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Where We Go, Black Crows Follow

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The wine was dry, so it bit at Arthur’s teeth. It was the worst season for it, but what could he do?

He stared around the banquet hall, taking in the laughter and merry-making. In spite of the poor wine, he was not displeased with the turnout. It was, after all, his twenty-fifth birthday and Camelot was celebrating, as they always do. It’s a fun affair each year, and as he’s gotten older the party itself has grown and grown into a night of fun revelry and good food. There isn’t much to dislike about celebrating the son of Uther, King of Camelot, but tonight, Arthur is, perhaps, feeling his age. He’s quite done with people yelling “five and twenty!” at him and then regaling him with the horrible stories of how their siblings and or distant relatives would have loved to reach such a fine and gracious age, were it not for that pugnacious plague/sickness or gut wound that got them dead and buried before their time. “Oh to be young!” other people insisted on yodelling into his face. He got it, he understood.

It’s not a bad thing, not really. Twenty-five is a fine age. Certainly Arthur isn’t married, which was deemed odd at this age, nor is he king yet, but he knows he lives well, as do many of the people in his kingdom. Times do seem to be getting better for them all, so why not celebrate? Generations before would have killed for such fun.

He raised his glass when he caught his father’s gaze from further down the very long table. Uther was heavy into his wine already, judging by the redness around his eyes. Good, that means he won’t be up early bothering the staff. They worked hard enough already putting this evening together without the king berating them for not tidying up fast enough. The staff had put in hours and hours of preparation, so a late morning start would be good for them. The food and linens had to be brought in days in advance. The spare chambers were cleaned out and freshened up for a slew of guests, and to top it all off, most of the food wasn't even going to be shared with the servants (which Arthur thought a bit petty, but then, that was his father).

Arthur had sent a wagon or two of food down to the local villages as his annual gift to the people. He made a note to ask the kitchen to save something for themselves. Later.

The flames all round the hall glowed bright and gave quite the festive air to the night’s activities.

Many highborn families had shown up for the party. Fathers brought their sons to joust in the tourney and fight for laughs; and lords, if they had them, brought their daughters. Of course.

Arthur was beset on all sides by young (and some questionably not so young) women from all corners of Albion. He’s not usually one to complain about it, that would be ignorant. After all, he is young and fighting fit, and handsome (or so he has been told by many many people), and he is a prince after all, so he understands the desire to impress.

But it was taxing sometimes, to always behave appropriately for the ladies. At the moment, Lady Mera from Donland, a fine noblewoman, the youngest of four daughters from a proud family, was keeping him entertained.

She has very fine eyes and a charming intellect that most of the ladies refuse to bare for fear of appearing too brash, too forward with their thoughts.

And her other accoutrements are fair indeed, going by the snugness of her dress and the volume of her … assets. Arthur really, truly doesn't mind her company. He deserves the attention, does he not? He was after all, Camelot’s finest knight, taught from an early age to hone his fighting prowess into a sharp point. He captures the attention of all the people around him, so truly, he is not lacking in favours, Lady Mera’s least of all.

She laid a hand on his elbow.

“My lord,” she giggled, “so many people have come to wish you well. It must please you so.”

Arthur smiled and leaned closer to her. “I would be lying if I disagreed.” His voice dipped low.

She covered her pink lips and smiled. Arthur grinned. Yes, he liked this one. She wasn’t afraid to make fun or have a laugh.

He sat up straight and gulped back more wine. Wine always helped him become more social, so at events such as this, he liked to chug it back by the gallon, just like his father before him. He licked his teeth before slamming down his goblet and waving a servant over to refill it.

He did like the Lady Mera, but he didn’t yet know her. And he certainly wasn’t going to attempt to bed her. No, she is far too highborn to even entertain such thoughts without sorting out whether or not she was … well, a wife. Uther had explained the intricacies of being careful when courting a lady intent on marriage of equal if not higher station.

Servants and maids he could bed as much as he liked. Servants didn’t count because they could not become Queen of Camelot, so says Uther. So Arthur had to be careful with all the lady visitors. Much as he’d love to see what voluptuous curves lay hidden under Lady Mera’s garments, he dared not make the attempt.

Everyone would be watching him, as they always were. Would he marry her? Who was to say? Perhaps, perhaps not. Arthur was torn on that subject, regardless of whom he was considering.After so many years of watching ladies glide through these halls to meet him, he had grown tired of the expectation.

The wine servant came over and refilled his goblet. He was young, barely able to hold the immense bronze jug.

“Careful,” Arthur tutted when a drop of wine spilled onto the pristine table cloth. He eyed the jug. Was that making the wine bitter? "You should be using the stone jugs for wine," Arthur grunted.

“Apologies, sire,” the boy nodded.

Arthur frowned, “Where is Merlin, my actual manservant?” He turned to Mera, “He’s useless, you know. Merlin.”

She laughed.

“Uh, he is, uh,” the serving boy stuttered. “Occupied, sire.”

Arthur stared the boy down. “If he’s occupied why isn’t he here now, where his occupation lies?”

The boy trembled.

“Oh, stop teasing,” Mera laughed. “Your Merlin is over there. See? Look.”

Arthur’s eyes followed where her finger pointed.

Oh.

Merlin was in the banquet hall after all. He was just dilly-dallying with one of the other servant girls brought in from Dorval.

“Get him over here,” Arthur hissed and the serving boy nodded and attempted a bow and a curtsey all at once.

“Oh, leave him, surely,” Mera said gently after the boy had gone in the completely wrong direction. “One night. Let him have a chance with a lady; after all, they’re servants. They can mingle amongst themselves, can’t they?”

Mingle?” Arthur looked at her as if she’d grown three extra heads. “Our servants do not mingle.”

She laughed, unperturbed by his tone. “Of course they do. Look over there.”

And Arthur did look, though he was loathe to. Merlin was along the far wall, holding what looked to be an empty wine jug (Arthur’s empty wine jug!) and he was talking to the young woman in the dress of her kingdom, a brown and grey affair that clashed horribly with Merlin’s idiotic blue and red ensemble. Merlin laughed at something she said, full-bodied, head thrown back. It made Arthur’s teeth grind.

“See?” Mera uttered. “Mingling.”

Arthur’s understanding of the word ‘mingle’ got been lost in the noise between his ears. He felt very angry and was unsure why. But it was unseemly. He didn't want to come across as a boor.

“Fine,” he grouched, slopping back more wine. “It is my birthday after all. I can be generous.”

“Indeed you can,” Lady Mera laughed and clinked her goblet with his.

 

The night went on, as they always did when visitors came to Camelot. A few of the men got uproariously drunk and started some very strange dancing in the open space between the rows of tables. More and more well-wishers came to bear their respects to Arthur. He was amiable to begin with, able to talk with whomever wanted a word, but as the hours wore on, so did his mood. When Lord Elgin’s eighth, or perhaps ninth (??) daughter curtseyed before him and asked him whether he liked to walk in the countryside on Midsummer’s Eve, he thought he might actually slice his own head open with the carving knife left beside the roast boar.

So he drank more wine and ate more of the really fantastic dried fruits they’d pulled out of the larder specially for him.

“I would love,” Arthur smiled, feeling like his teeth would fall out from smiling so much, “absolutely love to take you down to the paddocks at some point in your stay,” he carried on, talking to yet another lady visitor.

This one was younger, perhaps too young. He wasn’t sure. Not that it mattered. There were too many women vying for his attention at the moment and he couldn’t be bothered to pick and play favourites. He also knew that his knights were watching him gleefully from their own chairs. They do so love his turmoil when facing the marching troops of ladies. They were going to harangue him in the morning.

“I have heard wonderful things about the horses in Camelot,” the young lady was saying, hands clasped under her chin. “I have heard tales of the monstrous black beasts and the fine-coated colts. Oh, yes! Let’s visit the stables.” She was, perhaps, too excited. After all horses were just horses, were they not?

Arthur glanced at Lady Mera, who was pursing her lips, probably to hold back laughter so as not to embarrass such a young girl.

“Ah,” Arthur nodded, “Yes. And if I cannot take you, I’ll be sure to send my finest men to show you around. Perhaps even have you saddled up to ride a pony.”

“Oh, wonderful!” the girl squeaked and spun around before fluttering off, back to her well-fed and rosy-cheeked parents.

“That was very kind of you,” Lady Mera murmured.

See, now she was a lady, and one of good marrying age. Arthur looked at her with her fine robes and glossy blonde hair curled down to her bare collarbones. Her father was a bit odd, a bit too overbearing and eager, but that wasn’t a problem. He had brought up many daughters with his sights set on a kingdom somewhere, so Arthur could excuse the Master of Donland for shooting far above his station in the hopes of bettering his family. The man had a set of smart and engaging daughters who spoke up for themselves and weren’t afraid to go head-to-head with a man. Arthur liked women who could speak their minds. Most women would fawn all over him, playing stupid just for his attention.

Sometimes women around him were tempting enough for a roll in the hay, but actual conversation was never to be heard in his chambers.

Why did that matter so much?

He pondered it for a second, then let the thought go.

“I aim to be kind, on occasion,” he smiled at Mera.

“When it suits you?” she tilted her head in amusement.

“Well,” he waved his hand and sat back in his seat. He looked about the bustling and noisy room. “I’m the prince after all. I could do what I like, but that gets boring.”

“Oh, I know,” she bubbled, sipping at her drink. “Back in Donland I have a very hard time finding any form of amusement aside from hunting, reading, sewing, cookery and the odd jousting tournament.”

Arthur looked at her for a moment and then they both burst out laughing.

Boring? Us?” Mera giggled. “Can you imagine?”

“I know, ridiculous, ridiculous,” Arthur laughed right along with her.

 


 

The sun was rising when Arthur stumbled back into his chambers. It was still dark, but the blueish-purple light of dawn was fast approaching.

“Merlin?” he groused, kicking at his boot that refused to come off. “Merlin!

“I’m right here,” came that familiarly exasperated voice.

“Merlin,” Arthur said, frowning through his drunken haze. “You’re my servant.”

Merlin dropped Arthur’s cloak that he must have lost on the way up the many winding stone stairs. “Yes, sire, obviously. Glad you’ve noticed.”

“’S late,” Arthur slurred and sat on his bed, still grasping at the one boot that refused to fly off his foot.

“And you’re drunk,” Merlin sighed, bending to help Arthur.

“You’re my servant,” Arthur reiterated.

Merlin looked up at him through his eyebrows. “What on earth is wrong now?” He must have read the tone Arthur quite cunningly disguised inside his words. Merlin was perceptive.

“You serve me,” Arthur tapped his own chest. “You can’t be out there flirting and playing with the other girls – the servants in the hall. They are visiting guests. Leave them alone.”

Merlin frowned and helped Arthur get out of his suede teal jacket, the one that made Arthur’s eyes pop. All the ladies said so.

“I don’t follow,” Merlin said, folding up the jacket and placing it on the morning’s pile of washing. “I was working all night, sire. I haven’t slept in days and your party went along swimmingly well. Is there something I missed?”

“Yes,” Arthur nodded, "Yes, you need to stay at my side when visitors come by. They need to see you." He watched as Merlin bent to untie his breeches and tug them off. He rarely did that, not unless Arthur was injured or, well, sloshed. 

Come to think of it, Merlin saw him in all his worst states. Unfair seeing as Arthur only ever saw Merlin like this, as he was, always.

Arthur flopped back on the bed and sighed, the cold air licking at his bare legs.

“Arthur,” Merlin said tiredly. “Sit up. You’ll be sick in seconds if you’re on your back.”

“Won’t,” Arthur muttered peevishly.

“You will,” Merlin tapped at Arthur’s bare knee. “Something about lying on your back after ten buckets of wine always upsets your stomach. Also, I’m anticipating the cleanup in the morning anyway.”

Arthur sat up and the room spun. “You think you know far too much about me, Merlin. It’s infuriating. You don’t know anything.”

Merlin made that face, the one where he was implying Arthur was a moron. Arthur hates that face. Arthur is not a moron. Arthur is drunk.

“I am your servant after all,” Merlin sighed and rolled Arthur into bed properly.

 

When Arthur woke, his head felt like every horse in Camelot had trampled it into the mud.

Merlin was throwing open the curtains, babbling on about the day ahead and the visitors waiting in the hall and Arthur thought, just for a moment, of smothering the idiot into silence. Then he would have peace.

“I see you were sick in the night,” Merlin said cheerfully, picking up the horrid metal bucket of shame he always kept around for when Arthur was drinking. He looked far too smug.

“I could have had a lady guest in here, you know. You shouldn’t be barging in like that,” Arthur griped, covering his head with the coverlet. “You really are the worst servant in history.”

“Hm,” Merlin hummed, clanking about the room. Was he wearing bells and banging pots and pans? It sounded like it. Arthur’s head was ringing. “Fairly certain I would have noticed a lady, sire. And definitely because you were too drunk yourself to notice.”

Arthur pulled back the cover and glared at Merlin, who was far too chipper for the hour.

“If you tell anyone I was sick, I’ll have you executed.”

“Of course, sire.”

 


 

The days following his birthday were filled with mediocre hunting parties, a poorly-organized tourney and hours and hours of Arthur talking nice and sweet to all the blasted ladies trying to either get him to marry them, or get him to deflower them in some filthy rosebush.

His knights kept making jabs about it.

“I noticed Lady Ophelia’s dress is rather loose this evening,” Gwaine murmured over his goblet.

“Certain everybody’s noticed,” Percival snorted.

Arthur glared at them both.

“Oh come now!” Gwaine laughed at the look on the prince’s face. “You have every opportunity, sire! Why not take it?”

“These ladies,” Arthur hissed, glancing around the hall, “Are trying to rope me into marrying them. I can’t do that. There isn’t a marriageable union in sight. None of their kingdoms are worthy allies in need of settling. Everyone here is already favourable to Camelot.”

“I don’t understand all that,” Gwaine said. “I’m just suggesting that perhaps sire could do with a good romp?”

“Aye, you have been a bit aggressive in training lately,” Percival nodded.

“Oh, have I?” Arthur said, eyes zeroing in on them. “Well, it seems you’ve all gone soft if that’s the quarrel you have with me. Tomorrow morning, I’ll be sure to work you all a little harder. Perhaps a run through the wet forest for a few hours, followed by heavy lifting. I’ve heard the eastern river is collapsing and in dire need of a new stone bridge. You can help with that. Maybe then you’ll be too tired to insinuate such things in front of your crown prince and captain.

Gwaine and Percival glanced at one another.

“No offence was meant, my lord,” Percival said. “We were merely–”

“I know what you were saying,” Arthur bit out.

They were saying he had too much pent-up energy.

With so many guests and people in his own home, how was Arthur supposed to deal with it? He couldn’t be seen fraternising with the visiting ladies! That would cause a scandal of too many levels and the gossip. Ugh, he hated the gossip. He had yet a week more of these visitors to deal with and he wasn’t looking forward to it.

 

The next day followed much like the previous. He worked his knights until they were sweating and gasping and falling over themselves. That was the last time Gwaine and Percival would ever make fun of Arthur's predicament.

He yelled at Merlin again about him not being exactly where Arthur needed him at all times. Granted, the Lady Ophelia’s overtures were becoming a tad too much, judging by the way she kept leaning forward and dropping her handkerchiefs in front of him. He was so tired of picking them up. Merlin save him from this!

His father noticed though, and seemed pleased, so there was that.

Lady Mera continued to look as lovely as ever and kept him company through the day, but if Arthur was completely honest with himself, he’d admit that yes, perhaps he did need some release or else he’d go mad staring at her beauty and not being able to do much about it.

When he threw a sopping robe at Merlin after the dolt had accidentally dropped it into Arthur’s bath water, he realized perhaps he was due for some fun. Throwing things at Merlin was usually quite fun, but this effort felt weak.

If he couldn’t reasonably sidle up to Lady Mera, the most beautiful woman closest to his stature, then he’d have to figure something else out.

Then one evening a servant girl fulfilled that need quite nicely, which was easier for Arthur to stomach because she wasn’t from his household. She was sweet and lovely and he’d found her heaving immense grain sacks into storage for the kitchen. She’d been by herself and very obviously struggling under the weight of so much grain. So he’d helped her, poor thing. She’d thanked him effusively, obviously stricken by the thought of making the crown prince of Camelot lift food about like a mere layperson. She was pretty, and soft and thankfully, very willing. So his conscience and body felt clear.

“Thank you,” Arthur was kind enough to say as he straightened himself.

“Oh, I don’t know what to say,” she’d answered, still flushed. He had tried his best to make her feel good.

And when Lady Mera’s father found Arthur and the servant, Amelia was her name, walking together down the corridor that clearly led from the pantry, well, Arthur could only give a polite nod and smile as they passed him by.

He was only a man, after all.

 


 

That evening, Arthur was making another attempt at a bath, considering last time he’d been in such a strop he’d forgone bathing and chosen to watch Merlin empty the tub, bucketful by bucketful instead.

This evening was different. Arthur was calm and relaxed.

He watched as Merlin poured a freshly heated jug of water into the large metal tub in the middle of the room.

“You’re taking forever,” he sighed.

“Pardon me, your majesty,” Merlin said with a sharp look.

Arthur peered over at Merlin. He had spindly arms that could barely hoist the jugs across the room before upending them into the tub.

“You need to eat more,” Arthur said. “You’re not getting any stronger, Merlin.”

Merlin’s lips went tight in a smile. “Not all of us dream of being knights or soldiers.”

“Yes, but surely, after all the years you had under my care you’d have picked up some weight. We have good food, fresh vegetables, healthy animals.”

Merlin inhaled and glared at Arthur.

“I’m not saying it’s bad,” Arthur rolled his eyes. He could never say that. Merlin had a unique appearance after all. Arthur had always quite admired the sharp cheekbones so unlike his own. And Merlin had very thick, shiny hair, so perhaps he wasn’t missing any key nutrients after all, but still. They were two very different peas from two very distant pods.

Where Arthur was tan from working outside all day, Merlin was pale, milky-skinned. Where Arthur was built sturdy, Merlin was bony, more lean. He had very clear skin and very white teeth, an uncommon trait indeed. Even Arthur himself had a slightly uneven smile and he'd had the best of the best his whole life.

“The water is ready, sire,” Merlin said.

“You don’t have to say it like that,” Arthur shook his head and stood up. He tugged his tunic over his head and tossed it aside. Merlin glared at the clothing now on the floor. He went over to pick it up.

Arthur bent low to test the water. Good, it was warm, not scalding. He'd learnt his lesson.

He looked over at Merlin, who was watching him.

Arthur quirked a brow. Merlin had seen him naked a hundred times. This was not new to either of them.

“Yes?” Arthur asked. “Do you have the soap?”

Arthur swished the water some more. If Merlin was looking at his body, well, it wasn’t a crime. Arthur was a strong, able-bodied young man and if he was allowed some pride, he’d say he had quite the perfect arse. He'd seen enough of them to compare.

“Oh, right,” Merlin nodded and hurried over to the fireplace where he kept the store of fresh hand soaps made by the villagers in the South farthing.

“New bar,” Merlin unwrapped the block and brought it over.

Arthur gingerly clambered into the tub. The hot water felt good against his tired body. He eyed his fingernails and began to rub at them, to remove the grit and grime.

He settled in while Merlin puttered about and waited.

“Do you want your hair washed?” Merlin asked.

Arthur pondered that, “Does it need it?”

Then Merlin’s hand was in Arthur’s hair, tugging gently. Arthur’s eyes closed for a moment. It felt quite nice.

“It is greasy, much like the rest of you” Merlin chuckled. “Might as well.”

“Well, get on with it,” Arthur exhaled and settled back.

Merlin was a real wizard with washing Arthur’s hair. He had these amazingly long fingers that were soft and not calloused from swordplay and fighting all day. Arthur wondered if that’s how all physician apprentices’ hands felt, or if Merlin was different.  He would have access to salves and ointments no one else would, so perhaps that helped? Lord knows Merlin was different in every other way, so why not have soft hands to boot? He was belligerent and argumentative and drove Arthur completely batty; But he was loyal. Arthur appreciated loyalty, expected it from his knights.

