Word Count: ~9750
Warnings/Spoilers: Dubcon, well, you know, amtdi and all that. No spoilers.
Notes: Title from the motto of the Worshipful Company of Farriers. This was supposed to be a happy fluffy porny thing. *headdesk*
Summary It starts, as these things often do, with a delegation of women.
By Strength and by Virtue
It starts, as these things often do, with a delegation of women.
It turns out this time though, that the reason the party is all female isn't, as it often is, out of some misguided belief that the king will be more sympathetic to their tear-stained misery than the stoic arguments of the menfolk, but that there aren't any menfolk left in the village that sent them.
Arthur and a small party of knights sets out to investigate. The women are, rather insultingly, horrified, and try to explain again that no man comes back from the river in question but Uther waves them off in that way that either means Arthur will be triumphant because he is my son or frankly if Arthur doesn't come back I would just be rid of a disappointing nuisance.
They stay the first night in the village, Arthur on a pallet bed that somehow manages to be even less comfortable than the forest floor.
"Get up," Merlin whispers from the ground next to him.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Get up, you irritating great fidgety lump," Merlin says. "I mean, sire." So Arthur does, blanket wrapped round him, and Merlin smooths his hands over the petrified horse manure the mattress appears to be fashioned from. "Better?"
It is, considerably. Clearly peasants are born with some kind of affinity for these things, because when Arthur lies back down the bed's really quite comfortable. "Much," he says, trying to convey how irritated he is that Merlin didn't work his magic hours ago.
"Perhaps we can all get some sleep now then," is all the apology he gets, and really, he only kicked Merlin once, there's no need for him to be so testy.
He does sleep, or at least he must have done, because he's woken later by music. Sir Ulric is halfway out the door and the other two knights are getting to their feet. He steps over Merlin, who's still snoring peacefully, shrugs when he orders his men back and they ignore him. Every man for himself then. Nothing wrong in that.
The singer is waiting at the river bank. Glorious and terrible, and Arthur, who's never wanted for anything in his life, wants so badly it's enough to make him stumble on the wet grass. He catches himself on one hand, unable to look away from the woman – for she is that, even if beautiful and strange, moonlight glinting off ~sharp~ white teeth and the bone-pale comb she runs through her hair. She's still singing as she moves away from him, into the river, and he follows. The water is cold, higher with each step forward and of no importance, even when it's reached his chest, stealing his breath.
Still the singing, sweet and desperate, seeping into his blood like the most exquisite poison.
She turns when the water's at her shoulders, her long hair floating like weeds with the current, and reaches out a cold ~cadaverous~ white hand to his face. Her touch burns like ice, but he leans into it, craving more, need rising with every frantic beat of his heart.
There's splashing behind him, irrelevant in the face of his love for her, but she frowns, and he falters. For a moment, she looks ...
– but then she draws him in, touches her cool ~dead~ mouth to his in a perfect wondrous ~fatal~ kiss.
A hand on his shoulder – scalding hot – wrenches him from her.
He tells himself he doesn't remember what comes next.
He wakes up on the river bank. There's a fire burning merrily, quite out of keeping with the bodies floating in the reeds at the edge of the water – three knights and a wasted female figure in rags that Arthur turns his face, and mind, from. Merlin sits, just out of reach, cradling his hand to his chest. He watches Arthur carefully, like he might a rabid dog. His face is bruised, his lip split.
Arthur can taste blood, and he forces himself onto his side to vomit up mouthfuls of brackish water, flinching away from the hand on his back offering comfort he doesn't deserve.
When he digs the graves, the knuckles of his right hand split open again; the bruises bleed, slow and sluggish like sap from a rotten fruit.
They journey back to Camelot in silence, as befits an expedition that lost most ~nearly all~ of its members, and Arthur goes directly to an audience with his father. He returns to his room irritable and surly, head ringing with unwarranted praise, and he takes it out on the one person he knows he shouldn't.
"Get out of my sight," he snaps. He wants a fight, is itching for one, but he can't remember how to be the man who doesn't care if he hurts his opponent. "I'll send for you when I want you."
He destroys three pells and sends two knights limping to Gaius before he realises it's not a fight he's itching for at all.
Luckily, or not, there's nothing pressing to take up his time and he flags down a serving girl on his way from the armoury, almost asks for a bath to be made ready but the thought of water, even hot and fragrant with herbs, is too awful to bear. He'll spend the evening toasting the memory of his departed knights instead, and hopefully drink enough in doing so that he'll sleep.
He doesn't send for Merlin, but Merlin has no self-preservation instincts to speak of and, when Arthur is most of the way through his second wine skin, knocks on the door and enters before Arthur has a chance to send him away.
The bruises look worse in the firelight, and Merlin looks paler even than usual, otherworldly. He stands just inside the door and swallows, picking at the splints on his fingers with his undamaged hand.
"Look," he says after a tortured silence. "About what happened –"
"I don't remember what happened," Arthur says carefully, because it's true, and he's scared if he tries to remember, he might. He gets to his feet because he's never been afraid to face his fears, and crosses the room. He wants to believe he's imagining the way Merlin shrinks back against the door at his approach, but he can't ignore the hand that scrabbles for the door handle. Closer, he can tell Merlin's pupils are dilated, his eyes black and glittering in the low light of the room and it brings a flash of memory ~Merlin's eyes wide, the feel of his hair in Arthur's hands and his skull fragile between them~. "I do remember telling you to get out of my sight," Arthur says. With the memory comes want again, strong and pure, like it was at the river, burning away everything else. It would be so easy to put Merlin on his knees ~again~ and take what he wants, what he needs. He clenches his hands into fists at his sides, uses the pain of his nails cutting into his flesh to keep from reaching out. "If you disobey a direct order from me again I'll be forced to have you punished." The thought alone threatens to bring Arthur to his knees and he has to make himself remember that he's not that kind of man. He won't punish another for his own mistakes. However badly he wants to. "Don't force my hand," he pleads, even though he knows he has no right.
