Title: Three Castles (2/2)
Summary: (Merlin) Itâ€™s a perfectly wretched day in Camelot when Uther Pendragon announces Arthurâ€™s betrothal.
Arthur had finally decided to be mollified by all the liberties Bernard had allowed and accept that this tragedy of a marriage was doomed to occur; to celebrate, he was at the village smith’s commissioning some sort of nuptial gift.
“Maybe a shackle,” Arthur mused.
Gwen’s father looked unconvinced.Â “I thought you were happy about this marriage, Sire?”
“Who told you that?” Arthur demanded, fighting off an immediate need to blush, and before he could begin protesting how much he found Bernard *vile* and *impossible* and how he was an utter prat and wouldn’t their years together — years! — be terrible beyond words?Â Perhaps the rule of thumb applied to husbands as well as wives, Arthur was about to muse, when Gwen’s father interrupted him, saying:
“Your majesty, how about something simple like a bracelet?”
“Bernard is not a *woman*,” Arthur told him acidly.
“We noticed, Sire,” the smith said, smiling.Â “Trust me.”
And before Arthur could fight his dark blush and say something appropriately snotty, Gwen came rushing down the walk, shouting, “Prince Arthur!Â Prince Arthur!Â You must come immediately — Bernard is — !”
Whatever else Gwen said was lost to Arthur as he ran mounted his horse and felt the wind roar around his face, his blood roar in his ears.
When Arthur reached the castle again, there was chaos.
All of Bernard’s men were huddled in a far corner of the great room and Uther is at his throne, furious and white-knuckled where he gripped the arms of his chair.Â He said, “You’ve come just in time, son.”
But all Arthur saw was Bernard was on his knees before the throne, and when Arthur drew nearer, pulling Bernard to his feet again, he saw a dark bruise spiderwebbing across his cheek and a split lip.Â He flinched away from Arthur’s fingers at the corner of his mouth — Bernard tasted like the soul cakes from breakfast and belonging and no one, no one, had a right to hurt that which was rightfully Arthur’s, Arthur thought –Â and there was fearfulness gleaming in his blue eyes.
Arthur couldn’t decide what made him more furious, that someone had hurt Bernard or that he was frightened.
“Father, what is the meaning of this?” he asked, trying to pitch his voice low to stem fury and panic and a churning *something* that was grinding through his guts.Â Bernard had been sluggish to rise at his touch and wouldn’t meet his gaze, and for some strange reason, his tragedy of a manservant was standing alongside Uther, looking irate and somewhat sheepish.
“That boy is a fraud,” Uther said.
“You really must be lenient with him,” the blond servant said suddenly, still sounding every bit as irritating as before but much less deferential.Â “I’m sure he was just overcome — but he most certainly took our little prank too far.”
Uther pinned him with a furious look.
“I’ll just amuse myself with my own silence now,” the blond offered.
Arthur looked at the servant and looked at Bernard again, and said, “I don’t understand.”
“Oh for God’s sake, Arthur,” Uther roared.Â “*He*” — he pointed at the servant ” — is your prince and *he* — ” he pointed at Bernard, who was looking away now, out a window, eyes longing ” — is a servant and the Forsythe clearly have an extremely intolerable sense of humor.”
The ser — the *prince* looked mildly distressed.Â “You see, I didn’t *mean* to mislead you all,” he explained.Â “However your reputation throughout the lands has always been terribly fierce, Arthur and I just couldn’t run the risk of — ”
Arthur ignored him, and his hands closed more tightly around the dark-haired boys’ wrists.Â Of course, how could he have ignored the obvious signs?Â He was too thin, his hands too rough from work; and that laugh, unvarnished and without any polish, was not the laugh of a prince, but it had stirred something in Arthur’s chest that had tasted luxurious and sweet on his tongue, that had burned a fire down in his stomach.
“You are not Bernard,” he said, voice barely a whisper, ignoring the prince and reaching to tip his boy’s chin up, to try to catch his eyes.Â There had to be some truth there, underneath the stolen identities, and Arthur knew enough about servants to know this hadn’t been his deception — he just hoped all the rest of it had been truth.Â “Who are you?”
