On seeing the native warriors, Arthur had immediately called on his men to attack the smaller patrol. It should have been an easy victory. Arthur’s men had the advantage of superior number and superb military training, yet the savages hadn’t gone down nearly as easily as Arthur had expected. His opponents, well armed and mounted on steady horses, were clearly no strangers to combat.
With surprising difficulty, Arthur managed to cut down two of the weirdly painted warriors and was targeting a third when a strange fog suddenly overwhelmed the battlefield.
Rising from nowhere, the mist engulfed the combatants in seconds. In the midst of a full charge, Arthur’s horse had stumbled into a hole and gone down with a shrieking neigh and a flailing of deadly limbs. Kicking free from the stirrups, Arthur leapt clear and hit the ground rolling to get away from the plunging hooves. When he’d staggered back to his feet, he could no longer see his horse; he could no longer see anything...
Arthur tripped and landed on his face as the land canted sharply upward in an unexpected rise beneath his feet. The fog surrounding him was so thick he couldn’t even see his feet, and had to trust to his other senses to be sure they still remained attached to the ends of his legs. Lost and unnerved, he staggered upright once more and scrambled up the slope into the mist.
If he were the superstitious sort, Arthur would have said the mist had risen so fast it was like magic . . . except there was no magic anymore. His father’s people had seen to that over three hundred years ago, when they’d wiped the last of the Druids from Britannia and rid the Empire of the meddlesome breed of magic-wielding troublemakers. Now there was nothing left of their kind but the stubborn savages Arthur’s father was determined to wipe from the face of their fair isle. The Empire might have withdrawn from their home, but it didn’t mean they had to devolve into savages, nor give way to the depredations of the Painted Ones.
That was why he was out here in the cursed barren lands that lay beyond the Great Wall. The Saxones continued to press into Pendragon lands from the east, and the Picti—the Painted Ones—held all the territory to the north. If they were to expand, Uther reckoned it would be wiser to push north first and scourge the world clean of the pagan filth crouching in their primitive, infested huts that erupted from the land like boils on the skin of a beggar.
Arthur’s grandfather, Ambrosius Aurelianus, had been the first to be called Pendragon by the civilized natives he’d defended from the incursions of the Saxones. Arthur’s father, Uther, had earned the right to be called Pendragon in his own successful campaigns against the Painted Ones as well as the Saxones—who, like Arthur’s imperial ancestors, had stayed when the Empire had left, and had been a thorn in civilized sides ever since.
As it had fallen to Uther, so it now fell to Arthur to earn the right to be called Pendragon, and he was determined that he would not let his ancestors down. Having been fostered with an ally of his father’s in the south, he had returned six months ago, eager to prove his worth to Uther. He was confident in his ability to do so; after all, it wasn’t as if he was some untried youth. At twenty years of age, Arthur was a blooded warrior, having distinguished himself in battle against both the Saxones and the Scoti pirates who raided his foster father’s lands from the shore of the Western Sea. He hadn’t imagined the Painted Ones could be any fiercer in combat than the western pirates were.
There was no doubt they lived in perilous times, but Arthur came from superior stock and was certain that when the last men were left standing, the Pendragons would be counted among them . . . if he could only find his way out of this treacherous fog!
He hoped he’d find clearer air as the land rose from the misty lowland and he was right. Unfortunately, that wasn’t all he found when he finally broke free of the clinging fog near the top of the slope. Not ten feet away stood one of the Picti warriors. Positioned slightly above him at the very top of the slope, the barbarian stood with his bow drawn, arrow nocked and pointed straight at Arthur’s chest. At this range, Arthur had no chance to dodge the missile if it was loosed, and well he knew it.
Raising both hands to show that neither held a weapon, Arthur stood his ground and waited for the barbarian to act. For a long, drawn out moment he did nothing, hands remaining steady on the bow as he studied Arthur down length of his nocked arrow.
Arthur took the moment to return the man’s regard. He was savage-looking, no doubt of it, with long black hair braided to either side of his face and flowing loose over his back and shoulders. Clad only in hide braccae and worn, knee-high boots, he was tall and lean with sinewy muscles stark under pale, dirt-smudged skin. Skin that was covered in the swirling black and blue tattoos—the paint—that so defined his people. Arthur had never seen one of the Picti up close before. If he’d ever thought about it, he’d have expected to feel disgust, loathing, or at best contempt should he ever encounter one face to face . . . but he’d have been wrong.
However, even more surprising to Arthur than the barbarian’s strange beauty was that when the man spoke, Arthur understood.
Pockets of fog still swirled around their legs as they moved across the barren hilltop, an eerie silence surrounding them, broken only by the periodic thud and squish of a boot falling on wet ground. Arthur coughed pointedly a few times but the young savage ignored him, a sharp tug on the invisible tether being the only sign he was aware of Arthur’s presence at all.
When the man had first spoken, bow drawn and arrow pointed at Arthur’s heart, he’d demanded Arthur reveal both his name and his purpose in attacking the “People.” And, Arthur had found (to his great surprise) that while he could understand the savage’s words, he couldn’t summon up words in the same language to answer the demand. So he’d answered in the imperial tongue and seen the matching light of understanding gleam in the strange man’s eyes.
“My name is Arthur Pendragon, and I’ve come to assert my father’s claim to this land in the name of all civilized people.”
His personal name, Arthur, was a gift from his mother, but everything else about him in that moment was his father’s legacy. Arthur shone with imperial power, and he fully expected the savage to be impressed with his obvious authority. However, the only reaction he got from the painted warrior was a narrowing of those bright eyes in response to Arthur’s family name, Pendragon
After a long moment of hard staring, the warrior had begun a low-voiced litany of words in a language that Arthur did not understand. As he spoke, two things happened—the painted man began to lower his bow, and his blue eyes took on a glow of molten gold. That’s when Arthur became aware of the power wrapping around his wrists.
He tried to jerk away, but there was nothing tangible he could escape from. It was as if the air itself was attacking; he could feel the energy snake around his flesh but he couldn’t see anything. In a matter of moments, Arthur found himself tightly restrained by what could only be . . . magic!
“Father was right,” he thought dazedly. “There is still magic in the world.” And it lay in the hands of savages like the one who stood before him with a look of grim satisfaction that sat ill on his finely drawn features. Shocked, Arthur stared at the man, watching as the stubborn chin rose to acknowledge the unspoken question in Arthur’s eyes. Yes, that look was saying, I have powers that one such as you could never dream of.
For several minutes, Arthur stumbled behind the man in a daze of surprise, confusion and rueful acknowledgement of a power he’d hitherto dismissed as superstition and the dregs of an outdated worldview. Uther had always sworn that the savages that roamed the land beyond the Wall still practiced witchcraft and sorcery, but Arthur had never truly believed it. If people like that had powerful magic, why on earth would they choose to live in barbarous squalor? Would they not use their power to enrich themselves? To crush their enemies and grow fat off the labour of slaves?
”This one’s not getting fat off anything,” Arthur thought, eyeing the long, lean torso of his savage captor.
Letting his eyes wander down the trail of faint bumps that marked the man’s spine, Arthur finally came upon the distinctive carved hilt of a native dirk rising above the strip of sinew that wrapped around the savage man’s hips to serve as a crude belt. The sheath was finely worked in a whirling pattern of knots and small animals that rose in relief from the dark surface of the leather. It was far too fine to be adorning the hip of a barbarian warrior. Arthur idly wondered who the man had stolen it from. He didn't realize he’d spoken his thoughts aloud until the painted man answered him. The grit of anger roughened his voice as he declared, “I didn't steal it. It was crafted by my best friend as a gift to me in honour of my sixteenth summer.”
Never having intended to speak the words aloud in the first place, Arthur didn't have a comeback. Instead, he trudged behind the man in the deepening gloom of the late autumn evening. He shivered, wishing he hadn't lost his cloak when he’d lost his horse. He noticed his captor wasn't shivering despite being half-naked, and it made him wonder what was keeping the sorcerous warrior warm . . . was it magic?
This time, Arthur had meant to voice the question aloud, so was unsurprised when the savage answered with a negligent shrug of one sinewy shoulder.
“It’s no magic, I've simply grown used to it. It was harder when I was a child and still tender, but now . . . now I barely feel it.”
As they continued to walk, Arthur became aware that they were taking a rather circuitous route toward the distant trees and asked why they didn’t just cut across.
“Because that is sacred ground,” the warrior replied with a nod toward the standing stones Arthur could make out looming up from the plain to their left. “And I don’t want you desecrating it with your filthy, disrespectful feet.”
“My filthy . . . I’ll have you know my feet are cleaner than yours! How dare you call me filthy. I’m not the one who only bathes once a year!”
“Is that what your father taught you?” the savage snarled as he whipped around to face Arthur. “I’m not surprised you suffer from the same ignorance he does. You have the same stubborn set of his chin, the same unfortunate coldness in your gaze.”
Turning back, his captor gave the invisible leash a sharp tug, nearly yanking Arthur from his feet. After that, the man set a punishing pace across the rough ground, his long legs eating up the distance at a furious rate. Neither short nor out of shape, Arthur still had difficulty matching the lanky man’s ground-devouring stride. He vigorously trained every day in combat, but as he struggled to keep his breathing steady, Arthur acknowledged that he wasn’t used to marching long distances. Horses had always been available to him for any journey of length. Still, he’d be damned if he’d show himself a weakling before this man . . . this enemy.
The first time it happened, the painted warrior approached him, unsheathing his dirk as he came. Arthur flinched as the blade was raised, wondering why the barbarian had marched him to the woods before killing him . . . only to relax as his captor brought the dagger down to cut away the vines entwining his legs. The warrior didn’t say anything, but Arthur thought he saw the faintest of smiles cross the man’s otherwise stern visage.
It was several hours before they reached the other side of the woods and broke out onto open ground once again. The half-moon was high in a clear sky, and the stars twinkled brightly in the darkness of the firmament. Scattered pockets of fog and stands of broad-leafed trees obscured much of the hilly landscape as they traveled, and were it not for the clarity of the night sky and the bright moon above, Arthur would have been utterly lost. As it was he carefully kept track of their direction of travel. If he was ever to win his way free of his captor, he’d need to know which way to run.
The tattooed warrior maintained his stony silence despite several attempts on Arthur’s part to goad him to speech. Cold and weary, Arthur amused himself by hurling insults of random device at the rigidly upright figure striding ahead. The man never once checked his forward motion, traversing uphill and down, navigating murky hollows and thickly clustered groves, crossing rocky flats and fording murmuring streams, drawn ever forward as unwaveringly true as the pull of a lodestone.
By contrast, Arthur had been battered by the journey, bruised in at least a dozen places, each contusion the product of falling over some obstacle in the meager illumination afforded by the deep night of the northern sky. Tangling with thorny vines left his legs stinging with lacerations wherever his armour did not reach; the thin wool of his braccae was no match for the razor-edged poniards of vicious greenery. To add to his misery, the night air crept in through the small tears in the material to bite at his flesh, and even the brisk and rhythmic pumping of his legs could not seem to keep the chill at bay. How the half-naked barbarian hadn’t gone hypothermic was as much a mystery to him as the man’s mind.
Arthur heard the swish and drag of swirling water long before they reached the reed-crowded shore of a shimmering loch. At first, the shroud of night and a mist upon the water made it impossible for Arthur to estimate the size of it. But after a few hours of trudging northeast along the shore, he guessed it was one of the larger lochs in a land already rich in water. Eventually, he could make out a large mass of solid structures looming through the fog. As they’d not passed any other signs of human habitation, Arthur desperately hoped they were finally nearing their destination. He’d had nothing to eat since early morning, and his captor had allowed him to stop for water only once since they’d begun their journey. Unused to walking as he was, Arthur’s feet were sore beyond reckoning.
They continued on toward the cluster of buildings but continued to hug the lakeshore. Here the mist sat right on top of the water in a thick cloud, and it wasn’t until his captor made a sharp turn to the left, heading out into the loch itself that Arthur finally balked and dug his heels in. With an impatient growl, the black-haired warrior used the intangible leash of power binding Arthur and dragged him forward. Expecting to be pulled into the water for some unknown but undoubtedly nefarious purpose, Arthur was surprised to hear his hobnailed boot-soles clatter over wooden planks as he stumbled unwillingly onto a solid surface. ”A bridge?” he thought. ”No, not across the surface of a loch . . . a causeway then.”
To Arthur’s astonishment, the causeway led directly to a building. A large, round structure with a conical roof that appeared to rise up from the surface of the lake itself. Brightly burning torches flanked a door of woven reeds, and a long-haired Picti man stood against the wall beside it, an unsheathed sword in his hand.
“Merlin!” the man called out, a relieved looking smile on his face. “Glad you finally made it back. You’ve much worried your mother this day.” As they drew closer, Arthur could see the man was dark-haired and fair skinned like Arthur’s captor, but his tattoos were of a startlingly different design. Where his captor’s markings were swirling and fluid, this man’s were more angular, almost geometric in design.
“Well met cousin,” Arthur’s captor (Merlin?) replied, enfolding the man in a one-armed embrace.
As they stepped back from each other, the man finally looked over Merlin’s shoulder to study Arthur. His tone was inquisitive when he said, “I see you’ve brought Balinor a guest.”
“Indeed, a most distinguished guest. Come inside and I’ll tell you all about it.”
“Can’t. Your father’s got us on alert after the attack this morning. You aren’t the only one who’s late in returning. Elyan went missing in the fog and has yet to return to us. Olwydd is with the healers, and Nye . . . Nye is with the ancestors.”
“Has anyone gone after Elyan?”
“Not yet, but if he’s not returned by first light your father will have Morgana scry for him.”
Merlin frowned at his cousin’s words. “Hard to scry when you don’t know where to look,” he said.
“True, but this is Morgana. If anyone can find him, she can.”
Nodding in response to this proclamation, Merlin wished his cousin a good night and turned to the door of the building, giving the line to Arthur a tug as he ducked down to step inside. Arthur followed, bowing his head in the same manner to avoid hitting it on the low doorway.
The house—for that’s what the building turned out to be—was a revelation. The interior was roomy. An open central area encircled a hearth-pit in the floor, and wicker partitions sectioned off spaces closer to the exterior wall. With the door closed, the large interior space was surprisingly snug and warm, a welcome change from the chilled air of the deep night outside.
As soon as they stepped inside, Arthur heard a feminine voice cry out, “Merlin!” A petite, dark-haired woman of middle years sprang from her place by the fire and bustled toward them, throwing her arms around Merlin and pressing her face to his chest. (Merlin’s mother?) A tall, grizzled-looking man sporting a long dark beard also rose from hearthside to greet Arthur’s captor.
Arthur stood very still as Merlin embraced the man, calling him “Father.” A warm smile transformed his captor from the grim warrior who’d ruthlessly dragged Arthur from the battlefield into a surprisingly genial looking son.
At first, both man and woman ignored Arthur as if he wasn’t there, and Arthur took the opportunity to listen and learn as much as he could about his captors. Several things became apparent to Arthur as he looked around and listened to the family’s conversation. One, Merlin’s father—called Balinor—was chieftain of the clan. Two, Merlin was much younger than he’d supposed—only seventeen years old. Three, Merlin was far more intelligent than Arthur had suspected. And four, these people were not the mindless savages his own father had made them out to be.
The sophistication of their house on the loch was one indication of their engineering prowess. Arthur couldn’t even begin to fathom how they’d crafted such a thing. Another was their discussion of the battle with Arthur’s patrol. Balinor had not been present. Merlin—young as he was—had been leading the patrol, and he rattled off a report to his father that covered all the particulars that Arthur himself would have included in a report to his own father. Then they went a step further, discussing the casualties they’d sustained and what long-term provisions would be made for a warrior who’d lost a leg in the fight, should he survive. It seemed their community would support the man, as well as the young family of one of the warriors slain in the conflict. Land would be designated for their use, and the able-bodied community would work it for them; the income would be used for their maintenance.
No such provisions were ever made for the casualties sustained by Uther’s troops. Nor any other soldier of the Empire. A small severance might be paid to a maimed soldier, but no long term consideration would be given. In imperial society, a man’s life was his own responsibility. The civic-mindedness of the Painted Ones was a revelation to Arthur . . . and he felt the faintest stirring of discomfort as he began to readjust his assessment of these people as mindless savages just a step above animals.
For the first time in his life, he began to doubt the righteousness of the imperial attitude toward the native inhabitants of the land. The attitude he’d been taught by his own father to keep.
When Arthur had been knighted six months ago, and had begun preparations for his return to his father’s home, Uther had made it clear that he expected Arthur’s active support in his ongoing campaign against his savage neighbors to the north. He'd described them as unthinking creatures, violent and base in nature. He wondered what his father would say now if he were standing in Arthur's place. Would he continue to dismiss these people so casually?
Hearing his name spoken, Arthur was startled from his musings, looking up to find that his captors' attention had finally turned his way as they began to discuss his fate. Upon learning Arthur’s name, Balinor had drawn back, scowling. For the first time since Arthur had entered his home, the chieftain turned his bright brown eyes directly on Arthur, animosity rolling off him in waves. However, when Merlin’s mother, Hunith, cast her troubled gaze on Arthur’s face, he didn’t see the same sort of hostility in her eyes. Neither of them spoke directly to Arthur; instead they addressed all their comments to Merlin as his captor. After a few minutes it was decided that they would hold Arthur as a prisoner until his father agreed to pay a ransom for his return.
The main source of light in the house was the fire crackling in the round hearth at the center of the main chamber, but Merlin stopped to light a smaller tallow lamp before motioning Arthur to follow him to the far side of the large room. He slid aside one of the woven panels to reveal a small, wedge-shaped chamber within. A generously sized box-bed was built into the wood of the outer wall, the steep sides piled high with fluffy hay and thick, brightly colored blankets. Before it stood a long chest of intricately carved wood, dark with age and polished with care where Merlin settled the tiny lamp. The chest ran the entire length of the bed and seemed to serve as a means to step up to the sleeping level.
Merlin turned and looked Arthur up and down with a speculative eye that washed an unexpected wave of heat over Arthur’s neck and chest. Arthur could feel the color blooming across his cheeks, but he held firm and steady, his eyes looking past Merlin to rest impassively on the wall beyond the warlock’s shoulder. He might not be able to stop his body’s reaction, but by God he didn't have to succumb to it.
