Codes: Merlin, Merlin/Arthur, Ygraine/Nimueh, Ygraine/Uther
Summary: They would pay any price that was asked, Nimueh whispered at the end, trembling with exhaustion, desperate, pleading, anything, anything at all. Just give her this child. Give her the son he stole from her.
Author Notes: Thanks to shinetheway and transtempts for pre-reading and cheerleading and generally not flinching when I email things that say something like "So this started out as a pwp on the beach. I think there might still be a beach, but I'm not sure. Could you check on that?"
ETA: Picture of Tintagel Castle are linked in this entry, along with the cove.
Merlin thinks he's adapted well enough to long stretches of riding; Arthur's idea of a hunting trip could be mistaken for heroic quest in the amount of time he could spend tracking a single stag, or a particularly vicious, human-unfriendly bear.
So it's not simply days on horseback that have somehow transformed Merlin into a village crone complaining of aches in every limb; Arthur's happy when he hunts, and if Merlin's learned nothing else during his time in service, uncomplicated happiness for Arthur is more rare than a unicorn. It's Arthur grimly leading five knights and Merlin like a funeral procession, eating ground at a pace that turned an easy three week journey into a twelve day death march.
Thighs aching, Merlin squints through the early evening gloom, trying to work up the motivation to ask Arthur if there's any chance at all they'll be stopping before someone snaps and assassination becomes a viable alternative to staying one more second on a bloody horse. Merlin's three days past the point pretending he isn't talking about himself, though Sir Gawain and Sir Galahad aren't too far behind, due to some arcane interaction between man, armour, and chafing that Merlin would rather know nothing about.
"Sire," Sir Lionel says, the arse-licking bastard, looking as fresh and disgustingly comfortable as if he'd risen from his own bed this morning and not from a camp that consisted of dirt, three trees, and a wind more suited to a freezing blizzard than a crisp late fall night. Merlin sees Sir Gawain's eyes narrow on him from beneath a fringe of damp brown hair with the speculative look of someone very close to outright murder. "The mist is starting to thicken. Should we find somewhere to camp before it's too heavy to navigate?"
It's an intensely practical question that Arthur appreciates not at all, if the stiff line of his back is anything to go by.
"No," Arthur says shortly, not so much as turning his head. Lionel, blessed with a density on par with that of Gaius' porridge, opens his mouth to continue to argue his case, secure in his position as the only other knight in the party who has actually been to Cornwall before and therefore non-expendable at least until they reach the village.
"We're only an hour from the village," Arthur says tightly. Merlin sees his hands are white-knuckled on the reins, fingers twitching for something long and sharp to skewer Lionel as he rides in oblivious privilege.
Lionel bows easy agreement, falling back, and Merlin and Gawain sigh in disappointment, then look at each other in shared misery before Gawain jerks his head toward Arthur desperately. Sighing, Merlin touches his heels to the palfrey, irritated how the knights pull out of his way almost immediately, looking hopeful as only men can when they have nothing else to depend on.
Arthur gives him a sidelong glance as Merlin joins him. "Don't say a word."
"Stop it," Merlin says between gritted teeth, trying to look pleasant and cajoling. "They're going to rebel and leave us here to die."
"Here?" Arthur looks at the slowly thickening fog dubiously. "Good luck with that."
"Fine, they'll die too. And bloody Lionel will be the one to return to Camelot and tell stories about how we mysteriously turned on each other before vanishing into the darkness. There will be songs. Lionel will be the hero."
"The hell he will," Arthur mutters darkly, hands twitching again. Then he shakes himself, and there's a faint--very faint, but there--trace of the usual prat who can be a bastard but has learned to laugh at himself, too, and Merlin feels his mouth twitch just watching. "It's not far. I have been here before."
Not in the last five years; Merlin had asked Gaius, alerted to trouble by the fixed expression on Arthur's face and the equally sour one on the King's. Gaius had hedged and hawed, saying only that Tintagel had uncomfortable associations for the king, being where his wife had died bearing Arthur.
Bad enough that; worse were the records that Merlin had snuck past Geoffrey to find, the neat documentation of Uther's atrocities that had started here. Uther's grief had left few alive in the sleepy village that had died almost to a man, still drunk from celebrating the birth of their prince, thousands dying screaming on pyres so large they could be seen for miles and smoke blanketing almost all of Cornwall as the slaughter continued for weeks.
The village was rebuilt, but perhaps it did not forgive, and of all the territories Camelot might claim, Cornwall was the only one the King seemed to fear.
Merlin looks back worriedly at the knights with them--granted, Camelot knights, and almost a small army in themselves, but still, knights--then at Arthur.
