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Huge thanks to my Luddite friend L, who stepped up in the 9th inning to beta. I'm in your debt.

Merlin and its characters do not now, nor will they ever, belong to me. No infringement is intended.

The stones of the castle walls caught the last fall of light, and glowed with it, warm against the cooling dusk. As torches came alight along the ramparts, the men who lit them glittered and shone, as though they carried the fire in the links of their mail.

Leaning out of the window in his quarters, Arthur took a deep breath, and held it, tasting the smoke from the town hearths, the sharp tang of snow that hadn't yet begun to fall. He released it, and watched the torches glow through the brief fog. Like magic. He smiled, a slow thrill shaking down his spine.

The wine from dinner seemed to run pleasantly warm through his veins. His father had been in a particularly good mood tonight, smiling and laughing with Morgana while he entertained the lords and ladies of the court. Arthur smiled wistfully. He himself had been interminably engaged in diplomatic small talk, until he'd managed to plead fatigue and leave the hall.

He felt boneless. Made of light. He leaned a bit farther out of the window, and covered the rising moon with another plume of his breath.

"I'm not wiping your nose if you catch ill," a voice exclaimed behind him. "I am not your nursemaid, whatever you might try to tell me." The voice almost succeeded in hiding its fond concern under a thick layer of peevish disdain, but Arthur chose to hear it anyway.

He turned, and slouched back against the sill. Merlin, standing with his back to the fire, caught his speculative gaze and shook his head emphatically.

"No," he said. "I'll ask Gaius to dose you with the foulest possible tonic, and bribe the chambermaids to come and mop your fevered brow, but I'm not about to risk catching your cold. You know, should you catch one, hanging half-dressed out of your window in the middle of winter."

Arthur smirked easily. "Liar," he said. "You wouldn't let anyone else touch me."

Merlin drew himself up like an indignant cat. "You know what happened the last time I got sick!" he protested. "You had to hustle me out of town before I accidentally turned someone into a toad."

Arthur frowned, remembering. "Gwen thought I'd done something to make you run away. Morgana was insufferable about it."

"Really?" Merlin blinked. "Huh." A bright smile crossed his face, and he paused, Arthur's court clothes half folded in his hands. Arthur felt his breath hitch in his chest. The warmth from the wine began to gather into a slow burn, deep in his belly.

"That makes you happy, does it? That they missed you."

Merlin raised his head at the tone that edged his voice. Arthur blinked at himself. He hadn't intended to sound so cold. Wide eyed, he stared at Merlin, fighting the lassitude of the wine. Merlin's smile softened slowly into something almost sweet. He looked back at the cloak he was folding on the bed, and smoothed the fabric with a gentle hand.

"My Prince," he started, somehow both mocking and utterly sincere. "Are you jealous?"

Arthur could feel his heart beating throughout his whole body -- Merlin had to hear it, it seemed so clear. He peeled himself away from the window and stood, very straight. The warmth of the fire licked up to heat his face, but he shivered, the winter chill at his back.

"Merlin," he said. "Would you give me reason to be jealous?"

Merlin's mobile face stilled. Deliberately, he turned and tucked his hands behind his back. He looked up at Arthur through thick lashes, and his eyes shone bright as stars.

Arthur caught his breath, feeling the cold air pushed away. A deep warmth took its place, washing in like a wave. The sound of the guards on the castle walls faded and was gone; the faint strains of music, still lofting from the court, drifted away. The walls of his quarters were engulfed in a red gold glow that had no source but Merlin. They stood alone in that shell of heat and light, motionless.

When Merlin spoke his voice cracked, such raw intensity did he devote to the single word: "Never."

He would have said more, but Arthur crossed the space in a lunge, and cradled Merlin's head in his hands. Merlin's mouth was still open to speak, though his sudden move had silenced him. Abruptly certain that he wanted no more talking this night, Arthur leaned in, and kissed him.

Merlin's hands came around and ran up his back, clutching at his tunic as they overbalanced and fell onto the bed. The cloak Merlin had so carefully folded slipped beneath them, nearly sending them to the floor before Arthur's booted feet found purchase. He took one hand from Merlin's hair to clutch under his thigh, and pushed him back up onto the mattress, crawling after him. Merlin's laughter felt like wings against his lips.

With Merlin sprawled beneath him on a stable surface, Arthur took his time. The kiss deepened, tart as wine. Arthur set himself comfortably, knees braced outside of Merlin's legs, back bowed. He tugged at Merlin's hair, not entirely gently, and ran his free hand up under Merlin's tunic. The thin skin over his ribs twitched at his touch, and Merlin sucked in a breath. Arthur broke the kiss, and smiled at the protesting noise from Merlin.

But he leaned back only far enough to grip the hem of Merlin's tunic in his hands and pull it up. Merlin, fumbling in his haste, yanked it out of his hands and pulled it over his own head. His hair, once he'd thrown his tunic over the side of the bed, stood straight up, and crackled when Arthur reached to smooth it. Looking at him, the skinny disheveled mess of him, Arthur felt his cock begin to strain against his pants. So much for taking his time.

Merlin growled, a throaty sound, and lunged forward. Only an athletic twist let Arthur stop them from going backwards off the bed. Merlin looked down at him, intensely focused, and grinned before diving in for a kiss of his own. Arthur rocked back against the mattress, and hugged Merlin to him. He slid his hands down Merlin's naked back, and dipped them under the waistband of his trousers, cupping his arse, feeling the muscle flex as Merlin set his knees outside of Arthur's. He had too many clothes on, Arthur decided. He still had his boots on. He pulled his hands free and pushed Merlin back, wrestling him around until he could get his boots off, and his pants. Merlin laughed and laughed, and was no help at all.

And then Merlin was naked, pale and shining in the enchanted glow that lit the room. He grinned merrily up at Arthur, splayed out on the bed, cock free and rising. His eyes were blue again, but just as bright.

Arthur stared at him, a hunger building within him. He could devour him.

Slowly, he let his weight down over Merlin's body, letting his own boots dig into the covers of his bed. He planted his hands on the mattress above Merlin's shoulders, and leaned in close, until he could feel the heat of the flush that was spreading over Merlin's face. Merlin's eyes slowly closed, and Arthur could feel his long lashes brush against his own. He kissed them, softly. He laid a trail of kisses, over his cheekbones, along his jaw. He sucked at the pulse thrumming in Merlin's neck, first gently, and then harder, as Merlin's breath began to stutter. His hands made little grabbing motions at the covers. He released him, and blew gently over the wet skin. Merlin mewed, a broken, needy little sound.

Arthur shuddered, and buried his face in the smooth skin where Merlin's neck sloped into his shoulder. Merlin's heartbeat echoed through him, faster even than his own. He felt such a surge of need and want and love that for a moment, he simply lay still, unable to move.

But then Merlin's hands were tugging at his hair, and Merlin was licking his mouth open, sucking at his lower lip. His legs had opened under him, and Arthur could feel his cock throbbing against his belly, leaving wet traces against the fabric of his tunic.

Merlin was babbling now, sounds so quick and scattered he couldn't call them words. He swallowed them, surging into a heated kiss. He ground down against him, and felt Merlin's hands rake down over his back, scrabbling desperately at his tunic. He ignored them, surfacing from the kiss, to kiss and lick and bite his way down Merlin's throat, his chest, the twitching muscles of his stomach. He paused, breathing heavily, and stared at the darkly flushed length of Merlin's cock.

Merlin let go of his tunic to seize his shoulders; digging his fingers in so hard he'd leave bruises. Arthur's own fingers trembled as he pushed at Merlin's inner thighs, spreading his legs further apart. He kneaded the silk-soft skin gently, and nosed against the sweat-damp hair that curled at the root of his cock. Merlin hiccupped, and his muscles jumped and strained.

Arthur let out a long breath, and licked up the shaft in one long, easy stroke. He closed his mouth around the tip, and felt Merlin let out a deep, wordless groan. He looked up along the length of Merlin's body -- his head was arched back against the mattress, the tendons of his neck sharply defined. He gasped for air as Arthur, so slowly, took his cock into his mouth.

Merlin's babbling returned, louder, but no more coherent. Arthur hummed accompaniment. His throat worked, and Merlin squirmed helplessly. He could taste him. Much better than wine, he thought, and gripped Merlin's narrow hips, sucking him in.

And then Merlin was arching off the bed, his hands frantically tugging at Arthur's hair, pulling him up and off and into a wide open, desperate kiss, and Merlin was spilling himself between them, hot and slick against his naked body, against Arthur's clothes.

They came apart gasping. Merlin's hair, sweat-damp and curling against his forehead, stuck to Arthur's lashes as he pulled away. He rocked back on his heels and stared at Merlin.

Eyes half-closed, lips swollen and bruised, Merlin lay spent and utterly ravished in Arthur's bed. Arthur eagerly drank in the sight of him, tracing the marks of his hands, his teeth, his lips.

Crouched over Merlin's body, Arthur felt his clothes too tight, the fine fabrics hot and rough and painful against skin that was suddenly too sensitive to bear them. His cock throbbed painfully, constricted.

He pulled his tunic off with one hand, hearing the seams rip as it came over his shoulders, and freed himself of his boots and trousers.

Naked and achingly hard, Arthur waited, trembling. Below him, Merlin stretched his arms back over his head, turning his body into one long shining bow. He reached under the bed, pulling out a glass jar half full of oil. Merlin whispered something, and his eyes flashed gold. The oil in the little jar steamed gently when he opened it, and a clean, spicy scent touched the air.

Arthur sucked in a breath, and Merlin grinned wickedly, handing him the jar. When Arthur took it, he turned himself on his stomach, and raised his arse, giving it a little wag.

"Merlin . . . ," Arthur groaned, breaking his silence, and threw himself down. With one arm, he braced himself over him, kissing his way up the knobs of his spine. He dug into the warm oil with trembling fingers, coating them liberally. When his slick fingers breached him, Merlin bit sharply at Arthur's pillow. Arthur waited for his shudders to subside, though his own muscles twitched with the effort of holding himself still. He felt Merlin relax around his fingers and slid them deeper, holding his breath. Merlin opened up around him, sighing deeply into the mattress. And then he shoved himself back against Arthur, growling, and Arthur bit down on his shoulder.

He slicked the length of his cock with the oil, holding himself against Merlin, who squirmed beneath him, eager and wanton.

"Come on, you prat!" he exclaimed, voice high and broken. Arthur grinned sharply, and thrust in, a long, deep stroke that left Merlin sobbing for breath.

They shuddered together for a long second, and then Arthur was moving. Long, hard thrusts, rocking the bed beneath them. Merlin, babbling constantly, twisted and pushed against him, until he reached that spot, and Merlin howled. Arthur felt his own voice tearing out of him, something wordless and intense, and he moved faster. Frantically faster, driving into Merlin as though to split him in two, or to join him so deeply he would disappear, a part of him.

The magic shell of heat and light and privacy pulsed in time with Merlin's cries, a curtain of fire around them. The light painted Merlin's pale back in red and gold and amber, and Arthur cried out for the beauty of it, and climaxed then, so sharply he felt his bones would surely fly apart.

Merlin lay tucked in his arms, the covers of the bed pulled over them both. It smelled of sweat and sex and oil, and Arthur breathed it in deep, content. The magic had dispersed, leaving the room lit only by starlight, and the smoldering remains of the fire in the hearth.

Merlin stirred against him. "Did you hear that?" he asked, drowsily.

"Hear what?" Arthur heard nothing but their own breathing, slow and sated.

"The howls." Merlin's voice was distantly troubled, as though he were half dreaming. "The wolves are howling."

"I don't hear anything," Arthur murmured. He stroked Merlin's shoulder. "Go back to sleep. You're only dreaming."

But Merlin was already gone, his breath slow and steady over his chest. Arthur let his eyes close, and fell asleep to the beat of Merlin's heart.

The halls he walked were unfamiliar, but he turned no wrong corners.

He came to a door, where the guards, all gold and red, looked blankly through him. He smirked, holding the image of empty air like a second skin.

He whispered a word, and the lock turned. He pushed silence into the hall, and the guards heard neither the lock nor the hinges as he opened the door.

The great bed, canopied in scarlet, held a single occupant. He slept, apparently soundly, but his brows were furrowed, and his fists were clenched.

He studied him, for a moment, head cocked to the side. He felt no hate. No anger. Just a mild satisfaction, as if he looked over a tool that suited him.

He raised his hands, and sucked in a breath as the magic gathered, so impossibly easily. He wondered at it, at the sheer lazy power coiling around him.

A covetous smile grew slowly on his face. He nodded once, firmly, and spoke a word. It cracked through the quiet room like a whip, and the magic ignited.

