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Gadarene

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Arthur straps on his sword and stares blankly at the wall for a moment, gathering himself. He’s never unarmed these days, not even inside his own chambers, despite the many nervous glances from his servants. Besides. The raiding party has returned. He glances out the window once more and clenches his jaw at the sight.

Slaves.

They mill like sheep in the centre of the courtyard. Arthur watches, swallowing the bitter taste in his mouth as Kanen manhandles an unlucky few into a smaller bunch.  He pauses beside one, a pale, lanky boy, and speaks rapidly into his ear, spilling bile as only Kanen can, hands sickeningly busy on the boy’s body. There’s a flash of fury and frustration over the lad’s face that hits Arthur squarely in the gut.

They’re the same emotions he battles every day and he staggers a little, breathing hard as the boy struggles. Kanen slaps the boy hard enough to make him stumble and shoves him into the handful that is shuffling toward the keep, leaving the rest behind for the traders.

This is what Camelot has become.

 

 

 

When he reaches the throne room the Regent is already waiting, calm as ever and watchful of Arthur. He knows Arthur’s opinions. Knows too that Arthur has no way of fighting this. Not yet.

“Agravaine,” he greets the man, tone calm. He has become a diplomat indeed, since Uther died.

“Arthur. How are you feeling?” The question never fails to needle and a muscle twitches in Arthur’s jaw.

“I am well, uncle, thank you for asking,” he replies, as he always does.

I hope your backside is full of pustulent boils, he thinks to himself, as he always does. He really needs to find some more creative curses.

There’s noise in the corridor and then the doors are shoved open. Kanen’s men drag the handful of unfortunates inside, Kanen coming up the rear with his hand wrapped around the neck of the tall, dark-haired boy. He gives him an overhard shove and watches the sprawl of long limbs on the stone floor as the boy loses his footing, chains clinking on the stone floor.

Arthur sees all of this from the corner of his eye. He cultivates a blank face around Kanen and tries not to look at the man more than he has to. It’s the only thing that prevents him from exploding into useless rage. And Camelot’s Mad Prince can no longer afford to lose his temper in public.

“Highness,” Kanen drawls lazily, skirting the edges of protocol then nods to Agravaine. “Regent.”

“Welcome back,” Agravaine says, “I see you found some wayward souls along the way.”

“Poachers,” Kanen says, and steps on the boy’s slender hand with casual cruelty.

He bites his lip against the pain and makes no sound as the bully continues, “Normally a bad enough idea, but especially this time since they chose to cross the border from Cenred’s kingdom. You’d have been safe if you’d stayed on the other side,” he crouches to laugh in their faces, and somehow that decides Arthur.

“Uncle,” he says, turning, “I believe I’ll take first choice of this bunch.”

There’s a short, stunned silence. The advisers at the edges of the room shift slightly, exchanging glances, and even Agravaine loses control of his expression for a moment. “You wish to- take a slave.”

“Winter is coming on,” Arthur replies calmly.

“Indeed it is.” Agravaine eyes him, suspicious, but unwilling to actually say no in front of all these witnesses. This power sharing is a delicate dance, but apparently there is still something to be said for being Crown Prince.

Gods, it’s a pleasure to wrong-foot his uncle, for once.

“You are certainly entitled to a bedwarmer, Arthur. But are you sure you wouldn’t prefer a more, ah, skilled companion?”

“There’s sure to be a fetching skirt or two in the next batch,” Kanen says, rising with a smirk on his face. He doesn’t have enough brains to share Agravaine’s suspicions of Arthur’s sudden switch on the stance of slavery.

Arthur glares at him coldly and Kanen takes an instinctive step back. Then Arthur turns to his uncle, lowering his voice. “I thought you would welcome my taking a step forward, uncle, rather than clinging to the old ways.”

“Of course,” Agravaine says, blinking. “But - really, Arthur? A simple village lad? You surprise me.”

He doesn’t rise to the bait. “I’m sure they’ll clean up admirably. And I think, uncle, we’re of one mind on the topic of royal bastards running around Camelot, aren’t we?”

That gets him a shrewd look.

Without waiting for further discussion Arthur steps forward, sweeps his eyes over the group. They’re exhausted, staring out at the world through eyes glazed with shock and pain. He forces himself to breathe calmly, to show nothing on his face as he glances from face to face as though he’s weighing up the options. He can’t help them all, not now, but he can at least spare the boy Kanen’s… attentions.

“This one,” he says with a nod at the blue-eyed boy. Behind him, Kanen hisses and Arthur has to bite back the grin. The boy is glaring up at him with hate, and Arthur can hardly blame him. Clean, well-dressed, well-fed and privileged, he knows full well how he must look.

Well, if nothing else life will get more interesting. He might end all my troubles with a knife between the ribs some winter’s night.

“Get up,” he says, his voice flat. For a moment he thinks the boy will defy him, which will no doubt involve Kanen again. He adds silkily, “Or I’ll drag you through the castle on your knees.” The boy takes a breath and gets to his feet, hand cradled to his chest. The chain running from one manacle to the other swings in a loop down to his waist.

“I trust you’ve no objections, uncle,” he adds, raising a brow as he turns his back on the slave. Agravaine has stepped forward to join Arthur, eyeing his nephew curiously.

Then his eyes return to the boy, swaying on his feet with exhaustion. His voice is quiet, just for Arthur when he remarks, “You know, I think Kanen had his eye on that one.”

“I am desolate to deprive him,” Arthur bites out, and Agravaine is startled into a laugh. He eyes Arthur approvingly, still pondering.

Arthur looks away, back to the boy and his eye is caught by the bands around his wrists. He frowns, takes a step forward.

Cold iron restraints?” He turns to glance at Kanen.

The other man’s face is ugly, eyes hooded. He crosses his arms and stares at Arthur’s feet. “Rumour had it there was a sorcerer in that village.”

Arthur snorts. “Yes. I’m sure if there was a sorcerer he’d be living in the back of beyond, picking berries and trapping rabbits to survive rather than serving at Cenred’s side.” Kanen’s eyes flash but he holds his tongue.

Suddenly, he’s sick of it all. Not the least of which is Kanen’s mention of a village. The man can’t even keep his story of catching poachers straight. They are raiding Essetir, he thinks, cold with despair. There will be war, when someone notices.

“Come,” he says, and the boy startles out of his standing half-doze. “Agravaine, my lords,” he nods in farewell and sweeps out of the room without a backward glance.

In the hallways he walks past the curtseys and nods as he has every other day of his life, though their eyes slide away from his face nowadays. When he reaches the stairs that lead to the royal apartments, he pauses. “I require Gaius to wait upon me in my chambers,” he tells the chambermaid as she scrubs the stairs, and she ducks her head and bustles away.

He continues up to his rooms, paying no attention to the boy who trails behind, and draws a key from beneath his tunic. The days of leaving his room unlocked are long gone. He pushes inside and waits for the boy, closes the door leaving just the two of them in the room.

The slave stands there on the hearth rug, filthy, bruised and swaying from exhaustion. “Sit,” Arthur says, and pushes a chair in his direction with one foot. He leans back against the table himself and examines his prize.

Boy isn’t quite accurate, he can see now, in the light streaming through the window. He’s about Arthur’s age, or a little younger – on that cusp between boy and man. His wrists are turning, back and forth inside the shackles, unceasing.

“What’s your name,” he says abruptly, and the lad stills. He sinks slowly onto the chair with a wince that reveals more than Arthur wanted to know and flicks a wary glance in Arthur’s direction.

“Merlin,” he says finally, and his voice is clear and low. Arthur almost shivers at the richness of that sound - like that first taste of fine wine bursting on your tongue.

“Merlin.” He manages to say. “And where are you from?”

He tenses. Eyes Arthur for a long time before he rasps, “Ealdor.”

Arthur simply nods, flicking through maps in his mind to locate the place. “Do you know where you are?”

“Camelot,” Merlin says, almost spitting the name.

And Arthur half-rises, pure instinct to protect that dream, the ideal, before he remembers what his kingdom is now and what Merlin has likely endured to end up here. The lad doesn’t flinch, just glares out at Arthur, chin up, ready for a blow.

“Yes,” he says softly instead, sinks down and glances out the window. Camelot.

“You’re the Prince?” Merlin says, eyeing him. He hesitates, then adds, defiant, “The Mad Prince of Camelot.”

Arthur doesn’t move. There’s quiet for a long time, then he says it. “I am.”

Merlin waits for a while before he speaks. All evidence to the contrary, it’s possible that he’s thinking. “You don’t seem mad,” he says. His wrists never stop turning inside the shackles, they’ll be dripping blood inside of a day at this rate.

The smile wells up from somewhere deep, and very sad. “Well, Merlin,” he says, “give me time.”

 

 

 

 

A knock on the door startles them both out of the silence, and Arthur slides a knife out of his boot as he moves to answer it. Merlin’s eyes track his movement, startled and breathing a little harder, and Arthur thinks wryly, yes, that didn’t take long at all, did it?

“Yes?”

“It is I, Sire,” Gaius calls through the thick timber.

Arthur sheathes the knife and opens the door, standing back to let the older man in. He is carrying a tray of supplies, which he places on the table, eyes fixed firmly on Merlin who is glaring back, defiant.

“It’s true, then,” he says heavily. And turns. “Arthur. What are you doing?”

He looks at Gaius. Almost the only one left who will give Arthur the use of his name, or uses his title as though he’s still worthy of it. Only a few of the knights, and Gaius.

“I am sampling new delights,” he crosses his arm and raises his eyebrows. “What other explanation could there be?”

Gaius frowns at him, shakes his head but doesn’t press. Instead he moves toward Merlin, who leans back, wary.

“I am a physician, child,” Gaius says, “you have nothing to fear from me.”

“Right,” says Merlin. “You’re going to take excellent care of me so I’ll be strong enough to bear his abuse. No thanks.”

Arthur bites back a smile. Oh, he’s going to be a handful. This one won’t accept any kind of servitude easily. Probably that was half of what had drawn Kanen’s eye - a bully’s instinct.

The other half- well. That soft mouth is one hell of a temptation, let alone the eyes. And the cheekbones.

Arthur shakes his head and looks away. The madness is getting more insidious, or else he really didn’t get enough sleep last night. Either way he’s dangerously close to composing a ballad about an unwashed peasant.

Gaius, meanwhile, uses his eyebrow to best effect. “I am going to care for you, lad, whether you like it or not.”

Something ugly crosses Merlin’s face. “Yes,” he mutters, “I’m hearing that a lot lately.”

“That will do,” Arthur says, suddenly harsh. “Gaius has done nothing to merit such a comparison.”

Merlin scowls back at him and Gaius sighs. “Arthur,” he says, “arrange for a basin and some water, would you?” He raises that terrifying eyebrow, and Arthur realizes a second later that the examination is likely to get a bit… personal.

He shoves off the table and goes into the corridor, closes the door behind him. “Send for someone to fetch a basin of water,” he tells the guard, and watches him go. Time was, he didn’t need a guard outside his door every minute. Time was, the kingdom looked to him to protect them all. Now he can’t – apparently – even protect himself.

 

 

 

 

Merlin keeps his gaze fixed on the fireplace and doesn’t answer the physician’s low-voiced questions. The man’s hands are gentle and sure as he checks the damage Kanen had caused the night before, and the only weapon Merlin has anymore is his silence, and the numbness of grief when he thinks of what he’s lost. They can’t hurt him if he isn’t truly there.

Gaius sighs when he is done. He draws Merlin’s trousers up and touches his shoulder gently as if he can’t help himself. “Sit down, lad,” he says, and pads over to the door.

The beautiful madman is waiting in the corridor, arms folded as he broods. Handsomely.

It’s a nice touch, the pretence of privacy for a pleasure-slave. Obviously the Prince is mad. Merlin eyes the rich bedhangings, refusing to be impressed. He’s never seen a building made of stone, before, nor one so tall. Doesn’t matter. He doesn’t care about Camelot.

“Thank you, sire,” the old man says, and returns to his patient. He draws Merlin’s tunic up over his head with the ease of long practice. The sleeves slide down his arms and snag on the manacles around his wrist, burning cold against his skin, and he hunches, furious all over again at being so helpless.

He slants a sideways glance at the prince, knowing what he’ll see. It’s not as though Merlin’s gorgeous or anything – not like the Prince – but he’s young and fit, which is apparently enough. Kanen and his brutes had made very clear the hopes and plans they’d had for his body, and he already has enough ugly memories from the nights spent on the road between here and Ealdor. He’ll look at the Prince and see the same, set expression, full of lust.

But Arthur’s sidelong glance is filled with something closer to… sorrow. His gaze flicks away, back to the window, and he keeps his attention fixed there while the old man tends to the shallow cuts on Merlin’s back, the bruises on almost every other part of his body.

The seeping wound hidden by his hair Gaius discovers a moment later, and he gives it careful attention. Merlin flinches, furious all over again, remembering the burst of fiery pain and the black flood of unconsciousness. They never would have caught him otherwise. Gaius tut-tuts gently under his breath, hands sure and steady as he moves on to binding Merlin’s wrist.

A basin of clean water is delivered a few minutes later and the older man cleans the wounds thoroughly. Merlin bites his lip and endures in silence, even as a part of him is amazed at the opulence around him. Warm water, carried right to his door.

His thoughts are circling wildly between wishing Will could be here to see this and a bitter gratitude that he was saved from Merlin’s fate.

He couldn’t have borne watching Will writhe under Kanen’s… attentions.

“He’s from Essetir,” Arthur’s voice cuts through the silence, folding his arms. His gaze locks with the older man’s as he turns back. “They raided one of Cenred’s villages.”

“Cenred.” Gaius turns pale and straightens, pot of salve in one hand. “No.”

They stare at one another while Merlin watches. Odd. First, that the young Prince didn’t believe Kanen’s lie about poaching, and second that that he’s telling this news to the old physician. Clearly it has some significance to them he doesn’t understand, but he won’t ask. He’s not a part of this conversation. He’s a thing. A powerless, helpless thing, to be used and bought and sold.

He grinds his teeth and turns away, pulling helplessly against the manacles. If he had his magic…

The old man eyes the chains and goes very still. As Arthur had done, he turns his head, asking, “Cold iron?”

“Apparently there was a powerful sorcerer lurking in their tiny hamlet,” Arthur returned sarcastically. “Kanen’s a fool.” He eyes the shackles with distaste and for a moment Merlin’s heart lifts in hope.

The Prince shakes his head, mouth set in anger. “I can’t just take them off,” he says, more to himself than anyone else. “I’ve drawn too much attention as it is.”

Gaius has finished with Merlin’s back, and draws the tunic gently up over his head again. It sticks where the salve lies, but he does feel a little better. He pushes the basin toward Merlin and dips a fresh cloth into the water, which is only slightly cloudy. “Go ahead and wash,” he murmurs, and turns back to the Prince.

Arthur reaches up a hand to rub the back of his neck and sighs. “Gaius, will you show him to the armoury on your way out? Get the master to remove the chain, at least, so he can…” he waves his hand and doesn’t finish the sentence.

So I can what? Merlin thinks, ridding his face of the worst of the dirt. Better brace myself against the bedposts? He eyes the Prince, the strong lines of his chest and shoulders. He’s not likely to be worried Merlin will strangle him in his sleep. But he can think of absolutely no way to get the princeling to remove these accursed shackles, or switch them for ordinary iron. The last thing he wants to do is draw more attention to himself and the cold iron keeping him trapped. Better to escape first.

“Certainly, sire,” Gaius murmurs.

Merlin drops the cloth and gets to his feet willingly enough. The physician is old. Not likely he’d be able to catch Merlin if he runs, and if he times it right and there’s no-one else around-

“Merlin,” the prince says as he struggles to his feet, head down. He doesn’t look up, deliberately rude, and it seems to bother the other man not a bit. “I’m sure you’re planning an escape.” Merlin goes very still. The physician doesn’t even look up from where he is gathering his pots and bandages onto a tray.

“I don’t blame you,” he goes on, impossibly calm, “I’d do the same thing in your place. But today is not the day.”

Merlin keeps his eyes on the stone floor, trying not to listen to the calm voice of reason coming from the madman by the window. “You’re injured. You’ve not eaten today, I’d wager. You don’t know your surroundings – not the castle, not the town, not the woods, if you even made it that far. And night is only a few hours away. At best, you’ll end up hungry, cold and lost. At worst – you’ll be captured, and likely end up back in Kanen’s hands.”

The Prince crosses the room and stops in front of Merlin. There’s silence, and finally Merlin lifts his head and looks him in the eye.

“Not today,” the Prince says softly. “Hmm? I swear to you, I’ll not harm you in any way.”

You swear?” Merlin says, voice lightly mocking. A heartbeat later there’s a voice at the back of his head saying not your smartest plan, Merlin, baiting the madman, but apart from a slight tension around his eyes, the other man doesn’t react.

“That’s right,” he says, flat. “I may be mad, but I am still a knight of the realm and my word holds.”

“Arthur,” the old man tuts, stepping forward. “That’s quite enough.”

“Take him to the armoury,” he says shortly, turning away. “And have two guards escort him there and back.”

Yes, Merlin thinks as he heads for the door. Definitely not my smartest plan.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Arthur doesn’t touch him when he returns. He doesn’t even hint at it. He orders a pallet of rushes and blankets for Merlin to sleep on, in a small alcove inside the Prince’s chambers, half-hidden by a deep archway. Then Arthur ignores him entirely.

It doesn’t help, of course, Merlin is still tense and braced for it all that night, and the next morning. But the days go past and nothing alters.

He sneaks out of Arthur’s rooms on the third day when the maids come to change the linens and scrub the floors. He’s thinking of escape, and is made to regret it almost instantly. He retreats back to the Prince’s chambers, after, Kanen’s laughter still ringing in his ears. He curls up on his pallet, silent and shaking, glad the Prince isn’t there to notice his reaction, even gladder for the door the maids had locked behind them.

It’s many hours before the Prince returns, by which time Merlin has cleaned himself up and locked the memory away with the others. He finds a discarded kerchief under Arthur’s bed and knots it around his neck to hide the bruises on his throat. Nothing hides the livid marks where the shackles circle his wrists. He can’t stop worrying at them, no matter how he tries.

Oddly enough, Arthur is the one sporting a visible bruise that night – on his jaw. He comes back well after the dinner hour, reeking of beer and grinning faintly, despite the redness of his knuckles. He catches Merlin eyeing him and his lips twitch. “You’ve probably never been in a tavern brawl, have you, Merlin? It’s quite… bracing.”

“I’m sure,” he says, carefully neutral. After the day he’s had he has no wish to draw anyone’s ire, nor is he able to think of getting beaten up as some kind of sport. “You probably meet all sorts of …interesting people.” You daft git.

“Actually,” Arthur says slowly, “I really did.” He frowns into the distance, thinking hard about something, then turns to prepare for bed. Merlin doesn’t see him the next morning, and the day after that Agravaine has a slave publicly flogged for attempting escape. Arthur is pale and furious about the whole thing, and Merlin withdraws a little more, unable to forget the idea of escape but now the whip looms over everything.

The slave dies of his injuries two days later despite Gaius’ best efforts. Merlin curls up on his pallet all that day, behind the locked door, and thinks about Will. About his Mum.

They would want him to survive. Bide his time.

And then. He’s healed. This will be- it’s almost a week since he arrived. Gaius examines him in the morning and says he’s fine. By now Merlin has seen enough of the Prince to know he isn’t a brute.

It won’t be so bad. Nothing like Kanen. But Arthur took a slave for a reason – the maids look at him with speculation, disdain, sometimes envy – and so once he knows Merlin is – well again – surely…

Nothing. A whole night, another day, another night. The relief is huge, and he drifts around in a daze for another day or two before it makes him furious. Because now he’s- he’s just stuck. Trapped. Braced. Bored.

“What am I even here for?” he bursts out suddenly, and then freezes.

He can almost hear Will’s exasperated cry of Merlin, you idiot! Do you want to be brutalized?

“What?” The Prince glances up from the papers in front of him.

Merlin bites his lip and for once in his life decides to stay silent. Far, far too late, of course.

“Why are you here?” He leans back in his chair, eyes glittering as he stares across the room at Merlin.

“Nothing,” Merlin mutters. “Forget I spoke.”

He’s actually smirking now. “You’re here to warm my bed, Merlin, weren’t you listening?”

“And that’s it?”

A blonde eyebrow arches. “Is there something else you’d rather be doing?”

No,” the word bursts out and he steps back, reflex. He’s infuriated at the sudden pit of black in his stomach. The shadow that passes over the other man’s face isn’t pleasant to see, either. He already knows the Prince isn’t going to hurt him, won’t whore him out amongst the knights and nobles, or any of the other panicked imaginings he’d created that first night. He almost feels like apologizing. Almost.

“It’s just – I’m bored,” he says instead, truculent, knowing it will amuse Arthur. How he knows that, he’s not quite sure. But he's right.

“I’m devastated to hear that simply basking in my presence doesn’t fill your days with delight, Merlin,” the Prince says, turning his eyes back to the papers in front of him, mouth twitching. “I will of course give it my immediate attention.”

He doesn’t look Merlin’s way for the rest of the night.

 

* * *

 

In the morning, when the maid delivers Arthur’s breakfast, he says lazily, from the bed, “Merlin will clear the dishes away, Daisy. No need to come back.”

She drops a simple curtsey and leaves, casting a curious glance in Merlin’s direction. He shrugs at her but doesn’t react, sure that’s what Arthur is hoping for.

They eat in silence, Arthur at the table and Merlin sitting cross-legged under the window in his recess. Arthur strides off to training when he’s finished, and Merlin clears the table the way he’s seen Daisy do, then sets off to find out where on earth the kitchen is. 

He gets lost four times on the way there, twice on the way back.  At least he’s meeting people.

Probably not quite time for an escape, then. He’s warm and well fed and, bizarrely, safe at the moment. Best to make a plan. If he fails and is recaptured things are certain to get a lot uglier.

He may not understand everything yet, but it’s clear that Prince or not, Arthur doesn’t have absolute power. So he spends time at the window, watching the ebb and flow of people in the courtyard, figuring out the stables, the kennels, the training ground and the small part of the town that he can see.

That night, after Arthur finishes his dinner, Merlin rises and clears the table automatically, catches the raised eyebrow only as he’s reaching for the Prince’s empty goblet. He stills, glances uncertainly from his hand to Arthur’s face and back again. “Um, sire? Is this…”

His lips twitch. “By all means, Merlin. Far be it from me to deprive you of useful employment.” He waves a Royal Hand and leans back, watching through half-closed eyes.

Merlin narrows his eyes at the Prince. Prat, he thinks, and lugs the tray back down to the kitchens. He gets lost four times on the way there, but only once on the way back.

It’s progress.

Arthur is already dressed for sleep by the time he gets back, but he is standing in the middle of the room, glaring by the time Merlin stumbles inside. He’s right there, less than an arms’ length away before Merlin can even speak – he doesn’t even have time to flinch at the sudden closeness. Arthur’s eyes travel over him in a comprehensive glance, and Merlin watches, confused, as he lets out a slow breath and his fists unclench.

What did I do? he has time to wonder, and then Arthur turns away for his bed without another word, as though he’d never even noticed Merlin was there.

Arthur blows out his candle and leaves Merlin to undress in the dark. He’s never been sure if it’s a deliberate courtesy – privacy, again – or whether he honestly forgets there’s anyone else in the room that might require light.

Merlin shrugs out of his clothes and folds them away in the small alcove where he sleeps. He has no door or curtain to separate his area from the main room, but the space is large enough that his pallet is out of sight, as are his few belongings. He pulls on an old sleepshirt Gaius had gifted him, and slides beneath the blankets without a sound.

As always, his hands wrap around the manacles on his wrists. It’s the only way he can sleep, now – holding the cold iron still so it doesn’t awaken him as it slides up his arm during the night. It’s not comfortable, but-

Ohh. The events of the past half hour suddenly come clear in his mind and he speaks without thinking, “He didn’t- there’s no reason to think that-”

Merlin swallows and carefully pushes aside the memory of the first time he’d left Arthur’s chambers. Things are different now. He’s figuring out the way things work here – he won’t ever be caught like that again.

He forces himself to say the name. “Kanen’s forgotten about me, sire.”

The silence stretches for a very long time, enough for Merlin to have a myriad of different thoughts, all piling on top of one another.

Bet he was already asleep-

That’s probably not even what he was thinking-

Why do I just blurt things out like that?

Lucky he doesn’t know about-

He was likely just angry I took so long-

Please let Kanen have forgotten about me-

Why would the Prince even care if-

“No, Merlin,” Arthur says, so very softly. His tone is thick with regret. “He hasn’t.”

Merlin swallows. He’s suddenly very, very cold. “Well,” he says blankly, “that’s a cheery thought to go to sleep on. Thanks for that.” He blinks into the dark. “Um. Sire.”

There’s a very faint noise that might have been Arthur snorting in amusement, or perhaps he just belched.

“Good night, Merlin,” he says, very firmly, and Merlin nods into the dark.

That night, his dreams are full of fire, and a strange, distant voice calling his name.

 

* * *

 

“Embroidery,” Arthur is saying, voice flat, when Merlin returns from clearing away breakfast.

“Yes.” Leon gives him a level look. Neither of them glances Merlin’s way as he closes the door behind him.

“You honestly- Leon,” he says, shaking his head. “You want us to focus on bloody needlework?

“They’re in seclusion,” he argues, voice low. “Think about it. What do they do all day? Remember that story of Kay’s? The earl’s wife, up north, snowbound for all those months?”

Arthur blinks. He clearly does remember whatever lunatic story Leon is quoting and he says again, unwilling, “Embroidery.”

Leon shrugs. “It’s a possibility. Music, needlework - I don’t know. What else do women do?”

Arthur has turned away and Merlin gets to watch his face now as he’s mulling over this odd argument. The weak autumn sunlight alights on his hair, picks out the angles of his cheekbones. Merlin turns away, folding Arthur’s cloak over a chair, still not used to this new life where he can be invisible even when he’s only a few arms’ length away.

“I’ll speak with the steward about suppliers of thread and… whatever else they use,” Arthur says abruptly, still clearly annoyed to be having a conversation about embroidery. Then he lifts his head. “Merlin.”

Merlin turns to face him, carefully neutral. “Sire?”

“I want you to tell Sir Leon about your capture.” Merlin blinks at him and goes still. His eyes flick to the knight, who is suddenly watchful.

“W-what?”

Arthur rolls his eyes. “Tell him where you’re from, how Kanen found you, his tactics. I’ll be back momentarily.”

He’s gone a bare second later, leaving Merlin swallowing in his wake. He crosses to close the door carefully and then faces Sir Leon. He can’t help the sudden pounding of his heart. Sir Leon is an… impressive kind of man. Big. Far stronger than Merlin. And they are alone in a room with sturdy walls and a solid door. He swallows again and shuffles sideways, keeping the wall at his back.

“Kanen said he’d caught you poaching,” Leon says. He hasn’t moved from his spot on the other side of the room, and Merlin has the distinct impression he sees more than most, has guessed at Merlin’s sudden panic.

“That’s what he said,” he manages.

Leon leans back against the wall and hunches his shoulders, looking suddenly smaller. “Kanen is, of course, both a bully and an epically stupid liar."

And just like that, Merlin can breathe. He allows himself a few shaky breaths and then, low-voiced, describes the raid on his village, the scant warning they’d had from an outlying farmer, the way Kanen had casually tossed a burning torch into the village as they’d ridden away with their prisoners.

He can still hear the laughter, and it’s not until a familiar voice reaches his ears that he realizes he’s fallen silent, hands shaking as he stares past Leon’s shoulder.

“Merlin,” Arthur says, and he jumps.

“S-sire.” When did the Prince return?

Arthur and Leon exchange a glance. Slowly, Arthur says, “My boots need oiling.” He waves a hand toward the far corner of the room and Merlin nods, gets to his feet and collects the boots. He stops, stares vaguely around the room and finally lifts his eyes to Arthur’s. The Prince is watching him, a frown in his eyes.

“There’s a vial of oil in there,” he jerks his chin toward the wooden chest under one window and Merlin goes, obedient.

Arthur and Leon are speaking in low voices as he sifts through the items in the trunk. They seem to be mostly heavy winter cloaks, one or two embroidered tunics which are made from the finest cloth he’s ever seen, and two smaller wooden boxes. Merlin opens the first and blinks.

Gold coins glint at him. A soft leather pouch which likely contains jewels, judging by the hard shapes beneath Merlin’s fingers. He gives his head a small shake and withdraws his fingers, closes the lid, breathing rapidly. It’s madness. The Prince has a small fortune just sitting in a box. The things that could buy for Ealdor…

Merlin licks his lips and buries it beneath one of the cloaks. He opens the other box, and there are several small bottles of different oils, wrapped in soft cloths. He sniffs them in turn and discards the scented ones, finally sinking down to sit on the floor and rub the plain oil into Arthur’s boots until they’re supple and soft and gleaming.

It’s boring, rote work, but somehow it makes the sights and sounds of Ealdor recede, and by the time Leon leaves Merlin is calm again. He can hear perfectly well, though.

“Arthur,” Leon says, soft, his hand on the door, “you’re just going to leave that box where anyone can get to it?”

“What box?”

“The bloody carved box I just spotted in your chest that’s full of gold and god knows what else,” Leon says, his voice dropping even further.

“Oh.” Arthur glances in Merlin’s direction and shrugs. “It’s safe enough.”

“It’s sitting in an unlocked box.”

“In my chambers, yes,” Arthur says.

“I know you lock your door, Arthur, but-”

“I lock my door and Merlin is usually here,” he says with another shrug.

“That’s my point,” Leon says, and Merlin turns his back, sets the boots carefully in the corner where he’d found them. “He’s a slave, and the coins alone could buy his freedom ten times over.”

“Merlin’s no thief,” Arthur says simply, but there's a warning in his voice, and that’s it, the conversation is over. Leon sighs and takes his leave.

Merlin is left blinking down at the boots, throat tight, and it’s a long time before he’s composed enough to face the Prince.

Madman, he thinks for the tenth time this week, only this time it’s with something like affection.

 

* * *

 

 

“Why is sorcery against the law?” he asks one day, abrupt. He’s learned that asking questions won’t earn him a beating – in fact, so far there seems to be nothing that will earn him a beating. Not even the smart remark he'd made under his breath about Lord Carson’s paunch, which had instead prompted a distinct snort of amusement. But as far as questions go - the Prince will either answer or he won’t. Simple.

Questions about Camelot, the council, the laws, the people, these are all permitted, and he answers generously, in great detail. The knights, tournaments, the squires, the endless training, these, too, the Prince will discuss, although he’s rather light on detail there, as if he expects Merlin to know it already, or perhaps that it’s obvious, or not as interesting… Merlin’s never sure of the why.

He’s learning Arthur, slowly, but it’s not quite the simple process he’d have thought. That first day, the gorgeous pompous git looming over Merlin in all his finery is, apparently, more than just a Prince.

“Hmm?”

And Arthur never discusses people. Not his uncle, his father, the other lords and ladies. His face goes cold and set if the topic comes up, and not just with Merlin. He wants badly to ask about a name he’s heard whispered – Morgana – but Arthur is clearly not the one to tell that story.

He licks his lips. “Magic. Why did your father ban it?” He’s taking a risk, mentioning the old King. Not to mention the magic. It feels as though his eyes will betray him – flaring gold – just for saying the word.

“Oh.” Arthur looks up and blinks at him, draws in a breath and turns his eyes to the window. When he speaks, each word is heavy. “Well. Because of me, really. Because I was born.”

Merlin frowns. That makes no sense.

“My mother died at my birth,” Arthur explains.

“Yes-” I know, Merlin starts to say, then realizes it that just because it’s common knowledge doesn’t make it any less personal for Arthur. Still, everyone knows the dangers of childbirth, and Queens are not immune.

“Her death was caused by magic,” Arthur said, very quietly. “There had been – well. My father said there had been trouble, with my mother’s health, apparently, with… having a child. And a sorceress offered to help, since my father was so concerned that the heir,” he tries for lightness, but the pain is there,should survive. But-”

“But your mother died instead,” Merlin finished softly. He could see it. Because he might not know too much about magic, but he’d learned that lesson young – there is always a price. He’ll never forget the triumph of saving Will’s cow from the strangles, and then finding every chicken in the village coop had dropped dead overnight.

He can still see the strain on his mother’s face at keeping the secret from their friends and neighbours, her fear that they’d find out somehow.

He’d done no magic for almost two years after.

 

* * *

 

 

Arthur is picking at his bread and cheese, glancing in Merlin’s direction occasionally. The lad is standing by the window, watching Camelot with his usual wide-eyed fascination.

It’s a bittersweet pleasure for Arthur, discovering Camelot through Merlin’s eyes, seeing it as the vibrant centre of the world the way he used to do. If only it had a ruler worthy of its people. If only.

Merlin leans forward just slightly, back tensing in a way that tells Arthur he’s spotted an enemy, and it’s not hard to watch the thoughts flitting across his face as he turns his head to track whoever it is across the courtyard.

For a time he is very still, head turned to the right – the wide staircase, Arthur knows, that lead to the heart of the household, and eventually the royal chambers. He’s thinking. Watchful, and Arthur turns his attention back to his plate before those eyes can turn toward him. His eyes turn to Merlin far too often for his own peace of mind, he certainly doesn’t want the lad noticing. Perhaps dreading

There’s perfect silence for a few precious moments. In an instant, however, the lad’s head turns, eyes widening as he glances toward the door and he flings himself at Arthur’s feet.

“What-”

Merlin’s fingers are busy with the ties of Arthur’s trousers, and for a half second he just stares down, stunned, at the frantic way he tugs at the laces. He’s biting at his lips, hard and doesn’t glance up at Arthur at all.

Merlin-”

By the time he’s formed the words Merlin’s long fingers are wrapped around him and the air locks up in his throat. He was already half hard, which switches to diamond hard in the half second it takes for Merlin’s mouth to engulf him and Arthur sucks in a huge, unsteady breath.

“Wha-”

Footsteps in the corridor outside. One slightly uneven. Agravaine, not yet recovered from a wrenched knee. And neither of them had locked the door after Leon had left half an hour ago.

Merlin’s reasons for what he’s doing are suddenly very obvious and Arthur gulps, trying not to focus on the bite-swollen lips and wet heat wrapped around him… think, Arthur, oh fuck that’s so- think for a second… and just as the perfunctory knock sounds at the door he reaches down to fist his hand in Merlin’s hair and lets his head thud back against the chair.

What,” he snarls, and they are the very picture of lazy sex interrupted by the time the door opens.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“Arth-,” Agravaine’s greeting dries up mid-word and it’s punctuated by a breathless choking sound from the guards flanking him. Arthur’s not sure if it’s horror or envy on their faces.

He shoots a furious glance toward the door and yanks his trousers up, ignoring Merlin completely as he shuffles back from the chair. It’s the only kind of protection he can offer the lad.

“What the devil is the meaning of this.”

“My apologies, Arthur,” Agravaine manages, turning his eyes pointedly away as Arthur sets himself to rights.

“I should bloody well think so.” He laces his trousers up and glares pointedly at the guards until they drop their eyes to the floor. The taller, good-looking one is taking decidedly too much interest in Merlin, who is now silent and still on the other side of the room, his back pressed to one of the bedposts and his eyes on the floor.

It’s one of the few times he’s ever seen his uncle honestly wrong-footed, and if it weren’t so all-around ugly and awkward Arthur could almost enjoy it. “I – ah, had wanted to discuss the border patrols…” he trailed off awkwardly.

“While I’m naturally delighted, Uncle, that you are so excited to have my opinion that you cannot even wait a few seconds for an invitation to enter my chambers, I must confess I’d be considerably more delighted if you’d waited three bloody minutes more.”

“Ahem. Yes.”

While he has the opportunity, and an audience, Arthur adds, “And the next person who opens my door without an express invitation is going to spend a bloody week in the stocks, I don’t care who they are.” Let the guards spread that threat around the castle for a while.

Agravaine just nods, face calm, and Arthur knows his embarrassment or surprise had worn off. They are back on their normal, uneven footing.

“Now,” he says, before his uncle can take control of the conversation, “you want to discuss border patrols?” He heads through the door without a backward glance, but he sees the quick, sideways glance his uncle sends Merlin’s way before the door closes.

When he gets back to his room that night, neither of them mentions what happened that day. It had been necessary. They both understand this. Arthur knows his touch is about as welcome to Merlin as the plague, and Merlin knows, by now, that he is safe from that kind of… imposition.

Still, Arthur finds it hard to sleep that night. And judging by the soft sounds coming from Merlin’s alcove, he’s not alone. He sighs silently at the ceiling, ignoring the insistent throb of his cock and distantly angry that Merlin is both a constant temptation, and the reason Arthur can’t even take pleasure by his own hand.

He hadn’t thought this through very far, taking a bedwarmer.

 

* * *

 

Arthur is extracting a stone from his boot, leaning into a doorway for balance, when he hears the voice. Young, excited, almost piping. “But you’ve seen him fight?”

“Yes,” comes another voice, far more familiar. Arthur can feel his face change, not a smile but something close to it. He swallows. This is getting ridiculous.

Merlin continues, “I’ve seen him on the training field, like everyone else.”

“He’s amazing.”

“I suppose.”

“No, he is. I saw him and Sir Kay take on six bandits, once, on the road near my village. They saved our crops.” Oh. That’s – he remembers that day, Kay at his side, a few months before his father had died. They’re talking about Arthur.

No reply to that, Merlin is probably nodding. For all his irreverence when they’re alone, he’s surprisingly reserved in public. Probably a hard lesson taught at Kanen’s hands – how not to draw attention. Arthur’s fists clench on the thought.

“What’s it like?”

“What’s what like?” Merlin’s voice is muffled, and after a moment’s thought Arthur realizes where he is and what he’s likely doing. There’s several trunks of discarded clothing in the room next to the laundry. They’ve had trouble finding trousers long enough for Merlin’s legs, and winter is drawing implacably nearer.

“When he goes – you know.”

“No,” Merlin’s tone is absent, distracted.

“When he’s mad,” the boy says, and it’s like falling into an icy river. Arthur stills and closes his eyes, breathless.

He doesn’t want to hear what comes next, but he can’t move. He’s – just – in a moment. He’ll go.

The boy is continuing, excited, “Is it – does he rave? Or piss himself? Cor says he rolls on the floor and cries like a baby.”

Arthur’s nails bite into his palms. The humiliation is a burn, and somehow worse for knowing Merlin is hearing this. Not just now, he has doubtless heard far, far worse, and that it’s all fucking true is the deepest cut of all.

There’s a long moment of silence, and suddenly Merlin’s voice is very clear, and very, very cold. “Is this how you talk about your Prince?”

There’s no reply, just the sound of the boy’s rapid breathing.

“The man who saved your village from starvation.”

“I- I didn’t. I didn’t mean-” he stutters.

“You didn’t mean what?”

“It’s not, I don’t mean anything by it-” he begins again, stumbling horribly over the words.

“If you don’t mean anything by it then don’t do it,” Merlin says, still icy.

Arthur sags against the wall, legs suddenly weak. He hadn’t known Merlin’s beautiful voice could sound like that. Least of all, over him.

“Just because there are others who have no respect and no brains doesn’t mean you have to join them. It’s pretty poor repayment for the lives he saved – the lives of your family and friends.”

“I’m. I’m- s-sorry.”

“I can finish this on my own,” Merlin says, still cold. “You should probably get back to your duties. And if the others sent you to ask me questions you can tell them not to bother again. I don’t gossip about the Prince.”

Arthur is breathing almost as fast as the boy. He takes a step back, then another, silent. When he’s far enough away he turns on his heel and runs.

 

* * *

 

He strides through the corridors, at a faster clip than necessary. Leon’s long, measuring look notwithstanding, he did not hurry back from the hunt. They’d killed two deer and a boar. There was no need to stay out any longer.

He’s not in any kind of hurry to get to his chambers, he just-

He wants to wash the dust of the road away, to change out of his travel-soiled clothing. That’s all.

Perhaps the startled faces of the guards outside his door should have warned him. But when he shoves the door open he is completely unprepared for what he sees.

Merlin.

On his knees.

Servicing Agravaine.

There’s a taut, startled moment of silence. The image smashes through Arthur again and again, even as Merlin jerks back, eyes wide, and Agravaine goes still, then unhurriedly sighs and tucks himself back into his trousers. Merlin turns his white face away from them both, still on his knees, head down. His fists rest against his thighs, shaking, and the key to Arthur’s rooms swings from the cord around his neck, the neckerchief that usually conceals it clutched in his uncle’s hand.

“What is this,” Arthur says, very low. White-hot rage sweeps over him and for one horrifying moment he thinks it’s the madness descending again, that he is going to lose all control, again. Then Merlin’s shoulder hunches as if expecting a blow, and like a sword pulled from the forge his head clears, cools enough for him to think.

He must be careful. He closes the door behind him, leans against it.

“Arthur.” Agravaine doesn’t look up from what he’s doing until his clothing is put to rights. When he does lift his head his face is calm. “You weren’t expected back until tonight.”

“Clearly.”

Agravaine raises a brow and drops the cloth to the floor. Merlin’s fingers curl around it and he slides further away. “I see you’re upset.”

That bites deep, as does every remark on Arthur’s emotions and temper nowadays. But the thoughts in his head are burning clear, he’s never felt less unbalanced or more in control in his entire life. He will win this. This situation can never recur. He draws the certainty over himself like an icy cloak.

He steps forward. “I’m rather more than upset, uncle.” He slaps his gloves on the table, both for the satisfyingly angry sound, and the underlying hint at swords and duels and honour. “To return home and find both my privacy and my property invaded and appropriated.”

“Careful, Arthur.” He raises his hands, placating. “You don’t want to overreact to a simple-”

“An overreaction, uncle, would be for me to declare a challenge for the insult you’ve offered me this day. An overreaction would be if I had simply lost my head and run you through where you stand.” His fingers twitch even as he says it and he can’t look at- Merlin. He could do it. He could, for- Merlin.

Agravaine’s eyes are hard now. “You would be wise to watch your words, Arthur. It’s unseemly for the Crown Prince to lose his temper because he’s become so involved with a slave. So… protective.” He waves a hand at Merlin, who cringes.

He’s careful to control his tone, lets the fury vibrate through his body instead. “I am simply asserting the right to my privacy and my possessions, uncle.”

Agravaine straightens, but whatever he’s seeing on Arthur’s face has him hesitating.

“He’s my property.” It isn’t hard to make his voice harsh. “Is he not? As my sword is mine, as my boots are mine, he belongs to me. That was your proclamation, Uncle.” Made while Arthur was indisposed for the third time.

“As I very well remember-”

“Then explain to me. Does the rule of law no longer apply in Camelot?”

“Tread carefully, Arthur.”

“I will not,” he bites out, everything he stands for suddenly clear. “For if the Crown Prince of Camelot cannot trust in the law, what possible protection is there for the common people? And if law no longer rules in Camelot then my father’s kingdom exists no longer and I will happily ply my trade as an itinerant knight in the northern kingdoms.”

Agravaine lifts his head, watchful and suddenly mean. His words are slow, and very deliberate. “Is this really how you want to spend that threat, Arthur? Over a sluttish slave? Surely Morgana deserves better than that.”

“It’s nothing to do with him,” Arthur snarls, and he almost believes it. “I ask you – does Camelot still exist, or does it not?”

Agravaine’s eyes narrow. “You take this too far.”

Answer the question. Are you subject to Camelot’s law, or not?” He’s asking much more than that, and they both know it. The only person not subject to the law is the King. If Agravaine is ready to make his grab for the crown…

For a moment he thinks he will do it, and Arthur’s awareness of his surroundings flares wide, the sword at his side, how much room he will have to manoever.

Here we go. He’s tired from travel, and the boar’s tusk scored him along one hip this morning, while Agravaine is well-rested and uninjured. But the emotions pumping through his veins will lend him strength, for a while. The door is closed, if he prevents Agravaine calling for help-

The imminent explosion of violence hangs there for a moment. And then-

“Of course the rule of law still applies,” Agravaine says coolly. “We are not savages, Arthur. No matter that there are those of us who sometimes behave like one.”

He lets the insult slide. He will not be distracted by the sneers and whispers. The Gods know, he’s heard worse.

“Then I suggest, uncle, that the privacy of my quarters is respected from now on, by every person in this keep.” He steps closer, “And I tell you now that anyone found abusing my possessions, my privacy or my people – whatever their station – will find themselves facing swift justice. No matter who they are.”

He gets an eyebrow for that, but there’s something about the way Agravaine looks him over that he recognizes. It’s the same look he used to get at tournaments, the one where his opponent was surprised to find the Crown Prince wasn’t some lightweight, that he led his knights for good reason.

But he recognizes something else, too. There will be fallout from this day. He needs to talk to Leon, and soon. He needs to be sure Morgana won’t suffer any punishment from what Arthur has just done.

Agravaine steps around Arthur and heads for the door.

He takes one quick breath, then closes the distance to Merlin. He has to-

“You,” he snarls, and kicks Merlin in the leg, “get up. I want hot water for a bath.”

He can hear Agravaine’s footsteps pause in the doorway, then slowly recede, calm and measured.

Merlin rises without a word, head down, and then he is gone.

 

* * *

Chapter Text

 

 

When Merlin returns the Prince is in his customary place by the window. Merlin pushes the door wide with one shoulder and walks in, a heavy bucket of steaming water in each hand. Behind him two of the household servants lug the tub inside, and then two chambermaids, with more buckets of water and a kettle to hang by the fire.

They work in silence, only Merlin remaining behind when the bath is ready. He closes the door and locks it. For just one moment he lets his head rest on the timber.

His mouth is sour from where he’d thrown up on his way to the kitchen. He’d begun to feel – safe again. Had started to lift his head and look people in the eye.

Stupid.

“It’s ready, Sire,” he says as he straightens, and turns to face other man, though he keeps his eyes fixed on the Prince’s boots.

“Go on, then,” Arthur says absently.

Merlin blinks. “Sire?” He glances up by accident, sees Arthur is flipping a small knife end over end without looking at it.

“Go on and take your bath,” he says. He still hasn’t looked in Merlin’s direction. Possibly he never will again. Certainly Merlin is never going to forget the look on Arthur’s face when he pushed through the door and saw-

What he saw.

Merlin is just… tired. Bruised. Not on his skin but somewhere deeper.

My bath?” he asks stupidly.

“Yes, Merlin,” the Prince says, finally glancing his way. His eyes are still dark and angry, but Merlin is beginning to realize it’s not directed at him. Perhaps – despite the kick – it never was.

They stare at one another.

“I assume you would like to clean up?” Arthur asks, very softly.

“I think it would take more than hot water to make me feel clean again,” he says without thinking, unprepared for the flinch on Arthur’s face.

“Of course,” he says, back to staring out the window, shoulders rigid.

Shit. He hadn’t meant- hadn’t expected Arthur to take on the weight of-

Merlin sighs. Hasn’t he learned anything by now? Arthur feels responsible for everyone.

“Thank you, Sire,” he says instead. “I would like that.”

He turns away and begins to undress. He might have been shy about it, a year ago – even two months ago, perhaps. It’s not a luxury he has anymore. He should be grateful it’s an audience of one, and that one has no intention of assaulting him. Or touching him in any way, actually. That much, at least, he has come to trust.

