What Infinite Heart's Ease - PART 3
Arthur woke bound and gagged. His head throbbed, thoughts still sluggish from whatever he had breathed in the forest. It took him a moment to recall what had happened, how he had come to be here. Where exactly 'here' was remained as of yet unknown; he only knew Morgana was involved.
Morgana. He had almost given up hope of ever seeing her again. She was changed; that much was clear. Her beauty was still very much in evidence—the strong jaw was the same, the pale skin and dark hair. Her face, however, was sharper, more angled. Her pale eyes which had always discomfited him were even more unsettling, holding no trace of warmth. She had appeared out of the mist like some wraith from a dream, silent and mysterious. Even though he was obviously a prisoner, Arthur felt a tentative excitement that he'd see her again, speak to her, be able to ask where she had been all these years. Was she safe? Was she happy?
From the expression he could recall seeing on her face in the brief moment before he lost consciousness, Arthur felt he already knew the answer.
Tugging at his restraints, Arthur tested to see how secure they were. He instinctively tried to reach for his sword, but his hands were tied; his weapons, to no surprise, had been removed. His muscles ached as he twisted trying to free himself and he could feel bruises as he moved. He suspected he had been carried on horseback, and treated none too gently. He wondered how far they had come. Squinting, still lightheaded and a little dizzy, Arthur surveyed his confinement. He was in a small room with a dirt floor. The back wall was stone, and curved around like a cave. The opening had been built out to enlarge the room, and metal bars had been placed across the small window in the door.
Arthur looked around the room for any object he could scrape the ropes against, but other than the stone wall behind him, there was nothing; the room was empty. He started to scoot across the floor, eye searching out any jagged edges, but before he could get close, he heard the jangling of keys outside the door.
The door opened slowly and Morgana stepped into the room. She reached a hand out toward the wall and the torches burst into flame, illuminating the space. Arthur knew she had magic; he had surmised her secret long ago, yet it was still disconcerting to see her eyes glow with power as she used it so casually right before him. Her hand returned to her side and Arthur watched carefully as she stood there, giving him a dispassionate stare. He tried to speak, but his voice was muffled by his gag. Arthur jerked his head, trying to indicate he'd like it removed, but Morgana didn't react; she continued to study him silently. Arthur stopped his movements and returned her gaze, searching her face for… anything at all, anything he could recognize of the girl he once knew.
As Arthur watched, her hand reached out again, this time toward him. Her eyes glowed brightly and then her arm crackled with energy as electricity shot from her fingers toward him. He braced himself, but nothing could prepare him for the shock that jolted through him as every nerve in his body was wracked with pain. Helpless, his body convulsed and he screamed against his gag in agony. He wasn't sure how long the attack lasted; it seemed endless, but in reality it was probably only seconds. When it stopped, the relief was so abrupt Arthur went limp, sagging against the ground. He shook with after-tremours and he wasn't sure he could get his body to obey him, even if he were free to try. Sweat beaded on his forehead and he breathed heavily through his nose as he tried to recover from the assault. When he was able, he turned his head to look at Morgana. She barely gave him time to meet her eyes before her hand was again extended, sparks shooting from her fingers.
Arthur was even more incapacitated after the second blast. It seemed to last longer than the first and the physical pain, combined with the realization that Morgana hated him to such an extent, was devastating. It took him longer to recover this time too. He could feel his muscles twitching, each movement sending new coils of pain over his skin, through his muscles, deep into the bone.
A third blast hit him before he could even open his eyes. Arthur had no energy left to scream. He'd never felt such pain, never felt so helpless. He wasn't sure how much more he could take. This time it seemed to last forever and he prayed he'd lose consciousness or else he'd end up going mad. Finally, the assault abruptly ceased. Every nerve in his body was raw, flayed wide open. Arthur didn't think he could even open his eyes without excruciating pain. He lay on the ground motionless, wondering if the ordeal was over or if there was more to come. Before he had barely formed the thought, he was hit with yet another blast. Mercifully, his body rebelled, mind shutting down as he succumbed to darkness.
When he awoke, the torches were burning low and the room was filled with a gloomy light. His gag had been removed, as had his bindings. Instead, he was restrained by both wrists and ankles to shackles, secured by chains bolted into the stone wall. Arthur struggled to a sitting position, wincing at the shoots of agonizing pain that went through him at each movement, and gave an experimental tug. He tugged harder, testing the strength of the chains. His efforts only succeeded in causing more pain to his ravaged body. A voice spoke into the silence, starling him.
"You won't be successful," Morgana said. "They're secured by magic."
Arthur stopped the attempts to get free and turned to look at Morgana. She was standing near the door, face unreadable.
All the questions he had carried over the years faded; there was only one he needed the answer to now: "Why are you doing this?" Arthur hardly recognized his voice; it was barely a croak, his throat raw from the screaming and bone dry from the cloth that had been used as a gag. He was thirsty, he noticed absently.
Morgana only stared back, eyes intense, then she turned and exited the room, locking the door behind her.
Once she had gone, Arthur tested his restraints again, almost rubbing his wrists raw in an effort to free himself. After assuring himself of the futility of his situation, he sagged back to the ground, the energy required to stay upright too much for his weakened body. He shut his eyes, cheek pressed to the cool dirt floor, and almost immediately drifted off to sleep.
When he woke next, he was unable to tell how much time has passed. Without any natural light entering the room, he didn't know whether it was night or day. He moved experimentally and was happy to find that the pain was a little less than the last time he had awoken. Arthur pushed himself to a sitting position and took stock of his surroundings. His thirst was even greater than before. A metal pan had been placed in the corner, but other than that, the room remained empty. He wondered how long he'd be kept here, what Morgana's reasoning was, what the purpose was to his capture. He assumed she didn't want him dead, at least not yet. Otherwise, what would have stopped her from killing him when he had lain bound and gagged and at her mercy?
His knights would be looking for him, at least. Morgana's magical assault had been excruciating, but he was strong; he'd be able to withstand whatever he needed until he was found. Arthur gave some thought to her motives, but without knowing anything about her life since she had left following her attack on Uther, he really had nothing to go on. Was it simply hatred that she had carried with her all these years? He supposed that could be the case. The thought disheartened him. He wished he could tell her how his sympathies had changed regarding magic, how he always wished he'd been able to help her, but he supposed he would hardly be believed; the entire kingdom knew he was on a manhunt to bring a sorcerer to justice. Maybe that was the reason, then—the magic users of the land didn't want a second Uther on the throne.
Would she keep him here indefinitely, then? Was she involved with Cenred, helping him to invade Camelot and expand his own kingdom? It seemed possible; Arthur just didn't know. If that was the case, though, it seemed unlikely he'd be kept alive. At least not for long.
The method of his capture now crossed his mind. Learning the voice he'd heard and followed into the night had been nothing more than a ruse was a grievous disappointment. The pain was of a different ilk than the physical trial he had just endured, but Arthur felt it no less intensely. He still wanted answers. Still wanted to be convinced Merlin's words in the dungeon had been the truth. Still wanted Merlin to explain how he could have lied to Arthur all those years. Most of all, he still wanted Merlin. That was the crux of it. He wanted Merlin as much as he ever had, even with the lies, the betrayal, the secrets he'd kept. He tipped his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. Who knew how long he'd be trapped here. Isolated and alone, he now had even more time to think. For once he indulged himself, focusing his memories on Merlin's smile, the way his eyes lit up when Arthur returned it with one of his own. For a moment, it was enough to ease the pain.
As the hours passed—days, maybe? He didn't know—Arthur's thirst surpassed the residual pain from Morgana's assault. His stomach was knotted with hunger as well, but that was bearable. The thirst was becoming an overriding need.
The door to his prison opened again, and Arthur looked up, hoping someone was bringing water. A man entered, his face masked with a hood. A feeling of dread crept over Arthur and he braced himself for more pain. The man held out his hand toward Arthur, much like Morgana had done, but instead of electricity, Arthur was immobilized. He struggled to move, but it was if he was bound by invisible restraints. The man moved closer and Arthur could only watch as his wrist was grasped in the man's gloved hand and the fingers of his sword hand were bent and broken one by one. His throat was paralysed; he couldn't even scream. He felt his vision greying, then mercifully lost consciousness from the pain.
Arthur groaned as he came to. His unbearable thirst had receded to a secondary concern as the pain from his mangled hand eclipsed everything. He struggled to a sitting position again, cradling it in his lap. He could barely look at his fingers without feeling sick—the knuckles were swollen, the fingers mutilated and useless. He was beginning to think that even if he escaped he may as well be dead. Who would follow a king who couldn't wield a sword? He could use his other hand, of course, though not as adeptly, but his weakness would be apparent to anyone he faced; he was damaged, crippled. He vaguely wondered if he should try to set them, straighten them to see if he might still have some use when they healed, but at the first touch the pain was so severe he almost passed out. He leaned back against the wall again, closed his eyes and tried not to think about his parched throat, the throbbing ache in his fingers.
Instead he thought about Merlin, his long elegant fingers as he buckled Arthur's armour. The way he'd smooth his hands over Arthur's shoulders, down his back, straightening the fabric of his shirt, making him presentable for court. The way they'd massage the aches from his muscles, knead into his tight shoulders, loosening Arthur's tension and bringing him relief. He didn't want to think about those same fingers extending forward toward Uther, wielding tremendous power, instruments of death. He pushed that image aside and focused on the way they'd tremble, bury themselves in Arthur's hair when they were pressed close together, joined intimately in their passion. If memories of Merlin were all he had left, he was glad to have these to ease his misery.
His torturer returned far too soon. This time Arthur watched helplessly as the man took a sharp blade and ran it down the side of his cheek. He could feel the blood dripping from the gash, sliding down his neck. Momentarily, he was reminded of Merlin and the way he had pressed his own blade against Merlin's throat when he lay helpless in the great hall. The hooded man didn't stop with the one cut, however. He slashed Arthur's tunic open and made a series of shallow slices across his chest. Arthur could feel the blood seeping slowly from each cut; he knew he'd gradually become weaker as his life force drained from his body. He wondered if these wounds would be enough to kill him.
When he next opened his eyes, Morgana had returned. She was standing as she had that first time, silently by the door, watching him impassively.
Arthur was too weak to move. From his position prone on the floor, he asked, voice barely usable, throat parched and dry, "Why are you doing this?"
An ugly expression crossed her face. "How does it feel, Arthur, to be so helpless? To have no one come to your rescue, no matter how hard you hope?"
Arthur didn't answer; he could barely keep his eyes open, trained on her face.
"I was just a girl, Arthur. You did nothing." She reached out her hand and sent out a shock to his ravaged body that left him trembling long after she had whirled away from him and left the room, locking the door behind her.
The next time the man in the hooded mask came into the room he didn't even bother with the magical restraints; Arthur was too weak from lack of water, food and now blood to move. The man's booted foot nudged him, toeing him inquiringly. When Arthur's only response was a stifled moan, the foot withdrew. Arthur thought he had been given a reprieve this time, but then the man pulled back his foot and delivered a kick to his face. Blood filled his mouth; Arthur swallowed it down, desperate for any liquid relief at all. His stomach immediately roiled and he gagged, the movement causing excruciating pain through his body, knives to his chest.
Arthur floated between dreams and wakefulness. He was hot. Too hot. He knew his wounds were likely fevered and, without treatment, would only get worse. If no one came soon, this prison would be his tomb. He thought of all the ideas he'd had, his plans for Camelot. He'd squandered the beginning of his reign, chasing ghosts, too focused on his personal injuries to do what was best for his kingdom. His father would surely be disappointed were he alive. Regrets weighted his heart; hope was fading. This was not how he wanted to die, not how he wanted to be remembered.
Morgana was there when he next awoke. "Why hasn't he come?" she asked.
"Who?" Arthur croaked, the word barely recognizable. Morgana left without another word; she returned a short while later with a cup of water. Even the slightest movement was excruciating, but Arthur struggle to sit, thirst making him desperate. Morgana levitated the cup toward him and he grabbed it greedily with his non-injured hand. Bringing it to his lips he drank it down. There was barely enough to wet his throat, not enough to slake his thirst, just enough to tease. But he held the cup tilted upward until every last drop was gone.
"Where is he?" Morgana asked.
"I have no sorcerer."
"Merlin. Where is Merlin? Why hasn't he come for you?"
Arthur shook his head. "Merlin will not be coming for me."
"You lie. I've seen it."
Arthur let out a bark of bitter laughter, delirium allowing him to appreciate the dark humour in the situation. He was being tortured to lure a sorcerer who would likely be happy to be doing the torturing himself.
"You've got it all wrong. Merlin isn't coming. He hates me. Maybe even more than you do."
"I doubt that, dear brother," Morgana said before sweeping once more from the room.
Arthur stared at the closed door long after she had departed, stunned by her revelation.
When Arthur heard the door creaking open, he didn't even bother to open his eyes. He was not expecting to survive much longer. He'd been without water, save for the small amount earlier, for what must be days now. His fever was worsening. And now that Morgana knew Merlin wasn't coming; what need did they have to keep him alive? Whatever they planned to do to him, he only hoped it was quick.
The invisible bonds clutched at him and he was pulled to his feet, then slammed against the wall. His head sagged as he barely stayed conscious through the pain. The chains attached to his shackles tightened until he was spread, arms and legs akimbo. Arthur pried open his eyes and what he saw caused his heart to sink; his hooded adversary was holding a mace in his gloved fist, swinging it in slow circles.
Arthur watched through his delirium as if it were happening to someone else—the man walking closer, the mace swinging faster until the spiked metal ball was slammed into his leg. He heard the sharp crack of bone, an ear-piercing scream and then there was blackness.
Voices woke him. Arthur swam slowly toward consciousness, struggling for breath as his useless leg refused to hold him. He was hanging from his shackles, sagging by his arms and slowly suffocating. From the other room, he could hear Morgana arguing with… Merlin. He felt a surge of hope. Arthur tried to call out, but didn't have the strength. Instead he could only listen to the altercation taking place beyond his cell door.
"…knew you'd come for him. There's not much left of him, I'm afraid. That is, if you're not already too late."
"Where is he? You'll tell me now."
"Or you'll what?"
Arthur heard the blast of a spell and waited to see if either was still alive.
"Impressive," Morgana said, sounding slightly out of breath. "But it won't be enough, I'm afraid. Not to get past me."
"What quarrel have you with me? Why did you lure me here?" Merlin asked.
"What quarrel? You can ask that after you killed my Alvarr? I will have my vengeance." Another spell blast crackled through the air.
"The sorcerer who attacked Uther."
"The world is better off without a man like he."
"And I suppose you'll take the throne? Is that your plan, Morgana?"
"Why not? I've just as much claim by blood as Arthur."
Another round of volleys transpired while Arthur struggled to listen, desperate to hold on for just a little longer.
"But no," Morgana continued. "My son Mordred has an even larger claim. Cenred will conquer Camelot and when my son comes of age, he'll take the throne. Magic will be restored to its rightful place."
