The wind blew snowflakes like icy shards into Arthur's face, pricking against the skin of his cheeks, already half numb from the cold. His blond hair had turned silver and stiff from the frost and a quick glance over his shoulder told him that the rest of his men weren't faring much better. Sometimes Arthur couldn't help but wonder if this was yet another curse, a more subtle one maybe, but just as likely to bring the kingdom to its knees as the enchantment that a few months ago had put the whole city of Camelot to sleep, ripe for the taking, and had ended with Morgana's abduction.
Then the dragon had attacked, had been defeated, and yet it seemed as if neither Arthur and his knights nor the people of Camelot were likely to get a reprieve soon. There had been a lot of destruction, first by the dragon and then furthermore by bandits and looters that had jumped at the first sign of weakness in Camelot's defences.
All this they might have been able to take, but then winter had come hard and early, before the last leaves had even fallen, with cold winds from the north and dark, stormy clouds of snow. Like a silver hue, frost had spread over the kingdom's fields and forests, hushing all sounds and stilling the bustle of life within. People huddled around their fires, seeking warmth and shelter and hoping for the bad weather - and with it their bad luck - to pass. But it had not and, as the days turned shorter and shorter and darkness descended, it sometimes felt as if it never would.
The whole land had taken on the air of a freezing tomb, the landscape mirroring the misery in people's hearts, and yet Arthur almost preferred to be out here in the hostile surroundings of snow-covered plains and windswept mountain paths to the angry, bitter silence that reigned in the halls of Camelot's citadel. It was hard for Arthur to admit that, but he knew that things might have been less dire if his father would not sit on his throne like a carved statue, oblivious to any objective other than finding his missing ward, throwing all his resources at this single task and leaving none to help and defend his people. It was as if all vestiges of kindness had been scraped from him until there was just the bedrock of his relentlessness and the shadow cast by his despair.
That was the reason why, only a few days from the winter solstice that would normally see the Yuletide celebrations, Arthur was all the way up in the north with just a handful of men, and so close to Cenred's borders that it didn't much matter whether they crossed them or not. And soon they wouldn't have a choice, anyway. Right now, Uther might still hesitate, but they had searched every corner of the kingdom without finding so much as a trace of Morgana and there was no reason to assume that she was still within Camelot at all.
Something deeply buried inside Arthur whispered to him in the night that this whole search was futile and hopeless, but he knew that his father would never accept that. Getting Morgana back had become the only thing important to him, nothing and nobody else seemed to matter. It wasn't that Arthur didn't want to find Morgana as well. But sometimes, when he remembered the last weeks before she had vanished, the haunted look in her eyes and the hard line to her mouth, he wasn't entirely sure whether Morgana even wanted to be found.
There was nothing Arthur could do, though, but grit his teeth and keep going, because that's what his king had ordered him to do. One endless day passed into the next and it sometimes felt as if they had been riding through a world of white forever.
They had reached the shelter of a forest at last, and Arthur contemplated calling for a stop so that they could make camp here. There were a few hours left until nightfall, even though that was hard to tell in the ever present gloom of the dark grey winter sky, but they were all half-frozen and needed a rest. The cold was so severe that even Merlin had stopped his idle chatter hours ago, much to Arthur's secret chagrin. He might complain about Merlin's constant prattle more often than not, but the truth was that right now it would have been a welcome distraction. All that could be heard, though, was the panting of the horses and the brittle crunch of snow under their hooves.
Lost in his musings, Arthur nearly rode into a tree when Merlin suddenly reigned in his mare next to him, turning around in the saddle, his gaze travelling over the darkening shadows between the trees and the underbrush.
Arthur's tone was somewhere between amusement and annoyance, a place he'd grown comfortable with in Merlin's company, but Merlin just shook his head. That's when Arthur realised that, even for a winter's day, the forest around them was almost unnaturally still. It made his neck prickle, as if the trees had eyes, watching them, but that probably was just his tired mind playing tricks on him.
''I... I don't like this,'' Merlin said quietly.
Arthur couldn't help but roll his eyes, but his mind had become alert, and his eyes, too, were now searching the twilight around them, even as he scoffed, ''So you've said. About every hour for the past few days. We're all cold, Merlin, stop being a girl about it.''
Merlin shook his head unhappily.
''No, it's not...'' He huffed in frustration, turning his horse in a tight circle. His lips pressed into a tight line, staring into the descending gloom, as if he could somehow see more than the rest of them. Which was, of course, completely absurd. ''There's something... wrong about this place. I think it might be a...''
Suddenly the shadows around them flared into light as dozens of torches were lit simultaneously.
Arthur shot Merlin an exasperated look that clearly meant, 'You don't say?'
They were surrounded and outnumbered, but that was not something Arthur took much time to worry about. He was used to ambushes and he was used to fighting against the odds, and so he just drew his sword and bared his teeth, knowing his men would do the same.
He spared one glance for Merlin, who was the most vulnerable of them all, but there was no way to cover him completely, safe for dragging him down to the ground like a damsel in distress and, while Arthur kept calling Merlin a girl, that might have been pushing it. Although when Merlin raised his eyebrows at him in a 'told you so' gesture, Arthur contemplated doing it anyway for a second, just for the kick of seeing Merlin stutter and blush.
But then the wall of their would-be-attackers parted and a slighter figure stepped out into the light of the torches, wiping any trace of amusement from Arthur's mind as they pulled back the hood of their cloak revealing long, golden locks and cold, sharp eyes.
''Morgause,'' Arthur hissed, cold fury settling around him like a second cloak.
''Prince Arthur.'' The blond woman's smile was a cruel twist of her lips. ''I had hoped we'd meet again.''
''Don't expect me to spare you this time.''
The sorceress laughed. ''I don't intend to fight you, Arthur. I already had the pleasure of defeating you in battle, after all. But you did refuse me my truest desire.''
''Because I wouldn't let you manipulate me into killing my own father with your cheap magic tricks?'' Arthur snarled.
Morgause raised her eyebrows. ''Is that what you think it was? A trick? I see, now, how my graciousness was wasted on you.'' Her eyes narrowed. ''But I won't make the same mistake again. This time your weakness won't get in the way of what you have to do. This time, facing your guilt will make you want to eliminate its source.''
With that, Morgause slipped one hand inside her cloak and pulled out a magnificent dagger. From the corner of his eye, Arthur saw Merlin tense next to him, although he couldn't see why. The dagger was a beautiful piece of weaponry, but looked to be more ceremonial than of any use in a real fight. Of course, Morgause had said fighting him was not her intention.
Before he could wonder about what exactly Morgause was planning, though, the sorceress raised the dagger high up over her head and then her eyes began to glow as if they were burning with a magical fire. Arthur wasn't able to understand the words she mumbled, but he had heard the language often enough to recognise its purpose.
The crystal imbedded in the hilt of the dagger began to emit an eerie green light, and then Morgause lowered her arm to point the tip of the blade straight at Arthur's heart. The light became so bright that he was forced to close his eyes and turn his head away, but he could feel the hair on his neck rise and his skin started to tingle as if hundreds of tiny bugs were crawling all over him.
As if from far away, he could hear shouts and his men moving forward, only for the sound to turn into strangled gasps of pain and the dull thud of bodies falling to the ground. Arthur's fingers tightened around the hilt of his sword, but something held him frozen, his limbs like lead and his lungs constricting. He forced his eyes back open, just as Morgause's chant reached a crescendo and saw the green light spread out towards him.
Arthur heard the shout and, in the next moment, he was seized and pulled down from his horse, just in the way he had earlier imagined doing with Merlin.
Rolling over, Arthur pushed himself up against the cold dampness of the snow-covered ground, and turned to his attacker... saviour... idiot manservant - only to see him scramble to his feet, trying to get between Arthur and Morgause.
''You fool!'' Morgause hissed in obvious anger.
Arthur couldn't help but whole-heartedly agree, but then Merlin was flying backwards hitting a pile of rocks with a dull sound and all Arthur could think of was disemboweling that miserable wretch of a sorceress. Right after he had made sure his manservant was still in one piece. Gods, let him be in one piece.
Before Arthur could even get to his feet, though, a tall column of fire rushed towards them – towards Merlin, who was sprawled against the rocks probably only half conscious.
''Merlin!'' Arthur barked, willing to pull the idiot to his feet with the force of his shout alone, as fear - colder than the snow under his palms - gripped him.
Whether it was that or Merlin's usual dumb luck Arthur couldn't say, but he managed to roll out of the way and the flames only grazed him before they smashed against the rock, leaving it black and smoking.
Morgause raised her hands again, and Arthur didn't even think before he stormed forwards. The blond sorceress seemed surprised by his move but quickly recovered and, before Arthur could get close, vines sprang up from under the snow, wrapping around his arms and neck, starting to strangle him.
Her golden eyes were sparkling with open satisfaction as she watched him struggling and gasping for breath, the vines pulling tighter and tighter.
''Maybe I should just crush you right here and now and have it done with,'' she drawled, scorn dripping from her every word.
Arthur had no way to answer. All he could do was try to glare at her through his greying vision as the vines pulled him harshly down to his knees.
Merlin's voice was more a sob than a shout this time, desperate and almost broken, and from the corner of his eye Arthur could see that stupid, brave fool dragging himself up from where he was lying on his stomach. If he had been able to move or speak, Arthur would have shaken Merlin and shouted at him to run away you idiot!
But Merlin's eyes were burning with determination and then he flung out his own hand, fingers spread, and Morgause was thrown backwards into the dark of the surrounding trees. The fire of the torches around them flared up at the same time, roaring like they were living beasts, turning against those that held them. Yells of pain and terror filled the forest as men scrambled in panic, dropping their torches and trying to beat at the flames that were jumping to their hair and clothes.
All that became nothing but background noise, though, as Arthur knelt in the snow, gasping for breath now that his shackles had fallen away. All there was at that moment was Merlin, his manservant, his friend.
Merlin, who was staring at him with an expression of shock and dismay and eyes glowing golden like fire.
A few of the braver men who seemed to have escaped more serious injury and had not run like their companions, chose that moment for a last, desperate attack. Foolishly, they seemed to think that outnumbering him four to one would be enough, and Arthur made quick progress to dispatched them. When the last man dropped down with a gasp, Arthur looked around the clearing, wiping sweat and snow out of his eyes. The ground was littered with the fallen, his own men as well as their attackers, but one thing was blatantly missing.
Merlin was gone.
Arthur had searched the clearing and the surrounding forest, checking whether anyone was still alive, looking for Morgause – or preferably Morgause's body – and, most of all, to find out where in the gods name Merlin had disappeared to. But in the end, Arthur had to realise that there was no one but him. He was alone, and that felt wrong on a skin deep level somehow.
Arthur had been in many battles, had lost men in attacks like these many times, so many in fact that it sometimes it felt as if all he ever did was fight off bandits and smugglers and disgruntled sorcerers. There were always casualties. But afterwards, Arthur would still be standing and Merlin would always - always - be with him. He'd turn to Arthur, slightly breathless and with a worried expression, forgoing any measure of decorum to check his prince for injuries, and Arthur would bat away his hands while subtly doing the same with his clumsy but incredibly lucky manservant.
Only, Arthur now realised, luck might not have played such a big part in Merlin coming out of every skirmish mostly unharmed, after all. That had probably just been him using his magic.
Because Merlin was a sorcerer. He had magic. And Arthur suddenly understood that he must have been using it, all this time, right under Arthur's nose.
He waited for the shock to seize him, for the feeling of betrayal and anger and maybe even hate. Because wasn't that what Arthur had learned ever since he had been a little boy? That magic was an abomination, and those who used it forfeited their lives? That it corrupted the soul and wrought only evil?