“Normally I’d wash before sleeping and I’d make you scrub down as well, but frankly I’m far too tired to care right now.” Merlin’s eyes flashed for just a second, and suddenly Arthur felt his bonds melt away. “Can you get yourself out of all that, or do you need help?” Merlin waved his hand, indicating Arthur’s armor.
Bemused, Arthur shook his head in negation and began to unbuckle his armguards and leather cuirass. Placing them beside the carved chest, he shimmied out of his mail tunica, then bent down to remove the greaves guarding his lower legs. He could feel Merlin’s eyes upon him the whole time, and he chafed under the scrutiny. However, when he straightened again, a snarky comment trembling on his lips, he met the young man’s enigmatic gaze full-on and suddenly felt his mouth go dry. Freezing in place, he found himself unable to look away.
Merlin said nothing, but it seemed as if his eyes were searching for something in Arthur’s. After a long moment, he sighed softly and gave a quick shake of his head, as if dismissing whatever thought had held him in thrall. Moving the lamp to the floor, Merlin rummaged around inside the chest for a moment before withdrawing a simple, long-sleeved shirt of unbleached wool.
“Here,” he said, thrusting it in Arthur’s direction.
Taking the shirt, Arthur shot Merlin a puzzled look. Why was he offering Arthur his clothes?
With an exasperated sigh, Merlin said, “Will you just get out of those filthy rags? You can have a proper washing in the morning.”
Arthur couldn't help the rise of his eyebrows, nor the curling of his lips in the faintest of smiles. Hospitality was the last thing he’d expected from his captor. However, it wouldn't serve anyone’s interests to turn his nose up at it, so Arthur duly stripped out of his soiled clothing and slipped the clean shirt on over his head.
While Arthur changed, Merlin turned back to the bed and stripped it down to a single blanket, rolling the rest of the bedding together and putting it aside. Jerking his head at Arthur he said, “Go on, get in.”
Startled, Arthur stared at him, trying to make sure he’d heard right. “Wait . . . you want me to take the bed?” he sputtered. “Where are you going to sleep?”
“Idiot,” Merlin snorted. “I’m not offering you the bed for yourself, I’m telling you to get in beside the wall. There’s no way I’m letting you get between me and the exit.”
Arthur wanted to protest, he really did, but aside from escalating to a physical conflict he didn't see that there was much he could do about it. Judging from the challenging look in Merlin’s eyes, Arthur didn't think he’d get any further with that strategy now than he had in their initial confrontation. He looked the bed over. Objectively speaking, it was pretty roomy looking, and had clearly been built to hold more than one person.
Though when he finally gave in and climbed in the thing, he surmised it had been built for persons of a shorter stature than either he or Merlin, as he immediately had to curl his legs up to fit. Arthur lay still and watched as Merlin reached for the laces of his braccae. He told himself that he should turn away, that he’d already spent far too much time that day ogling Merlin’s half-naked form. For his own sanity he really should . . . but he didn't. He watched as Merlin shamelessly peeled the snug, damp leather down his long, long legs, revealing himself to Arthur inch by delicious inch. Prominent hipbones and bone-white skin drew Arthur’s eye like a magnet to the sharp contrast of inky curls that clustered low on his belly, forming a soft nest for the tender pink flesh of his relaxed sex—a pretty cock resting atop a plump pair of balls that made Arthur’s mouth water. There were more of the blue and black markings swirling over the skin of Merlin’s inner thighs, curving up over one hip and spiraling down around the opposite leg until it reached the ankle, where it terminated in the triple swirl symbol so favored by the Painted People.
Arthur began to ache, but it wasn't the bumps and bruises he’d sustained that tormented him now. There was a growing need he could feel deep in his chest and throbbing between his thighs. It wasn't unheard of in his society for one man to crave another, but it certainly wasn’t encouraged. Merlin wasn't the first male Arthur had found himself longing for, but he could honestly say that he’d never felt such a longing grow so strong, so fast . . . and for someone so utterly inappropriate. This man was his enemy; he’d taken Arthur captive by means of a dark, unfathomable power. Arthur should feel nothing but fear and loathing for this man, but he couldn't seem to muster up much of either emotion when he looked at Merlin.
Finally, he was only able to tear his eyes away when Merlin reached for a clean shirt from the chest. Arthur rolled over to face the wall and tried his best to shut out the visions flashing across his mind’s eye. He willed the throbbing in his groin to subside, the ache in his chest to loosen.Then Merlin slipped into the bed behind him, brushing up against Arthur in the confined space. He tucked his knees behind Arthur’s and settled into rest a hairsbreadth from Arthur’s back. He was so close Arthur could feel the heat radiating from his body.
Mentally he cursed the man as the aching need between his legs exploded into a vibrant, twitching torment. Merlin’s breath raised the fine hairs on the back of Arthur’s neck and sensitized the skin there. He breathed a guttural word into the space behind Arthur’s ear, and suddenly the invisible shackles were back. Pulsating with frustration and need, yet weary to his soul, Arthur couldn't bring himself to test them. He simply lay still in the dark of the little room, listening to the rhythm of Merlin’s breathing until at last he drifted off into the ether.
Merlin knelt before a large wooden basin filled with steaming water, his long hair bundled away from his face and shoulders. As Arthur watched, he ran a soapy rag over his arms and chest, whisking away both the grime of battle and the blue paint that had adorned his skin. It was only then that Arthur realized that only some of the swirling pattern was dye: the rest was formed of permanent markings.
Just then Merlin glanced over and met Arthur’s eyes. Embarrassed to be caught watching, Arthur fought down the blush he could feel rising to his cheeks. Merlin didn't seem the least perturbed though; he simply continued his bath, soaping his belly and hips before reaching down to wash between his legs.
“My mother was kind enough to heat us water for bathing. You can have it when I’m done.”
Arthur wasn't sure how he felt about using Merlin’s dirty bathwater, but he supposed beggars couldn't be choosy. He was rather surprised to find the heathen scum bathed at all. His disgust must have shown on his face, because as Merlin stood to wash his legs, he said, “Be grateful you’re getting that much. If it were up to me, I’d simply tip you into the loch and make you wash in the cold.
“You could try,” Arthur challenged.
Merlin’s eyes flashed gold and suddenly Arthur found himself jerked up on his knees. He felt his back bow and his forehead touch the blanket beneath him. Arthur ruthlessly suppressed the unexpected frisson of excitement that shot down his spine at Merlin’s display of dominance.
“I don’t need to try with you, Pendragon. You’ll either do as you’re told or I’ll take great pleasure in making you do it.”
Releasing Arthur, Merlin finished lathering himself and reached for a clean rag from the bowl of water. He then began to rinse the soap from his lean, muscular body. Arthur couldn't help but stare at Merlin, eyes tracing over the dark markings that swirled over his milky pale skin.
“You’ll wash because I will not have you fouling my bed again.”
That got Arthur’s attention. Jerking his eyes from Merlin’s body to look him in the eye, Arthur blurted, “Why the hell would I even be in your bed again?”
Merlin looked away for a moment, but Arthur could see him biting his lip, his brow wrinkled. When he spoke, he still didn't turn back; he simply carried on rinsing the soap from his skin. “I can’t trust you. While you remain in this village you are my responsibility. That means you stay with me, waking and sleeping.”
“So, I’m the personal prisoner of the clan prince. What an honor to be sure,” Arthur sniped.
“Hardly,” Merlin shot back. “We have no princes, nor kings nor nobles. Every man earns his station, and is chosen by the People for his ability. My father’s position as chief has no bearing on my own.”
Finishing his task, Merlin threw the washrag back in the basin and reached for a towel. Arthur felt the bonds at his wrists dissolve again as Merlin snapped, “Wash yourself,” and turned away to rummage in the carved chest.
Moving slowly, Arthur climbed from the bed and slipped off the borrowed sleep-shirt. Kneeling on the floor as Merlin had done, he reached for the discarded washrag and began his own ablutions. When he finished, he dried himself with Merlin’s towel and began to cast about for his clothes. Meanwhile, Merlin had finished dressing, his garments markedly different from what he’d worn the day before. Dark woolen braccae had replaced the hide leggings, and a fine wool shirt was topped with a bright blue, knee-length tunic. Bands of intricate embroidery in bright colors adorned the hem, wrists and neck of the long-sleeved garment.
Once again, Arthur’s surprise must have shown on his face, for Merlin began smirking as he sat on the bed to comb his long dark hair. “What? Are you surprised I don’t run around in animal skins all day?”
“Well, you certainly did yesterday!” Arthur exclaimed, feeling defensive.
Mouth thinning to a flat line, the sparkle in Merlin’s bright eyes dimmed. “Yesterday I was at war. Today I am at home. My people try not to bring one to the other.”
“Yes, you prefer to bring war to other people’s homes instead,” Arthur sniped.
Throwing down the comb, Merlin lunged forward and crowded into Arthur’s space. “It was not my people who brought war into the home, son of Uther. It was your father’s kind that chose to make war on children and old folk, attacking women with babes and slaughtering the weak-limbed and feeble-minded. We are not the ones who attack people unable to defend themselves!”
“That’s a lie! Your people are the very ones who killed my mother! A woman with a child at her knee!”
Merlin’s entire face pinched tight at Arthur’s accusation, his eyes narrowing, his lip curling to one side in contempt. “That’s what your father told you. Is it not? That’s all he told you.”
“I was there, Merlin,” Arthur spat the words with venom. “I was but a boy, but I was there. I remember who it was that attacked our villa. I remember whose arrow pierced my mother’s breast and whose hands snatched the life from her body.”
“You know nothing, Arthur Pendragon,” Merlin stated flatly. Picking up a pile of cloth, he threw it in Arthur’s face. “Get dressed. I’ll be waiting for you by the hearth, so don’t even think to run.”
And with that he slid the door panel aside and slipped from the room, leaving Arthur to dress in solitude. His own clothes nowhere to be seen, Arthur grudgingly examined the clothes Merlin had so contemptuously tossed his way: another shirt of soft, finely woven wool as fine as anything Arthur had ever owned, a pair of heavy woolen braccae--the cloth woven into a strange pattern of intersecting lines, and a bright red tunic, much like the blue one Merlin was wearing. Arthur took a moment to examine the embroidery—stylized animals in sinuous shapes, intertwined long limbs and twisty tails forming a continuous knot, the bodies picked out in rich shades of yellow and green, copper and gold. His own boots were there, along with a pair of long, woolen socks, and Arthur pulled them on, grateful to keep at least something of his own.
Fully dressed, Arthur slid the wicker panel aside and emerged into the main room of the house, surprised to find it filled with people. Many of them stopped to stare at him when he appeared, but most of them turned back to their conversations as soon as he settled on the floor by Merlin’s side. Merlin ignored him completely, too busy talking to the same young man they’d encountered outside the night before.
It seemed that Arthur had only met a small portion of Merlin’s family when they’d arrived so late at night. While it seemed Merlin was the only child of Hunith and Balinor, there were several aunts, uncles and cousins also dwelling under the large, thatched roof of Balinor’s house, which Arthur soon learned was called a “crannog”. He was informed of this by a small, dark-haired girl wearing a slightly condescending look. Most of the adults ignored Arthur, casting the occasional frosty glance in his direction, but the children seemed curious and eager to show off for “the man cousin Merlin had taken to his bed.” A description that caused Arthur’s eyebrows to soar while it caused several of the adults and older children to snidely chuckle, no doubt at Arthur’s expense.
For a short while he seemed to be an object of keen interest for the younger generation, but they soon abandoned him to his own devices when Hunith and another woman of a similar age began dishing up breakfast. A thick, sticky porridge, stirred eggs, and toasted bread dripping with butter were piled onto a single plate and thrust into his hands by Merlin’s mother, who repeated the maneuver for Merlin before moving on to serve his cousin (called Owaine) and the sandy-haired man seated beside him.
Arthur dug in, marveling that they were feeding him, a prisoner, as if he were a member of the family or an honored guest. The sandy-haired man asked Merlin a question about the skirmish of the day before, and Merlin glanced at Arthur from under his lashes before turning to answer his kinsman. Soon, other family members were asking questions, and when a few other men around the fire shared in the answering, it became clear to Arthur that Merlin wasn't the only member of his family to have been present for the fight.
As Merlin’s family talked about the skirmish, Arthur’s thoughts turned toward the men he’d led into that fight, some of whom were his closest friends in all the world. As dear to him as brothers, they had all volunteered to come north with him when his fosterage had come to an end. Their faces passed through his mind’s eye—hotheaded Gwaine and eager Lucan, steady Percival and ferocious Bedwyr, honorable Lancelot, and loyal Leon, whom he relied on as his second-in-command. Worried for their well-being, Arthur wondered if they all made it safely from the field when the magical fog had obscured everything from their vision. Were any of them still out there? Wandering lost and alone in enemy territory? Had any of them been injured or killed outright? He wondered if any of the others had been captured as well; were they perhaps here in this very village? He resolved to question Merlin soon about that possibility. He could only hope the young man would answer him honestly.
After breakfast was consumed and Merlin had finished answering questions to everyone’s satisfaction, he rose to his feet and gestured for Arthur to follow him out the door. Once outside, Arthur gave in to his curiosity and turned to examine the crannog itself.
“What keeps it from sinking into the water?” he asked.
Merlin snorted a laugh and replied, “Magic!”
When Arthur turned to look at him, he knew his eyes were wide. “Really?” he breathed, feeling awed that such a thing was possible. Merlin burst out laughing, pointing at Arthur and snort-giggling until his eyes were watering. From Merlin’s reaction, Arthur surmised that he’d just been played for an ignorant fool. He was less than amused.
“No, you idiot, it’s built on an artificial island we sank into the loch and shored up with pilings ringing the sides.”
Merlin reached out and grabbed Arthur by the wrist, tugging him towards land with a grin on his face. Catching sight of Merlin’s sunny expression went a long way to soothing Arthur’s humiliation, and he followed Merlin with only a single muttering of “prat” under his breath.
To Arthur’s surprise, Merlin took him on a tour of the village. He explained that his clan were the Lugi, or Raven clan, pointing to the bird totem prominently displayed on or near many of the buildings throughout the village. Merlin led Arthur around, pointing out which homes were occupied by which families, and which shops manufactured different goods. He showed Arthur inside several of the various workshops, where their inhabitants were only too happy to show off the products of their individual skills. Arthur was stunned by the level of sophistication the Lugi craftsmen displayed in their numerous specialties. They seemed especially skilled at metalworking of every sort. Everything from horse tackle and fittings to fine jewelry and ornamental trinkets was performed to the highest of standards. By the end of the day, Arthur had grudgingly conceded that their craftsmanship was a match for any of the imperial trained artisans he was familiar with back home.
Looking around, it seemed to Arthur that all of the buildings were round like the crannog, most of them sporting conical thatched roofs with the exception of the three metalworks, which had been fitted with ruinously expensive imported slate roof-tiles to avoid setting fire to the village. Several of the buildings were enormous in scale, many possessing a first floor, accessed by a ladder and a hatch in the ceiling. Merlin also pointed out that most of the residential buildings had roomy cellars beneath them for food storage.
Merlin questioned Arthur about what skills he possessed, and laughed when he replied that he was best suited for warfare, diplomacy and estate administration.
“All the People are trained for warfare, we elect our administrators, and we certainly have no use for your brand of diplomacy.” Arthur shot him a wounded look, but Merlin merely chuckled at him and asked if there was anything practical he could do.
“If we can’t find something useful for you to do, I’m afraid I’ll have to confine you somewhere. I have many duties to attend to, and I cannot spend every hour of the day looking after you.
Arthur considered his answer for a moment before quietly admitting, “I can carve bows and I can fletch arrows.” The thought of manufacturing weapons for his enemies was troubling, but at least it would occupy his time. The thought of being dismissed as useless and confined in some unknown location was extremely unappealing.
Merlin nodded and said he’d arrange for Arthur to work with the village fletcher in the morning.
“For now I must leave you while I see to other matters,” Merlin said, shepherding Arthur towards the third slate-roofed building near the far edge of the village. Pushing aside the door, Merlin continued. “However, I will be leaving you in capable hands.”
Inside, Merlin introduced Arthur to a smiling, dark-skinned man who, despite the obvious nature of his exotic origins, also wore a variation of the same blue and black marks that adorned all the Lugi.
“Tom!” Merlin greeted the man with a hearty embrace. “How does Elyan fare this day? Owaine tells me he returned even later than I did last night.”
The black man nodded. “Indeed he did. He’s inside sleeping it off, the lazy sot. Guin is looking after him diligently.”
“Ah, well, our Guin is happiest when playing mother hen to someone.” Grasping Arthur by the wrist, Merlin led him closer to the burly blacksmith.
“This,” Merlin said with a grin, “is Tomos. Tomos came to Albion as an imperial slave but was freed upon his master’s death.”
Tomos grimaced a bit but nodded in agreement. “I was given the Pileus and freed, but later my master’s lord overturned my manumission and had me unlawfully enslaved once again.”
“So Tom escaped and managed to sneak past the guards on the Wall. When he showed up in our village, the People were honoured to make a place for him among us. Tom is a smith of unparallelled skill, which is why—”
Arthur’s eyes had widened and his mouth had gaped ever so slightly as he listened to the outrageous tale. Finally he could take no more, cutting Merlin off mid-sentence to exclaim, “That’s preposterous!” Agitated, he backed away ever so slightly. “No proper man would do such a thing, let alone a noble lord! Besides,” he added, his flash of temper subsiding, “hardly anybody even keeps slaves anymore.”
Tomos studied Arthur for a moment, a strange light in his eye. Finally he asked, “You are the son of Uther Pendragon, are you not?”
Wondering what that had to do with anything, Arthur nonetheless answered in the affirmative. An enigmatic exchange of glances took place between Merlin and Tomos, ending only when Merlin shook his head and sighed. Tomos nodded wordlessly in return before turning back to Arthur.
“Merlin and his family are dear friends, and he has asked me to offer hospitality to you while he attends to urgent affairs of his own. Please, come inside and meet my daughter.” He gestured to a small side door Arthur hadn’t noticed before.
Uncertain of this man’s expectations, Arthur looked to Merlin for guidance.
“Go on, Arthur. I’ll return for you at sunset,” Merlin said. Then he left without another word.
