Due to recent events, this will be the last Merlin fic I post on FFnet (I will continue to post any new SPN fic here).
I'm still writing in the fandom, but all further Merlin fic will be posted on:
AO3: archiveofourown. org/ users/ Heavenly_Bodies/ works?selected_tags=232768
WWOMB: www .squidge .org /~peja /cgi- bin/ viewuser. php? uid=5268
LJ: onthe-razorwire. livejournal. com/
Thank you to everyone who has read and followed my fic and I hope you will continue to on either AO3, WWOMB, or my LJ.
- This is a sequel to and begins immediately after the events of my story The Lee, but it should be readable as a stand-alone piece, though pls keep in mind that it is a sequel with an est relationship.
The story is set after S2, but before S3- note: this basically ignores the detailed events of "Fires of Idirsholas"
- A special thanks to both rainbow_connec and kina54 for talking to me and helping work through some sticky spots. *hugs to you both*
And an extra, extra special, immeasurable, I couldn't have done this without you, thanks and uber hugs to mialoco for stepping up and being the support I needed. *hugs to death (or close to it)*
I don't often do this, but I'm actually dedicating this to my kyokohitsuji, my Arthur, who encouraged me to actually start writing in Merlin fandom (threatening and browbeating and bribing me with Dean/Cas), kept me going every time this fic got the better of me and made me step back when I was ready to delete it all. She's kept me going in fandom and in r/l. She's my Arthur, my protector, who saves me as often as I save her. Two halves, always.
Arthur and Merlin returned to Camelot a couple of days later than expected, but with a large hart in tow.
"Arthur," the king greeted, his tone measured and still. "I understood you to be returning four nights ago, you had some of us worried," he inclined his head toward Morgana as if it was she who had been concerned.
"I'm sorry Father, Morgana. I did not want to lose the trail of such an impressive beast," he gestured at the carcass. "Merlin and I were more than capable."
"Yes," he agreed, a look that almost passed for affection crossed Uther's face, but was gone as quickly as it came. "Do try and send word next time."
"Of course, Father."
And that was that. No mention of the sorcerer, no lectures about Princely Duties, or threats or condescending comments.
No sooner had the King dismissed them than Gaius approached, "Sire," he inclined his head to the Prince. "Merlin. How are you feeling?"
With a warm smile, he honestly replied, "Never better." And if his eyes darted to Arthur and a slight flush hinted upon his cheeks, well, who was the old man to notice?
Gaius smiled and gripped Merlin's shoulders, "I'm glad for you."
"Merlin," Arthur interrupted the reunion. "I need you to prepare a bath and a change of clothes."
"Right, Sire," but Merlin smiled as he said the words, squeezing Gaius' arms, before setting off on his duties.
For the first time in weeks Merlin felt himself again; he could feel his magic thrumming through him and it was beautiful. He sighed and shook his head. He still couldn't believe how the past week had played out; from being miserable and broken, closer to death than he ever wanted to be again, to happy, having his magic back, and Arthur! Arthur accepted him, his magic and his love. Merlin's heart sang. Shaking himself once again, Merlin set about preparing Arthur's bath; he still had his duties after all.
He heard the quiet sound of the door opening and Arthur's familiar footsteps. He smiled to himself. "Almost ready," he called without turning.
Two heavy hands came down on Merlin's slim shoulders, startling the young man. Arthur smirked as he bent over to place his mouth next to Merlin's ear. "You're joining me," he whispered and nipped the shell of Merlin's ear. "But first," he stood, "help me get out of these things."
Merlin sagged and laughed, "Of course, Sire."
Arthur flopped back into his chair, waggling a finger at his servant, "Un-uh, none of that. I've had enough 'Sire's out of you to last a lifetime."
Merlin eyed his prince mischievously and Arthur rolled his eyes throwing his head back, "All right, in here; Father would probably have a fit if you started calling me Arthur at meals."
Still smiling, Merlin shook his head, "Yes, Arthur," and moved to help remove Arthur's boots.
"That's better," he praised, leaning forward to run long fingers through messy dark hair.
"Come 'ere," he said tugging at Merlin's hair gently, guiding the young man up until he could kiss him.
Merlin moaned softly into the kiss, a part of him relaxing now that he knew Arthur still wanted him- there had been a small quiet piece of him that thought Arthur would push him away once they were back in Camelot.
"Bath time," Arthur whispered across Merlin's kiss-wet lips as he pulled away.
"Mmm," Merlin agreed, pulling Arthur up and out of his chair, disrobing each other as they went.
Despite their newfound relationship, life went on as normal; assuming normal now included being pulled on top of your prince every morning when you went to wake him to indulge in some much sought after kissing, and being similarly entangled with said prince when it came to getting him to bed at night. The upside of this was wonderfully lazy mornings wrapped in the arms of his prince, and wondrous and fresh memories to fall asleep to in the evening, when he wasn't actively sharing the Prince's bed. The downside was when Uther sent some poor hapless servant to check after his son's whereabouts, or worse, when one of Arthur's own knights sought him out when he was late for practice.
It was well enough when it was one of the serving girls, few of them saw fit to entertain gossip about the Crown Prince and his manservant. This wasn't so much that there was no gossip to be had, but more so that after over two years all the rumours had been spread and, true or not, no longer held any interest with the castle retinue. At worst there might be some serving girl, new to her position or new to the castle, who would attempt to send a fresh flood of rumours filling the castle walls, only to have her efforts fall short when the elder staff didn't take up the cry, accustomed as they were to the strange ways that always seemed to surround their Prince and his manservant.
But when Sir Leon called through the door asking if Arthur was well and if training should be cancelled for the day, Merlin had to bite his lips to hold in the laugh that threatened to escape. If he'd ever truly questioned Arthur's love, all doubt had been driven from his mind the first day that had happened.
True, Arthur had glared daggers at him as he tried to catch his breath and steady his voice to answer the knight, but once Leon had gone his look turned purely lecherous. "You think that's funny, do you?" he griped as he threw himself on the bed trapping his manservant.
Merlin blushed slightly, more from holding back his laughter than anything else. "Yes, actually, I do," he admitted saucily.
"You…" Arthur tried to admonish, but his heart wasn't in it, could never be in it when he had Merlin so trusting and loving beneath him. Instead, he darted a final kiss to his manservant's cheek, "Leon's right, I need to get to training."
Merlin nodded and slid out from beneath the prince and off the large bed, straightening his clothes and trying to look less like he'd just spent the past few hours in bed with the Crown Prince of Camelot.
Arthur hastily changed into his trousers and slipped on his under shirt and gambeson. He turned to find Merlin holding his hauberk and smiling. He shook his head, unable to do anything but smile back at his lover as he helped him on with his armour.
Arthur virtually bounced his way down to the training fields; he knew it was uncomely for the Crown Prince, but it was a brisk day, the biting cold of late autumn had yet to set in fully, leaving the kind of day he had always loved to train and hunt on, so he decided he could be forgiven.
He was busy sparring when Merlin finally made his way down to the practice fields, and in fact didn't notice him until Sir Leon gave him a nod as he made way for the Prince's next combatant. But noticing Merlin didn't change the Prince's demeanor or distract from his task, neither of them wanted that.
It was only after Arthur called the session to an end and the other knights were making their way to their quarters or the armoury that Sir Leon approached the Prince.
"Sire," Leon dipped his head, "I hope I didn't disturb you this morning."
"Nonsense, Leon, I'm glad you did. I'm afraid my attention had been called away."
"Of course, Sire." His gaze darted between Merlin and the prince, an act which did not go unnoticed by the blond.
"Leon, if you have something to say, out with it."
Leon took a breath and straightened himself, "May I be frank, Sire?"
Arthur merely looked at the older knight with something just short of a glare.
Leon nodded softly, and again looked to where Merlin was gathering Arthur's discarded equipment, before a brief smile appeared on his lips. "We want to see you happy, Sire, and safe. That is all that matters." He watched Merlin outright and unguarded now. "Merlin has proved capable of both, in his own way."
"I see, and you bring this up now?"
The knight smiled and bowed his head before taking his leave without further explanation.
When Merlin joined Arthur a moment later he still held the traces of shocked confusion on his face.
"What's the matter?" Merlin jerked his head in the direction Sir Leon had left, "What did Sir Leon want?"
Arthur still stared after his knight, "I think," he stopped to run the sentence through his head and as implausible as it sounded he pressed on, "I think, we've just been given the blessing of my knights."
Turning, Arthur was rewarded with the same startled expression on his lover and couldn't help it, he barked a laugh clapping Merlin on the shoulder.
After that, Leon's interruptions turned to gentle reminders rather than inquiries as to the Prince's wellbeing.
"Come on, Merlin," the Prince urged. "We have to try it at some point." He really didn't understand why Merlin was being so obstinate; it wasn't as if they hadn't done it before. Alright, so 'before' had been a bit more life and death, but that was all the more reason to find out exactly what it meant. Besides, Arthur kind of missed feeling Merlin in his head, at least he'd known- once he understood what it meant- Merlin was alive and needing him.
Merlin had been doing his best to ignore him, hoping he'd drop it, but Arthur could be incredibly tenacious when he wanted. And of course he wanted this. "Arthur. I don't understand how it happens, what if it has some strange side-effect?"
Looking up from where he'd been idly worrying a well-worn nick in his writing desk, "Have you talked to Gaius about it?"
"Oh yes, I really want to have that conversation with him. Yes, Gaius that lovely attachment I seemed to have to Arthur, well, he felt it too, used it even!" Merlin stopped and tried to calm down. It wasn't exactly Arthur's fault, but it really bothered him that he didn't understand how something that intimate happened. Sighing, "He thinks it stopped when we broke the curse."
"You asked him?" he asked managing to sound warm and incredulous at the same time.
"Well, more let him assume," he admitted under Arthur's stare.
Arthur sat back in his chair, chin in a slack pinch between thumb and forefinger. "All the more reason to try then."
Reluctantly Merlin had to agree, but damn Arthur for having to sound so sensible about it. He landed heavily in the chair by the fire, and shook his head, saying, "You're right."
"Of course I am, Merlin," he smiled cheekily.
Merlin laughed, "Don't let it go to your head."
"How could I with you around always telling me exactly what you think I'm doing wrong."
"That's my job," he teased.
Arthur stood, "No, your job is to see to my needs and keep your mouth and opinions to yourself," he scolded as he stalked towards the young man. "You really are terrible at your job." He bent over Merlin, still seated in the large chair, "And it's a good thing, too." He laid a chaste kiss on Merlin's lips, pulling back telling him, "I want to know. I want to feel you, know you're alright."
Merlin closed his eyes and nodded, letting his magic reach out tentatively for Arthur. For weeks when he was cursed, he'd been reaching out for Arthur, wrapping tightly around him and using him as a beacon. He hadn't put too much thought into it until the day Arthur reached back. Since then they'd only shared the connection a handful of times and those had all been during the curse. Now, reaching out for Arthur like this, intentionally, when he was well, when Arthur was fully aware of it, of everything, it made him feel exposed and vulnerable, and that was on top of worrying if it would have any repercussions on Arthur. All thoughts of repercussions and fears fled when he felt Arthur reaching out for him, his own magic focusing itself onto the feeling and pulling towards its origin. His eyes flew open when he felt Arthur's presence wrap around him like a physical thing. "Arthur?" he panted, scared and safe and needy.
The prince's eyes were dark and steady as they looked deep into Merlin's.
Merlin didn't squirm, didn't want to; he reached up and caressed his lover's face. The, "Arthur," that fell from his lips full of awe and reverence.
"Merlin," Arthur smiled as he said the name, leaning close to kiss him languidly.
Together they stood, kissing and touching, magic wrapping around them demanding tighter, closer, now. Tunics and shoes discarded to the wayside as they moved towards Arthur's huge bed. They were panting, breathless by the time Arthur hit the bed, sitting on it with entirely too much elegance. Merlin climbed on top of him settling in his lap straddling him. Large battle worn hands roamed over Merlin's pale back. The light scrape of every hard won callous over his back, causing Merlin to shiver; all that power, soft and gentle, and all for him. He shuddered beneath the thought and kissed Arthur all the deeper for it, letting his magic twine with Arthur's essence until they were one intense vibration. He could feel it running over their bodies, a physical hum, igniting every part of them.
Arthur's mouth moved to the stark lines of Merlin's neck, mouthing along its length, sucking small darts of pleasure as he went.
Moaning softly, Merlin stretched, tilting his head to give Arthur better access. He barely gasped when Arthur moved; graceful with the prowess of a born hunter he flipped them pinning Merlin beneath him. "Hmmm, much better," he hummed against Merlin's skin the sound in counterpoint to the almost physical sensations of the buzz tingling over their skin.
"Bully," he accused lightly, digging his fingers into Arthur's back and arching into him.
Arthur smiled wickedly as he nipped at Merlin's neck in response. His mouth moved lower over the jut of Merlin's collar bone licking at the dip between them. He loved Merlin's reactions, their open honesty- every touch was met with a hum or sigh or one of a thousand other little noises that Arthur could never hope to catalogue all of, though he relished the challenge. A bitten back cry met his ears as his mouth closed over a dusky nipple, turning to a low keen as he worried the small nub between teeth and lips. He rubbed his face against the dark hairs of Merlin's chest, smiling at the soft tickle. He started when he felt the tug against his mind. The reassuring weight of Merlin's magic had slipped into him, resting as if it had always been there, the way his armour rested against him and seemed to become a part of him, a second skin, just belonging.
He looked up into the deep blue eyes of his lover as Merlin mouthed, "Tease," and combed his long fingers through Arthur's hair.
Arthur took the hint, reaching for the ties of Merlin's trousers, working them loose and pulling them off, taking the opportunity to rid himself of what remained of his own clothing. Climbing back up Merlin's body, his skin felt like fire and thrummed like the taut draw of a bow string, full of power waiting to be released and channeled, and as he laid over Merlin, their bodies lining up perfectly, he heard the sorcerer gasp. His eyes instantly flicked to Merlin's and he saw the telltale golden fire of magic in them. "Merlin?"
"It's okay," he assured, out of breath, "just wasn't expecting it to be that strong."
With a soft smile he began kissing Merlin, playfully licking over his lips, letting their tongues play in the slow dance they so enjoyed, while the hum seemed to settle into them, heightening every feeling, physical and emotional. For hours they touched and felt and explored each other as if it was the first time they'd ever touched, each sensation new and different and glorious.
By the time Merlin panted a breathy, "Arthur, please?" and Arthur sank into him in a slow fluid movement, they both felt as if they were already a part of the other, inside and around, and that this last intimate act was only the physical expression of what already existed.
Arthur pressed his forehead to Merlin's; noses brushing lightly against each other as their breath mingled in steady, shallow bursts.
Lazily intense kisses passed between them, soft and deep- timeless. They rocked together, bodies perfectly in tune, taking up a graceful, effortless rhythm.
"Merlin," Arthur's voice was edgy, frayed, a raw purity in its timbre as he called to his lover, a claim, a plea, a bone deep need for the other man trying to make itself known through sound alone.
Merlin's body responded instantly, knowing, understanding, arching into Arthur as his magic sang through the mixed essence it was entangled in. He pressed against Arthur, pulling them closer, touching everywhere they could, hot skin, slick with a thin sheen of sweat sliding beneath his fingertips. Merlin let out a soft moan, his body speaking more clearly than his voice ever could.
Pulling back Arthur's eyes followed the path of his broad hand, almost engulfing Merlin's face, cradling and caressing its sharp sleek lines.
Merlin's haunting blue eyes stared up at Arthur with an openness that rocked Arthur's core, everything he was, everything he would be, everything he wanted and would give to Arthur was laid out before him like the most glorious banquet.
Arthur made a bestial noise into Merlin's neck, clutching him tightly and rocking back onto his haunches pulling Merlin onto his lap.
"Uh, uh, uh, gods, Arthur…" Merlin gasped, arms tight around the blond's shoulders as Arthur slid deeper inside him.
"Merlin… Merlin, Merlin, Merlin," Arthur chanted over and over, face buried in the crook of his lover's neck; the steady sound a quiet counterpoint to the slide of their bodies.
Soon their rhythm began to falter, Arthur's voice turning to small gasping cries as they held each other ever tighter as their releases began to steal over them.