But to his embarrassment, Arthur couldn't even claim that he was surprised. He had always known, somewhere in the recess of his mind where he pushed those things he didn't want to examine too closely, that Merlin was different. That there was something more to him and he even had suspected what it was a time or two, only to shy away from the very thought as quickly as possible, laughing it off and calling himself a fool. Well, apparently he was the biggest fool in the whole kingdom because, looking back, it seemed painfully obvious that at least a few of his miraculous victories couldn't have come by Arthur's own prowess and sword alone.
And he was angry, all right. Mostly at himself, but also at Merlin for lying to him. For running away instead of staying where Arthur could shout at him and then explain to him in small words and with a clipped voice why Merlin was an even bigger idiot than Arthur had previously assumed.
But Merlin was gone.
Slowly, Arthur walked over to the place where he had last seen his friend, lying on his belly in the snow. There was something dark on the ground, and Arthur crouched down to take a closer look in the fading light. It was blood. It was Merlin's blood, and that was when any feelings of anger and hurt and betrayal were swept away by all-consuming fear. Because Merlin was hurt and Arthur had no idea how badly or where he even was.
That's when he started running.
Seeing that Merlin was a clumsy idiot who kept tripping over his own feet every few seconds, he should have left a trail like a rampaging hog, but unfortunately Merlin had also magic and seemed determined to use it to hide his tracks. Luckily, Arthur was a great tracker, and since Merlin's attempts were haphazard at best, he managed to follow Merlin's path, if more slowly than he would have liked. Really, what was that idiot thinking?
But then it had started to snow again and, when night finally fell, Arthur had to admit that he had been thrown off the track. He had come to a steep cliff that was falling a good ten yards down to the river, which ran high and wild with riptides where it wasn't covered with ice. There was no way of saying where and how Merlin had gone on from here, and Arthur was not stupid enough to risk breaking his neck in a futile attempt to find the trail again in the ever increasing darkness.
Instead he found a small overhang that would give him shelter for the night and settled down with his back to the rock, staring out into the black night, worrying about his idiot manservant. Merlin didn't even have enough fat on his ribs to keep himself warm inside the Citadel, never mind the forest in winter. Arthur could only hope that his special talent involved a solution for that and that he had enough self-preservation instincts to use it. Shaking his head at himself, Arthur wondered when he had started to think of Merlin using magic as a good thing.
On the other hand, since Arthur's own luck at starting a fire had been dubious at best because the wood was much too wet, he couldn't help but remember how Merlin always seemed to have had a knack for it, even in the worst conditions.
With these thoughts, and shivering from the cold, Arthur finally fell into a restless sleep.
He woke up to his bed shaking. That was definitely strange because Merlin normally didn't resolve to such drastic measures to wake him, choosing rather to annoy Arthur with his chipper prattle until the level of frustration alone was enough to get Arthur to rise.
Then he realised that he was, in fact, not in his bed but lying with his face pressed against the cold rock. Which made the tremors he could feel against his cheekbone even more worrisome. Pushing himself up hastily, Arthur looked around for the source of the disturbance and immediately had the urge to pinch himself to make sure he wasn't still dreaming.
On a high boulder rising out of the river right in front of him sat a dragon. And while Arthur wasn't exactly an expert, he had to say there was a rather disconcerting resemblance to The Great Dragon. The one Arthur had killed only a few short months ago and which was supposed to have been the last of his kind. The one Merlin had assured Arthur he had fatally wounded.
For the gods sake, certainly, Merlin would not have lied about that as well? Sparing a beast which had nearly destroyed half of the Citadel was not the same as accidentally on purpose stumbling over every available tree root when Arthur was trying to shoot a stag.
But the terrifying evidence sat right in front of him. And while Arthur would have loved to get angry and yell at Merlin for his complete lack of common sense, Merlin unfortunately wasn't present and the dragon very much was.
Arthur's fingers curled around the hilt of his sword but, in light of past events, he couldn't say that he felt very confident about trying to kill the beast – again. Not knowing what else to do, Arthur watched the creature warily and then nearly jumped out of his bones when the dragon opened its maw and spoke.
''Arthur Pendragon,'' it said, staring down at Arthur from luminous orange eyes that held far too much intelligence for such a beast. Its voice was a rumble that seemed to come from the deepest pits of the earth itself, and yet its words were almost... polite. ''So we meet again.''
''Y-You... can talk,'' Arthur stuttered dumbly.
''As can you.''
The sarcasm was apparent, but Arthur was too stunned to even think of taking offence. ''I guess, I didn't kill you after all, then.''
The dragon chuckled. ''It takes a lot more to slay me, little prince.'' It sat down, looking as if it was getting comfortable before it continued conversationally, ''But there is no need to worry. I won't attack Camelot again. Merlin has seen to that.''
Of course. Merlin. ''And how exactly did he do that?'' Arthur asked, rather exasperated and more than a little bit sceptical.
''Why, he asked me not to.''
''He asked...'' Arthur shook his head disbelievingly. ''And that's all it took? A polite request from my manservant?''
''It was not a request from just anyone,'' the dragon snapped, giving Arthur a haughty look. ''Merlin is my kin. We share a bond both ancient and sacred. He is a Dragonlord. Just like his father was before him.''
Arthur stared at the creature in front of him, trying to comprehend what it was saying, never mind that he was still struggling with the fact that he was holding a bloody conversation with the beast in the first place. He remembered their search for the last dragonlord, remembered finding Balinor and how Merlin had sat, bowed over his dead body in the end, sobs wrecking his slender frame while he tried his best to hide his grief from Arthur. His father. Why had Arthur not seen that?
He let out a shaky breath, looking at the dragon uncertainly. ''Balinor? Balinor was Merlin's father?''
''Yes.'' The dragon looked almost grieved. ''And when Balinor died, Merlin inherited his powers.''
So Merlin had saved Camelot from the dragon. And then he had saved the dragon as well.
Arthur felt as if his whole life was fraying at the seams, slowly disintegrating and revealing a completely different landscape that he had no idea how to navigate. There were so many things he had not known, especially about Merlin, and he couldn't help but feel embarrassed and angry. He had been blind, maybe willingly so, and now that the scales had finally fallen from his eyes, Merlin wasn't there to explain what the hell he had been thinking, why he couldn't have trusted Arthur more, or even just a little.
''Then why are you here now?'' Arthur finally asked, feeling tired. ''What do you want from me?''
The dragon's expression turned sombre. ''Merlin needs your help. You, Arthur Pendragon, might well be the only one who can save him now.''
Arthur gave it a doubtful look. That seemed a bit over-dramatic. What Merlin probably really needed was a physician. And, anyway, it wasn't as if he didn't want to help Merlin.
''I'd love to help the idiot, but unfortunately he has run away. I've been searching for him since yesterday, and-''
''I can take you to him,'' the dragon interrupted him impatiently.
Arthur stared at the beast, taken aback. ''You know where he is? And what do you mean you can take me to him? Surely you don't mean...?''
In a far too human gesture, the dragon raised a single eyebrow.
''I am not in thee habit of offering my services as a carriage,'' the dragon replied sarcastically. ''But the circumstances leave me with no other option. Merlin's condition is probably getting worse as we speak.''
Those words caused Arthur's insides to cramp with anxious worry and yet there was a tiny voice in the back of his mind, asking why he was even listening to the beast, never mind trusting it to tell him the truth.
Yet the only question out of his mouth was, ''What's wrong with Merlin? I didn't think he was hurt that badly.''
''His physical injuries are not the worst of the problem.''
''What do you-''
''Enough!'' the dragon boomed. ''We have no time to waste with idle chatter.''
Arthur glared. ''Well, then you better get over here so I can... '' Arthur gestured towards the dragon's back with a challenging look.
The dragon huffed but then flapped its wings once, landing next to Arthur with a thump that shook the earth and nearly threw him off his feet, but he managed to steady himself against the rock. He was almost certain that he must have lost his mind, seeing as he was about to climb up on the back of a dragon so that the beast could carry him to who-knew-where. Maybe to its lair where it would make a snack out of Arthur. On the other hand, if that was its goal, it could have killed Arthur easily at any point. It could have roasted him in his sleep even, instead of making conversation.
If the amused look the dragon gave him was anything to go by, Arthur suspected that it knew very well what kind of thoughts he was having, and so he straightened, squared his shoulders and sent a defiant glare towards the beast before he took a deep breath and then reached out for its scales so that he could swing himself up on its back. The dragons' skin felt smooth like polished marble, but warm, and Arthur tried to make himself comfortable somewhere between its neck and shoulders.
''Ready?'' the dragon asked.
''As much as I'll ever be.''
The dragon snorted, spraying sparks against the rocks. ''Don't get used to it, Princeling.''
Arthur rolled his eyes, mumbling, ''Believe me, I'm not planning to.''
He wasn't sure whether the dragon had even heard him, but then all rational thought left him anyway when, with a forceful flap of its enormous wings, the dragon swung itself upwards.
And then they were airborne.
Arthur might have been an accomplished rider, but it was a big difference whether you sat on a horse, how ever spirited it may be, not even two yards from the ground, or whether you held on to a huge fire-breathing dragon, so far up in the air that the whole earth shrunk to the size of a child's toy.
Arthur's heart beat wildly and his hair flapped in the wind. It was even colder up here than it had been on the ground, and yet he couldn't help but feel a small measure of elation, of breathless wonder, as he stared down at the expanse of the snow-covered earth, lying spread out beneath him in a way he had never seen it before. Even in the frozen grasp of winter, it was beautiful.
He only realised he'd spoken out loud when the dragon hummed in agreement and Arthur shook his head at the absurdity of it all.
The journey wasn't a long one. The dragon turned towards the snowy mountains in the east, and it was only when it started its descent that Arthur realised that Merlin could never have made it this far on his own, never mind being injured.
They landed on a broad outcrop, half way up a mountaintop where the snow had visibly been disturbed before. Arthur slid down from the dragon's back, looking around and squinting against the icy wind that whipped stray snowflakes into his face once more. He thought he could make out the mouth of a cave further to their left, a flickering light hinting at a fire burning inside.
''Did you bring him here?'' he asked with a frown.
''I did.'' The dragon stretched itself up to its impressive height again, its glowing eyes glancing into the direction of the cave thoughtfully. ''He called for me, if only in his dreams. But the pull was strong enough for me to find him.''
Arthur had no idea what that meant, but he certainly didn't plan to ask this ancient creature to explain the cryptic statements it seemed to enjoy throwing at him. Just because he had agreed to let the dragon take him to Merlin, didn't mean he trusted it. Arthur was not about to forget the devastation it had caused for Camelot and he was certain the beast had its own agenda. But right now the most important thing was Merlin.
Standing up tall, he tried to give his voice all the firmness he usually adopted when commanding his knights. He might be half frozen from the cold, but he would not be cowered.
''So what exactly is wrong with him? Tell me. I know that he was injured, but you said that it was more than that.''
The dragon gave him a long, calculating look. ''Maybe you should better go and have a look for yourself, Princeling.''
Arthur bristled. He certainly didn't like to be left in the dark, and neither did he appreciate a giant lizard trying to tell him what to do. He didn't have the patience to argue with the beast, though, and in the end his worry about Merlin won out over his stubbornness.
He grabbed his satchel with an angry huff and made his way over to what, at first sight, looked like just a narrow gap in the rock. When he slipped through, he found that it widened into a cave that, while not overly deep, stretched high up into the darkness. The flickering light of the pitiful fire burning in one corner was not able to even reach its ceiling.
Merlin was lying at the far side, rolled up into a ball on the ground, his back towards Arthur. He must not have heard him enter either because, when Arthur dropped his things just inside the entrance, Merlin jerked wildly, turning towards him with wide, fearful eyes.
He was even paler than usual and, in the light of the fire, he looked almost like a ghost.
Arthur rushed forwards, falling to his knees beside him, only for Merlin to tense even more and flinch away. With a painful lurch of his heart, Arthur realised that the scared look had not disappeared from Merlin's eyes. Everything about him, from the tense set of his jaw to the defensive curl of his shoulders and the wide-eyed, panicked expression written on his face, spoke of a fear so deep it seemed to almost paralyse Merlin.