“Mm, right there,” He murmured as Merlin’s fingers scraped just behind his ears.

“You’re absolutely spoilt, you know that,” Merlin sighed.

Arthur smiled, eyes closed, “Well, obviously.”

“Don’t you think that’s a bad thing?” Merlin said, fingers massaging water through Arthur’s locks. “Not many of your own people have someone to wash their hair for them. A lot of them don’t even have the chance to sit in a bath at all.”

“Pity,” Arthur mumbled.

“It would be nice if everyone in Camelot could make a bath, get clean once in a while,” Merlin said.

Arthur’s eyes opened. “What are you on about now?”

He could imagine Merlin shrugging in that way that meant he was playing innocent. Arthur twisted, sloshing water about. “You’re plotting. What is it?”

Merlin gasped, “Arthur! I am not doing anything of the sort!” his mouth flapped in horror and false surprise. “I was just …thinking. It would be nice.”

Arthur, knowing full well that he looked like a drowned rat at the moment, squinted at his servant kneeled on the floor beside the tub. “Spit it out.”

Merlin sighed dramatically, “All right, fine. I was thinking that the food you donated to the local villages was nice for your birthday.”

“I always give them food on my birthday,” Arthur said. “What of it?”

“Well,…” Merlin sloshed water over Arthur’s neck and shoulders. “I was thinking, growing up in Ealdor, no one had a bath tub. It is quite the luxury.”

“And?” Arthur said, turning back so Merlin could get to washing his back.

The wash cloth pressed to his spine. “And…it would be a sign of great generosity if mothers could bathe their children, cleanse them of the filth they live in. Might even help with delaying illness, you know. Gaius believes bathing to be the best form of sickness prevention.”

“You want me to what? Donate metal tubs to families so they can waste their days playing in the bath?”

“Well, why not?” Merlin said. His fingers massaged Arthur’s neck and Arthur shivered. Merlin did have very talented fingers.

“In case you didn’t know, I don’t have a secret storeroom filled with hundreds of metal bath tubs, Merlin.”

“Guinevere’s father is a blacksmith. He doesn’t just work with weapons. I bet for a small fee, to cover materials and such, he would be willing to build some on your behalf.”

Arthur tipped his head forward. Merlin was leaning over the tub now, scrubbing at his back. He pulled Arthur’s arm up and washed away the dirt there, from shoulder to wrist and back again. It felt marvellous.

Merlin came around the side and pressed at Arthur’s shoulder. Arthur sat back against the cool metal.

He opened his eyes.

Merlin was focused, scrubbing the cloth over Arthur’s chest and shoulders. He lifted Arthur’s other arm and cleaned under there too. Arthur held back a squeal when Merlin washed along his ribs. He wasn’t certain he’d hidden that impulse very well, judging by the glint in Merlin’s eyes.

Merlin really was dedicated to his job, which was…nice.

“Here,” Merlin slapped the washcloth against Arthur’s chest. “Wash the rest.”

Arthur scowled and took the cloth. He washed down his own stomach, pressing at the tender bruise on his side. Hm, where had he got that one? Perhaps from the last spar with Galahad? Or the servant girl? Arthur thought back to her. She had been very gentle, actually, all soft and rounded and plush under his ministrations. Arthur wondered if Merlin knew, or could tell he’d done that with her. Was it visible on his person? 

“Your idea…” he said, running the cloth between his legs and scrubbing. “It’s not terrible, but it sounds costly.”

Merlin hummed and watched as Arthur washed his own legs.

Arthur could feel a tightening in his groin and hoped to high heaven that his bent position didn’t highlight the way his cock was feeling, heavy as it lay against his thigh.

Not that he minded. Merlin was probably used to stuff like that himself. If not in his own room, then after spending so much time around the knights. He’d also caught Arthur in the early morning, before his wakening cock could go soft, so this wasn’t too shameful.

“I’m sure you can afford it,” Merlin said.

Arthur made a face at Merlin’s smile.

He bent forward and splashed at his own face. The soap Merlin handed him smelled of beeswax.

“Here, let me,” Merlin sighed and took up the cloth again. He gently wiped at Arthur’s face and ears, getting right in there and rooting out whatever had accumulated over the last few days. Arthur felt immensely cleaner and better for it. He watched Merlin focus on him, watched those light blue eyes as they flicked over Arthur’s features.

“Why do you want me to give people things? Isn’t a lifetime of protection good enough for most?” Arthur tipped his head back so Merlin could rinse out his hair. Then he sat back and relaxed into the water. It wasn’t often Arthur got to just unwind in peace.

“It’s a nice thing to do,” Merlin shrugged. “Make positive change and all that.”

Merlin wiped Arthur’s hair off his face. “You look brand new, sire,” he chuckled. "Those weren't freckles, it was all dirt."

Arthur stared at his servant. Trust Merlin to want the Royal family to donate things to the poor. What an idiot.

“Now don’t lie in there for hours and fall asleep,” Merlin said, getting to his feet. “You’ll get all pruned up and then complain about it later when there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“Where are you going?” Arthur frowned, watching Merlin pick up the clothing piled on the floor.

“Oh, well, with all the guests, we have quite the backlog in washing. I promised I’d help the others sort through it.”

The others. The other servants.

“But it’s late,” Arthur scowled. And you should stay here and keep me company, he thought to himself.

Merlin grinned over Arthur’s dirty clothes. “Sorry, sire, duty calls.”

Arthur glared mutinously at Merlin’s retreating back.

“You’d better not be mingling, Merlin!” he said sharply.

Merlin twisted, made a funny face and then left, closing Arthur’s chamber door behind him.

 

It wasn’t until he was freshly dried and getting ready for bed that Arthur noticed the bruise again.

He frowned, standing there, naked at his own bedside. The fire had dimmed a fair bit so he had to turn to see it properly in the warm firelight.

There, just below his ribs, sat the bruise. He poked it with a finger.

“Ow,” he hissed. Hm. That felt odd.

Merlin came in not long after and huffed at all the water splashed around on the floor. “What?” Arthur said, tugging on a fresh tunic from the pile in Merlin’s arms. “You weren’t here to stop me, were you? And you took forever. I've been standing around starkers for ages.”

Merlin put the clothing away and turned back to Arthur. “I wasn’t even gone that long.”

Arthur frowned down at the tunic. It was too tight around the shoulders. “This isn’t mine.”

“Of course it’s yours,” Merlin stomped over and tugged at the material.

“Well, it’s not fitting, is it?” Arthur hissed. He wriggled some more. “Merlin, did you shrink my clothing?”

“No!” Merlin cried and watched Arthur struggle to get free. "At least, I don't think so."

It was very undignified, Arthur thought, to be seen wriggling like a worm, naked from the chest down, in front of a servant.

“Here, you clot, let me,” Merlin tugged at the tunic and it came free, releasing Arthur from its suffocating clutches.

“Find out who’s messed with the laundry,” Arthur barked, hair in complete disarray. "A prince's clothing is meant to fit like a glove, not like a vice!"

Merlin was staring.

“What?” Arthur said sharply. “Never seen a cock before?”

“What?” Merlin frowned, looking up, “No, that’s not–Arthur, where did you get that mark? There, on your belly.”

Arthur scowled and bent to look. “It’s a bruise. And I don’t know, Merlin. Stop staring and get me a new night shirt.”

“Wait,” Merlin came closer, eyes focused on that bruise. He reached out and made to touch it, before pulling back.

“Arthur, that’s not a bruise.”

“What? Of course it is! What else could it be?”

Merlin sucked on his upper lip in thought. “Does it feel warm?”

Arthur scowled, then looked down. He touched the bruise. “Yes. It does. A little.” Actually, more than a little.

“It’s getting blacker,” Merlin looked worried. “Arthur, I think something’s wrong. That looks very unnatural”

Arthur blinked at his servant, confused. “But I just had a bath.”

Merlin tilted his head. “What does that have to do with it? You must get dressed. Gaius needs to see this.”

“No, Merlin, you’re overreacting.”

“What if it spreads?” Merlin asked, gaze hardening.

“Nonsense!” Arthur snorted. “You’re being ridiculous. It’s a bruise, probably from training. It’ll be gone in a few days at most.”

“I’ve never seen a bruise like that,” Merlin said, mouth a hard line. “Trust me.”

Arthur paused and swallowed. He looked down at the bruise. It was very dark, come to think of it. In fact, it seemed to almost be black on top of his skin, like he was stained with ink. There weren’t any of the usual yellows and greens that followed a fresh bruise.

He gently pressed his palm to it. It was very warm to the touch. He looked up at Merlin.

“Arthur,” Merlin said softly. “I think you’ve been poisoned.”

Arthur stared back at Merlin, mouth falling open. “Of course. Of course I have. Why the bloody hell not?"

Chapter Text

“How did this happen?” Uther yelled. He paced in front of the throne, robes flowing behind him. “This is not to be borne!”

“Sire,” Gaius said as calmly as always. “We must take a moment to understand what is happening here.”

“This!” Uther waved his arm in a wide arc.

The throne room was empty save for Arthur, Merlin, Gaius and the king himself. All the sentries had been excused from duty.

Uther pointed at the longest wall of the throne room.

It was splashed in red.

Arthur read the words inscribed there.

 

Death follows excess.

No man is free from it.

Three sunrises past due.

 

“That,” Uther barked, “is a threat against my son!”

“Now, sire, please,” Gaius raised a hand. “We must think before we act.”

Someone,” Uther hissed, “has come into my kingdom, my hall and threatened the life of my only son and heir. Who would have done this?”

“We have many guests, father,” Arthur said. “We could have them brought in for questioning.”

“Do we have the time?” Merlin whispered over Arthur’s shoulder.

“Shut it,” Arthur hissed back.

“This explains it, doesn’t it?” Uther said, eyes wide with rage. “This explains the mark on Arthur. This was planned out purely for him. Someone came in here and poisoned my son and wrote this vile warning for all to see.”

“We do not know he is poisoned,” Gaius said. “Please give me some time to–”

“Get the knights, call all the guards. We have to rout out the infiltrators,” Uther said, apoplectic with rage. “No one is to leave the castle!”

 


 

“What do you think it is?” Merlin said, crouched down beside Gaius.

Arthur rolled his eyes. He was sat shirtless in Gaius’ work room while the two of them stared at the mark on his belly.

“I’m not certain,” Gaius muttered. “I’ve never seen a poison leave a mark like this. Poisons tend to be internal, something we can’t see until it’s too late.”

“Then…” Merlin glanced up and caught Arthur’s critical eye. He grabbed Gaius’ arm and dragged the old man aside.

“Do you think it’s…sorcery?” Merlin whispered.

“I can hear you,” Arthur said loudly.

Merlin glared at him over his shoulder.

Gaius shook his head and turned back to look at Arthur. “Sire, we cannot rule it out.”

“You think there’s a sorcerer here, in Camelot?” Arthur asked incredulously. Merlin shifted from one foot to the other. “Bit far-fetched isn’t it? We haven’t seen hide nor hair of a magical person since Morgana fled the realm.”

“Technically, she didn’t flee,” Merlin muttered under his breath.

Arthur stared him down. “All right,” he said sharply, “since Morgana was run out of Camelot. There, are you happy?”

Merlin made a face and went back to the tomes Gaius had laid open on a table.

Guinevere knocked on the door. “Sorry, you lordship,” she nodded and came closer. “But I’ve brought something to eat. The king will not take this, so perhaps you will?”

She laid down a platter of fresh fruits and dried meats. Merlin turned immediately at the mention of food.

“Oi! That’s mine!” Arthur barked, hopping off the table and onto his feet. He walked over to snag some food before Merlin sucked it all down his throat.

“Thank you, Gwen,” Arthur nodded at her. She curtseyed, “My pleasure, your highness. Lancelot has said the knights are to be rallied. Are you going with them?”

Arthur popped a grape into his mouth and scowled.

“My father is too angry to let me go anywhere at the moment.”

“I see,” Guinevere nodded. “And…do we know yet what is …” she glanced at the black mark on Arthur’s skin. It had grown incrementally since the dark hours.

“No,” Arthur said but was cut off by Merlin.

“Probably poisoning. Not sure. Looking into it.”

Gwen looked stricken at the thought. “That’s horrible!”

Arthur could have strangled Merlin. “Gwen, Gwen, don’t look so ill. It’s fine. I feel fine. Nothing has actually happened to me–” Arthur reached out and touched her bare elbow.

A spike of pain lanced through Arthur’s gut and he cried out. He fell to his knees, clutching his belly as shockwaves of pain rippled through him.

“Arthur!” Merlin was at his side in moments. “What’s happening!”

Gwen shrieked and something fell to the floor. Arthur winced in agony, thinking he’d been stabbed or shot right through with a spear.

“What–is–this?” he gasped out, seeing spots behind his eyelids. Oh, it burned!

“Something’s happening! On the table!” Merlin barked. His hands were on Arthur’s shoulders. “Gaius! Water!”

Then, as suddenly as it started, the pain stopped and ebbed away.

Arthur crumpled forward into Merlin, gasping for breath. Merlin gently pressed his hands to Arthur’s back, holding him.

“Bring it!” Gaius was yelling. “What does it say?”

“It doesn’t say anything, at least, not anything I can understand!” Gwen cried out.

Merlin got Arthur back up onto his feet, then guided him to sit down.

He checked Arthur’s eyes and pushed his fringe away from his forehead.

“Oh no,” Merlin whispered. He crouched down and pressed a delicate finger to the black mark on Arthur’s stomach. “It’s grown.”

Arthur’s vision was a little unfocused. So when he looked down, the black stain waved and wobbled before him. It was bigger. It had hurt. “What is this?” Arthur asked. “What poison can do that?”

“That is no poison,” Gaius’ grave voice came through the fog in his head.

Arthur looked up.

Gaius was holding a roll of parchment. It seemed to be smoking a little.

Gaius turned it to show Arthur.

A strange symbol was burnt into the paper, marking lines and even a couple holes through it. “Thankfully Gwen was quicker with the water than I,” said Gaius. “This is the mark of a sorcerer. I am not familiar with it. But it is fair to say he, or she, left this as a personal message to you, Arthur.”

“What?” Arthur gasped out, confused. “But why? And how?”

“You felt pain all of a sudden, yes?” Merlin asked, staring up at him. “What happened immediately before that?”

Arthur sat up straighter and rubbed a hand over his eyes. “I don’t know. We started eating.”

“No,” Gwen cut in, her voice soft but sharp. “You touched my arm. Then you fell over.”

Gaius’ mouth became a sharp line. “Oh my.”

“What?” Both Merlin and Arthur said in unison. They watched Gaius raptly.

“Oh dear,” Gaius muttered. “Sire. I believe you have indeed been cursed with one of the oldest spells I can recall.”

Arthur waited. “Well?” He barked after another moment. “Out with it!”

“It’s a famous curse, my lord. Shared amongst the many magical communities,” Gaius wavered. “But it…it is never used. It is too cruel, too barbaric.”

“Oh, lord,” Merlin exhaled. He stood up and placed a hand on Arthur’s shoulder probably absentmindedly rather than for comfort.

Freoðuwebbe,” Gaius muttered, “that is what, or who, first used it.

“That came to you awfully fast,” Arthur said with scorn.

Gaius raised that ominous brow at him. “It speaks to the Woman of Peace, my lord. It is very old indeed and quite revered.”

“Woman of Peace?” Merlin frowned. “What does that have to do with Arthur?”

“Many years ago, when I was still quite young–” Gaius said, voice tired.

“Oh, before the sun was in the sky,” Merlin said softly.

Gaius pursed his lips, but carried on. “There was a man who was given this same curse. He was known for abusing women. So, not a good man.”

What?” Arthur cried.

“After being cursed, he could not touch a woman without suffering great agony,” Gaius went on. “Though he did try.”

“This is absurd,” Arthur bellowed. “Gwen, did I hurt you? Because if so, I had no idea!”

“Not at all, my lord!” she said worryingly. “I don’t know what happened.”

Gaius raised his hand. “This is not Gwen’s doing at all. She is not magical. We know this. No, I feel, Arthur, that this has come from elsewhere, perhaps as a punishment.”

“For what?” Arthur yelled, waving his arm about. “I haven’t done anything!”

“This is a particular curse, isn’t it?” Merlin asked, voice far more level than Arthur’s.

“It is,” Gaius nodded. “The man from my youth? He didn’t live past three days. Dead as a doornail, I’m afraid.”

Merlin’s eyes widened, “Three sunrises past due!” he cried. “The inscription in the throne room!”

“What?” Arthur was losing the plot here. “That can’t be true.”

“Oh no…” Merlin gasped. “We’ve already gone past one sunrise! Does Arthur only have two days to live?”

Gwen covered her mouth, eyes wide.

“Calm down,” Gaius tutted. “There is no reason to lose our heads.”

“Why not?” Merlin said, his voice cracking. “Arthur is doomed!”

“Merlin, please,” Gaius said. “Listen to me. This curse is particular for a reason. It is a message to the curse-bearer. The general idea is, if I recall correctly, that it is a warning. The man from my childhood was truly awful. He was expected to atone for his crimes against women.”

“But I haven’t done anything wrong!” Arthur said, losing hope. “I don’t…think I have?”

“Perhaps not,” Gaius nodded, “but unfortunately you are now stricken with the curse and you must follow through.”

“Through on what?”

Gaius was digging through his pile of notes.

He pulled out a very old and weathered book and opened it up.

“There is a trial to be taken; A test, perhaps.”

“Here, let me,” Merlin rushed over to pore over the book. Gaius gave him a look but Merlin just made a face and jutted his chin at Arthur.

“How are you going to find anything in a book that large?” Arthur cried. “We’ll be here for days!”

Gaius stepped into his line of vision. “We must get you ready, sire. You will need to acquire a horse and minimal supplies. This journey may be short, but it is necessary.”

“But where am I going?” Arthur asked.

A whooshing, flapping noise behind Gaius made Gwen look up from the other side of the room.

“Found it!” Merlin cried. Gaius stepped aside, revealing Merlin bent over the book like an old wizened fool.

Freoðuwebbe,” Merlin muttered. “It’s…it’s in verse.”

Arthur closed his eyes as Merlin read out the words.

 

No harm will be honoured, a warning to men.

That women stand free, the most silent of fen.

No mail, no plate, no path to follow.

Three tests, one future, one less a tomorrow.

 

Merlin looked up.

“Oh dear,” Gaius muttered and took a seat at his table.

“Well, what does that mean?” Arthur asked. He pulled his tunic on, tucking it into his trousers. His hand went to his stomach. That pain…he hoped to never feel it’s like ever again.

“It’s a quest, isn’t it?” Merlin asked Gaius.

“It is indeed,” Gaius sighed. “And it appears the three days start now. Activated by your touching Gwen.”

“But why me?” Gwen asked.

“You’re a woman,” Merlin said, standing tall. “That’s all it took.”

“So what? I can’t touch another woman for three days?” Arthur said. He snorted. “Please spare me the terror, but I think even I can do that.”

Merlin gave him a look.

“If only it were that simple, my Lord,” Gaius said. He read over the verse again. “It is written in the style of the old quests, spawned by magic, but fulfilled with deeds. No, Merlin is on the right path. You have to set out as soon as possible. It says here there are three tasks. They would be for you, sire.”

“I can’t just go off into wherever on a whim!” Arthur cried out. He got to his feet and began pacing.

“We’ll gather the knights, Arthur,” Merlin said, coming over. “Everyone can support you and, and we’ll bring herbs of all sorts, in case your condition gets worse.”

“I feel fine,” Arthur said, opening his arms wide as if to show just how perfectly able and healthy he was. Three days? Pish posh!

“That will not do, Merlin,” Gaius said. “I suspect a party of any size will not be welcomed where you are going.”

