The sun glinted off the armor's polished silver, which clanged and bounced as the horse beneath it rushed forward with a steady thud-thud-thud-thud. It sounded like a heartbeat, and Merlin held his breath from his place near the tents as the knights drew closer together.
There was a loud cracking sound, the splintering of wood, and more clamoring metal as one knight tumbled from his saddle. He landed in a cloud of dirt and his spooked horse reared up and whinnied loudly. Merlin winced slightly, as though he had felt that one, but he couldn't keep himself from chuckling and cheering at the antics of the victor knight, who slowed to a canter and waved his gloved hand at the erupting crowd.
The defeated knight got to his feet and started towards the tents. He all but shoved past Merlin on his way. Meanwhile, the winner trotted to where Arthur and Gwen sat and gave a flourish of his wrist. He bent into something like a bow, but more teasing. Gwen looked delighted as she laughed and clapped. Arthur merely shook his head at the knight, but there was a ghost of an amused smirk on his features.
Then the knight galloped off the tiltyard to where Merlin stood. Once there, he pulled off his helmet to reveal long, sweat-matted and tousled brown hair. He gave it a ruffle as Merlin relieved him of the helmet and shattered lance.
"Sir Merek didn't seem pleased by your victory," Merlin told him, having to squint up in the afternoon sun to see his face.
"Sir Merek is a sore loser," Gwaine pointed out with a smug grin. He looked over his shoulder, to where Elyan and a visiting knight were preparing their horses. "Never mind him. Arthur doesn't seem too amused, either."
Merlin followed Gwaine's line of vision to where Arthur was leaning back in his seat, looking as bored as could possibly be. He yawned into his fist.
"You'd think he'd loosen up a little on his birthday," Gwaine went on. His armor rattled as he dismounted his horse.
Merlin's eyes stayed on Arthur, watching the way the sunrays streaked through the canopy above him and painted away the shadows surrounding him. As though he could feel the stare, Arthur's eyes flickered over, and Merlin looked back to Gwaine quickly.
"It's not just his birthday," Merlin excused, running his hand down the horses mane to smooth it out. "It's been one year today since his coronation, and it's the day of his father's death—and his mother's death. It's quite the anniversary."
Arthur used to love his birthday, full of music and people and rich food and lots of drinks. These days, he didn't love it so much. In the days leading up to it this year, Arthur seemed to dread every moment. He rolled his eyes or walked away each time Merlin came to him with plans or questions.
"All I'm saying is, he could at least pretend to enjoy himself," Gwaine countered airily. "I'm doing my best out there to give him a show; we all are. And I'm no court jester."
Merlin was giggling before the words were even out of his mouth: "You could have fooled me."
Gwaine pulled a face of mock-anger before grabbing the reins of his horse and walking it towards the tents.
Merlin looked back to Arthur, whose bored disposition had turned blank and solemn.
Arthur was just glad the day was over. But he had more of it to look forward to tomorrow: more jousting, another feast; but, for now, he was left alone. The pale light of the moon streamed through the windows of the corridor. He stopped at one of them and looked down into the courtyard below. Beyond it, he saw the outlines of the tents and tiltyard. All was silent; all was empty. The citadel, whose visitors' quarters were packed with knights and nobles from all over the kingdom, had settled in for sleep hours ago.
And yet, Arthur heard footfalls from down the hall.
He turned towards the sound in time to see Merlin round the corner. He had a scrap of parchment in his hand and Gaius' medicine bag slung over his shoulder. He stopped dead as soon as he saw Arthur.
"What are you doing?" Arthur asked off Merlin's confused look.
"Delivering drafts to those wounded in the tournament," Merlin said, taking a few steps closer, the moonlight catching the tips of his hair whenever he passed through a patch of it. "What are you doing?"
Arthur let out a heavy exhale and turned back to the window. "I couldn't sleep."
Merlin was at his side now. "Should I tell Gaius? He can whip you something up. Or a hot bath with lavender? That always puts you right to sleep."
"It always put you to sleep, too," Arthur thought aloud before he could stop himself, and he realized it made Merlin tense.
He cleared his throat, trying his best to shake the moment away.
"You don't seem to be enjoying the tournament," Merlin said a bit awkwardly, trying to change the subject—or get it back on track. Arthur could never really tell with him.
Arthur snorted bitterly. "How can I enjoy it? All I'm doing is watching it."
"Being a spectator is fun."
"Being a contender is even more fun."
Merlin let out a patient breath. "No one will want to go up against the king, Arthur. They'll withdraw."
"Well, jousting by myself will be dull."
Merlin looked out at the courtyard and beyond, and Arthur snuck a glance at him out of the corner of his eyes. As Arthur surveyed him, Merlin appeared to be thinking. He was sucking on his bottom lip in a way that made Arthur absentmindedly lick his own.
"People have traveled very far for this," Merlin told him. "The tournament will continue, but . . . that doesn't mean you have to be there."
Arthur angled his body to face Merlin. "I'm listening."
Merlin shrugged. "We could make an excuse—say you've caught a cold. What would you prefer doing?"
Arthur thought on this for a moment. It would be nice to leave the city for a day or two, just to clear his head.
"Hunting," he decided on. "At least that I can participate in."
Merlin nodded. "I'll prepare supplies."
"And only tell a few men," Arthur told him, pointing a finger at Merlin's face as he started towards his chambers. He already had a renewed spring in his step. "I don't want too many people accompanying us."
"And Gwen?" Merlin called after him.
Arthur turned back around to face him. "She'll want to stay here. She hates hunting."
"I hate hunting."
"You don't have a choice."
Merlin seemed to accept it, and he turned back from where he came.
"And Merlin," Arthur called on a second thought, recapturing Merlin's attention. "Thank you."
Merlin looked confused again. "For what?"
"For not saying happy birthday."
They left at first light, taking with them Leon, Gwaine, Elyan, Percival, and a small handful of soldiers. What Merlin assumed would be a one-day trip, with the possibility of camping for the night, turned into three days. They road through fields and forests off Arthur's commands, and the sky was now turning a smoky gray above the canopy of leaves.
They hadn't managed to catch much, save for a few birds and one stag. Arthur simply refused to return to Camelot until he'd hunted a boar, but the chances of that seemed more unlikely with every passing day.
"It's the start of the cold season, Arthur," Elyan tried to reason with him at one point. "You won't find one out in the open."
But Arthur insisted, and everyone secretly wished they'd stayed in the citadel to watch the tournament, which would be over by now anyway. Merlin wondered whether a longing to joust was actually the reason Arthur wanted to leave Camelot.
At the end of the fourth day, as they hungrily and tiredly stalked through the brush, Merlin heard Gwaine mutter to Percival, "I'd love a bed tonight. Something warm. Something with feathers. That sounds nice."
"So does eating anything but salted pork and stew," Percival agreed.
"You said it."
"Hey!" Merlin hissed over his shoulder, mocking offense. In all honesty, he agreed with them. But the same meal wouldn't be a problem that night: They'd run out of rations. "I'm trying my best."
The two shot Merlin weary but apologetic eyes.
"My lord, sunset is in a few hours," Leon's voice rang through the trees, apparently breaking Arthur's concentration. He turned around to face the rest of the group in a huff. "We should make camp."
Arthur tensed his shoulders, taking one more wistful look around for the boar that never was, before answering, "No camp. Get on your horses."
Gwaine groaned loud enough to scare some ravens from their perches. "Come on, Arthur, we're tired!"
Arthur cocked a brow. "Too tired for a feather bed?"
Gwaine stood straight, as did the others. It caught Merlin's attention, too. Whatever Arthur's plan was, he liked it already.
Arthur started to pace towards them, gesturing to the trees with a pointed finger. "There's a village not five miles east of here. They'll take us in for the night."
Everyone swiveled their head in that direction, as though they could see beyond the forest to the soft fur blankets and roaring fires. However, all they saw were brown and gray trunks.
"How do you know that?" Merlin asked skeptically.
"I'm the king, Merlin. I know the lay of the land," Arthur answered in a tone of stern haughtiness. Merlin rolled his eyes at it, which Arthur did not see.
"That's Odin's territory, sire," Leon pointed out. "He won't react too kindly to knights of Camelot staying in his lands."
Arthur smiled softly to himself, which made Merlin wonder what was going through his mind.
"No one in this village will alert anyone to our presence, I assure you," Arthur promised. He turned to Percival and continued, "Percival, ride ahead and tell the lord we're coming."
Percival eyed the others briefly before shrugging. Wordlessly, he started through the trees towards where the horses were tied up, and was momentarily riding off.
The rest of them packed away their spears, arrows, and crossbows and watered the horses and dogs. A quarter of an hour later, they were trotting in Percival's wake, with Gwaine in the front, Merlin and Arthur side-by-side behind him, and Leon, Elyan, and the soldiers at their backs. The dogs ran alongside them, weaving through the trees whenever it pleased them.
"How did you really know about the village?" Merlin asked Arthur. "And none of that king-knows-all business."
Arthur shot him an unamused glance, but he eventually straightened out and said, "I used to visit it as a boy. The first time, I couldn't have been more than eight. It was the first time my father took me hunting, and we found our way to these parts. Our company was attacked by raiders—a large and vicious group."
His eyes started to glaze over in the memory, and for a moment Merlin forgot to control his horse. All he could do was stare. He was knocked back into reality when the horse started to drift away from Arthur's.
"My father was wounded," Arthur continued. "I wanted to stay and fight, but he told me to go. He said, if he were to die, the kingdom would pass to me. That I needed to be safe and unharmed. So, I fled. I kept riding until I found the village.
"The lord of the manor took me in until my father found me two days later. We remained for a fortnight until his wound was healed and he was fit to travel. Then, we returned to Camelot, but . . . I went back sometimes. In the summer, I would return—sometimes for a week, sometimes a month."
He looked down at his lap, blinking in what looked like regret.
"I haven't been back for many years."
"Why did you stop going?" Merlin wondered as images of Arthur living in some manor in a village in the middle of nowhere flooded his mind. He couldn't quite picture it. He imagined wooden, airy halls and large windows overlooking the stables and the huts and wells of the villagers, but he couldn't quite place a young, bright-haired boy in them. He'd never thought of Arthur waking up to the quiet calm of a valley rather than bells and hustle of city streets; he never imagined Arthur scampering through trees or getting into footraces with the wind in the fields, laughing up at the sky. He never assumed Arthur had ever lain down on the bare grass of the hills and fallen asleep under the stars.
Those were, for the most part, memories reserved for Merlin's past. It was small living, nothing of importance compared to life in Camelot, but it was simple and peaceful. Merlin often missed it, and it appeared Arthur did, too.
After so many years, Merlin found it odd that he was still learning new things about Arthur. However, he supposed there were things Arthur didn't know about him.
And then there were things he couldn't know.
"I became crowned prince," Arthur said with a sigh that hinted at the weight of a world pressing down on his chest. "My place was in Camelot."
Merlin looked forward, noticing the trees were becoming less dense around them. A realization struck him: "Your plan was never to go hunting. That was just a way to get out here."
Arthur gave him another sidelong look, seeming as though he'd been waiting for Merlin to figure it out.
"Shut up, Merlin," he said with a roll of his eyes.
They arrived in the village just before sunset, when candles were already lit in the homes to battle the long shadows and the clouds were tinged pink. As they road down the dirt path between the huts, Merlin looked forward at the tall, two-floor manor that stood above the rest of the homes. Torches were burning in its entrance and a banner, depicting a bear swiping its claws, waved in the wind from the rooftop. Villagers stood in their doorways with small children at their heels or bowed low from their places in their garden patches as Arthur went by. He waved and smiled at them pleasantly.
When they reached the manor at the end of the row, they were met by a group of people, servants and maids and stable hands, all bowing their heads respectfully. Percival was there, too, standing closest to the porch in front of the house. At the forefront of the group was a man who couldn't have been much older than Arthur. He had dusty brown hair and broad shoulders. He did not bow his head, but stood up with impeccable posture with his gloved fist resting casually on the hilt of his sword. Merlin instantly pegged him as a nobleman with a sense of way too much self-importance.
He scanned the group, making eye contact with each of them in turn; maybe it was Merlin's imagination, but the man seemed to linger on him for just a moment longer than he did the rest.
Arthur stopped alongside him and got off his horse and, at last, the nobleman bowed low.
"Sire," he said.
Arthur looked down at him with a neutral expression, but it soon cracked into a happy grin.
"Oh, stand up, Kay!"
Kay looked up at Arthur through his eyelashes, a playful smirk on his face. When he straightened out, he and Arthur wrapped their arms around each other in tight embrace, and Kay patted him hard on the back a few times with laughter.
Merlin caught Gwaine's eye, and they both tried to tame their faces and hold back their amusement.
"Look at you, then," Kay said when the hug broke. He pulled an impressed frown and brushed his palm on Arthur's cloak, as though testing the material. "All this, and I bet I could still beat you in a swordfight."
"You wish," Arthur teased back. Then, he looked behind Kay, apparently searching for someone. "Where's your father?"
Kay's face fell. "Ill, I'm afraid. He's been sick for quite a few years now."
"Not sick enough to keep me from my boy," a sudden voice rang out, sounding strained and shaky but still powerful. Everyone's heads turned to the elderly man who had just come through the main door of the manor. He wobbled against his cane and dragged his feet as he started down the porch steps.
Arthur was smiling in a way Merlin had never seen him do before. It was the same smile Merlin wore whenever he visited Ealdor and caught sight of his mother after a very long time apart.
"Sir Ector," Arthur said softly. He walked past Kay to meet his father.
"Father, you should be in bed," Kay tried to cut in, but Ector gave a dismissive flap of his hand.
"Nonsense, nonsense. I should be right here, with our Arthur," he said, sounding as though he were trying to catch his breath. "Or, I should say, King Arthur." His eyes sparkled with pride as he looked at Arthur.
So did Merlin's.
Arthur hooked his arm into Ector's for support as they turned and started back towards the porch steps.
"I've told the butcher to slaughter a goat for dinner. I know that was always your favorite," Ector was saying. Then, over his shoulder, he called, "Kay, have the stable hands put the horses away and show these gentlemen to their rooms. Have Sonya fix them warm baths. They've had a very long ride."
As Kay said, "Yes, Father," Merlin caught Gwaine and Percival making excited faces at one another over the prospect of roasted goats and bathing.
They all dismounted and trudged up the porch steps, and Merlin could already taste the lean meat and fresh vegetables. He was eager for country cooking and, if this goat tasted anything like the ones in Ealdor, he knew he was in for a treat.
"You, there," Kay said, catching everyone's attention. They all stopped chatting and walking and looked off the porch at him. He was pointing a lofty finger at Merlin. "No need to go inside. You'll be sharing space in the servants' quarters. They're located in the back of the house next to the stables."
Merlin stammered a little, suddenly feeling a little put on the spot as his companions' eyes moved to him.
"Oh," he finally managed to say, and Kay raised both brows at him in impatience. He looked back to his friends, who either offered him tight smiles or avoided eye contact. There was nothing any of them could do as guests in the manor, and Merlin would just have to accept that.
Just as he started back down the steps, Arthur called out, "Merlin stays with me."
Merlin stopped in mid-hop down the step, and he looked sharply back at Arthur. So did Kay.
"Arthur, there are no more rooms for him inside—"
"He stays with me," Arthur repeated with more of an edge in his tone.
Kay looked hesitant. His eyes flashed to Ector for back up, but Ector remained still.
"Very well," Kay eventually said, not looking too happy about it, and Arthur didn't wait for him to follow up the statement. He pushed the door open and helped Sir Ector inside.
Merlin felt Kay's eyes on him, surveying him closely up and down. He looked back, feeling unwelcome and unwanted, but he did not break the stare until Kay did.
Two hours later, they were brought into the dining hall of the manor and were invited to sit at the long table, weighed down with dozens of burning candelabras, the promised goat, vegetables, potatoes, figs, and baked apples. Merlin's mouth was watering at the sight of it, but a place hadn't been set for him at the table. It appeared he would be working that night—pouring wine, taking away plates, the usual. He decided not to push his luck with Kay, but he hoped there would be some leftovers for later.
Arthur was sitting at one head of the table with Kay at his right and across from Ector. Merlin watched on as happy conversation about old times rumbled through the hall as the servants passed by, silent as ghosts, whenever someone needed a top up. They wouldn't even look the knights in the eyes or give them smiles when they were thanked.
"Or—or that time you decided you were running away," Arthur laughed, pointing a finger at Kay, who went beet red.
"I was a child," he defended weakly.
"You were fifteen," Arthur chided. "I still remember it. You had all your bags packed—a sword at your side. You were even ready to take a servant with you. What was his name? Malcolm?"
"Ah, I do remember him, yes."
Arthur let out another infectious laugh. "You were so determined to find your own plot of land. 'I'm going to be lord now, Arthur! Father can't tell me how many strawberries I can eat if I'm lord now!'" he went on in his best mocking impersonation of a child. "And you made me go with you."
"Don't start! You wanted to come!"
Arthur's eyes flickered to Ector. "And you went running after us into the forest with a rolling pin from the kitchens, shouting, 'You get back here now, boys—'"
"—'or by god I'll make you both into bread!'" Kay chimed in with Arthur, and everyone at the table laughed, but none harder than Arthur.
Merlin found himself smiling softly at the sight. He'd never seen Arthur so unburdened, so free. It made some pain pull at his heartstrings and tickle his skin into goose bumps. It almost hurt.
"Yes, but no more running into the forest for me, I'm afraid," Ector told them, making Arthur's smile fade gently. "I can barely make it two feet to the chamber pot."
"What is it?" Arthur asked with worry. "You were fine during my last visit. You were strong, healthy."
"That's been many years, Arthur," Ector said, making Arthur look guilty. "Oh, don't look like that, my boy. These things come on fast, and death comes for everyone."
Kay cleared his throat. "Three years ago, Father caught malaria," he explained. "We had physicians from every corner of the kingdom treat him and, as you can see, he survived. But his health hasn't been the same since." Kay looked at Ector, appearing to study him with sympathy.
Arthur hummed in empathy, and distracted himself by cutting another bite of meat. "You should have Merlin look at him."
Merlin looked more alert at the mention of his name, and Kay raised a brow.
"I beg your pardon?"
"He's been training under my court physician for many years," Arthur said, waving his fork loftily in Merlin's direction. "Gaius has taught him well."
Merlin flushed a little at the rare compliment. Usually, Arthur would have told him he was completely useless.
Kay blinked a few times, and then he pushed a tight smile to his face. "Well. It seems your servant is a man of many wonders."
Arthur froze mid-chew, and his eyes met Merlin's for a long pause, into which Merlin was certain his own heart had stopped.
"It seems so," Arthur answered in a noncommittal tone.
"Oh, don't worry yourself with an old man," Ector insisted. "Life in these parts has been quite unchanging. Tell us of Camelot. I hear you're doing great things."
"Well," Arthur said, looking down modestly.
"Ah, yes, I've heard rumors," Kay agreed, leaning forward. "Arthur Pendragon, they say you're going to unite the kingdoms and rule as high king. Can you imagine, Father? Arthur, King of the Britons."
"I wouldn't say that," Arthur answered humbly. "But, yes, I—we—," he gestured to his men, "—hope to one day achieve unity."
Kay gave a soft scoff. "Why?"
Arthur looked taken aback. His eyes went wide and he blinked a few times. "Why?" he repeated, as though he didn't understand the word.
"It would bring peace and stability to the kingdoms," Leon spoke up.
Next to him, Elyan nodded in agreement. "No more wars, no more petty fighting."
"Well, the only wars I've heard of as of late are between Arthur and his sister, and she's seemed to drop off the edge of the world. Besides, if there were no more threats of war, then you'd all be out of a job," Kay pointed out. "Wars generate revenue. They give work to soldiers, blacksmiths, traders . . . Do any of you know how to do anything other than wield a sword?"
Silence passed over the table.
"I'm pretty handy behind the bar of a tavern," Gwaine joked to cut the tension, eliciting soft laughter. However, Kay's laughter seemed pushed and he cut it short.
"Of course, I keep forgetting—many of you weren't born and bred knights," he said, and Merlin thought he sounded a little condescending.
Apparently, he wasn't the only one. Everyone at the table was looking at him with offense.
"Kay," Arthur warned, but he sounded careful.
"Oh, but you know you're all most welcome here!" Kay went on, smiling tightly again. He looked at Arthur. "Though, I can't say the same for many places, I'm afraid. Some say you're messing with the world order. They don't like it very much."
"Well, I'd be a fool to think there wouldn't be some resistance," Arthur said politically, "but the mark of a man should be what he does, not to what family he was born, don't you think?"
His eyes flickered briefly to Gwaine as he said it, and so did Merlin's. Gwaine nodded his support, and Merlin could tell he was proud for having taught Arthur that lesson.
"Of course," Kay agreed, but he didn't sound very truthful.
"My knights come from many different backgrounds, both common and high born," Arthur went on, leaving it hang in the air.
"What are you saying?" Kay asked, obviously having picked up on some undertone.
Arthur leaned in to the table. "Join us," he offered. "There's room at my round table for you. You'd make a fine knight of Camelot."
Kay leaned back in his chair, seeming amused. "Round table? I thought that was an old wives tale about the kings of old."
"Not anymore," said Arthur. "I've just installed one in our great hall. We need good men to fill it."
Kay took a sip of his wine, and a servant rushed up to refill his glass. "A round table, you say," he repeated again, swirling the red liquid. "The greatest affordance of equality. Yet, being a high king would put you above all of us, Arthur. Would it not?"
Arthur's jaw muscles tensed tight enough to shatter his teeth.
"Is that a no?" he asked, a bite to his tone.
"It is, I'm afraid," Kay said, narrowing his eyes at Arthur. "My place is here Forest Sauvage. I am to be lord some day."
"You can still be lord," Arthur tried, but he seemed wounded.
"Not all the way from Camelot."
Arthur and Kay stared each other down for a long time. Merlin didn't know why, but he readied himself, willing his magic to bubble just beneath his skin if need be.
But Ector cleared his throat and said, "Well, I do believe it's time for pudding."
Merlin ripped off another piece of meat from the bone and, before he even swallowed it, shoved a few dried figs into his mouth. He was starving, and he wanted to fill the uncomfortable pit in his stomach as soon as possible.
"Merlin, chew with your mouth closed. You're giving me a headache," Arthur snipped. "And don't get any crumbs on the bed."
Merlin looked down at the heavy blanket beneath him, where scraps of bread had fallen, and surreptitiously wiped them onto the floor. He had one ankle tucked beneath his knee while the other leg swung off the side of the bed. He swallowed his mouthful and looked at Arthur, who was sitting in the tin tub some of the maids had brought in and filled for him. He had his eyes closed and his head resting against the edge. Merlin could see the steam rising up from the water, and he could almost smell the rose petals floating along the surface. It made him realize how stiff his neck was, and he ached for a soak himself.
Part of him prayed that Arthur would invite him into the bath, but he wouldn't. He never did anymore, no matter how much Merlin prayed.
"You and Sir Kay seem close," Merlin said, trying to shake his thoughts from his mind.
"We are," Arthur insisted.
"He doesn't seem to share your ideals," Merlin went on, causing Arthur to open his eyes and lift his head.
"Not everyone does."
He sounded angry.
Merlin shrugged. "But he's your friend. You'd think he'd support you."
"Merlin," Arthur said, grinding his teeth. "Shut up."
Merlin dropped his shoulders in a sigh. He plopped the last cherry tomato into his mouth and crunched down on it, letting the juices bust into his mouth as he stood up from the bed and collected his plate.
"Where are you going?" Arthur asked after him. Merlin heard the bathwater slosh.
"Sir Ector's chambers, since you put me on physician duty."
"Of course," Arthur said, accepting it. "Do what you can for him. He's a good man."
Merlin shook his head and looked back at him. "I never said he wasn't."
"So is Kay," Arthur asserted. "He's just . . . set in his ways."
"Right," Merlin said, dragging the word out. "Set in treating people lower than him like they're diseased."
"Merlin," Arthur said impatiently.
"Don't stay in there too long," Merlin cut him off. "You'll prune up."
He left the room before Arthur could argue.
After he'd returned his plate to the kitchen, Merlin ascended the stairs and headed towards Ector's chambers, passing Kay's along the way. Kay's door was open ajar, allowing a sliver of candlelight to flood out into the hallway, and Merlin heard whispers from inside.
He paused next to the threshold, just out of sight.
"You will take this directly to Sir Joseph. Tell no one you're doing so," Kay was saying, and Merlin peered in to find him folding up a note and sealing it with wax. Another man was in the room, hooded and ready for travel. Kay handed the man the letter with great care, and it was stowed away in the rider's satchel.
"We must be prepared, if circumstances call for it," Kay said, and the rider nodded in agreement before turning for the door.
Merlin searched around for a place to hide. There was another door a few feet from him, and he tiptoed to it as quickly as he could. He tore it open and slipped inside, pressing his nose against the wood until the sounds of the rider's footsteps had faded.
"Merlin?" someone said groggily from behind him, and he looked over his shoulder to discover his hiding place was actually Gwaine's room.
Gwaine was sitting up in bed, bare-chested beneath the covers, and his eyes drooped with sleep.
"What are you doing in here?"
"I, uh—," Merlin began, trying to think quickly. "I thought this was Sir Ector's room."
Gwaine yawned dispassionately and dropped back to the pillow. "Down the hall."
"Right," Merlin said with a grin. He creaked the door open again. "Goodnight!"
Gwaine was already snoring.
The next day, Arthur did not want to leave, and no one made any objections. They seemed to have had enough of trudging through the forest and were happy to kick their feet up for a day. The knights spent most of the day in the village: Elyan lending his services to a family whose fence got destroyed by an escaping pig and needed mending, Leon teaching the boys how to swordfight with sticks, Percival lifting some of the children onto his shoulders so they could reach the top branches of the apple trees, and Gwaine doing his best to flatter the pretty girls.
Arthur spent most of his day strolling through the village, getting lost in his thoughts and reminiscing on old and forgotten memories, and rediscovering the secret hideaways he used to play in as a boy. He'd also spent some time with Ector, who was having a bad day despite Merlin's efforts. In some ways, Arthur was glad that Uther had never become old, sick, and decayed. It was a mercy, no matter how lost and heartbroken Uther was in his final months.
Arthur didn't know if he could bear watching Uther deteriorate like Ector was now.
As the day dwindled down, he found himself standing by the fields, watching the men and women pick the last of the harvest in preparation for winter. The horses and plows were being put away and everyone was turning in for the night.
He spotted Merlin on the other side of the field, chatting with one of the manor's maids as the dogs ran around them, getting the last of their exercise for the day. Arthur didn't know what they were talking about, but he saw Merlin swoop down to the grass and pick up a stick that he waved at the dogs to get their attention. Their barks echoed in the wind, and Merlin tossing the stick away. It went much further than Arthur would have expected from Merlin, especially since it arced and twirled in the air, and the dogs raced each other towards it. The maid went into a fit of giggles, and Merlin looked very pleased with himself indeed.
The sight of them made Arthur's jaw tense and a fire leap into his heart. He wanted so badly for the maid to walk away and for Merlin to never think of her again. However, she remained, talking to him in too familiar of a fashion, and Merlin appeared to hang on her every word, with his hands folded behind his back and a soft smile playing on his lips as he blinked his long lashes at her.
"You always did enjoy watching the farmers. I might have known I'd find you here."
Arthur turned his head to find Kay settling at his side.
"I remember once you even tried to join them," Kay went on.
Arthur smiled. He'd almost forgotten about that. "All I did was get in the way, I'm afraid."
"You were very keen at the time, wanting to learn all about their trade," Kay say, humor in his tone. "Then, of course, they tried to teach you how to milk the cow. One touch of the udder and you swore off manual labor for good."
"I'm much better at drinking the milk," Arthur said with a laugh, and Kay joined along.
"Oh, don't think you failed too much, Arthur," he said, patting Arthur on the shoulder. "Men like us weren't bred to toil. We best leave that to the laborers. It's our job to keep them in line, make sure they're organized."
Arthur studied Kay closely from the corners of his eyes, but Kay didn't seem to notice.
"I don't know about that," Arthur said, crossing his arms and shuffling a bit. "The village Merlin is from has never had a lord. They organize themselves, work for each other. It seems to be a good system. I had the privilege of meeting some of them."
"Privilege?" Kay repeated, and now it was his turn to survey Arthur. "It is the privilege of the lesser man to meet the king."
"Lesser man?" Arthur shot back, but he tried to control his anger.
Kay rolled his eyes. "Oh, please, Arthur, you know how it works." However, he must have read Arthur's expression, because he exhaled and said, "If I may talk freely?"
"Of course," Arthur said, wondering why Kay even needed permission. It was Kay, after all.
"There are many who believe Camelot has become an unruly place since you took the throne," Kay said, making Arthur's guard go up. "They're wary about your plans—about your peace treaties and what have you. People wish to stick to the old ways—people with influence and money, not the commoners you've surrounded yourself with."
Arthur felt his heart sink. He didn't want to believe his ears. He didn't want to believe Kay was talking like this.
"Why are you saying this?" Arthur asked, trying and failing to keep down his emotion.
Kay turned to Arthur now, giving him his full attention. "Because I worry for you," he said frankly. "You mean well, Arthur, I know. You have a good heart. But people don't know you like I do, and they will be brazen. It's best you hear this from a friend."
"Hear what?" Arthur challenged, feeling his blood start to boil.
"Hear that just because you are king does not mean you can do whatever you want, whenever you want. There is a way of doing things—"
"An old way," Arthur cut him off. "That doesn't make it right. Everyone should have equal opportunity—"
"But that is not the world we live in. You seek peace, but you certainly haven't created any. People are angry; King Odin, among them. Many suspect you're trying to overtake their lands and diminish their rule. They see it as a threat to their way of life, can't you see? You've given the commoners that we must control hope that one day they can be like us. You've made men of low birth your knights and advisors; your queen was once a serving girl. And your servant—," Kay scoffed. "You treat him more like a friend than what he truly is: lesser than you. He rode here on horseback, he sleeps under my roof—"
"But it's not your roof," Arthur spat back. His temper had risen with each of Kay's words and he could no longer contain it. He leaned in close to Kay, who stood his ground. "Last I checked, your father still lives and breathes and, until he stops, he is still lord! And whatever you have to say doesn't matter!"
Kay jerked his head back in shock, gaping and blinking at Arthur with eyes as big as saucers. After a pause, he tugged on his waistcoat and stood up a little straighter.
"Well," he said, clearing his throat. "I'm sorry you feel that way, Arthur. Truly. I was hoping you'd see sense."
Arthur gave a humorless breath and shook his head. "If you really think that low of my men, fine. We'll be gone within the hour."
He turned away, heading back to the house to prepare to leave, but Kay's called after him.
"No, I won't send you out into the cold night," he said urgently. Arthur turned back to face him, but his hands were balled in tense fists. "No matter what, you are still a brother to me, Arthur. You must stay the night."
Arthur hesitated briefly, but he knew he'd never hear the end of it if he made his men leave so close to nightfall. Besides, he wasn't through exploring Forest Sauvage. He nodded his head sternly. "Thank you, Kay."
"Of course," Kay said with a thin smile before walking passed Arthur. "Now, come. Dinner should be served soon."
Before Arthur followed, his eyes found Merlin again, still in the same spot. The maid was still talking his ear off, but he didn't seem to be paying attention. His posture was too stiff and his gaze was fixed in Arthur's direction.
However, before Arthur could get more than a brief look, Merlin turned away again.
Merlin squinted in the darkness. The moon was full, but its light was just barely shining through the treetops. Was that shrub brown or yellow? He couldn't tell, but there was an important distinction. Yellow meant pain relief; brown meant vomiting. Or was it the other way around?
It was too late for this much thinking.
A twig snapped behind him, and Merlin was suddenly hyperaware of another's presence. He let his magic calm him as it flowed through his veins, from his heart to his fingertips and then back again.
Quickly, he shot to his feet and spun around, just in time to see the long blade of a sword swoop towards his face and stop less than a foot from his nose.
"You shouldn't be wandering in the forest at night, Merlin," Arthur said. He withdrew his sword, and Merlin took in a relieved breath. "It's crawling with bandits."
"I could say the same thing to you," Merlin countered, but it only seemed to amuse Arthur.
"I know these woods like the back of my hand."
Arthur started off again, apparently wandering aimlessly through the trees, and Merlin quickly bent back down and ripped a handful of the yellow or brown shrub out of the earth. He shoved it in his rucksack and trailed behind Arthur. Arthur had his eyes turned up, searching the branches above as though in a reverie, and he wove through the trunks whenever necessary by some internal compass.
"What are you doing out here, anyway?" he questioned.
"Collecting herbs for Sir Ector."
Arthur turned his eyes on Merlin now, looking concerned. "How's he doing?"
Merlin pressed his lips together, considering the right words. "He's old," he decided on. It was better to be delicate on such matters.
Arthur searched his face up and down in an unguarded moment, but he quickly looked away again.
"Why are you picking herbs at night?" he asked, changing the subject. "How can you even see?"
Merlin shrugged. "Moon's bright enough."
"Not always," Arthur said, and Merlin didn't quite understand his meaning. "It seems like every time I come looking for you at night, Gaius tells me you're picking herbs."
That was because, most of the time, Gaius was covering for him.
"That's because it's the only time I can do it," Merlin said, thinking quickly. "Do you think my day ends after you've gone to sleep? I still have more chores to do for you, plus what Gaius asks of me." He shook his head and wrinkled his nostril in irritation. "I don't remember the last time I slept properly."
"Ah, here it is!" Arthur said, sounding bright. He'd stopped at the base of a very large tree.
"Were you even listening?" Merlin said in frustration.
Arthur chuckled as he gripped two low-hanging branches and hoisted himself up, digging his feet into the bark.
"No. Were you complaining?" he asked, turning his head to Merlin.
He kicked up to another branch.
"Well, stop your bellyaching and come join me."
Merlin's eyes trailed up the tree, rising up, up, up until it mixed in with the dark leaves above.
"It's high," he worried.
By that point, Arthur was already at another branch.
"Is there anything you aren't afraid of?" he chided, sounding a little out of breath. "Fine, then. Stay down there and pick your flowers."
"They're herbs," Merlin defended, and he could almost feel Arthur rolling his eyes, but it was too shadowy to see. Regardless, Arthur continued to climb, and Merlin watched him.
