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Ashes to the Wind

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Arthur’s first hunt of the season had been a successful one, likely because Merlin had declined to accompany him. After two days away, he returns to Camelot with a pair of harts and a dozen rabbits. His hunting dogs trot along after him as he weaves through the lower town, the narrow streets made crowded by children running out to shout their greetings at the crown prince and his knights. Arthur shares a grin with Sir Leon, who rides at his side.

He is glad to be home, to return to the comforts of his bed and steaming baths. He has missed Merlin’s mindless chatter, too, more than he will ever admit. There had been times when he turned in his saddle to share a joke with Merlin, only to find Leon instead. Not that there’s anything wrong with Leon. He gets on with the knight well enough. Leon’s only fault is that he isn’t Merlin. The hunt would have been more entertaining, albeit less successful, with Merlin around to bear his taunts and crash through the undergrowth in hopes of scaring away all the game before they are felled by Arthur’s bolts.

Arthur dismounts from his horse and hands the reins to the stable boy. He glances around in search of his manservant. Usually Merlin is there to tend to him, especially after they have spent time apart. But this time, Merlin is nowhere in sight. Arthur’s mood dampens a little. He feels foolish now, eager to see someone who couldn’t even be arsed to greet him.

*

“Merlin!” he yells, barging into Gaius’s chambers. “Where is that useless—” The words fall short on his tongue.

Gwen and Gaius are sitting on the cot that is normally reserved for patients. Gwen has her face buried in Gaius’s shoulder, both arms thrown around his midsection. Gaius pets her hair, comforting, but doesn’t seem to be faring much better himself. He has appeared to age years since Arthur last saw him two days ago, his cheeks sunken and sagging.

He points between Gwen and Gaius, brows furrowed. “Er. Is there something going on between you two that I don’t know about? Nevermind, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.” He looks around. “Where’s Merlin?”

At his question, Gwen bursts out a dry sob.

“What? What has that idiot done now?” Arthur demands. “Where is he? Is he hurt?”

Gaius looks at Gwen, and then turns to him. “Sire, your father found Merlin guilty of practising sorcery… Merlin is to be burned at the pyre at first light.”

*

At first he had been angry and betrayed, to learn that the man he considered to be his best friend was a sorcerer, and had failed to share this with him. He had kept nothing of himself from Merlin. To know his trust had been one-sided felt like a blow to the gut.

With Merlin hours away from being executed, there’s no room for anger now. Arthur feels sick thinking about it. All his life he has been taught to believe magic and those who practise it are evil. But he cannot imagine magic being dangerous when gathered in Merlin’s hands. Merlin, who cried when Arthur killed a unicorn; who collects flowers in his satchel and blushes hotly when Arthur makes fun of him for it, insisting they’re herbs. He is sure the only crime Merlin has committed is making him look like a fool in their betting games; Merlin must have used magic then, for no man could be so lucky. But that does not deserve death.

Uther has barred Merlin from receiving any visitors, so Arthur bursts into the throne room instead. “Father, I need to talk to you.”

Uther glances up from the parchment he was assessing. He rolls it up and hands it to his advisor. “We will discuss this later. Leave us.”

The advisor bows and makes his exit.

“You had Merlin thrown in the dungeons.”

“I did,” Uther says. “He is a sorcerer.”

“Father, that is ridiculous. Merlin is no sorcerer. He has been my manservant for years. I think I would know if he had magic.”

“That is what I find hard to believe, Arthur. Either, you have been careless, or you have knowingly harboured a sorcerer.”

For a split second, Arthur is shocked speechless by the accusation. He regains himself quickly. “You would call me a traitor? I have never been anything but loyal to you and Camelot.”

“Then you will agree with me that Merlin must be put to death.”

“On whose word did you arrest him?” Arthur demands.

“I saw him use magic with my own eyes, Arthur. He lay on your bed, reading, while your armour polished itself!” Uther roars.

