There are two people without whom this story would not exist. Seperis was the original catalyst of the idea in a conversation in her LJ, and was my sole cheerleader and audience for the first thirty pages or so. She constantly reassured me that I was on the right path right up until the end, and without her, I wouldn't have had the courage to sign up for this challenge.
Chaosraven provided tireless support and motivation in actually turning a rough outline into a finished story, providing research assistance as well as able and adept beta-reading. This includes an all-night fine-tooth-comb editing session to get this story completed in time for the deadline. This story would not exist without her endless prodding, scolding, encouragement, and keen eye for detail.
I'm eternally grateful to both of them, and all errors that remain are most definitely my own.
My map for the geography of Cornwall is here. For the purposes of this story, I assumed Camelot was somewhere in the vicinity of Kellington, Mercia stood to the north of Camelot and Druid lands were a rough crescent along the western shore, running from Tintagel in the northwest to Warleggen in the south.
A note for the interested regarding names: Warleggen is the modern spelling of Warligon (as seen on the map), but I liked the modern spelling better. Ashgillian is actually a geologic epoch, located within the upper Orodovician period; I just liked the sound. [grin] Brydain came from a list of Welsh names, but I later discovered that Iddawg Cordd Brydain is an Arthurian hero-figure.
I should note that this story is about as historically accurate as the show--which is to say, not much. Given that, I did try to keep things as accurate as I could without trying to write a thesis on Druidism, ancient Welsh, Cornish, Anglo-Roman, and Celtic cultural practices, the Arthurian legend cycles, homoerotic love in ancient times, and medieval warfare. Please forgive all errors.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Table of Contents
It all started, Merlin realized later, when Aelfric arrived.
"The formal coat," Arthur said, fiddling with a knife and a whetstone while Merlin laid out the clothes on the bed. He looked restless, irritable. "No, not that one. The other--Merlin! The other formal coat."
"This is the other formal coat," Merlin said indignantly, and waved it at Arthur. "Right here, this is it."
"The other other coat, then," Arthur said. "With the silver buttons."
Merlin sighed and laid out the coat he was holding. "You don't have it anymore."
Arthur sat up straight. "What? What are you talking about? That was my favorite."
"I know it was," Merlin said patiently, "which is why you were wearing it when Sir Bleoberis and Sir Arrok got into that fistfight last week and they accidentally knocked you over into the table and it ended up covered with parsley sauce and melted cheese and three different kinds of fish and a jugful of red wine, and oddly when a coat is covered with fish and wine and parsley it generally doesn't go so well for the coat."
Arthur scowled at him.
"I saved the buttons," Merlin added dryly, "if it makes you feel any better."
"Oh, vastly," Arthur said sarcastically, and sighed. "Fine. The other formal coat then--no, not that one, the first one. With the brass."
Merlin resisted the urge to throw the coat at his head, and added it to the pile.
"Who is this man, anyway," he said, as he picked up Arthur's coronet and a rag and began to polish it. Arthur sighed and scraped the knife across the oiled whetstone once.
"Baron Aelfric," he said, "one of my father's oldest friends. His closest ally, actually, back when he was consolidating his hold on Camelot. His son is to be wed at court on Midwinter's Eve, so he is coming to visit."
"Hence the banquet," Merlin said, polishing without any particular diligence.
"Hence the banquet." Arthur threw a glove at him, hitting him on the shoulder, and Merlin yanked his head up.
"Polish harder," Arthur sighed. "I guarantee my father will notice if I do not look appropriately ceremonial. And I will blame you. How long has it been since your last visit to the stocks?" He quirked a grin at Merlin, who rolled his eyes, very obviously.
"Prat," Merlin muttered under his breath, not very quietly at all, and rubbed a little harder at the brass.
Arthur threw the other glove at him, hitting him in the side of the head. Merlin refrained from throwing it into the fire, but only because he didn't want to hear Arthur whine about it all evening.
Over the months, Merlin had been to his fair share of royal banquets, and he knew the usual protocol by heart. Everyone filed in to be seated at the lower tables, while Arthur and Uther and Morgana were seated last at the high table, Arthur at his father's right hand and Morgana at Uther's left. Once they were all sitting, Uther would stand up and make a small speech, or offer a toast. Sometimes other people would make toasts. Sometimes a lot of toasts. And then the first course would be brought in, usually already cold.
Depending on the formality of the banquet, each course might be interrupted with more toasts, or minstrels or displays of juggling or other random entertainments, all of which would be painfully awful as everyone was always too nervous to perform well in front of the king. There would be at least three courses and more usually five or six; on Beltane, which Merlin still had nightmares about, there had been eleven. His job, so far as he could tell, was to do everything for Arthur except actually eat his food for him; he had to refill his goblet whenever it went low, cut small bite-sized portions off of the serving platters to go on Arthur's plate, even hold a bowl of water for him to wash his fingers in afterwards.
Arthur hated formal banquets. They were painfully public; Arthur, Merlin had been startled to discover during his first few days of serving, was at heart a deeply private person, regardless of the confident and charming way he played his public role. Also, sitting next to his father for four or five hours, subject to his father's idea of constructive criticism of everything Arthur did, said, and was, usually left him in a terrible mood for the rest of the night--sometimes for several days afterward.
So, because Arthur hated them so much, Merlin didn't exactly love banquets either. But, with the exception of the infrequent appearance of various malevolent magical attacks, they were tolerable and the repetition could be rather soothing.
This one, though, wasn't exactly what Merlin was expecting.
First of all, Uther seated Aelfric on his right, at the place of honor, with Morgana in the next seat over. Arthur was moved to sit on his father's left hand, which made Merlin almost trip over his own feet in shock, too busy staring in disbelief to look where he was going. Merlin was no expert on royal banquet protocol, but this didn't feel right.
Arthur didn't hint by word or look that he found anything out of place, but by the clenching of his jaw when he took his seat, Merlin was pretty sure that there would be some broken crockery later that evening. From the reactions of the court, they were almost as surprised as Merlin was; there was a loud whispering that started when Aelfric was seated, and it didn't fully go away even after Uther stood to give the toast.
Second, Uther spent almost the entire meal talking to no one but Aelfric. They traded stories of old raids and argued over who had shot the most arrows into a target at some tournament that had probably been held five years before Arthur was born. Uther even mentioned Igraine, something Merlin had never heard him do in public, and he saw Morgana nearly drop her knife in shock.
Merlin filled Arthur's plate as the courses came out and filled his goblet as it emptied--which happened a little more rapidly than normal, but only a little; Arthur's control was too good for such an obvious sign of displeasure to show through--and tried otherwise to make himself invisible against the wall. Arthur, who would normally spend half the banquet muttering pained asides to Merlin who would then have to figure out a way to not go purple with suppressed laughter, said almost nothing.
And finally, it seemed that Aelfric had some sort of mischievous urge to tease Uther about Arthur--and he did so frequently.
"I must say, Uther," he said loudly, towards the end of the feast, his blank-faced manservant filling his goblet for the--twelfth?--time, "I'm impressed with your boy. We have heard stories of his prowess and skill on the field, and his bravery. You must be very proud."
"I am," Uther said, glancing at Arthur, who tipped his head in polite acknowledgement of the praise. "He's a proven warrior, indeed. He has vanquished many of Camelot's enemies."
"Vanquished too many, mayhap." Aelfric laughed, and drank deeply. "A man such as he is--famous Prince Arthur, even far from Camelot they know his name--many a king would fear such a son." He belched. "It does you credit that you do not."
Merlin almost missed Uther's slight twitch, but it abruptly made his skin crawl.
"Arthur is my son," Uther said, pleasantly, "of course I trust him implicitly."
Aelfric gripped his hand and smiled. "Of course," he said sincerely. "I admire that you are so close. Fathers and sons should always be so." He waved a genial hand towards Arthur. "You're a good man, Arthur," he said. "See that you are worthy of following the great man that is your father."
"He is indeed a great man, Lord Aelfric. I strive to emulate his example every day," Arthur said smoothly, giving a short dip of the head to both Uther and Aelfric. "Camelot owes a great debt to him." Uther looked pleased. Aelfric looked momentarily disappointed, and then smiled broadly.
"An excellent answer," he said, warmly, "and well-spoken. Your loyalty to your father is admirable."
Merlin eyed Aelfric. He really didn't like the man. And all this talk about loyalty and following his father was beginning to sound a little...strange.
"Father," Arthur said quietly, leaning over to his father, "With your permission, I would seek to retire. I'm leading a patrol to the Glawenneg hill fort tomorrow, and we ride before dawn."
"Of course," Uther said, and waved a gracious hand. Arthur stood, letting Merlin pull his chair back for him without actually appearing to notice his existence, and bowed to the king, to Aelfric, and--rather mockingly--to Morgana, who smirked at him. Then he left, cloak sweeping out behind him, Merlin following in his wake.
"Well," Merlin said once they were well away from the great hall, safely out of earshot of any servants. "So that was Lord Aelfric."
Arthur glanced at him, and there was a warning in his look not to press. "Yes?"
"Nothing," Merlin said quickly, and on the spot resolved to take a quick peek around Aelfric's rooms the next day while Arthur was gone. He dropped back behind Arthur, already planning. Arthur would be gone by sunrise, and Uther might want to take Aelfric out as well, maybe just a short hunt near the castle. He'd get his chance then.
"Creep," he muttered quietly, and then stiffened because he hadn't meant to say that. Arthur never permitted anyone to offer the slightest disrespect his father or his father's decisions, no matter his own opinion of them. Merlin was no exception to that. He was already bracing himself for Arthur's anger when Arthur turned and glared at him blackly. "Sorry, Arthur," he said quietly, wincing.
"Lord Aelfric is my father's closest friend, and a baron in this kingdom. You will grant him the respect due his rank, do you understand? I will never hear you say such a thing again," Arthur said grimly, and Merlin nodded, apologetically. "You will spend two hours in the stocks, tomorrow."
Merlin sighed. Tomorrow was market day, which meant more people than usual and fresher vegetables. "Yes, sire. Sorry, sire," he added sincerely. If Arthur suspected that Merlin was actually apologizing for saying it where Arthur had to hear and discipline him for it, he didn't show it. Much.
"But he is," Merlin added, under his breath, softly enough that Arthur could pretend not to hear him. Arthur's expression didn't change, but he coughed, just slightly, and Merlin grinned down at the floor.
A minute later, Arthur sighed, and touched his shoulder, a little apologetically. Merlin lifted his face to grin at him, and Arthur grinned back, a touch sheepishly.
"Bring out the chessboard," Arthur said, when they got back into his rooms. "I don't want to go to bed just yet."
"Don't you have an early ride?" Merlin said, opening the small chest with the board and pieces and beginning to set them up.
"That's none of your concern." Arthur dropped into his chair. "Call for wine, and something to eat." He propped his elbow on one arm and stared moodily at the table. "I'm still hungry."
"Uh huh," Merlin muttered, as he went to the door. It was going to be one of those nights. The moon was already well up, and there were probably only a few hours before Arthur left on patrol. If he planned to spend the rest of the night drinking and gaming, he'd be unbearable by morning. "Food at the feast not to your taste?" he asked blandly, throwing open the latch. Arthur snorted.
The chambermaid passing in the halls gave Merlin a surprised look when he asked for a wineskin and some bread and cheese and smoked meat, but she hurried away quickly enough. Merlin shut the door, and Arthur gave him a look that, if he wasn't a prat and a prince, might have been an apology.
"White or black?" Merlin said, to spare him from actually having to say it, something he was more willing to do after Arthur sat up and looked with more interest at the board as though seeing it for the first time.
"Black," Arthur decided eventually, and Merlin grinned. He only ever won if Arthur played black. Sometimes he suspected that Arthur did it on purpose.
"What on earth are you doing there again?" Gaius said, stopping by Merlin, who was covered in rotten turnip and shifting from foot to foot to try and relieve his aching back. "What did you do this time?"
"Oh, you know," Merlin said airily, because telling the truth, despite what everyone said, was overrated. "I, um. Dropped something. Breakable something. And it broke."
"Merlin," Gaius sighed, "you really need to be more careful."
"I will be," Merlin promised. He shook his head, and a fly that had been trying to crawl in his ear buzzed away. "I swear. Really."
Gaius sighed a long-suffering sigh, and wandered off. Merlin eyed a small girl who had just trotted up, carrying an enormous lidded basket.
"Hi, there," he said, smiling, and hoped it wasn't apples. Apples hurt.
She gave him a gap-toothed smile and opened her basket. Inside was something leafy and wilty. Cabbage. He could live with cabbage.
Arthur was gone for three days, during which time Merlin spent most of the time working for Gaius, running errands around the castle, and making quick trips to the herb gardens and the forest for fresh supplies. He didn't mind so much--it gave him a chance to get out in the fresh air, which wasn't always the case when he was attending someone who spent half his waking hours in armor and training in the salle. Plus, it gave him the chance to catch up on the latest gossip.
And it turned out that the entire castle was buzzing about the new arrival.
"His daughter-to-be's a love," one of the seamstresses said, an old woman named Morwann, "but he's a bit, well. A bit impatient. Wanted his good linen mended right then and there, for the banquet, and had poor Clovis--she's that new girl, you know, Maeve's youngest--anyway, Clovis was whipped for it." Merlin nodded thoughtfully and picked up the bundle of Arthur's mending. He'd discovered that his tasks for Arthur grew immeasurably easier--and less likely to get him executed--when he enlisted the help of others to finish them. Arthur might have complained, but he'd been so pleased to see his tunics and hose being mended with almost invisible stitches that he hadn't made a fuss. Merlin kissed her cheek, and let her swat him on the ass as he left.
The workers in the stables were all fascinated by Aelfric's horses--particularly, as it happened, a rare Spanish blooded stallion that rumor said was worth a prince's ransom, and a present to Uther. Merlin looked in on it once, and it tried to bite him. After that, he kept away. Uther and Aelfric went riding together, though, according to the stableboys. Twice they had gone totally unaccompanied, not even by a groom.
The housekeeping staff were in a quiet uproar because Aelfric had brought his own staff with him, wooden-faced men and women who cleaned his rooms and fetched his food and linen from downstairs and did not mingle with anyone.
"I've seen them," one chambermaid confided, over a cup of ale in the late afternoon sun, "seen them wandering around. His servants. We've been told not to interfere, though, so they go where they like."
"Who told you?" Merlin asked, curious.
"Mistress Aldercy," she said, and Merlin frowned. Aldercy was the castellan, and took her orders directly from the steward, and through him, from Uther. Strange, that Uther would tolerate newcomers to move so freely inside the castle, with no constraints on them.
"Are they looking for anything, do you think?"
At this she flushed nervously. "Oh, I don't know," she said. "I mean, I'm not really sure," and she glanced around, fearfully, and leaned closer. "But I think they are. Snooping. I saw them, once, coming out of the court genealogist's chambers, and I know he wasn't in."
Well. That was interesting. "Thank you," Merlin said gratefully, for the risk she was taking as much for the information, and she bobbed quickly and hurried off, leaving Merlin to finish his supper in quiet thought.
That night, he volunteered to help serve in the hall. The cook didn't argue, just put a platter in his hands and sent him straight out, and Merlin offered food and poured wine and kept his ears sharply open. Uther and Aelfric seemed to be chatting again, loud laughter and shouts and good-natured arguing, but they were too far away for Merlin to hear anything.
A server caught his arm, jerked his head toward the high table. "They're short--Sir Abelard says you're to wait on the ladies," he said, because Merlin was one of the few servants who was actually trained for the high table. Merlin didn't argue.
"Uther," Aelfric was saying, as he poured well-watered wine for Morgana and for Allis, the woman betrothed to Aelfric's son, who joined them at the high table this evening. Her affianced, Cynric, sat where Arthur had sat the night before, and Merlin had to fight to keep his expression neutral. The entire hall was buzzing with almost inaudible whispers, that Uther seemed to be entirely oblivious to. "I cannot thank you enough for your gracious hospitality in seeing my son wed at your magnificent court."
"I am honored," Uther said, smiling, "I consider your family as close as my own, my old friend."
Aelfric smiled, a flash of something in his eyes that was gone almost immediately, and Merlin looked down at the floor to keep himself from reacting. The sense of foreboding doubled, leaving an uneasy restlessness behind. He fidgeted, and couldn't quite make himself stop.
The next day, Merlin surprised someone coming out of Gaius' chambers while he was away getting breakfast and Gaius was attending the morning council.
"Er, excuse me," he said, politely, through gritted teeth.
The woman gave him an indifferent look, dipped a courtesy that contained no hint of actual respect, and walked away.
Merlin went inside, locked and bolted the door, and went straight to his room. Thankfully, the loose board was undisturbed--possibly, Merlin thought with chagrin, because a large pile of dirty linen was on top of it. He'd been meaning to take it to the laundresses, but he kept forgetting.
Just the act of opening the book always served to soothe him, the feel of the parchment and the slightly raised inks of the text. It had obviously been sewn together haphazardly, quires of pages falling out where the original stitching was failing, but the boards were still sound, and he flipped pages carefully as he browsed. He knew he'd seen something in here that...
Ah. This. He cleared his throat, eyed the words on the page, then held out a hand toward a tunic draped across the foot of the bed. "Dirgelaeth nyni."
The tunic remained serenely as it was. Merlin scowled at it, and shifted himself into a more comfortable position on the bed. It was going to be one of those spells.
It took an hour before Merlin could get the tunic to obligingly disappear, and two hours after that to get the enchantment to stick even when he wasn't consciously thinking about it. He then disappeared a shirt, the book, his window, his bed, and one very startled sparrow that had flown into his room through the invisible window, if the nervous cheeps coming from thin air were any indication. Then he started to think about other applications.
When Gaius came back in after council, Merlin muttered the spell at the first creak of the door, then stood by the table, trying to breathe quietly. Gaius put down some books on one of the benches, picked up a flask and studied the contents critically, and jumped and yelped and threw the flask at the wall when Merlin let the spell drop and stepped out of hiding.
"I don't want to know why you're practicing this, do I?" he asked dourly, after Merlin had apologized seventeen times and also had helped pick up the broken pottery and mop up a truly hideous green slimy mess that Gaius said was perfect for boils, and also for curing the stupidity of incompetent amateur wizards who needed to be thumped across the ear until they learned proper decorum.
"Probably not," Merlin said sheepishly. "So that means I shouldn't tell you, yeah?" Gaius rolled his eyes, and proceeded to keep him busy the rest of the day processing dried herbs into powders and tinctures, and then copying out a truly ancient herbal in awful spidery Latin which, as far as Merlin could tell, was completely and utterly pointless since all the information was wrong anyway.
Arthur came back the next day, and Gaius reluctantly let Merlin leave his chambers. "And please, Merlin," he said wearily, as Merlin headed out the door, "please do try to be careful."
"What do you mean? I'm always careful," Merlin protested, and then hastily closed the door behind him before he found out if Gaius could actually kill him with a look.
He didn't quite have the courage to spy on Uther, but he practiced it around the castle for a couple weeks. Over the course of this experimentation, he learned two valuable things.
The first was that, without repeating the charm several times, it tended to wear off of him after about ten minutes. Merlin thought that maybe it was because he was alive, but he couldn't be sure without testing. Unfortunately, the only person he could really test it on was Gaius, and Gaius had declared that whatever Merlin was doing, he would take no part in it. In any case, it took three separate incidents of interrupting servants coupling in the back storeroom where the cook never went before he finally grudgingly accepted that it wasn't just a flaw in his technique but in the spell itself.
The second was that Aelfric had an army.
He picked up the sheet of parchment from Aelfric's desk, written with close-packed figures in a very poor hand on both sides. Aelfric's hand, without question; a scribe would be more elegant and even, and this was narrow and cramped. He was muttering his concealment spell under his breath, but he wasn't worried about being discovered particularly. Aelfric was hawking with Uther that afternoon, and Arthur was overseeing archery practice, with half of Aelfric's spies in attendance; it was the first chance he'd had to get into Aelfric's rooms and look around.
Part of it appeared to be coded, but Merlin had seen enough reports through Arthur to know what army records looked like; the lists of men, weapons, and supplies; the names of knights and their households. Merlin added up the numbers, as best he could, and felt something twist in his stomach uneasily.
Aelfric's barony was very prosperous; it was perhaps the most prosperous in the kingdom, which was probably why it had been granted to him, but there was no way that it could support this many knights, this many soldiers, on it's own. Nor would it need to, unless his barony was absolutely overrun with bandits, and at war to boot. But if that was the case, it would be well known, and Uther would have sent his own men out to supplement Aelfric's soldiers to defeat them. Uther would never tolerate a baron within his kingdom with this level of military might at his disposal, not even Aelfric; it would be too great a threat to his own rule and authority.
Which meant that this army was being raised for another purpose.
And Uther didn't--couldn't--know of it.
Merlin glanced quickly over the rest of the papers. All seemed in order, except for a letter, unsealed and the creases soft from wear, from a man Merlin didn't know. It seemed innocuous, perfectly innocent, discussing things like cattle and crops, and the weather that was being predicted by village wisewomen for the winter, and something about a colt that was being broken, but there was something odd about it. He couldn't quite make it out, though, and he was running out of time. The sky was growing cloudy and fitful and dark, and they would risk losing their hawk if they hunted too much longer. They'd come back soon.
Merlin found a sheet of parchment, and hoped that it wouldn't be missed. Carefully, he made copies of the army report and the letter both, and stuffed the parchment into his tunic. He replaced everything as it had been as best he could, and then slipped out the door into the corridor. He made his way back to his room without being seen, and collapsed on his bed, trying to think clearly.
He couldn't tell Arthur. For one thing, there was nothing to tell. He was clearly in the wrong--if he admitted he'd broken into Aelfric's rooms, he'd be thrown into the dungeons for a few days at best, and flogged at worst. If Merlin admitted he'd deliberately gone through Aelfric's papers, he might actually be executed. It wouldn't matter what he'd found.
And there really was little enough evidence to prove his case. The report was partially coded, and Aelfric could argue that it was really describing some other thing. The letter was useless until he could figure out what it was saying in such a carefully bland way.
He hid the paper with the magic book, and then lay there in thought for a long time until a servant came to summon him to Arthur's side to prepare for supper.
"How exactly is succession determined?" Merlin balanced a stack of worm-eaten wood in his arms and tried to look only mildly interested.
He'd been working on unraveling Aelfric's letter for two weeks now, and was no closer to deciphering it than the day he'd discovered it. He'd cast every revealing spell he could find, trying to get the coded language to make itself known--because he was sure it was a code, it had to be--but nothing had worked. One thing he was fairly certain about, though--the "colt" that was being broken was almost surely Arthur, given Aelfric's thinly-veiled barbs. Aelfric clearly meant something by them, and the only thing he could think of was to somehow discredit Arthur with his father. Which had led Merlin to wonder about what would happen if the line of succession was broken.