"Oh gods, Arthur, Arthur, please," he wasn't sure why he was begging or what he was begging for, Arthur had and would give him everything, he knew that, he could feel that thanks to this bond between them, but the words still fell from his lips, a soft, audible expression of how much he needed his prince, his Arthur.
Arthur turned, letting his cheek rub hotly against Merlin's as he panted brokenly, "Together, always," he nuzzled. Planting a wet open kiss along Merlin's jaw as his orgasm began to wash over him, carrying him away like a wave crashing against the shore, and Merlin was his shore, was the immutable comfort that would catch him even as they met this crescendo together.
He heard Merlin cry out, tightening around him as he pulsed deep inside him. Together as always, together.
They lay entangled together, fingers laced being kissed languidly; they could still feel the magic running through them as sleep gradually took them.
The soft almost light of morning was just beginning to ease through the curtains of his chambers, yet Arthur was wide awake, laying on his side propped up on one elbow, watching his lover, his warlock, sleep. He idly traced circles in the fine hair over Merlin's chest as he waited for him to wake.
Lazily, Merlin's hand covered Arthur's, stilling his movements. Arthur looked… pensive was the only word Merlin could come up with; his eyes held a questioning quality he'd seldom seen, and his brow was tense and frozen the way it always got when he was faced with some extraordinary task like running the kingdom or preparing for a war. "What's wrong?" he asked quietly.
Arthur let out a sigh. He'd woken in the night with a thought that he couldn't shake, one that made the pit fall out of his stomach and he dreaded knowing whether it was true or not, but he had to know. "My mother. It was real, wasn't it?"
Merlin pushed himself up until he was half sitting, half leaning against the pillows. He knew where this was going; he'd gone over it himself over and over again since they'd returned. He'd been trying to figure out how Arthur could reach back for him. The only thing remotely close he'd encountered were those times when Kilgharrah, Mordred, and Anhora spoke in his mind, and they were all steeped in magic, but Arthur didn't have magic. …then it hit him, Arthur may not have magic, but he was borne of very powerful magic. In his own way, Arthur was as much magic as Merlin himself.
He squeezed Arthur's hand, lacing their fingers together, and met Arthur's gaze, "It was."
Arthur ducked his head and Merlin could feel the anger tense in him.
"Arthur, please," he soothed.
The blond raised his head, staring into Merlin's eyes, "Am I magic?"
Merlin let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, and cupped Arthur's cheek. "You were born of magic. I don't know if that makes you magic like me" he let his own magic flare and his eyes to burn golden to clarify, "but you are a being of magic. I think that's why this thing, whatever it is, works."
Arthur nodded and kissed Merlin's palm, closing his eyes and pressing into the touch.
Not long ago Arthur would have yelled and railed, trying to bear the brunt of his burden and his feelings alone, now, he was letting the mask slide, if only in front of Merlin, who read him all too easily anyway.
Smiling, Merlin curled his fingers into Arthur's hair urging him towards him.
Arthur came willingly, pressing a kiss into Merlin's neck just above his collar bone as he settled against him.
Merlin wrapped his arms around the blond and burrowed his nose in his silken hair, smelling the faint traces of the soap he'd used the day before mingling with the sweet/bitter tang of sweat. After a moment, Merlin felt a press against his senses. He hid a short, sharp gasp, instead letting his magic tentatively flow out. As he opened himself up, that part of Arthur moved around and through him, stronger and more sincere than any of their previous trials. Merlin held Arthur closer and directed all the love and warmth he had- physical, emotional, and magical- at him.
Against his chest Arthur sighed, a quiet, "Thank you," breathed over his skin.
Slowly, things began to change- Arthur began to change.
On the practice field he was more confident, a feat no one would have thought possible, wielding his weapon as if it were part of him, not merely an extension. He was more focused and as eager to give praise and teach as condemn with words and sharp instruction. When Sir Gienne, one of the youngest and freshest youths to come train with them in hopes of becoming one of Camelot's elite, fell prey to one of the Prince's more complex and confident attacks, he didn't simply snap at him to 'pay more attention', to 'follow the footwork of his opponent or he would fail every time' or some similarly vague command. He said these things, of course, but once he'd disbanded the day's training, he called Gienne over and walked the young knight-to-be through the attack, showing him what footwork he should have seen and signs he should not have missed, the nuances of pressure on the balls of the feet versus the angle of a knee. Any knight knew the basics of these, but seldom had the Prince taken it upon himself to teach any of the younger knights individually.
In council with his father, he grew more bold, questioning and suggesting and actively arguing his points with more passion and thoughtfulness. Whether it was discussion of how best to ration their grain stores for the winter or how many men they should send to investigate the reports of raiders along their southern borders.
It was as if Arthur was settling into himself, becoming the man who would one day be King, and in truth he probably was. He knew more about himself, who he was, what he was, and what he could become and it made him better. And while everyone saw these changes, very few would ever understand the cause, even fewer would believe it. But Arthur knew and with every timid caress of minds, stern look, honest reprimand, and playful smile he knew he was doing the right thing.
"I think you should stay here from now on," Arthur tried to sound casual, almost bored, as he spoke. It had been three weeks since they'd defeated the sorcerer who had cursed Merlin, and nearly every night Merlin had shared his bed, yet most mornings he woke up alone, the space where Merlin had lain the night before cold and empty. This was not to Arthur's liking, he wanted Merlin close. "You can move into the servant's chamber, like any normal servant."
Merlin smirked playfully. "And what would you think if I suddenly began behaving like a normal servant?"
"I would think you were under magical influence obviously," he drawled as he caught Merlin's hand and brought it to his lips. "All the more reason to keep you close by, keep an eye on you and your magical ways."
"You know I have to help Gaius."
"And? I'm the Prince I could order you," though his eyes showed it to be a question and anything but a command.
Merlin rolled his eyes and shook his head.
"Fine." Arthur sat back in his chair, features blank, save for his bottom lip which jutted out ever so slightly in what only Morgana had ever dared describe as a pout.
"Oh, stop pouting," Merlin hummed as he sat in Arthur's lap. "If you really want me to move into the servant's room I will."
Letting the smile creep onto his face, Arthur whispered into Merlin's ear, "I want to not wake up alone."
Merlin pulled back surprised.
"But if you insist the servant's chamber will do."
"But what, Merlin?" It was Arthur's turn to roll exasperated eyes. "I would prefer you in my bed every night- all night, not sneaking out like a thief or some scandalous tryst."
"Your father, Morgana?"
"What about them? Father will think I've finally made some headway in training you to be a halfway decent servant and Morgana, well, she'll figure it out soon enough, if she hasn't already."
Merlin gaped at Arthur's bald words then nodded the kind of smile that made Arthur's heart speed up on his lips.
Gwen was worried.
It wasn't her normal state. Her life was good; she was the maid to the King's ward and she was happy, Morgana had always treated her as a friend more than a servant and over the years she had come to earn that right and was glad to call Morgana her friend as well. She had friends who were as close as any family could be, but something had changed in her hodge-podge of a family. And that was why she was worried. Merlin. He'd stumbled into their little world two years ago and turned it upside down; always smiling, always helping, always standing up for what was right, obstinate even when it could cost him his head, always there. Herein lay her concern. At first, it was a sorcerer's curse that had pulled her friend from her and those around her, and why that was kept such a tight secret she would never know, but now it was something different. It wasn't that Merlin roamed the halls half dead, pale and haunted, dwindling away until someone, Arthur, finally put an end to it as before. This time she barely saw him at all. He was always trailing after Arthur or running this or that errand with never a moment for anyone or anything but Arthur. She was lucky to get a smile and a quick, 'Hello'. It wasn't merely that the Prince was monopolizing Merlin's time, he was Prince Arthur and he had a habit of running Merlin ragged when it suited him, but this was ridiculous. They'd been back from their hunting trip for over a month and Merlin had scarcely left Arthur's side. He'd even had Merlin move into the servant's quarters in his chambers. While that was well and good and to be expected, the servant's quarters were a convenience for the servant, not a replacement for their own bed, there were exceptions of course, but the majority of personal servants lived this way- she herself had been moved into the servant's room adjacent to Morgana's chambers years ago, but her home was still in the lower town. Everyone needed time for themselves, even the Prince's personal manservant. This couldn't be healthy, eventually Merlin would crack, and she dreaded to think what would happen that day. At best Merlin would be banished; the worst didn't bear thinking on.
She watched as Arthur gesticulated and ranted about the gods only knew what while Merlin trailed after him as they left the training fields. He didn't look particular worn or frayed or anything other than 'Merlin', but she knew Merlin, and she knew how well he could hide his own pain when he thought it might concern others- how well, and long he'd hidden his injuries from the curse was proof of that. She was debating her next move when she caught sight of Sir Leon crossing the training fields in her direction.
"Sir Leon, do you have a moment?" she called as the older knight passed.
"Guinevere," he smiled brightly at the young woman, "of course."
Smiling, "Thank you. I was hoping you could help me with something."
"If I can." Leon had to admit his curiosity was piqued; he was hardly the first person Guinevere would approach when she needed anything.
"It's about Arthur." She felt the change in the knight, his slight tensing at the mention of the Prince. "More, Merlin actually." She hoped knowing Merlin was her main concern would relax him.
Leon was hesitant to answer, he knew Arthur had been acting differently of late, and he knew why, but it wasn't his place to share that knowledge with anyone, not even someone he knew to be close friends of both Arthur and Merlin.
"Have you noticed how hard he's riding Merlin." The knight almost tripped at Gwen's innocent words, but recovered himself quickly enough. "We never see him, unless he's running from one errand to another. He never has a moment to himself. I was just hoping…," she bit her lip, but looked at Leon with resolve in her eyes. "Should I be worried?"
Leon rolled the question around in his head, trying to find the best way to answer her without breaking any confidence. "Arthur has his reasons I'm sure."
His reluctance wasn't lost on the young woman. "Arthur always has a reason, more often than not it's his own amusement," she snapped then caught Leon's warning eye. "I'm sorry, it's Merlin I'm concerned for."
"Guinevere, whatever you think is going on you should ask them; all I will say is that Arthur is fully aware of what he's doing." He squeezed her elbow reassuringly and offered an encouraging nod before turning down the entryway towards the armoury.
Unfortunately, Sir Leon's words did little to ease her worries. If anything, his hesitance caused her more concern. She could always follow Leon's advice and try to talk to Merlin directly. Finding Merlin was easy enough; getting him to stop for five minutes to talk that was something else entirely.
The sun was laying its claim to the day, crawling softly over the castle walls as Gwen made her way to the kitchens for Morgana's breakfast. She was more than a little surprised to see a familiar dark head resting against the wall.
"Merlin," Gwen greeted happily.
"Hi, Gwen," he stood up a little straighter and smiled at his friend.
"How've you been?" she tried to sound light and friendly, not at all sure she'd managed it. "Arthur being overbearing again?" she soldiered on adding a small chuckle to her words hoping to belay how truly concerned she was.
"No," he shook his head smiling what on anyone else would've been a dopey smile, but on him was just happy, "Not really."
Gwen bit her bottom lip, "Are you sure everything's alright, it's just we never see you anymore, and I know how tedious Arthur can be?"
Merlin picked up the tray he'd been waiting for, "I promise you, Gwen, Arthur's not being overbearing or tedious." His smile turned playful, almost mischievous, "He's being… nice."
Gwen's forehead scrunched in confusion as she looked to Merlin's retreating form and back again, finally she gave a confused half smile and went back to her errands.
"Gwen thinks you're being overbearing and tedious," Merlin told Arthur as they sat down to share Arthur's breakfast.
"She does, does she?" Arthur replied with a sly smile.
"Mmm," Merlin answered around a mouth full of pork.
"You should spend some time with her. You're always here or running errands for Gaius."
Merlin swallowed hard around the food in his throat.
"Merlin, I know I say this a lot, but this time I really mean it- don't be such a girl. I'm not trying to get rid of you. But as much as it pains me to admit, there is more to life than me," he teased, kicking Merlin's foot beneath the table.
Relaxing, Merlin quipped, "Yes, there's your dogs, your stables, your clothes, your boots, your armour and there's a lot of that- have you ever considered training in your spare armour? It's easier to clean and shouldn't you save your better armour for when it counts? I mean-"
Merlin's words were cut off by Arthur's mouth coming down on his. His tongue teased over Merlin's, before pulling back. "Shut up," he said, placing another short kiss against Merlin's lips, "and take tomorrow off, spend some time with Gwen and Gaius. Then you can come back here, help me prepare for bed," he smirked, "and show me exactly how much you missed me."
"I can show you that now."
"I'm sure you could, but I'd rather not have Leon interrupt us today. I'm afraid we might scar him for life if he keeps having to come fetch me for my own training sessions."
"Finish your breakfast, my stables do need tending after all," he reminded Merlin playfully, cuffing him on the head.
"Yes, Sire," Merlin rolled his eyes and Arthur cast him a warning glare which only caused Merlin to roll his eyes further as he corrected himself, "Yes, Arthur."
At the other end of the castle, Morgana watched as Gwen fussed with one of her dresses, shaking it out and hanging it, straightening an imagined wrinkle, only to shake and hang and straighten again. Eventually, she moved on to arranging Morgana's jewelry, before finally picking up some mending and fidgeting with the material.
Morgana smiled at her maidservant. "What's bothering you, Gwen?"
"Nothing, m'Lady," she denied.
"Come now, Gwen, I've known you long enough to know when something's on your mind, so tell me." She took Gwen by the hand and pulled her down to sit next to her.
"It's silly really." She shook her head dismissively then let out a sigh.
Morgana waited quietly, a small smile on her lips, she knew Gwen would fill in the silence soon enough. She wasn't disappointed.
"It's just… have you seen Merlin lately, outside of the banquet hall or with Arthur?"
She shook her head.
"Exactly, he's never around anymore."
"You think Arthur's putting too much on him, again."
Gwen nodded then changed her mind, pursing her lips. "I just saw him in the kitchens and he seemed fine, happy. I asked him and he said Arthur was being nice."
"That is odd." Her brow furrowed. She patted Gwen's hands, "Don't worry; I'm sure Merlin's fine. Still, I think I'll have a talk with our dear Arthur."
"Thank you." She let out another more relieved sigh and smiled. "That does ease my mind."
"And, Merlin? Try to have it done by the time I get back," Arthur spoke lightly as he opened the door on his way to dinner with his father and Morgana.
"Gwen's right, there is something going on with you," Morgana said, noticing the kindness in Arthur's voice.
It took all of Arthur's considerable self-control not to jump at his almost sister's voice. "I don't know what you're talking about, Morgana."
"Of course not," she said condescendingly as she pushed herself away from the wall she'd been leaning against in wait for the Prince. She kept pace with Arthur as he strode away from her. "Gwen was worried about Merlin."
"Merlin's fine. Why wouldn't he be?"
"She said she never sees him anymore, she's afraid you're being your asinine self and running him ragged."
He stopped and faced the brunette, "He's in my rooms, right back the way you came. I think you know where they are; you were skulking outside them a few moments ago. Go see for yourself, ask him if I'm being an imperious prat."
She knitted her brow, managing to make her eyes widen as the same time, "You don't have to get so defense. We were just concerned."
Arthur let out a deep breath, "Well there's nothing to be concerned about."
All through dinner Morgana watched Arthur, trying to figure out what was so off with him. It was halfway through their meal when a servant moved to fill Arthur's cup and he turned a playful smile towards the boy for a fraction of a moment before his face fell into its normal stoic features. Morgana nearly choked on her food as the realization dawned.
"Morgana, are you alright?" Uther asked, full of concern for his ward.
"Yes, yes," Morgana wiped her mouth and smiled, "a piece of gristle is all, my Lord. I'm quite alright."
"Yes, my Lord," nodding.
Once Uther's attention was no longer focused on her, she caught Arthur's eye and smiled knowingly; at least, he had the decency to blush.
"So," Morgana chirped, right on Arthur's heels as he left the dining hall, "you and Merlin finally figured it out."
Arthur wondered absently if she could sound any more pleased with herself. "Morgana, if there was anything between Merlin and myself, it would be between Merlin and myself.
"Oh, Arthur," she chuckled, "you just gave yourself away. I never said there was anything between the two of you, only that you figured it out."