He puts his clothes into a tidy pile and runs a hand over the trousers – new, and the perfect length – that had appeared on his pallet a week ago. Arthur had looked mildly surprised at their appearance, fooling Merlin not at all, and he swallows, glances over at the bath. These small kindnesses are killing him, like the key Arthur had tossed him, so casually, before he’d left. The trust it implied.

He slides into the warm water with a silent sigh. Then he frowns, poking at the idea that’s now in his head.

Arthur never touches Merlin. Actually… Merlin’s hands still in the water as he thinks it over. He never touches anyone.

The chambermaids are safe from his attentions, Gaius is attentive but formal, and the knights are respectful of his person. Even the ones who seem to be his friends, like Leon, keep their distance. Merlin blinks down at the surface of the water, feeling the heat seep into his bones and wash away this cursed day.

His mother had been affectionate. Always. Hugs and kisses. A quick squeeze of the arm. A nudge of his leg beneath the table to remind him of his manners. But Arthur’s mother had died in childbirth, and by all accounts the King had been a cold and distant man.

Had no-one ever touched Arthur in simple affection? He turns his head, thoughtful, and looks at the man by the window.

The movement stretches his neck and he winces, feeling the ache from the bruises left by Agravaine’s hands, the vice-like grip on his shoulder as the older man had forced him to kneel, shoved his fingers into Merlin’s mouth-

“How many times?” Arthur says, eyes forward.

“What?”

“How often has Agravaine-”

No,” he says violently, “not- he hasn’t- this was the first-”

“I see,” Arthur says softly. Nods to himself and Merlin presses the washcloth to his suddenly hot face. “And Kanen?”

Merlin freezes, face hidden. He wants very badly to lie, but Arthur can tell when he’s just pretending he didn’t get lost on the way to the laundry…

“Merlin.”

“It- just the once,” he manages, and curls up tighter. The silence winding around them is full of the threat of violence and he lifts his head hurriedly. “When I was first - I got lost, heading for the stables – normally I can avoid him, it was ages ago, sire-”

“Stop,” Arthur says, still soft, and he does. He twists around and stares miserably at Arthur’s back, the shoulders full of tension and takes a deep breath.

“Your Highness,” he says, and Arthur starts at that. They’re both perfectly aware Merlin never uses his title.

He bites his lip, then says hurriedly, “Please don’t cause trouble for yourself over this. You have worries enough. It won’t ever happen again, the servants, they know me now and we all look out for each other-”

And this time the Prince turns, face very blank, hands clenched around the knife. “So he importunes the maids as well?”

Merlin just blinks. Right. When will he learn to control his tongue? There’s no good answer to that question so he takes refuge in silence, about five minutes too late. He is staring back down at the rapidly cooling water when Arthur speaks again.

“You’ve nothing to be ashamed of, Merlin,” the Prince says suddenly.

“What?”

“You’ve no cause to feel ashamed.”

He flushes in sudden anger, because no matter what’s happened since he was captured he still has some pride, he can’t just pretend the things they make him do are nothing, “I shouldn’t be ashamed of getting on my knees to su-”

“You’re in an unwinnable position,” Arthur says, low. “The only strategy for you right now is to survive. I made sure that Kanen and his dogs were out of the way this week but I should have seen that my uncle- I should have guessed what he’d do the minute I left. I’m the one who left you vulnerable. The shame is mine.”

Merlin just goggles, open-mouthed. And then the Prince turns on his heel and stalks out of the room.

 

* * *

 

It’s getting near to dark when the Prince returns. Merlin had washed, dressed, and then, unsure of what else to do, gone for more water and refilled the kettles. He’d glanced out the window, seen the Prince stride across the courtyard with great purpose, and for one heartstopping moment had thought he was on his way to confront Kanen.

Overestimating your own importance, Merlin.

But instead he’d called in at the stables, where the hunting party’s horses were still being tended. He’d disappeared inside for a long time, finally emerging deep in conversation with Sir Leon. They’d parted just outside the stables, Leon watching Arthur stride away, frowning, and then he’d disappeared from Merlin’s view, heading toward the town.

He goes back to the fire and switches cooling water from the tub for hot water from the kettles, again. He pokes at the fire, still nervous that it might go out again. He’s no good with starting a fire the ordinary way – never bothered to learn until now, when he has no other choice.

He’s sitting in his alcove, staring down at the manacles on his wrists when the door opens and his heart is beating hard enough to be heard when he leans out, confirms it’s really Arthur and not-

Not anyone else.

“Sire?” he steps into the room, hands clasped in front of him. “I’ve water waiting for you.”

Arthur glances around the room, blinks a few times, then nods slowly. He has a rolled-up manuscript in one hand. “Yes,” he says, “all right. And something to eat. I’ll retire early tonight.”

Merlin nods. “I’ll go down to the kitchens,” he says, and makes his escape.

When he returns with a tray Arthur is standing by the tub, staring down at it, frowning. For a moment Merlin thinks he’s done something wrong, then he catches the look the Prince shoots toward the door and turns to lock it.

Arthur nods and begins to undress.

Merlin busies himself around the room, setting the food on the table, putting away clothes, stoking the fire. He keeps his eyes carefully turned away, offering the Prince the same courtesy Merlin always receives. No matter how tempted he is to peek.

When Arthur is finished, he summons the kitchen servants to clear away the tub and the water, while the Prince eats. Night has drawn in by the time all is finished, and Merlin sinks down to the table to take his own meal in silence from the leftovers on Arthur’s plate. As always, there’s more than enough.

Arthur is pouring over a map by candlelight, eyes worried. Merlin watches him, careful not to be noticed, wondering what question he could ask and not sound like an idiot, like a simple village boy who’s never even seen a proper map before tonight. When he stands up to clear away the remains of their meal, he looks closer and realizes it shows the border that separates Camelot from Cendred’s kingdom.

He watches for a moment, silent, while Arthur’s finger traces past the symbols that must show the – the mountains? Yes. And there are the rivers that cut through both kingdoms. He can see the tiny dot that must be Ealdor, and for a moment the ache cuts through him like a knife. Arthur runs a hand through his hair, still damp from the bath, and the blonde locks in tousled disarray make him look very young.

Arthur doesn’t look up when Merlin heads back to the kitchen with the tray, and when he returns the Prince is in the same position. Merlin returns to watching, silent, until he can stand it no longer. Arthur’s weary face is – it hurts, somehow, to see him carry this weight.

“You’re tired, Sire,” he dares, from his recess by the window. “You should get some rest.”

Arthur looks up blindly, as if he’s forgotten Merlin was even there. “What?”

“You need to sleep, Sire.”

Arthur blinks at him, then glances back at the map. “Yes,” he says finally, “yes, I suppose so.” He scrubs a hand over his face and stands, lets the parchment spring back into shape and stretches his neck, head rolling from side to side.

He walks to the bed, rolling one shoulder – his sword arm, Merlin knows. It’s often tight from overuse, and somehow looking at it brings him straight back to the thoughts he’d had this afternoon, in the bath.

Arthur sheds his tunic and flops gently down onto the bed, dressed only in the loose sleeping trousers he favours. He dislikes sleeping with a shirt on, apparently, even though the cooler mornings will see him curled up beneath the covers, seeking elusive traces of warmth.

Arthur sighs and raises his head. “Good night,” he says, and blows out the candle. The quarter moon shines in the window and the fire has not yet burned low, so from his low pallet Merlin can watch him stretch and flex his shoulder silently, still seeking relief.

He’s on his feet before he knows he’s made a decision. At the side of the bed, he hesitates. He takes a step back, suddenly afraid, and then Arthur turns his head, sees Merlin and freezes.

They stare at one another in silence, and after a moment Merlin realizes just how lucky he is the Prince has not immediately struck out with his knife. The man is paranoid – probably for good reason – but he lies still, watching Merlin, and waiting.

“Your shoulder,” Merlin says, and his voice comes out creaky and low.

Arthur doesn’t reply. His eyes glint in the darkness.

“I can help.” Though why I’m offering I don’t know. But it feels right – feels important. A second later he realizes it’s the first time he’s voluntarily touched anyone since he was brought to Camelot.

More silence. Then Arthur simply nods. He turns his face away, pushes the pillow under his chest and Merlin swallows, steps forward until he can rest one knee on the bed, and begins to work on the sore muscles. He comes no closer.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The next day, Merlin enters the kitchen at noon and is startled to find it completely filled with servants, all of them a-twitter.

“What’s going on?” he asks, bewildered, and has to shoulder his way through the crowd. Most of them ignore him – he’s a lowly bedwarmer, after all, and he’s learned that rank is just as important here as anywhere else in the castle. But Daisy takes him aside and talks out the side of her mouth so no-one can tell. She’s been quite warm toward Merlin ever since he started doing half her duties, leaving her more free time to visit Berd, who works down at the kennels.

“The Prince broke Kanen’s nose.”

“He what?” Merlin yelps. Oh Gods. She rolls her eyes at his complete lack of guile and cuts several wedges of cheese from the wheel. No-one seems to have noticed his reaction, though, amidst all the noise. “What – why?”

Not because of me. Please.

“It was an accident,” she confides, “on the training field.” And they exchange a speaking glance. Anyone who’s ever seen Arthur fight knows he doesn’t have accidents.

Merlin just blinks, stomach churning. She nudges him with an elbow and nods to a young man who is apparently re-enacting the whole thing. Merlin edges closer, ignoring the way the cook and her assistant put deliberate space between them like he’s something foul beneath their feet. Yesterday’s story about Agravaine has done the rounds, then. He tugs on the neckerchief, not that it hides all the bruises.

“So he’s tellin’ the squires, right, about always being on their guard. All the knights are just standin’ around, watchin’,” he folds his arms and mimics boredom. “So right then, Kanen walks past, and you know him, he’s sneerin’ at the squires and making, like, faces, you know-”

Everyone in the kitchen nods. They know.

“And the Prince, he’s just walkin’ around, he moves one of the squires to the side, showin’ him how to block, and then, just as Kanen walks past he says,” the young man pauses, savouring every eye that’s on him, and when he speaks it’s an uncanny version of Arthur, “He says, you must never let your guard down, not for an instant. It can cost you more than your life-“

More than your life?” someone asks stupidly in the background.

“And then he just like, jabs back with his elbow, like magic it was, quick as a snake, bam, straight into Kanen’s face. You could hear the crack all the way across the training grounds-” he breaks into laughter, great unattractive snorts, but he’s not alone, Merlin is biting his lip and the cook is cackling, the entire kitchen alive with mirth. Kanen is a well-known, well-loathed figure around the castle.

“Didn’t Kanen strike back?” A grizzled man on a stool in the corner asks, intent. Merlin eyes him, curious – he has a weathered face for a man still in his prime, beard prematurely grizzled with grey.

“Oh, he tried, but the Prince just fended him off, like, and then pretended it were all accidental. He called for the physician an all, careful as if it were some fine lady that got hurt, which just made him madder, o’course.” The laughter starts again. “And Kanen just had to stand there, bleedin and fumin while the knights all laughed behind their hands.”

And just like that, the fun is gone for Merlin. He swallows. Kanen will retaliate. He hates Arthur enough already, for the weird tug-of-war over Merlin, for a thousand other reasons, too. And if he can’t get to Arthur, he’ll get to Merlin.

He fades back to the kitchen doorway and takes the tray with numb hands. Daisy steadies it, watching him with concern. “Are you all right, Merlin?”

He nods. Behind him, he can hear at least three different speakers at once that one’s a right snake, he is and why the Prince doesn’t send them both packing and rather die than have his hands on me and he grips the tray tighter, ducks his head lower.

“Merlin,” Daisy persists, softly, and he meets her eyes. Whatever she sees there has her face softening, “Listen. Just stick to the corridors and staircases I showed you. There’s always someone around. All right?”

He nods again and turns just as the man in the corner says, “You know full well why he can’t get rid of Kanen, lad. Or his uncle, for that matter. S’all because of Lady Morgana. So that’s enough out of you.”

Merlin hesitates and glances back. The man meets his eyes as he says, “He’s doing what he has to do. That’s all.”

He gets to Arthur’s door unmolested, heart almost calm by the time he’s placing the tray on the table. Of course, Kanen’s probably somewhere recovering. Nothing will happen until – tomorrow, probably.

Arthur gives him a long, lazy look from beneath his lids, and Merlin hesitates, then meets his eyes. Those beautiful lips quirk. “Kitchen busy today, was it?”

“Buzzing would be a better word,” he says, neutral. Then ruins it by saying, “Sire – why did you-”

“Why did I what, Merlin?” The Prince’s voice is silky, and Merlin sighs, drops his eyes. He won’t tell Merlin anything in this mood.

He shakes his head. “Nothing.”

Arthur eats in silence, and when he’s finished he slides his plate toward Merlin and leans back in his chair. “You worry too much, Merlin,” he says finally, catches him just in time to make him choke on his first bite of bread.

He swallows with difficulty. “Do I? Oh.” He blinks rapidly. “Well. I’ll stop that, then.”

Arthur sighs and glances toward the window. “It will be all right.”

Merlin nods. Right. His head is full of possibilities, and for the first time in over a week he is seriously considering his chances of escape.

Over a week. Gods – how is it possible he’s stopped wanting to escape this place? Is he so easily cowed? Or – well. Probably time to admit it’s not fear keeping him trapped. It’s something else that’s tempting him to stay.

“Merlin,” Arthur says, voice suddenly deep, and he looks up, pinioned by that blue-eyed gaze. “I indulged myself today. I admit it. But you can trust me when I tell you, Kanen will never harm you, or any of the servants again. I have ensured it.”

Merlin swallows, still staring at Arthur.

“All right?”

And very, very slowly, he nods.

 

* * *

 

“Do you- do you have family, Merlin?” Arthur is speaking into the pillow.

Merlin’s hand stutters in its strokes along that golden skin, then resumes. They don’t normally talk while he does this. It’s become a regular thing, every night, in the quiet and the dark, Merlin works on the various aches and pains that come with a knight’s training.

After the third night, Arthur had placed a stone jar of balm on the floor by the bed, and the scent of arnica and laurel oil fills Merlin’s senses as he works on the warm body beneath his hands. He sits beside Arthur now, his nerves are beginning to settle again after the past few days.

Just as well. The nights are getting colder. Soon Arthur will require him to do the job he was chosen for. Soon it’ll be cold enough that Merlin will probably bloody insist on it. He tries not to think too much on what bedwarming might entail. And so far he’s not sure if it’s because he’s afraid he’ll hate it, or-

Well. Actually. He’s afraid – no. He’s sure. Sure that he’ll like it. He stops that thought and concentrates on Arthur’s question. Do you have any family?

“Not- not much family. Bit like you, sire, I guess,” he dares, but Arthur doesn’t explode at the comparison, simply nods, and Merlin shakes his head at himself. When am I going to stop testing him?

“Just me and my Mum,” he finally says, “and my mate, Will.”

There’s silence for a while, and Merlin’s hands never stop, sliding over the scrape from the hunting trip, mostly healed. He just waits, knowing what Arthur’s next question will be.

“Are they- do you know where they are?” What happened to them is unspoken.

He’s had time to brace, so he says simply, “Will was killed.”

“In the raid.”

“Yes.” Arthur’s muscles are bunching beneath his fingers and he presses again, soothing.  Utter madness.

“And… your mother?”

“I don’t know,” he says, low. “She was alive last time I saw her.” He hesitates for a long time before he adds, “I hid her, and the rest of the village. The children, their mothers, most of the men. When they came to raid.”

Now Arthur shifts, turns his head to look at Merlin. “You mean – the group Kanen brought to Camelot was all they could find of your village?”

Merlin nods, hands still now. He tries not to think about it too much – especially home and Camelot together. Remembering his Mum’s plans to send him here, and now-

Plus, that was the last time he’d used magic. It had been so easy. He’d never even considered the possibility of being cut off from his magic. Arrogant.

“That was well done, Merlin.”

He lifts one shoulder, wry. “It certainly tested Kanen’s temper.”

They look at one another for a long moment, all the horror of the raid and aftermath floating between them and then Arthur says, quietly, “What is your mother’s name?”

“Hunith,” Merlin says, and goes silent. It hurts to say.

Arthur just nods and turns his head away.

That night, Merlin’s dreams are all of flying. The same strange voice calls his name from far away, but he cannot answer, no matter how he tries.

 

* * *

 

Merlin stands at Arthur’s window and watches, curious, as Kanen and his men ride out on yet another ‘patrol’. To gather more slaves, is what that really means and he clenches his hands into fists.

But something else is happening, if only he could figure out what.

Leon and Arthur had been in the midst of a hushed conversation when he’d returned from clearing the breakfast dishes. They’d broken off at his entrance, and exchanged one long look before Leon had sighed and said, “You’re certain, Arthur? You know almost nothing of the man.” The knight flexed his arm where Gaius had stitched up a gash he’d acquired on the training field.

“I’m certain. You know I don’t like it any more than you do, but-” His eyes never wavered from Leon. “It’s the only way.”

The knight had nodded, and eyed Merlin carefully before meeting Arthur’s gaze again. “Very well, my lord,” he’d said simply, and left without another word.

Merlin had looked at Arthur. “Sire?” he said.

“I’ve a council meeting,” he’d said, blonde head down as he slide his knife into its usual spot in his boot. “I won’t be back until the afternoon.”

And then he’d gone.

Kanen is shouting at someone, as usual, and Merlin leans back out of sight as he shoot a bad-tempered look up at the windows of the royal chambers. A second later his face splits – oddly enough – in a sneering grin. The black eyes have mostly healed, though his nose will never be straight again. But his hatred for Merlin and Arthur has certainly been re-inspired, and Merlin is already dreading Kanen’s return.

He sighs and swallows hard. He trusts Arthur’s promise of safety. But… Arthur is only one man. And Merlin has yet to figure out how to make himself not be afraid of Kanen.

Still. It’s curious. Because as Kanen and his men ride out through the gates he sees Leon move to the south end of the courtyard. Very distinctly, he nods to three men, one a big, strong looking fighter, wild hair and beard, and the other two Merlin recognizes as Berd, from the kennels, and his young apprentice. And although no knight escorts them, half an hour later Merlin watches them ride out of Camelot on three of Arthur’s horses, in the same direction Kanen had gone. Two dogs run at their side.

He thinks about it all day, wondering how to pose the question so that Arthur might answer him. In the end, though, he doesn’t get a chance.

Because that night, the Mad Prince shows his face to Merlin for the first time.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“But he’s never seemed mad. Not to me,” Merlin says helplessly.

Gaius looks very old tonight. “Nor to me,” he says heavily.

He’d begun to believe the stories were just that, stories. Arthur couldn’t be- not the man who’d outmaneuvered Agravaine over the border patrols and studied night after night for a campaign that might never come. He was sane. He was clever. He was Arthur.

The figure rocking and raving in the corner bears very little resemblance to the haughty prince who’d selected Merlin as a body slave in front of the entire court.

“Do you know what’s doing this to him?”

The older man shakes his head. “I have tried. And yet I can find no poison that would cause this, no enchantment. I have studied old scrolls and asked every loremaster I know. No-one can remember a similar case.”

Merlin bites his lip. It’s horrible, seeing the Prince this way. Worse to know that others, that strangers, have seen him so out of control, so reduced. That the servants talk about his attacks of madness like it’s entertainment.

He understands a little better now why Arthur’s chambers are always locked, even when he is relaxing, alone. And why Arthur is able to ignore Kanen’s sly looks and Agravaine’s constant, solicitous enquiries after his health. He’s endured much, much worse than that, after all.

The mumblings grow louder, reaching a pitch that can surely be heard in the corridor outside and Merlin flinches when Arthur flings arm out, strikes it hard against the bedpost. He slides a nervous hand over his wine-stained tunic.

Gaius’ fingers twitch and then still.

“Is there – isn’t there anything we can do?”

Gaius glances at him sideways, measuring. “I’m afraid not, Merlin.”

That’s when Merlin realizes he’d said we.

“No tonic has made any difference. I gave him a sleeping draught, the second time but his breathing became so slow, and he didn’t wake for three days. I feared I had killed him.” He swallows, blinking rapidly. “Then I… I bound him, once. Leon and Kay assisted me. I thought perhaps it would at least prevent the more minor injuries…”

“He didn’t like it,” Merlin says with certainty.

Gaius passes a hand over his face at the memory. He has to raise his voice over the raving coming from Arthur now, turns his body slightly away so he doesn’t have to watch. “He was – well, we all ended up with bruises that day. Leon lost a tooth. He was crazed, indeed.”

The older man shifts, weary all the way through. “I should check in on Leon before he hears of this from someone else and bursts his stitches. And perhaps Kay or Bedivere will…” he hesitates.

“If there’s nothing you can do for him,” Merlin says carefully, mindful, this time, of his place, “then Gaius, you should get some rest after you’ve looked in on Leon. I’ll be here.”

Gaius hesitates. He looks Merlin over carefully, and it hits him, suddenly, that he is a slave who is suggesting he be left alone with his delirious master. Never was there a more obvious maneuver toward escape.

Except.

He wasn’t. Hadn’t even thought of it.

He blinks, turns his head back toward Arthur’s bed as the realization sinks in and every part of his body tightens with self-directed rage. What’s wrong with me?

“Thank you, Merlin,” Gaius says, his voice soft. “I know you’ll watch over him.”

He just jerks his head away, throat tight with the storm of confusion and rage. He’ll- he won’t run-

“I will come by in the morning,” Gaius says, eyes on Arthur once more. “He will fall into a sleep at some point, which is the best thing for him. Try to help him settle, if you can – he may be confused about what has happened and where he is.”

A moment later Gaius is gone and Merlin is left alone, with Camelot’s brilliant, beautiful, mad, terrible Prince.

He crosses to lock the door and takes a deep breath as he turns back, presses his shoulders against the wood. “Sire,” he begins, soft.

The mumbling pauses, restarts again but on a different track. He can make out words now, names, sometimes, none he particularly recognizes.

Merlin hesitates. Arthur is strong, even in this state – perhaps even more so, he thinks, with a sigh. His mother told him once of a man who heard voices in his head and had lifted a cart, single-handed, in one of his rages. But the blonde head is bent and bowed and Merlin sighs and sinks down on the floor, an arm’s length away from the Mad Prince.

“Sire,” he says again, “can I help you?”

Arthur laughs at that, wild and short, and Merlin shivers.

“Help me.” Big hands come up to cup his head, still rocking. “Yes help me who can help me who will help the prince no-one helps no-one can help there’s no help for-”

Arthur,” he says, throat thick. He can’t stand to listen to this, and lightning does not strike him for his daring, for using the Prince’s name. “H-How does it feel?”

The mumbling has stopped for a moment at hearing his name, but he shakes his head, hard, and runs his hands down his own arms, legs, wincing. “No,” he says, shakes his head again, hands clutching, then beating against his limbs, “no no nononono-”

“Tell me- tell me what you’re feeling,” Merlin insists.

His breath hitches. “It burns.”

Merlin hesitates, then puts a hand on Arthur’s arm. His skin is slightly warm, but not bad enough for fever. He frowns, watches Arthur’s face for a clue but he’s mumbling again, eyes closed. He taps his head against the stone wall in a way Merlin itches to stop, each strike in time with the words tumbling from his lips, “Inside inside inside inside-”

“You’re burning from the inside?”

He drags his nails across his chest, his arms, leaving welts and Merlin winces. “Under the skin it’s burning I’m burning it’s burning I’m burning-”

“All right, all right.” He runs his hand along Arthur’s arm, smooths down the scratching hand, daring, half-expecting another punch for his troubles.

Arthur lifts his head for the first time and the blue eyes are overbright. “Punishment,” he pants, unblinking.

“Punishment.”

“They’re burning me. Burning Arthur. Burn the Prince.”

“You’re not burning, sire,” he manages.

He laughs, unexpected. “I watched them. I watched them I watched them and I did nothing. They’re burning me.”

“Who?”

But Arthur bursts into action, flings himself away and Merlin half-rises. He’s rocking, muttering, anxious and angry all of a sudden and by the time Merlin has stepped in his direction Arthur has moved to the fireplace.

No fire when he’s like this, Gaius had said in a voice that brooked no contradiction.

But the absence seems to anger Arthur, he kicks at anything he can reach and with a roar, hurls the bucket full of ashes across the room, firewood following behind. Merlin manages to get an arm up to deflect the bucket from striking him, though he coughs and splutters in the cloud of ash, feels a few pieces of wood strike his back and leg before the room falls silent again.

He lets out a shaky breath and forces his eyes open though they burn with grit and ash. He has to keep alert, has to know where Arthur is.

The Prince is prowling, seems completely unaware of the chaos he’s just unleashed on the room. He’s still mumbling to himself, body twitching in what Merlin realizes now must be pain. Merlin stays where he is, biting his lip. He has no idea if he’s making this worse or just passing the time, but he pushes on anyway.

“Who burned, sire?” he rasps. Merlin shakes his head to shed some ash and, turning, keeps his eyes on the other man. It won’t help either of them if Arthur hurts him while he’s in this state – not any more than the split lip, anyway, which couldn’t have been avoided in that first unheralded burst of explosive rage.

“He burned them. Burned them all while I watched.”

Who burned?”

“The sorcerers.” Arthur is swaying in front of the window now, staring up as if searching for the moon in an empty sky. He doesn’t see Merlin’s instinctive flinch. “He burned them and I did nothing.” His voice drops to a whisper and he hunches. “Unforgivable. I did nothing.”

The rocking is slowing, Merlin realizes a moment later. His words, too. The Prince is shaking, still, but there’s the vague sense of a crisis passed, and Merlin takes a deep breath and knits his own shaking hands together. “Sire,” he says, careful. “You should rest now.”

“I failed them,” he’s still whispering, hoarse and painful. “Morgana. I failed her, failed her in every- and now-” He stops, head dropping until it rests against the stone wall, and there’s silence. Merlin just stands there. He’s run out of things to say and he just watches, helpless, as Arthur grinds his head against the stone and stares down at the floor.

Finally, he sighs, and passes a hand over his face. When he looks up again and turns his head, his face is lined with exhaustion. One shoulder propped against the wall is likely the only thing holding Arthur up.

For a moment he just stares out across the tattered room, face sagging with weariness, stricken with grief. Arthur takes a short, sharp breath, lets it out again.

Their eyes lock.

Merlin,” he says simply, like it’s the first word he ever learned. He’s there again, Arthur, looking out of those familiar blue eyes.

“Yes, sire,” he replies, ignoring his stupid heart and its disobedient thudding.

There’s another pause, he can see Arthur gathering the strength to form words. “I’m… tired, Merlin.”

“Yes, sire,” he says again, taking a step forward. A cloud of ashes falls to the floor with every step. “You need to rest.”

“Will you light the fire?” he asks, plaintive, and shuffles toward the bed.

“Not tonight, sire,” he answers with difficulty, fists clenching.

“I hate the cold.”

He takes a deep breath and says as evenly as he can, “That’s why I’m here, sire. You won’t be cold. I promise.”

“Merlin,” he says again, and sinks down onto the bed with a sigh. He folds up, feet still on the floor, body pressed down onto the mattress, face hidden.

He stands there long enough to make sure Arthur is asleep, then heaves an enormous sigh of his own. Gods. He shakes his head and shuffles toward the basin of water that had gone unused because instead of a brisk wash before dinner, the Crown Prince had flung a goblet at Merlin’s head, then collapsed on the floor, ranting and jerking uncontrollably.

Merlin lets out a long breath as he stared down at the water, then yanks his filthy tunic up over his head. He can’t get into Arthur’s bed in this state, doesn’t want the man to see reminders of what happened tonight all over his sheets, or Merlin’s skin. He reaches for the wash cloth, then glances down and sighs again. His trousers are just as bad, if not worse. He yanks them off with a quick glance toward the bed, but Arthur hasn’t moved.

The water is freezing as he carefully cleans his face and neck, and he has a bitter moment to think of how easily he could warm it a lifetime ago. The split lip stings a little, so he stops and rinses the rag, and then his breath is stolen when the icy cloth swipes over the sensitive skin of his belly, his underarms. He sets his tongue between his teeth and finishes the job, reaches for the drying cloth only to hear a sudden sound of distress from the bed.

“Sire?” he spins toward the Prince and takes a step before he remembers he’s naked. Impatient, he grabs the first thing he can find – Arthur’s discarded tunic – and tugs it over his head, feeling it snag on wet skin.

“Where – what-” Arthur is up on his knees, glancing blindly around the room. Confused, Gaius had said. Reassure him, if you can.

“It’s all right, sire,” he says, very firmly. “Everything’s fine.”

No,” he’s shaking his head, very certain.

“I’m here,” Merlin says, climbing onto the bed and trying to catch Arthur’s eye. “Sire.”

Their gazes lock. “Merlin.”

“I’m here.”

“You’re hurt. There’s… blood.”

He blinks. Touches a finger to his lip. “It’s nothing, sire. But it’s the middle of the night. We should sleep.”

There’s a long, measuring moment as Arthur stares at him, and then he frowns, still confused. Finally he nods, and the inherent trust is twisting Merlin’s insides. “Yes. All right.”

“Just let me blow out the candles.”

Arthur nods again. Seeing him so docile is – not natural, but Merlin is surprised by just how much he hates it. There are plenty of times he’s wished Arthur to be a little more pliable. Just not- not like this.

“Get under the covers, sire.”

Arthur scrambles back, obedient, and Merlin’s chest aches as he goes to the far corners where the only candles Gaius had allowed were mounted, high on the wall and far out of reach. He uses the long, slender tool to snuff first one flame, then the other, and in the darkness he returns to Arthur’s bed.

It’s not until he’s sliding under the covers that he realizes he’s not- not dressed.

He freezes, biting his lip when Arthur makes a small sound and pulls him close. It’s warmth, that’s all. The Prince needs the warmth, and despite the noise and confusion in Merlin’s head, he does want to provide it. Wants to give this man some kind of haven from the storm he’s weathering. His arms close around Arthur and he shuts his eyes when he hears the sigh.

There’s no sound for a long, long time, and he’s soaking in the silence when Arthur suddenly speaks into the skin of Merlin’s throat, voice thick and slow. “I loved my father, Merlin.”

Merlin blinks up at the bedhangings. He swallows.

“I wanted to be like him.”

He presses his lips together, not sure if Arthur wants him to speak. Finally, he ventures, “That’s… not surprising. Most boys make heroes of their fathers, don’t they?” Not like he’d know, of course.

From the length of the pause he knows he’s said the wrong thing. Then Arthur forces the words out. “He burned them alive.”

He can’t control the flinch at that. Sorcerers. And this means Arthur remembers at least some of his ravings tonight. He bites his lip and turns his head enough to watch Arthur’s face.

It’s obviously an enormous effort for Arthur to say, dully, “He deserved to die.”

“Sire-”

“And I deserve to be punished. I deserve this.”

“No.” Merlin turns on his side, urgent now, and dares to brush the hair from his eyes. “No, sire, you don’t.”

“I deserve it, I deserve worse,” Then his face clouds over. “But it’s the people of Camelot who will pay the price.”

“You don’t deserve this. No-one does. And Gaius will figure out what’s causing it.” he takes a slow breath and says carefully, “Everything will be all right.”

Arthur actually smiles at that. His face is impossibly sad. “Even you can’t possibly believe that, though it’s – kind - of you to say. Especially to a man who-” He takes a long, slow breath, and the words are slipping out of pure exhaustion. “There’s just… something about you, Merlin. I can’t decide if you’re a liar or a fool.”

If you only knew, Merlin thinks. I’m both. “It’s all right, sire,” he says. “I’m here with you, and I’m not leaving. Go to sleep.” The weariness in Arthur’s face is obvious.

He lies there, eyes fixed on the ceiling as Arthur’s weight grows heavier against him, and tries to think of practical matters. He’ll have to awaken early, set the room to rights as best he can. He can’t begin to imagine how Arthur will react tomorrow, but whatever he’s going to do won’t be improved by seeing the chaos of his chambers.

Arthur is breathing steadily against his neck, one large arm across Merlin’s chest, and he swallows. Then he draws in a long breath and stares upward again, lets his mind drift to his magic. The things he could do- if only…

 

 

Chapter Text

 

When he awakens, he can tell he’s been asleep probably for only an hour or two, it’s still the middle of the night. He blinks up at the ceiling, trying to shake off the same stupid dream – an insistent voice, calling his name, and the bone-deep ache of knowing you are alone.

He turns his attention to the real world instead, which doesn’t help his racing heart any.

He’s in the centre of Arthur’s bed, but the Prince has shifted in his sleep. He’s kicked off the covers and drifted down so that his head is now pillowed on Merlin’s stomach, a heavy weight bearing him down into the bed. The borrowed tunic has ridden up just slightly, and Arthur is sprawled over Merlin, his outstretched arm placing his shoulder squarely on top of-

Merlin gulps in a breath and tries not to tense. He mustn’t disturb Arthur. Not only because the man needs his rest. But…

Merlin is hard. Achingly so. He swallows and tries to think about anything else. But every breath from Merlin, every counter-breath from Arthur is providing the tiniest amount of friction.

Oh Gods. Arthur stirs and Merlin bites his lip, holding back a whimper.

The blonde head lifts, the tiniest motion and then he nuzzles the fabric beneath him. Merlin’s hands clench into fists.

Go back to sleep, he thinks, desperate. Oh Gods, don’t let him-

Arthur shakes his head, groggy, and the movement slides the tunic up higher, baring Merlin’s balls to the night air. He bites through the sore spot on his lip, feels the hot burst of blood in his mouth.

Arthur is half-braced on his arms now, blinking down at Merlin’s body. They’re both frozen, and for a moment the world turns around them, every thing Merlin has ever seen and ever thought and ever felt slowly revolving in a dizzying circle.

What happens next makes no sense. Arthur’s tongue emerges, pink and perfect. He licks the tip of Merlin’s cock, then the length – one long, deliberate stripe of bloody ecstasy.

He jolts, sounds tangling in his throat and Arthur’s eyes fly to his. There’s no colour in the dark, no expression, and for a moment Merlin thinks does he even know- and then Arthur’s lowers his head, eyes still locked on Merlin’s face, and slides his open mouth down over Merlin’s straining erection.

Ohhh-mngh,” the sound bursts from Merlin’s mouth before he can call it back, and then he slaps a hand over his mouth, trapping the shout behind his teeth. He cannot be screaming his rapture to the skies at being sucked off by the Crown Prince of bloody Camelot.

Arthur just blinks at him, slow and deliberate and impossibly beautiful. His body shifts, just slightly, just enough to let him – oh merciful Gods – begin to move, tongue working against Merlin’s cock and neck bending to slide those lips up and down his length.

Ah, mnh, ohh f-” Merlin is choking, straining to hold still, to be quiet, to let it happen because he needs it so badly and to make it stop because it’s Arthur and then the decision is made for him.

Arthur shifts, his hands taking hold of Merlin’s hips in a firm, strong grip that allow him no motion, he can only take it, the tight wet heat that is sliding around his cock, drawing prickles of pleasure from under his skin, and he knows with a deadly certainty that he is going to come screaming in a few short moments.

He’s consumed, every part of him on fire from Arthur’s mouth. His arms and legs are locked in lines of strain, back arched off the mattress, shaking. He’ll happily never move again if it means this can go on and on forever, breath rasping in and out of his lungs, harsh and not enough. He needs to thrust but he can’t, and the impulse spirals back in on itself instead, tightening, tightening like nothing Merlin’s ever felt before.

He can form no words, just sounds that emerge in choppy pants, and oh fuck, Arthur has shifted and his hard length is pressed against Merlin’s leg, moving in a rhythm of its own. He raises his head, stunned, stares down at the erotic display of Arthur, eyes closed, drawing unbridled pleasure from Merlin’s cock in his perfect mouth, and his orgasm slams through him like a fist to the head.

Merlin’s body tenses, arches, muscles locked to the point of pain as he gasps, flings his hand over his mouth and bites, bites, bites with everything he has, screaming around the edges of it as his body coils and pulses, once, twice, again, again, endlessly endlessly bright and dark and hot and spent.

When he opens his eyes again he is shaking, a wreck, half-turned toward Arthur who is gasping through his own release in the dark, hand down his trousers, eyes on Merlin’s face.

Merlin is panting out half-formed words unadorned by thought, I- oh- ah- I-  and then he swallows, blinks as Arthur wipes a hand on the sheets and slides further up the bed until his head can find a pillow.

Merlin rolls onto his side, still shaking, breathing in rough pants when Arthur raises his hand to touch his face. Gentle fingers drift across his eyes, cheekbones, the bridge of his nose, and then his lips, and without meaning to Merlin parts his lips and tongues the pads of those fingertips. Arthur jolts, uhn, eyes closing as he bites his lip and slowly withdraws his hand. It falls to the mattress between them, the last thing Merlin sees before his eyes close.

 

 

Merlin is awake first, and he slides from the bed silently, shivering in the cold.

He shakes his head. Strange, that his first night warming Arthur’s bed would happen this way. But then, perhaps it’s not so strange. He’s beginning to suspect it would only ever have happened by Merlin’s choice. Not at Arthur’s request.

He spreads the blankets over Arthur, holding his breath, but the Prince doesn’t stir at all. He gets dressed, stokes the fire and sweeps up the ashes, straightens the furniture as quietly as he can and Arthur never stirs. There’s some comfort in the familiar routine, a slight distance that lets him calm his shaking hands and the heat that flares up whenever his eyes turn toward the bed.

When he’s done, he glances around the room. It looks as close to normal as he can get it, for now. The fire is burning enough to be felt through the whole room, and so he steals down to the kitchen to fetch some breakfast, locking Arthur’s door behind him.

Everyone is subdued. At first the glances from every single person he passes have him red-faced, sure there’s some sign of the blazing ecstasy he’d experienced in the dark last night, and then he realizes they’re simply wary, wondering how their Prince has fared, if he is… well again.

With that realization Merlin draws himself upright and meets their gazes squarely, nods with confidence as he passes the squires and guardsmen on their way to their posts. He enters the kitchen quietly as usual, but makes a point of looking the other servants in the eye.

He’s not ashamed of Arthur. Not embarrassed by his madness. Only sad. And determined to figure it out – because something is causing this.

The cook is, for once, not screeching at anyone. Behind her a maid is kneading bread, and her eyes flicker between the dough and Merlin’s lip. His split lip. Ahh. That might also explain some of the looks he’s been receiving.

He turns his attention back to the cook as she ladles warm cider – a rare treat – into two earthenware mugs. He frowns down at the extra, confused. Then she places slices of ham beside the usual bread and cheese. On two plates.

He stares stupidly down at the tray, and a second later her gnarled fingers ghost over the manacle at his wrist. It only half-covers the huge, purple bitemark and oh.

She thinks it’s Arthur’s. Merlin’s not sure whether to be relieved he won’t have to think of a lie, or angry on Arthur’s behalf. He can feel a red tide of colour wash up over his collarbones and throat nonetheless.

He can’t manage a thank you for the special treatment but she just nods, brisk, and returns silently to her work.

He turns away, tray in his hands, but pauses at the door and glances back. Sure enough, they’re all watching. “He’s fine,” he says, and then, with more confidence, “he’s himself again. All is well.”

He heads back to the rooms at a faster pace than usual, even though part of him wants to put this off forever. Doesn’t even know if he’s anxious because of the madness or because of …what happened after.

He has no idea what he’s hoping for when Arthur awakes. That he remembers? That he forgets? That this will be something… new? Something they do regularly now?

The low burn in his stomach tells him that yes, actually, he’s quite keen for this to be something they do. He bites his lip and tries to think of something else.

Except, of course, he can’t think of anything but the hot slide of Arthur’s mouth last night and the faint hope that the Prince will be unembarrassed, unrepentant. Casual, even. At this point, Merlin wouldn’t much care if he acted like he was entitled to it, if it meant Merlin could have that again.

When he reaches the Prince’s rooms Arthur is awake, blinking slowly at the weak winter sunlight fighting its way through a gap the curtains.

“Sire,” he says, low, puts down the tray, and waits.

Arthur doesn’t answer. Long moments pass and finally he draws himself up, sliding back against the pillows. He doesn’t look Merlin’s way, but he makes certain to shake his sleeve down to hide the bitemark anyway.

“You can go, Merlin.”

“Sire?” he says stupidly.

Arthur sighs. He scrubs a hand over his face and repeats, “You can go. Take your breakfast with you, and spend the day elsewhere.”

His throat has closed over. Right.

Arthur doesn’t – he doesn’t remember. This is about the madness, not about the- the sex. He draws in a shaky breath. Right. He’d known this was probably – it’s likely for the best. But he is still Arthur’s… he is still Arthur’s.

Merlin swallows twice before he can say, “Sire- I. I would like to stay. Stay with you.”

Arthur’s back stiffens and Merlin knows immediately he has taken the wrong tack. Silent disobedience would have had a better chance of success. “Surely even you can understand, Merlin, that today I require some solitude.” He pushes to his feet, gripping the bedpost for stability, and it’s the show of weakness that has him snarling, voice like a whip, “Now, go.

 

 

 

He hides in the library all day. The librarian, Geoffrey, is abed with a fever, and no-one comes near. Merlin pokes around for hours and then sinks down onto the floor, just staring, amazed. There it is, propping up a crooked set of shelves, in Camelot’s famed library.

A book of bloody spells. He can’t quite bring himself to touch it until he’s absolutely certain there’s no-one in the corridors outside, every noise has him twitching in terror, imagining a trap. His first touch on the bindings he flinches, half-expecting guards wielding axes to appear. But nothing happens, and he draws it closer, panting in shock. From the dust it likely hasn’t been touched since before Merlin was born.

His heart feels like it’s cracking inside his chest. He can read the words – his mother had taught him a few things, though she would never say where she’d learned them herself. And he recognized those words on these pages. The book was everything he’d ever fucking wanted, and it was as useless to him now as a bloody May Queen’s coronet of braided fucking flowers.

Still. He takes it. Shoves another book under the wobbly shelf and carries it back to the Prince’s rooms under his shirt when night falls. Defiant, he is going to keep an illegal book of magic right under the Crown Prince’s bloody nose.

Arthur is brooding by the window when he returns. Merlin slides the book under his pallet and throws on another woolen tunic to fight back the bite of the cold. He chances a look Arthur’s way and feels his anger unwind completely at that pale, unhappy face. He trudges back down to the kitchen, careful to keep his face calm in front of those he passes, and hurries back so that the soup is still warm. A blizzard is building outside, and as Merlin watches Arthur poke at his soup listlessly with his spoon, he realizes what he is going to do.

Dishes taken care of, Merlin changes into his sleep shirt and crosses to Arthur’s bed without a word. Arthur is staring into the fire, silent, and only when he sighs and rises from his seat does he seem to notice that Merlin’s pallet is empty.

For long moments Merlin waits. What will it be? Rage? Annoyance? Resignation?

But he is still silent. Arthur crosses the room and douses the candles, pads silently back to the bed with the last stub in his hand. Merlin rolls over, letting Arthur know he’s awake, but stares up at the bedhangings.

“Merlin-” he begins. He stops.

The wind batters against the windows as Arthur stands there, unmoving. A long time later, Merlin says, “It’s cold, sire.”

Arthur lets out a strange sound, a cross between a sigh and a laugh. He blows out the candle and sets it on the floor, slides under the covers beside Merlin and stills, not quite touching.

“You’re not-” Arthur stops, swallows once. “You’re not afraid?” he finally asks. His voice is low and rough.

“No, sire,” Merlin says, heart aching. “I’m not afraid.”

Arthur says nothing more. It takes time, the cold bites deep and the wind grows ever fiercer, and yet they sleep.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Merlin wakes early the next morning and slides from the bed, careful not to wake Arthur. He’s hard, of course, but he can’t exactly do anything about it – just picturing Arthur awakening to the sight of Merlin taking his own pleasure... no.

So he dresses himself instead, and heads down to the kitchens.

Something’s different now, the glares of the other servants have lost their edge. He’s not exactly one of them, but he’s not an outcast, either. He pauses in the doorway, inhaling the blessed smell of warm, fresh bread cutting through the cool morning air.

“Morning, Merlin,” Daisy says, slanting a smile his way.

“Morning,” he manages, trying not to blush. Surely no-one can tell he spent last night in Arthur’s bed. And it’s particularly stupid to flush over something as innocent as last night, since the general assumption is that Arthur has had Merlin in his bed for many weeks now, and bent him over every bit of available furniture, too, judging by the muttered remarks he hears wherever he goes.

He bites his lip and tries not to think about that. He can forsee that along with the biting cold, his constant companion this winter is going to be an odd combination of embarrassment and half-arousal.

He sidles along the wall, since it’s clear Arthur’s tray isn’t quite ready yet, and if he has to wait, might as well be nearer to the fire. When he gets there, though, he’s surprised to see the bearded man who’d watched the story of Kanen’s comeuppance. He hesitates. Most people prefer if the slave doesn’t speak to-

“Morning,” the man says.

“Um. Yes. Morning,” Merlin replies. He stretches his hands toward the flames.

They stand in silence for a moment, and then the man says abruptly, “You’re oddly loyal, for a slave.”

Merlin gapes. “What- what did you say?” He yanks his hands back, draws his wrists up into his sleeves to hide the hated bands of iron.

One bushy eyebrow goes up, but his voice stays low, just between the two of them. “The servants here say that you stand up for the Prince. Won’t gossip about him. You don’t criticize him. It’s strange behaviour, I’d have thought, considering you barely know him.”

“I know him a bit better than I know you,” he shoots back. “And I don’t see how any of it’s your business in the first place.”

The stranger shrugs, turning back to the fire. “S’not. Just curious, that’s all. Seems you must think Pendragon’s a good man, even if he did enslave you.”

“Arthur didn’t enslave me,” Merlin hisses, suddenly furious. The sting has nothing - nothing to do with knowing that a single word from the Prince could take the cursed shackles from his wrists. “Kanen did that.”

“Yes.” The man’s jaw tightens. He glances at Merlin, curious. “So I hear. Snatched you up, poaching.”

Merlin’s mouth twists. He’s not interested in discussing that lie with a stranger.

The man seems unmoved by Merlin’s silence. “You’re not from around these parts, I understand.”

“No,” he says, and his chest is suddenly hollow. He wasn’t ready for his mother and Will to spring into his mind, and he just keeps talking, trying to push past the feeling. “No, I’m not from Camelot. My home is near the mountains of Essetir.”

The body beside him twitches. “Yes? I spent some time there, once. Many years ago.”

Merlin frowns and turns to look at the man. His gaze is very far away as he adds, “In a little village. Ealdor, it was called.”

And just as Merlin’s mouth drops open, someone appears at the man’s elbow. “Here you go,” the scullery maid shoves a sack toward the man, who takes it with a nod. “Cook says she’ll be needing more in three days’ time.”

The man ducks his head, glances at Merlin with a brief smile, and is gone.

He’s not a servant of Camelot, Merlin discovers from Daisy. He’s a hermit. Lives somewhere in the woods outside of the city walls. He trades with the kitchens, provides obscure herbs and mushrooms that no-one else can find, and receives bread and beer in return. No-one seems to know his name.

