Summary: Merlin looked uncertainly to Arthur.Â â€œHave you ever made bread?â€ he asked. / “How hard could it be?â€ Arthur said.
Notes: Thanks go out to Hoyden and Moonklutz for allowing me to paste this into word windows at them and for agreeing with me that wifey jokes are hilarious.
In August, when Camelot was hot and drenched in unshed rain, melted into the very air, Merlin said:
â€œArthur, I need to go back to Ealdor.â€
Arthur was lying flat on the floor of his quarters, heavy curtains drawn at the windows to block out the sun, pressing as much of his skin as possible to the cold stone floors.Â It was undignified, and his nannies and nursemaids had condemned that sort of behavior even when heâ€™d had them, but it was either strip down in the privacy of his own room with only Merlin to see or risk his fatherâ€™s wrath by skivving off to the lake and jumping in naked.
â€œWhat?â€ he asked, dreamy with heat.Â He felt like heâ€™d been running a low-grade fever for days.
â€œEaldor, Arthur,â€ Merlin told him, impatient.Â â€œI need a few days awayâ€”I have to see my mother.â€
Arthur launched himself upright, eyes clearing.Â â€œIs Hunith all right?â€
Merlin looked puzzled. â€œIâ€”â€œ he started.
â€œHave Kananâ€™s kin come back?â€ Arthur demanded, his mind whirling through the possibilities already.Â Ealdor sat at the furthest border between Albion and their neighboring kingdom; it wouldnâ€™t be optimal, but if Merlinâ€™s people were willing, Arthur would be happy to put together a small troop of knights and soldiers to help them moveâ€”Uther may be unwilling to start war but Arthur was happy to encourage immigration.Â Camelot had fertile fields and safe borders, and Arthur could send his guard there with special warningsâ€”Hunith would never fear again.
â€œNo!â€ Merlin said, eyes wide.Â â€œItâ€™s just that my motherâ€”â€œ
â€œYou must take Gaius with you if she needs any sort of medical attention,â€ Arthur scolded, remembering the last time Merlin had been ill and staggering around the castle until Gaius had conscripted Arthur and theyâ€™d collectively ordered Merlin off of his feet.
â€œArthur!â€ Merlin finally shouted at him, smiling crazily in that way Merlin had occasionally.Â It was equal parts fond and indulgent, and Arthur wasnâ€™t exactly sure he liked the implications of that.Â â€œSheâ€™s fine!Â Ealdorâ€™s fine!Â Itâ€™s just that itâ€™s her birthday, and Iâ€™d like to be there for it.â€
Blinking twice, Arthur said, â€œOh, well.â€
â€œThere,â€ Merlin told him, â€œis no way,â€ he said, â€œI am taking that,â€ he pointed, â€œwith me.â€
Arthur frowned at the small tokens heâ€™d asked Merlin to include when he returned to Ealdor.
â€œWhy not?â€ Arthur asked, frowning.Â â€œDo you not think sheâ€™ll like the color?â€
Merlin boggled at him for a bit before waving his arms at the gift Arthur had chosen, saying in a manner not at all befitting of a servant to the crown prince, â€œArthur!Â That isâ€”that is neither a â€˜tokenâ€™ nor a â€˜simple gift!â€™Â That is sixty pounds of the finest beeswax candles in the castle and a half dozen of the best tapestriesâ€”commissioned for your father, by the wayâ€”and a violet ermine stole that I could swear belonged to Morgana!â€
â€œYouâ€™re right,â€ Arthur agreed.Â â€œIâ€™ve completely forgotten the caskets of honey ale.â€
Merlin clawed at his hair.Â â€œArthur, no.â€
Crossing his arms over his chest, Arthur said, â€œMerlin, while you are the most crap servant possibly ever in the history of Camelot, I am still crown prince, and if I feel like sending your mother gifts, then that is my decisionâ€”understood?â€
â€œFine,â€ Merlin snapped.Â â€œBut I refuse to be responsible for hauling them to Ealdor.â€
Which was how Arthur ended up leading the trip through the dark, cool mountain forests between Albion and Ealdor, dressed casually in his faded red tunic and hose, his most comfortable and battered boots.Â Merlin had more or less tackled him into his armor, but Arthur had refused to put on the miserably heavy and hot chainmail and then wrestled a sword away from Merlin.
â€œIâ€™m getting better with the sword,â€ Merlin sulked.
â€œYouâ€™re really not,â€ Arthur said, â€œwhich is kind of a mystery in and of itself.â€
Behind their horses, Crow, the mule, trotted along with a wagonload of Arthurâ€™s gifts, which Merlin seemed to despair at.Â Arthur argued that if they were going to be taking a wagon, he might as well take along some supplies for the house, which had made Merlin cover his face and make soft, defeated noises of grief.
â€œAre you sure you can be away from Camelot for so long?â€ Merlin asked, and he sounded shy about it, a strange new occurrence Arthur had noted of late.Â Merlin never grew shy at the usual times, when Arthur was resplendent in his court dress or flushed and covered in sweat after practices, after tournaments and gilded in victoryâ€”it was always in the quiet, unexpected moments, and Arthur had found himself trying to construct more and more of them just to watch Merlinâ€™s eyes go fuzzy with something the same color as affection.
â€œMerlin, stop worrying about stupid things,â€ Arthur counseled him, although privately he knew he ought to have stayed in Camelot.
Merlin, with enough bullying, would have taken Crow and Arthurâ€™s gifts along eventually, and Arthur would have no problem dispatching a knight or two to look after him along the way, but the court was suffocating with summer heat and associated lasciviousness, and he tired of escaping the clutches of determined countesses and barons, the daughters of his fatherâ€™s most-loved knights.Â What was more, Arthur found he missed Ealdor, and wondered how Hunith fared.Â She had had Merlinâ€™s same blue eyes and banked fire, his funny, nervous smile, but a fearless affection Arthur had never known before.
â€œDo you think sheâ€™ll like the gifts?â€ Arthur asked, sounding a little shy himself, and when he dared a glance to his right, Merlin was beaming at him as he said:
â€œI think sheâ€™ll like seeing you best of all.â€
Arthur felt his chest puff up.Â â€œOf course,â€ he said.Â â€œNaturally.â€
Merlin rolled his eyes, still smiling. â€œAlthough only the gods know why.â€
By the time they reached Ealdor, they were both sore and a bit grouchy from when Merlin had demanded they stop to spare his delicate backside the bruising and Arthur had complained they were only another four hoursâ€™ ride away, and Merlin had cried, â€œFour hours, are you mad?â€ and Arthur had said, â€œYou are the worst manservant in history,â€ and theyâ€™d ended up fuming at one another for the last leg of the trip.
The enmity had been hard to hold onto when theyâ€™d crested the hill and seen Ealdor, the village windows warm with candlelight and flickering orange with fires, the distant sound of pigs and chickens bedding down for the night growing louder as they drew closer, and Arthur stole secret, sideways glances at Merlin, watched his eyes grow sleepy with happiness, and felt something tighten sweetly in his chest.
He thumped at it, twice, where it itched beneath his clothes, and made a note to see Gaius when they returned.
â€œThe village looks well,â€ Arthur said, voice soft, admiring the fields, the new-made fences and the well-thatched roofs.Â Ealdor was filled with small, meaningful lives, and Arthur only wished he could fold them into Camelotâ€™s care.
