The Life and Loves of a Pendragon
He was unable to say when the whispers first started. He only noticed the voice and the faintest flicker of life in their bond, on the edge of waking a full month after Merlin had disappeared.
It spoke so softly and seemed so far away.
Sleepily he reached for his missing companion.
Sitting up, in the faint light of dawn, he could see the pillows and bedcovers on the other side of the bed were pristine. He closed his eyes, thinking his mind was playing tricks on him. For a few minutes he lay back down, a lonely tear leaking from the side of his eye and running into his hair at the temple. Irritably he scrubbed it away and got out of bed. Splashing cold water from the jug into the bowl he sluiced his face then swilled his mouth, spitting into the bowl before picking up the split twig which he used to clean his teeth. He wandered restlessly around the bedchamber as he rubbed the green wood across his teeth returning to the bowl for a final rinse.
He stared sightlessly into the mirror on the wall, not seeing the lines around his eyes or the grey in his hair which was turning the blonde temporarily brighter.
"Arthur, help me!"
The voice sounded so close to his ear he turned around thinking Merlin was standing behind him.
"Where are you?" Arthur shouted, his voice bringing the palace guard running into his bed chamber.
"Sire?" the man asked, his sword half drawn and looking wildly around the room for any possible intruders.
The king ignored him.
"Merlin?" he said again.
The guard looked curiously at his king.
"Merlin is still missing, Sire," he replied. After looking at the king's pale face and staring eyes, he asked, "Shall I fetch the court physician, my lord?"
"What? No!" Arthur said, seeing the man for the first time. "Why are you here?"
"I heard you calling, Sire."
"I'm fine, I'm fine."
The guard cast one more glance at him then bowed and returned to his post outside the door of the king's apartments. He sighed at the his post. The loss of the king's counsellor was beginning to disturb his mind.
Arthur dressed and sat on the edge of his bed, saying quietly, "Merlin, can you hear me?"
The whisper was fainter his time, the emotions he was used to feeling from Merlin, fainter still.
"I can hear you."
"Where are you? Can you tell me?"
Arthur waited for a long time hoping that Merlin would be able to tell him where he was. His reply was an exhausted silence, as their bond died back into complete silence once again.
Arthur couldn't really concentrate on court business for the rest of the day. Rumours of Mordred raising an army in the North remained just that, rumours. None of the teams Arthur had sent could find any sign of a body of men heading towards Camelot.
He listened to three envoys each asking for leave to bring trade delegations into Camelot, to which he graciously agreed.
At the end of the afternoon he had a headache so he dismissed the court, ordered his horse to be brought to him and rode out alone, much to the consternation of his company of knights.
He rode hard to clear his mind and tire his body. Part of him hoping that in sleep he would be able to contact Merlin again, or, failing that, he hoped to dream of him again, as he'd done two nights past. Then he had dreamt of the first time Merlin had shared his bed, very soon after Nimueh had poisoned him with the mortius flower.
Merlin struggled to rise to his feet. He felt dizzy and faint; although he'd gone to bed feeling reasonably well. It was possible that the last of the mortius flower poison was still in his system. The dizziness passed quite quickly allowing him to dress and be ready to face the day by the time Gaius has called him for the third time.
"Are you sure you're feeling well enough to work?" Gaius asked, yet again.
"I'll be fine, Gaius. Arthur will be getting a new servant if I stay away."
"I think that highly unlikely," the older man replied.
Merlin flashed him a cheeky smile hoping to put Gaius off noticing how little he was eating.
It didn't escape Gaius' notice and he didn't like Merlin's pallor but he forbore saying anything. Merlin was old enough to make his own decisions and to stand by them.
Soon enough Merlin put his jacket on and left the physician's chambers. Prince Arthur's apartments were no great distance away but Merlin had to stop and rest twice on the way, each time it felt as if it took longer and longer to recover enough to go on. On the way he collected some food from the kitchens for Arthur's breakfast. Balancing the tray precariously he pushed open the door to the Prince's apartments and went in, setting the tray down at the table just as Arthur emerged from his bedchamber.
"Hi. I brought your breakfast."
Arthur peered at his manservant.
"How are you feeling? You don't look very well."
"No, I'm fine. A little dizzy maybe, but I'm fine," Merlin replied, smiling and stepping away from the table towards the fireplace.
Arthur darted forward as Merlin's eyes rolled up in his head and he began to crumple.
"Of course you are," Arthur said, lifting the unconscious young man and carrying him into his own bedchamber where he laid him on the bed.
Arthur touched Merlin's alarmingly pale brow and cheeks. He felt hot to the touch as well.
"You young fool, you didn't have to come to work today," he said softly.
Striding to the door he hailed a passing servant requesting water, a cloth and for a message to be sent to Gaius.
Arthur had taken Merlin's jacket, shirt and shoes off and was wiping his face with the wet cloth when Gaius arrived.
"What on earth was he thinking of, coming into work like this?" Arthur exclaimed as soon as he laid eyes on Gaius.
"He thought he'd be letting you down if he didn't," Gaius replied. "What happened?"
"He was pale when he came in, said he felt fine then passed out at my feet."
"Did he hit his head?"
"No, I caught him before he hit the ground."
"Has he awoken?"
Arthur shook his head.
Gaius examined Merlin briefly before saying,
"The poison will take a little time to purge from his body."
"So this is nothing more than the after effects?"
"I believe so. I'll find someone to help me get him back to his own bed."
"He can stay there, Gaius. If all he needs is rest."
"As you wish," Gaius replied, a little surprised.
"Gaius?" Merlin whispered.
"Is it time to get up?"
Gaius looked at Arthur who shook his head.
"Not yet Merlin. Go back to sleep," Gaius said soothingly.
Merlin turned his head away, his eyes closing immediately.
Gaius adjusted the bedclothes then followed Arthur into the other room.
Arthur didn't waste time on pleasantries.
"Does he need more of the antidote?"
"No. His body just needs to repair itself from the damage the poison caused. Rest and fluids will do that."
Arthur nodded. "I'll see that he's not disturbed."
Gaius took that for the dismissal it was.
"I'll send over a cleansing tonic for him," he said as he was leaving.
He smiled inwardly at the young Prince's concern, barely concealed. Arthur was changing, slowly, subtly. Gaius wondered if the Prince realised how much change his servant was bringing about.
Gaius sent along two draughts with instructions. One, the promised tonic, the other a sleeping draught, if it were needed. Gwen left both on the table for when Arthur returned from practise.
"He's slept all the time," she said, when Arthur came straight to the bedchamber.
"He hasn't woke at all?"
"Thank you Gwen. Lady Morgana will be needing you."
Gwen nodded and with one last look at Merlin she left.
The Prince washed quickly in cold water – something he disliked doing – just so Merlin wouldn't awaken alone. He'd already given orders for food to be sent to his rooms as well as sending a message to his father saying he would be dining privately that evening. His father generally considered this a euphemism for his having an evening of debauchery with his latest paramour. He grinned mirthlessly as he imagined the expression on his father's face should he see not a lovely woman or comely youth in his bed but his manservant, Merlin.
As it turned out Arthur needn't have rushed. He'd finished eating and settled in a chair beside the bed reading an extremely boring book before he noticed Merlin looking at him with a puzzled expression.
"Finally!" Arthur said.