Geoffrey looked shocked. "That is no business of yours," he said sternly, and pointed Merlin at the door. "Take the wood to the kitchens, advise them it's available for burning. After that," he said quellingly, "you may return to Gaius. I have no further need of you."
Merlin sighed. He'd spent the last four hours helping the court librarian clean out a section of bookworm-infested shelves so that new shelves could be installed, in an attempt to soften Geoffrey's normal impatience with anything that wasn't bound with leather covers. Now it seemed like the whole sweaty effort had been wasted.
He looked around the library, at the shelves and shelves of books, the piles of documents laying loose everywhere, the remarkable lack of organization, and sighed. Even if he snuck back in tonight, it could take hours to find the document he needed, if he ever did.
That meant that there was only one other person he could ask.
"Arthur?" Merlin asked, a week later, clearing away the supper dishes. Arthur always preferred to eat in his rooms, away from Morgana and the king, but lately he'd been doing so even when there were official banquets that would normally call for the presence of the prince.
Merlin couldn't really blame him--the royal banquets were becoming increasingly interminable, with Aelfric making polite comments that Merlin viewed with increasing suspicion. Some of them were casual, and some of them were more pointed, and some of them seemed to be genuinely curious. Taken one by one, they appeared to be only remarks and praise for Arthur's loyalty, on his readiness to rule, on his devotion to his father. But Merlin hadn't missed how each time Aelfric praised Arthur's devotion to the crown with such smooth delivery, such benevolence, Uther's look of dissatisfaction lasted just a little bit longer.
Merlin knew that Arthur had noticed, too. There was a tension in his shoulders almost all the time now, and Merlin couldn't make it stop. He'd tried, with banter and with massages and, one ill-fated time, by letting Arthur beat the hell out of him under the guise of "training". That had resulted in Merlin being bruised from shin to collarbone and calling Arthur every foul name under the sun, while Arthur lay flat on his back helpless with laughter at Merlin's complete incompetence with a sword and at Merlin calling him a "diseased kin to a whore-poxed rat", which Merlin had decided to call a half-victory. But nothing could make it go away for long.
The long and short of it was, Arthur had started taking his supper in his rooms rather than with the court. Merlin rather liked it because Arthur away from the massed nobility of Camelot had an earthy sense of humor and a far more casual attitude than Arthur, Crown Prince could ever have, so supper was a great deal more interesting and pleasant. However, he had a bad feeling that it also meant that Aelfric now had a free hand in the conversation at the high table.
Merlin had spent a week trying to think of a good way to phrase this, and failing, so he didn't try. "What is the rule of succession in Camelot?"
Arthur gave him a narrow look, and bit off the rear half of a marzipan unicorn with perhaps excessive zeal. "Why do you ask?" His voice was ominous, and Merlin sighed.
"Oh, no reason," Merlin tried without much conviction, and Arthur predictably rolled his eyes and gave him a shrewd a look, like he was trying to read Merlin's mind. Merlin tried to look harmlessly curious, but was pretty sure that Arthur was not convinced. He was also sure Arthur knew exactly why he was asking, and he waited with resignation for Arthur to order him off to the stocks again.
"Why don't you ask Geoffrey," Arthur said after a minute, and Merlin let out his breath in a whuff of surprise that he wasn't being told off outright.
"Er, well," he said, not quite sure how Arthur was going to react to this part.
Arthur put the unicorn down, fully focused on him now.
"You already asked Geoffrey," he said, without any surprise.
"He told me to go away," Merlin admitted, warily, and Arthur smiled, what looked like in spite of himself.
"And you won't tell me why you want to know, of course," he said. Merlin tried his best harmless expression. "Even though that information is held in reserve for the royal family and their most trusted advisors, and one of the most closely guarded secrets of the kingdom."
Merlin honestly couldn't think of anything to say to that. Arthur was looking at him with a penetrating stare that made him feel utterly transparent. There was a thoughtful silence that Merlin fought the urge to fill with babble, and waited tensely for Arthur's decision.
"Tell him that I've given you permission to know," Arthur said, eventually, picking the marzipan back up and looking away, and Merlin felt a warm sensation in his chest.
"Thank you," he said, "sire," he added quickly at Arthur's mock-severe look. "Thank you, sire. Er, more marzipan?" He offered the platter, a fantastical menagerie of animals. Arthur picked up a dragon and bit off it's head.
"You're welcome," Arthur said.
It was really amazing, Merlin reflected, watching Geoffrey bring him piece of parchment, carefully folded in thirds and thirds again and bound with a faded red linen tie, what having permission got you. He should think about trying to get it more often.
"Here," Geoffrey said, placing it in front of him carefully. Merlin heard the hint of disapproval.
"Thanks," Merlin said, undoing the tie and unfolding it gingerly. It looked old, the edges worn, the writing spiky and dark. "That's all I needed," he added helpfully, as Geoffrey continued to hover over him, frowning slightly.
Geoffrey's frown deepened, but he nodded curtly and stepped away. Merlin waited until he was back at his desk, staring pointedly in Merlin's direction, before smoothing the parchment flat on the table to read.
Ten minutes later, he folded the parchment back up mechanically, mind racing. As he'd expected, Arthur was Uther's heir, but what he hadn't expected was that the royal line didn't stop there. Uther had a few distant kin, although Merlin had never heard of them before now. If something happened to Arthur before he produced an heir, he would be succeeded by Uther's cousin and the cousin's offspring.
The cousin's name, recorded at the very bottom of the page, was Baron Aelfric.
Merlin handed Geoffrey back the neatly folded and bound packet, trying not to look disturbed. Inside, though, his mind was racing.
"Now," Arthur whispered, crouching behind Merlin and carefully adjusting Merlin's aim, "slowly pull the trigger--slowly--good, that's it," he said approvingly, as Merlin pulled on the trigger carefully. The bolt thudded into a tree, just above the patch of cloth Arthur had fixed as a target.
"Excellent," he said, stepping back. Merlin smiled proudly. "Another three or four years, and you might just be competent," Arthur continued, grinning. Merlin rolled his eyes. Around them, several huntsmen and gamekeepers waited with badly-concealed impatience. A pair of hounds strained at the leash, obviously smelling something to shoot at that was both far away and vastly more interesting than a tree.
All of them were standing well behind the pair, and had been ever since Arthur had announced that it was time Merlin overcame his appalling aim with a crossbow. Merlin might have been offended at the haste they'd shown to get out of the way, but considering that there were currently crossbow bolts in three trees, two logs, and the ground, but none in the target, he was willing to overlook the point.
"Your highness," one of the gamekeepers said, hinting with something remarkably unlike subtlety.
"Yes, yes, fine" Arthur said, and they mounted again, Merlin relinquishing Arthur's crossbow with a sigh of relief. Magic might be illegal, difficult, and dangerous, he decided, but at least he was good at it. Sort of. In a way.
The dogs turned out to be scenting a hart, and for two hours the small group tracked it, through some rough rocky terrain and across a marsh that almost unseated Merlin, and then through a flat, peaceful meadow that did unseat Merlin, although it was completely not his fault that his horse tripped over its own feet on level ground. He ignored Arthur's smirk with as much dignity as he could muster, and attempted to brush mud off of his trousers without much success.
They heard the drumming hooves long before they saw the messenger, riding up at a speed that was unsuited to the dense forest. They had just sighed the beast, Arthur was aiming his crossbow from horseback, when the hart startled and bolted. Arthur swore viciously. "Your highness," shouted the messenger, and Arthur turned, mouth open to speak. "Your highness, your father summons you--"
Arthur didn't hesitate, just wheeled his horse and spurred it. Merlin tried to turn around, but by the time he'd sorted out his reins and found a secure handhold, Arthur's horse was a ghost in the trees.
Luckily, his horse had been chosen because it was the kind of good-natured animal that didn't mind toes in its ribs, or a rider with as much finesse as a sack of grain hanging onto the mane for dear life, and when Merlin fell off it would stop and come back to him, nipping his pockets for treats. He only fell off once, trying to take the same route that Arthur was taking which went directly over a large dead tree, and arrived at the castle only a few minutes behind the prince.
Gwen was sitting on the courtyard steps, face buried in her lap. Merlin fought down a clench of fear, and sat down next to her.
"Gwen?" he said quietly, and Gwen turned to him and threw her arms around him.
"Oh Merlin," she gasped, "the king--it's the king--"
"What happened," Merlin said.
Gwen shook her head, trembling. Merlin hugged her awkwardly, then scrambled to get inside. He had a bad feeling about this.
The audience chamber was packed, filled with the loud silence of stunned people, and the king was standing, Merlin saw immediately, as he slipped in the side door and angled for a better view. He couldn't see Arthur anywhere.
Then his view cleared, and Arthur was there, on his knees before his father, bleeding from a cut on his cheek.
"How dare you ride to hunt without my permission," Uther was shouting, and Merlin felt his skin crawl. This wasn't Uther. This wasn't right. "You are my subject, and you take your instruction from me," did no one else see this, how wrong this was? "I did not give you leave to hunt this day."
"Yes, sire," Arthur said, back straight and head bent respectfully, but Merlin could see the tension in his shoulders. "I apologize for my actions, if I have displeased you."
"You are not king yet," Uther said viciously, "and may never be. Have a care that you do not press me too hard, or you will find out exactly who it is that still rules Camelot." The crowd in the audience chamber was silent as the grave.
Behind Uther, Aelfric smiled.
Back in Arthur's chambers, Merlin carefully dabbed on one of Gaius' best poultices on the cut, wiping away the blood. Arthur vibrated with tension, but there was confusion there as well, and hurt.
"What was he thinking?" Arthur said, softly, and he didn't look at Merlin. "What could he have been thinking?"
Merlin couldn't answer him. He didn't even dare acknowledge the words. He couldn't quite believe that Arthur was saying them--just weeks ago, Arthur would have flogged anyone who had said a similar thing in his hearing. Merlin touched Arthur's cheek helplessly, and Arthur twitched, and then stepped away.
"Ready my armor," he said shortly, stripping off his tunic with jerky, angry motions. "I'm going to the drilling grounds."
Better the practice dummies than me, Merlin thought optimistically, and started setting out the mail on the table.
"Merlin, I need my riding clothes," Arthur said, the door banging open and then closed again. Merlin yelped and spun around. "Merlin, what on earth are you doing?"
Merlin dropped Arthur's sword quickly back to the table, and tried to look innocent. "Nothing," he said quickly.
Arthur looked like he was trying not to smirk. "Were you playing with my sword?" He flushed suddenly, slightly, and Merlin bit his lip trying not to laugh.
"Um." Merlin searched for words. "Well...it's like this," he started, and Arthur cut him off with a wave of his hand.
"Not now, Merlin," he said. The amusement had vanished, and now he just sounded tired. "I need my riding gear, my father has sent me to investigate a case of grain shortage with the army."
"The army?" Merlin frowned, going to his wardrobe and finding Arthur's warmest winter cloak. "I thought he dismissed them for the harvest, weeks ago."
"Aelfric has reported a large group of bandits in the western territories, including his lands," Arthur said, obediently toeing off his boots and letting Merlin undo the laces of his trousers. "Father has recalled the army to deal with them. They set off next week."
"And there's a grain shortage?"
Arthur shrugged. "So he says. I haven't been involved with them as much lately. I've been directed to turn my attention elsewhere."
Merlin paused while adjusting Arthur's cloak, and stared at him. Arthur looked away.
"Merlin--" he stopped, and turned away, picking up a pair of gloves from the table and tucking them into his belt. Merlin couldn't see his face, but Arthur's shoulders were set and tense.
"Yes, sire?" he asked, after a minute.
"Go to the hall, while I'm gone," Arthur said finally. His voice was very controlled, almost neutral. "My father is holding his audiences today. Assist the steward in his duties. I should be gone the entire afternoon."
"Yes, sire," Merlin said, frowning at his back. Arthur started for the door, and then stopped, his hand on the handle. He turned around.
"Merlin," Arthur said, slowly. "I--"
Merlin looked at him, the discomfort on his face, the white-knuckled grip on the door, and nodded.
"I know," he said finally. "I'll be careful."
Arthur smiled slowly, tightly.
"Good," he said, and was gone.
"And where is your son?" Aelfric asked, loud enough that it cut across the hall. Merlin looked up from his quiet conversation with Gwen, startled at the sudden hush. The audiences this quarter had been more tedious than normal, and Uther's temper was savage today, his responses to petitioners biting and impatient. The hall was crammed with people, nobles and commoners alike seeking the king's justice, and Merlin's offer of help had been gratefully accepted by the steward.
Merlin balanced the tray of goblets in one hand, and started surreptitiously easing his way through the crowd. Gwen caught his arm, and Merlin glanced back at her. She looked scared.
"Don't, Merlin," she breathed, barely audible. Merlin bit his lip, touched her arm reassuringly, and then pulled away. He had to get closer.
"He's visiting the army," Uther said curtly, and shifted on his throne. Merlin felt a sudden chill of apprehension, and Aelfric smiled.
"It's good that he takes such a close interest in the welfare of your men," Aelfric observed, politely. Uther whipped his head around.
"What is it you are implying?" he said, sharply. "Speak your piece."
"My king," Aelfric said, and he sounded so reasonable, so calm. Merlin felt a sudden surge of hate that surprised him with it's strength. "I imply nothing. I only remark on his absence. One would think that a son would wish to be in the presence of his father, to absorb what royal wisdom he can. It surprises me that he would visit your army on this auspicious day."
Uther stiffened and sat up straighter. "Perhaps you're right," he said slowly, roughly. Merlin carefully set his tray down on a nearby table, tense with nerves. Uther looked like a man having a revelation, and he didn't like what that meant.
"I wonder why he chooses to visit the army?" Aelfric asked, with bland sincerity. "And today, of all days, when he knows you cannot accompany him? It's hardly an action of an innocent man."
"I sent him," Uther said, although it was almost a question.
"A king of your integrity can be blinded by the falsehood of others," Aelfric said, and Uther's fist tightened on the arm of his chair. "I fear that your son takes advantage of your trust in him."
Uther frowned and slowly stood. The entire hall was silent, frozen. Aelfric continued, relentlessly, and Merlin couldn't believe that no one was speaking to counter him. This was the first time he'd spoken so blatantly against Arthur, and even as--erratic--as Uther had been lately, surely he wouldn't allow Aelfric to smear Arthur's name like this...
"He plots treason, my old friend," Aelfric said, softly. Sinking the blade home. Uther twitched, and Merlin watched his face twist, ugly and angry. "He seeks to take your army away from you. He seeks your throne."
"Where is Arthur now?" Uther demanded, and Sir Kay, the leader of Uther's personal guard, stepped forward, looking white and shaken.
"He returned from the army half an hour ago, your highness," he said, and his voice was steady even as his bow was uncertain."
"And does not come to attend me," Uther said, with the air of a man whose suspicions had been confirmed. "Get him." Uther's voice was clear and bitter, and the room erupted in chaotic, stunned noise. Merlin backed away a pace, then another, praying that no one would notice him. Uther waved at Sir Kay, who was leading his guard detail. "Arrest Arthur, now. Then bring him here."
Sir Kay sounded like he was choking on something small and bitter. "Yes, sire," he said, jerking another bow stiffly, and Uther waved his hand, brusquely dismissing him. His eyes were half-closed, glittering.
"If he resists you," Uther added, as Kay stepped back from the throne, and the entire court held its breath, "kill him."
Merlin turned and ran.
Merlin pounded through the hallways, faster than he'd ever run before, footsteps keeping time with his frantic heartbeat. He lost his footing at one point, his thin leather shoes slipping on the polished floor, sending him to his knees with a stab of pain, but he scrambled up and kept running.
He had to find Arthur before Uther's men did.
The halls seemed to be filled with guards, and Merlin didn't bother to avoid them. Not yet. Word wouldn't have traveled so fast, although in another fifteen minutes it would be too late. He reached out for that shining presence that always seemed to say "Arthur" and let it draw him, guide him.
He was almost there, almost in time, when he skidded around a corner and saw Sir Kay and seven men-at-arms, marching in formation down the corridor. He froze, clutching at the corner and Kay looked around and saw him. His eyes widened, and then he jerked his head abruptly. Merlin didn't hesitate, just bolted for the stairwell, and ignored the shouts behind him
He took the last flight of stairs two at a time, and crashed through the doors to Arthur's chambers.
Arthur spun around, looking shocked, still disheveled from patrol, dressed--thank god, still dressed--in breeches and coat, face dirty and smudged. "Merlin, what on earth--"
"Shut up, shut up, shut up," panted Merlin, kicking the doors shut and flinging himself at Arthur. He put one hand over Arthur's mouth and pushed them both back against the wall behind the bed. Arthur was rigid underneath him, stiff and outraged, but Merlin guessed some of his desperation was showing because Arthur didn't immediately throw him off, tolerated his touch for just a second, and that second was enough. He clung to Arthur, heaving for air, hand still over his mouth, pressing him flat to the wall, as the clatter of mail became louder in the corridor outside.
Arthur went very still, and Merlin took a deep breath and focused and breathed "Dirgelaeth nyni," praying that it would work, as Kay kicked the door open and entered, sword drawn and face grim.
Arthur looked at the armed men under his father's banner who were coming into his room, and then turned his head to stare at Merlin in disbelief. Merlin flushed, but he didn't drop his gaze, and he didn't drop the spell. He felt the magic prickling on his skin. Arthur's eyes reflected golden fire, and Merlin dropped his head to brace it against Arthur's shoulder, listening to the men only feet away and praying that Arthur wouldn't speak, wouldn't move, wouldn't reject his help, as furniture scraped over the floor and men cursed and fabric tore.
Arthur never moved a muscle.
Finally, after what felt like years, Kay stopped them. "All right, that's enough. He isn't here," he said, and Merlin raised his head, turning to look. Kay was gesturing the men out, his sword sheathed, and Merlin felt his heart lurch back into something like a normal rhythm. "You," Kay added, tautly, pointing to one of them, "take a man and report back to the king. We'll search the stables next, and then the armory."
Arthur was trembling now, so finely that Merlin would never have noticed if they weren't touching from neck to knee. His face was painfully expressionless. Merlin fumbled his free hand to Arthur's shoulder, and squeezed helplessly, as Kay led the way out.
Merlin waited until the sound of footsteps had faded, and then let go of Arthur, stepping back to let the spell fade. He swallowed dryly at the state of the room, which looked like a windstorm had hit it, but Arthur was already moving past him, staring at the disorder, and when he turned around his eyes were wide, dazed.
"My father," he murmured, almost absently.
"Not now," Merlin said tensely, and yanked open a listing cupboard door to pull out a pack. "We have to get out of here," and Arthur was shaking his head when Merlin grabbed his arm, desperately. "He said to kill you, if you resisted," and Arthur inhaled quickly, looking stunned. "Arthur, please, we have to go now."
He let go and began stuffing things into the pack, grabbing them from the cupboard and the floor; the warmest cloak he could find, a shift, a ball of woolen hose, a knife that needed sharpening, a coil of leather lacing, oil for chainmail, Arthur's second-favorite tunic. A tray of food was still on the table, miraculously not overturned; it was cold and congealing, and Arthur would probably object, but Merlin had grown up eating half-rotten turnips straight from the field, and it was good enough. Merlin grabbed the cheese and half-eaten bread, two apples, wrapped them in a tunic and stuffed them in the pack, then slung the straps over his shoulders. Arthur's sword was still in the sheath, laying on the floor; he snatched it up and put it under his arm.
For a moment, he spared a thought for his own things--the book of magic, which would surely come in useful, with the parchment with Aelfric's letter on it tucked securely inside the pages--but there was no time to make it to Gaius' rooms. The book was safely concealed, and would remain so, even when Uther searched his rooms, which Merlin was sure he would; that would have to suffice for now. Later, if it was safe, he could come back for them.
When he turned around, Arthur was staring at him. "Come on," he hissed, grabbed Arthur's hand and tried to drag him towards the door. "Please." He would have prayed, if he'd known who to pray to, that Arthur would listen; that his wonderful, damnable sense of honor would not insist that he stay to face his father. That he would, just once, just this once, see sense in surviving to fight another day.
Arthur looked around a final time, and Merlin saw the depth of the betrayal sink in, his eyes bleak and hard. Then he stepped forward, and Merlin almost sobbed with relief.
"Stay beside me," he whispered, and Arthur nodded. "I can hide us, if they come, just--stay quiet." He really wished he knew what Arthur was thinking, but Arthur said nothing.
No one was in the corridor when he peeked out. He crept out, holding Arthur's hand tightly, and tried to think. Kay had said he was going to the stables, then the armory--which was precisely the opposite of what a fugitive would do, thank all the gods for Kay, Merlin thought gratefully. He couldn't have seen them, but he was obviously hoping that Arthur would be able to make an escape before this lunacy could worsen.
The armory, then, first, for Arthur's mail and as many weapons as they could carry.
Arthur was a shadow behind him all the long painful trip to the armory. Three more parties of guards went past, swords drawn and looking blank and forbidding. Each time, Merlin froze with Arthur right behind him, whispering his spell of concealment until they had passed. Each time, Merlin felt his heart break a little more, as Arthur became more and more remote, the distance in his expression not hiding the anguish in his eyes.
The armory was deserted, and the shadows stayed quiet as they crept inside. Merlin made sure the door was locked with magic as well as with steel and the windows securely shuttered before he dared create a light. Arthur was white-faced in the pale glow, but calm and composed, eyes focused.
Merlin didn't waste time on reassurances. Arthur wouldn't have believed them anyway. Instead, he yanked together Arthur's armor and started to work. He put the gambeson on directly over Arthur's coat, and then the mail--it would be terribly uncomfortable and limit Arthur's range of motion, and probably chafe like hell to boot, but it would be warm at least, and they didn't have time for Arthur to get kitted out properly. He strapped the plate tight, and let Arthur make his own last adjustments to his coif and helm while he searched for supplies. More polishing oil, a crossbow with a quiver of quarrels, two more long knives, a whetstone. He shoved it all into his pack, and then waited impatiently for Arthur at the door.
Arthur could move amazingly quietly, even in armor, and they made it the short distance to the stables without incident. Merlin pushed Arthur into a shadow and found tack and harness in the dark, saddled Arthur's favorite sorrel mare and a brown gelding that could be relied on not to try and throw him, trusting to stealth rather than magic to keep him hidden. He helped Arthur mount, out in the stable yard, clambered onto his own horse with more determination than grace, and they were off.