Merlin nods and leaves, and for a moment it's a relief, a crisis averted, but Arthur's still got this desperate urgent want coursing through him and he knows, for all the wine, he won't sleep. He rips open the laces of his breeches and shoves a hand in, strips himself rough and fast and barely pleasurable, comes with his other hand in a death grip round the door handle like he can still feel Merlin's body heat on it.
By the time he goes to bed, he's no longer tired.
He does sleep though, in short bursts that leave him feeling worse than if he hadn't. He feels like he does before a battle, or a tournament; like he used to before he had Merlin to distract him, anyway. Merlin doesn't always judge it right, the balance of how annoying will just take Arthur's mind off of whatever unpleasant duty is looming. Sometimes he steps over the line, sometimes vaults over it, but he does always try, and that's more than anyone else – careful and courteous as they are – has done in years.
It would be so easy to send for him.
The next day's worse. There's no mistaking the appetite clamouring for his attention this time, no subverting it into violence. He finds himself outside Gaius's chambers twice without meaning to and by lunchtime his own hand just isn't enough any more. The maid who serves him his food is about as far from Merlin as it's possible to get, blonde and pretty and competent.
"Is there anything else I can do for you, sire?" she asks when he's finished hardly eating anything, and in the beat of silence that follows her gaze flickers up from the floor to the fork of his legs. He knows what she's asking and he knows she knows she's asking it and, God help him, he's only a man.
"Yes," he says. "Yes."
He can't look at her as she drops obediently to the floor at his feet, hands reaching for his laces, quick and nimble and all wrong. He knows as soon as she touches him that this isn't what he wants, isn't what the fire running rampant in his veins needs to quench it, but he lets her carry on anyway. Lets his head fall back and stares at the ceiling thinking resolutely of nothing while she works him. She's good at it, talented and deft, but to no avail. She swaps hands after a while, easing the cramp out of her right where she thinks he can't see it and he chokes back a bitter laugh – he'd had to do the same earlier today, with as little success.
"I could ..." she offers cautiously. "I could use my mouth, sire, if you wish."
"No," he says. He takes her hands in his and imagines he can feel how the delicate bones of her fingers will snap if he forces them back. No, not imagines, remembers. Different hands of course. "Thank you. That will be all."
He rides out for the afternoon, each careful step an agony, and returns late and exhausted and sore. The groom who takes his horse is young, dark-haired and wide-eyed, and for a moment he's tempted, but he knows it won't help. Nothing helps. Dawn finds him still in his riding clothes. He's sick with the need for sleep, and looks it, dark circles under his eyes like bruises when he looks in his mirror. When his feet take him to Gaius's door today, he doesn't turn back. He's the prince after all, he has duties to attend to, duties for which he won't be fit if this keeps up.
He's still relieved beyond measure when it's Gaius who answers his knock.
"Merlin's not ... ?" he asks before he enters.
"No, sire. He's out gathering herbs for me. I can send him to you when he returns if you –"
"No need." Just a beat too soon and Gaius looks at him, into him. Arthur forces himself to wave a hand magnanimously. "The last quest was difficult for everyone. Let him rest."
"You're including yourself in this 'everyone' I assume, sire?"
He's tempted to lie, but Gaius is no fool, and besides, if he's not here for himself, then the only explanation is that he's here for Merlin. "I've not been sleeping well," he confesses.
Silence reigns, and Arthur wonders what Merlin's told Gaius. The physician's got to have been the person who patched him up, splinted his broken hand. He wonders if Merlin's suffering the same sleepless nights, but he can't ask, and Gaius wouldn't tell him anyway. Nothing is given away in Gaius's demeanour as he places a hand cool against Arthur's forehead, feels his pulse – his hands are dispassionate as ever, professional and kindly. He hands Arthur a vial.
"A mild sleeping draught. Enough for three nights. Come back if it doesn't help," he says, turning away to pack up the bag he carries on his rounds. Arthur turns the vial over and over in his hands. He's fairly sure it won't help, even if he takes all three nights' doses at once. He wants to ask about what's happening to him, if only to voice it, to make it real, but he fears it will sound ridiculous, or worse. Gaius pauses when he's finished – looks at him with the infinite patience Arthur remembers from his boyhood, scrapes and bruises and bones broken falling from trees. "If there's nothing else, sire?" he asks so gently Arthur feels he might cry. Or tell. It might not even be so bad. Gaius might tell him it wasn't his fault, that some magical creature ... but no.
He shakes his head but makes no move to leave. He feels more at peace here than he has anywhere since he returned from the village and he's in no hurry for that to change.
"I have my rounds to attend to, sire," Gaius prompts after a moment, and dammit Arthur's the prince, if he wants to rest somewhere for five minutes then he will.
"Don't let me keep you."
He can almost see Gaius deciding this isn't a fight worth having before he shuffles out the door. He puts his vial down and picks up others, one after another, to examine the contents and the labels. He recognises Gaius's spidery script on most of them and it hits him like a fist to the gut to realise that the writing on others must be Merlin's. He traces a finger over it before he catches himself and sets the bottle down irritably, glad there's no one here to see him act like a lovesick girl. It isn't long until he's run out of things to hold his interest in the main chamber, and he finds his gaze sliding to the door of Merlin's bedroom.
He shouldn't, and he knows it. An invasion of Merlin's privacy on top of everything else would be a terrible thing. He'll be back any moment and Arthur really doesn't want to see him, definitely doesn't want him to think Arthur was searching him out. And yet, and yet.