He felt something echo in his head, some twinge daring him to follow after Arthur. He bit his lip, giving the tree another once over. Finally, he decided to do it.
Arthur made climbing look a lot easier than it actually was, but Merlin had longer limbs than he did, which allowed him to skip over a few branches that Arthur couldn't. He was caught up in no time.
"You've done this before," Arthur guessed, twisting to look over his shoulder at Merlin.
Merlin looked up at him with a breathy smile. "Not for a long time." He'd almost forgotten how to climb a tree. As children, he and Will used to race up them. Merlin always won. Will always accused him of cheating.
About halfway up the tree, Arthur slid onto a thick, moss-covered limb. He inched away from the trunk until he reached the point where the branch grew into an angle he could lean against. He slung one leg to the other side and rested his back against the wood.
Merlin positioned himself on the limb, too. He sat between Arthur's knees and the trunk, with his hands gripping the rough wood on his either side and his legs dangling in front of him.
Once he was settled, he looked to Arthur, who had crossed his arms across his chest loosely and closed his eyes in a relaxed sort of way. Merlin stared for longer than he should have, only half-aware that they were sharing the forest with a hooting lonely owl and lovesick nightingales that whistled their longing tune.
"I've never seen you like this before," Merlin said, no longer able to keep it down. Arthur's eyes fluttered open. "You seem so . . . content."
Arthur shuffled in a way that made Merlin's heart skip a beat for fear that he might tumble off the branch. He didn't.
"I suppose I am," Arthur admitted.
There was another long pause before Arthur suddenly said, "Let me ask you something: If you never came to Camelot, what would have done with your life?"
Merlin let out an amused breath. Arthur never asked him a what if question before, and Merlin never even considered another path for his life. It seemed impossible, and the prospect of anything else was a fantasy he never even thought to dwell upon. He was, apparently, exactly where he was supposed to be. He didn't assume destiny left much room for what ifs. Not for him.
Still, he humored Arthur.
"A farmer," he answered, like it was the most obvious thing in the world, because it was, "like everyone else in Ealdor."
For some reason, Arthur found that funny.
"You'd have married a farmer's daughter and had farmer children by now," he laughed, and it was infectious.
Merlin scratched as his head. "I can't picture that, actually," he confessed.
"Neither can I."
"It must be nice to have options."
"Must be," Arthur mused. "Sometimes—all the time, actually—when I would visit this place, I didn't want to leave. I dreamt of staying here for the rest of my days, learning how to work the fields."
"You wouldn't last a week," Merlin told him.
"I bet I would," Arthur said like he was accepting a challenge. He sat up, encroaching dangerously into Merlin's personal space. "It would be work, but it would be worth it. I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted; be whomever I wanted."
His eyes dragged down to Merlin's lips, and his voice dropped low as he said, "Be with whomever I wanted."
He leaned in closer.
Merlin loved the way Arthur kissed. He loved the way Arthur swept his eyes closed and tilted his head always to the right. He loved that Arthur would part his lips as he leaned in, his mouth open and inviting and waiting. Then Arthur would push, coming in closer so Merlin would have to rock back; and he would pull so that Merlin would have to chase him.
Merlin was always chasing him.
He never thought he'd get the chance to kiss Arthur again, not that it was his choice. It had been almost a whole year, after all. From the moment Arthur and Gwen took their vows, from the very second the crown was placed on her head, Merlin knew it was all over. And still, he chanted, "Long live the queen!" with the rest the rest of court. Still, he danced at the banquet. Still, he held his tongue when Arthur led Gwen away to his chambers for the first time, even when Merlin knew it would never be him again.
The worst part was, he was happy for Gwen! In fact, he was proud of her. He didn't hold it against her at all, nor did he Arthur. He knew Arthur's honor would stop him from breaking his vows to Gwen, even if his eyes did occasionally wander back to Merlin. Besides, Gwen and Arthur deserved each other as king and queen, and as man and wife. She was good for him. She didn't lie to his face every day.
He was happy for them both. He just wished he could feel the same for himself.
So, when Arthur pulled, Merlin did not chase after him. He let him go.
"We shouldn't have done that," he said, turning his eyes to his feet, still suspended in midair.
Arthur let out a low groan. "You just don't want to," he teased.
Merlin tried to keep his tone light as he said, "You know I do."
"You just don't love me anymore," Arthur went on in the same tone as before.
And, this time, Merlin couldn't force himself to be bright, no matter how he tried. His eyes found Arthur again, unable to look away.
"You know I do," he repeated in a whisper.
The grin faded from Arthur's expression, and his eyes grew heavy. For a moment, Merlin hoped that, somehow, there was a chance that maybe Arthur still loved him, too.
Arthur said nothing.
Although Merlin would have waited on Arthur forever, he said, "We'd better get back."
Arthur nodded, and they started out of the tree.
Arthur woke up to the birds chirping. It was early, and the whole world was silent and still. The sky outside the window was crisp and blue, but he spotted some puffs of threatening grey in the far distance. But it did not matter; the rain could come. He was sure Kay would apologize for what he'd said before and beg Arthur to stay another day. Arthur knew Kay's pattern: he frequently overreacted, only to regret it later. Kay would knock on the door any time now but, until then, Arthur would stay in bed.
He loved days like this, when he could do absolutely nothing if he pleased. He could remain beneath the covers until the sun went back down, or he could mill about the fields. He couldn't remember the last time he had nothing to do—no meetings, no training, no diplomacy. People always talked about seizing the day, but he didn't understand what was so wrong with pleasantly letting it pass every now and again. Sometimes it was the best medicine.
He wondered why people didn't waste the day more often, but he supposed not everyone had that luxury. Staying in bed didn't make crops grow or earn wages for the family. He guessed he was lucky to have the rare opportunity.
While considering invoking an annual Everyone-Stay-In-Bed-Today-And-It-Won't-Be-Held-Against-You Day, and mentally going over its pros and cons, Arthur rolled onto his side and looked towards the end of the bed, to the other side of the room where Merlin was sleeping on the cot next to the fireplace. He was laying on his back, his face turned towards Arthur, but his hand, palm face-up and fingers curled in, was stretched out on the floor towards the hearth. Embers that should have died out hours ago were still flickering, and Arthur assumed Merlin had gotten up some time in the night to rekindle the fire.
He wished Merlin had sought warmth in other ways. He wished Merlin had left the hard cot behind and crawled into bed with him instead. He wondered if Merlin wished for that, too.
Arthur propped his head onto his hand to get a better view as he watched Merlin's chest rise and fall with relaxed breaths. He thought he might spend the day doing just that. Just watching.
Then there was a knock on the door. Before Arthur granted the visitor permission to enter, the door opened swiftly and Gwaine, still barefooted and in his bedclothes, filled the doorway.
Arthur sat up in bed, and Merlin immediately started awake. He looked frazzled and alert, like a guard dog, but he calmed when he saw it was Gwaine.
"Arthur, you'd better come quick," Gwaine said, not bothering to enter the room fully. "It's Sir Ector." He turned away and left.
Arthur felt a lump form in his throat at the words, and for a moment he was too paralyzed to move. He didn't want to find out what Gwaine had meant.
Swallowing his dread, he turned to Merlin, who was already staring at him with a worried expression.
Merlin treaded a few steps behind Arthur as they walked to Sir Ector's room. Arthur walked straight and upright, his shoulders a rigid line as though he feared the worst. He had been taught to be courageous and defiant against the unknown. Merlin assumed most people would consider that brave, but Merlin only saw it as a mask for racing thoughts and a trembling heart. Merlin had often worn that mask himself.
Arthur stopped outside Ector's door when they reached it. His shoulders dropped slightly as he took in a breath and let it go. Merlin was just about to say something encouraging when Arthur straightened out again, gripped the doorknob tightly, and pushed through the door.
Inside, Sir Ector was laying on his back on the bed, with covers up to his chest and exposed arms stiffly at his side. He looked pale, and his eyes were closed motionlessly. Merlin knew instantly that he was dead.
Next to the bed, Kay was on his knees, both palms resting on the edge of the mattress. He looked pale, too, and he was just as motionless as Ector but with a still-beating heart. Gwaine, Leon, Elyan, and Percival were silently standing by the far wall. Each of them turned their eyes to Arthur when he walked in. Merlin could not see Arthur's face, but by the way the knights' expressions tightened, he knew Arthur had processed the situation.
"Kay," Arthur said softly. He paced towards Kay and rested a firm palm on his shoulder. As though the touch had awoken him, Kay looked up at Arthur.
"A maid found him like this," said Kay, sounding small. "He must have gone some time in the night. He's so cold. Arthur—"
Arthur nodded, his jaw now as tight as his shoulders, but Merlin saw his muscles quivering.
Kay let out a deep, shaking sigh. His eyes flickered behind Arthur, right at Merlin. His expression turned from that of a broken boy to a vengeful soldier.
"You," he spat. He quickly got to his feet and shoved passed Arthur. "You were treating him! You did this!"
"Wha—?" Merlin tried, but Kay grabbed him by the shirt and forced him hard against the wall. Merlin gave a grunt.
"What did you give him? Tell me! I'll have you hanged!" Kay yelled into Merlin face. He shook Merlin fiercely, and through his rattling vision Merlin saw each of the knights take a few steps closer to pull Kay away. Arthur got there first.
"Kay, it wasn't Merlin!" he said, keeping an unyielding grip on Kay so he wouldn't launch himself back on Merlin. Merlin stayed against the wall, wanting to put as much space between himself and Kay as possible.
"Ector was sick for a long time. Merlin was trying to help him. He would not have harmed him," Arthur continued, and Kay's strength seemed to drain with every word.
Finally, Kay stopped resisting altogether and looked over his shoulder at Ector.
"I am sorry, Arthur," he said, again in a weak voice. "It's just . . ."
"I understand," Arthur said, sounding forgiving, which made Merlin bristle only slightly because, after all, he'd been the one Kay attacked. Kay should have apologized to him.
"You stay here with your father," Arthur went on. "Let me take care of everything. I'll send for the undertaker."
Kay nodded rapidly. He moved back towards the bed and knelt down again.
"You'll stay for the burial, won't you, Arthur?"
"Of course," Arthur promised. "I'll stay as long as you—"
Before Arthur could finish, the sound of pounding footfalls echoed towards them. Everyone's heads swiveled towards the door, and momentarily one of the sentries of Camelot rushed into the room.
"Sire, forgive the intrusion," he began, speaking quickly, "but one of our lookouts has alerted us that Odin's men are riding this way."
"How the hell do they know we're here?" Gwaine said, and Merlin's eyes fell to Kay, who looked just as shocked as the others. Still, Merlin remembered the note Kay had sent out with the hooded rider.
"How many?" Arthur asked.
"Nearly two dozen, my lord," the sentry said. "They should be here within the half hour."
Arthur nodded, appearing to think fast. He turned to the knights. "We'll meet them right outside the village and explain our business here. Kay, I know you don't want to leave your father's side, but you must come with us. They will believe you if you tell them we're here in friendship."
Kay nodded dutifully. "I will."
Arthur started from the room. He motioned for Merlin to follow. "Merlin, armor—quickly."
Merlin shot Kay one last wary look before going after Arthur.
They stood on the dirt road leading into the village, Arthur and Kay in front and the others behind them with their flowing red capes billowing out. Kay urged those in the village to go about their daily work, as though Odin's knights were not headed straight for them. He promised the ordeal was a misunderstanding that would be taken care of shortly.
As the group of horses raced over the hill, they kicked up clouds of dirt and clumps of grass, and soon Arthur could see the set expressions on each of the riders' faces. He was certain they'd seen him, too. After all, he was blocking their path into the village, but they continued to ride hard.
As they drew closer, Arthur's heart started to race.
"They aren't slowing down," Elyan voiced, and Arthur risked a look behind him at his men. Each of them had fingers outstretched to the swords at their sides.
He turned back to the riders just in time to see them split in two and gallop past Arthur's group with such speed that it caused a rush of wind. Arthur spun around to keep his eyes on them as they rode through the village and unsheathed their swords. One rider passed a man standing in his front garden. The rider slashed his sword across the man's throat as he galloped forward.
The other riders swung their blades, aiming for the villagers in their way. The innocent went down in sprays of red in their gardens and those who were in the road were trampled before they could jump out of the way. Screams rose up as the people ran for shelter.
"They aren't here for us," Leon said.
Arthur drew his sword.
"Protect the villagers! Go!" he shouted, and his knights' swords rung in unison as they were unsheathed.
Everyone scattered. Leon and Kay ran towards the fields, where the farmers were still plowing and harvesting; Percival headed towards the manor to protect the servants and maids; and the rest of the men stayed along the main path.
Arthur rushed towards a woman in the middle of the dirt road. She was cradling a dead, elderly man on her lap, making her hands and dress wet with shining crimson. There was a rider galloping towards her.
Arthur got there just in time. He held his sword with both fists and blocked the rider's blow, though the weight of it made him lean back and dig his heels into the dirt. It only lasted a brief moment, however, as the rider passed.
Behind him, Arthur heard Merlin speaking to the woman.
"You have to get inside," he was urging in a kind tone. Arthur turned around to find Merlin kneeling next to the woman, holding her palms in his and getting blood all over his hands.
"I can't leave him—I—," the woman cried, so Arthur scooped the dead man into his arms. The body was heavy as stone but still warm.
"Get in there," Arthur ordered, starting into the first hut he saw. Whether it was the woman's or not, he didn't care. It was shelter for her.
He clocked that the woman got up to follow him, but he suddenly heard her scream in terror. Arthur spun around quickly but was unable to ready his sword. The rider was galloping towards them again, but he'd fallen off his horse. Merlin was standing in front of the woman, shielding her with his body and splayed fingers.
Arthur didn't know what good that would do. Merlin would only get himself killed, but it was brave and Arthur was relieved.
"Inside!" Arthur shouted. The woman and Merlin scurried after him and the door to the hut was opened from the inside.
A mother with her arms around two children was huddled in the corner of the small hut, and the father was standing with his fist still on the door. Arthur laid the dead man on the ground as far away from the children as he could before jumping back up to his feet.
"Merlin, stay with them," he said briskly as he started for the door.
Merlin grabbed his arm. "I'm coming with you."
"I'm coming with you," Merlin repeated with more intent, and Arthur didn't have time to argue. He shook himself from Merlin's grip and rushed out of the hut, aware of Merlin in tow.
"There!" Merlin shouted when they reached the middle of the road. He shot off in the direction of the manor, something having caught his eye, but Arthur got distracted. One of Odin's knights, now off his horse, came up on Arthur's right and sliced his blade downwards.
Arthur sprung backwards, and the tip of the blade missed his chest by less than an inch. Before allowing the knight another jab, Arthur kicked him in the gut, sending him into the dirt. Arthur stood over him, a foot on either side so the knight couldn't roll away, and brought the point of his sword down heavily. He hardly heard the final sharp gasp over the background cacophony.
When he drew back his sword, blood poured out of the wound and the body went limp.
Arthur stood up straight to catch his breath and searched the road up and down. Horses, cattle, cats, and dogs had gotten loose, all of them running through and away from the action to get to safety. He saw fresh bodies scattered: villagers and soldiers, some of which donned Camelot's golden sigil. A little ways down the road, he spotted Elyan fighting with Odin's knight in front of the fence he'd helped mend the day before. It was once again broken.
Some of the villagers had joined in the defense with torches or farming tools. Brave young children threw rocks or apples at the enemy knights' heads.
Arthur did not spot Merlin in the fray, which made his heart skip a beat, but he could not focus on that for long. One villager had jumped on to a knight's back in attempt to strangle him. Arthur sprinted to aid her.
Merlin heard metal clanging inside the stable. He ran towards the doors, which suddenly swung open with great force. He had to jump to the side so an oncoming horseman, who galloped off without regarding Merlin at all, wouldn't run him down. He rode towards the edge of the village, but not along the main road. Merlin recognized the hooded cloak that waved out behind him.
Too late to stop the rider, he focused on the fight taking place inside the stable. He rushed in to see Kay fighting against one of Camelot's soldiers. At their feet, two villagers with pitchforks in their hands lay slain. Kay plunged his sword into the soldier's gut, and he fell in front of Merlin with a strangled gasp when Kay pulled out.
Kay looked from the body to Merlin and tightened his grip on his sword. Merlin quickly swooped down and grabbed the guard's blade. He pointed it out towards Kay warningly. Kay snickered and touched the side of his sword to Merlin's, guiding it downward.
"What do you plan on doing with that?" Kay asked.
"You sent these men; not Odin," Merlin realized. "That's why you sent out that messenger the other night."
"Ah, a servant and a spy," Kay said, taking a few steps forward and causing Merlin to step back. "What right have you to spy on me?"
"What right have you to destroy an entire village?" Merlin spat back.
"But I didn't," Kay said, feigning innocence. "That's not what I'll say to King Odin. I'll tell him Arthur Pendragon came here under the guise of friendship, only to raid and pillage and try to claim this land for his own. I've already sent word to him."
Merlin wished he'd made an effort to stop the rider.
He shook his head. "Arthur's your friend."
"Arthur's a threat," Kay corrected, sounding venomous. "He'd destroy my way of life. I gave him a chance to change his mind—I tried to show him the right way, but he didn't listen. I am a knight. It is my job to maintain order."
"It is your job to protect your people! Instead, you've burned them to the ground! What sort of lord are you?"
That must have angered Kay. He swung his sword, and Merlin cringed but managed to block it. Kay swung again, this time knocking the sword from Merlin's grip. It landed out of reach, and Merlin felt the point of Kay's sword on his chest, poking through the blue fabric his scarf.
"Now I see why he hasn't knighted you, too," Kay laughed. "He hasn't taught you to fight. He just lets you poison old, defenseless men."
"I did not kill your father!" Merlin shouted.
"But you did, according to my letter to the king. I suppose you've helped me in a way, Merlin. I should thank you. News that Arthur killed one of his lords will only fuel Odin's anger."
"You're going to start a war," Merlin said.
The sword dug closer into his skin, and Merlin was sure it drew blood.
"If that's what it takes," said Kay.
Arthur felt a stitch in his side. He rolled the tension out of his shoulders and clapped his hand on the back of his stiff neck. He felt grime and sweat sticking to his exposed skin, and one of his palms was inflamed and sore from the hilt of his sword. He flexed his opposite palm around the red fabric tied around it—a secret favor Merlin had given him for a tourney long ago that Arthur now convinced himself he still wore to protect his skin from going raw. He curled his fingers to stop them from cramping.
The fight was over. All of Odin's men were either dead or running. Arthur watched their horses kick up dust as they rode back over the hills.
All Arthur wanted was a hot soak and a massage, but there was much to do. Too many had died, and the village sustained too much damage. There would be no rest that day.
"Arthur," Gwaine called, looking just as ragged and dirty as Arthur did as he jogged over. "There's no one left. All Odin's men are in retreat."
Arthur nodded, squinting in the sun as he scanned the area. Leon, Elyan, and Percival were headed towards he and Gwaine on all sides.
"Where's Kay?" Arthur asked.
Gwaine looked around, too, and shook his head. "Where's Merlin?"
Arthur's gaze snapped back to him, suddenly concerned. "You haven't seen him?"
Gwaine shrugged, so Arthur looked to the others. None of them offered an answer.
"None of you?"
"No, my lord," Leon said. "I thought he'd be with you."
Arthur walked away from them, hoping a different vantage point would give him a view of Merlin or Kay. They were still out of sight.
"Merlin? Kay?" he called. There was no answer.
He looked over his shoulder at his men. "Find them."
They all took off in the directions from which they came, except for Gwaine. He trailed after Arthur, who cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted, "Merlin!"
"Kay, think about what you're doing," Merlin said, trying to get through to him. "You don't want to hurt Arthur. You grew up with him."
"Arthur is not the man I knew!" Kay suddenly shouted, his body shaking in a rage. It unsteadied his arm and made the tip of his sword rip Merlin's shirt and scratch his skin. Merlin hissed, but did not dare back away. Meanwhile, Kay went on, "He's been corrupted by the likes of you! I'll kill him myself if I have to!"
Merlin was waiting for Kay to say that. It made everything so easy, so clear.
"I won't let you do that," he deadpanned.
"You shouldn't worry about that," Kay said. "Your body will be cold long before then."
Kay pulled back his elbow, preparing to thrust his blade into Merlin with force. At the same time, Merlin reeled back his arm, equipped only with his flat palm. Kay jabbed forward. Merlin pushed the air, and his eyes shown bright amber.
The ground was ripped out from under Kay, and he was pulled backwards like a puppet on a string. He hit the back wall of the stable with a crack, making the wood shake and dust fall. He slid downwards and slumped limply to the floor, and at the same instant, Merlin heard a shout behind him.
When his heart started beating again, it went quickly, like it was trying to make up for the recent stop. His eyes were wide, but the scenery before him seemed to be in a haze. He must have stood like that for only a moment, but it felt like a lifetime. Trying to still the trembling pulses that overcame his body, he slowly looked over his shoulder.
Arthur was there, standing just as paralyzed and shocked. He looked wounded: like he'd just be slapped in the face or stabbed in the gut. Gwaine was behind him, jaw clenched and staring at Merlin with an unreadable expression.
Merlin felt like his feet were stuck to the ground, and yet the sensation of falling came over him. Arthur had seen. Arthur had watched Merlin use magic. Arthurknew.
Gwaine was the first one to spring into action. He rushed passed Arthur and Merlin to the far end of the stable and knelt besides Kay. He inspected him for a moment before catching Arthur's eyes with a solemn expression.
"He's dead," Gwaine reported.
Merlin whipped his head back around to look at Kay.
"What?" he croaked out. He'd only meant to knock Kay out. "No! No, Arthur, you don't understand—"
When he looked to Arthur, Arthur's expression changed from shocked to completely blank. And Merlin wished he'd get angry. He wished Arthur would scream, rage. Fury was better than that empty look. Anything was better than that look.
"Arrest him," he said in such a whisper he might have not said anything at all.
But Merlin heard. He felt like the wind had gotten knocked out of him.
Distantly, he felt Gwaine gripping him firmly, but Merlin was almost numb to it. He looked down at the hay on the floor. Its color was dulled and his vision spun. He saw a brief flash of red as Arthur turned around and left the stable, his cloak trailing after him.
Merlin was pushed gently forward to follow, and it made him stumble. He turned his head to the side to meet Gwaine's eyes, and Gwaine's soft expression looked skewed and off-center. Merlin blinked at him a few times before allowing himself to be led forward.
Arthur stood before the window of his bedroom, fist posed before his lips and looking on as the villagers aided the injured or sobbed over their loses. His eyes fell on the stable, unable to look away.
There was a soft knock at the open door, and Arthur ripped his gaze away from outside to find Leon and Elyan behind him.
"Some of our men are taking the villagers to the next town over, sire. They'll be safe there," Leon said. "And we've sent a rider for the undertaker. He should be here by nightfall."
Arthur nodded to signal he'd heard. Leon and Elyan shared a hesitant look between them, which wasn't lost on Arthur.
"Will we stay for the burials?" Elyan took upon himself to ask.
Arthur looked out the window again, back to the stable.
"No," he said. He didn't think he could stand to put both Ector and Kay into the ground, along with half their villagers. He'd had enough heartbreak that day.
"I brought him here," Arthur thought aloud. He couldn't stop himself. "If I hadn't done that, Kay would still be alive; maybe Ector, too." He let out a humorless breath. "Who knows, maybe everyone else."
In the reflection off the window, Arthur saw Elyan and Leon share another look.
"You don't really think that, Arthur?" Elyan asked.
"I don't know what to think."
Elyan took a step forward. "You can't blame yourself. Merl—"
Arthur held his hand up to stop Elyan before he could finish saying that name.
"Make sure all the villagers are settled," he said. "We leave within the hour."
"And what of . . . the prisoner, my lord?" Leon asked carefully.
Arthur couldn't stop looking at that damn stable.
"Have you found something to transport him in?"
"Yes," said Leon.
"We'll take him back to Camelot for trial," Arthur ordered.
Leon and Elyan bowed out of the room.
Merlin looked down his chest at his wrists, which were tied together by a splintering rope. It was all so surreal. How many times had he woken up from a nightmare about his inevitable arrest? Whenever he saw someone hanged or burned for magic in the citadel's courtyard, how many times did he morbidly picture himself among the flames? He half-thought this was just another one of those fantasies that he'd be stirred from any moment, but the rope dug too tightly into his skin. Its constrained sensation was the only reminder that he was still in his body, and not floating above it somehow as a spectator.
Most of the villagers had been cleared out. They packed what belongings they could salvage along with food and water and headed in droves to neighboring towns. Those who stayed only remained for the funerals.
Merlin looked next to him at Percival, who must have been designated to guard him. He hadn't left his side since that morning, but Percival tried his best to seem like he wasn't there. He didn't speak once, but Merlin sometimes caught him staring out of the corners of his eyes.
The rest of the knights were nearby, preparing their horses for travel. Merlin eyed the prison cart reined by two of the horses.
Arthur emerged from the manor and walked toward the group. Merlin felt himself start when Arthur passed him without so much as a glance.
"Arthur!" he called, and he rushed after Arthur before Percival could hold him back. Arthur did not stop walking. His posture was tense, like he was trying very hard to ignore Merlin.
"Arthur, you have to listen to me," Merlin pleaded. "Kay was plotting against you. He sent those men to destroy the village."
"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur said without the usual playful tone that accompanied those words. He meant it.
Merlin didn't listen. "He's going to blame it on you, Arthur! He'd already sent a messenger to Odin. He wanted to start a war—"
Arthur rounded on Merlin. He was seething as he stepped in close, and Merlin immediately fell silent. He'd only seen Arthur that angry a handful of times, but at least Arthur was looking him in the eyes now.
"If one more lie comes out of your mouth, I'll cut out your tongue!" Arthur shouted with bared teeth.
Merlin knew it was best to keep quiet, but he kept Arthur's gaze. He put on his mask of faux-bravery, but it dropped the very moment Arthur looked away. Merlin felt his Adam's apple quiver and his chest constrict. Breathing became a labored, conscious task, and something swelled behind his eyes.
"Lock him up," Arthur demanded as he mounted his horse. "We're leaving."
Merlin felt Percival grasp his shoulder, and he put up no resistance while being led towards the prison cart. Shortly after he was barred in, Percival and Gwaine got on the horses that carried the cart, and it began moving with rattling wheels.
Merlin looked back at the village, at the stray onlookers, at the stable next to the manor. He looked over his shoulder towards Arthur, his horse at the front of the group. Arthur did not look back—not at Merlin, not at his childhood home away from home. Merlin sat against the uncomfortable steel bars, letting his eyes burn holes in Arthur. He wondered if Arthur could feel it.
The journey back to Camelot was much shorter now that their group was smaller and they weren't stopping to hunt. At the rate they were going, they would be inside the citadel early the next day. As they rode through the forest, Merlin was aware of each of the knights occasionally glancing back at him, whether to check that he was still there or to convince themselves this was actually happening.
Arthur was the only one who never looked.
At dusk, they made camp amongst the trees and built a fire to cook up the food they'd taken from the village. It was a quiet process, which was usually filled with jokes and laughter. Merlin was certain he could hear every scurrying beast and flapping wing in the forest for miles in that silence.
"I want him guarded at all times," Arthur said when they were finished eating. "Gwaine, you take the first shift."
While everyone else settled in for sleep, Gwaine collected the last of the food onto a plate and brought it to Merlin. He fit it through the bars.
"Dead men don't eat," Merlin told him, even though his stomach felt hollow and his muscles felt weak. He didn't think he'd be able to keep the food down.
Gwaine let out a sigh. "Come on, Merlin. We don't know if you're a dead man yet," he said, setting the plate down next to Merlin.
Merlin looked across the way to Arthur, who had positioned himself on the opposite side of the fire. He was not yet asleep, but his back was turned to Merlin, showing the hard line of his side. It looked like his arms were crossed, and Merlin wondered if he was straining to hear the whispered conversation.
Arthur had already made up his mind. A trial didn't matter. So many people had betrayed him, and this would be one too many.
"I do," said Merlin.
After Gwaine's watch came Leon's, and then Percival's. While Gwaine tried his best to make conversation, the other two men stayed close to the fire. They only glanced at Merlin every now and again. Merlin didn't return their looks. He kept his eyes fixed on Arthur until the bars between them blurred and fell away.
It would be easy to escape. It would be child's play. All he'd have to do was put a sleeping spell on his current guard and blow open the cart's latch. He even fantasized in which direction he would run, and what he would find there.
But he did not attempt escape. He had to make Arthur believe him.
In the small hours before dawn, it was Arthur's turn to watch. Percival offered to take Arthur's shift, worrying that Arthur had been through enough recently. Arthur didn't listen.
He kept his back turned to Merlin as he leaned against a tree on the peripheral of the fire's glow and looked out into the brush. He stayed like that for nearly an hour before Merlin built up the courage to ask, "Can I speak?"
"No," Arthur said shortly.
Merlin wouldn't take that for an answer. Bracing himself, he said, "Why not?"
"Because, evidently, every word you say is a lie."
"You know that's not true."
Arthur turned his head slightly to peer over his shoulder. "Are you calling me a liar?" he asked frigidly. It made Merlin's heart sink.
"No, Arthur—that's not what I meant," he tried, sounding exhausted.
Arthur turned around all the way now. "What did you mean, Merlin?" he asked heavily. "What was this? Some elaborate plot to overthrow me?"
Merlin almost couldn't believe his ears. "What? No!"
"Are you working with Morgana?"
"Then maybe you just wanted to make me look like a fool?" Arthur said bitterly. "All those times you were accused of magic—you even admitted it once! And I defended you. You just wanted to have a laugh."
"I want to protect you, Arthur!" Merlin cried. He shifted onto his knees. "That's all I've ever wanted to do."
Arthur shook his head thoughtfully. "I can't believe you, Merlin. I can't trust you. You killed my friend."
"He wasn't your friend. Arthur, please, just listen. If you don't, Camelot will be in danger."
"Is that a threat?" Arthur asked, standing up a little straighter as though preparing for combat.
"It's a warning," Merlin corrected. "You have to listen to me."
"And you have to stop being so familiar," Arthur spat, taking a few steps closer. "I am the king. You're a servant—no. You're a prisoner. You have no right to even talk to me."
"Now you sound like Kay," Merlin blurted before he could stop himself.
"How dare you!" Arthur sneered, reminding Merlin somewhat of Uther. He lunged forward and white-knuckled his fists around the bars, like he imagined they were Merlin's neck. "Ever listening to you was a mistake! And it got Kay killed! I always knew there was something wrong with you. I should have gone with my gut."
"You did go with your gut. You've always known you could trust me, I know it," Merlin countered, trying to keep his voice calm to still Arthur's rage. He let out a breath, knowing what he wanted to say next, but it was a gamble. He tried it, anyway.
"Do you remember the first time you and I—," he stopped himself, looking behind Arthur at the knights to make sure they were all still asleep. None of them stirred, so he went on. "It was after you were bit by the Questing Beast. Gaius said the bite was always fatal, but you survived."
Arthur's eyes had gone unfocused as he recalled the shared memory. Merlin risked shuffling closer to meet him at the bars. He wrapped his fingers around them above Arthur's.
"After you'd woken up, it took days for you to recover properly. I was there morning and night, looking after you, and I said—"
"You said, if I had died, you would have gone to the ends of the earth to bring me back," Arthur whispered, "or you'd die trying."
Merlin smiled softly and moved his hands downward to graze Arthur's.
"And you kissed me," Merlin reminded him. "And you didn't stop, because you knew I'd trade my life for yours, Arthur. You knew you could trust me."
"You're the reason I survived," Arthur realized, having to swallow passed a lump in his throat.
Merlin's eyes lightened as he nodded.
"But you didn't trade your life for mine, obviously," Arthur went on, the edge back in his tone. "Who died in my stead, Merlin?"
Merlin's smile fell.
"She was your enemy," he assured.
Arthur ripped his hands out from under Merlin's. "It doesn't matter who she was. You just can't trade one life for another like it's a game. You're not a god, Merlin."
Merlin froze. He felt that pressure behind his eyes again.
"It . . . It makes you a monster."
Merlin's heart dropped, and something warm and wet slid down his nose.
"Arthur," he breathed out shakily.
"Enough," Arthur interrupted, his voice thick. Merlin was sure his eyes were red, but it was too dark to see. "No more, Merlin."
He turned away and paced back to the tree, until he was just a silhouette against the light of the flames. Merlin's face crumpled. His entire body felt weak and heavy. He tried to swat away his tears on his cheeks, to train his face into stone, but it didn't work.
Arthur was much better at keeping his emotions in check. He was rubbing his eyes with one hand, but Merlin didn't know if it was to stifle stress or sadness or so many unspoken words.
They arrived in Camelot at about midday. Merlin braced himself as they rode through the lower town, aware of all the townsfolk stopping what they were doing to watch them go by. Many bowed, but many more looked to Merlin with questioning eyes and muted whispers.
Merlin closed his eyes when they got to the citadel. He focused on the jostling of the cart and the trotting of hooves against the wooden drawbridge. Too soon did they reach the cobblestones of the courtyard, and the cart came to a halt. Merlin opened his eyes.
The sun against the white stone was more blinding than he could ever remember it. He wondered how the servants and guards milling about the courtyard could bear it.
The knights dismounted, and Gwaine and Percival made their way to the back of the cart to unlock it. They were distracted by the booming of the opening double doors. Gwen rushed down the stone steps, holding her flowing red dress up by the sides so she wouldn't trip in her hurry.
"Arthur?" she shouted, sounding confused a little panicked. She must have seen them coming from the window. "What's happening? Why is Merlin—?"
Arthur walked right passed her, and she turned her head to look after him but did not follow. Her mouth fell open and her brows furrowed in perplexed concern when she turned towards the prison cart. Merlin was held on either side, like he was expected to make a run for it, as he stepped out of the cart and was led towards the entrance of the dungeons.
He met Gwen's eyes, trying to silently assure her that everything was all right, but she seemed more confused than ever. Her chest was rising and falling heavily, too, like she was containing anger and frustration because no one was telling her what was going on. Still, she did not tell Gwaine and Percival to unhand him. She was always sensible enough to get all the details before jumping to any conclusions.