With a heavy huff Arthur stopped in his tracks. He closed his eyes and spoke very carefully, "I don't care what it is you think you know, Morgana, but it's none of your concern; leave it."
As Arthur began to walk away, Morgana grabbed his arm. "Arthur, wait."
He turned to face her.
"You're right, it's none of my business, but I love you like a brother and Merlin is my friend. I'm just glad you're happy."
Arthur nodded and smiled a little.
Smiling sweetly, "I'll tell Gwen not to worry, that you're taking care of him. You are taking care of him, aren't you?"
Rolling his eyes, "No, Morgana, I'm beating him and over-working him because that's such a guaranteed way to make him love me, showing what a complete barbarian I am."
Morgana gasped, pleasantly surprised by Arthur's admission. "Oh, Arthur," her smile brightened and she kissed his cheek. "I'll let you get back to Merlin."
He bowed his head in thanks.
"Have a good night, Arthur," she added, sweeping away in a swish of velvet.
Arthur flushed, but hurried on his way back to his rooms and Merlin.
It was late when Merlin woke up; at least he assumed it was since the curtains facing the bed were drawn and Arthur was no longer by his side. He stretched languidly, wondering why Arthur had let him sleep in. It had been known to happen before, but generally he awoke to Arthur tracing imaginary lines over his skin or trailing kisses up and down his body before settling on his mouth. This time Arthur was conspicuously not there. Merlin took his time crawling out of his warm bed. He smiled, wondering when Arthur's bed had become his as well. He was just pulling his tunic over his head when the door opened.
Arthur looked up from the papers he was reading to see a mostly dressed, still sleep ruffled Merlin. "Morning, Merlin," he chuckled.
"Why did you let me sleep?"
"You needed it. Besides, I gave you the day off remember."
"You were serious?"
"No, Merlin, I was joking, that's why it's almost noon and you're just now getting up."
"Prat," Merlin muttered through a cheeky smile.
"Now finish getting dressed and go find Gwen, I understand Morgana's giving her the afternoon off," he smirked at his lover.
"Gaius knows you have the day off, that means from all of your duties."
Merlin's bright smile was the only warning Arthur had before he had an arm full of manservant kissing him soundly.
By the time Merlin pulled back, they were both breathless and flushed.
"You know this is no way to get out of my quarters."
"I know," he smiled and kissed Arthur quickly, "but it's a good way to remind you of what you'll be missing."
"Merlin," he called with an exasperated purr, but the man in question was already out the door.
Bouncing on the balls of feet, Merlin waited in the hall outside Morgana's chambers. He'd stopped by Gauis' when he'd left Arthur just to make sure that he wasn't needed, and while Gaius insisted that everything was taken care of, he did mention that Gwen had been to see him the day before.
"That girl worries about you, Merlin, as would I if I didn't know the nature of your relationship with Arthur. I know it's not my place, but if I were you I'd tell her before she asks the wrong person," Gaius scolded gently.
"I was going to look for her when I left here. Arthur said Morgana's giving her the afternoon off as well."
"Good. The sooner she stops worrying, the sooner I can relax, as well," he chuckled lightly.
"Thank you, Gaius."
"For what?" he asked incredulously.
Gaius shook his head fondly and shooed Merlin out of his chambers.
Now he was waiting for Gwen to be dismissed; it felt like ages since he'd actually talked to Gwen and now that he had the opportunity he had no idea where to start. The door to Morgana's chambers opened, side tracking that train of though.
"Hi," Merlin chirped, before Gwen had finished closing Morgana's door.
Jumping, Gwen's hand went to her chest. "Merlin. What are you doing here?"
Smiling happily, "A little bird told me you had the afternoon off."
"How… Morgana just told me," her brow wrinkled in suspicious confusion.
He held out his arm for Gwen to take. "Do you have any plans this afternoon, m'lady?"
"Oh, Merlin," she laughed at his formality, but took his arm. "What about Arthur?"
"Day off, Prince's orders," he explained with an imperious chuckle.
"Alright then, what did you have in mind, good sir?"
"A stroll, possibly lunch," he ducked his head, "and there's something I need to talk to you about, but not here."
She cast a worrying eye to her friend, but was calmed by the happy twinkle in his eye. Whatever it was Merlin wanted to tell her it couldn't be bad.
They'd walked through the castle and lower town talking as Merlin got caught up on the castle gossip, stopping occasionally for Gwen to admire a new scarf or trinket in the market, until finally they were outside the town walls away from all the hustle and bustle.
"So what was it you wanted to tell me?" Gwen urged as they sat in a small clearing to eat.
Merlin sighed, head lowered nervously, this had been much easier in his head. He rubbed his fingers over the knuckles of one hand and looked up at his friend through thick lashes. "I don't want you to worry about me."
She chuckled, "Merlin, I'm always going to worry about you. You're my friend. A true friend."
Merlin matched her chuckle. "Which is why I don't want you to worry. I'm happy, Gwen."
She cocked her head giving him an appraising sidelong look. "And Arthur?"
He could feel the colour rise on his cheeks, "Arthur's the reason I'm happy."
Her eyes slowly widened as she began to understand. "That's why you're always with him," she said in hushed tones. She looked down and anywhere but at Merlin, trying to process this new information and surprising herself with how little the revelation shocked her. There had always been a deep tension between them, their bickering friendly and companionable more often than not, and she knew, whether or not Arthur would ever admit it, that he actually listened to Merlin's counsel. In fact, when she thought about it, it seemed almost ridiculous for her to think Arthur would ever truly cause Merlin harm. She shook her head. "I should have known."
"Are you… do you…" Merlin stumbled over his words.
"Merlin!" she snapped.
He stood as if to leave Gwen alone.
She grabbed his hand and pulled him closer, laying his hand to her chest and smiling up at him. "I wish you'd told me earlier."
Merlin smiled sheepishly and shrugged. "I haven't really had the time."
Gwen shook her head as she laughed, "Sit down, and tell me everything."
He sat giving her a devilish look from under his thick eyelashes. "Everything?"
Merlin laughed as Gwen's dark skin darkened under her blush.
Dusk was falling when they reached Gwen's home. She smiled sweetly and pressed her hand against Merlin's cheek. "I'm glad you're happy."
"Thank you," he hesitated. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner."
"You've been busy," she teased and kissed him on the cheek. "I'll talk to you later, Merlin. Arthur's probably waiting for you."
Merlin smiled, returned her kiss, and left to return to his prince.
Merlin would never forget the day Rowan came to court. Despite being such a large and powerful kingdom, minstrels seldom came to Camelot. Probably because most minstrels performed some form of magic, whether simple trickery or true spells and none of them would be foolhardy enough to seek patronage in a kingdom where magic was punishable by death.
Rowan's arrival had been inconspicuous enough. He'd stood with the other peasants and stray sons of lowly gentry wanting audience with the King for every purpose from requesting help with food stores to pledging fealty and requesting a chance to become a knight of the realm. When his time arrived his request was simple- a chance to entertain the King and his Court.
"Sire, my only wish is to entertain you and your Court. I have performed before the lords of Tirmawr, Caerleon, Mercia, as well as several Houses in the Northern Plains. I would be honoured to add Camelot to that list, if it pleases Your Lordship."
Uther sat coolly on his throne rubbing his fingers together the way he often did when considering a problem or request. He cast a look to Arthur, who inclined his head in deference to the King. Uther raised his chin, "Very well, you may perform for us at dinner this evening."
Rowan smiled, "Thank you, Sire." He bowed deeply and left.
Such a simple entrance for someone who would shake the tenuous foundations of destiny and the kingdom it would create.
The evening meal was winding to a close when the minstrel entered. He bowed first to Uther, then Arthur, and finally the Lady Morgana.
"If it pleases Your Majesty, I shall sing of the Lion and the Dragon, a cautionary tale of Fate and Destiny."
The King nodded and waved the young man to continue.
"The Lion was a warrior of great renown
The Dragon- the heart and the soul of magic
A fate foretold from olden times
A tale of destruction and sadness
For it is said that if the Dragon and Lion would ever unite,
They shall bring great sorrow upon the land.
As with every tale it doesn't begin at the end.
It began with birth
A child born of magic and love
A destiny foretold and the Lion was born
Far away in another land a child was conceived
Magic would run through his veins as blood to a man
The Dragon would awake inside him
And the power of the Old Religion would be his.
Twenty summers passed as warrior fought and struggled against magic - a generation or more
Twenty summers passed as the Lion grew in strength and power
Twenty summers passed as the Dragon discovered his ability
Twenty summers passed, neither aware of each other or their fate
Twenty summers passed before Lion and Dragon met
Twenty summers passed before the world changed
It did not change in a burst of light or a sudden quaking of the earth,
But change it did as history would show.
As time moved on, the Lion began to trust the Dragon
For he had many powers and had often aided the Lion
Without question or demand, content to be in the Lion's shadow.
Often the Dragon, full of faith and devotion, would advise the Lion
Doing only what he thought right, but this friendship grew
Until they were no longer equals, but one,
One mind one soul, the union of the Lion and the Dragon
And then the world shook with power.
Beware the union of warrior and warlock,
Lion and Dragon can never unite."
Uther applauded grandly, heaping praises upon the visiting minstrel, any story of magic and its evils delighted the king, and this tale seemed to bring him exquisite joy. "Wonderful, absolutely wonderful," he beamed. He motioned over to the Steward, "See that our friend has lodgings and food. We would be pleased to hear more of his tales," he smiled and turned back to the bard, "if he is willing."
"Of course, my Lord, it will be an honour."
Behind Arthur, Merlin paled, hand shaking as it hadn't in months as he held the pitcher of wine ready for Arthur's call. He couldn't see the flash of fear that lighted Arthur's eyes as the minstrel's tale spread out before them.
As soon as the door was closed and they were safely ensconced in Arthur's quarters both men allowed their guard to slip.
"What was that about?"
"I don't know… maybe it is just a story." The words sounded hollow and wishful in Merlin's own ears.
"Or it could be something more." Arthur stomped across the room flinging his jacket onto a chair.
"Arthur," Merlin tried to sooth even though he was feeling just as rattled. "It's a story that's all, it has to be," he said, walking over to stand next to his prince, letting their fingers intertwine.
Arthur turned to look into his warlock's deep blue eyes, seeing the same things he always saw there- love and trust- but he also saw the slight edge of fear. He took a deep breath and let his mind go, not quite reaching out, but waiting for the warmth he knew was between them. He smiled when he felt it and Merlin's grip tightened. It never ceased to amaze him how easily it was for him to find Merlin, it was as if he was always around him; he chuckled, maybe he was. It was a comforting thought, one that dispelled the tales of a travelling minstrel and left only them. Arthur released Merlin's hand, wrapping his arm around the young man's waist and pulling him close.
Merlin went willingly letting his own arms fall over Arthur's shoulders and their foreheads rubbed together.
"Just a story," Arthur agreed and Merlin nodded. "Now that that's settled." He kissed the perfectly bowed lips in front of him, teasingly. "I think I should prepare for bed."
Merlin chuckled, "Yes, of course, Sire."
Arthur growled at the epithet and pounced.
The next day Merlin stood before the minstrel's door with an armful of sheets and bedding that he'd gotten off of the maid on her way to the room. He took another in a long line of steadying breaths and knocked on the door.
His soft rapping was answered with a kind, "Come in."
Merlin slipped into the room, setting the bedding down on the table beside the bed and began to change the bedclothes.
"You don't need to do that. I have prepared my own bed before."
Merlin didn't try to stop the bark of laughter or the bright grin that spread across his face. "At least someone around here does."
The other man smiled, "Mmm, nobles."
"Yeah. I'm Merlin." He held his hand out to the minstrel.
"Rowan," he said, shaking Merlin's hand. His handshake was firm, but not intimidating just him.
"I heard you in the Hall, you're good."
Rowan lowered his head in a slight bow of thanks, "I merely tell the tales."
"And write a few of your own," Merlin added.
Rowan chuckled, "Yes, but the nobility doesn't pay to hear my tales. They want the stories they know, ideals they can relate to."
"I don't know, the King seemed to enjoy the one from last night," Merlin hinted.
"What? The Lion and the Dragon? Much as I would like to claim it, it's not one of mine, though I've yet to hear of another in my trade who tells the tale. I thought it would cater to the King's tastes."
"Yeah, you got that right. I haven't seen him that happy since his last pyre." He was fighting down his nerves. If the story wasn't one of Rowan's making then it was conceivable that it had foundations, the kind that would haunt both himself and Arthur if he ever found out. Cocking his head and knitting his brow, "How'd you learn it?"
Rowan sat on his half made bed and smiled fondly, "My father taught it to me." His smile flickered for a moment. "It was my favourite when I was a child."
"Was he a bard, too?"
"Something like that…" Rowan pointed at the empty space on the bed urging Merlin to sit. Once Merlin had taken up the young man's invitation, he continued, "Father was a scholar, he specialized in the legends and prophecies of the Old Religion. He wasn't a magic user," he added hastily, tensing as if he thought the mere knowledge of the Old Religion might get him hung, or worse.
"Never said he was," Merlin assured hurriedly. "Besides, I don't think just knowing about something makes you a part of it or evil."
Rowan relaxed. "I've heard how harsh your King is where magic is concerned."
Merlin huffed, "Don't worry, I don't think knowledge is anything to be persecuted for," and smiled softly. "You said your father was a scholar, did he tell you where the story came from?"
Rowan eyed Merlin for a moment before asking, "Why are you so interested?"
Merlin tried to shrug indifferently, a move that made his long limbs and body seem even more gangly. "I know enough to pay attention to legends, besides your story, it could have been Arthur."
"But Arthur wasn't born of magic," Rowan noted.
Merlin cringed inwardly. "And the rest of it? The war against magic. It's been just over twenty years… if Arthur's in danger I want to know."
"You really care about him." It was a statement not a question.
"Well, he's a royal prat, but he's a good man," Merlin tried to explain.
Smiling. "It's more than that."
"He's my friend."
"In my trade, a big part of what makes a good minstrel is being able to read your audience."
Merlin cowed slightly, knowing better than to argue against the truth.
"The story. Father said it was part of an ancient prophecy, he said that in his research even the Old Religion considered it old."
"Older than the Old Religion?"
Rowan laughed, "I don't know. I don't even know how much of that was truth and how much was him trying to hold the interest of an eight year old boy."
"What else did he tell you?"
Cocking his head, Rowan asked, "You really are worried about this?" He didn't wait for Merlin to answer, didn't need him to, as he'd said, reading his audience came with the trade. "I know he found several mentions of it in the old texts, but there was one, he said it was so old it was only heard in whispers. It was inscribed 'on a wall in the caves of Óflár on the outskirts of life, passed civilization as we know it, down through the valley of Lygnes and just before the ends of the earth.' What that means I have no idea."
Merlin's brow was furrowed as he rolled over Rowan's words. "Thank you," he said absently.
"Merlin, it's just a story," he assured.
"All stories have to start somewhere."
Rowan made as if to answer, stopping himself and offering a weary smile. "With friends like you, Arthur has nothing to worry about."
"Gaius," Merlin called, distractedly bounding into the physician's rooms. He was worried. If Rowan's tale truly was from a prophecy… the great "Destiny" Kilgharrah raved over could be condemning Arthur and Camelot, not helping them. And it would be just like the overgrown lizard to only be using him to destroy Camelot. Gods, sometimes he hated destiny and prophecy. "Gaius!" He needed the old physician's advice now more than ever.
"What is it, Merlin?" Gaius asked tersely, coming out from behind a set of shelves. Immediately, his voice softened at the obvious agitation the young man was in. "What's wrong? Is it Arthur?"
Merlin collapsed heavily on the small bench next to Gaius' worktable. "Yes. No." He took a deep breath, "I just spoke to Rowan."
Gaius set down the jars he had been holding and sat next to Merlin. "The tale he told." It wasn't a question and by his gentle tone Merlin knew he'd been thinking about the similarities, too.
He nodded. "It's from a prophecy, from the Old Religion, maybe older."
"Older than the Old Religion?" the old man sound both awed and skeptical; "How does a minstrel come across such a thing?"
"His father was a scholar."
"Exactly." Merlin shook his head. "What am I going to do, Gaius? I can't tell Arthur, not until I know more. He's already worried enough."