Arthur snaps his jaw shut. Ever since magic manifested in Morgana and she turned against them, his father’s hatred of magic had turned manic; seemed less about protecting Camelot and more about exacting revenge. In the past six months, there had been more executions than the past three years. Uther was no longer content to leave the druids in peace, and talks have begun to systematically eradicate their camps and their peoples, down to the very last newborn. Arthur refused to take part in these discussions, making excuses to train or go on patrols. His gut still churned with guilt and revulsion from the sins he had committed years ago.

Perhaps, if Arthur had never met Merlin, he would be the same boy who had been desperate to please his father and would go wherever his father pointed him. But he is that boy no longer, and he knows he will not be able to live with himself if he stands by and watches as Merlin burns.

*

Arthur storms down to the lower levels of the castle where the dungeons are. Servants give him a wide berth. A pair of guards are stationed at the entrance to the dungeons and they straighten to attention as he nears.

“Sire,” one says, stepping forward with both palms open. “The King has forbidden—”

“I do not give a bloody damn what the king has allowed,” Arthur growls, shouldering the man aside. He throws the door open with a resounding bang and stomps down the stairs.

Merlin is sitting on the ground with his knees pulled to his chest and his arms wrapped around himself. He turns his head in the direction of the commotion. The baleful look on his face transforms into a lopsided grin when he sees that it’s Arthur. He jumps to his feet, hands wrapping around the bars.

“Hello, Arthur,” Merlin greets.

“You absolute idiot!” Arthur roars. Merlin recoils. “Don’t you ‘hello, Arthur’ me. I leave you alone for one day and you get yourself into a world of trouble!”

“Well, I’m glad to see you too,” Merlin says, a little miffed.

Arthur is relieved, too. He had considered extending his trip to pass through some outlying villages, but had eventually decided against it. It scares him to think if he had, he would have returned home to find Merlin gone. “What my father said, about you being a sorcerer, is it true?” he asks.

Merlin swallows, Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat. “Yes.”

Arthur groans, barely keeping himself from banging his head on the bars. “I have no idea why the gods saw it fit you make you a sorcerer of all people. You have no discretion and you can’t keep a secret to save your life. You are truly the stupidest man I have ever met, using magic in Camelot—in the castle, no less.” He pinches his nose between his forefinger and thumb, heaving a sigh.

“I am to be executed tomorrow morning. It wouldn’t kill you to be nice to me for once, would it?” Merlin says.

“Don’t,” Arthur says sharply.

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t say that you’re going to be executed,” Arthur says. Merlin doesn’t have a single self-preserving bone in his body, following Arthur and the knights into battle without any sort of protection like a duckling; always willing to lay down his life for his prince. He hates how casually Merlin refers to his impending execution, as though his life is of no consequence.

“Well, I am,” Merlin points out.

“Why didn’t you tell me you had magic?”

“I was trying to avoid something like this,” Merlin says, waving a hand around his cell.

“If you had told me, I could have…” I could have better protected you, he wants to say, but the words stick in his throat.

Merlin shakes his head. “I didn’t want to put you in a position where you had to choose between your loyalty to Camelot and your loyalty to your manservant.”

Merlin says ‘manservant’ as though that is all he is to Arthur. As though he is not also a friend and a confidant. He realises then, with a sinking heart, that Merlin believes the choice would not be much of choice at all. “You think I would have you killed,” Arthur says quietly, hurt.

“I would not blame you for it,” Merlin assures him earnestly, like Arthur is the one who needs comforting. “I could not ask you to defy everything Camelot stands for just for me.”

Arthur feels his throat go tight. Merlin would never ask, he knows. Would never be so selfish. Stupid man. Stupid, stupid man.

Arthur wants to kiss him right on his stupid face.

Merlin cocks his head at him. Arthur cheeks burn under his gaze and he blinks rapidly to dispel the wet from his eyes. "Why, Arthur..." he says, a slow grin stretching across his face. "Are you crying over me? I didn't know you cared."

"How can you joke at a time like this?" Arthur demands. "Merlin, god forbid you take things seriously for once in your life."

