“Do you believe these peace talks will work?” Arthur asks, watching the Druids and their escorts dismount in the courtyard below from one of his chambers’ windows. There are five Druids. Arthur cannot believe his father willingly agreed to allow one sorcerer, let alone five, within Camelot’s walls.
“Do we have another choice?” Morgana counters, joining him by the window.
“Not that I can see.”
Camelot has been at war with the Druids for as long as Arthur can remember. Hundreds have died on both sides, though thankfully more so on the Druids’ side. Well, until recently.
Two summers back, when they were on the brink of winning, the tide began to turn unfavourably towards Camelot as a new and exceptionally powerful sorcerer joined the Druids’ ranks: Emrys.
Though the warlock didn’t exercise his power to outright destroy them – even if there were rumors he could – he did make it impossible for Camelot’s knights to continue their campaign to purge magic completely from the land. He used his powers to turn the very forests and their elements against them. For over a year now Camelot’s knights have not been able to travel freely within their own borders, nor have they been able to secure necessary supplies and other trade goods from neighbouring kingdoms.
Emrys may not be killing them outright, but he is choking them. If the crops don’t yield a bountiful harvest this season, they will be looking at a very harsh, potentially devastating, winter.
Hence, the peace talks.
“Do you suppose Emrys is among the delegates?” Morganna asks.
All but one of the Druids appear to be young. Two for sure look even younger than Arthur. It’s possible, he supposes, but given the looks of them, Arthur very much doubts the Druids sent their best weapon to the seat of their enemies’ power.
“It would be the height of stupidity for them to risk bringing him.”
“Why?” Morgana turns to him. “Does Father have some sort of plan?”
“No. Of course not. He would never risk the welfare of our people just to kill five magic users. I’m merely saying, tactically speaking –”
“Arthur,” Morgana says, rolling her eyes, “not everything is a chess game.”
“Actually, in war, everything is as a chess game. One must look at all potential moves and counter moves if they are to ensure victory.”
Morgana shakes her head. “This isn’t a game, Arthur.”
“No,” Arthur says, catching the eye of the gangly young Druid who happens to look up towards him at that very moment. “It really isn’t.”
- - -
“Merlin, come on,” Gwaine says, giving him a slight push, as a castle servant takes the reins of their horses. “There are more important things to do than take in the local architecture.”
“Indeed,” Merlin says, looking away from Camelot’s Prince. Far more important things.
Arthur and Morgana stand at their father’s right and left sides respectively as the massive doors to the great hall open and the Druids enter. The five Druids and their four scarcely armed escorts look pitiful next to the almost two score of Camelot knights and lords flanking Uther. Still, they all stand tall and project an air of power that tells Arthur they mean business.
“Greetings and welcome,” Uther says.
“King Uther Pendragon of Camelot,” says the eldest Druid, stepping forward with the aid of his staff. “I am Chieftain Iseldir. It is a great honour to be part of these peace talks. May I present the rest of our elected: Chieftess Morgause, Druids Merlin and Freya, and my apprentice Mordred.”
No Emrys, Arthur notes, scrutinizing each of the Druids as they are named. Though Chieftess Morgause is a little older and sturdier than he’d first guessed from his window, the other Druids don’t inspire much confidence, being either frail or young or both. He knows looks can be deceiving, especially when it comes to magic, but surely their enemies could have chosen better representatives than these.
“We are honoured you accepted our invitation,” Uther says. “This is my son, Prince Arthur, and my daughter, Princess Morgana. As the future heirs to Camelot they will be partaking in the peace talks as well.”
“It is a pleasure,” Chieftain Iseldir says, nodding to both Arthur and Morgana in turn.
“Now, I’ve had the cooks prepare a grand feast to –”
“If it is all the same to you, Pendragon,” Chieftain Iseldir interrupts. “We should like to start the talks as soon as possible. There is much to discuss, after all, and both our people have already suffered too much sorrow.”
“Of course,” Uther says. “I meant no disrespect. To business then.”
Arthur watches as his father orders for things to be rearranged, so that they are prepared to hold Council rather than a feast. It doesn’t take long, but Arthur notices that many of the lords in attendance look rather put out at the disruption in schedule, particularly his father, though he hides it better than most.
“Quite an auspicious beginning, don’t you think?” Morgana whispers.
“Quite.” The Druids couldn’t have done a better job of getting on his father’s bad side if they had performed magic before his very eyes. In fact, Arthur would bet their unintended suggestion that Uther didn’t take these talks seriously because he’d had a feast prepared rather than treaties for their welcome is the worst sort of thing they could have done. If Arthur were any kind of judge, he’d say it did not bode well for the talks. Not at all.
- - -
The treaty negotiations go slowly, as there is much in terms of law and lands that needs to be addressed and readdressed.
Arthur notes that, aside from Uther, Morgause is the loudest voice at the table. She often speaks over Iseldir and makes demands rather than suggestions. He also notes that Freya and Mordred mostly keep to themselves during the talks. Occasionally, they ask questions for clarification, but mostly they just stay out of it.
Merlin is the one Arthur watches the most. The gangly youth he’d first spied from his window appears quiet like Freya and Mordred, but when he speaks, it’s with interjections and comments rather than questions. He also speaks with authority. It’s clear he knows a great deal about the history and traditions of both the Druids and Camelot. He seems more scholar than sorcerer.
He is a piece that doesn’t seem to fit. Why would a scholar live among Druids?
Perhaps, Arthur thinks, he is here because they hired him. His vast knowledge will undoubtedly help the Druids to ensure nothing in a potential treaty is overlooked or forgotten. It’s an unsettling thought.
Arthur hopes Lord Geoffrey and Uther’s other advisors will help Camelot to do likewise and ensure fair terms for both sides.
- - -
On the third day of talks, after some headway has been made and it looks like a treaty might actually be possible, the Druids reveal the reason behind most of their representatives being so young.
“You want a marriage contract?” Uther snaps.
“Surely you see the merits in it as plainly as I,” Iseldir says reasonably. “With the bloodlines mixed and magic in the royal house neither of our peoples would have reason to renounce the treaty.”
“This is ludicrous,” Uther says, getting to his feet. “You cannot expect me to wed one of my children to a Druid.”
“Actually, I can and I do. This term is non-negotiable. The who is, of course, since we would never force one of our young people to marry someone they could not tolerate, but the condition of the marriage itself is not. Without it, there will be no treaty.”
“I will not stand for this. You came here under false pretences to –”
“Father –” Morgana starts.
“No,” he turns to Morgana. “Do you actually want to marry one of them? I will not allow it.”
Arthur takes a deep breath before rising. “Father, if it will bring lasting peace to our people and kingdom, I can think of no greater honour.” Actually he thinks it’s more of a sacrifice, but he has to undo his father’s prejudiced remarks somehow, if they’re going to save these talks.
“I feel similarly,” Morgana says, backing him up. “I’ve known since I was a child that my marriage would not be a love match, that it would instead be for benefit of our kingdom. At least this way, I can have some say in the matter.”
Arthur watches his father grind his teeth and visibly rein in his temper. “Very well,” he says. “I will give you and my children until the end of these talks to see if a suitable match can be made. If not, we will be readdressing this issue.”
“That is acceptable.”
“Excellent. Now, if you don’t mind, I think it’s past time we break for the day.” And with that, Uther turns and walks out of the hall.
“A month is hardly enough time to fall in love, never mind a week,” Morgana says after the hall has cleared, leaving only them and a few lingering knights.
“Maybe not enough time to fall in love,” Arthur says, gathering his notes for later review. “But it is surely enough time to see if one can get along amicably with one’s partner.”
“Easy for you to say,” Morgana sniffs, her eyes brimming with unshed tears. “I’m just the spare. You’re the actual heir. There’s absolutely no way our father will allow you to marry a commoner, Druid or no. I’m the one this honour will fall upon, just you wait.”
Arthur sets his papers aside and draws his sister into a comforting embrace. “Morgana –”
“No. No, it’s all right,” she says, taking a deep breath even as she clings to him. “As I said, I have a choice. Both Merlin and Mordred are handsome enough. Hopefully, I will find I can get along agreeably with one of them.”
“Perhaps I will find myself in love with Freya or Morgause and spare you the hardship,” Arthur teases, pulling back to smile at her.
“We can only hope.” Morgana huffs, a small, reluctant smile pulling at her lips.
- - -
Arthur is taking an evening stroll just beyond the castle walls – dinner with his father had been absolutely dreadful and he’d needed to get away for a while after – when the sound of clanging swords reaches him.
“Not so fast, Gwaine.”
“Merlin, if this were a real battle, you’d be dead by now. Now sword up.”
“I don’t see why I have to learn thi– Ow!”
Arthur rounds the corner just in time to see Merlin drop his sword and shake out his hand the same way any of his knights would had they been rapped on the knuckles for improper form. Arthur barely manages to bite back his laugh.
“Because Lance and I won’t always be around to guard you,” the Druid’s escort says. “Now pick up that sword and try again.”
“I think you just like picking on me,” Merlin says, grabbing up his discarded weapon.
“Well, you’re not wrong there. Now again. And be sure to make it look pretty for the Prince.”
“What?” Merlin turns, leaving his back completely unguarded. Their eyes meet for a second before Merlin’s escort sweeps his feet out from under him. Arthur winces in sympathy as he watches the Druid fall back and get the breath knocked out of him.
“What have a said about keeping your eyes on your opponent? Honestly, Merlin, you’re like a –”
Arthur catches a brief flash of gold in Merlin’s eyes and then the other man is pitching forward into the dirt himself as though someone had pushed him.
“Ugh, I hate it when you do that,” he says, spitting out some dirt and rolling onto his back.
“Again, I ask you, why do I have to learn sword play?” Merlin says, sitting up and rubbing the back of his head.
“Do you two always fight so ridiculously?” Arthur asks, moving to give them each a hand up.
Arthur shakes his head and laughs.
“Sire, Merlin’s lack of swordsmanship is no laughing matter,” Merlin’s escort says, trying and failing to hide his own laugh.
“Oh go on and laugh all ready, Gwaine,” Merlin says with a smile. “You and I both know its really all my swordsmanship is good for.”
“Perhaps, I could give you some pointers?” Arthur offers. He’s not really sure why he’s offering, but he did come out here looking for a distraction and this would be a decent one.
“Oh, I couldn’t impose,” Merlin says. “Besides, it’s bad enough Gwaine knows my failings. I wouldn’t want to shame myself further.”