The castle was chaos, bright lights and noise, and behind them he could hear yells, but none seemed to be in aimed in their direction. He reached out for Arthur's hand, breathing the words of the spell until they blurred together in an endless chant, and slowly, sedately, they rode out past the sentries.
The city was quiet, unnaturally so. Merlin had expected it; people in the town were sensitive to the currents from the castle like clouds signaling the coming storm, and there were armed men everywhere in the streets. No one who could help it would be out tonight, and the streets remained clear. Arthur looked away from Merlin, and his hand was cold, but he didn't let go.
Outside Camelot, Arthur stopped his horse.
"Arthur," Merlin began, and then stopped. Arthur was looking back up at the castle. "Come on," he said eventually, gently, and Arthur dropped his eyes, reined his horse around and spurred it forward.
He didn't know where they were going. It wasn't a direction Merlin was familiar with—southwest towards the hills, following the stars of the Hunter, moonlight showing a narrow deer trail. He let Arthur lead, feeling somewhat flat and exhausted after the ordeal of the escape, and didn't try to make conversation. His horse was warm underneath his legs, and he hunkered down, sliding his palms into the thick unruly mane and holding tight.
He was so tired. Maybe he'd just rest his eyes a little--Arthur apparently knew where he was going, which was all Merlin cared to know.
It started to snow as they rode, climbing higher up into the hills, away from home.
"Merlin. Merlin." He blinked and looked up. Snow was thick on the ground, and Arthur was riding beside him, holding his reins, shaking his shoulder.
"I fell asleep?" he said, feeling thick and confused.
"You have to stay awake," Arthur said grimly, and kneed his horse away. "It's too cold to sleep. We have to get to shelter before we can rest."
"Yeah," Merlin said, tucking his hands underneath his arms. He felt cold, straight through to the bone. Funny; he wasn't shivering. "When's that?"
Arthur frowned at him, and Merlin realized he was slurring his words. "Shelter," he managed, forcing his lips to shape the word clearly. He was curled over now, doubled up on the horse's back, without any memory of having moved.
Dimly, from a long way away, he heard Arthur cursing, and then his horse jerked to a stop. Merlin clutched at the saddle with numb fingers, but Arthur was already yanking at his shoulder, pulling off the pack.
"You really are an idiot," Arthur snapped, wrenching it open and rummaging around. He pulled something out, and Merlin blinked at it as it seemed to explode into yards of fabric. Oh, right. A cloak. "Yours," he mumbled, automatically, and blinked at the lethal glare that Arthur leveled at him.
"Put it on," Arthur growled, closing the pack back up and tying it to his saddle. Merlin felt like he might crack in two if he moved, but he managed to get the cloak over his shoulders and the clasp more or less fastened. Then he felt like he was flying, as Arthur dragged him off his horse, manhandling him with brute strength onto the mare in front of him.
"Hold on," Arthur said curtly, and spurred the mare forward, the gelding jogging behind.
Arthur was warm, incredibly warm--even through the layers of fabric and armor, he was like a furnace at Merlin's back. Merlin wrapped himself more tightly in the cloak with clumsy hands, and Arthur's arms were warm bands around him, keeping him safe.
Apparently, shelter for the night was a tiny shack, tucked into a dip in the hillside, overlooking a broad moorland down below. Arthur rode up to it an hour past dawn. "Shepherds," Arthur said briefly, as he dismounted, and then helped Merlin down. Merlin had started to shiver and now couldn't stop, and it make him awkward. He ended up in a heap at Arthur's feet, blinking up at him stupidly.
"Come on," Arthur said gruffly, but his hands were gentle when he got Merlin standing and pushed him towards the hut.
It looked like a hovel from outside, but it turned out to be tightly made, free of snow and wind, and with only a very faint smell of mouse. Merlin collapsed on the floor next to the empty fireplace, and Arthur disappeared for a minute and came back with an armful of wood. Merlin watched him vaguely and wondered if Arthur was doing magic, too.
Arthur knelt, mail jingling, and began to arrange the logs. "Can you start a fire?" he asked without turning around.
Of course he could. "Uh," Merlin said, hand fumbling at his belt pouch involuntarily for a flint. Strange; the belt pouch didn't seem to want to open. Arthur sat back on his heels and gave him a level look.
"I mean, can you start a fire," he said evenly, and Merlin blinked at him. Oh, right. Arthur knew now. Why was that so hard to remember?
He prodded his memory, then stared at the fireplace and hissed, "Baerne." He mangled the pronunciation a bit, but the wood flared like a starburst anyway, flames leaping to fill the small hearth. The wave of heat washed over him like a physical touch.
Merlin looked back at Arthur, a little nervous and a little proud but still mostly just cold and blessedly numb, but the shack was empty. Arthur had already gone back outside. Merlin blinked at the air where Arthur had been standing, wondered if he should worry that he'd apparently missed the sounds of someone in armor walking across a floor and shutting a door, and then gave up the effort and concentrated on getting sensation back into his fingers.
When Arthur returned, he was carrying an enormous armful of wood, and the pack from his saddle. Merlin's fingers would bend now, barely, but they still felt cold and numb. "I put the horses by the lambing shed, up the track," Arthur said curtly, dropping the pack by the door and the wood by the hearth. "If someone comes, I want you to get up there immediately. Don't wait for me, and don't try and stop them, do you understand me?"
Merlin had found that his ability to understand simple instructions had improved immeasurably after sitting in front of a fire for twenty minutes. He nodded dutifully, although he had no intention of ever actually obeying, and then dragged himself up and staggered on painful feet over to Arthur. He grabbed the edge of Arthur's gorget and frowned, trying to make his fingers work at the buckle. They felt stiff and swollen, the knuckles white.
"What are you--Merlin," Arthur said, something in his voice that Merlin couldn't decipher. "What are you doing?"
Merlin frowned harder. He was taking off Arthur's armor. Wasn't it obvious? Surely the cold hadn't numbed his wits that badly. He looked at Arthur, confused.
"Why are you doing this," Arthur said after a minute, his voice thick with emotion.
"You don't want to sleep in it, do you?" Merlin said, baffled.
"As a matter of fact, yes, I do," Arthur said grimly, "at least until we're well away from Camelot. That's not what I meant."
"What did you mean?" Merlin asked, now completely confused. Maybe he was still not warm enough.
"You saved me," Arthur said, almost yelling. He swung his arm out. "You saved me--you always save me--and with magic, apparently, although frankly I can't imagine a more incompetent moron as a sorcerer, and what, you just. Got bored or something? Couldn't find any mother bears with cubs to harass? You had to come into Camelot, didn't you, and be a wizard there--" and now he was really yelling, and Merlin stared at him, because Arthur was pacing the tiny confines of the hut, warm now with cheerful firelight, and his eyes were very bright. Too bright. "I want to know what are you doing here, Merlin," Arthur demanded, swinging around to face him, a finger jabbed at his chest.
There was only one answer, really. "Serving you," Merlin said, subdued, because maybe it was stupid, but it was his reason. He served Arthur with every breath in his body, and the reason he served Arthur was because he could literally imagine no other way.
"Serving me," Arthur repeated, and all the anger had run out of him. He looked exhausted, and a little bit broken in some awful way, so Merlin took a hesitant step forward. He put out a hand, touched Arthur's shoulder, the rough mail warm against his fingers. He slid his hand up a little, around the nape of Arthur's neck, and held on.
"That's what I do," he said, and Arthur shuddered like a horse with a fly, stepping back. "I. Arthur."
"No," Arthur said, and he looked so worn-out. "Merlin, I. I can't."
Merlin reached for him, hesitantly, and this time Arthur didn't move away.
"You can trust me," he whispered. He put his hand on Arthur's forearm, felt the cold steel under his palm. He hung on, willing Arthur to understand that it didn't matter. Whatever Uther said or did, it didn't matter. He was Arthur's.
Arthur heaved a sigh. "Yes," he said after a while, and his gloved hand came up to cover Merlin's. "I suppose I can."
They slept for six hours on the floor in front of the fire, huddled together under Merlin's cloak and too exhausted to move. When they woke to grey sunshine barely stronger than the moonlight, Merlin cut up the stale bread and the cheese, then toasted the cheese on the bread until it was hot and dripping. Arthur ate ravenously, his share and most of Merlin's too, and Merlin handed Arthur an apple.
"I don't want it," Arthur said.
"I don't care," Merlin said firmly. "It's good for you." Arthur grumbled, but he took the apple with a swipe to the side of Merlin's head that felt like a caress.
"We'll need to hunt," Arthur said abruptly, a couple hours after they left the shepherd hut. "We need supplies. For the horses, as well."
Merlin nodded, distractedly. He was back on the gelding, which did not seem to appreciate his weight, and Merlin had his hands full managing it. The horses had been tethered loosely in a sheltered place behind the lambing shed, able to graze on what fodder still came up through the snow, browsing on twigs like deer, but Arthur was right; they couldn't survive on forage forever, not in the dead of winter.
"We'll find supplies," he said, pretending to a confidence he didn't entirely feel, and dragged the gelding's nose away from a muddy clump of grass.
They rode in silence a little ways further.
"What happened," Arthur said at last, sounding like the question was torn from him, agonized. "I--surely he knows I would never--"
Merlin looked down at the dull brown neck of his mount. "Lord Aelfric," he said after a moment, hesitantly, and Arthur made a sound like a laugh, but far too bitter.
"Let me guess," Arthur said humorlessly. "He told my father that I was dangerous, that I was too popular with the knights, with the common people, with his own court. He told him that I sought power, that I would depose him and take the throne before my rightful time--is that about it?"
"Something like that," Merlin admitted after a moment. It was kind of eerie, how he got the voice right. "It was because you were visiting the army that afternoon, and not attending him at the audiences. He said that it was treason."
Arthur snarled. "I was with them," he said savagely, and the mare jerked her head in protest as Arthur's fists clenched, "to investigate a shortage in their grain supply, not to foment any kind of rebellion. And it was at my father's own bloody request."
Merlin didn't say anything, and after a minute Arthur took a deep breath and let it out. And then another.
"He's afraid of you," Merlin said finally. "People aren't reasonable when they're afraid." He did not say, I should know. "You're more popular than he is, more respected, more admired. He's afraid of you, of what you represent."
"He should be," Arthur said, curtly.
Merlin hesitated. "I don't think it was just that, though," he said slowly. "I, er. Once. I went into Aelfric's chambers."
Arthur groaned. "Of course you did. Merlin, you idiot."
"I was curious! And anyway, I was right, so don't complain. Anyway," Merlin continued stubbornly, "I found papers--a letter, from someone. Someone not in Camelot. It sounded like a code, but I couldn't understand it. But I copied it, I have it in my, er. My magic book. Back at Camelot." He flushed.
Arthur heaved a deep sigh and looked very put upon. "You have a magic book. Of course you do. In Camelot, you have a magic book. I suppose bloody Gaius gave it to you?"
Arthur rolled his eyes.
"Can you. Are you able to hunt?" Arthur asked, as dusk fell, almost unnoticed in the overcast sky. He sounded dubious. "We need food, but the crossbow won't do us any good in this gloom."
"Um. I guess," Merlin said, doubtfully. He couldn't see much of anything, but he could probably find something if he looked. And the spell that had killed the rat wasn't difficult, although he felt kind of bad killing things that had no chance to run away. It didn't seem fair.
When he looked back at Arthur, Arthur was smiling at him.
"I'm glad you're here, Merlin," Arthur said quietly. Merlin felt a warm flush in his chest.
They rode all night, and found shelter again a little after dawn. No convenient shepherd's hut, this time, just a cave with a narrow, rough entrance, but it was well out of the wind, and the gelding and the mare had both been loaded with dry seasoned tinder so the fire caught immediately, burned well. Merlin cupped his hands in front of the fire and felt a little sick when he thought just how much danger he'd been in, the previous night.
The snow wasn't very heavy, but it made visibility difficult. He trudged through the gloom, finding what wood he could, and met Arthur back at their campsite. A rabbit was already cleaned and spitted, and the smell of half-cooked meat made his mouth water.
Arthur was staring at him, open-mouthed. Merlin blinked. "What did I do?"
"What the hell is that?" Arthur said, pointing behind him. Merlin turned to look, suddenly alarmed, but didn't see anything.
"The wood," Arthur said, and it sounded like he was about to have a fit. "The wood--God in heaven, Merlin."
Merlin looked at the pile of wood he'd gathered--floating obediently behind him, because he'd started tripping over things and it was just easier to keep his hands free and make it follow him, and shrugged helplessly at Arthur.
Arthur started to laugh.
It was rusty, but real, and Merlin let himself smile, loving the sound of it. Arthur sat down, put his face in his hands, and laughed and laughed.
"He never even knew about you, did he," he said after a while, with true amusement. "He probably thinks you're tagging along after me in the snow, polishing my boots. Badly. He has no idea at all."
"I am tagging along after you in the snow, polishing your boots," Merlin pointed out, and directed his pile of wood to a spot convenient to the fire, but not so close that it would be set alight with a change of wind. "I mean, if you asked me to polish your boots, I would . Which you haven't. But, yeah."
"You're a warlock, though," Arthur said, raising his head, giving Merlin a look of mingled curiosity and amazement.
Merlin nodded. "Yes."
"How long have you been--like this?"
"Since I was born." Merlin stared into the fire. "I don't ever remember not being--different." His mother's worried voice, their bare miles from Camelot lands, where wizards, even children, were slain without remorse. Be still, Merlin, she would say. Don't do anything. Don't say anything. Don't bring notice down on us. Control, hide, pretend, until finally he was old enough and it became escape, escape, escape. So he had escaped. Straight into Camelot, which now that Merlin thought about it, was perhaps a little silly.
Arthur snorted. "I've always thought there was something about you," he said, and Merlin smiled up at him. Arthur grinned. "I just thought it was some sort of mental affliction," he added with exquisite sympathy. Merlin grinned.
"And I always thought you were a prat," he said, and his face hurt from grinning so hard, but it was good to see some of that exhausted betrayed despair out of Arthur's face, if only for a little while. "Unfortunately," he said sorrowfully, "I'm pretty sure you aren't a wizard, so I still don't know what your excuse is..."
"Oy," Arthur said, looking affronted, shifting his weight in a way that was way too familiar, and Merlin yelped and shot up to run except Arthur was a little bit faster and had him down on the ground in moments, rubbing his face in a pile of snow. Merlin sputtered and thrashed, flailing a little melodramatically. Arthur laughed on top of him, deliberately giving him enough slack to wriggle free and then pouncing again. Merlin struggled, kicked himself over onto his back, and managed a heave of his hips that almost pushed Arthur off. Arthur was heavy on his legs, flushed and still laughing, and Merlin was startled at the sudden warmth he felt in his chest, affection and relief mixed.
Arthur knew. He knew, he really knew, he'd seen Merlin do magic and he didn't care. The realization made Merlin almost dizzy. It felt good.
Later, Merlin cast a spell to make the smoke flow neatly out the opening in a tidy stream, so they wouldn't suffocate, and then flushed dark when he realized that Arthur was watching him closely in obvious fascination. When he glanced at Arthur, smiling in tentative pride, Arthur grinned at him.
"Not bad," Arthur said, with grudging but sincere appreciation. Merlin felt himself flush in pleasure.
Sleep came easily after that, with a bellyful of hot meat to fill them. Merlin inched closer to Arthur's solid bulk, warm between Arthur and the fire, and let himself think that maybe this wouldn't end badly after all.
Overnight, the snow flurries turned into a snowstorm, which turned into a full-fledged blizzard, snow as scouring as sand, driven by the wind. They were forced to stay in the cave another day, and Arthur fretted about their slow pace.
"Where are we even going, anyway?" Merlin asked. He was trying to sharpen Arthur's sword in the uncertain light using a whetstone, and he was pretty sure he wasn't having much success.
"Assuming the fucking snow ever lets up, Tintagel," Arthur said briefly, standing at the mouth of the cave and frowning at the curtain of white falling past the opening of the cave.
"Where's that?" Merlin asked absently, working the whetstone over the point of the sword. Arthur didn't respond right away, and Merlin looked up. "Is it close?"
"It's on the Western edge of the kingdom, maybe five days' ride away from Camelot," Arthur said, and came back to sit by the fire. "Of course, that's in good weather. I haven't been there in years, since Father's last campaign."
"But it's still in Camelot? Are you sure that's safe? I thought we'd be leaving the kingdom," Merlin said, unable to hide his worry, and Arthur sighed. He looked tired, and a little remote. His prince look, Merlin thought, when he was facing a situation with no easy solution, but couldn't be avoided or ignored.
"I can't leave, Merlin" Arthur said quietly, leaning forward. He took the sword from Merlin's hand, and leveled it, eyeing down the length of the blade critically. "In order to leave Camelot, I would need to seek permission of that land's ruler to cross their lands--to travel without their permission would be a grave insult, and normally would be a just cause for war, if I traveled as the Crown Prince. Even traveling unofficially, I would surely be arrested if they caught me."
"Yeah," Merlin said, "but really, you don't need to worry about that." He wiggled his fingers helpfully, just in case Arthur had forgotten.
Arthur sighed. "Merlin, I'm sure you're capable of many things, but I doubt you can fight off all of Albion. It wouldn't matter, in any case. I'm not having my manservant fight my battles for me."
Merlin tried not to let his expression give away his opinion of that, and bit back a response. It wasn't like he needed to win the argument in order to protect Arthur, anyway. He'd managed it nicely without Arthur's permission so far, he could do it a little longer. "So why don't you ask their permission?"
Arthur frowned. "If I left Camelot openly to go to another kingdom, I would be called to stay at the royal court as their guest. But I seek refuge in a foreign court, it will lead to war. Many would interpret my presence as an excuse for an invasion into Camelot, which my father would resist fiercely. Camelot would be torn apart," he said, "and I can't do that."
"But you can't stay here," Merlin argued, "Uther will certainly look for you. He declared you outlaw, he's got men looking for you right now."
"Which is why we're going to Tintagel," Arthur said. "It's part of Camelot, but really that's in name only--it's Druid land around there, that whole region to the west, and my father was never able to subdue them. Not really."
Merlin looked at him, curiously. "What, never?"
"The last campaign was when I was twelve. It was my first time commanding a battalion," Arthur said, reminiscing. "We fought for five straight months, back and forth, and when winter finally came we had achieved not a single extra inch of ground. My father simply decided to declare victory and go home." He smiled ruefully at the memory.
Merlin raised an eyebrow and refrained from commenting. Arthur slid a sideways glance at him. "No," he said dryly. "It wasn't a decision he made happily. But he did negotiate a treaty with them, where Camelot's soldiers do not enter, and the Druids do not leave. It's served to keep the peace for the last eight years, and it remains under Camelot's control, if only symbolically."
"That would make it almost a neutral ground," Merlin said, in dawning realization. "It's not foreign, but it's not really Camelot, either."
"Exactly," Arthur said, confidently. "It's a safe place. None of my father's men would be able to come after us there. Not even Camelot's tax collectors enter--the Druids pay some tribute, horses mostly, but they deliver them to a town outside the area. Plus Tintagel's been abandoned for years, no one will think to look for us there." He pushed himself to his feet, restlessly. "I'm going to get more wood," he said abruptly, handing Merlin back the sword and pulling his cloak around his shoulders. Merlin chewed his lip thoughtfully as Arthur headed toward the tree line, dim and smudged through the falling snow.
A no-man's-land filled with Druids who'd fought off the armies of Uther, to a castle that likely was in ruins. This was his safe place? Merlin glared at the back of Arthur's head as he trudged away, and began mentally reviewing war spells.
Unfortunately, since he didn't know any, it didn't take that long. Merlin sighed and went back to sharpening Arthur's sword. That, at last, he could do.
"At least no one can follow us in this mess," Arthur said out of the blue. He touched Merlin's knee in silent apology. He'd been doing things like that a lot more now, Merlin had noticed; pats on his shoulder to get his attention, poking playfully at his ribs to tease, a hand on his arm when he had something to say that he wanted Merlin to pay attention to. Merlin didn't know what it meant, but he liked it anyway.
"So, who else knows?" Arthur asked, sitting back deeper in the saddle and fiddling with his reins absently. The snow had finally stopped falling and Arthur had gotten them moving within the hour, not willing to waste a minute more of daylight. Merlin hadn't argued. He could practically feel the men Uther had sent after them, getting closer by the hour.
"About--about me?" Merlin hadn't really looked forward to answering this question.
"Yes, Merlin," Arthur said, sardonically, "about you."
"Well, my mother," Merlin said, and Arthur gave him a dry look that made Merlin grin. "But I'm sure you knew that. Um. Gaius."
"Gaius?" Arthur didn't sound excessively surprised. "Interesting. "
Merlin took a deep breath. "Will knew," he admitted, and Arthur was silent for a minute.
"He was a good man," Arthur said at last, quietly. "I was sorry for his loss."
"I know," Merlin said. He remembered the feel of Will's blood on his hands, Will gasping his last breaths--Arthur's soft acceptance of Will's last lie. He coughed a little, banishing the memories by sheer force. "And Lancelot knew," Merlin said, and braced himself.
"Lancelot?" Arthur looked dumbfounded. "Lancelot knew? How? And why the hell did you tell him?" He didn't say, ‘and not me,' but Merlin could see it written in the air over his head in ten-foot letters.
"Well, I didn't, really," he said, apologetically, "only he sort of saw me. Er. Do stuff."
"Stuff." The word creaked under the weight of Arthur's sarcasm.
Arthur blinked, stopping his horse and grabbing for Merlin's reins to halt him, looking thunderstruck. "Blessed gods--you killed the griffon, didn't you."
"No, I didn't," Merlin protested, but Arthur wasn't listening.
"That's why he left, isn't it? Because you killed the griffon. Don't lie to me," Arthur said sharply, and Merlin felt himself flush.
"I didn't kill it! I mean, I helped, a bit--I did this thing, to his lance, so that he could kill it. It could only be killed by magic, you see. But he's the one who actually made the charge." Merlin felt obscurely stubborn on this point. Lancelot had given up a lot by refusing to take the credit for things he hadn't done. Merlin was determined to make sure he got the credit for everything he had.
"And then he left."
Merlin shrugged, feeling embarrassed. "He didn't want to--I mean, because I'd helped, he didn't want to take all the credit."
"Idiot," Arthur muttered.
"I know! That's what I told him."
"No, I meant you, you absolute moron," Arthur said, and ignored Merlin's indignant sputterings. "Why on earth would you take such a risk?"
"Well," Merlin said tartly, not appreciating his magic--he hadn't forgotten that moment of despair when he'd been sure that the spell wouldn't work, that Arthur's life and Lancelot's would be forfeit to his failure--being characterized as folly, "considering that you were unconscious on the ground, having been attacked by a magical creature that only liked to eat human flesh, I'm not sure. Let me think for a second, why I might have wanted to kill the damn griffon." He rolled his eyes, set his jaw, and kicked his horse into motion.
