In August, when Camelot was hot and drenched in unshed rain, melted into the very air, Merlin said:
“Arthur, I need to go back to Ealdor.”
Arthur was lying flat on the floor of his quarters, heavy curtains drawn at the windows to block out the sun, pressing as much of his skin as possible to the cold stone floors. It was undignified, and his nannies and nursemaids had condemned that sort of behavior even when he’d had them, but it was either strip down in the privacy of his own room with only Merlin to see or risk his father’s wrath by skivving off to the lake and jumping in naked.
“What?” he asked, dreamy with heat. He felt like he’d been running a low-grade fever for days.
“Ealdor, Arthur,” Merlin told him, impatient. “I need a few days away—I have to see my mother.”
Arthur launched himself upright, eyes clearing. “Is Hunith all right?”
Merlin looked puzzled. “I—“ he started.
“Have Kanan’s kin come back?” Arthur demanded, his mind whirling through the possibilities already. Ealdor sat at the furthest border between Albion and their neighboring kingdom; it wouldn’t be optimal, but if Merlin’s people were willing, Arthur would be happy to put together a small troop of knights and soldiers to help them move—Uther may be unwilling to start war but Arthur was happy to encourage immigration. Camelot had fertile fields and safe borders, and Arthur could send his guard there with special warnings—Hunith would never fear again.
“No!” Merlin said, eyes wide. “It’s just that my mother—“
“You must take Gaius with you if she needs any sort of medical attention,” Arthur scolded, remembering the last time Merlin had been ill and staggering around the castle until Gaius had conscripted Arthur and they’d collectively ordered Merlin off of his feet.
“Arthur!” Merlin finally shouted at him, smiling crazily in that way Merlin had occasionally. It was equal parts fond and indulgent, and Arthur wasn’t exactly sure he liked the implications of that. “She’s fine! Ealdor’s fine! It’s just that it’s her birthday, and I’d like to be there for it.”
Blinking twice, Arthur said, “Oh, well.”
“There,” Merlin told him, “is no way,” he said, “I am taking that,” he pointed, “with me.”
Arthur frowned at the small tokens he’d asked Merlin to include when he returned to Ealdor.
“Why not?” Arthur asked, frowning. “Do you not think she’ll like the color?”
Merlin boggled at him for a bit before waving his arms at the gift Arthur had chosen, saying in a manner not at all befitting of a servant to the crown prince, “Arthur! That is—that is neither a ‘token’ nor a ‘simple gift!’ That is sixty pounds of the finest beeswax candles in the castle and a half dozen of the best tapestries—commissioned for your father, by the way—and a violet ermine stole that I could swear belonged to Morgana!”
“You’re right,” Arthur agreed. “I’ve completely forgotten the caskets of honey ale.”
Merlin clawed at his hair. “Arthur, no.”
Crossing his arms over his chest, Arthur said, “Merlin, while you are the most crap servant possibly ever in the history of Camelot, I am still crown prince, and if I feel like sending your mother gifts, then that is my decision—understood?”
“Fine,” Merlin snapped. “But I refuse to be responsible for hauling them to Ealdor.”
Which was how Arthur ended up leading the trip through the dark, cool mountain forests between Albion and Ealdor, dressed casually in his faded red tunic and hose, his most comfortable and battered boots. Merlin had more or less tackled him into his armor, but Arthur had refused to put on the miserably heavy and hot chainmail and then wrestled a sword away from Merlin.
“I’m getting better with the sword,” Merlin sulked.
“You’re really not,” Arthur said, “which is kind of a mystery in and of itself.”
Behind their horses, Crow, the mule, trotted along with a wagonload of Arthur’s gifts, which Merlin seemed to despair at. Arthur argued that if they were going to be taking a wagon, he might as well take along some supplies for the house, which had made Merlin cover his face and make soft, defeated noises of grief.
“Are you sure you can be away from Camelot for so long?” Merlin asked, and he sounded shy about it, a strange new occurrence Arthur had noted of late. Merlin never grew shy at the usual times, when Arthur was resplendent in his court dress or flushed and covered in sweat after practices, after tournaments and gilded in victory—it was always in the quiet, unexpected moments, and Arthur had found himself trying to construct more and more of them just to watch Merlin’s eyes go fuzzy with something the same color as affection.
“Merlin, stop worrying about stupid things,” Arthur counseled him, although privately he knew he ought to have stayed in Camelot.
Merlin, with enough bullying, would have taken Crow and Arthur’s gifts along eventually, and Arthur would have no problem dispatching a knight or two to look after him along the way, but the court was suffocating with summer heat and associated lasciviousness, and he tired of escaping the clutches of determined countesses and barons, the daughters of his father’s most-loved knights. What was more, Arthur found he missed Ealdor, and wondered how Hunith fared. She had had Merlin’s same blue eyes and banked fire, his funny, nervous smile, but a fearless affection Arthur had never known before.
“Do you think she’ll like the gifts?” Arthur asked, sounding a little shy himself, and when he dared a glance to his right, Merlin was beaming at him as he said:
“I think she’ll like seeing you best of all.”
Arthur felt his chest puff up. “Of course,” he said. “Naturally.”
Merlin rolled his eyes, still smiling. “Although only the gods know why.”
By the time they reached Ealdor, they were both sore and a bit grouchy from when Merlin had demanded they stop to spare his delicate backside the bruising and Arthur had complained they were only another four hours’ ride away, and Merlin had cried, “Four hours, are you mad?” and Arthur had said, “You are the worst manservant in history,” and they’d ended up fuming at one another for the last leg of the trip.
The enmity had been hard to hold onto when they’d crested the hill and seen Ealdor, the village windows warm with candlelight and flickering orange with fires, the distant sound of pigs and chickens bedding down for the night growing louder as they drew closer, and Arthur stole secret, sideways glances at Merlin, watched his eyes grow sleepy with happiness, and felt something tighten sweetly in his chest.
He thumped at it, twice, where it itched beneath his clothes, and made a note to see Gaius when they returned.
“The village looks well,” Arthur said, voice soft, admiring the fields, the new-made fences and the well-thatched roofs. Ealdor was filled with small, meaningful lives, and Arthur only wished he could fold them into Camelot’s care.
“Thanks to you,” Merlin answered in a hush, and added, blushing, “Come on—let’s go before it gets any darker.”