Without so much as a flicker across his genial expression, Tomos eyed him and said, “Don’t even think about trying to escape. I can still run as fast as I ever could, and I know how to use every one of the weapons I craft.” Then he grinned outright and added, “And even if you manage to outrun me, you won’t escape my Guin. She’s twice the runner I am and just as able with a sword.”
Arthur took measure of the man, and he decided that he would bide his time before attempting to make the man a liar. Nodding gravely he said, “I believe you.”
“Good. You aren't half as stupid as most young men your age. Follow me.”
He opened the small door and gestured for Arthur to proceed through it. Arthur complied and found himself in a short, covered walkway that connected the metalworks to a smaller round house. Inside was a pretty, dark-skinned girl stirring a pot over the fire.
Tom introduced her as his daughter Guinevere, then asked his daughter if she minded an extra mouth for dinner. There was a twinkle in her eyes when she replied that Merlin had already asked her and she had responded in the affirmative. Settling upon a strangely carved bench beside a simple table, Arthur spent the next half hour answering a series of gentle inquiries from the kindly pair.
Time seemed to fly by after that. Both Tom and his daughter were delightful company, and after a warning and a threat from the lovely Guinevere, Arthur found her to be friendly, open, natural and unaffected like so few beautiful women ever were.
When her brother Elyan rose from his bed in the afternoon, Arthur found him to be wary at first, approaching Arthur with caution, but as the afternoon advanced, he began to relax, and in the end he proved to be just as charming as his father and sister. It didn’t immediately occur to Arthur that they had been conversing in the imperial tongue, and when it finally did, he found himself grudgingly admiring Merlin’s sensitivity, and marveling at such thoughtfulness toward a prisoner. While Arthur had to admit that he was grateful for the kindness, he was also suspicious of it. Were they all just softening him up for something?
When the afternoon shadows grew long and the sun began to sink toward the horizon, Merlin arrived to escort Arthur back to the crannog. Again, he didn’t bind Arthur’s wrists, but then Arthur supposed he didn’t really have to anymore. As long as Arthur was within eyesight, it would be the work of a single thought for Merlin to stop any escape attempt he might make.
“So, what did you do all day?” Arthur asked as they walked through the rapidly deepening gloom.
Turning his head, Merlin looked at Arthur askance, eyes narrowed at his challenging tone. “Nothing that would interest you, I’m sure,” he returned coolly.
“Oh I don’t know, try me,” Arthur persisted, a thread of genuine curiosity in the inquiry. He didn’t want to acknowledge it, even to himself, but Merlin . . . fascinated him. Not just the strange physical attraction Arthur experienced whenever he was near, but Merlin himself—what he thought, what he believed, and yes, even what he did all day while Arthur was left with the gregarious blacksmith and his family.
“I’m still in training. I will be for several years yet.”
“Training for what?”
He was quiet for a few moments, as if considering whether or not to answer Arthur’s question. Eventually, he firmed his jaw and answered in a clear, quiet voice, “To become a Druid.”
Surprised, Arthur blurted out, “But I thought there weren’t any more Druids!”
Merlin went rigid and glared at him, his top lip curled back in contempt. “Your father’s people did their best, but they didn’t quite manage to kill all of them.”
Suddenly the shackles were back on Arthur’s wrists and Merlin gave them a vicious yank as he strode away, practically vibrating with rage. When they reached the causeway, Merlin grabbed Arthur by the arm and shoved him ahead, falling back several paces though the walkway was more than wide enough for the two of them to walk side-by-side, as they had done that morning.
Arthur had never really thought much about the Druids outside of the stories he’d been told as a child. It hadn’t really occurred to him that their loss might still be felt by anyone alive today. After all, they’d been gone (or so he’d thought) nigh on four hundred years. However, he supposed for someone training to follow in their long-dead footsteps, the loss might still hurt. Not only the loss of life, but the loss of knowledge and tradition. Suddenly, he felt ashamed of his insensitivity.
“I’m sorry,” he said hesitantly. “I didn’t think . . . I didn’t know . . .”
Merlin’s sigh was audible behind him.
“I know. It was a long time ago, but it still has repercussions for the People to this day. We’ve never recovered from that loss, and we’ve never stopped mourning it.”
The evening meal in the chieftain’s crannog was a lively affair. In addition to Merlin’s extended family, there were numerous other tribesmen gathered around the round hearth as the moon began her journey across the sapphire night sky. Small children ran between the adults, playing games and squealing with joy, a few withered elders looked on indulgently while exchanging gossip, and men and women alike tended a large, communal pot of savoury stew suspended over the crackling fire.
Merlin had again banished Arthur’s restraints as they stepped back indoors, but he stuck close to Arthur’s side, never taking his eyes off him. Though he’d never admit it, that was fine with Arthur, who found himself unwillingly intimidated being surrounded by so many of the boisterous, brightly dressed barbarians. He found himself glancing around, seeking out Merlin’s mother Hunith almost compulsively. At breakfast that morning, she’d hinted broadly that she’d known his mother at one time. He’d never met anyone who’d known his mother and was willing to talk about her. Hoping she might tell him more, he began to make his way to where she was sitting near the fire with a lapful of rich green cloth and a small basket of brightly colored threads.
She welcomed him with a warmth her son was sorely lacking, patting the floor beside her as he approached. He hadn't realized Merlin had followed him until she spoke and bade her son to fetch Arthur a bowl of stew.
“You’re so like you mother, you know,” she said. He nodded, but before he could muster the courage to ask she added, “I imagine you want to hear more about her, yes?”
“Please,” he managed to say in the People’s language.
Beaming at him for his effort, she began to tell him of her childhood growing up with the Caereni (the Sheep People) before her father died and her mother decided to return to the Lugi, the Raven clan she’d been born into. Gráinne, as Arthur’s mother had been called as a girl, had been a few years older than Hunith, and while the two hadn't been close, they had been well known to each other, and often kept company with the other young girls of the clan.
Listening closely, Arthur only interrupted once. “My mother’s name was Igraine,” he corrected her quietly.
Hunith smiled sadly at him, her lips pinched in the middle. “No child, it was not. Your father mistook her name, and I don’t know why she never corrected him, though I could probably hazard a guess.”
Thinking about what he remembered of his mother and he knew of his father, he thought he might be able to as well. His mother had kept secrets . . . secrets she shared with Arthur but warned him to conceal from Uther. The memories were hazy though, and Hunith was continuing her tales. He set aside his maunderings to listen to her words; there would be time to examine his memories later. There might never be another chance to speak with one who knew his mother as a girl.
Hunith’s voice was low and sweet, a comfort in his ear and a balm to his soul, and as he listened, he found himself envying Merlin his mother. What would he be like today had his own survived?
Merlin returned with Arthur’s stew, handing it over in silence then slipping away again. Arthur was pleasantly surprised by what he’d been given; generous chunks of meat swam in a thick, salted gravy with leeks, onions and garlic. Merlin had stuck a large wedge of bread in the bowl along with a generous measure of the stew, and while Arthur found it strange at first—very dense and chewy—it was also tasty and filling. These people were treating him far better than he would have treated any prisoner of his own.
When Hunith trailed off and grew quiet, Arthur finally dared to ask a question, again attempting to use her language to convey it.
“You said you went with your mother to the north?” he asked with halting words. He looked around the gathered peoples. “Was this . . . are these my mother’s people, then? Her clan?”
This time she bit her lip and looked around the gathering with a deep grief etched upon her soft features. “There are some gathered here that were of the Sheep, but no more.” She looked back at him, and he saw her eyes were glistening with moisture. “This is my mother’s clan, the Raven People. We came here from the south.”
There was another emotion shimmering there, entwined with her grief: compassion. Compassion for him. That’s when he understood what she was trying to tell him without actually verbalizing it aloud. He too looked around at the gathered People. There were no tribes south of this one. Here among the Raven were the last of the Sheep. His mother’s clan was no more. Stomach twisting, he asked, “Why? How?”
“Another time, Arthur, please. It’s too much for one evening’s telling.” The tears trembled on her eyelashes and he bowed his head to her in deference. He would not pressure her to give what she was not ready to release. Instead, he voiced a different query.
“How . . . how did you know?” Arthur’s tongue struggled to shape the unfamiliar words. “How, that she was . . . mine mother?”
The corners of her mouth drooped softly. “I saw her once, after she wedded your father and had you. I even saw you once, though of course I never spoke to either of you. There was no way.”
“How do you mean?” he questioned, his words chosen carefully and spoken slowly.
Hunith looked at him, her mouth tight, the light of concern flaring in her deep-blue eyes.
“I don’t know that you’re quite ready to hear that yet, Arthur. Ask me again another day.”
“Or better yet, ask me,” rumbled the deep voice of her husband as he came up behind Arthur. “Ask me about your father some time, boy. There are things you should know and clearly do not.”
“Balinor,” Hunith touched his sleeve, “let him be for now.” He regarded his wife for a moment, then nodded solemnly before leaning down to kiss her forehead. “Such a wise woman I married.” She squeezed his arm with a smile, then returned to her embroidery as he moved past them both, calling out a greeting to a group of elders clustered by the ale barrel.
Casting his eyes around the room, Arthur spotted Merlin across the hearth, huddled close in conversation with a small knot of men and women. Momentarily unobserved, he let his eyes roam all over Merlin’s lean, strangely elegant figure. A soft chuckle distracted him, and found himself blushing when he looked around and met Hunith’s knowing eyes. She smiled at him, and he found himself ducking his head and looking away like a bashful boy.
Which brought him back to looking at Merlin; however, this time, he noticed Merlin had something long and slender in his right hand. It looked like a flute. Then he noticed that several of the other people in Merlin’s little cluster were also holding instruments. A middle-aged woman held something that resembled a small lyre, while a young girl had small wooden discs strapped to the ends of her fingers. A tall, burly man with a tremendous beard held a small bone whistle. Elyan called out something Arthur didn’t catch, and Merlin answered him with a raised hand and a grin. The dark-skinned young man came forward with a war-shield and a long, sturdy stick and planted himself on the floor beside the gathering of musicians.
No one apart from Hunith spoke directly to Arthur, so he spent the rest of the meal watching the people crowded inside Balinor’s home, and if his eyes most often strayed to the tall, slim figure of his young captor, who was to know why but him?
When most of the gathering had finished eating, the musicians struck up first one lively tune and then another. Some of the younger members of the clan were moved to rise and dance, stomping their feet hard in rhythmic patterns almost as if their boots were meant to be part of the song. The girls leapt and spun, many rising to the tips of their toes and balancing there for long moments before flexing their feet and landing on their heels. The boys placed an unsheathed sword on the floor and egged each other on as they took turns seeing who could dance with his feet closest to the bare blade.
After a while the lively tunes slowed, and Merlin set his flute aside to stand in front of the others and sing. His voice was beautiful, rising and falling in a haunting fashion; singing the mournful lyrics of a lament, he brought more than one person to the brink of tears. Arthur listened, enraptured, his eyes never once straying from Merlin’s face as he sang. When he’d finished the first song, Merlin sang another, this one less mournful and more longing as he sang the story of a lover in waiting. This time, he turned toward Arthur as he sang. Their eyes met, and Arthur felt as if he could look into those bright blue eyes forever, that Merlin needed no more potent magic than this to make Arthur his captive . . . forever.
Eventually though, the song ended and the spell was broken as the clan roared its approval, lauding Merlin and exhorting him for one more song. However, Merlin demurred, instead darting forward into the throng to pull a young woman with black hair and green eyes forward. She was tugging on her arm in a futile show of resistance, but her laughter and shining eyes belied her struggles, and soon enough she gave in and turned to face the gathering. She too had a lovely voice, though privately Arthur felt that Merlin’s was the sweeter of the two. However, she was a pleasure to listen to, and Arthur gave his attention to her as did all the others gathered together in the crannog. She sang a second song, and then a third. When she was done, like Merlin she moved to draw another forward, this time helping an absolutely ancient man move forward to a stool positioned beside the musicians.
A hush fell over the gathering, and the old man began to speak.
“This is a tale from the oldest of times, when the People were first made, mere infants in a world of men...”
At first, Arthur found the rhythm of the tale-telling only vaguely familiar; then when the old man finished his first story and went on to a second, Arthur recognized it— no, he remembered it. He remembered his mother telling it to him. Shaken, Arthur stilled, sitting in stupefied wonder on the floor by Hunith’s feet, remembering his mother.
That night, he climbed into Merlin’s bed without being bidden, his mind still reeling from the unsettling realization that he was truly living among his mother’s people—the people he had never been allowed to know. However, when Merlin once again lay down behind him, fitting his body to Arthur’s in the tight confines of the enclosed bed, Arthur was immediately distracted from his thoughts by the sudden heat rushing through his body. Teased by little drifts of Merlin’s scent, Arthur fought the desire to turn and bury his nose in Merlin’s hair, to nuzzle the long neck and nip at the tender lobes of his prominent ears.
The night before, Merlin had fallen asleep almost as soon as they’d curled up together in the soft, nest-like enclosure. Not so this night. Once again he lay curled against Arthur, but though he did not speak, his ragged breathing and restless shifting gave away his sleepless state. As Arthur lay there, once again stone-hard and aching with need, he wondered if Merlin wasn’t maybe feeling a bit of the same torment.
He certainly hoped so. Arthur didn’t feel he deserved to be the only one suffering an unwanted attraction to a man he’d been raised to think of as his enemy. Then again, was Merlin only Arthur’s enemy? Was he not also a distant sort of kin? Confusion made Arthur’s head ache almost as much as the arousal throbbing between his thighs. As he lay there aching and throbbing--Merlin's breath hot against his neck, Arthur was fairly sure this captivity was going to be the death of him, one way or another.
The following morning as they left the crannog together, Merlin said to him, seemingly out of the blue,
“Your mother had two brothers. Did you know?”
Arthur shook his head; he’d never known anything about his mother’s family.
“One of them, Trystan, had a child. Though he was lost when the Sheep Clan was destroyed, his daughter, Morgana, managed to flee with her mother.”
“I have . . . did they . . . are they here?” Arthur asked with keen curiosity.
“Your aunt Vivyan died a few years ago, but your cousin still lives among us.”
“Who is she? Does she know of our connection? Can I meet her?”
“You heard her sing last night, after me. But Arthur, Morgana knows who you are. Everyone does. If she wishes to make herself known to you, trust me she will. She’s not the timid sort. But you should know she holds great enmity towards your father, and I think, by extension, towards you as well.”
Though his tone was sympathetic, a wry smile curled the edges of Merlin’s mouth.
“Is there something you aren’t telling me?”
“Not really,” Merlin answered, but there was still something hesitant in his denial.
“Well, to be perfectly honest, your cousin . . . she’s not someone you want as an enemy. In addition to a hot temper, she has magic and is a powerful seer. As such, she holds a high position in the clan. So if I were you, I’d approach her only with great caution,” Merlin said, his expression grave. “Actually, I wouldn’t approach her at all. Rather, I’d let her come to you in her own time. She will. She’s insatiably curious and has a need to know positively everything.”
The last was said with such an air of exasperation that Arthur had to wonder what prompted it. What sort of history did Merlin have with his cousin? Arthur imagined it would be a long time before his curiosity was satisfied on that front.
The next few nights followed the same pattern: music and song after the evening meal, followed by the old man’s storytelling. And each night, Arthur remembered more and more of his mother: how she taught him the ways of her people, how she told him it was their secret, and how she implored him not to tell anyone what she taught him, especially his father. And how when she’d died, he’d locked the memories away and kept them secret as she’d taught him. In time he’d locked them away so tightly that even he forgot them after he was sent south. He'd only been seven years old, after all.
Unfortunately, the pattern of laying awake long into the night, aching with desire for Merlin, also continued. Merlin never spoke of it, but he had to be aware of Arthur’s interest; at the very least he had to be aware of Arthur’s physical response to his closeness. It wasn’t as if Arthur had any way of hiding it.
Sometimes as they lay together, Arthur could swear he could feel an answering response from Merlin--could feel the brush of a stiffened cock against the swell of his arse. One night, as Arthur hovered in the hazy state between dreaming and waking, he was certain he felt Merlin pressing up against him, his hips rocking ever so gently, breath hitching and sighing, moist and warm against the back of Arthur’s neck.
The first day Merlin had left Arthur with Tomos and his family was also the last. Merlin had never brought him there again. Instead, he took Arthur at his word and arranged for him to spend his days with the village fletcher. A gruff, red-haired man in his late forties called Adda, the fletcher seemed taciturn by nature and hostile toward Arthur in particular.
So while Adda gave Arthur plenty of work to keep him busy, their work was conducted in relative silence. At least the man had been moved to grudging praise for Arthur’s work, letting Merlin know the first day he’d come to collect Arthur that his workmanship was “adequate to the task at hand.” The grin Merlin flashed his way confirmed Arthur’s suspicion that this was high praise indeed for the grouchy man.
After a few days cooped up inside the workshop, Adda allowed Arthur to take his work outside to enjoy the crisp air of the rapidly advancing autumnal season. Not only did this allow Arthur access to fresh air, but it also allowed him to observe the comings and goings of the other clansmen, and to truly get a feel for life in the Lugi village. What surprised Arthur most about this group of Painted Ones was how quickly they adjusted to Arthur’s presence among them. He was a prisoner, yes. There wasn’t a child over the age of five who wasn’t aware of that. Yet no one treated him like a pariah. No one spat curses at him as they passed, nor hurled clods of dirt (or worse) at his head. The children didn't throw rotting vegetables or chant rude rhyming songs as they ran by to play. In fact, his captivity among the “savages” was remarkably . . . civilized.
Another surprise was how quickly Arthur adapted to his life among the Lugi. How instead of spending his days plotting escape, he found himself wondering what Hunith would be making for dinner, and whether or not Merlin would get up to sing after the meal was finished. Would Merlin pass by the fletcher's shop after he completed his morning weapons work, or would he avoid Arthur today and take the circuitous route to the hut where the old Druid who was training him lived? Arthur would be skinned alive before he ever admitted to anyone how often he found his eyes searching for Merlin in every gathering, among any group of men he encountered, in response to every deep laugh on the wind.
At night, when they were both under the same roof, Arthur followed Merlin everywhere with his eyes, only wrenching them away when Merlin’s own gaze swung his way. It had gotten so obvious that Hunith took to smiling indulgently at him whenever their eyes met. In contrast, Balinor scowled darkly whenever Arthur dared to meet his gimlet eye. If Hunith found his fascination with their son amusing, Balinor clearly found it disturbing and distasteful.