And when, finally, the boy met Arthur’s eyes, the smile he offered was sad.
“I’m Merlin,” he said, regretful.Â “My name is Merlin.”
Camelot’s court accepted the entire debacle as the most amusing prank of the year, and the feast that night was merry as lords and ladies who’d fallen all over themselves to win Ber — Merlin’s favor grew coquettish before his now-revealed servant.Â Uther was on his third flagon of willowbark cordial and roared at anyone who neared him something about how at least a greater disaster had been prevented.Â Morgana and Gwen regarded Prince Bernard with extreme loathing, and Arthur wished — vividly — that he, too, could bury himself in ameliorates and sleep until winter.
The palace guards had taken Merlin in short order, thrown him deep underground in the freezing dungeons and Arthur had just watched, wordless.Â He’d had arguments running under his tongue, protestations itching his palms, but all he knew for certain was that Merlin was not his prince, and all he’d ever known his entire life was his place in Camelot, his duty.
Arthur had never expected to marry for love or even fondness, he repeated to himself and tried not to look at Prince Bernard, whose golden hair shimmered now that it was clean, and whose features were very fine now that they weren’t covered in ashes and muck.
“I hope you will forgive me my deception, my prince,” Bernard said to him, lashes dark and shadowing his high cheekbones.
“There is no need to apologize,” Arthur forced himself to grind out.Â “The fault is my own, for having such a terrifying reputation you felt the need to carry out such an intrigue.”
Bernard laughed, and it shined as brightly at his hair: practiced.
“I hope, my lord, we shall amuse our guests with this story for many years to come,” he cooed, and his fingers traced over Arthur’s where they clutched at the brocade tablecloth, shaking the beautiful horn goblets and stoneware plates, the gleaming knife he and Bernard shared.
“Yes, naturally, this will just become another story we tell,” Arthur said, and called for the serving wench, *any* serving wench — if Gaius would give him no herbs, he would take wine instead.
As such Arthur was well and truly shitfaced by the time he staggered down the extremely long and difficult-to-navigate — he didn’t remember their being so difficult to navigate before — steps to the dungeon.Â Several guards tried to help him, but reconsidered wisely when Arthur waved his sword at them to remind them all he was extremely competent and mind you the *crown prince of Camelot*.
“You’re not going to savage the prisoner, are you?” one of the guards asked nervously.
Arthur balked.Â “What!” he squawked.
“It is only that he is actually extremely kind,” another guard added.
Arthur waved his sword some more.Â “Have I ever savaged a prisoner?” he demanded to know.
The guards continued to look unconvinced and extremely worried, which was irritating enough that Arthur banished them all the top of the stair where he said that they weren’t to come down even if they heard the worst noises of savaging they’d ever known, and they’d all paled in tandem.
It was only then there was a sigh from inside the actual cell, and Merlin’s long-suffering voice as he said, “My lord, that was cruel.”
“They besmirched my honor,” Arthur said sullenly, and sheathed his sword again after only two tries.Â Merlin was sitting in a huddle of straw, settled in the singular beam of moonlight that spilled into the cell, looking thin and cold and sad, but serene in all these things.Â “You lied to me,” Arthur remembered suddenly, and the hurt that burned through him was a surprise.Â He’d forgotten the court could do that, anymore.
Merlin only stared down at his white fingers, gleaming in the moon.Â “I did not want to — but Prince Bernard said I — ”
“I don’t want to speak of Prince Bernard,” Arthur snapped, pulling off his belt, setting away his sword.Â He felt heavy suddenly, weighted down, and he was glad he’d imbibed so heavily at the feast now, to have that excuse for why he did what he did next.
Merlin looked extremely alarmed when Arthur kicked out the wooden bars of the cell and ducked inside, yelping, “Your majesty!Â What are you — ” which Arthur found extremely trying when combined with his already-aching head.Â He felt like he’d been in dim, slow-suffering pain since this afternoon and really he wasn’t convinced that willowbark cordial would do in his case.