"Cenred? I may have killed Alvarr, but it could easily have been Cenred. Beware his treachery, Morgana. You're a fool to join forces with one who kills our kind by deceit in order to win us over."
"Camelot has always been the scourge of our people. Cenred will allow us to be free."
"Yet it is Cenred who murders women and children, eradicating the druid camps to sow unrest."
"You lie," Morgana snarled, as another blast resounded.
"Enough," Merlin yelled, his voice dangerous. "Arthur loved you, once upon a time. I have no idea of his feelings now, but I will spare your life for his sake. Do know this, Morgana, if you touch him again, you'll wish I had ended you."
A final blast ricocheted from beyond and then there was silence.
Moments later the door to his prison was blown off its hinges. Merlin burst through the door, followed by two of Morgana's men. Merlin turned, held out his hand and the men went flying, their heads smashing against the stone. They slid lifeless to the ground, blood from their crushed skulls smearing a stripe down the wall.
Merlin rushed to his side and with another wave of his hand Arthur's shackles snapped open. He slumped immediately, but Merlin caught him, lowering him to the ground, his voice frantic, saying, "Arthur, please, please. Don't let me be too late. Arthur, please." Arthur's lungs were burning and he gasped, greedy for air. When he could catch his breath, he forced out a whisper: "Water."
Through hazy eyes Arthur saw Merlin cup his hands and murmur strange and foreign words. His eyes glowed gold and then Arthur watched with amazement as droplets of water, like condensation on glass, started forming in Merlin's hands, as if he were pulling the moisture straight from the air. When a small amount had pooled in his palms, Merlin tipped his hands to Arthur's cracked lips and poured the water into his mouth. He repeated his actions again and again until Arthur gave a small nod and whispered, "Thank you."
Exhausted and delirious, Arthur closed his eyes while Merlin's hands roamed gently over his body, diagnostically cataloguing his injuries. He heard more of the strange words coming from Merlin's mouth and then he felt as if he were floating, the pain suddenly gone. He sighed deeply and felt himself drifting off.
"I'm going to take you somewhere. Someplace safe where you can heal," Merlin said. "I know you don't believe me, Arthur, but…you can trust me. I'm going to take care of you."
With his last ounce of strength, Arthur opened his eyes. Merlin was looking down at him, face anxious and sad and worried. A tear was sliding down his cheek. The expression was wrong on Merlin's face. Out of place. He shouldn't look like that, Arthur thought as a puzzled frown formed on his forehead. The Merlin he remembered had laughing blue eyes and a grin on his lips. He struggled to lift his hand, but it was too heavy in his depleted state. He wanted to wipe the tear from off his face, put the smile back in his eyes.
"Merlin," he whispered before darkness overtook him.
Merlin wanted to get Arthur as far away as possible before Morgana regained consciousness, but Arthur was in such a weakened state he was almost afraid to move him. Chanting a spell under his breath, he did what he could to ease Arthur's pain, helping him sink into oblivion. In the final seconds before Arthur fell unconscious, he whispered, "Merlin." The tears that had begun when he first caught sight of Arthur, bound and broken, covered in blood—he hadn't even been sure he was still alive at first—fell more freely when he heard his own name on Arthur's lips. He had never expected to hear such a thing again.
Casting another spell to lighten Arthur's weight, Merlin gathered him carefully in his arms and carried him out of Morgana's prison. When they emerged from the darkened chambers, Merlin squinted at the afternoon sun, shining brightly in the clear blue sky. The contrast of the beautiful day and the battered wreck of a man he was holding felt perverse. He had always thought of Arthur as bright as the sun, radiating a glow that attracted everyone to him. Merlin swore he'd do everything in his power to return him to health; Arthur would shine again.
Merlin whistled and his horse emerged from the trees. He put his foot in the stirrup and used its leverage to hoist Arthur over its back. He worried, knowing his actions would likely reopen the crisscrossing wounds across his chest, but it couldn't be helped; they had to leave. Pulling himself up behind Arthur on the horse, he then grabbed him under his armpits to move Arthur so that his back was to Merlin's chest. He reached to tug Arthur's leg over the horse's back, apologizing, even though he knew Arthur couldn't hear, when Arthur cried out in pain, even with the help of Merlin's spells. The leg, Merlin thought grimly, looked bad; he wasn't sure he could save it.
He couldn't think about that right now; his immediate concern was putting some distance between Arthur and this terrible place. Before they started off, Merlin shifted to reach into the saddle bag, digging out a phial. He uncorked it and tipped it up to Arthur's mouth, pouring it between his lips, waiting for him to swallow, hoping to help keep his fever down. He felt dangerously hot, but anything more would have to wait until they reached their destination. Merlin adjusted Arthur again so that his head was cradled against his shoulder, wrapping his arms around his waist. He took a brief moment, unable to resist, to bury his face in Arthur's hair, breathing deeply. Over the past few weeks he had, far too many times to count, thought he'd do anything to hold Arthur in his arms again; he never imagined it would be like this. Never like this.
They rode all day, Merlin taking advantage of Arthur being unconscious to cover the ground. Finally, as dusk was falling, they arrived at their destination, a small cottage deep in the forest of Ascetir. Merlin shifted Arthur forward onto his horse's neck then dismounted. He held his hand out to the door, eyes glowing, as he murmured a spell. The door swung open and Merlin slid Arthur from the horse into his arms again, carrying him into the cottage, laying him gently on a raised pallet.
Checking Arthur over briefly, Merlin took a bucket near the doorway and went out to the side yard, filling it with water from a stone well. Before going back inside he cast a series of protection spells, including ones to dissuade anyone from travelling near the cottage, and others to create an illusion if they did; anyone coming near would not see the structure itself, only the forest and endless trees. Satisfied with his efforts, he returned to Arthur's side.
Merlin began to tend to Arthur by cutting away his torn and bloody clothing. He tried to retain a clinical stance when faced with the numerous wounds he uncovered, several of them an angry red, but couldn't help the stinging in his eyes, the tightness in his throat. Using a damp cloth, Merlin gently cleaned every cut, one by one, then covered them generously with a medicinal salve.
He took Arthur's hand next, swollen and mangled, closing his eyes to concentrate as he assessed the damage. Merlin reached out with his magic, letting it penetrate through the skin, skimming over sinew, muscle, tendon, bone. Though severe, the injuries were not irreparable; he could fix this, he was certain, Merlin felt with a moment of pure relief. Arthur would wield a sword once again.
The leg was the most troublesome; the bone had been literally shattered. Piecing it back together would be a task that would strain even his magical abilities. Despite Merlin's years with Gaius, healing had never been his strength. But for Arthur, he would try. He would try almost anything. Arthur would need to be awake, however. Merlin wasn't going to attempt such complicated healing without Arthur's permission. If he failed, the alternative was amputation. He'd never take such an action without Arthur's awareness. The trust that had once been between the two of them was shattered, much like the bone; it was likely just as beyond repair. Merlin would give Arthur no more reason to doubt him again.
Merlin lifted the spell that kept Arthur unconscious and Arthur breathed out a sigh, not awakening, but body shifting into a deep sleep. Merlin eyes roved over Arthur, making sure he had done what he could for now. He knelt next to the bed and stared at Arthur, his king. His love. Overcome with emotion, he picked up Arthur's uninjured hand with both of his, pressing it to his lips, holding it against his cheek.
"You're safe now," he whispered. "You're safe."
While Arthur slept, Merlin used the time to prepare a meal, starting a fire and roasting a hare over a spit. He wrapped the meat in green leaves and placed it near the coals to keep it warm then placed the bones in a deep pot, filling it with water and seasoning it with herbs to make a broth. Arthur would be hungry, Merlin expected, but he wasn't sure how his stomach would fare after being denied for several days. In addition, he was still feverish and in significant pain.
As if on cue, Arthur groaned from his bed. Merlin was at his side in an instant, hovering anxiously, waiting to see if Arthur would awaken. He did, blinking confusedly, but Merlin was relieved that he seemed to be lucid, at least for now. "Merlin?" he questioned. Arthur looked around the room as if trying to place his surroundings, then asked, "Where are we?"
"You're safe. We're in Ascetir. A cottage. No one can find you."
Comprehension dawned on Arthur's face; Merlin could see the memories flood back. He picked up his ravaged hand, checking to see if it was as he remembered and brought it into his line of sight. Wincing from the pain of movement, a shadow fell over his expression as the reality of the loss of his sword hand reasserted itself. He lay the hand back down by his side, as gently as he was able, and closed his eyes, resting his good arm across his face.
Merlin pulled a stool close and sat down, leaning in with his elbow resting on his knees. He paused, wondering how Arthur would take his next statement. "I believe I can fix it."
Arthur removed his arm and his eyes flew open to stare at Merlin. "My hand?" he asked.
"Yes." Merlin sat up straight and rubbed his hands nervously over his thighs. "I think I can repair it so that you're able to wield a sword again."
"With…" Arthur paused, clearing his throat. He seemed uncomfortable speaking the word aloud. Or maybe his discomfort stemmed from discussing it so directly with Merlin after having had Merlin's abilities hidden from him for years. "With magic?"
"Yes." He stopped his hand movements and held them still, waiting, anxious for Arthur's reaction. "If you'll allow me to try."
There was a long pause while Arthur thought over his words. Then he asked, "My leg?"
Merlin hesitated. "I don't know if I can save your leg," he admitted.
Arthur frowned, looking grim.
Merlin hurried to clarify. "I'd like to try, if you'll let me. But the damage is severe and healing was always more of Gaius' skill than my own."
"You always were pretty much rubbish at everything, weren't you?" Arthur joked, cracking a wry smile. "Why should magic be any different?"
Merlin barked out a laugh, unbelievably moved that Arthur was here, next to him, joking about the very thing he thought had irreparably driven a wedge between them forever.
"Pretty much, yeah," Merlin agreed, throat tightening. He blinked rapidly and turned away, not wanting to look at Arthur to find that the kernel of hope that flickered in his belly was unwarranted. Just for a moment he wanted to believe they could move past this, find forgiveness. Needing something to take his thoughts in a less dangerous direction, Merlin stood and went to the fire, using a rag to grasp the handles of the pot. He carried it to the table and ladled some of the broth into a bowl. Carrying it over to Arthur, he set it on the stool, saying, "Here, let me help you try and sit up."
Propping up pillows behind Arthur's back, Merlin helped pull Arthur to a sitting position. By the time he was situated, Arthur's face had turned white from pain and sweat had broken out on his brow and upper lip. He leaned his head down, chin against his chest and took deep breaths. After a moment, he looked up at Merlin and gave him a small nod. Merlin picked the bowl up and sat down beside the bed. Arthur tried to take the bowl from him, but Merlin batted his hand away, noticing how it trembled with weakness.
Arthur rolled his eyes, but let Merlin tip the bowl up to his mouth. "If you can keep this down," Merlin said, "I've got some meat and bread you can have in a little while."
Arthur gave another small nod of acknowledgment and continued to drink the broth, taking small sips, giving his stomach time to adjust. Merlin continued to talk, deciding now was the time to clarify the issue with Arthur's mangled leg.
"The bones in your leg have been shattered. The hand—those are all simple breaks—the tendons, bones, I can put them back in place. The leg, however…" Merlin paused, swallowing. "I'm not sure if I can repair all the damage; it's extensive. If I can't, the leg will have to come off." He couldn't look at Arthur to see his reaction to this news.
"If you didn't try, the leg would have to come off anyway, would it not?" Arthur asked after a moment. Merlin braved a look. Arthur stared back steadily, already knowing the answer.
"Yes, it would have to come off."
Arthur nodded at the confirmation. "Then the choice seems obvious."
"You'll allow me to perform magic on you?" Merlin asked, clarifying, making certain there was no misunderstanding about what he planned to do.
"And you'll allow me to put you under? Make you unconscious for it? You'll have to go deep; I can't risk you moving while I'm trying to piece your bones back together."
"I'll allow it."
"And if I find it's beyond my skills?" He couldn't continue with the words. He wanted to ask if Arthur trusted him to make the decision about his leg. But with Arthur having little choice, his answer would be meaningless.
"Yes, you may take the leg. If the damage is too severe, you have my permission to amputate if necessary."
Merlin let out a breath. He wasn't sure what he would have done had Arthur said no. Fatigued from the emotional rescue and tense journey to the cottage, Merlin felt a wave of exhaustion wash over him. He knew it would be folly to attempt complicated healing while he was this tired.
"I need to rest before making the attempt. I'd like for you to rest as well." Merlin stood up and retrieved another phial of medicine. "First, take this for the fever. I'll do another spell for the pain if you'll allow."
Arthur nodded and took the phial and drank the bitter liquid, grimacing at the taste. Merlin helped him lie back on the bed then held his hands over Arthur, murmuring the spell. Arthur's eyes were trained on his and Merlin wondered what was going through Arthur's mind as he watched his eyes change colour and turn gold. Did he still hate him for what he was? Still hate him for lying? The crease in Arthur's forehead smoothed out as the spell took effect and the pain released; his eyes drifted closed. Merlin slumped, dropping his hands to his sides, wondering if he had the energy to do anything other than curl up on the floor by the bed. He took a deep breath, bracing himself to complete a few more tasks before succumbing to sleep. He checked the fire, set a spell on the food he had prepared earlier so it would keep, then gratefully moved to the mat on the floor nearby. He felt a moment of melancholy, thinking how many times they had lain like this before—Arthur in the bed, Merlin curled up by the fire. He drifted off to sleep with sorrow in his heart, remembering a morning which had begun with Arthur shaking him awake and had ended in kisses. He'd give almost anything to have that again.
The sound of moaning woke Merlin. He cursed under his breath, eyes blinking blearily, trying to transition to alertness. He'd slept longer than he had intended; the spell protecting Arthur from pain must have worn off. Merlin rose from his mat and hurried to Arthur's side, brow furrowing in concern when he noted the fever seemed to have returned. Quickly preparing a new draught of medicine, Merlin returned to the bedside and gently shook Arthur awake. His heart thudded and his stomach twisted when Arthur opened his eyes, glassy with delirium, and smiled, the uninjured hand reaching out for his own. Merlin knew Arthur's mind was clouded by fever, but that didn't stop him from memorizing the expression on Arthur's face—one he thought he'd never again see directed at him. It didn't stop him from grasping Arthur's hand in his own, feeling the rough calluses against his skin. He savoured the connection even though he knew it wouldn't exist were it not for the fever. He rubbed his thumb gently across the knuckles of Arthur's hand, then squeezed it gently, wanting nothing more than to bring it to his mouth and press his lips against it. Instead, he moved it back to the bed, giving it another squeeze before reluctantly letting it go.
"Are you hungry?" Merlin asked.
"Thirsty," Arthur answered.
Merlin nodded. "I'd like you to take some more medicine as well," he said, moving to get a cup of water.