Merlin raises his manacled wrists to wiggle his fingers at him. "You forget, Arthur, that I'm magic."

"Your parlour tricks will not help you here!" Arthur shouts, voice cracking. He grips the metal bars and shakes them, knuckles turning white. It's not fair, he wants to say. Merlin's magic is harmless, useful for little more than doing his chores. He should not be put to death for that. And Arthur—he shouldn't have given Merlin so many chores to do. Then perhaps Merlin wouldn't have felt the need to use magic to complete all his tasks in time. Guilt sinks into his stomach, a cold and heavy wedge.

Merlin sniffs. "I'll have you know that I'm capable of more than a few parlour tricks. I've been told I'm quite skilled, actually."

"If you are as great a sorcerer as you claim to be, then why don't you just magick yourself out of here?"

"And deprive myself of the sight of you crying over me? I think not," Merlin says.

Arthur's snort sounds suspiciously like a sob. "Please, Merlin, if you can do it," He glances over his shoulder at the pair of guards behind him. He turns back to Merlin. Lowering his voice, he says, "get out of here." He's saying 'please', dammit, something he has not done since he was a child, because princes do not beg; they order. Merlin may be sentenced to death, but while the breath still exists in his lungs, he is still Arthur's manservant, and he must obey the prince's orders, nevermind that Merlin has always been a rubbish servant who seldom does what he is told.

Merlin studies him, perhaps hearing the desperation in his voice. He gives Arthur a small smile. Brushes his fingers over Arthur’s knuckles. "My place has always been at your side, Arthur. How can I serve you if you ask me to leave?"

"Merlin, I have never doubted your loyalty to me. Through times of war and when I have been betrayed by the people I cared for most, you have always remained true to me. There is no one on this earth that I trust and care for more than you." He lays his heart out, quiet but strong. This is something he should have done much sooner. Now Merlin will only know how Arthur feels about him hours before his death. "I am asking you as your master—as your friend—to put aside that damned devotion of yours and save yourself. Your loyalty means nothing to me if you are dead."

Merlin gapes at him, lips parted, and it's yet another reminder that Arthur has failed to adequately express his appreciation for him until now. Before Merlin can respond, the door swings open, crashing against the wall with a bang that reverberates through the dungeon.

"Arthur!" Uther bellows.

Arthur curses. He forces himself to let go of the bars and take a step back. "I'm going to get you out of this. I swear it on my life," he vows. He spins on his heel, red cloak billowing about behind him, and sweeps out of the dungeons.

*

The tension that has settled over them is thick and cloying, and Arthur cannot understand how his father can dine and sip at his wine as though nothing is wrong. Arthur picks at his own venison. He has no appetite. He thinks about Merlin curled up and tucked into the corner of his cold and grimy cell, awaiting death, and he feels like throwing up.

“Father,” he starts.

Uther’s eyes flicker to him before returning to his plate. He raises a brow, prompting Arthur to continue.

“About Merlin… I ask that you reconsider his sentence.”

“There is nothing to reconsider,” Uther says shortly. “He is a sorcerer. He has committed sorcery, and he will be punished in accordance with Camelot’s laws. There will be no exceptions, Arthur, even for your manservant.”

“He has not harmed anyone. He only used magic because he is a lazy and terrible manservant incapable of carrying out his own chores,” Arthur says. “Father, you have always taught me that the punishment should fit the crime. Surely execution is too harsh— ”

Uther cuts him off. “Have you learned nothing this past year, Arthur? Magic will always corrupt. Even those we love and care for are not immune to its temptation.”

“If Merlin wanted to kill either of us, he would have done it long ago. He has had plenty of opportunities to do so,” Arthur tries to reason.

“He is merely biding his time.”

"Father, you know that I admire and respect you," Arthur says, "but if you do this, I will never forgive you."

Uther stares at him. "You would condemn me for a servant?"