However, what Merlin thought of it all was a mystery to Arthur. A mystery that just served to deepen his allure and further Arthur’s interest.
They had taken to talking at night, curled up together in Merlin’s snug bed. Usually it was about mundane matters—what they’d done or seen during the day, a critique of Hunith's cooking. Some days the meals were magnificent, some days mediocre, though always hearty and plentiful in nature. No one ever went away hungry from her hearth if she could help it.
Some nights they didn't speak much at all; instead Merlin would sing softly to him, or simply hum sweet melodies in Arthur’s ear, his breath warm on the back of Arthur’s neck.
However, some nights they shared more intimate thoughts. Merlin shared childhood experiences or detailed what he was learning from Llacheu, his Druid mentor who turned out to be the same ancient man who told the stories that had so effectively stirred up Arthur’s memories.
Another thought often occupied Arthur as he lay beside Merlin at night. Would Uther actually pay the ransom his captors had demanded of him? That question was always followed by the traitorus thought, Do I even want him to?
"What will you do if my father pays the ransom and I leave?" he once dared to ask Merlin, holding his breath for the answer.
Merlin hesitated for a moment. “I guess I will go back to sleeping alone,” he finally answered, his voice strangely hollow.
He found the vision of Merlin sleeping alone an oddly discomforting one...knowing that such a picture was incomplete without Arthur there beside him.
One night as Merlin lay humming a hauntingly familiar melody in his ear, Arthur thought of his mother. He told Merlin how he remembered those stories, how his mother had bade him to keep them secret, and how they’d spoken Merlin’s language to each other when they were alone.
“Your father never found out?” Merlin asked.
“No. I kept my mother’s secret, both before her death and after.”
The next night, Merlin pressed a bit closer than was his usual wont, his deep voice a soft rasp in Arthur’s ear,
"But for your father, we might have grown up together. Imagine that."
Arthur swallowed against the sudden tightness in his throat. "I'm sorry he didn't let that happen, Merlin."
"I'm sorry too, Arthur," Merlin said, his voice ragged with some emotion Arthur couldn't quite understand.
It would be a long time before Arthur did fully understand the meaning behind Merlin's words.
The following evening after bellies were filled and the ale was flowing, exhortations were made until Merlin produced his flute, Una brought out her lyre, and Morgana stood and hummed to warm her throat for song. As the song began, Merlin’s eyes glowed gold and misty, nebulous images in muted colors began to form in the air, a moving illustration of the lyrics being sung. Entranced, Arthur watched with a keen eye until a deep, gruff voice rumbled in his ear.
“He has unusually powerful magic you know,” Balinor informed him as he set a small folding stool beside Arthur and settled upon it.
Eyes still on Merlin, Arthur nodded. “I suspected so, though I've nothing to compare it to. It’s beautiful.”
“He’s much more than just magic though, do you know that?” Again, Arthur nodded. Of course he knew; spending so much time in Merlin’s presence of late, how could he not?
“Intelligence, courage, compassion . . . we value all his gifts highly, Arthur Pendragon. Not just his magic.”
“As you should,” he returned, frankly puzzled as to where this conversation was leading.
“Did you know that once there were centers of learning for the Druids of all the People? Boys would go there to learn together, strengthening the bonds between family and clans, but the Empire destroyed those sacred places and the learned men who maintained them.”
Bowing his head, Arthur murmured, “I know they were destroyed and by whose hand they fell.”
The destruction of the Druids had remained something that imperial descendants had remained proud of to that very day. The history of that campaign had been among the first things he’d learned in the history lessons Ectorius had insisted upon as part of his education. However, Arthur had already heard the tale from his father long before he learned the details from his tutor.
Uther was proud of their heritage, and had made sure that his son was aware of, and proud of it as well. Their family had already been powerful and wealthy when, bowing to internal pressures and the threat of war in the heartland, the Imperial Army had withdrawn from Britannia and left them to their fate on the very outskirts of the Great Empire. The Pendragons descended from a great general of that mighty army, a man who had chosen to carve out a vast estate from the wilderness rather than take a pittance of retirement closer to the heart of the Empire. It had been more than fifty years since they were abandoned by the Empire and told to look to their own defenses, and the Pendragons had done that and more.
Once again, Balinor’s angry voice pulled Arthur from his thoughts. Speaking in the language of the People, his words were coming fast, his voice low and pressured, but Arthur found he had no difficulty understanding Balinor’s speech.
“That should have been Merlin’s future, his birthright. But now the Druids are few, their numbers scattered. Now they travel from clan to clan, village to village, to find the best and the brightest to become apprentices instead of acolytes.”
Arthur nodded again but he remained confused.
“It’s an inferior system to the old way. The knowledge gained from experience and shared among many was infinitely preferable to the knowledge possessed by a single teacher. Still, it’s the best we have and we make what we can with it. Merlin will still be a great man someday.” Balinor’s voice rang with pride and his eyes shone with open love as he gazed upon his only son.
“Your father tried to take that from him, tried to take him from us. If your father’d had his way, my son would have grown up a slave. Robbed of his freedom and his future in exchange for a handful of silver to fatten your father’s purse.”
“Pardon—how are you saying?” Arthur’s fluency had been improving by leaps and bounds, but surprise had him grasping for the words he needed.
“Uther stole a jewel, but would have sold it for scrap. That is the way of the Empire, and while it has been gone from Albion for nigh on fifty years, men like your father will not let go.”
“What do you say of my father and Merlin?”
“Uther never told you why your mother died, did he?”
“He didn't have to,” Arthur gritted, switching back to the imperial tongue. “I was there. Your people attacked our villa and killed my mother.”
“Did you never wonder why we attacked? Has your time among us taught you nothing?”
“He . . . I . . .” Arthur thought about it for a moment. The People didn't believe in making war on women and children. They didn't believe in attacking homes and scourging the land. And yet, they had attacked his home, a walled estate housing many women and children.
“What he didn't tell you was that we’d come to rescue our women and children. That he’d stolen them to sell to the Empire as slaves.”
“What?” Arthur was stunned. He knew his father was embittered and hard, a man whose ambition knew no bounds, but . . . a slaver?
“As you have done under his command, he invaded our land. When we went to stop him, he and his men ran. They ran right through this village. They burned it to the ground, killed our elders and the babes in their cradles, then made off with most of our women and children as the spoils of war. My wife and son were among his captives.”
Arthur felt himself growing angry as Balinor’s accusations escalated into the absurd. He had gone too far. Uther Pendragon was many things, but he was not a monster. He wouldn't murder helpless old grannies and babes too small to walk, he just wouldn't.
Leaping to his feet, Arthur glared down into Balinor’s dark eyes.
“You’re a liar. My father would never, could never do that. It’s so easy to sit here and make accusations when he is not here to defend himself. You just want to twist me, to turn me against him, but I won’t be corrupted by the likes of you! He’s not a monster, he wouldn’t do that!” He practically shouted the last few words.
“He destroyed your mother’s people,” said Balinor flatly.
“Liar!” Arthur’s eyes widened in outrage. How dare he make such a claim?
“Your mother married him to secure an agreement, a truce between your father and the Sheep Clan. In exchange for her hand, he agreed not to make war on her people, on her family. But the moment she died, the truce was ended and your father attacked their village. A handful of them escaped and made their way to the Raven. The rest were slaughtered or sold to the Empire.”
Arthur shook his head, negating Balinor’s words. “I don’t believe you.”
“Ask Gaius,” Balinor returned, unperturbed.
“My father’s physician? How do you know of him?”
“He’s a good man,” Balinor asserted. “Against Uther’s orders, he treated the wounds Hunith received when she was taken captive. She didn't go quietly, and your father’s men didn't go easy on her. Uther would have left her and some of the other women to die of infection when their wounds began to fester. Gaius treated them in secret, defying your father and saving their lives.” Balinor stopped to draw a deep breath before he continued. “He’s a good man. He will give you the truth you will not accept from me.”
“You speak as though I’m free to just go and ask him,” Arthur said, his words vibrating with disdain.
“You are your father’s only son; he will pay your ransom,” Balinor said with rock hard certainty.
Furious, but unwilling to engage Balinor any further, Arthur spun on his heel and stalked away. He made for the sanctuary of the room he shared with Merlin and hurled himself into the bed the moment he was inside. He curled up on his side, bringing his knees in close as he buried his face in the blankets.
Balinor was a filthy liar, and for a moment he’d almost convinced Arthur to believe him. Burning with shame and resentment, Arthur shook all over, fighting to contain the tears that threatened to fall. He beat them back, but the effort cost him. His head throbbed and his body ached, and more than ever since coming to this place, Arthur longed to be home.
Only moments later, Arthur heard the partition slide open then closed, and he felt the bed dip as Merlin lay down behind him. Still angry with Merlin’s father, Arthur said nothing, just lay there in pained and furious silence. Then, to his surprise, he felt Merlin’s arms wrap around him, and he shivered at the brush of soft lips as Merlin tenderly nuzzled his neck. Merlin didn’t speak, but instead crooned a soft, wordless melody against Arthur’s skin, continuing to hold him close while peppering the back of his neck with soft little kisses.
Arthur turned in Merlin’s arms with a groan. Both his hands trembled as he brought them up to frame Merlin’s face while Arthur looked deep into his shining eyes. Unsure of what he was expecting to see, Arthur felt a rush of relief when he couldn’t see so much as a trace of animosity in that honest blue gaze. Instead, Merlin’s beautiful eyes were lit from within by a mixture of deep compassion and the heat of open lust. In that instant Arthur fell, irrevocably and forever, going down with a whimper of need.
He covered Merlin’s mouth with his own, groaning when he felt Merlin’s lips part eagerly beneath his. Deepening the kiss, Arthur slid his hands into Merlin’s hair, gripping too tightly but not knowing how to stop. Merlin whimpered but didn’t pull away. Instead, he tightened his arms around Arthur’s torso, pulling their bodies flush.
Drawing back slightly, Arthur dragged his mouth across Merlin’s jaw and down the side of his neck before burying his face in Merlin’s hair with a muffled sob.
“Shh, shhh,” Merlin soothed him, running his hands up and down Arthur’s spine. Arthur managed to loosen his grip and untangle his fingers from the soft waves of Merlin’s hair, dragging them over the skin of his neck and shoulders before latching onto his upper arms and digging into the flesh there as another sob rocked his body.
Merlin continued to pet him, gently rocking their bodies together. Seeking the comfort of soft skin, Arthur ran his hands down Merlin’s arms and gripped the bottom of his tunic, tugging it upward with tightened fists. Merlin lifted his arms so Arthur could slide his tunic and shirt off, then wrapped them around Arthur again.
“I've got you,” he panted into the skin of Arthur’s neck.
Arthur could feel his hands trembling as he ran them over the bared skin of Merlin’s torso, mapping the valley between his shoulder blades, the stark ridges of his ribs, and the tensing muscles of his abdomen. He scraped his fingertips over the faint swell of Merlin’s pectorals, scoring the flat nipples with his nails and reveling in the arch of Merlin’s spine, the hiss of air past his lips.
“Arthur!” Merlin cried out, his tone suddenly desperate, almost pleading. And with that cry of need, the mood between them suddenly shifted from pain and comfort to lust and frenzy.
They tore at each other’s clothing, each of them desperate for the slide of skin against skin. Arthur’s cock, hard since the first touch of Merlin’s hands on his body, twitched and throbbed, straining urgently against the fabric of his braccae. He’d never wanted anyone as badly as he wanted Merlin in that moment.
Frantically he tore at Merlin’s laces, yanking the edges wide open before pulling the woolen fabric down over Merlin’s long legs. As he bared Merlin’s pale, tattooed skin, he felt a pulse of gratitude that Merlin had removed his boots before climbing into the bed. In contrast, Arthur was forced to crawl over Merlin to get his own boots and braccae off before he could cover Merlin’s naked body with his own.
After that, it was a blur of tongues and teeth, palms and fingers, rough hair and soft, silky skin. Their cocks slid together and they groaned in unison. They thrust against each other for a few delicious moments ,but that wasn’t what Arthur was craving, it wasn’t what he needed.
Eschewing romantic niceties, Arthur thrust a finger between Merlin’s lips, and let a pleased growl slip from his throat when Merlin began to lick and suck.
“Get it wet for me,” he growled urgently, and Merlin obliged, letting the slick moisture of his saliva flow freely over Arthur’s finger. A moment later, Merlin released the digit and Arthur reached between their heaving bodies, fumbling his way between Merlin’s thighs to his tight, hot hole.
Easing inside, he reveled in the cling of Merlin’s flesh around his finger. Bending his knuckles, Arthur began to tug gently at Merlin’s rim, loosening him up enough to slip a second finger in beside the first. It was a tight fit, but Arthur was determined to work Merlin open quickly. A few minutes later, he finally deemed Merlin’s entrance widened enough to take his cock. Lacking any other form of lubrication, Arthur spit into his own palm before moistening the length of his cock with saliva.
The all-consuming desire continued to rise, the need to bury himself inside Merlin growing more and more urgent with every moment that passed. Glassy-eyed, panting and writhing beneath him, Merlin seemed to share the same desperate urgency.
How many nights had Merlin lay there behind Arthur, concealing his own desire? The thought was like fire to Arthur, knowing he had never been alone. Balinor had made him feel isolated, but he'd never felt as connected to anyone as he did to Merlin in that moment. Merlin, who was openly showing his secret shared need to Arthur, wordlessly revealing that the two of them had been more closely connected than Arthur had dared to hope.
Seeing that, Arthur wasted no more time, lining himself up and thrusting inside with a long, hard push that immediately had him buried halfway to the balls.
Crying out, Merlin arched from the bed, his chest slamming into Arthur’s as he thrashed out of control. Arthur was unsure if Merlin was in agony or ecstasy, but he really didn’t have the self-control to stop and find out. Rearing back, he slammed his hips forward and was finally, finally fully sheathed inside his lover’s tight channel. Still gripped by that terrible urgency to mate, Arthur began to thrust at once, plunging erratically in and out of Merlin’s trembling body. Clutching so tight he left indentations in his creamy skin, Arthur held Merlin’s hips down and frantically rutted inside him.
After a few minutes of frenzied thrusts, Merlin’s voice began to pierce the fog of lust that had obscured all rational thought.
“Slow down, Arthur. Please, love, slower,” Merlin panted into the sweat-dampened skin of Arthur’s neck. It was the “please” that penetrated, and Arthur desperately grasped for control to slow the pumping of his hips, to gentle the pistoning glide of his cock inside Merlin’s body.
Taking a deep breath, he wrestled a small measure of control away from the ravening beast inside that was roaring for him to claim, to own, to fuck. He slowed his movements, gentling and lengthening his thrusts until he found a smooth, easy rhythm. Merlin responded by groaning out Arthur’s name, bracketed by short words like “yes” and “like” and “that.” Eventually the words coalesced into coherency and Arthur realized that Merlin was murmuring, “Yes Arthur, just like that. Don’t stop, don’t stop. Yes...”
Arthur knew he was getting close, but he struggled to hold off his orgasm until he was certain that Merlin was going to come as well. Grasping Merlin’s cock in his fist, he began to twist and pump it in time with his thrusting hips. Soon he could feel Merlin’s channel tighten around him, beginning to ripple and contract. He sped his rhythm once again, letting go and allowing his orgasm to crash over him in an overwhelming wave of ecstasy and relief.
Dimly he registered the hot splash of Merlin’s release against the skin of his belly, and he loosened the hand that had been gripping Merlin's sensitive flesh. He came down from his high very slowly, barely aware of Merlin’s body curling around his own, or the slide of Merlin’s hand up his leg, or the way that hand came to rest on his belly even as Merlin’s head came to rest on his shoulder.
When Arthur opened his eyes again, he could see that Merlin’s eyelids were drooping, even as his breathing began to even out into the deep, steady rhythm of sleep. Dropping a kiss on Merlin’s forehead, he smiled in response to the pleased little curl of Merlin’s lips.
Holding Merlin in his arms, Arthur let his mind drift for a while, frowning when it came back around to Balinor’s accusations, which had indirectly sparked the whole encounter with Merlin. Arthur knew that he and Merlin had always been headed this way, from the moment they’d laid eyes on each other. But while the sex might have been inevitable, that didn’t mean anything else about their relationship was going to be easy.
The longer he stayed with Merlin, the more Arthur never wanted to leave. But the truth of the matter was that Arthur just couldn’t stay. Balinor’s accusations aside, Arthur had a duty to his father and to his fellow knights, the men who had chosen to follow him from Ectorius’ home, north to his father’s. They had sworn their loyalty to him, and he to them.
Looking down at Merlin’s beautiful, sleeping face, Arthur knew he was in love. There was no denying that anymore, but there could be no future for them the way things stood in that moment. So, with a deep sigh of aching regret, Arthur rose from Merlin’s bed and began to dress in silence. Merlin hadn’t bound Arthur since the second night after his arrival, seeming to trust his senses enough not to bother. Either that or he’d already sensed Arthur’s burgeoning reluctance to leave.
Regardless of the reason, Arthur had more or less been free to go, almost since the beginning of his captivity, and he hadn’t. He’d let his longing for Merlin and his curiosity about his mother’s culture keep him bound to the Lugi village. But now it was time to put all that aside and face reality, however unpleasant it might turn out to be.
Before he turned to leave, Arthur paused to study Merlin’s sleeping face one last time, unable to stop himself from pressing a soft kiss upon Merlin’s plump, perfect lips. Slipping quietly from Merlin’s room, Arthur silently crossed the main room to the door. He pushed it open gently and padded down the causeway to the shore, never looking back . . . never noticing Balinor standing in the shadows by the door of the crannog silently watching him leave.
Sure only of the general direction he needed to travel, it took Arthur nearly two days to return to the place where the skirmish with the Lugi had occurred. Merlin had been sure of his track, but Arthur found to his consternation that he was unable to retrace the route exactly. Certain that Balinor would send someone after him, he sacrificed accuracy for speed that first day and wound up losing his way more than once.
However, there had been no signs of pursuit, and after rising from a cold camp that morning, he’d been much more careful in picking his route. Arthur came upon the churned-up field just as the sun was sinking beneath the horizon. He considered making camp but in the end decided against it. The weather was fair, the way home from here was better known to him, and the small amount of food he’d managed to smuggle from Hunith’s stores had run out that afternoon.