Before helping Arthur sit up again, Merlin cast a spell to ease Arthur's pain. Then he propped up the pillows once more and helped Arthur drink. Arthur's eyes were unfocused and his cheeks flushed. Merlin worried about attempting to repair his damaged bones while he was still sick with fever, but he feared waiting longer even more. He didn't want to risk having the bones begin to knit or, even worse, have a chip of bone enter Arthur's bloodstream. It had been risky enough jostling him on horseback all the way to the cottage, even with the spells he had cast.
Giving him at least enough time to have the medicine take effect, Merlin convinced Arthur to drink a little more broth. He fussed with the pillows, knowing he was procrastinating, nervous about the task ahead of him. This would be by far the most difficult healing he had ever attempted; Merlin wished Gaius were here.
Finally, he took a deep breath and asked, "Are you ready? I'm going to put you under now."
Arthur looked at him, eyes momentarily focusing on his face, and said in a voice more steady than Merlin would have expected, "I'm ready."
Merlin nodded and took another deep breath, steeling himself for what he must do. He raised his hands and held them palm down over Arthur's chest. As he was about to speak, Arthur reached out and grabbed his wrist.
"Merlin," he said, voice grave.
"There's something I need to say."
Merlin's heart started pounding, wondering what was going to come out of Arthur's mouth next. "What is it?"
"If you need to amputate…"
Arthur paused, long enough to cause Merlin to begin to wonder if he'd changed his mind. Then Arthur said, in that same serious tone, "It's the right leg."
Merlin snorted with laughter, slightly hysterical with relief.
Arthur's expression cracked and a smile spread across his face. He reached up a hand and touched the corner of Merlin's mouth with his finger.
"That's better," he said.
Merlin reached up and took Arthur's hand, pulling it away from his face and placing it back down by his side.
"Very funny, sire. I see you're still as big a prat as ever." An ache formed in his chest; the teasing was bittersweet. For a moment he could almost believe they were back in Camelot, before everything had gone so wrong. He swallowed down the lump in his throat. He could not get caught up in the emotion of the moment; he needed to save all his concentration for healing.
Clearing his throat, he asked again, "If you're ready?"
Arthur nodded and Merlin returned his hands to their previous position. He felt the power surge through him and knew his eyes were glowing gold as the words left his lips. As Arthur's eyelids fluttered shut and his breathing deepened, Merlin heard Arthur murmur, "You called me sire." And then Arthur drifted even deeper, heart slowing, mind quieting past the point of dreams.
Merlin stared at Arthur, almost deathlike in his stillness. He shivered, wanting to shake that image from his mind. "You'll always be my king," he said softly under his breath before setting to work.
Hours later Merlin opened his eyes and sunk onto the stool by Arthur's bedside. He was exhausted, ready to collapse, but he felt triumphant. There were limits to what repairs he was able to effect, but with the proper rest and care, and ample time to let Arthur's body continue to mend, Merlin felt certain he would both walk and wield a sword again. The hand, as expected, was a fairly straightforward task, even if every single finger had been mangled. The breaks were clean, the tendons easily reattached. It would take time to fully heal, but Merlin had few reservations about the success of his efforts.
The leg, on the other hand, was a complex, intricate repair, requiring every last bit of skill and concentration he could muster. The work had been like piecing together a puzzle, with tiny fragments and splintered slivers to fit into place. While he was working, Merlin had no idea how much time had passed. Several instances he had been on the verge of giving up, thinking he'd never get it put back together sufficiently for Arthur to use the limb again, but he persevered. The leg would still need weeks to knit back together, but after determinedly ploughing on in spite of his discouragement, all the tiny shards were in place and held in stasis with the help of a spell—a magical splint, in effect. Merlin was cautiously hopeful.
A wave of exhaustion swept over him and he gripped the edge of the bed, lightheaded. Blinking to try and keep himself awake, he got up and staggered to the table, ripping off a chunk of bread and chewing it ravenously, then washing it down with a long draught of water. Feeling a bit more stable, he went back to Arthur's side and lifted the spell which had kept Arthur unconscious. Merlin watched carefully as Arthur's breathing and heart rate returned to normal; he remained asleep throughout. Taking a clean cloth, Merlin dipped it into a cup of water, then squeezed it between Arthur's lips, watching his throat swallow reflexively. Once he was assured that Arthur was doing well and sleeping peacefully, Merlin curled up in front of the fire and immediately sank into a dreamless sleep.
For the second time, Merlin was awakened by the sound of Arthur's moans. Worried that his leg or hand was troubling him, Merlin scrambled to the bedside and was immediately filled with concern. Arthur was drenched in sweat, skin flushed. Merlin pressed his hand to Arthur's forehead; he was raging with fever. The bedding was also soaked. Merlin cursed under his breath and hurriedly prepared another draught of medicine. After tilting Arthur's head up and getting him to drink, he also tipped more water down Arthur's throat. Then he took a damp cool cloth and wiped it over his face, his neck, his chest, doing what he could to lower Arthur's temperature. He wasn't sure if magic could help, not that he even knew what sort of spell he could perform under the circumstances; Arthur's body was fighting the fever and Merlin didn't know if interfering would do more harm than good; he didn't want to risk inadvertently making things worse. Once again he wished Gaius was here. Keeping Arthur comfortable was one thing he knew he could do, at least. Eyes glowing, Merlin drew the moisture from the bedding, making it clean and fresh, hoping to help Arthur rest more easily.
All through the long night he sat at Arthur's side, bathing him with cool water, gripping his hand and trying not to let worry take his mind to terrifying places. Nevertheless, he wondered more than once, as Arthur fought the fire raging through his body, if he was going to lose him like this, after everything.
Still exhausted from the demanding spellwork earlier and tending Arthur through the night, Merlin found himself nodding off again and again, head jerking up at each small noise. At some point, Arthur's condition shifted and he began to shiver uncontrollably. Merlin stoked the fire and used his magic to assist keeping the temperature in the cottage elevated, but nothing seemed to help. Spasms wracked Arthur's body and Merlin worried he'd do damage to his healing leg. At last, remembering some of Gaius' teachings about hypothermia, Merlin slipped out of his trousers and shirt and slid into the bed alongside Arthur, taking care not to jostle his leg. Wrapping his arms around Arthur, Merlin held him tightly and pressed as much of their skin together as possible. He wasn't sure his actions would help, but he knew they couldn't hurt.
His primary goal was to get Arthur's shivering under control so he could rest and heal properly. He hadn't thought through the emotions he'd be bombarded with once he held Arthur in his arms. Merlin squeezed even tighter and pressed his face against his neck, letting his mouth rest on Arthur's skin in an almost kiss, breathing in his scent, sour from fever, but still so familiar, so precious. So beloved.
Arthur's shivering gradually eased, much to Merlin's relief. At the same time, he was reluctant to let Arthur go. Lying with Arthur clasped tightly against his chest, ankle hooked around Arthur's good leg, was more than he ever thought he'd know again. He wanted to hold on to the feeling, capture it for just a moment longer to carry with him into the lonely days ahead. He took another deep breath, one arm draped over Arthur's waist, holding him close, the other snaking up to sink itself in his hair. Just one more minute, he told himself, memorizing the feel of him—the heat and the texture of his skin, his scent, the softness of his hair. Just one more minute, he thought as his eyes drifted closed and he breathed Arthur in.
Arthur woke disoriented, aching all over, but with a sense of peace that had been missing for a very long time. Almost immediately, he realized the source of his contentment—the warm body pressed to his side, arm draped over his stomach. Merlin, dead to the world. He didn't even move as Arthur shifted next to him; he must be exhausted, Arthur thought. Curious, Arthur raised his hand toward his face and was amazed to see the results of Merlin's efforts. It was still swollen at the knuckles, cuts scabbed over, but all the broken bones looked as if they had been repaired. Feeling a surge of hopefulness, he tried to discover if his leg had fared equally as well. When he tried to move it, however, the leg felt as if it were bound to the bed. Magic, Arthur assumed. Nonetheless, it was without a doubt still attached to his body.
A myriad of emotions swelled up in his chest. Sick with fever and half out of his mind from pain, Arthur hadn't been able to give much thought to the loss of his sword hand and the use of his leg, beyond a sense of despair. But now the future unfurled before him again. That Merlin had given him this gift, even after all that Arthur had done, filled him with gratitude. He didn't understand why Merlin had acted as he had, but hope took root deep inside him. Turning his head to the side, Arthur buried his face in the thatch of dark hair nestled at his throat and breathed deeply, kissing the top of Merlin's head. "Thank you," he whispered, even though he knew Merlin couldn't hear him. Then he tightened his arm around the familiar presence at his side, pulled him just a little bit closer, wanting to hold on to this moment as long as he could. His eyes grew heavy, but he fought to stay awake, not wanting to waste a single second of having Merlin in his arms again. Exhaustion won out and he drifted back to sleep, the last thought on his mind before he sunk into oblivion: Merlin.
When Arthur next woke, Merlin was gone from his side. He wasn't surprised, but he felt a pang of disappointment anyway. He looked around the cottage, taking in the warm fire, the rumpled bedding on the floor near the hearth, the smell of bread. Merlin wasn't in sight. Wanting the reassurance of the healing Merlin had performed, Arthur held his hand up to his face once again, noting it was as he remembered from his fevered state. He turned it this way and that, bending his fingers, marvelling at the skill that must have gone into mending his injuries. Merlin came through the door carrying buckets of water just as Arthur was closing his fingers into a fist.
"Don't," Merlin cautioned.
Arthur stilled his movements immediately.
Merlin set the buckets down and hurried to his side. "Sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to alarm you. It should be fine to move. But I don't want you picking up anything or using it for anything strenuous for at least a fortnight."
"All right," Arthur said, lowering the hand to his side.
"I'm confident you'll regain full use. I've never done this sort of healing before, so I wasn't sure how far I could push it. I thought it wiser for the bones to finish knitting naturally on their own."
Arthur nodded in understanding. "And the same for the leg? I should stay off it for a while?"
Merlin grimaced. "I'm afraid the news is not as good for the leg."
"Will I walk again?" Arthur asked, spirits falling, almost resigned to hear the worst. He knew how severe the damage had been; indeed, he'd been surprised to find the leg still attached when he had awakened previously.
"Yes," Merlin hastened to assure him. "Gods, Arthur. I didn't mean that kind of news. It was… very damaged, but I think in time, it will be fine. It's just a matter of how much time. At least a month, probably. Maybe longer."
Arthur nodded. "Whatever it takes."
"You say that now," Merlin said, smiling. "But I know you. After a few days, you'll be going crazy from inactivity."
Arthur gave a little huffy laugh and looked at Merlin, smiling in return. His stomach twisted a little at the familiarity of the moment, how similar it was to all the many times they had teased each other in the past. Their eyes locked and the air became charged. Arthur felt as if he couldn't breathe. He didn't know how to describe the feelings he was experiencing—longing, for what they had lost, discomfort, a jumble of too many emotions to name. Merlin looked away first, turning his back on Arthur and walking over to pick up the buckets of water he had set down in the middle of the room.
"Are you hungry?" he asked without turning back around.
Grateful for the opportunity to focus on something other than the moment they had just shared, Arthur considered the question. "I'm starving."
"I thought you might be." Merlin busied himself at the table and returned to Arthur a few moments later, carrying a plate of food. He set it down on the stool by the bed. "Here, let me help you sit up."
His manner was professional as he assisted Arthur to an upright position, the expression on his face guarded and distant. Arthur was surprised by how weak he felt. He supposed he shouldn't be, but for someone who had always been physically strong and active, having to struggle to complete even the smallest of tasks was humbling. Once he was settled, Merlin placed the plate of food on Arthur's lap and sat down beside him. When Arthur's hand trembled as he raised the piece of bread to his mouth, Merlin took the food from Arthur's hand and tore off a bite, feeding it to him like a child. Arthur wanted to protest, but Merlin's was so matter-of-fact about it, he swallowed his pride and ate the offering gratefully.
After the sharp edge was taken off his hunger, Arthur could no longer hold back. "Why are you doing this?" he blurted out.
"Helping me. Healing me. Why did you rescue me?"
Merlin's expression shuttered closed. He sat back, spine ramrod straight, and didn't answer right away. "I don't think we should talk about this now," he said, leaning over to gather the now empty plate, then standing and walking away, busying himself at the table.
"Why not?" Arthur demanded, ever the one to address things head-on.
Merlin turned to face him, but stayed where he was, leaning back against the table. "You're still feverish and your body is weak. You need to rest and heal."
"I'm well enough to carry on a conversation, Merlin."
"It's not the time."
"Why not? I feel up to it."
"Maybe I don't," Merlin bit out then stood to turn away from Arthur again, his fingers gripping the edge of the table.
Arthur stared at Merlin's back, noting the tense line of his shoulders, his rigid form. Another rush of emotions overwhelmed him, this time overlaid with guilt and regret and sorrow. Somehow even at the mercy of Morgana's sorcerer, Arthur had never felt more helpless than this very moment.
"All right," he said, overtaken by a sudden wave of exhaustion. "All right," he said again, softer this time. He closed his eyes and tipped his head back to lean it against the wall. Lost in thought, he didn't hear Merlin approaching.
"Here, drink this," Merlin's voice said from close by.
Arthur opened his eyes to see Merlin holding another draught of medicine out to him. He took it without a word and brought the phial to his lips, drinking it down in one swallow.
"Thank you," he said handing the empty phial back and holding Merlin's eyes with his own. Then Arthur slid back down into the bed, starting to drift into sleep almost immediately. He hoped Merlin knew everything he meant by those words.
Although not incredibly prescient, Merlin's words about Arthur's ability to withstand prolonged inactivity proved all too accurate. Once he had fully recovered from the fever and had stopped sleeping most of the day away, Arthur became restless and irritable. He also became increasingly uncomfortable with Merlin waiting on him hand and foot. It was true Merlin had tended to even the most intimate of tasks when they were back in Camelot, but things were different between them now. Having Merlin not only feeding him, but bathing him and helping him relieve himself bordered on humiliating.
Arthur had already tried to get out of bed once to take care of this necessity on his own, but Merlin had rounded on him so furiously, accusing him of trying to cripple himself after all the trouble Merlin had gone to rescuing him and healing him, that Arthur was quite abashed. Merlin always attended him in such a perfunctory matter-of-fact manner that Arthur's discomfort was diminished, but he still bristled at how helpless he felt. And he almost wished Merlin's professional veneer would crack; he found himself missing their old easy companionship—the teasing between them, the jocular insults.
They still hadn't returned to the conversation Arthur had tried to initiate earlier regarding Merlin's reasons for helping him. Numerous times Arthur had wanted to broach the topic, but he half feared the answer. As long as they didn't address it directly, Arthur could still hold onto the idea that Merlin was helping him because somehow, in spite of all Arthur had said and done, he still cared. The other reasons that inevitably crossed his mind—Merlin's betrayal still cut deep—weren't anything he could protect himself against anyway, not while confined to a bed. Eventually, he knew they'd need to have it all out, but for now, he tried to rein in his impatience and concentrate on getting well.
Such a task was easier said than done.
"I'm not an invalid," Arthur snapped as Merlin attempted to bathe him with a wet cloth.