â€œThanks to you,â€ Merlin answered in a hush, and added, blushing, â€œCome onâ€”letâ€™s go before it gets any darker.â€
Hunithâ€™s face, when she opened the door to find Merlin and Arthur, was brighter than all the torchlight and all the full moons Arthur had ever known.Â She squeezed her son and kissed him on his forehead, dragging him down to her height, and before Arthur could tease him for it or feel a sting, she turned her attentions to him, wrapping her arms around him and cupping his cheeks with her rough hands, smiling at him widely.
â€œIt is good to see you both,â€ she told them, kissing Arthur on the cheek before trying to drag them into the cottage.Â â€œHave you put away the horses for the night?â€
â€œEr,â€ Arthur said.
Merlin made a face.Â â€œThe horses,â€ he sighed, â€œare not the problem, mother.â€
It took all three of them an hour to unload the cart, and by the time they were finished, Arthur and Merlinâ€™s bickering had reached such a fever pitch most of the village had come out to see what the commotion was about, which of course had led to an impromptu celebration to welcome Arthur Pendragon back to Ealdor.
Arthur made a royal command for one of the casks of honey ale to be tapped and sent a trio of village boys off to search for the biggest knife they could find to cut one of the wheels of fine, Albion cheese heâ€™d rolled into the wagon that morning, hidden beneath a large package of linenâ€”Merlin shot him a dirty look when he saw it, and Arthur only blinked innocentlyâ€”and found a dozen of the good, crusty rounds of Camelotâ€™s bread himself.Â The villagers were hesitant at first, but the shine on Arthurâ€™s invisible crown must have worn off a bit once they noticed what an enormous sodding fishwife Merlin was being about the whole â€œhidden compartments in the cart filled with soap and dried meatsâ€ thing, and by the time the moon was high they were all taking turns teaching Arthur the foulest drinking songs they knew.
â€œI,â€ Arthur declared, after most of the villager men had been hauled off by their wives and all the children put to bed, â€œdid not even know one could do that with a sheep.â€
Merlin unlooped Arthurâ€™s arm from his shoulder and set him down gently on the ground, where heâ€™d laid out their bedding.
â€œYes, well, you have lived a life of deprivation after all,â€ he said sympathetically, reaching for Arthurâ€™s boots and sighing, â€œArthurâ€”I thought I put those away to be donated to the poor in the lower village.â€
â€œTheyâ€™re my favorite boots,â€ Arthur told the ceiling thatch before sitting up, resting his weight on his elbows and saying, â€œYou know, they all called me Arthur.â€
Tugging at Arthurâ€™s tunic, Merlin caught his eye and asked, â€œYes?â€
â€œNo one calls me Arthur,â€ Arthur answered, and paused to say, â€œWell, you do.â€
Merlin smiled at him, teasing.Â â€œI could stop.â€
â€œNo, no,â€ Arthur said.Â â€œIf you stopped being insubordinate how would I even recognize you?â€
And the sound of Merlin laughing, the soft alto of Hunithâ€™s voice, round with smiles, were the sounds that bore Arthur off to sleep, breathing in the sweet, wet smell of new hay and yeast smell of bread, the green scent of the rain that had started to fallâ€”a steady patter outside the daubed walls of the cottage.
Merlin was still asleep when Arthur snapped to waking, whichâ€”reallyâ€”just highlighted what a deeply shite manservant he was.
He was curled up on his side, his head tucked neatly in the space between Arthurâ€™s chin and collarbone, near enough his skin radiated warmth through the light blankets Hunith must have tossed over them during the night.Â The last time theyâ€™d slept here, on the floor of Merlinâ€™s old cottage, theyâ€™d been head to feet, and Arthur supposed he didnâ€™t mind seeing Merlinâ€™s serene face and wild, dark bangs instead of his toes first thing in the morning.
It was still early out, that sliver of day when there was a fine mist and before it warmed and everything smelled new and of possibilities.Â This time of morning, Arthur had usually just stepped away from his chambers to meet up with his guard for patrols, leaving behind Merlin, who usually just fell asleep in Arthurâ€™s bed for another hour after helping him fumble on his clothes and armor.
Arthur allowed himself to study Merlin some more, to take in his fine, pale skin and the pink bow of his mouth, before he shook himself and sat up, picking quietly to his clothes and dressing before stepping out into the hush and taking long breathsâ€”taking in the air without the smell of Camelotâ€™s fireplace, the dank smell of stale rushes, the rank of too many people crowded in the market.
â€œCouldnâ€™t sleep?â€ someone called, and Arthur turned to see Eron, the baker, across the dirt lane.
Shaking his head, Arthur walked over, rolling his shoulders.Â â€œIâ€™m usually running patrols this time of day.Â Canâ€™t sleep anymore,â€ he admitted.
â€œMerlin up?â€ Eron asked, gathering up an armful of tinder.
Arthur snorted.Â â€œNo,â€ he said simply, and Eron burst into booming laughter, sending birds scattering at a distance as he chuckled, â€œOh, Arthur, heâ€™s always been like thatâ€”Hunith used to despair of him.â€
â€œWell,â€ Arthur said, long-suffering, â€œthat is my job now.â€
Eron smiled at him, something like approval on his ruddy cheeks, â€œAye, that it is, my lord.â€
Arthur, because it was bred into his bones, couldnâ€™t resist ambulating the village, checking on the distant fences and the ditches heâ€™d taught the villagers to digâ€”nothing to stop raiders on foot but plenty to disable their horses and make the whole effort punishing and without profit.Â He examined the irrigation canals and looked over the bails of hay, piled in the fields, golden and glimmering and fine.Â By the time he wandered back into the village proper, there were already a dozen children running to and from Eronâ€™s hut, helping their motherâ€™s fetch and carry, and he spied Hunith in the sty near the cottage, struggling with a fence post while trying to dispatch a particularly persistent sow.
â€œOff, off with you!â€ she scolded it, kicking with one mud-caked boot.
â€œAllow me,â€ Arthur said, and jammed the fencepost deep into the sucking mud.Â The smile he saw on Hunithâ€™s face afterward made him cough, embarrassed, and he asked, â€œSo where is that layabout son of yours, anyhow?â€
She laughed, brushing a few strands of dark hair from her face.Â â€œMerlinâ€™s taken half the village women on a trek to the forestâ€”heâ€™s determined weâ€™ll be stocked with all the medicines and roots and herbs we can store before he leaves,â€ she said, and eyes twinkling, added, â€œI fear Gaius may be a good influence on the boy after all.â€
Arthur bit back the immediate litany of things he wanted to sayâ€”about how Merlin was terrible at his job but good at being a person, and how he made Arthur laugh and worried incessantly about his armor, and endured the good (and not-so-good) natured ribbing of the other knights with graceâ€”and asked instead:
â€œIs there anything I can do to help?â€
Merlin tromped back into the village an hour later, carrying baskets and jugs and armfuls of plants and sticks and things and stopped, astonished, and stared at Arthur.
â€œWhat?â€ Arthur demanded.
â€œAre you drunk?â€ Merlin asked.
Scowling, Arthur barely resisted snatching up a handful of pigslop and throwing it at him.