Merlin looked away from her to Arthur, whose cloak dragged behind him as he continued up the steps without looking back. On his way inside, he passed Gaius, who was standing at the top of the steps with his eyes fixed on Merlin. Merlin hadn't even seen him follow Gwen out, but one look told him Gaius knew exactly what was going on.
Merlin met his eyes briefly, but he couldn't stand the hurt etched in Gaius' face. It made his face contort and a sob escape him, so he looked away and blinked back his tears.
They reached the door into the dungeons, and the spiraling stone stairwell beyond it looked too dark and too deep. Merlin would have preferred the glaring sunlight.
Arthur was struggling to take off his cloak. It was a heavy weight on his shoulders, and the damn thing kept fumbling and slipping from his fingers.
Behind him, the doors slammed open and Gwen stormed into their chambers. Arthur didn't jump. He'd expected her.
"Arthur, I demand to know what's going on," she said as Arthur finally managed to get the cloak off. He flung it on the back of the chair. "Why was Merlin taken to the dungeons? Whatever he's done, I'm sure—"
"He has magic, Guinevere," Arthur interrupted curtly. He did not look at her. He could not. If he saw the look on her face, it would crack his demeanor. Gwen would be floored. Gwen would be upset. Arthur could not allow those emotions in. It was easier to be angry.
He heard her take in a steadying breath as he threw his sword onto the table.
"Are you certain?" she asked.
"I saw it with my own eyes," he answered. He placed his palms onto the table and leaned into them, hanging his head. "He killed Kay. Maybe Ector, too."
"What?" She moved to stand across from him on the other side of the table, her palm over her heart. "Why would he do such a thing?"
Arthur shook his head. "I don't know."
"Well, did he explain himself?" Gwen demanded.
Arthur stood up straight and dismissed it with a wave. "We were attacked by Odin's men. The village was destroyed. He tried to tell me Kay was behind it."
"And you don't believe him?"
"Of course not!" Arthur said in a near-shout, feeling a surge of anger. "Kay was a brother to me. I respected him. I admired him. He would never do such a thing."
Gwen let out a hesitant breath, but said, "Yes, but you haven't seen him for many years, Arthur. Perhaps something has changed. No matter what, I don't believeMerlin would kill someone in cold blood."
"Apparently, Merlin is capable of a lot more than we thought," Arthur countered, and Gwen said nothing. Collecting himself for a clearer mind, he finally looked at her directly. "His trial is tomorrow morning. We'll see what he has to say for himself then."
"Yes, I think we will," Gwen agreed. She walked around the table and placed a delicate hand on his arm. "Arthur, I know how you must be feeling, but if Merlin comes up with evidence against Kay tomorrow, you must not be biased. You must listen to him. It just doesn't make sense that Merlin would do anything to hurt you this way."
Arthur wanted her to be right. He didn't know which would hurt more: Merlin's betrayal or Kay's. He supposed, either way, it didn't matter.
"Even if he did have a reason," Arthur began, "he still has magic. He's still hidden that from us for years."
Gwen nodded, solemn. "What will you do?" she asked.
For a moment, he didn't know, but he looked away from her and his anger returned. He drew away from her touch and started for the door.
"The law is clear," he said resolutely from over his shoulder.
"Arthur!" Gwen urgently called after him.
He continued on.
The moonlight was shining through the barred window of Merlin's cell. He watched it illuminate the scattered hay on the floor and the ants and spiders crawling along the stones. He caught movement out of the corner of his eye, and his heart jumped, half-hoping his visitor was Arthur.
It was Gaius. A guard led him towards the cell, and the keys jingled between his fingers as he opened the door. Gaius gave him a nod of thanks as he moved into the cell with his hands folded before him. The bars were closed behind him and the guard walked away.
Merlin stood up quickly from his seat on the hard bench and met Gaius halfway. Gaius embraced him, and Merlin heard him breathing shallowly in the close proximity. It made Merlin swallow hard and hug him tighter until Gaius broke away.
"I'm sorry it took me so long to come," he said, "but they've been searching your room for any evidence against you."
"Did they find anything?" Merlin worried, but Gaius shook his head.
"I'm afraid they wouldn't say."
"I'm sorry to put you through this, Gaius," Merlin said genuinely.
Gaius sat down on the bench to rest.
"How did this happen, Merlin?" he asked.
Merlin perched himself next to Gaius and recounted everything that had happened.
By the end, Gaius looked surprised. "And you're certain Sir Kay was responsible for this?"
Merlin nodded with fervor. "He admitted it to me himself. He was practically bragging." Merlin shook his head. "I didn't want to be right. The way Arthur acted in Forest Sauvage . . . I'd never seen him happier."
He mentally rattled the memory of Arthur in the forest, his playful smile as he climbed the tree, the soft touch of his lips against Merlin's . . .
He looked back to Gaius. "Have you ever met Sir Kay?"
Gaius nodded. "A handful of times, yes. He used to visit Camelot from time to time. I'm afraid his beliefs reflected Uther's more than they did Arthur's, but the two boys were exceptionally close."
Merlin let out a heavy, hapless breath. "That's why Arthur won't listen to me. They were friends."
"You are Arthur's friend, my boy," Gaius assured him, and Merlin wanted to believe him.
"Not now that he knows," he said sadly.
Gaius pressed his lips together and leaned back slightly in thought. "We'll just have to convince him of the truth."
"How?" Merlin emoted, hoping Gaius had a trick up his sleeve. "I have no proof! My best bet is if Odin's army marches on Camelot tonight."
"That seems very unlikely," Gaius said, rather unhelpfully.
Merlin gestured in agreement.
"We'll find a way to make Arthur see reason," Gaius said. "This is not your destiny."
Merlin bit at his lip in thought. This wouldn't be the first time he'd let the prophets down. For all the things expected of he and Arthur, he didn't think destiny saw either of them coming.
"I don't think I can count on destiny this time," he said.
"I'll speak with Arthur," Gaius assured him.
Merlin felt a spike of panic. "No, you won't!" he ordered, and Gaius looked shocked. "You can't let Arthur know you had any knowledge of my magic. He won't just try me a traitor tomorrow; he'll try me as a sorcerer. If he asks you to testify, you can't tell him you know anything."
Gaius opened and closed his mouth a few times before saying, "Merlin, don't be ridiculous. If I can say anything to help your case—"
"You can't," Merlin reaffirmed. "I won't see you hanged beside me."
Gaius dropped his shoulders and searched Merlin up and down like he wanted to call Merlin brave or selfless, but Merlin didn't want to hear it. He just wanted Gaius to accept it.
"Promise me, Gaius," he asserted.
Gaius hesitated, but he eventually nodded.
"But I won't see you hanged, either, Merlin," he said, clapping a supportive hand to Merlin's shoulder. He leaned in and dropped his voice to a whisper. "If Arthur sentences you to death, you must escape."
Merlin couldn't deny that he'd considered it.
"Where would I go?" he whispered. "Back to Ealdor?"
"Heavens, no!" Gaius said. "That's the first place they'll look."
Gaius paused. "I don't know."
For the first time, Merlin felt properly scared. He could not put on his mask of bravado. This unknown stretched too far.
Gaius gave him an encouraging nod and stood up from the bench. The guard returned presently and unlocked the bars, letting him out.
"Gaius?" Merlin called, standing up, and Gaius turned back around. "If I am to die, would you—will you tell my mother?" His voice cracked. He didn't want it to, so he tried a smile to cover it up. It looked more like a grimace.
At first, Gaius looked like he didn't want to answer, but he nodded again. The guard shut the door with a rattle and Gaius was led away.
Merlin stayed standing for quite some time, excepting Gaius to return. He never did, so Merlin sat back on the bench and stared across at the grimy, moonlit wall across from him. He didn't think he'd be able to sleep, so he waited for morning instead.
Merlin was brought into the great hall, his wrists bound and with two guards holding his arms tightly between them. The usual crowd was already in the hall, and Merlin saw the knights in a line on the side of the dais. Gaius was close to one of the windows, and Merlin caught his eyes long enough for Gaius to give a nod of solidarity.
He was brought before the dais, where Arthur and Gwen sat on their thrones. Arthur was staring at him hard, but Gwen had trace amounts of sympathy in her eyes despite her rigid posture. Merlin tried to look at them directly and stand tall, but he was hyperaware of his own heartbeat and his trembling hands.
Arthur stood up.
"Merlin," he said shortly, and the word might have echoed in how eerily quiet the room was. It didn't help Merlin's nerves. "You stand here today accused of sorcery, treason, and murder. Do you deny these crimes?"
Merlin's eyes flashed from Arthur to Gwen. She looked as though she was hoping he'd say yes.
"No," he said firmly.
Arthur licked his lips and nodded, looking as though he was about to turn away.
"I deny the intent," Merlin said, and Arthur turned back around. He gestured for Merlin to continue, even though he didn't look very happy about it. Gwen, however, sat up a little straighter, eager to hear him out.
"Sir Kay was conspiring against you," he began. "I saw him send a letter to another knight—Sir Joseph—to send in men to raid the village. During the attack, he sent out another message, this one to King Odin, blaming you for the attack. He meant to kill you and overthrow Camelot, Arthur."
Arthur pursed his lips. "Do you have these alleged letters?" he asked.
Merlin stayed quite.
"Did you even read these letters yourself?"
"No," Merlin admitted. Quickly, he added, "But he told me! I tried to talk him out of his plan, but he said he'd given you your chance to back down. He said you'd been corrupted for allowing commoners in your court."
For a brief moment, Arthur's eyes lit up in some realization, like Merlin was making sense. It spurred Merlin on. He dared on taking a step forward, but the guards next to him held him back.
"I know all I have is my word, and I know you may not think that counts for much right now, but—," he looked towards Arthur's knights, his friends, for support. "You were all there! He made it very clear how he felt about Arthur's policies."
Percival and Elyan shared a look, and Gwaine continued to stare at Merlin with big eyes. Leon shuffled and said for all of Court to hear, "Sir Kay said we were welcome in his home."
"But did any of you feel welcome?" Merlin asked, starting to feel a little desperate.
Gwaine nodded. "I didn't, Arthur."
Merlin gave Gwaine a relieved smile. Good Gwaine, honest Gwaine. He knew Gwaine would support him, at the very least.
"Did Sir Kay not give you a bed, Gwaine?" Arthur asked. "Did he not feed you? Allow you to stay for as long as needed? Did he not treat you as a guest?"
Gwaine deflated slightly. He couldn't look Merlin in the eyes. "He did."
Arthur folded his hands behind his back and started to pace thoughtfully. "Merlin, if Sir Kay was against me, as you say, was his father?"
Merlin had to bite his tongue. He wanted to scream. "I did not kill Sir Ector," he said with more of an edge to his tone than he'd intended.
Arthur hummed in response and made a beckoning gesture with his hand. "Bring the evidence forward."
Merlin swiveled his head around in part-confusion, part-panic as another guard stepped forward with the leather pack Merlin usually used for trips or collecting herbs. It's what he'd used to collect the ingredients necessary for Sir Ector's medicine.
The pack was handed to Arthur, who fished out a yellow shrub.
"Gaius," he said, and Gaius stepped forward. "Can you identify this plant?"
Gaius reached out and took it in his hands for inspection. Eventually, he said, "It's ragwort, sire."
"Would you use this to treat a sickly old man?"
Gauis gave Merlin a look that made Merlin's heart stop beating. He looked almost disappointed, which was a look Merlin had gotten many times from him and learned how to stomach long ago; but there was something else there, too. He looked sorry.
"No, sire," Gaius said, sounding as though it were a strain to do so. "It is poisonous to many animals. A healthy human may be able to fight off its effects, but . . . if not, it can be severely damaging to the liver. It could prove to be fatal."
Merlin felt his breath leave him with every word. He knew he should have picked the brown shrub.
Meanwhile, Arthur took back the flower and twirled the stock between his thumb and finger. He nodded down at it like it was all the proof he needed, and all the proof he did not want.
"No, Arthur, it was a mistake!" Merlin tried, his voice thick from the lump in his throat. He tried to walk forward again but was held back. Arthur glared at him with eyes that were more bloodshot than before.
"I didn't mean to! You have to believe me!"
Arthur scoffed and looked away and, behind him, Gwen looked like her heart had taken new root in her throat.
"You expect me to believe that?" Arthur asked. "You've been trained by the best physician in the land. I don't think Gaius would allow that kind of sloppiness. Do youreally expect me to believe you're that much of an idiot?"
Merlin stuttered, searching wildly for the right words. "Yes!" was all he could come up with.
Arthur turned back to Gaius. "Gaius, stay where you are. I have more questions for you."
Merlin's eyes shot to Gaius, who straightened himself out in preparation.
"Merlin has been in your care for a number of years now," Arthur began.
"That is correct, sire."
"And, in all that time, have you ever seen him practicing magic?"
Gaius' gaze flickered to Merlin and then back again. He shuffled, but kept his promise. "No, sire."
"Nor do we have proof against that," Gwen said pointedly, making Arthur turn halfway to look at her.
"We don't, no. But, Gaius, you've been known to consort with sorcerers in the past," Arthur said, digging deeper.
"Yes, sire," Gaius answered, even if it hadn't been a question.
"You still have many books dedicated to magic."
"To understand its threats, sire," Gaius lied, or did not tell the whole truth, without skipping a beat. "Your father considered me a strong ally in his fight against sorcery."
"Of course, as I consider you a trusted friend," Arthur allowed. "Has Merlin been permitted access to any of these tomes?"
"Merlin is my pupil. He is allowed access to all of my materials."
Arthur gestured to a guard again. "Bring it in."
The guard bowed and disappeared through the door to the back room.
Gaius took the opportunity to say, "Sire, if I may? Merlin has served you loyally. He's a good boy. A little big-headed at times—," he shot Merlin a look as he said it, "—but he would not wish to harm you."
Merlin bit his lip to stop himself from smiling at the support.
"Thank you, Gaius, your testimony is noted," Arthur said, not giving anything away.
The guard came back into the throne room, holding with both palms a very old, very familiar book.
"Just one last thing," Arthur said as the guard handed the book to Gaius. "This book was found amongst Merlin's belongings. Can you identify it?"
Gaius flipped through the pages. "It appears to be a book of the Old Religion."
"Is it part of your collection?"
Gaius hesitated again. "No, sire."
"Have you ever seen it before?"
"I can't say I have," Gaius answered, sounding heavy to no one but Merlin, and Merlin was grateful. At least Gaius would see another sunrise. Merlin owed him that much.
Arthur turned to Merlin as the guard took the book again.
"Who gave this to you, if not Gaius?" he asked.
Merlin swallowed hard, willing a lie to surface. What was one more, after all?
He said the first thing that came to mind, "My father."
Arthur's brow shot up to his hairline. "Your father?" he repeated incredulously. "You told me your father is dead. You said you never knew him."
Merlin searched the floor and said meekly, "That's not . . . completely true."
Arthur gave a mirthless laugh and turned to Gwen, as though expecting her to back him up. She kept her eyes on Merlin, so Arthur looked back to him. He had a sneering smile on his face.
"I don't know which to believe," he admitted, but he must have decided it didn't matter, because he bared his teeth and yelled, "Has everything you've ever said to me been a lie?"
Merlin thought back to the tree.
"It's because you don't love me anymore," Arthur had said.
"You know I do," Merlin had answered.
He now wished he had said the words, like he had so many times, in the dark, in the quiet, between gasps of pleasure or bouts of laughter, between the sheets, between the trees.
He closed his eyes, trying to remember those times. The only image he saw in the darkness was his swinging body.
He brought his gaze back to Arthur, looking at him beseechingly. "Not everything," he said softly.
Arthur looked in pain. His eyes had gone soft and his face was no longer stony. But it only lasted a short moment, and he turned his head away to collect himself.
"If you have no evidence to prove your innocence, I have no choice but to sentence you to death," he said, and his tone was hard and uncompromising, but Merlin heard the undertones. They sounded broken.
Arthur corrected himself, standing face-forward and tall.
"Merlin, at sundown tonight, I sentence you to burn."
Something in Merlin dropped, and it made his legs wobble and caused him to stagger a step backwards. Something else went numb, like he was dead already, and death didn't feel like a relief; it felt empty.
Around him, chatter and gasps rose up from the room. The loudest amongst the voices was Gwen's.
"Arthur! Surely, there are quicker ways!" she said with a start, but Arthur stood unmoving.
His eyes never left Merlin's as the noise in the room died away.
"Do you have anything else to say?" he asked, maybe even hopefully.
It took effort, but Merlin willed himself to stand on his own two feet and to stop shaking. He had one last chance.
"Camelot is in danger," he said carefully, wanting the words to sink in. "You are in danger, Arthur. I will not apologize for protecting you."
Arthur nodded, accepting it, even though those weren't the words he wanted to hear.
"Take him away," he said with a wave of his hand, and Merlin wished he hadn't turned away so soon. He wanted to take in every feature, every line and contour of Arthur's face. He wanted to remember it all.
He could feel all eyes following him as he was taken out of the throne room, but he could not look back at them. He kept his gaze on his shoes and focused on putting one foot in front of the other.
He was thrown hard into his cell, onto the hay and spiders, and the door slammed behind him. He got to his feet and went to the widow, where dust particles danced and ebbed in sunbeams and the courtyard was still white and blinding.
He didn't want to leave, but Arthur had given him no choice. He had to go. He couldn't protect Arthur if he was dead.
The last of Court shuffled out of the hall and the doors were closed behind them. Gwen had been holding her tongue the entire time, no doubt waiting until she and Arthur were alone. Arthur braced himself as he turned around to face her.
"You're angry with me," he said, reading her expression.
"Of course, I'm angry with you!" she snapped, jumping to her feet. "Honestly, Arthur, you sentence him to death, and his last words were a warning for you! He believes what he's saying, even if you don't. If he has to die, hang him, take his head. Instead, you condemn him to a slow and painful death! You have never judged someone with magic so harshly."
"I have judged murderers and traitors that harshly," Arthur corrected as though he firmly believed in his decision.
On the inside, he wasn't so sure. Perhaps he was letting his emotions cloud his judgment, but he felt anger like a knife in his spine every time he thought about Merlin's deceit. He could hardly bear to look at Merlin through the trial. It hurt too much.
"I understand your pain," Gwen said, trying to calm herself. "But this is not the Arthur I know. You are a good and forgiving man. You must be careful you don't become your father—"
He turned his back to her, not wanting to hear any more.
"We've already lost Morgana."
The line of Arthur's shoulders became strained.
"Morgana chose her own path," he said regretfully. "So did Merlin."
He heard Gwen sigh heavily. "That may be so," she began, "but I will not stand beside you and watch Merlin burn."
He could hear the tears, so close to breaking free, in her voice. She shook her head fervently.
She did not wait for him to answer. Instead, she pushed passed him and disappeared through the back door of the hall.
He could hear them placing the straw and twigs. They spoke cheerfully as they performed the task, talking of what they were going to eat for dinner or what the next day had in store for them. They were familiar voices, belonging to servants Merlin had passed in the corridors or chatted with in the kitchens. Now they were setting the kindling for his execution.
Merlin stood up from the bench and moved to the barred window. He stood on his toes and placed his hands on the stone ledge for better leverage so he could peer out into the courtyard. The stake was already set up. His stake. The one he was meant to die with his back to.
He wondered if Arthur was somewhere in the castle, looking down at the proceedings. He wondered if Gwen was watching, too. What of Gaius and Gwaine and his friends? He supposed he'd never know if anyone mourned for him. He'd never see any of them again.
It was already dusk, and the sun was casting a red glow against the wisps of clouds. The weather was perfect: not too humid, not too chilly. It was less than an hour to sundown and, as things went, Merlin couldn't think of a better day to die. Only, he wasn't planning on dying. Not that day.
He turned away from the window and squared his shoulders. He held his palm up to the bars.
"Tospringe," he commanded, his eyes flashing gold when he blinked. The cell door blew open, metal sparking against metal, and hit the stone wall across the way with a dull clang. Merlin didn't wait around to figure out if the guards had heard it.
He rushed down the row of cells and into the crypts. The marble and stone statues on the tombs glared at him with blank, haunting eyes, but the dead told no secrets. Merlin slipped into the shadows behind the crypts to the gate that led outside the citadel.
He blew it open with the same spell and lifted himself onto the grass. The forest was a short run away. Under the cover of darkness, he'd be able to slip into it no problem. However, it was still light enough to see. He'd be spotted if he wasn't careful.
He crept into the growing vegetation for cover as he snuck along the outer wall of the citadel. Once he was in a place where the bastion blocked the view of the watchtower, he left the shadow of the wall and started slowly for the forest. If he went too quickly, he'd raise suspicion just in case anyone happened to see him. From that distance, they wouldn't be able to tell it was him, so he figured he'd be able to pass without a second thought. He was one man, after all, not an army.
Although, sometimes he forgot that.
The warning bell started to chime, and Merlin's breath caught in his throat. He looked over his shoulder with wide eyes at the towering citadel. He imagined he heard orders being barked out and soldiers rushing to the armory to grab swords and crossbows.
There was no more time for careful pretense. He ran as quickly as he could into the tree line and didn't stop until he was deep into the brush. It was much darker in the woods, where the weak sun couldn't shine through the canopy.
In the close distance, he already heard galloping horses and savagely barking dogs. He heard men shouting, but their words were too far away and indistinct.
Careful not to trip over any loose roots or slide with slippery dead leaves down an incline, he continued on through the woods. With his every step, the shouting and barking got closer. He tried to move away from it, but the voices followed him as though they knew exactly where he was.
Soon, a group was close and he heard their conversation as clearly as he had the warning bell. Merlin saw their outlines through the trees, and he quickly pushed his back against a rough trunk to hide. He held his breath, trying to not make a sound.
"Spread out. I want him found."
That was Arthur's voice.
"Alive?" asked Leon.
There was a pause into which Merlin was certain Arthur heard his heartbeat.
"Do what you must," Arthur finally said, and Merlin closed his eyes at the words.
All those times Merlin had saved Arthur's life, and Arthur had twice given the order to kill him.
He felt crushed, like all his life was for nothing. Everyone who'd ever warned Merlin against Arthur was right. Anyone who'd ever offered Merlin power and domination was right. In that moment, Merlin felt stupid for not listening. Perhaps he would let Camelot fall.
Or perhaps it was better to turn himself in; to die.
He would do neither. He was not a monster, nor was surrender in his blood. He pushed his tumbling thoughts away. Camelot still needed him. Arthur still needed him, even if he wouldn't accept him.
Merlin knew he couldn't stay in the same spot. If he moved, he might be spotted; if he didn't move, he definitely would be.
Bracing himself, he sprinted away from the tree.
"Sire!" Elyan alerted, but Merlin kept running.
He dodged trees and jumped over logs. His trousers ripped on twigs and he ran through silky cobwebs. His mouth felt dry and his toes were numb, but he did not stop.
There was a whoosh as an arrow flew passed his face, just an inch in front of his nose, and shattered against the bark next to him. Merlin stumbled to a halt in shock. He turned his eyes on where the arrow had been loosed and found Arthur slightly lowering his crossbow from his face.
Merlin knew how good of a shot Arthur was. The arrow hadn't hit him because Arthur hadn't wanted it to. It was a warning shot.
Merlin was aware that Leon and Elyan were on either side, advancing carefully with their swords held at the ready, but he kept his eyes on Arthur. Arthur returned the gaze from over the top of the bow. He looked a little lost for a second, but his eyes hardened and he pulled back another arrow.
Merlin let him loose it before swiping his hand through the air and making the arrow fly off course. Merlin was gone before the arrow pierced the ground.
Arthur ran after him, and Merlin zigzagged through the trees in attempt to lose him. When he was sure he'd put enough space between himself and Arthur, he slid to his knees behind the base of an uprooted tree.
He pressed his back to the termite-ridden roots and clutched at his racing heart, trying to tame it. He breathed heavily through his nose, in and out, and focused on the noises around him. Twigs snapped sharply and leaves rustled in the wind.
Close by, something suddenly snapped, and Merlin reacted immediately. He jumped and looked over his shoulder quickly. Gwaine was staring down at him, holding his sword out warningly before him.
Merlin swallowed hard and stared up at him with large, fearful eyes. That was it. He was a dead man.
Gwaine lowered his sword when he was sure Merlin wouldn't put up a fight.
"Go," he hissed, and the constriction in Merlin's chest loosened. He furrowed his brows at Gwaine.
"I'll lead them in another direction," Gwaine elaborated in a whisper. He risked peering over his shoulder before looking back to Merlin, who had not moved. Gwaine gestured with his free hand. "Run, Merlin!"
Finally getting the message, Merlin scrambled to his feet. He couldn't see anyone else around, but he heard their voices not too far away.
He brought his eyes back to Gwaine. He wouldn't forget this favor for as long as he lived. Gwaine was giving him desperate eyes, beckoning Merlin on.
"Goodbye, Gwaine," Merlin said, his voice thick, before turning around and running from him. He felt Gwaine's eyes on his back as he went.
"Gwaine!" Merlin heard Arthur shout as he ran. "Anything?"
"Nothing, but I think I heard something over there," Gwaine called back, his voice sounding more distant with each of Merlin's footfalls.
The next morning found Arthur sitting at the table in his chambers. He shuffled against the fur lining of his seat and shook his knee anxiously. His fingers were knotted together in front of his lips.
"We searched all night, sire," Leon reported. "He's nowhere to be found. He could be out of the kingdom by now."
"Someone must have seen him," Arthur said against his fingers, feeling wearier than he sounded. "Maybe he went to Ealdor."
"He wouldn't be foolish enough to go home, Arthur," Gwen said from her place across from him at the table. "He wouldn't want to put his mother in danger."
Arthur sat back and dropped his shoulders. "But it's a possibility," he said. He turned to Leon. "Send a group to Ealdor. Have some more men search the forest."
Leon bowed his head and said, "sire," and he was gone.
Arthur looked back to Gwen, who had folded her hands together on the tabletop. She was sitting up straight and staring at him with her head cocked to the side, looking like she had something to say and expected to convey it with just her eyes.
Arthur got the message. He could never figure out how she did that.
"You still think he's innocent," he sighed.
"I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt," Gwen said carefully, "like he's done for me—so many times. All those times your father arrested me, Merlin never once gave up on me. I owe him the same."
As she spoke, her voice was fond.
"He's a traitor, Guinevere," Arthur reminded her pointedly.
"And so was I once."
He looked down at the table. He didn't want to think about that.
"Arthur," she said, dipping her head down to catch his gaze. "Call off the search party. If he's gone, let him go. Merlin knows not to return."
"He lied to me," Arthur said. The words still felt foreign to him, like they didn't quite hold any real meaning. Out of everyone, he thought Merlin was the only person he could trust without doubt. He was wrong. He was always so wrong about everyone.
"I know he did," Gwen answered kindly. "But I'm certain he had a reason, even if we cannot see it." She reached across the table and took his hands in her own. She stroked his fingers gently. "All I know is, your people would do anything for you. They love you, Arthur, but I don't think any of them love you as much as Merlin."
Arthur's eyes flickered towards her reflexively as his stomach dropped. She was already looking at him, but without the air of some hidden knowledge. Her eyes were as big as her heart.
"Call off the soldiers," she told him. "Let him go."
Arthur didn't know what to do. It was strange, but he wished Merlin was there to help him make his decision. He closed his eyes slowly, hoping to find his answer in the swirling darkness. There was nothing, but Gwen's hands on his were firm and grounding.
He opened his eyes and nodded in promise.
Merlin didn't sleep much the previous night. He'd spent the moonlit hours dodging howling dogs and making false trails for soldiers. The morning found him with fewer pursuers on his trail, and he found a small cavern surrounded by thick bracken to hole up in. Every snapping twig made him jump and every fluttering bird startled him, but eventually he slipped into a shallow sleep amongst the rocks. As he slept, he could feel a steady rocking, as though he were on a boat. It felt like he was still running.
It was a wakeful sort of slumber, where he kept slipping in and out of consciousness without really knowing it. His dreams mixed with reality. He still felt the wind wisp through his hair; he was aware of the cool drizzle that found its way into the cavern's mouth. He imagined he heard shouts of Camelot's soldiers echoing around him. He dreamt they found him, but he could not move. Sleep kept him paralyzed, so that it was impossible to open his eyes, even inside of the dream. His limbs felt like weights, and his magic sank like a stone to the bottom of his body like blood bruising a dead man.
When he woke up, the sun was well in the west, and he knew there were only a few more precious hours of daylight left. He wasted most of them digging up roots for his supper until dirt lined his fingernails and the knees of his breeches were soiled through.
One of the roots tore at his sleeve and cut his wrist, and for some reason that was the extent of what he could take. He wasted more time with his back to a tree, his knees pulled into his chest, and his face buried in his folded arms. He cried until his head ached with dehydration, his eyes burned, and his stomach turned hollow.
Then, judging by the horizon the sun was disappearing behind, he headed for the direction of Camelot.
Stars were speckling the black by the time he made it to the clearing in the woods just beyond the citadel's walls. He squinted, able to make out the purple roofs of the towers, their color tinted by the dark sky. The castle was a barely visible outline against the sky, like it wasn't actually there but rather a shadow cast by something unseen. Fires were burning in the windows, and he longed for their warmth. His eyes trailed towards the wing of the castle where Gaius' chambers were situated.
In his mind's eye, he walked through the room with a mess that was the product of a busy mind. He was tapping his fingers along the spines of tomes and feeling the dry crispiness of the ancient pages that had been left open on the workbenches. He picked up Gaius' scribbled notes, sniffed the herbs, and flicked his nails on the glass vials with the multicolored potions so they sang. He walked up the steps into his bedroom, small and modest, but his. He could not see the window of which he once gawked out at the hustle and bustle below; it was on the other side of the citadel.
But he could see Arthur's window.
He thought, if he stared hard enough, he could see shadows pacing about the antechamber, but perhaps he was just projecting. To see even a glimpse of Arthur's presence would be enough for him. It would have to be.
Distantly, he heard the flapping of great wings, and a force of heavy wind chilled him as something blocked out the light of the moon. Merlin tore his eyes away from Camelot to watch the beast glide downwards and, with one last massive flap that blew Merlin's hair back, it settled before him in the clearing—their usual meeting spot.
Merlin craned his neck to look into Kilgharrah's burnt amber eyes, but he was too tired to hide any of the emotions lining his face. The dragon noticed them all, and a look of reserved wonderment passed those eyes.
"You seem troubled, Young Warlock," he said, his voice ever the suggestion of an antiquated creaking door.
"He knows," Merlin answered dryly, simply.
Kilgharrah lifted his head a little higher, narrowed his eyes, and pushed his wings back with his spine. Merlin knew he'd understood.
"I see," said Kilgharrah, rather unhelpfully.
Merlin scoffed and crossed his arms tightly. He already felt a kink his neck from having to look up, mixed with having used a rock as pillow. His patience was already draining, like it did so often in the beginning of his relationship with Kilgharrah. Every time he descended the steps into the prison, he knew he was in for a massive headache and more questions than answers. In more recent years, he and the dragon tended to be, more often than not, on the same page. Merlin had a feeling this conversation would revert them back into cryptic remarks and mutual annoyance.
"Do you? Because you don't seem very concerned about it!"
"That's because it isn't very concerning," Kilgharrah said like it was a limerick. He was actually laughing.
"How can you say that?" Merlin demanded, but he didn't assume the state he was in made him look very authoritative. His voice was too thick; his face was covered in dried, streaked mud. "He hates me!"
"One half cannot truly hate that which—"
"No, no!" Merlin interrupted, holding out a finger to silence him. He didn't need to be reminded about halves and wholes and coins. He needed to vent, and he needed Kilgharrah to understand his predicament. He needed Kilgharrah to know that he'd failed. "He tried to kill me!"
Kilgharrah let out a patient humming sound, putting on the airs of hard thought when he already knew exactly what he wanted to say.
"You knew the time would come when you'd have to change Arthur's view of magic," he said. "Perhaps now is your opportunity."
Merlin hung his head, and the words echoed through his mind on a loop as he considered them. Eventually, he rolled his neck back up to reestablish gaze.
"How?" he said, and he was really asking. He had no clue what to do next. "How can I do that if I can never step foot in Camelot again? When I will never—," the word hit him like a punch to the gut. The prospect of the word. The enormity of it.
He swallowed and tried again.
"Never see him again."
It was a miracle his voice held steady.
"Never is a just a moment that we cannot foresee."
And there it was: the riddle; the cryptic dragon he knew so well—or not at all.
Merlin drew breath, trying to stifle his sudden headache. He was too exhausted to think. "What does that mean?"
"It means you will see Arthur again, Merlin," Kilgharrah told him with absolute faith that Merlin did not share, "and, when you do, he will see you fully."
That still didn't answer his question. Merlin was hoping for a specific calendar date. It seemed he'd never get one. It could be days; it could also be years. He never minded waiting, but he found anxiety and impatience in not know when he'd be able to stop.
"Where do I go until then?" he asked, trying not to sound too desperate. But in truth, he had nowhere, no one. That kind of loneliness was daunting. "Camelot's in danger and I don't just mean the future of Albion. I can't leave it."
"You mustn't," Kilgharrah agreed. "Without you, Camelot will always be in danger. You must remain close and vigilant."
Merlin nodded, reserved and accepting, and cast his eyes to the blades of grass poking out from under his boots. Both he and Kilgharrah knew there was nothing else to say.
With another gust of wind that Merlin didn't bother reacting to, Kilgharrah flew away.
Once he was gone, Merlin looked back to the castle, to Arthur's window. His imagination conjured no shadows this time.
A bolt of electricity spiked the forest floor, making dried leaves scatter. The rabbit Merlin was aiming for also jumped up and scurried away quickly. When it disappeared into its hole, Merlin groaned haplessly.
He'd been trying to catch something for two hours, but the magic flowing through his veins felt more like a leak than a river at the moment. He was starving and exhausted, and he finally resolved to go back to his makeshift home and sleep without supper. It was getting dark, anyway, even though it was still early. Merlin breathed in the crisp air. Not a trace of summer was left in it.
Turning around to head home, he started when he caught sight of the man who had snuck up behind him. A surge of magic crackled in his fingertips, and he was about to release it before realizing he knew the newcomer.
Merlin gawked at him, not sure whether or not to believe his eyes, and Gwaine gave him a tight, disarming smile.