“No, no,” Gwaine says, looking between them with a gleam in his eye. “This is perfect. There’s a kitchen maid whose favour I would seek if you would stay and keep Merlin here out of trouble.”
“Oi,” Merlin says indignantly.
“It would be my privilege,” Arthur says.
“Excellent,” Gwaine grins. “Then I’ll be off.” And with that, he turns and head off for the nearest castle gate.
Merlin watches him disappear before turning to Arthur. “Really, your highness, you don’t have to stay with me.”
“Nonsense, it’ll be fun.”
“Honestly, I don’t mind,” Arthur says, unsheathing his sword. “One of my main duties is training the knights.”
Merlin shakes his head and sighs as he picks up his sword. “Fine, but you’re probably going to regret wasting your time.”
- - -
About a candle’s mark later, the sun has begun to set and Arthur can well understand Merlin’s distaste for swordplay. He is absolutely dreadful at it.
“All right, I say we call it a night.”
“Finally,” Merlin says, not bothering to get up from where he lies sprawled in the dirt.
“Was that really so bad?” Arthur asks, taking a seat beside him.
“Yes,” Merlin says. “I will never complain about Gwaine being too hard on me again.”
Arthur laughs. From what he’s just witnessed, Merlin’s friend is clearly taking it easy on him. Merlin has a good understanding of the basics, but his ability to put that knowledge into practice is severely lacking.
“At least you have your…” Arthur hesitates. Even after several days of hearing the word in Council, it still feels weird to say it aloud.
“Magic? Yeah, at least I’m not totally defenseless without Gwaine and Lancelot around.” Merlin glares at the sky.
“Honestly,” Merlin says, sitting up and looking at Arthur. “I hate using my magic to hurt others. It’s not right. Magic is beautiful and wonderful and life-giving; it should never be used to maim or destroy.”
Arthur looks away. “My father says it is evil and those that choose to use it are corrupted by it.”
Arthur glares at Merlin. “You would say that, being a Druid.”
Merlin shakes his head. “I say that, because I was born with magic. I didn’t have a choice.”
“There is always a choice.”
“Did you have a choice in being born Camelot’s prince?”
“No, but –”
“There you go.” Merlin looks back to the sky. “I believe we don’t always have a choice in what we are born to be, but fate makes up for that in allowing us to choose who we will be.”
“So you’re saying when it comes to magic…”
“I’m saying it’s similar to a sword. A sword is not inherently good or evil; it’s up to the user to choose what they will do with it.”
“And you choose good?”
“I choose life,” Merlin says, holding out a closed fist and opening it to reveal a beautiful blue butterfly.
Since there can be no wedding without the prospective brides and grooms getting to know one another, Arthur’s father begrudgingly arranges a feast and dance for the next evening.
Arthur’s never been too keen on dancing, but he does manage an awkward whirl or two around the ballroom with Freya. She’s young and very shy, but far more graceful than Arthur.
“Thank you, my lord,” Freya says, curtsying when the dance ends.
“It was my pleasure,” Arthur assures her.
She smiles and Arthur watches her hurry off to pull Gwaine into a dance. He’s not offended. Honestly he’s a little relieved. Freya’s sweet, but she doesn’t really appear to have the surety and strength he had hoped for in a future bride. He wants someone who will not only support him, but also challenge him. Someone who will care for his people as much as he does. Someone he can respect and who, in turn, can respect him.
Arthur sighs. He can’t be sure yet, but he doubts either Freya or Morgause is that someone.
Turning to grab a drink, Arthur spies Merlin standing in corner on his own. What is he doing over there?
“Shouldn’t you be trying to woo my sister?” Arthur asks, offering Merlin one of the two cups he carries as he joins him.
Merlin looks at him surprised. “Oh, um. I – Thank you,” he finally says, accepting the offered drink.
“So?” Arthur says, taking a sip of his own and putting his back to the wall so he can watch the dancers with Merlin.
“Well, um. Truth be told, I wasn’t really brought here for my suitability as a husband.”
“Not that you’re sister isn’t wonderful,” Merlin’s quick to assure Arthur. “The man who wins her heart will be very lucky indeed. He, uh… just won’t be me.”
Arthur had meant to ask what other reason the Druids would have for bringing Merlin if not as a marriage candidate, but now he’s curious. “Are you otherwise engaged?”
Merlin blushes and looks away, “Oh. No. I, uh.” Merlin takes a deep breath. “I prefer the company of men, Sire.”
“Oh.” Arthur knew such preferences existed, of course – he’s heard some of his knights talk about it when they think he’s not around – but he never actually thought a man would never want the company of a woman if given the chance.
“Yeah,” Merlin says, staring intently at his drink.
There’s a long stretch of silence where Arthur has no idea what to say. He’s not opposed to the notion, like he knows some nobles are, but at the same time he can’t say he’s ever given it much thought. Finally he decides to go back to his original question.
“So if you’re not here to win my sister’s heart than why are you here? No offense, but you don’t seem like someone too terribly important. You’re not a Druid elder like Iseldir or a leader like Morgause.”
Merlin laughs. “Oh, Sire,” he says, once he’s calmed. “I should think it was obvious.”
Arthur raises an eyebrow.
“I’m here for the wonderful food and fine drink.” He raises his glass with emphasis.
Arthur rolls his eyes.
“Did you enjoy the dance?” Arthur asks Morgana as they break their fast together before the talks begin for the day.
“I think the better question is, did you?” Morgana smirks. “You spent most of it talking in the corner with Merlin.”
“I danced too,” Arthur protests.
“You danced a bit with Freya at the start and once, near the end, with Morgause because she came and dragged you away from Merlin. Seriously, Arthur what’s going on?”
“Nothing, I swear. I just find him interesting. And rather funny. His swordsmanship is awful, though.”
“And do tell, when did you see him wielding a sword? I must have missed that part of the evening’s entertainment.”
“I took a walk the other night to cool off after Father’s rather lengthy lecture on the evils of magic. Merlin and one of his escorts were practicing. There’s nothing to it.”
“Mmm. Well, if there’s nothing to it, then why did you monopolize all of his time and prevent him from coming to introduce himself to me?”
“No, save your tales for ears that care,” she says, picking up a knife to butter her crust of bread. “I had a nice time. While Mordred is young, he seems pleasant enough. In addition to his magical training, he’s also learning the sword. And we have enjoyed some of the same books.”
Morgana shrugs. “It’s something. If Merlin is as interesting as you say, he’ll probably make the better match, though.”
Arthur tries not to choke on his drink.
- - -
Arthur does his best to get to know Freya and Morgause, as each evening they are provided with an opportunity to mingle, but more often than not he finds himself gravitating towards Merlin. The Druid is a mystery.
He clearly has power, Arthur saw that with the butterfly, and he’s quite knowledgeable, challenging even Geoffrey to keep up during Council, but he’s also clumsy, awkward, and rather odd. Not to mention, he never gives Arthur a straight answer when it comes to his reason for being here.
Even when Arthur asks him straight out if he’s simply there because he has a scholarly mind, all he gets is a simple: “That helps.”
It’s quite irritating.
- - -
Arthur is training with his knights on what seems like a rare afternoon away from the peace talks. Both parties had agreed to take the afternoon off, since they hadn’t been making any headway earlier that morning.
Arthur doesn’t like that the talks have stalled – they didn’t make any headway the whole of yesterday either – but he is glad for some time away. He’s missed getting outdoors and training. Lately, he seems to always be stuck indoors, either sitting at Council, listening to one of his family members discuss their issues regarding the proposed marriage contract, or trying to make small talk with Freya. He’s pretty sure Morgause has given up on him.
He enjoys his time with Merlin, though, so it’s not all bad.
Speaking of which, Arthur’s adjusting the stance of one the newer knights who has clearly never wielded a quarterstaff before, when he spots Merlin and Freya walking together. They seem to be in high spirits, laughing freely and talking with exaggerated hand gestures.
Arthur frowns, feeling unexpectedly hurt and upset. Why does Merlin never laughs like that with Arthur?
Arthur shakes off the passing thought and gets back to ordering his knights into proper form. What does it really matter if Merlin doesn’t laugh much around him? They still have good conversations and he smiles often. Merlin enjoys his company. Besides, it’s not like…
Arthur stops, and twists around to look back at Merlin. No, he thinks, as the Druid throws his head back and laughs heartily. He can’t be falling for Merlin, that’s insane. It’s not possible.
Just then, Merlin looks over, attention probably caught by some noise or other from the knights, and their eyes meet. Arthur feels his heart start to race as Merlin blushes and looks quickly away.
Oh, gods, his father is going to kill him.
“Have you been avoiding me?”
Arthur startles and drops the book he was passingly flipping through. “Merlin,” he says, turning to face the Druid. “What are you doing here?”
Merlin holds out a hand and his eyes flash and the book Arthur dropped flies to his hand. He glances at the title – it’s an old law codex Arthur thought might be helpful with the talks – and hands it back to Arthur. “Lancelot is looking for a poetry book, so he can memorize some and impress Gwen. I’m supposed to be helping, but I saw you and…” Merlin shrugs.
“Oh.” Arthur blinks. “Morgana’s maidservant? Guinevere? That Gwen?”
Merlin nods. “They’ve taken quite a liking to each other. Honestly, he doesn’t need the poetry, but if he wants to make a fool of himself, who am I to stop him?”
Merlin smiles and Arthur can’t help but return it.
Arthur used to have a terrible crush on Guinevere, but somehow the thought of her with someone else doesn’t bother him in the least now. He supposes it’s yet another sign confirming his feelings for Merlin.
“So,” Merlin says, rocking back on his heels. “Are you avoiding me?”
“What? No.” Arthur protests. “Of course not.”
Actually, he kind of has been the last two evenings.
Merlin smirks and starts to say something, but then Lancelot comes around the library’s corner. “Merlin, I think I’ve found – Oh. Your Highness,” he says, coming to an abrupt halt. “I didn’t see you there.”
“That’s fine. I was just on my way out. Nice seeing you again, Merlin.”
He hates the look of hurt that crosses Merlin’s face at his words, but it can’t really be helped. Arthur is Camelot’s Prince and heir, and Merlin is neither a noble nor a woman. They have no future together.
Arthur gives Merlin and his escort a small nod and flees.
- - -
“Go away, Morgana.”
“Not until you tell me what’s wrong,” Morgana says, coming to join him by the parapets on the castle wall.
Arthur sighs. She’s using that tone that he knows from long and tested experience means she won’t leave him be until she’s got whatever information she’s after.
“Surely you’re not annoyed that the talks have been extended.”