Merlin's eyes were traversing the chamber from the roaring fire in the hearth to the expensive hangings around the bed.
"What am I doing here?"
"You brought me my breakfast then fainted at my feet like some delicate flower of womanhood."
Merlin curled his lips in distaste at the image of himself as a female.
"Are you hungry? Gaius says you must at least drink."
Merlin shrugged and made to get out of bed. Arthur placed a hand against his chest, pressing him gently back into the pillows.
"Stay where you are. I'll bring it."
Merlin looked after Arthur's retreating back. He was no stranger to the long line of lovelies he'd seen exiting the Prince's rooms early in the morning but he didn't really think he was Arthur's usual type. Arthur liked his bed partners good looking, very willing and not too bright. Merlin had overheard him saying, "I don't go to bed to talk."
Arthur returned with a tray. He helped Merlin sit up and put the tray on the table at his side. Then he put together a plate of meat, cheese and fruit, lastly pouring a goblet of wine and water.
Merlin drank thirstily then asked for more.
Arthur took some wine himself and talked to Merlin who did his best with the food. Arthur could be very entertaining when he put himself out.
Merlin listened appreciatively to Arthur's sharp tongue and wickedly accurate comments about various members of the court. Arthur handed over the sleeping draught and Merlin was so engrossed he took it without demure. He did shiver at the taste though. When Merlin began to nod off over his drink Arthur took it from him before the wine spilled.
Merlin woke with a start.
"Sorry," he said sleepily. He looked up at the blonde's smiling face and asked, "Did you want to ….,"he gestured at himself in the bed.
Arthur laughed, but not unkindly.
"I have a silly personal preference for my bed mates being awake and capable. You're neither at the moment. Your virtue is safe."
He helped Merlin move down to a more comfortable position and pulled the sheet up. He watched as Merlin rapidly lost the battle with the sleeping draught.
"Goodnight Merlin," he said quietly.
Merlin opened his eyes to a slightly chilly room, sun streaming in through the high windows and a warm weight plastered against his back. A warm, strong arm was holding him close too. He smiled as he turned in the circle of arms. Who knew Arthur liked to cuddle?
A pair of sleepy blue eyes looked into his.
"How are you feeling?" Arthur asked, his early morning voice rather croaky.
"Good." Arthur cleared his throat slightly.
Merlin tried to slide away but Arthur's arms tightened around him.
"I need to go!"
Arthur grunted and let him go. The sound of water falling into the slop bucket had Arthur saying,
"Hurry up Merlin!"
As a shivering Merlin returned he pulled him back under the blankets then got up to relieve himself. Scant minutes later he was back. Merlin was still shivering.
"You're too thin," Arthur complained, feeling bones very near the surface of his companion's skin. "And cold."
"Warm me up then," Merlin replied between chattering teeth.
"I don't think you've quite grasped this relationship, Merlin. I give the orders, you obey them."
Nevertheless, Arthur was holding Merlin close and rubbing his skin briskly.
Merlin didn't even deign to reply. He put his face up to Arthur and smiled brightly.
Arthur leaned down and kissed his lips, pulling back slightly to gauge the effect.
"You've stopped," Merlin observed, opening one eye.
"Very," Merlin said as he pulled Arthur's hips hard against his own and watched the Prince take a deep breath, lust flaring in the depths of his eyes.
A little while later both men lay side by side, chests heaving and sweat beading brows, cheeks and bodies.
"Warm enough now?" Arthur asked.
"Oh yes!" Merlin replied.
Both turned to look at the other then started laughing, rolling towards each other. They ended kissing in a lazy contented fashion. Arthur's hand ghosted down Merlin's body, resting on the cheeks of his bum, which he stroked suggestively. Merlin pulled away.
"No," he said firmly.
"Mmm, don't know what you're missing," Arthur replied exploring Merlin's neck with his lips.
"How would you know?"
"How do you think I know?"
Merlin's eyes opened wide in surprise.
"You've been mounted?"
"Hmmm. A few times," Arthur shrugged.
"You liked it?" Merlin persisted.
Arthur sighed and looked at the younger man.
"First time, not so much but after that…" He smiled widely, eyes sparkling.
Merlin was amazed, his surprise making his concentration less than satisfactory, in Arthur's opinion, so he took him in hand, a firm hand, until Merlin reciprocated.
They dozed quietly, heads close together for a while afterwards until voices from the courtyard below awakened Arthur.
"Hell! They're assembling for practise."
He shot out of one side of the bed whilst Merlin got out of the other side.
"Are you alright?" Arthur asked rather belatedly.
"More than alright," Merlin assured him, his cheeky smile back in place.
"Find some hot water then, we both reek!"
Merlin rolled his eyes but went off to do his bidding.
Arthur smiled into the growing gloom and let the sharp wind dry the tears of longing on his face. That first time they had been just slaking a thirst. Some affection but not the deeper bond they had come to share. That hadn't happened until almost a year later. He could remember the way the bond had suddenly flared into life between them even though that had taken place over fifteen years ago.
The months after that first time saw Merlin go from being an occasional visitor in the Prince's bed, to the most frequent occupant, to the only other occupant, apart from Arthur himself.
One other person knew, for sure, how intimate their relationship had become and that was Gaius; Merlin only returned to his old room to change his clothes. Gaius wasn't about to shout it from the rooftops and other than a muttered admonition to, "Be careful," he said nothing more about it.
After Arthur's admission that he was no stranger to being mounted he had noticed Merlin's hands wandering in that direction plus he'd surprised several brooding looks his lover was directing at his rear end but he'd said and done nothing, knowing Merlin would never go beyond what bounds of what he considered propriety.
Arthur returned from a particularly arduous patrol which had seen two minor skirmishes and several wet, cold days camped in the field with knights and the patrol soldiers.
He made his report to Uther. Uther poured his son wine and bade him sit whilst he asked a great many questions. Finally he released the weary young man to go to his own quarters where Merlin met him, ushering him inside and firmly closing the door. He divested Arthur of the rest of his armour then turned to lead him into the bedchamber.
"Merlin, I would love to oblige but I'm far too tired for that," he sighed.
"Far too tired for a nice hot bath in front of the fire followed by a massage?"
"Hot bath?" Arthur asked, looking as if he'd received a glimpse of the Promised Land.
"And a massage," Merlin added.
"In that case you can have my body later."
He pulled Merlin close and kissed him, resting his forehead against Merlin's, his eyes closed. Neither said anything but both knew the other had been missed.
"Go on," Merlin said, giving him a little push.
Arthur dropped his clothes in a heap by the bath and then got in, moaning with pleasure as he lowered his bruised and battered body into the hot, herb scented, water.
Merlin busied himself collecting up the dirty clothing and putting it aside then mixing oils and herb essences into a bowl, leaving it to warm by the fire. Lastly, he picked up a small, cloth wrapped, bundle of soapweed. Soaking it in the water he scrubbed Arthur until the water was murky and cool. Laying Arthur down on the bed, on the cloths he'd used to pat his skin dry, Merlin dipped his hands into the oil and began to massage the hard, toned body; working knots from tense muscles whilst gentling his hands over bruises and cuts. He turned Arthur onto his front and dribbled warm oil from shoulder to buttocks, his touch, at first, firm and professional, as Gaius had taught him. The lower down Arthur's back he went the more unsure he became. His hands registered Arthur's change in position before his brain did. Arthur was looking at him over his shoulder.
