Arthur in Ealdor was like a tame lion at the dinner table: you weren't necessarily worried you were going to get torn to pieces, but it was still dangerous, decidedly out of place, and made the neighbors nervous.
They'd come to Ealdor mostly by default, Merlin supposed—someplace not far outside the borders of Camelot where they could get a roof over their heads and some supper, humble though it was, and not feel too much like beggars. They'd been made welcome, if with a little puzzlement. Arthur had promptly spent the last two days running everyone ragged: rebuilding the village wall to the height of a man's head, digging a couple of irrigation channels so a few more fields could be added for livestock, and settling three long-running quarrels (thereby depriving the whole village of its main relied-on supply of winter gossip).
Now Dinadan and Kay were sleeping in the smith's hayloft, and Gawain was in the shed, and behind the curtain, Arthur was wrapped in his cloak on the floor in the other room of Hunith's hut. He was probably dreaming about some other excellent improving scheme. Merlin was belatedly realizing that if he didn't get Arthur out of the village shortly, pretty soon he was going to turn around and it would be a walled town instead, with a castle going up on the nearest hill a little while after that, and King Cendred would probably have some violent objections to express at that point.
The problem was, he didn't know where else they could go. Any other village, it would be just the same—a town would be even worse, bigger starting point. Another court was impossible. Arthur wasn't made to serve, and Merlin was really confident he knew exactly what Arthur's reaction would be if someone suggested he might take an oath of allegiance to another king.
Anyway, that was not workable with the whole you-shall-be-king-in-Camelot prophecy thing, even though they were absolutely not talking about that at all. Which Merlin was just fine with; he'd realized why Morgana looked so pale and wild-eyed all the time. Seeing the future was awful. It wasn't like seeing something with your eyes. It was a mess of flashes and bits and your heart pounding and feeling things in your guts instead of in your head, and then you opened your mouth and stupid things came out and you knew they were true but you hadn't any idea how you knew or how they were going to happen, and, ugh. He was not signing up for any more of that.
But that still made it a nonstarter for Arthur to go join somebody else's army, and if left to his own devices he was going to put together his own and undoubtedly get into heaps of trouble with it, so obviously what was needed here was a really whopping sort of distraction, the kind that could occupy a legendary-king-to-be at loose ends.
"Perhaps you'd better tell Arthur tomorrow we won't need any more hunting." Hunith was stirring the pot of stewing meat on the fire, and covering it to cook overnight. It was large. "There's enough for the rest of the week, and Walter hasn't room for any more in the smokehouse right now."
"Yeah, I'll let him know," Merlin said, gloomily. There went one other distraction. He looked across the table as she came and sat down with him, and he pushed the waiting cup of tea over to her. "I think—I think we might have to leave, soon."
"I know," Hunith said, wrapping her rough hands around the wooden cup. Her face was tired and worried and afraid, the way it had been since Merlin had ridden into the village last week, still half falling off his horse, with Arthur's hand steadying him. She tried to smile at him, but it was fragile.
"We'll be fine," he said, trying to reassure her. "I'll be fine. I'm all better, look," and he held his hand out to the fire and called a whorl of it over to dance over his fingers. "And I don't have to worry about hiding it anymore."
"Still best if you don't burn the house down with it," Hunith said, pointing back at the hearth. She watched as Merlin sent it back, with the corners of her mouth downturned.
"I will be traveling with four knights of Camelot, you know. And, well. Arthur's really quite handy with a sword, and slaying monsters, and strategy, that sort of thing," Merlin said, in case that made her feel better, although personally he thought it was pretty obvious by now he could take care of himself. Well, all right, at least when he wasn't totally exhausted from defeating twelve really powerful sorcerers and about to be burned at the stake, but he'd done his best to gloss over that part of the story.
Admittedly, his best hadn't stopped his mum from sobbing all over Arthur's neck and embarrassing all of them, specifically Merlin. "Not that you should tell Arthur I said so," he added quickly.
"My dearest boy," she said, and reached out a hand to cup his face. "Promise me you'll still be careful with your magic. People will still fear it. And—they will hate what they fear."
"I won't let anyone hurt me, or Arthur."
"No, of course not," she said, but in a low voice, and Merlin was pretty sure he hadn't really made her feel better with any of it.
It made him want to ask what she was afraid of, if it wasn't him getting hurt; except that would be the beginning of a hundred questions he wasn't sure he wanted to ask her—questions he wasn't sure he wanted answered at all. He looked at her hands, wrapped around the cup: farmer's hands, cracked and worn with work, callused and red, knuckles swollen a little. His first memory was one of those hands slapping his face and her voice rising, as he backed away from the table and the bowl of soup he'd just rescued from falling over.
Upset by the shouting, he'd cried, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," and reached and flung it back on the floor, because he didn't understand what he'd done wrong, but that seemed like maybe it would fix it. She'd stopped and exclaimed, "Merlin, now look what—!" in exasperation, over the mess, then abruptly she'd sat down limply and burst into tears and laughter at once, and then she'd drawn him in and kissed him on the cheek, and it had been all right again, or at least as far as a child of three could tell.
His hands on the table were long and straight and pale. He'd been burned, working on potions; he'd gotten bumps from long nights scribing, cuts from polishing armor and swords; but he had no scars, no lumps. He'd always healed too quick for scars to get a hold on him. His hands didn't look like hers at all. He'd never asked her where his hands came from, or the fire in his eyes; she'd never said. But every Beltane eve, she'd kept him inside and busy with work, while everyone else sang and celebrated outside.
He curled his hands in and put them in his lap. "I'll be careful," he promised, instead of asking, and she nodded and got up and kissed his cheek.
"There, now; to bed with you," she said, and turned to bank the fire.
He took off his boots and crept quietly into the back room, hoping not to wake Arthur; wasted effort: in the dimming glow from the fire, Merlin could see a reflection flicker in Arthur's eyes, open and brooding up at the ceiling. Merlin sighed and got out of his things and crawled into his own cold blankets as quickly as he could, then peeked over to see if Arthur was even making an effort.
"You know, I'm right next to you, I can see you staring," Arthur said.
"I'm not staring," Merlin lied.
Arthur rolled onto his side for better glaring purposes. "You know, I don't care if you are a great wizard, I'm still going to duck you in a pond if you annoy me."
"Then I'll—magic nettles into your bed!" Merlin said indignantly, and realized too late that he had just temporarily volunteered himself for the role of latest short-term distraction.
The wrestling match ended up—predictably—with Arthur holding him pinned down with his face squashed in a pillow. Embarrassingly, it was only taking Arthur one hand: he'd gotten hold of both Merlin's wrists somehow and had them gripped in the small of his back. Merlin kicked futilely and then gave up, panting.
"Had enough?" Arthur said, sing-songily.
"You're an absolute prat," Merlin said into the cotton batting.
"What was that?" Arthur said. "I didn't hear you say 'yes, Arthur, I acknowledge your total superiority,' and you're not getting up until I do."
All right, there were limits. Merlin twisted his head sideways and said, "Ermiad pegranos anadrathi," and Arthur yelped as his blanket leaped into the air and wrapped itself around his head and arms and dragged him to the floor.
Merlin sat on Arthur's legs while the blanket busily tied itself into knots around his wrists. "That's bloody cheating!" Arthur said, struggling.
"Oh, and the fact that you've a hundred pounds on me and are a trained knight, that's not," Merlin said, delightedly. He hadn't really thought about what this would be like, now that Arthur knew, but this was amazing—not having to hide it anymore, not having to pretend to be just some ordinary peasant serving boy. Merlin felt like someone had taken chains off him; like his magic just wanted to sing out to Arthur, show itself off to him, look at me, look at me.
And —he stifled the flash of guilt—yes, all right, he'd just promised his mum, but this was behind closed doors, and Arthur already knew. Also Arthur had been asking for it—been asking for it for years now, really, prancing around with his sword and heroics and smugness. No one could reasonably begrudge Merlin a little of his own back.
Merlin leaned forward over Arthur's head. "How about, 'you're absolutely right, Merlin, and extremely wise, and—' " then Merlin squeaked as Arthur gave a heave of his legs and dumped him off, then rolled over on top of him and covered Merlin's mouth with his hands.
Merlin said, "Mdgdfmmmfhr!" by which he meant, "Get off me or I'll turn you into a frog." He wasn't sure how he would go about turning someone into a frog, but he had used a spell to turn some puce-colored fabric green once, and he thought he could start from there.
Arthur smirked, clearly not having the least bit of trouble understanding. "Sorry?" He settled himself in comfortably, elbows propped against the floor, squashing most of the air out of Merlin's lungs.