Now certain he wasn't just seeing things, Merlin felt weary and alert. He took a guarded step back and searched the brush for signs of movement or flowing red capes.
"Settle down," Gwaine said softly, holding up his leather-clad palms in innocence. "It's just me."
"How'd you find me?" Merlin demanded, still a little on edge, even though he knew he could trust Gwaine. After all, if not for him, Merlin would have been dead already.
"It wasn't very easy. I've been searching the forest for two weeks," was the answer. "You're a hard man to find."
Merlin finally dropped his guard. He scanned Gwaine. "That's the point."
"Fair enough," Gwaine said. Merlin noticed a large tanned satchel at his side when Gwaine took the strap off his shoulder and held it between his hands. "Thought you might need a few things."
He threw the bag to Merlin, who caught it in an embrace when it thudded against his chest.
"There's some fresh clothes in there," Gwaine explained, and Merlin was thankful. The clothes he'd been wearing were filthy and tattered. "Some candles, a book if you get bored, and some food."
Merlin's eyes widened at the notion of food. He barely heard Gwaine continue, "I put some apples in. I know they're your favorite."
Immediately, he pulled back the satchel's flap and dug through its contents. He found a few pieces of dried meat and tore at one with his teeth. It was too salty and not very savory at all but Merlin thought it was the best thing he'd ever tasted.
He grunted into another large bite and chewed with his mouth open. He never really had good table manners, but he supposed standing in a forest while looking like a wild man wasn't the time to learn them.
Once the piece of meat was gone, Merlin looked back at Gwaine, who had gone very quiet and observant.
"I don't know how to thank you," Merlin exclaimed, dropping the bag and quickly closing the space between them. Gwaine hummed distastefully into Merlin's shoulder, but patted his back with his full palm all the same.
"Yeah, you smell worse than you look," he said when the hug broke. His nose was scrunched in disgust, and he nodded towards the bag. "There's some soap in there, too."
It made Merlin feel very self-conscious. He ran his fingers through his tangled hair, trying to make himself at least somewhat presentable. A twig fell out.
Gwaine pretended not to notice. He narrowed his eyes and peered around, apparently looking for something.
"Don't tell me you've been sleeping out in the open all this time," he asked, sounding a little worried.
Merlin shook his head, and Gwaine's eyes lightened in relief.
"Well, then," he said, "mind if I see the place?"
Merlin brought him to a clearing in the forest, where a small stone hut rested. The door was termite-eaten and could barely close, a few of the windows didn't have glass, and the wall of rocks that fenced in the overgrown garden was crumbling in some places.
The inside was even more of a mess. The floor was caked in a layer of dust and cobwebs, as were the old, dilapidated shelves that housed empty flower vases and cookware. Merlin had taken most of the pots and scattered them along the floor to catch the water dripping from the holes in the rotting ceiling when it rained.
The only elements of the one-room hut that were made livable were the narrow bed at the far end of the room, its mattress, so old that the hay inside had been compacted into a solid, the grated fire pit in the room's center, and the wobbly table with two unsteady chairs on which Merlin and Gwaine now sat.
Merlin set out the bread and cheese Gwaine had brought him on the table to share.
"I never knew this place was back here," Gwaine said, taking a sweeping look around.
"Not many people do," Merlin said. He ripped off a chunk of bread, plopped it in his mouth, and spoke around it. "Even less people pay it any mind. That's why I knew I could stay here. No one's lived here for years, maybe longer. I don't know who it belonged to before."
"Well, your secret's safe with me," Gwaine promised.
Merlin swallowed the bread, suddenly feeling guilty.
"I know," he answered. "Gwaine, look—I'm sorry. I should have told you."
Gwaine held up his hand and shrugged. "Ah, don't worry, Merlin. You have to be careful who you trust with something like that."
"Yeah, but it's you," Merlin insisted. Many times, he'd wanted to reveal his powers to Gwaine. He always thought, maybe, Gwaine would understand more than anyone else. He'd always judged a person by who they were, not what they were.
It's not that Merlin didn't trust Gwaine; he'd just gotten so accustomed to hiding. Gwaine shouldn't have had to lie with Merlin. He didn't deserve to shoulder that secret.
"It's fine," Gwaine said with a shrug. He took a piece of bread off the loaf but didn't eat it. He looked down at it with a thoughtful grimace. "I think I knew, anyway."
Merlin jerked his head back in surprise. "You knew I had magic?"
"Maybe not exactly," Gwaine admitted. "But I always suspected something. All those times we were attacked and a tree limb broke off and fell on the raiders, justwhen they were getting the better of Arthur?" He grinned mischievously. "You've got pretty good aim, Merlin, and better timing."
Merlin grinned back.
"You could take that on the road," Gwaine suggested, "make a living for yourself."
Merlin chuckled down at the table. "Could do."
When he met Gwaine's eyes again, Gwaine's expression had dropped. "So why haven't you?" he asked, causing Merlin's grin to fade, too. "It's a lot safer than hiding out so close to Camelot."
"I can't leave Arthur," Merlin told him severely, and he was sure Gwaine had seen something other than loyalty in his eyes, because he nodded downward and pursed his lips.
"So that's true, too," he muttered.
Merlin cocked his head. "What?"
"Nothing," Gwaine said before clearing his throat and shaking his head. "So, you really think Camelot's still in trouble? You still think Kay betrayed Arthur?"
"Do you believe me?" Merlin dared to ask.
"I believe you wouldn't have killed him if you didn't have a good reason," Gwaine said, which was a relief to Merlin.
"Gwaine," he said pointedly, leaning in. "Two weeks is more than enough time for Odin to move his army. Camelot can be attacked any day now. You have to be on your guard."
Gwaine nodded seriously. "You have my word."
Merlin shot him a thankful smile.
"Well," Gwaine said with the air of finality. He pushed his chair back and stood up. "I'd better get back before anyone notices I'm gone." He tapped on the table before heading for the door. His sly smile was quirking his lips again. "I'll be back in a few days with more supplies—and my valued company, ay?"
"You shouldn't risk yourself for me," Merlin told him, although he was touched.
Gwaine shrugged out his palms playfully. "If you managed to fool Arthur being so close for so long, I shouldn't have a problem." He winked and spun back around.
Gwaine was halfway out the door when Merlin called his name again. There was only one piece of information he wanted from Gwaine, and he'd been hesitant to ask for it. But now it was his last chance, and Merlin would torment himself if he didn't take it.
"How is he?" he forced himself to say, but he couldn't say the name again. Just hearing it hurt.
Gwaine dropped his shoulders with a sigh and stared hard at Merlin for a few moments, like he was trying to decide what to say. He closed the door and walked back to the table.
The door of his chambers creaked open, and Arthur tore his eyes away from the courtyard below to look over his shoulder at the newcomer. It was Gwen. She closed the door behind her and strode further into the room, and Arthur cursed himself inwardly because, even after two weeks, he still half-expected it to be Merlin walking through the door.
But he should have known better. None of the footsteps in the corridor leading to his chambers sounded like Merlin's anymore. Arthur had memorized their rhythm long ago. They were light and fleeting, so quiet that Arthur often wondered if Merlin's feet ever actually touched the ground. Sometimes, his footfalls were silent enough to belong to a ghost.
Arthur supposed, now, they did.
There was no Merlin, only empty hallways and a haunted castle. Everywhere Arthur looked, he saw a place where Merlin should have been. Many times over the past few days, Arthur thought he saw Merlin—in town, at dinners—until the raven-haired man turned to face Arthur and revealed himself a stranger. Arthur didn't know how he'd feel if it ever turned out to be Merlin. Happy? Upset? But he couldn't deny that, when it wasn't Merlin, he was disappointed.
More than that, he was mournful.
And that made him angry. He should not be grieving Merlin's loss. Merlin was a liar, not just about his magic but about everything else, too. Two weeks was enough time for Odin to make his move, but Camelot remained peaceful. In the back of his mind and in the bottom of his heart, Arthur even hoped Odin's forces would march on Camelot. Maybe then Arthur could once more find a sliver of the trust he'd held in Merlin.
But there was nothing, and Arthur still grieved. His anger faded from him just a few days after Merlin's escape, leaving him with only weariness.
He reminded himself of his father after Morgana's betrayal. Thoughts like that made Arthur want to shake the melancholy, but he never could.
Merlin was gone—alive and out in the world somewhere. Had he remained close by, or was he so far away from Arthur, like Arthur suspected—like he felt in the pit of his stomach? He walked around with the perpetual sensation of missing something.
Or perhaps Merlin had gone home to Ealdor. Maybe he was a farmer by now.
Arthur looked at Gwen just long enough to clock her surprised expression at the assorted buffet spread out on the table. She still wasn't used to it, and neither was Arthur. He looked back out the window towards the citadel's gates. Even now, he expected Merlin to ride through them.
"Has he eaten?" Gwen said softly to the servant standing in the corner of the room.
George. He was still as dull as ever, but at least he didn't speak unless spoken to, which was hardly ever.
"No, my queen," George said.
"And why not?"
"He informed me he was not hungry."
George must have hated Arthur by now. Every day, George prepared him the finest foods, which Arthur never ate. George made the room immaculately spotless, which Arthur ruined in a few shorts hours. George did everything perfectly without ever being asked, and Arthur never noticed.
Either the man was completely unfeeling, very good at holding his emotions in, or a saint. Arthur didn't know, nor did he care. He wasn't Merlin, and that's what mattered.
"Arthur," Gwen said, her heels clacking on the floor as she took a few paces forward. "You have to eat."
"I'm not hungry," Arthur repeated clearly.
Gwen sighed. She looked to George. "Leave us."
George bowed and closed the door behind him when he left.
"You missed another council meeting," Gwen said. "I'm running out of excuses, Arthur. Today, I told everyone you were feeling ill. Gaius asked me if there was anything he could do."
When Arthur said nothing, Gwen came up to him and held her palm on his back. She followed his line of vision to the gates.
"He's not coming back, Arthur," she cooed. "I know you're hurt, maybe even regretful. But you must talk to me. If there's anything I can do to help—"
Arthur tore away from her. He didn't want to hear anymore.
"I'm going to train," he said, trying to sound normal. His tone sounded forced even to him.
"There is no training scheduled for today," she said patiently.
He sighed, annoyed. "I'm going to train by myself."
"That's all you ever do these days."
He collected his sword and sheathed it. "I have to be fit for combat," he said in ways of an excuse.
"What combat?" He could tell he was trying her patience, but Gwen never lost her cool. "There isn't a war on."
His heart felt heavy.
"Arthur," she said, closing the distance between them in one last attempt. "Talk to me. You can trust me."
Arthur studied her for a moment, watching her face blend in with everyone who had ever uttered those words to him, only to betray him later.
"I don't know if I can trust anyone," he said.
He swept out of the room before she could react.
Gwaine kept his promise. Every few days, he would visit Merlin with more food and books and news of Camelot. Very rarely did they talk about Arthur, because Merlin couldn't figure out if he felt more longing when Arthur was brought up or when they did not speak a word of him. Regardless, Merlin was happy for Gwaine's company, but it wasn't enough, especially during the gaps between his visits.
Merlin would often dream he was back in Camelot. In these dreams, Arthur had accepted his magic, and Merlin never left his side.
However, that night, his dream was different.
He saw fire streaking through the night and crashing down on the citadel. Camelot's knights were slain and the townspeople were running scared. He saw Arthur's body lying in the courtyard, covered in debris, with destructive firelight dancing on his face.
All of that was coming. It was Camelot's fate. Merlin had to find Arthur. He had to tell him. Arthur was in danger. Arthur . . .
And then Merlin wasn't in Camelot at all. He was standing on a green hill with the effulgence of the high sun beating down on him. Nestled in the hills in the near distance were a small house and a field. Merlin saw rich, juicy tomatoes growing even from afar. Their color popped out against all the green.
Someone was toiling in the fields.
Merlin walked towards the farmer until he recognized the familiar head of golden hair. It was Arthur. Merlin felt him all around, in every blade of grass and gust of wind, in every shade of blue that painted the sky. This was no longer his dream.
This was Arthur's dream . . .
Arthur picked a ripened tomato off its stock and brushed away the loose dirt that covered its surface. He smiled down at it, fancying he could see his reflection in the red shine, before placing it in the basket with the others.
It was a shame that he'd have to sell most of the harvest. There was something special about the fruit he'd produced that season.
Merlin would have been proud.
Merlin . . .
It had been so long since Arthur had seen Merlin's face, had spoken his name aloud. Where had Merlin gone?
There was a rustle behind him, knocking Arthur out of his thoughts. When he spun around, however, his breath caught at the man before him.
"Merlin?" he asked, wondering if his eyes were deceiving him. Merlin was smiling at him in a sad sort of way, and Arthur didn't know why.
A whooping laugh escaped him. He quickly placed the basket on the soil and took a few steps closer to Merlin, suddenly fearing to reach out for him in case he faded away.
"You left," Arthur realized. There was a reason Merlin had left, but Arthur couldn't remember it. "Why did you leave?"
"I had to," Merlin said thickly. He looked just as shocked that he was there as Arthur was. "I didn't have a choice."
"Don't be stupid," Arthur told him, and Merlin's face erupted into laughter. He laughed shakily, but genuinely. It was infectious.
Arthur decided to test his luck. He clasped his hands to either of Merlin's shoulders. He felt solid and warm, and his collarbone protruded just as Arthur remembered. Arthur slid his palms up Merlin's neck, and up further to hold his jaw. Merlin seemed to relish the contact. He closed his eyes into it and held his breath, as though breathing would deter Arthur's touch.
"You're staying," Arthur emphasized, gently tightening his grip on Merlin.
Arthur drew in a steadying breath. He had to say them—the three words that he'd told Merlin so few times before, even though he meant them with all his heart. He knew they'd make Merlin stay, and he hoped Merlin felt the same, still.
Before Arthur could say them, Merlin blinked his eyes open, revealing golden irises, where the deep, dark blue was supposed to be.
Arthur withdrew his hands sharply and backpedalled in shock, but the gold remained. Suddenly, he remembered why Merlin left.
"You're a sorcerer!"
"Arthur, wait," Merlin pleaded, holding out his hand but not daring to touch. "You have to listen. They're coming, Arthur. They're coming tonight!"
Arthur barely heard him. He looked frantically around the field, at the red tomatoes, at the rolling hills that surrounded them, at his hut. He couldn't remember what the interior of the house looked like.
This was wrong. All of it was so wrong.
At once, he knew he didn't belong there. This was not his home. This was not Camelot.
"Arthur, this is a dream," Merlin told him urgently. "Wake up. Camelot's in danger."
The greenery around them fell away, and the citadel's courtyard took its place. Arthur was in his armor, standing on the balcony. Merlin was below, in the center of a jeering crowd, roped to a stake with flames licking around him, but he did not scream in agony.
"Arthur, wake up!" he shouted instead, his voice sounding above the mob. "Arthur!"
Arthur panicked as the fire grew higher, until the heat waves caused Merlin's features to blur and distort.
He'd never see that face again if the fire consumed it.
"Merlin!" he called, but the crowd drowned him out. "Cut him loose! Let him go!"
He didn't sound as commanding as he would have liked. He sounded afraid.
No one moved towards Merlin. The guards stayed silent as the crowd grew louder. Arthur wanted to jump off the balcony and run towards the fire. He didn't care if he burned, too. He had to try.
But the flames rose too high, and he could no longer see Merlin.
He could still hear him.
"Arthur! Wake up!"
He heard Gwen's voice, too.
"Arthur. Arthur, wake up. Arthur!"
Arthur took in a sharp breath as he woke up into the shadows. He blinked at the canopy above his bed, his eyes adjusting to the lowlight.
Gwen was laying next to him, her hand on his chest, and staring at him with concern. He returned her gaze with muddled confusion.
"You were dreaming," she explained softly, rubbing soothing circles into his chest.
That only confused him more. "Was I?"
Before she could answer, a distant ringing filled the room. It was the warning bell.
There was a quick pounding at the door, but the knocker didn't wait for Arthur to call him in. The door flung open and Leon, dressed fully in maille, strode in swiftly with George at his heels.
"Sire, announcing Sir Leon—," George tried, but Leon cut him off urgently.
"Sire, we're under attack."
Arthur shot out of bed and hustled around the mattress to meet Leon. Gwen got up, too. She quickly pulled on her dressing grown as Leon made his report.
"A battalion has gotten into the lower town. The rest of their army has surrounded our walls." He hesitated, his eyes flashing to Gwen quickly, before he continued, "The forces carry Odin's banner."
Arthur was staggered. He didn't realize how large his eyes were when he looked over his shoulder to Gwen, who had clamped her jaw tightly and held her hand over her heart.
Her expression grounded him, and he turned back to Leon.
"Lead a rank into the lower town. Get as many citizens as you can into the citadel and then close it off," he ordered. "I want archers on every tower and swordsmen in the courtyard."
"Sire." Leon bowed his head briskly before leaving.
However, Arthur didn't move for a long moment. He couldn't. His thoughts spun, until they landed on Merlin. Merlin had been right.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked down at Gwen.
"Guinevere—," he started, but she shook her head to interrupt him.
"I'll be in the great hall helping Gaius with the wounded," she said. "Get your armor on, Arthur. Go."
She was right. He didn't have time to lament over his mistakes, or Merlin, or even Kay's betrayal. He had to prepare for battle, and for that he'd need his chainmail and sword.
Arthur pushed his way towards the edge of the parapet, where Gwaine was crouching over the stone wall with a bow and arrow trained downward. Packed around him were knights in similar positions. Arthur looked up at the towers, balconies, and windows, where more archers were stationed. He saw shining metal points ready to be fired from the arrow loops. In the bailey below, the civilians had been taken to safe locations and soldiers were standing in rows in case the citadel's outer defenses fell.
Finally, he looked downward at the park that stretched between the castle and the forest. An ocean of men in deep maroon armor spread before them in wait. They would have blended into the darkness had it not been for the hundreds of lit torches among them, the bright orange contrasting the sky above. Arthur heard the steady, thumping drumbeat. It resounded through him. He saw Odin's banner, a wolf's head, rippling in the breeze. Their own archers had arrows fixed towards the battlements, awaiting orders.
"Leon's still in the lower town battling the advanced guard," Gwaine reported without looking at Arthur. He still had his arm tensed and one eye shut for visual accuracy. "They sent a contingent to the south gate. Percival and Elyan took a few men to meet them."
Arthur scanned the army before them. He could practically see each and every soldier itching to loose his arrow. He took in a deep breath, inhaling the night. There was so much calm, so much silence. He could hear the blood in his ears, flowing in rhythm with the drums.
"They're trying to divide our forces," he said.
"I'd say they're succeeding." Gwaine's smirk was forced.
The drumbeat quickened, rising into a crescendo. It stopped all at once, like a life snuffed out.
Gwaine rolled his shoulders, readying himself. Arthur held up his hand to signal his men.
"Hold!" he called, watching the army beneath him carefully. There must have been thousands of men.
There was a faint shout that carried in the wind—strong and authoritative. In near-unison, Odin's men raised their bows higher.
"Hold!" Arthur called again. He listened. He waited.
"Loose!" he heard.
"Loose!" he shouted not a moment later.
He heard a whoosh as the men around him fired their arrows. They arced in the air until they rained down. On their descent, they flew passed the glinting metal of the opposing arrows. All around Arthur, shields went up. Arthur was jerked downward as those around him worked together to protect him from the onslaught instead of themselves.
Arthur heard thumping and wood cracking as the arrows pierced the shields. There were shouts, too, telling him not all of his men were shielded. He imagined men falling from the battlements.
Above him, one of the soldiers who had covered him sputtered. An arrow had gone through his neck, causing spurts of blood that he clawed at until he fell to Arthur's feet.
Arthur didn't realize how wide his eyes were and how heavily he was breathing until the shields fell away and the knights readied more arrows. All Arthur could think about was Kay. He was the one who'd taught Arthur how to properly loose an arrow. He was always so much older, so much stronger, so much better at everything.
Arthur straightened out, trying to push Kay from his mind. He heard the opposing commander shouting again. He had to act now.
"Fire at will!"
Merlin watched from the shadows of the citadel's outer wall as the arrows cascaded through the sky. He heard the shouts and the screams of war, just as he had from the moment he woke up. They echoed through his head, leading him through the trees and towards Camelot.
Because Arthur might need him.
He had to get inside the castle. Staying close to the wall, he headed for the back way through the tombs. From a distance, he saw a small number of silhouettes already near the grating. The detachment consisted of three soldiers and two horses, reined by ropes whose opposite ends were tied to the grate. The horses moved forward, but the bars didn't budge.
Merlin pressed his back closer against the wall and inched forward.
"It's no use," said the largest of the three. He had a bald head and a big, bushy beard that came to a point midway down his chest. "Make 'em go faster."
The soldier closest to the horses, with a scar gleaming across his face, tightened his grip on the whip in his hands and snapped it at the horses. The crack echoed and the horses whinnied before doubling their efforts. The grating creaked.
"Alright," said the large man. He shifted through his satchel and pulled out three rags and three small vials. Merlin squinted his eyes, trying to identify the liquid within. It was impossible even to see the color. The soldier handed the items to his comrades. "Just one sniff of the stuff should do. It'll knock him right out."
"Yeah, so'll this," said the scarred man, unsheathing his sword.
"I said, one sniff. Any more and it could kill 'im. Put that thing away, would ya? Odin wants the king alive."
Merlin's heart jumped into his throat at the words. The battle was just a distraction to get to Arthur. Merlin would have to get there first.
Bracing himself, he stepped away from the wall and into the moonlight. He shook out his hands loosely at his sides as he paced forward, willing his magic to fizzle in his fingers.
His eyes glowed and the two ropes holding the horses snapped simultaneously. It spooked the animals, which whinnied again before galloping off.
"What in hell?" the large man said, and all three noticed Merlin's presence. Merlin stopped walking a few feet from them.
"Who the hell are you?" the third man said, pulling out his sword.
Merlin's eyes shined again. He tilted his head up and the blade was ripped from the soldier's grip.
"He's a sorcerer!" the scarred man shouted as he and the other man drew their weapons.
Merlin pushed his palms out in front of him, and all three men scattered through the air like fallen leaves in the wind. He heard a crack as the third soldier hit the outer wall before slumping to the grass. He didn't check whether any of them were left breathing before walking towards the gate.
"Tospringe," he demanded with splayed fingers, and the grate was blown inward in a shower of sparks.
He hopped through the entrance and ran through the dark crypts, into the empty dungeons and up the white stone stairs into the main corridor. He had to hide behind a pillar as two Camelot soldiers rushed by before making his way to the throne room. He forewent the main doors and instead headed towards the back entrance.
He opened the door just enough for him to see through. The great hall was filled to the brim with wounded soldiers and townspeople. Makeshift nurses wrapped the victims in bandages and wept for those they could not save.
Amongst them, Merlin saw Gwen. She was running from blanket to blanket, filling water basins and providing tonics.
"We need more bandages, Gaius!" she shouted over the chaos from her current place, kneeling next to a knight with a damaged leg. She was squeezing his hand for comfort.
"Coming right away," Merlin heard Gaius' voice call back. He scanned the room, looking for the source, until he found Gaius by the Round Table. He was stitching up an arm wound, and he paused briefly to shove a pile of fresh bandages off on a handmaiden to deliver to Gwen.
Merlin couldn't find it in himself to smile, but it was nice to hear Gaius' voice again. It gave him a warm feeling that maybe things would be all right.
Once Gaius was done patching up the soldier, he scurried through the hall, headed in Merlin's direction. He watched every patient like a hawk, ready to jump in at any moment. Merlin knew Gaius was busy, but he couldn't linger.
"Gaius," he hissed when the physician was close enough. There was no response at first. "Gaius!"
Gaius looked up and around, appearing as though he'd just seen a ghost—or heard one.
Momentarily, he located Merlin, and his mouth dropped open. Merlin waved him over quickly, trying to relay his urgency in his eyes.
Gaius looked around to make sure no one was watching before shuffling to Merlin with as much swiftness as he dared. When Gaius swept through the threshold and into the corridor, Merlin shut the door for privacy.
He barely had the chance to turn around before Gaius flung his arms around him into a tight embrace. Merlin mimicked the position, and for a moment he didn't want to let go. He let out a breath he realized he'd been holding in for weeks.
Quickly, Gaius broke the hug and shot Merlin angry eyes.
"What are you doing here?" he scolded. "If you're seen—!"
"I know," Merlin hastened to say. "But I had to come. These are Odin's men, aren't they?"
Gaius pressed his lips together, and his soft eyes gave Merlin his answer.
"They want Arthur," Merlin said.
"I have to find him!"
Gaius stammered, appearing to think. "I believe he's on the parapet—"
Merlin didn't wait any longer. He turned to run in the direction of the battlements.
"But, Merlin!" Gaius called. Merlin reluctantly gave his attention.
"You'll be killed before you reach him."
There was something deeper than worry on Gaius' face. It was deeper than fear. He wore the silent lines that creased his brow whenever Merlin was about to do something extremely stupid, but equally necessary. It might have been the look Gaius would have given his own children, had he any. It might have been love. Or perhaps Gaius sometimes wished Merlin held as much regard for his own life as he did for Arthur's, or as much as Gaius held for it.
"I don't have a choice," Merlin said, though he hated to see Gaius like this.
Gaius folded his hands in front of him and nodded, resigned to Merlin's determination. "Go."
So, Merlin did. He headed for the watchtower.
The top of a wooden ladder hit hard against the stone parapet, splintering only fractionally. It was one of many, with men clamoring upwards all the time. Some of them managed to get through the battlements and engage in combat, but archers shot down most of them before they reached the middle rungs.
One soldier found his way to the top near Arthur, but the moment his hands gripped the wall's lip, Arthur landed a blow to his jaw. The soldier fell backwards off the ladder and flailed as he fell towards the swarm below. More soldiers were crawling up it like spiders, so Arthur pushed the last rung out, and the ladder tipped backwards until it hit the ground.
The lower town in the near distance caught Arthur's eyes. Fires had broken out in various locations. He could see them growing larger and spreading with speed.
Over battle cries, he heard the persistent hammering of the battering ram against the citadel's gates. The wood shook upon every impact, and the soldiers in the courtyard were working on reinforcing the door with barricades or their own weight. From vantage points above, more archers were raining down upon the rammers, but replacements for the fallen came in droves. It was only a matter of time.
Arthur was being jostled on every side in the cramped space. Knights in a skirmish fell into him, men running towards the aid of another pushed him out of the way with total disregard for who he was. Each time he drew his sword to an attacker, he had to be careful where to land the blow, or else he'd wound one of his own men.
Nearby, Gwaine was battling with one of the soldiers who had managed to make it onto the parapet. Their swords were locked, and Gwaine had to lean backwards to impossible lows as the enemy blade pressed down onto his. Arthur saw his knees shaking under the pressure.
He leapt towards the enemy's back and slid his sword into his spine. The soldier yelped and tensed before falling, and Arthur reached over the body to offer Gwaine a hand.
"I had the fucker!" Gwaine defended.
Arthur chuckled despite himself and took the opportune lull to wipe the sweat off his brow.
Something flickered in his peripheral vision. It was a glow from down below, scattered but intense. It was like a thousand torches had just been lit. A lump formed in his throat as he turned fully towards the sight, and he saw they weren't torches at all.
Arthur ran towards the edge of the parapet and clasped the stone as he got a better look. Gwaine was right at his side.
Flaming arrows were being drawn.
Arthur could not hear the commander's orders over the chaos.
"Shield yourselves!" he shouted at the top of his voice, though it strained him to do so. His voice was getting hoarse and raw from yelling.
He saw the lights casted into the sky just before Gwaine unceremoniously pulled him to his knees and behind his shield.
Some arrows clattered on the stones while others splintered shields. Others still aimed true, many of them passing over the battlements and landing the courtyard below. Red capes went up in smoke and carts filled with hay illuminated the night.
The enemy took the opportunity to send up more ladders. Though, they were the least of Arthur's concerns. There was a sudden, deafening crack of broken wood. The battering ram had gotten through, and maroon armored soldiers flooded into the gates of the courtyard.
Arthur looked down at the fray, watching his men slam themselves into the enemy in attempt to block them like a wall. Maroon cloaks tried to mix with red, but they were held back like oil on water.
"Aim for the courtyard!" Arthur called to the archers in the towers, who turned their aim in the direction he'd ordered. "Protect the keep!"
He had to get down to the bailey. Gwaine could command those on the parapet. Right now, the fight in the courtyard took priority. Arthur spun around to call for Gwaine, just in time to see more flaming arrows paint the sky.
"Gwaine!" Arthur shouted to alert him of the onslaught. Gwaine followed his line of vision, but he'd somehow lost his shield. The only thing either of them could do was look on helplessly as the flames arced towards them.
But then the arrows changed direction. They flew higher up into the sky and converged on each other. They formed a massive fireball, like a sun suspended amongst the clouds. Arthur found he couldn't breathe at the sight of it. The only thing keeping him standing was his adrenaline. All around him, brother and foe alike were distracted by the display.
The mass of fire flew downwards, back to the field from whence it came, and Odin's army scattered to avoid its impact. They looked like ants under a microscope, and many of them could not escape the effects. Trees went up like matchsticks. The grass turned into a river of fire, so hot that Arthur could feel the heat on his cheeks from where he was standing, so devastating that he was sure nothing green would ever grow there again.
Then, as quickly as it came, it smoldered away, leaving ash and corpses as the survivors fled.
"What the hell was that?" Gwaine muttered towards the aftermath.
Arthur found his voice. He used it to say, with absolute certainty, more shakily than he would have liked, "Magic."
Gwaine let out a turbulent breath and caught Arthur's eyes. "Merlin."
Arthur's tensed his jaw.
He didn't have time! He couldn't let his mind stray to Merlin, to hope that he was somehow, impossibly, in Camelot. He couldn't entertain the thought of seeing Merlin again. He had a battle to win, or else the city would be lost.
"Stay in command here," Arthur told him hastily. "I'm going to the courtyard. Send reinforcements when they're needed."
Gwaine nodded before they parted ways. He returned to the fighting while Arthur worked on battling his way towards the nearest tower, whose spiral stairwell led down to the castle's main corridor.
Merlin stood atop the deserted watchtower, his fingers gripping the ledges as he squinted towards the parapet across the courtyard. The clashing of metal hummed from that height, and the struggling men were outlines against the bright fires that climbed towards the sky in the background.
He cast his eyes down into the courtyard, where Odin's men were pushing ever closer towards the keep. Arthur was somewhere in the fray, whether on the walls or below. Merlin had to find him.
Making his irises burn bright, his vision leapt down into the courtyard. He zoomed by each face, clocking them all, but there was no sign of Arthur. He turned his eyes to the parapet, where he finally found Arthur headed towards a drum tower.
Merlin reeled himself back in, and the soldiers were again faceless and distant.
He about faced and rushed down the steps of the turret, taking two or three steps at a time. In his haste, he landed awkwardly and bent his ankle with force, causing a hot pain to shoot up his leg. It didn't stop him. The muscle seethed as he powered through the moonlit corridors and down more stairs until he finally reached the tower Arthur was making for; he only hoped he'd gotten there in time to cut him off.
As he turned up the spiral stairs, his footsteps echoed and mixed with his panting breaths on the dark walls. He wasn't sure if he heard another set of footsteps, however, and he couldn't tell if they were in front or behind him.
About midway up, he ran in to someone running in the opposite way, and both of them stumbled backward upon the impact. Merlin's palm scrambled across the wall, feeling blindly for something to latch on to so he wouldn't lose his footing and fall down the steps. The man he'd bumped into obviously recovered more quickly. He grabbed Merlin's shirt collar and jerked him to his feet.
It wasn't until the world was upright again did Merlin's eyes adjust to the dark and he realized who he was face to face with.
"Merlin?" Arthur shouted, equally shocked.
Merlin gave a relieved breath. He wasn't too late.
"Get out of the way," Arthur demanded hurriedly. He pushed Merlin against the wall to pass him.
Merlin gripped Arthur's bicep and spun him back around.
"You can't," he warned urgently.
Arthur shook him off. "What on earth are you—?"
"The battle is a distraction!" Merlin shouted over him. "Odin's men are looking for you, Arthur. They want to take you back with them. If you go into the courtyard, you'll be found for sure."
Arthur stammered for a moment. His wide eyes looked from Merlin to the winding stairwell below. His expression hardened.
"I have to help my men," he said, sounding almost apologetic, and of course Arthur would choose Camelot's safety over his own. Of course Arthur would think one man would make a difference, and that he alone could win the battle.
And perhaps he was right. He was Arthur, after all. But Merlin couldn't take that chance.
"Get out of here, Merlin," Arthur interrupted, his frustration rising, "before someone else spots you."
Merlin grabbed for him again, and Arthur used both palms to push Merlin to the next step.
He didn't wait for Merlin to answer before disappearing into the dark.
"Arthur!" Merlin called from the bottom of his throat, his voice reverberating in the small space. He launched himself in Arthur's wake.
Soon, he reached the bottom of the stairs and rushed into the hall, just in time to see Arthur slouch back into a man clasping a cloth to his face.
Merlin couldn't stop himself from shouting it. He called the name like it was on fire.
The soldier supporting Arthur's unconscious form looked around, and Merlin recognized him as the large bearded man from outside Camelot's walls.
Merlin ground his teeth together, feeling his magic bubble up. His eyes had barely turned color when he felt something dull strike back of his head. It was like the pain he felt in his ankle, only it made all the muffled sounds around him fall into white noise.
The floor was suddenly rushing towards him very quickly, and the moon must have been blown out like a candle, because everything went dark.
Before Merlin even opened his eyes, he felt a pounding headache. Every pulse felt like a spike was drilling through his temple, and the pain trickled down into his neck and shoulders. There was a distant creaking of something rickety and metal, and his world rocked back and forth dizzyingly. He was lying facedown on something cold and hard. None of it helped his head.
And then, through the blaring pain, he remembered what happened. Arthur was in danger. Arthur had been taken. He was probably miles away by now. Suddenly, his headache subsided, and Merlin tore his eyes open and shot up to his knees.
He was in a cage again. He was looking out of rusted metal bars as the sea of trees floated passed. The sunlight scattered through the bare branches. There were also horsemen riding along the cart on all sides. There were at least a dozen of them, and they were Odin's men.
