1001 NE, Spring
The Gateway was released when the last man stepped through. Aiel Maidens fanned around the Dragon Reborn, eyeing everyone, poised to strike. They weren't veiled, nor were their hands near their spears, but memory of when the Aiel had taken the Stone was strong amongst the Tairens. A hubbub arose, foot soldiers on the run to find the nearest lord, eager to avoid both Maidens and the Dragon Reborn alike.
Three men in black coats kept pace with Rand al'Thor, watching the camp and the men who'd stopped to see the Lord Dragon. They were taken for a new bodyguard at first, until one of the soldiers flinched back, clutching at the sleeve of his companion with a muttered "Asha'man!"
Merlin always found it strange that people would look upon the Dragon Reborn and tolerate him as if he were a tamed beast, but any other man who could channel was frightening, unpredictable, and dangerous.
The gap around the Maidens widened, and by the time the men reached the command tent there were no soldiers to be seen.
Lords and generals were already inside, waiting for the Lord Dragon, their retainers waiting up against the thick woollen walls. Merlin stepped through the tent flaps and slid sideways into the shadows, the other two Asha'man doing the same.
"Lord Dragon." There were murmurs all around of men tightly welcoming him to the battlegrounds of Almoth Plain.
Al'Thor nodded at a few lords, his cold eyes unchanging, and took the empty seat waiting for him. The tent flaps moved again, and everyone's attention swung towards the latecomer.
"Pendragon," said al'Thor, taking the offered goblet in his one remaining hand. "You have held ground well here."
Merlin's attention was all for Arthur. He barely heard the greetings between lords and paid little heed to their recounts of the battlefield, sounding more like protestations of their prowess in battle than any true leadership. More wins came from sergeants and lieutenants doing their best in spite of a lord's orders than because of them.
Arthur had called for a map, and with al'Thor went over the numbers of the Seanchan, their position, and how they were holding. The invading armies from over the long-thought empty seas were strong foes, staunch in their efforts to retake what the Seanchan considered theirs. Merlin could see Arthur's armies had done well, without any Asha'man or Aes Sedai, to hold against the Seanchan's damane and their strange beasts. Al'Thor reflected upon their strategy, occasionally asking the lords surrounding him to clarify, his penetrating look making lords stammer and falter. Merlin noted the more resilient coming forward past nobles as they were beckoned, their plain clothing, their faces and hands scarred and marking them as soldiers. He saw Arthur's attention upon them, bringing battle-hardened soldiers forward to Al'Thor's attention more than the lords under whom they commandeered.
Small markers were all over the map as things drew to a close, carvings of men and horses representing bands, a promise of the upcoming battle with the Seanchan.
"I need you in Tarwin Gap," said al'Thor when he looked away from the map. "Shadowspawn are growing in numbers. The Borderlanders can only do so much. Other armies are making their way there even now; the Queen of Andor has sent more men than there are here." This last stopped the shifting from more than a few lords. "In one week, you'll be moving north to join the forces for Tarmon Gai'don." He stood.
There were white faces all around, and more than one lord left moving too carefully, as if they were uncertain if their knees would hold them up. More than one looked like they wanted to say something, but left with nothing more than "my lord" and a subdued enthusiasm of winning against the Seanchan.
Merlin and the other two Asha'man, Nutir and Kullyn, stayed in the shadows of the tent as the men grew fewer. Arthur looked at the three darkened shapes and back at al'Thor. "Your guards?"
"There are Dreadlords at Tarwin's Gap," said al'Thor without preamble. "Every army is being struck by Darkfriend channellers, men and women alike. Demandred is sending Draghkar to kill generals and has succeeded on two occasions. We cannot afford any further loss of generals to Shadowspawn before Tarmon Gai'don, Pendragon, and to that end I'm leaving three Asha'man to your armies."
Arthur was overly still. "Three Asha'man? My Lord Dragon, we have stood against Seanchan and their damane without channellers. We can defeat any of these ... Draghkar? ... they send, as we have against Seanchan grolm and raken."
"Draghkar drain you of intelligence when they have you in their embrace," said al'Thor. "Any man--or woman--who can channel feels the taint when they get close, unless they are warded, and two of those killed have been found so. When Dreadlords Travel to this army, you will have Asha'man to counter them. Kullyn and Nutir are both strong in battle weaves." The men shifted at their names. "Emrys is almost as strong as I. All three will make Gateways for Tarwin Gap."
Arthur turned to look at the three men again, looking at each one a little more closely than before. "They will come in useful against the Seanchan," he said slowly. "Archers good enough to kill damane are hard to come by."
"They know how to relay messages when the time comes," said al'Thor, and rubbed at his stump briefly. He turned to the tent entrance. "I will see you in the Borderlands." He pushed through, and Merlin could hear him speaking to the Maidens outside. The other two Asha'man ducked through, too, Nutir stopping briefly when he realised Merlin wasn't behind him. He looked over at Merlin, a brief glance, and left.
"So. You've returned." Arthur spoke when the sounds outside ceased. He still stood before the map.
Merlin stepped away from the side of the tent into the light. He'd thought Arthur hadn't recognised him; he'd had given no sign when Merlin had come in with the Dragon Reborn, as they discussed the Seanchan, or as they pored over the map. Emrys was his father's name, not one he'd used previously.
Arthur looked up when he moved, taking in Merlin's black coat and the sword and dragon pins decorating its collar. "One of the Dragon Reborn's men," he said flatly.
"Yes. I can be of use with the Seanchan." Merlin drank in the sight of him. There was were small scars on his face, one over his eye and another on his lip. Arthur looked tired, a little older, more muscle on him. The war was wearying for everyone. "Gateways. Bring in fresh soldiers. To guard you."
Arthur's attention snapped back to him and he stood, hand moving to his sword. "Guard? I don't need your kind to guard me, Merlin."
"The Lord Dragon's foreteller said I had to come to you. If I'm not here, you won't make it to the Last Battle, where you are needed."
"I am at the Lord Dragon's command," said Arthur with a hint of bitterness. "I have no need of your services. Not as manservant or guard." Merlin felt it as a hollow blow, even though he'd always known that door had closed to him long ago, and no longer wanted it. "Take residence in a tent, where you may. If your ... services ... are needed, I will command your presence."
Merlin turned to let Arthur push past him towards the tent flaps, where he stopped with his hand clenched on the thick felt. "You're now full Asha'man?"
Merlin blinked at the question. He fingered the red-and-gold dragon on his collar, his full rank for all to see, earned through battles with Shadowspawn and Darkfriends. Earned in his time away from Arthur. "Yes. I wear the Dragon."
The tent flap closed behind him.
997 NE, Autumn
It first happened when Will was sick. The healer, Gaius, had smiled at Will and said that he would get better soon, but had taken Merlin aside and said to make his farewells. His herbs could help no further.
Merlin stood at Will's bedside, sick with grief at the sight of his pallid, thin frame, and sweat-soaked hair. It wasn't fair. It wasn't Will's time yet.
His skin prickled and hair stood on end. The air felt heavy, and he could hear the small, hitching, delicate breaths, the rattle in Will's chest suddenly loud in his ears. The room brightened and he found himself on weak knees, holding himself off the floor with one hand on the bed.
Gaius came in and saw him, and pulled him out into another room. Small lines of fear were around his eyes, obvious with worry that Merlin was taking sick too. Merlin sagged, pushed with a firm hand onto a hard wooden chair. Gaius went to a shelf and pushed bottles aside with haste. Only moments later Merlin almost bounced to his feet, feeling a restless energy running through him.
Gaius pressed the back of his hand against Merlin's head, pushed open the folds of his eyelids. "Show me your tongue." He looked into his mouth. "Does your throat hurt?"
Merlin shook his head and shifted about, eager to get back to Will.
He grabbed Merlin's arm and pushed back the sleeve from it, looking closely at his skin, and then stood back. Gaius shook his head, and looked over his bookshelves. Merlin could almost see himself pressed into looking through the tomes.
"I'm fine, Gaius! It's Will who's sick, not me!" Merlin got up quickly and darted through the doorway back to Will. His friend's breathing was easier, the worrisome rattling gone. Gaius pushed past to Will's bedside, eyebrows climbing high at the broken fever and slow, regular breathing. He regarded Merlin for a long moment.
"Young Will is staying with us, after all," he said with a small smile.
Merlin beamed at him and sat back down at Will's side until duties pulled him away. His position as manservant to the heir of one of High Lords of Tear brooked no arguments regarding sick friends. Arthur wouldn't begrudge him, but Arthur's father would, and he had no fondness of the fishing boat to return to it.
That evening he rushed to return to the sickroom, and found Will awake and sipping broth, eyes fever-bright but awake.
"It's unlike anything I've ever seen," said Gaius. "I've never known of anyone to return from mudfish fevers once they've had it for over three days. You're a lucky boy," he said to Will.
Will smiled at him weakly, eyes drooping with tiredness. Merlin went over to him and pulled the blanket up as Will's eyes closed in sleep.
A week later Merlin shook with fever, mumbling incoherently. It came upon him one evening and he dropped the dinner tray as he entered Arthur's rooms.
"Merlin, really, you are clumsy at the most inopportune times," said Arthur, turning from the window.
Merlin looked down at the tray, his eyes not focussing and a lightness overcoming his limbs. He heard Arthur say something, and found himself on the floor. He was vaguely aware of being picked up and moving through the halls, Arthur's set face wobbling in and out of view, and a sharp worry to Arthur's voice as he called for Gaius, slamming back the heavy wooden door.
It wracked him for a day, and then lifted. Gaius had no explanation.
"A touch of the mudfish fever? But it never comes across people like that," he said to himself quietly as he turned away, going to his library to look up the fevers.
Arthur put a hand on his shoulder when he next saw Merlin, stopping him at the door. "You are no longer sick?" he said, with apparent unconcern.
"No, Arthur." Arthur's hand felt hot on his skin, and Merlin stopped himself from looking down at it.
"So. You can stop slacking off," said Arthur, taking his hand away with a small push.
Merlin felt where his hand had been like a brand, aware of Arthur's nearness. A small shiver came over him, and he stepped back quickly, skin prickling.
"I'll just get to it, then," he said to the air vaguely, and made for the door.
Will was out of the sickbed soon after Merlin recovered, and they returned to their fights, bickering through the halls as they went about their errands, fevers and other strangeness quickly pushed from mind.
1001 NE, Spring
Merlin found a familiar face passing as soon as he stepped out of the tent.
At his voice Gaius stopped and turned to see him there. He dropped the basket onto the baked dirt and met him halfway.
"Merlin! Boy, I didn't think to see you again!" He clasped Merlin's shoulders, hard, and then pushed him off to have a look. "You've done well for yourself. But--you've returned? Why?"
"I" Merlin looked around at the hard, unwelcoming faces of those passing. They knew who he was, what the black coat stood for. "Maybe we could go somewhere?"
"Of course! Will you join me in my tent for refreshment--are you staying?" Gaius made for a tent with drying herbs and casks sitting about outside, regular tools of the healer's trade.
"Yes. To all those things."
They were soon comfortable inside, sipping at hot cups of sweet tea.
"Did you come with the Dragon Reborn, then?"
"You know what this is?" He motioned towards his coat, and paused until he saw the nod. "He's sent me here to protect High Lord Pendragon, to aid him against these Seanchan. Their damane use the One Power, and I'm--we're--here for balance. Nutir and Kullyn are here also. Both are Dedicated; they'll be on the front lines whereas I'm to ... make sure Arthur lives." He went to take another drink of tea, only to find it empty. "Min, the Lord Dragon's companion, she sees the weave of the Pattern. Arthur and I are bound--and if I don't keep near him, then he will die. One of many ways. They need one of the great generals alive more than they need an Asha'man fighting on the front line of battle."
Merlin thought of the deserters, the Black Ajah Aes Sedai, well-aimed blades striking where it would hurt most, killing generals, aides. The latest general's fate lay heavily upon him: flayed in his thin-walled tent with guards standing just outside. A gholam, the Lord Dragon had said, a creature resistant to the touch of the One Power. He wondered where Taim and his deserters were now; Mordred's last taunt stuck in his mind.
Gaius poured them some more tea, and then sat after twitching the tent flaps to peer outside. "They knew of where you served, before you went to them?"
Merlin stared down at the cup and his wavering reflection. "Yes and no. They know I was once his manservant, but not. Not--nothing else." Not even Gaius knew everything.
"They know of the bond?"
Merlin's head snapped up to him, fingers clenching around his cup. "You know?"
"I arrived to find Morgana Sedai and Lord Arthur unconscious on the battlefield, with no mark upon them, with his personal guard fighting the last of the Illian. Morgana Sedai had to tell Arthur why it was he could feel where you were, and why you were going to Illian. Of course I know; I knew hours after it occurred."
"Ah." Merlin fumbled for words. "Yes, the Lord Dragon knows of the bond. Important men are dying, and they see the hand of the Forsaken in it, destabilising the armies and command. Too many experienced generals and commanders are being lost to be solely due to the weaving of the Wheel. Arthur can sense Shadowspawn, because of the bond, but where he would fall against Darkhounds, or Draghkar, I can take care of them. "
"You've seen the High Lord? You may want to stay out of his sight until he is used to your having returned." Gaius twitched the tent flap again.
"He knows I'm here, Gaius; I was in the command tent when he spoke to the Lord Dragon. He's angry." Merlin thought of Arthur, tall and strong in his anger, a surety and solidity to his presence, where before he'd only shown promise. A joy bubbled beneath his chest at being near him, even if he wasn't in Arthur's graces.
"That's to be expected. You may want to stay away from Morgana Sedai; she's here, too. She's of the White Tower, even if Arthur's sister ... and Morgana has sworn no oaths to the Lord Dragon."
Merlin nodded. He'd heard there was an Aes Sedai in camp before arriving. "Tell me, what has happened in Tear? I have heard only little. How is Will?"
Gaius was quiet. He looked away and sighed. "You wouldn't have heard. Will was killed when the Trollocs came to Tear, after the Stone fell."
It hit Merlin, a dark blow. He'd imagined Will as happy in his routines about the Stone, sneaking off in the evening to the docks like they used to, listening to the sailors from afar. He'd thought that Will, at least, could have escaped the Lord Dragon's upheaval of the world, and remain far from the war against the Dark One.
They sat in silence. Merlin's thoughts were a whirl of memories of Will, laughing, in trouble, and sharing those quiet moments when they were free for the day. Someone came to the tent and called for Gaius, and Merlin left, tugging his coat into place as he pushed through the flap, schooling his face into cool impassivity over the heaviness the news left sitting in him.
998 NE, Summer
The second time was a quiet, hot day.
"Dark One take this heat, Merlin. It's too hot to think," said Arthur. "I have the afternoon free--I'm going down to the river for a swim. Pack some food and sweet wine."
They were at one of the smaller estates, out from the city of Tear. There was little to do. Training with the Defenders had been put off in the heat, and Arthur grew restless with the lengthening day, giving Merlin strange looks when he loosened his clothing and drew off his kerchief.
"Did you want a change of clothes, my Lord?" asked Merlin. "Perhaps something with which to dry yourself?"
"Yes, yes. Now come; we haven't all day."
The horse was hot and fluid beneath Merlin, making him hotter for all that the soft canter created a false breeze. Sweat slid down his back and he thought longingly of the water, aware that Arthur would want him to set the food while he himself bathed.
Merlin helped Arthur take off his clothing, Arthur's shirt sticking to his skin with sweat. His fingers brushed over Arthur's skin as he pulled the fabric away, and he swallowed, turning aside with it, and watched the flex of muscles of Arthur's taut back as he walked to the bank. He turned back to the horses, mouth dry, and made certain they were fast. He sat beneath a tree as Arthur swam out further into the river, its waters growing clearer away from the muddy edge.
At first, he shook his head, claiming to not like the water, for he knew Arthur would likely attempt to drown him in a prank or some such, until Arthur's playful invitations took on a more authoritative edge.
"I'll be covered in mud when we come out of the water, Sire," said Merlin, as he carefully took his clothing off and placed it far from the muddy bank. "You may have spare clothing and drying cloths, but I'll have to make do." When no comment was quickly forthcoming he looked over at Arthur, who was silent and watching him keenly. He felt a measure of self-consciousness as he walked through down the bank, mud squishing up through his toes, and landed with a splash next to Arthur.
"You'll do what I say, Merlin, and less complaints while about it."
As soon as he was fully immersed, true to form, Arthur tried to dunk him. Merlin struggled in an attempt to get away, wrestling against Arthur's slippery body, all too conscious of his cock stiffening. Arthur stilled against him and then let him go, pushing away.
"What?" Merlin pushed his wet hair away from his face and looked for Arthur, hoping he hadn't noticed Merlin's improper reaction. He was swimming out further into the river. "I'm not following you out there," he called out, heart in throat, watching for a moment until his blood calmed, then lay floating on his back. No cloud could be seen from horizon to horizon, the blue of it stark and fiery, and he closed his eyes to feel the cool flow of water against his skin.
He'd been growing increasingly aware of Arthur over the past year, since he'd been made his manservant. He'd seen the young Lord from afar until then, thought idly of being made his servant, asking him if Arthur needing anything, and having him say, commandingly, to go to his knees and serve him. Reality was far worse, undressing him, having him right there before him, and knowing he couldn't touch the object of his imagination.
Merlin could hear a faint sound of splashing, and lifted himself upright to look out at the river. "Sire? Arthur?" Arthur was far out in the river, swimming towards the bank, hard, but wasn't coming any closer. Even from where Merlin was he could see the swirl of discoloured water around him, dragging Arthur out further into the river. He could almost see him being drawn out into the maze swampland of the Fingers of the Dragon, out into the Sea of Storms.
Merlin started to swim out, but stopped himself and made for the banks. If he could get to the estate, they could send someone downriver to get a boat out to save him. When he got to the banks he stared out at the waters, Arthur's form growing smaller. His heart clenched in fear and palms grew clammy. He wouldn't be able to get there in time. His skin prickled. He could almost hear Arthur's laboured breathing and the splashing of his arms. He could see the swirling waters. The air grew too bright and he blinked the sun out of his eyes.
When he could see again, the swirling of the waters had changed and Arthur seemed to be being propelled towards the bank at a rapid speed. Currents don't change like that, he thought, and then scrambled down to meet Arthur at the edge.
"Sire! What happened?" Merlin held out a drying cloth for him, feeling guilty about noticing Arthur's strong body so soon after he was nearly swept out to sea.
Arthur looked at him blankly for a moment. "The Dark One's touch! I've never seen currents like that," he said. "I've had enough of swimming, Merlin. We'll return to the estate."
Merlin looked out at the suddenly calm waters and shivered despite the heat.
Two days later Merlin was abed, feverous and nauseated, while Arthur muttered about recurring illnesses and brain fever. He called for the village healer, pacing the chamber until he arrived. All of the man's usual recourse did nothing, and he pressed a cool compress to Merlin's forehead.
"Have him bathed every hour," said the healer. "It will bring down the fever, and if he's lucky, he will still have use of his mind after it breaks. Every hour, with compresses in between."
"Useless manservant," Arthur said, putting a cool cloth over Merlin's fevered eyes. "You should be attending me." His manner was gentle despite his words, and he cooled Merlin until a servant came to take over. He appeared later in the day to see Merlin twist uncomfortably on the sweat-sodden bedding.
"Blood and ashes," swore Arthur, and stormed out, calling angrily for someone to change the sheets.
Within a day Merlin was up like he'd never fallen ill at all.
1001 NE, Spring
Merlin soon found the two others. They were not yet full Asha'man, with sword pins on their collars marking them as Dedicated. A tent had been commandeered for their use near the officer's tents, although on the far side. No-one was comfortable with the One Power, most especially not when wielded by men, despite that the Dragon Reborn himself used it. Saidin had been cleansed. Men would no longer go mad from the Dark One's taint on saidin, but they refused to believe it. Thousands of years of fear and knowledge could not be erased quickly. Asha'man were barely tolerated, with people watching them as if they were rabid dogs, likely to go mad at any moment.