"Don't say it."
"Foot soldiers wouldn't have gone amiss," Merlin says, unable to help himself, as if this argument hasn't been the end of every conversation they've had since they left.
"I know, I'll stop, fine, it's too late now--"
"--but your father isn't the kind to coddle you either," Merlin says grimly, which is almost painfully true. Uther's fear had been almost palpable, and while Merlin was privy to few of the arguments, he could read them in Arthur's body at the end of each day. It was too close to Arthur's fever from the Questing Beast, Merlin thinks bitterly; Arthur's recovery had been slower than he liked, never having been so ill for so long, and Uther had been faced with his son's mortality too recently. There was no way they could come to agreement.
Though Merlin thinks now it's more than that; the man that rose from that sickbed isn't quite the same as the man he was before. Fair enough, Merlin thinks; the person he was before he went to the Isle isn't the same as the one that first went there, sick with despair and grief. In a strange way, though, they seem to slot together more easily, as if the rough edges had been worn away in the time apart, a few more pieces clicking into place between them. What it means, Merlin has no idea, and he doubts Arthur's noticed it at all.
"He has reason," Arthur says briefly, ending the conversation, and Merlin considers leaving him to his thoughts, or whatever passes for thought when Arthur's in this sort of mood. Granted, it can't be pleasant to return to the place where one's mother died and one's father went mad, but Arthur grim mood has been similar to that of a man about to face the block.
It takes several minutes for Merlin to realize that their pace had increased; Merlin looks back, realizing that the fog is thick enough that the knights are no longer in view. "Arthur--" he starts, but Arthur reaches for his reins before he can slow the horse, pulling him along even faster. "Arthur, we're--"
"They have Lionel," Arthur says carelessly, with the faintest trace of satisfied malice. "I'm sure he'll get them there safely."
Merlin scowls. "And us?"
Arthur's mouth twists. "Merlin, trust me when I say, Cornwall is the one place in all of Albion that I cannot get lost. Even if I wanted to."
It might be the fog that makes Merlin chill at the words, but then again, it's probably not. "Arthur, you've been here, what, once?"
"Twice." Merlin stares at him. "Fine, one of those times I was still a babe in leading strings, but that does count."
"No, it really doesn't." Looking around, Merlin's not comforted; did the fog thicken that fast, or did Merlin just not notice the passage of time? Abruptly, Arthur eases the reins over the horse's head and out of Merlin's surprise-slack hands entirely, fastening them to his saddle. "Are you possessed?" Merlin asks warily.
"Oh, for the love of--" Arthur half-turns in the saddle, giving him an incredulous look. "No! I'm tired of being watched. I'm tired of being coddled. And if I spent five more minutes in Sir Lionel's company, I will slaughter him and I'm not sure any of my knights will stop me."
"So riding off in a fog is a logical reaction: brilliant. I wonder why I didn't think of it myself," Merlin snaps, trying to work out a way to get his reins back before he realizes the pointlessness of trying. It's not like he's going to ride back to find the knights alone. And Merlin has to admit he has a point about Lionel. "So you're sure you know your way to the village?"
"Yes, but that's not where we're going. At least, not first."
Merlin stares at Arthur's profile. "Right. So where--"
"There's something I want to see first."
Merlin doesn't like the sound of that at all.
Night falls early, not that the fog really let there be much daylight. Pulling his coat closer, Merlin tucks his hands into the space between the saddle and the warm body of his horse, the short hair smooth against his chilled fingers.
"All right," Merlin says after the silence grows too long. "Surprise me. Where are we going exactly?"
Arthur's expression clearly states he has neither the interest nor the need to tell Merlin anything at all, thanks, but with something uncertain and wary in his eyes that tells Merlin this isn't--at least, not entirely--Arthur being particularly stubborn and reckless.
Before Merlin can find a tactful way to go about making Arthur explain, however, he becomes faintly aware that there's something different about the quality of sound around them, and the fog, though thick, seems to be thinning around them, enough that Merlin can make out faint, dark shapes in the distance. Licking his lips, they come away with a faint taste that isn't quite fog, almost like-- "I taste salt," Merlin says in surprise, wiping his mouth. "Do you hear--"
Arthur looks at him curiously, then smiles suddenly, bright and pleased, and Merlin's heart twists a little at the sight of it. "Right," he says, sounding as young as he really is, than Merlin always thinks of him, because it's so easy to forget Arthur's little more than a boy himself. "I forgot you're from Ealdor. Hold on, let's speed this up a bit."
