Anselm – who are some of the most celebrated knights in the kingdom. All of the faces before him he considers to be not only fervent protectors of Camelot, but also his friends. He is pleased to know that they apparently hold the same regard for him.
“We really should be going,” Merlin tells them as he pushes his mount between Gawain and Arthur's.
Gawain nods, moving his mount back so that Arthur can take the lead. “No telling how much longer your spell will hold.”
Both Merlin and Arthur freeze at once. Staring at his knight a moment, Arthur shoots a quick look at Merlin before turning back to Gawain. “You – you know about Merlin?”
“Of course.” There are other heads behind him nodding in response.
“I swear!” Merlin begins quickly as Arthur swings toward him. “I didn't say a thing!”
Arthur is frowning, considering the many different ways that Merlin could have accidentally given the truth of his abilities away, when Geraint says helpfully, “It was the Questing Beast.”
“What?” Arthur and Merlin ask simultaneously.
“The Questing Beast was dead,” Gawain takes over the explanation as he moves his horse up alongside Arthur's. “You were out cold, sire. Your sword was nowhere near you, and the court physician said that the only way to kill the Questing Beast was with magic. What other conclusion was there but that Merlin was the source of the magic?”
Arthur stares around at his knights, shocked into silence by the logic. Why he had not come to a similar conclusion, he thinks he may never know. Or maybe, since he has suspected it all along, he had just given up thinking about it. Either way, he turns to Merlin and points a finger at him. “You need to be more careful!”
There is a flicker of impatience in Merlin's eyes, and Arthur steels himself for an argument. He is surprised when Merlin merely waves his hand toward the safety of the forest's edge. “Shouldn't we leave? Preferably before the alarm is raised... “
“We will discuss this later,” Arthur remarks before urging his mount forward, his knights following behind.
“Whatever you say, sire,” he hears Merlin respond, a hint of amusement in his voice.
It is near dawn, grey light just beginning to peek over the edges of the horizon, when Arthur signals to stop and make camp. He remains in his saddle as his knights disperse around him, turning slightly to stare back in the direction they came. For the moment, he is not worried that they are being followed. His father would have sent a small scouting party out after them at first in the hopes of catching up, but once they had realised it would take more than a simple ride to find them, they would have returned with the news. By now, the king would be gathering his knights together, likely railing with rage over the escape, trying to decide who to punish, and then instructing the party to ride out after Arthur. It is entirely possible that his father will even accompany them.
“Do you think they'll find us?”
Arthur glances over at Merlin, moving up beside him, still mounted just as he is, though it is obvious by the dark colouring beneath his eyes that Merlin should be in a prone position, fast asleep. “Not immediately, no.”
He swings down from his stallion, watching surreptitiously as Merlin does the same. Arthur is close to catch him if his legs give beneath him, but time and again Merlin has proven of hardier stock than Arthur gives him credit for, and this time is no different. “None of my father's knights know the forest as I do,” Arthur continues after a moment. “It will not be an easy trail to follow.”
Merlin's responding smile is weary, and Arthur takes the reins from him, passing them off to Dagonet before guiding his servant away from the horses and beneath the branches of a sprawling oak. He presses on his shoulder until he sits.
“You look exhausted,” he says when Merlin gives him a questioning look.
The words are waved away dismissively. “I've been thinking too much, I guess.”
“You?” Arthur smirks at the face Merlin pulls in his direction before sitting down beside him. “What are you thinking about?”
“Oh. Nimueh. How to find her. What to do when we find her. How we're going to convince the king that neither of us are sorcerers. What's happening to Gaius right now? Will the king blame him for any of this – “
“I am beginning to understand why you look so tired.” Arthur leans back against the trunk of the tree, close to Merlin so that their shoulders are touching, and feels the moment Merlin catches on, resting his weight slightly into him. “Gaius... he knows what you were planning?”
Merlin shakes his head, closing his eyes. “No. But he knows me.”
At least Gaius should not have been surprised when the news of the escape reached him. Hopefully, he had convinced Arthur's father that there should not have been any surprise on his part, either. Arthur has never been the type of person to sit back and let things fall as they may; that his father should know this is uncontested. That his father so obviously does not is something Arthur tries hard not to think about.
“You should get some rest,” Arthur says after a stretch of silence. “We will be safe here until we can decide what to do next.”
“I'm sorry I didn't think this through better,” Merlin murmurs, his speech already becoming slurred.
“Yes, well, no one has ever accused you of being a great thinker.”
There is a slight rise of Merlin's eyebrows at his remark. Arthur smiles, watching Merlin silently for a long moment before sliding his hand over the cool ground between them, their fingers brushing lightly. Merlin's hand twitches at the touch, and then his fingers curl around Arthur's, tangling them together. He whispers, “Thank you, Merlin.”
The hold on his hand tightens briefly.
Arthur remains beside him as he feels Merlin fall asleep. He stays there – knees drawn up, arms hanging loosely over them – as his knights set up guard and prepare food. His mind longs to contemplate how he came to this moment: feeling something that makes his chest tighten as he watches his manservant sleep beside him, hunted by his father's knights, putting his own men at risk of facing charges of treason. This is not how it is supposed to be, he thinks, and then there is something about life and character-building, and it is not too long before he grows restless and jumps to his feet, moving to join his men.
They welcome him with smiles and nods, passing a flagon of mead into his hands as a few of the knights glance over at Merlin's sleeping form. He wonders for a moment if they know about the two of them. And then realises even if they do not know with certainty, they have surely guessed, and Arthur is not entirely certain how he feels about that. Or how they feel about it. If he were not the Crown Prince (and it is quite possible he will not hold that title be for long), he would simply ask them. But he is the prince, and he plans on being the future king, and nowhere in that future, or even the here and now, allows for whatever it is that exists between him and Merlin.
Pushing all thoughts of Merlin and himself to the back of his mind, Arthur glances across the fire at Sir Gareth. He has not known the knight as long as most of the others but what he has come to know of him, he admires. A strong and smart warrior, and loyal to Camelot. He is only a few years older than Arthur, though his looks and behaviour often indicate a man far older and wiser. “Am I right in guessing that you are searching for an explanation?”
Gareth only nods in response, but beside him Cador, the youngest of the knights, says, “Forgive me for saying so, sire, but we find it difficult to believe that Merlin would be so careless as to leave evidence such as a magic book out for anyone to find. It seems he has been most careful at hiding what he does not wish discovered.”
Arthur laughs a little at that. “You obviously do not know him very well,” and if his tone carries far more fondness in it than his words, he hopes no one catches it. “But in this matter, you are correct.”
He pauses to take a breath, making a quick decision as to what he feels comfortable sharing and what he does not, and then launches into an explanation of Nimueh and her shared history with Camelot. He leaves out the information regarding his birth, saying only that she had been a member of his father's court long ago, and things had gone badly between them. Telling them what little he knows of Merlin's confrontation with her after the Questing Beast, Arthur finishes by making it clear she seems determined to bring down Camelot, no matter who stands in her way.
“We must find her and bring her to justice,” he tells them. “Prove to the king that she has been behind all of this, and convince him that Merlin is not magic.”
“Will it be so easy?” Gawain asks.
Arthur considers the question a moment before he nods. “My father's... fixation with the past appears to take precedence over all else. If we can present evidence of the sorceress' demise, I am certain his pleasure at her death will override the rest.”
Dagonet, lute cradled in his arms as he plucks at the strings gently, remarks, “So now we simply have to find ourselves this sorceress.” As Arthur’s personal fool, Dagonet has always had a way with words. He had made him a knight as a joke, but the title has stuck ever since, and now, Arthur cannot imagine not having him around for such moments.
And, as he perhaps expected, the simplicity of Dagonet’s statement brings smiles to all of them. 'Simply', indeed.
They discuss their options as the sun slowly continues to rise in the east. Eventually, Arthur leaves them as the discussion dissolves into a good-natured argument as to the best method for disposing of an evil sorceress. He slips on the armour brought for him, feeling more comfortable and at ease once the familiar chain mail is hanging from his shoulders. He returns to Merlin, who is stirring slightly at the base of the tree, eyes opening as Arthur approaches and crouches down in front of him.
“I dreamt I was a tree frog.”
Arthur does not know what to say to that beyond pointing out the fact that Merlin is odd, and so his dreams should not be any different. Shaking his head, he stands and motions for Merlin to join him. He leads him away from camp, out of earshot and the curious gazes of his knights, stopping finally when he hears the unmistakable sound of Merlin tripping over a branch. Arthur is unsuccessful at hiding his smirk as he turns to face his manservant.
“Sorcerer,” he says his continuing incredulity at that fact obvious in his tone. “One would never believe it looking at you.”
“Yes, well,” Merlin tugs at his jacket, “You still resemble little more than an arrogant prat, so I guess we're even.”
Arthur smiles, wondering briefly why it has always been so easy between them, even when they seemed to dislike one another. “I told the men what I could,” he begins without preamble. “Not about... me – my birth. I would rather not –“
“I understand,” Merlin says quickly. “I would never – I mean that tale is yours to tell, should you ever choose to do so.”
“Yes.” Arthur pauses, unable to shake the feeling of discomfort that settles over him whenever the subject of his birth comes up. He does not believe he will ever reach the point of truly accepting it, of discussing it without the prejudices he was raised to hold interfering.
“This is my fault.”
Arthur glances over at Merlin with his words and finds he is unable to deny them.
“I was so ready to give my life for yours,” he continues quietly. “It was worth it to me to know that you would live. And then suddenly everyone I cared about was in danger and I... I just stopped thinking. I wanted to hurt Nimueh. I wanted to make her pay for what she had done to my mother, to Gaius. I wanted to show her what true magic was,” he says as he lifts his hands, staring at them as if unable to comprehend what they are capable of, “and I knew that I could. I knew instantly that I was more powerful than she and... That was the moment I should have stopped myself. But I didn't.”
“I am not certain that anyone would have acted differently in your stead,” Arthur says as he steps closer. “I only wish you had come to me. That you had trusted me.”
Merlin opens his mouth as if to argue, but the words seem to die on his lips. He drops his gaze and nods. “I am sorry, sire.”
Reaching out, Arthur cups Merlin's chin, bringing their eyes level once more. There is something reassuring for Arthur in touching him, and while he thinks it is something he should ignore, he instead finds himself embracing it wholly. “I will never betray you, Merlin,” he whispers, holding Merlin's gaze. “But you must never lie to me again, do you understand? I can only continue to trust you if you trust me in return.”
Merlin swallows and nods as Arthur's fingers stray down the column of his neck. There is a short, heavy silence between them as Arthur continues to wait. When Merlin finally speaks, his voice is strong and steady. “You have my word, Arthur. Never...”
Whatever else he might have said is lost as Arthur brings their lips together. I need this, he thinks, and it is shocking to him how much strength they seem to draw from one another. As Merlin's arms slide around him, Arthur allows himself to do the same; pulling Merlin close, deepening the kiss and drawing on that strength he knows they will both need in the days to come.
