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The Great Winter

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Merlin appears with a thick, Camelot red scarf wound around his neck and a blue wool hat on low so he's just squinting out, grinning.

Arthur sighs to himself, closes his chamber doors behind them.

"What? Why aren't you wearing your snow cloak? I thought--"

"--I have a meeting with my father," Arthur tells him stiffly, and then "--and Monmouth."

"Ohhh," Merlin says, making a face. He's trotting beside Arthur, the little bells tied on his boots ringing softly. Arthur can't help but smirk, remembering when he forced the boy down on the floor, all that kicking and arguing, and told him you're likely to get lost in the snow if I don't, Merlin. Now I'll be able to find you.

Beside the library door, Arthur toes one of the bells, says "Have fun. Keep an eye on the Lady Morgana. Gaius says her blood moves slow. In the cold, her fingertips and lips can turn a terrible blue."

Merlin is gnawing his winter-chapped lip, nods. Then he knocks a mittened hand to Arthur's shoulder, grins. "I'll try not to lob the snow at her face too much, Sire."

Arthur snorts, punches Merlin in the upper arm. "Like she has anything to worry about."

 

 

"...and along with meticulous records of the last three, temperate winters, from myself and Sir Aaron of Northumberland's historian, and a thorough understanding of solar maps and movement--"

Arthur gives his father a pleading look, his hands caught in his hair, eyes wide.

Uther sighs, says "What does this all mean? In common phrasing, please."

Monmouth looks stumped by 'common phrasing', so Gaius jumps in with "It means, Sire, it is the Great Winter again."

Arthur frowns at this, sits up straighter.

"Ah," Uther says, and begins to stand. "We shall have to prepare. Send word to Lady Clarimond, the Royal Bedwarmer. And make a list of those who can be sent away before the long snow. We will have resources for only a spare few. Whomever is left in the citadel must have someone to share their bed with. I will not greet the thaw with a castle full of frozen servants and Knights."

His squire leaves with his orders and Uther walks to the fire to ladle mulled wine in a mug. Arthur joins him, warms himself there.

"Father, I ah," Arthur begins, then swallows. "I ah--"

His father looks at him with a frown, says "Go on."

Arthur deflates. "I don't have a bedwarmer. Not...as yet."

His father looks surprised and then seems to recall with an airy laugh. "You were only a whelp the last time the winter was great. I believe you curled up like a cub at your wet nurses breast and slept the month away."

Arthur flushes, looks to the fire with his jaw tight.

"Yes, well. You are man enough now to see to choosing a proper bedwarmer. But hear this, be sure she is someone you'd want to spend a month bedded with. Lady Clarimond is a beautiful woman, yes, and very skilled in the art of love, but she is also a storyteller, a fine singer and a great wit. You must find yourself a bedwarmer who will make the month pass as though it is nothing. That when the month is over, you will almost find yourself wishing it were longer."

Uther pats his arm fondly, drinks deep.

Arthur shivers, mouth turning down in anxiety.

 

 

Merlin is stripping out of his snow clothes, right there in Arthur's chambers, completely unaware of the puddle he's made tromping in here like that.

Arthur glares at him from his desk. The room is candlelit, though it is midday only. The winter is long and dark.

Merlin sniffs, nose red, and when he removes his hat, his hair is stuck up at the front like it's being twisted by an unseen hand.

Arthur can't help but smirk at the sight.

"Well then," Merlin steps out of the wet pile of his snow clothes and, still sniffing, goes to pour himself and Arthur some warmed wine.

When he comes close with it, Arthur sees that the boy's cheeks are a bright, happy red, along with his nose and the tips of his ears. Arthur accepts his wine graciously with a short kick to the boy's shin.

Merlin sits at the chair on the other side of the desk, cursing softly and rubbing his leg. Then he drinks, a noisy sound, and rests his head back on the seat like carousing in the snow with girls all day is a tiresome affair for a young man.

"So what was your serious meeting about?" Merlin asks, lazily swishing his wine a little to cool it.

Arthur sighs, palms his face. "It is the Great Winter."

Merlin sits up sharply then, eyes wide. "It...it is?" He throws a cautious look towards the grey, frosted windows. Arthur nods.

"Yes, we'll have another fortnight before the snows come. You'll have to go, soon. Dear lord, I have a fortnight to find a Royal Bedwarmer."

Merlin chokes on his wine, and it wets his bottom lip a deep purple. He wipes it off on his arm hastily.

"A bedwarmer," Merlin says.

"Yes?" Arthur agrees, slightly exasperated. "Do you not know of this practice? It's a very common practice, Merlin--"

"I just...haven't been in Camelot for the Great Winter," Merlin says, looking at the desk. His fingers are fiddling at the edge of a paper. Arthur moves it before the boy can begin tearing it to little pieces.

"Yes, well. I was only a babe the last one and slept with my nurse. Now I'll just need to find someone attractive to spend a month in bed with. Someone that is not only appealing to the senses, but also learned, accomplished. Yet she must not be a true lady, for I won't be marrying her. So only a woman who has all the understanding and means and physical attributes and manners of a lady, but not...a lady."

"Right," Merlin says, sounding dubious.

Arthur puts his hands to his face. "Oh god, god."

"I'm...I'm sure someone will--" Merlin begins, but then seems uncertain himself. Arthur groans.

 

 

Arthur makes a list.

Bedwarmers

and on his list is

Gwen

but it's been crossed out and blacked over so heavily with ink, he's certain no one (Morgana) will be able to read it and rend his hair from his head at the mere suggestion.

But when no one else presents herself, though a handful of fine whores suddenly arrive in Camelot and are always about whenever he leaves the castle, Arthur takes up the awkward role of wooing Guinevere.

And within a day, gets faceplanted into a snow bank.

"You will not even consider Gwen for such a role ever, ever, ever! Do you hear?" Morgana hisses at his ear. Arthur splutters, coming up, snow in his nose.

"Merlin!" he shouts for help, floundering with her weight on his back, but only gets a short, surprised laugh from somewhere to the left, his stupid, idiotic manservant.

"Promise or I'll drown you in it!" Morgana says imperiously so Arthur groans, "Yes, yes, fine," and she lets him up.

She looks fiercely angry inside her green cape's hood.

Arthur shoots a look at Gwen, finds her loitering with Merlin, eyes down, embarrassed.