â€œI am fixing your motherâ€™s pig pen, you clod,â€ he answered and tipped his chin at Merlinâ€™s load.Â â€œWhatâ€™s all that?â€
Merlin listed off willowbark for pain and rosehips for swelling, wild strawberries for ill humors and dandelions, fennel for ailments of the liver.Â Merlin had brought marigolds (â€œFor that thing on yourâ€”â€œ and â€œMerlin!Â Discretion!â€) and chamomile for stomachs and coltsfoot for sores.Â Heâ€”or his spoilsâ€”smelled like a garden at noon, warm and fizzy sweet, and Arthur breathed deeply of it and felt, strangely, at peace, leaning over a newly-repaired side of a pig pen, ankle-deep in mud in this backwards village with no minstrels or books or jousting.
â€œNow,â€ Merlin said, shifting his packages about clumsily, â€œwhy are you fixing my motherâ€™s pig pen, and what have you done with your hand?â€
Arthur ignored the first question and looked down at his fingers instead.
â€œMy lady,â€ Arthur pleaded in Hunithâ€™s general direction.Â â€œPlease make him stopâ€”ow!â€
Merlin did something else hugely painful to the cut on Arthurâ€™s palm and rolled his eyes.
â€œStop appealing to my mother for sympathy,â€ he lectured, â€œand stop acting like such a child!Â Iâ€™ve seen you complain less after youâ€™ve been stabbed in combat, much less attacked by a fence.â€
Hunith leaned over where Merlin was cleaning Arthurâ€™s cut with rose water and drizzling honey in the woundâ€”an angry red gash but by far not the worse Arthur had gotten, not even the worse heâ€™d gotten and shrugged off to heft his weapon once more.
â€œYouâ€™re right, Arthur,â€ Hunith intoned, mouth twitching as she met Arthurâ€™s eyes.Â â€œItâ€™s a deep and dangerous wound for certainâ€”youâ€™ll be lucky not to lose the limb.â€
But he couldnâ€™t resist, here, the urge to sulk and tease, for there werenâ€™t any men to impress or his fatherâ€™s expectations to live up to, and he could indulge his need to indulge himself with Merlinâ€™s attention, which was despite its frustrations always delightful.Â He may be twenty, but he felt like a very young twenty.
â€œOh God, mother, donâ€™t encourage it,â€ Merlin complained, glaring up at his mother.
â€œSheâ€™s absolutely correct, Merlin.Â If the wound becomes infected and black and my hand falls off and I am no longer fit to defend Camelot, itâ€™ll be on your head,â€ Arthur warned.
Merlin peered up at him through his dark lashes and asked, cheeky, â€œNow will that be three days in the stocks or a day on the rack, sire?â€
For a moment, the sight of Merlin, coy, knocked all the breath out of Arthur made his mouth go dry, and whatever clever remark heâ€™d had prepared fell off the tip of his tongue into silence, and they stared at one another for a long moment before Hunith cleared her throat and said:
â€œIf youâ€™re done, boysâ€”both of you have an appointment with the millpond.Â Youâ€™re filthy the pair of you, and I need extra hands to do the baking this week.â€
The millpond is perfect, shaded by ancient willows, dripping their branches like a cascade of hair over the water, a break from the unrelenting midmorning sun, and Arthur barely spares a thought before stripping out of his tunic and hose and boots and leaping into the cool water, scrubbing at the mud on his arms and face.Â It felt wonderful, sluicing down his shoulders, and the sand crunched delightfully between his toes.Â He wondered where Merlin was, why he hadnâ€™t heard a second splash of water, and whipped his sleek wet bangs from his face to turn to the reedy stretch of land that banked the pond and saw the other boy there, standing at the edge of the waterâ€”fully dressed and his face pale with worry.
â€œMerlin?â€ he called out.
His manservant didnâ€™t move or say anything, just stood there and stared to wring his hands.
Frowning, Arthur said, â€œHey!Â Idiot!Â Youâ€™re going to burn up in this heatâ€”get in the water.â€
Looking miserable, Merlin finally said, â€œMaybe you should stay in the shallow part,â€ and continued to look ill about it.
Rolling his eyes, Arthur said, â€œItâ€™s your skin,â€ and fell backward with a great splash, letting the water swallow him in and feeling it thread through his hair and wrap softly round his ankles and wrists, until he bobbed up and the sloshing noise of it faded toâ€”to Merlin shouting:
The fearfulness in Merlinâ€™s voice had tripped from whining to real, and Arthur spun round underwater to make his way back to the shore, but before he could find the bottom of the pond againâ€”it was deeper thereâ€”Merlin had rushed in, and jerked him out, hands like vices on Arthurâ€™s forearms and drenched head to toe, clothes clinging to him and hair in his eyes, wide and red.
â€œArthur!â€ Merlin shouted again, right in his face, reaching up with one hand to scrub the bangs out of Arthurâ€™s eyes and stare at him, panting, shaking like heâ€™d just run a footrace.
Arthur stared back.Â â€œWhat on Earth is wrong with you?â€
Merlin made that faceâ€”that one he always made when he was trying to think of some convincing lie, and after a too-long moment he just closed his eyes and admitted, â€œI was afraid you were drowning.â€
â€œAre you mad?â€ Arthur demanded, sputtering.Â â€œIâ€™ve been able to swim since Iâ€™ve been able to walk.â€
But Merlin just kept staring at him, opening and closing his mouth with no words coming out, and Arthur thought maybe this was just one of those things, like how Morgana was terrified everytime anybody in the castle developed a cough, though they never lingered and worsened and killed the way her fatherâ€™s had.
â€œIâ€™ll stay in the shallow end,â€ Arthur promised, and Merlin nodded vigorously.
He did, and after he coaxed Merlin out of his drenched clothes, the boy even relaxed enough to allow Arthur to float on his back without panicking.Â Arthur wondered, briefly, who in Merlinâ€™s life had been taken from him by water, but every time he tried to look surreptitiously to his manservant, all he saw was gleaming wet, white skin from long days inside the castle and luminously blue eyes always turned to Arthur, and he went shy all over.Â Heâ€™d grown up under everybodyâ€™s thoughtful or worried or calculating gazes, but nobody ever really looked at him as Merlin did.
â€œArthur,â€ Merlin asked suddenly, out of nowhere, floating in the water nearby, â€œif William hadnâ€™t been killed, what would you have done?â€
William the sorcerer, whoâ€™d called up a storm and scared away the men destroying his village, whoâ€™d saved the baker and brewer and Hunith and Merlin and all the children from a winter of cold starvationâ€”who had died and helped Ealdor to live.Â Arthur knew what his father would say, and he could even guess what he would do if he were only his fatherâ€™s son, but Arthur wasnâ€™tâ€”or wasnâ€™t justâ€”any of those things, and it took him a long time before he moved to touch down on the sandy bottom of the pond and watch Merlinâ€™s drawn, frightened face, pale and still floating in the water.
â€œI donâ€™t know,â€ he admitted, and wondered if Merlin knew what it cost Arthur to say those words aloud.Â A king must never be uncertain, to hesitate or stray from his determined path, but Arthur knew Merlinâ€™s guilelessness also made the admission possible.Â â€œIt would depend on what kind of sorcerer he was.â€
Merlin laughed a little, and went, graceless, under the water for a moment before reemerging, water droplets gathering on his white, freckled shoulders.
â€œSort of a hapless one,â€ Merlin said, grinning now, less shy, and Arthur couldnâ€™t help but to respond.
