Merry Christmas! Have an update! ^_^ And again, sorry for the wait. Un-betaed as always, so feel free to point out any mistakes you find.
"Now place the candles along the circle," Salas instructed Merlin. Arthur watched protectively from outside the circle, created by digging a thin torrent in the dirt and pouring water inside then using rocks and twigs to form bridges between the large, outer torrent to a smaller circle in the centre. "No, inside the water," Salas corrected when Merlin started to place the candles outside the circle. "At the end of each connection."
Merlin corrected himself quickly and Salas nodded his approval. "Sprinkle this in the water," he commanded next, holding out a small leather bag. Merlin took it and a handful of the dried mint leaves to sprinkle. "Excellent. Now, we need something from each of your friends."
Merlin nodded and rose from the circle. He walked over to the packs they'd left behind when they had fled earlier, passing by Arthur as he went, and extracted something from each, except Lancelot's. Arthur was already holding something of Lancelot's. The handkerchief from Guinevere. He walked back towards the circle, stopping to take the token from Arthur.
"I've never seen you take orders so well, Merlin. I may need to get tips from Salas on how to handle you," Arthur said playfully, handing over the soft fabric. Merlin rolled his eyes but smiled slightly.
Merlin took the items over and Salas gestured for him to place them in the centre of the smaller circle. He did and Salas poured more of the mint leaves over them. "Step back," Salas ordered. Merlin took several steps away from the circles. Salas raised his hand; fingers spread, and said, "Ignis."
The knights' possessions burst into flames. Arthur walked closer curiously.
"Ignis, terra, lapis, et aqua, quid maxime desiderant. Per Veteris Religionis, mandamus. Adiuva nos. Save eos. Auxilium eos. Nullam eis!" The fire burst, sending sparks into the water and onto the sticks. It burned, even the water, and Arthur pulled Merlin back a few steps as it grew higher and hotter. Salas stepped back as well.
The fire burned straight up, in the same pattern as the design on the ground. Bridges and outer circle joined and supported a ball of flame floating higher than Merlin's head. Inside, images flashed of mountains, trees, a lake, and a decrepit old castle. Through the castle, it showed them their path to the dungeons where their friends were being held. Elyan appeared to have an injured leg that Gwaine was checking the makeshift bandages on. Percival and Lancelot were searching for a way out. Leon appeared to be standing guard.
"Summergo." Water appeared from thin air and doused the fire. "We have our path," Salas announced.
"Indeed," Arthur said agreeably. "I'll look over my maps. I believe I know a few of those mountain ranges. I may be able to find a shortcut."
"Excellent." Arthur went to find his maps with Salas and Merlin joined the other Druids setting up their camp for the night. He couldn't wait to get his and Arthur's tent set up and go to sleep. He was tired from their ride and couldn't wait to curl up in Arthur's arms.
But, of course, he would have to wait. Because Arthur immediately volunteered to take the first watch while everyone, except he and his watch partner, went to sleep. So Merlin went into their tent after their sparse supper, set up the furs and bedrolls so that he and Arthur could share, and slid under them while Arthur sat by the fire with alert eyes.
But he couldn't sleep, even though he was tired. Without Arthur to distract him, thoughts of their friends swirled nonstop through his mind, making him antsy and eager to move about. As much as he would have preferred to, they couldn't carry on. It was too dangerous to go on at night and the horses were tired. So was everyone else. But with his worries renewing his energy, he wanted to keep on. He couldn't keep the image of Elyan's leg out of his mind. How had he hurt it? Was it their kidnappers' doing? What if it was infected? What if they tried to escape and Elyan's injury got them killed? Or they had to leave Gwaine and Elyan behind? No, they wouldn't do that. Percival would carry Elyan, if need be. But that would slow Percival down and leave him without a weapon. That wouldn't do. They might both die.
"Merlin, do you always worry so much?" Merlin turned over and looked at his prince in surprise. He hadn't realized how long he had been lying there, trying to sleep. He thought Arthur would be on guard for much longer. But now that his prince was safely inside the tent, he could put of his magical wards against attacks and unwanted visitors so he didn't mind. "I could hear your thoughts rushing from beside the fire. You don't pause for breath, even in your head, do you?"