“Oh, my God,” Merlin wailed as Arthur drew closer, pushing himself further away and pressing against the cell wall, “Look, your majesty, I recognize that I’ve angered you extremely and that this entire thing has been a sham but can we agree that I am probably to be executed anyway and that there’s no reason for you to be unduly physical about your irritation prior to my — ”
And Arthur was forced to cut him off with a kiss, dropping to his knees, and putting his mouth over Merlin’s, lips parted in invitation, and the feel of the other boy washed over him, a physical caress of comfort, and Arthur wondered if on top of the crime of dressing above his station, was Merlin a sorcerer, too.
“I hate Bernard,” Arthur admitted in a whisper when he pulled away.Â “He’s a horrible prat.”
Merlin smiled at him, sweet, unafraid.Â “He’s royalty, my lord.”
Arthur glowered at him.Â “For that, I am docking a castle.”
Merlin laughed, but it wasn’t entirely happy, and Arthur knew that Merlin knew and that they both knew that this was impossible, couldn’t be, and that only made Arthur’s head hurt again, so he made the executive decision to put it away.Â He drew his ermine-lined cloak around the both of them — he’d thought about having another commissioned for Bernard when Bernard was Merlin, so Arthur could run his fingers along the fringe and know Merlin was warm with Arthur’s regard — and kissed Merlin again, let Merlin tangle his calloused fingers into Arthur’s hair until they slept, swept away by dreams.
The wedding the next day was enormous and mortifying and extremely lavish.Â Merlin would have hated the waste of it all, but Arthur had left him, asleep and still curled small underneath his cloak in the dungeon that morning and endured the extremely-disappointed looks on the faces of the guards, who obviously were under the impression Arthur had spent the better part of the night viciously raping his prisoner.
It felt like all the coffers of Camelot had been overturned for the occasion, and Uther had dispatched Gwen and a number of horrified-looking manservants to scrub Arthur and dress him in his finest clothes.Â Despite their best efforts to make him presentable, he still smelled like straw and Merlin, and he more or less dragged through the breakfast feast, through the subsequent jugglers and minstrels, through most of the ceremony before the actual ceremony.
It was only when he found himself kneeling before priest that the *utter stupidity* of it all crashed down like a wave.
“Do you, Arthur, son of Pendragon, prince of the kingdom of Camelot, accept this man to be your lawfully wedded spouse?” the priest asked.
“Oh, what the fuck am I doing?” Arthur answered.
The priest looked put out.Â “Your majesty!” he cried just the same time Bernard demanded to know, “What on Earth?”
Arthur turned to Bernard, who was making an awful, snivelly rat face of distress.
“I absolutely *loathe* you,” he told Bernard honestly, “and would rather be drawn and quartered than find myself leg-shackled to you for all eternity.”
“Oh,” he heard Uther say in the background, ripping up a marriage contract, “thank *God*.”
Bernard’s lower lip fluttered.Â “But!Â You were so charming!”
“Not to *you*,” Arthur clarified, got to his feet, and brushed off his knees.Â “Now,” he told the priest, “if you’ll excuse me, I have some near-adultery to commit.”
“I must say I’m still deeply saddened that I am only to have two castles,” Merlin said, in one of those low breaths that never traveled further than the distance that existed between them in their bed, the fire roaring and keeping winter well at bay.
“That,” Arthur said, his mouth trailing over the ring he’d slipped onto Merlin’s finger — warm from skin now, a warm rose-gold over which Arthur had made hushed and meaningful promises — trailed over Merlin’s palm, dear, “is because of your smart mouth.”
Arthur, entranced with just the thing, decided to catch it in another kiss, sliding his hand down Merlin’s side in easy ownership.
“That’s no reason to become a miser,” Merlin told him.Â “I imagine you have dozens of castles.”
Arthur had exactly 24.Â He reflected with a growing sense of despair he would build Merlin another if he wished, and said, “It’s only expected for not having any regard for my station in life.”
Merlin laughed at him, and Arthur didn’t try to mask the curl of delight that wound in his stomach at the sound.
“No,” Merlin agreed, catching Arthur’s face in his hands and smiling at him as bright as an ocean of stars, until Arthur felt shy, suddenly, to be so loved, “after all, it is well known that it is not your *station* for which I have great regard.”
Oh, sod it, Arthur thought, maybe I *will* give him that other castle, Arthur thought, and pinned Merlin to the bed once more.