â€œThen I donâ€™t know,â€ he teased, â€œhe could have been a danger to himself if no one else.â€
Arthur could never kill someone for something heâ€™d been born to, and although his father had never held anything but loathing for magic Arthur had never learned to hate it.Â He didnâ€™t know it very well, only that the same magic that had poisoned the water in the lower village at Camelot had hovered, incandescent and hopeful over his head, lighting his way to safety.
It had been more than a year now, since William had died and Ealdor had lived, and Merlinâ€™s look was soft and sad but mostly rueful, which Arthur supposed he could tolerate.Â For weeks Merlin had staggered around the castle looking on the verge of collapse, his eyes always red, and Arthur had been forced to sort out the warring grief and jealousy heâ€™d felt fighting in the pit of his stomach, twisted like snakes.Â Arthur had known anger and frustration and shame and hurt, but heâ€™d never felt loss the way Merlin seemed to then, and itâ€™d only made it worse to layer pettiness over his concern for Merlin, to wonder ifâ€”whenâ€”he fell and bled for Camelot, would Merlin look the same way.
â€œMagic can be good, too, Arthur,â€ Merlin told him, shy again, and Arthur had no choice but to say:
â€œYes, Merlin, I know.â€
They were horrendously late for breadmaking, owing mostly to Merlin having soaked all his clothing and Arthur taking the opportunity to have a good lieabout without feeling guilty or leaving tavern wenches to the aggressive groping of his guard while Merlin sulked, mostly nude, and picked dandelions.Â Arthur pointedly did not stare at Merlinâ€™s cream-white back, or the knobs of his spine prominent through his pale skin or to run a finger wonderingly over the pink burn that started on the back of Merlinâ€™s neck and faded downward along the planes of his shoulders.
â€œI said bathe, not bathe, drain the pond and then refill it with thimbles,â€ Hunith said, giving Arthur a speculative look he wasnâ€™t entirely sure he liked.Â He had seen it before at court, on the faces of noblewomen whose daughters were simpering at him from across the dinner tableâ€”although Hunith looked a good deal less excited about it than the noblewomen had.
â€œIt was Merlinâ€™s fault,â€ Arthur volunteered, and Merlin glared at him.Â â€œIt was!â€
Before hostilities could break out, Hunith laughed and said, â€œAll right, all rightâ€”no more, now both of you roll up your sleeves and come along.Â Thereâ€™s a weekâ€™s worth of bread to be made.â€
Merlin looked uncertainly to Arthur.Â â€œHave you ever made bread?â€ he asked.
â€œHow hard could it be?â€ Arthur said, recalling the cooks in Camelotâ€™s kitchen punching raucously at bread dough and cursing at one another across the room.
An hour after that, Hunith forcefully took the ball of dough away from Arthur, directed him to the water pail to wash and instructed him to fix all the fence ties along the far side of the vegetable garden behind the house.
â€œNo more baking then, Arthur?â€ one of the village women asked, pausing by the ill-repaired fence.Â She had ginger hair and a smattering of freckles across the nose, a wide smile and Arthur thought her name was Una, but wasnâ€™t certain.
He hammered a fence slat into place with more violence than was strictly needed.
â€œItâ€™s womenâ€™s work anyway,â€ he said.
She laughed, and the sound echoed and sparkled in the wide open of the village as she said, â€œYouâ€™re right, your highnessâ€”itâ€™s lucky then that Merlinâ€™s such a quick hand at baking then, aye.â€
Smirking, Arthur said, â€œLucky indeed.Â Heâ€™ll make someone a fine wife one day.â€
Una tittered, color rising to her cheeks, and she said, â€œAye, hereâ€™s hoping that Merlin makes a good match then?Â To a fine, honest gentleman whoâ€™ll take good care of Hunith, too.â€
If Merlin were a maid and came to ask for a dowry to marry some godawful smith or brewer or tanner form the lower village because he was a â€œfine, honest gentlemanâ€ Arthur thought he might be forced to either exile the bastard for soliciting the princeâ€™s servants or seek counsel with Morganaâ€”so it was for the best all around that Merlin was, despite the baking, unlikely to marry anybody.
And he was about to tell Una that when Merlin came out of the cottage into the late afternoon sun, carrying five dough roundsâ€”slashes drawn across their curved topsâ€”on an enormous piece of flour-dusted wood.Â He held it in front of Arthur and stared at him until Arthur was forced to take it from his manservant just to do something to interrupt the stupidity of the moment.
â€œCould you run those to Eron?Â Heâ€™ll bake them off for us and weâ€™ve got at least another two batches to put together,â€ Merlin asked, eyes bright, as he dusted the flour off of his hands.Â â€œIf you think you could handle that, your majesty.â€
Merlin was already trotting away, leaving Arthur gaping at the gall of it when Unaâ€™s laughter broke his righteous fit of anger and she observed, â€œMerlinâ€™s betrothed will have to be a strong man indeed.â€
â€œAnd merciful,â€ Arthur muttered, hefting the wood board easily and starting off toward the bakerâ€™s hut, wondering where this trip had gone all wrong.
Dinner was fresh bread from Eronâ€™s enormous ovens, cheese, and some of the salted meat Arthur had packed, and they feasted with the new beeswax candles lit in the cozy center of Hunithâ€™s cottage.
Sheâ€™d gone into a tizzy once Arthur had opened the cartons and showed her all heâ€™d brought on top of the ale and food, and Merlin had held his mother and leveled Arthur a knowing look when Hunith had started crying of all infernal female things, and then insisted Arthur hadnâ€™t upset her and she was only so happy when heâ€™d attempted to apologize.
â€œBreathe, Mum,â€ Merlin had advised.Â â€œThereâ€™s more.â€
Sheâ€™d sobbed some more, and Arthur had debated how difficult it would be to break in a new manservant versus killing Merlin and hiding his corpse in the pigsâ€™ trough.
â€œEr, itâ€™s nothing, really,â€ Arthur had said, feeling stupid as Hunith hugged the stole to her chest and dabbed at her tears with her shirtsleeve.Â But Merlin was looking between Arthur and his mother with a soft, happy expression, so more likely than not no grave missteps had been committed, and Arthur hazarded to say, â€œAnywayâ€”happy birthday.â€
â€œThank you,â€ she told him, and leaned over to kiss him firmly on the cheek before kissing Merlin on his temple with equal affection.Â â€œThank you bothâ€”youâ€™re such good boys.â€
Arthur had always known the affection of women, from his nannies when he was a child to the court ladies when he was older, to the saucier wenches and knightsâ€™ daughters who were more free with their virtue once heâ€™d gotten old enough to be interested in those things, but Hunithâ€™s smile and her eyes were different than all of them.Â Arthur wondered if it wasnâ€™t something passed from mother to son, that Merlin should look at Arthur like no other, and that Hunith would as well.
â€œYou will be a fine king one day, Arthur,â€ Hunith decided later, closing Arthurâ€™s hand between her own, worn with calluses but soft with age.Â The skin round her eyes crinkled and she said, voice wistful, â€œI only hope youâ€™ll continue to be good to Merlin, and to be patient with him.â€
For no reason at all, Arthur blushed and looked down at his knees.Â â€œOf course,â€ he mumbled.