"Asha'man," said Kullyn in acknowledgement. Nutir nodded the same.
Merlin nodded at them, and looked around at the neat expanse of tent, the pallets, a third clearly laid out for him. They'd put his small pack there, and upon seeing it he realised he must have forgotten it as he stepped through the Gateway; one of the Maidens would have given it to the others.
"Who will we report to?" said Nutir, looking up from his book and marking his place with a finger. "High Lord Pendragon? The Lord Dragon should have let us discuss with the council, Asha'man."
Merlin looked at him for a moment, then at the others, whose impassive faces gave nothing away. Sometimes he thought their training was almost too good. "We take our orders from our commanders. We are heading out against the Seanchan in a couple of days' time, so you will each go to a regiment and make yourself known to the commander. The High Lord will plan on you are best to be used."
"And yourself, Asha'man Emrys?" said Kullyn.
"'Merlin' will do," he said. He would quickly grow tired of hearing his full title with the two about. "My orders are to protect the High Lord and other officers. I will be working from outside the main tent, should the Seanchan make it past the front lines." The Dedicated stiffened. "Although I'm sure that it won't be necessary." Merlin bent over his pack and sifted mechanically through its contents. Another two black coats, one in red, and breeches. He had learned to pack light.
The men were silent, and then, as if by agreement, left the tent. He could soon feel saidin being used just outside; they were probably weaving fireballs. The more one used the saidin in any given location, the better you grew to know the place. Once you knew it well it was possible to weave Gateways, but tiredness fell upon him and he lay on the pallet, his arm over his face so the men wouldn't disturb him.
The next couple of days were a blur of meetings, battle plans, and fortifications. All three Asha'man were dispatched to weaken ground where the battle would take place; ten thousand Seanchan had camped at the other side of Almoth Plain, and their numbers grew daily. They would be here soon enough.
Through the meetings he spoke not at all to Arthur, who didn't turn his way. Any questions for Merlin came from one of his captains, and he soon stopped looking at Arthur for questions. A small sick feeling sat in his belly, warring with relief at seeing Arthur again.
Each day he would find Gaius for the midday meal and they would sit under drying herbs outside the healer's tent. He told Merlin of Will up to when the Stone had fallen, and how things were changing in Tear because of the Dragon Reborn. Merlin felt a fierce joy at finding that the lower classes were no longer subject to the whim of lords, who were now subject to the same laws as commoners.
His friends would now have a chance at making something of themselves and not see it torn from them without repercussion. His mother would stand a chance. He'd joined the servants at the Stone not from a desire for servitude, even if he had grown tired of cleaning fish and their scales forever caught under his fingernails. His mother had lost her boat and her nets one day, because of a lord--some young lordling had fallen into the mud, destroying the outfit he had donned fresh from the tailor's, and claimed it was because of the slipperiness of outside of her stall. Their livelihood gone, they had taken up the positions Gaius had found them and left behind their earlier, reasonably free, life.
Tear had fallen to the Dragon Reborn, Rand al'Thor, who had then taken Callandor in hand. Merlin had found it difficult to think of the Lord Dragon as Rand al'Thor. During his time at the Black Tower they had called him Lord Dragon, at the M'Hael's command, and once summoned to his side, he had lived with the cold hardness on the youthful face and tired eyes which measured your every step. In the end, saying Rand al'Thor's name in the privacy of his mind had been difficult, let alone saying it to his face.
He had hoped that with al'Thor's conquest of Tear, and its fall to the Aiel, that the High Lords would have come to tolerate channelling. Their guardianship of Callandor, the greatest male sa'angreal from the Age of Legends, was at an end. If Arthur could come to terms with his own foster sister becoming an Aes Sedai, he had hoped that would also extend to Asha'man, especially after the battles in Amador. Al'Thor's amnesty for men who could channel would change no minds, but flinching and avoidance soon faded to poorly hidden distaste when the officers and Lords accepted they would help counter the Seanchan's use of captive women channellers in war. Aes Sedai couldn't use the One Power in battle; Asha'man had no such oaths. They were shaped to be weapons.
They practiced their weaves every evening, setting fire to the earth and breaking down rocks with their flows of Earth. The other two men were strong, if they were holding as much saidin as they could hold. He found himself keeping to their level, although he taught them new weaves as he found them.
Merlin would find himself thinking, What would happen if? and find the way he'd thought of was better, or faster, than the way the Black Tower had taught them, although Taim had kept most of the training for his favourites and left the others to muddle their way through in the dark. Merlin had thought about the weaves they were shown, and felt the need to try out variations he thought might work. Men burned their ability out or killed themselves with attempts at new weaves, and sometimes Merlin wondered if he wasn't going to end up that way. Finding better, neater ways to do things, though, was worth the risk.
He spoke with both equally, and over the course of a few days found Nutir seeking out his company, quietly sitting beside him at meals, sometimes asking him questions about the Dragon Reborn. It wasn't until he found Nutir watching him don his clothing one morning that he realised what he was about, and felt a flash of interest. There was no chance of anything with Arthur, while the sharp-eyed dark man was clearly interested. He'd smiled at Nutir before he left the tent, and made no effort to hide his undressing that evening.
He'd only met the Dedicated days before they'd come to camp, both coming from other armies where Shadowspawn had killed generals. Perhaps al'Thor thought their familiarity with having leaders killed around them would make them want to prove themselves in keeping Arthur Pendragon alive. He'd heard Bashere, al'Thor's Saldaean general, mention Arthur as the next Ituralde given a few more campaigns.
Merlin listened, deliberated, and offered his opinion at every war council as they went over the maps and sipped watered wine. At first, the lords had looked at him as at a strange animal, given the gift of voice; now the lords nodded sometimes. Merlin watched Arthur; he had grown into his own. Last time he had seen Arthur in command he had struggled with his men. Now they listened and considered his words before they spoke; Arthur now had his due.
"When Lance's men attack from here," Arthur was saying, his strong hands moving over the map. The lamplight shaded his skin, and Merlin heard no more of his words. He remembered those hands on him when he was Arthur's manservant, just so, and a stab of desire pooled low in his groin. He shifted, watching Arthur's hands, remembering them hard on his thighs, when he realised that one of the other men was talking and Arthur's head had raised to look at him, standing just beyond the circle of men. Arthur's eyes glittered at him, hot, and Merlin looked away. Oh.
He fumbled at the knot in his head, muffled now for a year. Almost as instinctively as what he'd done back then, he'd then wrapped it, concealed that feeling of Arthur in his head. Maybe proximity was allowing things to leak through. He rewrapped the knot again before looking back. Arthur was nodding at a lord's argument, impatiently, but his knuckles were white around his cup.
The meeting was coming to an end, and Merlin moved with the others to leave. He was about to duck through the flaps when Arthur stopped him.
"Asha'man. If you will."
The others gave him curious glances, Lance hesitating. He gave Merlin a pointed look when Arthur gestured for him to leave, and then they were alone. They were silent until voices trailed off away from the tent, far away enough that the heavy tent walls muffled their words.
"Morgana explained this," said Arthur abruptly. He flickered his hand between them. "What it is."
"I --. I didn't mean to ... do this." Merlin looked down, not wanting to see Arthur's face. "It can only be broken by death."
Arthur moved. He pulled his eating knife, its small blade pressing up against Merlin's throat. "Something easily remedied."
Merlin swallowed against the feeling of the blade. "You know what that would mean for you," he whispered, voice raw. "I would undo it if I could."
"Some might consider it a price worth paying," said Arthur. The knife didn't move. Merlin closed his eyes against the feel of it, the heat from Arthur's proximity pressing him all over. Arthur's angry hot breathing puffed against his face, and as suddenly as Arthur had moved to threaten him, he was gone.
Arthur's back was to him, rigid, fists clenched at his sides. The knife was at Merlin's feet. He raised a hand to his neck, almost certain to find a bloody line. His fingers came away clean.
"There are advantages," Merlin began, "to this bond. For you. Endurance. Strength--"
Arthur cut him off. "How long?"
Merlin knew what he meant. Since the breaking, men wielding the One Power were doomed to go mad. For thousands of years the Dark One's taint had driven men mad. Their flesh would rot, and their mind leave, until they could no longer sense friend from foe and killed all around them in their madness, before they themselves died.
"Saidin has been cleansed," he said. "The Dragon Reborn and an Aes Sedai cleansed saidin of the Dark One's touch; the taint is gone. They were at Shadar Logoth. It exists no more. Saidin is now as clean as saidar; Asha'man will go mad no more than an Aes Sedai."
Arthur swung back to him, tense. "I had heard rumour of it. Morgana said that she could feel saidar being wielded to the east not long ago. Amounts of saidar she had never felt the strength of before. It was then?"
"Yes." Merlin had felt the same from the Black Tower. They had all felt it, and struggled against the need to Skim there to see what was happening. He had gone there later, and seen the crater where Shadar Logoth had once been. He hadn't seen it before, but from the size of the hole in the earth it had been a magnificent city, once.
"I could sense you." He didn't need to say when.
Merlin felt his face grow hot. He felt the temptation of the Void, just out of reach. Being wrapped emotionless in the Void, with the easy reach of saidin, would only make things worse. "I grew ... distracted. It won't happen again."
"Be sure that it does not, Asha'man." He was all cold formality. "I will see you another time."
"I did not give you leave to my name," said Arthur.
"High Lord. The foreseeing. I need to be near to make certain nothing happens. Two weeks ago was only the latest--"
"You are near me. You are in the camp, and you will do what is needed. Be content with that. I will see you another time." His eyes were hard, and Merlin, remembering the knife at his feet, touched his throat again briefly, then left.
Outside he stopped beside the guards and stood, breathing deeply. He imagined a flame, and enveloped himself into the Void. His shame and sorrow skittered along the outside, but he ignored them. He pushed his shoulders back and strode off, shakiness dispelled by wrestling with saidin.
The next day was turmoil. Seanchan wheeled overhead in their beasts, damane sending bolts of fire against companies, Asha'man parrying their moves. Merlin threw wave after wave of shields and fire at the beasts, sometimes succeeding in stopping the onslaught; sometimes they flew out of reach and wheeled back to the Seanchan, taking with them information of their numbers and placements.
Strange animals were in the fight, ripping men apart with a swipe of their head, their handlers spearing any they missed. Volleys of crossbolts and arrows headed into the Seanchan, putting them off, and then the Asha'man came in. Merlin saw Arthur here and there, fighting in the rear guard, and let his muffling of the bond slip a little. He sensed Arthur in his mind, felt a flash of shock and then a trickle of anger underpinning determined concentration. He let it be, the faint sense of Arthur being there reassuring that he was still alive, while he wove.
Waves of Fire and Earth. They ripped into the approaching army, a carnage of flesh and earth left behind. Screams, from men and animals both, came through the rumble of broken ground. Merlin could feel the two of the others directing their flow, falling short of his range, and he could feel their strength. They were weaker than he; Merlin had known he came not far behind al'Thor in strength, but feeling these two, chosen for their ability, he felt his raging torrent of saidin anew. He felt more alive, the roiling sickness from the Dark One's taint a faint memory, now gone.
There were still damane they had missed. Bursts of broken ground exploded amongst the men; a column of burst earth raced past him, and he felt Arthur change in his head. He let go his flows and ran to where he sensed Arthur was, stepping over bodies and broken ground alike, focusing on Arthur growing nearer, to the still body on the ground. A soldier had come and was carefully pulling Arthur up into a sitting position, staunching a wound on his side with a hastily wadded up scarf.
As he came up close he saw Arthur, face pale, blood flowing from his head. He saw him lying bleeding out as at the Illian battle two years previous, when he had been unable to help, watching Arthur die.
He turned back to the battle and took a step towards the faint booms, the roar of voices. Merlin seethed with saidin, anger slid around the outside of the Void, and he pulled as much of it into himself as he could, a distant prickling of skin. Someone else's skin. Merlin began weaving, not knowing the flows until they were complete, Air and Earth and Fire in a complex web. The weaves snapped into place, tearing raken from the sky in flames and opening chasms in the earth beneath the Seanchan armies. He shivered with the roaring of saidin, struggling to hold onto the force of its torrent, anger and fear spiderwebbing over the Void, ugly and red.
"Emrys." Arthur's voice was weak. The use of his name grabbed at him, and his attention wavered from the flows. He struggled against the directionless torrent for a moment, and turned back. "The Seanchan are retreating. That's enough."
He reached down without ceremony, grabbed Arthur's head in his hands and wove a Healing, the new sort discovered by Flinn. Arthur barely shuddered, but when he Delved he could feel Arthur had healed. He could feel Arthur had healed. Arthur's eyes focused on him, and Merlin pulled his hands away quickly, but was stopped before he could draw back.
Arthur had an unguarded look in his eye, free of the anger he'd seen these previous days. He could feel him, a fading sense of intense shock. Merlin muffled the bond again, feeling empty with the loss of Arthur sitting in the back of his mind.
"High Lord," said the soldier, whom Merlin suddenly recognised as Lance. "You are Healed." The distrust he'd seen on Lance's face these past days was still there, but muted. He had blood on him, Arthur's and his own.
Arthur stood up, pale and staggering a little. He let Merlin go and looked around at the broken earth about him.
Nutir had ceased his weaving and was coming close. Merlin nodded at him and waved a hand at him; he was fine. Nutir rejoined Kullyn with a last, lingering look at Merlin, then they continued with their flows, the Seanchan slowly retreating. The Seanchan strikes against the army had slowed somewhat; the others must have gotten the damane. It was to their luck that women weren't as strong in the One Power as men, and their flows could go only so far. They'd needed to come closer to the fight than the men had, and so more vulnerable. It was hard to think of these women dying after being collared into servitude, some against their will.
Merlin let go of the Void. Tiredness crashed down on him. He'd channelled as much of saidin as he had been able, more than he had ever before. He must have stepped up in his abilities again. He took a step, and his knees felt like water. Arthur grabbed his arm roughly, then one of the nearby men took hold of his elbow in a piercing grip until Merlin's knees were able to hold him up.
There were groaning men all around, and for the first time since he'd arrived in camp he saw Morgana moving amongst the men. Morgana Aes Sedai. She'd left the camp shortly after he'd arrived, but had returned the night before. A dark-skinned woman followed her, one of the Sea Folk. Morgana would stop now and then, and Merlin could feel the cool shiver of saidar, letting him know a woman was channelling nearby. Healing the wounded. Gaius was making rounds with herbs and boys following him with bowls of water and cleaning cloths.
A man rode up, and through his exhaustion Merlin could hear him report that the Seanchan had left the field. The battle had been won.
"Morgana! He needs Healing."
An icy torrent ran through him, Morgana's cool hands on his face. He flung his hands out and his back arched as her flows stabbed through him, peeling tiredness back until he could stand. Her face was expressionless, eyes cool like her hands, as she drew away.
"I see you've returned." Her eyes flickered between Arthur and himself, quickly, almost unnoticeable. "One of those ... men." Her face pinched a little when she took in his dishevelled form, his uniform. "You had no choice in the matter ... still."
Arthur was now in conference with his commanders, lords darting terrified looks his way. There had been no way to say who had been weaving saidin resulting in the carnage, but when he'd told Merlin to stop, he'd singled him out as the one responsible. As Merlin looked over at the battlefield he was overcome again with the terrified helplessness and rage he'd felt when Arthur'd been struck down. Carrion birds were already arriving and wheeling up above. The glint of armour on the Seanchan flashed everywhere, over countless number of the dead.
Morgana had moved on. The Sea Folk woman trailing behind her looked him over, nodding to him. She continued on as Morgana stopped here and there, by Morgana's elbow to assist when she overextended herself.
Merlin looked over at the men gathering towards the command tent, and thought of joining them. He thought of the frightened looks he'd receive from some, and the jovial back-slapping from those who weren't frightened. The celebrations of a battle won. His gorge rose at the thought of the plain strewn with dead men, and he turned back to the tent he shared with the other Asha'man.
They were nowhere to be seen when he arrived there. He fell onto his pallet with a hard thump, weariness making him dizzy. Images of circling birds swam in his mind, of the cries and groans over the winds flapping through the camp, of the wreckage of men and earth.
Merlin awakened suddenly, conscious of being watched. Carefully he began a weave of Air to bind the person in place and another of Fire for light. He quickly sat up and finished his weaves, tying them off. He blinked.
"High Lord." He let the weave of Air dissipate.
Arthur stood still, even with the bands of Air gone. He looked around at the two empty pallets, then back at Merlin. "Is that what you brought with you?" He nodded at the pack on the floor by his pallet.
"You might as well bring it with you, then."
Merlin stood up and shouldered his pack. "Where am I going, High Lord?"
"The Lord Dragon said you were to guard me," said Arthur, pushing the tent flap back. "You'll be able to do that better from nearby than the outer parts of camp."
Merlin pushed back his tiredness and followed Arthur across the camp. People had been busy while he'd been asleep; ripped tents had been fixed, weapons cleaned, horses brushed down. Men were murmuring quietly around cookpots. There were unfilled gaps at tables where men had once sat. The two Asha'man were finishing off their meals when Kullyn saw him and said something to Nutir. His head snapped up towards them and made to rise, but was kept in place by the Kullyn's hand. Merlin nodded at them as he went past; there would be time for explanations later.
They neared the commanding officers' circle of tents, and he brushed into a smaller just outside of it. Merlin followed, only to stop as soon as he was inside. It was small, with a pallet, blankets, and an enamelled basin.
"You'll stay here. This tent has been set aside for you. Your men will remain where they are. The officers aren't comfortable with the One Power in their midst." Arthur didn't look at him, gesturing around toward the inside, then slipped away.
He sat on the pallet, looking absently at the tent flaps, and sighed. He ran a hand through his hair, removed his boots, and laid down on the pallet, focussing on the whorls of the felt tent. The bond was there to stay, no matter what Arthur wanted. He had taught the bond to others at the Black Tower, once he'd learned enough of the weaves to remember, vaguely, what he had done. Asha'man had worried about their wives and wanted to know they were in good health while they did the Lord Dragon's bidding. None had bonded men; only wives and Aes Sedai, who had spoken of their Warder bond. It was much the same, the Aes Sedai said, although an Aes Sedai could twist the truth until it stood on its head, making it almost indistinguishable from a lie. A bond could be passed to another, one sister told him, but Merlin couldn't think that Arthur would want any man to hold his bond, not even him.
998 NE, Summer
Arthur cut their time at the estate short after the mishap at the river. They rode back to Tear, the sun beating down on them, hot and fierce. Merlin wrapped a damp neck cloth around his head, trying to keep himself cool as he plodded down the dusty road.
"If you fall off your horse I'll leave you there," said Arthur. "You've been utterly useless these past days. My duties at Tear had to wait because you fell ill, Merlin."
"You didn't have to wait for me to get over my spell, Sire." Merlin took a sip of warm water, its flavour strong from sitting in its leather flask.
"They would saddle me with some other servant and I'd have to train him. At least you get things right some of the time," said Arthur, looking back at him. As if he hadn't been concerned for Merlin's sickness, coming in to press a cool cloth to his head, calling for the local healer to come attend.
"You honour me, Lord," said Merlin, voice tinged with sarcasm. He flapped his hand to create a breeze; there was nothing worse than riding with the wind. It felt like the earth had come to a standstill except for the baking sun, the air heavy to breathe. The dusty road rippled like water, shimmering the Stone of Tear into a waving image as they drew nearer. He felt like they would never get there; it was all Arthur's fault for deciding to after breaking the morning fast, rather than earlier in the day. He grumbled under his breath.
The streets were sparse of people; who'd learned to take mid-day breaks from the heat. They rode down the streets without having to make way for the usual ragged urchins running underfoot, selling wares to any wearing silk instead of wool. Merlin sighed with relief; he always found it hard to wave them off, and Arthur mocked him for the rubbish he'd purchased. Wooden clogs which fell apart the first time he used them, dried herbs so old they disintegrated into powder when he took them from the hawker's hand.