 

* * *

 

Arthur lowers himself to the ground and leans back against the rough rock, torch shoved into a barrel of sand he left down here the last time.

He looks out into the darkness and thinks to himself, not for the first time, how utterly bizarre it is that he can relax so completely down here. He’s found the one individual in Camelot who had never heard of Arthur’s madness, and didn’t seem to care greatly once he knew.

“How old are you anyway?” he asks, stretching his legs out flat.

“Older than you,” the answer comes, and he rolls his eyes.

“Yes, thank you, I’d gathered that much myself. But how old. I mean, how long can you live?”

“You think to outlive me, young Pendragon?”

He stares up at the rough roof, parts of it barely visible, so immense is the distance. “Not what I meant.” He hesitates, then says, “To tell you the truth, it’s always seemed likely to me I’d live rather a short life myself. You know. Bandits, challenges. Insane magical assassins.”

“You are wrong.”

“Am I,” he mocks.

“It is not your destiny to die young, Arthur Pendragon.”

“So. A long life of raving lunacy to look forward to, then. Splendid,” he mutters. Not that it matters. The beast always hears everything anyway. “What I was really getting at is - you’ve been down here for my whole life. Surely you want out.”

“I do.”

“But you won’t do what I ask.”

“I am not a servant of the house of Pendragon,” the voice is snappish now.

“I’m not asking you to bloody serve me,” he snaps back, “I’m asking for your guarantee that you will do no harm to Camelot or her people. I don’t want to keep you here, you know. But I can’t let you go if you’re going to attack my people.”

“I answer to one man alone,” he says, and he’s coming closer. Arthur doesn’t bother scrambling back. He’s not going to die in this place unless it’s from an abundance of annoyance and frustration.

“Yes,” he sighs, “I know. It’d be nice if you could tell me where to find this man, though.” They fall into silence again, and he rubs a hand over his face, tired.

“Your time is close.”

Arthur freezes, then lifts his head. The beast is right there, huge eyes gleaming in the firelight, claws clinging to rough rock. It would take one fiery belch to end all of Arthur’s troubles. They stare at one another, and Arthur finally unsticks his tongue from the roof of his mouth to say shakily, “My time?”

Just because the dragon doesn’t appear to want to kill him doesn’t mean Arthur’s body can shrug off pure animal instinct. The creature’s head is as tall as Arthur’s whole body. And-

Look. At. Those. Teeth.

“You must make a choice,” the dragon says, withdrawing. “Choose correctly and you will return your life to the path which has been stolen from you.”

Arthur bites back a growl. Perhaps he’s wrong. Perhaps the beast is trying to kill him, he’s just going to use sheer bloody aggravation to do it. “Really. Any words of wisdom to guide me in this choice?”

 “Your destiny is within your grasp, young Pendragon. The other half, that which will make you whole.”

“Oh good,” Arthur says, banging his head against the rock, “more bloody riddles. I honestly don’t know why on earth I come down here.”

 

 

* * * 

 

It’s Arthur’s birthday. The low-key celebration he had initially agreed to is now cancelled, considering that two days before he’d been a raving lunatic, apparently beating his manservant – no, his slave – he corrects himself.

There’s no honour in pretending Merlin wants, in any way, to be here. Bad enough Arthur is taking advantage of the lad in his dreams. He breathes deep and forces back the dream, so vivid, the taste of Merlin on his tongue and the sounds he’d made as he’d come. Oh Gods, this obsession is becoming a madness all its own.

He folds up those thoughts and tucks them away as he slides carefully out of bed, no matter that it’s well past midnight and all the castle is abed, including Merlin, curled on his side next to Arthur. He leaves his chambers silently and climbs and climbs until he reaches the top of the tower and there he abides, staring out over his kingdom.

In his heart, at least, it’s his kingdom. It will likely never be his in law.

He senses movement behind him and has spun a half-circle, dagger drawn before there is any sound. It is Agravaine, and Arthur stills, surprised out of his wariness. It is oddly like looking into a mirror, for all that there is no physical resemblance between them.

Agravaine is, like Arthur, in his sleeping clothes, heavy cloak thrown on against the chill and his feet shoved into his boots. Hair disordered, eyes tired, and face full of grief. They are up here for the same reason, and in the frozen moment between recognition and realization, they each lower their daggers and step back.

When his uncle turns away to stare to the east, Arthur hesitates, then moves to stand at his side. In silence they look toward his mother’s homeland, and the words simply fall from his mouth. “Am I like her at all?”

Agravaine jerks in surprise. He does not glance Arthur’s way, but after a long time he says, “Very much.” There’s a grimace, a brief flash of wry honesty as he glances sidelong at Arthur and says, “Too much, sometimes.”

He swallows. These are not questions he had ever been able to ask his father, but he has carried the weight of them for years, just the same. “In what way?”

Again, it takes his uncle a long time to answer. “She was extremely strong-willed,” he says eventually. “If Ygraine had made up her mind to something, not for all the logic in the world could you move her. Nor was she cowed by the prospect of defeat.” And there is the ghost of a smile as he says it, like a long-lost memory tickling the back of his mind. “If a thing is right she used to say, then it should be done for its own sake, whether you succeed or not.”

Arthur blinks, trying to place this idea with the few, scattered tales his father had provided, mostly when he was deep in his cups. Tiny hands, and a deep, rich laugh, Uther had said once, and I remember an abiding affection for strawberries, according to Gaius.

“She was fair, like you.” Agravaine continues, eyes still fixed on the horizon, “She favoured our mother there. Our father used to joke that she had bred back to the savage northerners who used to invade our shores. Mother, of course, always claimed she bred back to the northern kings who once ruled.”

Arthur turns his head this time, stunned at hearing such openness from his uncle. He’s become so accustomed to the other man’s manipulations…

“No-one ever seems to understand why I hate my birthday,” he says without thinking.

Agravaine’s face hardens. “Yes,” he says abruptly, “Ygraine is not often mentioned at Camelot. She deserved better than to be so quickly forgotten.”

It hurt my father too much to allow it, Arthur thinks, but he knows there will be no understanding there, and the brief moment of accord between them is gone.

“I wish you well on this day, Arthur,” his uncle says, and sketches a brief bow.

“Thank you,” he says, and watches the other man stride away. They will be enemies again, in the morning light. But for now he has an idea of his mother he has never known before. Words to cling to, in the loneliest part of the night.

He stands there for a long time before he sighs and says, “You can go back to bed, Merlin.”

He appears from around a corner, hands clasped behind his back, head up. “Sire?” He hasn’t even had the self-preservation to fetch a cloak, Arthur sees, exasperated.

“I promise you I’m not about to fling myself off the ramparts.”

Merlin looks genuinely shocked at that. “I didn’t – that’s not-” he hesitates, then raises his chin, defiant. “It’s not safe for you to be around Agravaine like that.”

Arthur doesn’t bother to point out he’s a trained warrior and perfectly able to take care of himself. Somehow he knows Merlin wouldn’t give that argument much weight. Instead, he says softly, “I don’t deserve your loyalty, Merlin. But I want you to know I am glad to have it.”

And he sweeps downstairs before the other man can reply.

 

* * *

 

The day after his birthday, three days after the madness, Arthur receives a message. Merlin hears of it through the kitchen staff’s usual idle gossip. The rider had sought out the Prince on the training grounds, and Merlin thinks nothing of it until he sees the young apprentice from the kennels wheedling a heel of bread from one of the scullery maids.

The young apprentice who’d ridden out after Kanen days before.

“You see Berd today?” he asks Daisy, keeping his tone carelessly idle.

She makes a sad face. “No. He’s been sent off to look at some hounds of Sir Hector’s for breeding. Won’t be back for a week, maybe two, they say.”

Won’t he? Merlin thinks. Interesting.

He interrupts another low-voiced conversation between Arthur and Leon that night, this time involving maps. They both hesitate, glancing over at Merlin, and then Arthur shrugs and turns his attention back to the parchment on the table. “Here,” he’s saying, “you see?”

“I’ve never heard of it,” Leon says.

“I’ll ask Geoffrey to look for it,” Arthur says, after a moment’s hesitation. They exchange a long look, and he adds, “He’s no friend to the Regent.”

Leon nods slowly. “Fair enough.” They squint down at the parchment in silence for a while, and Merlin sighs, then fetches another two candles from the box in the corner, lights them and brings them over.

“I’d like to bring Kay in on this now, and Pellinor.” Leon says, his eyes flicking up at Merlin in thanks. Arthur doesn’t look up from the map – a map of the coastline, Merlin sees. “With your permission, sire. We’re getting close.”

There’s a long pause. He straightens and folds his arms, eyes still on the map. Then, “Yes,” Arthur says. “All right.”

 

* * *

 

Arthur is brooding. Merlin knows the signs, but he’s never seen it quite like this. It’s been almost a week since Arthur’s – illness – but that’s not it. Slowly, the Prince has been coming back from that low.

This is new. There’s something twisting the Prince into a corner and Merlin is wary, his animal instincts are fighting with his reason.

“Get up,” Arthur says abruptly, heading for the door.

“Sire?” Merlin blinks and stands, hands clenching nervously.

Move, fool,” he snaps, and stalks into the corridor, Merlin hurrying behind. They walk for about a minute, Arthur’s head down and shoulders tense, and he barely acknowledges the bobbing curtsey of the chambermaid or the more sedate bow of the steward. They are clattering down the stairs when Arthur stops, abruptly and Merlin cannons straight into his back.

Arthur doesn’t fall. His body twists and he bounces into one wall, lightly, while Merlin ends up in a messy sprawl all over the stone steps. He bangs his head and can’t hold back the noise, rolls painfully to his side and is up on his hands and knees when the blow lands.

It’s like fire across his face, his jaw, radiating out to his ear and up to his eye. A powerful strike, unhesitating and delivered by an expert, and he’s shocked enough to cry out, lands crumpled in a heap at the bottom of the steps this time.

“Idiot,” Arthur seethes, “can’t you even walk in a straight line?” Merlin just blinks at him, dazed.

This isn’t. This is not happening.

Unhurried footsteps sound behind him. Merlin doesn’t look away from where Arthur looms over him, flushed with rage.

“Arthur?” Agravaine steps close enough that Merlin can’t ignore him. One elegant brow arches as he glances down at the mess at his feet.

“Please excuse me, Uncle. Sometimes they have to be reminded.”

“Indeed they do.” Agravaine looks… pleased, Merlin thinks, swishing his own blood around his mouth and trying not to feel or think at all. Arthur’s not – this isn’t madness. This is- Arthur’s really doing this.

The Prince’s eyes are dark and hard and Merlin’s not sure how seeing him like that could possibly be hurting more than the split lip and the aching head.

“Get out of my sight,” Arthur says. “And get a salve for that lip,” he adds, careless. “I won’t have you bleeding all over me tonight. I need more of that arnica balm anyway.”

He stalks off without a backward glance and leaves Merlin sitting blankly in the hallway.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

He stands in the doorway of Gaius’ rooms and gapes.

He’s asleep. He’s dreaming. Or dead, perhaps. Lost in some kind of fantasy as his magic bleeds out of his body. Perhaps Arthur hit him harder than he’d thought.

“Mum?” he says, almost frightened. His voice comes out sounding very young. “Mum?”

Merlin,” she gasps, and bustles toward him. Her walk is the same, so familiar that his knees weaken and he slumps against the door frame just as she reaches him and oh, the scent of her – fresh rosemary, and the lemon verbena she brushes through her hair.

“Mum,” he manages again, hands clutching. “How. How are you here?”

“Oh Merlin,” she says, hands stroking over his face. “Love. Did you think I’d just stay in Ealdor wondering what happened to you?”

He licks his lips and barely notices the sting. “Mum,” he says again. There’s just no more thought in his head.

Her fingers on his face are gentle. “What’s happened, love?” she says, just as Gaius comes into view over her shoulder, his hands full of dried herbs tied in the same knots he’s seen his mother use all his life.

“Merlin,” he says, gruff. “Come in and close the door.”

He manages to obey, thankful the instructions were simple. He doesn’t take his eyes off his mother the whole time he’s walking across the room, lets Gaius push him onto the examination table.

“What on earth happened to you this time?” Gaius says, shaking his head. He darts a quick sideways glance at Hunith, as if realizing he’s made it clear Merlin has needed his medical help more than once, but she just wraps her hand around Merlin’s and smiles tremulously.

The memory of how he got here still has fangs, and his throat sticks on the first word. “A-”

He swallows. “Arthur,” he finally says faintly. Gaius’ hands go very still.

“He struck you?”

Merlin nods, looking down at his mother’s fingers where they stroke over the cuffs on his wrists. She is biting her lips, hard, recognizing the cold iron and what it means. It’s probably enough of an explanation for why he isn’t back home yet, why he hadn’t managed to save the others.

“Is he – Merlin, is he sickening-”

“No,” Merlin says, voice hard. He will never forgive Arthur for this. For Hunith having to see Merlin like this. Driving home how vulnerable he is, for making this first glimpse of her son a swollen, bloodied mess. “He just – hit me. Lost his temper. There was no- no reason, Gaius. It was like he- he was looking for-”

He stops, blinking. Stares at his mother. A mad idea spins through his head, and he remembers suddenly Agravaine’s watchful presence in the hallway a few minutes ago.  “Mum. You haven’t – did you meet the Prince?”

Gaius straightens, glancing sideways at Hunith, who blinks.

“No, love, of course not. Where on earth would a common herbalist cross paths with the Prince?” She hesitates. “I met one of his knights, though. He needed a poultice for a lame horse.” She smiles, gentle, fingers still moving on Merlin’s wrist, the cursed shackle.

“Which knight?”

“Sir Leon.”

Merlin exchanges a glance with Gaius. “So… you asked Sir Leon about me?”

“Well, no. I mean, I didn’t know you were so closely connected. I told him I used to know the physician a long time ago and he said he’d see if Gaius needed any help from a herbalist.” She hesitates. “I did mention that I was from Ealdor.”

Gaius is staring at the floor, relief all over his face, and the very faintest of smiles. They can both recognize the hidden hand in this. He meets Merlin’s eyes. Arthur.

“Well now,” Gaius says, gruff again. “I’ll give you something for that lip and all will be well.”

He takes a deep breath, hands shaking again. “I need more of the arnica balm as well,” Merlin says, blinking hard.

His mother runs her hands over his hair, still blinking back tears of her own, and takes a deep breath. “This Prince,” she says, her eyes on Merlin. “Arthur. He’s good to you?”

He just nods, and holds the rest of it back behind his teeth. He won’t burden her with Kanen, not ever. Judging by the lack of motherly fury, Gaius has likewise held his tongue. And he’s not sure he could quite describe Arthur to his mother unless they set aside several days for the task.

She seems to accept the nod for what it is, then looks down, bites her lip and sends a sidelong glance toward Gaius’ back. The physician has moved to the far side of the room, searching amongst the shelves for a certain jar.

“Merlin,” she says softly, “I’m trying to find a way to get you out of here. Out of Camelot. There’s someone- well. With Gaius’ aid, I’m going to find him. He can help, I’m sure of it.”

He takes a slow breath as her hands pass over his shackles, the raw skin beneath. He nods, but he can’t focus on that. Too much hope will drive him mad. His time in chains has taught him one thing at least, and that’s to enjoy the small pleasures in life. He’s seeing his mother’s face again, which is more than he thought he’d get.

And then he frowns as his mind catches up. “Wait. You mean really did know Gaius? You weren’t just saying that?”

She smiles very faintly. “Yes. We knew each other, a very long time ago. Before you were born.” A faint shadow passes over her face as she says it. “It’s why I was going to send you… well. If it weren’t for me catching that fever last winter, you’d have been living with Gaius by now. He was like a brother to me.”

It’s been a bit of a day. He blinks from one to the other, and says dumbly, “Brother?” That’s a bit hard to absorb. It’s always been just the two of them. She’s never mentioned-

Gaius steps closer, a wet cloth in his hands, and Merlin is amazed to see his eyes are swimming in tears.

Hunith chokes out a wet little laugh and nudges Gaius. “I think this is coming as a bit of a shock.”

Gaius is smiling as he sponges the blood gently from Merlin’s lip. “You can hardly blame the boy. I’m still getting used to the idea of a adoptive nephew and I’ve had a good half hour longer than he has.”

Merlin just stares. Oh damn. He is dying. He hit his head horribly hard and now he’s dreaming up uncles, of all things, in his final moments. And then Gaius tilts his head, gives him a softer version of The Eyebrow and he can’t breathe, because he never could have dreamed that up.

“It’s good to finally meet you properly,” Gaius says, “Merlin, son of Hunith. I’d be honoured if you’d think of me as family. I shall consider you my nephew from this moment on.”

“Nephew,” he says, trying it out on his tongue. And then, “Uncle,” he says, and watches that eyebrow twitch. “Uncle Gaius.”

For some reason, that’s the thing that gets them all laughing.

 

* * *

 

“You couldn’t just send me on an errand, I suppose?” he leans back against the closed door and shoots a look in Arthur’s direction. “You had to actually beat me?”

“You almost knocked the Crown Prince of Camelot down the stairs, Merlin,” Arthur says without turning around. “You got what you deserved.”

He sighs silently. Of course Arthur can’t admit what he’s done. He might break into hives from being thanked. And, of course, Arthur isn’t only protecting Merlin with his subterfuge. If anyone knew about Hunith, she would be a target, too. And she doesn’t live within the keep’s protective walls. “I suppose I’m lucky you sent me off to get treatment from Gaius at all,” he says instead, wry.

“Indeed you are, Merlin,” Arthur says. He sighs silently.

He’s been wading through accounts for days, obsessed with food stockpiles and the inventory submitted by the armoury. Merlin may be a simple country boy but he knows what kind of picture these things make and in one sober second all his joy at seeing his mother and discovering a sort-of uncle is suddenly gone.

War.

 

* * *

 

There’s a disturbance  on the other side of the marketplace and Merlin sighs, because he knows Arthur by now and it’s certain they will not be heading back to the warm, welcoming keep until the Prince has looked into it. The soft life of royalty in Camelot hasn’t turned out quite so privileged as he’d imagined. I’m sure Arthur’s doing it wrong, he thinks idly.

Sorcery,” he hears the cry and for moment his heart just stops, skin prickling with icy terror. Then he realizes the shout came from some distance away, that the low murmurings of the crowd are coming closer and closer and Arthur, of course, is wading straight toward it.

Merlin exchanges a glance with Leon and they throw themselves after him.

“What is this?” Arthur is demanding of the red-faced townsfolk.

“Magic, sire. Witchcraft,” one of the bolder men speaks first. In his excitement he’s spitting as he speaks and his hands are tight around the arm of his prize.

A girl. Perhaps fifteen. Probably younger. She’s pale, swallowing hard as she stares down at Arthur’s boots. Her brown hair is escaping from its plaits, breath coming in quick pants.

Arthur freezes. His voice is tight when he says, “What proof have you?”

“We all saw it,” an older man claims, more calm than his friend. “She put out a fire - just waved her hand at it-”

“She put out a fire?”

“My kitchen caught ablaze,” a puffing woman offers, shoving to the front. “Would have killed all four of us,” she adds.

Arthur’s head turned toward her. “You’re saying she saved your life. With sorcery.”

The woman swallows, but lifts her flour-streaked chin, not cowed by the presence of royalty. “Yes, sire. She saved us, it’s the truth and I won’t say otherwise. But yes - I’m sorry to say it - she used magic to do it.”

The girl is sagging in their grip, and Arthur looks her over once again. Head hanging helplessly, her pale neck seems to ask for the axe and Merlin feels sick, wants to disappear, wants to fly away from this place, where they kill young girls for the crime of saving her neighbour’s lives.

“Bring her to the keep,” Arthur says, and turns on his heel, face pale. Suddenly, Merlin is jerked out of his own sweaty dread as he remembers – Arthur rocking in the corner, it burns it burns it burns.

Leon swears softly at Merlin’s side and falls into step behind Arthur.

Merlin stumbles on blindly, cold with horror at the prospect of watching someone like him face execution. Camelot had begun to feel – not home, never that, but at least… worth something.

Eyes on the ground, he watches the mud and straw of the town switch to the flagstones of the courtyard, barely hears Arthur’s murmur of Leon’s name, low instructions that have the knight vanishing even as the castle guard approach.

“Guards, take her into custody,” Arthur says, very calm, and the townsfolk reluctantly let go of their prize. The girl has made no sound all this time, as limp in the hands of the palace guards as she had been for her neighbours.

Fight them, Merlin wants to scream at her. Escape. You’re not trapped, don’t be so-

As they round the corner he catches a glimpse of her face and his rage drops away. She’s white, exhausted, barely even awake. Dousing the fire must have exhausted every drop of power she had. He makes a small, incoherent sound and digs his wrists into his hips, feels the bite of cold iron and grinds his teeth, furious beyond anything he’s ever felt before, even under the foul grip of Kanan’s men with their coarse laughter and their hot breath, this is worse-

“Merlin,” Arthur says softly, hand fisting in his tunic, “get to Gaius’ rooms. Tell him I need him in the Great Hall, immediately. If he’s not there, rouse as many servants as you have to, but find him – you understand?”

“I-” he gapes at Arthur.

“Can you do this for me?” he asks, soft but strong like steel.

Yes, sire,” he manages, and stumbles out of the tight knot formed by the guards and the Prince and the prisoner. He’s not sure whether to be glad he won’t have to watch or angry that he’s being shut out.

Gaius isn’t in his chambers but is, thankfully, in the library, where all his free time goes nowadays. Scroll after scroll, volume after volume trying to find an answer to Arthur’s insanity.

He goes white when Merlin explains what’s happened, which has him fumbling over the words. He’d expected – well. They haven’t talked about magic, Merlin hadn’t dared. He knows Gaius had been a friend to the old King, had presumably agreed with the laws.

They hurry to the Council chambers to find it crowded already. Uther’s former advisers are there, along with Agravaine, Leon and the rest of the knights as well as the household guards standing over their prisoner. She is slumped on the floor, on her knees.

The room is humming with gossip, and in the middle of it all stands Arthur. When he begins to speak, the room falls silent, every eye automatically drawn to his presence, and Merlin swallows. He’s not sure he wants to hear what Arthur – what Uther’s son – is about to say.

“This girl,” Arthur gestures, his every movement strong and commanding, “saved at least four lives today. She prevented a fire in the lower town.”

There’s a ripple through the gathered men, scattered remarks.

“I wonder…” he continues thoughtfully, “what we should do with her?”

“You propose – a reward, Your Highness?” One of the older men speaks cautiously.

“Is that what you would recommend?”

“It’s been done before,” someone else said, slowly. They are glancing at one another, as though they all have the vague sense that this situation is unusual, that they are being tested.

“You don’t think she should be executed, then?”

“Executed, my lord?”

“For putting out the fire.”

They all stare at him, blank faced before Arthur adds, “She used magic to do it, you see.”

That gets another ripple, a few low exclamations. Several of the councilors draw back, as if she has the plague.

“The penalty for use of magic is death,” someone says from the back of the room, and Merlin scowls.

“Hm,” is all Arthur says. “And yet, if she’d used a bucket of water we would likely be handing her a bag of gold coins right now.”

“What are you suggesting, Arthur?” It’s Agravaine, finally speaking. His eyes are narrowed.

“The ban on magic was my father’s legacy.” There are nods. Glances exchanged, they all feel on solid ground on this point. “But.” He’s frowning.

“It makes no sense to me that a person should be executed for an act of bravery and compassion. No matter what tool she used, this girl acted heroically today. I cannot see the justice in taking her life.”

Every part of Merlin’s body seems to loosen and lift at the same time. This is what he – this is Arthur. His Arthur.

“Your Highness,” one man begins slowly, “your father worked tirelessly to rid this kingdom of magic for your entire life-”

“Yes, Alaric,” Arthur replied absently, “I was there. And yet it didn’t work, did it. People will keep on being born, after all. And some of them are going to have magic.”

A red faced man joined in. “Sire, you- you cannot be proposing to overturn a twenty-year ban in one afternoon, with no discussion, surely?”

Ooh. That was the wrong tactic, Merlin thought gleefully.

Arthur raised his eyebrow and said coldly, “Am I required to ask your permission, Lord Carson? I was unaware.”

“No, sire, of course not, I only meant-”

“That this is not a decision to be rushed,” Agravaine inserted smoothly.

Arthur’s eyes turn to his uncle. There’s a short, icy silence and then he says without looking away, “Gaius, tell me something – how many times, to your knowledge, was this kingdom, or my father, attacked by magical means?”

Gaius is tense at Merlin’s side, but he answers readily enough, “Dragon, wraith, witch… at least five, Your Highness, that I could say with certainty. I suspect it’s closer to eight, though.”

“And my father’s death?”

He hesitates, and a ripple runs through the room. “I cannot be sure, Your Highness. It is… possible, that it was caused by sorcery.”

Arthur just nods.

“Magical enemies have always existed, Arthur,” Agravaine says, “I fail to see how it relates to this girl’s crime.”

“The point I’m making, uncle, is that by banning magic we are making enemies of those who have that power, while at the same time we strip ourselves of any way of defending against it.”

That raises some eyebrows. Arthur ignores the looks and turns to his left.

“Why do we have knights, Sir Hector?”

Sir Hector is a new face, for Merlin, recently arrived. Arthur seems to know him well, though. “They are trained for battle,” a tall, bearded man says promptly, “to guard the kingdom.”

“They fight against other, trained knights, yes? When two such forces meet, the outcome is determined by skill and courage. Tactics.”

“Indeed.”

Arthur waved a hand toward the assembled knights. “Would you send Sir Leon into battle against another knight and give him only a pointed stick? And yet when we face a magical enemy – we have neither the skills, nor the knowledge to defend our people. Worse, we drive those who have this power into neighbouring kingdoms, many of which we know full well covet Camelot’s riches.”

Merlin is watching the faces closely. Most of them are carefully blank – concealing emotion is second nature to those of the royal court – but a few of them show real shock, while many are watching Arthur thoughtfully, eyes narrowed.

Merlin’s heart is pounding against his ribs as he watches the Prince turn and survey the room. Arthur is calm as he speaks, sketching out his argument, but the passion on his face is obvious. He makes eye contact with each of the nobles, and as he watches them respond to the Prince’s charisma Merlin can’t help but wonder how he missed this, how he could have failed to see that Arthur’s silent moments were deep thought and planning, not brooding over his personal misfortunes.

Many of the Councilors are nodding by the time, Arthur steps back and turns his attention to the peasant girl in the middle of the room.

“What is your name?”

She’s regained a little colour, which swiftly disappears as she realizes she is being addressed by the Prince. She swallows three times before she whispers, “Meg.”

His voice is cool but kind as he says, “You did a brave thing today, Meg. As brave as any knight.”

“Thank you, sire.” She’s blinking rapidly, and even the most stern of the Councilors are shifting uncomfortably in the face of her terror.

Arthur stares down at her for a long, silent moment. Then he says firmly, “As Crown Prince of Camelot, I pardon you, Meg, for the magical act you committed on this day. You are now under my personal protection. So long as your actions bring no harm to another, you are safe from persecution in Camelot, and welcome to stay.”

She stares up at him, eyes huge as the moon as the nobles stir and mutter at the edge of the room. “Y-your Highness?”

“Arthur-” Agravaine begins.

Arthur doesn’t glance away from the girl. “You are free to leave the castle, and to return to your home. You are not to be punished in any way.”

Now all the colour rushes into her face. “Sire?” The shaken gasp is the best sound Merlin’s ever heard.

Arthur-” Agravaine’s voice is raised, now.

“You may go, Meg.” Arthur raises his eyes until he finds Gaius and Merlin, indicates with a jerk of his head that they accompany the girl. Leon sends a meaningful look toward the squires who have been milling about on the fringes of the room, and they all straighten.

Meg is breathing in quick pants, her eyes still fixed on Arthur’s face, and when he smiles gently at her she starts to cry. She’s strong enough to curtsey to him, though, and stumbles forward to kiss his hand, leaving Arthur blinking. She swallows and manages to say thickly, “Oh, thank you, I – oh, Your Majesty,” and the title sounds exactly right, despite the fact that Arthur is not yet King.

Merlin wraps an arm around her waist and draws her gently away. They stumble to the door, Meg still weeping, Gaius stepping up to her other side. The squires fall in behind them, and now Merlin understands – they are protection, in case of any trouble. They’re young, and only lightly armed, but they are clearly representing Camelot.

It’s an odd, silent procession, only the sound of Meg’s soft weeping to accompany them. Gaius murmurs gently to her and Merlin meets the eye of every townsperson they pass, making sure they see Meg is escorted and protected. The gossip is probably outpacing them anyway – it spreads faster than fire through a line of thatched roofs – but people always want to see for themselves.

As they pass one of the taverns, Merlin stumbles as he catches the eye of the bearded stranger from the kitchen. The man is half-concealed in a doorway, his eyes hard as he looks from Merlin to the girl, to Gaius and back again. Merlin cranes his head to see but the crowd surges around them and the man is gone.

They deposit Meg into the arms of a frantic older sister and leave the squires to linger in case of further trouble. He almost runs back to the keep, chafing at having to keep pace with Gaius, who is staring ahead, face fixed and pale as if something has frightened him. “Are you all right, u-Gaius?” They’ve agreed to keep the connection quiet. No sense giving Kanen more ammunition.

The older man pauses just inside the gates. “I did not know Arthur thought this way,” he murmured, half to himself.

“You and me both,” Merlin muttered.

They exchange a quick glance, and then take their leave of one another.

Merlin bursts back into Arthur’s quarters and almost smashes something in frustration when he finds them empty. He darts back through the castle corridors to the Council chambers and finds the doors closed this time, voices still audible within. Merlin isn’t the only one lingering nearby, nervous and agog for more. He waits for a while, then, unable to stand the whispers, the constant repetition of the word magic from the other onlookers, heads to the kitchen.

The room is humming, like every other part of the castle, but he keeps his mouth shut and just listens as they talk it over. Most of the servants are focused more on the girl’s pardon than the larger question of magic being outlawed, and some of them speculate the Prince has gone mad again before they are hastily shushed.

Nervous glances are cast Merlin’s way, he has somehow earned a reputation for protectiveness on the Prince’s behalf. The cook throws together a cold platter for when Arthur returns and he carries it upstairs, tidies the empty room and lights the fire, finds some solace in his normal routine.

What is happening in that room?

 

Chapter Text

 

When Arthur emerges from the Great Hall late that night he is pale and exhausted and cranky. It’s fortunate Merlin stored up a great deal of goodwill in the moment he heard Arthur say I cannot see the justice in taking her life, because it takes everything he has not to slap the man over the next few days. The right royal prat is back in full force, abrupt, rude and oblivious.

Arthur barely eats, gets even less sleep. The days disappear in a series of clandestine and not-so-clandestine meetings with almost every member of the Council. Merlin hears some of them, sitting concealed on his pallet in Arthur’s chambers, while others happen all over the castle and the town. He oils Arthur’s boots and mends the tunics he wears to practice while reciting in his head the spells he’s read in quiet moments, behind Arthur’s locked door.

Many of the Council members are begging Arthur to reconsider, to remember his father’s legacy, to wait. Others are strongly hinting that this sudden change is likely a by-product of his madness. Some – not enough, in Merlin’s mind – are quick to agree in principle, but unsure that now is the time.

“…you know why, Arthur.”

Merlin hesitates just inside the door, but neither Arthur nor Hector spare him more than a glance. He kicks the door closed, carries the tray of beef, bread, and beer to the table, and then fades back to his pallet, curled up out of sight with his arms wrapped around his knees.

It’s going to be a long autumn, the days have turned mild again after last week’s cold snap, and Merlin watches the coloured leaves drift on the wind outside as he listens.

“I know that Agravaine is painting this as another symptom of madness.” Arthur’s voice is tight, and Merlin winces. “Though I find it interesting that no-one ever dared to hint to my father that being the only kingdom in Albion to outlaw magic was an act of madness. Say what you will about him, Father knew how to terrify people into agreeing with him, logic and reason be hanged.”

“Arthur-” the tone is chiding.

“Hector,” he fires back. “I cannot let Agravaine’s rumourmongering hold me back from doing this. Of course I don’t undertake this lightly. I have been thinking on it for months.”

Merlin leans out, watches Hector pace while Arthur speaks. He is carefully controlling his tone, now. “You know what Kanen’s raids mean. You know what will happen. And you know as well as I do that the kingdom is in no state to withstand a war.”

“Your knights are well trained, Arthur,” Hector begins.

“My knights are incomparable. Skilled and loyal,” Arthur interrupts tightly. “But let us not mince words, Hector. The knights alone cannot win a war. We need an army for that, and the army will not follow a leader they believe to be mad. We both know this. At the first difficulty there would be rebellion.”

Hector sucks in a breath between his teeth but doesn’t argue. He is frowning down at the floor, worried. “You’re sure Agravaine is actively raiding Essetir?”

“I had a first-hand account of just such a raid. He snatched freemen, villagers from their own fields, Hector, and dragged them to Camelot where they are now enslaved. There is absolutely no doubt. And Cenred must have received news of this by now. He will be moving. If we weren’t skirting at the edges of winter we’d be knee deep in blood by now.”

Merlin sits up, blinking. First-hand account. That’s me. He turns his head, staring blindly at the wall, trying to see this from Arthur’s point of view.

“It’s why I must do this now. It’s not just the right thing to do, Hector, it’s necessary. We are already at a tactical disadvantage. If Cenred hears we are changing our stance on magic, it might give him pause. If he believes us prepared – or able – to use magic, it could buy me enough time to stop the war before it happens.”

Hector shakes his head, thinking. “Perhaps this could be solved with diplomacy in the short term. We admit the raids, hand over Kanen and Agravaine to Cenred – he might be satisfied. But what possible solution, Arthur-”

“I must marry.”

Arthur’s voice is heavy as stone, and so is Hector’s sigh. Merlin licks his lips, pushes to his feet, silent, and braces his body against the archway, cautious. After a second, he tilts his head, just enough to see.

“I can never take the throne.” Arms braced on the mantel, Arthur is staring down into the fireplace, his perfect profile outlined in the fading afternoon sun. Merlin watches the movement of his throat as he swallows. “I can never rule as Camelot’s King. But I can father an heir, and hope that-”

There’s silence.

“That the madness ends with me,” he finally says.

Hector is staring at Arthur’s back, openly grieving. “Arthur.”

“I have dispatched messages to Bayard, and Olaf. They may still be glad of an alliance with Camelot.”

There’s silence, then, finally Hector says, “Have you perhaps considered an answer closer to home?”

Arthur turns his head in query but does not speak. Merlin looks at the lines on his face and feels sick.

“I speak of Morgana, Arthur. When you find her-”

The Prince’s head snaps up, and a look of grief flashes over his face for a second before he says roughly, “No.”

“She has rank, she knows Camelot, for her to stand at your side would be a comfort to the people as well as to yourself-”

“Such a thing is not possible, Hector,” Arthur says, and though he looks ill he has never sounded more like a king – fierce and absolute. He takes a long, shaking breath, and then looks at him directly. “I ask you, as a friend, never to mention it to me again.”

There’s silence. Hector looks confused, then resigned, and finally he says, “What is it you ask of me, Arthur?”

A long, shuddering breath rolls out of Arthur. Then he says, “I am – well, for now. I promise you, when I am not in my right mind, you will surely know. Agravaine acts as Regent now, but… he is plotting something. Whether it is merely my death at Cenred’s hands, or some deeper game, I am not yet sure. But if I can prevail against him – someone trustworthy must stand as Regent. I will not always be able to- to function.”

“You – you’re asking me?”

And finally, Arthur turns. “I cannot choose the type of Queen I might have once hoped for. I am no prize as a husband, not anymore, which means I will almost certainly end up with some vapid, brainless chit who cannot aspire any higher than a madman .” He draws in a breath and says steadily, “I would like to know there is someone with influence in Camelot who will care for my subjects as I would. And the years I spent as your fosterling showed me the man you are, Hector. I trust you with my kingdom as I would no other.”

Merlin sinks back into his alcove, sliding down the stone wall, and wraps his arms around his knees. In all these plans and maneuverings, to stop the war, to protect the people, to free the magicians – who stands for Arthur?

 

 

 

It’s probably anger at being outmaneuvered that has Agravaine starting a new tactic once it’s clear Arthur’s sheer bullheadedness has won and the ban on magic is going to be repealed.

“By the way, Arthur,” he says, eyes on his plate, “I realized the other day - that slave of yours was never examined by the physician when he was brought in.”

Arthur’s hand tightens on his spoon. It’s no co-incidence his uncle would bring this up now, at a banquet in front of almost every member of the Council. “Indeed,” he says, completely indifferent.

“Mm, yes,” his uncle goes on, “you remember, you insisted that at the very least each slave must be given the same medical care at regular intervals to prevent abuse.”

“Of course,” he says, and shrugs. Hector is watching them both carefully. “I had Gaius look him over.”

“Oh, I’m sure,” Agravaine responds, tearing his bread neatly in two, “but, you remember, the traders have a dedicated physician for the castle slaves, and he’ll be here tomorrow. He keeps records, and so on. I’d be remiss if I didn’t make sure he can’t taint our Crown Prince with some vile pox. And it really wouldn’t do for you to keep him hidden away from the physician – people might start to think you were mistreating the young lad.” His eyes meet Arthur’s and he offers a small smile.

“Of course,” Arthur says again, grinding his teeth. That idea has taken root, he can see, amongst several of the stupider Council members. The image of Mad Prince Arthur, torturing his slave for fun in illicit midnight rituals.

At one of the lower tables, two of the men Kanen left behind are watching, eyes glittering. A third, leaning against the wall, is slicing into an apple, his eyes locked on Merlin. From the corner of his eye Arthur watches the man smile slowly, and he hears Merlin’s breath, shaky, although the lad makes no other sound.

“You make a good point, Agravaine,” Hector says unexpectedly. “It’s obvious Arthur treats the boy well, but it never hurts to have it ratified by a third party. Send him off to the physician tomorrow, Arthur, and you can forget about it again.”

“I have no doubt,” Agravaine murmurs, “that the boy is in pristine condition.” His eyes flicker over Merlin, standing silent behind Arthur. “Almost untouched, one might say.”

Hector snorts. “I doubt that,” he says, and promptly launches into a bawdy tale that distracts everyone at the table except for Arthur and his uncle. They share a long look, broken only when the servers step between them with more wine, and Arthur carefully uncurls his fingers from the hilt of his knife, below the table and hidden from view.

 

* * *

 

How Merlin stayed silent and still through the banquet while they discussed him like that, he will never know. Sometimes panic is good, apparently, especially the kind that locks your limbs up tight. He follows Arthur out of the Great Hall at the end of the feast, not at all fooled by the calm carelessness the Prince has been projecting all night.

The door closes behind them and Merlin turns to lock it. His hands, he sees, are shaking. He’s not sure if it’s apprehension or arousal. He’s tried so hard all these many weeks not to look at Arthur, so hard not to see him that way. Tried to forget that night, and taken pleasure at his own hand in silent, desperate moments when he’s alone, picturing lips and hands instead of a particular face.

It’s not fair. He’s already tied to Arthur in every way possible. Legally his property, physically protected by the man, and gradually, inevitably, worst of all - Merlin has become fascinated by who he is, the real Arthur.

It’s really not fair that he should have this hot, implacable desire, too.

But the time for resisting is gone, it seems. Right and wrong don’t matter now. He swallows, and turns to face the Prince, gathering his arguments. Because this is not going to be simple.

“When the physician examines me tomorrow,” he begins.

“No.”

“He’ll be able to tell. That we – that we haven’t.” He flushes beet red, but forces the words out, “That you’re not using me the way we’ve pretended.”

“We are not discussing this.” Arthur shucks off his cloak and strides across the room, eyes snapping with anger. “Get to your bed.”

“Sire.”

“Go to bed, Merlin.”

“And when Agravaine finds out, he’ll know you’ve been protecting me.”

“Agravaine will not find out, and if he did, it’s just as likely that I have tired of you,” he shoots back.

“Except if you had tired of me, then why would you still have me here?”

Arthur glares at Merlin, furious. “Honestly, Merlin, at the moment I couldn’t begin to explain why you’re here. I have said we are not discussing this, and yet here you are, pushing, just like always. You really are a terrible servant.”

“I’m not a servant,” he says quietly, and turns to tend the fire. “I’m a slave.”

Arthur draws in a long, harsh breath. “Merlin.”

He gets the fire started – he’s got the knack of it, finally. For one mad moment his mouth twitches at the memory – Arthur’s amazement that anyone could be so completely rubbish at starting a fire with flint. Hard to explain he’d almost always used magic before.

He swallows, then stands and turns to face Arthur. “If you don’t do this, Agravaine and Kanen’s men will start in on me all over again, and you can’t protect me every second, Sire.  I need you to do this.”

Arthur is pale with rage. “I will not.”

“You have to,” he says, desperate now. He’s shaky and hot all over, from pushing himself at Arthur this way, from assuming the Prince can even summon enough interest over Merlin- acting like Arthur would ever want him enough to get hard in the first place. But then he remembers Arthur’s eyes in the dark, the way they’d locked on to Merlin’s as he parted his lips over hot, hard flesh. He wanted me – perhaps only in a dream, but he wanted me enough for that.

“If they think you’re being kind somehow, you know what they’ll do. You have to use me, and,” he swallows, flushing, “and not gently.”

“I will not-”

“Arthur.”

They both go very still. It’s the first time – as far as Arthur knows, anyway – Merlin has ever said his name.

He swallows. “I could have – there’s a boy, down at the stables. He - likes me… I can tell. I could go to him. But I chose. I choose you. All right?” His voice is wobbly.

“You do not choose me, Merlin.” The words are low and swift. “You are choosing rape over even worse abuse and I will not be-”

“You’re kind, when no-one’s watching,” Merlin says. “And not just to me.”

Arthur turns his face away. The only sound is the crackling of the newly-lit fire, and then the wind rattles the windows just slightly. He’s not cold, though – not even close. Daring, he takes a step closer to Arthur.

“I know you’re trapped, too. And this isn’t a choice you’d ever make for yourself. You’d deny yourself everything, I know that. But. To save me. From- from them. You’ll… help me.”

“Help you by-”

“I get hard,” he says matter-of-factly, eyes on the floor. “When I-when we’re-” he gestures awkwardly to the bed.

They’re both silent.

“You must have seen. Must have felt it.” These nights, sharing a bed, it’s an impossible thing to conceal, for both of them. They’ve never spoken of it – just like the night of Arthur’s madness.

Arthur still doesn’t speak.

“It’s not rape, Arthur. It’s – the timing, maybe is, well, not good. Not what either of us would have chosen. But I do… want you. And I think you want me.” He is closing the gap between them. “Please.”

“Merlin,” Arthur shakes his head, helpless, and he takes another step forward, crossing some invisible line when his chest brushes up against Arthur’s.

“Please,” Merlin murmurs it against Arthur’s lips. Some part of his brain is laughing hysterically. He’s – is he fucking seducing the Mad Prince? His master? He’s had the man’s cock in his mouth, and not by choice. And now he’s going to gentle Arthur into bed like he’s some blushing virgin?

Yes, says the rational part of his brain. And then you’re going to drive him wild with it.

He parts his lips and lets them slide against Arthur’s. Rubs softly side to side. Arthur’s trembling against him and the desperation inside Merlin is softening, yielding to the obvious distress.

He’s a good man. Against all odds, Merlin has discovered the spoilt prat who threatened to drag him through the castle on his knees, is strong and noble and loyal. And curse it - doesn’t that just get all of Merlin’s juices flowing.

“Kiss me. Just a kiss,” he whispers, and as though those words held magic Arthur’s mouth opens beneath his. It’s a hot sweet bloom totally at odds with the efficient violence he displays in a fight. Merlin slides his tongue along that full bottom lip and surprises a moan out of the other man, spurring his own, answering gasp.

His hands slide down Arthur’s back, slow, still moving over fabric rather than skin but not for long, their erections press together, hot and tight and there’s a gasp of air between their mouths.

“Yess,” Merlin sighs, tilts his head back and Arthur’s mouth traces a hot trail down his jaw, his throat to his collarbones. Some part of Merlin’s brain is still in control and he grinds their erections together without mercy, unsurprised when Arthur bites down in reaction.

He’ll leave a mark. Good. That’s good.

Merlin’s hand comes up to cup Arthur’s shoulder, presses closer until he can slide his fingers inside the tunic and when the heavy weight of the manacle slides over his collarbone the Prince freezes.

For a moment they are both still, then Arthur’s hand comes up to wrap around Merlin’s wrist. Their heads tilt, together, and they stare down at the iron cuff wrapped around Merlin’s forearm.

Arthur sucks in a breath that sounds like a pained cry, his fingers tighten for a moment, nails whitening against the metal and then-

He slams out the room before Merlin can catch him. The heavy oak door thuds back against the stone wall, leaving the startled guard in his wake. He and Merlin exchange a long glance, then Merlin walks slowly across the room and carefully closes the door. He leans against it, body heavy, and feeling more alone than he ever has in his whole life.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

He’s curled against the bedpost, cold, when the door opens again.

I should get up, and go to the stables, he is thinking the whole time he lies there, unmoving. Anything is better than Kanen’s men. But he doesn’t move.

He knows Arthur’s footsteps, the careful measured pace of them, and he doesn’t stir, just listens to the sound of the door closing, key turning in the lock, the long, shaky breath Arthur draws before he crosses the room to the bed.

“Merlin,” he says, “are you awake.”

“Yes, Sire,” he says dully, and doesn’t turn his head in Arthur’s direction.

“Will you – Merlin. Come to the window.” His voice is low and calm and certain. He’s marshaled his arguments, probably, come up with an alternate plan. "And bring a candle."

Merlin sighs. Another long breath and he shoves himself upright with his hands, pushes up off the edge of the bed and steps obediently over to the window. “Sire,” he says, eyes lowered.

Arthur gives a little shake of his head, which Merlin knows is meant to mean, don’t call me that, but all he says is, “Rest your arm on the window sill.”

Merlin frowns at him.

“Please.” In the moonlight Arthur’s face is silver and stone, beautiful as a statue and finally he just obeys. He lifts his right arm and sets it against the sill, the manacle blacker than midnight against his own pale flesh.

Arthur nods. Then he lifts his own hands and-

Arthur. Arthur has. Has a file. A hammer.

He sets the file against the hasp. Merlin blinks down at it stupidly, turns his head to look at Arthur just as he swings his other hand in a strong arc.

Merlin feels the noise more than the jump of the metal against his wrist. His eyes are still stuck on Arthur – that jaw set in lines of stubbornness that would shame a donkey, eyes burning with concentration.

He doesn’t look away as Arthur braces the file again, strikes another blow, then reaches out, fingers sliding beneath the metal and then it’s off, there’s the ringing sound of iron striking the stone floor.

Arthur looks up. Their eyes meet. Merlin sucks in a shaky breath and raises his left hand, braces it on the sill as his right drops limply to his side. He can’t think.

It takes one blow this time, Arthur’s jaw rigid with effort and the cuff bursts open without assistance, falling to land beside its brother.

Merlin gasps. Staggers back. He still hasn’t looked down. Can’t. He keeps his eyes on Arthur, watches him lay the file and hammer on the window sill, watches him step forward, expression oddly gentle as he reaches for Merlin’s hands.