Boldly Merlin feather stroked a finger along his dark cleft. Arthur's reply was to move his legs further apart and remark mildly,
"You'll need much more oil than that, preferably without the herbs too."
There was a pause of a few seconds before Merlin said,
"I thought you were too tired."
Closing his eyes again Arthur rested his head on his folded arms.
"You'll be doing all the work; once you take your clothes off," he added.
He waited, already very well attuned to Merlin's body language. He'd expected a mad scramble as Merlin shed layers, instead he was surprised when Merlin stretched out at his side.
Arthur turned his head and opened his eyes. Two bright spots of colour burned high on Merlin's cheeks.
"It's an offer if you want to, you don't have to," Arthur said gently, reaching out and stroking Merlin's face.
Merlin, looking preoccupied licked and then sucked a finger into his mouth, running his tongue around the digit. Watching that talented mouth at work hypnotised Arthur until Merlin released his finger and then kissed it before saying, quietly,
"I want to, I've wanted to for a long time, but…"
"I'm not really sure what to do and Gaius says two men doing this can hurt each other badly. I don't want to hurt you."
Arthur smiled before kissing Merlin soundly.
"I'm a knight, I disregard pain."
When Merlin opened his mouth to protest Arthur laid his fingers across his lips.
"Don't worry, I wasn't planning on letting you fuck me without instruction."
Merlin smiled and kissed the fingers against his lips. Seeing the look in Arthur's eyes he again sucked a finger in, wrapping his lips tight and hollowing his cheeks.
"Although if you want to take the edge off first.." Arthur said breathlessly.
Merlin looked up from under his eyelashes then released the finger with a slurping noise.
"Your wish is my command!"
Arthur smiled as he let Merlin arrange his body as he wanted. Both knew the servant/master dynamic on this relationship changed on a daily basis although they kept the pretence up in public.
Sliding down his body, Merlin applied himself to the task. A task he really enjoyed and he was a very apt pupil to Arthur's teaching.
"More oil, and move your fingers, like this."
Arthur demonstrated a scissor motion, which Merlin faithfully copied. Arthur stretched his spine, almost purring.
"Another finger, Merlin," he whispered, drunk on sensation and still high from his recent orgasm. He moaned low in his throat as Merlin added another finger and more oil.
"This feels pleasant?" Merlin questioned, trying to make sure Arthur was enjoying rather than just enduring.
"Oh yes!" he confirmed.
Merlin kept up the movement, his fingers twisting a little in the tight passage. He felt a bump through the walls of the passage, his fingers curiously gliding over it. Arthur yelped, quickly stifling the sound by burying his head in the pillow.
"Arthur! Arthur are you alright," Merlin asked, worried.
"God, yes! Don't stop!"
"What did I touch?"
"That's what makes this so good, try to keep touching it when you're inside me."
Inside. Merlin nearly spilled himself at the thought.
"Now Merlin, now!"
Arthur sounded so out of control and wild with want. Merlin had rarely seen his lover so totally unrestrained and vocal. Hastily he oiled himself, taking a deep breath he pushed forward, passed the resistant outer muscle then he popped through the ring into the tight, smooth passage beyond. The feeling was indescribable, like being held in a snug, velvet glove; warm, tight and full of heart pounding excitement.
Merlin's mind may have been hazy on the specifics but his body knew what to do and took over, his hips picking up the rhythm Arthur was setting and very quickly going out of his mind with lust; affection; love; complete desire holding him in a prison of feeling; thoughts and logical processing burned away in the crucible of this act of love, leaving behind only primal, sensual, sensation.
His body convulsed, seed flowing from him waves. Throwing his head back Merlin howled his pleasure to the heavens, his vision greying out and memory failing.
Awareness returned in stages. The warmth of the room; the breathing of the body under his cheek; silken touch of skin against his own; an arm holding him and a snuffling snore from above him.
He lifted his head, already knowing, without really thinking about how, that Arthur was so deeply asleep he wasn't even dreaming. Which was a good thing when his eye fell on vivid ribbons of colours chasing themselves all over the ceiling; starbursts and random explosions of light erupting between the ribbons. Hastily he dismissed the accidental spell.
He smiled at the relaxed look and boneless sprawl of the Prince. Still smiling he lay back down and slept until early morning light filtered in through the windows and woke him. He crept, shivering slightly, to the hearth in order to rebuild the fire. The wood caught from smouldering embers. He piled more fuel on then relieved himself in the slop bucket, there for the purpose, and crept back to bed, trying not to wake Arthur.
He felt wonderful; relaxed, happy and wrapped in a feeling as light, warm and secure as the finest woollen blanket.
Arthur obligingly wrapped the iceberg in his bed with his body warmth but didn't really wake for some minutes, by which point Merlin was dozing again.
Immediately Arthur's head turned to look at the ceiling then he sat up quickly. Merlin muttered and huddled down.
"Merlin, Merlin did you see that?"
"The lights on the ceiling. It was amazing, incredible!"
Sleepily wondering what Arthur was talking about he remembered his unintentional spell of the evening before. He plastered a smile on his face, his blue eyes sparkling at being handed such a good line.
"I knew I was good!"
A sourness threaded through the warm feeling, dispelling both men's smiles. Arthur felt the change and Merlin felt it feeding back to him. He sat up, moving away from Arthur.
Arthur was looking quizzically at his lover.
"Did you just lie to me somehow?" he asked.
Merlin was about to automatically deny it when the sourness grew stronger. The feeling was strong enough t be almost a physical smell, like finding a cup of three day old milk.
"Yes, I did."
The sourness abated. Discordant confusion echoed instead.
Immediately an acrid stench of fear overlaid with slimy, yellow tones of guilt had Merlin leaping out of bed in an effort to put as much distance between himself and Arthur as possible.
Arthur had recoiled from the emotions ricocheting between them. This time the confusion was stronger, jangling like cracked bells, making Arthur wince.
In a sudden moment of insight he knew he was experiencing Merlin's emotions as well as his own.
"Merlin, calm down!" he ordered sharply.
Arthur had little trouble suppressing his emotions. He'd been trained to do this all his life, in preparation for battle and for ruling the kingdom.
"Is it always like this afterwards? Why didn't you warm me?" Merlin pleaded.
"Believe me, it's never been like this afterwards, ever," Arthur replied, with feeling. "Come and sit down." He motioned for Merlin to join him on the bed. Merlin shook his head. Tears filling his eyes at the same time as Arthur was hit by a tsunami of heart felt sorrow, waves of longing followed by an upsurge of protectiveness. This last made Arthur smile.
"You, look after me?"
A hot spark of anger burned. Images, most too fleeting to see properly, bounced between then. Two images did remain; Mary Collins launching the knife towards him, Merlin knocking him out of the way and the ball of light guiding him from the caves before the spiders caught him, after Arthur had secured the mortius flower.
"That was you?" Arthur was incredulous.
Merlin ignored the amazement. He knew he'd failed. He couldn't protect Arthur if he was dead and he would be executed as soon as Arthur had reported his magical abilities to Uther. Arthur would have him arrested and Uther would have him executed. He just hoped that Uther would agree to the quick way, a beheading, rather than a long, slow, painful burning to death.