"Merlin is…" More than a servant, Arthur wants to say, he is a friend. But he knows it would not help Merlin's case if he were to reveal their relationship goes beyond that of a master and his manservant. He clears his throat and says, "Merlin has done far more for me than his duties require of him. He has saved my life, and yours as well. I cannot let you repay his loyalty by sentencing him to his death."

Uther slams his fist on the table, rattling plates and cutlery, and Arthur hates himself for startling. “I am not asking you for your permission, nor do I need your forgiveness!" he yells, his voice echoing through the hall. His face is ruddy with anger and a vein throbs in his temple.

With a grieved sigh, Uther settles back into his seat, and continues in a carefully measured tone, "One day, Arthur, when you are king, you will have to make difficult choices that bring you regret and sorrow, but you will do what you must to protect your people and your land.”

Arthur scoffs at this. His father does not know what it means to regret. He thinks himself a divine ruler without fault. “You have not known sorrow since mother died.”

Uther’s lips tighten into a thin line. “You are inordinately fond of the boy, and in my foolishness, I have let your relationship develop beyond appropriate bounds. I see now I have made the wrong choice. Merlin has ensorcelled you. He has corrupted you— ”

Arthur barks out a laugh. “Father, are we still talking about the same person? Merlin is a clumsy serving boy half the time and a drooling idiot the other. He is not capable of corrupting anyone.”

“He has turned you against me, against Camelot!” Uther says. “He has made you forget the laws that have kept this kingdom safe since your birth.”

“My love for Camelot has never wavered. Merlin has—”

"Do not further argue with me on this,” Uther bellows, “or you will burn with him!”

Arthur falls into a shocked silence. A stillness stretches between them, unbroken by even the softest of noises. There’s a roaring in his ears as he processes his father’s words. “You do not mean that,” he says finally, hoarse.

But he does, Arthur realises with a sinking stomach, and what can Uther’s silence be, but a confirmation of that? Even as a child, his father had never hesitated to throw him in the dungeons and deprive him of food and water to teach him a lesson. Uther has always been cold and callous, and Arthur has always forgiven him because he thought that was what it meant to be king. If he continues to press this matter, his father will see him burned for the sole reason that a king does not go back on his word, no matter that Arthur is the heir to the throne. He wonders, distantly, if his father has kept a bastard child hidden for the day when Arthur has defied him one time too many.

“You will thank me for this,” Uther says. “The sorcerer will die and you will be released from his enchantment, and you will thank me for all I have done for you.”

“You are mad,” he whispers. He is not angry, he finds, only disappointed that the man he has admired for so long has betrayed him. “Sorcerers are enemies to Camelot because you have made it so. You are so blinded by your hatred that you do not see what you are doing is wrong. Merlin is a good and innocent man, and he loves Camelot as much as you or I. He has committed no crime.”

“His very existence is a threat to Camelot.”

It is clear his father will not be reasoned on this; he is wasting his time. Biting back a retort, Arthur rises from his seat. The chair scrapes harshly over the stone flooring. “You are wrong, and it saddens me to think you will not realise this until it is too late,” he says. He makes for the doors.

“Arthur,” Uther calls at his back. “Arthur! Sit down. You will not walk away from this!”

*

They’ll run away, Arthur decides.

Tonight, he will ready the horses and supplies. From the kitchens, he’ll sneak three days worth of food and a bit of the pudding Merlin likes so much, and they’ll leave Camelot. They’ll run to a faraway village where magic is allowed and no one knows their names or their faces. Together, they’ll work a plot of land and buy a few chickens and perhaps a cow. It will be hard work, he knows, and he supposes he could lend Merlin a hand with it all. But at the end of the day, this life will be theirs, and they will eat the food they have grown themselves, and Arthur thinks he could be happy with it. Then, once Uther has passed, they will return to Camelot and Arthur will ascend to the throne. There was a time when Arthur dreaded this, but now he awaits the day when he becomes king so that men and women like Merlin will not have to live in fear.

