He reached Ealdor at dawn.
The villagers were already conscious and working, and the men in the fields raised their hat at him as he passed. He made himself smile in return. He'd always been fond of Ealdor, the village he had saved hand-in-hand with Morgana, Gwen and Merlin years ago, just a few short months after coming of age. He had won countless tourney fights and fought several battles since, but Ealdor held a special place in his heart. Part of its appeal was that it was so different from home. It didn't even belong to Camelot. The village was plain but honest. Arthur remembered liking it so much he had asked Merlin why he'd ever wanted to leave. And Merlin had said, "I just didn't fit in anymore."
But it was easy to fit in in Ealdor. Not one of the villagers commented on the fact that he was alone. Not one of them mentioned Merlin. They bowed and smiled at him when he came close, the adults pushing their children down into a kneeling position and hastily murmuring, "That's Prince Arthur, remember him that saved us when Kanen came?" The kids looked up at him with awe-filled eyes that would have filled him with pride only weeks previously; now he had to force himself to greet them civilly.
The people of Ealdor did not forget easily, it seemed. Out of every man and woman whose path Arthur crossed, not one of them didn't acknowledge him with a bow and a grateful word – until he reached Hunith's house. Merlin's house, a little voice whispered inside his head, but he suppressed the thought. Merlin's home was Camelot.
The roof needed patching in places, but otherwise it was as small and sweet as he remembered. He could almost taste the food he had turned his nose up at until Gwen taught him better, could almost see the room where he'd slept on the ground beside Merlin, fighting the nerves that always preceded a real battle. Whenever Arthur thought of Ealdor, this house was always the first image that came to him. Merlin's house, he thought again.
He dismounted, and an uncomfortable tightness settled in his gut. You can still leave, a voice in his head whispered insidiously. He might not even be here. He would never know you'd come. But that wasn't true. It was only cowardice speaking, and Arthur had never been a coward. He tied his horse's reins to a low-hanging branch and took a moment to loosen the saddle girth and compose himself. He rested his left hand on the sword at his side to give himself courage, then raised his right fist and knocked three times.
For several interminable moments, nothing happened. They're not here, the voice said. Hunith's probably in the field. Arthur waited anyway, his heartbeat abnormally loud in his ears. He felt strangely naked, even though he had wrapped a heavy cloak over his riding clothes. He regretted not chosing to take his mail, or even just his crown with him. Dressed like this, he felt like a common man, on equal footing with any of them. With Merlin.
The door creaked as it was slowly pulled open. Hunith stood inside, her eyes dark and unwelcoming. A few wispy strands of dark hair had fled her bun to frame her face. She looked as cold and hard as marble.
There was no warmth in her tone, only ice, and she made no move to embrace him. He felt the lack sorely. How much had Merlin told her?
"Hunith," he said, trying to match her tone. "May I come in?"
Hunith stepped aside and let him walk past her into the house, her dark eyes never leaving him. He still remembered the day she had ridden into Camelot to plead for Uther's help against Kanen. He had listened to his father say Camelot couldn't intervene, and then gone ahead with Merlin anyway. After all, what could Merlin do alone against raiders?
Inside, the house was much like he remembered it. He had felt pity for Merlin's poor living conditions the first time he laid eyes on it, but now it felt warm and comfortable in a familiar way. There had always been more love flowing in Hunith's household than in Uther's castle. Arthur glanced around quickly, then turned to Hunith.
"Where is he?"
Hunith set her jaw. "Why did you have to come? Why couldn't you leave him alone?"
Why couldn't I? Arthur had been almost glad when he'd realised Merlin was gone. He had almost wanted to leave him alone, as Hunith said, but an irresistible force had brought him here, to Ealdor, hot on Merlin's trail. He needed answers. He needed justice. He needed to see Merlin again and hear what he had to say for himself.
"Why did you send him to Camelot, when you knew full well what our laws were? You had to know."
"I sent him to –" She pressed her lips tightly together and shook her head. "Ealdor wasn't safe for him anymore."
"And Camelot was?" Arthur swallowed down a bitter laugh. "I didn't do this. You did. You sent him to his death."
"Then punish me," Hunith said. "It was my fault. Merlin didn't –"
"Merlin broke the law and fled instead of awaiting the sentence for his crimes."
"Arthur, please. He's my son."
"Where is he?" Arthur repeated.
