Disclaimer: No copyright infringement intended, no profit is being made from this
Notes: Many thanks to anoyo for the beta!
He knows the moment he sees her that he must find a way to make her his own. The graceful sweep of her neck, the golden hair catching the candlelight, the delicate hands—he wants to touch them, caress them. He can barely gather the breath to speak, to ask Gaius her name.
"I believe her name is Ygraine, your Majesty," Gaius replies. "She is the daughter of…"
Gaius continues, but Uther doesn't hear the rest. He is caught on the sound of her name—Ygraine. It flutters inside him, begging to be uttered.
Perhaps if that first night he had been able to hold her, to whisper to her and brush his hand across her cheek—but protocol intervenes. The customs of the court, the necessity of speaking to her father, of discussing lands and dowries—all of that lies heavily on him when the time finally comes, and he feels clumsy, awkward. He knows he is the king—knows that before anything else. Even though she gently says his name, her name no longer comes lightly to his lips, and he can only manage a hoarse, "my lady." Under his fingers she becomes fragile, breakable. And so he doesn't touch her often—particularly in front of the nobles and his knights—because they might catch the uncertainty in his face.
He regrets it, when she is gone. Wishes he had touched her every chance he had so that now the softness of her hair, the flush of her skin would be burned into him—would be more than a memory that threatened to fade away.
The sheets have been changed, and the fresh scent of the outdoors clings to the pillowcase. There is no longer any hint of the fragrance that used to linger about her. Uther fights back tears and rests his hand on the empty place where she used to lie, whispering, "Why did you leave me here alone? Why didn't you—"
"—stay here with me?"
Arthur's arms tighten around his chest, and Merlin stills. "It's morning, and I'm supposed to be fetching your breakfast from the kitchens," he says.
Arthur presses his face into Merlin's neck. "Stay here," he repeats—an order, not a question this time.
"And then you'll get hungry and cranky and throw apples at me," Merlin retorts. "No thanks." He doesn't move, though. This is the only time—early in the morning, when Arthur is sleepy and warm—that he touches Merlin without reservations.
If anyone else is around, Arthur's touches become shoves, slaps on the shoulder, orders to go and do something. Even when it's just the two of them, alone in Arthur's chambers in the evening, Arthur still keeps a distance between them. He hesitates before letting his fingers slide over Merlin's skin. His kisses confine themselves to Merlin's mouth, only occasionally drifting down to linger along Merlin's collarbone. Even when they're in bed, and Merlin can't keep back the groans of pleasure, Arthur's hands stay on his shoulders or fisted in the blankets.
But in the morning, he wakes up to find Arthur wrapped around him, cradling Merlin against his chest. Arthur licks and kisses Merlin's ears, and his fingers wander over Merlin's body, exploring and caressing. Merlin is afraid to return the affection, even though he wants to. He's afraid that if he turns and wraps his arms around Arthur's shoulders, buries his fingers in Arthur's hair, Arthur will pull away. And before he can decide, before he can gather his courage, the sunlight appears in a golden streak on the floor. They hear the sounds of servants in the hallway, guards clattering by the door. Then Arthur's hands fall away, and he rolls out of bed, leaving Merlin shivering in the sudden chill.
He sits hunched over the fire, mouth set in a tight, angry grimace. Hunith listens as Gaius tells her what has happened.
"It is too dangerous for him to stay in Camelot. Everyone is suspicious, frightened—they would quickly report the presence of a stranger in their village to the king." Gaius lowers his voice. "And I fear what he will do in his present mood. A rash act of revenge that will lead him to his death, perhaps."
"Of course he may stay with me," she says. "Until Uther relents."
"I fear that day may never come," Gaius replies. He manages a tired smile. "Thank you, Hunith. You are as generous and kind as your father was."