He unbuckled one side of his armour and Merlin rose to help him with the other side. "I can't seem to," Merlin confessed. "I keep going over the worse case scenarios. There are a lot."
"I suppose there are, Merlin. But you have to remember who they are and that all but one of them are intelligent enough to avoid getting into such scenarios," Arthur assured him.
"Now's hardly the time to poke fun at Gwaine," Merlin replied even though he was grinning, as he pulled Arthur's shoulder plate over his head.
"I never said who the one was," Arthur reminded him, chuckling. Merlin just grinned on. They worked together to remove Arthur's remaining armour then Merlin turned down the blankets and gestured for Arthur to get in. "You do intend to share with me, correct?"
"May I?" Merlin asked rhetorically. He knew the answer and knew sleeping alone probably sounded as bad to Arthur as it did to him. Arthur lied down and Merlin released the blankets so they settled over him.
"Of course," Arthur replied. Merlin lied down beside him and Arthur immediately took him into his arms. "No more worrying tonight, Merlin. Sleep."
"I'll try," Merlin agreed.
"Good." Arthur took Merlin's chin in his hand and tilted his head up to look at Merlin's face. "Goodnight, then."
He started to lean in and Merlin shut his eyes eagerly in anticipation of their first kiss. Arthur gave it to him, just not on his lips. He kissed Merlin's nose chastely instead. Merlin pulled back and glared at Arthur in agitation. Arthur just grinned. "What? You don't like my kisses?" he asked playfully when he saw Merlin's sour look.
"That was not a kiss. I want a real kiss. A real, proper kiss. With Tongue!" Merlin told him indignantly. "And hair touching!"
"Hair touching? You mean like this?" Arthur slid his fingers up Merlin's arm to his neck then caressed his way up into Merlin's hair. Merlin felt a hot blush stain his cheeks and he nodded mutely. "And tongue, yeah?" Merlin nodded again. "Like this?"
Arthur leaned in again and flicked his tongue against Merlin's earlobe. Merlin inhaled sharply in surprise. He took the lobe between his lips and swirled his tongue around it before sucking heavily on it. Merlin shuddered. "Or maybe like this?" Arthur rasped, his voice heavy with lust, like something out of Merlin's fantasies.
He didn't know what he was expecting but Arthur tracing his bottom lip with the tip of his tongue wasn't it. He couldn't keep in his gasp but Arthur's didn't seem to mind, as he immediately took advantage of his parted lips to trace the inside of Merlin's lip too. Merlin couldn't sit back any longer. He cupped the back of Arthur's head and pressed in for a real kiss. He didn't care if it was cliché or not. The world stopped, light exploded behind his eyelids, and sparks flew. It was perfect.
They tangled their tongues together and released to caress each other's mouths and stroked over and along each other's back, shoulders, and sides with their hands. Arthur turned them so Merlin was pressed into the ground and Merlin moaned softly at the welcome, warm pressure from Arthur's body. For so long he'd dreamed of having Arthur over him in bed and the reality was a million times better. Arthur pushed himself up on his arms and Merlin ran his fingers from where they were resting on his back up and along his biceps seductively.
"So much better than my dreams," he breathed happily.
"Definitely," Arthur agreed. His darkened blue eyes flickered over Merlin's body. He sighed and bit his bottom lip. "I am going to kill those idiot knights for getting captured. Then I'm taking you back to Camelot, where we have oil and a soft bed, and having my way with you."
"We have oil, my prince," Merlin reminded him excitedly. Arthur could have his way with him right then and there; he didn't care about any potential discomfort. He'd been waiting for years; a bed was the least important thing to him. "Your massage oil. And I can do without a soft bed, if you can."
"Merlin, no," Arthur said firmly. "Not our first time. Our first time will be on a bed. Because it is… more comfortable." Merlin smiled at the way Arthur carefully chose his last word.
"It's adorable how you can't admit you want it to be special," Merlin teased.
Arthur narrowed his eyes at him unhappily. "I'll bite you."
"It's sore," Merlin complained, rubbing his neck and pouting at his prince.
"You asked for it," Arthur said, chuckling. Merlin glared at him, still stroking over the bruise on his neck sourly.
"I said bite me, not maul me," Merlin replied.