And that fear was directed at Arthur.
Seeing brazen, insolent Merlin look at him like that was almost incomprehensible and made Arthur feel sick, as if someone was trying to pull his inner organs out of his ribcage. Finally he couldn't bear it anymore, he had to turn away from that fearful expression and instead took in Merlin's shivering frame.
''Merlin, what in the gods name happened?'' he demanded, his eyebrows pulling into a worried frown before he reached out to confirm what he was seeing. ''Did you take a dive in the river? Your clothes are all wet and... by the gods, you're burning up!''
Why hadn't Merlin used his talent to dry himself off, or make a decent fire at least? It was on the tip of Arthur's tongue to ask, but something inside of him shied away from confronting the issue of Merlin having magic when he still didn't really know how he felt about all its implications.
Merlin didn't react to his words anyway, but simply stared at Arthur like a cornered animal, his teeth chattering and his forehead damp with cold perspiration. Remembering the traces of blood he had found in the snow, Arthur tried to get Merlin to turn around so he could discern the nature and severity of his injuries.
Merlin hardly seemed to notice, his gaze still glued to Arthur even though it seemed to pain him. ''I'm sorry,'' he finally croaked, sounding on the verge of tears ''I'm so sorry!''
''You better be,'' Arthur muttered darkly, having just discovered that half of Merlin's tunic had been burned away, the skin on his chest blistered and red. He glanced up to give Merlin an admonishing look. ''I hope you know how stupid it was to run away. We need to get you back to Camelot.''
He glanced towards the cave's entrance, already trying to work out how that could be accomplished without having to land a dragon in the middle of the great courtyard. He couldn't imagine that would go over well with his father.
But then he heard a choked up sob escaping from Merlin's throat and, upon turning back, was shocked to see trails of glistening tears running down Merlin's cheeks.
''Arthur, please,'' Merlin rasped, his voice raw and his eyes wild and desperate. ''I know I lied to you, but you have to believe me... I only ever wanted... I did it for you! It was all for you!''
Bewildered, Arthur shook his head. ''That's not-'' he started to explain, only to be immediately interrupted.
''Not an excuse. I know!'' Merlin nodded quickly, his mouth twisting into an ugly, self-deprecating smile and his his next words spilled out in shuddering gasps. ''I know. I know, I failed you... our destiny. Everything. I got it all wrong, and I shouldn't have... I betrayed you and this is my... my punishment. I deserve it. I know you have to... But, please... just... please, Arthur. ''
And now Merlin reached out, his slender fingers wrapping themselves around the leather of Arthur's gloved hand in a death grip, as he whispered utterly defeated, ''Please... don't put me on the pyre. Just... your hand. Please. Let me just die by your hand.''
He squeezed Arthur's fingers, as if their cruel mercy was his only hope left, and for a second Arthur was sure his heart had stopped and his lungs had collapsed in his chest. All he could do was stare at Merlin aghast, feeling like he was drowning in the bright, feverish blue of his eyes, earnest and full of fear and desolation.
''Gods, Merlin,'' he choked, torn between drawing back or pulling Merlin into some sort of embrace, yet unable to do either. ''What are you even talking about? No one is going to... I won't... I just need to get you back to Gaius so-''
Merlin's eyes widened even further with a fresh wave of panic. ''No!'' he begged, shaking his head and pulling at Arthur frantically, ''Not Gaius!'' He tried to rise up, lifting his upper body off the ground, but he was too weak and in the end only managed to drag Arthur further forward, so that he was bent over Merlin, hearing his broken whisper close to his ear, ''Please! Gaius is not... he's loyal, I swear! Loyal to your father and loyal to you! He just tried to protect me... He never-''
Arthur drew back as if he'd been stung. He had no idea how to react and so he grasped Merlin by the shoulders, firmly holding him down and only barely holding back from shaking some sense into him.
''Calm down!'' he pressed out, his chest feeling too tight. ''Gods, Merlin... No one is going to hurt Gaius and no one is going to hurt you! How can you even think that?''
For a second Merlin just stared up at him silently and then his whole body went limp as he turned his face away, squeezing his eyes shut, his expression resigned. As if nothing Arthur could say would ever convince him that his life wasn't forfeit.
Arthur had never felt so appalled and stunned and helpless. That Merlin would believe...
But then why wouldn't he? a small voice in the back of his mind asked. It wasn't like Merlin didn't know the laws, like he hadn't seen Arthur enforce them in the name of the king. There was no reason for Merlin to believe that Arthur would show him any kind of mercy or friendship. Apart from the fact that this was Merlin and how could the idiot ever think that Arthur would let any harm come to him?
To a certain extent, Arthur was aware that he was being hypocritical. It had been him, after all, who had been insisting not too long ago that they couldn't be friends. And he knew that he didn't exactly advocate his, well, exasperated fondness or affectionate annoyance or whatever it was he felt in regard to Merlin, but somehow he had always assumed that Merlin still knew.
Right now there wasn't the time to talk about it, though, not when Merlin was obviously not just sick but hurt and half-frozen and completely out of his idiotic mind.
''Let's just... let me get you out of these wet rags and take a look at your injuries, all right?'' Arthur mumbled uncomfortably, and then quietly added, ''And stop being ridiculous.''
Merlin kept silent, but was shooting Arthur wary and doubtful glances that were as painful as a knife twisting in his guts. It didn't stop Arthur from peeling back Merlin's half-ruined clothes, exposing the angry burns and the dark bruises and scratches that muddled his back. Arthur had one of Gaius' basic healing ointments in his pack and he went to fetch it and then gingerly began to apply it to Merlin's wounds.
The air filled with the soothing smell of lavender, a sharp contrast to the tense silence between them. There was also the fact that Merlin was half naked in front of him, and although that really shouldn't be something to get caught up on, Arthur's heart was nevertheless beating in his throat as he traced the tips of his fingers along Merlin's pale flesh.
It wasn't like Arthur had never done such a thing before; there was seldom a physician at hand when someone got injured on a long patrol or hunting trip. But somehow patching up Leon or Kay had been vastly different from tending to Merlin, who tensed and shivered under his touch and yet only seemed more appealing in his vulnerability. The low burning fire painted dancing shadows along his skin and Arthur's mouth felt dry all of a sudden. There might have also been a completely inappropriate and mildly mortifying stirring further down, inside his trousers, but Arthur stoutly ignored it, just like he always did.
Trying to keep his focus on Merlin's injuries, Arthur wondered where the blood he had found could have come from. So far, he had not discovered any deep and open wounds that would have explained it, but then he gently pushed against the back of Merlin's head to better expose a scratch on his neck and found his unruly hair clotted and sticky. Arthur knew that head wounds tended to bleed profoundly, even if they weren't especially severe, but he couldn't help but suck in a sharp breath and grip Merlin's shoulder, eliciting a frightened whimper from the slighter man.
Loosening his grip, Arthur stroked the spot in awkward apology, while trying to get a closer look at the wound hidden under Merlin's hair.
''Honestly, you must be the biggest idiot in the kingdom, running around in the frozen forest while half of your foolish brain is spilling out of your head,'' he muttered.
Merlin shifted a little, as if fighting an instinct to escape. ''Why...'' he started after a long moment, but then faltered and fell silent again.
''Why does it matter to you?'' Merlin whispered, pained and barely audible.
Arthur glared at the back of his head. ''Oh, I don't know, maybe because I'm not exactly looking forward to training a new manservant?''
Merlin turned stiff as a tree. ''I'm... I'm sorry for that. Though I would have thought...'' He swallowed heavily before he continued, ''I didn't think that would be your main concern.''
''No, of course not.'' Arthur rolled his eyes and huffed out a frustrated sigh. ''What? Are you going to make me say it?''
There was a second of silence and then Merlin slumped forward like a puppet with its strings cut.
''No,'' he said, a barely audible whisper. ''I think I'd rather you didn't. I know what I've done. I know my crimes. And I know that you can't forgive them.''
Arthur felt his blood run cold. What in the gods name was Merlin talking about? What were those things he had done that had been so awful? That had him thinking he could never been forgiven? Half of Arthur wanted to tell Merlin to shut up and not say another word, to not put him into a place where Arthur might have to make an impossible choice. The other half wanted to demand that Merlin tell him about every single time he had used his magic, every time he had lied to Arthur. Wanted to shake him and demand he'd tell Arthur exactly what the hell he had done.
In the end, Arthur stayed silent and Merlin continued to ramble, head bowed and eyes fixed on the ground.
''All the things I... just let happen. The things I was too weak to stop. The people I couldn't save and the people... the people I killed-''
''Merlin,'' Arthur finally interrupted, voice strangled. ''What are you talking about?''
But Merlin hardly seemed to hear him. ''I just... I need you to know... I never wanted for all that to happen... I just didn't know what else to do! I wish I had known how to find a better way. With... with Morgana and Kilgharrah and Mordred and all the other things I messed up...''
''What about Morgana?'' Arthur asked sharply and Merlin shuddered, letting out another painful sob.
''I- I poisoned her!''
Arthur was sure something had just cracked and broken inside his chest. Was there no end to this?
''You did what?'' he whispered hoarsely.
''I had to!'' Merlin choked out. ''She was the vessel! It was the only way to break the enchantment; if I hadn't we'd all have died. You would have died! And I couldn't... I couldn't!'' He broke off, sucking in deep breaths. ''Still was my fault... if only I had done something... kept her from turning to Morgause. She thought she was alone... she was my friend and I failed her, too, and I'm sorry! So, so sorry!''
Merlin's body was wrecked with desperate sobs now, and for a moment Arthur was too shocked and confused to react in any way at all. He wanted to be slap Merlin, yell or shake him, but he couldn't.
His thoughts turned back to that day when Camelot had nearly fallen, sunken into sleep and held there by magic, everyone but Morgana. He remembered how he had puzzled over the reason why Morgana was the only one not affected, remembered Merlin's hasty explanations. Now it was obvious they had been lies. He remembered how helpless he had felt, fighting against falling asleep while the kingdom was under attack, unable to protect his own people. He had thought this was the end, until... suddenly it was all over. And Morgana was gone. Was that because Merlin had broken the spell? But for what price? And what would he, Arthur, have done if it had been his choice to make?
Yes, Merlin was a sorcerer and had used magic in the very heart of the kingdom. He had lied to Arthur, but he also had stood by his side, always, risking discovery, risking his very life for him and Camelot and even Arthur's father, who would have seen him dead for his actions. The idea of Merlin betraying them, betraying Arthur, seemed ridiculous. Merlin was the most loyal soul Arthur had ever met, to the point of foolishness and bordering on suicidal.
Arthur wanted to tell Merlin that, but he had no idea how, not when Merlin was a trembling and choking mess of tears. Instead Arthur just held on to him, curling his broad hands around Merlin's shoulders and pressing his forehead against the nape of Merlin's neck.
''I want you to tell me about everything you did. But first you have to get better. Do you hear me, Merlin? That's the most important thing. We can talk about this later.''
Merlin started to calm down then, his body listing and almost sagging back into Arthur's arms, probably exhausted beyond imagination.
''You should get some rest,'' Arthur mumbled quietly. ''Everything else can wait.''
He took his bedroll and laid it out on the ground next to the fire, then guided an unresisting Merlin to stretch out upon it, wrapping him up and pulling the furs up to his chin. The look in Merlin's eyes was still wary and worried, but his eyelids were drooping and soon his lashes lay like dark spider legs against the pale skin of his cheeks. There were dark bruises under his eyes and he had bitten his lips until they were red and raw, but his breath evened out and then he was asleep.
For a long moment Arthur just sat there, staring down at him, unable to take his eyes away, his thoughts and feelings in shambles. Then he pushed himself up from the ground and went to find the dragon.
