Warnings: mild violence/kidnap, minor character death (s.4 canon)
Prompt: In which Hunith brings Merlin to Camelot as a young child. One fateful day young!Prince Arthur spies Merlin playing with a group of his friends from outside his window, and he decides that he wants him. Arthur always gets what he wants. The next day Hunith escorts an unwilling Merlin into the castle where he is named 'The Prince's Royal Playmate'. Mostly, what the job entails is getting toy soldiers lobbed at his head and being hit with wooden swords. Mostly, what Merlin thinks is that Arthur is kind of a prat. Eventually they learn to get along
A sigh left Arthur's body as he sat at the table, listening to one of his many tutors drone on about the importance of some kingdom to the East, a small island that Arthur had never known existed before now. It was unpopulated and no matter how many times Arthur had tried to explain that if it was unpopulated, there was nothing interesting to learn about it, his tutor didn't listen. In fact he'd been reprimanded more than once, but not enough to stop him looking out of the window instead of listening to his lesson.
"Young prince," the tutor snapped suddenly, slamming a beefy hand onto the table. Arthur looked at him, already predicting what would happen next.
"You would do well to listen!" the tutor barked, slamming his other hand onto one of the books. Arthur tried to hide his growing smile, which only seemed to send his tutor into further rage.
There was of course a reason for Arthur's smile and it came in the form of an elderly gentleman standing by their table. Geoffrey was master of the library and Arthur had learnt the hard way that damaging (or even threatening to damage) ny of the precious books was enough for Geoffrey to throw you from the library.
"Master Evans," Geoffrey said neutrally, clipped and distant. Evans turned around at once, rising from his chair even though he had no reason to bow to Geoffrey.
"If you're quite finished damaging the delicate texts, I feel it's time you break for lunch. No doubt food was served a while ago and a meal might aid the prince's concentration." Geoffrey frowned down at Arthur, but the look in his eye was kindly and as soon as Evans began to clear the books away, he winked at Arthur.
At the age of six, Arthur Pendragon was a feared child. His temper and misbehaviour was legendary, though not everything about him was negative. Even the most tired of maids and pages would spare a smile for the prince, remembering the kindness he sometimes displayed – when out of the watchful eye of the king. Arthur was no stranger to hard work and he would help out whenever he could, happy to dally in the kitchens or haul in the coal with the other young boys.
If you asked, Arthur was spirited. Spoilt sometimes, arrogant others, but lively and eager to please. People already spoke of him in hushed tones, wondering what sort of king he would become, hoping he would keep his early kindness. They overlooked the burning smoke in the courtyard and stopped locking their doors in fear (fear of both magic itself and in case their king would accuse them of using it), looking to a new age despite Arthur's age.
Arthur knew none of this though. He did what he wanted, unless his father had told him not to. Arthur was the prince and he'd been born with that right. He helped here and now simply because the people looked tired or in need of company, and sometimes the task looked fun. He didn't think about being kind or considerate, he was six and simply did whatever he wanted.
So, when he looked out of the window later that day and saw a group of children chasing a pig through the courtyard, Arthur couldn't stop the laugh that bubbled up from inside of him as the gangliest of them tripped on the cobbles. The others stopped and went back for him and Arthur saw them laughing, wanted to be a part of it even though his father had told him that princes didn't mix with the common children. Unlike them, Arthur was to learn and – when he was of full age – train with the knights. He was not to spend his time chasing lose pigs around the castle grounds.
Arthur had never disobeyed Uther before, never even thought about doing so. But when he heard the gangly-boy's laughter from down below, Arthur wanted to join him.
Merlin was less than a year when he did magic for the first time. Well, so his mother said, because Merlin couldn't remember. Magic to him was like drinking water or eating food. It was natural.
Another thing that was natural was knowing Camelot was a dangerous place for magic users. Everyone – from the butcher's boy to the bards that passed through - knew of King Uther's Purges. The children in Ealdor were raised on them, adults fearing for their lives because of them. Camelot was a dangerous place, though the danger faded somewhat as the years drew on.