For a moment, he almost thought Hunith wouldn't answer. Hunith would stand her ground against an army of thousands to protect her son – but not against the Prince of Camelot. She jerked her head toward the door which led to the room Arthur had shared with Merlin. Arthur flinched when he saw it, but made himself walk over to it and open the door.
Merlin was leaning over a desk, flicking through the pages of a book as though looking for something in particular. When he heard the door open, he reflexively turned his head and began:
"Mother, do you remember what I said about –"
The words died on his tongue when he caught sight of Arthur, and he backed away from the desk, letting the book fall closed. The sight of the old, dusty cover sent a knife of pain through Arthur's gut. He knew that book.
"Arthur," Merlin said, his expression fearful – fearful, like Merlin was fucking afraid of him – and searching, "Arthur, what are you doing here?"
"I've come for you."
And maybe the words came out a little too sharply, or maybe Merlin was inclined to believe the worst of him at this very moment, or maybe he just thought Arthur really was that much of a prat – whatever the reason, Merlin reared back so suddenly and fiercely he almost backed up straight into the wall.
"No," he said. "No. This isn't Camelot."
"You're a fugitive."
"Ealdor is my home, I haven't broken any law here –"
"You were my servant," Arthur said. "You were bound to the laws of Camelot and you knew it."
He stepped inside and closed the door behind him. He half-expected Hunith to run inside and demand he keep it open, but she didn't. He was uncomfortably aware of the sword against his thigh.
"I'm going to take you back to Camelot, Merlin."
Merlin's blue eyes grew cold as ice shards. "You expect me to walk to my death."
"Won't you?" Arthur said. There was a cold certainty in his voice and in his heart that Merlin would, if he asked him to.
Merlin ducked his head. "I never thought it would be like this. I wanted to believe – to believe –"
"That I'd forgive you when I found out the truth? I wanted to believe that I could trust you."
Merlin winced, like that hurt. Arthur hoped it did, because it was hurting him. It had hurt ever since he found that thrice-damned spellbook in Merlin's room. He hated Merlin for being a traitor. He hated him even more for being stupid enough to get caught. And he'd hated himself even more, when he'd followed Merlin to Ealdor. Why couldn't you just hide the stupid book? They could have gone on as before, Arthur blissfully ignorant, and Merlin... Merlin, using magic behind his back, lying at every turn.
"Why did you do it?" Arthur asked. "You could have stopped at any time –"
"I couldn't," Merlin said. "I didn't choose this, Arthur. It chose me. I've had magic for as long as I can remember."
"Then why didn't you leave?" That would have been better, surely. Easier. Merlin could have left, and then none of this would be happening, and even if it were, well, Arthur wouldn't give a damn if he hadn't come to know Merlin so well.
"If I'd left, you'd be dead by now. I only stayed because I saved your life once – and then it happened again. And again. You needed me, Arthur. I had to stay."
Arthur felt the muscles in his jaw tighten. "Stay, and lie, and betray my trust."
"Oh, Arthur," Merlin said softly. "Let's be honest now. When have you ever trusted me?"
The knife in Arthur's gut twisted. "That's not fair."
Arthur wanted to say Merlin wasn't doing him justice. But mentally he went back through all the time they had spent together, and every time Merlin had warned him of a danger, or told him not to trust someone... every single time, it seemed, Arthur had ignored him. Hadn't believed him.
The fingers of his left hand went to the hilt of his sword again, restlessly tapping against the embellished metal. He couldn't fight with his left hand, but it was comforting to tell himself the sword was still there if he needed it. Merlin's eyes followed the gesture. His muscles were tense, his expression expectant.
Arthur let his hand fall to his side again. "I trusted you with the truth," he said. "I told you about Gwen. I told you –" lots of things, about Morgana and my father and my mother and Lancelot and every single thing I needed to share but couldn't. "I knew you could keep a secret. My secrets."
"But you wouldn't have kept mine."
Arthur hesitated. He forced himself to look into Merlin's blue eyes, and hated the certainty he saw there. "I don't know," he said truthfully. Could he have brought himself to tell anyone, knowing it meant Merlin's death?
Merlin shook his head. "You couldn't have lied to your father for so long. If you'd known, you would have arrested me or sent me away. And I couldn't... I couldn't let that happen."
I did arrest you, Arthur thought. But would he always have reacted like that? Wasn't the betrayal worse, because it came after so many months, years of companionship? "You needed me."