The sky had darkened outside with heavy clouds that promised more snow and the wind had a biting cold to it that cut into the exposed skin on Arthur's face and neck. It was strange to see the dragon, a creature one associated with fire and that exuded a distinct smell of brimstone, in these kind of surroundings. It obviously didn't feel very comfortable either.
''Will you tell me what's wrong with him now?'' Arthur asked, turning to the beast with a grim expression.
''What do you think is wrong with him?''
Arthur huffed out a breath, half a sigh and half annoyance. ''I have no idea, but he seems... not himself.''
The dragon turned its ancient, knowing eyes on him. ''That's because he is not. I do not know the nature nor the source of it, but there is magic on him.''
Arthur raised his eyebrows. ''That's hardly surprising, is it? Wouldn't that be expected, seeing that he's a sorcerer?''
For a second the dragon looked taken aback. ''You know, then.''
''Yes.'' Arthur lifted his chin challengingly. ''I know.''
''I have to admit, I expected your reaction to be a little different. And, I believe, so did Merlin.''
''I'm... I don't like that he lied to me,'' Arthur admitted. ''But I think I understand why he did.''
''Yes, the sound of the chopping block and the smell of burnt flesh must have been discouraging,'' the dragon said snidely, making Arthur bristle.
''I would never have let it come to that!''
''Wouldn't you? So because it's Merlin, that makes it different? I guess if the innocent blood being spilled at your feet is that of strangers, it's easier to bear.''
Arthur gritted his teeth. ''It's never easy to bear, and I don't agree with all of my father's decisions. But not all of these people are innocents. And if it comes down to protecting my people from sorcery, there is only one choice to be made!''
''Children burned in Uther's so-called purge!'' the dragon snarled, golden eyes ablaze and sparks steaming from his nostrils.
Arthur stood his ground. ''And who were the victims when you attacked Camelot? Do you think it was only the knights and nobles who suffered? It was women and children as well! You are no better than my father, acting out of ang-!''
The dragon hissed and a fireball flew towards Arthur, who had to duck quickly to the side for it to miss him by just a few feet.
''Are you done?'' Arthur asked, straightening up again and fixing the dragon with a determined look, although his hands were shaking slightly. That had been a close call. ''Maybe then we can get back to Merlin and what's wrong with him.''
''Merlin has been cursed!'' the dragon snapped. ''The magic on him is dark and destructive and it is slowly suffocating him. It is poisoning his soul. That is what is wrong with him.''
Arthur's eyes widened and he took a deep breath, remembering. ''There was... I think Morgause did something. She had a dagger with a jewel and she did some sort of spell. There was a green light coming from it. But whatever she was trying to do, she didn't intend for it to affect Merlin.''
The dragon raised its head, looking down at Arthur like he was an insect. ''Then the spell was meant for you.''
''But Merlin intercepted it, and so it was he who got cursed instead.''
Unable to stop the guilty flush rising in his cheeks, Arthur nodded. The dragon huffed.
''Magic is a fickle thing. It is hard to predict its outcome at the best of times. Merlin's interference might well have altered the original purpose completely, whatever that might have been.''
''I think Morgause wanted to somehow force me to... kill my father.''
The dragon's eyes gleamed with vicious delight. ''How unfortunate that it does not seem to have the same effect on Merlin,'' it drawled and Arthur shot it an angry glare.
''Well, what is it doing to him?''
''I do not know.''
''What do you mean, you don't know? You said that I could help him! How am I supposed to help him if we don't even know what's wrong with him?''
The dragon jerked its head impatiently. ''I said, you were probably the only one who could help him,'' it corrected. ''You are two sides of the same coin. Your souls are bound together by destiny. If there is anyone who can save Merlin, it would be you.''
Arthur looked at the beast disbelievingly. ''Apart from the fact that I have no idea what you're talking about... How?''
The dragon bared its teeth in the mockery of a smile. ''If you really want to help him, you'd better find out.''
And with that it turned, swishing tail nearly catching Arthur in the knees, and swung itself into the air. With the first snowflakes whirling down, it soon had vanished into the white and grey darkness of the mountains. Arthur wanted to curse the bloody creature, but what use would that have been?
He was on his own, and he had no idea what he was up against.
Inside the cave it was only marginally warmer. Arthur put the last of the wood on the fire before he keeled down next to Merlin who was still shivering almost violently, the dark hair plastered to his forehead. Arthur pulled off his gloves to stroke the damp fringe back, finding Merlin's skin still hot like coals. Merlin was obviously running a fever and while Arthur had no idea whether the cause was natural or the result of the spell, he could only hope that the same remedies applied or at least would not cause any harm. It wasn't as if he knew what else to do.
He fervently wished that Gaius was here. Not only was he far better equipped to treat Merlin's sickness, but he also knew a lot about sorcery and might have been able to guess what Morgause had done to Merlin. All Arthur had was the bag with basic, medical supplies Merlin always insisted on bringing, and it felt incredibly insufficient. Like facing an army with a pitchfork. Nevertheless he rummaged around until he found some willow bark, which even Arthur knew that, when made into a tea, would help fight Merlin's fever as well as reduce any pain that he was in.
Setting himself to work, he melted some snow in a bowl over the fire to brew the bitter tea and then set some aside to make a broth from the dried meat he had left in his pack. It was strange to have their roles reversed like this, but Arthur felt like it was little enough that he could do. Taking care of Merlin, even in such a small way, meant he was at least doing something right.
Getting Merlin to drink the tea turned out to be the harder part. Only half conscious, he kept mumbling and shaking his head, trying to squirm away. So Arthur hoisted him up against his chest and gently pulled his head back, putting the cup to Merlin's lips and stroking along his throat to encourage him to swallow. It was worrisome how fragile Merlin's body felt in his arms, he might be slender but Arthur had always known him to be strong in his own right, if not a match for one of Camelot's trained knights.
Finally, after Merlin had fallen into a fitful slumber again, Arthur took off his armour and mail as well as his boots, and then slipped under the furs, too. The tea must have brought the fever down because at least Merlin didn't feel like he was burning up anymore and his shaking had lessened a little. He still seemed restless, though.
For a moment Arthur hesitated, but then he told himself it was only logical to preserve warmth in any way they could, especially since the fire was likely to die out at some point during the night. Sliding up to Merlin, he carefully wrapped his arms around his slight frame from behind and pulled him closer, rubbing the shivering limbs with slow, soothing strokes.
There was a strange knot in Arthur's stomach, although he couldn't quite say why. They had slept huddled together before. On cold nights out in Camelot's forests, sharing body heat was the only sensible thing to do, and yet this felt very different. Maybe because in the past they had always been wrapped in their thickest clothes. Arthur had never felt the heat of Merlin's bare skin under the tips of his fingers. Then, they would lie back to back, bantering back and forth, but now Arthur held Merlin in his arms like he was the most precious thing in the world to him, while he himself felt raw and shaken and just on the brink of... something. Some sort of realisation that felt incredibly important.
Stroking along Merlin's arms, Arthur couldn't help but notice how soft Merlin's skin was or that his hair smelled of snow and smoke and sandalwood. He felt his heart speed up as he stared at the back of Merlin's neck, fighting the bewildering urge to press his lips against that soft spot, right at Merlin's hairline that was normally disguised by those gods-awful neckerchiefs of his.
Get a grip, Arthur. He's your servant. A bumbling, clumsy idiot and, as much as you might tease him with it, he is not a girl. Stop being ridiculous.
Unfortunately, something inside Arthur seemed to disagree. As if the reminder that Merlin was not a girl only served his mind as an excuse, Arthur couldn't keep himself from drawing all kinds of weird parallels.
Merlin's hands were surprisingly graceful for a servant. His neck was incredibly long and slender, his waist narrow and his lips... Arthur swallowed, shifting a little uncomfortably at his own embarrassing thoughts, which would have been more appropriate in regard to someone like... Gwen. Who was a girl. And also a servant. And who, despite being quite attractive, didn't cause this strange burning in Arthur's chest that Merlin seemed to incite.
Arthur closed his eyes, mentally shaking his head at himself. It must be the strain and exhaustion of the last days that was addling his brain. If anything, he should worry about Merlin being a sorcerer and not muse about the length of his eyelashes.
It was just that Arthur still had difficulty to truly wrap his head around that idea. Because in so many ways it made sense. And in so many ways it absolutely didn't. With the knowledge he had now, Arthur could recall dozens of incidents when they had been insanely lucky, where impossible odds had turned into victory and the weirdest coincidences had saved their lives. What Arthur didn't understand was why Merlin had come to Camelot in the first place – the one place where being what he was would be tantamount to a death sentence – only to make it his mission to protect Arthur of all people. Why would Merlin, with all the power that he supposedly had, be content to serve him?
Until the day I die.
And what exactly had he done that left him so devastated? Merlin couldn't bear to watch Arthur shoot a doe, it was hard to believe he would be able to kill anyone. And if he had really done it, for Arthur, then why did he claim he had betrayed him? It didn't make any sense, and Arthur might have discounted it as Merlin being delirious if it had not been so shocking to see Merlin, who had always confronted Arthur head on, who had challenged him to the point of treason, suddenly bending his neck and asking for the executioner's axe.
It just didn't seem like Merlin.
The thought niggled at something in the back of Arthur's mind, but by now exhaustion had finally taken its toll and Arthur fell asleep before he could follow that shadow of a realisation to its final conclusion.
He woke to near darkness as the last embers of the fire were slowly dying. His instincts told him that he could not have slept for long, that it was still the middle of the night, and for a moment he wondered what had woken him. Then he realised that he was alone and his heart jumped into his throat.
He threw off the furs and grabbed his cloak, pulling his boots on almost at a run.
Slipping outside, he saw that it had stopped snowing and the clouds above were breaking up to give way to the starry night sky and the pale sickle of the moon. A harsh wind was blowing over the plateau, piling up the snow against the rocks further to the left.
Blinking against the icy gusts, Arthur's gaze searched his surroundings, which were lit only by what little moonlight was being reflected on the fresh fallen snow. He nearly didn't see Merlin, as his figure merged almost completely with the shadows on the far side of the ledge, but the moment Arthur caught sight of him, the blood froze in his veins.
Merlin stood right at the edge, where the bluff fell away vertically into a fathomless deep. He was swaying like a stalk in the wind, and if he were to take just one step forward...
Arthur opened his mouth to yell, but no sound escaped his throat, too afraid to startle Merlin when he couldn't even be sure how far out of his mind the other man was. Instead, he crept slowly forward until he was almost close enough to reach out and take hold of Merlin's hand. But that's when Merlin suddenly turned around, obviously having sensed another's presence. Arthur's hand flew out in panic as Merlin shifted backwards, frantically shaking his head, his eyes wide and luminous in the moonlight.
''No, no, please!'' Merlin begged. ''Please don't! I'm sorry! I'm sorry!''
He wrapped his arms around himself, shoulders hunched and shivering in Arthur's thin spare tunic, looking for all the world as if he expected Arthur to draw his sword and slay him where he stood.
''Merlin...'' Arthur swallowed hard, hand still held out in silent entreaty. ''Please come away from there.''
But Merlin only kept shaking his head, frightened and mumbling incoherent pleads. He had to be in some sort of fever-dream.
''Merlin, come here,'' Arthur tried more firmly. ''You're not yourself. You're-''
''No! No, I am!'' Merlin sobbed. ''This is me. Don't pretend! I know you know now. You know. That I failed you, betrayed you... I failed everyone. My destiny and yours.'' He looked up at Arthur, a picture of devastation. ''But mostly you, Arthur. You said it yourself. We could never be friends. But now... how can you even look at me now? Knowing what I am. What I did...'' He turned back to the ledge, his expression dark and full of self-loathing. ''I did everything wrong and so many people died. They all died, because I couldn't... because I was too weak and blind and just not enough. I was just me.''