“What?” Merlin spun about. “You know where we have to go?”

Gaius tapped the paper.

“Here it is, clear as day. No harm will be honoured, a warning to men.” He looked around at the others. Gwen had gone completely silent. Arthur wondered if she was feeling bad for being a part of this mess. “That’s referring to the curse’s core. It is a warning to men, to protect women.”

“I’m sure it got a lot of use,” Merlin muttered. Arthur scowled. “I am not some blaggard who letches!”

“Didn’t say you were,” Merlin smiled in an appeasing way that made Arthur feel as if he were being patted on the head, like a good child.

“That women stand free–” Gaius persisted, voice getting louder. Arthur shut his mouth and Merlin followed suit.

Gaius continued, “–In the most silent of fen. You see, that’s the important point.” Gaius’ finger jittered over the page. “That is not good news, but unsurprising.”

“Please, explain,” Arthur said. “What is this fen? There are hundreds, no, thousands of fens in Albion alone. How are we supposed to find the correct one?”

“It says so right on the page,” Gaius sighed. “The most silent of fen; That could only be referring to one place and it causes me great ill to think of sending you there.”

He inhaled slowly, then stared at Arthur properly. “It is speaking of the Willowlock fen.”

“Never heard of it,” Merlin said.

“It is…legendary, shall we say,” Gaius went on. “It is known by many names. I first heard of it as the Deeping Mire. Deep for whomever takes a step into its depths cannot come out.  It is a quiet, dead place, so they say.”

“You sound…unsure,” Merlin said.

“I am unsure. Every story I’ve ever been told of that place spoke of danger and death. It is said that no man ever returns from the Deeping Mire, the Silent Fen. Its mists are thick and its waters dangerous. No animals live there and no one knows what sits in the middle of it. It might be a lake, it might be more of a marsh, who knows? What I do know is that every party of soldiers or wanderers who have attempted its crossing have died before leaving shore. It is enchanted, I promise you that. Tales have told of a boat that can carry one across, but it is not always there and no man-made ship will float upon its waters.”

The room was silent as everyone let that sink in.

Merlin’s foot was tapping against the floor.

Gwen looked very upset, her hands covering her face. This was up to Arthur, as always, wasn’t it?

“All right, well, then we should go there,” Arthur said, pausing his pacing.

“I would like to tell you not to,” Gaius said resignedly, “but if you cannot fulfill whatever three tasks lie within this challenge, then I’m not certain that curse won’t eat you alive.”

Arthur swallowed. Just days ago he’d been celebrating his own birth and now here he was, staring imminent death in the face. Wonderful.

 


 

“You’re really not going to tell Uther where we’re going?” Merlin said, jogging alongside Arthur. They pulled their horses behind them, through the northernmost gate out of Camelot.

“He wouldn’t allow it,” Arthur sighed. His armour clanked and his chainmail was heavy. They had managed to pull together minimal supplies but three days wasn’t very long to get to where they were going and come back.

“You don’t have to come with me, Merlin,” Arthur said. “This is my problem now.”

“Is it though?” Merlin tilted his head and smiled.

Arthur smirked.

“The Lady Mera was asking after you,” Merlin said.

“Hm,” Arthur frowned into the sunlight. “Best not to let her know where we’re off to.”

Merlin snorted. “Why? She’s not apt to follow.”

“I don’t know, some of those women at court might.”

Merlin eyed Arthur. “Perhaps you are terrible with the ladies.”

“I am not!” Arthur cried out angrily. “Ye Gods, Merlin! You know me! I haven’t laid a  hand upon a woman ever in my life! At least…not unless she welcomed it.” He sniffed and tugged his horse further down the rocky trail.

“Uh huh,” Merlin shook his head and laughed, “so I hear.”

Arthur’s head snapped to look back at Merlin. “What did you hear?”

“Oh, not much, not really,” Merlin went on. “But you do know the servants talk.”

Arthur had a vision of Merlin snickering in the many corners of the castle with a maid or two.

“Oh, I’m sure you do,” he said sharply. “You and all the chambermaids.”

“I’m not sure what you’re implying exactly,” Merlin laughed, “but you don’t think the servants wouldn’t gossip about the royal family, do you? Really, Arthur, I expected better.”

“Oh be quiet and get your horse over here. We don’t have time to pfaff about.”

 


 

The ride was long and arduous. And dull, so very dull.

By nightfall, they’d covered a lot of ground, but the horses needed rest and feeding. While Merlin tied them up nearby, Arthur went about setting snares.

“We’re not going to be here long enough to catch anything,” Merlin griped.

“It’s good practice,” Arthur rebutted.

They didn’t start a fire, hoping to not draw any attention their way. Once word got out that the prince was missing, every bandit this side of Camelot would be on them.

“We’ll rest a couple hours,” Arthur said, reclining against an ash tree. “But we have to keep moving. This Silent Fen, or whatever, isn’t exactly a day’s easy ride on horseback.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Merlin said around a slice of apple. He was scanning the map he and Gaius had hastily drawn up. How he could read anything in the dimness was beyond Arthur, who could only just make out Merlin’s features in the dark.

The moon was out, so there was enough light to see by and not dump them into total blackness.

He watched Merlin, crouched on a log, reading the map. Arthur was nominally pleased that Merlin had insisted on following him on this mad quest. He hadn’t faltered, not even for a second.

“Do you think there’s a reward at the end of this?” Merlin asked abruptly.

“What, you mean like my life?” Arthur said.

Merlin chewed his apple loudly, “No, apart from that. Do you think there’s something out there, in the fen? Something that’s being guarded?”

“Hm,” Arthur scooted back and rested his head against the tree. “I doubt it. It’s just more sorcery being used against us, Merlin. Magic is dangerous, after all.” He could feel Merlin’s gaze on him. “I do hope that while we’re gone they find the bastard who cursed me.”

“If he stuck around,” Merlin said softly.

 


 

They kept a good pace through the morning light, only stopping to relieve themselves or allow themselves some food and drink.

“Found some blackberries,” Merlin said, coming out of the thin forest. He bent low to hand some to Arthur. Their fingers brushed and Arthur was thankful again that Merlin was as he always was: loyal and reliable. Stupid sometimes, but very loyal.

“Mm,” Arthur hummed around the sweet blackberry. “You’re actually good for something.”

“Please, Arthur, your kindness is too overwhelming,” Merlin laughed.

“How are you so pleasant all the time, Merlin?” Arthur asked.

Merlin shrugged, “You mean nice?”

“Mmm, not really. You’re more of…a vague sort of fellow who isn’t bothered by much.”

“You make me sound like a lazy ass.” Merlin gave Arthur a sour look. “I’m here with you aren’t I?”

Arthur grinned, “That you are.”

 


 

On the second evening, they rested again.

Merlin was becoming agitated.

“Would you stop pacing!” Arthur barked. The small fire he’d started was just enough to cook up the rabbit that had stumbled into one of his snares (hah, Merlin!)

“I’m just–how are you feeling?” Merlin said, chewing on his nails. He was still staring at the blasted map.

“I’m fine,” Arthur said. His arse hurt a little from riding all day but what else was he to expect?

“What if we don’t get there in time, Arthur?” Merlin said. “You could be dead, dying, but miles from home! The king will have my head!”

“I’ll behead you myself if you don’t. Sit. Down.

Merlin dropped down onto the ground beside him.

The two of them watched the rabbit cook.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Merlin said. The gentleness in his voice grated at Arthur. He hated when Merlin was soft with him. It happened more often than Arthur liked.

He turned to look at Merlin. The other man’s eyes glinted in the firelight. He looked quite…ethereal out in nature, Arthur always thought so. It was as if Merlin belonged out here and not cooped up inside stone walls. It made sense, somewhat.

“I’m fine, really,” Arthur said softly. He could be himself around Merlin. No one else had that effect on him, not even Gwen before Lancelot came back.

It was because Arthur knew Merlin’s concern was genuine. It was difficult for Arthur to maintain friendships. Being son of a king was a daunting prospect without having to navigate the follies of social connection. Arthur could scarcely trust anyone. But Merlin, he was different. He wasn’t a soldier, so he didn’t appeal to the rowdy part of Arthur’s nature. Yet he was perhaps more strident than all the knights of Camelot combined. Under another, perhaps more intolerant prince, Merlin wouldn’t have survived their first meeting.

“I don’t know, Arthur,” Merlin said, staring into the fire. “You don’t understand magic much.”

“Oh, and you do?” Arthur said.

“Well,” Merlin sniffed, “no, of course not. But what if the curse gets you before we reach the fen?”

“Oh, for the love– fine! I’ll show you. Let me prove to you that I am not, in fact about to keel over.”

Arthur sat up and began to unbuckle his tunic.

“Arthur, what–”

“Help me, you blithering idiot!” Arthur said, waving a hand at all the buckles and belts holding his armour together. He was very glad to not have come in his full suit of armour. The greaves alone would have driven him and his horse mad.

The hauberk came away when Arthur shucked it over his head, leaving him in his plain undershirt. It was a soft but sturdy wool and had been a gift from Guinevere many years prior.

Arthur pulled up the wool shirt.

“See?” He said, staring at Merlin’s face.

“Oh dear,” Merlin’s mouth dropped open. His eyes were wide. Arthur frowned.

He glanced down and awkwardly shifted in the firelight.

“Oh,” he exhaled.

His belly was completely black, like he’d been dipped in ash.

“Oh no no no no,” Merlin hissed. He pressed his hand against Arthur’s belly.

Arthur’s heart sank. He couldn’t feel it. He couldn’t feel Merlin’s touch at all.

“Merlin, stop,” he said, throat tight, but Merlin ignored him. He kept prodding Arthur, pushing at him so he could see his sides.

“It’s spreading fast,” Merlin whispered. He looked at Arthur, face set and grim. “What if it reaches your heart? What then?”

“I don’t know!” Arthur cried out. Okay, now a bit of panic was starting to settle in his stomach.

“Oh gods, am I going to die?” he said.

“No, no you’re not,” Merlin said. “We’ve still got one more day.”

“The threat was based on three sunrises, Merlin! Sunrises!”

“Yes, well,” Merlin scrambled to his feet. “We’ve got all the time from the third sunrise tomorrow, until the next sunrise the day after.”

“We have to go, don’t we?” Arthur  deflated, feeling tired deep in his bones.

“It’s not far, actually,” Merlin said. He scrambled about their little encampment, gathering up their things. “I bet we could walk it in a couple hours.”

“Urgh,” Arthur whined, but did get to his feet. He took care putting his armour back on, while Merlin went to fetch the horses.

“Stupid magic,” Arthur grumbled. “Stupid curse.”

 


 

They exited the woods just before dawn.

The horses slowed and came to a halt.

Arthur looked about.

The world opened up around them, stretching flat and plain and far into the distance. A white mist was settled low to the ground, dewdrops on every rock and leaf.

“What is this place?” Arthur asked.

“We’re very close,” Merlin whispered. “Don’t you feel the presence?”

“The what?” Arthur shivered.

“The magic,” Merlin said. “This place is very old.”

Arthur was in no mood for this sort of thing.

“Well, come on then, it must be not too far off.” He clicked his tongue and tapped his ankles against his horse.

But his horse didn’t move. “Oi, come on,” Arthur tried again.

“They’re not going into that,” Merlin said, understanding something Arthur couldn’t.

“Oh, gosh, mighty mystical one, what the hell do you propose now? We need our horses!”

“Not anymore,” Merlin turned to look Arthur in the eye. “We have to go on foot.”

Arthur clenched his jaw.

Merlin was probably right. Merlin was always right.

“Bloody hell,” Arthur griped and hopped off his saddle. “I can’t believe I agreed to do this. Should have just laid down and accepted my fate. Should have just died.

Merlin chuckled. “When have you ever laid down and accepted anything?”

Arthur made a face and started to unbuckle his saddlebags, “You’d be surprised. I’m not just a pretty prince, you know.”

“Hmmm,” Merlin smiled but followed suit. “I’ll see it when I believe it.”

 

 

Chapter Text

They walked through the quiet that surrounded them, their footsteps echoing.

“There is nothing out here,” Arthur said.

“I’ll say,” Merlin said, stepping over a moss-covered rock. The landscape was all low brambles, pebbles and cold wetness.

They’d left their horses tied at the edge of the mist, seeing as the animals refused to go where they needed them to. Arthur sincerely hoped he and Merlin would be back in good time. He didn’t like leaving perfectly good animals out for anyone to run off with.

“They’ll wait for us,” Merlin had said at the time.

Arthur wasn’t so sure but Merlin had that look in his eye, the one that was all reassurance.

“Do you think this is the right direction?” Arthur asked. They couldn’t see anything.

“I hope so,” Merlin said.

As they walked, Arthur’s mail clinked and clanked.

“You’d make a terrible spy,” Merlin chuckled.

“Shut up,” Arthur grouched.

He wanted to say something about being a glorious knight of Camelot, which was a few levels higher than a lowly spy, and so making noise wasn’t that much of a concern, when Merlin’s arm reached out and slapped against his chest.

“What th–Merlin!”

“Don’t go any further,” Merlin hissed.

Arthur looked in front of them. The mist was moving, thick and white, but slow.

“There’s nothing there,” Arthur said, but he reached for his sword regardless.

“No, look down. See that glistening?” Merlin pointed.

The rocks in front of them were shining a little, then something waved, shifted.

“Water,” Arthur said, frowning. Now that he knew what to look for, he understood why the terrain seemed so blurry. “It’s a lake, this must be the fen.”

Merlin nodded. “Gaius said men never come back from here, remember? They always died on the shore. I’ll bet the water or the air, or something, is enchanted.”

Arthur swallowed. The water was shallow and glistened grey. It didn’t look very deep. “Maybe we can walk through it?”

“What part of enchanted do you not understand?” Merlin said, exasperated. “It might kill us.”

“Or it might not!” Arthur said right back, “Maybe that’s the trick. Only those who don’t believe in fables and fairytales can actually get across. Look, you’re being overly cautious, I’ll just dip my boot–”

“Arthur, don’t!”

The moment Arthur’s boot slipped lower and grazed the top of the shimmering water, his stomach seized and it felt like thunder and lightning coursed through him, cutting and burning and biting.

“Argh!” he bellowed and pulled back. He clutched at his belly and winced and lost his footing.

“Arthur!” Merlin cried and caught his arm, then helped him sit down on the pebbled shore.

“Bloody hell,” Arthur gasped through his teeth. “Gods, that hurt.”

“You can’t go in the water!” Merlin yelled right in his ear.

“Yes! I realize that now, Merlin! Stop barking down my throat!”

“You’re so stupid sometimes,” Merlin gritted out. He pressed his hand to Arthur’s belly. “Does it still hurt?”

“No!” Arthur snapped. “It passed! Get off me!”

Merlin sat back on his heels and rubbed a hand through his hair.

The two of them breathed for a moment.

“We don’t know what we’re doing,” Arthur gasped out. “Do we?”

“Never have known,” Merlin said with a lopsided smile.

Arthur rolled his eyes. “So what now?”

Merlin exhaled slowly, thinking. “We’ll have to wait, maybe until dusk.”

“For what?” Arthur said. “We don’t have much time.” He belly didn’t hurt anymore but it certainly left a mark on his memory. The pain…it was so unique, so awful, he didn’t think he could last if it had gone on for more than a second longer.

“I know,” Merlin sighed, “perhaps if we walk the perimeter. The verse didn’t say anything about finding another way across. There might even be a bridge. Maybe we don’t have to cross?”

“You think the magical death lake has a bloody bridge? How convenient,” Arthur griped.

Merlin smiled at him and Arthur swallowed. He pushed at Arthur’s fringe where it fell in his eyes.

“Well, there’s no harm in looking, is there?”

 


 

The two of them kept walking and walking and walking. Merlin kept an eye on the shoreline, as it seemed he had better eyes for it. It would creep up on Arthur, a trick of the light, and he’d stumble around trying not to get his boots wet again. He moved to the outside edge, Merlin closer to the water and they stayed further back. He didn’t want to feel that awful burn in his gut again.

“How are you feeling?” Merlin asked. The mist was thicker now, rising well above their shoulders. It made the entire landscape look older, more dreary, like pictures from ancient storybooks where the colours have faded.

Arthur could feel the numbness spreading up his ribs and back. His undershirt usually rubbed against him but right now there was zero sensation under his armour.

“I’m fine,” he murmured. No need to worry Merlin unnecessarily. He was enough of a girl’s petticoat as it was. He didn’t need to fret when Arthur was still walking and talking.

Merlin shook his head and they kept going.

The silence enveloped them. Everything was muted greys and blues, the sunlight just able to filter through the shifting fog. It certainly felt like a dead place. No animals, no insects, nothing moved and nothing breathed. It’s no wonder there were tales of people disappearing out there. It would be a good place to go if one had decided living was too much of a bother.

“What’s that?” Arthur said, spotting something.

Merlin stood at attention and stared off, further into the distance, out across the water.

“A shape,” Arthur squinted. “Can you see it?”

Merlin walked ahead of him. Something was definitely moving through the water.

“It’s a boat,” Merlin whispered. His voice was soft, careful.

And so it was a boat, small and silent. It was a dark grey wooden thing, simply built, with a low gunwale and no oars, not even oarlocks to rest one in. The boat drifted silently towards the shoreline, leaving no ripple in its wake.

“How do we use it?” Arthur asked, following Merlin up to the water’s edge. “Should we even try?”

“More importantly, where did it come from?” Merlin chewed his lip and squinted down at the boat. The fen was quiet around them, not even the sloshing water made a sound. “This place is steeped in magic, Arthur,” Merlin said gravely. “We must be very careful and not forget that.”

Upon closer inspection, it became clear that the boat was not a typical sort of rowboat, at least not something you’d find in any port or dock.

Instead of short benches running from port and starboard, it had one long bench that attached bow to stern, running the right down the middle of the rowboat. Anyone who sat in it would need to straddle that bench.

“How do we get it across the water?” Arthur asked. “No paddles…”

“No idea,” Merlin said. “Maybe there’s a current?”

“Well,” Arthur looked about, frowning into the emptiness. “We don’t have much choice do we?”

Merlin nodded and reached to pull at the wooden vessel.

“Oi, hold on,”Arthur said. “Let me.”

Merlin rolled his eyes. “Would you just wait? Let me get in, and I’ll help you on afterwards.”

“Oh, because you are such a seafaring expert, hm?” Arthur said, folding his arms.

“When’s the last time you even saw a boat, Arthur?” Merlin retorted.

Arthur made a face, clearly put off by that question. “I…it’s… I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.”

“Exactly, so shut up,”

Merlin clambered awkwardly into the boat. It wobbled precariously as he tried to stand inside it.

“Don’t–” Arthur rushed to steady it, leaning over so as not to step in the lake itself. “–fall in.

“I’m not trying to!” Merlin snapped, arms flapping to balance himself. “It’s very shallow, unsteady!”

Come to think of it, how could the boat even come in so close to shore at all? Wouldn’t its keel be banging up against the rocks and sand?

Arthur didn’t like it, not one bit.

“Don’t fall in, or get wet,” he said. He shook out his arms. “Here, take the supplies,” he handed over Merlin’s worn satchel.

“All right,” Merlin said, placing the bag safely inside the boat “Now you.”

Arthur had never actually been on a boat before, but he wasn’t about to tell Merlin that. He girded his loins and heaved one leg over the lip.

The boat tipped sideways and Merlin yelped, grabbing for the opposite edge.

“Bugger!” Arthur hopped back like a prancing horse while Merlin steadied the vessel. “Hold it still.”

“I’m trying,” Merlin hissed, sounding like a ruffled and distressed crow. He managed to stop the precarious rocking by bending low and waving his arms about. He looked a right fool.

Arthur waited until Merlin could stand up again.

When Merlin nodded, Arthur mirrored him. He gingerly attempted the climb into the boat again. He came it more from the front this time, hoping it would spread his weight better. He was, after all, a sturdier man that willowy Merlin.

