After a few heart beats, the world exploded at once.
A soldier collided with Guinevere. He gave a shout as Arthur’s sword sunk into his stomach. There was a rushing of feet as the others in the room headed to the noise, only to stumble on washtubs. Morgana began screaming in a foreign language. Beside him, Merlin yelled and seemed to reach out for something before collapsing to the ground. The very rafters seemed to shake and the sound of things falling filled the air.
It seemed like things were coming from all direction. Had Morgana’s spell gone awry? Arthur tightened his grip on the hilt and took a step closer to Merlin’s fallen body.
“It’s open!” George called out over the noise and the grate squeaked open.
“Get Merlin!” Arthur ordered. He didn’t look to see who did it, but he felt Merlin being lifted off the ground.
There was dust in the air now as well as mist. It was hard to hear anything over the yelling and falling debris.
A soldier stumbled their way but Arthur dispatched him before the man even had a chance to notice that he had found his quarry.
“Arthur! Come on!” Guinevere called out from the passage behind him.
Arthur gave the wall of steam one final glance before following everyone through the grate. He paused for a moment at the grate, closing it and jamming a knife through some of the twisted metal. It was a crude way of securing the door, but it should buy them enough time to escape.
He ran down the corridor a short way and almost collided with his friends. Merlin was stretched out between them. He seemed conscious, but completely incoherent. He seemed to be looking past Arthur and mumbling to himself.
“How is he?” Arthur asked, sheathing his sword.
“Still alive, but he’s lost a lot of blood. We need to get him help, soon,” Guinevere reported. Arthur noticed she had torn the bottom of her dress off to make a crude bandage around Merlin’s middle. It would have to do for now.
“I’ll take him,” Arthur offered. He stooped down, grabbing one of Merlin’s hands and one of his legs, and hefted his manservant up over his shoulders.
Arthur took a deep breath and adjusted the weight, ignoring a groan from Merlin. Or perhaps it was a protest. Either way, there was no time for arguing.
They continued down the hallway as fast as they could, the sounds of Morgana’s men getting fainter and fainter.
“I don’t suppose you got the horses ready, did you?” Arthur asked George.
“Sorry sire, I was a little busy trying not to get killed.”
Arthur scowled. George had never displayed this level of cheek before the quest.
“We could make it through the lower town and out the postern door,” Guinevere suggested.
Arthur nodded; it was as good a plan as any. If they were lucky, some of the smaller buildings would offer them some level of protection. “Lead on.”
Through some miracle, they didn’t encounter anyone else along the way. By the time they had reached the castle walls, Arthur’s back was beginning to ache. Merlin might not look like much, but he weighed more than he seemed. They weren’t going to get far without horses.
They found a feed shed and Arthur hid there with Merlin while Guinevere and George sussed out the horses. The entire time they were gone, Arthur’s heart pounded in his chest. A thousand things could still go wrong. He heard soldiers pacing on the streets outside the hut and he hardly dared to breathe. He wondered how they would manage to get the horses out since the stables must be under watch. There were a thousand and one things he couldn’t control at the minute and it was driving him mad.
Sitting still had never been a strong suit with him so busied himself checking Merlin’s wound. The gash in his side was neat and fairly shallow. It seemed as if most of the vital organs had been missed so Merlin didn’t appear to be in any immediate danger, provided he didn’t suffer from blood loss or was bleeding internally.
Arthur didn’t know much of the surrounding area. Merlin had been the one to direct them through Lot’s kingdom because by rights he was one of Lot’s subjects, having been born in Ealdor when Cenred ruled. But being from a small outlying village didn’t mean one knew the entire kingdom. And although Merlin refused to admit it, Arthur suspected that he had gotten lost more than a few times.
The only thing Arthur knew directly was that a druid encampment lay five leagues to the east. They had arranged the meeting point for when the torcs were recovered. It had been decided, by people other than him, that it would be best to perform the unity spell as soon as possible so Morgana couldn’t surprise them with an ambush later on. Arthur still didn’t like the idea of using magic, but he had to admit that it was necessary in this case. His gut twisted at the thought of it but he pushed it aside.