Still, after Ealdor fell to bandits and a five year old Merlin had nowhere to live, he never would have imagined his mother dragging him to Camelot. Their journey was filled with warnings ("Keep your magic secret, whatever you do, don't use your magic," Hunith would say, to which Merlin would frown and tighten his fists, wanting to shake his head and run – but he loved his mother and never, ever wanted to make her sad, so he kept his head down and nodded, accepting that he had to learn even more how to control himself), but it was a pleasant journey.
Merlin had heard a lot about Gaius in the past. Gaius was a physician and was his mother's friend. By default it meant he was Merlin's friend too, so when they arrived at Gaius' quarters (their first stop in Camelot), Merlin hadn't needed to think twice about saving the old man on the balcony.
Of course all magic comes with price and Merlin received two lectures for what he did, though Gaius' was full of curiosity rather than anger. Merlin had listened, scuffing the heels of his boots against the floor as he swung his legs, trying not to mouth his mother's favourite phrases as she reminded him (again and again and again and again) that he had to hide his magic.
"You don't want to end up a dead boy!" was a favourite, as was, "if only I could change things, Merlin, but I can't."
Merlin knew that his mother couldn't change anything. She didn't have powers like he did (though her ability to suss out his lies was a bit fishy) so it was obvious that she couldn't change things.
But Merlin did have powers and he could change things. If he wanted to that was. Which he did, and when he asked Gaius how he could achieve his goal, Gaius snuck him an old book. It was well-loved and something that shouldn't be given to a child, but Gaius said that he was unique and his gifts unpredictable. Best to control them in a place like Camelot, Gaius said.
Merlin wasn't allowed to keep the book. He wasn't allowed to read it while eating, he wasn't allowed to eat it while drinking and he certainly wasn't allowed to read it outside of Gaius' storage room. He also wasn't allowed to perform any of the spells inside of the book without Gaius' supervision (though what Gaius didn't know couldn't hurt him and Merlin perfected the art of scribbling down spells the best he could and trying them when he was alone in the house he shared with his mother).
"You have skill," was what Gaius said, often enough that Merlin wondered if his magic wasn't a curse after all. His dreams of changing things could, in time, become a reality.
Of course when Prince Arthur Pendragon became involved, everything changed.
"He's a peasant boy Arthur," his father said slowly, holding a chicken drumstick and trying not to show his distain for Arthur's desired companion.
"I know father," Arthur replied simply, smiling. His father liked it when he smiled. "But I think it would be good for me, to learn how to become a king." For good measure, Arthur smiled again.
For a moment, Uther didn't do anything and Arthur waited for his father to make a decision.
Ever since he'd seen gangly-boy playing with the others, he'd wanted to join him, wanted to be his friend. Arthur had never really had a friend before, but he'd seen others his age with friends and he had watched his father and the knights. It would be easy and gangly-boy would love being his friend, Arthur knew it.
"Please?" Arthur said, giving a tiny sniff.
Like every child, Arthur knew how to manipulate his father so he could get what he wanted. The smile usually worked, but Uther liked to avoid tantrums and if Arthur hinted he could descend into one, his father generally tried to avert the crisis the best he could. Fortunately, it worked here and Uther nodded slowly, gritting his teeth as his hand around the drumstick tightened.
"You will be responsible for the boy," his father said. "And if he causes any problems, you will be getting rid of him."
Arthur made his promises and tucked into his dinner with a wide smile.
It was a few days before Arthur found gangly-boy and he didn't make his move until much later. His father had wanted to speak to the boy's mother ("If I can make her understand the situation-" he'd been saying to someone – probably Gaius – before Arthur had wandered away from eavesdropping), but as Arthur didn't know his new friend's name, it was hard to pinpoint who exactly Uther could talk to.
Even though he was six, Arthur knew how to calm a horse and charm a dog. Following the boy around was no different – he stuck to the shadows and didn't approach his friend at all. He had to find out his friend's likes and dislikes, discover how he could charm his way into his graces.
At the end of the day, Arthur was rewarded with a name.
"Merlin!" a kindly looking woman called, hair bundled up in a scarf on her head. "Dinner time!"