"What--no--" Merlin tightens his legs just in time, as Arthur sets off, pace moving from a quick walk and accelerating through a trot into a full gallop through the fog. Clinging to the saddle, Merlin wants to shout that he's gone mad and slow the fuck down, you idiot, but maybe he's spent too much time with Arthur, because he really doesn't want to. He can feel himself smiling, something huge filling his chest like light, leaning close over the horse's neck as they ride blind into fog and darkness.
The sound grows louder, like the distant roll of thunder in a long-awaited storm, but heavier, and every breath is filled with salt, coating his tongue and throat. The fog seems to thin more, and Merlin sees a stretch of darkness as the ground beneath them changes, softening. Abruptly, Arthur pulls them to a stop and Merlin wipes his eyes, staring through the faintest hit of mist at a rolling darkness so vast it takes his breath, broken in bright edges of pure white against unmoving rocks.
He's heard stories of bodies of water so vast that they lead to the very edges of the earth, the sound of the tide like thunder, dark water splashing bright and high against rocks hidden beneath. Sliding off his horse, Merlin stumbles on the uncertain ground, looking down briefly to see the shift of sand beneath his feet. It's nothing like the lake of the maze, though it's the only reference he can think of. Making his way across the sand, Merlin comes to the edge of the tide, chill water lapping at his boots as he looks into the stretch of water that feels like eternity.
There's power here, something huge and endless that trembles in his very bones, something more elemental than even his magic. After a second, he feels Arthur's hand brush his arm, stopping beside him, careless of expensive leather and salt water.
"I've never seen anything like it," Merlin breathes.
"I know." Arthur's voice is just as quiet, and just as awed. Merlin glances at him, then away, shifting close enough that their arms brush, as if by accident. Arthur doesn't move away. "I was born here, you know."
Merlin follows his gaze up, an incline of rock and grass to a shape even blacker than the night, towers arrowing toward the sky like unsheathed swords, and feels Arthur's arm press against his briefly. "I wanted to see it," Arthur says quietly. "I was never permitted to come here."
"They say that he wanted to raze it at first," Arthur continues, voice flat. "He thought this might be a more potent reminder; letting it slowly rot away here, a symbol of his purges. He didn't expect them to rebuild the village; when he last brought me here, he tried to make them leave. He'd have flooded the ground if he could have, but Camelot has neither engineers nor magicians to do his will."
Merlin bites his lip. "Why didn't he bring you to see it?"
When Arthur doesn't answer, Merlin makes himself look away; a corpse of a castle, left to crumble into dust for a King's rage and grief, the birthplace of his only son an object of hatred. He wonders, suddenly, how it must feel to Arthur, to see the place of his birth turned into this.
Merlin thinks that he could have hated Uther Pendragon for this alone; if Merlin had not been a sorcerer, but only a man who knew nothing of magic, he'd still hate what his grief had wrought in his only son. Hatred shouldn't ever be stronger than love, and a woman long dead shouldn't be more valued than his living, breathing son.
"We should get to the village," Merlin says reluctantly. He wants to see it, and not because this is the place that the purges began. This is where Arthur was born, and no matter what came of that, for that alone, he would want to know this place.
"So we should." Arthur hesitates, then turns back, and Merlin follows him quietly up the shifting ground to where Arthur left the horses. Mounting clumsily, Merlin gives one last look at the ocean, wondering if it will look different in daylight, less huge and less grand. He doubts it. "We'll come back later. I'd like to see it, considering it's mine."
Merlin, taking his reins back from Arthur, almost drops them. "What?"
"It was gifted to my mother at my birth. An hour later, my father passed it to me by her right. He said it was fitting. I suppose after taking her life, it was only fair I take her castle as well. "
Merlin's hands clench on the reins, biting his lip before the hot words hovering on his tongue find air. Nodding tightly, he waits for Arthur to lead them back to the fog-enshrouded road to the village.
Arthur's direction sense is as irritatingly flawless as it always is; less than an hour later, they reach the village, where they are greeted by frantic, unhappy knights, a nervous but friendly innkeeper, and Lionel with a black eye who obviously wants nothing more than to tattle. Merlin leaves Arthur to mock his knights into good humour and goes with the innkeeper, sending out the stableboys to see to the horses.
The best room is, of course, Arthur's, evicting whoever else had been there before. Merlin thinks this should be more irritating than it is, but a manservant has certain privileges and one of them is sleeping in his master's room while on journeys. One look at the blazing warmth of the hearth, the fresh bedclothes, and the neat cot by the fire is enough to reconcile Merlin to royal privilege.