Merlin stopped his motions and raised his eyebrow, giving Arthur a pointed look.
Arthur huffed and rolled his eyes. "I mean, I'm not completely helpless. My one arm is perfectly fine. I think I can manage to wash myself. And feed myself. Anyway, shouldn't I be starting to use my other hand by now?"
"It's only been days," Merlin snapped back. "I told you at least a fortnight."
"It seems longer." Arthur's face set into a scowl.
Now Merlin was the one who rolled his eyes. "You always were the most terrible patient out of anyone in Camelot. I'm tempted to make some of Gaius' old sleeping potion and force you to rest."
"You wouldn't dare."
"Oh, wouldn't I?" Merlin crossed his arms across his chest and they glared at each other.
Arthur broke eye contact first. "Fine," he huffed, giving in. "But when it's time for a meal, I promise I can handle it myself."
Merlin gave a small nod of acquiescence and went back to his task.
Later, when Arthur's hand trembled so much while trying to eat that the broth was spilling out of the sides of the bowl, Merlin took it from him without a word and held the bowl to his lips, wiping his chest clean with a cloth. After Arthur finished his meal—the broth and some bread which Merlin also fed to him—he lay down with his arm over his eyes.
"I hate feeling so useless," he said.
He heard the sound of Merlin coming near, the rustle of his clothing as he sat on the stool beside the bed.
"I know. But it's only for a short while. It's important that you let your body heal."
"Do you?" Merlin asked, a smile in his voice. "Because it seems as if you keep forgetting."
"Good thing I have you to remind me."
Arthur removed his arm from his eyes and looked at Merlin who was smiling softly at him.
He felt as if his breath was being stolen from his chest. He reached a hand toward Merlin's face, heart full. "Merlin, I—"
Merlin pushed back abruptly, out of Arthur's reach, and stood, turning his back on Arthur whose hand dropped helplessly to his side.
"I need to gather some plants before the sun goes down. And…" Merlin trailed off as he bustled around the cottage, gathering a basket before letting himself out the door without another word.
Arthur's eyes followed him; the feeling of helplessness returned and settled like a heavy stone in his stomach. He closed his eyes and tried not to think about everything they used to be.
Ever since the day Merlin had recoiled so abruptly from Arthur's outstretched hand, Arthur had been careful to maintain his distance—at least as much as was possible while confined to a bed with Merlin tending to him. Whereas before they occasionally seemed to be slipping back into old familiarity, now they were as strangers—overly polite—treading cautiously when the other was near. Arthur took to watching Merlin as he moved about the cottage, sometimes feigning sleep, studying Merlin when he wasn't aware he was being observed. Deep in thought, Arthur would compare the man whose care he was now under to the one who had once served him in Camelot. Merlin moved confidently, with a self-assurance no one would ever mistake for a servant. But then again, looking back, Arthur wasn't sure Merlin had ever acted as a servant ought.
He was still as beautiful as ever, Arthur thought ruefully. Arthur found it difficult to not regard Merlin as he once had when he was so near, bending over him, the long line of his neck so close, the memory of how Arthur's mouth would move over his throat, tasting it, sucking marks into his skin, as clear as if it were yesterday. Merlin's shirt would gape as he'd lean forward, his collarbones visible, peeking out from the neckline. Only his eyes were different. Still that brilliant deep blue, but now also a glowing gold, transforming Merlin's entire face into a stranger's. He didn't know this Merlin, the one who wielded incredible power as if it were child's play; Arthur found it difficult to reconcile this sorcerer with the boy he once knew.
So Arthur brooded, the majority of his days spent lost in thought. Without conversation beyond the necessity, the days dragged endlessly. Arthur had far too much time to think, too much time to turn over all his mistakes in his head. Merlin's magic, the secret that tore them apart, was often on Arthur's mind. Arthur had been raised to fear it, to think it evil. Yet, his exposure was limited; he had rarely seen it in use. Arthur watched as Merlin tried to light a fire one evening, the spark from the flint refusing to catch. Merlin had struck the steel again and again and again, pursing his lips to blow on the carefully gathered tinder, attempting to coax it to life. All to no avail. Finally, with a look of annoyance, he had waved his hand and a flame burst into life, the stacked wood catching fire immediately. Arthur shivered at the raw power exhibited so casually, at Merlin's ability to command the elements themselves.
Unable to stop himself, Arthur asked, "Exactly how powerful are you?"
Merlin looked up and his cheeks pinked as he realized Arthur had been watching. He stood and rubbed his palms on his thighs, a nervous gesture Arthur recognized. This Merlin, at least, was one he knew.
"I don't know."
"You must have some idea."
"Just now… the fire… you just waved your hand. Why didn't you do that the first time? Why even bother with the flint?
Merlin paused and regarded Arthur, perhaps wondering if Arthur was truly interested in the answer, if judgments were already in place before he even spoke. Whatever was going through his mind, Arthur was pleased when Merlin chose to answer.
"All magic has a cost, even simple spells like that one. If a task can be done without magic, then most often that's the wiser course to take."
Arthur latched onto one of the words. "Spells? I didn't hear you speak."
Merlin's blush deepened. Arthur was intrigued by his reaction and waited for him to say more.
"Yes, well, for simple magic, I don't usually need to speak the words out loud. It's more of a natural reaction for me."
"Interesting. And are others the same?"
The tips of Merlin's ears now turned pink and he fidgeted, looking uncomfortable. "None that I know of," he said.
Arthur pondered his response, wondering if Merlin's discomfiture was because they were talking about magic itself, when previously, any such talk put one at risk for execution, or if it was because Merlin's own magic seemed to be different from others of his kind.
"Then your magic is different somehow? More powerful?" Arthur asked.
"So they say."
"Who is 'they'?"
Merlin froze, fear plain on his face.
Arthur cursed inwardly and was filled with disappointment. The rift between them was still wide. He was quick to surmise, however, the origin of Merlin's fear.
"Gaius' safety is assured. You may speak freely."
Merlin still hesitated.
"How much more powerful?" Arthur asked, trying to prod Merlin toward a response. "I've already seen you pull moisture from the air and command fire at your fingertips, not to mention move the bones beneath my skin." He gave a small laugh trying to think of an outlandish task that would serve to lighten Merlin's unease. "What else? Can you also cause the plants to spring to life from the earth and pull lightning from the sky?"
Merlin only looked more uncomfortable and Arthur's laughter died on his lips.
"You can do those things?" His voice was tinged with awe.
Instead of answering, Merlin said, "I've been told I'm the most powerful sorcerer alive, that a great destiny awaits me." He cast his eyes downward, no longer looking at Arthur. "I think they must have been wrong." His voice was barely above a whisper.
Arthur stared at Merlin's bowed head. The urge to reach out and run his fingers through that familiar night-dark hair was strong. Instead he said, "Show me."
Merlin's head lifted. "What?"
"Show me," Arthur repeated.
"Yes. Show me what you can do. Your magic. I want to see."
"What do you want me to do?"
"Anything. Whatever you want."
A few seconds passed while Merlin considered his request, then he held up his hand, palm up, and whispered a few words, his eyes glowing gold. Arthur watched his face transform, tried to recognize the familiar, tamp down the uneasiness he felt as Merlin was momentarily replaced by a stranger, quell the involuntary shiver he felt in reaction to the magic being performed before his very eyes.
A soft blue light appeared above Merlin's palm. The light started to swirl, dancing in circles, faster and faster until it coalesced into a ball. It hovered, shimmering softly, until Merlin whispered again and it rose from his palm and travelled around the room, lighting the shadowed corners, darting here and there, until it came back toward them, stopping above Arthur's bed.
"I recognize that," Arthur said. "I've seen it before." The memory of being lost in a cave and being guided out by a similar ball of glowing blue light was clear in Arthur's mind. The incident had happened long ago, shortly after they had first met. Arthur narrowed his eyes. "What else?"
Arthur lay with his face turned toward the wall. He was even more conflicted now that Merlin had demonstrated his powers. After the ball of glowing blue light Merlin had shown him many other aspects of his magic—the protection spells on Arthur's armour, transformation spells, even tricks to make Arthur laugh. Objects danced in the air, animated by Merlin's outstretched fingers, like puppets to entertain a child. The afternoon culminated in an amazing display of thunder and lightning as rain pounded down on the roof of the cottage. Merlin stood in the middle of the room, legs wide, arms lifted toward the air, fingers spread, head tilted back, eyes glowing fire. The storm raged outside and Arthur shivered at the raw power Merlin commanded.
He was beautiful like this too, Arthur admitted, as he felt a stirring in his groin, even as a frisson of fear shot through him. What kind of man could harness the very elements themselves? For a fleeting moment, he understood his father's crusade against sorcery. But as he stared, watching Merlin call down lightning from the sky, the stranger he morphed into—this formidable sorcerer inhabiting Merlin's slender form—looked all at once both foreign and familiar. Arthur recognized those long elegant fingers, remembered a different power they held, the way they could take him apart, leave him breathless and trembling. He recognized the long column of his throat, the knob of his Adam's apple, the way it felt when Arthur ran his mouth over it, the slight scrape of Merlin's beard against his tongue when he hadn't shaved. Arthur recognized the bulge in his trousers, the way the power seemed to stir something in Merlin too. He resisted the urge to reach down between his own legs and rub the erection beginning to grow. Instead he stared, mesmerized, and tried to understand how this magnificent being could be the same Merlin who had been his servant, his companion, and eventually his lover for all those years.
The beat of rain on the roof began to lessen and the room brightened as the sky began to clear and the clouds dissipated. Merlin lowered his arms and for a moment looked as if his entire body was outlined with electricity, the subtle glow disappearing first from the top of his head, and travelling down his torso, his legs, his feet, until it faded completely away. The golden fire in his eyes dimmed as well, the familiar blue returning. Merlin's face, however, still shone, as if illuminated from within—lit with a smile, his whole being alive and vibrant.
With a small laugh he said, "Sorry, I got a little carried away."
"Impressive. You said all magic carried a cost. What sort of cost does summoning a rain storm bring?"
Merlin shrugged. "I'll probably pay for it tomorrow. I suppose I couldn't resist showing off a little."
"Pay for it how?" Arthur asked, setting aside the admission that Merlin was showing off for him.
"I'll likely be dead tired. Needing to replenish my energy." He tilted his head. "Similar, I suppose, to one of your intensive training sessions, when you've been working hard with your sword and you're exhausted and sore later."
"Like wielding a weapon, then?"
The smile disappeared from Merlin's face. "That's not what I meant."
Merlin cut him off. "Now you've seen it. I've shown you everything." His voice was heavy, as if the exhaustion from his exertions was already setting it. "Now you know who I am." His shoulders seem to droop and he turned his back on Arthur so his face wasn't visible. Arthur frowned, wanting to say something, but not sure what the right words were. Once again the chasm between them seemed too vast to bridge.
In the days that passed following Merlin's demonstration, Arthur became more and more withdrawn. His interactions with Merlin disintegrated even further. Their earliest days together had held at least moments of light hearted banter. Yet those moments had ceased and polite professionalism had taken their place. Now even that was gone; Merlin was curt, when he did speak at all. He still treated Arthur's injuries with the utmost care, but it was clear he would rather be anywhere than by Arthur's side.
Arthur knew he had only himself to blame. He understood his reaction to Merlin's magic was not what it should have been, not what Merlin had been hoping for. He could tell by the way his face—lit with joy—immediately darkened when Arthur compared his magic to a sword. But was it not? A sword, he mused, was not inherently evil. A weapon was a neutral instrument, one that could be used to protect as easily as harm. Was magic not the same?
His father would have had him believe otherwise, and perhaps Arthur's upbringing was too firmly rooted for him to articulate a more nuanced understanding. He'd never been good with words. He didn't know how to convey to Merlin he'd understood what he'd been trying to show him. Arthur had seen his own father struck down by magic, had seen Merlin call down lightning from the sky. Merlin, Arthur knew, had the power to kill; he had witnessed its use when Morgana's guards fell lifeless to the ground. Yet Arthur recognized the ball of light which had brought him to safety; he listened as Merlin demonstrated the protection spells he'd placed on his armour for years. Perhaps his understanding had simply come too late.
His thoughts drifted toward Morgana. He had avoiding thinking of her in the early days of his recovery, in too much physical pain to try and cope with the reality of her actions. But now she was constantly on his mind—how he'd failed her, how he should have seen sooner the secret she'd concealed. How terrified she must have been living under Uther's roof. His understanding of her fear and his failure, however, didn't assuage the deep hurt he still harboured from her torture of him, how he'd been nothing but bait to attract the sorcerer who'd felled her lover, how she'd been willing to let him die. He had loved her like a sister. He laughed ruefully to himself, reminded of the other revelation he had yet to examine. How many secrets had he not known?
And now she was in league with Cenred to conquer Camelot. Arthur wondered if they had begun the attack. Where were his men? Were they still out looking for him or had they gone home, given him up for dead? Gwaine knew, at least, what Cenred planned. Even though they had parted with harsh words, tempers high, Arthur hoped he had returned to Camelot and was helping prepare for the inevitable assault. All Arthur's previous anger turned inward; he castigated himself yet again for all the time he had wasted—chasing shadows, as Gwaine had called it. And to what end? Merlin was within a stone's throw from him, yet he felt farther away than ever. That familiar feeling of helplessness overtook Arthur. What could he do, confined to a bed, his leg not yet ready to bear his weight? Would Camelot fall while he lay impotent?
Helpless… the word triggered a memory of the conversation he had with Morgana. "How does it feel?" she had asked. Morgana had wanted him to feel helpless, the way she had all those many years ago. He tried to imagine what she must have gone through, concealing her secret while watching others—young girls like herself—burn on the pyre. Uther had obviously been aware of her parentage; surely, he would have spared his own child were Morgana's magic discovered? No, Arthur realized, he couldn't be certain of the answer to that question.
He felt another pang of sympathy, thinking of Morgana living with their father but never being acknowledged. He wondered when she had found out. Arthur had always felt a strange kinship with her, both having lost a mother. He had envied the way their father had doted on her, not begrudging her the attention, but only wishing some of the same for himself. Now he wondered if Uther was trying to make up for his own sins.
Another uncomfortable memory slipped into his mind—this one regarding rumours surrounding the death of Morgana's father. Even Arthur had heard the whispers that Uther had intentionally sent him on a military campaign that was certain to end in failure, knowingly sending Gorlois to his death. Arthur had always dismissed the rumours in the past, knowing the deep friendship the men had shared, but so many other beliefs had been shattered. Was there also truth to this story?
"You remind me so much of your mother," Uther had often said to Morgana, caressing her cheek with his hand. As yet another memory rose to the surface, a chill swept through Arthur.
"Merlin," he called out, breaking the silence that had hung heavy in the cottage between them. "What did Morgana say about her son? About Mordred?"
"What?" Merlin asked, stopping the work he was doing with some herbs at the table and walking over to Arthur's bedside.
"She said something about his claim to the throne."