It was just dawn when Arthur woke. He shivered with the chill of the room, and burrowed deeper into the blankets; but where he looked for the warmth of Merlin's body, he found only a rapidly cooling depression in the mattress.

Frowning, bleary eyed, he peered over the blankets.

The early light of a cloudy day lit his chambers. The ashes in the hearth were long cold. His soiled clothes were still strewn around the floor where he'd thrown them, but Merlin's clothes were not.

Arthur's frown deepened. He hadn't expected Merlin to be up and out so early. Certainly not with his duties so clearly unattended to.

"Merlin?" he called, irritated at how plaintive his voice sounded in the empty room.

But obviously, Merlin was gone.

Before he could work up some proper irritation to cover over the forlorn ache he felt at waking up alone, Arthur felt the stone floor of his chamber shake sharply, and heard voices rising in alarm.

Tangled in the blankets, he nearly fell in his haste to get out of bed. He swore at himself, kicking last night's clothing under the bed. The voices of frightened servants in the hall were joined by those of the Palace Guards. And he could hear some of his own knights, barking orders into the chaos.

Quickly pulling on clean clothing, he flung open his door, boots in hand. The knights were already running to his door.

"Your Highness!" they called, relief thick on their faces when he opened the door. "Prince Arthur, your father's been attacked!"

The shock did much to wake him up.

"It was sorcery, for certain," Cai said. The stocky knight was pale, but his voice was steady. "The flames roared in like a living thing, howling and wailing, and they burned blue, your Highness, ice blue."

"The sorcerer attacked the King while his guards were outside his door," Gareth, the younger knight, said grimly. "His chamber doors blowing out over them were the first we knew of the attack."

Cai must have seen the momentary fear that gripped his heart, for he quickly moved to reassure him. "The King's unharmed," he said, "but his chambers are in ruins all around him, and we couldn't get to him, at first, for the flames that roared around. His guards are dead, crushed by the doors."

"The sorcerer killed them," Gareth growled. "And they never even knew he was there."

Finally dressed, Arthur left his chambers nearly running, the guards at his heels. "Where is my father now?"

"In the Great Hall. He sent us for you, to make sure the sorcerer didn't target you after the first attempt failed. He's organizing the guard to hunt him down."

Perhaps, Arthur thought anxiously, Merlin had left so abruptly in order to foil this assassination attempt. He was surely even now running after the enemy sorcerer, alone and unaided. The fool! He should have woken him.

"Have my horse readied and my gear brought out," he ordered. "I'll be leading this hunt." He looked down the corridor that led to Gaius' chambers, wanting to find Merlin and reassure himself that he hadn't run after a dangerous sorcerer alone; but while Gareth peeled off to follow out his orders, Cai stuck to his side.

At Arthur's angry glance, Cai stoically replied, "You're to be guarded, my Prince." And Arthur could only grit his teeth and pass the corridor by. Surely, surely, Merlin would wait for him.

Anxious servants scuttled past them as they neared the Great Hall. They're strained faces lightened as Arthur strode past them, unharmed. Arthur hardly noticed.

He could hear his father's voice before the doors to the Great Hall opened. Black rage roared through it, but Arthur thought he might be the only one who heard the fear shivering below.

Arthur could not agree with all his father's policies, but he knew what drew his father to them. Even with all the power of Camelot, a sorcerer could strike so closely at its heart, and there was nothing King Uther could do to stop it.

Arthur, as the doors opened, caught sight of his father and paused, a chill striking at his heart. The king sat his throne with iron in his spine, but Arthur could see the effort it cost him. Gaius stood at his side, silently winding a bandage around the king's temple. Blood stained the white linen, and Gaius' face was grim. The king's robes were covered in ash and bits of what Arthur thought, with a morbid sort of fascination, were the splinters of what must have been an ornately carved wardrobe. The one that had taken four burly guards to bring into the Royal Chambers. The splinters were finer than straw.

When Uther glanced at the opening doors, the rage darkening his face lifted briefly, and Arthur warmed at the relief he saw there. But Uther quickly turned back to haranguing the guards, burying his concern for his son beneath his duties.

He left Cai at the doors, and took his place before his father.

Morgana, standing white and still to Gaius' left, found his eyes and held them. Arthur swallowed at the misery he saw there. He wondered, uneasily, what she'd dreamed.

Gwen, behind Morgana, looked over his shoulder. Not seeing Merlin, she stood straighter, nearly on the tips of her toes, and looked again. She flushed when she saw him watching her, but kept looking, more discreetly.

Arthur stood in front of the King, waiting. Uther stood, shaking off Gaius' ministrations, and snapped out some final instructions to the Captain of the Palace Guard before turning to his son.

He looked him over, a quick, intense glance that missed nothing. Finding no sign of injury, he nodded sharply at his son and spoke.

"You've heard the situation. Take your knights and hunt him down." Without another word, the King stalked out of the Hall. Gaius, with a sharp look at the space at Arthur's back where Merlin should be, followed Uther.

Stunned at the abrupt dismissal, Arthur stood silent, watching him. When a hand fell softly on his shoulder, he jumped, startled. Morgana.

"He was frantic," she said softly, "worrying over you. He is tired, and in pain." There was a curious sort of disdain in her voice, as though she didn't know why she was defending him. "He doesn't trust himself to send you off properly without revealing weakness."

"He is the king," Arthur said, only a little woodenly. "He can't afford weakness."

Morgana's lips tightened. Gwen, still standing at her back, kept her face carefully blank.

"Where is Merlin?" she asked, changing the subject.

"In his quarters, I imagine. If anyone could sleep through this ruckus, it would be him," Arthur growled, carefully not giving voice to his worries. He suspected that Gwen and Morgana knew about Merlin's magic, but he didn't know for sure, and he could not afford to betray that secret.

"I'll just go check on him, then," Gwen announced, "Not that he needs checking on. I mean he'd want to be woken up for this. Not," she hurriedly moved to assure him, “that he would enjoy it or anything. Just that he'd want to help. You. With your armour. And your horses. He wouldn't want to hunt a sorcerer. Not that he wouldn't want a sorcerer to be captured, just that it's . . . dangerous." She ended rather lamely, twisting her hands and not looking at him.

His suspicion grew to near certainty, and he sighed inwardly for the risks Merlin took.

Morgana took pity on Gwen's tied tongue. "Go ahead, Gwen," she said, giving her servant a tiny push. "I'm sure he would want to help."

She waited until she was gone. Then, quietly, she turned to him and said, "I dreamt of wolves."

She was hesitant, watching him carefully. "It felt dangerous, evil. They howled, and the sound was so cold . . .” Her troubled eyes caught Arthur's. "Merlin's in trouble, I think."

Arthur took a deep breath. Morgana's dreams unsettled him, as even Merlin's magic never had. But he had a vague memory of Merlin's voice, heavy with sleep, murmuring of wolves. But it was faint, and unclear. He shook his head. He'd gone after the sorcerer alone, like he'd feared. He'd have to find him, before the knights caught the sorcerer. Or they might catch Merlin by mistake.

"Yes," he answered Morgana's unasked question. "I'm sure he is. I'll have to haul him out." And he turned on his heel, gathering Cai as he left.

Morgana, left behind, stood alone in the Hall, a troubled frown on her face.

They howled behind him. Shapeless, colourless, they nonetheless loomed large at the edges of his vision. Images of teeth, of narrow, gleaming eyes in the dark. Lean, hungry shadows lurking in the wind.

He ran.

He'd done something. Or stopped something? There was fire, blue and cold, and dead men in the hall. But the image came in fragments, fleeting and broken, and he was far from any hall now.

The forest was endless. He crossed streams, frozen and hidden in snow, that were identical to streams he'd already crossed. He thought those were his own footprints, thrust deep in the snow. He was following his own tracks.

The trees that he flashed past were tall and dark and straight. Skeletal branches whipped by at frightening speed, but never touched him. Or the wolves.

Where was he running to? He followed no path but the impossible trail he'd made himself. He'd been running forever, but the stars, what few he could see through the trees, hadn't moved. The constellations were frozen in place.

He was desperately tired. But his legs did not falter. They couldn't, less the wolves leap and bring him down.

A name beat at his throat, and he ached to call it out. To scream for help. But he clenched his teeth around it and held it in. Some shame, bone deep, kept him from releasing it.

What had he done, to bring these wolves to run him down? What had he done, that he didn't dare hope for Arthur's sword to save him?

The horses steamed in the winter air, trailing white clouds against the starkly shadowed trees. It had snowed in the night -- a thin, dry snow that slipped beneath their hooves and slithered across the trail as the wind blew, leaving intricately waving marks across the frozen ground.

Arthur's best trackers, Caradoc and Owain, coursed far ahead. The tracks were thin, indistinct. The hard-frozen ground did not hold them well. But they could find them. One set of tracks, one man, running as though the hounds of hell were nipping at his heels.

Which, Arthur thought, with a grim satisfaction, was flattering, if not entirely warranted. If he were powerful enough to attack King Uther in his chambers and get away unseen, a dozen knights should hardly pose a problem.

They came to a frozen stream and paused while the knights determined whether the ice would hold the weight of their horses. Arthur loosened his sword in its sheath, looking around.

The winter sun was not strong enough to break completely through the high cloud cover, leaving the world lit with a pale, directionless light. It flattened the forest around them, compressing distances and hiding dips and gullies until the horses were at risk of injury. They could not move forward as quickly as they'd like. The crunch of dry snow and the skeletal rustling of bare black branches were an eerie accompaniment to the creak of oiled saddle leather and the chiming of chain mail and weapons.

The strange lack of birds, even ravens, made the knights nervous. Oh, they went on confidently enough. But the banter that normally they would engage in, even on a hunt like this one, was muted, half-hearted. Arthur himself kept to a grim silence, and they all watched the forest very carefully.

When a branch, far off, snapped in the freezing air with a sound like a crack of lightning, they all flinched, hands going for swords by reflex. But a moment of frozen listening had them back on their way, carefully sending the horses, one at a time, over the frozen stream.

He knelt panting in a clearing, hands buried in snow so dry and cold it burned. He looked over his shoulder, sight hazed with exhaustion, to see the wolves circling around him. The stars were gone, as though a curtain had been drawn back, and the light of a winter sun showed them clearly -- like mist they were, the color of his own labored breaths in the frigid air. They were as tall at the shoulders as a pony, and lean as starvation itself. Their ribs pushed sharply at their shaggy coats, and their eyes were wicked.

He braced himself. He couldn't run anymore, not yet. He had to rest. But the wolves only stared at him hungrily -- they made no move to come closer.

Angry now, he tried to gather his magic, and found it insubstantial as fog. He struggled with it, confused and terrified, but his power came only in trickles and faded away as quickly as it came. He held on to what he could hold, a miserably small amount, and rose to his knees, yelling at the pack.

"Come on then! What are you waiting for?" His voice cracked thin and anguished in the silent forest. The wolves sat on their haunches, tongues lolling in what could only be a laugh.

"My lord," Owain said, with the patience of someone who had been trying to get his attention for some time. Arthur shook himself out of his thoughts; of Merlin, still and silent in the snow, clothes still smoldering with blue flame. He turned from such unlikely things to see what Owain had to show him.

"Here, where the snow's deep enough to hold a track. You can see where the sorcerer turned back towards Camelot, took just a few steps, and was set back on his heels. When he took off away from the city again he was running even faster."

"Someone else is chasing him?" Arthur thought instantly of Merlin, but frowned, looking at the snow. "There are no other tracks."

Owain shrugged. The ways of sorcerers were not his concern; his impassive face seemed to say.

"Well," Arthur decided, matching Owain's shrug, "that's neither here nor there. Our quarry is the same."

And they moved their horses on. He kept his thoughts focused on the trail, on the hunt. Merlin could take care of himself.

He wouldn't dare die without Arthur there to save him.

Cai's horse bumped into his as the knights took a bend in the trail. "Sir," he said, "What will we do when we catch up with this sorcerer?" The older knight kept the question quiet. He didn't sound frightened. He fully expected Arthur to know.

Arthur looked over his knights. Brave men, all of them, and skilled. But sorcery -- he could not stop pulling up the blood-tinged memories of the griffin; the horrid inevitability of the Black Knight.

"We'll do our duty," he told Cai. The hope that Merlin would be there to help, he kept to himself.

They wouldn't let him turn back.

They kept their distance, when he sank down to the snow. But when he'd caught his breath they circled closer, harrying him forward. He tried to turn; to go back . . . he no longer knew where. Somewhere warm, and safe. Somewhere where Arthur was.

But the wolves snarled so viciously. They leapt at him, slavering, and he flinched. The miniscule threads of magic he'd managed to gather were hardly enough to hold them off.