Merlin took a deep breath through his nose, getting ready to flip Arthur over on his back. He didn't need incantations. Although, even for the basic sort of magic, being able to breathe was extremely helpful, and that was hard to do when you had somebody sprawled on top of you like you were a convenient mattress. Arthur was propped up over him, looking down his aristo nose and obviously deeply pleased with himself, that smile on his face, the really annoying one, and stretched out with his full weight pressed on Merlin, collarbone to thighs, and he wasn't that tall, but he was really—solid, and—and—
Merlin stared up at Arthur and tried to remember where that train of thought had been going. For a moment, Arthur kept smirking back down at him, and then a faint flicker of something else crossed his face. The smirk slid away little by little. The embers of the fire from the other room were all the light there was, and Merlin noticed that Arthur's eyes looked very, very dark.
"Right, that's enough childish brawling," Arthur said, sitting up abruptly and letting go.
"Yes, right, obviously," Merlin said, scrabbling himself up too. After a moment he added, "Oh," and flicked a golden-eyed look at the blanket, which unwound itself from Arthur's wrists and dropped on the floor.
They sat side by side amid their tangle of blankets, awkwardly not talking at first. But Merlin was still sleepy, somehow his shoulder came to be pressed against Arthur's, and by the space of a dozen breaths and another, the awkwardness had faded into something comfortable.
Arthur broke the silence. "We can't stay here," he said softly.
"Yeah?" Merlin said. "I mean, yeah. I know."
Arthur nodded. "I've already been here too long. Cendred will hear of it, and he'll think this is a ploy of Camelot to eat away at his kingdom."
"I—hadn't thought of that one," Merlin said, in dismay.
"I just," Arthur said, and stopped. "I don't know where to go," he said finally.
Merlin stared down at his empty hands, feeling useless.
"I should tell Dinadan and the others to go to another court," Arthur said. "They're all good men, good knights. Any lord would be glad of their allegiance."
"They won't leave you," Merlin said.
Arthur looked down. "I've nothing to offer them. Not even a place to sleep."
"You've got you," Merlin said, "and that's what we came away for. It's not like you were ever shy about asking us to sleep in the forest before."
Arthur smiled a little, a sort of shy half-uncertain thing that wasn't much like him. But it fell away quickly. "A three-day hunting trip isn't the same as not having a home."
"So don't think of it as not having a home," Merlin said. "Think of it as—as—" He groped and came up with, "— a vacation!"
Arthur turned and looked at him.
"Well," Merlin said defensively, "a few weeks ago, you were whinging on about how you weren't allowed to travel outside Camelot for some tourney—no, don't jump on me again!" he said hurriedly, and Arthur apparently thought better of it, which made Merlin think about why Arthur might have thought better of it, and they both sort of cleared their throats and went back to staring anywhere but at each other.
"I just meant," Merlin said, after a bit, "that now we can go wherever you like. We could visit—Glastonbury Abbey, perhaps."
Arthur gave him a raised eyebrow. "An abbey?"
"Well—" Merlin said. Gaius had mentioned once they had several books of sorcery in the library there, but he wasn't sure that would be a tremendous selling point to share with Arthur.
"The last thing I need is to hear a bunch of monks droning matins in my ear first thing when I wake up," Arthur said. "If I weren't depressed already, good God. No, but thanks, I do know where we're going now."
"You do?" Merlin said, brightening.
Merlin stared down at the pile of armor and swords and lances and shields in the middle of the chamber. There was also a bucket of water and some cleaning brushes.
"Now this is more like it," Arthur said, clapping his hands together and turning from the window to beam at them.
Granted, compared to a hut in Ealdor, it was spacious. Luxurious, even. But four knights-errant of no particular name—no announced particular name—didn't rate the best guest chambers at King Vortigern's castle, not when the place was packed for an open tourney. So all five of them had been squashed into one middling-sized room. With four cots.
"We'll need to attend the feast, of course," Arthur said. "Er, that is—"
Merlin looked up from the armor and narrowed his eyes.
"You don't mind, do you?" Arthur said, sort of brightly.
"Mind?" Merlin said, smiling with his teeth clenched. "Oh, no." He deliberately went to the biggest cot and lay down and raised a hand and said, "Venasti."
All the armor floated into the air, and the sponges and brushes leaped up and began scrubbing. The knights backed away. Sir Dinadan surreptitiously crossed himself. Well, probably he thought it was surreptitious, anyway.
Merlin folded his arms behind his head and leaned back as pointedly as he could. "I'll just be here, resting."
"Er, right," Arthur said, staring at the armor. "Merlin, that doesn't—hurt the armor or anything. Does it?"
"You've never complained before," Merlin said.
"I've never—" Arthur broke off and glared at Merlin. Merlin glared right back. "Right," Arthur said, after a moment. "We'll—be back. Later!"
They all edged around the floating armor and eased out the door very carefully, as though they expected it to attack them. Merlin thought it would've served all of them right, especially Arthur, if he had sent the armor chasing them out the door, but they'd spent three days riding here without a bed or much rest of any sort in between, and really, he was pretty tired.
At some point several dreamless hours later, he half-woke to Arthur slurring in his ear, "Move over." Merlin grumbled a little under his breath, but he was still mostly asleep, so instead he rolled up onto his side and let Arthur cram in with him. He woke up warm for the first time in days, with the sun pouring over him and Arthur cuddled around him and breathing in steady puffs against the back of his neck. The worst thing about it was how extremely good it felt, and not just being warm, and held, but something more: the sensation that he was where he belonged. Arthur fit against his back, and their legs were tucked in together, as if by arrangement.
"Arthur!" Merlin hissed, trying to crane over his shoulder. Arthur didn't so much as twitch. Merlin squirmed and struggled, and the best he managed was to get enough play to turn around so he could poke Arthur more firmly, except that put him face to face with Arthur, all tousled golden hair and a smudge of wine red at the corner of his mouth, the faint dark shadows under his eyes a little lighter. Merlin stared at him helplessly, and then Arthur stirred and opened his eyes and blinked fuzzily a few times, and stared back at him.
"I was sleeping," Merlin said, stupidly.
"Yeah," Arthur said. "There—there's only four—" He stopped. They were both whispering. The others were asleep on the smaller cots.
They didn't move. Arthur's arm was underneath Merlin's head, and his other hand had somehow ended up on Merlin's hip, holding them together. It oughtn't have felt—this good. This right. It felt almost like using magic, a kind of heat pooling deep in his belly.
Merlin felt his face getting sort of pink and hot, and Arthur wasn't looking straight at him anymore. "We ought to," Merlin fumbled, "get up, or—"
"Yes!" Arthur said immediately. He shoved back the covers and rolled out in a quick lithe move that made Merlin scowl as he pushed himself up a lot more slowly. Personally, he felt like he'd spent the last three days being beaten with sticks.
And then of course, it would have looked odd if the knights had gone down to fetch their own breakfast when they had a perfectly good servant along, or so Arthur pointed out, which made Merlin say, "I'm giving serious thought to turning you into a pigeon." Except that made the other knights look so nervous—Dinadan put a hand on his sword!—that Merlin had to grit his teeth and ruin it by saying, "That was a joke!" And it all ended with Arthur smirking in that really annoying way as Merlin stalked out to get some undoubtedly terrible porridge and bread for all of them.
Worse yet, Arthur wasn't smirking when Merlin got back; he looked sort of irritated in the way he did when you were telling him something he didn't want to hear, and Dinadan and Kay gave Merlin these sort of sidelong anxious looks, so it was pretty obvious what they'd been talking about in his absence.
Merlin guessed maybe this was the kind of thing his mother had been talking about, and it made him glare angrily down into his porridge—which, yeah, was thin and watery even for porridge. He'd saved their lives too, probably, and at the very least he'd saved their prince, when none of them had been able to do a thing to help. They'd known him for years, too; what business did they have, being suspicious at him?
At least Sir Gawain didn't look at him funny, and actually talked to him, even if it was only to say, "Are you going to eat the rest of that?" when Merlin left half his porridge in his bowl.
"If you aren't worried it's got contaminated or something," Merlin said, with an edge, as he slid the bowl over.
"Nah," Gawain said around a spoonful, already polishing it off, "m'father's got a sorcerer at his court."
"He does?" Arthur said, lifting his head.
"Yeah, 's useful, when we're all locked up in a winter storm, can't go out for a week. He says it's the only thing keeps us off killing each other," Gawain said cheerfully. "The fellow makes—" he waved a hand—"birds out of handkerchiefs, things."
Merlin tried to decide whether he was more happy to have at least one of Arthur's knights not hysterical over him, or annoyed at being compared to some feeble sleight-of-hand illusionist.
He didn't have a lot of time to consider; they'd finished eating, and it was almost time for them to go enter the lists. Merlin was a little tempted to make a point of not helping Arthur with his armor, but he'd got used to doing it, and anyway he couldn't help but be a bit anxious. This wasn't like the celebratory tourneys Uther liked to throw at Camelot, he'd already picked up on that much just from the brief visit to the kitchens. The servants were placing wagers on how many men were going to be killed in the first day.