Arthur nods to himself, satisfied with the idea he came up with. It is still too early to be sneaking about. He’ll have to wait until his father retires to his chambers at least. That will work just fine for him, since it will allow him a few hours of rest. The day has been exhausting and he is so tired…

Arthur stumbles to his bed, and barely makes it before he pitches face first into the mattress.

*

Arthur wakes to a throbbing head and his mouth feeling like it had been filled with sand. With a heaved groan, he manages to roll over to lie on his back. Merlin had neglected to draw the curtains last night. Sunlight streams through the window, harsh and strong. He pulls his blankets over his face and languishes in bed for a while longer.

Any moment now, the peaceful silence will be broken by Merlin throwing the doors to his chambers open, a chirpy ‘Good morning!’ on his lips. Arthur’s headache will return tenfold due to Merlin’s chattering and banging about, and the only good thing about this will be that he gets to spend another day with Merlin at his side.

And then he remembers.

Merlin will not be tending to him this morning. He has been found guilty of sorcery and sentenced to death.

Cursing, Arthur rolls out of bed, landing on the ground in a tangle of blankets and limbs. With a growl, he rips himself free of the sheets and staggers to his feet. He sways on the spot and steadies himself on the bed poster. The room spins around him.

His drink. His father must have slipped a sleeping draught in it.

He threatens the guards posted at his door with jail time if they keep him from leaving. Despite his slurred words, he manages to sound intimidating enough that they back off. Spineless things, he thinks. They may get jail time for opposing him, but his father will see to it they lose their jobs. He wobbles his way down corridors and makes it to the courtyard without obstruction.

The sight that greets him stills the blood in his veins.

A crowd has gathered to watch the execution. In the center, the pyre has already been lit, the flames blazing and leaping. A fag combusts in a shower of sparks. The scent of scorched hair and flesh reaches him.

“No!” Arthur shouts, voice cracking. “Merlin!”

Dozens of heads turn to face him. They stare at him in confused silence, shocked that their prince would openly defy the king.

Arthur stumbles down the steps and shoves his way through the crowd, pushing aside those who are too slow to move out of the way. Distantly, he is aware of knocking a women to her hands and knees; over the surprised cries and the crackling inferno, his father shouts for the guards to restrain him. The world turns slow and muted around him. Blood pounds in his head. The drugs are still in his system, causing his vision to swim and making his limbs feel heavy and lame. He breaks free of the crowd, tripping over his feet. He manages to catch his balance before he dives into the cobblestones and crack his skull open.

He is too late. Mere strides away, Merlin burns on the pyre. The flames tower above him, flickering and letting off a spray of sparks. Ash floats suspended in the air. Already Arthur is beginning to sweat beneath his clothes, droplets running down his back and making his skin itch. Smoke fills his nose and eyes and he has to turn away, coughing.

He doesn’t know what to do. There’s a well nearby, but there’s no conceivable way he alone can put out a fire started with oil and dry fags. All he knows is that he refuses to let Merlin die here; he’ll cut the ropes binding Merlin himself if he has to. He had not undressed last night before falling asleep. He is still wearing his belt, still has his dagger on him.

The guards are closing in on him. He has mere seconds to act, and he moves before he is conscious of what he is doing.

He launches himself at the pyre. Nearly loses his footing when a piece of wood is crunched to splinters beneath his weight. It’s hotter than he could have ever imagined. There was a time in his kingdom’s history, before it was known as Camelot, when slaves were kept. White-hot iron was used to brand the cheeks of slaves with their master’s crest. There was little relief in the healing process. In the days that followed, the chances of infection were high, delicate skin blistering and weeping blood and pus.

He imagines it would feel something like this. He cries out and squeezes his eyes shut, blindly reaching for Merlin. The knot in his chest eases when his fingers come into contact with bare flesh.

“Arthur!” Merlin says. “What are you doing here?”

Arthur forces his eyes open. They sting and prickle with tears, but the little discomfort is worth the sight of Merlin looking alive, if a little bit crispy at the ends of his hair.

