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Bum. Bum. Ba-dum.

Arthur has hated the heartless rhythm of Camelot’s ceremonial drums since before he can remember. They are only brought out for the most trying of circumstances, after all: trials, funerals, war marches.

Executions.

Bum. Bum. Ba-dum.

The heavy, ruthless beats echo off the castle walls, an invisible assault of eerie finality. Beneath them, the courtyard is filled with people, peasant and noble alike, come to witness this momentous occasion. Their faces swim in and out of the early autumn mist, ghosts and spirits all, grey-faced, grim and utterly without meaning. Who are these people? Arthur wonders, with a feeling like dry dust in the back of his throat. Who are these strangers who have come to witness something that was never theirs to have?

The drums continue their solemn proclamation. Bum. Bum. Ba-dum. Sensations drift to Arthur through the hazy, sorrowful fog: the smell of packed earth, dog piss and freshly cut branches; the breeze brushing an icy caress over his skin; the soft rustle of fine cloth as his father shifts beside him on the castle balcony.

Bum. Bum. Ba-dum.

Uther raises a hand, and the drums fall silent. Arthur takes a breath, the air stale and foul-tasting, as if the very earth means to poison them today. The quiet draws the haze away, murky fog receding to reveal the pile of firewood in the middle of the courtyard, the layer of dried tinder at the top, the innocuous-looking wooden beam jutting out from the peak of the mountain like a sword in the stone.

Arthur’s heart sinks at the familiar spectacle. So they are to execute another sorcerer, to roast alive someone whose only crime was to be born different. Pain lances through his heart at the realization. He tries to look away, but can’t.

Next to him, his father speaks, but the words come to him garbled and muted, as if from underwater. Words, Arthur thinks, so unimportant in everyday life, but holding within them the power to end lives if spoken by the right person. Uther’s unintelligible speech continues, and Arthur opens his mouth experimentally. Nothing comes out, only an arid cough that turns no heads. It seems he has run dry of words today.

The sounds falling from his father’s lips are the buzz of a thousand venomous bees, ringing without meaning within Arthur’s skull, a poison borne of grief and years of unabashed hatred. Somewhere in the garble, the words magic and death emerge like the tolling of clear bells, and they lift the shroud of incomprehensibility over Arthur’s head, so that what his father says next rings true and clear.

“Bring the traitor forward.”

Movement at the edge of the courtyard. The crowd gives a hushed murmur, the rumble of an uneasy beast, and parts in a wave of deferent fear as three figures resolve themselves from the castle’s gray walls. Two wear the silver mail and crimson cloaks of Camelot knights, their faces refusing to focus no matter how hard Arthur blinks his eyes. They carry between them a smaller man, thin and scraggly, who struggles weakly in their hold. Everything inside Arthur alights in fiery alarm when he sees the familiar mop of dark hair, the splash of red around the neck.

Merlin!

The name bursts from his throat, he feels the air rush past his lips, yet no actual sound breaks the silence. His words, he has no words! In the courtyard below, the knights force Merlin, stumbling and weak, toward the wood pile. Arthur whips around, casting desperately for the door, the exit, but there is nothing, only walls of solemn grey stone that encase him like the greatest of prisons. Next to him his father speaks again, voice deep and echoing like damnation itself.

“Merlin, manservant to the Crown Prince,” Uther says, and his words, they have power, they transfix Arthur to the ground and steal his breath so that he can only stare at his father’s face, the hard set of his jaw, the cruel glint of his eyes. “You have committed sorcery within the boundaries of Camelot, where the practice of all magic is forbidden. You have further chosen to deceive your King and your master, and so have committed treason of the highest degree. For these crimes, you are sentenced today to be burned at the stake.”

Another rumble from the crowd, the beast disturbed from its rest. Frostbite-fear slows the blood in Arthur’s veins, his very body seeming to be crushed under the weight of desperation, and where are his words?

He reaches for his father, to shake him, to hit him, to make him stop this madness I’ll die before I let you hurt Merlin, but his arm feels as if made of hardened stone, no more responsive to his mind’s pleas than his feet still glued firmly to the ground. Uther does not even glance at him, looking down at the spectators with grim authority. “Have you anything to say before the sentence is carried out?” he asks.

Arthur still cannot move. His limbs won’t obey him, invisible chains that lock him in place as neatly as any spell, and that. Yes, a spell. Merlin, he knows spells, he has magic, he can get out of this. Even though Arthur has been rendered helpless, Merlin will free himself. After all, what’s the good of sorcery if you can’t magic yourself out of an execution with it?

Down in the courtyard, the two knights secure Merlin to the stake with coils of rope that snake sinuously along the wood of their accord. Arthur swallows, clenches his fists, and clings to the hope like a flame in his chest as he tells himself desperately, frantically, Merlin will get free.

“Well, sorcerer?” Uther says.

Merlin lifts his head to look straight at Arthur. His eyes burn blue, ice and white-hot phosphorus all at once, and Arthur looks for the gold—there should be gold, shouldn’t there, isn’t there always—but there is none, and what is Merlin waiting for?

Merlin’s mouth never opens; his lips never part, yet the voice that echoes through Arthur’s head booms like a thunderclap, solemn and betrayed. “After everything I’ve done for you,” Merlin says, and Arthur wants to flinch from his words, feels them like physical blows, like every syllable stamps a fresh bruise into his skin, “everything I’ve sacrificed to keep you safe, you will stand by and do nothing when I need you the most?”

His words are poison, deadly not in content but in truth, and Arthur opens his mouth, cries out, Merlin, but it comes out as a puff of smoke from his lips, ethereal and utterly useless. Arthur is so very useless.

Uther makes a motion with his hand. One of the knights steps forward with a burning torch. The pyre takes the flame immediately, wood bursting ablaze with a speed Arthur has never seen. In an instant Merlin is surrounded by fire on all sides, black smoke billowing like a vengeful spirit. Arthur struggles against his invisible restraints, yelling silent smoke that only adds to the ash and bitterness already clogging the air, and through the haze of gray and licking flames, he sees Merlin close his eyes.

This is it, Arthur thinks, as the hope in his chest wells until he feels he might burst with it. Merlin will use his magic now. Merlin will be all right.

He waits a heartbeat. Two. Three.

Anytime now, Merlin. Save yourself. Please.

Nothing. No spells, no magic, no miraculous escapes. The fire roars and the flames shoot up, engulfing the pyre, the stake, the figure trapped in its grim embrace. The hope in his chest flickers out like a candle’s flame, leaving a ragged hole in his soul that steals his very breath, and Arthur barely has time to think, What have I done, before Merlin starts to scream.

 

***

 

Arthur shot straight up in bed with a strangled shout, unsurprised to feel the familiar weight of his sword in his hand as he cast frantically about the room, searching for enemies. No assassins crouched over him on the bed, no snarling magical creatures clawed for his throat. When he saw nothing but the first grey streaks of dawn seeping in through the windows, he dropped his sword with a clatter and fell back onto the pillows.

Dear gods, how he hated that dream.

Almost eight years now—seven years, ten months and twenty-three days, his brain reminded him. Since that fateful day, Arthur had yet to go a full week without dreaming of Merlin’s dea—disappearance. Every time the same, helpless as Merlin was tied to the stake, taking the younger man’s accusations like sword blows, unable to do anything but watch as Merlin screamed and the fire consumed his flesh.

Except…except Arthur knew it hadn’t happened that way. He knew, had witnessed everything firsthand himself (how could he not?), but his brain couldn’t see the difference between what was real and what wasn’t when he slept. Grimacing, he ground the heel of his hand against his temple to ward off the growing headache. A familiar longing tugged at his chest as he wished Gaius was still around. Their current court physician, though knowledgeable enough, could never seem to concoct sleeping draughts as effective—or as vile-tasting—as Gaius had.

A soft knock at the door caught his attention, and Arthur turned just in time to see his current manservant, a deferent, soft-spoken former stable boy by the name of Alrick, enter the room. “Good morning, Your Majesty.”

Arthur sighed, pushing aside memories of a time when his mornings consisted of pillows being thrown at his head and a cheerful greeting of Slept in again, Arthur? Rubbing his eyes, he threw the covers back and set his feet on the floor, hissing as warm skin made contact with the cold stone. “Yes. Good morning.”

“I brought your breakfast,” Alrick said, nudging the door closed with his heel as he approached the table to set down a silver tray.

Arthur spared it a brief glance as he picked up the clothes Alrick had set out for him the previous night. Two pieces of bread, a thin block of cheese, a few slices of salted meat and a wine pitcher full of what Arthur knew would be nothing but water. He sighed. “Thank you, Alrick. I know it couldn’t have been easy to get the cheese.”

“Oh, it was no bother, Sire,” Alrick answered, perfectly even, which was exactly as Arthur expected. Only the most obedient of manservants survived under the King, after all; he immediately sacked anyone who showed even a trace of something resembling a personality, the reminder far too painful to bear. Alrick had, by far, lasted the longest out of all Arthur’s previous manservants, due in no small part to the fact that he seemed to have about as much free will as a sack of potatoes. If Arthur asked him to chew off his own leg, he’d merely ask at what joint.

Nevertheless, Arthur knew he wasn’t being generous with his gratitude. Everyone was on rations these days, Camelot’s food stores all but empty, and even nobility had been reduced to scraps. He frowned, peering out the window at the overcast sky outside. It was a familiar sight by now: the low-hanging clouds, the rain that pattered against the glass panes. Yet Arthur knew it was anything but pleasant.

It had been raining nonstop for the past three months. Fields were flooded, whole harvests of crops had been lost, herds of livestock drowned in the deluge. His people were starving, their rations all but gone, taking with it their hope and happiness. Some days Arthur couldn’t help but smile bitterly at the irony of the whole thing. Years, centuries of successfully repelling invading armies, and it was the weather that would finally subdue the great kingdom of Camelot.

Yet Arthur knew it was not just the weather to be blamed. Even as he stepped behind the changing screen and began pulling on his clothes—none of his servants had helped to dress him in eight years, their touch somehow repulsive, unwanted, not right—his mind began going over what he was to propose to his council later that day. It didn’t take a genius to realize that the wet season, no matter how severe, would not continue unabated for three months without some magical intervention. A sorcerer—or, perhaps more accurately, a group of them—was trying to kill Camelot, and if they couldn’t work out who it was and fast, he would undoubtedly succeed.

As he listened to Alrick puttering about the room, picking up scattered clothes and straightening everything up, Arthur allowed himself a rare moment of unease behind the privacy of the changing screen. His council—of which about half were magic users—had yet to come up with a viable solution to the curse upon Camelot, or to generate any good leads on who the villainous sorcerer might be. And though Arthur did not doubt the competence of his magical advisors, they were not Mer—quite powerful enough to repel the curse on their own.

Which was why he would propose to them today that they send out a call throughout the five kingdoms for any sorcerers who might know of a solution to the problem. Camelot could not solve this within her own borders, and Arthur would not allow his people to perish simply because he was too cowardly to invite foreign—and possibly dangerous—people to his court.

Of course, he knew many of them could be dangerous. Despite the fact that magic was no longer banned in Camelot, and Arthur had since taken what could be deemed one of the most permissive of approaches with regards to sorcery on his lands, there was no denying that many an angry sorcerer still lived out there, seeking revenge for loved ones lost during Uther’s ruthless purges.

The rain continuing to fall outside was more than testament to that.

“Sire?”

Alrick’s voice broke Arthur out of his reverie. He cleared his throat. “Yes, Alrick.”

“I have finished here, and I would like to give your armor its daily polish, so if you won’t be needing me…?”

Arthur barely suppressed a sigh, remembering a time when he basked in the endless prattle of a certain manservant who insisted on sticking around and annoying him despite having a multitude of other chores to do. But that was a long time ago—seven years, ten months and twenty-three days, to be precise—and he was too tired for anything more than an “Of course. Thank you, Alrick.”

The creak-click of the door announced Alrick’s departure. Arthur finished putting on his clothes, took a moment to relieve himself into the chamber pot in the corner, and sat down to his breakfast. He washed the bread down with several healthy gulps of water, but hesitated when it came to the meat and cheese. While it certainly wasn’t fresh by any means, it was still edible and oh so tempting, and Arthur sighed.

Picking up the tray with the food still balanced on it, he opened the door and stuck his head out into the hallway. Within seconds, a young chambermaid—dark-skinned, curly-haired, but not Gwen, never Gwen—came down the hall, carrying a basket of frayed laundry. Arthur cleared his throat as she neared, and she startled to a stop, giving him a quick curtsy. “Y-Your Majesty.”

“What’s your name?” Arthur asked.

“Ah…Editha, Sire.”

“Very good. And how many have you in your family, Editha?”

“Four, Sire. Myself, my husband, and two young sons.”

“Your children are well fed?”

At that, Editha’s face crumpled just the slightest bit as her eyes grew distinctly wet. “Ah, we…we get by, Sire.” Which, Arthur knew immediately, meant They’re starving, Sire.

He nodded. Taking the topmost piece of linen out of the laundry basket, he dropped the cheese and meats into it, wrapped everything up into a neat package and held it out to her. “Take these and give them to your children.”

Editha’s lips parted and she was shaking her head even before Arthur had finished his sentence. “Oh no, Sire, these are yours, I couldn’t possibly—”

Editha.” His voice silenced her—and yes, here, here his words had power—and he gave her what he hoped was a no-nonsense look. “Take them. I’ve eaten enough.”

The fact that she did not protest further proved just how desperate her family must have been. She accepted the package from him and bowed so low he heard her knee joints crack. “Th…Thank you, Sire. Thank you so much.”

Her lower lip trembled and she looked ready to break into sobs right there in the hallway, and so Arthur cleared his throat again, nodding to her in as formal a fashion as he could manage. “That will be all. Carry on.”

She curtsied again and promptly hurried off, as if afraid he would suddenly change his mind and snatch the food back from her. Arthur stifled a sigh, stepped through the door, and headed down the hall in the opposite direction. He might not be able to do much about the curse, but he could certainly make things easier whenever possible.

 

Later that afternoon in the Great Hall, Arthur called off the day’s training with his knights. With the rain still falling, they had long since moved their drills inside, and though it meant more sweat and a variety of interesting odors as a result, Arthur liked to think it had benefited his men’s endurance and stamina. Clapping Leon companionably on the shoulder for having managed to land a killing blow during their last sparring match, Arthur made his way over to where Elyan and Percival were sitting, catching their breath after the brutal series of drills Arthur had just finished putting them through.

He didn’t bother beating around the bush, turning immediately to the smaller knight. “Elyan, I want you to go and stay with Guinevere and Lancelot.”

Elyan’s reaction was instant, and predictable. “What? No, Sire!”

Arthur sighed, pitching his voice to be as reasonable as possible. “Elyan, I would never be able to face Gwen again if I let you starve to death inside this castle, when she and Lancelot have a perfectly good earldom on the outskirts of our borders,” he said. “I’m sure she’s worried sick for you.”

Elyan only shook his head. “Sire, I love my sister, but I serve you.”

“And right now, the best way to serve me is to survive,” Arthur answered, and held up his hand against Elyan’s rising protest. “I’m making this an order, Elyan. Go to your sister, and stay as long as it takes for the rains to recede. Then, and only then, will I allow you to return.” He glanced sideways at Percival and crooked a smile. “I would ask that you go with him, but I already know you’ll snap me in half like a twig for even suggesting it.”

“Glad you’re aware of it, Sire,” was Percival’s easy answer, even as Elyan’s face turned stormy.

“I am not above doing the same, Your Majesty,” he threatened, but Arthur just shook his head.

“Look around, Elyan. I’ve already sent Kay, Bors, Bedivere, Galahad and Gareth away to other parts of the kingdom. Besides, who in their right mind would send an army to attack us in this weather? They’d drown within a day of crossing our borders. Leon, Percival, and Lamorak are more than enough to lead the rest of the knights while you’re gone.”

“But Sire—”

“Elyan.” Arthur laid an arm on his knight’s shoulder, expression grim. “You must do this. If not for your own good, then for me.”

Elyan pursed his lips and, for a moment, looked ready to argue the matter further. However, after a not-so-subtle shift and nudge in the shoulder from Percival, he finally relented with a sigh and bowed his head. “As you wish, my King. I will depart tonight.”

Arthur nodded, patted Elyan on the shoulder and rose. He resolved to stop by the storerooms at the first opportunity to inform the guards that they were to allow Elyan as many provisions as he desired for the journey, although he doubted Elyan would take anything but the very bare necessities. None of his knights would ever take anything more than their fair share, especially during these times of need when any food they consumed meant stealing it from the mouths of those less fortunate. Arthur grimaced. He could say less of the other nobles in his court, most of whom continued in their decadent lifestyle regardless of the dwindling rations.

Someone fell in step beside him the instant he entered the hallway, and he turned and nodded to his companion. “Sir Lamorak.”

“Your Majesty.” Lamorak spoke with quiet deference born of habit as much as respect, entirely typical of someone who had grown up in Camelot’s court. His father, Arthur recalled, had been one of Uther’s most trusted advisors back when Ygraine had still been alive. Following the Queen’s death and Uther’s subsequent descent into what some might call a festering insanity, Lamorak’s father had grown disillusioned, retired from court and retreated to a small village to fulfill his lifelong dream of raising pigs. Lamorak himself, at the time already a knight-in-training of considerable prowess, elected to stay, already having realized an undying loyalty to Arthur that Arthur wasn’t sure he entirely deserved at the time. Regardless, Lamorak had stayed by his side through Uther’s purge, through the many attacks on the kingdom and Arthur’s own life, through Merlin’s—well. Lamorak had been around for a while.

They walked together in silence for a moment longer before Lamorak spoke again. “I certainly hope you’re not planning to send me away anytime soon.”

Arthur smiled, and it felt like the first time in a long time. His old friend always had that effect on him. “No, pig-farming doesn’t quite suit you.”

“My father would object, if the enthusiasm he conveys in his letters is any indication,” Lamorak replied, completely deadpan. “Every time, it’s always ‘you could do this’ or ‘you would love that’. Oh, how good you would be at feeding the pigs, Lamorak. How much they would take to you, Lamorak. How much fun you would have wallowing around in the mud with them, Lamorak.”

A sudden image of Lamorak lying indignantly in a puddle of mud whilst surrounded by squealing pigs flashed through Arthur’s brain, and he couldn’t help it. He burst into laughter right there in the hallway, huge, breath-taking guffaws that shook his entire frame as he bent over and let his amusement fly. It felt good. It felt freeing.

Next to him, Lamorak chuckled, patting him on the back. “There. Feel better?”

Arthur straightened up, wiping tears from the corners of his eyes. “A little,” he answered, and smiled at Lamorak. “Thanks. I think…I think I needed that.”

Lamorak nodded, and his expression grew more serious. “Arthur,” he said, and it was a testament to just how closely Arthur valued him that he could address his King by his first name, “the knights know you’re doing everything you can. The people know.”

Arthur sighed, sobering immediately. “But is it enough?”

Lamorak didn’t bother with consolations or shallow lies. That was for simpering nobles and brown-nosing servants, not a knight of Camelot who had been Arthur’s friend since they were boys. He looked Arthur straight in the eye and said, “It’s as much as you can manage, and we would never want anything more than that.”

Arthur swallowed and nodded. “I made my proposal to the council today,” he said.

Lamorak’s expression grew somber. “How did they take it?”

“Surprisingly well, considering I’m allowing any sorcerer who is so inclined to enter the castle and have a face-to-face audience with me,” he answered. “Not everyone agreed, of course, but...” He sighed. “Things are getting desperate here, there’s no denying that. We have to find a way to lift this curse as soon as possible, before Camelot is washed away completely.”

“Mm.” Lamorak straightened his shoulders. “Arthur, you made the right decision. Our sorcerers may be knowledgeable, but we all know that the most powerful ones remain in hiding beyond our borders, too scared of Camelot’s previous magic laws to even enter our realms. And this rain, this curse…it’s beyond our power to defeat alone.”

“Yes.” His friend’s words gave him strength, and Arthur’s pace became stronger, more purposeful. “Yes. Already messengers have been dispatched to the neighboring regions to spread the proclamation. I expect we will have our first visitors within the next few days.”

Lamorak nodded. “And, of course, should any of them turn out to actually be dangerous, we will be there to protect you.”

Arthur grinned. “Says the man who ran screaming from the battlefield the first time he encountered a bugbear,” he said, with a snort of  mock-disdain.

Lamorak pressed a hand to his chest, feigning offense. “Why, Sire, I was merely clearing the path for your retreat. Which, as I recall, was equally if not more hasty than mine.”

“You shrieked like a little girl!”

“You actually thought you could kill it by throwing a small rock at its head!”

“My sword had been knocked out of my hand! And besides, Merlin was—”

And, just like that, the bantering ground to a halt. After a moment of awkward silence, Lamorak shifted uncomfortably on the soles of his feet. “I…I apologize, Sire. That was an inappropriate topic of conversation.”

“No.” Arthur sighed. “The fault is mine. I should never have brought up the incident in the first place.” One of the many instances, Arthur now realized, that Merlin had secretly used his powers to protect him. The bugbear hadn’t managed to crush itself in a suspiciously convenient rockslide, after all.

Lamorak was quiet for a moment longer. When he finally spoke, his voice dropped to an almost conspiratorial whisper. “Have…Have you heard any fresh news?”

Arthur shook his head. “No, I…” He looked down at his leather-gloved hands. “I continue to question any travelers who come through here, but…with the rain and the famine and everyone struggling to get by, I just haven’t had as much time. And besides, it’s been years since anyone has even recognized the name Merlin. I fear…” He swallowed. “Lamorak, I fear he has died.”

He really shouldn’t have been surprised at the fierceness of his friend’s response. “That’s ridiculous, Arthur,” he said, steel eyes glinting. “You saw what he did at the execution. He is more than capable of taking care of himself.”

“Then why have I heard nothing of him?” Arthur asked, finally granting voice to the questions he had held in his heart for the last eight years. “He knows magic is no longer banned. Why hasn’t he come back, or at least made himself known to me?”

Lamorak only shrugged. “Merlin has always been deceptively difficult to understand,” he answered, which was frustratingly not an answer at all. “What happened that day…Arthur, I imagine he lost much of his trust in you. Perhaps he just needs more time.”

Arthur sighed. “If he waits any longer, there will be no Camelot for him to return to.”

“Then let us hope,” Lamorak answered, expression grave, “that a decision is forthcoming.”

 

***

 

Three days later, Arthur awoke with a start once again from dreams of fire, smoke, screams, and accusing blue eyes. Running a shaky hand through his sweaty hair, he peered out the window at the rain that continued to patter against the glass, and heaved a sigh that seemed to rise from his very bones. This could not continue on for much longer.

The only ray of hope in their dark world was that the first of the outside sorcerers had begun trickling into the castle in response to Arthur’s proclamation. Only a few so far, and none of them had been able to find a solution to the curse or to trace its origin, but none of them had tried to kill Arthur or anyone in the castle, or given any indication that they had any other reason to be here than to try to help, so he counted it a victory.

Still, Arthur thought, after giving half his breakfast to the seamstress’s assistant and gently brushing aside her tearful thanks, things were getting quite bad. The grain stores were all but empty, the meat rooms equally so, and no hunting parties could hope to venture out in the ongoing torrent. Camelot was slowly being starved to death, and there was nothing Arthur or anyone else could do about it.