“No, of course not. We need this treaty.”
The decision had been made earlier that morning to extend the talks for another week. Neither party had been happy with the choice, but both had seen the necessity of it. Truthfully, Arthur was surprised his father hadn’t fought it more.
“Then what is it? Does Merlin not return your affection?” She laughs.
Arthur turns away and doesn’t comment.
“Oh. Oh, Arthur,” Morgana says, laying a hand on his shoulder. “Tell me you haven’t fallen for him.”
Arthur swallows. “I cannot.”
“Arthur, what are you going to do? Father is already at the end of his temper, he’ll never –”
“Do? Morgana, there’s nothing I can do,” he says, turning to her. “Merlin is a Druid and a commoner and a man. If he were to be anything to me, it would be a discreet lover and I will not ask that of him.”
“Perhaps he would find the idea agreeable?”
“Even if he did, I would not.” Arthur turns to look back out over his kingdom. It has never before felt so constraining as it does in this moment. “It’s not fair. Not to him, not to me, and certainly not to my future wife.”
“Oh, my brother,” Morgana sighs, wrapping her arms around him. “You really are too honourable sometimes.”
It’s late and Arthur is wandering the castle halls. He can’t sleep. His thoughts are in chaos, his heart in turmoil. The talks are going poorly, his father is losing his temper on a daily basis, and more than anything he misses Merlin.
Yes, it’s by his choice that they’re not talking anymore, but it still hurts. He suspects its bothering Merlin too, as he’s been unusually quiet the last couple Council sessions. And that hurts too. He doesn’t like being the source of someone’s distress.
I’m an idiot, he thinks, kicking at the floor. I should go back to my chambers and at least attempt to get some rest. After all, Arthur is sure tomorrow’s going to be just as trying as this day was, if not more so.
Just then a sudden flicker of movement up ahead catches his eye, the edge of a cloak disappearing around a corner.
Curious about who else would be wandering around so late, Arthur follows the cloaked figure through the halls and down towards the dungeons. Why the dungeons? As far as Arthur knows there aren’t even any prisoners down there currently.
Arthur sticks to the shadows, keeping a fair distance back, so as not to be seen. They go down and down and when Arthur passes two guards who are unresponsive and appear to be in a daze, he draws his sword. Someone is using magic and that can only mean they’re up to no good.
He continues to follow the figure down a deep passage that leads he knows not where. He’s never been to this part of the castle; in fact, he’s certain he didn’t even know of its existence.
He pauses when he starts to hear voices.
“– you must be patient, young warlock. Things are coming together as they were meant to despite Nimueh’s interferences.”
“But these peace talks, they’re falling apart.” Arthur knows that voice. That’s Merlin. What in all the heaven’s names is he doing down here? “I worked so hard to get us this far without further casualties and now it’s all going to be for naught.”
“Have faith. The prophecies have not changed. Arthur is the once and future king who will unite all of Albion and return magic to the land.” Arthur feels his jaw drop. What? “And you are still the one who will help him to do so. You are two sides of the same coin.”
“I wish you’d stop saying that. He doesn’t even like me. How am I supposed to help someone who doesn’t even want to be near me?”
“Oh, I think he likes you more than you realize, young warlock.” There’s the sound of deep, resounding laughter and then something like the beating of rugs, although far louder.
Arthur decides it’s past time he make a hasty retreat.
- - -
“Merlin, I need to talk to you,” Arthur says, grabbing his arm and pulling him aside after the talks have broken for the day.
“Alright, no need to drag me.”
Arthur lets go of him; he hadn’t meant to pull so harshly. “My apologies. Will you follow me?”
“Of course.” Arthur sets a brisk pace, but Merlin stays with him. “Where are we going?”
Arthur’s thought long and hard about how he would like to address what he overheard in the caverns beneath the dungeons last night and while he hasn’t decided on anything for sure, he knows it will need to be a private conversation. No matter what Merlin has to say for himself, Arthur knows he cannot risk his father overhearing them. His father will jump to conclusions and that could potentially end all talk of peace, something Arthur is not yet willing to risk.
“I thought we could go for a short ride before this evenings festivities. Perhaps just beyond the castles walls? I remember you saying you’re not originally from Camelot, I can show you around a bit.” That’s a believable enough excuse should anyone reporting to his father be listening too closely.
“Um, okay,” Merlin says, looking baffled.
“We’re only going a bit beyond the lower town. No need to worry, Cedric,” Arthur tells his guard, slipping him a bit of coin so he’ll be more inclined to allow Arthur to attend himself.
“Of course, Sire,” the knight says, leaving them by the palace stables. Arthur doesn’t like the man much, but he is useful at times like these.
They saddle up and Arthur wastes no time in leading Merlin away from the castle and lower town and deep into the woods. It’s a nice day, warm with a pleasant breeze. Perfect for riding.
Arthur takes them a ways beyond the local river, to a place where he knows they’ll have plenty of privacy: the forest glade he and Morgana always used to escape to when they were little and tired of palace life.
“This place is lovely,” Merlin says, as they dismount, leaving the horses to graze.
“It was one my favourite place when I was a boy. Merlin,” Arthur says, taking a deep breath and turning to him. “Why are you here?”
“What do you mean, Sire? I’m here because you invited me.”
“No, not here here. In Camelot. Merlin, I saw you last night. I followed you into the caverns and overheard you talking to someone. Who was it? Was it Emrys? What did he mean by those prophecies?”
“Oh,” Merlin breathes, his eyes wide. “I, uh…”
“Merlin, please tell me. Please tell me you’re not planning to overthrow my father.” Please tell me I can trust you, he thinks.
“Then what’s going on?”
Merlin turns away to pace, running a hand through his hair like he’s thinking of ripping it out. What is so bad that he can’t just say it?
“Okay,” he says, turning back to face Arthur. “All right. I’ll tell you.” Merlin takes a breath. “Three years ago a very powerful sorceress named Nimueh came to my home in Ealdor and tried to kill me.”
“Why?” Arthur interrupts. Weren’t all magic users allies?
“Those prophecies you overheard me talking about last night? She heard about them too. You see, Nimueh hated your father and by extension you. She thought the best way to keep you from fulfilling your destiny and becoming King of all Albion was to destroy me, the one prophesized to help and protect you.”
Arthur wants to ask why this woman he’s never met and whom his father has never spoken of would hate them so much, but instead he asks, “What happened?”
Merlin looks down and visibly swallows. “I wasn’t home the night she came, but my mother was. Nimueh took her and tried to use her as a bargaining piece to get me to give up my life. But rather than see me hurt, my mother sacrificed herself, taking away Nimueh’s leverage.”
The Druid looks up and there are tears in his eyes. “I didn’t even know about the prophecies. I was a farmer in a tiny Essetir village. I didn’t care about Camelot or destiny or any of it. Just my mother.”
“And Nimueh took her from you.”
“Yes. So I killed her. I called on every scrap of power I had and tore lightning down from the sky and I…” Merlin sobs. “I killed her.”
“Oh, Merlin,” Arthur says, pulling him into a hug. Merlin sobs harder and clings to him. “I’m so sorry.”
“I hated you for a while,” Merlin says, once he’s calmed. Arthur pulls back a bit to look at him. “I blamed you and your father for what Nimueh did and I came to Camelot to help the Druids defeat you.”
Arthur can’t blame him. He doesn’t even want to. If someone took away his father or Morgana, he honestly isn’t sure how far he would go to hurt them back.
“But you’re fighting for peace now? What changed?”
Merlin smiles. “I learned the truth. I looked into the crystals and I saw everything that had caused Nimueh to act as she had. I saw how good you were and the kind of king you would become. I realized I wanted that future. I wanted to help you and I wanted to bring peace to our peoples, so that no one would ever have to suffer what I did.”
Arthur can’t help it; he kisses Merlin.
Merlin startles, but just as Arthur’s about to stop, thinking he’s made a mistake, Merlin presses forward, sinking his fingers into Arthur’s hair. Arthur pulls him closer and runs his hands along Merlin’s back. Gods, it feels so good to hold Merlin in his arms.
They kiss for what feels like ages, touching and holding each other until Arthur is desperate with want. Arthur starts to push at Merlin’s shirt as he kisses down the Druid’s throat, wanting the fabric out of the way so he can feel the skin beneath, but Merlin stops him.
“Arthur, wait. There’s something else I think you should know.”
“Merlin,” Arthur pleads, resting his forehead on Merlin’s shoulder. “Surely whatever it is, it can wait until after.”
Merlin shakes his head. “No. I don’t want any more secrets between us. Arthur, I’m Emrys.”
Arthur shoves Merlin away from him and unsheathes his sword, leveling it at the Druid’s throat.
“Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you right now.”
“Arthur, I would never hurt you,” Merlin says, remaining still.
“But the people of Camelot are fair game?” Arthur thinks of how much his kingdom has suffered the last two years without free trade or the help of soldiers during a crisis. Two years which have brought them close to the brink. How could Merlin – no, Emrys. How could he claim to want peace and prosperity for Arthur’s people when he was the source of so much suffering?
“Haven’t you been listening? I don’t want there to be anymore fighting.”
“You’re killing us.”
“No one on your side has died in nearly two years. Can you say the same for the Druids?”
Arthur knew that he couldn’t, but that wasn’t the point. Surely a quick death by sword or fire was better than the slow torture Emrys was forcing Camelot’s people to endure.
“Arthur, listen to me. When I joined with the Druids I was angry and hurt. I admit I lashed out and did things I’m not proud of, but when I learned the truth I changed. I stopped using my magic to hurt people and I worked to find a better way.”
“What better way? Starving us? Cutting us off? Turning nature against us? That’s not better, Mer– Emrys. It’s just slower.”
“And what would you have preferred? An immortal army led by King Cenred to destroy Camelot? Because that’s what you were facing.”
“What?” Arthur stops.
“Morgause planned to use the Cup of Life along with the aide of your enemies to kill everyone and take Camelot for the Druids. Many were in favour of this plan, but I stood against her and begged for us to find another way. Magic is life, Arthur. Doing what she proposed… It’s would have destroyed everything, even the Druids.”
“So you, what? Decided to kill us slowly instead?”
“I haven’t killed anyone! I merely backed your father into a corner where he was forced to sit down and talk to the Druids. The only suffering I caused was on our side. Twenty-nine, Arthur. That’s how many people have died since I stopped Morgause. And only thirteen of them actually had magic.”
