.

.

Once he has sulked out the craggy entrance to the underground tunnels, entering in undetected becomes simple.

Merlin crawls on his belly, navigating the darkness with telltale gold-glow eyes, able to see the path ahead. His arms and buckskin-gloves and knees dirtied. The ruins of Edirdovar Castle howl unholy as the wind blows outside the red fortress walls.

Rumours whisper of an enchantress who dwells on the Black Isle, guarding riches and wealth and knowledge beyond imagining. The peninsula swarms with magical beasts by night and by day, perils from cockatrice and huge scorpions, to kaia demons and ogres and harpies.

Without magic to defeat them, no living soul poses a chance.

Merlin's breeches and his plain doublet, along with the heavy, laced jerkin, blacken further with the tunnel's filth as he locates his exit. The dark linen-cloth masking his nose and mouth from the stench of decaying earth begins to slip.

The arches and corridors appear lined with flagstone, empty of any persons.

He goes as quiet as he can to find a nearby secreted alcove. Somewhere in case Merlin was discovered. Ogre blood, splattered dark green on his jerkin, reeks in the heat.

Something metal and blunt clangs against Merlin's skull, followed immediately by a closed fist against his jaw.

Oh—

He crumples boneless to the ground, head spinning into darkness and the ringing in his ears fading…

.

.

Merlin pries open his eyes, groaning softly and limbs feeling watery.

He blinks, carefully lifting his pounding head, realizing what's holding him up is armed, hooded men. The silvery crest of the Rowan Tree on their vambrace strikes faintly at his memories. They were… they are the warrior priests. The Blood Guard of the High Priestess.

The ones no longer existing after the Last High Priestess died... in well over several centuries, wasn't it? Merlin found it difficult to keep record of the moons and suns after he ceased aging in his twenty-eighth year.

"Aren't you a clever thief, boy…"

A woman approaches him off a stone dais. Merlin's haze-filled eyes catch sight of her robe, shimmering in the torch-light of miniature crystals and an indigo colour.

"Now who dares to steal from me?"

Merlin's grime-coated legs knock out under him, as the Blood Guard force him to kneel. Fingers roughly yank away Merlin's wool cap and his face-cloth, exposing his bruise-puffy jaw.

He wets his lips, unable to grit his teeth without ache.

"Merlin—I'm Merlin," he utters.

"No," she corrects him, and there are no eyes to glare back. "No, you cannot veil the truth from me." The tawny-skinned, blind woman leans into him, almost kneeling herself in attempt to reach Merlin's breathing space. "I will ask again: Who are you truly?"

The shimmering of her garb—it hurts, it hurts Merlin's head to look for long, and fills his cranium with hot sparks.

"Emrys," he finally replies, bile rising in his throat.

"At last."

Her hand lands against Merlin's forehead, soft in youth.

"Gestathole. Thurhhwindle."

The words leaving her flow into Merlin, ripping the air straight out of his body and charging him with the pure, exhilarating sensation of magic.

Merlin gasps aloud, jolting forward as the warrior priests drop his arms. His sinuses tingle, and the pain in his head clears away. He throws off his filthy, animal-pelt gloves, rubbing at his neck with bare fingers until Merlin regains his breath.

"You are the enchantress of this castle," he speaks up, voice thick.

"I am Nyneve." She withdraws, nodding to the Blood Guard who step back a good distance from them. "What were you looking for in my castle?"

Merlin, still kneeling, peers up at her face, at her coils of brown, straw-thin hair. The enchantress may be dour and sightless, but with power that raw and using only a fraction of its strength, Merlin doesn't wish to have it directed at him at its absolute.

"Answers."

"To what questions, Emrys?"

Merlin says, aiding himself up on his feet, "I lost someone. They're gone." He half expects the Blood Guard to bring him to his knees again.

"Necromancy is the blackest of arts," she says. "But stronger than you might think."

"It won't work. I've—I've tried it," Merlin admits, feeling himself shudder in recollection. It had been like plunging his heart in icy water, sinking himself to the nether-lands and letting something unnatural claw at his belly, quick to consume him.

For a moment, he takes a longer glance at his surroundings. A room with all four of its walls intact, ceiling included. The sconces at each corner with torches burning. Brightly woven tapestries leave no space bare and depict unmistakable symbols of the Old Religion. The circular stone dais at the middle of the chamber-room is patterned with marks.

Before he gets a closer look, Nyneve wordlessly blocks him, holding… a gold-hinged, ancient tome.

Her tawny-brown fingers etch the worn edges, as if loving.

"This magic defies all natural-born laws of this world, and it gives the user incalculable success. Therefore, it is not allowed in dangerous hands and not meant for prying eyes," she says to him, coyly. Merlin's pulse drums in the back of his mouth. "Can you tell me what this is worth to you…?"

"Everything," Merlin says, without a beat of hesitation.

"Speak the name of the person you lost."

He thinks he can taste the sour and curdling quality of the bile once more. Merlin has not breathed a syllable of that name, in the many years he has wandered the earth, unable to die. "Arthur Pendragon, the true king of Camelot."

The enchantress laughs, and it is anything but a soft or youthful melody. He faintly smells rancid meat.

"You've indeed tried to bring back your Arthur Pendragon before?" she asks.

"Yes."

"And you have gained nothing of it?"

With his jaw now healed of its injury, Merlin clenches it up tight against the sting of buried emotions and a film of moisture gathering in his eyes. He glares heatedly right at her. "I wouldn't think I'd be here otherwise," Merlin says, dryly.

Instead of seeming offended, Nyneve's lips bunch up in amusement.

"The knowledge you seek can be yours, Emrys… if you tell me why you need him returned."

"Why is that important to you?"

"Knowledge is also a form of power." Her smile opens, razor-sharp. "I will not have my time wasted."

Merlin insists, "We're meant to build Albion together."

"But with no Camelot at its heart? A kingdom that no longer exists?"

She isn't wrong. God, gods help him—Merlin failed. He failed Camelot the instant the Saxons tore it apart. With Guinevere already passed on and leaving no child as an heir, with everyone Merlin had known as bone and ash, with the rest of the counsel greedy for lands and unable to agree on strategies or its defence, the whole of Camelot disintegrated.

All hope could not be lost. Kilgharrah's prediction wasn't wrong, Merlin repeats stubbornly to himself.

If destiny couldn't provide him with the results intended—then Merlin would make his own.

"The prophecies say he will return."

"It doesn't answer my question: why do you need him?"

Merlin hesitates, and forces a simpering, cheerful look. "Because he's my king," he explains, and then snaps backwards physically when Nyneve's hand lunges out, grabbing around Merlin's chin without mercy and smashing his mouth into a crooked 'O'.

"Speak another lie to me and I'll remove your vile tongue," she hisses, her eyesockets seeming to go wide on him. "Why do you need Arthur Pendragon? He slaughtered innocents and destroyed the homes and the lives of a peaceful race. He carries the seed of an evil man."

"Arthur wasn't evil, he was never Uther," Merlin whispers, eyes and his chest burning, pulling himself out of her grasp but not completely.

He flinches visibly, stiffening in place as the backs of two fingers stroke over his begrimed cheek.

"Tell me, Emrys—why him?"

Nyneve smiles a cruel, stretching smile—rotted and grey spaces between her teeth—as Merlin's inhale tremors.