It helps, Merlin thinks in amusement, if one is a beneficiary of it, following the innkeeper to the kitchen to see what they have ready for dinner. Arthur's the least picky of eaters outside of Camelot, so Merlin simply orders roast chicken added to the menu and tries to decide whether to accept the innkeeper's offer of a private room for the prince and his companions to dine in.
Then he thinks of Lionel. "Send His Highness a tray in his room," Merlin tells him, and goes back check on the horses and get Arthur's pack while two of the serving girls take care of those of the knights.
"Hot wine, by the way, whatever you have at hand," Merlin says to the innkeeper just as Arthur bellows "Merlin!" Merlin rolls his eyes. "He's always like that."
The innkeeper nods, mouth curving in surprising amusement, vanishing as if by magic, and Merlin goes to the common room, where the knights and Arthur are already gathered, looking hideously out of place in the room of townspeople and the occasional farmer.
Arthur sees him first, and Merlin doesn't miss the look of relief as he sets the tankard aside. "Where have you--"
"Seeing to your comforts, sire," Merlin says piously, bowing his head. "If you'll come with me, the innkeeper is assisting with preparing your dinner, so I'll show you to your room."
Arthur looks at him suspiciously, the faintest hint of a smile curving up the corner of his mouth. "Very well."
As Merlin had suspected, the second Arthur was in the room, even warmer now from Merlin subtly nudging the temperature upward, he loses all interest in leaving. When a serving girl comes with the stew and wine, an apology that the chicken is still on the spit, Arthur sends her away with a smile and orders to tell his knights he will see them in the morning.
Stripping off his damp coat and boots, Merlin washes quickly in the warm water in the basin, smirking at Arthur's scowl. "You want me to assist you with filthy hands?" he says innocently. Taking the surcoat and chain mail, Merlin hangs them to dry, wondering if he should ask if the inn has anything in the way of laundry service before finding Arthur a shift. Across the room, Arthur strips off his boots and tunic, breathing a sigh of relief and melting into the hard chair by the small table the innkeeper had brought up. "You're not half bad at this," Arthur says, sounding surprised.
"The innkeeper's wife in Ealdor was a good friend of mum's," Merlin says, surreptitiously checking the bedclothes for cleanliness. "She'd send me to help during their busy season. I learned a few things."
"So you did."
That, Merlin thinks, turning away to hide the sudden hot flush of his cheeks, should not make him feel so pleased.
Going about his duties in the small room feels different, somehow, and not just because the room is an order of magnitude smaller than Arthur's chambers--there's a bed, a cupboard, the table and chair, and very little floor space otherwise. Arthur's presence there isn't quite so immediate, and Merlin's aware that he has Arthur's undivided attention when he'd done eating.
It's due to a lack of anything else to do, Merlin knows, but he likes it anyway, domestic in that way that makes Merlin think of long evenings with his mother as they did their evening chores. It only gets worse when Arthur fetches his own armour and moves the dishes aside, stretching it out for inspection.
"I'll clean it when I'm done," Merlin says uncertainly.
"You have enough to do; get me the oil and a clean cloth," Arthur says absently. "And summon a serving girl."
Merlin makes a face and goes to the door, looking down the hallway just as a girl emerges from one of the two chambers the knights will be using. "Lallia?" Merlin says uncertainly. Her wary expression lightens a little. "His Highness wishes for your presence."
Her face goes still, and Merlin thinks for a second that she hesitates, but the smile stays neatly in place, and Merlin backs up, going to his bag to get the oil as the girl curtseys, saying, "How can I serve you, sire?"
"You could take lessons from her," Arthur remarks, looking up from the chain mail. "Please send up dinner for my servant when you bring the chicken. And more mulled wine."
She curtseys again, turning away but not so quickly Merlin doesn't see the relief on her face. Giving Arthur the oil, Merlin follows her into the hall, catching her just as she reaches the stairs.
"He doesn't--" Merlin starts, remembering the serving girls in Ealdor's inn. It was an unspoken rule, one that it was years before Merlin understood, about serving girls and highborn men. Camelot's not different, exactly; Merlin knows the girls there who serve in bed as well as at meals, but somehow, it's never had quite left a bitter taste in his mouth. Gwen had explained, in her uncertain, circular way, about Uther and Arthur's feelings on servants and service.
"There are--women who are paid for such things, if a guest should desire it," she said, staring past him at the wall, blushing as darkly as a summer rose. "They do not--think it proper to--if a girl doesn't wish it."
Gwen would know; for that matter, Morgana would know. And he does believe them. Morgana, at least, makes no secret of her disdain of the practice of treating serving girls as trollops, and makes no secret of it.