Sword-callused hands grip his bare wrists, the skin reddened. Arthur’s thumb strokes softly over the spot where Merlin’s heartbeat shows and he makes a sound – not a word, just a – his breath is humming-

“Merlin,” Arthur says, leaning in, and Merlin just folds up, face dropping into Arthur’s upturned palms, his own hands and oh by all the Gods, his magic, it’s there, he can feel it, simmering through his veins and opening up his lungs and tightening his throat-

“Merlin,” Arthur says again. “It’s all right.”

He’s panting, mouth open against Arthur’s palm, feeling it flicker in every inch of his skin and trying to rein it in, if he lets go now it will explode and leave a Merlin-shaped hole in the side of Camelot’s glittering castle. “Arthur,” he moans, Gods, this feeling has to go somewhere.

Merlin snaps upright and fastens his mouth over Arthur’s – no warning, no questions. He pours it all into the kiss and Arthur gasps, wraps his arms around Merlin with all his strength and it’s still not enough. He flings his head back, a rough keening sound coming out of his mouth as Arthur fastens his teeth at Merlin’s throat, and on the other side of the room the fire flares to life, high and sudden and sharp.

“Do it,” Merlin hisses, “now,” and he snakes a hand down Arthur’s body, scrabbling for the laces which unwind themselves with a touch and he whimpers a little at the magic running under his skin and the heat turning him inside out, “Arthur.”

“Merlin,” he mutters, teeth scoring one collarbone and he kicks off his boots, steps out of his trousers, doesn’t seem to even notice Merlin’s own lacings have come undone of their own volition, boots sliding off to the side and out of the way.

“More, Arthur, more,” he moans, dragging his shirt upwards and they break apart just long enough to drag the fabric away, Merlin kicking his trousers across the room as Arthur pulls at his tunic, one seam ripping as it comes free. It’s flung behind them, landing on the bed and Merlin has a glimpse of the bedhangings parting behind Arthur as if drawn back by invisible hands and then they are falling onto the mattress, limbs tangling.

“I want- Gods,” he manages as Arthur explores his chest, laves each nipple with a wandering tongue, “Arthur, hurry-”

“I-yes,” his fingers fumble for a moment as he glances up into Merlin’s eyes, the firelight flickering over them both. “Yes.”

And then their tongues are tangling again, hot and sweet and wild and Merlin’s hand slides off Arthur’s shoulder, lands on something cool and hard and as his fingers close around it he recognizes the shape. It’s a jar of balm that he’d seen on Gaius’ workshelf this morning, something scented with melissa and he’s never been this wildly out of control before but then he’s never had Arthur’s hands and mouth making free with his body quite like this before, either.

“Arthur,” he moans, gulps hard and then just shoves the jar at him, trying to breathe breathe breathe before his magic does something really stupid and obvious that will force Arthur to look somewhere other than right at Merlin, into Merlin. When he opens his eyes Arthur’s braced above him, silhouetted against the bedhangings as they draw shut, and his slick fingers are trailing over Merlin’s aching cock. “Please, please, please-”

He’s cut off by a savage kiss but a half-second later one finger slides inside and he lifts his hips into it, moaning a long ohhh against Arthur’s mouth that draws an answering moan from Arthur.

The second finger is even better, so close to what Merlin’s been craving, but Arthur stops, just for a second, “Is this- Merlin-”

“Whatever you’re asking, the answer is yes,” he grits back, voice tight and Arthur is startled into a laugh than turns into a moan when Merlin scrapes his nails along the other man’s ribs, biting down on a smoothly muscled shoulder.

“I have to,” he pants, “I have to know, Merlin, you’re free, you understand, you don’t have to -”

Understanding flares but he can’t – he can’t think about that, he needs this in his gut and his stupid brain won’t let him forget why else he needs it –examination- why he’s rushing Arthur into this –physician- it’s not really about choice, for either of them, especially with the sparks flying under his skin. So Merlin blanks his mind and rears up, tumbling Arthur backwards onto the bed, a pillow appearing beneath his head at the last moment. “Arthur,” he snarls, and bites down on his shoulder this time like he means it.

Arthur jerks against him like a salmon on the line. Merlin grips his wrist and puts those fingers back where he wants them, grinding his hips down shamelessly, “Have I given the impression that I am unsure?” he says, breathless.

“Do I seem, ohhh,” he flings his head back when Arthur touches a hot spot inside him and has to take a gasping breath before he can say, “Do I seem shy, or scared, or reluctant in any way? Or do I seem like I just really need you to fuck me?”

Merlin,” is all Arthur says, awed and stupid, and when he looks down into that handsome face, the bright need in his eyes is everything Merlin has ever wanted. Maybe he ‘s not quite ready, not quite healed. Doesn’t matter now. Not with Arthur looking at him like that.

Please,” he says brokenly, “oh, Arthur, please.”

“Sshh,” Arthur kisses it into his chest, adds another finger even as Merlin scrabbles for the jar, runs his own fingers over Arthur’s cock.

“I’ve dreamed of this,” he says, shameless now. “You’ve no idea how many mornings I’ve -”

“So fucking hard,” Arthur grinds out, “and oh yes I bloody do. You’re not the only one who’s been deprived, watching you stumbling around all warm and clumsy with your hair all-”

“Oh Gods,” Merlin says, and that’s it, he raises himself higher, feels Arthur’s hands grip his hips as they line up and then slowly, slowly he slides all the way home. He stops for a moment, eyes squeezed tight shut as he adjusts, and a half-second later thinks, I’m not going to be able to be quiet.

Magic flares under his skin – a silence shield, probably, hopefully. The magic’s completely beyond his control right now - he can’t even control his bloody breathing.  

It feels oddly like there’s something pressing against the walls, trying to get in and he just lets the magic flare out of him, dissolving that other pulse into nothingness. A huge smile breaks out over his face at that feeling, and when he lowers his head and opens his eyes to find Arthur watching him, face soft with surprise he actually laughs.

“Merlin-” he says, and it’s a question this time.

“I just feel so good,” he says, the best explanation he has right now and Arthur’s face tightens.

Yes,” he mutters, guttural, “you do.” And he draws his knees up, hips tilting, the tiniest amount but Merlin feels it every inch of the way, leaning back against Arthur’s thighs, gasping.

They move in concert, tiny shifts and pulses, barely enough to register and yet each change sends a shudder through him. He’s already shaking and shuddering over Arthur, each slide of skin is so right, a throb of need chasing just behind and he moans, the sound filling the room.

“Oh hell,” Arthur groans, rolling his head from side to side on the pillow, “Oh Gods above, Merlin,” and he’s not quiet either. If that spell wasn’t for silence they’ll be heard all the way to the lower town.

“I have to-”

Arthur’s hand trails from his hip across to his cock and he can’t contain himself at that, either, “Arthur, yesmm-”

He braces himself on Arthur’s shoulders and starts the slide, up and down, riding Arthur’s solid heat. He’s panting now, tiny sounds of need in each breath.

“Merlin,” Arthur says, voice tight, “slow down.” He’s biting his lower lip in a completely distracting way.

No,” Merlin moans, and raises himself up, just to feel the slide all the way down until he bottoms out, cock curving through Arthur’s warm, slick fingers.

“God,” Arthur grinds out, deep and guttural. His hand clamps down on Merlin’s hips, harder than before. “I mean it. Slow down.

“But why,” he whines. Whining. And he’s not ashamed to admit it.

“Because I want it to last,” Arthur whispers, eyes wide and honest in the dark. “This might be the only – I want it to go on and on.”

He freezes, staring down at that ridiculously handsome face. “Arthur,” he says, overcome.

This might be the only – you royal fool, Merlin thinks. But then, Arthur is probably picturing everything going the way he’s planned it. Something ridiculous and self-sacrificing, like freeing Merlin and sending him home and taking all the blame and never seeing each other again...

He leans down and kisses Arthur, deep and fierce and full of feeling. It goes on for minutes and minute and neither of them moves and then finally he feels Arthur throb, deep inside him, brushing against that hot place of pure pleasure and he moans again, louder this time, helpless.

“I need it,” he whispers. “Arthur. Oh please. Let me-”

“I know,” he says, voice shaking, and kisses Merlin one more time, deep and filthy, “I know, oh I know.” He presses up, just another tiny movement but Merlin whimpers, feeling the prickles of pleasure starting.

“Oh,” he says, and that’s all. He raises his hips and Arthur is with him, thrusting up as Merlin presses down, his hand on Merlin’s cock keeping pace, “Ohh Arthur...”

“Yes.”

“I can’t-”

“Merlin.”

“I have to-”

“Merlin.”

It’s gathering at the base of his spine now, tingles in his fingers and he looks down at Arthur beneath him, eyes widening and face taut with pleasure. They watch each other, the world narrowing down to just they two, striving, tightening, until finally Merlin calls out, incoherent, heat and gold and the utter explosion of joy at the centre of all that he is.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

He just collapses, boneless, and with absolutely no respect for the Crown Prince’s person. The arms wrapped tight around him are the first clue that Arthur doesn’t mind.

“I think,” Arthur finally says, panting against Merlin’s cheek, “you might be part of an elaborate assassination plot. If the end goal is to kill me with sex, I have to tell you, I am completely prepared to risk it.”

“If I had known it could be that good,” Merlin mumbles back, “I’d have pinned you to the breakfast table weeks ago.”

“Merlin,” Arthur says, “you couldn’t pin a moist towel against the breakfast table.” He nuzzles the spot behind Merlin’s ear and makes a satisfied noise when Merlin shivers. “But yes. I agree it’s bloody criminal that we weren’t doing this weeks ago.”

“Well, it’s going to be bloody medical if we stay like this too much longer,” Merlin mumbles. He resents even the thought of moving, but the sweat and come are cooling on their bodies, and even his roaring fire can only fix so much. He sits up, hissing as Arthur slides slowly out of his body, and isn’t even a bit surprised when there’s a wet cloth draped over the bedpost behind Arthur.

He cleans them both up without a word, somehow unembarrassed despite Arthur watching him lazily, never blinking. His eyes are half-closed and he very much resembles a big, satisfied cat – or a golden lion replete after a big meal. Merlin presses a kiss to his lips and drops the cloth through a gap in the bedhangings. There’s the sound of a tiny splash on the other side of the room, as though it has rinsed itself and hung itself out to dry.

He sighs a little, knowing he needs to take a few minutes to get his power under control, and feeling absolutely no desire to actually do so.

At his side, Arthur takes a hugely satisfied breath and drags Merlin closer with one arm.

“I’m glad we did this,” Merlin whispers against his skin. He pets Arthur a little, just because he can. Fingers trailing over shoulders, over ribs and lips and noses.

“Yes.”

“Because I don’t want to leave you.”

Arthur’s arm tightens at that. “Well, you’re going to,” he says, implacable.

Merlin’s eyes narrow and he lifts his head. Two can play at that game. He can be implacable, too, and he’s not hamstrung by stupid knightly honour. Though he is a bit easily distracted by Arthur’s – well, his everything, really.

“I don’t want to stop doing this,” Merlin mumbles into his beautiful golden hair. “Once wasn’t enough.”

Arthur’s mouth makes a sad shape at that, and it’s impossibly beautiful to Merlin. He kisses it immediately.

“I know,” Arthur whispers back a few minutes later, breathing deep. “I know.”

“Then stop telling me to leave.” He slides his hand down Arthur’s side and finds his cock stirring.

“It’s not safe for you here.” Even sparking with heat, those blue eyes are stubborn.

“You made it safe. Kanen’s away-”

“You saw tonight his men are still a threat, and anyway, my uncle is still-”

“Your uncle doesn’t actually care about me one way or the other-”

“He doesn’t have to care about you to try and hurt you, to use you-”

“I won’t give you up,” Merlin says, matter-of-fact, “and I won’t leave you.” Arthur has no idea who he’s dealing with. Merlin once spent over five hours neck-deep in a freezing river, just to prove Will wrong. Of course, he’d been dragged out by the hair by his livid mother as night fell, but still.

“You talk like you have a choice-” Arthur begins, and Merlin slides on top of him, suddenly furious that it all has to be so complicated, and yet still so very, very aroused.

He draws in a slow breath and his voice comes out lower than he’s ever heard it. “I’m going to have you, Arthur Pendragon.”

Arthur blinks. The royal cock jerks against Merlin’s leg, and he grinds his hips in a circle by way of encouraging that kind of thinking. He gazes down at Arthur and lets everything he’s feeling show on his face, eyes heavy-lidded, mouth slack with want.

“I want to have you in every way possible. I want you to do everything to me and then do it all again and then let me do it to you and then maybe rest for half an hour and invent new ways of doing it until we’re wrung out-”

“Oh Gods, Merlin, stop talking like that,” Arthur gasps. His hips move involuntarily. “You bloody tart, you are trying to distract me-”

“You love it,” Merlin says automatically and Arthur says, “Well of course I do,” which leaves Merlin blinking in surprise. He freezes.

“Really?” he says, and Arthur rolls his eyes.

“No,” he says, rapidly regaining his senses. “I find everything about you repellant.”

Merlin circles his hips again.

“Oh all right,” he relents, gasping, “except for that.” There’s a pause, during which Merlin’s hands go wandering. “And the way you bite your lips.” Merlin moves again, prompting a strangled sound signaling both desire and reluctance. “And your ears.”

“You like my ears?” Merlin gapes at him, stilling. No-one likes his ears. They’re ridiculous.

He stares down, open mouthed at the Crown Prince of Camelot, who has apparently abandoned any attempt at rational argument for a surge of lust that Merlin can completely support. He’s on his back in three seconds flat, legs sprawled open in complete abandon to accommodate an extremely well-planned siege upon his person.

It’s not slow and deliberate, this time. It’s a firestorm of grasping hands and bitten off moans. Merlin’s shaking by the time he’s flipped onto his hands and knees and only as he’s sliding into Merlin does Arthur suddenly come back to himself-

“Merlin, oh Gods above, are you all right- we shouldn’t-”

“If you dare to stop,” Merlin gasps, and pushes back. He’s clearly still stretched from earlier, because Arthur slides all the way in first time and they moan in perfect unison as he bottoms out, thighs pressed against Merlin’s arse. “Ahh, ohh,” Merlin manages, hands and knees digging hard into the mattress.

Arthur bites, suddenly, on his shoulder blade and Merlin twitches, and they’re off. Arthur’s thrusts are deep and frantic, nothing like the control he’d shown earlier. It’s as if talking about sending Merlin away has ripped away his defences, leaving him utterly raw.

Arthur,” Merlin moans, the word wrenched from his throat, there’s faint music playing somewhere to match the lights behind his eyes, “Gods there - yes - don’t stop ohh love don’t stop don’t ever stop-”

Can’t stop,” he grinds out, hands brutal on Merlin’s hips and he snaps in deep again, hard enough to get a strangled wail from Merlin who pushes back harder, and they are a perfect thing, a rhythm unbroken. Arthur’s hand finds Merlin’s cock and he gasps.

“Arthur, yes, yes yes yes-” and then he’s coming, pulsing into Arthur’s hand with a broken off cry, arms barely able to hold him. He’s still sobbing through it when he feels Arthur’s fingers clench on his hip, the long low moan he missed hearing the last time because every part of him had disappeared into the white mist of pleasure.

They collapse onto each other in silence. This time, Merlin winces when Arthur withdraws, and he’s glad their position means the other man can’t see that he’s feeling it quite definitely this time. He’s not sorry. Not at all.

But Arthur seems to know anyway, he rises from the bed without a word and returns with the cloth. It’s beautifully warm and Merlin tells himself it could be because the basin is near the fire. Which is still burning merrily, though the logs should have long ago turned to ash.

Arthur cleans him up carefully, tender as if he were a newborn babe, and biting his lip in self-recrimination. Merlin slumps back against the pillows and just lets him. There hasn’t been a lot of tenderness in his life of late, he’ll take it where he can.

Worried by the guilty look, he trails a curious finger down Arthur’s cheek, searching for a smile which, eventually, he gets. It’s just for Merlin, that soft small curl at each end of Arthur’s mouth. He’s not sure how he knows that, he just knows.

When he thinks it over, it’s more about what’s missing from that smile, all the things he’s seen every day in Arthur’s very public life. It’s not the prince’s smirk, not the warrior’s broad grin, not the leader’s dazzling enticement nor the politician’s careful acknowledgement. It’s just Arthur, soft and satisfied and unwound.

Arthur drops the cloth into the basin and adds some logs to the fire, then climbs back into the bed and settles the covers around them both.

He wraps his arms around Merlin and tangles their legs together and Merlin closes his eyes at how good, how right it feels. He can see, now, the careful distance Arthur had maintained when the cold weather had finally forced them to share a bed. Now, finally, he knows what was missing during all those other long nights.

“You did that on purpose,” Arthur says, low. His fingers trace over the red mark on Merlin’s throat. “You wanted to drive me m-” He stops abruptly.

Mad is not a word they can use lightly, not even here.

“Guilty,” Merlin says, turning so that their faces are pressed close together. “I like having your marks on my skin.” He slides his foot up Arthur’s calf. Totally bluffing, of course. He can barely move, he’s certainly not ready for another round just yet.

And because you still think you’re going to see that physician tomorrow,” Arthur chides, not at all fooled.

“I know you’re still trying to get Morgana free,” Merlin says. “This isn’t the time to take an unnecessary risk.”

“It’s not unnecessary,” Arthur says, unmoved. “And we close to getting her and Gwen out. I’ll know where they are within days.”

“So you don’t need any more trouble-”

Arthur cuts him off. “Kiss me,” he whispers. “Just a kiss.”

I’m not falling for that, Merlin thinks, but Arthur’s lips are surprisingly soft and extremely warm and he drowns in it for a little while, perhaps makes a small whimpering sound when Arthur lifts his head.

“In the morning, before dawn,” Arthur is murmuring. “Go to the north tower. It was abandoned years ago. I’ve stored food and blankets there. A horse will go missing from a tavern in the lower town, your fetters will be found just outside the wall. Kanen’s men will mount a search for you by lunchtime, and depending on the weather you can wait a day, perhaps two, then set out in the opposite direction to Ealdor. Toward Mercia, perhaps. I’ll arrange for your mother-”

“Sshh,” Merlin says, tender. His chest hurts. He puts his hand over Arthur’s, fingers slotting into the gaps between. “You need to sleep now.”

“It’s important,” Arthur says, words slurring. “You’ll never outdistance them if you try to flee tomorrow. You’re more than just a runaway slave, more than just a way to get to me. It’s personal for them now. Enough that the whole squad will go, enough that they’ll ride their horses into the ground to find you.” His eyes are closing, he’s mumbling now. “Let my uncle spend himself searching in all the wrong places while you’re safe here with me.”

“Yes,” Merlin says, and turns his eyes to Arthur’s face. “I’ll be safe here, with you. Now sleep.”

 

* * *

 

“Arthur,” Merlin is whispering, close to his ear. “Do you trust me?”

He hears the words but he’s still so sleepy. And they sound very much like some of the embarrassingly girly dreams he’s been having since Merlin came to Camelot – soft, intimate conversations, everything understood between them without having to hammer it out using something as clumsy as words. “Yes,” he mumbles, instinctive. “Of course.”

His eyes open and he blinks into the blue ones that look back at him.

“Because I trust you. With my life, and more besides,” Merlin says, and everything floods back to him in that instant, not just the weeks leading to this but last night, the stunning heat of Merlin under his hands, his lips, and the unholy abandon of losing himself inside another-

Merlin,” he says, urgent, lurches upright. Because that is dawn, if he’s not mistaken, peeking through the curtains, which means Merlin is cutting it far too close to make his escape and why did Arthur let himself sleep when-

“It will be all right, Arthur,” he says, sliding backwards until he’s standing at the foot of the bed. He’s dressed, but not warmly enough for running and oh Gods alive, Merlin, why won’t you listen-

There’s a knock at the door and Arthur stills, trousers clutched in his hand and his stupid foggy brain takes in the breakfast tray waiting on the table, the crumbs that say Merlin has already eaten, has been awake for some time, more than enough time to escape.

“Trust me,” Merlin is saying, but he sounds so nervous, he raises his hands, placating, as he steps forward, and then Arthur just freezes.

The cuffs. The manacles. There are – bands around Merlin’s wrists. Again. Still.

Arthur shakes his head and tries very hard to breathe.

But he- he took them off. “I know I did,” he murmurs, and he raises a shaking hand to touch, suddenly more afraid than he’s ever been in his life.

He couldn’t – wouldn’t have touched him, not as a slave, I wouldn’t, oh Gods had he slipped away again because he remembers smashing them but there they are on Merlin’s wrists what has the madness made him do to Merlin what has he done what have I -

Arthur,” Merlin says suddenly, warm hands wrapped around Arthur’s face, lips pressing to his and he shudders because it feels so real but perhaps-

“It’s all right. Please just trust me - everything is all right. I’ll be back soon and I’ll exp-” there’s another knock and Merlin growls in frustration.

Coming,” he calls. Then he kisses Arthur, lush and loving and he can’t help it, he kisses back. The cold metal brushes against one cheek and he flinches and then Merlin is gone, opening the door to the physician’s assistant and with one last level look at Arthur, he pulls the door closed behind him.

He sits there for a long time, until the lack of clothing makes itself felt and he forces himself to dress, shivering. He crosses to the fire and adds some more wood, stays crouched there, frowning at it for a while, struggling with his memories. It doesn’t help that last night strongly resembled - in searing detail - the majority of his other dreams of late.

Perhaps he’d drunk more than he’d realized at the banquet. Because this- it doesn’t feel like the madness. He’s pleasantly tired, but not - destroyed like the madness makes him feel. He licks his lips and shakes his head, trying to make sense of it.

Last night is a blaze of sensation more than anything else. The fire, roaring to life on the other side of the room like it had drawn fuel from the heat under his skin, the bedhangings drawing tight until they were hidden from the world and the golden firelight flickering in those blue, blue eyes.

Merlin. What a revelation.

He gets to his feet like an old man, still feeling a little sick inside at knowing that he – he took Merlin that way, when he still wore the hateful bands of slavery. The other man was willing, he is clear on that much, but it makes no difference in Arthur’s mind. Merlin has had very little choice of late, this was not a path Arthur wanted to take while their situation was… the way it was.

He’s had the power to free Merlin all along, and both he and Merlin know it. He simply… hadn’t. Arthur had made the deliberate choice. Freeing Merlin would have used up some of his small store of influence, and he’d been saving it for his long-term goals. For Morgana, for the repeal of the ban on sorcery. And now–

Arthur closes his eyes, bitter. Now I have wronged Merlin in every way possible.

He paces around the room and finds himself back at the window, the one where he has such clear memories of – the sound it had made, the effort of striking the hinge just right. He can remember it all so clearly. He blinks, frowning, then blinks some more at the thing sticking out from under his bed.

He kneels and reaches and pulls out the hammer and file.

Chapter Text

 

He is still there, kneeling in the same spot when Merlin returns. He’s a little dizzy, actually, and that’s when he realizes that his distraction at last night’s banquet, and again this morning means he hasn’t eaten in quite some time. Not the wisest choice, after last night’s … exertions.

“Arthur,” Merlin cries, and skids to a stop on his knees, pressed against Arthur’s side. “Oh Gods, I’m so sorry, I should have woken you earlier and explained-”

“Merlin,” he murmurs. He can’t take his eyes off the tools in his hand. What is happening? “Merlin, am I-”

“Arthur,” he says, and his voice is shaking badly, “look at me.” He cups Arthur’s jaw until he turns his head and their eyes lock. Then he slides backwards, putting a little space between them, which Arthur isn’t happy about at all. Merlin raises his hands, palms up, showing those accursed shackles.

Bidǣlde,” he says and his voice trembles, but a soft light appears in his eyes. Arthur blinks, and in the time it takes to do so, Merlin’s eyes have changed to purest gold and the shackles have opened. Arthur watches as they fall harmlessly to the floor.

There’s silence. Quite a bit of it. Arthur slumps back against the wall and does some more blinking and really, really wishes he’d slept better and eaten something before this.

“Merlin,” he finally says dumbly. “You. You’re magic.”

A tentative smile brings forth a hint of dimples. “Um, yes?”

He’s not at all sure Merlin understands. Certainly someone is confused. “You just did." He points. "That was magic.”

“Yes, sire,” he says, patient.

Arthur blinks at him. They’re not making much progress, so he tries for something more real. “The cold iron?” he asks.

Merlin takes a quick breath. “I changed it back to ordinary iron while you were sleeping.”

He nods as though that makes sense. It rather feels like he’s taken a hit to the head without the protection of his helm. But somehow all he manages to say is, “I guess you really were picking berries…”

“…and trapping rabbits, yes, sometimes.” Merlin says. His hands are white-knuckled on his bony knees and he licks his lips before he asks, “Sire. Is this – are you all right?”

I honestly have no idea, he thinks. But he gathers himself together and pushes to his feet. “I think, Merlin, that after last night we can probably be a little more informal when we’re alone. Unless, of course, you’re planning on using my title in bed.” He waits and watches Merlin blush and mutter about habits, enjoying it, because he's always had a bit of a mean streak.

Then he takes a deep breath. Everything he thought he knew is shifting sideways in his mind, but there’s one thing at least he can be sure of. If Merlin is magic, then, “There’s someone you should meet.”

When he gets to his feet there’s some slightly embarrassing wobbling going on, which is when Merlin discovers his untouched breakfast and scolds him until he eats something. It feels so very, oddly domestic and normal.

He balks when he stands up from the table to find Merlin has reattached the shackles to his wrists. “No,” he says, and Merlin talks right over the top of him.

“Sire,” he says, very firm, “I’m a lot more useful – and a lot safer – if no-one knows what I can do. Once the lady Morgana is safe-“

“I don’t want you to wear those things.” He’d hated them enough before. But now that he’s learned the skin at Merlin’s wrists with his tongue, how he trembles when Arthur kisses him just so, it’s a travesty.

“And I won’t when we’re alone,” he says, clearly placating. “All right?”

“No, Merlin,” he says, stubborn, “not all right at all.”

“Please.” And that brings Arthur up short. Because Merlin never asks for anything.

Exasperated, he puts his hands on his hips and opens his mouth.

“Arthur,” he steps closer, “your uncle was waiting there, with the physician this morning. He doesn’t know I saw him, but – he’s just waiting for an opportunity.”

Arthur looks away and grinds his teeth. He hasn’t felt this vicious since – well, actually since last night, striding back to his chambers. “Fine,” he says, short and furious. “Come on, then.”

He stalks out of the room and down corridor after corridor, staircase after staircase. His temper won’t let him glance behind toward Merlin and it’s probably better he doesn’t, it’ll look more like normal if he doesn’t seem to care about the slave who is trailing behind and struggling to keep up. He wants to ask if Merlin is all right, if he’s not too sore from last night, but he can’t find space for the words inside this fucking pretence they’re maintaining.

It’s not until he’s well into the caverns that he slows his pace and waits at a corner, torch in hand, for Merlin to catch up. When he does, the sorcerer’s eyes are wide. “What?” Arthur asks.

He hesitates.

Merlin.”

“Just um, you’re not bringing me down here to um, chop my head off in private or lock me up for a thousand years or anything like that, are you?”

Arthur rolls his eyes and starts walking again. He is absolutely not going to smile.

“Well you must admit, it doesn’t look good,” Merlin argues, hurrying behind. Arthur snags another torch and hands it over as he continues, “Oh, you’re magical, righto, why don’t you come on a lovely long tour of my dark, spacious, sinister dungeons.”

“I’ve plans for you that don’t involve beheadings, Merlin,” Arthur says, just to watch him flush and bite back a smile. But now that they’re talking his curiosity is roused. “Have you – always?”

“Had magic?” Merlin slants a look at Arthur and nods. “Yes. Since I was a baby, Mum says. Apparently I levitated things when I was in my crib.” He hesitates, eyeing Arthur, but he just nods Merlin to continue, and the lad’s shoulders relax, words burbling out of him now.

“I can start fire and control it, move things around by thinking about it. Make things appear and disappear. And I froze time once, though that was mostly an accident.”

Arthur blinks. Merlin says these things like other people might say I can juggle and repair armour, but Arthur has done enough reading since Uther died to know just how very, very rare a talent is standing at his side.

Merlin, of all people. Suddenly he very badly wants to laugh.

“But I don’t know many spells, I just-” he shrugs and wiggles his fingers and this time Arthur does snort. “Actually...”

“Yes?” He pauses and waits. That had been a loaded word.

“I, um. Found a spell book. In the library.”

“In the library?” Arthur almost stumbles, shakes his head. Geoffrey’s lucky his father never discovered it. The blame would have been his no matter where the book came from.

“Well. It was hidden, sort of. Propping up some shelves.”

He nods, already seeing where this is going. “And where is it now?”

“I might have… brought it back to your chambers?” Merlin says, his voice going up at the end like it’s a question, and Arthur sighs.

“Of course you did.” He shakes his head and starts walking again. “Well, for the moment you’re probably safest either to use it in my chambers with the door locked, or go to the library when Geoffrey’s not there. It’s tucked away enough to be reasonably private.” And then they’re at the top of the stairs.

Merlin falls silent, and right. Fair enough. This descent makes Arthur’s flesh creep, too, and he’s done it a dozen times and knows what’s waiting at the bottom.

“When my father was near the end,” he takes the steps slowly, not enjoying the echo of his words in his ears, “he was very weak. I don’t know if it was guilt, or a wish for understanding… whatever it was, he was hemorrhaging secrets, couldn’t keep a single thing to himself anymore.”

Arthur has to take several deep breaths before he can go on, most of those secrets were horribly painful, and left everyone involved feeling like they’d been flayed alive. Merlin falls in at his side, shoulders bumping, and the warmth helps enough that he can go on.

“It’s how I found out about the circumstances of my birth,” he added. “Which he had never intended to tell me. And about what he’d hidden down here.”

He catches Merlin’s hand in his for a moment, feels the long, clever fingers flare in surprise when Arthur presses his lips to the soft skin on impulse. Then he lets go and steps forward, only for those fingers to close around his wrist and pull him back.

“Wait,” Merlin says, very soft. “You forgot something.” And then he kisses Arthur, gentle and slow and thorough. When it ends Arthur keeps his eyes closed and just breathes, ignoring the cold damp cave-smell and inhaling Merlin instead.

He steps back without another word, though, just runs his thumb over Merlin’s bottom lip and turns to step through the archway at the bottom.

“Welcome to Camelot’s secret prison,” he says, “and its longest-held prisoner.”

Merlin ducks through the archway, eyes wide, going wider as he sees how immense the cavern is, the long gash of it cutting from side to side as well as up and down.

He takes a few deep breaths, then glances at Arthur. “But- who?” he asks.

“You’ll see,” Arthur says, pushing his torch into the sand and leaning back against the wall. “He likes to make a dramatic entrance.”

“Hello, young warlock,” the dragon says, and Merlin’s eyes go really very extremely wide as he turns and takes in the breathtaking sight. The beast backwings gently, making the torches flare, and settles on his usual rocky outcrop with a small clatter of loose stones. Arthur’s never yet heard one hit bottom.

“Oh.” Merlin says. “Um.”

He darts a wild glance sideways at Arthur, then says, “Hullo,” with a little wave.

Arthur covers his mouth with his hand to hide the smile. Only Merlin.

“I have waited a long time for you, Merlin.”

“Oh,” Merlin says again. “He knows my name,” he murmurs very softly, then takes a short sharp breath and says, “S-sorry I’m late?”

The dragon laughs, and Arthur rolls his eyes. He’s never gotten a laugh out of the accursed beast.

“You’re um, a dragon,” Merlin says, and this time Arthur snorts. “An actual. A dragon. A real dragon.” He possibly would have continued in this vein for quite some time if the beast hadn’t interrupted, showing a great deal more patience than Arthur had ever received. Bloody magical favouritism.

“And you are Albion’s last, best hope.”

“No,” Merlin said with great certainty, “I’m not anyone, I mean, I’m just a bit magic but I’m not- Arthur’s the-”

“He is the Once and Future King,” the dragon replied. “Or he will be, now that he’s made the vital choice.”

“Wait a minute,” Arthur says, straightening. “Merlin was the choice? When you said my destiny was within my grasp you actually meant fucking literally within my grasp in my bloody chambers the entire time?”

He’d achieved quite a lot of volume by the time he got to the end, has stepped right to the edge of the ridge, hand on his sword hilt by instinct. A warm hand on his arm draws him back and he sucks in a harsh breath because like an avalanche it is suddenly hitting him, how much more Merlin had been suffering than Arthur had ever understood.

Added to Merlin’s very real injuries was the insult of knowing full well how easily he could have dispatched Kanen and protected himself. Every instant he’d struggled under Kanen’s hands, even as he’d been pushed to his knees by Agravaine, Merlin must have been raging at being so helpless, so fucking helpless, through sheer bad luck. The sudden loss of a power he’d known his whole life must have been like a knife to the gut.

If not for the cold iron restraints. Arthur swallows back bile and spins away.

Merlin could have prevented every assault with a single word. Would never have had to suffer Kanen’s brutal attentions, if Arthur had only had the courage to take off those bloody manacles that first day-

His breath catches and he falls back against rough stone, suddenly sickened. “Why didn’t you just tell me,” he grates out. He can’t look at Merlin. “If you’d just told me he was magic I would have removed the restraints and-”

“I do not serve the will of the house of Pendragon,” the beast retorts, icy.

“And you’re apparently not on Merlin’s side either you overgrown fucking lizard,” he shouts back, completely beyond control. “Do you have any idea what he’s gone through because-”

“Because you kept him in shackles, young Prince. Not I. It is what Pendragons do, after all.” There’s a lick of flame around the words and then suddenly Merlin is there between them.

“Okay,” he says, hands out like he’s keeping two squabbling children apart. “Enough. That’s a conversation that’s never going to get anywhere. What’s done is done. Neither of you intended for me to be hurt, and I’ve survived just fine, and now I have my magic back, so-”

He glances back at Arthur. “Can we move on from this?” Softer, he adds, “Arthur. Please?”

Arthur stares back, fury still bubbling deep down. But he swallows and steps back until he’s beside the stairs. He’ll never admit it in front of that beast, but he knows full well where the blame for this lies. “I should go.” Merlin’s eyes widen in dismay. “I’ve served my purpose, I think, in bringing you two together. The Council is gathering for the announcement, so I’ll just.”

“Arthur.”

“Enjoy the endless fucking riddles,” Arthur says, waving a hand. “He’s utterly incapable of answering a question.” And he snatches up the torch and strides through the archway.

As he starts up the stairs, sorcerer and dragon speak at the same time.

“I think I dreamed of you.”

None of us can choose our destiny, Merlin. And none of us can escape it.”

He is thinking of those words as he climbs, knowing that Uther’s twenty year old Royal Decree making magic illegal is to be declared null that day, under the seal of Arthur, Crown Prince of Camelot. Perhaps this is his true destiny, to unravel everything his father had wrought.

He lets out a long breath as he reaches the main level, returns to his rooms long enough to change into a formal tunic and a Pendragon cloak, and then makes his way to the Great Hall. The Council have gathered to mark the historic occasion.

Agravaine, eyes cold, drifts past Arthur in the crowd, talking calmly of the importance of protecting one’s family, especially those dependent on one’s goodwill, and it takes every ounce of control Arthur has to pretend he doesn’t understand the threat buried in those words.

Morgana. He swallows hard while Lord Carson blathers on about momentous occasions and winds of change. It will be all right. Leon had shared his doubts but what choice had they had?

It went against everything he had to entrust this task to others, but if he had ridden out himself, or sent any of the knights, Agravaine would have known, and acted. It had to be this way, he tells himself, and tries not to focus on the hollow feeling in his gut. It will be all right.

It has to be.

 

* * *

 

The Council’s mid-morning gathering to mark the announcement is interrupted by the remnants of Kanen’s men who arrive, ragged, bruised and furious.

Merlin has dragged himself away from the dragon with difficulty, and walks back up to the main part of the keep in a daze. Arthur had been right, there wasn’t a whole lot of actual information handed over, but the sheer existence of a dragon was fogging his brain, on top of feeling the magic within him again. He’d giggle, if he wasn’t so stunned.

When he sees Kanen’s men ride into the courtyard, though, everything clears suddenly. He hurries down to the kitchen and offers to carry a tray of beer up to the Great Hall. And so he gets to hear it firsthand, though he’s at the back of the room and can’t make eye contact with the Prince.

He was killed in a bar brawl, Arthur reports to the assembled Council, in a seaside town near the border. His voice is calm and cool and without expression. He raises his eyes to his uncle, and tenders his regrets without blinking.

Merlin stares across the room at Leon, who is watching the faces of the various servants scattered around. They clearly show their relief at the news and Leon’s face is set, eyes blazing as he watches two of the maids clasp hands briefly. One is visibly shaking at the reprieve.

Merlin lets out a long, shaky breath, and when Leon looks his way he nods once, in acknowledgement. Leon’s eyes narrow, measuring, and then Merlin receives a single nod in return before the knight turns on his heel and leaves.

Merlin hands off the last of his beer and follows as far as a convenient window, watches Leon slip through the gates and disappear into the lower town. When he checks, he finds that Berd and his dogs are back in the kennels, but nowhere is there a sight of the burly man who had accompanied him. He heads back up to Arthur’s rooms only to find the Prince has already returned, changed into his training clothes and headed down to join the other knights. Leon has joined them, alone.

Of course, Merlin thinks, staring out the window at the training grounds, they won’t want Kanen’s men to see him. Whoever he is.

 

Chapter Text

 

Arthur seeks Merlin out once training is finished. He’s well past pretending that’s not what he’s doing, and he wants to know how the news of Kanen’s death has affected the other man. Wants to tell him about Morgana, about what Arthur is going to do next.

He just – he wants to see Merlin.

Once he’s checked his own rooms, he goes to Gaius’ chambers. The physician tells him readily enough that Merlin had stopped by to earlier for a talk, going on to the library after. Arthur hesitates for a moment, wondering about 'the talk', if Gaius knows about the magic, about the book of spells. It’s obvious Gaius likes Merlin, what's not obvious is just not sure how much of Uther’s attitudes the older man absorbed over all those years of service.

“Yes,” he says, careful, “I think he will need to spend a considerable amount of time in the library for the forseeable future.”

Gaius smiles, and Arthur lets out a breath. He knows, then.

“Some study will be required, yes.” he replies, “Knowledge is always worth pursuing, sire. But some things…” he shakes his head, and for a moment they just look at each other, share their silent amazement at what Merlin can do.  The sheer power of him, contained in that self-effacing boy. “Some things simply cannot be taught.”

“I imagine so,” he says, half-turning to go. He’s impatient to get there-

“I understand Kanen was killed in a bar brawl, sire,” Gaius voice reaches him at the door.

He glances back, hand gripping the wood. His heart kicks in his chest at the reminder, “Yes. That was the report we received.”

There’s another long look, and then Gaius says, acid, “I’m sure his absence will be noticed by everyone in the castle.”

“Yes,” Arthur replies in kind, “How ever shall we replace him.” And he goes.

Just before the door closes he hears, “I imagine a mad dog would do the trick.”

He half-jogs up the stairs, down the corridor and only slows when the door is within sight. He can’t run to Merlin’s side like an overeager puppy. Not where Merlin can see, anyway. Instead he pushes the door open gently – there’s no creaking hinges, Geoffrey is far too prissy to allow such a travesty, though he can’t quite win against the dust – and steps inside. There’s still enough daylight for him to make out Merlin, crouched over the book at the far side of the room, muttering to himself. Arthur steps forward on silent feet, an unwilling smile tugging at his mouth.

He stops behind Merlin and lets both his hands come to rest either side of his neck, his shoulders must be sore from-

He is flung backwards so hard it’s like being kicked by a horse. There’s no time to shout, but a solid oof flies out of him as his back slams against the wall, quickly followed by his head.

Don’t TOUCH me,” he hears, dimly, and then, a quavering, “Arthur?”

He opens his eyes and there’s a startling moment of what the hell was that before he realizes that he is staring down at Merlin from far above the ground. He blinks, lets the knowledge settle in that he is pinned to the wall, directly beneath the ceiling, a full ten feet or more from the ground.

“Arthur,” Merlin gasps again, horrified, and stares up at him, golden-eyed, from his sprawl. Merlin’s own reaction must have been violent enough to knock over the bench, books are scattered and some of the shelves have collapsed beside him. The room looks like it’s been through a storm.

He can’t speak. Can’t turn his head. He is pinioned, utterly helpless, at a spot far too high for his liking.

“Oh G- Arthur,” Merlin says again, scrambling to his feet. He waves a hand wildly and Arthur can move again, feels himself slide down the wall just slightly and grits his teeth knowing what’s about to happen, but Geoffrey’s desk is moving, sliding and it slams against the wall just as Arthur drops.

He lets his knees fold through the impact and ends up on hands and knees on the desk, thankful that the workmanship proved itself worthy at a key moment. Then he just breathes.

He can hear movement, knows it’s Merlin wading through books and furniture to his side, and then a pale, shaking hand appears in his vision.

“Arthur?” he says for the twentieth time, “oh Gods, I’m so – I’m so, so sorry. Arthur.”

He raises his head a little and drops back onto his haunches. Swallows hard before he speaks. “It’s… all right. I’m all right.”

“It’s not all right,” Merlin says, wretched. “Are you hurt?”

“No,” he says. “I’m not hurt.” But if he lives to be an old man he is never going to forget the way Merlin’s voice had sounded when he’d said don’t touch me.

Merlin’s hand reaches out but he slides off the desk on the opposite side as if he hadn’t seen. The hand curls into a fist.

The silence that falls is prickling with tension, and Arthur has a brief flare of self-directed anger how could I think it would be so easy before he lifts his head and looks at Merlin and says, “Are you all right?”

Merlin’s laugh is ugly. “Am I- yes. I’m - all right.”

No, Merlin, you’re not, Arthur thinks, slightly sick and suddenly very weary. “I shouldn’t have taken you unawares like that,” he says, instead of I would kill them all for you, slowly and with great pleasure. Or even the more honest, I shouldn’t have taken you, not in any sense.

“I don’t know what happened,” Merlin says helplessly. “I don’t-”

“It’s good to know you can protect yourself,” Arthur says, then winces. Stupid thing to say. Merlin could have protected himself right from the start, if it weren’t for the colossal piece of bad luck that had put cold iron restraints in Kanen’s hands.

“I don’t need to protect myself from you,” Merlin says, and Arthur takes a definite step back.

“Actually, Merlin, if you’ll recall, you do,” he says, and touches a finger to his lip, a reminder. “I’m not always a benevolent master.”

“You’re not my bloody master at all,” Merlin fires back, and he’s frowning. He takes a step forward. “Arthur. That was – you do know that was an accident. I’m not afraid of you, I didn’t know-”

“I know that, Merlin,” he manages a smile.

“It’s just – Kanen. Knowing he’s dead, it’s, I thought it would be- it should help, but instead I’ve just been thinking about him all day-”

“You don’t have to explain yourself, Merlin,” Arthur says, tired. “I understand.”

“No,” he says, and takes another step forward, “Arthur, you don’t. Or you wouldn’t be backing away from me.”

“It’s not that. It's - I have to go,” he lies, and summons up one of his carefully even smiles, “Leon’s expecting me. I just wanted to see how your studies were coming along.” He swallows, still trying to shed the feeling of being pinned, like an insect, splayed out against stone walls. “Clearly you’re progressing well.”

Please don’t go,” Merlin says, hands clenched together. “I know I must seem like a monster-”

“No,” he says, low and swift. “Merlin, you don’t. Not- never to me. You understand?” And he takes a deep breath, knowing the other man deserves better than this but he’s barely holding together his instinctive reaction to what just happened. He steps forward. “I’m not afraid of you, Merlin, or of what you can do.”

Merlin is biting his lip, staring down at his hands.

“Look at me. Merlin.” The sorcerer takes a deep breath and raises his head. His eyes are wet. “Look at me and tell me what you see. Am I afraid?”

When he lets out a long, shaky breath, Arthur’s fists clench. “No,” he says finally. “No, you’re not afraid.”

“That’s right.” He keeps his tone soft, “I know who you are Merlin, and there’s never been a man less like a monster. All right?”

“But you’re still leaving.”

“Yes,” Arthur says. He licks his lips and forces himself to say the rest. “I think- I think I was right to have doubts, last night. I think things would be better if I had – resisted. You’re not ready for what happened.”

No. I wanted-”

“I know you did, Merlin, we both did. But wanting something doesn’t mean you’re ready.” He takes a long, controlled breath. “I think you should – sleep in Gaius’ quarters for a while.”

Merlin’s eyes widen, “No-”

“Just for a while.”

“Arthur, it was a mistake but I swear- please don’t get rid of-”

“No-one is getting rid of anyone, Merlin,” he manages to choke out. “Believe me. But I think you need some time for yourself.”

Merlin opens his mouth to argue, but when his eyes search Arthur’s face he subsides. The tears are still there, though. “What will everyone – people will-”

“The entire castle is abuzz with the news of Kanen’s death,” he says, “this will hardly register.” For a while, anyway. Perhaps Gaius can come up with a reason – bad back or something, perhaps – for having Merlin in his chambers. The lad might even get to see his mother again.

“Will you – can I still bring you your meals?” he asks, plaintive, and Arthur smiles without meaning to. The stone lodged in his throat won’t move, but for Merlin’s sake he makes an effort.

“Yes,” he says. “If you’re good, I’ll even let you empty the chamber pot.”

 

* * *

 

Merlin watches Arthur that night, as he picks aimlessly at his plate, sips at his wine, leg jittering under the table and his eyes ablaze. Merlin’s mind is running wildly in twenty directions, and it’s easier to focus on Arthur than himself. Or on what he did today, in the library.

So he watches Arthur, and the words slip out in precisely the same moment the idea forms in his head. You’ve found her.”

Arthur’s eyes fly to his. “What did you say?”

Merlin is frozen, eyes wide as he stares at Arthur. “Nothing,” he says automatically. “Um.”

The Prince sinks slowly back in his chair, watching. “Your leaps of intuition are almost magical, Merlin,” he says, and the sly joke would help if it didn’t sound like he was playing for an audience they don’t have. The quiet intimacy that was smashed the moment Merlin attacked Arthur with magic.

But Arthur’s body is unnaturally still, like a wolf about to spring and he’s not sure why, apart from the nervous flutter of he’s afraid of me. He replies carefully, feeling his way, “I haven’t- said anything. I wouldn’t-”

“I know that, Merlin,” he says, cranky, and the cold iron around Merlin’s chest disappears. “I was planning on telling you anyway. But if there’s talk below stairs, something that might cause my uncle to suspect-”

No,” he shakes his head, hasty. “I promise. I just, I hear the servants talk about,” he hesitates and swallows before he says, “Morgana, how she disappeared after the King’s death. I’ve heard you and Leon planning and I just, I guessed. Honestly, the only thing I’ve seen that anyone else might have noticed was the day Kanen left.”

Arthur sits up. “And what did you see?” He waves Merlin into a chair, impatient.

He sits. Hesitates. “Sir Leon. He signaled three men. They rode out half an hour behind Kanen on some of your horses, with your dogs following.” Of course, it had taken Merlin over a week to realize that Kanen was probably connected to the lady Morgana’s disappearance.