"…I loved him," he murmurs, low enough in hopes of satisfying her request and to deny it in himself. "I need him."

"And so you confess your selfish heart." She proclaims, and Merlin can't fathom out if it is more contempt or mourning, "Arthur Pendragon will not bring back the old ways. The one destined for it you felled with your selfish deeds, for your beloved."

The very Last High Priestess, without her guard, scrambling to hold onto Merlin with bloody hands as he shoved Excalibur through her stomach…

It feels like an eternity before he feels it, the tears trickling on Merlin's cheeks, warm and salty.

His mouth hangs open. "I…"

"The answers you seek are in your hands, Emrys." Nyneve hands him the tome, waiting until Merlin's hands are on hers to release it. "Remember they are stained in our blood."

He wants to say 'thank you', but it manifests as a weak "m'srry" and there could be no kindness found on her expression.

.

.

It's a long journey back from Uerurio, and Merlin can still remember the enchantress's scorn.

Perhaps Nyneve hated him. Even so, Merlin has to believe that he has been given what he desires. What he has been been searching for all this time.

Within the semi-darkness of his quarters, Merlin runs his fingers placidly over the tome's hinges as he skims its page.

If… if this is the Grimoire of Honorius, then it can work.

Arthur could be—

His hut door bangs open, vanishing the thought, and flooding in ruthless, white sunlight. Smack into Merlin's face.

"Good morning! It's another beautiful day!" The young, copper-haired lad, guilty of the disturbance, plants his freckled hands on his hips. He grins big at Merlin attempting to shield himself, and takes a nasal-sounding whiff. "You smell that?"

"Ihateyou—"

"Hog shit," Claudin announces, proudly. "The true worth of being raised in a camp." He strides over to Merlin's cot, hopping up on it and creasing his freshly-washed robe as the Druid crosses his legs. "Have you been up all night, Merlin?"

"Couldn't sleep," Merlin mutters, rubbing his eyes. He swears that he can nearly feel the veins in his eyes throb. But Merlin accounts that to reading for the past day and a half. "I kept dreaming about Picts ripping out my throat."

"That's what you get for going out there on your own. You could have asked someone to come with you."

It's easy to figure what the pointed hint in Claudin's voice meant. Merlin scoffs, glancing down at the opened pages again and ignoring his companion. The problem with Claudin was that no matter how hard you tried, he refused to be ignored. At sixteen years, the lad perfected it. In a way, it reminded him of Gwaine or Will. Likely it was Gwaine.

Merlin's stomach clutches involuntarily. "I wasn't going to endanger anyone else," he says, grumbling.

"Is that it?" Claudin tosses a shiny, red apple between his hands, asking with eyebrows inching up, "What you were looking for?"

"Yea," Merlin says offhandedly, tongue feeling strangely wooden. If God or gods were good.

"The language is difficult to read," he adds. "Garbled."

Claudin wrinkles his nose, chomping on his apple. He cranes his neck to peer over Merlin's shoulder, exposing his collarbone-tattoo.

"Looks like a load of rubbish to me," he observes noisily through his mouthful.

Merlin can't help it—his lips perk into a thin smirk.

"That's because you're lumpish."

The other man sputters on his apple, gulping it down after choking for a breath. Claudin pretends to scowl, jabbing a finger into Merlin's arm. "Just because you don't get older and we call you the Great Emrys doesn't mean you're not a complete git."

Merlin hums, pretending to be actively listening. He rereads the same indecipherable section of text, beginning to frown and scratching at his right temple.

"I don't understand this," Merlin says aloud, thumping the leather-crackled tome on his bed.

"Did you ask Joseph?" Claudin shrugs, meeting the pair of blue eyes in front of him and hopping back on his feet. "He knows all about that rubbish sorcery of yours—oi, if you want any breakfast, you better grab a ladle before everyone else does!"

Claudin's hungry mouth aims for his fruit, only to sink at nothing. He turns to Merlin, discovering the warlock taking an 'mmm'-worthy bite. And when the Druid looks back at his hand, his red apple grips lightly in his fingers, new teethmarks and all.

"You … hells, you have got to teach me how to do that," Claudin says, awestruck.

.

.

Not all of Merlin's past has been left behind.

Iseldir's tribe spreads out to multiple regions over three hundred years, adding new family members and losing others.

Merlin enjoys the solace in this cozy glen, in the delight of the squealing, playful children racing after the livestock. There's an acceptance in magic being used openly. Those who practise magic within this smaller Druid tribe are honoured and deeply loved by their kin.

One of the few of Iseldir's heirs—the chieftain "Joseph" as he prefers the informality—holds a great deal of respect. Especially by Merlin. He is well-educated in many languages written and oral, even some lost to nobles and scholarly men.

By a smouldering outside campfire, another Druid peers at Merlin approaching. He hastens to his feet, bowing. On the hairless nape of Accolon's neck, he bears the same black Druid tattoo as Claudin, indicating their fellowship within the others.

{My Lord Emrys!}

Merlin suppresses his cringe at the intrusion in his head, smiling awkwardly.

"Please, don't," he mutters reluctantly, under his breath when a bearded Joseph pats the Druid man's arm warmly. Accolon keeps his head lowered as a mark of courtesy as he scurries around Merlin staring after him frowning, shoulders hunched in.

The Druid chieftain shows the same warmth to Merlin, gesturing him onto a mossy sitting log.

"I can see you continue to struggle with your reputation amongst my people."

Merlin blows some air between his lips, kicking the dirt. "Can we talk about something else?" he says, moodily.

"Of course. What can I do for you, Merlin?"

He brightens at Joseph's mention of his name, and not his status.

"This translation…" Merlin presents the gold-hinged tome, opening up to the seventy-seventh chapter and dragging his finger over the passage. "It doesn't make sense to me."

He stares down solemnly at Merlin's lap.

"A vessel," Joseph announces.

"Yes, it says in order for the ritual to work, it needs a vessel."

"Am I to presume this will bring your king back to life?"

Merlin's head jerks up, face twinging. "It's not dark magic," he says, panicking. "I sworeI wouldn't—"

"I would have known if it was, Merlin," Joseph assures him, squeezing the warlock's forearm. "You have been forgiven for any wrongs committed long ago."

Even so, Merlin fights off another shudder, pushing a hand against his upper lip.

No, no—he should not think of it.

"A vessel… that's what I don't understand. A vessel for a soul," Merlin says. He taps a finger to the passage, against those rubbish scribbles. "I sent Arthur's body to the Lake of Avalon. It's… gone. His body is gone. It's been too long—I don't have it."

"There's more here." Joseph gently leads Merlin's hand off the page, leaving him squinting in puzzlement. "A vessel… to give birth to the soul," he says, slowly reciting it through his thickened accent. "The soul and body needs to be conceived."

"Conceived? As in… giving birth to a new body?"

"According to the ritual, in order for the soul to live, yes." Joseph tells him cautiously, tucking a strand of his long, salt-and-pepper hair behind an ear, "I have not seen the likes of this magic performed before. You must use it wisely."

Merlin's heart pounds fast, threatening to burst from his rib cage. He feels impossibly light.

"You think it'll work?"

"With your greatness as the Last Warlock, anything is possible." He offers Merlin a pleasant but distracted look, climbing off the mossy log. "I must attend the morning rites. I'm sure we will speak again of this, Merlin."