"You know," Merlin said, tightening some of the buckles, "it—it might be better if you didn't win."
"What?" Arthur said.
"I'm just saying, it'll be conspicuous," Merlin said. "I heard third prize is two hundred gold coins, that's enough to live on a long while—"
"I am not going to throw a tourney!" Arthur said. "That would be dishonorable."
"What? How? It's not like cheating!" Merlin said.
"It is so!" Arthur said. "It's a knight's duty to do his best on the field of valor."
"Oh, I see, it's a knight's duty to show off like an tremendous ass, you mean," Merlin said.
"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur said, and snatched away his helmet.
"Sir Arthur of Somerset, Knight-Errant," was called to the lists in the second bout of the day. The first few rounds weren't going to be the usual individual fights—there were too many contenders for that. Instead, there were two rows of men lined up on the field, still going at it in pairs but all at the same time. Merlin stood watching anxiously from the sidelines, his fists clenched, but the fight was over almost before it had begun; the enemy was a young knight, Sir Erec of Carlisle, sixteen and nervous. Arthur drew out the fight a little, making the boy look better than he was, then disarmed him quick and let him yield standing up.
"Well-fought," he said, clasping the young man's arm as they stepped off the field. "You should practice that overhand swing," he added. "Weight your arm down with wooden blocks and do it for an hour, each day."
"Oh," the boy said, flushing and respectful. "I will; thank you, my lord," he added, which of course would've been the totally wrong address for him to use to an ordinary knight-errant. Arthur, of course, didn't notice a thing and just clapped him on the shoulder. Yeah, great. Merlin sighed.
Dinadan, Kay, and Gawain all won their first rounds handily, too. By the end of the third round, the next morning, their group was starting to become really prominent. Most of the other knights-errant had gone out early. Merlin had figured it out: they weren't there to win, they were there to audition, and none of them were pigheaded and stupid enough to risk getting seriously hurt when there wasn't anyone ready to see to their healing or their retirement.
So it was down to the four of them and a bunch of knights already in service to one lord or another. Dinadan and Gawain got their first offers before lunchtime; a page brought a written invitation to Kay while they were at their meat.
"Not bad terms," Kay said cheerfully. "Now I'll know what to ask you for one day, my liege."
Arthur looked pretty downcast afterwards, though, and Merlin poked him. "You can't seriously be upset no one's given you an offer."
"What?" Arthur said. "No, I just—those are good terms. Kay should—he should consider them. I've heard of Lord Lucan, he is held a strong and fair earl." He looked down at his gauntlets. "I should tell Kay so."
"Yeah, fine, don't blame me when he gets offended," Merlin said.
Arthur shot him an annoyed look, and then he got a frown on his face and looked up. "Wait a second, why hasn't anyone sent me an offer?"
"I dunno, I guess they're just not that impressed," Merlin said, and ducked Arthur's swat.
Actually, Arthur had already made it patently obvious that only a complete idiot of a lord would've wanted him, no matter how well he fought. Last night at the feasting, Merlin had been standing back against the wall, with the other servants—well, he was bored, and it was going to be easier to get himself fed afterwards, and who knew what sort of trouble Arthur could get into on his own, and—anyway, so he'd gone down to the dinner.
From that vantage point, he'd seen that as many men came to cluster around Arthur, seated down near the far end of the tables, as by any of the great lords up near the front. Merlin didn't quite get why they came, but they did—men that Arthur or his other three knights had beaten, or fought beside, or who'd just watched them fighting. They came by to greet him, it seemed, but then they just stayed talking. Arthur spent more of the meal with his chair turned around than he did facing the food.
And what was really brilliant, it had made a mess of the service, so everyone else had noticed, too. There wasn't much room left for congregating around the lower tables, so the servants were having trouble getting past with the trays for the upper. Merlin had seen King Vortigern himself giving a couple of hard looks in their direction.
That afternoon, Arthur got matched to one of King Vortigern's men—a Saxon knight, big as a barn, with a battle axe the size of a wagon-wheel to match. "Is he planning on fighting you, or chopping down a tree?" Merlin said, watching him swing it around like it was made of air and chaff.
"Axe-fighting's all about the backswing," Arthur said absently, too busy watching to be sarcastic. "If you can't pull it in time to keep your enemy out of range, you're dead after your first swing. He's got a good one—quick recovery time."
"Wonderful," Merlin said, and double-checked Arthur's buckles.
The Saxon came after Arthur fast and hard and brutal, with a swing that would have carved him in two if it'd landed. Merlin definitely did not squeak, but he did make a small, really not at all significant noise, just a kind of expression of surprise, but Arthur was already gone, ducking under and away.
"What was that?" Merlin said, looking at Dinadan, who'd actually stepped to the edge of the lists. "That could've—"
"He's fighting to kill," Dinadan said flatly, and Arthur had noticed that too, his face gone hard and intent.
Arthur hadn't really been pushed in any of his earlier fights, but he'd let them both run for a bit—apparently throwing a fight was totally out of the question, but taking stupid unnecessary risks and dragging them out just to make the other guy feel better was fine. This time, though, he came in deadly-quick, slid in under the big man's guard and left a bloody slash across his guts, whipped around while the man was still swinging, and conked him in the back of the head with his sword-hilt, hard. The Saxon went down like he was the tree, and didn't get up.
It was the quickest fight that round, and the Saxon toppling over was hard to miss. If anyone hadn't noticed Arthur before, they had now.
There were four or five knights who'd won the tourney in previous years, or come close, and the next morning, all of them were out in front of their pavilions while Arthur fought: studying him. Merlin pointed them out to Arthur, who watched them all fight in turn, but saved most of his attention for another knight, a Lord Orien, the earl of Hampshire, who was doing well also. Dinadan joined him at the edge of the fighting grounds to watch Orien in the sixth round. "Good footwork," Dinadan commented.
"Yeah," Arthur said. "Though he hesitates when he has to back up more than a few paces."
Dinadan nodded professionally. Merlin—had no idea what they were talking about. Orien seemed to go backwards as quick as a rabbit, as far as he could see.
Arthur met last year's champion in the next round, that afternoon. The other man, an older knight, was wary, and he tried to tempt Arthur into a charge a few times, hoping for a mistake or a stumble. Arthur made a half-rush a few times, like he was just on the edge of taking the bait, shifting his position over a little bit each time. The other knight kept shifting his to compensate, trying again to lure Arthur forward, and as he did so for the third time, the afternoon sun broke the edge of the castle and hit him in the face.
He flinched only for a moment, but Arthur had obviously been waiting for it the whole time: he closed the distance in a rush and body-slammed him back. He did something complicated with his sword and the other man's blade went flashing into the air, and then Arthur had him three paces back and his own sword at the man's throat.
The crowd roared approval as the former champion stepped back and bowed, and Arthur offered his hand. They stepped off the field together. "Merlin, water, for both of us," Arthur said. "Sir Sagramore, this is Sir Kay, son of Sir Ector—"
Kay was knocked out first thing the next morning, both literally and from the tournament, by another one of the Saxon knights. "Is he going to be all right?" Arthur said grimly, coming into the pavilion. Kay's eyes were open and staring unfocusedly at the roof of the tent, and he hadn't said anything but nonsense.
"Er, I think so," Merlin said, doubtfully. He wished he could talk to Gaius.
"Can't you—" Arthur waved his hand vaguely.
"You want me to—" Merlin waved his hand around exaggeratedly "— in his head? I'd give it a couple of days for the ringing in his ears to die down, first."
Dinadan was in the lists two bouts later and barely scraped out a victory, limping away with a wrenched shoulder that gave him difficulty in raising his shield. "I'll be out in the next," he said grimly, while keeping one slightly anxious eye on the poultice Merlin was putting on his shoulder. "They're throwing everything they've got at us, sire."
"Why would they be after you?" Merlin said. "Is Vortigern an enemy of Uther—"
"No, he just doesn't want to pay out gold to knights-errant," Arthur said. "My father hates it also. He'll take a loss that sends gold to a neighboring lord or his settled men, because he knows next month or next year, he'll have a chance for his men to win it back. A knight-errant will never sponsor a tournament, it's gold drained out of the coffers for good."
Gawain was up next, and Arthur pulled him aside for a low-voiced and stern conversation that left Gawain with a mulish expression. "Let me guess," Merlin said coolly as Arthur came back as the match began. "You don't want him trying too hard to win and taking stupid risks—"
"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur said, folding his arms to watch.
Gawain hadn't filled out yet, but he was tall. "He's going to be almost impossible to beat when he's older," Arthur said, sounding almost proprietary. "Balance, speed, reflexes all excellent, the only thing he needs is the extra muscle. Oh, oh, watch this—"
This was something that happened so fast Merlin only got a vague impression of bang-bang-crash-whoosh, and ended with Gawain dancing back from a couple of clumsy and desperate swings.