"Don't be a child, Merlin. It isn't that bad." Merlin just glared and kept rubbing his neck petulantly. "Oh, for crying out loud," Arthur sighed impatiently. He walked across the tent and yanked Merlin's hand away from his neck. He leaned in a pressed a soft kiss to the purple hue. Merlin smiled as Arthur pulled back and said, "There. All better?"
Merlin wrapped his arms around Arthur's neck and kissed him happily. A little magic vanished away the bruise and the tenderness. "Yes, Arthur. All better."
"Good." Arthur rested his head on Merlin's shoulder and embraced his waist in return.
"Did your father do that to your childhood injuries?" Merlin asked. Arthur felt so good in his arms, even if his shoulders were a little broader than he was used to.
"No, but I always saw peasant women do it for their children," Arthur replied honestly. "Did your mother?"
"Yes. And when she wasn't around, Will would," Merlin admitted.
"I see." Arthur pulled back and looked at Merlin seriously. "Merlin, what exactly was your and William's relationship?"
"He was my best friend," Merlin told him honestly, shrugging. "He was the first person to accept me, magic and all, other than my mum."
"And you weren't romantically involved with him?" Arthur asked.
"Me and Will? No! Never," Merlin said, chuckling. "He was more like my brother than anything. And he preferred women anyway. He was set to marry a girl in the next village over, or at least he was when I left for Camelot. I don't know what happened to their engagement. He might have been still engaged for all I know."
"Oh," Arthur said softly before smiling and leaning in to give Merlin another kiss. "Good. Poor girl, though."
"Yeah. I think Mother gave her the news," Merlin agreed, nodding sympathetically. He liked that Arthur seemed so possessive, even though he had no need to be. Arthur wasn't truly possessive of much, despite how spoiled he was, but what he was possessive of, he also cared greatly for.
He tucked his head into Arthur's shoulder and squeezed him lovingly before releasing him and stepping away. "All right then. As wonderful as that is, we should get a move on. I have to start breakfast." Arthur nodded and Merlin picked up his neckerchief and left. Arthur remained to pack away their bedding. Merlin decided on fish for breakfast and went in search of the stream he knew was nearby. He had hopes for finding some delicious trout. Arthur loved trout.
Arthur, he thought as he fashioned a sturdy branch into a sharp spear magically. Arthur. My prince. Arthur, my prince, who is now...What? My lover? Does that term apply if we've yet to have sex? I certainly can't sit and think of him as my unrequited love anymore. He feels the same for me as I feel for him. So...that makes him simply my love. I rather like that. I wonder if a prince can marry his manservant. That would be wonderful. And a great way to build Albion together.
He speared one fish and tied it by its tail over his shoulder. Of course, Arthur would constantly call me the queen, just to annoy me. And I don't want to be queen, even for Arthur. But even if there's never any official relationship, I'm fine with it. I can still say, at least to myself, "I love Arthur Pendragon and he might love me too," so that's pretty good. And so long as I can tell Gaius and Lancelot, I'd be fine with the secret. I'm good with secrets. Though, I don't think I'll enjoy him having to marry, even just to produce an heir. And I'll hate knowing he has to sleep with whoever he marries. Of course, I may be able to find a spell to impregnate her without the intimacy. Or Gaius may know a way.
"You shouldn't be so distracted out in the open." Merlin jumped and turned to look at Arthur, who grinned at him fleetingly before giving him a stern look. "Honestly, Merlin. You could get ambushed and you wouldn't have time to fight anyone off because your head would still be in the clouds."
"Right, sorry," Merlin apologized bashfully, looking down briefly to show his shame. "I was thinking."
Merlin turned back to his task. "You."
"Oh? What about me, hmm?" Arthur's arms slid around him from behind and he tucked his chin into Merlin's neck comfortably. Merlin smiled and speared another fish, this one half the size of the previous.
"I was just thinking about your future," Merlin admitted. "About your duties to Camelot."
"My duties? When I'm king, you mean?" Arthur asked, pressing an open mouthed kiss to Merlin's neck. "It is slightly sobering to remember I'll one day be forced to take a wife and produce an heir. But I'm sure I can find a noblewoman willing to go through a sham marriage and produce an heir to increase her noble status, even if my heart belongs to you rather than her. Most noblewomen don't have a problem with such things. We may even be able to find a way for her to get pregnant without me having to sleep with her. I would belong to you entirely, body, heart, and soul."