Merlin hugs the tome against the material of his worn, blue tunic, as if the object is precious.

"Thank you, Joseph."

The chieftain bows his head.

"Be well, my boy," he says. A stab of nostalgia radiates through Merlin.

My boy.

Merlin shoves down his fondness of Gaius and their workshop together, or lingering on the absence. It's been far too long now. Merlin has what he needs: the path he lacked growing in the direction of his original destiny—and finally reuniting with Arthur.

.

.

Beltane draws near. The woods thrive with joyous voices, weaving shadows and crackling of the bonfires.

Hardly a week passes before Merlin sets out once more, carrying provisions and supplies.

He needs to perform the enchantment where Arthur had been put to rest. He needs to become the vessel for Arthur. Though any of the Druid women may have been privileged or willing to aid him, Merlin doesn't wish for any person to sacrifice themselves for him.

This is Merlin's choice to sacrifice his body to a greater cause—and his chance to, at last, succeed.

Avalon's waters gleam luminous on the surface, bathing under the full moon, as he divests himself of his clothing. Merlin prepares the ingredients he needs on the edge of the lake, grinding and smearing red clover over his forehead and cheeks. He scoops his tongue into the purplish-green mash, tasting fibrous sweetness, letting it swirl in his mouth.

Not far off, Merlin had seen wreaths of flowers and garlands floating down rivers, left by girls hoping to read their fortunes. He had glimpses of couples wandering between trees, high off adrenaline and covered in fire-warmed soot, running and stealing kisses and touches.

With the hypnotic, lulling hum of insects around him, with the moon-drenched stillness of the waters, he imagines of kisses that never were.

Merlin takes his prick one-handed, stroking the head in a familiar circle, twist, twisting. (He thinks of Arthur's sun-golden hands clenching him, holding Merlin to him. Those large, muscular fingers raking Merlin's dark hair and gripping in, deeply nesting. They writhe together, naked and rolling in earthy mud, legs nudging apart.) Merlin strips his prick, fast, faster. (Their red-swollen mouths and teeth biting, and cocks thrusting and slipping wet against each other.) The imaginings break as Merlin does, trembling.

The bitterness of dirt against Merlin's lips tastes like hot, spilled seed. Dirt, seed, and blood. His blood and the blood of a fertile woman, mingling with his saliva. Merlin swallows it all, choking down a gag at the texture and flavour. Perspiration drips down his brow-line.

He feels the shock of initial cold as Merlin wades himself in the Lake of Avalon, teeth chattering.

Further. Much further out, he swims. He keeps going until Merlin's feet could reach no bottom.

"Eard mīn bānhūs, wæter mīn blōd / Earth my body, water my blood

Lyft mīn breath ac fȳr mīn ferð" / air my breath and fire my spirit"

The chant repeats. Merlin closes his eyes, black water sloshing up to his ears. He unconsciously seeks out a thread of magic below him. Magic ageless like him, but carrying a burden and a strength no mortal could hope to possess.

Merlin's fingers begin to prune and numb. He shivers more and more as the bloated moon's light wanes overhead.

"Ic onfōn hine, mīn bānhūs onfōn his feorh / I accept him, my body accepts his soul

Mīn bānhūs onfōn hine, mīn bānhūs onfōn hine / My body accepts him, my body accepts him

Ic onfōn þē, / I accept you,

Arthur Pendragon / Arthur Pendragon"

Silence greets him. No insects. No passing breeze.

And then, Merlin's eyes fly open, searing gold. He gulps noisily on water, struggling to remain upright. The thread of Avalon's magic lengthens, roping around him, around his core.

His skin blazes hot.

Merlin spits out the disgustingly murky water, swimming back in even while feeling immensely weakened. His bare toes squish into the muddy bank. A cramping seizes Merlin's lower abdomen, feeling like heat expanding greatly. He clamps a hand on his flat stomach, breathing harshly, groaning.

It doesn't hurt him, not truly, but it's wrong to Merlin. As if his insides rearrange and push together.

It's done. He knows it is.

A mile off in the darkened woods, Merlin empties his bowels, nausea coursing through him.

.

.

On his behalf, Joseph asks Dindrane to act as midwife.

She's an older woman with powder-white on her temples. Merlin often glimpses Percival's kindness in her.

"Mhm, he's very strong," she announces, pressing lightly on top of Merlin's exposed, stretchmarked belly. "You're doing well."

"Thank you," Merlin whispers, unable to keep from smiling affectionately at the fluttering motions repeating inside him. At first, he was uncertain about the dizziness and fatigue and the amounts of times Merlin grew anxious and burst out crying for no reason.

But with time and increasing amazement, he got used to tracing fingertips across the crisscrossing, bluish veins on his taut, expanding curve. The first moment Merlin noticed the littlest swell, he nearly tripped into one of the hut walls to rush out and find Claudin. He had wanted to crow out in giddiness.

His friend had been completely speechless, gawking down at Merlin's round profile, at the undeniable proof—but impressed.

Merlin wiggles in place during the inspection, his back to the cot's itchy linen blankets.

"How much longer now?" he asks, a hint of eagerness and impatience in his expression.

"You have until Imbolc, which is a blessing upon you," Dindrane says in approval above him. The gentle look seems familiar of a timid maidservant he knew once. "Brigid will protect you and the babe from harm." Her reed-thin, ebony fingers appraise Merlin's tender breasts, giving him a wince as his nipples tingle uncomfortably. "You do not produce milk to feed him, but we have goats. He will not go hungry. Did this spellbook indicate how you will give birth when the time comes?"

With some hesitation, Merlin shakes his head. The translation didn't speak of anything like that—not that the thought hadn't crossed his mind often.

"Do not worry, Emrys," she encourages, smiling. "Squalling babes have been cut out of a mother's belly many times."

Wait… mother?

His discomfort returns full-force.

"He's not… I'm… uhm, I'm more of a keeper to a second-party." Merlin chews on his lip, nervously laughing. "Suppose it helps I can't die?"

Dindrane hushes him, gazing down sharply, "You should not talk like that. You will grow ill."

Not of the mind to argue superstition, Merlin allows her to continue pressing on him, occasionally rubbing the sides of his protruding stomach.

Soon, Arthur. You're safe with me until it's over.

.

.

The hallucinations by far are the most terrible of his symptoms.

A ghastly echo of Uther Pendragon marching and disappearing behind the snowy tree-line. Daegal sitting in a semi-circle of Druid children, smacking both hands on his knees and grinning. Princess Mithian dancing near a fire, swaying, wearing her ivory, silky bridal garb, the veil twirling around her face.

"Merlin…?"

Claudin narrows his amber eyes, watching on as his companion stares blankly at an empty, cedar-wood stool. It has been longer than a casual glance, and more with intent. Like Merlin knows exactly what nothingness he is face-to-face with.

"Merlin, what is it?"

The pregnant man tears himself from the sight of young Mordred hugging Lady Morgana around the waist, her hair well-kept and bejeweled.

"…Thought I saw something," Merlin says, voice exasperated and low, rubbing hard at his face.

Claudin peers back at the not-so-suspicious stool, frowning. "Like… whaa?" he asks.

"A spider." Merlin sends him a withering look. "A big hairy one."

His satisfaction comes in the ginger-haired Druid stumbling onto his feet, grumbling and shuddering. Left alone in peace, Merlin massages a hand over himself and glances back at the nothingness ebbing away into the form of the wooden stool.