Arthur wants to stand tall in the face of Merlin’s conviction, wants to believe everything he’s saying is a lie meant to fool Arthur, but he can’t. He remembers that first night with the butterfly. How he’d asked Merlin if he chose good or evil and Merlin had said he chose life.
“Arthur.” Arthur watches as Merlin sinks slowly to his knees in front of him. “I only want to serve you, to help you. If you think my death is for the best, than you have it. My magic, my life, my everything is yours.” Merlin bows his head, leaving his neck exposed to Arthur’s blade.
Arthur can’t breathe. He knows what his father would want – no, expect him to do. He knows what many in his kingdom would say he should do. But he can’t. Arthur raises his sword, but he can’t make himself swing it. He loves Merlin, but more importantly he believes him. Gods, forgive his idiocy.
Arthur sheaths his sword.
“Get up, Merlin. Or Emrys. Or whatever it is you call yourself. We have to head back.”
“Arthur?” Merlin starts, as he rises.
“No, don’t. I… I can’t talk to you right now.”
Merlin nods, his eyes sad and his shoulders stooped as he follows a step or so behind Arthur. It’s going to be a long, unpleasant journey back to the castle.
“Who is Nimueh?” Arthur asks Gaius.
Arthur had thought about asking his father, but given Uther’s temper this morning he’d thought better of it. And besides, even if his father were inclined to speak the truth, it would have garnered too many questions. Arthur may not be speaking to Merlin, but that doesn’t mean he wants to get him into any trouble.
“Sire?” Gaius says, frowning as he turns to face Arthur.
“Gaius, please, if you know something, tell me. You’re my father’s oldest friend and I can think of no one else who can answer my questions.”
“Oh dear,” Gaius sighs, setting down whatever herbs he’s mixing. “What has Merlin told you?”
“Arthur, if your father didn’t tell you about Nimueh, then I know of only one other besides myself who could have.”
Arthur debates what he should or shouldn’t say, but in the end he decides to trust Gaius. The man has been a mentor and friend to Arthur and Morgana since they were tiny. He has kept secrets for them before, though admittedly none so dangerous as this. Arthur tells Gaius what he knows of the prophecies and Merlin’s battle with the sorceress.
“Is any of it true? Why would she hate us so much?” Arthur asks, when he’s done.
Gaius looks up at Arthur from where he is seated at his table. He looks tired and sad and for a moment Arthur regrets coming here, but only for a moment. He needs to know the truth.
“It is all true, my Prince. But the tale you seek to hear is not an easy one.”
“I don’t care. I need to know.”
“As you wish. Before you were born, Nimueh, who was a High Priestess of the Old Religion, had a vision. She foresaw the fighting and despair that would engulf the land because of your father’s hatred for magic.Seeking to prevent it, Nimueh travelled to Camelot to speak with your father. At the time, Uther had just learned that his beloved wife, Ygraine, your mother, was barren.”
Arthur starts to interrupt, but Gaius holds up a hand, stalling him.
“When Nimueh arrived and spoke with Uther, he made her a promise. If she could help his wife to conceive an heir, then he vowed he would never turn against magic. Nimueh said she would help, but she warned Uther that there would be a cost for such magic. Mark my words, Arthur,” Gaius says, giving him a serious look. “There is always a cost when it comes to magic.”
For a second Arthur thinks of Merlin, wondering what prices he’s paid, but then he quickly shoves the thought aside. He doesn’t have time to think of Merlin right now.
“Uther said that any cost was worth it and Nimueh used her powers. Nine months later, you and Morgana were born and Ygraine and the midwife who delivered you died. A life for a life. Uther in his grief blamed magic and so sought the death of Nimueh and all magic users throughout the land.”
“But he knew the price,” Arthur protests.
“He knew someone would have to die, but he selfishly thought it would be someone who didn’t matter to him: a servant or a peasant. He never considered that it would be his beloved.”
Arthur can’t believe it. So much death and suffering just because his father lost his wife, just because he wanted an heir.
“This is my fault,” Arthur says, sitting heavily on the bench across from Gaius.
“No. Arthur, no,” Gaius says, laying a hand on Arthur’s. “You may have been the result, but you were not the one who made the bargain, nor were you the one who chose to go back on it. Uther is to blame, not you.”
“But I helped him. I’ve arrested and killed magic users.”
“It’s not your fault. You didn’t know.”
Arthur looks up. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It’s not my place, Sire.”
Arthur nods. He understands. He would neither have welcomed the knowledge nor believed it, had Gaius spoken to him before now. The question is, now that he has it, what should he do with it?
- - -
Two days go by where Arthur does nothing.
He attends the talks and nightly festivities, but he doesn’t participate in them. He refuses Morgana’s invitations to eat together or take a stroll and he ignores the concerned looks she sends his way when he does. He trains until he feels like his arms will drop off, even though it doesn’t stop his mind from racing. He feels powerless and trapped and he hates it.
- - -
Arthur’s wandering the castle halls, something that seems to have become a nightly habit for him, fighting with himself over what he should do, when a voice stops him.
“Arthur,” Merlin calls.
Arthur stops and turns. “Merlin, what are you doing here?”
“I came looking for you.” Arthur’s heart starts to race. “There’s someone I, um… Someone I want you to meet.”
Arthur sighs. He doesn’t think he can handle any more secrets, but he has to admit, he is curious. Merlin has been avoiding him just as much as he’s been avoiding the Druid the last couple of days. It must be something important if Merlin is willing to seek him out.
“Lead the way,” Arthur says.
Merlin nods, grabbing a nearby torch and Arthur soon finds himself taking a familiar path down into the lower dungeons and from there into the caverns beneath them. Their path twists and turns and eventually leads them to a cliff’s edge in the largest cave Arthur has ever seen.
Arthur is about to ask who they could possibly be meeting down here, when suddenly there’s a loud flapping noise and a large golden dragon swoops down to land in front of them.
“Good gods!” Arthur cries, falling backwards.
The dragon laughs from his perch, while Merlin helps Arthur back to his feet. “Well, young Pendragon,” the dragon says, sobering. “I can’t say I ever expected to see you down here. Come to see the spoils of your father’s war, hmm?”
It’s then that Arthur notices the massive chain locked around one of the dragon’s hind legs. Gods, what has his father done now? “No. I’m sorry…”
“Kilgharrah,” Merlin says. “This is the Great Dragon, Kilgharrah. The last of his kind.”
“I’m sorry, Kilgharrah. You startled me. Until just now I was unaware of your presence.” In fact he had believed all the dragons dead until this very moment. “My father does not know I am here.”
“No, I imagine not. And just what are you doing down here, then, young Pendragon?”
Arthur looks at Merlin, who doesn’t seem inclined offer him any help on the subject, then back to the dragon. “I don’t know. Looking for answers, I guess.”
“Hmm. Answers to what questions?”
Arthur’s not sure. He has a million questions. Why did Merlin bring him down here? Why did his father not destroy the dragon? Why has Kilgharrah not killed them? Just to name some of the most recent. However, as he thinks about it, Arthur realizes none of them weigh more heavily on him than, “What am I supposed to do?”
“Do?” the dragon asks, tilting his head.
“I know about my father’s broken promise; his real reason for hating magic. I just… I just don’t know what to do with that knowledge.”
“I think you know exactly what it is you must do, you just don’t want to face it. Your father,” the dragon says, his eyes turning hard and fierce, “has long talked of peace, but done the opposite. He sees evil where there is none but his own making. The question, young Pendragon, is not what to do, but will you see it done?”
“I can’t,” Arthur says, shaking his head. “I can’t turn against my father. I won’t.”
“You don’t need to,” Merlin says, suddenly reminding Arthur of his presence by laying a hand on his shoulder. “You need only see that he follows through this time.”
“Uther Pendragon asked me to come here, many years ago,” the dragon says. “To make peace. He was slaughtering the dragons and our Dragonlords. I came in good faith hoping to save my kind from extinction, but it was a trick. Uther imprisoned me and killed the Dragonlord who came with me. Now, I and Merlin are all that remains.”
Arthur feels like he’s going to be sick. How could his father do such a dishonourable thing?
Arthur shakes his head, “I’m fine, Merlin.”
“I doubt that,” Merlin says, giving Arthur’s shoulder a comforting squeeze.
All of the sudden, Arthur knows what he should do.
Arthur breathes deep and looks at Kilgharrah. “My father has done you a great disservice. You came in faith for peace and the love of your people and he used that against you. You do not deserve to be imprisoned. How do I free you?”
“Arthur, no. You don’t have to –”
“But I do,” Arthur says, turning to Merlin. “If I am to start holding my father to his word, then why not start here and now? Kilgharrah,” he says, turning to the dragon. “I want no strife between us. I will release you tonight, but please, promise me you will not seek vengeance for what my father has done to you and your kind. Camelot is not to blame.”
The dragon watches Arthur through narrowed eyes for a long moment. “What you ask is not easy, Arthur Pendragon, future King of Camelot. But,” he says, glancing momentarily to Merlin, “for the sake of the peace I was denied, I will do as you ask. Go to the base of this cave and, with the help of Merlin’s magic, your sword should suffice in breaking the chain that binds me here. I vow I will even leave as silently as I am able, so that none save you know that I am gone.”
Arthur nods and, after a brief hesitation, Merlin leads him down towards the bottom of the cave. They take it slow. The carved out steps guiding them down are narrow and steep, though thankfully not crumbling in any places.
Once they reach the bottom, Merlin leads Arthur around the base of the mound Kilgharrah is perched on. On the far side Arthur sees a large anchor, seemingly forged to the cave floor and linked to chain links nearly the size and width of his arms.
“How could any forger create such a thing?” he asks, unsheathing his sword.
“With dark Magic,” Merlin says, a shudder running through him as he looks away from the chain and to Arthur. “Hold out your sword.”
Arthur does as asked, balancing his sword between both hands.
Merlin raises his free hand, laying it against the sword, while the other continues to hold their torch aloft. In a voice that echoes with power and command, Merlin speaks words Arthur has never heard before over the sword, his eyes flashing gold. The sword grows warm and a bright blue glow starts to emanate from it.
“It should be able to unbind the chain now,” Merlin says, stepping back.
Above them, Arthur hears Kilgharrah shift in anticipation.
It’s now or never, Arthur thinks, shifting his hold on the sword before swiftly bringing it up and crashing down on the closest chain link. There’s bright flash and a thunderous shattering sound as Arthur’s sword hits the chain, but it easily cuts clean through to the cave floor. Arthur looks up just in time to see the last of the chain dissolve as if it had never existed and the Great Dragon take flight.