The room's a tip, just like last time Arthur was in it. Clothes and books everywhere, blankets half off the bed. The only pristine item is the empty cupboard although the door's open with one of Merlin's ridiculous 'kerchiefs hanging off it.
Arthur feels a bone-deep longing, like bereavement, just standing at the door. He knows he's not welcome here, can't be, but he crosses the threshold anyway. The bed holds the shape of Merlin's last sleep, sheets creased and pillow dented. He doesn't even mean to, but Arthur fits himself to it, breathes the scent of the mattress and imagines he can detect that of Merlin mixed in with it. It's a blessed relief to close his eyes and see nothing but darkness.
When he wakes the blankets have been pulled up to his shoulders and the sun through the window is fading toward dusk.
He should feel better.
It's a different maid who serves him his dinner, which he probably shouldn't care enough to feel relieved about. She doesn't offer any additional services, not that Arthur minds. He's learned that lesson. When he fled Merlin's room he took the sleeping potion with him – and the neckerchief from off Merlin's cupboard door. He twists it round his fingers, round his healing knuckles, brings it to his face and rubs a stubbled cheek against it.
He only stops when someone knocks at the door and then opens it without waiting to be invited.
Arthur shoves the 'kerchief under his thigh like a guilty schoolboy and turns to face the intruder, silently praying it's not ... but of course it is. Merlin.
The bruises on his face have mellowed to a sick green colour, and he's never looked more perfect, or more wretched.
"I know we're doing the whole 'let's never speak of this again' thing," he says. "And I know being of noble birth means never having to say you're sorry but I'm not, and I am."
Bile rises to the back of Arthur's throat. He knows he has amends to make, he just doesn't know how, and for Merlin to call him on it – for him to have waited long enough that Merlin had to call him on it – is unconscionable. He opens his mouth to speak, whether to object or apologise he doesn't know, but Merlin interrupts him.
"No," he says. "Hear me out. I didn't mean ... you kept trying to get back in the river and I couldn't let you ... I didn't know what else to do." Each phrase is higher in pitch, more desperate in tone, and Arthur is none the wiser. "I didn't mean to make you ..."
And that's not how Arthur remembers it at all. He can recall more of it now, though it's still like a fever dream, indistinct and patchwork. He split Merlin's lip with a punch. He broke Merlin's fingers, one by one, until Merlin couldn't hold on to him any more. He forced Merlin onto his knees and took his mouth, hard and rough, blood seeping anew from the cut as his lips spread wide around Arthur's cock. He came harder than he ever had before while Merlin gagged and choked around him.
"That's not ..." he manages, sick with disgust at himself, sick with wanting it all over again. "That's not ... I made you."
"I know," Merlin says, taking a step closer. "I know, and I'm sorry. That was never ... obviously, that was never my intention. I just wanted to break her spell. I didn't think it would transfer to me."
Arthur can't breathe. "You did this to me?" he asks, slowly and carefully because surely, surely, he has to be wrong.
"Yes? Not deliberately."
In a rush he knows where the taste of blood on his tongue came from. "You kissed me."
"To break ... you would have drowned."
Arthur's not sure if he doesn't wish he had. "Can it be fixed?"
Merlin's silence is answer enough.
Arthur scrubs a hand over his face. "I'll have to tell my father," he says. "I can't ... I'm not fit for my duties like this. There's no chance it will just wear – no, of course not." It's getting worse if anything, each day harder to concentrate on anything but the pulsing need under his skin. "You should leave."
"Leave?" Merlin repeats. "No. I can ease this for you. I can't fix it, but I can – you felt better didn't you? After."
"After ..." he says, stupidly, like he can pretend he doesn't know what Merlin means. And he did, although he didn't know it at the time, but that doesn't mean ... "I did terrible things to you, Merlin," he says, only now realising he's moved across the room. He reaches a hand out, touches it to the bruise on Merlin's cheek, the almost-healed split in his lip. He takes Merlin's damaged hand in his own, finds where the bruises and swelling are worst and squeezes gently, an unmistakable warning. It feels indescribably good to touch him, almost impossible to let go, but necessary, and he makes himself. "Believe me when I say I will do far worse if you stay."
Merlin just looks at him. It's the same look that leads to Arthur sending him to the stocks just to prove that he does mean his threats sometimes.
"Anything," Merlin says. "I'll let you ... anything you want."
"Don't," Arthur begs, curling his hand round the back of Merlin's neck and touching their foreheads together. "Please don't."
But he lets Merlin slip to his knees, lets him struggle one-handed with Arthur's laces, endures the hesitant touch of Merlin's mouth to his belly, his hip, his thigh and he can't, he can't ...
Merlin's pliant when Arthur grabs him, hands like vices round his biceps – another set of decorative bruises no doubt – and hauls him to his feet. Arthur's prepared to take it for willingness, the thought of stopping now unthinkable; he strips them both of their clothes and leads Merlin to the bed. The touch of Merlin's skin is like water after a drought, food after famine, the first sight of Camelot's spires after a long campaign away and he can't help but bury his face against Merlin's neck, breathing deep and mouthing at the skin there. His hands move restlessly, stroking and touching and nothing ever enough.
Merlin's arms are steady around him, safe harbour and the promise of home, and it's Merlin who pulls him down onto the bed, Merlin who hands him a vial with hands that are shaking only slightly less than Arthur's.
"Are you ..." Arthur starts but it's too late to ask him if he's sure. "Have you done this before?"
"Does that matter?"
"Yes," he says. "No. I'll be ..." quick ... good ... as gentle as I can. It's all lies.
"I know." Merlin's throat moves as he swallows. He cradles Arthur's face in his hands. "I know. It's okay."