Merlin watches as beside him Arthur and Gawain are quietly discussing the best way to approach the Isle of the Blessed, drawing with sticks in the dirt an outline of the shore and the island. He thinks he could offer a more realistic view of the landscape, but though it appears all of the knights are aware of his magic, he doubts Arthur truly wishes for him to show off in that manner. So Merlin wraps his arms around his legs and continues to watch, half-amused and half-worried as they argue the finer points of battling a powerful sorceress. He knows if he were to bring up fighting her on his own again, Arthur would likely resort to something foolish, such as riding off to confront her alone, and he is not going to allow that to happen. So every time he finds himself wanting to say you know, I could just... he bites his lip and concentrates on the crude drawings on the ground.
“Just how powerful is this sorceress, Merlin?” Gawain is asking.
“Powerful.” He shoots a glance at Arthur, who is pointedly ignoring him. “Powerful enough that a sword isn't going to scare her.”
Gawain looks as if he cannot decide if he should be amused or insulted by Merlin's reply. “Too powerful for the knights of Camelot?”
The answer to that question could get Merlin in trouble. He just spreads his hands out in front of him and shrugs.
“I think he is avoiding the question,” the knight says as he looks back to Arthur.
“He usually does.”
“He happens to be right here.” Merlin knows his exasperation is showing. “Look, only magic is going to defeat Nimueh, and I know that isn't what you want to hear, sire, but that's the way of it. And all the knights of Camelot aren't going to change that.”
“My father has been defeating magic users for over twenty years,” Arthur points out, gazing at him as the stick he is holding taps lightly against the dirt.
Merlin nods in acknowledgement of the fact, and then says, “Except for her.” He does not bother pointing out that it is possible her hand in Arthur's birth has something to do with it. Merlin is certain Arthur is fully aware of such a possibility.
“Surely she cannot be expecting all of us,” Gawain says, leaning forward to begin marking X's around the sketch of the island. “If we were to attack from –“
“Sire!” Dagonet calls out from the limb of the tree he had earlier climbed high above them. “A knight of Camelot approaches!”
They glance up as a black warhorse canters into the clearing, its rider dressed in armour and the colours of Camelot. Merlin sees the flash of recognition that appears on Arthur's face before the prince moves quickly to his feet and across the clearing. He says something that Merlin cannot quite make out and the rider laughs before slipping neatly to the ground. They hug one another, and it is only in that moment that the realisation hits Merlin that he has never seen Arthur show such affection with someone other than himself. He considers it for a moment; the reservation of emotion that as a prince Arthur is forced to maintain. Frowning, he knows that his belief or wish that he was the only one to receive those small moments of warmth from Arthur is a selfish one.
Still, the jealousy hangs in his voice as he asks, “Who is that?”
Miraculously, Merlin refrains from pointing out to Gawain that his information tells him nothing at all. He catches Gawain watching him with a knowing grin out of the corner of his eye. Shifting on the uncomfortable ground, he tries very hard not to stare as they start back toward them; Arthur and the – now that Merlin has clear view of him – undeniably attractive Sir Kay.
“Kay's father, Sir Ector, has been a knight of Camelot since Uther created the knights,” Gawain says. “Kay and Arthur have known one another all of their lives. When both were younger, and Uther went to campaign in Gaul, Ector was left in charge of Camelot and the prince's welfare.” He nods toward the men as they start back toward Merlin and Gawain. “They are like brothers. You have nothing to worry yourself over, Merlin.”
Merlin presses his lips together tightly. “I'm not worried," he mutters, and then blinks as he realises what he has just confirmed. “I mean, why would I be worried?”
Gawain gives a short laugh that Merlin can only guess at the meaning of. He continues to watch Kay and Arthur; they have stopped, pausing to look at a dagger that Kay is proudly displaying to the prince. “Why has he not been in Camelot?” he asks.
“The king sent Ector and a few others to Byzantine last year for trade.” Gawain gets to his feet as they approach and Merlin joins him. He and Sir Kay clasp one another's forearms like old friends. “Here I thought we were well rid of you!”
“Believe me when I say there was many times I considered never returning,” Kay responds with a wide smile displaying perfect white teeth.
“I'm certain there was a woman involved,” Arthur remarks, turning the dagger over in his palm as he continues to inspect it.
Kay corrects him. “Several women, actually.”
They laugh and Merlin feels distinctly out of place, even as he sidles closer to Arthur's side; the prince has not glanced in his direction once since Kay's arrival. It is Gawain who makes the introductions between Merlin and Kay, and Merlin forces himself to block the hurt he feels as Arthur continues to ignore him, even as he understands it. Arthur is Crown Prince, first and foremost. That Merlin gets even a small part of him in private is more than he ever could have imagined.
“So you're the one causing all of the problems,” Kay comments, and it could have meant to offend, but Kay's easy smile and teasing tone say otherwise.
Arthur is staring at the knight, gaze questioning.
“The king,” Kay says by way of explanation, as if he knew what Arthur would have asked. “When my father and I arrived at Camelot, you had apparently just escaped. My father barely got his question out before yours launched into his telling of events. As angry as he is at you, Arthur, it is that one there he seems to blame for everything.”
Merlin is proud of the fact that he does not flinch beneath Kay's sudden curious regard. He stares right back, and receives a terribly cocky smirk in response. His brow furrows at the familiar expression, and his eyes quickly flicker over to Arthur. The piercing blue eyes, similar builds and height, the arrogance of their matching stances; were it not for the difference in their facial structures – Kay is rugged where Arthur is refined – and Kay’s darker hair, they could easily be mistaken for twins. Merlin finds himself wondering if growing up beside the prince had caused Sir Kay to adopt his mannerisms, or vice versa.
“Your father stayed behind?” Arthur asks as he hands the dagger back to Kay.
“He said he would ride out with the king, and attempt to talk some sense into him.” He slides the dagger into his belt, then turns slightly as Gareth appears behind him, handing him a flask and handkerchief containing a chunk of dried meat and cheese. He murmurs his thanks before turning back to Arthur. “My father urged me to ride out after you, knowing I would be able to track you. All of the king's knights are riding out after you, Arthur,” he says seriously as he holds the prince's gaze. “My father said he has not seen him this mad with rage since... “ His voice trails off.
Arthur nods, reaching out to lay his hand on Kay's shoulder. “I'm glad you are here. Go. Eat your food. Get some rest. We are going to need you out there.”
Kay moves off, joining the other knights who greet him with words of welcome and good-natured teasing. Merlin turns to find Arthur's attention on him, something meaningful in his gaze that Merlin cannot quite put a name to. It passes so quickly that Merlin wonders if he has only imagined it.
“Sire.” Gawain waits until the prince turns to him, and drops his voice. “If your father's knights catch up to us, we will defend ourselves.”
Merlin watches as Arthur frowns. “The last thing we need is a civil war in Camelot.” He meets Merlin's gaze once more and offers up a comforting smile before turning back to Gawain. “They mustn’t catch us, then. We just need to be faster.”
Gawain smiles. “Of course, my lord.” He bows slightly before moving off.
“Arthur,” Merlin says quietly. “Could war really happen?”
“It would not take much for my father to make this appear an attempted coup.” He frowns as he gazes off into the camp a moment, brow furrowed in thought. “Whatever his views on magic, he is a popular king, and has brought peace and prosperity to Camelot. The people would side with him.”
“Surely, he wouldn't –“
“I do not plan on allowing it to go that far, Merlin,” Arthur tells him with a tight smile. “Whatever problems may exist between myself and Uther, he is still my father, my king. I have placed him in an untenable position – he has no recourse but to respond by sending his knights after me. To do otherwise would appear weak, and while I may be his son, he cannot allow himself to show favouritism. Hence why he was forced to make it seem as if he were considering my execution.”
He reaches out and lays his fingers against Merlin's arm. The touch is comforting. “I do not agree with all of my father's decisions or how he rules, but I have no desire to take his place just yet. If we can find Nimueh, and prove to him that she is behind the magic book, then this matter will be resolved. The king can save face, and no more doubts or aspersions will be cast on either of us.”
Merlin leans in to Arthur's touch ever so slightly with a desire to be closer to him. “I don't think it will be enough to end his suspicions about me, though.”
“No,” Arthur agrees, and his fingers tighten, the only outward expression of affection he is allowed to give. “But I will deal with that when the time comes.”
There is such a quality of possession to Arthur's tone that Merlin does not question his meaning.
Arthur decides that they will continue on to the Isle of the Blessed in the evening. He is determined to rely on his superior knowledge of the land in keeping distance between them and his father's contingent, and while Merlin cannot argue the logic, a part of him worries that King Uther will use every device available to him to track his son. The matter is quickly closed though, and while the knights discuss strategy, Arthur waves Merlin off, telling him to prepare their evening meal.
Just like that, he is back to being the servant. He considers arguing, and maybe even glaring for a little bit, but there is a little voice inside of him that cautions he should not contest the prince's authority in front of his knights – whether he is naturally inclined to do so or not. Especially now. Especially considering everything they have to face. So he settles for rolling his eyes – a reaction that still draws a few sniggers from those around him – before taking the brace of rabbits Lionel had spent the afternoon collecting and making his way into the centre of camp to begin preparing the meal. He tries not to listen in on the plans of attack, but feels he has more of a right than any of them to know what will happen. After all, he alone will be far more capable of fighting Nimueh than any of the knights will, and that includes Arthur.
As talk of planning ends up devolving into past campaigns, Merlin concentrates on the meal he's meant to prepare, quickly growing frustrated as he realises the implements needed are unavailable. To be fair, they had left in a hurry and the last thing on his mind had been cooking rabbits for a dozen hungry warriors. As with most things when frustration takes over, Merlin does not consider his actions before following through with that which has become most natural for him.
He holds his hand out toward the rabbits, softly whispering, “Beflíehe”, brow rising slightly as the hide instantly tears away from each rabbit, leaving them perfectly skinned and ready for roasting. Nodding once at the efficiency of the spell, he spends the next few moments whirling a half dozen gathered sticks in the air, watching as they whittle down into sharp points before grabbing each in turn and skewering the rabbits. The roasting spit itself is easily constructed, the wood pitching in to the ground and bending itself into shape at a simple command. Once it is all prepared, Merlin holds his hand out, commands “Byrne” and the fire roars to life beneath the skewered rabbits.
Standing back, Merlin folds his arms over his chest, smiling as he admires his handiwork. It takes a few moments of heavy silence around him to realise something is wrong, and only then does he turn to see Arthur watching; his knights gather close behind, staring with a mixture of gazes from surprise and awe to apparent disapproval. It occurs to Merlin in that moment that he had simply felt so safe and comfortable in the company of these men that he had not stopped to consider just because they suspect him of magic does not necessarily mean they actually know or approve of it.
He opens his mouth to say something, anything, but nothing comes out. He is saved when Arthur starts toward him, grabbing his arm and dragging him away from the camp. “Kay, get the men fed and ready to move out once the sun sets.”
Arthur continues to drag him through the tangle of underbrush and roots, deeper and deeper into the shading darkness of the trees until Merlin is almost entirely certain they will never find their way back. That is, they would never find their way back if Arthur was not Arthur and did not know the land as well as he does, and Merlin was not Merlin and could not feel the trees reaching out to him, pointing him back in the direction they had come. Just as Merlin is beginning to believe that perhaps Arthur has decided they will simply walk alone together to the Isle of the Blessed, he drops Merlin's arm and stands with arms akimbo, back turned.
Quickly, Merlin comes up with every explanation he can think of for what he had just done. Sadly, all he ends up saying is, “I'm sorry, Arthur. I wasn't paying attention.”