Hunith’s face, when she opened the door to find Merlin and Arthur, was brighter than all the torchlight and all the full moons Arthur had ever known. She squeezed her son and kissed him on his forehead, dragging him down to her height, and before Arthur could tease him for it or feel a sting, she turned her attentions to him, wrapping her arms around him and cupping his cheeks with her rough hands, smiling at him widely.
“It is good to see you both,” she told them, kissing Arthur on the cheek before trying to drag them into the cottage. “Have you put away the horses for the night?”
“Er,” Arthur said.
Merlin made a face. “The horses,” he sighed, “are not the problem, mother.”
It took all three of them an hour to unload the cart, and by the time they were finished, Arthur and Merlin’s bickering had reached such a fever pitch most of the village had come out to see what the commotion was about, which of course had led to an impromptu celebration to welcome Arthur Pendragon back to Ealdor.
Arthur made a royal command for one of the casks of honey ale to be tapped and sent a trio of village boys off to search for the biggest knife they could find to cut one of the wheels of fine, Albion cheese he’d rolled into the wagon that morning, hidden beneath a large package of linen—Merlin shot him a dirty look when he saw it, and Arthur only blinked innocently—and found a dozen of the good, crusty rounds of Camelot’s bread himself. The villagers were hesitant at first, but the shine on Arthur’s invisible crown must have worn off a bit once they noticed what an enormous sodding fishwife Merlin was being about the whole “hidden compartments in the cart filled with soap and dried meats” thing, and by the time the moon was high they were all taking turns teaching Arthur the foulest drinking songs they knew.
“I,” Arthur declared, after most of the villager men had been hauled off by their wives and all the children put to bed, “did not even know one could do that with a sheep.”
Merlin unlooped Arthur’s arm from his shoulder and set him down gently on the ground, where he’d laid out their bedding.
“Yes, well, you have lived a life of deprivation after all,” he said sympathetically, reaching for Arthur’s boots and sighing, “Arthur—I thought I put those away to be donated to the poor in the lower village.”
“They’re my favorite boots,” Arthur told the ceiling thatch before sitting up, resting his weight on his elbows and saying, “You know, they all called me Arthur.”
Tugging at Arthur’s tunic, Merlin caught his eye and asked, “Yes?”
“No one calls me Arthur,” Arthur answered, and paused to say, “Well, you do.”
Merlin smiled at him, teasing. “I could stop.”
“No, no,” Arthur said. “If you stopped being insubordinate how would I even recognize you?”
And the sound of Merlin laughing, the soft alto of Hunith’s voice, round with smiles, were the sounds that bore Arthur off to sleep, breathing in the sweet, wet smell of new hay and yeast smell of bread, the green scent of the rain that had started to fall—a steady patter outside the daubed walls of the cottage.
Merlin was still asleep when Arthur snapped to waking, which—really—just highlighted what a deeply shite manservant he was.
He was curled up on his side, his head tucked neatly in the space between Arthur’s chin and collarbone, near enough his skin radiated warmth through the light blankets Hunith must have tossed over them during the night. The last time they’d slept here, on the floor of Merlin’s old cottage, they’d been head to feet, and Arthur supposed he didn’t mind seeing Merlin’s serene face and wild, dark bangs instead of his toes first thing in the morning.
It was still early out, that sliver of day when there was a fine mist and before it warmed and everything smelled new and of possibilities. This time of morning, Arthur had usually just stepped away from his chambers to meet up with his guard for patrols, leaving behind Merlin, who usually just fell asleep in Arthur’s bed for another hour after helping him fumble on his clothes and armor.
Arthur allowed himself to study Merlin some more, to take in his fine, pale skin and the pink bow of his mouth, before he shook himself and sat up, picking quietly to his clothes and dressing before stepping out into the hush and taking long breaths—taking in the air without the smell of Camelot’s fireplace, the dank smell of stale rushes, the rank of too many people crowded in the market.
“Couldn’t sleep?” someone called, and Arthur turned to see Eron, the baker, across the dirt lane.
Shaking his head, Arthur walked over, rolling his shoulders. “I’m usually running patrols this time of day. Can’t sleep anymore,” he admitted.
“Merlin up?” Eron asked, gathering up an armful of tinder.
Arthur snorted. “No,” he said simply, and Eron burst into booming laughter, sending birds scattering at a distance as he chuckled, “Oh, Arthur, he’s always been like that—Hunith used to despair of him.”
“Well,” Arthur said, long-suffering, “that is my job now.”
Eron smiled at him, something like approval on his ruddy cheeks, “Aye, that it is, my lord.”
Arthur, because it was bred into his bones, couldn’t resist ambulating the village, checking on the distant fences and the ditches he’d taught the villagers to dig—nothing to stop raiders on foot but plenty to disable their horses and make the whole effort punishing and without profit. He examined the irrigation canals and looked over the bails of hay, piled in the fields, golden and glimmering and fine. By the time he wandered back into the village proper, there were already a dozen children running to and from Eron’s hut, helping their mother’s fetch and carry, and he spied Hunith in the sty near the cottage, struggling with a fence post while trying to dispatch a particularly persistent sow.
“Off, off with you!” she scolded it, kicking with one mud-caked boot.
“Allow me,” Arthur said, and jammed the fencepost deep into the sucking mud. The smile he saw on Hunith’s face afterward made him cough, embarrassed, and he asked, “So where is that layabout son of yours, anyhow?”
She laughed, brushing a few strands of dark hair from her face. “Merlin’s taken half the village women on a trek to the forest—he’s determined we’ll be stocked with all the medicines and roots and herbs we can store before he leaves,” she said, and eyes twinkling, added, “I fear Gaius may be a good influence on the boy after all.”
Arthur bit back the immediate litany of things he wanted to say—about how Merlin was terrible at his job but good at being a person, and how he made Arthur laugh and worried incessantly about his armor, and endured the good (and not-so-good) natured ribbing of the other knights with grace—and asked instead:
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
Merlin tromped back into the village an hour later, carrying baskets and jugs and armfuls of plants and sticks and things and stopped, astonished, and stared at Arthur.
“What?” Arthur demanded.
“Are you drunk?” Merlin asked.
Scowling, Arthur barely resisted snatching up a handful of pigslop and throwing it at him.
“I am fixing your mother’s pig pen, you clod,” he answered and tipped his chin at Merlin’s load. “What’s all that?”