â€œMerlin adores you, you know,â€ she confided, and Arthur couldnâ€™t help but look up at that and saw her smile was teasing. â€œHe would never admit it, but he thinks the world of you.â€
Arthur was hungry to know what â€˜adoresâ€™ might mean, if Merlinâ€™s love for him was childish and glossed with worship, tangled up with his awed feelings about Camelot in general or if it wasnâ€™t something else, something more complicated.Â They were questions that werenâ€™t meant to be asked, and certainly not by Arthur, who had been taught to ask only if it was something that would have been offered anyway.
â€œWhat are you two talking about now?â€ Merlin asked when he came back to the cottage with two buckets of cool water from the well near the edge of town.Â EveÂ rything was harder in Ealdorâ€”even water was an exercise in workâ€”and Arthur wondered for a moment how it felt to be a peasant, to struggle for every farthing and every necessity and to pay endlessly into the pockets of your king.
Hunith gave Arthur a secretive glance, hushing him with a wink.Â â€œOnly how your studies of medicine are coming along,â€ she told him.
â€œHorribly,â€ Arthur supplied.Â â€œBy the way, was how I answered.â€
Merlin flusehd.Â â€œIâ€™m getting better, Gaius said so.â€
â€œNot accidentally giving me the runs when youâ€™re trying to soothe my throat with an herbal tea this particular week is not the type of improvement that impresses anybody, Merlin,â€ Arthur shot back, and Hunith burst into laughter, deepening Merlinâ€™s blush and his pout until he was as red as his tunic.
â€œYes, but I have to take care of you when youâ€™re abed and complaining like a child,â€ Merlin answered, â€œso Iâ€™ve been punished enough.â€
Arthur turned to Hunith and said, â€œI think he spends more time in the stocks than out.â€
â€œHe would be so much less interesting if he were docile, donâ€™t you think?â€ Hunith asked, rising to her feet and dusting off off her dress, ignoring her son as he said, â€œI hate it when you talk about me like Iâ€™m not even in the room,â€ to say to Arthur, â€œAnd now, I must away to bedâ€”but thank you again, Arthur, for the lovely birthday, and for bringing my son home to me.â€
She favored Merlin with a soft look before turning back to Arthur.
â€œHaving you both here,â€ she said, â€œwas the best of all the gifts.â€
Hunith had disappeared behind a curtain to undress and Arthur was still savoring the moment, letting it soak into his pores with dignified appreciation when Merlin laughed and said, â€œOh my God, Arthurâ€”are you going to cry or something?â€ and Arthur was forced to cuff him, which led eventually to them banging around the cottage and Hunith throwing them both out, because if they were going to run round like hooligans, they could damn well do it outside without knocking over any of the furniture.
They ended up in the deep forest at the far fringes of Ealdor, and the cool August night was positively cold beneath the trees, with the Earth exhaling after a long day.Â Merlin talked about growing up in the forest, gathering wild berries and mushrooms and wintergreen during cold winters where he felt like his fingers were frozen from November to March.
They passed the remains of a shelter, a dilapidated fence, and Merlin said it was where Nonny Warren had kept her pigs once long ago, when sheâ€™d let them run free in the forest during the year to get fat before bribing the village boys with soul cake to corral them back into the town for her.Â It was before even Merlinâ€™s time, but a story someone had told Will, who had dutifully turned it over to Merlin for safekeeping along with a particularly naughty poem about some woman named Aelith and a tax collector who got more than his fair share.
â€œAre all country boys so dirty-minded?â€ Arthur demanded and Merlin only grinned back.
â€œUsually, theyâ€™re worse,â€ he said.Â â€œThereâ€™s not much to do out here.â€
â€œI canâ€™t imagine the village girls are very fond of it,â€ Arthur said mildly.
Merlin shrugged.Â â€œMostly, it was just me and Will,â€ he said, quiet, and before Arthur could investigate that further, Merlin glanced over his shoulder, grinning again, and said, â€œUp aheadâ€”come on, I think it might still be there.â€
â€˜Itâ€™ turned out to be a crude house, set on the thick branches of an enormous old poplar, among its first crown of branches, a corona of green leaves fanning out round it.Â Arthur could imagine a smaller Merlin, with even thinner arms and legs, freckles across his nose, rushing through the lush green underbrush of the forest to this house as sunlight speckled the ground underneath his feet.Â Arthur received his first lesson with weaponry at three; by four his father had him practicing with a wooden sword.Â At five, heâ€™d killed his first stag and walked around Camelot, chest puffed, for days, inflated with his own pride.Â Heâ€™d never played in grass and wood houses, and he wondered if that was why he let Merlin get away with such insubordination and sundry foolishness, dragging Arthur along by the sleeve and tugging him up the stair-step branches of the tree until they were sitting together in the tiny house, looking through the naked branches of the forest toward the lake, where water lapped along the pebble beach in long mermaid sighs.
â€œDid your father build you this?â€ Arthur asked.
In the trunk of the tree near his hand, there were tiny carvings made by shaky hands, and Arthur traced at them with his fingertips, wondering if the memories in the bark were Merlinâ€™s or Williamâ€™s, or if maybe it didnâ€™t matter.Â It wasnâ€™t the burn of jealousy at that thought which surprised him so much as the intensity.
Merlin was quiet for a moment before he said, â€œNoâ€”Williamâ€™s did, before he died.â€Â He swung his feet a bit, shaking the branches around them, and said, â€œI never knew my father, and my mother never talked about him.Â Growing up nobody around me said anything eitherâ€”I always thought maybe he died before I was born.â€
That was not what Merlin thought at all, Arthur could tell, but that was not a secret worth having if it put that look on Merlinâ€™s face so Arthur set curiosity aside for a moment.
He wondered whoâ€™d almost drowned then, if it werenâ€™t Merlinâ€™s father whoâ€™d been washed awayâ€”another friend?Â A sibling?Â Had there been a flood?Â Arthur hadâ€”since the beginningâ€”wanted to know things about Merlin, not just to use them, but just to know them, and he didnâ€™t quite know what to do with that realization.
â€œWhy were you so scared?â€ Arthur asked, discarding any affects of coyness.Â He was never good with diplomacy; Uther had managed to teach him courtly manners and war had taught him the value of peace, but anything that could be settled with blunt quickness was still preferable.Â â€œAt the millpondâ€”why were you so frightened?â€
â€œI wasnâ€™t scared,â€ Merlin lied, stuttering.
Arthur glowered at him.Â â€œI can still have you beheaded, you know.â€
â€œFor what?â€ Merlin argued.
â€œNow,â€ Arthur went on, â€œtell me the truth: it was only swimmingâ€”what had you so frightened?â€
This time, Merlin went stiller than the night, draped like dark velvet around them, and it was a long, long time before he said, â€œIf I tell you, your father might be the one to have me beheaded.â€
It was barely an admission, just an insinuation, but Arthur saw the snakes from Valientâ€™s shield and Merlinâ€™s tired eyes after Lancelot had driven away the gryphon.Â He thought about the beast poisoning the water and a thousand other little thingsâ€”the light, floating above him in the cave, scraping away at the dark and guiding him toward escape as Merlin burned like reddened coal, babbling fever-sick words like gibberish, Gwen had said, like spells, Arthur thought.
Arthur thought about the duststorm the last time heâ€™d been in Ealdor, and before the rageâ€”he lied, how could he lie? I thought he trusted meâ€”could eat its way up his spine, he forced himself to take a breath, exhaled it shaky and angry into the dark.