Arthur felt the fear of death and reacted.
"I would never hurt you. I thought you knew me better than that."
"Not you. Your father."
"You have little choice, you're the Crown Prince of Camelot. Magic is forbidden here."
"I'm still having trouble coming to terms with you saving my life at least twice. Where did you study magic?"
"I didn't, really. I've always been able to do it."
"Show me," Arthur said.
"Give me an example of what you can do?"
His heart heavy, Merlin muttered and the room began to tidy itself; the bed made itself. Arthur's discarded clothes hung themselves in the wardrobe, the slop bucket contents disappeared, the bucket becoming clean and sweet smelling. Arthur's eyes were threatening to leave his head.
All the time the spell was in action, Merlin was dressing himself. He had no intention of meeting his death naked and covered in goose bumps.
"I'm ready," Merlin said quietly, standing straight and looking his lover in the eyes.
"I've already told you, my father is not getting to hear about this."
A tiny flower of hope blossomed between them.
Arthur covered the space between them and pulled Merlin to him in a tight, hard hug, totally oblivious to his unclothed state.
As clearly as if Arthur had shouted, Merlin knew the Prince loved him, and loved him enough to disobey the law. Letting down his own barriers Merlin allowed his love to flow into this strange bond. Arthur's arms tightened painfully around him, making his ribs creak. At that both loosened their holds and began to laugh.
"We've both got a problem with this, whatever it is," Arthur said, abruptly sobering. "Who else can feel what we're feeling?"
"Oh god!" they said together, thinking, at the same moment, of how hideously embarrassing it would be if the whole castle knew when they were making love.
"We need to know if anyone else is affected," Arthur stated, thinking through the various members of the court whom he could trust with such a momentous secret.
"Gaius," Merlin said. "He already knows where I spend my nights."
"And the other?" Arthur asked, waving his fingers in a circle in the general direction of the ceiling.
"Rather not say," Merlin replied, only to be clearly and unequivocally contradicted by the truth chiming through.
Arthur laughed as Merlin sighed.
"Don't think half answers are an option any more."
"Gaius helped your father banish all sorcerers and forswore magic," Merlin explained. "And he's been trying to look after me, keep me safe."
A brief surge of flickering orange annoyance from Arthur, which was then replaced with cool blue affection for his father.
"My father and his obsession."
One more hug and then Arthur went to gather his clothes.
"Send a message for Gaius to come here. We shouldn't risk going out of the apartments until we know who can feel this bond."
Merlin was momentarily distracted by the back view as Arthur walked across the room.
Arthur looked back over his shoulder, smiling broadly.
"I'll wait out here," Merlin said, his cheeks aflame.
Arthur's dirty laugh drifted after him.
Merlin out his head out of the door and hailed the guard.
"Ask Gaius to visit the Prince," he ordered, trying to sound as imperious as Arthur could.
"What shall I tell him?"
"That Prince Arthur wants to speak with him," Merlin said, slamming the door to forestall any other questions.
By the time Gaius arrived both men were nervous, anxiety twanging between them.
"Ah, Gaius!" Arthur said brightly.
"Umm, erm, do we seem.. um, OK to you?" he asked, his words spoken in halting manner.
"Are you feeling unwell?" Gaius asked.
"No, no, I feel fine," Arthur replied quickly.
"Me too," Merlin added.
"Then why did you send for me?"
"We, umm, just wanted to make sure we looked, fine."
Gaius eyed both men reprovingly.
"Are you both drunk?" he asked baldly.
"No, not had a drop so far, this morning," Merlin assured him.
Gaius put his bag on the table and approached them. He couldn't smell alcohol but he could smell spilt semen and the scent of warm, male sex.
He sighed before asking,
"Do either of you need a slave?"
"No!" The answer was spoken together.
"No, we're fine in that direction," Arthur assured him.
"Running out of oil?"
"No, no, we have plenty," Merlin said.
"Mmm, I thought my medicinal supplies had gone down," Gaius remarked dryly. "Speak plainly gentlemen, I haven't got all day."
"We just wanted to see if we looked…."
"Out of the ordinary," Merlin finished.
"You're both acting strangely, unfortunately it's not out of the ordinary," Gaius replied, giving each man a hard look. "If there's nothing more, I have work to do."
"No, that's fine. Thanks Gaius," Merlin said.
"Sire," Gaius said to Arthur.
The look he shot at Merlin was even more eloquent of disapproval.
"It's just us then," Arthur said, as the door slammed. "Well, that's a relief."
He sat and poured both a goblet of wine, motioning for Merlin to sit down as well.
"Haven't really got time Arthur, I should go and help Gaius and you've got things to do too."
"Sit down Merlin," he requested quietly.
Merlin knew from his tone and from the emotions he was feeling that Arthur was serious. Merlin sat.
"No more secrets between us. I want to know about the magic, all about it. You know exactly how I feel about you. This will be just between us but I need to know."
Merlin took a sip of the wine and nodded.
This wasn't just curiosity on the Prince's part it was a test of trust. He was in no doubt that Arthur would cut off his own sword arm before he'd do anything to harm him. Arthur was completely open to him now.
"I am sorry I lied to you, Arthur."
Arthur shook his head whilst swallowing a mouthful of wine.
"That was self-preservation, I would have done the same in your place."
Arthur had just taken another mouthful of wine when Merlin impulsively kissed him, then drank some of the warmed wine from his mouth during the kiss. They pulled apart smiling.
"You can feed me wine like that later, now talk," Arthur ordered.
And Merlin had talked, for a long time.
Arthur gasped and straightened on his horse as the bond he shared with Merlin flickered into life again.
"Merlin?" Arthur whispered into the darkness.
Sensing the terrible effort this was taking Arthur tried to calm himself and let Merlin try and communicate as best he could.
A vision began to form in his mind; a lake, dank and dark, surrounded by trees. A forest? Then a towering cliff, like the bones of some mighty creature left stranded above ground after death. The cliff seemed to be important in some way, that image lingering the longest.
A final whisper of, "Bring Excalibur."
As suddenly as the bond had flared into life it was gone again.
Arthur knew that Merlin had exhausted himself in sending that message. But at least now he knew where to look. That forest at the base of a towering cliff was in the west of the kingdom. The lake nearby, a shadowed, mysterious place, long held to be the gateway to the underworld by the folk who made a scant living from crofting at the edge of the great forest.
By the time Arthur returned to Camelot it was very late. He paid no heed to the lateness of the hour, or to the clamouring questions from his most trusted Knights. Instead he sent for maps of his kingdom and gave orders for several of his knights to make ready for an expedition plus a patrol to accompany them.
"Where are we going?" Sir Bedivere asked, "And why?"
"You're going on the King's business to find our most trusted counsellor and friend, Merlin!" Arthur shouted.
He closed his eyes in the sudden silence his outburst produced.
"I'm sorry, Bedivere."
Bedivere nodded and waited for Arthur to continue.
"I, I have good reason to think Merlin is being held around this area. Nearer the cliffs than the lake."
Arthur pointed to the forest on the map.
"I also think as he's been unable to free himself that he may be injured so we need to ensure we bring medical supplies with us."
"Sire, how did you come by this information?" Sir Gareth asked.