Best not to think on that now. Concentrate on the present. On Merlin. The druids were healers, they could take care of Merlin. Arthur wasn’t even sure if he cared what methods were used. Strange he didn’t mind Merlin being healed by magic, even after what happened to his father. He looked down at Merlin and brushed some fringe away from his eyes. Some things were worth the price though.
When Guinevere and George returned, they only had three horses. There hadn’t been time to saddle a fourth, and it wasn’t as if Merlin could ride anyway. They manhandled Merlin onto one of the horses and Arthur climbed up behind him. He made sure his grip was strong and that one hand rested heavily on Merlin’s wound. There wasn’t much they could do for him here but he could at least do his best to stench the blood flow.
By the time he had Merlin situated, the others were ready to go. Arthur’s only thought was to get to help as fast as possible so he took off at a gallop down the dark streets. He could hear guards calling out in his wake. Arthur spurred the horse as fast as he dared though the narrow streets, intent on putting as much distance from here as he could manage. They would lead the guards through a merry chase through the woods that should only put them back an hour or so. Merlin could hold out that long. He had to.
Two days later, Arthur would be hard pressed to recount the escape from Lot’s castle or the subsequent horse chase. When he looked down at his left hand it still seemed to be covered in Merlin’s blood. No matter how often he washed it, he could still see it. The druids had given all of them new clothing. It wasn’t as fine as he was used to, but it lacked bloodstains. He still cringed when he thought about it.
They had arrived at the encampment around mid morning and the healer had taken Merlin away from them, promising she would do everything she could. A few hours later she emerged and said he would be fine, he just needed rest to replenish the blood he lost. In all that time, he had only woken once or twice, and never when Arthur was there. He had the feeling he wouldn’t believe Merlin’s good health until he saw it for himself.
The druids kept him busy enough preparing for the unity spell. They wanted to make sure Arthur understood every aspect of what was going to happen. And they gave him words to memorize. Horrible foreign sounding words. Magic words. He felt a bit of himself curl in disgust every time he had to utter them. Guinevere sat by him for all of this and was also given the task of learning the words. They would practice for hours until she was called away by some smiling druid women, insisting she have a new dress for the ceremony.
By now, they were ready for the ceremony and all that needed to happen now was for Merlin to wake up. By some unspoken agreement, it was decided that Merlin had to be in attendance for it.
For most of the third day, Arthur felt sick. He went for a walk and mostly found himself pacing between two trees. He was essentially getting married. To Guinevere. Spending the rest of his life with her. Rest. Of. His. Life. Oh god he was going to be sick. This was normal, right? He made the right decision, didn’t he? Oh, but what if it was the wrong one? No it was right, it had to be.
What would his father say if he saw how indecisive Arthur was being? What would his father say about him marrying Guinevere? What if… what if….
He needed to breathe.
So, what would Merlin say if he was here?
‘Shut up you great prat! You love her!’ or maybe, ‘You know it’s the right decision, now stop being an idiot.’ Or would he say, ‘Gwen? Are you sure you want to do this?’ No, that wasn’t right. Merlin had always supported, and even helped him and Guinevere any chance he could. He was her friend. Both of them were his friend. He’d want his friends to be happy.
Arthur stopped at a tree and rested his forehead against it. There was a good chance Merlin would wake up tonight. That meant Arthur would get married tomorrow. But, what if Merlin never woke up?
This waiting was driving him mad.
With a sigh he pushed off from the tree and headed back to the encampment. It was better to keep himself busy than to sit around and think about things.
When he got back, he was ushered into the healer’s tent where Merlin was sitting up on a bed of pillows. He looked pale, but much better than the last time Arthur had been by.
As soon as the tent flap closed behind him, Merlin asked, “So why haven’t you married her yet, you prat?”
“I was waiting for you. How else am I supposed to get dressed for the ceremony?” Arthur rolled his eyes. “Honestly, are you ever be on time?”
They smiled at each other and Arthur knew everything would be all right.
The next day, Merlin dressed him in a soft white tunic given to him by the druids. There had been a mild debate on if Arthur should wear his sword, because if it was a real wedding in Camelot, his ceremonial sword would be at his side. Merlin had argued that it wasn’t a real wedding, just the unity spell, and the druids were peaceful people so Arthur shouldn’t wear it.