Balinor says little after Gaius leaves. He takes the blankets she gives him with a muttered acknowledgment and lies down against the far wall. Hunith can't help a slight shiver of apprehension as she watches him. She has never known anyone who could do magic. Even though she believes Gaius, knows that Balinor would never harm her, it is still frightening to think of what he could do if he wished.
The next few days pass slowly. Balinor spends most of his time silently brooding, leaning on the fence and staring in the direction of Camelot. Hunith watches him as she goes about her work, still slightly intimidated. Finally, she musters her courage and approaches, hesitantly laying her hand on his arm.
"Gaius told me some of what happened," she says quietly. "About Queen Ygraine. Don't you pity him—even a little?"
"Pity Uther?" he laughs derisively. "Uther betrayed me."
"And what do you plan to do?" she demands, annoyance overcoming her fear. "Betray him in turn? Murder him?"
Balinor's face twists with anger. "Keep to your own business, and leave me to mine."
Stung, she walks away. The next day she comes back again, though, this time carrying an empty pail. "Here." She shoves it into Balinor's hands. "Go fetch some water for me. Or do you plan to spend the rest of your life sulking?"
Balinor looks surprised, then angry. "I'm not—"
"Yes, you are," she says, cutting him off. "Why don't you take a look around you? There are hundreds of things that need doing—the thatch to be repaired, wood to be cut, ground to be cleared." She gestures angrily at the huddled shacks and huts that make up the village. "The fever came through at the end of summer and many are still weak and half-sick. We've barely harvested enough to make it through the winter. You're strong and healthy and all you do is stand here plotting your useless revenge!" Her voice has risen to a shout, and she has to stop and take a deep breath before she can continue in a calmer tone. "I agreed to help you—to shelter you from Uther's soldiers. I'd have thought you'd want to repay that kindness—apparently I was wrong."
Balinor stares at her for a few moments before he turns without a word and walks down the path towards the well.
The next morning, he brings her a bouquet of wildflowers even though snow carpets the ground outside.
"You are a stubborn woman," he tells her. "And you certainly do not hesitate to speak your mind."
She laughs and accepts the flowers. "Is that—"
"—actually a compliment?"
Arthur studies the smile on Merlin's face. He hears Merlin's words again—It's more important that you live. You're the future king, I'm just a servant.
He remembers other words, too. Tell me, Merlin, do you know how to walk on your knees? You really are a total buffoon, aren't you, Merlin? And of course, the oft repeated, Merlin, you idiot.
And yet, despite everything—all the times Arthur has insulted Merlin, yelled at him—Merlin's still here. He told Merlin he was glad. It's one of the few times he's managed to speak to Merlin without a sarcastic shield to protect him—though he's not quite sure from what. Each time he's managed to speak so honestly, he's felt open, exposed and vulnerable, and has had to retreat again, back behind the familiar arrogance.
But there won't be a next time, now. Death is waiting in the silver goblets sitting before him. He must drink the poison before Merlin does. He pours the liquid into one goblet, trying to stop his hands from shaking.
"No! I will drink it!" Merlin cries when he sees what Arthur has done.
Arthur knows he would and that he can't let that happen. His heart is beating wildly, and a hysterical part of him is hoping that this won't taste as foul as one of Gaius's medicines because that would be too unfair. "As if I'd let you," he manages to say.
"You can't die." Merlin's voice is desperate. "This isn't your destiny."
As though Merlin knows anything about destiny. "Seems you're wrong again."
"Listen to me—"
And Arthur is listening and all he can see is the image of Merlin sprawled on the ground, dead, his eyes staring up at the sky. He'd rather die than have to face that reality, and so he chokes out, "You know me, Merlin. I never listen to you," and drinks the poison.
The throne feels cold underneath him, even though thick furs have been laid across it. He grips the arms and tries to pay attention, to listen to the petitioners standing before him. Ygraine sits on his right side, her pale skin a startling contrast to the dark blue color of her dress. It is ridiculous, but he feels as though he can practically see the words hovering between the two of them—the words neither of them have voiced but that each thinks privately in their own mind.