“Saving you, you idiot. What do you think?” he grits out. He looks down, doing a quick survey of Merlin.

Merlin’s clothes hang off him in tatters, the scratchy material blackened or burned away. He is otherwise unharmed. Arthur realises, then, three things. One, that the fire has ceased to be hot. The flames lick at his exposed arms, cool and soothing, as though apologising for causing him pain. Two, that he’s got his arm around Merlin and they’re standing pressed together, from their chests down to their knees. And three, that for someone who is burning, Merlin looks rather pleased by his position. His face is lit up in a charming pink and his cheeks are dimpled with a smile.

“You’re not burning,” Arthur says dumbly, trying to comprehend this all. Are all sorcerers immune to fire? Even ones as hopeless as Merlin?

“No,” Merlin agrees. “But thank you for saving me. Or trying to. I really appreciate it.” He bites down on his lower lip, rolls it between his teeth. Ducks his head and peers up at Arthur from beneath the dark fringe of his lashes.

Oh god, Arthur thinks, stomach doing a slow roll. Is Merlin—? Does he—? Merlin’s looking to his lips, and then shyly meeting his eyes like… Like he wants a kiss, or something, the complete girl that he is. And maybe Arthur is feeling a little soft and sappy himself, because he thinks it might be something he wants, too.

“A kiss for my efforts, perhaps?” Arthur chokes out.

“Alright,” Merlin says graciously. He tips his face up, gently brushing his lips against Arthur’s in the sweetest and briefest of kisses. When he pulls away, Arthur’s lips are left tingling.

“Surely I deserve a little more than that,” Arthur says, already leaning back in.

The sky darkens over them, distracting him from Merlin’s lips. He looks up.

“Oh dear,” Merlin says.

Screams fill the air. Through the flames, Arthur sees the crowd break into chaos, fleeing the site and running into each other in their haste. Warning bells sound. Arthur recognises the metallic rhythm of soldiers marching and Leon shouting orders, though he can’t make out the words over the shrieks of human and beast alike.

“What in the hells is going on out there?” Arthur wonders.

“It’s nothing to worry about,” Merlin says with a sigh.

Something very, very heavy lands on the ground near them. Arthur thinks what he hears is stone being crushed to dust under the weight of it. Through a gap in the flames, Arthur sees what appears to be a dragon—the same one Merlin made him believe he had defeated. It slithers around the pyre in a protective ring, massive tail lashing back and forth through the air.

“Foolish king!” the dragon roars. Its great voice reverberates through the courtyard and rattles the windows in their frames. “The great Emrys cannot be killed by mortal means. Not by the playthings you call swords, nor by flame, for there is no fire on this earth that burns hot enough to harm a dragonlord!”

Soldiers and knights rush into the courtyard, splitting to surround them, spears raised and swords brandished. Leon barks out an order for the men to launch their spears. They whistle through the air.

The dragon unfurls its wings with a crack, sending the spears scattering uselessly to the ground. The men closest to the dragon are knocked to their feet by the force.

The dragon tucks its wings back into its sides. “Release Emrys to me and I will spare your kingdom.”

Arthur looks to the balcony where his father is. Uther’s face has turned white and he leans against the bannister for support.

It takes Uther a moment to gather his wits. “You have been defeated once, dragon, by my son. You can and will be defeated again,” he says, voice steady despite terror having stripped his skin of all colour. Arthur wants to tell his father to leave him out of this, but he holds his tongue.

The dragon snaps his teeth at Uther. “I was not defeated, little king. I was asked to leave in peace by a friend to all dragons. I have honoured Emrys’ wishes, though I cannot claim to understand or agree with him. I suppose the people of Camelot are soft and stupid enough to rouse in him a protective instinct. I, too, am the same in the presence of young dragons,” he muses.

Arthur glances at Merlin, who is so red he looks like he might die for real this time. From what the dragon is saying, he is starting to think that Merlin is a lot more powerful than he initially thought. All this power, Arthur thinks, awed. With the dragons under his command, Merlin could have anything: Camelot, no—all the five kingdoms kneeling at his feet.