And besides, Arthur could not save him now. He didn't know, exactly, what he'd done. But increasingly, he knew something was wrong. That he'd broken something; a promise, an oath.

He stood in the snow, surrounded by wolves, and tried desperately to remember what oath, what promise he'd forsaken, and why. Dully, he knew the wolves slunk close around him, until he could feel the icy touch of their insubstantial hides, brushing against him. They pushed, and he rocked back one step, and then another. They growled, and he was walking.

One step at a time, further from Arthur, further from warmth. Further from the knowledge of what he'd done.

He knew only that something terrible had been done, and he felt sure, somehow, that he had done it. He feared that the wolves were pushing him towards something even worse. But he went, slowly.

He was too tired to run anymore.

Arthur felt as if he and his knights were riding through a dream. A chase, with no beginning and no end. The sun, that flat glow behind the clouds, sat directly overhead now, but the light it gave seemed insubstantial. The unnaturally empty forest swallowed it, and they rode through a dim sort of twilight.

Hunger gnawed at him. He hadn't eaten, in his rush after the sorcerer. The knights tore at bread and cheese while they rode, not stopping, but Arthur left his meal in his saddlebags. His stomach ached more from nerves.

They topped a ridge, and found a clearing beneath them. Here the wind had blown the grass nearly clear of the dry, shifting snow. Caradoc found the trail anyway.

"He stood here for a long while," the tall knight said. "The grass is frozen, and he broke the blades. Stood on them long enough for the ice to melt beneath him, and then left, long enough ago for it to refreeze. I think we're catching up, though."

"What was he doing?" Gareth asked. "There's nothing in this godforsaken forest but bare trees and wind." No one had an answer for him, though all had commented on the dearth of wildlife.

Arthur pushed his horse past them. "It doesn't matter," he tossed over his shoulder. "We're catching up to him."

He thought he must be dreaming. He hoped that he was dreaming. The forest seemed to shift around him. First he stumbled under stars, set in constellations that should have long since dipped below the horizon, and then through the queer, directionless light of a day with no sun. Then stars again. The trees were the same, dark bones against the snow. The wolves were there, solid and threatening, and then they were shadows, menacing him unseen.

And the magic simply wasn't there -- it was like trying to draw water from an empty well.

And he knew, was certain, that he'd gone through this clearing before. But the wolves kept him moving in a straight line.

So he was dreaming. He would just have to open his eyes. And the nameless dread that told him he'd done something unforgivable would dissipate, and he'd be lying in Arthur's arms, in a warm bed.

All he had to do was wake up.

Even as he thought it, the forest twisted. And a wolf, huge and hungry, was suddenly pinning him to the snow, hot drool spattering his face.

The horrified shout snapped through the forest like a breaking branch. The horses jerked their heads up, and the knights had their swords out without thinking. Arthur kicked his horse forward.

Cai tried to grab the reins, to keep him back, but he was already past him, and Owain and Caradoc were too far down the trail to head him off.

The knights, caught flat footed, could only follow. Arthur pushed his horse at a punishing pace, heedless of the treacherous ground.

That had been Merlin's voice.

Quickly as he'd gone, though, the knights caught up with him. "Your Highness," Bedivere yelled, "You mustn't take the point!" The burly knight was furious, and he and Elyan kept their horses in front of Arthur's, forcing him to slow until Cai and Gareth could swing around him. The knights kept him in their center, and paid no heed to his curses.

The wolf was gone. He sat in the snow, hands up to defend against a threat that wasn't there.

He flinched as (hot breath, carrion scented) the wind kicked at his face, and tugged his tunic free of (grasping teeth) a clutching branch.

Bewildered and frightened, he held himself still, catching his breath.

"This, this is not good," he muttered, and was shocked at how cracked and strained his own voice was. He looked up, but the sun, what there was of it, was directly overhead, no help at all in figuring out which direction would take him to Camelot.

His legs, when he made it to his feet, shook with the cold.

"Any direction is bound to take me somewhere," he told himself, and moved off towards what he thought might be west.

Two steps in, he felt something close around his heart like a vice. He fell to his knees in the snow, clutching at his chest.

He wheezed, shocked and terrified (hemmed in by wolves). He scrubbed at his eyes, and saw only bare trees and snow, but (wolves) his mind insisted.

Instinctively, he pushed himself backwards, and the vice eased. He sobbed outright as the pain receded.

"What," he gasped, still fighting to breathe, "the hell was that?"

But before he could begin to grapple with that problem, the sound of running horses began to rise over the creak of branches and the hiss of sliding snow.

He looked up, hopeful, and started to get to his feet, but paused. Something told him being found right now would not be wise. They might be bandits. Even if they were knights of Camelot, what would they think, to find him out here like this?

Arthur would protect him, he thought, but that immediate thought did not come with the surety he was used to. Instead an image of Arthur's face, confused and angry, strayed before his eyes, and the sword in his hand was held with the edge at his neck.

"He'd never!" he protested, but the image persisted. Merlin whined deep in his throat in confusion, and shook his head fiercely. But when he stood, he moved to hide himself in a thick strand of trees, and tried to ignore the (wolves pacing at his heels). The wind quickly blurred his tracks in the thin, dry snow.

Leaning his head against cold bark, trying to see past the bend in the trees where the sound of horses was growing louder, Merlin felt the world begin to spin. Exhaustion, he thought, clutching at the tree. Fatigue. Wine, he added desperately, though he didn't remember drinking enough to be so very, very confused.

But just before his sight faded completely into blackness, the world steadied, and he stood up straight. Everything seemed very far away. Disconnected. Like he was watching himself from a dark corner of his mind.

He was calm now, and the wolves that stood at either side of him were solid as he was, though they left no mark on the snow.

The first rider came around the bend, and he raised one hand, summoning his magic with ease. He aimed a lance of force at the rider's chest, but to his own surprise, his arm jerked down, and the blow fell at the horse's feet. Caradoc! a voice screamed at him from the back of his mind. You can't hurt Arthur's knights! He frowned, irritated, and the wolf on his right growled, tugging at his tunic. He shushed it, absently. The knight was down, though not as dead as he'd aimed for. His horse had fallen on him, and when it rolled away, surging to its feet, the knight remained on the ground, retching in the snow.

The other knights pulled their horses up around him, holding themselves in front of the youth on a dark bay gelding, whose golden hair shone like a beacon. Enraged, he yelled at them to leave him be, but they stood firm, eyes tight as they searched the clearing.

They hadn't seen him yet. Amusement coloured the thought.

But when he would have stepped forward to throw another blow at the knights, something gripped at him, just as something had kept the killing blow from striking Uther in his bed, and he found himself fading back into the trees instead.

You can not hurt them! the voice insisted. And to his irritation, he found that he could not.

"Let go of my damn horse!" Arthur bellowed, but Cai and Bedivere grimly ignored him. Owain was kneeling over Caradoc, the other knights in a protective ring around him.

"His ribs are broken," Owain said, "and his leg." Caradoc's face, already pale, blanched further. "He'll have to go back."

"You can't spare a knight to take me," Caradoc protested. Pain warped his voice.

Arthur glared around the clearing. That had been Merlin's voice, he was sure of it. But there was no sign of Merlin or the sorcerer. He wrestled his fear into order -- he had men to take care of.

"We can't leave you in the snow, either," he finally ground out. "Agravaine," he called, "You're the lightest of us. Take him on your horse, and get him back to Camelot." The young knight looked as though he would protest, but looked down at Caradoc, whose jaw was clenched in pain.

"Sir," he said, "I will." And as the other knights kept themselves between their wounded comrade and attack, Agravaine helped Owain pull Caradoc up before him on his horse. Gently as they tried to move him, Caradoc was unconscious by the time they had him settled.

Agravaine took his horse out at slow walk. Jostling the broken ribs could cause them to pierce a lung.

Arthur watched them grimly, until they were lost in the trees. They'd hardly found the sorcerer, and already he was two knights down.

"Sir." Cai sat his horse stoically as ever, only the tightness in his eyes betraying his distress. Arthur glared at him.

Bedivere, at Cai's right, grinned fiercely at him. "We will follow any order you give us," he said, "but we won't let you get yourself killed before we even see this sorcerer." The other knights, by the light in their eyes, agreed.

Feeling himself flush, Arthur bullied his horse through them and went on, saying: "Then I suggest we find him, gentlemen, because if you hold my horse like that again, I'll have you all running training relays in the deepest snow I can find. Naked!"

They laughed as they followed him, but Arthur could hear the edge beneath it. They feared this sorcerer, who struck from hiding and disappeared. And he heard again in his mind Merlin's terrified voice, and felt a fear of his own coil around his heart.

Merlin felt caged -- he was at once striding easily through the snow, hand resting comfortably on the back of a lean wolf that left no tracks, and also beating at the edges of his mind with bruising force, frantically grasping for a control that simply eluded him.

"What is this?" he shouted silently. "What have you done to me? Who are you?" That last came out embarrassingly close to a wail, but Merlin hardly noticed. He felt like he was slowly suffocating.

Periodically, his body stopped and spoke to one of the lurking wolves, in a language that sounded hauntingly familiar, but which he couldn't understand. The wolf would turn, and within three steps would fade away, padding into the wind.

And Merlin knew this meant danger for the knights that followed them. For Arthur. And with the tiny threads of magic he could still hold, he pulled the traps awry, though the effort left him feeling even more thin and unreal.

Instead of catching a snapped tree trunk through the chest, Gareth took a glancing blow to the head, which knocked him from his horse and left him barely conscious, but breathing. Elyan tied him to his saddle, and took the reins of his horse, leading him at the back of the group.

A wolf, hiding in the wind, would have knocked Tristan and his horse both over the edge of a steep ridge into the frozen lake beneath. Merlin grabbed at it, and knocked it down. It plowed instead into the horse's legs, pitching him forward and sending Tristan rolling. He hit the ground hard, and his legs swung out over the ridge, but he managed to haul himself back up, hands soon bleeding from scrabbling at the icy ground. His horse had broken his leg, and Tristan let tears run down his cheeks as he slit the gelding's throat. When he winced, standing up again, and could barely straighten, Elyan passed him Gareth's reins without a word, and Tristan stiffly mounted behind the barely conscious knight. Arthur clapped him on the back, and sent the two back the way they'd come.

Merlin felt himself fading into unconsciousness after the effort of stopping the wolf, but the sorcerer (and it must be a sorcerer) who'd stolen his body slapped him down for his interference, and the sharp pain focused him. He kept himself aware by feeding himself nightmares of his own magic used to slaughter Arthur's knights.

Stubborn came a thought that was not his own, as he crouched, panting, in a corner of his mind. The thought was laced with that infuriating amusement, and a wolf, as solid as smoke, seemed to pad up to him, tongue lolling. He stared at it.

"You can't be here," he said angrily. "This is mine."

Not now. The wolf settled on its haunches, watching him closely. You don't know enough to keep me out.

"I'm a fast learner," Merlin ground out. He fiercely wished to knock the wolf back head over tail, but feared he couldn't spare his meager store of magic. So he stared back at it with all the defiance he could gather.

The wolf yawned.

The knights rode warily, eyes scanning the forest. Bedivere and Cai rode at to either side of Arthur, swords at the ready. Owain took point, grimly searching for signs of the sorcerer's passage.

"He's picking us off one by one," Arthur said, just loud enough for the two knights beside him to hear.

Cai shook his head. "Two by two, really. With him wounding them like that, we're forced to send someone back with them."

"I don't think it's intentional strategy," Bedivere said. "They could too easily have died."

"So, what? He's an incompetently dangerous sorcerer?" Cai looked skeptical, but Bedivere shrugged.

"He didn't manage to kill the king, either."

Arthur frowned. He was sure Merlin had foiled the first attack, saving the king's life. But if he was the one saving his knights, why hadn't he made himself known? To Arthur, at least. He wouldn't blame him for hiding from the knights, who would be put in an unconscionable position if they knew Merlin had magic of his own.

He stretched his neck, absently working out the stress. "We can't count on that run of luck continuing," he said. "If it's an inability to connect with lethal force, he might improve with practice. If it's strategy, he might decide killing us would work more quickly."

Cai and Bedivere nodded grimly.

As they did, Elyan gave a shout, and his horse's terrified scream rose through the still air. The knights turned to see the grey mare pawing at nothing, eyes rolling frantically. Elyan fought to soothe her down, but the mare pitched and kicked until the knight was thrown, and then went racing back down the trail, as though something chased after her.

Elyan rose stiffly, holding his ribs. At Arthur's questioning glance he shook his head. "Just winded," he said grimly. Bors, closest to him, held out a hand, and Elyan took it, swinging up behind him. The quiet knight looked at Arthur. They'd be vulnerable, riding double. And slow.