“Balls!” The boat tipped forward, almost throwing Merlin face-first into Arthur’s chest. How was it even possible, tipping like that?

Arthur hissed and heaved Merlin back inside the boat to wobble about while he fumed on land. He swore up a storm and stomped around the wet ground in a rage.

“All right. Calm down!” Merlin said. “Getting in a strop isn’t going to help.”

“It’s such a piece of utter rubbish!” Arthur barked, hands waving wildly. He kicked at the boat and winced, feeling how solid the wood was. It certainly wasn’t a wispy thing of a vessel. “My life is almost over, I’ve got some black magic stealing up my body, probably killing me slowly, and now a possessed hellion of a boat won’t stay steady on a lake of death!”

Merlin cocked a brow and waited for Arthur to calm his ragged breathing. “Look,” he put up both of his hands to placate Arthur. “This is an enchanted place, remember? Perhaps…” he looked about the tiny vessel. It was very small, after all. ”Perhaps only one person can ride in it. Perhaps only one person can cross the lake? That’s sounds like a warlock sort of crux to throw into any spell.”

Arthur’s chest heaved from his tantrum. “What?”

“Maybe the intention is that only the cursed can cross?”

Arthur breathed out, then in. “But…”

“I know,” Merlin rubbed a hand over his face. “Not ideal.”

“Well, then,” Arthur paused, frustrated. He gritted his teeth and clenched his fist. Would that his sword could make matchsticks out of the stupid boat and be done with it. He couldn’t just stab his way out of all his problems, could he? He didn’t like where this was going. “Then I have to get in and you have to get out.”

“I’m not letting you go alone, Arthur,” Merlin sighed. “Maybe I should go.” He seemed to ponder this.

“I’m not letting you cross this cursed water by yourself!” Arthur cried out. “You wouldn’t last an hour without me in the wilderness.” Merlin looked put out by that and so he should be. Arthur couldn’t imagine what horrors Merlin would have to face out there in the fog. Perhaps there was a lake monster that liked chomping on bony, meat-less busybodies? Arthur couldn’t let his best servant, his most loyal servant, go to his death. He tightened his lips over his teeth and tried to reign in his frustration. “Besides, this is my curse, so I go!”

Merlin threw up his hands in frustration. “Oh now you’re all ready to bear arms for this quest!”

“You are not leaving me here, Merlin,” Arthur gritted out, though the phrasing hadn’t quite come out the way he’d heard in his head. Merlin couldn’t go, and he couldn’t just…leave Arthur here; that was preposterous! Just the thought made Arthur’s heart clench. He would not be left behind.

Merlin’s head drooped and he breathed in deeply. “Fine,” he muttered, getting out of the boat. “Fine.”

“So…” Arthur watched Merlin hop over the water’s edge, making sure to not touch it. “We’re agreed.”

“Not exactly,” Merlin said, patting his hands against his trousers, “But we’re low on time. If this is your quest, your life…then…you have to fulfill it. That’s how ancient magic works. We can’t fool it, we can’t trick it. Not when you carry a mark like that.” He waved in Arthur’s general direction.

Arthur nodded, mouth tight. He pressed a hand to his belly. He really was sick and tired of these sorcerers ruining everything.

“So, I’ll…get in the boat then.”

They stared at one another. Arthur nodded anyway. It looked easy, so he just did as Merlin had. He heaved one foot over the gunwale but before he could settle his weight inside, the boat rocked out from under him, leaving Arthur flailing, wobbling on one foot. Thankfully, Merlin leapt forward to catch him. The boat placidly floated away, then came back to them, as if teasing.

Arthur tried again, with Merlin holding the boat steady from the other side.

Once more, he wasn’t able to get inside the boat. It rocked against him, even as he held on tight. The water splashed and Arthur cried out as a droplet or two hit his leg. It stung like the dickens.

Gasping for breath, he stepped back.

“What is wrong with the bloody thing? Poor construction? Shoddy workmanship?”

“I don’t know,” Merlin frowned. “It won’t let you on.”

“Obviously!” Arthur snapped. He wiped at the sweat gathering at his brow. “Rubbish thing. I hate it.”

Merlin pursed his lips and held the boat steady with his hand.

“There’s something about it. It’s magic. It arrived for us. It knew we needed to cross. It has to be the only way.”

Merlin squinted out across the water. The mist made everything gloomy and indiscernible. “Do you think…” he said softly, “Do you think this is part of the trial?”

“If it is,” Arthur said, “it should let me across, no? Get me there faster; This is my trial, my problem.”

“It’s not much of a test if it just does whatever you want, Arthur,” Merlin said.

“But you were able to stand in it,” Arthur groused.

Merlin nodded. “It thinks we’re different, perhaps. Or it knows.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “How? How are we that different, Merlin? What makes you so bloody special that the possessed boat doesn’t want to throttle you?”

Merlin chewed his lip and a furrow developed between his eyebrows. He was tense.

When Arthur caught his eye, Merlin blinked and looked away. Whatever was on his mind, he didn’t want to share it.

“So what now?” Arthur pointed a finger at Merlin, “You’re not going alone.”

“I wasn’t going to suggest it,” Merlin said, voice soft. He was still thinking. “We’re different, you and I. And it will take me, but not you. Yet you are actually carrying the curse…so why not you?”

Arthur folded his arms.

Merlin pondered this some more. “What was the verse again? What did it say about the fen?”

“I don’t remember,” Arthur said, “you're the one who remembers that sort of tripe.”

Merlin shook his head and laughed. “Yes, I suppose I am. Okay then, from the beginning: No harm will be honoured … a test… no, wait, a warning to men. A warning.

“That’s easy,” Arthur snorted. “Whoever made this curse hates men.”

Merlin ignored him.

“That women stand free, the most silent of fen.”

Arthur spread his arms wide, “Here we are! In this blessedly terrible, terrible place.”

“No mail, no plate, no path to follow,” Merlin continued. “Three tests, one future … one less a tomorrow…”

Arthur couldn’t read into that. It sounded ominous, but he couldn’t say why.

Merlin looked up at him, his eyes narrowing. His gaze flicked over Arthur, from his shoulders and down to his boots.

“Your armour,” Merlin said, eyes going bright. “That’s the difference.”

“What?” Arthur said.

“You have to remove your armour! No plate, no mail. The boat won’t carry you if you are armed.”

Arthur’s mouth dropped open. “You…what?”

“Well, it’s the only real difference isn’t it?” Merlin scratched his chin. “I don’t have any sort of weaponry or armour so the boat allowed me to get in.”

“That sounds ridiculous,” Arthur said. “I can’t travel without my armour, or my sword!”

“Well, you’ll have to,” Merlin said with finality. “Chop chop, get it off.”

Arthur made a petulant face, but he did comply. He never went anywhere without bodily protection. Who knows what bandits could erupt out of the wilderness and attack him? He had to be able to defend himself!

Looking at Merlin’s face, though…perhaps he was right. Arthur didn’t go anywhere without a party of knights or his sword.

He sighed.

There was no harm in trying.

Merlin had to help him unbuckle himself from his breastplate and spaulder. The vambrances he could do himself.

Then came the hauberk, clinking and clanging loudly.

Merlin tugged the metal pieces over Arthur’s head and dropped them in a pile.

Arthur stood there in his plainclothes, feeling quite stripped down, almost naked.

Merlin flicked his fingers.

“Come on, hand it over.”

Arthur grimaced and undid the belt holding his scabbard to his hip. He held his sword out to Merlin who took it carefully and placed it on the pile.

“Maybe we can take this stuff with us, just not on us?” Arthur said hopefully.

“I wouldn’t think so, sire,” Merlin said with a small smile. He bent to pick up Arthur’s sword again. He drew it, the blade gleaming in the light. Keeping his eyes locked with Arthur’s, his held the sword out, hovering over the rowboat. The vessel started to move away until it was clear of the blade.

Arthur stared.

“Oh gods, you were right,” he uttered.

Merlin smiled and sheathed the sword before laying on top of Arthur’s discarded armour. He patted the pile and grinned. “Don’t worry, I’m sure no one will find it here anyway.”

He was probably right. No life was to be seen or heard for miles.

“This better work, Merlin,” Arthur said, shrugging and stretching out his arms. He did feel lighter without the extra weight.

“Right,” Merlin licked his lips and eyed the boat. “Want to give it another go?”

Arthur scowled and nodded. He carefully approached the boat, “There, there, you frisky thing. I’m not going to hurt you.”

He heard Merlin chuckle behind him.

Arthur climbed over the edge of the boat and held his breath. He really did not want to be tossed arse-over-teakettle into the deathly lake.

The boat stayed steady. He could feel the bottom with his boot. He gingerly pulled himself up and over and into the boat. It wobbled for a moment, but did eventually settle.

“Yes!” Merlin crowed. “It worked!”

“Gods, Merlin!” Arthur waved at him frantically, “Get in before it floats off!”

The boat was indeed slowly pulling away from the shore, causing Merlin to gasp.

“Oh, bugger,” Merlin moved fast, taking an awkward leap into the small rowboat. He wasn’t graceful and he certainly wasn’t very successful either.

Arthur grabbed at him and dragged him over the gunwale, heaving and gasping.

“You’re not as light as you look,” Arthur grunted, when Merlin fell on top of him.

“Sorry,” Merlin said, gasping through what must be excitement. The two of them separated but there wasn’t much room to be had in such a tiny boat. It dipped a little, then set off.

“Oh…” Merlin had his arms stretched outwards as if for balance.

“Bloody magic,” Arthur muttered. He watched the shore move away from them, leaving his armour and sword behind. Arthur felt sick, bereft. This should not be happening. He shouldn’t be putting himself and Merlin in such a predicament.

The boat silently drifted away from the bleak and barren shore until the deep fog swallowed them whole.

 


 

“This is so unnatural,” Arthur said.

The eeriness of the lake was unsettling. The boat slid smoothly through the water, heading in some direction. Arthur wasn’t sure how it knew where to go, but then again, he wasn’t very knowledgeable about magic and sorcery.

He was sitting behind Merlin, the other man staring out at the water before them.

Merlin knew more about magic. Arthur wasn’t sure if that was because Gaius had imparted his years of knowledge to help Merlin understand the world around him, or if Merlin’s personal brand of curiosity led him to want to know more.

Arthur was always at a loss when magic was about. He didn’t want to know. His father had berated him time and time again about the evils of those who committed crimes of sorcery, and he wasn’t about to start asking questions when he knew it all led to evil doings and terrible stories.

But Merlin asked questions. Merlin was always looking in the right direction, the right places for all the right reasons. It would usually come across as unseemly to be poking one’s nose into business that was not one’s own. But Merlin never did so with malice, at least, as far as Arthur could tell. Merlin’s ethical reasoning was of the highest calibre.

Sometimes, when Arthur thought about it, he felt less than when comparing himself to Merlin.

Merlin was brave. Really, really brave. He wasn’t scared of anything. Not Arthur, not Uther, not ravaging beasts, not magic,  nothing. Arthur, as much as everyone believed him to be, wasn’t half as brave, not really. Merlin had come on this bloody nightmare trip without armour, without a sword because he never needed them. There’s something about that that gets Arthur right between the ribs, right in his softest parts.

“I still don’t see anything,” Merlin said, breaking Arthur from his thoughts. Merlin twisted to look at him.

Arthur nodded. “Uh, me neither.”

“It’s taking very long to get there, wherever there is.”

“What if we can’t get back?” Arthur said aloud for the first time.

“Um,” Merlin paused to consider that. “Oh, we’ll figure it out.” He smiled at Arthur. “We always do.”

“Hmm,” Arthur rumbled deep inside his chest. He rubbed at his stomach, wondering just how far the blackness had spread while they’d been sitting in the boat.

Something twinkled in the distance.

Arthur blinked.

“Oi, look,” He patted Merlin’s shoulder. “There, do you see something?”

Merlin looked ahead.

“Oh, are those lights?”

The daylight was fading fast. Arthur really hoped they’d get this over with before nightfall but it wasn’t looking too good for them.

“There’s…land, I think…” Merlin said. The boat rocked as he leaned over the bow.

“Careful,” Arthur yanked him back by the scruff of his shirt. “If you fall in and drown, I can’t save you.”

“Good point,” Merlin nodded. He needed a haircut, Arthur thought idly, looking over the back of Merlin’s head. His dark was touching his collar and it curled outwards, making Arthur wonder if Merlin could grow ringlets.

The boat came to a halt suddenly and Arthur slid forward on the bench, slamming into Merlin.

“Oof!” he grunted. “Watch it.”

“Ow,” Merlin rubbed the back of his head where Arthur’s chin had thunked him.

“Guess we’ve gone as far as we can,” Merlin said, getting to his feet.

The mist was clearing and Arthur could make out a low outcropping of grass and stone extending from the water.

“An island?” he asked.

“Looks like it,” Merlin said. He leaned forward. “Um, we’re not exactly moored properly.”

“What do you mean?” Arthur frowned.

Merlin sat back down, then twisted on the bench to face Arthur properly. “We can’t jump the distance to shore.”

Arthur frowned, “But…the water’s deadly.”

Merlin nodded. “I think we have to risk it.”

“You think it’s part of the trial?” Arthur asked.

“Most likely,” Merlin nodded slowly. “Trials aren’t meant to be easy. They’re meant to test a man’s fortitude and all of that.”

“Gods, no wonder nobody ever returns from this place,” Arthur huffed and rubbed a hand through his hair. He winced, already imagining the pain from the last time he’d been in the water. “What if it hurts you too?” Arthur said. “We didn’t test that. I can’t have you fall dead on me, Merlin.”

“Excuse me, you’re the one carrying around the black mark of death, my friend,” Merlin said, cocking a brow. “And besides, even if it does hurt, which it might, you can’t do this by yourself. I don’t see how. We don’t even know what the other two tests are.”

Arthur licked his lips.

“Right. No, you’re right. We have to get out of this boat, obviously.”

He looked over the edge. The lake bottom was right there. It wasn’t deep at all. Probably just up to the ankle.

But that wouldn’t matter if the water was enchanted.

“I’ve got an idea,” Merlin said, snapping his fingers. “You can hoist me. You know, toss me and I’ll jump over there and maybe I can pull the boat in?”

Arthur considered that.

The boat obviously wasn’t going to move closer to the island on its own, lazy thing.

He could probably throw Merlin far enough. It was only a few yards…

“All right,” Arthur stood up and rolled his shoulders. He squeezed past Merlin so as to get to the bow of the boat. It really wasn’t far at all. Happy with that, he turned to face Merlin, bent his knees, and cupped his hands together, making a step.

They’d actually practised this before, the one time Arthur had tried to train Merlin along with his knights. Part of the exercise was getting fellow fighters up and over low walls in a show of teamwork. Merlin, of course, had failed that miserably because he had straw for arms.

Merlin hesitated for a second, but then seemed to steel himself. He put a hand each on Arthur’s shoulders before pressing his boot into Arthur’s cupped hands.

“Right, on three,” Arthur bobbed for a moment, testing his own balance.”You get over there, and maybe find something to pull the boat in closer before the sun bloody sets.”

“Will do,” Merlin said with a nod. He squeezed Arthur’s shoulders.

“One…two … three!” Arthur bent and heaved with all he had.

Merlin flew over his shoulder, using his own legs to propel him even further.

Arthur fell back, expecting to hear an awful splash but instead he heard a thump and a cry of joy.

“Oof!” Merlin grunted.

Arthur twisted about and saw Merlin scrambling to his feet on the sandy shore.

“Yes!” Arthur clenched his fist with joy. He felt the boat rock under him and then he stumbled. What the–?

“Arthur!” Merlin cried out.

“Bugger!” Arthur yelled,”It’s moving! The stupid boat, it’s moving!”

And so it was. The beastly thing was slowly pulling away from the shore.

“Shit shit shit,” Arthur hissed, jittering where he stood, unsure of what to do.

“You have to jump!” Merlin cried, running into the water like an idiot. He yelped and fell back, the shock and pain from the cursed lake biting at him, probably.

“Don’t be an idiot!” Arthur barked.

“Shut up and jump!” Merlin yelled with fire in his eyes.

Arthur swallowed, knowing it was now or never.

“Bloody hell,” he gritted his teeth and ran at the gunwale. He took a flying leap, his booth landing squarely on the edge so as to fire him off like an arrow. He was thankful, for once, that he wasn’t weighed down by his armour.

But it still wasn’t enough. He wasn’t going to reach, not at all.

When he splashed down loudly into the placid water, fire burnt its way up his insides, making him howl in agony. He stumbled and fell.

“Arthur!” Merlin yelled.

Arthur bent forward, his stomach, his back, his very nerves convulsing awfully. He tried to get up, blind with pain, tried to get to shore.

“Merlin,” he gasped, feeling the curse wind its way up inside him. It was going to kill him. He could feel it licking at his very soul.

There were hands yanking at him. He flew forward, still curled in on himself, his muscles twitching.

There was cold, wet sand  against his cheek, then he was being rolled over.

“Arthur!” Merlin cried. “Arthur!”

Hands shook him and he exhaled, feeling his jaw loosen, the pain of his clenched teeth ebbing away.

“Mer…lin,” he gasped for air. Everything hurt.

“Oh!” Merlin huffed over him. Wet fingers brushed over Arthur’s cheeks and the vestiges of the forest fire that had erupted inside him  disappeared. “It’s okay. You’re still here. You made it.”

Arthur’s lungs heaved and he let go of the tension he’d been holding in his back, arms and legs. His arms twitched still from the shock of it all. He could feel the sand under his fingertips.

The lightning pain flashed behind his eyelids like a warning, a reminder.

When he was able to, he opened his eyes. The sky was a deep, rich purple and Merlin was there, looking down at him, his eyes wide with fright.

“You’re okay,” Merlin whispered and rubbed his thumb over Arthur’s cheekbone. “You did it, Arthur. You’re not done yet.”

“Oh,” Arthur’s heart fluttered in his chest. “Good. That’s good to hear.” He laid there and gathered his breathing, gathered himself.

After many long moments, he sat up, feeling old and brittle. He wondered if that flying leap would have worked had Merlin not been standing there to help. He rubbed his hand over his stomach, then his chest. He couldn’t feel anything and it made his throat tighten up.

“One trial down?” He asked , voice dry, trying to stay calm, to not let the fear take hold. They still had time. He still had time.

“One down,” Merlin grimaced. “Only…we left the satchel in the boat.”

Arthur stared at him, dumbstruck. “The bag with our food and water?”

“Yeah,” Merlin visibly deflated.

Arthur looked at the lake not a pace away from his own feet. There was no boat to be seen. It had disappeared, slunk back into the gloom. They were all alone again.

“I detest magic,” Arthur said, bitterness lining his every syllable. “I hate it so much.”

Chapter Text

The sun set slowly as they made their eventual way up the embankment leading from the water’s edge.

“Are you seeing those lights, or is it just me?” Merlin asked.

Arthur looked ahead into the gloom. “Yes, I see them. What do you suppose they are?”

Merlin squinted and trod through the sand, kicking it up as he went. “I don’t know.”

“Well, that’s great, very insightful,” Arthur sighed, wishing Merlin was less a toddler and more a soldier.

It wasn’t long before they encountered their next obstacle; Untimely curses wait for no man, after all.

“Are they lightning bugs, do you think?” Merlin said as the glowing, flittering orbs of light got bigger.

“Merlin,” Arthur said, pulling at his servant’s arm. “Wait. Look. We can’t go that way.”

Merlin frowned. “But the hedge is too thick.”

“I can see that,” Arthur said. The tiny lights lit up the dark green leaves of the bushes lined up before them. The hedge, if one wanted to think of it that way, ran across their path, much higher than either of their hands could reach, even on tip-toes.

It seemed the island was very narrow, perhaps less round and more oblong than fairytale islands of yore had led them to believe. The lake water ran to the left, further down the sandy embankment. Arthur would bet his next meal that if they followed the hedge all the way to the right, they’d find it meeting up with the far side of the island where the water flowed around.