It had taken his troops two days to make the ride here from his father’s estate. On a fresh horse, he could have made the Wall in a matter of hours. However his borrowed mount was far from fresh, and it would probably take the remainder of the day to reach it now as he would have to stop periodically to let the horse forage and rest. With nothing but his thoughts for company, Arthur found himself reliving that last night with Merlin. Over and over. What he’d said, how he’d looked, and felt and sounded, smelled and tasted. The way he’d come apart in Arthur’s hands, the way his body had squeezed around Arthur’s cock...
Groaning, he wrenched his thoughts from Merlin only to once again confront Balinor’s accusations against Uther. He destroyed your mother’s people . . . he slaughtered babies and old folk . . . he sold toddlers and their mothers into slavery . . . It just wasn’t possible. His father was a good man.
”Was he though?”
Arthur couldn't help the doubts that assailed him. Was it true? Had he demanded Arthur’s mother in exchange for sparing her people? Had she even wanted to marry him? Had she any choice? He could remember her voice, telling him of her people, telling him to keep it secret, that his father wouldn't like it. Sometimes she would come to him shaking, whispering to him in her native tongue, holding him tight as bruises darkened on her wrists and arms.
His thoughts plagued him all the way home. What did Arthur really know of his father? He’d been but a boy when he’d gone south to foster with Ectorius. Most of what Arthur thought he knew of Uther came by way of his foster father, who’d told him time and again what a great man his father was. Always a great man . . . never a good man. Arthur had made that correlation himself, but perhaps he shouldn't have. There could often be a wide gap between the two.
Finally, Arthur encountered the road that led to the gates of the Wall. Exhausted but feeling more secure, he made camp alongside it, thinking it unwise to approach the guarded gate in darkness while dressed like a Lugi warrior. He would rise with the dawn to continue his journey.
Once, the Wall had been garrisoned with imperial troops; now they wore his father’s colors, a golden dragon on a blood red field. As Arthur had feared, at first they took him for a Lugi on his borrowed horse, in his borrowed clothes. But when he spoke commandingly to them in the imperial tongue, one among them took a closer look and recognized him for Uther’s son.
“Hail Arthur! Well met young sir, we thought you lost upon the field of battle!”
Recognizing the man in turn, he replied, “Not lost, Darren, but captured.”
They opened the gate and let him through, many of them gathering close around him as he entered. They clamored for the tale of his captivity and escape. With good nature they teased him for his barbaric finery, even as they ushered him inside the gatehouse and clothed him in more civilized apparel. Washed, fed and “properly” clothed in an imperial style tunic and plain woolen braccae, Arthur departed shortly thereafter, eager to reach Uther’s home to assure him of his son’s safe return.
As he passed the gate onto his father’s estate, Arthur was keenly aware that the anticipated sense of homecoming was missing. He’d spent a few weeks with the Lugi versus months in his father’s villa, so why did it feel so strange to see whitewashed walls and red tiled roofs instead of plain wood and thatch? To see men with cropped hair instead of long braided locks? The cloaks of dark, solid colors appeared so drab after the stripes and checkered cloth of his barbarian captors. Your mother’s people, a voice whispered in his head.
Impatient with himself, Arthur shook off the strange feeling and stabled Balinor’s horse, then made his way to the soldier’s quarters to check on his men. Poking his head into the barracks, he was instantly relieved to see Lancelot and to hear Gwaine’s voice hail him in welcome. Stepping inside properly, he looked around accounting for his men one by one. Leon, Percival, Bors, Trystan, Pelleas, Bedwyr, and Caius . . .
He tensed and asked, “Where are Lucan and Geraint?”
Trystan answered, “Geraint is with Gaius, and...”
“And Lucan is with God,” Lancelot finished when Trystan faltered.
Struck to the heart, Arthur immediately looked to Bedwyr and saw grief in his eyes, but no tears. He’d had weeks to come to terms with his brother’s death, hard weeks that Arthur hadn’t been there for. It was yet another reminder of why he’d had to leave Merlin. His men needed him. They had always been loyal to him, and they deserved his loyalty in return.
Arthur had grown up with Lucan. Of an age together, they’d served side by side as pages, then squires, ever looking up to Lucan’s big brother Bedwyr, two years older and always four steps ahead of them. When Arthur had finally won his knighthood, Lucan had been the first to know. And when Lucan won his own title two months later, it was Arthur who’d arranged the celebrations for him. He would be sorely missed.
To his surprise, Cai lumbered over to him, enveloping him in bearlike arms. “We thought you were dead. We couldn’t find your body, but that fight . . . that was a weird one.”
“At the end,” Lancelot chimed in, “that fog wasn't natural.”
Disentangling himself from Cai’s embrace, Arthur was subjected to a series of backslaps from his obviously relieved men as he made his way to a seat at the table they were gathered round.
“No,” Arthur said when he’d gotten his breath back. “It wasn't natural, it was conjured by magic.” Several of the men looked at him askance. “I’m serious, they have magic. It seems that, well, apparently there are still a few Druids left in the world, and the Painted People have them.”
There were cries of disbelief from all around. “Druids? Come on, you can’t be serious,” scoffed Gwaine.
Bors shouted, “Those twisty painted devils! No wonder they limed us right and proper. We were just sitting ducks for their dark magic!”
And from Pelleas, “I knew it weren't natural, I just knew it.”
Bedwyr said nothing, but Arthur saw his mouth pinch and his eyes narrow in brooding thought. The rest either sat in silent contemplation or muttered dire imprecations back and forth, as was their individual wont. As it stood, Arthur felt torn. He’d seen the “enemy” first hand, gotten to know them in a way his men had not. There was no way Arthur could ever regard them as savage or barbarian ever again. He could never dismiss them as monsters to ease his conscience for the task of war. It was easy to kill a beast, but a man . . . that was hard. And a kinsman . . . that stayed with you.
The men began trading stories back and forth about magic, Druids, and all the strange things any of them had seen in general. Eventually talk of strange sightings turned to talk of strange women, and then to more ribald conversation. Arthur listened with half an ear, his mind still a mass of confusion about where in the world he might really belong.
“You look as if something’s loosened yer butterteeth,” Gwaine remarked, settling a tankard in Arthur’s hand. Arthur just nodded wearily in response. “Feel like talking ‘bout it?” Gwaine persisted.
“Not really,” Arthur said, still lost in thought.
“All right, but if you change your mind, you know where Lancelot is,” Gwaine gibed with a wink.
If Arthur had been free to choose, he’d have stayed and passed the rest of the evening with his men, but he was not. So after he’d drained another tankard, he set it down with a decided snap and rose to his feet.
“All right you lot, settle down. I’m off to report to my father. You all stay sober,” he said, pausing to eye Gwaine in particular. “You never know when those damn Saxones will decide to raid. With your luck it’ll happen on a night you’re too pissed to even stand, let alone wield a blade.”
Leon looked up at him sharply, concern writ large in his clear blue eyes. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but then bit his lip and said nothing.
“What is it, Leon?” Arthur asked softly.
His friend hesitated for a moment before speaking. “It’s . . . well, I was going to say nothing but it’s . . . not nothing.” He shook his head, clearly frustrated. “I’m sorry. It will become clear to you when you speak to your father.”
Arthur gave him a nod and turned toward the door, mentally girding himself for the coming encounter. It was not unlike his preparations for imminent battle—Uther Pendragon was not an easy man to speak to for anyone. Not even his own son.
“They were holding the scion of the House of Pendragon, did you expect me to do nothing?” his father returned in outraged tones.
“I expected you to pay the ransom father, not to make a deal with the devil himself!”
Indeed, he had expected a little bit of familial warmth from him as well. Perhaps at least a touch of relief at Arthur’s safe return. But Uther had displayed neither when Arthur had arrived in his presence. Instead, Arthur received a curt nod and a snipe about taking so long to outwit a band of barbarian thugs. Uther then demanded a full report, starting from the moment Arthur had left on patrol to the moment he’d ridden back through the gates of the estate.
When Arthur had finished, Uther had in turn informed him of events that had taken place in his absence, the most alarming of which was the formation of an alliance with the Saxones against the Lugi.
“Hardly, Arthur, don’t be dramatic. The Saxone are skilled warriors, and of a heartier stock than the band you brought back with you from the south,” Uther spat with contempt. “Did they tell you how they ran back here with their tails between their legs when you were taken?”
Outraged at the verbal attack on his men Arthur exclaimed, “Don’t, Father, don’t you dare! There’s not a man among them who would not lay down his life for me, or for each other.”
“And yet when you were captured, not a one among them went after you,” Uther drawled, lip curled and nostrils flaring.
“They didn’t even know I’d been taken! There was no way they could have. You were not there, Father, so you cannot know what it was like. That fog was not natural. No man could see any further than a handspan away from his own face! Would you have them sightlessly flail about like children playing blind man’s bluff? They’d have like to kill as many of our own as the enemy when they could not see to attack.”
“They did not even try to ascertain what had happened to you, their leader. They just abandoned the field like cowards and made their way back here in a disorganized straggle,” Uther dismissed with an imperious wave of his hand.
“I’d have done the same, Father, had I not run afoul of the sorcerer who created the fog in the first place.”
“Sorcerer? He was there?” Uther’s eyes widened, his pupils dilating as his face was suffused with furious color.
Arthur eyed him speculatively. “It almost sounds as if you know him, Father.”
“Of course I know him. That grizzled demon has plagued me for more than two decades,” Uther spat.
Balinor, Arthur thought, He thinks I speak of Balinor. He does not yet know of the son who outstrips his father’s power. He does not know of Merlin. Duty compelled Arthur to correct his father’s assumption, yet he stayed silent.
“He took your mother from us,” Uther continued. “And when I learned he had taken you too, I knew that I had to rid the land of his cursed influence, no matter the cost.”
“And if the cost had been my life?” Arthur challenged, thinking that an alliance with Saxones could very well have meant just that.
Once again, Uther’s tone turned dismissive. “I knew it would not be. Once I realized that you hadn’t fallen in battle, I knew you’d be safe until I could come for you.”
Uther was right of course, but that indicated a far more intimate knowledge of the way of the Lugi than his father had ever admitted to before.
“How could you know that?”
“Because I know those painted savages. They are too foolish to exploit a weakness when they have the opportunity. They will not kill a warrior unarmed as they fear it would offend their heathen gods.”
You mean they have honor, Arthur thought, something he was beginning to suspect Uther did not possess in as great a quantity as he had once believed. He wondered how Uther could know the People so well and yet fail to understand the superiority of their morals. How could he equate foolishness with such a strict code of honor? How could he account it a weakness that they kept their word?
As a boy, it had pained Arthur that he’d been fostered away from his family home. Though grateful that Ectorius had treated him with the same care he lavished on his own son, Caius, Arthur had longed for the love and guidance of his own father. Now, for the first time in his life, Arthur felt a shameful rush of relief that he had not been subject to Uther’s tutelage after all.
Gathering his composure with some effort, Arthur returned to the subject at hand. “So you decided to turn to the Saxones for help?”
“They have the numbers we need.”
“Numbers be damned! They cannot be trusted! Father, they’re a band of ruthless cutthroats who will turn on us the moment we cease to be of value to them.”
“I know well enough to watch my back, Arthur. Do not think to school me in military matters. I never said I trusted them, but a wise general makes use of every weapon at his disposal. Disgusting savages they may be, but they are both numerous and skilled in the arts of war. We need such allies if we are to defeat the painted demons once and for all.”
“They will turn those numbers and skills on us in the blink of an eye.”
“Those numbers will be reduced even as they reduce those of the painted warriors. We set them against each other, and it puts us in a better position to eliminate what is left of them when the smoke clears.”
“Mark my words, Father, this will not end well for us.”
“It’s a calculated risk, but one I’m prepared to take. Those hairy barbarians are a plague upon this land, one that I intend to see cured.”
“Are you sure the cure isn’t worse than the disease, Father?”
“We are done discussing this, Arthur. We will join with the Saxones and we will put an end to the Painted People once and for all. You will lead your own men plus a contingent of the Saxone warriors, and this time, see to it that you do not fall so easily for the tricks of a petty conjurer. If you wish to be accounted my son, remember this: Pendragons do not fail.”
Pressing his lips together in a thin, tense line, Arthur regarded his father for a long moment, debating whether or not to raise the questions that had whirled in his head ever since his talk with Balinor. On the surface, he had rejected the Lugi chieftain’s claims, knowing his father for an honorable man. Now, looking into Uther’s flinty grey eyes, Arthur was more doubtful than ever. He could see nothing there but aggression, hatred and pride.
“Why do you hate the Painted Ones so much, Father? At some point there must have been something you liked about them, since you married one of their daughters.”
Arthur’s head exploded in pain as his father’s open palm cracked him across the face. For a moment, Uther appeared too enraged to speak, glaring at Arthur, his chest rising and falling as he panted with rage.
“Don’t you ever speak of her like that. Your mother was a civilized woman who recognized the value of order and loyalty! She shared nothing in common with the savages who turned on her and killed her.”
“Except their blood,” Arthur returned, raising a hand to his throbbing cheek.
Uther hit him again. This time with a closed fist to the temple, snapping Arthur’s head to the side and driving him down on one knee.
“Get out of my sight,” his father snarled, practically foaming with rage. “And don’t you ever speak to me of her again."
Wordlessly, Arthur rose to his feet and left. With determination, he decided he would obey that last command and never again ask Uther about his mother. However, he would ask someone else...and soon.
Allowing Uther to direct the conversation at first, Arthur waited until his father had consumed enough wine to relax his shoulders and hopefully loosen his tongue before casually mentioning, “I spoke with the Lugi chief while I was captive, a man called Balinor.”
Uther’s face pinched, his nose wrinkling as if smelling something offensive. However, while his lip curled in visible contempt, he didn't seem overly emotional as he again affirmed his knowledge of the man as “a vile creature of the lowest order.”
“He made some rather outrageous claims about you, Father,” Arthur offered cautiously.
Waving the empty goblet in his hand, Uther’s demeanor turned dismissive. “You can’t believe anything that demon sorcerer has to say, Arthur. No doubt he sought to turn you against me.”
Arthur nodded, as if in silent agreement. It wasn't entirely subterfuge though; Arthur had certainly been of the same opinion when Balinor had spoken to him. Now though, he wasn't so sure it was the Lugi chief who was the dishonest one. Still, his accusations had been harsh, and Arthur just couldn't bring himself to believe them. Maybe he just wasn't ready to believe them. He’d been seeking the approval of his only living parent for as long as he could remember, and he wasn't quite ready to give up on that, or on Uther, not yet.
“He said—he said that before the attack that killed Mother, you had attacked his village. He said you took his wife and son to sell into slavery. That you slaughtered all the infants and elders of the tribe while the men were away.”
“Like I said Arthur, you cannot believe anything that black-hearted devil has to say.”
A servant stepped forward to refill their cups, and Arthur waited until the boy had retreated before pressing forward once more. “It’s not true?”
“Of course it’s not true!”
Uther’s tone reflected only a mild outrage and Arthur relaxed. Of course it couldn't be true. It was such a patently ridiculous accusation that Uther couldn’t even be bothered to become properly angry over it. Arthur was ready to relax and forget all about it, but then Uther continued to speak.
“Not that it would matter,” he said, languidly sipping his wine. “They’re little better than animals. There’s no point in treating them any differently than you would beasts of the field; it’s not as if they could appreciate it. Any consideration you might offer would be lost on such base creatures.” Uther paused a moment as if in consideration before he added, “They’re useless animals at that. You can’t even eat what you kill.”
Despite the warmth of the bath, Arthur felt his blood run cold. He thought of someone treating Merlin—bright, beautiful, talented Merlin—like a mindless beast, perhaps beating him like some unruly mongrel, and it made Arthur nauseous. His gut twisted at the thought of gentle Hunith and sweet, sunny Guinevere shackled hand and foot and offered up like cattle for auction. He envisioned Uther’s men assessing Morcan’s sickly baby, or wise old Llacheu, gnarled by arthritis, as needless burdens, and culling them like bad stock.
“Besides,” Uther continued, wine beginning to slur his words, “the Empire pays handsomely for strong bodies and comely faces.” Eyes closing, Uther tipped his head back against the wall of the bath, fully relaxed. “Those painted devils are rather pretty creatures, and they bring an equally pretty price at market.”
Arthur stared at his father, appalled. Uther had settled Arthur’s unease when he’d dismissed Balinor’s accusations of slave trading as lies. Yet now he declared the Lugi to be worthy of less consideration than beasts raised for slaughter, and spoke of their market value with all the confidence of intimate knowledge.
Gaius could tell you . . . ask him. Balinor’s words came back to Arthur. You ask Gaius what your father has done.
As Uther’s speech trailed off into indecipherable murmurs, Arthur determined that he would seek out the physician at his first opportunity. He could no longer afford to take Uther at his word; he would ask Gaius for the truth.
Communicating with the Saxone men was a nightmare of mistakes in both understanding and making himself understood. Unlike his time among the Lugi, Arthur had no prior knowledge of the Saxone’s harsh, guttural language to build on. His first translator, a Saxone, had made several minor errors that could have escalated into huge problems later on had they not been caught and corrected. Thankfully Bors understood the Saxone language (though he couldn’t speak it very well), and Arthur could rely on him to be careful (and trustworthy) in his translations. As Bors’ fluency in their language was unknown to his father’s allies, Arthur was also relying on Bors to keep him informed about the Saxone’s activities they didn’t care to share through a translator.
However, even as Arthur was coordinating training, organizing supplies, and working up preliminary strategies for battle, he was just going through the motions for the sake of appearances. He had no intention of following through with any of the plans he was making. It was becoming clearer day by day that his life here had no real meaning to him. It didn’t feel real, the way that life with the Lugi had. It was almost as if he was dreaming, his mind here in Uther’s stronghold while his body was still in Merlin’s snug bed, waiting for the dawn to break and sleep to end. However disconnected he might feel from his life as Uther’s son, his father’s hatred toward his mother’s people was very real to him. And the more he saw of Uther’s plans for war with the People, the more certain Arthur became that he must find a way to avert those plans.
Despite the heavy schedule imposed by the practicalities of war, after his wine-fueled talk with Uther, Arthur had made time to do some investigating. Uther’s open and callous disregard for human life had left Arthur deeply unsettled; however, his research had only deepened his dismay.