.

.

Yuletide brings rejoicing to the Druid tribe, as they share their wine and homes and salted meat. The ceremonial bonfires light, filling the air with crisp smoke.

The odour of the evergreens revolts Merlin's new sensitivities. He huddles indoors with furs and blankets wrapped to him, but not far from the flames. Merlin lays on his right side, head pillowed, rucking up his green-grey tunic when he feels increasing agitation and stirring inside him.

"Arthur—" Merlin palms over his huge, pale bump, trying to calm him. He grunts, jolting as if pained. "You're, augh… such a prat."

"I haven't forgiven you about Cedric, y'know. I was right. He had been possessed by an evil spirit and wanted my job—ow!" Merlin stops to glare down at his belly, as if somehow the babe cradled within can be able to sense it. "It's not my fault he unleashed a curse on Camelot! I saved everyone before they could be turned into—gargoyles or some rubbish!"

He snorts, his long, bony fingers spanning comfortably.

"I've saved you more times than I can count. You were always running off into trouble, and I always had to go after your sorry arse," Merlin says, critically. "Do you remember Sophia and her father? That was the second time you were bewitched by some pretty girl. The first time was Nimueh and that was of your own volition for being a damned hero. And then after the incident with Vivian, I considered next time letting your head get lopped off for being so…" He trails off, slowly rubbing as the tiny movements let up.

"But, Gwen… I knew you loved her. She loved you. She never stopped loving you."

A hardened lump crawls up Merlin's throat. His eyes burn wickedly, misting around the edges of his vision. "We both needed you and you weren't there, Arthur," he says, a little too loudly and accusing. Merlin's voice croaking with pent-up emotion. "Now you are, so don't say I never did anything for you, clotpole."

"I'm not letting you out of my sight this time, understand? No more sword-fighting, no more battles. You're going to learn to toss hay and muck out the stables…" Merlin realizes with some horror that he is crying and laughing at the same time, and unable to stop.

When he feels Arthur kick, probably in defiance, against his bladder, Merlin's body-wrenching sobs dissolve into hiccuping giggles, his loneliness and fear gnawing at him.

How could he do this?… What if he couldn't save Arthur this time?

Sniffling, Merlin hugs his arms around his heaving, naked belly, drawing his legs in. His nose dripping.

I love you. I need you. Come back to me.

.

.

On the eve of Imbolc, taper-filled altars ablaze and prayers murmuring for renewal, Merlin's back-pain increases to the point where there's no catching his breath.

The entirety of his stomach feels like pressure mounting up, up, up, contracting.

Except when the urge to bear down overcomes Merlin, to push, there's nowhere to push out.

He knew from the midwife's retellings that childbirth would be a tormenting experience and the agony would be nearly unbearable to handle—from the stories told of babes that died in the process and from hearing for himself the Druid woman in labour screaming high-pitched in their private tents.

His magic contracts with the suffocating, burning sensations in his lungs and the raw-sore pressure. Merlin feels multiple hands undressing him, helping him shift down. Another excruciating spike of cramping pain erupts inside Merlin. One of the Druids carrying a pan of fresh water gasps, startled as the legs of a chair shatter apart, hit by an invisible bludgeon.

Dindrane appears over him, dark brow furrowing. "Control yourself, Emrys," she warns.

"Ithurtshurtshurts—"

"Forgive me, but you must." A squeeze on his fisting, shaking hand. "We will remove your babe. You must try to rest." Despite the reassurances, despite having been fed a brew of herbs for the prolonged agony, Merlin braces against vomiting. He pants, sweating heavily, and clenches all his muscles.

More hands, this time restraining him on his back.

A leather belt stuffs between Merlin's teeth for precaution, to keep from biting his tongue. He shuts his eyes, red-faced and hot all over, muffling out distressed noises. He blocks out the image of the cleaned dagger passing into Joseph's hands.

Blood wells out of him, alarmingly fast—he can feel it happen, getting dizzy, floaty.

And then, Merlin feels not a thing for a while. Barren. Colours fading.

He comes in and out of what must be a fever.

Sometimes, Merlin's eyes glimpse the white, waxy candles, and sometimes a face that doesn't exist anymore. Balinor seated beside him, thumb poised on blunted edge of a hunting knife, his robe littered with curls of wood shavings. Forridel, her pink lips pressed into a single, disappointed line, reaching out to grasp Merlin's limp hand before withdrawing. Leon, his face covered in reddish-golden beard, flashing a grin down on him and patting his favourite crossbow loosely circled in an arm, like it were an infant.

Merlin jolts to himself, wide awake, batting away the cold-cloth to his forehead and the hand weighted to it.

"Arrugh—" he mumbles, groaning aloud as queasiness violently swoops up him. His belly… shrunken. Thinner.

"You scared the hells out of me, you git," Claudin yells, freckled face pinched. He places the wet cloth down—or more like, he throws it down stubbornly. Nearly missing Merlin's shoulder. "No, you don't even think of getting up out of bed—I'll break your kneecaps meself, you hear?"

"Arthhhr." He licks his dry, cracked lips, faintly tasting bile, sour-sick. Merlin's heart thudding rapid. "Whrrss he… ?"

Dindrane steps into view, leaning.

"Right here, Emrys," she says, purposely in quiet tones. The Druid tattoo imprinted upon her ebony-dark forearm nearly glowing a porcelain hue, as Merlin's head goes swimmy. "You both survived the ordeal, bless be to Brigid. He's done with his feeding—that's it, careful of his head."

His eyelids droop, sleep hovering and whispering to take hold once more, but Merlin obeys the commands. He tentatively cradles the bundle of rough-knit fabric to him, witnessing a silent but noticeable yawn from the wee, fleshy-red creature.

Arthur… this was Arthur?

Merlin brushes his fingers over a tiny cheek, relieved as his magic recognizes him, pulsing yearningly.

"Ss'you, isn't it," he proclaims, lips creeping into an adoring smile.

The newborn wrinkles his face at Merlin, as if perturbed to be questioned.

.

.

Arthur's eyes begin to open after a couple days. A wondrous, familiar blue that squints at his noisy, bright environment and takes it all in.

Merlin still can't… can't believe it worked.

A part of him didn't. The powers of Avalon gave the Once and Future King back to the world. There was no denying that. But did that enchantment restore Arthur's memories? It seems only time will tell. Although, in the meantime, Merlin's strength returns to him, his body healing.

Now he's got an entire lifetime to rebuild with Arthur.

Merlin's fingers play with the downy, peachy-blond hairs on Arthur's tiny skull. He's so soft. So fragile. Nothing like the warrior he knew.

"I always said you wouldn't last a day without me," Merlin says, sounding aggravated, but he places a warm and caressing kiss on the underside of Arthur's flailing, chubby-bare foot. "… I just didn't think it would be like this, you turniphead."

.

.

From the corner of the hut, Alator of Catha—he isn't there, he isn't—observes with mild interest as Merlin bathes his once-king.

Merlin firmly ignores the dead man, tunic-sleeves rolled up, singing off-key a nonsensical lullaby under his breath. He focuses on wiping the infant clean. The lifetime of Arthur's scars, battle-won or fatal, nowhere to be found on his human body. He swaddles Arthur in one of the dry woolen blankets.