Arthur threw his reins to a stableboy, and waited while Merlin took his time dismounting. Arthur had an alert look about him, and Merlin realised that he was waiting for him to fall off. After he'd dismounted Arthur stepped away from the horse quickly, giving its side a short pat.
"Come, then. I wish to be out of this infernal heat."
Merlin trailed him through the hall. The heat soon dissipated to an even coolness. The rock insulated them from the outside temperatures; come summer or winter, it was always the same this far into the lower stretches of the Stone. When he spied a servant in a hallway, Merlin took her aside and gave her some instructions, then sprinted to keep up with Arthur.
They were soon in Arthur's chambers. Merlin plucked his shirt away from his body, cooling himself by quickly flapping it.
"Well? What are you waiting for? Draw me a bath," said Arthur, flinging himself into one of the chairs. He bent to his boots, tugging at one. Merlin went over to help. "Bath, Merlin. I feel like I've swum in a river of ..." Arthur trailed off, and he looked mildly ill for a moment.
The door opened and two servants came in a tub, half-filled with water. Another two boys with buckets came in behind them, and within moments it had been placed on the floor, filled, drying cloths laid beside it. With a couple of bows, they then left at Merlin's nod.
Arthur looked at the tub, at Merlin, and at the tub again.
"I suppose you are not entirely without use, after all. As I said, you do get things right some of the time. Boots, Merlin? My bath awaits."
Merlin grumbled under his breath, then quickly helped the rest of the way. Arthur stood up to remove his garments and Merlin stood back, watching, his mouth growing dry. Arthur's stretch as he removed his shirt, showed his lean muscles, taut and golden. Merlin shifted slightly forward, then stopped himself and pressed his hands on his thighs. He turned aside as Arthur dropped his breeches, giving Merlin a glimpse of his flexing buttocks as he lowered himself into his bath.
His boots were baking his feet, the thick woollen socks damp with sweat. He stamped his feet, then took sat and took them off, sighing with relief and wriggling his toes, free of the confining damp heat. When he looked up Arthur was watching him, eyes dark and hooded. Merlin smiled at him nervously, and stood. He fiddled with the drying cloths and picked up a bar of soap.
"Come here, Merlin," said Arthur, his voice velvety. He'd heard Arthur using that tone on serving women. "I wish to use the soap."
Merlin brought it over to him, uncertain. He'd never noticed Arthur show an interest in men, and wondered at his manner. Arthur cupped the cool water and poured it over his shoulders, then brought some more up to pour over his face. Merlin held the soap out to him, poised for flight in case Arthur thought it funny to pull him into the bathwater.
Arthur grabbed his wrist, making no move to take the soap from him. "Join me." There was a hint of question.
"Come." He gave an almost imperceptible tug as an accompaniment to his words.
Merlin pulled his hand back, dropping the soap in the tub. He took several steps back, seeing the invitation in Arthur's gaze, and pulled his shirt over his head. When he'd dropped it onto the floor, Arthur was focussed on his chest, his eyes lowering to his breeches when Merlin's hands dropped to his laces. He released the breeches and stepped out of them.
He went nearer, and when Arthur moved slightly to the side, stepped into the tub. Arthur grabbed his hand and pulled him in further, and Merlin fell, sprawling on top of him. Arthur held him there, his breath hot against his neck.
"I would not have you do anything you wouldn't wish," he said quietly, sliding his hand up Merlin's side. Arthur's body was hard against his, and Merlin could feel Arthur's cock stirring against him. The cool bar of soap was under his thigh, and he fumbled for it. Arthur's breath hitched, his hands tightening.
Merlin didn't say anything, his heart hammering, and he slowly moved the soap over his chest, washing himself. His own cock stirred at the suggestiveness of their position, but he kept his hands from his erection, instead smoothing his soap-slicked hands over Arthur's thighs. He pressed the soap into Arthur's hand. The feel of Arthur's body sliding against his as Arthur washed himself made Merlin's blood run hot, and made him achingly hard. He shivered in anticipation at the hardness he felt against his back.
Arthur pushed at him a little, then stood, dragging Merlin up with him. He pressed himself up against Merlin, then quickly pulled Merlin from the tub and over to the soft bed. Arthur stood beside it for a moment, then turned back to him. He moved a hand up to Merlin's cheek, cupping it, and then leaned in. His kiss was hot and hard, the hand against his cheek, a soft caress. Merlin answered it eagerly, pressing in close and putting hand to Arthur's hip to pull him closer. Their cocks brushed against each other, pressed up against their bellies.
Arthur pulled back a little and grinned triumphantly. "On the bed, Merlin."
1001 NE, Spring
There was commotion in the camp. Merlin went to look at the battlefield, to see what saidin had done to the earth around them. The men had made an effort at burning some of the dead, and smoky fires were off in the distance. He'd felt Asha'man channelling in the early morning; from the small number of bodies visible he could see that they'd been out clear the field.
Merlin had just stepped away from the limb of a body when a powerful surge in saidin originating from the camp made him swing around; the weave was strong enough for Travelling. He reached out and took hold of saidin and prepared a few nasty weaves, and strode back to where he could feel the Gateway.
He made his way through the tents, stopping at the command tent; it was the Dragon Reborn himself. The Aiel women, the Maidens, stood in a loose circle around the meeting tent. He could feel saidin being held within the tent and moved in closer, dropping the weaves and releasing saidin. It wasn't safe to channel around al'Thor, who was perilously close to madness. Sometimes when Asha'man around him held saidin it seemed as if he was on the verge of striking them down. No, it wasn't safe to hold saidin around the Lord Dragon.
A couple of Maidens spoke to the soldiers, who then ran toward the tent, darting fearful looks at the women over their shoulders. They watched Merlin but made no move to stop him coming nearer. He ducked through the tent flaps and was pinned by al'Thor's piercing gaze. The other Asha'man were there already, Kullyn dropping his placating hand and stopping mid-word.
"I hear you had a large part in this victory," said al'Thor.
"My Lord." Merlin ducked his head, stepping through fully. The tent flaps moved behind him. Al'Thor's cold eyes shifted behind him, and he nodded at the man behind Merlin.
"Asha'man Emrys' aid was invaluable in this skirmish," said Arthur from behind him. Merlin stiffened in surprise.
"This battle proved its purpose," said al'Thor. There was a mass of movement as commanders came into the tent. Merlin moved to stand with the other Asha'man, but stopped at the brief touch on his elbow. He looked at Arthur, and then moved to stand behind him when the men took their places. The Asha'man watched him, noting where he stood.
"The Seanchan have joined me," said the Dragon Reborn answering a question Merlin had missed. He pulled his attention away from Arthur. "There was a meeting with the Empress, and we have come to an agreement; the forces have done their work here. We now march to Tarman Gai'don."
There were gasps all around. Merlin couldn't see who'd made them. His belly wrung with nervousness and horror. One of the second-in-commanders turned, emptying his stomach at the side of the tent. The sour stink of vomit rose to Merlin's stomach and a couple of others looked ill.
"You march in the morning. The Asha'man will make some Gateways to bring you nearer, but you will move at a pace with the others going north, to join the Borderlanders. We will await you at Tarwin's Gap, Pendragon."
The commanders and High Lords moved into a close circle around the Dragon Reborn in a mass of questions and raised voices. They grew silent, one by one, and then the Dragon Reborn began giving his orders. They began leaving once they'd had their new orders hammered into them with that cold, hard voice. Merlin wandered closer to the other Asha'man. Their time would come soon, he knew.
He hadn't long to wait, and then they were pinned to place by al'Thor's eyes. "Kullyn tells me your ability has improved again, Emrys," he said. "Hold as much as you are able."
The amount of saidin al'Thor held increased. He was a raging torrent, and it only increased. Merlin waited a moment, and then did the same, encasing himself in the Void, moving into a loose stance.
He drew more of the prickling current of saidin into himself, feeling more alive with every moment. Through his enhanced senses, he became aware of all the men's reactions; from the other Asha'man's deliberate quietness, to Arthur's hands tightening on his belt, the slight creak of leather a loud crack. He looked over at Arthur briefly, noticing that he wasn't watching Merlin, but al'Thor. Merlin looked back at the Dragon Reborn.
He was struggling, his face a mask of tightness even through the calming effect of the Void. He should have been the centre of stillness in a raging current of saidin, but instead he seemed to be struggling. Abruptly it faded and al'Thor's face grew cold. "Is that as much as you can hold?"
"Yes, Lord Dragon," said Merlin through tight lips, the prickling sensation of being on the edge of safety making him all the more aware of being alive. He felt bead of sweat slide down the middle of his back.
Merlin let saidin go abruptly, feeling drained and as if all his senses were suddenly blunted. Arthur shifted toward him, but made no other move. The Lord Dragon was still holding saidin.
"You are closer in ability to me now," said al'Thor. "You'll take your place with me at Shayol Ghul when the time comes. If you jump again it will aid in the end, but you are still now far stronger than when Min saw you beside me at Tarmon Gai'don."
The other Asha'man's eyes jumped to him suddenly, speculation and surprise barely hidden. They had likely supposed prior to yesterday's fight that he wasn't strong. Merlin remembered Arthur's shock the day before; Arthur had likely thought the same, too.
Al'Thor rounded to the other Asha'man. "You two are to Travel and to familiarise yourselves with each location, jumping back for supplies and messages from those left behind. It will be a slow progress. I would bring you with me," he turned back to Merlin, "but you still have your task here. Pendragon," he continued, "make your men ready. You have one month before we strike at the Dark One and seal him away forever."
Al'Thor nodded at them all, and with a wide sweep of his arm, left the tent. There was a stronger feeling of saidin, for the Lord Dragon hadn't released the Source, and then they were gone. The three Asha'man looked from at him. Kullyn shifted a little.
"Asha'man, if you will; I would speak to Emrys."
They looked at Arthur for a moment, and then slowly left the tent; taking enough time about it to challenge. Arthur watched them, smooth-faced, and turned to Merlin when they were gone.
"You are as strong as the Lord Dragon, I gathered from that," he swept the tent with a hand. "And yet he keeps you here, where any may strike at you, against the forces of Light. Why?"
Merlin looked at Arthur deliberately. He wanted to see Arthur's face for this. "He knows about the bond, that I bonded with you before I left your service."
"Is that all he knows?"
Merlin knew what he was asking. "Yes. High Lord Pendragon."
Arthur flinched a little at that.
"I told you that Min, the Lord Dragon's companion, saw a foretelling that you would die if I stayed away. She also saw that I would die. We're both needed at Tarmon Gai'don; it might be that the Dark One could be sealed without our presence there, without whatever actions it is that we would take, but it's not certain."
Arthur nodded abruptly. "I will see to it that you have a soldier guard at your tent at night. If you will send Lance in when you leave."
"That's not necessary."
"You forget that my life is tied to your well-being, Asha'man Emrys, by your doing. The day you die is the day I die." Arthur was grim. Merlin nodded quickly, and once outside caught Lance's eye and nodded towards the tent. He waited outside and heard the rumble of voices. Lance's voice developed an edge. When he stepped out, he scowled at Merlin and then gestured to a soldier, taking him aside and speaking rapidly. His hand flicked at Merlin a couple of times; Merlin supposed the gist of it was that this soldier would now guard his tent.
Merlin strode to his tent, using Cat Crosses the Courtyard, using it to exude arrogance and alertness. The other two Asha'man were nearby, and they seemed about to come over when he shook his head at them, and made his way on to his tent. He slipped inside, worn from his use of saidin. He knew Lance to be Tairen to the bone, distrusting of the One Power, and wary of Merlin. For some, the presence of Asha'man was too big a matter to bear, and Lance wasn't the sort to let any apparent threat to Arthur pass easily. He heard a man settle outside his tent, alert to danger, whether it came to Merlin or from him.
Eyes flinched away from Merlin wherever he went; word had got out that he was as strong as the Lord Dragon, and suddenly he was feared as being more dangerous than before. As if they hadn't seen what he'd done at the battle; Merlin's stomach dipped at remembering his strange, deadly weaves, half-remembered, and yet he had never learned them.
He was practising weaves just outside of camp, trying to see how they fit together, when he heard a footstep behind him. He turned a little; it was Arthur.
"My Lord." Merlin let the weaves go. "Is there a problem?"
Arthur watched the camp packing up with a backdrop of the battlefield. He was silent and Merlin let him be, watching him. He was always content to be in Arthur's presence, oddly; sometimes he thought it was a result of the bond, even if other Asha'man made no mention of this from their bonds. The light caught Arthur's profile and a deep shaft of want went through him, and Arthur snapped around.
"Merlin." There was a wealth of warning in his tone, but Merlin felt a thrill at Arthur's use of his first name, for the first time since he'd arrived. "You will not use this, this bond," said Arthur, coming closer. Merlin looked at him warily; he could wrap him in Air before Arthur took it into his mind to do whatever he was planning. Arthur stopped within arm's reach, ran a quick eye over Merlin's body, at his hands, still cupped from using the Source.
Arthur reached out and ran his thumb down Merlin's face, a dark smile coming over him. "You want me." Merlin shuddered a little, and said nothing. Arthur came closer, and Merlin could feel his heat against his body, not quite touching. "You want this," he said again, and licked up the side of Merlin's neck. Merlin stood still with effort.
"High Lord," Merlin said hoarsely. He stepped back, conscious of the bond, of his muffling it. Even so, he was certain his arousal was still reaching through the bond; he could feel an echo coming back at him. Arthur's face was suffused with colour, his eyes hot with wanting. Merlin felt a deep shame; what he was doing to Arthur was worse than rape. "High Lord, by the Light, I apologise most deeply." He bowed.
Arthur made towards him, surprise displacing the earlier, lust-filled look. Merlin wrapped him in bonds of Air and took several steps back, and, leaving dignity behind, ran away.
998 NE, Autumn
The third time it happened he was with the campaign against Illian. Rumours of a False Dragon near the Borderlands had sparked the conflict anew, Tear and Illian at each other's throats. Shipments of grain had gone missing and Illian was all too visibly to blame.
Merlin had spent the first few days weaving in amongst the tents and soldiers, trying to get his chores done while avoiding poorly hidden stakes and ropes ready to trip the unwary. He sometimes saw Morgana Sedai about the tents, her blue shawl marking her out. She was here with some vague mention of interesting herbs on the Plains. Aes Sedai were only tolerated in Tear if they did no channelling, and those originally from Tear were tolerated least of all. Morgana was taking a chance being about the tents; even Aes Sedai were vulnerable to a knife in the dark or arrow from afar. Only being Arthur's foster sister was offering her a larger measure of tolerance.
Merlin pushed back the tent flaps, juggling a new flask of wine and a loaf. He pulled them closed behind him, securing it shut.
"Finally, Merlin, the wine." Arthur gestured for it impatiently, in a rough mood. High Lord Uther still hadn't given him full command, and Arthur had to follow the orders from Lord Vamures, years his elder but with no sense of the battlefield. They had marched over the Plains of Maredo towards Illian with little forward scouting, Lord Vamures confident that the 'thieving bastards would not spare a man to watch an empty plain'.
While Vamures spoke of honour and teaching thieves a lesson, that only honourless pigs would sneak up in the night, every sub commander did their best to safeguard their men. Their coats buttoned up in the heat, they marched along at a pressing pace.
"The High Lords of Tear are mad," said Arthur, flinging his coat off. "Putting Lord Vamures in this command! What were they thinking? My father could have swayed them to favour another, surely. This choice, it is madness."
Merlin picked up the garments. "He is a man of experience."
"Commanding the Defenders of the Stone, Merlin," said Arthur. "The Stone, should the Dragon Reborn come to claim Callandor. None have in the past thousand years, and Tear stands strong. The Defenders stand against the man proclaiming to be the Dragon in Saldaea, this Mazrim Taim, as they should. He's not the man for this, in battle against Illian."
Tear and Illian had fought for as long as Merlin could remember. He grew up with memories of High Lord Uther Pendragon setting off to another battle with Illian, and as Arthur grew older, he would go along with his father, commanding his men more and more until he had a small battalion beneath him. There had been raids against Illian pirates, defending the border lines and the edge of the Plain of Maredo, which provided a buffer between the two lands. Arthur had a reputation as a strategist amongst his men. Sometimes they came back blooded, but never defeated.
"When you do well here, Sire, they will see your worth, no? Or you could join the Companions in Illian; they take men from any country. You may even make Captain-General there!" said Merlin, placing a goblet of wine on the table before Arthur.
"I do not appreciate your speaking treason," said Arthur stiffly.
Merlin smiled at him and carefully placed a hand on his shoulder. Sometimes Arthur would push him away, unwilling to take comfort in his presence, but this time Arthur grabbed at his breeches and pulled him closer. Merlin ran a hand up Arthur's shirt, feeling his smooth skin, then Arthur kissed him, hard at first, and then gentling as if Merlin's hands on his sides were stroking the anger out of him.
Arthur turned him back towards the pallet and slowly, kissing all the while, made their way there. Arthur pushed him back on it, the pallet's hardness barely softened by the blankets.
"Take off your clothes," he said, stroking himself inside his laced breeches.
Merlin struggled out of his shirt, nearly trapping a hand in a twisted sleeve.
"Merlin, you clumsy oaf," said Arthur, and helped untangle him. Arthur pushed Merlin down into the pallet with his body, pressing their cocks together. Merlin gasped and thrust up at him, then reached for his laces to free himself. Arthur had his hands there already, unlacing while he kissed him deeply. He slid down Merlin's body, taking the breeches with him, and Merlin's cock pulled free.
Merlin drifted sleepily a little while later, holding onto the edge of the pallet. Their sweat-slicked skin pressed up against each other and Arthur pushed him the rest of the way off. "You're a furnace, Merlin; go to your own pallet."
Merlin got up and looked down at Arthur grumpily, rubbing at his hip. Arthur leaned back and looked him over with slitted, sated eyes, and opened his mouth.
"My Lord!" They had only a moment's warning before Lance came through the tent flaps. He took one look at them, surprise flashing over his face, then turned to face the tent walls. "Lord Arthur, the Illianers are attacking! High Lord Vamures is gathering the cavalry for a charge against them. They have already broken through the infantry on the outer camp," he said, and Arthur rolled off the pallet, cursing.
Merlin grabbed clothes, throwing Arthur's at him and hastily donning his own. He lifted Arthur's armour and did his best to fasten it on him; Arthur was wrestling with it himself. "That's good enough," he said before the last was on, and thrust out of the tent. Merlin began to scramble after him, but his way was barred by Lance.
"This fight is no place for manservants," he said, and pushed him back further into the tent. "Be ready for when Lord Arthur returns from the fight."
Merlin waited a short while, listening to the clash and cries outside the felt walls. His hands shook as he packed things away, trying to push the sounds aside and ignore that Arthur's armour wasn't at its best. He could no longer stay within, and went through the tent flaps.
It was a riotous chaos. He could see High Lord Vamures with a spear through him off in the distance, and he stumbled over to him to see if he was still alive. His eyes were glazed over, body twisted unnaturally. Merlin pulled at the spear. It was wrong to see the High Lord like that. With one last tug he pulled it free and held it, the metal end red, its shaft slippery with blood.
Merlin narrowly avoided being speared by soldiers. They stepped on fallen bodies and fell over, he tripped and missed being run through, something caught their attention to his left and went past him, leaving him untouched. The spear grew warmer in his hand when he stabbed an Illianer by accident, a moue of surprise on the man's mouth as he dropped the axe he'd held. Merlin turned away from him with a shudder and saw Arthur.
He was fighting, sword moving in a graceful, deadly dance against the Illian forces, one after the other. His clothing marked him for a commander, and the soldiers were aiming for him in the melee. Merlin felt sick at the arrows in Arthur's arm, in his leg, at the paleness of his face as he continued to hammer against each opponent.
He had barely time to notice before he had to fight again himself. His luck was uncanny; his opponent was clumsy on his feet, tripped, impaling himself on a fallen man's sword.
