An insistent knocking breaks through the warm, pleasant haze of sleep with staccato taps, and Arthur exhales harshly against the nape of Merlin's neck. "If someone is not dead or dying, they soon will be," he rumbles.
Merlin chortles and stretches luxuriantly against his king like some great, pleased cat, arched back and all. "Be nice."
"I am always nice," comes the dry reply as he gets to his feet, and a bright laugh follows him up. Rather than bother with trivialities like clothing, he snatches one of the blankets off their bedroll, earning a protesting whine from Merlin, and wraps it around himself like a Hellene deity, padding barefoot over to the door. Bright sunlight sets him blinking as he opens the door a fraction, squinting out and shivering unhappily at the invasion of cold air. "What is it?"
"Good afternoon," Mordred says cheerfully, then holds up a large plate heaped high with food. "I've brought provisions." He rakes his gaze up and down Arthur, smirk growing. "Nice hair."
Arthur snatches the plate away from him with his free hand, eyes narrowed in mock irritation. "Thank you. Now go away." Not wanting to risk losing the blanket, he kicks the door closed.
The Druid braces a hand on the door, keeping it open. "The elders would like to know when they may have the spirit house back."
"When we're done with it."
He doesn't move his hand from the door. "Also, Morgana's sent a raven for you. She says that if you are not home by the Yule, she will, and I quote, ride out to the camp, tie you to her horse, and drag you back to Camelot mother-naked," Mordred relays in that same damnably chipper voice, clearly delighting in being the bearer of this particular message.
Arthur presses his lips together to keep from grinning, though from the look of glee on the younger man's face, he fails. "Thank you, Mordred." This time, when he pushes the door shut, the Druid allows him to, shutting the cold winter air out once more. He shuffles back over to their bed, blinking to adjust his gaze to the dimness; the spirit house has no windows and is lit only by numerous golden-hued lightstones, not a hearth. "Did you hear all that?" he asks, carefully easing himself back down into the warm nest of blankets and furs, taking care not to spill the plate of food.
"Mm-hm. Mother-naked," Merlin chortles, sitting himself up and helping Arthur settle back into their bed. He takes the plate and begins picking it apart with eager fingers.
Arthur takes a slice of venison from the plate, leftover from last night's feast, and gropes about the furs for a moment, coming up with two lengths of thick red yarn, tangled about one another. "So, do we still need to keep these?" he queries, taking the end of one strand and tickling Merlin's ear with it, making him squeak and duck away. Usually, they would keep the yarn from their handfasting until they had their first child, at which point it would be used to tie off the birthing cord before it was cut, but given that they'll not actually have children, he's not certain what they'll be needed for.
"Yes, of course we do. It's bad luck to be rid of them." Merlin breaks off a piece of honeycomb and holds it up to Arthur's mouth, lashes fluttering slightly as Arthur's tongue curls around his fingertips. "So, my king, how did you enjoy a Druid handfasting?" he asks, slightly huskier than before.
"I quite enjoyed it," Arthur replies, nipping Merlin's fingertips between words.
He'd never been to a handfasting before, not as the Druids did. The ritual itself wasn't complicated, simply different from what he's used to; it been done outside, as was appropriate, on the shore of a frozen lake. Stone and sea and sky. The feast afterwards had followed no rules of ceremony he knew of, and if there'd been any kind of hierarchy to how things were served, he didn't see it. There'd been a great bonfire, wine and song abounding, enchantments cast around the camp to keep them warm despite the snow. He quite likes their dancing, quick and whirling without the numbered steps and polite exchange of partners he'd grown up with. There hadn't been any obligation for them to stay the length of the celebration, which meant Arthur had been able to hoist Merlin over his shoulder and carry him off to the spirit house in the middle of it, to the sound of much laughter and teasing jests.
"When should we go back?" Merlin queries softly, eyes drifting shut as Arthur begins to trail soft, nibbling kisses up the inside of his wrist and inner arm.
Arthur gives a deep rumble in his chest, tracing patterns across the delicate skin of Merlin's wrist with his tongue, feeling the quickening leap of blood. "We have until Yule. That's another five days. I say we make the most of them."
All Merlin can manage in reply is a breathless moan.