“You did it,” Merlin cries, pulling Arthur into a hug after he’s sheathed his thankfully no longer glowing sword.
“We did it,” Arthur says, hugging him back.
Merlin pulls away and looks back up to the cave’s ceiling where Kilgharrah disappeared. “He’s free,” Merlin says, with a big smile, almost laughing. “I can feel his joy.” Merlin closes his eyes.
That reminds Arthur. “Merlin, can I ask you something?”
“I can hardly stop you,” Merlin says, smiling at him before turning to lead the way back to the steps.
“Are you a Dragonlord?”
Merlin stops suddenly, almost causing Arthur to run into him. “How…?”
“When Kilgharrah spoke of his kin, he said you and he were the last. Since you are not a dragon, I assume you are a Dragonlord?”
Merlin looks at Arthur for a long moment and then starts walking again. “Yes,” he says. “I suppose I am, though I didn’t know it until I came here and met Kilgharrah.”
“What exactly is a Dragonlord?”
“I guess the best way to describe it is a warlock who can command the heart of a dragon. But it’s more than that,” Merlin says, starting up the steps. “Dragons and Dragonlords are kin. We are born sharing a connection – a bond like that of brothers – through our souls. The bond runs so deep, in fact, that dragons cannot be born without the aid of a Dragonlord.”
“And there are none left?” Arthur asks. “No other dragons or Dragonlords?”
Merlin shakes his head. “None that Kilgharrah and I know of, at least.”
That seems like such a tragedy. While Kilgharrah is terrifying to behold, he is also beautiful and amazing. And the fact that Merlin is connected to such a creature is wondrous.
“How did you discover you were a Dragonlord?”
Merlin appears to think about it for a moment. “I guess Kilgharrah recognized my father in me.” Merlin glances at Arthur over his shoulder, “You see, the trait is passed from father to son upon the father’s death. I never knew my father,” Merlin says, turning back to watch his steps. “But Kilgharrah did. He said he felt my father’s spirit and power in me when I arrived. So that first night he called out to me, summoning me here, to his prison. When I found him, he realized that I was not only a Dragonlord, but also the warlock destined to help you.” Merlin turns and smiles. “He’s been annoying me ever since.”
Arthur smiles back.
They continue on in silence for a while, reaching the cliff’s edge and heading up towards the dungeons before Arthur speaks again.
“Merlin?” Arthur asks, waiting for the Druid to turn. “Um… What’s your real name?”
“Merlin,” he says, looking curiously at Arthur. They’re walking almost side by side now that the passage has widened. “Emrys is simply what the Druids call me.”
“Why?” It seems odd for them to give Merlin a different name, but then Arthur knows almost nothing about Druid culture. For all he knows they could all have two names.
“You know, I’ve never actually asked,” Merlin says, looking down and frowning, as though this is the first time it’s ever occurred to him to ask.
“Maybe you should,” Arthur suggests.
“Maybe,” Merlins says, looking forward again. “But it’s never really bothered me. I found it a little strange at first, but then I just accepted it.” Merlin shrugs.
“Do you prefer Emrys?”
“No,” Merlin says. “Actually, I think it’s more like a title then a name. Like your people call you both Arthur and your Highness, Pendragon and Prince.”
“What does Emrys mean?”
Arthur stops. “Are you?”
Merlin turns. “Am I what?”
Merlin laughs. “Not so far as I know. I age just like any one else. I get sick just like any one else. And I bleed just like anyone else. I was even poisoned once and let me tell you, that was a close call.” Merlin grins, like being poisoned is something to be proud of, the weirdo.
They start walking again, passing the guards Merlin spelled to sleep and heading into the palace proper.
“Now, before we part ways, do you have any other questions for me?”
Arthur thinks about it. “Could you show me some more magic?”
Merlin grins. “What would you like to see?”
- - -
Although it takes them a while – Arthur delights in seeing Merlin’s magic, even if they can’t risk much in the palace, since so many are still quite wary of it – Merlin eventually leads them back to Arthur’s chambers.
“Would you… Uh, that is, would you like to join me?” Arthur asks, heart beating fast. He loves this man, magic and brilliance and oddness and all, and he very much wants to spend the rest of the night holding him and kissing him and proving to Merlin how much his trust – his faith – means to Arthur.
Unfortunately, Merlin shakes his head. “I shouldn’t,” he says. “We need to rest. Tomorrow is going to be a long day.”
Arthur starts to argue, but then he stops. He knows what Merlin means. It’s already very late and they only have three more days to get a treaty ironed out. They’re going to need all the help they can get. Still.
“You could rest here,” he tries.
Merlin smiles. “No. If I stayed, we wouldn’t get any rest.” He takes a step forward, slipping his hand into Arthur’s. “Arthur, I care very much for you. And I think you care for me as well. But I don’t want to be a one-night affair to you. Or even a prolonged affair. I’ve thought about it, but I can’t. It would hurt too much knowing some day I would have to give you up. Do you understand?”
Arthur nods. He hates it, but he understands. Hadn’t he told Morgana the same? That he didn’t want Merlin simply as a discreet lover? That it wouldn’t be fair?
“Thank you for freeing Kilgharrah,” Merlin says, leaning forward and kissing Arthur’s cheek. “I’ll see you tomorrow at the talks.”
And with that Merlin leaves, taking Arthur’s heart with him.
The next morning Uther asks Arthur and Morgana to break their fast with him. It’s not an uncommon request, but Arthur is suspicious nonetheless, as his father hasn’t asked it of them since well before the Druids’ arrival.
“I don’t think these talks are going to work out,” Uther says, cutting right to the heart of the matter once they’ve been served. “I want you to prepare the knights, Arthur. A surprise attack before the end of the week should prove decisive, don’t you agree?”
“You can’t be serious,” Morgana protests.
“We still have three days,” Arthur says.
“Three days to do what? Continue arguing?”
“The treaty with Mercia took more than a month to negotiate,” Arthur says. “We haven’t even been at this for half that time.”
“Our negotiations with Mercia showed promise from the start. The Druids,” Uther spits the word like it’s a curse, “have shown that they are clearly unwilling to compromise.”
“They’ve made plenty of compromises,” Morgana says. “If you ask me, it’s you who’s unwilling to make concessions.”
“Excuse me,” Uther says, a dangerous note in his voice.
“Father, please,” Arthur says, pulling Uther’s attention away from Morgana. “We have three days. Let’s at least try to make this work.”
“And what about the marriage contract they’re demanding?” Uther says. “Can either of you honestly tell me you’ve found a worthy spouse among any of their lot?”
Arthur clears his throat. He can do this. He’d stayed up the whole rest of the night after Merlin left thinking about it. There have been kings before him who have had male consorts, and it’s not as though he would have no heir, since one of Morgana’s future children could easily succeed him. It’s not perfect, but they can make it work.
“Actually,” Morgana says, rising from her seat before Arthur has the chance to say anything. “I have. He is even noble born, not that it should matter since it’s his magical inclinations everyone cares about.”
“Who?” Arthur asks.
“I’ll announce my choice when the treaty is finalized. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some things to attend to before today’s talks begin.”
Morgana doesn’t wait to be dismissed. Even when Uther calls for her, demanding she return and explain herself, Morgana doesn’t stop or turn. Arthur’s kind of impressed, though he fears the look on their father’s face.
“Well,” Arthur says, lifting his cup to cover his smile. “That was unexpected.”
His father glares at him.
- - -
The talks go better today than they have in quite some time.
Arthur gets things started on an agreeable note by getting Geoffrey to remind everyone of what they’ve already accomplished and organize a list of things they still have to settle. Understandably, given the animosity of late, everyone is surprised to find they actually have very little left to resolve. Mostly, it’s down to criminal punishment for offenses involving magic and what magic should or shouldn’t be permissible within Camelot’s borders. There are a few other odds and ends, of course, but those are the big ones.
Once their goals are set and the discussions begin, Arthur spends most of his time keeping his father on point, while Merlin, he notes, tries to do the same with Morgause, who seems more argumentative than usual. Unfortunately, for both of them, neither Uther nor Morgause really want to listen to one another, so in the end they don’t really get very far.
But at least by the time they’re breaking for the day, everyone can agree they’re making progress and the talks aren’t a complete failure. Yet.
- - -
“We might actually pull this off,” Arthur says, smiling.
“You doubted us?” Merlin asks, knocking his shoulder against Arthur’s.
They’re sitting on the castle steps leading to the courtyard, enjoying a bit of afternoon sun before evening meal is served and the night’s festivities begin. It’s pleasant.
“No, of course not,” Arthur says, looking at him. “I just… Three days, Merlin. That’s a tall order even when the parties involved don’t completely hate each other.”
“I don’t hate you,” Merlin says.
Arthur takes a quick glance around and seeing no one, leans in close to Merlin. “Nor I you,” he says.
Merlin smiles, but draws back. Arthur sighs and leans back as well. He doesn’t like it, but they are in public view and he can’t risk his father learning of his plans before he’s even had a chance to talk them through with Merlin. Speaking of which.
“Merlin, there’s something I want to ask you.”
“You can ask me anything, Sire,” Merlin says, watching a servant sprint across the courtyard.
Arthur takes a deep breath. “About the marriage contract. I was…”
“Yes?” Merlin turns, facing him.
Arthur swallows. “I was wondering if perhaps, um…” Just say it, he thinks. The sooner you ask, the sooner you’ll know. “If perhaps your people would consider it fulfilled if I married you.”
Merlin’s eyes widen, but Arthur hurries on before he can say anything.
“I’ve though a lot about it and there are some precedents. I know we wouldn’t be able to have children and thus the bloodlines wouldn’t be mixed, but surely if the king’s consort is openly a Druid that will mean something, right?”
“Arthur, no,” Merlin says, shaking his head. “I can’t ask you to make that sacrifice.”
“It’s not a sacrifice if I’m following my heart. Please Merlin, tell me there’s a chance.”
“I… I don’t know.”
“Would it be something you’d be willing to take to Iseldir?” Arthur asks, hoping he already knows the answer.
“I… Yes. Yes, absolutely,” Merlin smiles, reaching out and almost pulling Arthur into a hug before he remembers where they are and lets his arms drop, biting his lip instead. “But, Arthur, are you sure? If I go to him with this, we can’t take it back.”
“I have never been more sure of anything in my life. I love you and I want to spend the rest of my life with you by my side.”
Merlin grins and takes hold of Arthur’s closest hand, squeezing it tight. “I love you too.”