"Hah!" Arthur yelled, practically bouncing on his heels and pounding his hand on Merlin's shoulder in excitement. "Did you see that? Go back at him, Gawain!" which pretty much exploded all his cautious advice before, not that Gawain was waiting anyway. He got in close, locked hilts with the other man and pivoted in until he was back-to-chest, and levered the other's sword straight out of his hand.
Okay, Merlin might have cheered a few times, too. It had been an excellent fight.
But Gawain's second match of the day was last year's second-place winner: Sir Mathias, a stronger and older knight. He wasn't drawn by Gawain's quick darting attacks, but dragged the combat out, letting the heat of the day and the weight of the armor wear Gawain down before disarming him with a skillful feinting attack the first time he stumbled.
Arthur gripped Gawain's shoulder comfortingly, and it was down to four: Arthur, Sir Mathias, Orien, and Sir Ulfrith, the Saxon knight who had knocked Kay out. Arthur got invited to the high table that night: a page brought the note. "Please tell his majesty I'm honored," Arthur said, "but I'll sit with my men."
"What he means is, thanks very much, he'd love to," Merlin said hurriedly, to the confused page, and then shut the door. "You can't have any your men if you're a knight-errant!"
"Oh, hell," Arthur said.
"I'll attend you at the high table, sire," Sir Dinadan said darkly. "I like not this invitation."
"Excuse me!" Merlin said. "I'm not going to let anyone stab him."
"I can keep myself from being stabbed just fine, thank you both!" Arthur said.
What he couldn't do was keep from making it even more obvious that he wasn't just a knight-errant. He ate with his impeccable company manners, talked to lords and earls with perfect ease, and totally failed to give precedence to anyone. Merlin stood behind him and rolled his eyes on average once every three minutes, and as they were leaving, a page stopped them.
"His majesty asks you to attend him," the boy piped, and waited expectantly. Arthur shot Merlin a look, and Merlin shot one back, trying to convey this is not even a LITTLE bit anyone's fault but your own as well as he could while at the same time running over the spells he could remember to figure out which one he'd use to magic them outside into the fields if that looked necessary.
Vortigern was standing at the window looking out over the lists when they were shown into his quarters. "No knight by the name Arthur of Somerset is known to my court genealogist," he said without preamble, and Arthur immediately started to puff up in indignation or something. Merlin poked him hurriedly, just in time to keep him from interrupting as Vortigern added, "nor are your companions familiar to me; yet curiously, there are knights of Camelot named Dinadan, Kay, and Gawain—and the prince of Camelot is Arthur. Who is, rumor has it, a full puissant knight."
He turned around, and belatedly it occurred to Merlin that, er, maybe Uther and Vortigern weren't enemies exactly, but that didn't mean they were good friends, and Vortigern might still think that the crown prince of Camelot would be a really good hostage—
"My name is as I have given it, my lord," Arthur said, with a side helping of arrogance that clearly was intended to stand in for the big sign saying YES I AM A PRINCE that he hadn't had time to make before dinner. "And so are those of my men." He jerked as Merlin kicked him in the shin, subtly. "My companions," he corrected himself through his teeth, with a glare at Merlin.
"Then you would not mind informing me where you received your knighthood?" Vortigern said dryly.
Arthur said, "From Uther Pendragon of Camelot, at the battle of Ramsgate."
Vortigern paused and looked slightly perplexed. Merlin couldn't blame him, he didn't get the point of using a different name but refusing to lie about any details of his life. "It's not honorable to lie," Arthur had said, maddeningly, as they'd ridden to the tourney.
"I'm not Arthur of Camelot anymore," Arthur had said. "My father has—I cannot use that name anymore. Camelot Castle is in Somerset county, and there's no other knight called Arthur of Somerset." He'd swallowed and finished, roughly, "It's as good a name to use as any."
Merlin had wanted to argue further the point of making up a back story to go with the name, but he couldn't have pressed it at the time, not with that look on Arthur's face. So now here they were, and Vortigern looked as confused as he was.
The difference was that judging by the stormclouds gathering over Vortigern's face, he was deciding that Arthur was either up to something or mocking him. Merlin nudged Arthur's foot with his again and tried to convey with eyebrows and twitches that maybe a little more explanation was in order, but Arthur just glared at him and kept standing there silently.
Vortigern was clearly weighing the options of throwing Arthur into the dungeons versus out of the kingdom. Merlin supposed the latter would at least be the start of a record, except Kay wasn't in any shape to be moved, and either way they didn't walk away with the gold, which had supposedly been the whole point of coming.
"Your highness," he said, edging away from Arthur's immediate attempt to jab him into shutting up, "there are reasons why a knight might not be able to use his real name. Reasons of—of honor," he added hurriedly, since that appeared to be a magic word meaning "behave stupidly without explanation."
Vortigern frowned at him with that incredulous what is this peasant doing making noise in my vicinity expression Merlin had seen on Uther oh so many times. "Who is this?"
"This is Merlin," Arthur said, between his teeth. "He's my—"
And then he paused, for a long moment, and before Merlin realized what he was going to do, Arthur finished abruptly, "He's my wizard."
Merlin stared at him, open-mouthed. Arthur ignored him, and put his arms behind his back and smiled a little stiffly at Vortigern, like he'd said it and now he was going to carry it through.
"Indeed," Vortigern said. "I begin to see," which was alarming, as Merlin didn't think Vortigern had anything like enough pieces to actually understand what was going on. "Well, Sir Arthur," the king continued, with narrowed eyes, "this is most convenient. I had thought to make tomorrow a day of feasting, before our final bouts. My own court wizard would entertain, of course, but in keeping with the spirit of our tournament, it seems to me highly fitting that we should marry a tournament at arms with a tournament of wizardry. Would you not agree?"
"Er," Merlin said.
"Most fitting, your majesty," Arthur said.
"Er," Merlin said.
"I don't believe you!" Merlin said, blank with dismay. He could just see his mother's face right now—not only had Arthur announced his sorcerer-ness to the most powerful king in Albion, he'd got Merlin into a public duel.
"What's the problem?" Arthur said, with infuriating calm. "You beat twelve wizards week before last."
"The problem—" Merlin threw up his arms. "It wasn't to put on a show! Magic's not for—for playing around with!" Also, Merlin wasn't at all sure he wasn't going to make a complete ass of himself in front of Arthur and the whole court.
Arthur stopped in the hall and turned to face him. "Merlin, neither is swordplay. Do you think we have these tournaments for fun?"
Merlin stared at him. "Yes."
Arthur coughed. "Well, all right, they are fun, but that's not the point. The point is to make a show of strength. If you can field the strongest knights, and many of them, your neighbors know not to challenge you."
Merlin eyed him. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure it's mostly for fun."
"Oh, shut up," Arthur said, heading on down the hall.
"Look, anyway," Merlin said, trotting to catch up, "it's not like I can start throwing fireballs or whatever in the Great Hall. What if this sorcerer—the king's sorcerer—" he added, pointedly, "—knows some really impressive spell or something?"
"I've got faith in you," Arthur said, clapping him on the shoulder.
That was the sort of thing Uther had always said to Arthur, before tourneys. Merlin was fairly sure that the translation into ordinary human speech was, come back with your shield or on it.
"I hate you," Merlin said, deeply and sincerely.
Arthur remained blithely unconcerned. "There is something we're going to have to see to first, though," he said.
"Sorry, let me correct that," Merlin said, "I really hate you."
"Nonsense, Merlin, you look splendid," Arthur said, smirking.
"I look like an idiot," Merlin said.
"Well, there are some things you can't fix with clothing," Arthur said.
Merlin glared, except the effect got spoiled by the pointy hat sliding down over his eyes. He grabbed it off, shaking away the long sleeves. "I am not wearing the hat."
"But it gives you such an air!"
The one bright side of it all was that for the first time in his life, Merlin got to actually sit at the banquet tables himself. Of course, he was too nervous to eat, especially since he was across the open space from Vortigern's wizard, who was not wearing a stupid red velvet robe with embroidery. He was wearing a black leather jerkin and a long black cloak and black gloves and a black-hilted dagger. He looked as dangerous as a venomous snake.
"You're getting your sleeve in the sauce," Arthur said helpfully.
"I really really really—" Merlin began.
Vortigern stood up. "And now, my honored guests—"
It couldn't possibly be more intimidating to stand up in the middle of a feast to trade a few token spells than to charge out to face twelve murdering sorcerers, Merlin told himself, except apparently it could.
He hadn't had a chance to think about it, last time. He'd spent that whole morning in a thick, cloudy sleep—he thought maybe Craddag and the others had somehow enspelled him—and then all of a sudden Morgana had been there, bursting into his chamber with Gwen hard on her heels. She'd grabbed him by the shoulders and shaken him violently out of groggy slumber, her eyes wild, and through the haze said, "Arthur will die if you don't go right now."