He's impossibly tight, even with Arthur using as much oil as the vial holds, hitching in little half-sobbed breaths that might be pleasure but probably aren't. Arthur doesn't stop to check. To check would be to offer to stop and he knows that he won't, can't, do that. Not when this feels so good. He'd give up anything: duty, honour, Camelot even, to stay in this moment forever with Merlin around him and under him, close and perfect.
Of course it can't last, nothing this good ever does. He comes like he's dying, teeth in Merlin's shoulder, hands clamped to his hips and pushed so deep it's like they'll never be separated.
When he recovers his senses, his head's clear for the first time in days.
He wants to die.
"Merlin," he says, but he doesn't know how to continue. The things he wants to say – I'm sorry ... forgive me – stick in his throat, trite and small and meaningless in the face of what he's done.
"It wasn't your fault," Merlin offers. He sounds like he means it and that makes it worse.
"No," Arthur says, because it wasn't, but he still should have been strong enough to resist. Should have sent Merlin away, banished him, something, anything.
Merlin turns in the bed, trying and failing to hold in a hiss of discomfort as he does. He looks Arthur dead in the eye, like no one but his father is supposed to. "Arthur. It wasn't your fault." There's always been so many things Merlin just doesn't get about life at court; it's no surprise that this is another of them. "No one can fight that kind of magic."
But Arthur can't accept that. Fighting is what he does, and maybe that's the problem here. There's no opponent but himself. "No," he says. "I don't accept that."
"Believe it or not, sire," Merlin snaps, honorific thick with mocking. "Not everything can be bent to your will."
It's so normal, so Merlin that Arthur almost responds. 'This is what makes you angry,' he wants to say, incredulous. 'After everything?' but he can't. Except maybe that's exactly what he should do, maybe that's exactly what Merlin needs him to do, and in all his years of instruction in etiquette, there's nothing to help him here. "I don't accept that, either," he says and only as he speaks does he realise he's half in earnest. "There must be something. Perhaps ..." And he shouldn't, shouldn't even voice the thought, but it's Merlin, so he does. "Perhaps if we found a sorcerer – whatever my father believes, there must still be some."
"That's treason," Merlin says, voice a whisper, like Uther might hear them otherwise. "Even for you."
"Especially for me," Arthur corrects. "And I can't imagine any sorcerer would be willing to help me anyway. So scratch that idea."
"Perhaps when you're king."
"When I'm king? That could be years. Will be, hopefully. We can't go on like this for years, Merlin. No, there's got to be another way."
"And if there is, we will find it. Tomorrow." Merlin says firmly. "You should get some sleep now."
Arthur wants to argue, even if only on principle, but he is weary and it is late, and not all of Merlin's ideas are completely ridiculous. He's drifting off even as soon as Merlin suggests it. He's been asleep all day but he doesn't feel like he's slept since before the village and when his eyes blink closed the lids are too heavy to open them again.
At least until the bed dips, the blankets lift and the sense of safety, of home and warmth, departs in the wake of Merlin's retreat.
"Where are you ... ?" Arthur starts voice still thick with sleep, but it's an irrelevant question. Of course Merlin isn't going to want to stay here in this stained and rumpled bed that felt like a corner of heaven until Merlin got out of it.
"Shhh," Merlin whispers, soft and kind. "Go back to sleep." But Merlin isn't always as stupid as he looks, and he pauses at the side of the bed, looks back at Arthur with a frown. "You can't, can you?"
"It's fine," he says, and it is. He doesn't feel even a fraction as bad as he did that morning, even if he would welcome sleep, but Merlin slides back between the covers anyway.
"Just sleep, okay."
It might be a question, a demand or a plea. Arthur doesn't know and can't find it in himself to care, too grateful to be falling back to sleep.
He dreams of Merlin: the first day they met, the fight in the marketplace, tournaments and banquets, all mixed up together. Merlin dances just out of reach of Arthur's grasping fingertips, laughing and dragging a bone-white comb through his wet hair while Arthur stumbles after him, graceless and clumsy, more desperate with every step. In the dream it's imperative that he catch Merlin, catch him and keep him forever and ever, never to part.
He wakes with a jolt when he does catch him, finds himself holding Merlin's wrist wrenched up behind his back so he can't escape, legs pinned and Arthur rutting against him. For the barest moment it's perfect, before he realises what he's doing. Even then it takes him far too long to draw back, scramble out of the bed and put distance between them like this is Merlin's doing. Merlin blinks at him, bed-rumpled and enticing, and Arthur takes a step forward without meaning to, has to force himself not to take another. He grabs a knife from the table and throws it on the bed.
"Pick it up," he commands shakily, but Merlin's never been quick to follow orders, so he repeats himself. "Pick it up and use it against me if you have to."
"I'm not –"
"I wouldn't blame you."
"You were asleep."
"Don't, please. Don't make excuses for me." His hands are shaking as he drags his clothes on. Merlin hasn't moved beyond sitting up in bed and cautiously rotating his wrenched shoulder. There's bite marks all along the back of it in reds and purples, stark and accusing in the early morning light. "I'm going to Gaius," Arthur says. "Be gone when I return, and stay away from me, before I really hurt you."
He leaves the room, closing the door on Merlin's protestations, and makes his way through the castle. He sees only servants, and if they think anything amiss he can't read it in their deferential bows and curtsies. Not that he's really looking, too busy working out what he'll say to Gaius and resisting the urge to go back to his chambers. He still doesn't know what Merlin's told the physician, and he feels like it isn't his secret to tell, even if he could get past his own shame to do so. The further he gets from Merlin the harder it is to take another step. He runs into Gwen outside Gaius's door – collecting something for Morgana no doubt, and it's impossible to think that the rest of the castle is just going on as always. She gives him a tight-lipped smile and it hits him like a punch that she's Merlin's friend. What if Merlin's talked to her?