And yet all his manservant seems to want is a kiss from his prince.

The dragon’s voice turns hard again. “Now I see you repay his benevolence by sentencing him to his death. While I know you would never have been able to truly harm Emrys, your ill intent is clear. Dragonkind will not forgive you for this transgression. We will see Camelot burn to ashes, from which no life will rise.”

Uther’s knees give way at this.

“I better put an end to this,” Merlin says.

Arthur frowns, not terribly inclined to let Merlin go when the other man feels warm and solid against him. Still, he would not be much of a prince if he lets his kingdom burn so he can selfishly keep his manservant in his arms. “And then you will give me a proper kiss.”

“And then I will give you a proper kiss,” Merlin promises.

“Very well,” Arthur says, letting his arms drop to his side. “You may do your thing, then.”

Merlin rolls his eyes. The rope binding his wrists and ankles have disintegrated, leaving behind only pink, irritated skin. Merlin rubs the feeling back into his wrists. His eyes flash gold and the flames flicker into nothing.

Arthur inhales sharply at the display. From when he has heard, most sorcerers need spoken incantations to help focus their power.

“Peace, Kilgharrah,” Merlin says, hopping down from the pyre. Arthur scrambles down with less grace. “I think you have frightened the king enough for today.”

Kilgharrah snorts twin plumes of smoke from his nostrils. “You show much mercy to a man who does not deserve it.”

“Yes, but the people of Camelot have done nothing to earn your ire.” Merlin turns to Arthur. “Arthur, will you tell your knights to lower their weapons? I would hate to see my friends harm one another.”

“They will do no such thing!” Uther roars.

The knights have regrouped, shoulders hunched as they take aim with their crossbows. At Uther’s command, they fire. A dozen bolts cut through the air.

Merlin raises a hand, his fingers splayed. His eyes blaze with gold and the bolts freeze as though stopped by an invisible wall. They hang shivering in the air for a moment, before clattering to the cobblestones like flies dropping dead.

All the times Arthur had made Merlin his practise dummy and pummeled him into the ground… He wonders how easily Merlin could have stilled his sword.

Merlin lowers his hand. “I mean you no harm, your highness,” he says. “If you wish for me to leave, I will. But know that I have only ever used my powers for Arthur, and for the good of Camelot. If you allow me to stay, I will continue to watch over this kingdom.”

*

“By the power vested in me as king of Camelot, I hereby banish you from the kingdom. You return upon pain of death,” Uther says.

Arthur has seen dozens banished from Camelot before, but has never seen anyone as bear their sentence with as much grace as Merlin. He kneels before the king, flanked on either side by two of Uther’s oldest and most trusted knights. He holds his sloped shoulders proud and chin high, eyes blazing with defiance despite the tattered remains of his clothes. He is hardly a man defeated.

Merlin is yanked unceremoniously to his feet by the knights. Arthur watches them go, a leaden feeling weighing upon his chest.

He waits until they are alone to speak. “You have made a terrible mistake, Father.”

“I grow tired of you defending a sorcerer and traitor,” Uther says. “You cannot think I would allow him to continue living in Camelot.”

“It would have been safer for all if you allowed him to remain where we could keep an eye on him,” he says. “Now you have lost the allegiance of a dragonlord and a sorcerer. What will you do if he swears fealty to Cenred or Odin? His dragons would devastate our armies.”

Uther falls silent as he considers Arthur’s words. “It has already been done. I cannot go back on my word now.”

“Then I will leave with him,” Arthur says.

Uther stares at him. “You would abandon Camelot and your people for a servant?” he asks, incredulous.

What does it say, about the kind of man he is, that he would turn his back on his kingdom for a single person? What kind of king would do that? He is not fit to rule; he knows now. He cannot make the decisions that will be required of him—not without Merlin at his side. “Not for a servant. For a dear friend.” And perhaps something more now, he adds silently.