“You are an idiot, Merlin.”
Arthur turns and fixes him with a gaze that clearly tells Merlin how much the prince wants to throttle him. “No, you do not know, and that is the problem. Those men back there – they'are good men. I would honestly trust each and every one of them with my life. I would lay down my life for theirs. And what you have just done –“
“I trust them too,” Merlin tells him. “I know they won't say anything –“
“That is not the point!”
Merlin frowns. “I'm sorry. I thought –“
“Because of what you so blatantly did before them, they can no longer honestly deny that which they know,” Arthur explains in that tone which tells Merlin exactly what kind of idiot Arthur believes he is. “I will not have any of them suffer for treason, let alone for harbouring a sorcerer.” Arthur's tone softens; he says, “I would protect them, Merlin. The same as I will protect you.”
“I'm sorry,” Merlin says again, and he is because he had not thought of it that way. “You're right, of course. I wasn't thinking.”
Arthur waves a hand in dismissal before rubbing it over his eyes. Only then does Merlin notice how tired the prince appears, and he blames himself for not noticing sooner. Arthur has not slept; in the short span of a day and a half, he has been accused of sorcery, incarcerated in the dungeon, threatened with execution by his own father, and rescued. Now he is not only wanted for sorcery but treason as well, all while attempting to not only protect Merlin but his most loyal knights. Soon he will be facing a very powerful sorceress, and not only his life but his right to govern an entire kingdom is on the line.
Believing himself responsible for the entire situation, Merlin thinks quickly before taking a step toward Arthur and reaching out to him.
“If you wish...” He hesitates briefly, then says, “I could cast a spell that would relieve at least some of the exhaustion you must be feeling.”
Arthur drops his hands and stares at Merlin in silence. Just when Merlin is certain he must have said the wrong thing, the prince replies, “No. That will not be necessary.” And then, “Thank you.”
Merlin nods, having known that Arthur was going to deny the offer, and takes a step closer, hoping to offer some comfort. He falters when Arthur suddenly draws his sword, levelling it at him. Eyes widening, Merlin his hands out in a non-threatening manner. “I know I made a stupid mistake, Arthur, but is such a dire response really necessary?”
“What... ?” Arthur blinks, and then in apparent realisation, rolls his eyes. “Are you really this daft? Or are you just pretending?”
Catching on to his mistake, and the ridiculousness of it, Merlin drops his hands and merely shrugs. He has no defence.
With a sigh, Arthur turns the sword in his hand, grasping the blade and holding it hilt first toward Merlin. “Take it. Do whatever it is you do to such things.” When Merlin continues to stand there without taking the sword, wondering as to Arthur's meaning, he adds, “I thought of it when Geraint mentioned the Questing Beast. Obviously you used some form of magic. I figure if you magicked my sword before I confronted this sorceress, it will give me a better chance to kill her.”
Oh. He has a point. It’s entirely possible with just the right of magic in the sword, this time she might just stay dead. Unless, of course, the Fates have other ideas in mind.
“Arthur, since I will be there –“
“Whatever happens, Merlin, you are not allowed to kill her. Not under any circumstances, do you understand?”
He does not. He says as much.
Arthur looks annoyed and impatient, which granted is not very different from how he usually looks, but compounded with the weariness it all appears amplified. He twists the sword again, laying it across his hands as he stares down at it.
“You have changed, Merlin,” he says after a moment, gaze finally rising to meet Merlin's eyes. “Even before you acknowledged such a thing to me, I noticed it. You are different. And maybe it’s minor, and maybe it would have happened at some point no matter if you had confronted Nimueh or not, but it is there, and while it does not worry me it does worry me that the change could grow worse.
“I'm a warrior. I was raised to do battle. Raised to kill. I have seen that look in my men's eyes when the battle is over and they stare at the dead around them and realise they are responsible for that. I have been through it myself.” He allows the sword to slip from one hand, and drives the tip into the ground, letting it stand on its own. “You go into battle and you face death – the possibility of your own death, and the lives of those you take. But when it is over you return home, and you go back to living. For all that you are taught to bring death, you find yourself appreciating life. And that... I think that is the difference.”
Merlin's brow furrows and he looks away. Considering Arthur's words, he asks, “You think I'm becoming... immune to life?”
“No,” Arthur responds quickly. He restates, “No... not yet. But I fear it can happen. You have all of this power – to give and take life as you see fit, and what if... what if there is a point when you will not be able to tell the difference? That life and death become the same to you?”
He cannot even allow himself to imagine such a future. “I could never –“
“What if Nimueh once said the same?”
Merlin grows cold at the thought. He remembers how he had felt when he had returned to Camelot; no joy at her demise, no remorse at her death, just a sinking feeling that something had changed. Riding through the gates and knowing that things would never be the same. What if that is how it starts? What if he is already started down that path? His body begins to hum at the potential power in such a future. If everything were so simple with just a thought –
He blinks, realising Arthur has been trying to speak but he has been too caught up in his fears to notice. Arthur seems to realise this; maybe he sees the fear in his eyes. He steps forward and cups Merlin's face and brings their foreheads together. There is strength in his touch, a serenity that flows through Merlin as the pads of Arthur's thumbs move slowly against his cheeks. He closes his eyes and just stands there, breathing, listening to the forest around them, and feeling Arthur's warmth. The fear seems to dissipate, seeping out of his skin with each breath shared between them; the thrum of his body stills. He thinks, Arthur is trying to tell me something, and then, Nimueh must not have had this.
“I am not going to lose you,” Arthur says softly, and Merlin opens his eyes to meet Arthur's gaze. "Not to a vengeful king and not to magic. Let me carry the burden of that which I was raised to do, and you... protect me, as you have so often done.”
Merlin finds a smile. “Yes, Arthur.”
The kiss is brief, like a silent, meaningful agreement between them, and then Arthur is pulling back and holding his sword out once more to Merlin.
By the time they return to camp, the sun has disappeared just beyond the horizon. The fire is covered; the knights talking quietly near their horses, ready to ride. Dagonet greets them both with some of the leftover rabbit. Merlin waits to eat his until after he has mounted his horse. Behind him, Arthur converses quietly with Gawain and Gareth before climbing on to his own mount and riding up alongside Merlin.
“As I'll ever be,” Merlin says with a nod as he finishes his last bite of rabbit, and frowns as he looks around. “Where is Sir Kay?”
If there is hesitation in his response, it is extremely brief. “We decided it would be best if he rode back to meet with our fathers. He will attempt to stall them – convince them they are going the wrong way.”
“Isn't that risky?”
Arthur shrugs, his mind obviously already focused on the coming fight. “That's just Kay.”
Without another word, he rides up to the head of the party and signals for them to follow. The knights move into a protective formation around Merlin, and they head toward the Isle of the Blessed.
They ride through the night. Arthur does not like pushing the horses this hard, but for as much as he trusts in his ability to know the land better than any other he also knows his father's determination. If the king means to find him, then he will. It is only a matter of time. Camelot was not rid of magic through hope and wistfulness. Arthur knows not to underestimate his father; he has witnessed Camelot's enemies commit such a folly time and again. Swallowing back the niggling fear in the back of his mind that he will never be capable of outwitting Uther, Arthur leans low over his stallion's neck and urges him to greater speed.
Riding over the marshland, Arthur spies the hint of light edging the horizon. He had hoped move more swiftly than this, attacking Nimueh just before the morning light so that she would have less of a chance to see their approach. Certainly she will be able to sense them, but even magic users have to have some weaknesses. At the thought, Arthur glances over his shoulder and past his knights to where Merlin is riding in the midst of them. A few hours before he had been slumped in his saddle as if he had been sleeping, but now he is straight-backed and alert; Arthur wonders if he can sense the Isle as they grow closer, and then figures he can. Their gazes meet and Merlin gives him a slight nod as if to say he's ready. Not responding, Arthur turns back to the land ahead, noting the slight rise in elevation, the jagged hills around them. Raising a hand, the party slows their horses as they reach the top of a hill; a small copse of woods spreads out before them, and at the edge of the woods water laps quietly along the shore. It is difficult to make out the island in the darkness.
Arthur glances over at Lionel beside him, noting the brief flicker of uncertainty in his gaze. Though he is one of the younger knights, Arthur has no doubts regarding his capability in a fight. He waits until the knight glances over at him, and gives him a nod. They start forward once more, riding down the slope into the woods.
The mist of dawn is quietly creeping over the forest as they draw nearer to the Isle. Arthur is forced to slow the party, cursing under his breath as the footing continues to grow more treacherous around them. Visibility quickly becomes almost nonexistent, and Arthur signals the knights to a halt, calling out for Merlin to join him at the head of the column.
“Is it always like this?” he asks as his servant rides up beside him.
“No, sire. It wasn't before... either time.”
“Do you think Nimueh is causing it? That she knows we’re coming?”
Merlin closes his eyes a moment, growing silent. Finally, he reopens them and shakes his head. “It's not Nimueh, but it is magic. Strong magic, but... different.” He furrows his brow as if in concentration. “As if whoever it is, is controlling nature herself.”
Letting out a breath of frustration, Arthur shifts in the saddle. Damn magic users. “And you're certain it is not her?”
We'll have to walk from here, Arthur thinks. He does not want to take the chance of injuring the horses. They will also be able to move more silently on foot. It will take time, though. He estimates that it is another half a mile to the shoreline. Turning in the saddle to inform his knights, Arthur freezes at the sight that greets him. It takes a brief moment to process what his eyes are clearly telling him, and even then, it takes another moment for him to accept it. Spinning his mount around, he pulls his sword from its scabbard, waving it at the empty grey mist before him. Only mist.
“Merlin, my knights are gone!”
Merlin's tone is both impatient and pleading. The only reason Arthur turns to address him is so that he can remind Merlin that he's the prince, and therefore what he has to say is far more important. The words die on his lips though, as he follows Merlin's intent gaze on the mist-covered forest in front of them, where three figures slowly emerge as if out of thin air. Considering they are likely the same people who are responsible for the lack of visibility and the disappearance of his knights, Arthur supposes they probably did appear out of thin air.
Damn magic users.
He waves his sword at them. “I demand to know who you are! And what you have done with my knights!”
Silence. The three draw closer, and Arthur realises they are women. Very beautiful women, as a matter of fact. They move as if walking without their feet touching the ground; the grass does not bend, and no prints are left in the soil. There is a soft whisper from their diaphanous gowns as the material seems to undulate of its own accord around their legs. He fears the possibility of enchantment but already finds that he cannot look away. The tallest of the three – a beautiful brunette with perfect lips and pale skin – pauses before his mount, reaching out to lay her fingers against its nose. The stallion moves into her touch like a newborn kitten.
“Arthur,” Merlin's voice seems oddly out of place in the ensuing silence. “It's the Three Fates... the Wyrd Sisters.”
Arthur blinks at the revelation. Then, he leans in his saddle toward Merlin, whispering, “I thought they were supposed to be ugly.”
The blonde one – she is tall and willowy with waves of golden hair that falls past her hips – laughs. The sound is neither pleasant nor ugly; it is simply sound. “We show ourselves as we wish mortal man to regard us, Arthur Pendragon. You would not hear us were we to appear before you in a displeasing form.”
Arthur is almost positive that his character has just been insulted.