Arthur squeezes back, his own grin wide and adoring. He knows there’s still a chance the Druids won’t go for it, that Morgana probably wasn’t bluffing and has someone in mind as well, but he has to try. He knows his father will rage at him for this, that he’ll deny Arthur his blessing, but he doesn’t care. He wants this, he wants this one thing for himself, to be with the man he loves, and he’s willing to fight for it as hard as he has to.
Arthur leans in and this time he doesn’t care if anyone sees. Merlin meets him halfway and they share a quick, but passionate kiss.
“I can’t believe you two are hiding away in a corner again,” Gwaine says, handing both Arthur and Merlin fresh drinks. “You should get out there. Mingle. Have a little fun. You only live once after all.”
“Gwaine, you know I don’t dance,” Merlin says.
Tonight, Arthur’s father had organized another dance. Few had decided to attend, but of those that had, most seemed to be quite enjoying the evening.
“Not even for me?” Gwaine teases, holding out a hand.
Arthur glares over the rim of his cup. He knows he has nothing to be jealous of, but he can’t help it. Merlin is his.
“Especially not for you,” Merlin laughs.
“I’m hurt,” Gwaine says, holding a hand to his breast. “I thought we had something special.”
“Oh, let it go, Gwaine,” Morgana says, joining them. “If they don’t want to have any fun, who are we to make them?”
“Quite right, my lady,” Gwaine says, offering his arm. “Fun isn’t fun if it’s forced. Come, let’s go show Lance and Gwen how it’s done.”
“Yes, let’s.” Morgana smiles and takes Gwaine’s arm, allowing him to lead her out onto the dance floor where Gwen and Lancelot as well as several other couples are spinning about the floor.
“You think there’s something going on there?” Arthur asks, watching Gwaine and Morgana closely. They’d shared their evening meal earlier and even though he’d tried every trick he knew of, still Morgana hadn’t confessed her choice.
“Where?” Merlin asks, looking about.
“Between my sister and Gwaine,” Arthur says, gesturing with his cup. “Honestly, I thought you were supposed to be smart.”
“Hey, that’s not fair. She’s your sister.”
“And he’s your best friend.”
Merlin shrugs. “I don’t know, maybe? I can’t see it, though; she’s far too clever for him.”
“Hmm, you’re probably right.”
“Merlin, come dance with me,” Freya says, running up to him with a big grin and grabbing his sleeve.
“Oh. Freya, no. I can’t –”
“Yes you can, silly. Now come on,” she says, all but dragging Merlin onto the dance floor with her.
Arthur laughs and grabs Merlin’s cup before it gets dropped. “Go on, have fun.”
“I hate you,” Merlin mouths and Arthur laughs harder.
Merlin, it appears, is as good at dancing as he is with a sword. Arthur’s not sure he’s ever seen worse. When the next dance finishes, Arthur watches with more than a bit of amusement as Merlin is passed from Freya to Gwen and then to Morgana, each taking the lead in moving Merlin around the dance floor.
“He’s quite terrible, isn’t he?” Gwaine says, sliding up beside Arthur.
“Indeed. It’s embarrassing to watch.”
Just then, as if to prove their words, Merlin steps on Morgana’s foot and though she winces, she keeps smiling and moving. Arthur’s sister is a saint.
“You know he cares for you,” Gwaine says, stealing Merlin’s cup to sip from.
Arthur glances at the man. “I do. And I care for him as well, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Good. I suspected as much, but I still worry. When Merlin cares, he cares with his whole heart, but he also has a tendency to act without thinking, so if he were to give his heart to someone, I would hope that someone would treasure the gift they’ve been given and not hurt him.”
“Are you telling me not to break his heart?”
“I think –”
Arthur doesn’t hear the rest of Gwaine’s words as the doors to the great hall are suddenly blown apart and people start screaming.
“Morgause,” Arthur hears Merlin shout, as he and Gwaine unsheathe their swords. “What are you doing?”
Enough people have cleared the floor now that Arthur can see Morgause and Mordred standing by the remains of the doors. They’re dressed in armor and flanked by seven dark knights, wearing black cloaks and metal masks.
“I’m taking what’s rightfully ours. These talks are a waste of time and I will not bow before these murderers any longer,” she says, pointing her sword at Uther, who’s standing at the far end of the hall. “It’s time they get on their knees and bow to us.”
Merlin shakes his head and starts forward. “Morgause, don’t do this.”
“It is already done. Now either stand with me or get out of my way.”
“I will not let you hurt these people.”
“Fine, then,” Morgause says, and with a wave of her hand, she sends Merlin flying back against a wall. Arthur watches horrified as Merlin drops and remains still.
“Merlin!” Arthur cries.
“No!” Freya screams, stepping forward and hurling her own magic at Morgause.
Arthur ignores the fight and starts forward, intent on getting to Merlin to make sure he’s all right, but Gwaine grabs his arm, stopping him. “Let go of me.”
“Sire, stop. If I’m not mistaken those are the Knights of Medhir. They are a terrifying and brutal force, who will leave nothing but destruction in their wake. You have to rally Camelot’s knights. I will go to Merlin, but right now your kingdom needs you.”
Arthur curses. “Go. And find Morgana if you can. Keep them safe.”
Gwaine nods and takes off for the other side of the hall.
“Knights, to me!” Arthur calls lifting his sword and heading out to meet Morgause’s forces, which have already started to cut down the knights and noblemen nearest them.
Leon and Lancelot reach his side first and with him engage the Knights of Medhir. At first Arthur doesn’t see what’s so special about these men: they’re fast and strong, but Arthur is able to meet them swing for swing and even deal a killing blow to one. It’s as he pauses to pull his sword from the body that he learns why Gwaine was so worried.
These men do not die.
Arthur yanks out his sword and dodges as the knight before him rises up and takes another swing at him.
“Be on your guard,” Arthur calls to his knights, knocking the cursed warrior back. “They don’t go down easy.”
“But you will,” Mordred says, from behind Arthur. Arthur drops and rolls to the side, but he can’t anticipate Mordred’s magic. One moment he’s bringing up his sword to guard himself against a blade and the next he’s struggling to breathe. Arthur brings up his free hand, clawing at his neck for whatever’s strangling him, but there’s nothing there.
“Do you know,” Mordred says, hand outstretched as he draws nearer. “It’s my destiny to kill you.”
Arthur glares at the boy as he struggles for breath. He can’t die, not without making sure Merlin and Morgana and his father are all safe. He won’t. Even as his vision begins to blur, Arthur adjusts his grip on his sword, preparing to strike. Just a little closer, he thinks, gritting his teeth. Almost…
Suddenly, there’s an explosion to their left and as Mordred shifts his attention, Iseldir steps out of the shadows and hits Mordred over the head with his staff. The young Druid drops and Arthur gasps, breathing in desperate lungfuls of air.
“Prince Arthur,” Iseldir says, coming to kneel beside him. “Are you all right?”
Arthur nods. “Yes. Thank you.”
“I am so sorry. I had no idea of Morgause’s plots.”
“It’s okay,” Arthur assures the man. “I –”
Another explosion rocks the hall, causing Iseldir to fall back. Arthur catches the Druid, helping him to keep his balance, and looks to where a blinding light flashes.
“What’s going on?”
“I fear Morgause is getting a taste of Emrys’ wrath,” Iseldir says. “Your highness, you have to get your people out of here before they tear this whole place down.”
Arthur shakes his head. “I can’t leave him,” he says, thinking of Merlin as yet more blinding lights flash. Merlin may be able to hold his own when it comes to magic, but when it comes to the sword he’s vulnerable. What if one of the Knights of Medhir is able to sneak up behind him?
“Tristan,” Isolde calls, using his staff to pull himself to his feet.
“Yes?” Arthur turns towards the voice. He hadn’t noticed the blond man guarding them.
“Help me get as many people out of here as possible.”
“Right. Lance,” the man calls.
“Already on it,” Lancelot answers, fight back two of the Knights of Medhir so a path to the doorway can be cleared.
“Find your father,” Iseldir says. “But hurry.”
Arthur swallows and nods. He hadn’t even thought to look for his father, since all of his focus was on Merlin, but now that he thinks of it... He has to find his father and Morgana and make sure they get out of here. If Merlin is truly behind the explosions, then certainly he can take care of himself for a little while longer. He has faith in Arthur, so Arthur must have faith in him.
Decision made, Arthur gets up and runs for where he last saw his father.
- - -
“Morgana,” Arthur calls, racing forward to help Gwaine beat back one of Morgause’s knights.
“I had it under control,” Gwaine grits, locking hilts with the warrior while Arthur stabs him from behind.
“Sure, and that’s why you’re bleeding so profusely,” Arthur says, pushing between Gwaine and the downed knight.
“I look better in red,” Gwaine says, nearly falling over before Morgana gets under one of his arms, and secures it across her shoulders.
“Idiot,” Morgana mutters.
“Go,” Arthur says, stabbing the knight again before he can rise and kicking his sword away. “Lancelot is holding the door.”
“What about you?” Morgana asks.
“I need to find father.”
“Merlin’s guarding him,” Morgana says, pointing. Arthur turns.
Off to one side of the dais stands Merlin, Uther tucked safely behind him. Merlin has both hands out stretched towards Morgause, a beam of intense red light crackling between them. Arthur can’t be sure if the source of the light is Merlin or Morgause, but at the moment he doesn’t care. He can’t.
“Go. Once I get father, I’ll follow you.”
“Liar,” Morgana says, her eyes begging him to come with her now.
Arthur shakes his head. “Go.”
“Come on, Princess,” Gwaine urges.
Morgana looks torn, but in the end she goes. “Stay alive.”
“Plan to,” Arthur says, turning just in time to block another of the knight’s attacks. Gods, he wishes these things would stay down.
A piercing shriek rends the air and Arthur twists around to watch Morgause go flying. She hits the wall with a sharp crack and falls to the floor.
Arthur wants to shout for joy at the sight. Unfortunately, in allowing his attentions to be diverted, the knight he’s fighting is able to get up under his guard and cut him across the side. Arthur cries out, barely managing to get his blade back into a position to avert a mortal blow.
“Arthur!” Merlin shouts, throwing up a hand and sending the knight is flying backwards much like Morgause.
“Merlin,” Arthur murmurs with relief, sinking to a knee as he clasps his side.
“Emrys!” Mordred shouts. Merlin turns and Arthur watches as his father takes in the knowledge that their most hated enemy is the one who has been protecting his life.
“How could you side with them?” Mordred asks, his rage and hatred written clear across his face.