"Keep up as best you can," Arthur said, and they rode on. His knights were being whittled away like a herdsman culling his sheep. They were growing nervous, though they hid it well.

He could only keep his hope close to his chest, that Merlin was keeping them alive, somehow.

That cost you. the wolf said, as Merlin clutched his head with shaking hands. How did you let the horse see the wolf that stalked her rider? It must have taken a great deal of the magic you managed to keep.

Merlin had long since given up answering the wolf's lazy taunts. It was energy he needed.

But the wolf stood, pacing round Merlin in ever tightening rings. Keep it up, boy, it said. use yourself up. When I go after the Prince, you'll have nothing left to protect him.

And Merlin froze, eyes wide.

You've already attacked his father. You've killed his father's men. the wolf said, with a great deal of satisfaction. When you attack him as well, do you think he'll be surprised?

"No," Merlin cried out, involuntarily. "I didn't . . . I won't!"

Oh, but you did. And you will. This is your magic. Not mine. This is your doing, and you huddle here, pathetically trying to turn away your own magic. Do you think he'll hand you over to his father's executioner? Or does he love you enough to kill you himself?

When Merlin lunged for the wolf's throat, his hands found only smoke, and the mocking howls of the pack drifted up around him.

Maddened, Merlin beat at the walls of his mind until blood ran down his hands, and he slid down to his knees, refusing to cry.

If he kept saving the knights, he would be useless when the sorcerer attacked Arthur. But if he allowed the knights to die, it would truly be him who killed them -- his magic, his neglect. And the promise he'd made Arthur, already broken in the attack on the king, would be shattered beyond repair.

Arthur left four knights behind in short order, having to leave Bors and Elyan behind to care for the two knights who'd crashed through the ice over a fast moving stream. Only a tree, suddenly crashing down in the water, had given them something to hold on to before the current swept them back under the ice to drown. Bors, even his great strength strained in hauling the freezing men off of the tree, and Elyan, badly bruised when the incoherent men kicked out at their rescuers, needed the rest badly, and the two half-frozen knights were still in great danger.

Gawain rode now close at Owain's side, Arthur having decided no one was to ride alone, even as close as Owain was, just down the trail. And Cai and Bedivere were constantly in arms' reach of Arthur, to his guilty irritation.

Four, he thought, ashamed. He'd allowed his dozen knights to be whittled down to four. And they seemed no closer to the sorcerer.

He thanked Merlin fervently for the falling tree that had saved his knights from the water, but in the same breath cursed him, for not being safely where he could see him.

"What are you doing?" He could no longer hold the question in, but Cai and Bedivere only grunted, taking it as meant for the sorcerer. And as such, they had no answer.

The long day was quickly dwindling. The directionless light was dimming. The knights rode closer together, Owain no longer able see the faint tracks clearly.

Gawain, watching the deepening shadows, pulled back to Arthur's side. "Should we camp?"

Arthur set his jaw, thinking. Leaving the sorcerer alone for the night, to get farther away, to set more elaborate traps, went deeply against the grain. But they were already at a severe disadvantage. In the dark, they'd be even more vulnerable. And the horses were tired, from slipping through the shifting snow.

Merlin, he thought. Are you out in the cold?

"We should camp," he said calmly. "Owain, find us a safe site."

The sorcerer stood in the shadow of a large oak, watching the knights set camp. He saw how closely they kept to each other, how anxiously they looked to their Prince, and he smiled. He could feel Merlin, a sullenly rebellious presence deep in his mind, but the boy was locked away from direct contact with the world. The meager remnants of magic he could touch would not survive an outright struggle for control.

He would not yet attack the Prince. It wasn't time for that. But the knights would soon be sleeping. And as they dreamt, he could attack more quickly than the boy could interfere.

The wolves took up their silent howl, heard only by him, and Merlin. The sorcerer saw him like a shade haunting his mind, his head miserably hidden in his crossed arms. He was trying to drown out the wolves with tavern songs, song in a shaking, furious voice.

The sorcerer laughed at his impotent anger.

It didn't really work, but he found some ridiculous comfort in shouting the obscene lyrics in the echoing space of his own mind. He felt drunk -- the sort of giddy, scattered drunk that deep exhaustion could spiral into. He found himself giggling, to his horror, and bit his lip.

The sorcerer was planning something. He could feel the satisfied patience pouring over him. The sorcerer's emotions had grown stronger as the day went on, as if he were growing less able to keep himself separate and aware. It frightened him.

"What are you doing?" he asked, for the tenth time since he woke from the dream of being hunted through an endless forest. He did not expect an answer.

But when he got one, he was too tired to be surprised.

I'm ruining you the sorcerer told him, a wicked glee in the words. You'll never be able to return to Camelot. He'll never be able to trust you again. You'll dwindle away in despair and grief, and never be a threat to me.

Merlin titled his head back against the wall of this imaginary prison. "You're mad," he said scornfully. "I don't even know who you are."

The sorcerer laughed. It doesn't matter now. I'm you.

Cai took the first watch. Arthur, wrapped warmly by the fire, lay between Gawain and Bedivere, while Owain took the spot farthest from the fire. The knights were snoring softly, having fallen asleep with the practical ease of experienced campaigners.

But Arthur couldn't get his mind to rest. He could only wonder how his injured men were faring. He saw Elyan's terrified mare over and over again, striking out at some horror only she could see, eyes white-rimmed and staring. He saw his father's blood-stained bandages, and Morgana's miserable eyes. Merlin's in trouble, I think, he heard her say, again. And he heard Merlin's drowsy question as he lay tucked with his chin over his shoulder. Did you hear that? The howls. The wolves are howling.

Arthur strained his ears, and heard only the horses, restless at their leads, and Cai's chain mail, chiming softly as he shifted his weight. Beneath that, he could hear the constant slip of snow over stone and frigid earth, and the eerie creak of frozen trees. But he could hear no wolves.

The knights' dreams were simple things, the sorcerer found. The bearded one dreamt of a woman, heavy with child, who waited anxiously in front of a dying fire. The knight tried to reassure her, but she couldn't hear him, or feel the arms he tried to put around her.

The one furthest from the fire slept the sleep of the truly exhausted. His dreams were vaguely troubled shapes that barely skimmed across his mind.

The dark one dreamt of the forest and the hunt, surprisingly similar to the dream Merlin had been trapped in. But the beasts that hunted him had no shape, and made no sound, and his fellow knights were there as well, disappearing one by one, until only he stood between the unknown foe and his prince. Amused, the sorcerer dipped into this dream, and took the prince as well.

The knight's cry of grief and failure could well have woken him from his dream, but the sorcerer held him there, alone in the snow-silenced forest. He could feel Merlin stirring, suspicious, but this was a subtle magic. He'd have his hooks well into the knight before Merlin figured it out.

Run, he told the knight. Run. You've lost your friends. You've failed your prince. What have you left? The knight heard his words as howls, rising thickly over the forest, and in his dream, he ran.

In the world, Gawain lurched from his bedroll, waking Bedivere and Arthur, startling Owain into rising. Gawain stared around him blankly, unseeing, and Arthur reached for him. There were tears coursing down the knight's young face.

But Gawain slipped away from Arthur, slipped through Cai's grasp, and took off into the forest, barefoot in the snow. "Gawain!" Owain cried after him, and followed.

The sorcerer, hidden in the trees, covered his mouth with his hands to stifle his laughter, and sent his wolves to harry the dreaming knight. At the least, he'd run his feet bloody and useless. With any luck, he'd run over a ridge, or into a tree, or fall through the ice over one of the frozen lakes.

Merlin was well and truly alarmed now. He reached with his tiny threads of magic, but the sorcerer negligently slapped them away. Merlin spit curses at him, wrestling the threads back under control.

You won't reach him, the sorcerer told him.

Merlin declined to listen.

Gawain, he couldn't reach, wrapped as he was in the sorcerer's suggestions. But Owain was awake, and hard on the other knight's heals. Merlin sharpened his sight, letting him see which way Gawain had fled. He fed his magic to the knight, letting him breathe deeper, run faster.

And Owain caught up with him, just before the knight ran over the ridge of a gulley and fell onto the ice below. He didn't bother calling out to him. Instead he tackled the younger knight down into the snow, pinning his flailing limbs beneath him, and waited for the other knights to catch up. Gawain fought against him desperately, and screamed in pain and rage and horror when he refused to let him go.

"Gawain!" he shouted, slapping his friend in the face. "Wake up, damn you! You'll send us both over the edge!"

And Gawain woke up. He went still under Owain, and sobbed for breath, his eyes searching frantically for the great mist-white wolves that had dogged his heels. He found Arthur instead, sliding to his knees beside the knights, and Cai and Bedivere catching their breath behind him, swords out and steady.

"You're not dead," he told Arthur, disbelief making his voice sharp. "You're not!"

Arthur stared at him. "Of course I'm not dead!" he yelled. "But you very nearly were! You and Owain both!"

But Gawain was sobbing now with laughter, relief heavy in every line of his body.

The sorcerer watched in silence, and turned away. So he'd lived. But he'd be fragile for a while. And the other knights would watch him closely, perhaps leaving openings of their own for him to exploit.

"Not while I'm watching," he heard Merlin vow.

And how long can you watch? he spat back at him, losing patience. You're about ready to fade into nothing. You'll never be able to protect them all.

"I took my body back once," Merlin growled. "I'll do it again." The sorcerer could feel his determination. It made him angry.

Arthur and his knights spent the rest of the night awake. Gawain huddled in blankets by the fire, following them with haunted eyes, as though he half expected them to disappear. Owain sat with his back against Gawain's, making sure he felt him there.

Cai and Bedivere sat by Arthur.

"We have to assume the sorcerer got to him somehow," Cai said.

"The sneaking bastard," Bedivere growled, and spit in the snow.

Arthur nodded, gloom clear on his face. "The frozen grass ripped his feet to bleeding ribbons. He could easily have died. And this sorcerer could get to any one of us next." He threw a broken stick on the fire, grimacing at the surge of sparks.

"We're all willing to take that risk," Cai said, his voice calm. "Else we wouldn't be your knights."

Arthur glared at him. "I won't risk it. We'll go on, the three of us. Gawain and Owain will stay here in camp, and wait for us to return."

The knights looked at each other, and Arthur knew they wished to protest. But Bedivere bowed his head. "If we return to Camelot with your dead body, you having died of not having enough knights around to protect you, King Uther will have all our heads. So," and he smiled, a sharp, steel-edged smile like a blade cutting through his beard. "You will have to promise not to die."

And Arthur felt his heart leap, for his knights, his brave and loyal knights. "I promise," he said, and meant it.

Merlin watched, brooding, as the sorcerer stood at the mouth of a cave. Icicles hung like broken teeth from the opening, some so long they grew into the ground. The phantom wolves lay about the entrance, panting as though the cold night was too hot for them.

They come from still colder realms, the sorcerer said, answering his thought. Forests where your blood would freeze, and the marrow of your bones would shatter. Perhaps I'll take you there, once you've killed your Prince.

Merlin curled around himself, and said nothing. The tiny bit of magic he still held, the barest spark, he cradled against his heart. He could see its faint glow in the darkness.

Dawn inched over the forest with the same cold light as yesterday. Merlin barely acknowledged it.

Look, the sorcerer called gaily. See the trap your magic has woven? See what you'll do to your Prince when he finds you?

But Merlin looked instead at the tiny spark of magic in his hands, and fed as much of himself as he had left into it, to keep it shining.

Cai rode point. The knight found the trail plain against the snow -- easier by far to read than it had been yesterday. It worried him.

Arthur nodded unhappily at Cai's glance. The sorcerer was laying a trap for them. But what else could they do, but follow? Cautiously, at least, and with their eyes open. He looked to Bedivere, who rode behind him, watching the forest carefully.

He could only hope they weren't entirely alone. That Merlin still had a few tricks up his sleeve, to keep the trap from closing on his knights.

The forest edged away around a hill. More a pile of rocks really, slumped on a tiny rise in the earth. The trail led straight up to it, and into the ice-edged mouth of a cave, which slanted sharply into the ground. They paused, studying it.

"I don't like the looks of that," Cai said. His voice was as calm as ever, but his hands were tight around the reins.

"We could stay out here," Bedivere offered. "Stand guard at the entrance and send Owain and Gawain back for reinforcements. I don't think there's any other way out."

"There's always another way out," Arthur said grimly. "We can't take that risk." What was it with sorcerers and caves, anyway? Dark, dank places. Hardly pleasant lairs.

His knights looked at each other, and Bedivere pulled out a coin. "Heads, I go first. Tails, you do."