Merlin listed off willowbark for pain and rosehips for swelling, wild strawberries for ill humors and dandelions, fennel for ailments of the liver. Merlin had brought marigolds (“For that thing on your—“ and “Merlin! Discretion!”) and chamomile for stomachs and coltsfoot for sores. He—or his spoils—smelled like a garden at noon, warm and fizzy sweet, and Arthur breathed deeply of it and felt, strangely, at peace, leaning over a newly-repaired side of a pig pen, ankle-deep in mud in this backwards village with no minstrels or books or jousting.
“Now,” Merlin said, shifting his packages about clumsily, “why are you fixing my mother’s pig pen, and what have you done with your hand?”
Arthur ignored the first question and looked down at his fingers instead.
“My lady,” Arthur pleaded in Hunith’s general direction. “Please make him stop—ow!”
Merlin did something else hugely painful to the cut on Arthur’s palm and rolled his eyes.
“Stop appealing to my mother for sympathy,” he lectured, “and stop acting like such a child! I’ve seen you complain less after you’ve been stabbed in combat, much less attacked by a fence.”
Hunith leaned over where Merlin was cleaning Arthur’s cut with rose water and drizzling honey in the wound—an angry red gash but by far not the worse Arthur had gotten, not even the worse he’d gotten and shrugged off to heft his weapon once more.
“You’re right, Arthur,” Hunith intoned, mouth twitching as she met Arthur’s eyes. “It’s a deep and dangerous wound for certain—you’ll be lucky not to lose the limb.”
But he couldn’t resist, here, the urge to sulk and tease, for there weren’t any men to impress or his father’s expectations to live up to, and he could indulge his need to indulge himself with Merlin’s attention, which was despite its frustrations always delightful. He may be twenty, but he felt like a very young twenty.
“Oh God, mother, don’t encourage it,” Merlin complained, glaring up at his mother.
“She’s absolutely correct, Merlin. If the wound becomes infected and black and my hand falls off and I am no longer fit to defend Camelot, it’ll be on your head,” Arthur warned.
Merlin peered up at him through his dark lashes and asked, cheeky, “Now will that be three days in the stocks or a day on the rack, sire?”
For a moment, the sight of Merlin, coy, knocked all the breath out of Arthur made his mouth go dry, and whatever clever remark he’d had prepared fell off the tip of his tongue into silence, and they stared at one another for a long moment before Hunith cleared her throat and said:
“If you’re done, boys—both of you have an appointment with the millpond. You’re filthy the pair of you, and I need extra hands to do the baking this week.”
The millpond is perfect, shaded by ancient willows, dripping their branches like a cascade of hair over the water, a break from the unrelenting midmorning sun, and Arthur barely spares a thought before stripping out of his tunic and hose and boots and leaping into the cool water, scrubbing at the mud on his arms and face. It felt wonderful, sluicing down his shoulders, and the sand crunched delightfully between his toes. He wondered where Merlin was, why he hadn’t heard a second splash of water, and whipped his sleek wet bangs from his face to turn to the reedy stretch of land that banked the pond and saw the other boy there, standing at the edge of the water—fully dressed and his face pale with worry.
“Merlin?” he called out.
His manservant didn’t move or say anything, just stood there and stared to wring his hands.
Frowning, Arthur said, “Hey! Idiot! You’re going to burn up in this heat—get in the water.”
Looking miserable, Merlin finally said, “Maybe you should stay in the shallow part,” and continued to look ill about it.
Rolling his eyes, Arthur said, “It’s your skin,” and fell backward with a great splash, letting the water swallow him in and feeling it thread through his hair and wrap softly round his ankles and wrists, until he bobbed up and the sloshing noise of it faded to—to Merlin shouting:
The fearfulness in Merlin’s voice had tripped from whining to real, and Arthur spun round underwater to make his way back to the shore, but before he could find the bottom of the pond again—it was deeper there—Merlin had rushed in, and jerked him out, hands like vices on Arthur’s forearms and drenched head to toe, clothes clinging to him and hair in his eyes, wide and red.
“Arthur!” Merlin shouted again, right in his face, reaching up with one hand to scrub the bangs out of Arthur’s eyes and stare at him, panting, shaking like he’d just run a footrace.
Arthur stared back. “What on Earth is wrong with you?”
Merlin made that face—that one he always made when he was trying to think of some convincing lie, and after a too-long moment he just closed his eyes and admitted, “I was afraid you were drowning.”
“Are you mad?” Arthur demanded, sputtering. “I’ve been able to swim since I’ve been able to walk.”
But Merlin just kept staring at him, opening and closing his mouth with no words coming out, and Arthur thought maybe this was just one of those things, like how Morgana was terrified everytime anybody in the castle developed a cough, though they never lingered and worsened and killed the way her father’s had.
“I’ll stay in the shallow end,” Arthur promised, and Merlin nodded vigorously.
He did, and after he coaxed Merlin out of his drenched clothes, the boy even relaxed enough to allow Arthur to float on his back without panicking. Arthur wondered, briefly, who in Merlin’s life had been taken from him by water, but every time he tried to look surreptitiously to his manservant, all he saw was gleaming wet, white skin from long days inside the castle and luminously blue eyes always turned to Arthur, and he went shy all over. He’d grown up under everybody’s thoughtful or worried or calculating gazes, but nobody ever really looked at him as Merlin did.
“Arthur,” Merlin asked suddenly, out of nowhere, floating in the water nearby, “if William hadn’t been killed, what would you have done?”
William the sorcerer, who’d called up a storm and scared away the men destroying his village, who’d saved the baker and brewer and Hunith and Merlin and all the children from a winter of cold starvation—who had died and helped Ealdor to live. Arthur knew what his father would say, and he could even guess what he would do if he were only his father’s son, but Arthur wasn’t—or wasn’t just—any of those things, and it took him a long time before he moved to touch down on the sandy bottom of the pond and watch Merlin’s drawn, frightened face, pale and still floating in the water.
“I don’t know,” he admitted, and wondered if Merlin knew what it cost Arthur to say those words aloud. A king must never be uncertain, to hesitate or stray from his determined path, but Arthur knew Merlin’s guilelessness also made the admission possible. “It would depend on what kind of sorcerer he was.”
Merlin laughed a little, and went, graceless, under the water for a moment before reemerging, water droplets gathering on his white, freckled shoulders.
“Sort of a hapless one,” Merlin said, grinning now, less shy, and Arthur couldn’t help but to respond.
“Then I don’t know,” he teased, “he could have been a danger to himself if no one else.”