"Sorry, sorry," he says to Morgana, appalled. "I shouldn't have--"

"Yes, and anyway, Gwen is warming my bed this Great Winter," and she walks away with a smug look on her face.

 

 

"She's going to warm Morgana's bed!" Arthur says angrily, throwing off his long coat.

Merlin whistles as he bustles about, making a lively fire in the fireplace, hanging their ankle-wet snow breeches on a wooden rack to dry.

"Though, it will probably be in a sisterly manner, I assume, of course," Arthur says, catching Merlin's askance look at that statement.

"Gods, I hate the winter," Arthur finally settles on, climbing into bed.

"Oh, I love the winter," Merlin answers, voice full of earnestness.

Arthur groans.

"--love coming indoors to a good fire after a day out, feeling all my parts warm again, tingle with it." He looks at Arthur, finds Arthur giving him a raised brow, snorts "not like that."

"Are your parts tingling, Merlin?" Arthur asks huskily, and then falls back in his bed and tugs the covers up.

"Not like that, Arthur. Like...when you climb into a too-hot bath on a cold day, and your skin prickles."

Arthur feels it now, the soft parts of his inner thighs beginning to prickle warm. He sighs, rolling onto his side, and sticks his hands between his knees to help them along.

He watches Merlin in front of the fire, setting in some water to warm, putting on the wine again. The fire is bright, makes him glow. Arthur can see the shadow-lines of the boy's form, under his thin, faded tunic, the firelight bleeding right through the fabric. Arthur frowns.

"You need warmer clothes, if you're going to be traveling to Ealdor before the snows," Arthur tells him.

Merlin shrugs, but nods. He stirs at the wine. A good spice fills the air. Arthur breathes it in, and it is so like Yuletide for a moment, he closes his eyes.

"When Yuletide comes, it'll be right in the beginning of the snows," Arthur tells him, and rolls over, warmed now. He shoves the blankets off a little, lets the cool air on his face. "What a strange way to spend such a holiday, stuck in bed with a stranger."

Merlin looks around at him, a small, worried line in his brow.

Arthur looks back. "Will it be the Great Winter in Ealdor?" he asks.

Merlin shrugs again. "Perhaps. Winters are usually kinder there."

Arthur pushes up, sits with his back to the headboard. "Will you have need of a bedwarmer?"

Merlin laughs, eyes thin like it's absurd. And then he shakes his head. "Nah. When the night is cold, I sleep with my mum."

"Ah," Arthur says, looking away, knowing nothing about a mother's warmth.

Merlin brings him the spiced wine, sets himself on the edge of Arthur's bed, his dark head turned away to the fire.

They sit quietly for a long time as Arthur drinks.

"Tomorrow we'll start...interviewing candidates, I suppose," Arthur says, sleepy with the wine. He passes his cup to Merlin, who finishes the drink with one draught. "I'll sleep now, until dinner."

"Yes, Sire," Merlin says from far away as Arthur goes into the black.

 

 

Fluri is a rather pretty wench with small, pale eyes that look a bit odd and widely spaced and though she seems like she'd make a fine bedmate, Arthur can't tell if he'd want to spend a month with her underneath him.

And then Merlin says I just don't trust her, Sire at his ear, his eyes narrowed, and Arthur says "Whatever. Next!" and sends the lovely Fluri away.

Next is an tall, mannish wench from Mercia, who surveys the room with a look of keen speculation, with a hand hidden inside her coat, and Merlin barely makes a dubious hmmmm sound before Arthur is calling the next candidate in.

Thora is gorgeous. A short, plump, healthy girl with a pretty, cheeky look about her. She's rather clever too, keeps up with Arthur's questions with saucy questions of her own. And Arthur can see himself enjoying that, for many dark days. He shoos Merlin from the room so he can get a closer look at her, and just when things are going excellently, she starts asking about compensation and listing off all the other fine-born men she has asking for her company for the Great Winter. And suddenly her lovely face is something less fine, her form a bit too thick at the hips for him.

When he calls him back, Merlin comes in backwards, hands over his eyes and Arthur throws a pillow at his head.

"Where'd she go?" Merlin asks, surprised.

"I sent her away. She had a list of Lords who wanted her companionship for this Winter. A bit unappealing," Arthur pulls his tunic back on, gets out of bed.

"You have lip color on your face, Sire," Merlin says tartly.

Arthur frowns, wipes off his cheek and then pushes his pillow-fluffed hair down. He wanders to the fire, eats a dried plum and thinks.

After a while, Merlin says "But isn't it her business? Doesn't your father pay the Lady Clarimond?"

Arthur makes a face, chewing. "The Lady Clarimond is...ah, given comforts and respect for her position. She is not paid."

Merlin's face is so full of skepticism, Arthur looks away.

"It's just unbecoming of a woman to make such inquiries. It's mercenary."

Merlin makes a little noise that sounds peevish. He works the fire too roughly, sending sparks into the room.

"What is it," Arthur sighs, standing before his manservant.

"It's just," Merlin says, "...who was going to ask about compensation on her behalf? She has no household, no council. The winter will be hard on the people of Camelot. She either spends a month warming some man's bed or freezes to death. She has little choice--"

"--well apparently, she has a whole list of choices," Arthur says, irritated that he's being given a lecture. "Sir Naughton of Eastside is on there. He has to be 90 years old now. She'll probably have nothing more to do but cuddle the poor bastard, and still get richly compensated."

Merlin's mouth works and he stands abruptly. "Nevermind. You don't understand at all, as usual."

Arthur stops him from leaving, hand to Merlin's shoulder. "Then why don't you explain it to me," he grits out.

"You were going to ask Gwen. Gwen, Arthur! All her future prospects would have been cast aside for a month in your bed. And if she didn't have Morgana, she might have said yes! Because while you're worrying about who is going to keep poor Prince Arthur entertained for a month, there are people who are worrying about staying alive!"

When he's done, Arthur is blushing wretchedly. Merlin catches his breath, blushes too.

"I shouldn't have even considered Gwen," Arthur says, running a hand through his hair.

Merlin toes the rug, eyes downcast. He looks unhappy, mouth set.

"Well," Arthur says, clearing his throat. "I'll think on this, of course."