But what did they want with Merlin? Odin wouldn't have spared so many men to transport Merlin.
He heard something shuffle close by and looked over his shoulder. Arthur was sitting with his back to the bars and his arms resting on his propped up knees. He stared back at Merlin with something close to annoyance.
Suddenly, Merlin's circumstances were less confusing, and it allowed him to stop panicking. Arthur was relatively safe, for now. He was still a prisoner, but an unharmed one.
As for Merlin, he shouldn't have even been there. Odin's men should have left him in Camelot, or killed him.
"I'm alive," he said, looking at his hands in disbelief.
"Yes," Arthur droned. "It seems you've been escaping death left and right."
Now that he was sure Arthur was safe, he had little to focus on, and the headache ebbed dully back into the forefront of his mind. He winced when he touched the bump on the back of his head and felt dried blood. Huffing, he turned around to sit himself against the bars opposite Arthur. The cage was small, hardly tall enough for Merlin to stand up in, and just wide enough for Arthur to put a foot of space between them.
"At least, you have for now," Arthur went on, and Merlin wasn't sure if that had been a warning or a threat. Arthur refused to look him in the eyes. He stared down at his hands instead.
"For now?" Merlin asked.
"They know what you are," said Arthur with a touch of distaste in his mouth. Merlin chose to ignore the tone and looked over his shoulder at the rider closest to him. It was soldier with the scar.
Odin wouldn't be very happy when he found out Camelot had a sorcerer in court. He wouldn't believe that Arthur had no knowledge of it.
"And I'm to be taken before Odin to be tried—and, most likely, found guilty—of raiding one of his villages and killing two of his noblemen."
"But you didn't do any of that," Merlin said. It was less helpful than he would have liked.
"No, you did that last bit," Arthur reminded him scornfully. "But Odin will think I gave the orders." He looked off and shook his head. "He's been looking for a reason to see me dead for a long time."
"You're not going to die," Merlin said surely, and for the first time Arthur's glance flickered to his. Encouraged by that, Merlin went on, "You have allies that will never stand for this. Odin's kidnapped a king. You're not supposed to do that."
"I don't think he cares what he's supposed to do," Arthur said with a roll of his eyes. "He'll have my head mounted on a spike before news of this reaches any of my allies."
"Then, it's a good thing you have me," Merlin tried with pushed lightheartedness. He forced a weak smile to his face, and Arthur didn't buy it, nor did he smile back.
"I'd rather they just kill me now and get it over with," Arthur said pointedly. "The worst thing they could do is lock me up with you."
It was meant to wound, but Merlin wouldn't let it. Arthur was putting up a front, like he always had.
"Get out of here, Merlin, before someone else spots you," Arthur had said. Merlin clung to that like a drowning man clung to a rope.
He shrugged and pouted his lips in mock-thought. "Oh, I don't think so. You could be locked up with a rabid dog." He flashed another smile, which again did not crack Arthur's stony expression. Arthur looked away again.
Merlin let out a heavy sigh at his failed attempt, but decided not to give up. "Arthur," he said more seriously, leaning forward and reaching out a hand. Arthur immediately swatted it away like it was diseased.
"Don't touch me!" he demanded, sneering in a way that Merlin hadn't seen him do since the year they met. "Or you'll lose your hand."
Merlin sat back again and held his palms up in surrender.
He dropped his voice to a whisper and implored, "Arthur, we need to work together. We can escape. I can blow the lock open when the time is right."
Arthur did not look back at him. "I'd rather take my chances with Odin."
Merlin felt the pain in his head shook to his chest.
"You don't mean that," he decided. "You know you can trust me. I'm still the same. It doesn't change anything."
"It changes everything," Arthur countered tonelessly.
"How can you say that after everything that's just happened?"
"You're not going to say 'I told you so,' are you?"
Merlin grinned, happy he at least got a response. "Me? I'm never one to gloat."
Arthur closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, finally giving away that he, too, had a migraine. "I can't trust you," he maintained. "How am I to know this isn't another ruse and you're working with Odin?"
"Then how did they know you're a—"
Arthur clamped his jaw to stop himself. His eyes were guarded, but Merlin knew him better than that. The word was too hard to say for Arthur. Sorcerer no long had anything to do with magic. It meant betrayal. It meant heartbreak.
Merlin nudged a little closer, careful to keep a void between himself and Arthur.
"Arthur," he said pointedly, but Arthur had rolled his head against the bars to look away again. "I'm with you."
Arthur gave no sign that he had heard.
The hours passed by with little variation, save for Merlin increasingly becoming more stir crazy by the minute. His headache retreated into the recesses of his mind, and his body reminded him of the pain in his ankle each time he moved it the wrong way.
But the physical pain was nothing compared to the silence. Odin's men didn't speak to them at all. In fact, they hardly spoke with one another except when they halted to look at a map. The quiet made Merlin hyperaware of birdcalls and deer in the brush. His ears latched on to the squeaking of the cage's wheels and the steady thumping of hooves.
Arthur hadn't spoken, either. He remained in the same position, staring straight at the scenery that went by without really seeing any of it. His expression remained unchanging and vacant, but rarely his eyes would flicker to Merlin. Whenever Merlin felt them, he would look back expectantly, and Arthur would snap his gaze away like he hadn't been looking at all.
Merlin wondered what he was thinking when he looked like that. Did Merlin occupy all of Arthur's thoughts, or was he planning an escape, too? Merlin was. More than once, he pictured himself taking out all of Odin's men with a single word. He'd knock them from their horses and against tree trunks. He'd make branches snap off their limbs and fall on them. He'd command the forest's wildlife to attack.
He'd come up with so many ways to escape, and every time he'd built up enough willpower to execute a plan, Arthur would look at him out of the corners of his eyes again. It made Merlin lose his nerve.
"Have you ever used magic on me?" Arthur asked quite suddenly.
Merlin looked up, wondering if he had imagined the question. In a way, he'd expected it, but he hoped Arthur would never ask. It made Merlin avert his eyes again.
"Yes," he admitted, knowing it was best not to lie. He peered through his eyelashes to gauge Arthur's reaction. His brows had darted up to his hairline. Quickly, Merlin added, "But only to—"
"Protect me?" Arthur guessed sardonically, and the excuse was starting to sound played out even to Merlin's ears.
"Yes," he said regardless.
Arthur bit at the inside of his mouth, studying Merlin carefully, and making Merlin a little uncomfortable. It was as though Arthur was trying to read his mind.
"Like when?" he asked tentatively after a moment.
"Once, when Morgana took Camelot," Merlin answered with the first thing that came to his mind. He tried not to smirk at the memory. "I knew you wouldn't leave without a push, so I—"
All of a sudden, while saying it out loud to Arthur of all people, the memory wasn't so funny anymore.
"I made you a simpleton," Merlin muttered meekly.
"You—," Arthur stammered. "Is that why—?"
Arthur sighed, seeming to accept it.
"You shouldn't have done that. Staying or leaving was my decision," he scolded, but he sounded less cross than Merlin expected. Apparently, Arthur had anticipated something worse. "But—is there anything . . . else?"
Merlin furrowed his brows, not fully understanding what Arthur wanted him to say. Arthur was looking at him like he was about to be sick, pale with eyes hooded in intensity. It made Merlin queasy, too.
"Um . . . Just spells—healing incantations, counter-spells, I suppose."
Merlin narrowed his eyes. He felt a pit in his stomach, having a creeping feeling that he knew what Arthur was really getting at. It slithered into the back of his mind like a snake and chilled goose bumps onto his skin. "Arthur," he said cautiously, "what are you asking?"
"Nothing," Arthur snipped, but he didn't sound very convincing. He looked anywhere but at Merlin. "I was just wondering if you could . . ." He twirled his wrist vaguely, like he was fishing for the right words. "Alter emotions or thoughts or . . ." He gave up his careful search for words and forced himself to look at Merlin directly. He looked nervous. He looked scared.
Merlin, on the other hand, wasn't sure what expression he was making. He was certain he looked shocked that Arthur would imply something like that but, in truth, his face had gone blank. He blinked more slowly than normal, like his internal clock had slowed down. He could have sworn the trees passing them trailed away in slow motion and a single crow of the ravens in the trees stretched on for minutes.
He felt like it had been hours since Arthur had spoken, but Arthur was still looking at him with those same eyes, unrelenting and sparkling with petrifaction. One wheel of the cart hit a ditch along the trail, and the sudden thump pulled time back into its normal course.
"No," Merlin said earnestly when he remembered how. "How could you—? That was real, Arthur." Now, he was starting to get nervous. "Wasn't it?"
"You tell me," Arthur said sternly.
Somehow, talk of killing Kay was easier than this. This meant Arthur didn't just regard Merlin as a murderer or sorcerer, but as a trickster—an insidious, patient, manipulative evil. Merlin had to nip that doubt while it was still a bud. He couldn't have Arthur turn against him forever.
"I would never," he answered firmly, needing Arthur to understand it.
Arthur kept their eyes locked for longer than needed, trying to find a hint of deceit in Merlin's gaze. Apparently, he found none, because he nodded, but the unsure expression remained. He looked too worried to be speaking strictly of the past.
Merlin steadied himself, daring to whisper, "Do you still—?"
He changed his mind. Arthur's jaw was too tight, his eyes too blue against the bloodshot white. Merlin couldn't drudge up such things. He sat back against the bars again and focused on the rocking of the crate.
Arthur nodded in agreement, looking as though he were trying to convince himself of it. "You're right. It's nothing," he repeated heavily.
Galloping hooves echoed through the forest. Arthur heard them draw closer. He looked in back of the cage that still rolled along the dirt path and saw a rider racing for them. His maroon cloak billowed out behind him as he leaned in to the horse's mane for quicker velocity.
Arthur sat up straighter, watching the rider approach. He was aware of Merlin furrowing his brows in curiosity before following Arthur's line of vision. Merlin, too, reacted by sitting up.
Their captors must have noticed the rider, because the soldier at the head of the group, a beast of a man with a bald head and a long pointed beard, held up his hand and halted his horse with a "whoa" to allow the newcomer to catch up.
When he did, he lifted his face up and slowed to a trot.
"Sir Rowan," the rider called to the man in front, making sure to keep his distance for the time. He slipped his hand slowly into his cloak and pulled out a rolled up piece of parchment. "A letter from Sir Joseph."
That name sounded familiar. Arthur was certain he'd heard it in passing. He felt Merlin's eyes on him, hot and boring, but he did not return the gaze. He kept himself fixed on the rider.
"Well, bring it here, then!" Rowan barked.
The messenger dismounted and started towards the group. His eyes flickered to the cage as he passed it, walking too tall and proud in Arthur's presence. When he reached Rowan, he handed the parchment up like it was the most important document ever written.
Rowan unrolled it with less care than the messenger awarded it. He seemed eager. His eyes scanned the page like a dog salivating over raw meat. He laughed.
"What's so funny?" the scarred knight demanded.
Rowan did not answer him. He rolled up the parchment again and trotted towards the cage until he was side-by-side with Arthur.
"Camelot's under our full control," he said in a way that suggested he wasn't speaking to Arthur at all, even though he was glaring at him directly. Arthur scowled at him, at the words. He felt the muscles of his face twitch as he ground his teeth.
"We occupy the city now, along with all its lands," Rowan went on with a twisted smirk. "Says here, I'm to deliver the message to Odin, tell him the good news. His kingdom's just expanded." He leaned in to make his face as level with Arthur's as he could from his height. "I expect Odin'll want to make them easier to control. Burnin' down some villages'll do. Less people to worry about."
Arthur thought his teeth might shatter with how tightly his jaw was locked. He hands curled into white knuckles, itching to give Rowan a black eye that he'd wear all the way to hell. His thoughts raged and his blood turned hot.
And then Arthur was aware of Merlin. He was kneeling right at Arthur's back, Arthur's only ally for miles. They weren't actually touching, but Arthur felt him nonetheless. The reminder of Merlin's presence calmed him somehow, albeit subconsciously. It offered clarity. His heartbeat became steady. He could feel it pumping in his chest. It was reminiscent of the noise carried across the wind during the battle. It was a drumbeat.
"What's a king without any lands?" Rowan asked, speaking now to Arthur. He shook his head. "No king at all."
He straightened out and cantered back to the messenger.
"You can tell Sir Joseph, read and understood."
The messenger nodded tersely. This time, when he passed the cage, he kept his eyes to the ground. He reached his horse quickly, mounted it, and rode back in the direction of Camelot.
"Alright, men," Rowan roared, a certain litany now lining his harsh voice. He was celebrating victory too soon. Arthur would not allow their triumph as long as his drumbeat sounded. "On we get!"
The cage lurched forward again, and Arthur remained kneeling and staring out of the bars as though Rowan were still glaring down at him with his smug, self-satisfied face. He studied the lines of Rowan's back as it swayed on moving horseback. Merlin remained close, too. He wouldn't move until Arthur did.
"Merlin," Arthur said at last, not bothering to keep his rough tone quiet. "We kill him first."
Despite himself, Rowan's shoulders tightened.
The sun had disappeared nearly an hour previous, and the company made camp amongst the trees. A few feet from the cage, the soldiers got a campfire going. Its light flickered against their faces and made their silhouettes stretch up the tree trunks, tall as monsters.
Merlin usually loved firelight—the way it danced and moved, never staying in one place and leaving just enough shadow to blanket himself in, so that the light lurked and the darkness held dominance. It cast the world into an amber glow. Its heat provided warmth and life, but taking it for granted meant destruction. It was a wild thing, a beautiful thing, fueled and contained by a much less powerful casing of papery leaves and blackened wood.
It was the world's most obvious display of magic, and it was everything Merlin felt inside himself. He felt akin to it.
However, he didn't like it so much since Arthur deemed it would be an appropriate death for him.
Merlin's stomach grumbled as the scent of cooking meat filled him up. He closed his eyes against the orange glow, hoping the darkness would stifle his hunger. It didn't.
"I'm starving," he voiced, tearing his eyes open again to look at Arthur, who didn't answer and barely acknowledged Merlin.
Merlin shifted onto his knees, ignoring the cramp in his legs from being cooped up for so long, and shuffled to Arthur's side of the cage to peer out at the men around the fire. They murmured and laughed amongst each other, but did not pay Merlin and Arthur any mind.
"What are you doing?" Arthur asked, agitated, as he shifted to put some space between them, as if being this close would be easier if they didn't touch.
"Aren't they going to feed us?" Merlin wondered, wrapping his fingers around the bars.
"Probably not," Arthur said. "They probably want to weaken us before we get to Odin."
"Stop thinking about your stomach," Arthur ordered. "Sit down."
Merlin cast one last wistful glance at the meat over the flames before doing as he was told.
"Well, will they at least let me pee?" he asked after a pause. Arthur rolled his eyes and huffed. "It's a fair question!" Merlin defended. "I have to pee."
"Thanks for sharing," Arthur grumbled.
"Don't act like you don't have any bodily functions, because I know you do."
"Merlin," Arthur laughed.
Merlin's eyes shot towards him. He hadn't expected to be called in such a familiar way, or see Arthur smile, but it was nice. Apparently, Arthur hadn't expected it either. His expression faded when he realized what he was doing. Merlin bit back a grin of his own, wondering if Arthur was softening to his presence, and not wanting Arthur to shy away from it.
He listened to the soldier's conversation instead, but their words never formed meaning in his mind.
"Did anyone ever know about your magic?" Arthur asked softly after a pause.
Merlin bit his lip in thought. He didn't want to lie to Arthur anymore, but he couldn't tell him about Gaius. He wouldn't risk putting his friend into exile. However, there was one person, and there was no way he could be punished. Death offered that safe assurance.
"Lancelot," Merlin said, watching Arthur's muscles tense slightly. It had been a while since anyone in Camelot spoke that name, which Merlin considered a shame. Lancelot should have been honored and remembered. Young knights and squires should have revered his memory; they should have been taught of his deeds. He did not deserve to fade into obscurity. He was not to blame for what happened.
"I didn't tell him," Merlin assured, remembering that day. "He sort of just worked it out."
Arthur nodded, accepting it. "And Morgana? Did you ever tell her?"
Merlin regarded his boots with a hollow chuckle. "No, she has no idea." Perhaps Merlin should have told her. Perhaps things would have turned out differently if he had. All she needed was someone to understand her in a vulnerable, lonely time. Merlin knew the feeling, and he was lucky to have Gaius. Morgana wasn't so fortunate. Merlin should have taught her how to use her powers, not her sister.
But there was no use dwelling on what should have been.
Merlin scrunched his face against the guilt that had festered at the bottom of his heart on the matter, and scratched at the back of his neck where an insect had left a mark.
"She'd have my head if she knew," he told Arthur.
Arthur quirked his brows and tilted his head to show he agreed, but he didn't look too concerned. "I could have protected you from her."
"Oh, really?" Merlin said mockingly, but without scorn. "Because you tried to have me put to death."
"Under different circumstances, perhaps," Arthur amended.
"You can't blame me for being suspicious," Arthur defended, but there wasn't any hostility in his voice. It felt like he wanted to explain himself, so Merlin leaned in a little closer, folding his legs together and propping his temple on his fist, to show he was listening.
"After all the encounters I've had with magic . . ." he continued. "Especially after Morgana, and she has more power than I've ever seen."
Merlin smirked a little playfully and looked at Arthur out of the corners of his eyes. "Not me."
Arthur looked like he was considering the answer, and Merlin could pinpoint the exact moment he'd understood its meaning. "You mean to say—?" he asked skeptically.
Merlin nodded against his fist.
Arthur didn't look very impressed. He looked surprised and a little bewildered. Merlin couldn't help but feel offended, and it must have shown, because Arthur added, "No, it's just . . . You choose to live your life as a servant?"
Merlin shrugged, wondering if there was anything else he ever could be.
"I don't know if I've ever chosen anything," he mused.
Arthur sniffed incredulously, apparently not having heard Merlin. "I suppose I'm lucky you haven't teamed up with Morgana, then. You could have been king by now."
"Nah, too busy helping you be king," Merlin said lightly, but Arthur must have heard the weight behind the words because he narrowed his eyes at Merlin, like he was trying to read a book written in another language while in the dark.
"Why me?" he wondered. "There were plenty of young princes to choose from, I'm sure; some more open to magic. What makes me so special?"
"You just are," Merlin said, realizing he didn't have an answer. He'd never really considered the question before. How could it have been anyone other than Arthur? There was only ever Arthur.
"You're Arthur. You're destined to unite the lands of Albion."
"Which is the real reason Odin wants me dead," Arthur interjected, apparently not buying it. Arthur never had the confidence he needed on the matters that meant something.
"But it's true," Merlin insisted. "You'll do it. I've seen it inside of you. You'll rule over the greatest kingdom the world has ever known. You'll bring magic back to the land—"
He'd said it before he could stop himself and Arthur looked scandalized.
"So you aren't doing this because of me," he said like he'd just figured it all out. "You do it for you."
"No," Merlin stressed, trying to corrected his mistake, because, in truth, thoughts of magic fell to the backburner lately. Somewhere along the way, Arthur had become more important than all of destiny's plans. Arthur became his reason. "I do it because of who you are, of who you'll become."
He wasn't sure if Arthur believed him. He looked like he was thinking, and the orange-tinted shadows pressed in closer, overcoming the blue of Arthur's irises.
"You've based your life on the whispers of prophets," he said like it was the most ridiculous thing in the world, and Merlin had to agree. It was ridiculous.
So, he laughed humorlessly. He dropped his head and shook it. All this time, and Arthur still didn't understand.
"What?" Arthur asked, annoyed. The feeling only grew when Merlin didn't answer right away. "What?" he asked again though his teeth.
Merlin looked up from his boots.
"I've based my life on you, you prat."
Arthur looked like something had struck him.
The bars behind Arthur clanged, making both of them start. They hadn't noticed the soldiers had gotten up from the fire. Rowan had banged on the cage with his sword, and he emitted a whooping laugh as he half-turned to look at his company. They joined in, too, and Merlin glared at them scathingly.
"Alright, my queen," Rowan said, humor still lining his tone. He flourished his wrist and bowed low. "Night-night time, I say. Need to take a royal piss?"
He bellowed with laughter again, and Arthur regarded him as though he wanted to wring his neck. However, he remained calm as Rowan fumbled with a few keys and opened the cage. Next, he pulled out two long pieces of rope.
"Both of you, on your knees—turn around," he ordered.
Merlin swept his eyes to Arthur, silently relaying that this was their chance. Arthur's gaze hardened, warning Merlin against trying anything, but there was something else in that look, too. Something was going on behind those eyes; Merlin could practically see the pieces spinning, the blue rippling like waves.
They both did as they were told, and Merlin watched out of the corners of his eyes as Rowan tied Arthur wrists tightly behind his back. Arthur kept his glance forward as Rowan moved to Merlin, jerking his arms closer together in a way that forced Merlin's chest out and made his shoulder blades constrict.
"Follow my lead," Arthur murmured without moving his lips. Merlin gave him a confused look, but Arthur did not elaborate. He was manhandled out of the cage.
Merlin was tugged out, too. He stumbled when his feet hit the uneven earth, causing his to fall back into the burly soldier's armor. Rowan grunted in agitation before shoving him forward into Arthur's chest. For a moment, Merlin thought Arthur would shoulder him away, too, and he hastened to straighten himself out. Arthur moved even closer to him until their shoulders were touching between their layers. The contact made Merlin feel like he was falling without anywhere to land.
"Come on, your majesty, I haven't got all night!" Rowan said, flapping his hands to gesture them away from the cage.
Arthur started forward into the trees, and Merlin kept in stride. Rowan stayed close behind as they left the trail and the dirt steeped into an incline. Merlin had to plant his feet sideways with every step so he wouldn't slip amongst the leaves.
"You know, it would be a lot easier to just to kill us now," Arthur said over his shoulder, projecting so Rowan could hear. "You'll be paid either way, I'm sure."
"You'd be wrong," Rowan said disinterestedly. Merlin craned his head to look at him, eying the fist resting on the hilt of his sheathed sword. "You're to be delivered alive. King's orders. He's been waitin' on your pretty head for quite a while now."
Arthur huffed as they got to the base of the incline. "You'd think he'd have his fill of revenge already."
Rowan snorted up some snot and spit it out to the side. "By killing some weak old man?"
"That man was the king of Camelot," Arthur rebutted, an edge in his tone now. He spun around to face Rowan, glaring into his eyes.
Merlin stopped walking, too. He readied himself for whatever with eyes ricocheting from Rowan to Arthur and back again. He remembered the campfire, bright and burning and dangerous if you stood too close. He felt the flames lick inside of him and settle in his fingertips. His bones became the coaling wood; his skin became the furling leaves.
"Notice I didn't respond with war when I succeeded him," Arthur finished pointedly. He kept Rowan's gaze. It was unwavering, but Merlin noticed him fidgeting behind his back. They were small movements, but they were certainly there.
"He was hoping you might," Rowan said, keeping Arthur's gaze in attempt to win dominance.
"I'm sure," said Arthur. "It's too much pressure for new kings to wage war and run a kingdom at once. But I had help." His eyes flickered to Merlin for a fraction of a moment. "My knights are the best in the land, and I would have been fighting with them—on the front lines, in fact, while Odin cowered in his throne room."
Rowan stood taller, affronted.
Arthur had stopped fidgeting now. He shrugged. "Where was your king last night?"
Rowan stepped in closer, closing into Arthur's personal space. "You calling the king a coward?" he snarled.
"Not at all," Arthur said politically. "I'm calling you an idiot for letting me turn my back."
He unfolded his free hands from behind him and clutched the sword at Rowan's side. In one swift motion, he reeled the blade out of its sheath and aimed it for the man's gut. Rowan gave out a strangled, startled shout as the steel penetrated him cleanly. Arthur twisted the sword for good measure, and Rowan crumpled to the ground when he drew it back.
Arthur dropped his shoulders in a breath and returned Merlin's wide eyes with his own.
"We have to move," he said shortly. He grabbed Merlin's shoulder and jerked him around to cut his bounds. "The others will have heard him."
Merlin rushed away from the direction in which they had come, and it took him a moment before realizing Arthur wasn't in his wake. He spun back around to find him ambling back up the incline.
"What are you doing?" Merlin hissed.
Arthur only spared him a glance. "I need my sword."
"What's wrong with the one you've got?"
"It isn't mine."
Merlin gaped at him, though he knew Arthur was right. He knew what power lay in that blade's steel. It was meant for Arthur and Arthur alone. Merlin followed after him.
By the time they'd scrambled up the incline, two of Rowan's companions, one of them the scarred soldier, were headed in their direction. They drew their swords upon catching sight of Merlin and Arthur out of their bounds.
"They're loose!" the scarred man shouted, alerting the rest of the company. Through the trees, Merlin saw streaks of maroon as the soldiers sprang into motion.
Meanwhile, the two men present charged forward, and Arthur stormed them, too. Merlin watched them duel carefully, his mind working at a mile a minute. He didn't miss a thing. His eyes scanned every movement—every step backward, every thrust, every turn—in case he needed to step in.
Arthur managed to disarm the scarred man, but the second soldier came up on him too quickly before Arthur could land a blow. He jumped up and kicked the soldier squarely in the stomach, making him double over and gasp for air. Arthur twirled around swiftly and ripped through the scarred man's gut before finishing the other soldier off, too.
Another man came barreling in Arthur's direction, and Arthur rushed forward to meet him. As they got closer, the soldier raised his weapon above his head and Arthur feigned to the left. The soldier brought his blade down heavily onto the vacant air, unbalancing him. Arthur used the opportunity to beat the blunt side of his sword across the back of the man's legs. He fell to his knees with a shout, but Arthur's stifled the cry by sinking his blade into the soldier's collarbone.
Merlin could see the sweat matting Arthur's blonde hair, turning it a shade darker. Arthur's chest was rising and falling rapidly, and his breaths were audible and exhausted. But he didn't have time to rest. The rest of the company was upon them, stampeding towards Arthur with their weapons up.
"No, it's fine, Merlin. I've got it," Arthur quipped from over his shoulder. He twirled the sword expertly with his wrist in warning, but it didn't deter the oncoming ambush.
"Just waiting for the right moment, sire," Merlin called back, and this was definitely that moment. There were too many men for even Arthur to battle on his own.
Merlin raised his palm and spread his fingers in the attackers' direction.
"Ic be wibdrife," he commanded. The air before rippled out like it had suddenly become water. The waves shot passed Arthur and towards the soldiers. It engulfed them, knocking them back off their feet and onto the forest ground. They were unconscious where they lay.
Merlin lowered his hand slowly when Arthur turned around to look at him. If Merlin didn't know any better, he'd think Arthur had been stunned, too.
Arthur's Adam's apple convulsed as he swallowed hard. His gaze fell slowly to the crumpled leaves like he'd suddenly remembered every nightmare he'd ever dreamt.
"They won't be out for long," Merlin said, stepping forward to bring him back into the moment. "We have to go."
Arthur nodded but didn't look at him. He dropped the bloodied blade in his fist and ran back towards the path. When they reached the camp, Arthur beelined towards one of the tied-up, grazing horses. The one he picked out was Rowan's horse, and it paid him no mind as Arthur drew his sword from the saddle
Then, he hastened to cut each of the horses' reigns before hitting one on the rump to spook it. It whinnied loudly and ran off through the trees, causing a chain reaction amongst the other horses.
Merlin stammered as he watched them disappear. "Won't we need a pair of those?" he shouted, pointing after the horses.
"We'll both be less noticeable on foot," Arthur mumbled, not bothering to look at Merlin as he walked towards the fire. He stomped out the flames with his boot, shrouding the campsite in pitch black.
Merlin watched his outline move through the darkness as his eyes adjusted.
"What do you mean, both?" he demanded.
Arthur was starting away from the campsite, and Merlin jogged to catch up to him.
"The sun set in that direction," Arthur said, holding his hand up over his head vaguely towards the west. "Camelot is that way—," he pointed his other hand towards the east. "That's where I'll be going. If I'm right, there's a mountain range a few miles south of here. You can find a place to hide out there before making for Ealdor."
"Ealdor?" Merlin repeated, outraged. He jumped in front of Arthur and held his palm to Arthur's chest to halt him. "I'm coming with you."
Arthur dropped his shoulders. "Merlin, go," he said, sounding a little impatient. Merlin didn't budge, and Arthur's annoyance grew. "Merlin, you idiot." He pronounced every word with emphasis. "Get it through your thick skull, I'm letting you go."
"It's at least a two day walk to Camelot," Merlin retorted, determined. He shook his head to punctuate his point. "I'm going with you."
"If you step foot inside Camelot, you're a dead man! Go home, Merlin. You're free."
"Free means I can do whatever I want?"
Arthur nodded, his brows raised and said through his teeth, "Yes!"
"Then I'm going with you."
"Merlin!" Arthur had lost all his patience now. "This isn't a negotiation! I can take care of myself."
Merlin scoffed, his eyes going wide. "Oh, really? That would have made my job a lot easier."
"No one asked you to look after me! No one asked you to kill anyone—"
"I killed not one of those men." He pointed his thumb over his shoulder. "How many did you kill?"
Arthur didn't answer. He glared at Merlin with livid eyes and an expression as hard as stone. Merlin didn't falter under the scrutiny.
Then, suddenly, Arthur pounced on Merlin. He slammed Merlin's back against a nearby tree trunk and clasped his hand firmly over Merlin's mouth. At first, Merlin didn't know what he was doing, but then he saw Arthur's eyes screw upwards in concentration.
Distant noises reached Merlin through the trees. The soldiers were waking up.
When Arthur was sure Merlin got the message, he released him and looked up. He pointed in the same direction.
"Go up," he mouthed. Merlin followed his line of vision to a large limb a few feet up.
When he didn't move immediately, Arthur gave him another shove, and Merlin shot him daggers before turning to face the bark. Arthur gave him a boost up to the first branch with cupped hands, and Merlin reached down to heave Arthur up once he was situated. They climbed as quietly as they could until they were hanging onto the limb Arthur had indicated.
By that time, the chatter from the soldiers had grown. They reached the camp shortly. Merlin heard them rage about their missing horses, and they cursed Arthur for slipping from their grasp. Merlin tried not to breathe. He couldn't control his breaths like Arthur could. He hugged his branch even tighter.
"They couldn't have gotten far," he heard one of the men say. "Split up! We'll find 'em!"
The soldiers scurried in every direction, leaving the campsite empty. Merlin and Arthur waited a few minutes for good measure before climbing back down.
"They'll expect you to be heading back to Camelot," Merlin told Arthur's back once his feet were back on the dirt.
"You think I don't know that?" Arthur retorted like he had a stiff headache coming on.
"You may need me if they find you."
For a long pause, Arthur said nothing, but he did not move either, which Merlin took to mean he was considering it. "Fine," he sighed. "But as soon as Camelot is in sight, I want you gone."
Merlin gave a noise that was like a laugh, but not quite there.
"So you can reclaim Camelot as a one man army?"
"Don't push your luck," Arthur snipped frigidly. "Now, come on. Like you said, Camelot's two days from here. You better pray I don't change my mind about letting you go in that time."
He started walking east, and he did not protest when Merlin trailed after him.
"I'll take my chances."
The ground was cold and solid under his stomach, and Merlin was fairly certain a rock was buried just a few inches beneath the dirt upon which he lay. He blinked awake, and his eyes burnt slightly against the light of the crackling fire next to him. It was kept small so that they had warmth but Odin's men wouldn't find them, and the flames looked weak as they licked up towards the severely overcast sky.
Merlin looked across the fire to where Arthur had lain, and surreptitiously watched him as he drifted off, the night before. He was no longer there, and Merlin felt his stomach drop at Arthur's absence. He lifted his head up from his folded arms, which he'd used as a pillow, and scanned the small area quickly. Arthur was nowhere in sight.
Merlin supposed he should have expected that.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement. He craned his neck in that direction swiftly to find Arthur returning to the fire from between two trees. He stopped walking when he realized he's startled Merlin, and flashed him almost apologetic eyes.
"You look like a hunted deer, Merlin," Arthur droned and began walking again. Dangling from his fist were two short, black adder snakes. They were dead, their heads cut off. In his other fist, he held two long sticks.
"You stayed," Merlin said. He hadn't meant to do so aloud, but he was too surprised to hold it in.
Arthur merely glanced at him before taking a seat across the fire. "I considered leaving. Twice, actually." He used his sword to cut a slit in one of the snake's skin before working on pulling it off.
"I'm glad you didn't," Merlin admitted. He rolled over and sat up, instantly feeling the muscles in his neck tighten and protest. He tried stretching to loosen up but eventually gave it up as a bad job. He focused instead on Arthur, watching him struggle to separate this skin from the meat.
"What's that?" Merlin asked, his face already crumpling in disgust. He thought he knew the answer.
"Breakfast," Arthur answered tersely.
Merlin had been afraid of that. "Snakes?"
Arthur sighed, becoming frustrated when his gloved fingers slipped. "You're the one who was complaining about being hungry last night. These were all I could find."
It was true. Merlin's stomach had long ago given up on growling, and he was pretty sure it had started digesting itself instead.
Arthur's fingers slipped again, and he emitted an aggravated groan and rubbed at his eyes.
"Give it here," Merlin said, reaching over the small fire to put Arthur out of his misery.
"I've got it!" Arthur snipped, holding the snake further out of Merlin's reach.
Merlin exhaled patiently through his nose and redoubled his offer. "At the rate you're going, we'll be here until nightfall."
"Then, you do your own," Arthur told him, picking up the other headless snake from beside him and tossing it at Merlin's face. Merlin scrambled to catch it as it fell into his lap. "You're not my servant anymore, Merlin."
"I'm always going to be your servant, Arthur."
He held out his palm again.
Arthur stopped what he was doing to regard Merlin, and his face was much softer than it had been a moment ago. After a pause, his eyes flickered away and he nodded. He dropped the snake in Merlin's hand, and Merlin immediately started peeling. Arthur huffed at how easy he made it look.
After he'd skinned and gutted the meat, Merlin wrapped it around the two sticks and roasted them over the flames. As he watched it sizzle, he realized that he wasn't looking forward to eating it at all. He didn't know if he could psychologically stomach it, even though his actual stomach was rumbling again from the wafting scent and the promise of being fed. He wondered how snake would taste. He imagined it would be essentially like eating an oversized worm, except with a tough and stringy consistency. It made him think back to the time he tried to feed Arthur stew made from a rat, and Arthur having him eat it instead.