"You believe him to be your friend, my Lord Emrys?" Accolon asks, standing by the window. The nighttime drifts in, carrying scents of summer grass and rainfall. "He was your friend?"

"It's always been him," Merlin answers, sternly. "The enchantment would have failed if this wasn't Arthur."

Claudin raises an eyebrow, unconvinced.

"Isn't it strange… having to change his nappies and all that? I like you, mate… but you're on your own for that."

Merlin barks out a laugh, amused by the comically offended look.

"I've been emptying his chamberpot for ten years… feeding and clothing him as a grown man for just as long." Merlin shrugs, hearing a cranky squalling, and lets infant Arthur suckle eagerly on Merlin's forefinger. "This isn't anything I haven't done before."

Accolon peers at the blond, tiny child with obvious scrutiny.

{What was he like, my Lord?… Your king?}

Merlin blinks.

"Stupidly brave," he confesses with a toothy grin, and unconsciously summons one of the pillows to knock against Claudin's head as the Druid lad snickers (Oi!). "He was an impossible man. I couldn't get him to do anything I wanted half the time, and not without an argument."

Merlin beams down at Arthur wriggling free of his blanket, grasping strong with the littlest fingers over Merlin's gigantic knuckle.

"Arthur Pendragon wanted a fair and just kingdom for every citizen. He was Albion's greatest king, and nobody questioned that." A swell of pride heats Merlin's gut. "I believed in him with all my heart, and I will always believe in him," he says, gazing back softly at his Druid companions.

As Claudin tilts his head, rubbing and complaining about the previous abuse, Accolon drifts out of conversation, face stony.

.

.

A storm brews in the horizon, accompanied by gusts of rainy wind and thundering clouds. It seems that everyone is miserable.

Merlin has not felt afraid like this in a long time.

He stares down worried at Arthur hardly making a cry, his blue eyes dull. The infant doesn't kick around in excitement upon hearing Merlin's voice, making low, fatigued whimpers. He doesn't want to risk using magic on Arthur. It's difficult with someone fully grown, but someone who wasn't?

"Arthur, what's the matter?" Merlin checks him over again, nesting him in one arm.

He's warm, but no more than normal. Merlin can't tell. Arthur's only been an infant for a short time. When Merlin sees the ugly, reddened skin and pus around Arthur's navel, the stump of umbilical cord that hasn't fallen out yet, he fetches one of the Druid midwives who agrees that it is a worrisome symptom.

"His breathing is weak," she tells him, looking at Merlin's hardening profile in sympathy.

He nods as if coming to a decision, wiping both of his hands over his mouth.

"I need to get yew branch and hazel," Merlin says, flatly.

Her face immediately pales.

"Emrys, the storm—" she insists.

Merlin cuts her off, almost beseechingly as he rushes to grab his medicine bag off the floor, "I need you to take care of him, please. I'll be back before nightfall. If you can find some willow, put that on the infection. It'll help with the pain."

"… Of course," the midwife says, doubtful but respectfully bowing her head. "Be well."

He doesn't want to leave. He wants to rock Arthur against him, hold onto him for a little while longer to make sure he would be just fine, and promise him it'll be alright, but the longer he waits, the harder the decision would be. And so, Merlin shuts the hut's door securely behind him, casting a protection spell for the neighbouring area.

Below in the cloud-darkened valley, he locates a yew tree on the outskirts of nearby woods. The air smells heavy and damp, charged with energy. As Merlin treads more ground, he slips on wet dirt, having difficulty in remaining steady.

Merlin grasps onto the yew's bark, hair whipping out of his eyes as a tall, cloaked figure emerges, half-circling him.

{Accolon?}

An unseen force locks onto him and thrusts Merlin back, ramming his skull backwards. It rings with the impact, colours whitening before greying. He strains against the force, and there's not an inch granted to free himself. All of him is pinned to the yew tree.

"It's over, Emrys," Accolon declares, his tone scornful. He stands directly in front of Merlin, wind-battered. "There's no use struggling."

Merlin snarls, teeth gritting, "What are you doing—?"

His eyes bulge as he retches out, spittle running down his chin. The air crushes out of him. Accolon's visibly scarred hands, hands that Merlin had never feared in how they nurtured the most gentle of earth's creatures, stretch out, fingers clenching like he were strangling Merlin himself.

{You've played your part well. I did not expect any less of you}

Merlin's air returns blissfully to him, as the Druid's hands lower from mid-air.

{The mighty king of Camelot has returned—just in time to meet his end.}

A woman's voice slithers through the fog and resonates in Merlin's head. He knows this voice, how it lacks softness and youth.

"Nyneve…" Merlin breathes harshly, watching Accolon's expression flicker. "What have you done to Accolon?"

{I have done nothing. He is my most humble servant. A true warrior of the Old Religion.}

"You made him a traitor of his own kin."

{It sounds as if you both have a common failing.} There's a sharpness in that bitter realization that pierces Merlin all through him, but he doesn't lower his head in regret or stop glaring. {Love makes us do foolish things, doesn't it?}

"Who did you love?" he roars over the crash of lightning and thunder overhead. "Speak the name of the person you lost!"

A new voice—no, it couldn't, it was she—croaking in eerie, phlegm-rotted volume.

{Morgana Pendragon.}

Raindrops drip harshly into Merlin's unmoved face, off his eyelashes, cold and real. It's… not a hallucination.

"You're not who you say you are, are you?" he says grimly, as a revolting sense of personal triumph blooms once more on Accolon's—the Dochraid's features. He should have known. He should have known. "Excalibur took your life. I did it myself."

{No, Emrys. You merely injured me. Morgana came to my aid. She promised us salvation.}

"I won't make the mistake of allowing you to live a second time."

{It's far too late for threats, Emrys.} Accolin's lips thin into a sneer. {And now you will never save your beloved.}

"It won't bring Morgana back."

Whether it became the power of his rage or a momentary weakness in the other, without moving an inch from the yew tree, Merlin gazes skyward. He summons the earth's call, its fury and its energy charging about them, his eyes flooding yellow-golden.

"Nothing will ever bring you back this time."

A flurry of lightning slams into grass by Accolon's feet, engulfing him in hot-white light. It's blinding. The Dochraid's agonized screams immerse the valley, quivering the stormy atmosphere and drowning out the noise of blood pounding behind Merlin's eardrums.

He slumps lifeless, and does not rise again.

Arthur… please—…

.

.

The high summer beckons him.

Come.

He may not be the strongest fighter, or the quickest runner. He may not be betrothed, or impressively wealthy, but what sort of life would that have granted him? Love was not to be bought and won, and a person could not live without the harvest or rivers of spring water.

All they need… all he needs is the sensation of the fresh, warm dirt beneath him, and to be guided by his heart.

Come.

He's seventeen years of age, motherless and rarely seen with friends, and this is all he knows for certain.

Come, Arthur.

It's no voice in particular humming inside his breast, and yet he wills himself to listen, dashing through the alders and birches.

Bees float lazily past him as Arthur clears woods, slowing down and eyeing the sun-drenched land. They've warned him to not go off alone.

The valley is dangerous, the elders say. Lucan teases him whenever it's mentioned. There's a wicked faerie living in a tree-hollow, he says, wiggling his fingers. He's nearly fifteen and thinks he knows better than Arthur. Which he doesn't, Arthur reasons with a substantial amount of derision. Arthur's older than him.