What if he has?
It's not as though Arthur doesn't deserve to be reviled.
"Is everything all right, sire?" she asks after a moment. "Not, obviously, that it's any of my business, and I don't mean to pry, but if there's anything I can do for you, but of course if there was you would have asked me already, ordered, I mean, not asked."
But maybe there is.
"Your father taught you a great deal of his craft, didn't he?" he asks her.
"Yes, sire," she says, with the expression that clearly tells just how little sense she thinks he's making. She picked it up from Merlin and the realisation gives Arthur new determination. "More for his own entertainment than because it would be of any real use to me, I think, although actually it has turned out quite useful a few times now."
"Indeed." He has to steel himself to ask the next question, and it would only be as a last resort anyway, but it's what's done – for dogs that can't be trained out of mounting anything that moves, or stallions that break down stall after stall to get at the mares – and if Merlin really won't leave and Arthur really can't be fixed any other way then the issue of the succession ceases to be of any importance. "Farriery too, I suppose?"
"Yes." She frowns at him, then brightens. "I help out the royal farrier sometimes. Does one of your horses need shoeing?"
"No," he says shaking his head. Her kindness is hard to bear when he doesn't deserve it. "It's nothing. Just ... nothing. I should ..." He waves a hand at Gaius's door and she bobs him a curtsy, and he still can't tell if Merlin's told her anything because she's a good servant and he's lost all ability to read her. Gaius bids him enter when he knocks and it's obvious Arthur's disturbed his breakfast.
"If you're looking for Merlin –" he starts.
"No. Not at all. I was after some advice, actually. For a friend." Gaius raises an eyebrow which Arthur knows means spit it out even if he'd never come out and say it to the crown prince. "I was wondering – He was wondering, if there's anything a man might take ... to help ... say on his wedding night, for example."
Gaius's expression softens, turning almost fond, and it's quite possibly the most terrifying thing Arthur has ever seen. He pats Arthur's arm. "I don't think your friend need worry," he says. "Performance anxiety is very common in bridegrooms, but women are generally very kind about it."
"He's not worried about that," Arthur objects, possibly a little too vehemently. "Quite the reverse." Gaius raises an eyebrow, and this is worse than when Arthur'd been sat down for the talk about the mechanics of the kingly duty of producing an heir, but it's for Merlin, he reminds himself firmly.
"Women are generally quite kind about that too, at least to start with, but if it doesn't improve with time, I do have something that might help your friend stay the course, as it were."
"Yeah, that's ..." but Arthur doesn't really want to have a third go at explaining himself. He tells himself it's nothing to do with the itching burning need he has to get back to his room, back to Merlin. "... great. Thanks. I'll, er, I'll let him know."
"Nasty creatures, rusalki," Gaius says in a conversational tone, like Arthur has even the faintest clue what he's on about. He's pottering around at the bench as he does, tidying up his breakfast things and packing his bag for his rounds. New guilt rises in Arthur at the realisation that he's deprived Gaius of Merlin's company over the past few days. "Terribly sad, too, I suppose, in their way. Not that I imagine that makes you feel any better." He pauses, seems to realise Arthur's not listening attentively, just staring at him. "Merlin told me," he explains.
Arthur's first reaction is fury. That Gaius could have let him go through that ridiculous charade to ask for advice – something he hates doing anyway – when he knew all along. It takes him a moment to recognise that the anger is actually shame and another to realise Merlin can't have told Gaius everything, can't have, because Gaius wouldn't be calmly chatting away about it, and he wouldn't have let it go on for so long. He's too much of a friend to Merlin, and to Arthur, for that.
"Is that right?" Arthur prompts, trying to sound nonchalant instead of terrified or betrayed. He thinks he manages it.
"You know Merlin. Mostly happy enough to shirk all study, but when he gets a bee in his bonnet about something ..."
"Did he," Arthur asks, as casually as he can. "Did he find anything useful? In case we run into another one of these rusalki," he appends quickly.
"He hadn't, no. Not when he left to attend you last night, sire, but apparently he'd persuaded Geoffrey to look into some of the more obscure archives. I was going to tell Merlin about his findings over breakfast."
"You can tell me instead."
"Vengeance," Gaius says and Arthur's cluelessness must be clearly visible in his expression. "The other way to defeat a rusalka is to avenge her."
"Might be best if you start at the beginning," Arthur suggests. "Just assume Merlin hasn't told me anything."
Which he hasn't, and it shouldn't hurt as much as it does.
"Very well, sire," Gaius says, and despite the questions writ large on his face he just launches into an explanation. "A rusalka is the spirit of a woman. An unclean one, the books say but I would be inclined to suggest wronged might be more appropriate a term. Jilted at the altar, pregnant out of wedlock, that type of thing."
"Despoiled?" Arthur interjects, guilt thick like bile on the back of his tongue.
"Exactly. They lure men to their death, with songs and seduction. Very few witnesses survive. A rusalka can be killed by drying out her hair, which she keeps wet by combing it continually, or, according to the older texts, by righting the wrongs done to her."
"A specific woman?" Arthur asks, a plan already coalescing in his head. Here, finally, is something he knows how to do.
"I believe so, sire. Wronged in life and drowned, they haunt the waterway in which they met an untimely end."