After a moment, Arthur rode up at his left side. He looked embarrassed for a second, and then looked away quickly. "Well, it's done now," he said, grudgingly. "And I expect it all worked out in the end."
Merlin decided he was going to consider that an apology.
They hadn't been riding more than an hour after that when Merlin dragged the gelding to a stop, whipping his head around. Something had caught his eye, something that didn't belong. Arthur reined in the mare and drew his sword, the sharp metallic sound of it startling in the quiet winter forest.
"What is it?" Arthur asked, looking around.
"I think someone's coming," Merlin said, and immediately Arthur was off his horse, sword raised and ready. Merlin kicked his feet free of the stirrups and scrambled down. He hovered by Arthur's right side, tense and ready.
There was a prolonged rustle in the undergrowth, far too loud to be an animal or the wind, and Arthur's hand tightened on his sword hilt. Merlin ducked down and grabbed a branch from the ground, then braced himself for battle.
A moment later Lancelot walked into the clearing, leading a horse.
Arthur straightened, looked truly surprised, and Lancelot's eyes widened in surprise.
"Arthur!" He dropped the reins and stepped forward, hands out and empty. Lancelot grinned, reached out and took Arthur's left hand, bent his head and kissed it. "My lord, I mean. I've been wandering in these woods for days, I was beginning to worry that I'd never find you. My god, it's good to see you. "
"And you," Arthur returned, sheathing his sword. "But--Lancelot, what the hell are you doing here?"
"Looking for you," Lancelot said. "I heard what happened--I heard about your father. I came to give you my allegiance. I mean, if you'll have it." Arthur looked a little taken aback, and Lancelot dropped to one knee, still holding Arthur's hand. He looked up, eyes sincere and intense. "Will you take my oath, my lord?"
Arthur cleared his throat, and Merlin bit his lip to keep from smiling. It all seemed a bit ridiculous, happening in the middle of a forest under the light of a rather unprepossessing waning moon and no one around to see for miles, but Arthur would never forgive him if he ruined the moment.
"Prince Arthur," Lancelot said, with quiet intensity, "I do swear you fealty. My life and my sword are yours to command."
Arthur raised his head, and Merlin could actually see him smoothing out his expression to look suitably solemn and important. "And I accept your oath, Sir Lancelot--" Lancelot's mouth dropped open, and he flushed suddenly, beginning to smile. "I recognize you as a Knight of Camelot, and gladly welcome you to my service."
Arthur gave him a narrow glare, and Merlin stopped. "All right," he said, dryly, "now that that's settled--how on earth did you find us?"
Lancelot turned to look at him and grinned, getting to his feet and dusting the snow and dirt off his knees. "Good to see you too, Merlin," he said warmly.
Merlin exhaled heavily and nobly resisted the urge to push Lancelot over in the snow. It was probably bad form to beat up Arthur's first sworn vassal. "Look, this is wonderful and all, but can we do this later? I think it's going to snow again and my ears are frozen."
"With your ears, I'm not surprised," Arthur said, and managed to duck before Merlin's snowball could impact.
"No, but seriously," Merlin persisted, wiping his damp, cold hand on his breeches, "how did you find us?" The thought of their path being so easily surmised sent cold shudders down his spine that had nothing to do with the weather.
Lancelot hesitated, glanced at Arthur with an odd, tentative wariness. "I--had a dream," he said finally, and Merlin blinked.
"A dream?" Arthur said, curiously. He shifted his weight, leaning back and looking at Lancelot curiously. Evidently satisfied that Arthur wasn't going to immediately attack him for sorcery, Lancelot relaxed a bit.
"Yes, sire," he said. "A dream. I don't understand why--I've never had a dream like it, I swear to you, I am no prophet to see the future--but it began six days ago. So here I am, where the dream told me to be. And here you are, just as I saw it."
"Well," Arthur said, and stopped. He blew out a deep breath, and looked at Lancelot, who was tense and anxious. "I suppose you'd better come with us, then."
The ambush, when it came, would have been a total surprise if it wasn't for Merlin's gelding. It had started to limp. Merlin privately thought that it was just faking it so that it wouldn't have to work anymore,but Arthur forced him to dismount and had just bent to examine a hoof with careful attention, Lancelot leaning over his shoulder and watching intently.
Which was how the first arrow went high, grazing the gelding's neck instead of hitting Arthur in the chest. Merlin shoved Arthur down to the ground instinctively, standing over him with raised hands, and then the woods were full of men, several wearing white cloaks, and all of them pointing arrows at the three of them.
A man rode up through the crowd, his shaggy pony dusted with snow, and raised an eyebrow at them. He looked calm, and his sword wasn't drawn, but it didn't need to be. He said something Merlin didn't understand, and tipped his head inquiringly.
Arthur stood up, shouldered Merlin aside with a scathing look in passing, and arrogantly tilted his chin at the leader. He said something in the same language, maybe just a touch less musically than the mysterious rider, and Merlin rolled his eyes as he caught Arthur's name, "Pendragon" and "Camelot". Of course he was introducing himself to the strange armed men, Merlin thought darkly. It wasn't like he was running for his life or anything. It made perfect sense that he would give his real name to anyone who asked. Merlin gave Arthur a dark look, and Arthur didn't turn around, just elbowed his ribs. Hard. Merlin wheezed while Arthur said something else, and even under these circumstances, he still managed to sound a bit like a prat. Merlin caught one of them men rolling his eyes.
"How do you even know their language," Merlin hissed at him, grabbing Arthur's arm. He could still get them out of this, he was sure--knock them off their horses, deflect the arrows, hit the leader in the head. He flexed his hand, tried to look menacing, and wondered if he could managed to get in front of Arthur to shield him. Arthur shifted his foot, stepped on Merlin's instep heavily, and didn't stop until Merlin yelped.
"I'm the prince," Arthur muttered. "I know everything. Now shut up."
Merlin wanted to be annoyed at that, but it turned out that Arthur was doing more than simply playing Prince of the Realm--he was apparently negotiating their surrender. Merlin simmered quietly, but didn't protest when men came up and took away his belt knife and Arthur's sword, moved the packs onto their own horses, and threw the three of them back up into the saddles. He didn't even give into the temptation to kick them in the face when they were binding his wrists and tying his legs to the horse. He was pretty sure they didn't have a wizard, and after the past few days, he was pretty sure he could take them if this went badly. Of course, he'd much rather not test that assumption.
"I hope you know what you're doing," he muttered to Arthur, who looked relaxed and self-assured as men wrapped rope around his ankles. Lancelot didn't look any happier than Merlin felt, and it was reassuring to know that at least one of them wasn't an idiot.
"Of course I do," Arthur said arrogantly, and Merlin had to remind himself all the reasons that magicking up a stick to hit him in the head was a bad idea. "They're taking us to their village, and there we can meet their war-leader. Exactly what I wanted."
As it turned out, the Druid town was nearly three hours away. Merlin tried to memorize landmarks, but in a snowy wilderness, most of them were various shades of mottled brown-and-white. Finally, bored, Merlin settled for trying to figure out what the men were saying. Once he got the knack of listening, the language almost sounded like what most of his spells were written in. They didn't seem to notice or care that he was listening, so he eavesdropped and puzzled and tried to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
The town was a scattered collection of maybe seventy houses arranged like the spokes of a wheel, each surrounded by sheds and shacks, pens for sheep and cattle. There wasn't much moving, but a few optimistic geese explored an empty paddock for patches of dead, muddy grass, and they started a raucous honking as the riders approached. It looked prosperous, Merlin thought consideringly. Not much like Ealdor. He couldn't tell if that was good or bad.
People began to gather as they got nearer, and by the time they reached the center of the town, most of the inhabitants were there, their stares having an with almost physical weight. Arthur nudged his horse forward , bringing him just a fraction in front of the leader of the ambush party, making the men around Merlin mutter unhappily. Merlin subtly spurred his horse, trying to keep close to Arthur's heel, and almost crashed into Lancelot's horse when he tried to do the same thing.
They were brought to stand in front of a great hall, about three times larger than the cottages and huts that surrounded it. It was solidly made, well-reinforced, and Merlin eyed it warily. Men surrounded the front entrance, armed and armored, as they were brought to a halt before it.
The leader grunted, and waved at Arthur. He said something, and Merlin heard "Arthur," and "Uther," and something that was probably "Camelot."
An older man, beard grizzled, stepped forward and looked coldly at Arthur. Merlin braced himself, and the gelding shifted restlessly. The man looked over at him, and did a double-take.
There was that name again. Merlin still had no idea what it meant, but he was losing patience with it. Plus, seeing Arthur tied up was frazzling his nerves. "My name is Merlin," Merlin said sharply, and now there was motion, frenzied activity, people talking over each other, men reining their horses back away from him. Someone appeared at his knee and cut his wrists loose, then freed his legs, while the grizzled man barked orders and people ran to do his bidding.
Arthur and Lancelot were being cut free as well, and Merlin was bowed towards Arthur by a couple of nervous-looking bowmen. Arthur was doing that thing where he pretended to look regal but actually looked deeply amused, Merlin was relieved to see. Lancelot's hand was resting lightly but firmly on his sword hilt and was glaring at anyone that came too close, which made him look nicely menacing.
"Something you want to tell me?" Arthur asked, with a lightness that Merlin didn't believe for a second, as white cloaks lined in fur were brought out for them and they were escorted into the largest and most elaborate house in the village.
"Um. Not really," Merlin tried, with little hope. Arthur flicked his ear hard, and ten people twitched hands towards their knives. Merlin tried to look like he enjoyed having his ear stinging like mad, and hissed at Arthur, "Maybe you wait until we get out of here to abuse me?"
Arthur stared at their reaction, and then looked back at Merlin. "Oh, that's a promise," he said pleasantly, and nodded genially at a girl who served them hot wine sweet with honey and herbs.
Then came an interminable period where Merlin tried to sit casually and look welcomed and relaxed and not notice the way that every person in the village was peeking in the door and staring at him, while Arthur and the grizzled man--Brydain, Arthur introduced him to Merlin belatedly--prattled at each other.
Someone brought in a whole roasted lamb on a platter, fat still sizzling on the crisped sides, and Merlin decided that maybe being blamed for this wouldn't be so bad.
"So," Lancelot murmured to him later, as they were eating--bless their hearts, if there was one thing the Druids knew how to do besides capture wayward royal princes in snowy forests, it was how to throw a decent feasts. Apparently Lancelot had a set of legends all his own, and Merlin had greatly enjoyed Lancelot blushing and stammering his way through a recitation of them during the first courses of the meal. He'd been less thrilled when it turned out that the bard was merely warming up in prelude to his saga of the great accomplishments in legend and myth of "Emrys". "Merlin, does he know?"
"Know what?" Merlin said with a full mouth.
"Yes, know what?" Arthur echoed, leaning over the table to eye them suspiciously. Lancelot fidgeted a bit nervously, and almost dropped his eating knife. Merlin would have laughed, but he saw the mischief in Arthur's expression and had to bite the inside of his mouth to stay straight-faced.
"Know, uh. About." Lancelot frowned. "Nothing. I mean, nothing important, sire. I was just asking if you knew, uh."
Merlin took pity on him. "Oh, you mean the magic," Merlin said blithely, and took another huge bite. "Yeah. He knows."
Lancelot gave Merlin and Arthur a stunned look. "He does?" he said, a little blankly.
Merlin rolled his eyes. "Oh yeah. He's having me executed on Thursday," he said dryly, and Arthur choked on a piece of venison. "He's irate. He's enraged. He's--"
"That's quite enough, thank you," Arthur interrupted, tartly. "He is also your crown prince, and don't you forget it. Just because we don't have stocks out here doesn't mean I can't think of something suitably nasty to punish you with."
Merlin grinned lopsidedly at Lancelot. "He's much the same as he always was," he said philosophically. "No one appreciates my brilliance."
Arthur threw a piece of fruit at Merlin. It was a very small piece, and it missed, so Merlin wasn't all that upset by it. Especially when Brydain started laughing and mocking Arthur's aim, and the rest of the feast devolved into a contest of thrown knives.
After a while, they started to bet. Merlin was fairly sure it was his gelding that Arthur was using as stakes to wager with. He wasn't entirely thrilled when Arthur, unsurprisingly, won.
"So he's really all right with it?" Lancelot asked dubiously, as he helped Merlin carry Arthur back through the alleys of the town.
The Druids had given them their own quarters on the outskirts of town--the hall had belonged to a man who died in a forest accident, Arthur told him, and Merlin had taken in the chinks in the walls, the layer of dust and mud on the floor, the shabby furnishings, and wondered exactly how many years ago that had been. Brydain had offered Arthur a place of honor in his own house, the Great Hall, which Arthur had graciously refused, explaining his reluctance to impose on Brydain's generous hospitality.
Merlin sometimes hated Arthur.
Arthur, possibly due to obtaining his first knight that day, possibly due to the sheer relief of being somewhere safe and not huddled in a freezing cave, had drunk so much that he was basically limp in their arms, flailing a little and singing under his breath.
The Druid leading them gestured to a neatly-made building, similar to the Great Hall in shape but a good bit smaller, and said something incomprehensible. Arthur answered him, stumbling a little over some of the words but still sounding disgustingly sober, and the Druid bowed and left.
"Yeah," Merlin said, and grunted with effort as he balanced Arthur with one arm and unlatched the door with the other. Icy air swirled around them. Inside, the building was just as cold but with no wind it felt warmer. "Yeah, he's really fine. He's been really decent about it, actually."
"Even though you lied to him?"
Merlin pushed Arthur on the bed and dragged a blanket over him. He wasn't going to worry about undressing him, not with Lancelot staring at him with concern mixed with sympathy.
"I think--maybe he realized why I did," Merlin said, softly, and looked down at Arthur's slack features. "To help him. To protect him. If he'd known--it wouldn't have been the same. Even if he was all right with it then, he couldn't have faced his father knowing that he was deceiving him." Merlin fidgeted. "He would have hated me, even if he didn't turn me in."
"I suppose," Lancelot agreed. "Listen, I'll leave you to your rest." He held out his hand, and Merlin clasped his forearm. "It's good to see you again, friend," he said, and Arthur waved him out, even that clumsy gesture oddly dignified.
Glaring around the building, Merlin muttered direly at the walls, the floor, the furniture, feeling energy flow through his fingertips as he focused. The gaps in the wall repaired themselves, the furniture steadied and solidified, and dirt and grime vanished. He looked over at Arthur, who was giving him a pleased, satisfied look through heavy-lidded eyes instead of sleeping. Merlin flushed.
"That actually isn't all bad," Arthur said in satisfaction. "Nice job, Merlin." Merlin threw Arthur's tunic at his head. Arthur caught it out of the air with lazy ease, and grinned at him.
Merlin stripped down, shivering in the frigid air. The fireplace had been long cold, and even though it was lit, it was barely reclaiming the room from the its wintry chill. He crawled into bed next to Arthur and huddled under their blankets, waiting for them to heat up, and was just on the drowsy verge of sleep when Arthur spoke up.
"I would never have hated you."
Merlin meant to respond, he really did, but it had been a long day, and he fell asleep before he could figure out what to say.
"This is a bad idea," Merlin muttered, and Arthur shot him an impatient look. The Druid at his side appeared to understand, though, and he gave Merlin a look of dry amusement. "Seriously, Arthur. This isn't going to end well. Are you mad? Have you seen the size of him?"
"Rubbish," Arthur said, and grinned at his opponent, who loomed a good foot taller, and appeared to be as wide as a barn. "Come on, then," he taunted cheerfully, shifting his feet and hefting his sword lightly, tauntingly.
The man grunted and charged, and Arthur spun, flicked his wrist like his sword weighed nothing, and caught the man a ringing thump alongside the head, his helmet making a dull clang. The man stumbled across the ring, turned to face him with little grace but good humor in his eyes, and called something to Arthur that Merlin couldn't interpret.
Their audience burst into yells, some jeering cheerfully at Arthur, some at his opponent. Merlin rested his chin on his hands and tried to pretend that he didn't enjoy watching Arthur do what he did well, light-hearted and enjoying himself for the first time since this entire nightmare had started.
Outside, the snow still fell, thick and heavy, as it had for the past two weeks. It was madness to travel in it, the village chief Brydain had informed them, especially to travel so far as to the castle. Instead, men were coming to them, slipping in by ones and twos and fives. Arthur had spent the past five nights closeted with Brydain--sometimes with Lancelot sitting in on their meetings, sometimes alone. Merlin hadn't ever accompanied him, but Arthur had come back each night pleased and smiling, so Merlin assumed that whatever negotiations Arthur was conducting for the aid of the Druids in the upcoming battle were progressing well.
A small camp of tents had appeared in one of the far meadows, multiplying like toadstools during every small break in the weather, and Arthur had discovered that one of the favorite winter pastimes of the Druids in the area was swordplay and archery. Arthur had acquired a never-ending source of sparring partners and challengers, and Merlin had made a tidy sum wagering on his prince's skill at arms.
"Amazing fighters," Arthur said in appreciation, later that evening as Merlin led them back to their house. He was slurring a little with drink, but still steady on his feet, leaning on Merlin's arm mostly for show. "Truly amazing. I could conquer the world with a hundred of them."
"Well, you don't need to conquer the world. You just need to conquer Camelot," Merlin muttered, and steered Arthur through the door. He kicked it shut behind them, latched it, and pushed Arthur to sit on the bed. "So--maybe a hundred and fifty?"
Arthur laughed. "You do think highly of my father's army," he said with amusement, and Merlin gave him a grin, kneeling in front of him to take his boots off. The fire was banked, giving off a dim red glow, and Merlin glanced at it, urging it to burn just a little higher, adding an extra piece of well-seasoned wood from the basket on the hearth.
"I thought it was your army. I mean, you trained them," Merlin pointed out. "And you're the best warrior in Albion, after all."
Arthur looked smug, and Merlin pushed him flat to his back, unlacing his trousers. Arthur smiled up at the ceiling, chuckling a little. "I had no idea you thought so highly of me, Merlin."
Merlin rolled his eyes and yanked at the leg of his trousers, tugging them out from Arthur's body. "Well, you do go on about it," he grumbled, and gave another wrench. Arthur wriggled and arched his hips, and Merlin yelped as the sudden release made him stumble and fall back on his ass.
"Merlin?" Arthur struggled to sit up and blinked down at Merlin. His hair was tousled, shining gold in the firelight. Merlin found his eyes moving down, where Arthur's legs were casually open and bare, the shadowed space between them only hinting at skin and shape, lightly draped with only Arthur's loose linen shirt. "Are you all right?"
Merlin yanked his eyes back up to Arthur's face, where Arthur looked concerned and a little confused. He was blushing, he could feel the hot tightness in his cheeks, and he hoped like hell that Arthur was too drunk to notice.
"I'm fine," he said, and pretended it wasn't strained. "Come on, get into bed. It's too cold to lay about." He scrambled back to his feet, studiously keeping his gaze averted, and wondered what in the name of the gods was happening to him. He'd helped Arthur dress and undress a hundred times--a thousand--and it had never affected him like this before. He felt clumsy and awkward as he dragged the blankets back and helped Arthur crawl beneath them, and he was so relieved when Arthur was finally covered up that his hands were trembling slightly as he took off his own tunic.
He glanced over, unable to resist, and saw Arthur watching him sleepily, the gleam of his eyes in the dim light unmistakable. "What?" he asked, tensely. He didn't have the patience for any of Arthur's games tonight. Not when he was struggling to keep his equilibrium in a world that suddenly didn't make quite as much sense as it had.
Arthur blinked slowly, and didn't respond. Merlin took a deep breath and began unlacing his breeches, shivering a little with cold. The fire was taking off the chill from the air, but nothing could eliminate the icy bite of winter. He could see the gooseflesh on his arms and belly, and his nipples were pebbled tight.
Arthur made a soft sound as Merlin pushed his breeches down. Merlin kept his eyes down, forced himself not to hesitate, and pulled the breeches all the way off. He stood sideways to Arthur for a minute, facing the fire his as he folded the breeches carefully, and in the sudden absolute silence, the fire's whispered crackling was as loud as thunder, and Arthur's quiet ragged breathing was perfectly audible. Merlin could almost hear his heart beating, pounding in his chest like he was drowning.
The fire cracked a little, the new log shifting as it burned, and a coal fell apart into fragments. It broke the moment, and Merlin lost his courage. He turned and slid under the blankets, facing away from Arthur, shaking hard and not just with the cold.
He waited for a few minutes, although he couldn't decide what he was waiting for. When he finally turned over, Arthur's eyes were closed, his features slack, sleeping peacefully.
Merlin lay awake for a long time.
It was Lancelot who brought up the problem of what to do next, several days later. The weather had eased slightly, and Arthur and Lancelot had been sparring. Lancelot had gotten terribly good at swordcraft, and Arthur had been trained to the blade since he could toddle--together, the two of them had attracted quite an audience, and the fight had lasted far longer than it should have, both men toying with their opponent.
"Arthur," Lancelot said after the fight, his voice very sober and serious, if a little distracted. He was sharpening his sword and eyeing the blade critically, "you know you can't stay here forever. What do you plan to do?"
"I don't know," Arthur said, and Merlin wasn't fooled by the casualness of the reply. Arthur threw the last dagger at a wooden plank set up as a target, ran a hand through his hair, and walked across the room to pull them out, dumping them into a basket. "I'm exiled, Lancelot. My father believes me guilty of treason. What do you suggest that I do, overthrow my father and take back Camelot by force?"
Lancelot took a deep breath, but Merlin beat him to it. "Yes," he said, and met Arthur's shocked, angry glare without flinching. "Arthur, it's the only way. You know it is. You can't leave the kingdom--Uther will see you dead before he lets you seek refuge in another ruler's lands. And you can't stay here forever. He'll come for you, he'll find you, if he has to level Albion to do it."
"You think so, yeah? And just how do you know that?" Arthur growled. He threw a knife at the target, and it sunk into the wood soundly, a hairsbreadth from the center.
"Because that's what he did to magic-users," Merlin said, and Arthur flinched. He threw another knife, and it landed just to the right of the first. "He killed them all, Arthur. He hunted them and killed them. He's still killing them. He won't stop, once he gets it into his head, he'll keep going until he finds you, no matter how long it takes."
"It isn't just that," Lancelot said, quietly. Another knife thunked into the target, deeper than the others and farther from the center. "Arthur--sire, it's a question of honor. The only way to preserve yours is to return to your due place. You are the prince of Camelot, it is your right and your duty to ascend to the throne."