Come, Arthur. Come. Come.

The humming starts acting like a tingle under his skin. He absently itches at his colourless tunic. Perhaps he should turn around.

And he does, taking a large step backwards, until Arthur spots the most peculiar thing.

He's not entirely sure why, but there's a figure sleeping under a tree. (A man?)

A man, not old enough for wrinkles but not altogether young, with a mop of dark hair and seemingly tall stature. He wears boots and a crimson, thread-worn scarf. Arthur knows better than to meet with strangers, but can't shake the impression of… familiarity… was that it? Hmm.

He begins looking less like an ordinary man the closer Arthur gets. Sharp facial bones, pearly white skin untouched by sun, and there's bits of dandelion fluff clinging to his head and full, girlish lips like the snowfall. He's quite… beautiful.

Arthur smacks his palms hard against his cheeks. Idiot, he scolds himself. Idiot, lumpish idiot.

That's when he notices the perfectly-formed ring of mushrooms.

.

.

There's a sensation of heat, gentle and inviting. Thawing him out.

Merlin awakes with a loud, violent sneeze.

Once his head stops thudding, and he can see straight—seven bells and all the hells, has breathing ever been this INVIGORATING before?—Merlin wipes under his runny nose with his sleeve. He peers up at his confused, sun-covered shadows of person over him.

And realizes this time he's absolutely gone mad.

The person standing in front of Merlin… just can't be who he's seeing. It's impossible. There's a lack of muscle mass, but the square jawline is there. Bright golden hair fanning over his brow and his flesh eventually browned by the sun. An obvious dash of freckles across the bridge of his nose and on his cheeks. But moreso, it's the eyes.

There's no mistaking the emotional vulnerability of those eyes.

"Arthur…"

Merlin numbly reaches out, managing to touch his fingertips against a cheek (solid, real) before the boy retreats, frowning. He's alive.

"Do I know you?"

It's real, God or gods help him. Even the voice has got it right.

But Arthur was… only a nurseling the last time Merlin saw him. What was happening?

"Yes—no." Merlin stammers, unable to collect himself for a decent answer, "N-no, well maybe."

Arthur's frown deepens.

"And yet you knew my name…?" he asks, keeping a safe distance from the yew tree and thus Merlin. "You're not a faerie, are you?"

"I'm, uhm—what?"

Arthur points to Merlin's surroundings, and to a couple mushrooms squished into the grass by Arthur's bare foot. "You were in a faerie ring. Were you enchanted by them?" He watches as Merlin gapes stupefied up at him. "I suppose you should thank me since I broke it."

This… no, Merlin needs to get back to the hut. The Dochraid wanted revenge—but he killed her, didn't he? Oh wow, Merlin's head is killing him.

"I need to go—" He tries getting up, and Merlin's balance sways. The young man grabs onto Merlin's shoulder, hooking an arm around Merlin's waist and straightening up the warlock with a grunt of effort. "I—"

Arthur leads them, unimpressed by their hobbling pace.

"How long exactly were you asleep?" he asks.

Merlin looks him up and down, open-mouthed, heart jammed in the centre of his throat.

"… That's what I'd like to know."

.

.

The first thing Merlin notices is the lack of tents. More huts, and sturdier ones have been built upon the soil of the Druid camp.

People, elderly and young, begin to swarm in curious groups.

{Emrys—} {Is that Emrys—!} {EmrysEmrys—}

{EmrysEmrysitsemrysemrysem—}

Merlin squeezes his eyes closed, moaning and holding onto his temples. Too many. Too loud. He's free to walk on his own, and Merlin cracks an eye to gaze at Arthur doing the same, echoing Merlin's faint moan, one hand lifting as if shielding his face.

With some amazement, Merlin considers the possibility that…

"You hear them, too?" he asks, quietly.

Arthur scrunches his face unpleasantly, replying, "It's not as if you can exactly turn it off."

He…

Merlin's about to ask him to clarify, and then suddenly he's being hugged. Not by Arthur, but by—

"Claudin!" Merlin shouts at the top of his lungs gleefully, hugging back with all the strength he can muster. "You look terrible, my friend!"

"Likewise!" Claudin shouts back, laughing like he's spirited youth he had once been. But Merlin sees the years have weathered his veined hands and his shoulders tense as if experiencing aches. The coppery-color to his hair, what remained, losing its lustre.

It's been years and years, but surely not another century. His Druid companion explains the length of time—Merlin learns of Dindrane's passing, Joseph's illness and the lack of command but growing population in their tribe. They believed Merlin vanished out of thin air. When Merlin recounts the story of Accolon's betrayal and a revenge sought, a sombre-faced Claudin promises to inform their chieftain betimes.

Merlin nearly forgets the surge of events until Arthur marches over to them, appearing grumpy.

"Father wishes for you to attend dinner with our family," he says, eyes avoiding everyone, "if it pleases the Great Emrys."

It sounds absolutely wrong coming from a teenage Arthur. Arthur—who was once Merlin's sovereign. Who never even teasingly referred to Merlin with a high title, and had been certain his manservant was no more than a bumbling, slack-jawed fool before—

Merlin's hand lashes out, snatching onto Arthur's left wrist and gripping on, nearly contorting it around.

Underneath Merlin's fingers, the pale underskin is mottled with pigment-black.

A tattoo. The Druidic symbol glaring back at him.

He barely feels Arthur struggling to break away.

"You're…"

Claudin steps between them, removing Merlin's hand. "He will come," he says, calmly. "You may tell Ector."

It prompts a disdainful glance at the pair of men but Arthur does as bid, walking off and clutching his arm to himself.

"He's a Druid," Merlin says, accusatory.

"What did you expect?" Claudin snorts and crosses his arms. "A Druid raised him on the ways of our people. What, were you thinking him to be a cow-headed mule?"

"Will you, listen—Arthur can hear the others in their minds. He—"

"He has the gift, yes."

"He has the—" Merlin's blue eyes involuntarily widen. Oh. "Ohhhhh. Alright, yeah, I need to sit down."

Claudin pats him amiably on the back, pushing him forward.

"They'll have chairs, now go." He gives Merlin a big and encouraging grin, adding, "This is your chance to make up for lost time with him, Merlin—Go."

.

.

Ector's hearth displays nothing resembling cold and uninviting to his guest, but his "son" does not share the hospitality.

Merlin's stomach coils in knots as Arthur disappears from the table, leaving behind his half-eaten meal.

"Forgive him," Ector says, gruffly. He's a boar of a man—heavyset and with a low, rumbling voice. He wears his brown hair as a wild, frizzy mane and his beard unshaven. "The boy respects you and the tales, but he is wary of those unaccustomed in our home."

Merlin balls up his hands into his tunic's hem.

"I may have startled him this morning," he blurts out. "I-I didn't mean to."

"I'll speak with him."

"No, please—let me," Merlin says, looking up with a sheepish smile that visibly relaxes the other man. "I should make amends for my behaviour."

Ector clears his throat, and it sounds like the hut groaning under the weight of a rainstorm.

"It is an honour to have you in our home, Emrys," he says.

"You've been raising him?" While I've been trapped by a curse and forgotten, Merlin recedes.

"My wife refused to let him out of her sight. Fought to keep him as a babe. She coddled and admired him like he was her own blood." The Druid man adds on, pointedly, "She was the last one who ever laid eyes on you, Emrys."