Arthur could never kill someone for something he’d been born to, and although his father had never held anything but loathing for magic Arthur had never learned to hate it. He didn’t know it very well, only that the same magic that had poisoned the water in the lower village at Camelot had hovered, incandescent and hopeful over his head, lighting his way to safety.
It had been more than a year now, since William had died and Ealdor had lived, and Merlin’s look was soft and sad but mostly rueful, which Arthur supposed he could tolerate. For weeks Merlin had staggered around the castle looking on the verge of collapse, his eyes always red, and Arthur had been forced to sort out the warring grief and jealousy he’d felt fighting in the pit of his stomach, twisted like snakes. Arthur had known anger and frustration and shame and hurt, but he’d never felt loss the way Merlin seemed to then, and it’d only made it worse to layer pettiness over his concern for Merlin, to wonder if—when—he fell and bled for Camelot, would Merlin look the same way.
“Magic can be good, too, Arthur,” Merlin told him, shy again, and Arthur had no choice but to say:
“Yes, Merlin, I know.”
They were horrendously late for breadmaking, owing mostly to Merlin having soaked all his clothing and Arthur taking the opportunity to have a good lieabout without feeling guilty or leaving tavern wenches to the aggressive groping of his guard while Merlin sulked, mostly nude, and picked dandelions. Arthur pointedly did not stare at Merlin’s cream-white back, or the knobs of his spine prominent through his pale skin or to run a finger wonderingly over the pink burn that started on the back of Merlin’s neck and faded downward along the planes of his shoulders.
“I said bathe, not bathe, drain the pond and then refill it with thimbles,” Hunith said, giving Arthur a speculative look he wasn’t entirely sure he liked. He had seen it before at court, on the faces of noblewomen whose daughters were simpering at him from across the dinner table—although Hunith looked a good deal less excited about it than the noblewomen had.
“It was Merlin’s fault,” Arthur volunteered, and Merlin glared at him. “It was!”
Before hostilities could break out, Hunith laughed and said, “All right, all right—no more, now both of you roll up your sleeves and come along. There’s a week’s worth of bread to be made.”
Merlin looked uncertainly to Arthur. “Have you ever made bread?” he asked.
“How hard could it be?” Arthur said, recalling the cooks in Camelot’s kitchen punching raucously at bread dough and cursing at one another across the room.
An hour after that, Hunith forcefully took the ball of dough away from Arthur, directed him to the water pail to wash and instructed him to fix all the fence ties along the far side of the vegetable garden behind the house.
“No more baking then, Arthur?” one of the village women asked, pausing by the ill-repaired fence. She had ginger hair and a smattering of freckles across the nose, a wide smile and Arthur thought her name was Una, but wasn’t certain.
He hammered a fence slat into place with more violence than was strictly needed.
“It’s women’s work anyway,” he said.
She laughed, and the sound echoed and sparkled in the wide open of the village as she said, “You’re right, your highness—it’s lucky then that Merlin’s such a quick hand at baking then, aye.”
Smirking, Arthur said, “Lucky indeed. He’ll make someone a fine wife one day.”
Una tittered, color rising to her cheeks, and she said, “Aye, here’s hoping that Merlin makes a good match then? To a fine, honest gentleman who’ll take good care of Hunith, too.”
If Merlin were a maid and came to ask for a dowry to marry some godawful smith or brewer or tanner form the lower village because he was a “fine, honest gentleman” Arthur thought he might be forced to either exile the bastard for soliciting the prince’s servants or seek counsel with Morgana—so it was for the best all around that Merlin was, despite the baking, unlikely to marry anybody.
And he was about to tell Una that when Merlin came out of the cottage into the late afternoon sun, carrying five dough rounds—slashes drawn across their curved tops—on an enormous piece of flour-dusted wood. He held it in front of Arthur and stared at him until Arthur was forced to take it from his manservant just to do something to interrupt the stupidity of the moment.
“Could you run those to Eron? He’ll bake them off for us and we’ve got at least another two batches to put together,” Merlin asked, eyes bright, as he dusted the flour off of his hands. “If you think you could handle that, your majesty.”
Merlin was already trotting away, leaving Arthur gaping at the gall of it when Una’s laughter broke his righteous fit of anger and she observed, “Merlin’s betrothed will have to be a strong man indeed.”
“And merciful,” Arthur muttered, hefting the wood board easily and starting off toward the baker’s hut, wondering where this trip had gone all wrong.
Dinner was fresh bread from Eron’s enormous ovens, cheese, and some of the salted meat Arthur had packed, and they feasted with the new beeswax candles lit in the cozy center of Hunith’s cottage.
She’d gone into a tizzy once Arthur had opened the cartons and showed her all he’d brought on top of the ale and food, and Merlin had held his mother and leveled Arthur a knowing look when Hunith had started crying of all infernal female things, and then insisted Arthur hadn’t upset her and she was only so happy when he’d attempted to apologize.
“Breathe, Mum,” Merlin had advised. “There’s more.”
She’d sobbed some more, and Arthur had debated how difficult it would be to break in a new manservant versus killing Merlin and hiding his corpse in the pigs’ trough.
“Er, it’s nothing, really,” Arthur had said, feeling stupid as Hunith hugged the stole to her chest and dabbed at her tears with her shirtsleeve. But Merlin was looking between Arthur and his mother with a soft, happy expression, so more likely than not no grave missteps had been committed, and Arthur hazarded to say, “Anyway—happy birthday.”
“Thank you,” she told him, and leaned over to kiss him firmly on the cheek before kissing Merlin on his temple with equal affection. “Thank you both—you’re such good boys.”
Arthur had always known the affection of women, from his nannies when he was a child to the court ladies when he was older, to the saucier wenches and knights’ daughters who were more free with their virtue once he’d gotten old enough to be interested in those things, but Hunith’s smile and her eyes were different than all of them. Arthur wondered if it wasn’t something passed from mother to son, that Merlin should look at Arthur like no other, and that Hunith would as well.
“You will be a fine king one day, Arthur,” Hunith decided later, closing Arthur’s hand between her own, worn with calluses but soft with age. The skin round her eyes crinkled and she said, voice wistful, “I only hope you’ll continue to be good to Merlin, and to be patient with him.”
For no reason at all, Arthur blushed and looked down at his knees. “Of course,” he mumbled.
“Merlin adores you, you know,” she confided, and Arthur couldn’t help but look up at that and saw her smile was teasing. “He would never admit it, but he thinks the world of you.”