“The dogs tracked Kanen, didn’t they. To where she’s being held.”

The Prince shakes his head, a slow smile appearing on his face.

“They tracked him, and then-”

Arthur lets out a slow breath. He eyes Merlin but stays silent, and Merlin stares back, letting him see what he knows. It was no bar brawl, and I’m glad he’s dead.

For a long time, Merlin thinks they’re finished, and then Arthur says, “It was not done-” He stops abruptly, fist clenching on the table. With a quick breath he pushes to his feet and storms to the window. Merlin rises too, confused, and then he grinds out, “I will go to my grave regretting he did not die at my hand.”

Merlin stares, wide-eyed. Arthur is shaking with rage. “Arthur,” he says, involuntary, and Arthur flinches, turns his face away.

Merlin puts out a hand to steady himself and touches stone, warmed by the fireplace. Arthur is a warrior. Arthur is honourable. Arthur is protective of his people. Merlin sighs, suddenly realizing what the Prince must have meant when he told Leon I don’t like it any more than you do, but it’s the only way.

“I was in the Great Hall today when we got the news,” he says, as calmly as he can. “And I saw the faces of the maids there.” He swallows, “I went down to the kitchen, and one of the young lads from the stables – he was crying, sire, with relief. No-one even knew Kanen had been near him.”

Arthur’s head turns just enough to show he’s listening.

“Tomorrow I can walk the castle corridors without feeling sick to my stomach. You gave up your own satisfaction to make them safe. To make me safe.”

“I gave up my honour, Merlin,” he says, bleak. “I arranged an assassination like some upstart warlord who knows neither code nor-”

No, sire, you didn’t,” Merlin burst out. “You are trying to protect everyone around you, you’re trapped in the middle of a spider’s web-”

Arthur’s head snaps around and he is staring at Merlin, utterly bemused. “I don’t understand you, Merlin. I don’t understand how you can possibly find it in your heart to care what I do or why.” He takes a long slow breath and says slowly, “I don’t understand why you would ever defend me, when I’m the one who left you in those restraints for so long.”

Merlin swallows, unmanned by the open look in Arthur’s eyes. He could go silent again, let it lie. But there’s something vulnerable, a question being asked that he can’t ignore.

They watch each other in silence and finally he says, “Power is – it’s easily abused.” Once, Arthur might have laughed at the idea of his bedwarmer having the slightest idea of what true power means. But Merlin knows what he is talking about, has felt rage at a village bully gather in his fingertips and understood with deadly certainty I could end your existence with a thought.

“I know what it’s like to be tempted,” he says, and Arthur gives one small nod at that.

“Someone in your position, Arthur, can indulge themselves without restraint. I’ve been on the receiving end of power used cruelly, or for selfish means. But you-” he licks his lips and looks away, at his hand pressed flat against the stone. “You use your position in the same way you use your fighting skills. To protect others.”

He waits, but Arthur says nothing, and finally he turns his head to meet the Prince’s eyes. “You can’t wish Kanen dead more than I do. I know what it’s like to dream of killing him.” The moment trembles between them.

“But how he died doesn’t matter, Arthur. That’s what you knew, when you made your plans. You did what was necessary, and – this is the real difference – you did it to protect others, not yourself.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Merlin clears away Arthur’s dinner tray and then hesitates. This would be so simple, if he hadn’t messed things up in the library this afternoon. He would take the tray back to the kitchens, and then return to curl up in Arthur’s bed, exchanging lazy kisses until lazy didn’t suit them anymore.

But now.

Arthur, too, seems to have suddenly realized the situation, and he is standing, awkward, caught between the table and the bed.

“I don’t want to sleep in Gaius’ rooms,” Merlin says, very quietly. “It smells of rue and mustard there.” And not of you.

Arthur’s eyes close. “You need some time to yourself, Merlin.”

“I can sleep on my pallet,” he offers. “You won’t even know I’m here.”

“I think we both know exactly how long that state of affairs would last,” Arthur says, and gives Merlin a wry look.

Right.

“It’s not so bad,” Arthur whispers. “Just for a while. Just until-”

“Until what?” Merlin says, stepping closer. “What do I have to do to prove that I’m all right?”

“Merlin,” Arthur says thickly, “tell me honestly, would you have touched me last night if not for my uncle’s threats?”

And just like that, he’s caught. “I.” He bites his lip, wanting badly to lie.

Arthur’s face is calm, but there’s a river of pain running underneath and Merlin badly wants to hit something, not a common impulse for him. Thinking back to his reaction in the library today, he suddenly has the grim feeling that Arthur might be onto something. Now that he has his power back, well.

Magic and panic, magic and rage – it’s an extremely bad combination. He lets out a strangled half-sob and looks over at Arthur, pleading.

“It’s all right,” Arthur says, very soft. And he takes a step forward, then two. His hand comes up to stroke over Merlin’s face. “You’ve been through a lot, Merlin. Cut off from your magic, threats around every corner. You should give yourself a little time, time to feel safe again.”

“I always feel safe with you,” he whispers, and Arthur winces.

“But I’m not always safe to be around, Merlin,” he manages, low, and Merlin hates himself for making Arthur think of the madness now, on top of everything else. He leans in until their foreheads are pressed together. “This will be good for you. Study your magic, talk to Gaius, perhaps see your mother again.”

Merlin shakes his head, lips pressed together hard. It feels like something is being stolen, right out of his chest. But this is Arthur, who always does what’s right. He takes a deep breath, reaches out with his senses and lets his magic sink into the walls, the floor, the air itself. He wants to leave something of himself in this room, cradling Arthur.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” Arthur whispers, and gives him a little push. “Now go on.”

Merlin stumbles back to Gaius quarters, and only as he steps through the door does he realize he didn’t even kiss Arthur goodnight.

Idiot.

He takes a heavy breath, miserable and confused.

“Merlin, are you all right, my boy?” The physician looks up from where he’s tending the fire.

He shoots a sidelong glance at Gaius and shrugs helplessly, leans back against the door as it closes. “I don’t know,” he says. “I really don’t know, Gaius.”

The older man nods, watchful, and motions Merlin to sit. He slides onto a bench opposite Merlin’s side of the table and after a moment says, “I …understand you were required to visit the slaver’s physician today.”

Merlin shoots him a quick, hunted look. “Yes,” he says, glum. He can only imagine what stories are doing the rounds now. Well, actually – probably nothing new. Except that now, of course, they’re true. He can feel the blood rush to his face.

“Is there anything you wish to tell me?” Gaius asked, in his slow, measured way.

“Not really,” Merlin says, face hot.

Gaius nods, unsurprised. “I have no wish to pry, my boy. Though, Merlin, please believe me when I tell you that I’ve been a physician for over twenty years, there is nothing that surprises me anymore, and nothing… nothing that could make me turn away from you, you understand.” Merlin swallows as he goes on, “But, I do wonder… if there is some – other reason why Arthur asked me to take you in.”

Merlin bends his head and starts scratching at the table with this thumbnail. As an afterthought, he releases the manacles and lets them fall to the table. Gaius just waits, hands folded. “He said- he wanted me to feel safe.”

“Safe… from him? Has he-”

No,” he says sharply, glancing up. “He hasn’t- nothing I didn’t want-” and he ducks his head, miserably embarrassed, but forces himself to say, “But he probably thinks – oh Gods,” he covers his head with his hands and tells the table-top, “This afternoon, in the library, he- he surprised me and I attacked him.”

“Oh. Oh dear.”

“With magic.”

“I see.” He sits back, thoughtful as ever. “But he is- he was not hurt.”

Merlin shakes his head. “I threw him across the room, but no. Just some bruises. It could have been so much worse, though.”

“And Arthur suggested-”

“He thinks it’s because– because of Kanen,” he finishes doggedly.

“Ah.” Gaius lets it lie for a moment. “And is it?”

Merlin’s mouth trembles. He bites his lip, then nods. He lowers his hands to the table, sees their shaking and is abruptly furious. “I wish I’d killed him,” he hisses, “I wish I’d stopped his heart or cut his throat or buried him alive-”

“I know,” Gaius lays a hand over his, strong and warm, “I know, my boy, I know. You are not the only one who wished to see that man removed from this earth.” The hand squeezes, hard, and they sit in silence for a long time, the crackling of the fire the only sound.

“Arthur. He. He doesn’t want me to come back until. I’m better.”

“Then I think you should take his advice, Merlin.”

“But I miss him,” he says, and this time he doesn’t care what he’s showing.

“And I’m sure he misses you,” Gaius said. “It’s obvious to me you have become good friends, despite everything. You are important to one another, you’ve become used to being always together, and in many ways that is a great thing. But I think Arthur may have a point about you needing some time to yourself, Merlin. You will see him again, after all, in only a few hours.”

Merlin sighs and nods and tries to be grateful for the advice.

He takes himself off to the narrow bed in the upstairs room and, to his surprise, falls deeply asleep almost instantly. When he awakens, it is the early hours of the morning, still and cold and quiet, and he spends time curled beneath the blankets, letting the events of the past few months tick through his mind.

He’s angry. Some part of him will always be angry about what happened on the road to Camelot, he supposes. It shouldn’t have happened, not to him, not to anyone. But watching that stableboy crying yesterday, seeing relief slacken the faces of the maids…

He’s not alone. And he thinks, thinks that maybe, he will take the time today to visit that boy. Sit in the stables amongst the fragrant hay, brush down Arthur’s horses and then break open a warm loaf of bread stolen from the kitchen. They don’t have to talk about it. But Merlin can share the silence, at least.

He rolls onto his back and stares up at the ceiling, letting his thoughts drift to other, sharper losses. Outside, the rain starts, slow pits and pats at first until there’s a steady drum of sound.

“I miss you, Will,” he finally says into the dark. “I miss you all the time.”

 

***

 

“Arthur,” he says quietly, when the Prince shows signs of stirring. He doesn’t want to alarm the man, wants to see him ease quietly awake the way he so rarely does. The rain hasn’t let up since Merlin awakened, there’ll be no training this morning, there’s no Council meeting scheduled, Arthur can relax, for once.

“Mmm.”

“It’s me,” he shifts just a little, glad that he’d stolen a pillow before he sat down. The stone is cold, and he’s been here long enough for his knees to stiffen. He glances down, remembers, and silently releases the shackles, puts them to the side.

“Mm.”

“I missed you.”

“Hm,” this time it’s accompanied by a smile, so the words are getting through, at least.

Merlin rests his chin on the edge of the bed, content to wait. Another minute, perhaps, and then Arthur’s blue eyes are revealed, a sliver at a time. He smiles without thinking about it, sees an answering smile on the Prince’s face. For a moment they just watch one another, then Merlin bites his lip. He doesn’t want to forget what he came here for, doesn’t want any more secrets between them. Being Merlin, of course, he jumps straight in.

“There’s something I want to tell you, something you should know. It’s not bad,” he adds hastily when Arthur’s face changes, “nothing bad. But. It’s important and I just realized that you probably don’t remember, or-“

“Merlin, what is it.” He reaches out two patient fingers to rest on Merlin’s lips. “You can tell me.”

He blinks, memory coming in a burst of warmth. He parts his lips just slightly to kiss the pads of Arthur’s fingers, eyes fixed on the other man’s face. “Does this – do you remember this at all?”

Arthur is frozen, brow wrinkling as he stares at Merlin’s mouth.

“The other night,” Merlin can feel heat flooding his face, “it wasn’t um, exactly our first time- well, for some things, but.”

“What are you- Merlin.” Arthur’s face is blank, and he begins to draw his fingers back.

Merlin shakes his head and catches Arthur’s wrist. “Don’t.” He draws Arthur’s fingers back into his mouth, their eyes locked, and sucks lightly, feeling his heart begin a quick, steady thud.

“Do you remember this?” he whispers. “Do you remember me? How I-“ he licks his lips, aroused and yet embarrassed to be saying it aloud, “how I tasted?”

Arthur pushes up onto one elbow, staring at Merlin, eyes wide. “That was-”

Merlin nods, nips at a finger and watches Arthur’s eyes darken.

“But-”

“It was the most incredible thing that’s ever happened to me,” he says, voice low. Damned if he is going to let Arthur feel even a second’s guilt or hesitation over that night. “I couldn’t believe it, wanted you so badly and then when you did-”

Arthur is frowning, breath coming faster as he tries to remember. “We were …sleeping.”

You were sleeping. I was awake. Awake, and hard, and aching,” he says, and hmm, embarrassment seems to have vanished, now he’s just watching the colour flood Arthur’s face and throat in a slow tide, working its way down his torso the more Merlin speaks.

“I was watching you, you were waking up, like you were just a minute ago,” he turns his mouth into Arthur’s palm and breathes gently across it, feels Arthur’s arm twitch. “I was scared you’d feel me, that you’d be disgusted-“

“No, never,” Arthur breathes.

“-but when you opened your eyes…” Merlin wraps his fingers around Arthur’s wrist - tugs it just enough to let his thumb rest against Merlin’s lips. “You weren’t disgusted.”

“I remember how it felt. I remember I liked it,” Arthur chokes out, watches as Merlin lets the tip of his tongue flicker over Arthur’s thumb, then give one deliberate lick, just the way it happened that night. “Oh hell,” and then Merlin parts his lips, draws Arthur’s thumb into his mouth and sucks, hard, just the way-

Fuck,” Arthur manages, his free hand pressing down on his erection as he pants and pants, staring at Merlin like he holds all the answers.

“I wanted to scream,” Merlin pulls back, and his voice is shaking, “I felt like I was going to burst out of my skin because there was so much and I couldn’t hold it all-”

“Oh by all the Gods, Merlin,” Arthur says, and falls back against the mattress, claps a hand over his eyes, other hand pressing over his erection while his hips move restlessly over the sheets. “We have to- we’re not supposed to- just wait-”

Merlin swallows, shakes his head, finally lets himself touch his own cock, weeping inside his trousers. “Can’t. Don’t want to wait-”

“This wasn’t-”

“We can- we can still-“ he begins, desperate.

“Merlin.”

“It’s not breaking any rules,” he says, climbing onto the bed but keeping his distance, he backs up against the corner post. “I won’t touch you. You won’t touch me.”

“Oh bloody hell,” Arthur says, but he’s not arguing, he’s scooting back to make room, struggling wildly with his clothing and Merlin moans a little louder, watching all that skin come into view as his magic unravels the lacings of both their trousers.

“Arthur,” he says, helpless, his hand moving slowly at first, getting steadily faster.

“You are going to be the death of me, Merlin,” he mutters, finally getting his fist wrapped around the hard flesh, and his eyes flutter closed on a moan. “Fuck.”

“Don’t close your eyes,” Merlin manages. “I want to- to look- want you to-”

“Fuck,” Arthur says again, but he opens his eyes and stares up at Merlin from the pillow. His back arches and Merlin falls back against the bedpost, bites his lip.

“I’m close,” he pants. His eyes fall shut for a second. “Very close.”

“Yes.” It’s guttural.

He forces his eyes open and looks again, at the golden beautiful length of him, writhing on the bed. “Arthur.”

“Yes.”

And suddenly it’s not enough. Arthur’s mouth, red-bitten, is so lush and so tempting and so right there, and Merlin falls toward him, catches himself on one arm, hovering, gasping, and Arthur’s eyes widen.

“I won’t,” he says on a groan, rhythm unfaltering, “I won’t touch I just want, your mouth Arthur oh god your fucking perfect mouth please-”

“Yes, yes-”

Merlin’s arm gives way just enough and he falls on Arthur like a starving man, kissing open-mouthed and deep and wet and hot-

“I’m so close,” he gasps. “Oh Gods you are so, so-”

Arthur bites Merlin’s bottom lip and his world goes white, he cries out, broken, again, again, yes, Arthur, ohhh and then Arthur is moaning into his mouth, deep and rough until there’s nothing left and they are gasping, gasping, stealing breath from one another’s bodies, shuddering, shuddering, still.

Merlin catches himself just before his arm gives out completely, and manages to roll to one side, his hair tangling with Arthur’s. His body is a wasteland, nothing but the humming of pure pleasure, with the occasional deep throb that has him twitching again in memory.

“Oh,” he manages. Twitches again. “Ohh. That was.”

There’s more silence. Outside in the corridor the castle is beginning to come to life, sun beginning to show through the curtains, and Merlin could not care less.

Assassin,” Arthur finally says. It takes a few more breaths before he adds, “Magical bloody sex assassin. Definitely.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Agravaine’s reaction to Kanen’s death is bigger than Arthur had anticipated. Perhaps the other man can feel events spinning out of his control.

The knights maintaining control of the border patrols, that had annoyed him. The repeal of Uther’s magic ban had infuriated him. But this-

His uncle rarely shows obvious emotion, but Arthur has made a point of learning Agravaine, the few small signs he can’t control - and the man is furious. Standing off to the side of the small band of lords watching the squires spar, his thumbs are twitching, eyes constantly on the move. His eyes come back to Arthur constantly, watchful, as if waiting for something that refuses to occur.

It must be rage that makes him so very clumsy, Arthur thinks later.

“That one will have to learn to control his temper,” Hector is saying, with a nod at the husky lad on the left.

“It’s a salutary lesson,” Agravaine says, voice hard. “Speaking of, Arthur, that boy of yours had quite a few marks on him the other day. You should be more careful.”

He’s trying to embarrass Arthur, obviously. But something in Arthur is unbound, now. Ever since Merlin said his name, in the dark, voice shaking with need. Even now, seeing the smirks and the raised eyebrows, he feels strong and confident. Feels like himself. There’s a startled moment when he thinks, this is how it must feel to be King.

“He can bear it, uncle,” he says lazily. “But I must say I was surprised to understand you were actually there, in the room, for Merlin’s examination. You really have taken quite an interest in that boy of mine.”

Agravaine jerks, the only one to hear the savage undertone in Arthur’s words. His uncle hadn’t realized Merlin had seen him, then, watching from behind a screen. More fool him, for discounting the obvious intelligence in those blue eyes.

And now the raised eyebrows of the assembled crowd are directed at Agravaine.

“I wonder, uncle,” he goes on, tone deliberately delicate, and hesitates, making sure every set of ears is focused on their conversation. “I wonder if perhaps you shouldn’t seek a bedwarmer of your own.” And while Agravaine is still absorbing that, he adds, “There must be other pale, skinny lads lying around the castle that might take your fancy.”

Agravaine goes white with rage, and Arthur half-smiles, all sympathy, eyes still fixed on the squires. The snickering behind them gets louder when he says, musing, “Unless, of course - is it the ears? Because I must admit, they’re rather unique. I’m not sure you’d find a duplicate of that look anywhere in the kingdom. Still. It would be good for you to have – an outlet.

“I can assure you, Arthur-” he begins, voice shaking.

He raises a hand, “Oh, no, uncle, please. I’d never wish to invade your privacy, any arrangements you choose to make are completely your own. I simply worry that you’re not finding time to… relax.”

“This one’s going to be a force to be reckoned with,” Leon breaks in before Agravaine can respond. His voice rolls out across their small group - calm and pragmatic as ever, a perfect foil. He jerks his chin at the shaggy-haired boy stepping onto the field, and just like that the moment is broken.

Arthur doesn’t need to glance over to know Hector is covering his mouth with his hand, Leon biting the inside of his cheek. He holds back his own grin, and carries it inside him all day.

 

 

Merlin flings the door closed behind him with more force than strictly necessary and storms across the room. “Did you honestly ask Agravaine in front of the entire Council if he had a thing for my EARS?”

He stops. Too late, he sees that Sir Leon is propped against the far wall, his calm eyes on Merlin, one eyebrow raised.

Merlin’s eyes fly to Arthur, who folds his arms and raises his own eyebrows. He’s not fooled for even half a second. The Prince is laughing. He turns on his heel and closes the door very carefully.

“You were saying, Merlin?”

He grinds his teeth as he turns back. Sir Leon’s fingers cover his mouth, and Merlin shoots a quick glare his way for good measure.

Nothing.” He takes a deep breath. “Sire.”

Arthur actually grins at that. He leans forward, attention back on the papers in front of him. “But if it makes you feel any better, Merlin, I do believe I made it clear your ears were utterly unique.”

He lets out a hot breath of exasperation, hamstrung by the other knight’s presence, and is then utterly undone to hear the usually reserved Leon add, “The only pair of their kind in the kingdom, I believe you said, sire.”

He narrows his eyes at Arthur, who is biting his lip. But when he looks up, he takes a breath at the naked affection there. Right there, where Leon can see. “Merlin,” Arthur says, and he swallows.

“Yes, sire?”

“I wondered if you could trouble yourself to light the fire.”

He freezes, staring.

Light the fire. He hasn’t used flint to light the fire all week. Arthur is perfectly well aware of this. He stares steadily at Merlin, neither asking nor pushing, just… providing the opportunity.

He swallows, eyes flicking to Sir Leon. He likes the man. Arthur trusts him. In fact, honestly, Merlin trusts him. He’s one of the few knights who actively intervened to protect the servants from Kanen. And of course he’s part of the Morgana question, not that Arthur has had the time to tell Merlin much about it. And – magic isn’t illegal anymore, so…

He takes a deep breath, looking back at Arthur, who nods.

“Of course, sire,” he says, thankful he has more control now than he did a few days ago. Besides, these rooms are so soaked with Merlin’s magic by now, there are times when things get done before he’s even asked for it. Leaving a part of himself here, it makes him feel closer to Arthur. He turns his head to look across the room at the fireplace.

Leon doesn’t yell when it bursts into flames, but it’s a near thing. He startles back a pace, shoulders sliding along the stone wall, eyes wide and hands flying to his sword belt on instinct. Merlin meets his eyes, knowing the yellow glow is still visible, if fading.

He takes another breath, looks at Arthur, who is staring steadily back, then back at the fire. “Gods alive,” he breathes, “a bloody sorcerer.”

And then, suddenly, he laughs.

 

 

It’s an oddly lighthearted group, then, that makes its way into the town. “There’s someone I want you to meet,” is all Arthur will tell Merlin, and Leon just shrugs and wears his usual calm face as he follows, no help at all, really.

Merlin is reluctant, but not – as Arthur thinks – because of the shackles. Knowing he can remove them at any time has rendered them meaningless. It’s Arthur’s… Princeliness that makes Merlin twitchy. He’s never quite gotten used to it, the attention they gather when they leave the castle walls.

“I just find it odd that you’d take me to the blacksmith’s,” he says. “The weavers or something, that I’d understand.” He’d found it odd last time, too, that Arthur had dragged him down there and then left him by the door while he and Leon talked very quietly with Tom. At the time he’d assumed it was to keep him out of Agravaine’s way, but the incident with Meg and the magic had driven the question completely out of his head.

“I might need you to carry something,” Arthur says, then eyes Merlin doubtfully. “Something extremely light. And unbreakable.”

Merlin narrows his eyes at Arthur, while Leon smothers another laugh. He can’t do anything to the Prince, though, so he turns his head to the knight instead. “That’s a terrible cough you have there, Sir Leon,” he says sweetly, “I’ll ask Gaius to whip you up a very special potion as soon as we get back.”

“Don’t be mean, Merlin,” Arthur murmurs, and then they’re through the gates and in the town and opportunities for conversation are lost.

The townspeople turn toward Arthur like flowers following the sun. It’s not just his good looks and charisma, Merlin can see that, it’s the strength of him, the surety, the way he strides out as if the world will fall into line and become a better place or he will know the reasons why.

It’s not all pretty. There’s mutterings, mumblings, a few people sketching the evil eye for protection against the madness and the occasional titter of laughter. Arthur ignores it all and Merlin glares at the offenders, while Leon simply is – a sea of calm competence with violence implicit in every step.

They reach Tom’s forge and Merlin watches the change of expression on the blacksmith’s honest face. He’s not a man accustomed to pretence – or to Princes – but there’s also a hard set to his jaw Merlin hadn’t noticed the last time, lines of worry on his brow that never lift.

“My lords,” he greets Arthur and then Leon, nods to Merlin, the same even-handed recognition he’d received last time. He likes Tom.

“We’ve come to see that new sword you were working on, Tom,” Arthur says, and he nods.

“I’ve stored it inside the house, my lord,” he says, a bit too clearly, and Arthur claps him on the shoulder.

“Excellent, then show us to it.”

Tom nods, and they fall into step behind him. Leon, however, slows as they reach the door. Merlin stops in the doorway and glances back to see him carefully eyeing the street. He hesitates, then says softly, “Do we wish to be unobserved?”

Leon glances at him, startled, just as Arthur and Tom turn back, already on the other side of the small room. “Uh.”

“We do,” Arthur says, and lifts a brow at Merlin.

“I can do that,” he says, not sure if he needs permission, but when Arthur says nothing he lifts a hand and says, “Bewrēon.” The magic flares and he lets out a breath, still getting used to the feeling, still amazed at the control the right word gives him. “Okay, No-one can see or hear us.”

Leon hesitates, then waves a hand in front of a passer-by, who doesn’t even blink.

“It’s all right, Tom,” he hears Arthur saying, and Merlin glances back in time to realize the blacksmith was startled enough to stagger back, almost falling over the woodpile. Right. Camelot - death to the magicians. “Merlin’s on our side.”

He tries for a reassuring grin, but Tom just blinks at him and then says, “Right. Well.”

“Is he here?” Arthur asks.

“He is,” says a new voice, emerging from a shadowed doorway that probably leads to the communal midden out back.

It’s the stranger – the third man who’d ridden out after Kanen. Merlin draws a deep breath, feeling more pieces of the puzzle lock into place. “You,” he says, a bit too loudly. The newcomer raises a brow at Merlin, glances uncertainly at Arthur, and finally lets his eyes come to rest on Merlin’s wrists.

“You have an enslaved sorcerer doing your work for you?” The man takes a step back, voice suddenly rough and low.

“He’s-” Arthur begins, but Merlin just raises his hands and lets the shackles fall. It seems simpler, somehow.

The newcomer stops, frowning.

“We’re keeping my magic a secret,” Merlin says. “This is the easiest way for me to stay close to Arthur.” A second later he realizes he probably shouldn’t be making so free with Arthur’s name in public, but oddly enough, it seems to relax the stranger more. Leon, on the other hand, shifts at his side, uncomfortable.

The man is clearly hesitating, but Arthur ignores it. “Merlin,” he says, and waves a hand, “this is Gwaine. Gwaine, this is Merlin.”

“Good to meet you,” Merlin says. “I’ve been wondering who you are.”

Leon half-turns, definitely startled, and Merlin mutters, “Saw you in the courtyard that day, Sir Knight.”

Did you,” Leon says, thoughtful.

“Right,” Arthur says, clearly finished with pleasantries. “Now we’re getting to the difficult part.” He hesitates, then steps forward, “But first. I’d like to say. Gwaine. What you’ve done is a service that will never be forgotten. You’ve prevented the suffering of many people who could not protect themselves-”

“Yes, so you said,” Gwaine interrupts, clearly not overly concerned with protocol, or very impressed with Arthur. “Look, I watched the man before I decided anything, and like you said, he was a slimy toad and the world’s a better place without him in it. He was in a whorehouse when I took care of him, and even there he’d manhandled the goods past bearing. So if we can just skip the thanks and get to what comes next, I’d appreciate it. I’m not exactly angling for a title, so you can keep your royal recognition. I want to finish the job I started and move on.”

Arthur eyes him for a moment, amused rather than annoyed. “I see that temper of yours is still standing you in good stead.”

“It’s got me this far,” he retorts, and crosses his arms over his chest.

Leon shakes his head but reaches inside his tunic for a parchment, and the five of them gather around Tom’s rough table to stare down at it. The small windows don’t give much light, even in daytime, and without thinking Merlin mutters, “Fromum feohgiftum.”

Everyone startles back as a small ball of glowing light appears in his hand.

“A bit of warning, Merlin?” Arthur asks mildly, and drops his hand away from his sword.

“Right,” he says, “sorry.” But he gives the ball a little push and it floats above their heads, lighting the map.

Leon lets out a long, slow breath.

“The dogs tracked Kanen to this part of the coast, before they lost his trail.” Arthur says, pointing. “Now.” He shoots a lightning glance at Leon and manages not to wince when he says, “Camelot’s steward tells me his supplier of gold thread has taken two large shipments to this village in the past six months. Someone is doing,” he closes his eyes for a moment, “embroidery there, a lot of it.”

“But the village itself is tiny,” Gwaine says, frowning. “They almost didn’t have enough room for the three of us and the dogs.

“So they couldn’t be kept there, not for this long. Not without being noticed.”

“So… we still don’t know where they are?” Tom folds his arms across his chest.

Arthur points. “Except - the librarian found us an older map. There used to be a castle nearby. Part of it could still be standing, and I think that’s where he’s keeping them.”

“You’re sure… they’re unharmed, sire?”

Arthur looks the blacksmith in the eye. “I swear to you, I’ve no reason to think my uncle has harmed them in any way. If I thought they were in danger, I’d have ridden out months ago no matter what threats he held over my head. I promise you, Tom.”

The blacksmith nods, and Arthur says more gently, “My uncle has no grudge against Morgana, nor against your daughter. He has taken Morgana purely to keep me under his thumb. He regards himself as a knight before all else, Tom, that much I know. He would offer no harm to a lady, in fact he’s probably half-convinced himself he’s protecting Morgana. His quarrel is with me, and me alone.”

“And Lady Morgana would murder anyone who tried to lay a hand on Gwen,” Leon murmured unexpectedly. “I know they would have kept one another safe.”

 

 

* * *

 

On the walk back to Camelot Leon falls back to Merlin’s side when Arthur pauses to banter with a coppersmith who is hanging his wares on hooks. There seems to be something of a longstanding – if good-natured – feud going on.

“You don’t understand,” Leon says evenly, in a voice only the two of them could hear, and Merlin blinks at him.

“Um.”

“Today, with Agravaine.  You don’t understand what Arthur did for you.”

He gapes. “I think I do, actually. He embarrassed me in front of the entire Court-”

“No, Merlin,” Leon says patiently, “he didn’t.”

“Oh really. What, then?” A moment later he remembers he probably shouldn’t talk to a knight like that. There’s a pause, long enough for Merlin’s nerves to turn to resignation and start thinking of a way to apol-

“Uther Pendragon was… a good King,” Leon says, eyes narrowing as he glances into the distance.

“W-what?” How on earth did they end up discussing the old king?

“He had a fixed idea about magic that no-one could budge. But that aside, he was genuinely concerned for his people, for their wellbeing. As a father he was–” Leon presses his lips together as he searches for the right words. He finally settles on “-demanding. Distant. But for all his faults – he taught Arthur how to play the game. How to use the Royal Court. How to win.”

“I have no idea what you’re-”

“He didn’t embarrass you,” Leon says. “He humiliated Agravaine. The Regent would rather set himself on fire now than so much as speak to you or glance in your direction.” He turns and watches Merlin, who frowns, trying to follow.

“Arthur can’t confront his uncle directly. Not until Morgana is free. But he found a way, nevertheless. He has ensured you are safe from Agravaine’s attentions, today and from now on. The Regent will never approach you again, no matter what happens, no matter if Arthur died tomorrow. Do you see?”

And Merlin, blinking as Arthur laughingly haggles over a copper bowl, thinks that perhaps, he does.

 

Chapter Text

 

They are re-entering Camelot’s courtyard when Merlin catches sight of the bearded hermit, waiting uneasily at the far side of the north tower. He goes still when he sees Merlin, and takes a few steps backwards, jerks his head in a nervous invitation.

Merlin hesitates, then shrugs.

“Excuse me, sire?”

Arthur glances over his shoulder.

“Did you need me for anything?”

“No, Merlin, you’re free to go,” he says, nonplussed.

“Thank you, sire.” He glances once at Arthur’s mouth, wishing he could kiss it, and from the quick breath Arthur takes he knows perfectly well what Merlin’s thinking. “I’ll see you this evening, then.”

And he sets off at a jog toward the north tower. The hermit has faded back further, hidden in the shadows now, crouched by the sack he must have received from the kitchens for today’s foraging.

“Hullo,” Merlin says stupidly when he reaches the man.

The man watches him for some time before he says abruptly, “The other slaves, they said, they told me – you’re from Ealdor?”

“That’s right.”

“But you – they said – are you sure no-one else was brought here?” The man hesitates, then says roughly, “Not- none of the, the women?”

“No,” Merlin says, not sure why it matters so much but making it sound strong and sure in case it’ll help the man calm down. “We hid them. We hid almost everyone, actually.”

The hermit breathes deep and just as Merlin is eyeing him curiously and thinking of asking a question he remembers and says, “Well. Except, my mum’s here, in Camelot. But not–“ he raises his hands to show the manacles, and shrugs. “She traveled here after. To find me.”

The man nods silently, thinking to himself. “That’s… very brave. It would take a brave woman to travel all this w-” and he stumbles to a stop, then says hoarsely, “Your mother. What’s her name?”

“Hunith,” Merlin says slowly, and the man’s eyes close.

“And- her husband?” His hands are clenching into fists, gaze fixed on the ground.

“No husband,” Merlin says, frowning. It’s a bit of a sore point. “Just me.”

He takes a quick breath, eyes wide. “None?” He spins away, face disappearing in shadow for long silent moments and then he says, “What’s your name, lad?”

“Merlin.”

The man’s eyes widen, and he sinks down slowly onto an upturned barrel. “Merlin,” he says again. There’s silence, and Merlin is seriously confused now. When the man speaks, his voice is slow and rusty, and his eyes are staring off into the distance. “I had – I tamed a merlin falcon once, when I was a boy. They’ve always been my favourite bird.”

“Oh,” Merlin said, a bit lost for words at the meandering. He tries to keep the conversation going, though. Presumably the hermit has a point of some kind. “I’ve never seen one close up.”

“Well, they’re, they’re more common near the coast,” the man says, hoarse. “Ealdor’s too near the mountains for…” He shakes his head as if to clear it, lets out a breath that shudders and it’s then Merlin realizes the man is shaking.

“Are …you all right?” he asks, steps closer.

“Am I-“ he lets out a wild, mad laugh and Merlin freezes. “Am I all right. I don’t know, lad. I honestly don’t-” He licks his lips and mutters, “Hunith’s son.” Angles a glance up at Merlin, and he’s suddenly conscious of his own lanky body, all angles and ears, but the man just keeps staring, hands shaking as his throat works.

“Did you know my mother?” he asks, the words emerging slowly.

There’s a long silence. Then the man says, “Aye. I knew her. A long time ago.” He is staring down at his hands again, then he gives his head a hard shake. “Enough. Enough of these fairytales. Work to be done.”

“Um-”

He’s on his feet again, stepping close as if to tell a secret. “Merlin, can you get me into the castle. Further in than the kitchen, I mean.”

“What?”

“I need–“ he hesitates, eyes sharp on Merlin’s face. “I need to get inside the keep.”

“I don’t – why do you need to get in?” And he steps back, suspicious.

He grimaces. “I can’t- tell you that. I don’t know… what you’ll do.”

Merlin’s brows shoot up. “And I don’t know what you’ll do. You can’t think that I’ll just escort you in so you can run amok in the castle.”

The hermit’s face twists. “Your loyalties are to the Prince, everyone can see that. To a Pendragon.” And he spits the word like it was poision.

Merlin lifts his chin. “He’s a good man.“

“He keeps you as a slave-“

“And he’s never harmed me.”

“I saw your split lip, boy, the bitemark on your arm. I know what you’ve suffered at Kanen’s hands, at Agravaine’s. Uther Pendragon was a monster and you’ll find soon enough the boy is cut from the same cloth. Don’t let him talk you around-“

“He’s a good man and I won’t let you inside the keep to hurt him or cause trouble.”

“You fool,” he hisses, stepping forward, “I’m trying-” suddenly he stops, shakes his head and lowers it, staring at the ground again. Merlin waits, not sure why he isn’t leaving, but finally the man speaks again, low.

“I’m sorry. Merlin, I’m sorry. I’ve been.” He shakes his head again and says more slowly, “I’ve been a long time alone, a long time …out of the company of others and I have - forgotten how this works. I expect too much. You don’t know me.”

Merlin steps back, oddly confused by this. This sad, slow speech tugs at him somehow, he prefers it when the man is actively rude. Silence falls between them, and then-

“Gaius,” the man says, snapping his fingers. “The physician. You know him. Yes?”

“I know him.”

“You trust him?”

“Of course.”

“Will you take me to see him, then?”

“You know Gaius?”

“A long time ago. He helped me. When I was in a great deal of trouble. He saved my life.”

Merlin stares at the bearded man for a long time. “What’s your name,” he says abruptly.

There’s a moment of hesitation, the man blinking as if this is an unfamiliar question. “Balinor,” he finally replies, with the ghost of a grin.

“All right,” he says slowly. If he tries anything- well, Merlin’s not trapped by cold iron anymore. “All right, Balinor, I’ll take you to Gaius.”

Balinor lets out a slow breath. “Thank you, Merlin, son of Hunith,” the man says, with an odd dip of his head, almost like a bow. He gathers up his sack of bread and beer and they fall easily into step, heading back to the courtyard.

Merlin nods to the guards on either side of the gate, and again to the one inside the huge doors. “I’m taking this man to see Gaius,” he says, realizing a bit belatedly that if the hermit has a big knife or something in that sack, he’s not sure his magic will save him in time.  But Balinor just walks calmly at his side, the long coat Merlin’s never seen him wear before swaying with every step.

In silence they climb the first set of stairs, and maybe it’s the quiet that sets Merlin’s brain working. “You knew my mother,” he says suddenly, and Balinor almost misses a step, stumbles.

“Yes.”

He licks his lips. “How did you know her?”

Now Balinor is the one to lick his lips, as if suddenly nervous. “I was – in hiding,” he says slowly, turning the corner at Merlin’s side. “I had to flee Camelot, and Gaius helped me. He sent me to Ealdor, to a woman he knew there.”

“My mum.”

Balinor inclines his head in a nod. “Yes. She took me in.”

Merlin hesitates, “She’s never mentioned you.”

“Has she not?” Head down, the long hair conceals Balinor’s face from Merlin. “Well, I suppose she had her reasons. It was a long time ago, after all.”

“Before I was born,” Merlin says, and stops walking.

“It- yes,” Balinor says, and then he, too stops.

Merlin stares at the man. The idea tickling at the edges of his mind – but he can’t – he cannot say it. It’s buried too deep, a kind of longing he’s known all his life and tucked away, under the weight of his mother’s face, full of sorrow, of guilt, of longing. Merlin was enough of a burden, with the magic and the secrets, he learned young not to ask anymore, not to question. Not to put that look on his mother’s face.

“Before I was born,” he says again, and he just sticks there, no matter how much he wants to ask, somehow, he can’t.

They stand there, silent, before Gaius’ door, and then Balinor finally says, “I-I don’t know, lad. I don’t know.” And Merlin is a little dizzy at how much they are saying without words.

He sucks in a gasp and spins away, pushes on the door and stumbles into Gaius’ chambers. The older man turns away from his jars and potions, already beginning to smile at Merlin when he sees the visitor in the doorway.

He freezes, brow wrinkling as he takes a step forward, peering at Balinor’s face. “Can I help-“ There’s a pause and then he says, ”I know you. Don’t I?”

“It’s been a long time, Gaius,” he says. “Almost twenty years.”

“Balinor?” the physician gasps. He actually staggers, and Merlin is there to clasp his arm, and then Gaius’ head turns. He gasps again, glances between Merlin and the hermit and the answer is there, it’s all over his face.

“Who is he.” Merlin speaks through stiff lips. “Gaius? Who is this man?”

“Merlin,” the older man says, eyes wide, full of compassion. He glances helplessly at Balinor, who takes a step inside and closes the door carefully. He, too, is watching Gaius, and waiting.

“Is it true, then, Gaius? He’s Hunith’s son? Hunith’s fatherless son?”

Gaius passes a hand over his face, and Merlin guides him to sit on the bench. He’s silent, thinking furiously, and Merlin crouches at his side, lays a careful hand on the old man’s arm.

“Gaius,” he says. “Please. I have a right to know the truth,” and his voice comes out all crushed up, squeezed out between confusion and hope and anger and why-

And all the tension rushes out of Gaius at that. “Yes, my boy,” he says softly. “You do.” He bites his bottom lip, “But- I promised her. Perhaps- we should find your mother-”

“Gaius. What do you know?” Merlin asks, trying to keep this simple. He can’t wait. He’s waited all his life for this.

Gaius sighs. “I hadn’t heard from Hunith for many years, not until you came to Camelot, Merlin.”

“But you knew her then. You knew her b-before I was born.”

“I knew her, I taught her much of the herblore. And then she went back to Ealdor. Balinor was in trouble, I sent him to her, to hide him. And- and then… she was with child. It was the last letter she wrote me. She asked me to cut all contact, rather than risk Uther becoming aware of her child’s existence.”

“And where was I, in all this?” Balinor asks. He is staring out the window, very still.

“You had fled Ealdor only weeks before. Running from Uther’s men.”

Only weeks before. Merlin’s knees give out and he’s suddenly in a messy sprawl on Gaius’ bench. He tips his head sideways and stares.

At his father.

Everything feels numb. Fingertips, feet, even the end of his nose. He just stares and stares at the hermit, the streaks of gray in his beard, the long hair that reaches to his shoulder, the eyes alight with shock as he stares back at Merlin.

“I’m your son,” he says, mumbles it really. “Your son.”

Balinor’s face is lined, almost frightened. “I don’t know what it is to have a son,” he murmurs, but not like he’s arguing, more as though he’s running back over his life, the years stretching behind.

“Why was Uther hunting you?” Merlin asks suddenly and Balinor twitches, takes three full steps back until he’s pressed against the door again.

“A son-” he says, eyes widening, “-a son.” and this time the fear is obvious. “Merlin,” he is almost tripping over the words, hand outstretched, pleading, “Arthur Pendragon is no friend to you. He will use you in ways you can’t begin to imagine, there are things you don’t-”

“Balinor-“ Gaius begins.

“Arthur cares about me,” Merlin shoots back, abruptly furious. “I trust him, more than I trust you, whoever you are. Where have you even been all this time, all these years-”

“I have been in a hell of Uther Pendragon’s making,” he hisses back.

The door at his back suddenly thuds with a powerful knock and Balinor skitters sideways, full of panic as Gaius calls, “Yes?” and the door opens.

“The physician is needed. Right away.” It’s one of the guards they’d passed on the way in, and he doesn’t spare Merlin or Balinor a single glance.

“What is it?” Gaius bustles into action immediately, gathering his things.

“There’s a score or more of injured arriving as we speak. Something has happened, I don’t know what, in one of the outlying villages.”

“I must go,” Balinor mutters, and ducks out, head down before anyone else can speak. Stunned, Merlin watches him – watches his father – disappear.

 

 

Merlin gathers himself and puts thoughts of Balinor aside, though he’s shaking with- well, about a thousand things, really.

The ragged trail of villagers keep appearing on the road to Camelot all that afternoon. Limping, some burned, all of them bearing the same mask of terror and fatigue. The next two hours blurs into an endless stream of noise – muffled crying and voices dull with shock. Merlin hears the same stories over and over again, the huge winged beast that dropped on the village with no warning, the people taken who had screamed as it dragged them away.

When the worst cases are done, Gaius asks him to take some of the children elsewhere, and slants a significant look toward the two men who lie groaning by the door. Merlin hesitates, then nods. At least one of them will require an amputation.

They follow him docilely enough, and he leads them outside, where the air is cold but the sun is still shining. The kennels are a hit, and he leaves the five kids in Berd’s capable hands while he runs to the kitchen and returns with a basket of bread and honey, which disappears within seconds.

“Is the monster going to come here?” A little girl asks, slipping a small, sticky hand in his.

Merlin freezes. What is he supposed to say to that? He exchanges a long glance with Berd, who shrugs helplessly. Merlin bites his lip, then crouches at her side. “You know what? Camelot is lucky, because it has the handsomest, bravest prince in the whole world. And if that monster does come here, he and all his knights will fight it, and drive it far, far away.”

She stares at him, wide-eyed. “It’s a big monster.”

“That’s the kind he likes best,” Merlin confides. Then he winks, “He doesn’t even get out of bed for measly little monsters."

She considers him carefully for a moment, then nods, though she keeps her hand in his until bedtime.

 

Chapter Text

 

Arthur’s face is a grim mask when Merlin finally finds him. He is gathered around a table in the Great Hall, with the Council members, studying a map.

“…and we’re only now hearing of it?” he is saying, voice tight and furious.

“Our livestock were scattered, sire,” a nervous man says. He is pale and travel-stained. “No horse or donkey to be found, not for many miles. I have walked almost the entire way.”

Arthur simply nods, lets out an exasperated breath. “Very well,” he says, and waves a hand to dismiss the man. “Get something to eat and have someone find you a bed.”

“If it struck Greenswood four days ago-” Agravaine says as the man stumbles away. His face is grave, for once there is no hidden innuendo in his tone.

“-and Willowdale just yesterday-” Hector adds.

“Then it is headed directly here,” Arthur says heavily. “Which makes sense. If it does indeed only take people, Camelot is the best feeding ground in the kingdom.”

There’s a short silence.

“Is it possible they are mistaken?” Lord Carson asks, desperate.

“For two separate villages to create such similar stories?” Hector shakes his head.

“Their injuries are real enough,” Leon adds. “Claw marks larger than anything I’ve ever seen.”

Arthur scrubs a hand over his face. “We cannot let it reach Camelot,” he says tightly. He raises his head and meets his uncle’s gaze. “We must ride out and meet it.”

Agravaine says nothing, only watching.

“I will take half the knights,” Arthur says, and Merlin’s throat closes over. “We will ride to the north, find and kill the beast. If we fail, I know that you and the rest of the knights will protect Camelot to your last breath.” He says it with no trace of irony, says it like he does indeed know, and Merlin, watching closely, sees the flicker of surprise in Agravaine’s eyes. It looks oddly like respect.

“Sir Leon,” Arthur adds, before anyone can argue. “Geoffrey is working through the records now, but you have heard the firsthand account of the beast and the injuries it caused. I need you in the library working with Geoffrey, to get us some answers by morning. We need to know more about this creature, if it has any weaknesses. Gaius may also be of some help.”

“Arthur-“ Hector begins.

“There is no time for a debate,” Arthur says, his voice harsh. “If we wait, the beast will come to us, and there is a real danger Camelot may fall.”

“I agree someone must ride out to meet it-”

“And I am that one.” He raises his eyes to the older man. “Hector,” he says, more gently. “This is what I am for.”

The other man shakes his head, but clearly will not argue further in front of a crowd. Leon, frowning, bows to Arthur and takes his leave. Merlin forces his shaking legs to follow. He can hear his own stupid voice, saying Camelot has the bravest and handsomest prince…

“He can’t do this,” he says, voice low as he falls into step beside the knight.

“It is his duty,” Leon says, voice hollow.

“If he doesn’t come back, Agravaine will-”

“His knights will not let him fall,” Leon says, voice gathering strength.

“Well I’m coming too, then,” Merlin says, jaw jutting.

Leon’s sideways glance holds no surprise. “Yes,” he replies. “I rather thought you might.”

 

 

 

Arthur, on the other hand, throws a royal fit at the idea. “Absolutely out of the question,” he says, voice sharp as glass.