In the end, Merlin won. But that was because he had hidden Arthur’s sword and refused to tell where it was. Arthur began to hate the druid healing methods. In Camelot, Merlin would still be laid up and be unable to find quite so many ways to annoy him. It would be a relaxing change.
He then appealed to George about the sword, but found even he seemed baffled as to where it could be. Arthur settled on glaring at them and privately vowed to start using proper discipline with his servants. He was king damn it, his servants should obey him.
His irritation broke when Merlin draped a red cape, not his knight cape, which had been left behind, but a plainer one borrowed from the druids. Arthur was surprised how close they got the shade of red to match, but decided he was better off not knowing such things. All annoyance had fled though once he saw Merlin attempting to affix his mother’s sigil to the cloak. Arthur’s hands stilled Merlin’s.
Merlin looked up in confusion. “I thought you’d like to have something of your mother’s today.”
“It’s yours now.” Arthur pushed the hand holding the sigil closer to Merlin. “You wear it.”
He received a critical eye that could only have been learned from Gaius. Why had Merlin started taking to looking at Arthur like that so often? “Are you sure?”
“Quite sure,” Arthur replied, “Besides, you need something to make those rags you’re wearing look presentable. This is my wedding, I’ll not have you attending it looking like you rolled around in the mud.”
Merlin looked down at his attire, which, considered it had been given to him by the druids, was very similar to Arthur’s. He shrugged and threw Arthur a lopsided grin, “It’s not a wedding. And at least I don’t look like a cabbage head.” With that he added the finishing touches to Arthur’s appearance and then ushered him to the altar where a druid elder stood waiting.
All in all, it felt like a wedding, no matter what Merlin said, only it was far plainer than any wedding Arthur had ever attended. Guinevere walked through a parted crowd, a simple white dress falling around her in an elegant manner that Arthur was sure only she could pull off.
The druids had woven flowers in her hair and Arthur fought the urge to touch the woven crown now sitting upon his head. He felt a bit foolish with it on, but Merlin had assured him that it looked fine. Arthur had his doubts.
Other than that, everything was perfect and just like Arthur imagined his wedding would be… that is if his wedding was planned by druids. Guinevere was beautiful and Arthur felt his palms sweat. He couldn’t stop gazing at her glowing face and knew she felt the same. He knew in that moment he had made the right choice.
His mother’s wedding torc rested around her neck, the sunlight causing it to gleam and make it seem as if the dragon had come alive. Arthur felt the weight of his settling over his collarbone coming to rest at the base of his throat. It almost felt as heavy has his normal crown.
Guinevere stepped towards the altar and then faltered. At first, Arthur thought she had only miss stepped but then he got a good look at her eyes, they were stricken and glossy.
“No… I can’t do it,” her voice trembled.
Arthur stood there and could only watch in horror as Guinevere took a few steps back. His lips wanted to form words but he just couldn’t make his body behave. It was as if he was watching the scene as someone else.
“I am not Arthur’s true love,” she whispered, he voice thick with emotion.
What? That’s impossible. Of course she was his true love. Who else could it be? He had never loved another… well outside of an enchantment, and those didn’t count. He tried opening his mouth to tell her so but his body wouldn’t obey him.
“If you are not dear child, then who is?” The elderly druid at the altar before them asked.
She was doing that thing where she pressed her hands into her hip as if she was bracing herself. Tears were threatening to fall from her perfect brown eyes.
“Guinevere, stop this! If you have doubts you should have,” Arthur began.
This only made her bring her hands up to her face, over her nose and mouth. She looked over her fingers at him with red rimmed eyes. “I don’t have any doubts.”
“But we’re happy, you and I….”
“It’s not about that. We are happy and I love you. But I am not your true love.”
“Who are you to decide who my true love is or isn’t?” Arthur demanded.
After several deep breaths, she spoke, “There is one you hold above all others, who you would do anything for, one you could not see yourself without, one you have come to depend on more than anyone else.”
Arthur couldn’t believe the words that were tumbling out of her mouth. Guinevere, she was that person. Who did she have to say ruled his heart besides herself?
“It’s true,” a voice spoke up from behind Guinevere.
Arthur remembered they were standing before a crowd and suddenly they snapped into focus. They all looked as bewildered as he felt. Well most of them did, it was hard to tell what the druids were thinking most of the time.