Later that evening, after dinner had been served, it was this realization, perhaps, that made Arthur look on the newest arrivals to the court with a certain amount of hopelessness. They were two boys: the older, Oren, not more than sixteen, and the younger, Oliver, about ten. They bowed low before him in the throne room, long cloaks sopping wet from the rain, and when Oren straightened up, Arthur couldn’t help but frown at the boyishness of his face. He doubted the boy had ever set foot in a tavern, much less knew anything remarkable about powerful curses, but his proclamation had stated that he would accept anyone willing to offer their services, and so he granted them the same accord he did to all sorcerers.

“Camelot welcomes you,” he said. “I am grateful for your assistance, and will provide you with the finest hospitality during your stay here.”

Oren bowed again. He had a beady-eyed raven perched on his shoulder, which cawed and regarded Arthur with something like suspicion. It was rather unnerving, coming from a bird. Arthur shook his shoulders out and straightened up in his seat. “You have come in response to our proclamation, have you not?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Oren answered. “Our master heard of your request, and sent us here to see if we couldn’t lift the curse for you.”

Arthur blinked. “Your master?”

“Yes. He is a powerful sorcerer, enough so that he bends the very world to his will. However, he chooses to live in obscurity, and we might not even have become his apprentices had he not rescued my brother and me from wild beasts five years ago.”

“Does your master have a name?”

Oren shrugged. “He goes by many names.”

Arthur had learned long ago that probing that type of response never got him anywhere. He nodded instead. “Please thank your master for his kindness when you see him next,” he said, looking at both Oren and Oliver in turn. “What do you require in order to complete your task? We will provide you with whatever resources we have available.”

Oren bowed again; the boy was well-trained in etiquette, Arthur would give him that. “Thank you, Your Majesty,” he said, “but my brother and I only require lodgings while we do our work. Everything else we have brought with us.” He indicated the large bags he and Oliver were carrying. The raven on his shoulder squawked as if in agreement.

“Hm.” Arthur just barely kept himself from sighing aloud; he would grant Oren and Oliver a fair chance like the other sorcerers, but he simply could not fathom how two so young could lift a curse so heavy. “Very well. My manservant will escort you to the guest chambers. Should you desire anything beyond the necessities, tell any of the serving staff and they will provide you with whatever you need.”

Both boys bowed again. “Thank you, Your Majesty,” they said in unison, and retreated from the room with one last squawk from the raven.

Arthur sighed and leaned back on the throne, rubbing his temples. With his nightmares showing no sign of decreasing in frequency, his body had responded by giving him migraines almost every morning. He squeezed his eyes shut in an attempt to soothe the throbbing in his head. “Have we anyone else to welcome today?”

“No more have arrived, Sire,” Leon replied, looking worried. “Perhaps you would like to leave the remainder of royal matters for tomorrow? There are none I know of that need immediate attention.”

For once, Arthur decided not to fight. He was bone-tired, frustrated, rapidly losing hope, and his head felt very much like someone was trying to split it open with an axe. He doubted he had enough energy for anything beyond his bedtime routine at this point. “Yes, Sir Leon, I think that would be best. Has anyone any opinions on our two newest arrivals?”

He looked around at the other nobles at the table. His inquiry, of course, was made largely as a courtesy; he couldn’t care less what they thought of Oren and Oliver. In fact, looking at how each person had piled his or her plate full of more food than any individual could consume in one meal, it was all Arthur could do not to send them away in place of his precious knights. How he hated politics, and the need to humor these spoiled, foolish socialites in their delusions of grandeur. They needed to maintain their alliances so that Camelot would retain her power once the curse was lifted.

If it was lifted.

Lord Bain, a portly man in his mid-fifties, dabbed at his lips with his napkin before straightening up. “I for one, Sire,” he said, “and you should not take this as an insult, Sire, or anything but my own conjecture, Sire, but I do think, Sire, that these two latest sorcerers cannot be trusted.”

Arthur blinked. Bain, though possessing little more intelligence than the chair he was currently sitting on, nevertheless had enough experience in the realm of tact and politics to think a long time before voicing such a strong opinion. His sudden conclusion about Oren and Oliver surprised Arthur, so much so that he had said, “Please elaborate,” before he even fully registered it.

“Well, Sire,” Bain answered, drawing his not unremarkable eyebrows together, “and I do mean no harm by this, Sire, but the fact that these two claim that their master sent them to solve the problem? It makes me rather suspicious, Sire. I feel that, had I been in the position of the sorcerer responsible for this curse—and I would never be in this position, Sire, you know I am only loyal to you, Sire—but had I been in the position, I might want to send spies to the court to see the extent of my work.”

Arthur barely refrained from laughing outright at that. What a ridiculous notion. Looking at Oren, it was obvious the boy couldn’t tell a lie had he a blade to his throat. And Oliver, why, he was hardly big enough to carry his own bag, much less be part of anything even remotely sinister. “Lord Bain, while I acknowledge your concerns, I do believe you’re overreaching a little.”

“Why, of course, Sire, I meant no offense, Sire,” Bain answered, looking a tad bit confused, but whatever he was going to say next was cut off by Lady Rohesia.

“But you must see, Your Majesty, that their timing is rather suspicious,” she said, playing daintily with her wine goblet, and Arthur frowned. Again, while Rohesia certainly wasn’t the brightest star in Camelot’s sky, she usually didn’t bother getting swept up in courtly discussions like this, preferring to gossip about the latest fashions and fine jewelry.

“To arrive here in Camelot right when we are at our weakest,” Rohesia continued, with a little frown line between her eyebrows, as if she was having trouble comprehending the words coming out of her own mouth, “on the behest of a mysterious sorcerer who will not even grant us his name…you must admit, Your Majesty, these are rather dubious circumstances.”

Arthur tilted his head. “They came because I sent out a proclamation asking for them,” he said. “How does that render the timing of their arrival suspicious?”

“But what of their master, Sire?” Bain offered. “If he is capable of lifting the curse himself, Sire, then why did he choose to send his pupils instead, Sire?”

“I’m sure he has his reasons.” Arthur looked around at the rest of his court, scratching worriedly at his thigh beneath the table. He was positive that Oren and Oliver held no malice toward Camelot; he usually had good intuition about these things, and anyone with a head on their shoulders could see that the boys could do no harm even if they wanted to. Perhaps Lord Bain and Lady Rohesia had simply had a little too much to drink. Gods only knew that happened frequently enough.

“Well then,” he said, having made up his mind on the matter. “Does anyone else have any opinions?”

Silence and quietly shaken heads were his only answer, and Arthur nodded, rising from his seat. “Very well, then. Please enjoy the rest of your meal, and the entertainment to follow. Should you have need of me, I will be in my chambers.”

A chorus of “Good night”s followed him out the door. Arthur squared his shoulders and stopped the first servant who passed him in the hallway. “Have the older of the two sorcerers who arrived today report to my chambers as soon as he is able,” he said. “I have an important matter to discuss with him.”

The servant bowed and hurried off. Arthur nodded to himself and headed toward the north stairwell. His conversation with Lamorak earlier in the week had reminded him that, in addition to combating what now plagued Camelot, he also had an equally important yet far more personal mission to pursue.

 

Approximately an hour later, Arthur was interrupted in his perusal of the latest crop reports—abysmal, as was to be expected—by a soft knock on the door. “Come in,” he said, setting his quill aside. The migraine had, thankfully, receded with time, and he was feeling much more amenable to company now.

The door opened and Oren poked his head in, looking uncertain. His raven scrabbled for purchase on his shoulder, cawing indignantly as if displeased with being moved from its quarters. “You asked for me, Your Majesty?”

“Yes. Have a seat wherever you’d like. Close the door behind you.”

The young sorcerer obeyed, casting about for a moment before perching himself cautiously onto the least comfortable chair in the room. Arthur suppressed a smile. The way Oren looked wide-eyed around at Arthur’s chambers, as of a child brought to the fair for the first time, was exactly the reason why Arthur knew neither he nor his brother were here to harm them.

“Would you like something to eat?” he asked, rising from the table and taking a moment to stretch sore muscles. “I’m afraid we don’t have much variety at the moment, but I could have someone fetch something from the storage rooms if you so wish.”

Oren immediately shook his head. “No, Your Majesty, we brought more than enough for ourselves,” he said. “Our master knows how important it is that we not impinge upon your kingdom’s food supply.”

Arthur smiled, and it came surprisingly easy. “Your master sounds very kind.”

“Indeed he is,” Oren answered. “In fact, he insisted we pack an extra bag of food to leave here for you. It’s not much, just a few pounds of dried meat and some bread, but he thought you might need it.” At Arthur’s stunned silence, he ducked his head shyly. “You can, um, consider it a payment for lodgings if you so wish. I already asked a servant to take it to the storerooms.”

“I see.” Arthur ran a hand through his hair, unsure of how to properly express his gratitude. It was true, a few pounds of food was not very much, but it could feed an entire family for a week, maybe two if they stretched it. “Please thank your master for his generosity. I cannot…it is much appreciated.”

The raven ruffled up its feathers and set to preening one of its wings. Oren looked to the ground and frowned. “We understand your people are suffering, Your Majesty,” he said, “and please believe us when we say we will do everything in our power to lift the curse that has been placed upon your lands. My master himself is looking into the matter as well.”

Arthur blinked. “If he is investigating things himself, why send you and your brother here?”

“He felt we might be more likely to find something if we were closer to where it’s happening,” Oren answered with a shrug.

“And what have you found so far?”

“Very little. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” Arthur took a seat in his armchair across from Oren, the fire in the hearth casting flickering shadows across them both. “You and your brother have time yet. I have every confidence you will find a way to help us.”

At that, Oren smiled, just a small upturning of the corners of his mouth. “Our master told us you might say something like that,” he said, and Arthur laughed outright.

“Did he now? He must be very powerful indeed, if he can predict the King of Camelot’s very words.”

“Just so,” Oren replied. “We’ve not had much of a chance to witness the full extent of his powers, but what we have seen has been quite impressive indeed.”

“Then I shall hope that, should you and your brother find yourselves struggling, your master will be willing to come to your aid.”

Oren smiled again. “He will certainly consider it.”

Silence for a moment. Oren finally broke it, tilting his head. “If I may be so bold, Sire,” he said, “I assume you did not summon me merely to ask about my master. Is there something else you needed of me?”

Arthur nodded. “Yes. It is a matter of great personal importance to me, if not for Camelot. For that reason, I ask that you keep this conversation in your complete confidence.”

“Of course, Sire.”

“Have you heard wind at all of a sorcerer named Merlin?”

Oren knit his eyebrows together and considered the question. The raven on his shoulder finished preening, shook out its feathers, and cawed. The sound seemed to rouse Oren from his contemplation, because he looked back at Arthur and straightened his shoulders. “I’m afraid not,” he said. “Not that name.”

Arthur turned away from the apology in his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose against the wave of disappointment that welled up inside him. Really, he should be used to it by now; no one had seen or heard anything of Merlin in years. Why would a sixteen-year-old boy know any different? “Very well. That’s all I wished to ask.”

“If I may be so bold, Sire,” Oren said, “who is this Merlin?”

Arthur sighed. “A…A friend,” he said. “Someone I lost a long time ago.”

“I see.” Oren dropped his gaze. “I’m sorry. I do hope you find him again.”

“Me too,” Arthur answered. “We will have much to discuss.”

Oren nodded. “I’ve never had much in the way of friends,” he admitted, voice dropping low. “All my life, I have always been more concerned with taking care of Oliver. From what I hear, though, a good friend is a truly rare gift. I hope you and this Merlin will meet again in the future.”

“That will be up to him, I suppose,” Arthur answered, before rising, prompting Oren to do the same. “Thank you for indulging my whim, Oren. I wish you and your brother the best of luck in finding a way to break our curse.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.” They clasped hands and Oren retreated with one last bow.

When the door had shut behind him, Arthur finally allowed himself to slump back onto his chair in defeat. No matter what Lamorak said, he would never find Merlin this way; if the sorcerer did not want his whereabouts known, which Arthur rather suspected to be the case, then Arthur would never be able to locate him by hearsay alone. Yet his duties as King of Camelot prevented him from frivolous trips into the countryside just to search for his old friend. It was beginning to look like eight years would eventually become an eternity.

Arthur didn’t want that. He’d lived eight years without Merlin, but each day felt like a harder battle than the previous. He needed Merlin, needed his bumbling carelessness, his irreverence and the way he made up ridiculous names to call Arthur and his stupid hair and his big plate-sized ears. Even more than that, he needed Merlin’s smile, the whisper of Merlin’s fingers on his skin, the amused glint of his blue eyes. Merlin may have committed the crime of sorcery eight years ago and been sentenced to death as a result, but the truth was he’d been guilty of a far greater crime long before that: he’d gone and conquered Arthur’s soul.

 

EIGHT YEARS AGO

 

“Will that be all, Sire?” Merlin asked, gathering up the last of Arthur’s discarded clothing.

From his place seated at his desk, Arthur rolled his eyes and gave as put-upon a sigh as he could manage. “No, Merlin, that will not be all,” he said. “Did you forget that you still have to polish my armor, soften my favorite belt, and sharpen my sword?”

“What’s the big rush? It’s not like you have a tourney coming up or anything,” Merlin said, trying to arrange the laundry into some sort of manageable pile in his arms.

Arthur huffed and barely refrained from throwing something hard and possibly pointy at his manservant’s head. “Merlin, I know this is beyond your limited capacity to understand, but as a knight, and the leader of the knights at that, it is always imperative that I keep my weaponry in top condition at all times. You wouldn’t want the castle to be attacked this very minute, and for me to go out to fight the enemy with a dull sword, now would you?”

“If that didn’t work, I’m sure your charming personality would do the trick.”

“I heard that!”

Several minutes and another round of bickering later, Merlin finally turned toward the door, trying and failing to conceal his grin. “Good night, Sire.”

“Merlin, wait.” His manservant obediently paused by the door, and Arthur got up from the table, searching through the drawers of his nightstand. “Just wait a moment, I need to…where is the blasted thing?”

“Arthur?”

“A-ha!” Arthur straightened, holding up the unassuming-looking package. It was roughly rectangular and wrapped in one of his old cloaks that had been ripped beyond repair during a particularly botched assassination attempt. Swallowing and feeling suddenly awkward—really an emotion very unbecoming of a Crown Prince—he crossed the room and shoved the package nearly right into Merlin’s face. “Here. Um. Take this.”

He didn’t really think he deserved the wary look Merlin gave him. “What is it?” his manservant asked. “It’d better not be another frog. Or another fancy hat.”

“No, I…” Arthur sighed. “Look, I just…sometimes—very rarely, I’ll emphasize—you actually do a decent job of being my manservant, and then Gwen might have mentioned to me that tomorrow is, you know, something of a special occasion, and I just thought…”

He trailed off, unsure, and damnit, only Merlin could make him go from confident prince to mumbling idiot in two seconds flat. One of his many talents, no doubt, before the ability to trip on nothing but air and behind the ability to aggravate Arthur beyond all reason at least three times a day.

The silence persisted for a moment, during which Arthur continued to hold the package shoved up against Merlin’s chest like some sort of ridiculously foiled stabbing attempt. Then, all of a sudden, Merlin’s face broke into the most blinding grin Arthur had ever seen, and it took all the prince’s effort not to stumble back, it was so overwhelming.

“You,” Merlin said, taking the package from Arthur with reverent fingers. “Arthur, you got me a present for my birthday.”

Arthur coughed, feeling heat rise to his cheeks, and really, it wasn’t his fault Merlin was so damned beautiful when he smiled and made Arthur want to do anything to keep that smile on his face forever. “Now don’t go getting any ideas,” he managed to say. “I had this made a long time ago as a reward for your long years of service. The fact that I happened to receive it just a few days before your birthday is…complete coincidence.”

When Merlin only continued to grin at him, he scowled as darkly as he could manage. “What?

“You had this made for me?” Merlin asked, and Arthur realized with sudden horror what he’d just admitted to. “Why, Arthur, how very noble of you.”

“I didn’t—I mean—oh, will you just shut up and open the damned thing, Merlin.”

“As you wish, Sire.” Merlin let the pile of laundry drop to the ground—and Arthur would give him grief about that later, he really would, as soon as he stopped holding his breath as he tracked his manservant’s every move—and began picking apart the knot on the package. It was expertly tied—Arthur should know, he’d done it himself—and after a few moments of futile poking and prodding, Arthur huffed and snatched the package from Merlin’s hands.

“Honestly, Merlin, you can’t even be trusted to open your own gifts,” he muttered, untying the knot in seconds, removing the plain wooden box from within, and shoving it at his manservant. “Here.”

Merlin, to his credit, was too distracted by the contents of the box to come up with a suitable retort to Arthur’s insult. His eyes widened as he pulled the item from the box. “Arthur, I…wow.

The dagger was a simple affair, at least by noble standards, but then again, Arthur hadn’t been concerned about such trivial matters as wealth and status when he’d commissioned Tom to forge it. A six-inch, carefully-polished stiletto blade extended from a solid oak handle, bare of decoration except for a single blood-red ruby embedded into the hilt, and the fierce and familiar dragon carved into the base of the handle, pronouncing the dagger’s wielder under the patronage of Camelot and the Pendragon line. The sheath was equally simple, sanded wood stained to a deep earth-brown, wrapped all around by a twisting vine intricately hand-carved into the solid surface. Arthur still hadn’t quite discerned why he’d insisted on the vine. Perhaps it was the fact that Merlin always reminded him of the earth, somehow.

Silence stretched for a long, agonizing moment as Merlin continued to stare at the dagger, and Arthur continued to stare at him. When at last the quiet became unbearable, Arthur shifted and cleared his throat. “I thought, you know, since you’re always the one running around and screaming like a little girl when we get attacked, you might feel better having something to defend yourself with.”

“I do not—” Merlin seemed to decide the point wasn’t even worth arguing—and to Arthur, it really wasn’t, he’d not met anyone more useless than Merlin on the battlefield—and instead, he shook his head, looking at the dagger with something like awe. “I just…Arthur, I really don’t know what to say.”

“Well, a thank you would be nice, for starters,” Arthur said, trying and failing to sound put-upon.

“I…” Merlin looked up, blue eyes shining, and it lit all sorts of warm, wonderful things in Arthur’s heart to see him so happy. “Thank you, Arthur. It’s beautiful. Thank you.”

“You’re, ah, welcome.”

They stood there, staring at each other, for another long moment. The tension grew, a strange hot electricity buzzing up between them. Merlin’s eyes were bright with emotion, and Arthur swallowed as an unexplained heat rose within his veins, and—and yes, he’d thought of Merlin that way, sometimes—all right, maybe quite a few times, when he knew no one else was around and he had the privacy of his own fantasies, but—but Merlin couldn’t possibly return his feelings, he’d never given any indication—except there was an unmistakable heat in his manservant’s eyes, a desire, a want, and Arthur couldn’t—dear gods, if something didn’t happen right now he was probably going to do something very regrettable—

“Well,” Merlin said at last, lowering his gaze, and just like that, the moment was broken. “I, um, I guess I’d better get going. Your armor won’t polish itself, after all. Thank you again for the gift, Arthur.”

He made a stumbling turn toward the door, clutching the dagger to his chest, and the loss of what they had just shared was so great Arthur felt it like a physical pain in his gut. And, just like that, in the two steps it took Merlin to reach the door, he made a decision.

To hell with it. Arthur was condemned to a life not his own; he figured he deserved one good thing along the way.

“Merlin,” he said, stepping forward, and the half-second it took Merlin to turn around was all Arthur needed to reach him.

The kiss wasn’t spectacular by any means. They bumped noses on the way in, and Arthur hadn’t quite aimed right and so ended up with his lips pressed somewhere in the vicinity of Merlin’s chin, but Merlin didn’t seem to care. He grabbed Arthur’s shirt immediately, hauling him in and angling his head just so and then they were kissing, a dry meeting of lips that soon turned into a tangle of eager tongues as they explored each other for the first time.

Merlin tasted vaguely of the sweetbread he’d pilfered from the kitchens earlier, and just a tang of the wine Arthur knew he’d been sneaking out of the pitcher behind his back, but underneath that he was all Merlin and Arthur groaned, pulling Merlin to him and trying his level best to reach the back of his throat with his tongue, because this? This was everything that had been missing in his life. This was the tingling of his fingers wanting to touch something he could not, except now he could, Merlin was letting him, and the first chance Arthur got he was going to lay Merlin out on his bed and run his fingers over every inch of his bare skin—

The sharp knock at the door startled them both. Arthur pulled back so fast his head spun, or maybe that was just from the intensity of the kiss. Either way, the way Merlin was looking at him, dazed and incoherent, meant his manservant was no better off. Arthur forgot for a moment why they had broken apart in the first place. There was no way to respond to Merlin looking so dishevelled and flushed and yes, lustful, without pulling him back in for another kiss, but just as Arthur reached out for him again another knock sounded out, followed by a muffled, “Sire?”

Huffing out a breath, Arthur cleared his throat and said, “Yes?” If his voice came out a bit hoarser than usual, well, he could hardly be blamed for it.

The door opened, and one of the castle servants poked his head in. “Your father requests your presence in his chambers, Sire,” he said, and if he noticed the way both Merlin and Arthur looked flushed and guilty and about one heartbeat away from ravishing each other, he chose not to mention it. “He wishes to ask your advice regarding a Mercian battalion spotted within Camelot’s borders. I’m afraid it’s an urgent matter.”

Arthur looked at Merlin, whose mouth twitched upward in a smile. He coughed, cleared his throat, coughed again. “Yes. Thank you. I’ll be right there.”

The servant bowed and left. Merlin and Arthur looked at each other for a long time. At long last, Merlin ducked his head, although he was still smiling. “You should go and attend to your father.”

“Uh, yes.” Arthur stepped forward. “Merlin, I…are you…?”

“If you’re going to ask if I’m alright with what happened, then yes, Arthur, I am more than alright,” Merlin answered, before a stain of pink colored his cheeks and he averted his gaze. “I, ah…I’ll admit I’d been thinking about that for a while.”

“I see.” Arthur nodded, all of a sudden needing to look at anything that wasn’t Merlin. “I, ah…despite the fact that it is unbecoming a Crown Prince to…I mean there was the difference in our stations to consider, and, that is…I just…” He sighed, resigning himself to something simpler that would make him sound less like an idiot. “Me too, Merlin. Me too.”

Merlin smiled again, bright and dazzling. It made Arthur want to kiss him, and then he realized with sudden elation that he could, and so they spent the next few moments with their hands all over each other like two country boys experimenting in the village storeroom. When Arthur finally pulled back, it was only far enough to rest his forehead against Merlin’s, their shared air hot and intimate between them.

“We shall have to be discreet about this,” he whispered, as if the very walls were listening in. “My father…he would not approve.”

“I highly doubt he approves of anything you or anyone else does here,” Merlin countered, but made no other attempt to argue. “Don’t worry, Arthur. If this…if this is what we both want, then I’ll take it however I can get it.”

“All right.” Arthur took a breath, feeling with it a great weight lifted from his shoulders, because he realized that he could have this, that he probably had it a long time ago. Darting forward, he pressed another quick kiss to Merlin’s lips, soft and chaste. “I should go.”

“Yes, of course.” Merlin stepped back, the both of them frowning at the sudden space between them. He shook himself after a moment, though, and gave Arthur another bright smile. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Very well.” Arthur stepped toward the door, and it was not until he had it half open that he remembered. “Oh, and Merlin?”

“Hm?”

“Pick that laundry up off the floor.”

A sigh. “As you wish, Sire.”

 

***

 

Arthur groaned, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes until bright bursts of color sparked out in the darkness. Sometimes he wished he didn’t remember that night so clearly, didn’t remember the warm press of Merlin’s lips against his or the bony curves of his hips under Arthur’s palms. He didn’t regret it, of course; had he known what would happen the day after their first kiss, he still would not have changed a thing that night. What he felt for Merlin, and what he hoped Merlin still felt for him…no amount of distance could change that.