"Arthur," Merlin tries, but Arthur steps away. "That'll be all Merlin. Ah, thanks for your help today. I will see you tomorrow."

Merlin looks like he might stubbornly stay, but then Arthur climbs into bed again, hides himself tucked into his blankets.

He only throws them off again, over-hot, when he hears his chamber doors closing.

 

 

Arthur opens the door to his Winter chambers and the lads stream in, Merlin at the back carrying a stackful of wood like he expects a little firepit at the center of the room.

Arthur smirks when Merlin pauses, eyes wide, and says "Oh."

Arthur runs his hands over the smooth, lifted tile wall that circles the wide bed. "It's based on the Roman Hypocaust. Monmouth's father fashioned the first, for my grandfather. It's more accurate. This whole wall is made of hollow tiles. The fires burn below and warm air fills the wall. The wall is layered, so the air is caught, warm for hours. It's rather efficient, really," Arthur says proudly.

Only Merlin seems impressed. He wanders around, bending to look closer, touch at the wall's edge.

The other servants stand nearby, gawking or sniffling in the cold.

"We'll have to fill the chamber below with wood. And then here, there are stores for dried meats and pottage and wine and water," he lifts the long lids of two larders at the top of the bed. Merlin comes to peer into their depths.

"This side is closer to the fire," Merlin says.

"Mm," Arthur agrees, closing both. "That will be where the water is kept, and wine."

Merlin smiles then, says "You'll need lots of wine to keep some stamina with your bedwarmer, Sire."

One of the other servants coughs, uncomfortable.

Arthur drags Merlin by the scruff out of the room, tells him in the hall with low words that Merlin may not to imply such things in front of the other servants. Merlin's grin goes sly and something about the whole situation puts a new spring in Arthur's step when he calls back into the room "Come on then, lads! Lets get to work!"

 

 

With Merlin close at his heels, he jogs down the stairs deep into the castle's laundry. It's cold at first, away from the heated upper rooms, but warms again, greatly, as they near the laundry fires, the warmth caught in the heavy stone.

He passes where a few chambermaids are waiting for their clean linens, a strange sight when the whole hall is usually packed tight with them in the summer. The castle is slowly quieting as servants leave to find their winter's rest.

In a long room off the corridor there are shelves and shelves of bed linens and furs and blankets. Arthur rubs at his mouth, gazing around.

"You can have anything," Merlin says, voice full of envy. Arthur looks around to find the boy's fingers smoothing out a red and gold blanket. Playing with a tassel.

"You're such a lay-about, Merlin. I bet you'd love being abed for a month, wouldn't you? Nothing else to do but snooze your little heart out."

Merlin's sigh is so full of longing, Arthur laughs.

"What?" Merlin says.

"It's just...you're ridiculous. Obviously," Arthur wanders on, peering into shelves, moving pillows and blankets aside. He pauses to run his hands over a sleek, velvet throw.

"Definitely not that one," Merlin says, voice full of distaste.

Arthur looks at him, surprised. "Why not?"

"It's velvet. You're going to be in bed for a month. You'll need something that keeps you warm but ah, something else that wicks away sweat, yeah? Erm, I mean. If you think you might get...sweaty," Merlin stops in a stammer.

Arthur rolls his eyes. "What do you suggest then?"

Merlin walks down the rows, grabs a set of sturdy looking, flannel sheets. "These."

"Those. Those are for guest's servants, Merlin," Arthur tells him.

Merlin makes a face. "Really? Why are their sheets better than mine?"

But when Arthur gives him a look, Merlin says hastily "they'll keep in the heat but the wool wicks. Wear some silk long underclothes, and you'll be plenty warm, but not in a pool of your own sweat."

And after a moment's thought, adds "or in a pool of a-anyone else's sweat either." Then he turns and buries his face in a big, feather pillow.

"Merlin," Arthur says, grinning, cuffing him.

"I'm just going to rest here," Merlin says, muffled, embarrassed.

 

 

It's a week before the snows come and his helpers have dwindled down to Lars the Fire Tender's boy. And Merlin. So Arthur shoves up his own shirt sleeves and helps stock his larder with dried venison, pottage, little cloth-covered pots of pickled things, a large, heavy box of hard biscuits and a precious little jar of creamed honey.

Merlin's face is sooty from stacking firewood below chambers for the Fire Tender, a smudge of black riding his cheekbone. In the hall, Arthur can see their thin breath as the weather grows colder still.

When night descends, the castle is cold as a tomb. They meet in a small room with a great fire for dinner, in the warm heart of the citadel near their Winter chambers. Arthur wears a full fur coat to dinner and feels pleasantly balmy. He smirks when Merlin arrives to serve in his formal Camelot winter suit, the rabbit fur hat fluffy on his head, soft plumes of feathers at his throat and wrists.

Merlin's face pinks when Morgana laughs at a loose feather. It floats on the seat beside her. Before Uther shows, they make a game of trying to blow the feather off of each other's side of the table.

Arthur is winded by the time his father comes in alone, Lady Clarimond hidden away somewhere, though her presence is made disturbingly known in the mottled, red mark on his father's neck, and in the terribly jolly way he greets them.

They drink a great deal of winter ale and stay late talking, for family dinners will soon cease for a month.

His father is drunk, cheeks pink with it, slurring and making Morgana laugh.

"What is that?" Uther says suddenly. "What is your manservant wearing? Is that a cat?"

Merlin shoots Arthur a glowering look from under the fur hat, and Arthur barks out a laugh.

"Arthur, you still haven't got yourself a bedwarmer yet, have you?" Uther says, owling an eye at him. "If you can't find one before the snow falls, you are welcome to share Clar with me. I don't think she will mind another strapping Pendragon in bed. Not at all."

Morgana gives a sharp, surprised gasp.

Arthur meets Merlin's wide eyes and Merlin buries a grin into his palm.

"Well, Arthur, surely you will consider this offer?" Morgana asks, eyebrow raised.

Arthur blanches, but his father just looks at him sedately, awaiting an answer.

"F-father," Arthur splutters.

"--he'll consider it," Morgana says.

"Well, don't take too long," his father admonishes. "Clarimond will worry. She says you remind her of her eldest son, Arthur. Don't worry her."

They all watch Uther, mouths dropped, as he stands and bids them goodnight.

"Ohhh my," Morgana says, and starts laughing. "That was all very wrong."