That hadn't exactly invited discussion; Merlin had dragged himself up and gone, and Arthur had been screaming by the time he'd reached the door. Hearing that, hearing Arthur scream like that, had been like a hot knife slid into the belly. Merlin hadn't done a lot of thinking after that. The only thing that had mattered to him at all had been getting to Arthur, and slaughtering anyone who'd made him sound like that.
This time, on the other hand, his oncoming sorcerous duel was preceded by five jugglers, an acrobat, a bard reciting a heroic poem, and an animal trainer with three monkeys. Meanwhile the dread-looking Saxon sorcerer was standing just a few steps away, in the hallway outside, with hands folded over one another, saying nothing except to the two men with him, an honor guard.
"So," Merlin tried, "I'm Merlin, by the way."
The sorcerer looked at him as if he was some sort of insect.
"Right," Merlin muttered, and then Vortigern was calling them in.
"Perhaps we will begin," Vortigern said from his throne, "with a demonstration on the part of either of our contenders. Master Hulfrid, if you will begin."
The Saxon bowed, and raising his arms began a chant—magic words like none Merlin had ever heard, in their tongue. The air before him shivered, and gradually a shimmering illusion formed: the mouth of a small cave of stone and jagged crystal, set in a green mossy hill with several puddles in the ground before it; in the distance on the summit of the hill stood a white castle crested with red flags. Sunlight shimmered on the water, and birds sang; it was beautiful, and Merlin stared at it with a sinking feeling. Somehow he didn't think blasting a big hole in the roof with fire was going to impress quite the same way.
Then Hulfrid waved a hand, and a small head poked out of the cave: a dragon. Except it was a stupid-looking dragon, with a fat protruding belly and sleepy eyes and a flat snout. It crawled out over the ground sluggishly, its wings dragging, and had a misstep, ended up splattering its face into one of the puddles. A titter went around the court, and Merlin glanced over to see Arthur's face set hard and angry. The illusory dragon made several more attempts to get itself up, and finally stopped trying, just lay there lapping at the water like a pig in mud.
"Merlin!" Arthur hissed, as the dragon finished slurping and went to sleep, and the court applauded enthusiastically.
"What?" Merlin hissed back, edging over.
"You've got to avenge that," Arthur said.
"What're you talking about?" Merlin said.
"The dragon is Camelot's symbol," Arthur said. "He's insulting me—he's insulting Camelot."
"Er, right," Merlin said. "So what do you want me to—"
"I don't know!" Arthur said. "Do—"
"And now," Vortigern said, interrupting, "Master Merlin, servant to Sir Arthur of Somerset," with deliberate emphasis, "will show us his skills."
"Right," Merlin muttered under his breath and looked around a little helplessly for inspiration. The crowd was beginning to murmur louder, their attention slipping. The glowing cave was still there, with the fat little dragon snoring soundlessly before it. There wasn't much around to work with, but—Merlin crossed to one of the serving tables and took a water jug.
Merlin had tried this spell during the unicorn curse, but it hadn't worked; he was hoping very much right now that it had been the curse, and not some stupid mistake. He concentrated hard, trying to latch onto the magic, and said, "Gahiel adrothen melian peradrahor," as he tipped the jug and poured a thin stream of water onto the floor.
The water broadened as it fell to the floor and began running towards the illusion of the cave. Hulfrid had been standing to one side with his arms crossed over his chest, looking bored and dismissive. He straightened abruptly now, however, and the conversation began to die away as the water became a wide, clear stream gurgling over rocks, splashing and frothing white and into clear pools.
"Oh, I can hear it," he heard someone say behind him, and the beginnings of applause started, but died away when Merlin raised his hand and pointed at the sleeping dragon. The dragon stirred and raised its head and sniffed the air. It stood up and shook out its wings and began to creep over to the stream, still glimmering with the illusion-shimmer.
This was going to be the tricky bit—hopefully it'd work on illusion the way it did on paintings, or sculpture. "Eal erdorthae reiasan quicken," Merlin whispered softly, and it did work—the dragon turned real even as it put down its head to the clear, running water. Merlin licked his lips and added a little push to the growing magic still dormant in the water. Anyway, that was how he thought of it; he didn't have a particular incantation or anything, but—
The dragon gulped and gulped, and as it did, it shuddered and started to grow. The fat belly smoothed out and the wings grew broad and sleek—the neck and snout lengthened, and the teeth and claws grew sharp, curving, until it was almost the length of one of the tables.
Merlin stepped back. He couldn't keep from grinning any longer. He'd made a dragon! Everyone was applauding too now, hugely, and when he looked around Arthur was grinning at him back, clapping with everyone else. It was like a moment out of a dream or something; Merlin felt heady as if he'd drunk a whole jug of wine, under the admiring gaze of all the lords and ladies of the court, and then the dragon lifted its head from the stream, stretched over to the serving tables, and snatched the roasted hog's head off its platter.
The applause died, and a low murmuring started. "Sire," Hulfrid said loudly, over the buzz of voices, "That is not illusion, call your guards—"
"Wait—look, I'm not going to let it hurt anyone!" Merlin said, over the sudden gasps of alarm, but people were already getting up from their seats and backing away, and the guards were jumping over the table with spears, and the dragon sat back on its haunches and drew a deep breath—
Merlin took rather a long time going back to their chamber after he'd finished cleaning up the mess. Apart from the dragon—which had got a little out of hand after all—and the dragon's blood, and the scorch marks, it turned out that Vortigern didn't actually want a running stream in his great hall. It had all been rather uncomfortable, what with Vortigern's guards watching him sidelong and gripping their swords, from the very farthest edge of the otherwise emptied-out room.
The tables had still been loaded with food, some of it hot and fresh. Not a single servant had come in to snatch a bite. Only Vortigern's sorcerer had stayed of his own free will, watching Merlin work with dark, envious eyes, his fists clenching.
Merlin stopped outside the door, took a deep breath and pushed it open. Arthur turned, looking up from sharpening his sword—it had gotten notched fighting the dragon—and Gawain and Dinadan looked over at him from the table. "So," Merlin said. "I, er."
"Get in and close the door," Arthur said flatly, and Merlin gulped and shut the door, and then Arthur was laughing and pounding him on the shoulder. "That was brilliant," Arthur said. "Of course, I'm going to have to explain to Vortigern that I lectured you sternly and apologize to him for your misbehavior, and you'll have to do some groveling too—"
"But you're happy," Merlin said, still warily.
"You made the High King's sorcerer look like a—a penny conjurer at a street fair," Arthur said, exultantly. "That dragon took eight men to kill!"
"You just liked fighting the dragon, didn't you," Merlin said, almost dizzy with relief, and he didn't care that Dinadan didn't seem anywhere near as happy, and even Gawain had a vaguely doubtful look.
Arthur tried and failed not to smirk. "Well, it's not every day you get to slay a dragon," he said with a shrug whose casualness was entirely false. He kept a hand warm and heavy on Merlin's shoulder as they sat down at the table, and Merlin magicked them a pile of leftovers from the interrupted feast, and mugs of beer to go with it. Even Dinadan didn't turn up his nose at that, Merlin noted.
"To Camelot," Arthur said softly, raising his mug, and he met Merlin's eyes as their cups clinked, and all of them echoed, "To Camelot."
It was early yet, when they finished, but Arthur yawned and said, "We might as well get the extra rest," so they banked the fire and went to bed.
Merlin hesitated, his hand over the last candle, and looked over; Arthur raised the covers for him. Merlin snuffed the candle, and in the dark lay down on the cot in front of Arthur again. Merlin closed his eyes and sighed out once, warm and a little drunk and unreasonably happy. Under the blankets, Arthur's hand slid loosely over his waist, holding him into the curve of Arthur's body, perfectly fitted against his own.
Kay was still mostly dazed or asleep the next morning, and Merlin was starting to think maybe he should be poking around somehow. "Stay here and see what you can do for him," Arthur said. "That goes for you too, Dinadan; let that shoulder get some rest. Gawain can help me, and the final won't be until the afternoon."
Dinadan stayed by Kay's side, sharpening a knife, while Merlin poked through his book of spells, trying to find anything that seemed like it would do any good for massive head injuries. Nothing really seemed to like to deal with the brain, though—he found one mention of something for brain-swelling called trepanning, which got him really excited for a bit, except then he turned to the page and discovered it wasn't a spell, it was chopping a hole in somebody's skull, which did not sound even a little bit like a good idea to him.
"Oh," he said, in sudden relief, "I'm an idiot," and flipped back to the page he'd glanced at an hour before, the one with a scrying spell.
"What are you going to do?" Dinadan said from his chair, with an undertone of suspicion, as Merlin plonked their bucket of wash-water onto the table.
"I'm going to call in an expert," Merlin said, and held his hand out over the bucket. "Viatula imeluleth Gaius."