Still, that hadn’t made the next few days any less of a nightmare.

As with that fateful night, Arthur remembered all the details far too clearly for his liking. The battalion from Mercia had turned out to be far more than the idle threat he and Uther had agreed them to be, that night when they’d met in his father’s chambers. They had arrived at the castle the following afternoon, a group of six knights and one nobleman, announcing that they were here to invite Uther for negotiations to define new borders between Mercia and Camelot.

Except no, that hadn’t been their intention at all, because mere moments after the nobleman made his announcement, all the candles in the hall had gone out. In the ensuing confusion, the nobleman raised his hand, shouted something in a language Arthur didn’t recognize, but there was no mistaking the glowing blue fireball he summoned in his hands. And even as those around them had yelled and scrambled and screamed, “Sorcerer!”, the assassin lifted his hand and hurled the fireball at Arthur and Arthur had tried to duck, to get out of the way but there were people on all sides and he couldn’t move fast enough and—

And then there’d been a shout, an explosion and a flash of light, and when Arthur dared lift his head again the sorcerer and all his bodyguards lay flattened on the ground. And in front of him stood Merlin, hand outstretched, and when he turned to look at Arthur, his eyes glowed gold.

Arthur didn’t remember what he’d said to Merlin at that point. He was pretty sure he didn’t say anything. His words, then, had no power.

Uther’s did, however. His father immediately had Merlin arrested and thrown into the dungeon, and when Arthur finally gathered his wits about him enough to protest, his father had promptly locked him inside his chambers. It was there, throat hoarse from shouting and knuckles bruised from hitting the walls in frustration, that he heard the news from Gwen, tears streaming down her face as she said, He’s to be executed, Arthur. Tomorrow, at dawn.

Arthur, of course, had done everything in his power to stop it. He’d demanded to see his father, ranted at the guards when they refused to do as he said, threatened them with all manner of ugly disembowelment for their defiance. He’d searched every inch of his chambers for a way to escape, a way to get to the dungeons and rescue Merlin, but Uther had learned from his previous attempts, and nothing budged, nothing gave to any of Arthur’s efforts.

Arthur wasn’t the only one who had protested Merlin’s sentence. Even locked within his chambers, he still heard the echoes of Morgana’s screams, the shattering of various expensive things being thrown around, her venomous accusations making even Arthur wince. Gwen received five lashes for trying to break Merlin out of the dungeons. Arthur’s knights were given a stern warning: mention Merlin’s name, and they would be joining him at the stake the next morning for aiding a sorcerer.

And then, later that night, when Arthur’s furious demands had turned into desperate pleas, his father finally deigned to visit him. Their conversation lasted for all of one minute, and when Uther walked out of the room, Arthur didn’t say another word.

The morning arrived. The pyre was built and, just like in his dream, Arthur could only watch as Merlin was led to the stake. His father’s words echoed in his head, a warning, a sentence. I have until now spared Merlin’s companions, but if you do anything to stop this, I will have to have them investigated. And if it is determined that any of them even suspected him of sorcery, I will have them executed. Gaius, Gwen, your faithful knights. Think, Arthur. Do you really want to risk the lives of so many just to save this traitor?

That day, Arthur’s words lost their power.

Merlin was tied to the stake. His last words, accusatory and utterly betrayed, seared themselves into Arthur’s brain like the worst of brands. But that was where the dreams deviated from reality.

Merlin never even let the knight get close enough to light the pyre. The instant the torch came forward, he let loose with a roar so powerful it seemed Arthur’s brains would bleed right out of his ears, and when the screaming and the shouting started and he finally looked up, a giant black dragon stood in the middle of the courtyard. Its scales shone like onyx, its deep red eyes glowing embers of hate, and as Arthur watched, the dragon—Merlin—launched itself from the ground with a powerful beat of its wings, launched itself straight for him with open mouth and gleaming teeth and Arthur thought, This is it, this is my punishment.

Except Merlin did not kill him. Sharp winds tore at his clothes as Merlin hovered in the air before him, and Arthur had barely time to straighten up when Merlin opened his mouth and roared again, hot breath seeming to set Arthur’s very bones on fire as he was blown backward through the window behind him, landing dazed within the castle walls amidst a shower of broken glass.

When he finally summoned enough strength to scramble to his feet and run back onto the balcony, Merlin was gone. Only a few deep gouges in the earth and a crumbling wall remained, the last remnants of Arthur’s manservant, his friend, his everything.

Two days after Merlin’s disappearance, Gwaine came to Arthur, crimson cloak fisted carelessly in his hand. My loyalty is to him, not you, he spat, shoving the cloth at Arthur as if he wished it were his sword. I’ve no reason to stay.

Morgana, also, grew bitter and cold after that day. She barely spoke to Arthur, to Uther not at all, and when Uther finally died two years after Merlin’s disappearance, she came to Arthur and told him she was going to stay with Mordred and the Druids.

My kind does not belong here, she’d said. Camelot is poisoned.

As far as Arthur was aware, she remained with the Druids still. He’d not spoken with his half-sister in six years. He didn’t think they would have much to converse about these days.

Gaius didn’t take it well. Uther spared him on account of his many years of loyal servitude, yet the loss of Merlin was simply too much for the old man to bear. Not six months after that fateful day, Gaius developed a cough in his chest that rattled and made terrible sucking sounds. Four days later, they buried him.

Gwen, through all of it, had been his rock. She’d been gentle and supportive, and, despite her own grief at Merlin’s loss, had done her best to make things easier for him. Arthur had asked her to marry him, a few months after Uther died. He needed a queen, after all, and she was so strong-hearted, so fair. But he’d also been less than surprised when she had refused. Lancelot, she’d said, eyes sad but firm, and Arthur nodded and couldn’t hate either of them. At least Gwen still wrote him occasionally, though, from the earldom where she and Lancelot now resided. At least she did not hate him for what he had done.

Merlin, though. Six years since Arthur had lifted the ban on magic, his very first edict as Camelot’s new King, yet Merlin had shown no sign of his location, his well-being, even whether or not he was alive. And now, with the torrential rains threatening to drown Camelot in flood and famine, Arthur couldn’t search for him. Could only ask passers-by like Oren from other kingdoms whether or not they’d heard any news of him, any news of a young sorcerer who could take the form of a dragon. Like a lost child searching for his parents in the marketplace, Arthur had been reduced to tugging on sleeves and begging for information.

He sighed, peering into the fire, the crackle of flames that danced orange and yellow and red, but not gold, never gold. Merlin, he thought, quiet, desperate. Wherever you are. Please, be safe.

 

Over the next few days, the rains maintained their assault on the lands, the nobles of Arthur’s court continued to be frivolous and wasteful and generally irritating, and Oren and Oliver redoubled their efforts to find a solution to the curse. No other sorcerers arrived at the court, although Arthur could hardly blame them: the roads were all but unusable now, drenched in rain and muddy cesspools, and Oren, in a rare lapse of his usual formality, informed Arthur with a grin that many a sorcerer had tried to magic his way through a thunderstorm and ended up upside-down in a tree for his trouble.

Arthur, for his part, welcomed the relative peace that came with routine. With fewer knights to train and little pressing official business to attend to because of the rain, he found himself spending more time alone in his room in quiet contemplation, and had even taken to rereading some old books he’d first read in adolescence. The migraines were all but gone, and though the nightmares remained, they had seemed to decrease in intensity such that he woke most mornings feeling suitably refreshed. In fact, Arthur could not recall a time in the recent past that he had felt so strong. Certainly not in the eight years since Mer—well. It had just been a long time.

The only part of his life that dampened his mood—in addition to the continuing rain, of course—was the behavior of the nobles in his court. Ever since Oren and Oliver’s arrival, Arthur couldn’t help but notice that several of the nobility in addition to Lord Bain and Lady Rohesia had expressed open suspicion of the two young sorcerers. Even a few of his magical advisers had voiced opinions, which Arthur found particularly strange, given they were the ones he would most have expected sympathy from.

He himself could find no support for their claims. Oren and Oliver threw themselves into their work with enthusiasm and solemnity of purpose, the guest chambers filled at all hours of the day with the echoes of their whispered enchantments and the intriguing aromas of the various potions they concocted. Arthur had even more than once borne witness to Oren standing alone in the middle of the courtyard, drenched to the bone and shivering with cold as he raised his arms to the sky and shouted out spell after spell in an attempt to stave off the rain. Arthur could not have asked for more devotion or effort from his best knights. Perhaps the nobles were simply tiring of the stagnancy and taking out their frustration on whoever seemed best suited.

It was no different that evening in the banquet hall. Arthur had made it a point to request that the two young sorcerers join them for dinner every night, and though he made every effort to make them feel welcomed, anyone could tell that Oren and Oliver were uncomfortable with the circumstances. True to their word, they brought their own food to the table, simple sweetmeats, dried fruits and bread, and the way they carefully rationed everything while looking about the place with bare-faced awe told Arthur they’d had little experience of wealth before. They sat at the very end of the table, Oren placing himself firmly between his brother and the door through which any attack could come, but Arthur didn’t miss how he edged steadily closer to Oliver each night, pressed close to him as if he could use his body as a shield against any assault.

Arthur didn’t blame him. The other people at the tables were becoming more and more vocal about their suspicions, to the point where he was seriously considering having Lord Bain checked over by the court physician for sickness. Twice now the portly man had made a blatantly loud comment about their purpose here, questioning their motives and their devotion to the task, and he seemed even worse tonight. Arthur gritted his teeth, keeping a white-knuckled grip on his wine goblet as he listened to Bain make his declarations further down the table, red-faced and gesticulating wildly as if under some terrible fever.

“What I don’t understand,” he boomed, and Arthur winced at the volume, watching in a mix of sympathy and apology as Oren and Oliver concentrated on their food and tried to pretend they couldn’t hear what he was saying, “is why it is taking them so long to come up with a solution. Magic is supposed to be powerful, is it not? Then why have you been here near a week and shown nothing for your efforts?”

Oliver jutted out his lower lip and made as if to respond, eyes angry and indignant as only a child could be, but Oren silenced him with a hand on his shoulder and a shake of his head. That did nothing to deter Bain, however, who looked directly at him and demanded, “What progress have you made? Have you even an inkling of what might be causing our suffering?”

Oren straightened up, having no longer an excuse to feign deafness, and said, softly, apologetically, “It is difficult, my Lord. Magic so powerful cannot be traced so easily, nor disbanded.” The raven on his shoulder cawed as if in agreement, beady eyes glittering.

Bain, for his part, just scoffed. “Difficult,” he repeated, as if the very word were poison. “Yes, I assume it is difficult for two little boys as incompetent as you. Has your great and all-powerful master taught you nothing? Has he had the two of you carrying his travel packs and cleaning up his horse’s droppings all these years?”

The raven squawked. Oliver, heedless of Oren’s attempts to stop him, leaped to his feet. “You’re one to talk!” he shouted. “You just sit here and look fat and eat too much!”

“Oliver!” Oren hissed, pushing at his brother, but unfortunately that seemed to be just the opening Lord Bain needed.

“Is that what you think, little boy?” he sneered, throwing his napkin down and rising from his seat.

“Lord Bain,” Arthur said, a warning in his voice, but rather than sitting back down and shutting up as was Arthur’s desire, Bain spun on him immediately.

“You cannot be misled by these tricksters, Sire!” he shouted, jabbing a fat, sausage-shaped finger at Oren and Oliver. “It is clear they are behind the curse! They have infiltrated this castle as spies, Sire, and they must be arrested at once, Sire!”

Bain!” Arthur slammed his fists down on the table and rose. “You would do well to cease this nonsense right now.”

But even before Bain could respond, Lady Rohesia rose beside him. “I am in accord with Lord Bain, Your Majesty,” she said, glaring at the two young sorcerers. “What is your true purpose here? Have you come to see us all decimated at last?”

“Please, we’re only here to help,” Oren protested, but it was drowned out by the voices of the other nobles, all of whom were now leaping to their feet. Goblets tipped over, food spilled onto the ground as angry shouts filled the hall.

“You should never have come here!”

“You’ll be the end of us all!”

Silence!” Arthur bellowed, but it was as if they had all gone deaf to him, the situation suddenly completely, frighteningly out of his control, and when had this happened? What in the world was going on?

Death to all sorcerers!” Bain suddenly yelled, eyes bugging with hatred and the strange glitter of insanity. “Guards! Cut them down at once!”

“Let’s see your precious master save you now!” Rohesia screeched, and as Arthur saw his knights—his own knights—reach for their swords with bared teeth and wild eyes, he scrambled forward, furious, panicked and utterly confused, but still knowing that he had to get to Oren and Oliver, had to protect them somehow from the insanity of his own courtiers.

Oren shouted something that was lost in the din, grabbing for Oliver and trying to drag him toward the nearest window. Arthur leaped over the table and made a dash for them, determined to help them in any way he could.

The raven on Oren’s shoulder seemed to consider the situation. A second later, it lifted its head, spread its wings and unleashed a sharp, booming call.

Shouts and strangled gasps were heard as everyone abruptly flew back into their chairs, slammed down onto the cushions and pressed against the hard wooden backs as if invisible chains had materialized to trap them there. The guards at the door crumpled to the floor like puppets whose strings had suddenly been cut. Arthur somehow found himself back in his own chair, yet though he saw the way the other nobles around the table struggled to move, he found he could do so without effort.

He was still registering the fact when the raven cawed again. Oren and Oliver were crouched in the corner, wide-eyed and trembling, and as Arthur watched, the raven launched itself from Oren’s shoulder, sailing down toward the front of the hall, growing larger and bulkier as it approached.

A rush of cold air sighed out like an old man resting weary bones, and when next Arthur looked, a tall man knelt before him in front of the table, head bowed low. His long black cloak spilled along the stone floor like a dead woman’s locks, and the hood pulled over his head concealed much of his face, so that all Arthur could discern in the flickering candlelight was the curve of a pale square chin.

Silence fell. Out of the corners of his eyes Arthur saw the other courtiers struggling against their invisible restraints, their mouths open in snarls and furious shouts, but no sounds came out. Arthur stared at the man before him, unsure of whether or not to go for the sword at his belt. After a moment, Oren got shakily to his feet, clutching Oliver to his chest as he whispered, “Master.”

The cloaked man straightened up at the title, but did not look in their direction. Instead, he continued to face Arthur straight on as he reached up and pulled the hood back.

Arthur’s entire world abruptly ground to a halt.

The face before him had aged with the years, soft lines and smooth skin now chiseled into hard angles and a dusting of dark stubble along the jawline. The hair was longer, the shoulders broader and the clothing different, yet Arthur could still recognize those eyes, jaded and darkened as they were, from the sparkling clarity of his dreams.

He took a trembling breath, hardly daring to spare enough of it to whisper, “Merlin.” It came out soft, reverent, almost fearful, as if by simple utterance of the name Arthur would make the whole apparition disappear.

Merlin didn’t answer immediately. He only watched Arthur, and Arthur watched him, and it seemed for the long moment that followed that it was only the two of them in the room, in the entire universe. Arthur could think of nothing to say, too busy trying to remember how to breathe, trying to calm the pounding of his heart and the sudden rush of blood in his ears. Dear gods, Merlin was alive. And not only that, Merlin had returned.

The silence continued. Merlin watched Arthur with unreadable eyes. Then, at last, when Oliver shifted closer to his brother and made a soft, scared sound, Merlin finally straightened up, inclining his head to Arthur in a formal acknowledgement. “Your Majesty,” he said, and it took all Arthur had not to flinch at the voice, so strong, so familiar, so painful to hear when for the past eight years he’d only heard it shouting at him in accusation.

Merlin seemed to have no patience for a reply. Lifting his hand palm up, he whispered something low and unintelligible, and Arthur swallowed when gold sparked out in the half-darkness. Instantly all the candles in the room seemed to dim, everything blanketed in a deep gray haze as if someone had pulled a partially translucent shroud over Arthur’s eyes, and when he blinked and looked around he was shocked to see what looked like swirling black smoke gathered over every person in the room save himself, Merlin, Oren and Oliver. The smoke clung to each person like some sort of mutated infant, obscuring their eyes and their sneering mouths, and as Arthur watched Merlin whispered something else in that strange language, looking down at his open palm.

The patches of smoke immediately detached from their hosts, flying through the air as if pulled by invisible strings to gather in the palm of Merlin’s hand. A breath from Merlin, a firm closing of his fist, and the smoke dissipated, banished into nothing as cleanly as window dust swept away by a breeze.

The room lightened again. The nobles stirred in their chairs, blinking slowly and looking around at each other in confusion. From his place near the end of the table, Lord Bain pressed a hand to his head, groaning. “Oh, I believe I may have gone a little overboard with the wine today,” he said, before blinking when he finally noticed the new arrival in the room. “Ah, Sire, who is that?”

“This.” Arthur swallowed, feeling it somehow appropriate to rise from his seat because Merlin deserved the honor, had earned it, had obtained rights to it even before he’d left eight years ago. “This is—”

“Sire!” The doors at the back of the hall flew open, and Leon and Lamorak rushed in, swords drawn. Lamorak was the one who had spoken. “We heard shouting and came to—dear gods. Merlin?

An instant murmur spread through all gathered, as the nobles turned to each other with incredulous whispers.

“Did he say Merlin?”

“The King’s manservant?”

“Was he not executed years ago?”

Silence.” The room fell quiet at Arthur’s command. He took a deep breath, lifted his chin, and nodded at Merlin. “Yes, this is Merlin, my former manservant, who now appears to be a very powerful sorcerer, if the way he freed you all of a very nasty spell just now is any indication.”

Rohesia gasped and started patting at her clothing, as if she might somehow still have remnants of the magic contained in the expensive linens. “A spell? My goodness, what a scandal!”

“My apologies, Your Majesty,” Merlin said, bowing once again, and Arthur swallowed, not quite liking the formal, almost stilted tone of his voice, so unlike the good-natured insolence of the Merlin he remembered. “Had I known that the enemies of Camelot had ensorcelled your court as well as the climate, I would have intervened much earlier.”

Arthur coughed, looked at Merlin, tried a tentative smile. “Yes, well, you’re here now, aren’t you?” he said.

Merlin did not smile back. Arthur felt something cold and clammy wrap around his heart as Merlin straightened and smoothed down his cloak, still speaking in that frustratingly formal tone as he said, “I thank you, Your Majesty, for being so kind to my apprentices during their stay here. I will retire to their chambers now, to continue seeking out the cause of Camelot’s current predicament.”

And with that, he turned and walked away, cloak billowing out behind him like a dark ocean wave. Oren and Oliver followed, and Leon and Lamorak scrambled out of his way as if stung when he passed through the door.

The room fell deathly silent with his departure. The nobles watched him with wary uncertainty, while his knights hesitated to look at him at all. Arthur sighed, sat back in his chair, and didn’t bother saying anything. Well, he thought instead, that’s one way to find him.

 

About two hours later, Arthur finally found himself standing in front of a set of simple wooden double doors in the east wing of the castle, cursing himself inwardly for being such a coward. Honestly, when had Merlin become someone he was afraid of? It was utterly ridiculous. Just because he’d saved Arthur’s life by killing seven people with a single spell, and then escaped his execution by transforming into a gigantic dragon, and then proceeded to vanish completely for the next eight years—it didn’t make him intimidating. It merely made him…a little…unpredictable.

Arthur sighed, scrubbing tiredly at his face. He was being an idiot, he knew that. Merlin could just as easily have cast the spell while still in his raven form; he had chosen to reveal himself to Arthur, had chosen to return to Camelot all on his own. And besides, Arthur himself deserved some answers, didn’t he? Here he’d been for the last eight years, chasing desperately after nothing but rumors and a name, and he deserved to know what Merlin had been up to all this time, deserved to know—

The door abruptly opened all on its own, sliding out just a crack. Arthur stared, not quite sure what to do with this sudden turn of events. Merlin, however, promptly solved that problem when his voice drifted through the opening, soft and almost bored. “Either come in or don’t, but quit hovering. It’s quite unbecoming of a king.”

Arthur bit his lip on the indignant retort that rose up almost reflexively at that—I’ll show you unbecoming—and, quashing down the last remnants of uncertainty, pushed open the door and stepped inside.

Merlin sat at the end of the long table, grinding up what looked like some dried herbs in a clay bowl. He looked up at Arthur’s entrance, regarded him for a moment, and then looked at the door. It slid shut with a creak, and Arthur most certainly did not startle at the sound.

And even if he did, he doubted he deserved the smirk Merlin gave him. “Sorry,” he said, before nodding toward the bed. “Want to make sure they’re undisturbed.”

Arthur saw the two lumps beneath the covers and swallowed, the uncertainty returning with a vengeance. “Perhaps I should come back another time?”

“No, it’s all right, I’ve muted all sound close to the bed,” Merlin answered, tipping the crushed herbs into a larger bowl made of dark wood and covered in intricate designs. He used his fingers to brush every last piece into the bowl before looking up at Arthur. “What can I do you for you, Sire?”

The way he said it, officially respectful yet tinged with just a hint of What else have you got for me that is a complete waste of my time, was so familiar it sent pain lancing through Arthur’s chest sharper than any arrow. He grimaced, and quickly coughed to cover it. “Well, it’s been eight years. I thought the least we could do was, you know, catch up a little.”

Which was partly true, at least. Arthur rather suspected he would have been perfectly happy to just sit there and stare at Merlin without conversing at all, but that was hardly fitting of a noble, and the King of Camelot at that.

Merlin, at least, seemed amenable to the idea. He picked up what looked suspiciously like a desiccated squirrel and began breaking pieces of it into the large bowl, his tone notably light given the gruesomeness of what his hands were doing as he said, “Very well then. What would you like to talk about?”

The question admittedly caught Arthur rather off guard, and he found himself at a loss for words for a brief moment. “I—I don’t know, you think I thought this far?”

“I find it a miracle you admitted to thinking at all,” Merlin muttered, and the indignation that welled up within Arthur was both familiar and welcome.

“You know, despite the fact that you’ve been gone for eight years, you’re technically still a citizen of Camelot. I could still have you thrown in the stocks for your insolence.”

“You could try, although I’d have no qualms this time about simply magicking my way out of them. And possibly magicking you in to replace me.”

“Did you ever?”

Merlin looked up, brow furrowed. “Did I ever what?”

“Magic your way out of the stocks.”

Merlin’s lips twitched, then broke into a smile, and a tiny part of Arthur that he swore he’d long since crushed into the very back of his mind kind of wanted to cry at the sight. “I was tempted a few times, but no. The children enjoyed it too much.”

Arthur couldn’t help but smile at that, and it was both painful and welcome, this knowledge that after all these years Merlin could still brighten his day with just a word. “That they did.”

They sat in silence for a moment longer—or, well, Merlin sat, while Arthur just continued to stand rather awkwardly at the other end of the table and stare at him. Now that he’d had some time to breathe and process the whole idea that Merlin was finally back, he could actually take the time to note all the little ways in which his former manservant had changed. He was no longer quite as pale as Arthur remembered, skin a slightly darker hue than its previous pasty white, as if Merlin had spent a considerable period of time in parts of the land bathed in continuous sunlight. He’d grown no taller, but had put on some weight since Arthur had seen him last, no longer looking as if the slightest change of the wind would blow him right over. Arthur appreciated the stubble, too. It made Merlin look a tad more…well, manly.

If Merlin had an opinion about Arthur’s blatant observation of him, he chose not to voice it. Instead he continued in his work, digging a vial of some dark greenish-looking liquid out of his bag and tipping the entirety of its contents into the bowl. Something sparked inside the mixture, sending up a puff of eerie grayish-blue smoke, but Merlin merely waved it away, plunging a finger without hesitation into the smelly stuff to stir it.