"When was this?"
"Before… before you found me. You were talking to her in the other room. About her plans for Camelot, to restore magic to its rightful place. She said something about Mordred."
"That when he came of age, he'd take the throne?"
"No, not that part," Arthur said. The memory he'd been trying to grasp suddenly came into focus. "She said he had an even larger claim than either of us."
In an instant, everything crystallized and Arthur knew. He felt sick. "Mordred is Uther's son."
"What?" Merlin looked shocked.
Arthur's head was spinning with his realization. Other moments between his father and Morgana raced through his mind, taking on new meaning as Arthur viewed them from this new vantage point instead of through the eyes of a child. "No wonder she hated him. Hated me. She said, 'I was just a girl. You did nothing'." Arthur covered his face with his hands, fighting back nausea. "What kind of man was my father?" he whispered.
"You were a boy. You couldn't have known," Merlin said.
Arthur pulled his hands away to look at Merlin. From the expression on Merlin's face, Arthur could see Merlin had already accepted the truth of his conclusion, now seeming so obvious in hindsight. "Couldn't I?" he asked.
But Arthur shook his head, not wanting absolution from his guilt. He turned his back to Merlin, facing the wall. Arthur could feel Merlin's eyes on him, knew he was holding back words he wanted to speak, but he remained silent. After a long moment, Arthur heard a heavy sigh then Merlin moving away from the bed, back to his work at the table. Arthur shut his eyes, heart heavy; sleep would be a long time coming this eve.
The chasm between them widened further in the coming weeks. Arthur sunk deeply into a black mood, spending most of his day trying to lose himself in sleep, seeking an escape from the thoughts that plagued him when awake. He grappled with this new image of his father, the man whose approval he had long strived to receive. Arthur had always considered Uther to be a good king, even as he disagreed with him on matters such as the persecution of magic users. Yet he had never taken a stand against the practice. He had made excuses in his mind due to the manner of his mother's death; Uther had always claimed magic was the cause and had been devastated by her death.
How then could a man so supposedly in love become enamoured with another, enough to orchestrate the death of a man who was not only her spouse, but his own friend? What kind of man bedded his own daughter, would have burnt her at the stake were her own powers revealed? By now, Arthur had come to accept Morgana would have been shown no leniency. He understood her desperation, the attack against their father, could only imagine her fear when she discovered she was with child, knowing the fate of her unborn babe were he to have magic too.
I was just a girl. You did nothing.
The guilt weighed heavily on Arthur. How had he been so blind to everything around him? His father, Morgana, Guinevere and Lancelot… Merlin. Old doubts about his fitness to rule resurfaced and intensified. Maybe he should stay missing, let the world think he had perished.
"Camelot is better off without me," he muttered.
Arthur started, not realizing Merlin had returned to the cottage.
"No, not nothing." Merlin moved to the side of the bed and sat on the stool, leaning in, elbows on his knees, hands folded. "You're wrong," he said.
Arthur turned his head away and stared at the wall, the position he'd most often assumed in recent days.
Merlin placed his hand on Arthur's arm. "You're wrong, Arthur," he said again.
Arthur turned his head back and stared at the hand resting on his forearm, the long elegant fingers that were so familiar. It was the first time in weeks Merlin had touched him voluntarily for anything other than necessity. Instantly, Arthur felt calmer, reassured, while at the same time, inexplicably bereft. Merlin had always had this effect on him, had become the one Arthur would turn to when the weight of his father's disappointment was difficult to bear. Merlin had always had faith in him, shored him up. Even now, when Merlin by all rights should hate him, he was still able to make Arthur feel like he was worthy, that he was capable of being king.
The hand on his arm gave a gentle squeeze. "Do you hear me? You're wrong." His voice was firm. "Camelot needs you. You'll be home soon. It won't be much longer."
Arthur wouldn't meet his eyes, but he nodded his head in acknowledgment, letting Merlin know he had heard. Then he turned his head away again and heard a heavy sigh as the hand was removed. Arthur's feelings were mixed. He was glad to hear he was making progress in his recovery, yet he was reluctant to have his time with Merlin end. What would happen when he was well enough to return home? Would Merlin disappear into the night? Was Arthur to lose him all over again? Even though it wasn't rational, Arthur almost wished his injuries were more severe, if only so they could have more time. As distant as they were from one another right now, the thought of Merlin leaving was unbearable. He closed his eyes, not wanting to think about how much still divided them—lies, betrayal, his own rash actions and lack of faith. Instead, he listened as Merlin moved about the room, pretending they were back in Camelot and Merlin would soon slip into the bed beside him and hold him close.
"I said slowly," Merlin snapped as Arthur grabbed at him, lightheaded as he stood too fast, eager to be moving again now that Merlin had been letting him out of bed to exercise for short periods of time.
"Sorry. I'm just anxious to get back."
Merlin's expression shifted into a scowl. "I've told you; you won't be of any help to anyone if you re-injure yourself by pushing too hard."
"I know that," Arthur snapped back.
All their exercise sessions seemed to go this way, tempers flaring, sniping at each other, both of them relieved to be done. Arthur would become agitated with the way his body would react to Merlin's proximity, instinctively moulding against his side when Merlin wrapped Arthur's arm around his shoulder for support. Merlin's scent, so close, would trigger memories that left Arthur tossing and turning into the night. It was torture to touch him, yet to still be so estranged.
"Then act like you know it. You always were a stubborn clotpole. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother."
Fed up, Arthur bit out, "Then why do you? Why are you helping me anyway?" He was tired of side-stepping the issues. Time was running out. He wanted answers.
"I told you before; I don't want to talk about it." Merlin's expression shuttered closed.
Something inside Arthur snapped. The underlying anger that had coloured his every thought and action for months reared to the surface. "Well I do."
Merlin jerked away from Arthur. "Tough luck."
Arthur grabbed his upper arm before he could escape. "Enough. Stop running away."
"Let me go."
"No. We are having this discussion."
"I said, let me go." Merlin's voice was steel.
"Or what? Will you use your magic to make me?"
A look of complete devastation broke through onto Merlin's face. "How do you still understand nothing?" he cried out.
A cold hopelessness spread through him at Merlin's reaction. Arthur almost felt like giving up—maybe there was too much hurt between them to overcome, but his anger propelled him forward. How could he possibly understand when everyone around him kept secrets from him? Merlin included. "Make me understand," he roared, giving Merlin a shake.
"I would never use magic against you. Never." He pulled away again, this time with enough force for Arthur to lose his grip on Merlin's arm. "You keep asking why I came for you… why I'm helping you, but you should know. You should already know."
The answer set off another burst of anger inside of Arthur, in part because it mirrored many of his own thoughts, triggered his feelings of guilt. So many things he should have known… "How am I supposed to know? How can I know anything when everyone has been lying to me for years?"
"I had to," Merlin yelled.
"You should have trusted me."
"You should have trusted me," Merlin countered, and the anguish was plain on his face. He continued, obviously distraught. "How could you think I would act against you? Attack your own father? You should have known I would never do anything to harm you."
"You lied to me," Arthur shouted. "For years, Merlin. How am I supposed to know anything?"
"You should have known that I loved you."
Arthur's chest tightened hearing Merlin reference his feeling as being in the past. So, that was the way of it. He had surmised as much, but it still hurt more than he could have imagined to hear it confirmed.
"Do you want to know why I'm here? Why I searched for you, rescued you, healed you?"
"Yes. I've told you, I don't understand," Arthur said, agitated. Had he not said as much?
"Because I can't help myself. Even though you hate me now. Even though you see me as nothing more than a threat, a dangerous sorcerer. Even though you would have had me killed, I still couldn't stop myself."
Arthur's mind reeled listening to Merlin. None of those statements were true. He latched onto the last one: "I was not going to let you burn."
Merlin's eye flickered up to Arthur's, disbelieving. Arthur's own feelings of betrayal were mirrored on Merlin's face.
"I wasn't." He shook his head, his shame surfacing, knowing he did not speak the full truth; there had been moments when he wanted Merlin to die. Arthur tried to clarify. "I was angry. I regret… many of my actions. But I would not have let you die."
"You immediately thought the worst, threw me in the dungeons." The raw hurt was naked on his face. Merlin repeated his earlier statement. "You should have known I would never..." he trailed off, overcome by emotion.
Maybe Arthur should have, but he wasn't magical. He was no seer. He was only a man, full of faults. And he had been surrounded by lies; Merlin wasn't the only one carrying a deep hurt.
"You betrayed me," he yelled.
"No," Merlin insisted.
"For years, you lied to me. Years, Merlin."
"Only because I had to. I had no choice."
"You did have a choice."
"No. I didn't believe I did. You can't know how many times I wanted to tell you…" he broke off, overcome. His cheeks were damp.
"How can I make you understand?" Merlin pleaded. "Everything I've done has been for you. I came for you because I had to, because I still love you, no matter how your heart has turned against me. You're my king, Arthur Pendragon. Everything I am is in service to you."
Then he dropped to his knees in front of Arthur. "Everything. I submit myself to you. Even if your decision is to take me back to Camelot to burn, I am yours to command. To do with as you will." He bowed his head and repeated the words, "I submit myself to you. Everything I am is yours."
Arthur stood in shock, emotions whirling. Both anger and sadness filled him over the knowledge that Merlin could still think Arthur would put him to his death. But stronger than either of those was the hope that flared hearing Merlin still loved him. He had thought such a thing impossible, that he had destroyed any such feelings when he towered before him in Camelot's dungeons and unleashed his wrath.
Reaching down, Arthur pulled Merlin to his feet, then crushed their lips together. He met no resistance as Merlin's mouth opened against his, and his heart raced as their tongues slid together. Gods had he missed this. He plundered the inside of Merlin's mouth, tasting him, licking behind his teeth. Arthur breathed deeply, filling his lungs with Merlin's scent. "Even this?" he asked pulling away, panting, staring at Merlin's flushed face. Gods he was beautiful.
"Everything," Merlin said, his eyes fluttering shut with a moan when Arthur kissed him again.
Arthur didn't know where to touch first. His hands roved over Merlin's body, slipping under his shirt, desperate to feel his skin. He pulled the garment over Merlin's head, staring at the expanse of creamy pale skin he had just exposed. He wanted to taste every inch, bite those gorgeous collarbones, flick his tongue across Merlin's chest and tease his nipples to hardness. But first, he was driven by one overriding desire. Arthur sunk a hand into Merlin's dark hair and tilted his head sideways, exposing the long expanse of his neck. He moved his mouth to Merlin's skin, to the sensitive spot behind his ear, and sucked, hard enough to bring the blood to the surface. Merlin went still the moment Arthur's mouth latched against his skin. When Arthur pulled away to examine the mark, Merlin sagged slightly, as if his knees were giving out, and grabbed Arthur's biceps, holding tight. Arthur moved his head back down, running his tongue over the mark, and when he began to suck again, Merlin's fingers tightened against his arm, digging into his skin, as he hissed out a soft breathy, "Yes."
Merlin's response, in addition to seeing his mark back on Merlin's neck, stirred something primal in Arthur. His fist tightened in Merlin's hair and his other hand pulled Merlin close. When Arthur bit down on the tender spot, pinching the skin between his teeth to ensure his mark would last, Merlin bucked against him, moaning deep and low, his hardness rubbing against Arthur's thigh.
Arthur's own response was immediate. He tore his mouth from Merlin's neck and brought it back to his lips in a bruising kiss. His own member strained at his trousers and he pulled Merlin even closer, tilting his hips, seeking friction, shifting back and forth so he could feel Merlin's erection against his own. Then he pulled away, taking Merlin's hands from his arms and turning him around so his back was to Arthur's chest. Arthur's hands roved over his stomach, up his chest, pinching his nipples as his mouth sucked more bruises into the back of Merlin's neck. He slipped his fingers through the fine trail of hair at his belly, sliding the tips of his fingers under the waist of his trousers. He rocked his hips against Merlin's backside, sliding his length between the crevice of his arse.
The desire to claim Merlin, to make him his, grew stronger. He manoeuvred them over to the bed and pushed Merlin forward, bent over with his chest resting on the mattress. Arthur tugged Merlin's trousers down with clumsy hands, revealing his rounded backside, aroused even further by the submissive posture as Merlin allowed himself to be manhandled and exposed. Then he draped himself across Merlin's back, mouth moving across his shoulders, erection fitting back against the cheeks of Merlin's arse. "This too?" he asked, rutting against him.
Merlin nodded, his head turned to the side, eyes closed, lashes fanned across his face, mouth open and panting. "Yes," he gasped. "Anything. Everything. I'm yours."
Arthur pulled back to remove his own clothing, stripping his shirt and trousers quickly, arms and legs getting caught in his haste, his muscles still clumsy from lack of use. Already he missed their connection. When he finally freed himself, he turned around and his breath caught at the sight he was met with; Merlin had his arm bent behind his back, two fingers buried deep in his arse, the jar of salve kept by the bed opened next to him on the mattress.
Immediately, Arthur fell to his knees behind Merlin, staring at those long, agile fingers moving in and out of his slick pink opening. He placed his hands on the globes of Merlin's arse and gently held them apart for a better look. He watched, mesmerized as Merlin stretched himself open. Then Arthur reached for the salve, dipped his finger in and brought it up alongside Merlin's fingers. He heard Merlin's breath hitch, hips bucking backward at Arthur's touch, as if he couldn't wait for more. The action reminded Arthur of all the times Merlin had worked him open, all the times Arthur had lain vulnerable, bare, how angry he'd been remembering his complete submission when he'd found out Merlin had been lying to him all along.
Arthur gripped Merlin's hip with one hand, holding him still; he could see Merlin struggling to comply, the muscles in his arse twitching, the delicate pink skin surrounding his fingers pulsing almost imperceptibly, as if Merlin was unable to control his need. A spike of anger mixed with desire shot through Arthur and he leaned over, sinking his teeth into the fleshy skin of Merlin's cheek while pushing his finger into Merlin's hole, alongside Merlin's own fingers, in one determined move.
He held his finger still, deep inside Merlin's body, mouth open with his teeth resting motionless on Merlin's skin, ready to bite down again if necessary. Arthur shut his eyes, concentrating on the heat, the tight channel, the feel of Merlin's fingers pressed against his own. Then he slowly slid his finger out, then back in, holding tightly onto Merlin's hip, warning him not to move.
His own erection was throbbing; he could feel the smear of moisture from the tip across his thigh. After another few times of pushing his finger deep, he pulled it out and used that hand to grab Merlin by the wrist, removing his fingers as well. Then he stood, moving Merlin's hand up by his head and placing his own hand on the back of Merlin's neck, holding him down while he lined up his erection against Merlin's slick opening. Arthur didn't ask this time, just thrust into him with one forceful push, feeling Merlin's body accept his length, hearing the ragged gasp from Merlin's mouth as Arthur entered him. The sensation was intense, Merlin's body tight around him. He thrust again and again, grunting as he slammed into Merlin's body, the exquisite pleasure magnified by the realization that the world's most powerful sorcerer, a man whom the elements themselves would obey, was his to command; Merlin's complete submission was both arousing and satisfying beyond belief.