“But how do we get over this thing?” Merlin griped, hands on his hips.

Arthur was watching the lights. They twinkled and glowed in quite a mesmerizing fashion. He stepped closer, getting an arm’s breath from the hedge and stared up at them.

“I don’t think those are fire bugs, Merlin,” he murmured.

“Well then what?”

Arthur shrugged. Upon closer inspection, he could see that the lights did indeed flicker and throb to some unheard beat, but they did not move. What were they?

“Come on,” he said, turning to the right and starting off. “We have to find a way over this bloody thing.”

“But it might go on for miles,” Merlin said. “We don’t have time for miles.”

He tripped over some stones and Arthur wondered once again why he kept Merlin about at all.

“Just…we’ll see,” Arthur murmured and pulled at Merlin’s wrist, righting him and dragging him along. They walked alongside the hedge for a time before Arthur noticed something.

“There’s an opening,” he breathed out, feeling the cloak of darkness settling around them. Were it not for the scattering of lights in the leaves, he might not have noticed  the doorway.

Merlin came round to investigate.

There was indeed a very neat-edged opening in the high hedge. It was so neat in fact, it looked to have been sliced with a supremely sharp blade and diligently maintained over time. Nature didn’t create such clean lines. Arthur looked up, up as the frame of the opening reached to the top of the hedge.

Merlin visibly swallowed.

“Well,” he said. “This is good.” He smiled at Arthur, leaving out the very obvious question of who or what keeps it looking so trim?

They both stared into the darkness beyond the opening. The ground at the entrance was clear of dust and leaves, leaving a smooth stone step to welcome them in.

“Ominous much?” Merlin murmured.

“Let’s get this over with,” Arthur collected his bravery, threw back his shoulders and shoved Merlin into the bush.

The path inside was quiet and dark. It split to either side, stretching onward into the shadows.

Arthur could hear his own heart beating in his ears it was so quiet.

“So, which way?” he said.

Merlin turned and looked down both paths. “I’ve no idea.”

“Well, left it is!” Arthur said, twisting on his heel and striding onward.

The two of them made their way down the narrow gap between the meticulously trimmed hedge that towered above them. The ground remained flat and clear of grass and debris.

They came to a corner. They followed it right. The path stretched out eerily before them. Lights twinkled in spots along the walls of leaves, giving them something minimal to see by.

“Do you know,” Merlin whispered, his voice low, “I think I might know what this is.”

They passed an opening to the right. It went on for a bit, then turned left. Arthur  paused, then glanced down the path they were already on, where it extended further. There might be another door, another opening ahead, but he wasn’t certain. He chewed his lip.

“Should we take this one?” he asked.

“Arthur,” Merlin pushed at his shoulder. “This is a maze.”

“I…” Arthur blinked, “I think it is, yes.”

“Well, we can’t get stuck in a bloody maze.”

Arthur turned to glare at Merlin in the dark. He hoped the other man could see it. “I’m aware of that,” he hissed, “But we don’t have much of a choice, do we?”

Merlin was definitely rolling his eyes. Arthur had seen it often enough, he could probably draw the expression from memory alone.

“Mazes aren’t as lovely as the tales tell us, you know, “Merlin griped. “They’re not just pretty gardens for the wealthy who have the time to take care of them. They’re like spider webs, Arthur. Are you listening? They were made to hide beasts and monsters, to keep them inside, keep them trapped, unable to escape and kill the masses. It’s fun to draw one, certainly, and test out the many pathways with ink and quill, but this is different. We can’t even see where we’re going.”

“Oh, and here I thought you could see through everything,” Arthur snorted. He selfishly felt relieved that he wasn’t doing this part of the trial alone. This place was awful, sickening even, and he wouldn’t want to be terrified of what was around the next corner by himself.

“Maybe we can climb the hedge,” he muttered, taking the route to the left.

“We need to mark our spots, Arthur,” Merlin hurried after him. “In case we double back on ourselves. If we get lost in here,” Merlin was huffing with the exertion to keep up. “If we get lost, we could die.”

Arthur rounded on Merlin with a grim set to his jaw. “I know, Merlin! This whole bloody place wants us dead, can’t you tell? It wants to eat us, devour us. I know! But we don’t have a choice!

Well, technically, of the two of them, Merlin did have a choice. He could probably go right back out and maybe the boat would come back for him. He could ride to Camelot, go home and not have to put himself through this ordeal at all. Arthur was tempted to order him home, anyway. Marlin didn’t have to die right alongside Arthur. That was ridiculous.

Merlin could, should leave and head home.

Arthur didn’t want him to, though. Why not stay with him? Stay with Arthur? He was here already, with evil slinking up his skin, down his arms, even over his legs, he knew. He didn’t have much time left. Come sunrise he’d either have freed himself from whatever hell this was, or he’d be dead on the ground, a waste to eveyone who ever knew him. The only hair of Camelot, dead and gone.

The reality of it all was sinking in fast and his stomach felt leaden in his gut, weighing him down, grounding him to this mortal plane he had barely experienced.

Merlin’s eyes twinkled in the dark. He was staring at Arthur like always.

“You’re getting out of this,” he said, voice sharp. “I’ll make sure of it.”

Arthur watched Merlin approach the leafy wall of the maze and press his palms to it. “And how exactly do you propose fixing this?” he asked.

Merlin was quiet as he whispered something under his breath.

“What are you doing?” Arthur said, confused. Merlin deflated against the leaves, which did not give at all.

He spoke into them, muffling his words.

“What was that?” Arthur said.

“I said…I’m not doing anything,” Merlin seemed somehow more defeated than a moment ago.

Arthur frowned.

“Merlin, really, pull yourself together. We will just forge on, okay? We’ve nought else to do anyway. We’ve no food, no water, so if we don’t make it out of this horrible place, we might just starve first. There’s something to look forward to. I’ll get struck down by the curse and you can wither away to dust by my side. Just like you always wanted.”

“A promising thought,” Merlin laughed then, breaking the tension.

He clawed his hands into the hedge and shook it mightily.

The hedge rustled loudly, like separate silks in the wind.

“It’s too soft a plant to climb,” Merlin sighed. “I thought it might be sturdy to keep its shape, but alas, no.”

“So we can’t climb it?” Arthur snorted. He felt odd being the one to see things for what they really were for once. There was no getting around this evilness. If that lake was enchanted, then why not the island as well? Climbing the hedge like a trellis was far too easy and they surely wouldn’t deserve it.

The two men stared at one another.

“So how should we go about this?”

“Gut feeling?” Merlin smiled wanly.

Arthur sighed. “We can take turns, perhaps? Bet on whatever comes for us. I say left, then next juncture, you pick the direction.”

“That’s not the worst thing you’ve ever suggested,” Merlin said.

“Not the best either,” Arthur replied.

Merlin squinted up the wall of leaves. Arthur could see stars above them.

Merlin was watching a pair of lights high up on the hedge.

“We could follow the lights?” he said.

Arthur considered that.

“And why would we do that?”

Merlin shrugged, “I noticed that they seem to cluster at corners. Perhaps that’s a sign. You know, for the intrepid wanderers.”

Arthur looked up at the lights as well.

Hm.

They did seem to pick a side to hang from, whatever they were. Even now, the few high above them were clinging to the left corner of the hedge where it turned sharply away.

“All right,” Arthur scrubbed a hand over his face, feeling tired and dirty and cold. “Let’s do that then.”

It was just mystical and ridiculous enough to make sense in this place.

 


 

They’d been walking silently for ages now.

The maze was thick around them and Arthur didn’t like to imagine how far from its edges they had gone.

It was so very dark inside its high walls.

He could hear Merlin’s breathing as he walked ahead, left hand grazing the leaves every now and then.

“Turning right,” Merlin said, pointing up.

Arthur eyed the flickering lights high on the hedge. They turned, just as the lights indicated.

A rustle in the leaves made both men pause.

“What was that?” Arthur asked, coming in close behind Merlin.

“I don’t know,” Merlin said. “Probably the wind.”

Arthur pursed his lips but didn’t argue. He was becoming a nervous nelly, reacting to every sound and dark shape.

The night was growing long but the sunrise wasn’t far off.

Twice more Arthur swore he could hear something behind the next wall of leaves, something shuffling beyond their line of sight.

But nothing appeared. They kept following the lights and Arthur was starting to think that maybe they weren’t doing too badly. By the stars he could tell they were still going in a consistent direction, even if they looped and backtracked a few times to get around some dead ends.

“The lights aren’t exactly perfect, are they?” he grouched after yet another wall cut them off. It was still very dark.

“Well, beggars, choosers and all of that,” Merlin said.

They were sticking close to one another, sometimes grasping for an elbow, a shirt, a hand, a reminder that they weren’t alone.

Arthur was getting weary though. He was tiring with every step. Merlin seemed all right, not as bad, so Arthur chalked it up to his insipid curse. Merlin didn’t need to know that he was slowing down, that every corner drew an inhale of dread from Arthur.

Just a bit more. They’d come so far, surely there wasn’t much left?

I haven’t even left a note for my father, Arthur thought angrily. He should have. He should have at least said good-bye. Now that would be left to Gaius, or perhaps Gwen, neither of whom deserved to bear such terrible news to the king.

“Come on, right again,” Merlin said, hand reaching back to grab Arthur’s.

He held fast.

They both stopped when a sound met their ears.

It was a shushing, a smooth shuffling.

Merlin turned to look at Arthur. His eyes were wide.

Something’s here, he mouthed.

Arthur’s heart was in throat. God, was there something really stalking about in here with them? He thought back to Merlin’s history lesson about mazes being cages, traps for monsters.

They listened, stock still.

The sound was coming closer. Whatever it was, it moved easily through the maze, making no discernible footfalls.

Merlin tilted his head while Arthur gripped his hand tightly.

“Come on,” Merlin whispered right into Arthur’s ear. “This way.”

They moved as silently as possible, passing an opening as they went. Arthur tugged at Merlin. He thrust his chin up, pointing.

Merlin saw the lights. Just as they were about to go down that path, the thing that had haunted their steps came into view.

It was massive.

Arthur held back a yell, his eyes widening with alarm.

Merlin yanked him across the opening and pressed him against the leaves.

Arthur’s heart thundered in his chest, terror making itself know. Merlin must have seen it too, going by the frantic look in his eyes. But Merlin was watching the entrance, listening.

“A snake!” Arthur said so softly, with such fear that he barely got the sound out. “A great bloody monstrous snake! Did you see it?”

Merlin nodded, brows furrowed.

The shuffling sound moved on, somehow not hearing them.

They waited, all bunched up against the hedge in the dark.

Arthur could feel Merlin’s heartbeat through his chest.

“No wonder the pathways are so clean and clear,” Arthur whispered into Merlin’ ear.

Merlin nodded, “With that thing slitherin’ about.”

It had appeared gigantic to Arthur’s eyes, possibly as wide as the path itself and he felt suddenly quite ill at the thought of sharing this maze with such a creature.

“How does it see in the dark?” Arthur hissed. “Did it see us?”

“I don’t think so,” Merlin said, pulling away, causing Arthur to feel cold again. “I think they aren’t great listeners, more smellers, if you know what I mean?”

“I have no idea what you mean, but I also don’t care. How do we get down there, down that pathway? We’re following the lights and they haven’t steered us wrong yet.”

Merlin nodded and licked his lips.

“Right, I think it’s moved on, so we need to be quick. We can slip by.”

And so they went, steeling themselves.

Arthur followed Merlin at a hasty pace, feeling that the creature could be anywhere, around any corner, just waiting for them.

“Faster, faster,” Merlin said. They followed the lights right, left, right again. Until Arthur was almost dizzy with it. His legs felt heavy and his breathing was becoming laboured. Was the curse reaching his organs?

Merlin pulled up short and Arthur slammed into him.

“Oof! Watch it!”

“Arthur, look!”

Arthur looked up to where Merlin was pointing. There were lights closer to them, almost at eye-level.

Merlin approached, seemingly entranced by their reddish glow.

“They…” Merlin frowned. Arthur came up as well, curious. “They’re not bugs. I thought they might be enchanted fruits.”

As they gazed up, the lights, rounded blobs of incandescene, pulsed gently, revealing their bright yellow insides thaat glowed like hot coals.

There was something inside there, in the light itself. Arthur squinted and got to his tip-toes to see better.

“Merlin,” he murmured ever so softly. “It’s not a fruit.”

The thing inside the closest light wriggled suddenly. It squirmed around inside the orb.

Arthur jumped back.

“Oh no,” Merlin exhaled sharply, breathing coming on faster. “We’ve been following the wrong things!”

“They’re eggs,” Arthur croaked out. “Snake eggs, aren’t they?”

“Bollocks,” Merlin said, and grabbed at Arthur’s hand. “We have to go. Now. Run.”

Arthur didn’t argue this time.

They could hear it, the beast. It was slithering through pathways to find them. The lights were its children, hanging there like enticing bait, ready to ensare the curiously cursed individuals who stumbled into the maze.

“We’re such idiots!” Arthur hissed, now running alongside Merlin. They avoided the lit corridors, realizing their folly. It had wanted them to come in, come closer and now they had to get out.

Arthur’s stomach heaved as he ran. He could feel the sweat collecting at his brow and along his neck, down under his shirt.

The hedge rustled and rumbled, shaking its anger at them as they thwarted its insipid plan.

Perhaps the hedge and the snake worked together to trap their pray, or maybe this was exactly what it seemed to be: a cage for a monster, a grisly end for any visitor.

They ran hard, feeling the earth rumbling under their feet.

“It’s coming,” Merlin gasped out.

“Run!” Arthur barked when he spotted movement to his right, down an open pathway.

“There!” Merlin cried, seeing something ahead. The track they were on was long and straight, the longest they’d yet encountered, and there was an opening at the far end.

“Oh, sweet gods, please,” Arthur gritted his teeth and pushed himself hard.

Merlin matched his pave and they made a wild run for it. It was now or never.

There was a thunderous crash behind them and looking back for a moment, Arthur caught sight of giant glinting black eyes, an immense, slithering body and a wide, black mouth barreling after them.

Merlin yelped and they both ran for their lives.

The beast was catching up, its hissing and slithering seeming louder and louder, closer and closer with every step.

Arthur so wished he had his sword with him. He could have cut the beast’s head off by now instead of fleeing like a fool.

But with no blade and Merlin, swordless beside him, he knew there was no option to fight this thing.

The end of the path was getting closer, opening up like a window before them.

Arthur thought his heart might give out, so close to the finish. His breathing was harsh, his head jangling for the lack of air.

Merlin yelled something, twisted around and flailed his arms. Arthur didn’t understand the words.

What was the idiot doing?

“Stop that!” Arthur barked and caught Merlin’s hand in his again, yanking him forward.

“It’s not working!” Merlin almost wept, anger apparent in his voice.

The hissing was at their backs, the ground thundering under their boots, but the exit was right there as well.

“Come on, come on!” Arthur gritted his teeth and made sure to hold onto Merlin tightly. The hedge suddenly split open, the doorway tearing wide, and light hit their eyes, causing both men to cry out.

They both stumbled, fell and rolled, cold, thick grass coming up to meet their backs, their arms, their legs.

The ground opened up beneath them and it was as if they’d tumbled off a cliff and then the hedge, the snake, the dark – all of it was gone.

 


 

When Arthur woke, he had to rub at his eyes, so delicate did they feel in the gentle light.

He squinted around him, trying to make sense of where he was.

Merlin was lying, back to him, a few yards away. Arthur hastily got to his knees and scrambled over to Merlin.

“Mrrr,” Merlin whined and frowned when Arthur shook him.

“Wake up!” Arthur hissed.

Merlin’s eyes flew open and he sat up like a puppet on strings.

“What?” Merlin gasped, looking around. “Where are we? What’s happened?”

Arthur sat back down and exhaled shakily. His legs were trembling.

His every bone ached and he felt old beyond his years.

They were in a dry courtyard, lit with a warm light, like from the sun. The courtyward was shaped like an oval with a high, pale stone wall running around its edge.

“What is that,” Merlin asked, voice dry. He sounded as tired as Arthur felt. He pointed to the thing that had caught Arthur’s gaze.

Across from them was a stone archway neatly built into the pale white wall. Beyond it they could see lush greenery and hear birdsong and rushing water.

But that is not what Merlin was referring to.

In front of this archway laid a creature Arthur had only heard of in legend.

It was large and four-legged, with golden fur covering its body and a long tufted tail that dipped and swayed as they stared at it.

The head of the creature was that of a woman. The thing was very large and was not made smaller by the immense set of white wings that erupted from its back. It was lounging before them, unconcerned, but its face was turned to them, watching, its large golden eyes curious.

“Is that–” Arthur whispered, getting to his feet slowly.

“A sphinx,” Merlin gasped. Arthur tugged him upwards. “Bloody hell, Arthur. You really are cursed.”

Arthur had never seen a lion before, but he’d seen the drawings and this was nothing like those drawings.

The creature’s paws alone could kill him with one blow. It had talons that it was flexing ever so carefully while they watched. Talons like knives, sharp enough to gut them easily.

“What do we do?” Arthur asked.

Merlin looked about the small, pleasant-looking courtyard and made a most disagreeable face. “I think we have to talk to it,” he muttered.

“First it’s giant snakes and now it’s giant half cat women,” Arthur shook his head. “Well,” he looked at Merlin, the only person to stand beaside him in this mad place. He smiled wanly. “Shall we?”

Merlin smiled tightly, and waved Arthur on.

As they approached the creature, it got to its feet, tailing flipping and curling.

The woman’s–no, sphinx’s face watched them with fascination, it seemed.

“Uh, hello,” Arthur waved awkwardly. Merlin stumbled into him and Arthur jabbed at him.

“Hello,” Merlin added, just in case lack of courtesy was a good enough reason to to be disemboweled.

The sphinx smiled, showing large, sharp white teeth.

“Welcome, Arthur Pendragon, second child to Uther, first son of Camelot,” the beast said. It had a warm, rich voice and its intonation led Arthur to believe it didn’t much have the opportunity to speak to others in the common tongue. Not surprising if it only ever encountered cursed men. He wondered if it had the tongue and mouth of a cat inside those human-looking lips.

“You know who I am?” he said.

The sphinx’s eyes flicked to him and then to Merlin. It seemed…curious.

“I do.”

Arthur waited. “Uh, all right,” he said when he realized the creature wasn’t going to say more. “Um, we’re here, I’m here, to fulfill my tasks so that, uh, I don’t die at sunrise.”

The sphinx looked at them.

Merlin glanced at Arthur.

Arthur shrugged.

“Do you perhaps know where we need to go, to free Arthur from his curse?” Merlin asked carefully.

The sphinx blinked and sat down on its hindquarters like a very proper, but overlarge housecat.

“You need to go through the stone archway,” it said.

“Ah,” Merlin nodded. “Right, so if we just scooch around you, perhaps, we can be on our merry way!”

The sphinx’s tail flicked. It smiled.

“You cannot pass me unless you answer one riddle.”

“Bugger,” Arthur sighed, “I’d hoped it wouldn’t say that.”

“Unlucky, we are,” Merlin said, shifting his shoulders like they hurt. “What if we answer the riddle incorrectly?” Merlin asked the sphinx.

“Then I will rend you meat from bone,” the sphinx said calmly.

“Both of us?” Arthur asked. Merlin elbowed him and he winced.

“Indeed,” the sphinx said.

They stared up at it and Arthur was in wonder at the beauty of such a creature, even if its sole existence revolved around killing idiots.

“So?” Merlin whsipered in Arthur’s ear. “What do we do?”

Arthur huffed loudly. “We answer the riddle, idiot.”

“Incorrect,” the sphinx spoke over their hushed words. “Only you may answer, Arthur Pendragon. It is you who carries the curse of Freoðuwebbe, so it is upon your shoulders to be free of its sentence.”

Arthur felt very ill indeed.