Arthur couldn’t help but make a face at that. “Should you really be doing that?”

Merlin glanced up at him and smiled. “After eight years to refine my magic, don’t you think I’d have some inkling of what I’m doing?”

“Of course not, Merlin, it’s you.”

“Glad to see I still have your vote of confidence.” There was no anger in Merlin’s tone, though, only that quiet, agreeable amusement that Arthur remembered so well. It warmed his heart, so much so that when Merlin took his finger out of the mixture and proceeded to wipe it off on his shirt, Arthur even managed not to look disgusted by it. Mostly.

“Don’t worry, it’s perfectly harmless,” Merlin said, as if reading Arthur’s mind. “Most potions are, when they’re first made. It’s when you actually put the magic into them that they take on true power.”

Arthur nodded, trying to appear very knowledgeable about these sorts of things. “And what exactly is this particular potion for?”

“Mm.” Merlin rose, picking up the bowl and walking over to the window, where a few soft streaks of moonlight managed to edge in through the sheets of rain. “It’s part of a location spell, designed to pinpoint the place a sorcerer was last in when he or she cast a particular enchantment. With any luck, it may at least provide us a clue as to the whereabouts of those who wish to see Camelot dead.”

“I see. And the enchantment you’re referring to, it’s the one that put all the shadow-things on the members of my court?”

The corner of Merlin’s mouth crooked up. “Yes, Arthur, it would be the ‘shadow-things’ spell. I figured, since it’s likely to be far more recent than the curse of the rain, I’d have a better chance of tracing it.”

Arthur nodded and straightened up. “I do apologize for the way my people behaved toward your pupils,” he said. “I’d no idea a spell had been cast upon them.”

“It’s no bother,” Merlin answered. “I’d have never let any harm come to them. Besides, I doubt Oren and Oliver were the specific targets.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the rain has been continuing on for three months now, and Camelot has yet to admit defeat, yes? In my opinion, the sorcerer responsible might have gotten impatient and cast the spell in the hopes that your nobles would kill Oren and Oliver, thus making Camelot appear even more weak, disorganized and vulnerable to attack.”

“That makes sense. I am quite glad, then, that you were here to stop it.”

“As am I, Sire.” Merlin held the bowl up in one hand and opened the other in what Arthur now recognized was his traditional spell-casting stance. However, he seemed to consider it for a moment before finally looking at Arthur. “Actually, could you come over here for a minute? I could use an extra pair of eyes.”

Arthur blinked, but since he’d always been frustratingly acquiescent when it came to requests from Merlin, he obediently crossed the room and came to stand in front of the sorcerer. “Uh. Is here good?”

“It’s fine,” Merlin answered. “As I said, it just might be easier if the both of us have a look.”

Lowering his head just slightly to look down at the contents of the bowl, he whispered something again in that breathy, unintelligible language. His eyes flashed gold, and the mixture began to bubble. An instant later, it belched out another puff of blue-gray smoke, this one bigger than the first. It also did not dissipate, floating up and expanding until it hovered just over their heads like some strange tiny storm cloud. As Arthur watched, the faint moonlight caught the smoke and seemed to make it glow. Merlin blew out a breath, a wisp of the black shadow from before flowing past his lips up to blend with the smoke above.

At Arthur’s questioning gaze, Merlin smiled. “A remnant of the enchantment we are trying to trace,” he explained, before directing his gaze back upward. Arthur followed it, and before his very eyes he saw images slowly resolve themselves from the smoky ether, shifting in and out of focus as if seen through murky water: the ruins of an ancient castle, worn stone long covered in moss and weedy overgrowth, and beyond them a set of tents the likes of which Arthur had never seen before: they looked to be made of all manner of animal skins, and strange trinkets dangled from the posts, pieces of bone and teeth and polished-white claws.

In front of him, Merlin hummed, looking thoughtful. Arthur squinted at the image, and thought he recognized one of the statues in the background, crumbling near to dust yet still distinct in its portrayal of a naked woman bent gracefully to pour a jug of water. He frowned and opened his mouth.

“I think I know this place,” both he and Merlin said at the same time.

They fell into surprised silence. Merlin blinked at him and spoke first. “It is familiar to you?”

“Yes.” Arthur rubbed his chin, thinking. “I believe it is called the Aldrian Ruins. My father took me there to visit when I was very young. It’s far south of here, near where Wessex falls into the sea.”

“Hm.” Merlin waved a dismissive hand, and the smoke above them vanished. “I too believe this location to be in that region, although I’ve no recollection of these ruins you speak of. It is more the style of the lodgings that we saw. Not long ago I came across an encampment of people to the south who lived in tents just like that. They’d arrived by boat from the great land beyond the sea.”

Arthur frowned. “An invasion?”

“It’s too early to tell,” Merlin answered. “All I saw was a small group, and though they were armed, Wessex trades with many areas, so I gave them little thought. But if they have brought with them sorcerers capable of calling such a powerful curse upon Camelot…” He shook his head. “An invasion certainly isn’t out of the question.”

Arthur nodded. “Can you dispel the curse from here?”

“Unfortunately, no. Magic can rarely be cast from such a distance; they must be using some sort of amplifier, else they’ve employed an entire army of sorcerers to pool their powers. Neither bodes well for Camelot.”

“So what do you propose we do?”

Merlin gave him a hard look before shaking his head and turning away. “What I will do, Arthur, is head south myself, locate these sorcerers, and eradicate them. You should stay in the castle and try your best to keep your people alive.”

Indignation—along with a heavy dose of panic because there was no way he was letting Merlin just walk out of his life again—had Arthur objecting before Merlin had even finished the sentence. “That’s preposterous. My knights and I will come with you.”

But Merlin just shook his head again. “I do have my own bodyguards, Arthur. And even if I didn’t, do you think me incapable of protecting myself? No. I will take Oren and Oliver with me, but no one else. You are needed here, Arthur.”

“Where I am needed,” Arthur growled, completely without thinking, “is by your side.”

Merlin seemed a little taken aback by this. Silence fell. Arthur glared at Merlin and dared him to object. Merlin just blinked for a moment before sighing. His voice grew sad and just a bit regretful. “There’s no reason for a sense of obligation. You don’t owe me anything, Arthur.”

Arthur looked away, clenching his fist at his side until his entire arm trembled with the strain. “You made it abundantly clear eight years ago that I do.”

Another long silence. Merlin frowned, looked down at his hands, and sighed again. “We need to talk about this, don’t we,” he said. It wasn’t a question.

Arthur couldn’t look at him, eight years of guilt, pain and sorrow clogging the words in his throat as he said, “Merlin, please believe me when I say I am so truly sorry for not fighting harder for you. You were right. I should have done something, but there were circumstances—”

“I know.”

Shock had him looking at Merlin before he could help himself. “What?”

Merlin ran a hand through his hair, looking all of a sudden very tired. “When I said those words to you at the execution, I was so very angry. I wanted to do whatever I could to hurt you. But then, as the years went by and I had time to think about it, I realized, despite evidence to the contrary, you really wouldn’t be so much of an arrogant clotpole as to truly stand by and do nothing to help me. That’s never been in your nature, Arthur, and I was a fool not to see it.”

Arthur moved to protest, but Merlin raised his hand and, surprisingly, it silenced him. Merlin continued on. “Uther must have threatened you with something to render you powerless. Something you cared about very deeply, else you’d never have submitted to him so easily. It was our friends, wasn’t it, Arthur? He threatened Gaius and Gwen and all the others.”

The mention of the old physician who’d given so much for them, the sweet chambermaid who’d only ever loved them both, had Arthur turning away again, squeezing his eyes shut against the sudden threat of tears. “He said he’d investigate them, if I so much as tried anything,” he whispered. “And we all know what happened when my father investigated people.”

Merlin nodded. His hands were steady on the potion bowl, but his eyes betrayed his emotions. “Yes. And the way you responded to his threats…Arthur, that was the right thing to do. It took me a while, but I realize now all the hardships you went through that day. And you should know that I forgave you for your actions a long time ago.”

Arthur kept his eyes closed for a moment longer. There was no denying that Merlin’s words sent a warm rush of relief—and what could very well be hope—surging through his body, that moment when a chastised child has finally gotten his mother to smile at him again, the expectation that he may soon win her love back. Yet with it rose an equally sharp wave of bitterness, a certain tinge of resentment when he realized the true implications of what Merlin had said.

“Then what,” he said at last, finally turning to look his friend straight in the eye, “has kept you from coming back for so damned long?”

The acrimony of his words seemed to surprise Merlin, who stepped back from him almost on instinct. Arthur took a vicious satisfaction in seeing that he was still able to have that effect. On the bed, one of the lumps—Oren, Arthur guessed, seeing as it was the bigger of the two—shifted and mumbled something unintelligible as if sensing the tension in the air.

Another brief moment of silence as Merlin seemed to cast about for something to say, opening his mouth several times and then closing it. Arthur waited with a patience uncommon of him, equal parts anger and apprehension. Don’t say it was us, he thought, that part of him that had been silent for the past eight years surging with the need to know. Please. Don’t say it was because of what happened that night.

At last, Merlin sighed and scratched his head. “It was complicated,” he said. “I was traveling the countryside then, using my magic to help wherever possible. Why do you think your father’s men caught so many people using magic all those years, despite the laws? It’s because they’re desperate, Arthur. Their rulers don’t help them, their nobles don’t care, and they only have so much to work with. And when it comes to something as dire as making sure you can put food on your table each day, many of these people have no choice but to resort to magic.

“My gift changed things for so many of them, Arthur. I could restore dried-up wells, or cure a ravaging plant disease to save their harvests. I could drive off the thieves and bandits who threatened to steal their livelihood, just like in Ealdor all those years ago. For the first time in my life, I was truly useful. And by the time I finally thought myself ready to return to Camelot, I’d already seen how much I could help these people. I couldn’t abandon them, not when they needed me so much.”

Arthur, however, barely heard the whole thing, focused only on a few words Merlin had said. “But you did, then. Want to return to Camelot.”

Merlin, for his part, gave him a slightly withered look. “Arthur, you are and will always be my king,” he said, firm, without hesitation, as if it were the most obvious truth in the world. “Of course I wanted to come back, but I had obligations.” He paused, voice dropping. “And I wasn’t even sure you’d want to see me again.”

Arthur scowled. “That’s preposterous, Merlin, of course I—” He realized his voice was rising, and quickly coughed and lowered it again. “Of course I wanted to see you again.”

“But I lied to you for so many years,” Merlin said, with a hurt little frown, as if he were making a valid argument that Arthur should actually take to heart. “I fabricated stories and played dirty tricks.”

“Because you’d have been killed if you hadn’t,” Arthur said, feeling anger rise within him once again for a completely different reason. Had Merlin truly deluded himself into believing this nonsense for eight whole years? “You can’t honestly believe I don’t realize that.”

“Of course not, I…” Merlin paused and sighed. “I guess I just…part of me just didn’t want to come back and have you angry with me.”

“Merlin.” Arthur took a step forward and leaned in until they were nose to nose, eye to eye. “Look at me. Look closely. Do I look angry?”

Merlin, the dope, actually tilted his head and squinted at him. “Um. No?” he ventured after a moment.

Arthur nodded. “I was never angry with you, Merlin. I was surprised, and maybe a little disappointed because you apparently didn’t trust me enough to keep your secret, but I understand why you did it. In fact, I’m not sure I’d have done differently had I been in your position.”

Merlin looked down. “It’s not that I didn’t trust you, Arthur,” he said. “That was never the problem. It was just…” He frowned, then flinched for half a second, as if the next words were physically painful to say. “I didn’t want to risk what we had together. I valued it far too much.”

Understanding and something very much like hope made Arthur swallow. He’d tried his best to dwell on it as little as possible over the past eight years, the night he and Merlin finally came together, the night Arthur felt as if all the missing parts of his life had finally fallen into place. Arthur knew how he felt about the entire situation—the recurring dreams, his relentless search for Merlin all these years, the fact that he had yet to take a queen despite generous (and enthusiastic) offers from across the land…all had led him to the resignation long ago that Merlin was the end of all his roads, that if he couldn’t have him, he could take no one else. Yet, to hear Merlin say as much, to hear him give voice to this vast, ponderous, wonderful thing between them and to admit that maybe, just maybe, he felt as Arthur did—it was relieving and terrifying at the same time.

Arthur’s voice, when he spoke, trembled a little too much for his liking. “And you think I didn’t?” he asked, and didn’t wait for Merlin’s answer, taking a step forward and reaching up to curl fingers around his friend’s bony wrist. “Merlin. I know it’s been a long time for both of us, but…do you think…?”

Merlin didn’t answer. Arthur watched him, felt the steady thrum of his pulse beneath his fingers, saw the way the light caught the steel blue of Merlin’s eyes, making them glitter with sparkle-forms of doubt and uncertainty. But underneath it all—yes, Arthur could see that there was want in Merlin’s eyes, desire and devotion and love, and he all of a sudden didn’t want to wait for Merlin’s answer, couldn’t wait, already knew what it would be.

Merlin watched him with bright eyes, and Arthur leaned forward, closer, and Merlin—Merlin let him, and—

A rustle of bed sheets, followed by a sleep-heavy mumble of “Master…?”

The moment shattered. They both froze, faces bare inches apart, and Arthur was the first to turn and look toward the bed, where Oliver now sat up, hair disheveled and expression fearful. He looked roused directly from the deepest catacombs of sleep, eyes bloodshot and still slightly clouded, yet the way he shivered and wrapped his arms around himself despite the warmth of the room spoke clearly to the reason why he’d awoken.

In front of Arthur, Merlin stepped back, clearing his throat and turning to his apprentice. “Yes, Oliver.”

“I…” It was a testament to how shaken Oliver must be feeling that he didn’t even bother acknowledging Arthur’s presence. He looked down at the blanket with a trembling lower lip. “I had a bad dream.”

Merlin nodded and, without looking Arthur’s way, gave a gentle but clear shake of his wrist. Arthur obediently disengaged his grip, and Merlin crossed the room to the bed, pausing just long enough to set the potion bowl down as he did so. He took a seat on the edge of the mattress, careful not to disturb Oren who was still fast asleep, and placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “What was it about?”

“The fat man,” Oliver answered, and Arthur couldn’t help the small smile that escaped his lips when he realized he was referring to Lord Bain. “He had a big sword in his hand and he…he cut Oren down with it.” Oliver swallowed, looking up and straight at Arthur for the first time. “You won’t…you won’t let them hurt us, will you? Like they tried today?”

The blatant fear in his eyes made protectiveness surge up almost reflexively within Arthur’s veins. He crossed his arms. “No,” he answered, making sure to use his kingly voice, the one that got people the world over to believe he knew everything there was to know in the world. “Should a situation like this arise again, I will cut him down myself before I let him hurt either of you. You have my word on that.”

Oliver nodded slowly. “I’m glad.”

“Of course,” Arthur added, because far be it from him to waste such a blatant opportunity, “in order to ensure this protection, I’d have to accompany you and your master when you journey out to fight the evil sorcerers.”

At that, Merlin turned to give him a withered look that said he was clearly not amused with Arthur’s underhanded tactics. “I’m sure we’re more than capable of handling any evil sorcerers that threaten us on the way.”

Oliver frowned with a look of scrunched-faced confusion as only children could achieve. “But what if they have swords?” he asked. Next to him, Oren shifted under the covers, disturbed by the noise, but didn’t wake.

“Yes, Merlin,” Arthur whispered, trying and failing not to smirk. “What if they have swords?”

“I can hold my own in that regard as well,” Merlin answered, indignant.

Oliver, however, looked doubtful. “Tristan says his horse can swing a blade better than you,” he said, and Arthur forgot himself for a moment and laughed out loud.

“It’s good to see that some things, at least, haven’t changed,” he said, waving away what would have undoubtedly been Merlin’s offended retort. “It’s settled then. We ride out tomorrow at dawn.”

Merlin opened his mouth to protest. Arthur raised an eyebrow. Oliver looked hopeful.

Oren snored.

At last, Merlin sighed. Though he shook his head, his eyes glinted with amusement. “I suppose I never should have thought I could overcome your combined stubbornness,” he said.

Arthur smiled. “You should know by now, Merlin, that some forces are simply too powerful to be stopped,” he said, winking at Oliver, whose face brightened into a grin. Then he looked at Merlin, watching Oliver with a fondly indulgent expression, and decided now would be a good time to make an exit.

Straightening up, he nodded to both of them. “I should be on my way then,” he said. “Good night.”

“Good night, Sire,” Oliver answered, the last syllable melting into a yawn. Merlin himself didn’t say anything, but the soft smile he sent Arthur’s way was more than enough.

Nodding again, Arthur turned and headed for the door, feeling the heat of Merlin’s gaze at his back the entire time. There was still much to discuss between the two of them, he knew, but the warm feeling in his chest as he stepped into the hallway assured him there would be other, better times for it in the future.

Merlin was back, after all, and Arthur had no intention of letting him go again.

 

The next morning dawned early, though not bright. Arthur steadfastly refused to allow the continuous rain to dampen his mood, though, his heart already ten times lighter with the knowledge that he was doing something about the curse at last, that there was a specific destination in mind, a specific enemy to be vanquished.

The fact that Merlin would be by his side all through the journey was just an added bonus.

A small crowd had already gathered outside the stables by the time Arthur arrived. Leon, Lamorak and Percival all nodded at his entrance, and beyond them, two more knights bowed their respect: Sir Hann, a good-natured, older man already pushing forty but no less capable of winning a brawl than his younger counterparts, and Sir Randel, a fresh young face still easy to rouse and eager to please. Arthur frowned when he remembered that Randel had been one of the knights ensorcelled within his court the previous night. He would have preferred the young knight had a few more days to rest after the incident, but he was strong-willed and skilled with a sword and, despite the fact that he displayed some deficits of character that occasionally made him difficult to be around, Arthur trusted the other knights would be able to keep him in line.

Beyond the knights, Merlin, Oren and Oliver were saddling up their horses. All three turned to acknowledge his approach, and both Oren and Oliver bowed immediately.

“Your Majesty.”

“Your Majesty.”

“You’re late,” Merlin said, quirking an eyebrow.

Arthur kind of wanted to be offended, but was too busy feeling warm and relieved with the familiarity of the treatment. Besides, any reply he might have made was promptly cut off by Randel.

“How dare you speak to the king that way!” the knight said, one hand going immediately for his sword, but Arthur raised a hand.

“Your loyalty is appreciated, Sir Randel,” he said, “but Merlin is an old friend and may speak to me as openly as the rest of you.”

“More openly than most, though,” Lamorak said, mock-affronted, and the rest of the knights laughed.

“Merlin left before you joined up, Randel,” Sir Hann said, clapping the younger man companionably on the shoulder. “But trust me, this is typical. In fact, it’s usually much worse.”

Another round of laughter from the knights. Arthur turned to Merlin. “It’s good to see you’re as insolent as ever,” he said.

“Only to you,” Merlin answered with mirth in his eyes, and Arthur smiled and for the first time in a long time it didn’t feel wrong on his face.

They set out immediately, weaving a single-file line of horses and riders through the Lower Town and then into the forest beyond the castle’s borders. A whispered spell from Merlin kept them mostly dry, the raindrops sliding off an invisible half-bubble above their heads, but the soil was still muddy and soaked through, sucking at the horses’ hooves and making progress slow and difficult.

Still, that didn’t keep Arthur from noticing immediately when Merlin turned his horse off the normal path. Rolling his eyes, he spurred his horse on to pull even with him. Leave it to the idiot to get them lost the instant they left the castle.

“Merlin,” he said, once they were alongside one another, “not to question your undoubtedly gargantuan genius or anything, but south is that way.”

Merlin, to his credit, didn’t even hesitate. “I know. We’re taking a quick detour.”

“Whatever for?” Arthur asked. “In case you haven’t noticed, there’s nothing much to sightsee here beyond the rain, and the rain, and oh, did I mention the—”

Halt!

Instinct sent Arthur grabbing for his sword even before the voice had finished speaking, but he wasn’t fast enough. In the next instant, he found himself staring down the sharpened point of an arrow, a blonde female face peering intently at him from behind the handle of the crossbow. She looked to be about the same age as Arthur, perhaps a year or two older at the most, and he might have taken some time to appreciate the sensuous curve of her lips and the smoothness of her pale shoulders if she hadn’t currently been aiming something sharp and pointy at his head.

A quick glance out of the corners of his eyes confirmed that the rest of their party were similarly surrounded, three or four more people mounted on horses and pointing swords and arrows at them in clear malice. Sir Hann, with the impressive reflexes Arthur had secretly envied for many years, had managed to draw his sword completely, but it did little good seeing as one of the riders—bandits, Arthur assumed—already had the tip of his blade pressed to his throat. He looked to be a few years older than the female bandit, and the way he held the sword pressed up against Hann’s neck spoke of a confidence and ease of handling that could only come from years of practice.

Further back, Lamorak looked distinctly uncomfortable with the sharpened blade of an axe poised mere inches from his skull. The woman who wielded it was broad and heavyset, not through overfeeding or self-indulgence but with long years of manual labor. Her dark brown curls were barely contained into a messy ponytail, and she had the fierce-eyed, no-nonsense look of someone who had likely operated a tavern at one point in her life.

“Well,” said a new voice then, and Arthur turned to see someone else ride out from behind some nearby bushes—and couldn’t help but stare.

“Looks like your reflexes have dulled since we last met, Your Majesty,” Gwaine continued, picking nonchalantly at something caught between his teeth as he nudged his horse up to pull even with Arthur and Merlin. ”I can remember a time when you would have had us all laid out on the ground by now.”

Next to Arthur, Merlin shifted on his horse. Arthur couldn’t see him, focused on the woman with the crossbow as he was, but that didn’t keep him from carefully nudging his own horse a step to the left, placing himself neatly between the bandit and Merlin. He’d be damned if he let Merlin get hurt now, after all.

Which was why he was so shocked when all Merlin did was give an exasperated sigh. “Honestly, Gwaine,” he said, riding around Arthur so that he pulled even with the crossbow woman. “I told you I’d be bringing them along. There was no need to set an ambush.”

Gwaine picked something out of the back of his mouth, regarded it for a moment, deemed it unpalatable, and flicked it into the bushes. “What’s the fun in that?” he said at last, turning to Merlin with one of his easy grins, as if they were still familiar friends, as if they had never been apart.

Arthur didn’t really like how his stomach twisted up into angry knots at that, or the surge of what could very well be jealousy that turned all the blood in his veins boiling hot. “You,” he said, and barely managed to keep his voice from conveying his sudden wish to strangle Gwaine, “you’ve been with Merlin this entire time?”

“Well, not the entire time,” Gwaine answered with a shrug. “Believe me, the slippery little bugger took a while to track down. But once I found him, I couldn’t just leave. You know how hopeless he is at defending himself.”

“Let’s see you call me hopeless after I turn you into a toadstool,” Merlin retorted with absolutely no heat. Reaching out, he gently tapped the crossbow woman’s wrist. “And please, Isolde, if you could lower your weapon. You’re making me nervous, pointing an arrow at the king.”

The woman—Isolde—cocked her head briefly at Arthur before offering him a bright-eyed, faerie-trickster smile as she obediently lowered the crossbow. “You’re quite a bit more handsome than I imagined,” she said, then added playfully, “Your Majesty.”

Further down, the blond man—not a bandit, Arthur had decided by now, seeing as they appeared to be in league with Gwaine and Merlin—lowered his sword from Hann’s throat and sent her an exasperated look. “I’m right here, Isolde.”