"In due time," Arthur said, savagely. He threw a fourth knife. It hit well away from the others, listing at a precarious angle, only shallowly buried. "Not while my father still lives. And you're a fine one to talk of honor," he added bitterly, "a liar who deceived me to gain admittance to the knighthood."
Lancelot winced and looked away. "I'm sorry for that," he said quietly. "I did what I thought was right, and I was wrong. I have tried to make amends for the wrongs I caused, and I regret what I did. But I'm right about this," he added steadily, and Arthur turned away. "Arthur, you know I'm right."
"So you would have me turn traitor for real?" Arthur said harshly, and threw his last knife. It hit the target badly, skittered off into the corner, but Arthur had already whirled to face him. "You would have me usurp the throne, make myself truly an oathbreaker. That's what you see as the solution to this disaster?" Arthur's eyes glittered. "Get out. Now."
Merlin stood up, stepped between Arthur and Lancelot with a hand on Arthur's chest. Behind him, Lancelot stood and bowed, carefully.
"My lord," Lancelot said, softly, and left, while Arthur's chest heaved under Merlin's hand, Arthur's angry, ragged breathing loud in the sudden quiet.
"He's right," Merlin said, after a very long time, when the frantic pulse under his hand had calmed, and Arthur's breathing was even and calm again.
Arthur shivered and stepped back. He looked bleak, empty--resigned.
"I know he is," Arthur said, heavily. "That doesn't mean I have to like it."
"The most important thing we need," Arthur said intently, "is information."
"Yes?" Merlin said, guardedly. Arthur was smiling, so immediately he was suspicious. "Wait, information?" Merlin was struck by a sudden through. "What kind of information, exactly?"
"I need to know what my father is planning," Arthur said grimly, changing tracks in the space between one breath and another. "If he's coming after me--and I'm sure he will--I need to know his plans, his movements. And I need to." Arthur stopped, and looked a bit sick.
"Arthur?" Merlin said, after a minute.
Arthur made a small, almost helpless gesture, and something inside Merlin ached to see the look on his face, bleak and determined. "My father will never let me come back, Merlin," Arthur said, quietly. "Not willingly. Sooner rather than later, he will write me out of the succession formally--and we know who it passes to, in that case."
"Aelfric," Merlin said numbly.
"Yes. Aelfric will become my father's heir, which is exactly what he was trying to accomplish. And I will not permit that to happen." Arthur looked fierce. "He'll be the ruin of Camelot--he's already brought his barony to near-ruin, although it isn't common knowledge. I will not let him get his hands on Camelot, if that means having to--to fight my father, to prevent it." Arthur took a deep breath. "If I am to fight him, I must have knights on my side. I must find out who of the knights of Camelot is loyal to me, and will come to my banner."
Merlin winced, and Arthur gave him a bitter smile. "I know," he said, "ironic. I am accused of treason, of which I am entirely innocent, and to defend myself against it, I must turn traitor for real." He looked away, and his mouth was tight, his posture rigid.
Merlin stepped forward, and lay a tentative hand on Arthur's shoulder. Arthur held himself stiffly for a second, and then relaxed, leaning into the touch minutely. Merlin stroked his shoulder, gently, and then stepped away, giving Arthur privacy to compose himself again.
"If I am to put together an army to take back my rightful place," Arthur continued after a minute, only a faint shiver in his voice giving away his pain, "we must have information. I need to communicate with the knights that I trust, and that means I need to return."
"You mean, go back to Camelot?" Merlin stared in disbelief. "Arthur, are you mad?"
"It has to be done," Arthur said shortly--and, Merlin noted, without disagreeing with him--and stood. "I'll leave in the morning. I know some back ways into the castle, I'm sure I can avoid being captured."
"Over my dead body," Merlin said tightly. "You're not going anywhere near Camelot."
"And how are you going to stop me?" Arthur snapped. "Remember who you speak to, Merlin."
"Oh, I would find a way," Merlin muttered. "Don't make me do it. And you're not going."
"I have no choice," Arthur said. "I have to know what's happening."
"You're not going," Merlin repeated stubbornly. Arthur threw something across the room--from the clatter it sounded like a drinking cup, and shot a lethal look at Merlin, who met it squarely.
"So what do you propose, then?" Arthur said sarcastically. "Are you just going to magic up a few knights, information, an army?"
"No." Merlin squared his shoulders. "I'm going."
"Impossible." Arthur looked appalled by the very thought. "You'd be killed in the first thirty seconds. Not to mention--you're a servant. Who's going to listen to you?"
Merlin just grinned.
"This is a bad idea," Arthur said, scowling. They had made a small temporary camp three hours ride from Camelot, and it was still well before dawn. The fire was low, well-banked coals that gave heat but little smoke or light, and Arthur was a pale smudge in the darkness. They were alone--Lancelot had volunteered to stay and continue to train with the recruited Druids, the laborious process of shaping men more accustomed to raiding and guerrilla tactics into formation fighters that could face trained knights too important to postpone until their return.
"This was your idea," Merlin pointed out, with what he thought was impressive restraint, tightening the girth of the gelding.
"Oh, get out of the way," Arthur said, and pushed him over. He booted his knee into the horse's belly and it huffed, visibly deflating. Merlin gave it a betrayed look as Arthur tugged the strap tighter. "And no, it wasn't my idea that you should go back into the teeth of danger--alone--and try and preach sedition among my father's knights."
"Your knights," Merlin said patiently, "not his. And yes, it was."
"My idea was to go myself, not to send you in alone and unarmed," Arthur said grimly. "What if you get caught?"
"Then I'll magic myself out of it," Merlin said firmly. "Trust me--they won't catch me. If they do, they definitely won't hold me for long. I promise. But--you were right. For once," he added cheerfully, and Arthur glared to cover up a sudden look of amusement. "We need information, Arthur. "
Arthur didn't look like this opinion made him happy, but he sighed, resigned. "Go, then, but for heaven's sake be stealthy about it. Do not let them hold you." Merlin nodded obediently. "I mean it, Merlin. I am ordering you to defend yourself if you are apprehended, no matter the cost, do you understand?" He stared daggers at Merlin, obviously expecting Merlin to argue that he wouldn't kill blameless men-at-arms for his freedom.
Merlin, for his part, had no intention of objecting, even without the badly-hidden concern in Arthur's eyes. He nodded, and put a reassuring hand on Arthur's forearm. "I won't," he promised, low, and Arthur covered his hand with his own, before pulling away.
"Speak to Gawain first," he said finally, "and Kay, and Galahad. Use whatever magics you need. Trust no one else. Return quickly to me," and that last Merlin had every intention of obeying, if at all possible. "And--my father's prohibition on magic," he said finally. "I never agreed with it, although it was not in my power to change. That will change now. If I'm to be executed," he said, with a flash of dark humor, "I may as well be executed for more than one reason. Show the knights your abilities, if you deem it valuable, let them see that their prince has more than simple righteousness on his side."
Merlin blinked, and didn't bother to hide his surprise. "Are you sure?" Arthur glared. "I mean, I will, sire," he said, and Arthur took hold of his shoulder, dragged him closer. Merlin went unquestioningly, and he expected Arthur to inspect his borrowed armor, but Arthur instead hugged him, roughly.
"It's. I'll be back soon," he said into Arthur's neck, aiming for reassuring but mostly coming out plaintive, but Arthur was already pushing him away, hands firm on his shoulders, digging in a little. Merlin blinked at him, startled at the sudden contact, and Arthur kissed him, hard and hot and wet, possessive.
"See that you do," Arthur said hoarsely, and let him go, and Merlin took deep breaths and forced himself to stumble away. His mouth felt swollen, and his skin tingled, and he wanted very badly to go back to Arthur, but he forced himself to mount.
Safely on the gelding's back, Merlin let himself look back. Arthur wasn't looking at him, though; he was facing away, looking at their dim campfire.
"I'll be back soon," Merlin said, a promise, an oath; and he kicked the gelding almost desperately, because if he didn't, he would never leave.
The ride back down to Camelot was long and Merlin jumped out of his skin at every crackle in the brush, which let to a rather eventful journey, if you counted events as "a pair of squirrels fighting," or "a badger," or a "an angry wild boar sow with her newborn piglets."
That last resulted in a brisk thirty-minute gallop to finally evade her. But at least it took his mind off of Arthur's mouth, soft and tender and urgent, and that sudden, shocking kiss.
Eventually, Merlin started to recognize landmarks--this fallen tree, that cluster of rocks--and he dismounted near a cave that he knew hunters didn't like to frequent because it was small and poky and never housed anything interesting except bats. He tied his horse, securely but with a long rope so it could graze, and carefully tucked Arthur's signet into his shirt. Then he set off on foot.
He'd been trying very hard not to think about this part, because for all his brave words to Arthur about needing information, he really really didn't want to walk back into Camelot again. He'd woken up with nightmares twice about Gaius and Gwen in the dungeon, tortured or even executed for their acquaintance with the man who'd enabled the flight of the prince.
He dreaded seeing their bodies lifeless and hung on the city walls, but he dreaded even more the not-seeing, the not-knowing, and wondering if they were all right while not daring to approach them.
Arthur had confirmed the effectiveness of his camouflage spell, the product of several days of trial and error, and Merlin made himself look as generic as possible; a brown-haired and brown-eyed man, neither thin nor fat, tall nor short, handsome nor ugly. He wore his own clothes, only changing their color to a more monotone dusty brown and disguising the telltale glint of mail at neck and cuff, and air coalesced into the shape of a bundle on his back. He walked the last two miles to Camelot just as dawn was breaking over the eastern horizon, blending in with the small stream of country people heading to Camelot markets, and was as invisible as if he'd spelled it.
Inside Camelot, he looked around like he'd never been there before. The streets were quiet and subdued, but not more than he'd expected. Arthur had always been popular among those of the lower city, and Merlin had heard stories of what the city guard had been like before Arthur had taken over their administration to make him understand why. Arthur could be harsh, but he was also unbendingly fair, and men no longer disappeared into Camelot's dungeons for days with their families pleading at the gate for news, only to return home with unexplained marks on their bodies and shadows in their eyes.
Now, though, the guard were everywhere, more obtrusive than he'd ever seen them, and he found himself mimicking the people around him, staring at the ground as clumps of armed and armored men stomped past, faces unfriendly and hands on their sword hilts.
He slipped away from the main body of the crowd and headed for the castle gates. He wasn't expecting to be let in, but the guard were interrogating a woman and her child--beggars, from the looks of it--and Merlin held his breath and slipped through behind them. The woman wailed as her child was struck into the ground, and Merlin gritted his teeth and kept moving. He began to murmur his concealment spell, no longer able to count on anonymity among a score of commoners, and his skin prickled as the magic enveloped him.
The first person he saw was Gwen, filling a bucket at the pump. He studied her, and she looked tired and upset but not hurt, moving without hesitation or halt, and he felt a slow surge of relief almost overwhelm him. She shouldered the bucket and headed back across the courtyard toward Morgana's chambers, struggling a little under the burden. Merlin watched her go, wishing he dared stop her. But it was too public, and he couldn't let himself be distracted from his tasks.
Now for Gaius. He slipped across the courtyard, through the doorway past the oblivious guards and up the stairs. Gaius usually kept his door ajar unless he had a patient with him, and it was open now. Merlin slipped inside and shut it firmly behind him.
Gaius spun around, and his expression changed from angry to shocked, and then Merlin darted forward and caught him just as he was about to sink to the ground.
"Merlin," Gaius breathed, and his eyes were wet.
"The king has placed a price on your head, and Arthur's," Gaius said. Merlin had warmed some wine and added a tonic of dandelions and thistle to it, strengthening herbs, and Gaius sipped it with returning color in his face. He was sitting on his cot, staring at Merlin like he'd never thought to see him again, like he was a ghost. "He claims that Arthur committed treason against the throne and you aided and abetted him."
"Oh, did I," Merlin muttered darkly, and began to tidy up the workbench, old habits taking over. It didn't look like anyone had touched anything since Merlin had left, and there was dust on Gaius' beloved collection of glass distillation flasks and beakers. "Well, that part's right, at least. Does he really think that Arthur was plotting treason?"
"I can only guess what is in the mind of the king," Gaius said wearily, "I am not privy to his thoughts."
"Does he blame you?" Merlin asked, turning to look critically at Gaius. He looked awful, worn and gray and his face was deeply lined, but he didn't look hurt and he had not obviously been stripped of his property or position. Yet. "Does he think you helped us?"
"No," Gaius said, and there was pain in his voice. "But he knows that you were my apprentice and came to Arthur's service from me. I am sure he is suspicious about the nature of Arthur's disappearance, so sudden and complete--he may even suspect magic was involved when Arthur fled, even if he cannot confirm it. He has...changed. He no longer trusts me, and I am not welcome in his council."
Merlin sat down on the cot next to Gaius. "What has he done?" he asked quietly, not really wanting to hear the answer but needing to know.
Gaius was silent for a long time. "Executions are increasing," he said, and Merlin could feel the anguish. Gaius was Uther's man, as much as Merlin was Arthur's; Merlin could only imagine the agony of seeing his king and liege acting so appallingly, with so little recourse to stop him. "He has already executed eleven this week." Merlin blinked in shock.
"Were they guilty? I mean, were they actually--"
Gaius sighed, very deeply. "No," he said softly, painfully. "No, Merlin, I fear they were not."
Merlin closed his eyes. Uther was striking out, taking refuge in his war on sorcery, inflicting his rage at Arthur's disappearance on a helpless people. Arthur had to be told this. He covered Gaius' hand with his own, and the two sat silent for several minutes. Gaius looked bleak, devastated, and Merlin tried not think about eleven innocents going to the fires, the screaming, the death.
Gaius didn't ask where Merlin had been, or why he'd left. That, in Merlin's experience, meant that he didn't want to know, but also that he already understood what wasn't being said.
"I need to find some of Arthur's knights," Merlin said finally, after the silence had allowed both of them to regain their composure, and Gaius nodded, looking older than he remembered.
"Many of them are on patrol," Gaius said, and drank more from his cup. His hands were shaking, Merlin noted critically, but he seemed otherwise to be regaining his strength. "Uther searches for Arthur constantly. Some of them are kept at the castle, however; they can be found in the training yards."
Merlin didn't ask which knights were on patrol, and which were here. He could already guess; the knights who could not be relied on to bring the prince to his father in whatever condition the king called for would have been held back, kept under Uther's eye. Which made them exactly the men he needed to see.
But Gaius truly looked terrible, care worn into the dark shadows under his eyes, his slow movements. "Are you all right?" he said, unable to control his worry any longer, and knelt in front of Gaius. "Have they mistreated you?"
Gaius gave him an affectionate look, and patted his arm. "I'm all right," he said gently. "Honestly."
Merlin didn't believe him, and he especially didn't believe him when Gaius lowered his arm incautiously and his sleeve slipped. "And what about this," he said harshly, and pushed the sleeve back farther; a bracelet of bruised and welted skin that Merlin had seen before. Gaius had been in the dungeons. For what crime, Merlin could only guess.
Gaius gently pulled his arm away. "It is little enough," he said, "compared to what others have experienced."
Merlin left Gaius' chambers with a bagful of medicines, tonics for strength and healing salves and vials of oil infused with herbs to promote health and clarity of thought, all wrapped carefully in a spare kerchief and shoved into the bottom of Merlin's old plant-gathering bag. He took his book as well, and a supply of parchment, and a lump of lamp-black ink, because while some things were too dangerous to be written down, some things were nevertheless worth the risk. He hugged Gaius tightly before he left, and pretended not to see the tears in the old man's eyes, and slipped out as unnoticed as he'd entered.
The training yards were on the south side of the castle, to catch the best sunlight all day long and offer shelter from the north winds in winter. When Merlin reached them they were all in use, knights practicing archery and pairs fighting with sword and shield. He scanned the surcoats, and spotted two of the three he wanted. Gawain and Kay were fighting with long knives and sword, blades flashing in the sun, but their movements seemed a hair too slow, tired, and he guessed that they would break off soon.
There was a secondary armory at the far end of the yards. Merlin picked his way around the perimeter of the yards, not so worried about being seen now--knights in training, he'd learned to his occasional misfortune, tended to be oblivious to anything that wasn't either coming at them with a sword or being viewed down the shaft of an arrow. He found a shadowed spot inside, cast his invisibility spell, and waited patiently as men came in, one at a time and in groups, picked things up and put them down, talked loudly, went away.
At last the moment came, Gawain and Kay talking quietly as they examined their armor for damage. He stepped out, and immediately their attention was on him.
"Merlin," Gawain said, looking shocked and a little disappointed but hiding it well, and Merlin smiled a little.
Kay adapted faster. "The prince," he said, leaning forward and speaking softly, intently, looking around like he expected Arthur to step out from the shadows, and Merlin held up his hands calmingly. "Where is he? Is he safe?"
"He's fine," Merlin said, reassuringly. "He's fine, he's safe. He sent me here, with a message."
Gawain frowned, eyes very serious. "Say it, then."
Merlin cleared his throat. "Arthur sends me to say that he is innocent of the crime he has been accused of," he said quietly. "He seeks to regain his rightful place and prevent Camelot from falling into the hands of her enemies. He asks for those who would swear their loyalty to Camelot and to him to meet him in a fortnight's time, at the forest border near the stand of oaks, closest to Lake Lothien. "
Kay and Gawain didn't say anything, although Merlin hadn't really expected them to. Gawain looked away at his armor, absently stroking the curve of his gorget. Kay was nodding, slowly and thoughtfully. Merlin braced himself--this next was the tricky part.
"Arthur needs your help. But he is not alone in this struggle," he said, and his stomach was in knots. Arthur had told him to do this, yes, but that didn't make it any easier to break a lifetime of habits. "He has allies. The Druids will fight with him. And," he took a deep breath, because these two had never been as zealous about Uther's crusade against magic as some, but nevertheless he still had to force the words out, "he will be aided with magic."
"Magic?" Gawain said, disbelievingly. "But--Arthur hates magic."
"Arthur is Uther's loyal son," Merlin countered, lifting his chin stubbornly. "He supported his father's laws regarding magic, placing his own opinions aside for the good of Camelot. But his father has betrayed him. While the sorcerers that wield it may use it for evil purposes, Arthur does not believe that magic is evil, and he will not reject a tool that may assist him in his goal."
"But where will he find a wizard willing to help him?" Kay asked suspiciously. "No wizard would willingly help a Pendragon--haven't enough of them attacked the prince to prove that?"
"Not every wizard hates Arthur Pendragon," Merlin said, and he hoped his nervousness wasn't visible. "There is one who is loyal to him, above all others. Who would die for him. Someone whose destiny it is to protect Arthur from all enemies." Oh, the Dragon would have laughed to hear him. Merlin was suddenly very glad that he hadn't bothered to go visit the Dragon this time. He really didn't want to hear what it would have thought of this particular adventure.
Kay and Gawain looked stunned, and maybe feeling the first glimmers of hope. "Who is it?" Kay demanded, and Merlin smiled. He hoped it didn't look as strained as he felt.
Merlin waited a handful of seconds, then raised his hands up dramatically and let the magic blaze up in his face. Kay and Gawain's swords, secure in their sheaths, came to his hand. Merlin grinned at the shock on the faces of the knights, the dawning realization of what he was. "Me," Merlin said, and pulled his concealment spell around him like a cloak. His hands were shaking, he realized, and Kay and Gawain were dumbstruck, staring at what must seem to be thin air. Merlin clamped down on nervous giggles and forced himself to relax.
So. Message delivered, rumor created, men contacted. The wheels of Arthur's plan had been set in motion.
Merlin crept silently past the stunned, gaping knights, making his way outside.
Time to get out. This was everything Arthur had asked him to do--everything Merlin had wanted to do, himself. Gaius was safe. Gwen was safe. Neither was happy, but they weren't rotting in a dungeon, which was probably the best he could expect at this point.
Merlin stared up at the looming bulk of the castle. First, though--there was one more stop he wanted to make.
Arthur's rooms were sealed off, the crest of Camelot painted across the doors, wooden bars blocking the frame. Merlin waved it all aside, muttered the spell to unlock the door, and pushed it open.
It was dusty inside, smelling of damp and disuse. The fireplace was dark and cold, greasy with soot. Merlin stared at the broken furniture, the scattered clothing, the mattress listing half off the bed frame as though they'd actually expected to find the prince of Camelot quaking beneath the bed during their search.
He gazed bleakly at the destruction, at what Uther thought of his son after a lifetime of loyal service, and something cold and bitter stirred in his chest, making him ache.
A sack from the cupboard was filled with what Merlin could salvage, what he'd come here to claim. Then he looked around, consideringly.
A wall was completely empty, blank and stripped of ornament and tapestry. It faced the door. There, Merlin decided.
He raised his hands, narrowed his eyes, and called the letters into being, etched them deeply into the walls, filled them with color--Camelot red, Arthur's rightful claim--and set his will on them, to make sure they wouldn't come off, no matter how hard they were attacked with a chisel. Then he turned and stared at the hinges of the double doors, telling them what to do, pouring power into it so that it wouldn't fade with time.
The sun was going down, long streaks of light stretching across the floor, by the time he was done, and he stepped back to study work, a little tired but satisfied nonetheless.
Prince Arthur of Camelot, the writing on the wall read. The Rightful Ruler Will Return. They were large and clear, instantly obvious and visible--instantly magical--and they faced the door, which would never close.
So much for locking him away and forgetting about him, Merlin thought with grim satisfaction.
Let Uther try and shut this away.
Arthur was waiting exactly where he'd left, and the look on his face when Merlin rode up was something Merlin didn't think he'd ever forget--relief, tremendous relief, although Arthur hid it well.
"So, you didn't muff it up, then," Arthur said, with entirely unjustified doubt in his voice, although he held Merlin's reins for him as he dismounted.
"Of course I didn't muff it up," Merlin said confidently, with what he felt was justifiable pride. Arthur continued to eye him dubiously, and Merlin let his grin turn into a smirk. "I found Kay and Gawain, and delivered your message. And I told them about my magic," he added, "which they took pretty well, considering. Plus I brought back some of your things." He handed Arthur the sack, and watched as Arthur began picking through it. A suit of court clothes--just in case this lunatic scheme actually started to work and Arthur needed to look impressive--and his coronet, for the same reason. His favorite sable-lined cloak, and small eating knife and spoon. A few books that he'd seen Arthur read, mostly about tactics, although one appeared to be old Roman love poetry. And his jewelry.
Arthur looked down at the gleam of silver and gold in his palm, and lightly touched a ring, marked with the Pendragon crest. He closed his hand around them, and Merlin looked away, respecting his expression. He turned back to the horse, adjusting a leather strap that didn't need it and pretending he didn't hear Arthur's harsh breathing.