It might be the tremor in his heart and it might just be plain old-fashioned fear, but he didn’t like it anymore. He wanted it to be over.

“So if this is the third trial,” he said carefully, “then once we’re out of here, I…am no longer cursed? We can go home?”

The sphinx stared at him.

“Incorrect,” it said, voice ringing clearly around them.

“What?” Merlin cried out. “But we came all this way and he’s fulfilled two–” he flapped two fingers about for emphasis, “– of the three trials, so you have to–you have to let him go!”

“Incorrect,” the sphinx repeated. “You have completed one trial, Arthur Pendragon.”

“One?” Arthur exhaled, shoulders slumping. “But the boat… and then the maze…”

“The garden of Aiden and the fruits therein are only part of this trial. To complete it, you must answer my riddle correctly. Or be consumed.”

“Er…by you,” Arthur said, waving a hand in the air, “just… making sure.”

“Indeed,” the sphinx said calmly, as though discussing undeserved murder was casual chit-chat.

“Well,” Arthur turned to Merlin, defeat in his eyes. “We might as well give it a go.”

“Wait,” Merlin said, “Is there a way we can go back? Can we choose not to do the riddle?”

“No,” the sphinx said.

“Uh, can you explain why? Seems perfectly reasonable an option to me,” Merlin went on with far too much sass in his voice for Arthur’s comfort.

“No,” the sphinx answered again.

“Shut up,” Arthur yanked Merlin in close. “You’ll anger it and then it’ll eat us for no reason other than because you’re behaving like a drunk child.”

Merlin rolled his eyes. “Fine, on your head be it.”

Arthur took a deep breath and stepped forward.

“Oh mighty sphinx,” he began.

“Oh bloody hell,” Merlin whispered under his breath.

“I accept your challenge. What is your riddle?”

The sphinx smiled again, probably pleased with itself.

“Very well,” it got to its feet. “You will have two opportunities to answer correctly.”

“All right,” Arthur nodded.

The sphinx watched them as if taking them in. Perhaps deciding what garnishes would go well with raw meat of prince and bony elbow stew.

It shook out its golden mane and began.

 

Always before you, and never behind.

You cannot hear me, or touch me, or even see me.

I was with you when you were born.

And upon your death I go with you, still unseen.

What am I?

 

Arthur stared at the sphinx, his mind racing.

“Can we have that again?” he said, voice dry.

The sphinx lifted its chin and repeated the riddle.

“Okay,” Arthur nodded and turned to Merlin. “It’s obviously my shadow. Or a sundial, is it not? It’s always those two things.”

“Arthur!” Merlin said, “Don’t be stupid! Think about it!”

“Do you know the answer?” Arthur’s eyebrows flew up.

“I don’t!” Merlin cried. “But we can think about it before you answer.”

“Only Arthur Pendragon is to answer this riddle,” the sphinx said again, loudly.

“But I can help him?” Merlin eked out like a bratty imp.

The sphinx stared Merlin down. “You cannot supply Arthur Pendragon the answer. You have cheated enough already.”

Arthur frowned at that. “Hm, all right,” Merlin said hastily. “I can’t say the answer. So I won’t.”

“But I don’t know the answer,” Arthur said. He turned to the sphinx. He gave an internal shrug and though what the hell. “Is the answer ‘my shadow’?”

“Arthur!” Merlin shrieked like a maiden caught in a windstorm.

The sphinx looked down at Arthur, its golden eyes flashing.

“Incorrect,” it said lowly. “You have one more chance to answer.”

“Then you’ll eat me,” Arthur sighed.

“Indeed.”

“Well, we’re doomed,” Merlin threw up his hands in frustration.

 


 

They’d sat there for quite a while. Merlin babbled nonsense at Arthur, but none of it was sticking.

Always before you, and never behind,” Arthur mumbled for the millionth time. “So it’s not my shadow. Because my shadow can be behind me…”

“Oh gods,” Merlin rubbed at his eyes with the heel of his palm.

They were sitting on the courtyard paving stones, facing one another.

The sphinx had settled back down and was watching them from its lounging position, perfectly content to wait, it seemed.

You cannot hear me, or touch me, or even see me…” Merlin muttered.

Arthur was picking at the end of his sleeve. The tunic he was wearing looked as if it had been with him since before he was born. It was frayed now, and filthy throughout. As he unfocused and tried to think, he was reminded of the time he had left to live, the time that was running out the longer they sat here dawdling.

He didn’t want to get eaten by a magical creature, but if he still had another trial to contend with, he wasn’t sure he’d mind being chewed on at this point. But then Merlin would also get eaten, and that was less than great.

As he pulled the wool thread at his wrist, he noticed a dark patch on his skin.

Swallowing, he hastily pulled the sleeve down. The black mark had almost reached his hands. He tugged at the collar of his tunic, assuming the mark wasn’t visible there, or Merlin would be fitting in front of him. No need to worry him.

Merlin was muttering and counting on his fingers, fully invested in helping Arthur defeat a game of mortal wordplay.

Looking at Merlin, Arthur felt a sort of aching fondness rise in his belly. Here was a true friend, one who would stand by him, even in the face of death. Truly, Merlin was a wonder of wonders.

–with you when you were born. And upon your death I go with you…” Merlin was saying again. “I can’t figure this out.”

“Then maybe we die trying?” Arthur said.

Merlin glared at him.

“All right,” Arthur put both hands up.

“So if this thing is unseeable, and I cannot touch it…is it…love?”

Merlin considered that one. “Hmm. No, I don’t think so because one can hear love. Can feel it.”

“Oh, right,” Arthur frowned. Of course. He’d felt love before, if only for a fleeting while. “We’ve been at this for ages.”

Merlin rubbed a hand over his hair, making a right mess of it. He began murmuring the verse again, the one from Gaius’ book.

“What was it?” he muttered. “Three trials…”

“Three tests. One future,” Arthur sighed dramatically. “One less a tomorrow.”

“Right,” Merlin nodded. “I wonder what the other trial would be. If the no plate, no mail meant the boat crossing. And the no path to follow meant the maze…then what on earth was the future bit? And the other bit?”

“One less a tomorrow?” Arthur frowned.

He considered it, pondered its meaning.

Then…his eyes widened.

“Merlin!” he reached forward and grabbed the other man’s shoulders.

“Yes, yes!” Merlin scowled, “What? For heaven’s sake, what?”

I was with you when you were born,” Arthur said, eyes going wide. “And upon your death I go with you … still unseen. Because you cannot see it. Not ever. Even though it is always there. Always ahead, always before you.”

“What the dickens has gotten into you?” Merlin huffed, tired and pale and probably sick of Arthur by now.

“Tomorrow!” Arthur hissed. “The answer is tomorrow!

Merlin’s eyes flicked between Arthur’s before they widened comically.

“Oh!” he cried, ecstatic. “Oh!”

Arthur leapt to his feet and turned to the sphinx.

It was already on its feet.

“I have the answer!” Arthur said loudly.

Always before you, and never behind,” he said, voice loud and ringing in his own ears. “You cannot hear me, or touch me, or even see me. I was with you when you were born.  And upon your death I go with you, still unseen. What am I?” He gasped for air.

Tomorrow. The answer to your riddle is tomorrow.”

The sphinx peered down at him and Arthur braced for the blow.

“Correct,” the sphinx said, its voice low and throaty. “Arthur Pendragon, you have answered my riddle correctly.”

“Oh!” Arthur punched the air with glee. “Yes! Oh yes!”

Merlin leapt at him and the two men danced about like fools.

Arthur tugged Merlin in for an embrace and he held on fast. His breathing was looser now. He turned his nose into Merlin’s voluminous hair and inhaled.

Gods, he was so ecstatic, even if it was for just a moment.

“You did it,” Merlin laughed, hands at Arthur’s sides. “We still have time.”

“We do,” Arthur exhaled shakily. He stepped back and cupped Merlin’s face between his hands.

Gods, but Merlin had such beautiful eyes it made Arthur all thick in the throat with feeling.

He ruffled Merlin’s hair, even as he felt the flush rush into his own face. He mustn’t think that way. It wasn’t done.

“Ahem,” the sphinx cleared its throat.

They turned to look at it, clearly forgetting an ancient beast of magic was before them.

“You may now exit through the archway, Arthur Pendragon,” the sphinx said calmly. It didn’t seem that put out about losing a meal.

“Thank you,” Arthur bowed low. “Thank you for honouring your test.”

“Hmm,” the sphinx rumbled and eyed him like a cat upon encountering a feral dog. “It is honour that has gotten you this far,” the sphinx said sagely. “Should you be able to forgo your pride, then perhaps you will outlast the final trial indeed.”

Arthur frowned, unsure of what to say to that.

“Do–do you see many cursed men here?” he blurted out.

The sphinx shook its mane.

“I am forever bound by stone,” it rumbled. “I awaken when the curse is set and I wait. It is many a moon between each curse and still I wait in stone.”

Arthur nodded slowly, pretending to understand. But he was too much of a dolt and didn’t want to offend.

“C’mon,” Merlin pushed up against his back. “Let’s go, Arthur. Now.”

And as they walked a wide berth around the sitting beast and out the stone archway, Arthur wondered  to himself how lonely it must be to live the life of a sphinx.

Chapter Text

“We’re almost done,” Merlin panted on the other side of the arch. He stopped and seemed to need a moment to catch his breath.

Arthur’s knees and ankles and back and hips were all aching by now. He felt like he did after a long, hard battle, with wounds and bruises all over his body.

The two of them hadn’t slept since that last evening before finding the fen, when they’d tied their horses up and headed out toward the water.

It hadn’t been so long ago, had it? In the past, Arthur had spent days and nights walking alongside his loyal army when they were set out to battle. And when battle came, they were again on their feet fighting and yelling and wishing they were home.

But this was different, he supposed. This was a unique situation, a confluence of various problems. One, he was far from home, two he had no armour, three he’d dragged Merlin along to deal with this and four, he was dying.

Arthur was thirsty, and his belly ached for food. He kept thinking about the dried fruit and cheeses Merlin had packed with him. If only they’d been able to hold onto one more meal.

Merlin blamed himself for their trouble, of course. If only he’d thought to pick up the bag before leaving the boat. But that was Merlin all over, quick to admit if he felt he’d done wrong. He wasn’t so bad as Arthur, who might have stomped his feet and denied any such thing if he’d been keeper of the satchel and left it behind.

But that was already done and over. He needed to stay upright, to focus on right now, because right now might be his final moments.

He looked about them. To the rear was the stone archway. He frowned. It stood alone and through it he could see nothing but darkness. There was no wall, no sphinx on the other side,  just the arch.

This place was different.

It was night here, and a chill settled on the air. Perhaps it was the same night they’d left in the maze, though Arthur couldn’t be sure. It was a green, natural place, with large, lush trees and bushes and the sound of birds twittering in their sleep, perhaps dreaming of their next worm. There was the sound of rushing water, but he could not see a river, nor a waterfall or fountain.

The sky above was a deep blue with tiny specks of stars, just like at home.

The ground they stood upon was composed of thick mosses and grass, soft underfoot, inviting. He wondered what it would feel like underneath his bare feet and up between his toes.

Arthur looked up stared ahead to where they were supposed to go.

Merlin came up beside him. “How are you feeling?” he asked.

Arthur shrugged one shoulder because the effort of shrugging both seemed too onerous. His bones were heavy, aged inside his soft flesh body. This was the curse, he knew. He felt dull and slow, like a tree stump, weathered after decades of rain and dry spells. Death was imminent. Perhaps it wasn’t about fire and brimstone after all; Just a ratcheting up of minor aches and pains until he couldn’t tolerate it and his lungs could no longer breathe.

Becoming infirm and tired, unable to move anymore, that sounded terrible, Arthur thought to himself miserably.

“Well,” Merlin’s hand rested on Arthur’s shoulder. “You’re almost done, almost out of here.”

“The sun will be rising soon,” Arthur muttered. “And then what’ll you do?” he turned to look at Merlin.

“You’re not going to die,”Merlin said with such earnest conviction that it made Arthur smile.

“Will you take me back?” he asked softly. “Take me back to Camelot?”

His meaning must have gone through because Merlin’s mouth went all tight around the edges and he looked down. Arthur felt a sinking in his gut. What a terrible thing to ask of a friend; What a terrible thing to ask of Merlin.

“No, it’s fine,” Arthur tried to laugh, but his voice was dry and he sounded false. “You couldn’t carry all of me anyway.”

“You’re scared,” Merlin said.

Arthur couldn’t look him in the eye.

“It’s all right,” Merlin said. “We all fear death, Arthur. It’s not a bad thing to look our own mortality in the eye once in a while. You have every right to fear what’s up ahead. But the outcome is not guaranteed one way or the other. You do have one more test and magic holds itself accountable to its own rules, don’t forget. Not like the rules of men.”

Arthur looked at Merlin finally, at those big blue eyes of his and wondered how he’d been lucky enough to be saddled with him. It had been years since their first meeting and that Arthur, that poncy arrogant fool would never have seen any potential in this friendship whatsoever. Thankfully, Merlin was the persistently annoying one hell-bent on being in and around Arthur’s sphere all the time.

“Why aren’t you frightened?” Arthur said, voice low, rumbling from tiredness. “You’re never frightened at all.”

Merlin smiled, “Oh, I’m terrified. Always am. But that’s the thing about it all, isn’t it? We’re frightened but we keep going. We strive onwards, Arthur, like always, because we have a lot to do, you and I. Being scared is a fact. Even when you become king–”

“–if I become king,” Arthur butted in.

Merlin made a face, “When you become king, you’ll still be frightened by things, you know? It doesn’t go away. Mortality is forever nipping at our heels.”

Arthur sighed and twisted his neck about, stretching out the aching he felt there. “Sometimes you sound smarter than you look. And you look like a pillock.”

Merlin smiled and smackedArthur’s back heartily. “There’s the man I’m used to. Back to talking rubbish. Right, if you’re done with your internal reflections, we can carry on?”

“Lead the way,” Arthur waved his hand, hoping his body wouldn’t give out just yet.

 


 

There was a smooth sandy path further on, leading away from the arch.

The path was thin but clearly defined. They followed it through the thick greenery until they came upon the most magical scene Arthur had ever beheld. It felt magical, unlike the typical sorcery he came up against in Camelot. This was different to all of that.

The air itself felt full, rich and clear. There were butterflies in one tree and a family of lizards skittering over the tree trunks around them. The trees encircled them, creating a wall of lush foliage. Before them was a stone pool set into the ground and filled with water. The white rocks that circled the pool were clear of any slime or mould. They were glossy, glowing almost white, as pristine as opal, they seemed.

The pool was small and didn’t appear to be deep at all. It reminded Arthur of a fish pond for children, except there were no fish, and not a single reed peeked from the water therein.

Behind the pool, facing them, stood a statue.

Arthur gazed up at the sculpture and wondered at its beauty.

It was the figure of a woman. She was larger than both he and Merlin, her curves accentuated by the pose she took, hip jutting gently, hands out. Her skin was dark, smooth as some deep unfamiliar marble from far away and her hair flowed in great sweeping voluminous curls down to her waist. She was dressed in a simple gown tied at the waist and her feet were bare. Whoever had chiseled her from the rock was a great master indeed.

“Wow,” Merlin breathed. “This place is…something else.”

Arthur sought out Merlin’s hand. He didn’t like the feel of this. The magic, whatever it was, was pulsing and flowing around them. Was this fey magic? Was it somehow different to the other sorts he’d seen?

Merlin’s hand squeezed his, reassuring.

They approached the pool.

Arthur stared down at it. The water was so clear as to appear almost unnatural. Lights bounced off it and fragmented into shards of many colours. He could see the bottom as if it were clear glass.

Arthur licked his lips. He felt suddenly very filthy here. He was covered in grit and grime and sweat and fear; It lay upon him like a film. His hair was heavy, greasy on his head and he knew his eyes must be red from exhaustion and dust.

Oh to be back in his chambers where he could bathe freely and scrub his body clean.

Merlin stood quietly beside him, saying nothing.

Arthur steeled himself and gazed upward. The statue of the woman was built upon a marble dais so she looked down upon any visitors.

Her eyes were large and pale, lacking any pupil. Arthur wondered who she was, or who she was modelled after. It was rare to see statues like this in Camelot. Only the greatest artists could reproduce human likeness and this was better than any work Arthur had seen before.

Then, while he stared up at her beautiful face, she blinked and smiled.

Arthur startled. “Oh!” he pushed Merlin behind him. “It’s alive!”

He was right. Her limbs slowly came to life and it seemed as if the stone and marble texture of the sculpture were imbued into her skin.

Her long robe moved as her hips shifted and her balance went from one foot to the other.He could hear the way the stone and marble shifted and changed. But she did not leap down off the dais, nor did she pull any weapons and threaten them.

Arthur felt sick with fear. What would she do to him? What was the final test?

“Visitors,” she spoke then, her voice smooth. It sounded like bells that were ancient and grand, the sort of sound that was around long before Arthur, before Uther,  before Camelot even had a name.

“Welcome,” she slowly moved her hand across herself in greeting.

Arthur’s breathing was irregular, so terrified was he. How awful must her trial be for her to appear so beautiful to them? It was a trick. Fitting, for if he was to die, then at the very least her beauty would be the last thing he saw.

“You have made it very far, Arthur Pendragon,” she murmured, full lips still spread in a gentle smile.

He swallowed and nodded his head.

She turned to look at Merlin.

“And you bring a guest with you. How interesting.”

Both men were struck dumb.

“It has been an age since I had a visitor to my pool.”

Arthur nodded, unsure of what to add.

“Are…” Merlin spoke, then cleared his throat. “Are you his last test?”

Right. Test. Of course.

The statue continued to smile benignly. “I myself am not a test,” she said softly, “but this is where Arthur Pendragon’s final test will happen, so perhaps yes I am part of it. Then again, I am not certain on the phrasing.”

Arthur looked at Merlin, who looked as unsure as he at such an answer.

“Not many people make it this far,” she went on. “It speaks to your bravery, both of you.” Her pale eyes strayed from Arthur, to Merlin, and back again.

“What is the final test?” Arthur said, glancing upward. Sunrise was almost upon them. He felt his insides curdle, and his back started to throb. He didn’t have any time left.

“Arthur?” Merlin’s hand went around his waist. “What’s wrong?”

“Ugh,” Arthur bent over and winced as a something of a twisting, painful nature blossomed in his belly. “I don’t know if I can do this, Merlin.”

“Of course you can,” Merlin hissed and supported him until the wave of pain passed.

“You have carried your curse far,” the statue said, as if Arthur keeling over and dying in front of her was of no consequence whatsoever.

“Many people have perished right where you stand,” she said. “Some do not make it to the final trial. And some do, then fail at the last moment. Such is the frailty of men.”

Arthur breathed in and out slowly, but did stand up again.

“I’m ready,” he said. “What is the last test?”

She looked at him for a moment, and nodded. She opened both arms slowly and held them out to her sides.

“Should you be capable, you may step into my pool.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Merlin whispered.

Right, because curses and trials were always so easy to complete and figure out.

“What happens in the water?” Arthur asked.

The statue smiled beatifically, “My pool is cleansing and reaffirming and can cure all that ails you.”

Arthur’s hand went to his belly.

“Yes, even that,” she said.

“So it’ll make him better?” Merlin asked.

“If he carries no corrosive hatred in his heart, then yes.”

Arthur stared at her. Something wasn’t right. It all seemed too simple. This wasn’t much of a test, if all he had to do was get wet.

“You see, my dears,” the statue continued, “the men of the world carry multitudes, many aspects within themselves. A man can go to war with himself and not even know it. So I offer two things that no one else can. “I offer insight and ... possible tragedy.”

“What do you mean?” Arthur said.

“You, Arthur Pendragon, if you so choose, will step into my water bare of all worldly weight and responsibility. Then I will offer you the one thing no person wants to ever face: a glimpse at a pivotal future.”