"We'll figure something out, my boy." He squeezed Merlin's shoulder warmly, smiling at him. "You and Arthur have a great destiny, of that I have no doubt."
Arthur paced. He wasn't a pacing person, he acted. He didn't like being unsure, nor did he like the agitated walking back and forth across his rooms he was currently engaged in, but he had a dilemma. The words of the minstrel echoed in his ears the way they'd echoed through the silent dining hall, "Beware the union of warrior and warlock, lion and dragon can never unite." The words haunted him; they were so close to words spoken to him in the woods by a sorcerer not two months past; who boasted of freeing the future of 'the union of wizard and warrior'. The words were just too similar for comfort.
He took a deep breath, "Right," and huffed it out, marching towards the door. He didn't stop until he reached the library. The place was huge, and quietly intimidating. When he was a child he used to come here to hide from his nurses, no one liked the haunting emptiness that the rows upon rows of bound parchment filled the hall with. It never really bothered him, the cold stone of the castle was familiar to him regardless of where in the castle it actually was, and the quiet sounds were so much more appropriate here than in his chambers where they only served to enhance the Prince's solitude. But that was many years ago, now, Arthur was a man of action and had little interest in books- oh, he understood their value and the value of scholars like Geoffrey and men of science like Gaius, but books were not for him. Still, he found himself standing, rather nervously, in front of the keeper of the archives.
"Sire?" Geoffrey asked as if it was the most natural thing in the world for the Crown Prince to be in this part of the castle. "Did you need something?"
Arthur slapped himself mentally, he was the Prince, books and bookworms shouldn't set him off his equilibrium. Pulling himself up he exuded the calm and controlled state he didn't feel. "Yes. The tale that young minstrel told about the union of wizard and warrior cursing the land."
Geoffrey's brow furrowed. "Sire?"
"I can't help thinking I've heard such a tale before, but I can't recall where." It was close enough to the truth, and there was no need to create an elaborate ruse when the truth would suffice.
"You wish me to look into it?"
"Yes." Arthur looked thoughtful for a moment, but shook it off. "Let me know when you find something."
"Of course, Sire," Geoffrey intoned, nonplused by the daunting and somewhat odd task.
With a curt nod and a feeling of satisfaction mixed a hint of dread settling in his chest he turned and wandered back towards his chambers.
For many weeks dressing Arthur had been far from a formal affair, if it ever was one, with Merlin laying lazy kisses on the soft spaces between Arthur's neck and shoulder's before slipping on whatever jacket the prince deemed necessary that day. Letting his hands linger on Arthur's calves, almost petting, as he helped him remove his boots.
Arthur was no better, snatching sweet kisses to Merlin's palm as he helped straighten his collar, running fingers through his hair whenever it was in reach. For all his aloofness Arthur was a terribly tactile person, he liked to touch and to be touched. It was why he'd taken so readily to combat- the exchange of blows, while not what one would call comforting, was nevertheless a tactile exchange; one he'd known how to read and control almost instinctively. With Merlin however, everything was different, his touches were so far from anything he'd felt before it was almost as if he was unreal, an imagining. Which was why what Arthur was about to do was so hard.
Geoffrey had come to him the day before with a large tome showing the story the minstrel had told. It read almost exactly as Rowan had told it, it was a prophecy, a relic of the Old Religion saying after two decades of struggle the union of the dragon and lion would bring about the destruction of a great kingdom. Arthur had read and reread the passage, willing the words to change or have some other meaning. But it had to mean them; it was no great leap to see Merlin as the dragon, he was a dragonlord, after all, and as a warrior he had more than once been referred to as a lion, the great cat was emblazoned on his armour. It was just too close to risk. He had to do something. He couldn't let Camelot be destroyed because of where his heart led him. He still didn't believe Merlin to be evil, he had too much love for everyone to be truly evil. But there was only one thing he could really do. He couldn't be with Merlin anymore, but he couldn't just cut him out of his life, if he did that Merlin would know something was wrong and the last thing he wanted was for Merlin to know the truth- if he found out the prophecy was real he'd do something stupid like try to disprove the prophecy and gods only knew where that would lead. So, no, he'd have to do this slowly, it would hurt, more than anything he'd ever felt, he knew this, but one day he would be King and would have to put Camelot's needs above his own.
That night when Merlin moved to kiss him, Arthur held him close committing every touch and sensation to memory. He petted and stroked him taking in the soft giggles and light catches of breath, the moans and pleading words. He took his time preparing him, feeling the velvety inside of his lover and whimpering every time Merlin's muscles twitched or clenched around his fingers. And when he finally pushed into him slowly, relishing every inch as if it were the first time, he buried his head in Merlin's shoulder and cried. He felt Merlin's power sinking into him like a familiar caress and he force himself not to reach back, afraid Merlin would feel what was happening, but he soaked up the feeling of peace and happiness it brought him all the same. He thrust slowly, not wanting his last taste of this perfection to be rushed and hard, he wanted to remember it for eternity, he wanted it burned into his soul, a brand he could never remove.
Merlin wrapped his legs around him holding on, a hand sneaking into Arthur's soft hair, kissing his shoulder and neck, whispering endearments that shot like burning daggers into Arthur's very being.
Tears were falling down his face in earnest and he tried to lick them away from Merlin's skin as they fell, not wanting him to discover that his breathy moans and cries were sounds of heartache as much as pleasure. It didn't last long enough for his liking, he wanted more, he wanted forever, but their bodies sought release, singing together, reaching heights he'd never dreamt of before they came, pulsing around each other in a way he'd never feel with another- this was solely theirs.
Arthur didn't pull out right away, holding himself inside Merlin, feeling his too sensitive flesh twitch and shrink, but he couldn't give it up, not yet. Just a little longer.
Long finger caressed his back in soothing strokes. "What's wrong?" Merlin whispered.
"Nothing," Arthur lied, hoping the rawness of his voice would be taken for ecstasy and not sorrow.
"Mmm," was Merlin's only response as he continued his slow petting.
"It was just a hard day." That at least was true.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"No," Arthur answered hoarsely. "Can we just…"
Merlin smiled into his neck, nuzzling softly. "Always," he said, which just made Arthur hurt all the more.
When it was all over and Arthur lay sleeping in his arms, Merlin stopped denying what was happening. He knew Arthur secretly had Geoffrey researching the prophecy and he'd felt Arthur holding back when he'd reached out to him. Merlin held Arthur that much closer, fearing the worst- that he'd decided to end this, to pretend they were nothing more than friends at best. And gods help him, but he'd take that, accept it greedily if it meant Arthur would still keep him close and not turn him completely away. Merlin didn't sleep that night, he spent their last night together watching Arthur, mapping every line of his face with the ghost of his fingertips, letting his hand roll over the gentle curves and hard muscles of his chest, placing barely there kisses to every inch of the skin he could touch, memorizing his taste, and hoping it would last long enough for him to find an answer, to prove the prophecies wrong.
The following weeks were worse than Merlin could have ever imagined. Arthur not only removed him from his bed, but was slowly pushing him out of every aspect of his life. There was always something to keep him away from the training fields, he was always sent to help Gaius instead of accompanying him on hunts- "You know you're rubbish on a hunt, all the game know we're coming before we do." He wasn't even needed to wait on him at dinners and the only reason he was ever at council meetings was when he was attending Gaius. But the final blow came when Arthur began to block even the gentlest brush of his magic against him. Arthur had stopped intentionally reaching for him the same day he made him leave their bed, but for weeks he could feel Arthur's accidental touches, the instinctive ones when he was worried or simply thinking about him. Now, even those were gone. For his part Merlin was doing his best to go on as normal; he'd spent over two years pretending so much more, pretending he was alright should've been simple.
Merlin went about his duties, such as they were, trying to keep a smile on his face despite the pain he was in.
It had eased Gwen's mind to see Merlin and Arthur's relationship settling, Merlin had more time to talk, occasionally even help her with her work. But soon she began to realize Merlin's smiles were a half-hearted façade at best, and the spring in his step was anything but. As the days wore on even those smiles faded into nothing. More than once she'd thought she caught him crying in the Prince's chambers.
After everything Merlin had been through these past months, Gwen couldn't bear to think that some new malady had befallen her friend, let alone that Arthur was ignorant to it. The thought that Arthur might know and Merlin was still in such pain was even more horrifying.
When practice had been called for the day, patrols set, the other knights disappearing their own ways, "Sire?" Leon warily approached the prince.
Arthur sighed, he knew he wasn't at his best these days. The confidence and assertiveness he'd been showing leaving him, seeping away like water trickling towards a crack in the floor, drop by drop finding escape. He hated to realize how much more he had been and be reminded that Merlin was what had made him more; it was these times that he questioned the prophecy most. Still his fighting skills remained greater than any of his knights, no matter how brave, but he knew his regression was starting to show in other significant ways, and he really didn't need Leon pointing it out, however tactfully. "What is it, Leon?"
"We were just wondering, about Merlin, Sire?" he asked hesitantly.
Arthur flinched, of all the things he might have expected, that wasn't one of them. "What about him?" he replied rather more terse than necessary.
Leon ducked his head slightly, "Merely, he hasn't been looking himself, and some of us were concerned and as you are closer to him than any of us," Leon let the implication hang. In truth Arthur's well-being was what had Leon and the other, more observant, knights concerned, but Leon knew Merlin's state had to be related to the Prince's. And he hoped that by asking about Merlin, he would give Arthur a guise to answer under.
"Merlin," Arthur sighed. How did one tell someone that the problem with their friend was that you had broken their heart, quite possibly shattered it beyond all recognition, at least if it resembled what you'd done to your own in the process?
"Forgive me, Sire," Leon tried to quickly reverse the conversation, realizing belatedly how sore the subject was, "it's not my place."
"No, Leon," Arthur closed his eyes and pushed down his emotions like the prince he was, "Merlin needs his friends." The prince turned on his heel and walked away from his knight without further explanation.
Leon watched Arthur leave, the man seemed defeated somehow, his prowess was still remarkable, but the drive he'd always had was muted. That combined with Merlin's strange behaviour was enough to cause him concern. He considered talking to Gwen; he was fairly certain she knew about the Prince and Merlin's relationship, and he knew she could be trusted to be discreet, but decided Gaius would be a better choice. If there was something physically wrong with either of them the physician would know.
"Ah, Sir Leon," Gauis greeted the knight when he appeared in his doorway. "Is everything alright?"
"Yes, thank you, Gaius. I was hoping to have a word," he looked out into the hallway to make sure no one was nearby, "in private?"
"Of course, come in," he reached behind the knight to close the door as he entered.
"Is Merlin here?"
Gaius look taken aback by the inquiry, "No, I haven't seen him all day. Did you need to speak to him?"
"More about him," he admitted.
Gaius arched his eyebrow, questioningly. "What about him?" he asked hesitantly.
"Is everything alright with him?"
Again Gaius was surprised by Leon's question. "He's… well enough."
Leon sat down, showing he wasn't going to be easily dismissed. "He's not 'well enough' and you know it. I only want to know if we need to worry. Arthur has been off, almost as long as Merlin has. You can't tell me it's not related?"
Gaius sighed and sat down across from Leon, examining him closely and weighing how much to divulge.
"Gaius, I know."
"Exactly what is it you think you know?" he asked suspiciously.
"Who do you think got sent to inquire after Arthur when he was late for training or council meetings?"
The old man relaxed, nodding, "There are things none of us can help with, things that are beyond our control. Beyond the control of those we care about."
"So there is something wrong. Sorcery?"
Shaking his head, "Not everything is caused by magic."
"I know, Gaius, but given Arthur's history."
Despite the situation Gaius chuckled. "True." He sighed. "It's not sorcery."
"You aren't going to tell me what's going on."
"It's not my place."
"You would tell me if they were in danger?"
"If there was anything you or anyone else could do for them I would not hesitate."
Leon nodded once, it wasn't the answer he wanted, but it was as good as he'd get from the old physician. The knight stood to leave, reconsidering his idea of speaking to Guinevere; still, he thanked Gaius with a bob of the head and a quick word.
It was during the afternoon's council meeting that Leon made his decision. Merlin had been there with Gaius, head bowed and looking bedraggled and broken. But if Merlin looked bad, the Prince looked worse. Arthur's eyes never once strayed to Merlin as they had once done; instead they were trained at a spot a few feet before his father, where those granted an audience stood to make their case, but it was obvious to anyone who knew the Prince that he wasn't seeing at all. If possible he looked even more defeated than earlier, his countenance sending the same message as Merlin's.
Morgana had barely been able to sit through Uther's council meeting. She knew she wasn't required, but she also knew how valuable it was to keep abreast of what news there was to be had, be it about upcoming visits from nobles or a request for assistance from one of the outlying villages. It told the mood of the kingdom and her King. It also allowed her to watch the members of court and their attendants, which often provided more amusement than the most renowned court entertainers. But today her attention was drawn to Merlin, as it had been inordinately often for weeks. As well as he'd looked in the weeks immediately following his 'illness' he looked that much worse now. She'd hoped it was her imagination at first, but others were noticing it, too. She'd overheard two of the household servants worrying over Merlin's health just the day before. And Frederik, one of the stable boys, had confessed to her that Merlin had been almost blindly mucking out Arthur's stalls every day for at least two weeks and he never smiled or joked or even noticed the other stable hands as he used to..
Gwen had confessed that the kitchen staff were so concerned they'd come to her to ask if she knew what was affecting the young man, and to her own despair she didn't have the vaguest idea. Their worries only emphasizing her own.
Morgana had a very good idea of what or who was responsible for Merlin's worrisome behaviour. Unfortunately, she couldn't send all of her ire towards her idiot, would-be brother, for the simple reason that he looked as miserable and haunted as Merlin. It didn't take a genius to understand that something had happened between them; it only remained to discover exactly what. Knowing she would only continue to get angry if she was forced to watch the two men any longer, she quietly spoke her words of pardon to Uther and at his gentle nod, she left.
As soon as the council drew to a close and he could slip away, Leon went in search of the Lady Morgana and her maidservant.
Gwen answered Morgana's door at the first knock. "Sir Leon," she said surprised.
"Guinevere, do have a moment?"
"Who is it, Gwen?" Morgana asked from further inside her chambers. "If it's Merlin let him in."
"It's Sir Leon, m'Lady," she called back.
"Sir Leon?" Morgana appeared at the door. "Leon, is everything alright?" she asked nervously, it wasn't like the knights to come to her chambers unless there was a danger in the castle.
He gave a slight bow, "Yes, my Lady, all is well. I'm afraid I came to speak to Guinevere, if I may." He looked at the young woman, "It is a matter of some urgency."
"What is it, Leon, what's the matter?" Though they were friends the knight was not one to seek out her company in such a manner.
He lowered his head to her and spoke quietly, "Merlin."
Morgana's acute ears heard the young man's name and she instantly reacted. "Come in, Sir," her voice was firm. She moved into her rooms leaving the other two to follow. Sitting, she held Leon's gaze, "If this has to do with Merlin you can speak it to us both."
He nodded his understanding.
"Has something happened?"
"That is what I had hoped Gwen could answer." He turned to Gwen. "When we spoke before, I assume you found your answers."
He darted a look at Morgana before continuing, choosing his words carefully. "Arthur had been so enthused, yet now, he seems to have lost much of his drive and Merlin had been so much in the Prince's company and now... I had to wonder if some ill had befallen him."
"Some ill may be about to befall Arthur," Morgana purred dangerously. "Where is Arthur, at the moment?" she asked almost too sweetly.
"I don't know, my Lady, he was still in council with the King when I left them."
She got up, her dress billowing with the suddenness of the movement. "Thank you, Leon," she said as she brushed past him.
Leon shared a nervous look with Gwen. "Did I say something?"
Gwen just shook her head not knowing how to explain.
"What happened between you and Merlin?" Morgana demanded.
"What? Morgana, nothing, not that it's any of your business," Arthur lied, trying to sound as indignant as possible, and with anyone other than Morgana it would have worked.
"Don't give me that. He's been a ghost these past weeks and getting more so every day; it's worse than when he was so ill before your little 'hunting expedition'."
Anyone else and Arthur would have argued the point and its implications, but Morgana was one of the few who had gotten the truth, or parts of it from him, so he knew, more than ever, arguing would be futile.
"You are the only one who has that kind of power over him," she accused.