"He doesn't require any personal services," Merlin says quickly, then thinks of the knights. "If you--I mean--if anyone should--offer--something you do not wish, His Highness will not be angry."
She nods, disbelieving.
"I've served him for over a year," Merlin says urgently. "He does not approve of--requiring what should be given freely. I promise you. Come to me if you feel--if any of them--if there is anything. Please."
Lallia hesitates, studying him with sudden attention. "Thank you," she whispers, then blushes, turning away in a flurry of skirts. Merlin watches her for a minute, then goes back to the room, where Arthur is muttering over the shoulder seams contentedly. Closing the door, Merlin looks at him and wonders if this pleasant feeling is what people call contentment.
"There you are," Arthur says, not looking up. "I think the blacksmith is growing sloppy--this is not well-mended."
"It's been mended five times," Merlin says patiently, joining Arthur at the table and checking the links with careful fingers. "I told you so the last time you had it back. Just commission new mail and be done with it."
"Sentimental value will not protect you from a sword or mace," Merlin says ruthlessly. Arthur glares at him, ready to lie and say that no, he's not at all sentimental about this very special armour. "Relegate this to the practice ring and look at the new design I showed you," Merlin says coaxingly. "It looks knit, the links are so fine."
And will be a merry hell to get clean, but Merlin still remembers the sample the royal blacksmith had shown him, close linked and impenetrable to even the sharpest knife. Merlin is very much in favour of things that keep Arthur safe from blades.
"Hmm. What were you doing?"
Merlin looks up, startled. "When?"
"When you followed the girl?" Arthur doesn’t look at him, oiling the join of shoulder and arm, and at this angle, there's no way to see his face.
"Just talked to her a bit," Merlin answers warily.
"Because if you plan to sneak away halfway through the night, I'd prefer to know now and not when I have a knife at your throat," Arthur says pleasantly, head bent over the armour. "The door is not quiet and neither are you. A warning would be appreciated."
Merlin flushes. "Nothing--what? With--no! No of course not! I just told her…"
Arthur looks up curiously. "What?"
"Not to be afraid."
Arthur frowns, opening his mouth, then stops, expression slowly melting into understanding. "I told my men," Arthur says briefly. "They won't trouble the girls here."
Merlin smiles. "I know."
The serving girl is friendlier when she returns with the chicken, more bread and wine, and a bowl of stew larger than Merlin would have expected a servant to rate. A lot of things can be said about Arthur and his lack of awareness there are classes other than highborn, but he's never been reluctant to share the advantages of his station, either, or assuring that Merlin understands the advantages of his in serving a prince.
"As it reflects on me if you look slovenly and starving," Arthur had said carelessly. Merlin had thought of all the nobles that come to Camelot with servants too-thin and too-tired, bruised and afraid, then of Camelot's serving folk, and the contrast between the two.
Arthur's more careful with her than Merlin would have expected, but then again, this isn't Camelot. After a few pleasant minutes of questions about the town and the countryside, the kind of questions that any visitor might ask, he sends her away.
Between the warmth of the fire and the stew, Merlin feels himself starting to melt into the chair, comfortable and sleepy. "How long are we to stay here?" Merlin asks, trying to stay awake. "You said a dispute?"
"Pasturing," Arthur says, leaning an elbow on the table with an expression very like contentment. "Pigs. Or sheep perhaps. Some domesticated animals and some fences and perhaps a barn set on fire."
Merlin snickers. "And the local magistrate couldn't handle it?"
"One of the two is of some small rank above him. Justice can be questionable when station is involved." Arthur hesitates, expression fading into something darker. "They're directly beholden to me, not the crown or another lord. They do have the right to demand I do my duty."
And Arthur believes in duty like priests believe in God.
"Tintagel has a castellan," Arthur says unexpectedly. "He was appointed when I was a child and built a manor here to oversee the land and people. But he has not been well and left some time ago for a warmer climate with my father's blessing. He should have been replaced, but--"
Merlin wonders if Arthur knows he sounds guilty. "Are you going to appoint a new castellan?" he asks carefully, wondering what Arthur wants to hear. Maybe he just needs someone to listen.
"I suppose I must; I can't oversee it directly." Arthur draws a finger over the surface of the table. "There's not much in Tintagel's demesne, just the castle and village, a little land that's too salt-laden to be arable. My father divided the rest among his lords."
"So it's not very profitable to the kingdom?" Merlin ventures curiously.