Fortunately for the king's dignity, Morgana doesn't have to have Arthur dragged back to Camelot by horse. They leave the Druid camp and return to the city before Yule, just in time to avoid the snowfall. Despite the winter chill, Merlin feels warm the entire ride home, the red yarn from their handfasting tucked safely into his saddlebag. He urges the Hellion forward, catching up with the rest of the party, and he's surprised to see Arthur engrossed in quiet, serious conversation with Iseldir of all people, the elder accompanying them back to Camelot, gaining earshot just in time to catch the tail end of the king's low words. "…wouldn't want to risk harm."
"Harm to what?" he asks.
Both heads turn towards him, silvered grey and shining gold beneath their hoods, and Arthur offers a perfectly cordial smile. "Nothing," he answers innocently.
Iseldir hides a laugh behind a cough.
Though winter is generally a quiet time of fallow inactivity, back in the city, Morgana goes at full tilt. She takes a deep and abiding interest in the planning of their wedding; both men are perfectly happy to let her have control of it. Arthur might do well in hosting feasts, but he's never done well in planning feasts, and Merlin harbours a dislike of the pageantry involved, not to mention being the centre of everyone's attention. Morgana, however, is in her element.
"You're my brother, of course I'm enjoying this," she laughs when Arthur makes mention of it, visiting her in her private study. "Not to mention I have leave to do whatever I wish."
"Just do try not to bankrupt the kingdom, alright?" he chortles.
She flutters her lashes in a parody of innocence, her tone perfectly sweet. "Me? Never. Hey!" She tweaks his ear when he leans forward, tilting his head to try and read the writing on the wax tablet in front of her. "No spying! Don't you have something better to do with your time?"
"Yes, yes, I'm going. Tell me, did you send those silver chains to the Druids as I asked you?" Arthur asks, rubbing his ear.
"Yes, I did." She arches one brow at him. "Now get out, I'm busy."
He gets to his feet and gives a low, sweeping bow from the waist. "As you command, my lady," he drawls, then jumps aside as she hurls a stylus at him with deadly accuracy. Laughing, he beats a hasty retreat from the study, closing the door behind him. The corridors are cold, and he tucks his hands under his arms as he makes his way down towards the physicians' chamber.
He isn't surprised to find the chamber empty. The invasion hadn't been kind to Gaius, especially since Agravaine had told Morgause of his relation to Merlin and the royal family, and he is no longer a young man. Arthur had granted his request for resignation, and of course, the only logical choice to replace him as Royal Physician is Hunith, who has been his apprentice and left hand since Arthur was a child. Gaius now lives in his own chamber here in the castle, and Hunith operates from the physician's chamber on her own, at least until she finds her own apprentice.
It isn't long until she returns, bundled up in warmest winter attire with her medicine bag over one shoulder. "Arthur," she says warmly, hanging up the bag on a hook beside the door. She's never addressed him by title except in Father's presence. "Is there something I can do for you?"
"No, I simply wanted to visit." Arthur helps her out of her cloak and goes to hang it beside the hearth so it can dry. "We've not had much time to speak to one another lately."
Hunith sits down and pulls off her boots, exchanging them for jacquard slippers. "No, we haven't. How goes the plans for the wedding?" she asks, smiling.
"Morgana won't tell me, but she's happy, so I take it to be going well. She wants to surprise us. And that is actually what I wanted to speak to you about." He sits down on one of the old stools, mindful of the way it wobbles. He feels unaccountably hesitant all of a sudden, as though he is a boy of ten again, twisting his ring on nervous habit; it is his mother's ring, the only one he wears for the moment. The other is currently being kept safe in a locked coffer in his chamber along with its pair, right alongside the carefully coiled pieces of red yarn from their handfasting.
A warm, rough hand smooths over his hair, drawing him out of his thoughts. Hunith smiles down at him, a knowing glimmer of humour in her eyes. "If you mean to ask whether or not I approve, you should very well know the answer already," she replies, amused. "I've always known you and Merlin would be something to one another, since you first met. Perhaps not quite like this, but I knew."
Arthur raises his brows. "We met when we were children," he points out.