"Wait," Arthur protested, "what . . ."

"You do not go first, at all, Sir." Cai's voice was firm.

Bedivere tossed the coin. Arthur fought the urge to snatch it out of the air and lead the way himself. No sense forcing his knights into direct disobedience. They'd never let him risk himself so obviously.

"Heads it is," Bedivere actually sounded glad. "My turn." And he swung down from his horse, taking a length of rope and a small, shielded lantern from his saddlebags. He walked towards the cave mouth, not waiting while Cai and Arthur followed suit.

The left their reins tied loosely to their saddles, letting the horses have their heads free. Just in case.

The sorcerer was humming as he sat on the rocks above the cave mouth. Merlin resented his use of his stolen magic to make himself invisible.

"What have you done?" he asked, seeing the wide strands of magic that laced the rocks.

Do you know what sorts of creatures live in caves like this one? Monsters, swallowing up all the old, bloodstained magic of the ancient cults, growing to vast, swollen size in the dark. I've walked this cave myself, within the creatures’ simple dreams. Your Prince likes defeating monsters, doesn't he? Likes a challenge? Maybe he'll enjoy himself down there. His knights probably won't last long, since they'll be trying to protect him.

Merlin stared. He'd cave it in. He'd lure them inside and trap them there, for the monsters. "No," he protested. "You can't do that!"

Well, no, the sorcerer purred. But you can. And since, for all intents and purposes, I am you . . .

"I'll stop you!" Merlin found himself standing, fists clenched. The tiny spark of magic pulsed against his fingers.

You can't.

Merlin closed his eyes tight as Arthur and his knights came closer. "Please," he whispered, "oh, please." And he released all the magic he had left.

The spark danced along the strands of magic the sorcerer had stolen to weave his trap. The hill began to shake.

On the rise of the hill, Arthur grabbed at Bedivere's arm. "Stop!" he yelled, and pulled Bedivere behind him as the knight lost his footing on the rumbling ground. Cai held him up while he fought to stand.

The sorcerer snarled and tried to catch the little spark of Merlin's magic. But it danced just out of reach. It was fading fast, but Merlin concentrated all his will on it, and sent it in a sudden rush back towards him. It struck like a tiny throwing knife, at the bond the sorcerer held on Merlin's body. The sorcerer, involuntarily, flinched, and Merlin pounced at the crack in his prison.

Phantom wolves tore at him, their teeth, their weight, pulling him back. But Merlin clawed his way out.

In the world, reeling in the body he was loosing control of, the sorcerer fell over the mouth of the cave. He flickered into visibility as he landed on the ice.

Cai and Bedivere, fighting to get back to their feet, saw the dark shape fall, but only Arthur recognized it. He leapt forward, reaching for Merlin, and the two of them slid into the mouth of the cave just as the hillside, loosened by magic, slipped down in a rumble and crash of rock and ice.

The knights stared in horror at the pile of rock, and then, as one, scrambled up the slope, digging at the rocks in wordless haste.

Arthur held tight to Merlin's body, which was still and quiet in his arms. "Merlin!" he cried out, slapping his unresponsive face.

He came to with a start, flinging Arthur off of him with a spray of force. He scuttled backwards, until his back thumped into the rocks that blocked the entrance.

Arthur wheezed, trying to get back the breath Merlin had knocked out of him. "Are you all right?" he asked into the dark.

Merlin's voice came back strained and shaking. "No. No, I don't think so. You should stay far away from me."

He could hear the wolves snarling and snapping at his prison walls. At their prison walls, now, he told himself. But those walls, which had seemed so solid when they trapped him, felt thin as tissue now. He could feel the sorcerer behind them, trailing his hands along their length.

Merlin shuddered. It felt obscene.

Arthur's voice came from the darkness. "What do you mean, stay away from you? And where is the sorcerer?" He sounded angry, and Merlin bit his lip. He had so much reason to be angry.

"It's just not safe, that's all." That sounded weak, even to his own ears, and he shook his head. "And the sorcerer . . . I really have to tell you something."

Arthur said nothing for a moment. Merlin, holding his aching head in his hands, let the icy stone numb his body, waiting.

"Can we get a little light, first?"

The question sounded so normal, Arthur's voice so calm, that Merlin started laughing. He knew he was hysterical, but he couldn't stop himself. As he reached out for his magic (oh so relieved to be able to touch it once again) and asked for light, he was still laughing, helplessly, and the resulting light splashed against the cave walls in shaking, rippling waves.

He stared, as the light increased. Arthur crouched on his heels against the far wall of the cave's mouth. His hair hung over his eyes. He looked tired. He looked perfect.

Merlin sighed. "You're safe," he said, ashamed by how close to tears his voice sounded. He giggled. "Or as safe as you could be, trapped in a cave full of huge monsters and a crazy sorcerer."

"In a what?" Arthur's voice was sharp enough to cut through Merlin's hysteria. "Merlin, what have you been doing out here?"

The concern and fear in Arthur's face sliced into Merlin, and his hysterical laughter turned into sobs, frighteningly fast.

"I'm sorry!" he choked out. "I'm sorry, I didn't want to. I tried not to!" He felt himself shaking, and felt horribly tender, as though the struggle to regain control of his body had left him raw and bleeding.

But Arthur was moving then, wrapping his arms around him. He flinched away, but Arthur pulled him closer, rocking him like a child, and Merlin found himself crying on Arthur's shoulder.

It was dreadfully embarrassing, but he couldn't make himself stop.

Arthur fought back his fear as he held Merlin's shaking body. Something was wrong with him, obviously. Something was very wrong. But Merlin was alive, and he was alive, and all of his knights were alive.

He stroked a hand down Merlin's back, murmuring soothing sounds that weren't even words. Slowly, Merlin calmed. His breathing steadied, and Arthur thought, for a moment, that he might have fallen asleep.

Suddenly, Merlin jerked away from him, eyes wide in the rippling light of his magic. "No!" he said sharply. "Don't let me fall asleep!"

Arthur blinked. "Merlin, you're so exhausted you're hysterical. You can't confront the sorcerer like this. Rest here while my knights dig us out, and we'll go after him together. I'll think of something to tell the knights about your being here."

But Merlin was shaking his head. Getting to his feet he paced, wobbling on uncertain legs. "He'll get out," he said. "He'll get out, and he'll kill you, and he'll make me watch."

Arthur felt a chill that had nothing to do with the ice-rimmed cave at Merlin's certain tone. Merlin looked half-mad. His eyes were so wide he could see the whites all around, uncomfortably reminding him of Elyan's maddened mare.

"Merlin, what exactly are you talking about?" He shot out a hand and pinned Merlin to the cave wall, just to stop his unsteady pacing. "Calm down."

Merlin blinked down at him and wrapped his hands in the fabric of Arthur's tunic. "I'm sorry," he said again, though he sounded much calmer now. "You're confused. Of course you are. I'll explain it all." But instead, he gripped Arthur's tunic and pulled him into a desperate kiss.

Arthur's surprised exclamation was muffled, and brief. He gripped Merlin's shoulders and kissed him back, fiercely, all his worry and fear and relief shaping itself into a deep hunger. Merlin's head knocked back against the cave wall, but he hardly seemed to notice as he ground his hips into Arthur's. He whined, deep in his throat, and pulled him still closer.

Arthur released his shoulders to wrap one hand gently around Merlin's throat, desperate to feel his pulse, quick and vital and real.

But Merlin, just as he was beginning to go boneless under Arthur's hands, broke the kiss. He froze, like a frightened hare, and ripped himself away from Arthur, backing towards the dark expanse of the cave.

"No, no, I can't," he babbled. "It isn't safe. Oh, damn me, I'm not safe." And before Arthur could reach for him, Merlin took off running. The darkness, beyond the flowing light of his magic, was absolute, and Arthur quickly lost sight of him.

"Merlin!" he cried out after him. "Merlin!"

It wasn't that he could see in the dark, Merlin thought, a desperate distraction to keep him from turning around and running back to Arthur just as fast as he could. It's just that he could feel the way the cave laid itself out. It twisted deeper with every step, and Merlin could sense the old, old path laid down by the repeated step of ancient priests. There was blood on that path, soaked into the stones, and Merlin followed it, because it took him away from Arthur.

He could feel, from inside his paper-thin prison, the sorcerer laughing.

"Shut up," he snarled viciously into the dark. "You won't get out."

But even as he said it, he knew that he was wrong.

Arthur stood staring into the darkness for so long it seemed to lean out and swallow him. He jerked back with an oath, and scrubbed at his eyes.

He could hear, very faintly, the sound of his knights prying at the rock fall that closed the cave. If he waited, they'd reach him, and he'd be safe.

But, he thought, setting his jaw, the sorcerer was still unapprehended. And Merlin had apparently gone mad.

This was not an acceptable situation.

But he couldn't follow Merlin in the dark. Merlin may have some magical advantage in the dark, but he did not. And if he went out there unprepared, he'd probably fall down a bottomless pit, or run into one of those "huge monsters" Merlin had mentioned.

Arthur studied the light shining from the ensorcelled stones. It rippled and gleamed from every knob of stone and shaft of ice. He reached out a hand, and hesitated, nearly touching. But nothing Merlin did would harm him. He had his promise.

He slid his hand into the light.

It wasn't warm, he thought, feeling it wash over his hand like water. But it didn't feel cold, either. It felt, he decided, like he used to imagine the way moonlight felt on the river, when he was a child. Like silk brushing over his skin.

When he pulled his hand away, the light clung to his fingers, and he smiled. Merlin's magic constantly amazed him.

He wiped his hand on his scabbard, carefully, leaving streaks of light on the leather. Then he took his sword, and laid the blade against the stone, under the rippling light, until the steel was coated with magic. He did the same to the scabbard, until the leather shone with a coat of its own.

He looked back once, and listened to his knights on the other side of the rock. And then he moved down into the cave, sword held high to light the way.

It was growing warmer, as he fled deeper into the cave. A damp, clinging sort of warmth, that crawled along his skin. He could feel the sweat beginning to slide down his back.

He'd outrun Arthur's voice, calling out his name with increasing frustration. He'd run, losing himself in the twists and spirals of the deepening cave.

He felt as though he'd left something vital behind. Like he was bleeding. And as he ran, the sorcerer examined his prison.

Fascinating, the sorcerer said, as he dug a nail into the prison wall. Merlin faltered at the ripping pain, and slapped his will against the spot before it tore further. It really shouldn't be this easy. I think there's something wrong with you.

Merlin swallowed his retort. The sorcerer's voice wove through and around him, distracting him. He refused to answer it.

Perhaps it's only because you're worn so very thin. You've been fighting me constantly for most of two nights and two days. You've had nothing to eat, and little to drink. You're nerves are ragged. If you stopped for a bit, and rested, your defenses would be stronger.

But if he rested, Merlin knew he would be lost. He forced his stumbling feet to straighten, and ran on.

Arthur could see no mark on the stone to tell him where Merlin had gone, and so he could only follow his instincts. And his instincts said that Merlin would do the very stupidest thing he could, and go down.

He trailed his sword gently against the stone as he went, leaving a trail of light as thin as spider silk.

He was sure getting lost in this cave would be a good way to die. So, the trail. Just in case.

He listened intently to the dark outside of the spill of light from his sword. He was sure Merlin hadn't had much of a head start on him. But he couldn't hear anything at all -- not a footstep, not a rock kicked out of place -- beyond the steady drip of water in the depths.

As the cave grew warmer, he shed his heavy cloak as excess weight. He left it folded on the stone floor, hoping to pick it up again on the way out.

He missed it almost immediately, not for its warmth, but for the extra protection. He could feel a crawling certainty between his shoulder blades that something was watching him.

He gripped his sword more firmly, and kept walking.

The dripping water was too easy to focus on, he decided. He caught himself, more than once, lowering his sword and slowing his step as the constant drip seemed to echo in his head. He shook himself, and his chain mail rattled fiercely. He wished that he could talk to Merlin.

"If you were here," he said aloud, "then I wouldn't be in danger of losing my way because a leak in the roof was distracting me!"

He went on, indulging himself. "If you were here, I'd pin you down, to keep you from running away, again. And I'd finish what you started, up there in the entrance. I'd kiss you senseless. I'd strip you naked and paint your body with the light you left me so even if you did manage to run away again, I'd be able to see you, and I'd follow you where ever you ran." He heard the longing in his own voice, and it embarrassed him. He cleared his throat.

"And what's up with this cave? The floor's almost polished, it's so smooth. And the walls do not look natural."

He stopped, suddenly unable to stand the heavy silence of the stone around him. "Merlin! Where the hell are you?" His voice bounced sharply against the cavernous space around him, but there came no answer but the drip of water, somewhere far below.