Uther fights to keep the despair from showing on his face. It has been almost three years—three years!—without any change. Almost anything would be better. Even a miscarriage, or to have the baby die an infant—it would still offer hope! He tries to keep his anxiety, his disappointment from her. But if he catches her unawares, her eyes are often rimmed with red, lashes wet with tears. He doesn't know what to do. If there is no heir—Camelot, everything he has worked so hard to achieve, will fall apart.
He approaches Gaius one evening. Gaius sits silently while Uther hunches over the clutter scattered across the physician's table—dried herbs, stubs of candles, a sheaf of spells. Uther speaks quickly, voice low and urgent.
"It would require powerful magic, sire," Gaius tells him. "Dangerous, to meddle with forces such as those."
"But it could be done?" Uther pursues.
Gaius nods reluctantly. "Nimueh is a High Priestess—she would know what to do."
"Go to her, then. Explain the situation." Uther stands, pushing his chair backwards with a clatter. "I will pay her whatever she wants."
"I would not offer her money for a task such as this, my lord," Gaius says. "She would see it as an insult."
Uther waves an impatient hand. "Make whatever bargain she requires, then. I will leave it to you, Gaius. You know more of these matters than I." When Gaius continues to hesitate, Uther brings his fist down on the table, upsetting a jar of ink that begins soaking into the wood, staining it black. "What choice do I have?" he demands.
"I fear the price will be steep, sire," Gaius says quietly. "More than you would be willing to pay."
"I must have an heir, Gaius. And Ygraine—" Uther chokes on the words, forcing himself to continue. "I cannot give her up, either."
Gaius sighs. "I will go then." He pauses. "Does the Queen know about this?"
Uther looks away.
"She should be told, sire."
"Yes. Of course, I will tell her. But after—" Uther thinks of her pale face and downcast eyes. "When we know that this has worked. I will not get her hopes up only to have them crushed." He fixes Gaius in a firm stare. "You must swear to me that you will not tell her—or anyone else!"
Another reluctant nod of acquiescence. "Very well, sire."
Uther can tell Gaius does not approve of the whole thing, but he feels some of the tension ease out of his muscles. "Thank you," he tells Gaius. "This means—everything to me. Otherwise, I would—"
"—never ask it of you!" Arthur's voice is sharp, his armor gleaming dully in the grey dawn light.
"But—" Merlin hesitates, his hands shaking as he brings Arthur his shield. "The army—none of them would have to fight. And you—" He swallows hard and makes himself continue, even though a blush of embarrassment creeps over his face. "You would be safe."
The tense line of Arthur's mouth relaxes into a smile. "I think the spells of protection you put on my armor, my sword, my shield— probably my boots when I wasn't looking—will be enough." Then his smile fades, and his eyes seek out Merlin's. "I am not going to ask you to destroy King Althalos's army for me."
Merlin wants to protest that he's killed people for Arthur before, but Arthur is right—this is different. It is one thing to kill someone who is about to harm Arthur, who is intent on that one purpose. It is quite another to unleash spells on the hundreds of anonymous soldiers of the opposing army. Many of them, Merlin knows, are peasants—pulled from their fields and handed a weapon, told to go fight for a king they have probably never even seen.
"Stay here and help with the wounded," Arthur orders. "God knows, there'll be enough of them." He ducks out of the tent before Merlin can reply.
It is Merlin's first battle. He feels sick with worry about Arthur, then horrified at the carnage unfolding in front of him. He tries to help, but the small healing spells he can manage without being seen hardly do anything. So many of them take time, preparation, and here everything depends on being quick, on getting the bleeding stopped.
Arthur comes and finds him afterwards. It is only early afternoon, but Arthur looks as exhausted as Merlin feels. Merlin is sitting next to the body of one of the foot soldiers. One of the ones he failed to save. "I tried," he whispers as Arthur crouches next to him.