The midwife.

Merlin drags his tongue over his bottom lip.

"I am sorry for your loss," he whispers.

"They told me she went in her sleep. That it was painless. He was only a few years old at the time."

"You've been good to Arthur." Merlin smiles again, this time more genuinely. "He's… benevolent. He seems different."

Ector's smile widens, becomes less toothy.

"It's not been for you, Emrys." To Merlin's astonishment, the Druid man flushes a hot, bright red under his beard as he stares, humiliated. "Begging your pardon, my Lord… I do it for the boy. Every child needs a home. Someone to raise him right."

Merlin feels a breathy chuckle escape him.

"That is absolutely true, yes," he says, reassurance overcoming him.

Arthur had a good family. A father who put Arthur's needs first, for once.

The paths of his and Merlin's destiny couldn't have been for nothing.

.

.

Ector persuades him to stay the evening. It's not as if Merlin had a place to return to, unless Claudin didn't mind a second mouth to feed.

The floor is cobwebs and strewn with bits of cinders and straw. Merlin doesn't complain about the hardness, or the single, tattered blanket, and he wraps it around himself, taking to wandering from the room where the Druid man snores noisily.

He discovers Arthur sitting in a connected room, framed yellow by taper-light, his knees pulled up. He gazes at Merlin as if expecting him.

"I heard you," Arthur says with pointedness eerily similar to his adoptive father. "Whatever reason it was, you are forgiven."

Merlin narrows his eyes, giving his head a shake.

"I'm not—"

"For earlier."

He had grabbed Arthur. It had been a mistake.

Merlin tightened the patterned blanket on his shoulders, joining Arthur by the window, leaning against the wall.

"Couldn't sleep?" he asks, side-eyeing him.

Arthur's face empties. "No."

With hilarity, Merlin think he almost misses him as a nurseling. At least he could find a way to cheer him up without much effort.

"It's the middle of the night."

A loud, condescending snort.

"You're the perceptive one, aren't you?" Arthur says mockingly, but to Merlin's utter delight, he catches a smirk.

"It's one of my many talents."

Arthur shifts in place on the windowsill, sun-browned hands dangling over his knees covered in curly, light blond hairs.

"You're immortal, aren't you?" he asks Merlin, solemnly meeting gazes. "You've seen loads of people die then?"

A twinge of awful feeling resonates inside him.

Merlin answers with a stiff, acknowledging nod.

"I dream about… men dying. Their blood soaking the fields," Arthur's voice goes strained. "I don't understand it. They wear armour and these red capes and they move so fast. I can't make out the sigil but it'll shine like rays of sun in the dark. I think… I know they are knights."

The inside of Merlin's mouth dries up quickly, making it difficult to swallow. He hasn't felt this much anticipation in a great deal of time, perhaps not since the thrilling realization of Arthur growing anew inside Merlin's body.

He doesn't rush over to Arthur, doesn't wish to alarm him.

Merlin sucks a quivering inhale through his lips.

"There is a belief that our dreams are gateways to memories," he says, meaning to sound thoughtful. "Of a past life you may have had."

Arthur only frowns once more, eyeing the melting taper.

"If that's true… I don't think I would want that life again."

"Maybe you mattered," Merlin insists, getting off the wall and facing him. The breathlessness of the sentence raises Arthur's head up.

"… Don't we all matter?"

In a tick, Arthur's softly-spoken question disintegrates all of the troubles and doubts out of Merlin.

.

.

He discovers a pond beyond the glen, empty of any inhabitants, and Merlin shucks off his breeches and small-clothes.

Anything to cleanse himself of the filth, both layering his sweat-tacky skin and drifting in his mind. Balmy, humid air breezes around Merlin's naked privates, and he tugs his upper garment, bunching the material to his armpits before noticing the leafy thicket parting.

They reveal Arthur, features slightly burned pink by the day, holding onto a fishing spear.

"You shouldn't go in there," he announces, a bit smug. "Unless you enjoy leeches sucking on your bollocks."

Merlin laughs, feeling rightfully exposed and warm, dropping his hands.

"Not really."

He bends to grab onto his folded clothes abandoned on the grassy bank, and lurches to straighten. Arthur's hand slides to cup over his bare flesh, over the curve of Merlin's hip, and it's foreign, cureless exhilaration riding Merlin.

It's the start of every fantasy, every desire screaming inside him to touch back, to give in.

Merlin shrinks away, breathing hard, his mouth clamping tight and his prick stirring to life.

He can't.

Arthur has the decency to look shameful, pulling his hand back, as if the warlock had been sprouting flames.

"I need to go," Merlin says hollowly, bumping into Arthur's side to escape this—and half-naked. He senses Arthur turn around, following.

"I'm sorry, Emrys—I shouldn't—"

That name. Merlin's jaw clenches. He needs to remember that it's Arthur, it's him, but it's… not him.

He loves Arthur.

But there's nothing to be done of it.

"S'not your fault," Merlin assures him, eyes suspiciously bright and witnessing as Arthur's expression becomes a mixture of thoroughly annoyed and worried. "I… uhm, you deserve someone who can give you what you need. And I wouldn't… wouldn't know how to do that."

"You're crying," Arthur says, plainly. He brushes a callous-feeling thumb gently against Merlin's wet, blotchy cheek. "What is it—what could someone like you be so afraid of?"

Merlin repeats, fainter, "I need to—"

"—go then." Arthur nods, seeming to steel himself. "Put back on your clothes, too."

It sounds like a command, fluttering Merlin's stomach, and he retreats into the woods. Sweat-tacky and gasping, struggling against more tears.

.

.

Alchemists search for the Elixir of Life, but Merlin remains as the one true immortal creature to roam this world.

He would have traded it for Arthur's life over, over and over, and right now as Ector hovers anxiously with him outside Arthur's room. Merlin can see the Druid physician check for Arthur's shallow, rasping breath, and the surface temperature of his porridge-hued complexion.

"The boy wears himself out too often. I fear his body grows weaker."

Merlin shoves down his magic's urge to push everyone out of the hut and cover Arthur, heal him.

"How long does this last?" he asks softly, Merlin's fingers digging into his reddish, torn scarf and pressing it against his lips.

"Several days. It worsens during the harshness of winter," Ector answers, and he does not appear enraged nor woeful by his son's condition. There's a sense of langour and defeat. "He was ill too often in his younger days."

The guilt overwhelms Merlin. He remembers.

He remembers leaving Arthur as a babe, a part of himself unwilling, and in the end being unable to return and save him. Fearing his death.

Merlin's not leaving him this time. Not for a damn thing.

.

.

Arthur

He's tired; he feels it to his very bones, but he must keep running. The men; the bandits, carrying swords and axes, are quick to track them.

The sheer heaviness of plated armour begins to weigh at him.

Arthur

Blood coats his gloves, and he hears a groan of pain. Craggy, moss-ripened rocks enclose them at all sides—but there's a sunny opening—

Arthur, come

A shuddering cough grips onto Arthur's lungs, forcing him awake and thrashing as he spits out mucus. He's lying in his cot, but not alone.

"Arthur, no. Come here." The man resting Arthur's head to his knees begins to smile. "Look at me, it was just a dream."