Do you intend to run forever? To hide in this cave until you're naught but a pale, blind worm, creeping round and round in sleepless misery? Your Prince will never stop looking for you. Why not go back to him? Fall asleep in his arms. Are they as strong as they look? I'd like to find out.

Merlin, despite himself, snarled back at him. "Don't you touch him."

What? What did you think I'd do? Strangle him in his sleep? Pin him to the stone with his own sword? Use your magic to strip his mind of thought and give him back to his father like a broken, empty doll?

The sorcerer laughed as Merlin twisted away from his voice. You carry me in a prison beside your own heart! You can't get out of the range of my voice. And you don't know enough to keep me quiet. Your ignorance is appalling. But I don't enjoy torturing children. If you'd go to sleep, I'd make sure you didn't wake up until I was done. You wouldn't have to listen anymore. I'd send you pleasant dreams -- of you and your Prince entwined on the floor of this cave, safe and warm and trusted. Of those frantic knights finally freeing you both, and all of you going back home, to Camelot, where the kitchens are preparing a feast in the Prince's honour, and the king waits to welcome his son home triumphant. I'd do that for you, if you just go to sleep.

The voice wound around Merlin like a silken caress, and his skin crawled from the horror of its offering. Would he even be able to tell it was a dream? Or would he simply take what his senses gave him, until he wasted away, locked in chains of his own making?

"Stop it," he whispered. "Shut the hell up, you poisonous bastard." The sorcerer's laugh was joined by the yipping amusement of his wolves.

He pressed unsteady hands against his ears. It didn't help, not in the slightest.

Arthur heard it long before he saw it, the first of Merlin's "huge monsters." It came with a heavy slithering drag against the stone -- not loud, but so different from the only sound he'd heard before that it instantly caught at his attention. He listened as it came closer -- it certainly sounded large, whatever it was.

When its bulk came into view, he thought he was ready, but the sheer mass of it stole his breath. It loomed, a hulking beast whose damp hide drank in the light of his sword like water, and threw it back in rainbow colours, like spilt oil.

It's long, heavy jaws opened wide, exposing broken, stumpy teeth in a wide mouth, and its small, pale eyes squinted against the light. Its flat tail, that had alerted him with its drag against the stone, swung ponderously from side to side.

Arthur set himself, studying the beast. It looked mostly like a salamander, he thought. Like a massive, hideous salamander. But not quite.

"Doesn't matter, does it? You want to eat me, and I'd rather not be eaten." He took a deep breath.

"Right then." And he leapt straight at it, flinging the light from the sword at its sensitive eyes. The beast gurgled more than growled, and swung its head.

Arthur's sword bit into the beast's jaw, but only shallowly. The thing's hide was slippery and dense. The sword nearly skipped off, and Arthur's arm ached with the ringing it sent up the blade. He swore, and moved back cautiously.

The beast moved far more quickly than Arthur thought remotely fair for a thing its size. He had to dance backwards to avoid its lunge, but he managed to score another glancing blow as he did.

"This will never work," he growled at the beast. "I don't have time for you."

He would aim for the eyes, he decided. They seemed the only spot unprotected by the thick, wet hide. The eyes, and the mouth. But to hit anything vital there, he'd have to be standing inside the cavernous thing. No. He didn't want to do that.

But before he could make the next lunge, the beast's heavy tail swung around and flung him off his feet.

That hurt. He lay gasping on the stone, unable to move. His sword lay on the edge of a drop off, just out of reach.

The beast's tale swayed overhead as it ponderously shuffled around to face him. Arthur grimaced at the wet, rotting smell of it.

The beast leaned towards him, opening its jaws, and Arthur groaned painfully with the effort, but he moved, as he had to, frantically unbuckling his sword belt.

He thrust the empty scabbard deep into the soft roof of the beast's mouth. The belt whipped around, frighteningly close to Arthur's face.

The beast squalled in pain, a bone-deep throbbing sound, and Arthur clapped his hands over his ears. It backed away from him, swinging its huge head, and Arthur saw, to his horror, that in its retreat the beast's feet were moving perilously near his sword. And as it moved away, still squalling, face glowing weirdly red around the scabbard wedged into its mouth, it kicked his sword. The blade tumbled over the edge, striking against stone with a clear, belling tone.

Arthur was left in the dark, unarmed. He banged his head against the cave floor.

Merlin could feel that manic edge of exhaustion overtaking him. It was impossible to walk in a straight line anymore. He began to count how many steps he wandered to either side of the spiraling path, as though he were in the middle of a children's game.

The sorcerer was humming. It was a discordant, halting tune, turning back upon itself in twisting, elliptical rhythms. He could feel the wolves, pacing the confines of his mental defenses in time with the song.

"Six. Seven. Two more to the left." He counted loudly, trying to drown it out, but found, with a horror made distant in his tiredness, that he was counting measures for the sorcerer's song, and not his own steps at all.

He would go mad, he thought, quite clearly, long before he got out of this cave.

Perhaps, he thought, brightly in his weariness, if he went mad, he'd take the sorcerer over the edge with him. He wouldn't mind, he thought, if he never got out of this cave, so long as the sorcerer didn't either.

Arthur wormed his way to the drop off, feeling his way with his hands well out in front of him. He moved stiffly, deeply bruised by the blow the beast had landed.

When his fingers touched empty air, he lifted his head, and carefully looked over.

Far far below, his sword burned on the rock with borrowed magic.

He scrubbed at his eyes. "Wouldn't it be easier," he asked himself, "to sit here in the dark and wait for the beast to come back? It would be a cleaner death, I think."

But he didn't want to sit in the dark and wait to die. He wanted to find Merlin. And to do that, he needed light. He needed his sword.

The blade, in its tumbling, had struck against stone on its way down. He could see the faint traces of magic it had left behind -- thin shards of light scraped off on rock worn smooth by years of falling water.

It looked to be an impossible climb.

He stretched his fingers, and thought of Merlin.

"At least this time," he said aloud, "let there be no spiders."

Without further hesitation, he swung his body over, holding tight to the edge. Steadily, he reached for the light scuffed onto the wall, and found a thin crack there, barely wide enough for the toe of his boot.

"This is ridiculous," he breathed. "I'm going to die here. Merlin, you idiot, I'm going to die for you."

He found, to his great relief, that the stone was not quite as smoothly featureless as it had felt at the lip of the drop off. Though the knobs and cracks that had struck against the tumbling sword were few and far between, there were others, not lit, and he could find them with a questing hand.

He inched down. His hands cramped. His legs burned with tension. At one point, he bit his lip to bleeding, when he had to stretch the whole length of his body to reach a toehold, leaving all his weight hanging from his fingertips.

But finally, the light from the sword was throwing itself on the wall beneath him, and he could feel the sheer drop angling to a sharp slope. He slid the last several feet in a clatter of chain mail, slapping a hand over his sword as he passed.

He kissed the hilt. "I'll just rest here a moment, Merlin," he said. "Don't go too far."

The wolves were walking beside him. They brushed against him as they passed, and their fur was bitter cold in the clammy warmth of the cave.

The sorcerer's humming had gone silent, and Merlin knew it had been the key to the wolves' release. But they made no move against him. He strained to find them in the dark, to know where they were -- but all he could catch were fleeting impressions of claws clicking against stone, and a dry, cold scent like icebound bones.

He slowed his pace, turning again and again as the wolves brushed by.

But when he stumbled to a stop, coughing in air that felt too thick to breathe, the wolves closed in with snarls that bounced off the cave walls around him. They tore at him with teeth that burned like ice, and he ran, weaving through the dark.

Arthur's sword still carried enough of Merlin's magic, despite the battering it had taken on the rocks, to show Arthur where he'd ended up.

Here was the source of that hypnotic dripping water. At his feet, the surface of a small, mirror-finished pool gleamed under the light he held, and broke into a thousand scintillations as a single drop of water fell from a massive stalactite overhead.

The sound was amazingly loud in this silent cave. Arthur frowned. It would easily cover up the approach of another beast like the one he'd just gotten away from.

He couldn't stay here. And, he thought, looking up at the face of the cliff he'd come down, he'd never make it back up that way, not with a sword in his hand. He could tuck it through his belt, but without his scabbard he'd risk slicing his legs open in the climb.

He held his sword out over the pool. It was easily small enough to jump across. And beyond it, the cave continued.

Arthur frowned. This really was a suspicious sort of cave, with its smooth floors and winding pathways. There was a remarkable lack of bats, as well, though he supposed the monstrous predators might have something to do with that.

He shrugged. If someone had shaped this cave, they'd done it hundreds of years ago. It made no difference now.

And that way, across the pool, led down. His instincts still insisted that Merlin had gone down. So.

He backed up. He'd need a bit of momentum to make the jump with his stiff leg. But he ran at the pool without hesitation, pushing himself off with his good leg.

Directly over the pool, mid-jump, something reached up, wrapped itself along his leg from ankle to hip, and yanked.

Arthur's involuntary screech filled his mouth with water.

Adrenalin spent, Merlin stopped. Head lowered like a bull's, blind and maddened by baiting hounds, he glared into the dark. He could feel them circling. Hear them howl, a yearning, empty sound.

He raised his hands, and struck with fire.

Unfocused and uncontrolled, the magic sprayed against the cave walls in a blinding display of rage. But it was spent, quickly, and Merlin fell to his knees in a dark made deeper by the fleeting light. Colours burned against his eyes -- the swollen reds and throbbing whites that spoke of pain, and made no impression on the overwhelming black.

He felt himself sliding under, and cursed himself for a fool, driven by phantoms and beaten by his own panic.

"Arthur," he tried to shout. He barely heard himself. "Get out of here."

He slumped forward, and as he fell, he felt the sorcerer's prison shred apart.

The light of the sword rippled and swam under the surface, as the thing that had him pulled him deeper. And deeper. The little pool seemed to have no bottom.

Arthur twisted frantically, fighting against the weight of the water and the confines of the pool to bring his sword around. The tentacle tightened painfully, the thin, sinewy length of it clinging to his leg.

With his free hand, he clawed at the stone side of the pool, breaking fingernails but slowing his descent not at all. Bubbles of air escaped him.

Finally, the stone walls widened, and he could bring his sword to bear. He bent nearly double, to reach the tentacle below his leg, and from that vantage point, he could see the great blind eyes of a monster, hovering in the reservoir below.

Even the light from the sword could not illuminate the whole of the beast. Arthur got the impression of many tentacles, and a shapeless hulk, but what he focused on were the blind, indifferent eyes, and the sharp beak, which he was being drawn towards.

Desperately, he hacked at the tentacle, slicing the edge of his boot in the process. The sword sheared through the fibrous muscle, and black blood eddied in the water. The creature whistled, a piercing sound of pain that rang through the water with punishing force.

The blind eyes seemed to focus on him, indifferent no longer.

Arthur kicked upwards, scrabbling with torn fingers at the stone walls, pulling himself back into the narrow shaft that led to the surface.

Water was filling his boots, until they were heavier even than his chain mail. The damaged one, filling faster, pulled him off balance, but the tentacles whipping through the bloodstained water below egged him on.

Arthur could feel his lungs seizing up for lack of air, and there was no light at the surface to tell him how near he was. When his head did break the surface he nearly didn't take the breath he so desperately needed. And then, frantic, he sucked it in so fast he nearly choked himself.

He scrambled over the side of the pool like a beaching seal, heavy and awkward. But even in his haste, another tentacle managed to whip around his ankle, pulling him half into the water again.

Arthur coughed up a scream, and dug his sword at the cave floor. It screeched across the rock in a shower of sparks, but did nothing to slow him, until it caught briefly at a small stone outcropping, near the edge of the pool. Scant leverage, but Arthur heaved with terrified strength, and pulled his foot out of his boot.

The tentacle dragged the boot down, and more shot out of the water, looking for the rest of him, but Arthur was already rolling well away from the pool, coughing into the cave floor.

Soon, the tentacles retreated, and the roiling pool of water stilled, until the next drop of water plunked down.

Arthur watched it for a long time.

He could feel the sorcerer seeping through his body like a poison. He shivered face down on the ground, unable to move, unable even to blink against the dark.

You have such astonishing power, The sorcerer's voice was peculiarly gentle, almost soothing, but Merlin's skin crawled to hear it. But you cannot harness it properly. You waste your energy. You might have learned better, in time. Someday, with the support of Camelot and King Arthur's sword, you might threaten even my power; encroach on my domain. You know, I don't care at all about the Pendragons. They'll never spread their influence so far north as to trouble me. But you, at Arthur's side . . . Do you realize? This really is all your fault.

The sorcerer sank deeper into him, and Merlin ceased even to shiver.