He thrust several more minutes, slowing down his movements, driving deeper, revelling in the grip of Merlin's body, the slick hot glide against his length. Even though he felt his body starting to tire, Arthur felt powerful, as if each thrust he made reinforced his claim. He paused, still deep inside, and leaned over Merlin's back, resting his head between Merlin's shoulders blades, trying to catch his breath. His heart pounded. He knew he didn't have the stamina to keep up this pace, his body still so recently healed, but he never wanted this to end, never wanted to let Merlin go, not now that he finally had him in his arms again.
Arthur pushed himself up with his forearms, back arching and looked down at Merlin's face which was turned to the side on the bed. A chill raced through him when he saw that Merlin lay with his eyes closed, perfectly still, while tears streamed down his cheek. A sick feeling in his stomach replaced his previous enjoyment. His chest felt tight. Arthur silently berated himself. How could he still get everything so wrong?
He pulled out immediately, contrite, loathe to lose their connection, but fearful of making things worse.
Hesitantly, he asked, "Merlin?"
"It's all right," Merlin choked out, voice shaky. "I'm all right." More tears slipping down his cheeks betrayed him.
Arthur shut his eyes, swallowed against the tightness in his throat, his earlier hopelessness hovering at the edges. He wasn't going to let it in, though. They would not go backward from here. He would fix this.
Moving completely off Merlin, Arthur rolled him over and picked up his legs, moving them onto the bed. He rebuked himself again when he realized Merlin's trousers were still caught around his ankles; in his haste to get inside Merlin, Arthur hadn't even fully undressed him. He pulled off his trousers then lay beside Merlin in the narrow bed.
Merlin hadn't moved. His eyes were still closed, drops of moisture leaking from the corners. Arthur shifted onto his elbow and reached out a hand to gently wipe a tear away with his thumb, running his fingers down Merlin's cheek in a soft caress. Arthur leaned over and followed the path of his hand with his lips, tenderly kissing the corner of Merlin's eye, his cheekbone, his chin, his lips.
"You're mine," he said softly against Merlin's mouth.
Merlin nodded, breath hitching, eyes still remaining closed.
"And I'm yours," Arthur continued with another soft kiss, licking the seam of Merlin's lips, gently probing into his mouth. "I'm yours," he whispered again, cradling Merlin's face in his hand as he kissed him.
He reached down between their bodies and pushed Merlin's thighs apart. His finger found Merlin's opening and he probed gently, watching Merlin's reaction. When he didn't flinch or protest in any way, Arthur moved over Merlin, tucked his knee up toward his body and lined himself up again. This time he pushed in slowly, inch by inch, letting Merlin know, with sweet kisses, with his lips and his tongue, how grateful he was.
Arthur tried to go slowly, but the feeling of being inside Merlin was overwhelming; it felt like home. Like love. As he moved his hips in long deep strokes, heart pounding, he covered Merlin's face in kisses. Reaching between them, he found Merlin's erection, as rigid as his own, and wrapped his hand around it, giving it long firm strokes. Merlin answered with a low moan.
"Open your eyes," Arthur said. "I want to see you."
Merlin did as he requested and Arthur's heart skipped a beat as those familiar blue eyes stared back at him, full of hope, dark with desire, and with unmistakable love.
Arthur wanted to convey the depths of his own feelings, his deep remorse, his abiding devotion. He tried to think of the words, but he was awash in feeling, and afraid he'd once again say the wrong thing. Then in a moment of blinding clarity, he knew.
"I want to see all of you," he said. "I want everything."
Immediately, Merlin's eyes glowed gold and his body arched against Arthur's, mouth opening in a gasp, as if it had been a struggle to hold it in. Arthur stared into his eyes, fascinated, stunned by their beauty. He writhed in pleasure as Merlin's magic washed over him, like a sensuous wave of unbearable pleasure, caressing every inch of his skin. He felt vibrant and alive, every nerve ending electrified. With one more deep thrust he was coming, his body shaking as he emptied himself inside Merlin, the magic swirling around him like an eddy, keeping him riding on a wave of ecstasy surpassing anything he had ever known. He cried out again as Merlin found his own release, his seed shooting between them, coating Arthur's hand. As Merlin's stiffened beneath him, body tightening around Arthur's sensitive length, Arthur shuddered, wondering if it were possible to survive such bliss.
Then the magic slipped away, whispered touches against his skin; the gold in Merlin's eyes faded back to blue. Arthur covered his face in kisses, murmured soft words against his skin—how beautiful he was, how perfect, how much he'd missed him, how deeply he loved him. He pulled him close, burying his face in Merlin's neck, whispering against his skin, "You're mine, Merlin. Mine. And I'm yours." Merlin's hands reached to wrap around Arthur, stroking down his back, holding him close. Arthur sighed as he felt Merlin bury his face in his hair.
"My Arthur," Merlin whispered in return.
Arthur ran his fingers through the dark head of hair resting against his chest, enjoying the silky slide against his fingers, the press of Merlin's body against his own, their ankles hooked together. His other hand splayed across Merlin's back and he revelled in the gentle movement of Merlin's lungs expanding and contracting as he slept. Arthur knew he should probably be sleeping as well, but after being apart for so long, Arthur didn't want to miss a single moment with Merlin. They had spent the last few days reconnecting in every way possible, relearning each other's bodies, hours lost in pleasure, talking far into the night.
The conversations had been difficult. Arthur learned how Merlin had gone to Ealdor after he escaped Camelot, home to Hunith while he healed. Arthur heard the heartbreak underlying Merlin's tale, recognized the deep devastation Merlin had felt. They were lying in bed, Merlin's voice impassive as he related the events. Arthur's guilt felt like a crushing weight on his chest. He wrapped his arms around Merlin, draping his leg over his body, burying his face in his neck, holding him close. His eyes stung with unshed tears. "Can you ever forgive me?" he whispered against his skin.
Merlin's arms snaked around his back and he stroked his skin with soothing motions. "Shhh," he said. "I forgave you a long time ago. It's in the past." Arthur wondered how that could be true.
In turn Arthur tried to convey his sense of betrayal—how vulnerable he had let himself be, how Merlin had been the one he had clung to when everywhere else he was surrounded by uncertainty and lies. His refuge.
Now it was Merlin's turn to ask, "Can you forgive me?"
"There's nothing to forgive," Arthur answered. "I understand now." He meant what he said.
Arthur also learned how Merlin sought him out as soon as he was able, following him at a distance, determined to still keep him safe. He heard about his fear when he had lost track of him, confused as well by the magical fog, not realizing at first what was happening, his shame at allowing Arthur to be captured.
"The most powerful sorcerer in the land, brought down by a little fog," Merlin said, his voice tinged with bitterness. "I'd never forgive myself if I had lost you. Never. Gods, I was almost too late." He clutched at Arthur, fingers digging into his shoulders, then kissed him frantically, as if to reassure himself Arthur was real.
Arthur's hands gentled him, stroking down his arms. He slowed their kisses until they turned soft and sweet. "But you weren't," he said tenderly against Merlin's lips. "You weren't too late. I'm here thanks to you."
Arthur learned all the other times Merlin had used magic to protect him over the years, how much he had risked to keep him safe from harm. And Arthur let Merlin know his own role in Merlin's escape, how he couldn't bear to see him die, even if everything he thought he had seen proved to be true. He told him how he longed for him, dreamed of him at night, was driven almost to the point of madness to find him again.
They consoled each other, reassuring one another that they would never let misunderstanding or a lack of trust come between them again. That meant accepting Merlin's words at truth—that he really had forgiven Arthur. Arthur would work on learning to forgive himself as well. He was determined to do better in the future, to be better, to build a future with Merlin beside him.
They talked of practical matters as well, what information Merlin had been able to gain about Cenred's plans. Arthur knew his prolonged absence from Camelot put the kingdom at risk. Times of transition—the death of one king and the coronation of another—were tumultuous at best, often with neighbouring kingdoms primed to attack, eager to test the new king's mettle. With Cenred's gathering of magical allies, the risk was even greater; Arthur knew he needed to return home soon.
He still felt conflicted about his worthiness to be king; he was no better than any other man, save for his skill with a sword. But he had been born to the role; the people expected him to know the best course of action. He could only but try.
This acceptance of his role was something else for which he had Merlin to be thankful. The revelations about his father had been difficult to accept. The knowledge that he had not only violated his own daughter, but would have executed her and their son in his righteous stance against magic changed everything Arthur had ever thought about his reign. The long-ingrained desire for his father's approval now seemed foolish, even as it was difficult to deny the habit.
Arthur's understanding of duty had altered as well. Of what use was duty when one blindly followed a king whose actions were so heinous? He wished now he had done more to persuade Uther toward leniency. Not that it would have had much effect, he admitted. His father's zealous persecution of magic users was like a sickness. Truly, Arthur half hoped that Uther had at some point veered into madness; it was unthinkable to believe his decisions were made with a rational mind. Arthur had, however, obeyed the laws and saw to their enforcement. Was he not complicit in this evil?
No longer. Coming to understand the depths of his father cruelty gave him the impetus he needed to mentally break from his father's expectations. He thought of the times he had felt most capable of leading, the times when he felt like a king. They all came back to Merlin—his faith in Arthur, his reassurances he was a good man and would be a great king. Even here, before they had reached their understanding, he sat at Arthur's bedside and said, words ringing with certainty, Camelot needed him.
Camelot may need Arthur, but Arthur needed Merlin. Arthur knew, without a doubt, he would defy his father were he still alive. He was unwilling to let Merlin go. He would change the laws, re-make the world into a place Merlin could stand by his side. His father would have called such plans the worst kind of betrayal, an abandonment of duty, but Arthur knew he'd never have peace in a kingdom crafted by hatred and lies.
Something Leon had said to him drifted into his thoughts: There is much value in surrounding yourself by men unafraid to speak their minds.
Arthur thought of Gwaine, how he'd knelt at Arthur's feet when Arthur was committing an act directly against the crown. How he'd refused to follow Arthur blindly in his folly. His father would have considered it treason. Arthur saw his actions differently now, those of a man following his conscience, not letting duty stand in the way of what he thought was right.
Likewise, he understood better Lancelot and Guinevere's betrayal. If their passion was even a fraction of what he'd found with Merlin, it was unstoppable as the tides. He loved them both, still. Now that he and Merlin had found each other again, Arthur could spare some small measure of happiness for them. Lancelot had always led with his heart; the old hero worship had faded, but the desire to be the sort of man to make Lancelot proud lingered. There were worse things to aspire to, Arthur decided.
But it was to Merlin Arthur looked now for approval. Merlin who inspired his passion to be king. Merlin he was determined to keep safe. Merlin he could not live without. When Arthur thought of the vast number of people who would be looking to him for answers, the responsibilities awaiting, the inevitable battle ahead, it was impossible not to be overwhelmed. When he narrowed his scope, instead thought of the impact each decision would have for Merlin, the way became smooth; he felt he'd know what to do. He would let his heart lead.
Merlin stirred against him, then lifted his head, eyes bleary from sleep, shadows dancing across his skin in the firelight. A slow smile bloomed across his face; Arthur answered with one of his own, tightening his arm around him.
"Can't sleep?" Merlin asked, his voice rough and slightly slurred.
"Just thinking," Arthur said.
"Shhh. Nothing that can't keep until morning. Go back to sleep."
His heart swelled when Merlin shifted, draping his knee over Arthur's legs, face nuzzling into Arthur's neck. He buried his own face in Merlin's hair, breathing deeply, then he closed his eyes and followed him into sleep.
"It's time for me to return home," Arthur said. "I'll head out this afternoon. I shouldn't delay any longer." He stood in the doorway looking out into the trees, eyeing the weather. He still tired easily and his leg ached, but he was recovered enough to ride. Truly, he should have begun the journey days ago, but each morning he found new excuses; he knew the real reason was his reluctance to part from Merlin.
"I can't go with you," Merlin said, coming up behind him and wrapping his arms around Arthur's waist. He rested his chin on Arthur's shoulder.
Arthur wrapped his own arms over Merlin's, holding him close, enjoying Merlin's warmth against his back. "I know. But it won't be long. I promise. I'll call the Council immediately." He intended to make the changes to the laws regarding magic users his very first task.
"It doesn't matter. It won't change anything."
"No, the decision's been made. I know some of my father's men will fight me. But I also know others will welcome the change. Lancelot knew about you. Gwaine as much did. Who knows how many others were aware of your powers, how many other magic users may have been shielded within Camelot's own walls."
Arthur turned in Merlin's arms so they were facing each other. He placed his palms against Merlin's cheeks and looked deep into his eyes. "I cannot reign over a kingdom where you are not welcome," he said, leaning to close the few inches that separated them, kissing Merlin on his lips. "They'll see sense eventually. They'll have to, especially if we're to defeat Cenred's forces."
After hearing Merlin's account of the allies Cenred had gathered, Arthur knew they needed Merlin if they were to have even a chance of defeating him. Rumour was he had more than one powerful sorcerer on his side.
"We will," Merlin assured him. "Whenever you need me, I'll come. Just call for me and I'll be there." They had already pre-arranged a way for Arthur to summon Merlin—twinned objects linked by a spell. Once Arthur spoke the words into his, Merlin's would respond by glowing and turning hot to the touch. "I'm ready to fight by your side."
"That's where you should always be," Arthur said, kissing him again. "By my side." Merlin melted into his arms and Arthur knew he'd be delaying his departure for just a few hours longer.
Arthur spurred the horse faster as he approached Camelot. His sense of anticipation increased the closer he got. He felt almost as if he were returning home to a lover, his anxiousness to see Camelot's ivory walls, her gleaming towers stretching toward the sky, causing his pulse to race with excitement. He had hoped to make it home the night before, but he was still weak and found himself needing to stop for rest long before he had anticipated. Better to heed his body's warnings rather than push himself too hard too soon and undo all Merlin's hard work.
His first night without Merlin curled up against his side since their reunion had been as difficult as he'd imagined. Arthur tossed and turned, missing the way Merlin would tuck his head under Arthur's chin, his breath warm against his skin. He missed the gentle rise and fall of his chest, the way Merlin would instinctively seek Arthur out while he slept, limbs splaying themselves across his body. Their separation wouldn't be long, he reminded himself. And once Cenred was dealt with, he'd have Merlin back in his chambers for good.
As he crested a small rise, Camelot came into view, white stone set against a backdrop of deep blue sky. Arthur caught his breath at her beauty, his joy at the sight causing an almost painful ache low in his belly. How could he have ever considered not coming home, leaving Camelot behind? Truly, he loved this land and her people. If depth of feeling were all that was required to be king, he doubted there could be one more suited than he.
Dressed as he was in plain clothes, hood pulled over his head shielding his face, he attracted curious glances as he rode through town, but no recognition. When he passed through the castle gates, however, he saw Leon gathered with a small group of knights outside the stables. Their horses were saddled with packs and they appeared as if they were about to ride out. Leon looked up at him with a quick glance then did a double-take, staring intently.