"Indeed." The amusement deepens. "And you returned from that meeting with the stamp of my son's teeth in your arm."
Heat spills up his neck into his ears and cheeks. "I didn't know he was your son," he mutters, still feeling a twinge of old embarrassment. "Why didn't you ever tell me? When I was younger?"
Hunith is quiet a moment, thoughtful, and she draws out a chair proper and sits down as well. "At first, it was a matter of propriety. I didn't want to risk my place with Gaius. I imagined once he arrived in Camelot with Lionel, people would eventually find out on their own, I needn't make a declaration of it. I suppose I imagined you'd learn it for yourself eventually, as often as you were around Leon and Merlin. I would've answered your questions, if you had come to me." She gives him a curious glance. "When did you learn?"
Arthur shrugs one shoulder, not wanting to admit that he hadn't realised until months after Merlin had been made his manservant, and he had only realised it because he had heard Merlin address her as Mother. Gathering the folds of his fur-lined cloak under him, he moves from the stool, sits down on the floor beside her chair, and leans his head against her knee as though he is a boy again. Whenever he'd been visited with nightmares or simply couldn't sleep, he used to sneak past his guard to come sit in the physicians' chamber with Hunith. "You know, when I was a child, I used to wish I was your son," he says softly.
She strokes his hair with callused fingertips, smoothing it back from his brow. She's always done as such for him, handling him as though he is precious, not as a prince but just as himself, someone beloved to her. So few people have ever treated him thusly. "I suppose you will be now, in a way," she remarks, amusement colouring her tone. "And I have always loved you as such."
He nods, the fabric of her skirts scratching against his cheek. "Do you suppose Balinor ever would have come to like me?" he prompts.
Hunith chuckles softly, though now there is a tinge of old sorrow to it, scratching her nails gently against his scalp. "I believe so. He wasn't a man inclined to holding a grudge, not truly. If he had lived to see the man you have become…yes, I believe so." She bends down and presses her lips to the crown of his head, breath warm on his hair as she murmurs, "I am so very proud of you, sweet boy."
Arthur closes his eyes and smiles, the last of an unknown tension vanishing as smoke in a strong wind.
As long as the winter nights are, they pass swiftly. The longest night comes and goes. Merlin makes the wry observation that it is indeed warmer to spend Yule in the castle than in the garden. The nights begin to shorten, the days begin to warm. Spring comes to Camelot, and a fresh crop of young nobles arrives with it, eager to make their opening gambits in the game of courtship; no small number of them gaze after Merlin whenever he crosses their path, much to his chagrin. Planning for their wedding gets underway in earnest, pledges to attend streaming in from afar.
"Caerleon and Annis have both promised to attend," Arthur observes with amusement, sighing in relief as he settles himself into the bath, the water just this side of too-hot. "Rodor is still recuperating, so Princess Mithian will be coming in his stead."
A dry snort echoes out from behind the changing screen. "I imagine she'll enjoy this display of overt masculinity as much as I will."
He grins. "Ah, come now, lionheart, aren't you excited about the tourney?"
Merlin snorts as he emerges from behind the screen stripped down to his skin, crosses the chamber, and climbs into the bath, easing himself down into the hot water. The tub isn't quite large enough for two grown men, unless, of course, they are willing to be quite close to one another, which they are. "Oh, yes, of course. All I've ever wanted for my wedding is two days of sweaty men knocking the seven hells out of each other," he remarks, leaning back into Arthur's chest.
"It's tradition," Arthur laughs, sliding his arms around his sorcerer's waist. "My father did the same when he married my mother, and so did my grandfather. You said we could have a traditional Camelot wedding, and the tourney is part of it."
He chortles, tipping his head back to rest on the other man's shoulder. "I know, and I also know how much joy you get out of giving someone a thorough routing with a training sword." He flicks a bit of water at Arthur's face. "So you have your tourney, love."
The blond chuckles and kisses Merlin's wet hair, then reaches over and grabs a ball of soap from the stool placed beside the tub. Nudging Merlin forward a bit, he starts working a lather into his consort's dark curls, using his fingertips to keep it from tangling too badly; Merlin leans back into the ministrations happily, a purring hum starting up in his throat. "You know, Morgana used to have a cat that got this same look about it when she pet it," he teases, sputtering as water splashes in his face, then tugs on a clump of damp hair in retaliation.