“It’s a magical beast, Arthur,” he says, still rummaging through the Prince’s clothes. “How can one man possibly own this many tunics?”

“You’ve never even seen a tourney, Merlin, let alone a battle, let alone fought a huge beast that eats people. You don’t have the first idea-”

“It’s a magical beast and I have magical power. How about this one?” He holds up a dark blue tunic, mended on one side, and Arthur blinks.

“That was my favourite,” he says in surprise, “I haven’t seen it in a year. How did you-“

Merlin bites back a grin as Arthur visibly gathers himself and returns to his previous point. “You’ll be a liability, Merlin, just getting in the way. It makes no sense for you to-“

“And I assume you want to wear your old boots? For luck?” Merlin quirks a brow. Arthur’s relationship with those boots is extremely troubling.

“It’s not luck,” he sniffs at the very idea of such superstition, instantly defensive and prepared to deny to his last breath that he pats them lovingly whenever they’re removed. “They’re more comfortable and have better grip. And all the more reason for the person with magical power to remain here and protect the largest number of people, in case we don’t succeed-“

“You will succeed,” Merlin says, lining the boots up in front of the chair, tunic draped over the back, “because you’ll have me with you.” He straightens, suddenly sick of this, and gives the Prince a very direct look. “Arthur. Are you going to put me back in cold iron restraints?”

What?” Arthur gapes at him, horrified. “No- I’d never.”

“Then I’m coming with you. Because that’s the only way you could ever force me to stay behind.”

Then they’re left gaping at one another. “Merlin,” he finally says softly. “I couldn’t. If something-”

“I know,” he soothes, steps forward and wraps a hand around Arthur’s wrist. “I couldn’t stand it either. So we’ll both go, and we’ll both be fine.” For a moment they are both still, and Arthur leans forward just enough to press his temple against Merlin’s, resting.

Then Arthur steps back and Merlin raises his brows. “If it makes you feel any better, I think the dragon will be pleased. He says we’re two sides of the same coin.”

Arthur’s mouth flattens and he turns away. “Don’t talk to me about that beast. Coins.

He bites back a smile. It probably means he’s slightly mad, but Merlin loves it when Arthur gets that tone in his voice, the one that sounds like the royal clotpole who’d picked him out of a bunch of unwashed slaves.

“Um.” He shifts nervously, not sure this is the right time but desperate to share his news. “I wanted to tell you, I mean it’s not particularly important but I had something of a busy afternoon, before the villagers showed up.”

“Communing with that oversized lizard, I suppose. As long as you didn’t set the bloody thing free,” Arthur says, stroking his boots in a way he’ll later deny. Then he casts a sharp look at Merlin. “You didn’t set it free, I hope?”

He shook his head. “No. I. Um. Met my father.”

Arthur blinks at him. “What?”

He hesitates, then sinks down on the bed. “I never…. knew my father. Mum never told me who-”

“Your father’s here? In Camelot?

He nods, swallows again. “His name’s Balinor.”

Arthur frowns slightly. “Balinor. Hm. Is he – I seem to recognize that name somehow. He’s not a noble, I suppose?”

Merlin snorts, ignores the small pang of hurt at that. He’s had more than his fair share of fantasies about his father – that he was a lord, a knight, a magician himself. The reality is distinctly more fragrant and less romantic. “Hardly. He’s – he’s some kind of hermit. He might be – a bit mad, I think.”

Arthur settles in front of him, eyes intent. He lays a careful hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “Merlin,” he says quietly, “I promise you, that no-one can understand better than I, what it is to wish your father… different. Better. But I can also promise you, that your who or what your father is, matters not to me.”

Merlin takes a breath, feeling a little better.

Arthur continues. “It’s been a lesson hard-learned, but…” his eyes drift away, seeing far into the distance as he says slowly, “If I had my kingdom, if I truly ruled Camelot as I would wish to… I would judge a man by the content of his character, by the actions he takes. Not by his position, nor his family, nor his wealth.”

Merlin is staring at him, open-mouthed, the slowly setting sun behind the Prince turning Arthur into nothing but a silhouette, speaking wisdom in a slow, measured voice. Then he blinks, as if emerging from a daze. Suddenly one corner of his mouth quirks, and he jerks a shoulder, transforming back into just a man. “And were Morgana here, she would insist that a woman should be judged in the same way.”

And just like that the smile falls from Arthur’s face. Morgana.

The Morgana they were supposed to be rescuing right about now. “Oh no,” Merlin says, and he can’t believe he forgot. “Oh, Arthur.”

He has already turned away, his face like stone.

“You were supposed to ride out after her-”

“Yes,” Arthur says, toying with the gloves Merlin laid out earlier. He is quiet for a long time, contemplative. “But I cannot forfeit my duty to Camelot. Innocent people will die if I do. I must,” he swallows, “I must trust that Morgana can abide where she is for a little while longer. And that my uncle… he is getting impatient, it is obvious. But surely, surely he will not move yet.”

“Unless,” Merlin says slowly.

“Merlin?”

“Unless… after you’ve killed the beast. We just- keep going? Ride on to where she’s being held? Even if Agravaine guesses where you’re going, he’ll be days behind you.”

Arthur is watching him with a soft light in his eyes, a slight smile.

“What?” Merlin asks, uncertain.

“You have no doubt at all, do you?”

“About what?”

“That we will prevail against this beast?”

“Gryphon,” comes Leon’s voice, and they both startle, turning toward the door. “Gaius and Geoffrey found it. The beast is a Gryphon, and it can only be killed…” he glances at Arthur as if in apology “…with magic.”

“I told you I was coming,” Merlin crows.

 

***

 

“I’ve never cast an enchantment like this-“ Merlin is muttering, staring down at the book. “What if I can’t do it?”

“Then we will persist with sinew and steel,” Arthur replies without even looking in his direction.

“But what if-“

Merlin,” Arthur says, and this time he turns his head, meets those blue eyes with his own. “You will succeed. I know it.”

He puffs out a breath of air and nods, turning back to the book, confidence renewed. Arthur shakes his head in amazement, glances over at Gaius who is amused. Why does he trust me so?

He takes a deep breath and gives a jerk of his head to Gaius, who follows him silently across the room. Arthur keeps a careful eye on Merlin as he begins to speak. “I need to make some arrangements, Gaius, in case I do not return.”

The physician draws himself up but does not argue, just as Arthur had anticipated. The older man is far too pragmatic for that, besides – who knows better than a physician just how capricious life could be? Perhaps they will defeat the Gryphon. Perhaps they will rescue Morgana. And perhaps, on the ride home, Arthur will catch a chill and be dead inside of a week.

“I wish to grant Morgana some guarantee of independence. But no estate or title could ensure that, considering the upheaval my death would bring about. So I have instead arranged for my personal fortune to be taken from Camelot and kept secure for her use. I am informing Hector of my intentions as well, and I know that both of you will assist her in any way possible to retrieve it.”

“Of course, my Lord,” Gaius says, and his eyes are sad.

“Merlin requires no assistance from me to ensure his physical freedom,” Arthur says, managing a wry smile, “but I will nevertheless ensure his enslavement is declared null in writing so that my uncle will have no legal recourse. He will have to leave Camelot, of course,” he stops, licks his lips. “It’s likely you all will. I’d urge you to travel to Mercia. Bayard is an honourable man, and would likely take you in. I know that Hector and Leon would see you safely there.”

Arthur,” Gaius says, and that calm voice that has seen him through every one of his illnesses and injuries since childhood, through the harsh diatribes of his father and the blinding pain of his madness and death – the voice is low and choked.

“All will be well, Gaius,” he manages to say. “This is merely a – a necessary preparation.”

“Yes, sire,” he says, and bends his head.

“I will have letters for you, Hector and Leon before I leave.”

 

 

 

“What is this?” Merlin demands. He scans the pages Arthur had tucked under his dinner tray. “Why are you- are you making arrangements?”

“Merlin,” he says on a sigh, “I can’t just pretend I’m in no danger, and my death would impact those around me in a hundred different ways. It would be the height of dishonor to leave no protection for those I leave behind.”

“You are not going to die.”

“Not if I can help it, no.” He smiles. “I promise you, Merlin, I’d far rather live.”

He shakes his head at Arthur, unable to be angry about this, but still, it chills him deep inside and he can’t help wishing the Prince hadn’t put the idea into his head. It’s dangerous, what they’re doing, but he can’t think about the danger and Arthur.

He takes the tray with their meal, barely touched, and returns it to the kitchen. The mood there is subdued, and the cook has left behind a rack of perfect, small pies waiting to be baked. “Something warm, for mid-morning,” the scullery maid tells him when Merlin glances her way. She drapes a damp cloth over the pastries. “For all of you riding out.”

He manages a tired smile, oddly cheered at all the small kindnesses he’s received from the servants of late.

He takes the long route back through the castle, practicing the same phrase over and over in his head, trying for the right emphasis, the right sounds. Bregdan anweald gafeluc. He must master this, and soon.

He almost curses when he hears voices echo down the hallway, then stills abruptly at he realizes the voice belongs to Agravaine. The flinch, the wish to hide is instinctive, and he’s abruptly furious at his own weakness. Then he realizes what the hushed tone implies and draws back with totally different intentions.

He listens.

“But why now? After all this time, why? What has changed?”

“That I cannot answer.” The woman’s voice is impatient. “What has happened to Camelot’s Prince was not of my making, nor do I particularly care whether the enchantment persists or not.”

“You cannot wish to see Uther’s son ascend the throne, triumphant.”

Merlin’s eyes widen at hearing Agravaine talk so openly of his ambitions and he slides closer, presses hard against the wall, listening with everything he has.

“Arthur Pendragon has ceased to persecute my kind,” she says, and there is a trembling fierceness to her voice. “The end to that injustice was my heart’s desire. Revenge upon Uther for all his wrongdoings was sweet water to me, but it is not Arthur’s destiny to die at my hand.”

There is a clattering of feet at the top of the stairs and, cursing, Merlin is forced to fall back to a nearby doorway, and when the guards have passed, Agravaine and his accomplice are long gone.

 

Chapter Text

 

Merlin paces the corridor, deep in thought. The madness. Agravaine must mean the madness – what else was preventing Arthur from ascending the throne? And if it was an enchantment then surely – surely Merlin could break it. The question was, how?

He sighs, deep and rough. There aren’t enough hours in the day for this. They are leaving in the morning and he still hasn’t mastered the blasted spell for the Gryphon, let alone some as-yet imaginary cure for Arthur’s madness. But still. This decides him, the spellbook is going in his saddlebag when they ride out tomorrow.

Merlin’s steps slow as he reaches Gaius’ door. The voices aren’t meant to carry, and he shouldn’t be listening, but it seems to be his night for it-

“You must tell him who you are, Balinor.”

“There’s no time for that. Who knows when the Pendragon boy will discover what Uther has been keeping down there in the caves, who knows what he’ll do.”

“Nevertheless, Merlin deserves to know.”

“If you mean the dragon,” Merlin says from the doorway, “Arthur already knows.”

Silence greets that statement.

“He knows?” Balinor gasps.

“I think he’s been visiting pretty regularly.”

Arthur?” Gaius gasps.

“His father let it slip,” Merlin says, weary. He leans back against the door, lets his head thud against it. Everything is spinning, there is too much going on at once.

It was all very well to promise the little girl that the handsome prince would defeat the monster.

But now Arthur is preparing for his death, and all Merlin can see is Arthur, face drained of blood as he’s carried away by the Gryphon while Merlin simply watches, helpless and useless. When he blinks, tries to forget that image he sees instead Arthur, a prisoner of his madness while Merlin looks on and wrings his hands. And Agravaine, smug and smiling all the while.

He swallows and turns his head, focusing on Gaius and Balinor once more. “When Uther was dying, he... well. Arthur’s been trying to get it to promise not to harm the people of Camelot if he lets it go.”

“He would release the Great Dragon?” Balinor is stock-still, fingers twitching nervously as he watches Merlin.

Their eyes meet. At least I know now why he wanted to get into the castle. For just a moment he thinks of telling his father about his own power. But. “I told you he was a good man.”

Balinor jerks and turns away, pacing the room. “I don’t – I have trusted the word of a Pendragon before, and nothing could have turned out worse.”

“Arthur is not his father,” Merlin says fiercely, “any more than I am mine.”

Merlin,” Gaius reproves.

“Why did you leave us?” It just bursts out. “Why did you never come back?”

“What choice did I have? I loved your mother-“ and he winces, like it hurts to say the words.

“Never had I met another like her. But Uther pursued me even beyond his borders. I had handed him the Great Dragon, like a fool, and still he would not let me be. Should I have drawn more soldiers to Ealdor? Watched your mother die at the end of a sword for me?”

He shakes his head, thinking of all the years, all the Yules and solstices and Beltane feasts where they’d watched other families draw together and stood by, just the two of them. “You could have taken her with you. We could have been together.”

“I lived in a cave, boy. All these years, scratching out the necessities like an animal – she deserved better than that. You deserve better.”

“We deserved to have a family-“

“And the reason you didn’t have it is because of the Pendragon family you so fiercely defend in preference to your own.”

He reels back as if struck.

Balinor,” Gaius chides, drops his head in defeat at what he’s hearing.

It takes Merlin a moment for him to get his breath, and then he says, low and rough, “Then surely there is nothing for us to talk about. We were better off as we were a week ago, as strangers.”

Gaius’ face is a mask of pain as Merlin passes him. He gathers up the spellbook and the bag of clothes he’d packed this afternoon. He pauses in the doorway, eyes on his hands as he says, “I’m sorry your only son has turned out to be such a disappointment.”

And he goes without a backward glance.

 

 

 

They leave in the morning with little fanfare, though Merlin notices that the windows of the castle are full of onlookers, and that as they ride through the town the narrow laneways are lined with silent villagers.

Arthur rides at the front of the column, head high, a picture of confidence, and the townspeople stand a little straighter as he passes by, their faces less pale and hopeless.

Merlin glances over as they pass the house where Meg the magic user had been, but sees no-one. Then some instinct guides him to glance back over his shoulder, and there she is, leaning out of the half-open doorway. She gives him one grave nod, which he returns. He’ll visit her, one of these days.

Tom the blacksmith is also nowhere to be seen, though Merlin knows Leon visited him just yesterday, received newly forged weapons and the information that Gwaine had already ridden out, toward the castle and the prisoners. He will be waiting if they – when they get there.

They ride hard from sun-up to noon, break only long enough to rest the horses and ride on again.

 

***

 

By the time they stop for the day, Camelot is far behind them and they are close enough to see the ruins of Willowdale on a distant hill, one persistent fire still smoking.

They make camp and light a blazing fire of their own. The Gryphon hasn’t yet attacked at night, but perhaps it can be tempted, and they are certainly the only humans around for miles, now that the village has been emptied. It depends only on whether the beast has yet moved. Gaius’ book had described a pattern of feeding, then sleeping for at least a day. They may still be in time.

A familiar presence at his shoulder has Arthur turning. “We’ll need lances,” Leon says.

“Yes.” He is eyeing the horses thoughtfully, then sighs. “The villager said their livestock had scattered so far they could not catch them.”

Leon nods back, “The mobility would be useful,” he says, “but if they are going to be panicked and fighting us, we’ll probably all end up dead before we get near the bloody thing. It’s not as though they’ve any experience of a Gryphon.”

They exchange a wry glance at that. “All right then,” Arthur says, “out with the axes, and start sending out scouts to find any likely caves or nests in the area. Just make sure,” he adds, digging an axe out of one of the saddlebags, “they don’t awaken the beast until we’re ready.”

He thinks, later, that perhaps he shouldn’t have said that aloud.

 

 

They lose the last of the daylight quickly, but by the time they do there are lances enough for all of the knights, and they have some idea of the lay of the land. Six knights, divided into three pairs have scouted for the beast, and as each pair stomps back into the camp with no news, the tension ratchets higher.

Arthur calls his men to the fireside while the rabbits roast, pleased when Merlin falls in to his left, though he stands a little behind, still unsure of his welcome. There had been a few raised eyebrows when he’d emerged from the keep this morning and taken the extra horse.

“All right,” Arthur says, “we all know what we’re up against. We know this will be a difficult fight. But I know that together we can prevail. We’ve learned as much about the beast as we need to, we know that killing it will require courage and skill, but there is one other element to this, another weapon we have on our side.”

“I know some of you were wondering why I brought Merlin along on this campaign-”

On his left, someone snorts and then snickers. Arthur freezes. A ripple of something runs through his men as he raises his head and stares, dead on, at Owain, who loses the grin and abruptly pales.

Arthur says nothing, he just glares, flat and furious, and lets the silence go on and on. It’s lucky he’s so angry, otherwise he might have choked to death on his deep fucking sense of betrayal and disappointment. Such open disrespect, from a knight of Camelot.

Sire-” Owain begins, voice dropping off into nothing as he realizes the extent of his mistake.

Arthur’s fists clench, behind him Merlin swallows audibly but he cannot care for how the lad feels in this moment, because this is about his knights, his men, and if they do not respect him and if they do not still fear him then he is the Mad Prince in truth and nothing more-

He takes one silent breath and forces his rage down. Once, he might have challenged the man. Today, he knows they will need every sword for this fight, and that every time he loses his temper his men wonder if it is the madness. “Thank you, Owain,” he says, icy, and at his right side he feels Leon relax. “For volunteering to take the permanent post of third watch.”

Owain drops his head immediately, dips his knee in a sign of obeisance and stays like that, white and shaking. The tension in his men abates a little, though he’s pleased to see the majority of his knights are glaring at Owain. He has not lost them. Not all. Not yet.

He turns to his left, catches Merlin biting his lip nervously, wide-eyed and flushed. Arthur doesn’t smile, just meets Merlin’s eyes and holds his hands out, gestures for Merlin to raise his wrists. Understanding dawns, and he lifts his hands, holds them over Arthur’s and releases the manacles. Arthur sees the brief flare of gold as the cuffs fall into his hands, knows it was probably not visible to the men at this angle, they probably think Arthur unlocked them with a key.

Their eyes meet and he can see the trepidation, but he merely inclines his head toward the knights and Merlin, with a deep breath, steps forward to face the group.

“Our secret weapon,” Arthur says. He hands the shackles to Leon, can’t stand to have them in his grip, not with the rage still bubbling under his skin.

Merlin raises his hands and says, “Fromum feohgiftum.” Either he’s been practicing or he’s just getting more powerful with confidence because this time the glowing circles are almost too bright to look at, and there’s one in each hand.

The knights scatter back a pace or two, a few hands fly to their sword hilts, not that Arthur can exactly blame them. Growing up in Camelot has not prepared them for benign displays of magic, their first instinct is still for violent reprisals.

He steps forward to Merlin’s side, and looks each one of them in the eye. “Our research tells us the beast can only be killed by magic,” he says, keeping his tone matter of fact and very certain. “We will need Merlin’s help to win this battle, to protect Camelot.”

“A sorcerer.” It’s Pelinor who speaks, and the fear and disgust are probably only a habit, but Arthur is braced, can feel Leon at his back, ready to speak.

“Yes,” comes the voice, calm and sure, and it is Merlin speaking, standing up for himself. Arthur breathes a little easier, seeing it.

Merlin turns toward Pelinor, slowly, extends his hand and the globe floats free. “I’m a sorcerer. I was born with it, and I am learning how to use it, just as you were trained to use your sword, Sir Knight. And just like your sword,” Merlin says, and meets his eyes, “I can use it to harm, or to protect.”

Pelinor’s hand stays on his sword-hilt, but he does not back away from the globe as it stills an arms-length away from him. He is staring at Merlin. “I have sworn an oath,” he says, not as a challenge, just measuring. “I have proven my loyalty to Camelot.”

“And I have remained living as a slave in Camelot, though I could have used my powers and escaped,” Merlin says. “I have sworn no oath, but my loyalty is to Arthur, for all the days of my life.”

Arthur sucks in a sharp breath at that, surprised beyond words and as always, completely confused – why? Why does he-

“Is this why the law was repealed?” It’s Bedivere this time, but Arthur was expecting that question. He knows how this must look.

“I didn’t know about Merlin’s powers until the day the decree was announced,” Arthur replies steadily, then grins suddenly. “Oddly enough, he was reluctant to confide the truth of his illegal powers to the Crown Prince of Camelot.”

Most of the knights are more relaxed now, hands sliding away from their swords, heads up as they glance between Merlin, Arthur and Leon, who has stepped forward to stare at the globe still drifting on Pelinor’s left.

“Can I touch it?” he asks Merlin, tilting his head.

“I – um, I don’t know,” he says, blinking. Then he shrugs, gives Leon a lightning grin. “Try it and see.”

And Leon does, raises his left hand with neither haste nor fear, touches the very tips of his fingers to the orb. The eerie blue light of it is shining on his face as he looks up at it, and then it intensifies at the points where his fingers rest against the light, brighter and brighter as he spreads his fingers and rests his entire palm against it, eyes shining in wonder.

“It’s warm,” he says on a laugh, “and it- it tickles.” He wriggles his fingers, bats it gently toward Merlin who directs it away again with a slow wave of his hand, lets it float toward the middle of the group.

Gods above,” he hears, low and awestruck, from Kay.

“Tis a wondrous thing,” someone else says, he can’t tell who, and then they are stepping forward, crowding around Merlin and the orb. A few stragglers staying back to watch from a distance but Leon has done it, somehow, he has taken away the sting and the mystery and the taint of magic and Arthur lets out a long, slow breath.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

He takes a few steps back and sinks onto a log, content to watch Merlin enjoy this moment, close enough that it is not abandonment.

“Sire,” the low voice comes, and he stiffens.

“Do not make the mistake of thinking me interested in an apology, Owain,” he says, and doesn’t bother to raise his voice or look at the other man. “On another day I would have struck you down where you stood.”

“My lord,” he says, head bowed lower, “I know my words are worthless, and I will prove myself to you tomorrow and for all the days thereafter, I swear it.”

“See that you do,” Arthur says, and folds his arms. He doesn’t want to think about Owain’s disrespect, about whether he has been inviting it – has he so clearly been favouring Merlin, a slave, a peasant? Do the knights think him weak because he lies with a man?

Owain withdraws, and Arthur does not look his way. He notices, though, as the moon rises, that the knight makes a point of approaching Merlin, and drifts close enough to hear snatches of their conversation.

“…opinion of me doesn’t matter,” Merlin is saying, voice cold. “But you showed disrespect to Arthur, who deserves so much better. Worse, you did it in public.”

“And I will make it right,” Owain says, voice low.

“I hope you can,” Merlin says, and watches the knight pace back to where the horses are being tended. Pelinor and Kay, Leon and young Gregory are setting off to scout fresh areas by the river, while young William is working on the makeshift lances, resharpening the points, smoothing the shafts. Arthur walks the perimeter with another of the youngest knights, eyes and ears alert, brain racing all the while. How do we find it?

When he returns he finds Merlin crouched by the fire, clutching at his knees. His eyes are wild. “I can’t do it,” he tells Arthur, though he manages to keep his voice down. “I don’t understand it, Gaius keeps talking about this power of mine like it’s something amazing but Arthur, I can’t make this spell work. People will die - you might die, and it’ll be because I couldn’t make one stupid spell work.”

“It’s all right, Merlin,” he says, keeping his voice calm and level. “Come on. Let’s walk. You’re pushing too hard.”

They circle the perimeter again, in the opposite direction this time, and when they reach a small rise Arthur nudges Merlin’s arm and they walk together to the top, staring out at the trees around them, the few stars twinkling through. They are on the cusp of true winter now, it is not a time anyone would choose to travel, and their thickest cloaks and gloves are only just keeping the cold at bay. Arthur breathes into his cupped hands and tries not to think of mulled wine, of hot pies.

Of course, if he doesn’t think of those things then he thinks instead of something else he’s missing, something he could have had earlier that day. He swallows and glances away, hoping Merlin won’t see the flush rise in his cheeks, know that he’s remembering stolen kisses and clutching hands from when they’d stopped for lunch, earlier in the day. Because now is not the time to talk about that – and not just because of Owain’s sniggering.

They have a job to do, and Merlin has never before had to carry the weight of others’ lives. Of an entire kingdom.

“Merlin-” he begins, then stops abruptly. His eyes narrow. Something is moving out there, something-

His hand flies to his sword. “Get back to the camp,” he snaps. “Lead the rest of them here.”

“What?”

“Go,” he roars, turning on Merlin so that the lad takes a long step back, wide eyed. “The Gryphon, it’s out there. It’s awake.” And then he wheels away, running as silent as he can down the hillside and toward the movement that he knows now was the stretching of giant wings.

He’s halfway there when something crashes into him, strong enough and heavy enough to bear him to the ground and for a moment he thinks the beast has him, that he has wasted his chance to kill it, sword trapped beneath him as he fell. And then he is dragged, something, somehow throws him across the forest and he manages to curl in and protect his head as he crashes into a tree, then rolls onto his feet, though he staggers, vision hazing, sword lost.

Then, of course, there’s a man with a knife.

 

 

 

He had already been there, lying in wait. It’s the only explanation for the way he managed to catch Arthur so very unprepared. So he freezes, with the blade to his throat, and fumes at himself. Of all the stupid ways to die, of all the moments-

“You’re a liar,” the man hisses, and he sounds about as crazy as he looks. “A liar and a manipulator, like your father before you. But you won’t get away with it this time.”

Arthur blinks slowly. This isn’t – not bandits bent on ransom. Not a desperate thief seeking swift payment. This is personal. “Tell me what you want,” he says, voice low. He’s listening with one ear for the Gryphon, not sure whether the forest’s sudden silence is good or bad.

Usually it’s bad.

He doesn’t recognize the man, he’s sure of that. An angry petitioner, perhaps? There have been so many over the years…

“I want you to leave him alone. I want you to tell him the truth, and admit what you’re up to.”

“Leave who alone? I don’t-”

Silence,” he snarls, and then they both jolt at the sound above their heads.

Wings. Huge, snapping wings. Arthur looks up, can’t help himself even with the blade pressed against his skin-

No,” he breathes, and feels the other man’s grip on his arm loosen in shock as the Gryphon passes overhead, so much bigger than any bird. “Merlin!” Arthur shouts, “Merlin, wherever you are, get down.” He shoves hard at the stranger, hears him stumble and doesn’t pause for even the half-second it would have taken to take out his second dagger and slit the man’s throat. He runs, half-crazed, through the trees, screaming Merlin’s name and trying to track the damn thing through the forest in the dark, why are there still so many leaves on the trees-

He snatches up his sword as he passes it and runs on, oh Gods above, the wings have gone quiet and there is an odd screaming sound like a hawk – the head of a bird – which means it’s on the ground now, stalking its prey, that’s what the villagers said-

Merlin.”

“Arthur,” he hears, but also a sound from behind like his attacker is back on his feet and he doesn’t even look. Damned if he is going to waste time on a madman when Merlin is out there, undefended while a monster stalks him. A horn sounds from close by, calling the other knights.

Arthur bursts through the treeline into a clearing lit by the moon and there is Merlin, crouched beneath the arch of a fallen tree, the Gryphon towering above as it searches for an angle to get at him.

Merlin,” he screams and throws himself forward, can see bodies beside the tree already, three red-caped figures so terribly still and as the Gryphon’s claws finally hook into the trunk protecting Merlin another knight appears at a run.

Owain flings himself forward, sword thrusting wildly at the creature and it stops, turns its head and hops toward him just as Arthur reaches the fallen trunk. The sorcerer scrambles out and Arthur grips his arm, drags him further away and then yells, “Get to the trees, now,” and turns back to flank the creature.

It is hissing at Owain, who is parrying, white-faced, while a beak as big as his head snakes forward. It swipes out with a claw and scores him down one side just as Arthur, with a shout of rage, strikes out. His sword strikes the beast and simply… shatters, and the Gryphon leaps into the air again with a screech, as if startled. He looks down at the hilt of his sword, stunned, and then hears Merlin’s hitching breaths just behind him, and whirls.

“Get out of here, Merlin,” he roars, completely enraged to be disobeyed at such a time, and he shoves the lad, hard, forcing him back.

“The spell, I have to-“

“There’s no time anymore, get yourself to safety.” And with one last shove he chases away that which he loves best, stumbles to the nearest body – it’s William, Lord Carson’s youngest – and heaves the lance out from under him, eyes always on the sky.

“Owain,” he yells, “are you with me?”

“I am here, my lord,” comes the faint reply and oh fuck, he knows what that sound means. Arthur closes his eyes for a moment, circling toward Owain but has to stumble back at a sharp dive from the Gryphon.

And then there is a man, a stranger in peasant clothing, bursting from the treeline.

He hurdles a fallen log, and he’s running toward the creature, not away, clutching a sword like he knows how to use it. Are you mad Arthur wants to yell, but he’s too grateful for the help at this moment, as the Gryphon startles away, back up into the skies.

Arthur drops to his knee beside Owain, grips his hand as he glares up at the newcomer. “Who the hell are-“

“Arthur,” he hears from Merlin who still has not taken bloody shelter, just as the stranger says, “My lord, beware.” He is shifting from foot to foot, eyes wary but fixed on the skies. A fighter, then.

He rolls his eyes because yes, thank you, he’s the bloody knight here.  But he can spare a few seconds for this. He looks down at Owain, the pale, sweaty face and says, “Hold on. Help is coming.”

The other knight manages a tiny smile at that. “I am honoured, sire,” he says faintly, “to have died in the service of the greatest leader Camelot will ever know.”

Hold on, Owain,” he says again, voice harsh, but he will not lie. Will not say you’re going to be all right. The creature screeches again overhead and Arthur can hear shouts, Leon and the other men are getting closer, answering Owain’s horn. Reinforcements, for all the good they will do. More swords to shatter on the beast.

“Am I redeemed, sire?”

He swallows hard at that and bows his head. Fuck. “You die with your honour intact, Owain,” he takes a breath, “and with my deepest respect.”

The brown eyes close as if in relief, and gloved hands close over Arthur’s for a moment before letting go. Shaking and furious, Arthur turns his face to the sky and swallows, gathering his courage. He steps away from Owain, putting himself in clear terrain. Leon and the others will not arrive in time. He has hunted enough to know when a beast is ready to attack.

“Merlin, I swear,” he yells without looking, “you had better be somewhere protected. You can say your bloody spell from the safety of the trees.” He takes a breath, fingers tightening around the lance, puffs of frosty air coming from his lips.

“A sword won’t do it,” he tells the stranger, realizing a moment later this is probably not the most helpful thing to say to a man carrying a sword. “It can only be killed by magic.”

“And yet we must try,” the stranger replies, and lifts his weapon, jaw set.

“Yes,” Arthur says, his eyes on the Gryphon. “We must try.”

Arthur,” he hears Merlin say, helpless with fear, and then he is muttering again, those same words he’s been trying to get right all day, and all the night before. He breaks off to plead, “Arthur, please, find some cover.”

Somewhere, he finds the will to make his voice clear, utterly confident. “You will do it, Merlin,” he says, as the beast begins to dive. He sets his shoulders and raises the lance, braces the butt against the ground. “I know that you will do it.”

The hissing screech of the creature is louder now and he curses silently.

This is it.

And there are two voices behind him chanting the spell now, but he does not look, just keeps his eyes on the beast diving toward him, as high as Camelot’s walls now, this is it, this is how he dies, in the company of a stranger just as reckless as he is. His lips twitch for a half-second as he thinks yes, definitely the Mad Prince.

Prince of Camelot. Knight of Camelot.  To the bitter end, all for Camelot.

Then there is a light, like Merlin’s floating orbs, it crackles into life at the tip of the lance, spreads like water running downhill until the entire length is ablaze. There’s a muffled noise of shock to his right as the stranger’s sword catches aflame and then the Gryphon plummets down on them both.

It’s a sight he’ll never forget, giant wings outstretched, claws open to snatch them up and Arthur’s whole body is jarred with the impact. But the lance holds and Arthur strains, shoves with all his strength and feels it slide home, into the belly of the beast. The scream of pain is like a blow and as he turns his head away he sees the burning sword strike the soft meat of the breast. Then a weight like a drawbridge bears down on Arthur and tumbles him down into a blackness filled with screams.

 

 

 

“So,” he hears a strange voice saying, “it seems you have some of your father’s talent, after all.”

“You mean – you have magic?” And that voice he would know anywhere. His eyes open long before he is ready.

“Merlin,” he says, croaks really. And that one word is enough to have him wincing. Ribs. Damn it.

Then he blinks, remembering why the ribs are hurting, just as a pale, smiling face appears in his vision. “Did we-”

“You did it,” he talks right over the top of Arthur, “You killed it.”

You did it,” he says, enjoying the way Merlin’s hand is wrapping around his, face incandescent with joy and relief. “And that other fellow– who was that?”

“My name is Lancelot, sire,” a voice comes from his right and Arthur turns his head. The stranger is on a pile of blankets beside him, though he seems more awake than Arthur.

“Yes,” he says, still a bit foggy. “I remember you. You ran right toward it like an idiot, no shield, nothing.”

“Says the man without a shield of his own,” Merlin reproves.

“Not my fault,” he says, eyes closing. “Some unwashed madman attacked me in the woods.”

Ahem,” he hears, and for a moment his eyes flutter open, to the figure behind Merlin.

“Yes,” he says, before sliding into sleep again. “That’s him.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

When Arthur opens his eyes again the hermit’s craggy face is, sadly, the first one he sees. He blinks, eyes it with distaste and then says, “I’ve never claimed to be the smartest of men, but I’ll assume you’re not currently trying to kill me.”

“Well reasoned,” the man says, not a flicker of amusement on his face. “You might be brighter than you give yourself credit for, princeling.”

“Care to explain to me why you were trying to kill me the last time?” he asks, trying to raise his head. Then he sighs and gives up, staring straight up at the trees overhead. “I mean, talk about hasty. If you’d just waited an hour the Gryphon likely would have done the job for you.”

“I wasn’t … precisely planning to kill you,” the man says slowly. He doesn’t sound very sure, though. “My wish was to see your true colours, Arthur Pendragon.”

Arthur raises his brows. The man speaks well, he’s more educated than he appears at first glance. Though, actually, a dairy cow could easily appear more educated than this man, if you judged by appearances alone.

“My true colours, as in- no, wait.” He frowns, “I remember now. You were talking about someone… you wanted me to let someone go. Of course, you didn’t exactly mention who the someone was.”

“My son,” the man says quietly. His eyes are watchful.

“A name would be helpful,” Arthur says, and this time he grits his teeth and pushes up onto his elbows. Gods alive, that hurts. Damn, why did it have to be ribs? “Is he in prison or something?” he manages, breathless.

“I saw you with him,” the hermit says, and makes no move to help Arthur. “In the woods, yesterday.”

“In the-“ and Arthur freezes, caught between lying down and sitting up and that’s not even close to being the cause of his discomfort. He’s suddenly flushed with about ten different kinds of embarrassed as the words line up to make sense, because what happened in the woods yesterday was… private. “Merlin? You’re Merlin’s father?”

“Yes, it’s going to be quite the week for family reunions,” Merlin’s voice is suddenly close by his ear and he crouches, tilts Arthur upright, shoulder to shoulder, “Once we get to Morgana, that is.” Arthur’s breath catches as he looks up, into Merlin’s eyes, sees the twinkle and the warmth there, the quick protective glance between his father and Arthur.

The scent of Merlin fills the world. “Hullo,” he says, suddenly straight back to not the smartest of men. He’d honestly expected to die last night, thought he’d never see those eyes again, never hear that voice.

A long sigh escapes Merlin. “Hello,” he says, and sinks down on the blanket behind Arthur, giving him something to lean on. It means he can’t look at Merlin, but then he can’t have everything. Merlin’s father – Balinor, that’s right – doesn’t move, so Arthur decides to ignore him for now. It’s not helping his flush at knowing this position is very close to how they ended up yesterday – in the woods.

“How bad are the ribs?” he asks.

Merlin’s beautiful voice seems to drop straight into his ear. “Leon says cracked and not broken.” Long fingers slide into his hair and he hopes Balinor can't see from this angle. Still, he doesn't protest.

Arthur nods instead. Not broken is about the best news he could have hoped for. “How long have I been asleep?”

“What was left of the night. A bit of the morning.”

He nods again. “We ride out after lunch, then.”

“That’s what Leon says.” Merlin sounds less happy with this news.

“And how is – I've forgotten his name-“

“Lancelot.”

“Lance. A lot.”

He can tell Merlin is rolling his eyes, “Yes. Lancelot, the hero. And he’s fine. Got clawed down one arm in the death throes, but most of the weight of it fell on you, my lord.”

“The Pendragon luck holds, then,” he says, dry, and Balinor twitches.

Their eyes meet and the flare of rage there tells Arthur about half the answers he needs. He takes a slow breath and reaches for control. This is Merlin’s family, after all.

“From the look on your face,” he begins, “I’m guessing that at some point you had the great good fortune to encounter my father.” Merlin’s fingers flex against his skull, but he stays silent.

The older man is breathing hard by the time he answers. There’s a great deal of fury being held in check there. “I did.”

“I’m not him,” Arthur says as simply as he can. “And whatever he did to you, it is likely I cannot undo it. But I am responsible.”

“No, you are not,” Merlin says, very firm. His body tenses at Arthur’s back.

“Yes, Merlin,” he says wearily, “I am. This is how royal dynasties work, this is how kingdoms and alliances function. Doesn’t matter if I was there or not, doesn’t matter if I wasn't even born when it happened. When I inherit the crown I also inherit the wars and the betrayals, along with the tombs and the treasures.”

“There are treasures?” Merlin asks, mostly to be annoying, Arthur thinks. And to change the subject.

“Possibly. Every few years the rumours start again.” He shrugs. “Camelot holds a lot of secrets. Who knows what’s down there.”

 

 

 

Lancelot is on the other side of the clearing, talking quietly with Kay and Pelinor as they saddle the horses. His gestures are tentative, and the knights are twitchy around him, uncertain of where he fits in all of this.

The loss of four of their own has struck deep, and they are also quietly furious that they were not even there for the fight, that an untrained civilian was the one to stand with their Prince, to strike the killing blow. Arthur sighs. He will need to do something about that. And about Lancelot.

“That man is wasted as a peasant,” he murmurs to himself.

“Are you sending him back to Camelot?” Merlin keeps on appearing at his side without warning.

He has not, as yet, felt Arthur’s forehead to determine if he is feverish, but it’s a near thing, Arthur can tell. If he tries it he’ll quickly discover just how much of a prat Arthur can be.

“Not yet. He is happy to ride on with us, apparently. And I would like to personally see him rewarded for his actions. He was-“ he shakes his head “-quite stupidly brave.”

“Hmm, yes. Brave and handsome,” Merlin murmurs, one dimple appearing. “He’s going to cause a bit of a stir back in Camelot.”

He tries not to, but Arthur can feel himself sneer. “He’s not that handsome.”

“No, he is,” Merlin says, not looking away. “He really is.”

Thankfully, that conversation is cut off when Balinor approaches, and Arthur watches openly, fascinated by the clash of longing-mistrust-gratitude the two of them are both managing to convey without exchanging a single word.

“You really intend to ride off with him,” Balinor says, ignoring Arthur completely.

“Yes,” Merlin says, in the tone of a man who has said this many times already.

“He hasn’t made enough use of your magic? You are to be his tame sorcerer, then?”

“I am choosing to go with him. I’m not currently needed in Camelot.”

“Not needed by your mother? Or Gaius? No need to get to know your father?”

“Don’t talk to me about my mother,” he snaps, “Don’t you dare. And I know enough about you already – I know you attacked Arthur,” Merlin says, and this is apparently the sticking point for him.

“He didn’t actually do any damage,” Arthur offers after a moment. The glance he gets for that says that now Merlin is annoyed at him.

Still, he isn’t finished arguing with Balinor. “You could have trusted my judgement.”

“You’re clearly infatuated-“

There’s an awkward pause, and every one of them glances off into the distance. Then Arthur says with great difficulty, “That’s not exactly one-sided, you know.”

Balinor’s eyes fix on his, “And I am supposed to believe you will accord him a place of honour in your household? That he will not be cast aside when you inevitably marry?”

Ouch. That’s an incendiary topic and he has no intention of discussing with anyone but Merlin. “I don’t really care what you believe-” Arthur begins.

“What happens between Arthur and me is none of your business,” Merlin retorts, “and you’re just inventing reasons to argue now, because you don’t want to admit he can be trusted about the magic.”

“Wait a minute-” and for some reason he’s only now remembering what he’d heard when he first woke up “-you have magic?”

And now there’s a flash of something – pride? Pleasure? From Merlin, and a doubling of wariness from Balinor. It takes half a second to put it together. He hadn’t been dreaming the two voices behind him as the Gryphon attacked. “You were the other voice saying the spell.”

He looks up, meets Balinor’s eyes, and the expression there is unreadable. “I… I don’t know how to… thank you,” he finally says. He’s aware that was hardly enough, but then, he’s also aware this man held a knife to his throat just yesterday.

“No need for thanks,” Balinor says abruptly, and turns to walk away. “I was saving Merlin’s life, not yours.”

“You saved a great many more lives than that,” Arthur tells his back, and gets no response.

“Sorry,” Merlin says, voice low and conflicted.

Arthur takes a slow breath and turns his head to meet Merlin’s eyes. He’s clearly torn between anger at his father and incandescent joy at knowing the man, knowing more about his power and where it comes from. Arthur is not about to make any of this harder for Merlin. Life has already been hard enough, and in that moment he resolves that no matter what Balinor throws at him, he will somehow remove himself from their arguments. Merlin can defy his father for his own reasons, but never again for Arthur.

“You have nothing to apologize for, Merlin,” he says, his voice low. “Believe me, if you’d ever met my father you’d understand just how much you don’t owe me any kind of apology. Ever.”

There’s a pause, then Merlin says, reluctant, “He thinks you’ve only legalized magic to draw people out, that once you’ve got all the sorcerers identified you’ll scoop them all up and run the pyres for a week.”

Arthur blinks. For a moment he can’t think what to say, then he swallows and says, “My father really left an impression. Because that’s exactly the type of thing he would have done.”

“Arthur,” Merlin begins, frowning, “you know that I don’t think-“

“It’s all right,” he manages a tight smile. “I know. I do. But really, Merlin. we should finish packing, and decide whose tunic is sacrificed to bind my ribs.”

He strides off, leaving Merlin watching, and cursing the memory of his own bloody father.

 

 

 

The ride toward the coast is excruciating, just as Arthur had expected. It helps somewhat that Balinor leaves, with one last suspicious look at Arthur. He will report the news of the Gryphon’s death to Camelot, is carrying Arthur’s ring as assurance, along with the news that they are delayed by injury and will be some days before returning.

He is also leading the horses carrying their dead. Not the homecoming Arthur would like to give them, but at least they will be treated with more respect once they reach Camelot, and they cannot risk delaying further.

Arthur is deep in thought at he rides, watching his knights, watching Lancelot astride Owain’s horse, and knowing he needs to show true leadership here. It strikes deep, the sudden certainty that if he can find the way, there is perhaps a chance of building something magnificent, something that will far outlast the life of Arthur, the Mad Prince of Camelot.

He falls in beside Leon, glad to see that Merlin is riding beside Kay, deep in conversation and clearly feeling more at home with the knights in general. He has proved himself in battle, and that goes far with these men.

“You need to let it go, Leon,” he says, his voice low.

Leon does not look at him. His face is set in a mulish scowl, and Arthur sighs, understanding. First Kanen, now the Gryphon. They are neither of them used to letting others take on burdens that are rightfully theirs, it bites deep.

“It was not a battlefield situation, we were not in control of the ground, nor could we dictate terms to the enemy. You did nothing wrong-“

“I was not there when my fellow knights and my King faced-“

“I am not your King, Leon,” he is surprised into saying.

There’s a moment of silence, and then Leon turns in the saddle and looks Arthur full in the face. He makes no effort to keep his voice down, and every head turns as he speaks. “I need no crown nor coronation to tell me who is Camelot’s rightful King. And even with your sickness, sire, you are the finest warrior and the greatest leader I have ever seen.”

He speaks calmly, with such certainty that for a moment Arthur truly fears he’ll fall from his bloody horse in shock.

No-one ever – they never mention- Thankfully for his ribs, he keeps his seat.

Leon continues. “I would follow you anywhere, Arthur, and fight to my last breath with a smile on my face at having been given the chance.”

And then he turns back, nudges forward in the line until he is beside Lancelot, leaving Arthur stunned, open-mouthed, and not a little embarrassed.

 

Chapter Text

 

They ride on until Arthur is hollowed-out with pain, and Merlin’s brow bears permanent wrinkles. The quick, sideways glances would be sweet if they weren’t so bloody annoying.

“Useless,” Arthur hears him swearing under his breath, and they’ve probably covered another mile before he realizes what Merlin is thinking.

Yes. Healing magic would be extremely useful on this day, and many others. Although. He thinks of his mother, suddenly, and shivers. No. Some things are not meant to be tampered with. Enough people have died for Arthur Pendragon.

He manages not to groan as he is helped from his horse, lurches in silence to a fallen tree and simply sits, uncaring of the bustle around him, until the knives in his sides settle and he can breathe again. He can’t even summon the will to argue when Merlin and Leon strip his mail away, slow and careful, just bites his lips as he struggles to drop his arms to his sides, knowing how it’s going to feel when he does.

Camp assembles around him and the other knights treat him exactly as he’d hoped – barely glancing his way at all, no concern on their faces when they do. They make a campfire on the opposite side of the clearing from where he is sitting, and he sighs at the thought of moving but says nothing. Then suddenly Leon is building another fire, close enough to warm his frozen toes, and he understands then that he will not be moving unless nature compels him to, that they are making a small, separate camp for Arthur and Merlin. He can’t begin to think about that.

Merlin sets both fires blazing merrily with magic. The small cheer from around the camp has him grinning, this is power the travel-weary knights can appreciate, and then Bedivere and Kay disappear into the twilight to hunt up something for dinner, teasing Merlin at being unable to provide a haunch of roasted venison on demand.

Merlin dumps Arthur’s saddlebags behind the fallen tree and goes back for his own, carrying it far more carefully and Arthur understands once he sees the spellbook drawn from one side and laid carefully on the blankets. He smiles briefly at Arthur and then disappears with Lancelot and the waterskins.

He’s very nearly alone, the remaining knights – Gods, so few of them – are tending to the horses, checking for stones in their hooves, and so he lets his head drop, grips the rough bark hard with one hand and hugs his chest with the other. The slower his breathing, the better, he finds, and it’s a relief to relax, let the pain roll through him until he knows it, can grip it tight and wrest it under control.

He’s not sure how long the others are gone, but when he hears Merlin’s familiar voice through the trees he takes a final, shallow breath and smoothes out his expression. It is almost full night now, Kay and Bedivere are cleaning their birds and when he lifts his head Leon is watching him from the other side of the clearing, considering.

Arthur shrugs at him, then winces. Leon understands that they must push on. Leon would do the same thing in his place.

Merlin steps into the clearing with his arms full of dripping waterskins, and he is laughing. It’s not a sight Arthur’s often seen, and beautiful as it is, there’s a pang that it was prompted by Lancelot’s words, someone Merlin’s only just met. Still, Merlin’s eyes seek him out immediately, the dimples on display deepen, and he finds the pain receding, just a little.