When he gets back to it, his room's empty. He'd known it would be, because he can sense where Merlin is, how close by. The further apart they are, the worse Arthur feels. The room's been tidied, the bed neatly made. Merlin's scarf is gone from Arthur's chair. There's plenty of firewood, and fresh water, and in the centre of the table sits a heaped fruit bowl with the sleeping draught perched incongruously on a bunch of grapes. For the barest moment he's tempted to just lock the door and see how long he can stay in his room before someone comes looking for him. It's a vain dream, and he pushes it away in favour of planning. He misses having Merlin to talk to, or at least at, as he paces and schemes, but before too long he knows what he's going to do. He spends the rest of the morning getting supplies together, having his horse and a pack pony made ready. It's a little after noon when he realises he's stalling, strong enough not to search Merlin out, but not to leave without saying goodbye. He's livid with himself when he realises what he's doing but of course that's when Merlin decides he's followed a direct order for more than long enough, and comes barrelling into Arthur's chambers, clothes bedraggled and a coil of rope over one shoulder that he appears to have forgotten about.
"I've just had the most fascinating talk with Gwen," is how Merlin begins. He looks furious, and it's really not at all what Arthur would have expected.
"I have no idea what –"
"Yes you do. And I think you forget that I grew up in the country. I know what farriers do, and I look after your horses and I know none of them need shoeing. Are you mad?"
To be fair, it's a reasonable question. "It wasn't top of my list of options," Arthur objects and Merlin rolls his eyes.
"It shouldn't ... Uther will kill you if he finds out you're planning to ... to mutilate yourself like that."
"Actually I think he'd probably have you killed first if he finds out about any of this. I know killing the rusalka didn't stop the curse, but presumably that's because you'd taken it on yourself to get in its way. If you were to die though ... Oh don't worry, Merlin, I'm not planning to find out."
"I'm not worried," Merlin says, like Arthur's being ridiculous. "Hang on, you knew she was a rusalka? And yet you still went barrelling in like an idiot?"
"I did not go barrelling in like an idiot, and no, of course I didn't know. I lost three knights to her, do you really think I hold their lives so cheap?"
Merlin's expression softens, and that's all the answer Arthur really needs. "Of course not."
"Gaius told me," he says, and Merlin must hear the accusation in his voice because his reply is defensive.
"I didn't want to raise your hopes. Not until I at least had some idea of a solution to offer."
"Apparently we have to avenge her. I, I mean – I have to avenge her, which means we have to find out who she was, and what was done to her, and by whom, and that means going back to the village, which I'm not exactly relishing the thought of, but it will be worth it in the end, I suppose, and anyway, it has to be –"
"Her name was Alice," Merlin interrupts. "Her sister was among the delegation that came to seek help."
"They knew?" Arthur says, and he's already planning how he's going to lay waste to the village, burn it to the ground and salt the ashes.
"I don't think they knew it mattered. I guess they thought killing her would be enough – killing her again anyway. I thought so." Arthur just scoffs his opinion of Merlin's intelligence and Merlin ignores him in favour of continuing the story. "That's more or less all I got, but Gwen talked to the sister while they were here. It's the usual story, some lord or other travelled through the village, Alice caught his eye. Off she goes to his castle to be a maidservant and comes back a few months later hollow-eyed and big-bellied." There's silence for a moment but it feels loaded, like Merlin's waiting for something and Arthur doesn't know what it is. "I imagine that sort of thing happens a lot," Merlin prompts.
Which given that Merlin's just told him this is a familiar pattern, seems a little odd. When he'd first met Merlin, Arthur'd taken these moments for proof of Merlin's borderline imbecility, but he's less confident of that now. He feels like he's being tested.
"Yes. Unfortunately," he says.
It's the wrong answer.
"Unfortunately?" Merlin parrots incredulously. "That's all you have to say? Unfortunate that it happens, or unfortunate that there were consequences for anyone other than Alice this time? I suppose you think it's funny? Us simple country types getting all starry-eyed in the big castle, ha ha how amusing."
"Of course not." And all right, Arthur has laughed at the bumpkins who come to Camelot and stare around the place like it's some sort of wonder, the country lasses – and lads – who gaze at him like he's some kind of god, but there's a world of difference between laughing and using such naivete for his own ends.
"Her sister's pretty sure she was forced, and maybe you think she just made that up afterwards to cover herself but she had bruises and –"
"Like you do, you mean?" Arthur interrupts. "What do you want me to say? It's a horrendous breach of honour for a nobleman to take advantage of his station that way? Well of course it is, but it would be a little hypocritical of me to get on my high horse about it right now, don't you think?"
"It's not the same."
"Why not? Because you can't get pregnant? Because you don't actually seem to recognise the difference in station between us? Or because I'm just that good you want me to keep assaulting you?" Merlin's face is tight and pinched and his cheeks flush with what must be anger. Arthur curses himself for lashing out. He's disgusted with himself, and all Merlin's been is reasonable and understanding. "I'm sorry," he says, and even he couldn't say exactly which of his crimes he's apologising for. "And for what it's worth, I've disciplined knights for far less in the past."
Merlin's expression loses its hard edge, and Arthur realises it wasn't anger, or at least, not entirely. It was disappointment. "So she went home, and between you and me, I don't think she was exactly welcomed back with open arms by the villagers. He'd sent her back with no provision for the baby, and the closer it got to her confinement the more withdrawn she became and then one day –"
"She drowned herself in the river."
"Oh, so you did talk to Gwen about some sensible stuff as well?"
"What? No. I just ... that's what happened, isn't it? So I guess we just have to find Lord whoever and kill him."
Merlin sets his jaw at that, but the protest Arthur's expecting doesn't come. Arthur wonders about Merlin's father, who he's never mentioned. Wonders whether Hunith was just that much stronger than Alice and what kind of strength it would take to bring your son up to be such a good man after such a disappointment.
"All I know is his shield has a white wolf on a blue field," Merlin says. "So I guess it's back to the library for me."
"I know who that is," Arthur states with a curt shake of his head. "Lord Terrowin. He lives perhaps a day's hard ride further on than the village."