"Morgana, you don't understand, it's complicated."
"I don't know what you think you're playing at, Arthur, but I'm telling you this, here and now, stop it," the words came as a syrupy growl from his almost sister's mouth, all the more frightening with their sweetness. "It's killing both of you," she added softly, then turned without another word, heading down the hallway towards her chambers.
Arthur closed his eyes and leaned against the wall as Morgana stalked off; he knew she was right about Merlin and himself. But she wasn't right about him being able to 'stop it', Camelot was more important than either of them.
Morgana closed the door behind her, seething inwardly; she didn't know what was going on between Arthur and Merlin, but she would see it ended. It was bad enough to see Merlin disappearing in front of her, but her little exchange with the Prince told her that Arthur wasn't faring much better. Despite his posturing and years of experience at reigning in his emotions and reactions, she had grown up with him, she knew him unlike many others would ever have the chance and she knew his pain when she saw it.
"Gwen, fetch Merlin for me would you?"
Gwen looked up from where she was mending one of Morgana's dresses, "Of course, m'Lady."
Morgana smiled, "And tell Arthur, I require Merlin's assistance for the remainder of the day. I'm sure he can find some other servant to order around for a few hours."
"Of course," Gwen tried to hide her amusement as she bid her lady farewell to go find their friend and break the news to Arthur.
Merlin knocked at Morgana's door, despite what Arthur thought, he did know that knocking was appropriate.
"Enter," Morgana's melodic voice called.
"You wanted to see me?" Merlin asked hesitantly.
Morgana stood and walked over to the gangly young man. Taking his hands in hers, she drew him back to where she had been seated. "Sit."
Huffing, "Don't 'm'Lady' me, we've never been on such pretenses before and there surely are no reasons now." She patted the chair across from her. "Now, sit."
Merlin nodded once and did as he was bid.
Morgana reached out a deceptively fine hand and raised Merlin's chin so that their eyes met. "What's wrong? And don't tell me there's nothing," she cut him off before his excuses and denials started. "I see how you've been, we all have and we're worried."
"It's nothing really," Merlin answered without really thinking, even with Morgana's warning.
"Morgana, it's nothing anyone can help me with," he admitted, resignation echoing as a sour note in his voice.
"It's Arthur. He's being an idiot about something, isn't he?" She watched Merlin closely as she spoke looking for any sign or reaction.
"It's not his fault," Merlin whispered.
"Then what is it?" she encouraged, but was met with a weary silence. "Merlin, please."
Merlin shook his head and made to stand.
A strong hand gripped Merlin's wrist. "No. You are staying here until you tell me what's going on."
Merlin didn't flinch. "I have to get back to Arthur."
"Arthur can look after himself for an evening. Gwen's already told him you will be attending me for the remainder of the evening."
With a heavy breath Merlin sat back down, head hanging despairingly. He had no idea what to say to appease the formidable woman in front of him and before he knew what he was doing the words were slipping over his tongue. "There's a prophecy, Arthur thinks it's about us and the destruction of Camelot."
"You can't be serious?" She couldn't believe what she was hearing.
"You can't tell him I know." Merlin's eyes got wide; almost frightened. "He thinks he's protecting Camelot and I can't tell him to stop doing that any more than I could tell him to stop breathing."
"But Merlin, he's destroying you both with this nonsense; never-mind the kingdom."
Merlin shook his head. "He's Arthur, he'll be fine."
Morgana shot out of her chair, shaking with annoyance. "You're as much of a fool as he is if you truly believe that." She moved to the window that looked out over the courtyard, glowering at the world since Arthur wasn't there to glower at and Merlin was already eating himself up over this stupid prophecy.
The quiet in her chambers lasted for long moments. Morgana sighed and moved back across the room kneeling down in front of Merlin. "What's wrong with you, Merlin? If it were any one of us you wouldn't let us believe such foul things. If there's a chance, why aren't you trying to prove it?"
Haunted, watery blue eyes met hers. "Because what if it's true? How could I stay knowing that even that small closeness could bring down everything Arthur cares for. At least now, I know there's a chance that it is wrong and I can stand by his side as close as he will have me."
A pale hand caressed Merlin's cheek, "Oh, Merlin." Shaking her head, "For once I agree with Arthur, you're an idiot," she chided none too kindly. "You need to try, for your sake and Arthur's." If she knew anything about the young man before her, calling Arthur's safety into question would assure he took action.
At first Merlin didn't speak, thinking over Morgana's words, trying to look at everything from another point of view. She was right, of course. If this was anyone else, if it was Morgana or Gwen, he'd be doing everything in his power to disprove the prophecy. But this was Arthur, this was magic and the Old Religion, this was Destiny, this was everything. "I wouldn't-"
"You won't," Morgana snapped.
"What if it is true?" Merlin tried to keep the pleading out of his voice.
"Then we find a way to make it wrong," she said matter-of-factly. "Merlin," her tone was gentle, "you and Arthur belong together; as sure as I am of the sunrise, I know this. The only thing that will bring down Arthur and Camelot is not having you by his side." She smiled beautifully at him. "Now, how do we disprove this prophecy of yours?"
Merlin stubbornly refused to answer outside of, "It's more complicated than that. Even if I wanted to, I wouldn't know where to start." He saw Morgana begin to tense again so added quickly, "Gaius is trying to help me. Maybe, if we find something…" he hoped she'd understand.
Reluctantly, the brunette nodded, "Alright. But Merlin, you will come to me."
He knew it wasn't a question and smiled a relieved smile in return.
After weeks of pulling away and distancing himself from Merlin, it finally happened. Arthur'd succeeded. It hurt like daggers pounding into his chest when he realized that Merlin no longer said "Sire" to stir him up, it was always 'Yes, Arthur' or 'my Lord', more often the latter. And their link, he no longer felt it's gentle, reassuring pressure against him. He hadn't reached out for Merlin in weeks, so he couldn't be all that surprised that Merlin seemed to have given up, no matter how much it hurt him to admit it.
He dismissed Merlin mid-morning, not long after he'd made the realization- it wasn't as if he wouldn't have found something far away from him for Merlin to be doing anyway. He'd tried, but he just couldn't be near his manservant, even for the shattered moments he allowed himself, knowing he'd succeeded in pushing him away so completely. It made something deep inside him ache and he wanted to reach out and snag Merlin back, wrap him in his arms and never let him leave. He knew he wouldn't sleep that night, not that he'd slept well since effectively forcing Merlin out of their bed. It was as if the warlock had wormed his way into his very being. And wasn't that what the prophecy had warned of in its twisting way. That thought hurt almost as much as pushing Merlin away did. He didn't want the prophecy to be true, couldn't bear it to be, but if it was… if there was the slightest chance that he could bring about the destruction of Camelot by letting Merlin into his heart then he had to do everything in his power to stop that, no matter the cost to either of them.
That evening he broached the question he'd been debating all day. "Perhaps you should go back to Gaius'," the prince couldn't look at Merlin as he spoke, he couldn't see the hurt and pain that matched that in his own heart. He knew if he did, he'd tell him everything, the prophecy, how the minstrel and the sorcerer had been right that they could never be- the fate of Camelot hung in the balance.
Arthur had expected many things from his statement, but not this utter silence, it froze him to the core. "Merlin, it's not…" he shifted taking a deep breath forcing himself into the cold, detached mindset he'd been taught since birth. "This could never work, Merlin, you know that, we're from two different worlds," worlds that can never meet, his mind provided, pushing away the knowledge that they had fit together perfectly only weeks ago.
"As you wish, Sire," Merlin answered softly.
Arthur flinched, and his insides coiled in on themselves, he absently wondered if this was what dying felt like. Just as he was about to turn to face the man whose heart he was breaking as surely as he was breaking his own the door to his chambers eased shut leaving him alone in the emotional torture chamber he had made for himself.
Outside the prince's chambers, Merlin didn't run, nor did he cry; he walked in something like a daze back to the physician's chambers and into his old room. Then, once safely inside with the latch set, he collapsed onto the small cot and let the tears fall.
It was night when he felt the gentle hand on his back, "Do you want to tell me what happened?"
Merlin sat up slowly, his whole body ached, his cheeks burned with the salt that dried over the now taut skin. He looked at Gaius and knew the old man understood.
Gaius wrapped his arm around the dark haired young man, "Arthur is just confused, give him time and he will see. He's not his father; he won't be so easily cowed by hearsay and soothsayers."
"Maybe not in general, but for Camelot. There's nothing he wouldn't do for his people."
Gaius didn't try to argue, he knew, however sadly, that Merlin was right; Arthur would never risk hurting the people of Camelot, not for his own happiness. He quietly rubbed Merlin's back as the young man leaned into him, seeming smaller and more lost than he had even in his first days in Camelot. He feared what this rift would mean for the two men and for Camelot, Merlin and Arthur were destined to be side by side- he didn't need the Great Dragon to tell him that.
Almost three weeks had passed since Arthur had 'suggested' Merlin move back to Gaius' rooms- Merlin, being Merlin had summarily ignored him- each spare waking moment of that time the young warlock spent in the bowels of Camelot's archives following hint after hint of the prophecy Rowan spoke of. And tonight hidden in the depths of these musty stacks Merlin found the first glimmer of hope. Buried in the unremembered annals of an ancient and long forgotten realm the mystical words read like the sun slipping through a cloud break.Words etched in the stones of Rúnviðr, ancient in our ancestors' time, speak of the lands becoming one; prosperity and fertility unimaginable. "A generation shall pass from birth to manhood before the dragon and lion shall befriend each other. But beware- the union of dragon and lion shall bring upheaval and unrest to the kingdom, the ways of magic a destructive force when coupled with unfettered power…" A warning to be sure but the rewards of the balanced power shall be those to rival the gods own gifts.
Merlin's eyes widened as he read and reread the passage, and he begged it wasn't his mind playing tricks or his lack of sleep that caused the words to appear and their meaning to bring him hope. As quietly as he could he wrapped the worn parchment in a smooth protective cloth, storing the other scrolls and tomes he'd been reading away lest Geoffrey have his head for mistreating his archives as surely as Uther would have it for his magic, before sneaking out of the library and back to Gaius'.
"Gaius!" he called barely able to contain his excitement. His exclamation was met with a soft grunt from the sleeping physician's form. He was vibrating with so much energy he was surprised he managed to clear a spot on the workbench without sending tubes and bottles and equipment clattering to the floor. Once he'd cleared enough space he laid his precious find down and moved to Gaius' bed, shaking him gently, "Gaius?"
With a startled swat in Merlin's direction the old man rolled over squinting up at Merlin's smiling face. "Merlin?" He looked around getting his bearings. "What time is it?"
"Um, early? Or late? I'm not really sure." He rocked back on his heels as he made room for Gaius to sit up.
"Fine, fine, why did you wake me?" the slight hint of annoyance only a vague undercurrent in his words.
Merlin stood, walking to the bench and tapping the book, "This."
Immediately Gaius perked up. "You found something?"
"I think so."
Gaius scrambled to pull his glasses on as he sat in front of the old manuscript to read the passage Merlin indicated.
"Well?" he asked anxiously once the physician had finished reading.
"This certainly provides more room for interpretation."
Merlin nodded, trying to keep his excitement in check, this hardly contradicted the prophecy, but it gave the first hint of a different meaning and at the moment that was enough. "These stones, have you heard of them?"
"Oh yes, in the whispers of ancient myth." Gaius turned toward his charge, "If these stones do exist and you could find them, they may hold your answers. I think you have something here, Merlin. The question becomes, what do you do with it?"
And that was the question, where did he go from here.
Merlin was confused, he wanted to go to Arthur to talk to him, but he couldn't; the Prince had already pulled away from him to the point that even their meagre and stolen touches before his curse, before Arthur knew his secret and before they had become lovers were things to be sought after and cherished. Tonight had been no different, after some final orders and reminders of the morning's schedule, Arthur had dismissed him with barely a word. Merlin had kept his eyes down the entire time, he had been doing that more and more, he couldn't bear to see the hollow closed off look in Arthur's eyes, eyes that only weeks ago had sparkled and smiled.
He leaned against the firm stone wall outside Arthur's chambers pressing his forehead against its welcoming chill. He knew he couldn't continue like this, with Arthur's growing distance and his own fears. This prophecy was carving an ever growing divide, wider and deeper and more insurmountable than his magic ever could have. Merlin knew he couldn't do this by himself, not for much longer; Gaius would listen to him and offer what support he could, but the words would be all the ones he'd told himself, the ones he used to get by day in and day out, while Arthur left him bit by bit. They would be good words, true words, words like 'at his side' and 'see the truth' and 'trust', but those weren't the words he needed. He needed to be able to do something, waiting was killing him and destroying everything he and Arthur had ever had. In his brain Morgana's words and understanding rattled and thudded, she wanted to help, she wanted them to be happy, and if he knew Morgana she'd be as much about action as Gaius was about patience. But going to Morgana would mean telling her the truth. Then again she was magic, even if she still didn't understand it; maybe they could each other. With a deep if shaky breath Merlin pushed himself away from the cool comfort of the wall, and made his way towards Morgana's chambers, it was still early and he knew she wouldn't turn him away.
He knocked hastily on her door, trying to find a reasonable explanation for his being there if Gwen answered; fortunately it was Morgana's raven locks that greeted him.
"Merlin," she breathed as if his presence was a relief, beckoning him in with a soft, "Come in."
He followed her, closing the door firmly behind him, he would prefer to throw the bolt to lock it, but he knew that would most likely make matters worse. Instead, he took up the seat he'd taken up the last time he was here.
"So, are you finally going to tell me?" she asked simply, smiling. She'd been waiting for Merlin to come to his senses about this idiotic prophecy and his body screamed that he was here to talk about just that.
Merlin gulped and rubbed his suddenly sweaty hands along his thighs, "I don't know that you really want to know this," he admitted hesitantly.
Morgana laid a fine porcelain hand over his as it clawed at his knee. "You can tell me anything, Merlin, don't you know that. Besides, I told you, I want to help. Whatever this is, it's killing you both."
Merlin nodded mutely, staring at her hand on his and chewing softly on his lower lip. "I'm magic," he blurted out.
Morgana tensed for the briefest of moments before relaxing, never moving her hand from where it covered Merlin's. "Does Arthur know?"
Still not looking at her, he nodded.
Morgana squeezed Merlin's hand, "Good." Chuckling softly, "I suppose I can't call him a complete fool anymore." She turned a bright smile on Merlin as she slowly eased back into her fur padded chair. She had questions of her own about Merlin and his magic, but they could wait.
Merlin watched her hand slip from his, following it as it moved across the fabric of her dress to rest with her fingers brushing her lips thoughtfully. There were many expressions running across her face, but fear, disgust, and hatred were not among them.
"So this prophecy," she said eventually, "it has to do with your being magic."
"Yes," he whispered.
"Come now, Merlin, you'll need to tell me more than that. Or do you want us to play at questions all night?"
"Sorry, it's just…"
She pursed her lips, "No, I'm sorry, Merlin. I can't imagine how hard it was for you to tell me." She took his hands again, squeezing tightly. "Thank you- for trusting me."
Merlin looked up quickly catching her eyes, "I should have told you before."
Holding his gaze, "We can talk about that later," she told him.
"No." He looked away almost bashful at the sharp tone of his own voice. Here Morgana was trying to help him and he snaps at her. He raised his head slowly watching her expression carefully. "I can help you… learn to use it. I'm still learning," he added quickly, shaking his head rapidly as if to assure her he wasn't that powerful, despite what Kilgharrah said and the things he'd already done, "but we could…" he shrugged a single shoulder as he trailed off.
"Oh, Merlin," Morgana cupped the young man's cheek. "We deal with this prophecy, get you and Arthur back where you belong. Then we can talk. The gods know, I'd like that." Her smile held a hint of sadness, but was genuine all the same.
For the first time in what felt like weeks he truly smiled. "Okay," he agreed.
"Good." Morgana sat back, "Now, tell me everything."
Slowly Merlin told her about the curse some months ago and the wizard's words- that he'd 'saved the future from the union of wizard and warrior'.
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Morgana reacted. "Oh gods, that minstrel. That was what started this?"
"But surely it was only a story," she insisted.