"Em-…"

"Yes, I'm right here. I'm not going anywhere." Emrys sweeps his palm over Arthur's rosy-hot forehead, pushing back his bangs. As kindhearted as the gesture was, Arthur needed to get up. He needed to—

"There was—" he groans, managing to roll over before his efforts are thwarted.

Emrys hushes him softly, his palm holding its weight to Arthur's damp brow. "What did you see?"

"I was carrying a man." Arthur feels himself edging near hysteria, but won't allow himself the plunge. "Badly wounded… we were being followed. I fought… there was a rock-slide that separated us. I left him behind where the other bandits were. I needed to find him, he was alone."

There's something Arthur can't pinpoint—an intense emotion in the brilliance of Emrys' eyes.

"That must have been terrifying."

Arthur breathes out, "Is he real?" When he doesn't receive an answer, his sweaty, clammy hands run over his face. "Then I failed him."

One of his hand pries away, clutched on by Emrys. The spaces of their fingers no longer yearning and empty. "Don't say that," he whispers, leaning right into Arthur's face, his beautiful smile wobbling. "You have never failed me…"

He has no idea what he means, but it's nice to hear—Arthur's own lips tug up into a bemused, sleepy half-grin.

.

.

The days grow shorter, crisper and bitter-stale like giant trickles of smoke off putrid wood.

Merlin knows the Druid camp isn't home. But home—Camelot—is dead and buried under ash. What was important now was that Arthur had a home, and that Merlin could protect him until he lived the full life he was meant to. Even if the motions were exhausting and numbing.

Even if Arthur never remembered who he was, who Merlin truly was—even if it was the wrong name passing Arthur's lips.

He shuffles around a gathering of Druid women huddling together, their cloak-hoods up, murmuring to each other. Merlin hoists the full water pail with both of his hands, chin wrenching up. He catches sight of a very familiar, golden-blond head.

"Merlin!"

The metal, dented pail tumbles from Merlin's reddened, frostbitten hands, spilling its contents. And he floods with dizzying warmth.

Arthur's laughter echoes, high-pitched and clear as day, and his arms swallow Merlin collapsing into him sobbing. He sobs, every part of Merlin visibly trembling, powerless to stop when Arthur's mouth presses dry, rough kisses to him, and when Merlin weakly kisses back.

.

.

"You got colic."

Arthur says, eyebrows furrowing in amusement, "Excuse me, I got colic?"

He peers at Merlin stretched out in front of him, cradled loosely against the front of Arthur's chest, their legs tangled up.

"Yes, and you were an awful thing. I thought you would cry until your lungs gave out. Finally got you to rest lying you on your belly against my heart." Merlin mimics the action, folding his hands on top of his sternum. "You liked that," he says fondly, tilting his head up.

It's quite relaxing, Arthur thinks. Having Merlin in close proximity on the blankets, his dark curls tickling under Arthur's stubbled chin.

"Was it meant to happen, Merlin?" he asks.

As if decoding the enigmatic nature of the sentence, Merlin stares outright, this time righting himself. His dove grey tunic wrinkling. "Were you meant to come back?" he offers, his pale face tensing in stubbornness. "I don't care any more. You're here, Arthur, and that's all that matters now."

"You haven't changed, have you?" Arthur's voice comes out low, soft. I don't want you to change.

Merlin's smile is all the goofy temperament he remembers so long ago.

"I said I wouldn't," he proclaims, jabbing Arthur in the gut rudely with two fingers. "You, however… I have never seen you so out-of-shape." Arthur's barely grown into his body of seventeen years, nearly skin and bones, and he wrestles Merlin down in retaliation.

He has missed—loved, needed—Merlin's smile.

.

.


MY VERY FIRST ENTRY FOR THE MERLIN MPREG FEST ON LJ! Oh gosh, I hope you all loved this as much I did write it. Any, any comments/questions would be so appreciated. A humongous thank you to hart_d on LJ for being my beta reader/Brit pick and for deheerkonijn for doing my art which you can view here on my AO3 fic: archive ofourown dot org slash works slash 2592335 and her post deheerkonijn dot tum blr dot com slash post slash 102238407130 slash whatever-it-takes-by-val-creative-over-several

Footnotes:

* Black Isle: Located in Cromartyshire, Scottish its name, it is not an island, but a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water – the Cromarty Firth to the north, the Beauly Firth to the south, and the Moray Firth to the east. Over 500 miles between it and Camelot.

* Edirdovar: Known as Redcastle. Located on the Black Isle.

* Indigo: A color that represents spirituality and tradition, as well as fanaticism and intolerance.

* "Gestathole. Thurhhwindle": "Cure. Make well."

* Uerturio: Far north of Albion, now in Scotland. It was said to be overrun by Picts.

* Picts: The native people of Uerturio and other nearby locations. Thought to have been savage and blood-thirsty warriors, and unfortunately with little record on their culture. During the 9th century in Scotland, they were beginning to be wiped out by the Vikings.

* Claudin: Character of Arthurian legend. (Son of Frankish King Claudas. Proved to be virtuous and unlike his father who was a schemer against Arthur. One of the most trusted of the court.)

* Grimoire of Honorius: A book of magic created by Honorius of Thebes at an unknown date. Said to have been the result of knowledge from a great deal of magicians and has 93 chapters.

* Joseph of Arimathea: First Keeper of the Holy Grail (and basing that on legend, I decided to make him Iseldir's heir since he was the Druid chieftain protecting the Cup of Life/Holy Grail).

* Accolon: In legend, he was Morgana le Fay's lover and fought against Arthur in battle (and using that, I figured he would make a nice betrayer of Merlin's trust).

* Northumbria: Far northern kingdom with unknown king. Currently where Merlin's hut is located with the Druid tribe he remains with. 300 miles between it and Camelot's kingdom.

* Beltane: May 1st. May Day. Celebrated as the beginning of summer, and often rituals were done to increase or promote fertility and/or sexual practices.

* Fertility rituals: Some of various religions believed mixing together and consuming menstrual blood, semen, or even urine would improve the chances of fertility. (I went with first two.) Red clover is one of the most effective fertility-enhancing herbs.

* 9th century: Current time-era.

* Dindrane: Character of Arthurian legend. Sister of Percival. (I use her Percival's ancestor-well, actually Sefa and Percival's bloodline together down the line.)

* Imbolc: February 1st. Marks the beginning of spring and celebrated as a time of purification. The goddess Brigid is thought to be a patron of midwives and would watch over pregnancies.

* {Spoken words}: Done in the mental link the Druids (magic or not) and Merlin share.

* Nyneve: Also known in Arthurian legend as Evienne, Elaine, or Vivian. According to some of the legends, she is the enchantress that trapped Merlin forever. Her intentions are never absolute, as there are many versions, but according to one-she binds Merlin as he falls asleep under a tree, bewitched inside a fairy ring, and he will remain there forever in time.

* The Dochraid: One of the few creatures left of the Old Religion. In the show, Morgana comes to her to receive the ancient coin that brings Lancelot back to the world of the living. Merlin also encounters her as Dragoon to seek out information to help Gwen enchanted under Morgana's control. The last we see of her is bleeding out green and sending word to Morgana of his plans.

* Lucan: Character of Arthurian Legend. He had been a loyal servant to King Arthur.

* Ector: Character of Arthurian Legend. In tellings, Merlin gave Arthur to him as a baby to raise.