“Do not take offence,” the third sister says. She is shorter than the others, a grave expression on her beautiful face, which is surrounded by long, dark curls. “Wrencan and Wefan are pleased that you find us beautiful.”
He considers asking them to please stay out of his head, and then figures his request would be ignored anyway. “And what about you? Are you not pleased?”
She shrugs. “It was a certainty that you should think so. I do not have feelings about that, Arthur King of Past, Present and Future.”
“What have you done with the others?” Merlin asks beside him.
“They are still here.” The sister who is still petting Arthur’s mount is the one who answers. She smiles at the horse as it nudges her. “And they are not here. They remain safe.”
“I would like them returned to us,” Arthur demands, swinging a leg over his mount and jumping to the ground.
“That is not possible, Arthur King,” the small one replies.
“Why do you keep calling me that? I am not king; my father, Uther Pendragon, is king.”
The brunette leans toward him, whispering loudly, “Gewiss gets confused.”
“You are one to speak, Wefan – “
“Sisters,” The blonde, who must be Wrencan, interrupts softly, and then bestows a smile on Arthur and Merlin. “Time means little to us. You have been, are and always shall be king, Arthur Pendragon. Just as Merlin has been known to us from the beginning and to the end.”
“Damn magic users,” Arthur mutters, casting a quick look at Merlin to see if he has any clearer notion of what they are talking about. He is surprised though, to see a look of anger set on Merlin’s face.
“Why have you done this?” Merlin asks, and at first, Arthur thinks he is still asking about the knights. “Why have you brought Nimueh back from the dead?”
“Wait.” Arthur ignores the three women for a moment, turning instead to his servant. “They are responsible?”
Merlin takes a moment to nod, still staring at the Sisters before turning his attention to Arthur. “That’s what Gaius believes, though it makes little sense. Why would they do such a thing,” he turns back to face them where they have now gathered together, “if not simply to destroy Camelot?”
“Is that what you believe?” Gewiss has not changed the dour expression on her face. Arthur thinks she would be even prettier if she tried smiling like her sisters. “Are you so knowledgeable, then, of the sorceress’s destiny?”
“There’s no such thing as destiny,” Merlin replies. “The implication removes free will. I refuse to believe my choices are not my own.”
“He has got a point,” Arthur says. “Only Merlin could make some of the dumb decisions that he does.”
“Arthur.” Merlin is glaring at him.
“You have no understanding of destiny,” Gewiss states.
It is Wrencan once more who feels the need to explain. “When given a destination, does one not have many paths to take in which to get there? It is the choice of the traveller should they decide to stay on the known path, veer into the forest or take a shorter road over the hills. So it is with destiny. Knowing how things end does not always mean knowing how they get there.”
“What my sisters are trying to say,” Wefan says helpfully, “is that the one you refer to as Nimueh has a destiny, but continues to stray from the simple path. While her journey is inexplicably wrapped up in yours, how each of you chooses to meet it is out of our hands.”
Arthur sighs loudly, concerned that they could stand there for a fortnight discussing the intricacies of Fate and destiny and life in general. Unfortunately, Merlin appears more than prepared to do exactly that. Just as he opens his mouth to clearly continue to argue, Arthur reaches a hand out to his shoulder, stopping him. He turns to the Sisters.
“What does any of this have to do with making my knights disappear?” he asks impatiently.
Wefan laughs. “Nothing. The two of you must face the sorceress alone. This is not a path that your knights can take.”
That certainly was not part of the plan. Arthur glances over his shoulder, secretly hoping they might have returned, but the space behind their horses remains empty. Sheathing his sword, he returns his attention to the Sisters, all of whom are watching him expectantly. He feels himself colour slightly beneath their heavy regard.
“I suppose any assistance from the three of you is completely out of the question?”
“Even if we chose to,” Gewiss says, “our interference would not alter the outcome.”
Arthur raises an eyebrow at that. “How does it end?”
Their silence continues until Arthur thinks they do not plan on answering, and then Wrencan tells him, “It does not end.”
When they reach the water’s edge, Arthur takes the reins from Merlin’s hand and steps back to the tree line to secure their mounts. As he returns, he sees that his manservant has wandered down a decrepit dock to where a small boat is moored. Knowing that Merlin has more experience with all of this, Arthur moves to follow him, stepping gingerly across the boards with concern that they might give way at any moment. As he steps up beside Merlin, he opens his mouth to explain the revisions he has made in their attack plans since they are now without the knights. Whatever he is going to say is forgotten at the expression on Merlin’s face.
“What is wrong?”
Arthur frowns, and says sternly, “I thought you were going to stop lying to me.”
Merlin quickly flashes a guilt-ridden glance in his direction. “Sorry.”
He pauses, gaze wandering across the water toward the tiny island that awaits them. Arthur follows his gaze, eyes sweeping over the crumbling ruins, searching for any sign of the sorceress hiding among them. There is silence around them save for the light lapping of the water against the shoreline and the birds in the trees. Arthur thinks it could almost be peaceful if he did not know what lay in wait for them.
“What the Fates said,” Merlin begins softly, “about it never ending… What if no matter how hard we try to do what is right, we always fail? What if every path we choose is the wrong one?”
“That’s a little gloomy coming from you,” Arthur teases, but his smile fades at Merlin’s sober expression.
“They said our destinies are preordained.”
“Of course our destinies are preordained, Merlin. We are mortal. We die. All of us. That fact is inevitable. What is important is what we do along the way.”
Merlin shakes his head, looking back toward the island. “What if it’s more than that? What if –” He takes a breath. “What if I have to kill Nimueh?”
Arthur throws his hands up in exasperation. If all magic users stand around before every battle ruminating on their upcoming deeds, he wonders how any of them actually end up dead. But then, this is Merlin, and really, he should not expect anything less than a little aggravation before battle.
Reaching out, he settles his hands on Merlin’s shoulders, forcing their eyes to meet.
“Do not let what those women said get to you. They clearly meant to confuse us; immortals seem to enjoy playing with mortal men at their choosing. Everything that has happened – we have each had our stake in it. I’m no less at fault for where we are now and what is to come than you are. But do you know?” Arthur grins. “I think we’re a fairly unstoppable force. A good team. I mean, obviously I make up most of the team, what with the brains and the combat skills and the strength, but you have that magic stuff –” he waves a hand “— and that helps. When have we ever gone into battle together and not come out victorious?”
“The Questing Beast almost killed you,” Merlin points out, but there is a hint of amusement beneath his tone.
Sighing heavily, Arthur asks, “You’re never going to let that go, are you?”
A smile appears, and Merlin continues to stare at Arthur a long moment before saying, “If I believe you are, at any point, in danger, sire, I will kill her.”
Arthur shakes his head and squeezes the slight shoulders beneath his hands. “Merlin, you’re a sorcerer. Use your imagination. Surely death is not the only option when you can, you know, do anything.”
Merlin does not respond; just stands there and stares at Arthur like he has explained life and the earth and all of creation to him.
Rolling his eyes, Arthur turns Merlin, shoving him toward the boat. “Come on. Let’s get this over with. She is probably so tired of waiting for us she has gone to find another kingdom to harass.”
Stepping into the boat, Merlin settles himself closest to the front, and then turns and watches as Arthur climbs in behind him. Arthur begins looking around for some oars, muttering under his breath about the uselessness of “boats without oars”, when he hears Merlin say, “A’stíeren.”
The boat begins moving through the water.
Merlin glances over his shoulder at Arthur and flashes him a smirk. Arthur grunts. “Show off.”
It seems ridiculously unnatural for the boat to be moving of its own accord, and Arthur remains anxious throughout the short journey to the Isle. It begins to slow as it nears its destination, and he jumps to shore before it has entirely come to a stop. Hearing something like a snigger, he turns quickly to look at Merlin, but his servant is wearing a carefully composed expression on his face.
Too carefully composed, in point of fact.
“I'm just in a hurry to get on with it,” Arthur explains.
Merlin nods as he climbs out of the boat to stand beside him. “Of course... sire.”
Pursing his lips at Merlin’s obvious teasing, Arthur turns away from the boat, stepping up to the ruins and peering through the cracks among the stones. He sees little – an open area, much like the courtyard Merlin had described while he and Gawain had planned the attack. An attack that obviously must be altered now that he doesn’t have all of his knights. Not that Arthur is worried; he considers himself prepared for whatever it may be that Nimueh plans on throwing at them. He knows he should probably let Merlin in on his latest plans but thinks it will all play out more smoothly should Merlin remain as surprised as Nimueh.
“Time to split up,” Arthur says, stepping back from the wall and sliding his sword from its scabbard. The blade is still glowing with a soft blue light from the spell Merlin cast earlier. “I take it there is an entrance around the north end of the Isle?”
Merlin shrugs. “It’s likely, but Arthur, I’m still not entirely comfortable with this plan of yours. You’re far too vulnerable to Nimueh’s magic without me there.”
“Have a little faith in me,” he says with a smirk before leaning in to press a brief kiss against Merlin’s lips. “Keep her distracted like we discussed. Everything else will work itself out. I promise.”
His manservant continues to look disbelieving. Giving him another quick smile, Arthur starts along the edge of the shoreline to make his way around the north side of the island. He hears Merlin call out:
Preferring to ignore the warning, he continues on without acknowledgement, skirting the perimeter of the water as he casts occasional glances toward the ruins. They are older than anything he has ever seen, perhaps going as far back as before the Romans. He wonders if it had originally been built by magic users, and then finds himself imaging what the kingdom had been like before his father had rid it of magic. For some reason, he has trouble believing it was complete chaos overrun by evil-doers slaughtering people. Had it been so, certainly the people would have risen up against the magic users long before Uther had.
Little by little, everything he has been taught continues to fall apart.
When Arthur finally nears the north side of the Isle he quickly finds the stairs leading up into the ruins. They are mostly grown over, covered in moss and weeds; obviously not tread upon in an untold number of years. On the first step, the stones beneath his feet give way slightly, and he balances himself for a moment before hurrying up the last few.
Arthur realises something is very wrong the moment he emerges from the stairwell – the courtyard is exactly as Merlin described but empty. Not that he has been expecting Nimueh to be idly twirling her hair around her finger as she waited for them, but at the very least Merlin should have been emerging from the opposite end. Tightening his grip on the hilt of his sword, Arthur moves no further, waiting to see if Merlin is simply taking his own sweet time, as he has been known to do in equally dire moments. The moments tick by, the courtyard remains empty and Arthur grows more certain that something is very, very wrong.
He moves cautiously forward, toward what appears to have once been an altar, exactly as Merlin had described from his last encounter with Nimueh. There is nothing to indicate that she had died there, nor that a battle of any sort had occurred. He crouches down, running gloved fingers over the earth at the base of the altar, the soil appearing undisturbed. Frowning, his eyes scan the lower edge of the courtyard, sliding along the rocks that barely represent the walls they had once been.
Not even Merlin would take this long.
Standing slowly, spinning the hilt of his sword in his palm as he thinks, it hits Arthur suddenly what it is that feels off to him – no birds. He can no longer hear the songs of the birds that had surrounded them as they had approached the Isle, or the sound of insects, or even the whisper of the wind. Tensing at the realisation, he grips his sword more tightly, stilling as he waits for whatever it is that is about to happen.