"I didn't tell anyone in Camelot why I'd left," he said. "No one knows about you."
"They'll be worried."
"Not if we get back soon."
Merlin looked away, out the small opening that served as a window. "When I came here, I thought maybe... maybe you wouldn't come looking. Maybe you'd be fine with that. I never hurt you, Arthur, and I never will. I could live the rest of my life here in Ealdor –"
"You couldn't. You can't."
Merlin flinched. Arthur hated that look on him. He'd always teased Merlin about being a coward, but deep down they both knew that wasn't true. He hated seeing Merlin look scared, especially of him. But he couldn't help but take a certain satisfaction from it as well, because, well, it was right. Even though there was nothing right about the situation.
Arthur took a small step forward, his sword shifting slightly against his leg. Merlin's eyes were drawn to it again, and this time, the corners of his mouth curled down.
"I could stop you, you know," Merlin said. Arthur stopped in his tracks. "I'd only need to think it, and –" He gestured vaguely with his hand, as if to say, magic. "It would never touch me."
"Dozens of sorcerers have been executed. If they could stop it, we'd know."
"Not all of them can. I could."
Arthur shivered despite himself. It wasn't cold, especially not under his cloak, but to hear Merlin talking so casually of his power...
"Why does it scare you?" Merlin asked, dragging his eyes away from Arthur's sword for a moment. "I've never used it against you."
Arthur's hand closed around the hilt of his sword and drew the first few inches from the scabbard. "Why does this scare you?"
"Magic isn't a weapon. A sword is."
Arthur tried to imagine his sword red with Merlin's blood, but couldn't. "I saved your life once..." He hadn't come here to deliver the stroke himself. He knew he couldn't. He let his sword slide back into the scabbard.
"Get your horse," he said in a tone that brooked no argument. My horse, more like, the one you took from our stables. "We'll leave as soon as you're ready."
He didn't wait for an answer, but spun on his heel and left the room. Hunith watched him exit the house without saying a word, and he returned to his own horse's side. He cinched the girth more tightly and untied the reins. The horse lowered its head and began to graze as Arthur stood, still and silent, pretending not to watch the door.
Merlin returned with his horse already saddled and ready, as Arthur had known he would. He busied himself with the girth and stirrups, not raising his eyes to Arthur's.
"Why are you doing this?" Arthur asked. Why are you coming home with me?
"You asked me."
"Why would you let me? I know now what you've been doing all this time. You said you have enough power to stop me. You could probably stop an army coming after you."
Merlin shook his head tightly. "I'd never use my magic like that."
Merlin raised his head to meet his gaze; it felt like a punch in the gut.
"I'd never use magic against you." He swallowed. "Who I am, what I do... It's always been for you, not against you. I live to serve you, Arthur, that's who I am, who I was born to be. And if you won't have me by your side, then I have nothing left, no use for my magic." He tilted his chin up defiantly. "So take me back to Camelot if you want to, or kill me right here if you have the guts to do it. I won't fight you. I could, but I won't."
Arthur felt sick. It hadn't been meant to go like this; his wounded pride and temper had got the better of him. He didn't want to argue with Merlin, he didn't want Merlin to think he was going to die. To accept he was going to die without so much as a single complaint, for no other reason than that it was Arthur who wanted him dead.
He had never, ever wanted Merlin to lay his life on the line for him. Not like this.
"I'm not going to kill you," he said.
"I didn't think you would," Merlin said. "You're many things, but you're not capable of killing someone who's saved your life so many times." He shrugged. "It would have spared me the ride back to Camelot, though. My bottom is still sore."
"Merlin," Arthur said. "You're not going to die."
"That's what happens to sorcerers in Camelot, in case you hadn't noticed. They die."
"Merlin. You. Are not going. To die."
Merlin blinked. "Then why are we going back to Camelot?"
Arthur paused. He stared down at the stirrup briefly, knowing what his answer would represent. No meant betraying his father, knowingly allowing a sorcerer to roam loose in the land, and breaking the law. It meant that if they were found out, Arthur's life was as sure to be forfeit as was Merlin's. It meant revising and radically changing everything Arthur believed about magic. And Yes?
Yes meant Merlin's death.
"You needed me."
Arthur cut his eyes to his manservant. "Merlin," he said, swinging himself up into the saddle without help, "has anyone ever told you that you're a complete idiot?"