“Oh, you know I only have room for you in my heart, Tristan,” Isolde answered, not giving Arthur another glance as she rode over to kiss him, quiet and sweet.

Next to Arthur, Merlin sighed. “I apologize for this,” he said. “I told you I had my own bodyguards, didn’t I? Even though I never really asked for them.”

“Well, how else do you expect us to repay you for saving our lives?” This from the heavyset woman with the axe, though thankfully she now had it slung over her shoulder rather than poised to cut Lamorak’s head off. “I can’t exactly just give you a shilling and a smile for that.”

“Well, technically you could,” Gwaine said, turning to her with fondness in his eyes, “although then you’d have to leave me behind.”

“And wouldn’t that be just a crying shame,” the axe woman answered, and they smiled at each other, warm and intimate.

Arthur turned to Merlin and raised an eyebrow. Merlin shrugged and offered a lopsided smile. “Bertha can kick Gwaine’s arse in a brawl, then drink him under the table afterwards,” he said. “They’re good for each other.”

“I see.” Arthur turned to Gwaine. “Well. I suppose you could do worse.”

“Oh, touché,” Gwaine said, grinning, and without another word he turned his horse and rode further down the path, where he was greeted with a chorus of raucous laughter and back-slaps by the other knights.

Arthur cleared his throat and turned to Merlin. “It seems you’ve been busy these past eight years.”

Merlin just shrugged. “Like I said, many people out there need help. I do what I can for whoever I can.”

“And your bodyguards?”

“Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

“I see.” Arthur glanced down the line to where Gwaine continued joking with the other knights. “Well, I suppose I wouldn’t mind having them tag along.”

Merlin’s expression went flat. “Glad you approve,” he deadpanned, though the way his mouth twitched betrayed his amusement.

The group continued on. At one point, while Merlin gave Oren and Oliver a quick lesson on local plant life that could be used for healing and potions, Gwaine pulled even with Arthur and gave him a run-through of the group. Tristan and Isolde were once part of a band of smugglers, transporting cargo and contraband across the borders of the five kingdoms. Betrayed by one of their own for two pocketfuls of gold, they’d found themselves set upon by a battalion of Mercian knights, and had witnessed the slaughter of all their friends. When Merlin found them six days later, they were half-starved, wounds festering with infection, ready to die in each other’s arms. Merlin changed that, of course, and Tristan and Isolde had stayed by his side ever since.

Bertha’s story was less complex, though no less tragic. She’d been married to a pig of a husband who had a tendency to start swinging whenever he had too much to drink, and when the both of them ran a tavern, that happened more often than not. It was in the middle of one of these beatings that Gwaine and Merlin intervened, the former by breaking the husband’s nose, and the latter by wiping his memories of Bertha entirely.

“And you?” Arthur asked, brushing aside a clump of wet leaves. “How did you find Merlin in the first place?”

“The only way I knew how,” Gwaine answered. “Through the taverns. Give anybody enough alcohol, and they’ll start spilling all the rumors they know. It took me almost two years, but I finally caught up to him out in the Corsan Mountains. He was pretty disgruntled about the whole thing at first, but you know me. I can get anyone to come around.”

Arthur smiled, looking ahead at Merlin who held a vaguely star-shaped leaf in his hand, tracing its outline and telling Oren and Oliver something about its chemical properties. “I’m glad you found him. If there’s anyone I trust to look after Merlin, it’s you.”

“I try,” Gwaine answered with a  mock bow. “Although, like Merlin said, he’s more than capable of taking care of himself. I’ve not witnessed much of it, but when he lets his magic loose…well. It’s certainly something to behold. You saw what he did at the execution, after all.”

“Yes,” Arthur answered. “Yes, I did.”

Gwaine must have sensed the solemnity in his voice, because he cleared his throat. “Sire,” he said, “In those days, none of us acted in a way that would have made anyone proud. I certainly didn’t. And for that, I apologize.”

“No, you acted according to what you knew,” Arthur answered. “I certainly can’t fault you for that.”

“Hn.” Gwaine grinned. “Noble as ever. I can see why Camelot has so strong a king. And why Merlin…well.” His smile turned knowing.

Arthur looked at him. “What?”

“Ah, let’s just say Merlin made me privy to a few other things that happened between the two of you,” Gwaine answered, and laughed at Arthur’s blush. “Not to worry, Sire, I’ve no quarrel with it. In fact, I’d suspected for a while, even before Merlin told me.”

“I see,” was Arthur’s reply, unsure of what else to say.

Gwaine nodded. “If it makes the both of you happy, I’d advise you to take full advantage,” he said, in a voice suddenly serious and quite out of character. “God knows we have too few opportunities for true contentment in our lives.” He paused. “Although if you end up hurting him, I’ve no qualms about breaking every bone in your body. I’m no longer your knight, after all.”

Arthur grinned, even as relief washed warm through his body. He’d always known Gwaine’s loyalty lay with Merlin, and the other man’s words lifted a weight from his shoulders that he hadn’t even known was there.

Of course, that didn’t stop him from leaning over to punch Gwaine in the arm. “I’d like to see you try,” he said. Gwaine laughed, and they continued on in good company.

It was early evening by the time they finally crossed Camelot’s outer borders. The rain ceased immediately, drawn aside like a fine curtain, and Arthur didn’t have to look to his men to know that it was time to make camp. From the way the other knights breathed out contented sighs when their boots touched the earth, Arthur knew he wasn’t the only one who had missed dry ground.

They pitched their tents and, after securing a perimeter, settled in for the night. Arthur watched Merlin join Oren and Oliver in their dilapidated shelter, and suppressed a sudden pang of disappointment. Gwaine’s advice aside, now was not the time for his personal desires to get in the way of the needs of his kingdom.

Laying out his bedroll, Arthur settled back and drifted off to the chittering of night insects and the steady snikt-snikt of his men sharpening their swords.

 

The pyre was built. The prisoner was brought forward. Uther’s booming voice proclaimed a sentence of despair.

Arthur struggled against the invisible chains binding him to the stone balcony, screaming invisible dust as he watched Merlin dragged up the pyre and bound to the stake. This couldn’t be happening. It was all wrong, and why couldn’t he stop it?

Uther gave the order. The knight approached the pyre with the burning torch, and Arthur shouted, cursed, tore against his ethereal bonds. He had to save Merlin, had to—

Everything froze. Arthur, mid-struggle, suddenly found himself unrestrained and nearly toppled over as a result. He stared all around at the courtyard below, the unlit pyre with its limp prisoner, his father standing next to him unmoving, mouth open in mid-declaration, as if encased in invisible ice. What in the world was going on?

“So.” A new voice, strange yet familiar, and Arthur jerked around, staring at—Merlin? But no, it couldn’t be. Merlin was down there, about to be executed, and besides, this Merlin looked different. Older, more worn, as of someone who had carried a great weight for many years.

This strange, older Merlin came to a stop at the balcony’s edge, looking down at the scene below with quiet detachment. “This is what you’ve been living with for the past eight years,” he said.

Arthur shook his head, unable to comprehend through the muzzy haze within his mind. This wasn’t Merlin. It had to be a trick, some sort of magical spell designed to lead him astray, to distract him from his true purpose—

“Arthur.” Merlin turned to him, expression grave. “You’re dreaming.”

His eyes flashed gold, and it was like a shroud lifted from Arthur’s eyes. Memories of the last eight years washed over him like a wave, everything suddenly stark and real, sparkling with clarity. This was a dream, Arthur remembered. And he also knew how it ended.

Next to him, partly obscuring his father—and wasn’t that fitting, Arthur thought—Merlin tilted his head. “I thought we agreed this wasn’t your fault,” he said, indicating with a sweep of his hand the scene before them in the courtyard below.

Arthur sighed and rose to his feet, pausing to brush invisible dust from his robes because, dream or not, he could still be irked by Merlin so blatantly invading his privacy like this. “We did,” he answered, and maybe it was because this was a dream, or maybe it was that it was Merlin he was speaking with, but the honesty came forward, sudden and welcome. “But a brief conversation from yesterday doesn’t eclipse eight years’ worth of guilt.”

Merlin frowned and looked away. His expression grew remorseful. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, looking down at the pyre, his doppelganger still hanging from the stake. “Had I known these dreams were at the root of your troubles, I’d have targeted them instead of your physical complaints.”

Arthur blinked. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you must have noticed that you started feeling better following the arrival of my students,” Merlin answered. “I could tell the instant we entered the castle walls that the stress of recent times was weighing on you. I’ve had a healing spell on you since you first saw me on Oren’s shoulder.”

Huh. That would explain the sudden absence of the migraines, as well as the reduction in the severity of the dreams. Arthur looked away, fixing his gaze somewhere on the faded horizon. “I see. It seems, once again then, that I am indebted to your magic.”

“Don’t go pulling a muscle there, Your Majesty,” Merlin said, but there was a smile in his voice. He waved his hand, casual and almost dismissive. The entire landscape dissolved into nothingness, Uther, the knights, the onlookers, and the pyre all disappearing into empty black so that only he and Arthur remained standing there, facing each other. “There are yet some things I’ve no cure for. Such as chronic pratliness.”

Arthur chuckled at that, but gave no reply. The darkness was calm, soothing in its sameness, and he felt his body go heavy in response, fatigue settling in his bones like fine molasses.

When next Merlin spoke, he sounded considerably farther away. “The dreams won’t bother you anymore,” he said. “There’s no reason to hold on to your guilt, Arthur.”

Despite the tiredness pulling at his limbs, Arthur’s brain was still clear enough for him to manage a response. “I could say the same for you,” he answered, and had the satisfaction of seeing Merlin smile, soft and hopeful.

He crossed the space between them and extended a hand to rest a warm palm against Arthur’s cheek. “Sleep, Arthur,” he whispered, with the force of command. “We still have a long way to go.”

You aren’t talking about the journey, was Arthur’s last thought before his eyes slid shut and sleep overtook him.

 

Strange, echoing sounds slowly drew Arthur from the warm embrace of sleep. He blinked, peering upward as the cobwebs slid from his vision to reveal the sloped top of his tent, backlit by bright sunlight. The sounds from before resolved themselves into the clanging of pots, the thud of boots on grass, and the murmurs of male voices. They were cleaning up the camp.

Rising slowly to a sitting position, Arthur took a moment to shake the fatigue that clung to his limbs like a stubborn child. From the sound of it, his men had awakened quite a while ago. Arthur couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept so deeply, or so well.

Footsteps approached, and an instant later the flap of his tent was shoved aside. Gwaine poked his head through the opening, trademarked grin already bright on his face. “Rise and shine, Your Majesty,” he said. “I never took you to be the type to sleep in. At this rate, we’ll have to leave you here.”

Arthur rolled his eyes and waved him away. Gwaine laughed and drew his head back through the opening.

His knights were already saddled up by the time Arthur emerged from his tent. Sir Hann, never one to pass up an opportunity, walked over immediately. “Good morning, Sire,” he said. “I’d offer you breakfast, but it seems you woke up too late for that.”

“Oh, give it a rest,” Lamorak said, coming up and giving Hann a cordial shove toward his horse. When he turned to Arthur, though, he was smiling. “I’m glad to see your sleep has improved, Sire.” He sounded like he meant it, and Arthur wondered what other things about him Lamorak had been worried about.

Nodding at his knight, he allowed his gaze to drift across the encampment, to where Merlin, Oren and Oliver were readying their horses. “Yes, well,” he said, as he met Merlin’s gaze, “many things seem to have changed for the better recently.”

Across the way, the corner of Merlin’s mouth curved up in a knowing smile. Arthur couldn’t help but return it, and when he turned back to Lamorak, he saw the other knight watching him with a raised eyebrow. The flush rose before he could stop it. “What?”

“Nothing, Sire,” Lamorak was quick to answer, but his lips twitched as if to suppress a smile. He turned away toward his own horse, and Arthur sent up a quick thanks to the gods for small mercies.

When he looked back at Merlin, the sorcerer was helping Oliver up onto his horse. Merlin didn’t look his way again, but the skin of Arthur’s cheek tingled where Merlin had touched him in the dreamscape last night, and it was all he needed.

They set off again not long after, riding through most of the day and stopping only to snack and water the horses. By mid-afternoon, Arthur estimated that they would reach Wessex by nightfall, and the sea within another day’s time. The only problem? They were now in a dense forest unfamiliar to him and his knights, and even Merlin with a whispered spell could not see through the mass of trees and thick vegetation.

The first circle they made, coming back to a stone marker Percival had set up an hour or so before, was enough to rouse Arthur’s suspicions.

“Merlin,” he said, nudging his horse up to pull even with his friend’s. “Do you think…?”

Merlin peered into the gloom of the forest, into the seeping shadows and tendrils of gray mist that didn’t quite fit in with the clear blue sky that could barely be distinguished through the thick canopy above. After a moment, he nodded. “Yes. I suspect magic is at play here.”

“What are your orders, Sire?” Leon asked, further down the line.

Arthur looked to Merlin, who sighed and dismounted. “I’ll go and have a look around,” he said. “Don’t do anything regrettable while I’m gone.”

Before Arthur could summon a retort, Merlin took a running start, shrinking as he went, and the black raven from before took to the sky with a ringing caw.

From his position bringing up the rear, Tristan let out a put-upon sigh. “I hate it when he does that,” he said.

Next to him, Isolde laughed in her clear, faerie-tinkling way. “Oh, love, you’re just jealous.”

“Of a carrion bird?” Tristan snorted. “If Merlin had better taste, he’d have picked an eagle or something.”

Oliver frowned. “But then he wouldn’t fit on Oren’s shoulder,” he said.

The entire group burst into laughter, as Oliver looked around at all of them in confusion. Arthur opened his mouth to speak—and that was when he heard it.

If there was one thing Arthur was eternally thankful to his father for, it was the years of ruthless training that, though hard-earned, had embedded within his very soul a warrior’s instinct sharper than any blade. Arthur’s body reacted almost before his mind did, and he was leaping from his horse before his brain even finished registering the fast-approaching swish of a flying arrow.

The impact with the ground knocked the wind from his lungs, but when he heard the thunk and saw the arrow embed itself in the trunk of a tree right where his head had been, Arthur figured it was a fine trade. Several of the knights instantly started shouting, drawing their swords and bringing their horses round, and Arthur barely had time to draw his own blade before shouting figures burst upon them through the trees.

Chaos descended. Arthur’s first conclusion was that it was a bandit attack—the first man to strike at him certainly looked the part, all shoddy clothing, dirty face, and cheap woodcutter’s axe—and he cut the man down easily, spinning on his knights. “On me!” he roared, and they obeyed, taking formation around and behind him, just as they had been trained.

Arthur didn’t have time to feel proud of their skill. The bandits rushed them, shouting and brandishing their weapons, and Arthur quickly blocked another attack, parrying rapidly before kicking the assailant away. Spinning, he saw the rest of his knights engaged in similar battle, while further down Gwaine, Bertha, Tristan, and Isolde had formed a tight back-to-back ring with Oren and Oliver in the middle. A fitting strategy, Arthur thought when he saw Oren clutch Oliver to him with one hand while extending the other through an opening between Gwaine and Bertha’s shoulders, eyes flashing gold as a bolt of lightning flew from his open palm to send a nearby bandit sailing into the woods.

The bandits kept coming—there seemed to be an endless number of them, bursting through the trees like ants out of an anthill—but they held their ground. After cutting down the fifth or sixth man, Arthur finally thought he noticed a thinning in the ranks. Maybe it was almost over. Maybe—

A strange voice shouted something through the din. Arthur barely had time to realize it was the guttural language of sorcery before what felt like an invisible mallet hit him in the chest. The whole world burst into white and, for one heart-stopping moment, he found himself weightless in the air. Then his back slammed into a tree and the world came rushing back as he hit the ground.

For a moment Arthur could only lie there, dazed. It felt like his insides had just been rearranged, everything knocked out of its usual position by the magical hammer-blow. Lifting his head with a grimace, he saw that the rest of the group had met similar fates, sprawled out on the ground all around him. Arthur gritted his teeth and tried to rise, but it was as if he’d drunk too much mead, everything around him shifting and untethered as his brain tried to right itself within his skull.

Oren!” Oliver’s frantic shout blasted through Arthur’s haze, and he turned, blinking muzzily at Gwaine’s group, similarly laid out. Except, unlike the rest of the men who were also trying—and failing—to get to their feet, Oren lay unmoving, sprawled against a tree, and as Oliver scrabbled desperately at him, Arthur instantly saw what had him so panicked. A sharp piece of wood, possibly a low branch, protruded out from the middle of Oren’s chest, the wound already leaking a steady stream of blood.

“Arthur Pendragon.” A new voice rang through the trees, and Arthur turned, blinking away black spots at the corners of his vision as two figures stepped out of the forest. They were dressed in long, hooded cloaks not unlike Merlin’s, and Arthur clearly saw how their eyes seemed to glow gold with the passing rays of sunlight.

The one who had spoken, the woman, regarded him with a gaze that dripped with contempt. “Too easy,” she sneered. “One would have thought the great King of Camelot would put up a better fight.”

Her companion, an older man, smiled in a way that reminded Arthur of a snake confronted with a hapless mouse. “But then, of course, you’ve no immunity to magic. Perhaps that is why you slaughtered our families during the great Purge? You fear sorcery, so you murder all those who use it?”

Arthur coughed, jamming his sword into the earth to help prop himself up. “You’re mistaken,” he said, using all his strength to force himself to a kneeling position. “The Purge was my father’s doing. Camelot no longer fears magic.”

“Oh,” the woman answered, with a small, cruel laugh, “but it shall again, Your Majesty. After today, it shall again.”

She raised her hand, palm facing outward, and Arthur saw her eyes spark with an insanity only the greatest of sorrows could ever engender. How many more were there, he wondered, these people who had once been honest and happy, whose lives had then been ruined by Uther’s heartless decrees and who became twisted shells of revenge as a result? How much longer would Arthur have to pay for his father’s mistakes?

“Goodbye, Arthur Pendragon,” the woman said, as her pupils became ringed with gold. “I send you on now to be judged for your sins.”

Her words were heavy in their finality and confidence, and Arthur watched her head-on, refusing to cower before the person who would finally defeat him. Let it be quick, he thought. Let it be painless. And please, don’t let Merlin see.

Arthur really should have known better than to wish something like that.

A raven’s caw sounded out, far away at first but rapidly approaching. The female sorcerer paused in her movements, brow furrowed like a hound that had lost its scent. Half a second later, a dark form dropped from the sky, and Merlin, human once again, landed on two feet in front of Arthur, throwing up a swirl of dust.

From his spot still pressed up against the tree, Arthur could not see Merlin’s face. He didn’t have to, though. The way the two sorcerers gasped and took a few stumbling steps back, eyes widening until Arthur could see the whites all around the irises, was more than enough.

For the briefest of moments, utter silence fell through the area, broken only by Oliver’s sniffles as he clung to his brother. Sorcerers and bandits alike stared at Merlin with shocked expressions, and for a moment Arthur allowed himself the hope that the surprise would be enough to send them all running.

No such luck. One bandit, a heavyset, soot-faced hulk of a man, lifted his broadsword and charged toward Merlin with a yell. Merlin reacted instantly. Reaching beneath his cloak, he drew forth a small dagger—a simple design with a ruby at the base of the hilt, and Arthur frowned because it looked strangely familiar—and dragged the blade across his own palm. Crimson spilled forth, and Merlin without hesitation slammed his injured hand flat to the earth.

Su hulu,” he whispered, in a voice that echoed with the weight of the ages.

The ground shook. Bright light burst forth from where Merlin’s palm touched the earth, a shining supernova that exploded outward and engulfed the area in the blink of an eye. A force powerful beyond measure slammed into Arthur, pinning him back against the tree. He threw up a protective hand, squinting through the openings between his fingers, but could discern nothing through the brightness.

That didn’t block out the screams, though.

A heartbeat later, the light faded away as quickly as it had come. Silence fell, eerie and complete. Arthur carefully lowered his hand and peered around the area. What he saw made something cold, dark, and almost like fear seep into his heart.

The bandits were gone. Every single one, whether standing or already slain, vanished into thin air without a trace. Except…Arthur blinked, squinting at the trees. No, he realized. Not without a trace. A fine dusting of ash and soot covered the wooden trunks, and the lingering scent of fire still hung in the air. The mist from before still wound through the branches, but Arthur knew it was not mist anymore.

The sorcerers, too, had disappeared. Arthur tried not to wonder what gruesome fate they had met.

A small groan drew Arthur back to the task at hand, and he looked over just in time to see Merlin sway where he knelt on the ground. Arthur started to get to his feet, but then Oliver screamed, “Master!” further down the line, desperate and scared. Merlin lurched sideways at the sound, forcing himself up with what looked like a great deal more effort than Arthur was comfortable with, and stumbled over to where Oren lay on the ground.

Sometime between the initial attack and Merlin’s arrival, Gwaine’s group had managed to remove the younger sorcerer from where he’d been impaled by the tree branch. He now lay motionless on his back, and even as Arthur forced himself to his feet and followed Merlin to their fallen comrade, he could already tell from the paleness of Oren’s face and the labored rise and fall of his chest that it was a mortal wound.

“Please help him!” Oliver begged, as Merlin dropped to his knees next to his pupil. “Master, please!

Merlin said nothing. Instead, he drew the dagger again, ruby glinting blood-red in the faint sunlight, and sliced open his uninjured palm. In the next instant, before Arthur could think to step forward and cry, Stop, Merlin pressed his palm to Oren’s wound.

U’en,” he whispered.

Another starburst of light, not as bright as the last yet still enough to send everyone stumbling back. Something warm and almost radiant coursed through Arthur’s body, as if he had just drunk some rejuvenating elixir. When the light cleared and Arthur looked again, he saw Oren lying as before, except there was a color to his cheeks that hadn’t been there previously, and, where once a deep stab wound had oozed viscous blood, there was only a patch of pale, newly-mended skin.

Next to him, Leon drew an awed breath. “By the gods.”

Arthur was about to agree with him when Merlin swayed again and made a soft, pained sound. In the next instant, the dagger dropped to the earth, and Merlin with it.

Several people shouted in surprise, but Arthur was the first to move. Fierce protectiveness surged up within him and drove him forward so fast he nearly stumbled into the dirt next to Merlin, reaching out to turn him gently over. His former manservant had earth smudged all over his front from his ridiculous faceplant, and Arthur would make endless fun of him for it later, he really would, just as soon as he finished making sure Merlin was still alive.

And, thank the gods, he was. Arthur tried to ignore how his hands trembled as he touched Merlin’s face, felt the shallow exhale of his breath, the soft brush of his eyelashes. Merlin’s breathing was slow but deep, eyes unmoving beneath his lids, and Arthur tore two strips from his cloak without hesitation, using them to bind the wounds on Merlin’s hands.

“Percival,” he said, and knew no other words were needed. Percival nodded, stepped forward, bent down, and hoisted Merlin up over his shoulder. Arthur tried not to think about how Merlin hung limply from his new position like a broken doll. Instead, he turned to the rest of the group.

“Let’s set up camp,” he said, and tried his best to suppress the tremor in his voice. “Give Oren and Merlin time to recover.”

Something of what he was feeling must have shown in his face, because no one tried to argue. Together, Gwaine and Tristan lifted Oren, his arms looped about each of their necks, and carried him further into the woods. Percival followed, as did the rest of the group.

Arthur hung back just long enough to kneel down and retrieve the dagger from where it had fallen in the earth. Brushing away stray dirt, he peered at the ruby embedded in the hilt, winking at him in the faint sunlight as if holding its own secrets. He swallowed, remembering a night eight years ago, the glint of a newly-polished blade, heated gazes, wandering hands, whispered confessions. Merlin had drawn the dagger from beneath his cloak, which meant he must have been carrying it on his person for a long time.