Like his imperial forefathers, Uther was dedicated to meticulous record keeping. Sneaking into the archives late at night, Arthur had located the records from the year of his mother’s death. While her demise and the attack that killed her were both recorded, Arthur noted troubling notations about “lost stock” that didn’t tally with the records for the farming operations of the Pendragon estate. Even more upsetting was the unusually vague notation, recorded less than a week before, of the acquisition of “local stock,” with no clues as to what it was or where it came from.
Combing through the records for the years before and after that yielded more records of “acquisition of local stock” and the “sale of local stock” to imperial buyers across the sea. Every year, with the exception of the seven years prior to his mother’s death, there were tallies of battle losses on the same dates as the “acquisitions.” Most damning of all, in Arthur’s eyes, was the resumption of these losses, acquisitions, and sales in the months leading up to Igraine’s death.
Poring over the records kept since her death, Arthur discovered something curious. There was a spike in battle costs and acquisitions just after the Lugi attack that took her life. Then everything came back down to an even level for the next decade. Then, just a few years before Arthur’s homecoming from the south, the acquisitions went down while the battle losses went up. A year later the acquisition of local stock stopped altogether. The year Merlin had his sixteenth summer. Coincidence?
All the while Arthur searched through Uther’s records, he could feel a growing urgency inside him—he had to speak to Gaius. The deepening certainty of Uther’s lies and his crimes against the People was tearing him in two. Between the deep-seated desire he still felt to win Uther’s love and approval, and the burgeoning connection he felt towards his mother’s people, not to mention his newfound love for Merlin . . . which side would he come down on when all was said and done? He feared it really wasn’t much of a contest anymore. However, there remained a lingering doubt. Before he made a choice he could never take back, he needed to eliminate that doubt.
He still couldn’t be certain that Balinor’s version of events was true though, and he needed to have that truth—needed to know who had ultimately been responsible for his mother’s death. Arthur was beginning to believe that the elderly physician was the only man he could trust to tell him what he had to know.
He tried to ignore the little voice in his head that whispered, You trust Merlin. You could just go back. You could believe what he tells you, and never again leave his side . . .
It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Merlin. He trusted Merlin to tell him what he thought was the truth, but did that actually make it so? Merlin had been a tiny child. Would it not be better to speak to someone who had been an adult at the time? Someone whose memories couldn’t possibly be shaped by Balinor’s bias? He couldn’t put it off any longer.
So as the sun began to sink behind the horizon on the third day after his wine-fueled conversation with Uther, Arthur dismissed his men for the day and made his way back to the villa. However, instead of heading for his own chambers and the desk piled high with records and reports needing his attention, he skirted around the outer wall until he came to the short path that led to Gaius’ house. Breathing deeply to brace himself for what he might hear within that humble abode, Arthur reflected that war was easy when compared to the uncertain perils of one’s own family.
“Arthur! Come in, come in. What brings you to my door? Are you unwell? Is it one of your men? Has young Gerraint suffered a setback?”
“No, it’s nothing like that,” Arthur reassured him. “This is more of a social call than anything.”
It wasn’t really, but there were social niceties that Arthur really couldn’t afford to ignore. He feared overwhelming the old man should he just start asking questions and demanding answers. The subject at hand was, to say the least, a sensitive one. It needed careful handling.
They made polite conversation for several minutes. Arthur inquired about Gaius’ health and wellbeing and Gaius did the same in turn. They discussed the overall condition of Uther’s troops, and touched briefly on the state of their Saxone allies. More from what Gaius didn’t say, rather than what he did, Arthur was inclined to believe that the canny physician was uneasy with Uther’s risky gamble in making such an alliance.
Arthur found that strangely reassuring. Clearly Gaius wasn’t Uther’s blind follower, nor was he given to indiscretion. It made sense; as a physician Gaius would be privy to a lot of confidential information. He would not enjoy the reputation he did if he were prone to gossip. Arthur couldn’t afford having word of his investigation getting back to Uther.
On the other hand, Gaius’ discretion might make it that much more difficult to get him to open up regarding events and information that Arthur’s father might not want brought to light.
As they continued to make small talk, Arthur cast about for a means to introduce the subject of his mother, and bring Balinor’s accusations to light. In the end, it was Gaius who cut right to the heart of things.
“All right, Arthur. You’ve indulged this old man long enough. I know you didn’t stop by just to make idle chitchat, so shall we dispense with the formalities and discuss what it is that’s troubling you?”
Smiling ruefully, Arthur said, “Sharp as ever, Gaius. My apologies, I did come here for a specific reason, but before I reveal my purpose, I must ask that you keep the details of our conversation private. May I count on your discretion?”
The line of his mouth tensed, but Gaius nodded nonetheless. “Of course, Arthur. As your physician, anything you share in confidence will remain strictly between you and me.”
“Thank you, Gaius. It’s vitally important that what we are about to discuss not make it back to my father’s ears, for both our sakes.”
Now Gaius looked uneasy; however, he nodded once again, confirming that he was still willing to keep Arthur’s secrets, whatever they might turn out to be.
“I know that you’re aware that I was recently taken prisoner and held by the Lugi.” Gaius nodded, so Arthur continued. “While I was there, I stayed with the chieftain's family, a man by the name of Balinor.”
Watching Gaius carefully as he spoke, Arthur saw the slight widening of the faded blue eyes and knew that Gaius recognized the name. In and of itself it wasn’t any kind of confirmation: Balinor was a prominent figure north of the Wall, his name known to many.
“While I was there, I discovered many things about the Painted People in general, and about the Lugi specifically. I also met people who claimed to have known my mother—Balinor and his family among them.”
Still watching closely, it was apparent to Arthur that Gaius was becoming more and more uncomfortable with every word he spoke. His pupils had widened and a line of sweat beaded up along the old man’s forehead. He shifted restlessly in his chair, and his teeth began to worry at his bottom lip.
“Balinor’s wife, Hunith . . . Balinor says you saved her life. Do you know her?”
Gaius nodded cautiously.
“Hunith told me tales about my mother as a young girl, growing up among the Caereni. And Balinor . . . Balinor had a lot to say about my mother. He claimed that she married my father to secure a truce, and that after her death my father turned on her family, her entire clan, and wiped them out.”
Tears began to shimmer in the old man’s eyes, but he remained silent, making no move to validate Balinor’s claims, nor to dismiss them. So Arthur continued.
“He also told a very different story about the way my mother died. Not the actual injury, nor who inflicted it, but rather why the conflict had occurred in the first place. He accused my father of unspeakable acts, Gaius, said he slaughtered the helpless innocents left behind in the Lugi village. He claimed that Uther had stolen his wife and child, as well as the wives and children of many others among his clan.
Breath hitching, tears began to slip down the old man’s cheeks. But still he did not speak, and would not look Arthur in the eye.
“Balinor said Uther intended to sell his family into slavery, and that when he and his warriors attacked our home, it was only to rescue the women and children my father had taken from them. He didn’t deny that my mother was killed in the battle, nor that it was a Lugi arrow that took her life, but he claims it was an accident, an unfortunate by-product of the attack my father had brought on us with his own despicable actions.”
When Gaius continued to maintain his stubborn silence, tears continuing to trail down his face, Arthur rose and crossed the room to kneel on the floor by his feet. Looking up into the old man’s faded blue eyes, Arthur begged him for the truth.
“Balinor told me to ask you, Gaius. He said you were a good man, an honorable man. He said you could be trusted to tell me the truth. Please, Gaius, please tell me. Was Balinor telling the truth?”
“Arthur,” Gaius finally responded. “This was all a very long time ago. Some things are best left in the past. There’s a war coming. You need to concentrate—”
Arthur cut him off, exclaiming, “Gaius, please! I need to know the truth! I already know that my mother was unhappy with her husband. I know he wasn’t always kind to her, and that she feared him. I remember that much.”
He reached up and folded his fingers around Gaius’ hands. “Gaius, I need for you to give me the truth. I have to know. If I am to move on, to make a future for myself here, I have to know.”
Finally Gaius bowed his head, took a deep breath, and said, “It’s true. All of it. Everything that Balinor told you—all of it is the truth.”
It all came spilling out of him then. Yes, Igraine came to Uther as little more than a hostage for her people’s safety. Yes, Uther had raided Balinor’s village, razing it and killing everyone he didn’t take prisoner. Yes, Balinor had come for his wife and child, and Igraine was accidentally killed in the skirmish that ensued because Uther wouldn’t let go of his prizes lightly. Yes, after Igraine died, Uther declared all-out war on her tribe and wiped them out before moving on to Balinor’s. The Lugi, he declared, proved much harder to destroy due to Balinor’s magic. Magic that, strangely enough, seemed only to have increased in power these last few years.
It seems none of them know about Balinor’s son, not even Gaius. Good, that’s good. I don’t want Father to know . . .
Gaius eventually rambled to a halt, bringing his revelations to a conclusion by saying, “Uther has been pinning all his hopes on you to achieve what he could not all these years: the utter destruction of the Lugi.”
“Thank you, Gaius. Thank you so much. I am in your debt.”
“Arthur, please. As you have asked for my discretion, please assure me of your own. Uther can never know that it was I who confirmed the truth of these things for you.”
“You have my word, Gaius. Not a word that was spoken between us tonight will get back to my father.” Arthur grasped the old man by the hand and shoulder, looking into his eyes as he spoke to emphasize the sincerity of his pledge.
Arthur had entered Gaius’ home a confused mess of mixed loyalties and tangled emotion. He left with a clear head and a certain heart. There was no denying the ache of regret that had settled low in his belly, but it was only the regret for what could have been. However, Arthur had never been the type to cry for the moon and this wasn’t the time to start; he had plans to make.
“So that is why I release you from the vows of service you have each made to me,” Arthur said, capping off a long-winded speech detailing his recent discoveries and his current intentions.
There was a moment of considered silence before the men gathered around Arthur in the barracks erupted with curses and shouts of outrage and denial.
Cries of “That’s bullshit!” (from Gwaine) and “No fucking way!” (Bors) along with “Not bloody likely” (Pelleas) and “You’ll release my bloody corpse when I’m dead!” (The last was from Gerraint, still hobbling around after catching an arrow in the leg during the aborted skirmish with the Lugi.) The rest of the men expressed similar sentiments in equally colorful language.
Already standing at his elbow, Leon said quietly but firmly, “I go where you go, Arthur.”
Feeling his throat tighten with emotion, Arthur firmed his jaw and looked at each of his men in turn, seeing nothing but unwavering support and undying loyalty in every pair of eyes. Until he came to the pain-filled hazel eyes of Bedwyr.
He hadn’t forgotten his fallen friend, not even in the turmoil of his own recent discoveries. Every day Arthur felt the ache of his loss like a severed limb. How much worse was it for Bedwyr? Would he hate Arthur for what he was planning to do? How could he not? Bedwyr rose from his place and left the hall. Arthur followed as quickly as he could.
“Bedwyr, Bedwyr I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I can’t . . . I don’t . . .”
“Stop, Arthur. Just don’t . . .” he held up a hand to halt Arthur’s stumbling words.
“I don’t want you to hate me,” Arthur finally managed.
“You think that’s what this is about? You thought I’d hate you for this?” he demanded, sounding incredulous.
“I wouldn’t blame you if you did,” Arthur said softly.
Grabbing Arthur by the shoulder, Bedwyr yanked him close and wrapped both brawny arms around him in a crushing embrace. Burying his face in Arthur’s shoulder, he gave in to a single sob before growling, “I’ve already lost one brother, do you think I could stand to lose the other?”
Relieved, Arthur returned the fierce embrace, but couldn’t help expressing his confusion. “Bedwyr?”
“I don’t blame you for his death. I don’t even blame your Painted People. They were just protecting their homes, their families,” Bedwyr ground out between clenched teeth. “This is all on Uther’s head! Him and all the other power-mongering holdouts from a fallen bloody empire.
“Our life is now. I am with you now and forever, you mad daft bugger.”
Arthur couldn’t help the blush that stained his cheeks at being called “bugger.” If only Bedwyr knew how true it was. For a moment, Arthur was assailed by doubt. Would his friends be so ready to join him if they knew about Merlin? All of his loyal men had indulged in unmarried coitus on more than one occasion. He would just have to hope that when the time came, they would accept his choice of bedmate.
Arthur was unable to stop the hopeful lurch in his stomach as he scanned the faces of the blue-painted warriors, looking for one in particular. He was equally unable to control the stone-like sinking of that selfsame organ when he did not find Merlin among the warriors sent out to meet them. He did however find a stone-faced Balinor in the lead, and Arthur rode forward to meet him after issuing a soft-voiced command for his men to stay behind.
“Why are you here, Pendragon?” Balinor demanded in his own language, nudging his horse forward to meet Arthur’s advance.
“I’ve come to warn you of an attack my father is planning, and to offer my aid if you will accept it,” Arthur said slowly but clearly in the same tongue. His time among the Lugi had done much to sharpen Arthur’s recovery of his mother’s language.
“Why would I trust the word of a Pendragon? The word of a man who slithers from his lover’s bed in the middle of the night, abandoning him to fate?”
A hard flush crawled up Arthur’s neck and suffused his face with color. Squirming uncomfortably under the older man’s piercing gaze, Arthur’s managed a strangled, “He told you?”
Snorting contemptuously, Balinor said, “He didn’t have to. I have eyes.”
There was a long silence between them; Arthur’s voice was soft when he finally responded, his words for Balinor’s ears alone. “I had to return to my father. You must understand, I didn’t want to leave Merlin, but it was my duty to return, to see to the safety of my men. More importantly though, I had to discover the truth of your accusations for myself.”
“And what did you discover, little dragon?” Balinor’s voice was unexpectedly gentle.
“I . . . I discovered that you spoke the truth.”
“You spoke to Gaius?”
“Yes, but I didn’t have to. I, too, have eyes.”
“And what did you see?”
“That my father has clung to the worst of the old imperial practices. That he has . . . that he has wronged your people . . . my mother’s kin past all bearing. That if it weren’t for Merlin, for my time among the People, I would have blindly followed where he led and committed crimes of my own . . . against my own.”
Balinor nodded, then pointedly lifted his chin to stare over Arthur’s shoulder.
“And yet you return here with armed men. What is your purpose in bringing your father’s soldiers right up to the verge of my hearth?”
“I promise you, we come in peace,” Arthur said as he reached down, unbuckled his sword belt, slipped it off, and offered it to Balinor along with the sheathed sword that hung from it. Gesturing behind him, he explained.
“These men are not Uther’s soldiers, but my own shield-brothers. We have all sworn loyalty and allegiance to each other, and they followed me here of their own free will. My cause is their cause, my people theirs.”
Turning back to Arthur, Balinor fixed him with a gimlet stare. “And my people are suddenly your cause? Your kin?”
“They have always been my kin,” Arthur stated quietly, still clutching his sheathed sword. “I just didn’t know it before now.”
“And you expect me to just accept your abrupt shift in loyalties without question? You would suddenly turn your back on all you have known. . . why? Why should I believe you?”
“My father has allied with the Saxone against you. He houses their troops as we speak!”
If Arthur were being completely honest with himself, he had returned for just one reason, Merlin. He couldn’t deny that he longed for Merlin like he’d never yearned for anything in his life. He’d spent only a few weeks with Merlin, had made love to him but once, and yet Arthur couldn’t envision—didn’t want to imagine—a life without Merlin in it. He could only hope that Merlin felt the same, and that all of their seemingly insurmountable obstacles could be overcome.
Arthur raised his eyes to Balinor’s and offered up his truth. “And because your son has opened my eyes, and I can never close them again.”
Balinor studied him for a long, silent moment before lifting his hand and gesturing to the sheathed sword still clutched in Arthur’s outstretched arm.
“I’ll have your weapon and those of your men as well, if you please. Just until I am convinced of your sincerity, and theirs.”
Arthur made to hand over the whole assembly of belt, sheath and sword, but Balinor stopped him with a reluctant smile. “Keep the belt, foolish child. Can’t have you losing your trews the moment you leave the saddle.”
Smiling in relief, Arthur gladly separated belt from sword and buckled the former back in place after handing over the latter. “You can keep that one, I don’t care. I still intend to get my sword back from your son.”
Chuckling, Balinor wished him luck, adding “He won the sword from you in battle; by our law it is his to keep.”
Though Merlin obviously knew Arthur was there, he refused to look at him, fixing his eyes on his father instead. Arthur felt his throat tighten, his heart beating sluggishly, a leaden weight in his chest. It was obvious Merlin was angry with him for leaving the way he had. Not that Arthur could blame him, but he hoped that he could make Merlin understand why he’d done it. Surely the fact that he’d returned with aid for the clan would help to tip the scales in his favor?
Most of the clan seemed reassured when Balinor informed them that Arthur and his men had voluntarily given up their arms, and had also offered to give up their armor. Balinor’s quip that some had even been willing to give up their clothes brought a blush to Arthur’s cheek and got a chuckle from many in the assembled crowd. Glancing at Merlin, Arthur sighed internally when he saw that Merlin was not joining in. He remained by the crannog’s entrance, spine straight, feet planted far apart in a belligerent stance, his hostility underlined by the arms he held crossed in front of his bare chest.
Asked by the elders to relate to them his news of Uther’s intentions, Arthur wrenched his attention away from Merlin, stepped forward, and began to speak. When he was done explaining Uther’s new alliance, outlining his plans, and describing the combined Saxone and Pendragon forces, he looked to where Merlin had been standing only to find the space vacant. A thorough scan of the assembled clansmen failed to yield any sign of him.
Like Balinor, many among the clan questioned Arthur’s motives, and he was forced to explain himself once again. This time however, he left his connection to Merlin out of the discussion, simply explaining the results of his own investigation and his subsequent deception of his father. Then he spoke of his mother, and of how she had instilled in him the love she felt for her people. How she had whispered her mother tongue in her infant son’s ear and told him the stories of her people each night before bed, cautioning him to keep it secret. How it had remained their secret alone until he had been captured into the Lugi village and recognized the stories for what they were: the tales of their common ancestry.
“She died when I was young, and I buried that secret deep within my heart and mind. It wasn’t until Merlin confronted me on the battlefield and spoke to me in that secret language that I began to remember. I began to remember, but it was the time spent among you all that finally allowed me to understand those faint, hazy memories of my mother.”
Eyes glimmering with emotion, he looked around the assembly, meeting the eyes of the silent people watching him. His gaze came to rest on Morgana, and he bit his lip at the sight of the tears shimmering in her eyes.