"I'll just go and pack my –"
"You're not coming. I'll have to challenge him to fight to the death, and you'll be a distraction." But what a distraction, Arthur's treacherous mind supplies; two days travel, three if they don't push, out of eyesight and earshot of the court, free to do anything, anything at all and Merlin will let him – he's already proven that.
"That far away from me, after the time it takes to travel you'll be lucky if you can stand long enough to issue the challenge."
"This is not a matter for discussion, Merlin." Arthur doesn't trust himself enough to risk the journey together. Not when his head's already full of all the wonderful terrible things he could do in the seclusion of deep forest. "Is that clear?"
"Is that clear?"
"I trust you," Merlin says, which isn't really any kind of an answer to the actual question. "I trust you with everything except looking after yourself properly. Have you looked in a mirror lately? You don't eat, you don't sleep. You look terrible. Except ... you know."
Merlin flushes and Arthur can't help but reach up to brush his thumb over the edge of the blush, high up on Merlin's cheek. "Yeah," he says, voice rough. "I know." He burns with knowing and before he realises it his thumb's been joined by the rest of his hand, curled round the delicate curve of Merlin's jaw. The faintest pressure from Arthur's hand on Merlin's shoulder sends him obediently to his knees and it's only the fact that he thinks to himself how unlike Merlin it is to be so biddable that draws him up. He pushes and Merlin goes sprawling back, away from Arthur's touch. "Oh God," he gasps.
"It's all right," Merlin says, getting back up like it's perfectly normal for Arthur to knock him down, which it sort of is but there's not even a pretence of fight training here. He touches a hand to Arthur's shoulder and it burns through the thin shirt he's wearing. "Really, it's all right."
"Would you stop saying that," Arthur spits, forcing himself to step back and away from – not into – the touch. "It's not all right. None of this is all right. You saying it over and over won't make it so."
"What would you have me say?" Merlin replies in an angry wounded tone. "'Please, don't. I beg you'? How would that help? You needn't worry. I'm under no illusion that you want to be doing this, to be touching me like this."
"That's not ... I don't want to hurt you, and I can't control myself like I should. I can't."
"I know. And I've thought of a solution." He's looking at Arthur like he did back at the riverbank, like Arthur's unpredictable and dangerous, and he takes the rope off his shoulder, slides the coil of it down his arm and holds it out. "I'm going to tie you up," he says. "That way you won't have to control yourself. I'll be responsible for both of us."
For a moment Arthur baulks but it's a good idea and he trusts Merlin, owes him. He tugs his shirt up and off, discarding it on a chair as he makes for the bed. "All right," he says. "If you're –"
"Just ..." He strips the rest of his clothes with hands that are shaking and lies on the bed. Stretches his arms and legs out and stares at the canopy trying not to think about how exposed he is, fighting to stay there, stay still. "Just try not to touch me any more than you have to," he continues when Merlin joins him. Merlin looks like he's been slapped and Arthur aches to reach out to him. "Until you've got me firmly tied," he explains. "Then you can do whatever you want."
Merlin cuts the rope into four lengths with Arthur's knife. He ties Arthur's right wrist first, a wide cuff of rope against his skin and a good knot, well out of reach, to attach him to the leg of the bed. He's quick, efficient and silent. The rope is cool against Arthur's skin before it warms, and softer than any he's felt before. When he's completely immobilised – and he's checked, there's no give at all in the way he's tied – Merlin sits on the edge of the bed.
"Anything I want?" he says, and it's not a threat or even a promise, just a question.
"I let you tie me up, didn't I?" Arthur objects, because his blood's singing and he can't even shift enough to press his hip to Merlin's.
"But you could still have me imprisoned or executed once you're free, if I do something you don't like."
"I can pretty much guarantee you both of those if you leave me here trussed up like this for even a second m—" Merlin cuts him off with a hand over his mouth.
"Arthur," he warns, taking his hand away abruptly when Arthur opens his mouth and licks at it, kisses the salt and iron from Merlin's skin, and the sweet grassy taste of the rope.
"All right, all right, fine. I give you my word. There will be no repercussions from anything you do while I'm tied up; now please, please." Merlin reaches out a hand to Arthur's knee and then hesitates, close enough to touching that Arthur can feel the heat from his skin. He tries to push, force contact, he feels like he could burst out of himself just to get closer to Merlin, but the bonds are too tight and he succeeds only in making them cut into his ankle a little. Even that small pain is better than nothing. "Come on, Merlin," he chides. "Must you be so bloody useless at everything?"
A strange little half-smile graces Merlin' face at that, and he reaches up to untie the 'kerchief from around his neck. It's the same one Arthur stole yesterday, he realises in a flash of heat. "Anything I want," Merlin repeats, and this time it's as far from a question as a thing can be.
He kisses Arthur's mouth, a quick little press of his lips that Arthur moves into as best he can. Apparently emboldened, Merlin kisses him again, slow and sweet. It's not what Arthur needs, but it's all that's being given and he wants it anyway. Merlin's hands move over his skin when the kiss is over, seemingly random touches that Arthur realises through the fog of yes and there and more are mapping his scars.
Arthur's heart stutters in his chest when Merlin stands at the edge of the bed and strips, quick and clumsy and gorgeous. He flushes as Arthur gazes at him, drinking in with his eyes what he can't touch and never took the time to appreciate before. He still wants, desperately, but there's nothing he can do about it and patience is a lesson taught early at court. He wants the kisses Merlin gifts him too much to waste his mouth in speaking, so he doesn't beg, even when he has to bite his tongue until the copper taste of his own blood blossoms on it to stop himself.