Merlin squawks, turning his head with a teasing glare on his face. "Keep that up, and I shan't wash your back for you."
Chortling, he kisses one of the little creases in the corner of Merlin's grin, then rakes his gaze over his soon-to-be consort. "I always thought you hated feasts. There's still time. We can tell Morgana to keep it tame," he offers hesitantly, uncertain.
Water laps at the edges of the tub, sloshing over onto the floor as the sorcerer twists around. His legs settle to either side of Arthur's hips, braced against the side of the tub. "I didn't hate the feasts," he corrects. "Before now, though, all I ever did at the feast was stand against the wall and make sure no one's cup ran dry, and all I ever got to eat of all that delicious food was whatever scraps were left before the dogs got their share. Not exactly an enjoyable way to spend a night," he points out, raising his brows. "And I don't like everyone always…looking at me. Old habits, I'm afraid. I can get past it. I imagine I'll have to. And why shouldn't we make a fuss?"
"I suppose." Cupping both hands in the water, he starts rinsing the lather from Merlin's hair, smiling at the way he squeezes his eyes shut against the soapy water like a child.
"Good." A certain, familiar slyness creeps into Merlin's grin, and he reaches out to take the ball of soap in hand, working up a lather. "Now turn around. I'll wash your back."
The tourney is indeed a grand event, with knights from several kingdoms partaking of it. Split between two days, there are three main events: archery, jousting, and melee. Bellegere, freshly returned from Snowgate, competes the first day. There are different categories—longbow, shortbow, moving target, on foot, and from horseback. A year ago, a great many would have been incensed and embittered at being bested by a young girl, but that had been before. Now she isn't merely a girl, she is the Lady of Snowgate, last scion of the House du Bois, slayer of Southrons.
Merlin finds it an almost surreal experience, to sit up in the high box instead of with the rest of the crowds, wearing the fine new clothes Guinevere and Morgana had conspired to make for him—a tunic of deep blue, dark-dyed trousers, a belt tooled with silver, and his favourite, a black coat that's fashioned after the Eastern style, with silver fastenings up the front and a high collar. They'd found the pattern for it in one of the old books about the Dragonlords brought to Merlin.
"Are you enjoying your tourney so far?" Annis asks from her seat beside him, amused.
He offers her a wry smile. "Yes, insofar as Arthur is enjoying himself, and I enjoy seeing him happy," he answers.
She chuckles at that, watching as one of her sons tilts against Leon, applauding as the horses thunder past their box. "Men," she laughs. "One of nature's most delicate creations. One must always have a care in their handling."
Merlin cheers loudly as Leon unseats the other man, rising to his feet and going to the railing to accept the beribboned token offered to him, one of the many he'd been given today. Leon grins and salutes him with the lance, heeling his horse back to the end of the pitch. He retakes his seat, twisting the ribbons between his fingers. "I'm surprised you came," he points out.
"Oh? Why? I like the young Pendragon, far more than I ever liked his father. And I like you," Annis replies.
"Your husband doesn't like either of us."
She outright laughs at that. "Oh, Caerleon. I have been his wife for a great many years now, and I can tell you that he does. In his way, he does. He simply has a…different way of expressing it," she replies with raised brows, nodding towards the side of the tourney pitch where the knights are arming themselves for the upcoming melee.
Merlin laughs so hard he nearly drops the tokens.
The next day, he doesn't see Arthur at all and shan't until the ceremony, both of them similarly sequestered to be fussed over in preparation. He is attended by Guinevere, which means that Morgana will be looking after Arthur, ensuring everything goes to plan. Having never been fussed over in his life, he wonders how it is anyone gets anything done on the day of their wedding.
"You aren't supposed to do anything, that's the point," Gwen laughs as she helps him into his new coat, stepping around to do up the fastenings with the deftness of a longtime servant, swatting aside his hands when he attempts to do it himself. The rich fabric still feels strange against his skin, an unfamiliar luxury; he imagines it's one of many things he'll have to get used to. Understanding submission to be the better part of valour here, he stands still and allows her to fuss over the lay of the fabric, the state of his hair. She pauses in her adjustments when a knock sounds at the door. "Do not move," she orders firmly.