The waterskins are distributed around the camp and Merlin heads immediately for Arthur, looks him over carefully before turning away and searching the ground for something.

“You really think Lancelot’s handsome?” he finds himself asking, and then immediately wishes he could fall on his sword.

Merlin’s glance is wide-eyed and startled. And then, with a shocking lack of respect for the Crown Prince, he laughs and laughs and laughs. Across the clearing the knights glance up, bemused, then turn away. Thankfully the near dark conceals Arthur’s suddenly flushed cheeks. When Merlin finally reaches Arthur’s side, he is biting his lips to keep from smiling.

“Nah, not really,” he says, makes an unimpressed face that is clearly forged. He deposits a large, flat rock near Arthur’s feet and slants a glance up through his eyelashes. “I mean. Only if you like them brave and strong and dark and broody-looking.” He turns his attention back to the stone, lays his hand on it and murmurs some spell.

Arthur’s tempted to be annoyed, but he can’t resist playing. “And you? How do you like them?” He nudges Merlin’s leg with one foot, thankful it costs him very little movement.

“I like them… smart.” He shuffles forward, lifts Arthur’s feet so carefully that his ribs don’t shift at all and slides the rock beneath them. It is steaming, the heat immediately doing wonderful things for his aches and pains. When he sits back, his eyes are nearly level with Arthur’s. “And kind. Generous. And brave. And so golden and gorgeous the sun itself is put to shame.”

Now he’s flushing like a chambermaid, neck hot, breath shaking. Should have gone with annoyed. But then Merlin’s lips are on his and he finds himself not caring about anything much at all.

Not even his ribs.

 

 

 

When they finally arrive at the half-ruined castle two days later, tired and travel-stained, Arthur’s skin is twitching with the need to move, to act. But he has been struggling with this for the past three days as they rode, and he knows what he must do.

His ribs are still troubling him - no surprise there. Days of hard travel were the last thing he needed. And now… he sighs. Now is apparently the time for him to show seasoned leadership. Maturity. Stupid maturity, he thinks morosely.

Gwaine is waiting on the road, as agreed, and nods in greeting, looking as cold and miserable as they all feel. Arthur eyes the sky. The first snow is imminent, they are lucky it has held off this long, true winter settling around them now. They follow Gwaine as he turns his horse into the woods to the south of the ruined keep.

When they reach a clearing they dismount and gather in a loose circle, a far smaller band than at the start, and that knowledge is weighing on each one of them. He does not want to lose any more of his knights, of his companions.

Arthur hesitates for one long second, watching Gwaine dole out the bread he has pulled from his saddlebags. The men fall on it like starving wolves, they’ve had no bread for many days. It’s a thoughtful gesture, and Arthur eyes the other man in surprise before he accepts his own loaf, splits it with Lancelot, who is finally beginning to relax – just a little – around a Prince.

He’s still horribly tempted to be selfish, to do what he wants, rather than what he knows is right. But then he swallows, and turns his head to the man standing at his right. “Leon.“ The knight nods, calm and watchful as always. “You will lead us,” Arthur says, and suddenly it’s not difficult to say at all. “This sortie is yours to command.”

His eyes widen. “My lord?” There is a small jerk of surprise from Pelinor and Bedivere at his right, but the glance they exchange hold no jealousy, only surprise. Leon hesitates, then, modest to the last, says, “Your injuries-“

“They pain me, yes, Leon. But that is not why I am giving you command. You have earned the respect of every man here.” He hesitates, then glances around him, at the faces he knows, seeing the ones now missing and never to return. “Look around you. Here, in this circle, we are all equals.” He knows no other way to say it, and it doesn’t feel like enough, but he sees the knights nod, the faint lift of Gwaine’s brows, Lance’s measuring glance.

He turns back to Leon. “You are a fine leader, and I would trust Morgana’s safety to no other.” That prompts a faint flush, which gives a bit more weight to Arthur’s private suspicions, but Leon just stares at him, breathing hard, and so he shrugs and ignores the twinge of pain. “Now. Tell us where you want us, and how we’re going to get inside.”

When Leon gathers himself and begins to sketch in the mud with a sharp stick, Arthur glances around the group. They are, all of them, listening intently to Leon, with the exception of Merlin. He is watching Arthur, and when their eyes meet, he smiles, slow and proud.

“That was hard for you,” he says later, as they check their weapons and ready for the assault.

“What was hard?” he replies, feigning ignorance.

“Arthur,” he says, puts a hand on his arm and forces him to look up. “It was well done,” he says softly.

“No, Merlin,” he says, and manages a smile, “it was well-earned.”

 

 

 

It is mid-afternoon by the time they are ready. A long, slow creep through the woods has brought them to the western side of the supposedly ruined keep, and sure enough there are signs of life all around it.

Arthur stares up at the windows. Morgana and Gwen are inside. They are so close – so close to being able to challenge Agravaine, to returning Camelot to its rightful order.

“So we don’t know if they’re expecting us?” Leon is asking.

Gwaine shrugs. “I slipped the ring into the wine. We can only hope they got it.”

Leon just nods. “All right.” He and Arthur exchange a glance and barely suppressed grins. They both know that at the first sign of trouble, Morgana will act without hesitation.

Arthur had tried to describe to Merlin last night the chaos at one of their last formal banquets where one of the Council had choked over the toasts until he was blue in the face. Uther, paranoid as always, had immediately assumed poison, and Morgana had snatched up the carving knife and cornered two of their visitors before the guards had managed to get through the door. Arthur, helpless with laughter, had simply watched the dressing down she received for unladylike behaviour while Uther failed to control his own proud smile. Leon had snickered at the memory as he sat by the fire, his own smile fond and, for once, unguarded.

Pelinor and Kay should be at the western side by now, Lancelot and Bedivere at the east. The ruined southern wall is unguarded, but for good reason, it is unstable and could never be crossed in silence. Instead they are trusting that Gwaine’s observations will hold, that only two guards cover the north wall, that they are both lazy and, after all these months, complacent.

Merlin is in charge of the diversion. He’d smirked, earlier, as Pelinor had begun to describe an elaborate scheme, and woven a spell before the knight could finish a sentence. A full-grown deer had appeared amongst the trees, blinking at them.

I’m afraid we can’t eat it, though, he’d said regretfully, and startled a bark of laughter from Kay.

It works like a charm – the first guard is startled out of his roll of the dice and thrusts his head so far forward on his neck it seems as though he’ll fall over. “Is that-?” Arthur can hear the man’s voice from the woods, which means their own silence is flawless. My knights truly are incomparable, he thinks, and then remembers that only half of those present are actually Knights of Camelot. Hmm. Something to think on.

“A bloody deer,” the other guard confirms, and they rise together, take slow, careful steps away from the gate while they reach down for their knives. Two seconds later they are dropping to the ground, gurgling around the arrows lodged in their throats.

“Nicely done,” Leon says, and Arthur closes his mouth with a snap as he lowers his crossbow. Right. Not in command here. Well. At least he’s done something to contribute.

Merlin raises a brow as though he’s reading Arthur’s mind and he frowns back horribly. He’s doing it, isn’t he? Doesn’t mean that giving up command comes easily.

“Let’s go,” Leon says, and they rise as one and cover the ground to the wall in near-perfect silence, and this is the part Arthur hates. Leon, Gwaine, and young Geraint are inside within moments, while Merlin and Arthur guard the door. At this point they are operating blind, and at the very least they need a safe exit point for the women, if things go horribly wrong.

“You’re taking this better than I expected,” Merlin manages to speak in a near-silent murmur.

Arthur glances at him, cross. What’s that supposed to mean? he doesn’t ask.

“I thought you’d have broken into hives by now,” he says, and his lips twitch.

Arthur pointedly turns his back on Merlin and strains to hear anything from inside. There’s no real noise – nor should there be – and his skin is humming with the knowledge of what is going on in there. Long moments stretch, like treacle gathering on a spoon, waiting to fall, and just when he is truly struggling not to charge off after them, there is a low whistle from inside. He tilts his head just enough to see whether it’s one of his, and he recognizes Geraint.

“All clear, sire,” he manages in a loud whisper and Arthur is off at a run, glancing once over his shoulder to check that Merlin is behind him.

He follows Geraint up a crumbling flight of stairs, curved, sees at the top that Lancelot and Bedivere are waiting at the far end of the corridor, swords still out but their stances alert rather than battle-ready. There are bodies piled tidily on the left. Bedivere meets Arthur’s eyes and jerks his his chin once, and Arthur nods back and flings himself up the next set of stairs.

He doesn’t have to ask if she is – if they are – all right. He can hear as he reaches the top of the stairs.

“…didn’t honestly expect me to just sit around and wait?”

“No, milady,” Leon is saying, “I can truthfully say not one of us expected you to do that.”

“We’d have made a break sooner except-”

“You had to finish your embroidery first?” Arthur asks, manages to lean on the door frame without wincing.

She doesn’t bite, though. Morgana’s head turns with a snap, and in the next moment her arms are around him. He can’t quite choke back the gasp of pain but he doesn’t let go when she stills and tries to pull away, “Sorry-“

“It’s fine,” he says, and she falls against him, soft and yet strong, just as he remembers her. “You’re well?”

“Yes,” she says, and “Thank you.” It’s so soft no-one else can hear, and his arms tighten and then by mutual agreement their arms drop and they step back, faces carefully controlled, normal courtly distance preserved. It’s how they know each other.

“Don’t start with me about the embroidery, Arthur,” she says with a proud lift of her head, and Leon turns toward the window, biting back a smile. Arthur notices for the first time the unconscious men on the floor, he's fairly certain no Knight used a candlestick and a chair for a weapon.

“Gwen,” Arthur gives her a nod over Morgana’s shoulder. “Are you all right?”

“I’m very well, my lord,” she says, with a perfect curtsey. “Lady Morgana was quite insistent about my safety. But it is – it is very good to see the Knights of Camelot again,” she dares to add. It’s the most words he has ever heard her utter.

“Your father will be glad to hear it,” he says, and manages a smile, “He was of great help to us in planning this.” Her eyes widen and he watches the joy and gratitude chase across her face.

Thank you, sire,” she says, heartfelt this time instead of just careful.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Even injured, Arthur outpaces Merlin easily, and so he’s still a full flight of steps behind when he hears a woman’s voice thanking Arthur. He takes a deep breath and lets the gladness fill him up. This has been eating at Arthur since long before they met, tainting his days with bitter wine, and now Morgana is safe, and all will be well.

Then he remembers the madness, and sighs.

When he reaches the doorway of the room where Arthur and half the knights are clustered, he freezes to the spot.

“…holding the children of the village to ransom,” the taller one is saying, while Leon and Kay bind the hands of two unconscious men in the corner and Arthur tries to pretend he’s not leaning on the wall for support. Merlin might join him in a minute, if he can make his legs work. “We couldn’t even try to escape,” the goddess adds.

She’s even more physically perfect than Arthur, hard as that is to believe. At least Arthur has slightly crooked teeth.

This woman’s skin is pale and unblemished, like Merlin has never seen before. Her eyes are currently wet with angry tears, or possibly frustration. Ridiculously white teeth are biting into a perfectly curved bottom lip, no doubt to keep her noble composure, and her hair hangs in a loose braid all the way down her back.

Merlin can’t look away from her – no-one had warned him she was so very very beautiful – and he catches a flat look from Arthur a second before he realizes he’s gawping. He looks away swiftly, flushing, and then has to fight back a grin when he it strikes him that for just one moment there, Arthur had looked jealous.

First Lancelot, now this. Hmm.

She is glancing around at the assembled knights, all poise and gladness, when her eyes fall on Merlin. For one second her eyes widen, and then her entire face changes, goes sheet-white.

“Oh, Arthur,” she says, voice shaking with disappointment. “What have you done?” Her eyes are fixed on the manacles Merlin had finally dug out of Leon’s saddlebag this morning, in case things went wrong. No-one would look twice at the Prince’s slave, no-one would guard against an attack from someone so clearly helpless.

Merlin jumps and looks toward Arthur, who suddenly has that same closed-off expression he’d worn when he’d said the shame is mine and I gave up my honour, Merlin. The one that says I am to blame to everything.

No, milady,” he blurts, hands out in entreaty, “it’s not like that.” Her eyes widen, she obviously hadn’t expected Merlin to speak, or perhaps that he wouldn’t be allowed to, and honestly, doesn’t she know Arthur at all?

“I’m not his slave,” he adds, and releases the cuffs with only a thought - second nature by now. They fall to the ground and roll around his feet. “I’m his magician.”

There’s a taut moment of silence. Then Arthur snorts, and when Merlin looks over his face is full of affection, though he’s shaking his head.

“His magician?” She seems aghast, actually staggers on her feet and then Leon’s there. hand cupping her elbow, murmuring something. There’s a wobbly moment where Merlin thinks, oh crap, she was raised by Uther who hated magic, and then she says, turning, “Arthur?”

He seems to understand the ten or so questions contained in his name. Although, just to be a prat, he folds his arms over his chest and takes his time replying. The movement costs him a slight wince, and then he says deliberately, looking at the floor, “I’ve ended the ban on magic. It’s no longer punishable by death, or punishable at all, actually, unless it’s used to break the law. Merlin’s magic, however, is still a secret. It’s given us an advantage against Agravaine. So for now, we maintain the fiction that he is my slave.”

He hesitates, and Merlin just knows he’s about to make some crushing confession about all his wrongdoings in choosing Merlin in the first place, so he rushes in with “-yes. It’s been a busy year.”

Morgana just stares some more, open-mouthed, then shakes her head. Falling back on courtly manners, which Merlin guesses are drilled into noble children at an early age, she straightens her spine and steps forward. “Well, Merlin the Magician,” she says, and there's a wild kind of fear in her eyes for a moment, “it’s a pleasure to meet you.” And she extends her hand, though Merlin seems to be the only one who notices how much it’s shaking.

He blinks, then swallows as he takes her hand, careful. He can’t remember when he last washed and she's strangely fragile at the moment, hasn't stopped staring at his face, as if searching for something. “Um. Thank you, milady. I’m… very pleased to finally meet you as well.”

There’s the tiniest quirk at the corner of her mouth and then she releases Merlin and casts a glance back at her maid. “I knew he’d go ahead and have all the fun without me. Didn’t I say so?”

The dark-skinned women smiles gently and says, “You did, milady.” She exchanges a speaking glance with Merlin that says at length, and he grins at her.

“I’m Gwen, by the way,” she says, and her eyes are shining as she smiles back. In the hallway, just behind Merlin, Lance fumbles with a candle and knocks it over.

 

 

There’s a fair amount of confusion then, various knights stumbling into the room, anxious to see the ladies, loud voices overlapping with courtly greetings, introductions for Gwaine and Lancelot, wry jokes at the state of the castle, the horses, the snow just beginning to fall. But there are moments Merlin sees more sharply, like they carry the weight of something more than words.

Leon, stilling for a moment too long as he takes Morgana’s hand in a gentle grip…

… the soft curve of her neck as she tilts her head and smiles slowly at him…

… Gwaine, acknowledging Arthur’s hand on his shoulder with a sly grin…

…Lancelot, eyes dropping to the floor a second after meeting Gwen, stammering in surprise…

… and Arthur, his blonde head bent toward Morgana’s, the two of them framed in the window as they stand together in silence, watching the snow fall.

 

* * *

 

“We’ll bunk in the rooms the guards were using,” Leon is saying, “and the ladies can remain where they were. The cook tells us there’s another room on the ground floor that doesn’t leak, but it has no bed, I’m afraid.”

“That’s fine,” Arthur says, “we’ll manage with a pile of blankets-“ and then stops abruptly, realizing just how swiftly he said we.

It’s become second nature, this idea of Arthur-and-Merlin, Merlin-and-Arthur, but it’s hardly in the spirit of the silent promise he’d made, that the sorcerer would not have to choose between Arthur and… anything else he might want. Arthur can’t keep assuming he owns Merlin. He flinches at the thought, at what it betrays – how they began. Merlin is no slave.

“Yes,” Merlin is saying, unconcerned. “I can keep the fire going – it does have a fireplace?”

“It does,” Leon says, and he, too, is talking as though this is absolutely the way things are supposed to be. Arthur takes an unsteady breath, wondering if he’s making this happen just by wishing very, very hard. He is surrounded by magic, after all.

“Why don’t you go and spend some time with Lady Morgana, then,” Merlin says, turning to Arthur. “I’ll get the room ready and see about some supper.”

And that’s it, apparently. He’s dismissed.

He finds himself fighting a wry grin at the idea as he ambles down the corridor to where he’d last seen Morgana. Of course she surprises him instead by appearing in a nearby doorway and his hand goes to his sword hilt so fast it does his ribs no favours at all. He relaxes, makes a gesture of apology which she ignores.

She used to move around the castle like that, too, on creepy little cat’s feet, he’s nearly drawn on her about twenty times and actually elbowed her in the stomach once, left her gasping on her knees. They’d never told Uther, one of the hundred small secrets that had bound them to one another despite her being so generally bloody annoying and Arthur - formerly - a careless bully.

He follows her into an empty room with a large hole in the floor and a strong smell of mouse droppings. She halts an arms-length away and glances at him over her shoulder. “You’ve changed,” she says, the challenging tone slightly muted by what’s probably gratitude. He can’t wait until it wears off and she’s once more a royal pain in his rear.

“Well, it has been almost a year,” he says, and feels his face change. It had taken him almost a year to shake her loose from captivity.

“Don’t-” she says quickly, and puts out a hand. They’ve never been affectionate with one another. Between Uther’s mysterious vigilance – not so mysterious now – and the required formality of courtly manners, they’d never had the chance. But as he watches she gives a tiny shake of the head and deliberately grips his wrist with small, cool fingers. “Arthur,” she says, more calmly. “Don’t do that to yourself. I know you, and I know you did everything that you could to get here as soon as possible.”

He shakes his head, not ready to be absolved just yet.

“I was in no danger,” she says, and he swallows.

He must ask. He’s never wanted to do anything less. He’s taken whippings easier than this, than saying, “Did he- did anyone-”

“Oh, Arthur,” she says, and leans close, voice low. “No. I swear to you. We have been treated – both of us, as honoured guests. Well guarded, but respectful.” She hesitates, eyeing him, and he just waits. “He wasn’t–” she glances away. “He never threatened me, Arthur. He was-” and she grimaces, “courting me.”

He just blinks at her. A second later he realizes he’s mostly surprised he hadn’t guessed that. What a perfect addition she would have made to his uncle’s ambitions.

Just as Hector had recognized – Morgana would make a formidable Queen. Beloved of the people. A proud and beautiful ornament. Strong-willed, and devastatingly clever. Agravaine could probably have taken the throne without resistance from the people of Camelot, had he Morgana on his arm.

“I didn’t-” she says hastily. “I had to be careful, but. I refused him. Every time.”

“Morgana,” he manages a faint smile, “I know that.” For a moment perfect silence reigns, but there is something tremulous in the way she is looking at him, so he digs deep to finds some semblance of their old banter. “For goodness’ sake,” he manages to add, “as if you’d consider any man who could imagine you content with embroidery-”

And she laughs, a great long ripple of undignified mirth he’s not heard since long before Uther’s madness.

When she’s calm again, she eyes him carefully and so he knows before she asks. “Are you, are you still-”

“Yes,” he says, as calm as he can. “It is still happening. Four or five times since you were taken.” Then his mouth twists. “I remain the Mad Prince.”

Her mouth trembles at that, and she looks away. It had hurt her so badly, that first time, he’d remembered that clear enough, days later. The sheer horror on her face as she’d watched him drop to the cobblestones, babbling and then, mercifully, his mind was blank. He’s not sure why it had cut her so deep, perhaps he’ll never understand.

“I- I don’t. Morgana,” he says. There’s no good way to ask.

She looks at him, eyes calm, chin lifted. Now it’s her turn to know what he’s going to say.

“Do you want to be… acknowledged? I’m happy to do it, but only if that’s what you want. Or if you’d rather no-one knew, it will remain between us. But. It could give you considerable power at Court.” He states the obvious. As Uther’s acknowledged daughter, she could be a contender to his throne, a possible Regent.

The breath she takes is slow and controlled. “I had a father, Arthur. I’ll not see his name dishonoured-”

And he nods, strong. He understands that, had expected it, to be honest. There were days when he, too, would choose another father if he could.

“Merlin,” she says suddenly, and he twitches. She eyes him interestedly, and he curses himself for being so transparent. They might be finding compassion and gentleness for one another on this day, but she is still Morgana, after all. She will make his life a living hell, as sisters-

He goes very still on that thought and says back calmly as he can, “Merlin?”

“He’s an… interesting addition.”

“Very interesting,” Arthur says. She’ll have wheedled the entire story from Leon and the others by morning, but he’s not about to help.

“Is he-” she glances down at her hands and says quickly, “is he the reason you lifted the ban on magic? Because you… met someone with magic, someone good?”

“Gods, no,” Arthur snorts. “I didn’t know a thing about Merlin’s powers when I did it.”

“Then… Arthur, why?” she asks, eyes wide. She sounds desperate.

He blinks. He’d – he hadn’t expected so much confusion from her on this, but he can see now that she's trembling. They’d never been able to openly discuss it, but – he’d thought she felt much as he did, an uneasy instinct that the ban on magic was wrong. In fact, he’d have said, if asked, that she felt even more strongly than Arthur. She’d always been happier to defy Uther, for one thing, and far more likely to trust instinct over reason, while he had struggled on dutifully, wanting to believe his father to be both correct, and good.

In the end he had been neither.

“It was only right,” he says, making it as simple as he can. He hesitates. “Magic is only another kind of power, Morgana. I am as likely to be corrupted by my position as a sorcerer is by his power. I cannot kill innocent people for being born as they are.”

“Arthur,” she whispers, and her face is crumbling, she’s suddenly unrecognizable, so vulnerable.

“What is it?” he gasps, clutches at her hands. “Morgana – if you’re afraid of sorcery, I promise you, I will see you safe, there’s nothing to fear-”

“I feel so ashamed,” she gulps, covers her mouth with a shaking hand and he’s never seen her like this, she’s always strong and certain and wry and now she’s broken. “I wasn’t going to tell you. I was going to hide, like a coward, as I’ve always done-”

“Morgana-”

“Arthur,” and she takes a steadying breath, “I have magic. I think. I mean, I know. I have dreams, I see things, I see the future and they come true, Arthur-”

He just gapes at her.

“Morgana?” He can’t help it, he knows he should have better to offer than that, but. He’d been prepared for snide remarks on the rescue and sideways references to the madness and arguments or accusations over his father’s secrets and lies. Not.

Not this.

“My lady.” And then Gwen is just there, a calm island in the room, taking Morgana’s hand in hers for a brief squeeze, eyes catching Arthur’s. “It’s all right, my lord,” she says, voice full of compassion for both of them. She helps Morgana to a chair by the window and lets her weep, uncontrolled, while she crosses to Arthur.

“She has been very …overwrought about this,” she tells him, voice low.

He shakes his head, finds his hands are clenched in useless fists. He is not- he doesn’t know how to handle a woman who weeps. No mother, no aunts, only the ladies of the court who reveal nothing, and Morgana who’d arrived as a ten year old, white-faced with grief, and who never cried.

Gwen’s voice firms, forces his eyes away from Morgana. “This was bound to happen, no matter what you’d said, sire. She’s been dreaming of what’s happening back home, unable to do anything about it- not sure if they were nightmares or true.” Arthur winces and she adds hastily, “But she also dreamed you would come, all of you.”

“I- I should have been here sooner,” is all he can say.

Gwen shakes her head gently. “Talk to her in the morning, sire,” she says. “She needs to sleep, restful sleep, and I think she’ll be able to now.” She hesitates, “Now that you’re here.”

“Thank you, Gwen,” he says, and stumbles blindly away.

 

Chapter Text

 

Leon finds him in the corridors an hour later, pacing. His face shows that he knows something of what happened, and Arthur has a moment to wonder if Leon could comfort her, if Leon would know what to say. When their eyes meet he knows the other man has seen exactly what’s on his mind.

“My mother used to cry at the first snowfall every year,” the knight says, and Arthur blinks at him, taken aback. “Just sit by a window and cry. At first I thought she hated winter that much, but I found out later, when I was older, that she’d had a brother. He died of a wasting disease during the first snowfall of his tenth year.”

Arthur stares out the window at the white world.

“My father always said to just leave her be. That sometimes a woman just needs to let it out. They can’t simply storm down to training or drown their sorrows in their cups.”

He nods. “Leave her be. It’s good advice, especially since she wants no comfort from me.” They’ve never been like that. Uther wouldn’t allow it.

Leon looks away, and when he speaks, his voice is blank and flat. “I am sure in time she will-“ He stops and shrugs. “It doesn’t – the crying – it’s never as bad as it looks.”

Arthur takes a deep breath, which hurts, of course. “You are a good friend to me, Leon,” he finally says, staring straight ahead.

He can hear Leon swallow. “As you have always been to me, Arthur.”

The silence settles around them, and finally Leon says, “You should go to your bed. Rest those ribs.” His lips twitch when he says it, as if he knows perfectly well Arthur has no plans to rest this night, and Arthur slaps the back of his hand against Leon’s belly in retaliation, listens to the soft oof as he makes contact.

“We’ll take a day of rest tomorrow,” Arthur says. “Resupply and check the ladies have clothing fit for winter travel.”

“Downstairs and to the right, sire,” he says, grinning openly now. A shadow passes over his face but is gone in a moment.

Arthur saunters down the corridor like a king, ignoring the soft laughter behind him.

When he enters the room, finally, Arthur is stunned. It’s – it’s-

“Too much?” Merlin asks, and he sounds for just an instant like the slave boy from so many weeks ago. Tentative and off-balance, waiting for rough handling.

Merlin,” he breathes, unable to say anything else.

The room is warm, a cocoon against the freezing temperature in the rest of the keep, but that’s not what has stolen his breath. Merlin’s lights fill the space. He has somehow created tiny, delicate versions of the orbs he had shown the knights back in that clearing. There’s scores of them, floating near the ceiling, above the fire, bathing the room in a soft white-blue glow that lights up Merlin like the purest Purbeck marble, a nervous statue in the middle of a ruined room.

 

 

 

Merlin swallows hard, waiting for Arthur to say something. He’d just – he’d only meant to prepare the room. Laid out some food – some bread and two bowls of stew he’ll reheat later – made a bed from a pile of blankets. It had all seemed so oddly familiar, almost as if they were back in Arthur’s rooms in Camelot. So he’d started the fire – with magic – and...

He’d been thinking about Arthur’s bed, about the soft covers weighing it down, so different from the rough travel-blankets they’d been using. And then – there they were. He folded them over and piled them up until he could no longer feel the hardness of the wooden floor beneath his knees. And then more items kept appearing, and after a moment he’d shrugged, trailed down to the kitchen – much easier to find than Camelot’s – and retrieved a bucket of water.

Now as he stares across at Arthur, he’s off-balance.

“How – how did you…” Arthur is asking, looking around the room in wonder.

“It just sort of… happened.” he shrugs, shifts from one foot to another.

“Is that-” Arthur stops and blinks, then slants a glance up at Merlin. His eyes crinkle at the corner, “Did you summon my washbasin and blankets?”

“Um. There’s nothing like the comforts of home?”

Arthur laughs, and it’s a carefree sound Merlin’s never heard him make before, something lifts in his chest and he takes a step forward. “I’ll send them all back in the morning,” he promises, though actually, he’s never sent anything back to anywhere before and he’s not sure he knows how.

The last time, he’d carried the jar of salve back down to Gaius’ rooms the next day, his cheeks hot as he’d wondered if he could just ask to keep it. He’d been hoping they’d use it again. A lot.

He blinks, wondering, and glances over to the nest of blankets. Sure enough, there is the now-familiar jar. He narrows his eyes at it, unnerved.

Sometimes it feels like his magic has a crush on Arthur that is completely separate from Merlin himself.

“Well now,” Arthur says, and leans carefully back against the door. “What shall I do with you, Merlin?”

“Food and orgasms?” he asks, hopeful.

Arthur laughs again, it’s a sound he could get very used to. “I think that’s likely, yes,” he says, but there’s an odd look in his eye. “Exactly how warm can you make it in here?”

He shrugs. “Warm enough.” The fire crackles as if in response, flares higher.

“All right then,” Arthur says, and relaxes completely against the door, head back, eyes half-closed. Ribs still paining him, then. “Take all of your clothes off. Slow as you like.”

“Whuh?” He blinks.

“I want to look at you,” he says, low and slow and rough.

“At- me?”

His eyes are hooded now. “Yes.”

He swallows and manages not to say, but I’m so skinny and pale and sometimes it’s like I have extra elbows. Instead he takes a deep breath and thinks, he likes my ears. That has to mean something.

“All right,” he manages, and his voice comes out unsteady.

He goes very slow. There’s something about the soft glow in the room and the crackle of the fire and the worries put behind them that makes this more, and he wants to savour it.

The neckerchief, first. It’s become habit to wear it – it’s handy to have and the key to Arthur’s rooms and Gaius’ are always hidden beneath it, the signs of faith he’s been given by two people he trusts so very much. He swallows as it drops to the floor and watches Arthur’s eyes fix on the movement. He’s still fully dressed but it certainly doesn’t feel like it.

He licks his lips and toes off his boots, kicks them aside with no care at all. When he drags his stockings off, his toes curl against the sudden cold of the stone floor beneath his feet. The fire blazes higher, golden flames dancing in Arthur’s eyes as he watches.

“Keep going,” Arthur says, and his voice is deep, with a note of command that makes Merlin’s cock jump. His eyes fly to meet that blue, blue gaze, and he holds it as his hands cross, grip the bottom edge of the heavy woolen tunic, draw it slowly up, up until the fabric covers his face and then he lets his head fall back as the cloth passes over his chin, cheeks, ears, ruffles his hair and then he lets it slide down his arms to the floor.

He’s breathing faster now, Arthur too, he sees with a sudden tremor of surprise, hands fisting against the thick timber of the door and a bulge in the front of his trousers that is unmistakable.

He repeats the same dance with his undershirt, a slight tease in his expression now, confidence growing as his chest is bared and he watches Arthur’s eyes darken with desire. He swallows, hard, and fumbles too long with the laces at the front of his trousers, bites his lip and sways a little, hears Arthur swear softly as he watches.

When he’s finally naked he lifts his head and just waits, asking for nothing.

For all they’ve been to each other – they’ve never done this. Never really explored each other, open and visible and truly naked, to the eyes, to the hands, to the lips.

“Arthur,” he breathes, and he’s aching to touch and be touched. Arthur nods, just once, eyes closing and Merlin knows he is steeling himself for the pain that’s bound to come. His ribs are not healed, they are days away from being mended, and yet they both need this, and he knows without asking that Arthur will not be gainsaid.

So Merlin carefully peels Arthur’s shirts from his body, kneels to take his boots and stands again quickly, not wanting to re-open that particular nightmare tonight. Arthur’s fingers tangle in his hair as he rises and when their eyes meet he knows they had the same thought, the understanding of leave it alone. Instead he straightens, stares into Arthur’s eyes and they kiss – for the first time in days, he realizes with shock, so exhausted had Arthur been as they traveled.

“I’ve missed this,” Arthur whispers, and Merlin presses against him as gently as he can.

“Yes,” he sighs against warm lips. “Arthur, yes.

Arthur’s hands are trailing over his body, light fingers down his throat, down his chest, at the curve of his hip, and he circles Merlin’s wrists when he tries to finish undressing Arthur, tries to stroke warm, golden skin.

“Merlin let me,” he murmurs, “just let me. We’ve had so little time… I want to, mmm…” and he bites gently at the curve of Merlin’s shoulder.

“I… yes,” he manages, “whatever you… hm…”

He can feel the smile form against his skin, even as fingers dance over his hips and he’s so warm even as the snow falls outside. Arthur shifts, then, turning them both, deep drugging kisses and strong hands pressing Merlin back against the door. He tries to remember the injuries, twining his hands through Arthur’s hair instead of around his waist, happy to kiss and kiss and kiss.

“Wait,” Arthur says, and steps away for a moment and Merlin is shocked to hear himself moan in protest but then Arthur is back, a warm wet cloth in his hand and he tends to Merlin. Hands that can kill wipe away the dust of the road, stroke over the small cuts and bruises that come from making camp, gathering wild greens, tending the horses. He’s not felt loved like this in a long time, if ever, and he’s breathing so hard it’s loud in a world where the snow covers everything in silence.

His eyes roll back in his head as the cloth passes over his groin, his aching, leaking cock. Oh, guh, where did all the words go? he wonders a little plaintively.

 “Arthur,” he finally manages, thin and thready, and opens his eyes enough to see the smile, receive the kiss before Arthur turns him gently, gives his back, his arse, his legs the same attention. “Please,” he says, and then suddenly the cloth is gone and those fighter’s hands stroke over him, confident and full of intent.

He doesn’t understand the slight shift behind him, expects a warm hand perhaps on his cock and instead two hands cup his arse and he tilts his hips a little, ready - so ready, they should have gotten the salve when he was undr-

“Ah, oh,” the sound flies out of him, shocked and broken and so good, so, so good, as his hand slaps against the door for balance. Soft, wet strokes between his cheeks, over his- Arthur’s tongue inside him-

“Ohhh- Arthur,” he chokes, feels his knees give before he catches himself, presses a hot cheek to the cool timber of the door and bites down hard on his lip.

It’s madness, wet and soft and then strong and blindingly good, nothing he’s ever imagined before and now can’t imagine doing without. He drags in a shuddering breath and slides his legs further apart, cock hard and leaking, mouth dragging open against the door.

“Arthur,” he manages again and he’s begging this time, “oh gods oh gods oh, oh,” he can’t keep the sound in, arching his back madly, offering himself as his face heats and he pictures what Arthur’s doing, how Merlin must look… Then Arthur moans, deep and rough and it lights up every inch of his skin as his hands tighten on Merlin’s arse.

“Arthur,” he gasps it, shaking all over and then there’s a warm hand on his cock and he moans, tenses, shouts wildly as he comes all over the door and his eyes flare with blinding light.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

He’s crouched, curled in Arthur’s arms on the floor when he opens his eyes again, gasping and taking in the soft murmurs against his hair.

“Oh. My. Gods. Above,” he finally says, and lets his head fall back over Arthur’s arm. He opens his eyes and stares up into a face that’s pleased enough to border on smug. “What did you do to me?” He gasps, body slack and humming with so fucking good. “You turned me inside out,” he says, answering his own question.

Arthur’s mouth opens against the soft skin at his nape, a hot kiss that suddenly reminds Merlin that the ecstasy was a little one-sided and he turns his head, cups Arthur’s jaw in his hand and kisses deep. “Oh Gods,” he says, and jerks back suddenly, “your ribs- are you-”

“M’fine,” Arthur says, but Merlin’s not about to believe that. When he draws back to look, though, there are no pinched lines of pain on Arthur’s face, he just looks flushed and hot and wanting.

“How?”

“I think you might be doing something,” he says lazily, as if it couldn’t matter less. His eyes are still very focused on Merlin’s lips, hands moving at Merlin’s back and hips. “You know,” and he waves a hand that Merlin realizes is meant to signify magic. “They stopped hurting sometime during the kissing.”

“What?”

“It’s temporary, I’d guess,” he adds. “I can tell they’re not healed. But I’m just a bit- I can’t feel any pain. For a while.” And he rolls his hips suggestively at Merlin, either he tucked his sword between them at some point or Arthur is still extremely interested and not at all sore.

“So.” He should probably be thinking about that, about what the magic is doing, but mostly all he can think is skin, mmm, and lips, yes, and more. “So.” He can’t make a sentence, and he shrugs instead and leans in to kiss, finally finding the strength to raise his arm so he can cup Arthur’s jaw.

“I want,” Arthur says into his mouth, “Merlin.”

“You can have Merlin,” he moans back. “You can absolutely-”

“I want you – in me,” he says and Merlin freezes, opens his eyes and stares into Arthur’s blue, blue eyes.

“You.”

“You said – do everything. Do it all and I want-”

“I- yes,” he manages, “all right.” Then he swallows, feels himself getting hard again, yes, definitely interested in that… he turns and comes up on his knees, cupping Arthur’s face in his hands and kissing some more while all the blood rushes south in his body.

“How do you want-” he begins but Arthur is already moving, pulling Merlin toward the pile of blankets and he drops onto the soft fabric, laughing softly and getting a narrow-eyed look for his trouble as he rolls – is pushed – onto his back. “Anxious, are we?”

Arthur’s cock is hard and flushed with blood, it moves invitingly as Arthur prowls over Merlin on hands and knees, and he licks his lips unconsciously, provokes a moan from Arthur.

“It’s all right, love,” Merlin says against his lips, “Come here and let me-” and he’s dipping his fingers in the salve, the smell of it and the memories it conjures getting him more than halfway hard despite what happened just moments ago.

Arthur straddles him, throat working as he watches Merlin’s hand slide down his body, then his eyes close and he moans, low and soft and sweet as he’s breached. “Merlin,” he says, and breathes deep.

Oh Gods, it’s so tempting to just – ravish him – and Merlin takes a few deep breaths of his own, tries to remember that Arthur is still injured, even if he’s not feeling it right at this moment and so he adds another finger, moving carefully and trying to ignore the insistent throb of his cock, so close to Arthur’s arse.

Time splinters, shifts into fragments of joy and ecstasy – Arthur, biting hard at his lip as he slides down over Merlin, slow slow slow. The frozen beauty of him, face tilted up to Merlin’s lights, throat working, nipples taut, just breathing in silence with Merlin inside him, so deep.

“Beautiful,” Merlin whispers, and Arthur’s eyes flutter like he’s coming back to life. His head drops forward and their eyes lock, and then it’s all movement and heat and pressure, Arthur moaning softly as he moves over Merlin, lost to the pleasure entirely.

“Can you… talk, Merlin, your voice I want-” the words tumble out of him and Merlin sucks in a breath, because talking’s suddenly not as simple as it should be, he can’t think-

“How did I – you’re soohhh,” Merlin is mumbling, completely out of control, nothing but the tight heat around him and the endless beauty that is Arthur.

“Merlin,” he sighs, hands tracing over shoulders and chest, a slow drag of pleasure that has him rising up, pressing deeper so that they both gasp, caught. It’s rising now, the twist of joy and heat and Merlin bites his lip, trying to remember Arthur’s injuries even as his spine rolls up and drives deep.

Oh, love,” he moans it, lost, and slides his hand up to grip Arthur’s erection. He hisses and grinds down hard as Merlin’s hand moves on him, “yes, yes, yes, mmm, Arthur.”

“More,” he demands it, nails scraping over Merlin’s chest and they’re both gasping now, winding tighter and higher, breath sobbing, pace nearing frantic, “Merlin, I need, please, Merlin-”

“I’ve got you, I won’t-”

Yes-“ and Arthur’s coming, moan wrenched from his throat as he arches, body taut over Merlin, head thrown back and the sight of him, completely undone, is more than Merlin can bear. He’s thrown over the edge, body arching under Arthur, eyes wide open on a sight so beautiful and so he sees it, this time, the floating globes flare blindingly with his orgasm, the room a bowl filled with blue lightning.

The flare lights Arthur up like an angel, searingly bright and Merlin gasps his name, helpless. He knows in that one flash that he will never be free, never want another, never again will he be alone in this world, as long as there is Arthur.

Minutes later, collapsed on the blankets together, Merlin mumbles a spell to clean them both up and watches Arthur shiver at the touch of magic on his skin. “Arthur?” he begins, suddenly hesitant that he’s crossed a line. He’s never asked-

“Someday,” Arthur murmurs against his mouth, “we’re going to play around a little with that.”

“In bed?”

“To start,” Arthur bites gently at his lip and they both shudder slightly, afterglow still burning through them. “Though the castle has plenty of rooms, not to mention the garden, and a perfectly fascinating battlement...”

“Mm, I guess that would be all right,” he smiles against those perfect lips and rolls onto his side so they’re pressed together. He glances up at the lights, back to a dull glow now and grins a little. “Good thing magic’s not illegal anymore. The sentries are probably wondering what on earth just happened.”

“What just happened twice.”

“Twice?”

Arthur’s lips twitch against his, “Perhaps you were a little too distracted to notice the first time.”

“Mmmmm,” he nestles closer, hears his breath shake when he thinks about it, pressed up against the door...  “Distracted would be… yeah.” His eyes half-close. “Distracted.”

Arthur nips at his throat. “I love it when you sound like that. I love the way your voice changes.”

“It does?”

“It does.” A thumb strokes over his lower lip, and then it all dissolves into more kissing. “Your voice has bothered me since that first day. Once I got hard just listening to you complain about the soup being cold.”

“Really?”

“Mmm. Sometimes it’s like being drunk, listening to you.” Arthur’s tongue is leisurely tracing the shell of Merlin’s ear.

“No – really?” He tilts his head, eyes closing on the small pleasures, but he’s still thinking. “So. If you like it when I’m just talking normally then… when I’m saying other things…”

“Yes,” Arthur’s breath is hot against his ear.

“Things like,” he deliberately lowers his voice, makes it breathy, “Oh Gods, Arthur-“

Arthur is clearly torn between annoyance and capitulation. He eyes Merlin balefully, then sighs and kisses him extremely comprehensively.

“Arthur,” and he’s not teasing at all this time when his voice thickens to a near moan, “do that again.

And Arthur shudders against him, eyes closing. “Yes,” he manages thickly, “Yes that’s-it’s very…”

At some point, Merlin drags a blanket over the two of them though they never look away from one another, not through all the long night.

 

***

 

The next day is bizarre, to say the least. For one thing, Leon is suddenly glaring at Arthur as though he’d pissed on the Beltane bonfire, and despite his attempts to chat quietly to Morgana, reassure her that he’s not upset about the magic, she is distant and wary.

After breakfast Arthur dispatches Kay, Gwaine and Geraint to the nearby village with the prisoners. They will serve a term in chains as indentured labour, if the village has work for them, which is a better fate than they deserve. Everyone else is busy with small tasks, checking horse harnesses and airing blankets in front of the fire, while Arthur rests his cursed ribs and feels useless.

Leon drifts into the large hall where the knights slept, and joins Arthur at the window, staring out toward the hills.

“Mor- the Lady Morgana seems unwell, today,” he begins awkwardly.

“Oh for God’s sake,” Arthur snaps, “Stop pretending to use her title. You call her Morgana in your head, don’t you?”

“I do not- I am not so honoured in the lady’s favor as you, Sire,” Leon says stiffly, and he manages to sound both pissed and disapproving.

“Rubbish,” Arthur says, “Go in there now and call her Morgana right to her face, she won’t even notice. You’re the one insisting on being all knightly.”

“I am a kn-” Leon closes his eyes and exerts great self-control to say instead, “I merely wished to know what has upset her. I had thought she would seem… better today. But she is pale and tired and she did not eat this morning.”

Arthur raises a brow. You’ve got it bad, my friend, he thinks, but he’s not exactly in a position to mock, considering that last night he was mentally comparing Merlin’s skin to luminous marble. He shrugs instead. It’s not his place to go spilling Morgana’s secrets all over the castle. Still, Leon’s anxiety is genuine and deserves some kind of answer. “I think,” he says carefully, “that finding out about Merlin was difficult for her.”

Leon stiffens. “You told her?”

“She asked,” Arthur says, surprised at the overreaction. “I’m not going to lie to her, Leon.”

“There’s a difference between lying and choosing not to hurt someone with every detail of-” Leon begins.

“Not to me,” he says flatly. “And she wouldn’t want that either.” He takes an unsteady breath, because Leon doesn’t know about Uther, not all of it anyway. He doesn’t know who Morgana’s father really was.

“Of course there are times when things must be kept secret, for the kingdom’s sake, or to ensure someone’s safety. But on this matter – no. I won’t hide things to save bruised feelings or pride, Leon. That was my father’s way,” he says with no small bitterness, “it will not be mine.”

“And yet,” Leon says slowly, “You plan to go on as you are. Despite knowing it upsets her.” He is eyeing Arthur now the way he never has during the episodes of madness, as if he is lost to all reason, all propriety.

“I cannot change the way things are, Leon,” he shoots back, stung by that look. “And honestly, as far as I can see the best possible solution to this mess is that Morgana and Merlin spend some time together and get to know one another. There’s no changing what is, not even for a sorcerer, but if they can-”

“You cannot be serious.” Leon steps back, staring. His voice rises, “Are you mad, to ask such a thing of-”

Everything inside him goes cold, and the two men in the corner drop the sharpening stone with a loud clatter. Arthur draws himself up, eyes locked on Leon’s suddenly pale face. “Enough,” he says, voice harsh enough to draw flinches from across the room. “You forget your place, sir.”

“Arthur,” he begins, low and wretched and horrified, “forgive me-”

“You had best see to our supplies,” he grinds out, and turns back to the window. “And make sure there are horses fit for the ladies to ride. We leave tomorrow either way.”

For long moments Leon does not move. His breathing is unsteady, much like Arthur’s. His head dips, and then he bows, low. He leaves the room with a heavy step, and the silence lasts for what feels like hours.

 

Chapter Text

 

Merlin is curled up on a window-ledge, chasing the sun and sincerely hoping the cracks running through the stone wall aren’t anything serious. It must be a hundred years old, surely it can bear his weight for one afternoon.

He turns yet another page of the spell book, but there’s nothing touching on madness or enchantments of the mind. He’s reading one vaguely interesting part about making inanimate objects come to life when Leon finds him.

“What’s happened?” he asks, and jumps down from the window immediately. Leon’s face is – whatever it is, it’s bad.

“I have.” He swallows, and for the first time since they met the Knight seems honestly… lost. “I have offended Arthur. I have- I have-”

Merlin puts a hand on his arm and Leon stops. Then he raises his head and looks Merlin in the eye. “I called him mad.”

Merlin’s hand drops away. “Oh,” he says dumbly.

“In front of Pelinor. And Lancelot.”

“Oh.” He blinks at Leon.

“I did not. I did not mean, I was-”

“It’s all right,” he says mechanically, fairly sure it’s not all right at all. “I’ll talk to him.”

Leon shakes his head. “No, I was not asking– Merlin, it is not for you to fix my mistakes.”

“Well, no,” Merlin says, “I mean, you’re right, and I don’t really think I could fix that anyway,” he finishes awkwardly, aware he’s not helping Leon either. “But I just – I want to make sure he’s…” all right.

Except, of course, that Arthur’s not all right. Which is the entire point.

Leon is watching him, frowning. “You care for him.”

His eyebrows go up, “Um, yeah. Of course I do.” Was that not obvious?

“I knew that you…” he clears his throat and looks away. “I know you are close,” he finally says, and if it weren’t for feeling a bit sick on Arthur’s behalf Merlin would laugh at that. “But I had not realized how m-” he trails off again, staring down at his boots.

“Merlin,” he begins again, and it is as though he has made his mind up to a difficult task. “It is not my place to say this, but.” He shoots a fleeting glance at Merlin. “I consider you a friend, also.”

Merlin can’t hold back the smile, but doesn’t get a chance to speak before the knight goes on.

“Now that Morgana is free… things will – change. Do you understand?”