When Merlin turned back to Arthur he saw him fall. His heart squeezed with terror and he hastily flung himself towards Arthur. He saw Morgana out of the corner of his eye; she was throwing bolts of fire around herself, at nearby men, and soldiers, who shrank away seeing the One Power at work. She got to Arthur just as Merlin did, and did something with the air around them; men were trying to get to them, but they hit a barrier and slid off.
Morgana placed a palm on Arthur's forehead, frowning in concentration.
"Can you heal him, Morgana?" asked Merlin, hope fluttering in his chest. "Morgana Sedai?"
"No," she said angrily, pulling back and looking about. "He's beyond my talent at Healing; he has too many wounds. I cannot heal only one, and to Heal them all would kill him from shock. Gaius is needed for this."
He looked around at the men still fighting beyond the clear barrier. Finding Gaius would take too long. The men of Tear were losing, and he was going to die on the battlefield. Merlin wished fiercely that Vamures had died days ago. If he'd known it would come to this he would have thrust a dagger into Lord Vamures' heart himself. He pulled off his scarf, wadding it up, and knelt, pressing it against Arthur's side, and touched his face with the other hand. A despair fell on him. He was losing Arthur, and there was nothing he could do.
Merlin bent down further, remembering them only an hour ago, curled up against each other on the rough pallet. It was hard to see Arthur's pale face, the same the which had moved above him not long earlier. He pressed a kiss on his lips, a farewell, grief filling him. His skin prickled, a roaring feeling, and when it dissipated he could feel Arthur's wounds, all of them, and the felt the weakness of him.
He pulled away, falling over backwards in his haste, staring at Arthur. He could still feel him there, even though he wasn't touching him any longer. He had the feeling that even if he was a thousand miles away, he would still know where Arthur was, could point to where he was, anywhere in the land.
"What is it?" Morgana asked, coming closer, putting a hand on Arthur's forehead again. "What is this? What did you do? He is still weak, but I could--"
Merlin felt Arthur's pain, and the twitching of Arthur's body through the Healing, and felt a corresponding weakness in himself. Merlin was overwhelmed with relief and terror; Arthur was no longer dying, but how did he know this?
Morgana was staring at him, eyes hard. "You can channel." She didn't ask. She knew. "How long have you known this? How did you know how to do this?"
"No!" Merlin backed away further. "I can't channel, I walk in the Light!"
Merlin stood up and backed up further, a barrier of air against his back. It enveloped him and he couldn't move.
"You will be taken to the White Tower and gentled, Merlin," said Morgana Sedai, regal in her shawl, the White Tower behind her every word. "I will make certain you live after; I will not forget your ... worth to Arthur."
Merlin struggled against the bonds holding him, and then suddenly they were gone. Morgana fell to the ground. He turned and ran. He could channel. He could channel. His mouth was dust and ashes. He could never return. The awareness of Arthur grew a little thinner, but he knew they'd always be able to find him through it. Still he ran, past Illianers and Tairens alike, seeing nothing before him.
1001 NE, Spring
"I would speak with Morgana Sedai," said Merlin. The Sea Folk woman was before him, her fingers and face bare of jewellery. He could see small holes in her ears and nose, suggesting that this was new. Guin, he thought her name was; or something very like it.
She slipped through the tent flaps and he waited. They would be moving in again in the morning.
This past week Merlin made sure to be the first to leave the meetings, using saidin to distract Arthur from noticing, causing someone to trip, or a goblet to fall, just when Arthur would have noticed his departure. He let the bond slip from time to time, to get a sense of where Arthur was; when it happened he felt a shift in Arthur's attention, a feeling of determination coming through into the back of his mind. Merlin always moved quickly after that; being cornered by an angry High Lord was something he wished to avoid.
"Morgana Sedai will see you now," said the Sea Folk woman--came Guin's soft-spoken voice. He nodded at her gratefully, a small smile, and went within with a small feeling of trepidation. Although the White Tower had apparently ceased holding any men they found who could channel, they could change their mind at any time. They had kidnapped the Dragon Reborn, after all, under the guise of peacekeeping.
"I did wonder when you would come," said Morgana Sedai.
Merlin sat in the nearest chair, a folding affair he had to carefully place himself into. He could see Morgana's chair had a slight angle; war camp living was not kind.
"I didn't know what it was I did until well afterwards," he said. Morgana showed no surprise at his outburst. "I've now learned the weave and taught it to others; it took me a little time remember it. Asha'man now use it with their wives, so they can let them know they're safe." He didn't mention the Aes Sedai storming the Black Tower, or of how they were caught. Asha'man had found ways of using the bond, and could command their Aes Sedai to do the things they wanted them to; at least, sometimes.
Morgana smiled at Guin when she handed her a small porcelain cup of tea. Merlin eyed it; Sea Folk work, likely brought with her when she joined Morgana. He wondered at her presence again, for she was clearly not a maidservant, and the Sea Folk lived their whole lives on water.
"Can the bond be used to compel?" Merlin asked.
She shot him a sharp, severe look. "Put that thought from your mind, Asha'man. Compulsion is a dark, twisted thing, and to pervert the Warder bond, even one such as yours, with this! No. Some sisters may use suggestions through the bond, to keep their Warder from running to their certain death, but never to Compel. If you choose to try this on Arthur, to learn the manner of it, you need not worry of the Dark One laying his hand out on you; for I will put a knife into you myself."
"Is it possible to do so without knowing you're doing so?" he asked, shame still making him feel ill.
Morgana looked at him over her teacup, measuring him. "No," she said finally. "A bond, left alone, will let you know if your Warder is in health, and how he is feeling at that moment. Most Sisters find this a little too ... intimate ... and so the bond is muffled. Once set, it is an unconscious thing. Any touches to the bond to make a Warder more biddable must be the result of conscious thought, with a touch of Spirit. Muffling the bond is not a thing of the Source, only a mental trick of privacy, and the only thing to affect the bond without the One Power."
Something deep within Merlin relaxed. He had been worried ever since he'd first masked the bond that he was altering Arthur's behaviour in some way. When he'd first arrived, he'd almost expected to have been banished to the very far edge of camp, possibly with a crossbow trained upon him. He'd done the Lord Dragon's bidding, but he'd remembered the deep anger he'd felt from Arthur those years ago, filled with betrayal and loss, a bitter feeling sitting in his mind before he'd hit upon the trick of masking Arthur.
"Lord Arthur was most angry with you then," she said. "I was taken to my bed for a day after you sliced my weaves. You didn't know how to weave saidin?"
Merlin shook his head. Angry with him, then?
Guin fussed with her skirts, and Morgana placed a hand upon her wrist, gentle. "Arthur went after you with his men; you went to Illian. He believed you had turned traitor."
"It was the nearest I could think to go--Far Madding is no place friendly to channellers, and further north is only closer to the White Tower. There was only west."
"I saved both of your lives, as Guin saved mine. If Arthur had continued to follow you to Illian and executed you as a traitor, Arthur would have died." Morgana twisted strands of her shawl's fringe as she spoke. "Because I have sworn the Three Oaths I was able to convince him you were not in Illian informing the King of the High Lords' plans. By the Oaths he knew my words true. I told him of the bond, and what it meant. Your bonding him that day saved his life, Asha'man; he would have died on the battlefield, for I could do nothing until he had the strength of a Warder."
"Why? Why did you convince him to let me go?"
"I sometimes can Foretell," she said, her expression inwards and far away. "You, and Arthur, are needed at Tarmon Gai'don."
"You could have had me taken to the White Tower. I could have been safe, shielded against saidin, until needed at the Last Battle," said Merlin, conscious of this having been the White Tower's plan for the Dragon Reborn.
Morgana looked at him, and slowly shook her head. "Even the White Tower is not always the safest place to be. I had heard rumour of the Dragon proclaiming himself at Falme. Three False Dragons in so few years! There was always possibility, were it ever slim, that you were the Dragon Reborn, and I could not countenance the end of the Wheel of Time because of my decision."
Merlin was shocked; his mind spun around her words, around the possibility that she had thought he was the Dragon.
"I did tell Arthur of my thoughts, and of my knowledge of the bond. For a short while he thought he was tied to the Dragon Reborn." A small smile hovered on her lips. "This al'Thor showed himself at Falme; the very reason for having stayed my hand. Lord Arthur knew the day you arrived at the Black Tower. He has had two years of knowing himself bonded to you, Asha'man. There is a way to release the bond," she added.
"There is?" said Merlin, deeply shocked. There had been no mention of bond releasing at the Black Tower. No wives there had fallen mad when their bonded husbands died, not like what happened with a Warder when an Aes Sedai died. None of the careful questioning of Aes Sedai had revealed this.
"Aes Sedai seldom discuss bonding. It is possible, but it takes much time, and only in the rarest of occasions does it occur."
He pressed her for more information, but attempting to learn anything from saidar was akin to teaching a fish to fly. He couldn't see their weaves, and often, from what teaching he'd seen from the bonded Aes Sedai, their ways of weaving was so different there could be no direct translation to saidin.
Merlin left the tent, with his mind in a whirl, the information Morgana had imparted on bond release sinking in. He fell into a confident stride designed to keep others out of his way. He heard someone follow him into his tent and he turned, words of dismissal fading on his lips.
"High Lord." Merlin stood his ground.
"Did Morgana answer to your satisfaction?"
"It was a-- an enlightening conversation. Who is the Sea Folk woman?"
Arthur pulled back. "Ah, Guin; I believe her to be Morgana's companion, her heart-friend. Morgana was out by Almoth Plain and she had some problems with Seanchan; as you know, they collar women who channel. Morgana is not forthcoming of that time. Guin helped her escape. That is all she says of it." He looked around the small tent. "Have you any wine?"
Merlin looked at him warily. Arthur's behaviour had changed since that evening a week ago; there was a loosening of his attitude, a willingness to talk to Merlin, when Merlin hadn't managed to slip away in time. If the bond wasn't him influencing him ... Merlin let the thought slide away.
"Morgana says this can be released," said Merlin abruptly. "Sire, the weaves for this are unfamiliar to me, but I will find it. I would not subject you to this bond."
Arthur went over to the pitcher and poured himself a drink, movements quick and stiff. He sat on the small stool and drank deeply, then twisted the goblet about in his hands, watching him steadily. "Morgana informed me of this possibility, years ago."
Merlin blinked. "You knew of this? You knew of this when I joined the camp?" Arthur had known. He touched his throat.
Arthur watched his hand when he dropped it back to his side. "Morgana told me everything she knew of the Warder bond two years ago, Merlin. She believed it would not be different for us despite us both being men. Time enough has passed that it appears it isn't."
"I'll study the weaves, my Lord." Merlin waved his hands, gesturing emptily. "It may take some time, but it will be done."
"There is more to this bond, Merlin, than embarrassing moments when I am amongst my men and you are thinking of my hands on you," said Arthur.
Merlin felt shivery with lust, with a memory of Arthur pressing him down onto a soft bed and touching him until he begged for release. He flamed with embarrassment and arousal, and with it grew angry. "I would not subject you to further embarrassment, High Lord," he spat.
"Now that would be a pity," Arthur murmured, shifting off the stool and coming closer. "Enough of this 'High Lord'; I give you leave to use my name." He placed his fingers along where Merlin had touched, then pulled him in close for a rough kiss.
Merlin fell into it with a gasp, grabbing at Arthur. His anger faded and arousal came over him in a wave. Being this close made it hard to keep the bond masked. He could feel Arthur's physical arousal reflected in his mind, and with that awareness the masking fell away. He, or Arthur, dropped to the ground, pulling the other down also. Awareness of who was doing what to whom disappeared; there was only a riot of lust and arousal, desperate need, and then he was coming, behind his closed eyes he could see a bright burst of stars.
He came back to find himself pressed into the rugs below Arthur. He could feel Arthur's was contentment, and his hand slid down Merlin's side. Merlin pushed at him, a sick feeling clawing at him.
"Morgana didn't tell me everything about the bond, I see," said Arthur as he rolled to let Merlin move away. He looked satisfied, sweat slicking his hair down to his head, face relaxed and eyes heavy.
Merlin turned to him and finally, finally, he masked the bond again. Arthur's eyes sharpened and he raised himself up on his elbows. "You didn't release it on purpose."
"No." Merlin found his breeches and stepped into them, lacing them up loosely. "I'll look into the weaves."
"You don't understand," said Arthur. "These past two years I've had more strength, more energy to fight, and needed less sleep than any man on the field. Being a Warder sharpens the fight. I will take every advantage over the Shadow, Merlin. Every battle we fight which does not involve the Shadow takes away men needed to win Tarmon Gai'don. There are compensations."
Merlin stood rigid with shock, staring at Arthur. "You ... you want this." He couldn't say more; words jumbled in his mouth, saidin, history, the Stone of Tear. "But. You're a High Lord of Tear."
Arthur snorted and twisted to grab for his shirt. Merlin watched his smooth flank flex and thought about running his hands over him, thought of having done that just a short while ago. Arthur got dressed speedily and stamped into his boots. When dressed he turned back to Merlin and handed him his black coat.
"We are now in service to the Lord Dragon, Merlin. Asha'man. The Dragon Reborn invaded the Stone of Tear, has conquered most of countries or made them his ally. We no longer have the luxury of ignoring those who can channel, we can no longer send women off to the White Tower and be rid of the men in the dark. You and I are going to Tarwin's Gap, and what comes--I will take any advantage against the Dark One."
Merlin nodded slowly. He felt like Arthur had pulled a rug out from under him, repeatedly; he had fled to Illian thinking he had only days to live, and returned with the certainty that Arthur would do his utmost to keep him far away. This was something he had not expected even when Min foretold that Arthur would save his life.
998 NE, Winter
Merlin arrived in Illian on a horse on its last legs. The feeling of Arthur was clear in his mind. He'd pushed his mount as fast as possible, the anger and fierceness from Arthur a spur against being caught. He'd run out of water the day before, even with the forethought to grab some spare water bottles as he ran from the battlefield. Merlin had spent the first few days thinking nothing but I can channel. I will go mad. I can channel, and then slowly a blankness overcame the fear and exhaustion.
He began to pay more attention as he wove through the outer town of Illian on foot, leading the horse by its reins. The horse hung its head low, walking almost by rote, and Merlin worried for the mount. Merlin patted the horse, feeling the ribs slide under its hide. There had been far too many days without food or water.
"You, there." An angry woman placed herself in front of him. "What've you done to that horse?"
"Do you be thinking I'll allow someone treat a horse that way? You do be giving him to me, now," she said, and snatched the reins from his hands. She fumbled at the waistband of tools for a moment, then dropped a number of silver coins in his hand. "That do be because he's good Tairen stock. Not because you have treated him at all well," she sneered.
Merlin stared after the woman as she left. She patted the horse on the nose, talking to the mount in a calmer manner as she led it away. The coins were heavy in his hand, unfamiliar with the head of the Illianer King stamped upon them. He blinked when he realised he was now without a horse; it'd taken him all of five minutes to have lost his mount, but it was for the best. The horse needed care, and he ... couldn't.
A silver went towards new clothes from the ragpickers, food, and a bed in one of the rougher inns for a few nights. He rolled into the thin bed, listening to the snoring coming from the others in the shared room. It was a counterbeat to the thought coming back to him, a constant I can channel. Gaius had told him of men laying waste to villages before Aes Sedai could get them, and now this was to be his fate.
Merlin thought of Morgana Sedai falling to the ground, possibly dead. Arthur was after him to seek retribution, he was sure, to kill him, and was willing to follow him into Illian to be certain of it. I'm dead. He thought over where he could go to do the least damage, and briefly thought of going to the White Tower to hand himself over to the hands of Aes Sedai, but the image of Morgana crumpled on the ground halted that train of thought. Arthur was white hot with anger over his sister. The White Tower would treat him no more gently.
The snoring lulled his mind, and even though he knew Arthur was coming closer, he eventually fell into sleep.
The inn was full of workmen in the morning, all eating the same sticky porridge before heading off to their works. Merlin left the inn after a bowl, his stomach protesting the unfamiliar influx of food, and found himself caught up with a swell of people. An excitement sparked the air.
The Great Square of Tammuz was full. He didn't stand out in the populace; there were lords and ladies standing shoulder to shoulder with the roughest ruffians, and they ignored each other as plain as shouting.
"What's going on?" he asked the nearest likely looking fellow; he wasn't too scruffy, and yet not too well dressed; a merchant's guard, perhaps.
"We're here to take the Oath to become a Hunter for the Horn!"
"The Horn of Valere," said the man with scorn, blue eyes looking him over. "Surely you know what that is." He had heard of the Horn in children's tales. The great Horn, to which great heroes were bound for the turning of the wheel, forever returning from the grave to fight at its call.
After that it was all he heard; every man and woman haunting the inns were on the Hunt, and every one of them had their own theories of where to find it. There were tales of Birgitte Silverbow, tall and strong, her aim sure and true, Rogosh Eagle-Eye, standing unfaltering and resolute beside Arthur Hawkwing, Paedrig the Peacemaker, with his honeyed tongue, and Artur Hawkwing, himself.
Artur Hawkwing was especially popular. The similarity of his name to 'Arthur' had Merlin cutting his eyes to the speaker every time he heard it on someone's lips, an ugly twisting of fear and despair within him. He could channel, and soon he would go mad and die. If he could, he would go to the Borderlands and fight Shadowspawn, die fighting for the Light before he killed all those around him. He couldn't; he knew what he had done to Arthur, and his death would take Arthur along with him.
Merlin was in the square a few days later, his last silver coin light in his pocket. He stood for the second swearing of the oath, hand raised with the hundreds of others.
"Under the Light and by my hope of salvation and rebirth, I will hunt for the Horn of Valere until such day it is found, to bring the Heroes of the Horn to battle the Dark One on the fields of Tarmon Gai'don. I join the Hunt for the Horn."
There was much back slapping after this and drinks all round. Spines stiffened with pride at having taken the oath, and suddenly the inn's common room found itself full of men boasting of how they would find the Horn, of the honour it would bring.
The man who had talked to him the first day found him as he wandered, a little lost, ever aware of the sense of Arthur coming closer to Illian.
"You took the Hunter's Oath, then," said the man, introducing himself as Mordred. "You had that look about you."
"What look?" Merlin wasn't certain how to take his comment.
"Somewhat lost, wanting to do something, but not certain what. Do you know where you'll seek the Horn?"
"No. I thought, perhaps--the Borderlands?" About as far from Arthur as he could get, and then when he finally succumbed to the madness, he'd be somewhere he could get away from everyone. Arthur had mentioned the Borderlanders were hard men; their constant fight against Shadowspawn so near the Blight had whittled away any softness they might have had. He would join them fighting the Dark One, and when he went mad, he would take as many Shadowspawn as he could with him.
"As good a place as any," said Mordred. "I'm headed that way myself; I'm leaving in the morning for the Eye of the World. The Green Man is there, so the tales go, and if any will know of the Horn of Valere, it will be him. I could do with another hand, if you wish to travel with me."
He woke the next morning certain that Arthur was outside of Illian, and did something in his fear which cut him off from that certainty. He knew Arthur was out there still, but couldn't point at him anymore; for the first time in a month he didn't feel the anger and determination in the back of his head, growing ever closer. There was just him.
Merlin was up in a mad scramble, his satchel packed and ready when Mordred came sauntering out of the inn.
"That eager to go?" Mordred looked him over, amused, and with that they were on the road, Merlin slowly growing more relaxed as they trod the Silver Road north to Lugard.
Mordred complained about his family one evening, after an especially tiring day trying to source a bed for the night.
"My brother died, and I was to inherit the farm," he said. "But no, my father had legitimised his bastard son, only a year older than I! One year. I'd worked hard for the, the family, done things"
Mordred never mentioned it again, but he'd brood as they came upon larger estates, muttering when those there would have no bar of them. He glared darkly at younger fops with too much lace on their cuffs, and tug at his own more prosaic woollens.