Merlin watches until Arthur disappears, rounding the corner of the ruins to make his way to the north end of the island. He wishes he had the confidence that Arthur so obviously does in their plan. He also wishes, foolishly, that the knights were here. He knows they could not do much against Nimueh’s power, but at least they would protect Arthur when he undoubtedly pulled some heroic and stupid stunt.
Sighing, Merlin turns to the stairwell to the courtyard that he once thought he would never again have to climb. His eyes stray toward the shore, thoughts returning to the Wyrd Sisters. He knows Arthur is right (and really, how often does that happen?) and that there is no reason to believe they will not be successful. Though Nimueh may have some destiny wrapped up within their own that does not mean she will ultimately triumph. He does wish the Fates had been a little more forthcoming and less cryptic with their answers. They remind him too much of the Great Dragon beneath Camelot, and Merlin feels well rid of him.
Perhaps if he tells Arthur about the dragon, then Arthur would begin to understand why Merlin has just about had it with those who seem determined to force them down paths not of their own choosing.
Merlin forces thoughts of destiny aside and focuses on the task ahead. He calculates that Arthur should be nearing the other end of the island within the next few moments and ducks into the stairwell. Before emerging into the courtyard, he inhales a deep breath, relaxing and stilling the unease of his emotions. He knows he cannot face Nimueh with anger this time; no matter her deeds, he must remain in control. Once certain of that, he reaches out tentatively, feeling the thrum of nature and life around him, and there, just simmering beneath the surface, the hum of nearby magic. Nimueh is waiting.
When he steps out into the courtyard it is exactly as he expects: Nimueh is beside the altar. She is wearing the blue gown she wore in the forest, a smile playing over her features as she watches him approach. He clenches his fists at his sides as he comes to a stop a few yards away, magic tingling through his fingers.
“For a while there, I thought you would not come,” Nimueh tells him. “I was almost disappointed. I wondered if you and your prince had simply run away.”
“We’re not afraid of you, Nimueh.”
“Oh, I was not speaking of me. I thought you would run away from your glorious King Uther.”
Merlin’s gaze narrows. “Why did you expose me? You certainly have an odd manner of avenging the magic users Uther has murdered by murdering more still.”
Nimueh shrugs slightly. “There are casualties in every war. Why should you be spared? You stand in the way of what is right.”
“Murder isn’t right no matter what the reasons behind it –“
Her laughter cuts him off. “That is amusing coming from you,” – her amusement instantly transforms to anger – “murderer.”
Merlin does not bother denying it. He has accepted that he murdered her, as much as he has accepted that he is very likely to do so again.
“I don’t want to kill you,” he says, taking a few steps, moving in a slight circle around her. Where is Arthur? “But neither will I allow you to destroy the future of this kingdom.”
“There is no future for Camelot,” Nimueh hisses, eyes narrowing as she lifts a hand toward him. “Nor shall there be a future for you and your beloved prince. Fýrcynn trinda!”
Merlin is ready for the ball of fire as it is cast toward him. He lifts his palm, barely has time to shout, “Randgebeorh!”, and the blast bounces harmlessly off of an invisible barrier. He feels his own strength burning through him, desperate to be unleashed, to rain death upon the woman who continues to threaten those he loves most. But he had promised Arthur –
Where is Arthur?
“On the defensive, are we, Merlin?” Nimueh appears amused even though her attack failed. “Oh! Were you expecting Arthur?” Her eyes widen as a smile slides once more into place. “I am very sorry, but I fear he will not be able to join us.”
Merlin’s anger is swift. He waves his hand and Nimueh is thrown back, tossed over the altar to her knees. She is laughing as she struggles to stand and Merlin starts toward her, fingers twitching at his sides.
“Where is he?” he demands.
Nimueh is standing once more, whispering words just beneath her breath. She lifts her hand, palm facing upwards, and then Merlin is thrown to his knees as roots appear out of the ground, tangling around his ankles. He struggles against the bonds as the sorceress steps toward him.
“Not to worry – he is very near. But that does not mean you are going to be much of a help to him… ”
Arthur is fairly certain he has learned throughout his twenty years in this life to be prepared for anything. Be it unicorns dead-set on teaching him a lesson or snake-leopard creatures who with one bite can pretty much ruin your day, he thinks he’s seen enough to know that anything can and will happen.
Unfortunately, the two wyverns that attack him from either side are not amongst those things he is prepared for. They appear as a cross between a dragon and a serpent – both are black as night with scaled ridges down their backs, wide leathery wings and long tails covered with spikes on the tips. Arthur has only ever heard tales of wyverns; this is his first time to meet one in person, let alone two.
Throwing himself to the ground to avoid another spat of fire, Arthur picks himself up long enough to throw his body across the altar and to the other side, hunkering against the stone as it rocks. The wyverns roar angrily at the narrow escape made by their prey. Arthur frowns.
“I’m not too pleased right now either, just to let you know,” he calls out to them, lowering his head as a heated blast of flames whips over the top of the altar.
For the life of him, he cannot figure out where Merlin has gone. If the wyverns were created by Nimueh – and he is more than certain they were – that still does not explain where his servant is, and why he is not there helping. For that matter, he would love to know where Nimueh is hiding.
His thoughts are interrupted when the altar against his back shakes violently and pieces of rock fly outward. He covers his head with his arms until the rain of debris settles and the wyverns’ roar again. Knowing his hiding place is not going to last much longer, Arthur makes a quick decision, gripping his sword as he jumps up and darts out to the left, moving straight toward the closest of the two small dragons. He narrowly dodges the dangerous tail that whips in his direction, still covered in bits of stone from its last blow, and then swings with his weapon toward the creature’s neck. It bellows angrily as his blade meets its mark, slicing through the thick layers of skin. Unfortunately, it is not as deep as Arthur would have preferred, and he is scrambling away once more as the enraged wyvern comes after him.
Think, he tells himself as he dives toward the stairwell, knowing the creatures cannot fit into the small enclosure. Were there just one of them, this fight would have been more evenly matched. He presses against the moss-covered stone, staring up into the courtyard where the wyverns seem to be planning their own attack, moving further away from one another and then circling back to where he is hiding. He knows it will only take one or two strikes of their spike-covered tails to knock down the unstable stones above him. His hiding place becomes a bit less optimal the moment that occurs.
He considers his options for the moment, watching as the wyverns close in on him from either side. His eyes narrow slightly as an idea strikes. It is risky but Arthur cannot see that he has much of a choice at the moment. He moves up the stone steps, crouching as he continues to watch the wyverns’ approach. He will have to be quick – he will only have one shot at this.
“I am going to lock you in the stocks for a week, Merlin,” Arthur mutters under his breath before pushing himself off of the top step as the wyverns’ draw near.
Darting between them, Arthur sweeps close to the uninjured wyvern, somersaulting toward it. As he comes up, he swings his sword against one of the creature’s back legs. Howling in pain, it whips toward him but Arthur is already up, running back in the direction he had come, straight to the other wyvern. As he nears, he feels the telltale heat of flames near his back, and he counts his steps, drawing closer, running faster. The other lowers its head as he nears it, neck arching as it roars in anticipation of gathering its prey, and then opening its jaws wide.
Arthur throws himself to the ground, rolling beneath the miniature dragon as it and its partner blast one another with their fiery breath. Both screech in pain as the flames sweep over them, and as the one nearest to Arthur rears back, he stands, driving his blade deep into its chest. As the wyvern falls over in its death throes, it drags Arthur down with it, a flailing paw hitting him in the chest, claw digging deep into his left shoulder before ripping away. Gasping at the pain, Arthur throws his body backward, attempting to move away from further injury. Behind him the other wyvern still thrashes in pain from its burns. He knows he has only moments to get to safety before it returns its attention back to him.
Struggling to his feet, ignoring the piercing pain shooting through his shoulder, Arthur hurries toward the altar, intending to use it once again for temporary shelter. As he nears the enormous stone slab, he slows, unable to shake the feeling that something is different. His eyes sweep over the ground before him, and they slowly widen as he realises that the damage from earlier is no longer there – the altar remains in one piece, no bits of stone littering the ground around it.
He reaches out, laying a gloved hand against the stone, gripping it tightly, testing it. “What in the –”
A heavy object slams into Arthur’s back, the wyvern’s tail flinging him off of his feet. As he is flying through the air, over the top of the altar, he thinks, None of this is real. Someone is playing a trick on me. He hits the ground hard, head throbbing and vision muddled. He flexes his fingers and realises his sword is gone – knocked away to who knows where. The wyvern roars from behind the altar and Arthur struggles quickly to sit up and search for his sword.
He thinks, Well, nothing about this is going to plan…
The vines pull away from Merlin’s ankles, disappearing back into the ground from which they sprang. He leaps to his feet.
Nimueh is already on the offensive. “Dústswearm,” she calls out.
A cloud of dust appears between them, obscuring Merlin’s vision as miniscule motes of soil sting his eyes. He throws an arm over his face to protect them, waving his fingers before him as he whispers, “Onswæpe.” A light wind picks up and when Merlin slowly drops his arm, the air around him is clear. Unfortunately, Nimueh is no longer in his sight.
Too late he senses her behind him. The light breeze with which he had used to clear the air suddenly whips into a full-force gale. It presses and pushes against Merlin, stinging his skin and forcing him back from his attacker. Dirt and weeds rip from the ground, biting and scraping his skin as they soar past. Thunder cracks loudly overhead as lightning splits the sky and rain begins falling in sheets around them. Merlin realises then that Nimueh has every intention of destroying him the same way he had disposed of her.
“I offered you the chance to join me, Merlin – to stand at my side as we restored magic to Camelot,” Nimueh is saying, her voice cutting above the sounds of the storm, reaching down toward him like some omniscient presence. “You thought yourself better than me, stronger than me. And yet, I am the one who has returned from beyond the grave. It is my will that is stronger than yours, my power that is great!”
The air around Merlin crackles, his skin sensing the electricity as it grows. He hesitates, waiting until the very last moment as bolts of deadly lightning arc down from the sky toward him, and then he kneels, shouting, “Scildburg!” Lightning streams down the invisible shelter, creating a bright halo around his body as it fights to break through the protective barrier. Merlin continues to focus, body tense as the fight between his magic and hers continues, force pressing against force, until finally he feels Nimueh’s strength begin to waver. He pushes then, slowly standing as the shield around him grows upward, tossing the steady stream of lightning away.
“I was going to give you a chance,” he tells her, yelling over the din of the rain and wind to be heard. Across from him, he sees her, trembling where she stands, chest heaving with her exertions. “But I won’t allow you to continue your war against Camelot. It ends here.”
As Nimueh’s laughter rises over the storm, Merlin thinks forgive me, Arthur, but it is what I must do, and he stretches out his hand, palm facing upward, fingers slowly beginning to close. He can feel the beat of her heart pulsing through his skin, echoing over his palm and upward through his wrist and arm. It is strong and steady… and slowly constricting as his hand closes around it. He hears Nimueh gasp, feels as the storm begins to lose its strength, the rain and wind lessening until eventually it fades away.
It is the shout from behind that causes Merlin to lose his focus, to drop his hand and look over his shoulder just in time to see Arthur charging toward them, sword swinging in an arc above his helmed head. Merlin’s brow furrows as he stares at the approaching figure, wondering where Arthur has been all this time, and when he’d grabbed his helmet. This was not the plan; attacking Nimueh head-on was not much of a plan at all, actually.