Arthur was hungry to know what ‘adores’ might mean, if Merlin’s love for him was childish and glossed with worship, tangled up with his awed feelings about Camelot in general or if it wasn’t something else, something more complicated. They were questions that weren’t meant to be asked, and certainly not by Arthur, who had been taught to ask only if it was something that would have been offered anyway.
“What are you two talking about now?” Merlin asked when he came back to the cottage with two buckets of cool water from the well near the edge of town. Eve rything was harder in Ealdor—even water was an exercise in work—and Arthur wondered for a moment how it felt to be a peasant, to struggle for every farthing and every necessity and to pay endlessly into the pockets of your king.
Hunith gave Arthur a secretive glance, hushing him with a wink. “Only how your studies of medicine are coming along,” she told him.
“Horribly,” Arthur supplied. “By the way, was how I answered.”
Merlin flusehd. “I’m getting better, Gaius said so.”
“Not accidentally giving me the runs when you’re trying to soothe my throat with an herbal tea this particular week is not the type of improvement that impresses anybody, Merlin,” Arthur shot back, and Hunith burst into laughter, deepening Merlin’s blush and his pout until he was as red as his tunic.
“Yes, but I have to take care of you when you’re abed and complaining like a child,” Merlin answered, “so I’ve been punished enough.”
Arthur turned to Hunith and said, “I think he spends more time in the stocks than out.”
“He would be so much less interesting if he were docile, don’t you think?” Hunith asked, rising to her feet and dusting off off her dress, ignoring her son as he said, “I hate it when you talk about me like I’m not even in the room,” to say to Arthur, “And now, I must away to bed—but thank you again, Arthur, for the lovely birthday, and for bringing my son home to me.”
She favored Merlin with a soft look before turning back to Arthur.
“Having you both here,” she said, “was the best of all the gifts.”
Hunith had disappeared behind a curtain to undress and Arthur was still savoring the moment, letting it soak into his pores with dignified appreciation when Merlin laughed and said, “Oh my God, Arthur—are you going to cry or something?” and Arthur was forced to cuff him, which led eventually to them banging around the cottage and Hunith throwing them both out, because if they were going to run round like hooligans, they could damn well do it outside without knocking over any of the furniture.
They ended up in the deep forest at the far fringes of Ealdor, and the cool August night was positively cold beneath the trees, with the Earth exhaling after a long day. Merlin talked about growing up in the forest, gathering wild berries and mushrooms and wintergreen during cold winters where he felt like his fingers were frozen from November to March.
They passed the remains of a shelter, a dilapidated fence, and Merlin said it was where Nonny Warren had kept her pigs once long ago, when she’d let them run free in the forest during the year to get fat before bribing the village boys with soul cake to corral them back into the town for her. It was before even Merlin’s time, but a story someone had told Will, who had dutifully turned it over to Merlin for safekeeping along with a particularly naughty poem about some woman named Aelith and a tax collector who got more than his fair share.
“Are all country boys so dirty-minded?” Arthur demanded and Merlin only grinned back.
“Usually, they’re worse,” he said. “There’s not much to do out here.”
“I can’t imagine the village girls are very fond of it,” Arthur said mildly.
Merlin shrugged. “Mostly, it was just me and Will,” he said, quiet, and before Arthur could investigate that further, Merlin glanced over his shoulder, grinning again, and said, “Up ahead—come on, I think it might still be there.”
‘It’ turned out to be a crude house, set on the thick branches of an enormous old poplar, among its first crown of branches, a corona of green leaves fanning out round it. Arthur could imagine a smaller Merlin, with even thinner arms and legs, freckles across his nose, rushing through the lush green underbrush of the forest to this house as sunlight speckled the ground underneath his feet. Arthur received his first lesson with weaponry at three; by four his father had him practicing with a wooden sword. At five, he’d killed his first stag and walked around Camelot, chest puffed, for days, inflated with his own pride. He’d never played in grass and wood houses, and he wondered if that was why he let Merlin get away with such insubordination and sundry foolishness, dragging Arthur along by the sleeve and tugging him up the stair-step branches of the tree until they were sitting together in the tiny house, looking through the naked branches of the forest toward the lake, where water lapped along the pebble beach in long mermaid sighs.
“Did your father build you this?” Arthur asked.
In the trunk of the tree near his hand, there were tiny carvings made by shaky hands, and Arthur traced at them with his fingertips, wondering if the memories in the bark were Merlin’s or William’s, or if maybe it didn’t matter. It wasn’t the burn of jealousy at that thought which surprised him so much as the intensity.
Merlin was quiet for a moment before he said, “No—William’s did, before he died.” He swung his feet a bit, shaking the branches around them, and said, “I never knew my father, and my mother never talked about him. Growing up nobody around me said anything either—I always thought maybe he died before I was born.”
That was not what Merlin thought at all, Arthur could tell, but that was not a secret worth having if it put that look on Merlin’s face so Arthur set curiosity aside for a moment.
He wondered who’d almost drowned then, if it weren’t Merlin’s father who’d been washed away—another friend? A sibling? Had there been a flood? Arthur had—since the beginning—wanted to know things about Merlin, not just to use them, but just to know them, and he didn’t quite know what to do with that realization.
“Why were you so scared?” Arthur asked, discarding any affects of coyness. He was never good with diplomacy; Uther had managed to teach him courtly manners and war had taught him the value of peace, but anything that could be settled with blunt quickness was still preferable. “At the millpond—why were you so frightened?”
“I wasn’t scared,” Merlin lied, stuttering.
Arthur glowered at him. “I can still have you beheaded, you know.”
“For what?” Merlin argued.
“Now,” Arthur went on, “tell me the truth: it was only swimming—what had you so frightened?”
This time, Merlin went stiller than the night, draped like dark velvet around them, and it was a long, long time before he said, “If I tell you, your father might be the one to have me beheaded.”
It was barely an admission, just an insinuation, but Arthur saw the snakes from Valient’s shield and Merlin’s tired eyes after Lancelot had driven away the gryphon. He thought about the beast poisoning the water and a thousand other little things—the light, floating above him in the cave, scraping away at the dark and guiding him toward escape as Merlin burned like reddened coal, babbling fever-sick words like gibberish, Gwen had said, like spells, Arthur thought.
Arthur thought about the duststorm the last time he’d been in Ealdor, and before the rage—he lied, how could he lie? I thought he trusted me—could eat its way up his spine, he forced himself to take a breath, exhaled it shaky and angry into the dark.