Gangly-boy – Merlin – took off as soon as he saw her. His smile was almost painfully wide as he hurled himself at the woman, taking her hand after he'd finished cuddling her.
Arthur's father had never been one for cuddles and kisses, but that suited Arthur just fine. His father was the king and kings simply did not go around kissing and cuddling, even if he was a father as well.
Mothers, on the other hand, well they were free to kiss and cuddle, even if they were queens. Still, Arthur didn't have a mother because Uther didn't have a queen, but that was fine too. He'd never wanted for cuddles and suchlike, though watching Merlin and his mother made his chest feel a little too tight and a traitorous thought enter his mind. I might like thatthe thought said, but Arthur pushed it down, stomping back to the castle and to dinner with his father.
"My friend's called Merlin," Arthur announced and watched as his father summoned Gaius, who then informed the king that Merlin was his sort-of-apprentice and he was friends with the kind woman who was Merlin's mother.
And of course, that led to Arthur's father wanting to meet Merlin and his mother and so Arthur's days of following Merlin came to an abrupt end as Gaius was told to bring them to a private court session the following day.
Arthur didn't sleep until very late that night, staying up until the moon was high in the sky, trying to pronounce Merlin's name the best he could.
His mother had never been so worried in her life. Merlin had never seen his mother this worried, not even when he'd tipped a tree down with his magic back in Ealdor and almost crushed old man Simmons. Well, he had been three at the time and couldn't exactly remember how she had reacted, but it couldn't be as mad as this.
"Why us Gaius?" she whispered in the dark, thinking that Merlin wasn't asleep.
"It's nothing, I'm sure," Gaius reassured his mother. "In fact it was only when the young prince said Merlin's name-"
"The prince knows Merlin?" Hunith said and Merlin scrunched up his nose. He'd seen the prince from afar, a snotty nosed git with his chin tilted up swanning about. There was no way the prince knew Merlin thank you very much, and Merlin didn't wantto know him either.
"It looks like it." Gaius paused and Merlin stuck his head out of his blankets a little more, just in case they were whispering. "Perhaps he just wants a companion."
Between shaking his head in the pillow (he wasn't going to become the prince's anything!) and his mother shaking him awake in the morning, Merlin fell asleep.
He was dressed in his nicest clothes and his mother even bothered to comb his hair and scrub his face. Merlin had never felt so out of sorts as he did when Gaius came to collect them, leading him into the heart of the castle and to one of the small audience rooms.
It was horrible, Merlin thought. He reached for his mother's hand and Hunith gripped him tightly, keeping him close. The king wasn't there yet, or the prince for that matter, and Merlin wondered if they'd gotten off this time.
"Merlin!" a smug voice called and Merlin stiffened. The prince was every part the git he'd been the other day and Merlin moved to shield himself behind his mother.
"Forgive me for summoning you without warning," a deep voice said and Merlin started, eyes wide as the king entered.
In front of him was a man who represented Merlin's worst fears. Merlin was everything the king hated and yet – and yet – it wasn't King Uther who scared Merlin the most. There was a devilish, self-satisfied gleam in the prince's eyes and it did not bode well for Merlin.
"My son wishes to make…" the king trailed off, looking uncomfortable. Merlin narrowed his eyes as the sod of a prince chirped up.
"I want Merlin to be my friend," he said simply and Merlin heard the shocked gasp his mother gave. He looked up to her in worry, taking his eyes off of the prince for a moment, and when he realised she was fine, he looked back to see the prince right in front of him.
"Hullo," the prince said cheerfully, eyes wide and blue. "I'm Arthur and I think you'd be a good friend."
Strangely, Arthur-the-prince held out his hand and Merlin stared down at it. Surely he didn't want to shake hands? Market traders shook hands on deals, noblemen shook hands on treaties… Merlin didn't shake hands because his were always grubby and there were no deals to be made.
"Merlin," Hunith said, pushing him forward at the same time as letting go of his hand.
It left Merlin with little choice and he swallowed thickly as he shook Arthur's hand, sealing his fate as friend to a prince. Perhaps it would be fun and games and perhaps Merlin might get to play with swords and things.