"I have the information from a scout I sent," Arthur replied, prevaricating, then embroidering his story. "I rode to meet with him this evening."
"Why did you not ask us to accompany you?" Sir Percivale asked.
"He's shy!" the King replied, deadpan.
A ripple of amusement ran through the company.
"I'm asking you to accompany me now. I will take six of you. The rest of you will defend Camelot and Albion. We leave at dawn."
Arthur nodded to his knights and left the throne room, hearing the rise of chatter begin after he left the room.
The good natured talking and discussions taking place behind him brought back memories of the early days of his reign.
After Uther's death, Arthur, with Merlin's help and counsel had begun the long task of re-introducing the use of magic back to the kingdom. Whereas under Uther's reign sorcerers were automatically considered evil and put to death, under Arthur's reign, as long as each magician would agree to abide by the sorcerers code, they could practise in peace. The code, very like the knight's code of honour, ensured magic was practised for good. Gradually the people and lands of Albion prospered and were happy under this benign King.
But that had been a long time ago. As he made his way back to his chambers Arthur felt the pull and ache of old battle wounds and he was tired, soul deep tired. The weeks since Merlin had disappeared and their bond had died had brought little rest for Arthur. He hurt, inside and out. The silence inside him was worse than the constant ache from his old physical injuries.
Passing the passage to the Queen's apartments, which were in darkness, he suffered his usual huge pang of guilt. He knew Merlin felt the same.
When Merlin had drawn his attention to the murmurings and mutterings of his people on his lack of an heir, Arthur had been inclined to ignore it. But Merlin had told him he must marry and have children. Arthur had fought against the proposal. His lover had patiently pointed out, time and again, how the land would suffer if Arthur died without issue. And Arthur had dug his heels in and refused, even when Merlin had begged him to re-consider, with tears in his eyes. But, in the end, he'd been forced to make the marriage settlements, of necessity. The worst part of that thrice damned agreement had been giving up his physical relationship with Merlin. It was a matter of honour to them both not to betray the new Queen. She had done nothing to deserve such treatment but their good intentions had resulted in such pain.
The evening before Arthur's wedding, he gave orders that he was not to be disturbed for any reason. The rest of the castle was in a joyful frenzy of pre-wedding celebrations but the King's apartments were quiet.
Their bond sang with tension when Merlin entered the King's apartments through the adjoining door.
Arthur was looking down into the courtyard from his window, a cup of wine in his hand.
The table was laid with provender for two and plenty of wine containers in the coolest part of the room.
Merlin poured himself a drink and joined Arthur at the window. Neither man spoke.
Merlin fetched a flask and refilled both cups. Then Arthur shut the window and sank down on the wooden box beneath the sill, Merlin joining him.
Arthur's hands were shaking as he looked into the depths of the wine, still, neither said a word. They had been talking this out for months; there was nothing left to say.
Merlin finished his wine and put the cup on the floor then took Arthur's from his hands too. He pulled Arthur to his feet and propelled him towards the bed, shedding his clothes as they went. Arthur caught onto the idea and did the same. They came together in a frenzy of grief then quietened; soft touches and the stroke of gentle fingers.
They spent the remainder of the night in agony and ecstasy. When they weren't making love they were holding each other. Neither slept and neither could bring themselves to consider their future after this night.
Just after dawn a soft knock heralded the arrival of the serving boys with hot water for the King to wash in. Arthur told them to leave it at the door, not yet willing to transform his lover to a friend.
They washed each other, Merlin taking particular care that Arthur should be clean and fresh for his wedding, then he dressed him in his wedding finery.
At the point of departure for the chapel, Arthur turned and pulled Merlin into one last, desperate kiss which left Merlin's lips red and swollen. Feasting his eyes on his beloved's face for a few more seconds he turned to face the door, speaking the only two words he'd said for hours, "I'm ready."
An hour later saw a white faced and extremely sombre Arthur accepting his bride.
That Arthur didn't love his Queen, and certainly didn't trust her anywhere near as much as Merlin was quite obvious to the court, if not to her.
In the months after the wedding his bride couldn't understand why her handsome husband wasn't the least bit interested in their marriage, but, indeed, seemed to be grieving over some private hurt.
His Queen suspected the King may have had to give up a mistress in order to marry and beget legitimate heirs. She asked discrete questions but there was no story of a woman scorned in his background. She remained confused for a very long time.
That his most trusted counsellor was in the same saddened state wasn't particularly remarked upon. The two men were extremely close, so much so that when one was hurt they both suffered.
The vow of abstinence from each other lasted exactly one year.
Arthur had returned after a small battle, slightly injured but the Queen, hoping to flush out her unknown rival, had maliciously set the story about that he was much more badly wounded than was thought. Despite their bond telling him otherwise, this had brought Merlin running to the King's apartments. The Queen had been privy to the look which passed between the two men. A look she had never before seen on her husband's face, much less directed at her.
Merlin had apologised charmingly for intruding upon the royal couple, but Arthur had waved the apology away and invited Merlin in, whilst just as charmingly dismissing his wife.
All the way back to her own suite, the Queen had mulled over this conundrum.
As soon as the door had shut behind the Queen and her ladies, Arthur leapt at Merlin, taking no notice of his cuts and refusing to stay apart from him for a second longer. The marriage and their enforced separation had been a disaster in his opinion. After a token resistance Merlin caved and returned the kisses and caresses being showered upon him.
Since that day, eight months ago, they'd spent as many nights in each other's arms as possible. The guilt at their betrayal of the Queen had bitten deep with both men, but neither wanted to be separated from the other again. They discretely resumed their former relationship, both the happier for doing so.
Perhaps they hadn't been as discrete as they thought or the Queen had worked out just who her rival for her husband's affection was, but her mood had grown steadily more sour and shrewish as time passed, until she had coldly informed Arthur that she intended to make an extended stay with her relations who resided in a quite far flung part of the kingdom.
He'd smilingly accepted her information, wished her a good trip and breathed a sigh of relief, in that order.
The first evening after her departure, Arthur had been preparing for a secluded meal in his apartments, just Merlin and himself, when their bond had flared into surprise, shock, fear and pain, then, absolutely nothing.
Arthur had bitten his own arm to blood to stop himself crying out with the agony. A black, cold, hurting, empty place took up residence where his lover's warm and loving presence used to be.
The shaft of pain he'd felt the last time Merlin had tried to communicate felt like a reflection of the psychic pain he was dealing with, although he wasn't totally sure hence why he had thought fit to order medical supplies to be brought with the expedition.
He nodded at the guard on duty outside his door and walked into his chambers, dismissed the serving boy, ignored the food placed for him and went to lie on their bed. He remained fully dressed, not wanting to lose any time as soon as the sun rose.
The scent of Merlin had almost disappeared from the bed linen, but here and there faint traces remained. He inhaled deeply, somehow the elusive scent damped down the pain of their separation.
"I'm on my way," he whispered, hoping his words would be carried on the wind to Merlin.
The horses snorted, their breath fogging in the early morning air. It certainly was colder here beside the lake than at Camelot.
Further out over the lake, mist swirled on the surface of the water, rising and obscuring the furthest shore.
Arthur turned his horse, surveying the terrain. It had taken two days of hard riding to get this far. The men and horses were rested after camping for a few hours in the forest when it became too dangerous for the horses to be ridden through the darkness. Arthur had chaffed at the delay but had seen reason and agreed to the stop.