“Arthur, don’t!” Merlin tries to warn him, but it is too late.
“Fýrcynn trinda!” Nimueh shouts with rage.
The blast hits Arthur square in the chest, knocking him backwards several feet before he lands with a hard thump amidst the ruins.
“No!” Merlin screams before whirling angrily toward Nimueh, his fingers already tingling with a reactionary spell. He lifts his hand toward her, bolts of blue lightning crackling at his fingertips –
Nimueh is silent and staring, gazing down where the tip of a long, glowing blade is protruding from her chest. Her blood lines the edges, a pool of it rapidly spreading over the front of her gown. She lifts her gaze to Merlin’s, eyes already beginning to cloud over with the glaze of death.
“Ic béo eftborenu,” she speaks of her rebirth weakly as the blade slides out and she slowly crumples to the ground.
Behind her, Arthur is standing with blade still in hand. Merlin stares at him in confusion, swallowing thickly as he watches the prince shift the sword in his hands and then drive it down through Nimueh’s chest once more, effectively pinning her body to the ground beneath it. He steps over the dead sorceress, making his way toward Merlin, an obvious limp in his walk.
“Arthur, are you –“
Merlin starts forward to meet him but Arthur waves him back. “Check on Kay.”
Merlin spins around, realising then why the figure that had come out of nowhere had appeared both like, and nothing at all like, Arthur. He jogs over to where Kay landed, the knight just beginning to stir, moaning loudly. Dropping to his knees beside him, Merlin winces at the burn that mars his chest – the blast melted through the chain mail. Both it and the material of the knight’s shirt appear fused to the blackened skin beneath. The stench of burned flesh and hot metal is almost overwhelming.
Merlin looks up to find Arthur staring down at Kay; though it is obvious that Arthur himself is injured – the chain mail on his right arm is torn open, blood flowing from a deep cut in his shoulder – Merlin knows better than to mention it. Arthur’s focus is on his knight and friend.
“Kay,” Arthur says as he kneels in the grass beside him, reaching up to very gently slip the helm from his head.
Kay’s eyes open. He appears surprisingly alert, and in a lot of pain. He rasps, “If it looks anything like it feels… “
“You will be all right,” Arthur assures him, laying a hand against his forehead. He looks up then, meeting Merlin’s gaze. “You can help him.”
Merlin knows it is not a question. He looks away from Arthur’s probing eyes and back to the wound. It is nothing like he has ever done before – Gaius has always been very determined to prevent Merlin from using his magic to heal. The inability to explain injuries and illnesses suddenly and inexplicably cured would only lead to more accusations of magic. Merlin had already learnt his lesson once when he had used magic to cure Gwen’s father. Even though he had been tempted to speed the healing process on Arthur’s many cuts and bruises he’d receive throughout the months when in training with the knights, he had never once given in to the inclination.
But this was different. They were not in Camelot, and no one need know what he did here other than Arthur and Kay.
“I will –” Merlin cuts himself off. He is about to say ‘try’, and knows Arthur would not accept that. “I believe I can…”
Closing his eyes, Merlin takes a breath as he stretches his hands over Kay’s wound. He can feel the heat emanating from it, the tingle of magic still buried within the warmth. He draws on that, attempting to reverse it, asking the magic to heal and not harm.
“Ic lácne,” he whispers in an attempt to heal it, and it is not enough. He tries the next with a restoration spell. “Ic bête… séo gebarn bræd.”
“Merlin.” Arthur’s voice is tinged with veiled desperation. “Whatever you’re doing is not working.”
Merlin opens his eyes and stares at Arthur, attempting to hide his frustration. He knows Arthur is worried about Kay but he does not need to take it out on him. “And you’re not helping,” he says softly.
Between them, Kay tries to laugh, but the sound is raspy and echoes with unspoken pain. “Are you two… always like this?” he gasps.
“What do you mean?” Arthur asks, momentarily indignant. But Merlin says, “Yes.”
Kay offers him a weak smile, and then turns his head to Arthur. “Shut up… sire.”
“You are only getting away with addressing me like that because you threw yourself in front of a sorceress,” Arthur says.
Smiling at the obvious fondness in Arthur’s voice, Merlin breathes deep and tries again, fingers stretched out flat, hovering just above the damaged skin. This time he attempts a regeneration spell. “Ic gebread,” he commands forcefully. “Hælbære!”
He can feel the blood pulsing beneath his skin, the magic gathering along his fingertips and flowing outward and downward to Kay’s wound. Arthur says something but Merlin is lost in the details of his work, the energy moving through him with more presence and power than he’s ever felt. He can remember how it had felt to take Nimueh’s life – the darkness that had seemed to creep through him, chilling and comforting all at once. But this is different; as if life itself is speaking to him, wrapping itself around him and sharing in the energies that pulse through his fingers, nurturing and restoring the damaged skin. It makes him think of Arthur’s concerns that perhaps Merlin will one day forget that difference between life and death. The feelings flowing through him now assure Merlin this will never be the case.
His eyes flutter open and Arthur is closer now, right beside him, hand wrapped around his wrist. “What… “
“You did it.” Arthur waves a hand toward Kay who is sitting up, staring down at the gaping hole in his chain mail and shirt, fingers running in wonder over the perfectly healed skin. When he turns back to him, Arthur asks, “Are you all right?”
“I think so.” Merlin glances down at his hands, which seem to be glowing with a soft light.
“I thought they were on fire, at first,” Arthur tells him. “I have never seen anything like that. You’re… you’re really quite powerful,” he says as if he’d never believed it before.
Merlin ignores the comment, turning his attention instead to the gash in Arthur’s shoulder. “Here, let me –“
“No.” When Merlin stares at him in confusion, Arthur explains, “If I show up before my father looking as if I have spent the last day berry picking, he will immediately suspect magic was involved. Clean it, dress it. But you are not allowed to heal it.”
Merlin wants to argue but knows that Arthur is right. Instead, he moves around to peel the armour away, prodding at the injury. The wound is jagged, deeper at what appears to be the initial opening at the shoulder, and then becoming shallower down his arm.
“How did this happen?”
“Wyverns,” Arthur tells him, wincing once and turning to glare when Merlin apparently pokes a little too hard. “For the life of me, I could not figure out where you had got yourself to and why you were not helping. After I dispatched the first one, I noticed that altar there, which had earlier been struck by one of the creatures tails, was suddenly in one piece again. That is when I realised what was happening could not be real –”
“Nimueh had a glamour around you,” Merlin says with a nod as it suddenly makes sense. “I wonder why I couldn’t sense you nearby – she was shielding us from one another.”
“While I was in the midst of killing the second wyvern, I saw Nimueh for a moment. She seemed to… shimmer into existence, I guess, and then disappear again. It was enough for me to know where she was standing, though.”
“And where did you come from?” Merlin asks as he looks over his shoulder at Kay. The knight had removed his chain mail and was shrugging out of his shirt. Kay walks over to Merlin with what is left of the tattered material. Thanking him, Merlin tears it into several pieces to dress Arthur’s wound before he glances at Kay once more in question.
“My part did not exactly work to plan,” Kay says with a grin as he stands over them, hands on his hips. “I was supposed to distract the sorceress so that Arthur could run her through –-”
“To your credit, you did distract her,” Arthur remarks, watching as Merlin weaves the makeshift bandage over his shoulder and arm. “Just perhaps, not in the way we discussed.”
“So you had this planned all along?” Merlin asks. “And told me nothing of it?”
“I needed you to be as surprised as Nimueh.”
Merlin gives the knot in the bandage a sharp yank.
“Ow! What in God’s name was that for?”
“For proving once more that you’re the world’s biggest prat!” Merlin tells he sits back. “And an idiot – you’re an idiot, too, in case you didn’t know!”
Kay continues to stand over them, watching with a wry smile. “So, you two really are like this all of the time.”
They find the rest of the knights exactly where they had disappeared – none the worse for wear, although incredibly confused.
“T’was the oddest thing, sire,” Dagonet is saying as they pick their way through the forest, back toward Camelot. “One minute we were riding toward the Isle – the next, you and Merlin and Sir Kay were coming toward us, the sorceress already defeated!”
At the mention of the sorceress, Merlin glances over to his mare where Nimueh’s body, wrapped in Arthur’s mantle, is flung over the saddle. In one of the more uncomfortable situations Merlin has ever been placed in, he is forced to ride behind Sir Kay, trying desperately not to cling to the knight as the enormous black horse beneath them dances restlessly over the ground. He knows Arthur must keep up appearances; it is not fitting for a servant to be sitting on the back of the prince’s horse. Although, if it were a beautiful maiden who required a mount, Merlin figures it would be a different story altogether. He plans on pointing that out to Arthur the moment they reach Camelot.
Thankfully, Sir Kay is proving to be good company, keeping up a steady stream of conversation, asking one question after another with regards to Merlin’s arrival at Camelot and his subsequent placing as Arthur’s servant. With the knights knowing the truth of his magic, it is easier for Merlin to tell the truth of some of their adventures, and he finds himself regaling Kay with those which required typically his intervention to save Arthur from his own foolhardiness. The knight seems to be enjoying himself, prying for details and roaring with laughter over particular moments, such as when Merlin stole a key from Arthur’s fob, and had him under the belief that he was hearing things. At the last, Arthur glances over his shoulder, frowning his disapproval at both of them, which only serves to cause Kay to laugh harder.
“Is it true that you and Arthur grew up together?” Merlin asks after exhausting his own repertoire of tales.
“Fortunately for him,” Kay replies, amusement still lingering in his voice. “Who knows what kind of right bastard he would have grown up to be without me around to knock him down a peg or two?”
Arthur turns in his saddle, an inauspicious expression hovering over his features. “I believe it may be time to send you on your way again, Kay. To Rome. Or Northumbria, perhaps, where you can spend your days in treaty negotiations.” Then his eyes catch Merlin’s and he adds, “And Merlin can go with you.”
“It is cruel of you to joke about such things, sire,” Kay replies, before quickly telling Merlin, “Not your company, of course. I was speaking of the destination.”
Up ahead, Arthur grunts as he returns to facing forward. “Just wait. A few weeks of Merlin’s company and you’ll be begging to go to the Tyne.”
“Oi!” Merlin glares at Arthur’s back but unfortunately, the prince does not turn around to receive its full effect. Still, he can probably feel it. For a moment, he considers knocking Arthur from his horse onto his royal arse. It is only Arthur’s injury that prevents Merlin from giving in to the compulsion.
The merriment ends abruptly when Arthur’s hand comes up, silently signalling the knights to draw to a halt. Merlin can feel the tension instantly sweep over Sir Kay; up ahead Gawain and Geraint flank their prince on either side as the remaining knights surround Merlin and Kay. Merlin glances quickly toward his mare, if only to assure himself that the body of Nimueh remains in place.
Geraint leans over to whisper something to Arthur, but he simply shakes his head without speaking a word, his eyes focused on the thick copse of trees before them. The moments tick by until suddenly the forest comes alive with the sound of clanging armour and hoof beats; seconds later flashes of red appear through the leaves and then they are surrounded, the king and his knights quickly taking up position to prevent them from escaping.