After a minute, Arthur sighed, and then smacked the back of his head lightly. "Well, I suppose you aren't totally useless after all," he said, something in his voice that Merlin didn't try to decipher. "Come on, let's get back. I don't want to risk a hunting party discovering us here."
Merlin nodded and mounted up, rather less gracefully than he could have, scrabbling at the saddlebow awkwardly and grunting with effort. Arthur's weak chuckle was a fair enough reward for making a fool of himself, though, and Merlin shot Arthur an entirely feigned look of irritation as he finally gained his seat. "You really are crap at the good stuff," Arthur said, and Merlin huffed and looked martyred.
"I blame my teacher," he said, with dry irony, and Arthur laughed, genuine this time.
One month later, and the ice was thawing, the snow was more of a weekly thing than a daily thing--and Merlin was never going to take Camelot's generally mild winters for granted again, not when there was still plenty of winter left to go sour--and it was time to find out who had responded to Arthur's call.
The stand of trees was well away from Camelot, and from prying eyes, but that didn't mean that there weren't spies. They rode into the clearing cautiously, Arthur first and flanked by Merlin on his right and Lancelot on his left.
Immediately they had the full attention of the gathered knights, and more than a few men at arms. Merlin couldn't really count them, they were moving around too much, but there looked to be well over fifty--far more than Arthur had anticipated attracting. He heard the whispers, "that's the wizard," "I would never have thought," "wouldn't think Arthur would allow it," "he doesn't look like much," and straightened his back defiantly, trying not to show his nervousness. On Arthur's other side, Lancelot looked grim and forbidding, hand resting on his sword hilt.
"Thank you for coming," Arthur said, chin up and shoulders square. He looked like a prince, Merlin thought, and tried to banish the thought before he could feel any admiration. Arthur would never let him hear the end of it if he got all soppy. "I--appreciate the loyalty that you show me, and I know the danger that you face in order to be here. I know you love Camelot as I do, and wish only for her prosperity and security. I did not desire to follow this course, but I have no other choice. I am glad," and Arthur dropped his voice, looking around, "that I will make this fight with you at my back and at my side."
Gawain stepped forward, on foot, and walked without any hesitation to face Arthur. Arthur dismounted and tossed Merlin his reins, then gave him his hand, and Gawain kissed it, knelt and drew his sword, held it out to Arthur between his hands. The blade seemed to glimmer in the dim, thin winter light.
"I pledge my sword to and to your service, my lord, for the rest of my life," Gawain said, low but steady, and Arthur bowed his head and laid a hand on Gawain's sword, closing his palm around the blade.
"I accept your sword into my service," he said, and then touched his palm, whole and unmarked, to Gawain's head. "And I thank you for it."
One by one, the men stepped forward, knelt, and swore, and Arthur accepted their oaths. Merlin mumbled under his breath, searching for dishonesty, searching for treachery, but there was none that he could find. Lancelot was like stone beside Arthur, but when Merlin glanced over, he thought he saw wetness on his face, and his eyes glittered.
With the knights recruited to the cause, the pace of preparation accelerated. Men still came most days to join Arthur, and sometimes with them came the supplies an army needed: weapons, food, clothing, horses. Arthur had councils of war with Brydain and other Druid leaders who came to the town--Warleggen, as Merlin learned it was called--as well as Lancelot, almost every day. The town was a whirl of activity, of movement, noise and energy, far different from the sleepy hungry quiet Merlin remembered from winters in Ealdor.
Lancelot continued to train the Druids in the art of warfare and combat, and Arthur took over instructing the knights and the soldiers from Camelot. They needed to be housed, and Brydain ceremoniously allowed them to share barracks-space in his Great Hall. No squires had come with them, for the most part, and so a few youths from the villages were asked to come and assist them. But for the most part, the knights took care of their own gear and mounts, with moderate amounts of good-natured grousing and reminiscences of their own squire days .
Merlin, meanwhile, prepared in his own way.
Merlin pulled up the hood of his cloak a little more securely, muttered his spell a last time, and stepped out into the crowd of the market. It didn't matter how many times he did this, he always felt like he was wearing a sign, but as always no one else seemed to notice, and no one seemed to recognize him. Still, he felt oppressed and nervous, the stone towers of the castle looming over him. Camelot felt bleaker and more barren every time he came, the pyres sometimes still smoking.
They hung suspected traitors now, people thought to be conspiring with Arthur as well as sorcerers. Arthur's face had gone white when Merlin had returned from one of his trips to break that bad news to him. He'd waved Merlin away, face twisted slightly, and Merlin had lowered his head and gone without comment, made sure the door was latched and locked behind him, and deliberately didn't listen to the rough, raw sounds that came through the wood.
He could feel Arthur back at Warleggen, tense and anxious, waiting for him to come back. That gift had come a week after the arrival of the knights in Warleggen, the first time he'd returned to Camelot alone. He'd been a day away from Warleggen when the awareness washed over him, Arthur worrying, affection and concern wrapped up together until Merlin couldn't find the seams between them. The sudden connection was startling, and he'd almost fallen off the horse.
Since then he'd felt it whenever he and Arthur were parted, and it was starting to feel almost normal to have Arthur's regard tucked into the back of his head.
He sidled up to the guards at the main gate, waited until they were distracted by a man with a donkey loaded with sacks, and slipped in behind their backs, walking as quiet and careful as he could. He waited to hear the shouts, as he always did, but none came, as they always didn't, and involuntarily he relaxed a bit.
The castle was exactly as he remembered it. Merlin hurried through the corridors, filled with scurrying servants with blank, pinched faces who didn't pay any attention to him, spell or no spell. He'd started going back to Camelot when he'd pointed out--in an epic argument that lasted most of a day and ended with two broken dishes and Arthur's riding boots set on fire--that Arthur himself had said that they needed information. They had to know what Uther and Aelfric were planning, how many men they had, how well supplied they were, and what the response from other kingdoms had been to the civil unrest in Camelot.
So Merlin had gone back, had brought Arthur information as well as money, the crucial gold and silver that Arthur used to pay the Druids for the hard-earned crops and horses that were flowing into Warleggen and the surrounding hamlets, given generously but still irreplaceable and precious. He couldn't train men, and there was only so much magic he could practice before he frightened the horses and the men equally, and Arthur was doing most of his own chores now to show solidarity with his men. But he could spy, slipping in and out of Camelot like a breeze, listening, watching, snooping around.
"I won't get caught, don't worry," Merlin had told Arthur, reassuringly. Arthur had snorted, and sat down, his body language indicating surrender.
"Fine," Arthur said at last, grudgingly. "I suppose if anyone's experienced at snooping where they don't belong," he added with dark amusement, "it would be you."
"Oy!" Merlin had chucked a piece of broken crockery at him, and was rewarded with Arthur's smile, rueful and small but real, and that had been that.
But that wasn't what he was here for now.
Merlin founds the stairs that led down and followed them, fast and quiet, ready.
The dungeons were cool but not more so than the castle, deep in the earth. Merlin slipped across paving stones worn smooth with age, the darkness flickering with torches, following the sound of men and dice.
He rounded the corner, saw the guards bolt to their feet in surprise, hands going to their swords as the table crashed to the floor, and raised his hands. "Draethen," he said fiercely, and they were flung back against the wall, two of them crying out in pain as their backs cracked ominously against stone, swords clanging as they dropped to the ground. On man slumped unconscious, bleeding from the head. The fourth landed against a light sconce and crumpled to the ground, blood pooling under his motionless form.
Merlin ignored them all, stepped over the body and didn't look at them men cringing in fear, moaning in pain; he stepped past them, reached up and blasted the lock of the dungeon open with sheer raw anger, the ancient rusty metal shattering under the force of it.
A huddled form in the corner of the cell didn't move.
"Gaius," he said, voice breaking just a little, and the form stirred, moved slowly. Merlin stepped further into the cell, and helped Gaius stand, the lined face discolored with bruises, manacles tight on his wrists.
"Merlin," Gaius said, weakly, and put a hand on Merlin's face.
"I'm getting you out of here," Merlin said gently, carefully easing the manacles free with magic and delicate fingers, wincing at the shredded flesh beneath. "Come on."
"How did you know," Gaius said, and coughed. Merlin closed his eyes and carefully wrapped Gaius up in power, lifting most of his weight off his feet. The way Gaius sagged into the support, slumping defeated and worn, told Merlin more than he wanted to know about his exhaustion and weakness, but there was no flinching, no pain. Whatever Uther had done to him, it hadn't involved injury.
"Morgana," Gaius managed, and Merlin nodded, peering back up the staircase and then slipping up it, Gaius holding tightly to his shoulder.
"I know. We're going to get her."
It wasn't one of Merlin's spells that had alerted him to the latest developments in the castle, but a Druid spy. He'd ridden into Warleggen at a gallop, pony lathered and blowing hard, springing from the saddle to come to Arthur. Merlin hadn't been close enough to hear what he said, but he saw Arthur's face go pale and hard, and he definitely heard Arthur's incredulous "What?!"
It was Morgana, of course. Three days ago, following the execution of a family--man, woman, four small children--who stood accused of selling horses and mutton to one of Arthur's Druid allies, she had stood in front of Uther in open court, accused him of blindness and obsession, called him a kinslayer, and spat on the floor at his feet.
Uther, furious at being defied so blatantly, had ordered her pilloried in the stocks for a day and a night, then confined her to her quarters, shackles on the door. When Gaius protested, he was imprisoned in the dungeon. When Gwen tried to creep in to attend to Morgana, she was flogged in the market square.
By the time the spy had finished telling the story, Merlin was by Arthur's side, one hand on his sword arm, dragging him away before the anguished rage on Arthur's face could erupt in a manner that would only make him feel worse when it passed.
"Arthur," Merlin said, reaching out a hand to touch his back. Safe in their hut, Arthur shuddered but permitted the touch, his body rigid and eyes dark.
Arthur turned suddenly, clutching at Merlin's shoulders, fingers painfully tight as they dug into muscle, but none of that really registered as Arthur buried his face in Merlin's neck, breath hot on his skin. He was shaking, and Merlin tentatively petted his back, long soothing strokes that seemed to ease him. The desperate grip eased. Merlin didn't move, didn't step away, and Arthur's breathing slowly evened out.
"I cannot go," Arthur muttered, a long time later, and Merlin sighed with relief that he didn't have to argue the point. Arthur returning to Camelot would be suicide--even with Merlin's spell, the risks were too great. "You must bring her back here."
"I will," Merlin murmured, and let his hands stop, resting lightly, carefully on Arthur's waist. "I promise I will. I'll bring them all back."
He set out an hour later, Lancelot and four knights with him, taking nothing but bread and water and remounts for them all, and Morwen, a woman Brydain said was the best healer he had. They rode all night and all day and all night again, the horses trembling and exhausted before they reached the outskirts of Camelot, the spires of the castle reaching tall across the sky.
Morgana's chambers were locked, but the locks were nothing to Merlin, he could have picked them even without magic. Morgana stood on the other side of the door, wariness fading into surprise at the sight of him, her eyes going wide as she saw Merlin lift the heavy chains away with a wave of his hand. "You're--" she started, but they didn' t have time for conversation.
"Can you travel?" Merlin cut her off, and she nodded, still looking dazed.
"Yes, of course," she said, and stepped back. "Gwen--Gwen is--"
Merlin could see her, listing slightly from her seat on a backless stool, her face grey and sweaty. "She's sick," he said, something in his stomach twisting. "I heard...the flogging?"
Morgana nodded. "The wounds are infected," she said bitterly. "Uther would allow no one to tend them, not that it would have mattered. Gaius was already imprisoned." She stopped, stiffening. "Gaius--"
"No, it's fine. He's safe," Merlin said, reassuringly. "We have to get you out of the castle, though."
"Leave me, my lady," Gwen said faintly, and Morgana crossed to crouch in front of her, taking her hands and holding them.
"Never," Morgana said firmly, and Gwen's smile was dimmed but still sweet.
"Pack some things," Merlin said, and Morgana didn't waste any time. He left her filling sacks with whatever she deemed necessary--he saw more weaponry than clothing, so he didn't think he needed to worry about her choices--and went to examine Gwen.
"How do you feel?" he asked, worried at the fast pulse beating in the hollow of her throat, and she smiled up at him, a hint of wryness in the expression. He saw now that she was propping herself up on another stool, slightly higher, that she was too weak to sit unaided. She jerked and made a thin sound when he gingerly loosened the laces of her gown and peeled the stained, dirty fabric away from her back, but she didn't pull away.
Someone had tried to bandage the wounds, Merlin could see, but it hadn't helped much. Merlin saw the dark welts, puffy and red with infection and streaked white with pus, and swallowed hard.
"I'm all right," Gwen said, and Merlin bit his lip and carefully laced her back up. "Don't worry about me, Merlin, really. I mean, not that you were worried--I mean, not worried about me--"
"Of course I was worried about you," Merlin said, and Gwen flushed a little, looked a little brighter. "And Arthur is worried, too."
"Oh!" Gwen looked embarrassed but pleased, smiled at him awkwardly, "I mean, that's--he's so kind, Arthur I mean, although of course you're kind too, and Morgana's been so helpful--"
Merlin took Gwen's hands and carefully helped her stand. Gwen wobbled alarmingly, but managed to keep her feet. "We're going to get you out of here," he said, firmly. "And you're going to get better. I promise."
Gwen bit her lip, looking scared. "I--I mean, I believe you, but, Merlin, how? We'll never get out the gates--"
"Oh, well." Merlin grinned sheepishly and held out his hand, never breaking eye contact. The pitcher of water and a cup from the table floated to him, never spilling a drop. Gwen gasped, and Merlin heard Morgana's startled sound across the room. "By magic," he said, and poured her a cup of water. Gwen took it in a shaking hand and drank, and there was new hope in her eyes, fragile but real.
Morgana appeared at his elbow, two sacks in her hands and another pack slung across her back. "Ready."
Merlin did what he'd done with Gaius, wrapped Gwen up and gave her the support she needed. He saw the surprise, the relief on her face as she no longer needed to stay upright and the pain eased as she was able to go limp, and Merlin caught the dawning awareness on Morgana's face as she realized what Merlin was doing.
"Stay close to me," he said softly, and waited for them to both nod. Gwen clung to Morgana, barely able to walk even with Merlin's magic helping her stay upright. "Don't make a sound. Just do what I do, and it'll be fine. I promise, it'll be fine."
Suddenly, overwhelmingly, as he stared at their frightened, trusting faces, he wished Arthur was there.
"Arthur," Merlin said, stepping inside. Arthur looked up from a stack of maps, his hair tousled and face tight, but it faded away when he saw Merlin standing in front of him. Merlin managed a smile, and let the door fall shut behind him.
"They're safe?" Arthur asked, pushing the maps to the side and standing up from the table.
"They're safe," Merlin said. "I sent them to one of the other villages. They'll be safer there."
"And no one was hurt?" Arthur asked, and Merlin grimaced.
"Gwen was--hurt," he said, and despite his efforts echoes of pain and anger seeped out. The ride home had been long and slow, the Druid healing-woman fussing over Gwen the entire way. She still seemed impossibly frail to Merlin's eyes, but he'd been assured that she would recover. Morgana had never left her side, protective as a lioness for her cub, and Gaius had seemed grateful to simply be free. "She'll be all right, though. They're all fine, Arthur, I promise."
Arthur sat on the bed, head low, and rubbed a careless hand across his eyes. He looked impossibly tired, impossibly worn, the slanting firelight making him look older, his face lined with care. Merlin remembered the boy he'd met his first day in Camelot, strong and tall and golden; he remembered Arthur standing between his village and danger, full of conviction and confidence; he remembered Arthur's shining eyes when his father granted him the coronet of rank, made him Crown Prince of Camelot.
None of them looked like this man, scarred and strained and weary, pushing himself harder than anyone else, grieving for every injustice he couldn't correct.
None of them had looked so much like a king.
Merlin didn't know he was walking forward until he felt Arthur's hair between his fingers, the blond strands cool and silky. Arthur exhaled a slow sigh and leaned forward, just an inch, resting his head on Merlin's stomach, and Merlin let his fingers comb slowly down Arthur's scalp, down to his neck, let them tangle lightly.
Then he tightened his fingers, so very gently, and tipped Arthur's head up, and leaned down.
Arthur's mouth was chapped and tightly closed, and Merlin didn't have the faintest idea what he was doing, but he knew that he wanted to be doing this. So he kept doing it, licking curiously at the soft fullness of Arthur's lower lip, let his hand rest with light pressure on the back of Arthur's neck, keeping them together.
When Arthur made a low sound and opened his mouth, something clenched deep in Merlin's stomach, and he shivered dizzily as Arthur surged to his feet, Arthur's hands going into his hair and holding him still for Arthur's kisses. He didn't pull away, though, met him at every step. Arthur slid a hand down his side and yanked at his tunic, and Merlin let go of Arthur long enough to scrabble at the hem, dragging it up. Arthur shoved his hand beneath the shirt as Merlin drew it up, stroking his ribs, rubbing a thumb with rough attention over a nipple.
Merlin gasped for breath as Arthur pulled away, dropping kisses on his neck, setting his teeth with almost brutal need in the tender skin.
"Arthur," he gasped, and Arthur made a rough sound deep in his chest and he sucked hard. Merlin shuddered and pushed up against him, feeling like he'd been dipped into fire. He was hard, and he couldn't remember when it had happened, but he felt amazing, like flying, like he could light sparks from his fingertips. And Arthur gasped whenever he touched him, no matter how light or clumsy or glancing, gasped and held him closer, so maybe he could.
"Merlin," Arthur breathed into his throat, and Merlin keened between clenched teeth as Arthur's hand abandoned his chest to drop down between. It pressed awkwardly at the front of his trousers, Merlin biting his lip to hold back the helpless whine as it fumbled to cup his length. He rocked up into Arthur's hand, met Arthur's mouth and kissed him like he was drowning. He was holding Arthur, he realized dimly, with his shirt rucked up between them and Arthur's hand trapped in place, holding Arthur's shoulders so tightly that his fingers ached with the tension. He never wanted to let them go.
Arthur dropped his other hand to Merlin's hip, dragged him forward and pushed a thigh between his legs. The sudden pressure, the heat, the sight of Arthur flushed and staring at him like he'd never seen anything to match him in all the wide world--Merlin choked, shuddered, and came, feeling his head drop back and his eyes close.
He clung to Arthur's shoulders hazily to stay on his feet, though his muscles no longer really wanted to obey him. Arthur was nuzzling his neck, murmuring things that Merlin couldn't hear and didn't need to, and Merlin dragged his head up, turned and caught Arthur's mouth. Arthur groaned and laughed, the sound more carefree than anything Merlin had heard in weeks, and by the time it occurred to Merlin that maybe he should be doing something more with his hands than just mindlessly stroking Arthur's shoulders, Arthur had already pushed up against him, trembling, and then gone limp.
Merlin managed to catch them before they both went straight to the floor, a combination of magic and very awkward leverage getting them onto the bed. Arthur was absolutely no help at all, limp and panting, looking dazed, breathing hard. Merlin landed mostly on top of him, and he tried to move, not wanting to crush Arthur, but Arthur tightened his grip in what looked like a completely involuntary gesture, and Merlin let himself relax.
Someone should say something, Merlin thought to himself, resting his head in the curve of Arthur's neck. Someone should definitely say something. And really, it should be Arthur--after all, Arthur was the prince. And Arthur had kissed him first, those weeks ago.
Arthur pressed kisses into the side of his face, silent and gentle, and Merlin kissed the salty skin under his mouth, licked it clumsily. He nipped a little, and Arthur quivered underneath him, huffed out a quiet breathless laugh. Merlin felt something in his chest warm.
Maybe no one needed to say anything.
He fell asleep.
When he woke up, Arthur was kneeling on the floor studying his maps again, and Merlin's trousers were hanging up across the room. They were dripping water onto the floor in untidy puddles. A fresh bowl of stew was on the table, sending out tantalizing lamb-scented steam. Merlin's stomach grumbled, almost as an afterthought.
Merlin yawned and sat up, the blanket that had been around his shoulders falling to his waist. "What happened to my trousers?" he asked, although he realized as he asked the question that he didn't particularly care about the answer.
Arthur looked up then, and smiled at him, a little diffidently, some of his customary self-importance muted into something smaller, quieter, easier. He looked good, Merlin thought, some of the lines in his face smoothed away, his eyes brighter than before, clear and steady on Merlin's face. "I washed them," Arthur said as though it was obvious, and Merlin let himself goggle. "Well, you--I mean, it was disgusting, " he said, and Merlin grinned, he couldn't help himself.
Arthur smiled wider, something open and vulnerable in his eyes that Merlin found simultaneously very sweet and a little frightening. He flipped back the cover a little, trying to ask without asking, and Arthur shifted up.
"You didn't wash your own trousers?" he asked dryly as Arthur climbed into the bed, shuffling awkwardly over him so he was closest to the wall. Arthur was wearing a new pair of breeches and fresh linen, and he smelled like rosemary and clean skin.
"Of course not," Arthur said, and gave him a half-smile, as if hoping that he'd appreciate the irony of it. "I have servants for that."
Merlin rolled his eyes and poked Arthur in the chest, the tender place under his breastbone. Arthur huffed, and captured his hand. Merlin spread out his fingers so Arthur's fingers fell into the spaces, and then closed his hand, interlacing them together.
Arthur waited a minute, then leaned forward and kissed him. Merlin tasted the reserve, the silent question, and did his best to answer it, letting himself fall back to the bed and dragging Arthur more solidly over him, opening to his kiss without shame or hesitation.
One of Arthur's hands stroked down his side, hot even through Merlin's shirt, and Merlin grinned into the kiss. "Are you trying to ruin the blankets now?" he mumbled, and Arthur bit his lip.
"Quiet," Arthur told him, but he was grinning, Merlin could see him trying to hide it. "Do I need to remind you that I'm in charge in here?"
"Oh my hero," Merlin said, and clutched at his heart a little, snickering. "Yes, do tell me you're in charge, you big strong--oof--knight, you," he said, and wheezed a little for effect. "Never mind, you aren't a big strong knight, you're just a big bully," he said, and Arthur rolled his eyes and moved his hand a little lower. Merlin shut up, because abruptly there no longer seemed to be enough air in the room, and Arthur's smirk was annoying, yes, but not nearly as bad as the thought that he might take his hand away.
Sword calluses, Merlin thought dizzily, very nice, and then thought fled and he arched up into Arthur's hand, his clever hand, which had closed over Merlin's cock and was working him in slow, long stripping pulls. Slow, so achingly slow, and Merlin flailed for something to hold onto, caught Arthur's neck and dragged him down for kissing, then ended up moaning helplessly against Arthur's mouth, pleasure spiking into him like steel and making him clumsy and dazed.