"He was drunk," Arthur grits out.

"I can't believe you made me wear this stupid hat all night," Merlin grouches, sitting down now that Uther has left, serving himself some ale.

Arthur snorts, takes the pitcher from him and pours himself a mug. They all drink quietly, eyes lit, enjoying the company.

 

 

The days are darker, the nights longer and Arthur knows that he must send Merlin away or risk the boy's life. So they have one more afternoon in the snow with the girls before he's to leave.

Morgana's cape blows behind her as she and Gwen huddle close, skirt along the wall on the inside of the courtyard. Arthur walks along the outside while Merlin trails his mittened hand on the castle's side, head tipped so he can look up at the bleary, pale sun.

Arthur takes his fill of looking at him, at the boy's scarf-covered neck, at the jut of his chin, and then he says "If you're going to get home safe, before the snow fills up the forest path too deep, you'll need to go. Tomorrow."

Merlin looks at him, smiles a little "Oh. Yeah. I uh. I know."

"Good," Arthur says, squeezing his shoulder. "I'll say goodbye to you tonight, then."

Merlin frowns a little, says "Oh. Right, um. Sure--."

Arthur yelps, takes a snowball to the temple.

Morgana laughs brightly from behind them. "My lady!" Gwen admonishes.

"Come on," Arthur grits, snow dripping down his cheek, reaching to pack his own ball in his red-knuckled hands. But when he looks up, Merlin is biting his lip, backpedaling.

"Merlin, Merlin!" Arthur shouts after him.

Merlin dashes to join the women, just ducking with them behind a statue when Arthur lobs his snow ball. "Traitor!"

 

 

He's not mopey after Merlin leaves, it's just the quiet is so empty and silent and cold. And there is no one about and Arthur has still not found himself a Royal Bedwarmer. He wanders around the closed up wing of the castle, finding mirrors iced over, forgotten water jugs hanging with icicles.

The sky is dark all day now, heavy with clouds that obscure the sun. The snow hasn't fallen, but it's only a matter of time.

He goes to bed in his old chambers still, but even with the fire roaring, he shivers. He'll move soon. Tomorrow maybe.

 

 

He's going to send for Thora but runs into Gwen in the hall, carrying blankets to Morgana's Winter chambers.

"Let me help you with that," he says cheerfully, taking the blankets from her while she starts, surprised. He walks them down the corridor to the chambers.

"Wait, Arthur!" Gwen calls and then facepalms when he shoulders open the door and finds Merlin there, MERLIN, lying in the middle of Morgana's great bed, a book propped open on his chest.

"Gwen, did you find the flannel--" Merlin starts to say but then his open mouth goes silent as Arthur glares down at him, face furious.

"You're here? STILL?" Arthur says, outraged.

"A-arthur," Gwen tries, but Arthur shoves the blankets into her arms, takes Merlin by the neckerchief and drags him off the bed.

"What are you doing here?! You were supposed to leave days ago! The snow could fall at any moment! It could be falling now!" Arthur shouts, shaking him.

Merlin looks unconvinced, shoots a look at the frosted window.

"Arthur, it's just--"

"--will you be quiet!" Arthur says sharply at Gwen.

"That's enough!" Morgana strides through the door, meeting him. "The whole castle can hear you!"

"Let them hear!" Arthur says, hand still twisted in Merlin's neckerchief.

"If father comes, you'll regret it--" she warns and she's right. Blast it. Arthur lets the boy go, frowning at him, shoulders stiff.

Merlin rubs at his neck, gazing away shiftily.

"What are you doing? I sent you away three days ago," Arthur says through his clenched teeth.

Merlin just says "Um," so Morgana speaks for him. "He's not going anywhere, Arthur. He's staying in Camelot."

"Staying in Camelot," Arthur says, exasperated. "How? How will he stay? Where will he stay?"

"Well," Morgana says, sounding less sure of herself. She looks at Gwen, who nods once. "He's sharing. With us."

Merlin rubs at the nape of his neck, embarrassed.

"He's what?!"

 

 

"It's Merlin," Morgana argues. "He's practically a eunuch!"

Merlin covers his face.

"He's a eunuch?" father says, surprised and half-drunk on mead.

"No. Not actually a eunuch, but just as sweet and harmless as one! In such a capacity!" Morgana goes on hotly.

Merlin sinks deeper into his palms.

"This is not happening, Morgana. Father! Will you let a servant boy despoil your ward all winter?" Arthur appeals.

"He's not despoiling anyone, Arthur, and you know it!" Morgana returns, shrill.

"I can't even believe you'd consider this. What of Gwen's prospects? You were all in a right fit about that a month ago--"

Merlin removes his hands now. "Arthur--"

"No, really. I want to know. How come when I want to share my bed with her, it's threatening her prospects, but--"

Gwen's face is full of paling horror as Morgana shoves out of her chair and snarls "Shut up, you silly boy, you have no idea what you're saying."

"Now now, Morgana," Uther says lightly, waving a hand.

"My bed is my dominion, and having Gwen there means something completely different from the crown prince having her in his bed. And you should know that, Arthur Pendragon," she says darkly.

Arthur looks away, chastised.

"Come, Merlin," Morgana says, and Merlin shoots a look to him warily. Arthur is upset, yet doesn't realize what he means to do about it before he's snapping out, grabbing his manservant by the nape.

"Unn, Arthur," the boy complains, wincing.

Arthur's shaking when he draws Merlin away from Morgana to his own side. "I won't allow it."

"Then where will he sleep, Arthur? It's too late for him to leave the citadel. The snow falls tonight, or tomorrow night."

"I don't know. But not...not--" he tries to imagine it, Merlin. His hair grown longer in the month, curling with sweat behind his ears, all tucked between the two women, curved close to their secret softness and heat. "-not there."

"Where then? With Clarimond and father?" Morgana asks, voice mean.

"A eunuch? I'd have to inquire with my lady," Uther mumbles tipsily to himself.

"No!" Arthur says, horrified. "No. He'll...he'll--"

There is one place Merlin will be safe, where Arthur won't have to worry about him all of Winter's rest.

"--he'll bed with me," he finishes firmly.

He means it in the way Gwen will share Morgana's bed, like sisters, in the way brother's may share when they're younger, but it comes out wrong and both women look stunned.