George stepped forward. George, who until a few days ago, had not shown a lick of spine. Yet, now he stood, proudly before all others ready to contest against Arthur, against his king. Merlin was a horrible influence on him.
“What she says is true,” George continued, “I have seen it with my own eyes. And the love is returned equally. There would be no greater match for the sake of Camelot.”
“Then why don’t you produce this mystery woman? I’m quite interested to know who you two think is my true love!” Arthur snapped.
Guinevere was still sniffling.
George stood there unafraid, staring him down. “Merlin.”
It seemed as if everyone in the clearing turned at the same time to stare at the man in question.
“Merlin?” Arthur could only blink. Clearly they were mad.
It seemed as if his manservant shared his opinion, if the confusion on his face was anything to go by. Well, at least he had someone on his side… even if it was Merlin.
Long seconds slipped by and it was Merlin who finally broke the spell by announcing, “I’m not in love with that prat!”
See, Merlin was making sense. And Merlin never made sense.
“See, there you go,” Arthur gestered towards Merlin. “Let’s stop this nonsense.”
Guinevere gave a hiccup.
“But it’s not nonsense!” George protested.
Arthur rounded on him, “I remember when you were a good, obedient servant. Clearly Merlin’s been a horrible influence on you. Did he put you up to this?”
“Hey! Why would I want to suggest that you marry me? Why would I want to be with a cabbage head like you anyway?” Merlin called out.
“Stop being an idiot Mer-lin. I’ll have you know I’m an impressive catch.” Arthur ignored his manservant’s snort and forged on, “And as fetching as you look in a dress, I have no intention of marrying you.”
“Oi! You’ve never seen me wear a dress! I was only carrying one. Leon was the one who wore one!” defended Merlin.
“So now you want me to marry Leon?” Arthur could feel a headache forming.
“I never said that!”
“I’ve been traveling with them for a week and it’s been like this non-stop,” George said in a long suffering tone.
Arthur tore his eyes away from a glaring Merlin and saw George addressing the druid elder.
The old man seemed to be assessing the situation and after a long moment said, “I think I’m beginning to see your point.”
“Hey!” Merlin exclaimed at the same time as Arthur said, “Now hang on!”
“And they’re worse when we’re back in Camelot,” continued George.
“What would you know of it?” Merlin demanded.
George ignored him. He was also ignoring Arthur’s piercing gaze. It was official. George was ruined as a good servant. Merlin was going to the stocks for this. Perhaps for a month. During the rainy season.
“May I speak freely?” George asked.
Arthur was ignored… again.
“Go on, my son,” The elder urged.
Arthur scowled. He was king, he wasn’t used to being disobeyed. Well, from people who weren’t Merlin.
“I have been in King Arthur’s service for several months now as a second personal servant and have had the opportunity to witness the King and Merlin away from the prying eyes of others,” George began. “What I have seen is that King Arthur will go above and beyond the average care for a servant where Merlin is concerned. I have seen him fret over Merlin’s illnesses and injuries, no matter how minor, I have seen him defend Merlin before the entire court and trust Merlin above all others, including Gwen here.” He paused and shot Guinevere an apologizing look.
“When we found the first torc, it needed a hiding place and no one, not even Gwen, the king’s betrothed, knew that Merlin was wearing the torc for weeks.
“Merlin on the other hand has shown great loyalty to the King, which is no surprise. There were many nights where he sat up well into the night laboring over documents for the king, only to have King Arthur eventually pull the parchments away and guide him to Gaius’ so Merlin wouldn’t stumble and break his neck on the stairs if he fell asleep along the way. Other times I would wake Merlin in the morning where he fell asleep at the king’s table.
“All of that could mean friendship. But you’d have to see it happen. The looks on their faces when they think no one is watching, and the way they interact can only be likened to a fishwife and her husband arguing over dinner.”
“Oi!” Merlin interrupted.
“Now really,” Arthur added.
“But it’s more than that,” George forged on. “I myself have never been in love but I’m told that when you wake up your first thought is of your lover and your last thought of the day is as well. Also you’d do anything for the other person and you know they will be by your side no matter what happens. That there’s overwhelming joy when you see the other person after being separated for some time and you feel as if you couldn’t live if you’re separated from them. I know it’s more than that but this is the only way I know how to put it into words. All of these things I have seen come from King Arthur and Merlin.”