Arthur snorts. "He stripped it of everything that could have made it so. There are no fish folk; the ports were burned and my father refused to allow them to be rebuilt, and the village taxes were set very high to encourage those here to leave. They didn't, and when I came of age, I ordered the castellan to lower them. They have little here, and are allowed to have even less than the common serfs." Arthur hesitates, staring at the wine cup. "The girl you saw--all of them here--are the ones whose families survived the massacre on the night of my birth. It's said they hid in the caves at high tide, where even my father's most determined men could not find them. When my father left, they returned to their village razed to the ground and the bodies of their families and friends nothing but ash, those with property stripped of it and some even of their names if they shared them with accused sorcerers."
Merlin shudders, staring at the fire.
"They were sorcerers," Arthur says softly, voice slurring with belated exhaustion, like the last twelve days are finally catching up with him, and maybe otherwise, he'd never have revealed so much. "Perhaps they deserved to die. But many died that night who should not have, and those left behind were reduced to penury. My mother would never have wanted this. No one sane would want this."
No one sane, Merlin thinks bitterly, would turn their son's heritage into a living grave, either. He lets the silence stretch to the edge of comfortable, then levers himself from his chair. "You should sleep, sire," he says softly. Arthur looks at him blearily. "Let me help you to bed."
Arthur sighs. "I can get myself to bed."
"True," Merlin says as Arthur gets to his feet unsteadily, "but why own a dog and do your own fetching?"
The pensive look melts away, as Merlin had hoped. "Why indeed."
Merlin wakes at dawn from habit, but there's little urgency to get up and about. There are advantages, he admits, to the custom of manservant (or maid) sleeping in their master's room or an adjoining cubicle; Merlin has a luxurious half an hour to wallow in bed, warm and comfortable, before he need start his morning, and the kitchen and woodpile aren't half a castle away.
After dressing, Merlin indulges himself with sending off one of the kitchen boys for wood for the fire and ordering breakfast be brought in a half hour, as well as a hot bath. It's an unusual request for the morning, but it's been twelve days and Arthur's immaculate bathing habits had given way only to utter exhaustion. By the time he wakes up, he'll want to be clean more than he wants food, water, or possibly air.
Everyone seems friendly enough, which Merlin would have expected from any inn. He'd wondered, thinking on what Arthur had told him and of Uther's unbridled fear, if there would be hostility, or even more subtle fear and dislike, but while having a quiet breakfast with the other servants, he doesn't sense anything from them or their light, easy chatter, not even the usual habit of wariness with the highborn in evidence.
Going back up, Merlin considers this as he looks at Arthur, sleeping the deep sleep of the desperately exhausted. He looks incredibly young all over again, the lines of strain eased, features sleep softened and skin flushed. Beautiful, in that way that Merlin thinks over a year should have inured him to by now.
"Arthur," he says finally, clearing his throat nervously at the husky sound of his own voice. Arthur doesn't move. "Arthur, it's time--"
"Mm." Arthur rolls on his side, blanket sliding down one hip, shift rucked up to reveal an expanse of smooth golden skin. Merlin takes a deep breath and thinks of cold water and also, his mother, who would never approve of Merlin ogling anyone. "Sleep."
Arthur eyes slit open drowsily. "Execute you."
Merlin snorts. He'd usually ruthlessly strip away the bedcovers and retreat across the room to avoid seeing what he shouldn't and let Arthur sulk, but--there's no other side of the room. There's ten feet. "Come, sire," Merlin says, switching to cajoling, which always irritates Arthur to no end for no reason Merlin can discover. "Breakfast is here. And a bath."
Arthur opens his eyes fully. "Bath?"
Merlin points at the tub before the fire, table helpfully shoved against the wall. "Still hot."
Arthur frowns, looking torn; warm, comfortable bed, or being clean after long days sleeping in armour almost every night. It's a short battle that ends with Arthur climbing out of bed, tossing his shift in Merlin's' general direction on his way to the still hot water.
Clutching the shift, Merlin checks to see the soap and a clean cloth are in reaching distance, then adds the shift to the pile of clothes that desperately need cleaning.
"I should get these clean before they're fit for nothing but rags," Merlin says absently, picking at the pile. Arthur's shirt seems fine, but the surcoat may not be salvageable.
"I need you today; get the innkeeper to find someone to take care of it," Arthur says. Surprised, Merlin looks at the tub, which despite being smaller than even the smallest in Camelot, Arthur's managed to fold himself into, submerging as much of himself as possible. Merlin wonders vaguely how he never knew how flexible Arthur was, then looks away, cheeks flushing as he gathers the clothing. "We're supposed to meet with the magistrate this afternoon," Arthur says, eyes closed. "See that a message is sent to tell him we will arrive after the noon meal. And have the kitchen make up something for lunch."