It took them months on the road, hunting stories of the Horn along the way. Mordred didn't work; he never said, but Merlin thought he was a noble, from the way he carried himself and his innate expectation of things. Merlin worked while Mordred went off to find the source of these stories, sometimes on farms, pitching hay and milking cows, sometimes wielding an awl to fix fishermen's nets, sometimes his arms deep into scummy water, scrubbing at pots with a fistful of oily sand.
Merlin could no longer feel Arthur the closer they got to the Borderlands, and sometimes forgot the muffled knot in his mind was there. He was constantly tired from working sunup to sundown, sweating freely, and come nightfall collapsing on a bale of prickly hay, if he was lucky. When he was unlucky it he would sleep under a bush. The dry hot days were long, but the clear skies meant he could be sure he wouldn't be woken by rain. After a while he came to wish for it, not minding the thought of waking to a puddle of mud beneath his cheek instead of sparse brown grass.
Mordred would come back, full of stories of where a farmer had heard his neighbour's sister's family had had a golden horn in their families once, that they had been lords, and they would set off again. Merlin wanted to avoid the cities--too many people there, should he turn mad overnight--and Mordred thought the best place to find the horn would be out in the country, where long-forgotten nations once held sway.
One day Merlin looked up from his scythe, where he'd been cutting more browning grasses for livestock from a field where there ought to have been food. Mordred was back.
"News is so slow in this infernal country. The Dragon Reborn has taken the Stone of Tear," said Mordred. "Tear has fallen, and the battle against the Dark One nears by the day. We need to find the Horn of Valere soon, Merlin! Once I have ..."
Merlin didn't hear much more than 'Dragon Reborn' and 'Tear'. He wondered how Arthur was, whether Uther had let him finally have his head and fight against the Lord Dragon. Aware of his muffled bond like he hadn't been since Illian, he let it go. Instantly he could point south to where Arthur was, but little else. He blinked in surprise; he hadn't realised that distance would affect it so.
"When did this happen?" he asked. "News is slow, you said?"
Mordred stopped his tirade and gave him a hard stare. "What happen? Tear? Oh, yes, you're from there, aren't you? A month, two months ago, from what that peddler said. They oftentimes get things wrong anyway. It could have happened a lifetime ago and they would present it to you as if it was only yesterday's news." He sneered.
Merlin turned to face south. He could feel Arthur down there somewhere; The Dragon Reborn was probably still in Tear, and he could channel. He now sometimes thought he saw weaves when he wanted to do something; it wasn't always intentional, but when not paying attention he would sometimes heat dish water to make things easier, or make something fall to distract when townsfolk looked at them too suspiciously.
1001 NE, Spring
Merlin saw Guin about the camp more often after his visit with Morgana Sedai. She was cheerful, and would talk to almost anyone, only growing quiet around lords and Asha'man. He'd never seen any Sea Folk behave that way, and supposed it was due to her time with the Seanchan. He didn't know why she was that way around Asha'man. Merlin smiled at her as he went past, to put her at ease.
Guin only smiled at him shyly when he attempted to talk to her, saying "Morgana Sedai" and being on an errand and then left. One afternoon her doing so reminded him of his time as a manservant, of those days when his only concern was keeping Arthur in clean clothes and, towards the end, finding dark corners to trip Arthur up.
He went to the edge of camp and stared hard off into the distance as he held saidin and wove Spirit, over and over, looking at his flows to see which called to him. After a few days of this, one looked promising. He carefully laid it upon the presence of Arthur in his head, and felt it go strange. He fell to the ground, his head aching and eyes unfocused.
Minutes later he heard footsteps pounding up to him, and then Arthur was there, shouting. More running steps, voices, and then he heard the others leave.
A hand under his elbow hoisted him up until he was in a sitting position, with a hand on the ground to keep himself stable. Arthur paced around him then crouched down. "Are you mad?" he said, voice deep with anger. "If you must do this thing, and do recall my saying I wish that you would not, you could perhaps confine yourself until such time I'm not speaking to my men!"
Merlin groaned and touched the heel of his palm to his forehead, and blinked a few times until there were no longer three Arthurs. He felt rough all over, and saidin was a shivery memory, escaping his touch. He moistened his lips. "Nutir is the next strongest in saidin after me; he will have to do any Gateways for a day or so, I think."
Arthur cursed. He helped Merlin the rest of the way up, then aided him back to his tent. He pushed him down to the pallet and, much to Merlin's shock, removed his boots. "Rest."
Nutir wove the Gateway that afternoon. His Gateway wasn't as large as Merlin's usually were; the men had to lead horses through by their reins, rather than go through mounted. It took much longer. By the time Merlin came through with the last numbers, the camp had been set up and the sun was setting low into the sky. He found his tent eventually; it was right next to Arthur's now, instead of at the edge of the officer's circle.
"Why is this here?" he asked one of the camp servants tying a line off down to a stake. "This tent is supposed to be over there." He waved at where it had been approximately at the last camp.
The servant ducked his head, a quick bow. "High Lord Pendragon directed us, Asha'man, not half hour ago."
"I see. My thanks," he said, and thrust his bag in through the flap and moved off to find the other Asha'man.
Kullyn was a short way off a fire, watching the camp bustle about him and eating his meal. Merlin grabbed a wooden bowl from the teetering stack and had the cook ladle some stew into it. He'd learned over the years not to pay too close attention to what went into meals, and the unidentifiable lumps of sinewy meat suggested he not look too close at it now.
He sat down near Kullyn and Nutir appeared shortly after, grey-faced from the effort of using saidin all afternoon. Merlin thrust his bowl at the man. "Here," he said, and went about to fetch himself another. They sat about and ate in the cooling evening air. A few soldiers nodded at them, but none stopped to speak. Most Asha'man grew out of the habit of talking while in the Black Tower. One would never know who would go mad and have to be killed, even though this was no longer true the silence was companionable.
"Next time we're Travelling I'll do the Gateways," Merlin said to Nutir when he'd finished his meal. "This was too difficult for you today." Nutir still looked strained.
Kullyn looked over at him. "What was that weave yesterday? Spirit? I couldn't see what it would do."
"A bonding weave," he said, standing hastily. "Not something you need to know, as yet."
That got Nutir's attention. "Will you be bonding someone, then? That Aes Sedai? The High Lord will have your guts for a belt if you bonded with his sister."
"No, I've no intention of bonding with anyone," said Merlin, and quickly dumped his bowl on the mound of its used fellows, nodding a farewell to them both.
He was aware of Nutir gazing after him. He'd not continue that line of interest now, and thought that Nutir knew it. Arthur had begun to show Merlin too much attention for it to remain unnoticed, and as none knew of the bond, they would only follow it to its logical conclusion. Merlin had recognised some of Arthur's men from when he was Arthur's manservant, and the soldiers would not have forgotten that Arthur and Merlin's once shared a bed. Considering the proximity of the tents, they had probably already imagined it was happening again. As it was.
Merlin heard the tent entrance move as he took off his coat. He turned, ready to tell the servant to leave, and fell silent at the liquid gaze. A hypnotising crooning took hold of him and his arms fell to his side as the great wings enveloped him. His attempted grab at saidin slid away, and he was aware only of the song and the milky face hovering above his own. His eyes closed and he smiled.
There was a roar, a high shriek, and he was free. Merlin saw Arthur swinging his sword, cutting the Draghkar in two. Merlin stumbled back, nearly falling over his pallet, fumbling for saidin again. He sat down with a thump, looking at the two parts of the slain corpse, and the slice in the tent where Arthur had come through. A couple of soldiers stood behind him, swords drawn, and a shadowed form lay on the ground. The soldier Arthur had set to guarding his tent.
"Merlin!" Arthur stepped over the body and crouched before him. Merlin blinked. "Are you hurt?"
Merlin' shook his head. His head was spinning, and shaking it made it worse, so he closed his eyes for a moment.
When he came to, he could hear someone moving about. The shift of fabric suggested someone getting dressed. He opened his eyes and found Arthur pulling a jacket on. Merlin watched sleepily as Arthur tugged his shirtsleeves into place and righted his collar, then looked around.
"I'm in your tent," he said finally.
Arthur turned back to him. "You're awake." He poked his head out the tent for a moment, and spoke quietly to someone. "You'll have food and drink in a moment. You'll need them; you've been asleep for a day."
"A day!" Merlin sat up, only then noticing his lack of clothing. Arthur nodded over at Merlin's pack on the floor
"The Draghkar was warded," said Merlin as he retrieved his clothes. "I didn't sense its taint. How did you know it was there?"
Arthur watched Merlin as he dressed. "You were fading. I could sense something was ... off. I heard its song at your tent." A hand drifted down to his sword hilt. "Morgana told me of ... why would a Draghkar come for you?"
Merlin buttoned up the collar on his coat. "The day with the Seanchan," he said. "My ability in the One Power became stronger, almost to that of the Dragon Reborn. There are few as strong as he." Who would have known he'd stepped up that day? It suggested there was someone lying low amongst the armies with the ability. Merlin tried not to think of Nutir or Kullyn as a Darkfriend.
Arthur held the tent open, an invitation to join him. Merlin stepped through into the early morning and halted. "My tent?" It was gone. He could fuzzily recall it being destroyed.
A servant came hurrying up and passed him a hunk of bread and cheese, and he nodded his thanks.
Colour was high in Arthur's cheeks. "If you are going to be my guard after all, you'll do better with a pallet in my tent. Although it seems to me, that I shall have to guard you."
Merlin stopped chewing and stared at Arthur as they walked along. "I'd rather a tent of my own." Watching him get undressed every day was a test he wasn't certain he could withstand. He'd loved Arthur when he was a servant. Years away had faded those feelings, but he could see himself falling for Arthur all over again, especially if they picked up where they'd left off. He saw Nutir watching them, and nodded at him. Nutir gave him a slow nod in reply.
"Is that right? Is there some reason you want a tent to yourself?" Arthur's voice was cool. "Nutir, is it?"
"What? Uh, it would be better if you could hold private council with your generals without my presence. Then men aren't comfortable with Asha'man," said Merlin, thinking fast. Arthur couldn't have seen Nutir's interest; he'd not been around for training or near the shared tent.
"My men will do as I say. The Lord Dragon's foreseer said you were to save my life, somehow. You'll be in a pallet in my tent," he said firmly. A soldier came up with a sheaf of paper and handed it to him. "I will see you later this evening. In my tent."
Merlin found the other Asha'man quickly, and heard that word had gotten around of the Draghkar. Nutir looked him over carefully, and seemed to hold himself in check.
"Asha'man, I have some skill with healing," said Kullyn, and came closer, holding saidin. Merlin nodded and Kullyn passed a hand in the air down the front of him, slowly, and then returned to his head. Merlin shivered at the flows of spirit Delving him. "Nothing. It didn't touch you," he said. "By the Light! I saw what happened with Cendred, what was left." His face was blank with the horror of it. He turned away.
Merlin shook the residual feeling from the Delving off, and waited until Kullyn had himself in hand. They began work to arrange for wards to be placed around the camp every day. He reached out for saidin and wove the requisite wards, with no way of telling if they'd warn for warded Shadowspawn. They'd all learned the flows for warnings of Shadowspawn, but they'd not managed to capture any to test the wards, or shield them against detection. Even if they'd been warding the camp every night the chances were that the Draghkar would have gotten through anyway.
The song was a fading memory, but it raised a shiver in him all the same. Was it Mordred? He'd sworn Merlin would regret standing against him, and it was strange that someone would send Shadowspawn against an Asha'man instead of the general leading the armies. The generals who'd died, torn apart by gholam or by the Draghkar's kiss, had had Aes Sedai and Asha'man near them, none of whom had been targeted.
As he set weavings into place he thought of Arthur's change towards him. He'd noticed that he was now using his first name instead of his title, ever since they'd had the strike against the Seanchan. First moving him to the tent near Arthur's own, and now having him stay within his personal tent? He wondered for a moment if perhaps the bond was affecting Arthur with his proximity, but knew he'd not added the extra bit the other Asha'man had discovered to make Arthur tractable to his wishes. Not that Merlin had wished to take up residence in the tent with him.
Gaius found him soon into the morning and all but bullied him into the healer's tent to see if the Draghkar had affected him any. He'd hardly sat down when Morgana swept into the tent, Guin a quiet shadow close behind.
She grabbed his head in her hands and he shivered with the second Delving that day. He pulled away and put up a hand to push hers away.
"Dedicated Kullyn Delved me this morning, Morgana," he said. Gaius shot him a sharp look; for leaving off the "Sedai", most likely. "Nothing. Arthur arrived in time." This time they both shot him looks.
"You have to be more careful. You know what's at stake," said Morgana. "A Draghkar came for you; the Dark One agrees with me, I think." She looked over at Gaius, clearly choosing her words carefully.
Merlin looked at Gaius. He was putting away his salves and herbs now that Morgana had pronounced him free of harm, giving them a measure of privacy. "You can speak freely with Healer Gaius, Morgana Sedai. I trust him and place great value in his judgement."
"I see that you do." She took the seat Guin cleared for her, and then bent toward him. "It has come to my attention that you are now staying in the High Lord's tent."
"If the Shadowspawn wards fail to detect any others, it's best he has a channeller nearby to protect him," said Merlin, a little awkwardly. "We can both sense their wrongness, but what if next time it's a gholam?"
"Gholam?" asked Morgana.
"A creature created by the Forsaken. It can squeeze its body through small gaps, and the Lord Dragon says it moves swiftly. Channelling doesn't affect it, but a Gateway would take myself, and the High Lord, away from it should one appear." It sometimes slipped from Merlin's mind that Aes Sedai didn't know everything, that the Dragon Reborn's madness gave him information the White Tower had long forgotten.
"From where are you getting your information? I have never heard of such a thing." Her scepticism was obvious.
"The last army I was with had a gholam kill a general, Morgana. It's not something one would want to see twice." The bloodied walls and dismembered limbs were something he'd not forget quickly, and for a while whenever he'd closed his eyes he'd find the carnage in the tent waiting for him. "Lord General Cauthon described his meeting one to me, and I've seen its handiwork. I have no doubt they exist, and should you come across one, I suggest you Travel out of there before you die."
Morgana nodded slowly. "You were pillow-friends, once." She looked at him expectantly.
Merlin stood. "Morgana Sedai. Thank you for your concern." He walked out, her gaze boring into his back.
Late that evening found him back at Arthur's tent. He hesitated at moment at the flaps, aware of the young man guarding its entrance. The soldier made no move to stop his unannounced entry, and he stepped in.
Arthur was eating a meal of roasted fowl, making Merlin aware of having missed the communal meal that night, however unpalatable he would have found it. There was a pallet already made up for him in the corner, partially hidden by a thin, hastily pegged curtain.
"I was wondering if I'd have to send young Otain after you," said Arthur. "Come, eat."
Merlin sat heavily onto the rugs, and reached over for a wing. His stomach growled at the smell, the air thick with roasted fat and hot, fresh bread. He eyed the bread as he stripped off some flesh. The last time he'd eaten a soft bread was when he had served Arthur; he'd sneak himself an extra hunk on the way through the kitchens. He picked up a piece and dipped it in the fat on the plate below the fowl, waiting for it to soak up through. It was as good as he remembered.
As he ate his fill he noticed a silence and looked over at Arthur. He was sitting back, watching Merlin, a calmness about him. He'd discarded his overcoat and was only in thin shirtsleeves, a cup of watered wine in hand. "I'd not realised the men's rations were so dismal," he said, smiling faintly.
"It's adequate," said Merlin. "Nothing could compare to when the Dark One's touch turned all the food bad and everything was half-rotting by the time you could eat it, or the bread crunchy with weevils."
Arthur grimaced. "The cook had a difficult time presenting edible food, the steward told me."
"For you, yes." Merlin pushed himself away from the food, licking at his fingers, and looked about for a serving cloth. Arthur had stopped with his cup half-way to his mouth, watching him. "High Lord. I bid you sleep well; my thanks for sharing of the meal." He turned to his pallet, and as he went he reached out for saidin and the Void, testing the wards around the tent and the larger net around the camp. They were strong.
The Void sharpened his senses. Every sound in the tent was magnified. He could hear Arthur's breathing behind him, the rasp of his breeches as he moved, the small snick as Merlin removed the pins from his collar, the dragon and sword, his badges of rank. He was going to have to launder in the morning; even the trick of not sweating only kept one's clothing from developing a stench for a couple of days, a good trick considering the Asha'man coats. He toed off his boots and loosened his breeches, thinking of teaching Arthur the sweating trick. He tried to avoid knowledge of Arthur only a short distance away, but trying not to think of it brought his nearness to mind. He let go the Void, and then felt Arthur come up behind him.
Arthur pressed himself up against Merlin's back, trapping his hands against his breeches, then unlaced them slowly. Arthur pushed his hands in, cupping Merlin, and he thrust back helplessly against the growing cock he could feel against his back. His reasons for why this was a bad idea disappeared. Arthur bit his neck lightly, and with a rush the bond came back to him. He could feel Arthur's arousal, and under it something else.
Merlin found himself pulled back and went along until he found himself on his back on Arthur's bed.
"Take your clothes off," said Arthur, taking his own off unhurriedly. He dropped them where he stood, and when Merlin didn't move fast enough, bent over him. "Take them off."
Merlin pulled his undershirt over his head quickly and pushed his breeches down. Arthur pulled them over his feet and threw them to the ground. Arthur stood over him, the bond communicating a satisfaction. He shivered. Arthur took his own cock in hand and stroked it, making Merlin gasp at the feeling coming through the bond of heat pooling in his groin. Arthur's mouth came down on him and he twisted on the sheets, grabbing a fistful and arching his back. He could feel the feedback again, his own desire fuelling Arthur's, and soon it was a raging torrent.
"Say my name."
He opened his eyes to find Arthur above him, eyes blazing. His skin grew oversensitised and Arthur's every breath over him made him anticipate a touch until he writhed with a need for it. Arthur's hand shone slick with oil and the bottle fell onto the sheets unheeded, Arthur's fingers sliding up into him, back and forth.
"Arthur," he gasped out, "please."
Arthur pressed him down, pushing Merlin's thighs apart and up over his shoulders, fucking him with a hard thrust. He jerked back and pushed forward again, looking down at his cock move in Merlin, a darkly possessive feeling coming through the bond with every movement. His hands were hard on Merlin's thighs, pulling him into every thrust. Merlin felt about for the bottle of oil, and found it spilled on the sheets, slippery on his hand. He took hold of his cock and stroked with every thrust, Arthur adjusting his angle until he hit the spot. He felt Arthur's control disappear, all his focus on the sensation on his skin, caressed by the silks and air, Arthur's sweat dripping down onto him as he twisted Merlin onto his front and pulled him back, again and again.
Merlin's other hand gripped the silk sheets, Arthur's fist pumping him in time to his fucking. He was on the verge of coming. He could feel Arthur almost there too, and that tipped him over the edge. Arthur came with a loud groan, mine, mine echoing through the bond, and Arthur sagged over him. He fell into the sheets, sated and never wanting to move again.
After a while Arthur moved and slid sideways off him, onto the discarded bottle of oil. He swore, and the bed moved uncomfortably as Arthur reached out of the bed. Merlin didn't look, presuming that he was cleaning up, even if it would have been a novel thing to see.
He was suddenly aware of the satisfied hum coming through the bond and masked it. It was too late for him to avoid repercussions, falling for Arthur again, and because of the bond he knew Arthur considered Merlin his. Arthur always had, but never knew of Merlin's feelings for him; he was going to have to keep the bond masked, or it would slip. Merlin groaned a little into the mattress, all too aware that every time Arthur touched him he could no longer control to mask and the bond became wide open. All it would take was another couple of tumbles and Arthur would know.
He flinched a little at Arthur's hand sliding up his back and into his hair. Arthur was beside him again, propped up on an elbow, a shirt covering the oily sheet. Merlin's shirt.