Arthur stood dumfounded. Images flashed through his mind. Merlin being cut down by bandits. Being forced to abandon him after the rockslide. Agravaine announcing there was nothing left but the charred bit of leather from Merlin’s coat. Leon’s apprehensive look at giving the news. Seeing Merlin again. The amount of joy he felt upon seeing Merlin again.
Arthur remembered reuniting with Guinevere after Camelot had been taken by Morgana and the Army of the Undead. He had been happy to see her, glad she was safe. But there was something different from when Merlin was in danger. Everything else stopped if it was Merlin.
Merlin who would manhandle him out of bed in the mornings, who would slave away at speeches, who would force him to judge a garland competition. He was free with his thoughts and never held back when he believed Arthur needed to hear something. Merlin with his messy hair and stupid smile.
Unbidden, Arthur’s eyes sought out Merlin in the crowd. Merlin was staring back at him with his ‘oh shit I knew I forgot something important’ look. When he caught Arthur’s eye he gave a weak little smile and offered a shrug. Arthur read it as ‘um… yeah. Sorry about this, I couldn’t help it.’
Arthur tried to glare. But he was fairly certain that it didn’t come across the way he intended because Merlin’s face brightened.
Damnit. There would be no living with him after this.
Arthur never could resist that look.
It was interesting. He hadn’t thought of Merlin in that way before. But now he wondered what other faces Merlin might make in the dead of night. A pit of warmth formed at his abdomen at the mere thought of it. Would he get to see those faces? And more importantly, would he be just as helpless to those looks as the others?
Guinevere walked towards Merlin and took off his scarf. Then she removed the torc from her own neck and placed it around Merlin’s. She leaned in and said something to him that cased him to reach up and squeeze her arm. She withdrew and brought the scarf up to the druid elder. “Use this for the binding.”
“Now hang on, I can’t marry Merlin,” Arthur protested. Even if he said the words, he wasn’t sure they were true. Marrying Merlin might not be too bad….
Guinevere sighed and turned towards him. He could still see the tears in her eyes. She didn’t speak. She didn’t need to.
“It’s not actually a marriage ceremony you prat,” Merlin called out. “It’s a unity spell.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. On the other hand, marrying, or rather ‘uniting’ with Merlin seemed like the worse idea any of them had ever had… and that was saying a lot.
“Traditionally,” the druid elder spoke, “a spell like this one would be done during a handfasting, but it is not actually a marriage. This particular spell is unity of partnership between the two participating and that unity strengthens the land and your kingdom. Unity spells are to be done with those that you feel closest to in order to ensure their effectiveness. In most cases that tends to be a husband and wife. However,” he glanced at Merlin and then back at Arthur, “that is not always so.
“Your destiny, Arthur Pendragon, has been set down long before you were born to become the greatest King Albion has ever seen. You will need the aid of Merlin to accomplish this for the two of you are two sides of the same coin.”
Merlin had drawn away from the crowd and was at the foot of the altar. “Why does everyone keep saying that?”
Arthur wondered which part Merlin had heard before. He could recall his manservant going on about him being the greatest king and all that, but the coin bit was new.
With patience of someone who had long dealt with imparting wisdom, the elder spoke, “Perhaps, because it is true.”
Merlin scowled and muttered something about a dragon. But Merlin was always talking rubbish so Arthur dismissed it.
“Do I have to?” Merlin sounded like a petulant child.
“Emrys,” the elder warned.
“Fine,” Merlin sighed and took the last remaining steps up the altar.
Arthur couldn’t take this any longer. “Now hang on! Don’t I get a say in this? I am the king!”
Merlin glared at him. “If I don’t get a choice, neither do you.”
“We’ve talked about this. I’m the king, you’re the servant, you don’t get to order me around.”
“That’s what you think,” Merlin scoffed.
Arthur thought he heard someone mutter, “fishwife” but he couldn’t be certain.
He folded his arms across his chest. “This doesn’t solve the fact that I still need a queen. And I doubt however fair Mer-lin looks in a dress, he won’t pass for a girl.”
Merlin glared at him and Arthur thought he was going to make another quip about not wearing a dress but instead said, “It’s only a unity spell, not a marriage, right?”
“Yes….” The elder seemed uncertain as to where this was going.