"Oh," he free's Merlin's nape like it's burned him. "Not--"

"Right," Merlin says, twitchy. "That's good. We'll do that then."

They all pause, look at him. Merlin goes rosy under their scrutiny. "I just mean...yeah."

 

 

Merlin glances up, smiles shyly from where he's unpacking at Arthur's Winter bed. Arthur frowns, fingers just barely holding the chamber doors open. The snow has begun to fall, heavy, lumbering flakes that cover the bone-pale moon.

"We're to share a cup of mead with the others before we turn in...what is all that?"

"Oh," Merlin says, "my things," and places a stack of books on the tiled wall.

"Merlin, that may get too hot for you to put books there."

"No, look," Merlin says, "the fires are already burning. Here, feel," and he's taking Arthur by the hand, bringing him closer. Arthur goes, breath held. The chamber door clangs shut behind him.

Merlin presses Arthur's knuckles to the tile. It's hot. But not too hot, not like a stove burner. More like a stone warmed up nicely in the sun, a bit hotter than that. Arthur taps at the wall in different places, feeling around, curious.

"Come on," Arthur says, voice soft. "We'll unpack after."

Merlin nods, but sets his books just right with before they leave, his fingers trailing over their spines like he's longing to read them.

 

 

Lady Clarimond joins them, already in a gauzy nightgown. Uther looks hearty and happy, in his own sleep shirt, arm around Clarimond's lean waist. Her hair is a wildfire, loose and curling everywhere.

Lars and his father come from their bed by the fires to drink with them. Together, they are the last, lone people in the entire citadel.

Uther pours each their warm mead and they raise a toast. "To Camelot. Let her find her Winter's peace," he says.

"To Camelot," they all say, and Lar's father adds "hear, hear."

Merlin is watching Arthur over his cup shyly, drinking. Arthur stares back, cup clutched in his hand.

"Arthur Pendragon, I was sorry you wouldn't be joining us this month," Lady Clarimond says, twining her arm with his. "But you have found other 'arrangements'?"

She looks around at Merlin, Morgana and Gwen, curious.

"Yes, Merlin there," Gwen says cheekily, and gives Arthur a pleased look.

"Oh," Clarimond says, uncertain. "He's...a bit skinny."

Merlin looks uncomfortable, but Morgana saves him with a blithe "Arthur's rather lucky, really. Merlin's like a little fire all on his own. We tried to bring him in with us, but Arthur stole him away for himself."

Arthur and Merlin share a look and then quickly gaze away.

"Oh yes," Clarimond says, and slaps gently at Merlin's blushing cheeks. "He's rather hot to the touch."

Her fingertip trails over Merlin's lip once before Arthur grabs Merlin's small wrist tightly, offers a "Well, good rest all!" and shoves his sloshing cup at Gwen.

He steers Merlin down the hall to their Winter chamber, hearing the girl's "Good rest, Arthur, Merlin!" and his father's "It's not what you think, dearest, the boy is a eunuch."

 

 

They look away as they change into their sleep clothes. The room is warmed from the fires below, and everything feels welcoming, the heated, smooth tiles, the clean, wide bed, the downy furs, the fluffed pillows and Merlin in his wheat-colored sleep hose and loose tunic.

Merlin gives a nervous smile at his gaze.

"It feels nice in here," Arthur yawns.

"Yeah," Merlin agrees, and waits anxiously on his side of the bed for Arthur to get in first. "It's not cold enough outside yet, so the room feels very warm."

"Yeah," Arthur agrees, and slowly climbs in, eyes on Merlin as he follows.

There is a gulf of soft flannel between them as they carefully settle deep in their new home beneath the furs.

Arthur can scent Merlin when the furs settle, that sweet and salty hay and earth smell. In time that scent will be stronger, fragrant in the pillows they share between them, in the sheets until they're rich with it.

Merlin's eyes are silent and watchful for a long time.

"Why'd you stay in Camelot?" Arthur asks him.

"I couldn't leave you here," Merlin whispers back. "Not when you might need me."

"Merlin," he mutters, blushing. "I don't even know what to do with you."

Merlin breath gusts out noisily.

"God," Arthur exhales too. "It'll be a lot, Merlin. Do you know that? Do you know what I'll need from you?"

"I can do better than Thora," Merlin says, sounding eager. "I can be like midsummer."

Arthur's cock stiffens awkwardly between his legs, tenting his thin hose.

 

 

Turned away, he brings himself off guiltily listening to Merlin's soft, sleep noises.

With his orgasm tugged out of him, he falls asleep himself. When he wakes, the bed is empty and a fat drop of sweat slides down the bridge of his nose. He pushes the mountain of furs off, looks.

Merlin's just crossing the floor on bare feet, dancing a little with a grimace on his face.

"What are you doing? Get back in bed!" Arthur says, and Merlin grins as he throws himself in and Arthur jerks the blankets back around them.

"Sorry, I had to unpack. The floor is so cold in some places, my feet stuck," Merlin says, breathless.

"You don't have to whisper. No one can hear us."

Merlin pulls the blanket up to his chin, becomes big ears and wide, wakeful eyes.

Arthur yawns hard, jaw creaking.

"So erm. What do we do all day? Do you want to talk about something? Do you need to um--?" Merlin asks, fingers appearing to fiddle with Arthur's bed-mussed collar.

Arthur rolls his eyes and turns over with a grunt, giving Merlin his shoulder again. "Let me sleep in peace."

"But you've been asleep for hours!" Merlin argues at his back.

"And I will sleep longer still!" Arthur snaps, and in the quiet, he goes into the deep again, snoring.

 

 

January 3rd

He feels like he's been asleep for days. Maybe he has. He's never slept like that in his life, not even when he's been ill. Perhaps the Great Winter is a good time for doing nothing, for no duties at all. He wonders if that's why his father took to it with such drunken delight.

Merlin's digging around in the larder while snacking on a biscuit when Arthur finally opens his bleary eyes.

Crumbs tumble into the bed.

"You want some of this venison?" Merlin garbles, mouth full.

 

 

January 5th

The furs and blankets are heavy, smothering, a small, safe cave around them. When Arthur looks out, he finds the air breath-stealing cold. One deep intake and his lungs burn with it.

So he goes back under.

"So cold out there," he chatters into Merlin's shoulder. He cuffs the boy against him, fits his knees inside the warm crook of Merlin's.