"You muffled the bond again." Arthur tightened his hand in Merlin's hair briefly, and resumed his caress. "We'll start moving the camp in the morning. The Lord Dragon wanted us at Tarwin's Gap as soon as possible."
Merlin shook off his languor with difficulty. "I can take us almost to Tarwin's Gap once we are close to the Borderlands."
"This One Power is limited," said Arthur thoughtfully. "Aes Sedai always make it seem they can do anything--even Morgana does this--but there are things you can't do. You and the Asha'man make this clear. You have to know a place to Travel? You know the Borderlands."
"Yes." He said no more, although Arthur clearly waited for him to elaborate.
"You spent time in the Borderlands? Where?"
Merlin turned over and lifted himself a little, making for the edge of the bed. Arthur pulled him back and pressed him down onto the bed with his body. They stayed like that for a moment, Arthur breathing onto his neck until Merlin shivered from it. He nipped at Merlin's shoulder painfully, and let him go. Merlin scrambled off the bed and cupped a hand over the offended spot, scowling down at Arthur.
"Kullyn, he's from Illian," said Arthur, a hint of question. "Nutir, by his name, from Saldaea?"
Merlin nodded. Nutir looked like a Saldaean Borderlander to Merlin, at least; unless an Asha'man volunteered where he'd come from, those at the Black Tower had learned not to ask. He looked over at the pallet he'd started off with.
"You won't need that tonight," said Arthur, and grabbed Merlin's arm to pull him back down. He prodded Merlin until he lay down stiffly, and draped a heavy arm over his midriff. "Sleep."
Merlin woke to the sensation of slow rubbing up against him, and sleepily reached for the hard cock pressing into his side. He stroked Arthur off sleepily, waking slowly, and slid down Arthur to take his cock into his mouth. Merlin licked his way up his shaft, Arthur's hand tangling in his hair, and flicked his tongue over the slit. His hand slipped on the oily silk as he steadied himself, and he brought his oiled finger up to Arthur's arse, touching at the entrance, pushing. Merlin sucked him in deep and thrust in, fucking Arthur with his fingers and sucking him off, keeping a firm grip on the shaft with his other hand.
Arthur was making loud incoherent noises above him, and Merlin fuzzily noted the bond was staying masked this time. He rubbed himself against the sheets as he brought Arthur up to the brink, twisting his fingers inside to touch Arthur just there, and then his mouth was filled with a salty taste. He spat it into his hand and lay back down on the bed, sliding his hand over his cock, close to the edge. Arthur was there suddenly, biting at his nipple.
"I'm going to fuck you this evening, right over the edge of the bed, and won't let you come until you beg me, loud, so they can hear you right across the camp," he said into Merlin's ear lazily, and then bit it. "First I'll watch you fuck yourself on your fingers, until you ask for my cock. I won't let you come until I say you can. Come. Now."
Merlin shuddered his release and lay there in his own stickiness, Arthur flicking at his nipple gently. A noise came from outside the tent and Arthur was up, grabbing at the sheets and wiping himself down. He looked at the smears over himself and flung the sheet away from him.
A loud cough came from outside the tent entrance. "Lord General."
"A moment, Lance," said Arthur, finding the previous evening's discarded damp washcloth with a grimace. Merlin went over to his satchel to find a new set of clothes and dressed as Arthur did, finding the sword and dragon pins on the empty pallet and pinning them to his clean black coat. Arthur smiled at him in a distracted fashion, ducked through the tent, and was gone.
Merlin looked around at the ruined interior of the tent, clothes and sheets strewn everywhere, things knocked over from the night before. Just as well they were Travelling that day.
He pushed through the tent and saw another young guard, not the same one as the night before. His ears were red as he avoided looking at Merlin, determinedly staring off down the street of tents. The single slash on his coat proclaimed him a lord of the lower houses of Cairhien, likely a second or third son. Being Cairhienin explained all the blushes; they were notoriously reticent in public.
Merlin followed Arthur through to the generals' meeting, last into the command tent. He noticed almost right away the small, speculative glances thrown his way from the retainers. There was nothing for him to contribute; it was the usual sort of grinding detail of the army's supplies, discipline, and further suggestion of improvement of morale, and how far they could move each day with minimal camp break-up time.
"Asha'man Emrys," came a call after him when the meeting had broken up and he'd left the tent. He turned to find a lord of the lower houses addressing him. "I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on how the Dragon Reborn would have us, once at Tarwin Gap. You are friend of Lord General Pendragon?"
"My Lord," said Merlin in acknowledgement. "The Dragon Reborn is not in the habit of taking me into his confidence, and if you have questions of High Lord Pendragon, I am certain he will answer them himself." He nodded towards Arthur, heading their way.
The man saw Arthur approaching and whitened a little, quickly murmuring of an important meeting with a small stammer and moving away.
"This march will weary the men," said Arthur as he came closer. He watched the lord walk away. "Lord Vaedel. You would do best to stay away from the lords, Merlin; speak too long to one and any other lord will think you are plotting against them. Vaedel's mother was Cairhienin, to make things worse. She had her fingers in every plot the House had in Tear."
"You lords can keep your scheming." The Black Tower had its own intrigue to deal with, and he still wasn't certain of Kullyn or Nutir as it was, although he was certain they weren't Darkfriends. Almost certain. Most of those had gone with Taim, or were dead. The last thing he needed was being tangled in some lord's web while being on the lookout for Shadowspawn.
"How long do you need to spend familiarising yourself with a place before you can make a Gateway from it?" asked Arthur.
Merlin shot him a sharp look. "Morgana tells you much, it appears." He looked back at Almoth Plain, then over to the Mountains of Mist, a wall of mountains around which the road to the Borderlands around. There was no way over it except smuggler's passages. "It depends. A day, two days. We would need to know the destination, although we don't need to know the destination of Travel as well as we do the originating Gateway. The more we channel somewhere, the more we know the location and can Travel from it. We are all using saidin as much as possible; I could Travel from here in the afternoon, if need be."
Arthur watched the camp packing up. "We could do with a few days on the road. We'll steer close to Bandar Eban--it may be that we'll pick up more recruits as we march to make up for those lost against the Seanchan. Blood and ashes! They couldn't have come to the Dragon Reborn days earlier? We'd not have lost so many men!" He drummed his hand on a thigh. "Bloody waste."
"Dedicated Nutir can weave a Gateway once we grow close to Maradon. He's from the south of Saldaea and he tells me his sister married a Kandori. That should take a few days off the march, and once we're there I can take us to Fal Dara."
"Nutir," said Arthur. "The Dragon Reborn wanted one of you to scout on ahead. He should find the next camp in Saldaea he recognises, and make certain he knows the area well when we arrive.
As the rest of the camp was packed into carts, Merlin sought out Nutir to inform him of the latest development.
"You could take a few hours with your family, if they are still in the south of Saldaea," said Merlin.
Nutir shook his head. "No. My brother tells me everyone has left for the Shadowmount. They fight for the Light, as do I." Nutir looked Merlin over for a moment. "This plan to have me familiar with the new ground for Travelling, it is High Lord Pendragon's?"
"Yes. He wants the army in Shienar as soon as possible."
"Ah, I see." He nodded to himself, and then brought out his hand to clasp Merlin's in a formal farewell. "Asha'man Emrys, as you command."
Merlin watched him leave for the farrier's. Nutir had heard of what had happened that morning, too, he supposed, and felt relieved that he wouldn't need to explain things to him. Nutir was the best man to go, whatever he clearly supposed of Arthur's logic.
999 NE, Autumn - 1000 NE, Summer
It had been a year since he last saw Arthur, six months since he saw Mordred. He had first headed for Fal Dara to join the fight against the Shadow, and found the top-knotted men there handily wielding their weapons. He'd struggled in training at first. When he'd found himself no longer in danger of cutting his own foot off, he picked up a sword to join the men.
Merlin had quickly found himself out of his depth, not strong enough to parry hard blows nor skilled enough to even stay alive for an hour should he have to fight a Trolloc. The rough comments had been friendly, but they'd not been welcoming. It wasn't until one of the soldiers told him that they had to rely on each other to keep alive, as well as one's own skill, that he realised that he would have been a liability. Any place he took would be where a skilled man could have been, and that man could have kept someone else alive.
For a while he spent time mending armour and weaponry, then shifted to tending the supply carts between Shienar and Arafel. The supply master was thankful for his aid, leaving him with the small responsibility of textile trade between the two countries until he'd proven himself with a few uneventful trips.
The road was quiet and deserted for the most part, with a few homesteads here and there on the long-abandoned stretches of land where nations once stood. Merlin had come up to the Borderlands past Tar Valon, heading north-west to Kandor, but had spent most of it trying to find food and shelter to pay much attention to what was on the road. He often sorted through rotting vegetables in the carts he travelled in as payment for the trip. One of the merchant who had done the route previously had told him of strange abandoned fortifications, grasses and weeds growing up through the tumbled stones, and he saw these with his own eyes, touching the remains of things wrought when male Aes Sedai roamed the world.
Sometimes he would stop along the quiet, bumpy gravel road that and try to use saidin. If anyone wondered why he stopped he'd have blamed it on a loose axle, but he had never need of the excuse. There was always a chance of a Trolloc raid along the Borderlands, and he wanted to use what rudimentary skills he had to save himself, if he could. Merlin would go mad and die from saidin, but not one day earlier than he needed to.
After a couple of months he was starting to see a web, a weaving of something. He didn't quite know how each web differed, but he noticed saidin weaves felt differently depending on what he wanted to do. Early on he figured how to use the one suggestive of heat to blow up rocks: Merlin figured exploding creatures would kill them from afar, and fires were always a good way of hiding evidence, especially when channelling. He became good at exploding the earth, too, although he kept this to a minimum. The road was mostly deserted but unnatural formations alongside it would be commented on eventually, and if anyone thought it was channelling rather than one of those strangenesses so close to the Blight, Tar Valon could come investigate. Merlin had avoided any Aes Sedai so far, although there were one or two in Fal Dara, but he wouldn't be surprised if they had some means to discover male channellers.
Merlin was careful about what he was doing, the thought of Arthur dying because of a mistake was an unpleasant one. He knew of Warder bonds, now, and would do his best to avoid any mistake resulting in their deaths. He had returned from his third trip, on the same route for a few months ferrying fabric, when he was called into see the head army supply merchant.
"You've done a good job with the supplies from Arafel," said the army merchant. "Isoyer is standing down from the route to Andor. The man won't go near the Black Tower, not that I can blame him. If you would take it, the route is yours."
"Black Tower?" Merlin had heard rumour of something like that, but found it hard to believe the White Tower would allow a group of men channelling anywhere without gentling them all. "You mean it exists?"
"Yes." The merchant shot him a sharp look. "You're not going to raise objections to going, are you? We need their grain."
"No, no. Just ... surprised the White Tower, the Amyrlin, allows it."
"It's not for the likes of us to question Aes Sedai. We've to feed those who fight at Tarwin Gap, and if the Dragon Reborn decides he wants to collect madmen around him, well, they're not in the Borderlands." The merchant looked at the door and lowered his voice. "The Lord Dragon was a guest of Lord Agelmar, when the Amyrlin was here. The Amyrlin and the young lord left at the same time. The Aes Sedai have him in hand, Emrys. Just you pay attention to your route, and to the letter-of-rights, and come back with the supplies."
Merlin was tense the first time he grew close to Tar Valon, going past those the very women who would gentle him, staring into the faces of every woman who went by the docks. He never saw the ageless face of Aes Sedai, but he never lost that tenseness. There were guards and sailors on the route to Andor; he had few moments to practice what little he'd learned to handle of the One Power, not that he was tempted much to do so with the proximity to Tar Valon.
He spent a few weeks on the road once he'd arrived in Andor, between the docks at Aringill and the capital at Caemlyn. The starving along the road began raiding the cart even though the sacks were more full of weevils than grain, and any dried meats were a mass of green mould within days. None could explain it, although he heard it was happening everywhere. The hungry grew more numerous, and weaker, more desperate in their attempts to cajole, and then force, food from the wagon. He turned away when the guards killed the insistent, uncomfortably aware of having been hungry himself. When they weren't looking he slipped hollow-eyed mothers a bit of food here and there, knowing that any food brought back to Fal Dara would be half spoiled anyway.
Merlin found himself wandering the lower city of Caemlyn one day, seeing some of the capital of Andor before meeting with the grain merchant. She was a stickler for punctuality so he had a few hours to wait; he was tired of the ship and the same stories from the guards, so he struck out on his own.
There was a hubbub in the streets, masses of people were filling into small alleys while others poked their heads out of shop windows. People from storeys above looked on down into the confusion and he pressed himself up against a wall to escape it.
"What is it?" he asked a fruit-seller next to him, shielding her wares from the excited melee.
"The Aiel Maidens," she said, bored. "The Lord Dragon goes to the Black Tower almost every day, it seems! You'd think everyone would have enough of it!" Her stare at the crowd was flat-eyed, then she stuck her foot out and tripped a man going past. She swiftly retrieved a shrivelled orange rolling from his hand and pushed through and away.
He followed the disrupted crowd with his eyes, and, with a quick, sharp breath, set his shoulders and followed. He put the meeting with the merchant from his mind and kept his gaze on the indistinct figure before him, and moved through the throng.
The Black Tower was something of a disappointment, once he grew close enough to see what it was: an old building, like something he would see on a farm, rather than the magnificence of the White Tower. From the name he'd expected an estate, or a castle, rather than the grey stone of workmanship origins, with smaller houses in various state of building on the outskirts of the grounds, some men stood staring at stones wobbling higher in the air as they were carefully placed on the growing walls.
Merlin looked away from this display, stomach churning in nervousness. It was unnatural to see such open channelling, even knowing that the Dragon Reborn was there. He could feel the One Power being wrought ahead of him, not from just one way but all over. The few other times he'd come to Caemlyn he'd not had the time to even think of the Black Tower, and it was now before him. He stared at it from the middle of the gravelly road, giddy with relief. There was an amnesty here for men who could channel, a haven for him.
He started on the way down the rest of the road.
"Hey, you!" A swaggering, black-coated man stopped him. "Come to join us, eh? Want to channel and go mad like the rest of us?" He laughed. "Ah, you'll be sent on your way right enough. You've little chance of channelling, boy. May as well leave now."
"I thought I'd give it a try," Merlin said.
"M'Hael doesn't like rabble like you coming off the streets. Following the Dragon Reborn, were you? Think you'll be another like him?" He loomed rather threateningly, and Merlin could feel the One Power flowing through him, a suggestion of a weave.
Merlin took a step forward and took hold of the Source, making the dirt in front of the man puff up in a small, controlled explosion. He had gotten very good at that along the long, solitary road.
The man jumped back quickly, windmilling his arms. He quickly took hold of himself and stepped forwards, face darkening, bringing his hand up in a practised way.
"Merlin! Soldier Hadram, release." The voice was familiar.
The man threatening him stood back, letting go of the One Power. He swung around to face the newcomer, fists clenched at his sides.
"Merlin, I didn't expect to see you again. Life not exciting enough in the Borderlands?" Mordred came up alongside Hadram. "You, go find Asha'man Rochaid. The M'Hael will be naming the new Dedicated within the hour."
"Asha'man," said Hadram, thumping a fist to his chest, and strode back to the grey stone building.
Mordred watched him go, then turned back to Merlin. "You can channel the One Power? Now there's an unexpected development," he said. "I had the spark, the M'Hael said, and would have begun to do so anyway. Join us, and you'll learn what he has to teach you. Learn to fight with the One Power! It's beyond anything you could have dreamed. Forget the Horn--we can earn glory here for ourselves," said Mordred, eyes gleaming. He appeared to collect himself, and peered at Merlin a bit more closely. "Where did you go? You won't hold that bit of unpleasantness in Kandor against me--it was all her fault, anyway."
Merlin remembered differently. Her scared eyes were still with him. Mordred had followed a story to an old woman's house, rumours of a golden horn held in the family for years and stored in her attic. He'd torn the house apart while Merlin watched over the woman as she shivered, shawl pressed up against the soft folds of skin under her chin. They'd found nothing, but the man had sworn he'd seen it with his very own eyes, and Mordred had come so close so many times. Merlin had pulled him away, but Mordred had shouted, grabbed the old woman and shook her.
She was found the next morning, dead, still in the seat where they'd left her. The man had told his cousin he'd sent them her way, and they'd run out of village with pitchfork-wielding men not long behind them. Merlin had slipped away at the next town and started on the road to Fal Dara.
Mordred was still waiting on his answer, and he nodded slowly, warily.
"Good. Come, meet Rochaid. From that scene with Hadram I take it you can channel." Mordred's mouth twisted. "Did you always?"
"Yes." Merlin set up stride next to him down toward the main building. Mordred stared at him with a fierce expression.
"I'll be as strong as Taim when I've reached my full potential. Even if you only grow to half that you'll do well as a soldier," said Mordred, looking at the men and the lifting stones. "If you meet the potential of that lot you can help with the building, at least."
The Maidens were waiting attentively outside the main building. A couple were watching him and Mordred, on their toes, even when the Dragon Reborn came stalking out and said a few words to a scarred woman. Merlin had a brief glimpse of the Lord Dragon's face, young and hard, a grim set to his mouth, and then he was gone.
Merlin's first days were spent in the outer compound, amongst the other soldiers learning how to use the One Power as a weapon. He saw little of Mordred, whom he quickly found was one of the few taking private lessons from the M'Hael, living up in the main building. He stayed in the partially-built barracks with the single men and those whose wives had left them upon finding out they could channel. Merlin spent only an hour exploding earth and setting things aflame before Mazrim Taim, the M'Hael, appeared. His name was a curse in the Borderlands, the false Dragon who got away, he who now served the Dragon Reborn.
"You've come along quickly, Soldier Emrys," Taim said. "Mordred tells me you travelled together in Kandor."
"Yes, M'Hael," Merlin said. "We swore the oath as Hunters for the Horn."
Taim waved it away. "The Horn! Heroes a thousand years dead. They'll be of little help when the time comes. Come to the building. Torval will show you some things, if you are able." The man beside Taim looked Merlin over and sneered at him.
The lessons were different, and he learned quickly after Torval knocked him down many times. They were more on how to capture people, to sever access to the One Power, to knock them down and cause the most harm. Where the outside lessons concentrated on brute force, the most damage you could do with the least amount of weaving, on the inside they learned Travelling, Skimming, delicate nets of power to set off a trap.
Little things began to niggle at him. Mordred was cool with him at most times, after his ability started to grow. He was one of the core group under Taim's leadership, which would disappear for days a time on quiet missions. They were gone for periods of time ranging from days to over a month, with no mention of where or what they were doing. When Merlin entered a room with any of the more favoured of Taim's students in it, they would fall silent, Mordred among them. Every so often he heard a sneered word against the Lord Dragon and a prickle of unease rose in him.
Gedwyn, one of the inner circle, would ask him apparently idle questions of how he felt about the Dragon Reborn, of Tarmon Gai'don. He hung back from answering, non-committal.
Mordred spoke to him less and less, growing more commandeering as one of Taim's favoured Asha'man. When he did speak to Merlin, he was disdainful of the Dragon Reborn's commands and reeked of superiority over the Soldiers. He would watch them with a slyness, and tacked up a list on the Traitor's Tree, names of men Merlin would have sworn were no Darkfriends.
Merlin's own ability with the One Power grew. Merlin realised his ability to figure out weaves, and one day came to an approximation of the weave he'd placed upon Arthur. His throat tightened when he released the bond, and fondness and yearning for Arthur lying in wait. He could feel Arthur's direction like an arrow, directly to the south, still in Tear. He'd had little word of the House of Pendragon, had avoided it, but feeling Arthur's presence had him seek information out. Any news which might have been available was overshadowed by those rebelling against the Lord Dragon. Those who were neutral or following him quietly weren't deemed newsworthy by the men who passed on through as they failed the test to become Asha'man.