His lips twisted as he tried not to grin. He wondered if this would just be another moment they'd laugh about one day.
He hoped so.
When the meat looked prepared enough, he passed one of the sticks to Arthur, who immediately began chomping. Merlin, however, looked down at the meat with his nose wrinkled. He brought it to his lips, but hesitated. Mentally pepping himself, he succeeded in taking a bite on his second try.
It tasted exactly as he thought it might, which wasn't entirely awful; it might have been the notion of eating a snake that put him off. He tried not to gag as he chewed around it, and he must have been making a sourly unhappy face because Arthur was chuckling.
"That is disgusting," he complained after forcing himself to swallow.
"Most people would say it tastes like chicken," Arthur said before taking another bite. Merlin pulled another disgusted face just at the sight of it.
"It does not!" he argued. "That's just something people say when something tastes awful but they have to eat it anyway! This—," he brandished the stick, "—tastes nothing like chicken."
Arthur shook his head, still laughing. "Well, you haven't changed a bit," he said, raising his brows in incredulity as he noshed some more.
"No, I told you so. Same old Merlin."
"That's a shame."
Merlin puckered his lips to the side to show he wasn't amused, but he recovered quickly and focused on preparing himself to take another bite.
When he did, he decided to speak around it in hopes that it would delude the taste. It didn't.
"Who's my replacement, anyway?"
Now, Arthur looked like he'd tasted something sour. He rolled his eyes. "George," he said, somehow able to relay every negative emotion he felt towards the man in a single syllable.
Merlin gritted his teeth, half in empathy and half in mocking. "Still dull as ever?" he asked.
"More so, if that's possible," said Arthur, "but, I'll admit, he's good at what he does. He never deviates from his schedule. He does everything I ask—"
Merlin opened his mouth to fight that point, and Arthur quickly added, "without complaint."
Arthur pursed his lips in thought. "He's predictable."
Merlin tsked, shaking his head. "See, that's boring. You must hate him."
"I think he hates me, actually, he just won't say. But, no, no one could ever accuse you of being predictable, Merlin." He said it like it was a bad thing, and maybe it was because he averted his eyes and whispered, "A little too unpredictable, I'd say."
Merlin looked down at his lap, not knowing what to say to that, and Arthur cleared his throat. It was best to change the subject, and Merlin pondered what to say to break the tension as he chewed.
"You know," he mused, "it's not so bad once you get passed the fact that you're eating a snake."
Arthur snorted loudly, one corner of his lips curving upwards again. Merlin felt the weight in his chest lift, but he wouldn't let it show.
Light rain had been falling for quite some time now, causing a thin layer of fog, and there were no leaves left on the trees to shroud them as they hiked through the forest, careful to stay off the path. The drops clunked rhythmically as they hit the plate armor on Arthur's shoulders. It seeped through his padding and compressed his hair, leaving him chilled to the bone.
He wished he had his cloak to keep warm, but he supposed not having it was a small blessing in it's own way. If it rained for much longer, the cloak would have become a sopping weight around his neck.
He decided to get his mind off the chill through sheer willpower. He imagined warm things: horseback riding in the summer, a steaming bath, a belly full of ale and drunk laughter, or rosy cheeks after a long day of training. He thought of a fire roaring in his chambers. He thought of the blankets and furs on his bed.
That led to other thoughts as his imagination ran away from him. He pictured Merlin, under the covers, too, with the firelight outlining his features. He was wrapped around Arthur, all long limbs and a dipping neck that Arthur could line with kisses. The skin on his shoulders was balmy as Arthur danced his fingers across the constellation of freckles—
Arthur shook his head, knocking himself out of the daydream. He couldn't think such things.
He looked over his shoulder to make sure Merlin was still there, or at least that was the excuse he gave himself. He was walking quietly again; Arthur didn't even hear his boots sloshing in the mud. However, he was trailing along with his eyes cast downward. His arms were crossed tightly across his chest as he huddled in on himself. The moisture had caused the waves in his hair to flatten and his jacket to turn a darker brown.
He must have felt Arthur's eyes, because he glanced up to meet them. Realizing he was caught, Arthur immediately faced front.
"Keep up, Merlin," he said over his shoulder.
"I can hardly feel my legs," Merlin said, sniffling.
"That's because you're stick thin," Arthur told him. "I can hear your teeth chattering from here."
Merlin let out a strong breath, as though expecting to see it fog in front of his face. However, it wasn't that cold just yet.
"I suppose it's better than freezing in a cage," he said, apparently trying to look on the bright side. "At least we can keep warm by walking."
Arthur skidded slightly on a wet leaf. He had his qualms with walking, no matter what Merlin said.
"Arthur?" Merlin then asked, and Arthur eyed him from over his shoulder. "Do you really think Odin would have sentenced us to death?"
Arthur would have liked to say no. If it were any other sovereign, perhaps Arthur would have been released and threatened with war and Merlin would have been executed. However, he knew that wasn't the case this time.
"Most likely," he answered.
He wasn't sure if the sound Merlin made was a laugh or because he was cold. "That's the second time I would have been sentenced to death this month. I'm starting to make a habit of it."
"Yes, but the only difference is, Odin would have wanted to kill you," Arthur told him without really thinking. "He probably would have even enjoyed it."
It took him a moment to realize Merlin had stopped walking.
"And you didn't?" Merlin asked, sputtering slightly in the rain. "Want to kill me?"
Arthur dropped his shoulders and turned around to face him. Merlin was staring at him intently as Arthur considered his question. He thought he had wanted to kill Merlin at first. His anger made it seem like the right thing to do. But then there were those weeks without Merlin, when Arthur didn't know what he'd do if he never saw him again.
He shook his head in honesty.
Merlin did not smile. He did not nod. His eyes didn't light up. He just simply accepted it.
"That must have been hard for you," he said, and he continued walking, passing Arthur on his way.
"Me?" Arthur scoffed. He never understood Merlin when he talked like this. "You were the one condemned to die."
Merlin looked back around, his brows furrowed as though that point had never occurred to him.
"But I wasn't the one who had to make that decision," he said, and he really meant it.
Arthur blinked at him, at a loss for words. He suddenly felt a lot warmer.
Merlin nodded in the direction they'd been walking. "Come on, we'd better keep moving."
But Arthur couldn't will himself forward. He kept watching Merlin. His mind spun, but he couldn't latch onto a thought. Soon, Merlin disappeared through the trees, and Arthur hastened to follow, if only to keep him in his line of sight.
Arthur trailed after him for quite some time, until he realized the rain had stopped and they had walked at least another two miles. He peered around at his new surroundings, which looked generally the same as they had throughout: trees and rocks and rotting leaves.
Merlin stopped walking abruptly and held up his hand to quietly signal they should stop immediately. Arthur didn't see him at first and nearly knocked into him, but as soon as he had his senses went on high alert. He looked around with new purpose, searching for any movement and listening for the shuffling of leaves.
He heard voices. They were coming closer.
He quickly scouted out a large enough boulder for them to hide behind, and he started for it. He grabbed the front of Merlin's shirt as he hustled, dragging him along with his momentum until he was certain Merlin would follow. They crouched behind the rock, and Arthur dared to peer over the top as two soldiers in maroon armor came into view.
"You don't s'pose we could just find some other blonde twat and cut him up real nice so Odin won't recognize it's not him?" one of them asked the other.
"Yeah, and what happens when Pendragon gets back to Camelot and keeps on ruling?" the other reasoned. "Odin'll guess he's not dead then."
"Sir Joseph'll take care of him if he ever reaches the city, won't he?" said the first. "He ain't got his army behind him."
"He has the magician."
"You think Pendragon would fight side-by-side with a sorcerer?" The man snorted a laugh. "One of them probably killed the other after they escaped us."
Arthur looked at Merlin out of the corner of his eyes, but Merlin didn't look back. It was hard to judge his expression from the angle. Arthur collected himself and refocused on the conversation.
"Plus, I'm sure we could wrangle up a few sorcerers. Hey, we should find his sister, ay? She's been lookin' to have a go at him."
"You find Morgana Pendragon, and I'll let you have a go at me wife, how 'bout that?"
"You've got yourself a deal."
Arthur noticed that Merlin was holding up his palm in the soldiers' general direction. He waited for Merlin to reveal whatever trick he had up his sleeve to ward off their former captors.
"Bene læg gesweore," he muttered, and the light of his eyes glowed against the boulder in the close proximity.
Arthur watched him with curiosity when nothing immediately happened, but Merlin kept his palm raised. Then, the fog around them suddenly thickened. It rolled in from all sides, slowly, floating like a specter and causing the trees to look like eerie, bottomless phantoms in the gloom. It covered the ground until it became too thick and rose upward.
"What the hell's all this?" one of the soldiers said, but Arthur couldn't tell which. He could barely see them anymore. All he could make out were faint silhouettes, and the fog became as dense as clouds. It was as though Merlin had commanded all the mist in the forest to congregate on that one spot.
Merlin nudged Arthur's shoulder with his own. He was shrouded somewhat by the haze between them, but Arthur saw him nod away from where the soldiers were. Quietly, he lifted himself up from the dirt, careful to remain low, and wandered off in the direction he'd indicated. Arthur followed his lead.
And he wondered when he'd begun to trust Merlin's magic—or perhaps he was just starting to get used to the idea of it. Maybe it was even starting to make sense.
As they moved further away, the fog began to taper off, and soon there wasn't any at all. The air remained chilled and humid, but proof of it never came to fruition.
"I swear," Arthur avowed through his teeth when they were far enough away. He looked over his shoulder and glared as if the two men were on their backs. "When I reclaim Camelot, Odin will pay for this."
Merlin clicked his tongue and shook his head. "Don't be so rash," he advised.
"Rash?" Arthur shouted before remembering to keep his voice low. "He sacked my city! He kidnapped me!"
"And a fight is what he wants. You need to find a more diplomatic option," Merlin said sagely.
Arthur rolled his eyes. "He'd never go for that."
"You must make him. How will war bring about the peace you're trying to achieve?"
Arthur didn't have a good answer to that. He fell silent and let his anger pass. He knew Merlin was right, like he always was on these matters. Arthur always knew exactly what to do after talking it out with Merlin.
He shook the thoughts away, knowing he couldn't consider such things anymore. He tried not to miss Merlin too much.
Eventually, their surroundings became more familiar, and Merlin knew they'd returned to a world they recognized. However, that familiarity brought threats beyond running into Odin's men again. More perilous dangers lurked in the Valley of the Fallen Kings.
And then there was magic.
As they walked, the forest slowly became greener, full of life and leaves and grass and moss, like summer had overslept. Honeysuckle grew from the brush. The world around them was humming, and Merlin felt his magic bubbling inside of him like it wanted to leap out of his skin and mix with the forest, return to the earth. He lost sight of himself, imagining he was every crawling bug or soft fern.
He kept one eye on Arthur, who kept commenting on how peculiar such vivaciousness was, as they strode closer to the epicenter. Merlin's heart beat a little faster with each step.
When he caught sight of the source, the sun was fading in the sky, and Merlin's magic was thumping and hammering against his ribcage, desperate to be let loose.
"It's getting late. It'll be dark soon," Arthur voiced suddenly. He stopped a few feet in front a cave, whose opening was covered in bracken. Merlin stopped, too, feeling a lump in his throat, as Arthur seemed to make up his mind about something. Merlin thought he knew what it was.
Arthur started towards the mouth of the cave. "Come on," he said. "We'll make camp in here for the night."
Merlin stammered, not knowing what to say to steer Arthur away from the cave.
"Why do we need a cave?" Merlin called after him.
Arthur sighed and turned around halfway. "We're in the Valley of the Fallen Kings, Merlin," he said, gesturing around with his upturned palms. "It's not safe to sleep in the open—not to mention, it's autumn, though it doesn't look it. We need shelter. Come on."
He started walking again and Merlin had no choice but to follow.
At first, the cave was dark and the ground was slick. Merlin heard scurrying creatures all around him, mixed with an echoing drip of rainwater falling. They walked in complete darkness for a few feet until the sunlight was a pinprick behind them and Merlin saw a faint bluish glow bouncing off the rock walls far ahead.
"Do you see that?" Arthur whispered, and Merlin heard his sword unsheathed.
Merlin nodded before realizing Arthur probably couldn't see him that well in the lowlight. "Yes."
"Someone's up there," Arthur guessed. He took a step forward. Merlin grabbed his arm and pulled him back.
"No one's there," he said. "This is no ordinary cave, Arthur."
"What are you talking about?"
"It's the Crystal Cave," Merlin explained, and he saw Arthur's outline tense slightly. "We're in the birthplace of magic."
Silence fell around them, making the water drops sound louder, and finally Arthur shook his head.
"That's impossible," he decided. "My father searched for this place. He never found it."
"That's because he'd destroy it," said Merlin, not sure why he was still whispering. "Do you really think it would reveal itself to him?"
"Then why has it revealed itself to me?" Arthur countered, and Merlin didn't have a very good answer.
"You're different," was all he could come up with.
Arthur huffed. He looked back in the direction of the light. "Well, if it wants me to see it so much, I might as well."
He held out his sword, still untrusting, and Merlin took his wrist and slowly pushed it downward. Arthur looked at him in confusion, but he eventually got the message and put the sword away.
Merlin led the way. With every step, the blue glow enhanced and soon they were standing in its light. Merlin clamored up the fallen boulders into the entranceway with Arthur behind him. They stood up when they reached the top, staring off at the chasm that stretched before them.
White crystals looked like stalagmites as they protruded from the rock, each of them producing its own soft light. On the other end of the chasm, the illumination became more intense, so that nothing beyond it could be seen. It wasn't a blinding or harmful light; it was simply there.
Merlin felt his magic buzzing in his skin, like static on his fingertips. He thought he might burst.
He turned towards Arthur, whose features were tinted blue by the crystals. Merlin watched silently for quite some time. He was searching the space in awe, and Merlin couldn't stop himself from smiling softly.
Wordlessly, Merlin jumped off the boulders and into the chasm. He heard Arthur land on his feet behind him, but he was too busy walking through the array of crystals to look back again.
"Why are these here?" Arthur asked once his voice returned to him. He leaned in to inspect one of the crystals as though it might try to bite him. "What do they do?"
"Probably more than I know," Merlin told him. "But they let you see things—past, present, future." An idea struck him: "We can find out what's happening in Camelot."
He held out his palm at one of the nearby crystals and let his magic flow. He saw flashes of his life: him arriving Camelot and meeting Arthur all the way to Arthur discovering his magic. Finally, the image became steadier. It showed his friends—Gwaine, Elyan, Percival, Leon—along with more soldiers, guards, and servants in Camelot's dungeons, which were filled to the brim. He saw Gaius, confined to his chambers, as were a number of noblemen. They were all prisoners.
In another crystal, Merlin saw Gwen. She was in her chambers with two guards in maroon uniforms posted by the doors. A dark-haired man was with her, standing too close to her, and she seemed appalled by him. Merlin stepped closer to the crystal to get a better look.
"Don't look so worried, my lady," the dark-haired knight said. He dragged his knuckles across Gwen's cheek lovingly and she shot him a hateful glare before stepping back.
"I am not a lady," she told him curtly. "I am a queen, and I demand you tell me where my husband is."
The knight smirked. "He's most likely rotting in Odin's jail by now, awaiting execution."
A flicker of fear came to Gwen's eyes, but she didn't show it. "You kidnapped a king? If you think for a moment Camelot won't retaliate, you are mistaken."
"Camelot isn't Camelot anymore, my lady," he said pointedly. "It's part of Odin's territory now."
Gwen squared her shoulders. "And I suppose that makes you its new lord?" She scoffed. "If I'm to be your captive, the least you could do is tell me your name."
"Sir Joseph," he said. "Lord Joseph now."
The image faded, and Merlin immediately turned to Arthur. He wasn't sure if Arthur had seen the same thing.
But Merlin forgot the urgency of the news when he saw Arthur staring hard into one of the crystals. Merlin could not see any image swirling in it, but Arthur looked captivated and far away, like he was dreaming. His eyes were big and red rimmed and his lips parted as he let out a shaky sigh.
"Arthur?" Merlin asked gently. He stepped forward and touched Arthur's arm, rousing him from the trance. Arthur swallowed hard and looked at Merlin like he'd never seen him before.
"What is it?" Merlin asked. His stomach squirmed. "What did you see?"
For a moment, Arthur continued to only stare at him, until he said in a voice so low it might have been a breath, "You."
Merlin looked at him in mystification, but Arthur didn't elaborate. Shaking the thought away, Merlin strengthened his grip on Arthur and led him towards the exit.
"Let's get out of there," Merlin comforted. "It can be overwhelming if you don't know how to control the crystals."
Arthur nodded in agreement as they headed towards the fallen boulders.
Merlin scratched the rocks together again, and this time he lost control of the movement and scraped his knuckle. No sparks came of it, and Merlin grunted in frustration down at the kindling.
Dropping the rocks, he held his palm over the twigs and said, "Forbearnan." His eyes glowed, but the fire did not. The kindling only smoked in weak puffs before even they died away. Merlin tried the spell again, aware of Arthur watching him, but he didn't care. He was wet and freezing.
"It's no use, Merlin," Arthur groaned upon Merlin's third try. "The kindling is too damp. It would be too smoky, anyway. We don't want bandits to find us."
Arthur looked around to make sure no said bandits were in the vicinity. When he was satisfied, he looked back to Merlin.
"Well, it's cold," Merlin complained. "And we don't have a cave to give us shelter."
He thought it was best to take Arthur as far from the Crystal Cave as possible, and Arthur didn't speak a word against it. However, he did freeze slightly at the mention of the cave. He began inspecting Merlin with narrowed eyes.
"Did you really do all those things?" Arthur asked suddenly. "For me?"
Merlin shook his head, not knowing what Arthur meant.
"In the cave," Arthur explained, "I saw . . . everything. Was it all true?"
Merlin shrugged and looked down at the twigs, suddenly coy. "Some of them, I've done already," he said, and he summoned enough courage to look at Arthur through his lashes and smirk. "Maybe some things, I have yet to do."
Arthur didn't return his smile, but his expression was soft.
"Then, you might be the best servant I've ever had," Arthur said, sounding light.
Merlin snorted. "Oh, I'm your servant again, am I?"
Arthur raised both brows, and Merlin took the rocks in his hands again and struck them together, just to have something to do.
Yawning, Arthur laid down on the damp moss, both hands folded under his cheek. He watched Merlin play with the rocks for about a minute before saying, "Would you stop that? We can keep warm in other ways."
Merlin wasn't sure why, but his stomach did a flop. He looked at Arthur tentatively.
"Come here," Arthur said, holding one arm out to invite Merlin in.
"Arthur—," Merlin began sternly, but Arthur interrupted him.
"Do you want to freeze to death in your sleep? No? Well, I don't either, so come on."
Merlin bit his bottom lip in trepidation. Part of him thought this was some kind of joke or test. He looked around to make sure no one was about to pop out and yell surprise, or kill him. When he was sure there was no one, he steeled himself and stepped over the kindling to where Arthur was laying. A little awkwardly, he fit himself into Arthur, Merlin's back pressed against his chest, and Arthur folded his arm over Merlin's waist.
Arthur's heart was beating a little faster than normal. Merlin felt it pulsing against his spine. It made him have to bite back a smile in how right it all felt. If he closed his eyes, he could imagine that he was in Arthur's bed, lying under the sheets in the early hours before dawn.
Arthur's boot snaked between Merlin's, and he wrapped their ankles together.
Merlin woke up with tears on his cheeks and with labored breaths. He didn't know how it happened, but some time in the night he had turned to face Arthur and wrapped his arms tightly around him. His arm fitted beneath Arthur's body had gone limp and numb, but it didn't affect the strength of his embrace. Merlin's cheek was pressed hard against the chainmail on Arthur's chest, leaving indentations in his skin.
He didn't know why he was holding Arthur like that, or why he was crying.
Realizing himself, he loosened his hold and cautiously tilted his chin up to look at Arthur, praying he was still asleep. He wasn't. He returned Merlin's gaze with a brow raised skeptically.
"Why didn't you—?" Merlin tried to ask, and Arthur rolled his eyes.
"You were squeezing me too tight," he said. "I thought I'd crack a rib if I tried to move."
Merlin looked away in embarrassment.
"What were you dreaming?" Arthur asked.
"I don't know. I lost you, I think," Merlin said. Slowly, the dream came back to him. It hadn't felt like a dream, though. "We were walking in the forest, on the way back to Camelot, and we came upon a river. It was so deep and I couldn't see the banks on the other side. You walked into it, but I told you not to, but you didn't listen. You just kept going until the water swallowed you up, and I . . . I couldn't save you."
Arthur's chest vibrated against Merlin when he spoke. "You dreamt that I died?"
"No, you didn't die," Merlin said surely, but somehow that was worse. "You were just . . . gone."
When Merlin built up enough courage to look at Arthur again, Arthur was giving him a soft, incredulous look.
"No one's ever had a nightmare about losing me," he whispered, almost in disbelief, but he was wrong.
Arthur searched his face until his eyes dragged down to Merlin's lips. He leaned in and kissed Merlin, gently at first. But then Merlin opened his mouth into Arthur's, and the kiss deepened. Arthur shuffled, rolling Merlin onto his back and half-pinning him to the ground.
Merlin ran his hands down the cold chainmail of Arthur's back, wishing it were gone. His fingers bunched the links together as he grabbed at it, and he ignored the stinging of the pins and needles in his limp arm as the blood rushed back into it unobstructed.
His chin itched and grew tender against Arthur's scruff after days of not being able to shave, but he didn't care. He didn't even come up for air. He felt himself stiffen against Arthur's hip, and Arthur must have felt it, too. He pushed his knee between Merlin's thighs, and Merlin obliged by parting them. Arthur rubbed his knee against Merlin, causing a friction that made Merlin writhe beneath him. He let out low moans into Arthur's mouth.
And suddenly Arthur stopped. He hummed regretfully and turned his head away. Merlin watched him silently in the closeness, eyeing the new, plump bruises on Arthur's lips and the sleekness on his chin.
Then Arthur picked himself up from the ground. He barely looked at Merlin.
"We'd better go," he said, trying not to sound awkward. He failed, and he knew it. He cleared his throat. "We'll be in Camelot by sundown if we go now."
Arthur didn't speak much for the rest of the journey. He stalked in front of Merlin with shoulders too tight and feet pounding the dirt too carefully, like he was trying to focus on anything other than whatever he was thinking.
At first, Merlin followed behind him with a hanging head, thinking that Arthur regretted what they'd almost done earlier that day. But, if that were true, Arthur would have shoved those feelings aside and carried on like normal. This was something new.
He was sorry that he didn't regret it.
Perhaps that was worse, but it made Merlin's stomach flutter with excitable butterflies. He let Arthur ponder for as long as he needed.
However, as the sun grew weaker and Camelot grew closer, Merlin couldn't allow Arthur to keep his silence any longer.
Merlin hastened his speed slightly and jogged to Arthur's side. "What's our plan?" he asked.
Arthur regarded him out of the corner of his eyes and with pursed lips. "Our plan?" he parroted in a droll tone. "My plan is to return to Camelot and find this Sir Joseph person, while you make for Ealdor."
Merlin stopped dead in his tracks.
"Wha—what?" he stammered, looking after Arthur with round eyes. Arthur continued to walk without looking back. "But I thought—"
Before he could finish, Arthur rounded on him. "What did you think, Merlin?" he roared, but Merlin knew he wasn't angry. Not really. There was something too desperate about him. "That the laws would change for you?"
Merlin wasn't sure what he'd been thinking. But things had changed; he knew it! Arthur had learned to trust him again.
He blinked rapidly, his mouth opening and closing like he wanted to say something but couldn't fathom the right words.
Arthur must have found them for him, because he continued, "They won't. They can't. I have to think of the safety of my people. If you step foot in Camelot, you leave me choice, Merlin." His tone lessened with each breath, until his words became bitter. Arthur shook his head. "At the very least, I could banish you, but you wouldn't go, would you?"
"No," Merlin answered automatically.
Arthur inclined his head, expecting the answer. "And I wouldn't want you to," he admitted. "But, if you stay, you die. I can't . . . I don't want that to happen."
"And if you go into Camelot alone, you'll die!" Merlin said, taking a step forward to punctuate his point.
"They'll either kill you on the spot or send you back to Odin," Merlin shouted over him.
"Merlin, please. Just this once, will you think about yourself?"
But Merlin couldn't. He couldn't even remember the last time he had.
"You're not going alone."
"Yes, I am," Arthur sighed in exasperation. "You said my knights were in the dungeon. I'll help them escape and we'll retake the city together."
"And if you're caught?"
Arthur scoffed, like the question was absurd, or like he didn't want to think of that possibility. "Then, I'll die trying to save my people," he answered, too courageous for his own good. "But you're not coming. That's an order."
"I thought you said I was free," Merlin quipped.
"And I thought you said you'd always be my servant."
Arthur knew he'd bested Merlin, but it didn't give him any satisfaction. He gave another tired breath.
"I wish things were different," he said.
"You're the king," Merlin reminded him hopefully. He wondered if they were still talking about magic. "You can make them different."
"No," was the immediate answer. "Not this. It's not that simple. Just because you use your magic for good doesn't mean there aren't sorcerers out there who would seek to destroy us."
Perhaps it wasn't enough for Arthur to trust Merlin alone. He was too blind to magic. He could not understand that when a man is given a hammer, he could either crack a skull or a build a home. The tool did not matter; the man did. Merlin had to believe most people would leave a trail of huts in their wake, especially because he had enough corpses on his back for the whole of Camelot.
Merlin dared to take another step forward, and Arthur didn't retreat.
"Just as there are those without magic who want to destroy you," Merlin told him. "Like Odin, for starters." He felt his stomach do a cartwheel when considering his next words. They might have been unwise, but he said them anyway, "Like Kay."
Arthur didn't react. He kept his eyes downward pensively.
"I know," he eventually agreed. "And you tried to stop them."
"Let me try again," Merlin asked. "We can sneak into the citadel through the crypts. I can get us inside unnoticed."
Arthur's eyes flashed up to him, and he appeared to be thinking hard.
"This is what you want?" he asked carefully.
Merlin thinned his lips and shook his head once, thinking the answer rather obvious. "What I want is your safety," he said. "And the safety of Camelot."
Arthur rolled his eyes lightly, trying not to be touched by the words, but it was no use. He was beaming.
"You know, one day, you won't be so thick headed," Arthur told him, turning back around, and Merlin took that mean Arthur wouldn't stop him from following.
"And maybe one day you won't be such a dollophead," Merlin shot back.
They reached the grating outside the crypts under the cover of darkness. They had to move slowly once they'd broken the tree line as to not be seen, and Arthur asked if Merlin had any tricks up his sleeves that would make them invisible. He didn't, and Arthur was reminded of how utterly useless Merlin was.
But secretly, he was pleased Merlin had insisted on staying. He'd find a way to keep Merlin in Camelot. He could scarcely picture the city without him anymore.
Arthur tugged at the bars of the grate with all his strength. He even propped his foot against the wall for leverage, but nothing came of it.
"They won't budge," he told Merlin, even though both of them expected it, anyway. Arthur knew the passage well, and apparently so did Merlin. He straightened out, accepting his defeat. "But you can open it?"
Merlin blinked, suddenly getting that hunted deer look again. He nodded.
Arthur stepped aside and inclined his head towards the bars, but he didn't take his eyes off Merlin. He watched Merlin swallow his excitement or anxiety, or whatever it was, and get himself into position. Merlin relaxed his shoulders innately; loosening his muscles like Arthur did whenever he wielded his sword. He held out his palm at full length, long fingers splayed in midair. He said a single word in a language Arthur did not understand but appeared to be second nature to Merlin, and his eyes sparkled with flecks of amber softly glowing against the night.
And their way was clear with almost no effort on Merlin's part. Arthur smirked in satisfaction in his direction, and Merlin grinned happily into a relieved breath.
They clamored into the darkness one after the other. Arthur found that sneaking into his own city left an odd weight on his chest. It reminded him of all the times he and Kay would have to tiptoe into bed when they'd gone out passed curfew. Kay had gotten him into a lot of trouble that way, and more often than not they were caught. He wouldn't be caught for Kay's sake anymore.
Silently, they climbed the stone steps at the end of the crypts to the dungeons, and Arthur opened the door a crack to peek through. He didn't see any guards around the cells, so he pressed through with Merlin at his back.
He was aware of the people behind the bars sitting to attention. Some of them had crowded around the bars, wrapping their hands around them and giving him desperate and hopeful eyes. "It's him," he heard some of them whisper, their echoes dripping off the walls like grime. "It's the king. He's come for us."
He also noticed them giving Merlin strange looks, like they didn't quite know what to think about his presence.
Arthur continued on until he reached the first cell, where Leon, Gwaine, Percival, and Elyan, along with others, were already standing in wait for him.
"Arthur," Leon said like he couldn't quite believe his eyes. His eyes flickered to Merlin a little warily.
"Merlin!" Gwaine exclaimed in a harsh whisper, rushing closer to the bars with a welcoming grin. He didn't seem surprised that Merlin was there at all. Arthur looked over his shoulder at Merlin to find him smiling back at Gwaine like they were communicating in some silent language.
"We thought you were dead," Elyan said, making Arthur turn back to his men.
"I'm not," Arthur told them, speaking loud enough for everyone to hear. "I've returned to reclaim Camelot." He scanned the rest of the dungeon, seeing mostly soldiers, sentries, and servants. There were some noble men and women, too. However, there should have been more people. "Where is the rest of our army?"
"In the lower town," Leon said. "There was not enough room in the dungeon. Sir Joseph ordered the rest of us to be quarantined there until other arrangements can be made."
"From what we hear, he's kicked people out of their homes to contain our soldiers," Elyan added.
Arthur nodded as he processed the information. "And what of Guinevere? Is she still locked in our chambers?"
"Yes," said Leon, seeming confused. "But how did you know—?"
Arthur didn't have time to explain. "Gwaine, Percival, you lead an attack into the lower town and free our men. Leon and Elyan, you will remain in the citadel. But first, get everyone to the armory. Collect your weapons before Joseph's men do. We will force them out of Camelot."
"And what about you, my lord?" asked Leon.
"I will take care of Sir Joseph," Arthur promised, "and find my wife."
"Arthur," he heard Merlin whisper from behind him, and he craned his neck to give his attention. "There aren't enough soldiers here for both the citadel and the lower town."
"No, there isn't," Arthur agreed. "But there are enough people."
He turned away from his knights to address the dungeon as a whole, and servants and noblemen alike clung to his every word like a lifeline.
"The city is not the only place under Odin's control," he told them. "He is seeking power over the villages, the towns, all the lands of Camelot. Thousands of innocent people will die by his hand—our people. We can stop him here, tonight, by taking back what is ours—our home, our city. I will fight for Camelot until my last breath, but I cannot do it alone."
At first, there was silence. He was not addressing his knights, and these people were not soldiers. They may have been easy to inspire, but that didn't take away their fear.
"You won't have to, my lord," one servant, a woman who looked about Arthur's age, spoke up. Around her, murmurs of solidarity arose.
Arthur's lips twisted as he tried not to smile too widely. He looked behind him again at Merlin, who wasn't so concerned with keeping a straight face.
Merlin shrugged. "For the love of Camelot?" he suggested.
"Best to keep our voices down," Arthur decided.
"Yeah, best to."
"Well, then," Arthur said, getting down to it. "No time to lose. Merlin, let's release them the easy way, shall we?"
Merlin's expression still held traces of his smile as he looked passed Arthur at the rows of cells on both sides. This time, he didn't say a word. His eyes flashed quietly, and every barred door swung open in unison.
Two guards sat beneath the stairwell leading up from the dungeons. They rolled a pair of dice on the table between them, causing one man to curse and the other to laugh.
Arthur stepped into the torchlight, catching their attention instantly. They jumped up from their chairs so quickly that the wood clamored to the floor.
"Who are you? How'd you get down here?" one of them said as both drew their swords.
Arthur did not reach for his.
"I am Arthur Pendragon, King of Camelot," he said.
Both swords flew out of the guards' fists and out of reach, eliciting choked, shocked sounds from the men.
"And that was my servant," Arthur told them. "I never thought I'd say this, but he's quite good at his job."
He unsheathed his weapon.
Once the guards were taken care of, Arthur gave a soft, quick whistle. Merlin emerged from the shadows, scanning the men on the ground before turning back and waving the others forward. The entire occupancy of the dungeons followed in his wake as Arthur rushed up the stairs and into the lower corridor.
His knights and citizens didn't stop moving as he stepped to the side and called, "Get to the armory! Bring weapons to lower town!"
He didn't wait for the stampede to pass him by before heading for a spiral staircase in the nearby tower.
"Merlin," he called, picking him out of the crowd, "with me!"
Together, they sprinted to the main level of the castle, where the great hall was situated just a few corridors away. Arthur knew that Merlin was used to rushing towards the throne room—when he was late for a council meeting, when he was rushing to do errands, and on the rare occasions, when Camelot was in peril. Arthur bounded in that direction with Merlin on his heels.
They turned the first corridor to find one of Sir Joseph's men jamming their way. Arthur blocked his immediate blow with his sword before pushing back for better leverage. The soldier wasn't as skilled as Arthur, and he went down after a few swings of clanging steel.
A little further down the corridor, Arthur and Merlin rushed up another set of stairs. The tall, black statue of the winged lion stood nobly at the top, as though it were waiting for them.
When they'd reached the statue, Arthur heard raging footsteps behind them, and he looked over his shoulder to find more maroon-clad men barreling after them. Apparently, Merlin had seen them first. He skidded to a halt and commanded something in that foreign tongue, in a voice not quite his own.
"Bebiede þe arisan cwicum."
There was a great roar. It filled up the space, resounding on the walls and making the tiled floor tremor. It was enough to make Arthur's heart skip a beat, and he, too, slid to a stop.
He spun around to find the winged lion no longer black and still. It spread its golden wings and stood on its hunches on its podium. It swiped its jagged talons.
It leapt up, its long tail whipping out behind it, and flew past Merlin. Arthur could not see what was happening beyond the wall on the staircase, but he heard screams. He heard running, too, and then silence.