He turned again so he was once more facing the cliff. He felt drawn to the limestone, although he didn't know why. He couldn't feel Merlin's presence but nevertheless he spurred his horse forwards, the company following him.
He reached the grey stone where it rose from the flat lakeside and began to ride parallel to the cliff. As the rock turned away from the lake shore and into the forest proper Arthur felt his heart beating fast with anticipation. He kicked his horse into a canter, ducking under branches and ignoring the stumbles of the unfortunate animal beneath him. At the turn he slid from his back, not even stopping to tie him up. Likewise ignoring his men at his back, he ran to the cliff face, touching the rock, trying to find the answering tingle of excitement which would tell him his soulmate was nearby. Forcing his way through a thicket of young trees he literally stumbled across the entrance to a cave. Gareth and Bedivere, being the nearest stopped him rushing headlong into the darkness.
"Sire, wait, we need light."
One of the patrol soldiers unloaded unlit torches and came running to present them whilst fumbling with his flint and metal striker.
Impatiently Arthur thrust a torch towards Gawain.
"Light it," he ordered baldly.
"My talent for sorcery is small, my lord."
"Light it!" Arthur repeated.
Hesitantly Gawain hold out his hand and whispered the words. After the third try the torch ignited then a breeze blew from the cave mouth, causing all the torches to light with a steady flame. Gawain was thunderstruck.
"There is strong magic here," Arthur stated and strode forward into the cave. Almost immediately the floor of the cave dropped into a steep incline which gave way to steps cut into the rock as the slope became steeper. Arthur drew his famous sword, holding it out in front, his torch held high. He could sense Merlin, although his touch through their bond was very weak.
After so many years in proximity to Merlin, Arthur could feel when Merlin was using his powers. Lighting the torches had felt different, as if Merlin was channelling an outside force, not using his own power. Arthur had never known a time when Merlin had not been brimming with magical abilities so this lack of demonstration of his powers was alarming.
After several minutes careful descent down the wet, slimy steps the floor abruptly levelled out and widened into a chamber. A long wooden table with four chairs pushed neatly under came into view. The chamber was empty though. Arthur thrust his torch into a bracket, there for the purpose. The rest of the knights did the same.
The chamber held all seven men comfortably. Faintly, from the far end, the sound of an underground river could be heard.
Arthur could almost taste Merlin he was so close but he couldn't see him. Taking a deep breath he stalked the perimeter of the chamber. Two of his knights investigated the passageway beyond where the river ran. To the right of the table the wall was shiny with some milky substance, water trickling down. Pointed icicles of the same pale white rock were stuck to the ceiling whilst more pointed pieces of rock were pointing ceilingward.
He shivered as he passed the shiny section of wall. Stopping he cast his eyes over the other walls. Only the stalagmites and stalactites were scattered in the rest of the cave, no other part of the chamber walls had this streak. He leaned his forehead against the stone then jerked back. It was so cold it had felt burning hot. The unmistakable tingle of sorcery made the hair on his arms stand on end. He lifted his sword high above his head and brought it down on the ice white wall.
The chamber rang like a bell, the sound waves vibrating through everyone. A slow rumbling sound followed then a large crack appeared as the wall tore from top to bottom.
For a split second, as the wall crumbled, a man stood straight behind the wall where he'd been sealed then he fell forward into Arthur's arms, Sir Gawain and Sir Gareth rushing forward to support the man as well.
"Merlin," Arthur whispered, taking in the unnaturally white skin, lips and his closed eyes.
"Sire, put him on the table," Gareth said.
Between them they lifted his limp frame and placed him tenderly on the wooden surface. Arthur took off his fur lined cloak and laid it over him. He looked and felt so weak, he was more dead than living.
"Sire?" Gawain said.
Sparing a glance for his men but keeping one hand on Merlin's icy cheek, Arthur saw the knight's red stained palms, the fluid glistening in the light of the flickering flames.
Working as one all three pulled the cloak aside to find the source of the blood. It didn't take long; a long gash across Merlin's belly had soaked his shirt and jacket. As his body warmed, the blood was flowing faster.
Gareth looked at his King and shook his head. They'd all seen too many of these injuries on the battlefield. This was a mortal wound.
"Bind him," Arthur said, "And mix poppy juice with a little wine."
The knights rushed to do his bidding, hoping to finish the binding before Merlin awoke, otherwise the pain would be excruciating.
Arthur helped to lift Merlin as cloth was wound around Merlin's body with a large pad over the wound itself, which would keep his internal organs inside. It was red and soaked within minutes.
Arthur took the cup and lifted Merlin's head. The liquid ran from the corners of his mouth, so Arthur took a mouthful of the mix then fitted his lips over Merlin's ice cold ones. Patiently he let the liquid dribble into Merlin's mouth. He stroked his throat and was rewarded by a convulsive movement as he swallowed. Repeating the procedure a second, third and forth time, until the cup was empty.
Surprisingly Merlin's breathing was growing stronger, his eyes moving under his bruised looking eyelids. His lips moved, forming a word.
"I'm here," the Kind replied, leaning close.
Merlin's eyes flickered and opened. A faint smile softened his face when he perceived Arthur leaning over him.
"You came," he said softly.
Arthur nodded. "Who did this to you?" he asked.
"She tricked me."
Arthur had to lean closer to hear the barely there whisper.
"Asked me to ride with her out of Camelot. Mordred's people were waiting for us. They put a sleeping spell on me and brought me here."
"Why?" Arthur asked.
Merlin's hand weakly squeezed Arthur's as he looked into Arthur's eyes.
"She wanted my power and she knows," he replied.
Arthur closed his eyes. "I'm sorry Merlin, I'm so sorry."
Merlin moved his head and tried to smile.
"Why didn't you just use magic and leave? Or send me a message sooner?"
"The more magic I use, the more of my powers she gets. She's strong now, I couldn't let her become stronger. I had to use our bond to find you."
Arthur had always known his Queen had a measure of magical abilities but she'd never been as strong as Merlin. No-one was as strong as Merlin. But he'd never known she coveted those powers as much as she apparently had.
"She used a sword on you?"
Merlin slowly shook his head.
"Mordred. Then the Queen sealed me into the wall and waited for me to use magic to escape. Then she would be the strongest in the land. They want to destroy you."
"She kept you alive by magic?"
"Excalibur broke the spell?"
Merlin nodded again.
Arthur's eyes filled with tears. His lover, the other half of his soul, had been tortured for weeks and had withstood the most terrible injuries so Arthur's Queen would not be able to take Merlin's powers and use them against Arthur.
Merlin touched Arthur's hand.
"Take me to the lake? I don't want to die in here," Merlin asked.
Arthur swallowed and nodded.
He could see, and feel, that the poppy juice and wine was taking effect on Merlin. His breathing was slowing and becoming shallower, and sleep, the deep sleep of death was creeping across his limbs.
Gareth pushed Percivale up the steps after talking to him quickly. Then Gareth, Gawain, Arthur and Bedivere took a corner of the Kings' cloak, laying Merlin on the top of it. In this way they made their way from the cave and up into the open air. There some of the patrol soldiers had lashed together a framework of saplings. Merlin on his cloak was laid on the framework, blankets covering him. Four knights took up the litter, whilst Arthur walked beside, trying to warm Merlin's cold hand in his.