Arthur frowned, his gut aching and his bones burning inside him. “I don’t understand.”

“You’re going to show him the future?” Merlin gasped, hands holding Arthur steady.

“I will show him his most important moment,” the statue said. “Pivotal moments define who we are but they are different for many and I draw on the most contested ones.”

“You’re being too vague,” Merlin bit out. “So he’ll see what? Something horrible?” Merlin sounded beside himself with worry. Arthur looked at him and found Merlin’s brow deeply furrowed, eyes wide. He was scared of what Arthur might see?

“Sometimes,” the statue said gently, “a person’s biggest betrayal is his moment to shine. If Arthur Pendragon is the best of men, as so few are, he may overcome what he sees. If he cannot, however, if hatred and despair take over, then he will die.”

“You’re going to emotionally compromise him and expect him not to go mad?” Merlin said. “That’s not fair.”

Arthur was very confused. Surely whatever he saw he couldn’t control anyway? What could he see in the future that would demand he consider who he was as an individual? There were very few things he feared...he considered the possibilities. Camelot burning. His father dying. His own death, even? He swallowed.

“I have to do it, Merlin,” Arthur said gently and pried Merlin’s hands off him. “We don't have time.I don’t have time.”

“But what if it’s something really terrible? What if it damages you to see it?” Merlin said, eyes wide. “You cannot change the future, Arthur. Whatever you see will come to pass and it will haunt you.”

“I know,” Arthur sighed and stepped aside to give himself room to think. His breathing was laboured now and his head ached.

“Then you must shed all material items,” the statue said. “Once you are clean of the manufactured world, you may approach.”

Arthur knew what that meant and he felt his gut sink. He sat down awkwardly, joints creaking,  and untied his boot laces. His stockings were worn thin and were still wet from his sweaty adventure. Merlin watched him with a morose look on his face.

“Here, let me,” Merlin helped Arthur get to his feet. Then Arthur tugged at his tunic and pulled it over his head.

There was a tight inhale of breath. Arthur looked down at himself, knowing exactly what he was going to find. His entire torso was blackened, his arms and almost all of his fingers now creeping with it. It...it didn't feel good, seeing evil magic enveloping him like a meal. He pulled at the ties to his pants and pulled them down, modesty unimportant. There was no room for shame or embarrassment when he was staring death in the face.

“Arthur…” Merlin murmured, sounding shaken. 

All of Arthur’s right leg was inked black down to his ankle and the rest of the bubbling stain was spiralling around his other leg. He wondered for a moment if he had one black arse cheek and one not. That was slightly amusing.

“Why didn’t you say anything?” Merlin asked. He took Arthur’s clothes from him and held them to his chest.

“No reason to,” Arthur winced as his back ached and his gut roiled. He wondered if he’d even have been able to eat the food they’d carried anyway. Maybe his organs were all mush by now. "What would we have been able to do about it anyway?" Merlin just frowned and waited, obviously holding back whatever scathing retort was befitting the situation.

Arthur breathed in deeply, feeling the magical air fill up his tired and aching lungs, perhaps for the last time. Merlin was watching him, a look of soft concern on his pale face. Arthur tried to smile, to reassure him, but it was taxing to pretend, to act as if there was anything to look forward to. Merlin followed him as he approached the still water and the shadow of the ever-watching statue. Then he looked up, head held high and stepped carefully into the pool.

He thought it might burn like the lake but was pleasantly surprised by its warmth. As he lowered his other leg in and got a good footing, he wondered at the sensation around him. The water lapped up to his hips and no further. The world around him was fading, blurring, fogging like cold nights in the dead of winter. Looking up, he was shocked to find he couldn’t hear the birds, the wind, or Merlin anymore. It was as if he were alone with the statue, in a shielded space, a frosted, echoey space.

The statue looked down from her great height and smiled.

Arthur shuddered and something zipped up him, through him. His head was thrown back, neck muscles tight, and his eyes were forced wide open as visions flew at him, into him. It was as if a lightning wind was swirling inside his very blood, dizzying and terrible.

The light shifted sharply and he winced. He blinked many times, trying to clear the shadows and flares behind his eyelids. The frowned and looked about. Where was he? The pool, the statue, the greenery...it was all gone. He was on a battlefield in an unfamiliar land. His sword was nowhere and his gut ached, an agony blossoming with tightness under his chainmail. He was wounded. Arthur was familiar with the sensation of blood pooling under his armour, soaking his undershirt and sticking to his skin. He was hurt...perhaps even dying.

Looking about, he felt confused, disoriented. Was this his death? Was this what she wanted him to see? But who–?

All around him lay bodies in the mist, unfamiliar faces wearing the crest of the knights of Camelot. Deathly echoes swam around him. Dim voices rang out and he could hear the dull clashing of metal over a nearby ridge.

“I don’t understand,” he gasped out.

“This,” the statue’s voice came to him, “is a pivotal moment for you, Arthur Pendragon. It is near your end.”

His heart pounded as he looked about. Did he do this? Did he initiate this battle? Had he turned on his own men? Had he slaughtered these people? What had become of him? When and where was this? Arthur felt sick not knowing. There was nothing to expand upon the day, the year, the place.

“Arthur!” a voice was in his ear. It was familiar. He frowned, looking around again and wondered how he’d gotten to the ground. Who was holding him?

“It was me,” Merlin’s voice stuttered over the air. Then he was there, crying, face wet with emotion. Arthur frowned. Why was Merlin crying? What had happened? Who had done this. “I did it.”

Arthur was confused. Merlin did what?

And then before he could open his lips to ask, flashes of memories coursed through Arthur. First he saw Merlin and the great dragon talking like old friends in the deep of the forest. What were they doing? Since when had they ever encountered one another?

Then the vision changed and he saw Merlin and the bastet, the cursed monster that had terrorized the city. Hadn't it been destroyed? Why was Merlin caring for it?

Then he saw Merlin and Lancelot fighting the griffin with a flaming spear. Then Merlin and Morgana arguing fiercely, surrounded by fire, by magic. In all of these scenes Merlin’s eyes were glowing, burning a bright terrifying gold and he was yelling words Arthur did not understand.

Arthur’s heart went cold and his breath caught up in his throat.

No. It couldn't be.

“It’s you,” Arthur said, horror dawning in him. “You’re–a sorcerer.

The Merlin in his vision dipped his head, perhaps in shame, perhaps in acknowledgement. Arthur's throat was dry and he swallowed painfully. He felt a wave of anger so fierce rage through him that his whole body tensed. His mother had died by the hand of magic. So many of his own people had as well. It was outlawed for a reason! How could Merlin of all people be apart of such a travesty?

Arthur clenched his fists and yelled out in rage. The visions juddered and shifted before breaking part into indiscernible shards of light. His body convulsed and he felt it, felt the black stain creeping down to his feet and crawling up his chest, around his neck, choking him.

“You lied to me!” he yelled, seeing Merlin’s face before him again. “I trusted you with everything! With my family, my kingdom, all of it! And you were a magic-user all this time?”

His chest heaved and he struggled to breathe, so tight was the curse upon his neck and body.

“Merlin,” he exhaled, sobbing suddenly, overwhelmed by the terrifying realization. He felt so betrayed, so torn apart by this revelation. This was worse than his own death. Merlin had been beside him in everything, his confidante…his friend…even–

“Ah,” the voice of the statue came to him through his distress. “So this is what you have been concealing.”

Arthur’s head dropped and he felt his chest clench, his heart thudding painfully. He didn't want this knowledge. He wished to send it back.

“You hold him most dear,” she said gently in his ear, her voice echoing, fading in and out. “This is indeed a sore spot. Pity that it should consume one so brave of heart and loyal to a fault.”

Arthur’s anger was speeding up his death, the curse was going to take him. He hadn’t been strong enough after all. He was weak and he trusted the wrong person. He stared at another Merlin, another vision before him. This Merlin was younger, his hair shorter. This Merlin had suffered too. Arthur remembered comforting him. He was so beautiful when he cried like that. It would hurt him to admit his magic secret to Arthur.

Arthur was exhausted and hurting. He wasn’t strong enough for this. Why did betrayal have to take a swing at him?

“Merlin,” he whispered, wishing he could take back the decision to see this. He was sick to his stomach but … it was because it was Merlin and not anyone else. What kind of person hides such a thing from their friends? He could feel the curse digging into his face now, his ears were filling, his jaw felt heavy. He probably only had moments left before the curse took him and eclipsed his whole being. How many men had been devoured this way? How many men had been too weak, too easily torn apart?

And if he died here, like this, he’d never get to ask Merlin why. He’d never get to shake him and yell at him. He’d never be able to forgive him. Never. Sadness overwhelmed Arthur and he realized that after all of this, after all the trials and battles and pain, he still wanted to be given the chance.

He didn’t understand magic and he didn’t understand why anyone would curse him like this. But if he could have even one more second of life, he’d want to grab Merlin, shake the dickens out of him, then never let go. Because Merlin was his to hold onto, his to be mad at. Merlin betrayed him, had lied to him, but he was Arthur’s, and that’s why it hurt. He knew it deep in his aching bones that he was destined to fall in love with Merlin, which is why the ache in his heart was so dreadful. No one else’s opinion mattered more to Arthur.

And now he was going to die with no one to hold him, no one to care. Not even Merlin whom he’d believed all this time to be honest and pure of intention.

“Ah,” the statue whispered gently. “Your rage is dissipating. Your anger, your desire for recompense. It is fading.”

Arthur blinked, eyes feeling fogged over as he stared up at her face. He was crying, the tears dropping down his cheeks. “If I cannot go back to him, then there’s no reason to fight,” he said.

She smiled down at him.

“Your pride is a force to be reckoned with, Arthur Pendragon. But you surprise me. You have pushed it aside, haven’t you?”

Arthur’s face was numb, his lips heavy. Black spots speckled at the edges of his vision.

“Given the chance,” she said, “would you forgive him your deepest betrayal?”

Arthur wavered on his feet, head lolled back on his neck. “I would,” he said, heart sore. “I cannot hold Merlin to the standards I give myself. He is a better man than me. His betrayal–if it is that–was probably warranted.”

She stared at him for a moment, then smiled wide and bright like the sun.

Arthur shuddered and rapid tingles rippled from the top of his head down over his body like the sprinkling of rain. He looked down and was shocked to find the curse receding, getting sucked down into the water where it pooled like oil around his legs.

He inhaled sharply when his lungs suddenly leapt to life. His heart thudded merrily behind his ribs and he stared at his hands, clean of all inky mess. The last veins of black stain bled off him.

“I–” he blinked, head clearing.

“You are more the man than you were taken for,” the statue laughed softly. “Whoever cursed you clearly did not know this. Congratulations, Arthur Pendragon, you are free of the curse and you are free to go home. I have cured your ills and healed your soul. It was very close, I might add. A moment more and even I would have no time to erase such a thing.”

The frosted barrier around them dropped away like shattering glass and the sounds of nature blared back to life. The colours of the greenery burst and popped in his eyes. Oh, how everything must have been dulled by the encroaching curse. He hadn't even realized.

“Arthur!” Merlin yelled and Arthur turned, eyes wide.

Merlin was standing beside the pool looking stricken. Arthur's clothing was scattered as if Merlin had thrown it aside in a panic.

“I thought you were ...” Merlin exclaimed, “I couldn’t get to you, couldn’t help. I heard you cry out but there was nothing for me to do!" he panted for breath. "Are you all right?” he held out a hand.

Arthur blinked at the hand, recalling what he’d seen on the battlefield. Odd that the bodies and the wound and the death lying around him had faded. He swallowed, unsure of what to do.

Merlin was a sorcerer. He couldn’t be trusted, not really, could he? The shadow of the statue still loomed over him and he swallowed back his discomfort. Arthur stared up at the man who’d bravely taken on so many things to save others and Arthur himself. He’d been doing so for so long and so well it was a wonder Arthur hadn’t noticed the magic already. He’d been a damn fool.

He would need to reconcile thisMerlin with the one in the visions, but at least now he'd have the time to try.

He stood tall, shoulders back and then took Merlin’s dry hand in his and stepped out of the pool.

Chapter Text

“You’re…” Merlin embraced Arthur, “You’re alive.”

Arthur tensed.

“Yes,” he said, voice rough. “I am.”

“I knew you’d be able to do it,” Merlin said into his neck, warmth blossoming over Arthur’s skin. “I never doubted you for a second.”

Arthur’s throat felt choked up. “You did?” he asked. Really?

Arthur was never held like this, not by anyone other than Merlin. It opened something inside of him. He could go weeks, even months without a warm touch. And then Merlin came along and was made up of hands and arms and warm smiles and suddenly Arthur couldn’t get enough. The tragedy of being a man was to shun affection of any sort outside of courtship and even then it was not expected.

Merlin pulled back and held Arthur by the shoulders, “Absolutely.”

Arthur thought over what he’d seen in the pool. Merlin was a sorcerer. He could do magic and he’d hidden it all this time. What was he supposed to do with this knowledge? Share it? Hide it? Never, ever speak of it again for fear of Merlin’s life? He didn’t particularly want to know this, but the deed was done, wasn’t it? There was no reason to hold onto the past.

“I know you can do magic,” he said, voice firm, eyes not veering from Merlin’s. There was something inside him that rumbled and cracked as he said it. Something had shifted and changed.

Merlin’s eyes went wide and he inhaled sharply. “What?”

“That was the future I saw,” Arthur murmured. Merlin’s mouth flapped for a moment and colour flooded his normally pale cheeks. He was…shocked? Embarrassed? Scared?

“I didn’t–I couldn’t–” he stuttered. “Please, Arthur it’s not–”

Arthur yanked Merlin back in again and hugged him fiercely.

Merlin was shaking.

“I’m angry,” Arthur grunted into Merlin’s hair. “I’m so very angry. But I won’t be angry forever.”

Merlin attempted to squeeze free but Arthur just held on tighter.

“You lied to me,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” Merlin said softly. “It was that, or death.”

“I know,” Arthur closed his eyes and breathed Merlin in. Uther would never stand for this, none of it. He had to be better than his father.

“We won’t tell anyone, I won’t,” he murmured.

He released Merlin who just gaped at him.

“Are…are you okay?” Merlin said, incredulous.

“What?” Arthur frowned, “Can’t I be trusted with your secret?”

Merlin’s mouth opened and closed for a second, then he rubbed a hand over his face and through his hair, ruffling it all up again.

He looked about as tired and filthy as Arthur felt.

“Just wondering what happened to Arthur, the prat,” Merlin said with a small smile.

Arthur shoved him.

A laugh made them both jump.

They turned to see the statue still watching them. Arthur rushed to grab his clothing from the ground where Merlin had dropped it all.

“You are free to leave,” the statue said. “Though this affirmation of affection is something I haven’t seen in many, many moons.”

“It’s not–” Arthur growled, falling over while he tugged his pants up.

Merlin snorted and helped him find his stockings.

The clothing felt rough and filthy against his skin and Arthur made a reminder to burn it all when he got home. He didn’t want any memories of this quest left behind.

Merlin helped him to his feet. The two of them gazed up at the statue, unsure. There was no clear exit, since the archway was far behind them and it had been blacked out. Arthur certainly hoped they wouldn’t have to go back through that awful maze again in reverse. One giant snake was enough for a lifetime.

The statue was still smiling. Her pool was black now, filled with the treacherous curse.

“What are you going to do with that,” Arthur couldn’t help asking, pointing at the oily slick now ruining her pool.

“Hmm?” She glanced down. “Ah, the curse remains here until it is pulled into use again.”

Merlin was tight against Arthur’s side, warm and reassuring. “You…can’t get rid of it?”

The statue tilted her head, “It cannot be destroyed, no. It exists in deference to the evilness in people’s hearts.”

Merlin obviously wanted to talk more, so Arthur let him. Sunlight was starting to pinken the indigo sky, which meant Arthur had made it. He’d survived this terrible ordeal.

“How many men have you seen here, doing these trials?” Merlin asked.

“It is not only men,” she answered calmly. “Many people of different creeds and colours and identities have stepped into my pool; Far beyond count. I do find it fascinating that there have only been men here in the last few visits. Curious.”

“So…” Arthur blinked, “The curse…it’s not just for evil men?”

“It is not, no,” she murmured. “A spell is a spell and holds no malice until a person initiates it. This trial, these three trials were built by magic peoples many eons ago. A test is not evil, not really. It must be fair for all.”

Arthur didn’t understand that logic. The trials had felt truly awful right from the get-go. How were they not automatically evil and a punishment?

“Tell me,” Merlin cut through his thoughts. “Are you…were you…” his voice trailed off, unsure.

She smiled softly. “I am Freoðuwebbe, yes. What is left of her.”

Arthur blinked, “She was a real person?”

Merlin’s elbow jabbed him in the ribs.

“Of course she was!”

“Well, I don’t know!” Arthur griped back. “I’m not a magical sorcerer doing magicky magic!”

Merlin obviously wanted to punch him but got caught up in Arthur’s accusatory tone.

“Arthur Pendragon,” Freoðuwebbe said. “You have done well. Spare no thought for the hows and whys. Just see what is plain and understand what is true, and you will never falter.”

Then she turned to Merlin.

“And you, loyal companion,” she said.

“Merlin, I am,” he nodded in deference.

“I know,” she said, smile slipping from her face. “Emrys, you have a very large task ahead of you. Unfortunately I cannot say much else but I see in your eyes that you know more. Be careful, young man. Do as you must but also look to your strengths and believe in those around you. Asking for help is not a crime. You have many dark times ahead so do what you can with the goodness left in the world.”

Merlin paled and Arthur frowned.

“What’s she on about?” Arthur whispered.

“Nothing,” Merlin patted Arthur’s side.

“I will not see either of you again,” Freoðuwebbe said. “Fare thee well, travellers. I can assist on your journey home.”

“Really?” Arthur was surprised. “Can we stop off to get my armour and our horses?”

Arthur,” Merlin hissed, “we’d be lucky to get home at all.”

“I’m just asking the all-knowing magical being, Merlin, for help. Weren’t you just told to do the same?”

Merlin’s face screwed up in a comical scrunch and Arthur felt a wave of fondness rush through him. What a pillock.

 


 

They awoke in the forest. It wasn’t long past morning and a small campfire before them was dying down, its tendril of smoke dissipating into the sky.

Arthur leapt to his feet, confused.

“Where are we? Merlin! What day is it?”

“Urgh,” Merlin was lying in the dirt, slowly coming to. He struggled to sit up. He blinked around them and then at Arthur.

“Our horses,” Arthur cried, recognizing the two mares tied to nearby trees.

“You’re wearing your armour,” Merlin stared through his squinted eyes.

Arthur look down and yelped with joy. He clanged about, overjoyed. “I’m in my armour! Yes!”

“Oh God, my head is aching,” Merlin winced and rubbed at his temple.

“Look!” Arthur cried, pointing past the trees. “Camelot!”

Merlin got to his feet, grumbling and griping the whole way up, and came over to look at what Arthur was pointing at.

There, through the mist and leaves they could see the great castle and walls of Camelot, perfectly nestled in the world, untouched by evil.

Arthur shook Merlin happily. “Oh, I can’t wait for a bath!” Arthur yelled through his gritted teeth.

“Yes, sire, of course, sire,” Merlin rolled his eyes and allowed Arthur to shake him some more.

 


 

It seemed they hadn’t been considered missing at all. When Arthur found his father, Uther was shocked to find Arthur no longer bearing any blackened mark on his belly.

“Must have been a fluke,” Arthur said, unheeded. He frowned. He opened his mouth to say more about the quest, about the trials…but nothing came out except, “I’m hungry, is lunch on yet?”

Uther made a face, “You’re filthy. Get washed. Where the bloody hell have you been gallivanting anyway? We still have the guests to see off you know.”

Arthur frowned at his own faulty mouth but did as he was told.

His knights seemed none the wiser. Apparently it had only been a couple hours since the king had asked them to interrogate all the guests and pull the poison-bearer from the rabble.