The enormous creature swooped back into view and perched on its pedestal, where its muscles settled and its fur transformed back into marble.
Arthur realized that his sword was still in his hand, weighing his arm down as it fell limply to his side. He also realized he had to breathe to stay alive, but air continued to elude him. His eyes fixed themselves on Merlin, like just looking at him would make the breath return to him.
He blinked himself back into the moment when Merlin got closer, and his gaze flickered to the statue one more time as though expecting it to reanimate. It didn't.
Merlin was looking at Arthur guardedly, waiting for Arthur to strike him down. Arthur assured him he wouldn't by nodding his thanks and clapping his hand to Merlin's shoulder. The color of the fabric still tied around Arthur's palm matched Merlin's tunic.
His grasp tightened around Merlin as Arthur dragged him forward a few steps until he was certain Merlin had gotten the message to follow. They had to keep moving. If a group of Joseph's men were after them, more would come. It was only a matter of time until the entire citadel was alerted—
The warning bell gonged in the distance, halting Arthur again. He imagined he could hear every soldier jumping from his bed.
"A call to arms," he muttered to Merlin. "Hopefully there won't be any arms left for them."
Arthur shot off again as he said it, hardly hearing his own words over the drumming of his pulse and the echoes of his boots slapping the floor. He had to get to Gwen. They'd use her as leverage against him if he didn't find her first. He couldn't allow them to harm her; she was the best of them all. Better than Arthur. A greater ruler than he could ever be.
If the whole of Camelot burned to ground that night, Gwen had to survive.
However, she wasn't in the throne room when they reached it. She must have still been in their chambers directly above Arthur's head.
There were half a dozen soldiers in the great hall, though. They drew their weapons and circled the Round Table to the side of the room Arthur and Merlin had entered.
As they did so, Arthur redoubled his grip on his sword and asked Merlin, "Three and three? Last one to take their men down is the loser."
He saw Merlin's neck craned towards the ceiling. His eyes glimmered and one of the wooden chandeliers above the soldiers snapped off its rope. Before anyone could jump out of the way, the chandelier crashed down, crushing three of the soldiers and making loose dust soar through the air.
The remaining soldiers leapt backward in surprise, and Arthur took the opportunity to shoot Merlin a distasteful glare.
Merlin shrugged in apathy.
Arthur rushed forward and swung his blade at the closest man. The soldier swung back, missing Arthur's neck by inches as Arthur leaned back to avoid it. The soldier was unbalanced from the force of his swing.
While that soldier was distracted, Arthur focused on the second man who'd come up on his side. He was too late to react, and the man landed a punch to his face. It stung and caused Arthur's world to turn gray, but he rattled it away and ignored the copper taste in his mouth. It wasn't his gums. He must have bit down on his lip.
The first soldier recovered in that time and attempted to jab his blade into Arthur's back. Arthur stepped out of the way in time, and instead the sword tore through the other soldier's torso. The dying man gave an astonished grunt. Before his body fell, Arthur slashed at the first man, who died with eyes as big as saucers over what he'd done.
Arthur braced himself for the third attacker, but he never came. He heard a struggle from across the room and quickly turned towards the source just in time to see the last soldier fly through the stained glass window. The glass erupted upon impact, and the soldier's shouts chased after him as they rained down into the courtyard.
Arthur gestured towards the back exit of the great hall. "Come on!"
When he and Merlin were on the other side, they ran up the last stairwell that left them in the corridor nearby Arthur's chambers.
Hiding behind the corner, Arthur peered around into the dark adjacent corridor beyond. He saw straight towards the red, gold, and black tapestry of the eagle hanging on the opposite wall. All was clear and calm.
But that only made Arthur uneasy. He'd expected guards outside the chamber doors so Gwen could not escape.
"Maybe she's not in there," he said, taking a breather as his mind raced.
"Where else would she be?" Merlin whispered from behind. "She wasn't in the great hall."
"No," Arthur agreed, closing his eyes as he thought. "You're paying for those damaged, by the way."
He felt Merlin's warm breath on his neck when Merlin released a soft laugh, and it made Arthur's skin prickle. But the laugh was soon replaced with a loud, sharp hiss.
Arthur turned at break-neck speeds. Merlin was on the floor with a soldier standing above him, blade poised in both fists above his head.
"No!" Arthur shouted when the blade was brought down not a moment later.
Merlin reflexively tried to roll out of the way, but Arthur knew he hadn't made it in time. His entire world narrowed down to the strangled yell Merlin let free throughout the hall.
Arthur barreled into the soldier before he knew what he was doing, and the soldier staggered out of the way, dropping his sword in the meantime. Arthur plunged his weapon forward with all his might straight through the attacker's heart. He died instantly, which was too good for him, but Arthur didn't care.
He fell to Merlin's side, eyes wide at the crimson, turned black in the lowlight, which was pouring from the cracks between Merlin's fingers.
Merlin let out a few low humming sounds that went right through Arthur.
"It's fine. I'm fine," he insisted with a struggling voice.
Arthur didn't know what to do. He held his hands out over Merlin, not daring to touch, no matter how much he wanted to. He thought touching Merlin might worsen his condition somehow.
"Can you heal it?" he asked desperately.
Merlin gave another grunt and rasped out some words of magic. His eyes shown dully, hardly enough to light up the shadows, but the wound remained.
He shook his head with effort. "It's too deep."
Arthur took a steadying breath and nodded in acceptance. "We have to take you to Gaius," he said, grabbing Merlin by the shoulders and propping him up. More blood gushed.
"No," Merlin told him. "We have to find Gwen."
"I'm alright," Merlin snipped in determination. "It's just my side. It's nothing."
Arthur sat back on his heels, hating how stubborn Merlin was. He would die if he kept bleeding like that, and Arthur added another to his list of people who needed to survive no matter what.
Gwen and Merlin. He hadn't even considered Merlin before, because dying was just not something Merlin could ever do. It was simply disallowed. Arthur would not let it happen. Not ever.
Thinking quickly, Arthur tore the scarf around Merlin neck and untied it. Undoubled, there was enough fabric to stretch around Merlin's torso, so Arthur wrapped it there.
"To stop the bleeding," he told Merlin pointedly, "until we can patch you up."
Merlin nodded, but he'd gone terribly pale. Arthur tried to ignore that fact as best he could. He jumped to his feet and offered Merlin a hand up.
"Time for me to look after you," Arthur said, clapping his hand to Merlin's chest.
Merlin wobbled slightly, and Arthur held both hands out for support. Merlin insisted he was all right, though he was still clutching his side and the blue scarf was turning dark at an alarming rate.
They turned the corner and reached the doors of Arthur's chambers. Preparing himself for anything, Arthur readied his sword and pushed through.
Gwen was there. She was across the room with a small knife held to the tender skin of her neck. A pale fist held it in place, while the other gripped her arm to hold her steady.
"Arthur!" Gwen called, half in relief and half in warning.
"You must be Sir Joseph," Arthur said to the man at her back. Holding his sword in both hands, Arthur lifted his back elbow and leveled the long blade's point at Joseph. He stalked further into the room, aware of Merlin fanning out to the side, ever watchful.
Joseph's eyes ricocheted between the two of them, and he pressed his knife closer to Gwen's throat. The pinprick of blood it drew was the same red as her dress.
"That's lord, actually," Joseph stressed.
"Not anymore," Arthur assured him. "Let her go."
Gwen let out a shocked breath when Joseph jerked her backwards like a ragdoll.
"Don't you come any closer," Joseph warned, "or I'll slit her neck. I'll do it, too. You know I will, my lady." He said it into Gwen's hair, almost intimate.
She let some of her bravado slip when she caught Arthur's eyes, but just for a moment.
"You're not even a lady," Joseph continued. "You're just some serving bitch. What does a king want with the likes of you, ay?" His eyes turned to Arthur. "The People's King, they say. But you're no high king. Not if I can help it."
"Forbearnan," Arthur heard Merlin say, but he didn't dare look away from Gwen.
Just a moment later, the handle of the knife in Joseph's fist turned a glowing red and orange. It started to smoke, and Arthur smelled burning meat. Joseph gave an excruciated cry as his hand clasped tighter around the handle at first.
Gwen used the distraction to elbow him in the gut and release herself from his grasp.
The blade clattered on the floor when it fell, but Arthur was still too far to do anything about it.
"Guinevere!" he called, getting her attention. He tossed her his sword, which she caught with only a slight fumble. She held it firmly in both elegant hands and swiped it at Joseph.
He shouted again and toppled to the floor, still alive. Gwen pressed the point into his stomach.
He glared up at Gwen through slits for eyes. "How does a serving girl know how to use that?"
"I am not a serving girl, not anymore," she told him. "But I will always be a blacksmith's daughter."
She forced the sword through his skin and did not withdraw it until blood poured from his sputtering lips. She dropped the blade completely when he'd gone limp, and spun around to Arthur.
She cried his name as they ran across the room to meet each other. He picked her up in his arms and held her tight, closing his eyes into her soft, scented hair. It smelt of roses.
"I thought I'd never see you again," she admitted when he placed her safely back on the floor.
He grinned softly down at her, and her worry faded. Her lips, too, curved into a gentle smile. Neither of them saw Merlin look away.
Arthur's eyes dropped to the red pinprick on her neck. "Are you alright?" he asked, concerned, and wiped the blood away with his thumb.
"Yes, I'm unharmed," she assured him. Her eyes flashed behind him to Merlin, and her expression once again lit up. "Merlin," she cooed, pushing passed Arthur as she did so. "You, I always knew I'd see again," she said while shaking her head.
She threw her arms around him, making him wince.
"It's good to see you, too, Gwen," he told her, embracing her in return with one arm. However, as he rested his chin on her shoulder, he was looking at Arthur, studying him up and down like he was committing it all to memory.
Arthur returned the gaze. He couldn't look away, though he knew he should have been looking at Gwen.
"Oh, you're bleeding!" Gwen worried when the hug broke and she noticed Merlin's side.
"No, I'm fine," Merlin assured her, his hand going to his wound. The scarf was almost completely saturated now and dark circles were appearing under his eyes, but he shot Gwen his best, most handsome smile. It made Arthur's heart melt.
Apparently, it didn't have the same effect on Gwen, because she said, "We must take you to Gaius straight away."
"No," Merlin was saying as Arthur turned away and made for the window. He didn't catch the unintended urgency in Merlin's tone. "Really, I'm okay."
Arthur stepped over Joseph's body on his way towards the stained glass, only offering him a passing glance. When he opened the window to the courtyard below, he saw Joseph's men scattering and fleeing towards the gates. Those with weapons had given up on using them, and many lay strewn on the cobblestones.
"It seems Odin's men are in full retreat," Arthur observed, feeling a surge of pride as he caught sight of his knights and subjects.
Gwen was at it side shortly. "And good riddance," she added. "Camelot can return to normal now that its king is back where he belongs—as is Merlin."
Arthur's lips twitch up at the words. He had to agree.
He looked over his shoulder to where Merlin was standing, but Merlin was no longer there. Arthur would have felt his heart jump and skin prickle with goose bumps if he hadn't gone so numb.
"Merlin?" he said, softly at first. He scanned the room, but Merlin wasn't anywhere in sight. Arthur wanted to believe that Merlin had gone to Gaius, but somehow he knew that wasn't the case.
Arthur left Gwen's side. She was just as speechless as he was.
"Merlin?" he called, a little louder now. He rushed to the open doors of his chambers and looked both ways down the shadowy corridor. It was empty on both sides.
Arthur closed his eyes to it and opened them again slowly, hoping for Merlin to be there when he did. All remained still.
A shadow blocked the sunlight streaming through the cracks in the door. There was a soft knock. Merlin huffed at the wall. All he wanted to do was let his heavy, stinging eyes close and his shallow breaths even out. However, he propped himself up in bed, though it took an effort to do so. The dull pain at his side complained, and his hand shot to it to stifle the feeling.
"Come in," he groaned as loud as he could, and the door swung open to reveal Gwaine.
His eyes widened after he took in Merlin's state.
"My god, Merlin," he breathed, not bothering to close the door behind him as he rushed across the room and knelt down next to the bed. Merlin eyed the satchel at Gwaine's side. "You look—"
"Handsome?" Merlin tried to joke. His voice croaked.
"I was going to say like hell."
"Did you bring everything?" Merlin asked, sounding as exhausted as he felt. He didn't want to think about how he looked.
Gwaine nodded profusely, remembering the satchel, and dug into it. He spoke as he laid out a few potions, bandages, and a needle and thread for stitches on the bed. "I almost didn't get your message. Thought it was just a pesky crow that wouldn't fly away. Wasn't until I opened the window to shoo it away that I saw the note."
Merlin smiled as large as he could muster, but it looked drugged. "An old magic trick. Wings come in handy."
Gwaine held the needle over the fire pit to sanitize it and Merlin sat up straighter to struggle out of his shirt. It had been over a day, and the wound wasn't getting any better. As Gwaine threaded the needle, he caught sight of the blackened scar.
"Merlin," he said sternly.
"It's fine," Merlin breathed. "It just looks that way because I burnt it to stop the bleeding. It's not infected."
Gwaine dropped his shoulders in concern, but Merlin didn't pay him any mind. He fumbled to rid one of vials of its stopper. When it was open, he downed it in one go. It tasted like swamp water, but it would help with the pain. He shook the empty glass to his lips when it was drained to make sure he got every last drop. The other vials contained the same potion and would be used later for healing.
Then, he took in a few steadying breaths, readying himself for even more discomfort. "Alright," he whispered, gesturing for Gwaine to give him the needle. "Boil some water, will you?"
Gwaine jumped up immediately and emptied one of the vases of rainwater into a cooking pot. He set it over the fire pit and dragged a chair to Merlin's bedside.
Merlin sat as straight-backed as he could and craned his neck to get a good view of his wound. Bracing himself, he dug the needle into his skin and hissed at the sharp spike of pain. The scab started oozing with fresh crimson.
"I don't know why you don't just go to Gaius," Gwaine said, sounding squeamish.
Merlin only looked at him for a flash through his eyelashes before returning to what he was doing. Slippery red was getting all over his hands, but that was nothing new.
"I can't go back to Camelot, Gwaine," Merlin said, trying to sound preoccupied. "You know that."
"Of course, you can," Gwaine persisted. "Arthur sent out nearly every guard in Camelot to look for you. He even went himself—searched through the night. He was raging, telling everyone, when they found you, to take you straight to Gaius. He's worried about you, Merlin. Are you just gonna let him think you're dead?"
Merlin hadn't realized it, but his hand had frozen over his wound. He stared down blankly until his eyes stung with dryness, lost in Gwaine's words.
"You should come back with me, Merlin," Gwaine went on. "Everyone is talking about it. It's the citadel's worst kept secret: Arthur fought side-by-side with a sorcerer. Everyone knows what you did. They're thankful."
Merlin shook his thoughts away and got back to work. It didn't—couldn't—change anything.
"The law won't change for me, Gwaine."
"Arthur can't know I'm here!" he snipped, glaring at Gwaine to make his point clear. Gwaine pressed his lips together like he wanted to say something but was holding it back. "If he did . . ."
Merlin shook his head, feeling pressure build up behind his eyes that he wanted to attribute to the pain. He was too tired to keep his emotion down, but he did it anyway. Remaining silent had become a knee-jerk reaction.
"He'd have no choice but to kill me, or banish me—and that means I can't protect him," Merlin decided on, and that concern was true, but it wasn't the prominent reason Merlin left. He didn't want Arthur to bear the weight of that decision again.
"Okay," Gwaine said, begrudgingly accepting it. He pushed a tight smile to his face, though he didn't really mean it. "I won't tell him."
"Thank you," Merlin said, even though he wished Gwaine would talk him into it. He finished his stitches and nodded towards the fire. "Pass that here."
Gwaine brought over the water and a cloth, and Merlin cleaned off the blood and dirt. Next, he wrapped a bandage over his stomach a few times and slipped into a fresh tunic.
Gwaine stayed for a few more hours, ensuring that Merlin was fed and had fresh water. He didn't bring Arthur up again, but Merlin caught Gwaine regarding him out of the corners of his eyes, and knew he wanted to.
The chambers were quiet. They'd been so all morning; they'd been so for the last week. Gwen sat at the desk, scratching at some parchment with a quill. Arthur heard her writing from his place at the window as he watched the townspeople mill about below. Most of the damages from Joseph's short reign had been repaired, and life in Camelot was returning to normal. The usual maids with folded laundry in baskets giggled as they walked side-by-side, vendors called out their newest items for sale, and knights in red cloaks drifted along against the white stones near the well.
Arthur caught sight of a discrepancy. One knight was not in his chainmail and cloak.
Gwaine was dressed in a gray tunic and his old leather vest, like he was garbed for travel and didn't want to be recognized as a Knight of Camelot. He'd been wearing his old clothes quite often recently, and he would disappear for hours at a time. Arthur would sometimes catch him riding through the gates of the citadel, returning from wherever he had gone.
At first, Arthur didn't think much of it. Gwaine's business was his own, but now Arthur was curious. He'd tried casually asking Percival, Elyan, and Leon, all on separate occasions, if they knew where Gwaine was going, but they all claimed ignorance. But Arthur knew they'd noticed his absence, too.
Gwaine was readying his horse to leave again. His sword was strapped to the saddle, and the back end was loaded with a rough leather satchel. It didn't look like Gwaine was preparing to be gone for long. He would return later that day, just before nightfall, like he always did. Wherever he was headed, it was close—perhaps not far out of the city.
Arthur had his suspicions of what the satchel was full of. Gaius had reported some of his supplies missing just a few days ago, and there was only one other person who knew what to do with medical provisions.
Arthur jumped slightly in surprise. He hadn't expected Gwen to break the silence. He turned his head towards her questioningly.
She gave him a sad sort of smile. "Arthur," she said kindly. "Do you expect him to come back?"
He took in a steadying breath as he considered the question. "I don't see why he would," he finally answered, being honest with himself for the first time in days. He groaned and scrubbed his face as he spun away from the window and plopped down on the bed. His legs were more tired than he'd realized.
He nodded vaguely towards the window and world beyond it. "Out there, he could still be alive. And he could keep it that way. The minute he steps foot back in Camelot—"
"Your sentence still holds?" Gwen challenged, placing the quill next to the ink well. She shook her head. "You would retract it."
"I can't," he conceived himself, sounding hopeless, "not for a sorcerer."
"But for Merlin."
Arthur looked down at his hands on his lap. He heard Gwen shuffle and stand up.
"I think you're relieved he got away again, really," Gwen said, taking a few steps closer to him. The mattress dipped as she sat next to him, and he furrowed his brow at her.
"What do you mean?"
"You wouldn't hurt him any more than he'd hurt you," she said, looking at him pointedly. "You still care for him too much."
Arthur remembered what she said to him the first time Merlin escaped, about how Merlin loved him more than anyone.
He let out a breath through his nose. "How long have you known?" he asked, turning his eyes to the floor like a child caught sneaking out to play past his bedtime.
She snorted a short laugh. "Please. I think I knew before either of you did."
He couldn't stop the corner of his lips from twitching up, but his expression dropped immediately again. Gwen reached up and brushed at the side of his hair with her fingers.
"It's alright, Arthur," she soothed. "Neither of us were the other's first love, and maybe we won't be the last."
Arthur didn't know how to respond. She had a mournful look behind her bright eyes, but it wasn't for him. It was for someone else—her first love, and possibly her love, still.
"Guinevere, I'm sorry," Arthur found himself saying, "About what happened with Lancelot."
She gave him a look as though he wasn't to blame. No one was. "As am I."
She blinked the moisture away as he folded her hand in his and kissed it once. Then, he stood up again and paced towards the window. Gwaine was still at his horse, rifling through the satchel for something in particular. He apparently didn't find it, because he searched around for a servant. Muted by the closed window, Gwaine called a boy over and instructed him to hold his horse. Then, he hustled back up the steps into the castle.
Arthur knew this was his chance. He would not carry life-long regret for Merlin like Gwen did for Lancelot.
"I have to go," he said shortly, making up his mind. Without looking at her, he started out of the chambers. Gwen called after him questioningly. He didn't have time to explain.
Gwaine's footsteps echoed down the corridor. He was on his way back to the courtyard, and Arthur made sure to position himself on the wall of the adjacent hallway. Gwaine would have to come that way, and his footfalls grew ever louder.
He swung around the corner briskly, a blue tunic that wasn't his size clutched in one hand, and walked passed Arthur without noticing him.
"You know, consorting with a known sorcerer is a crime punishable by death," Arthur said, making Gwaine stop short. He stood up from his lean against the wall when Gwaine turned around apprehensively.
He licked his lips coolly before saying, "Don't know what you're talking about."
Arthur admired his loyalty. Most would say a knight's loyalty was supposed to be to his king, but Gwaine was always more than a knight. He was a friend—and he was Merlin's friend first.
"Gwaine," Arthur said sternly, pacing towards him.
Gwaine raised his chin in defiance and remained quiet. It made Arthur drop the act, and his eyes turned soft.
"Is he hurt?"
Gwaine looked down at the tunic in his fist. He must have decided it was useless to lie, because he answered, "He's healing."
Arthur felt relieved, but he wouldn't be content until he saw Merlin himself—alive and well.
"Gwaine," Arthur said again. He didn't sound commanding, but beseeching. "Where is he?"
Gwaine searched Arthur's face in consideration.
Merlin was doing a lot better. That is, he wasn't confined to his bed anymore, which was a small miracle. He hated just sitting around. There was a time when doing nothing would have been a blessing. It would have allowed for sleep. But now all it did was make his fingers tap and his legs shake with unused energy. They willed him to run through the trees, to use his magic in Arthur's defense against some creature or foe.
Gwaine had been a relentless nurse, however. He stopped by every day, making damn sure Merlin was rested and well and had more than enough food and medicine. Merlin should have been more thankful and less disgruntled. Looking back on it, now that he was feeling better, he supposed he was.
He still had to take it slow. Waves of fresh blood would still bloom on his tunic if he exerted himself too much, and he was quicker to losing his breath than normal. But the pain had subsided. He didn't even need Gaius' poppy milk anymore, which was a relief. It helped with the pain, but it also dulled his mind.
Sometimes he thought that wasn't such a bad thing. One night, he took it just to slow his tumbled thoughts as they circled around Arthur. Merlin promised himself he wouldn't do that again. Too many times had he seen a patient become reliant on the draft.
He was sitting next to the fire, stirring the rabbit stew, when there was a knock at the door. Merlin looked over his shoulder, waiting for Gwaine to step through the threshold, but the door remained closed.
Merlin found that odd but didn't think on it too much. Instead, he heaved himself up, ignoring the stiffness in his side, and hobbled towards the entrance. Beads of sweat were already forming on his temples despite the chill of the autumn day when he reached the door and opened it.
Arthur stood before him. The expression he wore seemed caught off guard, like he hadn't expected Merlin to answer, or like he'd considered running away before Merlin came to the door and missed his chance.
Merlin barely noticed. His breath caught and he took a few steps backward. His large eyes instantly flashed over Arthur's shoulders, expecting to see a dozen knights in red prepared to arrest him. No one was there; only Arthur's horse reigned to the fence.
"It's just me," Arthur assured him, holding up his palms like he had nothing to hide. "I'm alone."
Merlin pressed his lips together in a line, still searching behind Arthur, but he was satisfied that Arthur was telling the truth.
"You shouldn't be," he said. "The woods are a dangerous place, especially for a king."
Arthur sucked on his lower lip and nodded thoughtfully. "Can I come in, then?"
Merlin inwardly cursed Gwaine, but he nodded and stepped aside. Arthur paced through, scanning the one-room hut with disgust, which he probably didn't realize he was wearing, on his face.
"This was the hut that old sorcerer lived in, isn't it?" he asked, turning around to face Merlin.
Merlin opened his mouth to answer, but he closed it again. Admitting that would be admitting he was the old wizard, but it appeared not to matter. Arthur's eyes lit up like he'd worked it out.
"That was you," he said, not really asking.
Merlin nodded anyway.
"I should have known," Arthur said, turning away to run his gloved hand on the wooden shelves. He kneaded the lifted dust between his thumb and index finger. "He always did seem familiar."
"Sorry," Merlin said with a shrug, mostly because he didn't know what else to say.
Arthur looked back to him with a neutral expression. "Yes, well, if it was abandoned beforehand, you could have at least cleaned it up a bit." He pointed towards the corner of the room. "The pot I broke is still in shards."
Merlin eyed the broken pot with curiosity. He hadn't noticed it before.
"Um—did you come here to insult my living arrangements?" Merlin wondered.
"No," Arthur answered immediately, but he didn't sound apologetic. He looked down at his shoes, no longer able to stall the reason for his visit. "You left, Merlin."
"I didn't have a choice—"
"Yes, you did."
The room felt a little skewed off center. Merlin thought maybe he'd backpedaled, but really all he'd done was blink. He'd convinced himself that leaving was the right thing to do. He was still sure of it, but it was hard to be certain of anything when Arthur's eyes were so clear and blue against the bloodshot pink.
"I didn't want to make it hard on you," Merlin said. "That's why I made Gwaine promise not to tell."
Arthur scoffed. "Well, evidently, he isn't as good at sneaking around as you are. And, in case you haven't realized, you're still in my lands, Merlin. The law still applies."
Merlin raised a brow. "Should I expect your men knocking down my door?"
Arthur didn't say anything. He kept his gaze on Merlin, trying to win an unannounced staring competition. He looked angry, but that was only to combat the emotion. Being tense was preferable to being sad for Arthur; rage was better than tears. Merlin never understood it.
Soon, Arthur's eyes flashed downward to Merlin's gut. "You're bleeding," he said.
Merlin looked down, too, spotting the plume of shiny darkness on his blue tunic. He remembered he's run out of bandages and Gwaine was supposed to bring more.
"Oh," Arthur said like he'd read Merlin's mind. He started to shuffle, and it was only then that Merlin noticed the familiar satchel hanging at Arthur's side. He grabbed it by the strap and held it out for Merlin to take. "Gwaine gave me this for you. It has bandages and water and things."
Merlin risked a few steps closer in order to be in arm's reach. He slowly relieved Arthur of the bag and set it on the table. When he found what he needed, he peeled off his shirt and pretended he didn't notice that Arthur was trying not to look out of the corner of his eye.
He ripped the saturated gauze off with a hiss and twisted awkwardly to put on the new one. It was difficult to hold it down and plaster it on with one hand. The bandage flopped over so that it was no longer covering the wound.
Merlin didn't realize he'd groaned in frustration until Arthur stepped forward and said, "Let me." Before Merlin could argue, Arthur took off his gloves and leaned down to be level with the wound. As he patched it up, his knuckles brushed against Merlin's skin, making it prickle against the warmth. Merlin stared down at Arthur as he worked, aware of how intently Arthur was focusing on the wound to distract himself from looking up.
When he was finished, he straightened out and stepped back, clearing his throat in the meantime. "It'll scar," he said.
Merlin already knew that, but he didn't care. "That's alright," he admitted, taking the fresh shirt out of the bag and slipping into it. "It's healing, at least. It would have been a lot worse for someone—"
"Without magic?" Arthur guessed.
Merlin nodded slowly. "What will you do?" he whispered. Not for the first time since Arthur walked through the door, he realized there was a strong possibility that he could end up in the citadel's dungeons again, or he'd have to leave forever. He wasn't sure which was worse. Whatever his fate, he wished Arthur would decide it already.
"I don't know," Arthur told him genuinely. "What about you? You won't run off now, will you?" To both their surprise, Arthur looked a little frightened.
"No, I'm staying right here," Merlin promised, and Arthur seemed relieved by it. He took in a deep breath and blinked rapidly to get himself under control.
"Right," he said, making himself stand a little taller. His eyes found the window as the lowlight shimmered across his features. "I should go."
Merlin didn't want him to, but Arthur had already started for the door, so he could do nothing but nod.
"Yeah," he said, hoping his voice didn't sound too thick. His throat felt constricted. He wanted to ask when Arthur would come back, if he would come back at all, but he didn't. He waited until he heard Arthur's footsteps reach the exit, and the door creaked open.
Merlin counted his breaths, trying not to call for Arthur, trying to keep it down.
"Arthur," he said, spinning around to face him, before he could stop himself. Arthur looked more than expectant—maybe even a little hopeful. Merlin realized he didn't know how to follow it up.
"The satchel," he said lamely, picking it up from the table. "It's Gwaine's."
"Oh," Arthur said, trying not to sound disappointed as Merlin dumped the rest of the contents on the table. "Of course. I'll see that it gets to him."
He walked back and took the bag, holding it firmly between his hands like a lifeline. He scanned Merlin's torso, inspecting to make sure the bleeding hadn't started again, and didn't meet his eyes when he said, "Look after yourself, Merlin."
Merlin nodded but didn't choke anything out, so Arthur left. Merlin stood still until the gallops of his horse had faded away, and told himself it was only his imagination when he heard them returning.
The half-eaten bowl of porridge scraped across the wooden table until it hit a lip between the old planks. Merlin had to remember not to push the bowl away so hard; he had to guide it. He was used to smoother tabletops, polished and clean. The quirks of home should have come back to him like second nature, but it always surprised him how much he'd forgotten—all the nooks he used to hide in, all the creaks the nighttime wind made as it shook the windows.
"Merlin, finish your breakfast," Hunith said with some sixth sense, not even looking over her shoulder as she battled another loaf of bread into the already loaded rucksack.
He folded his arms on the table and leaned into them, watching her. She looked so delicate, like a porcelain doll with her hair tied up beneath a green scarf; but Merlin knew better than to overlook her calloused, worked palms and the fire in her eyes. His mother's fierce protection got him out of more than a few tough spots when he was growing up, when he didn't have mastery of his talents.
"I'm not hungry anymore," he told her, but she persisted.
"You have a long journey ahead of you." Her tone was becoming impatient. It still made him look down at the table and pick at the loose splinters between his thumb and index finger, like he'd done something wrong.
The old feeling of guilt somehow made him warm and comfortable.
"I'm still full from supper last night," he said, smiling softly. They'd had a similar conversation the day he first left for Camelot. Hunith had cooked him a feast and doted on him every moment. She'd even tucked him in to sleep that night, knowing it was the last time she'd ever do it—the last time she'd see her boy as a child. He also remembered her crying that night after she thought he'd fallen asleep. He'd tried his best not to cry, too.
Hunith gave a heavy sigh and gave up on the bread—or the conversation. Merlin assumed it was both.
She treaded over and perched herself in the chair opposite him.
"I just hate the idea of you going back," she said softly, shaking her head at the wall behind Merlin's back. His smile faded. He shouldn't have told her; he shouldn't have worried her. "Back to that shack. That's not why I sent you to Camelot."
He reached across the table, pushing the porridge bowl out of the way with his elbow, and folded her hands in his. "You sent me because you didn't know what else to do with me."
His tone held a special sort of tenderness reserved only for her, but his words didn't comfort her like he'd intended. A look of regret passed over her eyes.
"A mother is supposed to know how to care for her son," she whispered. He never knew she felt that way.
"That's what you did," he assured her when he realized he probably ought to say something.
She shook her head, not hearing it. "And look where you ended up? I sent you to a place where magic is outlawed, and now you've been discovered. You can't go back, Merlin. If Arthur decides to—"
"He won't." Merlin couldn't let her entertain that thought. He forced another bright smile to his cheeks, trying to look more convincing than he felt. It had been two weeks since he'd seen Arthur or Gwaine. Merlin had waited for either of them for half that time before giving up and heading for Ealdor for the comfort and a boost from his mother's bravado. He ended up having to give more than he received, which he thought was the main difference between child- and adulthood. It was suddenly his job to be his mother's crutch, not the other way around.
"You've said it yourself, Mother, he needs me . . . And I need him. I've got to go back. It's where I'm meant to be."
She scoffed and tore her hands from his, making him sit up straighter. She was rarely so abrupt, or had he missed something change in her? "Why, because some great big lizard in a cave told you so?"
His shock from her recoil subsided, and he found himself chuckling at her words. It broke her stony expression, and she waved the thought away with a laugh of her own.
"You're just as stubborn as your father," she admitted.
"No, he's not the one who taught me loyalty," Merlin said with gratitude, and the laughter lines faded from Hunith's face. She nodded, and he knew it was time to leave.
He picked himself up from the table and strode towards the overstuffed pack. With a word of magic, he fit the bread into it and tied the straps. His mother was at his side when he lifted it, helping him fit his arms into it.
She cupped his face into her rough, gentle hands when he turned to her. "You've grown up so much," she told him, but she looked up at him like she still saw a boy. He didn't know what to say to that, so he hugged her tight, resting his chin on her shoulder and feeling her palm caress his hair.
"Don't forget to write," she asked of him when the embrace broke.
"I never do," he answered lightly.
"Yes, you do."
"Bye, Mother," he said, stalling just a moment longer to burn this image into his head: Hunith in their hut, his mother against the backdrop of old, ripped linens and stone. He wondered when he'd stopped calling it home.
He didn't look back when he made his way out the door and onto the dirt path leading towards the forest, but he knew she had followed him out. She would lean against the doorframe with her arms folded across her chest, watching him like a hawk until he disappeared from her view. Sometimes, even when he was miles into the tree line, he could still feel her gaze on his back.
On his way out of the village, he passed both new and familiar faces. The new ones gave him a smile and a nod; the familiar ones looked at him like he was trouble. He absorbed it all, aware of mothers beating the dust out of carpets and girls hanging up the laundry while their brothers tended to the crops that grew in the small gardens with their fathers.
A cart full of autumn fruits and vegetables wobbled as it passed him going in the opposite direction, and Merlin snatched a shiny green apple from the back when the vendor wasn't looking. He tossed it up in the air and caught it again before crunching into it. He wasn't even hungry, but fresh stolen apples always tasted sweet. He and Will used to compete for the highest number, and they would run into the woods to count their spoils.
Merlin walked by the hut Will grew up in, though he knew he wouldn't see anyone he remembered. Will's parents died before he did, his father in battle and his mother in childbirth, in which the little girl also died before she even opened her eyes. There was a new, young family inside the hut. He didn't recognize them. At least the hut hadn't been left to rot. Life went on, like it should, like it must. If Merlin learned anything, it was that.
It took nearly three days to reach the outskirts of Camelot. He knew the road well, and often became lost in thought before suddenly realizing he'd walked a mile or two that he couldn't recollect. His feet guided him with muscle memory alone.