"I went to talk to him. He learnt the story from his father, a scholar; it was one of Rowan's favourite legends when he was a child. Then Gaius found similar prophecies mentioned in several of Geoffrey's books. That's why I know Arthur knows. Gaius was having trouble finding a book; turned out Geoffrey had it to show to Arthur."
Merlin felt Morgana's hand cover his once again and squeeze. "And his answer is to cut you off. I take it back, he is that big of an imbecile."
Merlin gave a dry chuckle. "I found something last night. A passage. It didn't say the prophecy was wrong, but it hinted that what Rowan and that sorcerer said was incomplete, that maybe it wasn't a bad thing."
"Gods, Merlin, why haven't you shown this to Arthur?"
"You know how he is. He won't hear of it, he won't even acknowledge what he's doing, forget his admitting why."
Morgana sighed angrily, knowing Merlin was right. Sometimes she truly couldn't understand Arthur's stupidity. "Alright. If he wants to be an ass."
"Morgana," Merlin chided, "it's not-"
"Yes, yes, I know, not his fault, only thinking of Camelot, it doesn't make it any less true. If he was truly thinking of the well-being of the kingdom he'd know he needs you." She sighed heavily, shaking her head fondly. "Even now, you're defending him."
Merlin shrugged, "I'll always defend him." He laughed mirthlessly, "It's my destiny."
He gave her a look from under his eyelids, telling her he knew what she was saying full well, but it didn't change the fact.
"Fine." She wasn't happy, but she knew Merlin was every bit as stubborn as Arthur, which if she was honest wasn't always a bad thing.
"It talks about something called the stones of Rúnviðr. Gaius said they were thought to be myth."
"What do you think?"
"They have to be real." He swallowed hard. "They can't not be."
Morgana smiled, finally one of them was doing something.
The door shut behind him as he left Morgana's chambers. She was willing to help him however she could, but what he needed now was information. If these stones were as ancient and secret as they seemed, there was only one being he knew who might know about them. He would go to Kilgharrah, he didn't want to, he wasn't even sure the dragon would speak to him after their last encounter, but he had to try.
Merlin made his way through the castle and slipped through the city gates. Following the trail to the clearing he'd last seen the dragon in, he turned his head to the sky and called, "Draca ales ge andgietes ácwiðee clipunge fram úre cynne," and waited.
He huddled under a tree and watched the clouds blow over the moon to pass the interminable time. As always his thoughts turned to Arthur and what this was doing to him; he knew the prince put up a near perfect front, but there were some who would notice- Morgana for one, Leon for another, and Gwen of course. A soft thumping pulled him from his musings as Kilgharrah landed in front of him.
"What is it tonight, young warlock?" the dragon's voice boomed.
"You are a dragonlord," the dragon answered as if it explained everything.
Merlin considered Kilgharrah's words, wishing again he knew more about a dragonlord's power, and hoping that if this nightmare ever ended he would be able to, but now he had more urgent matters. "I need to know about the stones of Rúnviðr."
"The stones of Rúnviðr? Why would you need to know of them?"
"There's a prophecy," he swallowed, hoping it was wise to tell Kilgharrah even a little of what he knew, but he was desperate, "Arthur… he believes it is about us."
Chuckling, "The young Pendragon is correct. The prophecy etched on the stones does concern the rise of Albion and your parts in it."
Merlin's jaw set; that much was at least as he feared, but the dragon had not said what that prophecy was, which gave him a whisper of hope. "Where are these stones?"
"The stones are deep within the Mountains of Bleyn. They have not been seen by human eyes in thousands of years."
"Then it's time someone saw them."
Merlin checked and rechecked his pack for the fifth time in the last hour. He wasn't sure how long he'd be gone, and he refused to think about how long it would take Arthur to notice. He barely saw the prince anymore, despite all but sharing quarters. That was partially his own doing; it hurt too much to be that close to him and have Arthur treat him so coldly, so he'd taken to staying out to all hours, either in the archives researching the prophecy or waiting in one of the disused rooms near the stables until he was certain Arthur was asleep or more likely the sun was peeking over the horizon. He'd creep up to Arthur's chambers, lay out his clothes and fetch his breakfast leaving it silently at his bedside knowing the smell would wake the Prince quickly enough. Arthur never acknowledged Merlin's absence; if he did he never voiced it to anyone, and given how Arthur had been treating him he could only assume he didn't care. He'd waited until Arthur was out training with his knights and snuck back into his room and packed. Only Morgana knew he was leaving; he didn't dare tell Gaius for fear he'd try to talk Merlin out of it or worse go to Arthur. No, it was better this way with only Morgana, his conscience, and Kilgharrah knowing where he was going and why.
Morgana knocked quietly against Arthur's door. "Merlin?" she called, easing the heavy door open.
The young man's head popped around the door that separated his room from the rest of Arthur's.
"Are you ready?" she asked.
Merlin gave a half-hearted smile, but nodded. He had to do this, whatever the outcome.
"Are you certain about this?"
"No, but it's mine and Arthur's only chance. I have to take it."
"The word of a dragon?" she asked incredulously, trying to hide her concern.
"Yes, the word of a dragon," Merlin affirmed, a hint of a smile on his lips.
"He tried to destroy Camelot, how can you be sure he's not trying to do that now?" Her argument was ill-founded even to her.
"He won't. He can't," Merlin assured her. He'd told her about the dragon, he'd had to. He'd told her how he'd stopped the attacks, and why Kilgharrah had to obey him. He'd left out the part about Mordred and how he had brought about Kilgharrah's release. Merlin remembered how much Morgana had cared and risked for the boy and he didn't think this was the time to tell her about Mordred's true nature.
Morgana didn't like it, but she nodded. There was much she still didn't understand, but she trusted Merlin and if he was willing to trust the beast then she would share his trust.
"I'm having some food prepared for you to take; the kitchens will let me know when it's ready."
"Won't that alert Arthur?" he asked, worried.
"Not for a while, I told them I was to be riding out for the day. If anyone questions it later, I'll just say I changed my mind." Smiling, "I am the King's Ward, and a woman- they aren't likely to doubt me in this."
Merlin chuckled, only Morgana could turn what she normally thought of as prejudice in her favour. "Thank you," he said, though it didn't seem like enough.
"Nonsense, you're my friend, Merlin." Care and concern poured from her eyes and smile. "Come now, you should probably wait in my quarters in case Arthur returns early and decides to come looking for you."
"That'll be the day," he laughed sadly, but picked his pack up and followed her out into the corridor anyway.
Two hours later he was entering the Darkling Woods heading for the Northern Plains and the mountains beyond.
"Morgana!" Arthur growled. "Where is my useless manservant?"
"He's your servant, Arthur," she replied calmly.
"Yes, but it seems he's been in your service more than mine of late."
A playful smile tugged at her lips. "Arthur, you have barely seen Merlin in weeks and when you do you send him away."
"He is still my servant."
"Whatever, Arthur, but don't come claiming I have taken him, when you so obviously no longer want him." Angry fire burnt in her eyes and she knew her words stung, but she couldn't help the heat she felt. She knew this stupidity was hurting Arthur as much as Merlin, but Arthur should have been the one going off to disprove the prophecy, not Merlin; Arthur was the warrior, he was the one who should be fighting for the one he loved.
Pain flickered over Arthur's face. "You don't know anything about Merlin and I," he growled deeply.
"I know enough," she said, more calmly.
Arthur's chest was heaving as if he'd been fighting a battle rather than arguing with his almost sister.
"You are a fool, Arthur Pendragon, but Merlin loves you- no matter how hard you push him away, nor why. He still believes in you with all his heart."
Arthur turned away from Morgana's words, wanting to walk away from them and their truths, but he couldn't, just as he couldn't simply send Merlin away, remove him from his service, from the castle, from Camelot. He needed to know Merlin was safe, and he knew Merlin wouldn't just leave if he was told to, so Arthur kept him as close as he dared, yet somehow he'd disappeared. "Three days." He spoke softly. "He's been gone for three days. I had hoped he was hiding here, avoiding me, but none of the other servants have seen him, neither has Gaius. He's just… gone."
Morgana's heart ached for the two men. She placed a loving hand on Arthur's shoulder, she knew how hard these small revelations were for him.
"I never thought he'd just leave. I always thought he'd at least tell me." He pulled Morgana's hand closer and squeezed it.
Morgana swallowed, not certain how much to give away. Merlin was her friend, but Arthur was in such pain. "I don't believe Merlin would leave without good reason. I'm sure he'll return. You mean too much to him."
Arthur turned to look at her, "I wished I could believe that."
"Believe it, Arthur."
"You know where he is." It was a statement.
"I know he left for your sake, both your sakes, and he will come back."
The pain in Arthur's eyes was enough to bring down the kingdom. "Morgana, please, I need to know."
"Why, Arthur? Will you go after him, bring him back here just to continue to push him away, to make the rest of us watch as you slowly kill the two of you? I can't, Arthur. When Merlin returns it will end, one way or the other, and I have to have faith that it will end well." She smiled and kissed Arthur's cheek. "I'm always here, Arthur. Despite everything I say about you, you are still like a brother to me."
Arthur pulled Morgana into a tight embrace. "Tell me he's safe."
Arthur barked a laugh through the tears in his eyes then kissed Morgana's hair. "Thank you."
He left Morgana's chambers only slightly less concerned, at least he now knew someone knew where Merlin had gone, and if the infuriating man wasn't back in three days then he'd push Morgana further. He'd gotten her to at least agree to that. He didn't like the decision, but he doubted he had another course to follow.
Three days had never passed so slowly in all of eternity, Arthur was convinced of it. Three days he had to think and stew and question. The first day he was still angry with Morgana; that she knew where Merlin was, yet refused to tell him. Then he was mad at Merlin for going off so recklessly- alone, without him.
By the second day, he'd realized how stupid it was to think that, considering why the idiot had gone without him- he, Arthur, was an ass. Why would Merlin have come to him, he was the reason Merlin had left to begin with. He'd also given up pretending that every fibre in his being told him that Merlin was right, that they were right. Every moment seemed to accentuate Merlin's absence. It had been bad enough when he'd been the one pushing Merlin away, but even then he knew the man was nearby, somewhere in the castle or perhaps running errands for Gaius. Now, though. Merlin wasn't in the castle, wasn't picking herbs in the forests outside. Arthur had no idea where his servant was. Though sometimes at night he thought he could feel Merlin close, but he knew that was merely the undercurrent of the bond they shared. Merlin had long ago stopped seeking him out that way and he hadn't searched for his lover in even longer. He'd wake up shivering, wondering if he should try to reach for Merlin, but the fear of what he might find was too much.
When the third day finally arrived Arthur was ready to break out of his skin. He was actually relieved when he was interrupted during his breakfast by Morgana welcoming herself into his chambers. His eyes flicked over her casually resisting the urge to start demanding Merlin's whereabouts from her.
Morgana sat down across the table from him, "I don't know where he is."
Arthur almost choked on the slice of pork he was chewing. Coughing, "What! You said you knew where he was going."
"I know what he's looking for, but I don't know where exactly he was going," she explained.
"You let him go off on his own, not knowing where he was going?"
Arthur's tone worried her, she'd expected him to be upset and angry, but he sounded frustrated and a little scared. "Arthur, I'm sure he's fine," she tried to comfort.
"He's not fine. He's Merlin, that's about as far from fine as you can get," he snapped, standing and pacing. "You've got to know something, Morgana."
"Arthur, calm down, it's not going to do any good going off like this."
He walked over to the window looking over the courtyard and drew in several deep breaths, "I know. I know. You're right, I just… I had hoped to be able to do something."
"All I know is he was looking for the stones of Rúnviðr, they are supposed to hold the original prophecy that started this nonsense."
"He knew about the prophecy?"
Morgana nodded. "You were already pulling away from him and he knew you wouldn't risk Camelot for a possibility. He kept researching it though and found these stones. I told him to tell you." She huffed, "Neither of you are very good at listening to me."
"Morgana," he begged.
"I'm sorry, Arthur, I just…" sighing. "He spoke to the dragon; he told him where to find them. Merlin left the next day."
Arthur's head snapped up at the mention of the dragon. "He went to the dragon?" An almost maniacal smile broke out on his face. "Kilgharrah knows where he is then." He grabbed Morgana and kissed her cheek. "I must see Gaius."
"Arthur, wait!" she called after the man all but running for the physician's chambers.
"Can you do it?" Arthur asked, hope in his eyes for the first time in weeks.
"You want me to summon the Great Dragon? Here?" Gaius repeated slowly, eyebrow arched as if it was asking its own question.
"It doesn't matter where; I just need to talk to him."
"Arthur, you do realize this is the same beast that killed half your men and was laying siege to Camelot."
Arthur nodded once, "Yes, I do. But he knows where Merlin is," he continued as if that explained everything, and in a way it did.
"Arthur," Gaius shook his head, "even if I knew how to summon him there's no guarantee he'd come, I am no dragonlord."
"Can we go to him?" Morgana asked from her seat on the bench next to Gaius.
"To him," Gaius laughed then stopped, cocking his head. "Actually…" He stood to go examine a shelf of books. Pulling one out he flipped through to a page of intricately sketched crags and cliffs. He set the tome on the table between them. "It's all rather vague, but if he's anywhere he's here."
Morgana and Arthur shared a look.
Between the three of them and some very confused looks from Geoffrey, they pieced together what they thought was a map to the desolate mountain range that had once been home of dragons before the Purge. And Arthur was currently scaling one of those crags. Just as he reached the plateau he heard a rumbling, deep like it was coming from the earth itself.
Uncurling himself from his perch, Kilgharrah turned a sleepy eye on the intruder. "To what do I owe this pleasure, young Pendragon?"
"Where is Merlin?" Arthur demanded, nonplused.
Laughing deeply, "Why would I tell you, Arthur Pendragon? What concern is it of yours? You threw him away like some toy you grew tired of. Perhaps the young warlock is better off without you, able to fulfill his destiny without your distraction."
Arthur glared at the huge beast, the very creature that had attempted to destroy everything and everyone he held dear only months ago; the only creature who could help him find Merlin. He knew he couldn't command the answer from the beast, any more than he could command the winds- he huffed at the thought that his bumbling Merlin could do just that. "I need him to come back to Camelot," Arthur admitted.
"That is no concern of mine. And if that is the only reason you wish to find Merlin then I would you leave here, now, before my patience runs thin." He flapped his huge wings as if reminding the prince of the kind of power he was challenging.
The prince sagged, "I need him to come back to Camelot," he tried again, giving away more than he wanted to the beast.
Kilgharrah raised a brow, and lowered his head to eye the prince. "Now that, young Pendragon, might be worth something."
Arthur closed his eyes, taking a steadying breath before opening them again to stare into one enormous amber eye, "Please."
"Well, well," the dragon laughed. "A Pendragon asking me for assistance; how can I refuse?"
It took everything he had not to rage at the overgrown lizard mocking him.
"Calm yourself, your warlock has travelled to the Mountains of Bleyn. Hidden in their depths lies the root of his quest."
"The Mountains of Bleyn are more than a week's ride from Camelot. He cannot possibly have travelled that far."
"Ah, again, young Pendragon, you are rash in your thinking. There are other ways for such a powerful warlock and dragonlord to travel, much faster ways."
Arthur's shoulders slumped, how could he hope to reach Merlin if he'd used magical means.
"I should never have doubted," he whispered to himself.
"If we all dwelt on what we should have done, life would not go forward for any of us."
Arthur had to chuckle at the dragon's words, feeling their truth sharply at the moment. He watched the animal curiously for a few moments.
"What is it, young Pendragon? You have something to say." Normally he wouldn't bother himself with a human's thoughts, but this was Arthur Pendragon and he knew better than anyone or anything the young man's potential.
"Can you help me get to him?" his voice was surprisingly steady, but he needed the dragon's help and he was not above asking for it. He wanted to laugh at that; before Merlin, he would never have considered accepting anyone's help, let alone ask for it.
Kilgharrah smiled, "You continue to surprise me. No small feat. What is it you think I can do for you?"
"Take me to him," Arthur stated as clearly and calmly as if he was assigning patrols.
Kilgharrah roared with laughter echoing off the craggy rocks in this inhospitable terrain. "You are bold, Pendragon."
Arthur folded his arms across his chest waiting for the dragon's answer.