“Well then technically he could still marry Gwen right, and she could be his queen. Because I’m not wearing a dress. Never have, never will.”
The elder seemed to think on this. “Yes, I suppose that would work.” He turned to Guinevere, “are you all right with this arrangement, child?”
“You would be his wife in name only, would you be able to live with that?” the druid prompted. “It is a heavy burden to bear.”
She nodded again.
Arthur opened his mouth to protest but Guinevere hushed him. “This is how it has to be Arthur.” Her eyes sought his out. “You might not realize it but no one could compare to Merlin in your eyes. I thought I could live with it, but then Merlin was stabbed and I saw it could be no other way.”
“Guinevere,” Arthur hated how pleading his voice sounded.
She reached up and cupped his cheek she then leaned up and kissed his other cheek. “It’s for the best.” With that she withdrew into the crowd, leaving Arthur standing there aware of all the eyes on him.
Merlin entered his field of vision and gave a concerned look. Merlin needed to stop making that Gaius face. It didn’t suit him.
Arthur squared his shoulders and nodded.
“Are you sure?” Merlin asked.
“Yes.” It was frightening how easily that word slipped out.
Merlin studied him for another moment and then turned to the elder and nodded.
As the druid began chanting, Arthur reminded himself he wasn’t losing Guinevere, she just wouldn’t be his everything. He would be split between her and Merlin. Than again, hadn’t the two of them always shared him? This wasn’t so much different than that.
Merlin was chanting with the elder now. Arthur gathered his thoughts and joined in with them, his tongue curling uncomfortably around the foreign words. It was unfair that Merlin of all people took to the words so easily, he hadn’t even studied them. Had he? It would be bloody typical for him have studied it behind Arthur’s back so he would know exactly what it entailed when Arthur took part in it. Then again, he’d been unconscious for the entire preparation time…. Arthur shook his head ad reminded himself to yell at Merlin for staying up too late after getting such a serious injury, even if it had been healed by magic.
The elder didn’t break in the chanting and then took their hands and wrapped Merlin’s scarf around them.
Arthur looked at their hands, surprised how warm Merlin’s was despite the chill in the air. He raised his gaze to Merlin’s face and saw his manservant’s eyes shining gold. Panic filled Arthur every fiber of his being screamed ‘sorcerer!’ and he wanted to yank his hand away from Merlin’s. Only, he felt the hand hold him and give a reassuring squeeze. Of course Merlin would know what he was thinking. Was there anything he didn’t know… well besides how to be a proper servant who respected his king. Either way it didn’t matter. He was still an idiot. And a clumsy one at that.
They were still chanting. Arthur wasn’t sure how he was managing to do it because he no longer knew what the words he said were but it seemed as if he was saying them comfortably now. The magic had taken hold. The torc around his neck began to feel warm and a little bit heavier.
That’s right. They were performing a spell. Of course their eyes must be gold. Even Arthur’s eyes were probably gold by now. He fought to quell the uneasiness in his stomach. This was for the good of the kingdom. Not doing the spell would lead to Camelot’s downfall. He took a deep breath between words and felt peace settle over him.
Merlin gave him a smile around the words.
He looked wild with his eyes shining gold and Arthur couldn’t help but be drawn to them. There was something almost fey about Merlin like this. It made him frightening and irresistible all at once. Perhaps Guinevere was right; it only ever could be Merlin.
Arthur felt his own lips curl into an answering smile.
The spell seemed to take hours, and yet it was over far too soon.
As the warmth receded from them and the gold crept out of Merlin’s eyes, Arthur felt a sudden loss. He still couldn’t keep his gaze off Merlin as if the two of them were the only two in the whole of the five kingdoms.
Unbidden, he leaned forward and kissed Merlin. Afterwards, he would wonder why he did it, but it seemed like the thing to do at the time. There was a spark there that he had never felt when kissing Guinevere or any one else. It had to be the still lingering magic. All at once Arthur wanted to lean in and pull away at the same time. He allowed himself to be drawn into it.
When they did part, it was to hear the elder say something about securing the spell to ensure it was unbreakable.
While Arthur was still puzzling out what this meant, it was Merlin who caught on first.
“What do you mean, ‘consummate the spell?’ You said this wasn’t a marriage!”