Don't fear, boy. I won't let him wander in the dark for long.

Much of the sword's light had washed away in the water. Arthur squinted in the new dimness, cursing first the monster that had taken his scabbard, and then the creature that had nearly drowned him, and stolen half his light. And his boot. He scowled, looking down at his bare feet. He'd abandoned the one boot he had left, annoyed at how unbalanced it left him. His chain mail chafed his shoulders through his wet padding, and he felt uncomfortably clammy in the warmth of the cave. His bloodied hands stung as the water dripped from his sleeves. He sighed, shaking them off, and kept walking.

At least even the little light that remained was enough to keep him from falling over the edge of another cliff, or tripping into another pool. He shivered, thinking that there must be more than one such pool, leading down to that vast underwater cavern, and to the monster lurking there.

But as he thought this, the light dimmed further. Nearly imperceptibly at first, and he rubbed at his eyes, but then it was gone with shocking suddenness. Arthur whipped his head around, but even the thin trail he'd dragged along the cave wall had gone out.

Stupidly, he stared into blackness, before a horrible suspicion squeezed at his heart.

"Merlin," he breathed. "No. No!" This last a shout, thickened with rage and refusal. And he ran, recklessly, trailing a hand against the wall.

He couldn't possibly be dead, after all this, he thought, anger surging through him. Not possibly.

Merlin lay on his stomach; head resting on his crossed arms, letting long strands of grass tickle his bare feet. Dragonflies buzzed past, jeweled bodies glowing. He stared at them, feeling, for a moment, oddly angry. But the moment passed, and he smiled at the sound of their wings.

He watched through the grass as Arthur wrung out his tunic, water running down his arms, and laid it out on a rock to dry in the sun. His golden hair caught the summer sun and threw it back at the endless blue of the sky. Merlin's smile widened.

Arthur stretched his arms behind his head, surveying the clearing, with its little shining lake, as if it were his kingdom, and he its king. Merlin could just see the crown upon his head, woven of cattails, strung with clover.

Then Arthur yawned, and in his daydream, Merlin saw the crown slip down over one ear, leaving a single blossom bobbing in front of his nose. He snickered.

Arthur turned and found him watching.

Seeing the predatory look that crossed his face, Merlin swallowed his laughter and ducked deeper into cover. His shirt rucked up as he wriggled back, and the earth tickled against his bared belly.

Anticipation coiled through him.

He could hear Arthur, rustling through the long grass up the hill. Merlin eased himself into an illusion of grass and sun baked earth and dancing dragonflies.

The prince's bare feet stopped just short of Merlin's nose as Arthur searched for him. The narrow bones were grass stained and muddied, still wet from the lake, and Merlin couldn't help it. He licked the closer foot, from toe to ankle. Arthur jumped straight into the air and tripped on his own bare feet, sending Merlin into howls of laughter. His magic shivered away into sunshine.

Arthur lunged for him, growling, and Merlin rolled away, still laughing. They tumbled through the sweet-smelling grass, sending clouds of pollen and irate dragonflies into the air. Then Arthur, breathless, wet hair tousled and covered in clover, pinned Merlin head down on the slope of the hill.

Merlin smiled up at him, staring at his broad shoulders bared to the sun. "You'll get freckles," he said. "Don't worry. I like freckles."

Arthur smacked his hands flat on the stone that blocked his path. He crouched over, heaving for air. The blackness seemed a physical thing -- It had a weight. It crawled along his skin, like the water that still dripped from his clothes. He could smell it, a foul, rotting stench.

He swallowed down his nausea. His mind was wandering, circling round and round the black expanse.

If all he saw was the dark, he would never find the body. And if he never found the body, then Merlin wasn't dead.

Jaw clenched, he moved around the rock, not running now, each step carefully explored. He'd search every twist and turn in this cave. If, if Merlin was dead, he'd bring his body out of here, and bury him where the sun would warm the earth, and grass would grow.

Arthur grinned. The sun picked fire from his hair, and threw his face into shade, turned his blue eyes dark. Entranced, Merlin watched a drop of water slide, incandescent, down the line of his neck where sun met shadow, and felt his mouth go slack.

"How much," Arthur asked, "do you like freckles?" He leaned in, nosing at the tender skin behind Merlin's jaw.

"Oh!" Merlin exclaimed, voice cracking. "Lots. I like them very much." Arthur licked experimentally at his earlobe, and Merlin's wrists jumped in Arthur's steady grip.

"Careful!" he said, breathless. "You'll send us down the hill!"

Arthur chuckled lazily, and lifted his bare feet from the hillside to slide them along Merlin's legs, until the whole, solid weight of him rested on top.

The long grass slipped beneath his shoulders, and Merlin yelped as Arthur rode him like a sled down the hill. They ended up tangled sideways, in a dip in the ground just deep enough to hold them.

"Better," Arthur declared, picking bits of grass from Merlin's hair. Merlin glared at him, and kicked at his ankle.

"Have you gained weight, sire?" Merlin asked, pushing futilely at his chest.

"I don't know. What do you think?" he answered, and wriggled bonelessly closer, digging the point of his chin into the dip of Merlin's shoulder. He closed his eyes and let go a great, contented sigh.

Grass, warm and dry under the sun, tickled at Merlin's ears and the back of his neck. He wriggled, but Arthur's weight had him pinned.

"Come on! The grass tickles. Arthur, damn you, I know you aren't asleep!"

He could feel Arthur laughing, soundless, the muscles of his stomach twitching helplessly against his own.

With a vengeful little smirk, Merlin felt the heat of magic light his eyes. He stripped Arthur of his trousers, and flung him off to the grass bare arsed. He smiled down at Arthur's astonished face.

"There, then. How do you like it?"

Arthur paused, and then stretched, as though he were sprawled out on his own smooth bed.

"Not bad," he drawled. "A little rustic. Still, that has its own charms, I suppose."

Merlin opened his mouth to protest, but Arthur turned his hip, just so, and he was thoroughly distracted.

He was hallucinating. He was so starved for light he was pulling it from his memories. But the hallucination drifted along at his side, darting in front of him now and then, as if to catch his attention. But when he looked, it would drift off, and he would return his attention to the path.

It seemed almost real. He could even see the path ahead of him, as thought the hallucination actually lit the way. But he sternly kept testing the ground -- he could hardly afford to let a memory of light send him tumbling into a hole.

Still, it was company of sorts. Like a stray dog, tagging along on an afternoon's ride.

Arthur couldn't help but try to touch it, hallucination or not. But, again, when he turned his attention towards it, it drifted back the way he'd come, just out of reach.

It wasn't until the fourth time the little ball of light stopped and flared in front of his face that Arthur considered that it might not, in fact, be a hallucination. He blinked at it, bemused. It bobbed in what he could only think of as a frustrated manner, and, again, moved off up the path.

"You're real," he told it flatly, feeling a tiny thread of hope expanding in his heart. "Merlin sent you?" At this point -- after the hideous quiet of the cave, whose only sound, the drip of water into the pool, brought him thoughts of drowning -- he didn't feel it odd at all to talk to a ball of light.

However, being a ball of light, it didn't answer. But it stopped a few steps up the path, waiting for him, and this time he followed.

"You'll lead me to him, won't you?" he asked, plaintive as a child. He would have been embarrassed, displaying vulnerability so clearly, but there was no one to hear.

Arthur raised his arm, and closed his hand around the laces of his tunic, toying with them. "Merlin," he said. And he tugged, slowly, at the laces, drawing him into a kiss as sweet and long and lazy as a summer afternoon.

Merlin sank into his kiss with a need that surprised him, edged with a strange desperation. But Arthur's broad hands stroked over his shoulders, holding him against him tenderly. The kiss, so gentle, eased away that desperation, until all Merlin felt was the sun-drenched ease of Arthur's touch.

Arthur's hands slid under his tunic, tracing the curve of his back with his fingertips. Back and forth he stroked them, and Merlin heard his breathing quicken when he ran them, feather light, over the base of his spine.

Merlin pulled back, feeling Arthur's teeth catch at his bottom lip. He sat up, straddling Arthur's hips, and pulled his tunic off over his head.

Arthur's hands tightened at his waist, and slid up his ribs as Merlin bent down again to nuzzle at Arthur's throat.

Merlin mouthed his collarbone, and his breath stuttered. Merlin could feel the heat of him, rubbing against his trousers. He rocked his hips in a slow circle.

Arthur tugged at Merlin's trousers, pulling them down, just under the curve of his buttocks. The summer air felt cool against the tip of his swollen cock, and Merlin gasped, sharply.

Arthur pushed him back, and sat up beneath him, until Merlin was sitting in his lap. Arthur held him tightly, trapping his wrists between them, and wrapped a hand around both Merlin's cock and his own. He held him there, leaning his forehead against his, and Merlin could feel every muscle in his body tighten, waiting.

Then Arthur's mouth was on his, insistent, and his hand was moving. The calluses were rough and dry around him, almost painful, and the friction of Arthur's cock, twisting against his, built a fire deep in Merlin's gut. He dropped his head and pressed his forehead into Arthur's chest. He whined, deep in his throat.

But Arthur had found his rhythm, relentless, and Merlin quivered with the force of it. He opened his mouth to cry out, and Arthur drove faster. Helpless, Merlin felt his magic sliding free, in stuttering, rising waves.

Then he could feel slick dampness easing the friction, and Arthur's hand moved faster, pulling harder.

He felt Arthur shudder, the hard muscles of his chest and shoulders shaking, and Merlin felt the fire in his gut spill over.

Arthur pulled his chin up and swallowed his cry. They came together, and the grass all around them was flattened to the ground. The dragonflies took to the sky in a jeweled cloud that shattered the sun into coloured shards.

Arthur was sure he was dreaming. The light hovered now unmoving, illuminating the figure sitting against the rock. Long limbs crossed in a startling tangle, skin too pale and hair too dark in the magical light, Merlin looked almost inhuman.

He moved closer, stumbling, and crouched over him. His hands hovered over his bowed head. He wanted to see his face, but was afraid to touch him, lest he vanish into the dark again.

But then Merlin's head rose, and he was squinting tiredly through the light at Arthur. A slow smile warmed his pale face, and Arthur's hand came to rest on Merlin's shoulders.

They tightened, and Merlin winced. Arthur shook him.

"If you ever run away from me again . . ." Desperate threats and pleading hovered at the tip of his tongue, but Arthur choked them off, pulling Merlin into a fierce and angry hug. "Don't," he said simply. "Don't ever."

Merlin lay on his back, looking up at the very blue sky. Arthur held his wrist with a slack hand, dozing with his head on his lap. They'd gathered their clothes, and the cloth smelled like clover.

But Merlin chewed at a grass stem and frowned thoughtfully. He felt again that odd angry anxiety, as if something was missing.

"Arthur," he asked, trying to pinpoint the feeling, "how did you get away from the Court?"

"Hmmh? I rode, you idiot, just like you. Our horses are just there, by the lake." His voice was warm and lazy, half-asleep.

Merlin's frown deepened, slightly. "But how did you find the time? Didn't your knights object to you going out alone?"

Arthur shook his head, and nestled more comfortably into the grass. "Why should they mind? There's nothing of any threat here."

But the thread of anxiety, cold beneath the summer warmth, refused to dissipate. Merlin, worrying at it, felt the grass stem break between his teeth.

It left a bitter taste.

Arthur pulled away to study Merlin, taking in the dark shadows under his eyes, made darker by the magical light, and the faint trembling in his hands.

"What happened?" he demanded, "Why did you run off like that?"

Merlin's voice was as tired as his face, but there was a note of triumph there. "You were in danger – the sorcerer could find me, through my magic. But I got him first. He won't be of any threat to you now."

"You idiot!" he said, and cuffed him on the shoulder. "I could have handled it. I thought you had gone mad."

"Sorry," Merlin offered. "I was too tired to explain things properly." He looked up at Arthur through dark lashes, half a smile on his lips, and Arthur felt his relief turn into something more intense. He stood abruptly. This was hardly the place.

"So the sorcerer's dead?" he asked, looking at the light.

"As good as," he answered, and Arthur looked at him sharply. He shrugged. "He'll never leave this cave."

There was such a dark satisfaction in those words that Arthur blinked. Merlin was never so vindictive. "And you're sure you're all right."

Merlin stood, legs unfolding slowly. He cocked his head at Arthur. "I told you I'm fine. Just exhausted." He turned and nodded further down the cave. "There's a way out, down this way."

And Arthur followed him, trying to dismiss the odd intonation in Merlin's voice.

There were clouds coming in. They piled up on the horizon, building higher and higher, as though some force kept them fenced away from the sunny clearing where Merlin lay with Arthur. He frowned, absently stroking through Arthur's hair.