“How could you kill Freya?” Merlin counters, his own face etched with anger and grief.
Oh, gods, Arthur thinks.
“She didn’t understand. None of you do. The Pendragons cannot be bargained with. They won’t stop until every last one of us is dead. Magic will fade from the earth if we don’t put an end to them. I’m trying to save us!”
“No, you’re wrong. There can be peace. There will be.”
“You’re a fool, Emrys. You always have been.”
Mordred moves to attack, but Merlin is faster. He hurls a large ball of fire at Mordred. It explodes upon impact, throwing the boy’s scorched body back. Arthur bites his lip and looks around, wondering how much more the hall can take. There are already large craters in the floor, and a multitude of cracks have crawled up the walls.
Arthur looks back to Merlin and watches as he falls forward, red blooming across his lower back, while Arthur’s father stands behind him, a bloody knife in hand.
“No!” Arthur shouts, forcing himself up, so he can run to Merlin. Gods, there’s so much blood. Arthur tears off his overcoat as quickly as he can and pressing it to the wound.
“Why?” Arthur demands, looking up at his father. “He saved your life!”
“He’s Emrys. Don’t you see, without him the Druids won’t stand a chance. Now, get out of the way, so I can finish the job,” Uther says, picking up a discarded sword from amongst the rubble.
Arthur can’t believe the words he’s hearing. Is his father completely heartless, or has he just lost his mind? “No,” Arthus says. “I won’t let you.”
“Don’t be foolish, boy. Move.”
Arthur picks up his own sword, moving into a better position to guard Merlin. “You’ll have to kill me first.”
“You’re choosing them?” Uther asks, incredulous.
“I’m choosing him, Father. I love him.”
Uther’s eyes go wide and uncomprehending for a moment; then they narrow with hate. “You are no son of mine,” Uther says, raising his sword.
“Uther Pendragon,” Morgause calls, causing both Arthur and his father to turn. “I hope you rot in hell.” And she hurls a blast of energy straight at Uther from where she still lies on the floor, knocking him back into the wall. There’s a sickening crack and Arthur watches his father’s body fall to the floor, head hanging at an unnatural angle.
“No,” he whispers, looking away as tears fill his eyes. He may have been willing to fight his father for Merlin, but that doesn’t mean he wanted him dead.
Arthur looks to Morgause, wondering if she’s going to attack them, too, but her lifeless stare is focused solely on Uther. Good riddance, Arthur thinks turning his attentions back to Merlin, who’s still bleeding badly.
“Arthur!” Arthur looks up to see Morgana running to him, Lancelot, Leon, and Gaius not far behind.
“I told you to get out,” Arthur says.
“Morgause’s forces are gone. They’ve all turned to dust. Are you alright?” Morgana ask, coming to kneel beside him.
“I’m fine,” Arthur says, waving everyone off. “Gaius, help Merlin. He’s in much worse shape.”
“Yes, Sire.” Gaius crouches down by Merlin’s side and gets straight to work examining the wound and quickly pulling things out of his medicine pouch.
“Arthur, what happened?” Morgana asks, drawing his attention back to her.
“Father tried to kill Merlin.” Morgana gasps. “Morgause took advantage of our diverted attentions and killed him, but not before Merlin had already dealt her a mortal blow. Morgana, he’s gone,” Arthur says, reaching for his sister. “Father’s gone.”
Morgana pulls him into her arms and everything starts to fade to black as Arthur’s wounds finally catch up with him and he passes out.
Arthur comes to slowly, his head pounding and his side aching.
“Here, drink this,” Morgana says, lifting Arthur’s head and bringing a cup to his lips.
Arthur takes a few unhurried sips, the cool water feeling wondrous as it washes down his throat. He drinks about half the cup before pushing it away.
“What happened?” he asks. “Where’s Merlin?”
“You lost consciousness right after we got to you. Gaius says you lost too much blood while fighting and trying to care for Merlin. Arthur,” Morgana tells him seriously. “You scared me something awful when you fainted on me.”
“I didn’t faint,” Arthur protests, taking one of her hands in his and giving it a squeeze.
“Oh, yes, you did,” Morgana smiles, squeezing back. “I have witnesses.”
Arthur closes his eyes for a moment. He’s still very tired, but he has to know. “Morgana,” Arthur asks, opening his eyes and looking up at her. “Is Merlin okay?”
Morgana takes a deep breath and Arthur feels his heart stop. No. Please, gods, no.
“We don’t know yet. Father managed to drive the blade into some of his internal organs and there was a lot of bleeding. When you passed out Gaius had to switch his focus, he couldn’t work on both of you and you’re the Prin– King. You’re the King.”
“No,” Arthur whispers.
“Thankfully, Lancelot is quick-thinking. He went and found Tristan’s wife, Isolde, who has a talent for the healing arts. She used her magic to help heal Merlin, while Gaius worked on stitching you up. However, her abilities are limited, so she was only able to heal part of the wound. Gaius went to work on him as soon as you were stable, but we won’t know until he wakes up if it was enough. I’m sorry, Arthur.”
Arthur blinks back tears. “Can I see him?”
“Not right now, you’re still too weak. Gaius wants you to stay in bed for at least a couple days.”
“But I need to see him. Please, Morgana.”
Morgana sighs. “I’ll see what we can do, but Arthur, you need to rest. Okay? Aggravating your injuries won’t help Merlin.”
Arthur nods and looks up at the canopy of his bed. He can’t lose Merlin. After everything that’s happened, his heart won’t be able to take it. Aren’t they’re supposed to bring peace to Albion together? How can they do that if one of them dies?
“Get some sleep, Arthur,” Morgana says, leaning over to kiss his forehead. “I promise if anything changes regarding Merlin, I will let you know straight away.”
“Thank you, Morgana,” Arthur says, closing his eyes as a stray tear runs down his cheek. He doesn’t want to sleep, he wants to see Merlin, but he can feel his body dragging him under regardless of his desires. His last thought before sleep claims him is a prayer to any gods listening that Merlin be all right.
- - -
Three days later finds Arthur at Merlin’s bedside, still praying.
He knows he’s supposed to be planning his father’s funeral and preparing for his official coronation, but every time someone comes to remind him of his duties, he just snaps at them to get out. He knows he’s pushing the limit of what his court is willing to tolerate, but he can’t leave. Not until he knows one way or the other whether Merlin will be okay.
Gaius has told him more than once that Merlin might not wake for a while, not just because he was gravely wounded, but also because he expended a lot of energy using such powerful magic. Gaius told him that even if Merlin hadn’t been injured, it’s likely he would have needed quite a bit of rest after the battle anyway. So there’s really no need to worry yet. But Arthur does anyway. He can’t help it.
Arthur doesn’t even turn. “Go away.”
“Please, just a moment.”
Arthur glances over his shoulder and sees Iseldir and Tristan standing in the doorway. He sighs. “Yes?”
“Your Majesty,” Iseldir says, bowing. “I only wanted to let you know that Tristan, Isolde and I will be taking our leave today. Gwaine and Lancelot have decided to stay, but I need to get Freya’s body back to her mother for burial as well as assure my people that, though a treaty has not yet been signed, one is coming.”
“Of course,” Arthur says, rising. “I hope you will return when things have calmed. But know, even without a formal treaty, your people are safe. I have already made it clear to my court and knights that the use of magic is no longer forbidden.”
“Thank you, Sire.”
“Has there been any progress on locating Mordred?” Arthur asks. Though surely burnt and gravely injured, the young Druid’s body had not been among those retrieved after the battle. Arthur isn’t too concerned; despite Mordred’s ominous words, there are many more important things that need seeing to before he can worry about one rogue Druid boy.
“No,” Iseldir says. “We have sent word to the clans to be on the lookout, but so far there has been nothing.”
“We will not stop looking,” Tristan vows. “He is a traitor to both our peoples.”
Arthur nods. “Safe journeys then.”
Iseldir starts to leave, but then stops and turns back. “Fear not, your Majesty. Emrys is strong. It is not his destiny to die here and now.”
Arthur swallows. “Thank you.”
Iseldir nods and takes his leave, Tristan following close by his side.
Arthur sighs and returns to his seat. “Come on, Merlin,” he says, taking up one of his beloved’s hands in both of his. “It’s past time you stop lazing about.” Arthur leans down and, brushing Merlin’s hair out of the way, kisses his forehead. “Please come back to me. I miss you.”
- - -
Uther’s funeral is a somber affair.
Arthur listens to the priest’s words with only half an ear, as he holds his sister’s hand and tries to remember the father who loved him, rather than the man who betrayed the faith of so many.
“I will miss you always,” Arthur tells his father later, when he and Morgana are the only ones left in the tomb.
“As will I,” Morgana says, leaning down to kiss their father’s brow.
That night, Arthur doesn’t return to Merlin’s chambers, but instead stays up late drinking and reminiscing with his sister and Gaius over the man who taught him how to ride and hold a sword, who read to him the courageous tales of noble Kings and brave knights past, and, most importantly, who taught him what it means to be a great ruler.
“Despite all his faults, he tried to be a good man and he loved you both very much,” Gaius tells them, hugging them both, before they all break for bed. “You were the lights of his life and he was proud of you every day that he drew breath.”
- - -
“Are you ready?” Morgana asks, straightening Arthur’s mail and brushing some of his hair to the side.
“I’m fine Morgana. Stop fretting,” he says, gently grabbing her hands and taking them in his. “I was born to do this.”
Morgana smirks. “Don’t be such a prat.”
“Sire? It’s almost time.”
Arthur nods to Leon. “Go. Find your place, sister. I’ll be along in a minute.”
“All right,” Morgana says, taking Arthur’s face in both hands and leaning up to kiss his cheek. “Gods bless you, Arthur.” Then Morgana turns and heads into the recently restored great hall, Leon trailing after her.
Arthur takes a deep breath as he listens to music building and the voices of the many excited people who have gathered to see his coronation. He knows he’s supposed to be thinking about his people and the vows he’s about to make, but honestly he just wants to see Merlin open his eyes.
It’s been over a week, but though his wound appears to be healing, Merlin has remained asleep. Even Gaius is starting to worry.
The music swells and the people grow silent as the horns blow and the new doors to the great hall open. Arthur stands up straighter and starts forward. In this moment, here and now, he can’t worry about Merlin. Gwaine is with him and that will have to be enough.
There’s a great hush as Arthur walks forward, keeping his eyes straight ahead, until he reaches the throne. There he kneels and stares up at the Pendragon crest, promising himself that he will do a better job than his father of honouring its legacy.