"As my lady commands."
An unimpressed glare is levelled his way. She opens the door with utmost care, as though expecting marauding Southrons to be waiting on the other side, but then she grins and opens the door wider with a warm greeting. "Leon."
"Gwen." He folds her in a gentle one-armed embrace, chin resting atop her curly head for a moment. As First Knight, usually he would be in his chainmail and red cloak, ceremonial sword at his hip. Today, however, he isn't First Knight; he is Merlin's brother first today, attired in the deep green and russet colours of Silverpine. Affection is writ across his every expression, eyes warm and even somewhat damp. "Look at you," he murmurs.
Risking Gwen's wrath with movement, Merlin steps forward and takes hold of his brother's hands. "No one has ever had a better brother," he replies. "I owe so much to you. To everyone."
"All I have ever wanted for you is your freedom and happiness, little villain," Leon says softly. Drawing his hands free, he folds his arms around Merlin, embracing him briefly yet tightly, squeezing him hard. "I am so very proud of you." His voice is low and thick with emotion. Lowering his arms, he takes a step back and rakes his gaze over Merlin once more, smiling. With a soft laugh, he shakes his head with faint disbelief, then straightens up and proffers his arm. "It's time."
Gwen leans up to kiss his cheek. "I'll see you in a moment," she murmurs, leaving the room.
Once her footsteps fade down the corridor, Merlin inhales a deep breath and lets it out slowly. There's a great fluttering in his chest, as though some warm, silken bird is caged within his ribs. It calls to mind the feeling he had when he first began to realise that what he felt for Arthur went beyond a friend's affection, what seems to be a lifetime ago. Maiden's mercy, they'd been so young. Never once would he have ever imagined they would come to this point.
"Merlin?" Leon says softly.
Raising his gaze to the face of his brother, he smiles and curls his hand around Leon's arm, a warm, solid anchor. "I'm ready."
What happens next seems to occur in a golden haze, like unto some wonderous and impossible dream. When they enter the throne room, Merlin cannot say what colour Morgana's gown is, nor can he name any of the faces amid the crowds, though he knows they are all beloved, friends and allies and family in blood and in heart. He can see Arthur at the far end, standing on the dais, bright and golden and beautiful, the touchstone of his heart.
When they reach the dais, he releases Leon's arm and reaches out to take hold of Arthur's extended hand, rough and warm, fingers squeezing gently around his own. Geoffrey of Monmouth stands before them, filling the air with the familiar, dry creak of his words; distantly, he hears his own voice making the appropriate replies, making his vows, Arthur's saying them in turn. When the callused fingers squeeze gently around his, he kneels obediently, head bowed, knowing what comes next.
A bright susurrus of murmuring brings his gaze up, peering through his lashes, and his breath catches faintly in his throat.
Held between Arthur's raised hands is a coronet of purest silver, Druid-crafted in the old style, the likeness of dragons wrought in its elegant lines. When he lowers it to Merlin's head, the metal is cool. The weight of it is unfamiliar and solid in its presence, a reminder that with it comes the responsibility of a kingdom, a people, a way of life; he rises to his feet carefully, adjusting himself to it.
Arthur clasps Merlin's hand tightly with his own, raising his, and when he speaks, his voice rings clear and strong, echoing from the rafters: "Merlin, Prince Consort of Camelot!"
Three months of sharing a bed every night, Arthur is very nearly used to the constant warm presence of another body beside him stretching and turning in sleep, the occasional dreaming kick. Which is why he is rightly alarmed when he wakes up to Merlin leaning over him and shaking his shoulder, whispering his name with urgency. "What? What is it?" he asks groggily, mind hastily clearing as he turns over, scrubbing a hand over his eyes. For a split second, he's certain something must be wrong, given the way Merlin is trembling beside him, but then he notices the way his consort is grinning, kicking away the blankets and rolling out of the bed. The candles flicker to life, illuminating him as he pulls on his trousers. "Merlin? What is it?" he repeats.
"Get up, Arthur. It's time," he whispers, his voice quivering with excitement.