Arthur moved away, and Merlin heaved for air, caught his breath to whine for more, and Arthur's hot hand was amazng, but it wasn't enough. Then Arthur shifted his weight, and Merlin sobbed silently as Arthur's mouth sucked him, leisurely, just the tip but it was enough, it was perfect, and Arthur swirled his tongue and Merlin collapsed into fire.
He thrashed, he was pretty sure, and he must have caught Arthur by surprise, because when Arthur slid back up his body, expression a combination of smug pride and awed wonder, there was a smear of something on his cheek, near his mouth.
Merlin stared and then craned his neck up and licked at it. Arthur groaned quietly and pressed into him, the slick slide of skin making all the sensations from a minute ago return, in muted but tantalizing echo, his skin was damp with sweat and prickled with every touch, and Arthur thrust against him with rhythmic force that got faster as Merlin hooked his ankles over Arthur's calves, pulled him close.
"Come on," Merlin said, "come on, come on Arthur yes," and Arthur froze, then shook and dropped his head and abruptly Merlin was a lot damper, and Arthur was a lot heavier, and the room was full of panting and the thick scent of come and pounding heartbeats.
"I think you messed up the blanket," Merlin said, when he'd recovered his voice. Arthur blindly worked a hand free of the tangle of their bodies and punched him in the arm. "Ow!"
"Shut up," Arthur mumbled. Merlin closed his eyes, unable to stop the smile spreading across his face--he was fairly sure he looked like an idiot, but luckily it didn't seem like Arthur was going to be able to notice anytime soon.
"You look like an idiot."
Merlin ignored him, and continued to eat, the lamb stew cold but still good. He felt as though he hadn't eaten in a week. Unfortunately, Arthur was washing in a basin, and he was getting a little distracted by all the skin currently on display, and it was a little difficult to chew and swallow while simultaneously grinning like a soppy girl.
Something caught his eye, and he frowned, putting the bowl aside. "What's that?" A new mark was high on Arthur's left hip, still angry and red, stitched neatly along the lower portion and stretching upward more shallowly towards his belly for almost a foot. "What happened?" he demanded, surging off the bed to approach him, dropping to his knees to get a better look. "Who did this?"
"It's nothing," Arthur said dismissively, twitching away from Merlin's carefully exploring touch. Merlin growled and grabbed his hip and the curve of his ass and used them as handles to drag Arthur back into position, and hey, this new thing between them was going to come in handy, because Arthur didn't get stroppy over being manhandled and instead made a small involuntary sound and softened, relaxed, let Merlin examine him.
Merlin frowned, mouth tight as he carefully traced the path of the wound, seeing the stroke that had caused it in his mind's eye. It was in the right place, the deepest part of it would have come in just below the gap of the haubergeon , a lucky stroke of the sword that would have come in on Arthur's weaker side, where his blocking might have been slowed by the heavy shield. But the cut looked too narrow and clean for a sword, and Merlin had patched up enough of Arthur's training accidents to know that a sword would have made a thicker, heavier cut. It looked like a knife injury, but that didn't make sense, because Arthur wore quilted padding to practice knife fighting, not mail, and the padding didn't have the same gaps to allow for range of motion.
He let his fingers touch it gingerly, felt the heat and the slightly puffy skin, the oily residue of a salve still lingering, and looked up at Arthur. Arthur looked very calm, and his eyes were very blue, which was good because right now Merlin felt like he was about to fly apart.
"It was an attempt, yes," Arthur confirmed, quietly, although Merlin hadn't said anything yet. "One of the new Druid recruits was a plant. We were sparring, and he dropped his sword and used a knife."
"Where is he?" Merlin didn't recognize his own voice, but Arthur didn't flinch.
"Brydain has him." Arthur didn't look away from him, and Merlin could see reflected fire in his eyes. "He's started questioning him. It only happened three days ago."
Merlin stood up, and he was too close to Arthur but he was shaking so hard it seemed like a good thing. He put his hands on Arthur's forearm when he swayed, let Arthur keep him on his feet. Arthur reached up and touched his cheek, gently, and Merlin trembled.
"I want to see him."
Arthur smiled, and it looked involuntary. "Absolutely not," he said dryly, and stepped back a bit, dropping his damp cloth in the basin. "I need him alive."
"I'd leave him alive," Merlin said, although he wasn't entirely sure that was true. He felt like something in his chest was tearing at him, desperate to be set free. Arthur's sardonic look told him that maybe Arthur didn't entirely believe him either. "Mostly."
"Don't worry about it," Arthur said confidently, and moved past Merlin to start dressing. "Brydain's confident we'll get a lot of information out of him, although he hasn't said a word since it happened. And he's under guard now. We've taken steps to secure the rest of the recruits, make sure that none of them were a part of the plan. Now that you're back, you can help with that."
"And when Brydain's finished with him?" Merlin had to fight down the surge of rage. He stared at the point of Arthur's hip, seeing now the way Arthur favored it, very slightly. "What will happen then?"
"Then he'll be dealt with," Arthur said, and propped one of his feet up on the bed, lacing up his boot. "I may exile him, I don't know. He's not a fighter, not a trained assassin, just a simple village boy, Merlin--gods only know what they threatened him with to make him go along with this." He must have read Merlin's expression. "I mean it, Merlin," he warned. "Don't go near him. Leave him to Brydain's men, they'll get answers out of him soon."
Not soon enough, Merlin thought stubbornly. "When did he arrive?" he asked, and Arthur sighed and switched feet.
"About a month ago," he glanced up from lacing, "so you probably would recognize him. Ashgillian?"
One of the youngest of the volunteers that had come forth, barely enough into his growth spurt to hold a sword. He'd arrived a month ago with a group of men from one of the outermost Druid villages, from near the Mercian border. Merlin had liked him. Arthur had muttered something about fighting with children, but had eventually given in and allowed Lancelot to start training him. "He waited for me to leave," Merlin said, and that cold, tearing feeling was back. "He waited for you to be defenseless. I should never have gone."
"No," Arthur said flatly, straightening and dropping his foot down, coming to stand in front of Merlin. He gripped his shoulders lightly, squeezed once. "You had to go--for Gaius and Gwen and Morgana, you were the only one who could have saved them. And Merlin," and Arthur's eyes were very blue, dark with pain, "if my father could order this against me, he would not have scrupled to kill them. You know that."
Merlin nodded once, reluctantly, and the warm heat of Arthur's palms on his bare skin was incredibly reassuring. Arthur's eyes held him, and he had to sigh, to let their confidence and trust push some of his sick guilt away.
"Not to mention the fact that I wasn't exactly defenseless," Arthur said, and now he was smirking, big and insufferable, stepping back and letting Merlin breathe again. "I certainly didn't need my manservant to help me defeat a boy with a knife. You're just being self-important," and that was all Merlin needed to sputter in exactly the way he knew Arthur wanted him to.
"Listen, you arrogant prat," he began hotly, smiling a little helplessly as Arthur began laughing, when someone knocked at the door.
Lancelot stuck his head in, looked a little startled to see Merlin standing there naked--Merlin looked down at himself and immediately started to blush--and Arthur doubled over with laughter.
"Uh, sire?" he said carefully. "The men are ready, if you are."
"I'll be there in a minute," Arthur said, still chuckling. "Go on, start without me."
"Of course, sire." Lancelot bowed with impeccable manners, and Merlin blushed and blushed and pretended he wasn't standing there starkers, with--oh god--love-bites all over his chest. He and Arthur exchanged suppressed grins, and then Lancelot was gone, and Merlin grabbed for his trousers quickly.
They were still wet, and what kind of plank didn't know to wring out clothes before you hung them to dry? Arthur leaned against the bed and watched him grit his teeth and wriggle into them, every icy damp inch clinging stubbornly to his skin, eyebrow raised and smirk obvious.
"Why don't you just magic them dry?" Arthur asked, blandly.
"Shut up," Merlin said sullenly, because it actually hadn't occurred to him, and if this was what shagging Arthur was going to do to his head, he might as well go drown himself in the village pond and save himself the embarrassment. Not to mention that he was not thinking at all about the way that his skin still tingled, because whenever he did, he almost fell over his own feet--and Arthur waited for him to finish tying the soggy laces before he crossed the room, cupped Merlin's face, and kissed him.
Merlin stopped thinking.
After a period of time that was vastly too short, Arthur stepped back, mouth red and a little swollen, face flushed. "All right," Arthur said breathlessly, in a voice that lacked some of it's normal command. "Come on, get me ready. Can't hang about all day in here."
Merlin waited until Arthur was in the middle of training, surrounded by a hundred men with Lancelot at his back, before he left the practice fields.
"Let me see him," Merlin told Brydain when he found him, and Brydain didn't bother to pretend not to understand.
Ashgillian was in one of the rooms of the Hall, one ankle bound to the wall but not otherwise tied. He looked dirty and smelled awful, and Merlin ignored the bruises, the blood that spotted his shirt. He was sitting against the wall, and he looked up when Merlin opened the door. Arthur was right, he really was just a boy--he was sixteen, Merlin knew, but here he didn't look older than twelve.
Arthur was a good man. Arthur could forgive someone who'd tried to kill him. Arthur could actually contemplate a merciful exile, allowing him to take his oathbreaker's shame to some far corner of Camelot. He didn't know if he could be the kind of man that Arthur was.
But for Arthur, he would try.
Merlin stared at Ashgillian for a long time. The boy met his stare with a leaden, dull resignation. His fingers were swollen, Merlin noticed clinically, dark with bruises. Broken.
"Be glad you failed," he said finally, and Ashgillian flinched.
"Yes," he said after a minute, so softly that Merlin could barely hear him. He felt the guard beside him react, and waved him away. The guard hesitated, and Merlin gave him a flat stare that made guard blanch and fall back. Merlin stepped into the room, and shut the door behind him, using magic to do it, knowing that it would make his eyes burn in the dim light. Ashgillian stared at him, apparently awestruck. Well, that would make it easier.
"Do you know who I am?"
"Yes." The word was breathed out.
"Who am I?" Merlin held out his hand to the fireplace, effortlessly calling flame to the cold wood and filling the room with ruddy light.
"You're Prince Arthur's warlock," Ashgillian said, and there was something trusting and vulnerable in the way he said it, something that Merlin couldn't quite place.
"Why did you do it?"
Ashgillian looked down, and slowly drew his knees up to his chest. His feet were bare, and the soles left smears of blood on the dirty floor.
"My sister," he whispered, and there was a hitch in his breath. "They took my sister away."
"Who took her?"
Ashgillian didn't look up. "Men on horses." Merlin waited, but he didn't continue.
"Go on," Merlin said harshly, trying to put all his frustration, his anger, into the bitten-out words. Ashgillian cringed a little.
"They wore blue," the boy said, "red and blue. They said she was a witch, they said they would burn her. If I didn't--do what they said." He stopped, heaving for breath.
"Go on," Merlin said, a little softer now, but he didn't need to. The boy's broken hands twitched, and he looked up at Merlin, tears streaking the dirt on his face.
"She's five," he said, helplessly. "They said to go join Prince Arthur. They told me where to go, what to say. They said, when--when I could, I should take my knife. They told me what to do," he finished, and he closed his eyes.
Merlin stared down at him. He tried to see the man who'd tried to assassinate Arthur, tried to see a would-be killer. But all he saw was a boy, and he sighed and leaned back against the wood of the door.
"Her eyes," Ashgillian said, and he still didn't look at Merlin, but he sounded even younger now, scared and defeated. "They glowed. Like yours. That's why they took her. She was my only sister." Past tense. Merlin winced, in spite of himself.
"You love your sister."
Ashgillian didn't look up. "I'd have done anything for her," he said dully. Hopelessly. He had to know, Merlin thought uncomfortably, and felt his first real flash of sympathy, that she was probably already dead.
Merlin turned to leave, Ashgillian sunk back into his silence, but something froze him in his tracks, staring unseeing at the doorway. Red and blue riders. Red and blue.
He turned back to Ashgillian. "The riders you saw," he said, slowly. "What crest did they wear?"
"Mercia," Arthur said, and sat down heavily on the bed. He was still wearing his mail, his coif pushed back and his forehead and hair soaked with sweat. Merlin hadn't waited for the practice to end, just charged onto the field and grabbed Arthur's hand, dragged him back to their quarters.
"I think so," Merlin said, and he was still shaking, could smell the dirt from Ashgillian's cell like it had seeped into his skin, into his clothes. "He said that men in red and blue--Aelfric's men, it must be, and Mercians. He described the crest they wore perfectly. "
"It explains everything," Arthur said, and it did, it really did.
Merlin hesitated, then came to sit next to him on the bed.
"Now I know," Arthur said, after a long time. "Aelfric is in league with Mercia." He sighed. "It doesn't change anything."
"It changes something," Merlin said, and he had no great love for Uther but watching Arthur's anguish at his father's enmity was worse. "Uther wasn't really--it wasn't really him."
"They could not have made him believe it, if he didn't already think it," Arthur said heavily, and stood up. The mattress creaked in relief as his weight left it. "And now we have two enemies, not just one."
He clapped Merlin on the back, and headed for the door. Just before he left, he turned to look at him.
"And Merlin? Well done," he said, sincerely, with a small, smug smile. "I knew you could talk to him, if you tried." Then he was gone.
Merlin flopped back on the bed and laughed weakly at the ceiling. Arrogant ass.
The winter went on, and but like winter always did, it slowly, reluctantly, inevitably came to a close.
At Imbolc, Arthur held a ceremony and formally ceded the Druid lands to Brydain, making him a baron of Camelot and giving him near-total autonomy in his rulings. The fact that this was already more or less the situation did nothing to dim the enthusiasm of his audience, who saw Arthur bow his head respectfully to Brydain, acknowledging his loyalty and service, and went wild with cheers. Then they broke out the last of the ale.
The feast lasted for two days, and it seemed like half the people within a two days ride came to Warleggen to celebrate the coming of spring and the investiture. Arthur spent the two days judging contests of arms without ever picking up a sword himself, which for him was practically sloth. Merlin finally got the chance to catch up with Morgana and Gwen for the first time since he'd seen them escorted to safety following their flight from Camelot.
Morgana was wearing breeches and a quilted vest, and her hair was cut short. Arthur almost fell over his feet when he first saw her, and both he and Morgana gave Merlin equally cutting glares when Merlin couldn't stop giggling. She carried a knife on her hip, and some of the restless, edgy tension that Merlin had always sensed about her was gone.
Gwen was wearing one of Morgana's old gowns, the ruby color flattering her dark skin, and she could stand straight without flinching, her smile as wide and sweet as it ever was. Lancelot couldn't take his eyes off of her. Morgana whispered to Merlin over her cups, smiling a terrifying smile, that there might be a hand fasting before Beltane.
After the festival was over, and most of the drunken revelers had returned to their own villages and towns, Arthur began sending out scouts, looking for news of his father's movements and to survey the nearby landscape. With the snow retreating the weather warming, it was the season for armies to be on the move, and Arthur had no intention of being caught unawares by his father. The men slept lightly now, armed even in their tents, and Arthur began to coordinate the preparation of horses for the knights, and supplies for men on the march.
It was a week before the festival of Ostara and Merlin was sitting on the grass watching Arthur fight. The weather had finally started to warm, after a winter of some of the worst storms that anyone could remember. Merlin had said at once point, wrapped tightly in a blanket and his cold nose buried in Arthur's shoulder, listening to yet another blizzard howl outside in the night, that maybe the land itself was responding to Arthur's exile.
Arthur had laughed, bumping Merlin's nose as his chest moved, and replied that his father would probably take a little more defeating than some frozen water in the sky, but Merlin could tell he was pleased at the thought.
The men had come a long way in a very short time, and Arthur was very vocally pleased with their progress. They might still not be a match for his father's army, with the small but disciplined legions that had been training together for years, some before Arthur was born. But they were disciplined enough, and Arthur--when he wasn't enjoying hitting Merlin in the head with a sharp stick, Merlin thought dryly--was an excellent taskmaster, fair and careful but ruthless and personally almost indefatigable, and the men had responded. They fought hard, shrewdly, and once or twice even Arthur was surprised and taken off his guard.
Merlin shadowed Arthur, constantly alert for another attack, and Arthur rolled his eyes and mocked him thoroughly for it but did nothing to prevent Merlin from pushing people away if they brushed too close. They didn't talk about Uther if they could help it; they didn't speculate about Mercia. With no information, Arthur pointed out, there was nothing to do but wait, so they only talked about plans, concrete plans: if there was enough fodder for the horses, if there was enough bread for the men, if there were enough swords and shields and knives and bows and arrows for the whole army, blacksmiths to repair them, herb women and cunning men to heal them.
And at night, Merlin would push Arthur back against the bed and smile mischievously at him, say "How may I serve my lord," in his most obsequious voice, and take Arthur into his mouth while Arthur was still breathless and red-faced with laughter.
After all that, it was almost an anticlimax when the scout rode into camp.
Arthur was sparring with one of the knights, several more pairs matched off around him. Lancelot was watching with interest, along with Brydain and some of his men. The drumming of hoof beats interrupted them, and Arthur drew back, pushing his coif off his head and scrubbing a hand through his sweaty hair.
"My lord," the man called, and Merlin knew what he was going to say even before he was off his horse. "Your father's army is on the move."
Arthur sheathed his sword with quick, controlled movements , and grinned tightly.
Merlin yawned and tried not to fall off his horse. He had barely slept the night, too busy seeing to last-minute details. Arthur rode at the head of the column, the long string of knights behind him. Somehow, someone had embroidered a banner with the Pendragon lion crest, and it fluttered in the dim pre-dawn light at the front. The woods were alive with the jingle of harness, the thump of hooves, the quiet chatter of the men.
"Merlin," Arthur called, and Merlin kicked his horse into a trot to catch up. He wasn't on the gelding, thank all that was holy--that had been given to Brydain as a gift that Midwinter. Instead he was riding one of the tough, mealy-nosed horses that the Druids favored. It was a little short for his height, but it had the stamina of any two of Camelot's more highly-bred palfreys, and best of all, it seemed to accept Merlin without complaint.
Merlin reached the head of the column, where Arthur and Lancelot were already in deep discussion over a set of maps Arthur was holding across his lap.
"Here," Lancelot said, pointing, and Arthur nodded thoughtfully. "He'll have to come through this route, here--if he's trying to reach us at Warleggen, then the woods are too thick to bring in troops any other way but this. That means he'll come out here, on the moors." Lancelot pointed to another spot, one hand guiding his horse absently, not even needing to look where he was going. "If we get there first, it will be a perfect defensive position, against this ridge here." He traced a line across the map, and then leaned back in his saddle expectantly. "King Uther will take two days to get this far, unless he's managed to horse his entire army. It should only take us a day to reach the ridge, another day to cross it and set up on the other side."
"That territory borders on Aelfric's barony," Arthur said, and Merlin couldn't interpret his tone. "Merlin, your papers said he was stockpiling weapons and fielding soldiers from his fief? If they're Mercians, they could come through the passes in the ridge, and attack our rear."
Lancelot shrugged. "Yes, but that assumes we won't know they're coming." He grinned, a little sharply, and Merlin was suddenly reminded that this was another man who had trained from childhood for the heat and crash of battle. "And surely you wouldn't wish to leave them out of the fun?"
Arthur snorted a laugh. "More like, I'd rather have them commit to an outright attack so we can defeat them properly than have to go into years of pretending this never happened." His mouth tightened. "And I want Aelfric," he said softly, almost to himself. "He'll only take the field if he's sure of victory for his side, and if he needs the Mercian army around him to feel that confidence, well." He nodded and refolded the maps to a more manageable bundle, his mare not flinching at the rustle of parchment. "It's a good plan, Lancelot. Alert the battalion leaders. We'll rendezvous at the Desmary Pool this evening, set up camp. It's far enough from the moors that their scouts won't find us."
"Sire," Lancelot said, bowing his head, and reining his horse away quickly.
Merlin slid his hand onto Arthur's where it held the reins, white-knuckled. Arthur ghosted out a faint laugh, and turned his hand up, slid his palm against Merlin's.
Neither of them spoke.
Armies could travel fast, but the early spring thaw and the lack of roads meant that the pace was unavoidably slowed. It was dark by the time they reached Desmary Pool, and Merlin could see that Arthur was impatient with their progress. The last of the men didn't arrive until the moon was high, and it was hours before Merlin had a chance to slip away and make it to the pool, escaping the fireplaces and the bustle of the camp.
The lake was calm, reflecting the moon almost flawlessly in still water. Merlin sat down on the beach, drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, and stared at the water, letting the almost invisible shimmer of the surface send his thoughts drifting. The water was dark as ink, the silver circle of the moon drawing the eye.
Merlin let his mind go blank, and watched, and waited.
Gradually, he became aware that Arthur was sitting beside him. He couldn't remember when it had happened, but once he realized it, he couldn't ignore the warm pressure of Arthur's thigh next to his, the steady calm breathing. It was late, and the moon hung low on the horizon, barely above the dark top of the tree line. It wasn't quiet; Merlin could hear frogs and insects, but they sounded dim and far away, as though he was listening to something else instead.
"Come into the water with me," Arthur said, and his voice sounded hushed, smothered. Merlin nodded, a little dizzily, and stood. His knees ached, and he wondered how long he'd been sitting there.
Arthur stripped slowly but without any faltering, and Merlin didn't move to help. He stood and watched, each piece of clothing revealing pale skin, new scars in and old, gold hair washed out by the moonlight. He was beautiful.
"You're beautiful," Merlin heard himself saying, and Arthur turned, eyes wide. Merlin waited for the inevitable ridicule but it never came. Instead, Arthur flushed, the color spreading down his chest, turned back towards the water, the muscles of his back lean and shifting smoothly under his skin.
Merlin started to undress, and Arthur walked toward the water. It parted around his feet, and Arthur hissed softly but didn't stop. Merlin dropped the last of his clothes on the beach and followed.
It was icy cold with the runoff of the winter's snow. Merlin felt it, but it didn't affect him--he felt almost detached, remote. It felt good, chilly but refreshing, like it was the height of summer. It almost felt silky against his skin.
Arthur swam up to him, moving through the water with barely perceptible ripples, and drew Merlin close. His hands were cold, and his mouth was cold, and Merlin kissed him until it warmed again, until he was panting lightly into Arthur's mouth. Weightless, floating, he could feel Arthur's cock nudge against him. He felt himself filling, slowly, the sensation gentle and sweet. There was no urgency, and he let his hands smooth across Arthur's chest, brushing his nipples, his collarbone, the dip of his sternum, the flat layered muscles over his ribs, over and over.