The surface shimmered uneasily and then cleared open to show him Gaius's workshop, the room and its tables full of beakers and books, the old man puttering quietly among them, and for a moment Merlin was so homesick he couldn't breathe. "Gaius," he said to the water.
In the vision, Gaius jumped and looked around him, wide-eyed. "Merlin! What are you doing back—" He stopped, perplexed, turning in a circle. "Merlin?"
"No, I—Gaius! Stop! I'm not there, I'm scrying you," Merlin said.
Gaius turned around again a couple of times more, like he couldn't quite believe it. "You're—how are you speaking to me?"
"Er," Merlin said, a little blankly. "I'm—talking at the water, I guess?"
Gaius sighed and sat down at his table. "Of course. Heaven forbid you should be troubled by any small matters, such as that scrying only permits vision, and not sound."
"Oh," Merlin said. "It didn't say that in the book."
"It doesn't ordinarily have to," Gaius said dryly.
Gaius asked him a dozen questions about Kay's condition, then told him not under any circumstances to go mucking around in Kay's head, and just to let him sleep. "If it has not already proven mortal, he ought to recover. Only be sure he does not go into battle, or any other act which might cause him to suffer another blow to the head, for two weeks' time at the very least."
Then he paused and asked quietly, "Are you all well, otherwise?"
"Yeah," Merlin said softly. "Yeah, we're—we're fine. We're at King Vortigern's tournament," he added. "Arthur's trying to win it."
Gaius rolled his eyes. "Of course he is. I am only surprised you have not all gone dragon-slaying instead."
Merlin coughed. "Er. Right."
He looked at Dinadan after he finished talking to Gaius and had let the scrying-water go clear. Dinadan was gazing at the bucket with a funny, sort of anxious expression. "It's not going to turn your face purple or anything," Merlin said, a little snappishly, and then got up as a knock came on the door.
It was a squire in Vortigern's livery, with a couple of palace guards with him, who had their hands on the hilts of their swords; they all looked grim and anxious. "His Majesty commands your presence," the squire said.
"Er, Arthur—I mean, Sir Arthur isn't here," Merlin said. "He's at the tournament?"
"Your presence," the squire said, and added, "at once," when Merlin made some noise about going down to let Arthur know.
"Right," Merlin said, with a swallow, and then turned as a clatter of arms came behind him: Dinadan was belting on his sword.
Vortigern eyed Dinadan a little narrowly, then asked Merlin a whole lot of questions about his birth and training and wizardy acts or whatever, all of which Merlin felt he fumbled more or less badly. But he must have answered halfway all right, because Vortigern eventually stopped asking questions, and instead started talking incomprehensibly about court life and books and libraries and manuscripts and gold.
Mostly just happy to not have to say anything, Merlin nodded along, confused, until he suddenly worked out what the king was getting at and blurted in surprise, "Um, are you trying to hire me?"
Vortigern paused, looked at Dinadan, and then to Merlin said dryly, "And if I were, Master Wizard, what would be your price?"
Merlin stared at him, which Vortigern apparently took as encouragement, because he added softly, "Here in my kingdom, a wizard of such power as you wield might even look to be raised to the nobility. There are estates in my power to give."
"Oh, er," Merlin said. "I don't—that is, I'm flattered. I'm really really flattered, actually, but—"
Vortigern tilted his head. "Being not of noble birth, you have sworn no oath of fealty. There is no reason why you must follow a knight-errant."
Merlin groped wildly for something to say and came up with, feebly, "He's my—friend?" It was a pale and inadequate word to use, but Merlin didn't know how else to say it, since he wasn't going to tell Vortigern something like, he's my prince and my hero and my destined lord and I've been thinking I'd like to lay all of Albion as a gift at his feet. Merlin had a feeling that wouldn't really go over very well, particularly not the bit about all of Albion.
Vortigern's eyebrows went up quite enough over the word friend, anyway. "If I am not greatly mistaken, your present employer seems to view you more in the light of an ordinary servant. Perhaps," he added, "in growing to manhood in the shadow of Camelot, and King Uther's laws against magic, you have put too high a value on mere tolerance, rather than true appreciation for your gifts."
Then he looked at Dinadan. "Perhaps, Sir Knight, you would do well to withdraw."
"No!" Merlin said hurriedly, edging a bit closer to Dinadan. "He doesn't need to—Your majesty, I'm sorry—I'm honored, I really am, but—I don't have a price. I'd never leave Arthur. Not for—not for anything."
Vortigern looked at him, and Merlin felt his face getting horribly red and hot for absolutely no good reason, so he desperately added, "And you really wouldn't want to make me a nobleman. I've got no idea how to—eat with forks, and things like that. I'd be a horrible embarrassment."
"Hm," Vortigern said, tapping his lips with a forefinger. It sounded pretty ominous, so Merlin felt a huge surge of relief when the king straightened up and said, "Such loyalty is commendable indeed. I will press you no further, Master Wizard, then; but know that should your service to your present master ever come to an end, my offer stands," and dismissed them without anything more.
"That went better than it might have, I suppose," Merlin said to Dinadan; he was feeling pretty grateful at the moment for the support, even if Dinadan had lately been acting like Merlin was one step over from a dangerous wild animal.
Dinadan walked along with him silently the length of the corridor and abruptly said, "Many men might be tempted by such an offer."
And there went the gratitude. Merlin glared at him. "Are you trying to be insulting?" He stalked on ahead, and went down to the tournament field instead of going back to their chambers. Arthur and Gawain were in the pavilion doing a fairly bad job of trying to bang out a dent in Arthur's hauberk from his fight with Sir Mathias; outside, Orien was facing off with Sir Ulfrith.
"Here, let me," Merlin said, and tugged the armor away from Arthur. "Mealdrethor," he said, and the dent popped itself out, smoothing even again.
"Thanks," Arthur said, and bent his head for Merlin to put it back on him. "How is Kay?" he asked, as a roar went up outside. Gawain ducked out to see what was happening.
"He's doing all right," Merlin said, adjusting the straps, sliding his fingers under the leather to make sure it wasn't too tight. "Gaius said to let him sleep; as long as he doesn't get hit in the head again he ought to be all right."
"Gaius said—?" Arthur started, then stopped. "Never mind, I don't even want to know." Then he hesitated. "Did you ask him—is everything all right?"
"Yeah," Merlin said gently. "Everything—everyone's all right."
Arthur nodded and then Gawain was dashing back inside to say, "Ulfrith just beat Orien."
"What?" Dinadan and Arthur both said.
"Tripped him, going backwards," Gawain said, "then put his blade right in the shoulder-joint, without giving Orien a chance to rise, and twisted."
"The coward," Dinadan said, and spat to one side.
"Er," Merlin said, "what does that...?"
"Orien will lose the use of the arm, even if the wound doesn't mortify and kill him," Arthur said, his face stormy. "That is a damned good knight to be wasted like that." Then he looked at Merlin. "Can you do something for him?"
Merlin was about to protest. He was starting to see his mother's point, and if he kept flinging about magic, soon he'd never be able to go anywhere without people looking all pale and scared at him. But Arthur was looking at him expectantly, and pretending to be a servant all that time had obviously had some unfortunate long-term consequences, as Merlin had apparently picked up a bad habit of responding to that look. "I—I could try," he said. "If he'd let me."
Arthur nodded and said to Gawain, "Go and ask Sir Orien if he would accept our aid."
"Right," Gawain said, and went out again.
"So, er," Merlin said, "is there some reason to think this Ulfrith won't do the same to you?"
Arthur looked at him indignantly. "Because I'm going to beat him!"
"Right, yes, obviously," Merlin said. "But on the extremely unlikely off-chance that you should stumble over a—a malicious squirrel or something—"
"I am not going to stumble," Arthur said. "Get my vambraces on and go see to Orien."
Merlin muttered and buckled the wrist guards onto him.
The drumbeats began to roll while Merlin was still trying to figure out exactly what to do about the wound. It was ugly, the curved white bone of the chipped shoulder joint showing horribly, and Merlin had to keep looking away to give his queasy stomach time to calm down. Orien's chirurgeon was sort of hovering, making protesting noises, while Orien lay there staring up at the ceiling of the tent with a set, suffering face.
"Oh, hell," Merlin said finally, and just put his hand over the wound and called up Gaius's anatomy books in his head, remembering how everything was supposed to look. Then he just pushed everything. The bone chips lifted up from the platter where the chirurgeon had collected them and darted back to fit themselves back into place; the bones squeaked against each other, moving back into place; the muscles lined up and pressed the ugly jagged slashes of the cuts closed, tendons lying themselves down and connecting, skin folding back down over the whole.
Merlin stopped and gulped for breath and water, drinking half the goblet someone brought him in one pull. "Don't even think of moving," he told Orien, when the earl's eyes rolled over to look at his shoulder. Merlin paused and took another deep breath. He didn't actually know if this next bit was going to work, but it wasn't going to make things worse, he comforted himself—at least, he was pretty sure it wasn't—and then he spoke the fabric-mending charm over the wound.