The party made their way through the forest to the lake shore in total silence. No birds sang and even the snap of twigs underfoot seemed muted.
Gareth had ordered the main party of men to go on ahead and build a fire on the shore.
The day had turned even more grey, tendrils of mist threading their way among the tree trunks.
Privately Gareth thought the man on the litter had died in the cavern but the King doggedly continued on, their hands joined.
Arthur knew Merlin's life was ebbing away. The touch he'd grown so accustomed to over the years was wearing thin and melting away like frost in the sun.
Merlin's blue eyes were half open, his pale lips showing his teeth. The bones at his temple and cheek were more prominent now.
At the lake side Arthur motioned his men to set the litter down close to the fire. He sat on the ground and gently gathered Merlin to him, supporting him in his arms.
Merlin's eyes flickered a little. His lips moved in a tiny smile as he took in Arthur's face.
"Do you need more poppy juice?" Arthur asked quietly.
"Not any more," Merlin breathed.
They locked eyes, each taking comfort from the other for as long as possible. They were so wrapped up in each other that, at first, Arthur didn't hear the rumbles of consternation from the soldiers around them. He looked up and saw men pointing out to the lake.
A dark shadow was emerging from the mist. It grew in size and resolved into the outlines of a barge. A black barge with four veiled figures sitting in the craft. Although there was no sign of motive power the boat drew quickly to the shore. There it waited, rocking slightly on the tiny wavelets.
The figures in the craft were female, heavily draped and veiled, all in black, like their barge. The woman at the prow rose gracefully and gestured at Arthur.
Merlin's eyes were still fixed on his face but his gaze was unfocussed now, his breath barely whispering across his lips. Reaching inside for the last vestiges of their bond, all he could feel was a deep well of love and affection and simple pleasure at being held in his arms.
Reflexively Arthur tightened his hold around his dying mate.
"Arthur Pendragon, you must release him to us."
Arthur could hear the hiss of swords being drawn from scabbards then nothing but silence. He turned to see his men standing like statues.
"He is of the Isle of Avalon now, Pendragon. We will take care of him there. There he'll heal and be nurtured."
Arthur looked down. Merlin's gaze was still unfocussed but he had obviously heard the woman.
"You need to let me go," he whispered.
Swallowing a sob, Arthur held Merlin tightly. Then the woman was somehow in front of him, helping him to support Merlin so he could rise and then pick him up, the blankets falling away. Merlin felt so light. He was thinner now than when they'd been young men together.
The woman led the way to the barge and daintily stepped on board. A black catafalque was in the bottom of the boat. He lay Merlin down on the linen covered platform, the pillow under his head. He pulled the edges of his cloak together, covering his blood stained body. Merlin's eyes were staring up at the grey sky now.
Another one of the women covered him to his chin in a rich, black linen sheet, the colour contrasted sharply with his pale skin and greying hair.
Arthur leaned down and kissed his cold forehead then put his lips close to his ear.
"Goodbye, my love," he whispered.
Touching his face one last time he stepped back, the cold water swirling about his knees. The woman in the prow of the barge said, "Remember your promise to him, Pendragon. Return the sword to the water. You will know when the time is right."
Without another word the barge began to pull away from the shore. Behind him Arthur heard his men moving as the barge sped away into the mist.
Arthur remained standing in the water watching the boat recede until his eyes tingled and his vision speckled with black dots. Finally he turned and walked back the few steps to dry land.
Diffidently Sir Gareth approached and offered him a cup. Arthur took it and sipped at the warm wine, his back to the lake.
"I want it known that the Queen and Mordred are to be arrested on sight. The charge is the kidnap and murder of our trusted counsellor, Merlin."
The big, burly man nodded and gripped the King's shoulder.
"We all mourn with you this day. Merlin was a good man. Wise and just."
There were murmurs of agreement around the camp.
"Thank you Sir Gareth. Have the men break camp. We ride for Camelot. Send out scouts as well."
Gareth raised his eyebrows questioningly.
"Mordred's men had a hand in this villainy, they may be nearby still."
Gareth bowed and went to do his liege' bidding.
Within weeks the Queen had done what no army had managed within living memory; she had split the kingdom.
Stories began to circulate that the King had committed adultery and, in a frenzy of jealousy, the Queen had had her rival tortured and murdered. Then the stories began to change; Merlin had been the one plotting against the Queen, using his undoubted great powers in order to assuage his jealous hatred of the King's marriage.
Those close to the court paid no heed to any tittle tattle which cast Merlin as the villain. Most knew him to be a kind man, totally devoted to the King and to Albion.
The older people in the general population still remembered life living under Uther's unforgiving dictates, Arthur and Merlin were the ones who turned Albion back to the old ways and brought true peace and toleration for all.
The younger, with their allegiance to the code of chivalry, believed Arthur had done wrong and was no longer fit to make laws and rule. The Queen, and her knight, Mordred, should rule in his stead.
The country divided and flocked to their particular choice of leader.
Sick in heart and soul, Arthur made ready for battle.
Bedivere knelt by his King's side, a torn and wadded piece of his surcoate pressing against the bloody hole in Arthur's side.
An unlucky blow from an axe had ripped his chain mail covering allowing a sword to penetrate his doublet and between his ribs.
Arthur's face twisted in pain, his breathing shallow and fast.
"How goes the day, Bedivere?"
"Lucan has yet to return, Sire," Bedivere replied.
Arthur reached with his right hand for his sword, Excalibur, as he heard running feet.
"We carry the day, Sire, we carry the day!" Lucan's voice announced, as he rounded the slight hillock against which Arthur rested.
Both knights had helped him from the battlefield when they had seen him fall after Arthur had killed the knight attacking him.
"Mordred?" he asked.
"Slain, my lord. He shall not rule this kingdom. His falsehoods will be exposed for what they are."
"She left before the battle, she has no followers now."
"How many of our company survive?"
At Sir Lucan's silence Arthur opened his eyes.
The effort to talk was taking all of Arthur's energy and breath. He coughed, his face and body betraying the pain that brought. When he lay back against the grass, blood had reddened his teeth and lips and flowed over his chin.
"Very few survive, Sire. I counted less than six other knights and they were making their way to the Royal tents."
Arthur nodded his thanks and closed his eyes again. He could vaguely hear some low voiced conversation then the sound of wooden wheels over grass. With a struggle he opened his eyes.
Lucan, and his brother Bedivere, were pulling a small handcart alongside him. Through the slats in the side Arthur could see wisps of straw where someone had tried to soften the base of the wooden surface.
"Sorry Sire, this is the only thing we could find to carry you, but it will suffice to take you to the physician."
Arthur's lips twitched. Merlin would have had some remark to make on the seeing the great Arthur being carried in a handcart. But, if Merlin had still been here, this battle wouldn't have taken place. Acid bile burnt the back of his throat before he hastily swallowed. Lucan held a skin to his lips, allowing him to sip a few drops of water, which eased his parched tongue. When he'd finished Lucan and Bedivere helped him to his feet. Arthur clamped his mouth shut on his cries as agony lanced through his body. Breathing harshly through clenched teeth as both men helped his to sit in the bottom of the cart and leaned against the side.