“What, are sorcerers afraid of water?” he spat.
Merlin’s shoulders tensed. “No,” he whispered. “I just—I saw you nearly drown once.”
In a dream? Arthur wanted to ask. In your scrying dish? Or were you plotting for it the way my father always says magicians are?
“In a dream?” Arthur heard himself ask instead, a note of fear in his voice.
“Awake, and before my very eyes,” Merlin bit out, and how his knuckles were white where they clutched at the branches of the tree, steadying himself.
Merlin laughed when the townspeople threw rotten fruit at him in the stocks and wasted hours teasing the littlest kitchen boys. He knew the name of every stray cat and mangy dog in Camelot and had once—though he’d sworn Arthur to secrecy—allowed Morgana and Gwen to cover him in face powders and rouge. If Merlin was a sorcerer—no, if Merlin had magic, then it had to be incidental, something that had just happened by a cruel twist of fate, Arthur thought. Merlin could barely be trusted to remember a half-dozen-item long list of supplies, much less spells, potions.
“You had already been under the water for so long by the time I found you,” Merlin burst out, voice low and tense. He was breathing in short gasps, pulling his legs up to his chest and putting his face against his knees. “I kept diving, and diving into the lake, but I couldn’t find you—and you—your stupid chain mail—you didn’t bob up the way people normally do, and all I could think was that I was too late, and that Sophia had given you to the Sithe and they’d taken you and—“
“Sophia?” Arthur asked. “What’s she got to do with—?”
“She was trading your soul in for immortality with the fairies, you prat!” Merlin shouted at him. “And you’re just lucky I noticed she’d enchanted you or else I would have let the stupid Sithe have you, for all the time I spent in the stocks for you that time!”
For a moment, Arthur was torn betwen disbelief, feeling extremely foolish over the whole thing, and wanting to tell Merlin Arthur’s romantic affairs were none of his, but what came out in the end was, “I thought we had just tried to elope.”
“Well, you also thought I could clean your armor, sharpen your sword, launder all your clothes, exercise your dogs, brush your horses and muck out the stables by myself with no assistance, too,” Merlin muttered. “So it’s clear you’re not terribly bright.”
“You can’t talk to me like that,” Arthur reminded him, irate.
Merlin looked away, down toward the ground beneath. “Why not,” he asked. “You’re just going to have me beheaded anyway.”
Arthur had watched exactly fifty-six witches and wizards killed. The initial bloody purges, he’d been too young to witness, just an infant, but he’d grown up with the vivid memory of hangings, of beheadings in the courtyard. He remembered the time his father had a girl, barely fifteen, tied to a post and burned. He’d always asked their crime and the unifying condemnation was magic—never what kind. He’d wondered what a skinny girl with dirty blonde hair could have been doing, wondered how much danger she could mean for Camelot with her skinned knees and luminously hungry eyes. Arthur had seen war and the raided hulls of villages; he’d seen entire towns slaughtered by barbarians and women and children murdered in their beds, raped in the streets. Arthur knew evil, and young girls sobbing into their dirty fists, hysterical and screaming as soldiers lit a fire under her feet weren’t evil—they were just girls.
He had never had the luxury of wondering if his father was a good man, a good king, but Arthur had always known that someday in the distant after, when he carried the Pendragon line and bore the kingdom on his shoulders, there would be no more burnings, no more beheadings, no hangings for magic—there was too much death already.
“Melrin,” Arthur whispered, because to deny Merlin his punishment alone was treason, “I would never tell my father.”
Looking at him dumbly, Merlin said, “You have to—it’s the law.”
“It’s also the law you are never allowed to refer to me as Arthur,” he pointed out.
Aghast, Merlin said, “You can have someone hanged for that?”
“I think you’re missing the point,” Arthur told him, feeling a smile start to tug at the corners of his mouth—because if Merlin were magic, if Merlin could do magic, then—“Was it you, then? The one who sent me the light in the cave? When I’d lost my torch finding you an antidote?”
“Maybe?” Merlin admitted, looking sickly. “But it was an accident! I wasn’t conscious! And—“
Whatever else he said was lost when Arthur leaned in to close his mouth over Merlin’s, to still the protest and tell him in something other than words—words were always so bothersome—that Arthur was grateful, that he wasn’t angry (not as much as Merlin seemed to think, anyway), that if it weren’t for that light in the crevass he would be dead, and that there’d been no malice in that magic.
Arthur had always wanted to know who’d sent it, who’d saved him, to whom he owed a debt, and there was something bubbling up in his chest, delirious and happy, to know that it was Merlin.
Merlin required extensive convincing he wasn’t going to be hanged—or beheaded, or burned, or poisoned, or anything else—and Arthur obliged mostly by cutting him off with a kiss. After some debate, mostly one-sided, the arguments grew redundant, and Arthur concluded Merlin was probably doing it just to invite the interruption, at which point he said, “You know, you could just kiss back.”
“I wasn’t that kind of country boy,” Merlin protested, but did so anyway, and this time when Arthur brushed his tongue against Merlin’s lips they opened with a sigh, and Arthur thought he felt something glimmering that passed through him then, sliding under his skin like a sudden burst of heat, desperation. Was it magic? Arthur didn’t know, but it intensified when Merlin moaned into Arthur’s mouth, twined his fingers in Arthur’s hair.
Arthur broke away from Merlin’s mouth to explore the skin along his jaw. He asked, “Is this magic? Have you cast an enchantment?”
“Doubtful,” Merlin said, in between gasps, still carding his fingers through Arthur’s hair, dear, his fingers familiar and warm against Arthur’s scalp. “I can barely get the grass stains out of your tunics with magic.”
This was nothing like tumbling a milkmaid or an agreeable lordling—there were no secrets here, hidden beneath their skin—and Arthur took his time, mapping the geography of Merlin’s neck, studying his newest territory. He was not a scholar, but he was a dutiful prince, and Merlin was his now, to guard and learn and tend for, to be had for as long as Arthur had the strength to keep him.
Arthur laughed against the hollow of Merlin’s throat and said, “Typical—terrible manservant, appalling magician, too.”
“Careful, Arthur,” Merlin warned, smiling at him when their eyes caught, “I’ll turn you into a toad.”
“You probably don’t even know how,” Arthur scoffed.
“I could learn,” Merlin answered, catching Arthur’s mouth for another lush, lingering kiss. “I’m sure it’s in a book somewhere.”