''That's not true!'' Arthur argued, desperately trying to talk some sense into Merlin. ''You saved people! You saved Camelot! And... and me. Over and over again!''
''At what price, Arthur? People's lives! Will. Freya. Balinor. My... my own father. They all died because of me!''
''If anything, Will died because of me! Remember? He took that bolt for me. And the same goes... the same goes for your father. I was the reason we were there and the reason we were attacked. It was my idea to ask him for help in the first place!''
Tears were rolling down Merlin's cheeks. ''He died to protect me.''
''Of course he did,'' Arthur agreed gently. ''He was your father.''
''He shouldn't have... I wasn't worth that sacrifice!''
''Merlin... How many people do you think have died to protect me? And how many more will do so in the future? Do you think I feel like I deserve that? I don't! But it doesn't bring them back if we throw our lives away! Is that how you want to honour your father's sacrifice?''
Merlin whimpered, but he took a small step backwards, away from the ledge.
''I... I don't know how to do this anymore,'' he whispered like he was confessing his greatest secret. ''Whatever I do... people keep dying.''
''Of course they do. People die, Merlin. It's the way of the world. And as long as there are people willing to kill and hurt each other, there will be people being killed and being hurt. We... we can only try our best to protect them. It's all we can do.''
''I should have found a way. A better way.''
''We will find one together! You and I. But I need you for this, Merlin. Maybe I never realised how much before, but I need you by my side.''
Merlin blinked at him. A slither of doubt crossing his features. ''But... you hate me. I'm a sorcerer.''
''I don't care! I don't hate you. Gods, Merlin! I...'' Arthur swallowed, all of a sudden flushing with embarrassment. ''I care... about you. And you are my friend. As unlikely as that idea might seem.''
He held out his hand again and Merlin stared at it as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing.
''Please,'' Arthur said with all the sincerity in his heart. ''Please, come here, Merlin.''
Merlin slowly unwrapped his arms from his body, his right hand reaching out ever so hesitantly. Arthur hardly dared to breathe.
It felt as if aeons passed, he and Merlin facing each other on top of this lonesome, snowy mountaintop, the freezing wind pulling on their hair and clothes. But then Merlin's fingertips brushed his and Arthur didn't hesitate, he grabbed Merlin's hand and pulled him forwards.
Merlin stumbled, crashing into Arthur's chest and Arthur wrapped his own arms around him, holding Merlin close as all that high-strung tension left his body with such a rush that it made him feel dizzy.
Arthur's breaths came in short gasps and his heart was hammering in his chest. He wasn't sure whom he was trying to reassure as he mumbled into the crown of Merlin's head, ''I've got you. I've got you. It's okay now.''
Merlin was trembling and shaking as if he was about to fly apart, and Arthur wrapped his cloak around Merlin's thin frame before he turned him back towards the cave, trudging carefully and leading Merlin with a firm arm around his shoulders.
They didn't speak, just slipped back under the furs, shivering from the cold and the release of tension and held onto each other. Merlin's face was buried against Arthur's neck and half of his weight draped across his chest, but Arthur didn't mind. He was glad to have this physical reassurance that Merlin was there, with him, breathing and alive. If there were any other implications to it, Arthur was too wrung out to think about it. He was about to drift off into exhausted slumber when he felt more than he heard Merlin's whisper against his ear.
''Arthur... you should know, the dragon... It was me who set him free.''
Arthur's breath caught. That he had not seen coming. ''What? Why?'' he croaked, because there had to be a reason. There had to be.
''He would not have told me how to defeat the curse unless I had sworn to free him on... on my mother's life.''
Another small sob escaped Merlin, and Arthur released the breath he had been holding. It was such a Merlin thing to do. To act in the moment, without thinking ahead, just hoping for the best.
''Did you know what it would do?'' he asked into the darkness around them, afraid of the answer but still tightening his hold on Merlin instead of pushing him away. ''Did you realise it would turn on Camelot like that?''
He felt the minute shake of Merlin's head, but the words that came out were a tortured, ''But I should have known. I should have!''
Arthur sighed. Merlin shouldn't have had to depend on the dragon for help in the first place. He shouldn't have been left to find a way to defeat the curse alone, shouldn't have had to bear that burden.
Arthur knew all about 'should have's.
''Sometimes... sometimes, we make mistakes,'' he said quietly, glad for the dark that would let him tell Merlin about his worst regret without having to look him in the face. ''When I was younger, I think I had just turned sixteen, my father send me on a mission to... investigate a camp. He suspected there to be druids.'' He took a deep breath. He had never talked about this. Had tried not to think of it outside of his own nightmares.
''I thought we would just... question them. See if they posed any threat. Gods, I was impossibly naïve.'' With a shaky exhale, he forced himself to go on. ''We found them, and they were druids, yes, but they were no rebels, no warriors. They were not even sorcerers, I think. They were just... families. Women and children. And the knights with me... all older men who my father trusted implicitly, they didn't stop to talk, they... they just rode in and... they started to, to slaughter these people. I didn't know what to do. I was frozen with shock, and they... they killed them all. I still see it in my dreams. The blood. Hear the screams. I will never forgive myself for letting that happen. I should have known it would happen...''
Arthur blinked and swallowed hard against the lump forming in his throat. And then he felt Merlin arm tighten around him and the brush of warm lips against his jaw. A tremble ran through his body and he pulled Merlin closer, not wanting to think about what they were doing and what it all meant.
''Maybe I should have let you kill him,'' Merlin whispered. He didn't have to elaborate on whom he was speaking about. ''I stopped you, and everything he does, every innocent life that's been lost from that point on... is my fault.''
''No. Two wrongs don't make a right. And I'm glad you stopped me. He... he is my father, Merlin. He might not always be... good, but... he's all I have.''
''No. No, he isn't. You have so much more, you are so much more.''
Arthur didn't know what to say to that.
''Sometimes I think Morgause might have been right,'' Merlin continued. ''About your mother. About you being conceived with magic. It would explain why the land loves you so much.''
''The land loves me?'' Arthur asked dubiously and a little amused at the idea.
''Oh yes. And it would explain why I feel so... drawn to you. So connected.''
''Like two sides of the same coin.''
''It's something the dragon said.''
''Yes,'' Merlin huffed out a small sigh. ''He loves to be cryptic.''
Arthur chuckled. ''That's most definitely true.'' He paused for a moment. ''You should sleep now. You need to rest if you want to get better. And you will get better, Merlin, do you hear me? Promise me!''
Merlin only sighed, warm against Arthur's neck, but at least he didn't argue. His breaths evened out a short while later, and soon they were both asleep.
The next time Arthur woke, it was from a drizzle of earth falling on his face. His first thought was that the castle was under attack, but when his eyes flew open to the dark of the cave and he heard the faint rumble of something big shifting on probably too little ground, he realised that it must be the dragon that had come back.
Relieved, he let his head fall back against the ground, but then he became aware of Merlin's warm body pressed up against him, and his mind immediately flashed back to the events of the last night, of Merlin standing at the edge of the plateau, one step away from the abyss.
Arthur was still not sure what the curse had done to him, whether Merlin was in his right mind, at least he had sounded more rational after they had returned to the cave. The fever, too, seemed to have gone down in the night, but that still didn't mean they could stay here. Not without food and firewood, and whatever brilliant ideas the dragon had, Merlin needed a proper physician.
So Arthur dressed and went out to see if the beast was in the mood to talk, and was greeted by the dragon spitting a pair of dead pheasants at him.
Arthur raised his eyebrows.
''I thought Merlin might be hungry,'' the dragon said magnanimously. ''And it serves my interests to not let you starve either.''
Arthur snorted. He had it on the tip of his tongue to ask whether this was the dragon's attempt of a peace offering, but then thought better of it and just picked up the dead birds with a small smile and an exaggerated bow. ''Thank you. That's very gracious of you.''
Of course without a fire they would have to eat them raw, never mind that it was bloody freezing up here. Arthur gave the dragon a calculating look. ''I don't suppose you could fetch us some firewood?'' he asked nonchalantly.
The dragon bristled. ''Do I look like one of your hunting dogs to you, that you expect me to fetch and carry?''
Arthur tried hard not to smile at the affronted tone. ''Not especially, no. But the wood we had is gone, and Merlin would certainly benefit from warming himself up.'' He regarded the dragon with a challenge in his eyes. ''After all, it was your idea to bring him up here into this frozen wasteland, wasn't it?''
''I brought him here because it's safe!'' the dragon groused. ''No mere man would be able to reach this place.''
''Probably. But that doesn't help Merlin much if he freezes to death instead, because no mere man is able to collect firewood up here either.''
The dragon huffed out a billow of smoke, but then turned and let himself drop over the edge without another word. The sound of his mighty wings beating faded away quickly, and Arthur let out a surprised chuckle. Who'd have thought he'd have fun yanking the chain of a dragon a few months ago? If the idea had not been so absurd, he'd almost thought he was starting to like the beast.
Then, all of a sudden, the wing beats were back and the next moment the dragon dropped an entire tree not three feet from where Arthur was standing. Arthur jumped back, flattening himself against the rock at his back, and not a second too soon, because the dragon opened his maw and directed a streak of fire towards the tangle of branches, not letting up until the whole thing was burning brightly, the wood cracking and sending sparks into the air.
''I hope that's good enough for you, Princeling,'' the dragon said, giving him a smug look.
At least he was warm again. Although Arthur would have preferred to light the fire inside the cave, but he knew that beggars couldn't be choosers. He had cleaned and cut the birds, deciding to wait for the fire to burn lower until he attempted to make another broth but roasting the breast on a spit to satisfy their first hunger.
When the meat was done, he went inside with the intention to wake Merlin, but he was already up, sitting on their bedroll, furs and blankets pooling around his waist and staring down into his lap. It took Arthur a moment to realise what it was Merlin was holding in his hand and what he was attempting to do.
He rushed forward, yelling, ''Merlin, no!'' only to watch helplessly as Merlin dragged the dagger along his pale wrist, leaving a trail of blood welling up in its wake. Then Arthur was next to him, gripping Merlin's wrist and twisting the other one holding the weapon so that Merlin had to let go of it. The fingers of Arthur's right wrapped around the cut, feeling the blood seep through them, slick and warm.
''What are you doing, Merlin?'' Arthur hissed, angry and scared at the realisation what Merlin had tried to do. Might have succeeded in doing if Arthur had come in just a little later.
Merlin just stared at him, gaze shifting from Arthur's face down to where he was holding his bloody wrist and back again. ''I don't know,'' he said, confused and frightened. ''It feels like it's the only thing I can do. I don't know why. I don't know what's wrong with me!''
Arthur shook his head. He wished he had an answer, but in absence of that he ripped off the bottom of his tunic and started to firmly wrap it around Merlin's cut wrist.
''Why are you doing this?'' Merlin asked after a while.
''I have to stop the bleeding. The cut isn't that deep, thankfully, but it still needs pressure to hold it closed.''
''No, I mean... why are you taking care of me?''
Arthur looked up at Merlin's uncomprehending expression. The doubt in his eyes hurt. ''I told you,'' Arthur said with difficulty. ''You are my friend. I care about you. And I know you would do the same for me.''
He knotted the ends of the cloth over Merlin's pulse point, and then stood up, offering him his hand. ''Come on, there's a fire and food outside. And I'd rather not let you out of my sight for now.''
Merlin obediently took his hand and let himself be dragged up from the ground. Arthur wrapped one of the furs around him and then took his hand again, lacing their fingers together as he led him outside.
When he had Merlin settled in the shelter of the rocks, close to the fire with some of the roasted pheasant, Arthur squared his shoulders and stomped over to the other side of the plateau where the dragon had settled down, his eyes closed and pretending to sleep.
''You were right,'' Arthur said, planting himself right in front of the dragon's head, where it rested on top of his front legs like the dog he had objected to being compared with.
''Of course I was,'' the dragon said, without moving so much as an eyelid. ''I always am.''