Tucking the dagger carefully into his own belt, Arthur turned and hurried to catch up with the others.

With the enchantment upon the forest now lifted with the demise of the casters, it was not long before they came upon a clearing amidst the trees, complete with a small, clear stream bubbling merrily on nearby. Arthur ordered everyone to stop and pitch their tents.

The passage of a few more hours found him sitting inside his own tent, keeping one eye on Merlin, stretched out motionless on a bed of blankets and furs, and the other on the dagger in his hand. Arthur sighed, peering down at the blade. The hilt clearly displayed eight years’ worth of wear, the wood worn pebble-smooth and the leather of the grip thinned almost completely away with use. Yet, after Arthur wiped Merlin’s blood from the blade, he could see no nicks or scratches, the metal obviously polished and sharpened with meticulous care. The ruby in the hilt, also, shone with a bright glossiness only the most persistent of up-keeping could accomplish.

Humming to himself, Arthur slid the dagger carefully back into its sheath. He took a moment to run his thumb along the intricate vine pattern, smiling as he did so. He’d always known Merlin had a connection with the earth.

Outside, footsteps approached, and a moment later the tent flap was slowly pushed aside. Arthur turned and smiled. “Oren.”

The elder of Merlin’s apprentices had awoken not an hour ago and had seemed none the worse for wear, much to everyone’s relief. Whatever spell Merlin had used to heal him, it had certainly done the job. Oren nodded at Arthur as he stepped into the tent. “Sire.”

Arthur was about to reply when another head poked in through the tent’s opening. His smile widened. “Hello, Oliver.”

Oliver nodded but said nothing. Oren drew him into the tent, and Arthur was not surprised to see their hands tightly joined. Had he a brother, he would certainly be reluctant to leave his side after an ordeal like today’s.

The two young sorcerers settled themselves on the ground next to Arthur. Oren nodded at Merlin. “How is he?”

Arthur followed his gaze. Since collapsing after the fight earlier that day, Merlin hadn’t moved or given any signs of consciousness, not while Arthur had settled him onto the furs in the tent, not while he’d carefully cleaned the earth out of the knife wounds, and not for the past few hours as Arthur had kept vigil over him with only the dagger and his own thoughts for company. Merlin’s eyes occasionally moved beneath his lids, as if he were dreaming something intense, but they never opened. It was all Arthur could do not to lay his head on Merlin’s chest, just to make sure he was still breathing.

He sighed and cleared his throat. “No change.”

Oren nodded again before nudging his brother forward. “Go on, Oliver.”

As Arthur watched, Oliver scooted forward, took one of Merlin’s hands into his own, and carefully unwrapped the bindings. A whispered spell and a brief flash of golden eyes later, the gash across Merlin’s palm knit together and melted into new, flawless skin. Arthur smiled at Oliver as the boy moved on to Merlin’s other hand. “You’ve quite a talent for that,” he said.

Oliver grinned back, pulling at the knot of the second bandage. “Master says I can be a great healer when I grow up,” he said, and then paused. “Although I’m not allowed to use the blood magic like he does.”

Arthur blinked. “Blood magic?”

“The spells he cast earlier,” Oren said. At Arthur’s confused look, he scratched his head and said, “Master has never explained it in great detail to either of us, but it seems that, in addition to the spells of the Old Religion, there is an even older, more powerful magic.”

“It’s older than the gods,” Oliver added, healing Merlin’s other hand.

Oren nodded. “We call it blood magic. It’s so ancient that it bypasses the gods entirely, using the caster’s blood to summon power straight from the earth itself. It’s very strong, and very dangerous. Our master seems to be the only sorcerer capable of casting the magic and coming back from it.”

“What do you mean, ‘coming back from it’?” Arthur asked.

“Well.” Oren dropped his gaze. “It is said that blood magic does not come without a price. If you ask for something from the earth, you in turn must return something to it. It is the nature of things, the keeping of a balance. The Old Religion works the same way.”

An old bitterness rose within Arthur as he remembered Uther’s misplaced sense of revenge. Yes, he knew all about keeping the balance.

He cleared his throat and banished the thought. “And what is it that the earth demands in return for its power?”

Oren sighed. “You,” he answered. “Every time you cast blood magic, the earth takes some of your life-force in return. Cast a spell strong enough, and the earth will claim you entirely. That’s when you don’t come back.”

“I see.” Arthur looked back at Merlin, who still had not moved. “So when Merlin collapsed back there…”

Oren nodded. “The earth drained some life from him in return for the power he requested. Likely he will require some time to fully recover, but we cannot know for certain. We’ve only ever witnessed him casting the blood magic a couple of times in all the years we’ve been under his tutelage.”

“That’s a couple of times too many,” Arthur muttered, watching the paleness of Merlin’s features, the way his eyelids fluttered as if trapped in restless dreams.

Something of his feelings must have escaped the usual stoicism of his expression because Oren shifted, cleared his throat, and got to his feet. “Well then,” he said, nudging Oliver to follow suit, “We will take our leave of you now, Sire, if there isn’t anything else?”

“No.” Arthur shook both their hands. “Thank you.”

They left. Arthur looked back at Merlin, still sleeping. He should go outside, he knew, get something to eat, or at the very least help the men with securing the horses and setting up patrols. This wasn’t a safe place to stay—the attack earlier had proved that much—and Leon and Hann might require assistance setting up a watch schedule and an efficient perimeter. Arthur should be out there, giving orders and pulling his weight like the king that he was, not holed up here in his tent watching over a man whom he’d not seen in almost eight years, a man who now was but a stranger to him.

Arthur sighed. He could remember hearing the stories, gossip all through the castle and his court: how such-and-such a nobleman had given up all his riches to live in poverty with the woman who stole his heart. How Lady So-and-So threw herself from her balcony in anguish when her love did not return from war. How a king, once noble and kind, unleashed a terrible wave of wrath and grief-driven vengeance when magic claimed his wife in return for a son.

All his life, Arthur hadn’t been able to understand it, why people behaved this way in the face of love, why his father’s rage had consumed him so. But now, watching Merlin, he had an inkling of comprehension. Because if something took Merlin away from him now—whether a country simpleton, a knight, a great king, or the very forces of Nature herself—there would be nowhere that Arthur wouldn’t go, no one that he wouldn’t fight, in order to get Merlin back.

So lost in his thoughts was he that at first he didn’t notice the movement. But then in the next moment Merlin shifted again, just a bare turn of his head upon the pillow, and Arthur nearly stumbled in his haste to crawl across the tent space to his friend.

“Merlin?” he whispered, breathless, hesitant, as if the very movement of his breath would wash Merlin away like smoke in the wind.

Merlin muttered something unintelligible, a tiny frown line forming between his eyebrows as he turned toward Arthur’s voice. His eyelids fluttered, then slowly—so slowly Arthur thought hours must have passed—slid open.

Arthur didn’t dare to breathe. Moments passed, and Arthur watched as Merlin’s blue eyes, unfocused at first, slowly took in the surrounding tent. Merlin made a soft, confused noise; he evidently didn’t like waking up in an unfamiliar place. Arthur felt something warm and heavy begin to rise in the air like a gathering thunderstorm. Before he could say anything, though, Merlin’s gaze fell on him. Instantly the sorcerer blew out a breath, and the heavy weight of his magic dissipated from the air.

“Arthur,” he whispered, and Arthur couldn’t even bring himself to wince at how Merlin sounded as if he’d had his throat trampled by a horse. Relief washed over him, warm and heavy as a tankard of mead, and he reached out without even thinking about it to smooth the hair from Merlin’s face.

“Yes,” he answered, and knew he was grinning like an idiot and could not bring himself to care. “Unfortunately.”

Merlin leaned almost instinctively into his touch. “Oren?” he asked, after a moment.

“He’s fine, along with everyone else,” Arthur answered. “Thanks to you.”

Merlin let out a relieved breath. “I’m glad,” he said.

Arthur nodded, fingering the sheath of the dagger as he said, “Oren told me about the blood magic.”

At that, Merlin sighed, sounding all of a sudden tired beyond his years. “Arthur…”

Merlin,” Arthur said. “I know I’ve no right to dictate what you do, especially with something like this. But next time, could you please think for a moment before calling forth the powers of the earth and potentially sacrificing yourself to them?”

The corner of Merlin’s mouth curved upward for a moment before his expression grew serious again. “Arthur. You know I had no choice. There wasn’t time for anything else.”

“How many times?”

“I don’t think—”

“How many times, Merlin?”

Merlin closed his eyes. “Since Oren and Oliver, three, including today. Before that…I don’t know. More than I cared to keep track of. I had to practice, Arthur. Magic this old can’t be perfected in just one or two trials.”

Arthur shook his head. “Merlin,” he said, and waited until Merlin opened his eyes again. “Promise me, no more.”

A sigh. “Arthur—”

Promise me. No more of this, not when you just returned to Camelot, to me. Give me your word.”

Merlin watched him for a moment. Arthur held his breath. He knew he had no leverage here, nothing to bargain with in the face of Merlin’s power, his knowledge and his connection to the earth, but still. If in any part of his heart Merlin still valued what they shared together…

At last, Merlin nodded. “I can’t promise I’ll never use the magic again,” he said. “We don’t know what we’ll be facing in the next few days. But I swear to you on my life…quite literally, now that I think about it…that I will make it an absolute last resort.”

It was a lot to concede; even Arthur recognized that. He thought of how he might feel if someone made him swear to return Excalibur to its stone prison for eternity. “Very well,” he said. “I suppose I can ask no more of you.” Lifting the dagger, he flipped it once in his palm so that he could present it handle-first to Merlin. “Here. I believe this is yours.”

Merlin pushed himself up to a seated position, wincing as he did so, before accepting the dagger. “Thank you.”

Arthur followed the movements of his hands as he slid the weapon back onto his belt. “You kept it, all these years.”

“Of course.” Merlin turned to him with a small smile, almost shy. “It was important to me.”

“The dagger, or the one who gave it to you?”

“You know the answer to that,” Merlin answered without hesitation, looking straight at him.

And Arthur did. Contentment seeped through his veins soft as warm honey, making him smile as he reached forward to curl his fingers around Merlin’s. He remembered Merlin’s words from the previous night, when he had dispelled Arthur’s nightmares with a wave of his hand. We still have a long way to go, he’d said, but he was wrong. They’d been on this journey for the last eight years, and Arthur was done running. He and Merlin had drawn far enough apart, had stretched the gravitational pull between them to the very limit of its bearing. Now, it was time to snap everything back together, to make their worlds whole and intertwined once again.

Reaching up, he curled his free hand in Merlin’s dark hair, longer now and coarse with exposure. Merlin let him, blue eyes shining in the firelight as he smiled, gentle and inviting, and Arthur thought his heart might burst, it was so filled with warmth and excitement.

“When we return to Camelot,” he said, touching the curve of Merlin’s ear, and even to himself his voice sounded breathless, “will you stay?”

Merlin hummed and leaned into the touch. “Yes,” he answered, and it sounded like a vow. “If you’ll have me.”

Arthur smiled. “Always,” he said, and closed the distance between them at last.

The first thought Arthur had when their lips met was that Merlin tasted just as he remembered. He smelled of forest dirt and the furs he’d been lying on, and the stubble that scraped beneath Arthur’s thumbs was new, but underneath it all was the clear undercurrent of something woodsy and dark, something Arthur knew from the most vivid of his dreams. Something that was all Merlin, and therefore all Arthur ever wished for in this world.

As they moved together and deepened the kiss, Merlin made a needy sound in the back of his throat, calloused fingers coming up to curl in the front of Arthur’s shirt. Arthur went with the implicit command, and as he pushed Merlin back onto the furs and crawled on top of him, still kissing, hands already sliding under clothing to explore hot skin, he could only think of the rightness of it all. As if forces in the universe beyond his or anyone else’s comprehension had somehow always conspired to bring him and Merlin here, to this point, together.

 

The clanging of pots, low rumble of voices, and horses whickering in anticipation of breakfast drew Arthur out of his sleep the next morning. After pausing for a yawn and a shake of his limbs, he propped himself up on the furs, scrubbing at the crud in his eyes with one hand as he looked around the tent. Meager sunlight inched almost shyly through the folds in the tent flap, the cloth rippling water-like with the passing of a faint breeze. Outside there was a sharp dong! of something metal and heavy falling to the ground, followed by a curse from one of the knights and a surge of cacophonous laughter.

Sometime during the course of the night, the tent had grown cold. Yet when Arthur turned and ran his palm over the empty space next to him, the fur was still warm to the touch. Merlin must have just left.

Arthur sighed and flopped back onto the soft furs. Remembering the events of the previous night, he couldn’t help but smile as he looked up at the folds of cloth above him, washed gold by the rising sun. He had done it. Despite all the odds, the guilt and despair of eight long years without the other half of himself, he had found Merlin, had claimed and given himself to him in equal turns until they were more one being than two. After whoever responsible for the continued rains was taken care of, Merlin was coming home.

The approaching footsteps were sudden, so much so that Arthur didn’t even have time to cover himself before the tent flap was drawn aside and Sir Hann poked his head in. “Sire?”

“Um.” Despite his efforts to the contrary, Arthur couldn’t help but brush himself off and generally try to look regal and proper and not like someone very recently debauched. “Yes?”

“Ah…” Hann’s gaze flicked about the room once before settling again on Arthur. The corners of his eyes crinkled in amusement, and Arthur groaned inwardly. Of course, the one day when he wanted to keep something secret, his most perceptive knight would be the first to seek him out.

“What is it?” he snapped, trying and failing to sound irritable.

“Oh, nothing important, Sire,” Hann answered, though the slight hitch in his voice betrayed him. “Just letting you know breakfast is ready.”

He bowed and left, but not before Arthur saw the grin flash across his face. This time he did groan, throwing the covers aside and casting about for his clothing. Unless Merlin had somehow magicked himself out of the tent, everyone would have seen him leaving a little while ago, and Arthur knew he would be at the brunt of endless ribbing today.

Somehow, though, looking down at the furs and remembering what he and Merlin had done on them the previous night, Arthur found himself hard pressed to mind.

The group was well into their meal by the time Arthur finally pushed aside the flap of his tent and stepped out into the sunlight. Tristan and Lamorak conversed good-naturedly over something hot and steaming in the pot over the fire, while Bertha and Gwaine were currently engaged in telling Leon some raucous tavern joke, the usually proper and almost prudish knight throwing his head back and guffawing out loud at the punchline. Hann had the rest of the knights preparing the horses and supplies, while at the other end of camp, Isolde finished twisting her long hair into its customary golden braid as Oren and Oliver sat together nearby on a fallen tree and munched on matching pieces of bread.

Merlin sat a little ways from them, an empty bowl at his feet. He was sharpening the dagger, the drag of whetstone over blade sounding out snikt-snikt in the quiet. He seemed to sense Arthur’s gaze, though, because he paused in his movement and lifted his head almost as soon as Arthur turned toward him. Their gazes met, and Arthur felt the sense-memory of warm skin and questing fingers tingle through his nerves. The smile that followed was inevitable, and he saw Merlin duck his head to hide his own grin, a light dusting of pink appearing on his cheeks.

After that, it didn’t take Arthur long to make up his mind. Stopping just long enough to grab a bowl of breakfast and send a look to his knights just daring them to comment, he approached Merlin and seated himself on the soft earth next to the other man.

Merlin turned to him as soon as he’d settled himself. “Good morning,” he said, soft, almost shy.

Arthur smiled. “Morning. Is that my whetstone?”

“After a fashion.” At Arthur’s raised eyebrow, Merlin shrugged. “I took it out of your bag, but it also appears to be the same one I used to sharpen your sword while I was still in the castle.”

The look that accompanied the words was amused, and Arthur coughed to hide his blush. Yes, he had had times when he’d pined after Merlin more pathetically than was probably warranted. Changing the subject, he said, “Why don’t you just use magic?”

Merlin’s look withered a bit. “Sometimes it’s best to do things yourself, rather than relying on others,” he said. “I’m sure you of all people know that.”

Arthur had the sense to feel sheepish. He scraped at the food in the bowl and allowed his gaze to wander back across the camp toward his knights, only to find them nudging each other and sneaking looks their way, whispering like country girls with fresh gossip. Arthur rolled his eyes and resisted the urge to throw his bowl at their heads.

Next to him, Merlin finished with the dagger and sheathed it. “We can’t be more than a day’s ride from our quarry, by my estimate,” he said. “We should expect to reach the sorcerers’ camp by nightfall.”

Arthur nodded. “Do you think there will be more like those people we encountered yesterday? Bandits and the like?”

“I certainly wouldn’t be surprised,” Merlin answered, then smiled. “But don’t worry, Your Majesty. I’ll protect you from the scary bandits.”

Arthur shoved him. “Says the man who fainted yesterday.”

“After eradicating the enemy threat.”

“Even so.”

They looked at each other and smiled. The morning sunlight caught the edge of Merlin’s eyes and the crinkle of his smile, suffusing him beautiful in the golden half-glow. A warm, wonderful something arose in Arthur’s heart at the sight, and for the briefest instant, he entertained the thought of leaning forward, of tangling his fingers in Merlin’s ridiculously soft hair, pulling him close and—

Thankfully, Percival saved him from such a deplorable display of idiocy. “We’re about ready to set out,” the broad-shouldered knight said. He had his sword hoisted over his shoulder as he walked up to them. “Just give the order.”

Arthur nodded and rose to his feet. Next to him, he felt more than saw Merlin do the same, a strong and comforting presence by his side, as he always should have been, as he always would be.

“All right,” Arthur said, and felt the weight of his words like an old, familiar shield. “Let’s finish this.”

 

They rode through most of the morning, undisturbed for the most part. Arthur sent scouts ahead every hour or so to make sure the path ahead was safe, but it soon became clear that either their enemy was unaware of their approach, or was making preparations for a trap. Arthur desperately hoped it was the former.

Afternoon was just beginning to close in when they caught their first glimpse of the ocean, a glimmering strip of blue in the distance. In front of the water, spilling onto the land like some great beached animal, they could just barely make out what looked like a cluster of tents. Arthur’s stomach dropped when he saw their true numbers. Even from this distance he could already see that there had to be hundreds of tents, maybe even thousands. And if each tent could house five or six soldiers…

Next to him, Merlin hummed, softly. “It is as I feared.”

Arthur nodded, but said nothing in response. He didn’t have to; he could feel his knights shifting behind him on their horses. Though nothing was said, Arthur knew what they were thinking: Camelot, powerful as she was, could not hope to drive back such a force on her own. And they were only a dozen or so people. What could they hope to do against an army so vast?

From somewhere behind them, Oliver’s voice drifted forward, small and unsure. “What should we do?”

“We can return to Camelot,” Leon said, voice grave. “Set up our defenses, dig in with what supplies we have. Perhaps—”

“No.”

They all looked at him. Arthur sighed. Suddenly, he felt the weight of all his responsibilities bearing down on him, the lives and expectations of his people sitting on his shoulders like the greatest of burdens. He couldn’t resign them to a fate of starvation and death, for that would be all that awaited them if they retreated now. He was their king. He held their lives in his hand.

There was only one way to resolve this with the least bloodshed possible. He’d never thought he would find himself in such a position again, but…

“I must meet with their leader,” he said.

Behind him, he felt more than saw his men stiffen in their saddles. Lamorak started to say something, but then appeared to think better of it and only looked away. Arthur turned to Merlin, and they watched each other for a moment.

Then, at last, Merlin nodded. His expression was carefully neutral, but his eyes glinted with determination. “I’ll go with you,” he said.

“As will I,” said Hann, nudging his horse forward, but Arthur shook his head.

“No,” he said. “If we approach with too large a force, we’ll only be attacked. Merlin will accompany me, and no one else.”

“But—”

“It’s final, Hann.”

Hann frowned as his gloved hands twisted the leather reins. He had always been loyal to Arthur, though, and at last he straightened up. “Very well.”

Arthur nodded, suddenly almost ridiculously grateful for Hann’s faith. He turned to the rest of the group. “Set up camp here,” he said, “but be prepared to pack everything up and retreat in case negotiations don’t go through. Randel, I am sending you back to Camelot. Lamorak and Hann will accompany you. Should we fail here, you will be responsible for organizing Camelot’s final defense.”

Randel must have sensed the gravity of the situation, because he made no protest and nudged his horse around immediately. Hann followed, face grim, and Lamorak did the same, but paused for a moment, meeting Arthur’s eyes. “It’s been an honor, Sire,” he said.

A sudden lump formed in Arthur’s throat at the words, and he swallowed. “Likewise.”

The three knights disappeared back into the forest. Arthur turned to Merlin and took a deep breath, squaring his shoulders. “Shall we?”

Merlin nodded, but to Arthur’s surprise, rather than turning his horse, he instead swung a leg over and slid off it altogether. Before Arthur could ask, though, the pressure in the air changed and Arthur’s ears popped. A heartbeat later, a light but solid weight landed on his shoulder, and Arthur turned to blink at the raven now perched there, spindly feet digging into the red cloth of his Pendragon cloak.

Merlin let him stare for a moment before giving an indignant caw, tilting his head at Arthur with beady black eyes. The message was clear. Stop gawking and get a move on.

Despite everything, Arthur smiled. Merlin would have his back no matter what form he was in. He turned his horse down a side path, headed for the beach. No one moved to stop them, and Isolde only called out, “Take care.” Arthur gritted his teeth and forced himself not to think about how this might be the last time he saw any of them alive.

From the forest, the journey down to the beach took only about half an hour. As they drew closer, Arthur saw that the camp was just as he and Merlin had first seen it, fuzzy and indistinct through the smoky fog of Merlin’s location spell. The tents were made of animal furs, and the people themselves dressed much the same, decorations of teeth, claws and feathers hanging from their garments like jewels. Arthur could not place exactly where they were from, but he did not have to. They weren’t from here, and that was all that mattered.

They were noticed as soon as they approached the camp, of course. Several men instantly sprang to their feet, calling out alarms in a foreign language and snatching up swords, spears and axes. In an instant, they were surrounded.

Arthur ran a gentle hand down his horse’s neck to calm it. He himself felt no apprehension from the multitude of weapons currently inches from his person—somehow, knowing Merlin was there, perched on his shoulder and ready to leap to his defense at the slightest provocation, made him feel nothing but safe. Ironic, really, as he’d spent so many years thinking Merlin was the one who needed defending.

Raising his hand, he addressed the crowd. “I am King Arthur Pendragon of Camelot,” he said, “and I wish to speak with your leader.”

Only silence and the soft rustle of shifting bodies answered him, and Arthur frowned. Perhaps these people did not speak their language? Perhaps—

Merlin cawed, and Arthur turned to see a man moving toward them through the crowd. Though he was dressed no different from the others, Arthur could tell immediately that he was someone of considerable importance, as the other men shuffled to make way for him, parting before him like a docile wave. He could also tell the new arrival was a warrior through and through: every movement rippled through fine-tuned muscle, and the careful yet confident way in which he moved spoke of years of training and combat. The sword strapped to his belt was also a dead giveaway. This was not someone to be underestimated.

The man came to a stop in front of the horse, placing his hands on his hips and regarding them with cool eyes. When at last he spoke, it was with an accent so thick Arthur could barely understand the words. “Why you wish speak with king?”

Arthur straightened his shoulders. “I wish to negotiate.” He ignored the rumble of laughs that sent through the crowd. “I believe, with the proper perspective, our respective kingdoms will be able to reach an agreement to our mutual benefit.”