"I was just thinking the same thing. I'll start looking once we're through with this mess," Merlin promised.
"All right." Arthur traced soft kisses up Merlin's neck to his ear and licked the rim languidly. "It occurs to me that you failed to tell me you love me last night."
"You didn't tell me either," Merlin countered, flushing. He started to raise his makeshift spear but Arthur stilled his hand with his own.
"You need me to say it first?" Merlin nodded bashfully. Arthur kissed his ear. "All right," he whispered. "Merlin, I love you."
Merlin turned around and pressed his lips to Arthur's. "I love you too," he breathed contently. Arthur slid his arms up Merlin's back tenderly and pressed him close as they kissed.
"Merlin!" Merlin jumped and blinked his eyes open, half expecting to find himself staring up at the top of the tent with Arthur shaking him awake, but they were still in the river and in each other's arms. He frowned. That wasn't possible. Arthur had been kissing him and calling for him? "Merlin, get away from him! He's not me!"
Merlin turned his head towards Arthur's voice and found his prince on the side of the river with his sword out looking worried. He turned his head to look at the Arthur gripping his arms and gasped at the twisted, angry look on his face. That was not his Arthur. His Arthur would be worried about an imposter with his sword drawn, not angry. He would shove him behind him and draw his own sword. The gentle grip on his upper arms turned vice like and he tried to shove away furiously. "Let go!" he yelled.
"Merlin, you love me, remember?" the imposter growled.
"You're not Arthur!" He twisted and thrashed, trying to free himself, as he heard splashing as Arthur ran to him. The imposter was too strong to be human, he realized as he threw himself back desperately.
"Duck!" Merlin quickly did as told as Arthur swung his sword over his head. He flinched, expecting to feel blood splash onto him as Arthur took off the imposter's head, but he felt no such thing. He raised his head and found no body but no imposter either. He turned his head and found Arthur looking as confused as he felt. "He...was smoke."
"He certainly didn't feel like it. He felt like you. Even tasted like you," Merlin said, feeling nothing but disgust for the kiss now that he knew it hadn't been his prince. Arthur didn't seem angry, thankfully. He was too busy looking around for any potential threats. "Ugh. I told him I loved him."
Arthur froze, bent over looking at the rock the imposter had been standing on with his back to Merlin. "You told him you loved him?" Merlin flushed and turned away. "And he looked like me. Which means...Which means you love me?"
"Shut up and let me fish," Merlin replied nervously. He moved further downstream, Arthur's eyes burning holes in the back of his head the whole time. He couldn't believe what had just happened. And now Arthur knew. They hadn't even truly discussed their feelings passed the desire to snog and know Arthur knew he loved him. That was far more serious than Arthur was probably ready for. Arthur obviously liked snogging him but that didn't mean he loved him.
"Don't you suppose we should go tell the others what just happened?" Arthur asked. Merlin turned his head to look over his shoulder at him. He looked tense, almost angry, and was holding two fish carefully. Merlin straightened. That gave them seven fish, which would be just enough for a small breakfast for everyone.
He nodded and they headed out of the stream towards camp. As they walked, Merlin asked, "Why are you angry with me?"
Arthur stopped. Merlin immediately followed suite. "Why is it that you can tell some smoke figure you love him but you can't tell me?"
Merlin flushed. "Because I don't want to rush you," he muttered nervously. "He made the first move, which made me think you... ugh, that is, he loved me too so I wasn't afraid to say it. I understand you don't love me, of course, but I still couldn't handle it if you actually said you don't. It...It would be awful."
"Why don't you let me decide whether I love you or not?" Arthur asked. "I understand being scared of rejection but you know me. You know I wouldn't just kiss you without feelings or plan to make love with you if I didn't love you. That's not who I am."
Merlin looked down. He had never assumed Arthur didn't feel anything at all for him, he just never thought it would be anything like love. "I'm sorry. I was too scared to hope."
"Well, you don't have to be afraid any longer," Arthur said firmly. He took Merlin's arm and turned him so they were face to face. "Say you love me." Merlin flushed. Arthur took his chin in his hand and said firmly, "Merlin, tell me your feelings."