Sighing, "Very well, but know this- I do this for the good of one of my kind, not for the sake of yours."
The mountains of Bleyn loomed in front of Merlin, their huge peaks silhouetted against the dark sky. Merlin set up camp at the base of the mountains, he'd ridden for six solid days, barely stopping for rest; he wouldn't have been able to sleep much anyway. He doubted he'd sleep tonight, either, despite his exhaustion; tomorrow he'd begin his assault on the mountains. Kilgharrah had said the mountain would tell him where to go; he sighed wondering what that would mean, hoping the ground wouldn't open up and swallow him.
Merlin felt it as he picked his way through a narrow pass along the first ridge of the mountains, a pull so strong it scared him. Still, he let it guide him over two more crests to the base of a low peak. Halfway up its face there was a small cave entrance, power radiated from the darkness within and his magic seemed to tap into it and sizzle beneath his skin; he wondered if this was what Arthur felt when he let his magic seep into him. Arthur… gods he missed him. It hurt less knowing he couldn't see him because he wasn't there, rather than because Arthur was keeping them apart, but it still hurt. He tried not to think about what might happen if this quest of his proved the prophecies true, he doubted he'd ever leave these caves. His macabre thoughts took him several feet further into the cave, until its opening was no more than a pinprick in the distance and a flame he didn't remember conjuring danced merrily in front of him. Carefully, he began to pick his way through the caves.
Arthur couldn't believe what he was doing, climbing up the comb of the Great Dragon, trusting the beast not to throw him off miles above the ground, and trusting him to take him to Merlin and not some magic no man's land, but Merlin was worth it, worth the risk. The irony of that was not lost on Arthur.
"Hold tight, young Pendragon," Kilgharrah warned as he launched himself off the crag he'd been sitting on.
The trip was cold, but fast, what would have taken his horse in full stride days took a matter of hours.
"This is as far as I go. There is great power within these walls; power even I would not cross. I wish you luck, young Pendragon." The dragon stretched his neck and beat his wings in agitation. "Your destiny may hang in the balance."
"Wait!" Arthur called as the dragon turned to leave. "How will I find him?"
The dragon chuckled, "You have the means, Pendragon, if you will but use them."
He watched the dragon fly away, leaving him alone and confused in this ominous place.
Merlin had no idea how long he'd been walking, the flame above him continuing to flicker brightly no matter how tired and broken his concentration was. For the first time in days he was tired, exhausted to the bone, he wanted nothing more than to go to sleep and dream of lying in Arthur's arms, safe and loved, but he had to find the stones- the driving need was almost as strong as the power in these caves. The caverns were getting more and more obstructed the deeper he went, stone protruding from the ground and walls making the straightest line a maze of earth to be navigated. At times it seemed that the caves were changing as he walked, trying to find increasingly intricate and dangerous ways of slowing his journey. He stumbled as he walked, banging knees and elbows against sometimes sharp stone, but the stones… Shakily, Merlin felt along the walls, trying to avoid the largest of the obstacles. It worked for a while, until the slope of the cave suddenly dropped into a near 45 degree angle sending him skidding along the rocky floor several feet. When he finally stopped his entire body hurt, he could feel little cuts and gouges everywhere, not to mention the bruises, at least bruises he was used to. Groaning, he rolled to the side looking for his pack; he'd made sure to bring some of the salves and herbs Gaius used on Arthur's lesser injuries, so he could treat some of his larger more bloody hurts. Locating his bag, he drug himself into a sitting position and began to tend his wounds.
It didn't take Merlin long to clean himself up, assuring that he wasn't going to bleed to death just yet; however, once he'd finished he was even more exhausted, his body was numb, his vision wobbly, and his stomach growled. Realizing he wasn't going to win this battle, he rummaged around in his pack for the dried meat he'd brought and the last of the dried fruits Morgana had procured for him. He wriggled a bit to settle into the curve of the wall, tucking his bag up behind him for what little cushion it could provide. His sleep-deprived mind could hear Arthur teasing him about being all bones and no padding. The giggle that tried to escape turned to a sob as the months seemed to fall in on him as real as a cave-in. Mechanically, he nibbled on the meat until he began to doze.
Arthur climbed until the moonless night grew too dark to see in, up to one summit and down the other side. The air in these mountains was cold and lonely; he didn't like to think about Merlin out here on his own. It was hard enough to think about all the times he'd forced Merlin away in the past weeks leaving him alone in the castle. He found a shallow outcropping to give him some small shelter and lit a fire, hoping he could convince his body that he needed sleep.
He was cold, but there was a soft winding warmth slipping around him. It was Merlin; he'd know that feeling anywhere, he doubted he'd ever forget that feeling no matter how hard he tried to push Merlin away. He let himself ease into it; it was only a dream, he could allow himself this tiny respite. He could allow himself to remember. Just as he was relaxing completely into the lost feeling it was torn from him. It felt like getting burnt in reverse, one moment he was filled with warmth, the next a jolting cold. He jerked awake, "Merlin," he gasped.
At least now he thought he knew what the dragon had meant, if only he could keep the bond open enough on his own to find Merlin. He tried to relax, reminding himself that Merlin was close, that all he had to do was find him. Dawn was peeking over the mountain tops giving him just enough light to travel by, he debated whether to continue along the craggy track he was following, the closest thing to a path he'd been able to find, or to attempt to reach his wayward manservant. Trying to focus on Merlin and only Merlin, not how badly he'd screwed up, or the fact that they wouldn't be here or at least they'd be here together if he hadn't been such an ass. Without Merlin he was lost, miserable. And not just here and now, but in his life.
Merlin shot up, eyes wide like a trapped animal and gasping for air. Mentally shaking himself, he stood. Arthur couldn't be here, there was no time and even if he was, he wouldn't be using the bond. His head spun lightly, probably from the shock and getting up too quickly. Sitting back down, he checked his scrapes and the nastier gash on his arm to make sure nothing was becoming infected- the wounds looking much less bloody and unnaturally healthy. He chuckled ruefully, wondering if the caves could mend broken hearts as easily as it was healing his arm. Keeping a handful of the dried fruit out to have as he continued through the caves, he repacked his bag. He would find the stones before he slept again.
Arthur had spent the morning trying to find Merlin using the bond they shared, but it was getting him nowhere. He'd spent too long pushing Merlin out to find him so easily. Reluctantly, he gathered himself and set off along the path towards the next ridge hoping that somehow he'd find another way to track Merlin.
By mid-afternoon he'd picked his way to what looked like a thin crevice between the rocks. He could see light on the other side. He looked around for any other way to cross this ridge to the next. A good two hundred feet above him was a path, thin but passable, and the gods only knew how much farther it would be until it actually crested the mountain and led back down the other side. He gaged the small opening, weighing the possibility of safely passing through with the amount of time it would save. Merlin was all he could think about; a silent mantra that had been pushing him through these past days- the same mantra that had guided him through the last two years. With no further thought he made his decision. He stripped his pauldron, gorget, and other plate leaving them concealed at the mouth of the crevice and began to ease himself through the narrow passage. After a couple of tight spots, moments of shoddy footing, and more time than he ever wanted to spend in such a tight location ever again, he emerged onto a relatively flat, almost welcoming, outcrop. Taking a huge, relieved gulp of air, he let out a rich laugh; he'd made it and he was only feet above the pathway, he wouldn't even have to climb- there were what could've been stairs connecting the two places, with any luck he could be over the next ridge by nightfall.
A lattice work of vines and roots marked the path he needed to take, a tricky climb at the best of times; Arthur tried not to think about Merlin trying to climb these treacherous ropes. He closed his eyes and pushed the disturbing images from his mind as the wind whipped around him as he climbed, almost as if it was pulling at him, trying to stop what little headway he was making. It made no sense; he could see the vegetation a few feet above him was still and motionless, yet all around him leaves and mountain grass were blowing in miniature whirlwinds. He battled a few feet further when a sudden shock thrummed across his senses. He took a moment to steady himself on a short ledge as the sensation settled around him with the strangest sense of familiarity. It was like Merlin and being touched by his magic- the memory made Arthur smile. He closed his eyes and let the warm feeling sink in; it wasn't simply 'like' Merlin, it was Merlin. When he opened his eyes the cave entrance seemed to glare back at him. Something that sounded a bit too close to hysterical laughter bubbled up from Arthur's throat. He closed his eyes again. 'Come on, Pendragon, you rode on the back of a dragon to find your warlock lover, who's trying to disprove a prophecy that says the two of you will destroy your kingdom; a magically appearing cave mouth should not be any surprise,' he chided himself. Taking a calming breath Arthur pushed into the cave.
Inside the cave was dark and his entire body tingled with what he knew was magic. A pale light shone a few feet in front of him. Carefully he drew his sword, he may have magic in him, but that didn't outweigh a lifetime of training and instinct, and moved toward the light. As he had known it would, it moved as he approached leading him deeper into the cave.
Merlin thought he was losing his mind, he felt like the caves were toying with him, sending him retracing steps he knew he'd taken, sometimes hours, sometimes minutes before. At one point he was sure he passed not ten feet from the mouth of the cave, or where there had been a mouth the day before. He knew there had to be a way, a spell, something. The third time he came to the place he'd bedded down the night before, he stopped. The caves were obviously magical, probably designed to protect the very stones he was trying to find.
"Typical," he heaved a sigh and tossed his pack on the ground. He fell back against the cave wall, "There has to be something I'm missing." Looking down from underneath his eyelids, catching on his sharp cheekbones, "I don't suppose you have any ideas, do you?" he asked a particularly obstinate looking rock formation. He waited for two beats, "Thought not," he groaned and slid down the wall.
He'd tried several spells and simply willing the path to continue. A couple times he thought he was making progress, the walls of the cave becoming smooth with gentle ripples like sands in the wake of a tide almost as if the pulsing throb of the magic here had worn them with its power, but then he'd find himself back at some place he'd already been. His eyes caught the flame floating above him, "You're no help either," he griped.
Up ahead Arthur thought he heard noises; he stilled himself, straining to identify the sounds. His heart thudded in his chest as words began to filter down to him, it was Merlin, but he seemed to be talking to someone. Quietly, he eased towards Merlin's voice. The light that had been accompanying him seeming to fade as he went, he crouched down listening.
"If you're going to keep me here the least you could do is make sure I don't starve to death; there's only so far I can make this go," he told the rock, flapping his last strip of dried meat at it. "I know you don't want me dead," he said, taking a bite off the meat, "you wouldn't have helped with my arm if you did." He rested his arms on his knees, eyeing the stone suspiciously. "So what is it you want?"
Arthur was ready to pounce; whoever Merlin was talking to seemed to be holding him prisoner. He peered around the rock and tried to hold back his laughter. He stood. Moving out of his hiding place Arthur leaned against the wall, arms crossed over his chest, listening to Merlin's one-sided conversation. "I always knew you were a little off, Merlin, but I never took you for the type to have a conversation with a rock."
Merlin jumped, turning to see if the voice was real or if he really had been in this cave too long. His breath caught in his throat at the sight of Arthur, relaxed and looking perfect as ever. Finally he snickered, "I talk to you, don't I."
Arthur had the good sense to look affronted. "I'll have you know I am a great conversationalist."
"Yeah, as long as talking involves a sword."
"Mmm hmm," he purred, moving in on Merlin. He stopped when their chests were almost touching; raising a hand he traced the line of Merlin's cheekbone letting his knuckles caress the skin beneath. "I'm sorry. I guess I haven't been a big one for talking lately."
Merlin let out a shaky sigh, "I was ready to talk, all you had to do was listen."
Arthur nodded, resting his forehead against Merlin's. He stayed like that soaking up Merlin's presence for the longest time. "I missed you."
"No, you don't," he chuckled sadly, his breath teasing at Merlin's lips. "Everything felt so wrong, everything… inside."
"Like some integral piece of you was being eaten away…" he whispered back.
Someone made a desperate almost pained noise, then lips were touching, hungry and soft, rampant desire flimsily hidden by careful, no less meaningful, questions. Arthur's fingers slipped into Merlin's hair, holding him as tightly as Merlin's own hands clutched at him.
"Gods, Merlin," he pulled back just enough to see Merlin's eyes, the beautiful night blue he'd missed so much. "If I ever… do whatever it takes, please. I can't do this again."
"I thought I was," Merlin chuckled softly.
"Next time make me listen," Arthur corrected. He stroked his cheek just below his eye. "Do you know how many nights I'd sit and watch the sky just so I could see a glimpse of this colour?" He kissed each eyelid then his mouth, craving the sweetness he'd missed, languidly tasting every bit of him.
"Arthur," Merlin's fingers pulled at Arthur's back, trying to claw through the heavy links of his chain mail. His magic, stronger here in this place, poured from his fingertips and seeped into Arthur's skin.
Tendrils of heat flowed over him, cocooning him in warmth. "Merlin," he panted, mind reaching out, begging to find his lover and the assurity and safety he knew was there.
A push against his mind, strong, but hesitant as if afraid of rejection, had Merlin gasping, tightening his hold on Arthur even as he reached back and opened himself.
The flood of power came like a rush of rapids, beautiful, powerful, and frightening. They held onto each other kissing and touching. Somehow Arthur's hauberk landed on the cave floor with Merlin's long fingers pushing determinedly under his gambeson, Arthur's own fingers flirting with Merlin's belt, tossing it on the pile with his jacket.
Soon they were on their knees, nothing but skin and air between them. The ground was soft, softer than stone ever should be. Merlin had the fleeting thought that it felt like the soft summer moss that grew on the edge of the woods near his mother's house. He sent a silent thank you to whatever controlled the cave's power. Arthur gently pushed Merlin to the ground kissing down his neck and across his collar bone, sliding down to tease a nipple with his sharp right tooth, nipping it lightly before he moved further, lapping at the line of his ribs, along his hip until his nose was buried in the thick curls nestling Merlin's attentive cock.
Merlin could feel the spark of Arthur's tongue as it travelled, the magic tingling down his spine. "Oh gods, Arthur."
"I know, I feel it, too. It feels… wonderful," he nuzzled at Merlin's cock, running his tongue up the sensitive underside, and around the swollen head. "Wonderful," he murmured, again, suckling at Merlin's flesh.
Merlin grit his teeth, trying to keep the magic at bay; his hand snuck down to tangle in Arthur's hair trying to ground himself.
Strong hands settled on Merlin's hips, holding him in place as Arthur's mouth slid down his cock, teasingly swiping his tongue as he went. Gods, Arthur didn't think he'd tasted anything as heavenly in his life, except maybe for Merlin's mouth- the thought made him hum and Merlin buck.
Arthur worked his flesh sliding up and down, twisting his tongue around the head, and applying a hint of teeth on that spot, just over halfway down on the right, that made Merlin moan deep in his throat and Arthur swallow hard. The intensity multiplied over and over as it rattled through the magic between them.
"Arthur," Merlin whimpered in a tone Arthur knew all too well.
Arthur looked up and held Merlin's eyes, a shout of "do it" echoing through their bond.
Merlin's eyes widened as the strength of the command reverberated. "ARTHUR," he shouted back in answer and triumph as he came hard in his lover's mouth and down his throat.
Greedily Arthur took every drop, gently licking and sucking Merlin clean.
Merlin pulled Arthur up; he needed to see him to taste him, to know. Merlin's kiss was bruising and hungry. He could feel Arthur's untended cock rubbing along his ass. "Please," he begged, the "in me" travelling along their connection.
Lowering his head to Merlin's, Arthur panted out a sob.
Slicking his fingers as best he could, he slid his hand down to play at Merlin's opening. Gently working the tight muscle until it let him in; first one finger, then two, and finally, a third. He'd missed this. Not just having Merlin literally at his fingertips and making the most wonderful noises with every touch inside him, but having Merlin there to touch, to feel, to talk to, to know he was there with just a thought or feeling.
Merlin scratched at Arthur's back breaking through his thoughts, when Arthur met his gaze a soft, "Me, too," fell from Merlin's lips.
Arthur surged up to kiss his lover, removing his fingers to a shallow whimper. "Shhh, I'm coming back," he murmured against his lips. True to his word, Arthur pushed up Merlin's leg and began to slide inside, carefully, as if Merlin were the most exquisite and fragile piece of artistry in the world. Merlin wasn't fragile, far from it, but this, what they had, was exquisite. He could feel Merlin's magic humming around him, urging him closer, deeper inside, seeking the physical connection they'd gone too long without.