Arthur sighs and puts a hand on Merlin's shoulder. "We both did."
"It's going to be the same tomorrow, isn't it?" Merlin asks. He tries to brush away the tears before Arthur can see them. "I have to do something, Arthur. I can't let more of our people die. I must—"
"No." Arthur cuts across him, his grip tightening painfully on Merlin's shoulder. "How could you hide something like that? My father would find out and…" He trails off, and they fall silent, staring at the ground to avoid seeing the battle's aftermath littering the field around them.
That evening, Arthur sends a messenger to King Althalos, asking to meet to negotiate a truce. Merlin knows that Uther will be furious when he finds out what Arthur has done. That Arthur will be shouted at, accused of being a coward.
"You shouldn't have done it," he tells Arthur.
But Arthur just laughs and ruffles Merlin's hair. "Trying to tell me what I can and can't do now, Merlin?" he asks teasingly.
"Someone has to or we're all doomed," Merlin retorts, but his fingers reach out to find Arthur's, and Arthur gently squeezes his hand.
She cries when she discovers she is with child. It has only been two weeks; two weeks since Uther's soldiers arrived and Balinor fled. She wants to believe he'll come back. If she had been the only one, she might have allowed herself the luxury of continuing to hope that she'll see him again one day. But now there is a child. She cannot entertain useless dreams when the reality of providing for a baby—alone—stares her in the face.
Fear and grief overwhelm Hunith, and she slides to the floor, burying her face in her arms. No, she tells herself, trying to control the sobs, she won't be alone. Sarah and Alice will help. John and Cedany, who have a baby—William—themselves. None of them know exactly who Balinor was or why Uther's soldiers wanted him. She has let them think it was some small offense—poaching, thieving food—something that all of them understand and sympathize with.
Then the thought occurs to her—what if the baby possesses magic as well? Oh, gods, please, no. If people found out— She shivers, thinking of the bounty hunters, with their cages and chains, that come through the villages, searching for sorcerers.
Hunith forces herself to calm down. The baby might not have magic—there is no point in worrying about it now. She will write to Gaius and get his advice.
The grief eventually fades away, but the fear stays with her. It sharpens when she first sees the gold flare of magic in Merlin's eyes. It intensifies as Merlin gets older, as she watches him grow tense and quiet in the face of the insults the other children shout at him. She knows what they call him, and she knows that Merlin wants desperately to ask about his father. That he is puzzled and hurt when she refuses to speak. That he doesn't understand why he possesses magic, why he is different.
She bends over him at night as he sleeps, smoothing back his dark, tangled hair. "I'm afraid, Merlin," she whispers. "I love you so much, but I'm afraid. Afraid—"
"—to tell you."
Arthur can only stare at Merlin, aware he is gaping like a fool, but unable to stop. He can't think of anything to say. I'm a sorcerer, Arthur. I was afraid. Please understand. I was afraid to tell you.
Merlin is pale, his hands clenched into fists at his sides. A sorcerer. Arthur turns away abruptly and goes over to the window, leaning his head against the cool glass. Why can't anything ever be simple where Merlin is concerned?
"Shut up, Merlin." He needs to think, to try and make sense of what he's feeling. Otherwise he's going to do something stupid—like throw Merlin in prison. Or kiss him. Again.
He had thought that was what Merlin was going to say to him—that yesterday had been a mistake, that he didn't want to do any of the things Arthur had spent a restless and sweaty night imagining. Arthur still can't believe it happened in the first place. Merlin had been straightening the collar of his tunic and happened to look up and meet Arthur's eyes. Then, suddenly, Merlin had leaned in and kissed him. Kissed him! And after a second of shocked immobility, Arthur had kissed him back. Then Merlin had flushed red, stammered out an excuse, and fled.