"Ow," Orien said. "Ow!" and his knights started to jump forward, hands going to hilts; Gawain reached for his own.
"I'm not going to all this trouble to kill him, you bloody idiots!" Merlin yelled, and the knights hesitated, all of them eyeing him warily. Merlin glared back. What made it even more unfair was that it was working: he could feel the bits of flesh knitting to each other under the skin. "And there, it's done already," he added, bitterly, "though you'd better not use the arm for a bit, to let it keep healing." He stood up and looked around for a basin to wash his bloody hands in.
Orien pushed himself up slowly, and craned his head around, trying to see his shoulder, until someone handed him a mirror and one of the servants brought a dripping cloth to wash away the blood, the hatchmarks of the closed-up cuts a pale red tracework on his dark skin.
He stood and gripped Merlin by the shoulder with his shield-arm, before Merlin could go. "I am in your lord's debt," Orien said. "Tell him if he should call on Orien of Hampstead, I will answer."
"Er, thanks?" Merlin said, wondering what the etiquette for accepting oaths was, but the expression on Gawain's face made it clear that was not it, so he tried, "I'll tell my lord Arthur of your words, sir knight?" which went over well enough that they got out of the tent in time to see Arthur and Ulfrith step out onto the field.
Ulfrith was fast and heavier-built than Arthur, and came after him with one punishing blow after another, no hint of quarter, his broadsword leaving sharp dents in the edges of Arthur's shield. Merlin twitched at every blow, remembering the butchery of Orien's shoulder—Ulfrith's sword was still bloody, he hadn't even bothered to clean it in between.
Arthur had noticed; his face was hard and set and angry. He was fighting defensively, letting Ulfrith back him around the field, but never taking the full force of any blow, and Ulfrith's breathing was getting labored. Merlin opened and closed his hands, uselessly, and then glared at Gawain, who was yawning next to him. Anyone could make one misstep, just one, and Ulfrith was fighting to kill with every sword-stroke.
Then Ulfrith closed again, trying to lock shields and overpress Arthur to the ground. Arthur whirled away, and this time, instead of backing away, he came back at Ulfrith in the same spinning movement.
Ulfrith's shield was still low. Arthur's sword caught its top edge and drove it back, pivoting it around Ulfrith's arm and opening room for the sword to keep going. Ulfrith had to jerk back hurriedly from the blade, and Arthur pursued the advantage, one stroke after another to either side of the shield, keeping Ulfrith from bringing it back up into proper position.
Ulfrith was the one backing away over the field, now, and Merlin realized, in dawning outrage, that Arthur had begun toying with Ulfrith—a quick flurry of strikes, faster than Ulfrith could counter but not fatal, passing up openings just to keep running the Saxon around in front of everyone.
"Go ahead and beat him already, you enormous prat!" Merlin yelled furiously.
"It's the last fight of the tournament," Gawain protested. "Don't want to make it look too easy."
"It looks ridiculously easy!" Merlin said. "He's just making a fool out of that knight!"
"Well, it serves Ulfrith right for Kay and Orien, doesn't it?" Gawain said, switching from one stupid argument to another without missing a beat.
"You're all utter—" Merlin said, choking. "Anything can still happen! He could—" and Arthur abruptly checked Ulfrith with a quick slash to the leg, spun the other way, and impaled him through the guts and up and out the back.
"You were saying?" Gawain said.
Merlin folded his arms and sulked as Arthur let Ulfrith's body slide from his red-soaked blade with a contemptuous flip, to the roar of the cheering crowd.
Arthur swung his sword around easily in his hand, and came off the field walking quickly with his shoulders held straight, as if to rub in the point that he'd won without even working hard, though once in the pavilion he sighed with relief as Gawain took the sword, and Merlin lifted the plate from his body.
"Were you able to help Orien?" he asked, and some of the anger eased from his face when Merlin nodded and told him. "That was graciously said; I'll have to make him some kind of gift," Arthur said.
"You could also worry about how Ulfrith's kin are all going to be howling for your blood," Merlin snapped.
"Then he shouldn't have been going around asking for it, should he!" Arthur snapped back, with a righteous air. "You can't let people get away behaving like that; it's an insult to knighthood." Then he smirked. "Why, Merlin, were you worried about me? Ow," he added, as Merlin got his voyageur off with a particularly vicious jerk.
They had a few hours to get ready for the feast, this time in a far more spacious set of rooms that had evidently been hurriedly opened up somehow for the new champion and his companions, and with hot baths carried up by servants. Arthur made these utterly ridiculous noises as he sank into the tub. He ought to have been embarrassed. Merlin was on his behalf.
Not that he was paying attention to Arthur bathing or anything. Other than to make sure that Arthur hadn't somehow got stuck with a sword while he'd been busily making an ass out of himself on the field. Which evidently he hadn't.
Merlin hurriedly turned away and got into his own tub.
A page came knocking as they were all dressing for dinner—Arthur was trying to force Merlin into the stupid red robes again—with a gift for Merlin from Vortigern: black trousers and black shirt and black leather jerkin, not unlike the ones the other wizard had worn the night before. "Thank you," Merlin said devoutly, snatching the pile away.
"What is Vortigern sending you gifts for?" Arthur demanded.
"Oh yeah, I didn't mention," Merlin said cheerfully, slinging the red velvet mess off into a corner—with any luck, some rats would have gotten into it by the time they got back. "I got an offer too. He wanted to make me a member of the nobility," he added.
"What?" Arthur said, voice rising.
"And I'm pretty sure he would never try to make me wear a pointy hat," Merlin said.
He went to put on the shirt, except Arthur actually grabbed it out of his hands and said, "You are not wearing that—"
Merlin stared at him, and Arthur's face went sort of pink along the cheekbones, and then very pale and stiff, and Arthur let go of the shirt abruptly. "You'll do as you like, of course," he said flatly, and turned away.
Merlin stood there holding the shirt and said warily, "Are you—is this—are you just trying to get me into the stupid outfit again, or is this another weird noble thing where if I put the shirt on I'm turning myself into an indentured servant for life, or he's insulting you in some obscure way that no ordinary person would think of but is still completely obvious—"
"No," Arthur said, utterly cold. "Wear it or not." He threw his cloak over his mail and stalked for the door.
"I will, then!" Merlin yelled after him, because he still didn't know what had just happened, but he was pretty sure it had involved Arthur being an ass.
"I don't care in the least!" Arthur snapped back over his shoulder, and slammed the door behind him.
"Fine!" Merlin said, glaring at the shut door, wishing it wouldn't make him look stupid to open it just to slam it again. "What?" he demanded, transferring the glare to Dinadan and Gawain, who were eyeing him sidelong.
"Stay with him," Dinadan said briefly to Gawain, and went out of the room after Arthur.
Merlin scowled down at the perfectly nice pile of clothes, which he thought probably hadn't ever been worn by anyone before judging from how dark the dye was, and told himself he was going to put them on. Arthur was just an, an unreasonable, pigheaded, spoiled, bloody-minded git.
Dinadan came back half an hour later. Merlin was done with the spell reweaving his everyday clothes to fill in the threadbare patches and had almost finished working the stupid robes into a red velvet surcoat to put over them. Gawain hadn't said a word the whole time, just quietly polishing his hauberk.
"The prince is out in the practice grounds, by the forest," Dinadan said, in a meaningful tone.
Merlin ignored him and kept his focus on the surcoat until the last bit of thread making the hem had tied itself off into a knot. It wasn't anything to him where Arthur was. He put on the surcoat and looked at himself in the mirror. He didn't look anything like an impressive deadly sorcerer, but at least he didn't look ridiculous.
"He shouldn't be left alone," Merlin said, staring at the mirror hard.
"He ordered me to leave him," Dinadan said, blandly.
Merlin looked at Gawain, who shrugged. "If he doesn't want Dinadan, he won't want me, either."
Merlin stalked out to the field. Arthur was alone in the twilight, his sword and his mail flashing in the light of a single burning torch as he went through paces, strokes like a dance with an invisible partner. Merlin slowed down to watch him without really meaning to. It made something in his heart leap to watch Arthur move like this, no real enemy or danger or blood, just the beauty of it.
Arthur reached the end of the field and turned and saw him. He stopped and lowered his sword, and Merlin walked out over the grass, growing damp with dew, towards him. He got to the end of the field and held out his arms. "It's going to have to do," he said.
Arthur swallowed. "It looks—it looks well," he said, awkwardly, and then looked down at the ground. "You didn't have to—"
"Yes, obviously," Merlin said, thinking that would be it, like it always was, except Arthur flinched, and turned and walked a few paces away to lean on the low fence around the practice field, his shoulders bowed. "What?"