Eventually word trickled to him of High Lord Uther Pendragon's death and of Arthur's raising to High Lord. A thrill of involuntary relief and pride went through him at that; he'd known Arthur was still alive, but The Dragon Reborn had placed him at the head of the armies he was marshalling towards Illian. Merlin was surprised to hear of Lord Brend, whom he'd seen in passing while in Illian, as a Forsaken; but after having found out that another Forsaken had ruled in Andor as he'd passed through a year ago, it seemed that Darkfriends could be anywhere. The Lord Dragon had won another battle, won another land.
The M'Hael gathered all the Soldiers and Dedicated one day. He had news. His favourite five Asha'man stood behind him: Mordred, Torval, Gedwyn, Rochaid, and Kisman, nodding at the words: The Lord Dragon had need of them, and into battle they would go. They were ready to be bloodied. They were to join the battle against the Seanchan.
Fifty black-coated men Travelled to Illian that day, Merlin amongst them. The camp was outside the city, but the land was familiar. He recognised the road even from back then, and saw Mordred look at him when they arrived. His hard manner brooked no familiarity, and there was a suggestion of threat. Mordred regretted having spoken to him of his personal history back then, he guessed, and turned away. Merlin soon had no time to think of Mordred, pressed into finding any Seanchan hidden amongst the trees and hills.
Days were spent scouring the hills, Travelling. They wove saidin endlessly, careful to parry any threat from damane, pushing the Seanchan west. They crossed the range in Altara, driving the Seanchan. Asha'man barely had time to rest, always being pushed by the Dragon Reborn, whom they could see was pushing himself to the edge.
Merlin sat resting, discussing the Seanchan with the Soldier he'd been partnered with. He looked over at the gathering of forces from Illian, and a familiar silhouette had his gut clench. The man was clearly directing his lieutenants, tall and strong in form. Merlin stared at the man who could only be Arthur, and hesitantly, heart racing, released the muffling of the bond. He had to be sure. Arthur--for it was him, it was--snapped away from his lieutenant, mid-word, and stared over in his direction. Merlin hastily muffled it again and jumped to his feet.
"We should continue before Gedwyn finds us sitting here," he said. "He'll have us digging the latrines by hand."
Saidin began to behave strangely a few days later, and then there came warning that the Seanchan were coming. It was chaos, a mad tumult made worse by the Dragon Reborn going mad, using the One Power to bring down the Seanchan, killing Tairens, Cairhienin, and Illian as well. When he was brought to a stop, the killing field ran red with blood, broken bodies flung like dolls along the erupted earth and splintered trees.
Merlin lay coughing, holding his side where he'd fallen as the ground opened beneath him. He could feel Arthur in the distance, grim and focussed. He pushed himself up. Soldiers and Asha'man marshalled together into a group, staggering, bleeding. The Dragon Reborn had men and women around him and Merlin stayed away. That could be him, someday soon, could be any of the Asha'man he'd stood beside these past months. It was a victory, he heard someone say.
Rochaid pointed at him, Dashiva, Narishma, Flinn, and Morr, who'd Healed the Lord Dragon only days earlier, and commanded them to follow the Dragon Reborn. The five were to be at the Lord Dragon's command in Cairhien, and through the strange twisting of saidin, Merlin wove a Gateway, uncertain how long it would hold, and they stepped through into the Sun Palace, leaving behind the dead. Merlin took once last look behind him when he stepped through, seeking one last glimpse of Arthur, and then the bond faded away with distance as the Gateway closed.
1001 NE, Spring
The Gateway was strong for the journey from Saldaea to Kandor, even if Nutir was grey-faced and thin-lipped from effort in the end. Nutir had sent Merlin on ahead through to a field near Nutir's sister's farm, to learn the location for the last leg to Fal Dara. Merlin propped his bed roll against a rock and went through training exercises, using the One Power to map the area quickly. After a day he knew it enough so that when the shimmering line appeared and snapped open, he was ready with the weaves for the next Gateway.
Merlin waited until the first batch of soldiers were through, setting up a perimeter around the Travelling grounds, then he wove the new Gateway. Nutir came through and stood beside him, a bead of sweat trickling down his hairline.
Gaius came over to them once he was through the gate, a rolled bundle in his hand.
"Here," he said, passing it to Merlin. "It'll make the time pass." The bundle spilled open in his hand to show some dice. Gaius farewelled them both, clasping Merlin on the shoulder, giving it a quick squeeze. Kullyn was behind him, readying defensive weaves as he strode towards the second Gateway. There had been no sightings of Trollocs or Fades, but with each Gateway they were growing closer to the Blight.
The sun crept slowly over the sky. They tossed dice half-heartedly, playing for small coin. Even through the Void the day was hot and airless, the mental trick of not sweating almost giving way to the increasing heat. Halfway through, Merlin saw Nutir flick open the top couple of buttons on his coat. Maintaining the weave was almost effortless except for the One Power coursing through his body. He couldn't feel it taking out of him yet, but he knew the moment he let go of the One Power he'd be useless with exhaustion for the day.
Nutir looked at Merlin over a dice throw, considering. "You were the one who found the bonding weave, yes?"
Merlin nodded. "Asha'man Logain refined the weave, showed it to the men. He discovered the extra bit after I left with al'Thor."
"But you were the one who discovered the bond, to begin with." Nutir picked up the dice and bounced them in his palm. He looked over at Merlin. "High Lord Arthur knew when the Draghkar attacked; no-one else saw it. He knew when your weaving rebounded on you and left you unable to channel; he can't wield the One Power, so he didn't see the weaves like Kullyn and I did."
Merlin watched the busy Gateways and the shimmering curtain obscuring the way to Fal Dara. He said nothing, throat clenched tight, feeling far from it all in the Void. This wasn't something he could have foreseen.
"You bonded him? Did the Dragon Reborn ask you to do that? I've never heard of an Aes Sedai bonding a woman ..." Nutir said. "I did wonder if Morgana Sedai had bonded him as Warder; he has the look. You," Nutir swallowed, "you're ... close ... to the High Lord. Is that why...?"
Merlin shook his head. "No-- No, it was from before I joined the Black Tower," he said, a roughness in his throat. "The first time I channelled."
"You knew him." Nutir absorbed this. "You were his--friend. In Tear, where they bundle up girls who channel and send them away."
Merlin was silent, watching his Gateway with a fierceness. The hand on his shoulder made him start; Nutir looked at him with an understanding. Merlin turned from the knowledge there, in time to see Arthur came through the Gateway with the last men, his lord-generals. Arthur was looking around, his eyes scanning the dry, brown landscape. His gaze settled on Merlin and the hand on his shoulder. Arthur shifted his weight in Merlin's direction then stopped, nodding tightly to him, and turned back his men. Once an honour guard had gone through the Gateway he took one last look at Merlin, flickered a glance at Nutir, then stepped through the Gateway to Fal Dara.
The last man stepped through Nutir's Gateway. They staggered from their crouches to their feet, Nutir standing straighter than he needed to for a moment, blinking. Nutir released the One Power once he was through the Gateway, swaying with exhaustion. Merlin grabbed his arm before he fell, and suddenly Gaius was there.
"There's a camp of Asha'man," said Gaius as both kept a discreet hold of Nutir, half-propping him up as they walked along. "Your tent's set up in their camp."
They made it to the tent without Nutir falling over. Merlin thought they would both fall to the ground had the camp had been any further. Convincing Gaius he had no need of herbs or Aes Sedai Healing took what little energy he had left. They were outside Fal Dara, the walls high and grey above them. There was a tent city stretching out from the walls, a mass of colour and grey as far as his eye could see. He saw men and women from many nations, including Seanchan, noticeable from their slurring speech, and shoved it all off into the corner of his mind. He was too tired to know where they were, and too tired find Arthur's army.
A young Asha'man Soldier poked his head into the tent shortly after they had flopped down onto their respective pallets. "Asha'man Logain requests your presence in the morning," he said. "He's to be found in the tent near the gate to Fal Dara."
"We'll be there," said Nutir tiredly, as Merlin drifted off.
He was woken by someone stepping into the tent and quickly wove a ball of Fire for light. Squinting against the sudden brightness, he saw a man shielding his face with his arm before Merlin felt and saw that it was Arthur.
"Arthur," he said blurrily. "Did you want something, my Lord?"
"Come, get up." Arthur grabbed the bundle by his pallet. "You should have found someone to show you were the army had camped. Come. It's a short way."
Nutir was watching them, his eyes shining in the reflected light. "Go, Emrys. I'll come get you when it's time to meet Logain." He turned over, towards the tent and away from the light.
Merlin stumbled over the unfamiliar ground, following Arthur, still tired from the One Power that day. He could now feel it being wielded all around him, could see the strangeness of shields woven with saidin and saidar.
He stumbled up against Arthur when he stopped to open the tent, steadied himself, and stepped through. He quickly sought a pallet; he wanted sleep. Now. He looked around again. There was nothing but a small tub in the corner, a drying cloth folded beside it.
"Arthur--" Merlin began.
Arthur drew him to the bed. Merlin let himself be pushed down onto it. "There's room enough for both of us," said Arthur. "It was a long day; you'll be wanting use of that." He nodded at the tub.
Merlin undressed absently, taking care of things quickly with the washcloth. He was so tired he could barely stand, and shuffled to the bed, crashing face-down. His body was still damp from his half-hearted wash, the thin film of water cooling him. He was halfway to sleep, the feeling of Arthur through the bond quietly comforting, then he felt the mattress dip. Lips kissed the back of his neck, he turned sleepily, fondly, and met Arthur's lips.
They moved slowly. Arthur bent over him and kissed his way down Merlin's body, his hands trailing down it. He held Merlin's hips onto the bed to stop an upwards thrust, and took his cock into his mouth to suck him off slowly, a hand coming down to cup his balls. Merlin shuddered with the feeling, and opened his eyes to look down at Arthur. Their eyes met as Arthur moved on his cock, and he felt a wave of tenderness overcome him, a burst love for the man he'd once sworn to serve all his life. The feeling went through the bond; echoing back at him was a triumphant exultation. Arthur moved up and kissed him, hard, holding Merlin's jaw in his hand. Merlin reached up and pulled him down closer, kissing along his jaw, biting at his lip.
Arthur moved up along him, rubbing their cocks together with one hand, his hand slippery with oil.
"Yes," Merlin gasped, thrusting his hips a little into the movement, and then pushed Arthur back onto the mattress. He looked around for the oil Arthur had been using, grabbed some, and poured a generous amount into his hands. One hand on himself and one on Arthur, he pumped them together, rhythm growing uneven with arousal, watching Arthur's face grow flushed. Merlin wanted to be in him, now, and he stopped at the verge of coming, dropping his chin onto his chest, gasping.
Merlin moved his hand down to Arthur's arse, fingering at his entrance. Their eyes locked and Arthur moaned when he thrust two fingers in, scissoring his fingers and fucking him. Merlin stroked his own cock in readiness.
"I'm going to have you," he said, a thrill running through him. Arthur had never let him, before.
Merlin moved carefully, sliding in slowly, gasping at the squeezing sensation around him. He held Arthur's thigh up as he moved in carefully. Arthur moaned and hid his eyes from view as he moved to meet him. Merlin loved Arthur and now Arthur knew this too, and he couldn't make himself care; with every thrust he felt like he was coming home, safe for the first time in years.
His orgasm came over him quickly, and Arthur followed him soon after, Merlin's hand bringing him there. Merlin lay half on him, more tired than ever. The thought of Arthur now knowing how he felt crossed his mind, but tiredness swept it away, worn out. Arthur ran his fingers gently through Merlin's hair. The bond was hardly muffled, and through it, under the worries and tiredness coming over from Arthur, he felt a contentment and, he was startled to notice, love. Merlin moved himself up a little and looked down at Arthur.
"You love me?"
Arthur looked up at the ceiling, avoiding his eyes. He took a while to reply. "I thought you knew that. From the," he waved his free hand between them. "I thought you knew, and." His shrug was tiny, almost not there at all.
"No. I learned to completely muffle the bond. I can't feel anything through it's when like that," Merlin said.
Arthur gave a little jolt of surprise. "You weren't only hiding yourself from me? It goes both ways?"
"I thought to give you privacy," said Merlin.
"Don't hide it completely," Arthur said after a little while. "It makes me aware of you being missing, there but not there."
They lay there for a while, Merlin's tiredness washed away. Arthur's breathing caught a little, several times.
"What?" Merlin said when he could stand it no longer.
"Where did you go, after? When you were in Illian? I looked there for you," Arthur said.
"You were angry. I became a Hunter for the Horn and went to the Borderlands. I thought you were going to kill me. I could feel you coming closer, angrier by the day." Merlin could hardly remember those few days, when he was lost in despair and fear, certain he was going to die.
Arthur pushed him off and sat at the edge of the bed. Merlin could feel the anger coming off him, and under it, hurt. "You thought I would kill you? After ...? You-- thought I would kill you."
He spun back and threw Merlin's hand off, crouching low towards him. "You thought I would kill you, after years of-- your friendship," Arthur growled. "I could never have--" Arthur stood, shrugging on some clothes quickly, stamping into boots. "I'll see you in the morning." He shook his head, grabbed at his sword. The violence he threw the tent flap back with made it stay.
Lance ducked his head in, saw Merlin on the bed, and quickly let it fall with a muttered apology.
Merlin thought he'd never sleep, but found himself being woken in the morning by Kullyn, face carefully blank, not looking around at the disordered tent. He quickly got dressed and met with Nutir outside, who looked far better with a night's sleep. With the bond only partially shrouded he could feel Arthur off in the distance, focussed, through the stone walls and into Fal Dara. Merlin thought he was perhaps with the lords and the al'Thor; surely they wouldn't make the Dragon Reborn sleep in a tent.
Asha'man Logain wanted briefing, and set Kullyn and Nutir to training new recruits. They were making every man and woman undergo training in the One Power if they could possibly learn. The Darkfriends had their numbers of Dreadlords increasing, and those fighting for the Light needed everyone who could channel a lick, even if they could only barely create a whisper of breeze.
"You're still to stay close to High Lord Pendragon," said Logain. "A waste of your abilities. Have you ferreted out any new weaves? Al'Thor has seen fit to show us some more weaves we can use in the fight against the Shadow. Join the advanced group later today and you'll learn Deathgates, Blossoms of Fire."
A horn sounded off in the distance, a call carried again nearby, and then even nearer. Logain was holding saidin all of a sudden, and Merlin followed suit.
"Trollocs!" came a shout after the horn ended. There was a scramble of men outside. Logain pushed past the tent flap, looking out. He turned to Merlin. "Emrys, find your High Lord. Your Warder," he said, on a sharp note.
Nutir must have told him. Merlin took pushed past, and tried to run for the stone walls, his way was slowed by men running in every direction to join their bands. He was taken aback at the number of armed women in breeches running around, too; he'd never seen the like before. They were short, he noticed as he went past; probably Cairhienin.
He pounded up stairs, past topknotted guards, the only Shienarans he'd seen so far. He could feel Arthur up ahead, and soon found him with al'Thor and a few other men; he recognised Bashere, Ituralde, Bryne, and Cauthon, half his head shaved and--fingernails lacquered?--at first glance. Al'Thor was collecting the Great Generals around him for Tarmon Gai'don.
Al'Thor rounded on him with the beginnings of a snarl, filled with the One Power. Merlin stopped and waited until he turned back to the window. Arthur shot him a sharp look and beckoned to him unobtrusively. He went over to join them and looked out the window. Where the land had been brown with dying grasses yesterday was now a roiling mass of black. He couldn't see them clearly, not without the Void, but he knew what they were. Trollocs. Myrddraal. There were paler beings on what looked like horses. Dreadlords.
He could feel saidin being wielded out there, from under the fort and out.
"Blood and ashes," said General Cauthon. "Rand, I'll be with the men." The other generals said much the same, and then Merlin was following Arthur at a fast clip back to the tents. He could see other people peel off to follow the other generals as they left, a damane and sul'dam clearly following Cauthon, yet none flicked eyes their way.
Merlin wove a thin shield of air about them as they went. Arthur headed for his horse, reins held loosely by the waiting farrier. Merlin scrambled for another, unwrapping the reins himself, and quickly followed after. The Trollocs were chanting in their hard voices, an eerie sound from thousands of throats, all chanting for the death of men, calling for food, the delights of fresh men from the Trolloc cookpot.
Arthur held back from the melee, to Merlin's relief, directing his generals with sharp, quick movements. The sections went out, fodder for the mill. There was little hope against Trollocs and Myrddraal on foot. The forces met together in a crash, steel meeting Trolloc swords, the dull thunk of maces hitting flesh. Screaming of the wounded was overshadowed by hoarse, defiant cries and Trollocs howling for blood.
Merlin had hardly any time to pay attention to the fight with the Shadowspawn--balls of fire and exploding earth started falling all around him. Asha'man were along the castle walls, weaving, and unfamiliar weaves began appearing amongst the Shadowspawn. A strange form of Gateway appeared, opening and closing amongst the Trollocs, leaving carnage where Shadowspawn had been. Fire streamed down, hitting targets, sometimes taking out men. It was only then that he noticed that there weren't only Trollocs fighting against them--Darkfriends counted amongst their number, sliding unnoticed amongst all as they killed here, there, dying soldiers of the Light in their wake. One was close to Arthur before he noticed, at his stirrup with knife in hand. His eyes wanted to slide away from him. A Gray Man. Merlin threw a weave out at the man, killing him just as he'd lain a hand upon Arthur's ankle.
Arthur kicked the Gray Man away and looked around, nodding at Merlin, and swung away to engage another Trolloc. Merlin channelled, copying the weave the other Asha'man were using and taking away the Shadowspawn advantage. He noticed Morgana Sedai amongst the men, and after that other Aes Sedai, the faint tingle on his skin from their channelling showing them to be responsible for some of the Shadowspawn deaths. The Three Oaths were to their disadvantage here; he surely couldn't imagine not being able to channel except for feeling in mortal danger.
Whenever he pinpointed a Myrddraal amongst the fighting he channelled Fire and Earth, watching them explode in a shower of black viscous liquid and maggoty white flesh. He'd strike lucky sometimes; some were bound to their Fist of Trollocs, and Shadowspawn all around would start twitching, flail, and die.
A line of sweat slid down his back, his concentration wavering between killing those coming close and to Arthur some distance away, now spattered red, his fair hair matted down with blood and sweat. He could feel Arthur had a cut on his lower leg, the heaviness growing in his sword arm. Merlin turned his horse, ready to draw closer, throwing balls of fire and bursting earth beneath the Myrddraal drawing near to Morgana.
"Merlin." A strong sense of saidin came from behind him. He swung around.
Mordred smiled at him toothily. "You chose."
Pain. Merlin shuddered with it, needles clawing into his skull and fires burning over his skin. They skittered over the Void and he struggled to hold onto the torrent of saidin. He barely held on, weaving unconsciously and throwing it at Mordred. The pain left and he blurrily saw Mordred stagger on his feet, then turn. Merlin gasped and clutched at his mount, blinking, thinking for a moment that Mordred was fleeing. For a moment.
Pain. Not his own this time. Merlin threw wave after wave of fire at Mordred, only for his weaves to be cut and rebound upon him each time. The pain was growing in the back of his mind, a weakening. Feeling helpless, he sharpened a flow of Spirit and threw it at Mordred, slicing through the his weaves, slowly. Mordred clutched at his head, moaning, then the flow of fighting took him from sight. For a moment the cessation of pain had him think Arthur was. Dead.
Merlin swung around and looked for Arthur. He couldn't see him anywhere, but he could feel weakness. He tapped his foot against his mount's side. The horse, skittish with the smell of blood filling its nostrils, shied. Merlin swore, dismounting, and ran, slid, and tripped over the slick, uneven ground. It was growing to be a too familiar feeling, seeking out Arthur when he was injured in battle. Merlin found him on his feet, fighting, and his moment of relief nearly had Merlin's head removed for him. A soldier grinned at him tightly, withdrawing his sword from the fallen Shadowspawn. Lance, he recognised, and the euphoria of Arthur being alive had him grinning back at Lance before Merlin turned back to face their foe.