“Now Agravaine has nothing to hold over Arthur’s head,” he nods. His fingers move on the binding of the book. “Yes, I know.”

“No, Merlin. I mean that – Arthur’s private life will also change.”

He frowns, confused, and Leon licks his lips, looking increasingly unhappy. Leon passes a hand over his face and says as though the words hurt, “There is no longer any impediment preventing their marriage.”

Merlin’s eyes widen. “Whuh?”

“She is the ideal bride for Arthur,” Leon says, turning away. His voice is low and raspy. “She is beloved by the people-”

“-of Camelot, yeah, I know. I was there the day he talked about it with Sir Hector. But he’s not going to marry Morgana, Leon.”

Leon shakes his head, eyes on the wall. “They will marry,” he says, voice tight. “Arthur trusts her as he trusts few others. She is beautiful and wise and loyal to him. She will protect the people of Camelot when he-”

No, Leon,” Merlin interrupts, because the pain in the other man’s voice is giving him a few whopping big clues about what’s going on here, and perhaps why Leon was so distraught that he slipped up and called Arthur mad. “He’s not going to marry her. I promise you. I saw his face, he meant it. He’s…” he swallows and forces himself to finish because this is the painful bit for Merlin, “…he’s looking for brides elsewhere.”

 

***

 

He is trying to concentrate on the map in his head, plotting the best route back to Camelot while he pokes at his ribs. They will need to stop one night at least, and he sighs, knowing what he needs to do and not at all sure Morgana and Gwen will be prepared for it.

But Willowdale is well-positioned halfway between here and the castle, and the people of the village will be far better for having received some attention from Camelot. Perhaps they will sleep better having heard firsthand of the beast’s defeat. They will ride hard tomorrow, pressing to reach whatever the Gryphon left behind of the village.

The sound of fast-moving feet in the corridor are his only warning, giving Arthur enough time to throw on a tunic over his rapidly purpling bruises and get a dagger into his hand. When the door flings open to reveal Leon, he stiffens, but the other man is already speaking. “You do not intend to marry Morgana.” The words explode into the air, unexpected as the first time an imprisoned dragon had belched fire over his head.

“What?” Arthur’s dagger slips through his fingers to the floor and he straightens.

“It is not your intention to marry her?” Leon’s words tumble out one after the other, messy and completely unlike Leon.

“I- no,” he says, blinking hard. The sight of the other knight prompted an instant surge of rage but in the next moment Arthur is realizing what it must be costing him to ask this question, to raise a personal issue now, of all moments. He hesitates, then sighs and says more calmly, “No. As I have already told Hector, Morgana is no proper wife for me.” He reaches for his woolen overshirt and drags it on.

Leon just stares at him, white-faced, and a moment later he spins away, leaving Arthur a view of his shoulders and back, vibrating with tension. “But you. You may… circumstances may change your mind-” He hesitates and then says, “Both of you would sacrifice much for Camelot-”

“Oh by all that’s holy can we have an end to this bloody speculation,” Arthur grouses. He slumps back against the wall. “I have never, for one second, considered marrying Morgana. Nor, I should add, has she ever thought of me. Surely you knew this, Leon.”

“I knew that while Uther lived, his ambitions did not allow for such an alliance.” His friend’s voice is breathless. “The entire kingdom knew that he looked to a higher bride for you. But now – he is gone, you need a consort, she is – she is more than suitable,” he chokes a little on that, “there is trust and loyalty between you.”

Arthur is just staring when he half-collapses onto a bench and adds helplessly, voice low, “I cannot imagine any man would not wish to marry Lady Morgana, given the chance.”

And just like that all his rage disappears.

Oh, fuck.

Leon,” he manages to say blankly, and takes a few steps closer.

By all the Gods above. No wonder it had been so hard to guess at Leon’s feelings. Arthur knows him better than anyone and still, all he’d ever seen was the faintest hint. The man was a master of concealment. All this time – years, possibly, Leon has cared for Morgana.

And all that time, he’d thought himself in love with the future Queen of Camelot.

Arthur shakes his head. Are you mad? has been echoing through his mind for an hour now, but at least he knows the reason why Leon was distracted enough to say such a thing. Arthur doesn’t even know where to begin. He feels oddly like laughing with relief, and yet. Leon’s suffering must have been-

He glances sideways at the knight, tries to imagine the tension, the way it must have felt to Leon - the horrible queasy feeling of near-betrayal, even if only in thought. His oath to Camelot, binding him to the very place where everything would happen, forcing him to be a spectator to the wedding, to all the years that would follow. And for all those years to know, as well, that the man who did have her, cherished her not at all.

Arthur’s best friend, in love with Arthur’s wife. He swallows, and suddenly none of it seems funny at all.

“Leon,” he begins, voice low, “I am sorry you carried this burden so long. If I had known, I would have-” He has to stop to take a breath, and sinks down onto the bench beside his friend.

“I swear to you, there has never been anything of that kind between Morgana and myself. I swear to you on my life, on Camelot itself. She is as a sister to me,” and he manages to say it without wincing. If he hadn’t given his word…

“Hector told me…” Leon says, face still turned away, “he said that you had disavowed any intentions toward her but I thought – I assumed you were simply holding off, waiting until she was safe. The two of you – it makes so much sense.

Arthur nods, sighing. “I know it does. But neither Morgana nor I would ever consider it, Leon. It will never happen.” He stops then, not sure what else to say, and they sit for a long time in silence.

“I was so angry,” Leon murmurs some time later. Elbows on his knees, he is staring down at the floor. “I thought that you-” he half-laughs, shakes his head. “When you mentioned Merlin. I thought you were proposing that your future wife get to know your lover, that you were going to flaunt him in her face-”

He jerks back. “Bloody hell, Leon.”

The other man grimaces, raises a hand in apology. “I know. I know. My lord, I – I cannot begin to-”

The knight lets out a long, loose breath, head down, and Arthur runs a hand over his face. Then he blows out a breath of his own and stands. All right. Enough.

“Right. I will – I will leave you now. I’ll… I’ll go down and sort out the horses,” he says. “Take as much time as you need.”

The other man just nods, still staring into the distance.

“Leon,” he says, pausing at the door with a hand on the stone as the idea occurs. “Morgana has no other relatives.”

The other man finally lifts his head and glances his way, frowning slightly.

“She answers to no-one,” he adds, and gives Leon a very direct look. “Her choice of husband will be her own.” So go to it, he doesn’t add. Judging by Leon’s poleaxed look, he doesn’t have to.

This time, when he walks away, Arthur is smiling.

 

***

 

Morgana, pale as snow, is standing by the small stream that runs through Willowdale while her horse drinks and Merlin glances diffidently her way, still not certain of her. The looks she gives Merlin when no-one else is watching make him uneasy, the way she glances from him to Arthur and back again as though she’s not quite ready to believe. He’s stayed at the back of the line all day, riding sometimes with Gwaine, sometimes with Bedivere, trying to stay out of sight.

“I dreamed of you,” her voice is low and has the faint trace of an accent, reminding him she wasn’t born in Camelot. She was once a newcomer, like him.

“Excuse me, milady?”

“Don’t bother with that,” she says, impatient, “you already know how empty Arthur’s titles are. He’s a man, like any other.”

“Well, yes,” he’s startled into saying, “but I know him. I don’t know you.”

“Do you know him? Really?”

He stares. Is that what this is about? Protectiveness for Arthur? Or perhaps Merlin’s magic- “Yes,” he says, voice firm and flat. “I know him.”

“He struck you. I saw it in my dream. And it was not in the midst of madness. Are you going to tell me it was only a dream, that he hasn’t hurt you?”

He drops the horses reins in surprise. “You saw – you’re a seer?”

Her mouth turns down and she looks away. “It would seem so.” Then she glances back over her shoulder, “So you’re saying that did happen.”

“Yes,” he says immediately. “He needed to get me in to see Gaius without his uncle becoming suspicious. He staged a tantrum in one of the public corridors.”

“And you just… accept this treatment?” Her lip curls and he’s not sure if the disgust is for him or for Arthur.

“I wasn’t very happy at the time,” he says, trying to keep his temper. “When I got to Gaius’ rooms and saw my mother for the first time since I’d been kidnapped by slavers I was pretty happy about it. It was worth the price to me, as Arthur well knew.”

She blinks at him, not sure if she believes the story and he shrugs. He’s not about to try and convince her, what would be the point? Surely she knows Arthur well enough – or, no. Perhaps she doesn’t. Perhaps the madness and the distance and the dreams and whatever poison Agravaine has been spilling in her ears has-

Perhaps she doesn’t know what to believe.

 

 

He leaves her there, by the stream, and heads back into the village, turns his horse over to two of the village boys. In small groups the knights are gathered, talking with the survivors, pointing out the walls and buildings that will need fixing come springtime. The snow has been a blessing, really, blanketing the most obvious reminders and forcing everyone to think of the essentials of surviving the winter. The grief is always there, but life goes on regardless.  

Morgana and Gwen have been assigned quarters in a large, roundish hut in the centre of the village, the knights are billeted in various spots around the town and Arthur and Merlin are apparently spending the night in the former smithy. It’s empty now, the entire family killed by the Gryphon, and they are trying not to think too hard about that, about the empty homes.

It’s quiet and dark and not too cold, he has left two of his small orb-lights drifting above them, off in the corner, for comfort more than anything.

“Arthur,” he begins.

“Yes, Merlin?” his tone is lazy and relaxed, as Merlin has rarely ever heard it before. Almost, he leaves it. Almost, he lets it go. Again.

But.

“What do you remember – from, from that first night – when you, with me, um-”

Arthur is looking at him now, eyebrows raised, and it’s not until he sees Merlin’s face, hot and flushed, that he blinks and seems to realize what exactly is being hinted at. Darkness and quiet, like this, Arthur’s hot mouth and Merlin, biting his own wrist to stay silent.

“I- I don’t-”

“Because the thing is,” he ploughs on, as determined as he is embarrassed, “if you remember how it felt for you, to-to do that, and how much you liked it, or at least it looked as if you-”

“I did like it,” Arthur says, his voice thick.

And he swallows, “Then. Maybe you can understand why I sometimes want to do it, too.”

Arthur pushes up onto one elbow and stares at him, unblinking.

“And you can- you won’t feel like, or, you won’t think of that day-”

“Merlin-”

“Because you, Arthur,” he’s whispering now, even though they’re alone, “you’re all this power and brilliance and courage.” He takes a quick, hitching breath and then it all just pours out, “I’ve seen you fight, I’ve seen you outsmart the Council and defy your uncle and stand up for magic and sacrifice everything you want for the sake of others and there’s just no part of you I don’t love and I can’t help wanting you in every single way there is and to think that- that I can take you apart and have you like that-”

“Merlin,” he manages, voice thick but Merlin’s incapable of stopping now, rolls onto his side and stops, half-crouched over Arthur as he collapses onto his back. The lacings of the Prince’s trousers are unraveling under the weight of Merlin’s golden gaze and he is hard, hot, heavy beneath the fabric. Merlin slithers down Arthur’s body, eyes locked on his face.

“Because I want to do that – what you did to me. I want to do it to you. So please don’t take it from me. Everything you are, shaking and desperate just for me and my mouth, my lips, my tongue, and I need-”

Merlin,” he gasps it, throat tight around the word. “Gods, oh by all the-“ he slaps a hand over his eyes as Merlin’s fingers close around him, draw him out and there’s a deep, wrenching moan from Arthur as Merlin’s lips close around him.

He keeps his eyes on Arthur, working slowly along the perfect length of him and Merlin hums his pleasure, feels it run through the other man’s body like a jolt, and Arthur’s hand falls away from his face. Their gazes lock, Arthur biting hungrily at his bottom lip and gasping for breath, hands clawing at the straw piled beneath them. He forms no words, just stares and stares at Merlin as he draws hard, then soft, then hard again on Arthur’s cock and slides a hand down to his own aching erection.

Moans and sighs and shocked breaths tumble from Arthur’s mouth, faster and louder with each moment that passes and Merlin closes his eyes, overwhelmed by it all. He loses all sense of time in these long, blissful moments in the dark, and then the rising tension in Arthur’s body forces himself to look again, wanting to see this. He wants to know Arthur this way, too, wants no secrets, no shame, no regrets between them.

Arthur’s voice breaks, a shocked cry breaking through the endless petition of want as his body jerks, eyes blazing with pleasure. A moment later Merlin’s own orgasm swamps him and he murmurs brokenly as Arthur comes in his mouth, pulsing into his own hand, pure joy and power entwined.

 

Chapter Text

 

The group that rides up to Camelot’s gates the next afternoon is cold, tired and edgy. Arthur has been worrying about this, Merlin knows, wondering what Agravaine has been up to in their absence. There is only so much Sir Hector can do to keep the man in check.

But thankfully the town seems… ordinary. There’s no feeling of fear or tension, in fact before they even enter the gates there are townspeople running out to greet their Prince and his… whatever Morgana is. She’s clearly popular with the people, Hector had been right about that.

He hasn’t let himself think about it, but – part of him had hoped to see Balinor here. In the quiet dark of night he had told it all to Arthur.

That his father is a Dragonlord, that one day, Merlin will be too. And the story of how Kilgarrah had come to be imprisoned. It had hurt to watch Arthur’s face grow tired and distant at hearing yet another of his father’s crimes. And yet, the less secrets they held between them, the stronger their bond grows.

Perhaps that was why he’d secretly wished for Balinor to be part of this day. Had hoped that his father’s distrust of Arthur might be moved by seeing the clear love between the Prince and his people. He sighs and shifts his shoulders, looking away.

“Merlin,” he starts at Morgana’s voice and shifts in the saddle to face her as they mill together on the road outside the walls, waiting for the crowd to clear enough space for the horses.

“Yes, milady?” he asks, and is immediately ashamed of himself for baiting her. She doesn’t even appear to notice, though.

When their eyes meet, his hands clench on the reins. She is biting her lips, staring just past Merlin’s shoulder, clearly nervous. “The clouds are gathering,” she says, voice very low.

“My lady?” he asks, frowning, and leans closer.

“There is a… threat. Something twisted, something wrong.” She bites her lip. “It is coming for you. For you, and for Arthur – there is a black cloud over you both. You must beware, Merlin.”

He jerks back, head lifting, and their eyes lock. “You – you had a vision?” he breathes it but she blanches as though he’d pointed and shouted WITCH in the marketplace. A heartbeat later she has urged her horse forward and is riding by Arthur’s side as they pass through the gate and into the town.

He is left staring after her, barely notices when Lancelot takes his leave, escorting Gwen to see her father. As they wind their way through the town, he glances off to the side again, wondering if his mother is with Gaius, waiting.  His eyes catch on Meg, the young witch, who is hesitating in a doorway on the right. There is something in her gaze, something urgent, and he leans forward.

“Gwaine,” he calls, and the other man glances back. “I’m just stopping for a moment. Someone to see.”

The big man just nods, glances quickly toward Meg and then raises his eyebrows, laughing good-naturedly when Merlin flushes, realizing how this probably looks. “I’ll tell them,” is all he says, taking the reins when Merlin dismounts.

“I won’t be long.”

Gwaine’s lips twitch, but his eyes are kind. “See you there.”

 

 

He winds around two merchants and hesitates as he comes close to Meg, but she simply steps back, into the small house, closing the door behind him once he’s ducked through the door.

“Are you all right, Meg?” he begins, turning. “I’ve been meaning to-”

He stops abruptly when he sees her – still wearing Meg’s clothing but with a completely unfamiliar face. The woman is beautiful - beautiful like Morgana, with skin pale as milk, lips cherry red and her eyes an unnatural blue.

“Who-”

“Hello, Emrys,” she says, voice low and somehow seductive. There’s an almost-smile playing about her lips and she’s somehow familiar.

He doesn’t need to see evidence to know she has magic. There’s a feeling about her, an otherworldliness, and he realizes after a moment she is probably the most powerful sorceress he’ll ever meet. It crackles in the air around her and he is instantly on his guard.

“Where is-”

“Oh, Meg is somewhere about,” the woman says, “fetching water or something else that’s vital to a peasant’s survival. Don’t worry. I just wanted to speak with you, alone.”

“Then why are you – what do you want, exactly? And who are you?”

“My name is Nimueh. And I want to know what you’re planning, Emrys.”

“Emrys? My name’s Merlin.” Is she a threat? He can’t tell, exactly. But he’s learned some spells as he travelled, is trying to think of the best way to defend himself in this tiny house, with so many people nearby. He circles around her, watchful.

“That’s the name your mother gave you. But the Old Religion has its own name for you, lovely.” She’s closer now, eyes intent, almost seductive. “We’ve all been waiting for you to arrive, and now here you are, on Arthur Pendragon’s arm.”

“Oh no,” Merlin muttered, “not this again. Do you know Balinor or something?”

She ignores him, still watchful. “The question everyone wants to ask, is - what are you going to do, Emrys? You must have ambitions. Desires. Revenge, perhaps?”

“I’m not going to do anything,” he retorted. There’s something about the way she said ambitions… “If you mean, am I going to try to take over Camelot.”

Her eyes narrow at him.

“That is what you meant, right? The only things I’m interested in are helping Arthur get control of the kingdom again, and making sure no-one with magical power is persecuted.”

Her eyes widen, then narrow, and she paces around him as she talks. “So modest, always. You’re a strange one. But we can agree on one thing, at least.” And her voice hardens. “Our people will never be targeted for using their magic again.”

“Arthur has already lifted the ban,” he says, turning to keep her in his sight.

“And you trust him not to bring it back again.”

Yes,” he says, suddenly angry and thinking of his father. “Yes, I trust him. He did it long before he knew about me, did it because it was right, and now that he does know about me- he’d never hurt me like that, so a hundred bloody times, yes.” His hands have fisted at his side, and he takes a steadying breath. He’d learned long before he came to Camelot that he must guard his temper well. It’s the price of power.

 “So trusting, Emrys, despite everything…” she murmurs, and her tone is both speculative and wondering. “You are a rare one indeed.”

In the next moment he recognizes her voice, and he takes a step back.

 “You’re responsible for Arthur’s madness,” he says suddenly, and his fists clench again. This time he doesn’t try to calm himself.

“I was responsible for Uther’s madness,” she returns, chin up, voice hard. “I did nothing at all to your precious Prince.”

“Then why – how is he-”

She hesitates, eyeing him and Merlin takes a step forward, furious.

“Very well,” she shrugs, piqued. “I worked a spell on Uther Pendragon, forcing him to confront his own guilt. Unfortunately for him, a lifetime of bad deeds meant that what he saw was enough to drive him mad.”

“That’s terrible,” he whispers, “how could you do such a thing-”

“I would suggest you do not speak to me of Uther Pendragon’s suffering,” she snaps, and the air around them is suddenly sparking with power. “I do not wish to fight you, Emrys, but I will not stand to hear that monster defended.”

Fine,” he says, “then just tell me what’s happened to Arthur.”

She sighs a little at his preoccupation with the Prince, then shrugs. “I was not there,” she says carefully, “I can only speculate. But I would wager that Arthur swore an oath and sealed it with blood. Though he has no magic, there was… magic enough in Uther’s blood to create a bond. A link in the chain, if you will.”

“So he was… the madness you caused in Uther passed to him?”

“So it would seem,” she returned, too lightly.

“And Agravaine figured it out somehow.”

Her brows lift.

“I heard you,” he says flatly, “Talking to him.”

“Then you must know I was not responsible and I did not aid Agravaine.”

“Did not aid him, that I’ll believe. But you can’t possibly claim you’re not responsible, you worked the magic that caused the whole problem-”

“I am not responsible for Arthur Pendragon’s actions,” she flares back, “the actions of those who love belong to them alone.”

He takes one long, shaking breath. His anger isn’t achieving anything. “Then tell me how to fix it. I’ve been trying to find a spell-”

“Arthur’s condition was not caused by a spell, Emrys,” she says impatiently. “It is blood magic, it was sealed with blood, a vow and a token.”

“Can you undo it?”

She smiles suddenly. “If anyone can break this enchantment, Emrys, it is you. The best weapon against a vow of love is more love. It is how you have protected him this far.”

“Protected?”

This time her sigh is impatient. “Have you not felt it? More than once, I’d assume, as Agravaine has grown more frustrated - a challenge, something pressing on your power? Arthur reeks of your magic, Emrys. I suppose it was mostly unintentional,” she says, and then her mouth quirks, “or perhaps, hmm, an inevitable effect of your relationship. I can’t say this is familiar territory, this is all speculation, you understand.”

“What are you t-” Merlin stops, suddenly, remembering those days before they’d left Camelot, his broken-heartedness at being sent away from Arthur, the way he’d poured his magic into the other man, soaking into the very walls of his rooms. There had been that odd sense of struggle - he’d assumed it had come from his own complicated emotions, his own confusion and loss and guilt.

“Yes,” Nimueh croons, “that’s it. And there you were, fighting it off before you even understood.”

“So those times – that was Agravaine, trying to make Arthur mad again?”

“Indeed. He was most annoyed when he was suddenly unable to send Arthur into another fit.”

He takes another breath and it doesn’t help at all the red mist that’s suddenly descended. He can feel the magic bubbling suddenly under his skin. Arthur, he is- he will be at the keep by now-

“Agravaine,” he says, low and harsh and she laughs, the sound rippling through the rough little room like music.

“Oh, Emrys,” she says, as though he’d kissed her, “The things we could do together if you would just cut your Princeling loose.”

Stay away from Arthur,” he grinds out, his hand on the door, “and if you cause trouble in Camelot-”

Laughter ripples from her. “This is going to be so interesting,” she coos, and when he glances back she’s already gone.

 

 

He bolts through the narrow streets, gathering startled glances as he goes, and the whole way there he is trying to feel, to sense Arthur – is he safe, is he well. Merlin has left him, left him unprotected, like a fool.

All these days of travel, they’ve been so close, in every way, he’s felt no need to sink his magic into Arthur’s skin, his breath, his very marrow. And then he’d abandoned him at the fucking gates of Camelot, slid from his horse without a word or a glance-

I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, the words pound through his head in time with his feet, and as he bursts through the startled guards at the gate he knows he’s already too late. The knights, the servants – Morgana – are clustered around their Prince, voices low and shocked and distressed at the sight of Arthur, shaking and jerking uncontrollably on the flagstones of the courtyard, babbling.

It all looks different this time, and he knows a moment later it’s because his magic is with him, if he’d been free of the shackles the first time he could have saved Arthur from the madness then.

He can see it, the wrongness of it, a kind of choking blue-red smoke circling Arthur, flowing with his breath, fogging his eyes and ears and burning beneath the skin. Merlin raises his hand, uncaring of the crowd and the knights and and as he shoulders his way through the Councilors he focuses everything on Arthur and drawing that foulness away from his Prince.

Arthur stills with a broken cry, body jerking to an unnatural, splayed out posture against the side of the wide stone staircase and the chaotic tumble of words abruptly stops.

Merlin stares furiously, unsure how to proceed – there’s no spell for this. And then some sense has him fisting his hand and he pulls, throws all of his will and his loyalty and his love at drawing that thing out. It’s pure instinct, the way he used to do it back in Ealdor.

Arthur’s eyes flare wide, he chokes and behind Merlin there are cries, a sudden burst of voices and feet on flagstones, swords being drawn and he ignores it all. He takes a deep, shuddering breath, desperate with love and grief, just tugs and tugs, the effort has him gasping on his knees but its working, he can see it. The smoke flows out of Arthur and into the air in front of Merlin, snaking toward his outstretched hand and some small part of him panics, suddenly, wonders where on earth it will go now-

Merlin,” it’s Leon’s voice behind him, low and taut, but he can’t answer, he is still pulling and pulling and he flicks his eyes up to meet Arthur’s, sees comprehension returning to his gaze and it gives him the final burst of strength to drag the last traces out with a broken cry of rage.

Arthur gasps and slumps to the ground, legs giving way but he raises a hand, gasping, and Merlin risks a quick glance, sees that at least half the knights have surrounded him, swords drawn. Oh. Right. This probably looked bad. Leon, at his back, is the only thing standing between him and a quick, ugly death, though Gwaine and Bedivere are falling in at his side, Kay approaching at a run with Gaius.

“Stand down,” Arthur manages, panting hard, and Merlin forces his eyes back to the cloud of blue-red smoke, takes a deep breath of his own and cups his hands, grimaces as he tries to – to push it together, stepping carefully back. It continues to move forward, toward him. From the sounds behind him it seems the smoke is visible to the crowd now that he has drawn it out, and sharp, frightened cries are punctuating the constant rumble of speech.

“It’s… blood magic,” he manages, glances once at Gaius, appealing, before he locks his eyes on it again. “There’s something…”

Blood magic?” Gaius gasps, paling. For a long moment he just stares, while Merlin shakes and struggles to contain it, and then his mouth firms, and he moves closer. He doesn’t take his eyes from the cloud, his mind is clearly working furiously. “If it is blood magic then there must be a token of some kind.”

“Yes,” Merlin manages, shaking. “She said, Arthur made a vow to Uther in blood, with a token.”

“Arthur,” Gaius wheels toward the Prince, who is being helped upright by Morgana and Hector. “You must think, sire. A blood vow-”

Arthur is shaking his head, still clearly confused, but it is Morgana who gasps, face clearing from its terrible tension. “Arthur,” she says, drops to her knees at his side and grips his hand. “You told him- that last night-”

The Prince straightens and draws a long breath, nods once. “I told him that I would take this burden from him if I could,” he manages, voice low, “that I would gladly take his suffering away.”

“There must have been blood,” Gaius insists, and Arthur winces, looks away. Merlin grimaces, still struggling to hold the cloud in place.

“It was – the night he – you remember, Gaius,” she says, trembling, “Uther, he- he stabbed-”

“Ah. Yes,” Gaius says, and his mouth trembles for a moment.

“The gloves,” she cries, “Gaius, his gloves were soaked in blood. Arthur took them off to hold his hand as he died.”

“Then Agravaine has them,” Merlin grits out between his teeth, and Morgana flinches, glances up. That answers the question, then, of where is Agravaine, he is watching from the battlements, like a coward.

He is losing the battle, slowly. The cloud has a will all its own, is snaking away from Merlin’s grasp and then suddenly there is strong shoulder pressed against his own, the feel of warm, rough leather.

“Fire will do the trick,” his father says, “you must burn the token to break the oath.”

 Merlin goggles at him, almost loses his grip on the smoke, but Balinor is staring up at the battlements, eyes narrowed against the sun. “Onbregdan,” he calls suddenly, makes a hooking gesture with his hand and two small, black shapes fall from a height, and there’s a muffled curse from high above, where Agravaine stands watching.

The knights are forming up now, making a protective circle around Arthur, Morgana and the sorcerers, pushing back the servants and the Council members.

“Gaius,” Balinor calls, and the physician steps forward.

“Yes,” he is nodding at Balinor, and Merlin has no idea what the two of them are doing but he trusts them, trusts them both to do what’s right and so he narrows his focus to the smoke, cups his hands around it without touching and when a half-barrel is shoved across the flagstones at his feet he understands, grimaces and begins to push down. He is panting by the time he has maneuvered it inside the barrel, and then metal tongs appear in his vision, the gloves clutched tight between. Gaius drops the gloves into the smoke and there is a flare of black as the two come into contact.

“Quickly,” he hears from Gaius, and then two blazing torches are shoved inside the barrel, the gloves do not catch alight, however, and Merlin snaps, “Forbearnan firgenholt.”

He ignores the startled cries from the crowd as they flare to life, just puts his will to it until there is a bonfire blazing as high as a horse and he can feel it, the choking wrongness dying away until there is nothing left but blackened char and a silent, gasping crowd.

“Arthur,” he hears, and turns to find Sir Hector helping the Prince to his feet. “Are you…” all right goes unspoken.

“I’m fine, Hector, thank you,” Arthur says, dusting down his trousers. There is a flush high on his cheekbones, his head is down and Merlin just collapses, ends up leaning back on his hands on the freezing flagstones. He’s not exactly exhausted, just… coming down from the sudden rush of terror. There’s warmth at his back, and he knows it’s his father who eased him down as he fell.

Arthur is all right. He’s going to be all right. The madness is gone.

“Was that…” it’s Lord Carson who speaks, he seems truly stunned and Gaius is the one who answers, voice clear, raised so that everyone in the courtyard can hear.

“Yes. The Prince’s affliction was brought on by magic. The madness was unnatural, and now it is gone.”

Gone?” Morgana is on her feet, hands clenched together. “Gone for good? Truly?

“Yes, my lady.”

Every eye in the courtyard is on Arthur, who is looking only at Merlin. The Prince is breathing hard, face impassive but his eyes-

Merlin smiles, broad and helpless. Throws back his head, and laughs.

 

Chapter Text

 

Arthur’s life has always been public. His privacy is theoretical, this he has always known. But he’s never felt it so keenly, never regretted it so fiercely as he does in this moment. Watching Merlin, tired and grinning, sprawled out on the flagstones, both of them under fifty pairs of watchful eyes.

All he wants is to kiss the man. Scoop him up and murmur his thanks, his praise, his relief, his embarrassment, his pride, his everything into the soft skin of Merlin’s throat. And then fuck him into next week.

Instead, he is gathering his composure and thinking, always thinking. Because this is the moment- the moment where everything turns.

He’s free of the madness. He’s- he’s well again. Himself again. Even if Gaius hadn’t confirmed it, he’d have known. Something off-balance inside him has straightened, like dropping a heavy load, and he can breathe.

“Merlin,” he says helplessly, and takes two shambling steps forward. He reaches down and grips the sorcerer’s hand, pulls him upright. “Merlin, thank you,” is all he can say and then they are embracing, hard and tight and perfect. Over Merlin’s shoulder he meets Balinor’s eyes, dark with some emotion Arthur can’t name, and then a simply-dressed woman appears in his line of sight, eyes shimmering with tears. Merlin’s mother, he knows, and he nods gravely to her, receives a nod in return.

He takes a shuddering breath and pulls back, cups Merlin’s shoulders with his hands and tries for a shaking smile. “You should see to your parents,” he says softly, and steps back with a nod. He does not want Merlin involved in what comes next, he is far too protective of Arthur. A moment later it comes to him, the way out.

“There’s someone your father needs to meet, I think.” He glances up to meet Balinor’s eyes as the older man steps forward, still watchful.

“There is a chain, in the caves beneath Camelot, that badly needs to be broken,” Arthur says it straight at Balinor, who halts. “I think you are the man to do the job.”

Merlin’s eyes widen.

“Just like that,” Balinor says, voice rough. His face is working, holding in some strong emotion. “All these years, and then with a snap of your fingers you’ll permit him to be released.”

“I’d have released him a year ago if he’d given any guarantee for the safety of my people,” he returns. “Merlin tells me you can give me that guarantee. And I-” he takes a quick breath as his voice shakes, just a little as he tries to hold in everything he is feeling. His hand tightens on the sorcerer’s nape, “I trust Merlin.”

Balinor just nods, once, and Merlin glances between them, pale and stunned.

Arthur straightens, dropping his hand, and pulls on the presence of royalty as if it were a cloak. All eyes will be on Arthur now, giving Merlin’s family some measure of privacy, as well as some distance from this one last fight.

And Arthur can deal with the one remaining threat to his kingdom.

Merlin is blinking at him, confused, but when their eyes meet again he smiles. “All- all right,” he says, a little off-balance, and Arthur just nods at him sharply, turns and catches Leon’s eye. Leon, pale with shock, eyes blazing, nods back and they jog toward the stairs, side-by-side. The other knights fall in behind, the Council members following, clustered around Morgana, and a newly arrived Gwen.

 

 

 

Leon is snapping out orders about Agravaine, about Kanen’s men as they run through the corridors and Arthur leaves him to it, knowing how truly rich he is to have a lieutenant he can trust so completely, someone so capable as Leon watching his back.

Because Arthur’s entire focus is on his uncle.

It’s as though he’s only been waiting – and he realizes as he shoulders through the doors of the Great Hall, that perhaps he has. All these months, over a year, he’s had to hold in his temper, no matter what the provocation. Never could he truly react, never show the way he was feeling.

Not today.

There’s no sign of Agravaine. Startled servants and guards are answering each question as they work their way through the castle, knights peeling off on Leon’s orders to close off the towers, protect the unwary.

They reach the royal apartments and Arthur kicks his uncle’s door open with a burst of pure, cleansing rage. There’s a startled exclamation from the ladies but he doesn’t bother sparing them a glance. The suite is empty.

He turns, almost panting with suppressed fury, and meets Leon’s eyes. The communication between them is silent. Where? No – too visible. Where else? No, too well defended.

Arthur’s eyes flick past Leon’s shoulder and he takes a deep breath for patience. “Morgana,” he says carefully, “you should go to your rooms and wait there.”

Her chin lifts, eyes flashing.

Morgana,” he says, “please. If you insist on roaming the halls, I will have to spare knights to protect you-” He hesitates, pained, then says, wryly honest, "At least go back there long enough to arm yourselves and get changed."

She lets out an explosive breath, glare slowly changing to satisfaction, and says, “Fine.”

He allows the ghost of a smile. “Thank you.” She leaves the room in a whirl of skirts, and he glances toward Gwaine and Lancelot. “Gentlemen,” he begins. “Can I ask you to remain with the ladies in Morgana’s chambers until one of us comes for you?”

He doesn’t want to risk either one of them being mistaken for Agravaine’s allies by the knights who remained at home. Armed men not wearing Camelot’s livery are in a great deal of danger today, and he has plans for these two.

For a moment he thinks they will refuse, then Lancelot bows, once, correct as any knight, and says, “Sire, it would be my honour.”

Gwaine shrugs, more skeptical, but they depart with Morgana and Gwen, while the other knights spread out, moving through the castle floor by floor.

Once they’re alone in his uncle’s chambers, Arthur and Leon look at one another. The other knight is shaking his head. “Where could he possibly be hiding?”

Arthur frowns at the choice of words. He knows Agravaine. Enough for this, at least.

Agravaine is careful, calculated. A man who thinks things through. He has some skill with a sword, but he probably knows he won’t beat Arthur in a fair fight. And clearly, whatever knightly honour he has, it’s not something that binds him strictly – he never could have kidnapped Morgana if that were the case. Or used Arthur’s vow against him.

“Not hiding,” he says slowly, feeling the truth of it as he speaks, “he wouldn’t hide. That’s a short-term solution for someone desperate. He wouldn’t hide-” He looks up at Leon, eyes widening, “he would run.”

They shoulder out into the corridor together. “The stables?” Leon asks, and Arthur hesitates. It’s a long way to go on the off-chance…

“Send someone down there to check, and make sure all of the horses are accounted for,” Arthur replies, frowning as they run toward the stairs. He’s missing something, he can feel it.

“Sire,” the call gets his attention and he spins, pausing as Pelinor runs to his side. “We caught one of Kanen’s men trying to leave by a side door. He claims not to know where your uncle went, but we found these keys on him.” He holds up a ring Arthur recognizes immediately.

“The tombs,” he breathed as he snatched at them. “Gods above, what an idiot I’ve been.” And then he was running, sword in hand, down a thousand different sets of stairs.

“Arthur?” Leon clattered down the stairs at his heels, Pelinor behind him.

“He doesn’t care about the bloody kingdom,” Arthur seethed, “He’s been here, looking for a fucking fortune the whole time.”

“Treasure?”

“He mentioned it when he first arrived,” it was all coming so clear now, “whether my father had ever considered exploring the caverns beneath Camelot. There are old tombs, it’s possible many of them hold gold and jewels of considerable value.”

“He’s been doing all this simply for wealth?”

“Or perhaps it was a fall-back position. If he couldn’t convince Morgana to marry him-”

“Morgana?”

Shit. Shouldn’t have said that. That sound rumbling out of Leon’s chest - that’s the sound of real rage.

“If it all went to pieces,” he goes on, trying to distract Leon, “then this was always a good way to profit from the situation and thumb his nose at my father at the same time. Steal from him, right from under his nose.” He stops at the top of the final set of stairs and turns back to Leon, presses the keys into his hand.

“He may have already made it out. There is a tunnel from the burial vaults that surfaces beyond the city’s eastern walls – Leon, I need you at the other end. Pelinor, to the stables, make sure there are horses ready for us to mount a pursuit if he’s already escaped.”

Leon hesitates, wanting to argue, but one look at Arthur’s face silences him, and in the next moment they are both gone.

He flings himself down the stairs, breath coming a little too fast. He sent Merlin down to the dragon’s cavern, to make him safe. There’s no reason he should be anywhere near the burial vaults.

Except, of course, that he’s Merlin. Trouble follows him like a motherless duckling.

He reaches the lowest level and forces himself to go slow, listening for-

“Do you know what your true mistake was?”

Damn it, Merlin,” Arthur mutters, and forces himself to sidle along the wall instead of running headlong toward that voice.

“I know you grieve for your sister. I know you wanted Uther punished.”

“I did not bring this upon Arthur,” Agravaine says, his voice hard. “That was not my doing.”

Finally Arthur has a glimpse of them. In the flickering torchlight he can make out Merlin’s back, and beyond him, Agravaine, hand on his sword hilt, half-drawn. His uncle is wary – he’s seen Merlin work magic, now, he won’t assume this is a helpless boy. No, he is talking, waiting, but there’s something in the way he’s holding himself-

“Oh, that much I understand. But once the madness passed from the King to his son, you controlled the when, didn’t you? You figured out the gloves were the key and you chose every time and every place. You made it as public as you could. And that’s the part I won’t forgive.” Merlin’s voice is soft now, chilling.

On pure instinct, Arthur shifts, checking the corners, the angles, and now his eyes catch it, the smallest of movements in the dark. Agravaine’s glance never wavers from Merlin’s face, carefully does not glance at the movement on Merlin’s right.

Arthur drops to one knee and slides the knife from his boot while Merlin threatens Agravaine in that gorgeous voice.

“You didn’t just try to take Arthur’s kingdom. You had to destroy his pride, his reputation, the trust his people placed in him. And that was your fatal mistake, Agravaine. Political ambitions are one thing. But you hurt Arthur,” he shook his head, voice dropping lower, “and that I will not abide.”

On a surge of protective rage, Arthur casts the dagger, and a half-second later Kanen’s henchman falls dead an arm’s-length from Merlin’s back. A long knife falls from his lifeless hand.

Agravaine startles back, drawing his sword and is then frozen in place as Merlin flings up his hand and hisses something. His uncle’s eyes fly first to Merlin’s face, then Arthur’s.

Arthur smiles slowly. Agravaine blanches.

“Merlin,” Arthur says, and his voice is cool and measured. “Let him go.”

The sorcerer doesn’t look at Arthur. Doesn’t lower his hand. He is shaking.

“This insult is mine to avenge.” He paces forward slowly, eyes locked on his uncle. “He committed treason, Merlin, against my person and against the Crown.”

“I want-“

“I know,” Arthur says, soft. He reaches Merlin’s side, takes in the white face, the pure fury there. “Merlin, I know.

“Just one word-”

“I don’t want you to kill him, Merlin.” His voice drops lower, intimate, and Arthur cups his hand over the younger man’s shoulder. “Not for me. Please.” He swallows. Merlin has done many things, so many things, and all for Arthur. But not this. Merlin’s hands should be free of blood, for as long as Arthur can manage it.

This is what Arthur does. He learned long ago how to sleep at night despite the faces of the dead, the blood on his hands. He turns his head and meets his uncle’s eyes.

“This belongs to me,” he whispers again, soft. “Go and see to your mother now. She’s been worried about you.”

Merlin turns to stare at him. Whatever the sorcerer sees in his face, it’s enough. With a grimace, he drops his hand and Agravaine staggers back, lets out an explosive breath.

“Go, Merlin,” Arthur says without looking at him. “This is for me to finish.”

He swings his sword, the movement casual, feeling the weight of it, the slight soreness still in his ribs, and knows that this is the moment where he reclaims his kingdom, his birthright. His life.

There’s the slow, reluctant sound of footsteps as Merlin leaves, and Arthur is left blinking for a moment, honestly surprised. He takes a deep breath. Somehow, Merlin trusting him with this – it feels like the purest act of love Arthur’s ever known. For the first time in his life he is understood.

Protective or not, Merlin knows he needs to do this, himself. His inheritance, his pride, his reputation have all been shattered by this man.

“Arthur-” Agravaine begins.

“I’ve no interest in talking, uncle,” he says, and sets his stance. “We both know what you’ve done, and why. Let’s just finish this.”

And he swings.

It’s like being unbound – perhaps the same way Merlin felt when the shackles were broken. His breath and his arms and his feet all flow with one thought, he circles his uncle, eyes locked on the other man. He anticipates Agravaine’s first strike and evades, measuring the strength behind it, the technique. He’s not going to make a mistake here, no youthful overconfidence or emotional reactions.

He will simply win.

Agravaine’s face is pale and set, he unleashes a series of blows aimed at Arthur’s left side and he evades easily, using the momentum to crowd his uncle up against the rough walls of the tunnel and score first blood, a long gash along the left thigh. He falls back, breathing a little faster, and watches the set expression on his uncle’s face.

“You’ll kill your own uncle?” Agravaine pushes off the wall and circles left.

“Treason is punishable by death.”

“I did not cause your madness.”

“I don’t care,” Arthur says calmly, drives him sideways with two punishing blows and falls back, observing. “Even without the madness you have betrayed me a thousand times over. Polluting my kingdom with slavery, kidnapping Morgana, assaulting Merlin-”

“You have lost all perspective with that boy-” he breaks off with a gasp as Arthur feints right, then ducks in close and smashes the hilt of his sword into Agravaine’s mouth with all his strength.

All right. Perhaps not totally free of emotional reactions.

He dances away, mouth flat. “Don’t speak of him,” he says simply.

Agravaine spits blood onto the sand, a tooth or two to follow. This time when he glances up, his fury is clear on his face. The time for talking is over.

They unleash it all, now, nothing reserved as their swords clang together and they grunt with the effort. Perhaps desperation is lending Agravaine extra strength, for a moment or two Arthur is forced back, until he twists his wrist and breaks free, feet moving light and quick, the way he’d been taught as a young squire.

There are noises now from a distance, coming closer, he pays them no mind even though he knows full well Leon has opened the tunnel from the other end, even now is running to Arthur’s side. From the other direction feet are clattering on the stairs, Pelinor would have reported Arthur’s location.

He is well served by his knights, he knows.

On that thought he grins and drives forward, knowing the smile is pure taunt to his uncle, and this time he slices deep across the other man’s arm, leaving him to bear the weight of his sword one-handed.

They are both panting now, Agravaine’s breath closer to grunts, there is panic in his eyes and Arthur’s hands tighten. He has no sympathy to spare for this man, who stood on the battlements and spoke of Arthur’s mother, only days after driving her only son into a mire of madness.

Agravaine stumbles, drops to his knees and grunts as he is forced to catch his weight on his injured hand. A handful of knights appear at the mouth of the tunnel and hesitate, watching. Arthur pauses, it’s automatic knightly courtesy to a disadvantaged opponent, but some instinct warns him so that he is already turning his head away as Agravaine flings the handful of sand into Arthur’s eyes.

It’s the years of training, the endless drills, that have him moving despite the flare of agony. But it’s Leon’s voice that guides him, the authoritative, “Feint left,” that rings out and forces his body to move.

Arthur feints left, ignoring the sudden shouts and the sensation of a large body crashing into his as Agravaine lunges forward for the fatal blow and fails. Arthur forces his eyes open, face streaming with tears, and his sword follows through on pure instinct, slicing through mail and bone and sinew with a wet, crunching sound that no soldier ever truly forgets.

He swipes a sleeve over his eyes and draws a shuddering breath. At his feet, his uncle draws one last, bubbling breath, eyes locked on the sword in his chest. He blinks once, twice, eyes sliding closed as his head falls back, and he is still.

Arthur drags in one deep, rasping breath, and raises his eyes to the crowd of knights at the far end of the small room. In their midst stands Merlin, breathing hard, face pale as he stares back at Arthur.

It takes some effort, but he manages a nod of recognition. Of thanks. And then he drops his head, blinking madly from the gritty pain in his eyes, and mumbles, “I don’t suppose one of you is carrying a waterskin, by any chance?”

 

 

***

 

He is on the battlements, staring out over his kingdom. For a moment he loses himself in the aerial view of the courtyard, the same place he first saw Merlin, all those months ago. Today he is watching Balinor escort Hunith across the courtyard, their heads close together as they walk toward the town.

Leon and the other knights are on the training field, Morgana riding casually past with Gwen at her side. Leon’s shield catches Gwaine in the knee as he glances after them. The cursing that results is not fit for the ears of a gently-born lady, not that Morgana seems to mind, judging by her triumphant smile.

Then Arthur lifts his head and takes it all in.

His kingdom.

It is almost enough to bring him to his knees. For months now, almost a year, he has known, bone-deep that Camelot could never truly be his. And now-

“I will be King,” he murmurs. Afraid to believe.

“You have always been my King,” Merlin says from behind him. When Arthur turns, that familiar face is calm and open, staring back at him in undisguised joy. The sunlight turns his eyes a brilliant blue that shames the sky itself.

They fall together on instinct, lips parted, tongues tangling even as they laugh, murmur nonsense to one another. The nights aren’t long enough to contain everything they feel, it spills out each and every time they meet, stains the days with joy. Finally Arthur raises his head, lets his hands slide free of Merlin’s hips.

He bites back a laugh. “I will be King, Merlin. I can be- I can be.”

And then a bare half-second later, the weight of it comes crashing down, the alliances that will have to be re-negotiated, the potential wives to be dissuaded, the nagging suspicion that the border towns are not fulfilling their taxation burden and-

“Cenred,” he says suddenly, urgently. “We must sent an envoy immediately. Word will have spread of my uncle’s death, but we must make it official that the raids across the border were in no way sanctioned by Camelot.”

“Don’t worry about Cenred,” Merlin says lazily. He slumps back against the stone wall and folds his arms.

“Well, Merlin, that’s rather the point,” Arthur snaps back, “As King, I have to worry about everything. And I’d really rather not start my reign by entering into a war the kingdom is completely unprepared for and could very well lose. There could be ten different armies on their way to our borders as we speak.”

The start of a smile creases Merlin’s cheeks, and his eyes shift, suddenly focused very far away, beyond the borders of Camelot. Somehow Arthur knows his gaze is sweeping across all those lands which have not been ruled by a single king for many hundreds of years and he is suddenly remembering whispered conversations, deep in the night. Remembering the dragon and his prophecies.

Albion. The Once and Future King.

“Arthur,” his sorcerer says, and he turns his head until their gazes lock.

Perhaps Merlin’s using his magic. It really seems as though time has stopped, or at least slowed, because the black hair lifts lightly in the breeze, and he blinks slowly, lazily. Over Merlin’s shoulder Arthur can see Kilgarrah glide in toward the north tower, and backwing gently into a perfect landing, green scales glinting in the sun.

The castle, the dragon, and the rolling hills of Camelot – he swallows at the sudden sense of rightness. They’ve travelled so far to get here.

On a slow, easy breath he turns his eyes back to Merlin. He sees the glint of gold in those blue eyes, fires of love and magic barely banked, and he knows that together, there is nothing they can’t accomplish.

“Arthur,” he says, and his grin is bright and fierce, “let them come.”