There is silence at first as father and son stare at one another. Merlin peers over the top of Kay’s shoulder as the knight shifts slightly in front of him.
“Dismount,” Kay tells him quietly. “Be prepared to bring the body forward when the prince signals.”
Nodding, Merlin slips from the back of Kay’s mount and then takes the reins of his mare, brushing his fingers over the soft skin of her muzzle to calm her before turning his gaze once more toward the king.
“All of you are under arrest!” Uther bellows, his gaze sweeping over Arthur’s party before returning to his son. “For aiding a fugitive… and a sorcerer.” Though his attention remains on the prince, for one brief moment his eyes flick toward Merlin.
“These men may be guilty of serving Camelot and their prince,” Arthur begins as he moves his mount forward, separating from the group. “But they can never be accused of treason.”
“And how does disobeying the laws of this kingdom serve it?”
The signal is minute, but Merlin instantly recognises it for what it is. He starts forward, leading his mare through the knights as they move aside to give him room. Ahead, Arthur dismounts and waits for him, gaze meeting Merlin’s for the briefest of moments as he approaches. There is assurance hidden within the depths of his eyes, a silently communicated strength that is fleetingly shared before Arthur moves to the bundle draped over the horse’s back.
With an unexpectedly dramatic flare, Arthur releases the ropes on the saddle, and drops Nimueh’s body onto the ground, tugging the cape aside to display her face. He tells the king, “They serve Camelot by ridding it of its greatest enemy!”
All eyes turn toward Uther, who silently stares from his saddle. He moves suddenly, dismounting to crouch beside the body, his face a mask of disbelief. “The sorceress,” he says, just loud enough for Arthur and Merlin to hear.
“The magic book was hers, Father.” Arthur bends down on the other side of Nimueh’s body, pulling back the blood-soaked cloth to reveal her wounds. “She planted it in the hopes of sowing dissension between us – another hopeless bid to instigate the downfall of Camelot.”
The king continues to stare at the body, as if unable to bring himself to believe the truth. Finally, when his gaze does lift, it is not to focus on his son but on Merlin. “And how does your manservant fit in to all of this?”
Merlin drops his eyes in the hope that he appears properly subservient.
“It is easier to accuse a servant than a prince,” Arthur explains. “She must have known I would reward Merlin’s loyalty with my own.”
The king’s attention shifts to his son. “And yet again, you would sacrifice your life for that of a servant?”
Arthur flips the cape back into place over Nimueh’s body and stands. “I never had the intention of sacrificing anything, sire.”
During the ensuing silence between them, Merlin finds himself holding his breath. It is plainly obvious that Uther is not convinced of Merlin’s innocence. Arthur had explained as they had carried Nimueh’s body from the Isle that they would have to rely on Uther’s pleasure at ridding Camelot of such a dangerous foe to override the accusation of magic against Merlin. He had been dubious as to the feasibility of Arthur’s plan, and even now he can feel the king’s heavy gaze upon him once more, quiet and considering.
Slowly, the king straightens, his eyes remaining on Merlin an indeterminable amount of time before his attention returns to Arthur. “This is a day of celebration,” he says, reaching out to lay a hand on his son’s shoulder. “You have done well, Arthur, for magic users shall always be Camelot’s most dire of foes.”
“Yes, Father,” Arthur bows his head slightly in acknowledgement of Uther’s words.
The king turns abruptly, moving back toward his horse. Arthur motions toward Geraint to return Nimueh’s body to the mare. Before he turns away, he catches Merlin’s gaze again, offering the barest hint of a smile.
“We return to Camelot!” the king announces from atop his destrier. “There we will light a pyre upon which this witch shall burn for all to see, bearing witness that Camelot once again has brought an end to evil!”
Uther’s knights shout in triumph as the king spins his mount around and disappears into the forest. If there are secretive smiles exchanged by those left behind in Arthur’s party, they pass without notice.
When they ride through the gates of Camelot, the townsfolk line the road to watch the procession of knights, a sight rarely seen unless in time of war. Arthur is grateful that he is riding at the head of the columns alongside his father, as is befitting for the Crown Prince of Camelot. He knows very well that things could be different; he could have returned to his home in chains.
Little was spoken between him and his father during the long ride back. He was asked about his wounds, and how it was that they were able to locate the witch’s hideout. Arthur answered that she had guided them – her arrogance in her power so great that she did not believe she could be defeated. The king seemed to accept the explanation, though Arthur finds himself wondering if his father is not willing to accept anything at the moment, so long as the sorceress is dead.
When they reach the keep, Morgana is on the steps, awaiting their arrival. She smirks at Arthur as he dismounts, and steps up to him. For a brief moment, he thinks she is going to hug him, but then she just raises one dark eyebrow and remarks, “Pity. I rather thought spending a few weeks in the dungeon would have been good for you.”
“Your concern for my well-being touches me greatly, Morgana.”
Her smile grows and she lays a hand against his arm briefly before turning and gracefully moving back up the steps into the castle. Arthur remains beside his mount, watching as the knights pull Nimueh’s body from the mare, his father barking orders to prepare a pyre and send out word to the townsfolk that there will be celebration in Camelot tonight. Glancing over his shoulder, he spies Kay pressing through the throng of knights, Merlin hovering behind him, his eyes not straying from the knights as they bear the body of the sorceress away. Arthur wonders what he is feeling, knowing that while he is certain Merlin shares his pleasure that the threat from Nimueh is – hopefully this time – over, he does not think it can be easy to watch such joy over the death of one of your own kind.
He starts in their direction when he hears his father call out to him, “Arthur, I would speak with you.”
Arthur pauses, wanting to decline – his shoulder hurts and he finds himself wanting to take comfort in Merlin’s presence. Looking ahead, he finds Merlin watching him, and when their eyes meet he nods once as if to say ‘I’ll be waiting’. Arthur knows that the upcoming confrontation with his father cannot be avoided, so he gives Merlin one last lingering look before turning and heading up into the castle with the king.
“Does your shoulder pain you much?” Uther asks as they enter the Great Hall, which is blessedly empty of any courtiers.
“No,” Arthur lies. “It will keep.”
“Good.” His father tosses his mantle over a chair. He picks up a pitcher and goblet. “Wine?”
“No, thank you.” Arthur hovers on the opposite side of the table as his father pours his own glass and then sips at it, staring at Arthur over the rim. He waits as patiently as he can, hands resting on the back of a chair where his fingers flex occasionally with his restlessness.
“Your knights have shown outstanding loyalty to you.”
Arthur shrugs. “They are loyal to Camelot, first and foremost. No one wishes to see discord between us, Father.” He pauses, and then adds, “Least of all me.”
Uther takes another sip of his wine, watching Arthur as if attempting to divine the truth of his words. He remarks, “And yet, when it comes to that boy, you continue to defy me at every turn.”
“Merlin’s loyalty to me has been unwavering. He would gladly give his life for me. I see no reason that I should not be willing to do the same.”
“He is one of your subjects, Arthur!” Uther reminds him. “It is right that he lay down his life for you. The same cannot be said of you – one day you will be king. You took a great risk.” His eyes drop to the goblet in his hand as he seems to consider his next words. “A foolish risk, most would say, especially for the life of a servant.”
Arthur refrains from continuing to rise to the bait. This is not about Merlin.
Instead, he nods and turns to pace slowly along the length of the table. “I have been… thinking. Ever since I learned the truth of my birth, I feel as if my eyes have been opened to things I never truly understand before. I grew up believing in the words you told me – that magic was evil and that magic users must pay for their sins.”
“And now you have witnessed firsthand what such people are capable of.”
“Perhaps,” Arthur concedes, looking over at his father. “But I cannot help but believe that there must be more to it. After all, you went to this sorceress; you asked her to perform magic in order to give you an heir.” A scowl darkens Uther’s visage but Arthur continues, “Does that not mean you once looked upon magic, and those who use magic, with favour?”
The king sets his goblet down on the table with a loud clank. “My eyes were opened to the evil of magic! Your mother gave her life –”
“Do not bring my mother into this!” Arthur interrupts. “This is about you, Father. This is about the fact that your grief has clouds your judgment. I know you loved mother, and I’m sorry that she was taken from you when there should have only been happiness, but how many more need pay with their lives for your mistake?”
His father looks away, expression growing momentarily distant as if he is remembering another time. After a moment, he says quietly, “You were never a mistake, Arthur. I did not mean those things I said to you.”
Arthur wants the apology to mean something. He wants things to be better between them. He feels himself grasping for the proverbial olive branch his father has extended but finds that deep down, he doesn’t trust it. He loves his father as a son should, but he will never understand him or his motivations. He will never agree with him. And he finds he cannot respect him, can no longer look upon him as a great king. More than anything, he does not want to become the man he sees standing before him, filled with regrets and haunted by a past he will never be able to escape.
Does his father love him? Arthur believes he does without a doubt. But he has learned that his father’s love has a price. Were he to have truly been capable of using magic that love would clearly be forgotten, and Arthur would be just another example to the subjects of Camelot.
“I know, Father,” Arthur says after a moment when he realises Uther is waiting for a response. “Consider it forgotten.”
Uther offers him a tight smile, and waves a hand toward him as if the conversation is finished. “Go and have Gaius tend to your wound.”
Offering a bow, Arthur turns to leave.
“By the way, Arthur… ”
He stops, glancing over his shoulder at the king.
“Nimueh never owned a book of magic,” he tells him, gaze intent on his son.
Arthur would be a fool not to catch the hint of warning in his voice. He responds, “She must have taken it from one of the many sorcerers you killed over the years.”
There is a tick in his father’s jaw as it clenches. Silence ensues, and just when Arthur believes the conversation to finally be at an end, the king says quietly, “I will be watching him, Arthur. You may have succeeded in saving him this once, but I caution you, it shan’t happen again.”
Anger sweeps through Arthur with his father’s warning. The continued danger to Merlin as long as he remains in Camelot is clear. Unfortunately, the only way that Arthur will allow Merlin to leave is with him at his side, and Arthur isn’t going to give up his kingdom. He is not going to leave his people alone to survive throughout his father’s continued apparent descent into madness.
He will fight for Camelot. And he will fight for Merlin.
Though he had initially had no intention of bringing it up, Arthur finds himself casually remarking, “Do you know, Sir Kay carried interesting news with him on his return. Apparently, King Bayard has been deposed from the throne… by his own son.”
Uther’s gaze narrows across the table. “Is that a threat, Arthur?”
“I have no wish to be king, sire,” Arthur tells him truthfully. ”Not yet. But I also no longer have any doubt in my ability to do so… if the need should arise.”
Arthur lingers for a moment longer, allowing his words and admonition to sink in. He is surprised when he sees something very like respect flicker briefly in his father’s eyes. Then, without another word, the king turns and walks away.
Merlin is pacing in Arthur’s chambers, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides as he glances toward the door, paces across the room, and glances toward the door once more. Three hours it has been since they returned to Camelot and Uther requested that Arthur accompany him to speak in private. Three hours since Merlin had watched them disappear into the keep together, little more than a brief glance from Arthur in his direction, and then Merlin was alone, wondering what their Fates would ultimately be. Three hours ago, and Sir Kay had clapped him on the shoulder as the knights dispersed, giving him a reassuring wink; Sir Gawain had nodded in his direction, and the others had all appeared silently supporting, Dagonet even commenting that he would write a song about their adventure.