“My mother never forgot her people, never abandoned the ancient ways she’d been taught. She sacrificed freedom to keep her people safe, but she never gave up who she was at the core. And she wanted me to know her—wanted me to be like her. You have all shown me the path back to her, and to the man I want to be. The man she raised me to be until her life was cut short. And I now know who was truly responsible for that.”
Silence followed in the wake of his words, and Arthur could only hope it was born from a consideration of his words, and an accurate measuring of his sincerity. After allowing the silence to linger for a long, drawn-out moment, Balinor stepped forward and addressed the assembly, disbanding the meeting and asking for certain members of the community to meet with him and Arthur in the morning to discuss battle strategies.
Most of the clan departed quietly; only the elders stayed behind. Balinor took Arthur aside and offered to house half of his company in the crannog, informing him that arrangements had been made for the others to be housed in the homes of three of the clan elders. Bedwyr, Percival, Gwaine and Lancelot stayed with Arthur, and the others left with promises to meet again in the morning.
As Hunith showed his companions around the large dwelling, Arthur slipped away to Merlin’s room. Pushing the wicker partition aside, he was disappointed to find the room empty. He stripped down to the skin, curled up among the rumpled blankets, and anxiously waited for Merlin to return.
Minutes turned into hours, and time seemed to drag as Arthur lay there wrapped in Merlin’s scent. Arthur’s thoughts cycled endlessly in his head: all the reasons he left, how difficult he’d found the parting, all the discoveries he’d made about himself, his past, his feelings for Merlin and his hopes for the future . . . He prayed to whatever gods were listening that Merlin could forgive him for leaving, that he felt something for Arthur in return. Though disheartening, Merlin’s reaction was a tiny bit reassuring in its own way. If Merlin truly felt nothing for Arthur, then he wouldn’t be visibly upset with him . . . right?
Despite his fears and anxiety, the stress and sleeplessness of the past nights crept up on him. As a result, Arthur found himself growing sleepy, and he had begun to doze by the time Merlin finally returned in the darkest hours that immediately precede the dawn.
A rough shake of the shoulder brought Arthur back to awareness. He rolled onto his back and looked up. Blinking blearily, he met Merlin’s flinty stare in the dim light of a single lamp.
“What in the name of the gods do you think you are doing, Pendragon?”
“Sleeping?” he returned muzzily.
“Get the fuck out of my bed! No one invited you to sleep here.”
“When was I ever disinvited?” Arthur replied cheekily. “I always sleep here. You’re the one who made me sleep here.”
“That was when you were a prisoner. Now that you’re a free man you can bloody well go and find your own bed to sleep in.”
“I’m not,” Arthur said quietly.
“What?” Merlin snapped, eyes narrowed in confusion.
“I’m not a free man,” Arthur said. “You never gave me leave to go.”
“And yet you left of your own accord,” Merlin returned, his tone brittle. “I’d say that makes you a free man, Pendragon. Now get out!”
“If I’m free to choose my bed, then I choose this one,” Arthur insisted stubbornly. “I don’t want to go anywhere else. I never wanted to leave it in the first place.”
“What’s the point? Think you can worm your way in the same way you snaked your way out? Haven’t I served my purpose? What other use do you have for me now?”
“Merlin, please! I never meant . . . I wasn’t using you, I swear! What I felt for you, what I feel for you, is real. Our time together . . . it had nothing to do with my leaving. Can’t you understand? I had to go!”
“Yeah, I understand. I understand that you had to play me, had to fuck me to accomplish your escape. Soften me up so that I trusted you, so that I wouldn’t bind you. I understand you, Pendragon,” Merlin spit Arthur’s last name like a curse. “So you can just fuck right off!”
Sitting up, Arthur grabbed for Merlin’s hands. Managing to catch one, he wrapped both hands around it and held it to his heart.
“No, Merlin, please listen to me! I didn’t . . . I was so upset that night . . . what your father said about mine . . . about my mother . . . and you came to me and you were so sweet,” he brought Merlin’s hand up and pressed his lips to Merlin’s skin. “I wanted you from the moment I saw you, but I didn’t think . . . I never hoped that you could want me too. Then you came to me, comforted me . . . offered yourself to me. I’m a strong man Merlin, but I never could have turned away from you. I swear on all that is holy I was not using you. You don’t know what it cost me to leave you here, not knowing if I would ever see you again.”
Looking up, he pleaded with his eyes for Merlin’s understanding. But Merlin’s eyes were as flinty as before.
“After . . . after you went to sleep . . . I lay there, and your father’s words . . . I couldn’t get them out of my head. I had to know the truth! And the only way I could learn that truth was to go back.”
Arthur dropped his eyes and murmured against Merlin’s tightly curled fingers, “Leaving you that night was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Letting Merlin go with a shaky laugh, he added, “So much harder than leaving my father, as it turned out. Balinor was right. My father is a monster.”
He stopped for a moment, shoulders slumping, his eyes burning and his chest aching. Then he whispered his fear aloud, baring his soul for Merlin to see. “But his blood runs through my veins, so what does that make me?”
A callused palm cupped his chin, long fingers curling warmly along his jaw as they tilted Arthur’s face up once more. The flint was gone from Merlin’s eyes, and they were again shining with their usual warmth.
“You are more than a son of your father,” Merlin reminded him. “You are a son of your mother, a son of sacrifice and love. And as each man, a son of the earth and sea and sky. Your father’s actions are not yours. Do not take on a guilt that is not yours to bear.”
“I’m sorry Merlin, truly. I did not lay with you in order to beguile you. I’ve been drawn to you since the very first time I laid eyes on you.” He took Merlin’s hand again as he spoke, but this time felt no resistance from the other man. “And that . . .attraction just kept growing and growing with each day I spent with you.”
Tugging gently on Merlin’s hand, Arthur drew him down beside him on the bed. Merlin didn’t speak but he did allow Arthur to pull him close, allowed himself to be encircled in Arthur’s arms.
“This feeling between us . . . it felt . . . it was pulling me apart while I remained here. I found the longer I stayed, the less I wanted to leave, and yet I had to. Not just for my father, but for my men. I have a duty to them, as much as they to me. They aren’t just soldiers to me, Merlin, they are my friends, my brothers. I had to see them, had to know they were all right . . . and they weren’t.”
Lucan, Arthur thought with a pang. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there for you, my brother.
“I’m sorry, Arthur,” Merlin said quietly, bringing his hands up to cover Arthur’s where they rested against his chest.
“I thought of you though,” Arthur admitted, feeling almost shamed by the scope of his preoccupation. “Even as I mourned my lost brother, I yearned for you. As I investigated your father’s claims, you were there in my mind. Even when I confronted my father, thoughts of you intruded. No matter what I did, I couldn’t stop thinking about you.”
“You know,” Merlin’s voice was soft, and Arthur could hear the lingering traces of pain in it, “I’d never lain with anyone before you.”
Arthur hadn’t known, and he found his arms tightening around Merlin as the impact of that knowledge sank in.
“I had explored a bit, I guess you could call it. But I’d never given myself to anyone before that night, Arthur. Never found anyone I could trust with my heart.”
Merlin turned his head, nestling his cheek against Arthur’s chest, his voice growing softer with each word until he was nearly whispering.
“And I did trust you Arthur, even if you were technically my prisoner. I trusted you. When I woke that morning, and you were gone . . . it hurt. It hurt so badly to realize I’d been mistaken in that trust.”
Holding Merlin close, and burying his face in Merlin’s hair, Arthur said, “You weren’t wrong, Merlin. I’ll prove that to you, I swear on my mother’s spirit. I came back for her . . . for her people, my people . . . but more than anything, I came back for you. Because I couldn’t stay away. Because I didn’t want to. Please believe that.
“I want to, Arthur. I want to believe you more than anything,” Merlin whispered earnestly.
“But you don’t,” Arthur said. It wasn’t a question; he could feel the tension in Merlin’s body.
“Not yet, no,” Merlin acknowledged. “I think . . . If you are sincere, Arthur, I think with time I will. Give me that time; prove to me it wasn’t a lie.”
“I’ll prove it, Merlin. I promise,” Arthur whispered into his hair.
“Then you can stay,” Merlin declared. Then he added, “But just to sleep.”
That was more than enough for Arthur. He let Merlin go long enough for him to strip off his boots and hide braccae and lie down beside him, then he curled along Merlin’s back and wrapped him up in his arms again. He made a silent vow before he drifted off to sleep again; he would prove himself to Merlin in the days to come. He would win Merlin’s forgiveness and earn back his trust, no matter the cost.
Spread out before them in parchment and ink, the situation looked bleak. Even had they just been facing Uther’s troops, they would still be outnumbered. However, with the Saxone alliance, the odds they were facing were almost ludicrous. Arthur was gravely worried, and growing more concerned by the moment, but Balinor seemed strangely confident.
When Arthur voiced his doubts, Balinor told him the enemy might have numbers, but the People had Merlin. Arthur made to acknowledge that Merlin’s magic could be effective but was no surety when Balinor quietly cut him off by saying, “That was before. Now Merlin has properly come of age.” He paused to eye Arthur significantly. “His magic, fully manifested, is exponentially more powerful than it was before. If he wanted to, he could wipe out both Uther’s troops and the Saxone in a matter of moments.”
Merlin winced, then lifted pained eyes to meet Arthur’s gaze. It was clear to Arthur that Merlin had no wish to be the engineer of such a slaughter. He met Merlin’s pleading gaze steadily before inclining his head ever so slightly in a subtle gesture of agreement. Having seen what killing on a large scale could do to a man’s spirit, Arthur had no wish for Merlin to become tainted by that either. Besides, his father and other men Arthur cared about would be marching among their opponents. Arthur might be appalled by his father’s actions, but Uther was still his father. There had to be another way . . .
Into that silence, Merlin voiced tentatively, “I think I have an idea.” As one, the assembly turned toward Merlin and listened.
That night as they lay curled together in Merlin’s bed, Arthur asked why Balinor had eyed him so intently when he spoke of Merlin’s “coming of age.” To his surprise, even in the dim light of their small lamp he could discern a blush staining Merlin’s cheeks.
“A young boy might complete the rites of age in the tradition of the People and be counted a man of the clan. But for one’s magic to fully manifest, there is another rite to complete, one that is far older and much more basic to our nature. Among the Druids, an initiate must complete a sexual union in order to truly be counted a man. Only then can he fulfill his potential and inherit his true measure of power.”
“Oh! So the night we . . . uh . . .” Arthur trailed off, the guilt he still felt over leaving Merlin the way he had deepening further when he realized the true significance of their union that night. That Merlin had chosen him for such an important role, only for Arthur to immediately abandon him afterwards. No wonder Merlin had been so hurt, so angry with him.
Arthur pressed a kiss to the back of Merlin’s neck and counted it a near-miracle that Merlin had given him any measure of forgiveness for his actions that night.
“Sex magic,” Merlin said softly, “is the oldest of all the rites, older even than blood magic, and extremely powerful. The morning you left, I woke to find my world irrevocably changed. I’ve always known that someday I would command a mighty power, but to be honest, I was not prepared for just how mighty.”
“So you really could wipe out my father and his Saxone horde single-handedly?”
“I’m not entirely sure. It’s not like I’m out killing people just to see the limits of my power. But I think . . . I think I could,” he said, his fingers tightening around Arthur’s hand where it rested on his belly.
“It scares me, Arthur,” Merlin admitted. “It scares me to know that I have the power, the potential to do great evil. What if I can’t control it? What if I lose myself to the power inside me? I could become a scourge upon the earth, a greater monster than your father could ever aspire to be.”
Nuzzling Merlin’s neck, Arthur was adamant in his reassurance. “You won’t, Merlin. You won’t ever use your power for dark purposes. Your heart is too pure, too good to allow that to happen.”
“How do you know that?” Merlin whispered shakily. “How can you know that when I can’t be sure of that myself?”
“Because I’ve seen the way you treat your enemies. The way you treated me, the son of your greatest enemy. There isn’t even a hint of darkness in you, Merlin. I wish I could say the same for myself.”
“You have good in you, too, Arthur. You said that you were afraid the blood in your veins, your father’s blood, made you a monster. It doesn’t. But like it or not, he is a part of you, and you need to learn to love that part of you as much as the rest. There is no evil in you, so there must be something good in him. Find it and embrace it, reach out for the good in him and you will find it in yourself.
“You know,” he continued, “I was drawn to you, too. As you said, from the moment I laid eyes on you. I couldn’t bring myself to kill you, though logic told me I should. That I should eliminate the next Pendragon lest he finish his father’s work and wipe the People from the face of the earth. I knew that I should do it. I raised my bow with the intent to kill you, Arthur.”
“But you didn’t,” Arthur reminded him. “Don’t you see? The mercy you showed me only proves your heart. You had no reason to spare me and every reason to kill me, but you didn’t.”
Merlin sighed and nestled further into the cradle of Arthur’s arms. “After you left me, I wished that I had.”
“Yes, well . . . I think such thoughts were justified in the circumstances.”
“It’s why I didn’t ride out with my father to meet you,” Merlin said, his words beginning to soften and slur as he began to fall asleep. “Didn’t trust myself . . . didn’t trust the magic . . .”
His words trailed off, and soon all Arthur could hear from Merlin was the soft, steady breath of sleep. Curling even tighter around him, Arthur buried his face in the midnight waves of Merlin’s hair and allowed himself to drift away as well.
Bedwyr was the most reserved of Arthur’s men, but, as promised, he showed no hostility toward their hosts. He, Gwaine and Percival seemed to take an immediate liking to Guin's brother. In turn, Elyan took the three imperial strangers under his wing—despite being a few years younger than both Bedwyr and Gwaine—and proved instrumental in easing all the men into the rhythm of life among the Lugi.
Eventually, after several days, their weapons were returned to them. Although Merlin still refused to return Arthur’s original sword to him, he did allow Arthur to reclaim the newer one he’d brought when he’d returned.
When he wasn’t drilling his men, Arthur spent the rest of his days with Balinor and Merlin making preparations for the coming confrontation. He spent his evenings by the fire, arms around Merlin for all to see, and slept the nights in Merlin’s bed. The men teased him for his attachment to the young Druid–Gwaine was particularly obnoxious about it—but to Arthur’s great relief none of them condemned the union.
“You can’t choose who you love,” Leon said to him when Arthur had confided his worries to his second-in-command one morning after drills. “We all know that, Arthur. If this is where your heart lies, there’s not a man among us who would oppose your happiness.”
“Even Bors?” Arthur had noticed the big man had been particularly quiet in the face of the other’s teasing, and had been eyeing Arthur rather strangely since it became obvious that he and Merlin were a couple.
“I think Bors is having some difficulty. We . . . none of us ever thought you had any interest in men, and I think he’s having to adjust his own expectations.”
Leon’s attempts at discretion were only baffling Arthur further. “What do you mean? What expectations?”
Sighing audibly, Leon stared at the ground for a long moment before speaking. “I’d ask you to keep my speculations to yourself Arthur. I’d never want to hurt him, and if what I’m about to say were to get back to him, he’d be humiliated.”
Still confused, Arthur nonetheless promised his discretion. He’d never deliberately humiliate any of the men.
“I think that Bors has feelings for you that go beyond the brotherly, and I think he’s never acted upon them because he assumed you couldn’t return such an attraction. I think now, finding out that you possibly could have . . . Well, I think he’s experiencing a great deal of regret over not acting when he had a chance.”
To say Arthur was surprised by this revelation would have been an understatement. In truth he was completely taken aback. He’d had no idea that Bors was attracted to him. None at all.
“Well, he certainly kept it well hidden! How on earth did you come by this knowledge?”
“We’ve been spending quite a lot of time together lately, Bors and I,” Leon explained. Arthur was amazed to see a blush creeping up the tall man’s neck. It was a long, quiet moment before Leon squared his shoulders and looked Arthur in the eye.
“I mean to see if I can’t open his eyes to . . . other possibilities,” he said, a look of hope and determination firming his features.
Arthur couldn’t help the wry smile that curved his lips at such a look on Leon’s face. He didn’t think Bors would be nursing his disappointment over Arthur for very long.
A few days later, Morgana presented herself in Balinor’s crannog and announced that she’d Seen the attack of Uther and could describe the day he would make his move. Based on her description of the shape of the moon in the night sky as Uther’s men gathered into formations in the pre-dawn, they were able to ascertain that they had two more days to make all the preparations they needed to carry out Merlin’s plan.
The night before they were to confront Uther, Merlin once again welcomed Arthur into his body as well as his bed. As they lay sated in each other’s arms, Merlin whispered to him softly, telling Arthur that he’d been in Merlin’s heart almost from the moment of their meeting. That he loved and trusted him with all his heart. Arthur clung to him, pledging Merlin his head and his heart, his life and his soul. He promised that he would never betray the trust that Merlin was gifting him.
When the sun began to lighten the sky, Merlin rose from their bed saying he would swiftly return. When he did, he held a scabbarded sword in one hand and a white-hilted dagger in the other. The sword, notably, was not Arthur’s own. He rolled up to sit at the edge of the bed as Merlin knelt on the floor beside him.
“It’s called ‘Caledfwlch,’ or Caliburnus in the imperial tongue,” he said, presenting Arthur with the sword. Then he also bestowed upon Arthur the finely crafted, ivory hilted dagger.
“In darkness, the sword will light your way while blinding your enemies,” Merlin claimed. “And if for some reason, you should find yourself in need of camouflage, this dagger, unsheathed, will shroud you in shadow.”
Merlin leaned up, framed Arthur’s face with his hands, and kissed him softly. Drawing back, his eyes shimmering with golden sparkles, he explained the origins of both weapons.
“The sword was a gift from my grandmother, who was from the isle of Avalon. It’s power in battle is unmatched by anything made by human hands. The scabbard has wondrous healing properties. When in contact with a man’s skin, he will not bleed no matter how grievously he is wounded.” He ran a hand over the hilt of the dagger and said, “With Tom’s guidance, I forged this dagger myself and imbued it with my magic. Should our plan fail, and battle come to us this day, both weapons will serve you well.”
“What about you?” Arthur protested. “I cannot take the sword your grandmother meant for your protection!”
Merlin smiled and reached a hand beneath the thick straw bedding on which they’d both been sleeping. He drew out Arthur’s own sword and said, “I will have your protection to shield me should this day come to disaster.”