Wasn't that enough to have to deal with? But no, now Merlin has to go and admit that he's a—that he's—
Arthur groans. The worst part is that although he feels anger and confusion, the strongest emotion is relief. Relief! He's relieved that Merlin apparently doesn't regret what happened yesterday. At least, he hasn't said so.
Arthur whirls around. Merlin jumps, eyes wary, and slowly backs away as Arthur approaches him. He runs into the wall with a thud. "Arthur—" he starts again, voice cracking with uncertainty.
Arthur stops when there is scarcely an inch between them. When he can smell the sweat and soap on Merlin's skin. "Why did you tell me now?" he demands.
"Because—because I didn't want there to be any more secrets between us," Merlin replies, his eyes skittering over Arthur's face and finally dropping to look at the floor. "I couldn't lie to you and be with you—" Merlin flushes and clears his throat, "be with you like that."
"Like what?" Arthur murmurs. He tilts his head and brushes his lips against Merlin's. "Like this?"
"Yes." Merlin sounds desperate. His fingers are cold and sweaty as they fumble for Arthur's.
Arthur can't find the courage to pull Merlin into his arms, even though he wants to. So he settles for pressing another kiss on the side of Merlin's mouth.
"So—so you don't mind—about the—the magic?" Merlin's voice is scarcely audible at the end.
"It makes you a bit less of an idiot than I thought."
A shaky laugh. "Makes you a bit more of one, though."
Arthur cuffs him lightly round the head for that, then leans in for another kiss. Merlin obliges, resting his head against Arthur's shoulder when they pull apart.
Arthur traces a finger over Merlin's skin where his tunic gapes open, and Merlin shudders. "It was you, then?" Arthur asks, feeling he should pursue the details, even though most of his mind is captivated with the sensation of Merlin's skin against his own. "With the dragon—and that sorcerer—and—"
Merlin lifts his head and stops Arthur with a firm kiss. "Don't worry—I'll tell you all about the many times I've heroically come to your rescue."
"I'm sure it wasn't that many." He muffles Merlin's indignant protest with another kiss of his own. "Be careful," he whispers, as the kisses grow deeper, more intense. "Be careful," as he feels Merlin's fingers slipping under his tunic. "Promise me," as Merlin starts sliding to his knees.
"I will." Merlin rests his head against Arthur's leg, looks up at him with a smile. "I promise."
The words blur as Hunith's eyes fill with tears. She sets the letter down and sighs, leaning back in her chair. The house is silent except for the crackle of the fire. She wishes Merlin were here—misses his smiles and the sound of his voice. She reaches out and touches the letter again. Gaius described the entire confrontation with the dragon and how Arthur—and Merlin, her sweet, brave son—had saved Camelot. He wrote about all the events that had preceded it as well.
She hadn't expected it to hurt so much. She thought she had put Balinor behind her long ago, that his memory could only bring a soft fondness. But some part of her must have still hoped, still believed that she would see him again. And Merlin—she chokes back a cry, wanting to rail at the unfairness of the world. To let him find his father only to lose him hours later. If only he was here, and she could hold him, comfort him. But perhaps he would not want that, now that he knows. He must be angry with her for not telling him.
Standing up, she walks over to the chest next to her bed. She opens it and takes out a small wooden bird, delicately carved and smooth to the touch after all these years.
"I'm sorry," she whispers, stroking the bird. "I should have told him. Given him the chance to seek you out—given you the chance to be a father." She sighs. "Was I selfish, Balinor? Did I resent you for leaving and want to keep him all for myself?" Another sigh and more tears, even though she tries to blink them away. "Maybe. But—I'm glad you met each other at last. You would have—you would have loved him so much. You would have—"
"—been so proud of him."
Uther lets the soft fabric of the dress, faded with time, slip through his fingers. A simple dress—simple enough for a peasant—but it had been her favorite. She wore it in the afternoons, curled up in her chair with a book, and once when they had slipped away from the castle and walked together on the edge of the forest, just the two of them.