"Mmnnnn," Merlin hums back.

"Just...lie still," Arthur orders, shivering, warming himself against his sleep-pliant manservant.

"Yeah," Merlin talks drowsily. "...like the color of the swords."

Arthur chuckles, presses his cold nose to Merlin's nape.

 

 

January 9th

"Wait, wait," Arthur chuckles, and Merlin grumbles when Arthur curls around him, wearing the furs like a great coat, and shows his hands what to do.

"I'm going to spill it, Arthur! I will spill it!" Merlin argues, but he's giggling anyway. Arthur bites his lip, peering over Merlin's shoulder as he guides Merlin's hands on ladle, pouring mead into the silver cup set on the tile.

Some of the mead does spill, a few splashes that dry quickly on the hot tile.

"Stop laughing, you'll spill it all over the bed and it'll stink for the rest of the month," Arthur tells him and finishes forcing Merlin's hand, the ladle empty.

They wait like that, Merlin in Arthur's arms, Arthur deep in the furs, as the mead begins to give off its spiced steam.

Then Merlin takes the cup in his palms, hissing at the heat, turns to lift it to Arthur's lips.

Arthur blows once, then drinks.

"Happy Yule, my Lord," Merlin tells him, eyes glittering.

"Happy Yule," Arthur offers the cup to Merlin, tips it into his mouth.

 

They kiss drunkenly under the furs, their ankles curled together.

 

 

January 11th

It's full dark. The air is frighteningly still and cold and silent, but he's almost humid-hot from being buried close to Merlin all night. He turns back over and can just make out the shape of Merlin there, silent. He reaches out, places a hand to his bedwarmer's shoulder to feel him breathing in sleep.

There's the edge of something hard. Arthur finds a book, hugged in Merlin's arms, and carefully removes it, sets it on the tiled wall.

The tile is warm under his fingers. He's leaning over Merlin, tracing the tile's grain when Merlin murmurs softly in his sleep.

Arthur freezes, listening to him.

Little, soft words and mouth noises, Merlin's a sleep talker. Arthur smiles, tries to lie back again without disturbing him.

"S'not like that," Merlin says, nonsensical, dreaming. "--mmmm, s'in the lake."

Arthur chuckles, whispers "What is, Merlin?"

Merlin doesn't make a sound for a long while, and Arthur lets his mind wander, not to anywhere in particular, just a aimless ramble. And then Merlin chuckles low and says "S'not Lancelot."

Arthur frowns.

 

 

January 12th

He moves closer to Merlin, searching out that way their limbs lock. Merlin's knees are sharp, his elbows, his knuckles, his shoulders. Arthur fits a thigh between his legs, and Merlin makes a pleased noise, squirms against Arthur's knee.

Arthur nuzzles into Merlin's throat, which is searing hot under his lips. He kisses a few times, dragging his mouth.

"Arthur," Merlin moans awake, and Arthur shushes him, wraps an arm around him, crushing him closer.

He noses the curl of Merlin's big ear, then teethes its delicate shell, hears Merlin gasp softly.

"Warm my leg," Arthur says into his ear. "Go on."

Merlin nudge-nudges at Arthur's thigh between his knees, sluggish at first and then with more impatience.

Arthur spreads a palm to the boy's sweaty, lower back, guiding him.

It doesn't take long before Merlin is warning "I'll come--"

"That's it. It'll make you like a hot coal for me to curl around," Arthur sucks his earlobe and Merlin whines, shudders.

Then slumps, yielding and hot-skinned.

"Perfect," Arthur kisses his shoulder.

At some point, hours ago, Merlin had lost his shirt for good.

 

 

January 13th

Merlin's already reading, propped up in bed when Arthur wakes again. There are two candles, burning low on the larder. Arthur's head throbs dully from sleeping so heavy. He groans.

"Shhh," Merlin hushes absently, and fingers start petting Arthur's hair from his brow.

Arthur sits up and Merlin jerks his hand back.

"What're you doing?" Arthur says, voice croaky, unused.

Merlin's eyes stay on his book, brow furrowed in concentration. "You've been moaning in your sleep for a few hours. It seemed to help when I ah, soothed you."

And he shows Arthur, scritching the air with his fingers, still reading.

Arthur snorts, nuzzles into the bare cut of Merlin's hip where his hose have slipped, warming his nose there as he considers shaking off the lethargy and waking up.

But then Merlin's fingers find his hair again and touch, soothe, scritch. Arthur's eyes grow heavy and he sinks back into sleep.

 

 

January 16th

Arthur loses his shirt too.

He hugs himself, huffing the cold air as Merlin says "Let me just see," and tries to unwrap Arthur's arms.

"You've seen me before," Arthur mutters, but he opens up to Merlin's gaze, looks down at himself, his narrow hips, his wide chest, the soft, brown hair there.

"Yeah, but never while I was in bed with you. My Lord," Merlin says, sounding cheeky and happy. It makes Arthur smile, but it's so cold, to let Merlin see means he's letting the air touch greedily at him. He breaks into goosebumps, shivering.

"That's enough," he says, shoving Merlin onto his back and climbing over him. He pulls the furs around them tight.

"Unf," Merlin says under his weight. "Arthur."

Naked chest to chest, Arthur feels the little prickly spots where Merlin's nipples are. He groans, says "I wish to sleep right here."

"What use am I, if I'm smothered to death?" Merlin grunts, crushed.

So Arthur snorts, moves off him.

While Merlin's catching his breath, Arthur reaches between them, finds his cock.

Merlin chokes. Arthur puts his hot face to his neck.

"You could be warmer for me, Merlin," Arthur goads him, peeling his sweaty hose back.

Merlin hisses, grapples Arthur's shoulders and then holds on for dear life.

 

 

January 19th

They sleep curled one way, then the other. Sometimes with Arthur on his back, Merlin in the crook of his arm, tucked into his chest.

Sometimes they sleep deep in the cave of fur, Merlin's breath steaming and wetting Arthur's cheek.

Sometimes they sleep with their hands cupping each other's sex, sharing little noises of pleasure.

And sometimes they sleep like this, Merlin on top of Arthur, knobby and poky and always digging an insolent erection into Arthur's stomach.