â€œWhat, are sorcerers afraid of water?â€ he spat.
Merlinâ€™s shoulders tensed.Â â€œNo,â€ he whispered.Â â€œI justâ€”I saw you nearly drown once.â€
In a dream? Arthur wanted to ask.Â In your scrying dish?Â Or were you plotting for it the way my father always says magicians are?
â€œIn a dream?â€ Arthur heard himself ask instead, a note of fear in his voice.
â€œAwake, and before my very eyes,â€ Merlin bit out, and how his knuckles were white where they clutched at the branches of the tree, steadying himself.
Merlin laughed when the townspeople threw rotten fruit at him in the stocks and wasted hours teasing the littlest kitchen boys.Â He knew the name of every stray cat and mangy dog in Camelot and had onceâ€”though heâ€™d sworn Arthur to secrecyâ€”allowed Morgana and Gwen to cover him in face powders and rouge.Â If Merlin was a sorcererâ€”no, if Merlin had magic, then it had to be incidental, something that had just happened by a cruel twist of fate, Arthur thought.Â Merlin could barely be trusted to remember a half-dozen-item long list of supplies, much less spells, potions.
â€œYou had already been under the water for so long by the time I found you,â€ Merlin burst out, voice low and tense.Â He was breathing in short gasps, pulling his legs up to his chest and putting his face against his knees.Â â€œI kept diving, and diving into the lake, but I couldnâ€™t find youâ€”and youâ€”your stupid chain mailâ€”you didnâ€™t bob up the way people normally do, and all I could think was that I was too late, and that Sophia had given you to the Sithe and theyâ€™d taken you andâ€”â€œ
â€œSophia?â€ Arthur asked.Â â€œWhatâ€™s she got to do withâ€”?â€
â€œShe was trading your soul in for immortality with the fairies, you prat!â€ Merlin shouted at him.Â â€œAnd youâ€™re just lucky I noticed sheâ€™d enchanted you or else I would have let the stupid Sithe have you, for all the time I spent in the stocks for you that time!â€
For a moment, Arthur was torn betwen disbelief, feeling extremely foolish over the whole thing, and wanting to tell Merlin Arthurâ€™s romantic affairs were none of his, but what came out in the end was, â€œI thought we had just tried to elope.â€
â€œWell, you also thought I could clean your armor, sharpen your sword, launder all your clothes, exercise your dogs, brush your horses and muck out the stables by myself with no assistance, too,â€ Merlin muttered.Â â€œSo itâ€™s clear youâ€™re not terribly bright.â€
â€œYou canâ€™t talk to me like that,â€ Arthur reminded him, irate.
Merlin looked away, down toward the ground beneath.Â â€œWhy not,â€ he asked.Â â€œYouâ€™re just going to have me beheaded anyway.â€
Arthur had watched exactly fifty-six witches and wizards killed.Â The initial bloody purges, heâ€™d been too young to witness, just an infant, but heâ€™d grown up with the vivid memory of hangings, of beheadings in the courtyard.Â He remembered the time his father had a girl, barely fifteen, tied to a post and burned.Â Heâ€™d always asked their crime and the unifying condemnation was magicâ€”never what kind.Â Heâ€™d wondered what a skinny girl with dirty blonde hair could have been doing, wondered how much danger she could mean for Camelot with her skinned knees and luminously hungry eyes.Â Arthur had seen war and the raided hulls of villages; heâ€™d seen entire towns slaughtered by barbarians and women and children murdered in their beds, raped in the streets.Â Arthur knew evil, and young girls sobbing into their dirty fists, hysterical and screaming as soldiers lit a fire under her feet werenâ€™t evilâ€”they were just girls.
He had never had the luxury of wondering if his father was a good man, a good king, but Arthur had always known that someday in the distant after, when he carried the Pendragon line and bore the kingdom on his shoulders, there would be no more burnings, no more beheadings, no hangings for magicâ€”there was too much death already.
â€œMelrin,â€ Arthur whispered, because to deny Merlin his punishment alone was treason, â€œI would never tell my father.â€
Looking at him dumbly, Merlin said, â€œYou have toâ€”itâ€™s the law.â€
â€œItâ€™s also the law you are never allowed to refer to me as Arthur,â€ he pointed out.
Aghast, Merlin said, â€œYou can have someone hanged for that?â€
â€œI think youâ€™re missing the point,â€ Arthur told him, feeling a smile start to tug at the corners of his mouthâ€”because if Merlin were magic, if Merlin could do magic, thenâ€”â€œWas it you, then?Â The one who sent me the light in the cave?Â When Iâ€™d lost my torch finding you an antidote?â€
â€œMaybe?â€ Merlin admitted, looking sickly.Â â€œBut it was an accident!Â I wasnâ€™t conscious! Andâ€”â€œ
Whatever else he said was lost when Arthur leaned in to close his mouth over Merlinâ€™s, to still the protest and tell him in something other than wordsâ€”words were always so bothersomeâ€”that Arthur was grateful, that he wasnâ€™t angry (not as much as Merlin seemed to think, anyway), that if it werenâ€™t for that light in the crevass he would be dead, and that thereâ€™d been no malice in that magic.
Arthur had always wanted to know whoâ€™d sent it, whoâ€™d saved him, to whom he owed a debt, and there was something bubbling up in his chest, delirious and happy, to know that it was Merlin.
Merlin required extensive convincing he wasnâ€™t going to be hangedâ€”or beheaded, or burned, or poisoned, or anything elseâ€”and Arthur obliged mostly by cutting him off with a kiss.Â After some debate, mostly one-sided, the arguments grew redundant, and Arthur concluded Merlin was probably doing it just to invite the interruption, at which point he said, â€œYou know, you could just kiss back.â€
â€œI wasnâ€™t that kind of country boy,â€ Merlin protested, but did so anyway, and this time when Arthur brushed his tongue against Merlinâ€™s lips they opened with a sigh, and Arthur thought he felt something glimmering that passed through him then, sliding under his skin like a sudden burst of heat, desperation.Â Was it magic?Â Arthur didnâ€™t know, but it intensified when Merlin moaned into Arthurâ€™s mouth, twined his fingers in Arthurâ€™s hair.
Arthur broke away from Merlinâ€™s mouth to explore the skin along his jaw.Â He asked, â€œIs this magic?Â Have you cast an enchantment?â€
â€œDoubtful,â€ Merlin said, in between gasps, still carding his fingers through Arthurâ€™s hair, dear, his fingers familiar and warm against Arthurâ€™s scalp.Â â€œI can barely get the grass stains out of your tunics with magic.â€
This was nothing like tumbling a milkmaid or an agreeable lordlingâ€”there were no secrets here, hidden beneath their skinâ€”and Arthur took his time, mapping the geography of Merlinâ€™s neck, studying his newest territory.Â He was not a scholar, but he was a dutiful prince, and Merlin was his now, to guard and learn and tend for, to be had for as long as Arthur had the strength to keep him.
Arthur laughed against the hollow of Merlinâ€™s throat and said, â€œTypicalâ€”terrible manservant, appalling magician, too.â€
â€œCareful, Arthur,â€ Merlin warned, smiling at him when their eyes caught, â€œIâ€™ll turn you into a toad.â€
â€œYou probably donâ€™t even know how,â€ Arthur scoffed.