"He will be a great king, Ygraine," he murmurs, once again seeing Arthur's face as he announced that he would ride out and confront the dragon. Feels again the agony of waiting and the sharp, sweet relief of seeing Arthur walk back through the gates—alive and victorious.
"A great king," he repeats softly. "And I'm glad. I miss you, Ygraine, and I'm so tired. I'm—"
Arthur admits it quietly, while Merlin unfastens the heavy robes and removes the crown from his head. The past few weeks—Uther's sickness, his death and burial, the coronation—have taken a toll on Arthur that no battle could ever match. Merlin has watched him struggle with the emotions that threaten to overwhelm him, trying to keep them hidden under a calm, controlled exterior.
When the trappings of the king have been removed, when he is left in simply his tunic and breeches, Arthur goes and perches on the window ledge, turning away from Merlin to look down on the city stretching below the castle. Merlin puts away Arthur's things, lights the fire with a quick flash of magic. Then he sits down next to Arthur. Arthur remains still and silent, so Merlin reaches out and grasps Arthur's wrist, tugging gently.
Arthur resists for a few moments, but then gives in and allows Merlin to pull him closer. He settles into Merlin's arms, back pressed to Merlin's chest, his head resting on Merlin's shoulder, their legs stretched out together.
Merlin nudges the window open. The sounds of revelry drift up to them, the sounds of the people celebrating Arthur's ascension to the throne.
"Did you feel this way?" Arthur asks. "When your father died?"
"Maybe," Merlin replies, resting one of his hands over the steady beat of Arthur's heart. "I hardly knew him, though. You have so many memories."
"I feel—ashamed," Arthur whispers.
"Why?" Merlin rubs his other hand down Arthur's arm, gently soothing.
"Because—because part of me wanted him to die." Arthur's voice catches in his throat, but he continues, almost frantically. "I knew he would keep on hating magic—hating anyone who used it—no matter if they were an enemy or not. Like—like you," and Arthur's voice is soft again, but filled with hurt. "And I've hated how you've had to hide; how I've had to watch the fear in your eyes and couldn't do anything about it."
Merlin closes his eyes against Arthur's words. He had thought—foolishly, he can see now—that because Uther didn't know about his magic, Arthur hadn't been forced to choose between them. But of course he had. "I'm sorry," Merlin says, pressing his face into Arthur's hair. "I'm sorry."
"No." Arthur twists around. "No. It's all right." He looks at Merlin for a long moment, the sounds of the celebration, the cool breeze, and the light of the fire fading away until all Merlin can see and smell and feel is Arthur. And then Arthur sighs and rests his head on Merlin's chest, breaking the spell.
"Do you think it had to happen this way?" Arthur asks, several minutes later.
"What way?" Merlin murmurs, pushing aside the drowsiness that had been creeping over him.
"I mean with my mother dying—and my father—and—and all of it. Or could it have happened differently?"
Merlin thinks of all the moments, all the words and thoughts and actions, that have brought them to this point. He suddenly feels smothered, can feel the weight of it all pushing him down. The weight of their destiny. He can almost hear the voices of the dead—Ygraine, Uther, Balinor—can see the path that they walked. He can see the path stretching ahead, too. A road that leads to Morgana and Mordred and—
And then it's quiet once again, and Arthur is a warm weight in his arms. "Maybe," Merlin says. "But I'm glad it didn't."
A pause, and then Arthur sighs, and Merlin can hear the smile in his voice. "Me, too."
How can I keep my soul in me,
it doesn't touch your soul?
How can I raise
it high enough, past you, to other things?
I would like to shelter it, among remote
lost objects, in some dark and silent place
that doesn't resonate when your depths resound.
Yet everything that touches us, me and you,
takes us together like a violin's bow,
which draws one voice out of two separate strings.
Upon what instrument are we two spanned?
And what musician holds us in his hand?
Oh sweetest song.
"Love Song" by Rainer Maria Rilke