It could be exciting, Merlin thought as he was ushered from the room, told that he had to clean up properly before he could be seen with the prince. It could be exciting because Arthur was a prince and princes could do what they wanted – right?
Merlin soon found out that, yes, princes could do whatever they wanted. Being the prince's friend, however, was a very different story.
Making Merlin his friend was the best decision Arthur had ever had to make. Merlin was fun, Merlin was interesting and, best of all, Merlin was grumpy.
"Come on Merlin!" Arthur shouted as he ran into Merlin's house. Hunith had opened the door and greeted him with a smile, fetching two bowls for breakfast and Arthur had been sent to wake Merlin.
"There are lots of fun things to do today – father's letting me take two of the ponies out." Arthur smiled over at Hunith as she set porridge out on the table. "One's for you, that pretty brown one you liked the other day."
Arthur grabbed the covers, shrieking with laughter as Merlin came tumbling off with them. Before his head hit the floor, Merlin jumped up and hurled the pillow at Arthur, missing him by a good distance, sending Arthur into further peals of laughter.
"You've been taught basic swordsmanship and you're good at it too," Uther said, continuing to eat. "But it's time we made a proper knight of you. You won't stick with one knight, but you'll rotate. Spend four weeks with each until you have learnt enough as a page that you can be assigned as a squire."
Arthur poked at his vegetables. It wasn't the way things were usually done, but then again he was the prince. Things were never done quite the same for him – as Merlin had made clear more than once.
"Of course father," Arthur said, smiling as the reality sunk in. He was going to be a knight – a proper knight out on the training field with the others.
He couldn't wait to tell Merlin.
"Weren't you already training to be a knight?" was the first thing Merlin said, huddled by the fire and peering out at Arthur.
"Um," Arthur replied, not sure why Merlin would think that. "No." He frowned. "No, you idiot, I've been training to be a knight, but I haven't been training to bea knight. A real one with a sword and out on the fields…" Arthur trailed off with a smile. Merlin didn't speak for a long while.
"It's your dream, isn't it?" Merlin said quietly, staring at the fire. Hunith wasn't there and Arthur felt suddenly older by decades.
"Yes," he replied, looking into the embers just as Merlin was. "But we'll still be friends," he promised. "I can even teach you how to be a knight as well!"
The words put a smile back on Merlin's face and Arthur joined in his laughter. Hunith came back a little later and saw them both and she smiled, walking over to Arthur and pulling both him and Merlin close.
Ah, Arthur thought as he closed his eyes, head cushioned on Hunith's stomach and Merlin tucked against him. So this was what a cuddle felt like.
Even training as a page took up a lot of Arthur's time. Sick of his moping, Hunith had packed Merlin off to Gaius, where he'd resumed more vigorous magic training under the guise of becoming an apprentice to the court physician. Their plan was perfect and if Hunith suspected anything, she didn't show it.
Though he had become a squire recently, Arthur always made time for Merlin and Merlin did the same. They no longer played knights and dragons, Arthur deeming them far too old and sensible now, but they still spent hours in each others' company.
It was comfortable for a long while. In fact it wasn't until Arthur was eleven and Merlin ten that it happened, the moment that would tear them apart.
Arthur wasn't the only friend Merlin had in Camelot. Over in the stables, there was a young lad called Will, a little bit younger than Merlin. They'd known each other since they were babies; Will had been born in Ealdor too and his parents taken Hunith's advice to flee to Camelot rather than to Cenred. A bold decision, but one that had paid off well.
Will was a hard one to place. He seemed angry at the world some days – for no reason at all – yet others he was in perfect peace. There were rumours that his father wanted to leave the family, rumours that his mother wanted to leave and it made Will's life strained.
He hadn't meant to do it. If anyone asked Merlin years later what was the one thing he would come to regret, it would be showing Will that he had magic.
Will himself hadn't been the problem. He'd laughed as Merlin had created animals shapes from shadows, brought real fire into shadow-dragons' lungs and been amazed by the sheer talent Merlin possessed and Merlin had loved that moment. He'd been free, free to do what he wanted and have someone enjoy his talents.