"I love you," Merlin confessed shyly.
Arthur smiled slightly and leaned in to press his lips chastely to Merlin's forehead. "I love you too. Idiot."
Merlin smiled back. "Prat." Arthur's smile broadened so all his teeth showed and Merlin couldn't resist the urge to trace his tongue along those white teeth. And Arthur allowed him happily. When they pulled back, Arthur took up Merlin's hand and kissed his middle knuckle gently. Merlin smiled. "When did I become the maiden, exactly?"
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Hush, you. You're disturbing our moment," he said firmly.
"And you love me anyway," Merlin reminded him, giddy from the confession.
Arthur rolled his eyes. "And the moment's over," he muttered. He dropped his hand and started walking again. Merlin followed along, still happy even if Arthur wasn't. Arthur turned suddenly and grabbed Merlin's hand firmly in his before continuing on. Merlin laughed.
"You can hold my hand without being grouchy, Arthur," he teased. He tangled his fingers with Arthur's to keep their hands together.
"You're fired," Arthur grumbled under his breath.
"An odd experience indeed," Salas murmured, nodding, after Merlin and Arthur had carefully described the encounter with the smoky imposter so that he had all the facts, but for the nature of the feelings preyed upon. "It must have been a powerful enchanter to conjure a fake prince without you sensing it. And one who knows of you and Arthur's relationship, of course."
"Or at least my feelings for Arthur," Merlin agreed. He bit his lip and looked at Arthur, wondering what his thoughts were.
"I don't think it'll happen again, so long as we all stay together," Arthur said confidentially. "So, Merlin, I'm reissuing my order that you are not to go anywhere on your own. Understood?"
"Well, I couldn't possibly disobey a prince's order, sire," Merlin replied playfully.
"Yes, you could," Arthur said with a laugh. "You could, you would, and you have several times. So, please, don't think of it as a prince's order. Think of it as your dearest friend's hopeful request."
Merlin smiled and slid his hand briefly over Arthur's discreetly. "Well, then. That's definitely a request I could never disobey. I'll stay near."
Arthur smiled. "Thank you."
Merlin turned away from that smile so he wouldn't end up kissing his love in front of everyone. He flipped over the fillet he was cooking and pondered adding another pinch of salt. Deciding it was fine as it was, he turned his thoughts towards the imposter. Could the person - or persons- helping the Gobs have created something like that, something so powerful that he couldn't tell it was magical? The Gobs themselves couldn't have, since they had no magical gifts themselves. But if whoever was helping them had enough power to create such an imposter, why would they need the Gobs for anything? It just didn't make sense to him.
He wondered also whether there was a way to trace the imposter back to its creator but didn't think he would be able to without a new manifestation having to appear. From what little he knew about tracing spells, you needed to have a sample from whatever you wanted to trace for it to work. He really didn't want to encounter another imposter, even to trace its maker.
"I think I'll go take down the tent," Arthur said suddenly. He started to turn and object but Arthur put a hand on his shoulder to stop him and said, "No, Merlin. You stay, finish cooking. I can manage."
"Are you sure?" Merlin asked worriedly. Arthur had never taken any tent down before, that he knew of. He wasn't sure he knew how.
"I've seen you do it quite a few times before. I can figure it out," Arthur assured him carelessly. Merlin didn't feel comforted. He had to dress Arthur, after all. Though Arthur always insisted that was a royal luxury, not an inability. Whatever it was, he wasn't complaining, since he definitely enjoyed that particular task.
He liked bathing him more though.
Merlin continued to cook the group's breakfast but he made sure to glance over at Arthur every so often to make sure he was taking down the tent correctly. He didn't need help, to Merlin's surprise, but his folding skills were abysmal. Merlin would have to give him a lesson later. Once mostly everything was packed away, they all sat around to eat and make a decision about the horses and whether the Druids would continue to accompany them.
"I would like to continue on," Salas told them sincerely. "I have had quite enough of those awful things terrorizing our children."
"I'll not object. Your assistance is greatly appreciated," Arthur replied. Salas bowed his head graciously. "Any other volunteers? Remember, of course, that no one would be thought less of if they chose to return to their families.