He had gone directly to Gaius, receiving both a hug and a cuff upside the head for what he had done, and when he had offered to tell the tale, Gaius had waved him to silence.
“This is one time I’d rather not know,” the physician informed him with a fond smile.
Merlin had been relieved.
When he finally escaped Gaius, Merlin hoped to find Arthur waiting in his chambers, but they were unfortunately empty. He considered cleaning but he had done that when Arthur had been imprisoned, and his rooms had not changed since. There was some dust, so Merlin wiped at it absently, and then continued pacing.
He is pacing still. Outside he can hear the guards building the pyre to burn Nimueh’s body. He tries not to listen because he has not decided yet how he feels. It is one thing to be pleased that an enemy will no longer bring strife to Camelot; it is quite another to actually celebrate the death of someone.
Especially when there is a nagging voice inside his head warning him that the Fates could decide to bring her back yet again. When Arthur had asked how it ended, Wrencan – he thinks that was her name – had said, “It does not end.” Merlin did not understand her choice of words any more than he had ever understood the Great Dragon, but he fears that it is wrapped up in their destiny – one which seems to include Nimueh’s eternal presence.
The door opens, pulling Merlin from his thoughts, relief flowing through him as Arthur steps into the room. “Where have you been?”
Arthur’s brow rises with apparent amusement, a smile appearing as he closes the door and leans back against it. “Impatient to see me, were you?”
Merlin rolls his eyes. He has not about to give him that kind of satisfaction. “Hardly. I was just beginning to worry that the king had thrown you back into the dungeon.” As Arthur’s smile wavers with his words, Merlin asks, “You weren’t with him all of this time, were you?”
“No. I stopped by the barracks to speak with my knights, to thank them for all that they risked. And then I went to see Gaius to have this,” he waves toward his shoulder, “looked at. He insisted on stitching it. That man is too old to be holding a needle.”
Smiling at the comment, Merlin steps up to him, pulling the material of his shirt aside. The damaged chain mail had been cast aside; Merlin makes a mental note to stop by the armoury in the morning to have a new, stronger set fashioned for Arthur. His fingers brush lightly over the fresh bandage. “Áwane sár… does that feel better?”
Arthur’s brow is furrowed but he nods. “Yes. Thank you.”
Not quite certain if he should broach the subject, Merlin hesitates a moment before asking, “How did it go with your father?”
Arthur does not answer immediately. He pushes away from the door, moving past Merlin over to the table where he seems to consider pouring himself some wine, and then changes his mind. Instead, he goes to the chair beside the fireplace, flopping into it bonelessly. Merlin follows after a moment, hovering at his side as Arthur rubs a hand over his eyes. It is not long before Merlin realises what Arthur cannot bring himself to say.
“The king still suspects me of magic.”
Arthur’s hand drops, and he looks up at Merlin. “Yes,” he says finally. “We have to remain vigilant. You must be careful whenever you are within the walls of Camelot.” He reaches out, grasping Merlin’s hand with his, pausing as he holds Merlin’s fingers, staring at them as if perhaps they are the sole source of the magic. “I need you to be careful, Merlin.”
“It’s been difficult lately,” he admits. “With just a thought, things happen. It’s as if… I have to actively think about not doing magic.” Pausing, his fingers tangle with Arthur’s and he adds, “When I’m with you it seems… better.”
“Are you saying I… repel your magic?” Arthur asks in disbelief.
Merlin smirks. “Most things are repelled by you, sire. Why should my magic be any different?”
Arthur drops his hand, crosses his arms over his chest and glares at Merlin.
“You know I’m joking… mostly.”
Merlin kneels beside the chair, leaning his chin on the arm of it. He lays his hand over Arthur’s thigh. Seconds later, Arthur’s fingers are moving through his hair. Merlin closes his eyes, treasuring the moment, and understanding deep in his heart that it will not always be like this. He has been so very fortunate so far, to have a prince who is willing to sacrifice so much for him, to care about and stand by him.
“One day the use of magic will no longer be considered a crime in Camelot,” Arthur says, breaking the silence. “And when that day comes, you will be at my side, Merlin.”
Opening his eyes, Merlin looks up at him. There is something in Arthur’s gaze, something different that had not been there in days past. Merlin thinks it makes him look older… kingly even.
“I cannot change my father’s prejudice,” he continues. “It is sorrow that drives him. He loved my mother very much, and no one can return to him what he lost.”
There is another long pause as Arthur’s fingers stray to Merlin’s cheek. He draws a breath and says quietly, “Never give me reason to become him.”
Merlin frowns, and shakes his head. “No, Arthur. I won’t. You know that.” When Arthur continues to stare at him, saying nothing, Merlin feels a momentary flash of guilt thread through him. “I was going to kill Nimueh… even though you asked me not to.” Quickly, he adds, “But I thought she’d hurt you! And that there was no other choice –“
“You must have faith in me, Merlin,” Arthur tells him. “Not only for us, but as your prince and future king.”
“I do. I always have, sire.” Merlin hopes that Arthur can hear the truth behind his words. He leans up, pressing their lips together, secretly relieved when Arthur’s hand comes up to cup the back of his head, pulling him closer.
Soon, Arthur rises from the chair, barely breaking their kiss, pulling Merlin along with him. He pushes Merlin’s jacket from his shoulders, tugs at his shirt. Always impatient and demanding, and Merlin knows he would not have it any other way. For all that Arthur’s churlishness irritates him, there is a good heart buried beneath it all that is worth putting up with the less-than-pleasant aspects of his personality. Merlin has seen it time and time again: saving the life of a young druid boy, his willingness to die to save the people of Camelot, sacrificing everything to protect his servant.
Merlin pulls back voicing his thoughts. “I can’t believe you were willing to die for me.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time.” Arthur shrugs in that arrogant way of his that causes Merlin to consider throwing him to the floor.
“Arthur, I –” He stops himself before he actually says that. Not because he does not truly feel it or because he feels uncomfortable saying it – mostly because he knows how Arthur will react.
Unfortunately, he has already said enough. A smug grin appears on Arthur’s face; he rolls his eyes and complains, “You are such a girl, Merlin!”
Merlin’s gaze narrows. “You keep saying that and one of these days it will be you who wakes up as a girl.”
“Is that a threat?” And then, “You think you can really do that?”
He shrugs; he doubts it is truly possible but there is no reason to let Arthur know that.
Shaking his head, Arthur begins pushing Merlin backwards, across the room until the back of his knees hit the bed and they fall onto it. Merlin squirms only a little as Arthur pins his arms above is head and leers down at him, a wicked look appearing in his gaze. He grinds his hips into Merlin’s, their growing cocks pressing together through their trousers, causing both to gasp.
“Even if you could, you would not do so,” Arthur taunts. “You like me just the way I am.”
“I barely tolerate you.”
“Oh, is that what you meant to say – ‘Arthur, I… barely tolerate you’?”
“All right, that’s it!” Merlin warns before he begins, “Forhwierfest –“
The words of the spell (he would not really going to turn Arthur into a girl – just make him sleep for a bit and wake up thinking he might have been a girl) are cut off though, as Arthur’s mouth descends over his. The kiss is rough and bruising at first, with Arthur clearly doing his best to mark his domination, and Merlin more than happy to let him do so. He does not attempt to draw away as Arthur’s mouth plunders his own, licking into his mouth, tongues colliding, and Merlin cannot help but feel a wave of possessiveness sweep through him.
He thinks, He’s mine.
When they are both breathless and aching with need, Arthur ends the kiss, resting his forehead against Merlin’s. He holds his gaze for a long silent moment, hands finally releasing his wrists to slide between their bodies, pressing beneath Merlin’s shirt, pulling it up and over his head. He absolutely does not make a needy sound as Arthur’s fingers return to skim across his stomach. Reaching up, Merlin curls his fingers into blond hair and tugs in an attempt for another kiss but instead, Arthur draws back and smiles at him.
“You never need say what I already know, Merlin.”
Merlin is a little surprised that Arthur’s tone lacks the arrogance he was expecting. “And what if I want to?”
“Then you do so with the full knowledge that I shall tease you mercilessly for all the days of our lives.”
He snorts. “You’re such a prat, Arthur.”
“Perhaps.” Grinning, Arthur rolls onto his back, pulling Merlin with him. “At least I’m not a girl.”
Merlin rolls his eyes, and decides to turn the tables, teasing, “But you love me anyway.”
“Yes I do.”
It takes a long moment for Merlin to realise what Arthur has just admitted to. Once it hits him, his eyes narrow and he gazes at his prince with a mixture of ridiculous pleasure, and undeniable annoyance.
“I really hate you, Arthur Pendragon.”
Arthur smirks and leans up, kissing him once. “I think we have already established that is clearly not the case.”
Wefan stares down into the scrying pool, watching as Viviane shimmers against the backdrop of her new home. “Do you believe she will meet her destiny in this life?”
“I believe she understands,” Gewiss nods as she steps up beside her sister. “She has been and always will be there for Camelot’s downfall. She will be here to witness magic returned to the realm.”
“Revenge still resides in her heart,” Wrencan whispers sadly. “She waits eagerly for the day when she will bear the king’s body away from his warlock.”
Gewiss shrugs. “This is their Fate.”
A smile appears on Wefan’s lips, and she reaches out to skim her fingers over the surface of the black water. The image wavers and shifts and the Lady of the Lake is replaced with both prince and sorcerer. The setting is like none in all of existence; their clothing not like any yet conceived.
“And yet, their time shall come again... and again...”
Old English Modern English
Bærne - To set to flame;
Swefe - To put to sleep;
Áwane Sár - To lessen, diminish;
Gesamne - Gather, collect;
Aliesan - Release;
Clústor - Lock, barrier, cell;
Beflíehe - To skin, flay;
Wrencan - To spin;
Wefan - To Weave;
Gewiss - Inevitability/Certainty;
A’stíeren - Continuously guide a vessel;
Randgebeorh - A protection such as that afforded by a shield;
Liðest - Unloose, release;
Dústswearm - A cloud of dust;
Onswæpe - To blow on, sweep away;
Fýrcynn trinda - Fire ball;
Scildburg - A covering shed, shelter so called formed of the shields of the soldiers held over their heads;
Ic béo eftborenu - I am reborn;
Forhwierfest - Transform, change;
Ic lácne - I heal, cure, dress a wound;
Ic bête - I mend, restore;
Séo bræd - Flesh;
Gebarn - Burned;
Hælbære - Heal, make whole;
Ic gebreade - I regenerate, restore the flesh or body;
Gewéest - To bend, twist;
Þu oflinnest - To cease, stop;
Heortscræf - Heart;
Ádíedest - Put to death, destroy, kill;
Slegeu - A bar, beam, pillar;
Wé ácíege ðu, Nimueh! Eftcyme fram díegol ond æfnest úre géosceaft! Onwæcan, Nimueh! Eftcyme æt þý hwearft ond befylgest þý síþfæt ácorena be sé Burgrún! Onwæcan, Nimueh! Onwæcan! - We summon you, Nimueh! Return from the grave and carry out/endure your destiny! Awaken/Arise, Nimueh! Return to the circle/revolution and follow/pursue the path/journey chosen by the Fates! Awaken/Arise, Nimueh! Awaken/Arise!