“Will you,” the priest starts, “solemnly promise and swear to govern the people of Camelot according to their respective laws and customs?”
Arthur thinks of all the people in his kingdom, of the peasants and courtiers, farmers and artisans, servants and knights, those who serve the Old Religion and those who serve the new. Each and every one of them deserving of his respect and care. “I solemnly swear so to do,” he vows.
“Will you, to your power, cause law and justice, in mercy, to be executed in all your judgments?”
Arthur thinks of Kilgharrah and the injustice he was served at Uther’s hands, of all those who suffered because of his father’s grief and hatred of magic, and he knows in his heart that he will never allow anything like that to happen again under his reign.
“Then by the sacred law vested in me, I crown you, Arthur, King of Camelot,” the priest says, placing the crown onto Arthur’s head. It feels both lighter and far heavier than he has ever imagined.
The priest steps back and Arthur stands, turning to face his people. “Long live the King,” the priest says.
“Long live the King,” everyone in attendance answers. “Long live the King.”
Arthur does his best to remain solemn as his gaze passes over all the joyful faces cheering for him: Morgana and his knights; Gaius, Gwen and Lance; the courtiers he grew up with and the servants he sees around the castle everyday; and far in the back by the doors, to his shock, Merlin.
Arthur’s eyes widen, but otherwise he doesn’t allow his surprise and joy to show on his face. Merlin is here. Merlin is awake and cheering his name. He’s leaning heavily on Gwaine, but he’s smiling like Arthur wants to, like he’s waited a long time for this moment and it’s one of the happiest of his life.
“Long live the King,” Merlin shouts.
In honour of Morgana and Gwaine’s wedding day the great hall has been magnificently decorated in red, white, and gold. Gorgeous floral arrangements hang between the windows and along the far wall. Pages circulate among the guests carrying trays laden with after-dinner food and drink while the finest musicians in Camelot demonstrate exactly why they are masters of their craft. There are even foreign dignitaries from all across the kingdoms in attendance. But none of that matters to Arthur.
All that matters right now is that his sister is happy and that the man Arthur loves is in his arms. Even if that man is currently stepping on his toes.
“Merlin,” Arthur says, wincing.
Arthur shakes his head and smiles. “You are never going to get the hang of this, are you?”
“I’m trying,” Merlin says, watching their feet until he gets the rhythm back.
“I know. It’s fine,” Arthur says, looking over at his sister who is laughing into Gwaine’s shoulder; no doubt because Arthur and Merlin are the most awkward pair currently on the dance floor. It should be embarrassing, but Arthur doesn’t mind in the least.
The music ends and Merlin gives Arthur a quick kiss before hastily leaving the dance floor. Arthur bites back a laugh as he watches him go. Merlin is the most powerful sorcerer in the world and yet the thought of dancing in public terrifies him.
“At least we got him to come out for one dance,” Gwaine says, coming up beside Arthur.
“I hope you enjoyed it,” Arthur says, facing his new brother-in-law. “Because I doubt he’ll ever do it again, no matter what you try to bribe him with.”
“That’s okay,” Morgana says, leaning against her husband. “Once is all I asked him for.”
Arthur smiles at his sister. “Have I told you yet how beautiful you look today, Morgana?”
She’d commissioned the most celebrated – and expensive – seamstress in all the lands to create her dress. From what Arthur was told, it had taken over a month to hand-stitch all the beading alone, never mind the silver trim and accents Morgana insisted on. But it was well worth all the effort as the overall affect was stunning.
“Yes,” she grins. “But feel free to keep saying so.”
“There has never been a bride more lovely than you,” Arthur says.
“Too true,” Gwaine says, kissing Morgana.
Arthur recalls earlier when Gwaine got his first look at Morgana as she appeared at the far end of the packed courtyard. There were so many guests that it was necessary to hold the ceremony outside, but Gwaine, his face full of awe and joy, had eyes only for Morgana.Arthur had never seen the man so happy. He’d gladly walked his sister to Gwaine side, knowing the knight would spend the rest of his life taking wonderful care of Morgana.
The music starts up again and Arthur takes the opportunity to dance with his sister while Gwaine takes a break and goes to get them all something to drink. Unlike Merlin, Morgana virtually floats across the dance floor, her steps light and graceful. When the dance ends Arthur kisses Morgana on the cheek, thanks Gwaine for the wine he hands him, and goes in search of his husband.
While Morgana and Gwaine’s wedding today had been a public celebration meant for them as well as the people, Arthur and Merlin’s had been a private affair held several months ago. Although they didn’t hide their love, Arthur and Merlin knew going in it would not be looked on favourably by everyone or celebrated in the same way as Morgana and Gwaine’s. Which was entirely fine by them.
They’d held their wedding the spring after Uther’s passing in the forest glade where Arthur had first kissed Merlin. Iseldir had presided over the ceremony with Morgana, Gwaine, and Gaius standing as witnesses. Both Arthur and Merlin had worn simple long-sleeved white tunics over light breeches and soft leather boots. Their only adornments were Arthur’s crown and the Druid pendant Merlin had started wearing since he’d officially become the court’s sorcerer. It had been short and sweet. Perfect.
There had been a grand feast afterwards, though it hadn’t been anywhere near as extravagant as tonight’s festivities, but then, it had been more about placating the court than celebrating Arthur and Merlin’s union. Arthur didn’t care; he’d enjoyed the evening regardless. Just like he intended to enjoy this evening.
Now if only he could find… Ah. There he is, Arthur thinks, as the crowd parts for a second and he catches a glance of Merlin standing at the back of the hall with Gwen and Lance.
“What are you doing hiding back here?” Arthur asks, joining them.
“Shhh,” Merlin says. “She’s sleeping.” He’s holding Gwen and Lance’s two-month-old daughter, Clarine, in his arms.
“I thought your father was going to be looking after her this evening,” Arthur says quietly, brushing a finger along Clarine’s cheek. He can’t wait until Morgana and Gwaine have children.
“Time got away from us and she needed to be fed, so he brought her to me,” Gwen says.
“Merlin’s kindly offered to take her while we go wish the newlyweds well before heading home for the evening,” Lance says.
“It’s not a hardship,” Merlin says. “She’s an angel.”
“You only think that because you’re never around when she starts wailing,” Gwen laughs.
“How is that my fault?” Merlin asks.
Gwen just gives him a look before taking her husband’s arm and going to find Morgana and Gwaine.
“It’s not my fault she likes me.”
“No,” Arthur says, setting his drink aside. “But it is your fault when you distract her with magic so she stops crying. May I?” Arthur asks, holding out his arms.
Merlin carefully transfers Clarine over to Arthur and they both smile as she immediately snuggles against him, one hand grabbing his tunic.
“I wish I could give you this,” Merlin says.
“Nonsense,” Arthur says, looking his husband in the eye. “I would rather have you in my life than a dozen sons and daughters.”
Merlin swallows. “Me too.”
They share a kiss, and then continue to coo over Clarine until Gwen and Lance return. Arthur gently passes her back to her mother and they say their goodnights to the couple.
All in all it’s been a wonderful day and Arthur doesn’t think his sister would begrudge him too much if he left without wishing her and Gwaine well one last time. After all, before Clarine had diverted his attentions, he’d been on a mission.
“What say you, if we head to our chambers for the remainder of the evening?” Arthur asks, placing a hand on Merlin’s lower back and leaning in to kiss him behind the ear.
Merlin shivers and licks his lips. “Are you sure you don’t want to stay?”
“Very. I asked the servants to make sure we had oil for tonight,” Arthur whispers, kissing down Merlin’s neck.
Merlin flushes. “I wish you wouldn’t ask that of them.”
“They clean our bed laundry, Merlin. They know very well what we get up to,” Arthur says, his hand slipping a little lower as he bites at the edge of Merlin’s jaw.
“It’s embar– Ahhh,” Merlin groans before pulling away. “Okay, you win. Let’s go.” He gives Arthur a push in the direction of the nearest doorway.
Arthur laughs at Merlin’s sudden eagerness and takes his husband’s hand, lacing their fingers, so he can lead them out of the hall and up to their chambers.
- - -
“Merlin?” Arthur whispers, much later once they’ve cleaned up and are lying in their bed wrapped in one another’s arms.
“Hmm?” Merlin acknowledges sleepily.
“No matter what the future holds, I will always love you,” he says, echoing the same words he’d said to Merlin on their wedding night.
Merlin presses closer and kisses him. “My magic, my life, my heart, my everything is yours, now and forever,” he murmurs back, echoing his own words.
Arthur smiles and closes his eyes. He will never stop loving this man and he hopes he never gives Merlin cause to stop loving him for as long as they live.
Ten Years Later
“Now and forever,” Merlin sobs, leaning over to kiss his husband’s still lips one last time before spelling the boat to sail to Avalon’s isle.
“I failed,” Merlin says, knee deep in the water, as he watches the boat disappear into the mists. It’s not fair; he’d worked so hard to stop Mordred, but nothing he’d done had been enough. Mordred had still taken away the one thing that had mattered most to Merlin.
“No, young warlock,” Kilgharrah says. “For all that you have dreamt of building has come to pass.”
“B-but I lost him,” Merlin says, wrapping his arms around himself. He feels cold and alone like not even the Dorocha’s touch two years ago had made him feel.
“Though no man, no matter how great, can know his destiny,” Kilgharrah says, “some lives have been foretold, Merlin. Arthur is not just a king: he is the Once and Future King. Take heart, for when Albion’s need is greatest, Arthur will rise again.”
Merlin closes his eyes and sobs harder. What about his need?
“It has been a privilege to know you, young warlock. The story we have been a part of will live long in the minds of men.” And with that Kilgharrah takes flight, leaving Merlin truly alone on Avalon’s shores.
Merlin sobs until he has no breath and no tears left, until he feels dried out and broken beyond repair. Then he drags himself out of the water and builds himself a fire and tries to sleep.
It’s a long time in coming, but eventually, behind his closed eyelids, he sees Gwaine giving Arthur’s signet ring to Morgana, sees his friend pulling his wife and their children close as they grieve Arthur’s loss. In fact, he sees the whole of Albion sharing his grief. Then he sees visions of things he cannot begin to fathom, but with them a familiar face and smile, and it’s then he truly understands Kilgharrah’s words. Some day, far from now, he will see his heart again.
“Now and forever,” Merlin quietly vows when the visions end and he wakes, knowing that no matter how long it takes, he will wait, faithful and trusting, for Arthur’s return.