Arthur suddenly wished he knew where those books were—if Merlin had learned magic through words and pictures or if it had just flowed from him, like rain skated down the long fingers of willow trees. His father had burned most of them, in bonfires that had sent smoke billowing over Albion for days.
“And what will come of you if you were caught reading one?” Arthur asked, and pressed his mouth over where Merlin’s collarbones hovered most prominently under his skin.
Shivering, Merlin grabbed at Arthur’s tunic and breathed, “I suppose I’ll have to hide away in your rooms to read them, then.”
Now he’d thought it, Arthur couldn’t shake it, the mental image of Merlin poring over a book of enchantments—and Arthur conveniently filled in the spaces of that picture with the trappings of his own chambers: the fire roaring, the remains of dinner on the table, and Merlin sprawled, all long limbs and fingers, across the red brocade coverings of the bed, murmuring to himself as he read. Arthur knew his lot in life was first to spend it on Camelot, and that one day Camelot would need a queen and he would need an heir. But maybe he could have Merlin, too, hold him close and keep him in a way he never could a woman sent by her father to seal a contract against the horrors of war, maybe that would be enough to keep at bay the fluttering beneath his breastbone.
“Only if I am there to supervise,” Arthur countered, and pulled away enough so he could study Merlin’s face—flushed and smiling, his eyes flashing in the dim light—and forced himself to say, “This isn’t an order, you know. We could stop and I’d never—”
Now it was Merlin’s turn to interrupt him with a kiss, and instead of dignifying Arthur’s question with a response, he said, “If you were there to supervise me, I highly doubt I’d get any actual studying done, Arthur.”
“All part of my master plan not to be turned into a toad,” Arthur assured him, feeling giddy, over-hot, feverish with something not unlike triumph. Merlin laughed and shoved him down on the knobby branch floor of their perch, his smile luminous in the moonlight, and said, “Prat,” as the endearment it may have always been between them.
Shifting beneath him, Arthur asked, “What kind of country boy are you, would you say?”
“I have to admit something, Arthur,” Merlin told him, solemn and sliding down the length of Arthur’s body, hands tracing along Arthur’s sides and down to the ties on the front of his hose.
“Yes?” Arthur gasped, trying to brace himself for whatever else his manservant might turn out to be in addition to an idiot and insubordinate and a wizard and a bit beloved.
Merlin peered at him with supernaturally blue eyes, his breath hot on Arthur’s cock through the thin cloth of his leggings, and he said, conspiratorial, “I lied—I was that kind of country boy,” and unlaced Arthur’s trousers to press hot, wet kiss beneath the crown of his dick.
Arthur cursed profusely and colorfully in every language he’d ever been taught, and after he managed to quiet Merlin’s laughing by shoving his dick more or less down his manservant’s throat, he went wordless and desperate and resorted to tugging at Merlin’s dark, soft hair instead, tangling the locks between his fingers and rolling his hips with the graceless need of an untried boy.
“That,” Merlin declared, pulling off of Arthur’s cock with a loud and utterly obscene noise, “was not at all a display of the royal dignity you claim to have at all times.”
Arthur stared upward, gasping, watching the sky fade out of its deepest blue into the blushing pink or morning, and said, “Right,” before grabbing his manservant and shoving him down, now, dragging down his battered-looking trousers and rubbing his cock along Merlin’s—hot, soft skin against hot, soft skin, biting ferociously at the place where Merlin’s neck melted into his shoulder, all white, inviting skin.
“Arthur, Arthur,” Merlin pleaded, mewling, throwing one leg over Arthur’s hip and sinking his nails into Arthur’s shoulder, thrusting up to meet him stroke for stroke and came, wet and messy all over their stomachs. Arthur couldn’t decide what about that was more incendiary, Merlin’s unschooled and honest yearning or that it was the first time anybody had just called him Arthur like this, and he choked out, “Merlin,” and thrust hard against the other boy one last time before he froze, panting, spilling out over their already slick bellies.
“Arthur,” Merlin said, and he kept looking at Arthur in wonder, starry, and worrying his hands through Arthur’s hair like he was afraid Arthur was leave, and Arthur obligingly kissed him, swallowing whatever else he wanted to say, licking away all his doubts and worries, tasting himself on Merlin’s tongue.
And that was when the branches broke.
Merlin’s bedamned sorcery managed to keep them from dying horribly but couldn’t prevent a good deal of feeling stupid from being distributed to all and sundry. Having their pants down round their ankles made it particularly difficult to disentangle themselves from the forestry and amplified the associated misery of the entire affair to a shocking degree.
“I blame you,” Arthur growled, lacing up his hose angrily. He kicked at a branch and didn’t feel particularly afraid of Merlin, despite the fact that this would have been a prime opportunity to be terrified of an angry sorcerer.
“Me?” Merlin sputtered, irate. “What have I got to do with this?”
“Before you came along,” Arthur spat, “I managed to have sex all the time without falling out of trees.”
Sniffing, Merlin pulled his trousers back up. “I certainly wasn’t the one doing all the shoving and thrusting like a crazed barbarian,” he said primly before patting his backside with a frown. “I think you’ve bruised my arse.”
“I think falling out of a bloody tree bruised your precious arse,” Arthur retorted. “And excuse me—I wasn’t the one digging my nails into anybody else to encourage that ‘crazed barbarian’ behavior!”
Merlin scowled at him. “Just wait till my mother hears you’ve despoiled me in a tree.”
Arthur’s mouth twitched. “You could never bear to tell her,” he said, confident.
Deflating, Merlin sighed, “You’re right—that’d be extremely horrible and she’d probably just start crying again.”
Immediate disaster was somewhat of a downer on the post-coital afterglow, but Merlin was still flushed and his mouth still red from kisses, and Arthur found that despite his manservant’s extreme inability to respect the (altered) mood, he was still very endearing, which was just another sign Arthur was lost.
“And then she’d probably force me to make an honest woman of you,” Arthur said, smiling and reaching over to tuck a strand of Merlin’s dark hair behind his ridiculous ears. He still looked disreputably disheveled, but Arthur liked it, for once, knowing he was the one who’d run his hands all underneath Merlin’s wrinkled clothes and made him smile like that, wide and like an idiot.