There's a pause while Merlin goes to the cupboard. When he returns he's holding a vial that Arthur recognises with a heavy heart. He can't remember why he didn't dispose of it, but he nods his agreement when Merlin looks at him with a questioning expression. Merlin pours oil into his hand and gets onto the bed, straddling Arthur's hips and reaching behind himself. It's awkward because he has to use his left hand, the right still not healed. The flush of his pale skin deepens and spreads as he works himself open.
"Wait for me this time, okay?" he says, but he doesn't seem to expect an answer, just takes Arthur into his body, in a slow sweet slide.
Arthur can't keep the words behind his teeth now, but all he can manage is Merlin's name, broken open and needy as Merlin moves over him and around him. He uses the scrape of the bonds at his wrists and ankles to keep himself from coming, until Merlin's rhythm stutters and goes still and his body squeezes even tighter. It's the wet heat of Merlin's release on Arthur's chest and belly that pushes Arthur over the edge.
When he comes back to himself he's still tied. Merlin's lying next to him, stretched out on his side. He's got a sad smile on his face and he's stroking Arthur's sweat-damp hair. When he realises Arthur's awake he gets to his feet and dresses, everything bar his neckerchief which he presses into Arthur's left hand, curling his fingers around it for him.
"Thank you," Arthur says. "You can let me go now. I feel much better."
But Merlin turns his back. Arthur watches him cross the room to the table but he can't see what Merlin's doing. He isn't worried though until Merlin returns with a knife and the vial of sleeping draught.
"Let me go," he says. "Merlin, that's enough. Let me go."
He twists at the restraints again, but they yield no more than they did before.
"I'm sorry," Merlin says, opening the vial. He sounds like he means it and he runs his fingers over Arthur's cheek like he's saying goodbye. Then he pinches Arthur's nose closed and when Arthur has to open his mouth to breathe he manages to get a good half of the sleeping draught into it. Eventually Arthur has no option but to swallow it. Clearly Gaius has taught Merlin more than anyone thought.
"Let me go, Merlin."
The knife is pressed into his right hand. It's going to be awkward but he will be able to cut the rope eventually. He can feel the drug at the edge of his mind, pulling him down into oblivion and he fights it with every ounce of fury he can find.
"I'll have you flogged," he warns. "I'll have the flesh stripped from your back, and then I'll have you burned, don't think –"
"No you won't," Merlin counters. His tone is calm, and confident. "You gave me your word, and I trust you to keep it."
Arthur's vision greys for a moment, and he struggles his way back through the drowsiness enough to feel Merlin laying a sheet over him.
"This was my doing," Merlin's saying as Arthur slips into darkness. "And I'm going to make it right."
When he comes to his mouth is dry and both his hands are numb. He feels like he's dying. He's dropped the knife, but his hand is still closed tight round Merlin's 'kerchief. He knows he feels so ill because Merlin must be far away, farther than he's been since they first encountered the rusalka. He feels around as much as he can until he finds the knife where it's fallen to the mattress, cuts his hand on it working it into position, and saws through the rope holding his wrist. Once he's got one hand free the rest of the bonds are progressively easier. He barely takes the time to dress before leaving his room.
It's a struggle to make his body do what he asks of it and he sends the stable boy away so he doesn't have an audience to see him use a mounting block to get into the saddle.
Four hours out of Camelot he suddenly feels much better. It's like a fever breaking, the sun through storm clouds. For a moment the relief is exquisite and he slows his horse to wallow in his renewed health.
And then it occurs to him that if he feels better, it's because he's no longer tied to Merlin by the rusalka's curse.
Terrowin's a knight. Merlin can barely keep – could barely keep – his feet under himself during the most basic sword drill.
Stupid idiotic brave Merlin, and isn't it just Arthur's luck that a thirst for vengeance is the only thing Merlin's picked up from him? His hands tighten into fists round his reins and he wishes Merlin were here so Arthur could kill him for being so stupid as to go off and get himself killed like this. He's going to stop at the village on his way back to Camelot and raze it with his own hands. But first Arthur's going to finish what Merlin started. He's going to find Terrowin and make him pay. For Merlin, but also for Alice, because it was clearly important to Merlin, and Merlin was important to Arthur. And maybe, just maybe, if he avenges Alice he can start to forgive himself his own transgressions.
He's grateful for the pain in his chafed wrists and ankles because without it he feels like he might disappear into grief. It seems impossible that he's never going to hear Merlin's voice again. He's never going to get to apologise for threatening to have him flogged. He's never going to have another servant who'll look him in the eye, argue with his decisions or call him –
It can't be. It can't be ... but it is.
Merlin's trotting toward him on his usual horse. He's grinning, but it's mostly to himself, because as soon as he's caught up to Arthur the smile fades and he looks wary for a moment.
"How are you feeling, sire?" he asks, carefully. Too carefully. It's not what Arthur wants, and it grates on him until he realises why Merlin's being so cautious.
"Not bad," Arthur says. "Certainly too good to bother with flogging anyone." They share a smile that feels like a secret. "Terrowin's dealt with I take it?"
"Alice is avenged," Merlin confirms. "But you knew that. I can tell, because you haven't jumped me yet." He narrows his eyes. "You feeling any great urge to ravish me?"
A slow sly inviting smile spreads across Merlin's face and Arthur wants to stop the horses and kiss him, but it wouldn't do for Merlin to think he actually is irresistible. There'd be no living with him.
They turn for home in companionable silence.
"So what did you do?" Arthur asks after a while. "Poison him too?"
"I didn't poison you, don't exaggerate." Merlin gripes, but he's grinning. Arthur can hear it in his voice, but he looks over to see it anyway. Just because he can. "And no. There had to be vengeance, not death."
"Dare I ask?"
"Well, let's just say, next time you sack me, I have a very good alternative career in farriery ahead of me."