 

 

January 23rd

"Want me to?" Merlin asks, and Arthur tries to hitch up for a kiss, wants that promising, defiant mouth, but Merlin just jerks his head away.

"Merlin," Arthur moans, falling back into the pillow.

"Wait, here, feel--" Merlin says and takes Arthur's hand. Arthur can't see in the dark, but he knows what's coming, still whines when Merlin's heat engulfs a finger.

"Fuck, Merlin--" Arthur makes the most appallingly pained noises as Merlin begins to suck.

"See?" Merlin pops off with a soft noise of his own. "Want me to suck--"

"Yes," Arthur hisses, fists Merlin's thick hair and guides him down under the furs.

The inside of Merlin's mouth is the place where Merlin's fire is bold. Where all his hot, surly retorts are fashioned and savored, where all that food and drink is stuck like so much tinder to fuel, where Arthur has tongued and moaned and kindled that fire into a blaze.

He sobs his pleasure, lifts the furs once so he can look under, see the boy's eyes glittering like an animal's as he sucks.

 

 

January 25th

He tries to bring Merlin to rest his head against his chest but Merlin snorts and says "you smell very strongly, my lord."

Arthur makes a face, says "I do not!"

Merlin chuckles, kisses his shoulder and then lifts Arthur's arm, burrows there and whiffs.

"Ugh, yeah," Merlin laughs so hard, his voice sounds sloppy when he talks again, tight with humor. "You smell so bad!"

Arthur shoves him into the bed and takes a deep, testing smell of Merlin's underarms. But here, all he smells in something spicy, something rich and sweaty and alive. He comes up frowning.

"It can't be that bad," Arthur says.

"You smell like an ox," Merlin laughs. "Oh, my Lord. I never smelled you so bad before. It's not even your feet this time. It's not even like that time you rode your horse for three days after you were in the Long Swamp. It's worse!"

"Really?" Arthur grits, "that bad?"

"Oh god, yeah, it's--" and then he chokes and shouts when Arthur strains to rub his armpit all over Merlin's face.

 

 

Merlin watches, mouth unhinged, fur over his shoulders.

Arthur shivers, the air is oppressively cold around him, like being under the ice of a river. But the tile is hot as he curls over it, ladles warm water over his hair.

"Am I getting the bed wet?" he asks, voice quavering. He sucks water off his lip, turns around and Merlin's just sitting there, knees to his chest, hooded in the furs. Watching glassily.

Arthur smirks, scrubs his underarms briskly.

He can see the steam rising off his body.

With quick movements, he also cleans between the legs, everywhere, blushes when Merlin sighs.

His teeth click together, chilled, as he tosses Merlin's ruined, wetted shirt in a plop on the stones.

Then Merlin grins and Arthur bolts into his arms and under the blankets.

He's still damp, but Merlin doesn't seem to care. He noses delicately down the length of Arthur's throat, scenting, and then buries under his arm.

"Better?" he asks and Merlin's greedy palm finds his risen cock, begins stroking it.

"M-merlin," he stammers, going aroused so thoroughly, he feels lightheaded.

"Here," Merlin begs, taking Arthur's hand and drawing it beneath the blankets.

The fist each other, foreheads together, teeth bared.

 

 

He wakes Merlin up by putting his mouth around his morning stiffness, teaching himself, lipping at the foreskin and flirting his tongue along the bulb.

"Arthur, oh god Arthur!" Merlin gasps, hand catching Arthur's hair and tugging.

"Just let me try--" Arthur breathes and laps the head again right as Merlin's eager seed spluts wetly over his upper lip, into his nostril.

He comes up, snorting and cursing as Merlin groans, finishes himself off with his hand.

"My nose," Arthur laments, voice thick.

Merlin sighs, brackets his face with his palms and then licks at Arthur's nose.

"Ugh, stop!" Arthur shoves him back, blushing. He turns and hides away in the furs while Merlin laughs and rubs his back.

 

 

January 26th

"S'okay, s'okay s'okay," Merlin babbles, wringing Arthur's shoulders.

His arse has been rubbed with slick candle tallow, is a boiling-hot mess when Arthur reminds himself, with his searching fingers, where to go.

Arthur hitches Merlin's leg over his hip, growls out "Here, just. Tell me if it hurts--" as he guides his cock to that slicked passage.

Merlin makes wild sounds as Arthur penetrates him.

"Merlin," he groans, finding the true source of Merlin's heat. "You have to tell me."

And then Arthur fucks him in the home of their furs, breathing in all Merlin's whimpers with relish.

 

 

"Here, let me look," he brings the candle low to Merlin's sore bum to check, biting his lip worriedly. It's so hot and slick and the boy is so sore, he worries he's damaged him.

But the candle's flicker only reveals pink, swollen flesh, shiny tallow and Arthur's warm seed, slipping out.

Arthur runs his fingertip there, groaning "Merlin," and then hastily sets aside the candle, covers them again.

When they're warm beneath the furs again, he licks a stripe up Merlin's shoulder blade, jerks the blankets back and lets the cold touch there.

Merlin hisses at the tease, clinging to him.

 

 

January 27th

The sleep like cubs, making little whimpers, snugged close.

 

 

January 28th

He sings, voice high, waking Arthur:

We in our wandering,
Blithesome and squandering,
Tara, tantara, teino!

Eat to satiety,
Drink to propriety;
Tara, tantara, teino!

Laugh till our sides we split,
Rags on our hides we fit;
Tara, tantara, teino!

 

Then Merlin yelps suddenly, laughing, when Arthur tickles him into the bed.

After, they catch their breath and Merlin reaches out, fumbling his mug of mead.

In the pale light, his face looks surprised. "The tiles are cold."

Arthur frowns, reaches out to feel too.

"Wood must be burning low. They'll let the fires die down during the day and rekindle them for the cold night. It means the Great Winter's almost over," Arthur tells him.

"Oh," Merlin says. His hairs been stuck up at the back like a cowlick for days. Arthur touches there now, smirking.

 

 

January 29th

They sleep during the cold of the day, curled together, shivering a little, Merlin's face to his throat, nose poking.

And when the tiles warm again, they stretch out decadently, read together, naked, soaking up the warmth like they're sunbathing.

And lovemaking, lovemaking that leaves them both tender-tired, sapped, dopey with smiles.

 

 

January 30th

"M'tired of venison," Merlin mutters. He won't turn over.