Merlin's vision was beginning to blur, the hum of his magic and the magic shared between them amplified by the caves' own power almost too much for him to control. He was afraid, he had Arthur in his arms and his magic was trying to overwhelm both of them, but it needed it, he needed it, and Arthur was so willing as if he needed it, too. "Arthur, I…"
Arthur hummed against the kiss bruised flesh of Merlin's neck, sending shivers through his body. "Let it go…" He gently thrust deeper into Merlin's body, an overwhelming sense of home filling him.
Let it go… Merlin wondered if Arthur had any idea what he was asking. Yes, he'd let Arthur feel his magic, he did so regularly, but this was so much different, it was ancient, having built slowly over the years, centuries, and now trying to flow through them.
"Merlin," Arthur whispered, and Merlin could almost hear the smirk in his voice, "I can hear you, now, let it go."
Arthur's voice was melodical, both the spoken and the internal, and hearing both at once sent shivers through him. Merlin took in a shaky breath. "Look at me."
Arthur drug his lips slowly up Merlin's neck and across his cheek, until he was looking directly into the eyes he loved so much.
Arthur's eyes on him calmed him, their shimmering blue depths promising him everything would be alright, reminding him how much he was loved. He nodded once. His eyes swirled gold and stayed that way as the magic ran through them like a current of energy. He knew Arthur felt it just as he did with every thrust, every drop of blood racing in their veins, every moan swallowed by mouths and skin; it was all filled with power, power that spoke of life and death and belonging.
They were lost in themselves, each feeling the other more intensely and purely than ever before. They moved together clinging to each other, letting their minds bleed together just as their bodies were. Neither wanted it to end, and, in truth, it seemed to last for an eternity as if their bodies wouldn't allow it to. Eventually their passion won out, overloading their bodies with pleasure and their spirits with love and the knowledge that they belonged. There were no words just the fractured dance of bodies and mouths as Merlin's body spasmed and Arthur's hips jerked, filling him with hot come claiming him once again as his.
Though he would deny it, tears pricked at the edges of Arthur's vision as he greedily absorbed every sound and quiver Merlin allowed him as they came down from their high. He had Merlin, he had the one thing that meant more to him than his life or his kingdom, without Merlin there could be no Camelot, he understood this now- prophecies be damned. Nothing could make this evil.
When he awoke, Merlin's thin blanket was pulled over them providing more warmth than it should have, but Arthur didn't question. Instead, he nuzzled into the dark hair resting on his chest.
"Mmm," Merlin hummed contently.
"At the risk of being a bigger girl than you," he kissed the top of Merlin's head, "I love you."
Merlin wriggled until he could look up at Arthur, eyes wide and searching.
Merlin smiled and shook his head thoughtfully, reaching up he ran his knuckles over Arthur's cheek softly, "Nothing."
"Go back to sleep," he said then kissed Merlin's palm.
Settling back down, a bit more on top of Arthur than he was before, Merlin obeyed. He knew they should be finding the stones and getting out of these twisting and changing caverns, but right now, he didn't care- Arthur was more important.
Lazily Merlin began to wake, a familiar ache in his bones and warmth in his mind. He smiled as he rolled over; his magic was singing, it sounded like the hum of the breeze in the autumn trees and the gentle rush of waves on the shore and the sound of Arthur's voice when he whispered things he thought Merlin couldn't hear. It only did that when Arthur was there, especially loud on mornings like this. He sometimes wondered how Arthur couldn't hear it; this morning it seemed louder than ever. He stretched and sat up, looking for his absent lover. "Arthur?" The blond was nowhere to be seen; his mail still lay with the rest of Merlin's clothes, so Merlin hoped hadn't gone far. Eager to finish their quest, Merlin dressed quickly. He was pulling on his boots when Arthur appeared from around a curve in the caves a few feet away.
"Good, you're up!" He all but bounced, vibrating with energy. "Come on, you've got to see this," he said and disappeared around the corner.
Merlin rolled his eyes and smiled, "Good to see this hasn't made you any less of a prat."
"Merlin!" he called. "Get a move on!"
"Coming, Sire," he shouted back as he got to his feet and went after him.
Around the corner Arthur smiled at the false honourary, never so happy to hear such insolence.
"Wait, Arthur, our things-"
"Leave them, they'll be there when we get back."
"Arthur, these caves, they change."
"I found my way back without a problem."
Merlin caught up with the prince easily enough, falling into step with him. "I don't recognize these caves," he said, running his hand over the cave walls, noticing they were worn with those same gentle ripples that always foretold the caves returning him to some familiar, already travelled cavern.
The prince merely offered one of his toothy smiles, the kind Merlin liked to kiss from his face when he was being particularly patronizing. "Come on," he said, quickening his pace playfully.
"What's so important?"
"Arthur?" he asked, not quite daring to hope.
Several twists and turns later, Arthur came to a halt. He took a deep breath and held it, waiting for Merlin's reaction to what he'd found.
Laughter. Bubbling, nearing on hysterical laughter.
"Merlin?" Arthur asked hesitantly. He was beginning to worry he'd interpreted his find wrong.
Merlin fell to his knees, reaching out to touch the intricately carved stone. "You found them." He turned to look into his lover's nervous eyes, still fighting back his laughter, "You found them."
Hearing the words made Arthur's head spin and his heart thump loudly, he crouched down beside Merlin. "What do they say?" he asked reverently. "Merlin, what do they say?" his voice trembled, but it didn't matter, not anymore.
Merlin's elegant fingers reached out and traced the carvings in the ancient stone. He choked back a sound that could've been a laugh or a sob and began to read, "A generation shall pass from birth to manhood before the dragon and lion shall befriend each other. But beware- the dragon and lion shall bring upheaval and unrest to the kingdom-"
Arthur tensed sucking in a sharp breath, his hands fisting against his knees as his heart began to sink. He wouldn't push Merlin away again. He couldn't. He wondered if Camelot could survive without an heir, if his father would allow Morgana to succeed him. Arthur's mind raced with possibilities and questions, but Merlin kept reading.
"-the ways of magic a destructive force when coupled with unfettered power, unless mitigated by each other, for the dragon and the lion are together, equals. Warlock and warrior, two halves of a great destiny," Merlin's voice cracked with another short almost hysterical laugh. "Under their rule the lands shall know prosperity and fertility as never before," he broke down crying and laughing, Arthur's bark of laughter following close behind.
He felt Arthur's hand on his shoulder a second before he fell on him cackling into his neck. Merlin kissed his head and put his arms around him, before letting his weight topple them to the ground.
They rolled around on the ground laughing and holding onto each other, kisses raining down amidst their laughter.
Arthur hovered above Merlin when they finally stopped, letting themselves calm down. "I love you," he said almost dazed.
"I know," Merlin smiled up at him, running a hand through his blond hair. "I think the caves know, too."
"Hmm, wha?" he asked, distractedly nuzzling his warlock's neck.
"The caves. I think they know. I've been wandering these caves for the last two days, always winding up back in the same places." He made a little keening noise when Arthur bit his neck.
Arthur chuckled. "That should tell you something about going off on your own."
"Shut up," he teased.
"Now, Merlin, is that anyway to speak to your Prince?"
"Of course not, Sire," Merlin replied cheekily, "forgive me."
Arthur laughed, as eager as he'd once been to never hear that word again, he had never been so happy to hear it said with such impertinence. "Uh-uh, you're not getting off that easily."
"Mmm, can it wait until we get home?"
"I suppose, if it must, but don't expect me to forget about this."
"I wouldn't dream of it, Sire." Merlin smiled wishing there was a way to get back to Camelot tonight.
"How did you convince your father to let you come after me?"
"I didn't," Arthur stated simply.
Merlin grabbed Arthur's arm to turn him. "Arthur, are you mad? You of all people know how he gets when you disappear."
The blond rolled his eyes. "I know, Merlin. He is my father after all." He turned back down the cavern he thought would lead them out of the caves. "I told him I was going on a deep patrol. Leon and some of the others are waiting along Camelot's northern border."
"Won't word still get back to Uther?"
Arthur chuckled, smiling. "It seems we have more friends among my knights than we realize."
Merlin's brow furrowed.
Arthur's smile broadened as he felt Merlin's confusion tease at his mind. "My men were all too eager to volunteer or so Leon tells me," he explained.
"They know a great man when they see one," Merlin told him. "Won't they have been waiting for over a week already? Surely they can't keep it from Uther that long."
"Over a week?" he tossed a look back at Merlin as if he was insane. "It's only been four days."
Merlin stopped in his tracks. "How did you get here so fast? I know I wasn't trapped in theses caves that long."
Arthur smirked, "How would you know? You were the one stuck in here."
Merlin glared at the back of Arthur's head, knowing his displeasure would push at his senses.
Chuckling. "Same as you, idiot, the dragon."
Merlin's eyes widened. "Kilgharrah! Wha- How'd you convince him to do that?"
Arthur huffed, at this rate they were never getting out of here. Arms steadfastly across his chest, he faced Merlin, "I asked. He said you…," he shook his head. "He didn't bring you here, did he?"
Merlin shook his head.
"Blasted dragon, does he ever tell the truth?"
Merlin shrugged, "Sometimes, but it's usually hidden in double meanings and innuendo."
Sighing, "At least he brought me to you."
Merlin groaned, "Don't remind me; I'll actually have to thank him for that."
"What do you give a dragon as a thank you?" he asked, chuckling, as he started out of the caves once more.
Escaping the caves had been remarkably easy; none of the twists and turns and restarts of Merlin's journey presented themselves causing the young sorcerer to reconsider whether or not the caves truly had been trying to kill him. The more rational part of his mind insisted that they were only waiting for Arthur to arrive, which probably should have unnerved him more than it did. Almost playfully he and Arthur made the trek back down the steep hillside and over to the crevice Arthur had eased through two nights before.
Merlin looked suspiciously at the small opening, "How did you even find that?"
Arthur shrugged, even as the words 'desperation' and 'magic' popped into his brain.
Peering through the passage, "How?" Merlin asked incredulously, pointing from the crevice to Arthur and waving his hand up and down indicating the prince's whole body.
"I'm not as fat as some people would have me believe," he said swaggering up to the entrance. "Ladies first," he bowed in deference to Merlin.
The young man glared, but took the invitation.
"I hate you," Merlin complained a few minutes later as he tried to wiggle his way through the narrow space.
"You know you love a challenge," Arthur smirked back.
"Yes, but putting up with you is challenge enough for anyone," he quipped.
"Like I said, you love a challenge." His self-satisfied tone firmly in place.
As Merlin pulled himself out of the crack, he rolled his eyes. "Prat."
Arthur squeezed through after him, startling him with a quick kiss before looking for his discarded armour where he'd left it on the other side of the passageway.
That night they sat in front of a warming fire, Merlin leaning comfortably against Arthur's chest as he made the sputtering embers dance in the shapes of their sigils curling and entwining around one another.
Arthur rested his cheek on Merlin's head, "Is that how you see us?"
He turned his head to get a better look at Merlin. "Sometimes?"
The warlock chuckled. "Yes, sometimes."
"What about the other times?" Arthur asked curious.
"I don't like to think about the other times," he admitted quietly. "The other times you hate me, what I am."
Tensing, Arthur tightened his hold on Merlin. He reached out along their bond, almost violently, to make sure Merlin was there, and could feel everything he was thinking. He wouldn't have Merlin thinking he hated him, any part of him, not after what had happened; he needed Merlin to know. When he spoke, his voice was rough and powerful, "I have never hated you, not even these last weeks. I could never hate you."
Silently, Merlin pulled Arthur's arms around him and melted into him physically and mentally. His magic twining with Arthur as he drifted off to sleep.
The sun was just starting to set when they finally reached the foot of the mountains.
"We should be able to reach the clearing where I left my horse before we lose the light," Merlin offered.
"There has got to be a faster way. I don't suppose you could ask that lizard of yours to take us back to Camelot or my men?"
"He's not my lizard, Arthur. He's a dragon, a large fire breathing dragon, not a horse."
The prince snickered. "I can honestly say, Merlin, that it never crossed my mind to put a saddle on that beast."
"I should hope not," an indignant voice boomed as they approached the clearing.
Merlin tried to cover his laugh when Arthur jumped.
A large eye peered at them through a gap in the trees. "I take it you found what you were looking for, young warlock."
"Yes. Thank you."
Kilgharrah eyed Arthur. "Much as it pains me, the Pendragon is right. The longer he is away from Camelot the more Uther will begin to suspect."
"Oh," uncertainty in Arthur's voice, "thank you?" He darted a questioning look at Merlin.
"He's not going to eat you, Arthur," Merlin promised.
"I didn't say I thought he would!"
Kilgharrah snorted. "Humans," he muttered, stretching his long neck.
"Come on, before you offend him." Merlin tugged Arthur into the clearing where the dragon was curled up.
"He tries to destroy Camelot, almost kills us both, and I need to worry about offending him," Arthur complained.
"Yes, because it was your father who had him chained in a cave for most of your natural life," Merlin chastized as he pulled Arthur toward the dragon, Kilgharrah cackling all the while.
The clatter of hooves echoed through the courtyard in the early morning hours. Camelot was still asleep; her earliest risers only just beginning to stir.
Arthur and his accompanying knights led their horses to the stables. Before he had even dismounted, Leon had taken the reins of Arthur's mount.
"I'll see the horses get attended to, Sire," he informed him, making it sound like the knight was giving the Prince an order.
It occurred to Arthur that some of his household were spending entirely too much time with his manservant. It also occurred to him that the best way to alleviate this was to see to it that Merlin had no reason to leave his company, and preferably his chambers for the immediate future. "Thank you, Leon." He clapped the knight's shoulder, capturing his full attention. "I owe you a debt of gratitude."
"Sire," he nodded and smiled at Merlin, "it will be enough to see you yourself again. We have all missed the leader that we know and follow."
Arthur smiled reticently, shaking Leon's shoulder affectionately- a silent thank you. "And you," he turned to Merlin, grabbing his arm and all but dragging him into the castle.
Arthur's bed was soft and warm and there was no way he was getting out of it until at least noon and no way he was letting Merlin out of it either, which was why the incessant hammering on his door was about to drive him mad. "Go away!" he growled at the door.
"Let me answer. It could be important. It could be your father."
Arthur shuddered, if there was one person he did not want to see right now it was his father. He nuzzled Merlin's neck. "Leon's taking care of my father, letting him know this patrol took a great deal out of me."
"Oh it did, did it?"
"Mmm-hmm, and it's going to take at least a day before I'm feeling up to training or attending council." He kissed Merlin's neck, biting at the flesh then burying his head against Merlin's shoulder. "Though I will have to speak to him before the day's out. But that is not now, so," he raised his voice yelling towards the door, "whoever it is can GO AWAY!"
"Arthur, I know you're in there," Morgana yelled.
"I should've known it was that vixen," he said, smiling despite himself. "Father would never come himself and there's only one servant who would dare to knock so loudly and relentlessly, and thankfully, he is in my bed."
"Arthur," she said more quietly as her cheek pressed to the heavy oak door. "I overheard Leon speaking with Uther. He said you needed to rest from the patrol. You never need to rest from patrol. I… Are you alright? And Merlin? Is he with you?" She knew, despite what he told her, that if things went badly Merlin was not likely to return.
Merlin touched Arthur's arm lightly, eyes imploring him to humour her.
Arthur huffed, but kissed Merlin's cheek. "It's a good thing I love you."
"Give me a moment," Arthur called to the shut door as he climbed out of bed.
"Here," he said tossing one of his nightshirts at Merlin, taking out a soft pair of trousers for himself.
With an air of mock exasperation he opened the door. "I can assure you, Morgana, both Merlin and I are fine. Or would be if we could be left in peace."
Morgana peered around Arthur and the half closed door, trying to locate Merlin.
"Hi." Merlin gave a small wave to his friend.
Smiling knowingly, "I'll leave you to it then," she said.
"Thank you," Arthur snapped, closing the door firmly.
Behind him Merlin chuckled. "She's going to be impossible now."
"She's always impossible," Arthur corrected, crawling up the bed towards Merlin. "Now then, what are you doing in my shirt?" he said smirking, right before he pounced.