After a moment, Arthur said, "Dinadan told me. About—"
Merlin really was going to turn Dinadan into a block of wood; it was obviously not going to take that much effort. "If you think for a moment—if you dare tell me to consider Vortigern's offer—"
"No!" Arthur said, wheeling back around. Then he flushed, and looked somehow almost ashamed. "No," he said more quietly. "I meant, he told me what you—he told me how you—refused."
Merlin stopped, confused. "Right, so, then—?"
Arthur stood, his hands clenched, and then abruptly he said, "Merlin, you're—this power you have, I've never even heard of its like. You struck down twelve great sorcerers, you saved my life—you can call dragons from the air; what do you want of me? I have nothing but my sword, nothing to give you; I am nothing now, no prince, no king—"
"You're more a king than that procurer upstairs," Merlin said. "D'you really think I want—money, or titles, or—or clothes? This power—d'you think it's for something small? My mother sent me to Camelot even though magic was forbidden there—"
And then he stopped, groping, because that wasn't quite right. "No," he amended. "No, she sent me to Camelot—because magic was forbidden there. Because she feared what I might do, more than what—might be done to me."
He stopped again after he said it, because he knew, aching, that it was the truth. People will fear your magic, she'd told him, and she'd known they would because she feared it, even though she loved him. She would've taken away his magic, if she could have. She wouldn't have lain down again on Beltane if she'd been given a second choice. "Because it's too much to trust one person with," he said, low.
"You're a good man," Arthur said. "You haven't misused it."
"I might have," Merlin said. "If I'd come to a court like this, if I hadn't had Gaius to teach me—if all I'd ever seen was lords like Vortigern, who don't care about anything except their own power. If he'd set his knights on to murder, he'd do as much with me. Those are the kinds of orders he'd give, and if I'd got used to it, to the flattery and the presents—"
He reached out and touched Arthur's face with his fingertips—Arthur, who'd climbed up on a pyre to burn with him; who'd claimed him at the cost of everything he had, and thought he still needed to give more. Arthur, who didn't flinch from the magic that was limning Merlin's fingers in gold.
"That's what I want," Merlin said, softly. "A king worth serving. A king whose honor I can trust—maybe more than my own. Arthur, you already are all I want."
He stopped, swallowing. Arthur looked at him almost stricken, and then he cupped his hands about Merlin's face and kissed him.
It was weirdly calm, after that. Arthur broke off the kiss after a few moments, something already different in his face, almost serene, and they took his armor off together—the cloak beside them, the chainmail and their surcoats laid smooth upon it, their shirts and boots and trousers off. Then they lay down in the wet cool grass together, Arthur's thigh heavy and warm and perfect pressing between Merlin's legs, his mouth sweet and open, and it was nothing like—it was everything. Everything.
Merlin kissed him desperately, kissed away the naked hunger in Arthur's face and the sharp painful feeling in his own belly, the empty space in him that had maybe always been waiting for something, for this, for Arthur. All those years growing up lonely and strange in Ealdor, hiding in Camelot, yearning, and now completed by Arthur's hands painfully hard on his hips, bringing them together; Arthur's voice saying his name.
"Arthur," Merlin said in turn, and it turned into sorcery on his tongue, a brilliant flaring gleam like fire running over Arthur's skin above him, washing away the stars in the sky behind his back, and Merlin knew his eyes were glowing golden as he came.
It took real magic to get them to the feast on time and presentable, and Merlin couldn't help thinking that everyone surely could tell what they'd been about anyway, hear the singing in his blood if he dared to look at Arthur. He was vaguely aware of people coming by during the feast, knights and lords paying court, and not only to Arthur. Orien came over and said something very nice, or at least that was Merlin's general impression; he didn't really carry away much from the occasion but the brightness of Arthur's eyes, the red of his mouth, the color that crept into his face if he looked back at Merlin.
Vortigern gave the prize with little grace, almost perfunctory; Arthur received it with a polite hard smile, and when they had carried it back to their rooms, said, "All right, pack up. We're leaving."
"What?" Merlin said, dismayed, looking at the lovely large private bedchamber off their common room, for which he had already made extensive plans. "Right now?"
Arthur followed his look and blushed ferociously, then said in a determinedly cool voice, "Yes, now, Merlin. I don't care to be set upon by supposed thieves on our way out of Vortigern's realm."
"What about Kay?" Merlin tried, in vanishing hope.
"We'll tie him on his horse," Arthur said, "and you'll ride double with him. Yours will carry the packs—no. No! This is not up for discussion. A crossbow bolt in the back will do him more harm than a night on horseback. Is there anything you can do to hide us, while we're leaving?"
Still feeling more than a little resentful over having his lovely full night of snogging taken away, Merlin managed to work up a way to stretch their shadows over them, which felt really peculiar and gave him a splitting headache, but he was forced to admit Arthur had been right: they hadn't gone more than half a mile before Arthur pulled them up, and in the silence hoofbeats drummed on the road behind them.
They drew off into a meadow to one side, and muffled the horses mouths with feedbags; Merlin kept the shadows woven over them, and the pack of fifteen men went past them without a pause, crossbows and light swords strapped on, hard-faced and riding fast.
Arthur kept them in place until they had ridden on, and then he turned the horses' heads away, onto the southern road. "Where are we going, anyway?" Merlin ventured, when they had the night quiet and to themselves again, and he'd been able to let the shadows slide back into their normal shapes. Or close to it; there seemed to be something a bit off with Kay's, which looked lopsided. Merlin was wondering if maybe there was some sort of connection—if he fixed the shadow, maybe Kay would do better? He would scry Gaius again, when they'd found someplace for the night, and see what he thought.
"Glastonbury," Arthur said. "You can poke through your precious spellbooks."
"What happened to hating the sound of matins?" Merlin said.
"We won't be there for long," Arthur said. He looked over at Merlin's horse, plodding along disgruntledly under its weight of packs, and the bound-up chest full of the prize. "There's enough there for me to hire on some men, buy equipment."
"For what?" Merlin said.
"To clear the Saxons out of Dorset," Arthur said. "Orien tells me the earl was killed lately, in raiding, and since then no one has offered them any resistance."
"Er," Merlin said, "so we're just going to—nab an earldom?"
"Yes, that's about it," Arthur said, with an air of blithe unconcern.
It seemed to Merlin it ought to be a bit more complicated than that. "Won't someone object?" he asked doubtfully.
"If the king of Wessex wanted to object," Arthur said, with a sudden hard glint in his eyes, "he should have sent succour when his liege called for his aid, and not let the Saxons go overrunning his lands and murdering his serfs. I don't really care if he wants to object to me after I clear them away. And Orien certainly won't mind," he added. "The Dorset serfs are fleeing into his lands, it's throwing his own earldom into disarray."
"Right, well," Merlin said, even more doubtfully.
Arthur threw him an annoyed look. "You wanted me to do something!" he said. "I'm doing it."
"No, right, absolutely," Merlin said hurriedly. They rode on in silence for a while. "Only, I'm not entirely clear on—"
"Look, Merlin," Arthur said, "You saw Vortigern's court. Where do you think he's got the money to pay all those Saxon mercenaries and wizards? He's as good as sold their lords raiding rights to the south and east. He will offer no aid to any king who is menaced by them; and that means the kings won't aid their earls. All of East Anglia has already fallen to them. Someone's got to stop them, or else they'll just pillage until there's nothing left, and then come further inland still."
"And that someone's going to be you," Merlin said, meaning it as a question, but as he spoke, it became something different in his mouth. He saw suddenly Arthur rising in his stirrups on a bloody field of war, a sword raised shining over his head and his face stern and somehow yet alight with victory: a roaring tide of men rising up behind him, and lightning coming down from the sky in terrible strokes, carving away paths in the enemy force for that tide to go rushing through.
He shuddered his way out of the vision. Arthur hadn't noticed; he was looking ahead as he rode, determination in his jaw. "Yes," he was saying, "unless you've got someone better in mind?"
"No," Merlin managed, wobbly, and Arthur glanced back at him, startled.
"You really need to stop that," Arthur said after a moment.
He reined in his horse to keep in step with Merlin, so they rode abreast on the broad sunny road. The sky was lightening in the east, over the tops of the oak forest; in the distance Merlin thought he could see the faint glitter of Leicester, still a day's ride away, and beyond that a week more to Glastonbury. And beyond that, a war: but not for selfishness or greed, a war to defend the helpless and to bring a lasting peace, under a shining king.
The wind rattled through the treetops, as they rode on beneath, and tried to warn him, child of the Wild Magic: it will not last forever, said the wind; there will be a price, said the dying leaves, still green but not for long. He didn't listen; Arthur was beside him, and his, and his sight was fixed closer in, on a castle with white towers, and a dragon rampant red on a wide and shining banner.
= End =
All feedback loved, either here or at the original livejournal post! ♥