"In that case, I think I'll take the horses and return to my wife," Caleb said with a soft smile. "She'll love them, your horses."
"Thank you," Merlin said with a return smile, while Arthur simply inclined his head in acknowledgment and gratitude. "We definitely appreciate you looking after them."
"Of course," Caleb agreed, nodding. "It'll be our pleasure. My daughter will get to meet a prince when you come for them, after all."
Arthur smiled along with them at that. Merlin wanted to reach for his hand but restrained himself, since he doubted Arthur would appreciate it when they were around other people. Maybe once they were around more familiar, trusted people. Arthur might be comfortable enough then for an occasional bout of hand holding, though probably only for a small time every so often.
"Merlin, you're a hundred years away. Come back to us," Arthur said teasingly, giving Merlin's shoulder a rousing shove and bringing him out of his daydreams of Arthur and linked fingers. Merlin turned his head to look at him and smiled.
"Sorry," he replied bashfully. "I was thinking."
"Did it hurt much?" Merlin shoved Arthur over and he laughed even as he fell on his side. "Don't be a grouch. What had you so distracted you missed most of the conversation?"
Merlin flushed and looked around at their companions then shook his head and said, "I'll tell you later," shyly.
"Fine, but I expect later to be quite soon," Arthur agreed. "Back to our conversation then."
It was quickly decided who was continuing on and who returning to their homes. In the end, only four Druids of their group of eight would be continuing, including the scarred man that unnerved Merlin since first seeing him and the youngest of their group, a silent woman named Melody who simply nodded when asked if she wanted to continue on. Those who were leaving, Arthur thanked and shook the hands of nobly. Merlin watched him and smiled. It was times like this – when he was watching Arthur interact with his future people as equals – that always reaffirmed and heightened his belief that Arthur was going to be a great king.
"You have quite a lot of pride in your prince," Salas observed. Merlin just nodded. He couldn't deny it, after all, and he wasn't ashamed of his pride in Arthur at all. In fact, he was even proud that Arthur deserved all of his pride. "He's quite different from his father."
"Yes," Merlin agreed. "He's entirely different."
"I hope to have that proven to us, as your prince is due to be your king soon." Merlin turned his gaze from Arthur to the older man so fast he felt a twinge in his neck. The man's normally brown eyes had gone completely white.
"Salas?" he asked fearfully.
"The king's death draws near," Sal said, his voice taking on an eerie undertone, as if he was speaking from deep inside a distant cavern, rather than in the middle of the forest two steps from Merlin's side. "The new reign begins. Albion comes."
"Albion? Salas, are you alright?" Merlin asked, though he was more unnerved than concerned.
"He's receiving a vision," their other companion, William, said as he grasped Salas's arm and lead him over to stand near the horses. Still alarmed, Merlin looked on until Salas's eyes had finally returned to their dark coloring. Then he looked over at his prince again. Salas couldn't possibly meant have meant that Uther was going to die, could he? He was depressed, of course, even near catatonia some days but no one in Camelot would ever allow him to harm himself and his guard was more than capable of preventing any attacks against him. And Gaius would take great care of him if he took ill or anything like. He wouldn't die. He couldn't. Arthur hadn't gotten to say goodbye.
But…Maybe they should go back just in case. Or, perhaps just Arthur at least should go back to Camelot.
Merlin walked to Arthur's side as the men who were leaving mounted their horses and began on their way out from the forest. "Arthur, you need to go back to Camelot. I'll go to get the knights back but you go home."
"No, Merlin. I'm going with you and that's final," Arthur said firmly, even though he looked puzzled by Merlin's sudden unease.
"But Arthur –"
"Calm, young wizard," Salas broke in. He placed his hand gently on Merlin's shoulder and looked him in the eyes calmly. "He'll have time."
Merlin breathed a sigh of relief. "All right. Thank you."
"What's going on?" Arthur took Merlin's hand and turned him to look at him instead of at Salas. "What had you so upset?"
Merlin bit his bottom lip. He didn't know how to tell him. He didn't really want to tell him at all. He didn't want to break his heart like that. He couldn't. He looked down at his feet, unable to look into Arthur's eyes any longer.
"Your Highness, I just had a vision of the near future," Salas said when Merlin didn't speak. "It was of your father's death."
To be continued…