Arthur rolled his eyes. ''Something is wrong with Merlin,'' he continued, deciding to ignore the dragon's annoying arrogance. ''It must be the curse. It's making him act like he's not himself.''
The dragon's eyes slid open. ''And how is that?''
''He... he seems frightened. He's trying to harm himself and yesterday he was convinced I would kill him.''
''From what I could tell, he was always convinced you would kill him should you find out about his magic,'' the dragon said unimpressed.
Arthur winced. It hurt, hearing that Merlin, for all his talk about Arthur becoming this great king one day, had believed him capable of that.
''I told him I don't care!'' he pressed out.
''Maybe that's not so easy to believe, coming from the son of Uther Pendragon.''
Arthur muttered a few choice curses before he took a deep breath. ''I think it's more than that. I don't know about you, but the Merlin I know doesn't just give up. He stands up for himself and others, and he's not afraid to fight. He wouldn't just... I can't believe he would just...''
Arthur looked back over his shoulder towards Merlin's huddled form and swallowed against the lump that the thought of Merlin trying to kill himself had lodged in his throat.
''It's like whatever I say doesn't even reach him. Like he's eaten up by guilt.''
He halted, slowly turning back towards the dragon as words came back to him, suddenly, words spoken with certainty and cruel satisfaction.
''Facing your guilt will make you want to eliminate its source.''
The dragon looked at him questioningly.
''That's what Morgause said to me. What if this curse makes Merlin feel... guilt?''
''It is possible, I suppose,'' the dragon looked down at him thoughtfully. ''Her plan could have been to make you face your guilt and thereby turn you against its source. Your father.''
Arthur scowled at the beast.
The dragon snorted. ''Do not even try to deny it, little prince.'' And then his voice turned almost sad. ''There's too much of your mother inside you for you not to see the cruelty and injustice Uther has inflicted on his kingdom. Just how he has inflicted it upon you.''
Arthur had no idea what to make of that. ''And what does that mean for Merlin?''
''Unfortunately, for Merlin, the source of his guilt has always been his own magic. I don't know how the spell works, but apparently it turned him extremely self-destructive.''
''But... you said I would be able to help him! It's not like I know anything about magic!''
''Whatever you might think, Princeling, I do not have all the answers.''
''Maybe... maybe the druids. Would the druids be able to help? If we could find them?''
The dragon raised its eyebrows. ''The druids? You, Arthur Pendragon, would be willing to ask the druids for help?''
''There's not much I'd not be willing to do at this point!'' Arthur snapped. ''And... I know most of the druids are peaceful. Between you and them, I'm sure the druids are easier to deal with.''
The dragon chuckled, but Arthur ignored its amusement.
''The question is, will they be willing to help?''
''I believe so,'' the dragon said, turning serious again. ''They know about Merlin and his destiny. The problem is rather whether they will be willing to trust you.''
''That's something I'll have to risk. Whatever they require from me, if they can help Merlin, I'm prepared to do it.''
The dragon contemplated him for what seemed to be an endless moment, its expression for once inscrutable. ''Then we will have to see,'' it finally said.
They wrapped a drowsy and again slightly feverish Merlin in all the furs they had and then Arthur manhandled him up on the back of the dragon, holding him like a small child, pressed to his chest.
''I'd appreciate it, if you could fly carefully,'' Arthur told the dragon with some apprehension. It would be a lot harder to keep his balance with Merlin in his arms.
The dragon just snorted, flung them up into the air and Arthur's heart into his throat. He held on to Merlin with one arm wrapped around his middle, clinging with the other to the scales on the dragon's neck and trying not to look down.
It felt like eternity, but in reality the flight must have been a short one because they had not left the mountains too far behind when the dragon descended again over the snow-covered treetops of a forest. They landed in a small clearing and the dragon crouched down so that Arthur could slide off its back with Merlin, who, to Arthur's worry and surprise, had fallen asleep again.
Apparently, the dragon had known where to go, and it had not tried to be subtle in its approach either. Therefore their arrival had not gone unnoticed, and before Arthur had even fully taken in his surroundings, a figure stepped out of the tree line, wrapped in a heavy, hooded cloak.
''What do you seek, ancient one?'' a clear, female voice rang out. ''And who is it that you have brought with you?''
''I'm Arthur Pendragon,'' Arthur said, taking a step forward with Merlin held in his arms. ''And I have come to ask for your help.''
The woman pulled back her hood, revealing a face of interminable age but with striking features, framed by long, dark hair. ''An unusual request, coming from Prince Arthur of Camelot. What help do you seek from us?''
''My friend,'' Arthur explained, giving her a beseeching look, ''he's ill and we think that he's been cursed.''
The woman studied him for a moment in silence, but when she spoke again, her voice had softened a little. ''So you are asking for help for your friend.''
She came forward, bending her head to look down at Merlin, wrapped up as he was in the furs. As soon as she caught sight of him, her eyes widened and she gasped.
She looked up at Arthur and it seemed as if her strange, green eyes pierced him all the way down to his soul, as if she could see every thought and every emotion he had ever had, laid out for her perusal. It was a disconcerting feeling, but after a moment she simply nodded and turned back to where she had come from, throwing a ''Come with me!'' over her shoulder.
Arthur only hesitated for a second before he hoisted Merlin further up in his arms and trudged after her through the snow. She led them to a settlement, though it looked more permanent than the druid camps Arthur had seen before. The people here had build small huts out of mud with thatched roofs, circling an open space in the middle with a large fire pit and logs for sitting. It all looked very structured and yet foreign. There were only a few people to be seen, mostly children, peeking at him from doorways with big, curious eyes. It brought back memories that Arthur would rather have left buried, but he tried not to let his nervous discomfort show.
Finally the druid woman ducked into a small but well-made hut at the far side of the settlement and beckoned for Arthur to follow her. Once inside, he was immediately assaulted by the heavy smell of herbs and incense in the air. It was dark, with only a few candles illuminating the sparse surroundings, and it took Arthur a moment to realise there was someone else in the room, sitting in a rickety chair in the corner, close to a small fire.
This woman looked older than the dragon itself, small and wrinkled and with flimsy hair as white as the snow outside. When Arthur's eyes adjusted to the twilight, he could see that hers were milky and stared into the distance, unseeing. She was blind.
''Who do you bring me, Asgar?'' she called out, her voice clear and strong, like that of a much younger woman.
She didn't wait for an answer either, but got up from her chair and stepped forward without any apparent difficulty or hesitation, until she stood right in front of Arthur.
''Welcome, Prince Arthur. My name is Heddwyn. I have to say, you look exactly like your mother.''
It was something Arthur had heard plenty of times, but it was still weird coming from an ancient, blind druid woman.
''And of course you bring us your warlock, Emrys,'' Heddwyn continued.
''He's not my warlock so much, really-''
''Oh, I know,'' the old woman interrupted him with a surprisingly mischievous chuckle. ''He's so much more than that, isn't he? The other half of you.''
''But he has not taken good care of himself nor of the bond between you.'' She gently stroked the tips of her fingers over Merlin's forehead, sounding sad when she said, ''He's tried to purge it and it has left him weak.''
''His magic.'' Heddwyn raised her eyebrows, as if that should be obvious.
''He... tried to get rid of his magic?'' Arthur asked uncertainly. ''Is that even possible?''
''No.'' The woman smiled wryly. ''Emrys is magic. For him to lose his magic would mean to lose his soul. Which is why he has made such a mess of things. His soul does not belong to him alone, after all.''
Arthur didn't really understand what she was saying, and so he concentrated on the most important question. ''Will you be able to help him?''
The old woman raised her head surprised, her sightless eyes staring at him. ''No.''
Arthur's insides knotted and burned with disappointment. He had been so hopeful, that this was the right thing to do. That the druids would be able to save Merlin. The rejection in Heddwyn's words was like a stab in the heart.
And yet the woman kept smiling at him. ''You are the only one who can help him, Arthur Pendragon.''
Arthur huffed out a frustrated sigh. ''That's what everybody keeps telling me, but what possible help could I be when I don't know anything about magic? ''
The woman smiled at him fondly and then touched her gnarly hand to his cheek. ''That's where you are wrong, Arthur. You might not know about the ancient ways, but you were made from magic. It runs in your veins as much as it does in Emrys'. The two of you are connected, two sides of the same, two souls sharing the same space, interwoven and destined. That's why only you can heal him. You have to renew your bond. But don't worry, we will show you how.''
Arthur stared at her. He had never felt so out of his depth. He liked problems that could be solved with a sword or even with reason. If necessary, he could negotiate and charm and bargain, but magic... He swallowed. You're willing to do anything, remember?
''All right,'' he finally said, determined. ''What do I have to do?''
Unsurprisingly, the cure involved some sort of magical ritual. Arthur couldn't say that he felt comfortable with that idea, but if it would give him Merlin back, the true Merlin of old who'd insult him as happily as he'd give him annoyingly sage advise sometimes, then Arthur would not hesitate.
The druids had told him that they would have to travel to a nearby cave which held some sort of magical spring. Bathing in its water would clean Merlin of the destructive, black magic that was influencing him, but that alone wouldn't be enough. The curse had already wreaked too much havoc, damaging Merlin's own magic and the intricate fabric of his soul. To truly heal Merlin, he and Arthur had to join – in some way that the druids had been annoyingly vague about, apart from telling him it would renew and strengthen the bond they were supposed to have.
Arthur would have liked to depart immediately but there were things to prepare and apparently it was important that both he and Merlin were well rested. Heddwyn, for all her old lady smiles, had turned very serious at the mention of this joining and told Arthur that he had to be completely certain, in the depth of his heart, that he was prepared to take that step.
''The magic will only complete what is supposed to be,'' Asgar had explained. ''But once you have joined there will be no breaking you apart.''
''Will this save Merlin?'' Arthur asked.
''Yes,'' Heddwyn had answered, her voice firm with authority and conviction. ''There is no stronger power than bringing together what is destined to be one.''
''Then that's all I need to know.''
Heddwyn had nodded and then told him she would see him in the morning, and Asgar had led him to another hut which looked new but plain and held nothing more than a low straw pallet covered in furs.
Before Asgar took her leave, she bowed her head to him and said, ''For all of my life, I've been told the stories of Emrys and his King, a king that will be just and honourable and brave. They've always been just stories to me, but now, seeing you, Prince Arthur, I can see the truth in them.''
Arthur didn't know what to say to that, much like when Merlin sprouted his predictions of Arthur becoming the greatest king there ever was one day. Whatever it was that had brought him here and that made him agree to all of this, it wasn't bravery. It was desperation. Arthur would have done anything they'd asked of him if it meant that he would have Merlin back afterwards.
Night fell early, as it did in winter, and Arthur was glad to have the comfort of a warm fire, a simple but hearty meal and a place to sleep that was more than just a slap of unyielding rock. At the same time he didn't really dare to close his eyes, didn't dare to fall into the exhausted sleep that kept tugging at his conscience. What if Merlin woke up while he was sleeping? What if he would try to hurt himself once more?
Right now he looked almost peaceful, wrapped as he was in all the furs and blankets Arthur had been able to find, and Arthur lay down next to him, staring at his sleeping face. He looked so impossibly young and innocent. It was hard to comprehend that there was supposedly all this power wrapped up inside of him, that Merlin was magic, as Heddwyn had said – whatever that meant.
And Arthur himself... made of magic. So at least in regard to that, Morgause had told him the truth. He tried not to think about whether the rest of her story had been true as well then, tried not to think of his father at all, of the way he seemed to be slipping more and more into a state of irrationality bordering on madness. On what Arthur might have to do one day, maybe sooner rather than later, to save the kingdom from its king.
His eyelids started to droop even while he fought against the foggy cobwebs that threatened to drag him into slumber, but he knew he couldn't hold off sleep forever.In the end he wrapped one arm over Merlin's chest, confident that this way he would wake if Merlin should try to get up.