The numbers reaching them grew fewer until he could see only the vanguard fighting the remaining Trollocs with Myrddraal to push them. Merlin left off channelling at them, feeling the Asha'man hurling huge amounts of saidin at the forces of Shadow. The earth was crumbling under the Trollocs' feet, bursting upwards in unfamiliar weaves; the Dragon Reborn was harrying the remainder out of sight of the walls of Fal Dara.
Arthur watched his soldiers, and from the way his eyes moved over them slowly Merlin knew he was counting numbers. More had survived the unexpected encounter than he would have thought possible, especially with the bulk of the forces already at Tarwin's Gap.
"So close to Fal Dara," Cauthon said when they got back close to the stone walls. He had some spatters on him and a tear on his sleeve. "Pendragon, it was a good thing you arrived when you did. The Band of the Red Hand is good for anything, but even they would have been overwhelmed by those numbers. Easily fifty Fists."
Arthur wiped off some blood sliding down into his eye. "Only a taste of what's to come, Cauthon. You fought well."
Cauthon looked Merlin over. "So you're that Asha'man," he laughed. "You've tweaked the nose of Aes Sedai by bonding a man. They swore it couldn't be done until Rand told them about you and Pendragon. Put their noses out of joint."
They stamped up the set of stairs while Arthur and Cauthon discussed the Shadowspawn attack. Merlin listened with half an ear, paying more attention to the saidin being woven above them, lessening in quantity. It must nearly be over.
Everyone in the room was covered in grime, clothes torn and bloody. Al'Thor was the only one clean, framed by the window and the last of fighting from beyond. The amount of saidin he was holding was tremendous, and yet he stood there, hard and resolute.
"Tomorrow," he said. "Tomorrow is Tarmon Gai'don."
1000 NE, Summer - Winter
Merlin had chosen to stay as far from the Dragon Reborn as possible when they arrived in Cairhien--even in the Black Tower there was mention that he'd fallen to madness already. From what he'd seen on the battlefield in Altara he wasn't certain he wanted to argue the point. The world was at mercy of someone already half-mad, and one they couldn't slip a mug of poisoned tea to avoid the repercussions of his madness. Merlin had already seen some he'd grown friendly with succumb, one day talking and laughing as they did their best to master a weave, the next screaming and channelling those very weaves towards those the day prior he'd considered a friend . The M'Hael had given them their last tea.
He had never been inside a palace before, and stared around at the interior of the Sun Palace. The building was well-built; he'd heard it was Ogier work. The delicate bracing between buildings, the careful scrollwork, all showed a master hand in the creation of the golden city of Cairhien. The Banner of the Rising Sun flew above the towers. It was strange to walk into the palace of those Tairens considered dissolute and from whom there had always been a threat of war.
Al'Thor surrounded himself with Aes Sedai. They treated them like dangerous madmen at first, but slowly it began to change. He supposed they couldn't compare to al'Thor's quicksilver moods, as the Asha'man made themselves scarce when they went about their appointed tasks. After a while Merlin noticed speculative glances being thrown towards them, with Daigain Sedai being especially friendly with young Hopwil.
Merlin smiled at their attempted conversation and did his best to be polite in recompense for al'Thor's rude manner, but otherwise avoided them. He'd found a large empty courtyard perfect for channelling, far enough from the palace grounds, he hoped, that al'Thor wouldn't take his experimentations for an attack. He spent many hours in the courtyard. At first people appeared, curious at the sounds and bright lights, for he'd had a thought that thunderous noise and bright sparking in the air would disorient. Once they saw it was the One Power, wielded by a man, they disappeared quickly, and soon enough it was a guaranteed empty space whenever he wanted it.
The Lord Dragon never was truly in Cairhien, always Travelling to visit some lord, or one of his armies. Merlin knew when he was gone from the agitated state of the Maidens; nothing you could point at and say for certain they were upset with, but there was an uneasy undercurrent about them.
Al'Thor was in the palace one day when Merlin felt weaves above him, above the palace, flashing through the corridors. At first he thought it was al'Thor, already prone to strangeness, when it saidin resolved itself from different pinpoints, and he knew it wasn't. Taking hold of saidin, he walked the corridors quietly, and heard a scream, and then many.
Rounding a corner, he stopped and hid; Asha'man Torval was smiling, throwing balls of fire down the corridor and hitting the serving folk, a tight grin appearing whenever he hit them despite their dodge. Merlin could feel other sources of saidin in the palace, with one channelling such amounts Merlin supposed him to be al'Thor. He channelled Fire and Spirit at Torval, a weave which would leave sparking pain over his skin, and felt the other man release saidin in his shock.
Merlin readied a weave of Air to bind him and another of Spirit to shield him from the Source. He'd come back for him later, after he'd gone to al'Thor's aid. The others were around, too; they'd all have to be careful that al'Thor didn't take them for the attackers. If Torval was here, Merlin bet Taim's other favourites were, too. He stepped carefully over some rubble from the broken wall, and bent towards Torval.
Someone channelling behind him made him swing around, and he came face-to-face with Mordred. Merlin fell to the ground, scrabbling at the stones, caught in the same pain-sparking weave he'd sent at Torval. It shifted, became sharper, until there were needles stabbing him, stabbing up from the inside.
"I should have known you'd make yourself al'Thor's lapdog," said Mordred with obvious enjoyment. "You should have joined the Great Lord, Merlin. I will live long and know glory, while you will be nothing but food for maggots and worms. You thought to look at me with reproach, you, a servant?" His face twisted. "You will die knowing you struck no blow for the Light. The Great Lord will remake the world. I am the son of a lord, destined for glory! I'll--"
Merlin pulled himself up, using the Void to push the pain aside enough to do so. Saidin escaped him. He could feel it sliding further away from him, something tearing at his link to the Source. A chunk of rubble lay close at hand, and with the last burst of energy he threw it at Mordred. Through an enveloping fog Merlin saw it clip him on the side of the head, and then he fell, Void shattering and pain overtaking him.
Merlin dreamed. He dreamt Arthur was coming, a torrent of anger and worry. His bed was a soft confection the likes of which he'd never lain in before. He opened his eyes and Arthur was over him. Merlin smiled at his vision, noting the differences from his memory of the High Lord's son and what he thought Arthur would look like now. A scar above his eye, a scar splitting his lip. Arthur didn't smile back, impassive in his regard, if not over the bond. Merlin wondered why Arthur would be angry when Merlin loved him; he closed his eyes to the angry man, a sadness threading through him.
He dreamed. A roaring of saidin stronger than he'd ever felt, and a fear overcame him through his dream. It had to be the end. Arthur was sitting at his bedside, head in hands; his hair had grown longer, a small beard catching the light, glinting golden in the sun. Merlin smiled at seeing him so close, the burst of worry over saidin sliding away, and from Arthur felt a resignation as he smiled tiredly at back at Merlin. Merlin fell asleep to a feeling of warmth coming through the bond.
Merlin woke one morning to a cool room and clear mind. A servant was emptying a chamber pot at the side of the bed.
"Morning," he said, voice scratchy with disuse.
She screeched and skittered backwards, giving him a wide, frightened stare, then ran out the door, leaving the bucket of slops at his side. Merlin slid to the far side of the mattress, making a face at the smells, and tried to stand. He clutched at the headboard as his head swam and legs refused to hold him up.
"You men are silly boys," came a voice from the doorway. An older woman came in, the chatelaine. She drew close and peered into his eyes. "You appear to have recovered. Don't go too far or you'll fall flat on your face!"
Merlin had spent a month unaware. He woke to knowing Asha'man had tried to kill the Dragon Reborn, and he had fallen under suspicion as one of those responsible until a servant had spoken up, and had nearly been left for dead.
"An ugly weave," al'Thor had said, "designed to make the most pain. He used a weave of Spirit to make you unable to channel; if you'd tried you would have done yourself damage, perhaps even severed yourself from the Source. Corele thought it best to keep you asleep while your body healed."
It took only another visit from the Aes Sedai, Corele, for him to be up and walking again. After that he ate everything he could lay his hands on until he felt strong enough to do a lap of the castle, then returned to his duties for the Lord Dragon. He spent time in his lonely courtyard, playing with new weaves, examining them as he placed Fire and Earth and Spirit upon stones and wood; they rarely did what he wanted, but he was close to creating multiple origin point weaves.
Much had happened in his time abed. Aes Sedai had bonded Asha'man, those who'd survived the attack on the Dragon Reborn. Apparently the Black Tower thought they were responsible for the attack on the Dragon Reborn, and the Aes Sedai had bonded them for their safety. Merlin wondered why the Lord Dragon's word wouldn't have been enough to keep the Black Tower from their throats, but remembered the Aes Sedai's overtures before the attack. They'd likely planted the seed of the idea. Flinn had been bonded by Corele Sedai, which didn't surprise Merlin at all; an interest in Healing consumed both.
Two of the Asha'man had died, young Hopwil and Morr. He remembered speaking to them as if only yesterday. The sadness of their passing warred within him with the awe at finding saidin clean, and he had to hold himself back from using the One Power now that it was without taint. He found himself looking for any reason to hold the One Power, to the point he spent most of his days in the courtyard practising weaves.
"Hopwil died well," Flinn told him, and described the wasteland of Shadar Logoth. They were in their cups one day when Merlin suggested they visit it so he could see it all for himself, remembering a vague sense of fever dream and wanting to see it as true. The melted bowl in the earth, with the Mountains of Mist towering high above it, was awe-inspiring. Flinn and Merlin stood at the crater looking down at the smooth walls, already seeing corpses of animals in the bottom who'd been unable to get out.
It made him wonder if other fever dreams were true, remembering the soft touch of Arthur's hand.
It wasn't all he'd missed; the Dragon Reborn had come up against one of the Forsaken and lost a hand and treated it as nothing, an inconvenience to pass over and continue on through. Merlin found himself staring at the stump as al'Thor spoke, somehow all the more menacing because of his lack of reaction to his maiming. Al'Thor had only grown harder while Merlin had been bedridden, and where he'd smiled once, even if only at Min, he now barely reacted at all.
Merlin returned to the Lord Dragon's antechamber one afternoon, after a routine canvassing of the Sun Palace and checking of wards. The Asha'man took this in turns, always returning to tell al'Thor of any findings. There was never sign of the renegade Asha'man, no sign of any male channellers besides themselves, but a precaution had been initiated, and small traps laid about the palace grounds for wielders of saidin.
"Leave us!" said al'Thor, once again coldly angry at the Aes Sedai.
The women stood slowly, and left in a manner suggesting it was all of their own will. Their Asha'man Warders looked angry at the insult and followed them. Merlin shifted towards the door.
"Asha'man Emrys, a moment," said Min.
Merlin had tried not to look at her too closely after seeing her smile at the Lord Dragon cheerfully; it had become quickly obvious who she was to the Dragon Reborn, and he didn't think al'Thor would take kindly to a man looking at her. She wore a version of men's clothing, tight breeches and embroidery from head to toe; she held no interest for him, but he looked because of the novelty. Now he had to turn and face her, while al'Thor sat holding a goblet so hard his knuckles were turning white.
"I can see things about people," she said, looking at him sideways. "Not everyone, all the time."
"I have heard the Aes Sedai speak of you, yes," said Merlin carefully.
"You know High Lord Pendragon?" she asked. Al'Thor looked at her, curious.
Merlin stiffened a little. "High Lord Pendragon? I heard that he had died in battle with Seanchan."
"Not that one," she said. "The son, High Lord Arthur."
"Yes," he said eventually. Speaking of Arthur reminded Merlin of him, and he touched delicately around the muffled bond, considering removing it for a moment, but let the thought go. That door was closed; he was starting to come to realise this. It no longer felt like a hard punch to the chest, more like one with a feather pillow between him and the blow.
"There are two sorts of people I see images around, all the time," she said. "Those who can channel; Aes Sedai, men like yourself. Rand." She smiled at al'Thor. "Warders, also. Imagine my surprise, when I saw High Lord Arthur, a Tairen High Lord, bonded as Warder. I thought Morgana Sedai had bonded her brother for a short while."
Merlin almost smiled at the thought of that; Arthur had never really known his older half-sister as she'd joined the White Tower years prior, and upon her return Arthur had never fully trusted her, although he did so more than he did any Aes Sedai. She had never explained why she stayed in Tear despite its unfriendliness to all those who could channel, but Arthur had grown to relax in her presence. Merlin had begun to think she intended to stay on when Arthur became High Lord, stay on as advisor even in the face of increasingly pointed comments from High Lords about having an Aes Sedai in the Pendragon stronghold.
"I saw the images one day," she continued. "I saw your face and knew he was bonded to you. You are going to save each other's lives, and both of you will be important the day of Tarmon Gai'don. If you are both there, things have a chance. If only one of you, or neither--if you both died--then, well." Min looked bleak. "A chain is broken, and another future might come into play."
Al'Thor touched her knee, a comforting pat.
"So it was you who showed the Asha'man the bonding weave. It looks like you'll be joining Pendragon," said al'Thor. "The High Lord is joining the fight against the Seanchan past Ebou Dar; they appear to be retreating towards Falme. You'll be one of the Asha'man joining the armies."
Min shot al'Thor a look. "Tell him the rest, Rand."
Al'Thor put his goblet down and sat forward, his hard eyes pinning Merlin to the spot.
"My generals are being killed," he said. "Two now have died; one by Draghkar, warded against being found, and another by a gholam. You saw the remains of one general at Amador, even if you didn't know it. These are Shadowspawn created to be assassins. Two generals; it tells me where they're striking, weakening my forces."
Merlin blinked, and recalled the blood-soaked tent with an ill twist to his stomach. He'd not been able to eat that day.
"You and two others will be going to the armies of Tear and Illian to keep their generals alive, most especially Pendragon. He could very well be on his way to becoming one of the Great Generals, or so Mat tells me."
The surprise of this banished thought of that bloody day. Merlin had heard tell of Mat Cauthon, grown up in the same village as the Dragon Reborn, now one of his finest generals. He had a swelling of pride at the thought of Arthur growing into this, and then was struck by the thought this would make him even more of a target.
"I'll be going out to the armies in a few days," said al'Thor. "You, Nutir, and Kullyn will be going to Pendragon's army. Nutir and Kullyn came from the camp of Cendred--they know what a Draghkar is, now. Their presence may help if another comes for the generals, especially against Pendragon."
The wait felt like forever. He met the other Asha'man, Nutir and Kullyn, both Dedicated, and they spent some time dicing together as they waited for the Lord Dragon to take them to their next posting. Merlin held himself back, equally excited and terrified at the thought of being around Arthur again, this time without a width of field between them.
A Cairhienin soldier came for them one day, relaying the message. They were to present themselves in the Travelling courtyard, within the hour: the armies were marching their way across Amadicia. The remains of the Seanchan force were falling back towards the north. Arthur's forces were taking them all the way back to Toman's Head.
Al'Thor stopped before the Gateway he'd woven, and Merlin halted by him.
"It's time you became an Asha'man, Emrys," he said, and produced a red-and-gold dragon from a pocket.
Al'Thor took his collar and pinned it next to the sword of the Dedicated. Merlin looked down, a thrill of pride prickling at his throat, and pulled his shoulders back, watching the Aiel Maidens stream through the Gateway. The three Asha'man looked at each other, and at the Gateway, and then followed al'Thor through, Merlin carefully blanking his mind to what was coming.
1001 NE, Spring
Merlin ducked through the tent and came to a stop just inside it, uncertain. Arthur made no move to throw him out, so he sat on the stool and stretched out, bringing up a hand to massage his neck. The rest of the day had been spent channelling with Aes Sedai and other Asha'man, practicing joining and leaving circles so they could present a more powerful, concerted force against the Dark One.
Merlin sighed. "Arthur," he said, and waited until he'd looked at him. "I didn't really think you would-- your sister is Aes Sedai, and Morgana said she would take me to the White Tower to be gentled. I thought the Borderlands the better option. It was the safest if the taint on saidin drove me to madness."
"It matters not, now, how it may have been," said Arthur, considering him. "Did you know I was in Cairhien, after the attack on the Dragon Reborn?"
"No," said Merlin, but remembered the touch on his face, the sun on Arthur's hair as he stood at the window.
"Come." Arthur held out a hand in invitation.
Merlin went to him and was drawn down to the bed. They were careful and slow, and Merlin embraced the bond wholly, wanting to feel it all. Arthur stopped a few times, looking down at him with a faint wonder, and drew him into a long kiss. Merlin's lips grew red and swollen. Still they kissed and, in a tangle of limbs, fell sleep.
They dressed slowly in the morning, taking long looks at one another, breaking the morning fast in silence. Merlin started to say any of a thousand things, but always stopped, and instead drew his hand down Arthur's side, revelling in being able to touch him, wanting to do so again and again. Before they left the tent they shared a kiss.
Outside Lance was waiting with three horses saddled, and he passed one set of reins over to Merlin. They mounted up and moved to join Arthur's force. Merlin could see the Asha'man, a mass of black, and Aes Sedai, up near the Dragon Reborn.
Merlin rode alongside Arthur. He brushed his leg on Arthur's at times, and Arthur's gaze would settle on him, a quiet, solid look. Here was the man he'd wanted to serve as a youth, grown into the commander he'd always known Arthur would be. Arthur smiled at him, quick, private, pressing his leg back, and soon they were at the front lines.
Tarwin's Gap was ahead, a narrow gap between the two jutting mountainous ranges, and beyond it the flatness of the Blasted Lands. It was a usually a yellowish brown from the twisted, and dying, vegetation, corrupted by the proximity to the Dark One, but Just beyond it lay Shayol Ghul, although Merlin couldn't see it yet. It was the Dragon Reborn's destination, and along with himself, one of the number of strongest of Asha'man and Aes Sedai.
All of the armies were there, their commanders out the front. Cauthon stood grimacing next to al'Thor, a golden horn in hand.
"Tia mi aven Moridin isande vadin," he said, shrugged, brought it to his lips. The note he blew was sweet, high, and long, calling down to Merlin's very bones. It carried long and far, its whispers spreading out over the armies, and a fog began to rise.
He could see golden lines coming out from it, curling around. One attached itself to Arthur, another to Merlin, and outwards: he saw one tendril touch a woman with a golden braid, bow on her back, standing with eyes wide.
"The Horn of Valere," said Merlin, wonderingly. They'd had it all along.
The Heroes of ages came rolling through the fog, some mounted, some not, all recognisable heroes from the stories of old.
"Well met, trumpeter," said Artur Hawkwing. The king of legend looked around, and his eyes settled on Merlin and Arthur. He smiled. "The Horn binds new heroes, it seems."
Merlin fell back, startled, and looked at the golden threads going back to the horn. Arthur looked at him, curious at his shock, and Merlin shook his head.
The Lord Dragon's banner unfurled, swinging out to proclaim itself in the breeze. Its tail fluttered with obvious presence, and Hawkwing nodded approvingly.
"We ride!" said Hawkwing. "Trumpeter, a march, if you will?"
Cauthon held the horn to his lips, and with every note Merlin felt himself lifted stronger, and saw the same of Arthur. The heroes made of the front lines of the armies, bristling with arrows, knives, swords, and encompassed in armour. Soldiers near them stood straight, buoyed, and turned to face the Dark One's armies.
"Asha'man, Aes Sedai. We fight at Shayol Ghul," said the Dragon Reborn.
Merlin turned to Arthur, words of farewell stopping up in his throat. He hesitated for a moment, and found himself crushed up against Arthur, his lips taken in a kiss. He took more back, a hard kiss fading into sweet, softness. Arthur pulled back and cupped his neck, his forehead against Merlin's, a fierce love coming through the bond.
"Live," Arthur said, pulling away, and as Merlin stepped through the Gateway to Shayol Ghul, turned towards Tarwin's Gap to face the Shadowspawn coming down the pass in a roiling sea.