â€œI could learn,â€ Merlin answered, catching Arthurâ€™s mouth for another lush, lingering kiss.Â â€œIâ€™m sure itâ€™s in a book somewhere.â€
Arthur suddenly wished he knew where those books wereâ€”if Merlin had learned magic through words and pictures or if it had just flowed from him, like rain skated down the long fingers of willow trees.Â His father had burned most of them, in bonfires that had sent smoke billowing over Albion for days.
â€œAnd what will come of you if you were caught reading one?â€ Arthur asked, and pressed his mouth over where Merlinâ€™s collarbones hovered most prominently under his skin.
Shivering, Merlin grabbed at Arthurâ€™s tunic and breathed, â€œI suppose Iâ€™ll have to hide away in your rooms to read them, then.â€
Now heâ€™d thought it, Arthur couldnâ€™t shake it, the mental image of Merlin poring over a book of enchantmentsâ€”and Arthur conveniently filled in the spaces of that picture with the trappings of his own chambers: the fire roaring, the remains of dinner on the table, and Merlin sprawled, all long limbs and fingers, across the red brocade coverings of the bed, murmuring to himself as he read.Â Arthur knew his lot in life was first to spend it on Camelot, and that one day Camelot would need a queen and he would need an heir.Â But maybe he could have Merlin, too, hold him close and keep him in a way he never could a woman sent by her father to seal a contract against the horrors of war, maybe that would be enough to keep at bay the fluttering beneath his breastbone.
â€œOnly if I am there to supervise,â€ Arthur countered, and pulled away enough so he could study Merlinâ€™s faceâ€”flushed and smiling, his eyes flashing in the dim lightâ€”and forced himself to say, â€œThis isnâ€™t an order, you know.Â We could stop and Iâ€™d neverâ€”â€
Now it was Merlinâ€™s turn to interrupt him with a kiss, and instead of dignifying Arthurâ€™s question with a response, he said, â€œIf you were there to supervise me, I highly doubt Iâ€™d get any actual studying done, Arthur.â€
â€œAll part of my master plan not to be turned into a toad,â€ Arthur assured him, feeling giddy, over-hot, feverish with something not unlike triumph.Â Merlin laughed and shoved him down on the knobby branch floor of their perch, his smile luminous in the moonlight, and said, â€œPrat,â€ as the endearment it may have always been between them.
Shifting beneath him, Arthur asked, â€œWhat kind of country boy are you, would you say?â€
â€œI have to admit something, Arthur,â€ Merlin told him, solemn and sliding down the length of Arthurâ€™s body, hands tracing along Arthurâ€™s sides and down to the ties on the front of his hose.
â€œYes?â€ Arthur gasped, trying to brace himself for whatever else his manservant might turn out to be in addition to an idiot and insubordinate and a wizard and a bit beloved.
Merlin peered at him with supernaturally blue eyes, his breath hot on Arthurâ€™s cock through the thin cloth of his leggings, and he said, conspiratorial, â€œI liedâ€”I was that kind of country boy,â€ and unlaced Arthurâ€™s trousers to press hot, wet kiss beneath the crown of his dick.
Arthur cursed profusely and colorfully in every language heâ€™d ever been taught, and after he managed to quiet Merlinâ€™s laughing by shoving his dick more or less down his manservantâ€™s throat, he went wordless and desperate and resorted to tugging at Merlinâ€™s dark, soft hair instead, tangling the locks between his fingers and rolling his hips with the graceless need of an untried boy.
â€œThat,â€ Merlin declared, pulling off of Arthurâ€™s cock with a loud and utterly obscene noise, â€œwas not at all a display of the royal dignity you claim to have at all times.â€
Arthur stared upward, gasping, watching the sky fade out of its deepest blue into the blushing pink or morning, and said, â€œRight,â€ before grabbing his manservant and shoving him down, now, dragging down his battered-looking trousers and rubbing his cock along Merlinâ€™sâ€”hot, soft skin against hot, soft skin, biting ferociously at the place where Merlinâ€™s neck melted into his shoulder, all white, inviting skin.
â€œArthur, Arthur,â€ Merlin pleaded, mewling, throwing one leg over Arthurâ€™s hip and sinking his nails into Arthurâ€™s shoulder, thrusting up to meet him stroke for stroke and came, wet and messy all over their stomachs.Â Arthur couldnâ€™t decide what about that was more incendiary, Merlinâ€™s unschooled and honest yearning or that it was the first time anybody had just called him Arthur like this, and he choked out, â€œMerlin,â€ and thrust hard against the other boy one last time before he froze, panting, spilling out over their already slick bellies.
â€œArthur,â€ Merlin said, and he kept looking at Arthur in wonder, starry, and worrying his hands through Arthurâ€™s hair like he was afraid Arthur was leave, and Arthur obligingly kissed him, swallowing whatever else he wanted to say, licking away all his doubts and worries, tasting himself on Merlinâ€™s tongue.
And that was when the branches broke.
Merlinâ€™s bedamned sorcery managed to keep them from dying horribly but couldnâ€™t prevent a good deal of feeling stupid from being distributed to all and sundry.Â Having their pants down round their ankles made it particularly difficult to disentangle themselves from the forestry and amplified the associated misery of the entire affair to a shocking degree.
â€œI blame you,â€ Arthur growled, lacing up his hose angrily.Â He kicked at a branch and didnâ€™t feel particularly afraid of Merlin, despite the fact that this would have been a prime opportunity to be terrified of an angry sorcerer.
â€œMe?â€ Merlin sputtered, irate.Â â€œWhat have I got to do with this?â€
â€œBefore you came along,â€ Arthur spat, â€œI managed to have sex all the time without falling out of trees.â€
Sniffing, Merlin pulled his trousers back up.Â â€œI certainly wasnâ€™t the one doing all the shoving and thrusting like a crazed barbarian,â€ he said primly before patting his backside with a frown.Â â€œI think youâ€™ve bruised my arse.â€
â€œI think falling out of a bloody tree bruised your precious arse,â€ Arthur retorted.Â â€œAnd excuse meâ€”I wasnâ€™t the one digging my nails into anybody else to encourage that â€˜crazed barbarianâ€™ behavior!â€
Merlin scowled at him.Â â€œJust wait till my mother hears youâ€™ve despoiled me in a tree.â€
Arthurâ€™s mouth twitched.Â â€œYou could never bear to tell her,â€ he said, confident.
Deflating, Merlin sighed, â€œYouâ€™re rightâ€”thatâ€™d be extremely horrible and sheâ€™d probably just start crying again.â€
Immediate disaster was somewhat of a downer on the post-coital afterglow, but Merlin was still flushed and his mouth still red from kisses, and Arthur found that despite his manservantâ€™s extreme inability to respect the (altered) mood, he was still very endearing, which was just another sign Arthur was lost.
â€œAnd then sheâ€™d probably force me to make an honest woman of you,â€ Arthur said, smiling and reaching over to tuck a strand of Merlinâ€™s dark hair behind his ridiculous ears.Â He still looked disreputably disheveled, but Arthur liked it, for once, knowing he was the one whoâ€™d run his hands all underneath Merlinâ€™s wrinkled clothes and made him smile like that, wide and like an idiot.