He woke up to the twilight just before dawn. The fire had burned down, leaving only a few faintly smouldering embers and a chill in the air. Arthur burrowed deeper into the warmth of the blankets and furs and the wonderful source of heat right next to him. He pressed closer, cradling what he drowsily thought felt like a bony hip. As that thought filtered deeper into his sleepy mind, his eyes suddenly flew open, and he blinked against the semidarkness, only to find Merlin looking at him.
Merlin's eyes had lost the glaze of fever and, even though there were still shadows lurking in them, they seemed more alert than before.
''Where are we?''
For a moment Arthur was so distracted by the movement of Merlin's lips, the quiet shyness in his voice and the fact that his hand was still curled around Merlin's hipbone, that he almost forgot to answer.
''We're with the druids,'' he finally replied, after too long, his eyes still on Merlin's mouth.
He wondered if he had ever looked at it so closely. There were not even two handbreaths between them. They were so close, in fact, that Arthur could feel the faint warmth of Merlin's exhales against his face, much too close, and yet neither of them moved.
''You took me to the druids?''
Merlin gave him an uncomprehending look, blinking in his obvious surprise.
Arthur's hand involuntarily tightened its grip and Merlin sucked in a shocked breath. Arthur swallowed, knowing he should pull back. He didn't. Instead he lightly rubbed along the sharp line of Merlin's bone.
''We believe that there's a curse on you,'' he tried to explain. Or maybe he was just trying to divert Merlin's attention from what Arthur's hand was doing beneath the blankets. ''Something Morgause did. With the dagger.''
Merlin's ''Oh.'' came out a little breathlessly.
''You haven't been yourself, but don't worry. We've got a plan. We'll get rid of her spell and then everything will be all right.''
''And... and how will the druids do that?''
Arthur grimaced. ''Apparently there's some sort of ritual we have to do.''
''Yes.'' Arthur turned his eyes back on Merlin. ''You and me.''
Merlin's breath hitched. ''And... you are okay with that?'' he asked disbelievingly. ''With using magic?''
''It's not like I have much choice,'' Arthur grumbled.
But Merlin only looked at him silently. ''There's always a choice,'' he said finally, so quiet Arthur almost didn't hear it.
Arthur's gaze turned hard and uncompromising. ''No. Not in this case. There isn't.''
Merlin's whole body had gone tense, and he cast his eyes down, as if he couldn't bear to look at Arthur.
''Merlin...'' Arthur took a deep breath, and before he knew what he was doing his hand was moving, stroking up Merlin's side to curl around the nape of his neck. ''I've told you. I don't mind that you... that you are... what you are.'' He sighed in frustration of his own inability to find the right words. ''I mean, obviously it's something we have to talk about.''
He frowned. ''Especially about your complete lack of self-preservation. But also how you can't make all the bloody decisions on your own. I'm the Prince of Camelot, Merlin. It's my responsibility to protect her people and how can I do that when you keep things from me? Things I should know!''
He squeezed Merlin's shoulder before he continued, ''But I'm not angry at you – all right, I'm a little angry. But not because of the magic. I'm angry because you lied. And, yes, I know why you probably thought that was necessary, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. And I don't. So no more lying. All right?''
Merlin hesitantly looked up. ''A-All right.''
''Good,'' Arthur said, satisfied they had cleared that up. ''Now come here, it's freezing.''
He pulled Merlin closer until he was half draped over Arthur's chest and immediately felt better.
''What... How will this ritual work, exactly?'' Merlin asked after a while.
Arthur shrugged. ''They said you have to bathe in some kind of spring, and then you and I will have to unite, whatever that means.''
Merlin stiffened in his embrace, but Arthur soothingly stroked along his back. ''Don't worry, I'm sure we'll figure it out.''
They were to ride out shortly before midday so that they would not lose the light on their journey. Since they would go on horseback, Arthur went out to find the dragon after they had broken their fast. He found him resting between a few boulders on the far end of the clearing they had landed in the day before.
''I wasn't sure whether you'd still be here,'' Arthur said when he approached the huge beast.
''I wanted to be sure that the young warlock will be all right,'' the dragon replied a little grumpily.
''The druids seem confident that whatever they have planned will work.''
The dragon raised its head and regarded Arthur with open curiosity. ''So you will go with them for the ritual then?''
''Yes. Heddwyn said it's the only way to heal Merlin.''
For a long moment the dragon remained silent, then it bared its teeth in what Arthur had to assume was an actual smile.
''I have to admit you're not what I expected you to be, Princeling,'' it said somewhat grudgingly.
Arthur let out a surprised laugh. ''Well, I have to admit you're not exactly what I expected you to be either!''
He hesitated, if only for a second, but then he said with more seriousness than before, ''And thank you. For your help. I would never have found Merlin without you. You saved his life, and I want you to know that I am grateful for that.''
The dragon remained silent at that, and so Arthur gave him a sharp nod before he turned to walk away, back to the camp. He had almost made it to the other end of the clearing when the dragon's voice rang out behind him.
''My name is Kilgharrah.''
''What?'' Arthur turned back with a frown.
''I much prefer it to 'dragon' or 'beast'.''
Arthur looked at the dragon stunned, but then took a few steps back towards him. ''As I'm sure you know, my name is Arthur,'' he said when he found his voice again. ''I much prefer it to 'Princeling'.''
The dragon – Kilgharrah – chuckled and then inclined his head . ''Then I wish you good luck on your quest, Prince Arthur. I am certain we will meet again.''
Arthur nodded contemplatively. He wasn't sure if he would ever be comfortable to count the dragon as an ally. He would have to talk to Merlin about what exactly being a Dragonlord entailed, but for now it was good to know that he at least didn't pose a threat.
''Until we meet again then, Kilgharrah.''
''Where have you been?'' Merlin asked a little worriedly when Arthur stepped back into the hut they had shared the last night.
He was up and about, but still looked like a strong breeze could knock him over, and he seemed nervous and easily startled as if he was still expecting someone – possibly Arthur – to put a dagger at his throat at any given moment.
''I went to talk to the dragon,'' Arthur replied, picking up their few belongings. He wasn't sure whether they would come back here and it was always better to be prepared.
''To thank him mostly.''
Merlin blinked at him. ''You... thanked Kilgharrah?''
Arthur gave him a sharp look. ''I haven't forgotten the suffering he caused, if that's what you're asking. But without him, I would have never found you and if I hadn't... you could have died, Merlin. You almost did.''
Now Merlin looked even more dubious, and Arthur huffed out a frustrated breath. ''Is it so hard to believe?'' he asked, looking off to the side. ''That your life means something to me? That I couldn't bear to lose you?''
''I...'' Arthur heard Merlin footsteps shuffle closer. ''I would like to believe that. To be honest... there's nothing I'd rather find to be true, but...''
''No buts, Merlin!'' Arthur growled, turning around and gripping Merlin by his forearms. It brought them right up into each other's face. Merlin's mouth opened in a small gasp and Arthur's gaze dropped down, impossibly drawn to the full, red bow of his lips, and when Merlin's tongue came out to nervously lick them...
Arthur quickly stepped back, turning away as he felt a mortifying blush creep up in his cheeks. His trousers had turned uncomfortably tight and that... that was wrong in so many ways, he couldn't... He cast a quick look over his shoulder only to find Merlin still standing there as if in a daze.
''Just... just take my word for it for now, all right?'' Arthur said hoarsely. ''I will let no harm come to you. I hope you at least don't doubt my honour.''
Merlin looked chagrined at that, but it didn't give Arthur the satisfaction it would once have.
The group that assembled to ride out to the cave was a small one. Apart from Asgar, there was another young woman, who had introduced herself as Eira, and two men who had not spoken to any of them so far. Arthur was surprised not to see the old druid woman amongst them, though.
''Is Heddwyn not coming with us?''
''Oh, no.'' Asgar looked at him amused. ''She says she's too old to make the trip, especially in winter.''
''But I thought...'' He had thought that Heddwyn, as the apparent leader of these druids, would be the one with the power needed to conduct the ritual.
As if Asgar had read his thoughts, she said, ''Do not worry, Prince Arthur. The power of you and Emrys will be great enough. Heddwyn can only see what lies hidden, but it's for the both of you to bring it forth.''
Whatever that meant. Apparently the dragon wasn't the only one who liked to be cryptic.
''How long will we have to ride?''
''Not long. It's not that far. We chose this place to settle because it's close to the spring,'' Asgar explained. ''So we can guard it and the power it holds. It's one of our most noble tasks to protect the ancient sites of worship and healing.''
''You mean places where the old religion was practised?'' Arthur asked uncomfortably.
''I understand that your experiences with the old religion have not always been good,'' Asgar remarked, not unkindly. ''But you have to understand that to us, those who use magic to seek power and harm others are as far from adhering to the old ways as those who prosecute us for what we hold sacred. We believe that the true purpose of magic is to heal, guide and shelter, but in the wrong hands it can become a twisted tool of evil. Just like your sword, it can be used to protect or to slaughter.''
''I've been taught that magic corrupts the soul.''
''And do you believe that to be true?''
''I don't know,'' Arthur admitted hesitantly. ''Camelot has been attacked by sorcerers who had no qualms to kill innocent people to achieve their goals. But there have been those who helped and protected me as well as the people of Camelot.''
''Then you have your answer, don't you? It is not the magic that corrupts but power, the fear to lose it and the refusal to question our own believes and actions.''
''I will have to think more on that.''
Asgar smiled. ''Then you are a wiser man than many of those who've come before you.''
Maybe it was strange to take pride in the praise of a woman he had only known since yesterday, but so far these people had shown Arthur nothing but kindness, offering help and asking for nothing in return. They were druids and probably had magic themselves, but Asgar, just like Hedwynn, had this aura around her that made Arthur want to trust her and adhere to her advice.
The ride was indeed short, which was a good thing, seeing how weak Merlin still was. Once they reached the cave, Asgar and Eira dismounted and signalled for Arthur and Merlin to do the same. The men remained outside, maybe as a guard, while the women led the way into the depth of the cave.
After a while, the narrow tunnel they had been following opened into a grotto, and Arthur sucked in a sharp breath at the sight of it. He had never seen anything alike, beautiful and obviously not of this world, brimming with magic. The chamber itself wasn't all that vast, but stretched high up above their heads to where a myriad of dripstones hung, gleaming like marble, while the space before them was dominated by an underground lake. A fine, silvery mist covered its surface and it seemed to give off a faint blue light that illuminated the whole cave and sparkled like starlight on the wet stone around them.
''This is the Cave of Serena,'' Asgar said, her voice quiet and full of reverence. ''It's where the healing spirits reside.''
She turned to Merlin. ''You have to strip all your earthly possessions and meet the spirits in your true essence. They will be able to see the darkness that has been put inside you and cleanse you of it.''
Merlin nodded but his eyes were drawn to the mists and the water, almost as if he could see more there than the rest of them.
''What then?''Arthur asked, hoping the druid women would finally tell them more about this supposed unification ritual now, but Asgar just shook her head.
''We can't tell you what the ritual will entail, Prince Arthur. It's not a knowledge that has been shared with us. All I can tell you is that you will meet a spirit, someone who will guide you. Listen to them and trust your heart. We will leave you now and await your return.''
Before Arthur could protest, the two women smiled at him encouragingly and then turned around to make their way out of the cave, leaving Arthur standing there and staring after them in helpless disbelief. This was not how he had expected things to go. He had thought the druids would conduct the ritual and Arthur would, well... do what they told him to do.
He turned back to Merlin, wanting to ask him what he thought they should do, only to find him stripping out of his clothes, his eyes glazed once more as if he was completely enthralled by the dancing light of the water.
There was no reaction, not even when Arthur touched Merlin's shoulder. He didn't even seem to notice it. And then Merlin pulled down his breeches and Arthur had to swallow hard against the sudden rush of heat that shot through his whole body.