As Lucan and Bedivere bent to take up the cart's handles, he spoke.
The knights waited as Arthur gathered his strength and breath to speak again.
"Take me to the lake."
"I have one final task to perform. Bring Excalibur to me."
"You need the surgeon, Sire," Bedivere exclaimed, urgently.
"I'm dying, Bedivere. I need to discharge my final duty."
Lucan touched his brother's arm as he opened his mouth to argue with the King. Lucan shook his head then bent, his own injuries making him hiss with pain. Reverently he laid Arthur's sword beside him.
Arthur nodded his thanks.
Silently the brothers took a handle of the cart each and pulled.
In a very few minutes the wooden wheels were sinking into the soft, sandy mud of the shoreline.
Arthur was bent over slightly holding the cloth to his side, head hanging down. Wearily he looked up when the painful motion stopped.
Bedivere silently noted the blueness about the King's lips and nose. Arthur was no fool, he knew he was dying but far from seeking comfort for his last few hours, his final thoughts were, again, of duty.
Arthur tried to rise but no longer had the strength. He motioned Bedivere closer.
"Throw… the lake." He touched his sword and nodded.
"You want me to throw Excalibur into the lake?" Bedivere checked.
"Sire, the sword is a symbol of you, of your reign. It should stay with you!"
Arthur drooped even more.
"Promised," he whispered, his breath rattling in his chest as he started to slide sideways.
Lucan hurried forward to support the King.
"Whoever you promised will understand, Sire," Bedivere persisted, extremely unwilling to consign this fine piece of workmanship to the bottom of the muddy lake.
Arthur clutched at Lucan's torn and bloodied surcoate, mute pleading in his eyes.
"Bedivere, this is the King's dying command," he said to his older brother. "You are honour bound to carry it out."
Bedivere swallowed then nodded. He walked to the water's edge, keeping within the King's sight and took one last look at the sword, who's fame had spread throughout the kingdom and beyond. He took a deep breath then flung the blade as hard as he could.
Sunlight flashed from the metal as it arced through the air, turning over and over. Before it entered the water a hand rose up smoothly from underwater, and caught it by the pommel. The hand holding the sword waved it three times then, slowly, both sank into the lake, leaving hardly a ripple to mark the passing.
Lucan and Bedivere's faces reflected their total surprise and amazement. Lucan looked at Arthur's face. His eyes were half opened and he seemed to be trying to smile in between gasping for breath. As he watched, Arthur coughed, holding his side tightly. Almost immediately Lucan felt warm blood gush from the wound, bloody bubbles flecking his lips. As the King closed his eyes his lips shaped one word, a name, Merlin, then he relaxed totally against Sir Lucan.
The reign of the Pendragons was over.
Lucan didn't move immediately, he stayed beside his dead lord, supporting his body.
Bedivere turned back, the sudden silence alerting him, where before the peace of the shore had been broken by the sound of the King's urgent fight to breathe. He returned to stand by his brother's side, now hearing the soft lap of water and sigh of wind in the far trees.
"Rest in peace, Sire," Bedivere said quietly, leaning down to kiss the King's forehead, Sir Lucan echoing his words.
Between them they arranged his body with propriety, finally washing the blood from Arthur's face.
"What now?" Lucan asked.
"Now we take him back to Camelot," Bedivere answered.
"No!" The woman's voice rang out clearly.
Bedivere and Lucan turned, as one, both drawing their swords.
Unnoticed by either man, mist was now covering the lake surface, a large black barge having sailed close and drawn up to the lakeside. Flaming torches were placed along each side of the barge at intervals. Four woman, heavily veiled and draped, were standing ranged in front of the barge. Behind them, four men, also dressed in black.
Lucan's sword lowered as did Bedivere's.
"Arthur Pendragon goes to Avalon. Bring him!"
The four men moved forward to retrieve the King's body.
Neither Lucan not Bedivere moved to stop them. Both felt rooted to the spot; they couldn't move but they could watch.
In a short space of time the men returned, carrying Arthur. His body lay in a black sheet, two men holding each side. Efficiently they walked along the boarding gangway, then lay Arthur on the black draped catafalque in the centre of the barge. The woman followed. One of the women covering the King from his waist down with a richly adorned gold and red cloth, depicting the symbol of the Pendragons.
The woman who had spoken waved her hand and immediately four torches on poles above the catafalque flamed up.
The four men arranged themselves at each corner, the woman standing at the King's head, feet and to his side.
As silently as the barge had arrived, the gangway slid away and the barge turned, sailing slowly into the bank of the mist, allowing Bedivere and Lucan to move again. The return to Camelot was a sad and quiet journey.
The sun felt hot on his legs and waist, above that point he was cooler. From the dappled shade reflecting on his eyelids and the susurration of leaves he guessed it was a tree keeping the greater heat from his skin.
His head was cushioned on a solid but yielding surface. Around he could hear insects buzzing, somulant and peaceful.
Someone was lightly stroking his hair, their fingers threading through the strands without pulling.
Slowly he opened his eyes and took a deep breath of warm, flower-scented air. Taking that breath hadn't hurt.
A young man with black hair was sitting against the trunk of the tree, squinting up at the blue summer sky through the leaves. He was lying on the young man's thighs. One of his hands was running through his hair, the other he was holding clasped to his chest.
Arthur sat up suddenly, bending all his concentration on his companion.
It wasn't just the warm weather and sunshine which was making him feel so peaceful, happy and content; the bond was back in place.
Love, acceptance, happiness and other emotions Arthur couldn't even put a name to, were radiating between them. It was such a contrast to the cold, lonely, yawning emptiness he'd had to live with after Merlin had died, he just wanted to bask in the glow.
The young man discarded the piece of grass he'd been chewing and smiled at him.
Arthur couldn't speak. This was Merlin alright, but the Merlin from when they'd first become lovers, not the grey haired, sad and guilty man who had endured weeks of torture to protect him and Albion.
Arthur reached out a hand to touch him. The skin of his face was warm and soft. He blue eyes shone with amusement but Arthur could see the wisdom of his older self there too, lurking in the depths.
"Takes a little getting used to, doesn't it?"
Arthur touched his own face. The skin there felt firmer and tighter. He didn't ache anywhere, he felt young, fit and healthy again.
Unable to fight it anymore Arthur learned forward and kissed Merlin's lips.
It certainly felt like Merlin's kisses, and the scent of his skin was Merlin's scent. Arthur hugged him, holding him close for a very long time. His arms had been empty too long.
"I've missed you so much," he whispered.
"I've missed you too," Merlin replied.
"Did you heal me?" Arthur asked.
Merlin laughed softly and said,
"No. Beyond my abilities."
"Where is this place?"
"It's called Avalon."
Merlin turned to follow Arthur's gaze. Idyllic countryside, green and fertile, spread as far as the eye could see.
"I think I like Avalon. Who rules here?"
Arthur raised his eyebrows. Merlin grinned.
"You'll understand more later," he promised.
"Why are we here?"
"We're here until we're needed again."
"What do we do here?"
"Whatever we want. Make love all day or sit in the sunshine!"
Arthur was momentarily speechless.
"Is this land as good as it seems?"
This time Merlin leaned in and kissed him, soundly.
"Even better than you can imagine."
Responding, Arthur murmured,
"I hope we're not needed for a very long time."