Another low series of laughs rolled through those gathered. The newcomer cocked his head, eyeing Arthur for a moment before giving them a crooked smile that inexplicably made Arthur want to throw negotiations to the winds and draw his sword anyway.

But then he remembered his knights, and Merlin’s friends, all waiting for him to bring back good news. And beyond that, Camelot, his kingdom, the people he had sworn to protect with everything that he had.

Merlin shifted on his shoulder, a warm, comforting presence by his side. Feathers brushed the edge of Arthur’s ear, and he felt some of the tension drain from his spine. He could do this. He had to do this.

Before them, the man nodded, although his smile did not diminish in its malice. His teeth flashed brown and half-rotten as he said, “I take you to king.” Then he motioned to Arthur’s mount. “But first, how you say it, you get off high horse?”

More snickers from the crowd. Arthur set his jaw and concentrated on Merlin’s presence as he obediently slid off his horse, booted feet hitting the ground with a thud that rattled up his armor. He straightened his shoulders and nodded at the man. “Lead the way.”

As two or three other men separated from the crowd to seize the horse’s reins and lead it away—Arthur allowed himself a brief pang of regret; he’d liked that horse—the man led them through the encampment, weaving between tents and around huge fire pits alternately hung with smoking meats and tanned animal hides. Sharp looks and the occasional snicker followed them, and the tenth time he caught a filthy soldier leering at him with open interest Arthur had to bite his tongue against the urge to just demand Merlin teleport them back to his men and then wipe them all out with one of his fancy spells.

He knew Merlin likely would put up little objection to such a scenario, but Arthur was king of Camelot for a reason. His people were depending on him, and so this battle was his to fight, not Merlin’s.

The man eventually led them to a tent near the center of the encampment, larger than the others and set up on a hill overlooking the area. Large skulls and animal skins decorated the opening, and when the man pushed aside the flap and shoved Arthur inside, he saw that the interior was clearly befitting royalty: ornate weapons—some which he could not identify—decorated the room in their wooden stands instead of fur, bones and beads,. Deep colored cloth that might have been silk was spread over the floor and hung from the rafters, and a merry display of meat and fresh fruit sat on the small wooden table in one corner.

In the center of the tent on a raised dais was an ornate chair—not quite a throne, but a close approximation for travel purposes. On it sat a man perhaps in his mid-forties, with a slight belly and a long beard. He wore no crown, but the large crest dangling from the chain around his neck was more than enough to impart his status. He looked up upon Arthur’s entrance and smiled.

“Arthur Pendragon,” he said, and Arthur narrowed his eyes. There was little trace of an accent here. “I am Olig, leader of these people. I am honored by your visit.” The fact that he did not get up from his chair communicated the lie.

Arthur squared his shoulders and stepped forward. He did not bow. “Your Majesty, the honor is mine.”

Olig nodded. “The man who brought you here is my general, Akon. I hope he was not too…forceful with you?”

“On the contrary, he was quite polite,” Arthur deadpanned. On his shoulder, Merlin clicked his beak—a movement Arthur somehow intuitively knew was equivalent to a huffed out laugh.

Olig must have picked up on the humor because he smiled and scratched at his beard. “Yes, Akon may be a bit rough around the edges, as a man in his line of work must. I am sure you understand, as a warrior yourself.” He patted his knee and straightened up. “So. Tell me why you have come, Arthur Pendragon. I had thought we would meet each other only on the battlefield.”

Arthur nodded. “As I informed your men earlier, I am here to negotiate a truce. Camelot has no quarrel with you or your people. I see no reason for you to threaten our lands.”

“Ah, but that is where you are wrong, young king,” Olig said, leaning forward. His eyes gleamed, reminding Arthur uncomfortably of a venomous snake. His fingers itched for his sword.

“You see,” Olig continued, “Our people…we have been blessed. Our priests have been graced with a vision; the gods have gifted these northern lands to us. Your people, your kingdom…they are mine. The gods have decreed it.”

“Then you and I are in disagreement,” Arthur answered, “because we’ve received no divine messages ordering us to submit to you.”

Olig smiled. His teeth glinted white in the half-light. “Then the gods have not deemed you worthy,” he said. “And we will slaughter you.”

On Arthur’s shoulder, Merlin shook out his feathers and cawed softly. It was a sharp, rough sound, and communicated a clear message: This is futile. Looking at Olig sitting upon his throne, smiling that haughty, knowing smile as if Arthur were a child come to beg for a sweet candy after dinner, Arthur found himself inclined to agree. There would be no truce today; whoever these people were, they lived a life of war. But perhaps…

“I see we will reach no peace here,” he said, and crossed his arms in front of his chest. “However, I would like to make an alternate proposal.”

Olig’s eyebrow arched up, clearly amused. “Go on.”

“A single match,” Arthur said. “Each of us chooses a champion to represent our kingdoms, and the winner decides the war.”

A sudden, sharp pain exploded in his ear, and Arthur barely controlled his wince at Merlin’s abrupt, displeased peck. He, too, would rather not have resorted to this, but if he had learned anything from the brief conflict with Annis of Caerleon, it was that the relative lack of bloodshed was worth it.

Atop his throne, Olig inclined his head and stroked his beard, thinking. Arthur took a breath and forced himself to wait. He doubted Olig was as noble as Annis was, but if it was a matter of honor, perhaps he would accept. And even if Arthur lost the match—because he already knew he would allow no one else to risk his life for his kingdom—perhaps he could buy enough time for Merlin and the others to return to Camelot, gather their forces, and make a last stand.

The silence dragged out. Merlin, thankfully, made no move to further communicate his displeasure, although it practically radiated from him like a physical thing, cold and angry and saying in no uncertain terms, We are going to have words about this. Arthur suppressed a smile at that, forlorn as it was. All these years, and it took a war with a foreign force more powerful than any Camelot had ever faced for their roles to be reversed and for Arthur to be the one on the receiving end of the angry lecture.

His thoughts were interrupted when Olig shifted on his throne, lifting his head and straightening his shoulders. He smiled again at Arthur, but there was no change in the level of amicability. “Very well, Pendragon,” he said, “I will indulge you in your…game. Let us settle this on the battlefield tomorrow, and see whose kingdom is more deserving of divine privilege.”

Arthur took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He was relieved that Olig had agreed to his terms, but he wasn’t looking forward to having to explain himself to his knights.

Some time later, with the sun was just touching the horizon in the background, Leon cast his sword to the ground in frustration, the blade sinking into the earth and propping the weapon up like a signpost. “You can’t be serious!”

Next to him, Gwaine nodded, expression solemn. “I have to agree with him,” he said. “Arthur, this Olig fellow certainly does not sound like a man of his word. We’ll be lucky if he has even an ounce of the honor Queen Annis possessed.”

“He’s just as likely to send his entire army to kill us in our sleep,” Percival added.

Further down the line, Isolde nodded. “There is also the matter of the sorcerers he commands.”

Next to her, Tristan hummed as he twirled a lock of her golden hair around his finger, moving without thinking to accommodate her as she leaned into him. “We’ve not seen any sorcerers in the camp.”

“They’re there,” Oren said, patting his horse’s neck absently, his other hand resting on Oliver’s shoulder. “We can feel them.”

“Well, they could easily be dressed up like the rest of the warriors,” Bertha offered, picking at the twine wrapped around the handle of her axe. “Might do for better camouflage, at any rate.”

Leon shook his head and stepped up to Arthur. His eyes were bright, pleading. “Sire, please think about this. You’re walking into a trap; there’s no way you’ll make it out of this alive!”

Arthur schooled his expression and returned his knight’s gaze. “I have made my decision.”

A wave of dissent swept through the group. Gwaine pursed his lips before turning to the only one among them who had not yet spoken. “Well? Don’t just sit there; do something!”

The solid weight left Arthur’s shoulders, feathers brushing his ear as wings unfolded. A fresh wave of shifting pressure zipped through the air, and Merlin turned to face them, tall and human once again. His face, when he looked at Arthur, was edged not with anger but with resignation.

“Unfortunately,” he said, speaking slowly, “I know no spell to cure the stubbornness of the Pendragon line.”

Tristan tilted his head. “You agree with the king then, Merlin?” Arthur noted no disapproval in his tone; only a genuine curiosity. He spared himself a moment to be glad for the loyalty of Merlin’s friends.

Merlin straightened his shoulders. “No,” he answered, and spared Arthur a sharp look as he walked over to the horse he’d left when they had first departed to seek out Olig’s men. “I just don’t see the point of arguing about it.”

The way he said it made Arthur a little uncomfortable. It was comforting to know Merlin wasn’t genuinely angry at him, but at the same time, Arthur couldn’t quite understand the resignation in his voice. Merlin spoke with the same grudging acceptance he had back in Camelot whenever Arthur told him they were going on a long hunting trip: willing to go with Arthur’s decision because Arthur was his friend, but knowing he would be the one stuck mucking out the stables in the dark afterward.

Arthur frowned. Did Merlin know something about this that he didn’t? “Merlin, wha—wait! Where are you going?”

From atop his horse, Merlin glanced briefly at him. “I will camp separately from the rest of you tonight. I trust you will look after my apprentices in my absence.”

“Why are you leaving?” Oliver asked, speaking for the first time.

“In the event that things go south tomorrow, we must be ready,” Merlin answered, softly. “I must make preparations.”

“What preparations?” asked Leon, but Merlin just shook his head.

“That’s not important,” he murmured, and turned his horse. “Good night.”

The roughened leather of the reins bit into the skin of Arthur’s palm. Merlin looked at him, calm and unreadable. Fierce protectiveness and a burning longing surged up in Arthur, and he opened his mouth—but ultimately, nothing came out.

He wanted Merlin to stay. After all, tomorrow could be his last day on earth, and if he could keep Merlin tonight, hold him and have him and keep him close after missing him for so many years, Arthur knew he could walk right into his death tomorrow and be at peace.

Yet, peering into Merlin’s eyes, he found he couldn’t ask. And perhaps he didn’t have to. After all, Merlin had promised Arthur that he would come with him back to Camelot after this. Merlin was here to stay. And if there was anything Arthur knew about his former manservant, his friend and lover and the best man he had ever known, it was that Merlin kept his promises.

Taking a deep breath, he tried on a smile. “Will you at least tell me what you’re planning?” he asked, and was grateful his voice only shook a little.

Merlin looked at him evenly. “I let you pick your battles, Arthur. Please grant me the same courtesy.” Then his lip twitched before curling up into a soft smile that sent a current of warmth down Arthur’s spine. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Then, without another word, he turned his horse and rode off into the forest.

Arthur sighed and returned his attention to the rest of the group. Everyone watched him, and though he could not read their faces as well as he could Merlin’s, Arthur could tell they were all waiting for him to go after his former manservant.

Instead, he squared his shoulders. “Let’s make camp here,” he said, and didn’t wait for their response as he walked to his horse and began pulling off his gear. Tomorrow, he thought. Everything could wait until tomorrow.

 

The following morning found Arthur the first to rise, long before the first rays of sunlight touched the horizon. He revelled in the quiet of the dawn, nothing but the call of far-off birds and the soft thud-thud of their horses’ hooves as they moved about in the grass. Gwaine, who’d taken the last watch, was currently slumped with his back against a nearby tree, head fallen forward so that his ridiculously long hair framed his face like a curtain. If Arthur listened closely, he could even hear the snores.

He didn’t let it bother him. Gwaine was no longer a knight of Camelot, after all, so if he wished to doze during a watch, Arthur had no right to correct him. Besides, Gwaine might as well have gone off to bed rather than taking the watch in the first place—Arthur hadn’t slept the entire night and would have been happy to take the other man’s shift.

He’d tried, at first, lying alone on his soft furs, looking up at the rough weave of the tent above him. But no matter how hard he tried, no matter how much he tossed and turned, Arthur hadn’t been able to catch even a wink of rest. The fact that the furs still smelled of Merlin certainly had not helped.

Arthur sighed and looked down at the pot of stew he was currently heating over the campfire. Merlin hadn’t returned during the night, seemingly intent on following through with his plan of camping separately from them. And, no matter what Merlin said, Arthur wasn’t stupid. He was planning something, and it likely involved sorcery of one form or another. And while Arthur knew Merlin would never do anything to directly interfere with his duel later in the day—Merlin respected him too much for that—he still allowed himself a brief moment of uneasiness. After all, he had borne witness to the awesome power of Merlin’s magic several times already. Who knew what Merlin was cooking up?

The sky soon brightened and the forest grew alive, the birds picking up their morning songs as small animals skittered through the brush. The rest of the group, too, soon picked their way out of their tents, blinking blearily out at the new day. Arthur welcomed them, though he said little. They must have sensed something of what was on his mind, because nobody pressed him for anything more than a share of breakfast.

It was not until an hour later that Merlin showed up, melting out of the forest like a wraith from the mist. Arthur was the first to spot him, of course, and rose immediately to his feet, a smile of greeting already on his face—but stopped when Merlin stepped into the sunlight and he got his first good look at his friend. The “Good morning” he had been about to offer turned to ash in his mouth, and instead he whispered, “Merlin?”

Merlin nodded at him and stepped toward the campfire, movements stiff and careful. Arthur couldn’t help but stare as he passed: Merlin looked terrible. His skin was pale, almost white as milk, and his lips were without color. His eyes, too, were sunken just slightly in their sockets, and the way he moved—ginger and with careful calculation—implied he was in pain.

Gods. What had Merlin been doing?

“Merlin.” Arthur followed him to the campfire. “What are you—for gods’ sake, sit down before you collapse!”

Merlin obeyed, allowing Arthur to ease him onto a fallen tree next to the fire. Arthur noticed out of the corner of his eye that the others were following their interaction closely, though thankfully, none of them saw fit to speak up.

Once they were seated together on the log, Arthur reached out, throwing propriety to the winds, and brushed his fingers over the pale curve of Merlin’s cheekbone. “Merlin, what did you do?”

His friend shrugged, barely hiding a wince at the movement. His eyes, though, when he looked at Arthur, were as bright and determined as ever. “What I had to,” he answered.

“I don’t understand.”

Merlin smiled at that, just a slight upturning of his lips. It brought a sparkle to his eyes, though, and Arthur tucked the image away in his mind like a precious treasure. “Don’t worry,” Merlin said. “If you win the match today, it won’t matter. Call it…a contingency plan of sorts.”

Arthur frowned. “If you’ve done something to endanger your life…”

Merlin brought his hand up to press against Arthur’s. His smile softened and grew warmer. “I won’t if you won’t.”

Arthur wanted to argue the matter. He felt he should argue the matter—this was Merlin, after all, whom he’d only just gotten back in the last few days after having to live without him for almost eight years. But then, as it always had been with Merlin, Arthur realized an argument would only result in him wasting his breath. Whatever Merlin had done, there was nothing Arthur could do to undo it.

In the end, all he did was huff out a breath—because he’d be damned if he didn’t at least let Merlin know he was very displeased with this entire situation—and say, “So I suppose I shouldn’t die today then.”

That made Merlin smile again, though his eyes took on a steely glint. “That would be preferable, yes.”

Arthur nodded. “I’ll try.” Which was not a promise, but it was the most he had. For Merlin, he would try. For Merlin, anything.

Merlin hummed, squeezing Arthur’s fingers. “I can ask no more of you.”

Whatever Arthur meant to say next was lost when Percival approached them, boots crunching on the dead leaves that covered the forest ground. “Morning’s well under way, Sire,” the burly knight said, with just a touch of apology in his voice for the intrusion. “If you want to get to the beach for your duel, it would be wise to set out now.”

Arthur nodded at him and watched as Percival walked away again. When he turned back to Merlin, the sorcerer held his gaze, steady and loyal as Merlin always had been, as he always would be.

“Shall we?” Merlin asked.

Arthur gently disengaged their hands. Then he took a deep breath and nodded. “Yes. Let’s go.”

 

By the time they arrived at the beach half an hour later, Arthur could feel the excitement of the coming battle settling in his bones. Though he would always be the first to seek a diplomatic solution to every conflict, he was still a fighter at heart. And now, looking at the scores of soldiers who lined the beachfront—there had to be at least several hundred present to witness the duel, and countless more dotting the beach in the distance preparing for battle—Arthur couldn’t help the excitement that sang through his blood. He was a warrior through and through, after all. It was what he had been born for.

His mood was also bolstered by the fact that, throughout their ride from the forest down to the beach, Merlin had started looking better. His skin was still pasty white and he still moved in that measured, overly-careful way, but his eyes had brightened during the journey and he seemed overall more relaxed. Arthur didn’t know exactly what it was that had calmed Merlin so, but he was just grateful Merlin no longer looked like he was going to keel over at the slightest push.

Years later, Arthur would always look back on this moment, that instant when he and Merlin stood side by side on the beach facing Olig’s army, and wonder why he didn’t see Merlin’s air of relaxation for what it really was: resignation. The knowledge that he would do whatever had to be done in order to keep Arthur safe.

They brought their horses to a halt approximately two hundred paces from the front of Olig’s army. Olig himself somehow managed to look both regal and barbaric atop his warhorse, while beside him Akon, dressed in full armor, watched them with all the interest and dignity a man would afford the mud he scraped off his shoe.

Arthur was the first to dismount, and took exactly twenty steps forward, putting himself just inside the range of Olig’s archers. When nothing happened after a few heart-stopping moments—it seemed these people had at least a hint of honor left in them—he took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. “Send your champion forward,” he commanded, voice echoing across the beach.

Olig glanced sideways at Akon, then jerked his chin in Arthur’s direction. The foreign general obediently slid off his horse, hefting a large, double-bladed axe over his shoulder as he started across the sand. Within moments, he stood at Arthur’s front, barely ten paces away. Arthur saw that he was still chewing on the leftovers of breakfast.

He nodded at Akon. “You are to be my opponent then?”

Akon picked something out of his teeth and flicked it into the sand at Arthur’s feet. His grin was both contemptuous and bone-chillingly vile. “Will be morning exercise,” he said, yellow teeth flashing in the sun. “When later kill your people, I don’t want to pull muscle.”

Arthur clenched his fist and tamped down on the urge to just carve into Akon’s smug face and be done with it. He needed to show Olig and all his people that he was in control, that he was an honorable opponent. It was the only way he could convince them to return across the sea should he win the duel.

If he lost, well...then nothing he did would matter much.

Footsteps approached behind him, the soft swishing of feet through fine sand. A hand touched his shoulder, and Arthur turned to look at Merlin, the blackness of his cloak a solemn yet comforting contrast to the brightness of the sun and the beach around them. When he smiled at Arthur, there was nothing but love and acceptance in his eyes.

“Show them the strength of Camelot,” Merlin whispered. “Show them the strength of a king.”

And then he kissed Arthur. It was brief, just a soft brush of lips, but still Arthur revelled in the warmth of Merlin’s closeness, the knowledge that, no matter what, Merlin would always be there. And yes, he was aware as he curled his fingers in the front of Merlin’s cloak to pull him closer, that his knights and Merlin’s friends and Akon and the entirety of Olig’s army could all see them, but in that moment, he didn’t care.

Let them see. Let them see what Arthur had won, what he had earned. He was not ashamed. He would never be ashamed of Merlin.

It seemed an eternity before they pulled back from each other, although it could not have been more than a few seconds. Arthur smiled and brushed his thumb over Merlin’s bottom lip. “Thank you,” he whispered.

“You can thank me after you’ve won,” was Merlin’s answer, but his smile did not fade as he stepped apart from Arthur, turning to give Akon a brief nod of acknowledgement before returning across the sand to where the rest of their group waited by the horses.

Arthur had to give Akon credit; he waited a whole five seconds before the leer broke across his face. “Your magician good for more than tricks, eh?”

Arthur didn’t answer, choosing to tighten his vambraces instead. That didn’t seem to deter Akon, though, whose eyes watched Merlin’s retreating back with a slimy interest that made Arthur’s blood boil in his veins. Akon looked back at Arthur and ran a finger down the blade of his axe. “When I kill you, I take him as my slave.”

Again, Arthur said nothing. Instead, he drew his sword and took an offensive stance, which was more than reply enough.

Akon took the hint, and raised his axe. They watched each other for a long moment as the soldiers shifted behind Akon and the horses whickered softly behind Arthur. A cool ocean breeze blew in from the water, whipping at their clothes as if admonishing them for the fight. Arthur ignored it.

Then, all of a sudden, Akon leaped forward with a cry—and it began.

Arthur parried the first blow easily and kicked out, hoping to topple his opponent. But Akon had not become general of Olig’s army for nothing—he saw the move and quickly rolled out of the way, bringing his axe around to swing right at Arthur’s head. Arthur ducked down to avoid the blade and dove sideways, lashing up in a swift uppercut that clanged against the solid metal of Akon’s armor.

Akon staggered back, and Arthur was on him in an instant. He gave the other man no quarter, bringing his blade down over and over so that it was all Akon could do to block the blows. Sand flew everywhere as they did their deadly dance across the beach, sunlight glinting off armor and blade alike, and Arthur reached deep inside himself for his power, his balance, the well of strength colored just slightly by rage—because Akon had insulted Merlin, his Merlin, and Arthur would see him bleed for that—that suffused his body with renewed energy and drove him into the battle with all his warrior prowess. Merlin had told him to show the strength of Camelot, and Arthur would not disappoint him.

Then, all of a sudden, he saw his opening. Akon parried another blow, but only barely, his axe taking the hit at an awkward angle so that he left his right side unguarded, and Arthur dove in. In three moves he had Akon sprawled on his back, spitting out sand as he glared with nothing but pure hatred up at Arthur, who had the tip of his sword poised at his throat.

Cheers and applause erupted from his knights behind him, but Arthur ignored them, instead looking down at Akon, laid out at his mercy. He should kill him, he thought. After what he’d done, after what he’d threatened to do to Merlin, Arthur should slit his throat, cut off his head and cast it at Olig’s feet as his final bloody trophy. He could do it, too. If anyone had the right to it, as the victor of their duel, Arthur did.

But, above all things, Arthur was not his father. He did not follow Uther’s cruel, violent ways, and he had long ago resolved never to kill unless he had no other options. And looking down at Akon now, Arthur knew he had another choice.

Leaning forward a bit but still careful to keep his sword where it was, Arthur looked straight into Akon’s eyes and said, “Do you yield?”

Akon bared his teeth at him, eyes bright with fury. Sweat had plastered his already-greasy hair to his face, and mixed in with the sand it created all sorts of interesting dirty marks on his skin. Arthur pressed his blade down and in a little, just enough to draw a small drop of blood from Akon’s neck and make the other man gasp. “Well?” he demanded.

He didn’t think he had ever seen such bald disgust in another man’s expression as Akon glared up at him, licked his lips, and finally grit out, “Yes. I do.”

Arthur nodded and stepped back, resheathing his sword at his waist. He lifted his chin and peered into the distance straight at Olig, still sitting unmoving on his warhorse. “The fight is mine,” he shouted, clear across the beach. “Now hold to your end of the bargain and withdraw.”

Olig sneered; even from this distance, Arthur could see it. Turning, he shouted something in a low, guttural foreign language. One of his archers stepped forward and drew back the string on his bow, and before Arthur could react, an arrow sailed through the air and embedded itself in the side of Akon’s neck. The general jerked, eyes going wide with shock and betrayal, before lifeblood bubbled over his lips and he sank to the ground and went still.

His knights shouted and ran forward, but in the next instant Olig turned to the rest of his archers and bellowed out another order. With an ominous twang and swish, Arthur suddenly found himself looking up at a wave of arrows, dozens—hundreds of them, enough to darken the sky, all headed straight for him.