His regret came later, when Hunith began piling their most valuable possessions into travelling bags and took him by the shoulders, shaking him hard.
"Do you know what you have done?" she asked, eyes wide. "Just be thankful the king doesn't even suspect you."
Merlin found out later, when they were far from Camelot, that his display had been seen by a passing servant. They hadn't seen who was conjuring the 'demons' in the stables (or Will for that matter), but Hunith had left at once, with added urging from Gaius. Magic hadn't been spotted for a while in Camelot and Uther would surely search far and wide this time. Best to get Merlin out, Gaius had said, at least for a while.
The story of a cousin was invented. Apparently a cousin of Hunith's had grown sick and asked for her help. Hunith, being the kind person she was, had gone at once, unsure when she would return. One day they would though, she'd promised Merlin, but it had been too late then.
The worst part wasn't having to leave Camelot. The worst part was having to leave Arthur.
"Yes Sire, it was a matter of urgency." Arthur could feel Gaius looking at him, but he simply stared ahead, ignoring everyone else. "Hunith sends her apologies, and Merlin too no doubt."
Uther sat in his throne and nodded his head slowly.
"I cannot blame her for wanting to protect her family, especially when sorcery is so blatantly used in the lower town." Uther's mouth thinned and Arthur looked away again. "Search the lower town for any signs of sorcery. Anyone who looks the slightest suspicious is to be brought in immediately."
They were then dismissed and Arthur trailed after Gaius, trying to pick his feet up. He was worn from training, worn from his duties and yet they had nothing on how he felt knowing Merlin was gone.
Why had it been so sudden? Had Arthur done something wrong?
"He'll be back," Gaius said and Arthur started. He hadn't realised Gaius was beside him and he smile stiffly, nodding his head.
"Of course," Arthur replied. "He's apprenticed to you after all."
Gaius let him go without another word, understanding that Arthur had just lost his best friend. They hadn't said goodbye, hadn't been able to steal one last raid on the kitchens or go swimming in one of the lakes. There hadn't been time and Arthur fell onto his bed, still grimy from training, but unwilling to move.
Merlin was gone and there was nothing he could do to change that.
"Again Emrys," Aglain said and Merlin shook his hands out, concentrating on the spell as he held the crystal. "Go on!"
Pain flared up Merlin's hand and he dropped the crystal, hissing. It hit the ground with a thud and Aglain sucked in a sharp breath.
"It won't be forced," Merlin said simply, frowning down at the crystal. "It's not made to force the future out. Perhaps it would work for someone who has talent in the healing arts?"
Aglain shook his head. "If you can't do it then no one else will be able to," he said and Merlin frowned.
The druids had been wonderful. They'd taken Hunith and Merlin in after they'd left Camelot and taught Merlin everything they could. He'd absorbed the knowledge happily; free to practice his magic in their community. His mother had been more relaxed than she'd ever been in Camelot and it was for that reason more than anything that Merlin vowed to learn as much as he could before he returned to Camelot.
Except, the druids seemed to think he had a great destiny. They often parroted Aglain and said that if Emrys couldn't do it then no one could, despite what Merlin said. They were good people though and Merlin enjoyed their company, but it still didn't feel quite like home.
He thought of Arthur often, usually at night before he went to sleep and was too tired to push thoughts of his old friend away. Those thoughts were always mixed as Merlin wondered what kind of man Arthur had become, wondered what Camelot had become and yet still felt a sense of relief he was with the druids.
Though they were not Arthur, he could be free.
It was seven years since he had left Camelot now and Merlin had been growing in leaps and bounds. He'd been passed through tutors quickly, each informing him that he'd outgrown their capacity until it was clan leaders who were teaching him, elders and the most experienced alike.
Aglain was once such man, though his ideas were a little different from Merlin's. He seemed to think you could force a spell if you had great power and had been trying to get Merlin to See using crystals. Even when everyone knew that the crystals were the ones that showed you the future and not the other way around.
"Roland brought down a boar today," Hunith said as soon as Merlin entered their house. He smiled and pulled off his jacket, piling some more logs on the fire. "It'll be perfect for the celebrations."