Arthur dismounted and continued to walk toward the group, leading his horse. Leon spoke to one of the knights, handing him his reins, then started walked toward him to greet him. When he got closer, Arthur could tell the moment his identity was confirmed. Leon shouted, "Arthur!" and began to walk faster and faster before breaking into a run. Arthur dropped the reins to throw his arms around Leon, hugging him tightly, slapping him on the back as they greeted each other with joyous laughter.
Leon took a step back and put his hands on Arthur's shoulders, holding him still while he gave him a good once over. "You're looking well, sire," he said.
"Better than I was."
"Were you injured?"
"I was captured. Morgana. Tortured."
Leon's hands tightened on his shoulders. "How did you escape?"
"Merlin?" Leon asked with surprise.
"Come," Arthur said, extricating himself from Leon's grip and retrieving the reins he had dropped, beginning to walk toward the castle. "We have much to speak of. I want the Council convened right away. First order of business on the morrow."
"I'll see to it. Arthur…" he added, grabbing Arthur's arm to still him for a moment. When Arthur turned to him with a questioning look, Leon said, unable to hold back a big smile, "It's good to have you back."
Arthur smiled in return. "It's good to be back. Where were you headed?" he asked, nodding toward the men who stood waiting their turn to welcome him home.
"To look for you," Leon said with a laugh.
Arthur rapped on the door, pushing it open slowly when there was no answer. "Gaius?" he called out.
Gaius was leaning over his table, intent on his work. He lifted his head at Arthur's voice and whirled around.
"Your Majesty," he said with a gasp, hurrying over to him and pulling him into a hug.
Arthur, surprised, returned the embrace. Indeed he had been unsure of his reception; their last encounter had been fraught with tension.
"We've been so worried," Gaius said, still holding him close.
"I'm fine now, thanks to Merlin."
Gaius pulled back to look at Arthur, eyebrow raised. "Merlin?" he asked, a slight tremour in his voice. Arthur could tell he was holding back asking more. Perhaps he was unsure of the reception as well.
"Come, sit with me," Arthur said. "I have much to tell you."
After Arthur had caught Gaius up on recent events, assuring him numerous times about Merlin's well being, his own promise of Merlin's continued safety and eventual return, he turned the conversation to other serious matters.
"I need to ask you some questions about my father."
Gaius' expression changed, becoming both wary and cautious. "If I can answer them, I will," he said.
"Were you aware that the child Morgana carried was Uther's?" Arthur asked.
Gaius' shock and horrified expression were immediate. Arthur was relieved to note his reaction could not possibly be feigned. He had hoped Gaius had not been complicit in such a terrible secret, but he knew the men had been friends for years; a small part of him had wondered.
"Are you certain?" Gaius asked.
"I am," Arthur answered. He had no proof, but he knew in his heart it was truth.
Gaius put his hand up to his forehead, brow furrowed. After a few moments he looked at Arthur. "Your father was not always like this," he said. "Over the years, he… changed. Became harder… inflexible. Your mother's death was part of it, of course, but I don't really know what made him into the man he became." He paused. "I assure you, I did not know."
"Were you aware of Morgana's true parentage then?" Arthur asked next. "Did you know she was my father's daughter?"
"I have long suspected. It was nothing we ever discussed. But, yes, in my heart, I suppose I did know."
Arthur nodded, accepting his answer. "What about Gorlois?" Arthur asked next. "Did my father really send him to his death?"
"There were rumours…" Gaius said, shaking his head. He sighed heavily. "We were friends for a very long time, your father and I. I never wanted to know the answer to this question, so I turned a blind eye… did not ask…" He appeared lost in thought for a few moments. "Maybe if I had confronted him… maybe if—"
He stopped when Arthur put his hand over his arm, shaking his head. "No," he said. "You are not responsible for my father's actions."
"I feel as if I failed him. Failed you. Most certainly failed Morgana…"
"We can't change the past," Arthur said. "I have my own regrets. Heavy ones, at that. But now it is time to forgive. We must look to the future."
Gaius stared at him thoughtfully. "You're a good man, Arthur Pendragon, and will be an even greater king. I have always believed you to have a great destiny before you."
Arthur smiled, thinking how similar such a statement was to one Merlin had spoken. "I will do my very best," he said.
"That's all any of us can ever do," said Gaius in reply.
Arthur sought out Gwaine next. He had not been among the group of knights with Leon, but Leon assured him he was still in Camelot. When he was unable to locate him, Arthur went to his chambers, stopping a servant en route to have some food sent up. He was surprised to find Gwaine outside his door, waiting for him.
They eyed each other warily, then Arthur entered his chambers, holding the door open for Gwaine. "Come in," he said. Gwaine followed him inside.
"Have you spoken to Leon?" Arthur asked.
"No, I've been waiting to speak with you."
Arthur nodded. "Then you should know that I found Merlin," he began.
Gwaine's head jerked in surprise as he stared intently at Arthur. "And what is to be his fate?"
"That is yet to be determined."
A flush of anger appeared on Gwaine's face. Before he could launch into a tirade, ripping old wounds open anew, Arthur held up his hand to stem Gwaine's words.
"You misunderstand me. I mean only that the future is yet to be written."
Gwaine's shoulders relaxed, but his expression remained guarded.
"Then what of his immediate future? Where is he now?" Gwaine asked.
"But for how long?" Gwaine's voice was agitated, as if he were gearing up for an argument.
"The Council meets at first light on the morrow. The old laws regarding magic will be done away with. A new era is dawning, one where Merlin and his kind will have no reason to fear Camelot, unless they raise a hand against us."
"Do you still believe Merlin killed your father?"
"I know he did not."
"And will he return home once the Council has met?"
"He will come when I call. Then he will fight by my side when we face Cenred's threat."
Gwaine's eyes narrowed as he processed this information. Arthur decided further clarification was needed.
"I have made… many mistakes. I regret… much." Arthur stumbled over the words. It was difficult for him to admit his weaknesses, but he needed to give Gwaine his thanks. "I am grateful to you for many things—for stopping my sword in the great hall, for your assistance in helping Merlin escape… for speaking plainly to me when I lost my senses." He paused, then he looked Gwaine straight in the eye, trying to convey his sincerity. "Most of all, I am grateful you were here, in Camelot, when I returned."
"You are my king," Gwaine said, voice clear and firm, as if there could be no other response.
Arthur gave a little huff, nodding his head slightly, feeling a warmth bloom in his chest. Maybe it was a simple as that.
"There is much to be done," Arthur said. "Leon tells me there have been some small skirmishes along the border."
"That is correct."
"And Cenred has gathered his forces? An attack is imminent?"
"As best as we can tell. One of your men has been monitoring the situation closely. He's been reporting back to me when he can. I currently know of his whereabouts. If you like, I can send for him now."
"Of whom do we speak?" Arthur asked.
Arthur sat in his chambers, sipping a cup of wine. The day had been long; tomorrow promised to be longer still. He had convened the Council at first light and relayed all that had happened since his disappearance. Then he outlined the changes he intended for Camelot's magic users. He had met with less resistance than he anticipated, receiving support in unexpected quarters, namely a few of his father's oldest allies. Mayhap he had underestimated the willingness to change from some of Camelot's old guard. In turn, he had gotten some unexpected resistance from a few men he had not expected to take issue. After long heated arguments, some refining of a few points, Camelot's new laws regarding magic were recorded and in place.
Of equal importance, the charges against Merlin—for treason, magic, Uther's death, and his escape from Camelot—were rescinded and his name was cleared. There were some who still wanted to punish Merlin for his escape, even as they took Arthur's word that he was not the sorcerer who had committed the crime against the king. Arthur, however, would accept no less than complete exoneration. He stressed Merlin's rescue, his healing of Arthur, saving him from certain death, and also his upcoming role in the battle before them.
He could tell many in the Council were still uncomfortable with the thought of a sorcerer going into battle side by side with the King, but Arthur spoke of the future, the failure of the old ways, and how Camelot would surely fall were they not prepared to meet their foe with every defence at their disposal. In the end, he had his way.
All in all it had been an exhausting morning, but Arthur was satisfied with the outcome. For maybe the first time since he had come into the crown, his actions felt like those of a king.
Lancelot had returned later in the day as well. Their reunion had been emotional with apologies from both sides, assurances of forgiveness. Arthur thanked him for continuing to aid Camelot, even after he sent him away. Lancelot responded with a simple, "My duty is here." Arthur was reminded of the doubts he had held long ago, how he feared the Knights of Camelot were broken beyond repair. He had seen them stretched to their limits, torn apart by anger, betrayal, and distrust. Now it was clear they were not so easily undone. A thread ran between them, binding them together, even through the worst of days. All his men were good men, every last one. They would be victorious against Cenred; he felt it in his bones. The Knights of Camelot would prevail.
Yes, he thought, sipping thoughtfully on his wine, he was grateful to have men such as Lancelot and Gwaine on his side. Leon's words once again ran through his head; Arthur hoped his men never stopped speaking up for what they thought was right. That didn't mean, however, they were without their faults. Nor was he free of them himself, he was well aware. Arthur thought back to the tail end of the conversation with Gwaine the day before.
"You know I am grateful to you for all you have done for Merlin," he said, grabbing Gwaine's arm as he turned to leave.
Gwaine looked at him curiously. "Yes, you've said as much."
"I know you've long had feelings for him—" He cut short his words, frowning as Gwaine scowled and tried to pull away. Arthur gripped tighter, preventing his attempts. "I know about your feelings for Merlin," he repeated. "I know I've said some cruel words in the past, but you need to know…" Arthur paused to make sure Gwaine was listening. He continued, "When Merlin returns, he is mine."
Gwaine gave a curt nod and Arthur dropped his arm, allowing him to leave.
A knock on his door roused him from his thoughts.
"Enter," he called out.
Arthur looked up to see Merlin standing in his doorway. His heart leapt at the sight. Rising from his seat, he hurried across the room and swept Merlin into his arms, kissing him until they both were breathless. Arthur leaned back and looked Merlin over from his head to his feet, assuring himself he was unharmed, drinking in his fill of Merlin, finally back in his arms again.
"You're here," he said.
"I am. You called."
"I did." The moment the Council had ended, Arthur had used the spelled object to let Merlin know it was time to come home.
"You must be tired. And hungry. Shall I send for something to eat?"
"I am tired. And hungry. But not just now. It can wait," Merlin said, then he pulled Arthur close to kiss him again.
They met the enemy sooner than anticipated. Arthur had returned not a day too soon. Arthur and Merlin fought shoulder to shoulder, Arthur's sword flashing, protecting Merlin, while Merlin identified the sorcerers within the enemies' midst and countered their attacks. At one point during a lull in the melee, they caught each other's eye and both broke out in a broad grin, high on adrenaline and invigorated by their successes. The knights and the rest of Camelot's army fought well, pushing Cenred's forces back.
Then the tide turned. Cenred's men fell back and a new enemy rose to take their place—skeletal warriors who could not be felled by arrow or steel. Swords sliced harmlessly through the air, having no effect at all. The skeletal army's own weapons, however, proved deadly as Camelot's men began to fall. Arthur saw Bedivere go down, Owain soon after. He looked to Merlin in alarm and saw Merlin's assaults having similar effect; his magical attacks went right through them.
"Fall back," Arthur cried. "Fall back."
When they had put some distance between themselves and this new foe, overlooking the field of battle from a small rise, Arthur motioned for Leon, Lancelot and Merlin to come closer.
"Have you any ideas?" he asked.
Merlin spoke first. "Nothing I've tried has stopped them. There must be an external power source; someone or something is controlling them. We need to find it."
"Can we do nothing right now?" Arthur asked. What if they were unable to locate this power source? Would all be lost?
"I can try to slow them down," Merlin offered.
"Do it," Arthur commanded.
Merlin sprang into action, running out into the open. A vast field lay before him, the skeletal army in the distance, their approach slow and methodical, but unrelenting. His arms shot up toward the sky, fingers spread, head tilted back and then he was chanting words in an ancient language, eyes glowing gold. Dark clouds rolled in across the sky, the day turning dark as the sunlight was blotted out. Arthur saw Leon flinch out of the corner of his eye when a loud boom of thunder sounded as lightning flashes crackled illuminating the dark sky. "Gods," Lancelot whispered, his voice filled with awe.
Then the rain poured down, a heavy deluge that turned the field to mud. The skeletal warriors slowed, their feet getting stuck in the earth. Arthur watched as one toppled forward, its hand reaching out to catch its fall, the hand getting stuck in turn. Several more followed and Arthur breathed an inward sigh of relief at the respite.
"Leon, take some men and circle round behind. We can at least fight their human soldiers while we look for this power source."
"Lancelot, you do the same, but from the other direction. With luck we'll flush them out. Whoever or whatever it is has to be close by, I would imagine, to control such a large force."
Lancelot nodded in acknowledgment. "How long can he keep this up?" Lancelot asked, head tilting toward Merlin.
"I know not, so best hurry," Arthur answered.
His men took action immediately, gathering the knights and splitting off into two groups, circling around the skeletal army on each side.
Arthur waited with the remaining men, scanning the field, looking for anything unusual. He'd prefer to be on the move instead of standing and watching, but he would not risk leaving Merlin's safety in the hands of another.
Although the rain continued to pour down, obscuring his vision, Arthur could see that the mud would not hinder their advance much longer. The front row of skeletons had fallen and many more still struggled, but others were walking over the backs of the fallen, slowly advancing their charge.
Arthur could tell when the men reached their targets; the skirmishes at the back of the army were difficult to see, but he recognized the glint of steel when lightning flashed. He worried that Merlin must be tiring, remembering the conversation they had in the cottage about the cost magic bore. Yet he looked steady, keeping the sky dark with clouds and the rain steadily coming down.
A movement to the southeast caught Arthur's eye. Two figures on horseback were approaching. He recognized Cenred, even from this distance. The other was a stranger. She dismounted and threw back her hood; Arthur could see long blonde hair. Then her hand extended toward Merlin and a bolt of magic was flying his way.
"Merlin," Arthur shouted in warning, running toward him. But Merlin was already in action, one arm still pointing at the sky, the other swinging down, a matching bolt shooting from his hand to intercept the attack. The two arcs of light fought for dominance, both pushing at the other, but neither was able to gain further ground. The sorceress formed her other hand into a fist and then she was hurling balls of fire in Merlin's direction.
Forced to abandon the storm, Merlin deflected the attack, hurling spells of his own. Without Merlin to control them, the clouds rolled back and the sky cleared, the heavy rains running off into the grass. Arthur stood guard, but he felt helpless, unable to assist in the battle before him. Soon, however, he had his own fight to worry about as the skeletons, no longer hampered as before, closed in. Arthur rushed down the hill to meet them, determined to keep them away from Merlin.