Behind him, Percival and Leon were shouting something, voices frantic, but Arthur couldn’t hear them over the sudden buzzing in his ears. He stared up at the incoming arrows, angry and black like a cloud of insects, and thought he should move, thought he should run—but it would do no good. He had no shield, and no matter how fast he ran, there was no way he would escape the volley.

He was going to die.

Just as that thought hit him, a new voice rose over the panicked ones of his knights: a calm voice, powerful—Merlin’s voice. It echoed with a thousand years of magic, of nothing but pure power, and in the next instant the very sky above Arthur seemed to flicker and change. The air grew dense, impenetrably so, and Olig’s arrows abruptly hit the invisible barrier, bouncing harmlessly off the condensed air like buttons off a windowpane.

Arthur stared as the arrows fell harmlessly to the sand all around him like so many dead birds. Leon was the first to reach him, immediately grabbing him by the arm. “Sire! Are you all right?”

Arthur nodded, but found he could not speak, the nearness of his death making it so that his thoughts seemed to slide through his brain as if it were filled with thick molasses. It wouldn’t have mattered anyhow, because then the others caught up as well, and with them came Merlin, expression somber as he waved a hand almost nonchalantly and dispersed the shield.

Up ahead, Olig reared his horse up, expression thunderous. Lifting his sword, he yelled something that Arthur did not recognize, foreign as it was—but it didn’t matter. The way the rest of his army yelled back, a deafening roar like an oncoming storm, said more than enough. In the distance, hundreds—thousands of bright, meteor-like energy spheres launched into the air from his sorcerer army, arcing down like a deadly rain. Simultaneously, the rumble of horses’ hooves came like a rolling wave as Olig yelled again and charged forward across the beach toward them, followed closely by the rest of his men.

Arthur swallowed and looked around at their ragtag group: his knights, Merlin’s friends, and slightly behind them Oren and Oliver, eyes big and scared. Then he looked at Olig’s army, fully several hundred men barreling toward them across the sand, countless thousands more in the distance, the rain of magic that filled the sky like the rage of wrathful gods.

Very slowly, he drew his sword; felt more than heard his knights do the same. Isolde nocked an arrow and leaned into Tristan just a little, communicating without words, while further down the line Gwaine and Bertha shared a resigned yet meaningful look. Oren drew Oliver close, but said nothing.

Arthur watched each of them in turn, and felt sudden tears prickle at his eyes. In all his days, first as a prince and then as a king, he had fought alongside more than his share of warriors and honorable soldiers. Yet, in this instant, he could not imagine anyone he would rather have by his side than those who were here now. And if they were to die here, if his blood were to mingle with theirs on the sand today, he could think of no better end.

For Camelot, he thought, and prepared to give the order.

Then, abruptly, Merlin stepped forward and waved a hand, and once again everything changed. The words died on Arthur’s lips as the air around them shifted again, thickened and coalesced, and he suddenly found himself and the rest of the group encased within a half-bubble of thick air, with Merlin standing outside not two feet away.

It took a moment for him to realize what had happened. Then, when he saw Merlin standing there, solemnly regarding Olig’s men as they approached, he felt something cold and terrible seize hold of his heart.

Leaping forward, he slammed both hands against the invisible barrier and shouted, “Merlin!

Behind him, Oliver also ran up, face broken open with confusion and terror. “Master! What are you doing?”

Merlin turned to glance at them over his shoulder, and Arthur drew in a shaky breath when he saw the golden glow that infused his eyes, haunting and not of this earth. When Merlin smiled, it was soft and just this side of sad.

“Contingency plan,” he said and, reaching up, undid the clasp of his cloak and let it drop to the sand.

Everyone gasped, and behind them Oren let out a choked, horrified moan. Arthur barely heard them, unable to breathe as he stared at Merlin, at the curving, bloody sigils that had been carved into the skin of his back, his torso, his arms. They twisted and curled over his skin like perverse snakes, most of the wounds still raw and oozing viscous blood, and dear gods, what had Merlin done?

“Master!” Beside him Oliver screamed, pounding his small fists against the barrier. “Master, no! Please! Don’t leave us!

And then Arthur remembered: the blood magic. But surely Merlin couldn’t be thinking…surely he wouldn’t be so stupid as to…

Fresh tears sprang to his eyes. No. Merlin had said he would stay, he had promised

Up ahead, Merlin watched them for a moment longer before turning back to face Olig’s army. Then, abruptly, his voice drifted through Arthur’s head, soft, echoing, and for Arthur alone.

I’m sorry.

No!” Arthur launched himself at the barrier, threw his whole body against the unyielding air, shouting all the while. “Merlin, no!” Behind them, Oren shouted something in that hissing magic language and threw a fireball at the shield over their heads, but it hit the invisible wall and dispersed into harmless heat. Leon, Percival and Gwaine all drew their swords, hacking futilely at the condensed air.

But it was too late. As they all watched in horror, Merlin drew his dagger and slowly, methodically slit open each palm. Then, without turning around, he knelt and pressed both hands flat to the sand.

Su hulu,” he said, and his voice was like thunder.

The ground shook, a trembling spasm that ripped through the beach, set the ocean churning in great waves and stopped most of Olig’s men dead in their tracks. The earth itself seemed to groan, as if being forced to exert great effort.

Then the sigils Merlin had carved into his skin began to glow: faint at first, but then with a growing intensity until it seemed all of Merlin was ringed with light. Up ahead, Olig and his men paused on their horses, uncertain, fearful. Arthur allowed himself a brief, savage moment of righteousness at their terror.

Then Merlin cried out, the sound torn from him like a physical thing, and the light exploded.

The shield surrounding them groaned and shattered, and the force of Merlin’s magic was like being hit by a charging bear. Arthur was on the ground before he knew it, throwing up a hand to protect his eyes from the blinding white light that seared through the sky, enveloping them all in a terrifying fog that hummed with magical heat. He was vaguely aware of the others crying out as they met the same fate, Gwaine cursing and Isolde letting out a terrified wail as the magic washed over them, and in the distance the horses screamed as they died but Arthur barely registered the sound because he was being torn apart, they all were, melted from the inside and the very skin flayed from their bodies—

But then, all of a sudden, it was gone. The heat, the power, the rolling wave of destruction and fire and death—scattered to the wind as cleanly as dust. Arthur stayed for a moment where he was, curled up in the sand like a scared child, eyes squeezed shut in pure, paralyzing terror. Never before had he felt such cold, mind-numbing fear. Never before had he felt something so malicious, so utterly bent on nothing but obliteration.

It took him another moment to realize that he was, in fact, still alive. With that realization came others: the feel of the sun beating down on him from above, the rolling of the ocean as wave after wave crashed upon the shore, the soft groans and murmurs of his companions as they, too, slowly picked themselves up from the sand.

When Leon spoke at last a few moments later, he sounded dazed and about half an uneasy step from throwing up. “Is…Is everyone all right?”

“I think so,” Isolde stammered, sounding uncertain, but whatever Tristan started to say to her in response was abruptly cut off by Oren’s strangled shout of “Master!”

Arthur jerked his head up, peering down the beach, and instantly felt his heart stop. Fresh fear sank into his bones, cold and malicious.

The sky was clear; no trace of the rain of magic launched by Olig’s sorcerers. Of the people themselves, there was nothing left but a range of smoking ash, scattered all along the beach and into the distance, black sinking into the white-gold of the sand. Every single man, every one of the thousands of soldiers who had come across the sea—all gone, burned to nothing but dust.

But that was not what made Arthur afraid.

Further down the beach, Merlin knelt in the sand. The sigils carved into his skin were still glowing, bright golden light spilling from each mark as if Merlin were a great piece of land cracking apart to reveal the lava flow beneath. Except something wasn’t right, because the glow had a shape, curving into thread-like lengths of light that flowed from Merlin’s body, tendrils of energy twisting and curling to disappear into the air, the flowing saltwater, the earth beneath their feet.

Then Merlin moaned, a soft, pained sound, and the glowing tendrils pulsed, grew in brightness for a brief moment before he slumped forward, just barely managing to catch himself with a hand jammed into the sand.

And that was when Arthur realized exactly what was happening.

He was on his feet and running before his brain had even fully registered the movement. Behind him someone gave a shout but he ignored it, stumbling forward in the sand toward Merlin, Merlin who was fading, whose very life-force was being drawn out of him in golden tendrils and returned to the earth as the blood magic decreed.

As he got closer he became aware of the heat, a furnace-blast so strong it caused the armor he was wearing to sting against his skin, but Arthur didn’t care. He stumbled in the sand and dropped to his knees in front of his lover. “Merlin?” he whispered.

The glow was so intense now that he could barely make out the features of Merlin’s face, yet he still clearly saw the outline of the sorcerer’s eyes. There was no blue left, only the eerie, otherworldly gold that struck fear in Arthur’s heart as he reached forward and laid a hand on Merlin’s bare shoulder, ignoring the searing pain as his fingers made contact with his skin. “Merlin,” he repeated.

Merlin let out a breath, hitched and painful. He didn’t look at Arthur, didn’t even seem to realize he was there, and when he spoke, the words were mechanical, without inflection, as if there was already nothing left.

“I have to go now,” he said, voice blank—dead.

The words sank into Arthur, burrowed straight into the depths of his soul and touched something there that howled in anguish, made the tears well up and spill down his cheeks before he could stop them. “No,” Arthur said, barely able to choke it out around a suddenly constricted throat.

Merlin had promised. And Arthur knew, even as he reached forward with his other hand to cup Merlin’s cheek—also searing hot—that if there was anything he could do to keep Merlin with him, whether that be fighting all the dragons in the world barehanded, or sacrificing himself to Olig a hundred times over, or trading the lives of everyone in Camelot—he would do it. Anything, everything, to keep Merlin here.

“No,” he whispered again, peering into Merlin’s lifeless, golden gaze. He swallowed, throat constricting. “Merlin. You have a choice.”

Something faltered. He couldn’t tell what, but there was definitely a change there, the slightest of shifts in the atmosphere around them. Merlin blinked, brow creasing for just a moment like it used to whenever Arthur handed him a complicated royal document back at the castle for him to look over, precisely because he knew Merlin would understand nothing about its contents.

“Choice…?” Merlin repeated, like the word was new, unfamiliar.

A new something blossomed in Arthur’s heart, warring with the fear. Something like hope. He leaned forward, seeking Merlin’s gaze, those eyes that looked far off beyond him to something Arthur could never comprehend.

But he didn’t need to. Not as long as Merlin was by his side.

“Yes,” he said, and was surprised at how strong his voice sounded. “Yes, Merlin.” He took a deep breath.

“So choose.”

A long moment passed. Merlin stayed where he was, half-sagging in the sand, life-force continuing to flow into the earth around them, gaze far-off and seeing nothing. Arthur held his breath and sent up every prayer he knew to every god he had never believed in. Choose, he thought, running a finger down Merlin’s cheek even though the movement burned his skin even further. Choose.

Then, in front of him, Merlin took a breath. He blinked, once, and then his gaze shifted, fell directly on Arthur’s face, and lit with momentary recognition. “Arthur,” he murmured, and for the second time, everything exploded.

It was like being punched, and Arthur flew back into the sand and lay there for a few moments, dazed. When at last he pulled awareness back to himself and opened his eyes, the sky was clear and brilliant blue above him. The wind surged across the beach, whipping at his hair, forceful and fast as if determined to wipe everything clean.

Then, with a start, Arthur realized that the heat from before was gone, as were the tendrils of golden light. He sprang to a seated position, glancing briefly down at his hands—nothing hurt, the skin that before had been burned to the point of blistering healed over as cleanly as if Gaius himself had tended to him. What…?

“Sire!”

Pounding footsteps approached, and a moment later Leon crouched in the sand next to him, eyes bright with worry. “Are you all right?” the knight asked. Beyond him, Arthur could see the rest of their companions slowly picking themselves up from the sand.

Arthur started to nod at Leon, but then chose that moment to turn his gaze to where Merlin had been kneeling. And everything stopped.

Merlin was gone. Arthur barely recognized the agonized sound that tore from his throat as he scrambled forward and fell to his knees before the pile of sand-covered clothes that were all that was left of his lover. It couldn’t be, he thought as he peered down at the forlorn pile. No, Merlin couldn’t be…

The blood roaring in his ears and the grief clogging his mind made it so that Arthur didn’t even hear the weak little chirp at first. But when it sounded out again, a tiny, barely-audible Krrr, he stopped, a multitude of emotions—key among them surprise and hope—singing through his heart. The sound was familiar but only barely, something he’d heard a long time ago but now distorted, changed…

Another weak Krrr, before something moved beneath the remains of Merlin’s pants. Then, as Arthur and Leon stared, a tiny black dragon, barely the size of a cellar rat, wormed its way out from beneath the dark cloth. It looked strangely familiar, with its long, thin neck and tiny spines down its back, and the confusion hit Arthur for a moment—before he remembered. He’d seen this dragon before—larger, yes, and far more ferocious, yet the exact same—at Merlin’s execution. And, without even having to think about it, Arthur knew.

Merlin had made his choice.

Warmth suffused itself throughout his body, and he was barely aware of his shaky laugh as he slowly extended a hand, palm up. The baby dragon didn’t hesitate, hopping into Arthur’s hand with a tiny cry of exertion. Then, exhausted from the ordeal, Merlin promptly curled up, covered his head with one wing, and fell asleep.

More sand swished under booted feet as everyone else joined them, but for a long moment, no one spoke. Arthur held Merlin in the palm of his hand, scaly skin deceptively cool to the touch, and thought that he weighed so little, barely a pocketful of coins. But no matter what the form, Merlin was still here, weak and tiny but alive, and Arthur could barely breathe for his gratitude as he thought, It’s done. It’s over.

Next to him, Leon drew a slow breath. “What do we do now, Sire?” he asked.

And Arthur just smiled, and didn’t even have to think about it. “We’re going home,” he answered, and had never been more glad for the words.

 

When they finally made it back to Camelot a few days later, Arthur saw immediately that the dark days were done. The rain had gone, sunlight spilling over the dry ground, and the people of the Lower Town instantly rushed out to meet them, cheers and thanks bombarding them from all around as they wove their way slowly up toward the castle. Arthur breathed a sigh of relief, before looking down at the tiny reptile curled up in the makeshift cloth sling that hung from around his neck.

“We did it, Merlin,” he whispered. “We’re home.”

Merlin didn’t stir from his slumber, but Arthur let it go. The blood magic must have pushed Merlin to the very limits of his abilities and tapped out all his reserves, because he’d barely done anything but sleep during their entire journey here. Every so often he would wake just enough to lap up some water from Arthur’s cupped hand or to swallow a piece of meat Arthur fed him when they camped, but otherwise he remained curled inside the sling, small, scaly body pressed to Arthur’s chest like something precious.

And though several others had offered during the first day to hold Merlin for a while, Arthur hadn’t let them. Merlin had already sacrificed so much—had nearly sacrificed everything—to keep them safe, and Arthur was not going to pass on the opportunity to return the favor. Merlin had saved him in more ways than one, and now Arthur would protect him at any cost.

After that first day, no one bothered asking anymore.

Lamorak and Hann met them at the castle gates, resplendent in full armor and billowing red Pendragon cloaks. When Arthur dismounted—carefully, so as not to disturb Merlin—his old friend was the first to approach, reaching out to clap him on the shoulder with a grin so wide it almost split his face. “Couldn’t have expected any less of you, Sire,” Lamorak said, eyes bright, “and I sent the men out hunting as soon as the rains let up, so we’ll have a feast tonight fit for—is that a dragon?

His eyes widened and his hand went immediately for his sword, so Arthur quickly stepped forward, seizing his friend’s wrist. “Yes, it is,” he answered, “and it’s also Merlin. So I would stay your hand if I were you.”

Lamorak, to his credit, obeyed without question, although his expression as his gaze darted between Arthur and his reptilian charge remained uncertain. Arthur tilted his head and offered a lopsided smile. “It’s a long story,” he said. “Perhaps I’ll relay it to you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Hann, for his part, seemed unperturbed by Merlin’s new form as he walked up to join them, but to do him justice, Hann was rarely bothered by anything. It was one of the things that made him such a good knight. “But what about the feast?”

Arthur handed his horse’s reins off to a stable boy—they had purchased fresh mounts from a village a short ways from the beach, the previous ones having unfortunately fallen prey to collateral damage from Merlin’s spell—and turned back to his knights. As he spoke, he carefully slid the sling from his neck, cradling Merlin in the cloth as gently as he would an infant. “You are all free to feast as much as you like,” he said, and meant it. They all deserved a reward for everything they’d done. “But I will not be joining you. Not until my new court sorcerer is able to take part in the festivities as well.”

Hann blinked. “Court sorcerer? But there is no such thing.”

Arthur just shrugged. “There is now.”

Lamorak wrinkled his nose, although Arthur got the feeling it was all just for show. “Don’t you need the council’s approval for that?”

Arthur just shrugged and pointed to himself. “King,” he said.

Gwaine, who had come up to join them, gave a light chuckle. “Well, I’m sure he’d be flattered,” he said, eyes twinkling, “but you’ll have your work cut out for you convincing Merlin to stay cooped up in a castle for the rest of his life.”

Arthur raised an eyebrow. “I hardly think he would mind, seeing as that’s all he did the last time around.”

“Even so.”

“Are you willing to place money on it?”

Lamorak’s face lit up—he had something of an unfortunate gambling habit—but before he could open his mouth, Hann elbowed him into silence. Arthur bit back his grin and continued to look at Gwaine. The former knight seemed to think it over for a moment.

Then, finally, he blew a breath out the side of his mouth. “Nah,” he said, “Seeing the way Merlin looks at you? I figure as long as you’re in the castle, you couldn’t get him to leave even if you paid him.”

Arthur hummed. “Would you feel the same way? About staying?” Then he looked past Gwaine at the rest of his group: Bertha, Tristan and Isolde, and beyond them, just sliding off their horses, Oren and Oliver. “Would they?”

This time, Gwaine didn’t need to give it any thought. His face abruptly broke into a grin. “I suppose we can consider it,” he said, which Arthur knew meant Yes.

He couldn’t help but smile back, then stepped aside for Hann and Lamorak to give Gwaine their congratulations. Wrapped in his cloth cocoon, Merlin stirred out of his slumber, yawning to reveal tiny sandpaper teeth before staring up at Arthur with beady red eyes. Arthur smiled and ran a finger gently down the little dragon’s spine, huffing out a laugh when Merlin wriggled his entire body in pleasure and bumped his snout against Arthur’s thumb.

“Well,” Arthur said then, a bare whisper for just the two of them. “Let’s get some rest, shall we?”

A second yawn from Merlin signaled his agreement. Arthur detached from the rest of the group with relative ease, and soon found himself weaving his way through the west wing of the castle toward his chambers.

By the time he finally pushed open the wooden double doors, Merlin had fallen asleep again. Arthur just smiled and crossed the room toward the bed, gently laying Merlin down in the middle of one of the many pillows. The tiny dragon instantly curled into the soft cushion, making a happy chirp even in sleep.

Arthur just watched him for a moment, standing by the bed. He knew he should probably go back out to the others, offer them the thanks they deserved, mingle with the people again, make sure everyone was getting by okay and that their food stores had been adequately replenished. He also thought about the feast later that night, how there would be musicians and dancers and all forms of entertainment, and all the food and wine he could ever want.

Then he looked at Merlin, curled up in the middle of the pillow, black skin a stark contrast to the white of the rest of the bed. And it really wasn’t a hard decision to make.

The armor was off in minutes—he had always been capable of doing it himself; he just enjoyed the inevitable eye-rolls Merlin always sent his way whenever Arthur ordered him to do it instead—and slid slowly under the covers, careful not to disturb Merlin. Sunlight still spilled cheerfully through the windows, but Arthur found all of a sudden that he was exhausted. Reaching out, he slowly traced the edge of a black webbed wing, smiling when Merlin flicked it at him instinctively without waking.

“Sweet dreams, Merlin,” he whispered, and knew, even as the lull of sleep washed over him like a familiar lover’s embrace, that his nightmares, too, were now part of the past.

 

When next Arthur woke, shifting beneath the blanket and easing his eyes open, it was already dark. The sky outside the window was jet-black, and the entire castle was quiet, the only sound the echoing footsteps of night sentries as they did their patrols. The feast must have ended a long time ago. It had to be sometime in the early morning.

Arthur hummed, bringing a hand up to rub his eyes, before turning to check on Merlin. Then he froze.

And smiled.

The dragon was gone. In its place, a very human, very naked Merlin lay on top of the blankets, face half-buried in the pillow. He was still fast asleep, eyes moving beneath closed lids as if in the middle of a dream, and as Arthur checked him over for injuries he saw that the sigils were gone: not a scar, not a single mark left. Just smooth, perfect skin, pale not from sickness but because Merlin always looked like he never got much sun, and before Arthur really even finished thinking about it, he had reached forward to brush Merlin’s hair back from his face.

His lover stirred at the contact, mumbling something unintelligible into the pillow before instinctively turning toward Arthur’s touch, and as Arthur watched, those blue eyes slowly, oh so slowly, fluttered open.

He watched as Merlin blinked once to bring everything into focus, watched as his gaze flicked about the room to take in their surroundings before settling back on him. Then, finally, Merlin smiled, and Arthur for a moment found it difficult to breathe.

“Hi,” he managed.

Merlin hummed, softly. “Hello.”

Arthur drew his fingers down Merlin’s sharp cheekbone. “We did it.”

“Yes.”

“You almost died.”

“Yes.”

“After specifically promising that you would only use the blood magic as a last resort.”

“Well, technically the circumstances called for—ah, fine. Yes.”

“…You know you’ll be mucking out my stables tomorrow, right?”

Merlin laughed, then quickly melted into a yawn. “That’s fine. I know a spell for that anyway.”

“Do you now?” Arthur smiled. “Any other useful spells in your repertoire? After all, my new court sorcerer can’t be limited only to ancient, life-sucking spells that obliterate entire armies with a single word.”

That earned another soft chuckle from Merlin, before he gave Arthur a curious look. “Court sorcerer?”

Arthur shrugged. “Gwaine was of the opinion the position wouldn’t appeal to you. I begged to differ.”

“Oh?” There was the slightest hint of a challenge in Merlin’s voice, but he could tell by the way his lover’s eyes twinkled that he was just doing it for Arthur’s benefit. “And what makes you so sure? Maybe I don’t want to stay in the castle. Maybe I can’t stand being exposed to your pratliness all day long.”

Arthur grinned. “If that were the case, you would have left Camelot long before your magic was exposed and you turned into a dragon and tried to eat me.”

Merlin snorted. “I wouldn’t have eaten you.” A pause. “I couldn’t have swallowed all that ego.”

“Why, you—”

Arthur jumped on him, and the next few moments were a playful, breathless wrestling match until Arthur finally managed to pin Merlin beneath him, the blanket tangled around their legs as he pressed Merlin’s wrists to the mattress and leaned down so close that their noses brushed. “Do you yield?” he whispered.

Merlin smiled. “To you, Arthur,” he answered. “Only to you.”

Then he closed the distance between them, and as Arthur pressed him back into the bed, kissing Merlin with all that he had, he spared a brief thought for the future before them. Together they would rebuild Camelot, and then after that, the roads were endless. They could strengthen the kingdom so that she would never again fall prey to schemes of those such as Olig. Or perhaps they could expand her territories, taking the neighboring kingdoms by treaty or by force, uniting into a vast golden land in a dream that Arthur was not sure had ever entirely been his.

Tomorrow, next week, next year, next decade, they could conquer the world.

But for right now, Arthur would settle for Merlin. Merlin was all he needed. Merlin would always be enough.