"For how many?" Merlin asks, turning slightly to get a hand to the door, pressing his chin into the topmost tunic. "And where are you going?"
"Where we're going," Arthur answers. "Inform the men I'll send for them when I wish for them." Arthur opens his eyes, expression unreadable. "I think I'd like to see Tintagel in daylight."
If Arthur's aware of the curious looks as he waits by the innkeeper's stable for his horse, he doesn’t show it. Merlin, hovering beside him, tries to sense hostility, even going so far as to cast a spell after sending off the message for the magistrate, looking for evidence of--something. There's nothing unusual, however; at worst, there's the same general curiosity, a hint of wonder that Merlin can't quite understand.
Useless, in other words. Utterly, utterly useless.
For a people nearly wiped out by Uther's rage, they're not exactly starving for vengeance, and Merlin wonders at himself, that he finds that so unsettling.
"Stop fidgeting," Arthur says softly. "You're acting like assassins will leap from thin air."
Merlin crosses his arms and pretends he has no idea what Arthur could possibly be talking about.
A kitchen girl comes out to give them their provisions just as the horses are brought out; Merlin mounts before taking them, adding them to the saddlebag with a flask of wine and two of water. Picking up the reins, Merlin thanks her and follows Arthur out of town, resisting the urge to look back every second, but completely unable to stop himself from riding close enough to block most of Arthur's back.
"You're as terrible a bodyguard as a manservant," Arthur says as they get to the main road. In the bright light of day, Tintagel is even more intimidating, the bright sun and clear day sharpening it, razor-edged even where it seems to have crumbled. "What, do you think they'd be mad enough to attack me in the middle of the day?"
Merlin shrugs, coaxing his horse to match Arthur's pace. "It's my job to look after you," he says, lifting his chin. "Nothing else."
Arthur rolls his eyes. "Keep in mind which one of us can actually use a sword," he answers irritably, but his knee brushes Merlin's as he guides them to the left and a old, worn path slowly vanishing beneath the grass, long disused. "Let me see if I can remember--this way goes down to the shore."
Merlin glances at the distant castle uncertainly, then at Arthur. For someone never permitted this close to the castle proper, he certainly knows a great deal about it. "You're sure?"
Following Arthur down the slope, Merlin forgets to ask why they don't go directly by the sight of the ocean, the rich, brilliant blue richer than even the purity of the unclouded sky, white caps of waves breaking on the solid rocks that litter the water like toys thrown by a careless child. There are shadows here and there, which Arthur tells him are deeper water that sunlight can't reach, and as they get closer, Merlin can see old paths in the grass leading here and there among the rocks.
It's not sandy here, and Arthur stops, looking at the curve of rocky land before nodding to himself. "We'll go on foot," Arthur says decisively, dismounting and turning around, leading his horse a little way up to a grassy area. Merlin gets the saddlebags as Arthur sees to the horses. "This goes down to a small cove," Arthur says. "From there, it's an easy walk up to the castle itself."
"Why not use the main road?" Merlin asks, trying to settle the bags comfortably. To his surprise, Arthur takes one after a glance at the sharp angle downward. Merlin supposes he should feel insulted that Arthur doesn’t think he can manage his own feet and two simple bags, but then remembers he's not stupid and if Arthur feels like being unusually helpful, who is Merlin to tell him no?
"The road was destroyed," Arthur answers, slinging the bag casually over one shoulder. "My father had it blocked off."
Merlin frowns, wondering why. Thieves and trespassers would speed the decay of the castle if that was what he wished to do. "You've been to Cornwall once, and here not at all, and you still know where we're going?"
"Why Merlin, you sound as if you doubt me. Step where I do; the path is overgrown, but it should be safe enough."
Merlin stares at the route Arthur's taking, following gingerly and wondering how anyone could see anything like a path in this. "Doubt is such a strong word."
"Yet you are doing it anyway. I know where we're going."
Arthur sounds so confident Merlin wants to believe him. But Arthur always sounds confident, even when he's about to die by monster or magic. "Okay, I give up. How do you know?"
Arthur looks back, blond hair highlighted by the sun with a smile, eyes the same dark blue as the sea, and Merlin finds himself staring at him, a little dazed. "My wet-nurse," Arthur says. "She was with us for many years, and she told me of it."
"Your father allowed it?"
"That's a rather liberal word for something he knew nothing of." Arthur turns back around. "She had some skill with drawing, and I have a very good memory."