Merlin looked up from pouring himself a cup of water. He hadn't heard anything that would warrant a celebration and said as much. Hunith looked shocked for a moment before she smiled.
"It's good news," she said. "For us anyway, the turning of a new age."
Merlin's stomach twisted at the look of sadness that crossed Hunith's face. It couldn't be; it was far too soon, surely.
"King Uther was wounded in an attack. He passed away three nights ago." Merlin dropped his cup, water spilling all over the table. "We have a new king and there are high hopes he will bring about a new age."
That night, the celebrations began for King Arthur's coronation, even though the druids were far from Camelot and the rest of the world. Merlin joined in with the festivities, slopping mead from his cup as he toasted the new king again and again, stepping even closer to returning to his friend, despite the distance that still remained.
Though he hid it well, Arthur missed Merlin. He made sure it didn't show in his day to day life or affect his duties in anyway, but when he was alone and had nothing to do, his thoughts turned to Merlin. How was he? Where was he? Was he even still alive?
Supposedly he had chosen to stay with his mother and her cousin, studying something or another. Gaius had explained as much gently to Arthur days before his first tournament and he'd been so annoyed that Merlin had chosen something over him that he'd almost lost the competition. Almost. And if his swordsmanship had been shoddy, only his father had lectured him about it so it was neither here or there.
Still, Arthur missed his friend. Merlin was still the only one who had been a true friend. The knights were friendly enough, but Arthur could feel the divide between them when Leon would gently remind him he was a prince. He could feel them staring at him when he entered the tavern, attempting to drink with his men. He was on a different level with them and, unlike Merlin, they were never able to forget it.
So Arthur focused on what was in front of him and what he could do. He trained as much as he could, sought experience wherever he could find it and listened to the people. Merlin had taught him many things, but the most important was that he could do so much simply by listening to people equally, no matter if they were noble-born or a pig keeper.
The people came to love Arthur. They respected him and would always make time to talk to the prince when he was in the lower town. In return, Arthur would help them in any way he could, from mending fences to arguing with his father to lower taxes for a particularly stretched winter.
Uther didn't agree with Arthur spending so much time helping, but he could hardly object to it. Because of who Arthur was and what he was capable of doing, he could attend to his people and still complete his duties as prince, no matter how many Uther gave to him.
The support of his people had never meant more to Arthur than on the night his father died. It had been a normal day, a ridiculously normal day that seemed out of sorts with what had happened. In the end, Uther had stopped an assassin that was aiming for Arthur and he had died that evening, telling his son that he loved him and that he would be a great king.
Arthur's coronation had been a grand affair, even though Arthur himself hadn't specified as much. The people of Camelot had cheered their new king, putting away their candles from their vigil the night Uther had died and pinning garlands everywhere. Petals streamed the lanes of the village and children knotted every horse's hair with bundles of flowers.
Everyone was happy and Arthur revelled in the happiness of his people. He paraded through the towns, cheering for his people and Camelot herself, making sure that everyone that eve went to bed with a smile on their face and their bellies full, even if it meant that Arthur had to dip into his tourney winnings to provide the food.
Arthur's first true test of kingship came just a week after he'd taken his vows. It was a small yet concentrated attack on one of the outermost villages and Arthur had taken off almost at once, a team of trusted knights with him. He needed to prove that he wouldn't let anyone in his kingdom be harmed, no matter how small or far away from Camelot they were.
The bandits fled when they came face-to-face with King Arthur, but the same hadn't been said for the mercenaries with them. The mercenaries had been paid, unlike the bandits, and they'd made sure to finish the job.
In the end, there odds were tipped in the mercenaries' favour, especially when the bandits returned with fighters from Cenred's land. It hadn't been a random attack to judge Arthur's strength, but a trap.
As he continued to fight, Arthur knew that he should have seen this. Cenred would take every advantage he could to take over Camelot and Arthur had played perfectly into his plan.
Not even the knights of Camelot – seven knights including their king – could take on thirty or so men. It wasn't long before Arthur was off of his horse, trying to wade through the bodies and fighting, trying to find some end that would be favourable to his men, but it was pointless. A well aimed blow to the head that Arthur couldn't dodge knocked him out cold and there was nothing else he could do.