Arthur reaches around, prods Merlin's cheek and chin with the dried meat.

"Ugh, stop!" Merlin squawks, flailing.

Arthur makes a game out of forcing Merlin over and trying to feed him the meat, but after a while he realizes Merlin's angry. He stops, hovering over him, and Merlin knuckles tears out of his eyes.

"Sorry," Arthur says, brusque, embarrassed.

"Yeah, you sound like it. You're such a prat, Arthur. You just don't care. You don't even listen when I tell you to stop, you just take whatever...do whatever you want to do--"

Arthur stares at him as he rants, his face on fire.

"--without thinking about how much it bothers me," and then Merlin jerks away again, giving him his shoulder.

"Merlin," Arthur breathes, surprised. "What the hell?"

"Just...leave me alone."

Arthur sighs, rankled. He turns his back to Merlin too. They lie rigid-still, ignoring each other.

 

He wakes up, realizing that he's alone on his side. He peers over his shoulder, sees Merlin sleeping across the bed, still turned away.

He can't sleep again for a long while, feeling sore.

 

 

January 31st

He wakes confused, feeling Merlin touching his cheek saying "Arthur?"

Relief washes through him and he turns around, smiling already, saying "You cold? Come here--" but Merlin's shushing him.

"Listen," Merlin says.

They listen intently, heads out of the furs.

"There," Merlin says to a low, groaning noise. "What is that?"

"Sounds like..." and Arthur knows, has heard it many times. He frowns. "It's the citadel's stones. When the air warms again, they groan."

Merlin's eyes are wide. "It's...warming?"

"I suppose. The cold must have finally eased." He looks away from Merlin, mouth tight.

"Ha! No, I didn't...oh gosh, I thought this would drag on forever!"

Arthur lies back. "Yes, well. It had to end at some point."

"Oh god, I am...when can we leave the room? I need to send a message to my mum. I wonder how the girls are! I can't wait to hear their stories! I wonder if your father and Clarimond are...well. And when will we get to leave the castle?? I bet the snows are deep--"

Arthur listens, eyes closed, to Merlin excited chatter.

 

 

February 1st

"Can we go now?" Merlin whispers.

"No, Merlin," he growls. "Not yet. It's night now."

Merlin sighs heavily, slumps back into the bed. "Great."

"Just go to sleep," Arthur snaps.

"Yes, Sire," Merlin snaps back and goes quiet.

Arthur curls away, miserable. Closes his eyes.

When he wakes, the light is brighter and there is no one else in his bed. Just him now, alone in the furs.

 

 

The first person he meets is his father, who is staring somberly into a fire in the quiet Winter hall. When Arthur appears, he smiles, looking relieved, greets him with a hug. "There you are," he slaps his back."You look well," his father tells him, squeezing his arm once before letting him go.

Arthur thinks he could not say the same for his father, who has a pale, tired face and dark-ringed eyes. "What is it, father? Was your Winter's rest poor?"

"The first week was lovely. Lady Clarimond is a wonderful woman. But I have lost much sleep, worrying about the state of the realm. For the people who had no warm chambers, no furs, no beds even to go to."

He palms his face wearily.

"Oh," Arthur says, swallowing.

"The snows are still too deep to leave the citadel, and it may be another few weeks before we can get to the lower town and see the damage this cold has wrought."

"Yes, father."

 

 

He finds Merlin with the girls, in their bed.

He's snug between them, under their furs, chatting away while they listen, grinning.

Arthur pauses in the doorway, watching them. And then Gwen looks, surprised, and says "My lord, please! Come in!"

Arthur loiters though, while the others are quiet, and then Morgana finally says "Come on, Arthur, there's enough room for all of us!"

Arthur comes to the bed then, feeling nervous like a pup, and finds Morgana with her head on Merlin's shoulder, smiling.

Merlin looks at him for a long moment, and then smirks and whispers something to Morgana.

"No! It'll be a while before we can go out!" she tells him laughingly.

Arthur sits awkwardly at the bed's edge until Gwen takes pity on him and asks politely after his health.

 

 

It's still too cold to open up his regular chambers, so he goes back to his Winter's bed, sighs, begins pulling off his clothes.

It's not warm, naked alone under the furs. He curls close to the hot tile wall, sleeps fretfully.

He wakes to the feeling of something warm and alive at his back. He stiffens.

"Shhh, s'just me," Merlin tells him, and his hand sweeps up and down Arthur's chest and abdomen, like to soothe him.

"What are you doing here?" Arthur asks, voice gritty.

Merlin's hand pauses. "Oh," he mumbles. "Oh, sorry, I thought it was ok."

When he tries to pull back though, Arthur hugs his arm, holds him still.

Merlin sighs, says "God, Arthur," and kisses his neck.

"Thought you'd gone to stay with the girls," Arthur says crossly.

"Would you prefer that?" Merlin asks tentatively.

"No," Arthur admits. "But I thought you were angry with me."

Merlin chuckles, kisses him again. "It was Winter's bed fever. We'd been in this bed for a month! I was grumpy. Sorry about that."

Arthur rolls over, looks at him skeptically.

Merlin smiles and then snogs him. Short and sweet and wet.

Arthur gapes when Merlin pulls back and fists his shoulders, says "God, come here. Come here," and drags Arthur on top of him.

"Merlin, dear lord--" Arthur groans as Merlin sucks at the soft skin below his ear.

His hands run up and down Arthur's back, over the swell of his arse. "Lets warm you then, shall we?" he says crisply.

 

 

Epilogue

 

They walk out to the forest on snow shoes, where it's near silent but for the low thud of melting snow dropping from dark bowers.

The sun is big and bright, dazzling them. Merlin grins up at her like she's an old friend.

Then he jogs like fool in his big snow shoes to join Arthur's side again. He's panting, face ruddy.

He closes a mittened hand in Arthur's, pulls him near and kisses him.

The summer heat of his mouth makes Arthur groan.

"Shhhhh," Merlin breathes when he pulls away. "Morgana is about to throw a snowball at your head."

"What?" Arthur asks, surprised, and catches a wet slush ball in the chin.

Merlin turns and runs off, looking over his shoulder and laughing.

"Oh you hot little brat," Arthur growls, chases after him while Morgana shouts "Run, Merlin! Run!"