"Time? For what?" He glances towards the window. The moon's at its highest, full and bright; dawn is easily hours away.
Merlin doesn't answer him, drawing his nightshirt on and crossing the chamber to the far wall. "Onhlídan," he whispers. With a low rumble of stone, the hidden door slides open, and Merlin vanishes into the darkness beyond.
Understanding dawns. Arthur tosses back the sheets and quickly draws on his trousers as well, finding his nightshirt just as his consort reemerges from the secret chamber, cradling the soft blue dragon egg in both arms. "Now? Are you certain?" he asks softly, hastening over. To his surprise, when he comes near, he can feel heat coming off the egg; he reaches out to touch it with tentative fingers. The shell is smooth and unmarked, just this side of being too hot to touch. It's then he notices that Merlin is wearing Balinor's signet ring on his right hand, the engraved dragon-head triskele just visible in the candleglow.
"I dreamt of him. Father," Merlin murmurs softly, his eyes bright. "Come on. It needs to be done outside." Cradling the egg in the crook of one arm, he reaches out to take Arthur's hand in his own. Magic spills across his skin, warm and tingling, and the world takes on a faint shimmering brightness. When they walk out of the chamber into the corridor, none of the guards turn to look at them, and he realises that Merlin's cast a glamour over them, rendering them unseen and unheard. He cannot imagine how they would look, the King of Camelot and his consort wandering barefoot about the castle in their nightclothes.
Arthur isn't at all surprised when Merlin leads him not to the Darkling Wood or to the standing stones, but out to the small clearing where they first began sparring with one another, the world painted in hues of silver and grey in the moonlight. Merlin leads him out to the middle of the clearing, dropping Arthur's hand and kneeling down in the soft grass. He sets the egg down gently in the grass in front of him, balancing it upright.
"What happens now?" Arthur asks in a hushed voice, aware of how important this must be.
"The Great Dragons are called into life by dragonlords. I will have to give it a name," Merlin replies. He sits back on his heels, hands resting on his thighs as he gazes at the egg, a pearlescent blue-white in the moonlight, the smooth shell almost glowing, and they both sit in silence, the time stretching on soft and unhurried. In the distance an owl hoots softly; insects hum their nightly song. Despite the late hour, Arthur doesn't feel at all weary, actually quite languid, resting his chin on one knee and curling his toes against the dew-damp grass as he waits.
At last, Merlin takes in a deep breath, straightening up slightly; Arthur raises his head from his knee. Leaning forward, he exhales a single word. "Aithusa."
His voice emerges deep and resonant with a power that Arthur can feel run down his spine like a flick through a rope, his stomach clenching and pulse jumping in response to it. The name almost seems to hang in the air for a moment, the last trembling hum of a bell-toll…and then a soft tapping noise begins, the egg trembling with it.
A white hairline crack appears in the shell, spiderwebbing outwards. Merlin's hand reaches out blindly, and Arthur takes it with his own, squeezing tight.
A chip the size of his thumbnail falls free of the egg, the tip of a small snout appearing. His heart hammers against his ribs so hard he's certain his bones will crack for strain.
The dragonet pushes its head free; the egg shudders, wobbling as it stretches towards the open air, small claws grasping at the edges of the shell. Unexpected tears prickle at his eyes, blurring his vision, and he swipes them away with a weak laugh. Beside him, Merlin makes a similar sound of awe and wonder, laughing aloud.
"Look at that," Arthur whispers as the dragonet finally comes free of the egg entirely, wobbling on unsteady baby legs before righting itself. Blue eyes move from Merlin to Arthur and back again, blinking widely. Under the pale spill of moonlight, the dragonet almost seems to glow, luminous as a pearl. "Are they always all white like that?" he asks.
"No," Merlin replies with a watery giggle. "A white dragon is rare as anything." He squeezes Arthur's hand again, smiling. "No dragon birth is without meaning, you know."
Arthur reaches up to curl his hand around the nape of Merlin's neck, smiling. "I think I know what this one means," he murmurs.
As he pulls Merlin into a kiss, the dragonet sits up on its haunches, diaphanous wings unfolding, and for the first time a quarter century, the air comes alive with the music of dragons.