Merlin dropped the crystal with wide eyes and turned to Aglain.
"Did you see it?" he asked, hands shaking. He needed to leave, had to go and find out for himself if the crystal had been showing the truth.
"Emrys?" Aglain said instead, frowning. It was clear that he hadn't been privy to the vision and Merlin gritted his teeth. How was he supposed to leave when Aglain didn't know the reason.
"Aglain!" a voice called then and Merlin placed it as one of the Elders.
A woman joined them in their teaching tent then, hair wild and chest heaving.
"It's the king," she began and Merlin rose, nodding to her and leaving the tent.
He knew what was wrong with the king. Cenred had gone too far and taken Arthur, overpowered him and taken a coward's way out just to claim a scrap of land. The vision had shown Merlin riding out, going to help Arthur, and that was exactly what he intended to do.
Merlin was unsurprised to find a horse tacked and waiting. Hunith was amongst those gathered – explaining why she hadn't been at the house when he'd stopped by to grab a cloak – and she kissed him on the cheek.
"Send my love to Arthur," she whispered in his ear and Merlin nodded, smiling as he mounted his horse.
The druids bowed their heads as Merlin thundered past, clumps of mud flying in the air as his horse sensed the urgency.
Cenred's castle – where Arthur was being held – wasn't far from the druids' camp and it didn't take long for Merlin to reach it. He let his horse loose, asking it to stay in the area, which it agreed to with a toss of its mane. That was a benefit to Merlin's extreme powers – he could communicate, through intent and look, with animals.
Strangely, the castle was easy to enter. Perhaps it was because Cenred had grown arrogant and assumed that Camelot wouldn't have time to find out yet. Perhaps it was because the guards were hardly trained or perhaps it was because they all wanted to gawk at their neighbouring, captive king.
Whatever the reason was, Merlin was glad there was no one there. It made slipping into the castle very easy indeed and all he had to do was travel down. In the crystal, Merlin had seen the dungeons and seen them leaving them, which was a good thing. Still, he didn't place too much trust in what he'd seen – the future could change after all, no matter how much steed the druids placed in the crystals.
It was remarkably easy, was the first thing that Merlin thought. Whenever he heard footsteps approaching, he would hide in the shadows and cloak himself with a spell, keep still until they were gone and then breathe a sigh of relief when they had.
It was also remarkably easy to find Arthur – and there were only a handful of guards. Cenred had grown arrogant then, Merlin thought, but he didn't linger on it too much. The Fates had a strange way of working and if they were looking on the situation fondly right now, then Merlin was going to make the most of it.
The first thing that Merlin thought when he'd taken care of the guards and slipped into Arthur's cell was how much he'd grown. It was a stupid thought because of course Arthur had grown. They'd spent years apart and it would be ridiculous if Arthur hadn'tgrown.
The next thing Merlin thought was a spell. Arthur fell down from where he'd been shackled and groaned, on the very cusp on consciousness. Merlin bit his lip and whispered a brief healing spell, enough to take the edge off any pain, but not enough to fully heal Arthur. Despite viewing their escape from the castle and knowing it was clear, Merlin couldn't afford to spend time healing every wound. Such a task would have to wait.
"Who…" came a soft voice and Merlin spun around, eyes wide as he saw a sliver of white and blue. Arthur was awake and Merlin was suddenly very aware that he wasn't ready to face him.
"Emrys," he blurted out, lowering his voice and wincing. "My name is Emrys, sire."
"Em… rys…" Arthur mumbled before wheezing in pain. Instantly Merlin was there, letting the magic that was supporting him lower slightly, just enough that Merlin could hoist him on his back.
"It's okay," Merlin whispered as he began leading them out of the dungeons. "I'm going to help you back to Camelot."
The journey out was just as easy as the way in and Merlin thanked whoever was watching over him. No one spotted them as Merlin stumbled back to the woods, calling for his horse and finding a good space to hide.