"Arthur, Arthur," Merlin heard himself saying, whispering into Arthur's mouth, dropping kisses across his shoulders, languages Merlin didn't know, words he didn't understand. It didn't matter. He said Arthur's name, in a thousand languages, in a thousand ways, he pushed them into Arthur's skin, wrote them down in air and fire, and Arthur shuddered under his touch. Arthur's hands slid down his back, cupped his hips and dragged Merlin forward, and Merlin bit Arthur's throat, sucked hard, drew up the blood into a mark that stood out lividly.
It was a spell, he slowly grasped, the knowledge coming from somewhere far away, an enchantment, but he didn't know what spell he was casting, or why. He just knew that Arthur was gorgeous like this, gold hair dark with water and plastered flat to his skull, his eyes looking even bigger and darker than usual, his mouth red and soft. Arthur moved a hand around to cup Merlin's cock, and his sword calluses were softened by the water, but it didn't matter because at the first touch Merlin was coming, bucking helplessly into the solid bulk of Arthur's body, letting the spasms rack him and Arthur hold him up.
Arthur was kissing him before the last shivers were gone, and Merlin lifted his legs and wound them around Arthur's hips, felt the ridge of the scar on Arthur's hip on the inside of his knee, and let himself fall backward as Arthur kissed a path down his chest. Arthur's cock was bumping against the back of his thigh, and Merlin squirmed toward it, wanting it, needing it. Arthur's breathing was harsh and ragged, loud, drowning out everything else, and it filled Merlin's head.
The first touch was blunt and rough, pure pressure forcing him open, and when Arthur slid inside him so slowly, the scratchy prickly perfect fiction made every nerve fuzz and Merlin's vision go white. Arthur groaned into his throat and Merlin felt it pushed out of him again, driven out, dragged out, something immense and overwhelming and he felt stabbed, impaled and never wanted it to end. He heard himself shouting something, something--and then it crashed down, he was going under, and Arthur was sobbing quietly, coming in long tremors, holding Merlin so tight he could feel the bruises rising under his skin.
They floated for a long time. Arthur slipped out, after a time, and Merlin let his cramped legs fall, and somehow they didn't drown, holding each other up in the water.
"What," Arthur said, after a while, voice scratchy. He coughed to clear it. "What was that?"
"I don't know," Merlin managed, and forced his eyes to open. He caught a glimpse of something over Arthur's shoulder, and blinked, lifting his head with an effort. "Arthur?"
Arthur turned around, and the sword, hovering above the lake and glowing with silver light, dimmed slightly, dipped down.
Arthur put up a hand like a man in a dream, and the hilt settled into his palm smooth as a key going into a lock. The etching along the blade caught the fading moonlight and scattered it, glittering fierce as the sun.
"What is this?" Arthur asked. He sounded a little dazed.
Merlin closed his eyes and dropped his head back onto Arthur's shoulder, pressing his chest against Arthur's back. "Excalibur," he said sleepily, although he didn't know where the name had come from. It felt like a memory, but a memory from a long time from now. "It's name is Excalibur."
Their arrival at the crest of the ridge was late, late, late the following night--so late that Merlin, who hadn't really slept the previous night, for reasons he wasn't thinking about too hard, actually fell asleep in the saddle and nearly came off his horse in the dark.
"Shit," Lancelot said, without any real heat, but it woke Merlin up. He blinked groggily and peered out, and saw a hundred points in the distance, scattered across the far side of the moors.
"What's that?" he asked, still muzzy with sleep, and Arthur smiled humorlessly, the full moon lighting his face almost as clear as day.
"My father's army," he said. "On the other side of the moors."
"He should have pressed forward, taken the ridge," Lancelot said, disapprovingly. "He's no more than a couple of miles away, he could have reached here."
Arthur laughed. "He's overconfident," he said dryly. "Be glad of it, or we'd have had a problem, wouldn't we?" He started his horse down the slope of the ridge, and it picked carefully at the unsteady footing. "We'll camp there," he added, pointing at a broad level area, just above the foot of the ridge. "Pass the word, there's to be no fires, no open lights. Let's keep him blind to our presence as long as possible."
"Of course," Lancelot said, and Merlin pointed his horse's nose after Arthur, kicked it a couple times encouragingly, and went back to sleep.
He woke once, when Arthur coaxed him to dismount, and led him into a dark tent. Then he was on the ground, something soft beneath his cheek, Arthur warm beside him, holding him reassuringly close even if he was clunky and awkward in his mail.
"Go back to sleep," Arthur said, and Merlin pressed a drowsy kiss to his neck, right in the hollow of his throat, too tired to actually open his mouth and speak. "You'll need it for tomorrow."
Merlin woke to pre-dawn chill and empty blankets. Arthur was standing, studying his new sword, testing the balance, holding the blade so that it reflected the faint streams of light coming in from the seams in the tent. Arthur glanced at him when Merlin stirred, then nodded towards the door of the tent.
"I'll be back in a minute," he said, and stepped out. Merlin pushed the blankets back, crawled out of them, and then stood. He felt wobbly for a minute, light-headed, and then it passed and he felt fine--better than he had in weeks, actually. Even with a battle imminent, it seemed that the strain of waiting was finally starting to ease.
He had Arthur's armor ready to go when Arthur stepped back in, holding a loaf of bread and a stoppered jar. "Breakfast," he said, and tossed the loaf on the table. He pried the stopper up, and poured himself a cupful of ale. "Help yourself," he added, and Merlin pulled out his knife and cut slices of the bread.
It was dark and hard and crusty, and tasted like week-old bread. Merlin ate half a piece, ignored the ale, and started putting Arthur in his armor before he'd even finished eating.
"I've sent a messenger to my father," Arthur said, indistinctly through a mouthful of bread. "To try and call a truce. I need to let him know what you discovered about Aelfric, at least."
Merlin tightened Arthur's gorget with slightly more force than necessary, and smoothed the leather strap down carefully. "I see," he said.
"He's not going to try and kill me if I'm standing right in front of him," Arthur said patiently, and Merlin glared at his shoulder.
"Seems the perfect time to try," Merlin muttered, and yanked Arthur's surcoat over his head. Arthur made a muffled noise that could have been amusement, agreement, or something else, but Merlin was already gingerly working the coif into place, careful not to snag hair. "I don't trust him."
Once upon a time, Arthur would have sent Merlin to the stocks for that remark. Now he sighed with patient longsuffering tolerance. "Do you want to come?" he asked, around the last bite of bread. He swallowed the last of the ale, and shook himself slightly, testing the fit of the armor around him. Nothing shifted, nothing gave, nothing clashed. Merlin had been doing this for too long.
Merlin came around to Arthur's front, took Excalibur off the table and handed it to him. "Yes," he said, and kissed Arthur.
Uther looked the same. Somehow, Merlin hadn't quite expected that.
"Arthur," he said, cold and distant, and Arthur didn't kneel, didn't bow his head.
"Father," he said, quietly. "You look well."
Uther shook his head, like he was saddened by something. "You are a traitor," Uther said, deliberately, "surely you see that your actions are madness. Surrender to me, obey your oaths, and I promise I will be merciful."
Arthur took a deep breath. "Father, there's something you need to know." He stopped, and looked around. "Where's Aelfric?"
"Lord Aelfric's whereabouts are none of your concern," Uther said sharply, but Merlin could see the uncertainty in his eyes. He wondered sardonically how long Aelfric had been missing, how badly Uther's composure had been thrown by it.
Arthur didn't flinch away from his father's anger. "Aelfric is a traitor," he said baldly, and Uther whipped his head up, expression blank with shock before it went tight with anger. Merlin had to clench his fists to make himself stay where he was instead of putting himself between them, and right then he knew that Uther hadn't heard about his magic. If he had, he would never have allowed Merlin in his presence.
"Do not dare to speak so about one of my truest, most faithful subjects," Uther snarled, and Arthur took the packet of papers Merlin had copied so many months before and threw them on the floor at Uther's feet.
"There," Arthur said raggedly, and he didn't look angry, he didn't look hurt, or betrayed. He just looked tired. "He's been corresponding with Mercia. He played on your fears, your uncertainties. He made you suspect me, made you mistrust me, and you did exactly what he wanted." Arthur stopped, breathing hard. "He played you, Father. And you let him. You threw away your own son, for a traitor."
Uther was staring at Arthur, speechless, and suddenly the flap of the tent was thrown open and one of the armsmen guarding Uther's quarters had burst in. "Mercia, my lord," he stammered, and Uther spun to stare at him, "Mercian men, soldiers, on the field--"
"No," Uther breathed, face cracking as his composure shattered, looking from the papers on the muddy ground to Arthur's grimly satisfied expression. "No."
Arthur turned to Merlin, dismissing his father. "They'll have sorcerers with them," he said, "can you stop them?"
Uther jerked. Merlin ignored him, kept his eyes on Arthur. The sooner Uther learned where his true loyalties lay, the better for all concerned. "I can stop them."
"Good." Arthur turned to go. Lancelot, who'd been waiting outside the tent, was now standing in the door. "Lancelot, have them bring up the reserves. I want you to take the right flank," and Arthur was out of the tent now, almost running toward his horse and shouting orders, to his men and Uther's alike, Lancelot keeping pace easily.
Merlin turned to look at Uther, who looked grey with shock. "You're a sorcerer," Uther said, numbly, and Merlin nodded.
"You--you helped Arthur escape."
Uther nodded, very slowly. Then he straightened his shoulders, and for an instant he was the man who had been willing to put his life down to safe his son's, the man who'd asked Merlin to take care of Arthur when he was gone, the king who had united Camelot during it's time of trial and held it together for twenty years.
He walked past Merlin stepped out of the tent.
The battle was raging, Merlin was dimly aware, but his attention was far away. The Mercian sorcerers were good, experienced and working as a team, and it was just about all he could do to stay upright under their assault. But he wasn't entirely on the defensive. They couldn't match his power, not even as a group, and he could protect the battlefield with little trouble while their focus was on him. Between waves of power, he was able to probe them, exploring their limits, testing their strengths, and he was starting to see where their weaknesses lay.
But it wasn't enough, he could see that clearly. The Camelot army was outnumbered, both Uther's forces and Arthur's, and they occupied the weak position on the battlefield. Arthur was fighting savagely, Lancelot at his side, the formation of knights around them stalwart, but it wasn't enough, it wouldn't be enough. It was only a matter of time before they were overrun.
Then a Mercian knight broke through the ranks of men and came at Arthur from behind, swinging a sword and mounted; Arthur turned his horse to face him, but the man was fast and lucky and Arthur blocked one strike but not the second. Blood bloomed on his thigh, and Arthur was down, off his horse, staggering.
Merlin heard shouting, wordless and furious, and when his voice caught and tore he realized that it was him. Arthur defeated his man, sword flashing in the sun, but he was limping and a man came between them. When he moved, Arthur had vanished, fallen out of sight. Merlin fisted his hands, strained for a look, and felt the shattering blow as the enemy sorcerers took advantage of his distraction to redouble their attack.
Merlin waited for long, tense moments, but Arthur never reappeared.
Dead, a voice in his head whispered. What if he's dead.
He can't be dead.
Merlin reached for Arthur with his magic, tried to find the space that Arthur occupied--he'd always been able to do it before, when they were separated, but it wasn't working now, and he couldn't find him. He couldn't feel him.
There was no sign of Arthur on the field, just a chaotic jumble of men and steel and screams. Merlin trembled, helplessly, fought for control. He took a step forward, another, and another. Arthur's body was as familiar as his own, but Merlin couldn't see him. Couldn't see him anywhere.
The realization was like a hammer blow. Power flooded into him, pure white overwhelming his vision, and he let himself fall into it. He would make them all pay.
Sparks leaped up around him, thunder deafening and he felt more than saw the lightning strikes hit the ground, throwing up dirt and slag. Men screamed, but it happened a long, long way away and was unimportant. All that was important was the magic flowing through him like a river in flood, wiping out thought or fear, leaving him empty and hollow and nothing, pure focus.
Flame leaped from his hands when he raised them, and now he was blind, unable to see past the curtain of fire, but he didn't need to see to feel that it was working. The Mercian sorcerers tried to strike him, but Merlin had the world in the palm of his hand. He barely noticed when they tried, and they crumbled when he struck them down.
He breathed in time with the stars, and his body was unraveling and he was everything, everyone, every time, he was dizzy, drunk with it, and for a second he regretted it, that he would fall into this perfect maelstrom, that he would dissolve and disappear and leave everything behind. But the power drowning him would not permit regret for long, and he reached for it, wanting it, falling, falling.
Falling, as Arthur had fallen.
"Merlin," he heard, dimly, and he wondered at it. "Merlin." It grabbed him, yanked his attention, and he pushed it away, trying to focus on the perfect oblivion of magic that called him. But the voice would not let him go, and he struggled to breathe as he slammed back into his own body, felt himself convulse as the ground roared and rumbled and shook around him. "Merlin!"
It sounded like Arthur.
But that was impossible. Arthur was dead.
Merlin came further back to himself, pain suddenly raking him, like being burned alive, like acid in his veins. He screamed, and now he could feel Arthur's hands on him, holding his shoulders, and when he found his eyes and opened them he could see Arthur in front of him, white and scared, braced like he was leaning into a stiff wind. He was bloody and tattered, but Arthur met his eyes without hesitation, holding him tightly by the shoulders.
All around him was smoking black ruin, huge gashes carved out of the land, a swirling steel-grey sky above with lightning falling like hammers, fire raging in lines and curves across the field. Men lay dead, some broken in two, some burning; a few in Camelot red, but many more in Mercian blue. Soldiers, hundreds of them, streamed past him, fleeing the field, shouting as they carried their fellows to safety.
"Merlin," Arthur pleaded, and Merlin raised his arms, like they belonged to someone else, touched Arthur's face with a hand that didn't do exactly what he wanted it to do. Arthur's face was wet, and his hair was wet, the sensation of cool on his fingertips like a foreign language that he only barely understood, and Merlin realized that it was raining, cool sweet rain, the fires going out.
"Arthur," he croaked, and his voice was gone, shredded. He couldn't remember why. He felt at sense of dislocation and realized that he was falling, and then it stopped and Arthur was holding him up, tightly.
"You did it," Arthur was saying, "it's all right now, it's fine, you did it. We won, they've all gone away," and Merlin could see past him, past the devastated battlefield, past the bodies; the shattered Mercian army beyond. "You did it, Merlin. Come back to me. Please."
"Arthur," Merlin said again, because he couldn't quite summon up the strength for anything else, and in any case that word was running through his head like his heartbeat. "Are you dead?"
"No," Arthur said, voice wavering, "please, Merlin, let it go."
Merlin touched Arthur's mouth, and it was warm, not dead. "Arthur," he whispered, the only word in his world, and it meant thank you and I'm back and I love you and don't ever leave me again.
"Rest now," Arthur said, and the thunder was dying away, rain falling gently, and Merlin hung on to Arthur and let himself obey. The world went dark.
Merlin listened to the sound for a long time before he finally identified it, prodding his groggy mind for the word: a whetstone. Once he'd identified it, he realized that someone--and he was almost sure that, for once, it wasn't him--was using it to sharpen something. A sword, from the sound. That meant someone was there with him.
With a huge effort, he opened his eyes.
Lancelot was sitting beside the bed, testing the edge of his sword on a scrap of cloth. He looked terrible, bruised and battered, but he was clean and bandaged and wearing fresh clothes. Merlin made a confused sound, and Lancelot's head jerked up.
"Merlin," he said, sounding tremendously relieved, and stood, sheathing his sword and going to the wall. He peeled back a part of the wall--oh, Merlin recognized belatedly, it was a tent--and said to someone outside, "He's awake."
"Arthur," Merlin managed, and felt out of breath just doing that.
"He's with the Mercians, and his father," Lancelot said soothingly, coming back to sit on the edge of the cot. "He'll be here when he can."
Mercians? "What happened?" Merlin asked, and Lancelot gave him a strange look.
"Don't you remember?"
He remembered fire. He remembered rain. He remembered Arthur, his tight hands, his wide eyes. He didn't remember anything else. Merlin shook his head.
"Well," Lancelot blew out a nervous breath, "uh. You did some stuff, and. We won."
"Good," Merlin said, a little confused, and Lancelot gave him a smile, looking a little less strange. "What did I do?"
"Um. You sort of, well. Set the field of battle on fire," Lancelot said, in what was almost a normal tone of voice.
Merlin stared. "The whole field?" he asked after a minute.
Lancelot nodded. "Plus a bit of the forest. And a hill. And then you called a storm, and caught lightning bolts from the sky on your hands and threw them," Lancelot continued, looking uncomfortable. Merlin was starting to understand the strange look.
"I don't remember," he said numbly.
"And then the earth shook and some really big crevasses opened up, and then it started to rain, and finally you screamed and passed out and Arthur carried you back to camp." Merlin groaned and wondered if he could just hide under the covers for the next ten or fifteen years or so. None of that sounded good, and if even Lancelot was acting this jumpy around him, he literally couldn't imagine what the reaction of the rest of the army--or Uther, or for that matter Arthur--would be.
Also, he couldn't believe Arthur had had to carry him. That was just pathetic.
"Anyway, after that, you wouldn't believe how eager the Mercians were to sue for peace," Lancelot concluded, wryly, and patted Merlin's shoulder a little awkwardly. "So it all worked out."
Arthur appeared in the tent doorway, a thick bandage on his left arm and walking stiffly on his right leg. Lancelot immediately rose and bowed, and Arthur smiled at him before hobbling over to Merlin's bed. He sat with a thud, and Merlin barely noticed Lancelot letting himself out.
"Ahh," Arthur sighed, and stretched his right leg out gingerly. "Feels good to get off that."
"Lancelot tells me that we won," Merlin said, watching Arthur nervously. Arthur wasn't acting any differently, at least.
Arthur yawned and lowered himself to lay on the cot beside Merlin, hitching himself closer and sighing with relief. "Yes," he said, and turned his face to Merlin's. Merlin searched his eyes for disgust, fear, anger, and found only fond affection.
"Are you angry at me?" he asked apprehensively, and Arthur rolled his eyes.
"Yes, Merlin, I'm furious with you. How dare you nobly go off and save the day and risk your own life for Camelot--and me--by creating a cataclysm on the battlefield. After, I should add, you helpfully made sure that everyone was off of the battlefield," which was news to Merlin, he couldn't remember anything like it but he was glad to hear it so he wasn't going to quibble, "so you only actually ended up killing, like three men and a wayward sheep. Very awful of you." Arthur flicked him in the forehead with thumb and forefinger. "Can't you tell how very angry I am?"
"You ass," Merlin said, voice catching, and Arthur pulled him close. He held him for a long time.
"I almost lost you," Arthur said finally, almost inaudible. "I was terrified that you wouldn't come back to me."
Merlin wrapped his arms around Arthur and held on, ignoring the inelegance of their embrace. Arthur was still in full armor, and Merlin's skin felt like bruised fruit, sore and stretched too tightly over tender flesh.
"I would never leave," he said, and cleared his throat. "Not if I have any choice."
Arthur squeezed him tighter, and then relaxed a bit, and he shifted his head so they were facing each other across the narrow pillow. "Well," he said, with a passable attempt at humor, "at least you've made negotiations with Mercia ridiculously easy. They're giving us Aelfric, and his son, and the entire barony of Campana, and two tons of tribute a year in gold and timber and wheat, and I think Bayard is actually trying to give Father his daughter in marriage, or maybe his sister. Maybe it's himself, who knows. If we asked for a procession of spotted dancing ponies delivered by virgins every Beltane eve, they'd do it." Merlin grinned.
"Glad I could help," he said dryly, "I just wish I could remember what it is I did."
"Well, that's why they have bards," Arthur said philosophically. "And, I suppose, there's a thousand men who saw you turn the battlefield into slag that you can ask."
"Thanks, no," Merlin said promptly. He'd rather be known as the all-powerful sorcerer, leveler of mountains, then the all-powerful sorcerer who couldn't remember his own deeds the next day. Which reminded him. "How long have I been asleep?"
"Three days," Arthur said. Merlin felt his jaw drop.
Arthur shrugged. "You were tired, I guess."
Merlin sighed dismally, and then stiffened as something occurred to him. "Your father," he said, nervously.
Arthur yawned again. "What about him?"
"What is he going to do about me?"
Merlin frowned. "What do you mean."
"I mean," Arthur said, "he'll do nothing about you. You won't be harmed."
"But he hates me," Merlin argued, because he knew he was right. Whatever understanding Uther and Arthur had come to, it wouldn't change the fact that he was a sorcerer. "I helped you escape. I practiced magic. Doesn't he want me arrested, or executed, or something?"
Arthur twisted around so he was more fully facing Merlin. "My father," Arthur said very softly, for Merlin's ears only, but there was steel behind it, "understands that you have saved him from being a kinslayer. Out of this whole debacle, you are the only reason he does not have my blood on his hands. Or," Arthur added grimly, "for that matter, his blood on mine. I have made it clear to him that you are not to be touched, in any way."
Merlin felt breathless. "And he said yes?" he said faintly.
Arthur smiled, hard and distant. "In one year," he said calmly, "my father will abdicate. He would do it now, but I don't wish to create the illusion of weakness or dissent for our enemies to try and exploit. In the meantime, I will be handling most day-to-day affairs of Camelot."
"Abdicate?" Merlin said blankly. "He's going to--I mean, seriously?"
"Yes. Seriously." Arthur sounded almost regretful. "We had a talk--several talks. I think he is truly ashamed of what happened, but he can't really admit it--and anyway, it's too late. I can't ignore what happened, it would make my eventual kingship weak. And if he can be--manipulated--so easily, then he's a danger to have on the throne."
"And he agreed to this." Merlin couldn't quite wrap his mind around it. Of all the possible solutions to this disaster, that had been one he'd never considered.
Arthur sighed. "Agreed is maybe too strong a term. But he accepted it."
"Wow." Merlin blinked. "So, you're going to be king of Camelot." He felt kind of breathless at the thought.
Arthur snorted. "You've known that for years."
"Yeah, but." King.
Arthur sighed, and kissed him. "Yeah," he echoed, and Merlin thought maybe he understood.
"And--what about us?" Merlin asked, nervously. He looked away from Arthur, but his hands betrayed him, tightening their grip on Arthur helplessly against the ache in his chest.
"What about us?" Arthur yawned. "I could make you my court magician, if you like. You were always pants at being a manservent anyway." Merlin huffed indignantly and punched him in the arm, and Arthur grunted even though it lacked force.
Arthur kissed him again, slow and deep and sweet. Merlin let his hands come up to Arthur's shoulders, curving around them, and he was breathing hard when Arthur finally pulled back to look at him, eyes dark and serious.
"Don't worry about us," Arthur said, smiling slowly.