“Arthur, I know you are angry, but think about what you are saying. There is no man that can be worth all this,” Uther says.

Loyal Merlin, who follows him without question; Merlin, with his guileless eyes and exuberant smiles, who loves with every speck of his being and would love Arthur whether he was king or the poorest of peasants. There can be no other man who means as much to him. “You do not know Merlin the way I do,” he says simply, and turns to go.

“Arthur,” Uther calls.

Arthur pauses and looks over his shoulder at his father.

“If you step through those doors, I will cease to call you my son.”

Arthur hesitates only for a moment before saying, “Then you will have to find yourself a new heir.”

*

They reach the crest of the hill overlooking the green, sprawling lands of Camelot. The castle walls gleam a dazzling white under the afternoon sun. He has spent his whole life here, learning about his kingdom and how to protect her people. Everything he has done, he has done for Camelot.

“You don’t have to do this,” Merlin says quietly at his side.

Arthur tugs at the reins of his horse, dragging himself away from the sight. “I have already said my goodbyes to those I care about, and to the king. I cannot return now.”

“Sod your pride, Arthur,” Merlin says fiercely. “He is your father. He would welcome you back with open arms, no matter what you have done or how you have wronged him.”

“But he would never welcome you.”

“No,” Merlin agrees. “But it is of no matter. Arthur, you can’t throw away your entire life for me. Your people need you. Camelot needs you. I cannot take you away from that.”

“Merlin, stop trying to get rid of me. It won’t work.” The more Merlin argues with him, the more steadfast he grows in his decision.

Merlin slumps in his saddle. Looks to him with blue, watery eyes. “You will resent me for this. I know you will, whether that is a day from now or five years. I would not be able to bear it, Arthur, if you hated me.”

“Merlin, listen carefully because I will only say this once.” Arthur’s heart rate quickens in his chest, because he doesn’t do this—all this talk about feelings. But the sentiments are right there on his tongue waiting to be voiced; and Merlin’s looking at him with those baby blues and no gold in sight, like Arthur is his true north, when really, Arthur is the one who will follow Merlin anywhere. The words are wrenched out of him and it’s harder than any speech he has ever delivered before thousands.

Looking straight ahead, Arthur says, “If you think I will hate you for this, then you underestimate how much you mean to me.”

Merlin makes a soft, broken noise in the back of his throat. He nudges his horse closer to Arthur so that their thighs touch. He reaches out to take Arthur’s hand and squeezes. Merlin’s palms are calloused from labour and from the sword Arthur had forced into his hand.

“Where will we go?” Merlin asks eventually.

“Anywhere,” Arthur answers him. “We can find a village to settle in. Buy a plot of land and grow some wheat or corn, or whatever it is that you peasants do.”

Merlin wrinkles his nose. “You mean I’ll tend to the farm and you’ll lie around all day on that lazy backside of yours.”

“You have magic, don’t you? Why don’t you put it to use?”

“I’ll have you know the use of my magic is reserved for special circumstances,” Merlin says loftily.

“Yes, like doing the chores I’ve tasked you with,” Arthur says with a roll of his eyes. “Well, if you don’t like my idea, what do you suggest then?”

Merlin perks up. “We could fight magical beasts terrorizing villagers.”

He rambles on excitedly about all the adventures they could have, fighting off bandits that plunder villages and infest trade routes. When their pouches became too empty for comfort, Arthur could enter tournaments as knight-errant for the prize money, or just to test his skill.

Arthur watches him speak, a fond warmth unspooling in his belly. He has just given up his entire kingdom for Merlin. He couldn’t care less where they go, so long as Merlin is with him. It’s both freeing and terrifying.

“Merlin,” Arthur interrupts. “Earlier, you promised to give me a proper kiss.”

Merlin’s words come to a sputtering stop. His cheeks turn a delightful shade of rose. “Oh. I did, didn’t I?” He clears his throat and leans in, puckering his lips.

With a short laugh, Arthur swoops in, pressing his mouth full against Merlin’s.