Arthur had developed a fever between the castle and the cave they were now in and Merlin forwent gathering food to heal him. Magic soaked his skin as he began casting and he felt Arthur relax more and more under his ministrations, wounds and aches soothing. The damage itself hadn't been too bad, but Arthur was exhausted and refused to rest.
When he was done, Merlin closed his eyes for a moment, wanting only a moment's rest before he went to unpack some food. Somehow, the moment stretched out longer and longer, until Merlin was fast asleep, tucked fast against Arthur's side.
The first thing Arthur noticed when he woke up was how warm and comfortable he felt. He wondered why Cenred had moved him and then remembered the strange man who had helped him – Emrys.
He'd been in the cell for only a few hours, but they'd still taken the time to remind Arthur that he was nothing in Cenred's land. But Arthur couldn't feel any wounds or even aches and looked over at Emrys, who was curled against him, fast asleep.
He looked like Merlin, Arthur thought. Or what Arthur imagined Merlin would look like now, but perhaps a little more powerful. The Merlin he was friends with had always been long-limbed and a little more than clumsy and Arthur was sure that would have translated over into adulthood.
Arthur pulled away, looking around the cave as his stomach rumbled. He shifted away from Emrys (who was the only one who could have helped soothe Arthur's aches, and he had a feeling that magic was involved there) and moved to the bags piled at the side of the cave when Emrys stirred.
"Arthur?" he mumbled, voice clouded with sleep. Arthur turned sharply, recognising that exact tone, and backtracking on his earlier thoughts. Emrys didn't just look like Merlin, but he was Merlin.
"Merlin?" Arthur replied, dropping the bags and moving back to Merlin.
For a moment, Merlin looked like a shocked rabbit, eyes wide. But then he relaxed, nodding his head and Arthur felt he world shift under his feet. He had his arms wrapped around Merlin the next instant, holding him close and smiling.
"Merlin," he said softly, barely exhaling the name as Merlin clung back. "It's really you."
Arthur could feel Merlin nodding and he pulled back, hands smoothing over Merlin's face, making sure he was there – that he was really real.
"The druids call me Emrys," Merlin said, hands still clenched against Arthur's back. "It's where mother and I have been since Camelot."
"I thought I'd never see you again," Arthur said, wanting to pull Merlin closer again, stick to him forever, absorb him or whatever it took just to keep him by his side. "I missed you," he admitted and Merlin took a step closer.
"I'm sorry," he said, pressing his forehead to Arthur's. "I did something and my mother panicked. We had to leave. It was… it was my fault."
They were so close that Arthur could feel Merlin's breath over his lips. He closed his eyes for a moment, hands slipping to Merlin's shoulders.
"I'm magic," Merlin whispered, but Arthur didn't care. He'd always known there was something special about Merlin, but that didn't make him any less of a friend.
"It doesn't matter," Arthur replied softly, pulling Merlin closer so their bodies were flushed tight.
"I'm everything your father stood against," Merlin countered, yet he made no move to leave. "I'm the most powerful sorcerer the druids have ever seen."
Arthur smiled. "Got a bit cockier I see," he said and Merlin gave a huff of laughter.
"The way I see it," Arthur began, opening his eyes only slightly so that he could take in every inch of Merlin properly. "You came to save me. You used your magic to save me."
He told Merlin that he'd been wavering on his father's laws. Arthur had seen magic do terrible things, that much was true, but he'd also see it do wonderful things. And then of course had turned a blind eye, but it had still been wonderful.
"Come home," Arthur pleaded, wanting Merlin like nothing he'd ever wanted before.
Merlin said something, but Arthur didn't hear it for Merlin had moved closer, pressing their lips together and kissed him.
"I did promise," Merlin whispered when they parted and Arthur smiled into their next kiss, holding Merlin tight and making a promise of his own.
"You'll never have reason to leave again," he said softly and Merlin looked at him with bright eyes, smiling until Arthur knew his jaw must ache.
"Never eh?" Merlin repeated, laughing. The sound went straight to Arthur's heart and he joined in, remembering a long-ago past when they'd been children in Hunith's house, giggling over learning crude words.
And despite being a king now, Arthur never wanted that to change.