Unlike Uther’s mix of infantry and cavalry troops, every one of the defenders was well mounted on a sturdy horse with steady nerves. They spread out on a slight rise where Arthur could make out the distinctive plumes of his father’s helmet crowning a figure riding at the front and center of the advancing troops. When the invaders paused at the edge of the open field, the Lugi and their allies stood patiently and waited for Uther to make a move. He didn’t make them wait very long.
Arthur had hoped his father would make overtures for negotiation, or at least give the appearance of such civility, but he was ultimately disappointed when scarcely fifteen minutes passed before Uther’s mounted troops began a charge across the open ground toward Balinor’s assembled warriors. They stood their ground in the face of the thundering hooves of the approaching horses and the wild shouts of their heavily armed riders.
It was only when the charging soldiers were within a bowshot of their front line that they reacted, heels digging into the sides of their mounts to ride forward and engage the enemy. The clash lasted only as long as it took for the Lugi to make a single pass of Uther’s line of cavalry. Crashing through the line of mounted men, a mix of old-guard imperial troops and rough-and-tumble Saxone warriors, the painted warriors split down the middle, half veering off to the right, the other half to the left. They rode around the outside flanks of Uther’s cavalry, turning in a wide arc to head back up the hill where they had stood and waited for their attackers.
Cresting the hill, they headed off in opposite directions. Arthur led his men alongside Merlin and his cadre of warriors as they fled west into lightly wooded rolling hills. Balinor and his men rode straight ahead, fleeing forward into the ever steepening hill country of the north.
Uther chose not to split his forces, sending all of them west after Arthur’s half of the retreating Lugi fighters. With Merlin in the lead, familiar with the terrain in a way Uther’s men could never be, they soon outran their pursuers and paused by the side of a slow-moving stream to rest and water their horses.
Swinging down from Serengwyn’s back, Merlin grinned at Arthur as he walked Llamrei to the water’s edge.
“You are looking entirely too cocky, love,” Arthur scolded, fighting off a smile of his own. “We’ve outrun them for now, but they’ll soon catch us up.”
“I certainly hope so,” Merlin said, dropping Serengwyn’s reins, allowing her to drink her fill. “Otherwise we’ll have to go back and collect them.”
Arthur merely shook his head at Merlin’s enthusiasm, running a grateful hand gently over Llamrei’s back. She continued to drink, but her ears flickered as he murmured his thanks for her loyal performance that day.
“My father can be counted on to press his advantage against what he will see as weakness: our cowardice in running.”
Coming up to Arthur’s side, Merlin simply nodded and pressed a swift kiss to Arthur’s mouth. Then he offered bread and dried meat, saying, “Eat while you can.” He sank to the ground at Arthur’s feet, clearly waiting for Arthur to join him. They ate in silence as the horses grazed in the long grass near the water’s edge. All around them, Arthur’s men and Merlin’s warriors were doing the same, grateful for the temporary respite.
They didn’t linger long over the food, eating with purpose and rising to mount up no more than twenty minutes after they’d arrived. They easily crossed the gentle stream and walked their mounts in a westerly direction until they began to make out the distant thunder of the enemy’s approach.
Merlin aimed a cheeky smile in Arthur’s direction, saying, “Here we go again!” before digging his heels into Serengwyn’s sides. They urged their horses into a swift trot and headed deeper into the hills, their path now swerving slightly to the north as they moved forward.
They did this again and again throughout the remainder of the day. Speeding up to lose their pursuers only to slow or stop, resting their mounts before Uther’s forces caught up with them once more. When the shadows between the trees began to lengthen and cluster, and the sun began to sink toward the horizon, Merlin fell back from point and brought his mount up beside Arthur.
“How much longer do you think they will pursue us? Will they stop to rest and make camp? Or do you think they will dog us through the night?”
“Much as it will kill Uther to call off the chase, he knows better than to ride across an unfamiliar landscape in the dark. He won’t want to, but as soon as the light is gone, he will call a halt to his advance and wait for the rising of the sun before continuing the hunt.”
Just to be on the safe side, they continued to pick their way through the woods for another hour after sunset. Merlin and Morgana both summoned lights to illuminate the path, but it was still much slower going than it had been by the sun’s light. Arthur knew there was no way his father would continue on in the thickening gloom with nothing more than torches to light his way.
Eventually Merlin called for their own men to stop and make camp. He laid his bedroll beside Arthur’s, and once again they shared a bland meal of bread and dried meat. However this time Merlin managed to brew a comforting, hot infusion of restorative herbs to consume alongside the unappealing fare. As they sat by a small fire, Merlin leaned into Arthur’s side, resting his head on Arthur’s shoulder.
“Morgana said she will scry for us after supper, so that we might have some clue what Uther is planning for the morning.”
Arthur nodded, and his mouth tightened slightly as he reflected on his cousin’s relentlessly stubborn refusal to speak to him directly.
“Do you think she’ll ever warm up to the connection we share?” he asked quietly.
“I’d like to say yes, Arthur, but . . . well, Morgana is a law unto herself. It’s very difficult to predict what she will do in any given situation.”
Arthur had already figured that much for himself so he said nothing in return, simply tilted his head sideways to rest his cheek against the top of Merlin’s head. However, only a few minutes passed before Morgana appeared before them, asking Merlin to accompany her. When Arthur began to rise, meaning to join them, she hissed, “I asked for Merlin, not his pet Pendragon.” So Arthur settled down again and prepared himself to wait for Merlin’s return.
“Uther’s allies are uneasy with the current situation. They are unnerved to be so deep inside enemy territory. Uther dismissed their concerns as cowardly and has refused to retreat,” Merlin reported, popping up behind Arthur like a specter materializing from thin air. It took all of Arthur’s hard won control not to yelp and flinch in his surprise. Ignoring his reaction, Merlin continued. “Many of his Saxone allies plan to slip away under cover of darkness. Uther will wake to find at least a third of his army has deserted him in the night.”
“Well, they’ll still outnumber us, but that does make things at least a bit easier,” Arthur said, reaching up to pull Merlin down beside him. Settling into their combined bedding, Arthur held Merlin close and drifted off to sleep with a prayer on his lips for whatever deity might be listening.
Please don’t let Father catch us. Please give us the time we need lest blood be needlessly shed tomorrow. Please . . .”
The following morning when they left camp, their own numbers had purposely dwindled and continued to do so throughout the long day as they repeated the pattern of retreat-regroup-retreat late into the night. For this time when darkness fell, Uther continued his pursuit for a long while after, harrying their tattered and tired group of warriors until they were ready to drop from exhaustion.
When the sun rose the next day, Merlin and Arthur found themselves hard up against a rain swollen, fast-flowing river. Thinking they’d won, Uther’s men fanned out in a semicircle around Arthur’s trapped men, and Uther approached under a sign of truce. While their men stayed close the river’s edge, Merlin and Arthur rode forward to meet him together.
“You’re beaten Arthur, it’s time for you to stop running and face the consequences of your insane actions these many days past. Lay down your weapons, and I will graciously allow you and your men to live.”
“And what about the Lugi? Will you let them live as well?
“Son, I know these painted wretches of old. Their leader is a sorcerer, enacting foul rites to call on the powers of darkness. I swear to you Arthur, whatever witchcraft he has used to turn you against me will come to an end when he comes to his. Come away now and do not deepen your shame further by continuing to stand with vermin.”
“So you offer only death to my mother’s people?"
“These are not your mother’s people.”
“The few that survived your slaughter are here among the Raven. My blood and my kin that you tried to wipe from the face of the world.”
“Is that what they told you? And you’d believe the word of barbarian scum over that of your own father?”
“No, Father. I believe my own eyes. You kept records, Father, just like any good citizen of the Empire would. You kept track of the human “stock” you treated and traded like cattle.”
“Come now, Arthur, that’s the way of the world. To the victor go the spoils.”
Outraged, Arthur exclaimed, “They aren’t spoils, they’re human beings!”
“They’re barbarian wretches who can only benefit from a civilizing influence,” Uther stated, and Arthur could see he meant every word. He truly believed men were better off as slaves to the Empire than as free men of the earth. Arthur shook his head, but Uther was still talking.
“Come away now, Arthur, and in time I will forgive you for this betrayal. But if you choose not to, if you continue to stand with the heathen horde, then I will have no choice but to annihilate you along with them. This is your last chance Arthur; surrender or taste my wrath.”
That’s when Merlin stepped forward and spoke in the imperial tongue, and though his accent was heavy, his words were clear. “I don’t think so, Pendragon. It is not we who stand surrounded, it is you.”
Uther twisted to look around just in time to see hundreds upon hundreds of Lugi warriors rising up on the hills behind him. His jaw dropped and his eyes widened as he stared wildly all around. Approaching in an ever tightening semicircle around Uther’s shrunken force were more Painted warriors than had ever before assembled in one place. With a snarl of rage Uther whipped back around, but Merlin and Arthur had already slipped away while his attention was diverted.
Arthur ran as fast as his legs would carry him, the sound of his passage muffled by Merlin’s silencing spell. When they reached the riverbank he was relieved to see that most of their group had already piled into the small, shallow boats that had lain concealed in the shrubby undergrowth by the river’s edge. Coracles, that’s what Merlin had called the tiny, round boats the People used to roam the inland waterways that crisscrossed their territory.
Leon, Bedwyr, Gwaine, Lancelot, Elyan and—to Arthur’s shock—Morgana had waited for them, but as soon as they saw Arthur and Merlin, they too pushed their boats into the water and began to paddle away. There were three of the small boats left behind but they only needed one. Arthur grabbed one and quickly dragged it into the water while Merlin disabled the other two, setting them ablaze with a muttered word and a flash of gold across his irises.
An arrow thudded into the ground inches from Arthur’s foot, and he whipped around to see a wall of angry soldiers bearing down on them. It seemed Uther wasn’t about to go down without taking a few of his enemies with him.
“Hurry up Merlin or I’ll leave you for my father!” Arthur shouted impatiently from the water’s edge as another half-dozen arrows slammed into the earth to either side of him. They both knew it was an idle threat; Arthur would never leave Merlin to Uther’s non-existent mercies.
“Just wait, you prat, I’m coming,” Merlin returned with a grumpy scowl as he scampered the last few steps to Arthur’s side. He hopped inside the coracle, scooping up a paddle as he left it to Arthur to launch the little boat into the fast moving river. An arrow embedded itself in the side of the boat even as they paddled out into the current.
Merlin flashed a saucy smile his way, and Arthur couldn’t help returning it this time. “That was cutting it a bit too fine, Merlin.”
“All part of my plan, love,” Merlin replied. “Now grab that paddle and help me steer this thing, Pendragon,” he added as the boat was caught and carried forward by a strong current. Arthur grinned and began to paddle as Merlin called out directions for him to follow.
He couldn’t help a shout of elation as they were swiftly carried out of the range of Uther’s bowmen. So far, everything was going to plan. As long as Merlin could keep up the illusion of an overwhelming force of Lugi warriors around Uther’s army, he was almost certain they would carry the day.
Almost as soon as they had paddled into the river’s main current, it was time for them to fight their way back out of it. A much more daunting task and one that required Arthur to pay close attention to Merlin’s shouted instructions. Between Arthur’s muscle power and Merlin’s finesse, they were soon drawing up to the bank again, a few miles downriver from where they’d started. The rest of the men had already arrived, and Arthur breathed a sigh of relief to see that Balinor was waiting there among them.
Now came the really hard part of Merlin’s plan. Somehow they had to persuade Uther to surrender to them.
“Do you think they will . . . I mean, do you think the horses will be all right?”
Arthur nodded as he answered, “They’ll be fine, Merlin.” His father wouldn’t spend his wrath on helpless animals no matter how great his rage. Uther treated his horses with great care and affection, and Arthur couldn’t see him being so petty as to savage the horses just because their owners had eluded his grasp.
As the clan’s chief, Balinor led while Merlin and Arthur followed, holding their horses a few paces back and flanking him on either side by unspoken agreement. They rode through the ranks of the Lugi warriors, both real and illusory, until they came to the front line where they could see Uther mustering his men for a charge: a hopeless charge.
Arthur could sense the men’s reluctance in their dispirited posture and slow response to orders. He could hear the desperation in Uther’s shouted commands, and if he could hear it, so could his father’s men. They knew they were facing the same annihilation they’d thought to visit upon their enemies. They expected no quarter for they’d have given none. However they were about to learn, as Arthur had already done, that the Lugi conducted war very differently than they did.
The painted warriors made way for their leader to pass, and Balinor continued forward after coming through the front line. He made straight for Uther, who was situated at the center of his own front line, coming to a halt only a few horse lengths away.
“Uther Pendragon!” he cried out in a commanding voice. “If you be a man, on your honour lower your sword and ride forth, for I would treat with you this day!”
Hiding a smile at Balinor’s provocative speech, Arthur kept his eyes on Uther and could almost see his father’s hackles rising. There was no way he would refuse the meeting after having it couched in terms that put his manhood and personal honour on the line. Indeed, Uther was already sheathing his sword and urging his horse forward with Gwrlais, his second-in-command, close behind.
Drawing up before them, Uther sneered at Balinor, “What have you to say, Crow Lord?”
“I’ve come to offer you a choice. Surrender, lay down your weapons, and swear never to attack the People again, and I shall allow you and your men to walk away from this place with your lives. Or fight, and to a man we will slaughter you like cattle.”
“That’s it? You’ll just let us leave?” Uther scoffed, his disbelief clear to see.
“I would also have your word that you will render to us a quarter of your harvest and a tenth of your livestock at Lughnasadh. A small enough price I think, in exchange for your life and the lives of your men.”
The struggle was clear on Uther’s face. His lip curled up on one side, down on the other, and a cheek muscle twitched as a vein stood up from the skin, pulsing above his left eye. Arthur knew that while the terms of surrender were mild by the standards of the Lugi, Uther would balk at paying any sort of tribute to a people he saw as little better than vermin. Arthur watched Uther’s cold grey eyes as they scanned the numbers surrounding him, desperately calculating the odds one last time, and saw the moment that his father gave in to the inevitable. Much as the thought of surrendering might gall, Uther wasn’t such a fool as to think he actually had a choice.
Teeth clenched, Uther ground out, “You have my word. We will lay down our weapons and come again no more.”
“And the render?” Balinor pressed.
“Send your men at the appointed time and I shall deliver what you’ve demanded,” Uther conceded, shoulders finally slumping in defeat. He unsheathed his sword and offered it hilt-first to Balinor, who accepted it with a simple nod. It seemed it wasn’t in his nature to crow, despite Uther’s sneering epithet “Crow Lord.”
Balinor then turned to Merlin, directing him to see to the disarmament of Uther’s men. When Balinor turned back to him Uther offered his dagger, but the Lugi cheiftan held up his hand in refusal.
“Keep it,” he said. “I wouldn’t send you forth without any means to protect yourself.”
Uther nodded shortly and turned away, clearly intent on rejoining his men. He hadn’t looked at Arthur even once during the entire exchange. It was if he’d become invisible to Uther’s eyes. Unwilling to part from his father without a single word passing between them, Arthur urged his horse to follow and caught up to Uther before he made it back to his men.
“Father, please. I would speak with you before you depart.”
Uther stopped, and though he didn’t turn, Arthur could see his back stiffen.
“To say what?” Short words sharply bitten off, his father’s tone was hard as iron.
Being so close to him, Arthur realized that no matter what he’d done, Uther was still his father and Arthur still loved him. “I want to explain,” he implored. “I need you to understand why I did what I did.”
At that Uther did turn, fury blazing in his eyes. “There is nothing you could say that would justify such an utter and complete betrayal!” he spat.
“You’re wrong, Father. About so many things. And I can’t even begin to fathom how you see the world. You call these people vermin, yet these are my mother’s people and you claim to have loved her. How can you so despise them when she was one of them? How can you claim to love me when I share their blood? They are as much my family as you are, and I couldn’t just stand aside and watch you slaughter what’s left of my kin!”
Pleading with his eyes as well as his words, Arthur searched his father’s face for any trace of understanding and found there only conflict. Uther’s face was still and stoic and he uttered not a word, yet Arthur could see his eyes were troubled.
“Father, please. I don’t want to be your enemy.”
Mouth pursed, Uther seemed to struggle for a moment. Then, barely louder than a whisper, he said, “But...they killed her.”
Stomach churning, Arthur reminded him, “That was as much your doing as theirs, and you know it. You stole their wives, you took their children. What man alive would not come seeking to win them back?”
Uther didn’t answer, perhaps couldn’t answer that. Thirteen years had passed, but still the grief and rage remained, as strong as ever. Fueled, Arthur suspected, by the guilt his father seemed unable to acknowledge.
“Please, Father, at least say you understand why I’m doing this, even if you don’t agree with it.”
But his father remained silent, staring away from Arthur now, eyes focused on the disarmament of his troops. Arthur slumped in his saddle, hope bleeding away. It looked as if his father might be lost to him forever. Then, straightening his spine and sitting tall in the saddle, Arthur offered one last olive branch.
“I hope that time will soften your heart toward me, Father. I cannot see the world as you do, but I love you, and I would not lose you forever.”
As he spoke, Uther turned back to look at him, and in his eyes Arthur saw a conflict raging. His mouth moved as if to form words, yet he did not voice them, only snapped his jaw shut and stared at Arthur with what looked like a mix of longing, regret, pride, and anger. He left without another word, but Arthur still felt his heart lift with that one look.
With Merlin at his side, Arthur watched his father and his men depart, and found he was content with the outcome of their endeavor. Uther remained conflicted, and that meant there was still hope. Hope for the future, and perhaps even a reconciliation one day. For now, it was enough for Arthur.
He turned to look at Merlin as they headed for home. His eyes trailed over the sinuous lines of ink that curved around the taut muscles of Merlin’s chest and swirled across the tightness of his flat belly. The dark lines seemed almost to caress Merlin’s pale skin...seemed to be inviting Arthur to do the same. The heat of desire quickly rising within him, he lifted his eyes to Merlin’s.
As his gaze caught on the warm eyes of his lover, the low thrum of lust tingling up his spine, he saw a smile playing at the corner of Merlin's lips.
“What?” Arthur asked.
“I was just thinking,” Merlin said, his voice warm and low, “I was wrong before, what I said about your eyes. Your gaze is nothing like your father's.”
~ the End.