It grew even wider after Arthur took his hand, sliding their fingers together and tugging them back toward the village.Â Hunith probably was worried, he thought reluctantly, and even if she werenâ€™t, Arthur felt a surge of mortification imagining what she was imagining.Â He might be the best warrior in all of Albion but he had a feeling his sword wouldnâ€™t protect him from Hunith if she really did know heâ€™d despoiled her son in a tree
Merlin blushed, allowing himself to be guided more or less meekly, a feat in itself.Â â€œIâ€™d love to hear your fatherâ€™s opinion on that,â€ he sniped.
â€œPlease, Merlin,â€ Arthur laughed.Â â€œMy father thinks Iâ€™ve been shagging you for ages.â€
Merlinâ€™s mother clearly knew of and had accepted her sonâ€™s easy virtue, because after they dragged into the village just after dawn, she pretended not to hear the way they failed to be quiet when sneaking back into the cottage.Â Over breakfast, she gave Merlin a somewhat overcome look and then shot one over at Arthur before excusing herself to go do something violent to one of the hens clucking around in front of the cottage.
â€œBetter them than you, I suppose,â€ Merlin said meditatively, and Arthur crossed his legs one over the other as he heard the chicken Hunith had captured begin screaming.Â â€œDefinitely better them than you.â€
There was a ripping noise and the chicken shrieked again.
â€œDear God,â€ Arthur said, â€œwhatâ€™s she doing to it?â€
Merlin glanced out the window, winced dramatically, hissed through his teeth, and then turned back round to Arthur, pastingÂ a smile to his face as he said, â€œOh, nothing.â€
Arthur considered throwing something at him, but Hunith would probably only make the chicken scream more loudly if she sensed Arthur was being discourteous to her son.Â The absolute foolishness of his life since Merlin had been introduced as a variable was astonishing, Arthur reflected sadly, and ate the cold corn cakes sheâ€™d given them both that morning sadly.
He spent two more days eating corn cakes and feeling torn between guilt and wanton lust.Â Hunithâ€™s initial lackadaisical disregard for Merlinâ€™s chastity vanished and she set Arthur to fixing the rest of the fencing around the vegetable patch, of weeding the turnips, of building a henhouse and then asking if he would mind terribly patching the roof while the weather was still kind.
â€œMother,â€ Merlin said, looking alarmed, â€œif Arthur fallsâ€”â€
â€œIâ€™m sure heâ€™ll be fine,â€ she said, and sent Merlin away to do another batch of laundry.
Arthur comforted himself that at least between the two of them, heâ€™d been dispatched with the less embarrassing errands.Â Merlin had spent more time with the village girls at the river scrubbing aprons than was good for any manâ€”and then Arthur found himself hammering at the roof with newfound vigor thinking about Merlin smiling at those same village girls, who for whatever reason seemed to think he was adorable and clever.Â Both of which were true but neither of which were supposed to be common knowledge.
â€œIdiot,â€ Arthur said, bringing the hammer down on the new shingle hard enough that he found himself staring down atÂ Hunithâ€™s bemused face through the new hole in her roof.
â€œEr,â€ he said, â€œI can fix this.â€
â€œYou know, Merlin is my only family in the world,â€ she called up at him.
Panicking, Arthur told her, â€œIn fact, I think I have a spare shingle right here.â€
Hunith looked wistful.Â â€œAnd heâ€™s still so young,â€ she sighed.
â€œOh, God,â€ Arthur said.Â Where was that bloody shingle?
â€œWhen I sent him to Camelot, I hoped he would be happy, safe,â€ she went on, tipping her chin at him.Â â€œThat he would find a place to fit in, your highness.â€
â€œIâ€™llâ€”Iâ€™ll patch this right away.â€ Why had he never learned any carpentry?Â â€œIâ€™ll thatch over itâ€”no one will ever know the difference.â€
â€œI will,â€ Hunith told him, and Arthur thought that, naturally, they werenâ€™t talking about the roof at all.Â â€œI hope you will, too.â€
Arthurâ€™s mouth went dry, because he had been guilty of being careless with feelings in the past, but Merlinâ€™s absence would be a slow burn in his chest, eat away at him like fire at the heart of a sheet of vellum.
â€œOf course,â€ Arthur said, finally, and Hunith flashed him her first genuine smile in days.Â It felt enough like a blessing that he was still soft in the wrist and ankles with relief when he heard Merlin calling up to him:
â€œEr.Â So.Â I may have lost your underthings downstream.â€
Before they left Ealdor, Arthur sent Merlin off to gather three impossible things, and found Hunith where she was packing cold chicken and cheese and bread into a basket for their journey back to Camelot.
â€œI wanted to give you something,â€ Arthur said, feeling awkward and torn between the prince he knew how to be and the young man Hunith brought out in him.Â â€œBefore I go.â€
Hunith gave him a warm look, tying up a kerchief.Â It had the same strange cross-stitch hem as all of Merlinâ€™s scarves, and Arthur filed that away as another mystery finally solved.Â â€œOh, Arthurâ€”youâ€™ve already been far too generous.â€
He shook his head.Â â€œThis is just for you, not to be shared with the rest of the village.â€
She looked hesitant, and before she could protest, Arthur freed the pendant from his belt, folding it into one of her hands, cool against the heat of her skin.Â It was black onyx, inlaid with a lacquer dragon fringed in gold, suspended from a heavy steel chainâ€”a seal of Camelot, a vow of the Pendragonâ€™s protection.
â€œTake this,â€ he said to her.Â â€œIf any trouble comes to pass on the roads next time you come to see Merlin, reveal this.Â No one will touch you and risk the wrath of Camelot.â€
Hunith stared at him, open-mouthed in wordless shock.
â€œTake it,â€ he said again.Â â€œIf not for me, for Merlin.â€
She closed her hand around it, and searched Arthurâ€™s face for something she must have found, because she drew him down to her height with a free hand and pressed a lingering kiss to his foreheadâ€”the same way she would with her son later as they left the villageâ€”and said, â€œArthur Pendragon, you will be a great man.â€
It was September by the time he and Merlin finally made it back to Camelot and all the leaves had changed into their finery and showered the villages and gardens in gold and red and fiery orange, a sudden shift from summer with no trace of its sticky heat remaining.Â The harvests were in, and the castle was exploding at the seams with good things, hundreds of sweet pumpkins and squashes, acres of potatoes, game, prepared for the feasts to come when winter descended cold and dark in the land.Â There were barrels on barrels of cider and ale and an ocean of fish and eel had been salted down in the kitchens.
Arthur had barely alighted from his horse before his fatherâ€™s clerks kidnapped him to oversee the storage of all goods for the castle and the long winter months, and it was the middle of the night before he staggered back to his chambers, having been soundly lectured about court responsibilities by his father and wailed at by the castle chefs.
He found Merlin there, sprawled asleep in Arthurâ€™s bedâ€”the fire roaring and clean clothes laid out, a bath drawn and still steaming.
â€œDid you,â€ Arthur asked later, climbing under the covers and burrowing his nose in the back of Merlinâ€™s neck, â€œmagic that water to stay hot?â€
Merlin hummed something incoherent, sliding backward until their bodies locked together like pieces from a puzzle box, and then Arthur was too tired and the room too warm and Merlinâ€™s skin too soft for him to stay awake.
The last thing he saw before falling asleep was the curtains round the bed drawing shutâ€”invisible hands tugging and tugging until he and Merlin were enclosed, safe, warm in the dark.