That's true; Arthur's body memory is perfect, as natural as breathing, and years of training had strengthened it. But Merlin doesn't think even that can explain how easily Arthur moves here, like someone returning to a well-known home after a too-long absence.
The view is even more spectacular as they near the shoreline; Merlin finds himself caught by the rich green of grass, dark stones with flowers of every colour blooming at their edges and poking through the cracks. And Merlin forgets everything when they come to the tiny cove of still turquoise water, stone rising up around them to protect them from the wind.
"This was my mother's favourite place," Arthur says softly, standing at the edge of the water. "She'd come here when she was too hot and too tired and they'd bathe in the water. It wasn't--" Arthur licks his lips, eyes fixed on the water. "It brought her peace."
Merlin crouches, wetting his fingers. "It's beautiful," he says quietly, feeling that contentment again, warm and heavy, easing him toward the ground. Setting aside the bag, Merlin sits down, not surprised when Arthur follows him, thigh pressed against his.
"She'd have them bring a litter on the hottest days," Arthur says softly. "It was cool down here, and she could sleep when the castle was too stifling."
Merlin nods, leaning comfortably against Arthur, faintly drowsy. Twelve days on horseback isn't cured with a night of sleep, he thinks. "I know the feeling," he murmurs, and somehow, his head is settling on Arthur's shoulder.
"Lazy," Arthur murmurs, and Merlin's vaguely aware of fingers running through his hair.
"You should rest," Merlin answers contentedly. "You are too careless with your strength, and you need it all."
"For someone with such great power," Arthur says, pulling his hair playfully, "you certainly do worry too much. I'm safe enough. You're here."
Merlin nods agreeably, but something--something-- "I'll always protect you," Merlin answers, like a vow written in stone, a promise that guided the length of a life, like destiny. "Lie down," Merlin coaxes, lifting his head. "The King won't look for you for hours."
Arthur gives him a drowsy smile. "As you like."
Merlin watches Arthur stretch out, blond head in his lap, running his fingers soothingly through the silky blond hair as the blue eyes flutter closed. Tenderly, he brushes the fringe from Arthur's eyes and watches the water, wondering if he's ever been this happy.
Merlin awakens abruptly, disoriented by the feel of something under him that's nothing like the floor or a bed, and the pleasant weight of a warm body. Opening his eyes, Merlin studies the late afternoon sun, then looks down.
Arthur looks back at him with bleary eyes. "Did we fall asleep?"
Merlin blinks, realizing that one hand is tangled in Arthur's hair, and the other draped possessively over his shoulder, hand resting on the jut of his hip. "Um."
Arthur sits up abruptly, frowning as he settles on the sand with no commentary whatsoever on the fact Merlin had been touching him in very unservant-like ways. "I didn't realize I was so tired," he says, yawning with a slow stretch that Merlin can't help but watch, mouth dry. "Now I'm hungry."
"Hold on." Yes, food, that is what they need, Merlin thinks, trying to shake the sleep fog away. The bags are close enough that Merlin simply reaches out, setting one between them and opening it, taking out the small meat pies and fresh bread, cheese and some fresh pears. Arthur absently gives Merlin his knife to divide it, looking at the water with a faint frown.
"How long have we been sleeping?" he says with a brief look at the sky.
"A few hours?" Merlin hands Arthur a pie and a flask of water. "It was a long ride," he adds uncertainly, but even to himself, it sounds odd. "If we're going to look at the castle before sundown, we'd best hurry."
"I'd rather not try to get back up that path after nightfall," Arthur says around a bite of pie. "Hurry up and eat."
Merlin rolls his eyes, stuffing half the pie in his mouth and offering Arthur a chunk of bread. Getting them each a second one, Merlin packs everything away, following Arthur to his feet and looking around the cove.
"I could stay here forever," Merlin says suddenly, surprising himself. "I can't imagine how anyone could want to leave."
Arthur finishes his share of the bread, nodding thoughtfully. "I know the feeling." Looking across the water, Arthur follows the cliff up with his eyes, expression unreadable and Merlin follows his gaze. From this angle, the castle seems to fill the entirety of the sky. "There's a path--"
"--over there," Merlin finishes, dusting off his hands. He thinks he could find it sleeping. "To the left of that cave."
"It was just rock until she grew too heavy to navigate it easily. Uther meant to build a better path, but the promises of kings are easily forgotten."
Merlin swallows, blinking slowly. The sun seems lower than it was only minutes ago. "That's not true of sorcerers," he says confidently. "Race you?"
Arthur grins, and before Merlin can settle the bag more comfortably, he's already gone, picking his way easily around the edges of the cove. With a surprised shout, Merlin follows him.