With Arthur seemingly well again, it didn’t appear important anymore. The concern just washed off peoples’ faces when they saw him and Merlin.

Arthur couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

“Do you think it’s the magic?” Arthur asked as he and Merlin climbed the stairs back to his chambers.

“Not sure,” Merlin whispered back.

Arthur nudged him, “Well what’s the point, Merlin, of being a sorcerer if you can’t answer the simplest bloody questions?”

“Shut up!” Merlin hissed and shoved Arthur up against the stone wall of the stairwell. “Are you trying to get me killed?”

He looked worried and so exasperated all at once. And with his body pressing up against Arthur it was very difficult for Arthur to think anything other than oh, this feels interesting. He thought back to the way the knights had not just clapped Arthur on the back, but Merlin too. Because Merlin was accepted at the prince’s servant and friend by those who knew them best. And Merlin felt very…solid against Arthur just then. So maybe their coming together wasn’t just some loosely plotted fable. Maybe this was fate. Also maybe Arthur liked being shoved around a bit. Hm.

When Merlin released him, Arthur exhaled and tried to compose himself. For once it wasn’t because any person or servant could have seen them, but because his brain was just flinging itself at the idea of Merlin doing it again.

“You know that could be considered manhandling the royal prince,” Arthur jogged up the stairs after Merlin.

“Yeah, I’ll manhandle you all right,” Merlin griped. That only made Arthur smile.

 


 

Merlin complained to no end about having to draw Arthur a bath.

Arthur’s chambers were just as they’d left them. It was very odd to have time not exist while they’d been fighting for their lives.

Arthur fumbled with his vambraces while Merlin got to lighting the fire.

“Can’t you just magic the water into the tub?” Arthur said, trying to untie the buckles under his wrist. “It’s going to take you forever to cart the water in here. No need to hold back on my account.”

Merlin paused, the fire’s flames flickering to life.

“Have you been doing that the whole time?” Arthur queried. “Fiddling the water?”

“No,” Merlin said into the fireplace.

“Well, no holds barred now,” Arthur said, flinging his arm guards onto the chest at the foot of his bed. “Stop wittering on and get over here and help me.”

Merlin’s face was stony but he did comply. He helped Arthur out of his armour. “That’ll need a good polishing,” Arthur said, shaking his arms. His clothing was awful to look at and smelled even worse.

While Merlin got to the metal bath, Arthur fumbled with getting his clothing off.

Once his tunic was thrown aside and his boots gone, he watched Merlin fiddle and fuss with the tub itself. Curious, he leaned closer to hear Merlin mutter some words. The tub whooshed to fullness as a whirlpool of steaming water rushed to fill it, just like that.

Arthur’s jaw dropped.

“So it is true,” he murmured, sitting on the bed.

Merlin turned to him with a wry tilt to his lips. “I didn’t keep this from you because I don’t trust you, Arthur.” He got up, patted his hands and went over to collect the filthy clothing.

“Hm,” Arthur untied his pants and added them to the pile in Merlin’s arms. Merlin rolled his eyes and moved the stinky fabric to the corner of the room.

“Make sure to burn all of that,” Arthur said sharply. “Disgusting.” He got to his feet and stretched. The mark of the curse was gone. He pressed his palm to his belly. It didn’t hurt anymore.

When he looked up, he caught Merlin staring.

“It’s really gone,” he murmured.

“Yeah,” Arthur exhaled, realizing he was naked. Whoops.

Merlin came closer. He moved around Arthur, inspecting, probably. Arthur held back the urge to tense his muscles and flex for show, but that was ridiculous.

“It’s really gone,” Merlin smiled when he was back in front of Arthur. He looked the worse for wear as well. His hair was a bird’s nest and his neckerchief was brown from filth and mud. His shirt and trousers were stained and rumpled and he didn’t smell his usual self.

His eyes were the same though, large and blue and soft. It made Arthur’s heart gallop a little faster, thinking about what he’d realized in the magical pool. He really did want Merlin. Had done for a while. It just seemed so…inppropriate.

But seeing the way Merlin smiled at him, at how important he’d become, Arthur couldn’t rightly ignore it much anymore.

“You reek,” he said, tugging at Merlin’s filthy shirt.

Merlin chuckled. “Judging by your odour, you’re not better off, sire.

Oh, that tone he always used. It used to drive Arthur nuts, the impertinence! But now it just sounded…right.

“I am your prince,” Arthur jabbed a finger into Merlin’s chest. “You should probably heed what I say.”

“Uh huh,” Merlin said.

“Your prince is telling you that you need a bath.

“Well aware of that,” Merlin retorted. “But thank you for repeating yourself.”

Merlin,” Arthur gritted out, exasperated. He grabbed Merlin’s side and yanked him in, slamming their chests together. Merlin gasped.

“I have a perfectly good bath right here,” Arthur said firmly, eyes locked onto Merlin’s.

Merlin blinked, “Are you saying you want me to use your murky bathwater once you’re done with it? No thanks.”

Arthur growled. “No, you plonker. I’m saying that for helping me through that arduous quest and its trials, you deserve a reward. You can share my bath with me.”

Merlin audibly swallowed, then licked his lips. Arthur’s fingers pinched his side. “Sire…” Merlin exhaled.

Arthur’s eyebrows went up toward his hairline.

“If you insist,” Merlin smirked. Smirked! As if he was the initiator, the adept one in this messy configuration!

“Get undressed,” Arthur griped and released Merlin. “And get in the tub.”

Arthur did so himself, his brow furrowed in mock annoyance. He sank into the hot water, enjoying the feel of it on his skin. Oh, he needed this! He exhaled slowly, feeling his muscles relaxing, his neck releasing its tension.

Then the water shifted and his eyes flew open.

A very naked Merlin was clambering into the tub like a gangly, beautiful idiot. He was so pale. His body was…it was a sight to behold. He wasn’t as willowy as Arthur thought him to be. His legs were quite muscled and his chest well-formed. True, he wasn’t as thick as Arthur, but he was something else. Arthur swallowed audibly and shifted to make room, pulling his legs to his chest. What had he been thinking? This was a terrible idea!

“Shove over,” Merlin said and Arthur was staring at parts of him as yet unseen. Hmmm.

Arthur felt very flushed and hoped Merlin would assume it was the water being as hot as it was.

Merlin settled into the water and sighed. “Oh, this is lovely.” He grinned. “One of your better ideas.”

Arthur watched him lean over the edge of the metal basin and pick up a stub of soap that must have got lost in the last escapade.

“Here,” Merlin said, handing it over. “You’ve got mud all over your face and hair.”

Arthur took it and went about cleaning his head and neck.

Merlin just sank into the water and sighed happily.

Their legs were getting all tangled up and Arthur hoped his stupid cock wasn’t about to make an idiot of itself. It was possibly the most opinionated part of his anatomy, and coincidentally the stupidest.

He understood now the phrase about Kings leading kingdoms by their cocks. Deeply annoying.

When he dunked himself and resurfaced, Merlin was watching him. Arthur pushed his wet hair out of his eyes and made a face.

“What?”

“You look much better not covered in filth,” Merlin said. “Kingly, almost.”

Arthur threw the soap stub at him.

“Unlike the rest of you peasants, I come from a long line of handsome men.”

“Oh,” Merlin’s eyebrows shot up in amusement. “Is that so?” He washed his hands and then his face with the waxy soap. Rivulets of dirt and oil ran into the water, fogging it up. Merlin washed his hair in a perfunctory manner, not concerned with the way the curls flicked droplets everywhere.

Arthur could feel Merlin’s long legs. There was a foot somewhere near Arthur’s hip but he couldn’t see it now.

They were very close.

When Merlin finished scrubbing himself clean (Arthur watching the whole thing with a bubbling sort of sexual rage) the two of them settled into the warm water.

“Well,” Merlin said.

“Well,” Arthur muttered back.

“We went on a quest.”

“We did.”

“Figured out a maze, floated across a deadly lake.”

“Met a sphinx,” Arthur frowned.

“Yeah…” Merlin seemed to think on that for a moment.

“Did that all happen?” Arthur said.

Merlin blinked at him, “I…yes?”

“Because no one even knew we were gone.” Arthur said.

“Well,” Merlin shrugged, “we both remember it. I mean, that sphinx is difficult to forget.”

“Yeah,” Arthur’s eyes glazed over. “What a sight, huh?”

Merlin smiled and a knee nudged Arthur’s propped up leg.

“You did very well,” Merlin said. “Your father would be proud. Gaius barely believed me, and I think he’s proud. Maybe.”

“You told Gaius?” Arthur frowned.

“Of course,” Merlin said, “I tell him everything.”

Arthur settled into the water, his chin dipping under. Of course Merlin told Gaius everything. Probably told him about the magic and all. Arthur scowled.

“Don’t give me that look,” Merlin said. “Gaius wasn’t going to behead me. Your father might. No, he will if he finds out.”

Arthur glared at him some more. “I wouldn’t have let him,” he murmured churlishly.

Merlin’s gaze softened. “Well, here’s hoping he never finds out.”

“Hmmm,” Arthur rumbled. He was preoccupied with Merlin stretching his arms along the edge of the bath. He had such long limbs and he did have muscles under that pale skin; Infuriating, really.

He had very defined collarbones and a long neck. The water was dribbling down it even now, his curls wet from the bath water.

“This water is filthy,” Merlin piped up with a grimace. “Let me whip us a fresh batch.”

Arthur barely had a moment to consider his words before Merlin was speaking mysterious words at the bathwater. His eyes glowed gold for a moment and Arthur knew it was real. The statue’s visions had been true.

The water whooshed around them, swirling and fizzling and popping. Then the murkiness faded away, revealing fresh and clear hot water.

Arthur yelped and made to cover himself.

Merlin cocked a brow at him.

“It’s all right, sire. I have one of those too, you know.”

Arthur could feel the flush blooming up his neck and over his cheeks. “Stop staring!” he hissed.

Merlin gave a lopsided smirk. “Why?”

“Because it’s not done!” Arthur gritted out. Oh lord, his cock was enjoying this far too much. He attempted to pull his legs up but Merlin caught his knees in both hands.

“My dear Arthur,” Merlin grinned, “it seems your body betrays you.”

Merlin,” Arthur hissed. He was so embarrassed. This was not princely behaviour at all. This was a terrible, horrible (amazing) idea! Oh no, Merlin was coming closer.

A hand was sliding its way down Arthur’s thigh.

“Merlin,” Arthur said with as much authority as he could. Merlin smiled smugly.

“Do tell me to stop, sire,” he said, “if you want me to.”

Arthur made a face torn between annoyance and desperation. He probably looked constipated.

Long fingers skated down, down and Arthur’s cock twitched. He inhaled sharply.

“I might be able to assist you with that problem,” Merlin hummed. “But you’d need to agree, sire.”

Hell,” Arthur grunted, face hot and probably boiling the water around him. “If you touch me, it better be because you want to, Merlin. I don’t play games with servants.”

“That’s not what I heard,” Merlin chuckled. His fingers dug into the flesh of his thigh. His other hand was at Arthur’s hip, holding him in place. Merlin was much closer now, so much so that Arthur had to open up his legs to give him room.

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, Arthur had never found himself in such a compromising position of his own making.

Merlin leaned in and Arthur’s breathing got all out of rhythm at his closeness.

“You’re very beautiful, sire,” Merlin said, voice dipping low. Arthur’s cock stirred pointedly at that. “Pretty, even. Everyone knows you are. People from across Albion speak of you as this great, handsome prince anyone would be lucky to marry.” Merlin smiled, leaning even closer. “But I know the truth. You’re an absolute idjit with an ego the size of the next county over. You're more of a prince who needs taming, I think.”

Arthur didn’t think he’d be able to blush any redder, but the human body never ceased to amaze. “Merlin,” he hissed out, voice full of desperation and confusion.

“Hmm,” Merlin smiled and then he kissed Arthur, just like that.

His plush lips were wet and warm and so welcome. Arthur moaned into the kiss and pushed up, away from the tub’s edge, pulling Merlin in. He wanted to feel him, touch him and never let go.

He shivered when Merlin reciprocated with his tongue and a soft laugh.

“I’m going to protect you,” Merlin whispered between Arthur’s desperate kisses and fumbling hands. “You will become the greatest king Camelot has ever known.” Arthur couldn’t hear him over the rushing of blood in his ears and the dizzying sensation of Merlin's weight on his legs.

Then a hand pressed around his cock and Arthur almost yelped, still wrapped up was he in Merlin’s breath and mouth. Merlin held him still with one hand and teased him with the other.

The hand was talented and naughty and Arthur twitched and gasped at every pull, at every twist, at the sweet words falling from Merlin’s lips.

“You are very responsive, sire,” Merlin chuckled. “Been a while?”

Arthur shuddered, completely taken with it. "Shut up." He sucked at Merlin's lower lip, eyes rolling back in his head.

“Don’t worry,” Merlin kissed him again, full and long and hard. “I’ll take care of you.”

 

 

Later that evening Arthur found himself waking to an empty bed. He ached all over but in new and interesting ways.

He stared at the drapery above him. The scarlet fabric was dark and had no words for him.

What the bloody hell had happened?

He pieced together the moments from the bath to the bed, to Merlin’s hands and his talented, evil, wandering lips. He wondered at the way Merlin had treated him, held him. It was ridiculous. Preposterous!

Arthur glared at the drapery. He glared at the empty room.

He lifted the bedcovers and glared at his own traitorous body, which appeared clean and fresh and well-spent.

He was supposed to be the aggressor, damnit! He was the prince and future king of Camelot! No one was supposed to take him apart like that, in that way! 

He flushed when he recalled the exact manner in which Merlin had caressed and touched him. He’d used special oils and had even bent Arthur in half while kissing him before–

Arthur pulled the bedcovers over his face. A raging furnace burned beneath his skin and his heart felt swollen with feelings. His hand reached down between his legs as his mind supplied him with flashbacks to the way Merlin's lips had felt against his chest, his jaw, his everything. 

Good lord, what had he started?

 


 

Merlin was as chipper as ever the next day, showing no outward signs of having ravished the king’s son whatsoever. He wasn’t exactly peacocking but it was a close thing.

“If you keep glaring like that,” the Lady Mera murmured beside Arthur,  “you’re likely to get your face stuck.”

Arthur looked at her. They were standing at the top of the stairs that led to the castle. All the visitors were packed up and ready to leave. Great empty barrels of mead and rubbish were being carted out of the city and the guests were being waved off by the Royal family.

Merlin was hopping up and down the stairs, saying good-bye to all the servants he’d gotten to work with.

Bastard. Flirtatious and frankly reprehensible bastard with very nice, long-fingered hands.

“Sire?” Lady Mera frowned. “Are you all right? You seem…perturbed. I’m glad you're recovered from whatever had become of your…uh, illness, earlier.”

Arthur had heard by way of the servant gossip and Merlin, that everyone had breathed a sigh of relief when Uther stopped yelling and terrorizing them all with beheadings for poisoning his son. Which means the curse hadn’t been explained…or it wasn’t known…? He was very confused by the timelines now. Not even Gaius remembered their chat about the curse and the scripture. Merlin would explain it better, probably.

“I’m fine,” he said with a smile. “All’s well.”

Merlin came skipping up the stairs. “Lady Mera, the last of your chests have been loaded and your family awaits.”

Arthur let her take his arm, “Let me escort you,” he said.

She smiled brightly and they followed Merlin down the many steps, all the way to the cart furthest from the rabble. Mera’s father was standing there in his full noble attire. He looked very unwell. Arthur frowned.

“Mera!” her father cried. “There you are. Come now, let’s be off. The weather is changing fast.”

He spoke with haste and hurried her along to follow her sisters into the carriage.

Arthur bid her farewell with a smile and welcomed their family back any time.

“Ah, your lordship,” Merlin waved.

Mera’s father hesitated. He glanced at the carriage before coming back to where Merlin stood beside Arthur. Merlin must have looked quite lowly in his plain servants clothing beside Arthur in his full royal regalia, long red cloak and all.

“Yes, sire?” the lord of Donland said, head bowing shakily.

Arthur frowned. What on earth was wrong with the man?

Merlin smiled wide and bowed. “The prince hopes you will have a safe trip home.”

The lord looked at Merlin and smiled. “Ah, yes, thank you.”

Merlin continued to smile, “He also asks that the next time you enter Camelot, you choose to not ever bring any more curses with you.”

The lord paled suddenly and sweat broke over his brow.

“My l-lord,” he stuttered.

Arthur frowned. “What?” he asked, but got an elbow to the gut.

Merlin grinned wider. “If you ever try to curse Arthur again, or anyone for that matter, you will lose everything, understood?”

The lord of Donland nodded frantically. “I-I, yes, I didn’t mean, I-I’m sorry, sire. P-please don’t hurt my girls, my family. I made a grievous error!”

Arthur was stunned. He looked at Merlin.

“You knew?

Merlin shrugged, “I went asking about. Seems the lord here was up to no good. He was carrying the curse with him, weren’t you?”

The lord shook visibly. “I-I met a woman many years ago who shared a secret with me. I didn’t mean– It wasn’t–”

“Of course it was intentional,” Merlin hissed. “You knew exactly what you were doing.”

Arthur stared at the older man in shock. “We welcomed you into our home. What on earth possessed you to curse me? I could have your head for this!”

“Please, sire!” the man trembled and clasped his hands together tightly. “I made an error. A terrible, terrible error.”

“Why did you curse me?” Arthur barked before Merlin shushed him. The man’s daughters peeked out of their carriage, perturbed.

“I–” the man began to sob. “I wanted you to be a good man! My lord, you were so ingratiating with my daughter! I thought it a fair match.”

Arthur frowned, hand going to the hilt of his sword. “I have been nothing but cordial to all your daughters!”

“Y-yes!” the man held up his hands. “But, but sire, I saw you … with a servant girl. And after my daughter had so obviously shared her interest in you, you threw it aside for a mere underling. A whim! My daughter is not so low as to be cast aside in such a manner! She is strong and intelligent and deserving of a good match! I thought you to be a blaggard, forgive me for thinking so, but it is true.”

The man broke down into sobs.

Arthur stared at him, confused and angered by this revelation.

“Lord of Donland,” he said, trying to calm himself. “I have treated the Lady Mera with the utmost respect. I understand if you interpreted things in a certain way and saw my personal behaviour as a severe fault to her integrity, but it was not about her. I would not sully a great woman like your daughter, and while we’re about it, yes, I may have … been with a serving girl, but she is as valuable a woman as any other. I don’t think my bed is of any concern of yours. To curse me to die, I might add, is far and below the social norms of this kingdom.”

“I apologize, I do,” the lord sobbed into his hands. “Please, sire, please give me the chance to repent. Please forgive me! I did it only for my daughter’s honour. I was selfish and angry.”

Arthur looked to Merlin who just shrugged.

Arthur considered his options. He could have the man outed for using magic. He would die, of course. Uther would never let the man live. He’d become a public spectacle and lose all his land and belongings. His family would be cast out and thrown into poverty for his selfishness.

Arthur sighed and rubbed at his brow. “Go,” he muttered. “Just get you family out of my kingdom. Before I change my mind.”

“My lord?” the man looked at him with wide, wet eyes.

“Go!” Arthur barked.

The man nodded hastily and scrambled back to his family’s carriage. The horses whinnied and leapt as they were whipped into action.

As the carriage and horses clattered away, Arthur wondered at how he’d come to this moment in his life where he let a man who had made an attempt on his life go.

“Merlin,” he said softly.

“Yes, Arthur?”

“We are never having another ball for my birthday ever again. Write it down somewhere, strike it in iron, whatever. Just make it so.”

He paused, then considered what the lord of Donland had said.

“And also, regarding the servants and their idle gossip about my … activities…”

“Yes?” Merlin said.

“You can let them all know I won’t be pestering the servant girls any longer.” He gave Merlin a look.

“Indeed, sire,” Merlin smirked and the two of them turned and headed back towards the castle in step.