His blade swung furiously, and he was surprised when his weapon connected with a loud clang. The sorceress' attention must have been too divided to keep up both the attack on Merlin and the skeletons' incorporeal forms. He fought hardily, parrying blows from all directions. His men were right beside him, holding the enemy back as best they were able. But there were too many, and they kept coming, one after the other. Arthur cried out as a blade slipped through his defences and sliced his thigh.
"Arthur," he heard Merlin shout, but he couldn't take his eyes off the many skeletal warriors he fought or risk even more grievous harm. The blows kept coming, an unending assault. "Enough," Arthur heard Merlin yell, and he was reminded of the moment in his prison when Merlin unleashed a spell upon Morgana. Just as before, Arthur heard a loud blast and the sky lit up like fire. In the ensuing quiet, a scream rung out, "No!"
Arthur's eyes searched her out and he saw her kneeling by the body of the felled sorceress, Cenred's body on the ground beside her. A staff with a large glowing blue crystal was in Morgana's hand. Arthur felt another slice on his neck as his opponents pressed their attack, and cried out again, distracting the attention of Merlin, who stood swaying, exhaustion clearly marking his face. Morgana immediately took advantage, standing to hurl a spell in Merlin's direction with an anguished scream.
"Watch out!" Arthur warned, but Merlin had already seen the threat, blocking the spell with one of his own. Then he was hurling another at the blue stone, a vision of power with eyes of flame. He had never looked more beautiful. The crystal shattered in a blinding blaze of light and Arthur watched the fallout as if in slow motion. The skeletons disintegrated in a cloud of dust, settling silently to the ground; Arthur's sword blow met no resistance as it continued its swing with a whoosh of air; and Merlin crumpled silently to the ground where he lay motionless on the grass.
"No!" Arthur cried out, rushing to Merlin's side and dropping to his knees, flinging his sword aside, ignoring the sharp pain in his thigh. He took Merlin's face between his hands, his gloves dark against Merlin's pale white skin. "Merlin, gods, Merlin," he said, frantically hoping for him to be all right. He moved one hand up to his face, biting the tip of his glove to pull it from his fingers, then he searched out a pulse at Merlin's neck. He almost sobbed with relief when he felt the slow steady beat beneath his fingertips. "Thank the gods," Arthur whispered in a ragged voice.
Merlin's eyes fluttered open and Arthur drowned in the dark blue of his irises, unable to look away. He felt as if he couldn't breathe, the tightness in his chest was so severe. Merlin reached up a hand to wipe at Arthur's cheek. Arthur hadn't even realized he was crying. "I'm all right," Merlin said, voice slurred and slow, as if it were taking an enormous effort to speak. "I'll probably need to sleep for a week, but I'm all right, Arthur. I promise." Arthur gathered him up into his arms, buried his face in Merlin's hair and held him close, the sounds of battle low in the distance.
"I promise," Merlin said again.
Arthur paced back and forth, waiting for Gaius to finish with his patient.
"Sire," Gaius said when he could turn his attention to the impatient king, "I've told you already, he's fine. He'll awaken when he's ready."
"But it's been two days."
"And it might yet be two more," Gaius said, ushering Arthur toward the door. "I assure you, there's nothing physically wrong with him. His body is simply recovering from such an extensive use of magic."
"I'd like you to check on him again."
Gaius threw up his hands and rolled his eyes. "Your Majesty, as you can see, there are many wounded men who need my care—"
"Yes, fine," Gaius capitulated, knowing Arthur wouldn't rest until he had agreed. "I'll come by to check on him later."
"Good. Good. Thank you, Gaius."
"You're very welcome. Now please…" he said, motioning Arthur out the door.
"Right. Later then."
"Yes, go on."
Arthur knew he was being unreasonable, but this was Merlin, after all. Once the skeleton army had fallen, his men had easily subdued the remaining human soldiers, demoralized by Cenred's fall. He and his knights returned home victorious. The battle, however, had not been without cost. The weight of the fallen was a heavy burden on Arthur's heart. He wished he could share his grief with Merlin, receive comfort in his arms, but Merlin had sunk into a deep slumber after his brief words on the field of battle; he hadn't woken since. After the battle, Arthur had gathered Merlin in front of him on his horse and rode with him all the way back to Camelot, arms wrapped tightly around Merlin's waist, Merlin's body leaning back against his chest. When they had arrived, Arthur himself carried Merlin up to his chambers, not trusting anyone else with his precious cargo. He stripped Merlin of his clothing, bathed him with a soft cloth, and arranged the bed clothes over his body, a soft pillow beneath his head.
Then he waited.
Of Morgana there had been no sign. After Merlin's final magic blast, she seemingly disappeared. No one could recall sighting her again. Arthur had been too preoccupied with Merlin to check if she had survived. When it became clear she had escaped, Arthur made it known that she was not to be harmed were her whereabouts discovered. She had been done grievous harm, Arthur thought, and not only Uther's crimes against her. Arthur could imagine her state of mind knowing her lover had been killed trying to avenge her. Although still conflicted about his father's death, Arthur felt he owed a debt to the fallen sorcerer, knowing he must have taken Morgana in when she had fled Camelot, frightened and alone and carrying Uther's bastard child. Morgana's anguished cry at the fallen sorceress led Arthur to believe she had lost yet another who was close to her heart. His own treatment at her hands would take time to forget, but he understood her hatred now. He understood loss. And he was beginning to understand forgiveness. He was tired of anger. Maybe one day, these wounds between them would heal as well.
Later, after Gaius visited his chambers and repeated his assurances that Merlin was fine, Arthur readied for bed then slid under the blankets beside Merlin. He pulled Merlin back against his chest, wrapped his arms around him and buried his face in Merlin's hair, gently kissing the back of his neck. In the morning maybe Merlin would wake.
It wasn't the morning, nor the next afternoon, but in early evening Merlin's eyes finally opened, bright and blue and crinkling at the corners when they caught sight of Arthur.
Arthur hurried to his side. "You're awake," he said, gently stroking Merlin's cheek with his thumb.
"I am," Merlin said, reaching up to grasp Arthur's hand, bringing it to his lips. His voice was gruff from disuse.
"How do you feel?" Arthur asked, staring as Merlin's pink luscious lips pressed soft kisses against his fingers.
"Hungry. Thirsty," he said between kisses. "How long have I been asleep?"
"Three days," Arthur said. The tension he'd carried throughout the extended length of time was evident. He gently extricated his hand from Merlin's, saying, "Let me get you some water." Arthur walked over to pour a cup from a pitcher and tear a piece of bread from the loaf on the table. He returned and handed them to Merlin who was now sitting up. Arthur sat on the edge of the bed and watched closely as Merlin ate every last crumb and drank every drop. "More?" he asked.
"Not right now. In a little while."
Arthur took the empty cup from Merlin and set it on the bedside table. "Do you need more sleep?" he asked.
"You still look tired."
"I'm fine," Merlin said, reaching for Arthur's hand and bringing it back to his lips. "You're the one who looks tired," he said, before sucking Arthur's pointer finger into his mouth.
Arthur stared, dazed, as the heat of Merlin's mouth engulfed his finger, the wet slick of his tongue stroking him, Merlin's cheeks hollowing as he slid the finger in and out. Arthur's breath caught when Merlin added a second finger.
After sucking on them a few more minutes, Merlin pulled the fingers from his mouth and said, "Take off your clothes, Arthur."
"Shouldn't you be resting?" Arthur asked, pupils dilated, voice husky.
"I've rested plenty. Take off your clothes."
Arthur did as he directed, pulling his tunic over his head, standing to strip his trousers off. He was already erect. Merlin watched every move, his expression hungry.
"Now lie down," Merlin said.
"Bossy," Arthur joked, but did as he said, shifting so he was lying full length on the bed.
Merlin moved to straddle his hips then leaned over to kiss Arthur, shifting his hips so their erections rubbed together. Arthur moaned into his mouth and reached up to sink his fingers into Merlin's silky hair, losing himself in the taste of Merlin's lips, the heat of his skin. He loosened his grip when Merlin started working his way down Arthur's body, worshipping Arthur's chest with his mouth, sucking on his nipple, flicking his tongue over the sensitive bud while his hand played with the other one, rubbing his thumb back and forth, slowly and steadily. As Merlin continued to give his nipples attention, Arthur bucked his hips, achingly hard, seeking friction, his growing desire overwhelming. This wasn't magic, but it almost felt like it. Maybe it was just that it was Merlin… Merlin's mouth, Merlin's hands, who could put him in such a state. Arthur wondered how he ever thought he could live without this.
"Merlin… please…" Arthur said, moving his hips again, begging for attention.
Merlin obliged, sliding further down Arthur's body, tonguing at his belly, gently biting at his hips. Arthur's fingers were back in his hair, scratching gently at his scalp. When Merlin's mouth closed over Arthur's hard length, Arthur's hand clenched into a fist and he let out a low shuddering moan. "Gods, yes," he said.
Merlin's tongued at Arthur's foreskin, lapping at the fluid at the tip and then he took Arthur deep, sliding his tongue along the underside of Arthur's length as he pulled back slowly, sucking gently. Arthur moaned, a tightness coiling in his belly as Merlin repeated the action again and again, sucking harder, tongue continuing its movements. He was already nearing his release.
"Wait… stop," Arthur panted. "I'm too close." Arthur didn't want to come like this. He wanted Merlin inside him.
Taking Arthur deep one last time, Merlin pulled off and bit gently at Arthur's inner thigh, before soothing the spot with his tongue. Then he scooted farther down, taking Arthur's sac into his mouth, rolling it gently with his tongue. Arthur let out an appreciative moan, bending his leg to tilt his hips upwards. Merlin placed his palm against the back of Arthur's strong thigh and pushed it towards Arthur's chest, exposing his hole. He removed his mouth from Arthur's sac then tongued underneath, teasing down with tiny licks.
Arthur's head pressed back into the bed, arms tense at his sides, body taut as he felt Merlin's wet tongue lick at his entrance. He felt Merlin push his other thigh back as well, then bury his face between Arthur's legs, mouthing at his opening, breaching it with his tongue. Merlin pushed in as deeply as he could, then licked with wet sloppy motions, before pushing in again. And then he repeated his actions while Arthur fell apart, writhing above him, tossing his head from side to side, small keening noises escaping his throat. It was almost too much.
"Enough," he gasped, arm reaching for Merlin's head, clumsily trying to push him away. "Need you," he said. "Merlin, please."
Merlin pulled away and moved to his knees between Arthur's spread legs. Arthur's insides clenched with desire when he saw the look on Merlin's face—eyes dark, face intent and as hungry with lust as he himself felt. Merlin silently leaned over for the jar of salve by the bed, quickly slicked up his length, then positioned himself at Arthur's hole, pushing in slowly.
When Merlin was as deep as he could go, he leaned over Arthur, bracing himself with his arms, and stared straight into his eyes as he said, "You're mine."
Arthur nodded wordlessly in agreement, heart thudding in his chest, his insides twisting from the raw possessiveness in Merlin's voice. He would never be anyone else's. Then he wrapped his legs around Merlin's waist, urging him with his heels to move.
As Merlin filled his body, thrusting in and out, his eyes began to glow with that golden fire and magic enveloped them both, rippling along their skin, encasing them in a cocoon of power. Arthur felt as if they were joined to their very bones, Merlin's own essence penetrating every inch of him. The pleasure was so intense he didn't even need a touch to his length; the caress of Merlin's magic was enough to send him over the edge. He cried out, head thrown back, arching as his release pulsed onto his belly. Merlin went taut as well, burying his face in Arthur's neck, grunting against his skin as his hips slammed into him a final few times, filling Arthur with his seed. Then he went boneless, collapsing on Arthur's chest with a low satisfied moan. Arthur's arms wrapped around him, and he held tight, murmuring words of love against the side of Merlin's face.
Arthur blinked in the low light, leaning up on his elbow. He was alone in the bed.
"I'm here," Merlin said and Arthur saw him standing by the window, looking out into the night.
Arthur exited the bed and walked over to where he stood, wrapping his arms around his waist, kissing the side of his neck. Merlin was beautiful in the moonlight, his pale skin lit like starlight.
"What are you doing over here?" Arthur asked. "Come back to bed."
"I was just thinking."
Merlin shook his head. Arthur caught something in his expression. Sadness… melancholy… he wasn't sure what.
"Tell me," Arthur said. "No more secrets."
Merlin was quiet, but Arthur waited for him to speak. Finally, he said, "Nothing's really changed, has it?"
"Everything has changed."
Merlin shook his head. "You'll still be taking a wife, bearing an heir. You have your duty."
Arthur turned Merlin around so he was facing him. He leaned in, licking into his mouth, kissing him deeply. Then he pulled back to look in Merlin's eyes, shining brightly under the moon. So beautiful, Arthur mused. So beloved. He took Merlin's face between his hands and said, "No."
"No?" Merlin asked, eyes growing hopeful.
Arthur thought back to his walk through the lower town the day before. A young boy had run out from one of the shops, brandishing a stick, and barrelled directly into his legs.
"Whoa there," Arthur said, steadying him.
The boy looked up, eyes wide. "King Arthur," he said, voice awed.
Arthur nodded in acknowledgement, letting the boy go.
The boy started chatting, excitedly. "When I get older, I'm going to be one of your knights. Look, I'm already practicing." He swung his stick in front of him, like a sword.
His mother hurried out of the shop, then after dropping a quick curtsey grabbed the boy and held him against her thighs, her arm around his chest. "Don't mind him, Your Highness," she said. "He were just playing."
Arthur knelt in front of the boy, moving down to his eye level. "What's your name?"
"Well, Kay, mayhap you will."
On the way back into to the castle an idea began to take root. Arthur stopped to stare at Camelot's majestic walls, her pale stone—both beautiful and strong—the graceful towers with banners flying atop, like pale arms waving toward the heavens. His love for his kingdom had never faltered; it had only deepened after the recent strife. Staring at the home he loved so dear, his chest almost burst with pride at her glory. A vision of the future began to unfold, taking shape within his mind, with Camelot the very heart at the centre of his kingdom. Arthur couldn't wait for Merlin to wake up so he could share it with him.
Now, staring into his beloved's eyes, he knew that future was all but certain. "No," he repeated, stroking Merlin's cheeks with his thumbs, leaning in to kiss him tenderly again. "I shall take no wife. Camelot will be my bride."
Merlin's hands wrapped themselves around Arthur's wrists, his own thumbs gently stroking the soft skin on their underside. "What about an heir?"
"I'll choose an heir some other way. I've sent for Agravaine to oversee Cenred's kingdom. Perhaps one of his kin. Or, who knows? Maybe Mordred, Morgana's son, will prove worthy one day."
Arthur kissed Merlin again, deeply, persuasively, letting him know there could be no other. "It is you who will be by my side," he said. "For all the rest of my days." He pulled back, momentarily uncertain. "If that is what you wish," he added.
"It is," Merlin said. "I've told you before; everything I am is yours."
"Then come back to bed," Arthur said, smiling, chest filling with warmth. He took Merlin's hand and tugged him away from the window.
Merlin smiled and followed.