How long had they lain here? The sun was still so high in the sky.

Arthur snored, a light, comfortable sound. Merlin felt his own eyes closing in response, and he forced himself to sit up, shaking his head. Something didn't feel right.

Arthur murmured, protesting his movement, and blinked up at him. "What are you doing?" he asked petulantly. "You don't make a very good pillow."

"I'm sorry," he said, distracted. He stared at the clouds. They were a dark wall now, threaded with lightning. "There's a storm coming."

Arthur propped himself up on his elbows, looking. "Merlin," he said, voice suspicious. "The sky is clear."

Following Merlin closely, Arthur saw him stiffen. "What is it?" he asked, sword raised as he listened for the sound of anything following them in the dark.

Merlin didn't answer right away. He looked back at him, sharply, and Merlin met him with a sheepish smile.

"Sorry. Just deciding which way I should go."

"If you get us lost down here, after everything else. . ."

"No, I wouldn't dare." Merlin's voice sounded strangely hostile, and Arthur's eyes narrowed.

"What's going on in your head, Merlin? You're acting very strangely."

"Am I?" Merlin raised his chin, eyes glittering dangerously, and Arthur felt a new, hideous suspicion tighten his spine.

Merlin stood in the middle of the clearing, feeling a cold storm wind whipping at his face. But the grass was still.

Arthur stared up at him, confused.

"Can't you feel this?" he asked him, pleading. "Don't you see?"

"Merlin, there's nothing there!" Irritation warred with fear in Arthur's face. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine." Merlin's skin was crawling, and the storm clouds piled higher, seething behind the barrier. "But something's very, very wrong here."

Arthur got to his feet and grabbed Merlin's arm. "You're not making any sense," he said, worry thinning his voice. "You're seeing things. Come with me. We'll get you to Gaius."

Merlin shrugged him off. Seeing things . . . yes. "Oh yes," he breathed, fury building fast within him. "Oh, you utter bastard."

And the storm poured over the barrier. The sky turned black.

"I had hoped," Merlin said, "to keep this going a little while longer." He smiled merrily as Arthur, but Arthur felt his heart stop at the coldness in his eyes. They looked at him with the same indifference that the water beast had.

"Merlin, what are you doing?" He found that he'd pointed his sword at Merlin, instinctively. He jerked it down, horrified.

"Oh, no!" Merlin assured him. "You're going to need that."

Arthur stared, not breathing.

"You didn't really think there was a sorcerer, did you?" Merlin asked, tauntingly. "Getting into the castle, past all the guards. Attacking the king himself without leaving a trace?" He laughed. "How could it have been anyone but me?"

"No," Arthur choked out. "It wasn't you." He raised his sword, this time deliberately, and his back straightened. His voice went glacial with rage.

"It wasn't Merlin. Who the hell are you?"

The storm whipped across the clearing like a demon unleashed. All the dragonflies were swept away, and the grass whipped across his legs like supple knives. He hardly noticed.

There was no sign of Arthur.

Merlin swallowed a ragged skewer of loss, and yelled through the howling storm. "I know what you're doing! And I'll tear you apart, for using him!"

The spectral howl of the wolves rose to match the wind. He snarled back at them and clawed for his magic, too angry to feel fear.

The storm spat lightning, and the little clearing fell away in burning chunks, until he stood on nothing. Saw nothing, but the lightning that shredded the darkness all around him.

He closed his hands around the slender threads of his magic, and he pulled.

Thunder drowned out the wolves.

Merlin, no, the sorcerer, staggered. He recovered almost immediately, but his eyes, when he again met Arthur's, had lost their indifference. An impatient temper burned there in its place.

"Don't be stupid," the imposter growled. "Are you too dense to recognize treachery when it spits in your face?"

His sword didn't waver. "Merlin promised me. He'd never use his magic to harm me. He'd never use it against my father. Nor against my knights."

The sorcerer laughed, just a little wildly. "You put such faith in promises! It's amazing, really, that your faith hasn't broken before now." He raised his hand, power crackling across his fingers. "But it really was Merlin's magic. His power, his skill. He really could be this much of a threat."

"But he never will be."

The sorcerer scowled at the bedrock certainty in Arthur's voice. But then his face cleared. Once more, he smiled, Merlin's infectious grin. It sent chills through Arthur.

"Well," the sorcerer said, a bitter edge to his voice. "I don't suppose it matters now. One way or another, the two of you will never be together again. That should be enough."

The storm winds tore at Merlin's hair, brought tears streaming from his eyes. He could feel the magic all around him, huge and terrifying, but he couldn't hold it. He could barely touch it at all, through the barriers the sorcerer threw against him.

Wolves ran at Merlin, snapping as they passed. He struck at them, barehanded, almost berserk with frustration. They kept coming. Blood seeped from countless small slashes on his arms and legs.

Still, thread by thread, he pulled his magic from the storm, unraveling the sorcerer's hold on him.

"I told you not to touch him!" he screamed into the wind. "I warned you!"

Thread by thread, his reeled his magic in. It began to smolder, deep within him, and he grinned, a fierce baring of teeth, as the wolves came again, in numbers.

Arthur dodged the first strike, and the second, sliding behind an outcropping of stone on the cave wall. He could feel it shattering to gravel at his back, and rolled away.

The sorcerer looked ill. His hands shook, constantly, and a grimace kept breaking his smile, pulling his face into something feral and cold. The power coiling around his hands stuttered and sparked.

Arthur worked his way closer, running from rock to rock. The sorcerer's attacks flared through the cave in strobing light, until it seemed to Arthur like he was running through a lightning storm. He felt horribly exposed.

But he kept coming, taking advantage of the sorcerer's seeming distraction to get closer. And he did seem distracted. Half of the attacks seemed utterly random, flung no where near Arthur, breaking up the cave all around.

The fallen stones, still hot to the touch, provided cover, and Arthur used it, until, with a lunge that sent a sharp pain through his bruised hip, he put the edge of his sword to the sorcerer's throat.

The sorcerer went still, focused fully on the blade in Arthur's hand. The cave went dark again, only the little ball of light shining over Arthur's shoulder.

"Do it!" the sorcerer said, gleefully. "Strike me down. Take my head to your father."

His sword trembled, eager at his throat. Arthur's wrists ached with holding it still. But the mad triumph in the sorcerer's eyes stayed his hand.

"Why do you want me too?" he asked, suspicion tight around his heart.

The sorcerer eyed him, and a slow smile curved over his face. "Why not? If you don't, I'll kill you. And if you do, you'll only kill Merlin."

Merlin swayed, drunk with pain and rage. Blood slicked his fists, his back, his legs. It was sticky on his face. But power burned in him. The threads had come together.

He took a deep, rattling breath. Around him, the storm seemed to pause, an odd greenish light illuminating the boiling clouds. The wolves, sickly in the green light, slunk back, glaring over their shoulders, as Merlin raised one bloody fist above his head.

"Now," he breathed, and opened his fist.

Lightning, a burning column, sword-straight, struck his hand. It tore into the veins at his wrist, pouring into them. He flung out his other hand, and the lightning sprayed from his fingers.

He screamed, an exultant, agonized sound, and as the wolves turned and fled the dark was filled with an endless, brilliant light.

Arthur froze. He had been sure this sorcerer was a sort of shape shifter. Or an illusionist, taking Merlin's form. But it made too much sense. Merlin, gone from his bed before dawn. His hysterical words in the mouth of the cave. The tracks that Owain had found, turning back towards Camelot, and then away again, as if herded.

"You used him," he said, so softly he could barely hear himself. He could barely see, through the heart-tearing rage. But his sword moved back, and the sorcerer's smile widened.

Arthur stumbled backwards, his sword falling to his side. The sorcerer stood and laughed, a mocking, triumphant sound that echoed in the ruined cave, filling Arthur's disbelieving ears.

And then it stopped.

He stared, transfixed, as the sorcerer's stolen body arched back, as if struck by lightning. The sorcerer's mouth opened wide, and the tendons in his throat snapped taut, as if he were screaming, but no sound left him.

Instead, light – white, blinding light – lanced free. His very bones seemed to be burning.

Arthur flung up his arm, hiding his eyes. And then the light went out. The smell of ozone was strong in the cave.

"Merlin!" he yelled, and tried to move forward, to catch his body as it fell.

But he stumbled in the dark, and heard Merlin's body hit the ground.

He fell to his knees after it, reaching blindly, pushing aside the tumbled rocks. He found rough cloth, a limp arm. A still, unmoving chest.

Merlin wasn't breathing.

He cried out, wordless and pained, and pulled his body to him. But as he lifted him, Merlin sucked in a deep, frantic breath and scrambled away, coughing furiously.

Arthur crouched in the dark, listening to him wheeze. He barely breathed himself, waiting.

Finally, he couldn't take the quiet anymore.

"Merlin?" he asked cautiously.

A long minute passed, and Arthur felt a cold dread clench around his heart.

Then, "I think so," came the answer, in a voice hoarse and weary. "Probably."

There was in fact another way out of the cave. The sorcerer had led Arthur very close to it. He stood in the narrow cleft, watching the powdery snow blow across the ground. In the distance, where the hillside began to curve, he could see Cai, still digging at the rock slide, with a steady, hopeless sort of rhythm that hurt to watch. Bedivere sat behind him, head in his arms.

"I have to get out there," he said. "I can't let them keep thinking I'm dead."

"Of course. Get going." And Merlin gave him a tiny shove towards the open air. He smiled at him. But the smile was dark and sad around the edges, and Arthur didn't go.

"It wasn't you," he said, watching that fragile smile. "It was never you."

Merlin let the smile fade, and studied Arthur's face. He found no doubt there, none at all.

"I can't tell," he said, ducking his head to hide his sudden embarrassment, "if you're really that confident, or if you're just a little bit simple."

But Arthur took his chin in his hand, and turned his face up to him. His eyes were dark.

"You promised," he said, as if that held it all.

Well, Merlin thought, and let out a breath. Perhaps it did.

He nodded once, and gripped Arthur's wrist, settling himself by his steady pulse.

"Go on, sire. I'll wait here for awhile, and make my own way home."

Arthur gave his a long, searching glance. "See that you do," he said finally, and turned away.

Merlin watched him go. Heard him call out to his knights, and their glad cries. Bedivere nearly knocked him over. Arthur gripped both their shoulders, and led them back to their horses, and the trees. He did not look at the cleft in the earth where Merlin stood.

The cold air felt cleansing after the damp warmth of the cave. He breathed deep.

He was sure that he had burned the sorcerer away completely. Mostly sure. But he felt that crawling dread at the back of his mind, which said maybe he was wrong. Maybe he was just biding his time, and would strike again. At Arthur this time.

But Arthur was waiting.

He dug his hand into the frozen, crumbling earth that hid the cave.

After the feast, where he reassured himself that all his knights had made it safely back to Camelot and were recovering, and his father had honoured them all with Royal gifts; after Morgana had gripped his hand hard and pulled him into a dance, not speaking; after he had stopped Gwen in the corridor, and told her that Merlin was well, though he wasn't sure he wasn't lying; Arthur stood at his window. It was very late, and the sky held that deep luminescence that spoke of the coming dawn.

He took a drink from the flagon of wine he held. It was a fine vintage, but it could have been watered ale for all he tasted of it.

The ride home had been long, and for the whole of it he'd fought the urge to turn around and race back to Merlin. To make sure he wasn't thinking of slinking away, in unearned guilt and useless fears.

If he wasn't back today, he thought, watching the first blush of the rising sun, he'd go after him. He’d said the same yesterday. And the day before.

But as he stood there, he heard his door open, and close.

He set his flagon carefully on the sill, and turned. Merlin stood in the middle of his chambers.

He was travel-worn, listing sideways with weariness, but his eyes were clear.

"He really is gone," he said, as though Arthur needed reassurance. "I made sure."

Arthur said nothing, drinking in the sight of him in silence.

Merlin flushed under his regard, and hid his hands in his sleeves. "I would have washed up," he said, too fast, "but I thought I should tell you, right away, that there was nothing to worry about. I should have – I'll just go – “and he gestured over his shoulder at the door, backing towards it.

Arthur moved then, crossing the room in long strides. He caught Merlin's gesturing hand and held it, pulling him closer. He hugged him tightly, burying his face against Merlin's neck, breathing in the scent of him, warming himself against him.

It had been too cold, without him.

Merlin stilled against him, and then leaned in with a deep sigh.

"Merlin," Arthur said eventually, voice small and broken, "you really need a bath."

For a second, Merlin froze. And then he was shaking with laughter, holding on to Arthur to keep his feet.

And Arthur smiled, and held on, as light washed over the window.


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