Even with the ugly marks of his injuries, Merlin was beautiful.
Suddenly, he wasn't Arthur's clumsy, insolent manservant anymore, made out of gangly limbs and too big ears, but a creature of magic, standing bare and completely unselfconscious in the mysterious light of the cave. Where it wasn't blemished by burns and bruises, Merlin's pale skin shimmered with a sheen of water from the mist. His dark hair had turned damp as well and curled around his ears and at the nape of his strangely graceful neck, and Arthur couldn't stop his eyes from lingering on the small, dusky nipples that had pulled taut in the cool air of the cave. Or from letting his gaze travel down further, along a trail of dark hair to where Merlin's cock hung, long and softly pink and filling.
Arthur turned away mortified, chiding himself for his completely inappropriate reaction. Gods, he was no pubescent boy, blushing at his first sight of naked skin. Not even as the crown-prince Arthur had been that sheltered. And the fact remained that this was Merlin, and Arthur had no business staring at his long, slender legs and the firm swell of his arse as Merlin slowly walked towards the edge of the water. He almost wanted to sigh with relief when Merlin waded further into the lake and the water came up to his chest, obscurring Arthur's view.
Then the blue light turned brighter and the mist faded, leaving the surface clear and calm, and Merlin turned around, his eyes seeking Arthur's before he took a step backwards and submerged himself completely. The water rippled, but after a moment it became still.
All the sound Arthur could hear was the beating of his own heart, as he waited. Waited for Merlin to resurface.
But nothing happened.
Anticipation turned to worry and then very quickly to full out panic. Not even hesitating for another second, Arthur kicked off his boots and sprinted towards the lake. Rushing into the water, his eyes frantically searched for any hint of black hair or the line of a pale limb beneath the water's surface. This could not be happening. This place was supposed to heal Merlin, not help him commit suicide!
Arthur was about to plunge himself in head first, the fear inside of him leaving no time to think things through, when a girl suddenly materialised in front of him.
He blinked, reeling back a little before he growled, ''Get out of my way!''
But the girl didn't move. She just smiled at him with a strange sadness in her eyes, her skin almost luminous and her dark her floating around her as if she was still under water.
''There is no need to worry, Prince Arthur. I will not let any harm come to Merlin here. I care about him very much.''
Arthur narrowed his eyes. ''What's that supposed to mean? Who the hell are you?''
He could see now, that she was not made from flesh and blood at all, but seemed to be comprised out of the mist and water itself.
''My name is Freya,'' she replied softly. ''And I am here to guide you.''
The name sounded vaguely familiar, but Arthur couldn't recall where he might have heard it, so he just asked, ''You're the spirit that Asgar talked about?'' and ''Where is Merlin?''
Freya cocked her head, regarding him with curiosity. ''He is important to you.''
''Of course he's important to me!'' Arthur glared at the irritating apparition. ''He's my-. He's Merlin. He's my manservant. I... have need of him.''
Even to Arthur's own ears that sounded somewhat absurd.
''Is that all he is to you?'' The girl looked at him disappointed. ''Maybe then I should keep him with me.''
''What?'' Sudden fear seized Arthur's heart, the thought unbearable. ''No! You can't! The druids said...'' Arthur swallowed. ''Please! I can't lose him. He's more... he means more to me than I can even explain. Please... I need him back!''
''He is a powerful warlock.'' Freya looked at him questioningly. ''Obviously, he's of great use to you.''
Arthur shook his head. ''No... that is not why. I mean... I know he's probably saved my life on countless occasions, but even before I knew about that... I always knew that Merlin... he is special somehow. Not because he has magic, but because of who he is. He always wants to do what's right, always wants me to do what's right. He cares about the people around him more than about himself, and when he looks at me... He doesn't see the Prince of Camelot, he sees me... Arthur. No one else knows me like him, the good and the bad. And even though he has seen me at my worst, knows all the times I've failed... he still believes in me and I... I need him to know that I believe in him, too.''
Arthur broke off then, staring at the spirit a little shocked at his own words, not knowing where they had even come from. He had not known...
''You love him.''
It was phrased like a question, offering Arthur the possibility of denial. And as he looked into the blue depth of her eyes, Arthur felt like he was standing high on a precipice.
The answer came unbidden, but as soon as he had spoken, the word so small and barely audible, Arthur knew it to be the truth.
There were tears in her eyes then, but the smile on Freya's face was true as she placed a palm, cool like spring water, against Arthur's cheek.
''Then follow your heart, Arthur. Follow your heart and have courage.''
Arthur watched as she dissolved back into the water, but before he could truly comprehend what this all meant, the water rippled again and then Merlin surfaced, gasping and wiping water from his eyes. He blinked at the sight of Arthur in front of him, his blue eyes clear and a little curious, as if he couldn't quite understand what Arthur was doing here.
But Arthur didn't let him speak any further. He grabbed Merlin and hauled him against him, crushing his lips against Merlin's in a rush of joyful relief. He was still deliciously naked and, gods, all that slippery skin beneath Arthur's palms made his head spin even more, or maybe that was the lack of air in his lungs because he couldn't stop kissing Merlin log enough to breathe.
''Arth-'' Merlin gasped finally, pulling back a little, his eyes wide and his expression completely gobsmacked.
''Please,'' Arthur whispered, looking at Merlin, entreating and desperate, not even sure what it was he was asking for, just knowing that he would probably die right here and now if Merlin denied him of it.
His hands were still gliding over Merlin's naked skin as if they had a will of their own. Arthur couldn't make himself pull away, even if that last bit of sense he seemed to possess was urging him to do so.
''Arthur...?'' Merlin's eyes searched his face with something like breathless disbelief. ''Is this... are you... is this really what you want?''
Arthur's broad palms stroked down Merlin's back to cup the swell of his arse. ''Gods, Merlin, yes... yes... but only if you-''
''Yes!'' Merlin gasped, finally arching into Arthur's touch, his hands gripping almost painfully at his shoulders. ''I want... I've always wanted, gods, Arthur... you have no idea!''
Arthur surged forward again then, capturing Merlin's lips with his own as if they were a feast and Arthur was starving. Merlin tugged at Arthur's tunic until he managed to wrestle it off with his usual lack of grace and, gods, yes, being pressed against him with nothing between them felt even better.
''Wait!'' Arthur pulled back worriedly, suddenly remembering Merlin's injuries. But when he looked down at Merlin there was nothing but unblemished skin. ''How...?''
Merlin gave him a lopsided smile. ''It's a healing spring, Arthur.''
''Oh. Right.'' He stroked the tips of his fingers over Merlin's chest where just a little while ago the skin had been reddened and burned, needing to reassure himself of this miracle, of Merlin being healed. ''And the curse...?''
''Gone,'' Merlin gasped, squirming under Arthur's careful ministrations and impatiently fumbling with the fastenings of Arthur's trousers, trying to get them off as well.
''Are you sure? You don't feel...'' suicidal ''...guilty anymore?''
''I'll always feel guilty for some of the things I did,'' Merlin mumbled while pressing himself into Arthur's touch like a kitten. ''I... I made mistakes.''
''Yes, because you're an idiot who doesn't think things through and tries to do everything on his own,'' Arthur told him, one hand travelling down to the small of Merlin's back, and then hesitantly dipping his fingers further down to the cleft between his cheeks. ''From now on, you'll talk to me!''
''Did you mean it?'' Merlin breathed, his pupils blown wide and their lips just inches apart. ''That we will find a better way... together?''
Arthur leaned in further, licking into Merlin's mouth. ''I have it on good authority...'' He cupped Merlin's arse with both hands and hoisted him up. ''that I am very wise...'' Pressing Merlin closer he felt the hard evidence of his erection. ''...and also about to be the greatest king ever.''
Arthur's own hard cock rubbed along the cleft of Merlin's arse, and Merlin moaned, wrapping his arms around Arthur's neck. ''You're also the biggest prat in the whole of the five kingdoms,'' he groaned, grinding against Arthur in a shameless display of lust and desperation.
''Then I am lucky to have you to remind me of that,'' Arthur whispered and kissed Merlin once more, deep and hungry, staking his claim.
''I think this is the point where we, you know... unite,'' Merlin mumbled, grinning at him cheekily.
He reached down behind himself to wrap his fingers around Arthur, who swallowed heavily, his every muscle tensing in an effort not to come right there and then.
''I don't want to hurt you.''
He looked at Merlin uncertainly, but Merlin just grinned.
''There are some advantages to having magic, Arthur,'' he said, waggling his eyebrows in the most ridiculous way.
Arthur didn't complain, though, because Merlin went on to prove that the use of magic could truly be the most amazing thing in the world.
''Why did you never tell me?'' Arthur asked, later, when they lay wrapped in his cloak at the shore of the lake, their bodies so completely entangled that neither would have been able to sort out which limb belonged to whom. United indeed.
''About what?'' Merlin asked, his lips brushing against Arthur's jaw. ''My magic or... how I feel?''
''Both, I guess.''
Merlin huffed out a laugh, his breath a warm tickle against Arthur's skin. ''You do realise you're the crown-prince, right? And I'm your servant? What exactly would you have had me say? 'Oh by the way, Sire, I have magic but don't worry, I'm also in love with you?''
Arthur's breath hitched. ''You're... you're in love with me?''
Merlin sighed. ''Well, yes, you clotpole. I thought you had figured that out by now.''
''I might be a little oblivious from time to time.''
Merlin snorted. ''That's one way of putting it.''
''Hey!'' Arthur cuffed him about the ears. ''I'm still your prince, remember.''
''As if I could ever forget,'' Merlin grumbled. ''You don't have to beat it into me, you know. You can hardly blame me for not anticipating this, what with the way you keep abusing me.''
''Abusing you!? When have I ever-''
''You keep throwing things-''
''I keep missing! What? You think my aim is that bad?''
Merlin looked up at him with a frown. ''Oh. No... I suppose not. But, still... you cuff me.''
''How's it affectionate if I get a bruise?''
''That's... you get bruises? Honestly?''
Merlin raised his eyebrows.
Arthur grimaced. ''Really Merlin, sometimes I think you actually are a girl.''
Merlin kicked him.
''Ow! Honestly, and you complain about being abused...''
''Maybe I should turn you into a frog,'' Merlin grumbled.
That made Arthur grin. ''Yeah? Why, because you want to kiss me to turn me back into a prince?''
''You can kiss me anyway, you know.''
''I don't think I want to kiss such a cabbage he-mph!''
But that was a complete lie and Arthur was quite thorough in proving that to Merlin for the next hour or so.
''Maybe we should go find Asgar and the others before they come and find us,'' Arthur said when they were back to cuddling.
''Hmm... in a bit,'' Merlin mumbled, stretching against him like a lazy cat.
Lost in thought Arthur trailed his fingers up and down along Merlin's spine. ''Merlin?''
''Do you think... do you think with your magic we could find Morgana?'' he finally asked.
Merlin hesitated. ''I don't know. To be honest, I'm not sure she even wants to be found.''
Arthur sighed. ''I can't give up on her, Merlin. She's like my sister. And if she has magic too, I want her to know that she will be welcome in Camelot. That when I am king, she won't have to be afraid any longer. I want both of you to know that things will change.''
Merlin was silent for a long moment, resting his head on Arthur's shoulder in a sign of weariness as much as a show of trust and affection.
''Sometimes...'' he finally said quietly. ''With all this talk of destiny and things foretold... sometimes I'm not sure we can change anything.''
Arthur contemplated that for a moment. ''No. I refuse to believe that.''
Merlin looked up at him, and when their eyes met, Merlin's shone with such a beautiful mixture of hope and awe and longing that all Arthur could do was pull him in for one more kiss that was barely more than a gentle brush of lips.
''I believe that we make our own future,'' he whispered against Merlin's mouth. ''I know now, what you have done, for Camelot and for me. Everything has changed, Merlin. Just wait and see.''