It grew even wider after Arthur took his hand, sliding their fingers together and tugging them back toward the village. Hunith probably was worried, he thought reluctantly, and even if she weren’t, Arthur felt a surge of mortification imagining what she was imagining. He might be the best warrior in all of Albion but he had a feeling his sword wouldn’t protect him from Hunith if she really did know he’d despoiled her son in a tree
Merlin blushed, allowing himself to be guided more or less meekly, a feat in itself. “I’d love to hear your father’s opinion on that,” he sniped.
“Please, Merlin,” Arthur laughed. “My father thinks I’ve been shagging you for ages.”
Merlin’s mother clearly knew of and had accepted her son’s easy virtue, because after they dragged into the village just after dawn, she pretended not to hear the way they failed to be quiet when sneaking back into the cottage. Over breakfast, she gave Merlin a somewhat overcome look and then shot one over at Arthur before excusing herself to go do something violent to one of the hens clucking around in front of the cottage.
“Better them than you, I suppose,” Merlin said meditatively, and Arthur crossed his legs one over the other as he heard the chicken Hunith had captured begin screaming. “Definitely better them than you.”
There was a ripping noise and the chicken shrieked again.
“Dear God,” Arthur said, “what’s she doing to it?”
Merlin glanced out the window, winced dramatically, hissed through his teeth, and then turned back round to Arthur, pasting a smile to his face as he said, “Oh, nothing.”
Arthur considered throwing something at him, but Hunith would probably only make the chicken scream more loudly if she sensed Arthur was being discourteous to her son. The absolute foolishness of his life since Merlin had been introduced as a variable was astonishing, Arthur reflected sadly, and ate the cold corn cakes she’d given them both that morning sadly.
He spent two more days eating corn cakes and feeling torn between guilt and wanton lust. Hunith’s initial lackadaisical disregard for Merlin’s chastity vanished and she set Arthur to fixing the rest of the fencing around the vegetable patch, of weeding the turnips, of building a henhouse and then asking if he would mind terribly patching the roof while the weather was still kind.
“Mother,” Merlin said, looking alarmed, “if Arthur falls—”
“I’m sure he’ll be fine,” she said, and sent Merlin away to do another batch of laundry.
Arthur comforted himself that at least between the two of them, he’d been dispatched with the less embarrassing errands. Merlin had spent more time with the village girls at the river scrubbing aprons than was good for any man—and then Arthur found himself hammering at the roof with newfound vigor thinking about Merlin smiling at those same village girls, who for whatever reason seemed to think he was adorable and clever. Both of which were true but neither of which were supposed to be common knowledge.
“Idiot,” Arthur said, bringing the hammer down on the new shingle hard enough that he found himself staring down at Hunith’s bemused face through the new hole in her roof.
“Er,” he said, “I can fix this.”
“You know, Merlin is my only family in the world,” she called up at him.
Panicking, Arthur told her, “In fact, I think I have a spare shingle right here.”
Hunith looked wistful. “And he’s still so young,” she sighed.
“Oh, God,” Arthur said. Where was that bloody shingle?
“When I sent him to Camelot, I hoped he would be happy, safe,” she went on, tipping her chin at him. “That he would find a place to fit in, your highness.”
“I’ll—I’ll patch this right away.” Why had he never learned any carpentry? “I’ll thatch over it—no one will ever know the difference.”
“I will,” Hunith told him, and Arthur thought that, naturally, they weren’t talking about the roof at all. “I hope you will, too.”
Arthur’s mouth went dry, because he had been guilty of being careless with feelings in the past, but Merlin’s absence would be a slow burn in his chest, eat away at him like fire at the heart of a sheet of vellum.
“Of course,” Arthur said, finally, and Hunith flashed him her first genuine smile in days. It felt enough like a blessing that he was still soft in the wrist and ankles with relief when he heart Merlin calling up to him:
“Er. So. I may have lost your underthings downstream.”
Before they left Ealdor, Arthur sent Merlin off to gather three impossible things, and found Hunith where she was packing cold chicken and cheese and bread into a basket for their journey back to Camelot.
“I wanted to give you something,” Arthur said, feeling awkward and torn between the prince he knew how to be and the young man Hunith brought out in him. “Before I go.”
Hunith gave him a warm look, tying up a kerchief. It had the same strange cross-stitch hem as all of Merlin’s scarves, and Arthur filed that away as another mystery finally solved. “Oh, Arthur—you’ve already been far too generous.”
He shook his head. “This is just for you, not to be shared with the rest of the village.”
She looked hesitant, and before she could protest, Arthur freed the pendant from his belt, folding it into one of her hands, cool against the heat of her skin. It was black onyx, inlaid with a lacquer dragon fringed in gold, suspended from a heavy steel chain—a seal of Camelot, a vow of the Pendragon’s protection.
“Take this,” he said to her. “If any trouble comes to pass on the roads next time you come to see Merlin, reveal this. No one will touch you and risk the wrath of Camelot.”
Hunith stared at him, open-mouthed in wordless shock.
“Take it,” he said again. “If not for me, for Merlin.”
She closed her hand around it, and searched Arthur’s face for something she must have found, because she drew him down to her height with a free hand and pressed a lingering kiss to his forehead—the same way she would with her son later as they left the village—and said, “Arthur Pendragon, you will be a great man.”
It was September by the time he and Merlin finally made it back to Camelot and all the leaves had changed into their finery and showered the villages and gardens in gold and red and fiery orange, a sudden shift from summer with no trace of its sticky heat remaining. The harvests were in, and the castle was exploding at the seams with good things, hundreds of sweet pumpkins and squashes, acres of potatoes, game, prepared for the feasts to come when winter descended cold and dark in the land. There were barrels on barrels of cider and ale and an ocean of fish and eel had been salted down in the kitchens.
Arthur had barely alighted from his horse before his father’s clerks kidnapped him to oversee the storage of all goods for the castle and the long winter months, and it was the middle of the night before he staggered back to his chambers, having been soundly lectured about court responsibilities by his father and wailed at by the castle chefs.
He found Merlin there, sprawled asleep in Arthur’s bed—the fire roaring and clean clothes laid out, a bath drawn and still steaming.
“Did you,” Arthur asked later, climbing under the covers and burrowing his nose in the back of Merlin’s neck, “magic that water to stay hot?”
Merlin hummed something incoherent, sliding backward until their bodies locked together like pieces from a puzzle box, and then Arthur was too tired and the room too warm and Merlin’s skin too soft for him to stay awake.
The last thing he saw before falling asleep was the curtains round the bed drawing shut—invisible hands tugging and tugging until he and Merlin were enclosed, safe, warm in the dark.