The journey wasn't as lonely as he remembered from the first time. Deer snapped twigs along the path, rabbits rustled in the dead leaves, and crows filled the silence with their manic laughter. The entire forest was lit in shades of amber. When night fell, he could see the black sky through the bare branches. He loved the autumn stars, so crisp and white. He thought that with a brush of his fingers he could scatter them into new patterns and paint new constellations. He wondered if he could draw Arthur's face amongst them.
He wondered if Arthur would look at the sky and see it.
It was mid-afternoon when he reached his hut. Camelot was still standing in the distance, so he felt less guilty about leaving it for a few days. Luckily, no animals had nested in the hut and no wild men squatted there for the night. It appeared untouched, like everyone and everything in the world had no idea it was even there.
Except for one person.
There was a folded up piece of parchment on the table. Merlin noticed it the moment he stepped inside. Dropping his pack at the door, he headed for the paper and picked it up. He didn't open it at first, but instead gripped it between his hands in trepidation. He didn't know why, but his heart rate kicked up. He half expected the letter to be one word in Gwaine's handwriting: Run.
His Adam's apple shook as he swallowed hard, and he unfolded the paper.
Merlin recognized the handwriting immediately, and he could hear Arthur's voice as clearly as if he were in the room reciting:
I came by but you weren't in. I assume you haven't run off for good since this place is still a pig's sty. You should consider cleaning it. I'm sure you have a trick or two for that.
He read the letter again, over and over, and fell into the chair despite the surge of energy he suddenly felt.
Arthur had come back. Not to arrest him. Not to kill him. Not to make threats or get angry. Arthur came back to check on him—to tell him to clean.
He felt positively giddy at the notion.
Merlin bit at his thumb, shaking his head and laughing breathlessly at the curved letters. When he'd finished reading it for the dozenth time, he jumped up from the table and searched for a clean piece of parchment.
Gwen was laughing. To his own surprise, Arthur was laughing, too—genuinely. He'd just finished telling her about a squire during training that day who accidentally ran headfirst into a tree while chasing one of the dogs. He was unharmed, which was why the story was allowed to be funny. Arthur wasn't able to laugh at it when it happened. That would be unkingly. He was glad he could joke about it now, sitting across from Gwen at the dinner table in the privacy of their chambers.
"Perhaps he'll pay attention to where he's going next time," Gwen said with litany still lining her tone before she popped a fig into her mouth.
"Or maybe I should knight the dog instead," Arthur joked, making her rumble again.
His mood had improved greatly since the last time he'd seen Merlin. Knowing Merlin was close by, and he could find him whenever he liked, comforted Arthur for a reason he couldn't quite place. It was still odd having George standing outside the door rather than Merlin, but at least the uncertainty of his whereabouts had evaporated. Merlin stayed. Merlin wanted to stay.
Sometimes, Arthur looked out the window of his chambers at the brown, dead trees, imagining he could see a campfire's smoke furling upward in the distance. It made him feel . . .
The images he saw in the enchanted crystals still flashed before his imagination from time to time.
Arthur was certain that Gwen had noticed him brighten, but she didn't mention it.
The doors opened, drawing both Gwen and Arthur's eyes.
"Sire, announcing the queen's brother, Sir Elyan," George said. He stepped to the side and Elyan brisked through, only half shooting him a curious glare on the way. It had been weeks, and people were still unused to George's efficiency and tact.
"Gwen," Elyan greeted with a smile and a nod when he stopped before the table. "Arthur. I was wondering if I could steal my sister away for a walk through the gardens? It will be too cold for that soon enough."
Gwen's face lit up. "Of course!" she exclaimed, folding her napkin on the table before her and standing up. "Just let me get my—"
"My queen," George offered, already holding up her shimmering teal cloak for her to slip into.
"Oh," she stammered, but George didn't even blink as he came up behind her and tied it loosely around her neck. "Thank you, George," she recovered, and she flipped her long waves out from under the cloak. After shooting Arthur a grin, she hooked her arm into Elyan's and asked, "Shall we?"
When they strolled out, George turned his focus on Arthur. With a bow of his head, he asked, "Sire, is there anything else you require?"
"No, George," Arthur said with a half smirk, pushing his plate away. George was beginning to grow on him, despite Arthur's best efforts. "That will be all."
George collected the empty plate and half-finished platters to take back to the kitchen.
Arthur sat in the quiet for some time, closing his eyes to the buzzing white noise of total silence. He fancied he could hear the hustle of the kingdom. Beneath his feet, he imagined he heard servants cleaning the throne room and polishing the Round Table, knights and nobles toiling in the corridors, and the clattering of pots and pans in the kitchen. He was aware of every moving part of the castle, every heartbeat, every breath.
A tapping sound echoed through him. This noise was real, and it made his eyes shoot open. It was coming from somewhere nearby, perhaps in the room.
It came again, rhythmic and annoying. Arthur's ears prickled towards the source, and he turned his head to the stained glass window near the bed. A black crow stood on the ledge outside, cocking its head at him.
As though asking to be let in, the bird cracked its dark beak against the glass a few more times. Arthur turned away, trying his best to tune it out. The crow continued to knock.
When Arthur couldn't take it anymore, he slid back his chair and crossed towards the window.
"Go away," he whined, flapping his hands towards the bird.
Clink clink clink.
Arthur tapped back, hoping to spook it away. It didn't work.
Clink clink clink.
Huffing, Arthur opened the window. "Go!" he called, waving his hand rapidly to shoo it away.
The crow leapt from the ledge and flapped its wings. It flew over Arthur's head with a squawk and fluttered into the room. Arthur instinctually ducked and shielded his head with his arms.
When the shock died away, he realized the room had gone quiet again. He straightened out, searching for the crow. It was perched on the back of his chair at the table, staring at him inquisitively. Arthur took it as a challenge.
"Get out," he demanded, baring his teeth.
The bird merely hopped, repositioning itself on the chair to show Arthur its side.
"Do you want to die?" Arthur threatened, gesturing towards his sword, which hung in its sheath off the back of another chair at the table.
The bird crooned again but did not move. Arthur dropped his arm back to his side with frustration. He stared the bird down, but it didn't budge. Giving up on reasoning with it, he strode towards the sword and breathed out, "You asked for it." He didn't know if he'd actually kill the bird, but maybe swinging his blade at it would at least get it flying again. He could chase it back out the window.
However, as he drew closer, he noticed something wrapped around the crow's leg. It was a small, rolled up piece of parchment. Arthur gaped, forgetting the sword completely. He took a step towards the crow, now careful not to spook it. He crept as silently as he could, tentatively reaching out his hands. The crow didn't fight when Arthur picked it up, and it even stuck out its leg to allow Arthur to unwind the paper.
As soon as the parchment was free, the crow squawked and beat its wings against Arthur's enclosed fist. Arthur let it go and watched it fly straight out the window.
"What on Earth?" he said under his breath, and looked at the crumpled paper in his hands. It seemed to be ripped off from a larger piece of parchment, as to not weigh down the bird, and Arthur unrolled it to find a short note addressed to him—sort of.
You sound like my mother! That's where I was, by the way. She wanted me to stay in Ealdor, but I told her I had to return to Camelot. You'd get bored without me.
Arthur blinked down at the scribble. No matter how much he tried to work out what had just happened, he was still perplexed. Could Merlin really command birds?
After a few moments, his confusion waded away, leaving only waves of bliss that pulled the corners of his lips upward. He hadn't realized it until then, but he'd been waiting for Merlin's response.
Still gripping the note in his fist, he left his chambers and rushed (but not quickly enough to raise suspicion, or as quickly as he would have liked) to Gwaine's chambers on the opposite wing of the castle.
He didn't knock on his way in. Gwaine was sitting half-undressed in his armchair near the window. He shot up in alarm and spilled a few dribbles of the wine he was sipping down his chest when he heard the door open.
"Ever heard of knocking?" he said, not sounding too perturbed. Arthur closed the door fully behind him before stalking further into the room.
"Are you going to Merlin's tomorrow?" he demanded, not bothering with pleasantries.
Gwaine furrowed his brow and kicked his legs over the arm of the chair to get more comfortable. "Wasn't planning on it."
"You're going," Arthur said pointedly.
Gwaine shrugged as took another pull of wine. "Guess I'm going, then."
"Good," said Arthur, relieved that the conversation had gone easier than he'd anticipated. He hustled back to the door, wanting to get back to his own chambers before George realized he was gone. He pointed back at Gwaine as he walked and called over his shoulder, "And come see me before you go! I have something for him."
The remainder of the night consisted of Arthur rereading Merlin's letter and trying to craft a witty, yet subtle return.
They'd finished a whole chicken between the two of them. Gwaine had stolen it from the royal kitchen, and he was fortunate he didn't get caught. The cook would have cut his head off with a butcher's knife, especially if she knew it was going to Merlin. Knowledge of his magic or not, she hated Merlin from their first meeting and he never knew why.
"You've got a dishonest face," she'd scold, to which Merlin only ever responded with innocence and mock offense.
Merlin giggled at the memory and squirmed into the fur he and Gwaine had placed on the floor like a picnic blanket to combat the dust-ridden floorboards. His face felt hot and red, and the ceiling swam above him in a distance blur.
Gwaine hadn't only brought a chicken. He'd brought wine.
Next to Merlin, Gwaine was on his back, too, reaching his arms up to the bright silver light of the moon that poured through window. He swung his wrists like he was conducting an invisible orchestra. He let some inner tune flow through him as he sang with slurred words:
"Man in the moon stand and strides;
On his boatfork his burden he beareth.
It is a great wonder that he down does not slide;
For fear, lest he fall, he shuddereth and veereth.
When the frost freezeth, much chill he bides.
There's no-one in the world who knows where he sits,
Unless it be the hedge, what clothes he weareth…"
Merlin joined in, unable to keep breaths of laughter from intermittently escaping him as he stumbled on the lyrics.
"…Whither, think you, hath this man gone?
He hath set one foot in front of the other,
In any height he's reached, I have never seen him shaken;
He is the slowest man that ever was born!"
Rumbling chests drowned out the last of the words, and Gwaine sat up to pluck the wineskin away from Merlin's side and put it out of reach.
"I think you've had enough," he said. "Always have when you get that red."
Merlin sat up, too, ignoring the fact that the room was suddenly spinning, and rested his head in his palm to steady it. "You're probably right."
Gwaine looked back at the moon like he'd only just realized what it was.
"Ah, is it that late already?" he asked. "I'd better be getting back. Training in the morning."
Merlin was wary about Gwaine traveling alone through the forest at night, though he knew he could handle himself and had done so for many years. In fact, the bandits probably had more to worry about if they crossed his path. Still, Merlin asked, "You're sure? You could stay here until daybreak?"
Gwaine was already on his feet, shaking his head. "Nah. I'm not as much of a lightweight as you, Merlin." A playful smirk formed on his lips, not at all belittling. "I can hold my wine."
Merlin swatted at Gwaine's leg, but missed by an inch and wobbled. "Get out!"
"Oh! Almost forgot," Gwaine realized. "I'm here under orders. Have something for you."
"I thought you just wanted to keep me company," Merlin said smartly, furling his nostril like he was insulted.
Gwaine crossed to his satchel on the table and rifled through it. Merlin scrambled to his feet in anticipation when Gwaine pulled out a rolled up piece of parchment and held it out in offering.
Merlin gawked down at it and made no move towards it.
"He wrote back?"
Gwaine shrugged, obviously having no idea what Merlin was talking about. "Apparently so."
Merlin reached out for it slowly, his long fingers shaking tensely. When he finally got close enough for his fingertips to graze the paper, Gwaine jerked it away teasingly.
Merlin huffed and tightened his jaw. "Gwaine!"
"Sorry," Gwaine laughed, holding the letter out again. "But you should see your face."
Merlin snatched the parchment from Gwaine before he could pull any more tricks, and he had half a mind to smack him with the rolled up paper but he refrained. Instead, he turned away for privacy and unrolled the letter.
You shouldn't have left Ealdor. You could have been a farmer with little farmer children.
I'm glad you've decided to stay.
The postscript made Merlin feel even lighter than the wine. The warm flush in his cheeks moved to his chest. It sobered him instantly.
"Say anythin' interesting?" Gwaine wondered after a beat, and Merlin remembered he was still there.
"Yeah," he said happily. "Hold on; stay right there!"
Rolling the letter up and sticking it in his trouser pocket for safekeeping, Merlin ran to the shelves for another yellowed scrap of paper, a ruffled quill, and the nearly dried out vial of ink. He brought them all to the table.
"No! Merlin," Gwaine complained. "I'm not turning into your messenger boy."
"Come on," Merlin pleaded, looking at him with his most desperate eyes. "You have to return to Camelot anyway. You can give this to Arthur."
Gwaine sighed deeply, which told Merlin he'd relented. Merlin started scratching the paper.
"You two should start paying me."
"I would if I had any money."
"Would you?" Gwaine asked, perking up.
"Nope," Merlin responded in a preoccupied tone as he finished the quick note. He straightened out again, folded it up, and handed it to Gwaine, who looked down at it with curiosity.
"Can I at least read it?" he asked.
"No!" Merlin shouted like it was obvious.
"I'm gonna read it!" Gwaine taunted, and he made a run for the exit.
But he was already out the door. Merlin didn't mind anyway. His cheeks still ached from smiling.
Arthur paced in front of the hearth as the roaring fire made his silhouette dance on the floor and the walls. He was beginning to worry. Gwaine had never been out this late. What if he'd been seen by one of the patrols? What if they asked him what he was doing wandering about the woods in common clothes? What if they found Arthur's letter to Merlin?
He couldn't be seen communicating with a fugitive. It would make him seem weak minded in his beliefs. If word of that spread to the other kingdoms . . .
There was a knock at the door, and Arthur's eyes shot to it immediately.
"Come in," he called, trying not to sound too urgent.
It was Gwaine. He strolled through like there was all the time in the world.
"Where the hell have you been?" Arthur demanded, forgetting to keep cool.
"Didn't know I was on a schedule," Gwaine excused apathetically. "Anyway, I have this." He pulled Merlin's small, now balled up scrap of paper from his pocket.
Arthur remembered to put on a calm air. He strode towards Gwaine, ignoring the itch in his fingers towards the note.
"Maybe next time he'll be man enough to deliver it himself," Arthur said, relieving Gwaine of the note without being too swift about it.
"Think he's waiting on you for that," Gwaine said lightly, but it struck Arthur in the chest.
He suddenly remembered why Merlin couldn't deliver his own letters. He remembered what had gotten them into this mess in the first place. That seemed so long ago now.
Arthur stepped away from Gwaine so he wouldn't see the tenderness of his eyes. He focused on the paper in his hand, so weighted for something so flimsy. He opened it up, smoothing out the wrinkles, and read:
I'm glad I decided to stay, too.
His chest constricted. His stomach flopped. His limbs felt heavy, like they might sink him into the floor.
"What's it say?" Gwaine asked, although Arthur was certain he already knew.
"Nothing," he answered. He crumpled it in his fist and tossed it into the flames, watching it blacken and curl until its ashes floated upward on the heat waves. He rested his palm on the stone hearth and let the orange glow sting his eyes.
"That's it?" Gwaine asked. He almost sounded let down. "You're not gonna force me into going again tomorrow? No other secret love letters?"
"No," Arthur said curtly. He couldn't take the burning anymore. He rubbed his eyelids with his thumb and finger. "That's all."
There was silence. Gwaine hadn't moved; Arthur could feel his stare piercing into his back. Sometimes he forgot how good Gwaine was at reading people.
"Arthur—," Gwaine began, his voice kinder now.
Arthur cut him off. "Goodnight," he said through his teeth.
Thankfully, Gwaine gave up and left, and Arthur turned away from the fire. Its amber glow reminded him too much of Merlin's eyes.
Days went by and there was still no response from Arthur. Merlin tried making excuses for it. Maybe Arthur was busy. He was king, after all. Merlin knew how many late nights that entailed, in which Arthur, and by extension Merlin, didn't have a moment to himself. He had a kingdom to run. Or maybe Gwaine had teased him about the letters like he had Merlin, and Arthur responded by putting up a front.
Still, every time Gwaine visited and left Merlin empty handed, Merlin pretended he couldn't feel the endless pit in his stomach. He tried not to be disappointed, but it was hard, especially since he was left completely in the dark. Gwaine never said anything about Arthur anymore.
Finally, after two weeks has passed, Gwaine showed up at the hut with a letter in hand. It was folded neatly and waxed together with the Pendragon seal to ensure Gwaine couldn't read it.
Merlin felt sparks of electricity fly beneath his skin as he hastily took the letter. He ripped the seal off, not bothering to be delicate. He was too excited. He gripped the open letter tightly in his hands before becoming fearful of tearing it in two and slackening his hold.
It was longer than usual—almost a full page of writing. Merlin's exuberance immediately became worry. He imagined Arthur sitting at his desk with the black sky at his back, writing into the small hours of the morning. He imagined discarded attempted crumpled up and thrown on the floor. He imagined Arthur staring down at the words until he was satisfied with them.
Sometimes I wish you had stayed in Ealdor. Not this time, but the first time. In the recent weeks, I've wished you had never come to Camelot in the first place. Maybe then this wouldn't have been so hard, or maybe I would have been dead by now. I don't know.
I keep asking myself why you lied—or, no. I understand why you did it. You've made yourself entirely clear, and don't think I'm not thankful for your sacrifices. I am. But, I should say, I keeping asking myself how you lied. Was it ever difficult? For years, how could you look me in the eyes and lie, even after all the times you claimed—
Arthur seemed to have regretted the last bit. He left the sentence unfinished and crossed over the last few words, but Merlin could only just make them out. He understood what Arthur wanted to say. How can you love someone and lie to him?
He read on:
I don't question if I can trust your loyalty. I just wish I knew whether or not I could trust you.
The air in the room felt thick, and Merlin wasn't sure he could swallow it. He wasn't sure he even wanted to anymore. The sunlight streaming into the room was suddenly weak and dim, and he felt cold. He stared at the letter blankly until his vision blurred and the ink bled together.
Gwaine must have noticed the change in his demeanor, must have watched his expression fade, because he asked in his concerned tone, "Merlin?"
Merlin blinked the water back into his eyes and let his arms swing to his sides.
"Everything alright?" Gwaine pressed, tilting his head slightly to the side to get a better read on Merlin.
Merlin pushed a low-voltage smile to his face that he was sure Gwaine saw straight through.
"Fine," he lied brightly.
Gwaine wasn't convinced and Merlin knew it. Not wanting to be asked any questions, he turned away and plopped down at the table. It was more splintered than the one in Hunith's hut.
"It's getting dark," Merlin said, trying to sound casual. "You should get back to Camelot before nightfall."
Gwaine jerked his head back and continued to study Merlin. Merlin didn't even look in his direction. "You sure?"
Merlin nodded. He didn't trust himself to speak passed the lump in his throat. He kept his eyes cast on his lap, pretending not to notice that Gwaine was still there. After a few seconds that felt like a lifetime, Gwaine finally left Merlin in the quiet.
Merlin never wrote back to Arthur. That wasn't for a lack of trying. He'd certainly tried, dozens of times. In his head, it was perfect—just the right combination of words to get Arthur to understand, to forgive him, even if he didn't deserve it. But, whenever he wrote them down, the words were lacking and meaningless.
And some nights he knew, without doubt, that his destiny was wrong. Arthur would never accept magic. He would never accept Merlin.
It was the first week of December, and the old hut in the forest was unrecognizable. It looked like new. The leaks and holes in the roof were fixed, the bugs and critters living in the cracks in the walls were scared away, the floor was swept, and the clutter was organized. Merlin even set up a pantry, stocked with provisions and medicine. Outside, the broken stone wall and wooden fence had been repaired and the tangled weeds had been snipped. The frost covered the straw and grass, tinting them blue.
There was a knock on the door, and Merlin looked over his shoulder at it as he stood on the mattress, hanging a piece of red cloth over the window.
"Come in," he called, expecting to hear Gwaine's voice after the opening creak of the door.
However, after the sunlight flooded over the wooden floor, casting a silhouette of a man standing in the rectangle of light, no friendly hello and constant chatting immediately followed.
Merlin looked over his shoulder again to find Arthur. He let the cloth slip from his fingers.
"You've cleaned the place," Arthur said after clearing his throat.
Merlin found a lump in his own.
"Yeah," he said at last, getting over the shock. "I figured it was time to move in properly."
Arthur pulled a frown and nodded his head as he took a few more paces inside. "When I was a boy, my tutors used to warn me not to trust men who lived in the woods. Supposedly, they were all mad."
"Well, that's alright. You don't trust me, anyway," Merlin said, trying to press a bright smile to his lips despite the empty ache he felt in his chest. He jumped down from the bed and landed on the floor with a slight thud, and Arthur scanned him up and down with interest all the while.
"That's why I'm here, actually," he finally said, and the hollow feeling in Merlin's chest dropped into his stomach.
He stood completely still, watching carefully as Arthur walked slowly towards him.
"I want you to tell me the truth, Merlin."
"You already know the truth," Merlin said, not quite sure what Arthur was playing at.
"Yes, but that's not the same as you telling me, is it?"
Merlin swallowed hard. "No," he admitted.
"Good," Arthur snipped, taking on the tone of a diplomat. Merlin felt like he was being interrogated as Arthur finally stopped walking, just a few feet in front of him, and looked him in the eyes with intent. "I'm going to ask you a few questions, and I want you to answer them honestly."
Merlin kept his lips pressed together, but he stared back and nodded.
"Tell me what you are," Arthur said at once.
"A sorcerer," Merlin answered quickly.
"You studied magic?"
"I was born with it."
Arthur's brows shot up, but he apparently decided that Merlin was telling the truth. "I didn't know that was possible."
Merlin didn't answer, so Arthur went on, "But you had a book of magic. Who gave it to you?"
Merlin took in a sharp a breath, making sure to keep Arthur's gaze. "My father."
Merlin's heart skipped a beat at being called that word. He always dreaded the day Arthur would call him that. Part of him thought Arthur was sadistically torturing him; but upon looking harder, he knew Arthur took no pleasure in this.
He let the breath go.
Arthur looked staggered. "He knew? For how long?"
"Since the moment I arrived in Camelot," Merlin said. "He knows everything."
Arthur looked away, his mind apparently spinning.
"You shouldn't blame him, Arthur. He was just—"
Arthur held up a palm to silence him, and his gaze swept back to Merlin.
"Have you ever hurt anyone with your magic?"
"Yes," Merlin said, his gaze unconsciously flickering downwards.
Arthur narrowed his eyes at him. "Have you ever killed anyone? Other than Kay."
Merlin hesitated for a moment, but then he nodded. "Only those who threatened you."
Arthur gave a humorless breath of laughter, paired with a bitter smile. "Why did you think all that responsibility fell on you? Protecting Camelot? Protecting me?"
Merlin considered the question. "At first, I thought it was because I was supposed to. I thought I'd found a reason for my magic—that it was my destiny to help you become the greatest king this land has ever known."
Arthur's eyes were narrowed again, but now they were softer. "And then?"
"Then, it was because I believed you'd be a great king," Merlin said, biting his bottom lip softly. He knew what the next question would be, and he knew the answer. Because, he didn't know when but somewhere along the way, Arthur had become more important than Albion. Arthur had become the most important thing.
"And now?" Arthur asked, almost in a whisper.
"Because I love you," Merlin answered without blinking. He said it like it was a fact, because it was.
Arthur tightened his jaw to guard himself, but his eyes betrayed him.
"Still?" he wondered. "Even after I tried to kill you? After . . . everything?"
"Still," Merlin answered with all his heart.
Arthur continued to stare at him directly. He stayed like that for a long time, and his eyes became more vulnerable with every moment passed. His face became less stony.
He nodded in realization.
Merlin's heart leapt again, but this time in utter disbelief mixed with complete joy. He gave a breath that could have been of relief, and could have been a sob.
Arthur had closed the space between them quickly. He grabbed onto Merlin's cheeks, bringing him close into a bruising kiss, pushing and pulling and opening his mouth into Merlin's like he was famished. Merlin reciprocated immediately.
He held the back of Arthur's neck steady, massaging his fingers into the soft blonde hairs, so Arthur couldn't lean back—so Merlin wouldn't have to chase him. Arthur never even attempted it.
Arthur tugged at Merlin's jacket and fumbled with the sleeves, trying to pull it off. Merlin struggled out of it quickly and tossed it to the floor before bringing his hands back to Arthur. He grasped Arthur's biceps, but he couldn't feel their muscles. Arthur was always covered in too many layers: cold chainmail and bulky padding. Merlin hated them, and not just because he was the one who had to launder them.
He undid the belt around Arthur's waist before helping Arthur out of the chainmail shirt. It clunked heavily onto the floor when they tossed it away, but Merlin barely heard it. The only thing he was interested in were Arthur's already panting breaths.
He kissed Arthur's cheeks and jaw sporadically, down his neck to the padding's tied laces and undid the knot with his teeth. He'd done that once before, and it had made Arthur chuckle deeply. Arthur didn't laugh this time. He made an overwrought grunt and pulled Merlin's tunic up as far as it could go before getting stuck in his belt.
Quickly, Merlin straightened out and tore the belt off, followed by his shirt. Arthur took the opportunity to fumble with unlacing the rest of his padding and fighting out of it. Merlin couldn't wait for the tunic to come off, too. He was just happy he could finally access some skin.
He crashed their lips together again and brought his hands up and under Arthur's tunic. The fabric bunched as Merlin's fingers rediscovered the curves and muscles of Arthur's solid back.
Arthur dipped his head down to nibble on Merlin's collarbone until the skin was red; and then he trailed down to Merlin's chest to draw circles with his tongue over the nipples. Merlin felt beads of sweat forming on his hairline, and he realized those strangled noises he was hearing were coming from him.
Arthur stood up and pulled his tunic over his head to discard it, and Merlin stared down his chest. He had to bite his lower lip as he admired the tanned, sweat-slick skin and the shimmering golden hairs. It was always so hard to watch Arthur pacing around his chambers shirtless while Merlin couldn't touch.
But now he could. He reached out both palms and ran his hands up and down the warm skin.
Arthur hummed and crowded into Merlin a little closer. When he tilted his head in for a kiss, it was much gentler and slower, like Arthur was trying to savor the moment.
Merlin dragged one hand down Arthur's stomach and down the front of his trousers. Arthur hissed sharply into his mouth, and it made Merlin smirk into the kiss. He kneaded the heel of his palm over the base of Arthur's arousal, causing even more choked sounds.
Then he withdrew his fingers and pressed their bodies together, close enough to feel Arthur's heartbeats—close enough for Arthur to feel Merlin's erection against his thigh.
Arthur immediately deepened the kiss and took a few steps backward, making Merlin take stumbling forward steps until the back of Arthur's legs hit the base of the bed. They toppled over on the mattress together, and Arthur gave an unhappy grunt.
"What have you been sleeping on? A rock?" he complained.
Merlin laughed. He sat up, straddling Arthur and walking his fingers up his chest.
"Not all of us can sleep on the finest feathers," he chided.
Arthur hummed, a smirk playing on his face. He sat up swiftly to meet Merlin, who cupped his hands over Arthur's cheeks. He kissed him tenderly, relishing in the warmth of Arthur's tongue and sticky breaths. When he pulled away for air, Arthur bit gently at Merlin's lower lip before releasing him.
Merlin pressed his forehead against Arthur's and closed his eyes. As the air caught up with him, he breathed Arthur in. Arthur smelled sweet, like fresh soap mixed with a kiss of forest air.
Arthur buried his face into Merlin's neck, and Merlin angled his head up to give him more room as Arthur kissed around his Adam's apple.
Merlin felt Arthur pressing into his ass. He reached between them and undid the tie on Arthur's trousers.
The flames in the grated pit licked up, and their sparks formed a small dragon, its color as bright and gold as Merlin's irises. It flapped its wings a few times before smoldering away. Merlin curled his fingers back into his palm and dropped his hand.
He rested his head back on the mattress and pressed his spine closer against Arthur's chest. He looked up at Arthur out of the corners of his eyes, trying to read his expression. Arthur gave nothing away. He continued to stare at the fire halfway across the room as though he expected something else to happen.
Arthur shuffled, readjusting his position ever so slightly to prop himself up on his elbow. He used his free hand to ghost his knuckles over the bare skin of Merlin's arm. Merlin continued to stare, watching as the morning light from the window framed Arthur and made the tips of his hair glow. He'd forgotten all about putting the curtain up.
"I always knew there was something different about you," Arthur said in a low voice, "Something—"
"You couldn't but your finger on?" Merlin chimed in, smirking.
Arthur knitted his brow together in perplexity for a moment, but then a look of remembrance passed over him.
Merlin was distracted for a moment when Arthur stopped caressing his arm with his fingers to instead use his flat palm.
"Did the word magic ever cross your mind?" Merlin wondered.
"Maybe once or twice—or three times," Arthur admitted with a sigh. "I always tried to push it away when I thought it."
Merlin wrinkled his nose in curiosity. "Why?"
Arthur let out a noise that was not quite a laugh.
"All my life, I was taught to believe magic and everyone who practiced it was pure evil," he said. "I even believed it every once in awhile. It killed both my parents, it corrupted Morgana." He dragged his hand down Merlin's body, beneath the blanket, until he reached his outer thigh and rested there. "It was evil, but that wasn't you. You didn't have an evil bone in your body," he continued, absentmindedly stroking Merlin's skin with his thumb. He looked deep in thought. "You were always just—just Merlin," for the lack of a better word.
Still, Merlin understood his meaning.
"Magic doesn't have to be evil," he said, now that he was free to do so. "It can be used for good. I've met many people with magic who just want to live normal, safe lives, and maybe help others whenever they can. And I've met sorcerers who would have all men bow to them," he allowed. "Some of them even asked me to join them."
Arthur looked surprised by this. "You should have taken them up on their offer," he said, not really meaning it. "Things would have probably turned out better for you."
Merlin snorted. Looking around the dank little hut he was in now, he couldn't disagree. However, Arthur was still lying beside him, stroking his thigh, so perhaps things weren't so bad, after all.
"I don't want any of that," Merlin said.
"I know," said Arthur, punctuating it by pecking a kiss to Merlin's cheek. It made Merlin smile.
However, the smile faded when Arthur took his arm away and stretched his body out with an air of finality. Merlin rolled over onto his back to get a better look at him.
"Do you have to go back?" he asked, taking Arthur's hands in his own and playing with his fingers. He twirled the silver band around Arthur's thumb. "Stay here with me."
"I have a better idea," Arthur said, raising both brows. "Why don't you come back with me?"
Merlin pouted his lips to the side in thought. "Wouldn't the guards try to kill me on the spot?"
"They do what I say," Arthur reminded him.
"You should talk to Court first," Merlin advised. "Tell them you want to give a sorcerer in Camelot an exception, just this once."
"Maybe not just this once," Arthur muttered, seeming to think it aloud. Merlin's eyes snapped to his in shock, and in hope. Arthur opened his mouth and stammered upon realizing he'd said that out loud.
"Maybe," he stressed. "It's just talk. A decision to undo an established ruling requires more than just talk."
Merlin nodded fervently. At least it was something, and he'd least he'd be there to help Arthur make the decision.
Arthur dropped his urgent demeanor and sighed down at Merlin. "But, Merlin, if you do want to come back," he began, sounding a little sad. "I can't—We can't . . ."
"I know," Merlin said in a whisper. He tried to brighten his eyes, tried to push a grin to his face. He knew Arthur was still king. He still needed an heir, and he was still in the public eye. He still had Gwen. He knew he couldn't have Arthur's whole heart; too much of it already belonged to Camelot.
Merlin couldn't hold his smile.
"I'm not expecting any promises, Arthur. Not until you leave Camelot behind to live on a farm."
Both of them knew that was unlikely to ever happen.
Arthur squared his jaw and nodded in acceptance. "I can promise you this," he started, leaning in closer to Merlin to look him directly in the eyes. "I love you."
This time, when Merlin's lips curved up, it was genuine. "Do you?"
"Mm-hmm," Arthur hummed as he pressed a kiss to Merlin's mouth, and another long while was lost in their desperate attempt to forget duty, custom, or past laws.
An hour and a half later, Merlin was walking Arthur out the door. He looked out into the clearing, where Arthur horse was still tied up to a nearby tree and grazing.
"I'll be back for you soon," Arthur promised.
Merlin looked back into the small hut he'd called home for the last few months. He'd grown attached to its simplicity and comforts.
"It's a shame I'll have to go back," he teased. "I've just cleaned the place."
"Keep it," Arthur told him. "It'll be our secret farmhouse."
Merlin liked the sound of that. He kissed Arthur goodbye and didn't go back inside until Arthur had disappeared through the trees.
When Arthur returned the next week, it was with two horses and the promise of a surprise. Merlin usually wasn't too keen on surprises, and he tried to get Arthur to reveal the secret all the way home despite Arthur's annoying silence on the matter, but he ended up liking this one.
It was his own seat at the Round Table, on Arthur's right hand, and the announcement that Merlin would now and forever be referred to as Court Advisor. It was a position that would have his hands always itching towards Arthur's armor whenever it needed to be buffed, until he remembered that was no longer his job. It was strange, but he sometimes missed being a servant. His daily routine, many times, took him away from Arthur's side, but he always managed to find his way back. Regardless, Merlin knew the way to Arthur's chambers with his eyes closed, and Arthur could always find Merlin in his same bedroom, since he refused to leave Gaius.
They returned to the hut in the forest whenever they could make excuses and slip away, sometimes for a few hours and sometimes for days at a time. In the summer, Arthur managed to grow a tomato plant, whose fruits never ripened before it died. Merlin laughed while Arthur pouted and claimed it was only his first attempt. Merlin never told him, but the second attempt was aided by a little magic, and the flourishing tomatoes were so delicious that they could eat them like apples.
Sometimes, Merlin wished for more, that they could be with each other always instead of only on the days spent in the hut; but he found solace in the unspoken knowledge that Arthur wished the same.
Weights & Measures – Dry the River
Love Love Love – Of Monsters and Men
The Frog Prince – Keane
Eyes As Candles – Passion Pit
Exile Vilify – The National
Poison & Wine – The Civil Wars
Magic – Coldplay
Six Weeks – Of Monsters and Men